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Inside the Best Picture nominees: A deep dive into 'Whiplash'

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WHIPLASH Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons
Daniel McFadden

The Academy Awards are just days away—which means it’s time to buckle down and really get to know this year’s Best Picture contenders. Today’s deep-dive takes a look at Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s film about music, ambition, and the particular power imbalance between students and teachers.

Name: Whiplash

Tweetable description: An ambitious young drummer meets the jazz instructor from hell. An action movie, but the guns are insults and the explosions are drum solos.

Movie Math: Mr. Holland’s OpusFull Metal Jacket  + Drumline — any hope for humanity = Whiplash

Release date: Oct. 10, 2014

DVD release date: Feb. 24, 2015

Run time: 106 minutes

Box office: First weekend (wide): $719,740; total domestic (so far): $10.5 million

Rotten Tomatoes Score:  95%

What EW said: “Ropy and muscular, dressed all in black, and capped by a chrome dome with veins squiggling up his temples like the seams on a baseball, Fletcher closes his eyes and listens—really listens. He’s trying to divine whether Andrew has the chops to join his elite student band…or if he just wants to chew the kid up and spit him out. Maybe both.”

Best Line: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” —Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), elucidating his methodology

Worst Line: “I can still f—ing see you, Mini Me!” —Terence Fletcher, revealing that his cultural reference points are a bit outdated

Number of Oscar nods: Five. Besides Best Picture, director Damien Chazelle earned a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay—the screenplay was actually an original, but Chazelle initially filmed it as a short subject film in order to get funding. J.K. Simmons is a frontrunner for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. And don’t count out for Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash ends with an extended performance that’s a showcase for both technical categories.

The movie’s Oscar history: Despite a long journeyman career of impressive supporting performances in Oscar-y films like Juno and Up in the AirWhiplash marks the first nomination for Simmons. He’s an old pro in a production filled with exciting up-and-comers: This is only Chazelle’s second feature film.

What it’s won thus far: Simmons has been the focal point of the movies’ awards season buzz, winning the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and the Screen Actor’s Guild prize for his scene-demolishing role. The film’s editing and sound were honored by BAFTA. And the film’s been on the Oscar campaign for over a year: Whiplash took both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance 2014.

Why it should win: The Academy has a long history of rubberstamping awards for movies about the performing arts, from The Great Ziegfeld to Amadeus to the one-two-three punch of The King’s Speech (acting saves the world!), The Artist (Hollywood is crazy!), and Argo (Hollywood saves the crazy world!). Whiplash is the rare film that takes performance and artistry seriously as a craft—young drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is powered by an obsessive ambition that leaves his fingers bloody. There is something poignant in how Andrew’s artistic ambition cuts him off from normal human interaction—and there is something endlessly fascinating about the film’s refusal to pass judgment on Fletcher’s brutal methods. Is the film’s ending triumphant or cosmically bleak? You can watch the film a hundred times and never decide. 

Why it shouldn’t win: Although the film is a technical wonder, you could argue that it’s more than anything an old-fashioned actor’s showcase, with Simmons and Teller locked in a two-hander that could almost be a one-act drama. (From that perspcetive, Simmons’ almost-assured Best Supporting Actor victory is probably the equivalent of a Best Picture win.) Also, at least according to New Yorker critic Richard Brody, the film’s portrayal of jazz is cuckoo bananas—although you could argue that it’s so very like a jazz fan to complain about the first reasonably popular jazz movie in over two decades. 

Vegas Odds: 66/1, currently tied for sixth with The Theory of Everything.