cinecist vs. oscar 2014

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Hello again, readers, both the loyal long-timers and the curious newcomers among you.I suspect there are even fewer of the latter than there are of the former, and that the whole lot of you can be counted on two hands and no feet.Yet here I am still, pounding the rocks for you.The appreciation is mutual, Iím sure.

 

I wonít even make a show this year of apologizing for only covering the major categories.I would love to once again tackle the whole breadth of this silly pageant, had I but world enough and time.As I would love to see enough of the films released in any given year to create a top ten list that would be meaningful outside the context of these awards.But not this year.I was able, however, to see all the films nominated for Best Picture, and really a pretty good chunk of the nominees in all the major categories.So thereís that small consolation.

 

Every year, we lose actors, directors, producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, people who spent a big part of their lives creating cinematic art for our enjoyment and enrichment.We lament the loss, whisper a quiet thank you, and move on.Sometimes thereís a loss from which it is not so easy for us to move on, and the reasons for that can be mysterious.We faced such a loss in 2014 when Robin Williams took his own life.Speaking for myself, I donít think Iíve really quite moved on yet.I have a few thoughts on why.

 

With no further ado, off we go.

 

© 2015 dondi demarco

 

 

Before we start, the usual notes, definitions, and disclaimers:

   Prediction:The nominee that will win.In red, for your convenience.

   Pick:The nominee that should win, and would, if I were king for a day.

   Percentages:My arbitrary, inexact, self-designed means of assigning probability to certain outcomes.My methodology is...suspect, at best.

 

 

NO TALKING, NO TEXTING.

 

Enjoy the show.

 

 

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Best PictureDirector Actor Actress Supporting Actor Supporting Actress

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Best Picture

Nominees:

Prediction:

Birdman

 

 

Pick:

The Grand Budapest Hotel

American Sniper

10%

Birdman

41%

Boyhood

39%

The Grand Budapest Hotel

5%

The Imitation Game

-

Selma

5%

The Theory of Everything

-

Whiplash

-

 

No nomination made me happier this year than The Grand Budapest Hotel in this category.As highly regarded a film as it is, there was no guarantee at all that we would see it here.This is a movie that was released in the U.S. in early MarchóMarch, I say!In Oscar terms, March is prehistory.But the Academy, straining their memory muscles, recalled that, yes, in fact this ancient artifact was a product of 2014, and it should not be ignored just for lacking the common sense to show up in October or November like all the other good little nominees (OK, except for Boyhood, but thatís kind of a special case).Good for them, because no film from last year is more deserving of a spot on this list.

 

In a sense, Budapest is the film I had been waiting for from Wes Anderson.Andersonís style can legitimately be criticized for leaning too much at times toward the precious, but I donít think anyone can deny that he has developed and refined a distinctive cinematic aesthetic to rival any director working today.There is no mistaking a Wes Anderson film for anything else.Until 2014, that aesthetic had produced films ranging from good (Moonrise Kingdom, The Darjeeling Limited) to very good indeed (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums).With Grand Budapest Hotel, he has made the jump to greatness.And he seems to have done it by being more ďWes AndersonĒ than ever beforeómore stylized, more absurd, more ironic; but also more nostalgic, more melancholy, more world-weary.Anderson has never been in more complete control of tone and emotion than he is here, and that frees him to play with the elements of his story in wildly inventive and entertaining ways without fear that he will lose his audience.One key to that control is the multi-tiered, telescoping narrative frame in which he encases his touching story of friendship and death and crime and sex between the wars.Another is a thoroughly charismatic and drop-dead hilarious performance from Ralph Fiennes, an actor who is, shall we say, not reliably charismatic and/or hilarious.But he sure nails it here, making concierge Gustave H. credible and sympathetic in all his complexities: the snobbery and the sentimentality, the haughtiness and the horniness, the casual cruelty and the genuine affection for his dear lobby boy.Fiennes is perfection in the role, and his absence from the Best Actor nominations is rather shameful.Grand Budapest Hotel is genuinely a masterwork, dazzling from the start and quietly heartbreaking in the end.And Iím loathe to put it entirely out of the running in this category, but it really has to be seen as the darkest sort of horse.

 

Then there are those horses that are so dark they canít really be considered horses at all, theyíre more like shadows of horses.In the stable.With broken legs.Letís look at those.

 

Whiplash is a hard, jagged little gem of a movie that wouldnít be on this list if not for the performance of J.K. Simmons in what is nominated as a supporting role but is really a co-lead (more on that performance in the Supporting Actor category).But it has many virtues beyond that one.It starts out with a familiar plotóambitious music student under tutelage of very harsh instructor, etc.óand it does a fine job with it.The student is sympathetic enough for us to root for, but still serious and single-minded enough that we believe he might, after all, be on the road to genius.And the instructor is cruel enough for us to despise and cringe at, but also correct enough in his assessment of the studentís weaknesses that we believe he might, after all, be a great teacher.The story is propelled by the manic, percussive energy of jazz drums (our studentís chosen instrument), which, I think itís safe to say, has never been captured more effectively onscreen.But then a surprising thing happens:The movie kind of finishes with that storyline somewhere toward the end of the second act.Things go rather spectacularly wrong, and we now have a whole other kind of story on our hands.And thatís where Whiplash really starts to riff and wriggle and shine. There were no fewer than five times during the second half of the film when I thought to myself, ďOh, now I see where this is headed and where weíre going to end up.ĒI was wrong every time, except the last oneóand that one happened about 10 seconds before the movie ended.I love that.But still, no chance of winning for such a small, harsh fable.

 

The biopics on the list arenít going to win, either.The Theory of Everything has the advantage of a central performance that is a strong contender for Best Actor, but thatís really about all it has.Itís a sturdy film, the cinematic equivalent of a well-built chair, with a fascinating subject in Stephen Hawking, nice performances all around and plenty of dramatic and touching moments.But biopics tend to suffer from a lack of thematic oomph; weíre presented with the facts of a life, and generally some tinted lens through which to view them (Triumph Over Adversity being a favorite color, or Love Is All You Need), but rarely is there any clear sense of what these facts are really telling us, of why someone went to all the trouble and expense of putting this specific story onscreen for the world to see.Everything suffers from this, and among so many stronger nominees, thatís not a surmountable failing.

 

The Imitation Game suffers less from that affliction, largely attributable to the fact that thereís such a great story beneath it to do the heavy lifting.Mathematical genius Alan Turing, insufferable and friendless, alienates as many people as possible as he goes about the business of inventing a machine to crack the Enigma encoder, defeat Germany, and put an end to World War II.Except if they do crack it, they canít act on most of the intelligence they intercept because then the Germans will know Enigma has been cracked and theyíll stop using it and all that work will have been for nothing.Oh, and Turing is gay, which had to be kept secret because it was still illegal in 1940s England.Oh, and the machine he invented was basically the first computer.So really, thereís no shortage of thematic oomph here, and the movie, to its credit, packs an emotional punch in its final scenes.But still, thereís nothing particularly special about the filmmaking.Again, the lead is nominated for Best Actor, but canít really be seen as much of a contender for that award, just as Imitation Game isnít really in the running for this one.

 

Better than those two is American Sniper.Sadly but not surprisingly, ideological posturing sidetracked the public discourse on this movie and seems to have scuttled most serious consideration of it.Clint Eastwood is a man with a political stance, to be sure, and he isnít afraid to display it when he feels the time is right.But as a filmmaker, his even-handedness is beyond reproach.Anyone who watches American Sniper and sees a political agenda brought that agenda into the theatre with them; itís not there on the screen.The political ďcritiquesĒ Iíve read seem mostly to do with people being upset that the movie chooses not to condemn US actions in Iraq, or the questionable rationale that was given for them, or the protagonistís acceptance of such.As if that is the purpose ofóor would even be appropriate withinóthis solemn story.This is a movie about a man who made a decision (a series of decisions, really) based on what he believed was the right way to live his life, and stuck with it.And itís a visceral portrayal of the ugliness and human costs of war, and a moving (if finally just a bit too sentimental) acknowledgement of the sometimes enormous sacrifices people make for causes they believe in.It could have been set in just about any war, at just about any time, and the story would have been essentially the same.It just so happens this particular person went to Iraq after 9/11.So be it.Eastwood the director always brings a dramatic efficiency to his work.He doesnít waste a lot of energy.Sometimes that makes his films feel a little like shorthand, like points that should have been fleshed out werenít.But in his best work, that efficiency translates into a kind of authority.You feel like youíre in the sure hands of someone who just knows.Thatís how American Sniper feels.(There is some very recent talk of Sniper being well positioned to pull off a massive upset and snatch the prize on Oscar night, owing to its huge box-office showing since nominations were announced.While my brain tells me to ignore that talk, my gut gives it enough credence that I have upgraded Sniperís chance at a win from ďimpossibleĒ all the way up to ďextremely unlikely.Ē)

 

Iím considering Selma to have an outside chance at a winóway outside, like not even on the porch or the patio, but more like peeking in through a knothole in the fence.And honestly, Iím not sure why its chances arenít a lot better than this.Iíll be the first to admit that when I heard there was a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. executive-produced by Oprah Winfrey and starring some guy whose name I had never heard and was unable to pronounce with any confidence, I was not the first in line to buy tickets.Quite the contrary, I crossed it off my mental list, preferring as I do to spend my time focusing on films I believe will figure prominently in late February.But then.... Well, everyone started talking about how great Selma was and how it was going to be a big player in awards season.So it wormed its way back onto my list, and I saw it, and damned if itís not a home run.I donít really consider it a biopic, as it doesnít try to take on the whole life or even the whole public career of MLKóa very smart choice that frees the film from having to expend dramatic capital hitting a lot of familiar milestones.It picks up his story in late 1964, when his ĎI have a dreamí speech is already old news, and ends just a few months later in 1965, with his assassination still years away.It simply focuses on the Selma to Montgomery march to secure black citizens of Alabama the ability to vote unhindered, and it uses the logistics of that one episode to explore the soul of the man, the difficulty of his mission, and the complexity of race politics.In that, it succeeds mightily, with grace and power.There is perhaps a little too stark a contrast set up between the good guys and the bad guys here; but then again itís worth noting that the bad guys in this fight were in fact really, truly bad guys.Selma is one of the best films of the year, and thatís in a strong field.I canít explain why it received only this single meaningful nomination (OK, it was nominated for Best Song, too), but that fact alone makes its odds of winning very remote.

 

So yes, Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma and Sniper are technically in the race.But theyíre trailing the two front runners by nearly the length of the course.Whoís really gonna win?

 

The truth is, even though Grand Budapest is my personal pick, I will be ecstatic whether Boyhood or Birdman takes home the prize.Both are ambitious, innovative, and fearless.Both are wholly engrossing stories of aspiration and self-determination.And both are distinctive technical achievements that grow in stature the more you consider them.But the films couldnít be more different.

 

Birdman is a claustrophobically, perhaps pathologically self-contained narrative of a once-movie-star trying to regain his relevance and also achieve for the first time an artistic legitimacy beyond any commercial considerations.Easier said than done.I could pontificate all day about how the casting of erstwhile Batman Michael Keaton in the lead both fuels and complicates the story, how the decisions to confine so much of the action to the cruddy interiors of an old Broadway theatre and shoot/edit it toseem like one long take keep us stewing in the desperation and precariousness of the charactersí professional and personal lives, how the eerie physicality of the fantasy sequences destabilizes us in just the right measure to set us up for the mystery of the final scenes.... Clearly, this is a film conceived and crafted as a vehicle for exploring ideas.Ideas of fame, success, artistry, dedication, self-worth.And so it does, with great gusto and a very weird, very dark sense of humor.Birdman looks and sounds like nothing youíve seen before, itís full of vigorous balls-out performances from every single actor in it, and it just crackles with nervous energy in every frame.It careens down its cramped little hallways doing exactly what it intends to do and not really giving a shit whether that makes you uncomfortable or not.Itís a wonderful thing.But more than that, it is, in a sense, the ultimate delivery on the promise of independent cinemaóand it could actually win the Oscar, which is more wonderful still.

 

As for Boyhood, if you know me, you know that I adore Richard Linklater.Linklater makes small films, in the sense that he tells unspectacular stories about (mostly) regular people doing not a whole lot other than talking.The greatness lies in how that talk draws us into the charactersí lives and minds.From his first real feature, Slacker, his extraordinary eye and ear for human communication were evident.He already knew in his bones what some filmmakers take decades to learn and many more never do at all:Once we really see and hear a character, how the things they say and do are constantly manifesting the unique creature that they are, we fall in love with them a little bit.We canít help it, thatís just how human beings work.We crave characters who are like the human beings we know, with their preoccupations and imperfections and stupidity, but also with their thoughtfulness and their curiosity and their endless striving for meaning and comfort and happiness.†† This is what Linklater delivers again and again in his best work:Slacker, Dazed & Confused, Waking Life, the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight).And now in Boyhood.

 

But thereís more than that.Linklaterís work has always demonstrated an abiding fascination with the passage of time and how to manage it cinematically when you really only have a couple of hours to tell your story.His approach to the problem in the Before films was to revisit two people three times at nine-year intervals, all pretty much in real timeómeaning each of the films represents just a few hours of action, and the nine-year intervals are actual nine-year intervals between the shooting and release of the films.It sounds pretty simple, but the effect is almost magical:We donít just have six hours of our lives invested in these characters, we have 18 years.The extent to which that changes our feelings about them, and our rooting interest in their ultimate happiness, is hard to overstate.The approach in Boyhood is different, but no less magical.Linklater shot the film for a couple of weeks a year over 12 years, so we literally watch a little boy grow into a young man onscreen in these three hours, as well as being witness to 12 years of changing, maturing and evolving for everyone around him.Makeup and wardrobe can do a lot to age an actor, but Boyhood reminds us that those are childís play compared to what actual time can do.There is truly nothing exceptional about the central story of the movie; itís one every single one of us lived our own version of, give or take a few particulars.But thereís another story running parallel, a story of a filmmaker and a group of actors who commit 12 years of their lives to bringing the greatest truth and authenticity possible to something as simple and universal as a single childhood.The weight of that commitment pervades every moment of Boyhood and inspires not only admiration but, at certain moments, actual awe.Plus (he says with just a hint of cinecism) the Academy, consisting of filmmakers and actors and other movie sorts, is a pretty warm audience for that second story, donít you think?

 

Up until the Directorsí Guild Awards, Vegas odds and most experts were favoring Boyhood, though the race was always considered to be a close one.I flirted with the possibility that Birdman would win Best Picture but Linklater would win for Director, but eventually settled into the Majority view that Boyhood would take the prize.Then the DGA award unexpectedly went to Birdman director Alejandro IŮŠrritu, meaning that film has now won the top three guild awardsódirectors, producers and actors.When a movie does that, it necessarily has to be considered the favorite for the Oscar as well.But I donít know.This oneís still a real nail-biter, folks.I guess I will let conventional wisdom sway me over to predicting Birdman, but I reserve the right to take it back the moment Boyhood is announced as the winner Sunday night.

 

 

 

Best Directing

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Alejandro IŮŠrritu

 

Pick:

Wes Anderson

Birdman, Alejandro IŮŠrritu

50%

Boyhood, Richard Linklater

45%

Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller

-

The Grand Budapest Hotel, West Anderson

5%

The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum

-

 

This list of nominees is...well, a little weird.IŮŠrritu and Linklater were locks, of course, and I was pretty confident we would see Anderson here as well.But the other two slots.... Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher, a movie that did make a lot of top ten lists but was by no means universally loved, and wasnít even nominated for Best Picture?And Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game, a very good wartime story but a self-evidently unspectacular piece of filmmaking?If you had shown me the list of Best Picture nominees, my predictions for Director nominees would have been easy:IŮŠrritu, Linklater and Anderson, plus Clint Eastwood for American Sniper and Damien Chazelle for Whiplash.Eastwood for obvious reasons, Chazelle because Whiplash is clearly the Academyís darling this year, the brash and exciting young thing for which this staid old institution is just aching to demonstrate its affectionóand already doing a pretty good job of it with six nominations.I would have expected Director to be number seven.Instead, itís Morten Tyldum and Bennett Miller.Hmm.

 

Can either of them win?Well, no.Tyldum doesnít belong on the list at all, and anyone predicting a win for him needs to see more movies.As for Miller, he is certainly worthy of a nomination.Foxcatcher is, as several commentators including this one have mentioned, a chillyóand chillingóaffair.The genuine warmth of the affection between the two wrestling-champion Schultz brothers is quickly, inevitably overwhelmed by the polar vortex of John du Pontís privileged solipsism, and everything in the film starts to look cold and bluish as if drained of all life energyóor perhaps just infused with du Pontís own blue-blooded delusion.Foxcatcher isnít always a pleasant film to watch, but itís always gripping and it sticks with you afterwards, thanks to Millerís clearly defined and impeccably executed vision, and the very effective performances he elicits from all three of the leads (nominees Steve Carrell and Mark Ruffalo, plus Channing Tatum).But the fact that it wasnít nominated for Best Picture means Millerís chance at a win is effectively nil.

 

Iím sure I donít have to repeat why Anderson is my personal pick.Heís one of the most distinctively original American filmmakers working today, and Grand Budapest Hotel is his best and most assured work yet, as well as being the best film of the year.Thatís pretty much it.It wonít win, but out of respect Iíll give it a minimal statistical chance.Youíre welcome, Wes.

 

The faceoff between Birdman and Boyhood in this category is perhaps slightly less suspenseful than in Best Picture, but thatís probably splitting hairs.We still have a very, very close race on our hands.IŮŠrrituís win from the Directorís Guild is really the key, that of course being the strongest possible Oscar predictor in this category.But hereís the thing:Given how close the race is between these two films and directors, the Academy could very well decide to divvy up the two categories between them; theyíve done it the last two years, and I think the stars might be aligned for it to happen again.If so, then Birdman for Picture means Linklater for Director. Or, of course, it could also go the other way:Boyhood for picture and IŮŠrritu for Director.Or either one could take both awards.Hoo boy.OK, Iíll predict IŮŠrritu here. By a nose.

 

Thatís kind of funny if you saw the movie.

 

 

 

Best Actor

Nominees:

 

 

Prediction:

Eddie Redmayne

 

Pick:

Michael Keaton

Steve Carrell, Foxcatcher

-

Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

15%

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

-

Michael Keaton, Birdman

40%

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

45%

 

First, a few comments on the notable absences from this category.Ralph Fiennes isnít always great, and I have found a couple of his performances to be outright insipid.But when heís really dialed into a role, heís marvelous to watchósee The Constant Gardener, Schindlerís List or Strange Days.And now, The Grand Budapest Hotel.Itís the best work heís done, itís brilliantly entertaining, and it should have been nominated.

 

Then thereís David Oyelowo.Hearing what I had heard about his performance from before Selma even opened, I was surprised not to see him on the list when the nominees were announced.Having now seen the film, I am astounded.Oyelowo (yes, a Britódeal with it) makes no real attempt to impersonate Martin Luther King, Jr., beyond the strictly necessary details of accent and general physical appearance.He doesnít do a Penn/Day-Lewis sort of transformation.But in every moment, he embodies the complexity of the man:intelligence, faith, determination, doubt, authority, weariness, a seemingly impossible ability to maintain both worldly pragmatism and genuine righteousness.When called on for impassioned, soul-stirring oratory, he delivers it.And when called on for small, eloquent gestures of sympathy in the midst of unimaginable suffering, he delivers those too.He does both with equal power and what feels like perfect authenticity.There were not five better lead performances in 2014 than Oyelowoís, and his absence from this list is inexplicable.

 

All that being said...we do have to look at those who actually have a chance at winning.Technically, that includes Steve Carrell and Benedict Cumberbatch.But only technically.Itís not through any fault of their own, they both turned in very nice performances.My favorite is Carrell, playing about as far against type as it is possible to do and being quite credible at it.His John du Pont is a scarily out-of-touch megalomaniac, the dead-eyed ice king at the center of the very chilly universe of Foxcatcher.Some have said Carrell veers into parody in his portrayal of the billionaire as a sort of schlubby gargoyle of entitlement and self-regard, but knowing what we know about the real du Pont, my guess is heís not straying too far from reality.Carrell might have had a better shot at a win if the studio had pushed him for Best Supporting Actor instead, which I think would have been a defensible position.

 

As for Benjamin Cumberbund...Cuspidor Bandersnatch...I mean Benedict Cumberbatch, well....in all seriousness, heís quite good in The Imitation Game, in another role not exactly designed to make an audience feel warm and snuggly.His Alan Turing makes enemies much more easily than friends, mostly because he genuinely believes himself to be smarter and more important than everyone around him.And the guy is clearly on the Aspergerís end of the autism spectrum, at least as portrayed here, which doesnít help matters.Cumberbatch convincingly conveys Turingís utter lack of charm and warmth, but still manages to keep us on his side until those moments come when we can start to feel genuine admiration and finally even sympathy for him.Not an easy task, but Cumberbatch is up to the challengeófor all the good it will do him.

 

I think Bradley Cooperís chances have been heavily damaged by all the shallow political blabbity blah, but I donít put him entirely out of the race.Cooper has defied expectations before (mine, at least) just by turning himself into a very solid dramatic actor in the last few years.Heís exactly right as Chris Kyle in American Sniper, a big solemn bear of a man with a talent for marksmanship and a clear sense of how he should use that talent, regardless of the personal toll it takes on him and the people he loves.You feel at every moment his conviction and his sense of duty, and whatís maybe unexpected is just how unconflicted he is about it; he is doing what he believes is right, and if that means he canít sleep at night or he doesnít get to watch his child grow up, thatís a sacrifice heís prepared to make.But that doesnít mean it doesnít hurt, and Cooper plays the pain with an understatement that stays true to Kyleís character but still hits the audience where it needs to.Really strong, mature work in a very successful mainstream filmóoften a recipe for a win, though thatís doubtful this time.

 

Yes, in reality itís down to Eddie Redmayne vs. Michael Keaton.My pick (as if you had to ask) is Keaton.As an actor, some of his sweet spots are:edgy, breathless comic energy that feels like itís about two jokes away from an emotional breakdown; somber introspection that can veer into sneering self-disgust; and wild-eyed anger thatís funny without losing its sense of actual danger.Itís a good thing, because all of these are pressed into service in Birdman.And then some.Keatonís Riggan Thomson is a basket-case in every way imaginable, desperately searching externally for the validation that escapes him internally. But the fantasy he has built up of how he will attain it looks to be rapidly crumbling around his feet, for all kinds of reasons that are probably his fault, and heís used up (or screwed up) all the other options available to him.Keaton is one of the few actors I can think of who could do justice to the ratcheting desperation, the genuine pain and human longing, and the dark humor of the situation all at the same timeóin the same scene, or even the same line.Birdman will likely relaunch his career as a lead player, but I doubt he will ever be better than he is here.††

 

Redmayne, for his part, does fine work as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.Itís one of those roles that, if done well, makes you a shoe-in for a nomination and a good strong contender for the prize (ask Daniel-Day Lewis, Russell Crowe, Geoffrey Rush, et al).This one is a role that, by definition, becomes more and more about physicality as the movie progresses.It is first the gross physicality of a man whose body is betraying him, and then the more subtle physicality of barely discernible gestures and expressions as even his voice fails him, locking his still-vital brain inside an increasingly useless vessel.Redmayne is spot-on through all of it, the physical transformation is flawless, and the performance has the intended emotional effect.I wonít penalize the actor for the filmmakerís lack of narrative originality or ambition.And I donít think the Academy will, either.

 

Redmayne and Keaton each took home a Golden Globe (one for Drama, one for Comedyóyou figure it out), but Redmayne took the SAG.Then again, Birdman certainly has recent momentum on its side.Based on the SAG win and the fact that Redmayne has been considered the marginal favorite in a close race for quite a while, I think Iím going to have to predict a win for Redmayne.But Iíll be very happy to be wrong about this one.

 

 

 

Best Actress

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Julianne Moore

 

 

Pick:

Julianne Moore

Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

-

Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

-

Julianne Moore, Still Alice

85%

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

10%

Reese Witherspoon, Wild

5%

 

Itís long been noted that the list of rich, complex, challenging lead roles for women in major films each year is depressingly short, and that the same few actresses seem to keep getting them.Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, Kate Winslett, Cate Blanchett...they are all very good actresses who deserve their nominations.But we keep seeing them year after year because there just arenít that many juicy lead actress roles to go around and studios want them to go to the proven few.Even looking at this year, Felicity Jonesís nomination feels like perhaps itís here as much to fill out the fifth slot as it is to recognize great acting (she is perfectly fine in Theory of Everything but it was an underwritten role).Among the four more deserving nominees, two have already won Oscars (Cotillard and Witherspoon) and one has been nominated four times before (Moore).And two of the nominated performances were in tiny little independent and/or foreign films.Compare this to the Best Actor category:Five top-notch performances in five big films (whether technically ďmajor Hollywood studio filmsĒ or not, all are certainly high-profile, big box-office winners)óand that list could easily have been expanded to ten or maybe even fifteen.When there is a consistent, conspicuous shortage of great lead performances by women in major films, and those that do surface always seem to be given by the same handful of actresses, something is going on that has nothing to do with the pool of available female acting talent and everything to do with the kind of stories big studios are willing to tell.Yíknow what I mean?

 

OK, Iím off the soapbox now.Letís talk about these nominees.

 

Thank goodness, at last we come to a race thatís not even close.Sure things on Oscar night arenít all that common, but this is one of them.If you find anyone wanting to bet against Julianne Moore, cover as much as they are willing to put down.Mortgage the house, if necessary.She is going to win.

 

My foregoing gripes notwithstanding, I am totally onboard with this.Moore gives a beautiful, crushing performance in Still Alice as a college professor with early-onset Alzheimerís Disease, a confident mother of three and renowned expert in linguistics watching herself turn into someone who canít score in the double digits in Scrabble and forgets where the bathroom in her own house is until itís too late.For someone whose self-image is as strongly tied to intellectual achievement as Aliceís, itís hard to say which of those is the greater humiliation.But whichever it is, she knows there are far greater ones awaiting her, and her quiet horror as she stares into that looming, unfathomable darkness is almost unbearable.Mooreís performance is straightforward in its emotion but elegant in its restraint, and as usual she achieves a simple human grace that very few actors can match.She deserves this win.(Assuming an Actor win for Eddie Redmayne, the symmetry of the two winning lead performances will be striking: Redmayneís Hawking gradually losing the use of his body and Mooreís Alice gradually losing the use of her mind.)

 

Is there any other possible way this could play out?Well, Rosamund Pike made quite an impression in the exceedingly dark Gone Girlóa bold, bang-up performance about which I can say little without spoiling a surprise or two.And while Iím sorry I didnít get around to seeing Wild, Iíve read nothing but stellar reviews of Reese Witherspoonís work in it.So if it were revealed, prior to Oscar ballots closing, that Julianne Moore was actually a scout sent by a malevolent alien race to prepare the way for invasion by infiltrating the Hollywood establishment and delivering subliminal mind-control messages through her movies, I think either Pike or Witherspoon would have a pretty good shot at this.Otherwise, doubtful.Alas, poor Cotillard and Jones wouldnít have a chance even then.

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees:

Prediction:

J. K. Simmons

 

Pick:

J. K. Simmons

Robert Duvall, The Judge

-

Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

2%

Edward Norton, Birdman

3%

Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

-

J. K. Simmons, Whiplash

95%

 

Hey, guess what?This oneís a sure thing, too.

 

As I mentioned in my Best Picture discussion, J.K. Simmonsís performance is the reason Whiplash was nominated for Best Picture and probably for some other categories as well.Itís a great little film with much to recommend it, but it would never have made it onto the Academyís radar (or most anyone elseís) without Simmonsís ferocious turn.Those who donít know Simmons by name certainly know his face, which has been one of the most familiar onscreen for the last 20 years.No one ever goes to a movie or turns on the TV just to see him, but if you do either of those things with any regularity at all, you do see himóall the time.This guyís busy like Michael Caine.Heís appeared in scores of films and hundreds of television episodes.He moves easily between the large and small screen, between comedy and drama, and between roles that run a full spectrum from benign avuncularity to chilling menace.This is the actor who played solemn, skeptical psychiatrist Emil Skoda in Law & Order; warm, wise-cracking dad Mac MacGuff in Juno; and vicious, brutal white-supremacist kingpin Vernon Schillinger in Oz.Lately, for good measure, heís also the professorial pitchman in a long-running series of TV commercials for Farmerís Insurance.And he does it all convincingly while still looking and sounding just like J.K. Simmons.Which probably explains why, up to now, heís never won anything.Heís never even been nominated, not for any awards that you would have heard of.I guess maybe itís always looked too easy, like he was just being himself up there onscreen and collecting a paycheck for it.

 

Well, that all changed with Whiplash.Itís hard to imagine a juicier role for an actor than Terence Fletcher, a condescending, short-tempered, maniacally driven jazz ensemble instructor for whom the line between rigorous and sadistic is obscured by the puddles of bloody sweat his students are splashing all over it trying to fulfill his insanely high demands of them.Sound like fun?Well, it obviously is for Simmons, who digs teeth and nails into the role and delivers the Fletcher of our nightmaresóstill looking and sounding like J.K. Simmons, and all the scarier for the uncertainty that brings:Which Simmons are we watching?Is Fletcher a surly, possibly unbalanced perfectionist?Is he a brilliant teacher who employs fear and anger to coax greatness from his students?Is he just a malignant, evil prick who gets off on torturing privileged youth?All are plausible within Simmonsís performance, but every time we think we might have figured out the answer, he takes it away from us, keeping this performance intriguing from the first until literally the last moment of the movie.

 

I assume the Academy nominated this performance in the supporting category because thatís what the studio was pushing for; thatís how it usually works.Had the studio pushed instead for Best Actor consideration, Simmons would have likely scored a nomination and even had a realistic (though longish) shot at a win.But as Supporting Actor, heís proven to be untouchable.Heís already won a staggering array of awards for this performance, not just the majors (Globe, SAG, BAFTA, NY Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics, etc.) but all the little ones too.He won the North Texas Film Critics award.He won the African-American Film Critics award.He won the Village Voice Film Poll.Hell, he won the Georgia Film Critics Association award.Who knew there was a Georgia Film Critics Association award?With only a very, very few exceptions, literally countable on one hand, Simmons won every meaningful Best Supporting Actor award given by anybody in the 2014 film year.That streak is not going to end Sunday night.

 

Because there is a thing in my head that wonít allow me to peg anyoneís chances at 100%, I will go through the motions of looking at alternatives to a Simmons win.The next in line is clearly Edward Norton for what is one of his loosest, most entertaining performances in years as the bad-boy career NYC stage actor, fearless, jaded and a little bit loonyógreat fun to watch, and a possible winner some other year.Ethan Hawke would also have a shot in that other year for his heartfelt work in Boyhood as a divorced dad trying hard to grow up as his son does the same, with the various disappointments and compromises that entails.Hawke always has an immediate, rumpled likeability about him, and that serves himóand the filmóvery well.Iíll give Norton and Hawke 5% to split between them.Mark Ruffalo is also one of our most likeable and genuine actors, and his work in Foxcatcher is terrific, but it wouldnít be the winner even if Simmons werenít crowding out the field.That movie just didnít quite click with people.Finally, Robert Duvall, God bless him, snagged his first nomination of this millennium for a movie Iím guessing (without having seen it) isnít worthy of the excellent performance he gives in it.But I donít think weíve seen the last of this young whipper-snapper.

 

 

 

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees:

 

Prediction:

Patricia Arquette

 

 

Pick:

Patricia Arquette

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

75%

Laura Dern, Wild

-

Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

15%

Emma Stone, Birdman

10%

Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

-

 

I didnít see Into the Woods and I donít want to see it.Mind you, Iím referring to the Disney film here, not the Sondheim musical on which itís based.Something about it just looks tedious to me, though Iím sure there are legions of fans who would clutch their pearls at such a comment.Anyway, I guess thatís neither here nor there, Iím just using it as a lead-in to my discussion of Meryl Streepís nomination in this category.I wrote a lot about Streep last year.This year, I will write less:Sheís not going to win.

 

Also not going to win is Laura Dern for her work in another movie I didnít see.So it seems this year the only nominated performances I didnít manage to catch really didnít have a chance of winning anyway.Luck?Coincidence?The natural result of a remarkably refined cinematic palate?You decide.

 

Moving on to the actual contenders, Iím not ruling out Emma Stone entirely, but her chances look as slender as her wrists. Her work as an ensemble player in Birdman is perfectly appropriate and appealing, but hers is the least developed of the principal characters, making it harder for her to achieve anything really memorable.I read her nomination as an indication of just how much the Academy loves this movie.That isnít likely to be enough to carry her to a win, but I guess stranger things have happened.

 

I would count Keira Knightleyís chances somewhat better, owing to the true-story somberness of The Imitation Game and the memorable emotional closing scenes of the film.Iím not of the opinion that Knightley is a particularly interesting actress per se, but she always looks like a serious person, and she does poignancy in period dress better than anyone.Sometimes, as it turns out, thatís exactly what a role calls for, so I guess itís a good thing thereís someone around whoís such a crackerjack at it.It may well win her an Oscar some day, though itís a long shot this will be the year for it.

 

No, in Supporting Actress we have yet another category with a prohibitive favorite, though itís not quite as much of a runaway as those other two.In Boyhood, Patricia Arquette takes on the least glamorous role imaginable:A working mom trying to make a decent life for herself and her two kids.Sheís already divorced when the movie begins, and more marriages and divorces will follow, the result of bad luck or bad judgment or both.She will struggle with motherhood and school and career, and ultimately be left alone when her youngest child goes off to college.Itís ordinary and predictable, and Arquette is kind of perfect for the role.Sheís not classically beautiful, and she has always looked uncomfortable doing the things actors have to do to promote their work.Red carpets are not in her wheelhouse.Sheís someone who has visibly wrangled with her own weight issues throughout her career, which we canít help but notice again seeing her waistline fluctuations as the years pass in Boyhood.So you probably see what Iím getting at:This is the realest sort of character being portrayed by the realest sort of actor, and Boyhood is a vehicle built to make us forget the distinction between the two.Arquetteís performance feels more fully and deeply inhabited than almost any other this year.If thatís a trick of my mind, knowing what I know about the movie and the actress, then so be it.But I think the Academy is going to agree with me.

 

 

© 2015 dondi demarco