By Brian Ives
This year’s Best Picture nominees at the 87th annual Academy Awards are a mixed bag of art films, films about art, films about fictional countries and films about real people, some of which look at unflattering aspects of heroes and at ugly points in American history.
They’re all great films, but only one of the nominees was among 2014’s top grossers, and some of them may have left theaters before you had a chance to check them out.
Below is our rundown of the nominees. (NOTE: Some trailers are NSFW.)
The only nominated film to land in the ten top-grossing films released in 2014, Sniper is also the only non-fiction film in the top ten. The rest were adaptations of books, comic books or toys. It was also probably the most divisive Best Picture nominee, with those on the left criticizing it for being too pro-war (and possibly characterizing Chris Kyle as being more hero-like than he may have been), while the right reacted more favorably.
Star Bradley Cooper (nominated for Best Actor for the role) told CBS’s Charlie Rose, “[Our] task was to be as truthful as we could in telling this man’s story,” adding “It was a very simple chore that we had.” Maybe that’s not so simple: any deviation from what is perceived as the truth in a biopic, particularly one as politicized as this one, is a weak spot that detractors can pounce on. But Cooper’s better point in the Rose interview was this: “If we could get just a kernel of what it was like for Chris to be in those situations, that somebody at home has no idea [about], then we can sort of translate that experience, because that experience is not one that I really know, and maybe other people don’t know [either].” And that’s really the best that even the most successful biopics can hope for. As for why it resonated so strongly with audiences? “My guess is… there’s a sense of truth in the film.” The truth, as always, is probably somewhere in between the right’s lionizing Kyle as a hero, and the left’s complaints Sniper smooths the edges of a hateful guy who enjoyed killing. Per Cooper, it’s about this man’s experiences at war, which few of us could imagine having to deal with, and the post traumatic stress disorder that plagued him afterwards.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The third most favorably reviewed movie of the year was an art film about the nature of art itself and its relationship with commerce, fame, and relevancy. It got lots of points with critics (and mileage in the press) because of the meta-ness of the story: the main character Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, is a washed up Hollywood guy who ditched the highly lucrative “Birdman” film franchise, and is now taking a swing a late-career credibility via a Broadway show he wrote, directed and stars in, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Of course, Keaton himself ditched the Batman franchise that elevated him to super-stardom in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and while he’s been in a bunch of films since then (including Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, and hey, he also was the voice of Ken in Toy Story 3), he’s mostly stayed out of the spotlight. And while we won’t spoil the film for you here, we’ll say that Thomson does become relevant again (although for how long?) and in real life, Keaton is now nominated for Best Actor. Points also for Edward Norton playing a version of himself: a hot-shot actor who tinkers with the director a bit too much. Ironically, Norton himself walked away from a very lucrative super-character: he did one Hulk film, and then left right before the character was incorporated into the Avengers franchise.
Birdman has its media hook, and Boyhood has one too: as you’ve no doubt read by now, director Richard Linklater shot this film over 12 years to capture the actual passage of time, so we see characters played by actors that we know (nominees for Best Supporting Actor Ethan Hawke and Best Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette) grow older, but we also see the main character, Ellar Coltrane in the lead role as Mason Evans Jr. actually growing up (and ditto for his sister, played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei Linklater). An interesting and ambitious approach, and it worked. Would the film work as well if it had been shot conventionally, using makeup for the older actors, and different aged actors for the younger characters? That’s like imaging Birdman starring George Clooney or Robert Downey Jr. It’s a fun game to play, but it doesn’t change the films as they exist. Regardless of technique, Boyhood is a bittersweet tale that rings true, and it’s certainly enhanced by Linklater’s unorthodox approach. Oh yeah, and it’s also the most favorably reviewed film of 2014.