Mercifully, the cultural phenomenon known as “awards season” is almost over. The Oscars air this Sunday, so once all the bland jokes are told and the envelopes are opened we’ll know definitively which movies from last year were actually good and which ones were fucking dogshit wastes of time and resources. Once those Naked Golden Statuettes have been given out, judgment is final and pithy speculation as to the actual artistic worth of film is done with until October or so when this starts all over again.
It’s easy to get hideously jaded over the Academy Awards, especially the closer you get to the actual show and the frequency with which thinkpieces and prediction polls proliferate across the web. Turning cinema into a weirdly political beauty contest every year always feels like it does more harm than good, and the dunderheaded opinions of actual Academy voters leaking out in anonymous interviews never helps. It’s like every year we forget how fucking stupid and out of touch these people are, and how arbitrary their artistic guidelines seem to be.
This year, I figured we’d do a rundown of all the nominees for Best Picture, but we’re not going to try to second guess who will win at the big show. The way I see it, the sum total of voters in the Academy appear to have a lot of questionable, pedestrian opinions about the current cultural climate, so if some old white dude can claim that Selma has no art behind it or that American Sniper making a lot of money means it deserves a nomination, that subjectivity should extend everywhere. I’m not going to weigh the films against accepted Academy standards, precedent, or trends. Quite frankly, those are very depressing lenses through which to view anything. Instead, we’re just gonna kind of free-for-all it and see how each film stacks up.
This is the first year in a while where I actually sought out and watched every single nominee, rather than hate-judge films I wasn’t interested in from afar. I saw about half before the nominations even came out, and the others I forced myself to watch for your eventual amusement, but with each, I kept an open mind. Some films surprised me. Others met expectations. None really disappointed.
Basically, if you, like me, want to try to see all of these films before the big dance, you’ve still got like 48 hours. It’s Christmas Time in the morning, Mr. Scrooge! You haven’t missed it! Let’s dig the fuck in.
The answer to the question “how can a film be snubbed if it’s nominated for the top prize?” Selma is a hugely powerful film that circumvents a lot of the more frustrating tropes of biopic storytelling while still hitting all its expected marks. I’ve written about it at length elsewhere on the net, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ve cooled on it somewhat. I want to say it’s still a great film, but that would require me to watch it a second time, and if I’m being honest with myself, that’s not an experience I’m particularly eager to relive so soon. It’s a triumphant film, but one that leaves you knowing that every subsequent victory it set in motion is just a chapter break in a larger history of tragedy and outrage. Personally, I’m the kind of movie viewer who generally prefers to be be satisfied and driven to repeat viewings than I am to be challenged or put through a ringer, so for that reason alone my emotional connection to the film was so much stronger in the weeks surrounding me actually seeing it. The film is worth seeing for David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo’s lead performances alone, but Bradford Young’s camera work is also stellar.
No, you’re not a racist if you’re white and aren’t interested in seeing it, but if you’re against heavy-handed prestige dramas and skip this but pay for The Imitation Game, yeah, you might have some issues with brown people to consider.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
One of the things I love about Wes Anderson’s latest is how much it contrasts with the other films in this category. It’s not exactly a fluff piece, as the film’s underlying themes are substantive (it’s preoccupation with war leading to the death of a certain kind of decency resonates particularly well), but it’s definitely effervescent in a way you probably are not truly prepared for. It’s easily the most fun movie released last year, anchored by an all-time great comedic performance from Ralph Fiennes and an incredible ensemble that also features Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, and Ed Norton. If you’ve even seen the trailer, this is not a movie you should be sold on. I have a hard time envisioning the audience that doesn’t have a good time seeing Grand Budapest, with its confectionary charm and brisk pace. It exists delightfully out of step with the modern cinematic landscape, and that alone is laudable.
Full disclosure: I am the last person you want giving you an honest opinion about a movie starring Michael Keaton. I couldn’t give a serving size shit less about Alejandro Innaritu’s gliding camera movements and seeming obsession with culture critics and social media so much as An Entire Movie of Michael Keaton Being Michael Fucking Keaton. Birdman is an impressive cinematic achievement, not because it maintains an oppressive-seeming stylistic motif, but because its film school bait cinematography feels designed solely to get the fuck out of the very talented ensemble’s way while they perform at an elite level. It’s the closest approximation of live theater film has ever achieved, and it’s all driven by Keaton’s uniquely manic energy and enormous heart. Honestly, this same film could be about Michael Keaton running a goddamn hot dog stand with Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone in the same roles but surrounding the world of street meat and my feelings would largely remain unchanged. Keaton is life.
The Imitation Game
This was the first of the Oscar nominees I watched as part of this experiment. Truth be told, on paper this is a movie I would normally pride myself on not bothering to watch. Since everyone who knows me knows I’m obsessive about films, I get asked for my opinion on a wide variety of titles. Under normal circumstances, someone would say “Dom, what’d you think of The Imitation Game?” and I would respond “BOY, IF YOU DON’T GET —” because I DO NOT FUCK WITH OSCAR BAIT BIOPICS. After the lopsided shot composition and milquetoast mediocrity of The King’s Speech, I just couldn’t devote time or energy to any English protagonist not named Bond or The Doctor. I was wrong, though. Well, at least a little wrong. This is a pretty good movie. Not spectacular, but Alan Turing’s story is fascinating and heartbreaking. As a movie it doesn’t break anything resembling new ground, but Benedict Cumberbatch does some solid work, as does Keira Knightley. There’s more than a few story beats that are very Karate Kid, but the execution is genuine and affecting. It’s like a really long Google doodle about the birth of computers and British people being hella homophobic and shitty. Thanks for helping us stop the Nazis, Brits. Maybe stop being bigots.
Okay, so I know this movie is supposed to be a universally beloved depiction of, well, “boyhood,” but for me, it’s the best sequel to Reality Bites ever. Watching Ellar Coltrane age twelve IRL years over the course of three hours and one of the least enjoyable needle drop soundtracks in recent memory is cool and all, but this is really the story of Ethan Hawke, and really, every Ethan Hawke character from the nineties. He’s Gen X Peter Pan and he’s never going to outgrow those flannels, or overthinking The Beatles, or crashing on your couch while “Hey Jealousy” plays. As the kid leads of Boyhood grow and Patricia Arquette’s hair changes, Ethan Fucking Hawke as maybe the world’s most charming deadbeat dad just keeps popping up with the same shitty car, the same goddamn clothes, and the same lovably frustrating mixture of genuine love and frustrating immaturity. Once he starts to get his shit together, two hours and seven years into the film’s runtime, you really feel his journey. I would have liked to see some people of color or have the narrative treat Arquette’s matriarch a little better, but watching the slow and painful death of the Nineties Hipster Hearthrob is a helluva consolation prize.
The Theory of Everything
Whoa, man. I just had to physically wrestle myself from copy and pasting the Imitation Game paragraph from earlier. A saccharine love story about rakish Brits conflating romance and science is like the last fucking thing I’d want to sit through normally, but I shocked myself with how much I didn’t hate this movie. First of all,
Balem Abrasax Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are absolutely delightful as Stephen and Jane Hawking. This is a film that lulls you into a false sense of security with twenty minutes of meetcutes, charming befuddlement, and navel gazing bullshit about the meaning of time and true love before fucking pulverizing your heart with the painful havoc motor neuron disease wreaks on this young genius and the woman who loves him. It’s a little My Left Foot at times, but Theory pulls no punches in showing the strife and sacrifice that went into all of Hawking’s greatest achievements. I cried like forty or fifty times, and there’s a scene in which Stephen Hawking is trying out his new speech generating and is flying around his study text-shouting “EXTERMINATE!” like a Dalek and it made me want to jump up and down while clutching my heart, so, you know, there’s that.
Being pretty politically progressive, I’m supposed to hate this movie, but I’m considerably more ambivalent than anything else. This was the last of the nominees I watched, and that procrastination was simply because I had no interest in seeing it, which confused me. I like Clint Eastwood. I like Bradley Cooper. I’m fascinated by stories about soldiers. I like things that are hugely divisive. This should have been cake. The easy comparison I’ve seen is that this isn’t as good as The Hurt Locker and like, fucking duh, man, that movie opens with Guy Pearce blowing the fuck up. That’s hard to top. I think that film’s actual war sequences are considerably better filmed and better staged, but everything Eastwood does here with the soldier’s journey home is heavily underrated.
There’s a lot of criticism of Cooper’s rah rah take on Chris Kyle, but it feels honest in a way that’s hard to hate. This isn’t a film concerned with WMDs or Kyle’s somewhat frightening nationalism, but rather the toll war takes on soldiers. I’d have liked it if it maybe addressed the toll war takes on, you know, all the fucking brown people soldiers invariably end up killing, but I get that this isn’t that movie. The ending is Actually Shitty, but there’s something truly engrossing about a movie where everyone except the cartoonishly in denial protagonist seems to be in on how detrimental war is to the human psyche. I still can’t believe this movie has made $400 million, and I wish Spielberg got to make his version, mostly because I prefer his hand with material like this, but it caters to a huge market that Hollywood generally likes to pretend doesn’t exist. Still wish Jake Gyllenhaal was nominated for Best Actor in Cooper’s stead.
Whiplash will not win Best Picture, but watching it, you can’t help but long for a world where films like it are exalted to the degree big issue dramas and biopics are. Man, what is so wrong with movies that are just good as hell? Whiplash isn’t about any big sweeping “important” subjects, but it is just so goddamn good. I fucking love simple stories told exceptionally well, and that’s what you get here. It’s efficient as hell and wastes none of your time. It’s a lean machine of coiled suspense, with taut pacing and two dynamite performances from J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. I refuse to commit the name of The Imitation Game‘s director to memory, but Damien Chazelle wrote his own ticket here and I will see whatever he does next based on the strength of Whiplash. That’s not hyperbole. If he signs on to do a Star Wars spin-off film about the Cantina Band, I will wait in line for that shit.
The Academy Awards will air this Sunday at 8:30pm EST on ABC. If you plan on sitting through the whole ordeal, you should probably do it with us on Twitter @DeadshirtDotNet.