Around this time each of the last two years I have, perhaps all too casually, crowned the year, “the best year for movies in our lifetime.” Given that I was deeply embedded in diapers at the time, I never take 1994 into consideration, a year that has come to be legend in cinematic circles. But for the third year in a row, I will shamelessly, and I believe correctly, proclaim this year, two thousand and fourteen, the best year of cinema in the twenty years of my lifetime, or at the very least, the best year of cinema in the new millennium.
Now when I say this, I’m most certainly not talking about blockbuster season. This past summer was one of the weakest in recent memory, with two or three films, like Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and 20th Century Fox’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, standing out far beyond the rest. No, when I make this statement I am speaking incredibly exclusively about what I will call “awards season fare.” That does not mean it had to have been released after X date, perhaps the films best picture of the year, Boyhood, was released in July, and Wes Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, even earlier in March. All I mean by “awards season fare” are films that fancy themselves worthy of consideration for the Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes and the endless slew of lesser awards shows.
The Best Picture race this year is crowded to say the least. Films from exceptional, perhaps even legendary directors like Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice), Clint Eastwood (American Sniper), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), and the aforementioned Wes Anderson, will be walking away from 2014 without so much as a nomination. But just like 2012, when Ben Affleck’s Argo took top honours, I worry that 2014 lacks a sincere frontrunner, inevitably dividing the Academy to the point that our victor is merely the beneficiary of plurality rather than teasing unanimity.
Among this year’s contenders are a pair of exceptional British biopics, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, whose similarities to 2010’s The King’s Speech and similarities to one another will render them losers. A pair of American historical dramas, Selma and Unbroken, which will likely produce faithful followings within the Academy resulting in nominations across the board, will prove to be to safe, or not quite sexy enough, in what has been an ambitious year for cinema.
That then brings us to two films, Gone Girl and Whiplash, one from a perennial contender in David Fincher, the other from a total newcomer in Damien Chazelle, that have come to surprise audiences and work their way into the conversation. But while Gone Girl has proven to be an exceptional surprise and masterful piece of off-putting cinema, it lags behind Fincher’s The Social Network, which failed to win the top prize. And while Chazelle’s Whiplash is exhilarating, it is hard to believe that it won’t go the way of other indie darlings, like 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, that secure nominations but fail to produce wins. The one exception for Whiplash is J.K. Simmons, whose turn as the villainous music professor Fletcher, has made him the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor.
Sitting at the top of the heap are Richard Linklater’s magnum opus, Boyhood, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñaritu’s visual illusion, BiRDMAN, and Bennett Miller’s dark, Foxcatcher.
All three films are equally ambitious for different reasons. Linklater’s Boyhood was filmed over the course of twelve actual years, allowing the audience to quite literally grow up with young Mason, who makes his transition from Kindergarten to college over the course of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime. Iñaritu’s BiRDMAN is perhaps the most intriguing of the three. The film follows a washed up superhero actor, played by the original Batman, Michael Keaton, in a career-defining role, struggling to remain relevant years after his success with the BiRDMAN films. The film, shot by certain winner Emmanuel Lubezki, creates the illusion of being one long, continuous take. Lastly, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher tells the dark story of millionaire John Du Pont, who trains Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz as he prepares for the Seoul Olympics. The film boasts exceptional turns from an against type Steve Carell, a damaged Channing Tatum, and a concerned brother in Mark Ruffalo.
All three films are brilliant. At this point in the race, BiRDMAN, is probably the frontrunner, it’s a well-rounded film with an exceptional cast to accompany its remarkable cinematography and storyline. Linklater’s film might be the greatest achievement, and will undoubtedly develop an extremely loyal following within the Academy, but I feel it will ultimately prove to be too light to win Best Picture. Boyhood isn’t a comedy, but it’s not a drama either, it’s life and it’s exceptional. If it wins, it will be a vote for sentimentality and a first for the visionary Linklater. Ultimately, Miller’s Foxcatcher doesn’t have the legs to make it all the way to the top. The film has several incredible, jarring performances, but will be outclassed by Birdman, as we get closer to the Oscars.