Friday, February 20, 2015

Dr. AC's 2015 Oscar Rundown

Just in the nick of time, here is my completely subjective take on the Oscar race.  These are not in any way to be seen as my handicapping, so don’t blame me if you don’t walk off with the office pool.  Who does win is completely out of my control.  Who I feel should win?  That’s another story, and I’ve noted my picks with an asterisk (*).

Read on…

 2014 Academy Award Nominees

Best Picture

American Sniper
The notion that this has become a huge hit is confusing and a little troubling in its implications, as it's no better than numerous other films to examine the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts, or their after-effects on military personnel. Those whose takeaway is that Chris Kyle is an unqualified hero might be missing the point, because I don't know that Eastwood's storytelling is that black and white. Or maybe it is. Either way, I wasn't really captivated by the film as a whole.

I’ll admit that the overall technical achievement is undeniably impressive, realizing that these actors had to pull off full takes in addition to all the other rigamarole, and the ambiguous commentary on personal relevance in an ever self-absorbed world resonates stronger with every viewing. But the fact remains that I still don’t like and/or care about any of these characters. Everyone does a fine job, but it all feels like much ado about nothing, which admittedly may or may not have been the point.

Terrific cinematic experiment that bucks convention in all the right ways. Watching the actors growing up onscreen before our eyes is dazzling in a way that multimillion dollar effects could never be, and yet somehow it never comes off as a stunt. Linklater's choice to avoid seminal moments in favor of those odd little bits that in explicably stick in our brains forever is the true stroke of genius - what could have been banal is instead brilliant. Defies expectations and overcomes its unique gestation to become more than a gimmick, but it may be too quiet to earn the big trophy.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s supreme cinematic achievement (to date) is so magnificent and bizarre and hilarious with an excruciatingly perfect (and enormous) cast, but it might be too darn wacky to appeal to the mainstream. Which is a shame, since it’s pretty extraordinary on every level – hard to ignore excellence this blatant.

The Imitation Game
This did very little for me, perhaps because I've been familiar with Alan Turing's story for nearly three decades and perhaps because it was told in such conventional fashion. But good ol’ Harvey Weinstein made sure people saw it and that it got its nomination, dammit.

I may be one of the few who thinks that Selma didn't deserve any more nominations than it got, even though I do think it's worthy of its Best Picture inclusion in the expanded field of eight. The directing is fine, the performances are fine, the cinematography is fine, etc. It could have been nominated in other categories, and if Weinstein would have been behind it (or if Oprah still had her TV show), it probably would have. But there’s not a lot of brilliance on display here – the real-life story is the thing that packs the punch.

 The Theory of Everything
The story of Stephen and Jane Hawking rises above the biopic standard, wrestling with the forces of the universe, including love, companionship, and neuromuscular complications, but ends up being only satisfying instead of exemplary.

Probably the most emotionally engaging of the bunch, a breathtaking examination of the relentless pursuit of excellence at any cost, with two electrifying lead performances that threaten to ignite the screen. I've not talked to anyone who hasn't loved loved loved it, and I'm thrilled that it has been recognized as more than a great showcase for J.K. Simmons.

Best Director

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel*
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

This is an extremely exciting three-horse race between Iñárritu, Linklater, and Anderson, all of whom genuinely brought something new and visionary to the table. By comparison, Tyldum and Miller's work feels positively pedestrian. No, wait, that's right, their work WAS positively pedestrian. Tyldum's nod is a testament to Harvey Weinstein's influence (see also Keira Knightly), but Miller – who served up a wildly inert thriller – is a real head-scratcher, especially when Damien Chazelle's work on Whiplash is RIGHT THERE BEGGING TO BE NOMINATED. Wait, you're going to deliver some innovative editing and musical choices and terrific performances and and and...? Sorry, our boy Miller's going to occasionally dial down the vocal tracks and replace them with music. The choice is clear. Ahem.
Back to the deserving trio, my money is on Iñárritu's visual pyrotechnics (that unbroken take gambit is a pretty good one) to take the top prize, but stretching out your storytelling out over a decade is pretty solid as well. (Linklater might have to "settle" for a screenwriting statuette, although that’s no gimme either.) What's nice is that neither approach feels inherently gimmicky, but actually enhance their respective films and fit the narrative's aesthetic. And then there's Anderson's grande bouffe that is Grand Budapest, a marvelously extravagant exercise in style and ensemble where everything is pitched to absolute heightened perfection. What's equally interesting is that all three are quirky in the best possible ways, taking decided risks and challenging expectations and delivering a multitude of rewards. In a perfect world, they'd split that beautiful bald gold guy equally betwixt them, because in any other year, any of them would be the shoo-in.

 Best Actor

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

Carell's undeniably transformative performance is almost too mannered and low-key freakshow, more of a showcase than a real person. One has to wonder that if another actor had played the part (i.e. one not already primarily identified with broader comic roles) whether this nomination would stand. Feels like the ol’ “So, this guy can do more than comedy” nod. (Personally, I would have rather seen Jake Gyllenhaal get the nod for Nightcrawler, who managed to break new terrain without makeup stunts.) 

While Redmayne's expert mimicking of Stephen Hawking's physical characteristics were the more attention-grabbing, I enjoyed his subtler touches, acting through the disability's cage. It's a well-layered turn, and even if Daniel Day-Lewis did it first with My Left Foot, that was over a quarter century ago. 

Cooper once again surprises with his range, and it's a (thankfully) less manic turn than his previous nods in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but honestly, all I kept thinking was "How'd he get so darn beefed up without getting super muscular?" 

Cumberbatch's turn as Alan Turing - like the movie itself - feels busy and well-intentioned and perfectly competent, but hardly inspiring. 

Keaton's vanity-free, sanity-free turn as a neurotic Hollywood star trying to retain a sense of relevance in the shadow of his blockbuster past plays a bit like a greatest hits of the actor's vocal and facial tics, but that seems in keeping with what amounts to a career acheivement Oscar. Considering he's almost a lock at this point, it's nice that he crushes the tailor-made role and that it will likely hold up years from now.

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

I haven't seen Cotillard's film yet, so I can't speak to it. Jones does a nice job holding her own as the less flashy Hawking, and it feels like her nod is more an acknowledgment of that feat than anything else. I would have never thought to nominate Pike as a leading role, and it's too bad because she would have stood more of a chance in this year's super-weak supporting category. That said, even within this flashy part, I feel her limitations as an actress; it'll be interesting to see how many more notes are in her range as her career progresses.

Witherspoon brings her innate likeability to a deeply flawed character, and hits all the emotional highs and lows that a film about an emotionally (and occasionally literally) lost woman in search of her way back would offer. But it really is Moore's year, as she's more than deserving both at this point in her career and for her brave/fragile performance as a linguist slowly succumbing to Alzheimer's. 

That said, if there were any justice, Alex Essoe would be in the mix for her go-for-broke turn as Starry Eyes' neurotic actress caught up in cultish insanity; ditto Scarlett Johansson as an extraterrestrial predator whose evolving humanity proves her undoing in Under the Skin.

Best Supporting Actor

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

Duvall's nods for the SAG Awards, Golden Globes, and Oscars had critics scratching their heads, because while he's as capable as ever, the movie is utter claptrap and he's never more than capable as ever. Feels like someone said, "You know, we haven't nominated Bobby in a while," and it was a done deal. 

I also don't understand Ruffalo's nod - he's good as former gold medalist Dave Schultz, the rock to his more emotionally damaged brother, but it's hardly revelatory work for the actor and the turn is hardly memorable. 

Like his co-star, there wasn't a moment when I didn't feel like I'd already seen everything Norton was bringing to the table from his previous works - it all serves the piece, but I wasn't wowed in the way that others seem to be. (Yes, I give credit for the long take scenes played out in their entirety, but that also feels a bit like congratulating an actor for actually memorizing his lines.) 

Ethan Hawke is similarly oh-so-very Ethan Hawke, but I'll give him credit for crafting a cohesive performance over 12 years. 

It's all a moot point though, since Simmons has been leading the pack and sweeping the awards since that "Little Drummer Film That Could" first bowed. The good news? It's all deserved. Such a pleasure to see this screen veteran sink his teeth into the part, finding infinite subtle shades around his seemingly sadistic, monstrous core.

Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood*
Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

What happened here??? Such a weak category this year, with the exception of Arquette. Granted, I haven't seen Into the Woods, but I find it hard to believe that Streep is SO good that we needed to nominate her again. Knightly, who has turned in solid work before, is utterly vanilla as a puzzle-solving wiz and has only Harvey Weinstein's uber-campaigning to thank for her nod. Emma Stone is fine as a messed-up wild child, but like everyone else in Birdman, I felt like I'd seen it before. But it's nothing compared to my bafflement at Dern's nomination. I mean, WHAT THE HELL. She's barely in the movie and her cameo serves more of a reminder that Laura Dern exists (she's been absent from the active Hollywood roster for a while) than anything else. 

Which leaves us with Arquette, who deserves to win anyway for her well-crafted character arc under truly unique circumstances. She just deserved a stronger field. (Personally, I would have bumped everyone else, putting Naomi Watts for St. Vincent, Adrianna Barrazza for Cake, Nymphmaniac's Stacy Martin, and Carmen Ejogo for Selma, which would have also succeeded in getting a few minorities into the mix. But hey, no one asked me.)


Birdman, Emmanuel Lubezki*
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Robert Yeoman
Ida, Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
Mr. Turner, Dick Pope
Unbroken, Roger Deakins

It’s gotta be Birdman, but damn if Grand Budapest doesn’t earn its slot. I’d be happy with either. In other news, we’ve got Deakins nominated for his 12TH FREAKING OSCAR WITHOUT EVER WINNING.

Costume Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Milena Canonero*
Inherent Vice, Mark Bridges
Into the Woods, Colleen Atwood
Maleficent, Anna B. Sheppard
Mr. Turner, Jacqueline Durran

I’ve only seen Grand Budapest, but I have a feeling that’s all I really needed to see. The ancillary awards might be where the Academy shows their love to Anderson. That said, three-time Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood don’t play around.

Foreign Language Film

Ida, Poland
Leviathan, Russia
Tangerines, Estonia
Timbuktu, Mauritania
Wild Tales, Argentina

Been hearing good things about Ida since it came out last year. But haven’t seen any of them, so I don’t really have a horse in this race. No vote.

Makeup and Hairstyling

Foxcatcher, Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier
Guardians of the Galaxy, Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White*

Yes, Carell’s nose is amazingly lifelike, holding up to extreme close-up scrutiny. But does it deserve to beat out the cadre of Galaxy’s creatures or GBP’s vast populace, especially since both of them were vastly superior films? I think not.

Original Score

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Alexandre Desplat*
The Imitation Game, Alexandre Desplat
Interstellar, Hans Zimmer
Mr. Turner, Gary Yershon
The Theory of Everything, Jóhann Jóhannsson

Didn’t see Interstellar or Mr. Turner, but Desplat kinda killed it with Grand Budapest. Only hitch: he’s also nominated for Imitation Game and Harvey’s push may help split the votes.

Adapted Screenplay

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

Haven’t seen Inherent Vice, but from the turmoil it created upon release, I have a feeling that P.T. Anderson is going to be happy just to be nominated. Of everything else, though, this is the Academy’s chance to reward Chazelle for Whiplash. Here’s hoping they do. Then again, Hollywood may feel it’s worth honoring a fallen gay hero with Imitation Game, especially with Harvey Weinstein yelling in their ears.

Original Screenplay

Birdman, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
Boyhood, Richard Linklater
Foxcatcher, E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness*
Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy

This is maybe the toughest category of the night, with not a loser in the bunch, though I’d definitely put Foxcatcher at the bottom of the heap. (Seriously, is there anyone who really loved that movie?) I’d like to show Nightcrawler some affection, but it’s going to come down to our three Best Director nominees and whether the Academy wants to go “sweep” or “share.” All three are magnificent scripts in their own right, and brilliantly realized on screen. If I had to choose, I’d probably go with Grand Budapest, purely for its epic scope and ensemble of memorable bit parts.

 Animated Feature Film

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

Further emphasizing how little time I spent at the multiplex this year, I saw none of these, nor did I see the category’s reputedly egregious exclusion, The Lego Movie. I will say that the trailer for Big Hero 6 made me laugh pretty hard, so there’s that. No vote

Documentary Feature

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

Nope. This year’s Oscar pool is gonna be rough. No vote.

Documentary Short Subject

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Our Curse
The Reaper (La Parka)
White Earth

Well, obviously, I saw all of these. (That was a joke.) No vote.

Film Editing

American Sniper, Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
Boyhood, Sandra Adair
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Barney Pilling*
The Imitation Game, William Goldenberg
Whiplash, William Goldenberg

Dammit, another tough category. I want to go with Whiplash, but Budapest and Sniper were both pretty busy. It’ll depend on who the voters want to make it up to at this point. (Note: Eastwood’s popular flick hasn’t gotten a gimme yet, so maybe?)

Original Song

Everything Is Awesome, The Lego Movie
Glory, Selma*
Grateful, Beyond the Lights
I’m Not Gonna Miss You, Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me
Lost Stars, Begin Again

So, do you go with the consolation prize for The Lego Movie or for Selma? I’m banking on voters wanting to try to patch things up by making the latter “the Oscar-winning story of MLK,” but come ON. Just try to resist that beat.

Production Design

 The Grand Budapest Hotel, Adam Stockhausen (Production Design); Anna Pinnock (Set Decoration)*
The Imitation Game, Maria Djurkovic (Production Design); Tatiana Macdonald (Set Decoration)
Interstellar, Nathan Crowley (Production Design); Gary Fettis (Set Decoration)
Into the Woods, Dennis Gassner (Production Design); Anna Pinnock (Set Decoration)
Mr. Turner, Suzie Davies (Production Design); Charlotte Watts (Set Decoration)

Oof. I’m sure Into the Woods is grand, ditto Interstellar. Still, Grand Budapest and the multitude of exotic locations are going to be tough to beat.

Animated Short Film

The Bigger Picture
The Dam Keeper
Me and My Moulton
A Single Life

Dunno. No vote.

Live Action Short Film

Boogaloo and Graham
Butter Lamp
The Phone Call

Still dunno. No vote.

Sound Editing

American Sniper*
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Hmmmmm. There were a whole lot of fffffffwhpt! bullet hits in Sniper, but sci-fi and fantasy usually make for a broader palette. Then again, both Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan are hugely successful, so no one may feel the need to make it up to them.

Sound Mixing

American Sniper

Birdman and Sniper are the only two films nominated in both sound categories, which is often how these things go. So, maybe Sniper? But damn I’d like Whiplash to win everything it can.

Visual Effects

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy*
X-Men: Days of Future Past

So, do we honor the motion control majesty of Apes or the sheer awesomeness of Galaxy? I’m going with the latter.

See you Sunday!!!


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