2014 Best Picture Nominees – Ranked from Best to Worst

How I would fill out my preferential ballot for this year’s Academy Awards:

Both my vote and my betting pick for Best Picture

Both my vote and my betting pick for Best Picture

Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)
A gimmick is only a gimmick if it isn’t used well. In Boyhood, it is a technique. We see not a character grow old in makeup, but a real, live human being change before our eyes. This is an emotional pick for me. My son turned two just before I saw Boyhood, and the idea that he will grow up is only now turning real.

Out of all 8, this is the one that will be watched by the most people for the longest period of time.

Out of all 8, this is the one that will be watched by the most people for the longest period of time.

(dir. Ava DuVernay)
I saw the movie on a weekday. The audience stayed through the end credits song and applauded. DuVernay and actor Oyelowo pull up the impossible tasks of 1) telling a saint’s story in a way that avoids both haigiography and denigration and 2) marking a historic victory for freedom that avoids both self-congratulation and complacency.

Selma‘s existence serves to highlight the political dimension of the Civil Rights movement that has somehow gotten lost in the popular retellings. We forget that equality is not inevitable – it happens because people take action to create it.

A scene that oddly reminded me of Eyes Wide Shut.

A scene that oddly reminded me of Eyes Wide Shut.

Birdman (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
The Broadway Russian Ark. The continuous shot is impressive, but doesn’t overwhelm the narrative in the way Joe Wright’s much shorter takes do. The narrative gets more than a bit formulaic, but the acting performances elevate the material. Keaton gives one of the best performances of his career.

Name the director from a single frame

Name the director from a single frame

The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)
My favorite Wes Anderson yet. He’s finally at the point in his career where he’s comfortable with a plot, and the results are exciting. I can’t wait to see where he goes from here. Adventure is a good fit for him. I’d love to see him direct a Bond film a decade or so from now.

Anderson’s style also seems perfect for both time periods the film is set in. It’s modern, yet somehow simultaneously not modern.

In which musical greatness is defined as masochism.

In which musical greatness is defined as masochism.

Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)
Engrossing, exciting movie that took me on a journey I didn’t expect. The first 30 minutes lulled me into thinking it’d be an Oscar-bait biopic. Then, is surprised me, and again and again. The final showdown was beautifully cathartic, like the coda to a rock song. But it kept me thinking. Was it worth it? What does the movie want us to think?

Subtitle: Scenes from a Marriage

Subtitle: Scenes from a Marriage

The Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh)
A nice takedown of the manic pixie dream girl trope. A good, mainline biopic that occasionally dips its toe into the water of ambition, finds it too cold, and withdraws. (The strange fantasy sequence near the end of the movie, for example, seems like a start at a theme that was later cut)

Pretty much exactly the same plot as Sergeant York.

Pretty much exactly the same plot as Sergeant York.

American Sniper (dir. Clint Eastwood)
I think I saw a different movie than everyone else. Rather than jingoistic sadism or a paean to an American Hero, American Sniper focuses primarily on the moral injury suffered by soldiers when they kill. The movie’s didactic lessons – Al-Qaeda in Iraq is evil, PTSD is real, soldiers who suffer deserve our support – are nowhere near controversial. But, it’s nice to see any movie that reminds Americans about the wars they chose to forget several years ago.

This is where Skynet came from.

This is where Skynet came from.

The Imitation Game (dir. Morten Tyldum)
Fills this year’s World War II Biography slot at the Oscars. Cumberbatch as Turing was the most obvious casting decision of the year. The movie played it safe for the most part, but did its job admirably.

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Strategic exoticism in Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki aka The Journey of the Hyena (1973) dir. Djibril Diop Mambéty


There’s a romantic attraction to the unfamiliar, and enjoying the exotic can be refreshing and provide new perspective. I imagine the Buddharūpa I encounter in films and museums could be seen as kitsch by people who grow up with them. Locals here in Northwest Arkansas dismiss Christ of the Ozarks as “Milk Carton Jesus,” but might a visitor from Tibet find a pilgrimage to Magnetic Mountain spiritually transcendent?

Bond leading the Mujaheddin.

Bond leading the Mujaheddin.

Exoticism is the normal way we’re taught to experience other cultures through film and television. This is true whether it’s an English family living along the Ganges in the 1951 film The River, or an English MI6 agent foiling corporate blackmail in Turkey, Japan or Brazil, or an English policeman solving crimes in Wales in S4C’s Hinterland.

Touki Bouki couple
This is how the Bonnie & Clyde couple at the center of Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 Touki Bouki experience Paris. They feel like they don’t fit in in Senegal, and make plans to illegally emigrate to France. A short excerpt from Josephine Baker’s song “Paris Paris” plays on the track whenever they make progress to their goal, the light, trite tone reminding us that Mory and Anta’s are two people who know Paris primarily from songs and movies.

Mambéty knows audiences outside Senegal with approach his movie from this same perspective – as will many people inside Senegal. So, he uses the symbols a romantic might see as “authentic” or “exotic,” and then puts them in context.

Two brief examples of what might be called “strategic exoticism:” The film opens with a young shirtless cattle herder riding a Zebu. The long, postcard-worthy shot cuts to a graphic scene of the cattle being slaughtered at a meat plant.

Touki Bouki - Zebu

Later in the film, Senegalese gather at a stadium to watch a traditional sport – which we learn is to raise money for a new monument to Charles de Gaulle.

Touki Bouki - Match

Mambéty uses other strategies as well to try and show us the complexity of contemporary Senegal. After the Zebu scene, Mambéty brings us to a small community where our protagonist lives. He gives us time to look, and listen. He shows us laundry hanging over wooden houses, a student in slacks and a shirt writing and drinking bottled water, a woman selling produce at a market, and a man delivering mail at a radio store. He hear an airplane fly by, a baby cry, a Muslim call to prayer, a siren sound, and a mother lecture her daughter over the man she is dating.

Touki Bouki

The camera enters the scene tracking the mailman, and the initial movement in the scene all follows his journey. The mailman is the one person in a society who sees everyone. Mambéty is teaching us from the outset that one viewpoint alone can’t tell the story of Senegal.

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Murnau’s Faust in 5 Frames

Faust (1926) dir. F.W. Murnau

Faust 01“”Faust,” with its supernatural vistas of heaven and hell, is particularly distinctive in the way it uses the whole canvas. Consider the startling early shot of Mephisto, his dark wings obscuring the sky as he hovers above a little village that huddles in the lower right corner.” – Roger Ebert

Faust 02Rembrandt’s etchings are brilliant studies of chiaroscuro, the dramatic interplay of light and darkness in a work of art. An etching is a symbolically-rich form for depicting Faust, the classic, oft-told story of the battle between good and evil for one man’s soul.” – Darren Hughes

Faust 05“.. the film is dominated by [Emil] Jannings’s charismatic Mephisto, made up like a character in the kabuki theatre.” – Philip French

Faust 04“Decades before the advent of digital effects, Murnau was pushing boundaries in terms of visual innovation that still impress and dazzle today. While they may no longer seem photo-realistic, his use of super-imposition, model work, camera movement and other visual storytelling techniques single out Faust as one of the great technical masterpieces of the silent era.” – James Marsh

Faust 03“The cosmos aligned itself through emotion for Murnau—it’s not a substitute for literature, it’s pure cinema.” – Fernando F. Croce

Faust is available to watch on YouTube.

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Funny Games in our minds

Funny Games (1997) dir. Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke’s 1997 Austrian film Funny Games (and the 2007 American shot-by-shot remake) is a horror that constantly asks viewers why they keep watching.

Funny GamesA family arrives at a lake house for a vacation. They chat with their neighbors, but each of the lake’s homes are far apart enough to leave each of them isolated. While they settle in, a stranger comes to the door. He is a young man named Peter, dressed in white and wearing white gloves, and he asks to borrow eggs from Anna, the family’s mother. His accomplice, Paul, soon joins him. Paul hits the father, Georg, with a golf club, crippling him.

Peter and Paul (who refer to each other as “Tom and Jerry” or “Beevis and Butthead”) spend the rest of the day psychologically and physically torturing the family, promising to kill them all.

The violence in Funny Games is a bit of a paradox. Although most of the worst violence is off-screen, it feels more horrifying and awful than most of the “torture porn” that has come out since.

“In general, things that are not shown and that the spectator needs to imagine with his own fantasy can be much stronger than the things that are actually shown,” Haneke told cine-fils magazine.

It is our imagination – and not the movie – that conjures up the most disturbing images.

Funny Games - Plausible PlotPaul breaks the third wall several times during the film. He winks at the camera, says they must keep the torture going because “we haven’t even reached feature-film length yet.” Late in the movie, he even puts it on pause, rewinds and starts again, in order to prevent his victims from escaping.

Funny Games - bloody televisionThis way, Haneke reminds us that everything “happening” in the movie is our fault. We’re the ones wanted to watch a horror movie. If we don’t want to see a family tortured to death, we can leave the theater or turn off the TV. And Haneke isn’t even showing us the real violence — that’s all in our minds.

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Your Changing Body – Videodrome and Marshall McLuhan

Videodrome (1983) dir. David Cronenberg
McLuhan stand-in Prof. Brian O'Blivion

McLuhan stand-in Prof. Brian O’Blivion

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome explores the disorienting ways that new media technology ruthlessly transforms not only our shared cultures, but also our very bodies and minds.

Videodrome relies of the theories expounded by 20th Century thinker Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan believed “the medium is the message.” The actual content of our media isn’t what changes us. Debates about violence in our movies or politics in our books largely miss the truly transformative power of media.

The demise of the Western as a Hollywood staple is a reflection of cultural memes and interesting to study. But it is trivial compared to the switch from scrolls to the printing press or from radio to television. These changes in medium transformed not just the way ideas are expressed, and not even only the ideas themselves, but the way we actually think and behave.

James Woods as Max Renn in Videodrome.

When I was young, my parents were convinced that too much television would “fry my brain.” However, they allowed me to watch as much PBS as I wanted. McLuhan would argue that Masterpiece Theatre on PBS programmed my life just as The Simpsons (which I wanted to watch) would have.

The lines at the bottom of this page of "The Medium is the Massage" area visual example of the way McLuhan believed the alphabet changed our thought.

The lines at the bottom of this page of “The Medium is the Massage” area visual example of the way McLuhan believed the alphabet changed our thought.

“In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs,” he wrote of the rise of automation.” (McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. 1964. New edition, Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 1994.  7-8.)

McLuhan gave examples of how media has changed thought over time, beginning with Socrates lamenting the invention of the alphabet:

“The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls,because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves… You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will not be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.”(McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. The Medium Is the Massage. 1967. Reprint, Madera, CA: Ginko Press, 2001. 113.)

In order to hammer home the importance of medium over content, McLuhan uses the example of the light bulb.

The lights at Wrigley Field, installed in 1988.

The lights at Wrigley Field, installed in 1988.

“The electric light is pure information. Is is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it us used to spell out some verbal ad or name…Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference.” (McLuhan, Understanding Media, 8-9.)

For the past ten years, Virginia Tech Professor Roger Ekrich has researched the West’s forgotten memory of a lightless night. He writes that Europeans and Americans used to wake in the middle of the night, and divide their time between a “first sleep” and a “second sleep.” This in between time would be used for study, prayer and sex. The rise of overnight lighting affected our mental and physical health, our sexual, social and spiritual lives, and changed the way we think and live.

This biological transformation of medium is one of the key elements of McLuhan’s work – and at the heart of Videodrome.

“All media are extentions of some human faculty – psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.” (McLuhan, et al., The Medium is the Massage, 26-41.)

In Videodrome, this idea is taken perhaps only a bit farther than McLuhan intended. The character Professor Brian O’Blivion is a stand-in for McLuhan, claiming “the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain.”

This becomes even more literal in the case of James Woods’s character, Max Renn. Renn views sadistic pornography called “Videodrome” through a scrambled satellite feed. This pornography acts as a rabbit hole to a world of conspiracies and hallucinations.

The conspiracies are impossible to follow and, if analogized as McLuhan’s idea of “content,” aren’t that meaningful. What is meaningful to Renn is that his body and mind are controlled by video and television.

videodrome vhs

James Woods as Max Renn in Videodrome.

He has become one with the media. Renn’s stomach and sex organs become a VCR. His hand becomes a gun – which is directed by whichever television program happens to be able to broadcast into him.

The idea of VHS tapes and television as an all-pervasive, world-controlling technology definitely dates the film. However, the zeerust adds an additional layer of interpretation for contemporary viewers.

McLuhan died in 1980, and Videodrome was made in 1983, just a little too early to experience the mass media revolution that began in the 1990s. Since then, we’ve seen a revolution every few years – personal computers, the internet, laptops, mobile phones, internet speeds fast enough for video, and smart phones.

There has also been an explosion of research inspired by McLuhan.Here are brief sample of the ways these new media – and not their content – have changed our biology:

woman binary“…most of us with access to the web spend at least a couple of hours a day online—and sometimes much more. During that time, we tend to repeat the same or similar actions over and over again. As we go through these motions, the net delivers a steady stream of inputs to our visual, somatosensory and auditory cortices. “The net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing people from thinking either deeply or creatively.” – The Difference Engine: Rewiring the brain – The internet is changing the way we think (The Economist, Aug. 6, 2010)

“But no matter how carefully Google attends to requests to modify our collective memory, the search engine may have already made its mark on the way individual memory functions… One could argue that this is an adaptive use of memory—to include the computer and online search engines as an external memory system that can be accessed at will.”- Scientific Proof that Google Is Destroying Your Memory (New Republic, June 3, 2014)

child holding smart phoneIt’s not the Angry Birds, streaming videos, emails from your boss, or your Facebook updates that disturb your sleep when you spend an evening staring at your smartphone or tablet… Cells at the back of your eyes pick up particular light wavelengths and, with a light-sensitive protein called melanopsin, signal the brain’s master clock, which controls the body’s circadian rhythms.” – How Your Smartphones Messes with Your Brain – and Your Sleep (Scientific American blog, May 20, 2014)

These are all once-in-many-generational changes that have happened all in just one generation. We went from telephones, television and the printing press to a world where nearly anyone can broadcast their thoughts, sights and sounds to the globe simply by moving her fingers around.

videodrome virtual realityMcLuhan’s 1960s optimism preached that the youth and the teenagers would adapt to the new media. If they simply understood what was happening, they could thrive. But Cornenberg expressed the change in media as body horror. Renn knows how the media works, but that doesn’t do him any good. His identity is constantly and bewilderingly stripped from him, rebuilt, and transformed at speed to which he never has a chance to catch his breath. His body and mind are raped, and he is weaponized against everyone and against himself. His experience of being thrust into the new age is closer to Kafka’s than to the hippie’s.

"The human capcity to adapt to change is being stretched to its limit by the rapid rate of technological change." - Robert Gerzon, Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety

“The human capcity to adapt to change is being stretched to its limit by the rapid rate of technological change.” – Robert Gerzon, Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety

Also read: Jakub Vémola’s thesis ‘Reflections of Marshall McLuhan’s Media Theory in the Cinematic Work of David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan


and read: Mitchell, W.J.T. “Addressing Media,” MediaTropes eJournal, 2008. 1-18. 

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The Southern Gothic Texas Chain Saw Massacre

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) dir. Tobe Hooper

Critics on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s place in the Southern Gothic tradition:

the-texas-chainsaw-massacre“The profane element of the film is the localization of the cataclysm precisely in the historical situation of the American Southwest in the late twentieth century. This is the same thing as Faulkner situating his novel in the midst of rural Mississippi in the earliest parts of the twentieth century. O’Connor sends Hazel Motes on his blasphemous journey in the wilds of a small town in post World War II Tennessee.” – Christopher Hoppe

“In other words, this banalization of the Gothic may be modern in horror cinema, but in the case of Texas (1974), it clearly follows the literary tradition of the Southern Gothic. The passage from day to night gives way to a more classical Gothic atmosphere…” – David Roche

texaschainsawmassacrehose1“The film suggests that we “discover” something about America as Sally and her friends stumble upon the cannibal household… We witness also the implications underneath the “deliberate regression” to early, primeval culture lauded by Romantic art and so much an attribute of American myth. Hooper’s apocalyptic landscape is Texas, not Wisconsin. It is a desert wasteland of dissolution where once vibrant myth is desiccated. The ideas and iconography of Cooper, Bret Harte, and Francis Parkman are now transmorgified into agribusiness yards of sick cattle, dilapidated gasoline stations and fast-food joints, defiled graveyards, crumbling mansions, and a ramshackle farmhouse full of psychotic killers.” – Christopher Sharrett
the texas chain saw massacre“Finally, the terrible house (whether in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” in Psycho… or here) signifies the dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation…” – Robin Wood

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Dr. Mabuse

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler aka Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) dir. Fritz Lang
Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse aka The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) dir. Fritz Lang

the cabinet of dr caligariIt is impossible to see any movie made during Weimar Republic Germany outside the lens of the rise of Nazism. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, released in 1920, has been famously interpreted as an allegory. In Caligari, a madman controls a sleepwalker’s every moves, just as Hitler was seen to have later controlled the German peoples’.

The next year, novelist Norbert Jacques drew on themes from Caligari and wrote Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Director Fritz Lang released his adaptation in 1922.

dr-mabuse-the-gamblerDr. Mabuse is a criminal mastermind, in the vein of Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes novels. But he has the mystically scientific power of mind control, which he uses to secretly control the German economy and society. His plots are the close cousin of other European conspiracy theories popular at the time.

At the end of the film, the doctor is captured. Driven mad from visions of the ghosts of his victims, he is taken to an asylum.

Although parallels between Caligari, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and the true psyche of 1920’s Germany is debated, the relation between Fritz Lang’s sequel and German politics is undeniable.

During the ten years after Gambler, Germany descended into political chaos. The country’s electoral system forced its centrist parties to negotiate with extremists on both the left and the right, who roamed the streets murdering opponents and – in the case of the Nazis – terrorizing as many Jews as possible. The Nazis won a plurality of seats in July 1932, just before Lang started filming The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

whatever mabuse writesWhen Testament opens, Dr. Mabuse is locked away in his cell, scribbling furiously. Hospital director Dr. Baum collects the notes, which give instructions on how to commit various crimes. Baum praises Mabuse’s genius mind to a class of students, unmistakably mimicking Nazi gestures.

Joker-billionaire-burning-moneyInspector Lohmann discovers that a secret gang of criminals is replicating Mabuse’s instructions to the letter. The gang is organized in a manner similar to the Nazi Party was. Some gang members wonder about their boss’s plans. Their crimes aren’t making any money. Instead, they seem designed to create fear and chaos. (Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight was inspired by Dr. Mabuse.)

After the war, Lang stated that he made Testament as an anti-Nazi allegory. “Thus I hoped to expose the masked Nazi theory of the necessity to deliberately destroy everything which is precious to people. Then, when everything collapsed and they were thrown into utter despair, they would try to find help in the “new order.”

Although Lang probably exaggerated some of his anti-Nazi activities, (he told stories of a midnight train ride out of Germany after Goebbels offered to put him in charge of the Nazi film program) critic Michael Walker examined the evidence in a 2011 journal article and found Lang’s claims about Testament credible.

dr mabuse cutoutWalker lists many parallels, so I’ll focus only on my favorite. One of the most visually arresting scenes of Testament exposes the Mabuse propaganda machine. When gang members are to receive instruction, they enter a room with a drawn curtain. Behind the curtain is the shadow of “the boss,” who issues orders. They never see the man behind the curtain.

One of the gang members and his girlfriend take a peek. They see a cardboard cutout and a speaker.

During the time of filming, in late 1932, Prussian authorities had banned Goebbels from public speaking. He got around the ban by having recordings of his speeches played instead. This concept of illusory authority – of obeying what seems like a power but is really a false front for insanity – is at the heart of Dr. Mabuse.

testament of dr mabuseTestament was scheduled for release on March 23, 1933 – the day newly-appointed Chancellor Hitler asked the Reichstag to vote him emergency powers in the Enabling Act. Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Goebbels first delayed, then canceled Testament’s premiere, as a threat to public health and safety.

The Nazis edited their own version for release, which added dialogue claiming Dr. Mabuse was Jewish. Lang left Germany for America later in 1933, and divorced his screenwriter and wife Thea von Harbou, who joined the Nazi Party.

Also read:
Des Testament des Dr. Mabuse by Michael Walker, 2011, in Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism
The Empire of Crime: Dr. Mabuse, the Original Supervillain by Christopher Saunders, 2014, for MoviePilot
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), by Tim Robey, 2013, for The Telegraph

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