I don’t normally watch a lot of new films. I like film in theory, but in practice I find it hard to make myself sit down and dedicate time to a film – an hour of TV feels like a cheaper price (even if in practice one hour can turn into two or three). And when I do watch a film, it’s usually something from years ago – a favourite, or a classic that I’ve never seen. There are, after all, just so many films out there.
But this year, one way or another, I’ve managed to end up seeing a bunch of new things, including a few that are in competition for the Oscars this weekend. So for once, I can actually share an opinion!
So far as I can remember, in the last year (give or take) I have seen nine new films: the Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, and Whiplash; and the non-Oscar-nominated (well, non-big-prize-nominated, a couple have got technical nominations) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Robocop, Edge of Tomorrow and Guardians of the Galaxy; plus Calvary, which doesn’t really fit in with any of the others.
So, on the basis of the above, here are my own opinions on some of the key prizes on offer on Sunday…
Or you can skip through to part 2 for my ranking of these films, and some final words.
Best Supporting Actor/Actress
Who have we got? Keira Knightly? That would be a definitive no. The entire cast of Grand Budapest Hotel? There were plenty of stirling performances, but most were just too brief. Tony Revolori deserves mention as a newcomer, but spends a lot of time being told to look blank. So I think the standout from that film in this regard was F. Murray Abraham. Birdman has Edward Norton. It also has Emma Stone, but I really don’t understand why she’s been nominated – she’s exceptionally pretty (as, incidentally, is Amy Ryan!) and plays an attractive if conventional character, but she does nothing out of the ordinary in the film, and it should take more than a pretty face and solid acting in a nothing role to get an Oscar nomination. Whiplash… I’m not going to mention J.K. Simmons, for the minor, pedantic, technical issue that he’s not in a supporting role. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a range of actors hidden behind pixels – it’s hard for me to judge their acting ability, although in the interests of embracing technology, and since the end product was good (I don’t know how much was acting and how much was animation) I’d mention Toby Kebbell as Koba. Gary Oldman’s role, incidentally, may be scenary-chewing but he manages to put more nuance and appeal into it than most actors would in that position. Robocop… well, Oldman, Keaton and Jackson all put in pleasing performances, but the former is nothing fresh and the latter two are only really cameos. Edge of Tomorrow has a great performance from Emily Blunt – sure, it may not be historic, but it’s probably the best performance by a woman I’ve seen on film this year. You could probably argue it should be a lead performance based on screentime, but structurally she’s clearly only supporting. Guardians of the Galaxy has a good ensemble, but it’s Dave Bautista who stands out as Drax, combining broad deadpan comedy with emotional depth and physical and vocal intimidation, and doing it despite being saddled with a lot of makeup – it’s a larger-than-life role, but the complexity he finds in it is impressive, and in particular his comic beats could have gone very, very wrong in other hands. And Calvary? A bunch of talented supporting actors who have been told to chew that damned gorgeous scenery as hard as they possible can.
Shortlist: F. Murray Abraham; Ed Norton; Toby Kebbell; Emily Blunt; Dave Bautista
Bautista’s performance is good for the role, but the role lacks depth, and in any case he’s drowned out somewhat by the scale of the movie. Toby Kebbell and/or his animators are very good for someone pretending to be a chimpanzee, but again this lacks depth. Emily Blunt is powerfully charismatic, and in particular does a great job displaying her character through her physicality… but it’s not very subtle.
That leaves Abraham and Norton. It’s Norton who’s been nominated by the Academy, and I’m not surprised. It really is an impressive performance, taking what could be a caricature and suggesting hidden complexities, producing a character who is both repellent and likeable at the same time (both for us as viewers and for the inhabitants of that world). It’s showy, it’s noticeable, and it’s about showbusiness.
However, Abraham’s performance is the one that I’ll remember. Sure, he does very little. But he doesn’t have to do much. Abraham is able to convey emotions – atmospheres – through the slightest inflections of his voice, or the slightest softening of his eyes. Above all, he continually conveys a vast impression of loss and sorrow, even when doing nothing at all… but at the same time, a perfectly cultivated civilisation. And at times a boyish whimsy, and the outcast’s inescapable pleasure at receiving attention from others. Abraham creates the entire mood of the film, frames our interpretations of everything, and somehow stops us from ever questioning whether this aged old man is really the same as the young boy we see in the primary time period. And he does all of that with dialogue that, on paper, would look like nothing, would look terribly dry.
‘Winner’: F. Murray Abraham
Things the Academy got wrong: haven’t seen enough of the films to say anything on the male side (though I don’t think Simmons is in the right category) – I think Abraham is better than Norton, but I can’t complain about Norton being on the list, because it is a great performance; on the women’s side Emily Blunt just plain gives a better performance than either Emma Stone or Keira Knightley, and if Edge of Tomorrow weren’t a SF action film (and an overlooked one at that), she would have gotten a nomination ahead of either of them.
Birdman and Budapest were both nominated, and it’s hard to argue with those. They’re both attractive and distinctive – although Birdman feels more like an exercise, whereas Budapest feels carefully composed. Whiplash was good at using its visual appearance to establish mood and setting, although I didn’t particularly like that appearance (it has a sort of jaundiced, foggy look that seems to be in fashion now – sorry, I don’t have the vocabulary or knowledge to explain it better than that). The Imitation Game had an appearance that I generally think of as just ‘Oscar bait’ – very perfect, very pretty, very conventional, no strange choices. But I think mention should be made of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which sells both the reality and the distinctness of both its forest paradise and its post-apocalyptic urbanism. Of course, the Pacific North West helped out a fair bit in making it the most beautiful film I’ve seen this year. Oh, and Edge of Tomorrow had some great kinetic action sequences, and in particular did a good job conveying the desolation of France. Calvary, meanwhile, does look gorgeous – OK, maybe it looks better than Dawn – but let’s be honest that was just a matter of sticking a camera on a helicopter and flying it over some hills. That’s down to the gods and the heavens and the earth, not down to the cameraman.
Personally, I would feel that this was between Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I’d have to give it to the latter.
‘Winner’: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Benedict Cumberbatch is a good, if unspectacular Turing. Ralph Fiennes gets his character down to a tee. Michael Keaton is both appealing and nuts in Birdman. You may mock me for saying this, but Tom Cruise gives a great performance in Edge of Tomorrow, expertly turning his defects (he’s a slimy, odious creep and everybody hates him) into an asset in the role. Brendan Gleeson gives a convincingly tired, yet convinced, performance in Calvary, not helped by the script. And then there’s Whiplash. J.K. Simmons is clearly a leading actor here, even if he’s not the protagonist – he’s not just in most of the scenes and almost all the key scenes, he’s the focus of most of the key scenes. Ask youself: if that role were for a woman, would she be considered a co-lead? Hell yes! Simmons is only in Supporting for strategic reasons (and perhaps because we find it hard to imagine two men both being in lead roles in the same film and naturally ‘demote’ one whenever possible to fit our perceived hierarchy). But we shouldn’t overlook the protagonist, either: Miles Teller is much less flashy, but is even more important to the film, and gets everything right. The fear, the obsession, the combination of arrogance and obsequiousness, a certain charm… he’s asked to, in essence, spend a large percentage of the movie looking gormless while someone yells at him, and I think that’s probably a lot harder than it might seem, while still maintaining the integrity of the character and enough agency/charisma that we see him as the protagonist. It’s possible that it’s actually a better performance than Simmons gives.
That said, Simmons gives a really good performance too, and unlike Teller’s, his role is big and central and all eyes are on him, and he doesn’t put a single syllable wrong. Yes, it’s a conventional role, but he performs it perfectly… and manages to add surprising ambiguity to it as well (helped out by the writing, of course).
Cruise is good, but lacks depth or subtlety. To be honest, the same is true of Fiennes (though he has an adorable character). Keaton has some great moments, but… there were times I felt I was watching Michael Keaton. Not Riggan Thompson, but Michael Keaton. [It’s probably not wise to show us some intentionally bad acting and how superficial it is, and then shortly after ask your actor to chew some scenary… it invites too many comparisons]. It also doesn’t help that he’s in the same film as Norton. Meanwhile, Cumberbatch delivers a note-perfect, or at least note-cliché performance. The best bits are understated; I’m particularly impressed by the exactitude of his ‘1940s academic’ accent. I don’t like the role he’s given, but as a performance? Probably on a par with Keaton? Probably behind Miles Teller. But for me the best acting performance I’ve seen this year was most likely J.K. Simmons. Which surprises me, because at the time I was thinking ‘yeah, this is good, but is this really the best (supporting) performance this year in a landslide?’ And I still suspect that it isn’t, that there were other better performances out there somewhere. But from the limited selection of films I’ve actually seen, I can’t think of anyone better than him this year.
‘Winner’: J.K. Simmons
Whiplash is clever, but it’s also clunky in places. Budapest is delicate, but… doesn’t say much. Edge of Tomorrow, however, may be the best-written film of the lot. Which, I know, we’re not meant to say, since it’s a SF action film. But it uses a potentially overused gimmick and it makes a compelling film out of it, managing both action and emotional beats. Most importantly – and surprisingly – it doesn’t make the mistake of allowing any state of affairs to outstay its welcome, managing to continuously change into to something slightly different whenever it threatens to become repetitive. That’s a much harder trick than people give credit.
The other films are all recycled clichés.
‘Winner’: Edge of Tomorrow
While I have problems with the film, Iñárritu did make Birdman much more watchable than it might otherwise have been, though he allowed over-loud performances from everybody involved (cast as well as crew). Anderson’s Budapest is a masterful and very personal creation, from the smallest decoration up to the whole scope of the film. But I think the outstanding contender here was Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle. It might not be as obvious as Budapest, but just think how many things had to be exactly right for Whiplash to work – the editing, the sound, the music, the camerawork, the sets, the supporting actors, all not just good but working exactly in unison with each other and with Chazelle’s script. You can’t build up such breathless tension in a film without every one of those elements being perfectly controlled and harmonised… and then of course Chazelle was also able to bring out arguably the best two acting performances of the year. In the end, aside from my personal ambivalence toward the look of the film – a stylistic issue that I know others disagree with – the only flaws with the film come from the script… which, yes, is also by Chazelle, but not Chazelle-qua-director! So…