John Shearer Rates The Year's Movies

Saturday, March 01, 2014 - by John Shearer

For the fourth year in a row, I have tried to watch at least a few of the movies nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Seeing some of the more critically acclaimed movies has been on my “bucket list” of activities to do every year now that I am well into middle age, and I am glad I was able to see a few again this year at the theater – not on a television.

The ones I saw were “American Hustle,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “12 Years a Slave.” Also nominated for Best Picture were “Captain Phillips,” “Gravity,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Although I enjoyed the movies this year, none of my three was overly fun to watch in the spirit of such recent Oscar winners as “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist.”

And all three wanted to reveal the reality of life, which apparently includes showing a few people in their birthday suits. By the time I saw the third movie, I was beginning to feel like Ethel in the “The Streak” song by Ray Stevens.

While Ethel’s husband told her not to look in the song, I was glad I saw the well-done overall artistry of the three movies with the fine acting, good storylines and meaningful scenes.

As a result, I will once again enjoy watching the Academy Awards this Sunday, March 2, beginning with the red carpet festivities at 7 p.m. on ABC.

One fact I have learned since I started going to see some of these top movies again is that the Academy Awards are a lot more enjoyable to watch if you have seen at least a few of the nominated movies.

3rd Place: “American Hustle” – While some of the Oscar-nominated movies this year are intense, I was looking forward to this one, knowing it would likely be a more relaxing form of entertainment to watch.

With nice-looking stars to appeal to both genders and the movie being billed as a comedy, it had to be fun to watch, I assumed.

However, in the spirit of “Wolf of Wall Street,” it still had enough cursing to make a naïve movie watcher cringe.

And there were also quite a few sexual inferences. Let’s just say Amy Adams did not wear her 1970s’ dresses like she was going to church! And I sure hope the appealing Jennifer Lawrence was not inhaling those cigarettes into her lungs!

Of course, that is all just the Hollywood of the 21st century trying to depict a number of characters with moral, character and personal issues. And the movie did do a good job of portraying the flawed personalities of the characters played by Ms. Adams, Ms. Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and the likable Christian Bale.

All have been nominated for acting Academy Awards, and those are the kinds of characters whose portrayals seem to get nominated a lot.

Robert De Niro also does a great job in his brief – but intimidating -- appearance.

The movie takes place in the late 1970s – just as last year’s Best Picture winner, “Argo,” did – and involves a couple of low-level con artists (played by Mr. Bale and Ms. Adams). The two agree to help an FBI agent, played by Mr. Cooper, bust some political corruption in return for their freedom after their arrest. Loosely based on the Abscam scandal of that time period, it even involves the mafia. That is, of course, why Mr. De Niro’s character makes an appearance as a mob boss.

The movie presented this plot in a very entertaining and interesting way, although its full excellence is not realized until near the end, when a couple of surprise storyline twists reminiscent of “The Sting” take place. Actually, they are so surprising that I had to seek clarification before I fully understood the movie.

A couple of lines of dialogue are also quite profound and thought provoking – perhaps much more than the numerous curse words heard.

2nd Place: “Dallas Buyers Club”—Before I knew the storyline of this movie, I was very intrigued by its title, much as I was by the name of the 1999 film, “The Cider House Rules.” As a result, it gets my vote for best title among the nominated movies.

The Dallas Buyers Club was the organization set up by Matthew McConaughey’s character, the real life Ron Woodroof, in which he gets some unapproved drugs for him and other HIV/AIDS patients from other countries in the darkest days of the disease in the1980s. For a monthly fee, patients can belong to the club and get a month’s supplies.

What is interesting is that Mr. McConaughey’s character is a homophobic heterasexual who detested gays before acquiring the HIV virus through a reckless lifestyle as a blue-collar electrician/weekend rodeo cowboy enjoying drugs and wild women.

He plays the role wonderfully, and is the favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar. So does Jared Leto, who portrays amazingly a transgender woman. The way these opposite personalities come together as friends and business associates is one of several nice touches the entertaining-but-intense movie has.

Another unusual relationship is with a policeman friend, for whom Mr. McConaughey’s character gets an unapproved drug for his father for Alzheimer’s Disease. Ironically, the policeman later gives his friend some of the drug after finding him in bad shape on the streets one day.

Mr. Woodroof also develops a friendship with the likable Jennifer Garner, who plays a sympathetic and honorable doctor leery of high doses of the drug AZT her hospital is recommending for HIV/AIDS patients. Perhaps the two would have become romantically inclined if not for his health diagnosis.

Another well-done scene – although unexpectedly not as touching as the developing friendships – occurs early on when Mr. Woodroof appears to be praying about his condition while surrounded by candles, perhaps at a church. However, the camera pulls away, and he is actually at a strip bar.

Even though his health steadily declines – despite living about seven years longer than expected with the help of the unapproved drugs – Mr. Woodroof’s moral character definitely improves over the course of the movie. This is even though he has to bend a few rules and gets in trouble with the Food and Drug Administration.

Near the end of the movie, after he returns to his business/home after unsuccessfully trying to sue the FDA in court, he is met by friends and associates giving him a standing ovation.

It is a heartfelt scene, and I felt like applauding, too, both for Mr. Woodroof and for Mr. McConaughey’s portrayal of him.

1st Place: “12 Years a Slave” – I must admit that I was a little reluctant about seeing this movie, because it reportedly showed a lot of violence in an intense way, and I have a low tolerance for such scenes.

But perhaps because I expected constant violence after hearing some of the previews, those five or six scenes ended up not being as bad as I thought, even though they were certainly somewhat brutal on the eyes.

The movie, which is based on a memoir, traces 12 years in the life of a New York black freedman, Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejlofor. The film follows his wrongful capture and kidnapping while drunk to his hard life as a slave on two or three Louisiana plantations.

The movie in many ways reminded me of an R-rated version of the well-done 1970s’ television miniseries, “Roots.” It definitely shows the wrong that slavery was, no matter how extreme this particular portrayal may have been.

It also did a good job of showing the differing levels of tolerance white people likely had toward slavery and blacks at that time, a representation that some movies about racial relations have not always done very well. The film also brought out the moral compromises people in captivity sometimes have to make simply to survive.

As an example of the latter, Mr. Ejlofor’s character has to help punish with a whip Patsey, a black female slave played by Lupita Nyong’o, to go along with his mean master, played excellently by Michael Fassbender. This is to prevent retribution against Mr. Northup, whose slave name is Platt.

Also, Mr. Northup at one point pays a white plantation worker some money he had made fiddling so that he will mail a letter back home telling of his captivity. However, the man not only takes his money and runs, but he tells Mr. Northup’s master what Mr. Northup is trying to do.

Mr. Northup has to lie and say the other man was the one lying simply to protect himself from being harmed or punished. This part of the movie was somewhat unusual in that it repeats a beginning-of-the-movie scene that shows Mr. Northup trying to write a letter about his captivity. But now the viewer understands what is happening.

For much of the film, I was not ready to say it was worthy of being named Best Picture. But then it had a touching and beautiful final 10 minutes or so.

Mr. Northup had met on the plantation a white Canadian carpenter played by Brad Pitt, and the latter man is against slavery. Mr. Northup tells him of his situation, and, in contrast to the other man, Mr. Pitt’s character tells authorities back in New York to help him gain freedom.

When the local sheriff and a New York friend arrive to take him back home to freedom, and he is able to answer all the sheriff’s questions regarding who he really is, I almost felt like crying. This emotion continues as Patsey gives him a somewhat surprising hug as he leaves – just one or two scenes removed from the one in which Mr. Northup has to help whip her.

The movie ends with Mr. Northup back in New York. His wife has not remarried, but another man is in their home. However, to the relief of the viewer, he is Mr. Northup’s son-in-law.

And Mr. Northup is shown his new grandchild, which is just one more gift to add to his beautiful gift of freedom.

After seeing this movie, I now better appreciate the words of the old black spiritual song made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

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