Sunday, February 15, 2015

Joe's annual slog through the Best Picture nominees: Part One

Four of the films up for the top prize at this year's Oscars.

I'd like to thank the Academy... for nominating only eight movies for Best Picture this year. The number of candidates for this award varies from year to year. Back when they started handing these cockamamie things out in 1928, there just weren't that many movies to go around, so there were only three nominees total. (It was so easy to get caught up back then!) In the 1930s, however, the quantity and quality of feature films increased exponentially, as did the roster of potential Best Picture candidates. The number of nominees hovered around nine or ten in the late '30s and early '40s. In 1944, the Academy dialed it back to just five per year, and it stayed that way for decades. Slumdog Millionaire from 2008 was the last movie to win under the classic "five nominees" system. Then, apparently, the Academy got nostalgic for the '30s, and the number of nominees again shot up to about nine or ten a year. This year, they've settled on a lean, mean eight titles. Good for them. That's plenty.

Why should I care how many flicks are up for the top Oscar? Well, because every year since 2009, I've been attending the AMC Theatre chain's annual Best Picture Showcase, a marathon of all the nominated films. This is my seventh time through the process. I've seen over 50 films this way. Why do I do this? Well, it's a little complicated. I call myself a movie fan, but I really don't go to movie theaters very often. I don't generally enjoy the ritual of "going to the movies," mainly because ticket prices have become astronomically expensive and audience members have become incredibly rude. Even when I like or love the film I'm seeing, I inevitably return home feeling like I've been cheated and a little abused. But, as I've explained before, being a self-proclaimed "movie geek" and never going to movie theaters is like claiming you're a Catholic and skipping every single mass. If film is a religion, theaters are the churches. The Best Picture Showcase, then, is like a holy day of obligation for me. Holy days, actually. It now takes two consecutive Saturdays. The first of those Saturdays was yesterday. Here's what went down.

T h e   G r a n d   B u d a p e s t   H o t e l

Tony Revolori and Ralph Fiennes have some transit troubles in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast includes: Ralph Fiennes, newcomer Tony Revolori, and an all-star cast including F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Jude Law, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Tom Wilkinson, and Harvey Keitel.

The gist of it: The glory days and sad, decades-long decline of a plush luxury hotel are recounted during a dinner conversation between the place's melancholy owner (Abraham) and an inquisitive author (Law). At the heart of the hotel owner's story are the improbable exploits of its original concierge, M. Gustave (Fiennes), a suave and resourceful gigolo with exacting personal standards and an appreciation of the finer things in life. After inheriting a valuable painting from one of his aged paramours (Swinton), M. Gustave becomes the victim of a complicated and deadly conspiracy perpetrated by a disgruntled would-be inheritor (Brody) and his sinister sidekick (Dafoe). Prison escapes, ski chases, and several murders ensue. Complicating all of this is the beginning of World War II and the rise to power of the Third Reich.

My take: Movies are no longer the center of the pop cultural universe. They're no longer driving our national discussions the way they once did. In a sense, perhaps, movies are becoming obsolete. Most of what they used to do for us -- emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually -- television and the Internet now do, often much better than the cinema. Certainly more efficiently. And the idea of going to a special, designated place (a cineplex) to actually sit still and view lengthy, non-interactive motion pictures in relative silence is, I'm sorry to say, a relic of an earlier, more naive, less jaded time. Downloading and streaming have leveled the playing field considerably. Movies are just more content to watch on your phone or your iPad. They've lost their cachet. In a sense, then, the crumbling hotel in this movie, which we see in both its glittering 1930s prime and decrepit 1960s dotage, is a perfect metaphor for motion pictures. And The Grand Budapest Hotel offers a pretty compelling argument for why we still need movies. It shows us what movies can offer us which no other medium can. This is a sensual experience, something to be savored. It's not realistic, but it's better than reality somehow, forged in the dreamy tradition of Walt Disney. It looks the way I sometimes wished the world looked. Plus, it's a cracking good adventure tale and maybe Anderson's most poignant meditation yet on how glory fades and why we should feel bad about that (even though there's not much we can do about it). Sic transit gloria mundi. Does it ever!

My grade: A-

W h i p l a s h

J.K. Simmons has some personalized instruction for Miles Teller in Whiplash.

Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast includes: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang.

The gist of it: An ambitious young drummer (Teller) enters a prestigious New York music school and soon attracts the attention of a demanding, rigorous, and sadistic instructor (Simmons), who possibly goes too far in his efforts to drive his students toward attaining musical perfection. Despite the protestations of his worried father (Reiser) and neglected girlfriend (Benoist), the young man falls under the sway of the formidable, imposing professor and goes to insane, self-destructive lengths to please this impossible-to-please man. After one particularly disastrous competition, the student realizes that his very life may be in danger if he continues along this path, but he's still determined to become one of the greatest jazz drummers who ever lived. It all leads to a climactic showdown between teacher and student in an extremely high-pressure public performance.

My take: This was, hands down, the movie which went over the best with the audience at yesterday's Showcase. I have to admit, this one captured my attention immediately and held it for the entire running time, right up to and including a climactic nine-minute drum solo. That's right. A nine-minute drum solo was one of the most dramatic scenes I saw all day yesterday. Some of my involvement with this material came from being a musician myself for the last three-fourths of my life. While watching the poor schmuck in this movie pound away at the drums until his fingers bled, I actually felt a little guilty about practicing so little. I've never been through anything close to this kind of hell, and today I play strictly for fun, but I know a little something about tricky time signatures, fanatical band teachers, and those dreaded and dreadful music competitions where your whole life seems to be on the line. But, in truth, you don't have to know anything about music in order to enjoy and fully understand Whiplash. If you can understand someone wanting to be the best and being willing to destroy himself to do so, then you can understand this movie. In a way, it was a bold move on the part of the writer-director to let his protagonist be a whiny, entitled crybaby jerk who doesn't always engage the audience's sympathies. J.K. Simmons, of course, has the fun part here as the teacher. He gets to be a combination of Pai Mei from Kill Bill 2, John Houseman from The Paper Chase, Mickey from Rocky, Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, and pretty much every movie drill sergeant ever, but especially R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket. There is one minor supporting character, a sad-sack trombonist, who is here specifically to be his "Private Pyle." In retrospect, Whiplash is a little predictable and a lot manipulative, but I'll be damned if it doesn't work.

My grade: B+

B i r d m a n

Michael Keaton is haunted by his superhero past in Birdman.

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Cast includes: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton (again), Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Lindsay Duncan, Amy Ryan

The gist of it: An aging actor, Riggan (Keaton), best known for playing a costumed superhero named Birdman in a trilogy of '90s Hollywood blockbusters, is now trying to establish himself as a serious actor by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on the writings of Raymond Carver. The production is plagued by problems, many of which are caused by a talented but egomaniacal and unpredictable younger actor (Norton) who has joined the cast at the last minute. But since the writer-director-star has all his own money tied up in this play, the show very much must go on, even when it attracts the scorn of a vengeful critic (Duncan) who resents this Hollywood pretender showing up on her precious Broadway turf. Riggan's own personal life is a shambles, too, with a daughter (Stone) fresh out of rehab and an ex-wife (Ryan) who wavers between concern and contempt for a man she once loved and trusted. With all this stress in his life, it's no wonder that Riggan frequently escapes into fantasy and often has the growly, throaty voice of the Birdman character echoing in his head and giving him possibly-dubious career and life advice.

My take: Of all the movies I saw on Day 1, Birdman (whose subtitle is The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the closest in spirit to the kind of movie I would want to make myself if I had a cast, crew, equipment, and several million dollars to spend. Maybe as I age and get closer to Sad Old Bastardom myself, I have greater and greater affinity for movies about sad old bastards like Riggan, guys who are just barely hanging on by their fingernails. I may also be losing my appetite for cinema-verite-type realism in the cinema in favor of surrealism, parody, and exaggeration. But don't call it escapism! No, I've found that the real truths of life can, paradoxically, be revealed more fully in fantasy. Lies, artfully told, somehow bring out the truth. And Birdman is full of absolutely impossible, magic-realism-type stuff. Hell, it starts with Michael Keaton clad only in his tighty-whities floating three feet off the ground as he meditates in the lotus position. And don't think that just because his character, Riggan, has retired from his superhero days that we're denied any comic book-inspired action scenes. This may not have been the most stylized movie of the day, since Grand Budapest is practically a living cartoon, but it may be the most stylistically-bold of the four films, with the majority of the film shot and edited in a way which makes it seem like it's composed of long, uninterrupted takes, a la Hitchcock's Rope. And Inarritu is daring in his use of the camera, swooping and soaring (like a bird, get it?) over his actors and letting us sneak all around the corridors at the theater so we can snoop on people's arguments and meltdowns. This is my idea of a fun time at the movies.

My grade: A

S e l m a

David Oyelowo prepares to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Selma.

Director: Ava DuVernay

Cast includes: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson (again), Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Martin Sheen, Wendell Pierce, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Stephen Root

The gist of it: A biopic of civil rights leader Martin Luther King (Oyelowo), focusing especially on his famous 1965 protest march from Selma to Montgomery in the racially-divided state of Alabama. Having won the Nobel Peace Prize, King hopes to use his prestige to get President Lyndon Johnson (Wilkinson) to enact legislation which will ensure that Southern blacks are allowed to freely register to vote without such impediments as poll taxes and voting vouchers. Afraid of damaging his own political career, however, Johnson begs off on this issue and tells King to "wait." Since African Americans are being killed by whites without legal consequence in de-facto-segregated states like Alabama, Dr. King cannot wait any longer. Until they are allowed to vote, he argues, blacks have no say in their own destinies. The march, of course, meets with violent opposition from white law enforcement officials, thanks to Alabama governor George Wallace (Roth). It is even controversial within the civil rights movement itself, which is plagued by schisms and fierce philosophical and tactical disagreements. The clergyman's marriage to Coretta Scott King (Ejogo) also suffers during this time. But King presses on anyway, certain that he's doing what's right for the cause he holds dear.

My take: Once someone's birthday has become a national holiday and his name has become synonymous with heroic or virtuous, how do you turn him into a human being again? How do you find the man behind the legend when the legend is 100 feet tall and chiseled out of marble? That was the problem facing Lincoln a few years ago, and it's the one facing Selma now. Martin Luther King lived and walked and breathed not that long ago really. Literally billions now living were around when he was assassinated in 1968. And yet, he seems no closer to our time than Abraham Lincoln. Both appear to have graduated from mere humanity and become something more evolved. How can they be made into flesh and blood after that? Maybe comedy is the answer. Louis CK starred as the tortured 16th President in SNL's brilliant Lincoln parody a few seasons back, and the Adult Swim animated series The Boondocks hilariously brought Martin Luther King into our time for its "Return of the King" episode in 2006. But Selma mainly belongs to the tradition of stately, respectful, tasteful, and eminently serious biopics. There is some effort to introduce domestic turmoil, as in a tense scene in which Martin and Coretta discuss the former's infidelity. But the real order of the day here is solemn speeches (often, eulogies), punctuated by scenes of horrific, slow-motion violence. This is all very well-done, though, and there are some tremendously effective scenes, as when Dr. King pays a late night visit to a coroner's office in order to comfort an old man whose son has been gunned down by racist cops. But, ultimately, Selma is the kind of movie which feels like the cinematic equivalent of a homework assignment. I respect it, but I wasn't sorry when it ended.

My grade: B+

NEXT WEEK: Boyhood, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, and American Sniper


  1. Of the two showcases this year, this was the one I was more interested in, but as I'd already seen two of the films (The Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash), it didn't make economic sense to shell out $30 to see the two I hadn't, especially as they're still playing here individually.

    1. Day One was the fun day. Day Two not as much.

  2. Of the nominees, I've only seen Selma and Boyhood. I actually ADORED Selma and found that it transcended the typical 'Oscar bait' and ultimately felt far more human and important than I expected, but I can see it not doing that for everyone.

    1. I've maybe sat through too many Oscar-nominated biopics. I'd heard your comments about Selma and they were rattling around in my brain as I watched the movie. I respected it, but it wasn't a transcendent experience for me.