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Our take on the Academy Award nominees for best picture

By DANIELLE L. KIRACOFE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 20, 2015

   Just eight films earned Academy Award nominations this year for best picture. The candidates this year have very little in common. Five are biopics or studies in historical events. One is a love story. One is a war story. One was shot over a 12-year period. But they are all excellent films with unique and wonderful stories.

 

   Stars and Stripes staffers share their takes on the nominees.

   

   The awards will be presented Feb. 23 on AFN-Movie.

 

“American Sniper”

The brouhaha surrounding “American Sniper” since its release has itself been something out of Hollywood.

Michael Moore and Seth Rogen tweeted and retreated. Sarah Palin, a huge fan of protagonist Chris Kyle, knocked those “Hollywood leftists” in her Palinesque way, saying “the rest of America knows you’re not fit to shine Chris Kyle’s combat boots.” (She also took on Jesse Ventura, who had a running feud with Kyle while he was alive.) No less than famed academic Noam Chomsky chided reviewers who liked the movie, while the singularly tiresome Bill Maher called Kyle a “psychopath patriot.”

Forget all that.

Forget all the noise around the movie; forget whether it is faithful to the book, or whether it explored Kyle’s truthiness.

It’s a damn good war movie.

Clint Eastwood alternately makes you an observer of Kyle — one forced to explore what he’s going through emotionally as he decides whether it’s necessary to kill a child — and puts you in the streets with the Marines. The urban battle scenes are harrowing; anyone who’s gone house-to-house in Baghdad or Anbar will almost certainly find himself with his fists balled, wondering where the air support is.

Eastwood spends quite a bit of time on the toll these deployments took on Kyle, and on his young family, and by extension, what these wars have done to a lot of people. It feels very real, and judging by the reactions on social media, many who’ve been through it agree.

Bradley Cooper is terrific as Kyle. He is nominated for best actor, but has an uphill battle there. The film has five other nods. Go see the movie. But, as I discussed with a Marine friend, it’s going to be a rough ride. Be ready.

- Patrick Dickson, W­­ashington bureau chief

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

What happens when an aging actor, famous for playing a larger-than-life comic book hero, attempts to find redemption as an artist and relevance in the September of his years while simultaneously trying to do the same in his personal life and keep a grip on his sanity?

That’s the focus of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s dark comedy “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a beautifully shot film that moves seamlessly from scene to scene in much the way it moves between fantasy and reality.

The plot follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson in the days leading up to the debut of a Broadway play he has adapted, is directing and stars in. It is clearly an impending disaster, until Thomson replaces his lead supporting male actor. Keaton proves again to be one of the great underrated actors of his generation. No doubt his own experience in a cape and cowl added a personal aspect to his work. His performance will resonate with anyone once at the top of their game but now trying to find a sense of purpose later in life.

Edward Norton is a joy as the brilliant -- but unpredictable -- method actor who injects life into the play, and Emma Stone turns in an equally strong performance as Riggan’s damaged and recovering daughter Sam.

Sadly, the script doesn’t give Zach Galifianakis or Naomi Watts much to work with, and indeed, all characters fade into the background in the final third as it focuses on the conversation in Riggan’s head. In retrospect, this, as well as a side plot involving a vindictive critic, led to what felt like some odd pacing and the telegraphing of a major plot element early in the film. Still, it is a satisfying exercise.

On a technical level it is brilliant, and the film, particularly in its exterior shots, captures a world you can almost taste in its warmth and grittiness. Accompanied by a powerful jazz drum-based score, the film has an off-beat, indie feel that makes it a wild card on Oscar night. It has been garnering its fair share of awards this season, but in the end might prove a little too “art house” for the Academy.

- Christopher Six, photo/graphics editor

“Boyhood”

“Boyhood” (rated R), director Richard Linklater’s tale of a boy’s journey to adulthood in Texas, was an audacious -- if not impressive -- undertaking right from the start. Linklater filmed the movie over 12 years, getting all the actors to commit to a project that they weren’t certain would ever reach its conclusion. Viewers literally watch Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grow from a 6-year-old to an 18-year-old over the course of 165 minutes. Joining Mason on the journey are his sister, Samantha (director Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, who also grows up onscreen), his mother Olivia (best supporting actress nominee Patricia Arquette) and his father Mason Sr. (best supporting actor nominee Ethan Hawke). Since his parents are already divorced when the movie begins, Mason Jr. experiences the ups and downs of his mother’s multiple marriages to alcoholic and abusive husbands as well as his father’s new wife and child, eventually culminating in Mason Jr.’s graduation from high school.

“Boyhood” is also nominated for best director, best original screenplay and best editing.

– Rich Killmon, sports copy editor

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

For the past two years, I’ve been the Stars and Stripes staffer who has seen and predicted the best picture winner. Even though I saw a quarter of the eight nominees this season, that will not be the case this year. Doesn’t matter to me, though, as I am certain I saw the most fun of the best picture nominees: “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

The movie, released in March of last year, is a caper, a farce and a buddy movie wrapped into one. The Grand Budapest is a grand hotel in the old style, located in a fantasy Europe before the war. The hotel is managed by the concierge – Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes. He is training a lobby boy, Zero, played by Tony Revolori. Gustave likes to keep the old ladies who visit the place very happy. When one of those ladies dies, she leaves him a painting – and the lady’s son, angered, accuses Gustave of murdering her. The concierge and his lobby boy naturally steal the painting and take off to return to The Grand Budapest. What happens next is a series of strange happenings including a prison escape and a grand romance.

The film is charming and ridiculous and outrageous and funny. And it moves – there are no dull moments. It is also peppered with one of the best casts ever – including Adrian Brody, Jude Law, Edward Norton and Bill Murray – playing some of the most unique characters on film.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which is nominated for nine Academy Awards including best director for Wes Anderson, won best comedy or musical at The Golden Globes last month. I think that’s the best this film can hope for. Comedies don’t usually fare too well at the Academy Awards. But they make great viewing.

-- Danielle L. Kiracofe, entertainment editor, @dorogaya26

“The Imitation Game”

“The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, is a cerebral espionage thriller. Alan Turing and other mathematicians are hired by the British army in an effort to crack the Nazis’ constantly changing Enigma code. At stake: World War II and the future of the free world. Long story short: Turing builds a machine (a precursor to modern computers) that breaks the code, but the team’s accomplishments are classified and don’t come to light until decades after the Allies’ victory. To add insult to injury, Turing is publicly humiliated and sentenced to chemical castration for being a homosexual, which in 1950s Britain was illegal. He ended his life in 1954, years before the world knew Turing’s role in saving it.

This film became a best picture contender on Cumberbatch’s shoulders. An actor of awe-inspiring ability, he inhabits his subject in a nuanced, haunted performance that captures Turing’s brilliant mind and his outsider’s detachment. Just one example: When confronted with violence, Cumberbatch’s face reflects the horror of being bullied as a child and being ridiculed for being different. The indignities suffered by Turing, and also Knightley’s Joan Clarke, the only woman on the code-cracking team, are cringe-worthy. However, the film’s appeal lies their achievements, and in a repeated line: “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”

- Sean Moores, managing editor for presentation

“Selma”

Just a few months after police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., “Selma” arrived as a most timely best picture nominee. The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, depicts the voting rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. Well-written and skillfully directed, it served as a biopic, a history lesson, and, upon reflection, a lesson in how history continues to repeat itself. There was some outcry over the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations when DuVernay and David Oyelowo, who portrays King, were passed over. DuVernay is deserving, but there are eight best picture nominees and only five best director slots. It’s Oyelowo’s omission that seems particularly unfair. In a brilliant performance, the British actor embodies the fiery orator and the civil rights leader. He also gives us a man rather than a martyr, showing weariness, faults, frustration and King’s moments of doubt. The speeches, written for the film, are stirring, but it is a scene in which King comforts a man whose unarmed grandson was killed by police that will break your heart. There’s marching yet to be done.

- Sean Moores, managing editor for presentation

“The Theory of Everything”

“The Theory of Everything” is a brief history of the marriage of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane.

  The trailers make you think this is a love story, and initially, that’s what it is. Stephen and Jane Hawking meet cute at a college party, and fall for each other. After he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease and given two years to live, she tells him they will spend whatever time they have together, and they marry. But as the years wear on, and Hawking’s work – and fame -- increases, and his disease progresses, and Jane loses herself in supporting Hawking and their family, their marriage starts to come apart. (This isn’t a spoiler – the Hawkings divorced in the 1990s and the film is based on Jane Hawking’s biography “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.”)  Despite this, the film ends on an uplifting note, with an inspirational speech by Hawking, then a more quiet moment with family. The spin at the end of the movie sums up the film in an almost too-sweet turn.

 The film has several strengths. The score is amazing and memorable. The script is solid. But the leads make this movie. Best actor nominee and favorite to win Eddie Redmayne disappears into his role as Stephen Hawking. Best actress nominee Felicity Jones gives a wonderful and nuanced performance as a patient and devoted and struggling wife. Both are very, very good.

“The Theory of Everything” is nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for best screen adaptation.

-- Danielle L. Kiracofe, entertainment editor, @dorogaya26

“Whiplash”

If you’ve played sports much, you’ve probably had that coach who believed that pushing athletes to the brink, and beyond, offering little in the way of encouragement, was the way to get the best out of them. Depending on who you are, that either helped you achieve more than you ever realized you could, or it really, really didn’t.

“Whiplash” takes this “no pain, no gain” mentality a step or two further. J.K. Simmons plays a sadistic instructor at a music conservatory in New York City whose dream is to find and develop the next Charlie Parker – a jazz musician who would be the best; an uncompromising artist as well as an entertainer. The instructor, Fletcher, does a bit of directing but no real instructing that we can see. He tests his students by hurling personal insults at them – and sometimes chairs as well. Fletcher says that “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” Those so encouraged will never try to become more, he believes.

Into this crucible steps Andrew (Miles Teller), whose dreams of becoming a jazz drummer surpass all other interests. He has no use for friends, and ends a promising romantic relationship on the assumption that the girlfriend will distract him from becoming great. Andrew immediately catches Fletcher’s eye. Andrew is called up to the school’s premiere competitive band, but Fletcher then uses every opportunity to savagely cut Andrew down and humiliate him in the most personal ways possible. Andrew wonders at first why no one in the band will so much as look at the director; he soon learns the hard way what attention from Fletcher means.

A love of jazz isn’t a requirement for enjoyment of the movie’s taut drama, and the somewhat sudden ending is strangely satisfying. After the stage is set, both Andrew and Fletcher have a couple of surprising moves up their sleeves that you might not see coming.

Reactions to the movie seem split. Despite garnering some acclaim last January at the Sundance Film Festival, “Whiplash” is probably the least known Academy Award best picture nominee. It’s a very long shot to win the night’s big prize. Simmons, however, a veteran character actor who just turned 60, could well walk away with the award for best supporting actor. And the sound mixing should be a lock – the drum sequences are amazing. The story is a small one, but surprisingly powerful. You’ll cringe through much of the movie, but you’ll probably enjoy it, and I guarantee that you won’t forget it for a long time to come.

“Whiplash” is nominated for five Academy Awards – best movie, supporting actor, film editing, sound mixing and writing (adapted screenplay).

- Kate Maisel, features editor

Kyle Gallner, left, is Goat-Winston and Bradley Cooper is Chris Kyle in "American Sniper."
COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES

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