Oscar favorites prompt mixed reviews

With Oscar season in full swing, and having last week proclaimed “Mommy” as the best film of 2014 (despite it being completely snubbed), I thought I’d proffer my thoughts (in no particular order) on 10 more of the best films to come out last year. I can’t remember a recent year where more than two or three of my personal top 10 made the Oscar shortlist, but no less than five are in the mix out of the eight for this year!

Like all exemplary films, the following are paragons of the equal, symbiotic harmony that arises between style and substance to create a whole masterwork not dominated by one or the other.

The great gamut of possibilities that the cinematic medium affords its filmmakers is represented in the dichotomy of styles between Alejandro Inarritu’s “Birdman” and Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.” In addition to both being hellish portraits of the artistic process, their coexistence in the same year manages to portray them as two extreme sides of the same coin of cinema. The former is comprised of a few long takes meant to take shape as a fluid whole. The latter is elementally built note by note, piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle of thousands of shots.

Clinically, one views “Birdman” as if their eyes were being forcefully held open “Clockwork Orange”-style, and “Whiplash” as if they were blinking rapidly in an epileptic seizure. But while each film is rooted in a masterful, calculated style, neither are by any means chained down by it. One manages to become so sucked in by each film’s adrenaline-inducing events that on first viewing, one feels guilty for not being able to take a scientific approach in analyzing the rich techniques in and of themselves.

While both are arguably the two best films nominated for Best Picture, neither will win the big award (though both are a shoe-in for the lead and supporting male acting categories, respectively). This is because at the end of the day, as should be no surprise, Academy members vote with either their sentimental hearts or with their social consciences. The good news is that this year, two quality films comprise the realistic front-runners:

Linklater’s “Boyhood,” brilliant though it is, almost doesn’t play fair by the fact that everybody can relate to it, thereby making it the surefire front-runner to win. From a technical standpoint, the gimmick of shooting over twelve years is a cinematic first, and in my opinion, despite the film’s PR agents trying to paint its success as a surprise, its sheer obvious novelty essentially secured the film’s nomination from the moment Linklater announced the project. The miracle, then, is how I hardly ever mention its technique when talking about it. The true triumph is in the way Linklater manages to dissolve the glass barrier represented by the screen in order to create less of a film, and more of a purely emotional experience, especially in its earlier scenes of elementary school wonder. Everybody can relate to growing up, and unlike a Blockbuster that tries to be universal in its blandness, Linklater manages to make the film universal in its specificity.

Of course, contrary to what most Oscar-prediction polls think, I believe this could certainly be upset by the most politically important film this year, DuVernay’s “Selma.” The first major fiction film to be made about MLK would serve as a historical event at any time, but it also happens to possess an added resonance by being released in the middle of today’s climate of heightened racial tensions. While it notoriously failed to be nominated in any of the other major categories, the outrage that stemmed from such a snub is unprecedented, and perhaps would remain silenced if not for the wonders of social media.

I retain a firm belief that between now and then, Academy members will hear this dissent loud and clear, and from a social conscience point of view, to say nothing of the film’s complexities and quality, will think twice before voting for “Boyhood.”

The last nominated film on my list is Wes Anderson’s wonderful “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Essentially an orgasmic variety of Andersonian tropes, the film’s nomination is its win, and is basically the Academy voters coming about ten years too late to the party in thinking Anderson is cool and cutting edge. (Where were they when “The Royal Tenenbaums” actually deserved that description?)

One film not nominated for Best Picture is the deliciously smarmy and thrilling “Nightcrawler”—perhaps the best satire of the media since 1987’s “Robocop.” From the first frame to the last, the viewer is thrust into the point of view of a completely compelling yet unsympathetic, psychotic, ambulance-chasing protagonist. Go in as cold to the plot as you can. At the very least, it will make you say, “wow, now THAT’s a film!”

The foreign film nominees “Ida” and “Leviathan,” both of which are devastatingly depressing, stylistically complement each other beautifully in their presentations of a protagonist’s internal struggle. “Ida” is a short, stylized, brisk, powerfully to-the-point novella-esque portrait of a nun who makes a life-changing journey before taking her vows. “Leviathan” is a lugubrious, naturalistic, but haunting landscape painting of a man constantly screwed over by the corrupt local governments that pervade modern Russia.

“Under The Skin” is an ambitious hybrid of verite footage and video art that needs to be experienced more than understood.

And last but not least, P.T. Anderson’s divisive “Inherent Vice.” Essentially an avant-garde episode of “Dragnet” with stoners, the film needs to be seen twice (and wouldn’t be on this list if I hadn’t), not necessarily for its intentionally convoluted plot, but rather to understand where it’s coming from structurally. One has to realize that, much like the characters it presents, the film exists in its own universe contrary to everything else being done in cinema today. It’s challenging and dense—perhaps the most demanding film on this list—but it’s well worth the time, as are all of the above-mentioned cinematic jewels of last year.

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