Monday, February 16, 2015

2015’s Best Picture Nominations Mirror a Good Year for Movies

Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded their nominees for the Best Picture Oscar from five to as many as ten in 2009, the list has sometimes seemed bloated to me. I mean, really, how many people remember A Serious Man from that year? But 2015 is different. I could make a case for any of the eight films that are nominated, each being worthy film achievements in their own rights. I don’t find one head-scratcher in the bunch, not a single one in which I said, “How did THAT sneak in?”

As in years past, I rank the nominated films, in ascending order. However, don’t take any individual position as a snub. Ranking these films is tantamount to comparing students who have earned an “A” with a grade of 90 versus a 99. The only distinction is my #1 film, which I believe is not only far and away the best film of this year but one that is a groundbreaker that will stand the test of time.

Again, these are not my predictions for the Oscar, just the way I would arrange them on a cinematic continuum. I’m confident that the final awards will be different, but I’m also confident that, regardless of the outcome, no selection will be undeserved, regardless of how surprising it may be.

8. The Theory of Everything — In the tradition of My Left Foot and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, James Marsh’s keenly felt and sensitive film about Stephen Hawking puts us in the center of a man’s debilitation. Marsh’s storytelling moves tidily into Hawking’s courtship of his wife, Jane (exquisitely, delicately portrayed by Felicity Jones), the discovery of Hawking’s ALS, and Jane’s decision to marry him anyway, determined to enjoy whatever time they have. As we proceed through their difficult life together, Eddie Redmayne, in the title role, gives an excruciating performance, one that I predict will get the Best Actor Oscar. Redmayne evokes nuances that only a most disciplined actor could achieve. I only wish that this film’s definition of “...Everything” included Hawking’s actual theories and how they illuminated physics for so many people. That would have made this fine film more complete for me.

7. American Sniper — Clint Eastwood shows yet again why he is one of our finest directors over the last 35 years. This portrait of Chris Kyle, the eponymous sniper, takes us into the psyche of a soldier with a specific and unique role in warfare. The combat scenes are tense at times, harrowing at others, but always realist. Bradley Cooper, bulked up for the role, can now be recognized as one of the more versatile actors of his generation with his third consecutive Oscar nomination. (By the way, how was the wonderful Sienna Miller overlooked for her portrayal of Kyle’s loving but suffering wife?) Forget the phony debate of whether this is a prowar or antiwar film. It is a look at a man who fulfilled his duty to country distinctively.

6. Boyhood — I knew a film director who, when asked what he did for a living, said “I manipulate time and space.” Richard Linklater proves this view with Boyhood. It is the story of Mason, told over 12 actual years, which lets the film’s characters age in real time. Linklater’s commitment to this innovative technique is marked by his devotion to craft. The consistency in characterization, performance, even film stock, is remarkable. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette give loving performances as Mason’s parents, and Arquette seems to be a lock for a Supporting Actress Oscar. For me, the one downfall is the story itself, which I found wanting. Many have excused this aspect, saying Boyhood shows the ordinariness of life. Yes, a story in any medium can show the mundane, but it should also have a dramatic arc. This deficiency diminished Boyhood for me.

5. The Imitation Game — This remarkable story of how mathematician and cryptologist Alan Turning helped break the Nazis’ Enigma code unfolds in a roundabout way that illustrates the injustice shown its subject. The film begins with Turing’s arrest for homosexuality, and only as the police investigation unfolds do we learn of Turing’s titanic contribution to the Allied war effort. Benedict Cumberbatch, in a magnificent and heartbreaking performance, portrays Turing as a guy who didn’t fit in with others, even as he towered over them in intellect, leadership and achievements. Though the film’s subject of computer science could have been arcane, director Morten Tydlum makes it accessible and comprehensible to the audience (a contrast to the treatment of Stephen Hawking’s scientific work in The Theory of Everything). In the end, we are confounded with how such an important and valuable human being could have been so mistreated simply for being who he was.

4. Whiplash — Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is a promising young drummer honing his craft at a New York conservatory of jazz. He comes under the tutelage of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, in the performance of a lifetime), the revered and feared bandleader. Neimann comes to be terrorized by Fletcher, whose motives are not made clear: Is he pursuing perfection at all costs? Or is he merely a controlling sadist? Miles Teller shines as Neimann, fulfilling the promise he showed as a teenage alcoholic in The Spectacular Now. But Whiplash belongs to Simmons, and he is practically assured an Oscar for his performance. Writer/director Damien Chazelle emerges as a talent as auspicious as Andrew. While the third act strains credibility (a shortcoming in the screenplay), the overall film explodes with a kinetic intensity that I have rarely seen. Whiplash is a unique vision by an emergent talent.

3. Selma —One scene defined Selma for me: Martin Luther King (wonderfully portrayed by David Oyelowo), on his way to Selma to capture the vote for African Americans, stops with his lieutenants at a friend’s home for breakfast. They savor the meal laid out for them, laughing and relaxing as only good friends do. In a single stroke, director Ava DuVernay shows the humanity of those who led the civil rights movement, making them more than plaster saints. DuVernay, a one-time documentarian, imbues Selma with a sense of authenticity rarely seen in historical films. Her King is not only regal, but flawed (his adulteries are referenced) and given to uncertainty. How DuVernay could have been passed over for Best Director in favor of  Bennett Miller’s somnambulant helming of Foxcatcher is beyond me. Her work on Selma breathed new life into a story that is already a familiar part of the American canon, casting it in a fresh light.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel — Jean-Luc Godard said “cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.” I prefer to think of movies as a place where we create exquisite illusions. Given that, The Grand Budapest Hotel was one of the most delightful films I saw all year — a concoction of artifice and whimsy, centered on an imaginary Eastern European country that must fight for its existence. The unconventional visual style of the movie unfolds more like a storyboard or a comic strip, which is the very antithesis of filmmaking, but Anderson makes it all work. I have not always found Wes Anderson’s styles endearing (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, yes. Moonrise Kingdom, no). But The Grand Budapest Hotel was a treat for me, a break from the familiar tropes of conventional filmmaking and one of the most imaginative films of 2014.

1. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — Film critic Godfrey Cheshire once said of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's masterpiece, that it had “the epic collision of talent and ambition…. It exudes the wonder and thrill of artistic discovery, the giddiness of high-stakes daring, the narcissistic pull of power, fame and youthful self-regard.” I would apply these same words to Birdman, an audacious film that takes us into the state of mind of a desperate man, Riggan Thompson, an actor once famous for the Birdman superhero franchise, Today, years after he abdicated that role, Thompson is going for broke, betting all his remaining cash and the remnants of his reputation on a single roll of the dice. And like his film’s main character, director Alejandro G. Innaritu pulls out the stops, innovating story-telling techniques that will influence films for years to come.

As I watched Birdman, I couldn’t believe the long tracking shots, wondering when they would end. (Could they go on forever? They seemed as if they would.) Not merely a novelty, these seemingly inexhaustible shots informed the desperation of the main character and the chaos in the Broadway show that he was staging in this last gasp of his career. One must not overlook the practical challenges Innaritu faced in executing such shots; one error by an actor reciting a line, one inadvertent intrusion by an errant camera operator, and it all starts at the beginning. Yet the director pulled it all off, completing the film within a tight budget and a tighter deadline. 

Equally daring was the unusual score of the film, a driving piece of percussion performed on a single set of drums. I haven’t heard such a choice since the 1950s (e.g., Sweet Smell of Success), and it works. Such cinematic sleight of hand hangs together on the screen through Michael Keaton, giving the most physically demanding performance I saw this year. He appears in nearly every frame, so the success of Birdman depends on him. Keaton blurs the lines between sanity and madness continuously, letting us see every stage of Riggan Thompson abjection as he strains to regain relevance. For me, Keaton’s performance is the best of the year, a tour de force that plumbs the depths of his talent and the breadth of his risk taking. (How many other actors would allow themselves to be photographed on the streets of New York in their tidy whities?)

Innaritu has already won top prize of the Director’s Guild of America, and I believe he will repeat at the Oscars. It would be just. Birdman is an exhilarating work that shows us what film is capable of accomplishing, as it cuts across time, through space, and even in and out of sanity. It is the best film of the year, the best film of the last few years, and I expect it will be viewed as the best film of many years to come.

Those are my thoughts in this excellent year. I look forward to the actual awards on February 22. The beauty of this year’s ceremony is that the auditorium will be filled with winners, regardless of whomever Oscar blesses as his final choice.