Sunday, 22 February 2015

Oscars countdown part three: best picture nominees ranked

In the third and final part of our preview of the Oscars, we rank each of the films nominated for Best Picture

8. American Sniper

The huge commercial success and subsequent Oscar nomination for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper ought to be me with despair by anyone hoping that US attitudes were moving away from impervious patriotism and the worship of guns. The film lacks Eastwood’s usual moral ambivalence and instead presents the controversial sniper Chris Kyle as an undisputed hero, while the depiction of the soldier’s many victims as no-more than (in the protagonist’s own words) ‘savages’ to be gratuitously shot at is essentially racist.

7. The Imitation Game

A film about someone as extraordinary and tragic as genius Mathematician and war hero Alan Turing deserves an extraordinary film made about him, but The Imitation Game is distinctly prosaic and full of cliches that diminishes him to a collection of biopic cliches. Rather than
depict the homophobia that ultimately led to his suicide, the film instead cowardly keeps illicit his homosexuality, even presenting his friend Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) as a surrogate romantic partner.

6. The Theory of Everything

Like The Imitation Game, this similar British nominee is full of things the Academy loves - romance, posh English accents, quaint English scenery, an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character, an ambitious man overcoming adversity to become great. But beyond ticking these awards season boxes, and excellent performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything is little more than a middling biopic.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel

With its spring release date and arthouse and cult credentials The Grand Budapest Hotel was an unlikely Oscars candidate, but something about its whimsical tone and retro feel clearly appealed to the Academy. The backdrops and sets are beautiful and Ralph Fiennes’ excellent performance anchors the film, but it is perhaps a little too fond of the sweet and superficial over the savoury and substantial to be a worthy Best Picture winner.

4. Selma

The fourth biopic nominated, Selma impresses more than the others thanks to its willingness to go beyond mere character study and focus on the politics of Martin Luther King’s march from Selma, and for refusing to insert a white-saviour protagonist at the expense of its black characters. But what really makes Ava DuVernay’s film stand out out is it’s eagerness to take this point in history not just to tell a detached story about the past, but to use it to comment on contemporary issues from Ferguson to NSA spying.

3. Birdman

Free from the shackles of the biopic genre, Birdman tells the fictional story of a fading actor embarking on a vanity project directing a play on broadway, who is tormented by a doubting inner-voice that manifests itself as the giant bird-superhero he used to play in Hollywood. The witty satirical elements directed towards the behind-the-scenes of the arts business is perhaps what attracted the film to the Academy, but it’s the daring shooting style and vibrant energy of the acting that makes it stand out from the more subdued, straightforward nominees.

2. Whiplash

In terms of sheer excitement Whiplash is surely the best of the nominees, thanks to great storytelling, edge-of-the-seat tension and barnstorming performances. Damien Chazelle’s debut perhaps lacks the topical seriousness or ambition that characterises most Best Picture winners, but the questions raised about what talent is and the best way to nurture it make for a thought-provoking subtext underpinning the surface-level thrills.

1 Boyhood

Rarely in the history of film has such a bold and original idea reaped such rewards as Richard Linklater’s decision back in 2002 to embark on a twelve year project to film the actor Ellar Coltrane growing from first grader-boy to university-bound man. Perhaps its prioritising of the white male suburban experience prevents it from reaching the kind of universality the title hints at, but it remains the most uniquely captivating and outright best film nominated, and proof that new ways of telling stories can still be found. 

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