Let's Talk About These Oscars

Ever since Maggie got the brilliant idea back in 2005 to watch all the Best Picture nominees before the Academy Awards, I've been diligent every year in doing the same thing. 2012 was the only year where I just couldn't muster the heart to watch Les Miserables and Amour. But other than that? I've seen every other nominee for the past 9 years. 2014's nominees are, at times, the same-old, same-old from years past and some of the criticism thrown at the Academy as of late is warranted. I'm going to offer some commentary on the Academy itself, but also throw out my two cents with all the Best Picture nominees.

Most of the criticism this year is mainly focused on how white the Awards are. While that's fair criticism, this issue is a symptom of the problem, not the cause. (as a side note: I would like to point out that last year's Best Picture winner was 12 Years a Slave, something people forget to mention when criticizing this year's list) No, the real problem is that Hollywood has always been a white, male-dominated industry. Most of the nationwide releases each year have white, male protagonists - I mean, I can count on my two hands the number of top-100 grossing movies last year that had a black main character. So, yeah, Hollywood needs to diversify immensely, but that's a whole other issue that I am not as eloquent or educated enough to discuss further.

With that criticism in mind, I think the Academy could use a few tips:
  • Diversity - According to a report a couple years back, the Academy is mostly made up of old white guys. They really need be more inclusive with their membership because they'll find themselves increasingly alienating movie lovers and eventually the movie-going public.
  • Transparency - There is no list of the 5,000+ members of the Academy. What do they have to hide? And honestly, you'd squash a lot of criticism if the nomination process was explained better and revealed publicly. They don't have to publish people's votes unless the voter did so themselves, but they could at least show us the tallies and who got in and who got left out. I think that would make for a better, healthier discussion, rather than accusations of racism that are happening this year.
  • Change the Format - When the Academy decided to bump the Best Picture category up to 10 nominees, that was cheered because it felt like the Academy is finally opening the doors to critically-acclaimed blockbuster/genre films like The Dark Knight. Now it feels like a consolation prize every year to that one movie that everyone loved (Inception, Gravity, Django Unchained, etc.). They should just change it to 7 Best Picture & 7 Best Director nominees. Any more feels like too much and any less downplays the importance of nominating those universally-loved movies. Plus you get rid of the problem of a movie being nominated and not the director - those two categories should always be linked together.
I will still watch every nominee each year and I'll always tune in to the Awards show, but if the Academy still wants to stay relevant and meaningful, they're going to have to change. Okay, my rant is over - here's how I feel about each Best Picture (in alphabetical order):

American Sniper (R) - Runtime: 132 minutes
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Writer: Jason Hall
Director: Clint Eastwood
I'm not a fan of Eastwood. I think he's a fairly pretentious director who uses a lot of heavy-handed imagery. American Sniper is not an exception to that rule. Bradley Cooper plays real life soldier, Chris Kyle, a man credited with having the most kills in American military history. The movie is full of war cliches that you've seen before. There's the shot of Kyle contemplating life and death with a bunch of American flag-lined coffins in a room. There's a bunch of PTSD scenes when Kyle hears a lawnmower or a drill and instinctively flinches. There's a scene involving two soldiers where one guy hates the war and the other doesn't. The film barely tries to convince us that Kyle is wrestling with inner demons. Most of the time, Kyle seems like a man who lets things happen to him, rather than the other way around. I don't think the film glorifies this man, but it never humanizes him either. We're supposed to have this profound respect for him at the end when the credits come up. They show his actual funeral procession with some manipulative music but once the movie fades to black and the other credits roll, there's complete silence. It's like Eastwood is shouting at us through this silence: YOU THINK ABOUT THIS MOVIE AND WHAT THIS HERO MEANT TO YOU AND AMERICA. It left a really bad taste in my mouth. This movie isn't terrible, it's just that there have been way, way better films about Iraq, including Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, which felt more engaged with the subject and characters than American Sniper ever did.

Birdman (R) - Runtime: 119 minutes
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Writers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Armando Bo
There's a lot going on in this movie. It's a film within a film, a very meta-look at Hollywood and fame and one man's descent into madness. It's also a very beautiful and mesmerizing movie - filmed and edited to look like one continous shot. The film mostly follows Riggan Thomson, a washed up Hollywood actor trying to make a comeback via Broadway by writing, directing and starring in his own adaptation of a famous short story by Raymond Carver. I've only seen the movie once, but it felt like the camera was moving too quickly to catch everything, that the cast was flying by to take stock of their lines. It is one of those movies you have to watch again and again because there's so much to take in. Plus the performances are spectacular and Keaton fits this role perfectly. The movie is hilarious at times, deeply moving at other moments and always fascinating. You don't know where the movie is going, but it's exciting to watch. There's a lot to love - Riggan finds himself at the lowest point of his life and uses his alter ego - Birdman - to keep him churning and going. I loved every minute of this movie - it felt odd and refreshing compared to a lot of movies about Hollywood and celebrities like The Artist or Saving Mr. Banks. This movie will undoubtedly be considered a classic 10-15 years from now.

Boyhood (R) - Runtime: 165 minutes
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater
Linklater is one of my favorite directors - he directed one of my all-time favorite movies, Dazed and Confused and has always been a director you can't quite pin down. He's done the crowd-pleasing School of Rock and the Before Sunrise trilogy involving two people and their 18-year relationship, plus an experimental animated film called Waking Life. His grand experiment, Boyhood, is one of his crowning achievements where he filmed a week or two every year for 12 years. It's a very personal film for him - most of Mason's childhood is similar to Linklater's life. And watching this extremely long film, it's an engaging experience more than a movie. There's really not anything important in the plot - Mason is a child of divorce and has a pretty awful young childhood, jumping from one awful step dad to the next. But the beauty of this film is that it doesn't feel like a story - these are mundane and what seems to be unimportant moments in Mason's life. But you experience them and realize that sometimes the dumb arguments you have with your dad or the awkward moments in class have a way in shaping you into the person you are. And while the movie does last almost 3 hours, it's moving and eloquent and ultimately a rewarding experience.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (R) - Runtime: 100 minutes
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Bill Murray
Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson
Out of all the Wes Anderson movies, this is by far the most Wes Anderson-y. It seems Anderson has had a rollercoaster of a career - first he's the best thing ever when The Royal Tenenbaums comes out and then a few years later people are trashing his movies (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited) and saying he's a one-trick pony. Now all the critics are in love with him again arguing that this is his finest movie to date. I have always been a fan of Anderson since The Royal Tenenbaums. I'd argue that his best movie is Darjeeling Limited, but that's neither here nor there. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a solid film - there's lots to love from the quirky characters to the zippy dialogue and the simple yet sublime framing and dollhouse-like staging of the sets. Amidst all the crazy cast and the even crazier plot, I felt like something got lost along the way. The movie never lingers long enough on one character to get a true sense of who they are nor does the plot take any moment to admire the scene or jokes. There's way too many people in this movie and it almost feels bloated that way. I did enjoy this movie, just not as much as other Anderson films. The movie felt distant and unrelatable, despite having a fairly lovable ne'er-do-well with Ralph Fiennes' character.

The Imitation Game (PG-13) - Runtime: 114 minutes
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kiera Knightley, Matthew Goode
Director: Morton Tyldum
Writer: Graham Moore
The second biopic on this list and maybe the best. Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the mathematician who basically invented the first computer in order to break the Nazi Enigma code. Biopics can be tricky, you have to walk a fine line between boredom (Ray, Walk the Line, JFK) and being too absurd (Radio, Patch Adams). Luckily, The Imitation Game is not only a good biopic, it's also a good movie. It doesn't try to draw with broad strokes and cover all of Turing's life. But it deftly maneuvers between his childhood, his time in the military and his life in shambles afterwards. Instead of creating a clear, chronological path with the film, Moore's script weaves in and out of each time period to create a sense of weight to each moment. You can see what led him to call his computer Christopher, you can see why he lacks any empathy for his colleagues. Besides Cumberbatch inhabiting Turing, the supporting cast also should get its dues. Knightley continually impresses me because I still think of her as a lightweight because of the Pirates movies. And Matthew Goode deserves to be in more movies and leading roles. He's a great actor, he's hot and he's British. What is there not to love? Plus this movie has Mark Strong. God I love that man as well. This was not only a very serious drama, but a thrilling one, too and one of the year's best.

Selma (PG-13) - Runtime: 128 minutes
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo
Director: Ava DuVernay
Writer: Paul Webb
In my opinion, Selma wasn't that good. I think the subject matter was important, but the way the movie shakes out, it just was merely mediocre. The movie throws you into scenes without much context and some of it moves particularly slow. That's a deadly combination and Selma doesn't wrap you up in the moment. Maybe my expectations were too high - it felt like this was going to be a rah-rah feel good, energetic movie. But it's distant at times especially when it tries to paint MLK as the figure in constant conflict with himself. And the pacing is slow and there were times where I didn't understand why the filmmakers were showing us a particular scene. They introduce a lot of different threads to the plot with no payoff (like the letter he sent to his wife or the weird CIA briefings introducing each scene). There's two really good moments in the film - the first time the protester's march across the bridge and the final scene where MLK gives his speech at the capital. Other than that it's a test of wills to get through the movie. There wasn't a narrative focus, instead it felt like different scenes stitched together chronologically. Half the time I didn't quite understand the subtext of the dialogue and the movie made me feel stupid for not understanding. I believe that there's a good movie about this moment in history and about MLK, but Selma is not it.

The Theory of Everything (PG-13) - Runtime: 123 minutes
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior
Director: James Marsh
Writer: Anthony McCarten
The last of the biopics, but certainly not the least. There's a lot of feels and emotions in this movie. I was balling like a baby at times. Man, I'm getting old where a simple thing like a commercial about toothpaste could tear me to pieces. But aside from the emotional element of the movie, The Theory of Everything is a fantastic film. It isn't manipulative, despite all the salty tears I shed, and it really showcases this relationship between Stephen and Jane and all the shit they had to endure. Jane is a badass woman and this movie may be a bit biased in that it's based on her book, but dayam. Stephen is equally fearless and you can feel the weight of this disease just bearing down on them together as the movie goes on. And Redmayne is absolutely stellar is Hawking, brilliant as those British dudes say. Felicity Jones is equally smashing (another British term!). To me this movie was what A Beautiful Mind wished it was - warm and fuzzy and full of life. And on top of all that, the film is beautifully shot - James Marsh deserves more praise for the direction of this film.

Whiplash (R) - Runtime: 107 minutes
Starring: Miles Teller, JK Simmons
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Finally we get to my favorite nominee, Whiplash. This movie has no chance in hell of winning, but it's the best film by far this year - perfectly cast, perfectly executed and directed. JK Simmons unleashes his inner R. Lee Ermey and goes ballistic in this picture. Honestly this movie more than likely got nominated because of his performance. But Whiplash is so much more than "that drummer movie about the dick teacher." This is a story about fathers and sons, competition and our society of being the best. I've heard customers at my work tell me to my face the same line Simmons throws out: "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job." The insane drive for Miles Teller's character to go out and be the best is frustrating and heartbreaking at the same time. And the movie has a delightful last 30 minutes where the unexpected happens. While JK Simmons steals this movie - Miles Teller deserves special mention for going toe-to-toe with Simmons in every scene. Teller is on the cusp of breaking out, it's only a matter of time until he gets nominated. Aside from the acting, the direction is stellar, from the cuts to the very awesome sound editing, Chazelle gets it right. I was simply uncomfortable and mesmerized at the same time throughout this whole movie.

I don't want to project any politics into my decision of what's best, because I feel like the best movie is by far the one about the white kid struggling to become the best jazz drummer ever. And the movie about one of the most influential black men in history shouldn't even be nominated IMO. But these are just the Oscar nominees, there were way, way better films involving women and diverse casts last year that the Oscars don't care about. But we'll talk about that later. Here's my final rankings (and yes, I copped out on number 3 but sorry, not sorry!):

1. Whiplash
2. Birdman
3a. The Imitation Game
3b. The Theory of Everything
4. Boyhood
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
6. Selma
7. American Sniper

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