Now having seen the full line-up here’s what I think about which picture should win this year’s top Academy award and my thoughts about the other films in contention, in declining order.
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle) (picture left). This story of an ambitious young drummer (Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman) and his Marine sergeant-like music school instructor (J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher) should win best picture. Everything about this movie is great. The acting first and foremost is outstanding. The interplay between Neiman and Fletcher is highly realistic and tension-filled. Moreover, unlike many other films with significant attributes (acting, writing) this is the kind of movie we don’t get enough of - a thriller, if not of the detective kind then certainly one based on emotions - and about heroic personal struggle that everybody can identify with.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu). I originally thought this should take best picture, and it probably will. It’s achieved enough accolades and awards to date and that weighs against why I think it should win the top Academy nod. The story is great, the acting is pretty good, and the direction is amazing. Upon second viewing, however, I saw through some of the acting. But no matter how much I and other critics enjoyed it this is an insider’s movie. If you’re an actor - whether on Broadway or the local village playhouse - you’ll identify with these characters’ roller coaster lives. The general public probably won't so much.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson). I’m not a huge Anderson fan because his pictures often strike me as insipid or bizarre (Moonrise Kingdom or The Royal Tenenbaums) but this movie was highly innovative and resonated in a lot of ways. About a weird cast of characters set in a grand Eastern European hotel between the wars, this movie is a send-up of an infinite variety of clichés of the 1930s as well as a kaleidoscope of images, scenes, and stories. A delight though not for everyone.
The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum). As I’ve posted previously that Benedict Cumberbatch is outstanding in this home front World War II picture about how Britain broke Nazi German’s Enigma Code. The movie has enough genuine scene setting and drama to raise it to a high enough level. But it’s a marginal movie in terms of theme and the best aspect of it is Cumberbatch as father of the computer Alan Turing.
The Theory of Everything (James Marsh). Also set in Britain though in more contemporary times this bio of wunderkind Stephen Hawking really has one great thing going for it - Eddie Redmayne as Hawking. And while the movie proceeds at a decent pace as it chronologically tells Hawking’s story, it struck me as just a bit too stereotypically biopic, meaning it’s really hard to capture the original events.
American Sniper (Clint Eastwood). This is the portrayal of American Navy SEAL Chris Kyle during the Iraq War, an expert sniper who had 160 confirmed killings. Bradley Cooper as Kyle is excellent and Sienna Miller as Taya Renae Kyle also provides a more than credible performance. The war scenes are pretty good but, like too many biopics, I could envision just a little too easily how the movie crew set up these scenes in places like Middle Eastern Morocco.
Selma (Ava DuVernay) This pic about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a seminal event in American civil rights history certainly has enough drama and realism to it. And although they don’t necessarily look like the real people, David Oyelowo gives some pretty good speeches as MLK and Tom Wilkinson isn’t bad as President Lyndon Johnson, though the film has been criticized for its inaccurate portrayal of Johnson as an impediment to voting rights legislation. The film also manages to wrangle enough emotion from the audience. But all the pieces don’t come together in top form to make this a best Oscar picture.
Boyhood (Richard Linklater). This overly long - okay I know it was purposely filmed over 12 years - movie, tells a lacklustre story about any boy, anywhere, growing up in the good old USA. But that’s it. There are no particular insights, no moral conclusions. The best thing is Patricia Arquette as a working class mom, and Arquette's performance is indeed good.