Against last year’s spectacular line-up, this year’s best picture hopefuls are hopelessly mediocre. This year’s films are largely “true stories” and “Americanized”. 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips, and Philomena are all true stories. All of the above except Philomena are unapologetically American. 12 Years a Slave begins with a treacherous period of Americans history. It makes the point but no more effectively than any other film on slavery, and has less artistic quality than Tarantino’s Django (2012). American Hustle, set in the slimy late 1970s, tells of fallible con-men messing with gangsters. Dallas Buyers Club, set in the early days of the AIDS epidemic (1980s), smuggles drugs from Mexico to give himself a fighting chance. The Wolf of Wall Street, set in the high-flying 1990’s, shows the morally loose lifestyles of finance fraudsters. Most recent is Captain Phillips, a patriotic story of how SEALs rescued a cargo ship taken over by Somalian pirates. Gravity is thankfully not a true story. It is a triumph of special effects and cinematography, but is not much more than a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. Indeed, one of the nominations bears the name of a U.S. state. Nebraska tells of a man who believes he’s won the lottery. The Academy Awards have often been criticized of its geographic fixation. But these are also the awards that have, in the past, given top prize to Slumdog Millionaire and the Kings’ Speech. Indeed, last year, the nominees included a French film, a film set in France, and two films set nowhere at all.
The Academy has also favoured films about true stories. Argo, of course was a true story – and so were Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty. But those films will able to outstep the confines of storytelling and create complicated messages and complicated feelings. Against those, the films this year seem to only have one unambiguous message: terrible or crazy things happened the in past. Aside from those two main themes, this year’s line up in general fails to be novel. They discuss or present overly-discussed issues like homosexuality (Dallas, Philomena), con-men (Hustle, Wolf), Catholic indecency (Philomena), self-sacrifice (Gravity, Slave). Some casting decisions are impressive (Jennifer Lawrence in Hustle), and some are too predictable (Clooney in Gravity, Pitt in Slave).
Finally, there seems to be an affixation this year with comedies. Many films present serious matters from a humour angle (as Django did). But only one film is the comedy used to expose truth. “Her” is un-American and not based on a true story, and is the only essential film of the nine. It explores the human emotion of love with no pre-conceived notions and is non-judgmental. In a futuristic world, where mustaches and high-waisted pants are in, humans date artificially intelligent beings without a body. In one case, surrogate partners are used to give the artificially intelligent beings a physical quality. Despite these progressive and potentially offensive arrangements, the quality of the film is to keep viewers from making fundamental judgements of acceptability, and instead keeps viewers focused on the point – that love is more mental than physical (the message is more complicated but that was my main take-away). Despite the inherent comedic quality of the film, it still manages to instill tremendous feeling of grief, anger, joy and so on. So my pick for best picture is without a doubt “Her”. It’s a such a shame it won’t win, for whatever reason.