These days, you tend to see the same old Oscar ballot featurettes from every critic, pseudo-critic and sentient being with a keyboard, so I'm going to try something different this year. Below, I've taken each of 2013's strongest awards contenders and recommended a comparable, must-see film from the past that you may have missed. It's the demented movie fan's equivalent of the "recommended reading" page you find in the back of books, and one of my favorite winter activities. In other words, welcome to a productive adult's worst nightmare.
If you liked....
• AMERICAN HUSTLE (or "David O. Russell Can't Miss")
The Fighter. Silver Linings Playbook. American Hustle. If we were playing NBA Jam (one can dream), this dude would now officially be "on fire." Making three great movies in a row shouldn't be taken for granted. And yet, it's hard to feel over-the-moon about something when you've seen it done better, at least for me. Tough to like Gangster Squad if you've ever seen L.A. Confidential; tough to delight in the idea of "horcruxes" if you've read Tolkien; and tough to listen to somebody--anybody really--cover a Van Morrison song. But that doesn't make homages un-compelling.
Enter American Hustle, Russell's best Scorsese imitation. But it wasn't quite...well...Scorsese; and if we're being honest, neither was it necessarily the best of Russell, who's true calling has been the intimate-working-class-town character portraits in Fighter, Silver Linings, and even Three Kings...not to mention one signature camera move--the uber-dope, patented swift zoom-out seen here at 2:44 and here at 1:10.
But let's give the man this: plenty of great filmmakers have dressed up as other writer-directors and made mediocre movies--see, e.g. Spielberg pulling a Kubrick in AI (there were no survivors, not even Haley Joel Osmont), Oliver Stone feeling Tarantino-y in Savages (ugh), and even Scorsese himself going strangely noir in Shutter Island. And obviously Hustle was zip codes from being a failure; the thing may even win Best Picture! I'm just saying...this is an entertaining Van Morrison cover, and I wouldn't be surprised if it eventually becomes the least-celebrated of Russell's aforementioned trio. So...
The Marty tropes Russell borrowed are all there: long tracking shots; alternating voice-over narration between the leads; pop soundtrack; even the con-artist romantic leads who may be conning each other as partners-in-crime, all while the guilt from rationalizing bad behavior piles up. If that's what you crave, then do yourself a favor and go see the master.
Highlights: Where to begin...Sharon Stone's best performance, one she deserved hardware for; Joe Pesci's brilliant reprisal of his role as Joe Pesci; and the immortal "Now you're gonna have to learn with your left hand" scene:
• GRAVITY (or "I Wish They'd Handed out an Advil with the 3D Glasses")
If 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apollo 13 had a great looking, intellectually unremarkable love child, it would be Gravity--winner of this Oscar season's honorary Avatar/Life of Pi nomination for "Best Technical Masterpiece Without a Real Script." (If you think I can't keep this level of pretentious snobbery up, you're mistaken.) Three things went through my head while watching the movie: 1) Sandra Bullock had the same look of consternation on her face on the bus in Speed; 2) I feel a little bit nauseous; and 3) I hope this doesn't become a lot nauseous.
But mainstream love is way overdue for director Alfonso Cuaron, and if you share my fatigue of the modern trend toward staccatoed, millisecond camera-cut editing imported from music videos, meet your Grand Buddha. You can go out for a slice of pizza during a Cuaron film and return during the same patient, exquisite camera shot (example: opening of Gravity). He is very much, in this respect, a child of Kubrick; and to compare the spectacle of Gravity to other films without citing the famous "Blue Danube" sequence from 2001 would be, as Stephen A. Smith would put it, malpractice "of the highest. ORDER. But this is a recommendation, not film school, so...
... see CHILDREN OF MEN.
Cuaron's masterpiece is a tale of dystopia that paints as haunting a vision of our overpopulated future as anything I've seen. Ironically, it may end up being remembered as Gravity's planetary bookend--a portrait of a polluted, sterile earth so unsustainable that it drove Alfonso into the heavens along with Danny Ocean. Chidren is ultimately about the human race's last chance at fertility--and Gravity fans should recognize the Cuaronian obsession with birth/maternity imagery throughout the movie. His characters always seem to find their salvation while emerging from womb-like chambers and birth canal-shaped chutes (thankfully, the cinematography in Children's climax is a bit more subtle than the fetus shape he curled poor Sandra Bullock into, with the umbilical space wires framing her against the capsule door). Highlights: Clive Owen at his best; disturbingly real production design for civilization's near-future; and camera-work that makes Janusz Kaminski look like a kiddie with an iPhone. (If you can think of a cooler shot than this one, I'd love to see it).
• DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (or "Somebody Get Matty M a Sandwich!")
Uh...how did Matthew McConaughey go from the fellow in Failure to Launch to a guy who easily could have been nominated three times this year? What is he eating? Now he's taking over HBO in True Detective!? The man is having one of those runs where you just look out past the three-point line, hands on hips, waiting for the string of trey-bombs to stop flicking the bottom of the net. He's unconscious. He's Stephon Curry. The only question is whether this is the start of a period of sustained inspiration that puts him with the big boys--Christian, Leo, Russell, Denzel (Daniel Day exists in a separate ecosystem with Mozart and the Beatles) ...or a comet streaking across the sky...
When I saw Dallas Buyers Club, I couldn't help but think of another movie star in the midst of his career--an actor also known, at the time, mostly for lighter fare--who lit up the Academy with an emotionally wrenching portrayal of a dying Aids patient: Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. If you haven't seen the film, it's a chilling performance that sparked one of the more preposterous five-year hot-streaks you'll find in cinema (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Toy Story [boom!], Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile).
I compare the two movies not because all Aids films are the same (Rent....no thank you), but because watching a terminally ill character fight the seemingly pointless fight, pound for pound, is unique, and even if I don't support the "he lost half his body-weight, give him a statue" line of thinking, characters are created by physical and emotional impressions; and these are monumental ones.
The two performances are different. Hanks's lawyer Andrew Beckett is rational and kind; McConaughey's bull rider is fiery and bigoted. Beckett battles prejudice in the courts, while Woodruff takes on the institutional inertia of big pharma. But for anyone moved by Dallas Buyers Club, Philadelphia is a must.
Highlights: Denzel in one of his best, most understated roles; and the swaggest "you've been served" scene in the history of movies.
Speaking of Thomas Jeffrey Hanks...
• CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (or "Runaway Winner for Best-Cast Somali Pirate")
From a pure thriller standpoint, what's better than the words "I am the captain, now." I don't care what kind of vehicle we're talking about--ship, submarine, banana boat, inner tube...if you tell me there's a hijacking or mutiny at sea involved, I'm inclined to pay twelve dollars to go watch it take place in a theater.
Phillips was even better than I expected, and most of the credit goes to director Paul Greengrass, who now has a duopoly going with Kathryn Bigelow over the "movies ending with a Seal Team 6 execution" market. These two will make you perspire.
There's such an honored pantheon of great transportation debacle films that it's hard to recommend just one. The teenager in me would love nothing more than to usher you towards Air Force One, though I confess that, with each passing year of adulthood, President James Marshall's mid-air heroics become a shade less sweet. Not to be forgotten, though, is that 1) it inspired today's lucrative and not super-critically acclaimed Crazy Presidential Takeover genre (White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen, Eagle is Jamie Foxx in Spectacles), which is beginning to make Harrison Ford vs. Goons of General Radik seem totally plausible; and 2) it featured Gary Oldman sporting one of the more righteous Russian separatist accents.)
Still, a Captain Phillips admirer would probably prefer something more realistic. United 93 is admittedly powerful (and from Greengrass himself), but it can be almost too accurate, even thirteen years after 9/11. So let's settle on something in the middle.
...see CRIMSON TIDE. It's a mutiny film, not a hijacking--but it takes place at sea, has not one, but THREE "I am the Captain now!" moments, and is probably Tony Scott's best adrenaline-pumper, among Tony Scott's many, many, many adrenaline pumpers.
Highlights: Gene Hackman menacingly smoking cigars like nobody can; Gene Hackman shouting abruptly like nobody can; the best Jack Rusell terrier performance, outside of The Mask; and, finally, who knew Tony Soprano and Aragorn grew up on a submarine??
• 12 YEARS A SLAVE (or "We Need to Plan Something Fun After This Tonight")
Prior to seeing 12 Years a Slave, if you'd forced me to think of movies about slavery, my thoughts would probably have turned to Spielberg's Amistad--in particular, that memorable, up-angled night shot of Cinque turning the wheel on the slave ship, with the constellations of stars spinning above his frame. It's a heart-breaking movie that makes you see our country's original sin is a new way; and so does 12 Years a Slave--but the two films actually have very little in common. (Amistad is sweeping in scope, and almost too ambitious; whereas 12 Years is intimate, focused, and near perfect.)
...see THE PIANIST.
12 Years actually reminded me more of a different movie about an affluent, classically trained musician who suddenly has his life snatched away; is forced to live like an animal and scrounge to survive the historical atrocities around him; but finds kindness from an unexpected person, and finally returns to his former life: Roman Polanski's The Pianist. It should come as little surprise that the movie is no picnic, but Polanski is one of the best behind a camera, whatever his weird, personal failings; and Adrien Brody won an Oscar for his performance of a Polish Jew in the 1940s who goes from celebrity-to-hunted by the occupying Germans. Must-see.
Highlights: Being alone onscreen for the majority of a movie is no easy feat, and doing it without talking to a painted volleyball is even harder; but that's what Brody manages here. And that's how a man gets a statue and a public make-out session with Halle Berry. Richly deserved.
Three other contenders/snubs/honorable mentions from 2013...
If you liked...
• PRISONERS (or "The One That Didn't Creep You Out at All...")
How did this movie get totally ignored by everyone except XFinity OnDemand? Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhall have never been better than they are in this psychological thriller about the parents of two abducted children (bonus...it's fun for the whole family).
...see SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Then, go to therapy.
• WOLF OF WALL STREET (or "Tuesday for Leonardo DiCaprio")
It must be nice to have your tenth-best film nominated for Best Picture. Martin Scorsese is now in his 70s and there's still nobody that guarantees more fun per screening. On a related note, can somebody please give Leo a statue? He's been robbed four times now. Must the man start dropping half his body weight for roles? Must he?!
...see BLOW. This actually felt like less like a Wall Street or Boiler Room-type finance movie, and more along the lines of the very underrated, Johnny Depp drug-crime saga. But a warning from one of my best friends: if you pine for Penelope Cruz to an unhealthy extent--who doesn't?--and want to preserve said unhealthy pining, maybe skip this one. She's tremendous, but somehow diminished by the time credits role (things get real).
• HER (or "Single Nerds Living in Silicon Valley's Movie of the Year!")
This is the only film on this list so original that it really lacks an easy precedent or comparison; and for that reason and others, I thought Spike Jonze's tale of man-on-computer romance was the best movie of the year. Judge me if you will, but I'd say falling in love with a computer is less weird than falling in love with a Joaquin. That said, how Phoenix didn't get a nomination is beyond me--they should literally open an investigation at Hague.
...see LOST IN TRANSLATION
Again, Her is one-of-a-kind in my book; but it's fitting that one non-traditional love story reminds me of another. Some similarities between it and Sofia Coppola's delightful film: 1) the whimsical impossibility of the romantic attachment that forms--in Lost, despite a difference in age, in Her, despite a difference in...species; 2) the totally bizarre and un-Hollywood romance that can't be consummated; 3) the eastern-futuristic setting (Lost in Translation takes place in the neon lights of Tokyo; Her is set in near-future L.A., played by the real-life Hong Kong); 4) Scarlett Johansson's sweet dulcet tones; and lastly, and I only just now realized this, 5) the two writer-directors, Jonze and Coppola used to be married.
If you liked Her, Lost in Translation is equally brilliant, and as an added bonus, features Scarlett Johansson's human form.
• LONE SURVIVOR (or "Uh...Spoiler Alert: The Title is Lone Survivor")
In a different year with different swirling eddies of arbitrary, Hollywood politicking, this would have been embraced as an awards contender the way Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty have been the last few years. You could well make the case for Lone Survivor as about as good a war movie as we've seen since Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. I wouldn't make that case, but I also wouldn't snicker and mumble something under my breath if you were to.
...see BLACK HAWK DOWN. Another one of those films that never got the credit it deserved. Its greatest achievement: Squeezing passable performances out of 'Worst Actor of His Generation' Finalists Josh Hartnett and Orlando Bloom.
• FROZEN (or "The One Where You Shush-ed a Group of 5 and 6 Year Olds in the Row Behind You and then Felt Ashamed")
First, the praise: this was the best animated movie not made by Pixar since Shrek. Still, let's not get carried away and compare it the movies of Disney's early 90s Golden Age, like some critics have (these folks must have been drunk at the keyboard, plain and simple...the Little Mermaid-Beauty And the Beast-Aladdin-Lion King run will never be equaled again. It was the Rubber Soul-Revolver-Sgt. Pepper's-White Album of kid's movie windows). Let's say this though for Frozen: for the first time this century, the Mouse studio put most of the pieces back together: the animation was pristine; the storyline compelling (heroines are more interesting; they want moooooorrrrreeeeeeeeee); and we can forgive them for no longer employing Alan Menken The Great and his tunes.
...see BRAVE. It's not as good, but they're damned similar. Not Deep Impact/Armageddon similar, but similar.