Over the past couple of days we’ve gone over the Oscar chances for those nominated in the technical and acting fields. Today we take on the one that everybody watches for – Best Picture. In the past couple of years the Academy has nominated the maximum amount of 10. This year, however, they’ve only chosen 8 nominees, some of which have no business being nominated. Starting from the bottom, we’ll work our way towards what would top our fictional Oscar ballot. Are you strapped in? Got your helmet on? Let’s do this.
8) *TIE* American Sniper and The Imitation Game
If placing American Sniper among the worst Best Picture nominees puts me in the line of fire, so be it. It’s not a good movie. Neither is The Imitation Game. These two films actually have a lot in common. Both are based on true stories. Both are also blandly conventional. Both feature excellent lead performances in the service of a bad movie. What each of these films do that is unforgivable is leave the most interesting aspects of their real life characters off the screen, even going as far to have each character’s tragic demise handled by a title card at the end. Neither of these films ever takes a risk. At every available chance they aim to recreate scenes you’ve seen done better in other movies.
The political firestorm that erupted around American Sniper is a reflection of the film’s incompetence. Aiming to tell the story of a soldier bound by duty, avoiding anything critical of either the war effort or the men and women in uniform, leaves the film open to broad interpretations. Basically, the film’s lack of commentary leaves its point malleable, willing to shape upon the viewer’s perspective. But there’s also the rubber baby, Sienna Miller answering a phone and crying a lot, and, of course, the complete unwillingness to explore the murder of Chris Kyle at the hands of a veteran he was trying to help.
Conversely, the Oscar campaign surrounding The Imitation Game has billboards and radio ads touting the legacy of Alan Turing. But the film is more concerned with being a race against the clock to crack an unbreakable code and Alan’s struggle to win over the people working for him. There’s only a couple minutes spent dealing with the persecution that Turing suffered at the hands of the British government for his homosexuality. Forced to decide between hormone injections or jail, Turing does the cruel hormonal treatment before taking his own life at the age of 41. Turing’s suicide, like Kyle’s murder, is told through a title card at the end.
6) The Theory of Everything
It wasn’t really a good year for movies based on people brilliant in their given fields. Stephen Hawking is one of the most brilliant minds of our time. A man who overcame adversity and continues to redefine how we think about the relation of time and space, or space-time. Here he is honored with his very own conventional biopic. Now, the film is buoyed by its two wonderful lead performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. But the film has this hazy cinematography going on that makes the entire film look like a soap opera flashback. It stings all the more because director James Marsh has made two fantastic documentaries – Man on Wire and Project Nim – so he’s more than capable of genuinely going deeper than the surface, yet that’s all The Theory of Everything touches. For a much better, as well as unconventional, look into the life of Stephen Hawking, his work, and his obstacles, seek out Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time (streaming on HuluPlus).
5) Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance)
Now this placement might get me some grief. After all, I gave Birdman a rave review upon its release. But this is a film that cooled significantly once I gave it more thought. It’s easy to get caught up in Birdman. It’s incredibly well acted. The camera work is phenomenal. The bombastic crash of the percussive soundtrack keeps the feeling of an imminent collision perpetually in the back of your mind. Only one thing’s missing – a point. It’s a funny film that throws a lot of punches in a lot of different directions. The ones that hit are solid, though there are a number that miss. And it all really amounts to the film calling everyone vapid without the burden of carrying a point. Birdman is a good movie, but it certainly isn’t great.
For a debut feature, Whiplash is a bolt of lightning. It’s a film about the drive to be great and the obstacles along the way. There’s a personal toll to reaching for greatness. Then there are the assholes along the way. People like Terrence Fletcher, played to perfection by J.K Simmons, who aim to teach while pushing one’s very tolerance to go on. But there’s such an urgency in Whiplash, like every tap of the snare means so much more than mere life and death. Blockbusters with budgets equal to European countries’ GDP aren’t able to coax as much tension when the world is at stake. Though I know plenty out there have their doubts about Miles Teller as Reed Richards in the new Fantastic Four, he’s a very fine young actor. Yo, Whiplash, way to go!
3) The Grand Budapest Hotel
After The Darjeeling Limited I feared I was through with Wes Anderson. But since then Anderson has been on upward swing with each film being better than the next, culminating in his finest work since Rushmore, or perhaps ever, The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film is a caper through cinematic and European history. What’s more, Anderson has found a way to go further into his twee sensibilities that makes sense within the narrative. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story within a story within a story, and the further we get from the original, the more fantastical it becomes. It’s certainly nice to see Anderson’s magnificent film honored, the honors have consistently overlooked the sheer brilliance of Ralph Fiennes as Gustave. Fiennes carries the weight of the film, its themes, its heart on his back. For a brief moment, Johnny Depp was considered for the role in favor of Mortdecai. I’d like to think we’re all better off for it.
Unfortunately, Selma was overlooked for a number of awards, namely Best Director for Ana DuVernay and Best Actor for David Oyelowo. Released amid the nationwide protests surrounding the deaths of Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, Selma was marked as somewhat controversial since it was adopted by many involved in the protests. DuVernay’s film is a haunting reminder of how close we are to the past, how far we’ve come, and how far we still need to go. But the film is masterfully crafted. Even those with a good knowledge of history still find themselves shocked by moments they know are going to happen. As Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post noted, Selma is a horror film. Selma was also considered controversial by halfwits who felt the film was unkind to Lyndon Baines Johnson. But the film treats LBJ with the same lens as Martin Luther King – men struggling with challenges of their times, and not always perfectly. Selma is a powerful work that will endure the test of time.
This isn’t my choice because I called it the best film of the year all the way back in July. It’s my choice because it was the finest achievement in cinema that I saw throughout 2014 by a wide margin. Over the past few months I’ve hurled plenty of superlatives on the film so all that’s left to say is, Boyhood deserves the highest honor because Richard Linklater took a bold chance, a blind gamble, and created a masterpiece that speaks to the human experience while pushing the boundaries of the art form. If that’s not worthy of a gold statue, what film is?