87th-oscars-posterThe 2014 class of the Oscars is another solid bunch. We’ve got geniuses (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game), heroes (American Sniper, Selma), stylistic comedies (The Great Budapest Hotel, Birdman) and coming-of-age dramas (Whiplash, Boyhood). While every year we’re bound to get some Oscar baits, the main event this year is between originally structured films (Birdman vs Boyhood). Even the Best Actor race is exciting between a veteran (Michael Keaton, in a comeback form) and a rising talent (Eddie Redmayne, absurdly good). I also love that the Academy finally recognized long established filmmakers Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson. Two maverick directors who can’t be accused of Oscar baiting. And you’ve got to applaud Bradley Cooper for getting acting nominations three years in a row.

Should have been nominated:

Gone Girl
Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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8 – Birdman

On the viewing order, I intentionally saved this movie last since it’s not only purported to be one of the best, it’s also the frontrunner in the Best Picture race. After I watched it, I was really mad. Not only did I see a stinker, it will now severely dampen my enjoying the Oscar telecast upon its predicted win.

I get it. It’s about acting and Hollywood. For an industry that likes attention, it’s only fitting that it honors itself. Not only that, but “Birdman” has gimmick and flash. Its astonishing achievement is its seemingly loooong continuous shot. The camera is not some mere observer; it has a personality of its own. It draws attention to itself with its precise timing of when to pan, pivot, rotate, zoom in and out. It is really unlike any movie out there. It’s very different. So it must be award-worthy. I guess.

I also find its humor jilted and odd. It never translates well. I don’t know whether to be amused or weirded out so there’s a feeling of disconnect. The actors look so wired though, like they’re onto something. Inside jokes maybe? I’d probably have to be an actor to get it. I also found the style too busy. It’s a lot of talking, the fast kind. A lot of camera movements, the fast kind. I’m trying to nail down the substance, but the film is busy with its fast style. A lot of yammering but what are the actors really saying. The characters are bouncing all over the place and the busy showmanship (both in front and behind the cameras) can barely be still so we can capture a twinge of genuine humanity. And the movie’s idea of a breather is to show off a nifty camera transition.

I think that’s where the movie lost me. It’s a lot of posturing. Is it impressive acting or is it overacting? With the exception of Michael Keaton in the lead role, there’s barely any character to connect to. I’d even argue that Keaton is a hard entry point for a regular viewer. I can’t grasp on anything concrete. I can only appreciate bits and pieces: the flying scene, Keaton running in his undies in public, Edward Norton having a boner, and Emma Stone’s hard slam of a speech. Does it all come together for me? No. For all its overworked yaps and flaps, what comes out of “Birdman” is bird shit and the Academy is ready to eat it all up.

7 – The Imitation Game

A couple of friends strongly recommended it. From the looks of it, it seemed like it had great potential. Perhaps, it was a misfortune to see this among the other nominees. On this Oscar race, “The Imitation Game” badly stumbles right out of the gate. Its setback: a not so compelling protagonist.

Alan Turing is introduced as a snobbish, odd-duck intellectual who thinks he’s too good to work with a team. Yeah fine, whatever. I find it cliche these days to portray geniuses as arrogantly difficult. Hugh Laurie already milked that in the TV series “House.” And while the movie overcomes this setback, it takes a long while for Turing to become fascinating. It’s a slow process because at its heart, Turing is the film’s central mystery.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderful actor, but his Turing does not seem right. His idiosyncrasies in the entertaining series “Sherlock” are effective, but here, they are grating in a dramatic context. To be fair, the role is not only complicated but also elusively vague. I don’t hate the character, but it seems like other characters (the breath-of-fresh-air Keira Knightley) are more interesting to follow.

Actually, the most interesting thing in the movie is its antagonist – Enigma, the Nazi encryption system with its daunting numbers of possibilities. Turing’s brilliant counterattack is his creation of another machine named Christopher (which personally, could have used more screen time). This is riveting development that occurred in the background during World War II. I wished Enigma was the central mystery, instead of Turing, which the movie failed to decode.

6 – The Theory of Everything

“The Theory of Everything,” which chronicles the life of famed physicist Stephen Hawking, is ambitious as its subject. As I started watching the movie, I tallied of its challenges: the portrait of its genius, the concept of time, conveying of science, the juxtaposition of religion, the physical display of an illness, and the measured distances of married life. There’s probably more, and to the movie’s fault, it crams too much into its “everything.” It definitely could have worked. It needed a strong unifying theme and perhaps some bold visionary direction to soar over the hurdles it has built for itself.

It does achieve one extraordinary feat. Eddie Redmayne’s portrait of Hawking is absurdly good. It’s a complex, nuanced performance that builds and varies over time. I was afraid he was going to get lost in the daunting physicality (which he masters proficiently), but the filmmakers cleverly includes a scene near the end, where you sort of gasp at how far Redmayne has transformed. The acting is great all around, including Felicity Jones, a British talent I’m discovering for the first time.

But the film far dangles too much missed opportunities that upped my expectations. I wanted all kind of emotions, to crank my fascination of science, to ponder about science and spirituality, etc. I only came away as an amazed observer though and scientifically, the movie’s effect is ephemeral.

5 – American Sniper

“American Sniper” is probably the most popular movie on the list, but this box office champ also deserves to be an Oscar contender. It’s pretty much a solid movie. While there’s political talk surrounding it, it’s all talk to me. Its great impact as a film is undeniable. This is a creative and calculated endeavor from its director Clint Eastwood and its lead, Bradley Cooper.

Cooper gives us his greatest role yet as the titular protagonist Chris Kyle. His character is charming, reserved, all-around respectable guy, whose deep sense of purpose propels him to be one of the most lethal snipers in history. Good for Cooper on his third consecutive acting nomination for he’s truly developing his talent with more nuances. He really makes his character compelling (sorry, Cumberbatch) and he does it with subtlety because it does not register until the end. While I heard “bad” things about the real Chris Kyle, why should that taint Cooper’s version? Let’s just take the movie as it comes.

And Clint Eastwood, still formidable as ever. The movie’s spectacles are the war zone scenes and he films them with trained focus and intensity. The movie also boldly captures this godlike allure to sniping: presiding above ground and deciding which lives to instantly terminate. And when the movie introduces another adroit sniper from the “bad” side, the mounting urgency and emotional suspense build to excruciating level, amidst the already unrelenting, chaotic, and hellish ennui of war. Both heart palpitating and heart breaking, “American Sniper” hits its target when it counts.

4 – Selma

When the nominations came out, there was an outcry on the Academy’s lack of diverse choices. Even if it nabbed a Best Pic nom, “Selma” seemed like the biggest victim when it failed on other nominations. Of course, it’s very dispiriting to see a very exclusive Caucasian race (pun intended), but just last year, this is the same Academy that singled white-people-beating-black-people “12 Years a Slave” as its winner. Nominations are geared towards rewarding the potential best, and not actively selecting which ones to snub so it’s quite indirect. And also, this “racist” rant unfairly implies that other nominees are not worthy. Stir in the political and cultural elements of Ferguson and Eric Garner and it becomes a handful and heated topic. Can we just judge the film itself?

When I finished watching “Selma,” I did not feel rage actually. Rather, I felt hopeful. It’s a beautiful, powerful film – the best of its kind since Spike Lee’s monumental “Malcolm X.” And I just can’t help but feel joy in discovering emerging talents like Ava DuVernay (director) and David Oyelowo (actor). I thought it might be okay that they are not nominated. They are not quite established yet, but in “Selma,” they leave strong, indelible impressions. Of course, fast forward weeks after, when I see all nominees, and definitely agree, that yeah, they should have been nominated. Snub, snub, snub.

I saw Oyelowo last year in the underwhelming “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” But in “Selma,” his talent is not wasted. As Martin Luther King Jr., he delivers electrifying and genuinely rousing speeches. I’ve never seen such level of performance either in cinematic or political stage. I’ve never lived through the Civil Rights era, but his essence of King makes you believe he could lead a movement. And while there’s enough spotlight on King, the film is also generous on the ensemble. The film’s powerful image is its marching vision of unification. Its awe-inspiring grandeur of a community is something you won’t see on the other Best Picture nominees.

Director DuVernay guides her film with restraint and elegance, but she’s capable in being brutal and heavy when needed. There is also something pristine in the way the plot is structured. There are so many things going on, but the set-ups are so meticulously plotted that you understand the complexity and the urgency of the times. I like her vision. I like her strength. Along with Steve McQueen, I have high hopes she can elevate black cinema beyond Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry. Let the movement begin.

3 – The Grand Budapest Hotel

I don’t consider myself a fan of Wes Anderson, but I have always had a soft spot for “Rushmore” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” He’s certainly a standout and one of the lucky few that make films unmistakably his own. That in itself is quite a success story. His biggest asset has also been his quirky and imaginative sense of humor. It might have been an acquired taste back in the 1990s, but decades later, more and more fans are finally appreciating his signature style.

I don’t know what finally clicked with “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” But I gather it has something to do with Ralph Fiennes in the lead role. His smooth, slippery concierge M. Gustave is a joy to behold and it’s an expertly modulated performance of the one-time he-who-must-not-be-named. What strains me from Anderson’s films is sometimes my pauses for his humor to connect. But with Fiennes’ exuberant performance, there’s a tidal wave of momentous fun that sweeps you off your feet. The character itself is satisfying, but his endearing relationship with the lobby boy takes the cake.

Anderson gleefully tracks their misadventures with curious details and unconventional settings. And yet for its strange qualities, the movie preserves its childish innocence. The suspense is quite high, but oddly, the violence is, at best, mild. The plot never ever suffers, because we are so invested of its characters. It’s astounding how “The Grand Budapest Hotel” breezes through its intricate story with such panache. It’s a very elaborate way to have fun.

2 – Whiplash

I wasn’t expecting “Whiplash” to be so high on this list. I was expecting J.K. Simmons’ to simply dominate the whole movie. But holy shit, drum roll please, this is such a great great movie. It has kept me at the edge of my seat. At times, it was more tense and alarming than “American Sniper.” How can you not feel dread and anxiety when this seems to be a story of a predator who enjoys devouring the young.

The predator in this case is Simmons’ dick of a music teacher, Fletcher. He is scarily meticulous in what he wants (“not quite my tempo”). He can snap into fatherly mentor one moment and then a sadistic asshole the next. And when his act of terror concludes, he twists in a throwaway humor just for fun. I think, on paper, a great actor could’ve pulled off this role. But ah, J.K. Simmons, so concise, so precise, makes Fletcher his own that he dares you to think of a actor who can play it better.

Filmmaker Damian Chazelle does not have the luxury to dilly-dally in this movie. I really appreciated the rarity of throwaway scenes. It builds and builds, payoff after payoff of emotions. There is anger and hungry pursuit of greatness that propels this movie to its climax. It’s totally gripping almost the whole way through. That’s a very high level of difficulty.

I also want to mention Miles Tiller (who plays the eager and dedicated student). He is someone to watch. He steps up halfway through the movie, and dare I say, even surpasses Simmons. With sweat, blood, and tears (all were actually visible), Teller pounds through the drums and explodes with combustible emotions. He is the heart of the movie. And thank goodness, it is his tale of perseverance that will ultimately resonate, and not of Fletcher’s brutal bullying.

1 – Boyhood

“Boyhood” is a magical cinematic journey for me. It’s jarring in the way the movie jumps in immediately as we are introduced to Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a 6 year-old who will mature before our very eyes in a span of 12 years. I’m still blown away by Richard Linklater’s visionary technique to film scenes every year. What could have been mundane details at the time becomes a trove of accurately depicted nostalgia down the future. The songs, the video games, pop culture, Harry Potter. They had such huge presence at the time, and yet reduced to a memory in our rear view mirrors now. Time goes by fast and it’s something the movie superbly demonstrates.

But that’s all in the background, the movie is more ambitious in capturing the essence of boyhood. Linklater aptly uses the structure of life itself or should I say, it almost disregards the standard story format. Just like life, everything is always at the middle of a story. A lot of things rushing in and out, as the movie jumps from one time to the next. Suddenly, Mason hits puberty and he’s taller and with a deeper voice. The movie is not concerned with manipulating Mason’s life. It goes with its natural flow and tries to capture indelible, recognizable moments: sibling rivalry, ongoing relationship with parents, peer pressure, school, love, sex, and that very tricky search of one’s own purpose.

The cumulative effect is quite exceptional. It’s unlike any movie experience I’ve had before. When Mason is taking pictures with his graduation cap on, I couldn’t breathe, I was in denial because the movie was about to end soon. The movie really had me that hooked. I really felt I was part of this long journey in a matter of hours. I didn’t even mention the acting (particularly Ethan Hawke as the dad and Patricia Arquette as the mom). Along the way, I sort of forgot they were actors. You know so much about them intimately through the years that they could not be contained simply as characters.

“Boyhood” is a landmark achievement. It deserves that Best Picture win. It’s the ultimate coming-of-age movie, not only of our generation, but of years to come.

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