Feb 12, 2015

2015 Best Picture Nominees, Part 1 [Crazy White Men]

It's time again to look at the top films vying for the title of Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards. Like most years, the nominees are frighteningly white and maddeningly mediocre, but there are a few gems that have slipped into the running. Plus, no turd is without its merits.
So, I'm going to review the films up for the top prize, but I'm also going to look at some of the other movies that didn't quite make it.

First, let's turn our attention to the three nominated films that feature supremely angry, emotionally unstable white men:

American Sniper
Sniper no snipey! Sniper no snipey!
Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Joel from Parenthood, and that one male character who isn't Cappie on Greek.
Story: Based on a true story, Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) kills a bunch of women and children by dehumanizing war and its many victims in order to maintain a sense of distance and sanity. Meanwhile, he starts a family with a sassy brunette (Sienna Miller) and builds relationships with many of his military buddies. Then, a really great sniper that's fighting for the other side kills a bunch of his buddies and Chris Kyle makes it his mission to snipe him first. Also, the whole thing is given the added sadness of the fact that the real Chris Kyle was murdered by a fellow soldier during the filming of the movie.
Pros: I love a good war movie, and this movie delivers in terms of exotic locales that are beautifully shot. Chris Kyle, a sniper with more confirmed kills to his name than most, is a frustrating character, but a bulked up Bradley Cooper is able to push past the misogyny, racism, and machismo on the page to create a compelling character. Sienna Miller also turns in a solid performance.
Cons: Unlike the much better film Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper suffers from the fact that there is no clearly defined or established villain. The rival sniper doesn't even become a factor until the last third of the movie. Really, with his antiquated, violent understanding of manhood, Chris Kyle is basically framed as a bad guy before the war even starts. Then, he starts killing female and child Iraqi militants with reckless abandon, and the film never stops to consider the murky moral waters it's wading into. Anything even approaching a problematic topic is swept under a rug with AMERICA IS THE F*CKING BEST emblazoned on it. The bad guys are called Savages like Disney's Pocahontas never even happened, and the Americans are the good guys because they JUST ARE so shut up or we'll shoot you, too, you communist. At one point, someone almost makes the point that all of the murders Kyle commits are weighing heavily on his soul, but he maintains that he only wishes he could have killed more of them. If that isn't bad enough, there's a ridiculously #fakebaby, and the 'sexiest' scene of the movie revolves around Kyle sexily forcing his wife to sexily strip at sexy gunpoint. Like a sexy rapist.
Best Picture Winner: No. It's poorly constructed and offensive. Eastwood famously works to make ambiguous movies without a clear moral leaning. However, without a strong rudder, it seems as though the film takes the side of the protagonist. And that's no good.
Something to Say on Oscar Night: Chris Kyle definitely is the most lethal sniper in U.S. Military history, with over 160 confirmed kills. Also, his last name is also a common first name.
Film Grade: C- 


Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Stars: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Smart, Andrea Riseborough, and Jackie Hoffman
Story: Past-his-prime actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) attempts to revitalize his career by staging a play and repair his relationship with his recovering-addict daughter (Emma Stone) by hiring her as his assistant. As the specter of his most-famous role hangs over his head and he increasingly loses his grips on his temper and reality, Riggan has to decide what's important in his life as everything starts to slip away.
Pros: This movie is a master class in over-acting, reminiscent of that episode of Friends when Joey and Gary Oldman spit-act at each other. Michael Keaton, playing a fictionalized version of himself, is pretty great, and a reminder that Keaton is the best Batman around. Screw Christian Bale. Also, Zach Galifianakis is great, as is Edward Norton. The film's frenetic pacing is at times problematic but beautiful overall, and the story, while bare-bones, is told well throughout.
Cons: The film is told in one-shot, which is an interesting film technique made less interesting by the fact that it's clearly multiple shots manipulated by CGI to look like a single shot. The acting is purposefully both gritty and campy, and some actors can handle that better than others. Naomi Watts suffers the most, but Emma Stone is also under-served by the style and the material. She may be trying to sell her character as a wayward youth, but all I see is a doe-eyed sass-master. Also, on a story note, the movie is an interesting look at the fractious relationship people have with reality, but the ending is so ridiculous that it threatens to undo all the goodwill that the movie built up prior.
Best Picture Winner: This beautiful, hectic mess could possibly win Best Picture, which is a kooky concept.
Something to Say on Oscar Night: You want to see an amazing one-shot movie? Check out Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. It's phenomenal, only half as hammy as Birdman, and Jimmy Stewart is credited as James Stewart.
Film Grade: B+

Director: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
Story: A young man named Andrew (Miles Teller) is a really good drummer. An older man named Fletcher (JK Simmons) is a teacher and a sadistic asshole who really cares about tempo. They basically undergo a 50 Shades of Grey-style sadistic and abusive relationship but with drums instead of beatings and just as much sexual tension and conversations about how someone is throwing their lives away.
Pros: The acting, across the board, is excellent. I haven't completely gotten aboard the Miles Teller train, but I'm starting to see the appeal. His intensity is admirable, and he has the ability to create a full character out of scant material. As his domineering and manipulative teacher, J.K. Simmons is a marvel. He's been quietly turning in brilliant performances for years, but this might be the most intense and beautiful role of his career. not counting his excellent work as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films and the voice of the Yellow M&M. His role, as a teacher looking for greatness in his students but driving them to madness in the process, could so easily be scenery-chewing and noxious, but Simmons keeps it just on the right side of believability. Also, outside of the acting, there is a lot of drumming and talking about drumming. So, if you're into drumming (looking at you, Ringo), then this movie is right for you.
Cons: I'm a little sick of the 'lone genius' narrative that pervades movies. He's the best, and he's pushing himself to greatness, but he comes across as an entitled prick. His dad (Paul Reiser) just wants him to be happy, and the overwhelming message of the movie is that happiness is second-fiddle to greatness. Even more than that, depression and suicide are okay side-effects of achieving that greatness. It's a little disgusting. This is a movie filled with disgusting people and Paul Reiser.
Best Picture Winner: Nope, but J.K. Simmons should make room in his trophy case.
Something to Say on Oscar Night: It's great that white people finally get to be celebrated for their contributions to jazz and blues.
Film Grade: B-

Here are some movies that probably also follow angry/deranged white people
that should have been nominated:

Directed and written by Dan Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo star in this dark noir following a somewhat psychopathic man, Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) who films crime scenes and sells the footage to a local news station. As he gets closer to the crimes and more emotionally fixated on his station chief (Russo), Bloom starts staging crime scenes in order to get the perfect shot. It's a beautiful, disturbing movie, and it deserves more attention than it's getting. Plus, it's another signal (after Thor 2) that Rene Russo might be coming back to movies after a prolonged absence. I'm incredibly in favor of a Rene Russo Renaissance (a Rene-russ-ance, so to speak).

Gone Girl
I'm hesitant to call David Fincher overlooked, since he's a filmmaker universally loved by the Academy and film students the world over. Still, this is another instance where a movie he makes following a complicated female lead is largely ignored. Sure, the incredibly talented Rosamund Pike has earned a nomination for playing the supremely complicated Amy Dunne, but no noms for Fincher or writer Gillian Flynn is ridiculous.  This movie is dark, twisty, complicated, frenetically paced, and, for the most part, really well acted. I mean, I love Ben Affleck-Garner as much as the next person, but even I was surprised by how good he is in this movie.
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