The other day, a friend from Beirut asked me about my favourite film of 2013. I had no hesitation in replying that it was Stephen Frears' Philomena, a story about a devout Catholic woman who forgives the church despite a horrible act of cruelty it heaps on her very early on in life. The film stars Judi Dench.
Philomena seems like a big bet on the night of the Oscars this March.
As Tim Gray writes in Variety, "Since early September, pundits have been predicting that either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave would win… those two dominated Oscar buzz until December, when American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street burst upon the scene, amid a bunch of ultra-serious contenders, and reminded voters that awards pics can be entertaining. Both movies have rabid fans and detractors, but whatever one thinks, it became clear that the race expanded. A Saturday screening of Philomena at the Palm Springs Festival offered a reminder that there has been something missing in awards season this year: Audience tears, since the Stephen Frears-directed film balances laughter and tragedy in a tight 97 minutes."
Often, the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences choose movies that tug their hearts, unlike critics, who seek intellectual stimulation from cinema, not emotional.
Philomena does precisely this. It is a beautifully poignant story of a young teen who is whisked into the mesmeric world of love and romance on a heady night. The child born out of this magical moment is snatched away by Catholic nuns and given in adoption to a couple in America. The girl, Philomena, never sees her son, and it is only 50 years later that she meets a BBC journalist, who, moved by her predicament, volunteers to take her to the US.
Admittedly, there are other movies equally high on the emotional quotient. Saving Mr Banks about the sweet-and-sour build-up to the making of the film, Mary Poppins, and Captain Philips, tracing the nerve-wracking clash with pirates on the high seas are perfectly capable of giving Philomena a run for its votes.
Then there is Nebraska, tracing the journey of a booze-addicted old man as he drives with his son from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million-dollar lottery prize. Let us also not forget, Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, a real sad story of a rich Manhattan woman falling into destitution and homelessness.
But somehow, I feel that Philomena has a remarkable chance of winning over the Academy voters. True, it deals with religion - which kind of produces an allergic reaction. But Philomena is also about forgiveness, something that our angst and anger-ridden world wants to embrace. Above all, Judi Dench as the wronged woman is brilliantly real. Indeed, what a transformation from the pompously stiff M she played for years in the Bond adventures.
Other films in the fray for Oscars this year...
Gravity: A survival drama set in outer space, the films has great special effects. The film excels in storytelling and character delineation.
12 Years a Slave: In the pre-Civil War United States, a free black man fights to stay alive and retain his dignity after being sold into slavery.
Philomena: A story about a devout Catholic woman who forgives the church despite a horrible act of cruelty it heaps on her very early on in life
American Hustle: A con man and his partner are forced to work for a wild FBI agent, who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.
The Wolf of Wall Street: A larger-than-life story based on the memoir of Jordan Belfort who goes from penny stocks and righteousness to IPOs and a life of corruption in the late 80s.
Saving Mr Banks: This film is about the sweet-and-sour build-up to the making of the film, Mary Poppins.
Captain Philips: The film traces the nerve-wracking clash with pirates on the high seas.
Nebraska: This one follows the journey of a booze-addicted old man as he drives with his son from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million-dollar lottery prize.
Blue Jasmine: Directed by Woody Allen, the film is a real sad story of a rich Manhattan woman falling into destitution and homelessness.