Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

2014 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was delayed this round. It comes in four parts. Scroll down for the rest.)

2014 featured some excellent blockbusters, both serious and fun, but the prestige films were a much thinner crop than 2013. The line I found myself thinking over and over was I wanted to like it more than I did. That said, some 2014 films are well worth seeing.

I liked Neil Patrick Harris as an Oscar host overall. My favorite host probably remains Steve Martin, and like Martin, Harris is a triple threat, capable of acting, singing and dancing. Harris has enough raw charisma that he was able to deliver a marginal joke and then just stare down the camera, daring the audience to turn on him. His opening number, with assists by Anna Kendrick and Jack Black, was fantastic, and the projection effects looked pretty cool. I could have done without his "treason" comment about Edward Snowden, because the documentary about Snowden, Citizen Four, had just won the Oscar – why steal its thunder? Why not let people see it and decide for themselves about Snowden? It was editorializing, and with very establishment views that seemed like pandering. Still, Harris was an able host for the most part and kept things interesting.

As for the awards winners, they were mostly worthy recipients. Birdman is probably the most avant-garde film ever to win Best Picture, and that's a minor coup. Alejandro González Iñárritu was a worthy choice for director given both the quality of the performances and the technical complexity of the shoot. Likewise, Emmanuel Lubezki was a lock for another cinematography Oscar for making Birdman's sinuous, difficult shots look easy. (I wasn't offended by Sean Penn's "green card" joke about González given their friendship; Penn knew González would laugh. However, I thought it was it was dumb and self-indulgent, because Penn's audience was millions of people, not just one person.)

I was happy to see The Grand Budapest Hotel win for Production Design and Costuming, but most of all for Alexandre Desplat's whimsical, wonderful score. The Theory of Everything's score is a lovely, lyrical piece by Jóhann Jóhannsson, but also more traditional. The playfulness of Desplat's score – down to its fake folk music – really sells the tone of the film, and it's the sort of work that often doesn't get recognized. (Traditionally, comedies don't get much respect.) Sticking with music, the performance of Selma's tune "Glory," which won Best Original Song, was probably the highlight of the evening. John Legend and Common made some on-target remarks about current voter suppression efforts, a trend made all the galling given the subject of Selma. I'm not a Lady Gaga fan, but she's got a good voice and did a nice job singing a medley from The Sound of Music.

As for the acting awards – I haven't seen Still Alice with Best Actress winner Julianne Moore, nor Whiplash with Best Supporting Actor winner J.K. Simmons, but I admire their other work, so I was glad to see them win. Moore has been exceptional for years (I've liked her since 1994's Vanya on 42nd Street), but many of her previous nominations came for so-so films. Meanwhile, Simmons has been a workhorse with impressive range, delivering both terrifying and hilarious performances (consider Oz, Juno and his work in the Spider-Man films, for starters). I'm not a huge fan of Patricia Arquette (I haven't been able to shake the memory of her painful performance in Stigmata), but she did a pretty good job in Boyhood, and it wasn't an overwhelming year in the category. (Plus, Arquette's pro-mother, pro-woman acceptance speech was rousing.) I'd have given Michael Keaton Best Actor for his offbeat, vulnerable performance in Birdman over Eddie Redmayne's work in The Theory of Everything – playing disabled isn't as hard as the voters seem to think (and a certain Tropic Thunder clip comes to mind). Still, Redmayne's genuinely good in the film. The observation that the nominations were the whitest they've been in years was accurate. That said, I thought David Oyelowo gave a solid performance in Selma but not one of the top five by an actor, for instance. (However, I haven't seen Chadwick Boseman in Get on Up yet and likely missed some other contenders for the four awards.)

I was disappointed but not surprised that The Imitation Game won for Best Adapted Screenplay, considering the other awards it's received. Given how interesting its subject matter is, it was frustrating to see how formulaic and calculated the script seemed (the cast sells it, though). As with sections of Selma, The Imitation Game chose to invent scenes that were louder and more conventionally "dramatic" than real life, but also more clichéd, less subtle and less interesting. (Your mileage may vary, of course. Also, Imitation Game writer Graham Moore did give a great acceptance speech about life's injustices and 'staying weird and different.') Birdman was a decent pick for Best Original Screenplay, but I'd have given it to Dan Gilroy's dark and dazzling script for Nightcrawler.

Nightcrawler, Edge of Tomorrow and Gone Girl were the most snubbed films among those I saw. I wouldn't have given Interstellar's muddled sound mix a nomination for Best Sound Mixing, but at least it didn't win. Its win for Best Visual Effects was more defensible, in that it was a less conventional and more subtle job than many, especially an artful dimension-bending sequence. (I've heard that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes's chimp face and fur work is very impressive, but I haven't seen it yet.) The most fun sequence of the year, visual effects or otherwise, though, was the Quicksilver "Time in a Bottle" sequence in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

It seems the Oscars have finally adopted (for two years now) the "designated speaker" model for multiple award winners, made better because (more often than before) the lead speaker speaks briefly, shuts up and doesn't filibuster his or her fellow winners (who can at least give a shout-out to their families). I'm glad, because it always killed me to see some techie or other non-famous person denied their one shining moment (typically after years of toiling).

None of the presenters were particularly memorable – at least not in a good way. John Travolta appeared in a segment with Idina Menzel that poked fun of him butchering her name the previous year, but he grabbed her face too fervently and too long, and just came off as creepy (even if it was rehearsed).

I wish the Montage of Death would go back to the model of singing during the montage, which was used several years back with Queen Latifah. It's an unnecessary time waste to sing afterward, especially since it's easy to cut occasionally to the singer. My theory is that Babra Streisand's ego wouldn't allow for that the year she sang, and unfortunately, that format has stuck.

As for 2014 films, they featured a neat oddity: In two Marvel films (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy), the music of Marvin Gaye not only improved the soundtrack but played a minor plot point. This is a wise trend.

On to the reviews. As usual, I wouldn't put too much stock in their relative category rankings. For the second year, I've hidden spoilers with toggle buttons. (As always, my guideline is that, if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler). Meanwhile, I've added the usual interview links (mostly audio). The reviews are split into The Top Six, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

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