But to my mind at least, we have a winner, and it's Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. Re-developed for feature length after Chazelle took a scene from his script and made it into a short film favourite at Sundance last year, the film follows jazz drummer Andrew Neiman, who has the ambition and perhaps even the talent to be one of the greats. He's eager to impress band-leader Terence Fletcher, but Fletcher's tactics of pushing his musicians beyond what's expected of them soon drive Andrew to a physical and emotional breaking point.
On the surface, this is one half of the best double bill out of this year's nominees, the other half being Birdman- both are films about holding oneself to impossibly high standards in the pursuit of greatness and both use jazz drums to heighten the tension. Coming so soon after the enveloping surreality of Birdman, Whiplash may be the part of that double bill that brings on palpitations in viewers of a nervous disposition.
It's hard to describe the effect of the film, which unfolds as a propulsive battle of wills that seems one-sided at first, as told by a filmmaker who used to be a musician himself. JK Simmons' Fletcher is based on a former teacher of Chazelle's and though the character is a warped mix of mentor and adversary to Miles Teller's Andrew. He starts out merely ignoring or dismissing musicians off-hand, but becomes steadily more terrifying as his interest is piqued. Andrew, as Chazelle's semi-autobiographical avatar, is left reeling by just about every rehearsal, with ever more gruelling practice sessions being squeezed between the terror.
Having gone into the film with about as low an opinion of Teller as Fletcher often has of his character, I think I finally get why people like this actor because of this. He leaves nothing on the table here, legitimately quaking with the emotion and physical effort that Andrew endures. The film could have cheated on Teller's drumming with its extreme close-ups, but a number of hard-to-fake wide shots reveal his bonafide physicality at a drum kit. If they did fake anything, then it's seamless in Teller's performance and the close-cut editing- you come out of it believing that he really is one of the best jazz drummers in the world.
But it's Simmons who will rightly be taking home every Best Supporting Actor gong between now and the Dolby Theater next month. Fletcher is no caricature of a bully- he's a full-on monster, whose rare moments of vulnerability eventually reveal the true depths of his monstrousness. Some have compared Simmons' acid-tongued turn to Peter Capaldi's role as Malcolm Tucker, but the genius of Capaldi's performance was in gradually contextualising his rage as disgust in a political class going to shit. Meanwhile, the genius in Simmons' performance is in an unapologetic conviction that he will find the next great, no matter how many people he has to destroy to get there.
Chazelle's major success is in making the stakes matter to us because they matter to these two characters. Characters close to Andrew, like Paul Reiser's mild-mannered dad and Melissa Benoit's underused love interest, question why he's putting himself through this. The answer is as simple as it sounds- Andrew aspires for greatness, and through making those stakes matter to the audience as much as the leads, the film attains that greatness.
Whiplash is still showing in selected cinemas nationwide- look for it coming back for an encore in the run-up to the Oscars.
If you've seen Whiplash, why not share your comments below? Let's have some rampant speculation about where Spider-Man fits into all of this.
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.