Oscar Picks 2014

I was in pretty good shape when they announced the nominations on January 15. There were only four films I had to see. The worrying thing was that there was a firm opening date on only one of them, Still Alice. Fortunately I discovered a theater down in Raleigh that was showing Two Days, One Night, so the Best Actress category is covered.
The problem is Animated Feature. I was hoping that The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which is being released on DVD today, would be available to stream on Amazon Prime or iTunes, but alas it is not. So I am going to release this without commenting on Animated Feature. If I get the chance to see that last one, I’ll release my thought in a separate entry. Based on the four entries I’ve seen to date, it doesn’t look like a good year for Animated Features anyway.
By the way, if you live in the Triangle, keep an eye on the Raleigh Grande 16. Mostly it shows the usual mainstream fare, but it also devotes one or two screens to independent or foreign films, often getting them before the Carolina or the Chelsea. They had Foxcatcher a month before it opened in Durham and Two Days, One Night still hasn’t opened up here. It doesn’t replace the old Galaxy Theater, but it does provide another option.
Anyway, on to the picks. I remind you as always that these are not predictions. If you need help with your office pool, go to Goldderby.com. They do a great job and they are the main reason I have so few films to see when the nominations are announced. What I do is select the films that I would give the Oscar to.

Supporting Actress
Since we already knew Meryl Streep could sing, I don’t believe she is really stretching that much in Into the Woods. It’s a fun and fine performance but there are better ones in this category. Laura Dern is barely in Wild, appearing only in flashbacks. It’s fine as far as it goes but there needs to be more. Keira Knightley gives a good, conventional performance in The Imitation Game. To me it didn’t really stand out.
So it comes down to Patricia Arquette and Emma Stone. Arquette has that toughest of all acting jobs in Boyhood, playing an ordinary person with few quirks, eccentricities or flamboyant insanities. What’s more, she had to keep her through line alive throughouy the twelve year shooting schedule, showing her character’s growth, while keeping her the same character. I won’t be upset if she wins.
I’d give it to Emma Stone, however. Her performance in Birdman is riveting as she captures the acidic resentment of her recovering addict character along with the vulnerability of a daughter trying to decide if she wants her father back in her life, and a young girl still naïve enough to have her head turned by a pretentious actor. You can’t take your eyes off her, even though you don’t really like the character.

Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall phoned in his performance in The Judge. He did well but we’ve seen it before. His nomination is for being Robert Duvall, just as Meryl Streep’s is for being who she is. The only thing I would point out is that when they get nominated for these unchallenging roles, some other deserving actor whose career could use a boost gets left out.
Of the rest of the performances there are three that are great and deserving and one that is for the ages. Mark Ruffalo gives us a convincing portrayal of a competent older brother who seemingly has all the answers in Foxcatcher. For Birdman, Edward Norton plays that pretentious actor who likes to stir things up, by either being difficult or provocative and even though this is probably not far from who Edward Norton actually is, he deserves praise for getting it on screen so well. Ethan Hawke’s role in Boyhood, like Patricia Arquette’s isn’t very flashy but that’s what makes it a challenge. He does a tremendous job of showing his character maturing into his role as a father.
But J.K. Simmons will and should win. He casts aside his amiable image to give us a fire-breathing, manipulative antagonist in Whiplash. The only argument you can make for him to not win it is that his role is arguably a lead.

Best Actress
Let’s face it: If an upset of biblical proportions happens and Julianne Moore doesn’t win this category, the angels will weep. She delivers a transcendent performance that completely overpowers a flawed script and saves the movie.
That’s not to say the other performances are unworthy. This is a very strong category this year. Rosamund Pike leads us through the twists and turns of Gone Girl’s plot with unsavory glee. Felicity Jones gives us the remarkably strong woman behind the great man in The Theory of Everything. Marion Cotillard plays an insecure woman desperately trying to save her job in Two Days, One Night. And finally Reese Witherspoon gives a brave performance about a woman trying to atone for her mistakes and heal herself by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Unfortunately for all those other woman, their great performances come in the same year as a transcendent one. Julianne Moore will and should win.

Best Actor
This is the deepest category. Any of these performances would be a good choice. I didn’t care for American Sniper but Bradley Cooper did a great job of immersing himself into his character. He really transcended a flawed script. Plus he abandoned the tics and mannerisms that he’s relied on for the past few years.
In contrast Benedict Cumberbatch gives us a character in The Imitation Game that does not differ much from work he’s done in the past. But he is so good at playing the smartest person in the room, that it’s a joy to watch. And there actually are subtle differences between his Alan Turing and his Sherlock Holmes that he captures expertly.
Steve Carell’s role in Foxcatcher is a real eye-opener. He leaves behind his comic persona and portrays a man whose formative experiences are so different that he’s emotionally opaque. Rich people don’t even go nuts the same way we do.
Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking is both technically accomplished and emotionally moving. He captures Hawking at every stage of his adult life, from cocky young undergrad to the respected scientist and scholar who is rendered unable to talk. All this while making him appealing.
But if it were up to me, the Oscar would go to Michael Keaton. His sad sack actor/playwright is a finely drawn portrait of a man pushed to the edge by the artistic constraints the entertainment industry is putting on him. Keaton has always excelled at playing people who were mad or on the brink of madness, but always in a quirky or eccentric manner. This madness is a little more realistic.
I will say that David Oyelowo should have been in this group for his powerful portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma. I’m not sure which of the above performances you eliminate but he needs to be in here.

Best Director
Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Imitation Game are all conventionally structured and filmed. The directing challenges do not extend beyond the normal ones faced in any film. That’s not to downplay those challenges. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson continues to hone his peculiar style into something very special. He’s been doing this for quite a while and still gets better with every film. Bennett Miller got some great performances out of his actors in Foxcatcher and the same can be said for Morten Tyldum in The Imitation Game.
The nature of Boyhood, however, demands that Richard Linklater gain special mention. Filming a movie over the span of 12 years is something of a stunt but imagine the risks in a project like this. Someone could have died, or simply quarreled with the director and refused to do the scenes set in later years. That kid could have grown up to be a bad actor. Plus keeping a stylistic continuity over all those years had to be hellishly difficult even for Linklater who has a pretty consistent style in all his movies.
I’d give it to Inarritu for Birdman, even though I’ve kidded him all these years over his dark outlook on life. Those long tracking shots are technically difficult and his cast is so well rehearsed that they never miss their marks and never lose track of their characters either. It is a remarkable achievement.

Best Picture
American Sniper is a flawed film and does not belong in this category. Likewise I would not have included Boyhood. Call me old fashioned but I like a plot, especially in a film that runs almost three hours.
The other six titles all sort of clump together in my mind. Not in tone, mind you but in that I really can’t eliminate them for the big award for any reason that I can articulate. They are all fine films.
Whiplash, Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel are not your traditional Oscar fare. They don’t deal with weighty social issues or tell the story of a protagonist overcoming disability to achieve greatness. Still I would not be upset to see any of them win.
The remaining three are traditional Oscar bait but we shouldn’t hold that against them. A year or so ago, I used my Netflix subscription to see all the Best Picture winners that I hadn’t already seen. The thing that struck me was how consistent the type of film that wins is. Wings, the first winner, is a sprawling epic about war and love. Even though it’s silent, it feels very familiar. There have been outliers, of course, but for the most part, Hollywood’s tastes haven’t changed. This is the type of film that the Oscars were created to celebrate.
Selma deals with the most important issues. It is also a well-directed film with tremendous performances and visuals. The Theory of Everything is the most inspirational with a great technically difficult performance at its core. The Imitation Game deals with World War II and the treatment of gay people, so it has those issues going for it. And when it comes down to it that is the film I enjoyed the most, so it gets the nod.

So that’s it. As usual, pop some popcorn, and enjoy the ceremony.

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