Most of the year I’m disposed to ignore most domestic new releases in favor of covering new releases and revivals of foreign films, but I’m slowly starting to stretch out more in that regard. A few years ago I decided to at least watch the Oscar Best Picture nominees to balance things out. Regular readers already know my ardent feelings about James Gray’s The Immigrant, so I won’t belabor that here.
American Sniper – Clint Eastwood (like John Huston) likes to leave his lead actors alone to do their own work while he surrounds them with what they need to do that work well. He’s handed over this film to Bradley Cooper (who also co-produced), and Cooper’s big-simple-consistent-strokes performance anchors the entire film. Eastwood shapes each and every sequence as a showcase for heroic resolve and a lesson in the price that’s paid for maintaining it. It’s true to how modern warfare works without promoting or condemning it, and he’s filtered almost any trace of larger religious or political considerations from the tunnelvision Chris Kyle experience – it’s all through Kyle’s eyes, from Kyle’s worldview. I suspect a lot of people will find that somewhat unsatisfying, but Clint’s always been about troubling moral incongruities. It’s a story told with extraordinary professionalism and class, but, with no disrespect to Chris Kyle or Clint Eastwood, we’ve seen all of this before; unless you have more to show us than Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, or Mark Bowden and Ridley Scott have done, it’s ultimately just a pretty good genre exercise circa 2014. It’s made a LOT of money, and LOTS of people have seen it, so the point/counterpoint media rhetoric is escalating wildly. It’s a war movie. If you don’t like war movies, don’t see this one. If you like war movies, this is a pretty good one. If you’re conflicted about war movies, you’ll be conflicted about this one. This isn’t the year’s best film, but that’s not to say that it might not win this anyway. (Although no Eastwood directing nomination would indicate it’s unlikely.)
Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Full disclosure: I’m not much of an Alejandro González Iñárritu fan. Our first dose, Amores Perros, was impressive, in its mean-spirited way, but Babel, 21 Grams and Biutiful were all insufferably earnest and punishingly humorless, shoving Bitter Irony™ down our throats. (And Biutiful convinced me to not just blame Guillermo Arriaga.) Iñárritu and his other writers here have brought more genuinely humorous energy to things, dark as it still may be, but Birdman’s one-continuous-shot conceit feels more like a hamster wheel the actors are compelled to keep turning rather than a constructive storytelling strategy – the endless urgency gets monotonous. Michael Keaton’s work is admirable here, and nomination-worthy. I’m also a huge fan of Emma Stone, but her nomination here (and Norton’s) is baffling. I thought all of the women in the film were distressingly misused, and Norton’s role is facile caricature, albeit well-executed. If Iñárritu actually likes any of these characters, there’s no evidence of it on display. I even felt bad for Maurice Ravel. I think Iñárritu and his writers are trying to describe a tragic sociocultural narrowing of the options for any free expression, from fine art to pop culture to personal intimacy. And it’s certainly entertaining, in its smart-assed eager-to-please way. But his films always leave me with the same question; you’ve put some terrific actors through hell again, Alejandro, but what’s your point?
Boyhood – a very likable movie, but that revelatory slice-of-life masterpiece that everyone else is gushing about escaped me. Like much of his work, Boyhood showcases Richard Linklater’s writerly skill in fashioning behavior and environment out of the accumulation of well-chosen details, rather than hitting bullet points on a narrative outline. I don’t think the film is more about its own making than the story being told, as some have opined, but I do think that creating X amount of footage, intermittently, year after year, made Linklater (and editor Sandra Adair) too generous in deciding how much of it they could constructively use. The film is easily 30-40 minutes too long, and the latter stages of the almost-three-hour-slog aren’t nearly as interesting as the film’s first half. For all of Linklater’s gifts as a writer and director of actors, his visual narratives are workmanlike at best, and the film has no real rhythm or dynamic. Arquette, however, is rock-solid, deserving her nomination and the win (she’s the only reason the last half-hour is sufferable). Overall, I was happy to have seen it; I suspect this and Birdman are the favorites, but, honestly, if these are the best of the year, then it’s been kind of a lame year. They’re both singular films in their way, but both will be all but forgotten five years from now.
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson’s usual visual conceits are liberally brandished in his best film since The Royal Tenenbaums; more so than ever, though, the stylistic flourishes are in direct service to the plot and the characters, rather than just odd but clever framing devices. M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) is the legendary concierge de l’hôtel of the Grand Budapest, as well as a gigolo to its fantastically wealthy clientele. The plot’s engine is a series of dark and comical intrigues concerning the murder of one of M. Gustave’s most devoted clients, but the overall tone chronicles the end of an elegant era, and the fate to which its post-era participants reconcile themselves. It’s telling that M. Gustave and the beloved Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) don’t so much die at the end as vaporize into memory – their deaths are told of rather than shown – much like Anderson’s inspiration here, Stefan Zweig, who killed himself believing that high European culture couldn’t possibly survive the Nazis. I put this in 4th or 5th place Academy-wise, but of these eight, this and Whiplash are my own favorites.
The Imitation Game – All of the ingredients for an engaging, challenging and evocative film biography of Alan Turing are here, but Graham Moore’s screenplay veers away from almost every complexity, scientific or psycho-sexual, that it brings up. Bouncing around between three distinct time periods in Turing’s life, Moore resorts to a great many Tortured Gay Nerd stereotypes, which, with many of them being at least partially true, renders Benedict Cumberbatch’s earnest but too-tightly-wound presentation of them even more melodramatically cloying. Director Morten Tyldum previously directed the dark and thrilling Headhunters; here he and Moore choose to emphasize Turing’s isolation rather than his accomplishments, yet without the thrill of the code-breaking mission, the rest of the story would get old pretty quickly. Bullied by schoolmates, bullied by his military intelligence superiors and bullied by his fellow code breakers until he meets his Magdalene (Keira Knightley as fellow cryptographer Joan Clarke), Alan then turns things around, winning friends and influencing people until the script tells him to stop doing that and become the Tortured Gay Nerd again. Knightley is good – her usual crisply functional work, neither showy nor sneaky – but her nomination is a stretch this time, God bless ‘er. I have a feeling detective inspectors weren’t nearly as affable as Detective Nock (the terrific Rory Kinnear), nor did they just stumble on to Turing’s ‘indecencies’ by accident. The last ten minutes of the film almost feel like an afterthought: “Oh, yes, and then this other thing happened. Tut, tut, poor fellow…” This was a film I wanted to like, but just couldn’t. Tyldum’s film is well-structured, and looks great, but could have used a lot less hand-wringing and a bigger dose of straightforward-ness.
Selma – many berate American Sniper for its tunnelvision view of the war, seemingly pre-empting other populations and philosophies, but Selma is just as tightly focused in its way. It’s easy now to see the righteousness of the Civil Rights movement and the Voting Rights Act (and the flat-out wrongheadedness of current attempts to weaken them ), but at the time those ideas went against more than just one aspect of entrenched American culture, and not all of those resistant to change were just racist. History shows that George Wallace and J. Edgar Hoover deserve any lumps they receive, but LBJ was not a Stubborn Cracker Wheeler-Dealer Who Just Didn’t Get It, and we’re misleadingly close to that here. I have little quarrel with the film’s presentation of events in and around the actual Selma marches, though; director Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb strike a nice balance between flat historical documentation and stomach-lurching personal drama, and those characters who are focused on are richly detailed, fascinating people (whether from her own efforts or DuVernay’s regard, Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta is wonderful here.) DuVernay, technically and aesthetically, is undeniably good (as is her talented cinematographer, Bradford Young), but the film loses steam late on; the third march seems oddly anticlimactic, when it should be a triumph. I liked this movie very much, and recommend it highly, but it’s too narrowly focused to make the leap from An Inspiring True Story to The Definitive Chronicle (which I suspect it aspires to be).
The Theory of Everything – Much like our other British production, The Imitation Game, we have here another biography of admirable craft and structure, but enervating conventionality. You don’t miss the science as much here, though, since A) it’s clear early on that the love story will be at the forefront, and B) the performances by Eddie Redmayne (as Stephen Hawking) and Felicity Jones (as Jane Wilde Hawking) are world-class. Jones has the more elaborate emotional arc to survey; we’re not surprised when she falls in love with the young Stephen, we never question her loyalty and resolve to create a strong and loving family with him, and we completely understand when Jane’s love and resolve start to exhaust themselves. Redmayne’s work is astonishingly detailed and expressive – much of it admittedly physical, technical, but you can’t rehearse the clever gleam that Redmayne puts into Hawking’s eyes, or diagram which particular smiles are going to express which complex feelings. Redmayne’s Hawking is solidly illuminated from within, and I think there’s a good chance he may pick Michael Keaton’s pocket on Oscar night. A pleasant, middling film overall, of admirably consistent humor, but the acting’s worth the admission price.
Whiplash – if emotional engagement is the measure of a rewarding film-viewing experience, then I freely admit that this film hooked me, reeled me in, chewed me up and spit me out. It establishes a fascinating, conflicted, unhealthy co-dependent relationship, and then surreptitiously pinches your shirtsleeve and pulls you into the thick of it. Even after you’ve decided that neither of these people are very likable anymore, you stay with them. The film is artful exaggeration of director Damian Chazelle’s own experiences as a music student under a similarly draconian instructor, and J. K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher is a deep and dark whole-new-league of punishingly manipulative alpha-dog – there’s no close second for the Supporting Actor Oscar. But Miles Teller holds his admirable own here as Fletcher’s allegedly-bound-for-greatness drumming student. This is the one film I was able to see on its release; “Does greatness, in any vocation, come from a place of love and encouragement and available resources? Or should it come from conflict, from adversity, from challenge that disrupts all of the other aspects of our lives? Is greatness worth anything to ourselves if we haven’t gone through hell to achieve it?” Actual working musicians, and teachers, will roll their eyes at some of Chazelle’s conceits, but this is a very skillful well-oiled-machine of a film, and my other favorite (with Grand Budapest Hotel) of these eight.
Should win: Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater.
Will win: Richard Linklater or Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Conspicuous in their absence: Ava DuVernay (Selma), Damien Chazelle (Whiplash).
Should win: Marion Cotillard – if she does, I suspect she’ll thank the Dardennes and James Gray. Felicity Jones isn’t a completely crazy longshot here, though.
Will win: Julianne Moore – in Oscar tradition, it’s her turn, and once again, it’s for the wrong movie. But since she’s one of the best actors on the planet, I have no big problem with this. And make no mistake, she’s one of the best actors on the planet in this movie.
Conspicuous in her absence: Emily Blunt, for either Edge Of Tomorrow or Into The Woods. She had a great year. She’ll win in a few years for the wrong film, too.
Should win: Eddie Redmayne.
Will win: Michael Keaton. These two are very close, and both were very good.
Conspicuous in their absence: Ralph Fiennes (Grand Budapest Hotel), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler).
Best Supporting Actress
Should and will win: Patricia Arquette (although God bless Laura Dern…).
Conspicuous in their absence: Agata Kulesza for Ida, Carmen Ejogo for Selma.
Best Supporting Actor
Should and will win: J.K. Simmons.
Conspicuous in his absence: I thought Stephen Kunken’s work in Still Alice as Alice’s neurologist was rock-solid perfect, regardless of actual screen time.
Best Foreign Language Film
Leviathan – Russia – a terrific film. The Russian government either has lots of tolerance for films about what a corrupt soulless wasteland their country has turned into, or they’re simply not paying attention. This was at the Music Box a few weeks ago, but I suspect it’ll replay at the Film Center April- ish, and should be streamed thereafter whenever and wherever it can be. Bleak, but very impressive.
Ida (Poland) – the overwhelming favorite, but I, and maybe five or six other people on the planet, weren’t big on it. It’s very beautiful visually, and there’s a powerhouse supporting performance by Agata Kulesza, but the title character, to me, was completely absent from her own story.
Tangerines – A compact, conventional, unsentimental, well-acted, well-told story. I love watching pros work. Two wounded soldiers from opposite sides are nursed back to health by an Estonian living in war-torn Abkhazia. This and Wild Tales are my favorites here, but it’s all about Ida this year.
Timbuktu – demonstrates what most of us already know; that the vast majority of Muslims are pretty normal folks, while the tiny minority of armed jihadi extremists are swinging-dick bully morons. The extremists here (in Mali) aren’t financed with hundreds of millions of dollars from rich Saudi Arabians and Kuwaitis, but they still do a fair amount of damage. A beautiful film about honest resilience in the face of thuggery (with a surprising amount of humor sprinkled throughout). There are two stories here though, and, for me, they clanged against each other awkwardly.
Wild Tales (Argentina) – one of the most purely entertaining films I’ve seen all year, an anthology of six short stories – dark, funny, technically impressive – and the only one of the five without a sad ending. I liked it immensely, but it’s just not serious-minded enough to win over the Academy.
Movie I didn’t expect to like so much (Last year this was Dallas Buyer’s Club.):
Nightcrawler, which I believe is only up for original screenplay. For yet another dark-toned pop culture/mass media critique, there’s some genuinely subversive red meat here. I liked everything – Dan Gilroy’s writing and directing, Robert Elswit’s stunning imagery and camerawork, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo’s spot-on performances… I hope it already did a fair amount of box-office, ‘cuz it ain’t gonna get much love from here.
Movie I wanted to like but didn’t (Last year this was Her.):
The Imitation Game, a mawkish and manipulative soap-opera, infantilizing Alan Turing’s struggles with his sexuality while overmystifying his mathematical breakthroughs, squandering an otherwise fascinating biographical subject.
The best movie on the planet in 2014 that everyone’s tired of hearing me talk about: James Gray’s The Immigrant. (It’s on Netflix!)