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.

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