In just a few hours, the movie industry’s biggest night will once again sweep onto our television sets to inform us which films of the past year were indeed the best cinema had to offer. We the movie-going public can’t possibly be left to decide on our own. If we were, we’d just pick Maleficent for Best Picture and Robert Downey Jr. for Best Actor (does anyone even remember what he was in last year?). In any case, thank God for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and their infinite wisdom of what true cinema really is.
As of 2010, the maximum number of Best Picture nominees at the Oscars increased to ten, yet this year the Academy saw that only eight films were worthy of note. Among these elite is a film that has drawn both box office dollars and controversy in equal amounts. No, it isn’t The Grand Budapest Hotel unfortunately. It’s a little Clint Eastwood picture starring Hangover golden boy Bradley Cooper, which I had the distinct honor of viewing prior to its release. Why do I mention that last tidbit? Because I both watched and formed my opinion of it before the internet got its snarling, gnashing teeth on it.
For those of you who haven’t seen American Sniper – and that’s very few of you at this juncture – it is a decently mounted action flick about Chris Kyle, an American veteran who Fox News has referred to as an “Iraqi war, Navy SEAL, heroic genius” and who may frankly be the greatest patriot of all time.
Most of the rhetoric surrounding American Sniper has focused on the accuracy of its depiction of Kyle – which to be frank is a totally fair criticism – as well as its blatantly jingoistic approach to American foreign policy, but I’m not here to weigh in on the socio-political implications of this fluff piece. Honestly, that’s all I saw for its 2+ hour runtime – a series of stunningly-mounted sequences of war violence propped up by paper-thin characters and PTSD clichés that says nothing better flicks like Saving Private Ryan and The Hurt Locker haven’t already told us. Was it a fun watch? Sure. Was I rolling my eyes at the stilted dialogue and the garbage scenes Sienna Miller was forced to slog her way through as Taya Kyle? Absolutely. Has Clint Eastwood made better movies? Without a single doubt.
Our benevolent overlords of the Academy clearly made a small misstep in nominating this trifle for its most esteemed of awards. If any of its 5,783 voting members reads this piece, I hope their error will be realized and American Sniper will be retracted as a Best Picture nominee in favor of one of these more deserving films. In fact, just tag one of them onto the ballot. There are two slots you haven’t used for Christ’s sake.
1. The Maze Runner
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Teen lit? Why would we nominate that trash?” Well, I’ve got one very compelling reason for you – it’s better than American Sniper. From the beginning the film creates its obligatory dystopian setting (par for the course if you even want a teenager to pick up your book nowadays) with a much-needed air of mystery and suspense. Who are these kids? Why have they suddenly been thrust into a gauntlet where only the best-looking of them survive? This intriguing premise alone already presents more of a reason to watch it than the Bradley Cooper star vehicle that concerns us. Sure the dialogue is atrocious and the setup crumbles into an eye-rolling mess near its “to-be-continued” finale, but those are small prices to pay all things considered. Its break-neck pace, sci-fi thrills and impeccable world design exceed anything Eastwood slapped onto the screen this past year. Nominating this little gem would have sent your teen demographic through the roof during this year’s ceremony.
2. The Interview
American Sniper has rustled up its fair share of controversy with its less than accurate depiction of Chris Kyle, its jingoistic narrative that preaches only American exceptionalism, not to mention its tacked on banner of the plight of our veterans that doesn’t rear its head until the film’s final minutes, but let’s be honest; this is nothing. It didn’t have a whole country clambering for its release after perceived terrorist threats. It didn’t forge a new trail for non-theatrical release strategies. Nor did it add “honey-dicking” to the English lexicon. Those honors belong to a film that needs no mention, at least if you checked your News Feed once in the past 3 months or watched Obama threaten action against a certain dictatorship because of it.
The buzz surrounding The Interview may have been more trouble than it was worth (I mean, I watched it on Netflix mere weeks after everyone dished out $6 to rent it on opening day), but it did far more for the film industry than Bradley Copper did sniping bad brown people for two hours straight. Multiplatform releases are now a viable option for studios (to the tune of $40 million in online sales alone), cutting the monopoly theater chains have had on wide releases until now.
The Interview is by no means a “good” movie. It never tries to be. It’s just an overproduced showcase of poop jokes parading as a half-serious satire. Despite that, it’s a better time, a better use of your money (free with a Netflix subscription) and worthy of praise for the flurry it caused alone. Someone give Seth Rogan an Oscar.
Korean movies are strange. And this little English-language number from Joon-ho Bong of Mother and The Host fame is no exception. While most of America watched Chris Pratt graduate from Andy Dwyer to Marvel posterboy, I watched another Marvel star tear through the greatest platformer video game ever brought exclusively to the silver screen. That’s all Snowpiercer is – a dystopian sci-fi video game a la Metal Slug. A trench-coated Chris Evans has a single task in this movie. Get from the back of a train to the front of a train, each cart presenting new challenges and tougher villains (leveling up, anyone?).
If you haven’t had the chance to view this post-modern action gem (and I don’t blame you since it didn’t get much traction outside the art house circuit), the film takes place in a near future where a failed attempt to stunt global warming has frozen our planet. The last remnants of humanity survive on the titular train, divided into a caste system as stark and disparate as its many cars (symbolism much?). If explicitness were subtlety, snowpiercer would be the subtlest movie released last year. In every respect. It is a wild, unrestrained, bloody thrill ride packed with compelling characters who are dispatched with reckless abandon at every turn. Plus, it gets major points for a Chris Evans monologue that is either the most moving or laughably stupid piece of cinema to come out of 2014 – maybe both.
4. Live. Die. Repeat.
If you don’t recognize this film by title, I don’t blame you. During its theatrical run, this sci-fi action juggernaut went by the far more pulpy and vague Edge of Tomorrow. Coupled with a less than stellar marketing campaign, it’s no wonder this Tom Cruise star vehicle landed with a thud when it hit theaters. Only when it reached shelves and streaming platforms did Warner Brothers opt to market it under what was originally its tag line.
It’s only a shame that they didn’t make that move sooner. Live Die Repeat deserves its share of gold as much as many of the Best Picture nods and more so than some. The action sequences are expertly mounted and support a story worth telling. It’s compelling, tightly composed, exquisitely shot and suggests that Tom Cruise’s career as a heavy-hitting leading man may not have fizzled out post-mission Impossible. And Emily Blunt isn’t as annoying as she usually is in the supporting role (lest we forget The Adjustment Bureau and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen).
American Sniper may be a fun movie if you turn off your brain and moral fiber, but Live Die Repeat requires neither. It’s an adrenaline blast that doesn’t leave you gross and shameful as if finishing a solo round with a tub of ice cream or emerging from a Michael Bay marathon. On our list of snubs, this is definitely one of the most disappointing omissions.
Joe Carnahan may be the most underrated working directors in Hollywood today (at least if you forget duds like Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team). In fact, I’m referring mostly to The Grey. Yup, without The Grey, Carnahan would just be another action junky pent on aping Tarantino for the rest of his career. But he proved he had depth with an existential masterpiece inaccurately marketed as “Liam Neeson vs the Wolves.” If The Grey is what he is capable of outside the assembly line of the Hollywood studio system, then we had much to look forward to in his follow-up – a pitch black balls-out lampoon of the LA lifestyle. Unfortunately for us, Universal pulled its scheduled March release mere weeks before it was due to arrive. It then spent another 7 months in limbo before crashing into streaming platforms last November. It’s no wonder Canahan has such disdain for the business-side of filmmaking.
And that scorn is on full display in the Patrick Wilson-starring Stretch, the tale of one limo driver, one night and the antics of one crazed billionaire. As our titular character makes his way cross the glitter-dusted streets of Hollywood, Carnahan paints a manic pastiche of the culture that borders on Grand Theft Auto insanity. The landscape is littered with D-list celeb wannabes, aspiring actors, douchey club promoters, and secret BDSM ragers that would make Stanley Kubrick flinch in disgust. All-in-all a typical weekday night on the walk of fame.
Stretch’s pervasive voice over may begin to grate toward the finale and the expansive supporting cast may not be given much to do, but once the movie roars into gear, it’s a nonstop (campy) thrill ride until the end. He still owes a lot to Tarantino, but Carnahan finds a more distinct voice in this oddball satire. Maybe next time audiences will actually get a chance to see his work on the big screen.
6. The Lego Movie
I mean, come on. Do I really need to be the millionth person to point out this shocker? Sorry, Academy, but you really shat the bed on this one. Not only was 2014’s greatest animated flick snubbed from the Best Picture race, but it didn’t even receive a nod in the animation category. Instead, our cinematic overlords saw fit to congratulate The Boxtrolls (presumably for entering and exiting theaters without anyone noticing) and a couple of foreign offerings that are probably decent, but that no one tuning in tonight has even heard of them. Why did this brilliant piece of product integration – that was infinitely better than it had any right to be – get the axe amid this year’s less than stellar field? Chalk it up to the age of the average academy voter (an approaching life expectancy 65). Pundits have suggested that these seasoned curmudgeons may have simply written off the Lego Movie as a silly little trifle without bothering to give it a watch. Whatever the reason, it resulted in the most fervent backlash against the Oscars – an honor usually reserved for Nolanites bemoaning the exclusion of the latest Dark Knight installment or McConaughey in Space epic. At least director Phil Lord shrugged off this travesty with Beck-like levity.
It’s okay. Made my own! pic.twitter.com/kgyu1GRHGR
— philip lord (@philiplord) January 15, 2015
If I were to attend this year’s ceremony, I may be liable to storm the stage in an indignant Kanye rage and demand the winner give their award to the Lego Movie. I don’t need to waste column inches justifying myself. We all know it was that good. Really, Academy, you should be ashamed.