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Michael Keaton in the lead role in ‘Birdman’
Michael Keaton in the lead role in ‘Birdman’

Oscar Watch: Birdman vs Sniper

Will existential humour and whimsy win over a typically American moral lens on war?

There is no technological dazzle in the eight films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. There is, instead, comic brio and whimsicality; actors negotiating inner impulses rather than production scale. Eddie Redmayne dared to do a Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything, and Benedict Cumberbatch immersed himself in the extraordinary life of scientist Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

The odd one out is Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Bradley Cooper’s sincere projection of a Texan Navy SEAL gunslinger, a soldier of soldiers, conditioned to the mental clarity that fighting a war against an undefined Iraqi enemy—constantly called merely “Al Qaeda" in the film—is the highest virtue.

So the contest between films like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Eastwood’s American Sniper will test the Academy yet again: Will it give in to the propensity to award films that celebrate American military valour or reward irreverent comic brio? The Academy has previously awarded The Hurt Locker over Avatar; and Argo over Django Unchained.

Birdman is about an ageing actor who was once the eponymous superhero on screen and is taking a stab at acting glory in theatre. A belligerently artsy actor played by Edward Norton seems to mar his prospects, and a troubled daughter invested in his life aggravates his misery. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lebezki shoots it with Godardian breathlessness, in what seems like a film done in one long take, with jazz drums punctuating the action. Michael Keaton, in the lead role, plays a character that seems to be based on himself. It wasn’t exactly fortuitous for the former Batman actor to decline the third Batman film in the mid-1990s. The choice of the actor, then, adds comic edge as well as poignancy to the film—and there was an Oscar buzz about Keaton as soon as the film released.

Anderson’s wacky period piece about a hotel long past its prime, and what it does to its inmates, is as deserving of the top prize, and so is Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, about a young musician’s ordeals in a jazz conservatory.

American Sniper really should not stand a chance.

The nominations for Best Film are:

u Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

u Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

u American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood

u The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson

u The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum

u Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay

u The Theory Of Everything, directed by James Marsh

u Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle

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