In the frenzy of Oscar season, now is the prime time to spend in the theater before the February drought. All of the “prestige” pictures have been trotted out for consideration. But which films are the bores and which are worth your $13? Well, fortunately for you, I have spent some time in the weeds and was benevolent enough to create a late-January guide to the box office.
This Oscar season has been packed with bio pics and right now you can catch “The Imitation Game,” “Big Eyes,” “American Sniper,” and “Selma” in the theaters. I haven’t seen “American Sniper” yet; Bradley Cooper stars and Clint Eastwood directs so I’m sure it’s good, but it seems like a pretty depressing flick.
A perfect fit for MLK Day, “Selma” tells a story on par with Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” This is a tale filled with strum und drang and political double dealing all in interest of advancing civil rights. It is a fascinating tale and a vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. you are not likely familiar with. David Oyelowo turns in a masterful performance as a conflicted and emotionally harassed MLK. An absolute Oscar worthy performance.
Next up, Benedict Cumberbatch takes on Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.” Cumberbatch is believably robotic and socially ill fit as the genius Turing. The film focuses more so on his Vulcan-esque intellect and discomfort with his sexuality than highlighting his achievements, Cumberbatch’s performance in “The Imitation Game” is uncomfortable but fascinating to watch. In a world where we still struggle for LBGT civil rights, “The Imitation Game” put into perspective how far we’ve come and how far we still have to travel.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the bunch is “Big Eyes.” A return to the “Ed Wood” (and unarguably the best) era for director Tim Burton, “Big Eyes” is a bio pic that delves into the endearingly zany artistic niche of the Keanes. Christoph Waltz dominates the film as the charismatic yet indomitable cad, Walter Keane. The story has an unmistakable “forget the critics, the fans know what they want” attitude, which only seems appropriate for Burton. But the tone and form for which he makes this statement creates hope that Burton can still deliver.
It’s not often that we are granted a musical. A bygone relic of the “talkie” age, the musical doesn’t hold the same wonder or prestige as it once did and neither of these films are Oscar contenders. But if you are in the mood for some carefree song and dance, there is really only one option…
Let’s cut to the chase. No matter how much you want “Into the Woods” to be good, it is not. Less a film than “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” and certainly less so than Terry Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm,” “Into the Woods” is a hot mess. Despite the star power of Meryl Streep as a wicked witch and Johnny Depp as a big bad wolf (a character that is introduced and summarily killed off in roughly 10-minutes time) the movie is stiff and contrived. There are no musical numbers that your kids will be humming ad nauseam like “Frozen.” Instead you will find a series of fairy tales shoe-horned into a forgettable and irritating film that prominently features lyrics like, “The woods are just trees, the trees are just wood, no need to be afraid there.” This is a movie that does not need to exist.
Still in a few theaters, the battle tested “Annie” still holds up. With an ethnic, modern spin that pokes fun of itself, Jamie Foxx’s workmanship and Quvezhane Wallis’ charisma alone make this a film worth checking out. This is a film too saccharine and “on the nose” for any real award consideration. But if you happen to be in the mood for catchy Broadway tunes and loveable characters, “Annie” isn’t a bad way to spend the afternoon.
Unfortunately, there are not many rewarding films out for the kids right now. The new Hobbit movie is a self-aggrandized and overly padded fight scene that may appeal to the younger fans, but will leave their nerdy parents shaking their fists. The new ‘not-Pixar’ Disney film “Big Hero Six” is every bit as loveable as its predecessor, “Wreck-It Ralph,” but every bit as hollow. Your best bet, if you can find it playing, is Studio Ghibli’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” (a film far superior to the lackluster “The Boxtrolls”).
If you’re looking for something to make you look smart at parties, there are really two “must see” films of the season (well three honestly, but I have yet to see “Force Majeure” yet so I can’t vouch for it, but I’m sure it is great).
Based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, “Inherent Vice” is every bit the spiritual successor to “The Big Lebowski.” In perhaps what is Pynchon’s most accessible novel, Joaquin Phoenix plays The Dude-ish “Doc,” a stoner private eye on the cusp of the 70s. The film takes one noir turn after another as an all-star cast of Martin Short, Josh Brolin, Maya Rudolph, Owen Wilson and songstress Joanna Newsom complicate the plot of a real estate deal gone sour. Famed director P.T. Anderson revels in the quirks and absurdities of his characters. This is a departure from, but worthy successor to the stuffier pretensions of films like “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master.” Absolutely must see.
“Whiplash” might just be my favorite film of the Oscar year (next to “The Babadook”). In a “not-horror” tale of a music teacher pushing a student beyond the bounds of greatness, “Whiplash” is a cringe-worthy tale that explores the moral limits of utilitarianism. There is really no other film out there that remotely comes close to “Whiplash.” This is a film that demands every second of your attention. “Birdman,” “Selma,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Boyhood” are all phenomenal films worthy of Oscar praise, but “Boyhood” is the only film that can truly rival “Whiplash.”
If you just want to stay in and watch movies in your pjs, there are plenty of movies on VOD worth your time. Taking over 12 years to shoot, “Boyhood” is a monument to filmmaking and a heartbreaker for any parent dealing with empty nest syndrome. “Birdman” is a psychedelic masterpiece and Michael Keaton deserves an Oscar nod for his amazing performance. “Gone Girl” is faithful to the source material and is a perfect display of director David Fincher’s ability to disseminate a dense plot. Finely acted, this is a perfect substitute for those too lazy to read the book. “Nightcrawler” is an amazing, but highly unnerving movie that flew under the radars of most, but it is definitely worth seeking out. Like Russian nesting dolls, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a storybook within a storybook and a comedically rewarding tale of grace under fire. “The Babadook” is a soul crushing horror tale of a single parent battling a children’s book boogeyman and a reality that she is unable to face. It is without a doubt the best horror film of the year and criminally overlooked for the Academy Awards.
This is prime cinematic cherry-picking season. So whether you decide to stay cozy indoors, or experience an Oscar-worthy performance on the silver screen, now is your time.