Here’s my annual ranking of the films that are vying for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. As in the past, the films are ranked not by prediction of who will win, nor by which ones I “liked the best,” but by my opinion of whether they should take home the Best Picture Oscar . . . You can find out who wins on Sunday night when Neil Patrick Harris will host the festivities. (NOTE: There are some unspecific spoilers in these capsule reviews.)
I may have liked “Whiplash” more if I had seen it before the nominations were announced. As it was, my viewing focus was impaired by my fairly constant wondering, “Why was this nominated for Best Picture.” I get why critics were crazy about it (95% on Rotten Tomatoes) – it’s an Indie film with strong performances and a plot about suffering for art (kind of like last year’s critics’ darling “Inside Llewyn Davis“, which I didn’t much like, either). But I just did not connect with “Whiplash.”
The sadistic fervor with which teacher J. K. Simmons brutalizes drum-student Miles Teller is worthy of Simmons’ Best Supporting Actor nomination, but there is little to redeem either character. Although we are clearly meant to root for the student, he comes across as much of a narcissist as the teacher.
The film’s message is “Sadistic teachers will damage you forever, but they’ll also make you great.” That Simmons’ Mr. Fletcher has managed to keep his job for so long in spite of his abusive methods stretches credulity, and the “stand up and cheer’ ending is both implausible and flat. It left me firmly planted in my seat with my hands occupied getting my coat and gloves.
To be fair, if you haven’t seen “Whiplash” it will be worth a view when it’s available on Netflix. The acting is excellent, including a surprise (to me) appearance by Paul Reiser as a nebbishy father. It’s been a long time since “Mad About You.”
7. The Theory of Everything
Eddie Redmayne reportedly studied with a dance teacher in order to learn to flex and contort his body as Stephen Hawking’s ALS progressed in “The Theory of Everything.” The hard work paid off – the transformation is striking and he may very well win the Best Actor Oscar on Sunday. But Felicity Jones, portraying Stephen’s wife, Jane, does most of the acting for the second half of the film after Hawking can no longer move or speak. She does a fine job, but there is a definite loss of momentum as the story focuses on her dedication and heroism, which I’m sure is real but casts a definite “we’ve seen this before” aura over much of the film.
What is missing is explication of why this particular situation – this particular man – is special. We don’t get any sense of why Stephen Hawking’s work is so important other than scenes of scientists standing around saying, “That’s brilliant!” Maybe it’s my nerdy nature, but I would have preferred more focus on Hawking’s actual theories and what they reveal about the universe.
“The Theory of Everything” is a fine film for what it is, but it is not the Best Picture of 2014.
6. The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game” is another worthy competitor for Best Actor, also portraying a genius with issues. But Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) is limited not by a physical disability like Stephen Hawking, but rather by his own somewhere-on-the-autism-spectrum (at least as Cumberbatch plays it) personality.
But the real strength of “The Imitation Game” is that it is not simply a character study. Unlike “The Theory of Everything,” the science behind Turing’s efforts to crack the Nazi Enigma Code is made quite clear (sometimes a little too clear in its more elementary explanations, though).
Where the film succeeds most is in illustrating the vital nature of the work Turing and his team are doing. The film makes it clear that not cracking the code means Nazi victories and lives lost. The moral calculus of war is explored adroitly in decisions about how to use the ability to read the code once it is broken. Finally, the depth of “The Imitation Game” lies not just in the hard-won successes of Turing and his team, but in the tragedy of the shameful injustice that beset him at the end of his life that serves as a framing device for the film.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
It hurts me to put “The Grand Budapest Hotel” so far down on this list. I would not be disappointed if it won the Best Picture Oscar Sunday. Director Wes Anderson has long deserved the Academy’s recognition. Unfortunately, he doesn’t deserve it this year, at least not for Best Picture. Anderson is one of the few directors whose vision is so distinctive that when you see a scene or even a still from one of his films in isolation, you say, “Yep, Wes Anderson directed that.” (Watch this, for example.)
If this was two years ago and “Moonrise Kingdom” was nominated as it SHOULD HAVE BEEN, it would be number one on this list. But it wasn’t nominated (and “Amour” was?! Does anybody even remember “Amour??”)
Anyway, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is nominated this year and, although I enjoyed it and will surely watch the DVD many times, it is neither Wes Anderson’s nor the year’s best. But there are plenty of delights. Ralph Fiennes turns in a stellar Oscar-nominee worthy performance as legendary concierge and seducer of women Gustave H. The precious (in a good way) visual design featuring Anderson’s usual dollhouse sets and miniatures deserves to win a Production Design Oscar on Sunday. The “Grand Budapest Hotel” entertains and enthralls, but there are better films nominated this year for Best Picture.
4. American Sniper
I did not want to see this film. I assumed it would be Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry in Iraq” picture, glorifying war and violence-as-solution and the “Go ahead make my day” attitude.
I was wrong.
Although “American Sniper” is in some ways a Chris Kyle hagiography (it omits his post-war prevarications), it is ultimately a wrenchingly effective indictment of war, particularly of the damage battle can do to the young men and women sent to fight on our behalf. Through Sienna Miller’s excellent portrayal of Kyle’s wife, Taya, the film also gives voice to those who are left behind when their loved ones go off to war. No one is left undamaged – not Chris Kyle who Taya observes has been changed by the war, not the soldiers who leave chunks of their body on the battlefield, not Taya whose marriage is threatened not by another woman but by Chris’s obsessive dedication to service and to those with whom he serves.
As one of the 99.5% of Americans who do not serve in the military, the film was a window into a culture I just don’t understand.
There are certainly problems with “American Sniper” – the denigration and stereotyping of all Muslims/Iraqis, the inference of a connection between 9/11 and the Iraq War, and so on – but it is appropriately nominated for Best Picture. In any other year, Bradley Cooper would be the front-runner for Best Actor; but there are just too many excellent performances in this competition. “American Sniper” is a consequential film, and worth the emotional investment inherent in viewing it.
“Selma” is an important and timely film. It is difficult to watch at times but essential history to remember and to inform the present. It’s amazing that no feature films have been made about Dr. King until now. But “Selma’ is no mere bio-pic. It is successful not only in portraying Dr. King but also in bringing to life others who were important in the civil rights movement. “Selma” centers on what happened in that Alabama town, but it is a film with an epic scope. Especially notable is the depiction of Coretta Scott King as a rounded character, not just “the wife behind the man.”
It is a travesty that David Oyelowo did not receive a Best Actor Academy Award nomination even with all the wonderful acting performances last year. “Glory” by John Legend and Common (who is also in the film) should win Best Song – stay for the end credits to hear it. “Selma” may very well win Best Picture on Sunday, but the politics of the Academy are such that it appears unlikely that another “African American” film would win after “Twelve Years a Slave” took home the statue last year. If “Selma” does win, it would be a deserving addition to the pantheon of Best Picture-winning films. (Although I believe there are two films that deserve it more.)
I absolutely love the top two films on this list. I probably have more of an emotional attachment to “Boyhood,” though. While it of course centers on Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) “Boyhood,” it could have been called “Parenthood.” As a parent, I related to the profound changes experienced by the grown ups in the film. Ethan Hawke is excellent as the father who grows up, but Patricia Arquette delivers the best performance of any actor or actress in a leading or supporting role last year (that I have seen). Her final scene of realization, despair, and letting go is incredible; any parent who’s ever sent a kid off to college can relate. If she does not win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her honest, open, heartfelt portrayal of Mason’s mom, there’s no justice in the Academy.
Boyhood’s emotional heft is grounded in the 12-years over which it was filmed, but there is so much more to it than that. Director Richard Linklater’s film could have been just a stunt, but he draws out performances from real-life but not overly “dramatic” situations that give the film an aura of truth. Not only should Arquette be awarded an Oscar on Sunday, but Linklater and editor Sandra Adair should win as well for this seamless masterpiece of a quilt stitched together from 12 years of cloth squares (or something like that).
As much affection as I have for “Boyhood,” “Birdman” was the Best Picture I saw in 2014. I wrote an entire post on this blog about it. You can read the whole thing here, but the first paragraph sums up my regard for the film:
When we think of “breathtaking” films, what usually come to mind are epic spectacles of sound and fury. But “Birdman” is a film that takes one’s breath away through the transcendence of the art form of film itself. “Birdman” is an amazing, synergistic achievement of artists at the height of their power. The result is both enthralling and exhausting; “Birdman” achieves a rare existential immediacy that is a thrilling reminder of what filmmakers, and indeed artists of all sorts, can attain.
I’ve written about great acting performances throughout this list, but Michael Keaton is my choice for the Best Actor nod on Sunday. And Edward Norton should be the Best Supporting Actor winner (although J. K. Simmons will probably win). As I wrote before, “They don’t need to nominate anyone else based on just his very first scene.”
“Birdman” is a triumph of the art of film, and is also laugh-out-loud funny. Besides the Best Picture and Acting awards, Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki should be rewarded for creating the illusion that “Birdman” is one uninterrupted take (except for the final scenes).
My one quibble with “Birdman” is that I believe it should have ended when that long take ended, with the end of the play within the film. But then we wouldn’t have the reason for Emma Stone’s final smile to discuss forever, would we?
A NOTE ABOUT ACTRESSES
I wrote a great deal about Best Actor nominees in the list, but not much about Best Actresses. That’s because the Best Actress nominees, with the exception of Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything,” were not in movies that were nominated for Best Picture. I have not seen “Still Alice,” but everything I have heard indicates Julianne Moore will and should win on Sunday.
ONE MORE BONUS FILM RECOMMENDATION
The best film I saw in 2014 not nominated for Best Picture was “Pride.” It was nominated for Best Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes. Here’s what I wrote about it on Facebook after I saw it:
One of the films nominated for Best Comedy at the Golden Globes last night was “Pride.” I was totally unfamiliar with it, but saw it in the Redbox and decided to check it out. Karen, Autumn, and I watched it today . . . what a wonderful film! It’s a true story about the British miner’s strike in the 80’s when a small group of gay activists in London decided to support a mining village in Wales. It’s about what can happen when very different people get to know each other – not only can they “get along,” but they can achieve great things. It’s not a preachy movie or a “gay movie” (whatever that means) it’s an inspirational comedy that made us laugh and even tear up a few times. And the soundtrack – mostly 80’s New Wave – is awesome!