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Daily Dose: Reviews of 4 of the Best Picture Nominees

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared online and in print on the Times-Herald.

Eight films make up this year’s nominations for Academy Award Best Picture. This week, let’s consider four of the nominees.

American Sniper

Recent headlines have maligned this ham-fisted memoir from filmmaking elder statesman Clint Eastwood. Those that criticize “American Sniper” have likely not seen the film or read into the narrative their own prejudices. But like “Selma,” “Sniper” is a methodical, even mundane, telling of a man and his exploits. The comparisons between the two films are striking. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated non-violent civil disobedience, whereas Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was authorized to use deadly force on behalf of his nation. Both approaches could be justified. And both films are among the best of the year.

Navy SEAL Chris Kyle allegedly had 160 confirmed kills out of 255 probable ones. He is known as “America’s Deadliest Sniper.”

“American Sniper” is told chronologically from Kyle’s origin in Texas, to his enlistment, his marriage, and, of course, his four tours in Iraq. His life is not romanticized, rather, we get the good and the bad, the mundane and the legendary. A hero, to be sure, he is not depicted as a braggart or a flamboyant showboat. And we are given a detailed appreciation of his deadly sniper craft, which painstakingly makes us feel both the excitement and the emotional toll.

Like last year’s rough and realistic “Lone Survivor” and the Oscar winning 2008 film “The Hurt Locker,” “American Sniper” is another mature and memorable ode to modern warfare. It is a profile of an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. The story also reminds us of the emotional scars our soldiers carry long after the piercing sounds of rifle fire have faded into dull echo.

Selma

The best film that few people have actually seen, “Selma” was barely screened for critics’ groups and the distributor, Paramount, has been roundly criticized for not sending out screening copies for consideration. Don’t let the lack of faith the distributor showed early on to dissuade you from taking in this significant film.

David Oyelowo (who was also in “Interstellar”) plays Martin Luther King as he plans and shapes the iconic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. While certainly a positive and reverent depiction of King and other Civil Rights leaders, the film does not shy away from controversial elements of King’s character. Oyelowo delivers a measured performance equal parts powerful orator and everyman–at one point, he is actually taking out the garbage. Stephan James is a standout as the young John Lewis, who is one of the heroes of the march. Lewis’ contributions to King’s process underscore the thoughtful brilliance of those orchestrating the movement. And a scene in which President Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) faces off with segregationist Governor George Wallace (played by Tim Roth) is very revealing. What some may dismiss as a preachy history lesson deviating from the truth in some respects, I found to be an extremely moving and important film.

Whiplash

Just how is greatness realized? Andrew (Miles Teller) endures a crucible of pain and torture as he drums his way to jazz excellence in the most unlikely of Oscar nominated films. “Whiplash” is a stunning movie that works as much as a musical thriller as it does a coming-of-age drama.

J. K. Simmons is likely to garner the golden statue for Best Supporting Actor with his portrayal of a music teacher crossed with a drill instructor. The story has Andrew under the tutelage of Fletcher, a brutal instructor who lives by certain mottos, one of which is there are no words worse in the English language than “good job.” Fletcher explains that only through great pain and struggle will greatness rise. And to that end, he puts the young Andrew through the fire with the idea that those that quit were never meant to be great. This small film starts well and ends with one of the finest sequences of any film this year. It is a dizzying and dazzling display of drumming that will make you think again about the complexity of jazz.

The Imitation Game

The controversy surrounding “American Sniper” could also be applied to “The Imitation Game” in that the characters have to make cold and calculating life and death choices in a time of war. At one point, that choice involves sacrificing the few in hopes it will help the many.

“The Imitation Game” follows gifted mathematician Alan Turing (an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch) building one of the first computers that was used to translate messages intercepted from Germany. This enabled England to conduct an information war and to thwart enemy moves. While it is unlikely to be the winner of Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, the film is a fascinating and intellectual spy thriller.