12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and American Hustle. (Generally believed to be in that order of likelihood.) Now that I've seen all of those, I can move on to the rest of the field. Last night, I checked out one that I wish was in more serious contention, Dallas Buyers Club.
Set in the mid-1980s, the film is the story of a Texas man who contracts HIV. When the emerging drug AZT not only fails to help him, but actually takes him to the brink of death, he seeks help from other foreign medicines not approved by the FDA. Soon, he has started up a not-quite-legal, not-quite-illegal smuggling operation to sell these drugs to others also dealing with HIV and AIDS.
Ostensibly, the film is about living with disease, with an undercurrent of sticking it to big government. But in practice, the narrative is framed much more around the transformation of a bigot. Main character Ron Woodroof starts off as a deeply homophobic man. Initially, his emotions over being diagnosed with a terminal disease are equaled -- if not outweighed -- by his frustration at being perceived as having a "queer" illness. But his condition naturally brings him into contact with more LGBT individuals, and a transgender woman in particular named Rayon, and the real arc of the movie covers his initially grudging and ultimately accepting feelings.
This is an example of how to write "based on a true story" correctly. The family of the real Bob Woodroof (not represented in the film) acknowledges that he was indeed a homophobe before testing HIV positive, but insists not as staunchly so as depicted early in the film. What's more, the writers admit that the character of Rayon (and of a doctor Ron comes to know, Eve Saks) are not based on actual individuals, but are composites of people, and loaded with artistic license. These changes from what might have been the bald truth make for a stronger narrative with a story arc and character development, something which Oscar frontrunner 12 Years a Slave struggles with in places. In terms of script, this movie only fumbles a bit at the very end, when (having completed its own character journey as laid out for itself) it has to tack on an epilogue of a few scenes to show us what happened in the end to the real life Bob Woodroof.
Just as Dallas Buyers Club handles "based on a true story" a bit better than 12 Years a Slave, it also handles "actors' showcase" better than American Hustle. This movie is really about some powerful performances, and from some people you might never have expected. Matthew McConaughey is exceptional as Woodruff. Beyond the Christian Bale-esque physical transformation (he lost 50 pounds for the role), there's very little of the "good ol' boy" vibe that marks his most famous roles and his real-life personality. He is in terms desperate, scheming, and charming, and all while never letting go of the obstacle of his disease. And it's a performance aided in wonderfully subtle ways by costuming and makeup. Baggy clothes cinched up by a too-long belt dangle beneath a skeletal and gaunt face that feels utterly real.
Equally powerful is Jared Leto as Rayon. I never thought I'd be praising the acting of a punk-influenced rock star like this, but it's deserved. His character is a compelling blend of moments where everything is perfectly "together" and moments where everything is melting in a hot mess. Most effectively, Leto smartly underplays moments that I think most other actors would have done in a more histrionic way. For example, Rayon's drug addiction doesn't dominate more than it should; and in a scene in which she is forced to dress back up in mens' clothing to go beg for help, you feel her desperation and humiliation without any overly showy hand-wringing.
McConaughey and Leto both won Golden Globes for these roles, and are both nominated for Oscars. Both performances would be worthy winners too. But it's also worth noting that co-star Jennifer Garner is also strong as Dr. Saks, a role that really never would have received Oscar recognition amid the more eye-catching parts. There's a particular moments that make you take notice, where her character's feelings break through her emotional dam. Her character has an important role in the story, and Jennifer Garner handles it well.
Perhaps I can most simply say it this way: Dallas Buyers Club does seem like an "Oscar bait" sort of movie, but manages not to feel like it has its expectant hand out as you watch it. I give it an A-, and the #6 slot in my Top 10 for 2013.