The Oscar nominations have been made and I'm not ready to make my picks just yet. See, one of the boundaries we put on Meet Me at the Movies is that we try to limit ourselves to films that are playing locally. One of the downsides of that is that our local Carmike, although it has ten screens (which isn't bad at all for a town of 21,000), limits itself to movies that will pack 'em in and often, those aren't the Best Picture nominees. It's a smart business decision - despite rising ticket prices, theaters make their money on concessions, not tickets. Remember that they have to pay to get the movies to show, so it makes an odd sort of sense that A Madea Christmas has been playing for weeks, but we haven't gotten most of the picks for Best Picture.
Let me put it another way. Hollywood worships money and money often comes from big, loud, bangbangbang movies. (See Exhibit 1 - Michael Bay.) Yet Hollywood wants to think that it spends its time Making Art, so studios have offshoot production companies that make and market the smaller, more thoughtful or quirky "prestige pictures" that crop up during awards season and cause many Americans to say, "Huh? Never even heard of that one." In my case, it's often, "I heard of that one, but I haven't had a chance to see it unless I want to drive an hour." It'd be nice if companies like Carmike would throw me a bone and run the nominees on even a single screen in a marathon weekend session, but, to be fair, that's gonna cost them money, so I'm not holding my breath. And Meet Me at the Movies isn't a large enough show to bring us to the attention of the studios, so we're not getting advance screening copies. Yet.
So I left town.
Johnson City, TN, where Ensley is finishing graduate school, is large enough that most prestige pictures get at least a short run here. Now that the Oscar nominations are out, a few are on their second pass through. So we mapped things out and, over two days, we hit three of the Best Picture contenders that we hadn't seen. I still haven't seen them all, so I'm not ready yet to make my picks, but I'm closer than I was a week ago. (Not that the Academy always gets it right. I'm looking at you, Shakespeare in Love, who inexplicably won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan.)
First up was Dallas Buyers Club. This movie took years - like 20 of them - to see the light of day. Based on true events (I'm always suspicious of that, and you can fact-check a few things for yourself), Buyers Club uses the real-life character of Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey) to remind us of just how scary things were at the start of the AIDS epidemic which was only 30 years ago. From Modern Family on TV to laws viewing gay marriage as, well, marriage, the tide is turning, despite the last gasp of the hidebound and frightened among us, and it's easy to forget the raw fear and loathing that came with the first reports of AIDS. Hatred and vitriol spewed forth and a medical condition was seen as irrefutable proof of God's Holy Wrath. Kept out of clinical trials for AZT, one of the first drugs to show promise in treating AIDS, Woodroof used the skills he'd developed as a small-time scammer to get drugs to sick people. Buyers Club says some powerful things about Big Pharma, regulations v. common sense, and, at its heart, the film delivers a knock-you-down message of compassion. Woodroof is looking out for himself, sure - but he also finds himself connected to other people for the first time in just about forever. Matthew McConaughey uses the swagger and bluster that he's often utilized in roles to a deeper effect here, and Jared Leto as "Rayon" well deserves his Oscar nod as well. A great film, well worth the watching - but it can wait for DVD, as it might be a little hard to find.
Next was the Spike Jonze slightly sci-fi effort Her. I liked this movie, but didn't quite love it, and that puts me on the outside of most critics. That's okay. I want to stress - Her is a wonderful effort and Joaquin Phoenix richly deserves his nomination, since he spends much of the movie acting against nothing. Her explores questions about relationships and it does that very, very well. Theodore is at the end of his divorce from his wife and lives very much alone. He upgrades his computer operating system to a system that is marketed to be specifically designed just for him and one thing leads to another until he is deeply involved with this OS, who names herself Samantha. I think the problem for me was that Phoenix's character Theodore shows so much awareness of the subtle signals people give off, as well as spending his life communicating for people who can't communicate for themselves that I didn't quite buy (almost, but not quite) his block-headedness regarding his own relationships. Maybe it's a case of "physician, heal thyself" but I never quite got over that. Also, there's a nasty power imbalance here - Theo can access Samantha whenever he wants; Samantha does not have that same freedom. That also means that, at any time, Theo could simply turn Samantha off with no consequences - she's just a machine. Or is she? Her asks some very interesting questions and it's worth watching, but I'm one of the few who will tell you to wait for the DVD.
Last was the Steve McQueen (British, not the "King of Cool" who died in 1980) directed 12 Years a Slave. Oh, my dear and holy God. Run - do not walk - to see this movie! Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (learn the name; you'll hear it Oscar night) as Solomon Northup, who was a free black man living in New York and making a fine living as a musician until he was tricked into traveling to Washington, where he was drugged and sold into slavery. America has never been comfortable with this part of our history and 12 Years will make you squirm. Good. Slavery is a despicable system and much of the South's economy was built upon it. 12 Years points out that the economy didn't just rely on field labor, but also on the production and selling of human flesh. When you permit people to be treated as property, nothing good is going to happen. It degrades the slave, of course, but it also degrades the owner, who cannot - under any circumstances - be permitted to consider slaves as human beings deserving of human treatment. To maintain the institution, slaves must be considered non-human. The film does not flinch away from showing the dozens of ways this manifests - humans stripped naked to be displayed for sale in elegant salons, ripping screaming children away from desperate mothers, vicious beatings as punishment for not making harvest quotas (or for simply desiring soap to stay clean after working in the unrelenting sun of the Deep South), people averting their eyes from hangings, too fearful to interfere, wives turning sadistic to punish the unfortunate women who have caught the eye of their husbands . . . it's all in here. It will make many viewers angry and vaguely ashamed. And it deserves to be seen. Ejiofor has such power in his slightest glance that, while I'm still open to changing my mind, honestly - I haven't seen a better, more powerful, and truthful film this year. If you don't see this on the big screen, promise me that you won't pause the playback when you do see it. Don't turn away. Watch. Northup, along with countless others whose names we do not know, deserve at least that.