Oscar Spotlight: The Contenders

With Oscars 2015 this weekend, we take a look back on all the Best Picture nominees and what they brought to cinema last year.

And it’s here: Oscar weekend. After an awards season that has gone on for two months, but feeling closer to two decades, the finish line is not only in sight, but undereneath our feet.

Also, the eight contenders for Best Pictures—as well as other major categories—genuinely do include some of the most unique and impressive achievements made in film in 2014 (as well as some of the most overly appreciated). So join us as we look back with a retrospective on the nominees.

Boyhood

The Richard Linklater opus to childhood took 12 years to make, and it has been rewarded with an almost as impressive six Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. Below are some of our thoughts on the film upon its July 2014 release, as well as how the soundtrack, and the overall picture are still remarkable months later as one of the year’s best.

Boyhood Review

All that aside, however, Boyhood is cumulatively – like, hopefully, life itself – a rich, rewarding and moving experience. Many of us have gone through or are going through the very same things that Mason Jr., his sister and their parents deal with, but we almost never get to stop and look at ourselves while it’s happening. Watching the kids in the movie grow up and seeing their parents age as the currents of time push them ceaselessly along is both epic and profound. Kudos to the four principal actors for allowing themselves to be chronicled in this way, for rising to the challenge and delivering fantastic performances. The highest acclaim must go to Linklater, an often daring filmmaker who never makes the same movie twice and who is among our best at charting the way human beings move through life. Boyhood, sometimes just as messy and off-balance as the lives it documents, may be his finest achievement yet… Read more by clicking here.

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Boy-Hood: Remembering the Boyhood Soundtrack

Mason’s ascent to the point where “boyhood ends and adulthood begins” as Linklater describes it in a DVD featurette, is a loose adaptation of the director’s own childhood. What caught us was not the malleable character arc that could hook in anyone who took a little time to find themselves as a kid, but the odes to our era through the music selection. Boyhood’s soundtrack–though lacking the enigmatic fullness of a Hans Zimmer score–is as essential to moving the film’s plot along as any absentee father or degree-waving mother or grateful former yard worker… Read more by clicking here.

Top 25 Indie Movies of 2014

Linklater’s ambitious project — filming the life of a boy at yearly intervals as he ages from six to 18 — is stunning in its overall success and often profoundly poignant in showing both the passage of time and the simple, mundane ups and downs of everyday life. As the boy’s parents, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette drop all artistic vanity and let themselves age onscreen alongside their fictional son, resulting in two of their most vulnerable performances… Read more by clicking here.

Birdman

Birdman is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fever dream about the war between art and commerce, told with a seamless visual illusion worthy of Hitchcock. It netted nine Oscar nominations of its own, including for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography.

Birdman Review

In a moviegoing season increasingly scattered with self-aware metafictions about the art of storytelling, and its mingling with sordid monetary pursuits,Birdman stands apart as a true original. This twistedly sentient flight of fancy is not a meditation on the artist, but a primal screech to be heard and accounted for—a guttural cry of defiance against any that would attempt to quantify or qualify the need to create (and be admired for it). That it comes in the shape of Michael Keaton wearing a Birdman costume makes it all the louder in its endless reverberation…Read more by clicking here.

Explaining the Birdman Ending

So did Riggan fly? I think not. While there is intentionally no clear cut answer, I contend that by accessing Alejandro González Iñárritu’s presentation of the supposed magic realism, as well as Riggan’s internal conflict, we will find that there was no place left for him to go but down….Read more by clicking here.

Top 10 Films of 2014

Paradoxically loving and hating the unending war of commerce and art in filmmaking (or theater), Iñárritu casts several superhero movie actors (Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone) in some of their best roles in order to reject “apocalypse porn” despite spending millions to showcase it. Birdman is a flight of magical realism without rules, gleefully defying logic, structure, its own narrative, and even criticism. It says popularity is “prestige’s slutty little cousin” but it is basking in having all of the above. It is such a uniquely bizarre experience that to define it feels as if one is playing into Iñárritu’s lovingly contemptible caricatures. Instead, it’s best to just get lost in the madness of the year’s most fascinating film…Read more by clicking here.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel is easily Wes Anderson’s most ambitious film to date, mixing his quirky comedic sensibility with an intricate, rip-roaring plot taken straight from the Alfred Hitchcock playbook. But most of all, it represents both Anderson’s quixotic attempt at world-building while also underlining the tragedy of reality, which is constantly threatening the artifice with a European brutality that is decidedly not amusing. The Grand Budapest Hotel was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design.

The Grand Budapest Hotel Review

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a cinematic confection so sumptuously decadent that, like the titular resort, it must be savored and dined within repeatedly. Exceedingly gracious, Anderson throws out the most inviting red carpet and exquisite beguilements with his reliable repertory of A-list talent. Yet, there is something haunted waiting in the wings about the stately affair; the Matryoshka doll-like narrative, maintaining the expected hilarity associated with its auteur, ultimately reveals a darker element to the splendor…Read more by clicking here.

Interview with Wes Anderson

Stefan Zweig killed himself because of depression over fascism. Did that somewhat influence the [tone] of this movie?

Wes Anderson: Yes it did. I think it did, yeah. And it’s another one of those things where I was sort of thinking of it later. I was saying, “Well, why did I do this? Well, I think I did it because of this.” I don’t really like to define these things in the beginning, and it sort of helps me to have conversations like this, and I can say, “Yeah, I understand the movie better now.” [Laughs]….Read more by clicking here.

Interview with Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori

At one point in the film, Zero says about M. Gustave that he’s from an era that could not exist with fascism. He’s from a past era. Did you take any of that as a basis on your character? Did you talk with Wes about if there was a time when Gustave would not stand out so much or was he always just a character of his own eccentricities?

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Ralph Fiennes: Oh, that’s a good question. I think Gustave, in his head, he doesn’t feel out of time. But he sees things changing, doesn’t he? He realizes that he’s probably fighting a sort of rearguard action against the brutalizing forces of a modern world, particularly and obviously, fascism. But I think those forces have always been there…Read more by clicking here.

Whiplash

Whiplash was the surprise film festival darling of all 2014, making the art of jazz drumming a contact sport and introducing J.K. Simmons as one of cinema’s new great villains: a music instructor who could be mistaken for a Vietnam era drill sergeant. Whiplash was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.

Whiplash Review

But throughout Whiplash, he balances on a line of sheepish insecurity and determined passion. You fear for him across every frame, not matter which state of mind he inhabits. A rock drummer himself, Teller suffering behind the kit brims with power and realism. This performance makes me excited for what Teller may produce in the future, and coming from me, that is a huge seal of approval…Read more by clicking here.

Top 10 Films of 2014

This movie lit me up both times I saw it and has stayed with me ever since. Writer/director Damien Chazelle makes his film move to the rhythms of its great jazz soundtrack and captures all the chaos and beauty within the art form as he explores the mutually destructive relationship between an ambitious drumming student (Miles Teller) and his monstrous teacher (J.K. Simmons). Both are fantastic but Simmons is simply unbelievable in his ferocity. The movie asks whether the ends justified the means when it comes to art and talent – and if this movie is a result of that, then I’ve got my answer…Read more by clicking here.

Interview with Whiplash Director Damien Chazelle

What I love about the movie is there’s no redemptive arc for either of them. They’re both willing to fuck each other over right till the very end, which is part what makes this so different from the kind of “mentor” movie that you’re talking about.

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Damien Chazelle: I love the way you put that. I love movies like that. It’s very kind of actor-based, is the crass way of putting it. Because as an actor what you care about is, “What’s my motivation in the scene,” right? That’s the cliché sort of thing. And conflict arises from your motivation contradicting another actor’s motivation. So if you build an entire movie about the two most motivated people on the planet, that was kind of where it started. You can’t imagine people more motivated in their perspective pursuits than Fletcher and Andrew. It just doesn’t exist. So put those two people in a room, it’s like putting two rabid dogs into a cage. It’s like watching a dog fight. So it’s horrible and terrifying but because it’s Miles and J.K. they’re somehow able to humanize these people so that you somehow can feel for them in some way…Read more by clicking here.

American Sniper

The most financially successful Best Picture nominee at this year’s Oscars is also one of the most controversial. American Sniper has been accused of being everything from patriotic to propaganda. We try to thread the needle below for this film, which was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay, among several other nods.

American Sniper Review

There are video clips showing the vast turnout for the real Kyle’s funeral (which took place earlier this year), which leads us to wonder why and how all these people had this attachment to him. I would like to see the story of a man who became a killing machine for his country – saving the lives of untold numbers of American soldiers in the process – how that affected him, how he overcame it, and how, in the form of another wounded warrior, that war came back to eventually claim him anyway. But American Sniper is sadly not that movie….Read more by clicking here.

Examining American Sniper’s Breakthrough Success

By contrast to his Iwo Jima films, the overall tone of American Sniper feels like something of a throwback to a period of Hollywood before Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. It’s a film that amps up the heroism and underplays the post-traumatic stress disorder that dogged Kyle after his tour of duty. All of which leads to American Sniper feeling like a more upbeat war movie than audiences are used to seeing, especially about such a recent conflict. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker took Best Picture back in February 2010, but her follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty, came in for criticism for its depiction of American culpability in the war. Between that and the success of a contemporaneous true story movie Lone Survivor, which also did big business in the States last January, it seems that audiences are ready to see a more inspiring take on the War on Terror…Read more by clicking here.

Selma Review

It might be too easy to draw parallels between the far more incredulous and nightmarish times of 1960s Alabama with what is occurring in the U.S. today. However, the coincidental intersection of history—both what we’re living and what we’re remembering—has an undeniable brush of providence. It’s inescapable for once it does come time for the crimson to flow on Bloody Sunday, or for when Alabama State Troopers execute Jimmie Lee Jackson after simply exercising his right to organize in Selma, the blood will also be flowing, and boiling, and stirring to action in every audience member in every theater throughout the country…Read more by clicking here.

The Imitation Game Review

It’s hard in some ways to criticize The Imitation Game too harshly; it’s well-made, nicely shot and handsomely mounted on the production, set, and costume fronts. It’s entertaining and interesting, especially if you go into it knowing nothing at all about Turing or the British efforts to break those German codes and the stakes involved. But it’s all so stately and proper, and there’s so much more of the story that is not told thatThe Imitation Game (which refers to a test Turing came up with to determine the sophistication of artificial intelligence) lives up to its title, giving us a facsimile of Turing’s story but never delving too deeply to find the real man….Read more by clicking here.

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The Theory of Everything Review

The best thing about The Theory of Everything – and why it sets itself apart from most biopics – is that the central relationship at the spine of the story is never allowed to become treacly or simply turned into the cinematic equivalent of a flawless, characterless piece of statuary, meant to be adored but never really felt. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten delves into the messier aspects of Stephen and Jane’s decades-long marriage, with his script and Marsh’s direction never rendering judgment upon either. The two emerge as neither heroes or villains – but as real human beings who feel and experience things whether they want to or not….Read more by clicking here.