For the first time in my life, I have seen every movie nominated for Best Picture by the Academy. Here is a one-stop-shop review of all of them:
Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Every year there is at least one movie (if not a handful) which serve as a Pretentiousness Litmus Test, designed to weed out all us simpletons who can't understand art. These movies go out of their way to alienate anyone who likes The Avengers or The Wedding Ringer. Birdman is so very clearly this year’s Pretentiousness Litmus Test. The only thing missing from the movie was its own Oscar acceptance speech. I mean this presumptious & snoody film was so heavy handed to have a critic within the film determined to hate the movie ... er ... play, and yet gives it a glowing review, almost giving critics a paint-by-the-numbers how-to on reviewing this play ... er ... film. Birdman was not only pretentious, but it was too absurd to be realism, too anchored in reality to be absurdist, failed to even make an honest attempt to fulfill its greatest potential (an honest critique of Hollywood's superhero obsession), no characters are likeable, and the storytelling devices are inconsistent. I truly disliked this movie.
My ranking: 8 of 8 nominees.
Chances of winning: Very high
The Grand Budapest Hotel – To be fair, The Grand Budapest Hotel has a lot of the hallmarks of a Pretentiousness Litmus Test, as all Wes Anderson films do. The difference? Wes Anderson never seems to go out of his way to alienate his audiences; rather, it merely seems like he caters to the Gen Y & hipster crowds. I really liked this film. The story flowed well, characters who ought to be unlikeable are all likable, the stylized look of the film was refreshingly retro, and the comedy was well written & well acted. Speaking of acting, Wes Anderson always seems to populate his films with the best actors available, even for minor roles. The only real criticism one may have is that for a story set in Eastern Europe, everyone seems to have an American or British accent. This was intentional. Reportedly, Anderson did this so that his actors could focus more on their acting than on their accents. Perhaps unintentionally, the decision ended up being a very intriguing artistic decision, as it seemed that the lack of accents was part of the overall retro feel of the movie. Hollywood legends like John Wayne, Sean Connery, & Arnold Schwarzenegger seldom (if ever) masked their natural accents for a role, even if their accent made no sense whatsoever for the role. Furthermore, it occurred to me that Ralph Fiennes’s English accent (equally out-of-place in Eastern Europe) never seemed out-of-place; meanwhile, Edward Norton & Jeff Goldblum’s American accents stuck out like a sore thumb. This says a lot about Western movie audiences, who somehow see the English accent as the go-to accent for anywhere on Earth except America, as well as the accent of any fantasy realm (like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones).
My ranking: 7 of 8 nominees.
Chances of winning: Medium-low. Wes Anderson movies always seem to be the bridesmaid & never the bride when it comes to these types of awards.
The Theory of Everything – Dr. Stephen Hawking has achieved folk hero status. Not only is he one of the top scientific minds of all time, but he has endured one of the worst diseases any person ever has to endure. Eddie Redmayne does a spectacular job as Hawking. Felicity Jones, likewise, lights up the screen. As a fan of history, I am easy to please when it comes to these types of movies. And I was, indeed, pleased. (It helped that I saw this movie with my wife on our honeymoon.) Nevertheless, I do not believe that this film holds up against the other historical drama nominees. This movie boiled down science to mere background information. The real focus was upon his illness & the highs and lows of his first marriage. But to try to separate Dr. Hawking from science is like making a film about Napoleon without showing any battles, and relegating battle strategy to the background as the film focuses on how short he was.
My ranking: 6 of 8 nominees.
Chances of winning: Medium. I do not follow much of the Oscar buzz. The Academy Awards, I fear, are more an issue of momentum than honest voting. A certain film starts getting buzz (The Hurt Locker, The Artist) and it rushes to the front of the pack, as voters don’t want to be one of the schulbs who voted for a loser. I fear that films like Birdman will take most of the buzz, leaving deserving historical dramas in their dust.
Boyhood – This is a delightful movie. There is so much that is great about this movie. Like The Social Network, this movie grabs your attention but not with explosions, gunfights, car chases, emotional death/illness, espionage, political intrigue, or any of the other go-to plots of exciting movies. My fear is that people will vote for Boyhood because they like the gimmick (filmed a few weeks a year over 12 years, so as to keep the same principle actors throughout childhood). Equally disturbing, voters may shy away from Boyhood, thinking it is just a gimmick. What they will miss is an excellent expose on growing up in America: broken family, teenage angst, broken hearts, evolving personality & priorities, ever-changing friend groups, etc. The film is a bit long for its subject matter, but I don’t think that can be helped; to lose any of the film would make the growth rate of the main character less believable. The editing was extraordinary. Mason’s growth was subtle to the point of unnoticeable, with just a few exceptions in the early teen years, when Ellar Coltrane likely hit massive growth spurts in between shoot dates. My only real complaint was that Ellar developed a pretty annoying speech pattern in his mid-to-late teens, with his voice getting high at the end of every sentence. I have seen this countless times as a camp counselor, youth pastor, & bus driver, so it actually comes across as incredibly authentic.
My ranking: 5 of 8 nominees.
Chances of winning: High. Probably neck-&-neck with Birdman.
Selma – This film is difficult to review. After watching the film, my initial reaction was contradictory. I found it to be a triumphant and excellent historical drama. On the other hand, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life is so very interesting, it felt like the film somehow undersold him. Nevertheless, I found the acting to be extraordinary. Furthermore, in a year when the Oscar nominees feel so very whitewashed (Birdman, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, & Boyhood have no significant roles for minorities, and The Grand Budapest Hotel has but the one), Selma was a breath of fresh air. And the film isn’t just a film about blacks. White actors make up much of the cast, and not just in villainous roles. This is, therefore, the most diverse film of the year. It is my hope that Selma develops momentum in the last few weeks of Oscar voting. When Ben Affleck was inexplicably shut out of the Best Director nominees, his film Argo rushes forward to take Best Picture in a wave of momentum. Selma was snubbed not only for a Best Director nomination (Ava DuVernay), but also Best Actor (David Oyelowo). Carmen Ejogo (Supporting Actress) & either Stephan James or Tom Wilkinson (Supporting Actor) would have been welcome nominees, as well. So, I really hope that Selma gets the Argo treatment and moves up in the Best Picture voting.
My ranking: 4 of 8 nominees.
Chances of winning: Low.
The Imitation Game – Our lone World War II nominee, with movies like Unbroken, Fury, & Monuments Men being left out. Benedict Cumberbatch was excellent in this movie. It would have been too easy for him to slip into his Sherlock Holmes persona, as Alan Turing was a brilliant, socially-inept, and verbally-blunt genius. But his performance never once felt like a rehash of Sherlock. Everyone in this film was cast perfectly. The writers and director also did very well. A brief discussion of Turing during the war is fascinating: he basically invented the computer in order to break the Nazi code. Putting that on screen is not as easy as it sounds. Assembling a computer on film looks about as exciting as a guy putting together a jigsaw puzzle. But they succeeded in making it exciting and full of drama. Furthermore, the subject of Turing’s sexuality was handled perfectly. It was not ignored, nor was it preached in your face. It was displayed as a foundational part of who he was and why he developed into the man he was. We also see the results of government-sanctioned homophobia, and even most conservatives would agree that what England did to their gay war hero was appalling.
My ranking: 3 of 8 nominees.
Chances of winning: Difficult to see. There does not seem to be a lot of buzz surrounding this film, but never underestimate of British drama, especially one about homosexuality.
Whiplash – What a great film. I had not anticipated this film's nomination. Even when I got a chance to see it, my expectations were low. It blew me away. The pace of the film is deliciously brisk, mirroring the double swing tempo that the main character struggles so hard to master. JK Simmons simply must win Best Supporting Actor. His portrayal of a legendarily abusive band director was splendid. Miles Teller carried a great movie, which is not a phrase I thought I’d be saying after Divergent & Project X. His performance gives me hope for the Fantastic Four reboot. Furthermore, the ending of this movie is perhaps the single best ending that I have ever seen for a movie. It left you in a tizzy, with many questions left unanswered, but you don’t care, because it is just so good.
My ranking: 2 of 8 nominees.
Chances of winning: Medium-low. It’ll need some momentum.
American Sniper – Of all the movies nominated this year, American Sniper is the most difficult one to judge. Nearly everyone judges this movie through their own pre-determined political and social biases (see: comments section). Chris Kyle is, admittedly, a conservative darling. Apart from an alleged libel issue, Kyle is a very successful American soldier (sailor? He was in the Navy). Discussions of his allegedly war atrocities seem very much to focus on his body count, which is a logically-hollow argument. Is a soldier a hero is he kills 5 enemies but a villain if he kills 50? Being good at his job did not make Kyle a villain. He saved countless American lives, and potentially many Iraqi lives, as many of his targets were terrorists who rarely try to protect civilians. Was he a war hero? That appears to be a matter of interpretation. Notice that I called Alan Turing as war hero earlier; that has more to do with our modern interpretation of WWII as an honorable fight for the Allies. Meanwhile, the invasion of Iraq is questionable at least. To me, Chris Kyle’s greatest feat was to parlay his experience into a campaign to serve & help fellow veterans suffering from PTSD and a multitude of injuries and mutilations. His premature death merely makes his story poignant.
As you can see, it is impossible to judge this film without dealing with the political implications. As a film, there are many reasons that I find this movie to be the best film I’ve seen in years. Bradley Cooper’s performance was brilliant, subtle, & authentic. The way he handles resistance from his wife to go back to war, the anguish of having to kill well-armed women & children, and the reluctance to accept either praise or psychological help all ring genuine & authentic. Clint Eastwood deserves a great deal of credit for crafting a film that treats the American soldier with so much honor & respect, but at the same time is pretty critical of war in general, and the Iraq War 2 in particular. That is why I find it kind of ironic that right-wing conservatives like this film so much. American Sniper is just as anti-war as The Hurt Locker. To me, American Sniper is a modern Red Badge of Courage.
My ranking : 1
Chances: Absolute zero. As soon as FOXNews and the like began fawning over this film, they ensured that the Academy will honor it with exactly zero Oscars of any kind.