Concerning the potential Best Pictures, I’ve done pretty well this year. I’ve seen eight of the nine nominees (each in the theater) and, aside from some irritation with the (minority?) critical opinion that The Wolf of Wall Street is “morally skewed”, I don’t really have a dog in the fight. And so, rather than rank the films in an arbitrary list, or offer redundant synopses or superfluous personal reviews, I thought I’d revisit the particular moments from the 86th Best Picture candidates that have stuck with me. These were the scenes that I found myself thinking about days after leaving the theater, and the ones that will come to mind on Monday morning, when someone reminds me that the Oscars were the night before.
A note: as you might expect, there are POTENTIAL SPOILERS ahead. One other note: I saw each of these films once, and only once. If I misquote a line of dialogue, or forget the technical aspects of a certain shot, please forgive me. This is just one layman’s appreciation for a year of movies. And the honors go to . . .
Best Scenes From the Nominees for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Picture
Film: American Hustle
Scene: Bill Burr’s Ice-fishing Story
Bill Burr’s role in American Hustle wasn’t much trumpeted, likely due to the fact that he’s the ninth most famous person in the film. And yet he very nearly steals scenes from Bradley Cooper, who has been appropriately lauded for his lead performance. Burr plays the desk-riding superior of Cooper’s unhinged CIA agent, and a recurring bit involves a childhood story about ice fishing that Burr ‘s character can’t quite force Cooper to listen to. Mirroring the increasingly complex machinations of the graft/entrapment plot, each iteration of the ice fishing story one-ups its predecessor, until a charming story of boyhood naivete has become a gut-wrenching description of depravity and survival. And Cooper still won’t listen! The look on Burr’s face when he finally admits to letting his father drown is one of the film’s most human moments.
Film: The Wolf of Wall Street
Scene: Michael Douglas Cameo
Though it’s been virtually absent from the discussion surrounding Martin Scorsese’s latest, Michael Douglas’ brief cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street is proof of the director’s dexterity with thematically complex material. The original Wall Street, of course, has been frequently mentioned in relation to the new film, with a range of comparisons drawn between the Gordon Gekko character and DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort. But in a crucial flashback scene we see Belfort, as a child, harassed and intimidated by the balloon-making clown at a run-down Mexican restaurant. And who’s the actor under the bozo makeup? None other than Douglas himself, sneering and self-pitying. Is this a sly allusion to Gekko’s eventual fate, after the events of Wall Street? Does it foreshadow Belfort’s own ignominious end? Whatever the case, it’s one of the all-time top three intertextual moments centering on a clown.
Scene: The Donut Tragedy
Midway through Alexander Payne’s quiet character study, the phlegmatic protagonist played by Bruce Dern finally lets loose with a blistering, cathartically profane rant against family members who would prefer that he remain a silent presence in the background of their lives. The scene begins in a small Nebraska diner and escalates in the parking lot, where Dern’s character caps his argument with a front kick to the rusty, six-foot donut that serves as the diner’s sign. But the rusted spokes holding the donut in place–like the ties binding this family–are not trustworthy, and the kick causes their collapse, and the centerpiece tragedy of the film. The donut hits the asphalt, picks up speed as it rolls downhill, and the bickering relatives can only watch helplessly as the careening wheel flattens a dog tied to a bike rack down the street. In a film year filled with pirate shootouts and extraterrestrial collisions, this might be the single most shocking moment.
Scene: Suit Fart
The sheer spectacle of Gravity has been duly applauded, and what’s even more impressive is that audiences were able to notice the cinematography while clutching their armrests in suspense. This is the type of film that is imperceptibly turning the screws long before the space debris hits the fan. Case-in-point: after an initial (and comparatively minor) calamity, spacewalking astronauts played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock must connect their suits in order to share oxygen, or she won’t have enough breathable air to reach safety. But a fearful look on Clooney’s face alerts us that something is wrong, and once the suits are connected by space-hose, Bullock’s panicked expression makes it clear that the earlier scene of Clooney wolfing down chili was not idly scripted. Go ahead and laugh; I recommend setting up the joke with, “In space, no one can hear you _____.” But any humor is short lived, as Bullock’s gagging and choking use up more oxygen than these characters have to spare. Suddenly the duo is back in jeopardy, and the audience realizes, not for the last time, the utter precariousness that these characters must face.
Film: Captain Philips
Scene: Greek Yogurt
I didn’t see this movie, but on one of the nights when I could have, I mixed a ton of sugar into one of those single-serving containers of greek yogurt, and added a little bit of cinnamon. I stirred everything up with a spoon, and accidentally spilled some of the yogurt onto my countertop. At that point, I realized that it would have been a good idea to do my mixing in a separate, slightly larger bowl. On the other hand, of course, that would have meant another dish to do afterwards–and I’m no lover of dish-doing. (Though on the third hand, you would be right to point out, countertop cleaning is it’s own monster.) You live and you learn. It’s a tired sentiment, perhaps, but one I have no doubt is given nuance and emotional heft in Captain Philips.
Scene: The iPod Wheel
I’m a pretty big fan of Spike Jonze’s previous feature films, but it took until nearly the end of Her before I appreciated what the director was doing. After the numerous, delicately realized ups and downs of protagonist Theo’s relationship with his operating system, a late sequence reveals that the more things change (in the stylish, internet-run future), the more they stay the same. Samantha, the “Her” of the title, emotively voiced by Joaquin Phoenix in an uncredited dual role, reminds Theo that his hardware is due for an upgrade. He reports to his local, über-minimalist electronics store (a thinly veiled satire of Circuit City) and exchanges his handheld touchscreen for the new, retro click wheel. The technology that will be familiar to anyone who remembers the original iPods. Back at home, Theo struggles with the sporadically responsive interface–an irritation that will also be familiar to those who can remember a time before touch-sensitive glass. Enraged, he throws the device against the wall, at which point the screen shatters and Sam’s voice instantly reappears to inform Theo that the screen will cost $7,000 to fix. His perplexity mirrors our own, and we wonder whose side Sam is really on–Theo’s, or Circuit City’s?
Film: 12 Years a Slave
Scene: Brad Pitt’s Toys
Going into 12 Years a Slave, I was aware of the high praise being heaped on several members of the film’s cast, and of the skepticism surrounding one actor’s role. In what contemporary, realistic movie about slavery should Brad Pitt, of all people, be allowed to appear as a messianic symbol of decency and righteousness? And I must admit that I found the skepticism well founded, at least at first. Pitt plays a Canadian carpenter (oh, really?) named Bass, who is constantly backlit by glorious sunshine, and whose anti-slavery monologues do ring hollow, no matter how hungry the audience is to hear them after so much brutality. But a later scene complicates the character’s role: Solomon Northrup, the titular protagonist powerfully played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, sneaks away from his bunk to speak with Bass, and discovers the character playing with small dinosaur toys. Pitt crashes the triceratops into the stegosaurus while providing his own, embarrassing, childish soundtrack of growls and snarls, and the viewer cannot help but feel as Solomon does–another hope quashed, another exit sealed. The supposed moral savior is revealed as a buffoon, and we get no easy out from the nightmare that director Steve McQueen has replicated.
Film: Dallas Buyers Club
Scene: Flight of the Bumblebee
Dallas Buyers Club takes its time establishing an authentic milieu: the rabid antique collectors among the upper-upper class of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Matthew McConaughey, ever-slick, is our guide to this privileged and cutthroat world, where a rare giltwood settee can prompt aging pearl-clutchers to make terroristic threats against each other. McConaughey is a young, hotshot auctioneer, whose star takes a nosedive when a rival circulates the rumor that he’s gay. Cue the long passages of soul-searching through substance abuse that have rightly attracted Academy attention. But it’s McConaughey’s triumphant return to antiques that makes the greatest impression. Year later, as the rival auctions off a grand piano once owned by Liberace (wink wink), an unkempt and nearly unrecognizable McConaughey stumbles into the auction hall, brushes past haughty onlookers, and seats himself at the instrument. Before the crowd can stop him, he launches into a note-perfect and blindingly fast rendition of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” and the upper-crusties gape with astonishment. Saccharine wish fulfillment? Unearned thematic deus ex machina? Maybe. But movies are only “emotionally manipulative” when you don’t like them–and this one is hard not to like.
Scene: The First Exorcism
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s pick for Best Picture doesn’t have as many exorcisms as its trailers would have you believe, but the few that are onscreen made me wish for a mouthguard to grind and a teddy bear to hold. The first is the worst (read: best), perhaps simply because the movie has, up to that point, been coy about its intentions. Philomena (a wry Judi Dench) is escorted around Scotland by journalist Martin (a flabbergasted Steve Coogan), who intends to write up their travels for an in-depth news piece on alternative religion. When they receive a rude welcome at a convent in the Lowlands, the reason is soon made clear: the abbess has been behaving strangely, even violently, since returning from solitary meditation in the woods. And here Philomena reveals her powers, recognizing the demonic possession for what it is, and persuading the other nuns to assist her in a repulsively gory yet strangely beautiful ceremony, while Martin–and the viewer–watch in horror and fascination.