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Oscars crash course: One day, four nominated movies

Interested in attending Day Two of this year’s Best Picture Showcase? It starts at 10 a.m. with “Boyhood,” followed by “The Theory of Everything,” “The Imitation Game” and “American Sniper.” Three metro area theaters are taking part Saturday (Note: Limited seating, so tickets may no longer be available at all theaters): Parkway Pointe (Atlanta), Mansell Crossing 14 (Alpharetta) and Sugarloaf Mills 18 (Lawrenceville). $30. Information/tickets: www.amctheatres.com

So what did I think of the four best picture nominees I saw? So glad you asked.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" was a classic Wes Anderson film, set in a charmingly self-contained, snowcapped world, and whimsically witty. It has a great, suave-meets-swish performance by Ralph Fiennes and any number of big name stars (Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel) having what must've been a field day dressing up in costumes and popping up in brief cameos. Fun to watch, but not this year's best picture.

"Whiplash" was a huge surprise to me — an exhilarating slap across the face with its muscular storyline about a drum-playing prodigy at a Julliard-like school in New York City going mano-a-mano with a tyrannical teacher (J.K. Simmons). The constant percussion soundtrack had us all bouncing in our seats as it built to the film's thrilling climax, which we all cheered. Won't win best film, but I wouldn't mind at all if it did. And Simmons is a deserving lock for best supporting actor.

"Birdman" was rather disappointing. If you've read any reviews or stories about star Michael Keaton's "comeback" film, you already know what it's about. Except for the ending, which had some of us scratching our heads: Was it meant to be metaphorical, open-ended and up to each viewer, or did the director just dodge a hard choice? There's subtlety, but then there's maddening elusiveness. Keaton deserves his best actor nomination, but it felt like the film rode his wave to some less deserving nominations. Edward Norton (best supporting actor) chewed scenery in a way that felt a little too natural for him and Emma Stone (best supporting actress), while fine as Keaton's bored, druggy daughter, was nothing special.

Stone's nomination should've gone to "Selma's" Carmen Ejogo for her fresh portrayal of Coretta Scott King as someone whipsmart, watchful and absolutely key to the civil rights movement in her own way. In fact, I was not alone in the theater in feeling that "Selma" got robbed, Oscars-wise. Other acting nominations should've gone to David Oyelowo for making Martin Luther King Jr. feel so real and just the right amount of Southern, and to Stephan James as a young John Lewis being pulled between his peers and the movement's older, more established members. The theater was absolutely still when the movie ended, but then spontaneously erupted in applause when director Ava DuVernay's name came onscreen. She infused "Selma" with real emotion, but also kept it beautifully disciplined as a story about the fight for voting rights that didn't veer off on tangents or lose focus on the equally disciplined group that built this movement and kept it moving forward even when individual members disagreed. DuVernay not only deserved a best director nomination, she should've won. And "Selma" merits the best picture Oscar, based on what I saw on Saturday.

—-Jill Vejnoska

“Welcome!” Maria Runnels said when I plopped down beside her in a theater at AMC Parkway Pointe on Saturday morning. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Runnels and I had never met before. But over the next nine-and-a-half hours, we would morph into a hybrid version of close friends/fellow occupants of the same popcorn-infested foxhole as the other hardy participants in the annual “AMC Best Picture Showcase.”

Whoda thunk it?

Not me, certainly. For the past several years, I’d dithered over whether I had the right stuff to watch as many as five movies in a row without the ushers having to carry me out in a straitjacket. What if the theater was too cold or the seats too hard, I fretted? Would I end up hating a really good movie just because it came last in a very long day? Meanwhile, AMC had a rule against bringing in outside food. How much popcorn and Twizzlers could one person subsist on before they simply exploded or developed scurvy?

This year was a little different, though. For starters, I’d only have to sit through four movies in one day. And in an armchair recliner at the recently renovated Cobb Parkway multiplex, to boot. But it was the visions of AJC bean counters having to approve Twizzlers on an expense form that finally sealed it. I broke down and bought a ticket for the first day only of this two-day event.

AMC Theatres introduced the “BPS” a decade ago, back when the premier Oscars category still only had five nominees — no more, no less. The BPS always took place on one Saturday, just before the Academy Awards. But in 2009 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences started fiddling with the category, with the result that now, anywhere from five to 10 films can be nominated. This year, eight made the cut.

When the numbers increased, AMC decided to split the BPS across two Saturdays, with four different nominated films being shown on Feb. 14 and Feb. 21 this year (check amctheatres.com for ticket availability at the three Atlanta area participating theaters). That only should've made it harder for people to commit to the BPS, which then would've died a quick and merciful death, right?

Wrong.

“There are people who’ve turned the BPS into an annual tradition,” said Ryan Noonan, AMC’s director of public relations. “They might not see or interact with each other during the rest of the year, but they come back to the BPS and they know each other.”

Oh, great, like the cool kids table in high school. That was my initial fear when I arrived at the theater Saturday with “Newbie” written all over me and an emergency ham sandwich hidden deep inside my purse just in case. But those concerns were quickly dispersed when I met Runnels, a gregarious CPA/strategic planner from West Cobb. She also was a BPS first-timer, but she selflessly helped me work the controls on my recliner before the first movie, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” began at 10 a.m.

Two seats over, Kwajelyn Jackson and Valerie Camille Jones had returned for their eighth and sixth showcases respectively. During the 20-minute break before the second movie, “Whiplash,” began at noon, they shared funny stories and valuable wisdom acquired during those earlier, non-recliner years: Bring pillows and blankets. Drink water for hydration, but know the movie schedule so you can plan your bathroom breaks. Stick it out no matter what, no matter how much you just can’t believe that movie got nominated.

“If it’s in the middle and I don’t like it, I probably will stay and be angry,” said East Atlanta resident Jackson, who went through that with “The Wolf of Wall Street” last year. “But then something else will come along and really surprise you.”

Even more practical advice came from John Thomas, 26, in the break following film No. 3, “Birdman.” The Kennesaw State student had previously survived three showcases, a six-film “Harry Potter” marathon and a 13-hour “Lord of the Rings Extended Trilogy” screening.

“Stand up and walk around between films,” Thomas advised. “It also helps if you really like movies.”

But what if you’d already been at this for some seven hours by the time the day’s final movie, “Selma,” began at 4:55 p.m.? I’d purposely waited to see it here, but now feared its impact would be lost on me as a result of all the other movies that were already inside my head.

Instead, the reverse happened. “Selma” landed an unmistakable emotional wallop in the hushed theater. Afterwards, when about a half-dozen BPS-ers lingered to discuss why it was vastly superior to the more-nominated “Birdman,” I realized it had actually helped me to see so many nominated films side-by-side. With other people who were doing the same thing.

I also was jealous. Unlike nearly all of my fellow foxhole occupants, I wasn’t coming back next Saturday. I had to content myself with extracting a vow from Runnels to stay in touch and to maybe return for next year’s BPS, same theater, same seats even.

New emergency sandwich, though. Just in case.