Monday, November 12, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 2014

The Contenders:

American Sniper
Birdman (winner)
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

What’s Missing

I say a variation of this a lot: 2014 was a damn good year for film, but I’m not sure you’d know that looking at the Best Picture nominations. It’s a frustrating set of nominations, honestly. Allowed to make my own list, I’m not keeping more than four and I’m probably not keeping that many. Naturally, a lot of the movies I’d like to talk about are ones that would never get a sniff of a nomination for this award. Small, black-and-white Iranian horror movies are never going to be Oscar darlings, but that means A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night gets ignored. Honestly, that’s generally true for horror in general, omitting It Follows. If horror isn’t going to make it, we’re not going to get horror comedy like What We Do in the Shadows, either. Science fiction is another easily-ignored category for Oscar, although I probably wouldn’t nominate Interstellar, either. Ex Machina was a year or two too early. Produced in 2016 or 2017, I think it gets nominated. It’s too much to ask for a documentary like Life Itself or Citizenfour to be on the podium, I guess, and since The LEGO Movie couldn’t swing a nomination in the category it clearly deserved to win, it wasn’t going to get one here. Chef probably wasn’t important enough and Calvary wasn’t big enough to warrant consideration, a comment I could also make about Pawn Sacrifice. That leaves us with three where I can’t fathom the nomination misses. In whatever order you’d like, Nightcrawler, Gone Girl, and Foxcatcher have no business not being talked about in this company.

Weeding through the Nominees

8. As a teacher, Whiplash offended me. Yes, it’s a compelling story and it’s well acted. J.K. Simmons gives a masterclass on handling a role. But the film itself offers such a terrible, hurtful message that I can’t in good conscience recommend it. Movies like this infuriate me. I cannot take issue with how it was made or how it was performed, but the result of it is so ugly and so wrong-headed that it makes me angry. There’s a part of me that understands the nomination, but it’s not a film I’ll ever watch again.

7. The problem with American Sniper is pretty much the same problem I have with Whiplash in many respects. Place a different uniform on Chris Kyle and the people holding him up as a hero would want him tried as a war criminal. American Sniper is dangerous because it promotes a dangerous brand of nationalism. If we do something, it’s the right to do, but if others do it, it’s dirty. It promotes a sort of moral bankruptcy that I think this country and world can ill afford.

6. I’m not entirely sure what I expected with The Theory of Everyting, but I hoped for something that might go a little deeper into the actual science that made Stephen Hawking a household name. Instead, it’s everything but the science, and the title has about as much to do with the content of the film as it does with what sort of sandwiches we should have at lunch. It’s not a bad movie by any stretch and I’ll agree that it’s nicely acted. It’s just misfocused on what is interesting here, opting instead for something closer to a domestic drama.

5. I could say much the same thing about The Imitation Game. There are a number of aspects of the life of Alan Turing that are worth investigating, his worth with the ENIGMA machine not the least of them. However, since we could credit Turing with probably shortening World War II by several years and likely saving millions of lives, could we at least have done him and his team the service of getting the story done in a way that was historically accurate? That’s so damn frustrating!

4. Up until this most recent Oscars, I think it was safe to say that Birdman was the weirdest Best Picture winner in history, and might still be. My most impactful memory of this film is watching it with my wife. Halfway through, we had to pause it and run an errand. When we returned, I asked her if she wanted to finish. Her words were to the effect of, “Well, I’ve watched this much of it and I’m not going to start it over...” That’s hardly a ringing endorsement. I think I get why it won, but it was far more deserving of other Oscars than this one.

3. Boyhood is another one of those films where I respect the end result a lot more than I like it. I think it’s a hell of an achievement, and in a lot of respects, I could see it winning. However, Boyhood is a film that is far more about how it was made and the process than it was about the film itself. As a story, it’s mundane. It’s beautiful in its own way because of how mundane it is. I like this as a nomination, but given the films nominated and left off the dais, I can’t put it above third place.

2. I knew Selma was going to be a powerful film, but I wasn’t prepared for it to be as powerful as it turned out to be. In a year where The LEGO Movie couldn’t get a nomination for Best Animated Feature, David Oyelowo couldn’t get a nomination for Best Actor and Ava DuVernay got snubbed for Best Director. It’s evidence in this case that for all of the Academy’s posturing, it’s got a long, long way to go. Selma is clearly in the top tier of a very good year, but it’s not my winner.

1. Of all the movies I watched in 2014, perhaps none was more purely enjoyable than The Grand Budapest Hotel. This Russian nesting doll of a story, a young girl reads the book of an old man who tells the story he heard as a young man from another old man who was a young man years ago, is a joy of clockwork precision, solid colors and Wes Anderson’s obsession-level quirks. I think it’s a masterpiece of Anderson’s oeuvre, and while he puts out beautiful films where every frame looks curated, he made this one close to perfectly.

My Choice

I realize that I’m going to make Joel cringe when I talk about Nightcrawler as the best film of this year. I don’t really apologize for that because I can make this argument easily. This is brilliantly made and acted from start to finish—Jake Gyllenhaal’s lack of a nomination is as staggering as David Oyelowo’s miss. It’s also a movie that is critically important in the world we live in now. This is in many ways a modernization of Network, and asks again about the power that news and media hold over us. I could argue for Gone Girl as well for being subtle and having multiple jaw-drop moments and for The LEGO Movie for being just about perfect. And honestly, I wouldn’t object terribly to The Grand Budapest Hotel or Selma winning, but my heart wouldn’t be quite in it.

Final Analysis


  1. 2014, the year the academy truly demonstrated their ineptitude during a great year for film. Just because the likes of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" were loved by the public doesn't mean they weren't just as good, if not better, than many of the academy's dismal choices. Hell, most of my students at the time couldn't believe that "Whiplash" and "Birdman" were considered better than "The Fault in Our Stars," "Neighbors," "How to Train Your Dragon 2," or "John Wick." Yes, "John Wick" the little movie that now has two sequels and an upcoming TV adaptation while most of the academy's top 2014 list has been forgotten by most average movie goers. And like you, I believe "Nightcrawler" was robbed.

    1. John Wick was a lot of fun, absolutely. And in all honesty, I liked it more than a lot of the movies that were actually nominated here.

      For me, the idea of Best Picture is a lot more than just how much I liked it, though--there has to be something there more than just being entertaining for me. That said, it wouldn't have been a terrible mention in my first paragraph.

      Nightcrawler, for me, is about something. It's a film that starts a real conversation, and that goes a long way for me in winning this award.

    2. I found that ""The Fault in Our Stars" started the most conversations in my classes. They ranged from students with fatal and non fatal diseases to parents and grandparents with them and even to social problems like incarcerated parents and poverty that many face each and every day. It wasn't one of my favorite films of the year, but I got a lot of mileage out of it in the classroom.

  2. I think Birdman was a worthy winner, but I also will not argue against Nightcrawler. I would rate American Sniper higher, probably second from among the nominees.

    Others worth mentioning in the 2014 "best of" conversation:
    In Your Eyes
    Edge of Tomorrow

    1. It would be a stretch to say that I hated American Sniper, but it's not at all a stretch to say that I found it profoundly disturbing, and not in a good or interesting way.

      For what it's worth, I liked Fury but didn't love it, which I could also say about Edge of Tomorrow.

  3. I really could not get into Grand Budapest Hotel when we showed it here. That being said, I've gotten into other Anderson films a little more since, so it might be worthy of a re-watch. I like the creativity of Birdman, but Boyhood would have been my choice for Best Picture. I admired how Boyhood was made, but also enjoyed it as well.

    1. See, I think this is a good argument for Linklater winning Best Director, but the movie itself isn't something I've ever thought about seeing a second time.