Oscar Conversation Changers to Keep Awards Season Interesting

Anybody else feeling less and less interested in the annual (movie) race to gold? I’m finding it difficult to get too excited about the Oscars this year. My film brain has moved on, having seen a whole new crop of fascinating flicks at Sundance in January. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has the kind of hard-core-homogenous membership (93% while, 76% male) that leads to yawn-inducing predictability. So when the Oscars air next Sunday, I’ll be wrapping up my coverage of the thought-provoking, always-surprising True/False Film Festival instead. In the meantime, I’ll be using the following Best Picture “conversation changers” to keep from nodding off during Oscar discussions. (I’ll add in Philomena and Captain Phillips after I see them.)  Try ‘em, and let me know your results!

American Hustle

What I thought:

A thoroughly entertaining period caper flick with incredible performances from Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and the sure-to-shake-up-next-Sunday’s-show Jennifer Lawrence. One of my favorites of the year.

J-Law in American Hustle: Thank God for Me

What to talk about:

  • What’s the end to the ice-fishing story?
  • Who were you rooting for the most in this film?
  • The use of voice-over in modern American cinema: Lazy, overdone or justified on a case-by-case basis?
  • Who would you follow into a life of crime?
  • What’s the worst thing you’ve ever put in a science oven?
  • Deep-cut tops: Would you, won’t you, should they make a resurgence?

Dallas Buyers Club

What I thought:

Convincing performances and a good story that left me tracking down the historical details. “In a short 117 minutes, this straight-white-middle-class woman was introduced to some of the main issues of the early fight against AIDS in the U.S. Dallas Buyers Club‘s greatest triumph might be that it left me wondering: What really happened?”

Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club

What to talk about:

  • Why do the Oscars seem to reward extreme acting transformations over more subtle performances?
  • Should the filmmakers have chosen a transgendered person to play Rayon?
  • Have you ever broken the law because you believed the law was wrong?
  • What do you remember about the beginning of the AIDS crisis in America?
  • How have your thoughts about AIDS changed over the years?
  • Did Matthew McConaughey make some crossroads deal five or so years ago…or has he always been this good and we just didn’t see it before?

Gravity

What I thought:

A technological triumph that delivered one of the most visceral filmgoing experiences I’ve ever had. The dialogue could’ve used some polishing, but I was genuinely moved by the story, which works on both literal and metaphorical levels. I count Gravity‘s ending as one of my favorite movie closures of all time. An industry game-changer.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

What to talk about:

  • You’re offered a free trip to space using existing methods. Do you go?
  • Alfonso Curon took four years to develop the filmmaking technology needed to shoot Gravity. When was the last time you found out something you wanted to do was going to take way longer than expected?
  • Ryan had Kowalksi. Who would you want as your space buddy?
  • 3D: Fad, ticket-price-inflator, or valid storytelling tool?
  • After a past tragedy, Ryan disengaged from life. Has that ever happened to you? What brought you “back to earth”?
  • Where does “floating into the void until your oxygen runs out” fall on your most-terrified-of list?

Her

What I thought:

An intellectually original, beautifully shot, astonishingly acted film. Yet, I was unmoved. A friend suggested I think of it as sci-fi instead of a love story (even though it’s billed as one), and that’s proved to be a helpful lens.

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

What to talk about:

  • High-waisted pants: Discuss.
  • Have you ever had a relationship founded on not-in-person interactions?
  • What makes someone “real” to you?
  • Is mobile technology making us more or less connected?
  • Do you tend to be attracted to films with more stylized or more natural production design?
  • How do relationships survive drastic change in one or both of the partners?

Nebraska

What I thought:

Alexander Payne balances on the tightrope between tribute and teasing in this quiet black and white look at Midwestern familial landscapes. The story has the kind of pragmatic grace I recognize from growing up in a very similar place (just miles east in Iowa). Deserving of its nomination.

Alexander Payne's Nebraska

What to talk about:

  • Which of your parents would you rather road-trip with?
  • What does black-and-white do for this film from a storytelling perspective?
  • If you could start any rumor about yourself in your hometown, what would it be?
  • What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about your parents as an adult?
  • Do you like your comedy infused with drama or served up free of complications?
  • What current SNL actor would you like to see in a serious indie role?

12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

What I thought:

A masterpiece. “This is the gift of 12 Years a Slave: It gives names and faces and bodies and voices and souls to our history’s ghosts. It forces us—quite literally, in McQueen’s long close up shots—to look that history in the eye.”

What to talk about:

  • Could an American director have made a similar film, or did Steve McQueen’s national objectivity as a British man give him necessary distance to tackle this topic?
  • When are explicit depictions of violence necessary for telling a story and when are they distracting or exploitative?
  • Would audiences have the stomach for 12 Years a Modern Day Slave?
  • Is there anyone cooler than Lupita Nyong’o? (Correct answer: No.)
  • Were your ancestors part of the American slave system?
  •  McQueen used a long shot of Chiwetel Ejiofor staring into the camera to convey years going by; what other creative methods have you seen for showing the passage of time?

The Wolf of Wall Street

What I thought:

Expertly made and deeply disconcerting. Designed to elicit strong reactions, and oh, did it ever. Probably the most controversial film of the year. “The film’s humor is so dark it’s black-hole-ish. You get sucked into the manic pace, the cacophony of corruption, and you laugh at these ridiculous boys and their pathetic belief that they can solve their problems by becoming rich…and doing lots and lots of drugs. It’s funny until it’s not.” And then there’s this:

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

What to talk about: 

  • If Jordan Belfort sees women as objects, does the camera have to, too?
  • You’re Belfort’s judge: What justice do you deliver?
  • Who else uses music and sound as effectively as Scorcese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker do?
  • Would you rather watch Leo playing the hero, or Leo playing the villain, or Leo playing the hero-villain?
  • Do you prefer films to try to answer a question or pose a question?
  • You all of a sudden have stupid, Belfortian amounts of money; what do you do with it?

What Oscar conversations have you been having?

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Sarah Magill

Sarah Magill has a full-time movie habit made possible by a day-time greeting card writing gig. She blogs at Gimme Some Film and is learning to write scripts and direct. She tries to balance her screen obsession with trail running, jazz singing, book clubbing, and hanging out with The Best Golden Retriever Ever, Copa.

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Comments

  1. Jasph — February 22, 2014 @ 4:26 pm (#)

    Superb piece, Sarah. And those .gifs kick ass.

    I’d like to offer one question a little more obvious than the fun, thoughtful ones you’ve posed: What films from 2013 deserve awards but aren’t in the running?

    And to your excellent Scorcese and Schoonmaker question:

    Coppola and Murch (but really, anybody and Murch)
    Aronofsy and Rabinowitz
    Gilroy and Gilroy
    Cuarón y (lo mismo) Cuarón

    What real editors do is beyond anything people with no experience of watching them work can fully understand. Clumsy sentence, but you know what I mean.

    • sarah — March 8, 2014 @ 4:49 pm (#)

      I LOVE this director/editor list! Although you wouldn’t know it from how long I took in replying to your comment. Murch edited a doc I just saw at True/False — Particle Fever. Not my favorite of the fest, but interesting, none the less.

      As for your question about what should have been on the Oscar list…Hmmmm…I loved To the Wonder, and Malick never gets enough Academy love. I also thought The Place Beyond the Pines was underrated; might have liked Bradley Cooper’s performance in that even better than in American Hustle. And Jeff Nichols’s Mud was magic. (McConaughey had a great year, no?) Controversial pick: Don Jon. Funny, smart, and really well-crafted. What do you think?

  2. Bess — February 23, 2014 @ 9:10 am (#)

    I really, really like your blog and don’t read it often enough. Must bookmark. Thanks for helping me look at and think about movies in a way I never would have before.

    • sarah — March 8, 2014 @ 4:42 pm (#)

      Thank you so much! Sorry to take so long in replying — bad blogger move. You know I love talking about movies with you; you also help me see things in a new way!