Best Picture: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
Will Win: Boyhood. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic that the Academy will choose this over the stale, one-note satire that is Birdman, but I have a feeling Boyhood’s marketing campaign (“It was 12 years in the making,” and “Nostalgia”) will be irresistible to voters. It also helps that the movie is pretty great too.
Should Win:Boyhood or Selma. The only winners that would make me visibly upset are Birdman and The Theory of Everything, though.
Left out: My personal favorite movie of last year, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, would never, ever be nominated for Best Picture. Neither would many of my other favorites, like Only Lovers Left Alive, Abuse of Weakness, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely or John Wick. However, many of my others could have reasonably been nominated here, including Inherent Vice, Gone Girl and The Immigrant.
Selma Directed by: Ava DuVernay Written by: Paul Webb Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson and Oprah Winfrey
Selma, Ava DuVernay’s stirring, forceful chronicle of the campaign for equal voting rights in Alabama, is one of the great political dramas in recent years. Its greatness lies in its compassionate and nuanced portrayal of that struggle on all levels, from frustrated but determined residents of that Southern town to the activists who flocked there hoping to force a reluctant president to act.
The horrifying scenes of police brutality during Bloody Sunday that were broadcasted on TVs around the world are ferociously recreated here, and informed by the raw, intimate stories of the brave men and women involved in that march. DuVernay wrests those historical images from the past and creates a totally immersive and shocking sequence here. The Edmund Pettus Bridge becomes shrouded in a thick cloud of tear gas as police smash, whip and otherwise brutalize the peaceful demonstrators.
Abuse of Weakness Directed by: Catherine Breillat Written by: Catherine Breillat Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Kool Shen, Laurence Ursino and Christophe Sermet
Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness is the semi-autobiographical story of a struggling director whose latest film is impeded by pseudo-romantic entanglement and a debilitating stroke. The first 20 or so minutes of this movie are profoundly horrifying, as Breillat hovers over Maud (Isabelle Huppert) being jolted out of sleep by that stroke. “Half of my body is dead!” she yells to an emergency dispatcher on the phone.
Huppert’s intensely physical performance in this moment and in the rest of the film are crucial to its success, and Breillat films her agony at an often disturbingly close proximity. Abuse of Weakness doesn’t feel intrusive, though, because it is fused with Maud’s subjectivity and not simply a chronicle of her gradually losing her dignity.
Boyhood Directed by: Richard Linklater Written by: Richard Linklater Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater and Ethan Hawke
The last shot of Richard Linklater’s 1993 film Dazed and Confused is the open road from the point of view of a high school senior-to-be. He’s one of the dozens of characters weaving in and out of that sprawling recreation of a single Texas day in 1976, maybe even the closest the movie has to a main character. And like so many other characters in the movie, I remember things about him, and not his name (I had to look up that it was Randall).
I remember how he slings his arm around an incoming freshman and treats him like a little brother, and how that freshman’s wide eyes take everything in as he tries to figure out how to act cool around the big kids. Then there’s the moment where Randall “Pink” Floyd hangs out on a football field drunk and stoned with his friends, enveloped by the stars in the sky. His journey in the movie is deciding whether or not to embrace being labeled a slacker.
A Most Wanted Man Directed by: Anton Corbijn Written by: Andrew Bovell (screenplay), John le Carré (novel) Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Rachel McAdams and Robin Wright
Though this John le Carré adaptation switches between being a generic spy caper and a thrilling one, it was a great moviegoing experience for me simply because it was the last new movie I’ll ever see with Philip Seymour Hoffman in a leading role. Yes, he’ll return as a supporting player in the final Hunger Games installment(s), and his debut in the last movie was filled with promise; but this is his last time at center stage, and I’m glad (but not surprised) that he knocks it out of the park.
A Most Wanted Man, directed by Anton Corbijn, is several steps behind the flashes of mastery in Tomas Alfredson’s take on le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and it even copies many of the visual elements used in that movie. There are brightly colored rooms filled with drab spies speaking cryptically, and windowless, deglamorized operation hubs that felt lifted from the world of Alfredson’s film. Though both movies benefit greatly from fantastic central performances, A Most Wanted Man’s winding, post-9/11 paranoia narrative doesn’t establish character nearly as well.
Snowpiercer Directed by: Bong Joon-Ho Written by: Bong Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson (screenplay), Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette and Benjamin Legrand (graphic novel) Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-Ho, Octavia Spencer and Tilda Swinton
In Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ho and his production crew do something that is incredibly important in sci-fi films: they’ve mapped out a vision of their world down to every minute detail. This is where, for the most part, other recent films that attempt to show the horrors of tomorrow go wrong. Divergent and The Hunger Games films are competently made and their action sequences are sometimes thrillingly executed, but their generic, uninspired dystopias are almost interchangeable when arrows and bullets aren’t flying.
Snowpiercer is by no means a perfect film, but it is a transporting one. Its success is in its environment, in its imagining of a train that appears to be all that is left of civilization after an attempt to thwart global warming ended up freezing Earth and killing off nearly everything. Here a person’s value in society is, for the most part, measured by how close they are to the engine. (Spoilers ahead) Someone at the tail of the train can have their arm frozen off for protesting when their child is dragged away for work, while those in the front eat sushi and have access to a train car that is a huge night club.