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.)

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