Top 10 Films of 2013

Getting in just under the wire, we here at The Best Films of Our Lives wanted to be sure to get in our last word on the year in film that was 2013, before tomorrow night’s Oscar ceremony is over and we can all start finally getting excited about how awesome “Interstellar” is going to be.

As with last year, we gave ourselves a little extra time compared to most film critics and bloggers, who put their lists out in late December/early January. As (semi-)average film-goers, it takes a while to catch up with some of the titles we want to be sure to consider. As it happened, even with that extra deliberation, Elaine and I ended up being remarkably in agreement this year – 2 out of our top 3 were the same, including our unanimous choice for the best film of the year. Yes, it’s that good. What do you think, dear readers? After a little extra reflection, where did your year-end list end up?


10. “Don Jon”

“Don Jon” would have gotten much less attention had it not been the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but this little movie about a man so addicted to porn that he cannot find real fulfillment is funny, sweet, and refreshingly simple. Scarlett Johansson, more appropriately cast than ever before, is hilarious as Barbara Sugarman, Jon’s shallow, possessive dream girl, while Julianne Moore, who plays an older woman Jon meets later in the movie, brings a funny frankness to the screen. It is Gordon-Levitt, however, that seems out of place in his own movie, too old and too confident for this coming-of-age story. Jon is a deeply vulnerable and lost young man beneath his bravado and his muscles, but Gordon-Levitt is too smooth, too knowing, and simply a decade too old to play him convincingly.

9. “Frances Ha”

“Sorry I’m so slow, I have trouble leaving places,” says Frances (Greta Gerwig), a 20-something New Yorker who trips when running, turns down a stable job for no good reason, misreads social cues, and can’t seem to leave her college years behind. Yet “Frances Ha” is interested precisely in the stumbling, the pauses, and the uncertainties of this period of life, a whirl of confusion, spontaneity, and possibility. Gerwig carries the film magnificently, at once sweet and irrational, funny and exasperating, full of potential yet unsure of how to realize it. Though director Noah Baumbach’s portrayal of “millennial” New Yorkers is so exaggerated it becomes annoying rather than comical, “Frances Ha” is a vivid, vibrant depiction of one awkward young woman’s search for her place in a world that is actually too awkward for her.

8. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

Most people groaned when they heard “The Hobbit” was split into three movies, but it does give Peter Jackson two extra chances to get it right. In “The Desolation of Smaug,” he mostly did. Capturing the charming, childish spirit of the book, the second installment was a wild, adventurous ride that inspired renewed interest in the peoples and kingdoms of Middle-Earth, delivering places and characters filled with freshness and wonder. From Dwarves riding in barrels to Stephen Fry in an orange wig to Smaug the Dragon, the movie maintained an energetic pace throughout nearly three hours, and set the stage for what will hopefully be an even better finale.

7. “Philomena”

“Philomena” is the simplest movie on this list. It has no flashes and no bangs; it is neither ostentatious nor innovative. It simply has a story to tell, one of a woman searching for the child she was separated from half a century before, a story that it unveils modestly but powerfully. The star of the show is undoubtedly Dame Judi Dench, who, with a quiver of her lip, can convey Philomena’s 50 years of silent suffering, while the rapport between Philomena and her sidekick, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) adds a touching subplot to the search for her son. Where the movie succeeds is in its portrayal of faith and religion, depicting both the folly and power of faith, along with its many divergences and permutations. With its poignant story and its excellent cast, “Philomena” may not be the loudest or the most memorable film of the year, but it is an emotional, enjoyable exercise in storytelling.

6. “The Wind Rises”

“All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” These were allegedly the words that inspired Hayao Miyazaki to make “The Wind Rises,” his animated tribute to the designer of Japanese warplanes during World War II. And that is exactly what Miyazaki does here, showing us that a thing of beauty, regardless of what it is used for, is still a joy forever. Perhaps it is irresponsible or ethically dubious for Jiro to design these killing machines, but to him the airplanes are the stuff of dreams. Maybe it was lost in translation (I saw the dubbed English version), but something—the somewhat stilted dialogue or Jiro’s impenetrable character—kept “The Wind Rises” from being as complete a film as some of Miyazaki’s other efforts. But there are enough moments of delight—from love represented by the flight of a paper airplane to a terrifying earthquake that lifts the earth and its people up by their roots—to make it truly something beautiful.

5. “Her”

This is the loneliest movie I’ve ever seen. From Joaquin Phoenix’s melancholy eyes to his high-waisted pants, from the whiteness of his bed sheets to the sepia-hued memories of his wife, “Her” exudes a loneliness and a desperation that seeps out of the screen and slowly fills the theater. Set in the future, this movie about a man, the oh-so-Dickensian Theodore Twombly, and his romance with his computer’s artificial intelligence system, Samantha, never wallows in its melancholy, hilarious at one moment and romantic at the next. What’s great about it is how completely director Spike Jonze embraces the futuristic world he creates; almost all of the characters accept the plausibility of a human/OS relationship, and while we know it cannot possibly end well for Theodore and Samantha, we are drawn into their relationship. Because after all, which one of us hasn’t sought solace from our computer screen?

4. “Before Midnight”

It’s been almost 20 years since Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) first walked, talked, and fell in love in Vienna’s streets. In our third encounter with their lives, they are no longer the dreamy young people who remake the world with their words, but the film does something even more incredible: it shows us love as it ages. It is perhaps unfair to compare this film to the others on the list, as it works in conjunction with its two predecessors, but even without them, “Before Midnight” is a graceful, intelligent meditation on love, life, and time, as it comes to all of us.

3. “12 Years A Slave”

Though the film’s title, “12 Years A Slave”, leads us to believe that it is about Solomon Northup’s enslavement, the film is as much about what he sees as it is about him. At various moments in Steve McQueen’s film, the camera hones in on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s eyes of infinite sadness as he watches the unspeakable unfold before him, at once helpless and complicit. At some point while watching the movie, we forget that it is a movie and become witnesses ourselves. McQueen is not interested in pointing fingers or exacting revenge, but simply shows us the institution that was the scourge of our nation and continues to be our shame, his work serving as a rebuke of last year’s fantasy bloodbath, “Django Unchained.” With its beautiful cinematography and stellar performances from Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, and Sarah Paulson, “12 Years A Slave” is one of the most excruciating cinematic experiences, but also one of the best.

2. “The Square”

There is a moment in “The Square,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about the Egyptian revolution, when the camera pans over a surface, weirdly beautiful, purple and patterned like an exquisite tile. And then the camera zooms out, and we realize that it’s a human back, the back of a young man who has just been tortured by the Egyptian army. Jehane Noujaim’s documentary is not only the most important film of the year, a year when protests rocked the world and overthrew governments, but a beautiful one, capturing the difficulty and the complexity of such movements, the energy and the frustration of people who want democracy but are somehow always thwarted in their quest. Born of the square from which it takes its name, this powerful documentary hopes for the best for Egypt, and for the sake of all of those lives we meet for 108 minutes, and the lives of those protesting in squares around the world, I hope it’s right.

1. “Stories We Tell”

It was impossible to compare this movie with “The Square.” One is an intensely personal, meticulously crafted piece, while the other a documentation of a mass populist movement still taking place. That being said, Sarah Polley’s exploration of her mother’s life and secrets is an incredible composition about memory, the act of remembering, storytelling, and, at base, the act of living. Reconstructing an ordinary life from the testimonies of her friends and family, Polley’s film is so personal, so human that it’s almost impossible to talk about it without drawing from your own experiences. She introduces us to her family so casually that we feel like a part of it, and she exposes the threads and the choices that make up a person’s life so clearly that it’s hard to look away, and even harder not to draw parallels with our own.

The film opens with a quote by Margaret Atwood: “When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all but rather a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness… It isn’t afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you’re telling it to yourself or someone else.” There’s a reason Polley calls the film “Stories We Tell,” because we all tell stories of our lives, rendering our choices into a narrative that makes sense for ourselves. It’s just that the rest of us don’t often think about them as stories to be told, or have a filmmaker so talented to tell them.



10. “Nebraska”

Anchored by a perfectly cast ensemble, what could’ve been a caricature of Midwest culture and father-son road trips blossomed into an unexpectedly touching tragicomedy. Alexander Payne and his screenwriter Bob Nelson sympathize with the nostalgia and regret of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, pitiful and endearing) without indulging in it themselves: they have too much affection for the confused, worn-out man he has become, irascibility notwithstanding. Payne’s characters are familiar and humorous, exaggerated only to necessity.

9. “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

This divisive Palme D’Or winner is an ambitious tale of discovery that defies easy coming-of-age narratives. In “La vie d’Adele,” conversations, scenes and sequences all linger beyond their “natural” endpoints – more true to the messy, unedited reality of life. As she matures – somewhat – from questioning teenager to conflicted young adult, Adele (always-beautiful-when-crying newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos) finds through her lover Emma (an enigmatic Léa Seydoux) that romance can be complex, consuming, and destructive.

8. “Her”

What will the future be like? It’s the question of most science-fiction, but Spike Jonze’s film is not most sci-fi. Less concerned with the bells and whistles of his near-future society (although there are those – I can’t wait to see Los Angeles’ new public transit rail system come to fruition), Jonze is interested in relationships, in the way we connect to each other. The writer/director never loses sight of the inherent tension in its central romance, between emotionally rudderless writer Theodore (an engrossing Joaquin Phoenix) and his energetic operating system (voiced adroitly by Scarlett Johannson); this is not a film where you’re rooting for those crazy kids to end up together. Subtle, personal and fantastical without becoming too twee.

7. “Gravity”

A monument to the experiential power of cinema. Cuarón’s space-survival tale made the last decade of souped-up CGI and 3D-enhanced blockbusters look all the more superfluous by comparison; cutting-edge technology doesn’t just make our explosions look more realistic, it can change the way we tell a story. To that end, “Gravity” didn’t break much narrative ground, but it brought a kinetic, visceral immediacy to astronaut Ryan Stone’s plight that was fresh and thrilling.

6. “Inside Llewyn Davis”

The Coen Brothers’ melancholy ode to the self-destruction of near-genius. Like Salieri in Milos Forman’s “Amadeus,” Llewyn Davis is good enough to recognize greatness and to know that he doesn’t quite have it; but while Salieri had his Mozart, a concrete figure on whom to pin all his frustrations, Llewyn seems up against the entire world, and lashes out accordingly, indiscriminately. A gorgeous soundtrack and artfully smudged cinematography by Bruce Delbonnel complemented Oscar Isaac’s terrific lead performance for yet another exceptional Coen film.

5. “Before Midnight”

The fictional equivalent of Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries, Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (as it stands so far) has turned into a delightful cinematic mainstay, an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time, in real time. “Before Midnight” saw our hapless couple Céline and Jesse, almost twenty years removed from that romantic first encounter in Vienna, attempting to deal with the maturation of love and the complications of married life. This was probably the most uncomfortable film of the trilogy – the two have moved on from naive intellectual arguments about love and philosophy to very concrete, personal conflicts, years in the making – but at the same time that served to build the authenticity and uniqueness of these characters. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are so extraordinarily linked in with Jesse and Céline at this point that it’s difficult to even remember that they are actors.

4. “The Wind Rises”

A most heartfelt farewell from one of cinema’s greatest dreamers. Perhaps only an artist who has flown so far could give us so touching a reflection on imagination and innovation, encapsulating the bittersweet passion of creation. Joyful and subtly troubled, Miyazaki’s embellished version of the life of aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi is almost certainly the legendary animator’s most personal film ever: an appreciation of all those who have supported him and an expression of his creative regrets. No need to apologize, Miyazaki – we’re just thankful you shared your journey with us.

3. “12 Years a Slave”

In his twelve years in bondage, Solomon Northup witnessed horror; and in seeing it, in looking into the pit at the very heart of humanity, he felt it, too. Steve McQueen’s extraordinary drama – which, looking back even after a few months, I can see that I instinctually resisted at first, passing off my own efforts to hold the film at arm’s length as McQueen’s problem – is clinical, composed, thoroughly unsentimental, but not disconnected. There is outrage here, and despair, but expressed in the most controlled, painterly of methods: in the silent shattering of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance, or the cold co-existence of brutality and mundanity in the same frame. McQueen knows well the voyeuristic impulse of film, the sense of culpability involved in being a witness to something unspeakable, and uses it to his audacious advantage.

2. “Upstream Color”

Shane Carruth’s debut film, “Primer,” was a maddening, intentionally incomplete puzzle of a film, playing with the limits of science and genius to explain the world. Almost ten years later, his long-awaited follow-up revealed that “Primer” was no fluke. The juxtaposition between Carruth’s tight, expert craft and the out-of-control situation in which his characters find themselves creates a philosophical clash of near-Tarkovskian proportions. Like Kris and Jeff, we float, woozy, through Carruth’s mysterious images, searching for the meaning behind it all. Amy Seimetz’s grounded performance takes care of the emotional heavy lifting as Carruth’s style leaps to the beautiful obscurity of Malick.

1. “Stories We Tell”

Strikingly composed and painfully personal, Sarah Polley’s beautiful, unforgettable narrative about her own mother and the secrets she left behind pushes beyond every expected boundary of both form and substance. Her story is engrossing enough, heartbreaking in its tragedy and hopeful in its affirmation of love and family, but Polley pushes further, questioning the compulsion and fickle subjectivity of storytelling. Why do we insert narrative on to our own lives? It is easy enough to look back and remember meaning and motive, but life in the moment, like this film, is unpredictable, chaotic, a jumble of masked fears and desires. Diane Polley was an actress; her daughter’s film suggests that we are all nothing less.

Reviews: Another Three-Pack

The movies have arrived fast and furious here in the heart of awards season, so we’ve got a lot to catch up on and more yet to come. Time to cross a few off the list with another round of not-quite-full reviews, this go-around generally centered on a trio of terrific actors.

Inside Llewyn Davis

A mish-mash of the Coen brothers’ favorite themes and devices, “Inside Llewyn Davis” doesn’t so much surprise as ingratiate; much like its eponymous protagonist, this is a film that wheedles its way into your heart, inviting you to fall prey to a cycle of failure and absurdity of tragicomic proportions against all better judgment. Borrowing the floundering artist of “Barton Fink,” the Job-esque confluence of fate of “A Serious Man,” and the musical Odyssey structure of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the Coens have arranged and rearranged and arrived with yet another gem. Superbly crafted, as one would expect, “Inside Llewyn Davis” really sets itself part in the Coens’ body of work thanks to an indelible lead and the exceptional performance behind him.

There have been an awful lot of films (of supremely varying quality) on the ineffability of creative genius, but perhaps only a team as perverse as the Coen brothers would be so fascinated by the stagnation of near-genius. Flitting from couch to couch by day and cafe to cafe by night, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is just one of any number of itinerant musicians trying to make his way in the crowded folk music scene of 1960’s New York. Once part of an up-and-coming duo, Davis is struggling as a solo act: his new album has made nary a dent, he may have gotten his best friend’s girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) pregnant, and to top things off he’s been saddled with an orange tabby that, like all cats, seems hell bent on inconveniencing his every move. But where Davis separates himself from previously star-crossed Coen characters like Larry Gopnik or Barton Fink is that Davis may entirely deserve his kharmic gauntlet.

Brutally sarcastic and detached, Davis seems set on setting himself back even in the few moments that divine intervention isn’t doing it for him. It’s thanks to Isaac’s charismatic, finely balanced turn that we can still see the value in, and even root for, such an embittered, misanthropic man. There are points you desperately wish he would act differently, but you can always glean the deep-seeded pain and frustration in Davis’ eyes, or, more importantly, in his music. Davis is not Barton Fink, a blue-collar pretender whose intense writer’s block stemmed at least partly from his feigned worldliness; his art comes from somewhere deeply personal, its expression compulsory. As Isaac himself aptly put it in an interview with NPR, “Life is squeezing [Davis], and these are the sounds he’s making.”

The film wanders with no particular narrative, holding even more loosely to its Homeric framework than the already rather liberated “O Brother” (although one particular, ill-advised joke hammers home the allusion too hard). John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund arrive halfway through the film for an appropriately eerie descent into the underworld, manifested here as a famed nightclub in Chicago. There the “Inside Llewyn Davis” version of Hades, a gruff, on-point F. Murray Abraham, delivers perhaps the most devastating line of dialogue of the year; and so Davis is sentenced to return back to where he started, forced the confront the dingy back-alleys and endless doldrums that are his home.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars


If there’s been something missing from Alexander Payne’s road-trip films up to this point (“About Schmidt,” “Sideways”) it’s perhaps an appropriate sense of weariness, of the physical and mental exhaustion that results from crossing mile after mile of black-top highway. The writer-director’s wit and nimble direction always keeps things relatively light, even when addressing the most strained emotions. “Nebraska” is far from glum, but its confluence of casting, setting and style gives its central family a lived-in, worn-out feel that resonates more genuinely than some of Payne’s past characters.

Traversing a stark Midwestern landscape that would probably exist in black-and-white even if Phedon Papamichael hadn’t shot it that way, David Grant (Will Forte) and his father Woody (Bruce Dern) are on a fool’s errand. Woody, a doddering alcoholic two shuffles short of senility, has received one of those “You may have already won $1 million” mail scams I thought had long since gone the way of Nigerian royalty, and is determined to trek from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings, even if he has to walk there. As travel plans go, this makes “The Straight Story” look like Expedia, so David resignedly agrees to drive his father the distance. It’s partly an act of kindness towards the confused old man, but David has plenty of his own reasons for making the journey: the opportunity to spend some his time with his long-distant father, perhaps, and if nothing else to get out of town for a weekend and away from his ex-girlfriend who has just moved out of the apartment.

This is prime episodic road-trip fodder, but Lincoln gets sidetracked as David and Woody stop on the way for an impromptu family reunion in Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne, a tiny Nebraska backwater mostly unchanged since World War II. As David encounters some of Woody’s old family, friends, and, in a particularly poignant scene, lovers, “Nebraska” becomes an expertly crafted study of small-town dynamics. In a place like Hawthorne, everyone knows everything about everyone else, and the gossip that “Woody Grant’s a millionaire” spreads like wildfire, creating unexpected tensions with opportunistic relatives and Woody’s former business partner (a gruff and suitably domineering Stacy Keach).

Placed in this unforgiving setting, the film provides a sharp and melancholic contrast between delusions and dreams on the one hand, and harsher reality on the other. Nostalgia and memory interweave, providing Woody and David with a glimpse of both pain and happiness gone by. David has generally viewed his father’s absenteeism and drinking problem, not unfairly, with disdain; in these reflections of Woody’s past, we are given a more complicated picture, of a fundamentally decent man troubled by regrets he may never be able to articulate.

Woody’s inability to voice his fears and frustrations makes him quite a match for his wife Kate (June Squibb), a no-nonsense live wire that acts as the film’s truth-teller. The scenes between the two of them are a kind of perfection of character you could only get from two performers who have spent their long, long careers away from the top billing: Squibb, matter-of-fact in a manner that conveys resignation rather than petulance, and Dern, slouched and slumped but with infinitely sad, restless eyes, make you believe in every one of the many years that have passed between the two. Forte, along with Bob Odenkirk as David’s brother Ross, fills out the unit in convincing fashion. Suitably enough, it’s this family that, even amongst Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s humorous asides on Midwestern culture, gives “Nebraska” a sense of purpose.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

The Wolf of Wall Street

It’s a mystery to me that, after all these years and acceptance into the cinematic canon, Martin Scorsese apparently still has the ability to brew up so much trouble. All the more power to him – at age 71, he yet has the sharp wit and exuberant style that made his name in the 70s. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a sort of spiritual successor to “GoodFellas” in the director’s “epic of bad behavior” sub-genre, is Scorsese’s freshest, most wickedly funny film in some time, and with that brash attitude there was bound to be some misguided backlash.

While “GoodFellas” charted the rise and fall of Henry Hill, a working-class mafioso who got his hands extremely dirty scrabbling his way to the high life, “The Wolf of Wall Street” trains Scorsese’s sights on white-collar crime: the Financial District fat cats that find excess and luxury while barely so much as lifting a finger. The film’s real-life anti-hero, Jordan Belfort (played here by an energized Leonardo DiCaprio), was your typical bright-eyed young business major, who quickly descended into a life of hard partying when he discovered just how easy stock swindling could be for a motor-mouthed charmer such as himself. Along with his partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a cadre of sleazebag salesmen, Belfort took his upstart brokerage firm to heights of decadence heretofore imagined only by the likes of Caligula.

Much of the film’s grand three-hour running time is dedicated to these Wall Street bacchanalias, and one does wonder if this second act couldn’t have been trimmed down a bit for structure’s sake – by the time we reach Jordan’s gradual, inevitable tumble from Olympus, the handcuffs feel long overdue. But then, that is perhaps the point; Scorsese has come under fire for reveling too much in the wacky, drug-infused antics of fundamentally despicable people, as if we, the audience, weren’t laughing along every step of the way. The director is unapologetic in his depiction of Belfort’s selfish, destructive behavior, and why should he be: his firm’s fortune was made, for the most part, on the backs of others who aspired to the same lifestyle. Can we just not handle the idea that we too, should be criticized for helping create the system that produces the Jordan Belforts of the world?

There are elements of “The Wolf of Wall Street” that remain problematic. Depicting misogyny without participating in it has been a stumbling block for even the greatest filmmakers, and Scorsese can not really be excused here. “GoodFellas” nimbly handled the issue by its clever and unexpected hand-off of narration to Hill’s wife, Karen; neither Belfort’s aggrieved first wife Teresa (Cristin Miloti) nor his mistress and trophy Naomi (Margot Robbie) are afforded a similar opportunity. That Scorsese follows a particularly revolting scene of Jordan assaulting Naomi with a more ambiguously sympathetic scene of Belfort trying to protect his best friend, is troublesome.

Still, it has been a while since Scorsese created something that felt so dangerous and debatable, or had such singular stand-out elements. DiCaprio in particular gives one of, if not the best performance of his career, finally worthy of comparison to De Niro’s signature collaborations with the director. His physical dedication to bits both comedic and depraved (or a combination of both) is total. DiCaprio has grown more and more adventurous over the past decade, and it’s paid off in one of his most indelible characters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Do You Hear What I Hear?

And so here we are, on the morning after – well, not quite. It was only earlier (much, much earlier, if you live on the West Coast) today that the Oscar nominations were announced, although the current state of entertainment news and blogging means that by now you’ve probably read at least a minimum of five lists of the biggest “snubs” and two lengthy analyses of why, exactly, the Academy Awards don’t really matter. Or do. Or are racist. A combination of all of the above, most likely.

As someone who generally views awards-watching as an outlet, more akin to a crossword puzzle hobby than a platform for analyzing cultural trends, I find myself increasingly less interested in the latter. The Oscars are what they are, a reflection of the industry rather than the heart of it. Change Hollywood and you’ll change the awards, not the other way around. In the meantime, let’s have some fun scratching our heads over this altogether peculiar group and their choices for the best of the past year in film.

And really, what a maddeningly unpredictable slate when you get right down to it. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the pure number of contenders this time around; while there was very little revealed this morning that was shocking, there were any number of small surprises, both good and bad, depending on your point of view. Despite agonizing for many hours (and making some last-minute changes that I quite regret in hindsight), I couldn’t do much better in my predictions than three or four out of five in each category; Best Adapted Screenplay was the only one I nailed outright, although I’m rather pleased with going eight for nine in Best Picture.

My only mistake in that category was in my choice of which middlebrow piece would find the hearts of (most likely older) voters. While the Academy turned out to want none of the sentimentalized inside baseball of “Saving Mr. Banks” – rejecting not only the film itself but even, surprisingly, Emma Thompson’s acclaimed lead performance as “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers – they embraced Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” giving it not only a Best Picture slot but a Screenplay nod for star Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope as well. I’m kicking myself, first because I had a hunch about the film for most of the season and only recently wavered, and second because I actually rather enjoyed the movie myself and it’s not the kind of film that usually ends up in my wheelhouse; a sure sign it would definitely register with the eager British bloc, then.

A greater personal disappointment was that my last-minute sinking feeling that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which got mostly shut out on the guild circuit, wasn’t going to register was indeed borne out, in fairly brutal fashion. I prepared myself for the eventuality that passion votes for “Her” might take away some crucial support for the Coens’ latest in Best Picture, but not even a consolatory screenplay nomination? That hurts, and I think the Oscars will end up on the wrong side of history with that one. The other really stinging snub was of Sarah Polley’s remarkable “Stories We Tell” in Best Documentary Feature; granted, I haven’t seen all of the nominees in that category, but I have a hard time imagining Polley’s devastatingly personal film not beating out any of them. We’ll always have the EMOs, Sarah.

In terms of personal (or is it pyrrhic?) victories, though, there were certainly some. The Best Picture recognition for “Her” is richly deserved, and I had hoped/thought that Spike Jonze could even garner enough support for his unique, subtle work to slide into the Best Director slate. As it happened, that spot went instead to Alexander Payne, whose “Nebraska” I also greatly admired (more thoughts on several of these films coming soon, but I thought Payne’s work here far superior and more coherent than the inconsistent “The Descendants”). Payne also edged out Paul Greengrass, whose work on “Captain Phillips” earned a Director’s Guild nomination, but always seemed more respected than adored this season.

That attitude extended for “Phillips” through the rest of the nominations as well. While newcomer Barkhad Abdi pulled out a Best Supporting Actor nod for his wiry, intense performance as a Somali pirate captain, Tom Hanks unexpectedly missed in the lead category. Considering he at one point seemed destined for a double nomination, a goose egg for Hanks has got to be a disappointing end to the season. The severely over-crowded Best Actor race was always going to be the place to look for surprises, and indeed there were a couple. Late-season-bloomers Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale both crashed the party, pushing vets Hanks and Redford out of the picture. DiCaprio’s all-in performance is assuredly one of my favorites of the year, so his presence was another bright spot for me – in what suddenly seems a wide-open race, he might even have a shot at the win (McConaughey didn’t overly impress with his cut-off Golden Globes speech).

Bale’s nomination, along with Amy Adams pushing out Thompson in Best Actress, meant that the predictably popular “American Hustle” moves on with a nomination in all four acting categories – an astounding feat when you consider that makes two years in a row that David O. Russell has accomplished that for his cast (before “Silver Linings Playbook,” no one had done it for about 40 years). Once a highly unpopular director due to on-set fights with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin, Russell’s going to have actors beating down his door now.

Riding that love from the actor’s branch, “Hustle” tied for the field lead with “Gravity” at ten total nominations; “12 Years a Slave” right behind with nine. Those are your three contenders for the moment, and it’s really anybody’s game that I can see. Keep an eye out on the guild awards for the next month, and pay attention to the craft category victors early on Oscar night for signs of where we’ll be headed at the big finish.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The most surprising snub of the day may have Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite cinematography for “12 Years a Slave.” Philippe Le Sourd and Phedon Papamichael both did great work as well on “The Grandmaster” and “Nebraska,” respectively, but that’s a wallop to Fox Searchlight’s campaign for McQueen’s film.
  • The masterful Roger Deakins, meanwhile, will get to lose that category yet again as the sole nominee for Denis Villeneuve”s thriller “Prisoners” (Deakins is 0 for 10 lifetime at the Oscars).
  • Deakins’ peer in futility, composer Thomas Newman (0 for 11 so far), also managed to be his film’s only nominee, for the original score of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
  • Indie animation distributor GKIDS worked its magic again to bring French charmer “Ernest and Celestine” into the fold. Particularly impressive considering it appears to have pushed out Pixar’s rote “Monsters University” (now only the studio’s second film, after “Cars 2,” to miss a nomination in Animated Feature).
  • Sally Hawkins earned her first-ever Oscar nod for her supporting turn in “Blue Jasmine.” Nice try, Academy, but it still doesn’t make up for ignoring her in “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
  • Jonah Hill is now a two-time Oscar nominee, and it’s not even really egregious. Try to figure that one out.
  • The “Jackass” franchise is now Oscar-nominated, and it also kind of makes sense. What is happening?
  • John Williams earned his 49th nomination for Original Score, because John Williams wrote something this year. Did anyone even SEE “The Book Thief?”
  • Speaking of not seeing things, this year’s winner for Best Original Song Nominee That Sends Everyone Scrambling to IMDB to Find a Movie You’re Pretty Sure Chris Hemsworth Just Made Up is “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone” (no I still don’t know what it is, don’t ask me).
  • Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures became only the fourth producer ever to earn double nod in the same year, for “American Hustle” and “Her.” In the past two years, she’s carried five films to a total of twenty-four total nominations. Watch out, Hollywood.