In preparation for the 2015 Oscars I figured I’d put my cards on the table and show my Oscar ballot. Here are my quick opinions about the Best Picture Nominees with links to my full reviews for each. Come back on Monday to see how I did.
2015 Best Picture Nominees
(In order of how much I liked them)
This edge of your seat thrill-ride is about a Jazz drummer. You read that right. This film about a student at a jazz conservatory manages to take you through a series of emotions and leave you breathless from the intensity. Read full review >>
Based on a true story. A masterfully directed film that transcends its “biopic” designation. Read full review >>
The film lover’s film. Its how-did-they-do-that camerawork, electric performances and whirlwind storytelling will all be discussed and disected for years to come. Read full review >>
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The only truly fun film on the list. It has the feel of a caper film with the lighthearted mischief and meticulous design of all Wes Anderson films. Read full review >>
This is a film about the nothing (or everything) that life is really about. This honest and naturalistic film comes across like watching home videos of strangers and seeing yourself in the process. Read full review >>
The Imitation Game
Based on a true story. A worthwhile film about the side of war that’s little discussed. Read full review >>
Based on a true story. You want to feel proud to be an American? Go watch Selma. Read full review >>
The Theory of Everything
Based on a true story. Just because a persons life is interesting doesn’t mean it will make an interesting film. Read full review >>
My 2015 Oscar Predictions
Who do you think will win? Come back tomorrow to see how I did.
I went into Selma with a bit of biopic fatigue. I thought I knew the story of the march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to get the Voting Rights Act passed. What I didn’t account for was the power of Ava DuVernay’s direction. She made the only biopic this year that transcended the film designation and instead told a truly engaging and powerful story.
The most important distinction is that Selma is not a biographical story of Martin Luther King Jr. It is the story of a movement and a march. While King is the face of the film as he is the face of the Civil Rights Movement, he didn’t do it alone and DuVernay goes out of her way to show the internal struggles and conflicts within the movement.
David Oyelowo portrayal of King is a welcome natural performance. This is the King, not of statues and holidays, but the real man with his doubts and flaws and most importantly his tired eyes. He allows King to be powerful without grandstanding. He listens to his counterparts in the movements but ultimately realizes it is his decisions that will be watched and ridiculed. The scene where King shows up for the third march to Montgomery in a t-shirt and slacks in a symbol of the entire movie. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a picture of King not in a suit. In this moment his is just a man marching for freedom and it is a lovely moment to behold.
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King is the other amazing performance that somehow missed the Oscar ballot. From the scene where the little girls of the 16th Street Baptist Church are discussing how Coretta wears her hair to her meeting with Malcolm X, the film shows the power and importance of Scott King whether she fully wanted it or not. She questions her place in the movement and in King’s heart with a sense of both longing to be more involved and not wanting the life of pain and suffering they have to endure.
Unfortunately, the performances of Ejogo and Oyelowo have been overshadowed by the controversy over the portrayal of President Johnson. The critics of the film claim that it portrays LBJ as being against the Voting Rights Act and in direct opposition to King. I’m not sure what film they were watching but he seemed nothing if not presidential to me. He explains to King that while this is King’s sole fight right now he is the president and has hundreds of decisions to make and this can’t be his top priority. It might seem like a brush off but it also seems like reality. He took meetings with King and but in the end the public outrage is what pushed him to make voting rights a priority. This should not be viewed as a negative. It is a fair portrait of a president during turbulent times.
This film really only belongs to one person, the director. DuVernay manages to take so many moving parts and weave them seamlessly together. She takes a subject matter people feel they’ve heard 100 times and makes it meaningful in a new way. The scene of the little girls in the 16th street baptist church is one of the most horrifically beautiful scenes I’ve ever witnessed. I knew what was coming and it still took my breath away and shook me to my core. Praise should also be heaped on the writer, Paul Webb, for making King sound like King without using any of his actual speeches. Selma set the bar for how a biopic should be executed and DuVernay won’t be getting a much deserved Oscar but she definitely won in my mind and the minds of everyone who saw this astonishing film.
The Grand Budapest Hotel has the distinction of being the only fun film nominated for Best Picture this year. The film is a whimsical and funny story of how a lobby boy came to own a hotel. Its not only beautiful to look at but the characters are likable and interesting, some would say a huge improvement over Wes Anderson’s previous films.
Wes Anderson is one of the few current American director who has a consistent vision and style. He is the definition of an auteur. He has a directing style people love, hate or just don’t get. His quirky characters and centered framing have been mocked and lauded.
I’ve always been a fan of Anderson’s even if I haven’t always liked his films. The Grand Budapest Hotel has all the key aspects of a Wes Anderson film but the more straightforward caper story has made this his most popular and highest grossing film of his career.
Ralph Fienes and Tony Revolori as M. Gustave and Zero, respecitvely, are a joy to watch and they bring a lot of heart to their central friendship. The film is a story in a story in a story of The Grand Budapest Hotel, in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. With a murder, a stolen painting, a war, young love and a jailbreak, you’d think the story would get muddled but it just gets more delightful with every twist and turn.
There are too many famous actors in the film to name but Tilda Swinton as an unrecognizable elderly woman and Adrien Brody as her mustache twirling bad-guy son are hilarious.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is actually quite violent and has serious undertones that add depth to the film without weighing it down. You’ll watch it the first time for the impeccable costuming and set design but keep going back for the great characters, fast-paced plotting and the feeling of odd comfort that this fully realized world of Wes Anderson will bring.
A lot. A lot. A lot has been written about the politics and patriotism surrounding American Sniper. Its almost impossible to separate a war film from the opinions one has of that war, especially one so recent. I don’t want to retread ground already written so effectively by others. I didn’t leave the theater feeling offended or patriotic. Instead, I was left feeling underwhelmed.
Whoever made the initial American Sniper trailer should win an award. I saw the trailer three times in the theater and couldn’t wait to see the film. It had a real weight to it and in two minutes I felt the conflict a soldier would have during war.
The full length film had none of that power and glossed over the hard choices. American Sniper is based on the book by Navy SEAL Chris Kyle so I actually don’t have a problem with the black and white viewpoint the film takes because apparently it is even more pronounced in the book. The issue is more that if the main character has no internal conflict with what they are doing and there are minimal secondary characters with differing viewpoints, then as a viewer you start to just see everything through Kyle’s eyes, easy decisions that become routine.
Bradley Cooper does good work as the all or nothing soldier who, from childhood, always attached to the role of protector. In an early scene in the film we see Kyle as a kid stand up for his younger brother and his dad gives a speech about being a sheep dog. Don’t be the evil wolf, or the helpless sheep but he the protector of the flock.
After the earlier scenes with his brother and dad, we only see his brother once more when they meet in passing as his brother is leaving Iraq and Kyle is returning for another tour. His brother, unlike Kyle, hates it in Iraq and is obviously not a sheep dog. He says a negative comment about the war and then is never seen again. Even after Kyle comes back home and is “healed” his parents and brother are never mentioned. Its these small missteps that don’t give the film any real sense of the whole picture of this man’s life.
The wife, Taya (Sienna Miller) is especially grating. The problem with the film interspersing the war scenes with short returning-home scenes is that you get a very narrow and small picture of this woman. This makes her come across sole as a whiney wife. I know plenty of military wives who are strong, independent and of course they miss their husbands and worry about them constantly when they deploy. The issue I take with Taya, is we only see her crying and begging his to stay. When they first meet she says she’d never marry a SEAL and then she spends the rest of the film asking him to stop being a SEAL.
Halfway through the film I caught myself thinking, “This isn’t a bad film for a new director,” then realizing I already knew it was directed by Clint Eastwood. The film feels so middle of the road. The layout of his tours and home time becomes repetitive and the war scenes lack any real energy. I appreciate the conversations the film has started but lets not confuse important political debate for a great film because this one is only meh.
The Imitation Game is yet another biopic about a genius man. Its more entertaining than The Theory of Everything and less moving than Selmabut just as controversial as American Sniper for the inaccurate portrayal of Alan Turing. The film felt like a history lesson or, as my husband Kevin put it, “a really well done NOVA Special.”
Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) helped break the German Enigma code during World War II and is credited with shortening the war by two years, essentially saving 40 million lives. The story of his genius, work during the war and his eventual persecution as a gay man in 1950s England is an important story to tell. It is a different perspective on what a war film can be and it sheds light on a terrible injustice gay men suffered in England for far too long (the law that criminalized homosexuality in England was only overturned in 2003).
The film jumps around in time from Turing’s grade school days to his time as a code breaker to his life years after the war. We see him struggle with his homosexuality as a child and hide it as an adult until he is caught and sentenced to chemical castration. The last thirty minutes of the film carry all the emotional weight and was the only time I was fully invested.
The role of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) as the only female code breaker was sadly under and over played for the wrong reasons. Her relationship with Turing, some say, was widely embellished but her actual role in the code breaking was sadly diminished. Other than solving a crossword puzzle to make it onto the team, there are no scenes of Clarke helping push the project forward other than reading daily transcripts to Turing. Here’s an idea for a truly revolutionary biopic, one starring Joan Clarke.
Overall, the film does its job as a biopic but it also falls short in many ways and the many discrepancies between the film and the real life personality of Turing and his combative war commander, Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance). The real problems with the film are one in the same with the changes to the real story, the filmmakers didn’t trust the actual events and people to be interesting enough to hold an audience. Their changes are, in fact, the reason the film did not connect with me.
Why must genius always be portrayed as socially inept? Why did they make Alan Turing a fumbling loner that none of his war collegues liked or trusted? Why did the filmmakers think we needed an internal conflict when everyone watching knows that the only real antagonist in the film is Germany, or rather the German Enigma machine? There was no reason to fabricate conflict between Commander Denniston and Turing. As an audience, we realize that time is the enemy and the team is fighting against the clock to break the code and end the war.
The Theory of Everything is based on a book by Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane. Its essentially a love story about his ALS disease and her caring for him. Biopics forbiopics sake are the reason biopics get such a bad rap. Not every story needs to be told. This is the case of a potentially interesting subject matter shoehorned into a slight film that might as well begin and end with a screen that reads, “For Your Consideration.”
Since the film’s primary focus was on the Hawkings family life, very little attention was paid to his academic and scientific achievements. They mentioned it just enough to leave the audience understanding he discovered something but still not quite sure what that was or why it was important. Most people going into this film would be familiar with Stephen Hawking’s name and his field of study, as I was, but not much more.
I couldn’t help compare this to another biopic about a brilliant man, A Beautiful Mind (2001). That film, about economist John Nash also showed his struggles with a disease, his love with his wife, his struggle raising a family and his work. Unlike Theory, it was not based on a book by one of the main characters. The film, while criticized for not being accurate, also didn’t feel like it had “Approved by The Hawkings” stamped across every scene. Theory feels like a toned down version of real life where any disagreements or stuggles have been redacted.