Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences names a single film as the Best Picture of the year. Most film nerds and critics don’t take The Oscars too seriously, but for some reason, every Oscars ceremony feels like The Super Bowl for us. Odds are calculated, lists are made, and one film emerges victorious. As usual, this year’s batch is bloated with biopics — four of the eight nominees fit that category — but it also offers a handful of exceptionally exciting movies reaching for The Oscars’ top award. Below, I’ve ranked the eight nominees from my least to most favorite, and discussed each of them as films and award contenders.
8. The Imitation Game – Directed by Morten Tyldum
The Movie: Father of computer science Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) breaks Nazi Germany’s Enigma code during World War II while simultaneously struggling with his homosexuality.
My Take: The Imitation Game is the sort of film that doesn’t need to be seen. It’s a (mostly) competently told boilerplate biopic; everything good about the film is derived from the incredible life of Alan Turing, but it’s muddled by bizarre, contrived differences. Turing was a brilliant man: he didn’t just contribute to theoretical computer science; he practically created it. He’s a legendary figure within the mathematics community, with a comically high number of fundamental concepts and theorems named after him. In 1952, Turing was charged with gross indecency for committing homosexual acts and was chemically castrated. Two years later, he committed suicide. Alan Turing was clearly a complex man with an incredible life story; Tyldum’s film makes no attempt to look at Turing as anything else other than a post-Sheldon Cooper caricature of a brilliant mind. The Turing of The Imitation Game separates his peas and carrots, doesn’t understand jokes, and exhibits borderline autistic behavior, despite the fact that Alan Turing wasn’t like that at all. The Turing of The Imitation Game chooses not to expose a Soviet spy in order to remain closeted — which also didn’t happen — implying that Turing committed high treason. The only original material The Imitation Game brings to the table is unnecessarily added, and merely distracts from the intriguing life story on which the film is centered.
Why It’s Nominated: The Oscars love biopics, and the timing is right for both Cumberbatch and Turing. Cumberbatch’s big screen star continues to rise after the incredibly popular Sherlock BBC show brought him into the public eye, and Turing was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013. Moreover, distribution was handled in the United States by The Weinstein Company, who have mastered the art of getting awarded for lukewarm biopics. When it comes down to it, getting an Oscar nomination is as much about gaming the system as it is the films themselves, and the Weinsteins have perfected it.
Chances of Winning: Don’t doubt the Weinsteins. It could (but absolutely should not) take Best Picture. It’s highly unlikely that it’ll win — it’ll probably split votes with The Theory of Everything — but weirder things have happened on Oscar night.
7. The Theory of Everything – Directed by James Marsh
The Movie: Brilliant, young theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife-to-be, Jane (Felicity Jones), deal with Hawking’s diagnosis of motor neuron disease and his discoveries in physics.
My Take: The Theory of Everything is a difficult film to be enthusiastic about one way or another. There’s just not too much going on here; this is a decidedly un-cinematic movie, consisting of a parade of Stephen Hawking’s life events where dramatic scenes are shown in close-up and happy scenes are shown through grainy montages over Jóhann Jóhannsson’s melodic score. James Marsh made a name for himself with the brilliant documentary Man on Wire, which understood, yet understated, the poetry of its subject. Here, Marsh is a hyper-literal filmmaker, and there is no poetry found in this great man’s life. Most fans of the film latch on to Redmayne’s performance, which anchors the film. While Redmayne is convincing as Hawking, his performance is primarily focused on emulating Hawking’s ever-decaying physical presence, which ultimately feels more like an acting challenge than a performance that engages on an emotional level.
Why It’s Nominated: Much like The Imitation Game, this is a biopic about an important, beloved scientific figure starring an actor currently in vogue. Redmayne was recently in the popular Les Misérables and this marks his first leading role in mainstream film. Marsh was also (rightfully) awarded the Best Documentary Oscar for Man on Wire in 2008.
Chances of Winning: To describe The Theory of Everything as British is an understatement; it ends with Hawking rejecting knighthood, and at one point in the film Jane even comments on how British a line of dialog is. The film didn’t take top honors at The Golden Globes — which is conducted by the Hollywood Foreign Press and tends to lean towards British film — making it unlikely for it to do so at The Oscars.
6. American Sniper – Directed by Clint Eastwood
The Movie: The true story of the self-described “most lethal sniper” in U.S. military history, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper).
My Take: From an ideological perspective, American Sniper is deeply disturbing. American soldiers are universally glorified and Iraqis are consistently described merely as savages. Screenwriter Jason Hall makes no attempt to capture the complexity that defined the so-called War on Terror and has portrayed this as a film about good and evil, with no shades of gray. The film could likely double as a Navy SEAL recruitment video, filled to the brim with the language we’ve come to expect from the armed forces: “brotherhood” and “elite” and “protecting freedom.” However much this feels like conservative propaganda, I find myself impressed with the Eastwood’s handling of the material, primarily in the film’s ending. In 2012, Chris Kyle published the autobiography on which this film is based; in 2013, while helping a veteran cope with PTSD, he was killed on a shooting range by the very man he was attempting to help. Eastwood chooses not to show Kyle’s death on screen, instead ending with a close up on Kyle’s wife timidly closing the front door as Kyle leaves for the shooting range with his soon-to-be killer. The words “Kyle was killed that day by a veteran he was trying to help” appear on screen, a matter-of-fact way of describing an event so truly surprising and bizarre it could only be based in reality. Despite its moral simplifications and dangerous politics, American Sniper at the very least has a handful of powerful scenes, which is more than can be said of The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game.
Why It’s Nominated: Oscar voters have a median age of 62, and are 94% Caucasian and 77% male (read: old conservatives, part of American Sniper’s target audience). The Oscars love Clint Eastwood, and between Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Bradley Cooper has become something close to a household name.
Chances of Winning: Before the nominations were announced, American Sniper didn’t seem like it would get any attention at this year’s Oscars, but managed to pull in six nominations. American Sniper shocked us during the announcement of nominees last Thursday, so a win isn’t completely out of the question. Eastwood’s conservative wet dream isn’t a frontrunner by any means, but it has somehow become the dark horse of this year’s Oscar season.
5. Selma – Directed by Ava DuVernay
The Movie: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) leads a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, pressuring President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act.
My Take: Selma is a very good movie, and the quality jump between American Sniper and Selma is gigantic, despite the fact they sit side-by-side on this list. Director Ava DuVernay and co-writer Paul Webb “get it,” to put it simply. Like the previous three entries on this list, Selma is a biopic, but DuVernay and Webb understand Dr. King beyond the image of a saint-like master of peaceful protest that we all learned about as kids. The Dr. King of Selma is, at times, hesitant; he’s aware of how brutal even the most peaceful of protests can become; he’s as strong as we imagine him to be; and we can see his passion burning within him thanks to Oyelowo’s fierce performance. Selma works beyond the limiting structure of a traditional biopic in that it effectively captures the frustration of an oppressed people — much in the same way Milk did — and makes graphic the unforgivably terrible conditions they were put in. DuVernay and Webb are also smart enough to keep Selma focused; there’s no “I Have a Dream” speech, and no assassination. This focus allows Selma to effectively tell a story, but doesn’t allow us to delve as deep into the other equally interesting aspects of Dr. King’s life; in particular, his relationship with his wife and children is left largely unexplored. In the end, Selma is a very good, if not revelatory, take on the great man’s life.
Why It’s Nominated: Selma is an extremely solid biopic, making it a clear pick for an Oscar nomination. Selma received great reviews and is centered on a pitch-perfect performance of one of the most iconic figures of the last century. This film was all but guaranteed an Oscar nomination.
Chances of Winning: Up until the nominations came out, Selma was a frontrunner for Best Picture. Somehow, the Academy gave Selma only two nominations: Best Picture and Best Original Song. Selma was all but snubbed nomination-wise. It has been suggested that, with the stiff competition in multiple crowded categories, maybe Selma didn’t campaign as hard as it should have. Either way — since Oyelowo, DuVernay and Webb were all passed over — it’s unlikely Selma will take Best Picture.
4. Whiplash – Directed by Damien Chazelle
The Movie: Young jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) studies under the intimidating and borderline abusive jazz professor/conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).
My Take: Damien Chazelle’s energetic, often over-the-top feature is a study of the push-and-pull dynamic that exists between teacher and student. Simmons’ Fletcher is nothing short of terrifying when conducting, and there are only brief glimpses of his humanity scattered throughout the film. Chazelle — who also wrote the film — is smart enough to keep these glimpses of humanity solely from Andrew’s perspective, not forcing any synthetic characterization. We don’t see any of Fletcher’s life outside of his conducting, and his character has a mythic presence, much in the way that students mythologize their teachers. At times, Fletcher’s tough-love tactics are unrealistically brutal, and Whiplash occasionally dips into camp during these moments, but the electricity between Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons is always engrossing to watch. The film’s finale — which is far too experiential to describe in words and far too good to give away — shows the tension between the two erupting in a masterful, memorable sequence.
Why It’s Nominated: Whiplash was quite popular here at The Focus Pull and with other critics. It’s smaller in scope than most films The Oscars usually like to reward, but it’s energetic, holds wide appeal, and centers on two masterful performances.
Chances of Winning: Whiplash will almost certainly not win. It’s not the kind of film that The Oscars typically go for — no grand statements are made — and this is only Chazelle’s second film, making it the least likely victor of this batch of nominees.
3. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Directed by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu
The Movie: Fading actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) made his name playing a superhero named “Birdman” years ago; now, Riggan is attempting to reinvent his career by writing, directing, and starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The film is shot and edited to appear as a single shot.
My Take: Birdman is a difficult film to write about, mainly because it’s a difficult film to remember. The film’s 119 minutes fly by not just because Birdman is often hilarious, but because it simply throws so much at the audience. It feels like an assault on both the senses and the psyche: one minute Emma Stone is ripping Michael Keaton a new one, and the next Lindsay Duncan delivers a surrealistically evil (yet probably not unfounded) monologue denouncing the film’s central play before she’s even seen it. Everything we know and love — along with everything we hate and everything we don’t know — about art and the creative process is on display in Birdman. Iñárritu and his three co-writers have crafted a manic film with an absurdist tone that creates an environment where all of the pasta sticks to the wall; all ideas — good and bad, cliché and bizarre, comic and tragic — have their place in Birdman. The film’s abrasive absurdist tendencies certainly aren’t for everyone, and it’s all a bit too unfocused to have the impact it strives for, but Birdman is nothing short of a damn good time at your local art-house theater.
Why It’s Nominated: Birdman is Iñárritu’s fifth feature, and all four of his previous films are super-serious dramas that have been nominated for Academy Awards. In Birdman, Iñárritu has discovered that he can make a film with a sense of humor while retaining the weight of his previous films. Ordinarily, Birdman would be a bit too left-of-center for The Academy’s taste, but Iñárritu has successfully created an accessible film whose playful nature doesn’t compromise its artistic integrity.
Chances of Winning: Birdman — along with the next two entries on this list — is one of the frontrunners this year. Birdman didn’t manage to take Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes, but it’s still a strong competitor.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel – Directed by Wes Anderson
The Movie: Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), concierge of a legendary hotel in the fictional Eastern European Republic of Zubrowka, teams up with his lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), to prove his innocence after being framed for murder.
My Take: The Grand Budapest Hotel was The Focus Pull’s best film of 2014, and it’s hard to argue with that. Wes Anderson’s latest feature is so gosh darned likeable that it could turn even the most verbose writer into a mess of half-assed film critic clichés: it’s funny; it’s engaging; it’s heartwarming; you’ll laugh and you’ll cry; this is a must-see movie. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson has crafted one of his most memorable characters — brilliantly fleshed out by Ralph Fiennes — and put him in the middle of a heist film turned prison escape tale turned war commentary turned tragedy. While Wes Anderson’s ultra-composed visual style is certainly here along with his screwball-like dialog, this is thematically heavier than most of his previous work. The Grand Budapest Hotel lives in a world of hitmen, war, and conspiracy while still centered on the kind of unlikely friendship we’ve come to expect from the contemporary auteur. Wes Anderson isn’t without his fair share of detractors, but it’s hard to imagine anyone remaining unmoved after this funny, beautiful, and moving film.
Why It’s Nominated: It’s about time a Wes Anderson film was nominated for Best Picture, and The Grand Budapest Hotel has a wide enough scope to be in the running. It doesn’t hurt that this is Anderson’s most mature work and that it stars Oscar favorite Ralph Fiennes.
Chances of Winning: Pretty good. The Grand Budapest Hotel beat Birdman for the Golden Globe, giving it the edge between the two, but it’s hard to say whether or not Anderson’s divisive style will play to his favor.
1. Boyhood – Directed by Richard Linklater
The Movie: Created over the course of twelve years, Richard Linklater chronicles the transition from boyhood to young-adulthood in this epic.
My Take: Boyhood is a powerful and gigantic film that chronicles the life of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). Because of its unusual structure, Boyhood is typically described macroscopically — one of the great joys of watching Boyhood is watching a boy grow into a young man — but it’s the small moments that make Boyhood nothing short of an American classic. One of my favorites occurs relatively early in the film, when young Mason’s alcoholic stepfather forces him to cut his hair. When Mason goes to school the next day, he’s greeted with laughter from his peers, and he sheepishly sits down; a girl passes him a note: “I think your hair looks kewl.” Linklater cuts to Mason and his stepbrother skateboarding and blasts “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” with Mason empowered by the note he’s received. When he gets home, the music stops and he sees that his stepfather has just hit his mother. This sequence of events — the note of female approval, which leads to the masculine empowerment of “Soulja Boy”, which leads to the abuse doled out by his stepfather — is a single thought; it’s the process of an abusive relationship condensed into less than a minute of time. Boyhood succeeds with such flying colors not only because it’s a moving examination of the American boy, but because it’s so much more than any single thing. This is populist cinema; this is art-house cinema; this is both detail and big-picture oriented; this is an artistic achievement of the highest order.
Why It’s Nominated: Boyhood was — for many — the cinematic event of the year. It lived up to the hype generated by its attractive concept and was met with a perfect score on Metacritic as well as the top spot on their year-end list roundup. Boyhood was a film so big and with such universal appeal that it was all but guaranteed a nomination.
Chances of Winning: Independent of my unabashed love for this movie, Boyhood is current frontrunner for Best Picture. Boyhood’s two main competitors are Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both of which are a bit more hard-to-pin-down than The Oscars usually go for, leaving Boyhood to be the likeliest of the batch to take top honors.Continue Reading Issue #34