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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Oscars for 2014 Films

oscars academy awards The Academy Award ceremonies are tonight and my wife and I have been using some of our leisure time these past few weeks to view nominated films and acting performances. Regular readers may recall that I saw only two of the films nominated for best picture during the 2014 calendar year. Until 2015, I didn't see many of the nominated acting performances either.

In any case, based on my post-nomination efforts to see most of the contenders, I'm going to rank-order the films and acting performances. Obviously, this is my completely subjective perspective -- and not an ideal way to think about art. Plus, I can only rank the performances I watched. That is a big limit since I failed to see one of the Oscar-nominated Best Picture nominees and I've yet to see many of the acting performances.

Keep in mind that these are not my predictions about winners in each category. Go to the Hollywood Stock Exchange if you want predictions based upon betting markets. Spoiler Alert: Birdman is the favorite for Best Picture, though supporting actor J.K. Simmons seems to be the biggest favorite in any of the major categories.

Note: Last year, if I recall correctly, Netflix had 4 of the 5 top documentaries available to stream prior to the Oscars. However, this year, their own film Virunga is nominated and that is the only one available on the service.

Note 2: Films and performances shaded in yellow below will indicate additions/edits after the Oscars (and the original blog posting).

Best picture

Selma **
Birdman **
The Imitation Game **
The Theory of Everything
The Grand Budapest Hotel **
American Sniper

Comment: Selma is a very powerful film, but so is Boyhood in a completely different way. Some of the writing could have been a bit sharper in Selma, but the acting was first-rate. I liked Birdman, but did not find it to be as compelling as those two other films. Ida, nominated as a foreign film, is a better movie than most of the films on this list.

Frankly, I do not see the appeal of American Sniper. Bradley Cooper did a fine job as Chris Kyle, but the film failed to reveal the FUBAR nature of the Iraq war from 2003 to 2009. Kyle's four tours during this period are noted, but without the dates or other context. There are only vague hints of the changing US tactics and public justifications for the war. Anyone learning about the war from this film might think the entire conflict was about confronting the evil of AQI, even though AQI did not exist before the US invasion. As in The Hurt Locker, the main character is quite competent at his specific job. However, that film did a fine job revealing the problematic nature of the Iraq war through the character study. American Sniper really didn't. The best Clint Eastwood war film remains Letters from Iwo Jima.

Best director

Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Alejandro G Inarritu (Birdman)
Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Morten Tyldum  (The Imitation Game)

Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)

Best actor in a Leading Role

Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

Comment: Where is David Oyelowo? He would be my winner.

Best actress in a Leading Role

Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) **
Reese Witherspoon (Wild) **
Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)

Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Edward Norton (Birdman)
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)

Robert Duvall (The Judge)
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Laura Dern (Wild)
Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
Emma Stone (Birdman)

Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

Best Documentary Feature

CitizenFour (Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky)
Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof and Charlie Siskel)
Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara)

Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester)
The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and David Rosier)

Comment: Finding Vivian Maier is on my DVR and CitizenFour premieres Monday February 23 on HBO. I'll know more about this category very soon.

Best Foreign Language Film

Wild Tales


Comment: Ida is the overwhelming favorite and a very potent film, but I also look forward to seeing Wild Tales based on the buzz.

Update: Finally saw Wild Tales in November 2018. It's fun, though weird and unsettling.

** I saw these films in the theater.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

The French Minister (Quai d’Orsay)

The University of Louisville is currently in the midst of its annual French Film Festival. Unfortunately, two screenings of the film I've been most wanting to see, The French Minister (Quai d’Orsay), were canceled last night because of bad weather. The entire University was closed for extreme cold. Yesterday's 5 pm screening was supposed to be followed by a discussion with French professor Matthieu Dalle, and I'm hoping that will occur today at the 2 pm screening.

Here's the film's synopsis from IMDB:
Alexandre Taillard de Vorms is tall and impressive, a man with style, attractive to women. He also happens to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the land of enlightenment: France. With his silver mane and tanned, athletic body, he stalks the world stage, from the floor of the United Nations in New York to the powder keg of Oubanga. There, he calls on the powerful and invokes the mighty to bring peace, to calm the trigger-happy, and to cement his aura of Nobel Peace Prize winner-in-waiting. Alexandre Taillard de Vorms is a force to be reckoned with, waging his own war backed up by the holy trinity of diplomatic concepts: legitimacy, lucidity and efficacy. He takes on American neo-cons, corrupt Russians and money-grabbing Chinese. Perhaps the world doesn't deserve France's magnanimousness, but his art would be wasted if just restricted to home turf. Enter the young Arthur Vlaminck, graduate of the elite National School of Administration, who is hired as head of "language" at the foreign ministry. In other words, he is to write the minister's speeches. But he also has to learn to deal with the sensibilities of the boss and his entourage, and find his way between the private secretary and the special advisers who stalk the corridors of the Quai d'Orsay - the ministry's home - where stress, ambition and dirty dealing are the daily currency. But just as he thinks he can influence the fate of the world, everything seems threatened by the inertia of the technocrats.
Update February 22: The film reminded me in structure of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Basically, the film devoted about half of the narrative to the farcical politics of the French Foreign Ministry and half to the speechwriter’s domestic situation (where important political issues were also revealed in a personal manner). Both films generally ended happily for the ordinary people featured in the stories. No actor in the film played two roles, but the speechwriter literally provided the words for the Foreign Minister's closing address (and in previous speeches).

The parallel to Chaplin's classic film are not perfect. The Foreign Minister character was played for laughs throughout the film, but he was not a power-mad dictator. He was imagined as a slightly foolish political bureaucrat with intellectual interests. Indeed, the Minister's basic three talking points from the first meeting with the speechwriter were reflected in the final speech. I think the filmmaker could be suggesting that these key principles were so obvious and basic that even a fool could identify them right away -- the need for responsibility, unity, and efficacy. Somehow, the neocons and Bush managed to miss these elemental truths as they planned the Iraq war.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Fear and Technology

In my graduate course, we've been talking a good deal about the role fear plays in international politics. Though war is on the decline and the risks of dying of terrorism are tiny for most North Americans, public policymakers continually invoke fears about other states or terrorist groups to promote preferred policies and to justify unnecessarily high levels of defense spending.

In the February 2 edition of The Nation, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow discusses the role of information technology in fomenting fear. Basically, there's always bad news somewhere and our connectivity makes it possible to know about it:
We don’t have less time than ever; on the contrary, life expectancy has steadily increased. What we have, at this latest point so far in human history, is more of so much else—more people, more books, more cultural products of every kind, in addition to the staggering volume of online content. We feel ever more acutely the mismatch between available time and all the possible ways we could spend it. Population growth has overlooked effects: even if Steven Pinker is right that per capita violence has declined, something horrible is always happening to someone, and thanks to our ICTs [information and communications technologies], we’re going to hear about it in “real time.” This fosters a sense of relentless drama, of the world spiraling out of control, and chronic low-grade anxiety. 
...Too much of life is spent in the same essential way: clicking and typing and scrolling, liking and tweeting, assimilating the latest horrors from the news.

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Sunday, February 08, 2015

Dylan v. Haggard

Bob DylanMerle Haggard 6478

Friday night, Bob Dylan delivered a half hour speech at the MusiCares Person of the Year event. He used much of his time to thank some other artists and performers, though he made news with some criticism of others:
"Merle Haggard didn't even think much of my songs. I know he didn't. He didn't say that to me, but I know way back when he didn't. Buck Owens did, and he recorded some of my early songs. 
"Together Again, that's Buck Owens. And that trumps anything else out of Bakersfield. Buck Owens or Merle Haggard? If you had to have somebody's blessing, you can figure it out."
Merle Haggard responded to this apparent slight with grace (see this tweet):
"I've admired your songs since 1964," the 77-year-old singer of country classics like Branded Man and I'm a Lonesome Fugitive said on his Facebook page Saturday. Haggard added that he and Willie Nelson have cut Dylan's Don't Think Twice, It's All Right for an upcoming album.
Moreover, in October 2013, Haggard told an interviewer that he was doing a tribute album to Dylan. He was asked "Q: What draws you to Bob Dylan's music?"
Haggard: I've always been drawn to his music, since when he first came out in 1964. I was just beginning my career as well at that time. But I've come to find out that he's a been a Merle Haggard fan and he was watching what I was doing while I was watching what he was doing. I've always thought he was one of the better writers that I've been fortunate enough to be alive at the same time with.
My friend and neighbor Michael Young, the host of WFPK's "Roots n' Boots" radio show, is one of the world's biggest Haggard fans and his reaction was stronger than Haggard's. After all, as his bio says, Mike "firmly believes Merle Haggard is the greatest songwriter of our generation, and he’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and shout it." Tonight, Mike played a number of Haggard songs on his program for "no special reason," though he laughed after saying that. His Facebook feed offers an explanation: "Tempted to play nothing but Merle Haggard today in light of Dylan's dis of the Hag, but I don't think I could get away with that. How about 5 Haggard songs that are better than anything Dylan ever wrote?"

I'm thinking this entire dust-up is just Dylan's sense of humor on display.

In 1986, in Interview magazine, Dylan was asked to list "Clubs I belong to." One of his 6 answers was "Merle Haggard Fan Club."

And this is from Haggard's bio on the Rolling Stone website: "Merle Haggard has always been as deep as it gets," said Bob Dylan. "Totally himself. Herculean. He definitely transcends the country genre."

Actually, that quote is taken from a long 2009 piece by Jason Fine quoted in full in this tweet:
"Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets," says Bob Dylan. "Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. No superficiality about him whatsoever. He definitely transcends the country genre. If Merle had been around Sun Studio in Memphis in the Fifties, Sam Phillips would have turned him into a rock & roll star, one of the best. I'm sorta glad he didn't do it, though, because then he'd be on the oldies circuit singing his rock  roll hits instead of becoming the Merle Haggard we all know and love."
In 2005, Dylan asked Haggard to tour with him. Incidentally, this is what Haggard told  Billboard in an interview about that tour:
Q: How did this tour with Bob Dylan come about? 
A: I had my itinerary set to do some light touring in the spring and ease my way through the year, and Bob Dylan calls and wants me to tour America with him. And he's not just talking about once and awhile, it's 40 out of the next 60 days. But it's Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan's the Einstein of music. He calls and wants you to be on his show and your name is Merle Haggard, you're honored. 
Q: I've heard that most people who tour with Dylan don't get a chance to talk to him, but I imagine he'll talk to you at some point. 
A: I don't know. I've rubbed shoulders with him before and he just sorta grunts.
Maybe Dylan was just making some news and selling some records for both geezers?

Flickr photo credits: Nesster (Haggard) and F. Antolín Hernández (Dylan)

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