post- staff discusses this year’s Academy Award-nominated films
Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring a heavily built Bradley Cooper, American Sniper is a war biopic of Chris Kyle, a United States Navy Seal with the distinction of the most kills during his four tours in the Iraq War.
This “distinction” is the point of entry to the debate of whether or not this film glorifies a killer who calls the Iraqi people “savages.” While ignorance is bliss, I find it troubling that I don’t have the political jargon and finesse of knowledge to argue either side of the point. But, I can talk about how the film made me feel, which was incredibly uncomfortable. It may have been due to the fact that I was watching this film in Texas (Kyle’s home state), and no one seemed to have any qualms with Kyle’s actions and the repercussions on his family and health.
War movies offer the opportunity to question different ethical and moral standards in a certain time period. Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket forced us to watch Sergeant Pyle unravel and commit suicide under the brutal training session, and then asked the viewers to ask themselves whether Joker should have shot the Vietnamese sniper. American Sniper teases us with an excruciatingly slow scene where Kyle must decide whether to kill a woman with a child he suspects is about to attack their convoy. However, beyond that, American Sniper hides behind a thick blanket of patriotism that should have been nuanced with comments on the effects of PTSD and the complications of the Iraq War. Kyle’s death at the hands of another veteran suffering from PTSD isn’t shown, an example of an another instance in which the film veils the true horrors of war for the sake of glorifying Kyle.
If American Sniper loses, however, it won’t be because of the one-sided patriotism it portrays. It will be because there are other movies, like Boyhood and Birdman, that took larger risks that will place their mark on American cinema, without tooting America’s horn. – Mark Valdez
Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman became the first movie this awards season that seems capable of taking a best picture win away from Boyhood. While Boyhood has the sensational 12 years of filming backstory, Birdman has (arguably) equally sensational features. Birdman was filmed to look like one continuous shot, and it is this artful and engrossing filmmaking technique that makes the film such a novel experience. It’s also served as a sort of comeback vehicle for Best Actor nominee Michael Keaton, made all the more clever by the fact that Keaton plays a washed up actor whose biggest success was a superhero role, not too far off from Keaton’s real life career and past as Batman. Plus, Birdman has a cleverly ambiguous ending, an interesting blend of the surreal and the very human, a whole roster of talented supporting castmates, including Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, and Supporting Oscar nominations for both Ed Norton and Emma Stone. Birdman is like nothing you’ve ever seen, and captivating from the very first minute. It is a thoughtful reflection on fame and legacy and an innovative feat of filmmaking. If it ends up winning on Sunday, it won’t be undeserved. – Hillary Jacobson
It says a lot about this year’s Best Picture nominees that I even need to stop to consider whether or not Boyhood is the most innovative film in the bunch. Ultimately, though, I think it bests its rivals on that count. The concept—filming the same group of actors maturing and aging in real time over the course of 12 years—is cool enough. But the effort and patience required to see the project through to its conclusion is straight-up inspiring. From a practical standpoint, you have IFC, the distributor with the gumption to commit to $200,000 per year to fund the project, taking a remarkable leap of faith that not only would the film be finished, but that it would be watchable.
Which brings us to director Richard Linklater. He’s a visionary to envision even the possibility of a film like this existing. But the reason he’s an Oscar-nominated director rather than a real-life version of one of the fast-talking, far-out dudes in Slackers is that, when he had the idea for Boyhood, he jumped through the hoops and groundgrinded through the day to day of making the film until he had a three-hour masterpiece to look at and say, “OK, there it is.”
And it’s good. It’s so unequivocally, life-affirmingly, cry-from-the-sheer-joy-of-watching-it … ly, good. The performances are masterful. Ellar Coltrane provided a steady foundation for the framework of the film as Mason, its protagonist, but Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke were truly masterful—Arquette in particular. And then there are the characters with less screen time. I don’t want to call them “minor” characters because they aren’t, really. They flit on the screen, strut and fret and throw glasses and manage restaurants, and then they’re gone. Each one is a mini-universe unto themselves. I wish I could see what their journeys were more completely, but we just have to be content with Mason’s.
Boyhood is monumental, a skyscraper of a movie. That the film went from “wouldn’t it be cool if …” to “how can we …” to completion—and a deeply satisfying, successful completion—is nothing short of miraculous. That it’s a punch to the emotional gut seems like icing on the cake. – Adam Asher
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
With Wes Anderson, it’s easy to know what to expect. The dollhouse shot. Bill Murray. That trademark style of disaffected whimsy. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s particular dollhouse is a hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. Equal parts storybook land and World War II conflict zone, Zubrowka finds most of its civilization and central European culture confined to the world of nostalgia: railway compartments and bellhops, poetry and handmade luggage.
Zubrowka exists in its own past, and even as war threatens to destroy any facsimile of civilization left, Anderson allows humanity to shine through in his rich, outlandish character types. The dreary setting does not cast the tone of the film. In fact, the gray backdrop allows Anderson’s colors—yellow, mostly—to shine even brighter.
The film largely centers on lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) and his boss, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). The concierge, Gustave is an Anderson archetype: self absorbed and silly, likeable and vain. He rules his hotel staff with precision and grandiosity, but he also takes his elderly guests to bed and is remarkably irresponsible. In one scene, after having just escaped from prison, he stands just outside the gates for several moments chastising Zero for neglecting to bring along his favorite cologne. The plot of the film is equally ridiculous. Suspected murder, art theft, and baked goods are central plot points. Gustave burrows in and out of messes of varying seriousness, wielding his charm like a bedazzled dagger.
While the suggestions of war and barbarism that hover just outside of the frame lend The Grand Budapest Hotel are a depth beyond the typical Wes Anderson fare, it is important to remember that alongside Anderson’s remarkable narrative consistencies runs a tendency to polarize his audience. If Moonrise Kingdom made you groan, The Grand Budapest Hotel will, too. The Grand Budapest Hotel was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including best picture. In the end, the film’s critical success might just come down to personal taste. – Victoria Spencer
THE IMITATION GAME
This year’s Oscar race spotlights its fair share of biopics. But of the many, The Imitation Game straddles the sweet spot that these life profiles strive for: heartwarming without too much Lifetime cheese, importance without pretension, and goddamn entertaining, as films should be.
Benedict Cumberbatch, he of cult idol status that is slowly turning less cult and more mainstream adoration, spearheads the based-in-reality British movie, about World War II hero Alan Turing—but not that kind of war hero. Turing is uniquely unlikable—socially inept, difficult, blissfully aware of his math genius, and demanding of his colleagues. He is part of a secret team contracted by the British navy, charged with cracking the “impossible-to-crack” German code which, once demystified, will pinpoint the exact coordinates and targets of German submarines and blitzkriegs. Math, not battle, is the key to victory in this interpretation of the war.
Cumberbatch, matched with a subdued but superb Keira Knightley, spearheads this film with quiet, manic precision, as it weaves from the present to the past, showcasing Turing in his boarding school days, viciously bullied. Turing’s sexuality adds the other major plot drama, as homosexuality–a trait of Turing’s that is exposed during these flashbacks–is illegal in 1940s England. The other “imitation game” is Turing feigning attraction to women, a role Knightley serves as his confidante, fellow math wizard, and eventual fiancée. This personal conflict, however, does not feel forced on top of the main plot line, the action-oriented code-cracking central to the film’s arc.
Though I do love me some Cumberbatch, I don’t think this film is necessarily best picture material. Sentimental, check. Entertaining, check. Stellar acting, check. My problem is the neatness of the plot. The story feels more Disney in its ending than World War II drama. The ending isn’t happy, per se, but the threads are woven together with such precision by director Morten Tyldum, a filmmaker largely known only in his native Norway, that they almost feel too complete. For a first time English-speaking film, Tyldum has put on quite a strong front. But in the scheme of Oscar-worthy cinema for 2014, I don’t feel that Imitation has a shot against other contenders. Worth seeing, you bet. But Best Picture 2015? It is not. – Maggie Livingstone
Ava DuVernay could easily have followed in Spielberg’s footsteps—Selma could have been titled “King,” not to mention “Martin Luther King, Jr.” King is as close to a protagonist as Selma has, understandably, as he’s the clear protagonist of the mainstream civil rights narrative we get from history books today. Those ideas strike me as ripe with potential to be important, informative and crowd-pleasing. And yet, the movie bears none of those titles. It’s called Selma.
Selma is brilliant in every way. The acting is superb, the script is heartwrenching, the music is flawless in both selection and execution, the sets and costumes are beautiful and completely convincing (at least to me, with my limited knowledge of film aesthetics). But the most beautiful thing about Selma, in my opinion, is the fact that at its core, it is not a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr., any more than it is a movie about Lyndon B. Johnson. It could easily have been framed as a biography, an homage to a single influential man, or a head-to-head between a righteous hero and a villainous administration, but the film, as the title indicates, is about Selma, and the folks of all races who supported the march, from the ranks and from afar. During the footage of the marches, the cameras focus not on King, but on the crowds, the hundreds and hundreds filing stoically, triumphantly past. In the film’s final scene, as King calls out from a podium to a sea of supporters, the camera wanders. We see “Where are they now?” blurbs for many of the characters featured in the movie—King’s is included, but not more prominently than any other. It lends a new weight to the words that close the movie (“Glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on”); the film does not end with King’s assassination because that is not where the march from Selma ended. Some of those protesters still live, new ones spring up every day, and the march continues on. – Monica Chin
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
The Theory of Everything, like The Imitation Game, is a British biopic of a mathematical genius. It follows the life of Stephen Hawking from his years as a student of astrophysics at Cambridge, to his diagnosis with motor neuron disease, long past the two years of life he’s told he has remaining. The focus, though, is less on the significance of Hawking’s own discoveries (whereas The Imitation Game has a high-stakes national mission at its center). Instead, The Theory of Everything really tells a story about humanity—Hawking’s struggles, triumphs, and relationships. The relationship between Hawking and his wife Jane steers the film. Two stunning performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones bring life to this sometimes sweet, sometimes stark love story, which in the end is less of a movie romance than a look at a relationship between two deeply connected humans. The actors’ performances are strong: Redmayne’s effort to learn Hawking’s movements and mannerisms paid off with a compliment from the real Hawking (to say nothing of audiences), and Jones, whose performance as Jane is innately less elaborate but is quietly nuanced, lends a solid strength to the film. The two have been nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress.
The acting is one major strength of the film but, holistically, its power comes from its scope and sentimentality. This sounds like a criticism in disguise; after all, many films have been criticized for just such characteristics. This evaluation, though, is given entirely in earnest: The Theory of Everything knows just how big it is playing and just how sentimental its romance can get, and its producers were self-aware enough to nail both. This is a film that tugs masterfully at the heartstrings. If The Theory of Everything wins Best Picture this year, it would maybe not be the most original film ever to have done so—there is nothing especially ingenious about it—but it would be a victory for a beautiful telling of a story at once intimate and expansive. – Abby Muller
Whiplash is a worthy contender for Best Picture this year because of gorgeous performances by J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller, but also because of the distinctly modern questions the film provokes about creativity and success. Does pandering to children hinder performance? When the stakes are mediocrity and genius, do the ends justify the means, even when the means involve emotional abuse, violence and intimidation? What constitutes success and, more than anything, how much is too much to sacrifice for success? Your girlfriend, your family, we’ve seen that before—the notion of the solitary artist or hero is long lauded and time honored—but what about your health? What about your life?
One of the things that struck me most about Whiplash as a story of creative and artistic conquest was the constant visual focus on blood and physical injury. Extended drumming sequences show Miles Teller beating his instruments until his fingers bleed, then wrapping them up, gritting his teeth and continuing to play. These scenes have a certain gravitas to them, as if we’re supposed to see this physical exertion and sacrifice as emblematic of a higher commitment to art. At first, this seems like a tenuous connection—physical discipline and endurance profit sports, surely, but can there really be such strong corresponding gains in a world of creative achievement? But really, this is a notion continually proffered and affirmed in the world of the Academy Awards. Michael Fassbender in Hunger, Christian Bale in The Machinist, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club—incredible acting aside, critics have long celebrated actors who are willing to give their physical all, sometimes past the point of what seems healthy, or even safe, for the sake of improving their art.
Whiplash proceeds on much the same logic, drawing a straightforward connection between physical endurance (and often injury) and creative success. If the movie wins the award for Best Picture, the Academy will, in some way, be rewarding an ethos that Hollywood critics have consistently championed. Beyond that, too, Whiplash is a fantastic film, provoking fascinating questions about the sacrifices we make for achievement, and a strong nominee in a year packed with incredible Best Picture nominees. – Caroline Saine