Slaves, pirates, conmen and astronauts gather onto the screen at this year’s BAFTA Awards
Leonardo DiCaprio has never been in a bad movie. Fact. (Some would say it’s just an opinion, but that’s just their opinion.) Yet Leo has never won a Best Actor BAFTA award – or an Oscar, for that matter – and he’s been snubbed again for his latest vehicle, Wolf of Wall Street, which is not one of the five movies nominated for Best Film this year. I gather that a number of critics were offended by the supposed glamorisation of the hedonistic behaviour portrayed, but I can’t think of three hours better spent than witnessing the surrealism of dwarf-throwing contests, the delectable Margot Robbie, and Matthew McConaughey just being downright cool, as per usual.
McConaughey’s Dallas Buyers Club is also absent from the list, as is the Spike Jonze-directed and Joaquin Phoenix-moustachioed Her, which has garnered positive reviews despite the fact that the only part of Scarlett Johansson in the flick is her voice. The Coen Brothers’ tribute to the folk scene, Inside Llewyn Davis, was shunned as well, perhaps because it was too strange to hear Justin Timberlake singing without a customary rap solo from Jay Z.
Like DiCaprio, Tom Hanks is one of the few Hollywood mainstays who consistently appears in movies of high quality, as demonstrated in one of the five lucky ones, Captain Phillips. While Al Pacino has killed all self respect since singing a number called “Dunkaccino” opposite Adam Sandler, 50-something Hanks can still get stuck into a meaty lead role like that of Richard Phillips with the same gusto as he brought to Andrew Beckett and Forrest Gump.
One of the things that still sticks in my mind is the on-the-edge-of-your-seatness of the whole picture. Captain Phillips was more like a summer blockbuster than an awards-season film, given the action, suspense and hero-and-villain dynamic, yet the strong performances thoroughly warrant the praise. Barkhad Abdi shines in his first role as the “chief” Somali pirate, while Hanks has picked up another Best Actor nomination. Some reviewers even suggested that his performance in the anti-climactic scene after the rescue was some of his best acting ever. Incidentally, Hanks pleased audiences twice this year, also appearing as Walt Disney in the Disney self-promotion vehicle Saving Mr. Banks, which is worth a watch too.
American Hustle could have easily been a summer movie, with its all-star cast, a thriller-like plot and the injection of comedy, mainly through Louis C.K. playing his usual beaten-down, bullied wreck. The only problem was… it wasn’t very good. The plot was a bit too done-before (conmen conning and then ending up conned) and at times unnecessarily complex. But then, who am I to argue with 93 per cent of Rotten Tomatoes?
There’s certainly been a lot of hype about Jennifer Lawrence in recent times, probably owing to her endearing bluntness and humility in interviews – and I have to say, the woman can act. She lit up her role here as the cast-aside housewife with more than a few screws loose, with special mentions to the “science oven” scene (spoiler alert: foil in microwave = fire).
American Hustle isn’t a bad movie by any means, just disappointing after David O. Russell’s superior past outings, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. At least it’s one of only a few movies that rhymes with the name of its director. (I thought of only one more: Manhattan, Woody Allen. Any others?)
Of course, this is the British Academy, meaning there needs to be some homegrown talent represented. Philomena – or “Philo-mania”, as DiCaprio pronounced it at the Golden Globes, making it sound more like a movie about a puff pastry convention – does a lot more than tick the British box. The story is heartfelt and bittersweet, but never collapses into pure schmaltz for schmaltz’s sake.
Judi Dench injects humility into the title character and portrays a woman led by her faith and pleased by the small things in life. Steve Coogan playing the more street-smart journalist, Martin Sixsmith, provides a foil for the naivety. In a “wait-Ben-Affleck-directed-Argo?” kind of moment, I discovered that Coogan co-wrote the script and, like Affleck, it seems the comedian may have found a second calling – perhaps something to focus on when not working on the ever-fun Alan Partridge or playing a tiny Roman warrior in the Night at the Museum franchise.
12 Years a Slave is another flick based on a true story, and this time, you wholeheartedly wish it weren’t true. It follows the suffering endured by Solomon Northrup, a freeman who is deceived, captured and sold to slave traders in the South, and is then dealt the horrendous fortune of ending up a slave on the cotton plantation of “owner” Edwin Epps. Chiwetel Ejiofor is wonderful as Northrup, as is Michael Fassbender as the evil and immediately detestable Epps. Two Pauls, Giamatti and Dano, are just as abhorrent as a trader and slave-overseer respectively. Lupita Nyong’o makes her screen debut as the wretched Patsey, bringing to life the slave-girl’s torturous existence as Epps’ sexual victim.
From the very moment Northrup is captured, the viewing experience is a harrowing one. The Steve McQueen-directed and Brad Pitt-produced picture induces nausea in audiences right from the second the captured protagonist awakens in chains, only to be beaten bloodily with paddles.
The emotion does not ease up; Dano’s repulsive chant of “Run, n****r run, well the pattyroller will get you / Run n****r run, well you better get away” sticks in your mind even after the closing credits.
The distress caused by watching the film is, of course, the point. People were rendered speechless as they left the cinema. I felt troubled that despite Northrup’s reunion with his family, Patsey, along with all the other thousands of slaves across the US, was still left to suffer the brutality, but this time all alone.
Another that may take the prize is Gravity, which leads with 11 BAFTA nominations. I’m torn about this one. Sandra Bullock ditches her usual uptight-cop comedy act to play an astronaut on her first spaceflight. We know she can do drama – she was exceptional in The Blind Side – but the question is whether she’s given enough meat to work with here. The storyline is predictable, so whether Bullock takes the Best Actress BAFTA remains to be seen.
Regardless of the vapidity of the plot, the visuals in Gravity are unquestionably stunning. In IMAX 3D, especially, I could feel the dizziness and fear of being in such an expansive, dark and unknown territory. In one scene, for instance, tears would stick to the camera screen and in those tears you could make out Bullock’s reflection.
I’m not counting out the others, but I think it’s between Gravity and 12 Years. It’s time a movie that realistically depicts the horrors of slavery wins some recognition. While Lincoln (2013) told the glorified story of Honest Abe during the Civil War, the practice of slavery itself was completely ignored. And Django Unchained (2012) concentrated on typical Tarantino themes: gunfights, blood, Christoph Waltz and more blood. This year, 12 Years had the bravery to cut the crap and show the true savagery within this shameful past, doing so with fine acting and masterful direction. And while Gravity won’t look so good on DVD, 12 Years is one for the ages.
BAFTAs: you may never have rewarded Leo, but with this selection, do the right thing.
With thanks to Stratford East Picturehouse: http://www.picturehouses.co.uk/cinema/Stratford_London/.
The BAFTA Awards will be aired on BBC One on 16 February 2014 at 9pm.
Image from: http://img2-3.timeinc.net/ew/i/2013/11/07/Lupita-Nyong-o.jpg
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