On my birthday, I pointed out to Veronica that two years ago we saw Argo and it went out to win Best Picture, so we were going to see Birdman.  We did.  It did.  Huzza!

On my birthday, I pointed out to Veronica that two years ago we saw Argo and it went on to win Best Picture, so we were going to see Birdman. We did. It did. Huzza!

The 87th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2014.  The nominations were announced on 15 January 2015 and the awards were held on 22 February 2015.

Best Picture:  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Selma
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Boyhood
  • Whiplash
  • American Sniper

Most Surprising Omission:  Foxcatcher

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Gone Girl

Rank (out of 87) Among Best Picture Years:  #20

The Race:

28 August  –  Let the conjecture begin.  Actually, the conjecture began the day after the last ceremony.  But today, the Gurus of Gold put out their initial list, before Telluride, before Venice, before Toronto.  There are 25 films that earned votes, 23 of them with more than one.  But only nine of them received at least 12 of the 14 votes, and only one of those has actually been released.  With 14 votes are Boyhood, Birdman, Gone Girl and Unbroken.  Just behind with 13 are Foxcatcher, Selma and Interstellar.  Rounding out the list are Wild and Fury, with 12 each.  Over at Gold Derby, there are also 9 films in the main running (with odds less than 50/1) out of the 44 listed.  Their list doesn’t include Selma or Wild but does include Inherent Vice (11 votes at Gurus) and Grand Budapest Hotel (9 votes, and another film that has actually been seen – the only one I’ve seen to date).  Other widely speculated films that earned votes (and haven’t been seen by anyone) include Into the Woods, American Sniper, A Most Violent Year, Big Eyes and Men Women & Children.

POST-OSCAR NOTE on 28 August – So, the Oscar prognosticators always want to show how smart they are.  But each group had 9 films listed and only ended up with 3 eventual BP nominees among them.

It’s worth noting that the directors of these films are a mix of those who have been nominated before but never won (Alejandro González Iñárritu, David Fincher, Bennett Miller, Paul Thomas Anderson, Rob Marshall, Jason Reitman), nominated for writing but not for directing (Richard Linklater, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, J.C. Chandor) and those who have never been nominated (Tim Burton, David Ayer, Ava DuVernay) and two interesting wild cards: Clint Eastwood, who has won twice before and Angelina Jolie, who has an acting Oscar but is directing just her second feature film.

15 September  –  Over the weekend The Imitation Game won the Audience Award in Toronto, something not to be overlooked given that previous winners include American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech.

24 October  –  No news, except it’s my birthday.  Two years ago, Veronica and I went to see Argo on my birthday and it went on to win Best Picture.  So, this year, I choose Birdman, partially because it looks awesome, and partially because I’d love it if it goes on to win Best Picture.

25 November  –  Just before Thanksgiving, with all the festivals over and almost every film having been at least seen by major critics, even if they can’t be talked about yet, it breaks down like this.  At this point, the Gurus have eight films with at least 10 votes: Boyhood, The Imitation Game, Birdman, The Theory of Everything (all four with 14 – two of which weren’t even on the initial pre-Festival list), Selma, Unbroken, Foxcatcher and Gone Girl.  Interstellar and Grand Budapest Hotel round out their Top 10.  Three of the top 4 have better than 10/1 odds at Gold Derby, with Unbroken there instead of Theory of Everything.  The rest of their list, which all have odds of 25/1 or better are Selma, The Theory of Everything, Gone Girl, Foxcatcher, Whiplash and Interstellar, so only one film different among the two groups.  The awards begin in earnest next week with the New York Film Critics.
Of all of these films, Gone Girl is by far the biggest moneymaker to date, with $156 million and Interstellar the only other one with over $100 million while several have yet to be released.

1 December  –  And let the awards marathon officially begin.  The New York Film Critics give Best Picture and Director to Boyhood.

2 December  –  The National Board of Review is next, giving Best Picture (and Actor and Supporting Actress) to A Most Violent Year, which likely will push its chances up, as it hasn’t been getting a whole lot of play.  Best Director goes to Clint Eastwood but the NBR hasn’t fared as well with its Director picks (Collateral, Sweeney Todd, Invictus).

7 December  –  The Boston and LA Critics chime in and both groups go with Boyhood for Picture and Director.

This makes only the sixth time that New York, LA and Boston have agreed on a film and that said film won Picture and Director at all three groups.  One of those – The Hurt Locker – went on to win the Oscars.  The other four are all examples of that dreaded “critics / awards groups split” – GoodFellas, L.A. Confidential, Brokeback Mountain and The Social Network.

10 December  –  The SAG Awards don’t really have a Best Picture category, per se.  But they do have Best Ensemble and this year it’s only going to help the front-runners as the nominees are Boyhood, Birdman, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything.  The fifth nominee is Grand Budapest Hotel, which likely needs some help and will likely get a boost tomorrow with the Globe nominations.

11 December  –  The Globe nominations land and Unbroken might be done for.  It scored no nominations at all.  Interstellar isn’t much better, only getting in with Score.  The films nominated for Picture, Director and Screenplay are Boyhood, Birdman and, surprisingly, Grand Budapest Hotel.  Selma has Picture and Director while Imitation Game has Picture and Screenplay.  But Gone Girl has both Director and Screenplay nominations and no Picture nom, getting bumped in favor of Foxcatcher.  The Theory of Everything is also in for Picture, but with Actor and Actress noms, it looks stronger than Foxcatcher.  The BP – Comedy / Musical nominees also include Into the Woods, St. Vincent and Pride.  Birdman has the most overall noms (7), followed by Boyhood and Imitation Game (5 each), then Grand Budapest Hotel, Theory of Everything, Gone Girl and Selma (4 each).  I posted various trivia about the Globes today which can be seen here.

15 December  –  Unbroken is still alive, with Picture, Director and Screenplay nominations from the BFCA, the best predictor of the Oscars.  Also in with the three biggest awards are Boyhood, Birdman, Grand Budapest Hotel and Gone Girl.  Selma is in for Picture and Director but not Screenplay while Imitation Game and Theory of Everything get Picture and Screenplay but not Director.  The last two Picture nominees are, in a surprise, Nightcrawler and Whiplash, both of which are also up for Screenplay.  Interstellar only manages technical nominations.  Foxcatcher and Into the Woods both score supporting acting noms but not the major awards.

5 January  –  The Producers Guild break the long drought.  There has been the National Society of Film Critics in the meanwhile, but they picked Godard’s Goodbye to Language.  A Golddderby writer posited that it could be a surprise nominee for Picture, Director and Screenplay, but proved himself an idiot because he didn’t check the Academy’s eligible list and realize it’s not eligible for any awards.  The PGA nominees are Boyhood, Birdman, Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, Gone Girl, Grand Budapest Hotel, Nightcrawler, Whiplash, Foxcatcher and American Sniper.  This is definitely another big blow to Unbroken and pretty much death for Interstellar.  The absence of Selma is tied in to the fact that screeners weren’t sent out, which begs the question of whether these people need to have free films delivered to their homes in order to vote.  Things are looking really up for Nightcrawler, Whiplash and American Sniper while Foxcatcher is rebounding nicely.  It seems like there are now 12 films really in the thick of things (if Into the Woods is out, which seems more likely now) – the 10 nominees, with Selma strongly in the race and Unbroken still alive.  The question becomes, which three (if the Academy nominates nine again) will be out next week?

7 January  –  The Writers Guild comes in.  As has been the case in recent years, this isn’t the best barometer, as Birdman, The Theory of Everything and Selma aren’t eligible, while Whiplash is competing in a different category than it will at the Oscars.  All eight of the eligible PGA nominees are nominated, five in original and three in adapted.  But the final two adapted spots aren’t Inherent Vice or Unbroken – they go to Wild and Guardians of the Galaxy.

8 January  –  A day off before the BAFTA nominations.  Seven guilds have chimed in and Grand Budapest Hotel and Imitation Game have landed with each one (include, Cinematography, a surprise one for Imitation Game).  Birdman has six (all but the WGA, where it wasn’t eligible).  Theory of Everything and Boyhood have both SAG Ensemble and PGA and since Bridesmaids is the only film since the expanded BP lineup to get both of those and not earn an Oscar nom, things look good for both of those.  That leaves anywhere from 0-5 spots left.  Gone Girl, Nightcrawler, Whiplash and American Sniper all earned PGA, WGA and ACE noms and all but American Sniper earned Picture and Screenplay at the BFCA.

Goldderby is currently listing a Top 10 of Boyhood, Birdman, Selma, Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash, Gone Girl, Foxcatcher and Unbroken, with American Sniper, Interstellar and Nightcrawler following up.  Gurus has Boyhood, Birdman, Imitation Game, Selma, Theory of Everything, Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash, Gone Girl, American Sniper and Foxcatcher, with Nightcrawler, Into the Woods and Unbroken following up.

The Oscar nominations close today, before the BAFTA nominations tomorrow and the Globes on Sunday (and DGA next week).  Just a guess on my part?  I honestly don’t know what will be out.  I suspect Birdman will lead the noms, followed by Grand Budapest.  I think Boyhood and Gone Girl with get Director and Writing noms.  After that, I’m not really certain what will get in.  I believe Imitation Game and Theory of Everything will definitely have Picture and acting noms.  I think Whiplash and Nightcrawler look strong.  American Sniper looks strong, but it might be like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Eastwood’s earlier Invictus, and stumble at the end.  I honestly have no idea what will happen with Foxcatcher or Into the Woods or Unbroken or even Selma.

9 January  –  The BAFTA nominees are in, and it doesn’t really clear things up.  Grand Budapest Hotel has the most (11), followed by Birdman and The Theory of Everything (10 each).  Those three and Boyhood are up for Picture and Director, while Imitation Game (9 noms) isn’t up for Director, being replaced by Whiplash.  Nightcrawler has four noms, including Original Screenplay.  Foxcatcher gets acting (two, including Carrel in supporting), American Sniper gets Adapted Screenplay, Gone Girl gets Actress and Adapted Screenplay.  Into the Woods only manages tech noms while Selma and Unbroken don’t even get that.

12 January  –  The Golden Globes were last night and it’s questionable if they changed anything.  After all, the Oscars have already voted for their nominees.  But, Grand Budapest Hotel‘s win for Best Picture – Comedy may give it more support for a potential lead in total nominations.

13 January  –  The DGA finally announce and it’s Linklater, Iñárritu, Anderson, and in surprises, Eastwood and Tyldum.  No Fincher.  So, at this point, either American Sniper will be only the second film of the new expanded Best Picture lineup (2009-present) to earn a DGA nomination but not a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, or, it will become the first film since Gosford Park to earn a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars without a single BFCA nom.

15 January  –  The final Goldderby list of the Top 9 are Boyhood, Birdman, Imitation Game, Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma, Theory of Everything, Whiplash, American Sniper and Gone Girl, with Foxcatcher as a #10.  The only difference at Gurus is that they have Nightcrawler in #10 instead of Foxcatcher.  My own guess, and this is just a guess since this year is so strange (the last two years, I had 10 films written down and both times my #10 made it in over my #9), is that Selma will be out and Nightcrawler will be in.

The Results:  The Academy goes full on strange.  First, they only nominate eight films.  Second, for the first time in the new expanded lineup, they nominate a film for Best Director but not Best Picture (Foxcatcher).  Third, they nominate Selma for Best Picture, but its only other nomination is for Best Song.  That leaves it with the lowest point total of a BP nominee going into the Oscars since 1943.

I was some right (Birdman and Grand Budapest Hotel tied for the most nominations).  I was also some wrong (Gone Girl only got Actress, Nightcrawler only got Screenplay).  Boyhood and The Imitation Game join Birdman and Grand Budapest Hotel in the Director race.  American Sniper is in, though not for Director.  Whiplash, The Theory of Everything and Selma round out the nominees.

15 January (later) – Even though they couldn’t possibly have known this, since the votes were already tallied, the Broadcast Film Critics seem to respond to the Oscars – giving awards in several categories where a film was passed over by the Academy (Birdman in Editing, LEGO Movie in Animated Film, Force Majeure in Foreign Film) or ineligible (Birdman in Score).  But Boyhood wins Picture and Director.

Only two films have ever lost Best Picture after winning both the Globe and the BFCA – Saving Private Ryan and Brokeback Mountain.

24 January – In a surprise, Birdman wins the PGA, the only award that votes in the same type of ballot as the Academy.  No film has won the Oscar without it since 2006.

25 January  –  Birdman now takes the SAG Ensemble.  Of the 20 years the SAG Ensemble has existed, only nine films have won both the PGA and SAG Ensemble.  Of those, only Apollo 13 and Little Miss Sunshine failed to win the Oscar.

7 February  –  Now Birdman takes home the DGA.  It is now in strictly Apollo 13 territory if it doesn’t win the Oscar.  Apollo 13 won those three then lost to Braveheart (which had at least won the WGA).  However, Apollo 13 had failed to earn a Best Director nom at the Oscars, so these are different circumstances.  With Birdman not eligible at the WGA, it can’t sweep them all.

8 February  –  Boyhood bounces back by winning Picture and Director at the BAFTAs.

14 February  – Grand Budapest Hotel and Imitation Game win the WGA.  This gives us a few possibilities.  Either 1 – Birdman becomes the first film since 1980 to win Best Picture at the Oscars without a Best Editing nomination; 2 – Boyhood becomes the first film since 1985 to win Best Picture at the Oscars without winning any of the four major guild awards (two of which didn’t even exist in 1985), or Grand Budapest Hotel or Imitation Game wins the Oscar in a surprise.

The major Oscar pundits are still split on this.  Some are definitely holding onto Boyhood, at least partially out of a preference.  Some are calling those other pundits idiots for ignoring the three major guild wins for Birdman (okay, by some, I mean Jeff Wells).  I honestly don’t know what will happen.  I’d like to think Birdman will win, but that’s because I have a big preference for it.  We’ll find out in a week.

22 February  –  And here comes Oscar night.  And it’s Birdman for the win.

Two of the three amigos win Best Director in a row.  Does Guillermo Del Toro have a film coming out in 2015?

Two of the three amigos win Best Director in a row. Does Guillermo Del Toro have a film coming out in 2015?

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

  • Director:  Alejandro González Iñárritu
  • Writer:  Alejandro González Iñárritu  /  Nicolás Giacobone  /  Alexander Dinelaris  /  Aramndo Bo  (with some dialogue from the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver)
  • Producer:  Alejandro González Iñárritu  /  John Lesher  /  James W. Skotchdopole
  • Stars:  Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis
  • Studio:  Fox Searchlight
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Norton), Supporting Actress (Stone), Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  455
  • Length:  119 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:   17 October 2014
  • Box Office Gross:  $40.81 mil  (#79  –  2014)
  • Metacritic Rating:  88
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #75  (nominees)  /  #25  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Norton), Supporting Actress (Stone), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Visual Effects
  • Nighthawk Points:  610

I initially had an idea of trying to write an entire review of Birdman all in a single sentence and see if it could possibly make sense, if it could examine all the amazing things that are encapsulated in this film and yet somehow not seem like a ridiculous run-on sentence.  But I didn’t.  The main reason I didn’t is because writing an entire review as one sentence would be a gimmick and this film is anything but a gimmick.  Yes, this film is edited in such a way that it makes it seem like the entire film is one continuous shot.  But, this was pointed out before the film opened.  If it hadn’t been, I bet a lot of people never would have noticed.  And people get so hooked on that idea, the notion that this might be a gimmick that they overlook how remarkable an achievement it is and how well it works for the film itself.  The film flows continuously, through its acting, through its writing, its editing, its incredible music and through its brilliant cinematography.  This is a true original film and it is reflected in every shot.

This is the story of Riggan Thomson, an actor who is desperate, after his years in a costume, to be thought of as a real actor.  He’s taking all the risks, using his own money, producing and directing and starring in his own adaptation of a short story that has a lot of dialogue but not a whole lot of action and things are starting to go wrong.  So, when he’s faced with problems – replacing a cast member, fighting a critic who is going to eviscerate him no matter what, getting locked out in his skivies, wondering if he just knocked up one of his cast, dealing with a daughter who can barely tolerate him and trying to lose the shadow of the superhero that’s hanging over his shoulder, well, then all the parts of his life start to run together.  This is no longer the slow slog of a normal life; his life has moved into a rapid pace trail of potential self-destruction.  So we have this one continuous shot (actually, of course, there is no way this is one continuous shot, but the fact that it looks like it is shows how brilliant the directing is, for making it all flow so smoothly, the cinematography, which makes every shot work as if it is one, the editing, because of seamlessly smooth the whole film flows, the score, for the way the music knows exactly how to come in and out, and for someone who doesn’t like jazz that’s saying a lot from me, and of course, the acting, because even if this isn’t one two hour take, it is a series of really long ones, all of which require perfect timing from the acting) and we watch as Riggan comes apart before our very eyes.

There are the many ways in which this film is remarkable.  There is the comic aspect of the film, a film about a man’s complete self-destruction in a public venue that never ceases to be funny.  There is the dramatic performance from someone like Zach Galifianikis, a comic actor who is finally showing some good dramatic range, and if I only mention him by name it’s because he’s the one who’s gotten much less praise.  After all, this film has the career-defining performance from Michael Keaton, who has long been one of our most under-rated actors, with great performances in Beetlejuice, Clean and Sober, Batman, and especially, Much Ado About Nothing.  This film has the best performance of the already much-lauded career of Edward Norton, whether he’s picking a fight, showing his theatrical range, stroking his ego or making it clear exactly how turned on he is.  There are the supporting performances from a trio of actresses: Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and in a small but key performance, Amy Ryan.  Most of all there is Emma Stone, who has already shown herself to be a comic actress with exquisite timing but here she takes her career into the stratosphere, alternating between the most vicious takedown of a character on film in years and showing how much she genuinely cares for her father, putting together social media for him to help save him after making it so plainly clear how little he matters, not just to the world, but to her as well.

But most of all, there is the ending.  What is a film, after all, if not for its ending?  Sometimes that can be the final measure of what a film really is, tragedy or comedy.  This film is brutally funny, sometimes in a laugh out loud kind of way (“How do you know Mike Shiner?”  “We share a vagina.”), sometimes in a cringing kind of way (the Times Square scene), sometimes in a way that combines both (Mike’s obvious arousal).  But it is also the self-destruction of a man, and that is tragic to watch, as someone works so hard and obviously is heading towards doom.  And certainly pulling the kind of move that Riggan pulls on stage doesn’t cry out comedy.  But I think it all comes down to that final shot.  Because when she comes to that window, everything in the film hinges on that single moment.  When she looks up, and she smiles, everything just falls into place and we can smile along with her.

I honestly can't remember the last time I laughed this loudly in a movie theater.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I laughed this loudly in a movie theater.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

  • Director:  Wes Anderson
  • Writer:  Wes Anderson  /  Hugo Guinness
  • Producer:  Wes Anderson  /  Scott Rudin  /  Steven M. Rales  /  Jeremy Dawson
  • Stars:  Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Willem DaFoe, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan
  • Studio:  Fox Searchlight
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Score, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  325
  • Length:  100 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:   7 March 2014
  • Box Office Gross:  $59.10 mil  (#55  –  2014)
  • Metacritic Rating:  88
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #80  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Fiennes), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  375

Two things happened in the theater while Veronica and I were watching this film that perhaps made it clear that this was not an average film.  The first was when I laughed so hard and so loud that Veronica actually hit me.  The second came just a few minutes later when Veronica gasped so loud that I think the whole theater heard her.  Neither of those things happen very often.  They certainly don’t happen in the same film.  Yet, The Grand Budapest Hotel is that kind of film.

If you just look at this film at the surface it doesn’t seem like a film for the ages.  First of all, it is a rather whimsical comedy, a genre of film that doesn’t really make it on all-time lists.  Second, it is a particularly stylized films with visual effects that are deliberately outdated, a story that has layer upon layer of storytelling process.  Third, it has an intense mixture of extremes – brutally funny moments, but characters who are beheaded (with the head shown after death), characters who have fingers chopped off (Veronica’s gasp), cats who are murdered (my laughter) and in the end, really, a rather tragic conclusion.

And yet, this is one of the greatest comedies ever made, on a par with the best of Billy Wilder’s work.  It is great for a variety of reasons.  First, because it is so incredibly funny – whether in the brilliant performance from Ralph Fiennes (he has done some comedy but nothing, absolutely nothing, that could prepare us for the lunacy and brilliance of this performance in its pitch perfect timing and delivery), in the outlandishness of what happens (the cat is hilarious, the head is pretty funny once we realize it’s not who we thought it was, Adrian Brody’s discover of the theft of the painting makes me laugh out loud) or just the way the characters interact with each other (“Are you Monsieur Gustave . . .”  “Yes, dammit!”).  Second, it has some of the most incredible technical work of any film, but especially for a comedy (which aren’t generally known for technical work).  Only 106 films have ever won 4 or more Oscars and only 12 of those were Comedies.  How many of those won 4 Oscars is technical categories?  Just one before now: The Sting.  The sets are incredibly detailed and beautiful, the makeup is remarkable, the score is absolutely wonderful (no, it doesn’t win the Nighthawk, but it comes damn close), the Cinematography is exquisite.  This is, quite simply, a beautiful film to look at.  And yet, we don’t have to just look at.  There is an incredible ensemble at work here.  Lots of films are able to gather great casts, but this film really knows how to use it, whether the brilliant comic timing of Ralph Fiennes, the menace of Willem DaFoe, the determination (but also decency) of Edward Norton (shades of his previous Wes Anderson role in Moonrise Kingdom), the brutality of Harvey Keitel (so hard to think of him in a Comedy) or the intenseness of Saoirse Ronan (almost a parody on her role in Atonement).  The film comes to life in every way possible, it never stops being funny (even when it’s tragic) and yet, it’s always poignant as well.  This time, this country, this hotel, all of them spring from Anderson’s fertile imagination (though inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig), but all of them feel like they could have existed, or that we want them to have existed.  Either way, we have this film, and that is enough.

Benedict Cumberbatch as a socially inept British genius?  Yes, somehow I think I can picture him in this role.

Benedict Cumberbatch as a socially inept British genius? Yes, somehow I think I can picture him in this role.

The Imitation Game

  • Director:  Morten Tyldum
  • Writer:  Graham Moore  (from the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges)
  • Producer:  Nora Grossman  /  Ido Ostorowsky  /  Teddy Schwarzman
  • Stars:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Alex Lawther, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear
  • Studio:  The Weinstein Company
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Cumberbatch), Supporting Actress (Knightley), Editing, Score, Production Design
  • Oscar Points:  310
  • Length:  114 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:   28 November 2014
  • Box Office Gross:  $87.32 mil  (#36  –  2014)
  • Metacritic Rating:  73
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #85  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Cumberbatch), Supporting Actor (Lawther), Supporting Actress (Knightley), Editing, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  375

The biopic has long been a treasured part of the Oscar race.  In 1936, The Great Ziegfeld won Best Picture while Paul Muni won Best Actor playing Louis Pasteur.  The next year, Muni would star in Best Picture winner The Life of Emile Zola.  The problem is how to make them interesting.  The Academy may shower awards on Gandhi, The Last Emperor and A Beautiful Mind, but they don’t hold up nearly as well later.  Yes, some biopics hold up remarkably well – Raging Bull, for example, or The Aviator.  But we can’t get Marty to direct all the biopics.

The Imitation Game get around this problem, which is part of why it is so much a better film than its fellow biopic of a British genius in this year, The Theory of Everything.  It gets around the problem in several ways, all of them tied in to the remarkable script that really makes a great film where a lot of other attempts would have been no better than very good.

The first is the framing device.  Framing devices are not original to 2014, of course.  Yankee Doodle Dandy made brilliant use of its framing device, of course, and Amadeus used one and won Best Picture (and actually deserved it).  But the framing device in Life of Pi (admittedly, not a biopic) is the worst thing in the film.  So, the framing device in and of itself does not guarantee success.  But The Imitation Game, which is framed by the arrest of Alan Turing that resulted in his conviction for “gross indecency” does a fantastic job with it.  Turing isn’t asked to give his life story, as George M. Cohan was, and isn’t seeking redemption like Salieri.  He is explaining something about himself, and it provides for some brilliant narration from Benedict Cumberbatch, including the first lines of the film that take us right into the action.

The second thing that the screenplay does well is build around a very specific event.  Some films are thought of as biopics, when they are in fact, not, but rather built around a specific event (Lincoln is a great example; The King’s Speech would be another).  The Imitation Game, of course, is built around Turing’s work during the Second World War, as he says “we’re going to break an unbreakable Nazi code and win the war.”  King George may have given an inspirational speech, but the work that Turing and the others at Bletchley did, actually won the war.

There is also, however, a third layer.  That third layer helps us understand precisely who Turing was and it is what makes this film a biopic and not simply a film about a historical event.  It is those flashbacks to Turing’s childhood at school, when he first realized that he had deep emotions for another person and who that person was.  These experiences, in a man already not particularly well adjusted to deal with the average human being, help shape Turing’s personality and provide that extra layer of depth that really marks how well the script of this film is written.

All of that brilliant writing, of course, would be nothing if there wasn’t a film of this remarkable ability built around it.  The music, from Alexandre Desplat, is truly moving and works every time it comes in.  The editing and cinematography, not normally things which are noticed in a biopic, are first-rate.  The direction from Morten Tyldum earned one of the more surprising DGA and Oscar nominations, but, in my opinion (and I can’t believe I write this while passing over Christopher Nolan), deserved it.  And the acting.  Oh, the acting.  There are solid performances all around in the smaller roles, from Matthew Goode, from Mark Strong.  There is the very good performance from Keira Knightley, finally getting her back in the Oscar race after being passed over for Atonement and Anna Karenina.  Perhaps the most surprising (and certainly the most unheralded) performance in the film comes from Alex Lawther, the teenage actor who portrays the young Turing at school.  I don’t know why younger actors in these kind of roles so often get overlooked (other examples: Hugh O’Conor in My Left Foot, Noah Taylor in Shine), but they do, and they shouldn’t.  Lawther is quite remarkable.

Still, the film would not work without the truly remarkable performance from Benedict Cumberbatch at its heart.  The first thing I said to Veronica after seeing the film was that I was irritated.  In 2013, either Cumberbatch or Michael Keaton would be my Best Actor winner.  Yet, in 2014, I am forced to choose between one or the other.  Then again, I left for the movie saying “I’m off to go see Benedict Cumberbatch play a man who’s smarter than everyone else but is totally incapable of interacting with other human beings.  I don’t expect him to struggle in the role.”

Something interesting happens at the end of this film.  So much of a film can depend on what happens as you are walking out.  There isn’t going to be anything much happy at the end of this film – the end of Alan Turing’s life is too heart-breaking for anything like that.  And yet, the filmmakers have done something remarkable, to leave us with a sense of joy and comradeship walking out.  The war is over, of course.  The work has been done.  And those all-important geniuses of Bletchley are told to burn all the evidence of the work they did.  It is too secret a story to be told.  And so, instead of the persecution by the government, instead of the tragic death that may have been an accident or something more, we get something else for our ending.  We see those code-breakers all standing together, rejoicing, the war having been won, and as they stand there, reveling in the fire that is destroying what they have spent years working so hard at, we can get a sense of closure, and a sense of peace and actually leave the theater on a note of, perhaps, joy.

Note:  People who have my memory (a small group) and my obsession with the Oscars (another small group), provided they actually exist (unlikely) may remember something Jon Stewart said at the Oscars in March of 2006: that Walk the Line was Ray re-made with white people (which, in fact, was exactly I thought it was at the time).  But I thought of it when leaving The Imitation Game for one reason.  This film could be re-made in America.  Why can’t we have our own story about the genius with the tortured life, who helped to end the war and save countless of his countrymen’s lives, only to find himself in the 1950’s pushed away and betrayed by the very government which relied on his genius less than a decade before?  It’s sitting there, ready to be made.  It would be called American Prometheus.

An important part of our history is given a vibrant film.  Not in my Top 5, but I was like the Academy and nominated 8, it would be in there.

An important part of our history is given a vibrant film. Not in my Top 5, but if I was like the Academy and nominated 8, it would be in there.

Selma

  • Director:  Ava DuVernay
  • Writer:  Paul Webb
  • Producer:  Christian Colson  /  Oprah Winfrey  /  Dede Gardner  /  Jeremy Kleiner
  • Stars:  David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Stephan James, Tom Wilkinson
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Song
  • Oscar Points:  70
  • Length:  128 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:   25 December 2014
  • Box Office Gross:  $50.59 mil  (#64  –  2014)
  • Metacritic Rating:  89
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #7  (year)  /  #200  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Oyelowo), Original Song (“Glory”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  45

I went to the local theater in Arlington on the night the Oscar nominations were announced.  Like last year, it was a mistake.  Last year, the mistake was that I ended the night with 12 Years a Slave, which was far too bleak to end with.  This time the mistake was seeing Selma, because I should have seen something else that night and waited until the following Monday and seen Selma on Martin Luther King Day.  It would have been more appropriate.

Going in to the theater, I already knew that Selma had been nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song but no other awards.  So, I had on my mind the whole time, was this film snubbed in other categories or does it really not belong (bearing in my mind that I only nominate five films and the Academy nominated eight for Picture)?

Selma does several things very well.  It has good music that works well to keep up the inspired themes of the film.  It has costumes that look very good.  It has some really great cinematography – certain shots, like the way the camera slowly rises above the bridge to reveal who is on the bridge, before giving us the reverse shot to see what is waiting on the other side are really remarkable.  But in a year like this, with films like Birdman, Interstellar, Gone Girl, The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel, that’s not enough to make my top 5.  All of this is held together very well by Ava DuVernay – her direction is first-rate.  But again, that doesn’t make it enough to push it into my top five.

There is the question of the script.  It was ineligible at the WGA, but no group nominated the script, not the Globes which nominated the film for Picture and Director and not the BFCA, which did the same and has the added luxury of two screenplay categories.  And the script is the heart of the problem with the film.  There are problems with the film, in spite of my **** rating.  First, there is the LBJ factor.  Now, I have tried to make it clear in the past that I don’t expect a feature film to have absolute fidelity to history.  But, if there are changes, I expect them to further what the film is doing.  I don’t dislike the LBJ scenes because they do a disservice to him (though they do).  I dislike them because they are unnecessary to the story.  LBJ was an extremely complex man and the film would been better off for portraying him as he was.  You didn’t need someone else in the way – you already had the cartoon villain of Wallace and the creepiness of Hoover.  But mentioning Hoover brings up the other problem with the script; it’s really unnecessary to narrate the actions with updates from the FBI.  Yes, they had him bugged.  But it distracts from the story as a whole, rather than enhancing it.  King did enough without us being distracted by that.

And that gets to another point, one in the film’s favor.  Yes, King had affairs – that much has been acknowledged.  And the scene with the tape works well, even if the idea that LBJ had the tapes sent to Coretta Scott King at this point in time is completely ridiculous.  I don’t require my heroes to be perfect.  No one is.  And King is one of my heroes; with “Pride” as my favorite song since I was 10, I have grown up with his ideas in my head and his assassination as a tragedy for all the world.  It reminds us that he was human and prone to imperfect choices.

Which gets me around to the most important strength of this film: the performance from David Oyelowo.  The best scenes in the film are the ones where he is really allowed to take over – the two speeches in the church, his command over the marchers in Selma, his interactions with SNCC.  Yes, there are other strong performances in the film (Carmen Ejogo as Coretta, Stephan James as John Lewis, Tom Wilkinson as LBJ), but in every scene that he is in, Oyelowo takes command, the way we would expect Martin Luther King to take command.  Even in a very crowded Best Actor field, this is clearly one of the best performances of the year and the one that really ensures that this film, while not perfect, is most assuredly great.

A tale of two people with may more determination than you or me.

A tale of two people with may more determination than you or me.

The Theory of Everything

  • Director:  James Marsh
  • Writer:  Anthony McCarten  (from the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking)
  • Producer:  Tim Bevan  /  Eric Fellner  /  Lisa Bruce  /  Anthony McCarten
  • Stars:  Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Charlie Cox
  • Studio:  Focus Features
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Redmayne), Actress (Jones), Score
  • Oscar Points:  220
  • Length:  123 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:   7 November 2014
  • Box Office Gross:  $35.24 mil  (#85  –  2014)
  • Metacritic Rating:  72
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #16  (year)  /  #265  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Redmayne), Actress (Jones)
  • Nighthawk Points:  70

Sitting in the theater watching The Theory of Everything, it made me feel a bit dismayed about the state of the major races this year.  Redmayne is clearly excellent in his portrayal of Stephen Hawking – he goes perfectly from awkward graduate student to angry young man dealing with the possible loss of love and life and has the brilliant line about only having two years left and “I have work to do.”  Felicity Jones was also good, but not nearly on the same level.  And yet, they were both clearly going to be in the Oscar race (I saw the film before the nominations were announced).  The Best Actor race was clearly going to be stacked – having already seen Birdman and The Imitation Game, I knew Redmayne wasn’t going to end up any higher than third on my list.

Then something happened over the course of the second half of the film.  While many might focus in on Redmayne’s performance as he suddenly has to be confined to the chair and do more and more acting with his eyes and slight movements, I thought that this was really where Jones was taking over.  This was a better sign, both for the presence of Jones’ place in the race (in the end, she makes my top 5, obviously, but this is still a much much stronger year for Actor than Actress, and for that I blame not the actresses themselves, but Hollywood for not making films with better lead roles for women), but also for the film as a whole.

As I said last year about Dallas Buyers Club, Warner Bros used to make films like this 80 years ago.  Dallas was a solid example of this kind of film, but no better than that.  Yet, The Theory of Everything is a much better example.  So why is that?  It’s not the two main performances – Redmayne and Jones are about equal with McConaughy and Leto.  So, what is the difference?

Well, the difference is in where they go with it.  Dallas ended up being a typical film about someone fighting against the medical establishment and being right and coming out, at least psychologically, ahead.  It followed a trail blazed by The Story of Louis Pasteur and Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet.  So what about The Theory of Everything?  Isn’t it just a typical biopic about a great man?

It ends up more than that, and it’s the performance by Felicity Jones in the second half of the film that really gets at that.  Jane Wilde is told that Stephen is likely to live only about another two years and she marries him knowing that.  In some ways, I thought, as I watched the second half of the film, it might have been easier for her if that had happened.  She would have mourned him for decades, but she would have also been able to go on with the rest of her life.  She would not have been caring for a (physically) invalid husband, raising three children and trying to finish her own graduate work.  It gives way to anger and resentment.  There is so often the cliche of the great man supported by a woman.  But it adds an extra barrier when the man is also physically supported by that woman.  And the subtle touches of anger and resentment that creep into Felicity Jones’ eyes (untouched by age, it would appear, though – the makeup on Redmayne is quite good, but Jones doesn’t ever seem to age in the movie, except in changes to her hair) are what the performance much more remarkable.  Though I would still rate Redmayne’s performance the better one, by the end of the film I was no longer looking at it as problematic that she was being hailed as one of the best performances of the year.  The second half of the film really belongs to her.

It is still not a great film.  It still suffers from the biopic problem of being a greatest hits of a person’s life and that always impairs a narrative flow.  The Imitation Game got around that, of course, by having a central time to focus around and then built the rest of our knowledge about the subject’s life around what was going in at the heart of the film.  Because Hawking’s work lacks that kind of dramatic moment that Turing’s did, it is harder to create a film that could function like that.  But this is a very good film, one of the better examples of this kind of film and it comes down, at the core of it, to those two remarkable performances that really dominate, first the first half of the film (Redmayne’s), and then, the second (Jones’).

An great achievement does not in and of itself make something a great film.

A great achievement does not in and of itself make something a great film.

Boyhood

  • Director:  Richard Linklater
  • Writer:  Richard Linklater
  • Producer:  Richard Linklater  /  Cathleen Sullivan
  • Stars:  Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
  • Studio:  IFC
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Hawke), Supporting Actress (Arquette), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  250
  • Length:  165 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:   11 July 2014
  • Box Office Gross:  $25.36 mil  (#100  –  2014)
  • Metacritic Rating:  100
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #17  (year)  /  #268  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

Boyhood is a remarkable achievement.  That does not necessarily make it a remarkable film.  As most people will already know, I was disinclined to like this film from the start.  As one of its stars, it has Ethan Hawke, who I have loathed for a while as an actor, for doing such consistently awful work (Tape, Lord of War and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead excluded) and, as a writer, which I feel I should put in quotes.  For a director and screenwriter, it has Hawke’s friend, Richard Linklater.  I have seen most of Linklater’s 17 feature films and think that most are vastly over-rated (with a few exceptions: Tape, School of Rock, Bernie).  I finally saw it expecting it to be just a gimmick – the film that was made over the course of 12 years.  That I didn’t think it was just a gimmick, that I thought it was a very good film (but not great film), was surprising to me and there are a few reasons for it, the first being Hawke’s performance, the strongest one in the film.  Hawke’s characters often don’t grow in his films, but this one actually does, and that growth is a key part of the film.  Most of the characters in the film have simply aged 12 years – they haven’t necessarily developed as characters (or, you could say, as people), but Hawke actually has.  He has a surprising line to his son about how he’s finally grown into the man your mother wanted me to be – if she had just been patient, it would have been fine.  And his son replies that would have saved him a lot of grief from alcoholic assholes.

And that brings me to one of the problems of the film.  That there does seem to be so little growth from so many of the characters.  Because people do change over the course of 12 years and several of these characters don’t really seem to have grown – they simply seem to have aged.  And that I find to be a weakness of the screenplay, and the screenplay is a weakness in the film.  Too much of the action over the years feels forced, feels plotted out, even if it was filmed over the course of a long period of time.

The best moments in the film are the ones that seem the least scripted (one of them was in fact, according to Linklater, the only really unscripted moment) – the scene at the Astros game where Hawke is expounding about the history of what they are seeing (that he is right, steroids or not, makes it ring more true) and the talk in the mountains with his son about whether there will ever be another Star Wars film (ironic now that we know there will be one).  I never really found the family scenes with Patricia Arquette convincing and never thought she was any better than okay – I have honestly been surprised at the amount of awards attention she has been getting.

One commenter on my Oscar trivia page noted that this was a film like watching our own boyhoods over the course of 12 years.  That might be true.  But I would never think my own boyhood, even in 10 minute snippets over 12 years would make for a particular good film, and it might make, like this one, for an overly long film that really starts to drag.  I think Linklater did a very good job of directing the film and holding together the idea.  I think Hawke was very good in the film – certainly the best performance he has ever given.  And the film is very good.

But a key reason it is very good is because of Ellar Coltrane.  Linklater compared him to picking the Dalai Lama, but a more accurate comparison might be Harry Potter.  You had to pick someone who would age in front of a camera and continue to mature in his acting ability.  Coltrane, of course, was a lot younger than Dan Radcliffe when he started.  When a little kid, he still acts like a little kid.  As he matures, he always gives a graceful performance – nothing about his performance ever feels forced (unlike Linklater’s daughter, who is not nearly as good, or Arquette, whose performance feels forced into the bad relationships that her character never seems to grow out of).  He looks just at ease in his late teens as he did as a kid.  I still don’t necessarily think that the story of Mason Evans, Jr. is interesting enough to merit a film of over 2 1/2 hours.  But watching Coltrane age on film and do such a good job of it over the course of 12 years, that is interesting.  It reminds me of the best aspect of the 7 Up series.

Given that I really don't like jazz, I was surprisingly sucked in with the use of music.  Not so much with the plot holes.

Given that I really don’t like jazz, I was surprisingly sucked in with the use of music. Not so much with the plot holes.

Whiplash

  • Director:  Damien Chazelle
  • Writer:  Damien Chazelle
  • Producer:  Jason Blum  /  Helen Estabrook  /  David Lancaster
  • Stars:  Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
  • Studio:  Sony Pictures Classics
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Simmons), Editing, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  240
  • Length:  107 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:   10 October 2014
  • Box Office Gross:  $12.26 mil  (#126  –  2014)
  • Metacritic Rating:  88
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #23  (year)  /  #287  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor (Simmons), Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  70

There is a glaring plot hole at the climax of Whiplash that really damaged my opinion of the film, and unfortunately, there is no way for me to discuss it, or to discuss what I thought of the film in general without discussing it, so if you don’t want the conclusion ruined, stop reading.

This film is the confrontation between two similar personalities.  One of them is a promising young drummer named Andrew.  He is played, with great fervor and determination by Miles Teller.  Andrew knows what he wants in life.  He wants to drum.  He wants to drum so badly that he is willing to go through anything to do it, be it running away from a car crash (that’s not discussed later even though there would be huge legal ramifications, but that’s not nearly as big a plot hole as the one that bothers me more), or dumping the really cute girl who works at the movie theater he so often goes to because he knows in his heart that eventually the drumming will come between them and he knows what he cares about more.  You wonder if she’s more upset at the callous way he dumps her or because it’s clear that this guy will always care about drumming more than he could ever possibly care about her.

The other one is Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons in a performance guaranteed to win him the Oscar, and though he doesn’t win the Nighthawk it’s a pretty close call between him and Norton), the conductor of the leading jazz band at the prestigious music school that Andrew attends.  Fletcher is the type of leader who leads by sheer brute force – usually that’s a mental and emotional force, although it sometimes becomes physical as well.  In his clear passion for the music, I am reminded of Anton Ego, the food critic in Ratatouille, who says “I don’t like food.  I love it.  If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.”  Early on we see Fletcher berate one of his musicians before Andrew gets his first chance to play in the band.  Then Fletcher takes Andrew aside, asks him some questions about his life, seems like he can be a nice guy who’s just a hardass, but no, he uses the personal things that Andrew tells him to become a monstrous ogre as soon as Andrew is attempting to play for him.  There are plot problems here as well, since the kind of abuse that Fletcher dishes out would have had him fired years before, but that will come into the plot later.

Things finally culminate in Andrew going berserk and getting expelled and Fletcher getting fired.  They then run into each other and Fletcher invites Andrew, who he knows had the most talent of any of the drummers involved in the story, to play with his band at Lincoln Center.  It turns out Fletcher knows that Andrew got him fired and there is an elaborate revenge planned where Andrew doesn’t have the right music and will play badly in front of important people.

This is the ridiculous plot hole that mars the film.  First, how would Fletcher have known he would run into Andrew?  Second, wouldn’t the rest of the band find all of this odd?  Third, does Fletcher, who clearly expects Andrew to leave in defeat, really intend to have his band then play with no drummer?  He’s already been fired, but he still has a reputation as a conducting genius.  Will he risk that just for the revenge?  It all seems so contrived and ridiculous that it almost undermines the entire film.  Then we get a “happy” ending in which student and teacher are in a sense reunited in the love of music, in the appreciation on one hand, and the ability on the other.  The ending perhaps inspires other people to miss the glaring plot hole.

In the end, this is a happy ending, and a satisfactory one for the film, because of these two men and their similarities.  After Andrew has been expelled, his father is encouraging him to get Fletcher fired and says to him “Do you think I would let him do this to my son?”  His father doesn’t realize that Andrew has done this to himself.  While Fletcher may be pushing Andrew, Andrew is also pushing himself, sprinting away from his car accident, with a bleeding head, because drumming is everything to him.  Andrew is the type of person who needs someone to push him over the line and keep pushing.  Fletcher is the man who has been pushing people far over the line for too long but has finally found the person with the requisite talent and drive (you need both).  So, these two men need each other, and in the end, they have each other.

Just remember, it's a film, not a history lesson.

Just remember, it’s a film, not a history lesson.

American Sniper

  • Director:  Clint Eastwood
  • Writer:  Jason Hall  (from the book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwan and James Defelice)
  • Producer:  Clint Eastwood  /  Robert Lorenz  /  Andrew Lazar  /  Bradley Cooper  /  Peter Morgan
  • Stars:  Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
  • Studio:  Warner Bros
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Cooper), Editing, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  190
  • Length:  132 min
  • Genre:  War  (Iraq)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:   25 December 2014
  • Box Office Gross:  $332.69 mil  (#3  –  2014; #33 – all-time)
  • Metacritic Rating:  72
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #25  (year)  /  #290  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  40

You don’t have to believe in the right-wing narrative of the Iraq War (whether it be about 9/11 or WMD) in order to think that American Sniper is a well-made film that gives a particular narrative about one man, why he went to war, and what in the end, it cost him (or gave him).  The film itself, made with great talent by Clint Eastwood, with another first-rate acting performance from Bradley Cooper (five years ago, when The Hangover came out, who would have guessed that Cooper would soon have three straight Oscar nominations) and with remarkable work in the editing, cinematography and sound, speaks for itself as a film.

Eastwood clearly has a vision for the film.  That vision involves giving us a solid picture of Chris Kyle, the sniper at the heart of the film.  I say a solid picture rather than a complete picture because it’s clear from the things that Kyle wrote in his book that the film glosses over some of his more repellant aspects.  It doesn’t erase them completely – you still see the man who believes that he’s eradicating evil with every person he shoots from hundreds of yards away, but it does tone it down somewhat.  That vision works well with the cinematography (there are some truly remarkable shots in the film) and especially the sound – the sound itself is somewhat disturbing at times.  And Eastwood doesn’t completely erase Kyle’s needs to feel himself the legend that people tell him he is.  When he takes an incredible shot from a ridiculous distance, he feels he is doing it to save lives, even though it is made clear to him that he will also be giving away positions and making it harder for his fellow soldiers and this, in some ways, is actually where the film makes an attempt at moral clarity – Kyle believes his own view is more important than his orders – a tricky thing for someone in a military unit.

But the problematic aspect of the film is, ironically, the part of the film that has earned the most nominations – the script.  The film wants to move too quickly – I never really got any sense of when things were happening.  Kyle kept returning home and going back to Iraq and I never got a sense of real narrative flow.  What was happening on screen at any one time made sense, but it never really worked as a whole.  So, it is a well-made film.  But it never really takes that leap into **** because of the script.

Now, that brings me back to my original statement.  You do not need to believe in the narrative of the film to see its strengths as a film.  If you knew nothing of the Iraq War and simply watched the film, it is a very good, well-made film, with a remarkable performance in its center.  However, if you want to believe in the narrative as it concludes, if you want to be one of those people hailing Kyle as a hero at the end, that’s where things break down.  The film provides us with a flawed man (incapable of living a normal life) who finds his calling in life (a rather sick calling that involves killing other people while keeping himself mostly out of harm’s way).  He believed in his narrative (go kill the Muslims who are threatening the U.S.).  That I find his narrative sickening does not mean this is any less of a film.  But to buy into the notion at the end that this man is a hero who deserved those people standing there by the side of the highway mourning him?  Well, I think history will be clear on this one.

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