I finally finished watching every movie nominated for Best Picture in 2015 (meaning, movies released in 2014). I realize it's 2016 now, but one of the movies (won't say which) I just never got around to and I meant to finish it before doing my roundup.

American Sniper

American Sniper

Released: 2014-12-11

It's somewhat difficult to evaluate this movie without the political landscape at the time coming into play. Because this movie is patriotic and depicts a soldier, American conservatives turned it into a political issue - Facebook was covered in demands to go see this movie if you love America, and implications that not thinking it's the greatest movie ever made was tantamount to a terrorist attack.

Look, the movie is fine. It's a very, very paint-by-numbers biopic. It seems to have almost nothing to actually say about the Iraq war, or even the subject of the film, Chris Kyle. We don't get much into his motivations or mental states in the movie, and we certainly don't get into his borderline-psychotic attitude about how much he seemed to enjoy killing people through a sniper rifle.

If this movie had been made fifty years from now, it could have probably been bolder, more engaging, perhaps getting more into the war or Kyle himself. But as it is, the guy's widow is still alive (and attended the Academy Awards, which is really quite odd) and so nobody is going to do anything that could border on critiquing Kyle or the war he fought in. So as it stands, this is less of a film and more of a chronology of things that happened. So when evaluating the film, am I evaluating it as a movie or am I evaluating the actual life of the person depicted, or actions taken? Since the movie seems to be so content to add absolutely no artistic flourish, it almost doesn't exist as a movie.

But, whatever. As a movie, it's okay. There's decent action, the tension is pretty good, we get the rote "war is tough on couples" stuff. Aside from the fact that this movie became a political lightning rod, it's extremely forgettable.

Rating

7

A sniper exists and he is American.

Birdman

Birdman

Released: 2014-08-27

I really appreciate what Birdman did on a technical level. The "one take" thing was neat and used well without being distracting, and all of the performances were excellent (except Emma Stone). But at the same time, I have a tendency to really dislike movies that are about the entertainment industry, and this movie was about as meta as a movie could get without being a full-blown comedy.

Having Michael Keaton, of all people, in a kind-of pretentious film going for dramatic and artistic value, playing an actor famous for being a superhero and putting on a kind-of pretentious play going for dramatic and artistic value... it's all a bit much. Keaton himself came off as desperate for peer recognition as the character he portrayed and it was all just a bit too artsy fartsy for me. Plus there was all the stuff with Edward Norton, portraying a character known for being kind of an asshole to work with, with some more comic book movie references, and Emma Stone who was in Spider-man, it was all very on the nose.

That's not to say I didn't like it, I thought it was quite good - though my wife absolutely hated it and didn't even make it through the entire movie. She was physically angry watching it and basically stormed around, finding it a few shades too artsy to tolerate. I made it through the entire movie and I think it was good, but it seemed more like an indie film than a real Hollywood Best Picture contender. It's weird to me this movie was nominated and won Best Picture - I know Hollywood loves movies about movies, but I guess I'm surprised that something this self-indulgent and hipstery didn't repel the older Academy crowd.

I think it's fair to say Keaton was robbed off Best Actor though, he was great.

Rating

7

Michael Keaton is a Keaton-esque actor working with Edward Norton playing a Norton-esque actor.

Boyhood

Boyhood

Released: 2014-06-05

Alright, we can all agree that the shot-over-the-course-of-12-years angle to this movie is a gimmick right? Just like Birdman had a gimmick - that it all looked like one continuous take. So, since it's a gimmick, it can be a neat little piece of trivia about the movie, or even warrant some kind of technical recognition for a new feat, but that shouldn't really factor into evaluating it as a movie. Birdman, for example, would still be great if it were the exact same movie even if it weren't all one take.

So the question is, if Boyhood were the exact same movie without the gimmick, would it be good? If it were filmed on a normal production schedule, maybe with aging makeup or having different actors play the boy at different ages, but the movie was otherwise the same, would you like it?

No. No, man. It would actually be fucking terrible. There are all sorts of plot threads that just go absolutely nowhere, subplots that don't relate to any kind of common theme, a pointless and meandering storyline, uneven acting, and the movie just fizzles out and stops. If this were a regular film, it would be absolute garbage, seriously. Like it would be one of the worst movies you've ever seen. There are all these scenes where things happen and you're wondering where it's going, and then it just goes nowhere, or is never referenced again.

The gimmick is all there is to this movie. I actually really enjoyed watching it, I was totally engaged in it and wanting to see the next scene pretty much the whole time, but it was exclusively because of the gimmick that this was the case.

This movie seems to rest entirely on the "yeah it's pointless and meandering because that's how life is sometimes!" but shit, that's not what moviemaking is for. Making films is for telling interesting stories, and specifically deciding to tell an uninteresting story in an interesting way, in order to make an artistic comment about uninterestingness in general, that might make your film cool as a piece of art but it doesn't make it a great movie. Like a feature-length film widely released in theaters of Shia Lebouf just staring back at the audience without saying a word - that would be an interesting piece of "art" but it wouldn't be a good movie.

This movie gets a few extra points solely because of the gimmick and the challenge of making a movie in this way, but that's it. As a movie, it's trash.

Rating

5

Richard Linklater spends 12 years filming a kid turn into Richard Linklater.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Released: 2014-02-26

The first Wes Anderson movie I ever saw was Rushmore. I absolutely loved it, I bought it on DVD, and I've seen it a bunch of times. Then The Royal Tenenbaums came out and I saw that as well - I liked it too, but found myself slightly annoyed at it. Things that I thought were just quirks of Rushmore, it turned out, looked a bit more like a signature style of Anderson. Stuff that I thought made Rushmore unique and interesting as a film, it seemed, might actually be tropes or possibly even limitations of Wes as a director. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou confirmed my fears - and suddenly rewatching Rushmore, all the things that I thought made Rushmore cool stopped being cool features of the movie, and were just tired rehashed stylistic features of every Wes Anderson movie. Once all of those features were stripped from the movie and I was just seeing the movie kind of without them, I actually found Rushmore somewhat annoying. It's one of the very few times that the rest of a director's catalog made me dislike a film I originally liked.

I never saw Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, or Moonrise Kingdom. I actually got to a point where Wes Anderson's hipstery moviemaking style was so grating for me that even getting through Life Aquatic was challenging. I think his voice as a director and my taste in films are just fundamentally incompatible - when I watch Wes Anderson movies, I want to punch the movie in the face. I feel myself get physically angry, truly enraged just watching them.

The point is, I knew I was probably going to hate Grand Budapest Hotel. But it was nominated for Best Picture, and I was hearing a lot of buzz about it being Anderson's best movie (probably true) and actually being about something other than a bunch of obnoxiously quirky characters. So I finally watched it, hoping it would be alright.

Things started out okay. Wes did a lot of his signature stuff, the way he likes to compose shots and pan the camera, and I mostly was able to roll my eyes and ignore it. The story was actually pretty interesting, and I found myself getting sucked into the characters and the narrative enough to ignore the obnoxious Anderson quirks. But as the movie went on, I found myself losing patience with it, and feeling a resurgence of irritation.

There was a scene at one point where we were treated to a cavalcade of cameos, a series of phone calls where a hotel manager would answer a call, acknowledge it, and then call another hotel manager. After a couple of these, I started muttering "okay, I get it, it's funny." under my breath aloud. It felt like this scene went on for 20 more calls, each one leaving me increasingly unable to conceal my anger. By the end of it, I'm just groaning "Jesus Christ we get it, a lot of people were called, it's very quirky, fucking move on."

The straw that broke my back was the downhill sledding sequence. For whatever reason, I found the Quirkiness Level just too much to bear, and I was literally screaming "fuck you, movie" at my television set like it was a football game and I was armchair quarterbacking. I'm not exaggerating, I was physically screaming at my television set, that's how annoyed I was. I just do not like Wes Anderson movies.

Rating

4

Fuck you, movie.

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game

Released: 2014-11-14

This movie is a little unfair for me. See, I love Alan Turing. My primary PC is named after Turing, and I'm extremely familiar with his life and his work. Obviously, I'd have preferred a movie that focused more on his contributions to computer science, but a movie about his contributions to breaking Enigma is nice as well.

I tried not to count historical inaccuracy too much against the movie - the only reason that inaccuracies bothered me so much is because I'm so familiar with Turing, and I'm sure biopics I see get stuff wrong all the time and I'm just too ignorant to notice. For what it's worth, every change they made for the film made sense to me, in that it heightened drama and told a more interesting story.

One thing that bugged me was that they made Turing out to be an antisocial jerk - it seems that whenever Hollywood needs a "nerd" character, they wind up someone like Sheldon Cooper that treats everyone like shit but it's okay because he's smart. Turing was a nice guy, everyone liked him. Also, he didn't break Enigma on his own and at no point did he actually nearly commit treason by keeping a mole a secret to protect the secret of his sexuality.

In any case, I think The Imitation Game is a pretty boring and forgettable movie, a pretty standard biopic that doesn't take a lot of risks. The movie really tried to put a huge stress on his homosexuality, which didn't surprise me given that it's a more audience-friendly aspect of his life than his codebreaking or mathematics skills. But if you're going to make a movie about how a super-smart guy who helped win the war was gay and treated like shit for it, there should have been more actual coverage of that. Instead we see that he's on his chemical castration treatment in one scene, and his suicide is covered in text. It's like the movie didn't want to risk alienating people uncomfortable with the topic of homosexuality, but also wanted to make a pro-gay movie with a message. It seemed somewhat cowardly.

In any case, I liked this movie more than it probably deserved, just because I liked the subject matter so much.

Rating

8

Nyna Ghevat vf njrfbzr naq qbrf njrfbzr guvatf, naq nyfb vf tnl.

Selma

Selma

Released: 2014-12-25

It's tough to talk about a movie like this, saying anything bad about the movie feels like you're saying something bad about the civil rights movement, or that you're being racist. As a white guy, I don't feel like I can honestly discuss the movie itself without these other issues being intertwined. Wait a second, I'm still pretending I'm an immortal alien tasked with watching every movie ever made, right? Oh in that case fuck it, this movie sucked.

This is (yet another) biopic, this one about Martin Luther King Jr. It's about the civil rights movement in general, but specifically about blacks being denied their right to vote in Selma, Alabama. It also deals with Dr. King's personal life, the way the FBI put him under heavy surveillance, the way King's philosophy differed from that of Malcom X, tension within King's movement, and other related topics. The main problem with this movie is that it goes for breadth instead of depth, it doesn't get deep enough into any of those topics to really be engaging, it's all dealt with on a very surface level.

Because everything is dealt with at such a surface level, the movie honestly is somewhat boring. I know this is horrible to say, how can I be bored watching the plight of American blacks? But I wasn't bored with the story, I was bored with the movie itself. Aside from the first confrontation on the bridge in which the troopers mercilessly beat dozens of innocent people, the movie is honestly pretty bland. Considering the horrific events it portrays and the emotionally exhausting story it's meant to tell, this is about the greatest offense the movie can commit. For what it's worth, I do think David Oyelowo's performance as Dr. King is absolutely phenomenal.

I don't have much else to say about the film, I think it kind of skirted by simply by being a movie about something important, and it deflects criticism because criticism seems almost racist. But honestly, Being an okay movie about a great subject doesn't mean you're a great movie.

Rating

5

Your grandfather is a racist asshole.

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything

Released: 2014-11-26

The Theory of Everything is yet another biopic, this time for Stephen Hawking. It shares a lot of similarities with The Imitation Game, it's a movie about a super smart scientist that tries to deal more with his personal life than his actual intellectual contributions. But while The Imitation Game struck a good balance between these two topics, The Theory of Everything places a much greater importance on Hawking the person rather than Hawking the scientist. This is no surprise, Hawking's suffering from ALS is absolutely heartbreaking, so it's a natural fit to be the primary subject of a drama.

Once again, just like The Imitation Game, I'm extremely familiar with the subject of the film, and so simply for being a movie about a personal hero of mine, the movie kind of automatically wins a few points. However, much like Selma I thought the biopic was very bland and boring - it tries to cover so much breadth and it never really goes too deep on any one topic, and the end result feels shallow and dull.

The Theory of Everything seems to get almost everything wrong in a lot of ways. We touch on some of Hawking's contributions to science, but they're not dealt with in a manner that let's you understand their value. We touch on Hawking's disease, but aside from seeing the effects it has on Hawking it's not dealt with in enough depth to be a "movie about ALS". We touch on Hawking's personal life, but only to the extent that we get a chronology of life events, we don't really get to know Hawking as a person or how he emotionally dealt with his diagnosis. It manages to not quite be good at any of the things it's trying to be, and it's trying to be so many things at once.

Genuine drama is replaced with sentimentality, and the movie places way too much stress on Hawking's romantic relationships (at least for my taste, but again I'd be happy with a film version of A Brief History of Time). The thing that's particularly odd to me is, given how much stress the movie places on Hawking's relationships, it deals with them in an extremely clunky manner. His wife, Jane, struggles for much of the movie with the frustrations of caring for Hawking, and eventually develops romantic feelings for a man who has been helping her care for her family. I think, given the situation, this is extremely understandable and I sympathized entirely with Jane. However, the way the film is cut together, the moment she finally commits infidelity is depicted as some kind of cosmic cause to Hawking getting pneumonia and needing a tracheotomy - even though he was miles away, the film tries to emotionally tie these moments together, completely vilifying Jane for her completely understandable succumbing to temptation. As if that weren't bad enough, Hawking later falls in love with his nurse for purely physical reasons (she has big knockers) and it's played lightheartedly, like it's completely fine even though, in reality, this is nowhere near as sympathetic as Jane's situation.

If you're going to make your movie, inexplicably, about Stephen Hawking's romantic life, tackling it in such an unfair and clunky way is nearly unforgivable. I feel like if the movie was going to be this ridiculous about his marriages, then it should have at least relegated those marriages to background material and focused on some different aspect of Hawking's life story. Instead, the film brings to the forefront the exact thing that it botches the most.

Rating

5

Scientist's body breaks, brain still works, still does cool science.

Whiplash

Whiplash

Released: 2014-10-10

Whiplash was, by far, my favorite of the Best Picture nominees. I love movies that really keep me on the edge of my seat with tension, and this movie had bubbling tension in spades. I was extremely surprised at how much I loved this movie - I'm really not a big music person and I don't really like Jazz. Plus, the stakes are so low (it's just some kid doing music), so I didn't expect to be pulled into the emotional drama of the film as much as I was.

J.K. Simmons was, obviously, amazing, and I loved how the final act of the movie played out. Even Miles Teller was great, which surprised me because I find that he usually plays unlikeable characters, and I did indeed find his character Andrew simultaneously unlikeable yet still engaging. In fact, Simmons's Fletcher was also unlikeable, so this was a movie about two unlikeable characters playing off each other, and I still was completely engaged in the movie and loved it. Nobody has a "save the cat" moment, everyone in the film is a total bastard and yet I was on the edge of my seat for the whole movie. This is a stunning accomplishment, and it speaks to the quality of the writing and directing.

To take this a little further, this movie is essentially a stereotypical "sports movie" but with Jazz instead of an inflated ball of some kind. Not only do I dislike music films (they're all about "the power of music" and other nonsense), but I typically dislike sports films. So, once again, I'm stunned at how much I liked this movie, I can only imagine that it'd be that much better for someone who isn't coming into the experience with so many personal things counting against the film.

Without question, Whiplash is the movie that I think should have deserved Best Picture, however I completely understand why it did not. For all it's strengths as a film, it's not particularly "cinematic". The entire movie could have just as easily been a play, which means that the film doesn't really take advantage of the medium and thus would be a strange selection for the best entry in that medium for the year. I can't really fault the Academy for passing this movie over in favor of Birdman despite being superior to it in virtually every way from a storytelling standpoint. Birdman is a similarly non-cinematic movie at its core, but the one-take gimmick along with some of the more artistic flourishes of the film elevated it to be more cinematic, which is something Whiplash failed to do. In short, I get it. I'm glad it won what it did, though I think it should have definitely gotten the Best Adapted Screenplay as well.

Rating

9

Some jerk learns how to be a great drummer from a bigger jerk.

Honorable Mentions

Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler

Released: 2014-10-23

I felt like Nightcrawler went really unrecognized this year. It was a film that had a lot to say about the media, it told the story in an incredibly engaging and interesting way, and contained tons of stellar performances.

No movie this year, not even Whiplash, had the kind of tension that Nightcrawler did. Almost every scene had me leaning forward in my chair, with the scene in the murder house, the scene at the restaurant, and the climactic car chase being particular standouts. Even just driving from place to place to capture footage was tense, the movie was shot so extraordinarily well. No dialogue needed, we learn everything we need to know about Lou when he moves the pictures on the fridge next to the bullet holes in the house he broke into to get a better shot. It's all completely masterful.

I guess a lot of people didn't like the ending, but I thought it was awesome. I loved how betrayed Rick was by Lou and how truly sociopathic Lou turned out to be. The way Lou handles the crash of Bill Paxton's character was just deliciously fucked up, I loved it. In my mind, Jake Gyllenhaal should have won Best Actor hands down, it's baffling to me that he wasn't even nominated.

Nightcrawler is like a modern day Taxi Driver, which is another one of my favorite films. I honestly don't understand why people didn't like this movie more, I almost want to chalk it up to the emotional conflict the film conjures up since it does such a great job of holding up a mirror to the audience's thirst for salacious news. Personally, this is my Best Picture choice, so the fact that it wasn't even nominated is incredibly disappointing.

Rating

9

Jake Gyllenhaal is awesomely terrible in a terrible business and everything is horrible. It's great.

Interstellar

Interstellar

Released: 2014-11-05

I have to mention just how much I simultaneously enjoyed and disliked Interstellar. Christopher Nolan seems to have an effect on me that's so consistent that I've begun referring to other movies doing it as "Nolanesque". The effect is this: while I'm watching the movie, I'm completely loving it. I walk out of the theater and proudly proclaim the film to be completely perfect, a 10/10. Then, in the 20 minute drive home from the theater, just by thinking about the movie more, by the time I walk through the door of my house, I hate the movie. It's such a strange effect the way everything in the story just seems to unravel, the way that every character acts in a way that no human beings actually act, and yet this goes unnoticed by me while I'm watching the film. Am I distracted by the visuals? Is my mind just struggling to keep up with the frantic pace of the action that I have no time to puzzle over it? I honestly don't know why this keeps happening, but it happened with Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and now Interstellar.

Visually, the movie is stunning, and it's the only movie on this entire page that I actually purchased on Blu-ray. I also am a complete sucker for space movies, and I love when movies get really into weird scientific territory while trying to at least be somewhat accurate. The black hole time dilation stuff I loved so much as it was happening on screen that I completely missed the fact that this was literally the stupidest possible first planet to check on the mission - until I was driving home, that is.

I had been looking forward to this movie since it was announced - it was my most anticipated 2014 release. Christopher Nolan doing a sciencey space movie? Yeah, sign me the fuck up. But in the end, a lot of the story elements just didn't work, the premise is shaky, the character decisions pretty goofy, and the whole "love transcends space and time" stuff was just too much for me to bear. And as much as I love the ideas of the final act, the execution was just abysmal.

Interstellar was, by far, my greatest disappointment of 2014. It's my own fault for being so excited for it and building up the hype too much, and I appreciate how much I enjoyed the film while I was watching it the first time. It's a film of great moments and fantastic visuals, but they're all strung together by the weakest narrative thread that the entire movie completely unravels under the slightest scrutiny. And what fun is a deeply philosophical science fiction film if it cannot withstand intellectual scrutiny?

Rating

6

Everyone does the stupidest possible thing they could at every given moment, IN SPAAAACCCEEEEE

Gone Girl

Gone Girl

Released: 2014-10-01

Gone Girl is another movie that I felt got completely looked over by the Academy despite being great. Rosamund Pike's performance was (correctly) recognized, but otherwise the movie was pretty snubbed.

Like Nightcrawler there's a lot of social criticism about the media in here, and I guess I might just be a sucker for that sort of thing. I thought this movie was just a treat from beginning to end - the movie is two and a half hours long and feels none of it, I could have easily watched another hour of this movie without a second thought.

The way the audience is forced to jump back and forth between which character(s) it likes, with perceptions of "good" being constantly pulled into question by the unveiling of new facts was a real joy. And the fact that, in the end you like none of them is great. This movie made me enjoy the presence of Tyler Perry, which is almost as big an accomplishment as putting a Nancy Grace-esque character on screen for more than 30 seconds without having me storm out of the film in a rage.

Everything about Gone Girl is spot on, the script is great, the direction is fantastic, and of course the score is amazing. All three of these aspects of the film were nominated for the Golden Globes, but completely snubbed by the Oscars. I don't get it, the Academy isn't above this kind of material, Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture in 1991.

David Fincher is a national treasure, Gone Girl is yet another stellar entry in a borderline flawless career. Benjamin Button and Alien3 are the only black marks on what is otherwise masterpiece after masterpiece, the guy simply doesn't get enough credit for my tastes. Fincher is the closest living director to Alfred Hitchcock we have, the way he handles thriller-type material is unmatched by anyone else working today. Knowing a movie is directed by Fincher alone is enough to get me maximally hyped for a film.

Rating

9

Women, amirite?

Conclusions

2014 was kind of a crap year for movies. I hadn't realized it at the time, because I enjoyed a lot of movies during the year, but the movies I liked were extremely commercial fare like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. In terms of serious Oscarbait type movies, I was pretty underwhelmed.

When I saw the list of nominees, I remarked "is this it? This is the best of the year?" - I kind of wished that there could just be no Best Picture winner, like maybe the Academy could hand out the acting and technical awards, and just say "nobody deserves Best Picture" then not give one out.

Birdman winning Best Picture was fine, I guess. I really didn't like the movie that much, but I'm glad it won over Boyhood, and it seemed to be a race between Boyhood and Birdman. Of all the nominees, I would have preferred if Whiplash had won, as I think it was the best movie of the bunch, but I'm not sure the film is "cinematic" enough to actually warrant a Best Picture nomination. Just kind of a lackluster year for movies. Lots of biopics too, like a bit more than usual.

I thought the Academy was, in general, way off this year. No Lego Movie for Best Animated Feature is a crime, and no Jake Gyllenhaal for Best Actor for Nightcrawler is nuts. Boyhood and Birdman were both overly gimmicky and underwhelming, and Gone Girl wasn't even nominated.

The movie I enjoyed the most in all of 2014 was Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I know that this is a dumb comic book movie and would never stand a chance to win Best Picture, but I actually thought it was the best movie this year. Runners up were Guardians of the Galaxy, Whiplash, Nightcrawler, Gone Girl, Blue Ruin, and John Wick.

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