The 2014 awards season will kick off this week as the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review name their choices for the best films and performances of the year. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is a film that’s been in the Oscar race since 2013; it was originally slated to come out last fall but was pushed back, presumably because last year’s competition was looking too stiff. I’m not sure that its odds will be any better this year. It’s a very good film, and the only feature by director Bennett Miller (of Capote and Moneyball) that I’ve liked; but will Academy voters go for something this grim, quiet, and cold? This has to be one of the darkest Best Picture contenders of this decade. Based on a true story, it dramatizes the attempts of eccentric billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) to lead a group of wrestlers, led by brothers Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), to victory at the 1988 Olympic Games. But this is no upbeat, inspirational sports movie: du Pont is a mouth-breathing control freak with mommy issues, Mark doesn’t bring home the gold, and the tensions between the three men eventually culminate in violence.
“Some of the documentaries I see, they’re too simpleminded. They treat the audience like idiots. And as a result they’re very condescending. Or they’re trying to sell a political point of view or a particular ideology, which isn’t very interesting because it ignores the actual complexity of the subject matter.” – Frederick Wiseman
The greatness of Frederick Wiseman—our greatest living documentary filmmaker, rivaled only perhaps by Errol Morris or Werner Herzog—has to do with his willingness to problematize his subjects. His films, which typically question institutions and systems of power, tend to appeal to leftists and academics, but they’re not left-wing propaganda pictures. You won’t find Wiseman using his films to beat any drums or wave any flags. At their best moments, they reveal the complexity of factors (economic, logistical, emotional, ideological) that make commonplace places and things run. The films, many of which are over three hours (1989’s Near Death is six), work by accretion, as Wiseman slowly piles one moment on top of another. He makes films the way that birds or wasps make nests. We need him now more than ever in the age of Netflix, the “Documentary” category of which consists of mostly screeds and puff pieces running an average of seventy-five minutes.
Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure is a tense, prickly comedy of manners in the key of Haneke. Set at a winter resort in the French Alps, it concerns a well-to-do Swedish family (husband, wife, pre-adolescent daughter and son) who have come for a five-day ski vacation. The simmering tensions within the family threaten to explode after they witness an avalanche that very nearly engulfs them in the middle of lunch at an open-air restaurant. Just as a tidal wave of snow appears to be headed straight for the family, the husband bolts, leaving his wife and kids behind to fend for themselves. It’s a split-second decision that he will come to regret: even though his family survives physically unscathed, their faith in him as a protective husband and parent has been shaken. The avalanche comes to act as an objective correlative for the way in which a single moment of blind panic can set off a destabilizing chain reaction within a family.
It’s impossible to talk about Whiplash without talking about J. K. Simmons’ maniacal performance as Terence Fletcher, for which he may well win an Oscar this March. That’s a scenario with which I’d be fine, because Simmons is the real deal; he’s not a lazy actor baiting the Academy with histrionics. The role is admittedly showy and flamboyant, but Simmons interprets it with tautness and intelligence. He’s so good as Fletcher, a music professor who conducts the jazz band at a prestigious New York City conservatory with a tyrannical zeal, that audience members are likely to find themselves as terrified of him as his students are.
Contrary to what the promotional materials would have you believe, the star of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s new film Birdman isn’t Michael Keaton. It’s true that Keaton is onscreen for roughly ninety percent of the film, and it’s also true that he turns in a terrific performance—perhaps the best performance of a career spent mostly in the shadow of his star turn as the title role in Tim Burton’s Batman films. By casting Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a once-hot star of big-budget action movies, now middle-aged, paunchy, discontented, and trying to prove to himself and the world that he can be a serious actor by mounting a ham-fisted stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Birdman plays (sometimes cleverly, sometimes obviously) on the absurdity and fickleness of celebrity and the ages-old feud between Hollywood and Broadway. If the film (co-scripted by a team of four screenwriters—hardly ever a good sign) is never quite as sharp or perceptive as it tries to be, it’s buoyed up by Keaton’s performance, which is loose and funny and has a little bit of the manic, loose-cannon quality that he brought to memorable early roles like Beetlejuice. His Riggan Thompson is tired, desperate, and may be losing his mind; he’s hen-pecked by the nagging voice of his superhero persona, Birdman, and he appears to believe that he possesses telekinetic powers, which he unleashes in fits of destructive rage. In the quieter, more subtly drawn moments of the film, Riggan tries to forge emotional connections with his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and estranged daughter (Emma Stone), and Keaton is given the opportunity to sound more dramatic notes, which he does effortlessly.