by Paul Deines
The 87th Academy Awards ceremony is this Sunday, and – despite my distaste for ranking works of art – it provides a good opportunity to discuss some of the more exciting pictures of 2014. Below are capsule reviews of the most nominated films, at least the ones that I saw. I didn’t get around to seeing American Sniper or The Theory of Everything; so you won’t hear my thoughts on those. Many of the capsules below are expurgated from reviews that appeared on this site or on Letterboxd.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) As a platform for showy performances and cinematography, this is a hoot. Michael Keaton taps into a pathos and energy I haven't seen him muster in a while. He finds a fine balance between his often-manic theatricality and his more recent hang-doggedness. Edward Norton is the funniest thing in the picture, playing the sort of controlling method actor we suspect he is in real life. The women are relegated to looking on, which is less exciting, but Naomi Watts and Emma Stone both press hard against the limitations of their roles. Birdman's script and direction (with its one-take gimmick) are crowded and heedless, but conversations about art, criticism and truth resemble the ramblings of drunk actors trying to explain their craft. At a certain point, I'd say Alejandro Innaritu has no clue what he wants to say. (Letterboxd review)
Boyhood Gun to my head, if you make me pick my favorite film of 2014, I’d have to say this Richard Linklater opus. Capturing those rich, lonesome, turbulent years when childhood transitions to young adulthood, Boyhood progresses like an assured play or collection of short stories. Each year in Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) life is an excellent mini-narrative with its own arc. Coltrane can be a cipher, but I was still taken with him; perhaps because Mason's coping mechanism is to listen quietly. Ethan Hawke, as Mason's often-absent father, is as good as I've seen him in a while, but the revelation is Patricia Arquette as Mason's mother. To be candid, her sometimes brusque disposition and unwillingness to accept complacency in anyone around her reminded me of my own mother. I loved everything about this character and this performance, and her final scene left me more than a little misty in the eye-place. (Letterboxd review)
Foxcatcher In my original review, I wrote that I doubted I could return to this film anytime soon, so bleak and sparse is it. In recent weeks, though, I cannot help but think about this brutal rumination on wealth, ambition and the pathology that is American exceptionalism. I still believe that the filmmakers did Steve Carrell no favors, encasing him in a deathmask of putty and latex. Mark Ruffalo definitely elevates the dour picture whenever his quiet, confident David Schultz is onscreen. The cool reception Foxcatcher received upon its US release would suggest many viewers were put off by the contemplative production. Still, I’ve had trouble shaking this one. (Full review)
The Grand Budapest Hotel One hell of an affecting film from a director I often struggle with. The Grand Budapest Hotel has all the meticulous craft and conspicuous whimsy of Wes Anderson other films, but it accomplishes more. This is partly because Anderson’s found a perfect leading man in Ralph Fiennes, who can speak elevated text with a simultaneous fluidity and sincerity. The director’s multitudinously-framed story of an hotelier determined to maintain a level of decorum in the face of a murder frame-up and an approaching world war brings out the best of the director’s obsessions. This period canvas (based on the writings of exiled Austrian writer Stefan Zweig) suits the twee fussiness; the cat-and-mouse narrative allows moments to showcase the director’s unexpected gift for action. More than anything, the film is heartfelt, gentle and earnest. For once, Anderson’s affectations seem like the right touch for the right subject.
Guardians of the Galaxy The matinee lark that overcame Marvel’s draconian limitations. Cultish director James Gunn manages to retain total control of his vision, and the resulting film is wonderfully jaunty and assured. Chris Pratt is a Harrison-Ford-eqsue presence at the center, and the ensemble surrounding him, including two great voice performances from Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, are the heart of Guardians of the galaxy. Wrestler Dave Bautista is clearly limited in his acting range, but Gunn deploys him excellently, and while I've never been floored by Zoe Saldana, she plays great in this boy's club of a movie. The early passages get bogged down in yawn-inducing space politics, and the final sequence sees yet another spacecraft crashing into yet another urban center. All that’s less than inspired, but Guardians of the Galaxy is nonetheless a worthwhile corrective to the dourness of the Nolan-era comic book movie. And thus, most welcome. (Letterboxd review)
The Imitation Game Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – unimaginative, but promising. He seems to be channeling a young Derek Jacobi here and rarely achieves either clarity or depth. Keira Knightly always surprises me with the delicacy and thought behind her performances. She does a lot with a woefully underwritten part. Mostly, the film suffers from a light script and an overly liberal edit. These awards pictures often fall lazily into the bloated 3-hour range. The Imitation Game is an ill-advised hour-45. The final sad chapter of the narrative is covered in a single overwrought, under-considered scene. Knightly and Cumberbatch soldier against the constraints of this poor decision, but they can only do so much. This is a story worth telling, and often the writers, actors and director Morten Tyldum find the right balance. As a whole, though, this is pretty paltry. (Letterboxd review)
Mr. Turner The film looks like a J.M.W. Turner painting, and it contends with the emotions his workss inspire: astonishment at life, fear of death, connection to earth’s majesty. Timothy Spall’s performance is revelatory: grunts and guttural banter, stooped but determined carriage and trembling in the face of beauty and loss. His Turner is a heart open to the world around him yet capable of amazing callousness toward his peers, estranged family and subjugated housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson). Mike Leigh, with cinematographer Dick Pope, creates a Romantic Era both phenomenal and lived in. By Mr. Turner’s final mournful passages, you might feel worn down by a world of glory and despair. I finished it late one night and woke the next morning with dewy eyes.
Selma Compulsively watchable and tightly focused on the subject of political organizing, Selma is an artistic achievement and an important primer for anyone unversed in its history. Director Ava DuVernay, working from a script by Paul Webb, places her camera mostly at ground level, giving us a considered – perhaps even journalistic – vantage of men and women making tactical choices that will reverberate through history. Occasionally, DuVernay pulls upward, placing figures within a landscape (a blood-red carpeted church, a bridge that resembles a cage), and we have momentary breathing room. David Oyelowo pays the necessary service to Martin Luther King’s cadence and mannerisms, but more importantly he embodies the conflicted soul of a man at once congenial (often too much so) and weighted with a dire, serious mission. The sections involving President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and George Wallace (Tim Roth) are less compelling. I’m not even slightly bothered by the accuracy controversy; I just find the halls-of-power scenes less interesting than narrative from the street, where Selma truly excels. (Letterboxd review)
Whiplash Many fine films have captured the ecstasy of artistic creation (The Red Shoes leaps to mind), but I cannot think of a picture that makes the case for agony quite like Damien Chazelle's portrait of the student/teacher relationship from hell. J.K. Simmons has rightly garnered praise for his portrayal of a music professor whose pursuit of a perfect jazz sound drives him to violence both emotional and physical. But Miles Teller, as the equally driven student, is the pulsing sweaty soul of Whiplash. Appearing in every scene, Teller is at once naive and jaded, tender and vile, brilliant and stupid. Chazelle's camera reflects this relationship perfectly. During the musical sections, it swoops and swoons. When Simmons rages, it trembles and jerks like a Paul Greengrass film. The open-ended final scene leaves you breathless, but I wonder if the film would have been better served by a more definitive final beat. For lack of a better term. (Letterboxd review)