Armchair Oscars – 2013

| February 28, 2014 | 0 Comments

Best Picture

12 Years a Slave (Directed by Steve McQueen)
The Nominees: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, her, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street

her (Directed by Spike Jonze
My Nominees: American Hustle (David O. Russell), (Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche)Fruitvale Station (Ryan Cooglar), Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón), Mud (Jeff Nichols), Fruitvale Station (Ryan Cooglar)  The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt), 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

Nobody wants to deal with slavery.  In the history of the cinema only a small handful of films have ever really dealt with the issue, when they did they were usually noble films that distracted from the ugly business by diverting the story into safer waters.  Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, for example, subverted the issue into a fancy courtroom drama.  Glory distracted from the issue by sending it’s subjects into war led by having a white protagonist.  Quentin Tarantino showed the ugly side of slavery in Django Unchained through the prism of a hyper-violent cartoon.  And Beloved?  Who knows what that was about?

Possibly the closest that anyone will ever come to really getting down to portraying the dirty business of slavery on the screen (I mean, the big screen) was Steve McQueen’s unflinching 12 Years a Slave, a mostly British production, directed by a British director, starring a British lead, and produced by the production company owned by the all-American Brad Pitt.  Based on an 1853 memoir, 12 Years a Slave recounts the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American musician living in the north in 1841, who is kidnapped one night by a pair of strangers who drag him down to the Deep South where he spends 12 years in captivity on a plantation in Louisiana.  The movie sees these events exclusively through Solomon’s eyes, a man trapped in a world of fear and confusion, brutality and despair as he struggles to convince someone, anyone that there’s been a terrible mistake.

12 Years a Slave, I think, tries to give the emotion and brutal reality to slavery that Schindler’s List gave to the holocaust.  Like Spielberg, director Steve McQueen attempts to put his hands around the subject and bring it close enough for the audience to see with unblinking clarity.  Mercifully, the movie does not lean on white guilt, instead it attempts to see the events of the period almost exclusively through Solomon’s eyes so that the audience – no matter their ethnicity – can feel the experience of slavery not as a black experience but as a human experience.  McQueen doesn’t shy away from the brutality.  Yes, there are the horrors of the plantation.  Yes, there are whippings.  Yes, it is graphic and intense, but you never feel that McQueen is forcing the emotion of the story at you.  He doesn’t have to.  He simply presents things as matter-of-fact and lets us sort them out.

And yet, I’m not giving it my alternate Oscar.  While I think it’s a great film, it isn’t one that I’m willing the jump back into right away.  It’s the kind of difficult experience that you need the spaces of time to pass before you take the journey again.

I don’t have the problem with my favorite film of two-thousand thirteen.  Spike Jonze her is a bizarre romantic comedy about  a man who falls in love with the disembodied voice of his computer’s operating system.  Now that, from its base description, may sound like a stupid idea but Jonze has a way of presenting this bizarre idea in a way that, if you’re willing to play along, works quite well.

her takes place sometime in the not-so-distant future, a world of spare words and spare emotions.  The populace has taken to dressing in high-waste trousers and spends more time with video games than with each other.  It’s a baffling, brave new world in which emotions are scary, and humanity responds by retreating to the safer sources of warmth and security found in its communication devices.   Not exclusive from this is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a sad and insignificant man whose environment seems to contain a great deal of empty space.  At his job, in his home, and in his heart, there are wide-open spaces of loneliness.  He’s not a depressing lump though, but you immediately recognize that he’s the kind of guy that you notice at work or pass on the street but never pay any mind to.  He’s invisible – another face woven into the tapestry of your ordinary day.  All those years ago, when Paul McCartney asked “All the lonely people/Where do they all come from?”, Theodore might have been able to provide an answer.  Even his job suggests the fearful world he lives in – working for a business in which professional writers compose letters for people unwilling or incapable of writing them themselves.

Theodore is a well-hewed product of this mode of disengaged humanity. There are many sources to his loneliness, not the least of which is his recent divorce from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara).  Emotionally, he has moved beyond regret but he hasn’t quite moved to the point where he wants to sign the actual divorce papers.  Desperate for a human connection he tries various disastrous attempts at human connection. He agrees to a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde) a friend of a co-worker, which goes well until Theodore hesitates on the question of seeing her again, and she gets mad and stomps away.  He also tries a brief excursion into phone sex which turns out to be less than satisfying when his anonymous partner reveals a sexual fetish for dead cats.

Then one day he hears about a new technology, the OS operating system which is so advanced that it will not only talk to you like another person but will evolve and adapt as it studies the history of your hard-drive (and, by extension, your subconscious).  He chooses the option to give it a female voice and names it Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) who learns about Theodore’s life partly from their conversations, but mostly from what she learns from researching his hard drive.  She freely admits that she is evolving moment by moment, and is always conscious of the fact that she doesn’t have a body.  To Theodore, she’s beguiling, smart, eager to please, with a husky, sexy-cool voice and – most comforting for Theodore – a complete inability to judge him.  She is also emotionally delicate, and easily hurt.  Samantha is the perfect antidote to a lonely soul.  She is smart, funny, intuitive and she likes him.

To call the union between Theodore and Samantha “dating” would be to react to his situation with “sure, why not?”  Theodore takes Samantha out into the world via an earpiece and a small device that allows her to see the world around her.  He falls in love with Samantha and vice versa, but he is aware at all times of the wall that separates them.  She knows it too and tries to find creative ways around it, particularly as their relationship adds a sexual component.  Samantha suggests, and even acquires, a human surrogate named Isabelle (Portia Doubleday).  Theodore isn’t totally committed and sends the girl away.

Eventually, Samantha’s evolution takes a turn in a direction that neither she nor Theodore ever expected.  He panics when she goes offline for a short time, and when she returns she explains that she has joined a group of other OS avatars who have evolved beyond the need for processing requirements.  He is hurt by the suggestion that she is not only seeing someone else but that she has fallen in love with almost all of the other OS’s that she has joined with.  Later she reveals that she and the others have moved beyond the need for human companions and are going away to explore their new evolution together.  Hurt, but understanding, he says goodbye and lets her go.

Needless to say, her is the kind of movie that asks you to just go with it.  It’s a goofy premise that is presented with the biggest heart, the biggest emotion and the biggest leap of faith.  It’s presented in the guise of two separated lovers that we want to see find a measure of happiness.  All the way, we are completely aware of the wall that separates them, and we are aware of the evolution that is taking place.  Yet, you expect that the evolution will take place on Theodore’s part – after all he’s the one with all the flesh and blood.  Samantha is discovering things about herself, evolving and exploring other means of communication – in effect, matching herself with the perfect lover.

The melancholy comes from his inability to connect with anyone who doesn’t get him.  His relationship with his ex-wife Catherine is particularly heartbreaking due to Theodore’s inability to really understand what went wrong.  When Theodore confesses to Catherine about his relationship with Samantha, she is appalled and accuses him of an inability to relate to anyone.  Is she right, or it that he the world can’t quite communicate with him?  He seems distanced from other people, even Amy (Amy Adams), an old college friend that he dated briefly years ago.  She, like Theodore has been through a rocky marriage pulled apart by the inability to connect and has now found comfort in the OS system left behind by her husband.  The irony for both is that they are unable to connect with other human beings but are perfectly comfortable connecting with a disembodied voice coming from a computer screen.  There’s even an in-joke that Theodore is engaged in a holographic video game in which his digital assistant is persistently rude to him.

So what’s to be made of all this?  These are sad people living a sad and pathetic lives in which they can relate to a machine but not to a person.  It’s not that far from the truth.  We’ve all been there, attempting to communicate with a person who is so enraptured by whatever is going on with their cell phone, or iPad or tablet that the rest of humanity is simply tuned out.  What does Samantha represent for Theodore?  The ability, I think, to connect with him more deeply than any human being is able to – in a way she is more human than the people around him.  Yes, she gets angry and jealous.  Yes, she can be difficult (although, not too much) but she’s tuned in with his mind and his intellect, but there’s something in the experience that has fundamentally changed Theodore’s way of looking at things.  The movie has a nice unplugged closing moment as Amy and Theodore enjoy the most natural wonder of the world – a sunset.  Like all great films about humans versus machines like 2001, Modern Times, The Terminator, Primer or WarGames, the story always returns to the human element.  What we return to, in the end, is the need to communicate with one another, even if we need a machine to help us get there.

Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
The Nominees: Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
My Nominees: Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Matthew McConaughey (Mud), Joaquin Phoenix (her), Robert Redford (All is Lost), Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now)

2013 - Leonardo DiCaprio

No one in the last few decades has had a career rise, fall and rebirth like Matthew McConaughey.  He came to the public’s attention in 1993 billed twenty-second in a small but memorable role in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and, for the rest of the decade, went nowhere but up.  He proved himself to be more than good looks.  He quickly settled into the leading man role in pictures like Lone Star, A Time to Kill, Amistad and Contact.   He was a hit-maker and touted as one of the most talented newcomers of his generation.

Then, after the turn of the millennium, something went wrong.  He started making bad choices, appearing in vapid romantic comedies like The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Fool’s Gold and Failure to Launch.  In the first decade of the new century he seemed willing to take projects that were far beneath his potential, and his reputation suffered badly for it.  As that decade came to a close, he seemed to have been written off as the poster child for wasted potential.

Fortunately, that would turn around in what the press dubbed “The McConaissance.”  In the 2010’s he returned to drama and began to prove himself once again.  McConaughey is best when he plays smart, he can’t play dumb, which is why the romantic comedies didn’t work.  Two Thousand-Thirteen was his year.  He had a starring role as Rust Cohle on the HBO series “True Detective.”  He earned glowing acclaim for his performance in the indie drama Mud, and he got the Academy’s attention for playing a redemptive AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club.

Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club begins in the path of self-destruction of Ron Woodroof, a sexist, homophobic part-time rodeo electrician and full-time hustler who is angry with himself and everyone else when he realizes that he has contracted the AIDS virus.  Realizing that he can’t get treatment, he hustles his way around the law to get himself, and others afflicted with the disease, the medication that they need.  I liked the performance, not just for the physical transformation (McConaughey lost 47 pounds play the gaunt Woodroof) but also the personal one as well.  He begins as a bullish good old boy who hates gay people treats women like Kleenex, but the experience spending time with the sick and dying affects a change in his soul.  Yet, I’m still not giving him my Armchair Oscar.  I think it’s a good performance in an OK movie.  I much prefer him in another film this year in the title role of Mud, as an love lorn fugitive desperate to dislodge his boat from a tree so that he and his true love can run away together.

It was nice to see him come back, and it was also nice that, for once, the Best Actor category was filled with not-so-heavy performances.  With the exception of Chewetel Ejiofor from 12 Years a Slave, the nominees had dramatic edges, but were kind of light-hearted.  My favorite was a complete blast.  Leonardo DiCaprio, like McConaughey came up in the 1990’s, building a body of great work, but unlike McConaughey, DiCaprio’s choices were much more consistent.  After the phenomenal success with Titanic (for which he did not receive an Oscar nod) he made good, intelligent choices.  Today, he has a roster that includes playing everything from Howard Hughes to J. Edgar Hoover to The Great Gatsby and working under the direction of great directors like Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.

For the better part of the first decade of the millennium, DiCaprio became Scorsese’s go-to guy, though it wasn’t the perfect union that it had been between he and DeNiro.  Although I liked The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Shutter Island and The Departed, they just didn’t match up to the greatness of his earlier work.  I can’t say that about The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie that got a middling reaction from critics but not from me.  Crucial to its success was the first truly great performance by DiCaprio.

Based on a true story, The Wolf of Wall Street continues Scorsese’s theme of corruption of the soul that he always captures best through the prism of real-life subjects.  Thus far we’ve seen it through Jake LaMotta, Howard Hughes, Henry Hill and Jesus Christ, but Jordan Belfort may have the most savage appetite of them all.  Like the gangsters of Goodfellas, Jordan’s adventure is all about the pursuit of a lifestyle of greed, seen this time through the prism of stock market boom of the late 80s.  He wants anything and everything and gets it, no matter what. Then, as Scorsese’s subjects inevitably do, he must suffer for it. Jordan races through life grabbing anything and everything he can get his hands on. Anything? How about his own yacht with a helipad? Of course, you’ll need a helicopter.

The story is narrated by Jordan himself and is seen with the frantic energy of a runaway bullet train.  We are privy to his passion from the start as he introduces himself: “I’m a former member of the middle class raised by two accountants in a tiny apartment in Bayside, Queens. The year I turned 26, as the head of my own brokerage firm, I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”  At 22, he was a nice kid from the middle class who got a job with a legendary 90 year-old Wall Street firm L.J. Rothchild under the unwise tutelage of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) a wiry drug-addict who trains the young protégé on the secrets of quick success.  “The name of the game,” Hanna says,” is moving the money from the client’s pocket to your pocket.”  This becomes something that Jordan takes to heart, even if the client doesn’t make a dime.

Then, the worst happens, only weeks into the job, L.J. Rothchild hits a brick wall on October 19th, 1987 (the infamous Black Monday), and the grand old lady is forced to close it’s doors.  Unemployed, Jordan starts at the bottom at the only firm that will hire him – a penny stock firm that works out of an auto part garage.  He becomes a superstar by showing how easy it is to move the client’s money into the broker’s pocket while leaving the client with nothing.  He takes over the firm, taking it from penny stocks to Blue Chips to IPOs, all built on the system of screwing the client.  Much to his surprise, he finds a willing group of money-hungry twenty-somethings eager to go along.  Not the least of which is a pudgy Jewish kid named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) who becomes the glutinous yin to Jordan’s yang.

In short order, Jordan has turned this nowhere firm into Stratton Oakmont, an operation build on crooked investment from which flows money, money, money leading to mountains of drugs, rooms full of naked women, and every expensive toy under the sun.  He feels guilty about nothing, taking Gordon Gekko’s mantra of “Greed is Good” and making it into a religious sacrament.  Jordan is a modern-day Caligula, a Roman Emperor who makes no apologies for his gross avarice, his drug addiction, his sex addiction or any other morally reprehensible machination that allowed him to get it.  In no time at all he has the biggest house, the biggest boat, the best sports car, the fastest plane, and mounds and mounds of drugs.  He even trades in his supportive wife (“How I Met Your Mother”’s Cristin Milioti) for a gorgeous blonde trophy wife (Margot Robbie).

In our minds – but apparently not to Jordan – there is always the dread that the party will come to an end.  We feel that, but Jordan constantly skirts disaster, especially late in the film when he desperately needs to get to Switzerland and takes his own boat instead of a plane.  The plane explodes in mid-air and Jordan comes to believe that he may be invincible.  We feel that too, even when a boy scout FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) start snooping around Jordan’s books.  The scene at sea, incidentally, is a not-so-thinly veiled call-back to DiCaprio’s role in Titanic when his boat is caught in a violent storm and it looks like The King of the World won’t make it out of this one either.

The rhythm of the film is familiar to anyone who has seen Scorsese’s films, what is amazing is that it’s always infectious.  We know that what Jordan and Donnie are doing is morally reprehensible, but there is something in the attractiveness of their behavior that makes us privately hope that they won’t get caught.  In our own way we like these guys, and that may come from our familiarity with their other films.

What’s special about DiCaprio’s performance the way in which he throws out his good-guy image in favor of a portrait of a man who lives by appetite alone.  Like his role as Calvin Candie, the plantation owner with a god-complex in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, DiCaprio fits comfortably in the role of an immoral sociopath.  It’s not beyond his reach because he is willing to play it without reservation.  Both roles allow him notes that he has never been able to play before.  Yes, he’s good looking, but he isn’t afraid to look like a jerk.

He’s also, for the first time, able to display his talent for slapstick in a scene in which Jordan downs a 15 year-old Quaalude that sends his body into a contorted fit.  That’s no good when he desperately needs to get to his car to stop Donnie from making a fatal mistake.  It’s surprising because it is played for laughs and it works!

This is a movie made up of two or three dozen perfect moments like that.  Overall it’s energy is charged by the pacing and by DiCaprio’s in-your-face narration.  This is a raunchy, messy, but ultimately exciting film about one guy who desires everything and gets it.  If it seems a bit too long, that’s only because it is playing to the theme of wretched excess.  The end of the film sends Jordan on a toboggan slide that seems somewhat inevitable, causing his reign as king of the world to end with a whimper instead of a bang.  Does he learn a lesson from all his sins of lust and greed?  What do you think?

Best Actress

Cate Blanchette (Blue Jasmine)
The Nominees: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

Cate Blanchette (Blue Jasmine)
Nominees: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Scarlett Johannson (her), Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks), Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour), Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Colour)


If you’re an actress interested in getting into the Oscar race, it helps to work with Woody Allen.  Thus far it has proven fruitful for Diane Keaton, Mira Sorvino, Penelope Cruze, and twice for Diane Weist.  The latest is Cate Blanchett who, I believe, is incapable of giving a bad performance (not even in that lousy Indiana Jones movie).  What is special about her is that she is able to project a great deal of intelligence and cool confidence, but always with a hint of vulnerability under the surface.  She brought this to Katharine Hepburn, Queen Elizabeth (twice), Galadriel and virtually every great role she’s played.

In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, she may have found the most vulnerable character of all, and the rare opportunity to play a character that we aren’t asked to sympathize with.  She plays Jasmine Francis, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Once, long ago, her life sparkled with silver and gold, but presently, it’s all gone, and what is left is an empty woman struggling to get on her feet.  She’s fidgety and nervous, a pill-popper who spaces out and often talks to herself in public.  She’s clearly a neurotic and we can sense that she is teetering on the edge of a meltdown – it won’t be the first time.

The woman is a mess, and Allen’s script helps us understand how she got that way.  If this sounds at all familiar, it should.  Blue Jasmine is based in part on “A Streetcar Named Desire” (imagine if Allen had written that great play and you’ve kind of got the idea).  Jasmine, like Blanch is a woman coming apart at the seams.  We meet her presently as she is moving from The Big Apple to San Francisco to live with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).  Flashbacks show us a Jasmine who was happily married to Hal (Alec Baldwin) a Wall Street tycoon who padded their financial future with assets hidden from the FBI.  When he got caught, the house and all the money were seized and Jasmine was left penniless.  The fact that her entire financial future, plus her social status, was mounted on the foundation of fraud has left her with few friends and even fewer relatives to depend on.

Spaced away from all that she once was, Jasmine is a stranger in a strange land.  Uprooted from high society, she finds herself in middle-class California among hard-working people that she can’t relate to.  They don’t sugar-coat anything, particularly Ginger’s good-hearted boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) who can easily see right through her facade.  Worse, she’s too self-centered to realize that the life she built with Hal was basically a sham, a Good-Housekeeping fever dream that was all frosting and no cake.  She has no one to blame but herself.  Hal’s brief fling with another woman drove Jasmine to rat him out to the FBI.  Hal went to prison where he killed himself.  Caught up the melee was Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), Ginger’s first husband whose dream of starting a construction business was being financed by Hal, but it all blew away in the wind once he went up the river.

She could claim that it’s all in the past, but in many ways, it’s still in her present.  She gets a job for the first time  as a receptionist at a dentist’s office while taking an online course to be an interior decorator.

What is interesting about Jasmine is that she can’t see the forest for the trees.  She’s on a sinking ship.  She has a hard time relating to anyone, due to the fact that almost all of her old acquaintances are people who were burned by her husband’s financial crimes – not the least of which is Ginger’s ex-husband Augi (Andrew Dice Clay), a nice sensible Joe whose dreams of opening his own business went down the drain when Hal went up the river.

Twice, a solution to Jasmine’s rut presents itself.  Once, with and way overly friendly dentist (Michael Stulberg) and then with a smooth-talking diplomat named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) with whom she briefly skirts around a romance.  With Dwight, she has an opportunity for happiness, but she makes a critical error finds herself right back where she started. By contrast, her sister seems to be having just as many romantic problems but seems better equipped to handle them.  They are just as startled as we are that, despite her sudden level of poverty, that she still spends money like it’s water.  Example, they’re all startled when she travels to New York first class.

The center of the story is really Allen breaking open the facade of privilege.  As he did with Interiors, he shows that money and happiness are not intertwined.  Jamine is a woman whose DNA was tied to her financial security, but is now cast adrift in a sea of people who have no interest in anything that she once was.  We see the consequences of the bonds and the distances that Jasmine has created for herself and how they respond when she needs them the most.

All of this is mounted on Cate Blanchett’s brilliant performance.  It’s hard to like Jasmine but it’s even harder not to feel sympathy for her.  Jasmine’s situation is a trap she’s made for herself and we see the physical and mental strain that her situation is putting on her.  The more she attempts to reclaim her status, the more she watches it crumble to the ground.  More and more, we watch Jasmine drift further and further away from plausible reality, until the end when she is seated on a bench mumbling to herself.  Like Blanche DuBois, she is a woman who always depended on the kindness of strangers, but she’ll need Xanax to bring her around.

Home | What is all this? | Contact Me

2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 | 1998 | 1997 | 1996 | 1995 | 1994 | 1993 | 1992 | 1991 | 1990 | 1989 | 1988 | 1987 | 1986 | 1985 | 1984 | 1983 | 1982 | 1981 | 1980 | 1979 | 1978 | 1977 | 1976 | 1975 | 1974 | 1973 | 1972 | 1971 | 1970 | 1969 | 1968 | 1967 | 1966 | 1965 | 1964 | 1963 | 1962 | 1961 | 1960 | 1959 | 1958 | 1957 | 1956 | 1955 | 1954 | 1953 | 1952 | 1951 | 1950 | 1949 | 1948 | 1947 | 1946 | 1945 | 1944 | 1943 | 1942 | 1941 | 1940 | 1939 | 1938 | 1937 | 1936 | 1935 | 1934 | 1932-33 | 1931-32 | 1930-31 | 1929-30 | 1928-29 | 1927-28

Contact us at


About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
Filed in: Uncategorized