• Melissa

Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 17

I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.


PART 17: 2015


MOVIES:

  • The Imitation Game

  • American Sniper

  • Selma

  • Boyhood

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel

  • Whiplash

  • The Theory of Everything

  • Birdman (winner)

THOUGHTS:

The Imitation Game: Can machines think? It’s an interesting question, especially in today’s age of algorithms, codes, cookies and tracking devices. Computers know our shopping patterns, GPS devices know our favorite restaurants, even our social media apps know what to show us based on our search history, location and friend group. But can they mirror the human brain, using deductive reasoning and logic to solve problems?


That’s the question at the heart of The Imitation Game, a thrilling biopic about Alan Turing, the man who would give birth to the computer age. The title is from a paper he wrote analyzing the differences between men and machines; however, there are times in this movie when he seems one and the same.


It seems fitting that a movie about solving puzzles would essentially be set up like one. Made up of three distinct storylines in the life of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), The Imitation Game starts off in 1951, with a detective investigating a burglary at Turing’s home. From here, it flashes back 1939 – when Turing was brought on to crack the German encryption device, Enigma – and 1928, when Turing developed an intimate friendship with a fellow schoolmate named Christopher.


Most of the film takes place in the 1939 timeline, beginning with Turing’s recruitment to Bletchley Park. Here he joins forces with a team of like-minded problem solvers as they try to break Enigma with its 150 TRILLION possible combinations. Naturally it doesn’t take long for Turing to realize that maybe the best way to beat a machine is with another machine…

And thus, The Turing Machine, nicknamed Christopher after his childhood crush, is born. Though Turing has an entire team of brainiacs at his disposal, he prefers to build Christopher on his own. He doesn’t know how to make small talk, he doesn’t get jokes and he gets frustrated when people don’t say what they actually mean. Today we might call this autism or Asperger’s, but back then, he was just deemed “an odd duck”.


Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the sole woman on the team, takes pity on Turing and the two become friends. Each an outcast in their own right, the two make a poignant pair and even get engaged, despite the fact that Turing is, in fact, a homosexual.

But with Joan at his side, Turing learns how to decode the basic signals of human interaction. And when the inevitable ‘eureka moment’ comes and Enigma is cracked, the team lets bygones be bygones; however, their success is bittersweet. After having made the greatest breakthrough of World War II, they must now keep it hidden, so as to prevent Germany from discovering their secret. This means they are now charged with determining what decoded messages can be acted upon and what must be left to play out – it’s a “blood-soaked calculus” that means sacrificing some lives in the name of saving others.


As Alan Turing, Benedict Cumberbatch is a complex equation, himself an enigma of sorts. He brings to life a man who is ostracized for his behavior, his sexual preference, his intelligence. The bullying he suffers as a child almost justifies the pleasure he takes in managing his team with an iron fist…and his emotional reticence certainly stems from having to hide his homosexuality from nearly everyone (at this time, it was still illegal to be a homosexual in Britain).


And speaking of, Alex Lawther – who plays the younger Alan Turing – was near brilliant in this film, paving the way for Cumberbatch’s tortured performance. I actually found myself enjoying and wanting more of this timeline than any of the others.

The Imitation Game was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning one – Best Adapted Screenplay. It grossed more than $233 million worldwide on a $14 million budget, making it the highest-grossing independent film of 2014.


By 1951, Turing was reduced to a Gollum-like creature, having been subjected to chemical castration to “cure him of his criminal affliction”. By 1954, he would be dead, having taken his own life by consuming a poisoned apple.


Turing’s precious Christopher – with venomous wires mirroring the pathways of his own mind – was instrumental in the allies winning the war. It’s said to have shaved at least 2 years off of World War II – saving millions of lives – and was the grandfather to the computer we know and use today. Could anyone have imagined that of this “odd duck”? Probably not. But as the movie quotes at least thrice: “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one imagines.”

American Sniper: Ugh. Is it unpatriotic to not like this movie?


Starring Bradley Cooper as the late Chris Kyle, American Sniper felt like a neatly wrapped package for those gun-toting, flag-waving, God-fearing people who probably saw this in the theater and stood up and cheered after Kyle shot each and every Iraqi man, woman and child. Granted, that’s about what I expected from Clint Eastwood. In his hands, this killer with a heart of gold is portrayed as nothing more than a man sacrificing everything for the country he loves, but the real story, the deeper, darker story, goes unexplored – much to the film’s detriment.


American Sniper begins with Chris Kyle on the roof of a Fallujah building, an Iraqi woman and child in the scope of his rifle. From here, we flash back to Chis as a kid, dealing with an abusive father who used violence as a teaching tool. We watch Chris as he struggles through basic training, dances at his wedding, and experiences the cultural shift that stems from the 9/11 attacks. However, most of the film is dedicated to Chris’s four tours in Iraq, where he participates in two major hunts: one for the lieutenant of al-Quaeda, known as “the butcher of Fallujah”, and the other for his rival, the sniper named Mustafa.

As a sniper, Chris was obviously gifted. Dubbed “The Legend” by his squad, Chris Kyle was the most lethal sniper in American military history, racking up 160 confirmed kills and nearly 100 more unverified ones. Moreover, he was a true believer that what he was doing was right. This “savior complex” begins to bleed into his personal life, affecting his relationships with his wife and kids in ways that can’t help but be unsettling.


Like many men and women before him, Chris seems unable to separate life at home from life at war. He even bears paint from training on his neck during his wedding day. By his third and fourth tours, Chris is showing signs of depression and PTSD, but American Sniper is less interested in pursuing that than in telling a good war story.


And that is my main beef with this film – Eastwood doesn’t get under Chris’s skin. He just lingers safely on the surface, providing little in the way of complexity or fault. To his credit, Bradley Cooper does what he can to make the audience feel ambiguous about whether or not Chris is actually heroic in his actions, but the whole thing just falls short of making me care for this guy. In the hands of Eastwood, Chris is just a collection of patriotic values rather than a 3-D person with real problems and issues.

Ultimately what rescues Chris from his inner demons is being able to work with wounded veterans, those injured both physically and mentally by war. Ironically, it would be one of these veterans who would kill Chris in an act of rage, shooting him at a gun range in Texas. While Eastwood tiptoes around this, he doesn’t quite have the courage to jump into the dark, to give us that tragic, eerie commentary on violence in our society and our ignorance of mental health problems.


The film ends with actual footage of Chris Kyle’s funeral procession, streets lined with thousands of people, all bleeding red, white and blue. Veterans stand saluting, people hold signs proclaiming “God. Family. Country” and other patriotic garble. It’s moving, sure, but tends to glorify this man just a little too much, especially after watching him kill 160 people for the last couple hours.


When all’s said and done, people will take what they want to take from American Sniper, and that’s fine. For me, this sniper movie just missed the mark.

Selma: In his famed “We Shall Overcome” speech, President Johnson proclaimed, “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is only an American problem.” In a perfect world, Selma would be a time capsule of days long gone, an era that ended with the promise that the horrors of racial intolerance and bigotry would no longer be tolerated. Instead, it serves as a solemn reminder that the “American problem” has yet to be solved.


Starring David Oyelowo in what should have been an Oscar-nominated performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Selma takes place two years after his “I Have a Dream” Speech and three years before his murder in 1968. It centers on the three right-to-vote marches that took place in Selma, Alabama.


We first meet MLK in Oslo, where he’s preparing to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. As he looks at himself in the mirror, he struggles with his “high on the hog” appearance, believing he’s too well-dressed to be relatable with his comrades back home. This, as it turns out, is a running theme throughout the movie – King is a man who never, ever stops thinking about the politics of how things appear.


When he arrives back in the US, MLK makes a commitment to make black voting rights his next passion project. Though African Americans were granted the right to vote in the Civil Rights Act, racist state leaders in the south are still denying them the privilege. We witness this first-hand as Selma resident Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) attempts to register to vote, but is denied because she can’t answer the required questions (these included reciting the Preamble to the Constitution and naming her state legislators, two things most Americans couldn’t do even today).

MLK meets with President L.B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to discuss next steps; however, ol’ LBJ has more pressing issues. His current battle involves the War on Poverty and he tells MLK to “just wait for the right time”.


Unable to inspire change from the top down, MLK decides on a bottom-up approach. With a 50% African American population, only 2% of which had voting rights, MLK takes his fight to Selma, Alabama. With a racist country sheriff and a town full of bigoted people, MLK believed this was the perfect location to stage his battleground.


As you might expect, MLK’s arrival in Selma is not exactly a welcoming one. After checking in at a local hotel, he is punched in the face by a racist white manager. As a viewer, you can’t help but recoil at the act, but it’s just what Dr. King and his people are looking for. Racist brutality isn’t what they’re seeking to avoid; it’s what they’re seeking to display. It would be here where MLK would stage three separate marches from Selma to Montgomery. Some are bloody, some are peaceful, but they all have just the right effect: reveal to the nation, via the news media, what really happens when black people in the deep south attempt to vote. Show the country an image of itself that it could not bear to see.

Directed by Ava DuVernay (who also failed to get a much-earned Oscar nomination), Selma is not one man’s story, it’s a movement’s story. It explores multiple points of view, not just between King and his adversaries, but amongst members of the black community. Not all leaders, no matter how glorified they may be in our text books, make the right decision all the time…and DuVernay does a wonderful job of portraying a man who is powerful, yes, but flawed as well. This not only adds a layer of realism to Dr. King, it humanizes him.


If King had not been assassinated in 1968, he’s be 91 today, most likely still speaking on behalf of his people. What would he say about all the wrongful death, about Black Lives Matter, about the racism that still plagues this country? In a way, we already know – because he said it more than 50 years ago after stepping foot in Montgomery. From the top of the hill of progress, it’s just as easy to slide down backwards as it is to move forward. The time for change is now. It’s always now. Truth will march on.

Boyhood: Watching celebrities age in movies and TV shows is hardly anything new. The 1960s generation saw Ron Howard do it in The Andy Griffith Show. The millennial generation grew up with Daniel Radcliffe in the Harry Potter franchise. Brothers Fred and Ben Savage even put their childhoods in the public eye in their respective dramas: The Wonder Years and Boy Meets World. Throughout the duration of these franchises, we watch these characters fall in love, graduate high school, sometimes even get married. Risks are taken, rules are broken, lessons are learned. It’s all par for the course for coming-of-age stories…but no movie or TV show has done it quite like Boyhood.


Filmed over the course of 12 years (from 2001 to 2013), Boyhood has a simple plot; a boy grows up. Both children of divorce, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) live with their mom, Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is a weekend visitor, but certainly committed to seeing his kids. Throughout the movie, we see this family grow and age. As Olivia and Mason Sr. chart life as divorced parents, Mason Jr. and Samantha go to school, make friends, get bullied and fall in love.

Now, this being a coming-of-age drama, you might expect to see certain things: the first kiss, the first breakup, the loss of virginity…but notably the film skips over all of this. Boyhood is less interested in the typical milestones of life and more interested in the minutiae that come before and after. After all, the seminal moments in our lives are often the unexpected ones…and never has ordinary looked so extraordinary.


Though more than 160 minutes in length, this movie felt very quiet and intimate, like flipping through a photo album. It’s broken into dramatic episodes, with about 10 to 15 minutes spent in each year. There are no time stamps telling us where we are in time, we’re left to figure that out for ourselves based on character conversations, background music and evolving wardrobes and haircuts. There are also monumental events (like the release of the sixth Harry Potter book, the Obama-McCain race and the Iraq war) that help ground us in time.


The first time we see Mason, he’s lying on his back in the green grass, staring up at the sky. There is no speaking and no narration, so it’s impossible to know what’s going on in his little head. However, we as the viewers can’t help but feel a sense of fleeting existence. These precious days of making shapes with the clouds are never long enough.


The last time we see Mason, he’s beginning his freshman year of college, yet he still has a sense of wonderment about him (only this time it’s brought on by psychedelic mushrooms). It’s a beautiful mirror image that speaks to one of the main themes of Boyhood: we’re all just trying to figure it out.

Naturally the other main theme here, and in most coming-of-age stories, is time. How we’re overmatched and worn down by it, how it seems like forever when we’re young but is so fleeting as we age. In his casting and storytelling, director Richard Linklater brings beautiful authenticity to that and, in the most bittersweet way, reminds us how little time we actually have.


Though nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and many more, Boyhood would only take home one award – a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Patricia Arquette. Ethan Hawke also lost his Best Supporting Actor nomination to J.K. Simmons for Whiplash.


In the end, you don’t have to be a parent to appreciate Boyhood, nor do you have to be a boy. You just have to be human. After all, it’s often the simplest stories that are the most relatable – and Boyhood is no different. And just like Kevin Arnold, Opie Taylor, Cory Matthews, and yes, Harry Potter, we’re all just taking it one day, one struggle, one moment, at a time.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson doesn’t just direct movies, he builds beautiful, new worlds, each meticulously designed from top to bottom. His brain must be something out of Willie Wonka, an overflowing treasure chest of whimsical blueprints, cartoonish characters and storybook lands. To watch a Wes Anderson movie is an experience, combining bright color palettes, distinct camerawork and stories completely enveloped in nostalgia. And The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s only film (so far) to score a Best Picture nomination, is no exception.


From the outside, this luxurious establishment looks like a combination of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining and a bright, pink birthday cake, delectable enough to devour. On the inside, large, cathedral ceilings, grand staircases, lavish chandeliers and classic Anderson wallpaper give way to an interior one might expect a young child to create. It is, in a word, whimsy.

As for the actual plot, that’s a little more complicated. This elaborate tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale begins with a woman, presumably in present day, gazing at the statue of a famous author, whose book she carries. We then cut to the author (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985, who immediately takes us back to his younger self (Jude Law) in 1968, visiting the Grand Budapest well past its glory days. While visiting the hotel, he meets Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who brings us back in time, yet again, to 1932, when his 17-year-old self (Tony Revolori) gets hired on as a lobby boy under the direction of one Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). And it’s here where The Grand Budapest Hotel really begins.


In its prime, The Grand Budapest Hotel entertained plenty of wealthy patrons, many of which were elderly women who found themselves returning year after year for one thing: the intimate companionship of one Gustave H., concierge extraordinaire. When one bejeweled octogenarian named Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) suddenly dies, she leaves a priceless painting titled “Boy with Apple” to her beloved Gustave. This action sets off two oppressive forces in his direction: one being a skeptical policeman (Edward Norton) who believes Gustave murdered Madame D., and the other being Madame D.’s son, Dmitry (Adrian Brody) who works with hitman Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to take ownership of the painting – using whatever means necessary.

As chaos ensues, Gustave never looses his cool, working closely with his young protégé, Zero, who somehow got caught up in all this mess. The rest of the film is a cartoon farce, complete with prison escapes and chases via trains, motorcycles, skis and sleds, all set against the colorful and confectionary world of Wes Anderson.


And not unlike Rushmore, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, the humor in this movie comes from excellent pacing, writing and casting. Up until this point, I was so used to seeing Ralph Fiennes play tortured, evil characters that it was a welcome surprise to see him in such a comedic role. The paradox of Gustave’s gentility and promiscuity almost harkens back memories of Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, offering a bumbling, absurd character we can’t help but adore.


Fiennes also joins a lineup of Anderson all-stars, including Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel and Bob Balaban, all of whom have cameos in Budapest. This is also the first time Saoirse Ronan appears in an Anderson film, and I hope it’s not the last, as she’s just quirky enough to be at home with this spectacular array of players.

That all being said, this is not Anderson’s best work, a spot I personally reserve for Rushmore. Gustave, funny as he is, is no Max Fisher. And while still good, I wanted more from Budapest. Some parts were so over-the-top-Wes-Andersony that it almost felt forced, like a caricature of itself. It seemingly had all the right ingredients, it just didn’t come together in the way I was expecting.


As is the case with most of Anderson’s work, though, there’s still much to admire about The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s beautiful to look at, for one – and the costumes are like something out of a child’s imagination. In fact, Budapest was awarded Oscars for Best Production Design, Best Costume Design and Best Makeup and Hairstyling, as well as a win for Best Original Store and 5 other nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It earned $179 million at the box office, making it Anderson’s highest grossing feature to date and had more Oscar nominations in 2015 than any other movie.


But on a more intimate level, what sticks with me after watching any Wes Anderson film are the emotional notes they hit, almost invisibly. Much like an expert lobby boy, Anderson simply provides what we need, anticipating our desires, then delivering them on a silver platter.

Whiplash: We all have teachers, coaches, instructors who have changed our lives. Maybe it was a liberal English nerd like Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, or a teacher who thinks out of the box, like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Maybe it was a director who taught you to feel music, like Richard Dreyfus in Mr. Holland’s Opus, or maybe it was a coach who saw potential in everyone, like Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans.

For me, it was a man by the name of Earl Bush, a tall and wispy Charlie Chaplin look-a-like who led the band program at Antioch Upper Grade School. No, he did not inspire me to make a career of music, though I did continue playing trumpet through and even after college, nor did he reawaken some long-lost passion I had for the art. Mr. Bush simply believed in me.

My reign as first-chair trumpet in Mr. Bush’s symphonic band ended the week I got braces. Every note, every scale, every warmup was torture. My lips bled from being pressed up against metal wires for hours on end. But I couldn’t give up. I loved making music and I was bound and determined to earn my spot back.

Armed with wax to cover my front brackets, I kept at it, essentially retraining myself to learn a new embouchure. Through it all, Mr. Bush kept pushing me to get better, to move back up to where I belonged. By the time I got to high school, I was a bonified “band nerd”, and proud of it. By the time I graduated, I had found my place in concert, symphonic, jazz and marching band, braces be damned.

When I first saw Whiplash in 2014, I was instantly reminded of Mr. Bush. While he never threw a chair at someone’s head or verbally berated his band, he did demand excellence. Those of us who have participated in music, sports, theater, art, dance or any other type of extra-curricular activity know how difficult it is to succeed when there are thousands of others willing to go just that much further to cut you out…and Whiplash is a thrilling and brilliant commentary on what it takes to make it in an increasingly competitive and cutthroat world.

As a young student at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is practicing late at night when his drumming catches the ear of the infamous Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the school’s top jazz band. Andrew knows he has just one chance to impress the man and, as luck would have it, he blows it. The double-time swing claims another victim.

But Andrew is relentless, perhaps to a fault. Eventually he earns his spot in Fletcher’s band, but it’s not at all what he was expecting.

Fletcher’s offensive insults and authoritarian leadership keep the group on their toes, and anyone who steps out of line is left behind. Not only does he support a competitive environment, he encourages it. After all, the greats didn’t become great by just doing what was expected. For Fletcher, and the band he’s assembled, music is a language, it’s a way of life. And those that can’t take the heat frankly get burned alive.

Perhaps it’s because he sees something in his young ward, or maybe he just likes watching him squirm, but Fletcher reserves the brunt of his head games for Andrew, teasing, mocking and torturing him in ways that certainly would get almost any other teacher fired, if not arrested. But, ever eager to impress, Andrew is not only willing to shed sweat and tears for the man, he’s willing to bleed for him.

As breathless as a drum solo, Whiplash rises and falls just as the hopes and dreams of Andrew climb and crash. And if you’re not biting your nails or shoving popcorn in your face by the end, you have way more self-control than I do.

Though the music, editing and directing are all outstanding (seriously, buy the soundtrack), where Whiplash really shines is in its casting. By now it should come as no surprise that Whiplash isn’t really about jazz; it’s about abuse of power…and J.K. Simmons handles Fletcher perfectly. In the wrong hands, Fletcher could have been such a caricature of the over-the-top, abusive teacher who teaches what he can't master himself, but Simmons walks such a line that, even after the inhumane mind games and physical abuse, we’re still drawn to him.

His humanity even peeks out towards the end of the film, where he tells Andrew that the most dangerous words in the English language are “good job”. To be honest, he’s not wrong. In an era of “everyone’s a winner”, it’s hard for those with true talent to really shine through. Simmons perfectly captures the drive of someone who believes his teaching tactics are the only way to produce the next Charlie Parker.

Simmons is also great at playing the quiet villain – the man who isn’t intimidating because of his temper alone, but more because of the way he dresses, the way he walks in a room, the way other people behave around him. He’s an educator, yet completely untrustworthy…and that’s terrifying.

J.K. Simmons would go on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Whiplash, a recognition he most definitely deserved. The film also won awards for Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing and grossed about $50 million at the box office on a $3.3 million budget.

Whiplash refers to a song played multiple times throughout the movie, but could also refer to the sense of exhaustion you feel when it’s over. From the gentle drumming cadence that starts the film to the heart-stopping performance that concludes it, it’s damn near impossible to disregard this film as anything but hi-hat.

The Theory of Everything: Show someone a picture of Stephen Hawking and they’d most likely be able to tell you who it is. He had a familiar enough face, especially in his later years. But ask those same people WHAT Stephen Hawking did and, chances are, you’ll get a lot of empty stares.

Most people would say he’s a scientist…some might know he spoke through a computer or wrote a best-selling book…but what did he actually DO? What happened in his life to get him to this point?

These are questions you would expect a biopic like The Theory of Everything to answer, kind of like a Good Will Hunting-ish story about Hawking’s rise to fame. However, this biographical tale is not about math or science – at least not in the literal sense. Instead it’s about Hawking’s marriage to Jane Wilde and the difficulties they went through as Hawking’s health deteriorated.

Though superbly acted, The Theory of Everything falls into the trap that so many biographical movies do – hitting all the key moments and skimming the rest. The result is fine, but – as my math teachers would always say – it doesn’t count if you don’t show the work. Though the ending result is sweet and touching, how we ended up there is a bit confusing.

We first see Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) as a student at Cambridge, riding his bike to a campus party. It’s 1962 and life for this young PhD student is grand.

It’s at this party where Stephen meets Jane (Felicity Jones), a sweet button of a girl who is, in every way, his intellectual and philosophical opposite. He’s an atheist, she’s a devote follower of the Church of England. He’s studying black holes and relativity, she’s studying medieval poetry of the Iberian peninsula. They are mirror sides of one brain.

Nonetheless, the two fall into a doting romance filled with lofty conversations about poetry and astronomy. It’s not until reality strikes, sending these two lovebirds back down to earth at lightning speed, that their relationship is put to the ultimate test.

Stephen is just 21 when he’s diagnosed with motor-neuron disease and given 2 years to live. Spiraling into depression, Stephen does his best to push Jane away, but she refuses to leave his side. The two marry and begin creating a family of their own (Stephen and Jane would enjoy a 25-year marriage and eventually have 3 children together – so always get a second opinion, guys!).

Stephen’s physical decline runs parallel to his personal and professional success. As he continues his work despite his disease, Stephen earns his PhD and even writes the best-selling book, A Brief History of Time. And as his mighty brain dances around black holes and the history of the universe, Jane’s world shrinks into the walls of her home, mothering three small children and caring for her sick husband. And as life changes for both Stephen and Jane, they eventually come to realize that maybe they’re both in a bit over their heads.

For those interested in learning more about Hawking’s scientific discoveries, you’ll have to settle for diet-physics here. There’s enough to help us understand this man was a genius, but doesn’t quite explain why. The Theory of Everything isn’t so much about theory as it is about everything else.

But anyone would be hard-pressed to lay a finger on Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning performance as Stephen Hawking. It was a performance built on months of hard research, working with a choreographer and those affected with ALS to learn body manipulation and basic motor skills. It was a performance blessed by Hawking himself and one worthy of so much more than what The Theory of Everything provided.

For most of the movie, Redmayne is hunched over in a wheelchair, unable to speak on his own and having to communicate with just his eyes. It’s heartbreaking performance, especially if you’ve ever seen anyone caged in their own body. Through his expressive eyes and mischievous smile, Redmayne shows us a man who, despite all odds, never lost his sense of wonder. It’s more than impersonation – it’s inhabitation.

But The Theory of Everything is as much Jane’s story as it is Stephen’s. After all, the movie was based on Jane’s book, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. And much of the emotional turmoil comes from the trauma Jane experiences taking care of the man she loves. While her decision to stay by his side may seem naïve (in fact, Stephen’s father told her it wouldn’t be a battle, but a “huge defeat”), Jane is a fierce fighter. And even though the couple went their separate ways, it’s easy to see that Jane loved him the best way she knew how.

Besides Redmayne’s win for Best Actor, The Theory of Everything was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Jones), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. It also received numerous other accolades and appeared on several “Top 10” lists of 2014.

The Theory of Everything was overseen by Jane Wilde and Stephen Hawking, so it should come as no surprise that it doesn’t really get into the risky bits that would have made this movie so much more interesting. Why does Stephen reject his knighthood? Why did Stephen and Jane REALLY get divorced? Did Stephen have an affair with his live-in nurse? Those questions are just poked at and abandoned, like leftover peas on a plate. Ultimately, I was satisfied – but I can’t help but be hungry for a little more…

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence): Michael Keaton would probably be one of the first people to score an invite to my dream celebrity dinner party. From Beetlejuice to Batman, the man can do no wrong. I adore his weird and wacky personality and I love even more how it shines through in every role he’s ever had. And even though Keaton has helped bring some very iconic characters to life, no movie has really done him justice quite like Birdman.

In short, watching Birdman is an experience. It’s honestly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. It’s daring and devastating…hilariously funny but brilliantly sad. Like all movies that laugh in the face of big-budget action flicks, Birdman will certainly bring out the haters…but they can go piss off. Where other movies fly, Birdman soars.

The movie centers around Riggan Thomson (Keaton), a fading movie star who, like Keaton, made his fortune playing a superhero. It’s now 20 years later, and Riggan is looking for a way to revitalize his career. Like many actors in his position, Riggan turns to Broadway, starring in, directing and producing a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” However, his venture onto the stage is far from easy. His romantic entanglement with one of his actresses results in a pregnancy scare, his other actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts) is romantically involved (both on-stage and off) with his other hot-headed method actor, Mike (Edward Norton), and Riggan and Mike constantly butt heads, as two strong personalities are bound to do.

Fearful that Mike might sabotage his play, Riggan is prepared to fire him but is advised against it by his lawyer and best friend, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), who knows Mike will sell tickets. Pair all this work drama with the fact that Riggan is also dealing with his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who was recently released from rehab and a snooty theater critic who is determined to ruin his show before she even sees it. That’s a lot for even a real superhero to handle!

Speaking of, Riggan must also deal with the psychological taunting of his “Birdman” alter-ego, who at first is just a voice in his head, but then we see manifest in his full winged and masked glory (it’s probably not a coincidence how similar he looks to Batman). Riggan also seems to possess superhero powers himself, floating around his room, moving things with his mind. It’s never really clear whether he’s actually doing these things or just imagining himself doing them, but it doesn’t matter. It’s real for Riggan. If anything, it appears to be a commentary on the every day magic that we all tend to ignore or resent.

One of the saddest aspects of Birdman is how aware Riggan is that the world has forgotten him, despite him trying so hard to stay relevant. The only problem is he’s so unwilling to adapt to the technological world he now lives in. In an argument about this very topic, his daughter Sam says, “You hate bloggers, you mock Twitter, you don’t even have a Facebook page. You don’t exist.” His time has come and gone. Riggan’s play was his last-ditch effort to keep his name up in lights, but he’s pandering to a crowd who’s already moved on to the next thing.

For a film about the theater, Birdman isn’t the slightest bit stagey. Filmed to look like one, long, continuous shot, this is a movie where nothing ever stays still. A near constant jazzy drumbeat is the only music we hear, adding to the anxiety and mounting nervous tension felt by Riggan (and us!). The score feels off-the-cuff, similar to how the entire film feels. It’s a precision ballet that plays out like real theatrical production, warts and all.

Now, despite the fact that Beetlejuice is one of may all-time favorite movies and despite the fact that Keaton is the ONLY Batman, there’s no denying that he is sensational in this role that almost seems to have been written for him. Edward Norton, Emma Stone and even Zach Galifianakis are also the best they’ve been in years, giving honest, human performances that at times almost seem too real.

Besides winning Best Picture, Birdman also took home Oscars for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Keaton, Norton and Stone were also all nominated for their excellent performances.

One of the reasons I love seeing artsy movies like this is I love talking about them…and Birdman is a movie you’re gonna want to talk about. It’s bound to have its fair share of haters and, you know what, that’s fine. Chances are you’ll never find me watching a Marvel movie or drooling over Captain America – we all have our thing. But for me, this movie reminded me how good films can be. How they can be artistic but meaningful, funny but poignant, whimsical but real.

At one point during Birdman, Riggan is flying through the skyscrapers of New York at a dizzying speed, arms outstretched, a smile on his face. It’s an image that could incapsulate the entire film: untethered, exhilarating, and cinematic in every way. With grace and dignity, Birdman gives fresh wings to Keaton’s career, and the movie experience in general.

OVERALL:

WOW. So many good movies this year! In the Battle of the British geniuses, I have to say I liked The Imitation Game better than The Theory of Everything, though Eddie Redmayne is almost always a joy to watch in pretty much anything.

Selma was perhaps one of the most underrated films I’ve seen in a long time and I do not understand why the Academy didn’t throw more nominations at this amazing story.

Boyhood (my hidden gem!) and Birdman took great risks in filmmaking that really paid off. These two certainly stand out as the unique ones in the bunch, and for good reason.

American Sniper missed the mark for me and, though I LOVE Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel was not my favorite film of his. Though artistically amazing, I found this story, and American Sniper’s story, lacking in substance.

Whiplash may have been one of the last movies I bought on DVD and I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve watched it. I love the music, I love the story, and I’m always happy to stare at J.K. Simmon’s arms for as long as he’ll let me!

At first, I was apprehensive of whether Birdman deserved the win this year. I saw this movie in the theater in 2014 and loved it (it’s another one I own on DVD), but after watching it again, there’s absolutely no question. Selma or Boyhood would have been my other top contenders for Best Picture, but Birdman just flew high above the rest of these in terms of production, direction and performance.

A lot of these movies shared common themes – science and discovery, the fight for freedom, jazzy drumbeats…but almost all of them focused on a man overcoming the odds. Whether it was encrypted messages, financial ruin, the fight to stay relevant, the fight to be discovered, the battles we fight in our minds, the battles we fight on the field, the black holes of outer space or just the struggle of growing up, these movies are nothing if not testaments to perseverance.


Onto the next pull!

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