22 February 2015

Everything Is Awesome

One year ago the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did itself proud with the selection of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as Best Picture, arguably its best choice of the 21st century. Your blogger did himself a bit less proud, scoring a not unimpressive 19/23 on my Oscar predictions, prior to blowing Best Picture by refusing to go along with the Picture/Director split between 12 Years and Gravity’s Alfonso Cuarón, widely predicted by the pundits. Like I said, never predict a split. We’ll get back to that later.

For most of the awards season, it looked like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a coming-of-age story shot over the course of 12 years with the same cast, would become the second uncommonly good Best Picture winner in as many years. Yes, dear reader, it was just a few weeks ago that Oscar bloggers and commenters were loudly holding forth about how boring the Best Picture race was, how it was the worst year ever, and really above all, just how incredibly bored they were with the Oscars, movies, and (presumably) life. Never mind that many of these same people claimed to actually like Boyhood. It was the frontrunner and must be taken down.

They got their wish. And it now appears that Birdman, a cynical showbusiness comedy about a veteran actor (Michael Keaton) who’s left superhero movies behind to direct and star in an independent theater, will take the big prize tonight, having won awards from the Producers Guild, Directors Guild, and Screen Actors Guild. The only time this combination failed to produce a Best Picture winner was 1995, when Apollo 13 fell to Braveheart, after director Ron Howard had been unexpectedly left out of the Best Director field. There are no such worries for Birdman or its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Birdman would hardly be the worst Best Picture in the history of the Oscars. Given the existence of The Artist, it wouldn’t even be the worst this decade. It has its share of amusing moments, mostly involving Edward Norton as a prima donna actor called in at the last minute to save Keaton’s production. But it’s the frontrunner mainly because it speaks to the current angst among Hollywood professionals that the industry has become too reliant on comic book movies and other branded material at the expense of, you know, art. It reassures Academy members that, deep down, they’re better than that. And the copious references to Twitter in the movie tell them they’re still hip, even if not still young. As for what kind of “real art” they might be making in the absence of the industry’s franchise addiction—I mean, can we talk about the fact that Birdman’s idea of art in 2014 is a play based on Raymond Carver stories? Good grief. And the one-shot gimmick has been done better elsewhere.

Still, the underlying complaint about the disappearance of serious, middle-budget movies based on original characters and stories is not without merit. And yet, lo and behold, we have just such a film in this year’s Oscar race: a serious drama about an important contemporary subject that’s not a remake or sequel. Based on a memoir by Chris Kyle and directed by Clint Eastwood, who’s still got his fastball at age 84, American Sniper follows Kyle from his rural Texas childhood to the war in Iraq, where he became the most lethal sniper in American military history. Appealing to a rural audience that rarely sees people like themselves onscreen, the movie has exploded at the box office and attracted a lot of flak from critics and pundits, mostly for being insufficiently didactic about the relationship between 9/11 and the war in Iraq and for not portraying the Iraqi characters more sympathetically. The film’s commitment to Kyle’s point of view makes both complaints tantamount to saying Eastwood should have made a different movie entirely. Sniper does pull a few punches, no doubt with an eye on the box office, delivering a smoothed-over version of its protagonist. I also wish Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), had been given something to do during the middle stretches that didn't involve complaining about something. Still, buoyed by a career-best performance from Cooper, American Sniper is one of the more interesting war movies in recent memory, effectively visualizing Kyle’s PTSD-induced isolation from both his fellow soldiers and his family back home. Setting aside the politics of the war, the film nevertheless digs deep into the roots of American militarism and its consequences for the men who uphold its values. Chris Kyle may be a war hero, but he’s hardly a role model.

As for the other nominees, The Grand Budapest Hotel finds Wes Anderson doing his thing. I’m not a hardcore Anderson cultist and this wasn’t my favorite of his movies, but he’s a true original worthy of respect for carving out a nice career in an inhospitable industry. The nine nominations for Grand Budapest indicate that many Academy members feel the same, and I think there’s a good chance he receives what would amount to a mid-career lifetime achievement award tonight in the Original Screenplay category. Setting aside Whiplash, which remains unseen by me, we’re left with three middlebrow dramas of vastly different quality. Selma isn’t quite worth all the hand-wringing about its exclusion from the major Oscar categories aside from Best Picture, but it’s a solidly crafted docudrama about a critical episode in recent American history—just the type of mainstream drama that has often competed for this award. I was less enthusiastic about The Imitation Game, a mostly acceptable British prestige picture about Alan Turing and his ultimately successful effort to crack the Enigma code during World War II that devolves into unbearable and all because he was gay sanctimony in the last half-hour. I mean, it’s not like there’s anything from our era for future generations to tsk-tsk about. Last and certainly least, we have the Steven Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, a thoroughly uninteresting movie about a very interesting man.

Sorry for that detour into non-awesomeness. Really, those last two films aside, it’s not such a bad Best Picture field. Perhaps I’m mellowing as I move into middle age, but I just can’t muster the outrage required to get upset about the nominations anymore. Replacing the two rote British dramas with, say, Selma and Gone Girl would have made the Best Picture slate better and more diverse, but it wasn’t that many years ago when three or four of the then-five Best Picture slots were routinely filled by stodgy prestige dramas, with nary a nonwhite or female filmmaker in sight. Institutions change slowly, but they do change, and I expect the Oscars will continue to evolve in the coming years.

What’s indisputably getting better is the distribution of films online. Thanks to Netflix, Amazon, and other VOD services, I was able to catch up with most of the interesting 2014 releases I had missed, including many that never opened theatrically in my town. It’s taken a couple years longer than I would have thought, but film distributors are finally making the technology work for them and for us. As a result I’m quite pleased with my own Top 10 list (at the bottom of this post, below the picks), with fewer “I still haven’t seen this” caveats than in recent years.

Last year I griped about Ellen DeGeneres hosting the Oscars again, but she ended up being really good. I have high hopes for NPH this year. As for the predictions below, I’m going against the consensus on Best Actor and Best Song, with “Eveything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie upsetting Selma’s “Glory” in the latter category. Other close races include Editing, a three-way contest between Boyhood, Sniper, and Whiplash, and Sound Mixing, where either Whiplash or Sniper could win. And while three of the acting races have been locked since October, there should be plenty of suspense regarding Best Actor, Best Director, and maybe even Best Picture. Again, stay tuned for my Top 10 list at the bottom of the post.

Best Picture

Richard Linklater has been one of the most reliable American filmmakers of the past 25 years. I don’t think Boyhood is one of his very best movies—I’d recommend Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, or even the underrated Bernie—but it is a fine film and an altogether unique project, never to be repeated. This should be close and Boyhood may yet triumph, but I think the self-involved flattery of Birdman will be too much for the Academy, making it the third showbusiness movie to take the big prize in the past four years.

Will win: Birdman
Should win: Boyhood

Best Director

Never predict a split. I lectured extensively on this subject last year. So this one should go to Iñárritu. Of course I turned out to be wrong last year. And come to think of it, Picture and Director have split the past two years in a row. And actually the Directors Guild Award has been a more reliable predictor of Best Picture than Best Director over the years. And even if you didn’t love Boyhood, there’s something impressive about keeping a project like this going for 12 years…

W: Richard Linklater, Boyhood
S: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Actor

This category isn’t as strong as everyone seems to think it is. Cooper and Keaton are both fine, but the Academy screwed up by failing to nominate either Ralph Fiennes as the debonair hero of The Grand Budapest Hotel or Jake Gyllenhaal as the sleazy news videographer at the center of Nightcrawler. Redmayne seems to be the consensus choice here, with Keaton close behind him, but it's Cooper who best fits the profile of the established, mid-career star who tends to win this prize, and I can think of about 300 million other reasons why he might be the one walking to the podium tonight.

W: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
S: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Best Actress

The most pleasant surprise of the nominations was the appearance of Marion Cotillard in this category for her bravura performance in the terrific Belgian film Two Days, One Night as Sandra, a factory worker battling depression. Sandra spends a weekend visiting various coworkers to try and convince them to forego a 1000-euro bonus in exchange for keeping her job. It’s a tricky role. The movie wants you to be rooting for Sandra, even as her fragile mental state makes life difficult for those around her. Cotillard walks the tightrope perfectly. Directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have been cranking out aesthetically rigorous, politically astute, and spiritually challenging dramas, including a few masterpieces, for nearly two decades now. It’s nice to see one of their films recognized by the Academy. Anyway, Julianne Moore is going to win for that Alzheimer’s thing.

W: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
S: Marion Cotillard; Two Days, One Night

Best Supporting Actress

Boyhood was as much about Patricia Arquette’s Mom character as about her son. She gave the performance of a lifetime, allowing herself to age naturally for 12 years onscreen. This will be a landslide.

W: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
S: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Supporting Actor

Like the last two categories, the winner here is a foregone conclusion. I enjoyed both Ethan Hawke’s turn as the dad who grows up along with his son in Boyhood and Norton in Birdman, but I strongly suspect that J.K. Simmons’s universally acclaimed performance as a music teacher in Whiplash blows them both out of the water. So I'll withhold judgment.

W: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Screenplay, Original
W: The Grand Budapest Hotel
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Screenplay, Adapted
W: The Imitation Game
S: Inherent Vice

Animated Feature
W: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Documentary Feature
W: CitizenFour

Foreign Language Film
W: Ida

W: Birdman
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Production Design
W: The Grand Budapest Hotel
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

W: Boyhood
S: Boyhood

Visual Effects
W: Interstellar
S: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Costume Design
W: The Grand Budapest Hotel
S: Inherent Vice

W: The Grand Budapest Hotel
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Sound Mixing
W: Whiplash

Sound Editing
W: American Sniper
S: Interstellar

Original Score
W: The Theory of Everything
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Original Song
W: “Everything Is Awesome,” The Lego Movie

Animated Short
W: The Dam Keeper

Live Action Short
W: The Phone Call

Documentary Short
W: Joanna

And finally, my own Top 10 films of 2014. I hope to have a separate post about No. 1 sometime later this year, so I won’t say anything about it now.

1. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S.)

2. Goodbye to Language 3D (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland-France)
See “First Impressions of Earth,” posted November 14

3. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)

4. The Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann, France)
This 220-minute documentary can be thought of as an appendix to Lanzmann’s monumental 566-minute Shoah (1985), one of the essential works about the Holocaust in any medium. But The Last of the Unjust is a major work in its own right. The film is built around a week of interviews Lanzmann conducted in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last elder of the Jewish Council at the so-called “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt. Theresienstadt was maintained by the Nazis for public relations purposes (one of the film’s most remarkable sequences quotes at length from a Nazi propaganda film of the era), and Murmelstein, the only Jewish elder from any of the ghettos to escape the war alive, has remained a controversial figure among survivors. The interview segments are intercut with footage of Lanzmann, now in his late eighties, visiting sites discussed in the film. The loquacious Murmelstein dominates the film, as Lanzmann recasts the questions about moral responsibility that dogged Shoah onto one man, to compelling effect.

5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, U.S.)

6. The Immigrant (James Gray, U.S.)
This slow-building period piece represents a departure for Gray, possibly the best American director who remains virtually unknown to the general public. The terrific cast includes Marion Cotillard as the titular immigrant, along with Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner as a pair of cousins, who, each in his own way, help shape the course of her life in the new world.

7. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, U.S.)
I didn’t catch up with Interstellar until Christmas night, and my expectations were not high. The movie runs off the rails a bit in its final third, but for most of its first two hours this is sci-fi of the highest order, using its space travel plot to dig into some heavy material about parents and children, the nature of human community, and what we do or do not owe to one another. Critics who say its reach exceeded its grasp are not wrong. But no film reached farther last year. It’s Nolan’s best movie by a mile.

8. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, U.S.)

9. Gone Girl (David Fincher, U.S.)
This pitch-black satire of American marriage, directed by David Fincher from a screenplay by Gillian Flynn, who adapted her own novel, was hardly the most pleasant viewing experience of the year, but Best Actress nominee Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck both resist the urge to overplay their parts, and Fincher never lets the proceedings get too heavy.

10. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
The formalist critics liked this one, and for good reason. The story is structured like a videogame, each train car another world to be cleared.

Honorable mentions (alphabetical): Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, U.S.); Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund, Sweden); The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, U.S.); Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, U.S.); Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)

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