Wading Into the Uncertainty of the 2015 Academy Awards

With a few legitimately exciting top-of-the-line races, the 2015 Academy Awards could actually contain some uncertainty. I ran through my Will Win, Second-Place, and Should Win choices for eight of the main categories.

Best Picture

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When it comes to the Oscars, it’s amazing how fickle momentum can be. Since this summer, Boyhood had a comfortable lead as the frontrunner for Best Picture. It was beloved by critics, well-liked by audiences, and, due to its 12-years-in-the-making backstory, respected by the people who actually vote for the award, the Academy. Then, stunningly, its momentum was halted.

It’s not as if Birdman necessarily came out of nowhere. It’s an art film about the industry that utilizes showy, innovative techniques that make your head spin, so it’s not really a surprise the Academy eventually fell for it. The shock was in how strong it started to look as the Oscar race wore on. Each guild — Producers, Writers, Directors — chose the bird over the boy, and suddenly the universal coming-of-age tale was no longer out in front.

Honestly, this is all very good for the Oscars. One, because Boyhood and Birdman are two legitimately beautiful works. I enjoyed both of them greatly and there have been (recent) years where the frontrunner(s) have been far from deserving. Two, this kind of competition and suspense has been sorely missing (minus last year) from the competition over the last several seasons. For the most part, The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Argo all cruised to their Best Picture wins. Now, for the second year in a row, the announcement won’t be a foregone conclusion.

So who takes the trophy? No idea. My hunch is with Birdman just because the Academy loves a movie that dramatizes their profession and slams critics the way that film does. If not, it will be Boyhood. It seems like there is really no room this year for a potential spoiler, no matter how many Wes-heads there are out there or how much shady business Harvey Weinstein does on behalf of The Imitation Game.

Will Win: Birdman

Second-Place: Boyhood

Despite putting Birdman at my number two film of 2014 and Boyhood at number three, my mind has already begun to change. I’d be fine with either winning, but now that I’ve had a few months away from both I’ve found that Boyhood‘s achievement just resonated more. It affected me immediately and long-term in a deeper way than Birdman. Simple as that.

Should Win: Boyhood

Best Director

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Incredibly, Best Director has split from Best Picture two consecutive years now. If it were to happen again on Sunday that would be the first time, as far as I can tell, since 1935-37. So that’s the history we are looking at here — pre-World War II. And yet, I think the chances are decent. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work on Birdman was far more stylish than Richard Linklater’s on Boyhood. I could easily see the Academy rewarding Inarritu’s directorial pyrotechnics, while Boyhood narrowly beats out his film for Best Picture.

Will Win: Inarritu

Second-Place: Linklater

I’ve gone back and forth on this award as well. Either would be worthy, however I think Linklater is the more deserving. Managing everything that guy had to manage (shooting schedules, child actors, etc.) over twelve years is insane to think about. Mostly, though, the most amazing thing about his movie is that, despite its length and subject matter, Boyhood doesn’t ever feel like its straining for greatness. Everything feels as organic and authentic as possible. Maybe it’s just his personality, but when he speaks about the production there is no pretension. You can tell he just thought it would be a cool idea — and it was. Most directors would realize they are making their masterpiece and try to do too much. Not Linklater.

Should Win: Linklater

Best Actor

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The Screen Actor’s Guild is a highly accurate precursor for the Best Actor Oscar. 2003 was the last time the two diverged, when Sean Penn (Mystic River) won the Oscar over Captain Jack Sparrow himself. Yep, Johnny Depp was the SAG winner that year for the beginning of a never-ending and nonsensical franchise; SAG would probably like to run that one back.

Anyway, we have a legitimate two-horse race in Best Actor for the first time in at least 3-4 years. Eddie Redmayne took home the SAG award for his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, while Michael Keaton remains the Mickey Rourke sentimental-comeback choice. Which doesn’t mean he wouldn’t deserve to win; his performance is riveting, nuanced, and electric throughout. But has the Academy fallen too hard for the young British dude to finish Keaton’s story?

I don’t think they have. I’m going with the small upset of Keaton lifting the statuette. Many times, it seems like the industry votes for the person they would most like to see up on stage thanking them. This year, that’s Keaton hands down.

Will Win: Keaton

Second-Place: Redmayne

Redmayne’s is actually the only performance I haven’t seen of these five, but I’m going with Keaton as my choice. I found things to love about the others: Steve Carell’s spellbinding transformation, Bradley Cooper’s hulking complexity, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s ever-so-slight twist on his Sherlock persona. Keaton still stood out to me in Birdman more than the rest of them.

Should Win: Keaton

Best Actress

There’s no need to really even talk about this much: it’s going to Julianne Moore. Like Cate Blanchett last year, this is her award. It may not be coming because of a great movie and it’s serving more as a career achievement award, but it’s Moore’s to lose. She has proved herself remarkably consistent over the years and you can bet the Academy is fine with handing her an Oscar for such a meaty role.

Will Win: Moore

Second-Place: Reese Witherspoon

Although the only performance I saw of the nominees was Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl, I have a feeling she would still be my choice if I had seen all of them. Pike’s lethal range in that movie was the best I saw from a woman in 2014. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Academy enjoyed David Fincher’s film so much, as this was the only Oscar nomination it garnered.

Should Win: Pike

Best Supporting Actor

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Unless Birdman becomes a true juggernaut throughout the night, the winner will quite obviously be Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons for his earth-shattering take on an abusive jazz teacher. I say this because Edward Norton is the spoiler here and I think his chances are better than many think. He’s a much more well-known name, he’s in a film the Academy likes more, and most importantly, he’s really, really good.

Still, Simmons is a career character actor who just submitted the performance of his life. It’s more likely his peers reward him for that than they give every award to Birdman. It was too well-rounded of a year.

Will Win: Simmons

Second-Place: Norton

Those two, Mark Ruffalo, and Ethan Hawke were all fantastic, so it’s kind of difficult to pick one. While I’m often partial to Norton’s work, Simmons was just too irresistible.

Should Win: Simmons

Best Supporting Actress

Similarly, this award is all but locked up for Patricia Arquette, with Birdman and Emma Stone lurking again as a spoiler. Arquette has won all of the precursor awards and I don’t see Stone’s performance being memorable enough to unseat what she brought in Boyhood over a period of 12 years. Keira Knightley was excellent in The Imitation Game, but it’s pretty clear she wasn’t given enough of a platform in that movie to actually win this award.

Will Win: Arquette

Second-Place: Stone

Having seen three of the five nominees, I thought Stone was good-not-great in every scene but one and Knightley did her job without stealing any scenes. I’ll take Arquette for her steady, emotionally and intellectually pitch-perfect work.

Should Win: Arquette

Best Original Screenplay

This is clearly the more stacked of the two writing categories (especially if Whiplash was in Original, as it should’ve been). Boyhood and — to a lesser extent — Birdman doesn’t feel like a writer’s triumph, so this could be a place for the Academy to welcome other options. The Grand Budapest Hotel soared to a surprising nine nominations, so I think this is one of the few it actually wins because of its complex storytelling.

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Second-Place: Birdman

Nightcrawler was my favorite film of the year, so you can guess where I’m going with this choice. Unfortunately, it will need a half-miracle to sneak past the other three strong candidates here.

Should Win: Nightcrawler

Best Adapted Screenplay

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You can probably throw out Inherent Vice (too confusing for audiences predisposed to straightforward naratives) and American Sniper (despite the money its made, the politics and controversy surrounding it have gotten too loud), so that leaves three contenders, each with a decent chance to take it. The Theory of Everything may win Actor and Score, so counting on a third Oscar for a film many see as nowhere near a Picture contender may be a little presumptuous. Then there is the prestige biopic (The Imitation Game) vs. the ballsy indie flick (Whiplash). I really don’t know which way they will lean, but The Imitation Game would be the choice for those looking to spread the wealth around since most of the other Best Picture nominees will likely win something. However, doesn’t The Imitation Game seem like the kind of safe-ish, “Oscar-type” movie that gets a bunch of nominations and no wins?

Will Win: Whiplash

Second-Place: The Imitation Game

I thought American Sniper‘s script was borderline awful, I didn’t see The Theory of Everything, and I just gave my dismissive opinion on The Imitation Game above. Inherent Vice was a blast to watch, even if I didn’t fully understand what was happening half the time (and I read the book, which I’m not sure even matters). I’ll give my (non-existent) award to Whiplash for a screenplay that started off simmering and gradually turned white-hot by the end.

Should Win: Whiplash

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Auteur Arc: Paul Thomas Anderson

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Of all the indisputably great American directors, do Paul Thomas Anderson’s films demand multiple viewings the most? Scorsese and Coppola made unflinching crime epics that you wanted to see again because of how much fun you had the first time. Kubrick brought so much intensity and terror and wonder to the screen that you couldn’t tear your eyes away. Spielberg’s powerfully emotive style left you ready to be moved all over again the next time you came back.

But I would contend that none of these guys made films that absolutely demanded you see it again. After every PTA movie (with the exception of one, which I’ll get to), I have walked away not entirely sure if I liked it or not – just that I needed to see it a second time. From his early shorts on through Inherent Vice, it’s quite evident the filmmaking talent on display is absurd, but for some reason I always need to reevaluate the movie before I feel like I can have a rational opinion on it. Simultaneously enigmatic and entertaining, impenetrable yet completely absorbing, PTA’s work has forced us to keep coming back. Call him the L. Ron Hubbard of cinema. Let’s take a look at his career arc.

Shorts

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With two shorts that would serve as precursors to longer feature films, PTA cut his teeth on small, low-stakes productions. The first, The Dirk Diggler Story, came way back in 1988. Growing up in San Fernando Valley, California with an actor father, PTA was immersed in show business culture at a ripe age. The Valley was also the capital of the porn business, and PTA took an interest.

Before he even graduated high school, he started working on his first short with a bunch of friends on no budget. What he created at such a young age does not prophesy the genius to come later. The premise and ideas are there, just not the execution; which, who could expect an 18-year-old with almost no resources to come up with anything worth watching?

The Dirk Diggler Story was a This Is Spinal Tap-style mockumentary that documents the story of fake porn star, Dirk Diggler. If you’re in on the joke, it’s actually quite funny. However, it helps seeing Boogie Nights, his 1997 release, first.

The other, much more impressive, short is a 20-minute interlocking ensemble that works even if you don’t see the companion piece, Hard Eight. It’s called Cigarettes and Coffee (1993) and it remains one of the most compelling shorts I’ve seen (although I wouldn’t consider myself a short-film aficionado).

Philip Baker Hall captivates from the opening scene, just as he would three years later in PTA’s first movie. Something about the setup – following three different conversations in a diner – just draws you in, even though there isn’t anything too flashy going on with the camerawork. After twenty tense minutes, we arrive at the thought-provoking conclusion. After watching Cigarettes and Coffee, it’s evident how PTA could shop around this short and get financed for his first film — the prodigy’s talent was undeniable.

No Final Cut

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Looking back now, Hard Eight does not feel like definitive PTA. That doesn’t mean this neo-noir isn’t promising, most filmmakers can’t imagine something this sure-handed as their debut. What’s so remarkable is the patience at which this film moves, and then how the drama ratchets up so naturally.

A prime example: Around the midway point, Sydney — Philip Baker Hall’s too-old-for-this-mess gambler — is called up by John (John C. Reilly), a younger man whose life was turned around by Sydney. It’s a frantic midnight call, so Sydney hurries over to John’s hotel room. As Sydney moves into the room, we see his face change, knowing something awful has occurred, but PTA doesn’t let us see what has happened. For a long time. It seemingly takes a full minute before his camera swings around to show us the “problem”. Most new directors would get jumpy once their game-changing dramatic moment arrives, but not Anderson.

In that scene, we see Sydney’s disposition shift slightly. He has watched the idiocy of Reno around him, how money and the gambling life changes people. Since he cares for John and Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), he can’t stand seeing their lives damaged by it. That’s the brilliance of Baker Hall’s performance: you can understand how he used to be an old “wise guy” back in the day, but now he’s mostly decency and heart. Mostly, though. His shadowy past still outpaces him. Sydney’s nuance is what makes him such a fascinatingly watchable character.

Of course, the minor performance here that begat another working relationship was Philip Seymour Hoffman as “craps player”. Although the name doesn’t sound like much, PSH’s eccentric, wild man act sticks in your mind despite its limited screen time.

PTA’s early affinity for slow zooms and tracking shots is on display here as well. The bravura opening that follows Sydney as he encounters John outside the diner uses a lengthy, excellent tracking shot that establishes Sydney’s mystery and apparent goodwill. You could almost see the movie just titled “Sydney”, which it almost was, if PTA had his way. At this point, he didn’t have final cut, so the studio recut and retitled his movie, locking him out of post-production.

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This wouldn’t happen on his next film, Boogie Nights, released the following year. Before Hard Eight had even been released, Anderson’s next script already had the industry buzzing. It was the Dirk Diggler Story from almost a decade prior, this time blown out to 185 pages — or, three hours of screen time. The subject — the porn industry in the 70s and 80s — didn’t take much explaining to get people interested. According to Anderson’s agent at the time, “Paul visualized the whole movie. He had everything, all the camera moves, the lighting”. Not surprising, considering the precocious ambition at hand.

The movie that we get remains PTA’s most accessible work, and probably his funniest as well. It’s straight-up, pure entertainment. Each character is so delightfully, carefully, and memorably portrayed. Baker Hall is back with a minor part (“I like simple pleasures…”), as is Seymour Hoffman as Scotty J., an emotionally immature oddball. Don Cheadle’s many “looks” provide endless amusement. As Reed Rothchild, John C. Reilly does maybe his best work. That’s also probably true of Burt Reynolds’ performance as Jack Horner, for which he was Oscar-nominated despite distancing himself from the film upon release.

But, just like the movie itself, it’s not all good times for these characters. As the dark second half brings us down from the high we gleefully rode up in the first half, each member of the story falls into their own struggles. Little Bill (William H. Macy) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) are two obvious and devastating examples. Of course, Boogie Nights would not be complete without its star, Dirk Diggler, whose rise and fall provides the emotional thrust (pun for sure intended) of the plot, thanks in part to Hollywood newcomer Mark Wahlberg, who could not have been more believably cast — and this is coming from someone who doesn’t always enjoy his stuff.

Enough about the acting, though. PTA’s direction here is breathtaking, right off the bat with the spellbinding opening, which features a long tracking shot introducing us to an array of characters in a few minutes, set to 1977’s disco hit “Best of My Love”. It’s like he’s legitimately trying to one-up freaking Orson Welles here. In reality, the more accurate influences on Boogie Nights were Robert Altman, due to its ensemble nature, and Martin Scorsese, due to the decades-spanning, Roman Empire rise-and-fall theme, and the attention-snatching visuals.

Essentially, Boogie Nights is alive in a way most movies just aren’t. During the pool party scene early on, the camera dips under the water in tandem with a swimmer, just as the music (the music in this movie is insanely good, by the way) swells. This is the kind of moment that demands you sit up and pay attention, because greatness could be taking place in front of you. Yet even with the high comedy and entertainment, it wouldn’t reach greatness without allowing its subjects to spiral the drain.

What becomes clear throughout Boogie Nights is that the porn industry back then was like a shadow of Hollywood. They had their own actors, directors, and producers; their own awards shows too. While the real Hollywood may have been shooting them a dubious side-eye, they were becoming a family despite how the outside world looked at them. There is another tracking shot at the end that follows Horner through his house as they are setting up for a shoot. It’s oddly touching, watching this strange family coalesce after all that has gone wrong before. PTA perfectly captures why they feel accepted among each other.

Major and Minor Self-Indulgence

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Let’s just get this out of the way now. Magnolia is long. Way too long. Even PTA himself thinks so, according to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast interview with him. The three hours here do not fly by like they would have on Boogie Nights (which was cut down to 155 minutes). Because it’s so heavy and constantly balancing on the tightrope of melodrama, the viewing experience doesn’t lend itself to multiple trips back like pretty much all of his other films do.

PTA wrote Magnolia after he lost his dad, so you can imagine his raw state as he constructed this narrative, featuring several interconnected storylines of broken people trying to find the right way forward. In that aforementioned WTF podcast appearance, you can tell PTA knows his emotional state led to the creation of an overlong, slightly overwrought movie that grasps a little too tightly for profundity.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t treated to some fascinating stuff along the way. Tom Cruise submits the single most interesting performance of his career, so much so that it’s kind of remarkable he agreed to do it. The other PTA regulars are around: Baker Hall, Hoffman, and Macy each carry their own particular plot thread with aplomb. Those three actors are some of my favorites and sometimes it’s difficult to know if this is solely because of the way PTA uses them or if I would’ve enjoyed their work with anybody.

Despite functioning as a more traditional drama at times, there are still those offbeat PTA notes. In pop culture, the raining frogs would probably be more connected to Magnolia than the Bible if this movie lived up to everything it was trying to do. Even if it falls short, the one thing you can’t say is that he didn’t go for it all; this was in no way a minor work.

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Which you can definitely say about his next feature. It’s easy to watch Punch-Drunk Love and say this is the guy that made There Will Be Blood? Everything about it seems so small and inconsequential compared to what came before and what he would make afterwards. This is PTA’s unabashed lunge at a love story featuring Adam Sandler.

While that may sound like a waste of time for a director of his stature, Anderson injects his own brand of wit and stylistic flair to make things interesting. Visually, it’s actually quite stunning. He’s been working with cinematographer Robert Elswit for everything besides The Master and the continuity between these two has paid off time and again. Here, the empty, unsettling long shots and rich Technicolor tones make for a unique palette that ensures you can’t toss this off as another worthless rom-com if you were to watch it with the sound off.

Sandler’s neurotic loner Barry Egan awkwardly finds love throughout deliberately bizarre plot devices, like phone-sex lines and an exorbitant amount of pudding. Like I said, not your run-of-the-mill comedy. Anyway, PTA pulls a deeper sort of male frustration out of Sandler in this role, while still allowing him to do a variation on his angry-man bit. Emily Watson is so noteworthy in her role, you wish she would’ve been given more screen time.

All in all, Punch-Drunk Love doesn’t move any mountains. It’s a surprisingly uplifting. yet ultimately somewhat forgettable entry into the canon of one of the great directors of our time. Even though Punch-Drunk Love still deals frankly with themes of isolation and alienation, PTA was perfectly fine lightening it up for awhile after the heavy, dark emotional depths of Magnolia and before what will likely go down as his peerless masterpiece.

Towering Idiosyncrasies

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Some of the greats somehow turn the trick of appearing simultaneously immense and intimate. Think Citizen Kane, The Godfather, or Saving Private Ryan. There Will Be Blood is no different in that respect. After a five-year hiatus after the box-office dud and modest critical praise for his previous effort, PTA would return with a sprawling, triumphant, and devastating portrayal of an enterprising turn-of-the-century oilman.

Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, PTA fashioned his own take on the greed and obsession of that era. It also clashes capitalism and religion in thoughtful, but also violent ways. Daniel Day-Lewis plays that oilman, the driven and ruthless Daniel Plainview, while the consistently underrated Paul Dano is Eli Sunday, the demonstrative yet shameless preacher. Clearly, these two stand in the place of much larger systems, but their battle remains remarkably personal from start to (bloody) finish.

It all has a timeless feel, like it could easily exist in black-and-white, like it almost does in your mind when you recollect your experience watching it. PTA allows his camera to sweep in the vast expanse of early 20th-century California land, just waiting to have its ocean of oil tapped underneath. He’s heavy on long shots and extended takes and sparse on closeups and insert shots; it’s as if he’s keeping us at an arm’s length the entire time. Quite overtly, There Will Be Blood is more Kubrick than Altman (interestingly, PTA worked with Altman on his final film in 2005, right before he began filming Blood). This kind of visual language suits him well.

Of course, Anderson did have plenty of help, surrounding himself with insane talent in every corner. Elswit’s photography nails every beat, particularly the gripping fire scene where the catastrophe lasts long enough for night to fall. Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood teams up with PTA for the first time here, providing an ominously off-kilter and minimal score for the film to sink into like a finely-tailored suit.

No, I’m not forgetting about Day-Lewis’ career-defining (and that’s a high bar to clear) role as Plainview. Everything from the voice to the speech pattern to the physical movements is so perfectly tuned to what kind of person/monster Plainview is. Day-Lewis performs all of it full bore, with a singular intensity impossible to snap. He’s so good in this, it honestly makes me want to quit attempting to describe it, so I’ll just leave it at this: For my money, it’s the best performance of the last decade.

The amount of memorable scenes here is unreal. Let’s just take one: the baptism scene, in which Sunday forces Plainview (who has just abandoned his adopted son) to get baptized in order to gain access to more land to continue drilling. There is a stunning mix of regret, shame, and self-righteousness present in those few minutes of screen time, with the power dynamic shifting multiple times. Here both capitalism and religion pin family and relationships under their weighty, merciless lust for money and power. Dano and Day-Lewis necessarily play up their parts to frighteningly strange, larger-than-life levels.

And that is what ensures There Will Be Blood will remain at the top of so many best-of-the-century lists. Sure, the outrageous ambition and crystal-clear vision are wonderful, but it’s the unique idiosyncrasies that make it impossible to replicate or improve upon. Whether in performance, dialogue, shot composition, etc., the uncanniness of There Will Be Blood sets it apart.

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Similarly, The Master‘s unsettlingly strange tone, pacing, process, and methods define PTA’s next effort. Before it opened, cinema fanatics were blind with excitement when they heard the great P.T. Anderson would be taking down Scientology with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing founder L. Ron Hubbard. The film we got was not that. The Master‘s impact comes not from taking cheap shots at a religion that many already find patently ludicrous, but from narrowing the focus in on the relationship between two men. That doesn’t sound epic, but somehow PTA makes it a towering artistic achievement.

Yet, it’s easy to see why audiences didn’t react that positively to it. Its plot – an aimless war veteran and all-around miscreant (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes enamored by the teachings and personality of a charismatic leader of The Cause (PSH) – doesn’t follow the normal beats whatsoever. It’s hazy, shifty, impossible to grasp. This is post-WWII America, when the fog of war has cleared, leaving those left to search for meaning after witnessing obscene atrocities.

I can’t think of an actor who encapsulates this more than Phoenix as Freddie Quell. Here he stands like an odd bird – emaciated, spine bent, arms akimbo. Speaking almost unintelligibly out of the side of his mouth, he’s a lost soul who wants to be a part of something, but can’t seem to conform in any way when given the chance. Conversely, PSH’s character, Lancaster Dodd, is all confident, strong-willed charm. He is gregarious and highly defensive at the same time, quickly losing his temper if challenged (hey, kind of like Scientology itself!). Strangely attracted to Quell’s discipline-free persona, Dodd examines his urge-driven actions with interest and a hint of jealousy. Easily the most intense few minutes I’ve seen over the last few years is the “processing scene” between these two. Both actors submit a tour-de-force in the same damn movie, showing us two sides of man.

In many ways, The Master feels in step with There Will Be Blood. PTA has a certain mastery of a similar tone and visual style in both films; the guy just knows how to impeccably frame his shots. Like TWBB, The Master takes on themes and subjects like religion, individualism, and the complex relationship between sons and father figures. Additionally, both films are weighted by two self-made Californian men (Dodd and Plainview), which further draws out PTA’s obsession with life in California (besides Hard Eight, all of his films have been set there) throughout the last century-plus.

My second time through The Master was vastly different from my first. After I saw it in theaters, there were things that intrigued me, but also things that repelled me. While the performances were top-notch and there were a number of mesmerizingly good scenes, the meaning and purpose seemed to be intentionally obscured. When I came back to it almost two years later, the atmosphere of the film started to seep in. This was a new narrative style that was — and is — difficult to describe. I now wonder if we will look back on The Master as a ground-breaking masterpiece in ten or twenty years.

Inherent Twice?

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Two years after his towering, idiosyncratic works, PTA takes another left turn with Inherent Vice. However, just like with his previous two, I wonder how differently I will view this entry after another viewing. What you might expect to be a good-time, humorous romp of a movie turns out to be just as slippery as PTA’s most challenging stuff.

The source material is renowned (and reclusive) author Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 stoned LA detective story, “Inherent Vice”. This is the first time a Pynchon book has been committed to film, and PTA stays pretty faithful to the confusing plot mechanics and inventive language of the novel. Phoenix is back as the lead as Doc Sportello, a lovable, constantly baked PI. The rest of the cast shows off just how much actors and actresses are drawn to a movie when PTA is in the director’s chair – no matter how small the part. Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, and Benicio del Toro all appear in their first Anderson film.

Towards the end, you start to see that PTA is not after your typical, noir-infused detective tale. Again, he’s going after something more melancholy, meditative, and elusive. More and more, I’ve been thinking about this idea of ‘esoteric vs. exoteric’ as it relates to PTA. Are his movies esoteric (arcane, mysterious works that are intended for a small group of people to understand) or exoteric (supposed to provide insight for the general public)? Both? Neither? I still haven’t figured out what drives him to create films that can be so many things at the same time: accessible and inaccessible, entertaining and intelligent, highly watchable and highly demanding. Maybe I should just see them again.

Do We Really Need Another One of These? Or, My Top 10 Films of 2014

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Why are we so obsessed with year-end top 10 lists? Well, for one, we love to rank things, especially subjective things that we can savagely argue about. I think another, more optimistic reason is that it’s an excuse to pause and reflect. In our present, culture comes at us rapidly. There’s always something new for us to watch, listen to, or read. The latest buzz-worthy film, album, or book is just around the corner.

Everybody and their mom has a top 10 list at the end of the year, and while I would typically abstain on account of “why does the world need another one of these?”, I can’t help but think this idea of reflection in a Internet-driven, on-to-the-next-one world is increasingly important. It’s a way for us to stop for a minute and glance behind us, a way to mark the time passing us by. For myself, it’s an easily-accessible time capsule that I can open up to see what kind of year we had at the movies in 2014.

So what kind of a year was it? On the one hand, I ranked Gone Girl – David Fincher’s funny, pitch-perfect take on Gillian Flynn’s darkly satirical book – my fourteenth favorite film of the year. Was there a vast gap between that and my number one choice? I would say not really, at least less so than in most years. Suffice it to say, this was a crowded field. Narrowing this group of features and documentaries to ten made for an exceedingly difficult task. Yes, some films were clearly superior in my mind, particularly the top three. However, I didn’t find this to be a year with one true standout, as opposed to last year (Gravity) or 2012 (Zero Dark Thirty).

Now, my top films of 2014 (with a few other recognitions).

Most underrated: Noah

Biggest disappointment: X-Men: Days of Future Past

Most overrated: The Imitation Game

Others seen: Under the Skin, 22 Jump Street, Locke, Jodorowsky’s Dune, American Sniper, Fury, The Unknown Known, A Most Wanted Man, Neighbors, Selma, The Immigrant

Honorable Mentions: Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

10. The Grand Budapest Hotel

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It’s interesting that this is the Wes Anderson film that has captured the attention of the Academy. Not many would’ve predicted it would see 9 Oscar nominations. Certainly not my favorite Anderson effort, but the remarkable cast, amusing imagination, and deft, humorous touch with heavier themes make it another winner from Wes.

9. Calvary

Speaking of heavier themes, Calvary has them in spades. As a Catholic priest, Brendan Gleeson delivers a spellbindingly complex portrait of a man full of integrity and doubt. Although this is Gleeson’s show, writer-director John Michael McDonagh (he’s also responsible for the little-seen yet delightfully underrated The Guard) deserves a heap of praise for his immersive visuals and finely-sketched characters.

8. Whiplash

It’s difficult for me to think of a more electric and punishing visual depiction of what it means to pursue greatness. Here it’s jazz drums, but it could’ve very well been anything. Young Damien Chazelle’s editing, writing, and direction all contribute mightily to this fantastic head rush, but the performances from Miles Teller and soon-to-be Oscar winner J.K. Simmons keep you transfixed despite the physical and emotional bloodsport you see on screen.

7. Snowpiercer

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The most stunningly original world I witnessed this year, Snowpiercer is a fully realized epic set almost entirely inside a train. Writer-director Bong Joon Ho stitches together a massively compelling adaptation of a French graphic novel with memorable characters, while Chris Evans blows up any previous notions you had about his career. Sure, it’s quite obvious about its capitalist allegory and your suspension of disbelief must be high, but who cares when the ride is this bizarre, fun, and thought-provoking?

6. Coherence

Snowpiercer‘s budget was by no means exorbitant, but another sci-fi mindbender this year somehow wrought just as much intrigue, terror, and emotional torment out of a production with much less resources to spare. Coherence, made for just $50,000 and largely improvised over just a five-night shoot, announces writer-director James Ward Byrkit as an intelligent filmmaker to keep an eye on. His movie expanded what I assumed tiny-budget genre cinema could provide.

5. Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow suffered from a lousy title and generic marketing. The alternate title – “Live Die Repeat” – is much, much better, and if the TV ads would’ve revealed a little more of the narrative style, this could have been a smash hit. Or maybe it was simply Tom Cruise Fatigue. Either way, this remains a superior blockbuster to anything else we saw last summer. Doug Liman – who has become perhaps the most hit-or-miss director working – fashions a splendid conceit in which Cruise and Emily Blunt show off some of their best stuff.

4. Interstellar

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Yet another sci-fi on my list (sorry), Christopher Nolan created the best mainstream film I saw this year. Some may have found it ridiculous in stretches (I wouldn’t necessarily argue), but no piece of cinema made me more thankful for the big screen and audacious storytelling. Nolan’s visuals are, as usual, arresting and original and absorbing, but the risks he and his brother wrote into the Interstellar screenplay paid off for me, while McConaughey anchors it all excellently. Nolan continues to push the boundaries of big-budget moviemaking.

3. Boyhood

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Boyhood is the kind of film that anyone can feel something for – and yet, not anybody could make. The production here is no gimmick. Richard Linklater and his crew dedicated 12 long years and came out with a masterpiece. With a different filmmaker, it could have been contrived or over-sentimental, but because of Linklater and his excellent cast, you’ve hardly been more astonished and moved by such an “ordinary” story.

2. Birdman

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Talk about extraordinary. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu went from depressing, everything-is-connected dramas to a highly specific, hilarious, and spectacular piece of cinema. Since the entire thing is presented as one (glorious) take with no edits, this is an actor’s showcase, and man, does everyone bring it. Keaton, Norton, and Emma Stone have all received deserved praise, while Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis sketch out two other fantastic characters. This was a bar-raising film for Hollywood.

1. Nightcrawler

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Walking into the theater, I’m guessing you were like me: not sure at all what you expected to see. The trailer was intriguing, sure, in a vaguely ominous and enticing way. Jake Gyllenhaal was in it and he was quite skinny, his face sunken and just slightly inhuman. The shots of Los Angeles at night were somehow alluring and repelling at the same time. We knew we couldn’t expect much from first time director Dan Gilroy, who only had experience as a hired hand writing middling action movies, but man, did that hand seem confident and steady in this movie. Maybe you walked out a little shaken, but quickly able to shrug it off and grab a pint with friends. I walked out certain I had never seen anything quite like it before. Gilroy had created a character study of a highly-functioning sociopath that shook me up and left me spellbound. Gyllenhaal has never been better, every shot is excellently composed, and the careful skewering of capitalism and our TV news as entertainment was expertly laid out. Part noir, part monster movie, Nightcrawler affected me like no other film this year.