It wouldn’t be the end of February without my annual ranking of the years’ Best Picture nominees. The entries this year are mostly forgettable, but with real quality at the top end of the scale. The novelty this year is that I was sick for a week at the start of the month and in my delirium managed to force myself to watch all 8 movies, a major departure from 2013 and 2014. To be clear, watching all these movies is not something I would recommend: most won’t make you smarter, and they won’t cure your flu virus. They will however give you a good insight into what type of movie members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences liked this year, which is always interesting. Anyway, from worst, to best, here is how I rank the 2015 crop of contenders.
8. The Theory of Everything
Life story, disability, marital difficulties, eventual triumph, and all done in posh British accents. This was never going to be the most original film ever made: quite the opposite. I don’t care how good the performances are: everyone has seen everything in this film a million times, so decent acting is the minimum required to make it interesting. 20 years ago this would be assured the big awards, but we’ve all moved on, and all The Theory of Everything can possibly aspire to be is that inoffensive movie you watch with your grandparents (who don’t know who Stephen Hawking is) some day, without having to explain what’s happening in the plot every few minutes. The man was walking, then he was in a wheelchair. He struggled, but then he was alright when he changed the world despite his illness. Eddie Redmayne will win Best Actor for this.
7. American Sniper
Clint Eastwoods biopic of some hero American soldier who killed a lot of people while hiding on a rooftop shitting in his pants a few hundred meters from danger has garnered a lot of criticism for apparently justifying America’s sojourn in Iraq a few years ago. Quite the opposite: it’s obvious from very early on that Bradley Coopers’ character is a complete idiot and any of his rants justifying the war have to be seen from this perspective. It’s really just a film about a guy who’s very good at his job, and has convinced himself that this job is saving the world. Thus a great advert for getting idiots to join the army. It’s an entertaining enough film that doesn’t deserve a lot of criticism, or praise.
6. The Imitation Game
In my opinion, the efforts of Alan Turing and his team to crack the enigma code during World War II was one of the greatest stories of the 20th Century. Many have tried to tell it before, including Kate Winslets fictionalised thriller Enigma, and a loose adaptation in the recent anachrofeminism-themed Bletchely Circle TV show. The problem with this particular biopic (and Alan Turing, according to contemporary British society) is that Turing was gay. The issue is that The Imitation Game can’t, and doesn’t, decide whether it is about that fact, or if it is a retro mathematical thriller about solving an impossible problem. Even Sherlock can’t solve this Imitation Game problem, and it therefore fails on most levels, save for the ever-mesmerising true life story of breaking Enigma.
The best biopics focus not on the life story of the subject, but on particular instances of what made him/her great. Thirteen Days, about the Kennedy administrations attempts to avert nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, is the best movie about JFK we will ever get. Martin Scorcese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviatar foregoes conventional narrative structure and focuses on Hughes obsession with airplanes, while Spielbergs recent Lincoln simply focuses on Abraham Lincoln the politician, securing votes any way he can to get one law through congress. Selma is one such movie, as it focuses on a few weeks in the life of Martin Luther King. They weren’t the greatest or most flattering weeks in his life either, as what we get here is not grandstanding MLK talking about having dreams, but the great man sacrificing himself, his reputation and his people just to make sure his protests end up on the evening news for white America, and the fragile Lyndon B. Johnson administration, to see. Selma is head and shoulders above the simplistic life stories of the other nominated biopics elaborated on above, and probably is not more popular simply because of lack of star power. Put Denzel in as MLK instead of the excellent David Oyelowo, and no one would be talking about Stephen Hawking this year.
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
It’s a weak year that has a low-key movie from the previous spring as a Best Picture contender, but it’s hard to argue against the inclusion of a Wes Anderson movie a list of the supposed movies of the year. Anderson indulges himself more than ever in TGBH, and it seems every aspect of the filmmaking process was curated by the man himself, from set design and effects to cinematography and sound. The one curiosity in this nomination that I can’t get my head around is the lack of a Best Actor nomination for Ralph Fiennes, who gives the performance of a lifetime as the movies protagonist. Without him, the movie doesn’t work, and therefore the presence of TGBH here in this list seems like just a superficial token of appreciation for Wes Anderson and his back catalogue more than anything else.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman has an awful lot to recommend itself. Michael Keatons performance as a faded movie star trying to make it as an actor (that’s the way he sees it anyway) has received a lot of attention, and I for one will be annoyed if Eddie Redmayne beats him to the Best Actor award (Redmayne sits down for most of the movie, while Keaton walks, runs and flies). Equally impressive is Edward Norton in support, playing an egotistical established actor, but giving a performance with surprisingly little ego himself. The commentary on stage actors v movie stars is quite nuanced and the movie benefits from a level of fantastical, magical realism that only a Latin American director can provide: like the best Latin American literature, the point is not what happened, but what is remembered. The frantic pace of the movie is maintained by an almost suicidal commitment by the director and his team in hiding any scene cuts, giving the impression that the film is one continuous shot. At the beginning, this hammers home how stressful theatre production can be, but towards the end also ties in nicely with Keatons wide-eyed madness. A lot to recommend in it therefore, but the problem is that it’s just not very entertaining. It’s technically excellent, and very memorable, but I find it’s just one of those movies that ‘s better in hindsight than when you’re actually watching it.
Since I saw this movie, I’ve been recommending it to anyone who will listen, but the one line plot description format just doesn’t do this one justice. No one’s excited by a movie about a drumming student trying to impress his tyrannical teacher. No one will ever read the plot and think it’s an interesting premise, it’s just one of those movies you watch for a few seconds and realise you can’t take your eyes off it, and are actually annoyed when it’s over.
Whiplash is about two things: style, and JK Simmons. For personal (read: jealous) reasons I am not willing to rant and rave about the talent of first-time director Damien Chazelle, who directed the movie when he was 28 years old, so I’m going to focus on JK Simmons. Many were probably surprised at that level of aggression in this performance from a character actor who pops up from movie to movie, either as a caricature news editor in a few Spider-Man films, or as a loveable family man in a few Jason Reitman movies. I wasn’t, because I had the misfortune of seeing JK Simmons as the neo-Nazi psychopath Vernon Schillinger in multiple series of Oz, a HBO prison drama from the turn of the millennium. Watch the first episode of Oz, which is one of the most terrifying hours of television you will ever see (all down to Simmons), and you will wonder why JK Simmons has not been making millions as psychotic bad guys for the past 15 years. Anyway, if he doesn’t win Best Supporting Actor, let’s just say that it would be justified if Kanye rushed the stage.
To be perfectly honest, It’s absolutely irrelevant whether Boyhood wins Best Picture on Sunday evening or not. Boyhood is the best film of the decade so far, and possibly of the century, so its presence as an Oscar frontrunner actually cheapens it somewhat. It’s far too good for a Best Picture nominations list: all’s fine if it wins; but if it loses, the movie on this list that beats it will only be remembered as the answer to a pub quiz question in 20 years about which movie beat Boyhood to Best Picture in 2015. How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane, Kramer v Kramer beat Apocalypse Now, and Gandhi beat E.T. Everyone involved in those winners was embarrassed to win, and it will be the same here if The Theory of Everything beats Boyhood. I don’t really have to say anything about Boyhood, it’s just one of those movies you have to see.
Something that I have been thinking about for the past few weeks are the comparisons to be made between this and another of the most talked-about movies of the year, Interstellar. Both broach the subject of the effect of the passing of time on family relationships, yet both do it in such different ways, and for different reasons. Interstellar uses the family relationship as a Spielbergesque narrative device to ground the audience to something real while a fantastic, complicated, unbelievable science fiction story plays out in the foreground. In that movie, a side effect of the theory of general relativity has 21 years pass on earth in the same time it takes an hour to pass for Matthew McCpnnaughey, meaning he misses significant portions of his children’s (well, adults now) lives. A memorable scene then occurs, of McConnaughey watching his children grow up through the backlog of messages they have left him over the years (minutes). This was effective in Interstellar, as it really drove home how costly this event was to the character, and this loss resonated throughout the next 5 hours of the movie. Boyhood’s approach was different: there was no story, no conventional narrative, merely two children growing up over the course of two and a half hours. This was much more effective and poignant than Interstellar, relegates it to something close to manipulation, and possibly explains why it is not here in the list of Best Picture nominees.
Anyone who wants to know why I care about all this can check out the last paragraph of last years Best Picture review here. I shall close out this entry with some honourable mentions who probably deserve to be here instead of a few bland biopics: