It’s late February again, which means the temperatures are going down (to record or near-record lows), the snow is piling up (to, in some parts of the country, record highs), and — thank heavens! — spring training is starting for our hometown Mets and Yankees (and everyone else).
Oh, and one more thing: the Oscars are here! The 87th annual Academy Awards are scheduled for this Sunday, February 22, at 8 P.M.
And if THAT doesn’t warm the frozen cockles of a movie-lover’s heart…
Here, then, are my rankings of this year’s Best Picture nominees, followed by my takes on a few other key categories (bearing in mind that, as always, I’m picking who I think should win, not who will win):
For the first time ever, I’m starting off this most important of all the Oscar categories by declaring (gasp!) a tie.
My TWO picks for the very best of this year’s nominated films are…
“THE IMITATION GAME” and “THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING”
Far and away the cream of this year’s crop. One of them, “The Imitation Game”–a riveting look at Englishman Alan Turing’s efforts to crack the Nazis’ notorious Enigma Code during World War II–was also moving, suspenseful, and exquisitely acted: Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing was superb, and Keira Knightley as his fellow code-cracker/companion was better than ever.
And even more moving, if that’s possible, was the Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything”, in which the remarkable Eddie Redmayne pulled out all the stops — physically, vocally, and emotionally — as the crippled and wheelchair-bound but wholly unconquerable Hawking, and Felicity Jones was every bit his equal as his loving, fiercely-determined, never-say-die wife.
There you have it — two brilliant films, heartbreaking yet life-affirming, each in its own way. How to choose between the two? Why even try?
The rest of the list…
Everyone knows the story behind this Richard Linklater masterpiece: how he shot it for just a couple of weeks a year for twelve long years, so that he — and we — could watch a fractured but loving American family, including the “boy” of the title, survive the calamities of daily living, large and small, right before our eyes. As young Mason, Ellar Coltrane was cute and tow-headed and curious and vulnerable, just as you’d expect a kid to be from childhood through his teens. Patricia Arquette as his mom, Ethan Hawke as his dad, and Lorelei Linklater — the director’s daughter — as his older sister were all terrific. Never boring, always charming, often moving. A resounding success.
So what if questions about America’s involvement in Iraq never came up? Or if it seemed like one long valentine to the brave men and women who fought and died there? A brilliant movie — based on a book by Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history — as notable for its acting, particularly a no-frills star turn by the increasingly chameleon-like Bradley Cooper, as for its painstakingly detailed look at what it takes, and the sacrifices that must be made, to wage — and win — a war. Lots of blood, but lots of heart, too.
A powerful drama about the epic voting rights march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery in 1965. All the major players are here — Martin Luther King Jr., who organized and led the march, his wife Coretta, Andrew Young, Malcolm X, LBJ, J. Edgar Hoover, and many more. As the film’s star and moral compass, David Oyelowo captures King’s quiet determination and preacherly cadences perfectly. A fine array of character actors does admirable work, as well. The beatings and shootings are truly jarring; the end will leave you cheering. Perhaps the most important film of the year, and a must-see. Director Ava DuVernay should have been nominated for pulling it all together, but wasn’t. A shame.
Another successful experiment, this one from director Alejandro G. Inarritu. Michael Keatron presses all the right emotional buttons as a one-time TV star hellbent on reviving his career by adapting–not to mention starring in and directing — an obscure Raymond Carver short story for Broadway. The gimmick, of course, is that Inarritu’s camera appears to be following Keaton around in one long, continuous take, which gives the film such a sense of immediacy, such a you-are-there vitality, that you feel like an eavesdropper, a voyeur. A little too angst-ridden — all those actors and their loved ones baring their souls to each other grew a tad tiresome after awhile — but Keaton and Edward Norton and Emma Stone and all the rest of them were uniformly excellent, and the hustling, bustling, Times Square settings — where some of the outdoor scenes were shot — have never looked more chaotic, or vibrant.
The tears, sweat — and sometimes blood — that go into learning, and mastering, a new piece of music. Miles Teller plays a talented but masochistic conservatory student, a drummer; J.K. Simmons is his drill sergeant teacher. The movie charts their volatile relationship — shouting matches, physical altercations and all — and Teller is utterly believable from first scene to last, but Simmons strikes an abrasive note early on, and never lets up; we don’t know why he’s so loud and coarse (a lip-service explanation is offered late in the film but that’s all), we’re just supposed to accept it. A sledgehammer of a movie that could have used a bit more subtlety, a tad more levity…and a lot more insight into the minds of its characters.
“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”
Handsomely shot and pretty as a picture — ironic, considering that much of the plot revolves around the theft of a beloved painting — but little else. Ralph Fiennes stars as a scoundrel of a concierge, Tony Revolori is his loyal lobby boy/partner in crime, the whole cast delivers its lines in the same deadpan, monotone style, and I didn’t care a whit about any of them. A cold and brittle film, and not just because most of it is set in the icy, snow-covered Alps. Typical Wes Anderson: lots to admire, but little to love…or latch onto.
AND NOW FOR SOME OF THE OTHER CATEGORIES…
Tie: Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”
Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”
Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Robert Duvall, “The Judge”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”
Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game”
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Graham Moore, “The Imitation Game”
(Next up: My review of the telecast itself. Enjoy the show!)
FILM REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien