Get your LATimes personal at home Academy Award ballot here.

Mine’s blank.  For two reasons.  I’ve yet to see “Twelve Years A Slave,” “Philomena,” “Nebraska,” and “August: Osage County.”  Of the other nominees, only a few seem worthy of special recognition.  And many of the highly touted movies that I have seen made “Lincoln,” that I criticized last year, look a lot better by comparison.  Interestingly enough, the major problem IMHO with “Lincoln” was repeated in many of the 2013 offerings.  Only more so.  Weak screenplays.  Too thin, a lens too contemporary for the story,  poor character development, too messy or disjointed, and/or simply poor story depiction.  Movie making is very difficult and complex – probably a thousand ways to stumble – but a weak script is a huge impediment to crafting a good movie and a guarantee that a great movie will not emerge from it.

At opposite ends of the weak screenplay issue are “Gravity” and “The Wolf Of Wall Street.”  The former is short (an hour and a half) and the latter is long (almost three hours).  What “Gravity” lacks in the screenplay is somewhat made up for in the stunning visuals.  Smart to keep it short as terrific imagery alone becomes boring at about ninety minutes.  It’s a good ride – and probably better in 3-D for those with the stomach that can take it.  Cut out all the unnecessary bits, including the repetitive soft porn crap and dialogue with seemingly endless expletives, and “Wolf” may have come in at a ninety minute mediocre movie instead of a three hour gross out.  I’d forgive a three hour gross out if the protagonist were a major Wall Street crook – say a Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfien or even Michael Milken – but not when it’s a minor pimp like XXX.      

“Wolf” and “American Hustle” share a story telling device – both are narrated.  A lot.  That along with flashbacks and legends should be used only when absolutely necessary and then extremely sparingly.  As Sid Fields was known to say, SHOW don’t tell.  Or make a documentary.  The narration (voice over) in “The Great Gatsby” was only slightly less obnoxious than it was in “Wolf” and “Hustle.”  I didn’t much care for it in “The Book Thief” either, but at least in that movie, the voice was  a character not seen and was limited to the beginning and end.  Ron Howard demonstrated how to employ it when necessary in “Rush.”  A shame the Academy didn’t nominate that well made movie.

Structurally, “Saving Mr. Banks” and “Blue Jasmine” are similar.  Not unlike “The Notebook.”  The backstory layered  and interspersed with the the “current” story.  Nicely done in “Notebook” by using the reading of the notebook as the link.  Not done at all well in “Saving Mr. Banks.”  Brilliantly done in “Blue Jasmine.”  “Saving Mr. Banks” is a story that had the potential to be a very good movie.  Had the screenplay been bolder and not reduced the backstory to what I call psychobabble and less treacly at the end.  In a few scenes, it visually captured LA 1961 so perfectly that almost makes it worth seeing.  What does make it worthwhile are the actors: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Giamatti, and Bradley Whitford.    (Excepting Ruth Wilson – who was also in the other Disney 2013 big movie “The Lone Ranger” and equally boring in that one as well.)

Tom Hanks is also good in “Captain Phillips” and it’s easy to understand why he was disappointed not to get nominated for either this one or “Saving Mr. Banks.”  All the movie elements of “Captain Phillips” are strong.   Solid screenplay, well cast and acted, good cinematography, and pacing.  The first half is interesting.  The problems are that the outcome is known and there isn’t enough depth to the story and characters to make it a compelling movie.  As an advert for the awesomeness of the US Navy it’s more pathetic than impressive.  

After seeing a skinny and creepy (skin crawling creepy) McConaughey in “Magic Mike” and “Wolf, I wasn’t eager to see him as a dying AIDS victim and homophobe.  But having subjected myself to the creepiness of Woody Harrelson’s and Willem Dafoe characters in “Out of the Furnace,” figured I might as well go for it.  What a pleasant surprise.  Credit must be given to the director, Jean-Marc Vallée, and writers, Craig Borten Melisa Wallack .  They told the story without falling into cliches, sentimentality, or an impulse to make it bigger than it was.  McConaughey is similarly reined in and delivers a fine, and not creepy, performance.  And Jared Leto is wonderful.  How had this relatively small story (and movie) managed to begin with a good screenplay in a year when so many larger pictures failed on this criteria?  The answer was incredibly easy to find – right in Wikipedia:

Borten drafted 10 different scripts for what he believed would make a great movie and attempted to attract interest in making the film in the mid 1990s, …

Before beginning the writing process, the young and aspiring Borton met, interviewed and recorded Wood;s story of his Dallas Buyer’s Club.  He knew his subject before adding the fictionalized bits necessary for the story to hold together on the screen.  Still, it has a couple of weaknesses.  Far too many legends are used as a cover for the lack of visual presentations of the passage of time.  And while not heavy in tone and feel, it would have been strengthened with some humor.

Poor Forrest Whitaker whose fine performance was trapped in a movie that made all the mistakes that Xxx resisted in “The Dallas Buyer’s Club.”  “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” lost the real theme and subject of the story.  Going big and broad instead of focused and deft.  It could have been a gem and amply rewarded as “The Queen” or “The King’s Speech” were.

At last.  It’s small.  Flawless.  Mature film-making.  Contrary to the forgoing, I’m only partial to quality and not the scale of a movie.  By small, I mean the scope of a movie and not that it belongs on a small screen.  “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a big screen movie.  The actors are all wonderful.  To say more would be an indulgent spoiler.  (As with “Blue Jasmine,” I want to see this one again.)  

[Update #1]

Second viewing of “Inside Llewyn Davis” – Wonderful.