Category Archives: Uncategorized

Take Five: Man’s Best Friend.

Jackpot Jones Local Hero.

Jackpot Jones Local Hero.

First, an apology. It’s been more than a month since I last put up a post here, and that’s just not right. I blame my personal life, which started intruding into my movie time when my father slipped and fell and wound up in long-term care. He’ll recover, I think. And then my dog, Jones, got sick. And then Jones died. And that was terrible.

Except to host a couple of post-show Q-and-A sessions at the recent Greentopia Film Festival – commitments I made a month earlier – I took several weeks off from seeing new movies in theaters. For a film critic, that’s too long. I’ve caught a few VOD releases at home, but getting back to a movie house waited until this week, when I watched Get Hard (don’t bother) and It Follows for a second time. I first sat down to see that in Toronto last fall, and my stepdaughter loves horror movies. In effect, she helped me get off the couch and out of my funk.

Last night I watched Furious 7, and I’m back in the swing now, I think. But before I close the books on the last month of my life, here’s a quick list of the five best dog movies I know:

my dog tulip (new yorker films) blog

‘My Dog Tulip.’ (New Yorker Films)

My Dog Tulip. In a world where “animation” equals Disney, it took too long for someone to make a ’toon that depicted the relationship between human and pet with sophistication and mature tenderness. And yes, that meant including more than we needed to know about bodily functions. Based on J.R. Ackerley’s 1956 memoir, Tulip is an elegant, intimate recollection of the connection that grew and endured between the author and his German Shepherd. Christopher Plummer does fine voice work as Ackerley, assaying the landscape of affection and bizarre fascination that unspools organically during his 15 years with Tulip. The hand-drawn animation is wonderful to look at, and the story it tells is simple and utterly unforgettable.

Turner & Hooch. Yes, Turner & Hooch. Have you seen it lately? Tom Hanks, fresh off Big in 1989 but still primarily known for his comic chops, gives good controlled mania as a neatnik small-town cop whose life is turned upside down by his inadvertent adoption of a drooling French Bull Mastiff who happened to witness his owner’s murder. Journeyman director Roger Spottiswoode has never made a great movie, but he finds a deft balance here between goofball hijinks and earned emotion – both in Hanks’ budding romance with a soft-spoken vet (Mare Winningham) and his growing fondness for that darn dog.

It’s a Dog’s Life. This 1955 film is narrated by its title character, an English Bull Terrier who survives an early life of urban dogfighting to eventually find happiness as a pedigreed show pup. In real life, it hardly ever works this way: English Bull Terriers, like their Pit Bull cousins, are routinely inbred and abused by owners who see them as savage raw materials rather than animals with the same loving instincts as every other dog.

Michele Williams and Lucy in 'Wendy and Lucy.' (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Michele Williams and Lucy in ‘Wendy and Lucy.’ (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Wendy and Lucy. I picked this 2008 film over the somewhat similarly themed Umberto D. (1952) only because it might be easier to find. Michelle Williams plays an impoverished woman, living out of her car while contemplating a relocation to Alaska, who leaves her dog outside a convenience store. Then she’s arrested for shoplifting, and when she returns from jail the dog is long gone. Kelly Reichardt’s remarkable film is lean and relentless – Wendy can’t catch a break, and her despair at losing her only real emotional connection is palpable. Ultimately, it’s both an affecting portrait of life’s potential for chaotic devastation, and a reminder that love can sometimes be better expressed by something other than a traditional happy ending.

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. Traditionally, dog movies aren’t allowed to reach their final reels without sadness creeping in. Hachi, directed in 2009 by Lasse Hallström, is probably the finest example of this wretched trend. It’s based on a true story of an Akita whose bond to his owner lasted for years beyond the man’s death, and if you watch this film to the end you’d better have Kleenex handy. It’s sentimental in the worst sense of the word – manipulating your tears like a puppeteer plucks at a marionette’s strings – and yet there’s a strong sense of earnestness to the affair that keeps it resonant and true. The only way to avoid making this movie sentimental would have been to not make it at all – which, now that I think of it, sums up the dilemma of anyone who’s ever loved, and lost, a dog.

And now, back to our show.

Oscar Watch: What Will Win. (Possibly.)

Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood." (IFC Films)

Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood.” (IFC Films)

The 87th annual Academy Awards are on tonight. After weeks of build-up, here are my predictions in every single race:


  • American Sniper
  • Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Selma
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash

As Oscar night approaches Birdman appears to be gaining momentum on Boyhood, but I stand by my original prediction that Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making family epic will prevail. What I Wish Would Win: Birdman, the most daringly creative film of the year.


  • Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

  • Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

  • Michael Keaton, Birdman 

  • Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Don’t rule out Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking in Everything – in a typical year it would be a lock for this award – but my money’s on Keaton, the veteran actor who salutes and transcends his body of work in Birdman. Who I Wish Would Win: Keaton. He deserves it. 


  • Robert Duvall, The Judge

  • Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

  • Edward Norton, Birdman 

  • Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

  • J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash." (Sony Pictures Classics)

J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

There’s just no contest in this category this year. Simmons has everything going for him – a respected character actor’s resume, a film that stayed top-of-mind with critics from Sundance to Toronto and beyond, and – oh yeah, I almost forgot – the most intense and unforgettable performance of the year, as a music teacher whose torturous tactics would seem to be a better fit in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Who I Wish Would Win: Simmons.


  • Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

  • Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

  • Julianne Moore, Still Alice

  • Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

  • Reese Witherspoon, Wild

I only had a chance to see Still Alice and Two Days, One Night yesterday, but the buzz around Moore’s performance has been consistently strong ever since Alice premiered in Toronto last fall. Her body of work and the fact that she’s long overdue for an Oscar only enhance her likelihood of winning for this film, a tour de force performance from the most dependably powerful actress of her generation. Cotillard is wonderful in her film, but this is Moore’s to lose. Who I Wish Would Win: In a perfect world I’d find a way to give Witherspoon some recognition for Wild, in which she once and for all closed the book on the perky persona that defined her early career. But Moore was too good, and is too deserving.


  • Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

  • Laura Dern, Wild

  • Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

  • Emma Stone, Birdman 

  • Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Stone is the only real competition for Arquette this year; this category likes to reward ingénue performers, and Stone is enjoying a remarkable run in her young career right now. But Arquette’s turn in Boyhood is the quintessential supporting role: Over 12 years, her mom to a growing boy (Ellar Coltrane) offers guidance and not-so-silent suffering … only to explode in a final scene that puts her character’s life in perspective. Who I Wish Would Win: Actually, Dern. Her soulful turn as another mom – the matriarch of Cheryl Strayed’s troubled family in Wild – anchored the film and provided the impetus for Strayed’s journey.


  • Big Hero 6
  • The Boxtrolls
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2
  • Song of the Sea
  • The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
A scene from "Big Hero 6." (Walt Disney Pictures)

A scene from “Big Hero 6.” (Walt Disney Pictures)

The mysterious omission of The LEGO Movie from this list at once cheapens the category and leaves the race wide open. The Boxtrolls wins points for offbeat adventurousness, but the favorite has to be Disney’s old-school adventure yarn Big Hero 6, which admires super-hero movie trends even while subverting them with honest, earned emotion. It was a lot of fun. Who I Wish Would Win: A write-in campaign for The LEGO Movie would be nice.


  • American Sniper
  • The Imitation Game 

  • Inherent Vice 

  • The Theory of Everything 

  • Whiplash

Everything has to win something, and this award – honoring the screenplay based on Jane Hawking’s memoir of life with her famed physicist husband – seems the most likely candidate. Who I Wish Would Win: The Theory of Everything. The dialogue in Whiplash is extraordinary, but the Screenplay awards have to consider the story as well, and Whiplash has story problems that I addressed in my review from last fall.


  • Birdman 

  • Boyhood 

  • Foxcatcher 

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel 

  • Nightcrawler

This here is my first total guess. Birdman’s script is remarkable, and Boyhood could well grab this award as part of an overall awards sweep on its way to the big prize. But Linklater’s film was famously understood to be largely improvised over its decade-plus creation, and I’d like to think the Academy would understand that means its screenplay wasn’t the secret of its success. Budapest, meanwhile, would have used its screenplay as the cement foundation upon which every element was built. Wes Anderson’s history of screenplay nominations (without a win, mind you) ought to make him a shoo-in this year. What I Wish Would Win: Would you believe Nightcrawler? Dan Gilroy’s script was powerful stuff – the backbone of a film that should have received many more nominations than this.


  • Birdman
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Ida
  • Mr. Turner
  • Unbroken
Jack O'Connell in 'Unbroken.' (Universal Pictures)

Jack O’Connell in ‘Unbroken.’ (Universal Pictures)

Ida’s lush black-and-white camera work is wonderful, but the 12th time really ought to be the charm for Roger Deakins. Despite being a modern legend in his trade – building a strong resume on films including The Shawshank Redemption, O Brother Where Art Thou? and Skyfall, among many others – he’s never won an Oscar despite 11 previous nominations. And his work in Unbroken (as I discussed here) is easily that film’s most valuable element. What I Wish Would Win: Unbroken. It’s a field of heavy hitters this year, but I’m pulling for Deakins.


  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Inherent Vice
  • Into the Woods 

  • Maleficent
  • Mr. Turner

It’s not uncommon for Oscar to default to period films for this category, which would seem to give Mr. Turner its best shot at an award. But I expect Budapest, with its absolutely comprehensive array of color, texture and style, to take the prize. These clothes really helped make the men. What I Wish Would Win: Maleficent’s costumes helped contribute to the look of a film that didn’t get the love it deserved, but I’d still go with The Grand Budapest Hotel. 


  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman
  • Richard Linklater, Boyhood
  • Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
  • Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

This prediction, ironically, is based on my assumption that Boyhood will win Best Picture. The two films are so evenly matched this year that the time seems ripe for a split decision between the two major categories: I expect Linklater’s total achievement will take the big award, while Iñárritu’s supple, inspired direction will receive the credit it’s so richly due. Who I Wish Would Win: Iñárritu. But then, I think Birdman should take Best Picture, too.


  • CitizenFour
  • Finding Vivian Maier
  • Last Days in Vietnam
  • The Salt of the Earth
  • Virunga

I don’t see how CitizenFour – which premieres tomorrow night on HBO, in case you’ve never seen it – can lose in this category. Its topicality (chronicling the saga of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden) and overall quality make it a shoo-in. And yet … What I Wish Would Win: I really liked Finding Vivian Maier and its skillful unraveling of a clandestine body of work from a photographer who lived 83 years without ever being known for her talent behind the lens. It’s equal parts photography exhibit and detective story.


  • Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
  • Joanna
  • Our Curse
  • The Reaper (La Parka)
  • White Earth
A scene from "Crisis Hotline." (HBO Documentary Films)

A scene from “Crisis Hotline.” (HBO Documentary Films)

There was no escaping mortality and bleakness in the slate of contenders for this category, but Crisis Hotline – about the work done in the nation’s only Veterans Administration crisis hotline phone bank, which just happens to be located here in Canandaigua – is important, thought-provoking and moving. What I Wish Would Win: Crisis Hotline. What, I’m gonna root for someone other than the home team?


  • American Sniper
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Whiplash

Putting Sniper in this category feels almost like sarcasm, as Clint Eastwood movies are many things, but tightly edited is not one of them. No, Boyhood is the likely winner, a masterful compilation of 12 years of footage that became the story of one boy’s life. What I Wish Would Win: Whiplash, for its electrifying editing work that kept pace with the frenetic drumbeats and anxiety-provoking pacing of that mentor-pupil story.

Agata Trzebuchowska in ‘Ida.’ (Music Box Films)

Agata Trzebuchowska in ‘Ida.’ (Music Box Films)


  • Ida 

  • Leviathan 

  • Tangerines 

  • Timbuktu 

  • Wild Tales

Ida’s other nomination in the Cinematography category is the tip-off that it will take the award in this category; being the most lauded foreign film of the year doesn’t hurt. (If you haven’t seen it yet, by the way, an $8-a-month Netflix subscription will fix that quick.) What I Wish Would Win: Ida.


  • Foxcatcher
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Guardians of the Galaxy

Who’s to say what happened to Foxcatcher? A few months ago it was the talk of Hollywood … but then people actually saw it, and were left collectively underwhelmed. Still, Bennett Miller’s film remains a small wonder in a handful of areas, and the transformation of Steve Carell into the nearly unrecognizable John du Pont is extraordinary. What I Wish Would Win: Foxcatcher. I don’t want to give all the credit for Carell’s success in this role to his makeup artist, but I believe the cosmetic metamorphosis likely helped the actor achieve a revelatory performance. It’s a good way to honor a flawed but interesting film.


  • The Grand Budapest Hotel 

  • The Imitation Game 

  • Interstellar 

  • Mr. Turner
  • The Theory of Everything

Alexandre Desplat is competing against himself in this category – he’s nominated for Budapest and The Imitation Game, in a great example of the diverse artistic potential from this talented auteur. The Theory of Everything remains a strong choice, but I expect Desplat will win for Budapest. What I Wish Will Win: I’m fine with Budapest.


  • “Everything Is Awesome” from The LEGO Movie
  • “Glory” from Selma
  • “Grateful” from Beyond the Lights
  • “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me

  • “Lost Stars” from Begin Again

A scene from “The LEGO Movie.” (Warner Bros.)

There’s a lot of good stuff in this category, and in different years each would be a mortal lock. But the Academy is going to have to recognize The LEGO Movie somehow, and it’s painted itself into a corner with this award. Besides, “Everything is Awesome,” for better or worse, was the “Let it Go” of 2014 – the film-related earworm anthem that no one didn’t recognize. What I Wish Would Win: “Lost Stars.” Begin Again didn’t get anywhere near the love it deserved, and more than any other film in this category, John Carney’s film was all about the music.


  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Interstellar
  • Into the Woods
  • Mr. Turner 

How can Budapest be denied here? The films of Wes Anderson have always depended on astonishingly detailed production designs to establish and maintain their quirky world views, and this latest is the ultimate expression of the marriage between look and theme. What I Wish Would Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel. There’s a layered visual richness here that just can’t be equaled in the other contenders.

"Feast." (Walt Disney Films)

“Feast.” (Walt Disney Films)


  • The Bigger Picture
  • The Dam Keeper
  • Feast
  • Me and My Moulton
  • A Single Life

Nobody knows animation better than Disney, and the studio’s Feast is a flawless little thing – the wordless account of a love story between a dog, his master and the food that brings them together. It should take the award handily. What I Wish Would Win: Me and My Moulton, a Norwegian trifle about three sisters growing up in a kooky family, won me over. It’s the scrappy underdog to Feast’s well-fed pooch.


  • Aya
  • Boogaloo and Graham
  • Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)
  • Parvaneh
  • The Phone Call

I’ve been certain for months that this award would go to The Phone Call, which cheated a bit and employed two past Oscar nominees (Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent) in a slim but moving story of a crisis call-center phone worker who takes a call from a grieving widower who’s taken too many pills. In the last week, though, my head has been turned by the growing chances of Boogaloo and Graham, a slight but endearing coming-of age saga about two Irish brothers and the baby chickens they come to love. What I Wish Would Win: The Phone Call. Cheating or no, those two A-plus actors delivers remarkable performances; it earned its award.


  • American Sniper
  • Birdman 
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  • Interstellar
  • Unbroken


  • American Sniper
  • Birdman 
  • Interstellar
  • Unbroken
  • Whiplash

These two sound categories have become something of a joke: Most people (myself included) don’t know the difference between “editing” and “mixing,” and the contenders in both categories are usually very, very similar. Interstellar’s sound was one of its most notable ingredients – not always for the better, in my opinion – and if it’s good enough to be nominated in both categories, I expect it’ll win here. American Sniper, however, remains a potential spoiler in both categories. What I Wish Would Win: Seeing Whiplash in the nomination bucket makes me yearn for another win for this powerful film.


  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Interstellar
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past

Until the Academy figures out how to properly recognize the motion-capture performance work of actors like Andy Serkis (who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies and Caesar, the leader of a band of intelligent apes, here), films that masterfully utilize this technology at least should have first right of refusal in this category. X-Men and Guardians showed off some fine eye candy, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes needs a win here. What I Wish Would Win: Apes, walking away.

Oscar Watch: A Voter Speaks.

J.K. Simmons in 'Whiplash.' (Sony Pictures Classics)

J.K. Simmons, left, in ‘Whiplash.’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

When you work for The Hollywood Reporter, access to Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members is probably more readily available than from my desk here in western New York. THR is running a series of anonymous interviews with AMPAS members in the lead-up to the Oscars this weekend – to probe their ways of thinking and get the story behind the varied winners and losers – and what they found yesterday was a doozy.

The subject of the profile, a “longtime member of the Academy’s 378-member public relations branch,” offered up some remarkably cynical and unquestionably illuminating viewpoints on this year’s contenders, including:

  • Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette deserves to win for Best Supporting Actress – not for the strength of her performance, but for allowing herself to be filmed for 12 consecutive years without assistance from cosmetic surgery. “It’s a bravery reward…. Way to freakin’ go!”
  • Boyhood the film, on the other hand, isn’t her pick for Best Picture – “I never thought, ‘Wow, this is the one!’” – but she’ll choose The Imitation Game because “movie that, years from now, people will still watch and talk about.”
  • She’s voting for Michael Keaton for Best Actor in Birdman, largely because, well, because she likes Michael Keaton: “I’ve loved every interview that he’s done. He seems grateful, not particularly needy, and I don’t know when he’ll ever get another chance at this; the other nominees will.”
  • On J.K. Simmons in Whiplash: “while the rest of the world thinks [his] character is an overbearing, horrible monster, there are many people in Hollywood who would model themselves on that character.” She’s voting for him, she says, both on the strength of his performance “and because he was in 5,000 episodes of Law & Order.”
  • Like many of us, the difference between the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing awards is lost on her. “I never vote for these categories because I have no idea what’s good sound or bad sound — and believe me, I’m not alone among Academy members.”
  • Re Selma and its well-publicized snubs: “there’s no art to it. If the movie had been directed by a 60-year-old white male, I don’t think that people would have been carrying on about it to the level that they were.” And lest you think she’s conforming to accusations of AMPAS voters being racist: “they had to get into the Academy to begin with, so they’re not cretinous, snaggletoothed hillbillies.”

Setting aside her invention of the world’s greatest band name, ever (“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give it up for the Cretinous Snaggletoothed Hillbillies!”), this voter has laid bare the essence of what I’m sure is a disturbingly commonplace mindset among her peers. It turns out that some Oscar voters don’t pick their winners based on the aesthetic or technical qualities of the work, but on random qualities such as likeability, showbiz politics and arbitrary considerations of legacy.

In other words, she’s just like the rest of us. Edge of Tomorrow was a universally well-regarded summer blockbuster last year, but relatively few people went to see it, largely because moviegoers are becoming leery of Tom Cruise’s public life. Most people don’t know J.K. Simmons by name, but they’ll recognize him from Law & Order or Oz and seek out a film because they liked him in those earlier roles. And admiring an actress for forgoing plastic surgery is just the flip side of automatically honoring films whose Hollywood-pretty movie stars consciously get ugly for their roles (see Charlize Theron in Monster or Christian Bale in American Hustle, to name a few).

I’d love to think AMPAS voters were immune to these petty and irrelevant biases, but that’s an unrealistic dream. Better, I think, to use moments of transparency like these to remember that when your favorite movie loses at the Oscars, it’s often due to reasons other than its relative quality. And the same goes for the ones that win.

“American Sniper,” Reviewed: Arms and the Men.

This article originally appeared in the January 23, 2015 Daily Messenger.

Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper." (Warner Bros.)

Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper.” (Warner Bros.)

Despite its 137-minute running time, there’s not an ounce of fat on Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (rated R for violence and language). Like the subject of this biopic, U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, its size is all muscle – and if it isn’t always nimble, the film knows where it’s headed and stays on course with grim, single-minded purpose.

The topic of American Sniper – an exploration of the life and career of the man recognized as the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history – earned it some publicity as it was gradually rolled out to theaters in late 2014. But it became a legitimate phenomenon in the new year, earning six Oscar nominations the day before it entered wide national release; that, combined with its subject matter, helped it set box-office records in its opening weekend.

It took me a few days to see Sniper (sold-out theaters will do that), and in that time I heard it called both anti-war and a patriotic celebration of an American hero. I’d say it functions as a mirror held up to each audience member’s soul: Its sincere, authentic depiction of Kyle’s experiences during four tours of duty in Iraq – and his intermittent, not always satisfying time stateside with his wife and family – will reinforce your ideas about war and its effects on our military men and women.

Based largely on Kyle’s 2012 autobiography, Sniper moves quickly through his childhood in Texas, his early days as a ranch hand and rodeo rider, and his urge to enlist after hearing about a 1998 terror attack on the U.S. embassy in Tanzania. The bulk of the film is spent in country, where his innate sharpshooter skills helped Kyle rack up an unprecedented record of 160 certified kills and likely many more unofficial ones.

Bradley Cooper added serious bulk to his normally lean frame to play Kyle, and along the way tapped into reservoirs previously unseen from this actor: It’s a revelatory turn similar to that of Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, in which a liked and respected performer suddenly shows us an utterly unfamiliar dimension of talent and nuance. Cooper is remarkable in showing us both Kyle’s unblinking stoicism in his work and his confused unpreparedness for the PTSD that awaited him upon returning home.

Like some of Eastwood’s best work – Unforgiven (1992) comes to mind – American Sniper is deeply moving, inscrutable and sympathetic. It offers a critique of the embrace of violence that’s unique to our culture while simultaneously making a case for the appeal of that mindset. Most of all, it’s a stark, sad reminder that the lives claimed in war aren’t all recorded on the battlefield. For Chris Kyle and many others, the war follows them home.

Oscar Watch: Battle of the “B” Movies.

This article was originally published in the February 6, 2015 Daily Messenger.

Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood." (IFC Films)

Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood.” (IFC Films)

The 87th annual Academy Awards are right around the corner, and prognosticators are not enjoying themselves. While a couple of categories feel like sure things, many of the key races lack the sense of inevitability that’s typically experienced this time each year.

We just don’t know who’s going to win, for a change. Isn’t it great?

Of these toss-up categories, Best Picture is the most maddening. The eight nominees – Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash, American Sniper, Selma, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything – seem to have narrowed comfortably down to two serious contenders. With only days to go, all signs point to the real race being between Boyhood and Birdman. Let’s see if we can narrow it down a little further.

If approachability were the sole criteria, Boyhood would take the Oscar in a heartbeat. Richard Linklater’s film lays out its themes with openness and precision; it’s a simple story, well told. Of course, in reality it’s anything but simple – this, after all, is the movie director Richard Linklater shot over 12 years, revisiting his actors to chronicle the growth of a an ordinary Texas boy (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18.

Michael Keaton in "Birdman." (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Michael Keaton in “Birdman.” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

That behind-the-scenes logistical achievement has fueled universal admiration for Boyhood, a masterpiece of filmmaking patience more than artistic vision. On the other hand, if it’s art you’re looking for, Birdman is your candidate. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film is a trippy fusion of celebrity satire and magic realism: It’s the story of a washed-up actor (Michael Keaton) whose past success playing a movie superhero now haunts him. He’s trying for a comeback with a self-financed Broadway play – but his costumed Birdman alter-ego literally floats over his shoulder, attacking his resolve and urging him to take to the skies.

If Boyhood is long-form prose – the epic story of a mundane family – Birdman is free-verse poetry, all right-brained creative expression compared to Linklater’s left-brained methodical precision. Iñárritu even marries his filmmaking style to the material, shooting the movie in what appears to be a long, continuous take; this ramps up the sense of tension by creating the feeling that the characters have nowhere to hide from their own story.

Which approach will resonate with Oscar voters? Well, Birdman is anchored in an unforgettable lead performance by Michael Keaton, with strong support from Edward Norton and Emma Stone. These recognizable faces help to balance the bizarre narrative, and could give Academy members something to root for. But there are already categories in which Keaton and Stone can be recognized: They’re up for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, and could well take home those trophies.

If I were handing out the Oscar, I’d give it to Birdman, my favorite film of last year. But I predict Boyhood will take the top prize, and I’m OK with that. Every single aspect of Linklater’s film is subtle compared to Iñárritu’s bold achievement, but that subtlety masks a passion no less vibrant than that of its winged competitor. Boyhood is about family, but it’s also about filmmaking – the aching commitment that must take place in front of and behind the camera for excellence to flourish. It’s hard to deny the appeal of that idea to Oscar voters.

Oscar Watch: The Imitation Games.

Eddie Redmayne in 'The Theory of Everything.' (Focus Features)

Eddie Redmayne in ‘The Theory of Everything.’ (Focus Features)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post, four of the eight Best Picture nominees this year are film biographies – and of those, two feel awfully similar, if only on paper. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything both tell stories about young male geniuses in mid-20th century England. The leads on both films are played by lanky serious-actor heartthrobs (who, in fairness, both do terrific work). And both films likely don’t stand a chance of winning the big prize, at least in part because of this rather unsettling sameness that links them in the eyes of voters – and audiences.

Benedict Cumberbatch, right, in 'The Imitation Game.' (The Weinstein Company)

Benedict Cumberbatch, right, in ‘The Imitation Game.’ (The Weinstein Company)

That last part isn’t entirely fair, as these two films are absolutely not created equal. The Theory of Everything, based on a memoir by Jane Hawking, is as much the story of the author’s complex and ultimately failed marriage to Stephen Hawking as it is about Stephen’s well known lifelong struggle with ALS and his groundbreaking achievements in quantum physics. Felicity Jones absolutely earned her Best Actress nomination for playing Jane, and Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen is full of nuance and emotional power. By contrast, Morten Tyldum’s Imitation Game is a bit of a letdown: Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing, the prickly mathematician who cracked the Nazi Enigma code and helped end World War II, is laudable but can’t avoid comparisons with Cumberbatch’s own recurring role as the unlikeable Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock – or, for that matter, with The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper.

Still, the question of which one is better is less interesting than the mystery of Oscar’s fascination with these imitation games. Biopics are the Meryl Streep of movie genres – if you make one, it seems, you’re already halfway to scoring a suitcase full of Academy Award nominations. And it’s not because these movies are uniformly great – many of them can be predictable and downright dull. So what’s the attraction?

Much of the answer, I think, lies in the solemnity of these films. Both Game and Everything – and while we’re at it, Selma and American Sniper, the other two Best Picture biopics – share a seriousness of tone that plays directly to the pretense of Important Filmmaking that inspires Academy voters to action. This, by the way, is why comedies have had such an historically rough time at the Oscars. I’d argue that the exquisite timing found in a great comedy is much harder to pull off than the wrenching drama of a well-made biopic … but to the Academy, laughter is lowbrow.

There’s also the matter of the acting. Most film biopics are narratively built around a lone character, and smart casting will give the actor playing that character a chance to shine under a bright spotlight for two hours. That doesn’t mean the films themselves are simple, but our ability to appreciate them can be distilled to a single consideration: Redmayne is amazing as Hawking; David Oyelowo is magnetic as Martin Luther King. Our opinion on that central performance becomes a referendum on the entire film – if the lead actor scores, so does his or her movie.

Mind you, understanding the appeal of biopics to Academy voters doesn’t do anything to diminish the sense of inevitability that comes with the annual anointing of the genre. Year after year, earnest and pretty-good film biographies are lauded with nominations while countless deserving films go unnoticed. Its hard not to conclude that the voters are taking the easy way out, picking films they ought to like – and letting the quality of the film, not its type, determine its destiny.

Oscar Watch: Strive for Five.

Heath Ledger in 2008's 'The Dark Knight,' the movie that got us where we are today. (Warner Bros.)

Heath Ledger in 2008’s ‘The Dark Knight.’ (Warner Bros.)

It takes courage to admit a mistake, and the time has come for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to acknowledge its five-year-old doozy. I’m referring, of course, to the still-wet-behind-the-ears policy of allowing more films to be nominated for Best Picture. It was a bad idea when it was launched, and nothing good has come of it since.

Recap: When The Dark Knight failed to net a Best Picture nomination in 2009, fans and critics were united in strenuous disapproval against an Oscar mindset that no longer seemed to reward quality films – only highbrow quality films. Cinematic excellence doesn’t only have to come from a book written by Jane Austen, they reasoned; it could, in fact, come from a comic book.

The Academy, bless its heart, listened – and promptly did the wrong thing. In 2010 it was announced that the Best Picture category would be expanded to 10 nominees up from the five slots that had been the norm for decades. Sure enough, films like District 9 and Avatar were suddenly Best Picture contenders; I doubt anyone expected they would win, but it was nice to see them being recognized, I guess.

Five years later, the 10-film policy has been modified a bit: Now up to 10 films can be nominated, ensuring that only the titles receiving a certain percentage of the highest praise can make the cut. This rule change was designed to discourage outsiders from thinking that AMPAS had simply lowered its standards to let more movies into the big game.

But how can we not think that anyway? Either more great films have been made each year since the 10-film rule was implemented, or they’ve allowed more not-quite-great films to falsely assume the mantle of greatness. Which is more likely? And to make matters worse, the whole unspoken reason for the change – to allow more unusual-by-Oscar-standards films to be recognized – has quickly fallen by the wayside. This year’s slate is of a predictable type: Of the eight nominees, four are Oscar-friendly biopics; and three of the other four are all from past nominees and/or winners. Only Whiplash stands out as a remarkable indie – though not popular enough to increase viewership on the telecast next week — and the only major award it’s expected to win is Best Supporting Actor.

If the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that expanding the Best Picture field invites more problems than it solves. Advocates for certain films will always be upset when their favorite isn’t nominated – and that dissatisfaction only increases as the number of nominated movies goes up. It’s time for AMPAS to go back to the five-film Best Picture limit. The Oscars will never please everyone, so let’s at least let them be true to themselves.

“The Babadook,” Reviewed: Chapter and Curse.

Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis in “The Babadook.” (Causeway Films/eOne Films)

Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis in “The Babadook.” (Causeway Films/eOne Films)

Note: This review originally ran in the December 5, 2014 Canandaigua Daily Messenger, when area movie fans could only see The Babadook on cable VOD. It’s now set for a limited release at the Little Theatre, 240 East Ave. in Rochester, beginning this Friday.

Right now The Babadook (not rated, but consider it R), a beguiling first feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, can only be seen locally in our homes; the Video On Demand release is too small-scale to have attracted the wide-screen theatrical distribution deal it richly deserves. But in a way, that venue is chillingly appropriate – as this is one horror movie whose terrors hit us where we live.

Increasingly, VOD is becoming a haven for movies that are short on budget but long on intelligence and storytelling craft. Kent’s debut effort, adapted from a short film she created in 2005, is a terrific example. It’s unquestionably a genre work, with its share of things that go bump in the night; but it also subverts the expected elements of that film category, with imaginative leaps reminding us that everyday life can be a lot scarier than any knife-wielding sicko.

Set in a quiet suburban town (it was shot in Adelaide, South Australia), The Babadook focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis), a mother whose last nerve is fraying. Eight years ago her husband died in an auto accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth to their first child; now she and young Samuel (Noah Wiseman) are alone, and neither is doing very well. Samuel’s unpredictable behavior is attracting the wrong kind of attention in school, and Amelia is frustrated and frantic at not being able to reach her boy.

Things get much worse when a new storybook appears without explanation in Samuel’s room. “Mister Babadook” starts off a fanciful pop-up tome but swiftly turns macabre and threatening, suggesting the title character is some kind of boogeyman stalker. At this, Samuel goes from bad to worse: He begins scaring other kids with the story, and inventing dangerous traps to protect him and his mom. Soon both mother and son are creeping toward different kinds of antisocial madness – and that’s all before the shadowy creature actually shows up.

Kent smartly avoids too much explanation: We’re never told where the book came from, why Amelia and Samuel have been targeted by this demonic presence, or even how much of it might be all in their minds. She also pulls tremendous performances from her two lead actors, who convey not only the organic love of a mother and son but also the panicky realization that love might not always be enough to see them through.

Horror movies aren’t for everyone, but The Babadook isn’t just a great example of its genre – it’s a great film, full stop. Highly recommended.

“Unbroken,” Reviewed: King of Pain.

Jack O'Connell in 'Unbroken.' (Universal Pictures)

Jack O’Connell in ‘Unbroken.’ (Universal Pictures)

Years of watching movies containing scenes of torture have taught me that the most effective way to do it – i.e., the kind that hurts the most – involves giving the victim an occasional rest. By letting them relax and recover, they’re unable to become inured to the pain they’re experiencing.

Now, I don’t know if that’s true and I hope to never find out; but regardless, there’s a lesson in there that applies to storytelling in general, and to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (rated PG-13) in particular. The film, as you may have heard, presents the story of the early years of Louis Zamperini, a second-generation Italian immigrant (born in Olean, NY, by the way – I looked it up) who competed in the 1936 Olympics and set a record-breaking pace for the final lap in the 5,000-meter event; who became a bombardier in World War II and survived a crash-landing over water that left him adrift in a life boat for 47 days; and who subsequently endured two years of misery as a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp.

Each of these milestones in Zamperini’s life could have made for their own stand-alone movie, and with Jolie’s casting of Jack O’Connell – a young British actor, previously impressive playing violent punks in Eden Lake (2008) and Harry Brown (2009) – I’d gladly watch any of them. O’Connell excellently conveys Zamperini’s inexhaustible grit that allowed him to endure years of adversity, pain and abuse in those life-altering trials.

By collecting all those trials into for one extended feature, however, Jolie – working from a screenplay of impressive pedigree by Joel and Ethan Coen, William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese – forgets to heed the lesson mentioned above. So much happens to our hero that we never get a chance to contemplate how he could survive – we can’t catch our breath. O’Connell’s never allowed to show us the grace moments in which he recovers his strength, loses and regains his faith in his own endurance, or simply copes emotionally with all he has to go through. There’s no time for the film to show us everything it wants to, and also present Zamperini as anything other than a Terminator. To paraphrase the poet Chumbawamba, he gets knocked down and he gets up again; lather, rinse, repeat.

During the POW years, the film allows minor fissures to form in the otherwise relentless focus on Zamperini’s ordeals – not in Zamperini’s character, but that of the commander of his POW camp, Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe, played by the Japanese actor and rock musician Miyavi as an enigmatic sadist determined to break the spirit of his Olympian prisoner. If Zamperini’s heroism takes on a metronomic quality after a while, his captor conveys an almost jazzy malevolence in his few big screen moments: His arrival is never good news, but the way in which he presents his menace is leavened with unpredictable traces of insecurity and even sympathy.

(Ironically, the film’s end credits tell us that years after the war, Zamperini found forgiveness for his torturers and returned to Japan to meet them. Watanabe was the sole man who refused to take that meeting; that’s a coda that should have made it to the film.)

Unfortunately, this villain isn’t around enough to imbue Unbroken with more of that emotional variety; and it never rubs off on the rest of the picture. What persists is a sense of noble suffering, an idea visually reinforced by the absolutely gorgeous camera work from cinematographer Roger Deakins, a fixture in most of the Coen Brothers’ movies. Whether he’s showing us young Louis getting beat up by the immigrant-hating kids in his neighborhood, lost-at-sea Louis staring into the unrelenting sun or POW Louis living in forced squalor, Deakins takes an almost painterly approach that finds beauty amid all that pain. Deakins is up for his 12th Oscar for his work here – one of the film’s few nominations – and he’s never won before. I’d give it to him this time. He’s endured enough.

“Selma,” Reviewed: He Had a Dream.

David Oyelowo in 'Selma.' (Paramount Pictures)

David Oyelowo in ‘Selma.’ (Paramount Pictures)

Early in The Untouchables (1987), director Brian DePalma constructs a quaintly banal Depression-era scene in which a young girl enters a corner market, carries on an innocent exchange with the shopkeeper – and is horrifyingly struck down with a sudden act of violence. That sequence could be dropped whole into a filmmaker’s textbook, both for its narrative skills at establishing the vital stakes for the story that will follow and for its cinematic canniness at riveting our focus to the screen. Pay attention, it tells us, because this is the casually brutal world in which these characters live.

If such a textbook exists, director Ava DuVernay has absorbed every page. Her third feature, Selma (rated PG-13), is a stirring account of a crucial few months in the civil rights battles of the 1960s, imbued with all the respectful dignity that such a subject demands. It’s a riveting biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the undisputed leader of that historic movement, embodied here by the British actor David Oyelowo without prosthetic makeup or even King’s own legendary speeches to lean on. The rights to rhetorical masterpieces like King’s “I Have a Dream” speech are now in the hands of Steven Spielberg for an MLK film to be named later, and yet Oyelowo rises to the occasion with a performance of gravitas and mortality – a grand turn, working without a net.

More than anything, though, Selma is just a great film, constructed with sincerity and the knowing perspective of an auteur who’s fluent in the craft of cinematic storytelling. Understanding that traditional film histories can be boring, she deftly sidesteps that pitfall by bringing us into the middle of the story: The film opens with King accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, circa 1964, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. (In movie terms, Selma is the Empire Strikes Back of the civil rights movement.)

Of course, King’s work was far from over. The ink is still wet on his passport when he arrives back at the White House to grapple with Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) on next-step legislation that will force southern states to simply register Black voters instead of concocting barriers to their equal rights. Passage of that bill becomes the film’s narrative objective and the motivation behind its dramatic centerpiece, a series of attempts to stage a protest march across 50 virulently racist miles between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama.

As with Spielberg’s not-quite-biopic Lincoln, Selma explores the life of its human subject mostly through the lens of a specific historical event; this shows us the man in action rather than forcing us to kill time watching him spend his early days preparing for a life of greatness. It has the added benefit of providing exposition through conversations – between King and his trusted advisors, many of whom weren’t afraid to tell a great man when he wasn’t being so great; between King and LBJ, with POTUS evincing a politician’s utterly credible unwillingness to cede his executive authority to a civilian*; and between Johnson and his fellow politicos, including a menacing J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and the positively reptilian Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).

(*Historians have mounted a protest of their own against this depiction of LBJ, saying DuVernay and co-screenwriter Paul Webb took liberties. I’ll leave the question of a film’s obligations to absolute historical accuracy for another day; in this case, it doesn’t affect Selma’s overall power.)

These scenes of political gamesmanship serve as the huddles before the action takes to the field – whether with King at a church or on a dais, his powers of oratory turned up to their legendary 11; or on the streets of Selma, where DuVernay portrays violent expressions of southern racism with blistering intensity. A scene early on echoes DePalma’s Untouchables moment in its out-of-nowhere horror; in another sequence, the retaliation of white Alabama troopers against King’s marchers during the first attempted Selma-Montgomery march is filmed as a kind of obscenely violent poetry that recalls the classic Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin (1925) for its portrayal of human suffering as a civic act.

Above all, Selma articulates the humanity of the figures who are now so much larger than life – none more than King himself, played by Oyelowo as a flawed man who loved his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) but let her down all the same, and who viewed his life’s work as a privilege and a wearying responsibility. It’s hard to believe that it’s taken Hollywood 50 years to craft a full-on cinematic tribute to this man’s life – but DuVernay’s sturdy masterwork is almost enough to make us feel it’s been worth the wait.