Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscars 2014: Best Director / Best Picture

We've come to the final two categories of our preview: Best Director and Best Picture. Best Director has been a point of controversy this year, with the exclusion of Ava DuVernay (Selma) causing a huge stir across social media and the entertainment media. Though her historic inclusion as the first woman of color to be nominated in this category would have been exciting (and well-deserved), we still have a lineup that's interesting, recognizing very different voices that have created a fascinating variety of films. In Best Picture, too, we saw less than nine nominees for the first time since the category expanded in 2009, with eight films earning nominations. They, too, paint a surprising portrait of the year that was, from arthouse favorites to unexpected blockbusters.

So, without further ado, here are the nominees:

BEST DIRECTOR


Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Who would have thought that the Academy would ever recognize Anderson's direction? After years of ignoring his uniquely brilliant work, Anderson has finally been nominated for his work on The Grand Budapest Hotel. In addition to his favorite pet themes - melancholic loneliness, impeccable production design, tightly-stylized performances - Anderson also tosses in some madcap screwball comedy. The result is a film that crackles with nonstop energy, making it Anderson's showiest film to date. Even if he's made better films, it's hard to deny that his work here isn't terrific.


Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

After years of making his name with miserablist dramas about the interconnectivity of life (Babel, Biutiful), Inarritu loosened up with this showbiz satire that's nevertheless as dark and scathing as his previous films. The running gimmick of making the film appear as if it was shot in a single take isn't nearly as distracting as it sounds, instead allowing Inarritu to place the audience in Riggan's (Michael Keaton) state-of-mind as he tries to mount his comeback show. In Inarritu's hands, the camera becomes a wandering eye, capturing all the ins and outs of this production and all the artistic narcissism that comes with it. Most importantly, he shows off an acrid sense of humor. It's a masterstroke from the director, proving that he's significantly more talented than he had previously hinted at.

More after the jump.


Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Miller's nomination is notable for being the first time since 2007 that a filmmaker has been nominated for Best Director, but their film was not nominated for Best Picture. Yet it makes sense that he would be. Foxcatcher is a cold, clinical film, never quite connecting in a way that would entice voters to name it one of the year's best. But Miller's direction - though certainly responsible for that cold, clinical aesthetic - is recognizably great, as he captures the atmosphere around the estate in placid images and commands fine performances from his actors, particularly Channing Tatum's intentionally monotonous work. You get the sense that there's a master working behind the camera, and that the film has been impeccably built to suit his vision. It's just too bad that it leaves such a distant feeling in your heart afterward. Like the film itself, his work is easy to admire, but hard to love.


Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Every once in a while, someone gets a nomination (and sometimes even a win) in this category for work that doesn't bear any personal signatures. It's the work of an anonymous director, one whose name perhaps isn't even well-known among cinephiles but was responsible for a Best Picture nominee, so here it is. Such is the case of Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, and it isn't meant to be a knock on him. His film is finely put together, with good performances from his actors and some strong visuals. But it never really rises above "competent," never letting the film fly off the rails but never really elevating the material either. It's great that he received a nomination, but it's hard to argue  that his work made him one of the five best directors of 2014.


Richard Linklater, Boyhood

In terms of scope alone, Linklater's work may be the most impressive of this bunch: filmed intermittently over the course of 12 years, Boyhood follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the age of 6 to the age of 18, charting his adolescence as he encounters all the joys and sorrows that life has to offer. Very few other films have attempted anything of this magnitude, but Linklater isn't simply content to let that be the story here. He's imbued the film with his trademark meander, allowing every scene to breathe and grow on its own. There are philosophical ramblings, memories made, and scenic routes taken. The film ambles along at a contemplative pace, and Linklater structures it as a stroll down memory lane that doesn't feel false or contrived. It's a tiny miracle of a movie, thanks in large part to his peerless direction.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." It's really a toss-up between Linklater and Inarritu at this point. Both films have the most momentum going into the night, and both have been dominating the awards season. But neither one really has a significant advantage over the other, either. I'm going to guess Linklater will win, since Boyhood seems more likely to win Best Picture, but this one really could go either way.

BEST PICTURE


American Sniper

American Sniper is a tough film to parse. On the one hand, it's easily director Clint Eastwood's best film in years, taking the story of Chris Kyle - dubbed the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history - and using it as a means to explore the Iraq War and the psychology of killing. It has some terrific moments, particularly an incredible performance from Bradley Cooper as Kyle and blisteringly-bright cinematography courtesy of Eastwood's long-time DP Tom Stern. But the film is also hugely problematic, making bald-faced false connections to justify the war, demonizing nearly every Iraqi citizen as an al-Qaeda operative or Islamist extremist, and directly equating a kill count with heroism. More than that, though, is the film's treatment of Kyle: instead of doing him justice as a human being, it blazes past his psychological turmoil and PTSD in favor of turning him into the action-movie hero of "the Legend" (as he was nicknamed by his fellow soldiers). It's a shame that the film does him such a disservice, since it had such potential to go deeper and be something more. 


Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

You'd be hard-pressed to find a film as uniquely audacious as Birdman. It's a showbiz satire that takes direct aim at artistic narcissism, following washed-up actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) as he attempts a comeback that will restore his creative credibility. Alejandro G. Inarritu's film also takes potshots at critics, superheroes, Broadway, and social media, but for all of its withering bite, it's driven by genuine love of performance and an understanding of what the entertainment industry is today. Even though it's driven by universally fantastic performances - Keaton is a marvel in the lead, while Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifinakis are excellent - and Emmanuel Lubezski's typically great cinematography, it's that love for artistic masochism that makes the film such a singular experience. There's simply nothing else like it.


Boyhood

Like Birdman, Boyhood has mostly been discussed in relation to its central gimmick. In this case, it's the fact that director Richard Linklater shot the film over the course of 12 years, shooting it pieces at a time between other projects. And like Birdman, the film supersedes its gimmick to become something truly beautiful. Charting the childhood of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to age 18, the film's greatest strength is in the way it forgoes the traditional hallmarks of growing up - first kiss, first beer, etc. - in favor of focusing on the smaller moments. The result is that the film feels like a childhood remembered, playing out the little things that actually stick with you throughout your life. And as is typical of Linklater, the film does this with poignancy, humanity, and relaxed rumination on life. It's a small miracle of a movie.


The Grand Budapest Hotel

At first glance, it's odd that The Grand Budapest Hotel would be the film that helped director Wes Anderson break through to the Academy. His previous films were perhaps more heartfelt, more moving, and arguably more memorable (particularly The Royal Tenenbaums and my personal favorite, Moonrise Kingdom). Yet, on second thought, it makes perfect sense. This film is Anderson going all-out, building a world from the ground up in which hotel concierges are self-made rock stars,  even as war threatens to end the nation. What's fascinating is that, beneath the film's screwball antics, there's Anderson's trademark melancholy: M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, in an incredible performance) is a man out of time, the world he never quite belonged in crumbling around him. Even if it falls short of Anderson's prior work, it's undeniable that this is a special, wonderful film.


The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game is the kind of film that was built to contend for Oscars - right down to the involvement of Oscar kingmaker Harvey Weinstein as producer. Based on the true story of Alan Turing, the "father of computer science" who covertly helped the British crack the German "enigma code" during WWII only to be persecuted after the war for his sexuality, the film is handsomely shot and acted with an atmosphere of "importance." Benedict Cumberbatch does good work as Turing, and Kiera Knightley shines as Joan, the only female member of his cryptology team. Though the direction can feel pedestrian at times, the film nevertheless remains interesting, placing it among the ranks of The King's Speech as old-fashioned prestige films that don't feel musty. It's hardly anyone's idea of the "best" film, but it certainly looks the part.


Selma

Of the eight films nominated this year, none of them are as angry, pointed, and inciting as Selma. Director Ava DuVernay's mainstream breakthrough is a Molotov cocktail of a biopic, focusing on how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo, brilliant and commanding) led the march from Selma, Alabama to the state's capital in Montgomery in 1964 and how those events still reverberate 50 years later. It's a film that's at once timeless and timely, with DuVernay's staging of racially-charged violence shot to directly dialogue with the events in Ferguson this past summer, the protests over the death of Eric Garner, and other recent events. Moreover, it's less a film about King himself than it is about the power of grassroots activism, how change can only come if the people rise up and demand it themselves. For all of that power, however, it's also a very well-acted, well-written, and well-directed film, one that leaves a lasting impression long after the lights come up. Regardless of its minuscule nomination tally, the film will long be remembered as one of 2014's finest.


The Theory of Everything

Where Selma avoids the trappings of the biopic genre and The Imitation Game made them palatable, The Theory of Everything falls into them hard. The film begins as a story of how genius astrophysicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) meets his first wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), a poetry student at Cambridge. But as Stephen is stricken with ALS, a disease that robs him of almost all motor function, the film shifts hard to focusing on just him, leaving Jane and their relationship to the margins. It's a shame, especially since the film mostly cycles through the "great moments" structure of too many biopics and offers little new insight into its subject. That being said, Redmayne and Jones give these performances their all, and when they're sharing the screen they're electric to watch. It's just too bad that the film misses the opportunity to be great and settles for merely being good.


Whiplash

Whiplash is perhaps the most unexpected thrill of the category, a double-time swing that's as rapturous as it is cutting. As student drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) squares off with sadistic teacher Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), director Damien Chazelle pumps up the intensity, never wasting a single scene and building to a stunning, cathartic climax. In everything I've written about the film thus far, I've mentioned how the film is a lot like the jazz Andrew hammers out, shifting tempos and keeping a steady rhythm that keeps the audience engrossed. Chazelle's tight script and focused direction, of course, are a big reason for this, but credit also has to be given to Teller and Simmons. Their dynamic performances give the film its push-and-pull tension, as they butt heads until one finally emerges victorious. No one saw this one coming at the beginning of the year, but it's impossible to imagine any discussion of the best films of 2014 not including Whiplash.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." Your guess is as good as mine at this point. Here's what we know: even with its massive box office, American Sniper is probably still too controversial to be considered a real frontrunner. The Grand Budapest Hotel surely has its fans - those nine nominations don't lie - but probably not enough to crown it the best film of the year. The Imitation Game has the backing of Harvey Weinstein, but that probably won't be enough for a film no one seems particularly passionate about. Boyhood and Birdman have dominated the season, with Boyhood winning the Golden Globe and Birdman winning all three major guild awards (Producers, Actors, and Directors). Either one of these films would make a fantastic, totally-worthy Best Picture winner. My current guess is that Boyhood edges out Birdman, but it really could go either way.

My ballots:

BEST DIRECTOR

1. Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
2. Richard Linklater, Boyhood
3. Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
5. Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

BEST PICTURE

1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
2. Whiplash
3. Selma
4. Boyhood
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
6. The Imitation Game
7. American Sniper
8. The Theory of Everything

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