The 2015 Academy Awards are upon us! With just under a week to spare, I’ve finally seen all eight Best Picture nominees. It was a good year, overall — there wasn’t really anything that blew me away as much as past years’ winners, like “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist,” but in general, I enjoyed most of the nominees. I didn’t quite stay on top of things in terms of posting as I saw each film, so instead, here’s my roundup of all eight of them. They’re not really in any particular order — the last two are my bottom two, and I put my bet for Best Picture (though not necessarily my pick, if that makes sense), but I waffle on my rankings of the rest.
Friendly reminder: I am not a professional movie critic? I’m just a person who likes movies and the Oscars. You’ll see various comments about things like acting and pacing and camera work, but for the most part, I’ve evaluated these movies on how much I enjoyed them. I’d love to hear your thoughts on them, too — please feel free to comment away!
Boyhood. The story of a boy and his family, filmed over 12 years. Though I wouldn’t call it my Best Picture of the year, “Boyhood” is the one I hope takes home the prize. They took a real risk, filming this thing over 12 years. What if someone had quit, or died? What if money ran out? What if release time came and no one cared about it, or everyone thought it was terrible? Thankfully, none of these things happened (as far as I know??), and it was far from terrible. It felt so honest and so real, like real life almost to the point of being boring because it was so ordinary, but it was super extraordinary. I loved all the little moments that could have been from my childhood — Sam’s obnoxious Britney Spears serenade recalled impromptu concerts on the grade-school parking lot, seeing their 20Q toy reminded me of all the hours we sat enchanted by those things, and, of course, it made me a little teary to see kids of The Potter Generation on screen, something I hope to see more of as we grow up and start making movies ourselves. And sure, this movie was called “Boyhood,” but I was also so taken by the parents, especially the mom, who put up with a lot of hardship but still managed to do well for herself and her kids. I like movies that forego the tropes of the one-dimensional clueless or antagonistic parents and instead show them complexly. So cheers, “Boyhood,” I hope you win.
Whiplash. The story of a young, talented drummer (Miles Teller) and his completely insane instructor (JK Simmons). There’s this one moment in the first half of “Whiplash” that I keep thinking about. The main jazz band is getting ready to rehearse a song, and JK Simmons raises his hand to conduct. The camera starts to one side of his hand, with you looking at his hand from Miles Teller’s point of view, then pans all the way around, circling Simmons until you’re looking over his hand from the other side, back at Teller. I’m not doing it justice, you have to see it for yourself, but it literally took my breath away. Of all the Best Picture nominees this year, “Whiplash” engaged me most. Blame it on my music-student background — it was nice to be “around” a band for a while. I was never half as talented or dedicated as Miles Teller’s character, but I have friends who are, and I understood his desire to be perfect, to be the best, to prove someone wrong, and to not be the one looking bad and letting down your band-team. The acting in this was solid, the music (as would be expected) phenomenal. “Whiplash” wasn’t without its flaws — there were people doing awful things without proper consequences (more on this under “Birdman”), I thought the ending was fairly predictable, and check out this piece by my brilliant friend Fran Hoepfner, a wonderfully talented percussionist herself, about the completely inadequate, nearly nonexistent representation of women — but I loved it.
The Theory of Everything. A lovely biographical story about the physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), and about his relationship with his first wife, Jane (Felicity Jones). A blend of some of my favorite standard storylines — romance, love despite obstacles, success despite struggle — and based on real life, to boot. I was a little disappointed because I was promised a Movie That Makes Me Cry™ and I only teared up once, but in general, I adored it. And the acting! Have you seen “My Left Foot,” in which Daniel Day-Lewis plays writer Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy? His performance in that was amazing, and he won his first Oscar for it. If there’s any justice in the world, Eddie Redmayne will win an Oscar for his performance, too. His acting is just as convincing as Day-Lewis’, and perhaps even more stunning because he doesn’t sustain one condition throughout the film but rather captures the progression of Hawking’s ALS (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It’s amazing. And Redmayne isn’t the only star of this film – I love that it’s just as much Jane’s story as it is Stephen’s. Felicity Jones is a wonderful presence with a perfect breed of quiet strength. This movie was one of my favorites for sure.
The Grand Budapest Hotel. A fun film with a lot of shenanigans — family drama, theft, escapes, romance, the works — directed by Wes Anderson. Up until I saw this movie, I had a theory: You either like Wes Anderson movies or you don’t. I based this on the fact that I thought the two movies of his I had seen, “The Royal Tenanbaums” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” were both awful. But I guess you can’t base a theory on two movies, because I adored “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” What bothered me about the other two Anderson films was that as renowned as they are, they just felt farcical to me, like Anderson was just trying to make everything as weird as he possibly could. “Grand Budapest” falls within that mold, but for whatever reason, this time it worked for me. I loved the charming oddball antics of Ralph Fiennes (I’m finally getting over calling him “Voldemort”), and the cute romance between Saoirse Ronan and the Lobby Boy. I loved how all the characters were borderline nuts but also either very brilliant or very lucky. I loved the music, my hope for Best Score this year. So fine, Wes Anderson, you win this round. Is it a fluke or has our relationship turned a corner? I look forward to finding out.
The Imitation Game. The WWII-era story of the team that cracked the Nazi code machine Enigma, led by the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). This movie is probably the most accessible of the Best Picture nominees? The one that could have the widest appeal. You’ve got a recent period piece, based on a true story, where the characters have a clear objective, racing against both the Nazis and the clock. You’ve got a delightful cast — the always-wonderful Keira Knightley, Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister), Allen Leech (Branson from “Downton Abbey”), and, of course,
Blueberry Cabbagepatch Brandybuck Sauronsnatch Wimbledon Tennismatch Benedict Cumberbatch. (Irrelevant, but check out this great article on the linguistics behind how we gleefully mess up his ridiculous name.) And you’ve even got a quiet call for justice — Alan Turing was gay, and he was made to suffer for it, and the movie works that in quietly, in a way that’s a little understated but still very clear. I read criticisms of the handling of it in both directions — too much gay! not enough gay! — but I thought it took a good middle ground, direct but not so much that it would alienate people and make them tune out rather than listen. Overall, a great movie — of all of them, probably the one I’m most likely to watch again.
Selma. The story of Civil Rights protests in Selma, Ala., led by Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo). I almost skipped “Selma”! I almost ran out of time and didn’t see it! What a waste that would have been. This movie was powerful and moving. I know there have been some questions raised about its accuracy, and I haven’t read much about that yet because I’ve been avoiding spoilers, but I felt like its heart was in the right place? Like it did a mostly accurate job of capturing the era and the emotions that ran through it. I know the movie made me feel a lot of feels, from the good (finally, a Movie That Made Me Cry™) to the unpleasant (lots of anger and shame). I thought David Oyelowo was great, even though his accent made me think of Frank Underwood, and I would argue that he should have been nominated for Best Actor (maybe replacing Benedict Cumberbatch, who was basically playing Sherlock again?). I liked the smaller performances, too, from all the other people involved in Selma’s movement — I was pleasantly surprised to see Lorraine Toussaint, who plays Vee in “Orange is the New Black,” and Giovanni Ribisi, who plays the original Wonders drummer in my all-time favorite movie, “That Thing You Do!”. There were a few weaker moments — mostly a few scenes I thought were poorly paced — but in general, “Selma” was great, and, to be honest, exceeded my expectations. I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.
Birdman. The story of an actor (Michael Keaton) who used to be a big deal, trying to make his comeback on Broadway. I might owe “Birdman” a second chance; I think I mostly didn’t like it because it wasn’t what I expected it to be, and that’s not quite fair. I was expecting it to be like “St. Vincent,” the story of a troubled, grumpy old guy finding his way. But it turned out to be the story of a troubled, grumpy old guy just continuously grumping along. There were things I liked about the movie — the performances were good, and the percussion-driven music was fantastic — but the plot just left something to be desired for me. I felt like it didn’t go anywhere, like there wasn’t much progress. Everyone was just super messed up and angry, and they seemed to be just as messed up and angry at the end. And the ending triggered my bias against movies where people do stupid, bad, irresponsible things without facing the proper consequences. That’s life, I suppose, but it’s not really what I want in movies. I’m willing to give “Birdman” a second chance, now that it’s out on DVD, but I’m still going to be very unhappy if it wins Best Picture, or if Michael Keaton wins Best Actor over Eddie Redmayne.
American Sniper. The story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who the movie’s tagline calls “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history.” I respect this movie as a well-made thing. The pacing worked and the acting was excellent — I got to that point where I forgot it was Bradley Cooper and instead was immersed in Chris Kyle, a point I don’t often get to anymore. But this movie was troubling to me on an ideological level, and I wish I had not seen it; I’ve already decided that in future years, my Oscar Project is going to contain an opt-out clause. I’m not going to go into my issues with the movie here, because it is so hot-button and I really don’t want to have to defend myself to the Internet, but feel free to get in touch if you want to talk about it.
That’s it! Eight great films. I’ll post a few more times before the Big Show, with some more specific-category thoughts and predictions, but this is the bulk of it. If you’ve read the whole thing, an Oscar to you. Thanks for reading. And again, input welcome! Comment, email me, whatever. I’d love to hear what you have to say on any or all of these films.