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February in Movies: Your Oscars Cheat Sheet

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February In Movies

It’s time for the gowns, the speeches, the snubs and the bets.

It’s Oscar time.

Let’s say up front that, yes, the Oscars are problematic. The Academy’s voting base is largely white and largely male…not to mention, largely, well, mature. So the movies they vote for tend to be focused on white, male and mature creators and characters. It’s a shame, and Academy leaders have said they are trying to expand their voting demographics. Until they do, we are looking at a Best Picture slate that is 8/10s directed by white men and 9/10s about white men. For a slightly more diverse awards slate, take a look at The Spirit Awards nominees (for independent films).

All that said, the Oscars are still a cultural touchpoint and, let’s admit, super fun to watch in a big group of movie lovers. Here’s your Oscars cheat sheet, so you can jump into Academy Awards conversations—and arguments—with the best of ’em.

American Sniper

Bradley Cooper and Kyle Gallner in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture – © (c) 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC-U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda (c)

American Sniper

Who: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Jason Hall and based on Chris Kyle’s autobiography. Starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.

What: A decorated navy SEAL serves four terms in Iraq, then deals with the trauma of readjustment at home, too.

Critics Say: 72 Metascore, 83% on Rotten Tomatoes (top critics).

“Eastwood, who remains a prolific, ambitious filmmaker at the age of 84, explores the deep psychological impact violence has on people who are constantly exposed to it, a recurring theme in his body of work, particularly in his westerns (Unforgiven) and war pictures (Letters from Iwo Jima). The movie neither celebrates nor condones: Instead, it bears impartial witness to the nature of war and its consequences without any bursts of rah-rah patriotism.” – Rene Rodriguez at the Miami Herald 

Guaranteed conversation starters:

  • What’s the most difficult life transition you’ve made? Have you ever felt like you’ve been living two completely different realities?
  • Under what conditions would you (or would you not) kill another human being?
  • Clint Eastwood is known for his quick, no-nonsense directing style with minimal takes and quick shoots. What kind of director would you be? Fast, slow, in between?
Michael Keaton in Alejandro Iñárritu's Birdman © 2014 - Fox Searchlight

Michael Keaton in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman © 2014 – Fox Searchlight


Who: Directed by Alejandro Iñárritu. Written by Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo. Starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifanakis, Naomi Watts,  Amy Ryan and more.

What: An aging superhero-movie star tries to reboot his career—and his life—by staging a Raymond Carter story on Broadway.

Critics Say: 88 Metascore, 94% on Rotten Tomatoes (top critics).

“With grandeur, giddiness and a humanistic nod toward transcendence, ‘Birdman’ vividly evokes a time of equal parts possibility and terrifying uncertainty, and makes a persuasive case that, when the ground is shifting beneath your feet, the best thing to do is to take flight.” – Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post 

Guaranteed conversation starters:

  • Birdman was contructed to appear like one long take. During the movie, did you start trying to guess where the filmmakers were cutting the scenes? Or were you completely engrossed in the story?
  • You need a comeback. What story do you choose to re-launch your stardom?
  • Is there anything that you’re known for that has become a burden to you (like Riggan’s fame for playing Birdman)?
Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater's Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood


Who: Written and directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Lorelei Linklater.

What: The life of an American boy and his (complicated) family, from age 5 to 18. Boyhood was shot over twelve years, so the cast grew up along with the story.

Critics Say: 100 Metascore, 100% Rotten Tomatoes, top critics.

“Few filmmakers ever make a great movie. Fewer still ever make a movie that expands what movies can express. Richard Linklater does both with Boyhood…If great art consists of finding an ideal balance between planning and improvisation, Boyhood is one of the cinema’s glorious examples.” – Mike LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

What I said.

Guaranteed Conversation Starters: 

  • What is the longest work-related endeavor you’ve ever completed? Can you beat 12 years (the time it took to create this film)?
  • Boyhood centers on everyday events that are also particularly meaningful in the main character’s life. Do you have any “ordinary” memories that are extraordinary to you?
  • What were you really interested in at 5? At 10? At 18?
Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan and Tony Revolori in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel. Photo by Bob Yeoman - © 2014 - Fox Searchlight Pictures

Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan and Tony Revolori in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Photo by Bob Yeoman – © 2014 – Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Who: Written and directed by Wes Anderson. Story by Anderson and Hugo Guinness. Inspired by the writings of StefanA  Zweig. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoise Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, etc., etc., etc.

What: A story within a story within a story, The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the tale of Gustave, the early 20th-century hotel’s infamous(ly talented) concierge and his loyal lobby boy.

Critics Say: 88 Metascore, 87% Rotten Tomatoes (top critics)

“It’s all wonderfully silly, in a very Anderson-ish way: Every frame is carefully composed like the illustrations from a beloved book (characters are precisely centered; costumes are elaborately literal); the dialogue feels both unexpected and happily familiar.” – Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times

Guaranteed Conversation Starters:

  • What’s your favorite Wes Anderson film and why?
  • Do you prefer highly stylized films like Anderson’s or more naturalistic films?
  • You can live at one hotel in world. Which do you chose?
Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch and Allen Leech in Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game. © 2014 - StudioCanal

Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch and Allen Leech in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. © 2014 – StudioCanal

The Imitation Game

Who: Directed by Morten Tyldum. Written by Graham Moore, based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode.

What: The film tells the true story of how (complex, secretive, socially inept) mathematician Alan Turing led the talented team who deciphered the German’s Enigma code during World War II. It also tells the parallel story of how Turing was accused of “acts of indecency,” and the effect of those charges on his later life.

Critics Say:  73 Metascore, 87% Rotten Tomatoes (top critics)

“It’s a good story, a sad story, a story of triumph and prejudice and terrible hypocrisy. And Cumberbatch aces it all – another smartly realized but deeply soulful performance from an actor who seemingly can do no wrong.” – Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Guaranteed Conversation Starters:

  • If you could bring one historical figure to life in a film, who would you chose?
  • The film posits that what makes you different is what makes you special—even necessary—to the rest of the world. What makes you different?
  • Have you ever felt pressure to conform when you knew that your way of doing something, or your way of being, was necessary?
Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo, André Holland and Stephan James in Ava DuVernay's Selma. Photo by Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima - © 2014 Paramount Pictures.

Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo, André Holland and Stephan James in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Photo by Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima – © 2014 Paramount Pictures.


Who: Directed by Ava DuVernay. Written by Paul Webb. Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Common, Tim Roth, and more.

What: Selma follows Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery that led to the signing of The Voting Rights Act of 1965. Selma is the only Best Picture candidate directed by a woman, the only candidate directed by an African American, and the only candidate about a non-white main character.

Critics Say:  89 Metascore, 100% Rotten Tomatoes (top critics)

“One of the many subtle feats of director Ava DuVernay’s film comes in delivering Martin Luther King Jr. as game-changing leader, as doubting human. David Oyelowo brings exquisitely modulated force to his performance…DuVernay has made a film that is less about easy catharsis or reignited fury than it is a drama that speaks of the vision, strategic discipline, and political wrangling required to maintain and grow democracy.” – Lisa Kennedy, The Denver Post

Guaranteed Conversation Starters:

  • How were you taught about Martin Luther King, Jr., in school? Or, if you where alive then, what do you remember about the 1965 march and the civil rights movement?
  • Have you ever taken place in an act of civil disobedience?
  • What issue today calls for a march and/or a movement? Would you participate?
Eddie Redmayne in James Marsh's The Theory of Everything. Photo by Liam Daniel - © 2014 - Universal Pictures International

Eddie Redmayne in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything. Photo by Liam Daniel – © 2014 – Universal Pictures International

The Theory of Everything

Who: Directed by James Marsh. Written by Anthony McCarten, based on the book Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking. Starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

What: The film tells the love story partly responsible for our understanding of the universe today—the one between famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane Wilde, which began when both studied at Cambridge in the 1960s.

Critics Say:  72 Metascore, 80% Rotten Tomatoes (top critics)

“More than a portrait of Hawking the scientist, this is a frank dissection of his long and complicated first marriage (to Jane Wilde, on whose memoir the film is based). And what is the idea of romantic companionate marriage, in all its crackpot ’till death us do part’ absolutism, if not a theory of everything?” – Dana Stevens, Slate 

Guaranteed Conversation Starters:

  • In your relationships, are you more often the genius or the muse? Which would you rather be?
  • Whose love has made the biggest difference in your intellectual life? In your life in general?
  • How would you describe an ideal marriage? Is it possible to achieve?
Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. Photo by Daniel McFadden – © Courtesy of Sundance Institute


Who: Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.

What: A talented drummer dreams of being great; his conservatory instructor dreams of launching the next great drummer. Their dreams compound and conflict in this drama-thriller.

Critics Say:  88 Metascore, 94% Rotten Tomatoes (top critics)

Whiplash is true to its title. It throws you around with impunity, yet Chazelle exerts tight, exacting control over his increasingly feverish and often weirdly comic melodrama…The movie hums with provocations and its own youthful yet maturely realized vision of artistic torment and release, and it’s a 2014 highlight.” – Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune

What I said.

Guaranteed Conversation Starters:

  • You can be great in one thing, and one thing only. What do you choose?
  • What will you sacrifice for greatness? What won’t you?
  • Who is your most memorable teacher? Why?

2015 Oscars Cheat Sheet -- fun facts and conversation starters for the Academy Awards |

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Sarah Magill

Sarah Magill has a full-time movie habit made possible by a day-time greeting card writing gig. She blogs at Gimme Some Film and is learning to write scripts and direct. She tries to balance her screen obsession with trail running, jazz singing, book clubbing, and hanging out with The Best Golden Retriever Ever, Copa.

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One comment on “February in Movies: Your Oscars Cheat Sheet”

  1. I’m gonna go ahead and say it……… Birdman is going home with best picture1