The 87th Academy Awards ceremony takes place tonight so this weekend I re-watched my top three Best Pictures of 2014: Whiplash, Birdman, and Boyhood.

That’s no disrespect to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel either. On first viewing I thought it ended too abruptly. It’s such a complex plot buried in multiple memories, stories, and journeys wrapped up quickly and ended even quicker; but it was better the second time around knowing where it’s all going. It’s also easier to appreciate how Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave H. carries the hotel concierge’s air of panache through the muck and strife that goes along with being named heir to a very valuable painting by an abruptly deceased Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) over other loved ones, principally her son Dimitri (Adrien Brody).

Anyway, let’s start with Whiplash and Birdman — two of the most engaging movies released last year. They’re also the only two of the eight nominees I’ve seen in a theatre, which matters and is something I should do more of in 2015. I also watched them back to back which worked out because of their similarly drum heavy scores; but with Birdman drums are a nice device for the pace, with Whiplash drums are the only thing.

Whiplash debuted at Sundance 2014 where critics were taken by surprise by director Damien Chazelle’s first feature. The film begins with a long, slow tracking shot, creeping up on a room playing the hell out of a set of drums. Behind the door is Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a first-year jazz student trying to emulate Buddy Rich in the hopes of becoming someone at the acclaimed Shaffer Conservatory in New York. It turns out that creeping up to the door is being done by conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a man whose reputation precedes him, who is capable of making or breaking Andrew’s career, and who eventually invites Andrew to join his award winning studio band.

One random Summer in college I took Jazz Appreciation as an elective, that’s about the extent of my formal music education. It’s also one of the only classes that accomplished its goal by the end, but that’s a whole different conversation for another day. I imagine Whiplash is even more exhilarating to the music nerds out there who can read music, but it was equally exciting to watch Teller, a drummer since age 15 who still took lessons 4 hours a day 3 days a week for the role, bare his heart and soul and blood over Andrew’s drum kit. It’s another disappointing move by the Academy to not give Miles Teller a Best Actor nod for Whiplash. He’s in every scene (the Academy loves that!), and is a force in every scene, but he’s young (the Academy’s old) and no doubt has more great performances ahead of him.

The same is true of Chazelle as a director. Most of Whiplash has a nervous rhythm, or tempo, to it. Even the band getting together has a certain rhythm to it. Andrew encounters numerous unexpected and (some) out of his control hurdles to keeping the 1st Chair spot he’s earned (or lucked into). One of them is a nice little subplot featuring Andrew’s courtship of a Fordham girl named Nicole (Melissa Benoist). It being one of the few things Andrew feels he can control, he preemptively cuts it off citing the fact that their relationship can’t do anything but get in the way of him and honing in on greatness i.e., Fletcher’s demand for perfect tempo. It’s a relatively small and sad commentary on creative hubris and romantic relationships.

The central master-student relationship between Fletcher and Andrew is the focus of the film and drives most of the drama. In trying to extract greatness, not just from Andrew but from his entire band, J.K. Simmons displays a highly demanding, menacing conductor who is not above hurling insults or chairs to in the name of perfection. Fletcher and Andrew’s relationship is built shaky brick by shaky brick. One achievement makes the next scene and and that scene sets up some event, thus the stakes are heightened as each scene or situation builds on the success (or failure) of the one before, and Chazelle cashes in at the right moments. The best of them being the most seat grabbing without fire or an explosion ending I’ve ever seen.

The general consensus is that J.K. Simmons will win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, he’s won pretty much every other award he’s been nominated for, and it’s wholly deserved. Fletcher is a provocative antagonist, but some of his insults are funny and kind of disarming. He even has a moment of extreme vulnerability amidst his hard act and shows he is capable of appreciating the beauty in the music and life. Though, in the end, it’s fair to wonder if even his attempts at empathy are just for motivation.

Speaking of general consensus, back in the Fall Boyhood was the frontrunner for Best Picture of the year. On the day of the 87th Academy Awards, after the Golden Globes and various critics circle and association awards, those who get paid to make such prognostications seem to be split on whether Boyhood or Birdman will win Best Picture. However, the rising tide seems to be with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

I don’t know if you’d call it an ensemble cast but Birdman’s cast is deep with quality and varied with personality. It seems to be becoming more popular to have actors play characters who either fit or contrast their real lives and confront that (themselves) on screen.

Each character in Birdman is slightly out if their minds and some actors are very strongly going against their expected roles; except for one who is obviously playing a riff on his real life. The central plot of Birdman concerns the meta struggle Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) faces in trying to not be defined by, or singularly known for, his extremely popular Birdman (Batman) past and present.

Voice over from Birdman via Riggan’s brain introduces a satirical surrealism that’s present throughout the film. In the hopes of shedding the stink of Birdman, Riggan is putting on an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, a story and author know for realism, minimalism, and seriousness — of which the film exemplifies the complete opposite.

The extent of the absurdity comes early in the form of a light falling on a poor actor’s head, that Riggan confesses to the play’s producer Jake (a straight-man no bullshit version of Zach Galifianakis) wasn’t an accident. This non-accident accident opens the door for a ticket selling, fortune changing Broadway actor named Mike Shiner (an unhinged and incredibly challenging to work with version of Edward Norton, which apparently resembles how he actually works), to join the production. Shiner is obsessive and cocky, even relishes the opportunity for some extended nudity, but his passion elevates Riggan’s play to unpredictable heights.

Riggan wants a better play but more than that he wants to control his narrative. As preview after preview gets derailed for a different (usually Mike Shiner centric) reason, Riggan feels less and less in control of his life. His largely ambivalent assistant and daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is fresh from rehab and doesn’t care about the play, or anything, until Mike Shiner comes along for a conversation on the roof. His ex-wife shows support, but doesn’t really care if he re-finances the old house in Malibu. And the New York Times critic that can shut down his show doesn’t care for his soliloquy on how irrelevant critics and — their tweets — are (she still promises to shut it down).

As things continue to fall apart Birdman gets louder and louder in Riggan’s mind. Riggan is so successful at it to an extent that we don’t even see Birdman until late in the film (and his suit is magnificent). Instead of rebelling against the powers that Birdman gives him, Riggan embraces them for the last and most dramatic preview before opening night. After all, a thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.

Characters and lines aside, the way Birdman is shot and presented is an achievement worth recognition in and of itself. The film takes place almost entirely in and around the Broadway theatre where Riggan’s play is being put on and features long, long takes that sweep around corners and down hallways, following the characters and jumping between them where choreographed. As a result there are almost no visible cuts and no opportunities to step away from the action. Without cuts, the drum heavy music is often the only thing separating scenes but its rhythm also carries you around the set and enhances the plot.

All things considered: the conceit, the cast, the subplots, the script and its commentary, how it’s shot and edited, the effects, the set, the music, how the play in parallel with the film builds and finishes with a bang… it’s hard to argue against Birdman as the Best Picture. To call it full of itself or to dock it for its inflated sense of self importance is to miss out on the joke.

Boyhood also debuted at Sundance 2014, where critics praised director Richard Linklater’s 12 years of planning and execution in creating a literal portrait of a young man, Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane), coming of age in South Texas.

Coldplay, Dragon Ball Z, Harry Potter; this movie has a lot of nostalgia riding with it. The Dark Knight, Pineapple Express, and Tropic Thunder shout outs, a campfire conversation on if there would be another Star Wars (that couldn’t take place after Return of the Jedi – ha), highlight Linklater’s forethought (and luck) and underscore the difficulty in making a film that would be relevant despite being released years after it was shot.

At 2 hours and 45 minutes Boyhood is long. It’s the longest of the eight nominees this year and over an hour longer than The Grand Budapest Hotel. But growing up is long, and hard to do, and Linklater has triumphed if he holds your attention the entire time. As a result of the length, the most stressful moments happen early in the film during Mason’s childhood, so reaching the finish line feels even longer. But after being along for the ride that long, seeing Mason graduate and find his place in college makes it worthwhile. Similarly, because of the length, I can see why it doesn’t work perfectly for some or if not enough “happens”.

Naturally, there’s so much that Mason doesn’t know as a child, but he’s curious; about boobs and dead birds, and whether his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) still loves his father, and what moving away means. There’s no exposition, and Mason’s mother explains things to Mason in the protective way mothers do, so we’re left to read between the lines and fill in the events that happen off screen.

Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), on the other hand, doesn’t shelter them; he answers questions about he and their mother’s relationship, talks about the Iraq War and who to vote for (not Bush), he doesn’t the even let them use bumpers at the bowling alley. He wants to keep it as real as possible with them when he realizes they’re growing up with or without him.

Boyhood is chocked full of tender moments, but is occasionally very awkward like during conversations when Mason asks Mason Sr. if he has a job in the middle of an Astros game, or when Mason’s alcoholic step father pops his top and starts throwing dishes at dinner, but boyhood is awkward like that sometimes.

I guess it depends on who you are: a mother, a father, a sister, or a son, and where you are in life: high school, college, with children, married, or divorced, that change what you would take away from Boyhood.

For me, a native Texan having recently done the same motions as Mason through high school and college, though his acting may not be perfect, his experience is very representative of the Southern young male experience.

Yet, on some level, all of the characters and the turns their lives take, and how they respond, resonate with me. A lot is out of Mason’s control, or anyone’s control, but a lot of what boyhood is about is handling the slings and arrows of life and moving on the best you can. It’s nothing short of amazing how many aspects of growing up Linklater is able to include in the film thanks to its structure.

However, the and standout of the film, and presumed winner of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress is Patricia Arquette for her portrayal of a tough and loving single mother.

So much of what Olivia experiences, goes through for their sake, happens outside of the purview of her children. Arguments Olivia has with Samantha highlight that disconnect as Sam’s never trying to disrespect her mother, but doesn’t miss an opportunity to let her mother know how much she hates change. Of course, change is the only constant in life.

Those bits of nostalgia like playing Halo on an old tube television and teal “Macintosh” computers in Mason’s elementary school become important in highlighting how much time has passed. Mason sees his father less and later simply Facetimes with him before heading off on a trip to Austin with a girl (Zoe Graham) — they discuss deleting Facebook profiles and being glued to screens along the way.

Mason grows up into a guy who is a lot like myself, and part of Linklater’s triumph is in the delivery of characters that we’ve seen visibly and honestly develop into people we might know or be.

Linklater is among the best at making accessible, human, American (often Texan) films. The familiarity is what makes Boyhood among the year’s best, but Iñárritu’s Birdman moves with exciting pace, clicks on all cylinders, and flows toward a climactic finish.


One thought on “Movie Log Movie Blog: WHIPLASH, BIRDMAN, BOYHOOD

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