Sunday, September 13, 2015

This Ain't a League, It's a God-Damn Arms Race: A 2015 NFL Preview

No, I'm not proud of that title. But what do you want from me at 2:30 in the morning after an emotionally draining ASU football win? Anyway, I usually only write about movies and music on this blog, but I probably spend as much or more time watching/reading about sports than those two combined. So I figured why not dash off a quick preview on the old blog? That way I can look real smart (or real dumb) come January. I'll give a quick breakdown of each division, mock up the playoffs, and crown a Super Bowl champ, all while trying not to be too big of a homer to my Redbirds and Fins. Here we go!

(* = wild card)

NFC East
Philadelphia Eagles – 10-6
Dallas Cowboys – 10-6*
New York Giants – 8-8
Washington Redskins – 5-11
The Eagles are probably one of the 5 most talented teams in football when healthy. That's a helluva caveat for a team relying on Sam Bradford and DeMarco Murray. But while Chip Kelly's offense should be strong regardless of who's carrying or passing the ball, I don't trust their receivers and corners, the latter of which is a problem in a division with Dez and ODB. IF they stay healthy, they might win the Super Bowl; I just don't think they will ... The 'Boys won't miss Murray as much as people think—I could probably gain like... 10 yards behind that line. Okay, bad example. But Romo, Bryant, and Co. will put up points, and the D will be just good enough in Year 2 under Rod Marinelli ... I have no idea what to expect out of the G-Men, so .500 should about cover my bases. Eli should justify his newly signed mega-deal and this team will be able to score with anybody, but if that defense implodes without JPP, there'll be a lot of finger pointing (get it??) ... RGIII, Jay Gruden, and a whole lot of others will be gone after what looks to be a disastrous season, but the real problem is the owner. As long as Chainsaw Dan is in charge, I don't think they'll ever build a contender. Oh, and can they change the name now? Please?

NFC North
Green Bay Packers – 12-4
Minnesota Vikings – 8-8
Detroit Lions – 8-8
Chicago Bears – 6-10
The Pack will miss Jordy, but not as much as I miss LeVar Burton's sweet visor. They'll find another unheralded wideout to step up, like they always do. (Jeff Janis? Ty Montgomery? Davante Adams is a given.) We all know about the O, and as long as the D plays like it did the first 55 minutes against the 'Hawks (and not the last 5 and OT), they'll be in it for the #1 seed ... Minny takes a leap in AP's first year back and Bridgewater's Year 2, but not quite into the playoffs in the crowded middle-tier NFC. I like Norv's offense and the pass rush/DBs, but I'm not sure about the run D, which means the D won't be able to get off the field late in games. Next year though, look out ... The Lions will miss Suh (although they could've done a lot worse than Ngata as a replacement), and there aren't a lot of holes on this roster overall (TE and CB being the biggest question marks), but this is a QB league and Stafford is a major question mark. He's just too inefficient (look at his career YPA—it's barely over 7.00). How is a guy with that arm with targets like CJ and Tate not a perennial Pro Bowler? ... Chicago, your team, woof. Cutler is bad, yes, but he's not the problem. The bare cupboard of defensive talent is. John Fox was a great get as the new HC, but he won't be able to turn it around in a year. Still, he'll prevent them from being one of the worst teams in the league. So that's something.

NFC South
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 9-7
Atlanta Falcons – 8-8
New Orleans Saints – 7-9
Carolina Panthers – 6-10
This is the toughest division to predict, year-in, year-out. These teams all have warts (the wiener kind), and a team with a losing record could very well take this thing again. But I'm going with the Bucs. While Jameis Winston seems like a vile person, he's a talented QB and there is so much talent on that offense just waiting for a competent QB, which they haven't had since, what? Brad Johnson? Trent Dilfer? Long as the secondary holds up, they'll be a threat to get destroyed by someone in Round 1 ... Matt Ryan and Julio Jones aren't a bad foundation, and I like bringing in Quinn to fix the D, but questions abound about that side of the ball and their running game on the other. If Quinn can manufacture a pass rush and the secondary around Desmond Trufant isn't a dumpster fire, they could easily win this thing. But then, so could any of these other teams ... Speaking of secondaries and dumpster fires, have you seen the Saint's secondary? Because neither will NFL quarterbacks this season. They could give up 30 points a game. It will be tough for a fading but still elite Brees to keep up, what with losing most of his weapons (Graham, Stills, Thomas). I just don't think he can do it ... The Panthers might have a top-5 defense this year... but their offense might be bottom 5. They're starting Ted Ginn (ugh) and something called a Philly Brown at WR in Week 1. On the plus side, Greg Olsen might catch 120 balls this year. An injury prediction: Cam Newton doesn't finish out the year. All hail Derek Anderson!

NFC West
Seattle Seahawks – 11-5
Arizona Cardinals – 10-6*
St. Louis Rams – 7-9
San Francisco 49ers – 6-10
The Seahawks should win this division again (dat homefield advantage doe), but they'll stumble a bit on the way. They'll miss Max Unger at C more than they think and, while Graham will help in the red zone, I predict some extended offensive slumps for them this season. On the other side of the ball, the Chancellor holdout, while absolutely moronic on his part, is nevertheless a cause for concern both on and off the field. Something tells me a lot of the guys on the team don't get along in the locker room, and that *will* affect this team negatively come gameday ... A lot of folks are predicting a down year for my Redbirds (ahem, Bill Barnwell), but I just don't see it. If Arians can drag a team led by Ryan fucking Lindley to the playoffs, I don't why they wouldn't be back with a healthy Carson Palmer (or Drew Stanton, or, hell, Matt Barkley). The offense will be better than you think with an ascendant John Brown and a still-relevant Fitzy, and the D shouldn't skip too much of a beat with Bettcher taking over for Bowles at DC. PP21 is finally healthy—so watch out, league ... Same old story with the Rams—beastly D, meek O. Long, Quinn, Donald, Fairley, and Co. *will* end someone's season at some point (hopefully not C-Palms!), but it remains to be seen if Foles is an upgrade over any of the QBs they put out there last season. If he is, they could push for a wild card; if he isn't, they'll be on the receiving end of a lot of 16-10 type losses ... Whatever happens to my Redbirds, I will take infinite pleasure in watching the Niners struggle this year. You don't just lose half your defense to retirement and arrest, two of your only talented skills position players, and one of the best head coaches in football (albeit most bristly personalities) and expect to stay relevant. If only that could fit on a Ned Stark meme.

AFC East
New England Patriots – 11-5
Miami Dolphins – 10-6*
Buffalo Bills – 7-9
New York Jets – 7-9
Like the Sea Chickens, the Patriots will fall back to earth a bit... but they'll still win the division like they always do. The loss of Revis will take their defense down a notch or two, and if/when Gronk misses a couple games, Brady won't be able to outscore everyone by slinging it to his motley group of white receivers. They should be able to cobble together a running game per their usual, but run D could also be a problem (it's not good when DeAngelo Williams gashes you for a buck-twenty). Still, they're a threat for a bye ... It's now or never for my Fins. My boy Tannehill is poised to take a leap and build upon last year/s 4000 yd/27 TD campaign. He's got a lot of new weapons to work with, so if they jell quickly, watch out. The D should be nasty, with Suh and Wake leading the way up front. Corner could be an issue, but with that pass rush, it might not matter. Just hope no one important gets hurt. These guys are thinner than a purging model ... The Bills are basically the Rams of the AFC. If their quarterback (Tyrod Taylor for now) works out, they should snag a playoff berth on the strength of their D. But I don't like his chances behind that O-line (ditto offseason addition LeSean McCoy). I sure don't like having to play that D twice a year as a Fins fan though ... I wish the Jets had kept fired GM Idzik around—this team could have been truly pathetic (and nothing would have given me more pleasure). Instead, the new guy restocked the talent outside the hashes with B-Marsh and Revis. And IK what's-his-name did the team a favor by laying out Gena Smith—Fitzmagic will be an improvement by default. This won't be a fun team to play, but they just don't have the QB talent to seriously challenge for the postseason.

AFC North
Baltimore Ravens – 10-6
Pittsburgh Steelers – 9-7*
Cincinnati Bengals – 8-8
Cleveland Browns – 4-12
This division is always a dogfight, and this year the Ravens have the meanest dog around. They're a legitimate Super Bowl threat with Flacco's big arm, Forsett's versatility, and one of the most ferocious pass rushes around. I have similar concerns with their WRs/DBs as the Eagles, but the cupboard is stocked at the rest of the positions. They always find a way to win, especially on the road—which makes them scary in the postseason ... I have serious reservations about putting the Steelers in the playoffs after watching their D get shredded on Thursday night, but their offense will be top-5 after Bell comes back, and they don't have to face Tom Brady every week. (And 4 doses of Andy Dalton and Josh McCown doesn't hurt either.) Interesting question though: if they miss the playoffs, is Tomlin gone? ... Similarly, if the Bungles don't make the playoffs, will Dalton be gone? He's actually taken them there the last 4 years (all 1st-round losses), but is this the year the wheels fall off? They might not actually need him to do much this year, with the Hill-Bernard backfield and always-solid D. But if he can reach the lofty 4000 yd/30 TD numbers of 2013 (look it up, it actually happened), they should coast to the playoffs. If not, it'll be a slog ... Somehow the Browns finished 7-9 last season. I had no idea. I don't think they can do it again with the putrid offense they're throwing out this year. A single Brown probably wasn't drafted in most leagues, and certainly no one is starting any in Week 1. Joe Haden and the D will keep them in a lot of games, but unless Johnny Pigskin can overtake McCown and provide competent QB play, they'll be closer to the league cellar than the playoffs. (And maybe they can draft a real QB next year.)

AFC South
Indianapolis Colts – 11-5
Houston Texans – 6-10
Jacksonville Jaguars – 5-11
Tennessee Titans – 5-11
Easiest division to call in the league. Easiest record, too—Luck's Colts have been 11-5 for the last 3 years. They're not much more talented than last year, so why not make it 4 in a row? It should be a hole lot of fun to watch Luck huck it to those WRs, but there's no way Gore lasts a full season and the O-line is suspect. Combine it with a mediocre D and 11-5 sounds about right. Still, Luck could carry this team as far as the Super Bowl and no one would be surprised. Is this the year? ... The Texans are another team in dire need of a competent QB. Not sure Hoyer (or Mallet, or Savage) is the answer. The Foster injury cost them any chance at a playoff push, which is too bad, because who wouldn't love to see JJ Watt turn down for what in the playoffs? Maybe next year they can land somebody like ... Bortles, who can't possibly be worse in Year 2 (although Gabbert was... not a good sign). But the Jags have surrounded him with some intriguing options at the skill positions (Robinson, Hurns, Yeldon) and they've also quietly put together a respectable defense (dem former Seahawks DCs doe). It won't add up to a playoff berth (or even 2nd best team in Florida status), but it's progress ... It figures to be another downer of a year in the Music City, which isn't good news for "Whistlin'" Ken Whisenhunt, whose gotta be gone after this year. Mariota will need at least a year to figure out the pro game, and, unlike Bortles, the options at the skill positions are underwhelming. Now here's a fun challenge: quick, name a player on the Titans defense! (No googling!)

AFC West
Denver Broncos – 10-6
Kansas City Chiefs – 9-7
San Diego Chargers – 8-8
Oakland Raiders – 5-11
This could be the year that Peyton Manning's arm literally falls off. But even if he looks as bad as he did down the stretch last year and in the preseason this year, this is still one of the 2-3 most talented rosters in football. They're stacked at the skill positions on offense, the O-line is solid, and their pass rush and DBs are elite. Run D could be an issue, but if they can a lead, it won't matter. I think a more run-centric approach will take some pressure of Peyton's arm and he can save himself for the playoffs and one last shot at ring #2 ... If this is, in fact, the year Peyton's arm falls off, the Chiefs will be waiting to take the division crown for the first time since 2003. They've got the talent on offense (JC, Maclin, and Kelce), and if/when healthy, the D is as stout as any. But, like the Bengals, a mediocre QB could hold them back. If Alex Smith plays as hyperefficiently as he's capable of and Maclin can revive a moribund downfield attack, this team could be a legit Super Bowl contender. But does anyone really feel like backing Alex Smith on the road in the postseason? ... The good news for Philip Rivers: he successfully avoided a trade to the Titans. The bad news for Philip Rivers: he's stuck on the same old "meh" Chargers team that's floated around. 500 for the last 5 years. Can they pull a 2014 Cowboys and finally break free from the shackles of mediocrity? Rivers has played like an MVP candidate for stretches in the past. He'll need to do it for 16 games to get to the playoffs. Not sure the talent surrounding him on offense can help get him there though ... The Raiders seem to be trending upward. Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper look like legit studs, Derek Carr didn't look like a total train wreck last season, and they could have a strong running game behind Latavius Murray this year. Unfortunately for the Raiders, "trending upward" doesn't mean much when you've been in a black hole of 4 or less wins the last 3 seasons. I think they break the cycle this year though... all the way up to 5 wins.

NFC Playoffs
Wild Card:  Dallas over Philadelphia, Arizona over Tampa Bay
Romo slings the 'Boys past a banged-up Eagles team; the Redbirds D shuts down Jameis.
Divisional:  Green Bay over Dallas, Seattle over Arizona
Rodgers outduels Romo; the 12th man is too much for my Redbirds.
Championship:  Green Bay over Seattle
Rodgers gets his revenge over bickering Seahawks.

AFC Playoffs
Wild Card:  Denver over Pittsburgh, Baltimore over Miami
Pittsburgh's D is no match for Peyton; Tucker boots one late to send my Fins home.
Divisional:  Indianapolis over Baltimore, Denver over New England
Luck outguns Flacco in tight showdown; CJ Anderson runs wild over NE.
Championship:  Denver over Indianapolis
Peyton guts out a win over his one-time heir apparent to return to the SB.

Super Bowl
Green Bay over Denver
I'd love to see Peyton go out on top (à la Elway), but Rodgers gets ring #2 instead.

That's how it's gonna go down. Only thing left is to ask, WHO YA GOT??

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Aim for the Head, Hit the Heart: My Favorite 2014 FIlms

One year when I was living in L.A., I think I saw something like 125 movies in theaters. My roommate and I would hit up the Pacific Theater at the Grove on the regular (it was way easier to double- or triple-dip there than at the Arclight, if somewhat less snazzy) and many a Friday night were spent at the movies with grad school friends. This year (meaning 2014), in Arizona, I saw less than half of that. That's a function of both living in the desert and having a Real Adult Job. So that's my long way of saying that this is hardly a comprehensive list. But I did see most of the big tentpole movies and awards-season films, as well as a good number of critical darlings—a few of which I had to wait until the calendar flipped to see. It's a good thing I did, too, as a few of those films wound up making this list. Speaking of which, I'm doing it a little differently this year than in years past. Instead of somewhat lengthy write-ups for my top 10, I'll be doing shorter write-ups for my top 20. But, first things first:  honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):  Captain America: The Winter Soldier, FrankGrand Budapest HotelOnly Lovers Left AliveThe Purge: Anarchy

20) Gone Girl
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry

I walked out of Gone Girl thinking it was just so-so, a well-made crowd pleaser with little depth or complexity. Much the same could be said of my thoughts on Rosamund Pike's performance—pretty but vacant. Of course, that's probably part of the point in a movie that's all about perception and outward appearances. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the film was built around Pike's performance—she never broke character, and neither did Fincher. The result is the most mainstream film of his career, but one that manages to weave in some wonderfully subversive commentary on sensationalist media and the power dynamics of marriage. Add in some of my favorite supporting performances of the year (especially Coon), another ominously cool Reznor/Ross score, and DP Jeff Cronenweth's typically immaculate shooting, and you've got a more-than-worthy entrant on this list.

19) X-Men: Days of Future Past
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Written by: Simon Kinberg
Starring: James MacAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage

Two things about this movie: 1) It has inarguably the best (read: coolest) opening of any movie on this list. It's one of the best action sequences of the year—tense, well paced, with great special effects. 2) It has inarguably the worst ending of any movie on this list. This is a common theme with X-Men movies (and comic book movies in general). Remember in X3 when Magneto threw the Golden Gate Bridge? Well, at least they toned it down this time—he only threw a baseball stadium. Comic book movies have gotten much better at character development, but it usually all gets thrown out in the third act (the Captain America sequel was another example of that this year). It's no coincidence that the best modern comic book movie (The Dark Knight) went out of its way to *not* feature explosions in its third act. Here's hoping Marvel (I know, this is Fox) can learn that lesson soon.

18) Under the Skin
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell
Starring: Scarlett Johansson

I don't know if it says more about me or 2014 films in general, but Under the Skin is the highest-ranking female-led film of the year. (Note that Only Lovers Left Alive and Gone Girl had a female co-lead and that Wild, Obvious Child, and Happy Christmas were among the films that just missed the cut.) That out of the way, Under the Skin is simultaneously hypnotic and unsettling, a stylish, subtle exploration of female beauty and male lust. It features a career-best performance from ScarJo, who turns her natural good looks into an impenetrable mask—which, of course, is removed (along with much, much else) by the end of the film. (The ending is also one of the best of the year, perhaps behind only Whiplash.) Finally, I would be remiss to not mention the year's best score, courtesy of Mica Levi. It —and the film itself—have stayed in my head long after the first viewing. How (or why) the Oscars overlooked is a mystery to me.

17) The Rover
Directed by: David Michôd
Written by: David Michôd (story by Michôd and Joel Edgerton)
Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy

This was a great year for small, gritty revenge thrillers—at least four appear on this list. (Shout-out to Frank Grillo and The Purge: Anarchy in the HM's). The Rover is the sparest and slow-burningest (real word) of the bunch—but what else do you expect from Australia? In the same tradition as The Square (also co-written by Edgerton) and The Proposition, The Rover interlaces small moments of character building with shocking scenes of sudden violence, all against the backdrop of the Australian wilderness. It also adds a dystopian angle—but it's only explored about as much as the characters' backstories... which is to say not at all. No, this is a movie solely of action, and of reaction, motivation be damned—only in the final few frames does the other 99% of the movie finally make sense. But when it clicks, it clicks, like the last rusted key on a key ring, unlocking a glimpse into the meager remnants of a forsaken man's soul... or something. See the movie and you'll get what I mean.

16) Nightcrawler
Directed by: Dan Gilroy
Written by: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed

If Nightcrawler was as sharp a satire as it wanted to be, or as violent and disturbing and it should have been, it probably would have landed a top-5 spot on this list. As it is, it's a nice median between American Psycho and Taxi Driver, with a committed performance by Gyllenhaal that's 1/3 Patrick Bateman, 1/3 Travis Bickle, and 1/3 the kind of goofy earnestness that was Gyllenhaal's calling card early in his career. (Just watch Bubble Boy and try to tell me you don't see a bit of him in Lou Bloom. I'm dead serious.) It's a shame the Academy couldn't find a spot for his performance—I'd have bounced anyone but Keaton, including the winner. Rene Russo was certainly worthy of a Supporting nomination herself for channeling Faye Dunaway in Network, while Bill Paxton was clearly having a lot of fun as Gyllenhaal's rival. Finally, props to Ahmed for serving as the movie's moral compass—a role that was never going to end well in this movie's warped version of nighttime Los Angeles (aka my entire wheelhouse). I have a feeling this will prove to be a lasting favorite from this year's movie crop.

15) Interstellar
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine

Interstellar is the kind of spectacular misstep that I wish there were more of in Hollywood. It's ultimately a failure as a film, but only in that it fails to reach the lofty ambitions it sets for itself—the next 2001 it is not. It's not even the next Gravity. But at least it strives to escape the low orbit of most other blockbusters, sci-fi or otherwise. Michael Bay is content to smash rocks into the earth and robots into each other like a cinematic toddler (remember, as always, that I'm fan—but he's making it hard to be these days), while Kevin Feige and his cadre of hired guns tap into our collective adolescence—Christopher Nolan may be the only director with a nine-digit budget who makes movies for grown-ups. Even though the story holds up about as well as an IKEA-made tesseract, one can't help but admire its scope—who are we? where do we come from? where are we going? why do we exist? It's a noble failure (much like Prometheus), and I'd absolutely brave a dust storm to see Nolan's next movie. He's got an Oscar in him someday.

14) Snowpiercer
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Written by: Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson
Starring: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell

Unless you've never seen a movie before, you know that the train that "never stops" in Snowpiercer will stop before the movie ends. I just wish that the film's often-propulsive narrative momentum didn't stop before the train did. Instead, it crashes and burns just like the train itself, as a too-long d'état with Ed Harris brings the narrative to a screeching halt. Fortunately, there are a number of bravura sequences leading up to the unfortunate denouement that it almost doesn't matter—the icy "disarming," the bridge fight (that fucking bridge fight!), the school car, Tilda Swinton's teeth. Even if it doesn't stick the landing (although the final shots works quite well), Snowpiercer is still a magnificently weird movie (what else do you expect from a Korean director?) that isn't afraid to take risks. I almost shudder to think of the neutered version we'd have seen had Harvey Weinstein gotten his way. We need more weird movies, not less.

13) A Most Violent Year
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo

A Most Violent Year is perhaps the most well-made film on this list, like one of the immaculately tailored suits that Oscar Isaac's character wears throughout the film. The script is tightly wound and perfectly executes its themes, the performances are finely tuned, the cinematography is painterly, the music foreboding yet elegant, and Chandor's assured direction is the Windsor knot that ties it all together. Had the film been released earlier and marketed a bit better, there surely could have been Oscar nominations for at least Chastain, Chandor's script, and Bradford Young's cinematography (not to mention the costumes). Isaacs could have nabbed a nom in a weaker year, but something tells me his first isn't too far off —although it won't be for the Star Wars or X-Men sequels he'll be starring in in the next 18 months. Long story short, get ready for the Oscar Isaac takeover. (I've been on board since Drive. Just sayin'.)

12) Selma
Directed by: Ava DuVerney
Written by: Paul Webb and Ava DuVerney
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo

Selma fits into the category of films that I immensely respect, but don't necessarily enjoy or plan on watching again anytime soon. (Other examples are films like 12 Years a Slave, The Master, A Separation, etc.) I have a hard time placing films like that on my year-end lists because entertainment value and rewatchability are *huge* components of how I rate movies. (This is why I could never be a film critic. Well, that and my penchant for way overusing parentheses.) That said, Selma is a pretty fucking sensational film and it absolutely should have been recognized for more than just Picture and Song at the Oscars. Oyelowo, Ejogo, DuVerney's direction, Bradford Young's cinematography (again—here's another dude to look out for)—all were more deserving than some of the actual nominees. Come for MLK's speeches (originals written by DuVerney due to licensing issues), stay for the Pettus Bridge sequence. There wasn't a more harrowing, yet beautiful, sequence put to film this year.

11) 22 Jump Street
Directed by: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Written by: Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Jillian Bell

If there was ever an argument against trying to rank films at the end of the year, this is it. 22 Jump Street ahead of Selma? I'm not even going to try to defend it... but remember what I just said about entertainment value and rewatchability? Well, I've already seen this three times and laughed just as hard each time I watched it. Hill and Tatum's effortless chemistry, vintage Ice Cube, Jillian Bell's foulmouthed villainess, the (not always subtle) meta-commentary on sequels, expert deployment of "Turn Down for What"... what's not to love? Oh, how about the funniest scene of the year? That do anything for you? No? Well, fuck you. This is my list. I do what I want. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be playing stickball in the field behind old Pop Wiggledy's sweet shop.

10) Blue Ruin
Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier
Written by: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Amy Hargreaves, Devin Ratray

Blue Ruin is the smallest movie on this list, pulling in less than $300,000 domestically—which is a shame because it's a small-scale masterpiece, a gripping, genre-inverting indie gem. It's a revenge thriller, yes, but it also takes everything you know about the genre and chucks it out the window about 20 minutes in while going 60 down a Virginia highway. Protagonist Dwight Evans is the anti–Bryan Mills—played by Macon Blair, he's a bushy-bearded homeless man with the sad eyes of a wounded animal, not the steely, don't-fuck-with-me-eyes of Liam Neeson. He's entirely unsuited to the task of offing the recently released con who murdered his parents, but, even absent a "particular set of skills," he pulls the task off—and there' still over an hour of movie left. The movie goes unexpected places, even until the end, which makes me excited for writer/director's next film, Green Room. It features Patrick Stewart playing a white supremacist. All. In.

Bonus shout-out to Cold in July here. I saw it too late to be able to put it in this list, but it's another great, you guessed it, indie revenge thriller that takes genre conventions and gives 'em a Texas-style ass whuppin'. Except the score, which is a okay-by-me John Carpenter knock-off. Also, Dexter has a mulletstache. It's glorious.

9) Guardians of the Galaxy
Directed by: James Gunn
Written by: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel

This one doesn't need much explaining. It's the most purely entertaining movie of the year, and the second-best Marvel movie behind The Avengers. Like most Marvel movies, the plot is a bit McGuffin-y (Cube? Tesseract? Orb? Who cares!), but director Gunn wisely foregrounds the characters, relegating the plot to the sidelines. (And, really, nothing happens in the movie that greatly affects the Marvel cinematic universe as a whole.) And the characters are really what make this movie tick—from Pratt's wounded, wisecracking Star-Lord to Bautista's hilariously literal Drax the Destroyer to the breakout duo of Cooper's Rocket and Diesel's Groot (and Groot, Jr.), their spitfire dialogue and growing bond is really what drives the movie, not the rather unmemorable story. (Um, also Zoe Saldana looks good in green. Really wish they gave her more to do.) It definitely wet my whistle for Avengers 2, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the two story lines cross. (Avengers 3? 4?)

8) The Guest
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Written by: Simon Barrett
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Leland Orser, Lance Reddick

If Blue Ruin is a deconstruction of the revenge thriller genre, then The Guest is an action thriller pastiche—a little Terminator here, a little Stepfather there, and essence of John Carpenter sprinkled liberally throughout (so glad to see a resurgence in appreciation of his work of late). It doesn't hurt that it centers around the most handsomest antagonist/antihero I've ever seen, Mr. Dan Stevens. It's entirely obvious he's the villain from pretty much the get-go, but you don't care because you melt every time he smiles. It's a good thing, too, because the movie flat-out wouldn't work with just about anyone else playing the role. He's so good that you're actually cheering for the telegraphed "twist" ending. My only complaint is that the overarching plot is introduced a bit early (the mystery of his identity could have been played out a bit longer) and that is's a bit ho-hum (not weird enough), but when things finally come to a head, the tension is ratcheted to 11, leaving a trail of bodies on its way to a nearly perfect climax (both cinematically and in my pants). More like this, please.

7) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver
Starring: Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell

First things first: Yes, that's an ape carrying a gun while riding a horse, and, yes, that happens in the movie. Second things second: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was the best blockbuster sequel of the year, and probably of the last few years. It's perfectly paced, with a fuse that's lit in the first few minutes that slowly burns until the inevitable third-act pyrotechnics—but they're actually earned this time, as the final battle sequence (buckwild and a whole lot of fun) actually makes sense dramatically and doesn't feel tacked on (cough*Winter Soldier*cough). It's also technically masterful—from cinematography to set design to the editing. But what really makes it stand out is some of the best CGI I've ever seen—this movie is the first time I can recall seeing CGI characters emote on a human (or near-human) level. Andy Serkis (as always) and Toby Kebbell give two of the finest motion-capture performances of all time. I'm not sure there needs to be an Oscar category to recognize their work, but giving the Visual Effects Oscar to this film instead of the bigger (but not better) Interstellar would have been a start.

6) The Raid 2
Directed by: Gareth Evans
Written by: Gareth Evans
Starring: Iko Uwais, Afirin Putra, Tio Pakusadewo, Oka Antara

The original Raid was a lean, mean, martial-arts machine: one location, shot in real time, no frills. (It also has one of the best fight scenes of all time. R.I.P., Sgt. Jaka.) The Raid 2 is, well, more—with four times the budget, almost an hour longer, and a vastly wider scope, it's like The Godfather 2 of martial arts movies. It takes a while to get going, but once it does, it's an absolutely visceral moviegoing experience. Movies have left me slack-jawed before (see the movie ranked at number two), but none like this—you're almost as exhausted as Rama (Uwais) by the time he makes his way through the gauntlet of prisons, crime lords, baseball bats, hammers, and a brutal kitchen fight scene that's almost as good as Mad Dog vs. Jaka. Of course, his trials aren't even close to over. The Raid 3 can't come soon enough. ...actually, it can. I'm still recovering from this one.

5) Edge of Tomorrow (or Live Die Repeat, or All You Need Is Kill)
Directed by: Doug Liman
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendon Gleeson, Bill Paxton

It must be noted that Edge of Tomorrow is perhaps the blandest possible title for this movie. I mean, it sounds like a slogan for a Gillette razor or something. Warner Bros. must've realized its mistake, as the movie was released on DVD seemingly titled Live Die Repeat, which is better—but not as good as All You Need Is Kill, the title of the Japanese novel the movie is based on. Title rant out of the way, this is easily the best sci-fi action movie in a long time, and firmly puts Tom Cruise back in movie star mode. It's also the best video game movie that isn't based on an actual video game. What's more is that the "live die repeat" cycle is actually explained in a way that (sort of) makes sense, unlike in most video games (or in Groundhog Day), where it's basically arbitrary. Once the plot is explained relatively early on, the rest of the movie allows the filmmakers to have fun with the premise (watching Cruise fail over and over at first is great) and the characters to inch closer and closer to the final confrontation and to each other. The typical romantic subplot is handled with sweetness and subtlety—and I'm not just talking about the one between me and Emily Blunt in my head. For once, I was actually rooting for the corny ending—and was happy when I got it. This is the best major Hollywood release of the year (and, of course, it was trounced at the box office by Trans4mers) and one that I know will withstand multiple "repeat" viewings. (Sorry, had to.)

4) Inherent Vice
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the Thomas Pynchon novel)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston

My favorite movie review of the year is just about all you need to know about Inherent Vice: "Every ticket to Inherent Vice should come with the choice of a joint or a second ticket to Inherent Vice. You will need one or the other." Quite apt—following the plot of Inherent Vice is like listening to directions from a stoner to a place he's never been. "Well, first Doc Sportello goes to a massage parlor, but there's also this cop, then there's a dentist... something about a Golden Fang..." That's pretty much all I could tell you what happened in the movie myself, and I wasn't baked. (And I haven't seen it a second time.) It doesn't matter though—much like its spiritual antecendent, The Big Lebowski, the plot is just a loose framework in which the characters operate, not a blueprint to be closely followed. Phoenix keeps finding new leaves to turn over—Doc Sportello couldn't be much different from his characters in The Master and Her—and Brolin and Martin Short especially are a whole lot of fun. (Jena Malone also gives a memorable monologue in a bit role.) Raucously funny, wonderfully hazy, and with memorable characters and perfect period music to accompany Johnny Greenwood's score, Inherent Vice is an obvious cult classic in the making and PTA's most original film since Punch-Drunk Love.

3) Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bó
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone

I can't say the Academy erred too grievously on Oscar night—they merely picked my third-favorite film of the year rather than my favorite (slight spoilers). While I was wrong about which film AMPAS would pick that night, I'm fairly sure I'll prove to be right about one thing: the reputation of Boyhood will only be buoyed by the Oscar snub, while I think that of Birdman will fade. (Basically the exact same thing that's already happened with The Social Network/The King's Speech.) But enough about what Birdman *isn't*—what it *is* is an extended take (pun intended) on "that little prick called ego," specifically the artist's ego—a topic I can certainly relate to, although not on the same level as Keaton's Riggan Thomson (or Iñárritu for that matter). It's about how you put yourself on the line every time you create something, about how there is no such thing as a safety net when you bleed your heart out on the stage (or screen, or page), about how insane the creative process can make you feel. My only complaint is the final scene—it's ambiguity for ambiguity's sake, which is lazy to me (besides, the magical realism works a lot better if it's all in Thomson's head). That said, it's got the year's smartest script, the best cinematography, and the finest performances—a worthy Best Picture winner when you think about it.

2) Whiplash
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

This is the other movie that left me speechless and slack-jawed this year. I'm of course talking about the final 10 minutes of the film, in which abused and broken jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Teller) rises from the emotional rubble of the grand finale of psychotic music teacher Terence Fletcher's (Simmons) series of humiliations to deliver a rousing 6-minute jazz drum solo. While the scene is a technical and physical marvel (Teller actually played drums throughout the movie), it's a morally complicated one. Did Fletcher's savage, callous methods work on Andrew? Even thornier, does the movie somehow endorse those homophobic, chair-slinging methods? I think the answers are "kind of" and a resounding "no"—you can't watch the previous hour and a half and think that. Simmons—in the best performance of his career and of any actor this year—is terrifying, a black-t-shirt-clad study in sociopathy, an embodiment of the tortuous hell he thinks great artists must go through. He's like R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket meets Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate, only more controlled. If the movie was more widely seen, he'd go down as one of cinema's great villains (hell, he still might anyway), so you can't say the movie thinks he's in the right. But he also pushes Andrew father than he'd ever push himself—and the resulting performance is the crux of the film. But I don't look at the scene as the validation of Fletcher's methods. Rather, I view it as Andrew's big "fuck you" to his "mentor"—he's not going to let the monster win. He's not trying to impress him, he's trying to beat him at his own game. And a big part of me thinks he'll walk out of that music hall never to touch a drum kit again—the ultimate "fuck you" to Fletcher. *This* is how you pull an ambiguous ending off. I'm still thinking about it, and still picking my jaw up off the floor.

1) Boyhood
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater

I'll come out and say it: Boyhood is a masterpiece, the kind of movie that comes along every 4-5 years and serves not so much as a touchstone but as a monument to artistic achievement. They rarely win Best Picture. The Social Network didn't. There Will Be Blood didn't. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind didn't. In the Mood for Love didn't. And, of course, Boyhood didn't. It doesn't matter though—the achievements of these films speak for themselves. What Linklater and his cast accomplished will be remembered long after those of any other movie on this list. Boyhood distills 12 years of human life—12 awkward, painful, frightening, difficult years—into a 2 1/2 hour emotional crucible that leaves the viewer wondering how they survived it themselves. (And that probably goes twice-over for any parents—this could just as easily be called Motherhood or Fatherhood.) It's a testament to Linklater and his editor, the Oscar-snubbed Sandra Adair, that the movie works as well as it does—the passage of time feels natural—and the cinematography of Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly give the whole thing a dreamy, sun-washed quality that fits perfectly with the Texas backdrop. All together, the film plays like a family movie with the scope of a Tolstoy novel. It's The Tree of Life without without the metaphysical bullshit. (And, admittedly, without Emmanuel Lubezski's cinematography.) I pay no heed to the chief complaint levied against the film—that Coltrane is a poor actor. Of course he is, as he's not a professional. And his natural awkward aloofness lends itself perfectly to the adolescent years the film spans. Anyone who's lived through those years (that is to say, *everyone*) should be able to see a little bit of themselves in Coltrane. Be they male or female, white or black, poor or rich, watching Boyhood should feel a little bit like watching yourself up there on the screen. It's beautiful, it's truthful, and it's ego-free. If Birdman is meant for the head, then Boyhood is meant for the heart. I have little doubt as to which will prove to be the more lasting achievement.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

2015 Oscar Predictions (continued)

Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Sandra Adair, Boyhood

Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Jóhann Jóhannsson, The Theory of Everything

Common and John Legend, "Glory" (Selma)

Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley, Whiplash

Alan Robert Murray and Bob Asman, American Sniper

Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, and Scott Fisher, Interstellar

How to Train Your Dragon 2, Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold

Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski (Poland)

Citizenfour, Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy, Dirk Wilutsky

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry

The Dam Keeper, Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi

The Phone Call, Mat Kirby and James Lucas

Friday, February 20, 2015

Of Birds and Boys: 2015 Oscars Predictions

There doesn't seem to be an overarching narrative in the buildup to this year's Oscars. In years past, we've had 12 Years a Slave and the atonement/validation it represented, Argo and the *very* different atonement/validation it represented, and The King's Speech vs. The Social Network (I'm still smarting about that one). The last year with no clear narrative was 2012, the year of The Artist—unless you count the general blah-ness of the nominees as a narrative. This year the opposite is true—the field is pretty strong. There are some quibbles to be made (the shortfall of nominations for Selma seemingly in favor of stately, bland British dramas being the most egregious), but for the most part, the Academy has embraced a superb group of veteran auteurs, accomplished stars, and intriguing new talents. There are some duds in the mix though—whether or not the Academy chooses to ignore them (as they did not on nomination morning) will go a long way toward determining the narrative of this year's ceremony. I'll see if I can get a head start with my predictions. As usual, I've seen all the major nominees, so let's just assume I know what I'm talking about. (Probably a bad idea.)

Gold = predicted winner

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

Barring a major upset, three of the four acting categories are firmly locked in. This is not the category in question. Patricia Arquette has won just about every major precursor award, and her final scene in the movie is an A+ Oscar reel. The only one of the rest of the nominees that's even close to a nocturnal equine is Stone, whose nomination here puts her firmly on the path to Next Julia Roberts status. If AMPAS goes WAY overboard with Birdman love, maaaybe... but no. Not happening. Dern is the best of the rest, but her all-flashback performance isn't on the same level as Arquette's presence over 12 cinematic and real-life years. Knightley give a severely underwritten role her trademark sparkle and Streep is a witch who sings or whatever, let's just nominate her. This statue is Arquette's, and deservedly so.

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

Here's another acting category with a front-runner no one's gonna catch. J.K. Simmons has been a one-man wrecking crew with the precursors, and, like Arquette, is a hardworking veteran of film, TV, voice work, commercials—you name it. He's Juno's dad, J. Jonah Jameson, the Farmer's Insurance guy. But his Terence Fletcher is a truly transcendent performance, eyes glinting and twitching, veins bulging, with a sociopathic intensity I can rarely recall having seen on film. Maybe Annie Wilkes. It was my favorite performance of the year, and I can't wait to give it a wine-tipsy standing O on Oscar night. Of the rest, I feel bad for Hawke and, especially, Norton. They'd be shoo-in winners in just about any other year—Hawke for his effortlessly portrayed, ever-maturing "cool dad" and Norton for his spasmodic, highwire comeback performance. Ruffalo brought a much-needed dose of humanity to balance Carell's vacant creepiness and Tatum's vacant intensity. Oh, and I just watched The Judge and was kind of on board until Duval had fucking CANCER. Spoilers, if anyone cares. But no one is spoiling Simmons's night.

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

Our third and final acting category lock. I don't need to extol the virtues of Julianne Moore—of Amber Waves, of Maude Lebowski, of Clarice Sterling, of just Julian. She'll finally win an Oscar (after 5 tries) for her portrayal of Dr. Alice Howland. It's not the best performance of her career, or the most resonant, but it's among her most affecting and accomplished—she slips further and further into the clutches of Alzheimer's with limited histrionics and conveys a sense of grace in a way that this year's presumptive Best Actor winner couldn't do even with magical acting elves controlling the gears in his skull. If the Academy chooses to deny Moore again, Pike or Witherspoon could be the beneficiary. Pike would be a curious choice given the lack of any other nominations for the film (although the same could be said of Still Alice), but her emotive iciness is Streep-like and I'm fascinated to see what she does next. Witherspoon was better in Wild than her Oscar-winning performance and has quite the Oscar reel, but I can't see her getting a second statue before Moore has one. Ditto Cotillard (for an excellent, unadorned performance). Jones is fine, I guess—but would it have killed the filmmakers to portray marital discord in any other way but restrained?

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

This is the one we've been waiting for. There are three contenders here—Carell (stunt casted and unconvincing, sorry not sorry) and Cumberbatch (Sherlock without the humor) are out. That leaves Cooper, Keaton, and Redmayne. Keaton is my personal favorite and would easily get my vote—his Riggan Thompson is a thoroughly lived-in, bizarrely heartfelt gem of a performance. It's also an actor playing an actor, which the Academy loves (cough, Jean Dujardin, cough). Redmayne is the presumptive front-runner, and he does a fine job imitating Stephen Hawking's mannerisms, but he does very little actual acting in the film. (He's a far sight better as a non-talking, wheelchair-bound character than in most of his speaking roles though.) That leaves Bradley Cooper, he of the three consecutive nominations and endless charm. Neither of those are enough to elevate his Chris Kyle above the terse, uncomplicated "Legend" of the terse, uncomplicated American Sniper, but I think it'll be enough when the two guys who have been duking it out all awards season—Keaton and Redmayne—split the ballot. (Note that I was much more confident in this a few weeks ago in the midst of the Sniper faux controversies.) Cooper's name would look like a pretty good choice on a ballot—better, perhaps, than Keaton (a largely comedic performance, which AMPAS typically doesn't reward) and Redmayne (unproven, uncharismatic). If I'm wrong, it'll probably be Redmayne... but I'm still holding out hope for Keaton, who is easily the best of the bunch.

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

This is one I have ZERO confidence in. The only one that can (probably) be safely ruled out is PTA's script for Inherent Vice, one of my favorite films of the year. There are a number of reasons it won't win, but chief among them is that it's a stoner comedy. PTA will have to wait for his first Oscar. (It'll happen, like it happened to the Coens and will happen to Linklater, Anderson, and/or Iñárritu this year.) I think Hall is the least likely of the other nominees—who saw American Sniper and said, "Man, what a screenplay!"? That's pretty typical of Eastwood joints though. Not even Million Dollar Baby won Adapted Screenplay, and it won Best Picture. If ballot splitting really is a thing and not just something Oscar prognosticators make up, it's not hard to see it happening for McCarten's and Moore's scripts. Both were also dull, surface-level affairs and would be a real snoozer of a winner. That leaves Damien Chazelle's miscategorized script as my pick. (It's based on a short film, which, wait for it, was adapted from the same script that's nominated here to get funding for the feature.) While the script isn't the strongest element of the film (it gets real wonky at the end of the second act—dat ending doe!), it's a film AMPAS loved to the tune of 5 noms. If it's not Chazelle, one of the Brits (I'm just assuming they're both Brits) will take it. Moore's work seems to be slightly better regarded, so, uh, man, I feel a yawn coming on already...

Best Original Screenplay
Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, The Grand Budapest Hotel
E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher
Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

This one's purely about the numbers. The Grand Budapest Hotel tied Birdman for the most total nominations with nine. It stands to reason that it won't walk away without one of the major awards (although it wouldn't be unprecedented—just look at American Hustle last year). It's not winning Director or Picture, so this is the Academy's best shot to give Wes Anderson (and Hugo Guinness) the Oscar that's been eluding him for years. To quote one of my favorite bands, "If not now, when?" As far as the other nominees, if not Wes Anderson, who? It could very well be the Birdman gents, who only "lost" at the WGAs because they weren't eligible due to some guild rule or another. But I have a feeling that having four credited writers will have caused more than a few voters to blanch and pass the (very worthy) film over. Birdman would get my vote, and I'd be pleased if it won, but I'm totally okay with Wes Anderson winning an Oscar too. Boyhood seems to be out because of the improvisational nature of the dialogue (but screenwriting is more than dialogue, and someone had to come up with the idea for each scene and how they fit together as a whole...). Unfair, but there's a good chance Linklater will walk away with one of the big boys. The last two nominees are just happy to be there. For the record, I'm not a Foxcatcher fan (too obtuse), but I am a Nightcrawler fan (although I wouldn't say the script is the best thing about it).

Best Director
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

In a category that *should* have been a one-woman-and-four-man race (Miller over DuVernay? Really?), this is likely a two-man race between Iñárritu and Linklater. The Academy seems to love Miller in much the same way they love Stephen Daldry. His work is certainly unique, but too sterile for me. (And not in a good way like Michael Haneke.) Tyldum certainly knows how to make a polished film—The Imitation Game is one good-looking movie—but it's not clear he knows how to make an insightful or emotionally complex one. The film is all surface. I'm interested to see what he does next though (rumors of a William Gibson adaptation—not Neuromancer, unfortunately.) I like but don't love Wes Anderson. I'm happy to see him finally nominated here though—he certainly deserves it, even if his too-twee stylings don't always mesh with my particular aesthetic palate. It's tough to pick between the remaining two—Boyhood and Birdman were two of the best, and best-directed, films of the year, albeit for different reasons. Birdman is a technical marvel, a magical-realist fable, and a meta commentary on blockbuster culture all in one, complete with a super-awkward subtitle. And Boyhood, well, surely everyone knows about the whole "shot over 12 years with the same actors, many of them non-professionals" thing, right? It's hard to say which is the more impressive feat. It's also hard to say if this award will have any impact on the Best Picture race. Will one film win both awards? Will they split so the Academy can award both? It's rare that the Director race doesn't shine much light on the Picture race. It's also rare that the DGA winner doesn't win the Oscar. (It's been 10 years.) But I think this is a year it happens, and the Oscar will go to Richard Linklater over DGA winner Iñárritu. Call it a hunch, call it heart over head, call it wrong come Monday, but I think it's the right choice.

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

The inclusion of the achingly dull The Theory of Everything aside, this is a pretty strong field. The Imitation Game and American Sniper are well-made and -acted pieces of entertainment (even if both largely remove complexity from their characters' lives), and I feel better about the state of the film industry when talented, idiosyncratic filmmakers like Wes Anderson are recognized on the big stage. Selma and Whiplash are stellar achievements by a pair of up-and-coming auteurs in Ava DuVernay and Damien Chazelle, whose films are two of the most intense, potent, and vital of the year. None of those films is winning, however. (Although I certainly wouldn't protest—too much—at an upset by either of the latter two.) No, this is between Boyhood and Birdman. The former was the front-runner pretty much since it was released, but the latter has been charging hard as of late (and has actually won more of the precursor awards) and is seemingly the current front-runner. (Keeping in mind that voting has actually been over for a few days.) It's a tough choice, and one without a wrong answer, must like last year's ceremony. I also don't think there's really any big dichotomy at play here. There's a perception amongst both prognosticators and the general public that Hollywood (read: the Academy) is always eager to award "insider" films. There's certainly evidence to back it up (see: Argo, The Artist). But I don't think giving the Best Picture Oscar to Birdman would be representative of some kind of industry solipsism—rather, Birdman is a *very* good movie and would be a deserving winner. I just don't think it's as good of a movie as Boyhood, which I think will withstand the late charge from Birdman and take the Oscar it most definitely deserves. It's the best movie of the year, and maybe of the decade that's nearly half over—although The Social Network is a formidable challenger. Perhaps Boyhood will suffer the same fate as that film. But I don't think it will—surely the Academy can recognize a touching, poignant, groundbreaking, singular masterpiece when it sees one, right?


(Stay tuned for the rest of the categories, in much less verbose form.)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

2015 Oscar Nominations Predictions (or The Unexpected Virtue of Procrastination)

It's weird. I hate winter, but pretty much all my favorite events of the year happen within its chilly clutches—New Year's, Heath Day (R.I.P.), the Super Bowl, the first round of March Madness... and, of course, perhaps my favorite, the Oscars. Yes, I know they don't really "mean" anything, and, yes, they're a bit pompous and stuffy, and, yes, they rarely pick the "right" movie, but I can't help myself. I love nothing more than to throw on a suit, crack open a bottle of wine, slice a fine cheese, and fill out an Oscar pool entry. But before any of that can happen, we need to know who the nominees are. And if I I'm the kind of guy who tries to predict the winners (I am), you can bet your ass I'm the kind of guy who will try to predict the nominees. So, as is tradition, with the announcement mere hours away, here are my predictions. I went 35/44 last year (which basically anyone who reads two or three Oscar blog posts can do). Let's see if I can do one or two better this year. (Everything is listed in order of likelihood.)

* = haven't seen it
^ = early winner prediction

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Gone Girl
Next in line:
American Sniper*
Into the Woods

Comments: The race for the winner seems all but decided at this point—this is Boyhood's year, as it should be—but what films round out the last few nominations should be more interesting than usual. There seems to be a consensus that there could be 10 nominees for the first time since 2010 (when the number of nominees was set at 10). And there's not even a below-average film among the contenders (like Philomena last year). But first, the "locks" (oh, Oscar lingo, how I've missed thee). Boyhood is a no-brainer, as are Birdman and the film that upset it at the Globes, Grand Budapest Hotel. Those three are also among the best (i.e., my favorite) films of the year. Less so two other presumed locks, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. But they're both the kind of hyper-competent (that's a backhanded compliment) awards bait that gets nominations most years and wins in weak years, so they're both in. Whiplash and Selma seem to be the last two sure things—and these powerful, personal films are both two of my favorites of the year as well. That leaves anywhere from, well, zero to three other films to make the cut. Since a film only needs 5% of first place votes at this juncture, that only means a few hundred voters (out of 6,000–7,000) need to have a film at the top of their ballot. I think there will be enough support for a box office and critical hit like Gone Girl as well as the two oddball drama/thrillers, Foxcatcher and Nightcrawler. I just don't see such a late entrant like American Sniper gaining much support (especially considering Clint Eastwood hasn't had a nomination in any category in 7 years, and none in this category in 9). Into the Woods and Unbroken have basically no shot, but they're all that's left in the cupboard.

Wishful thinking: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Snowpiercer, Under the Skin

Richard Linklater – Boyhood^
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Birdman
Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ava DuVerney – Selma
Damiel Chazelle – Whiplash
Next in line:
Morten Tyldum – The Imitation Game
Clint Eastwood – American Sniper*
David Fincher – Gone Girl
Dan Gilroy – Nightcrawler

Comments: Damn, what a tough category to pick. Beyond the first three, it's a crapshoot. Linklater, Iñárritu, and Anderson seem like sure things, with Linklater likely to repeat his win at the Globes last Sunday. All three are worthy. Linklater and Anderson somehow have never been nominated and are more than "due," while the technical achievements of Birdman are vast, for which Iñárritu deserves a lion's share of the credit. Hard to believe his last film was Biutiful. The other two spots are likely between the next four names—DuVerney, Chazelle, Tyldum, and Eastwood. Given the Director's branch has found spots for both younger and minority directors in recent years, I think they can find room for both DuVerney (a minority *and* a woman) and Chazelle (who is all of 29... great, now I feel like a failure) for their vibrant, formally interesting work, rather than nominating the staid, impersonal filmmaking of Tyldum (he's like a Tom Hooper knock-off) and Eastwood (obviously haven't seen Sniper, but Eastwood's workmanlike technique seems out of place given the rest of the contenders). The always-interesting Fincher could swoop in and snag the fifth spot and it wouldn't shock (or disappoint) me, and Gilroy looks like an up-and-coming talent and his movie seems to have a lot of support, so you can't count him out. This is the category I'm the most anxious about, and the results tomorrow could tell us a lot about the current state of the Academy.

Wishful thinking: Jonathan Glazer – Under the Skin, Bong Joon-ho – Snowpiercer

Michael Keaton – Birdman^
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
David Oyelowo – Selma
Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
Next in line:
Bradley Cooper – American Sniper*
Steve Carell – Foxcatcher
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Timothy Spall – Mr. Turner*

Comments: This is a pretty loaded field, and it probably goes even deeper than this. We'll start, as always, with the "locks," of which there are only two—Keaton and Redmayne. Those two will be battling for the statue over the next few weeks, and I think Keaton's masterful work (and humble, touching Golden Globes acceptance speech) will put him over the top. Redmayne is fine in Theory (and he's certainly come a long way from My Week with Marilyn—god, what an awful movie/performance), but it's the kind of unemotive physical impression that I just can't get behind. Of the rest, Cumberbatch is the closest to a sure thing—he's asked to do a bit more than Redmayne, but I can muster up no better adjective than "fine." But he also seems to be a presumptive lock vulnerable to a lack of top-end support, a la Tom Hanks at this time last year. It wouldn't surprise me to see him fall out of the top five. There are plenty of contenders ready to take his place should he slip. Chief among them is Oyelowo, who combines bombast and tranquility in a surprisingly gregarious take on MLK, Jr. He—and the movie as a whole—has just enough passion and talent to rise above the "awards bait" tag some of his competitors have been slapped with (by me and others). Finally, the last spot (should my previous predictions prove correct) should be between Gyllenhaal, Carell, and Cooper. Cooper has been the recipient of a lot of love from the Academy lately, but I have a hard time seeing him being nominated for the third time in three years. And Carell has the whole "comedian goes serious" thing going for him, but "different" doesn't mean "good"—and I didn't think Carell was particularly good in Foxcatcher. That leaves Gyllenhaal, who managed to channel Travis Bickle and Patrick Bateman, yet somehow made the character his own. That should be enough to get him his first lead Actor nomination. (Fiennes and Spall would be right in the conversation in any other year. But maybe one of them shocks the world in the morning.)

Wishful thinking: Macon Blair – Blue Ruin, Miles Teller – Whiplash

Julianne Moore – Still Alice*^
Reese Witherspoon – Wild
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
Jennifer Aniston – Cake*
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Next in line:
Amy Adams – Big Eyes
Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night*

Comments: As is usually (and unfortunately) the case, the field for Best Actress is much more barren than Actor. The top five are your likely nominees, with little potential for a surprise. The consensus seems to be this is Moore's time to finally win a statue, but the movie hasn't come out in Arizona yet, so I can't comment. I actually thought Witherspoon's statue-winning performance in 2009 was less than impressive, but, as happened last year with Sandra Bullock, a future performance wound up validating the award for me. For Bullock, it was The Blind Side and Gravity. For Witherspoon, it was Walk the Line and now Wild. Good movie, great performance. Pike was something to behold in Gone Girl—icy and calculating, like Tilda Swinton or Meryl Streep in their more restrained roles (Michael Clayton or Doubt, say). I have no... doubt we'll be seeing her here again someday. I haven't seen Aniston's film so I can't comment, but I suspect the opportunity to nominate a beloved veteran like her will be too hard for the Actor's branch to pass up. I have the same things to say about Jones as I did about Cumberbatch above—watch out for a shocking snub. If that were to happen, Adams (very good, as always) or Cotillard (one of my favorites, especially in her native language—I'll be seeing her film either way) would stand to benefit.

Wishful thinking: Scarlett Johannson – Under the Skin

J.K. Simmons – Whiplash^
Edward Norton – Birdman
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
Josh Brolin – Inherent Vice*
Next in line:
Robert Duvall – The Judge*
Tom Wilkinson – Selma
Riz Ahmed – Nightcrawler

Comments: This is another category that should have very little drama come morning. The top four are basically sure things, which leaves one spot up for grabs... but no one really there to grab it. Of the locks, Simmons is the front-runner, and very deservedly so—his was my favorite performance, regardless of gender or category, of the year. I'll have much more to say about it in future posts. Ditto Norton's, which happens to be my second favorite performance of the year. And both Hawke and Ruffalo were wonderful in a movie I adored (Boyhood) and a movie I was very put off by but begrudgingly respect (Foxcatcher). As far as the fifth spot goes, I've seen a lot of pundits saying the Actor's branch will play the veteran card and go in for Duvall, but... well, I'm pretty much not putting him because I don't want to see the movie. It looks like schlock (and the reviews and the box office take seem to back that up), and I'm hoping the Academy is better than that. (They're not.) I'm hoping they can instead find room for Brolin (whose movie I can't *wait* to see), the venerable, talented Wilkinson, or, especially, the quietly excellent Ahmed (he'd be the Barkhad Abdi equivalent this year).

Wishful thinking: Bill Hader – The Skeleton Twins

Patricia Arquette – Boyhood^
Emma Stone – Birdman
Meryl Streep – Into the Woods
Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year*
Rene Russo – Nightcrawler
Next in line:
Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game
Laura Dern – Wild

Comments: This category has slightly more intrigue than it seems on the surface. Arquette (your eventual winner) and Stone are locked in, but after that, who knows. (They're both fantastic, by the way, richly internal then cracklingly external in their signature scenes.) It's always a bad idea to bet against Streep, and I'm not gonna do it here. She does Streep-y things, as usual, and gets extra points for singing, I guess. (Not a huge fan of the movie, obviously.) Most prognosticators have Knightley riding the tide of polite applause for her movie to an easy nomination. She's actually one of the best parts of the movie (and a personal favorite of mine), but I'm gonna zig when everyone else has zagged and say she misses the cut in favor of not-quite-star Chastain (it's coming) and a tip of the cap to the hardworking veteran Russo. I'd be happy to be wrong though, as everyone wins when Knightley puts on an evening gown and flashes her stunning smile on the red carpet. (Dern is another respected vet who could sneak into the final spot for a lovely, bittersweet performance.)

Wishful thinking: Carrie Coon – Gone Girl, Melanie Lynskey – Happy Christmas

Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo – Birdman^
Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dan Gilroy – Nightcrawler
Mike Leigh – Mr. Turner*
Next in line:
Paul Webb – Selma
E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman – Foxcatcher
J.C. Chandor – A Most Violent Year*

Comment: If there's a theme so far, it's "four locks and a ???" (as it is most years). Linklater, Iñárritu, and Anderson are surefire nominees and are all contenders for the award. This is the first category yet that I'm even a bit unconfident in who the eventual winner will be. (But it won't be that easy, will it, AMPAS?) I'm going with the Birdman boys, fresh off their Globes win, until the SAGs. Gilroy is something less than a lock and something more than a question mark, but I think he's pretty safe. His is also the only wholly original story (other than longshot Chandor's) of the other contenders (all are based on historical events). I think that works in his favor. For the fifth spot, most of the predictions I've perused have it between Selma and Foxcatcher. Both are problematic for behind-the-scenes reasons—authorship (director DuVerney largely rewrote the script) and historical accuracy for Selma and one of the main figures in the movie publicly bashing the script (Mark Schultz) for Foxcatcher. I think that leaves just enough room for an old guy like Leigh to get one last shot at the gold. Critics seem to love Mr. Turner, and I could see the Writer's branch going out on a limb for him. Chandor already has a nomination here and figures to get one for the big chair in the near future. He's probably an also-ran here this year, but I'm very excited to see his film.

Wishful thinking: Jeremy Saulnier – Blue Ruin

Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl^
Graham Moore – The Imitation Game
Anthony McCarten – The Theory of Everything
Damien Chazelle – Whiplash
Nick Hornby – Wild
Next in line:
Paul Thomas Anderson – Inherent Vice*
Jason Hall – American Sniper*

Comments: This is the one category where I have absolutely no idea what will happen. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are the kind of prestige biopics that always get nominated here and figure to receive nominations. I just can't see the voters being able to tell them apart enough to give either one the award. I think Flynn (who adapted her own novel) could come away with a statue if that were to come to pass. All three seem to be safe choices for nominations though. As for the other two spots... Chazelle really belongs in the Original category (as the movie is based on his own short film), and his chances could suffer because of perceived category fraud. But it's a tight script with two very meaty roles, so Chazelle should hear his name called at least here in the morning. (He's also a darkhorse for the statue.) Finally, Hornby's script for Wild is a nice, structurally interesting piece of screenwriting and would be a fine fifth nominee. If not him, then look for either PTA or Hall to nab a nom (for movies I haven't seen). I would think adapting Thomas freaking Pynchon would be a tougher task than adapting a problematic autobiography, but we shall see. (Don't discount the kind of out-of-nowhere nomination that is more common in Original here though.)

Wishful thinking: Gillian Robespierre – Obvious Child

*Movie I'm probably overrating: Nightcrawler
*Movie I'm probably underrating: American Sniper*
*I have very little grasp on the screenwriting categories this year (which is bad for someone with a master's in screenwriting).
*I'll be rooting the most for Whiplash and Selma to do well in the big categories (movies like Boyhood and Birdman don't need much help).
*There's a shocker coming in one of these categories, but I obviously don't know what it is.

A bit longer than usual, but in at right about the same time. Once again, the number to beat is 35/44. We'll find out how I did in a few hours. Before the actual ceremony, you'll get my favorite movies post and, obviously, my final predictions. Until then. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Predicting the Unpredictable: 2015 Golden Globes

Much like last year, there are a number of films/performances in the Comedy categories that will be in the Oscar conversation. That's not the case every year. But that also means that the Globes will be even less of a precursor for the Oscars than normal. So why write about the Globes? Because they're interesting, they're unpredictable, they're fun. And, c'mon, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are pretty great hosts. (As much as I like NPH, I'm a little dubious on his hosting capabilities.) So, fresh off seeing the last two important multiple nominees I hadn't seen (Selma and The Theory of Everything), let's make some nearly baseless, barely researched predictions, shall we?

* = a film or performance I haven't seen
bold = my prediction

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year*
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Logic: The Oscar seems to be Arquette's to lose at this point—not that that necessarily means anything in this race. I don't think Chastain or Knightley have much of a shot here—Chastain's movie has barely been released, and Knightley's seems to have lost a bit of critical traction. You can never count Streep out, and her movie did get 3 nominations, but I just don't see it happenening against two vastly superior performances—Arquette's and Stone's. Stone was great and is a potential spoiler both here and come Oscar time, but hers was maybe the 3rd- or 4th-best performance in her movie. That leaves Arquette, who has been racking up film critic society awards and figures to make the Globe the first of many Oscar precursors. She's well deserving as a resilient bundle of frayed nerves in the year's best film.

Spoiler: Stone
My Vote: Arquette
Snubbed: Carrie Coon, Gone Girl

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

Logic: After I saw Boyhood, I didn't think I'd see a supporting performance better than Ethan Hawke's. Then I saw two... in the same day. I did a Birdman/Whiplash double feature and left the theater floored by Norton and Simmons. There are not two better performances—lead or supporting, male or female—in any film this year. Choosing between them will be difficult for critics and voters alike. No disrespect to Hawke (very, very good) and Ruffalo (the best part of a deeply flawed film), but the choice is clearly between Norton and Simmons. In Birdman, Norton showed us that he still has the natural ability that made everyone think he was a once-in-a-generation talent when he burst onto the scene—let's hope he keeps choosing roles that let him shine. But my vote (and, I believe, the Globe) goes to Simmons, who was simultaneously demonic and magnetic in a career-best performance from one of the best character actors around. Never was I more rapt this year then when watching him work. (Oh, and I have no idea what Robert Duvall is doing here.)

Spoiler: Norton
My Vote: Simmons
Snubbed: Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler

Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical
Amy Adams, Big Eyes
Emily Blunt, Into the Woods
Helen Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey*
Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars*
Quvenzhané Wallis, Annie*

Logic: Remember when I said that there were "a number of films/performances in the Comedy categories that will be in the Oscar conversation"? (Buckley) (Yes, I just cited myself.) Well, I wasn't talking about this category. Maaaybe Amy Adams has a chance, but that's it. And she doesn't figure to win here—Big Eyes, while a solid film, was little-seen and has pretty much zero critical buzz. I wouldn't count her out because she's Amy Adams, and who doesn't like Amy Adams, but couldn't you say the same thing about Emily Blunt? She's as lovely as ever in Into the Woods, which has a much higher profile than Adams's film, and Adams just won last year, so voters might want to spread the wealth. An Adams win wouldn't surprise me though. (Haven't seen any of the other performances, but I'd be *shocked* if any of them won.)

Spoiler: Adams
My Vote: Adams
Snubbed: Jenny Slate, Obvious Child

Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical
Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Bill Murray, St. Vincent
Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice*
Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes

Logic: Michael Keaton is perhaps the Oscar front-runner at this point—a rarity for a potential winner here. It basically happens once a decade, and the last was three years ago (Jean Dujardin for The Artist). He's definitely got a challenger here though in Fiennes. As for the rest, Murray was as good as he's been in years in St. Vincent, but it's a pretty minor movie. Two-time Oscar winner (!) Waltz is just filler here (he's fine in the movie), and I have't seen Phoenix's movie (I can't wait though—he's one of my favorite working actors). But back to the contenders. Budapest has made quite a surge of late for an early-year release, and Fiennes gives it his all as a profane, libidinous, corageous conceirge in the best performance in a Wes Anderson movie since, well, Bill Murray in Rushmore. I just don't think he's on the same level as Keaton. It's a comeback, it's meta, and it's really damned fine acting. Just like Mickey Rourke in 2009. (Who won the Globe but lost the Oscar...)

Spoiler: Fiennes
My Vote: Keaton
Snubbed: Michael Fassbender, Frank

Best Actress in a Drama
Jennifer Aniston, Cake*
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice*
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Logic: This one's purely based on critical consensus. This seems to be "the year" for Julianne Moore. She's one of the best actresses around and somehow still doesn't have an Oscar. That figures to change this year, and it starts with her (likely) picking up a Golden Globe on Sunday. (She already has one of those, but it's for a miniseries playing, believe it or not, Sarah Palin.) I haven't seen Aniston's film, but supposedly she's in the mix for an Oscar nomination as well, making her the (potential) answer to the future trivia question, "Who is the only Friends alum to be nominated for an Oscar?" (There's still time, Matt LeBlanc!) The other three performances range from solid (Jones) to very good (Witherspoon), with the most interesting being Pike's. I walked out of the theater thinking she was the weak link of the film, but reflection has me thinking she was one of the best parts. And dat scene with NPH doe. Should make for some interesting jokes should she get nominated for an Oscar...

Spoiler: Witherspoon
My Vote: Witherspoon
Snubbed: Scarlett Johannson, Under the Skin

Best Actor in a Drama
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
David Oyelowo, Selma
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Logic: Sometimes it can be a mistake to assume that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will automatically go for the non-American (especially British) option (see last year with McConaughey over Ejiofor or 2010 for The Social Network over The King's Speech). That could leave the door open for Oyelowo's fiery yet refined performance as MLK, Jr. in Selma (just saw it today—a really great film). But I think the Cumberbatch/Redmayne duo will be too tempting. Of the two, Redmayne had the harder job (i.e., more showy), and I think the HFPA will take the bait. Cumberbatch is a definite contender, but he basically just plays Sherlock, and he hasn't won a Globe for that show yet. My favorite performance of the bunch (not best—that would be Oyelowo's) is Gyllenhaal's as a nouveau Travis Bickle in a movie that I can't wait to watch again. (And Carell... stunt casting at its finest. All I have to say.)

Spoiler: Oyelowo or Cumberbatch
My Vote: Oyelowo
Snubbed: Macon Blair, Blue Ruin

Best Screenplay
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game

Logic: This is a tough one—Budapest, Boyhood, and Birdman are all contenders. Moore is just filler for his neutered screenplay, while Flynn's effective adaptation is a bit out of its depth here. I think Birdman's technical and acting achievements are greater than those of its writing (and it may be a bit too clever and cynical for its own good—not that I'm complaining). Between Anderson and Linklater, I think the improvisational vibe of Boyhood works against it, while Anderson's witty, baroque script for Budapest is more obviously "written." I think it'll pick up the win but, like I said, this one is difficult to forecast.

Spoiler: Linklater
My Vote: Iñárritu, et al.
Snubbed: Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

Best Director:
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ava DuVernay, Selma
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Logic: This is a strong field. As (almost) always, David Fincher elevates the material, bringing out a career-best performance from Ben Affleck and creating a chilly atmosphere that keeps audiences questioning everything. DuVerney imbues what could have been another hagiographic biopic with a full moral palette and emotional vocabulary. I've said it about Wes Anderson before—he's a one-trick pony, but it's a pretty good trick. I can only imagine what he could do if he ever learned a new one. Speaking of new tricks, Iñárritu emptied his old bag and learned a whole set of audacious new ones (still not sure what to think about that ending though). That leaves Linklater, whose film might not be as technically adroit as Iñárritu's, but he more than makes up for it in emotional deftness and reimagining the scope of what a film can do. If that isn't award-worthy, I don't know what is.

Spoiler: Iñárritu
My Vote: Linklater
Snubbed: Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer

Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Into the Woods
St. Vincent

Logic: This one is between Birdman and Budapest. Into the Woods is okay, I guess, for a musical (Chris Pine steals the show), St. Vincent is just charming enough to make up for the maudlin third act, and I'm not sure what a Pride is, so I won't say anything about it. Between the two contenders, neither of them really seem to be the kind of film the HFPA usually goes for, but there wasn't a musician biopic to miscategorize or an actually prestigious musical, so we're left between a metatextual superhero movie and zany, twee crime caper. Of the two, Birdman would seem to have the upper hand, both critically speaking and timing-wise. It's also an insider movie—which might, incidentally, hurt it with the HFPA. If it does, Budapest would benefit. This will be one of the most interesting races of the night.

Spoiler: The Grand Budapest Hotel
My Vote: Birdman
Snubbed: Frank

Best Motion Picture – Drama
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Logic: This category features three pretenders (Foxcatcher, Imitation, Theory), one very good runner-up (Selma), and one clear-cut winner. First, the pretenders. There are 1-2 movies every year that fall in the "dislike, but respect" category (Tree of Life is one obvious example), and this year's is Foxcatcher. It's emotionally and visually sterile, awkwardly staged, and poorly paced. But the absolute strangeness of it all is somehow captivating. Imitation and Theory are pretty much the same movie—take a complicated, fascinating individual, remove said traits, add simplistic plots, and voila: awards bait. (Imitation is the superior of the two.) Selma is powerful, prescient, and complex—it puts movies like Lincoln to shame and is vital given the current events in places like Ferguson. But, this is the year of Boyhood. I'll have more to say about it in my best movies and Oscars posts, but it's the year's best film and should have no trouble winning a Golden Globe.

Spoiler: Selma
My Vote: Boyhood
Snubbed: Whiplash

TV Notes: Shows I'll be rooting for include Game of Fucking Thrones, Orange Is the New Black, Silicon Valley, Louie, and my favorite show of the year, True Detective.