I’ve just seen the last of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (of those I intend seeing). My socks have not been explosively removed but there have been some aspects of all of them that left an impression. Those impressions are collected overleaf:
This is the film I don’t intend watching. Clint has made some great films (Unbroken in particular) and his two-sided look at Iwo Jima was brave and intelligent film-making but, after the Obama/chair performance, I don’t trust his judgement about the (last, official) Iraq war or Chris Kyle’s part in it. The clips and reviews haven’t changed my mind.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)
This is a breathless tour-de-force, apparently shot in one take (although actually ‘just’ designed and edited magnificently). About the nature of film and theatre stardom and, perhaps, the nature of reality, it contains enough dazzling performances and verbal fireworks to explain why Emma Stone’s eyes are popping out of her head throughout. It left me impressed but unsure whether or not I’d just been watching a magic show.
A human story on the smallest and largest scale, dropping in on a boy’s life over twelve years as he becomes a young adult. That life contains everyday drama that, like that in most of our lives, knocks us about a bit but doesn’t destroy us. The joy in this film is not from what happens but from how the humans interact with each other as they play son, daughter, mother, father, husband, wife, step-dad and how they adapt as they get older. I think there’s an even more fascinating film in there called Girlhood, starring Lorelei Linklater.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Another great technical feat, creating a pink Wes-world of intrigue, oddity and skulduggery. Ralph Fiennes is superb as the nutty centre of this confection but it’s the style and panache of the whole creation that provides the fun. But Moonrise Kingdom is better.
The Imitation Game
Rightly criticised for its fudging of the facts, this is still a great story well told and one that attempts to redress history’s disgraceful dismissal of Alan Turing. Veering uncomfortably towards Sheldon Cooper territory on occasion, Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a convincing performance amongst the stereotypes and cyphers. Keira Knightley convinces as brainy posh totty, unsurprisingly.
The third and most powerful of the four biopics in this year’s list. It may be overly respectful of MLK (despite the subtle hints of marital infidelity) but I’ll forgive it for the calm, almost forensic, exposition of how he forced LBJ to take on George Wallace and his ilk. It’s wonderfully shocking to see so many black actors taking centre-stage and being portrayed as individuals, not tropes (that’s the whites’ function). It’s horribly shocking to know that white authority still tries to prevent black folk from registering to vote and kills and incarcerates them at will.
The Theory Of Everything
This respectful biopic of Hawking and his first wife nonetheless contains a magnificent depiction of his physical degeneration by Eddie Redmayne, on a par with DD-L in My Left Foot. It’s difficult to believe that the relationship was quite as grown-up as the film implies though.
Mostly, this is a brutal film about talent, ambition and artistic truth, thanks mainly to JK Simmons’ performance. At key moments, however, it makes him behave illogically so that it can cleave to the romantic belief that burning desire is really all you need to become a great musician, a bit like Glee. Another technical triumph, in that you believe Miles Teller is actually playing those drums, but there is a lot of drumming (alongside some excellent band jazz). It’s a pity that the many black musicians all stay in the background (despite the likes of Charlie Parker being a repeated reference point) and that the only female musician is kicked out for simply being cute.
The Oscar choice seems to be between Boyhood and Birdman, two technical yet also sentimental films about real humans: Ellar Coltrane and Michael Keaton. I suspect the Academy parents’ lobby will prevail. I wanted both films be slightly better than they are, but that may be my problem, not theirs. I’d rather Selma won, for its truth-telling, its attempt to re-frame black history and its timeliness. It won’t, because 12 Years A Slave rinsed the Academy’s conscience last year.
Although not masterpieces, my favourite films of the last year are Pride and Leviathan. They both tell of struggles against an implacable authority with wit and integrity: the former a true, heart-warming tale of unlikely co-operation; the latter an entirely believable tale of bitter mistrust.
Btw, if you want a sex film for Valentine’s Day, immerse yourself in Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac, which is rather more 50 grades of shame than 50 shades of grey – and all the more fascinating for that. It’s primarily the philosophical intercourse that gets the juices running, although it does contain real rumpy-pumpy.