Posts Tagged ‘Academy Awards’

And the award goes to…

Posted: February 23, 2015 in English language
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Just prior to the 2015 Oscars the International Business Times ran an article about how the Academy Awards voters are dominated by white men (with an average age of 63). A number of voters quoted (from an interview with Hollywood Reporter) defended this year’s nominations on the grounds that these just were the best films. If we take that at face value, then the shortlist that the voters were faced with for Best Picture was as follows:

(a) A story about a brilliant white theoretical physicist who is struck by a terrible illness;

(b) A story about a young white man’s attempt to become a great jazz drummer;

(c) A story about a white middle-aged male concierge at a fictional European hotel;

(d) A story about a white boy growing up;

(e) A story about a white male mathematician who helped win the second world war;

(f) A story about a white male soldier who killed lots of dark-skinned people in Iraq;

(g) A story about a black man’s campaign for equal rights for black Americans;

(h) A story about a white male Hollywood actor, played by a white male Hollywood actor whose age in real life is the same as the average age of the Academy’s voters (63).

Events have conspired to keep me away from this blog over the last week or so, but after a year of blogging about film I feel it would be remiss of me – with just a few hours to go – not to make a few comments about nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. Needless to say, there are films that I would have liked to see shortlisted for Best Picture but which weren’t. Under the Skin would be the film I’d have given an Oscar to; this, Foxcatcher, and Nightcrawler were, in my view, all vastly superior to American Sniper and The Imitation Game. However, the Academy Awards, like the recent BAFTAs, seem to exhibition a certain degree of conservatism.

The main points of controversy have been the lack of recognition for black performers and film-makers, as well as the degree of dramatic license taken in many of the films depicting historical events. I have seen, though not reviewed, all of the films nominated for Best Picture and in some cases my view of a picture has changed since I first saw it. So, without further ado, here are my brief thoughts on the nominations.

American Sniper  I didn’t for one minute think that this was a pro-war film, but in retrospect I agree with many of the film’s detractors that it was problematical to view all events from the perspective of Chris Kyle. In particular, Kyle appears to swallow the falsity that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but director Clint Eastwood does nothing to disabuse the audience of this myth. We also know from Kyle’s own book that the opening scene of the movie is inaccurate, albeit in a way that invites the audience to share his view of Iraqis as “savages”: the woman we see carrying the grenade did not, in reality, pass the weapon to a child to carry. Nonetheless, to my eyes – if not to some other viewers – American Sniper clearly showed the American invasion of Iraq to be a futile venture. But does this film deserve its Best Picture nomination? Not in my view. By a long way, this is not even Eastwood’s best film.

Birdman (or the unexpected virtue of ignorance)Interweaving fantasy and reality, this is one of the more obviously dazzling nominees, with several terrific performances, a stirring soundtrack, and most of the film apparently shot in a single take. Michael Keaton excels in his role as Riggan Thomson, an actor who once starred as a movie superhero called Birdman, and who is now attempting to put on a Broadway theatrical production. There is obviously a degree of self-referentiality here, in that Keaton of course played Batman in two movies. Self-referentiality also appears when Riggan engages in fisticuffs with the volatile Mike, played by Ed Norton – who of course starred in Fight Club. Funny and inventive, Birdman is like Fellini’s remade by Terry Gilliam. I rather felt that the female characters played second fiddle to the men, but perhaps that simply reflects the way that Hollywood actually is.

Boyhood Richard Linklater is one of the most creative directors in the business, with films like the Before… trillogy, A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life, and School of Rock to his name. Filmed over a 12 year period, Boyhood is undoubtedly one of the most adventurous projects undertaken by any movie director. Some might question whether the slender storyline merits an Oscar, but on the other hand it is the very depiction of the development of ordinary lives that fascinates the viewer. As the winner of the Best Picture at the BAFTAs, this may have some momentum behind it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel  Wes Anderson’s latest has all his trademark visual style, as well as a range of weird and wonderful characters played by many of the most notable actors in the business. Ralph Fiennes gives a brilliant comic turn as Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge for the hotel of the title as well as a self-confessed lothario towards the female visitors. In my view Fiennes should have been nominated for Best Actor. However, like most of Anderson’s films this one amused me but failed to be as funny as I thought it would be.

The Imitation Game  I was initially very enthusiastic about this film. It is funny, thrilling, and despite its intellectual subject matter moves along at quite a pace. I wasn’t sure at the time just how historically authentic this was, but assumed that a few liberties had been taken in order to enhance the drama. That’s fine – up to a point. However, from what I have subsequently learned I feel that this is a film that has stepped over a line. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Alan Turing, but the simple fact is that Turing was not the socially awkward Aspergers-like character shown in the film. He had a sense of humour and worked well with his colleagues. Perhaps even more importantly, among the film’s fictitious constructions is the suggestion that Turing failed to disclose to the authorities that one of his colleagues was a Soviet spy (for fear that his homosexuality would be revealed). In effect, this depicts Turing engaged in an act that would have been considered treasonous, had it ever actually happened. On a more positive note, Keira Knightley is fantastic as Joan Clarke.

Selma  In many ways this is a brilliant and moving film. It follows Martin Luther King Jr, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and his award of the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which gave black Americans the right to vote, many southern states contrived various illegal devices to prevent black people voting. King attempts, unsuccessfully, to persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to tackle the problem of the southern states, but the President is resistant, wishing to focus on the wider problem of poverty. King travels to the town of Selma, where he organises a series of increasingly large demonstrations. The violent response to these is widely televised, leading the President to finally take action. It is surely a major oversight of the Academy that David Oyelowo was not nominated for his excellent portrayal of King. However, this film also is not beyond criticism. It seems to have been generally accepted that President Johnson was actually far more sympathetic to King’s cause than is shown here. It is interesting to note that three significant Americans (King, Johnson, and Governor Wallace) are all played by British actors (respectively: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Tim Roth).

The Theory of Everything  The story of Stephen and Jane Hawking, this could perhaps be a safe choice for the Academy’s voters. The cinematography is beautiful, the story moving, and the characters sympathetic. Jane and Stephen Hawking are said to have been very pleased with the film. Nonetheless, the film’s overarching romanticism surely airbrushes events that must have been far more difficult than is depicted here. Eddie Redmayne is brilliant as Stephen, as is Felicity Jones as Jane, and both are fully deserving of their Best Actor nominations.

Whiplash  In terms of pure entertainment, this is hard to beat. It’s the story of an aspiring jazz drummer who comes up against a teacher whose drive to create a new “great” tips over into outright bullying. As a story, it doesn’t have the same significance as something like Selma or The Theory of Everything, but the narrative construction is as tight as one of its own drumskins, and the final scene is more perfect than any of the other nominations.

My verdict:  Of the films nominated, I would give the Best Picture award to Boyhood, a film that is captivating and unique and deserves to be formally recognised as such. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy goes for one of the more obvious crowd-pleasers.

For Best Director, I would have to pick Richard Linklater for the above-mentioned Boyhood. To put together such an extraordinary film over a 12 year period, whilst also making some other great movies, is a monumental achievement.

I was sorry that Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t get nominated for Best Actor (male), for his role in Nightcrawler. I thought he was easily more deserving than Bradley Cooper (good though he might have been). This is a pretty tough category to choose from this year, though, with some stunning performances delivered. I rather suspect that Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne will pick up the award, but if it were left to me I would choose Steve Carell for his portrayal of troubled millionaire John du Pont in Foxcatcher. Some have said that this is more of a Supporting Role, but for me Carell absolutely dominates the picture.

As I haven’t seen all the films in the remaining acting categories I shall refrain from commenting on those. Possibly the most egregious omission from the Oscars, in my opinion, is Mica Levi’s soundtrack for Under The Skin. I thought this was a country mile ahead of anything else in the year just gone.

For Best Original Screenplay I would choose Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, and for the Best Adapted Screenplay I would choose Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.

I have seen just two of the films nominated for Best Documentary, but frankly – in terms of sheer contemporary importance – I find it hard to imagine how there could be a more deserving winner that Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour. This documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals just how badly we have been lied to by our governments about the scale of intrusive surveillance upon ordinary people. And more than anything, it shows just how brave Ed Snowden is.

As I write, there are just a few hours to go until the 2014 Oscars. I certainly couldn’t comment on all the categories, but happily I have managed to see all the films nominated for the Best Picture award so can share a few thoughts about this category as well as one or two others.

First, though – omissions. Everyone will have their own view about films that should have been included in the Best Picture category but weren’t, as well as those that are less deserving of inclusion. For my money, the most notable omission was the Cohen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Although this was a virtually plotless movie, it was a perfectly pitched and paced character study, melancholy in mood but punctuated by fine moments of humour. I also thought that All is Lost was a strong achievement. Like Gravity, this was a story about one person’s survival. But what was so unique about it was that it managed to be gripping whilst breaking some of the usual rules of cinema. There was no backstory for the character, monologue but not dialogue, not another person seen in the film (apart from one body part), and no real development of character. Despite all this I found myself really rooting for Robert Redford’s lone sailor. I would rather have seen either of these included in the nominations than Her, which failed to interest or convince me.

One of the controversies following the recent BAFTAs in London was the choice of Alfonso Cuaron as Best Director for Gravity, with many thinking that award should have gone to Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave. However, whilst there was a minimal cast involved in Gravity, it is pretty clear to me that this film had quite extraordinary challenges in terms of direction. Cuaron (and his crew) had to solve all kinds of problems, and much of the direction involved working with an environment that looked very different from what was finally experienced on screen. So, for my money, I’d be quite happy to see the Best Director award go to Cuaron.

I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons there was so much controversy about the BAFTAs is that we are particularly spoilt for choice this year. There are some very strong contenders for prizes. From the shortlist for Actor in a Leading Role my own three main contenders would have to be Christian Bale (bulking up for Hustle), Matthew McConaughey (slimming down for Dallas Buyers Club), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Bale shows great humour and nuance as the overweight grifter with the world’s worst comb-over. McConaughey is virtually unrecognisable from his role in The Wolf of Wall Street, in which he was also brilliant, and he perfectly conveys the journey from reckless, homophobic redneck to a man who sets up business with a transgendered individual in order to provide medicine to help desperate HIV sufferers. Chiwetel Ejiofor displays a masterful use of facial expression in order to convey the plight of a slave, filled with rage at his and others’ treatment, but who must hide his education and intelligence in order to survive. I think any one of these would be deserving winners, but in my opinion Matthew McConaughey just shades it.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 years a Slave

I am at a slight disadvantage in commenting on Actress in a Leading Role, as I have not seen August: Osage County, for which Meryl Streep is nominated. This aside, as with the men’s category, all of the nominations are surely justified. My preference would be for either Judi Dench, conveying both pathos and humour in her titular role as Philomena, or Cate Blanchett as the troubled socialite in Blue Jasmine. Ultimately, Blanchett’s performance as someone both mentally fragile and also a victim of circumstance, is so powerful that I find it hard to imagine that anyone else could win this category, and I think Blanchett would be fully deserving.

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Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

The category where I have the greatest difficulty forming a firm opinion is Actor in a Supporting Role. If I try to find rational reasons to judge the strength of these performances, I find it hard to put a cigarette paper between them. Intuitively, I would narrow the options to Jared Leto’s transgendered HIV sufferer in Dallas Buyers Club, or Barkhad Abdi as the Somali pirate in Captain Phillips. Here, I would follow BAFTA’s choice in giving the award to Barkhad Abdi for his fully convincing naturalistic performance.

For Actress in a Leading Role, whilst acknowledging the quality of all the nominees’ performances, there is really only one option as far as I am concerned. The award should go to Lupita Nyong’o for her proud, fiery performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. That said, I did love June Squibb in Nebraska, particularly the hilarious moment where she tells her extended family “You can all go and fuck yourselves!”.

For Best Adapted Screenplay I would opt for Philomena (Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope), which used the device of an odd-couple road trip to tell an important story. However, the third part of Richard Linklater’s lovers’ tale, Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpie, Ethan Hawke), once again contained the most wonderful, natural, extended dialogue.

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Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

For the category of Original Screenplay, again I would have loved to see Inside Llewyn Davis included in the nominations, and indeed this might well have been my favourite. I loved Blue Jasmine, but as it seems to be a modern update of A Streetcar Named Desire I’m not sure it scores top marks on the originality criterion. My choice from the final shortlist would have to be Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack), but with a nod to Nebraska (Bob Nelson).

Finally, which film should get the Best Picture award? Gravity is obviously being seen as one of the front runners in this category. However, whilst this film was a great technical achievement that produced a spectacular experience in the cinema, outside of the cinema I found that this was not a film that lingered particularly long in my mind. For me personally, the strongest contenders in this category are mostly those based on real-life events (albeit most of those films have taken a few liberties for the sake of dramatic effect). My personal favourite among these was Philomena, which recounted a dark episode in the history of Irish Catholicism, in the form of a journalist helping the title character trace the child that was taken from her years earlier by nuns, and sold to an American couple. What could have been a thoroughly depressing tale is elevated into something much more compelling and enjoyable by balancing the darker elements with some laugh-out loud comic moments arising from the character conflict between the two main figures.

However, some films have such an historical significance that they are impossible to ignore when considering best picture awards. Slavery is such a huge part of America’s history, with ramifications that continue today, and yet the topic has received precious little attention from Hollywood. It may indeed be telling that it has taken a British director to bring Solomon Northup’s biographical story, 12 Years a Slave, to the screen. This is a very powerful film with some scenes that are extremely uncomfortable to watch. For tackling this topic so skillfully I think 12 Years a Slave probably deserves to take the Best Picture award.

Summary of my preferences (not predictions!):

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Best Adapted Screenplay: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (Philomena)

Best Original Screenplay: Craig Borten and Melisa Wollack (Dallas Buyers Club)