For much of the year, my husband and I debate whether a movie is worth seeing on a big screen or relegated to Netflix. But our winter holiday tradition is to binge on in-theater movies during the last 10 days of the year. Friends have asked me what I liked, and so here goes.
We believe what we want to believe is a unifying theme of three of the season’s most heralded films. The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s brilliantly executed story of the debauchery and criminality of stock broker Jordan Belfort, a real life stock trader who did time, wrote a book about the excesses of his way of life and is now selling himself as a motivational speaker. He became a multi-millionaire because his victims believed what they wanted to about easy money.
A slice of American life in the ’80’s, Wolf trumpets the themes of greed, materialism, sex, drugs and the objectification of women, not absent in today’s society. Belfort’s victims are never shown in the movie. The audience serves as the proxy target, as Wolf of Wall Street alternately disgusts and seduces, overwhelming with the attraction of easy riches.
Similar values are repeated in David O. Russell’s American Hustle, based loosely on the Abscam scandal of the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. Again, everyone is on the make, and many public figures are on the take. Even an investigator for the FBI, which set up a sting that netted convictions of a dozen federal, state and local politicians, was tempted by the money, sex, drugs and loose lifestyle potentially available to those ambitious enough to chase this corrupted version of the American dream. Most were drawn by belief in the quick buck; some persuaded themselves they were doing it for the good of the community.
Both of these movies are worth seeing in the theater: big budget, big personalities, big themes. That said, the excesses portrayed in both movies are reinforced by their feeling way too long.
By contrast, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska approaches the question of what we choose to believe from a totally different perspective. Masterfully played by an aging Bruce Dern, Woody Grant (think Grant Wood and the painting American Gothic) gets a letter from a company informing him he may have won $1 million. He refuses to believe his son and wife that it’s just a magazine marketing ploy, and he insists on leaving his home in Billings, Montana and claiming his million in person in Lincoln, Nebraska, because he doesn’t trust the U.S. Mail. One of his two sons agrees to take him on this fool’s mission, and the movie unpeels layers of their relationship and extended family history. In the end, the history is less fact than what people choose to believe about their life experiences, and their small triumphs in pursuit of their dreams.
The movie is small scale, under two hours, shot in black and white, and is one of the finest movies I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t imagine why Bruce Dern shouldn’t receive an Oscar for this moving and meaningful performance. It could be a video choice, but it’s too good to wait for.
Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ recent film, is also worth paying theater prices for, though, if you’re not a rabid Coen brothers fan (which we are), it could also be appreciated as a video. It captures, in cinematography and sound, the early 1960’s folk scene in New York’s Greenwich Village, just before the music achieved breakout status. Davis is a socially-challenged, soulful individual who can voice his interior self only through his music, though his relationship with a cat gives a peek at his humanity. His struggles making a go of it tend to be painful, especially as he resists settling for less than his artistic goals. As in all their films, the Coen brothers lace the pain with humor, making Inside Llewyn Davis a rich and enjoyable cinematic experience.
Twelve Years a Slave was well timed for consideration in awards voting, including the Golden Globe Awards, and it captured numerous nominations. I found it a good movie, with excellent acting, especially by lead roles Chiwetel Ejiofor ( who plays the formerly free but abducted African-American Solomon Northup) and Michael Fassbender, who plays his sadistic taskmaster nemesis. It’s a story better told than many previous slavery sagas, but this movie, too, could have been shortened through better editing. Notwithstanding the powerful subject matter, it got a little draggy and so, from my perspective, warrants a judgment of good but not great.
Haven’t yet seen Philomena, which may be consigned to video status. Missed Gravity, The Book Thief and Redford’s All is Lost.
I’m looking forward to the release-delayed August: Osage County, which was to have been our Christmas morning choice. We hope that playwright Tracey Letts’ reworking of his play, which we greatly admired on Broadway, will translate well on the big screen. From the trailers, it looks like its powerhouse cast could take the story to even greater heights.
Let me know what your recommendations are in the comments section below.