Sunday, May 29, 2016

OVP: Picture (2014)

OVP: Best Picture (2014)

The Nominees Were...

Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, and Peter Morgan, American Sniper
Alejandro G. Inarritu, John Lesher, and James W. Skotchdopole, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater and Cathleen Sutherland, Boyhood
Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, and Jeremy Dawson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, and Teddy Schwarzman, The Imitation Game
Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner, Selma
Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce, and Anthony McCarten, The Theory of Everything
Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, and David Lancaster, Whiplash

My Thoughts: I really have absolutely no excuses as to why these take me so long to finish up-I genuinely enjoy doing them and while I never get many comments (or any comments), I know people are visiting and reading these but some nine months later, we are finally coming to the end of the 2014 Oscar Viewing Project.  I will probably start up 2007 in the next week or so as that's our next stop on the OVP train and am praying that I don't take a gestational period to finish that one up, but encouragement is always appreciated-please peruse the below links and comment on articles if you enjoy reading these and going back to past Oscar races, as I surely enjoy doing the write-ups.  But enough self-promotion, let's close out 2014.

We'll start with The Theory of Everything because I feel like it, and because it's the sort of picture that probably is the least memorable, so let's build to something, shall we?  Honestly, the movie itself seemed inevitable, and I still can't get over how much I enjoyed the first thirty minutes, genuinely feeling like it might be the rare biopic that doesn't rely on the same repetitive tropes we always see from the genre, but instead letting a real-life story be properly intermingled with movie-making magic, with a charming lad meeting a lovely lady and fireworks start popping.  Unfortunately for all of us, the film can't really handle when reality and real-life come into the picture.  Stephen Hawking is an extraordinary human being, but onscreen here he is hardly complicated, and so much of his life is transformed into a stiff upper lip contest, rather than having much feeling, either outward or in "a woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets" manner.  The film fails in that regard, and as a result becomes middling rather than something you recall with pangs of emotion.

Alongside it in the biopic genre is The Imitation Game, arguably the film I have been the most hard on throughout these write-ups, but it's with sound reason.  The film itself is not good, and poorly edited and plotted.  Forget for a second the homophobia the director and writers utilize in addressing Alan Turing's life-the entire plot is formulaic, and only a few moments in the film (like Joan Clarke telling off Alan Turing) feel at all interesting or have any mystery around the characters.  The film, for a movie that is so high stakes, never mounts the hurdle of us knowing how the story ends, which the best biopics consistently can accomplish (see our recent review of United 93 for a strong example).  The Imitation Game also severely underwrites the gay nature of the main character, and as a result he leaves a puzzle rather than something that the film is trying to solve for the audience.  Unless the director equates being gay to a mental illness, it's hard to distinguish the two without more information.  This is a pity because, due to the celebration the movie received from critics, this is surely the only major biopic we will ever get about the extraordinary Alan Turing.

Continuing our real-life direction, we have American Sniper, the true story of Chris Kyle, the most successful sniper in American history.  Chris Kyle's story is arguably the least well-known of these three, and also has the most potential considering the bravura acting from Bradley Cooper at the lead and the way that Clint Eastwood has built strong narratives around complicated heroes in the past.  And yet Clint's not giving us much to go with on the screen, even if some of his directorial decisions are thrilling.  Forget that he glosses over some of the more fascinating aspects of Kyle's character (accounts of his casual racism have been well-documented in the past) as I oftentimes say you need to adapt a biopic to make it more cinematic; still, the Kyle onscreen feels wildly underwritten and the focus of the film gets less interesting when it just excuses Kyle's morality issues with PTSD.  The unfortunate thing here is that American Sniper, unlike The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, has the makings of a truly superb movie-it could have been Clint's best since Unforgiven.  But whether out of political prudence or simply the inability to see that a man who views the world in black-and-white is more interesting from the grey, Eastwood wasn't able to bring that to the screen.

Our final biopic of the bunch is undoubtedly the best.  Selma starts off in some ways at a disadvantage, much like Lincoln a few years back, in that it's trying to create a definitive story about a man who is so ingrained in people's minds that he's practically a comic book superhero.  The film smartly chooses only a short period of Dr. King's life, the lead-up to his march through Selma, Alabama, to focus upon rather than creating an exhaustive origin story instead, but it's still hampered a bit in its treatment of King as the main character, as the least interesting scenes are the ones that focus on him, with both his complicated relationship with Coretta Scott King and his reluctant attitude toward being a politician being underwritten.  The movie is at its most thought-provoking and true when its instead focusing on nameless, faceless people who stood up to racism, whether in a march or simply trying to vote.  DuVernay is unflinching in the way she addresses these scenes, giving us a sharp, harsh look at the long toll that racism took on millions of people in the 1960's, and how that still lingers in the lives of people today.

It's strange to pivot from the brutal history of racism in Selma to the frothy confection of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but the Best Picture category frequently makes strange bedfellows.  It's worth noting, of course, that prejudice rears its head quite frequently in the train sequences of The Grand Budapest Hotel, as Gustave M. and his young companion have to deal with a ruthless totalitarian government in the backdrop of their shenanigans and the quest to save their hotel.  The problem I had with Grand Budapest, which is generally delightful thanks to the central performance of Ralph Fiennes, is that it never acknowledges that the romantic plot-line is dead.  The true core of the story is the sacrifices that Gustave is willing to make to protect his friend Zero, not necessarily that we need an insertion of heteronormative behavior by having Zero "straight-labelled" by having a relationship with Agatha.  The Agatha story pulls away from the importance of Gustave to Zero's life, and makes the film nearly falter in the last ten minutes.  That being said, it's easily the best Wes Anderson film there is, and one I enjoyed tremendously, save for the end focus.

Whiplash is another film where the opinion is driven in part by the ending, though here it's in a way to save the picture.  Most of the film is not particularly good.  There's occasionally some great monologues out of JK Simmons, but Miles Teller's Andrew (as well as Simmons' ability to continue teaching) are both questionable at best.  We get the sense that Andrew didn't really exist until Terence Fletcher came into his life, and doesn't know how to function without him as a driving force.  Obviously he had to have had gumption to get to this university and ability, so why can't he find a balance with his girlfriend and father, both of whom we're meant to believe are important to him but never really seem that way, even if it's clearly pertinent to the narrative that they remain tokens of his lost innocence.  The ending, with him shattering his humanity in pursuit of perfection, is a strong metaphor and nearly makes the film seem great, but everything in front of it is tainted in some ways by a lack of believability and inconsistency in the main character.

We turn now to the two films that genuinely competed for the Academy Award, and if you've been following along you know that one of them is probably my favorite.  The thing about Boyhood is that based on the plot alone (filming, for twelve years, a narrative picture), it would be challenging and thought-provoking.  A million think pieces about devotion to your craft and wanting to tell the ultimate story are all there for the taking, but Boyhood is genuinely a masterful picture.  The film unfolds slowly, but increasingly, like in life, it feels like it's moving too fast, with us wanting more time with a specific chapter in Mason's life but knowing that, like life, it will quickly pass into the next phase.  The film operates under a simple "all of life is interesting" guiding principle, and it works because Linklater has faith in the characters that he has created.  Watching Mason's parents as they both embark on journeys that yield little and realizing that Mason's promise may be just as small-it's a fascinating commentary on the way that we live through our dreams, but life happens whether or not we want to punch the pause button.  I was floored by this movie, and left in awe as it ended, gifting us such a wonderful slice-of-life picture.

Birdman also plays with time a bit, never really cutting away from our central Riggan, but here we get a more stylized look at the wonders of getting older.  Birdman functions on two levels for me.  One, there's the bitter, nasty Sunset Boulevard style look at celebrity, and in particular the way we worship and then discard the most famous of people in the world with little thought for their humanity or giving much reason as to why.  The second is the more relatable, uncomfortable look the film pushes on age.  Age, and the need to remain vital even if the zeitgeist has shifted away from worshiping your generation, is everywhere in Birdman and critically-important to the story.  Unlike most of his films, though, AGI makes these feel very real but never in a dour, lifeless way, but in a focus that crackles and shoots you from the side, like the way that Emma Stone's Sam is given so much validation just by virtue of her youth.  It's a biting, rich movie that has so many incredible ideas that it's hard to knock the Academy for choosing inarguably its gutsiest and finest Best Picture winner since No Country for Old Men.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Globes were definitely in their own direction in 2014, skipping over a couple of key nominees and actually rejecting the Best Picture victor, even if it wasn't in the Drama category.  Yes, The Grand Budapest Hotel topped Birdman in Comedy/Musical, along with St. Vincent, Into the Woods, and Pride, while Boyhood emerged victorious over Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Selma, and The Theory of Everything.  The PGA Awards were ten-wide unlike Oscar, so they actually included all but Selma in their lineup (likely due to Selma's bizarre under-the-radar campaign for the Oscar that ended in disaster for Paramount), with Birdman taking the top prize and Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, and Gone Girl getting the remaining three spots.  Finally, at the BAFTA Awards they selected Boyhood as their victor, topping Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything.  Looking at these, had the Academy stuck to its nine-wide field, it feels like Foxcatcher would have been the beneficiary rather than Gone Girl or Nightcrawler-it had the Best Director nomination, scored at the Globes/PGA's, and got multiple other Oscar nominations in general.  In a ten-wide field it's impossible to imagine it missing.
Films I Would Have Nominated: I would have kept Pride, which got that shock Globe citation and was one of my favorite pictures so far this decade.  I also would have gone with the cerebral Under the Skin, the dangerous Stranger by the Lake, the surprisingly effective Fault in Our Stars (what-we all have our favorites), the outstanding Wild, and the jarring Nightcrawler.
Oscar’s Choice: In one of the truly toughest-to-call Best Picture contests I've seen in years (which was weirdly duplicated one year later by an even harder call), Birdman took the cake away from Boyhood.
My Choice: Boyhood is far-and-away my favorite film of 2014, so this is an easy call for me.  I'd follow it with Birdman, Selma, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash, American Sniper, and The Imitation Game.

And there we have it folks-2014 is officially over with!  What are your thoughts on the cinematic year at large-were you more Team Boyhood or Team Birdman?  Are you still smarting over those Selma snubs, or is the lack of Nightcrawler making you break out into hives right now?  And overall, what was the best picture of 2014?  Share in the comments!

Past Best Picture Contests: 200820092010201120122013

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