For movie lovers, Oscar Weekend is better than the Super Bowl. Few television events draw an international audience in real time anymore but Oscars is expected to bring some 40 million viewers. Of course being up to speed on all the movies is part of the fun. Throw in a matinee or two and you can still see most of this year’s top nominees in theaters before the ceremony Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC. If you’d rather see something new, your choice this weekend is a Bible epic or an airline flight through Hell.
Liam Neeson should fire his travel agent after this missed connection: He plays an alcoholic air marshall who gets a mid-flight text warning him that if $150 million isn’t deposited into a bank account pronto, passengers are going to start dying. The suspects are as numerous as the plot holes, and Neeson, though he tries hard, seems to be losing interest in this action hero phase of his illustrious career.
Son of God
Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (she also plays Mother Mary) have edited down their epic TV series The Bible to tell the story of Jesus, and it looks mighty good on the big screen. Jesus is played with easy charm and frequent intensity by Diogo Morgado, who in a century of film is probably the most convincing guy ever to tackle the role—you can really imagine 5,000 folks schlepping out to the desert to hear him speak.
Still Out There . . .
12 Years a Slave
Winner: Best Movie for Grownups 2014; Nominated for 9 Oscars
Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery leads a powerful cast. Movies from Roots to Django Unchained have shown us the evils of slavery; 12 Years a Slave makes us feel the lash. FULL REVIEW
About Last Night
It’s a remake of the 1986 semi-classic (which was a screen adaptation of a David Mamet play), but this funny, cleverly structured story of a couple’s voyage from lust to love brings its own fresh take. Joy Bryant and Michael Ealy are irresistible in the roles created by Demi Moore and Rob Lowe, but it’s Kevin Hart and Regina Hall as their funny best friends who steal the show. FULL REVIEW
Winner: Movies for Grownups Best Time Capsule; Nominated for 10 Oscars
You won’t have more fun at the movies than you’ll find here with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Louis C.K. and Jennifer Lawrence as assorted con artists and Feds conspiring to bring down crooked politicians. It’s based on the 1980s Abscam scandal, but we have a feeling writer/director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) made up all the more hilarious stuff. FULL REVIEW
August: Osage County
Winner: Movies for Grownups Best Supporting Actor (Chris Cooper); Nominated for 2 Oscars
Fried Green Tomatoes meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in this densely scripted, superbly acted screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’ award-winning play. Essentially a fly-on-the-wall look at a monumentally dysfunctional Oklahoma family gathered for a funeral, the film offers megadoses of Meryl Streep as a matriarch who has no filters whatsoever. But the best performances are the more restrained ones from Julia Roberts as her embittered daughter and, especially, Oscar nominees Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as a long-married couple living under the shadow of a very dark secret. FULL REVIEW
Nominated for 6 Oscars
Tom Hanks gives his best performance in years as the captain of a cargo ship overrun by Somali pirates—but the real revelation is Somali actor Barkhad Abdi. He stands toe-to-toe with Oscar-winner Hanks, who generously allows his unknown costar to unfold a complex, surprisingly vulnerable character. FULL REVIEW
Dallas Buyers Club
Nominated for 6 Oscars
At the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic, a tough heterosexual Texas electrician (Matthew McConaughey) gets the dread diagnosis — then sets up a lucrative business smuggling alternative anti-AIDS drugs into the state. McConaughey, who has been rising from beefcake idol to accomplished actor, may nab his first Oscar nomination for his compelling performance.
Winner: Movies for Grownups Best Grownup Love Story
We’ll never forget the late James Gandolfini as the conflicted mobster of The Sopranos, but in this romantic comedy he’s positively cuddly. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a woman who discovers that the man of her dreams (Gandolfini) is the ex-hubby of her new close friend.
Nominated for 2 Oscars (Plus 1 nomination for Get a Horse!)
By now the animation wizards at Disney have this spunky-young-woman-defeats-evil thing down pat, but the real reason to duck into this film is the Oscar-nominated cartoon short that precedes it. Get a Horse! is a hand-drawn Mickey Mouse cartoon done in the early Disney style circa Steamboat Willie. Director Dorothy McKim even uses archival recordings of Walt Disney himself providing the voice of the world’s favorite rodent.
Winner: Movies for Grownups Best Director (Alfonso Cuaron); Nominated for 10 Oscars
Stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are fine and the film’s visual re-creation of a space voyage is breathtaking (especially in 3-D), but cowriter/director Alfonso Cuaron should have launched with a decent script. FULL REVIEW
Nominated for 5 Oscars
What happens if you love your technology just a tad too much? Joaquin Phoenix finds out when he falls hard for the seductive female voice (Scarlett Johansson) in his computer operating system. Writer/director Spike Jonze creates a compelling portrait of a near future when people would rather interact with their machines than each other.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nominated for 2 Oscars
Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s most balanced movie ever is a fond look at the early 1960s Greenwich Villlage folk music scene. Oscar Isaac is irresistibly mopey as the title character, but the real treat comes when Llewlyn hitches a ride to Chicago with a blustery, bloated blues musician played with great aplomb by John Goodman. FULL REVIEW
The Lego Movie
There’s a lot more for grownups here than you’d expect: Packed with gags and clever toy-world references, it’s the story of a nondescript LEGO minifigure (voiced by Craig Berry) saving his world from an evil villain (Will Ferrell) who wants to (gasp!) glue all the blocks together, stifling creativity forever. Written and directed by a bunch of guys from TV Sitcomville (How I Met Your Mother, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), it’s fast, funny, and feel-good.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Nominated for 1 Oscar
In any other year, Idris Elba’s towering performance as Nelson Mandela would have landed him on anyone’s Best Actor Oscar shortlist. Naomie Harris is at times chillingly intense as his wife Winnie, and director Justin Chadwick (The First Grader) continues his love affair with inspiring, true African stories.
The Monuments Men
George Clooney enlists Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Cate Blanchett to help him patrol Nazi-occupied Europe in search of stolen art works. A greater sense of urgency would have helped push the plot along, but what’s more fun than hanging out with George and his buds for two hours? It’s based on a true story and Clooney, natty in his U.S. Army officer’s uniform, looks more Clark Gable-like than ever. FULL REVIEW
Winner: Movies for Grownups Best Actor (Bruce Dern), Best Intergenerational Movie; Nominated for 6 Oscars
In a career-defining performance, Bruce Dern is a slightly befuddled fellow who’s convinced he’s won $1 million in a sweepstakes. Will Forte is the good son who offers to drive him from Montana to Nebraska to claim the dubious prize. Amazing performances all around, directed by Alexander Payne (The Descendants, About Schmidt). FULL REVIEW
Winner: Movies for Grownups Best Actress (Judi Dench); Nominated for 4 Oscars
In a season of extraordinary acting accomplishments, Judi Dench gives the performance of a lifetime as the title character, a woman seeking the son she gave up as a child. Steve Coogan, who also wrote the film’s moving and disarmingly funny script, costars as the investigative reporter who helps unravel a tangle of deceit and corruption. Based on a true story. FULL REVIEW
On the list of four writers who concocted this epic story of slaves and gladiators battling each other and a certain nearby volcano is Julian Fellowes, creator of the decidedly more staid Downton Abbey. Go for the human drama if you like: Most of us are here to see Mount Vesuvius turn Rome’s exotic port city into the original Lava Lamp.
Saving Mr. Banks
Winner: Best Movie for Grownups Who Refuse to Grow Up; Nominated for 1 Oscar
Tom Hanks is Walt Disney and Emma Thompson is Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers in this magical (and allegedly true) story of how Uncle Walt convinced P.L. to let him bring her creation to the screen. If Thompson lays the prim-and-proper schtick on a bit thick, and if Hanks plays Disney as something of a homespun cartoon of the real mogul, it only adds to the film’s mythical quality. FULL REVIEW
The Wind Rises
Nominated for One Oscar
Some of the most beautiful films ever made have come from the pen of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and this—reportedly his last—may be the most stunning of them all, and not only for its visual magic. While most of Miyazaki’s classics (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) feature plucky youngsters and fantastic creatures, this time he tells the story of a very real person: Jiro Horikoshi, who developed Japan’s revolutionary fighter planes prior to World War II. In following Horikoshi from childhood to first love to professional challenge, Miyazaki taps into real sentiments of passion, ambition, and regret in ways he never has before.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Nominated for 5 Oscars
Teaming for the fifth time with Leonardo DiCaprio, director Martin Scorsese lets loose a cannonade of sex, drugs, and no-holds-barred avarice in telling the mostly true story of a New York stockbroker who made an outrageous fortune by swindling investors in the 1980s and ’90s. Like his central character, Scorsese once again proves that nothing succeeds like excess. FULL REVIEW