Welcome to the Oscar column, as I review all of the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 22. Get out and see some great films!
We’ve all seen films where the main character grows during the course of the film. The character is portrayed by different actors at points along the growth curve, and the result is usually unsatisfying and too self-aware. Then there is Boyhood; Boyhood is real. Filmed over the course of ten years, Richard Linklater re-visited the same actors year after year and wrote the script based on the lives of his real subjects. Shooting for just a few days each year, Linklater captures magic in a bottle, otherwise known as “growing up.” There are no too-pretty people here: parents fight and divorce, people make poor decisions, and the ending might be the most perfect ending in the history of cinema. Be sure to have the tissues handy. If you can only see one film from this list, Boyhood is your film.
A highly stylized film that borders on the experimental with a heavy dose of reflexivity, self-criticism, and metadiscourse on art. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Don’t let the academic description fool you: this is a wonderful film that is both mesmerizing on an intellectual level and rewarding on an emotional level. We have an expert director, a seasoned and well-toned cast, and enough surprises that place you in that uncomfortable position between laughter and repulsion: a beautiful interstices. The plot: an aging former super-hero film actor stages a Broadway play (based on a Raymond Carver short story) that may serve as his ticket back to notoriety. Can he pull it off? The odds are against him, not to mention the theater critic and everyone else he encounters. But life stops for no one, and art not only stops for no one, it eats them. Michael Keaton is brilliant as the protagonist, the conscience of the film, and the entire package is a joy to behold. If you can see two films from this list, Birdman is the second.
The story of the U.S. military’s most prolific sniper is one told with bold strokes, much like the subject of the film, Chris Kyle. Bradley Cooper, buffed up and bearded into the part, establishes himself as one of the best American actors as he transforms into Kyle. A simple man who chose to serve his country after attacks on American embassies abroad, Kyle was nicknamed “The Legend” and revered by everyone around him. The film has the requisite amount of action and it balances that action with quieter family moments. At times, however, the pace is rushed and we don’t get to know the characters beyond sound bites and the height of their most emotional conversations. There is also a “stagey” feel to the film that can detract from its mission, but the sum total works and the film is perfectly satisfying. Cooper is a bona fide actor, not just a “star.”
The title refers not only to the jazz standard by Hank Levy, it also refers to the feeling you get from watching the film. Rare it is that you sit on the edge of your seat for an entire film and feel agitated from fade in to fade out. This “small” film about a young jazz drummer under the tutelage of a brutal and domineering teacher is a breath of fresh air and a whirlwind of a film. The real treat here is J.K. Simmons as the teacher—he commands the audience’s attention and respect as much as his character commands the respect of his students. When Simmons is on screen, we, the audience ARE the students—attentive, emotional, respectful, and quaking in our boots. There has been some blowback from jazz musicians that the film gets the music wrong and gets jazz history wrong, but the film delivers as a film, on every level. Look for Simmons to grab the Best Supporting Actor in a runaway.
Selma, much like its subject Martin Luther King Jr., carries a heavy burden: it must tell a chapter of the famed man’s life, it must do so faithfully and thoroughly, it must get the history and the characterizations right, it must be true to the Civil Rights movement, and it must make the legend into a living, breathing, human being all at the same time. And oh yeah, it’s a movie. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t live up to that burden: it captures the magnificence of King at times, but too often it gets bogged down in dour dialogue and saps the energy from itself. For a film about one of the greatest Americans of all time, it tends to be visually stagnant and stylistically confused. Yet for all its faults, the film succeeds in giving us a lesson in one of the more important events in recent history. And that is reason enough to see this film.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
If you like Wes Anderson, you will love this film; if you have no idea who Wes Anderson is, you may love this film even more. Well written, superbly directly, expertly acted, stylistically engaging, and directed by the hand of a master, this film has the perfect mix of professionalism and downright goofiness that could drive an upset. With a standout performance from Ralph Fiennes and a serious undercurrent of Nazism below the standard Anderson sheen, it is a visual feast and mouthful of a film. Granted, Anderson may be an acquired taste, but if you have that taste, take a big gulp.
The Theory of Everything
The story of Steven Hawking is a very good film with a ridiculously wonderful lead performance by Eddie Redmayne as the great scientist. The film covers about 30 years in the life of Hawking, from awkward young student through his physical decline due to motor neuron disease. Along the way, Redmayne transforms into Hawking until we are left wondering who it is we are watching. There are other positives to the film—such as the use of the color, but mostly it is the mesmerizing performance of Redmayne in the lead role. It would not be a surprise to see Redmayne hoisting the Academy Award on Oscar night.
My choice: Boyhood. (But if you’re filling out an Oscar pool, you should know that I rarely pick the winner!)