In the weeks after the Oscars are handed out, new DVD releases are backed up like planes on the runway at O’Hare, so in this post I’ll be keeping up with the most celebrated films of last year, as the Blu-Ray disks arrive in my mailbox. In addition to the Metacritic rating for each film, I’ve listed an overall critical ranking, calculated by averaging together a variety of annual critics’ polls.
I’ll start with my biggest beef with the Academy. Really? -- “Best Picture” of the year was Birdman (MC-88, #5, NFX)? In a year that was graced by Boyhood? There are definitely aspects to be enjoyed in the execution of Birdman, but I found myself utterly unmoved. Okay, maybe it would be different if I had seen Michael Keaton as Batman, but as a protagonist caught between a past of comic book superhero movies and a present of Broadway theatrics (two genres of strikingly little interest to me, except All About Eve, which might count as both), he wins my admiration for his energy, but the character offers little insight or empathy. I would say much the same about the admirable cast – Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, and the rest – with the exception of Amy Ryan, whom I always find affecting, as the only person who seems to have a life outside the walls of the theater. The co-headliner with Keaton is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose gliding camera style is instantly recognizable but still miraculous, as well as sinuous, continuous, and ubiquitous. Leaving least till last, I mention “‘Best Director’” Alejandro González Iñárritu, who I don’t really believe has anything to say to me. I can only assume that Academy voters filled in feelings for experiences I’ve never had.
Whiplash (MC-88, #9, NFX) built up a year’s worth of acclaim, from multiple Sundance awards to three Academy Awards on top of its Best Picture nomination, and it’s certainly worth seeing, but apart from the powerful performances of Miles Teller and Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, hardly rates a rave. To me, under-thirty writer-director Damien Chazelle relies too much on well-worn tropes to tell the story of an aspiring young drummer and his oh-so-demanding music school instructor, thereby earning the sobriquet, “Full Metal Julliard.” Besides the drill sergeant veins popping out of Simmons’ temples, and the horrific abuse that spews with spittle from his mouth, the film plays out like dozens of sports movies, in overcoming every manner of adversity just in time for one final rousing all-or-nothing competition. Despite the over-hyping of the story, there is enough personal experience in Chazelle’s film to give it an aura of authenticity, along with its kinetic pleasures.
More engaged with The Theory of Everything (MC-72, NFX) than expected, I credit that largely to Felicity Jones, who emerges into stardom with this film, even more than Eddie Redmayne with his Best Actor Oscar. I’ve always been skeptical about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and found Errol Morris’ documentary about him, A Brief History of Time, much more interesting and unsettling than Hawking’s bestseller of the same name, and indeed more interesting than this Hollywoodization of his life. The source for this new film was Jane Hawking’s memoir, and maybe Felicity Jones had more material to work with, but she is definitely the more engaging character in the film, as she commits to Hawking at
, despite his disease and his severely limited
prognosis, and cares for him diligently for decades, during which they have
three children. Director James Marsh
showed his chops with the documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, but his eclectic try-anything style does not translate so well to
features. Since I am defiantly less
interested in cosmology than in family relations, I found this “theory of
marriage” more satisfying than those who were looking for some exposition of
Hawking’s own pie-in-the-sky theories. Cambridge
In vein of Oscar-bait biopics of differently-abled British geniuses, I found The Imitation Game (MC-73, NFX) somewhat less engaging, despite Benedict Cumberbatch’s impressive impersonation of Alan Turing, the brilliant, autistic, homosexual mathematician, famous for breaking Germany’s Enigma code during WWII, meanwhile developing an early digital computer as well as the idea of artificial intelligence, of which the Turing Test remains the arbiter. Given a lot to pack into a relatively short running time, this film sacrifices depth for broad coverage. The screenplay seems a bit callow, and the direction a bit stodgy, but the acting is good across the board, from Keira Knightley as the one woman on the code-breaking crew at
to the boy who plays Turing during flashbacks to his school days. With all the flashbacks and flashforwards,
plus the montage summations of the war’s progress, the film finally comes
across as overstuffed, if undernourished by genuine human complexity. Bletchley Park
Bennett Miller seems to be one of those well-regarded directors, indeed Oscar-nominated, who simply isn’t on my wavelength, with a rhythm and focus different from mine. I could see plenty of good things in Foxcatcher (MC-81, #27, NFX), but as in Capote and Moneyball, something kept me from full engagement. It just seems that he doesn’t tell me what I want to know, show me what I want to see. There was indeed some fascination in watching the odd but compelling performances of Steve Carell as the bizarre duPont heir with the eagle nose; Channing Tatum as an extremely convincing Olympic wrestler, dim and inarticulate; and Mark Ruffalo as his older brother, also an Olympic gold medalist, but an engaging coach and family man. I was not aware of the true story behind this film, so wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but even afterwards I had very little sense of why. Along the way, there are sharp observations and some implicit social and political critique, but I didn’t come away with any particular understanding of the characters.