Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscars 2015 Educated Guesses

Every year's Oscar nominations come with surprises, often unpleasant ones. This year took that to a whole new level with a slew of startling omissions that riled up movie buffs in a way that I haven't seen in a long time. We can (and will) discuss individual snubs, but the cumulative effect of them is that the Oscars didn't live up to their promise this year. Ideally, they are a celebration of a year's great films, but that didn't quite work out. It's hard in a year where the great stuff was so diverse but then again, there were some pretty boneheaded choices on the Academy's part. Still, it could be worse. It could be the Grammys. Let's get to it.

Best Animated Feature
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Who Will Win: The first and perhaps most inscrutable controversy of this year's Oscars was the absence of The Lego Movie from this category. Popular with audiences and worshiped by critics, it would have been a clear front-runner. It may have been disqualified for its live-action sequences, although the Academy hasn't clarified that. Without it, there's no obvious winner. It will likely be one of the CGI blockbusters, but which one? The original How to Train Your Dragon would have won this category in 2010 if it didn't have the misfortune of getting matched up against Toy Story 3 and it's four-hankie finale. The sequel isn't quite as good, but it packs an emotional punch that I think voters will remember.

My Choice: Princess Kaguya has a level of thematic ambition that is far beyond what you usually see in animated films, in addition to being stunning to look at. An upset in this category is certainly possible and I would love to see this one pull it out.

Best Documentary Feature
Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth

Who Will Win: The most popular documentary of the last year was Life Itself, a moving portrait of the late critic Roger Ebert. It's not on the list this year, which suggests that the Academy is in the mood for more serious fare this time around (although this category is not very consistent about this). The two docs about photographers, Finding Vivian Maier and The Salt of the Earth, are probably out. Last Days in Vietnam is compelling stuff, but the Fall of Saigon was over 40 years ago. Virunga's central African setting probably feels too far away from your average voter. It doesn't get much more timely than Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA that puts the viewer right in the room as history is being made. Any movie that can feature the brave but insufferable journalist Glenn Greenwald so prominently and still be tolerable deserves something.

My Choice: Citizenfour is an impressive piece of film journalism, but as a viewing experience it has nothing on Virunga. The combination of intense subject matter, haunting music and beautiful scenery shots was incredibly potent. Netflix knows how to pick 'em.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Jason Hall for American Sniper
Graham Moore for The Imitation Game
Paul Thomas Anderson for Inherent Vice
Anthony McCarten for The Theory of Everything
Damien Chazelle for Whiplash

Who Will Win: Graham Moore's screenplay for The Imitation Game accomplished a few different things - it gracefully meshed three separate periods in Alan Turing's life and it boiled down the incredibly complex mathematics behind the decoding work of the main characters in a way that any audience member could understand what was going on. I suspect he'll have an Oscar to show for it, although Damien Chazelle is a potential upset.

My Choice: I don't have a strong preference here. The Imitation Game was impressive for the reasons listed above and Whiplash's layered exploration of ambition is a good conversation starter. Either of them would be cool, just please don't give it to American Sniper. That movie was downright ludicrous.

Best Original Screenplay
Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo for Birdman
Richard Linklater for Boyhood
E. Max Byre for Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dan Gilroy for Nightcrawler

Who Will Win: Three of this year's heavy hitters are squaring off in this category. Birdman's got four writers attached to it and this category typically favors a single recipient. Linklater has a great ear for dialogue but it will probably hurt him that so much of Boyhood's dialogue sounds improvised. That leaves Wes Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel has a lot of nominations and it probably won't go home empty-handed. This category, with its hipster bent, seems the ideal place to recognize it.

My Choice: Dan Gilroy. Nightcrawler was a brilliant look at how modern work culture rewards sociopathic behavior and not just any writer could pull off a lead character who speaks almost entirely in canned self-help jargon he read off the internet. This movie was overlooked in general and really deserves some props.

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
Laura Dern in Wild
Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game
Emma Stone in Birdman
Meryl Streep in Into the Woods

Who Will Win: Patricia Arquette. Her vanity-free performance as a mother who is in over her head but refuses to give up stays with you long after Boyhood ends. It helps that she's also at the center of the film's most emotional scene. She's been sweeping the preliminary awards and there's no reason to think the Oscars will be any different.

My Choice: Arquette deserves the win, although I was also pretty impressed by Emma Stone. As the angry, drug addict daughter in Birdman, she really looked and sounded like she had just gotten out of rehab. For someone whose looks are always being praised, it's not a "beauty queen" performance at all.

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall in The Judge
Ethan Hawke in Boyhood
Edward Norton in Birdman
Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

Who Will Win: The other four nominees have no chance against J.K. Simmons and the evil genius music teacher he played in Whiplash. Although it's in the "supporting" category, he dominated that movie and it is truly an unforgettable performance.

My Choice: I'm a huge J.K. Simmons fan. Whether it's the sweet father in Juno or the hilariously cantankerous J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films, this guy brings it every time.

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore in Still Alice
Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon in Wild

Who Will Win: If you're hoping to get an Oscar, the best narrative you can hope for is that it's "your turn." This is what's happening this year with Julianne Moore, to the point where it seems like people don't care about the actual movie she's in. The focus is that she's given a lot of strong performances, has yet to win, and is not getting any younger. She's got this one in the bag.

My Choice: I honestly don't care. Julianne Moore's done good work for a long time, let her have it. This category needs an intervention because it's becoming the laziest and most consistently disappointing one in the whole lineup. The Academy always seems to choose from a ridiculously small pool of actresses to fill this one out. Felicity Jones and Rosamund Pike are some new blood, but the other three are regulars. People always say there aren't many good roles out there for women, but there are more than this. Essie Davis in The Babadook? Rosario Dawson in Top Five? They're out there if you look for them. Look a little harder, please.

Best Actor
Steve Carell in Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper in American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton in Birdman
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

Who Will Win: Here we have the only acting category that's actually competitive this year. The three Cs (Carell, Cooper & Cumberbatch) have taken a backseat to the neck-and-neck contest between Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne. In one corner, you have an actor with a long and (mostly) distinguished career who got the role of a lifetime in Birdman. It's hard to believe this is Keaton's first nomination ever and sentimentality might carry him over the edge. However, statistics are against him. In the other corner, we have an actor who is playing a real English disabled person, the holy trifecta of award bait. Redmayne's eerily convincing performance as Stephen Hawking is the sole reason why The Theory of Everything, a trite biopic that ignores Hawking's groundbreaking contributions to science in favor of a conventional awards bait romance, has done so well. He's already got a SAG award to show for it and I have to give him the edge...but this one is super close.

My Choice: First things first. Where the hell is David Oyelowo? He was outstanding as Dr. King in Selma and this lack of recognition is going to go down as one of the great boners in Oscar history. If only Dr. King had Restless Leg Syndrome or something...any kind of disability and the Academy might have taken more notice. Another omission that bugs me is Jake Gyllenhaal, who brought to life one of the year's most vivid characters in Nightcrawler. In terms of the nominees, might as well give Keaton the gold while they've got the chance. He might not get another shot and Redmayne will surely be nominated again at some point.

Best Director
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher
Alejandro G. Inarritu for Birdman
Richard Linklater for Boyhood
Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game

Who Will Win: For a while, it looked like Richard Linklater was going to take this one home not just for Boyhood, but for 25 years of great films. Then Inarritu upset him at the Director's Guild awards, which are a highly accurate oracle for this category. Given the large overall support for Birdman, it makes sense although it's still fairly close. If I'm right about this, Inarritu will be the second Mexican director to win in a row after Alfonso Cuaron last year. Guillermo Del Toro might want to start planning a 2016 speech.

My Choice: Ava DuVernay pulled off some beautifully staged scenes in Selma and would have made history if she was recognized, but as with a lot of that movie's talent, she got the cold shoulder. This category's always been a little unpredictable so it's not quite as surprising as what happened in Best Actor, but it's still unfortunate. As it stands, I'm rooting for Linklater. He's made so many great movies, from Dazed and Confused to Bernie to School of Rock to Waking Life, but he doesn't really make "Oscar" movies so I'm not sure he'll get another chance.

Best Picture
American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Who Will Win: Despite a list of nominees loaded with typical Oscar bait, it's the two least traditional of the films that are fighting it out for Best Picture. Let's knock out the others. The Theory of Everything has little going for it outside of Eddie Redmayne's performance. The Imitation Game is held in higher regard but still feels too much like a typical winner for this year. Whiplash is a small film that had a very small release. Selma was torpedoed by an ugly combination of various double-standards (more on that soon enough). American Sniper is not the evil piece of propaganda that its detractors fear and that Fox News so desperately wants it to be, but it is a crude, silly movie that is far too polarizing to survive the Academy's preferential ballots, which reward films with more universal acclaim. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a serious challenger, but I think that in the end, Wes Anderson's work doesn't do so well outside of his niche (although that niche is steadily growing).

That leaves Boyhood vs. Birdman. For a while, the conventional wisdom was that Birdman's support among the actor's branch would be balanced out by the other branches going with Boyhood. But then Birdman started winning all the preliminary awards. Not just the Screen Actors Guild, which was expected, but also the Producers and Director's Guild. Clearly, it has more wide-ranging support than it was given credit for. If it does pull off the win, it will easily be the weirdest Best Picture winner ever. If it were about any other profession than acting, I don't think we would be seeing this kind of reception. So I'm going with Birdman but don't count Boyhood out. After all, if we're talking about identifying with the work, everyone voting was once a child.

My Choice: My opinion of the nominees goes something like this: Boyhood > Selma > Birdman > Whiplash > The Imitation Game > The Grand Budapest Hotel > The Theory of Everything > American Sniper. I think it would be wonderful if a gentle, personal film like Boyhood took the top prize, but I feel like my own preference means even less than usual this year. There's other stuff I gotta get off my chest.

I don't typically go this in-depth, but this year's Oscars come with a lot more baggage than usual so let's talk about Selma. The conventional wisdom about its weak amount of nominations (only 2, which is unheard of for a Best Picture nominee) is that the exaggerated portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as cranky and obstinate about the Voting Rights Act backfired. Indeed, some Academy members have spoken anonymously about how the movie "misrepresented history." If this is really how it went down, then the whole situation comes with the pungent whiff of bullshit. In a documentary, getting all the facts right is important. But movies like Selma, often given the misleading label of "docudrama" are still technically fiction, even if they are heavily based on history. These films are not simple recitations of textbook history, they interpret history, often to comment on the era the film is made in rather than the era it depicts. Selma spends a lot of time demonstrating the work involved to make change happen - building up grassroots support and exploiting the bad habits of politicians and media to get the word out. If the movie's Johnson had been on board from the start, none of that work would have seemed as necessary. Selma's LBJ strikes me as less a representation of the real man, but of modern politicians who can't hide their exasperation that all these protesters can't just be happy with their black president and stop complaining. This creative choice may cost Selma some credit as a historical document, but not as a movie.

Movies like this have been playing loose with the truth ever since George Arliss won Best Actor for playing British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1930. Even in this very category, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game and especially American Sniper also alter the reality of their subjects to suit their purposes. Regarding the latter, the Iraq War is turned into a Sergio Leone western where the good sniper has to battle the bad sniper, very little of which is supported by Chris Kyle's actual experiences. This change isn't necessarily a surprise given that the director, Clint Eastwood, always tends to frame issues in ways that are reminiscent of classic westerns. Yet American Sniper was rewarded with surprise nominations while Selma was punished. So tldr, if you're going to start bringing the hammer down on artistic depictions of history, be consistent about it or shut up. A lot of people can't stand it when race gets brought into the Oscars, but their frustration seems better directed at the Academy for making it so easy. I've said enough, but I do have some further reading. Here is a great article on the racial elements of the issue and here is an article going into the specifics of the movie's portrayal of Johnson.

So that's all for now. Last year, I had a perfect score for predictions. I'd be surprised if that happened twice in a row, but we'll see!

No comments: