A well made film has a remarkable ability to carry us deep inside the life of another person, another time, another place. It enables us to share the grief and the delight, the heartaches and dreams of persons very unlike us and, in the process, to know ourselves. Some films make us uncomfortable. Some of them help us imagine a world that is nobler and more whole. The very best of them leave us better than they found us.
Eight of these are Academy Award nominees this year for best picture. This is a diverse company, each outstanding in its own way. Though I am unqualified to make predictions about winners, here are my strictly personal viewing notes.
American Sniper is a modern day hero tale. In Chris Kyle, superhuman vision and marksmanship are wed to a strong sense of loyalty and honor. He finds himself in a place that is more dark and difficult than most of us can even imagine, but for a moment we are there with him. Through his eyes, we taste the terror, the incessant tension and necessary vigilance, the impossible life or death choices that are his every day. We share the whiplash of moving back and forth between the relative safety and ease of life stateside and the horror that is life on the battlefield. And we see its terrible personal cost.
I have not been able to stop thinking about this film.
At every service in the Orthodox Church we pray for our armed forces in defense of freedom everywhere. I never hear those words now without a catch in my throat and a picture of what it is costing them every day to be there on my behalf.
Bradley Cooper gives an astonishing performance in this film. He is a worthy contender for best actor.
“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
This quote on Riggan Thomson’s dressing room door sets the tone for the film. It is, at heart, an exploration into what gives us worth. Michael Keaton plays an actor who became famous in the role of an iconic superhero some twenty years ago. His fans are not the only ones who have a difficult time separating the man from the myth. Birdman seems to have become an alter ego. A voice he can’t get out of his head. Riggan’s hold on reality is tentative at best.
But he is trying. Trying to shake off a false self he has worn for far too long. Trying to make up for some of the mistakes of the past. Trying to say something worthwhile with his life.
He is not the only one. His daughter Sam is fresh out of rehab and is struggling to stitch together the fragments of her life, while working in the unenviable position of production assistant to her father. Emma Stone gives an extraordinary performance in this role and is hands down my pick for best supporting actress. Broadway darling and diva, Mike Shiner, who is a last minute addition to the cast, adds to the whole existential dialogue, confessing to Sam that the only time he feels like he is telling the truth is when he is on stage.
Michael Keaton is utterly believable in this film, even when he is doing unbelievable things. A stellar performance. And Zach Galifianakis is a great surprise, rendering the role of best friend and tether of sanity, Jake, with dramatic intensity.
Boyhood was filmed over the course of 12 years using the same cast. It is impossible to overstate the impact of watching these same people evolve, year after year after year. Sometimes, just watching the character appear on screen with a new haircut (or new piercings) tells something about who he has become before he says anything.
Life is less than perfect for Mason whose single mom is stretched to her limits providing for two kids, and working to improve their situation. Dad is frequently absent, but is all in when he is around. They move too much, and there are a couple of drunken, abusive step-dads along the way. But there is a lot of wonderful too. Baseball games and camping trips, bowling, and bed time stories, and good friends.
This is a coming of age story, with all the best and the worst of what it means to grow and change, to win and lose, to leave and come home. These people become so real that sometimes I feel like I am watching home movies and not an award winning film. And Mason and his sister are not the only ones growing up before our eyes. Mom and Dad are also finally growing into themselves.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is an absolute delight. The language, the cinematography, the subtle humor, and the lavish ostentation are a veritable feast. Monsieur Gustave H is the consummate hotel concierge; genteel, precise, punctiliously polite. This wins him many admirers and friends. But when a fabulously wealthy admirer leaves to him a very valuable painting in her will, he finds himself accused of her murder.
Thus begins a great adventure which includes, among other things, a daring escape from prison, a snowy pilgrimage to an alpine monastery, a deadly encounter with the henchman employed by the deceased woman’s family, and a shoot out in the upper gallery of the hotel. In all of this, he is aided by his protege, young Zero Moustaffa, the lobby boy. He is vindicated in the end, but alas his life is cut short by an encounter with militants aboard a train.
This is not a film that will change the world. But, it is quirky and compelling and nourishes that part of me that loves the creative and the beautiful. I have seen it twice already and am not done yet.
The Imitation Game:
“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.“
Alan Touring has always lived on the outside. He has a brilliant intellect, but little understanding of how to interact with others. Yet, untold thousands owe their lives to this outsider.
He becomes the unlikely leader of a team tasked with breaking the enigma code. This unmerry band of confederates will fight and claw and mistrust one another.
And accomplish the impossible.
However, it is decided that it would be a tactical error to let the Germans realize that their code has been broken. This leads to the excruciating task of deciding when to intervene and when not to. Who lives and who dies? It also means that these genius code-breakers will not be properly recognized for their extraordinary contribution until many years later. But this is not the greatest trial Touring must endure.
Early in the story we realize Touring is gay. He experiences a very difficult loss at boarding school when a young man who has become very dear to him dies. He experiences loss again when he realizes it would be selfish to marry his colleague Joane, even though he loves her, because he can not be in all ways a husband to her. But the most tragic loss comes at the end of the film. When, following an investigation into a break in at his home, Touring is found to be homosexual, he is prosecuted for indecency. He is forced to endure medical treatments for two years, intended to reverse his condition. They destroy his health and his mind and eventually drive him to end his own life. It is an outrageous tragedy.
Benedict Cumberbatch gives a compelling and sympathetic performance, complete with all the necessary idiosyncrasies of genius. A challenging and ennobling film.
“Are you paying attention? Good. If you are not listening carefully, you will miss things. Important things.”
“If I have been able to see further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” ~Sir Isaac Newton
Selma introduces us to some of these giants. From the intimate portrait of Dr. King and his lovely and courageous bride, to the snapshots of ordinary men and women who risked everything to make the world right, this film allows us to step inside their lives for a space. To feel the anguish of being dehumanized and unheard. To feel trapped by a system that every day betrays the ideals it espouses.
These were men and women with the audacity to imagine a world that did not yet exist, and with the courage to make it be so. Many of them did not live to see their dreams come to pass. But they believed in the inevitability. Knowing them, being with them, makes each of us more human.
Every day you and I live in a grace purchased for us by the courageous acts of those who have come before us. May their memories be eternal.
The Theory of Everything
Three things I have “known” for some time about Stephen Hawking: Brilliant physicist, pernicious atheist, physically challenged.
“The Theory of Everything” makes him real.
In this film he becomes curious and funny, quirky and disorganized, and vulnerable. I was surprised to like him so much. His relationship with Jane is sweet, and terrifying, like all relationships are at the start. But in her he finds a partner of great fortitude and persistence who pushes through the hardest trials, and in the process, calls out the very best in him.
While I certainly disagree with a good bit of his philosophy, I must admit that his story is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit.
As acknowledged by the Golden Globes, Eddie Redmayne gives an outstanding performance in a very demanding role. And Felicity Jones is lovely. (Though I am still rooting for Emma Stone)
If you have ever given your sweat and blood to something you love, especially if that something is music, if you know that anything worth having comes at a price, you will find yourself in this film. It is visceral and intense. I literally found myself feeling nauseous at times.
The pin-ups on the wall of Andrew Nieman’s room are drummers. The greats, like Buddy Rich. Someday, he wants to be one of them. And to make it be so he practices relentlessly, til his fingers bleed. When we meet him he is a first year at Schaffer Conservatory of Music.
Enter Terrence Fletcher, prestigious (and feared) director of the studio jazz band at Schaffer who invites Nieman to take the position of alternate drummer. Nieman quickly discovers that Fletcher employs a vocabulary of terror and intimidation to push players past their perceived limits and to their ultimate potential.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.“
The film is shot mostly in tight frames: in practice rooms, at a table with not enough air, in a crowded theater. This contributes to the palpable feeling of entrapment. There are plot twists aplenty, and just when you think you know where it is going, you don’t. But everything fits. And it goes where it should in the end, whether that’s where you wanted it to go or not.
J.K Simmons is extraordinary in this film as a bad-ass masochist whose conducting hand conveys just enough tender, artistic underbelly to make him human. If he does not win the Oscar for best-supporting actor, it is a travesty.
It has been a good year at the movies, and I am grateful to artful storytellers who give us all the opportunity to see the world through their lens.
May your tribe increase.