Saturday, February 28, 2015


Original caricature of Leonard Nimoy as Spock from the TV series STAR TREK done by Jeff York in 1990.
(Yes, that long ago.)
A legend has truly passed with Leonard Nimoy dying this past week at the age of 83. His Spock character was one of the truly great characters to come out of the world of Hollywood entertainment, going from TV cult hero to movie franchise stalwart. And at every turn that he played him, Nimoy made the character endlessly fascinating.

Spock, despite playing second banana to Captain Kirk, was the breakout character of the STAR TREK television series almost as soon as it debuted on NBC in the fall of 1966. Nimoy became a phenomenon, and a cult figure, all because of his portrayal of the complicated half-human, half-Vulcan character who was the chief alien in the famed science fiction series.

Nimoy was so good and his character such a big deal, that he garnered three Emmy nominations in each of the show’s three seasons, and was the only actor to be recognized for the series. The success of the character launched Nimoy into huge international fame and it led to a heralded stint on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE after STAR TREK ended, a recording career, roles on Broadway in big plays like EQUUS, the opportunity to direct movies, and of course, the legendary STAR TREK movie franchise.

Spock and Nimoy became so inextricably linked, that even when J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise on the big screen in 2009, he felt the need to bring back Nimoy, even though he had his newly cast Spock in Zachary Quinto. (Funny, but Abrams still didn’t have enough confidence to let his new cast stand on its own as he brought back the original Spock for a cameo yet again in 2013’s STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.)

The Spock character had many standout episodes during the original series' 1966-1969 run. “Amok Time” surely is one of them, as Nimoy got to portray a different side of his logical and cool character – that of the Vulcan in heat. Nimoy did incredible work in dramatic episodes like “City on the Edge of Forever”, “Shore Leave”, “Mirror, Mirror” and “Journey to Babel”, but he also excelled in the more comedic ones. His witty flair made Spock delightfully droll in episodes like “A Piece of the Action” and “Mudd’s Women”. Spock may have only run the emotional gamut from A to D, but those four letters were incredible in the hands of Nimoy.

Part of what made Spock so intriguing, and appealing to play for Nimoy, was the fact that the character was always trying to suppress his human side. At times he was a virtual computer, spouting facts and figures with a dry delivery that HAL 2000 would envy. But Spock was only half Vulcan, and the race that eliminated overt emotionality from their psyches could not always prevail on Spock. He was half human of course, and that always made him, as Kirk put so eloquently in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN,  the most human of souls.

And indeed, as great as all the TV episodes were, and even the other films often were, it is that legendary second film where Nimoy and his character became as ginormous on the big screen as Spock was on the small one. (For those of you who’ve never seen the second and best STAR TREK film, spoiler alerts will now be coming at warp speed.) Why did Spock become so fabled in THE WRATH OF KHAN? Quite simply, because he dies. Heroically. Tragically. His sacrifice for the needs of the many proves fatal and he dies as his captain and best friend Jim looks on. 

When I saw that incredible movie back in 1982, and watched Spock die, it felt like a family member had passed. His death had to happen in the incredibly smart story, but it still was a gut-wrenching punch to everyone. It carried so much weight because Spock was so beloved by so many.  
People sometimes forget this, but the original series was incredibly political. Gene Roddenberry ensured his show continued in the vein of Rod Serling's TWILIGHT ZONE by making sure that his science fiction was really about the times he lived in. That's why the stories on STAR TREK echoed issues like the Civil Rights movement, women's rights, even gay rights. The show dealt with themes of  prejudice, ecology, anthropology and psychology, just like the world was dealing with in that turbulent decade. STAR TREK commented on socialism, fascism, communism and totalitarianism. And Spock represented anyone and everyone who was discriminated against for being different. 

It's shocking to see just how badly Spock was continually bullied on the show, being called a "freak" constantly by his enemies and even by friends. (Shame on you, Dr. McCoy.) Spock represented the foreigner, the different one, the other. He represented the black man in America, and all others who weren't treated as equals yet by the majority of the population. Women, the handicapped, immigrants, homosexuals, lesbians, Muslims, atheists, you name it - Spock stood in, and up, for all of them.

STAR TREK was also incredibly hopeful about getting past such prejudices and trauma. This was a science fiction show that didn't subscribe to the doomsday warnings of sci-fi like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and such. STAR TREK believed in a better tomorrow. A future where the folks on the bridge of the ship came in all colors, sexes and sizes. The show portrayed a mankind that got past the threat of nuclear proliferation. It showed a united world - the Federation - going out into the galaxy to explore strange new worlds and welcome others into the fold. And Spock became a symbol of that more tolerant world, of a more global community where all kinds of different people could be accepted and yes, loved.

Thank you Leonard Nimoy, and your singular character, for all that. You helped teach us to look to the stars and be bold and prosper.  

Monday, February 23, 2015


Common and John Legend win the Oscar for Best Song for "Glory" from SELMA

As Graham Moore accepted his Oscar for penning THE IMITATION GAME, he implored those watching the 87th Oscars to stay weird and different, knowing that those who strive for something unique are the ones who create art. They might have been the best words spoken on the telecast, and in their own way they even fit the Oscars telecast. The show was indeed weird as it always is, a blend of class and crass. Yet this year it was also quite different as it was the most political it had been in years. 

For weeks, the 87th Annual Oscars promised to be two things: one, a contest between BIRDMAN and BOYHOOD, and two, a superb entertainment based on having emcee extraordinaire Neil Patrick Harris host the ceremony. Instead, BIRDMAN took four Oscars while BOYHOOD only got one. And NPH wasn’t nearly the inspired host that he had demonstrated numerous times at the Tony Awards. Perhaps the only certain prediction about the Oscars is that they will always be hard to pin down.

Oddly, the films that seemed to give BIRDMAN more of a run for its money turned out to be THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL and WHIPLASH. The former won just as many Oscars as BIRDMAN, taking the gold for Best Original Score, Costume Design, Production Design, and Makeup & Hairstyling. And the latter certainly surprised many by going three for five in the categories it was nominated in, snagging Best Supporting Actor JK Simmons, as well as Best Sound Mixing and Best Editing.

Most of the rest of the wins were easy to predict. The majority of pundits forecast victories for leads Eddie Redmayne (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) and Julianne Moore (STILL ALICE). Best Song went to “Glory” from SELMA. And even the shorts went the way most figured they would with FEAST, THE PHONE CALL, and CRISIS HOTLINE: VETERANS PRESS 1 prevailing.

What made this year’s Oscars truly different was how many people got their ‘cause on’ in their speeches. Granted, John Legend and Common have expressed disdain for Civil Rights legislation being walked back in several states when their SELMAN song has won, but who expected Arquette to talk about equal pay for women in her speech? Did anyone think that Alejandro Inarritu would touch upon the problems with Mexico’s government in his Best Picture acceptance speech?

Redmayne dedicated his victory to victims of ALS, and Moore spoke eloquently about Alzheimer’s, but even the expected politics that came with the CITIZEN FOUR win for Best Documentary were done with even stronger words than had been used at previous awards ceremonies. It was a very serious and issue-oriented Oscars as evidenced by so many of the acceptance speeches. Quite different from most telecasts of late, and welcome, as well as appropriate, in a film year that had a lot of strongly messaged movies.

And such gravitas only made NPH’s wisecracks appear even more amateurish and inappropriate. Cracking a lame treason joke at the expense of Edward Snowden seemed disrespectful after the documentary victory. Making dress jokes about the two female filmmakers who won for CRISIS HOTLINE seemed sexist and tin-eared. And his whole bit about forcing Octavia Spencer and Robert Duvall to watch his predictions under lock and key was long and weird, maybe eve sexist and ageist. Harris’ constant smug laughing at his lame jokes didn’t help matters either.  

Many thought he’d be the next Billy Crystal, asked back again and again, but I think the Academy might want to look elsewhere for someone who gets the need for the Oscars to have a bit more reverence mixed in with the irreverent. The show has to walk that line between being fun and funny while still showing respect for the fact that this is Hollywood’s biggest night and the audience is worldwide. Opening with a joke about “Hollywood’s best and whitest” set a strange tone for a show that’s supposed to celebrate the nominees, not linger on the omitted.

Surprisingly, there was little controversy with AMERICAN SNIPER at the Oscars. Despite it being a hot button issue for both the left and the right these past months, its one Oscar victory (for Sound Editing) contained nothing polarizing about it at all. The winners thanked director Clint Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper mostly, with little about Chris Kyle or the Iraq War in their acceptance speech.

Actually, the most shrewdly calculated political movement occurred organically during the show. Many winners refused to be played off by the band, instead opting to keep on talking until the intrusive instruments stopped badgering them altogether. The show is always going to run long anyway, so why is the technical director signaling for the conductor to be so rude? Let the winners have their time in the sun and say what they want, political or not. 

If only Harris had made more hay out of that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Original caricature of "The March to Oscar 2015" by Jeff York (copyright 2015)
The Academy Awards are just five days away, and for the first time in many years, there are a number of genuine contests that make it an incredibly difficult year to be certain on what to predict. Starting at the top with Best Picture, many of the categories are simply too close to call. But at least such uncertainty should make for a suspenseful show this Sunday night.

Up until the guild awards, the Oscar telecast looked like it was going to be a sweep for Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOOD. His personal film about a boy’s life, from age six to eighteen, was favored to take Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay and Editing. However, most of that changed once the Producers Guild honored BIRDMAN as the production of the year. Then the Screen Actors Guild gave their Best Ensemble Award to Michael Keaton and company. And finally, the Directors Guild overlooked Linklater in favor of Alejandro Inarritu and his tale about an actor’s troupe.

Those are the two reasons that BIRDMAN now may ultimately prevail at the Oscars. Not only has it swept the three major guild awards but its topic is near and dear to Hollywood’s heart. Navel gazing is a national pastime in Tinsel Town, and actors make up the largest voting block too, so all that bodes well for Inarritu’s film. Look no further than how the Academy has voted two of the last three years for Best Picture. THE ARTIST and ARGO, both show biz tales, took top prize.

In order to make educated guesses while filling out your Oscar pool ballot, it’s wise to keep such history in mind. It’s all a guessing game anyway, of course, but if you use your head more than your heart, you will likely be more right than wrong.

There are two other factors to keep in mind when predicting your winners. First, the Academy usually chooses prestige over commerciality, so that means films that have a historical significance or a certain perception of class to them, likely will prevail. It’s maybe why NIGHTCRAWLER didn’t get as many nominations (Picture, Actor, Cinematography) as it was expected to receive. The story of a sleazy, tabloid journalist may just have been too unsavory for the high-minded Oscar voter.

The other factor to keep in mind when making your predictions is that while composers nominate composers, and production designers nominate production designers, everyone votes on the final ballot. That means an awful lot of voters are voting for categories that they know very little about. Musicians may recognize that Alexandre Desplat’s score for THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is a stunningly complex work and is vital, dare I say instrumental, to that film’s success, but special effects guys don't recognize that. They're not music experts. So they may vote for a film with a more obvious score, even the one with the loudest music. (Yes, I’m referring to the score for INTERSTELLAR.) Their palates just aren't going to be as sophisticated. 

So with all that in mind, here are what I believe to be the most rational predictions for this year’s Academy Awards.

 Best Picture – BIRDMAN

BOYHOOD still could triumph, but that likelihood seems in tatters after those guild awards. Even though it was the odds on favorite for months, and recently won the top prize at the BAFTA awards, the momentum here in America seems to be with BIRDMAN.

Best Director – Alejandro Inarritu BIRDMAN

It’s rare that Picture and Director fail to go hand-in-hand. Granted, these top two races are neck and neck between BOYHOOD and BIRDMAN, but Inarritu definitely is the favorite after the DGA.

Best Actor – Eddie Redmayne THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

Even though it appears BIRDMAN has the big mo, why isn’t Keaton a shoo-in for Best Actor? Because Redmayne has come on strong in the last months, winning at the Golden Globes, SAG and the BAFTA’s. Remember too that voters elect acting that they can see, and it doesn’t get more apparent than when an actor plays someone with a handicap. Thus, newbie Redmayne will likely squeak by the veteran Keaton.

Best Actress – Julianne Moore STILL ALICE

Sunday should finally be Moore’s night. She’s been nominated four times before without a win, and this actor’s actor is due. She’s also swept most of the important awards, and she’s playing someone with a handicap, in this case – Alzheimer’s. The Academy will not forget to award her this time.  

Best Supporting Actor – JK Simmons WHIPLASH

The surest bet of the night is veteran character actor Simmons for his triumphant work in WHIPLASH. He’d win it in a competitive year, but the supporting actor field is exceptionally weak this go-round, and Simmons has dominated the critics’ awards. Plus, what actor wouldn’t want to honor a guy who’s paid his dues for decades, remained largely unheralded until now, and has charmed everyone at each ceremony with his humbleness and wit?  

Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette BOYHOOD

She too has swept all the awards. And she’s great in the film. And it’s almost a leading role. All that will help make her the inevitable choice.

Best Original Screenplay – THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Wes Anderson’s film got nine nods and everyone, young and old, loved it. It also was the biggest indie hit of 2014 and such statistics make it the fave in a lot of technical categories and this big one. Anderson even trumped Linklater at BAFTA for their screenplay prize. This sleeper comedy could be a surprise upset in Best Picture, but it’s the favorite for its screenplay, even though this category is chock full of good nominees and remains a fairly competitive one for the night.

Best Adapted Screenplay – THE IMITATION GAME

The year’s best-adapted script wasn’t even nominated this year. That would be Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL, but since that isn’t in the running, the award will likely go to THE IMITATION GAME. That’s based on it winning some big awards in the last month, including Best Adapted Screenplay at the Writers Guild of America awards last weekend. It also has that gleam of history to it, and that always helps in the writing categories.

Best Cinematography – BIRDMAN

Its virtuoso trick of seeming to be one, endless shot is the kind of gimmicky photography that even a sound engineer can see and appreciate. And that’s not to say that it isn’t worth heralding. It’s key to the story as it blends the real world of the Keaton character with his fantasy one.  

Best Editing – BOYHOOD

WHIPLASH and AMERICAN SNIPER both created incredible tension with their expert editing, but BOYHOOD will likely beat them, as its challenge was to edit down 12 years of filmmaking into one, cogent two-hour film. It succeeded spectacularly at doing so.  

Best Production Design – THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

The fact that the hotel is a main character in the film and its candy-colored designs are so integral to the movie’s comedy and whimsy gives Anderson’s fable an advantage over its competitors.


Its period clothing tells an incredible story about each character. And this movie has been cleaning up in categories like this, production design and makeup all awards season, so expect that below-the-line streak to continue through Oscar night.

Best Hairstyling and Makeup – FOXCATCHER

This category could go any of the three ways with THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY being superb competitors. Still, I'm guessing FOXCATCHER here. All three of its lead actors (Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) were rendered unrecognizable by their extraordinary makeup. Such noticeable achievements should be easy for that sound guy to notice and vote for, right? 


The more sophisticated score is the aforementioned one for THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, but the Stephen Hawking bio’s music was emotional and helped open voters’ tear ducts. (You notice such things when you’re sobbing.) Thus, it will move Academy members to vote for it, just as it did with the Hollywood Foreign Press for the Golden Globes, and many other contests this awards season.

Best Visual Effects – INTERSTELLAR

The Oscar here should go to DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES or GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, but INTERSTELLAR is more of a prestigious choice. Plus, the old school green screen utilized here plays with a lot of voters who fear losing work to CGI enough already.

Best Sound Editing – AMERICAN SNIPER

Films shot outside, and in difficult locations, often prevail in the sound categories. So do action movies. This has all that going for it, and it's a huge box office hit that so many voters have seen in theaters where they can appreciate the full effect of its great sound editing. 

Best Sound Mixing – AMERICAN SNIPER

It should be WHIPLASH for its sophisticated blending of all the levels of music it mixed, but AMERICAN SNIPER had obvious noise and outdoor challenges that even the most unlearned voter should be able to sense.

Best Original Song – SELMA

It was an egregious shame that this stellar film only received two Oscar nominations. It won’t win Best Picture, but its consolation prize will have to be Best Song. And it’s a very good one too. It’s also got all the momentum having been performed at the Grammys two weeks ago, and scooping up a lot of awards in the last two months.

Best Animated Feature – HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

For the first time in years, this category is competitive too. It could go a number of ways here, but the Dreamworks sequel has been winning most of the awards lately, and it just swept the Annie’s, Hollywood’s animation awards. Look for it to win here too.

Best Foreign Language Film – IDA

Poland's IDA was the best foreign film of the year and even scored a deserved cinematography nod. Plus, it’s about the Holocaust, which is always catnip for Academy voters.

Best Documentary – CITIZEN FOUR

LIFE ITSELF, the documentary about film critic Roger Ebert, would’ve given the Edward Snowden story a run for its money if it were nominated. It wasn’t, and the path is clear for the edgy and important story about whistleblowing to prevail.


Ah, the shorts. They’re usually very difficult to predict, but since they’ve become open to more voting members, they have generally followed the trend of honoring those that most people have seen. This one is been very popular and it’s wonderful too. It also couldn’t be timelier, as the problem of veterans care is a national topic, if not shame. The award here will shine even more light on the problems.

Best Live Action Short – THE PHONE CALL

Again, here’s another tough category to call, with BOOGALOO AND GRAHAM being worthy of the win, as well as AYA. But the smart money is on the sensitively rendered two-hander between a timid crisis hotline operator and a man who just overdosed on anti-depressants in his bid to commit suicide. The fact that it stars British stalwarts Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent only helps its case further.

Best Animated Short – FEAST

Disney’s delightful short about a hungry dog could easily win it outright. The fact that more voters will have seen it due to it proceeding BIG HERO 6 in theaters only creates more of an air of inevitability.

Those are my best guesses for the 24 Academy categories, based on data, trends and tea leaves. Who do you think will win?

Thursday, February 12, 2015


Sally Hawkins in THE PHONE CALL
The Academy Awards air Sunday night, February 22, and plenty of the nominated films are still playing in theaters. Landmark Theaters and other art-house destinations are currently showcasing the nominees for the Live Action Shorts across the country. And even though the shorts categories tend to be of lower interest to most of the audience of the annual Oscar telecast, these mini-movies are worth seeking out. They’re packed with a lot of drama in precious little time.

The favorite to win the Oscar is a UK short called THE PHONE CALL. In 21 deft minutes, the story of a suicidal man’s phone call to a crisis hotline operator is rendered tense as well as sentimental. Sally Hawkins is virtually onscreen the whole time all to herself and she does wonderful work acting with her eyes, hands and posture to convey a modest woman who finds herself, quite literally, holding a man’s life on the line. Jim Broadbent is the frazzled and woozy caller who’s downed a bottle of anti-depressants. This one is rather depressing, but its denouement is life-affirming if narratively unconventional.

PARVANEH is from Switzerland and tells the tale of a female Afghan refugee who is working in that country and attempts to send money back home to her family. Of course, that seemingly simple task is fraught with all kinds of obstacles, from government red tape to con artists wanting to part her from her stash of cash. Nissa Kashani shines as the earnest but naïve title character in this 24-minute character study that renders an edge-of-your-seat sense of dread up until its final moments.

BUTTER LAMP, a combined effort from France and China, is easily the strangest short that has come down the Oscar pike in some time. It’s a strange and rather static observing of two photographers shooting portraits of various Tibetan families posing in Western clothing and placed in front of a series of unusual backdrops – everything from a tropical beach setting to a welcoming line at Disney World. The audience’s POV is that of the camera with the only edits coming from the click of the camera. It’s too odd by half with its strange juxtaposition of Old World families buttressed up against the modernity of cheap portrait photography, but it is certainly a unique short.

The dark horse candidate this season that could usurp the favorite could be BOOGALOO AND GRAHAM. This UK entry is about a couple of boys in Northern Ireland who try to take care of the two chicks their father has brought home. It's both the funniest entry  and the shortest – only 14 minutes long. The Belfast boys are both sweet and surly in their attempts at parenting. There is tension added to their task too by the threat of the battle between the IRA and the British government in their community. As bad as that is, their main nemesis is their imposing mother whose favorite expression is a disapproving frown. Despite the tension though, this tale is a funny fable with the boys (Riley Hamilton and Aaron Lynch) making for quite the comic pairing, loving one minute and cursing like hooligans the next. 

Perhaps the most compelling of this year's short is the delicate character study that is AYA, a French-Israel production. Aya, an Israeli woman (Sarah Adler) waits at the Tel Aviv airport and is mistaken by a Danish man named Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen) for a limo driver. She decides to go along for the ride, literally and figuratively, as she drives him to his hotel destination. As they make the journey, their back and forth goes from civil to confidential to strangely intimate. The two actors are great together, and you'll likely wish this was a full-length film. All in all, AYA is a thoughtfully observed essay on loneliness, and at 40 minutes, it’s also this year’s longest Live Action Short.

The Academy usually tends to honor those films that move their heart more than their head, and that’s always been true of the voting in this category too. Four of the five here, with the exception of BUTTER LAMP, pack an emotional wallop so it could be a real contest this year. We will find out which moved voters the most come February 22. And in case you can't get to see these in time, they all become available on VOD the day after the Oscars are handed out.

This weekend, if you're into elicit love stories, you can check out FIFTY SHADES OF GREY which is opening. Or if you're a big lover of action, THE KINGSMEN also debuts. However, if you adore unusual fare at the Cineplex, show some love for Oscar's Live Action Shorts while they're still in theaters.  

Saturday, February 7, 2015


Have you seen all eight of Oscar’s nominees for Best Picture? I have, and there’s not a dog in the bunch. Most of the nominees truly qualify as the year’s absolute best.

The one that falls short is AMERICAN SNIPER. It may be tremendously popular at the box office, and with its involving story it’s easy to see why, but what kept it from being a great film was its avoidance in confronting a lot of the issues that compromised our Iraq War efforts. Sure, it rings similar war movie bells such as showing uncompromisingly the difficulty of being in combat as well as the traumatic struggles of returning home, but the movie fails to show, with any real conviction, the reckoning with a war that was started under tragic falsehoods.

After all, there were no WMD’s found and Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with those who took down the Twin Towers on 9-11. But the film all but connects the same dots that the Bush administration did, and they were wrong then and now. Over a decade after discovering the hard truths of our failed intelligence, you’d think a movie about the Iraq War would have something more profound to say than just war is hell.  

Still, while I take exception with the film’s pulled punches, as cinema it is a very successful thriller as well as a moving character study. Bradley Cooper is terrific in the film’s lead role, offering up a conflicted Chris Kyle that shows more angst about his purpose than the real one did in his biography. And Sienna Miller does wonders as Kyle’s beleaguered wife, deserving a Best Supporting Actress nomination that unfortunately she did not receive.

The most exceptional thing to laud about the movie is in its dealing with how war affects family. It showcases how war truly has a profound affect on home life and can proudly stand with similarly themed movies like THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) and COMING HOME (1978) in that capacity, even if it fails to be as politically shrewd as it could and should be in this modern age.

Each of this year’s other seven Oscar nominees for Best Picture, in fact, have what for me is a singular attribute that rises above all their other outstanding ones. Such qualities may even have been the deciding factor in pushing these films into the best of the year both in Oscar’s estimation, as well as my own.

The best thing about BOYHOOD, 2014’s greatest film, is that its screenplay is all about small moments. And that is huge in this day and age of screenwriting seminars and Hollywood formula dictating clichéd three-act story arcs. Nothing much happens in Richard Linklater’s story here, accept that everything happens. This is a film that shows the aftermath of big events like divorce or fights, and how families recover from them and move on. The beauty of Linklater’s work is that it makes these moments onscreen as stunning as the usual set pieces you’d find in most Hollywood fare. It’s hard to believe that an American film could be done this way (BOYHOOD almost feels like a foreign film, if anything) and it’s even harder to believe that it’s Oscar’s Best Picture frontrunner.

There have been many movies made about the struggle of actors, and they’ve often won Best Picture. ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) and THE ARTIST (2011) are just two of them. BIRDMAN is no different in its unflinching portrayal of such a crazy world, but what makes this film quite special is how it plays out as a fever dream in the head of its lead character played by Michael Keaton. Riggan, his insecure actor, is struggling with all sorts of demons, past and present, and they form a pastiche of endless connection in his rattled mind. It’s very similar to the kind of head-trip that David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) was, as that movie showcased the downward spiral of an actress. Here the actor is on more of an upward spiral as he gains confidence in what’s he’s striving for, and director Alejandro Inarritu shrewdly uses the illusion of one continuous camera take to represent all that is going on in Riggan's interconnecting world of truth and fantasy. 

Of any writer/director working today, no filmmaker is as singular as Wes Anderson. From his melancholic view of the human condition to his stylized art direction to his symmetrical camerawork, you know it’s a Wes Anderson film. He is a singular artist whose work is instantly recognizable and its uniqueness informs every frame of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. He likely won’t win Best Director but look for this one-of-a-kind artist to take home the Best Original Screenplay trophy. Anderson’s POV is the most unique in film at the moment and both critics and audiences are eating it up. Maybe that's why it garnered nine Oscar nominations, and became the year's biggest moneymaking indie. 

Did you ever think in a million years that a movie about a jazz band could have you on the edge of your seat, as if you were watching a thriller? Would you ever believe that a movie about sitting and drumming would be shot, edited and mixed with an intensity usually found in action films? Well, that’s exactly what WHIPLASH does. It takes the world of music and turns it into sport. Audiences are whooping and hollering at the end as if they’re watching a winning touchdown being scored as Miles Teller’s drummer finally achieves greatness to the amazement of his demanding teacher (the Oscar bound JK Simmons). Incredibly, writer/director Damien Chazelle created a nail-biting thriller out of a mere drum kit. 

You may think that THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is a movie biography about Stephen Hawking, but it’s really about both him and his wife. Based on Jane Wilde Hawking's book about their years together, this movie adaptation presents a stunning view of the trajectory of a marriage over the course of time. And interestingly, the character that has the true story arc in the film is Jane. Sure, we see her husband's transformation from boy genius in college to ALS-ravaged super scientist and celebrity, but the changes in his wife's life are equally as dramatic. She goes from fresh-faced schoolgirl to determined wife to steely caregiver. Finally, when she has needs that her husband no longer can fulfill, she shows a strength that is stunning and adds the deepest drama to the story. Both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones deserved their lead Oscar nominations, and it’s this film's extraordinary portrayal of marriage, warts and all, that makes it such a remarkable film.

The strengths of THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, showcasing in great detail the ups and downs of its protagonists' personal lives, is probably something that THE IMITATION GAME could have done more of. Instead, the private life of mathematician Alan Turing is mostly kept off screen. While working for British intelligence during WWII to unlock the secret codes of Nazi communications, he was harboring his own secret - that of being homosexual. Such a lifestyle was deemed illegal at that time in England. The movie shows us precious little of that man, instead spending almost all its time on him as a mathematician. That's a shame because Turing's fight for his right to be a gay man, and his punishment of chemical castration for being one, is dramatized here, but not given nearly as much screen time as it should warrant. Nonetheless, the film's greatest asset is in how much it shows of the man’s brilliant work that turned the tide during the great war. 

The details of exactly how the prototype computer he created helped decipher the Third Reich’s communications is clearly explained and showcased throughout and it's a credit to screenwriter Graham Moore that he didn't gloss over the specifics. In fact, his delight in explaining it all plays almost like an Agatha Christie story where Hercule Poirot carefully explains exactly how the murder happened. Turing’s work is shrewdly showcased front and center throughout, with extraordinary clarity and immediacy. And the movie makes such things as numerals and letters into riveting cinema. And you realize how Turing was truly as significant a hero as Winston Churchill or FDR were to the war effort, and how tragic it is that he has been overlooked. Until now.

Finally, there is SELMA, Ava DuVernay’s grossly ignored film in this year’s Oscar balloting. Yes, it did receive a nomination for Best Picture, as well as one for Best Original Song, but it should've received a lot more. The main reason it didn't isn't due to 'racism fatigue' as some have suspected. Nor is it because of an old white boys' network within the Academy. It's really because distributor Paramount Pictures failed to get out enough screeners (at-home DVD’s) in time to figure in balloting. 

And not just for the Oscars. It didn't send any screeners out at all to members of the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, or the Producers Guild, and thus was overlooked at those awards ceremonies completely. However,  SELMA clearly resonated enough with the Oscar voters who did seek it out in theaters and it justly was remembered on two occasions when it came time to cast their ballots.  

Those who did see it surely could appreciate the fact that despite having to tell a story about facts and famous characters (Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson), the film never feels like a dry history lesson. Instead, those iconic figures from history are portrayed as complex human beings here, with foibles and recognizable frailty.

One such moment that portrays the human side of King (David Oyelowo) is when he goes to the morgue to pay his respects to a family who's young son was killed in a protest. At the hospital, King talks with the victim's grandfather, and its' a lengthy scene showing a heartfelt and detailed conversation between the minister and his parishioner.  Most films would have made such a scene brief, quickly rendering MLK’s compassion, but then moving onto bigger moments. But director DuVernay is interested in those small observations as well as the larger statements. 

The film has dozens of scenes like that, filled with nuance and subtlety of character, and it turns all the important events in history like the famed Selma march or King's meetings with LBJ in the White House into flesh and blood, not just a history lesson. This film brings history to life with great intimacy and potency, and that is why it's one of the best films of the year. And it's why, despite all the PR politics working against it, this movie was indeed voted a Best Picture contender by the Academy members. 

The Oscars will be handed out on Sunday evening, February 22nd, and the Academy has a lot to be proud of this year. It has more films recognized across the board than it has in decades, and despite the issues of lacking diversity in both race and sex in many categories, most choices are exceptional. 

And there are many categories that are so competitive that this year's ceremony will be an exciting one. You need look no further than the Best Picture race. It is still up for grabs, with the contest appearing to be mostly a battle between BOYHOOD and BIRDMAN. Yet, who knows what surprises might still be in store? Are the incredibly popular AMERICAN SNIPER and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL potential spoilers? We shall see. 

The fact is that the Best Picture contest has eight strong entries this year. And how amazing is it that the two that appear to be in the lead are indies? It all says good things about the 2014 film year as well as the Oscar race this season. It's quite golden, actually.