Two weeks out, the Oscars are already trivia. Fairy dust in the wind. Who wore what, said what, won what don’t particularly matter. Haranguing the host for having done a tepid job is as perfunctory as any chore; vanilla ice cream is wont to melt. Even if the institution sets a dubious agenda, though, and even if all its pageantry is a relic of some less jaded era that we hate on almost as hard as we try to rekindle it, I want to thank the Academy for setting any agenda that occasions talk about film, and, better yet, films worth talking about.
With the envelopes opened, the “urgency” of my observations has escaped. So, lest fuller pieces never come to fruition, I hereby commit a few notes to the heap before they’re as stale as N.P.H.’s jokes . . .
American Sniper. Crisp, clear editing during the battle scenes and a sequence that ends in a hypnotic sandstorm. Chris Kyle’s P.T.S.D. is most piercingly expressed when Bradley Cooper pounds on the glass at the maternity ward in which his baby daughter is crying, crying, crying. His performance helps balance out the fact that the part is weakly written. The whole thing is, really; the movie is pretty mediocre off the battlefield, because the stuff that delivers Kyle to it is shopworn and simpleminded. (The circumstances of how he met his wife and entered the service may be true in outline, but they’re creaky old Hollywood in execution.) And while I think it’s wrong to criticize the movie for not having an Iraqi point of view when it is explicitly from Kyle’s point of view, his story is abstracted from the context of this particular war. I don’t think anyone would disagree with Clint Eastwood’s belief that P.T.S.D. is a problem, and that compassion is owed to those who suffer from it; but the movie shies away from examining the cause. It makes the killing of women and children seem tragic but also inevitable. The film may not be jingo, but it takes pains not to alienate those who are.
Birdman. In his dressing room, a member of the press asks Michael Keaton about his play’s relationship to Roland Barthes. He stumbles when trying to answer. Some gawky woman then asks who Barthes is. If the viewer knows who the French theorist is, he or she can feel condescending toward the ignorant bimbo; if the viewer hasn’t heard of him, he or she can feel condescending toward the pinhead pretentious enough to drop his name. This is what passes for satire in the “best picture” of 2014: equal-opportunity smugness. A thirsty tribute to the victimization all artists feel until they get the fuck over themselves.
Boyhood. Shot over the course of a dozen years, it is unquestionably a landmark experiment in filmmaking; the technique inspires profound considerations of how human beings interact with time that the content of the film doesn’t always live up to. (Richard Linklater has already done a take on the Antoine Doinel series with his Sunrise trilogy; now, he’s circled back to The 400 Blows.) Strangely, though I’m closer in age and experience to the titular boy in the hood, my identification and interest centered more on the development of his parents. Ethan Hawke’s genuinely hearty but irresponsible father loses his G.T.O. but gets his shit together while Patricia Arquette, ostensibly the more mature of the pair, can’t break her cycle of bad men—a succession of wicked stepfathers for Mason and Samantha. I also appreciated the handling of Samantha’s trajectory, which a more conventional narrative might not have done justice to; she graduates from being a free-spirited weirdo to a self-conscious conformist, and the movie has the tact to merely, and gently, suggest that her conversion is a ruse.
As Mason grows into a teenager, his face closes off; his deadpan is meant to suggest the formation of an observer and an artist, but I wasn’t convinced—and for this I’d probably blame the too many, too long-held shots of his beanpole pimpleface rather than Ellar Coltrane. He’s at his best when he has an outlet for his disaffection, such as when he rags on his father for reneging on a promise that we too saw him make, years before. The movie is more an accretion of insights than a dramatic work, and its home-video flow is only interrupted when heavyhanded references are made to “period” events, songs, and gewgaws: prefab nostalgia. But when Arquette breaks down about the onslaught of supposed milestones that are nonetheless absorbed into time’s inexorable march, and Mason looks at her blankly, her despair and his incomprehension are simultaneously true and universally applicable. One senses both the cost and value of growing up, and is grateful for Linklater’s singular accomplishment in film preservation.
The Grand Budapest Hotel. A marvelous work of craft, but not, I don’t think, a great work of art. If my original review seems bitter, it is because it could easily have been great if Wes Anderson were not so doggedly, fearfully recessive. Still, he is partly responsible for Ralph Fiennes’s great performance, sadly overlooked in the Oscar shuffle, and fully responsible for bringing sexy back in classically debonair form.
The Imitation Game. Flagrant, competent Oscar bait, and great material with which to masturbate, if you’re into drawing-room porn.
Selma. If I had gotten to this one before press time, this would’ve been my dog in the Best Picture fight. There’s no denying that Boyhood broke new ground in a way that few movies—particularly ones that become Best Picture nominees—ever do. But Selma is this year’s high-water mark for historical ambition and intelligence, passion, and raw acting talent. It embodies all the positive connotations of calling a movie “Hollywood.” Carmen Ejogo and Stephen Root give two of the best line readings in my memory—and they’re delivering diamond-hard screenwriting (by Paul Webb) to boot. Ava DuVernay is still new to directing, and this is evident in some highfalutin staging—i.e., Martin Luther King, Jr., in the shadow of the cross—and an imprecision in showing us where and when we are in the timeline, and sometimes even who we’re with. But these technical shortcomings are water under the Edmund Pettus Bridge when compared to her ability to be emotionally stirring about the Civil Rights movement without ever being sentimental. There’s too much to say: pace the extant critics from the Johnson Administration, L.B.J. is viewed in much the same light that one of his predecessors was in Lincoln, the greenish haze shows what all that stuff in Grandma’s house looked like when it was new, and David Oyelowo plays a saint who’s profoundly, desperately human.
The Theory of Everything. Like The Imitation Game, this is another case of rampant Anglophilia meant to quell the Academy’s colonial dysmorphia. But while the movie about a famous British scientist with a social handicap larded on bogus intrigue and vintage tropes, this movie about a famous British scientist with a physical handicap zeroes in on Stephen and Jane Hawking’s relationship to the exclusion of, well, everything. (Do they say more than a passing word to any of their might-as-well-be-nameless children?) Another truth-that’s-stranger-than-fiction is thus whitewashed, sacrificing true-to-life drama for a rather tired virtuousness that the facts of the case could only have woken up. But, as a simple yet unusual love story, beautifully shot and acted, that feeds—if not to one’s full satisfaction—one’s curiosity about a man who has truly flourished and excelled while living for an unprecedented 52 years with A.L.S., and counting, the film has its merits. Eddie Redmayne’s performance deserved the Oscar, but points to the absurdity of comparing an amazing piece of physical and technical craft with the paranoid depths of Michael Keaton or Steve Carell, or the emotional and rhetorical absorption of David Oyelowo.
And, drum roll please . . . Whiplash. Why not? Bright and shiny, if a little crude—which I find pardonable in an upstart filmmaker who’s making a name for himself with talent rather than tweets. #alliteration I look forward to seeing what Damien Chazelle will do with a budget.
Gone Girl. Yeah, I know; not nominated for Best Picture—probably because the media is cast as villain. As a tract on that subject, it’s The Hunger Games for adults, or an evil descendent of Selma, which was set in a period when media exposure was still novel enough to incite positive change but rare enough that it didn’t intrude on every aspect of one’s life. Granted, decrying the “overlord” function of the media is nothing new, even as it applies to the social-media age (which David Fincher knows a thing or two about); moreover, it’s often hooey. What this film does, with fresher insight, is probe the mechanisms by which we train ourselves to be victims—under media influence. It then buries that lede in a canny suspense story which pulls the rug out from under the conclusions we so hastily jump to, based on media-reinforced stereotypes. (“The media” becomes inseperable from the lies we tell ourselves.) One may be skeptical of the big plot twist when it’s first revealed halfway through, but the movie makes its case as time goes by—and one might wish it wasn’t so convincing, even if the scenario is a little bananas. Again, many things left to say—mostly spoilers. But Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth’s style has become a dark mirror, sinister (perhaps cynical) but also crystal-clear; and Rosamund Pike has the chilly fragility of a porcelain doll in that’s been in the cellar too long.
Honorable Mention: Wild, Foxcatcher, and Under the Skin, which was as innovative as Boyhood. Throw in Ida, the Best Foreign Film, and, all in all, not a bad year—even if Birdman was its Best Picture.