Movie Watch: A Look at This Year's Oscar Contenders

Forrest Hartman


Preparing for the Academy Awards is a bit like readying oneself for a lengthy trip. No matter how organized you think you are, you find yourself with the cinematic equivalent of a last-minute packing frenzy. In an effort to help those cramming for Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, we decided to revisit all the key players available on home video. 



Dallas Buyer’s Club

--Nominated for Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role, Actor in a Supporting Role, Original Screenplay, Film Editing, and Makeup and Hairstyling

--Critical rating: 3½ stars
--Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use
--Universal Studios


With Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto winning best actor and best supporting actor from numerous awards groups, they are the unquestioned frontrunners in the Oscar race. McConaughey famously lost more than 40 pounds to portray real-life AIDS victim Ron Woodruff. The Dallas resident refused to see his disease as a death sentence and began smuggling experimental medications into the U.S., then selling them to others with HIV. Leto plays a transgender woman who was created by screenwriters as a composite of numerous people in Woodruff’s life.


“Dallas Buyers Club” is a critique of the American medical system, most notably the FDA and big pharmaceutical companies, as well as the story of a flawed man whose personal tragedy makes him a better person.


Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s work is capable, and he instills the movie with a sense of importance even when the pacing slows in the final act. Like most films about disease, “Dallas Buyers Club” can be difficult to watch, but movies that acknowledge the ugly parts of our world are just as important as those that lift spirits.    





--Nominated for Best Picture, Directing, Actress in a Leading Role, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects

--Critical rating: 3½ stars (out of four)
--Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language
--Warner Brothers


With 10 nominations, director Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” is tied with “American Hustle” as the No. 1 contender in this year’s Oscar race.


Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a fledgling astronaut who is stranded in space when fast-travelling debris disables the shuttle that she and her colleagues launched in. The space junk not only renders the craft unusable, it kills every member of the crew with the exception of Stone and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney).  Realizing the desperation of their situation, Stone and Kowalski decide to spacewalk to a nearby station in hopes of returning home.


As Stone and Kowalski attempt to save themselves, they encounter one horrifying situation after another, and the movie actually takes the tenor of an action film. This makes it exciting, but it also reduces the credibility. For most people, being lost in space would be horrifying enough. In “Gravity,” the predicament is compounded by an ever-increasing number of threats, some of which are overkill.


Since “Gravity” is big on spectacle, the sheer mass of a theater screen will always offer the best presentation. When watching at home, go for the biggest screen available.



Captain Phillips


--Nominated for Best Picture, Actor in a Supporting Role, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing

--Critical rating: 4 stars
--Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use


“Captain Phillips” focuses on the 2009 Indian Ocean hijacking of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama. During that incident, Somali pirates boarded the vessel and took Captain Richard Phillips hostage. Director Paul Greengrass delivers a blow-by-blow account of the pirate attack and receives fantastic performances from his actors. Tom Hanks plays Phillips, and his reading of the embattled captain is so rich and realistic that the work ranks among the best of his career.


Also fantastic is Barkhad Abdi, a first-time movie actor who plays the leader of the Somali pirates. Abdi humanizes the character, allowing viewers to understand the desperation that some young Somalis feel, and his work was honored with an Oscar nomination.


The movie is thrilling in every sense, and Greengrass’ omission from the directing race is one of the great snubs of the Academy Awards season.




--Nominated for Best Picture, Directing, Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, Original Screenplay and Cinematography

--Critical rating: 3½ stars
--Rated R for some language


Director Alexander Payne is one of today’s most exciting filmmakers, and he continues to impress with “Nebraska,” a compelling black-and-white dramedy about Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly man convinced he’s become a millionaire. Although his youngest son, David (Will Forte), knows his father is being scammed, he agrees to drive him from Montana to Nebraska to collect his “winnings.” Along the way, they meet with old friends and relatives who begin making demands when they hear that Woody may be wealthy.


Dern received a best actor Oscar nomination for his work in the film, and June Squibb is up for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Woody’s wife.


Payne tells his story at a leisurely pace, allowing plenty of time for his actors to develop their characters. This results in deeper-than-usual performances, and the movie is a touching and worthwhile meditation on family ties and the way a man’s history is inextricably linked to his future.  



Blue Jasmine

--Nominated for Actress in a Leading Role, Actress in a Supporting Role and Original Screenplay

--Critical rating: 4 stars
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, language and sexual content


Cate Blanchett received a Golden Globe, a Critics’ Choice Movie Award and an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis, the startlingly flawed protagonist of writer-director Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.”


The picture begins with Jasmine disembarking from a plane at San Francisco International Airport and moving into a tiny apartment rented by her sister, Ginger (fellow Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins). In flashback, viewers learn that the previously wealthy Jasmine is troubled by her sister’s lower-middle-class lifestyle, which makes the prospect of living with her daunting. Alas, Jasmine has no choice because she’s run out of money, and that leads to plenty of sibling drama.


The movie avoids the manic dialogue that has become an Allen trademark, but the writing is still crisp, cutting and powerful, and the cast is even better.



Despicable Me 2


--Nominated for Animated Feature Film and Original Song

3½ stars
--Rated PG for rude humor and mild action
--Universal Studios


In the original “Despicable Me,” moviegoers watched as a supervillain named Gru transitioned from menacing criminal to doting father thanks to his relationship with three orphan girls. In the sequel, Gru is asked to help a top-secret law enforcement organization solve a high-profile crime.


“Despicable Me 2” is the rare sequel that actually bests its inspiration. That may be because the creative team from the first movie is back. Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud are, once again, working from a screenplay by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, and the story is fully developed and exciting.


The movie is also a visual feast featuring crisp, colorful animation that wows us while forwarding the plot and better developing the characters.



The Great Gatsby


--Nominated for Costume Design and Production Design

--Critical rating: 3 stars
--Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language
--Warner Brothers


If one watches Baz Luhrmann’s film version of “The Great Gatsby” expecting it to be as seminal as the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, he or she will be disappointed. If, however, the project is judged as an unencumbered cinematic work, it’s easy to appreciate.


Luhrmann, in typical fashion, has crafted a film that is visually fascinating and thematically powerful. His “Great Gatsby” is a towering affair that uses melodrama, high-octane music and an impressive cast to present a vivid picture of the roaring ’20s and a compelling tale of obsessive love and class oppression.  The story is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), an alcoholic and failed writer who examines his past while receiving treatment in a sanatorium. His most important recollections are centered on Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a powerful and mysterious businessman who was obsessed by Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan).



The Lone Ranger


--Nominated for Visual Effects, and Makeup and Hair Styling

--Critical rating: 2 stars
--Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence and some suggestive material


Considering his success with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, Disney was likely hoping director Gore Verbinski could reinvent the Lone Ranger, giving the Mouse House another long-running series. But Verbinski’s attempt to bring the Ranger into the 21st century fails in numerous ways. The movie’s biggest problem is that Verbinski seems most interested in Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s trusty sidekick. That may have something to do with the fact that Johnny Depp plays the former character, while the lesser-known Armie Hammer has the title role.


Hammer is a fine actor and a reasonable choice to portray a Western hero, but Verbinski never gives him the chance. By design, Hammer’s Ranger is bookish and silly, making his evolution to superhero seem both unlikely and unbelievable.



All is Lost


--Nominated for Sound Editing

--Critical rating: 2½ stars (out of four)
--Rated PG-13 for brief strong language


Writer-director J.C. Chandor follows his well-received, 2011 drama “Margin Call” with an unusual cinematic feat: a one-actor picture with virtually no dialogue. The movie, “All Is Lost,” centers on an unnamed protagonist who becomes stranded at sea, and Chandor’s only performer is cinema icon Robert Redford.


“All Is Lost” has almost no verbal explanations, yet the story points are clear, and that is a tribute to Redford and Chandor. Alas, the story lags, often bogging in sequences devoted to mundane survival tasks. Redford’s portrayal of the protagonist doesn’t help either. Although his acting is wonderful, his hero is a stolid man who only shows emotion when things grow particularly dire. This is believable, but such a cool-headed approach to even life-threatening situations makes it easy for viewers to keep the character at a distance. 



Before Midnight


--Nominated for Adapted Screenplay

3½ stars
--Rated R for sexual content/nudity and language


With “Before Midnight,” writer-director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy continue one of the most interesting projects in film history: a movie franchise based almost entirely on simple conversations between a woman and man.


The movie is a sequel to “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” romantic dramas that introduce viewers to Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy), a couple who find instant attraction after meeting on a European train. In “Before Midnight,” the two have aged, and they are raising beautiful twin daughters and spending the summer in Greece.


“Before Midnight” meditates on the challenges couples face in middle-age, and the script – written collectively by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy – does a fine job examining both the sweet and sour sides of love.



The Croods


--Nominated for Animated Feature Film

--Critical rating: 2½ stars
--Rated PG for some scary action
--20th Century Fox


In “The Croods,” the latest 3D feature from DreamWorks Animation, directors Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders give viewers a glimpse of life on Earth some three million years ago. And, according to their vision, things were rough.


Viewers see the world from the perspective of Eep, the teen daughter in a cave family that has survived largely thanks to its patriarch, a powerful hunter whose motto is “Never not be afraid.” Eep and her family are forced out of their comfort zone, however, when a giant earthquake destroys their home.


De Micco and Sanders move the story smoothly, and the animation is crisp, sharp and colorful. Sadly, the plot is less satisfying than the visuals. The story, which involves themes about risk and unchecked conservatism, is so typical that many moviegoers will know how it ends before the first act closes.



Iron Man 3


--Nominated for Visual Effects

--Critical rating: 3½ stars

--Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content.



In “Iron Man 2,” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the billionaire playboy who wears the Iron Man armor, spent half of the movie battling his own demons. This was interesting, but it reduced the relevance of the supervillain stuff. That’s not a problem with “Iron Man 3.”


Although Stark is still narcissistic and troubled, his personal concerns pale in comparison to the evil he faces. An international terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin seems bent on world domination, and the man is bold enough to launch a direct attack on Stark’s home. This not only amounts to a slap in the face, it puts Stark’s beloved girlfriend, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), in grave danger. Humbled and licking his wounds, Stark fights back with the help of his long-time friend and fellow armored hero, Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle).


Shane Black, previously best known for writing the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, is both the director of the project and a co-writer. He does a fine job in both roles, assuring that Marvel’s armor-clad hero has plenty of box-office life ahead of him.





--Nominated for Cinematography

--Critical rating: 4 stars
--Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout
--Warner Brothers


Few 2013 movies have the raw, emotional power of “Prisoners,” a thought-provoking drama exploring the human capacity for good and evil and the fine line that sometimes separates the two.


The movie begins by introducing viewers to the Dovers and Birches, working-class neighbors and friends who panic when their two, young girls disappear while playing outside. The only potential clue is a strange van that was parked on the street earlier in the day. Police, led by the aggressive Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), act quickly and arrest the driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but this only confuses the matter.  Although Jones is an adult, he has the mental capacity of a boy, and Loki finds no indication that he kidnapped the girls. Despite this, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is convinced that Jones took his daughter, and he pledges to do whatever it takes to get her back.


Director Dennis Villeneuve moves the 153-minute film with precision, leading viewers through a thriller that bolsters its clever, surface-level twists with deep thematic roots that force viewers to identify with multiple characters. This should stimulate debate about everything from vigilantism to torture, and it allows the movie to live in one’s mind long after the credits have rolled.  



Star Trek Into Darkness


--Nominated for Visual Effects

4 stars
--Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence


“Star Trek Into Darkness” takes place shortly after the events depicted in director J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” movie, and it sends Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the Enterprise crew on a deadly journey. When a former Starfleet agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) turns traitor and launches two attacks on Earth, Kirk is given the OK to hunt and kill him. The mission is troubling, particularly since Starfleet officers are trained to use force as a last resort. Also, as Kirk draws closer to his prey, he and the rest of his crew realize they’re pawns in a game they don’t understand.


Abrams presents his material with a compelling visual style that – apart from a strange and annoying penchant for lens flares – is sleek and beautiful. He also paces the story perfectly, giving viewers all the information needed to invest in the plot without letting things bog in details. What’s more, his cast does a fine job honoring and expanding on the characters created for the original “Star Trek” TV series. If franchise creator Gene Roddenberry were alive, one imagines he’d be proud.


The DVD of “Star Trek Into Darkness” has no extra features, but the Blu-ray releases come with seven making-of featurettes.





If documentaries are your thing, you could easily spend the weekend catching up with the Oscar nominees. “20 Feet From Stardom,” “The Act of Killing,” “Cutie and the Boxer” and “Dirty Wars” are all available on home video. In fact, “The Square” is the only nominee in the feature-length documentary category that hasn’t made its way to the small screen.  


Foreign film lovers will have a tougher time. Only one of the five finalists for best foreign language film (“The Hunt”) is available on video.  The Danish picture tells the story of a teacher who is wrongly accused of child molestation. 





If you’ve already seen all the Oscar contenders available on home video, don’t despair. More of the major players are coming to Blu-ray, DVD and other formats in the coming weeks.


March 4: “12 Years a Slave” (nine nominations), “The Grandmaster” (two nominations)


March 11: “Inside Llewyn Davis” (two nominations), “The Book Thief” (one nomination), “The Broken Circle Breakdown” (1 nomination)


March 18: “American Hustle” (10 nominations), “Frozen” (two nominations), “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (one nomination), “Saving Mr. Banks” (one nomination)


March 25: “The Wolf of Wall Street” (five nominations), “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (three nominations), “The Great Beauty” (one nomination).


Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman, a Highbrow Magazine contributor, is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work, visit

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