IF YOU ASK ME: Lots of movies to see before Oscars

An embarrassment of movie riches await viewers this time of year as we who cover the scene scramble to make our annual “ten best films” list. It’s always a little slower compiling that list in Connecticut, however, due to the late release times here of such acclaimed films as “American Sniper,” “Still Alice” and “Selma” among other high-prestige titles that won’t see this area until mid-January or so. Still, there is movie news to report.

If you’re keeping track, the two front-runners in the Oscar race appear to be “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s astute masterpiece about a typical American family over a 12-year period and “Birdman,” director Alejandro B. Inarritu’s audacious chronicle about a has-been actor (Michael Keaton in the comeback role of the year) who decides to produce, direct and star in his own Broadway show. The movies could not be more different from each other and richly deserve their current status as the ones to beat. I can’t, even at this early date, imagine any actor besting Michael Keaton in the lead actor race, but who knows? Stranger things have happened and much can change over the next few weeks. It is, without a doubt, a relatively strong acting year among the men.

I enjoyed both “British genius biopics” currently playing at the multiplexes: “The Theory of Everything,” based on the life of physicist Stephen Hawking and “The Imitation Game,” which concerns Alan Turing who broke the Nazi’s Enigma code during WW II and basically invented the computer in the process. The actors here — Eddie Redmayne as Hawking, Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing — certainly can’t be faulted but the films around them, I’m afraid, can. “The Theory of Everything” suffers from a biased viewpoint (it is based on a memoir by Hawking’s second wife) and oversimplification of a life that surely must have been more complicated than depicted here.

“The Imitation Game” fares better in this regard in that its main focus centers on Cumberbatch’s work on Enigma even as we get flashbacks of his youth in the process. But the film does a disservice dealing with Turing’s sexuality (he was gay in a time when Brits were imprisoned for such “behaviors”) by making it too incidental when, according to history, it was quite devastating. Both films fall under my category of “I’ve seen this movie before,” i.e. a film that takes few chances in the telling and sticks to the conventionality of the genre. I have yet to see Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” but it already looks like a movie I’ve seen many times before.

As usual, potential Oscar nominated women are not as noticeable yet and it’s a real shame that great foreign performances like Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza — from the bleak and brilliant “Ida” — will more than likely go unnoticed this year. Reese Witherspoon, though, seems a likely nominee for “Wild,” based on the bestselling memoir by Cheryl Strayed and Julianne Moore is getting positive buzz for “Still Alice,” playing a mother diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Felicity Jones, who plays Stephen Hawkins’ wife in “The Theory of Everything,” has been mentioned and, in a slim year like this one, there’s a good possibility she’ll make the cut. And for her little-seen independent film, “Cake,” Jennifer Aniston should also not be counted out as she has a loyal following and is earning praise for this change-of-pace role. In Hollywood, “change-of-pace” means she doesn’t wear make-up in the movie. That kind of courage can win awards. Oscar nominations will be announced on Jan. 22. Stay tuned.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.

He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.