The Oscars are this weekend, and if you find yourself realizing that you haven’t seen all or even most of the films nominated for the most prestigious honor in Hollywood then you’re certainly not alone. Only one of the movies up for Best Picture has been a strong contender at the box office, meaning only one of these movies has been widely seen by the public. It’s no news that critics and the average moviegoer have widely differing tastes and you won’t likely be seeing box office champion Fifty Shades of Grey nominated for any awards this time next year. If you’re a little clueless as to what the nominees for Best Picture this year are about or why they’ve been praised by critics, here’s a cheat sheet to help you catch up before watching the ceremony on Sunday night.
1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman stars Michael Keaton in a career reviving role that critics have pointed out mimics his own life. Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up Hollywood actor who’s best known for being the former star of a bloated superhero franchise called Birdman. He’s now seeking artistic fulfillment by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. The movie is shot to look like one continuous take, as if the film itself is a play.
Iñárritu captured exquisite performances from all the actors. Keaton is nominated for best actor, Emma Stone is up for best supporting actress for her role as his assistant daughter fresh from drug rehab, and Edward Norton is nominated for best supporting actor for his part as an unpredictable method actor cast in Thomson’s play. Iñárritu is nominated for best director and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is up for an Oscar as well. Birdman has already taken up trophies at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards, so it’s certainly considered an Oscar favorite. It would be a huge surprise if this movie doesn’t take home multiple awards on Sunday night.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s movies are instantly recognizable for his unique visual aesthetic. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a tribute to the Hollywood Golden Era classic The Grand Hotel with an Andersonian twist. It stars Ralph Fiennes as the concierge of the eponymous hotel, who is so good at his job that guests come from far and wide just for his services. The movie’s huge ensemble cast includes Jude Law, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, and Adrien Brody.
Like Birdman, Grand Budapest is also nominated for nine total awards, and will compete against Birdman in the cinematography and screenplay categories. It also earned nominations on the technical side of filmmaking including costume design, makeup, and production design, recognizing the massive team effort that goes into realizing Anderson’s meticulous creative vision. Grand Budapest took home best picture in the musical or comedy category at the Golden Globes as well as won several BAFTA awards.
3. American Sniper
Clint Eastwood’s Iraq War movie is the most controversial and the most watched of the Best Picture contenders. The film is based on the memoir of the same title by the late Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle, a man who’s considered to be the deadliest sniper in history. As soon as the movie came out, it was met with opposition by people who accused Eastwood of falsely romanticizing Kyle’s character. Meanwhile the film has made $394 million worldwide so far at the box office and broken January records, according to Box Office Mojo.
While the reception to this film has been very divided along political lines, Bradley Cooper’s performance has been universally lauded and he’s got an Oscar nom as well. The script is up for adapted screenplay, but given the amount of factual errors that journalists have pointed out in the movie, it’s unlikely the Academy is going to give the movie this award. It will certainly be interesting to see how all the controversy surrounding the film plays out in terms of American Sniper’s Oscar chances. It could very well damage the movie’s shot at Best Picture, but since all seemed to agree Cooper did a brilliant job with his portrayal of the character that was written in the script, don’t count him out for best actor.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was a highly anticipated release this summer due to the film’s incredibly novel concept. Linklater shot the movie over the course of 12 years so that he could tell the coming-of-age story as realistically as possible and show the film’s actors actually aging over real time. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are both nominated in the supporting acting categories for their roles as the protagonist’s parents. Linklater is nominated for directing and best original screenplay.
Linklater cast the 5-year-old Ellar Coltrane as the main character Mason and got very lucky that the boy matured into a good looking and capable actor who was still interested in participating in the project as he grew into a young adult over the next 12 years. The movie was promoted as making cinematic history by shooting in this way and showing a boy coming of age as the actor actually aged. Boyhood took home Golden Globes for best picture in the drama category, best director for Linklater, and best supporting actress for Arquette. Since the Academy notoriously shuns comedy efforts, Boyhood could be the favorite for Best Picture should the voters stick to their old habits and shy away from the more-comedic Budapest and Birdman.
5. The Imitation Game
This is the first of two biopics about famous scientists that are up for Best Picture this year. The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the closeted gay WWII codecracker and mathematical genius Alan Turing. Cumberbatch is up for best actor for his performance, which follows Turing’s career as a brilliant mathematician and founder of early computer science, then a heroic codebreaker who interpreted German messages for the Allies during WWII, then after all those great contributions to society, a man who was disgraced, chemically castrated, and likely committed suicide for being gay.
Cumberbatch’s co-star Keira Knightley is nominated for best supporting actress, director Morten Tyldum is up for best director, and Graham Moore is nominated for adapting Turing’s biography into the screenplay. Biopics traditionally perform well at the Oscars and many have praised this one in particular for telling the story of a great historical figure that not many people know about. Turing’s story has been sort of swept under the rug in history, partially due to its shameful ending, and critics have appreciated this movie bringing it to light.
This Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic from new director Ava DuVernay looks at the specific time in the civil rights leader’s life when he led the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. David Oyelow plays MLK in a performance that’s been widely praised and the soundtrack too was frequently lauded in reviews. Common and John Legend’s song for the film “Glory” earned the movie’s other Oscar nomination and that song already took home a Golden Globe. The fact that DuVernay was not nominated for her directing was considered one of this year’s biggest Oscar snubs.
7. The Theory of Everything
Here’s the other scientist biopic up for Best Picture, this one about A Brief History of Time author Stephen Hawking. The movie is based on a memoir written by Hawking’s first wife, Jane, who’s played by Felicity Jones in the film. In addition to the Best Picture nom, Jones is up for best actress and Eddie Redmayne for best actor. Redmayne could be a major contender for that award given how he had to portray Hawking’s physical degeneration due to ALS and he already took home a Golden Globe for the role. Hawking’s work in physics and cosmology has made huge contributions to our scientific understanding of the universe, but throughout his life he’s had to balance his expanding mind with his increasingly limited range of physical motion. The film mostly focuses on the unique relationship between Jane and Stephen, who fell in love while students at Cambridge and later married, had children, and divorced, all while Hawking developed his most brilliant theories and was diagnosed with his illness.
This movie is probably the least-known dark horse of the Best Picture contenders. Whiplash tells of the brutal relationship between a promising young jazz drummer played by Miles Teller and his music instructor played by J.K. Simmons. Simmons is nominated for best supporting actor for his role as the borderline abusive music teacher who verbally and physically berates students that he thinks aren’t working hard enough. The actor already took home the Golden Globe and the BAFTA for this role, so he’s certainly a strong contender in this category. Simmons’s teacher-figure pushes Teller’s student past the breaking point in search of the greatness the teacher believes lies inside the student. Teller practiced rigorously despite already being a drummer to learn jazz-style percussion and perform the music in the movie himself. Both actors suffered numerous injuries through their portrayal of this abusive relationship, with Simmons even cracking ribs in a scene where Teller’s character tackles him to the ground. The movie raises questions about the lengths one should go to reach artistic perfection, something the actors might’ve asked themselves while working on the film.
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