Being a fan of movies or cinephile or whatever, every year I watch all the films nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards (Oscars). Sometimes, the pictures nominated end up being a pretty good crop. Other times, one really wonders who votes for these awards shows and why.
I have been doing this best picture watching rite since 1999 (back when there were only 5 nominees). At this point, I’m usually farther ahead in the process, however, changes in life circumstances (for the better) have shifted priorities around. I still intend to watch them all and write some thoughts down in the process.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson is one of those filmmakers that has fanatic cult-followers who love him and also people who are annoyed with his movies. Other groups seem to like his early work (up to “The Royal Tenenbaums”) but haven’t really cared for anything after. I’m an Anderson fan though I wouldn’t consider myself a fanatic.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a solid entry in his canon and is a good deal of fun. The story follows the adventures of M. Gustave and his lobby boy Zero at a hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka during the two great wars. There is a battle for an enormous family fortune and the theft/subsequent recovery of a priceless Renaissance painting.
Anderson is a meticulous filmmaker and the viewer experiences that here as they do in his other works. The Academy has now chosen to shower acclaim upon Anderson but this may well be one of those cases where the unmistakably stylistic filmmaker is being recognized for a film that is not his best (in my opinion, “Rushmore” and “Bottle Rocket” and “Moonrise Kingdom” are at the top in his back catalog). In saying that, I don’t want to take anything away from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” which is another visually, complex motion picture from the eccentric (hipster?) Anderson.
The Imitation Game
The quintessential Oscar-bait, the historical biopic “The Imitation Game” rises on another star-making performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as, who the movie bills as the father of modern day computers, Alan Turing. The film is a World War II set drama (check: Oscar), a historical biopic (check: Oscar), and contains a solid lead actor performance (check: Oscar). What is refreshing about the movie is that the story is not primarily about war conflict (as we all know, Hollywood loves World War II combat sequences) but about a technological race to win the war.
Mathematician Turing invents a computer to break the German code of “Enigma” thereby letting the Allied forces know where the attacks would be ahead of time. The best scene in the film involves the moral conflict that serves as a haunting situational ethic. The team, led by Turing, breaks the code and know where the attacks are going to be next. However, they can’t exactly give away this knowledge or the Germans would know that Enigma had been broken. Therefore, in a highly tense scene, Turing argues with members of his team about letting a ship full of people get blown up because they cannot show their proverbial hand.
Historians estimate that Turing’s computing discovery probably saved 14 million lives and ended the war a couple years sooner than would otherwise be expected. Turing, in the aforementioned gripping sequence, was logically illustrating the long game instead of the short term. Even in the short term, lives were lost and the Allied forces with foreknowledge of attacks from the code breakers knew where they would be. The viewer feels the immense tension here and may not even find Turing (as portrayed in movie) necessarily likable or agreeable on this count.
“The Imitation Game” is obviously widely critically praised but there has been some criticism centered around the portrayal of Turing’s homosexuality. Dana Stevens from Slate has a good review of the film: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2014/11/alan_turing_biopic_the_imitation_game_starring_benedict_cumberbatch_reviewed.html
Turing’s homosexuality is introduced when he is newly engaged to Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) in a discussion with a friend at a party and treated as an obvious characteristic. Stevens is mostly right on that aspect of her criticism. The sexual orientation is introduced and the film doesn’t really do much with the trait until the end. The story is mostly about Turing helping the Allies win the war through his technological breakthroughs but then the “gay thing” is just dealt with in a narrative at the end in which the only connection to the rest of the movie is just the character of Turing.
Nonetheless, this is a film worth seeing and is well done. Even if the obvious award season pandering is evident throughout.
My concern when I was about 20 minutes into “Boyhood” is that this movie would be solely a gimmick film. As everyone knows, the work was shot in 45 days…but from May 2002 through August 2013. The lead actor, Ellar Coltrane, was 7 years old when production began and 19 at the wrap. So, was director Richard Linklater going to settle for a unique cinematic experience at the expense of a story?
I’m happy to report that was not the case. “Boyhood” became extremely involving and the viewer develops a strong empathy for Mason Evans Jr (Coltrane). We see Coltrane playing Evans grow up right on screen in 2 1/2 hours plus. Evans and his siblings are being raised by a single mother in Houston. Ethan Hawke plays the dad and, in some ways, becomes a sort of center for the boy’s development.
The film is about a lot of things: What is masculinity in our culture and what does it mean to “be a man”? We also see (and experience, really) a lot of the rites of passage in a boy’s journey to becoming a man. There is a sad conversation between a grown Mason and his mother (a solid performance from Patricia Arquette) toward the end that contrasts how she views life with how her son is developing his own view.
While attempting not to sound cliché, I felt rewarded after watching this film. And reflective. And remembering a lot of milestones along my own path while growing up.
So far, this is my pick for best picture (having only seen 4 nominees) of 2014. “Whiplash” is a maddening thriller that features a terrifying performance from JK Simmons (who plays Terrence Fletcher). Fletcher is the conductor of a prestigious jazz band in an elite and exclusive east coast music conservatory. He runs across freshman Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) practicing on the drums one evening on campus. He eventually invites him to join his jazz band.
Fletcher is horrifying, not because he is a psychotic slasher or a raving lunatic, but because of his mastery of emotional abuse and manipulation. He pits his students against each other on their instruments in an extreme Darwinian fashion. Using profanity and power language, he cuts down his players with his tongue even while he hurls chairs at them.
Why don’t they leave? Quit? Because they all want to be the best. Neyman has the dreams, the desire, and the aspiration to put everything in his life on hold (including a potential girlfriend played by Melissa Benoist) to be the best drummer of all time. He believes that Fletcher can get him to that peak.
“Whiplash” is about power and control. It is about drive and desire. The film asks fundamental questions on what it would mean to be an effective coach or motivational mentor. The story explores the razor fine line between being gifted and talented and succumbing to mental illness (but people comparing this to “Black Swan”, please stop).
The acting is riveting. Teller has shown that he has arrived as a young actor. Simmons is going to walk away with best supporting actor and it may not even be close. With Simmons’ character Fletcher, the ends justify the means. The audience will abhor the means, but what will they think of his ends? Fletcher plays a fiery monster with such a complexity that I’m not sure what I thought about where things ended. That is not a complaint but a testimony of the sheer power of this film to implant itself in my head and hang around along after I saw the movie.