Saturday, February 7, 2015

Ranking the 2014 Best Picture Nominees

8. The Theory of Everything

To me, there was a very clear choice for the weakest of the 8 Best Pic nominees this year. There's a solid crop of films, so this isn't saying it's a bad movie.

However, in my opinion, it shouldn't have even been nominated at all. I would rather have seen a nod go to Inherent Vice, or even Gone Girl or Foxcatcher.

I can't help but compare The Theory of Everything to the stronger Best Picture nominee that is also the true story of a brilliant scientist, Imitation Game. Eddie Redmayne has gotten lots of praise for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking, but I was more impressed by Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.

Overall, the film was just a bit too formulaic for my tastes. Director James Marsh never really gives it a distinctive look or feel. Marsh is mostly known for his documentaries such as Man on Wire from 2008 and Project Nim, released in 2011.

I also thought it was a bit odd that the film placed so much emphasis on atheism and opposition to religion. Full disclosure, I am an atheist, so it's not as as if I'm some offended religious person. I don't claim to an expert in Hawking's career, but I feel there was obviously much more to him than atheism. He has made many notable comments on the possible existence of god, but his writings that I have read seem to rarely touch on the matter.

7. American Sniper

There was another clear choice here, with this being a bit better than The Theory of Everything, but definitely on a lower artistic level than the other six.

Much has been said about the infamous "fake baby" scene, so I won't expound much on it here besides to say that the scene alone makes this film one of the lesser nominees.

Perhaps even more troubling is the film's murky morals. I never got a real good feel as to what the film was trying to say.

Sniper Chris Kyle is seemingly presented as a selfless hero who was fighting for his country motivated by terrorist attacks such as 9/11 and conflicted over his actions. Director Clint Eastwood fails to mention that Iraq was unrelated to 9/11 and that Kyle publicly stated many times that he had no remorse over the people he killed in combat.

The film was solid and above average but I would not have given it a Best Picture nomination. I wouldn't necessarily consider it essential viewing.

6. The Imitation Game

This was a solid all-around effort and I have no problem with it getting a nomination. For the first time on this list, I had a bit of indecision as to whether to put this or Selma higher. However, I believe it is clearly a step up from American Sniper and definitely not in the same league as Boyhood or Whiplash.

I found Selma to have a bit more emotional intensity than this. That may simply be because the civil rights issues of the 1960s still seem quite relevant while World War II seems a bit more remote. The Imitation Game does speak to civil rights in terms of LGBT issues, but this isn't necessary the only focus of the film as in Selma.

The Imitation Game is helped a great deal by the powerful performance of the always brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch, This role is a bit similar to his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes for BBC. Both characters are brilliant and socially awkward. However, Cumberbatch's role as Alan Turing has a bit more pathos and emotional weight.

The directing from Morten Tyldum (Headhunters, Fallen Angels) is decent but nothing special. The look is pretty generic as you may expect from a movie like this. However, it deserves a lot of credit for showing the dangers of homophobia. All fans of cinema should view this film once.

5. Selma

Selma is a great, powerful film, but it was easy for me to put this below the top four.

This film has been subject to a bit of controversy in regards to the Oscars. It received a nomination for Best Picture of course, but the only other one it garnered was for Best Original Song.

Many expected director Ava DuVernay to get nominated for Best Director, but she was not. She would have been the first black female to be one of the nominees in that category. The directing in Selma isn't really anything special, so it isn't shocking to me that she didn't get picked. However, I most likely would have replaced Morten Tyldum with her.

Another notable snub was David Oyelowo (who played Martin Luther King, Jr.) not being one of the best Lead Actor nominees. He did give a great, moving, nuanced performance. I would probably have swapped him out with either Eddie Redmayne or Bradley Cooper.

The snub was notable partly because every single one of the acting nominees were white. Many saw that as indicating systemic racism within the Academy. However, in my opinion, this isn't necessarily the case. 

The problem isn't necessarily that no minorities were nominated, but rather that there aren't many good options for them to choose from. There aren't a lot of meaty roles for black people and other minorities. The films that have black casts that get awards consideration are usually films that deal with slavery or racism, like Selma or 12 Years a Slave. If the film industry produces more quality films starring African-Americans, AMPAS will be much more likely to recognize them.

4. Boyhood

This just barely missed my top 3, but it didn't resonate with me as strongly as the three remaining films. However, it was clearly a step up from films such as Selma and The Imitation Game.

I've been a fan of director Richard Linklater's for a long time. Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, and A Scanner Darkly are all classics to me. None of those got any award buzz, but the slightly inferior Boyhood is considered one of the front runners to win Best Picture.

The awards attention may be partly because of the unique way it was filmed. Linklater made the film over 12 years and follow a boy as he grew into manhood. This definitely makes Boyhood unique in the annals of cinema.

Regardless, the film is a very effective look at adolescence. It doesn't have a "plot" in the typical sense as many of the events don't have a cause and effect relationship with other plot points. Boyhood also lacks a strong sense of closure, but this fits in perfectly with the film's style and themes. It is most likely the most experiment of the nominees with the possible exception of Birdman.

Boyhood got many other Oscar nominations as well. Richard Linklater got a strongly deserved nod for Best Director, his first. He won Best Director at the Golden Globes this year where the film also won for Best Picture (Drama).

Furthermore, Boyhood got two acting nominations, both in the supporting categories. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette both got noms for playing the main character's father and mother. Arquette is strongly considered to be the front runner.

Boyhood is also thought of by most to be the most likely film to win Best Picture this year. I would be pleased with that, as the Academy has given out the award to much worse films over the years (I'm looking at you, Argo and The Hurt Locker).

3. Whiplash

I knew which film was going to be number one on my list so at this point I was just debating whether I should put this or Grand Budapest Hotel at number two.

Whiplash is the first major film from director Damien Chazelle. It stars Miles Teller as an aspiring jazz drummer. Teller will appear next year as Mr. Fantastic in the reboot of The Fantastic Four. The movie also features J. K. Simmons in a brilliant performance as an intense, verbally abusive music teacher. A well-deserved nomination for Best Supporting Actor was given to Simmons.

Chazelle also earned a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film is not really based on any previous work. However, they made a short film to be used as a proof of concept and it was entered in various festivals, This meant that according to AMPAS rules, the film would be considered an adapted screenplay.

Whiplash is a tightly structured film that is never boring. It goes places you wouldn't expect and avoids cliches. There are a couple plot points that really take you by surprise. And the ending packs a powerful punch. In fact, I'd say it was easily one the best endings in recent years; it ends at the exact perfect moment.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel

It may have been my long standing respect for Wes Anderson's work that gave this my second spot. But it is easily in the top 3 of the year. My only indecision was whether or not to place it in the number 2 spot or number 3. But in the end, it just barely edged out Whiplash.

As usual with Anderson's work the cinematography and set design are brilliant. There are also plenty of quirky characters and cameos from Anderson regulars like Owen Wilson and Bill Murray.

However the clear standout is a newcomer to the world of Wes Anderson, Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes got snubbed for a Best Actor Oscar nod; I would definitely have included him instead of Cooper or Redmayne. Fiennes did get nominated for several other awards, including the BAFTA for Best Actor.

The Grand Budapest Hotel was tied with Birdman for the most nominations this year, nine. Wes Anderson got his long overdue first Best Director nomination. Previously he had only been nominated for Best Original Screenplay. He, along with Hugo Guinness, was again given a nod in that category this year.

The other nominations include Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing. The Grand Budapest Hotel also won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy).

Anderson's film would be a very deserving winner, but it may be a bit too lighthearted and whimsical for the Academy that often likes to select movies with a serious message.

1. Birdman

Picking Birdman as the best of the nominees was the easiest choice of all. Director Alejandro G. Inarritu has given us a classic that will be remembered as one of the greatest films of our time.

The cinematography alone will make Birdman go down in history. In a unique cinematic experiment, most of the film appears to be one long take without any edits. Apparently there are "hidden" edits that an observant viewer may notice, but there are still clearly extremely long takes that must have been very difficult to pull off. According to IMDB trivia, there are only 16 visible cuts.

The acting is also amazing and Michael Keaton gives a brilliant performance as a former superhero actor trying to make it in legitimate theater. However, the real standout may be Edward Norton in a supporting role as an egotistical actor.

Birdman is not just technically astounding but also genuinely funny and moving. The comedy is a bit on the darker side but there are still plenty of "laugh out loud" moments.

This film is also probably the most difficult and complicated of the nominees. It's daring, existential, and risky and doesn't spoon feed the audience. It also has an ambiguous ending, which can be frustrating for some viewers.

Birdman is considered by many to have a good chance of winning Best Picture if Boyhood doesn't take it. It was thought to be a long shot but winning the Producers Guild award has bolstered its chances. The PGA winner for Best Picture has also won the Oscar every year since 2006 when Little Miss Sunshine won the PGA and The Departed won the Academy Award.

However, some have pointed out that the film lacks a Best Film Editing nomination. No film has won Best Picture without an editing nomination since 1980. However, I could easily see Birdman as being an exception due to the way it was shot.