If there’s one thing we can probably agree on, it’s the more murder, mystery, and mayhem in a film, the more we’ll like it. This year, eight films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and once again I’ve created a custom carnage count to score the winners – if there were any justice in the world. (For 2014’s Carnage Count, head here!) Each movie will be judged on its three categories on a scale from 1 to 10, which will then be added together to give a final ranking. Yes, I have seen all eight movies, and yes, these rankings are exclusively the byproduct of my opinion.
There will be some minor/obvious spoilers. You’ve been warned.
8) The Theory of Everything
Director: James Marsh; Main Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Harry Lloyd
The relationship between the famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane, following the diagnosis of a fatal illness at 21 years old.
Murder 1/10: Stephen Hawking attended Cambridge in the 1960s, which seemed to have a comfy, peaceful bubble surrounding it. Death might be a theme in this film, but it’s due to ALS, not murder.
Mystery 1/10: While Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of his body’s slow decaying is masterful (I do think he’ll win Best Actor), knowing that Stephen Hawking is alive today really takes an air out of the grim prognosis he receives early on.
Mayhem 1/10: This was a love story about two people from different backgrounds, proving that opposites do attract (at least temporarily). This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the film. I did. But there wasn’t much mayhem to be found. Unless a good game of croquet is your thing.
Quick Thoughts: This was my favorite of the period piece films in this grouping, thanks heavily to Eddie Redmayne’s performance, which was amazingly shot out of order, forcing him to portray different stages of the illness as filming proceeded.
Final Score: 3/30
Director: Richard Linklater; Main Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Filmed over 12 years with the same cast, this film tells the of growing up, as seen through the eyes of a child named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who literally grows up on screen before our eyes.
Murder 0/10: Boyhood tells the story of a child growing up into an adult, and while some kids inevitably grow up surrounded by murder, this was not the direction of the film. The slice-of-life nature of the film made Boyhood a pleasant movie, but we're not looking for pleasant here.
Mystery 2/10: Credit is due to Richard Linklater, as it’s pretty tough to propel a two-and-a-half-hour film forward without the need for heightened mystery. (He’ll win something big for Boyhood, but I’m not sure what. My guess is Best Director, but we’ll see.) Going into Boyhood, I was concerned it would be a film with an awesome and imaginative shtick, but an average and timeworn story. (Think Avatar, but replace the 12-years storyline with digital effects.) But the film rightly focused on Patricia Arquette, who deftly portrays a mom who can’t help but make poor decisions, despite her intentions being in the right place. Give her the Best Supporting Actress award now.
Mayhem 4/10: There isn’t one stand-out scene in Boyhood. Rather, there are a bunch of small ones, that when added together, contribute to a tiny bit of mayhem: abusive step-dads, sneaky drug and alcohol consumption, forced haircuts, and sexual discovery.
Quick Thoughts: I’m sure I’m not the only who watched the opening scene, where Mason’s sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) was embarrassingly singing Brittany Spears, and thought thank god my childhood wasn’t filmed and distributed to millions.
Final Score: 6/30
6) The Imitation Game
Director: Morten Tyldum; Main Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
During World War II, mathematician Alan Turing tries to crack the enigma code with help from fellow mathematicians.
Murder 1/10: For a movie set amidst the backdrop of World War II, the characters of The Imitation Game seemed awfully comfortable in their lab. While the off-screen Nazis were the villains our gang of gangly scientists were so feverishly attempting to thwart, it was actually Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance will always be Tywin to me!) who served as the vehicle for antagonism.
Mystery 3/10: The Imitation Game will inevitably face comparisons to The Theory of Everything, as they both feature young British scientists who succeed in changing the world despite society telling them they don’t belong. But whereas Stephen Hawking is alive and still appearing on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Alan Turing is tragically long dead. The last half hour of The Imitation Game saved what I otherwise found to be a rather dull film, and the way we see the rapid deterioration of Turing glows in irony when compared to Hawking and his refusal to give in. There is no doubt that both men are heroes; it’s a shame we’ll never know what other mysteries Alan Turing could have solved.
Mayhem 3/10: Hindsight is always 20/20, so it’s easy for us to fume with rage at Tywin Lannister when he literally pulls the plug on Turing’s computer prototype. But that pales in comparison to the wrath we feel when we see Turing’s state of mind after the war. However, despite the incompetency displayed by those in charge, there simply isn’t that much chaos. Had we left Matthew Goode in the bar for a few more hours, however, and that might be a very different story.
Quick Thoughts: This will probably be blasphemous, especially on our Sherlock-loving site, and maybe I watched this too closely after The Theory of Everything, but I didn’t love this film, and I don’t get Keira Knightley’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress (Carrie Coon in Gone Girl was better in my opinion.)
Final Score: 7/10
Director: Ava DuVernay; Main Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth
A chronicle of Martin Luther King's campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
Murder 7/10: Before we’d even gotten deep enough into our popcorn to get to the unbuttered pieces, a group of schoolgirls are killed, establishing the tone of impending death and destruction that follows Selma to the very end.
Mystery 1/10: With Selma, this concludes our trip to Historical Biopic Hollywood. We hope you enjoyed your visit. Just like its similarly-themed pals The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, Selma goes about portraying the life and hardships of a man well-known to its viewers. While I appreciate a good biopic, I’m most excited by films that build towards uncertain endings – something biopics are usually incapable of doing. And Selma is no different.
Mayhem 7/10: The Civil Right Movement was densely stippled with acts of unjust and ignorant violence and chaos, so it should be no surprise that a fair amount of that finds its way into Selma. The scenes where protestors are met with resistance from police are enough to make anyone queasy.
Quick Thoughts: It’s pretty amazing to see Oprah Winfrey nominated here as a producer, 29 years after being nominated for her performance in The Color Purple. Talk about bookending your career.
Final Score: 15/30
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu; Main Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone
A washed up actor, who once played an iconic superhero, battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself in the days leading up to the opening of a Broadway play.
Murder 2/10: I loved Birdman. (Not as much as Hollywood loves Birdman, because Hollywood has a perennial hard-on for movies about making movies.) But it never crossed my mind that Birdman would be a film where a gruesome on-screen death could occur. But then it almost very well did. I award two points for coming close, but there could have been so much more.
Mystery 7/10: This is the first film on the list where we’re not sure if the protagonist will succeed, so its mystery score is high. We’re rooting for Michael Keaton’s Riggan to succeed. He’s a man who’s pushed all of his chips into the middle of the table, despite the fact that the hand he’s working with may not be the best. And like anyone who’s played poker, you won’t know who wins until the very end.
Mayhem 7/10: You can almost singlehandedly attribute these points to Edward Norton and his portrayal of Mike, a classically-trained method actor who expects Riggan to bend and kiss his feet for agreeing to grace the stage with his presence. Mike is absurd, whether he’s insisting his on-stage sex scene contain real intercourse, his on-stage alcohol be real, or propositioning Riggan’s daughter, Edward Norton cranks up the volume in Birdman. And having Michael Keaton run through Times Square in his tighty-whities doesn't hurt Birdman's score here either.
Quick Thoughts: The directing in this film was outstanding, and if Richard Linklater hadn’t devoted 12 years to filming Boyhood, I would say Alejandro González Iñárritu has the Best Director award locked up, but I’m not sure. Either way, I couldn’t stop grinning every time Birdman took a clue from its name and floated from scene to scene without cutting.
Final Score: 16/30
Director: Damien Chazelle; Main Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student's potential.
Murder 1/10: Every time a character in a movie is driving a car and the camera is shooting directly from the side point-of-view, I expect a crushing accident to occur. Whiplash did nothing to change my expectations. Ouch.
Mystery 7/10: Just like Birdman, the protagonist in Whiplash is working towards a future despite the difficult path that lies ahead. We don’t know if Miles Teller’s Nieman will succeed at fulfilling his potential. Just like we don’t know when Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) will kill somebody by shoving a drumstick down a throat.
Mayhem 9/10: J.K. Simmons seems all but guaranteed to exit the Dolby Theatre next week with the new title of Academy Award Winner, and it will be much deserved. Simmons’ ability to perfectly mix aggression, disappointment, approval, and ferociousness took this film to high places. (I also believe Miles Teller should have been nominated. Sigh) With just three words, Simmons changed the tone multiple times. Not my tempo.
Quick Thoughts: For some reason, the Academy seems permanently against nominating young male actors. Timothy Hutton, at 20, is the youngest actor to win an acting award – Best Supporting Actor for Ordinary People (1980). Adrien Brody is the youngest Best Actor recipient, at age 29 for The Pianist. In scrolling back through the past 20 years of Best Actor nominations, not one candidate was under the age of 25, which is absurd considering in 2012, a nine-year-old, Quvenzhané Wallis, was nominated, and a 22-year-old, Jennifer Lawrence won. Miles Teller, you deserved better.
Final Score: 17/30
2) The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Wes Anderson; Main Cast: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Tony Revolori
The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka between the first and second World Wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.
Murder 8/10: Don’t let the patented Wes Anderson Color Palette fool you, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film focused on murder, and multiple occur on screen. While it’s not gritty noir, Anderson’s directing lets humor and suspense build in unison, and the result is quite enjoyable.
Mystery 5/10: Like most of Wes Anderson’s films, The Grand Budapest Hotel jumps around a lot, from the hotel to a jail and everywhere in between. Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave is a quick-talking, attention-seeking playboy with a malicious infatuation with elderly women and smug attitude, yet we’re left rooting for him to get away from the hilariously-evil Dmitri (Adrien Brody).
Mayhem 7/10: The snow-powered, high-speed sled chase says it all; even James Bond would be jealous.
Quick Thoughts: As my friends will attest, I have never been a fan of Wes Anderson’s films. I prefer my films grounded in reality, and I find his symmetrical, ultra-stylized directing more of a distraction than anything. But I respect the heck out of him for standing out in an industry that rewards blending in. His insistence at sticking with miniatures when it would be so easy to go digital is just one example. Despite not being a general fan, I did enjoy The Grand Budapest Hotel. Moonrise Kingdom on the other hand…
Final Score: 20/30
1) American Sniper
Director: Clint Eastwood; Main Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Jake McDorman
Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle's pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home with his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he can't leave behind.
Murder 10/10: Whether you deem sanctioned, war-time killing to be murder or not, death ran rampant in Clint Eastwood’s heavy-handed display of patriotism in his adaptation of Chris Kyle’s controversial memoir. I’m not here to discuss anything more than what happened on screen, and what happened was numerous deaths and countless destruction.
Mystery 4/10: The tragic end to the Chris Kyle story is still so fresh in our minds that the mystery of what would ultimately happen is unfortunately erased. When the final scene ends, with sudden words of Kyle’s death, movie theaters around the country fell silent.
Mayhem 8/10: Despite knowing that Chris Kyle makes it out of duty alive and safely, the final evacuation scene as the dust envelops the SEALs was tense. Paired with the equally nerve-wracking dinner scene where Kyle finds a floor filled with heavy weaponry, American Sniper was certainly filled with mayhem.
Quick Thoughts: I just couldn’t get behind the Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), the antagonistic sniper who was the foil to Kyle. Besides looking like a last-minute Captain Jack Sparrow on Halloween night, Mustafa’s lame parkouring around rooftops took me out of the film and back to The Office. That’s not a good thing if you’re a Best Picture contender.
Final Score: 22/30
So that’s it, folks. American Sniper joins 2014 winner 12 Years a Slave at the top of the carnage podium. It just had too much murder, mystery, and mayhem for any other film to keep up with it. Things could have played out differently though, had some of the other Best Picture hopefuls received nominations. Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, and Unbroken all could have contended for the top spot. But we'll never know…
Do you think I’ve missed anything? Did I forget a particular murderous or mysterious scene? Would you have ranked them any differently? Let me know in the comments!
Joe Brosnan is an editor and writer for Criminal Element. He’s a New York Giants fan, a Petyr Baelish supporter, and is only now realizing how weird it is to write in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @joebro33.
Read all of Joe Brosnan’s posts for Criminal Element.