Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Oscar Nominee Edition

oscar_book-trophyWhen February rolls around, my book reading comes to nearly a complete halt. Every year, for the last several years, I’ve been taking on the challenge of watching every single Oscar nominated film before the ceremony in late February or early March. This year, there are 57 nominees in total, and I am just about done with all of them. And like every year, several of the films pull their source material from books. So for this Buy, Borrow, Bypass, I’m ranking all the nominated films with some literary origin. For the purposes of this post, Buy also means “Go see it in the theater right now if you can.”

12 Years a Slave – One of the most well-received films of the year, this film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, who each earned nominations in their respective categories, racked up a total of nine nods, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Based on the 1853 memoir by free man Soloman Northrup, who was kidnapped into slavery, the film is hauntingly powerful, if not a little graphic for some audiences. Its popularity as a film is resulting in a resurgence of the memoir, and rightly so. The film is absolutely a Buy. 

Philomena – Seeing Judi Dench in a starring role should be an automatic no-brainer for most people, but for some reason this quiet sleeper of a film slid under the radar for most theatergoers. I was happy to see it nominated for both Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, the basis for which is the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith, who is played by Steve Coogan opposite Dench. If you can still catch it in theaters, it’s definitely a Buy, but if not, it’s out on DVD March 4th, so Borrow. 

The Wolf of Wall Street – Probably one of the most talked about movies of the awards season, Wolf is based on two memoirs by Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street and Catching the Wolf of Wall Street. Belfort is played to over-the-top perfection by Leonardo DiCaprio, and the movie claimed five noms, among them Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Its head-shaking depiction of a world so far removed from most people’s reality makes it worth seeing, but the excessive debauchery isn’t necessarily one I’d want to see more than once. I say Borrow.

Captain Philips – The last of my Best Picture nominees on this list, Tom Hanks stars as the title character, the man at the center of the 2009 hijacking of a container ship by Somali pirates, and the subsequent capture of its captain. The movie’s story is based on Phillips’ memoir A Captain’s Duty and focuses not only on the naturally suspenseful plot but also on the relationship between Phillips and the Somali pirate leader. Quiet but also terrifying, the film (and I imagine the book) captures what was an international news story on a much more personal and dramatic level. Just like Philomena, if you can catch it in the theaters, it’s a definite Buy; if not, Borrow.

Frozen – Nominated as a Best Animated Feature, Frozen is based on the Hans Christian Andersen folktale “The Ice Queen,” though its Disney parenthood means it is much more fully realized as a full-length film. It’s a film that turns some of those fairytale conventions on their heads and even pokes fun at some of those Disney predecessors. Whether you have kids or not, Buy, and then go see the singalong version in theaters.

The Great Gatsby – Though it was only nominated for Best Costumes and Best Production Design, The Great Gatsby was one of the biggest book-to-movie adaptations of 2013. The disciplines for which it was nominated are certainly worthwhile, and while some of my fellow Rioters loved the adaptation, I found it a lot of style and not much substance. Unless you have a particular interest in costumer or production, it’s a Bypass.

The Invisible Woman – Did you know that Charles Dickens had a mistress? I didn’t either until I saw this Best Costume nominee, which was based on a biography of the author by Claire Tomalin. The Invisible Woman certainly has the costumes going for it, but the majority of the film, starring Ralph Fiennes as Dickens, is meandering and lacking much substance. I really wanted to like this, but sadly it’s a Bypass.

The Book Thief – Picking up a nomination for Best Score, this adaptation of the much-loved novel by the same name didn’t get the same resounding love that the book did, and while it wasn’t my favorite of the nominated films, I thought it did a solid job of adapting a book with an unusual narrator. Whether you’ve read the book or not, my vote is Borrow.

Room on the Broom – The first of two short films on the list, Room on the Broom is a short animated film based on the children’s book of the same name by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. It was created by the same production team that was responsible for the short animated films The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, based on the books also by Donaldson and Scheffler. The film is delightful, and honestly was one of my favorites of the animated shorts. Its a Buy, which is lucky because all of the animated shorts are wonderful, and you can see them in theaters together.

The Voorman Problem – Just 13 minutes long, this Live Action short draws its story from a portion of the novel number9dream by David Mitchell. Starring Martin Freeman and Tom Hollander, this U.K. film is smart and funny and completely unexpected. After you see the animated shorts, do yourself a favor and go watch the Live Action nominees. This one is also a Buy.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug – Since I’ve never read The Hobbit, I can’t even begin to compare the film to the book, but I loved the first in this epic trilogy, and the followup did not disappoint. Nominated for sound and visual effects, this sequel is absolutely worthy of its nominations, and even though it didn’t earn more award recognition, I loved the big budget adventure. Its a Buy, and I’m looking forward to the last film, expected around Christmas of this year.

Lone Survivor – Another sound nominee, Lone Survivor is based on the memoir of the same name by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, set during a failed recon mission in Afghanistan. Powerful and intense, the film does well what not many war films do – which is attempt to fill out the characters. I say attempt because most attention was paid to the sequence of events, though it is a breakneck film that’s absolutely worthwhile to see. Borrow this one.

Saving Mr. Banks – Even though it’s not directly based on any individual book, I can’t possibly leave out Saving Mr. Banks. This film starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson brilliantly as P.L. Travers tells the story of Travers’ reluctant involvement of the development of the Mary Poppins film by Disney. Travers’ own letters and recordings were the basis for the story, but the examination of the author and her book by extension is incredibly revealing. Though it’s more seemingly lighthearted than most Oscar nominees, Travers herself is quite complicated and sad.  The score is the only nominated element, but in my book, this is a Buy.


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