According to some lesser-known social media site called “Twitter”, the 2015 Academy Awards took place this past Sunday. Host Neil Patrick Harris got in a few fine jabs at both the Academy and the audience, but his ‘prediction box’ bit fell flat. The show was a mix of awkwardness and fine acceptance speeches, especially from Patricia Arquette, Common & John Legend, and screenwriter Graham Moore.
Aside from the severe lack of Gone Girl nominations, I suppose the show was interesting enough. As for predictions, my Oscar ballot was awfully inaccurate, but I’d like to share what maybe should have won in the major categories:
Actual winner- Birdman
Preferred Winner- Gone Girl
*Rationale- Birdman is a fine movie, and a worthy nominee. However, I counted 11 films I liked more this past year, most of all the absolute perfection that is Gone Girl. I’m bummed that Hollywood couldn’t help but honor a movie about itself. Go head and be narcissistic, Academy, but you got it wrong.
Actual winner- Julianne Moore in Still Alice
Preferred winner: Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
*Rationale- I haven’t seen Still Alice, and I love Julianne Moore in most everything. There’s just no way that it’s better than the subtle psychopathy on display from Pike. It’s something I’ll remember for years.
Actual winner- Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything
Preferred winner- Michael Keaton in Birdman
*Rationale- I haven’t seen Redmayne’s performance, but too often the Academy awards the physical performance over the more resonant one. Keaton has been overlooked for decades now, and his brilliant turn as a has been seeking admiration is just right; despite what he says, I believe it’s easy to draw parallels between the man and his character.
Best Supporting Actress
Actual winner- Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
Preferred winner- Emma Stone in Birdman
*Rationale- Arquette was excellent in Boyhood, but the little bit of Emma Stone we see in Birdman was the best supporting performance. One specific scene, an encounter with her father (Keaton), showcases her range. It’s truly brilliant, considering the lengthy shots this film has, being able to put that performance together without breaking.
Best Supporting Actor
Actual winner- J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
Preferred winner- J.K. Simmons
*Rationale- In my estimation, there wasn’t a better performance all of last year. Simmons was the ultimate villain, full of fire, brimstone, cold calculation, deceit, and the belief that he was right. It’s the perfect formula. The idea that Whiplash was inspired by true events is frightening. Simmons gave the performance of a lifetime.
Best Animated Film
Actual winner- Big Hero 6
Preferred winner: How To Train Your Dragon 2
*Rationale- Big Hero 6 is not a bad movie, but its’ manga sensibilities dragged it down, resulting in a very underwhelming film. The marketing team did their jobs very, very well. HTTYD 2 is a superior film, in both scope, humor, and heart; how the Academy didn’t see that is beyond me. My guess is they shied away from a sequel title. One must wonder what they were doing here, especially with the omission of the popular Lego Movie.
Actual winner- Alexandre Desplat for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Preferred winner- Danny Bensi/Saunder Jurrians for Enemy and Mica Levi for Under the Skin
*Rationale- There is never anything special about the prolific Desplat’s work, nothing memorable, only distracting. It’s as if he cannot help but bore the listener. Some may dismiss this category, but to me, the score can make or break the film, and too often, Desplat’s music distracts. The tense, terse strings of Enemy and Under the Skin have cues that call to mind the best parts to Bernard Herrman’s brilliant Vertigo score, yet still maintain their own off-putting nature. The Academy often has no balls to nominate the right score, let alone choose the right winner. No exception here.
Best Original Song
Actual winner- John Legend & Common for “Glory” from Selma
Preferred winner- John Legend & Common for “Glory” from Selma
*Rationale- For the first time in recent memory, there were a plethora of decent original songs, from the adult-contemporary tune from Begin Again to the hyper beats of “Everything Is Awesome”. “Glory” deserves the win, however, for its’ power and quality. John Legend’s pointed comments while accepting the award absolutely rang true.
Best Visual Effects
Actual winner- Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, and Scott Fisher for Interstellar
Preferred winner- Insterstellar
*Rationale- Complain all you want about Interstellar’s story- I don’t think complaints for the visual effects would hold up. Aside from some impressive visuals in Guardians of the Galaxy, no film compared to Interstellar’s innovative designs, especially for the robots.
Best Original Screenplay
Actual winner- Birdman
Preferred winner: The 4 writers of Birdman (based on the actual nominations; Damien Chazelle for Whiplash based on my preference)
*Rationale- Oscar basically got this one right based on the nominations, for it’s one of the more original, interesting ideas in recent memory. If Whiplash would have been in this category, I’d have chosen it; however, Oscar got lazy and placed it in the “adapted” category. Whiplash was an incredible battle of wills, begging the question “what price greatness”, and creating the most memorable villain in recent memory (J.K. Simmons).
Best Adapted Screenplay
Actual winner- Graham Moore for The Imitation Game
Preferred winner- Paul Thomas Anderson for Inherent Vice
*Rationale- No disrespect for Mr. Moore, whose acceptance speech was incredibly courageous and important. However, watching Inherent Vice was a complete trip, and there is no way I’m NOT quoting it five years from now. That’s the mark of brilliant writing, and what PTA adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel.
Best Foreign Language Film
Actual winner- Ida
Preferred winner- n/a
*Rationale- Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Ida, or any of the foreign language film nominees this year. Ida is readily available on Netflix, however, and I’m keen to watch it.
Actual winner- CitizenFour
Preferred winner- n/a
*Rationale- Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of the nominated documentaries this year. I did see a number of other excellent docs however, including the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. The acceptance speech given by Laura Poitras, CitizenFour’s director, was another poignant moment, warning us to always guard our freedoms.
Actual winner- Emmanuel Lubezki for Birdman
Preferred winner- Bradford Young for Selma
*Rationale- Birdman was certainly a genius cinematic achievement, and the camera work was something special. However, I understand cinematography as the film that truly looks the best. To me, Bradford Young’s work on Selma was unmatched this year, cloaking the film in an almost sepia tone, taking us back 45 years into one of the United States’ darkest hours. Nothing against Lubezki, a true master and Oscar winner from just last year, but Young’s work deserved more notice.
Best Production Design
Actual winner- Adam Stockhausen for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Preferred winner- Adam Stockhausen for The Grand Budapest Hotel
*Rationale- I may not have enjoyed the film, but Stockhausen’s production design was a standout, for sure. From the pink hotel to the red-lined elevators and postcard-esque exteriors, I admit that the clearly painstaking detail that was put into that production’s design was the high point of the film.
American Sniper ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller
Written by: Jason Hall (screenplay); based on the book American Sniper by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and James Difelice
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
**POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT**
“In this world, there are three types of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs”. That quote, used in the first five minutes of American Sniper by Wayne Kyle, the father of Chris Kyle, is the type of worldview that speaks only to certain people. I knew nothing of this soldier, and I cannot identify with that ‘alpha male’ type of code, so I began on the wrong path with this film. Well on my way to labeling it “Right Wing: The Movie”, I paused about ten minutes in, realizing that I was about to despise it for the absolute wrong purpose.
The moral of the story? Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into an irrational, biased view of this film. A multitude of irrational opinions have already come out on American Sniper, and they are based on the same kind of irrational thought. The film is simply about a man, and how his unique skills led him to be uniquely affected by a unique conflict. There are no grandiose political statements in this film, no force feeding of patriotism, and no obvious judgments on who is right or wrong. Simply, director Clint Eastwood has crafted an interpretation of what made the ‘most lethal sniper in U.S. history’ tick, and what four tours of duty did to that decorated soldier. Eastwood strips away most of the political pretense, and does his best to focus on what made Chris Kyle who he was. This is one hell of a film– not a work of propaganda. It manages to satisfy as both an action film and as an emotional roller coaster.
Chris Kyle was clearly affected by the terrorist activity here in the US. He dropped what he was doing (riding the rodeo circuit), and signed up to be a Navy SEAL. It obviously takes an extreme amount of dedication to become a SEAL, or at least that’s what I’ve heard (I’m certainly not up to the task). So we know what type of human being is capable of that extreme training- driven, maybe slightly arrogant, extremely patriotic, and possessing a modicum of natural ability. The film shows us that from an early age, Kyle was gifted using a weapon, and that’s where he specialized- as a sniper. We can see even from the film’s trailer the extreme amount of concentration it takes to lay still, sometimes for hours, in the pursuit of a sniper’s mission. Even then, the choices one is required to make are mind-boggling. How does one aim at a child, even the child of your enemy, even if it means saving your comrades? (Even if that kill didn’t actually take place) Wouldn’t that make anyone with a conscience struggle? Those decisions, which every soldier must make, inevitably create the possibility for a disconnect with reality- or at the very least a disconnect with normalcy.
Eastwood showcases Kyle’s personality by framing the story through his four tours of duty. Each time he deployed, his situations appeared slightly more dangerous than the previous, and his disconnect appeared to grow along with them. The more he succeeded at his job, the more notoriety he received amongst his fellow combatants and enemies alike. The movie seems to indicate that Kyle relished the notoriety, proud to flash his ‘Punisher’ style symbol on his gear and vehicle, marking his territory and giving away his position. One might say he was pride embodied, toeing the line between brave and brazen. At the same time, the film showed him as humble in the face of his peers, careful to accept too much praise. That careful balance Eastwood carries with the film gives the audience the chance to create their own interpretation of the man. From my perspective, the dread of seeing ‘Tour 1, Tour 2, Tour 3, and Tour 4’ may be a parallel, on a much smaller scale, to how his wife felt, or what Kyle himself felt. Bradley Cooper gives an incredible, transformative performance here as Kyle. Not only does he undergo the necessary physical transformation, but he somehow one-ups his prior performances on an emotional level here, making us believe in Chris Kyle as a leader of men.
I struggle with the idea of attempting to get inside the head of a soldier, having never had to make the types of serious decisions that they are required to make. I struggle as I wonder if he was a selfish man for leaving his family over and over. Did he give in to his competitive urges in his desire to eliminate a rival sniper (a character inspired by various Al Qaeda operatives)? Was his sense of duty and idea of patriotism so strong that he felt he was the only one to complete the mission, and he felt obligated simply to complete his job? Did he enjoy what his job was, or did he just see it as a job? These are the questions that the film asks us to ponder about the man, which brings me to the conclusion that he was very much a complicated man. I’m torn, for it appears that the right answer involves a little bit of everything.
The pinnacle of the film finds Kyle with a tactical team on a roof as an impending sandstorm lurks in the distance. At that moment, I found myself slowly gripping the arm rests, not sure how to place the anxiety I felt, not knowing how Kyle died, and being certain that something awful awaited him. That’s the type of tension this film cultivated. I was exhausted at the end, and I don’t feel as though I need to experience it again. The majority of the packed theater I was in stood during the finale, enthusiastically clapping, as one might do a hero returning home. Seeing the reaction to this film has been like witnessing a cultural phenomenon, especially in how we as a society process and interpret information and entertainment. It speaks to the divide most of us have about how to process war in general, and how to mend our veterans upon their return.
There isn’t a point of view criticizing this film that really works. The negative thoughts are all coming from the wrong angle. It is possible that other veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom experienced a different war than what Chris Kyle did? Certainly. It is also possible that various parts of this story have been exaggerated, or in some cases, fabricated? Most definitely. Does the film achieve an emotional and tension-inducing level that most films cannot replicate? Absolutely. For those filmmaking achievements alone, American Sniper is one of the year’s best films, and may just end up winning best picture. As for Kyle, the man? I’d say we’re free to debate what his life was about; the mark of this great film is that it hasn’t decided for us what that is.
The Best of 2014
What appeared at the beginning to be a down year for blockbusters and good films in 2014 ended up an absolute boon for film lovers like me. From smaller, less recognized gems to the year’s typical blockbuster fare, I can’t help but be rather thankful for all we had last year.
It is time for me to reveal my top 10 list for 2014, as all good and pretend film critics must do. Feel free to comment with a list of your own, or share this story with anyone that wants to catch up.
10. Inherent Vice– The easy comparison to Paul Thomas Anderson’s California stylish stoner comedy/epic farce would be The Big Lebowski, but there are subtle differences that make Vice stand on its’ own. For one, Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc character’s love for Shasta (played by the stunning Katherine Waterston) grounds the story. Also, the character names alone would make me love this movie- the aforementioned Shasta, Sortilege, Ensenada Slim, Petunia Leeway, and Sauncho Smilax. Those names belong to characters in a stoner dream, which, I suppose, is exactly what this is. Of the ten films on this list, it’s possible that Inherent Vice will be the one I watch more than any of them. It really is that much fun.
9. American Sniper- Clint Eastwood’s docudrama on the life and times of Chris Kyle is an intense film, executed to near perfection. Aside from the skewed opinions of many, the film itself is masterful, crafting a linear story of a complicated man. Allowing your politics to influence how you feel about this film is the wrong choice. Instead, allow Eastwood’s deft direction to guide you through the experience of not just Kyle, but perhaps our whole military for the past 12 years.
8. Under The Skin- Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel is one of those films- you know, the ones that are more atmosphere than content, that suggest rather than elaborate, that rely on the simplest facial movements rather than unnecessary dialogue. The shrill strings that accompany the brilliant score by Mica Levi assist in bringing this film to the ultimate tension level. I also admit to being thoroughly frightened by a particular scene, and even 9 months after seeing the film, it still bugs me. Some may say this drags on, but I’d say watch it again- it got even better the second time around.
7. Whiplash- Director Damien Chazelle’s semi-autobiographical tale of master and apprentice is an extraordinary battle of wills. Miles Teller shows what an excellent actor he is when he’s not involved in Divergent nonsense, and J.K. Simmons’ alpha male gives the year’s best supporting performance as, well, a villain. What truly makes this a great film is Chazelle ‘s ability to place doubt in our mind. Is greatness truly derivative of madness? You might say no, but this film brings a great argument to the table.
6: Chef- Of all the 2014 films I saw, Jon Favreau’s Chef may be the one I revisit the most. The love of food is an important theme, sure, but the life of a brilliant chef, and the relationships he acquires and maintains through the visage of brilliantly prepared food is the focus with this film. It helps that a man I know and care about is the spitting image of Favreau’s character, and his words and actions certainly call him to mind as well. Aside from the focus on Cuban cuisine, the film handles family relationships with a real sensibility, especially between father and son. It’s one of the more enjoyable films in recent memory.
5. Selma- Whether or not Martin Luther King Jr’s family endorsed this or not, this snippet of the great man’s life is a truly powerful and important film. Director Ava DuVernay transports us inside that moment in our country’s history so deftly that the film never becomes a fluff biopic, nor does it shy away from being critical of King, our nation’s leaders, or the ugly, hateful place America has occasionally been. It’s also the best looking film of the year, and David Oyelowo, matching Dr. King step for step, gives one of the year’s best lead performances, Oscar snubs be damned.
4. Nightcrawler- Director Dan Gilroy’s moody, satirical melody of American journalism and capitalism is hard to watch, sure. The film’s “throwback-to-the-80s” score, the focus on “dirty L.A.”, the take on today’s sexual politics, and the brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic performance steal the show. Even Rene Russo deserved awards talk for her portrayal of a news director having to push the limits to stay viable. This is another one of ‘those’ films- the atmospheric, dark type of comedy that boosts my confidence, knowing that I’m smart enough to understand what it has to say, and mature enough to enjoy the ‘adult’ of it all.
3. Wish I Was Here– Zach Braff’s funny and deeply emotional ‘thirtysomething’ version of Garden State hit home for this ‘thirtysomething’. It’s a crisp study of a character at a crossroad in his life, and the emotion necessary to get someone to transition from one point to another. The real relationships on display in this film carry it, but on a personal level, I feel Braff is the cinematic voice of my generation. I simply wish he didn’t need a decade to get what he has to say to his followers.
2. Enemy- Jake Gyllenhaal gives two, yes TWO, Oscar-worthy performances in this “paranoia-du-force” thriller. Every camera angle, every color wash, every piece of music in this film seems right in place to present a very Hitchcock-style film. It’s a real shame that critics everywhere forgot about this, but not me. Denis Villeneuve’s film is nearly perfect- he misleads his audience, or so we think, only to pounce on us in the end. Few films in the past number of years have kept me thinking “what just happened” as this one does- and that ENDING. Seriously, just see it, and tell me that it isn’t incredibly thought-provoking.
1. Gone Girl– This is a flawless film. How does a pulpy, Lifetime-esque subject become a masterpiece? David Fincher, that’s how. He crafts Gillian Flynn’s script into glorious intrigue, laced with multiple narrations, twists, gore, gender role commentary, and even murder mystery. It has that Fincher-sheen, that all-too-familiar camera focus, and such a wit that you can’t help but grin, even as awful people are doing awful things. It’s the best film of the year, and to be honest, it isn’t all that close.
*Honorable mention to: Boyhood, Begin Again, Birdman, The Babadook, Blue Ruin, Interstellar, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Life Itself