I've barely managed to catch up on all the Best Picture nominees this year in time for the Academy Awards, so I'm way behind on awards season coverage. So instead of the usual post on predictions and politicking, I'm going to rank the contenders and give my general thought about each. And that's probably a better way to do it anyway.
Selma - I'm still stunned at how intelligent, how nuanced, and how effective this film is, the way it puts across its own, pointedly inclusive POV on history and takes pains to emphasize the humanity of every major participant. I was initially a little miffed at Oyelowo and DeVernay missing out on nominations, but as Scott Beggs over at Film School Rejects put it, "The Oscars need 'Selma' more than 'Selma' Needs the Oscars." It has no chance at Best Picture, but that's okay. I'm convinced that this will be one of the 2014 films that will still be talked about long after most of the other nominees are forgotten.
The Grand Budapest Hotel - On the other hand, sometimes the Academy gets it very right. "Grand Budapest" is Wes Anderson's best film in ages, and I'm so glad he's getting recognition for it. There's a real sense of purpose to all his usual stylizations and flourishes this time. This one just misses out the top spot for me because I don't think the movie has quite the overall impact that "Selma" managed, but it's still exceptional from start to finish. It isn't just a career highlight for Anderson, but for Ralph Fiennes, for Robert Yeoman, for Alexandre Desplat, and for many others.
Whiplash - And here's to finding great human drama in unusual places. "Whiplash" is a movie about a student-teacher relationship, about world-class musicians vying for status, and about an ambitious young man trying to acheive his dreams. It's also one of the most jaw-droppingly intense, violent, and cringe-inducing movies of the year, with a supporting performance by J.K. Simmons that is already iconic. Pigeonhole it in a single genre at your own risk. What a magnificent debut for writer/director Damien Chazell, and hopefully this is just the start of a great career in film.
Boyhood - Richard Linklater couldn't have predicted that Ellar Coltrane would have less than stellar acting skills as a teenager, or that his daughter would lose interest in the project she was initially a big part of. But he worked around those issues, and a thousand other little problems making "Boyhood," an experiment in filmmaking that nobody had ever attempted before on such a scale. And by any measure, the end result is impressive, particularly the performances by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and Linklater's own evolving filmmaking style and sensibilities.
Birdman - I had a very positive reaction to "Birdman," but it wasn't one of my favorites. Lots of good ideas and performances, but it was missing a few vital pieces. I have to put it ahead of the rest of the remaining contenders, though, for sheer degree of difficulty and cinematic ambition. "Birdman" tries to do so much at once that it's incredible that it manages to deliver so well on almost every single level. I didn't connect with it the way that others have, but if it does win Best Picture, which it's heavily favored to, I certainly don't begrudge it an ounce of success.
The Imitation Game - Now here's the kind of movie that everyone expects to be nominated for an Oscar: a British biopic with a World War II backdrop, anchored by a charming performance from a talented male lead, . "The Imitation Game" checks all the boxes, and it's entertaining enough that it's difficult to summon any real hard feelings against it. However, it's also difficult to summon much enthusiastic praise. I'm glad to see director Morten Tyldum and Benedict Cumberbatch are advancing their careers, but that's the extent of my appreciation.
The Theory of Everything - Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones do perfectly lovely work together as Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde, but otherwise this one fell pretty flat for me. I understand that Stephen Hawkings' battle with ALS makes for more compelling drama than his work as a physicist, but I found that there was far too much romance and not enough science in the film. It's a good effort, but I don't see anything here worth celebrating beyond the performances. The bungled final act lands this in the second-to last spot on this list.
American Sniper - I don't like it. I don't get it. I think a lot of the vitriol aimed at "American Sniper" is undeserved, but so is all the praise. I can't find anything here that strikes me as awards-worthy, from the painfully jingoistic story to the oddly sub-par filmmaking from Clint Eastwood. The marketing team should surely be handed all the kudos. The silver lining here is that the film's boffo box office will mean that we'll see more mid-range films being made by the studios, and more films about the Middle East conflict.