The Annual Bunfight

Gold Trophy ca. 2000


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:

American Sniper
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.

26 thoughts on “The Annual Bunfight

  1. Hi Chris ! ! !

    That is a great summary and thank you so much.

    I have not seen any of the movies so far, but I have advance tickets to Theory of Everything which will be released 13 March here in Japan, andI will go with my boyfriend who is an Associate Professor in Physics at the university where I am working – I want him to see that physicists can be romantic also ! ! !

  2. Loved Boyhood (yes, relationships and interaction rather than plot-driven – but that’s life innit?), Birdman (I loved the contrast between the scenes inside the theatre and both the mad rush back to the stage and the more extravagant effects at the end) and Grand Budapest Hotel (I also preferred Moonrise Kingdom though).

    Liked some aspects of Whiplash. The performances were spectacular and so was the music but all through it I wanted the bullied musicians to fight back and tell teacher to go fuck himself (which would have meant no film – or a very different one).

    Imitation Game took outrageous liberties with known facts and didn’t need to. Good, if not great, as a piece of film-making/storytelling and as a reminder of very recent shameful injustices.
    Theory of Everything based on his first wife’s own account and, again, not entirely reliable. Yes, I know biopics never are. Stunning performance by Redmayne. Could have done with more of yer actual science. we can take it.

    Haven’t seen Selma yet. Planning on a trip to the cinema tomorrow (so why are you posting today, you idiot??). Looking forward to it.

    Like you I have no intention of seeing American Sniper.

    • Selma: As I read somewhere, a great and important story doesn’t necessarily make a great and important film. It is a very good film indeed though and became more powerful as it proceeded.
      I will say that I thought some of the dialogue was a bit too much like speech-making, plus, occasionally a character filled us, the audience, in on historical/political facts which the other characters would already know and that jarred a bit.
      Didn’t like the background music when people were speaking although, in general, the soundtrack was great (Odetta!) so I’m being quite picky here.
      Overall though a success and well worth seeing. There were some great performances and the scenes with MLK and LBJ were excellent. I loved the real life pictures at the end of the film and, yes, it is a refreshing change for the black actors to take the central, pivotal roles.

  3. I’ve only seen Grand Budapest Hotel and Imitation Game so far. Which is a bit shocking. Must get out to the flicks over the next week or two. Really enjoyed both but wasn’t exactly wowed. Not my favourite Wes (Royal Tenenbaums for me, I think), and the unnecessary liberties taken with the facts of Turing’s tale bothered me too. I know I should want to see The Theory of Everything but I’m feeling a bit ‘class warrior’ about it. Which I’ve no right to do really, being as middle-class as they come, but seeing Eddie Redmayne being all Hugh Grant self-deprecating as he picked up his Bafta while the Academy failed to honour Bob Hoskins… Boyhood is the one I’m really kicking myself for missing. I suspect I’d love it.

  4. I haven’t seen any of these. We are hopeless at actually going to the cinema and usually end up buying the DVD instead.

    I expect that we’ll see the Turing and Hawking films, but I have huge reservations about any film that touches on any aspect of Bletchley Park, because they generally play so fast and loose with the truth that I get annoyed.

  5. Thanks for the overview Chris.

    I have to say, I didn’t fancy Birdman at all, looks a bit too wanky even for my self-indulgent tastes, but seeing as you gave it a positive review I might give it a go!

    I loved Boyhood and personally hope that it wins everything! It takes a lot of balls to play the long game in any creative endeavour….or anything…these days and Linklater should definitely get recognised for that if nothing else.

    The only others that I really want to see are Selma and Whiplash, much more so after reading this. Cheers!

    I’ve managed to see a few of the films recommended on the last thread and liked all of ’em.

    Littleriver: I liked Under the Skin a lot, but am not sure I understood it properly…or at all! The music (sorry…’score’) was incredible too.

    Bish: Absolutely loved The Lunchbox – exactly my simple, understated, sweet cup of tea.

    Chris: Leviathan was amazing! A daring and indeed bitter window into Putin’s vodka-soaked, corrupt, religion-dominated Russia.
    The other one I really liked was The Double. The austere retro-futurist dystopia, the sets, the completely unexpected Japanese 60s pop soundtrack and the whole ominous atmosphere complete drew me in. The bit parts (Tim Key, Chris Morris) were a treat too.

    • Yay!

      Keep thinking I ought to check out Leviathan, but I’m always slightly put off by the idea that it will be a rather gruelling watch. But I should give it a go – I bet I’d enjoy it (or at least appreciate it).

  6. Since they’ve been mentioned, Under the Skin was my favourite film of 2014. Just bought the DVD (five pounds at HMV!) so I can watch again. Lunchbox was an absolute delight. Of and so was Ida. And Paddington. And Locke! How come that didn’t get any nominations?

  7. Thanks for joining in, folks! I’ll join in the applause for Ida and I will get round to watching The Lunchbox, I promise (and Paddington, when it gets to the small screen).
    Under The Skin didn’t quite work, for me, as watchable as Scarlett is.
    You will enjoy Leviathan, bish, I am sure. It’s not gruelling. And Boyhood is now out on DVD.

    Other films I enjoyed (and probably mentioned elsewhere) are: Calvary, Frank, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Maps To The Stars, The Green Prince (the only notable documentary – I swerved Citizenfour for some reason) and Ex Machina. I thought Mr Turner a let-down.

  8. Birdman is ace. Loved the one take but not real time approach, which gave the whole thing a fever dream quality & unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. You do have to be in the right mood for it though.

    With Boyhood & Grand Budapest, a good year for innovation, if not diversity or box office receipts.

    Bradley Cooper was very good in Sniper, even if the choice of hero is extremely dubious. Lone Survivor is a much worse piece of misplaced propaganda. Avoid.

    Better Call Saul has been great so far, btw if you’re missing BB.

  9. I’m not a big fan of biopics so i haven’t seen either The Imitation Game or The Theory Of Everything. Selma hasn’t made it to MK yet but if it does turn up after half term I will consider it. I enjoyed Birdman a lot – especially the being-backstage-at-a-Broadway-theatre part, and Edward Norton was a hoot – and I liked Boyhood but found it a wee bit disappointing after all the hype. Some of it was rather too close to home – I found myself muttering “at least i didn’t give them an abusive stepfather” at one point. I also enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, loved Pride, loved Under The Skin. As I mentioned to severin on Facebook, I was totally put off Whiplash by the trailer. He told me there was more to it than that, but I was all “naah” by then.

    Took the littlies to see Paddington,and Penguins of Madacascar over Christmas, which were both ace, and we have Shaun lined up for next week! I’m not really bothered about the Oscars but am increasingly irritated by people being described as ‘Academy Award Winner so-and-so’ not to mention ‘Academy Award Nominee so-and-so.’ For heavens sake.

    I would watch Better Call Saul if I could. I love Saul. (And Mike.)

    • Forgot Mr Turner! (As did the Academy.) I loved it. Several people walked out of the showing I went to and I heard some mutterings about there being ‘no story’. But that was what I liked. And then i went to the exhibition at the Tate.

      And I liked Locke a lot too. What a clever film!

    • I watch Saul (and a couple of other old characters already) on Netflix. You get a month free so, if you cancel at the right time, it costs as much as a box set. But I don’t like having to watch on my PC. Or having to wait between episodes.

      • My connection isn’t really fast enough for Netflix – I did manage to watch Transparent (since Amazon offered it to me for free) but it kept stopping and starting quite a lot. So I think I’ll just wait for the DVD.

  10. Right, just seen Birdman. Admittedly I watched it on dodgy download and it may require a cinematic screening to really engage (or maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it), but I found it almost painfully self-indulgent. And the whole “one take” thing made it a bit relentless/exhausting. I kept praying for a bit of ‘downtime’. I also wasn’t always sure what point it was trying to make: were we supposed to see his acting at the end as better than earlier in the film? (Cos I didn’t.) Ed Norton was good value though!

    • Birdman definitely seems to be a film that has to find the viewer in the ‘right’ mood. I know gf (as well as severin, Shoey and tfd) loves it but I’m closer to your opinion, bish. A cinema viewing allows greater involvement but doesn’t answer the question ‘involvement in what exactly?’

  11. I’ve seen Birdman and The Imitation Game. Birdman was great, and seems to be getting lots of attention for the ‘single take’ issue over the ‘clever and witty dialogue about fame, celebrity, art, theatre, life . . .’ (my quote of me) which cracks on at a sparkling pace. Imitation Game showed me a Turing that was deeply unhappy and deeply troubled which probably/possibly led him to be a deeply unpleasant person. Would have liked to know a bit more about just how that damn machine worked – which it suddenly did when they could feed in a constant (did I get that right?). I did see some criticism that the sets looked a bit BBC, on the cheap, lacking in Hollywood slickness, but then again so did the sets for Monuments Men. My favourite film of recent times has been Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal: pop-eyed wacky and out-of-control dangerous. The sets on that film were either wonderfully dark and tacky or neon bright and tacky, or both at the same time. Hope I get a chance to see Whiplash.

  12. Just seen Selma – absolutely loved it. Can’t believe David Oyelowo wasn’t nominated for a best actor Oscar. Phenomenal performance – and not just in the grandstanding, speechifying moments (of which there are a fair few!). I know the Academy salved its conscience with 12 Years A Slave, but this felt a much more worthwhile (and enjoyable) film to me – and shockingly, depressingly timely, what with Ferguson etc.

  13. Right, finally seen Boyhood. If it doesn’t win Best Picture, I’ll be flabbergasted. (But then I’ve still not seen Whiplash or The Theory of Everything – and, like others, have no intention of going anywhere near American Sniper).

    • Keep at it, bish!
      Boyhood should probably win, I agree, but there’s a lot of spin around Birdman in Hollywoodland; another Best Picture award for it last night…..

      I can almost get annoyed about Selma. If the Academy are only going to reward one race-centred film a decade (at best), it’s more deserving than 12 Years: its hero is a positive figure, not an accidental one buffeted by white folk. The studio seems to have buggered up the Oscar campaign too. Shame.

      I presume you’ve seen Moonrise Kingdom, bish. If not, it’s on C4 tonight.

      • Absolutely agree about Selma. And I know great acting isn’t just – even primarily – about transformation (it’s about truth) but you see David Oyelowo talking as himself and he is SO far removed from the character he so completely inhabits… Hey ho, I’m quite glad he’s been so vocally disappointed – he and the film HAVE been done an injustice; why not point it out?

        Yes, seen Moonrise Kingdom, ta, but may watch again…

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