The films of 2014 focused disproportionately on personal feats. Yes, all stories need a protagonist, but the majority of the academy nominated films this year explore personal accomplishment and sacrifice.
Two films are about geniuses, who almost by definition, are recluses. Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking in the Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are both afflicted in their own way and have dedicated their lives in search of their intellectual pursuits. The Theory of Everything manages to be beautiful and potent despite being largely autobiographical; Imitation Game is a confusing mass-marketed disaster that deviates meaningfully from real events and juxtaposes too many overplayed themes ranging from feminism to homosexuality.
American Sniper follows the personal struggles and accomplishments of the most lethal American sniper in history, and has the feel of Hurt Locker and Zero-Dark-Thirty. Selma takes from a more notable period in US history, telling the story of Martin Luther King's most pivotal days. The film is precise, well-acted and ultimately uncomplicated.
Golden Globe winner Boyhood is a revolution in movie-making, successfully exploring adolescence by filming over a decade. It's a story with no real plot, like a reality show for the intelligentsia. It holds viewers in merely through its beauty and delicacy.
Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson's eighth feature, and likely his best. The artistry is engrossing, from the minute details of each scene to the dark jokes you shouldn't be laughing at.
And back to films on individual success, Birdman and Whiplash are both about the struggle for recognition. Although one is a comedy and the other could not be more serious, the two films could have been confused for the same, linked by the the Manhattan setting, backstage clamours, suicidal overtones, yearning for approval. The main character of Birdman has found fame but is looking for it in the more respected field of theatre. The student drummer in Whiplash wants to become one of the greats.
Birdman has the most artistic merit of all the films. The cinematography is particularly catching – in one fluid motion the camera captures the entire film. It gives the film an odd gravitas to balance the quirks. All the nonsense, like Birdman's play's name ("What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", the movie's second title "(The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)", and the random guy reciting lines from MacBeth, are held together by the empathy the audience feels for Birdman.
Whiplash manages to be emotionally on-edge despite a seemingly mundane subject. J. K. Simmons seems sure to win best supporting actor as the monomaniacal music teacher obsessed with training the next great musician. It is the perfect showing of the destructive power of perfection. The nuance that is presented so well is the persuasive, addictive nature of chasing greatness, and how little-by-little it leads people down a degenerative path. And so it is my easy pick for Best Picture.
Against last year’s spectacular line-up, this year’s best picture hopefuls are hopelessly mediocre. This year’s films are largely “true stories” and “Americanized”. 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips, and Philomena are all true stories. All of the above except Philomena are unapologetically American. 12 Years a Slave begins with a treacherous period of Americans history. It makes the point but no more effectively than any other film on slavery, and has less artistic quality than Tarantino’s Django (2012). American Hustle, set in the slimy late 1970s, tells of fallible con-men messing with gangsters. In Dallas Buyers Club, set in the early days of the AIDS epidemic (1980s), a homophobe smuggles drugs from Mexico to give himself a fighting chance. The Wolf of Wall Street, set in the high-flying 1990’s, shows the morally loose lifestyles of finance fraudsters. Most recent is Captain Phillips, a patriotic story of how SEALs rescued a cargo ship taken over by Somalian pirates. Gravity is thankfully not a true story. It is a triumph of special effects and cinematography, but is not much more than a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. One of the nominations even bears the name of a U.S. state. Nebraska tells of a man who believes he’s won the lottery. The Academy Awards have not always been so patriotic. These are also the awards that have, in the past, given top prize to Slumdog Millionaire and the Kings’ Speech. Indeed, last year, the nominees included a French film, a film set in France, and two films set nowhere at all.
The Academy has historically favoured films about true stories. Argo, of course was a true story – and so were Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty. Those films are able to outstep the confines of storytelling and create complicated messages and complicated feelings. Against those, the films this year seem to only have one unambiguous message: terrible or sensational things happened the in past. Aside from those two main themes, this year’s line up fails to be novel. They discuss or present overly-discussed issues like homosexuality (Dallas, Philomena), con-men (Hustle, Wolf), Catholic indecency (Philomena), self-sacrifice (Gravity, Slave). Some casting decisions are impressive (Jennifer Lawrence in Hustle), and some are too predictable (Clooney in Gravity, Pitt in Slave).
Many films present serious matters from a humorous angle (as Django did). Only one film this year uses comedy to expose truth. “Her” is un-American and not based on a true story, and is the only essential film of the nine. It explores the human emotion of love with no pre-conceived notions and in a non-judgmental manner. In a futuristic world, where moustaches and high-waisted pants are in, humans date bodyless artificially intelligent beings . In one case, surrogate partners are used to give the artificially intelligent beings a physical quality. Despite these progressive and potentially offensive arrangements, the quality of the film is to keep viewers from making fundamental judgements of acceptability, and instead keeps viewers focused on the point – that love is more mental than physical (the message is more complicated but that was the main take-away). Despite the inherent comedic quality of the film, it still manages to instill tremendous feeling of grief, anger, joy and so on. So my pick for best picture is without a doubt “Her”. It’s a such a shame it won’t win, for whatever reason.
2012 was the most contested year for Best Picture since 2008 (Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader). Golden Globe winner Argo is a far-fetched reality of the unusual escape of American hostages in Iran, 1980 and takes such creative liberties as downplaying Canada’s essential role. Les Misérables is a tear-inducing musical spectacle. Lincoln, a favourite, is a rhetorical masterpiece of an inspiring politician unseen in today’s political climate. Life of Pi and Beasts of a Southern Wild are beautiful movies set on rafts and islands. Django Unchained won’t win but is exceptionally fun to watch. Amour, a story on the loss of faculties in old age, reignites France’s leading role in the industry. And finally, my favourite, Zero Dark Thirty, retells the capture of Osama Bin Laden. This quick-moving, politically relevant and heart-wrenching movie improves on last year’s winner, The Hurt Locker. And I did not watch Silver Lining Playbook, but that’s okay because it won’t win.