Feb 18, 2015

2015 Best Picture Nominees, Part 2 [The Biopic]

For the second in my three-part look at the films up for Best Picture at this year's Oscars, I'm looking at the three films who most cleanly fall into the Biographical Picture category, or 'biopic.' Plus, unlike the first three films I reviewed, I actually think all of these three films deserve to be nominated.  But, I also included some snubbed films at the end, because no system is perfect:

Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Wendell Pierce, Lorraine Toussaint, Common, Niecy Nash, Tessa Thompson, Giovanni Ribisi, and Cuba Freakin'Gooding, Jr.
You can't stop MLK
Story: In an effort to sway people towards justice and increase awareness of the need for a bill guaranteeing equal voting rights, Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and a group of civil rights activists plan and execute a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Along the way, they face opposition from local mayors, sheriffs, and the President of the United States (Tom Wilkinson as LBJ).
Pros: This is easily the most affecting film I've seen in some time. It pulls on your emotions without seeming manipulative, and its story is incredibly timely given the battles being fought by civil rights activists today. It's brilliantly acted (Oyelowo and Toussaint stand out, but everyone is fantastic), directed, and written. It takes a huge story and makes it feel incredibly human, and it gives a voice to many characters whose stories have been lost to time.
Cons: I will say that the film spends a little bit too much time dealing with President Johnson's misgivings about passing a bill that would give all Americans the right to vote. It's interesting, but this isn't his story, and, any time the film spends more than a few minutes on him, it loses focus. Still, it's a small quibble for an otherwise resplendent film.
Best Picture Winner: This movie won't win Best Picture, and I'm putting the blame squarely on Old Whitey's shoulders. The lack of nominations for this film in other categories, while it is almost universally loved by critics, definitely showcases the Academy's well-documented problems with race, especially when non-white actors are portrayed in positions of power rather than ones of servitude. The Help and 12 Years a Slave, which are both good movies, were rewarded by the Academy in part because they fit into their picture of what Academy voters believe a black story can be, while this film (along with 2014's Belle and Beyond the Lights) are largely ignored.
Something to Say on Oscar Night: Ugh.
Film Grade: A

The Imitation Game
Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, and Mark Strong
High-cheekboned British people talk
math in sepia tones.
Story: Genius and recluse Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) works with a team of statisticians, mathematicians, cryptanalysts, and other general geniuses to crack the German Enigma Code and win World War II. Simultaneously, Turing is also dealing with some pretty messed up childhood issues and trying to hide his homosexuality from the government and his cohorts. Aiding him in his adventures is Joan Clarke (Knightley).
Pros: There's a lot of story to pack into one movie, and the film is pretty good at keeping all of the metaphorical balls in the air. This is largely accomplished by leaning heavily on the cast, who turn in really strong performances. In particular, Cumberbatch, Knightley, and Goode do an amazing job of acting while also having amazing cheekbones. If you're a fan of cheekbones, this is the movie for you.
Cons: The writing is a bit of a mess, with clunky dialogue throughout. Alan Turing is a tragic figure who we owe a great debt to, and he deserved a film that more eloquently and completely captured his genius and humanity. The film is bogged down by a marriage subplot that never really happened and seemingly only exists to give Knightley more to do, and the movie rushes to a conclusion while completely forgetting about the man at the center of the film. Also, all of the war scenes are poorly put together and stereotypical. I've seen practically hundreds of movies with air raids, families crowding into metro stations, and people bicycling past wreckage/carnage. It's been done before, and it's been done better.
Best Picture Winner: No. It's a biopic about a revered British gentleman, so it was guaranteed a nomination. But it probably won't and definitely shouldn't win.
Something to Say on Oscar Night: To this day, no computer has consistently passed the Turing test, but there are more and more near-successes every year. Why are we trying so hard to make smart computers!? Has nobody even bothered to watch I,Robot?!
Film Grade: B

The Theory of Everything
Director: James Marsh
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Harry Lloyd, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, and David Thewlis
Story: The Theory of Everything tells the story of the life of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) and his paramour Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). It starts with Hawking's early life as a student, his contraction of motor neuron disease, and his life over the next several decades as he deals with an expanding mind (and universe) and a crumbling body. His life and his marriage is fraught with personal and physical tragedies and triumphs.
Pros: Eddie Redmayne is electric in this movie. He brings a jaunty physicality to a difficult role, transforming his body and movements over the runtime of the film. He emotes so fully even as he is forced to use less and less of his body to do so. However, this film doesn't work without Felicity Jones, who is so quietly wonderful in this movie. Her love and anguish propel the movie through some sticky moments, and it's her grounded performance that keeps the film from spiraling.
Cons: The movie is a touch too concerned with the romance of science, so much so that it downplays Hawking's brilliance in order to more fully explore his humanity and frailty. It's a hard balance to strike, and it mostly works, but occasionally it feels like everything has been dumbed down.
Best Picture Winner: Probably not, but Eddie Redmayne's chameleonic performance will most likely bring him Oscar Gold.
Something to Say on Oscar Night: It's rare for biopics to be made about people who are still living. When Meryl Streep portrayed Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, the fact that Thatcher was still alive and in the throws of dementia caused a bit of an uproar. She still took home the gold statuette, though.
Film Grade: A-

Biopic SNUBS

Telling the story of Cheryl Strayed as she gets over the death of her mother and her many addictions by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the not-quite-a-biopic Wild is a haunting portrayal of loss and grief while also being a great advertisement for REI footwear and outdoor gear. While the film eventually just devolves into Cheryl evading multiple rape attempts, the movie is surprisingly still and meditative. Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern are also pretty great. But I'm in love with both of them to varying degrees, so my opinion is not super objective.

Steve Carell has gotten a lot of praise for his portrayal of John E. du Pont, and it's all earned. His obsession with and possession of the Schultz brothers (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) is terrifying and sad. You want to feel bad for him, but he's also a crazy person, so... This is probably the best movie I've seen about wrestling. Oh, wait, no. Win Win is better. But this movie has way more murder and fake noses. So let's call it a tie.

Big Eyes
Directed by Tim Burton and starring Academy-beloved actors Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, this movie is the Oscar contender that never really went anywhere. It is a little boring, but half the movies nominated this year are boring, so that doesn't really count it out. It's fun to watch a film about a character who's so deeply flawed as artist Margaret Keane. It's a fun movie that falls apart in the final act but has so much going for it. Including Krysten Ritter, who's a lot of fun.

Check out my reviews of American Sniper, Birdman, and Whiplash!
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