Saturday, February 21, 2015

2014 Best Picture Rankings

Every year, after viewing all the Best Picture nominees, I rank them based on my assessment of their worthiness for the Best Picture award.  Note that this is not a prediction of who will win, but rather a statement of how I would vote if I could and how I'd rank the also-rans.  

Overall, 2014 produced fewer clear Oscar-worthy films than usual.  I have to wonder if even half of these eight would be nominated in some other years.

8. Selma

Much has been made of the fact that while Selma was nominated for Best Picture, neither its director, Ava DuVernay, nor its star, David Oyelowo, were nominated, leading some to call it racial bias.  After seeing it, I believe these "snubs" occurred because Selma is just not that good of a film.  

To me, there were far too many artistic decisions in Selma that screamed "student film project" to be taken seriously for Academy consideration.  Case in point: early in the film, in a scene meant to counterpoint King accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, a bomb set by white terrorists explodes at a church in Birmingham, killing several little girls who were walking down the stairs inside.  As soon as the explosion occurs, the movie shifts into a stylized, slow motion, dreamy visual style, reminiscent of the theme song montage for a James Bond film.   It's an odd style choice, but perhaps the film wants to convey that the violence is too horrible to imagine clearly.  However, later scenes of violence, including a massive violent police response to a protest march and the murder of a white protest supporter, are shown in full on screen.  When a movie makes you spend time wondering what the director is thinking, it reduces its impact as cinematic art.

The film also does a poor job of managing its cast.  King has a large entourage of fellow Southern Christian Leadership Conference members, and few of them are differentiated in terms of their role, making some of the civil rights movement's biggest leaders just part of a nameless crowd of extras because the movie fails to give the audience anything substantial about them to grasp onto.  
Sorry David Oyelowo, impersonations aren't enough to make a great performance.

Poor directing choices and script issues can still be overcome by stellar performances by the cast, but there was not enough of that in Selma to make it truly great.  Oyelowo was adequate as Dr. King, but at no point in the film did he stop being an actor doing an impression of King.  Actors wanting to be nominated for playing familiar historical figures should learn from the lessons of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln or Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (or, closer to this situation, Jeffrey Wright in Boycott) and strive to disappear into their subject, and that is something Oyelowo did not do.  That's not to say Selma didn't have any strong performances, as Carmen Ejogo reprised her role as Coretta Scott King from Boycott and made a case for being the cast member with the most reason to claim an Oscar nomination snub.  Wendell Pierce was solid as ever as Hosea Williams, an SCLC that just pops up in the middle of the film and takes part in some of the biggest events of the movie.  And Nigel Thatch makes a brief but very convincing appearance as Malcolm X.

The events depicted in Selma make for an important story from our country's history.  I just wish a better movie had told it.

7. American Sniper

American Sniper is just a bit of a mess of a film, and I can't help but think that in the hands of a different filmmaker (even Clint Eastwood on a different day), it could have been a much better movie.  Or several.  Because the biggest problem American Sniper has it that it can't decide what kind of movie it wants to be, or what kind of story it wants to tell.  

You have mixed in here the story of a man who returns home from war partly broken but who returns to war repeatedly, just to become slightly more broken each time, putting stress on both himself as well as his wife and family, sort of a The Deer Hunter for modern times.  You have a tense match-up between snipers at the top of their game, one aided by the best equipped and trained military in the world, the other aided by having home field advantage, and both of them naturally adept at their craft, sort of an Enemy at the Gates for today's world.  You have a story of a man driven throughout life by his psychological need to protect others, whether that instinct gets him into trouble or makes him a hero, sort of a grown up military version of The Blind Side.  You also have a story of a soldier who creates a legend for himself through his brave actions and inspires those around him despite his own reluctance to embrace his own legend, a modern day Audie Murphy writing his own To Hell and Back.  Because American Sniper embraces all of these narratives and attempts to service them, the movie fails to really do any of them justice, resulting in a muddled story that never quite hits stride.

Of course, there are other issues as well.  Much has been made of the baby scene, and it is jarring to witness in the middle of the film.  The alleged story is that the live baby meant to appear in the scene fell ill and the backup never showed, so they just went with a plastic doll.  That's something you can't let happen if you really care about craft.  And it's not made any better with the revelation that Clint Eastwood apparently thinks women produce milk from their clavicles.  He makes similar easily-correctable mistakes with some of his portrayal of military operations, and it just doesn't speak well for his attention to detail (or, quite honestly, his commitment to quality).
Another year, another great performance from Bradley Cooper.

But it's not all bad.  Many of the action sequences are stirring, and it's always nice to see so many of the cast of Generation Kill get back into uniform (I counted at least three cast members appearing).  Most importantly, Bradley Cooper earned his Oscar nomination with an understated performance as Chris Kyle, showing off the cool that a trained sniper must have except when he psychologically begins to break down while at home.  Cooper is on a heck of a run when it comes to putting up Oscar-worthy performances, and I can't wait to see what he does next.  I hope it's a more Oscar-worthy picture than American Sniper.

6. Whiplash

It's not that Whiplash isn't a great movie.  It's just that, outside of J.K. Simmons's incredible performance as conductor Terrence Fletcher, there's nothing truly outstanding about the film that it can hang its hat on.  Films rarely rate the Best Picture Oscar on the basis of a single performance.

Whiplash is about the price one must pay to be absolutely great at something, whether that price is worth it, and whether a teacher or mentor should have the power to do whatever they will to push a prodigy to pay that price.  I think it should be required reading for any dance mom, pageant mom, football dad, or anyone else of that ilk.  And I think Whiplash does an admirable job providing grist for discussion on those topics.  And having it play out over several scenes with really solid jazz music doesn't hurt, either.

It's impossible to talk about Whiplash without referring to the stellar job J.K. Simmons does as the complex music teacher who tortures main character Andrew Neiman in an attempt to get out of Neiman the kind of performance he believes Neiman is capable of.  Fletcher is alternately a monster and a father figure, and Simmons will almost assuredly win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.
It's difficult to picture a movie featuring Marley from Glee winning Best Picture.

But where Whiplash falls down a bit is its inability to pull elevated performances from anyone else in its cast.  Miles Teller is adequate as Neiman, and seems to pull off most of the drumming scenes well, but makes one wonder what might have happened if the film makers had taken a more captivating actor and had him learn the instrument for the film.  Paul Reiser is serviceable in a very minor role as Neiman's dad.  And Melissa Benoist, who plays Neiman's girlfriend, should have watched the opening scene of The Social Network and learned from Rooney Mara how to play a dumping scene.

Overall, Whiplash is a worthwhile film, but is not a serious contender for Best Picture.

5. The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything had a tough assignment, telling a story that's partly about one of the most gifted theorists in recent history making his discoveries and partly about that scientist's gradual physical decay due to disease and the woman who chooses to make her life with him.  Comparisons to A Beautiful Mind are natural, if a bit unfair, as the latter benefited from dealing with a disease (psychosis) that lent itself to a more vivid portrayal and an area of study (the mathematics of non-cooperative games) that is easier to convey to a lay audience.  The fact that The Theory of Everything successfully made a compelling story despite these disadvantages provides sufficient support for its Best Picture nomination.

Of course, The Theory of Everything is not really about Stephen Hawking.  It starts out that way, and returns to Hawking as the main character at the end of the film, but in between, it's really the story of his ex-wife, Jane Wilde.  This makes sense, as the film adapts Wilde's own memoir, but it does result in an odd dynamic in which the audience begins with access to Stephen's mind, only to have that closed off to us when Jane becomes the main narrative character.  That switch can be jarring if you're paying attention, and robs us of really getting into the creative process that resulted in Hawking's revolutionary theories.
We get scenes of Hawking riding a bike instead.

Still, the film is much less about scientific achievement than it is personal struggle as Hawking battles his disease and Wilde fights to keep her family together, both unsuccessfully.  Throughout these battles, the performance of Felicity Jones and especially Eddie Redmayne shine.  It's difficult to play physical disability well, especially a long gradual decline like that produced by ALS, but Redmayne was up for the challenge.  And he successfully emoted despite eventually being trapped in Hawking's immobile body, a feat unto itself.  Jones is overshadowed a bit by Redmayne's performance, but holds her own nicely as the nearly tireless backbone of her family (and does a credible job underscoring the "nearly" part of that sentence in her portrayal).  

The Theory of Everything is a technically accomplished film that tells a deeply personal story well.  While it will no doubt be overshadowed by films with "more important" themes, its success in portraying its straightforward theme of family, love, and the struggle to preserve both through trials makes it a worthy Best Picture contender.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel

It's difficult to figure out where to place The Grand Budapest Hotel in a list like this because it's so different from the other films.  It's certainly the lightest of all the films.  And it makes absolutely no attempt to feel real, unlike all of the others, including even the somewhat fantastic Birdman.  Instead, The Grand Budapest Hotel attempts to build its own stylized form of reality with a vivid color palette, a diverse cast of characters, and a jaunty storyline.  And it really, really works -- this is probably Wes Anderson's finest film to date.

While every film on this list pays some attention to crafting effective visuals in service of its narrative and perspective, The Grand Budapest Hotel serves up its visual artistry as a primary element of its artistic achievement.  Every scene in the film looks like it could be a painting.  The production design, costuming, and makeup support this aspect perfectly, making every moment of the film stunning and highly stylized.
Seriously, every scene could be a painting.

The characters are a hoot as well, especially Ralph Fiennes as the irrepressible M. Gustave and Tony Revolori as his able lobby boy, Zero.  Their onscreen chemistry helps drive the comedic action, and they are perfect protagonists for this Eastern European romp.  The supporting cast is stellar as well, in particular Adrien Brody as conniving villain Dmitri, Willem Dafoe as the murderous Jopling (responsible for the two most laugh-out-loud moments of the film), Jeff Goldblum as Deputy Kovacs, Edward Norton as government stooge Henckles, and Harvey Keitel as master criminal Ludwig.  It is impossible to watch these actors work through the marvelous script without a smile on your face.  It is very worthy of its Best Picture nomination.

3. The Imitation Game

I'll admit to being a little nervous about The Imitation Game when it first started.  At first blush, Benedict Cumberbatch's Turing came off as a weak British Sheldon Cooper, and I feared that the film would sink under the weight of a bad Aspberger's cliche.  Fortunately, it turns out that those initial awkward notes in the performance were to simply provide a point of departure for Turing's development through the rest of the film.

The Imitation Game does a credible job mixing three main threads: the development of Turing as a closeted (and subsequently outed) homosexual in repressive Britain, the creative process of engineering that takes a theoretical concept and puts it to practice through an extended process requiring starts and stops as well as periodic disagreements with one's collaborators, and a mostly understated spy caper (though it does not remain understated for the entire film).  Unlike American Sniper, The Imitation Game keeps all three of these threads continuously in play, interweaving them effectively into a single cohesive narrative tapestry.

As Alan Turing, Cumberbatch brings a great deal of dramatic weight to the film.  His Turing is quietly sad even at his happiest moments.  Having grown up a loner, Turing finds it difficult to establish relationships with others, but it's his relationship with the people he'd finally let in behind his walls that really drives the movie forward, and Cumberbatch deftly handles these scenes.  In particular, Cumberbatch shows a great deal of chemistry with Keira Knightly, who plays Turing's collaborator and fiancee Joan Clarke.
How to make friends and win wars at the same time.

Still, with all of this personal growth and Turing's success breaking the Enigma code, the film is in reality a tragedy.  Turing forever finds himself in the power of others, whether it's the schoolboy bullies who torment him as a child, the Soviet double agent who blackmails him with a potential outing, or Mark Strong as a most manipulative spymaster.  Ultimately, Turing finds himself in the hands of the police, who first suspect him of being a spy and then punish him for being a homosexual.  His end, mind addled as the side effects of chemical castration and broken to the point of suicide, is a tragedy not only for Britain but the world at large.  I'm glad he story could be told so deftly.

2. Birdman

Birdman is an incredible technical achievement.  Filmed as though it were captured in just a single continuous shot, the energy of the film is incredible.  The nature of the filming approach necessarily made the film take on a bit of a feel as if it were a live play, and I think the cast truly benefited from that. 

Set in the rehearsals, previews, and opening night of a play featuring former Hollywood blockbuster star Riggan Thomson, Birdman feels a little bit like Noises Off!, though with much more serious psychological themes.  Michael Keaton plays Thomson with a manic streak, as Riggan is desperate to prove his artistic bona fides and get his career back on track after abandoning the soul-sucking world of summer superhero movies.  A lot has been made in the press about the parallels to Keaton's own experience abandoning the Batman franchise, but I think it was a matter of convenient casting moreso than any real attempts to embody Keaton's experiences.  Keaton does a wonderful job as Riggan, bringing just the right amount of comedy balanced with just the right amount of darkness.  His Oscar nomination was well-earned, though I do not expect him to win (though it would be interesting if he did, as it would make Val Kilmer the only actor to play a live action Batman since the 80s without an Oscar).

The rest of the cast performs adequately, from Emma Stone as Riggan's daughter to Zach Galifianakis as Riggan's business partner/producer.  Special mention should be made of Edward Norton, who nearly steals the movie as method actor Mike Shiner.  Norton brings to the movie a lot of its energy, and I don't think it would be the same with a different actor in that role.
And, like all the male cast members, he had to be comfortable working in underwear.

The most critical aspect of the film's success, though, comes from its amazing ability to capture performances in a seamless stream that makes you think that somehow the actors really did just take off and fly, because there's no way there was a cut anywhere in that sequence.  Director  Alejandro González Iñárritu does an incredible job keeping that illusion going through deft camera work and editing.  For that reason alone, I would not be surprised if Birdman ended up taking home the Oscar.  Hollywood does enjoy navel-gazing after all, so it will be hard to pass up rewarding a film as meta as Birdman.  But I'm putting technical achievement behind artistic achievement and...

1. Boyhood

I've already written extensively about Boyhood, and it doesn't make sense to rehash that.  Suffice to say that taking twelve years to film a story about childhood and the long term impact of decisions and relationships was a brave and inspiring choice on the part of Richard Linklater.  The fact that he was able to keep the cast coming back to film over all those years is simply amazing.
One advantage of this approach: period sets without having to hit eBay.

Boyhood does not have the strongest cast.  It doesn't have the most scintillating script.  It does not take on critical events in human history (unless you count the 2008 election).  But it has by far the most heart of any of the films nominated and it seems to have the best handle on human nature.  For that (as well as the many reasons given in the longer writeup on it), Boyhood is my pick for Best Picture.  We'll see if the Academy agrees on February 23rd.

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