About a month ago, the Academy Award nominations were revealed. Now, in the past I have waited until after the Oscars to finally sit down and watch the nominated films to see if I agree with their worthiness and so forth. Either that or I am just too lazy to get out and watch more movies and so find myself cramming afterward to get them all watched.
This year, I figured I’d try a new approach. How about watching these movies before the big night instead! Novel idea, I know. So that’s just what I did. I took four days and watched two films a day in order to cram the Best Picture nominees in first. Normally the Academy takes full advantage of the ten slots they’ve allotted for Best Picture nominees, but this year, oddly enough, they’ve chosen to only pick out eight films for consideration in the category. While this is puzzling, it certainly made my life easier.
Before I go any further however, I must point out that I am extremely upset that my favorite movie from 2014 was snubbed from the Best Picture category and as a result, I hope it sweeps every other category it was nominated for. That film would be Interstellar.
Now, I didn’t really go in any particular order here, so let’s just go ahead and get started where I did.
Nominated for: Best Picture, Original Song.
I have been discovering that my thoughts and opinions on some of this year’s nominations probably do not align with the vast majority. This film was the first of said cases. There was some hullabaloo surrounding the Academy’s decisions on this film when the nominations were first released and they were not favorable. People were extremely upset that it was not recognized for more achievements and one of those was David Oyelowo’s performance as the iconic Martin Luther King Jr. Sadly, I have to agree with the Academy regarding this picture.
In general, it turns out to be a wonderful movie, however I really feel like it was not Best Picture worthy. In fact, as we go along, I’ll say this again for a few of the others as well. One of the issues with this film is that this year’s class is extremely “biopic” heavy. There tends to be a trend with this type of film attracting the attention of the Academy, but 2014 was apparently the Year of the Biopic. As a result, you really had to stand out and hit the ball out of the park with your particular story in order to run with the big dogs. Selma just falls short. Oyelowo’s performance was rather bland, and unfortunately, the rest of the film suffered from the same staleness. There were only a couple of instances where I felt like there was any real emotion involved in the characters or the story at all. The scene at the beginning with the church bombing and the ending with the victory speech on the capitol steps were the most emotion-inducing scenes for me. The other issue I had with this film was that it seemed to rely too much on stock footage. This always tends to bother me though, unless it is done well, and in most cases it seems to be used as a crutch or money saver instead of adding substance to the film with the cast members instead. One of the other nominees is a good example of how to use the cast to recreate stock footage and I’ll bring that up later.
Selma seems to be conveniently released in a year where we seem to have reverted back to that time in history. I’m looking at you Missouri. We all know what I’m referring to, but I know that’s not why this film was made. The timing is just fitting and so was the song that was nominated for Best Original Song. The lyrics are still, unfortunately relevant today.
Technically, this film is well done, and well put together. Overall it is shot fine with no overbearing issues. I never really noticed the music or score though, and that is a disservice because the music in a movie can really make or break the story.
One of the things that really took me out of the film was Oprah Winfrey. Now, I won’t knock on her acting skills because she’s not that bad at all really. However, I think that she is too much of a brand name in her own right to be taken seriously in roles where she really wants to be. This is unfortunately one of those cases. Her performance was good and she had some pretty remarkable scenes, but I couldn’t get passed the whole, “oh hey, it’s Oprah again” and I couldn’t see her as her character. This really is not her fault of course, but it does take away from the film.
A couple of other little tidbits of note: I didn’t like that it just skips over Malcolm X’s assassination, since he was in the movie. They should have made that a more prominent part of the film, even if it was just one scene. Tim Roth was great as Governor Wallace. The same can be said for Tom Wilkinson’s performance as President Johnson and of course, as I said before, David’s portrayal of MLK was really great. The main problem I had with the film was that I felt like it lacked emotion. It lacked the power that a film like this should pack behind it. Last year we got an extremely powerful and emotional storm with 12 Years a Slave and with Selma it was little more than a light breeze.
American Sniper: 4/10
Nominated for: Actor in a Leading Role, Best Picture, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Adapted Screenplay.
The year’s darling war drama. We seem to have one of these at least every other year. One of the big issues with having so many films like this come out each year or just about is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine which film is better than another. We’ve had powerful war dramas of late in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty so it makes it more interesting to see whether new additions can hold up. While I think American Sniper is probably better than those two films or at least on par, I am hard pressed to see its Best Picture potential but perhaps I was too preoccupied with not wanting to be biased about the movie that I may have been too harsh on it.
I have found that I’m kind of in the minority about this film. It’s being touted as a wonderful film about a wonderful American hero and I have no disagreements with the latter part of that statement especially, but it suffered from the same lack of emotion that Selma did. I found myself on my phone a lot during the movie and kind of losing interest throughout a lot of the movie and I’m not sure what to make of that outside of the fact that it must mean it was unable to hold my interest and for being a war film, that’s not good news.
The sound mixing and editing were wonderful. Cooper’s performance was spot on (especially if you’ve seen interviews with Kyle in them in real life).
Eastwood has this knack for making really great movies that just fall short of being pushed over the edge into greatness. That’s not saying he hasn’t made such films before, but of late, it seems like he has either missed something in a film here and there or just hasn’t been able to find that next level the way he did with Letters to Iwo Jima and Mystic River, or even Unforgiven.
American Sniper also suffers from the stock footage problem. The most powerful moment in the entire movie was actual stock footage at the end of the movie and that’s not okay. In order to be a successful director or have a shot at being the best picture of the year, that power has to build and be displayed throughout the film by the actors and the production crew. Using tear-jerking bait at the end of the film while the credits roll almost shows an acknowledgement of failure to convey that tone during the rest of the film. For those of you that have seen it, there were only a couple of instances in the entire film where I felt an actual response because I’m a father. Outside of those quick scenes and Cooper’s performance, there isn’t really much else to the film.
Nominated for: Actor in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Picture, Directing, Film Editing, Original Screenplay.
Okay, let’s just be honest with each other here for a minute. This was not a bad movie. It was actually quite interesting and had a lot of great content and acting. Here’s the deal. We all know it’s only getting nominated for stuff because it literally took the production twelve years to film it. Last year we had 12 Years a Slave, well this year we have 12 Years a Film Project. It worked out quite well, but the content of the story is absolutely tried and true and nothing new.
The idea was for the film to follow Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and mother (Patricia Arquette) through their mundane family life for 12 years. So the film starts out with Mason at age 6 and then ends with Mason at age 18 as he goes off to college.
The trick about this movie is that the character development is literally grown over time and I’m guessing very little writing had to be involved in order to achieve this since the audience was able to follow these characters as they aged along with the actors themselves. We see Mason struggle through being a young boy in school while his mother struggles with failed marriages and going back to college and in the midst of all this, Mason and Samantha get little moments with their father (Ethan Hawke) throughout the film. It creates a really great picture of what separated or divorced families really go through and how sometimes the only way they can get through some hard times are by working together when absolutely necessary.
I have a really difficult time believing the production crew on this film had a difficult job and I felt that way as I watched. Since we see little snippets of Mason’s life every year here and there, I felt like it couldn’t have been a very difficult task for some of the people working on the film. One example I thought about was the editor. It must have been nice having a year at a time to edit portions of the film together, but I’m sure they still had tight deadlines. I saw an interview on Conan with Ellar, however and it made me feel like my beliefs are valid. Conan asked him about how it felt making the film as he grew up and Ellar just said that it was much like anything else. He still went to school and lived his everyday life but they would get together for about a week at a time and film the necessary scenes for whatever age he happened to be and then they’d go back to their lives.
I think it’s a noble project for a director to take on. I think it would take extreme commitment from everyone from the actors down to the catering crew but at the end of the day, it’s a story about a single mother struggling to provide for her two children, juggle school and work and bad relationships and it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. This was the third Best Picture nominee that I felt didn’t deserve said nomination and again find myself in the minority. In fact, Boyhood may very well snag the Best Picture award away from more deserving films, but we’ll have to wait and see.
The Imitation Game: 7.5/10
Nominated for: Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Picture, Directing, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Adapted Screenplay.
Here we have film number three that deals with an actual historical figure or existing person. The film is set in England during World War II and follows the amazing events surrounding the cracking of the German Enigma code machine by Alan Turing and his crew.
Turing is touted as the father of the modern computer (I suppose without him, I wouldn’t be writing this on my laptop, and you wouldn’t be reading it on a website!) but his brilliance was cryptography and with this he and his team were able to successfully crack the Enigma code and their efforts had significant influence on the outcome of the war.
The film is full of other layers of Turing’s life, of course. As it is likely well known, Turing was found to be a homosexual and ended up being punished for his orientation. The film touches on his early relationship with one of his classmates during primary school that alludes to his orientation throughout the film. While the film does not focus on this aspect of his life, I think it does a wonderful job at keeping his upbringing and his personal lifestyle relative to the story at hand and helps to explain his mannerisms and actions throughout the film. I think it was important for director Morten Tyldum and writers Andrew Hodges (book) and Graham Moore (screenplay) to convey that aspect of his life so that audiences could see the turmoil he was faced with as well as the persecution he went through that ultimately lead to his suicide because the way his country treated an essential war hero was appalling at best. The film was able to do that very well without detracting from the main focus in the Enigma Machine.
As a film, this is your typical Academy Award type of film. Set in an older period of time, involves an historical figure, a war and really intricate web of dramatic sub-plots and includes wonderful performances by the actors in the starring roles. Benedict Cumberbatch is really making the acting thing look easy, although given the nature of the film and the time period, it did feel a little Sherlock Holmes-esque at times. Kiera Knightly gives one of her best performances to date, although I didn’t feel like it was anything overly powerful or memorable.
Overall, it felt kind of like your typical British period piece with what I also refer to as “typical British coloring” and of course, a proper musical score to go along with it. I’ve not had much of a chance to listen to it separately, but Alexandre Desplat pieced together quite an appropriate score to go along with the film. It’s the kind of score you don’t really notice, however, as it just kind of happens to be in the background, only coming forward for dramatic effect once in a while. I think that was the weakest part of the score, although this is never a bad thing. Sometimes it’s better for the score to go unnoticed, although music is an important factor.
This film is fantastic at what it sets out to do, and should hold your attention with some of the interesting content, mostly surrounding the Enigma and Turing Machines.
The Grand Budapest Hotel: 5/10
Nominated for: Best Picture, Cinematography, Costume Design, Directing, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score, Production Design, Original Screenplay.
Okay, first thing’s first. If you are a Wes Anderson fan, you will likely love this movie. I however, am not. I have given his films several chances in the past and I just cannot get behind them. I get the humor and I have a dry sense of humor myself, but I just cannot bring myself to like his stuff.
So, this review will likely be short. Here’s what I will admit to though. I really do respect Wes as a director and filmmaker. He has a great ability to make artistic and aesthetically pleasing films. That being said, they just don’t do it for me.
Here’s why I respect him. He usually ends up luring in great talent for his roles. They usually end up giving great performances for said roles. The cinematography in most of his films is almost always exquisite and this film is no exception. There is normally a significantly obvious color theme and style theme (often more than one) at work throughout his films and they work wonders as scenes and sets on their own as well as together. When I see a Wes Anderson film, I feel like I’m looking at an old boring but probably really well done piece of art from who knows what time period. For this film, this has special indications as the plot of the story revolves around a certain painting so the cinematography is very cleverly reminiscent of paintings or other mediums of artwork as well. The music in his movies is usually on point as well and Alexandre Desplat has woven together a wonderfully fitting ensemble of pieces for this film. This score is significantly better than his Imitation Game score. However, one thing I noticed is that the score includes other classical works not written or composed by Desplat and therefore I feel like that should have disqualified it from Original Score contention.
Aside from the purely technical and production aspects of Wes Anderson’s films, I can’t really bring myself to waste much more time talking about this film. Again, if you’ve enjoyed his stuff in the past, you might view this one as his best yet. I certainly think it is and I still didn’t like it.
Nominated for: Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Picture, Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Adapted Screenplay.
I dubbed this one this year’s Gravity in terms of overall runtime. This is a film that doesn’t waste our time at all which is especially poignant given that timing and/or keeping time is a specific focus of the film. The story is rather simple and concise. Andrew is a music student and percussionist who is attending the nation’s best school for music and he is trying to get into a class that is taught by a renowned and notorious musician. Fletcher is a no-nonsense, drill instructor (I felt like Simmons channeled his inner R. Lee Ermey for the role) type of guy who does not tolerate failure, laziness or general mediocrity in his classes from his students. He is a terrifying presence and his students not only respect him, but they fear him as well.
There are a few things that have made Whiplash one of my favorite Oscar films of 2014. The story is simple and the runtime of the film doesn’t waste time either. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons put on one heck of a display of machismo, arrogance, pride, testosterone and sheer willpower clashing together between the two of them to form this dynamic and volatile relationship between student and teacher.
I can’t really say much about the film without telling a lot of the greatest parts of it and ruining the fun, but what I can say is that if J.K. Simmons does not walk away with an Oscar for his performance, it will be a crime. A crime not unlike allowing a musician to perform onstage without the proper music sheets.
I personally think another film will and should win Best Picture, but I will not be upset at all if this one steals the win away.
The Theory of Everything: 9/10
Nominated for: Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in a Leading Role, Best Picture, Original Score, Adapted Screenplay.
Admittedly, I wasn’t really interested in this film because I’m not really a fan of Stephen Hawking. I know, the science community would likely bite my head off for saying that, but that’s fine. I do greatly appreciate his contributions to science of course, for sure though.
Now, I bring that up because once I got to watching the movie, I began to become more and more engrossed in the story and blown away by Eddie Redmayne’s performance. His performance alone not only carried this movie, but elevated it into the kind of film the Academy salivates over. Felicity Jones lends her own powerful performance as Hawking’s wife Jane, who wrote the book the film is based on.
The story is rather straight forward, and the most biographical of this year’s biopics. We are able to see Stephen before he was diagnosed, and if the film is any indication, he was quite the charismatic personality and I think if it weren’t for that, we may be experiencing a very different Stephen Hawking in real life. Strong will and determination are necessities when it comes to overcoming and dealing with debilitating conditions such as Hawking’s and Redmayne gives us a painfully wonderful glimpse into the world that Stephen deals with every day.
Eddie has my vote for Best Actor, although I’m quite certain it may go to Michael Keaton, which I’m also fine with. Eddie’s performance was just so vivid that I find it hard to see a better performance out of the nominees. Felicity matches his intensity and may very well have earned herself the same award.
This film is the perfect example of how you can use the actors and production to recreate already existing stock or home video footage. This is what American Sniper, The Imitation Game and Selma failed to do. There is an important scene in the film that shows Hawking and his family playing in the backyard and you see his children playing with him and climbing on his chair and it’s wonderful how close the production got to making it look exactly like the home video footage of the same instance that I remember seeing some time ago. For me, this adds to the film and makes it more authentic. I think if they had just thrown in the home video footage there, it would have lost the power of the scene. Sure, that type of scene has its place and did fit well near the ending of American Sniper but for the most part, I think director’s should avoid that tactic.
The Theory of Everything is also an example of how you compose a score worthy of the film itself. Johann Johannsson composes a beautiful array of piano and string heavy sounds that really tend to stand out throughout the film. He does a wonderful job at creating a distinct theme song that resonates throughout the scenes as you watch the story unfold onscreen. This is exactly what it means to compose a film score. Out of the composers nominated in this category, only Hans Zimmer outshines Johannsson with his Interstellar brilliance. However, if there’s anyone that should deserve to win this award over Zimmer, it is definitely Johannsson. I loved this score. Plus, even though Alexandre Desplat is nominated twice for his two different scores, I feel like he cheated on The Grand Budapest Hotel score.
Ultimately, this movie is a tragic love story but it is a true tragic love story and those seem to carry more weight and speak to people just as well if not better than those made up. If you’re a woman and you have a nerdy significant other, or you’re both just science enthusiasts in general, then it’s a film both of you can enjoy.
Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): 9/10
Nominated for: Actor in a Leading Role, Actor in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Picture, Cinematography, Directing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Original Screenplay.
If it wasn’t for Whiplash and The Theory of Everything, this one would easily be my favorite of the eight Best Picture nominees.
Michael Keaton plays a washed up has-been comic book hero film star who is trying to get credit back to his name somehow by producing, directing and starring in his first Broadway play.
This of course lends the perfect environment for the wonderful ensemble cast that makes up the players. Edward Norton’s character is the resident Broadway veteran who agrees to come aboard to replace a previous actor who gets knocked out by a falling, errant stage light. Norton is hilarious and awkward at the same time. He is one of many characters that continue to wonder why they are even doing what they’re attempting to do constantly throughout the film. None more so than Keaton himself, who struggles with doubt and an inner monologue that continues to tell him to give up and return to the glory days of comic book films.
Emma Stone gives her first big time dramatic performance in this film and she does quite a wonderful job of it as well. I’m not so sure she puts up an Oscar worthy performance by any means, but she was pretty good nonetheless. Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis round out the rest of the big time players. Zach actually does a great job in a dramatic role, which may land him a few more of this type of role similar to the situation Jonah Hill found himself in throughout the past couple of years.
The movie itself is a strange but wonderful mixture of comedy, chaos, confusion, doubt and purposely, theatrical drama. It could be seen as a parody within a parody of itself. Often it felt like the goal of the film was to poke fun at itself for preaching about being washed up and trying to become relevant again. It also liked to take jabs at the debate between film and theatre, which added a different level of humor to the mix, as if it were a play within a play that was being filmed almost documentary style.
The cinematography lent merit to this as Inarritu chose to use a lot of tight, close-up shots and a lot of following or leading shots down long hallways. There was a sense of claustrophobia in certain shots as well, almost like Keaton’s character felt trapped in his quarters or even when on the stage performing. I think if I hadn’t sat down and forced myself to watch Mr. Turner, I might say that this one deserves the cinematography Oscar. However, Mr. Turner’s cinematography was absolutely stunning and perfect.
Now, even though I’ve not seen Biutiful, I am really not a fan of Inarritu’s work. I couldn’t stand Babel and 21 Grams was difficult to get through. It’s okay to tell the story in a linear and chronological manner and neither of those films did this. They seemed like Inarritu was trying way too hard to be artsy and different. However, with Birdman he doesn’t do this and this is the first film of his that I thought was really well done.
There are a great many things I could probably say about each of these Best Picture nominees, but then there’d be nothing left for you to discover as an audience. As always, I like to say, if there’s a film you want to see then don’t listen to the critics. Don’t listen to me and go see it, find out for yourself and reach your own conclusions. I did watch a lot of the other nominated films due to garnering acting nominations or nods in categories that interest me, so I may do a follow up post-awards with reviews for those films. I hope this hasn’t been too much information at once for any of you. Since I’m finishing this up at about 5 in the morning on the day of the Oscars, I hope you all enjoy them and hopefully the most deserving nominations win.