So the Oscars are over, and you’re wondering if you should actually go back and watch the films you missed?
Many film lovers go through this every year, and they end up turning to the Biggest Oscar Nerd They Know for advice on what to see. I’m proud to say that in my circle of acquaintances, this title goes to me. Every year, I make a goal of watching every single Oscar-nominated film. I drag family members to obscure or depressing movies they’d really prefer to pay not to watch. When some of the films turn out to be in French (read: Two Days One Night) they give me dirty looks that fortunately I’m prevented from seeing, because the theater is dark. I shell out over $200 for movie tickets in order to spend most of the beginning of the year actively ruining my social life by sitting in a dark theater not communicating with anyone. And … I love it. The lights dim, the music begins, you sink down in the faded red velvet of your seat and abandon yourself utterly to the story.
But for those who don’t have tons of spare time for abandoning themselves to stories, here is my brief summary of whether or not to see the eight films nominated for Best Picture this year.
AMERICAN SNIPER: Watch it if …
You get inspired by really good shooting and/or acting and/or sobbing, and if you don’t mind seeing a very one-sided portrayal of the Iraq War.
The person doing the really good shooting is Chris Kyle, former Navy SEAL. The person doing the really good acting is Bradley Cooper, as Chris Kyle. The person doing the really good sobbing is Sienna Miller, as Chris Kyle’s wife … who to be fair, doesn’t have a whole lot else to do in this script, which utterly fails the Bechdel Test.
(What is the Bechdel Test? A test created by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985, asking whether for any given film there is at least ONE sixty-second conversation between two named female characters, that isn’t about a man … It’s a little disturbing how many films fail this test.)
The thing that bothered me about this film is how the Iraq War is portrayed. We see every psychological detail of what the American soldiers are going through, but all we see of the Iraqis are people running around trying to murder American soldiers, also randomly keeping supplies of severed heads sitting around on shelves in their dining rooms. I don’t like films in which the bad guys are bad merely for the sake of being bad, especially when those “bad guys” are based on real people. Nothing in life is that un-complex. To be fair, there’s an argument to be made that it’s okay to portray the war this way, since the film is from Chris Kyle’s point of view. In that case, however, I’m not terribly impressed with Chris Kyle … and since the film glorifies him in every way, it leaves me feeling lukewarm.
That said, I have to admit that the film is well executed, has some good shooting, some exciting war scenes, and tells a classic American hero tale (so long as you buy into this type of hero). I’m guessing that’s what accounts for it’s phenomenal box office performance. (It grossed more than all the other best picture nominees added together.) So check it out if these things appeal.
Summary-in-Brief: The life of Chris Kyle, famed American sniper.
Great Performance: Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle.
BIRDMAN: Watch it if …
You want to see the film that ultimately won Best Picture, or if you’re a fan of reallyreallyreally long takes (shots without any breaks between them), jazzy drumbeats, and/or aging actors who can’t play superheroes anymore.
I personally am not a fan of the last three, so I did not find this film particularly interesting. But it screams “well-executed” at every turn. It’s smooth, it’s classy, it’s sophisticated … like a handsome model so intensely aware of his own good looks that he can’t help glancing over his shoulder at the mirror every five minutes. This is part of the reason I had some trouble getting into it. It IS well executed … and it knows it. It calls your attention to its own sophistication so frequently that it’s hard to get lost in the story.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Debatable. There’s one scene where two women talk to each other about something that’s (sort of) unrelated to men. Then they start making out. (This type of scene screams “male filmmaker.”)
All this said, I don’t deny that the film is well done. I enjoyed the flights of magical realism where Birdman really does appear, and the fact that Michael Keaton (formerly Batman) plays the aging superhero. Overall, however, I don’t have much sympathy for a former superhero who is sad because he’s no longer world famous and can’t fit into his birdman costume anymore. (I can see why Hollywood would sympathize with it though.)
Summary-in-Brief: Trying to reinvent himself, an aging actor struggles to put on a Broadway play.
Great Performance: I wasn’t blown away by any of the performances, but if I had to choose one I’d choose Emma Stone, as Michael Keaton’s rebellious daughter.
BOYHOOD: Watch it if …
You want to see what all these film critics have been raving about for the past eight months--
And then ultimately discover that they’ve been raving because of a number: 12. As in, the film was shot over the course of twelve years. Yes, this is an interesting cinematic achievement. It testifies to great determination and patience on behalf of the filmmakers (and makes you wonder what kind of contracts they got their cast to sign). It also gives interesting insight into how really adorable child actors can morph into intensely irritating, ghastly teenagers. (Which makes one re-think parenthood as well as boyhood.) But does it necessarily qualify a film as great?
If a science experiment was conducted over the course of twelve years and then, ultimately, failed, would it be considered great?
I’m not saying that the film failed. It was fine. The plot rambles a bit, but it’s sort of interesting to watch the characters evolve. There are good performances from Patricia Arquette (who won for Best Supporting Actress) and Ethan Hawke (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor). But “fine” does not qualify a film as “great.” So although Birdman was not my favorite film ever, I do think it was more deserving than Boyhood, which many predicted would win Best Picture. Shooting the same story over the course of 12 years without changing actors is interesting, but not phenomenal. (And Harry Potter practically did the same thing.)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Yes, easily. So there’s a point in its favor.
Summary-in-Brief: A boy grows up. (Slowly.)
Great Performance: Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are both good as the boy’s parents.
GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: Watch it if …
you absolutely adore Wes Anderson. If, in the past, you have not been a huge Wes Anderson fan, do not watch this film.
I may get tarred and feathered by the Wes Anderson cult for saying this, but the truth as I see it must be told, so here goes …
This film is successful on several levels. Like all Wes Anderson’s films, any single frame of it could be frozen, framed, and preserved on the wall as a charming work of art. The costumes, scenery and cinematography are, as usual, delightful. It deservedly won for Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, and Best Makeup & Hairstyling. Also, the humor is charmingly quirky, and I was delighted to see an appearance from F. Murray Abraham. (Whom I’ve loved ever since Amadeus.)
But to me, STORY is what makes a great film. This film lacks an interesting story. It feels like we skim over the surface of a quirky, brightly colored, charmingly peculiar world, like a water bug dancing over a reflected rainbow … and never get into the rainbow itself. That is, we never meet a single character or plot twist we care about.
Now, I have to admit that there’s something about Wes Anderson that I personally do not get. If everyone felt like me, everyone would fall asleep after the tenth missed opportunity for an interesting plot development, and this film would never have been nominated. But surely even Wes Anderson fans can admit that this is not one of his greater films. Royal Tenenbaums? Maybe. Grand Budapest? No.
That said, perhaps Anderson deserved his Best Director nod. If you can hone an art form until audiences can immediately identify your work just by glancing at any single frame, surely you are breaking grounds as an artist, and deserve recognition in your field. Just not in the Best Picture category.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Let’s see … are there any women in this film? Oh yes, looking back there’s at least one important female character who is vital to the plot, but she spends most of the movie being dead.
Summary-in-Brief: A hotel owner and his trusted lobby boy have adventures involving a painting inherited from a rich old woman.
Great Performance: The acting is solid, but no outstanding performances.
IMITATION GAME: Watch it if…
You want to see a really good actor or if … if …
Um, sorry, but what exactly was great about this movie other than the amazing performance by Benedict Cumberbatch? He definitely deserved his Best Actor nomination, but in my opinion, a great acting performance alone does not a Best Picture nominee make. I would have nominated Foxcatcher, Wild or Gone Girl over this. (Or better yet, lopped off the bottom three films and gone back to the days when the Oscars did not choose to water themselves down by allowing more than five nominations.)
Imitation Game is the story of Alan Turing, the mathematician who cracked the enigma code and helped win World War II … and was later castrated by the homophobic British government for his efforts. It’s an extremely interesting, true story.
So here’s my question. If a film takes an extremely interesting, true story, and tells it in a mediocre way, does that make the film good?
Imitation Game is incredibly formulaic and predictable. (Gee, I wonder who the Russian spy is?) And although I usually love Keira Knightley, she doesn’t have anything to do in this film other than smile and jut out her collarbones. (And mispronounce Euler’s Formula, which is just irritating. If you’re going to get a Best Actress nomination for playing a mathematical genius, you should at least pronounce your math theories right … unless you have a lisp or a speech impediment. Which many mathematicians do. So hmm, let me rethink that …)
The film fails the Bechdel Test because (in a traditionally formulaic, Male Hero Story way) there are hardly any female characters other than the love interest, who understandably can’t have a conversation with another woman if there are no other women around to talk to.
Should you watch this film? Actually, yes. It’s worth watching just because of the historical facts and Cumberbatch’s performance. But it doesn’t deserve a Best Picture nomination.
Summary-in-Brief: The fascinating story of mathematician Alan Turing, told in a mediocre way.
Great Performance: Benedict Cumberbatch, who is the only mind-blowing thing about this movie.
SELMA: Watch it if …
You want to see an excellent film that should have been nominated for Best Director, with an interesting glimpse into the life and character of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’ll admit it. When I heard this movie was about the Civil Rights movement, I was concerned that it was nominated merely because of its subject material, rather than because the film itself was particularly good.
But this film is excellent in its own right, and delves into a fascinating period in history. It has great story and execution, a balanced and thoughtful take on race, and ended up being one of my favorites among this year’s nominees.
Does the film pass the Bechdel Test? Yes … barely. It’s mostly about male civil rights leaders, but there are some strong female characters who don’t talk much, and one or two conversations that pass. How does the film treat women in general? Apparently, better than MLK did. (How many times do I have to suffer through the discovery that a historical hero I’m inclined to admire cheated on his wife? Surely, among other adjectives, this move can be described as “unintelligent”. How did MLK think it would play out in history when he knew he was being recorded by the FBI?)
However, David Oyelowo’s sensitive and stirring performance reveals Martin Luther King, Jr. as a fallible human being, as well as a heroic Civil Rights leader … and in a way this helps make the story all the more interesting.
Summary-in-Brief: MLK, Jr.’s epic march from Selma to Montgomery. (If for no other reason, check it out because this March was the 50th anniversary of this major historical event.)
Great Performance: David Oyelowo probably should have received a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of MLK. (This would also have helped do something about the fact that all twenty of this year’s acting nominees were white.)
THEORY OF EVERYTHING: Watch it if …
(a) you want to see an excellent, inspiring film and (b) you don’t mind coming out of the theater with suspiciously puffy eyes.
I do not usually cry in movie theaters. So I found it extremely irritating when I heard loud sniffs during this film, and extremely embarrassing that the sniffs were coming from me.
This is a story about an inspiring individual, Stephen Hawking, who overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to become the most celebrated physicist in the world. Eddie Redmayne’s performance is as touching and sweet as his Oscar acceptance speech was. The characters and situations are handled with great delicacy and love by the filmmakers. You can’t help sympathizing with everyone, even when their interests are opposed.
Also, it isn’t the kind of “sad” movie that leaves you utterly crushed at the end. The sadness is more in the middle, when you have to watch a healthy, happy person deteriorate, with doctors telling him he will die in the next few years. (Plot spoiler: he doesn’t. Which can be determined if one considers the fact that Stephen Hawking is still alive.)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Not really. Felicity Jones is marvelous as Hawking’s wife Jane, in an interesting portrayal of a marriage that somehow succeeds even when it fails, but she’s primarily concerned with her family and relationships. She has two short conversations (with her mother and mother-in-law) that might pass, except that neither mother is named during the film.
Summary-in-Brief: Stephen Hawking and his wife battle his diagnosis with ALS.
Great Performance: Eddie Redmayne deservedly won Best Actor for this film, just barely (in my opinion) outdoing Steve Carell’s amazing transformation in Foxcatcher.
WHIPLASH: Watch it if …
You want to see a film that is gripping, unusual and extremely creative and if (because it is gripping, unusual and extremely creative) you can forgive it for utterly failing the Bechdel Test.
This film was (drumroll please …) my favorite film of the year. What makes a film great? Everyone has different theories about this, but mine can be summarized in one word: story. Is the story interesting and captivating at every moment? Are the characters fascinating and developed? And then, beyond that … is it a little different from what we’ve seen before? Does it have the ability to surprise?
Whiplash passes all of these tests, so by my definition, it is a great film. What it fails to pass is the Bechdel Test. Other than the flirtatious popcorn selling love interest who gets dumped because she’s distracting the male lead from more important matters (just how every woman dreams of being characterized) there are almost no women in the film at all. It’s one of those peculiar movies that, if watched by an alien as an example of life on Earth, might lead said alien to believe that Earth is populated by men only, and that the occasional females who do pop up from time to time are just rare, deviant forms of the species, kind of like that albino alligator at the California Academy of Sciences.
On the whole, whether a film passes the Bechdel Test is important to me, but it does not define whether a film is good or not, so Whiplash gets top ratings.
Summary-in-Brief: An aspiring musician gets psychologically pounded by his semi-psychotic drum teacher.
Great Performance: J.K. Simmons, who won Best Supporting Actor as the semi-psychotic drum teacher.
And … The Scalise Overall Ranking of the 2015 Best Picture Nominees:
3. Theory of Everything
And, since I strongly believe that there should only be 5 nominees,
I contend that the following should not have been nominated …
6. Imitation Game
7. American Sniper
8. Grand Budapest Hotel