Monday, January 26, 2015

A Ranking of This Year's Best Picture Winners

Scene from The Theory of Everything
I have done it! I have finally seen all of the Best Picture nominees for this year's Academy Awards. To say the least, it was an interesting year full of a nice if predictable variety of films. While we don't get nearly the garden variety that made 2013 such an exceptional year, we do get films that reflect the best of their genres and even features a wide variety of indie films standing a strong chance of winning the big awards. Cinema is inevitably changing in new and exciting ways that make this year particularly interesting. If for no other reason, its ambitions are massive and unpredictable in small ways. However, what did I personally think of all eight nominees? The following is a personal ranking of the Best Picture films from most favorite to least. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

The film itself is a controversial latecomer to the awards season and has been predominantly out of discussion. With the film hitting wide release, it has done its fair share of becoming the most financially successful film on the list. This is an unprecedented moment considering that most films about post-9-11 culture hasn't earned the $200 million that this film has. Still, every penny is earned as it manages to create one of the most powerful and authentic looks into war, patriotism and PTSD in modern society. It is a powerful film unlike anything on this list and one that is sure to leave a strong impression on the viewer.

One of the most unlikely candidates in the Best Picture race is this indie darling who made cinema so wonderful earlier in 2014. Wes Anderson has always been a man of twee sensibilities and manages to apply a story book gloss to this caper story with some of his most beautiful scenery, fully realized characters and sharp yet dark script. It is as much an entertaining and authentic film as it is a miracle that the Academy decided at all to give this one recognition if for no other reason than that it is a peculiar production unlike the Oscars standards. It is easily the most creatively stylistic film on the list.

The Best Picture front runner which sees director Richard Linklater finally get his due. With this film that spans 12 years of a family's life, it is something unique and full of exuberant energy. The film plays with time in ways that manage to give definition to an era of American history that has largely not had a defining stamp in pop culture. With plenty of sentiments and performances that are as great as they are miracles for turning out so well, this is a film that plays as a scrapbook of moments that you'll want to relive and remember for the rest of your life.

This is the film that majority of audiences will likely ask "What is that?" While Wes Anderson has the fortunate track record of having past films nominated in subsequent categories, director Damien Chazelle pretty much came out of nowhere and sealed a nomination on this list. The results are astounding with J.K. Simmons giving an Oscar-worthy performance as the aggressive and memorable jazz teacher. From there, the intensity rises and leads to a third act that crescendos into the best editing in a film of last year. It is a film that serves as proof that the Academy can surprise you still. It isn't even close to a film one could've predicted long ago to have made the list. However, with a phenomenal performance and excellent work overall, it definitely earns its place on this list.

While I think very highly of the ambitious quality of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's production, I do feel like its third act was particularly problematic. The film overall features solid performances and deserving Oscar nominations for most of its cast. Full of wit and charm, the film flies through with ambition and manages to dazzle for most of the ride. Still, there is something off when the film begins to apply more metaphorical aspects in the third act that helps to lose its magic. If nothing else, this is a film that I plan to revisit before the Academy Awards are given out to better assess my feelings. It is a potential threat for Boyhood and one that is deservedly so.

I still don't know if there was a need for a Stephen Hawking biopic. However, thanks to a great performance by Eddie Redmayne, I can accept that there is one. The story spans an impressive life full of ups and downs in ways that transcend the typical upbeat nature of the biopic. Here, Redmayne gives a performance so demanding and subtly physical that he manages to make talking through a computer seem charming. Not since My Left Foot has such a physical performance felt like something to acclaim. Yes, it is overtly sentimental at points, but with the dreamlike cinematography and romance with his wife, there's a lot of subtext in this film to make it a rather exceptional look at a man who overcame a lot to become one of the brilliant minds of the modern era.

7. Selma

While I don't buy into the implicit racism that the Academy has been accused of from giving the film only two nominations, I do feel like the film should stand stronger. Due to relevant issues facing contemporary society, the film feels very prescient. Lead by a great David Oyelowo performance, this is a film that focuses on the diversity of characters willing to sacrifice themselves for freedom in America. Thankfully, it is a film that manages to spark debate in productive ways and serves as the beating drum of an underdog wanting to make a difference. It may likely not make a strong impression Oscar night (though it might), but its legacy is already starting to be formed. A solid drama and one that we should be thankful was nominated in the first place.

Among the nominees, this is the only one that I do not like or every remotely understand. While the life of Alan Turing is deeply fascinating, the film only teases the audience of great things that the man did. Nothing is really explored in any satisfying depth and the inevitable payoff of the film doesn't feel warranted to Turing's actual demise. I also don't understand why Benedict Cumberbatch is getting so much acclaim for a role that doesn't feel all that nuanced or interesting. There's a lot that I don't understand about this film other than that it meets the conventional biopic statuses that may seem to be a prominent theme in this year's ceremony. I will give it this, though. Alexandre Desplat turned in a pretty amazing score.

Overall Thoughts

While I have to admire 2013's vast variety of talent from sci-fi to cautionary tales and historical dramas, I am a little indifferent to 2014's variety. Yes, I am glad to see so many indie films getting top recognition and potentially being big winners on Oscar Night. I am even excited that the Academy broke out of their old habits and nominated films from all over the year instead of the "Oscar Season" known as post-August. Also, kudos on nominating eight instead of nine, which has been the standard for the past three years. Overall, it is a year that feels like an expressing of change in ways that aren't entirely successful. But considering that the top six on this list were in my cumulative Top 20 for 2014, I will have to give them credit. I guess it was a fine year despite allegations against race and other needless issues that will hopefully not unfairly reconstruct the Oscar race.

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