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25 Movies to See Before the Oscars: 15. The Wolf of Wall Street

Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

Three-hour long movies are not something everyone has the patience to sit still for, but for all the raucous debauchery that takes place in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street over such a period of time, one probably won’t find the same points of complaint in it as with, say, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Kings (the movie was originally four hours instead of three). Since the film was released people have been wagging-chin over whether or not it damns or glorifies the behaviors of its real-life anti-hero Jordan Belfort, played with vigor and abandon by Leonardo DiCaprio, a New York broker and subsequent drug addict who specialized in pump-and-dump stock swindles until he spent two years in federal prison for money laundering and securities fraud. The secret answer to that question actually isn’t a secret at all though: the message is one of deep censure of human grotesqueness, not praise of it. But that’s the genius of Scorsese, the great directing strong suit he’s demonstrated since the seventies, the wholly subjective narrative attack that fools the audience into thinking they are relishing the actions of deeply terrible and corrupt people.

Terence Winter’s script is based on the book that the real Belfort wrote about his exploits, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the film is about financial dealings. It’s about lots and lots of drugs – almost like the lascivious Hope diamond of all Scarred Straight movies. From the slow-mo romps where Belfort and his merry band of weasels, including Jonah Hill’s pitch-perfect cap-toothed sidekick Donnie Azoff, think up their schemes to the disturbingly hilarious scene where DiCaprio’s Belfort tries to crawl thirty feet to his Lamborghini after taking a paralyzing dose of Quaaludes, you quickly realize that, though stock brokerage started out as a noble and bright-eyed quest, the billion dollar dealings of the Stratton Oakmont firm are a means to a mind-numbing end. By now Scorsese’s got you hooked. The sympathy that organically grows from a first-person perspective isn’t original, but it is masterful, except that with Wolf there is no distancing third-party perspective like in Goodfellas, and no air of detachment like Casino – it is wading neck-deep through unbridled decadence, mocking your worship of such power while still tugging on your heartstrings for when things go wrong for these goons.

Wolf has a lot going for it – it’s certainly the best film Scorsese has born since 2006’s The Departed (Hugo, though good, was so oddly out of character it was too difficult to be taken seriously). The real triumph though is DiCaprio, seeming to have fully realized his talents and the range he is capable of. Spring-boarding off of his cheerfully demonic role as the wicked plantation owner Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, DiCaprio has really come into his own, and it is satisfying to see him do so, even if it requires his character to let a dominatrix stick a lit candle up his bum. By now, Best Actor front-runner Matthew McConaughey (who has a cameo as Belfort’s mentor Mark Hanna in Wolf) is probably uncatchable, but this movie has certainly put DiCaprio on a trajectory for a guaranteed future win, or quite possibly wins. All hail King Leo.

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