The Oscar nominations: Our critics' views of the nine best-picture contenders

January 16, 2014

American Hustle


The true-ish script of American Hustle, by director David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer, is based on the Abscam scandal of the late seventies and early eighties, when a dubiously zealous FBI sting operation brought down politicians from the municipal level to the U.S. Senate, using a convicted con man and an agent disguised as a rich Arab sheik. Russell is less interested in crime and punishment than in individuals, and especially in actors – particularly when they're working at warp speed. Christian Bale, who starved himself for The Fighter, has packed on pounds here, bulging in his colourful disco-era suits as he slumps through his role as hustler Irving Rosenfeld with an uncharacteristic vulnerability. Amy Adams plays his partner, Sydney, a grifter who assumes the persona of an English aristocrat, a pose jarringly at odds with dresses that advertise her earlier career as a stripper. Bradley Cooper plays manic FBI agent Richie DiMaso, his hair permed tightly as though he's trying to keep his lid screwed on. But it's Jennifer Lawrence as Irving's high-strung wife Rosalyn – a mash-up of Carole Lombard, Lady Macbeth and maybe even Regan from The Exorcist – who is by far the most hair-raising phenomenon in a movie bristling with high hair. 14A (Dec. 20) Liam Lacey

Captain Phillips


Based on a 2009 incident when Somali pirates hijacked an American cargo ship, Captain Phillips is a hyper-tense abduction thriller from director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, United 93) starring Tom Hanks as the terse, professional captain who has one devastating scene near the film's end. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi also makes a strong impression as the leader of the four-man Somali crew that boarded the ship with automatic weapons and took control. Greengrass's talent for choreographing chaos with his jumpy handheld camera and abrupt edits works particularly well here to convey the sense of barely controlled panic. And unlike such movies as Zero Dark Thirty or Argo, this is not an us-versus-them story so much as a tale of frailty and survival. 14A (Oct. 10) L.L.

Dallas Buyers Club


Matthew McConaughey acts up a storm in Dallas Buyers Club. Surly and self-assured behind almost unrecognizably elongated features, he fully inhabits the character of Ron Woodruff, an electrician unexpectedly diagnosed with AIDS in Reagan-era Texas. Jean-Marc Vallée's film has its flaws, starting with its decision to dramatize a dark moment in the history of America's homosexual subculture through the experiences of a straight and virulently homophobic antihero. But it's also a slyer and more sophisticated movie than its critics might claim, starting with the fact that Ron's ultimately lucrative alliance peddling unapproved, illegally imported HIV medication with AIDS-positive transgendered woman Rayon (Jared Leto) is forged not out of empathy but a shared contempt for rules and regulations. A born scam artist, Ron becomes a heroic figure not in spite of his reckless sketchiness but because of it. Vallée may be French Canadian, but his film shows an uncanny understanding of all-American hustle. (14A) Adam Nayman



Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut and medical engineer who becomes stranded in space when the space shuttle is irreparably damaged by debris, and, with the help of another veteran (George Clooney) negotiates through a series of slim chances to get back to Earth. Director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) uses new technology beautifully to immerse us into their world, both terrifying and beautiful, for the most physically immediate movie experience of the year. PG (Oct. 4) L.L.



Spike Jonze's cooly crafted Her is a lonely-guy movie in a velvety, seductive sci-fi package. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), divorced and loveless, lives alone and ghost-writes handwritten letters for a living. Then he falls in love with his cellphone, or, rather, its new artificial-intelligence operating system, named Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Phoenix, for long scenes, is onscreen by himself, lost in his thoughts and those of the operating system, a study in emotionally arrested development. The implication, which you don't need to buy entirely to appreciate the film, is that it's also a modern social condition. 14A (Dec. 18) L.L.



Alexander Payne's Nebraska rides the line between comedy and melancholy better than anything he's done since About Schmidt: A grumpy, alcoholic Korean War vet (an excellent Bruce Dern) and his hang-dog son David (Will Forte) head out on the road after the son agrees to drive his father 850 miles to pick up an improbable million-dollar magazine-publishing prize. This tale of a modern-day Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is shot in a flat black-and-white to suggest a Depression-era view of the American heartland. A detour into a family reunion echoes Preston Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero. Everywhere, there's a sense of a once-vital past hanging over the faded present. PG (Nov. 22) L.L.



English director Stephen Frears more or less hits his stride again in this reality-based story about a cynical British journalist (Steve Coogan) and his efforts to help an elderly Irish woman (Judi Dench) find the child she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years before while an inmate in an Irish home for unwed mothers. This liberal message about the cruelty of sexual shaming – in 1950s Ireland and contemporary America – is served through an often broad, comic odd-couple movie (co-written by Coogan), that succeeds through the nicely layered interplay between the two actors. PG(Nov. 29) L.L.

12 Years a Slave


Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave sets the standards for authenticity in American movies about slavery, which is enough to make it exceptional, but the British artist and director (Hunger, Shame) also offers a work that's original and strange in reconstructing the factual memoir of Solomon Northrup, a freeman kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. The longest stretch of the film sees Solomon in psychological battle with Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an alcoholic, emotionally twisted plantation owner and sexual predator who makes the life of slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) a daily hell. If McQueen's filmmaking – long takes, long, sometimes excruciating scenes – can seem detached, the deeply empathetic, largely unspoken performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon provides the human connection. 14A (Oct. 18) L.L.

The Wolf of Wall Street


Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street is outrageous, an offence against modesty, a shameless celebration of bad conduct – and one of his most alive films in years. Based on the memoir of convicted stock swindler Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the best performance of his career), it's a blistering caricature of the sort of rot that led to the Wall Street crash of 2008, though set a decade before in a much smaller swindle. Also, it's really funny, though at three hours' running time it's an exorbitantly long comedy. Think the mock-epic picaresque novels of Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) or Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy). Or, in more modern terms, Scarface meets Dennis the Menace. Yes, you should be offended, though not at the filmmakers. 18A (Dec. 24) L.L.

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