After spending the last two weeks watching all 8 Best Picture nominees for The 87th Annual Academy Awards, I am now fully qualified to give you the lowdown, determine which ones are the best, and more importantly which one will win the big prize.
The crop this year includes the usual Oscars suspects: we have some historical/war films and biopics (Selma, Imitation Game, American Sniper); the movie about the person overcoming adversity (Theory of Everything); the quirky comedy (Grand Budapest Hotel); an original film by an international director (Birdman); a film by a long-admired Hollywood director (Boyhood), and the little indie that could (Whiplash).
There’s a secret to picking these things. You see historically, Best Picture films don’t win without their directors nominated for Best Director. Simple math dictates that that leaves only 4 movies that can win Best Picture. But before I tell you who will win, let’s focus on the much more important question: Which movie should win? Let’s count them down from 8 – 1.
Warning! If you haven’t seen one or more of the Best Picture Nominees, spoilers ahead!
This film received a perfect 100 meta-critic score, according to IMDB. I humbly disagree. Boyhood is a NICE movie, surrounded by a charming gimmick. That gimmick: director Richard Linklater filmed the same group of actors over a 12-year stretch from 2002-2014. We watch Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grow from a wide-eyed 5-year-old to an 18-year-old college student. His divorced parents — played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette — grow along with him. She bounces from home to home and drunken abusive man to drunken abusive man until the point of near absurdity. He (Hawke) goes from renegade fun-Dad in the sports car to remarried family man who finally became responsible. I liked Boyhood — 2 hours and 40 minutes and it never got boring. But if this was a simple 90-minute movie about this group of characters, I feel no one would honestly pay it much mind other than to say it was a “nice movie.” Give it the 12-year gimmick and it’s acclaimed as bravo filmmaking. There’s little to no memorable dialogue and there aren’t any major character awakenings. It was just a nice movie. My Dad said it best and I’ll paraphrase his words: I’d rather watch a 2 hour and 40 minute documentary about the 12 years making Boyhood, than ever watch Boyhood again.
7. The Theory of Everything
What do Oscars LOVE? Characters who have to overcome obstacles! Tom Hanks won twice — once for having AIDS, twice for being a simple man in Forrest Gump; Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot; Dustin Hoffman in Rainman… the list goes on. Welcome to the club, Eddie Redmayne, who portrays the world’s smartest man, Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Sarcasm aside, Redmayne was fantastic. At times, I thought he WAS Hawking. Just after meeting beautiful Jane (Felicity Jones), he is stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease and given two years to live. That was 1963 and, of course, Hawking is still very much alive, a father of 3, who continues to inspire, teach, and write. The film follows all the tropes of the normal Hollywood biopic, especially involving a main character who faces adversity. That said, the formula works, and the performances are great. Redmayne is spectacular.
Much like Spielberg’s Lincoln, Selma is not a biopic but more a glimpse into the moments that made the man. Starting after receiving his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr. (an Oscar-snubbed David Oyelowo) returns to the United States to fulfill the final piece of the Civil Rights puzzle: unobstructed voting rights for African Americans. The battleground is Selma, Alabama, where old-fashioned Southern racism is still the law and George Wallace (Tim Roth) is the conservative Governor standing in front of the Confederate flag. The film unabashedly shows King as a flawed man, with a troubled home life who must balance the wants of his legions of followers with the demands of President Lyndon Johnson. As a historian, the film was excellent and Oyelowo’s performance was near perfect. If you closed your eyes, you’d hear King. With the Voting Rights Act being currently debated, it’s crazy to think that the violence and hatred shown here happened only 50 years ago. This was a film that should’ve earned more Oscar attention, but will certainly find a home in most history teachers’ classroom collections. That being said, it’s not the Best Picture of the year.
5. American Sniper
Oscar winner Clint Eastwood produced and directed the story of Chris Kyle, America’s most decorated sniper who became a Navy Seal shortly before 9/11 and spent 4 tours fighting terrorism in the Middle East. American Sniper depicts Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper, who gets nominated for the third year in a row!) as he bounces back and forth from Texas where he meets, falls in love with, and marries his wife (Sienna Miller) to Iraq where he earns his reputation as “The Legend.” The war scenes are good, but nothing we haven’t seen before in modern war films like The Hurt Locker. Where the film becomes great is in its depiction of the effects war has on the soldier both while in the field and at home. Cooper and Eastwood excel more at showing Kyle the man, extremely devoted to his fellow soldiers, almost more than his family. It delves into his PTSD and how helping fellow vets at the VA finally allowed him to put the war behind him as best he could and become a devoted husband and father. It’s also what led to his unfortunate death. I was nervous Eastwood would get too political, but in the end it’s simply a great story of the impacts war has on ordinary people.
4. The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch IS this film. In The Imitation Game, the Sherlock actor plays Alan Turing, a real-life genius mathematician who along with other geniuses are assigned to break the Nazi enigma code during WWII. He’s also under suspicion of being a Communist and possible worse… a homosexual. Director Morten Tyldum shows us three time periods in Turing’s life: his childhood pre-war coming to grips with being the awkward smart kid with only one friend; during the war where he is constantly threatened by his colleagues, especially Hugh (Matthew Goode) and sinister British Commander Denniston (Charles Dance); and in Cold War 1951 where an incident at his home leads cops to discover his secret. This film was as much a “war” movie as it was a social commentary on gay rights. Turing’s entire life (a disturbingly shortened 41 years) is kept in a self-inflicted prison as he can never fully embrace who he is and thus alienates everyone around him. Cumberbatch and the cast are superb and this was an excellent overall film.
Maybe the most originally conceived film in recent years, Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is about a washed-up actor, famous for playing a superhero 20 year earlier, trying to rekindle what’s left of a career by funding, directing, and acting in a stage play. Who better to play Birdman than Batman of 1989-92, Michael Keaton, whose career does in fact sound an awful lot like our main character Riggan. Directed by the great Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros) in a rare style of nearly continuous filming with few cuts or edits, the film plays like its actually happening in front of you, mirroring the play that is coming together throughout. Add in the kinks and wonderful subtleties like the persistent drumming (with drummer in occasional background) and Keaton’s growing dementia and losing of reality and you have an incredible movie experience that flies by like… well the Birdman. Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone are all nominated and I’d personally love to see Keaton win in an all-out comeback story. For originality and acting, this was a truly unique movie experience.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Here’s the simple question: Do you like Wes Anderson’s films? If “YES,” then you will LOVE The Grand Budapest Hotel! If you’ve never been a fan, then don’t bother. Anderson is a truly original writer/director. He has a style unlike anyone else: quirky and eccentric characters, frenetic energy, and hilarious dialogue. He has also amassed an A-list crew of actors to join him in his follies, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem DaFoe, Jeff Goldblum, and Edward Norton to name a few. In GBH, we watch through flashbacks, the stories of the famed European hotel and its eccentric, concierge Gustave H (an Oscar worthy Ralph Fiennes). He befriends young lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), who accompanies him to a funeral of one of the hotel’s wealthiest clients. From there hijinks ensue, including high-priced art-theft, a prison escape, crazed hitmen, and huge chase scenes. In the middle of this are wonderful characters, filled with joy, and love. This is Anderson’s best film, and that includes personal favorites Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, and Life Aquatic. This was the most fun film nominated for Best Picture and one of my favorites.
The gap between Whiplash and the other Best Picture nominees for me is Grand Canyon huge. Far and away the most powerful movie I’ve seen in years, it’s a battle of wills between an aspiring-to-be-great teenage drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller) and his music school jazz band conductor Fletcher, (J.K. Simmons).This is a total tour-de-force of acting as they push each other to limits the other didn’t know existed. The film manages to ask an old question in a new way: Do the ends justify the means? Is it okay to be brutal and despicable if that produces greatness? Simmons is a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor. We know he’s wrong; but by the end you almost start to see his logic. Miles Teller deserves his own trophy but in maybe the biggest Oscar snub outside of The Lego Movie, he wasn’t nominated despite his riveting, tortured performance and the fact he PERFORMED HIS OWN DRUMMING!!! His dilemma is more interesting: if the abuse brings out the best in you, is it worth it? It’s a haunting question and a more haunting and amazing film.
That said… Whiplash has NO chance of winning Best Picture. Of the 8 nominees, 4 have directors who are nominated. Those 4 are The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, and Boyhood. Critical gushing, a long admired writer/director, and a gimmick that has seemingly never been done in the mainstream and we have a clear winner: Boyhood will win Best Picture. And like many Best Pictures before it, it won’t have been the best actual film. But hey, Richard Linklater introduced us to Matthew McConaughey years ago and did give us the Beatles Black Album, so I’ll give him a pass.
Best Picture Nominees
– American Sniper
– The Grand Budapest Hotel
– The Imitation Game
– Theory of Everything
The 87th Annual Academy Awards airs live Sunday, February 22nd, 2015, at 8:30pm ET on ABC, with the live Red Carpet arrivals starting at 7pm ET/4pm PT (per Oscar.com).