The Oscars’ Best Picture Nominees: Ranked and Reviewed

Ranked by Brad Beatson. Reviewed by Brad Beatson and Harold Stallworth
By    February 20, 2015

Oscar_ImageTemplateLate Sunday we’ll know the winner of the 87th Best Picture award. According to Wikipedia, 520 films have been up for it including the eight nominated this year. And it’s the only award at the Oscars that requires the Academy members to submit a ranked ballot, which makes for a somewhat tricky selection process. Here’s how it works:

One movie needs to get 50% of the total vote. If the final tally is:

Birdman – 35%
Boyhood – 29%
blah blah blah
Whiplash – 5%

Then Whiplash gets dropped, and all ballots that had Whiplash ranked first would be redistributed to the seven films still in contention. Two people at Pricewaterhouse Cooper look at who voters placed second on their ballots and reallocate accordingly. If a Whiplash ballot had Under The Skin ranked 2nd, Nightcrawler 3rd, Inherent Vice 4th, but Selma 5th, then that Whiplash ballot’s vote would be added to the Selma pile, since it’s the only other nominee on their ballot. This process continues until one movie gets 50% of the vote.

So that’s why I ranked these Best Picture nominees. Oh, and ICYMI we covered 20 movies in our year end review. Before getting to the reviews, here’s a skim of each. — Brad Beatson


American Sniper: dude grows up thinking his job is to protect other dudes, eventually signs up to protect the Dude (America), and thinks that’s the only thing he should do.

Birdman: dude wants to be bigger than George Clooney.

Boyhood: little dude grows into a college dude, tries to figure out life through observations along the way.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: dude tells the story of how he came to own the hotel, which takes place during another dude’s journey.

The Imitation Game: dude is a reclusive asshole genius, because of his journey, who ends up inventing the computer.

Selma: everyone knows Dude, so we also learn about the journey’s of two other dudes but not at the expense of the story.

The Theory of Everything: dude gets a disease that’s named after a famous dude, beats the odds, is a genius, is very kind and understanding.

Whiplash: two dude’s collide while trying to achieve genius or greatness.

How they’ll be able to pick which dude’s journey is the Best, I’ll never know. I can only defend my picks below.


Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is an over-the-hill Hollywood superhero whose hellbent on rebranding himself as a highbrow playwright and stage performer. In the twilight of an unspectacular career, ripe with unacclaimed cash grabs, Thomson is determined to offer up at least one last gasp of “real” artistry—essentially, he is the bizarro Andre 3000.

On paper, the plot reads unbearably pretentious: the subordinate title is The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. There are eye-roll inducing scenes, such as when the Times’ critic threatens to kill the play (with a villainous passion that most critics would never reveal to an artist’s face). But it gently prods the margins of our imagination, and never at the expense of its fluidity. It’s magnificent cinematography and hypnotic score—courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki of Gravity fame and jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez—work to accentuate the screenplay’s strengths while muffling its missteps.

Thomson squares off with his most aggressive critics throughout, including: Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), the aforementioned cynical theater columnist for the New York Times; Birdman, or rather the Ghost of Birdman Past (Benjamin Kanes), who rarely misses an opportunity to host a Hater’s Ball; and Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an eccentric Broadway actor who has long been awarded the stripes that Thomson so desperately wants. The latter is less of a foil than an annoyance—Shiner is a threat to Thomson’s blood pressure as well as his daughter’s nether regions. But ultimately, they both want what’s best for the production, albeit by different means. Dickinson and the Ghost of Birdman Past, however, are especially malicious in their intent. They jab Thomson where it hurts the most—his ego—and echo Birdman’s central idea: that a transcendent work of art can be wrought from the sheer desire to appease critics. And that’s exactly what Keaton & Co. have achieved. — Harold Stallworth


Boyhood’s trick is more impressive than Birdman’s. Richard Linklater’s vision hung on the unknown: Would a 6-year old Ellar Coltrane grow into an actor who could carry a three hour movie, and more importantly, could he and the rest of the cast keep at it for 12 years straight? That sort of commitment is almost incomprehensible in today’s churn-and-burn society–which Birdman both comments on and is a product of, accentuated by it’s never-ending take.

Loosely based on Writer/Director Richard Linklater’s childhood, Boyhood’s story can be extremely difficult to watch. It’s hard to look at a screen showing a drunken stepfather interacting with his children. Blocking out its tougher parts, though, the movie’s a collection of good memories. There’s Mason’s older sister Sam (played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei) saying goodbye to inanimate objects around the house before the family moves, and nostalgic callbacks to “Oops I Did it Again,” “anybody but Bush” and Roger Clemens. And the whole movie is an empathetic guilt trip that makes you want to call everyone in your family.

But Boyhood feels like clicking through the View-Master of my youth, which I would rather remember than watch again. Birdman is nonstop fun, full of satire, surreal, and legitimately made me feel like I was a part of a Broadway play.  I’d recommend buying Birdman, an endlessly entertaining film, over Boyhood, a once in a lifetime film, to anyone in my family. And I hope one of the two snag the award. — Brad Beatson (also reviews the rest of the nominees)


I remember Ferguson, Eric Garner, and friends marching through Times Square. Nothing’s changed. It’s like we’re in the crumpled drafts of our history waiting for the next big event to add to America’s timeline. Selma feels like that call to action.

It opens with Oprah’s character undergoing an impossible voter registration process in Selma, a town on King’s radar because it’s run by a hot-head sheriff. It seems worthy of the risks involved with protesting as long as the media shows up. People get abused. People get killed. MLK keeps pushing LBJ until the entire nation is rapt. History changes.

Well acted and directed, Selma captures the mood of our nation and keeps it 100 by showing every side of MLK Jr.—including the adultery. Unfortunately, Selma will likely win Best Original Song (which belongs to the Lego Movie) and not Best Picture.


It seems like everybody wants to be Wes Anderson. Maybe you don’t, but you see his influence everywhere. Inspiring Box Hoody revivalists, Artisinal Grilled Cheese chains and even Instagram flexing photographers, his guiding principle is present: Own your style. You know how Wes writes, you know how Wes shoots and meticulously designs every frame. The costumes are on point, sets too.

Tyler, The Creator takes cues by owning his style, his sense of self. The Melt Shop knows what type of audience it needs to hawk it’s crafty sammies. And Trashhand knows that symmetry and scope build scenes of triumph. Wes has been doing this for years. If a classic defines the times and changes the way the game is played, then Wes Anderson is a classic filmmaker.

There’s a scene about 20 minutes into The Grand Budapest Hotel where Zero (Tony Revolori, above middle) and M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, right) are on a train to visit a love interest, when they’re brought to a military enforced halt that ends in a beatdown. We hear a whistlestop from Henckels (Edward Norton), the leader of the faction, who recognizes Gustave from a prior stay. He remembers him as kind, which offers Gustave redemption in the story and in the eyes of the viewer, softening the reveal of his gold digging ways. It’s yet another shrug-and-smile moment produced by the generational talent. One that recalls Wes Anderson’s ability to challenge on a line-to-line basis and spread empathy, all while maintaining his style, keeping you engaged, making you think, and sometimes, blowing your mind.


And now, a dip in quality. The Theory of Everything is a great love story and little else, carried by Eddie Redmayne’s smile and Felicity Jones’s gaze. Redmayne deflects the pain of watching a disease unfold with an endlessly contortable grin; and a glance from Felicity elevates any scene. Their chemistry pops within the first five minutes and never falters, playing Stephen and Jane Hawking as a pair who have an ideal understanding and respect for each other.

It’s the most (warmly) affecting of the three movies about geniuses that are nominated for Best Picture, mostly due to its restraint. It doesn’t feel the need to timestamp the film at any point, giving the viewer the benefit of the doubt, assuming we can figure out what’s really going on. And perhaps most impressive is how it chooses to address Stephen Hawking’s brilliance. His aHa! moments are treated as such—brief, understated, idea-spawning sparks—and given little-to-no screen time. It works, allowing the film to focus on their love and enforce the idea that the Hawking’s were most concerned with the well-being of others, not individual genius.


On the other hand there’s Whiplash, a film consumed by individual greatness. It’s one of the better films that I’ll never watch again, thanks to it’s thoroughly unlikeable antiheroes. Andrew (Miles Teller, above right) and Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, left) are a two-headed beast pumped by an isolating, cruel, ignorant heart.

Though the film will likely win the Oscar for Best Editing, which matches it’s anal retentive tone, Whiplash is no Best Picture. It’s a very affecting film, sure, but do you like when your blood boils? That’s how Fletcher makes you feel when he’s hurling bile in every scene. Andrew’s right there to eat it up—a self-absorbed child who gets off on being told he can’t do something. The rest of the band? They mean next to nothing, it’s all about the band leader and his drummer trying to achieve greatness. Ultimately, the story honors its character’s dedication with an appropriately defiant solo, and it makes you wonder if the film’s saying that this method might work—just beware of the baggage that comes with it! Unfortunately, I was thankful I didn’t have to watch anymore.


American Sniper’s based on a true story, but it turns out little in the movie is actually true. Despite the gross lies Chris Kyle told in his memoir, and the subsequent story perpetuated on screen, is the movie any good?

Bradley Cooper is better than ever and Director Clint Eastwood manages a few key shots that attempt to deter American Sniper from being the “all hail America” movie it wants to be. Most notably is the exaggerated “Wolf, Sheep, Sheepdog” speech near the beginning of the movie, delivered by Chris’s father Wayne (Ben Reed). He says that wolves will not be tolerated in his household because they prey on sheep and that it’s the sheepdogs responsibility to protect the sheep from the wolf, placing his belt on the table for dramatic effect. Young Chris Kyle (Cole Konis) responds with a life-affirming nod, and later, Bradley Cooper drives the belief home. His spotter looks on with disgust as he picks off “enemies” left and right. What’s clear are his delusions of grandeur, believing himself to be a sheepdog when it’s clear he’s become the wolf.

But that’s not going to save this movie. What it boils down to is a propaganda piece that feels increasingly racist. American Sniper’s white characters are given depth, chances at appearing human. It’s black characters are the butt of homophobic jokes and shown mindlessly mowing down the brown enemy, who aren’t given any chance at all. Pictured above is Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), the alleged Syrian Olympian whom Chris Kyle has to kill before returning home. He never gets a line. When an under-siege family offers American troops a meal and a place to say, it turns out they’re harboring an absurd artillery. Though not as bad as Crash, American Sniper is the latest nominee that proves the Academy needs an overhaul.


The Imitation Game is this year’s loser at Oscars Bingo. It’s based on a true story and features a slew of top (British) actors. It’s also a period piece, following the journey of a reclusive male genius who happens to be homosexual (it’s reveal means the movie expects you to know little about Alan Turing). At the time, that was enough to get you sent to prison, so he keeps it a secret. They also tackle women’s rights. There’s spy intrigue. And the cost of war gets very real for this group of unlikely heroes, whose job is to save the world. If you look closely, you can see the drool stains of the Hollywood agents who got their clients in this movie.

It’s perfect for a preoccupied viewer who likes to talk during a movie. What it amounts to for the actors is a few forced scenes that try and inspire range, but fall flat as the Imitation Game, an aptly named movie that has no real idea of what it wants to be. It’s dressed nicely and has a lot of good ideas but lacks any sort of commitment. Even though it makes you think of important social issues, issues that are unfortunately still around today, it leaves your memory an hour after the credits roll. Regrettably, that’s what happens when you try to be everything to everyone.

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