2015: An Oscar Primer

Oscars2015I’m pretty late to the party this year, but that’s okay, because the show hasn’t happened yet!

This year there are only 8 Best Picture nominees, down 1 from the last two years:

American Sniper – Clint Eastwood directs Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, who became the most lethal American sniper in history during his service in Iraq. One of the reasons I’m writing this so late is that I’ve been trying to craft a response to this film, which troubled me deeply. And one of the reasons that’s been so difficult is because of the immense controversy and heat of the conversation that have surrounded it. I’ll save the rest of what I have to say for that forthcoming post, but I assume that the controversy has damaged its chances at the big award. As for the rest, who knows? It has 6 nominations: Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Birdman – Michael Keaton plays a washed-up actor who walked away from a massively successful superhero franchise many years ago, and is now struggling to make a comeback by directing and starring in a Broadway play. But that summary doesn’t really do justice to how weird and wonderful this film is. There are so many great performances in it, as the acting nominations attest, and Iñarritu employs a device that creates the illusion of the film being done in a single, unbroken shot (a gimmick that I will admit I’m a sucker for). The result is hilarious, tragic, and extremely surreal. The film has 9 nominations: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Boyhood – Richard Linklater spent 12 years making this ultimate coming-of-age story, which follows protagonist Mason from age 5 to 18 as he grows and changes and life unfolds around him. Nothing quite like this has ever been done before, telling a story that stretches over such a long period with a single group of actors aging with it. The closest I’ve seen is Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries. This is certainly Linklater’s masterpiece, which is high praise indeed considering some of the other films he has produced. At 165 minutes, it is by far the longest of the nominees, but you hardly notice, because it is also the most ambitious film to be nominated in years. Boyhood has 6 nominations: Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing.

The Imitation Game – Chronicles the life of Alan Turing, a British mathematician who was instrumental in cracking the German enigma code during World War II, but who died in obscurity several years later after suffering the indignity of an indecency trial for homosexual activity. I quite enjoyed this movie, but it is supremely middle-brow Oscar-bait without a doubt. You can spot the places where the historical reality was punched-up for drama a mile out, and the unnecessary voice-over narration relies on a somewhat clumsy device that makes very little sense in context. The title manages to be simultaneously too on-the-nose (“Oh, I get it! Because his whole life was like a big IMITATION GAME!” #mindnotblown), and not really relevant to the story they’re telling (being a reference to Turing’s famous theories about artificial intelligence, which gets shoe-horned in apropos of nothing towards the end). Also, Benedict Cumberbatch (whose work I love) should not be nominated for playing a character he has played several times before. This movie has a bizarrely effusive 8 nominations (almost none of which are remotely deserved): Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Original Score.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – The adventures of the legendary concierge of a legendary hotel, and his lobby boy, during the years leading up to World War II. I can’t rave about this movie enough, so I’m not even sure I should try. It is far and away my favorite film of the year. I’ve seen it probably 6 or 7 times already, and I look forward to many more viewings. If I had written much of anything here during the past several months, it would almost certainly have been something in praise of this film, which I hope to discuss more fully on The Moviegoings Podcast at some point. It should win all of its 9 nominations, and was robbed of several more: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Original Score.

Selma – Dr. Martin Luther King organizes a march in support of voting rights for African Americans from Selma, Alabama to the capital, despite intense, even violent, opposition from local and state officials, and pressure from the president. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this film and its depiction of the Civil Rights Movement as motivated and led by courageous black people. It’s weird that that’s the case, but I can point to virtually no famous or popular feature films about civil rights that don’t have a white protagonist, which is (to say the least) a pretty severe distortion of the actual history of civil rights. And, on top of that, the film is magnificent and moving. Yet somehow, it has an appalling 2 nominations, uncommon but far from unheard of, even for films as worthy as this one. The other nomination is for Best Original Song.

The Theory of Everything – Explores the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane as his health deteriorates and his genius soars over the course of several decades. This is what every romantic biopic I’ve ever seen is going for, and very few of them achieve: A beautiful blend of brilliant performers with great chemistry, a strong supporting cast, and an excellent script (and a lovely soundtrack, too). Top-notch. It has 5 nominations: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score.

Whiplash – A young, ambitious drummer is pushed to the limit by a belligerent music professor who will cross any line to transform potential into greatness. I was very excited to see Whiplash, and even more excited that it actually showed up in my town not too long after I first heard about it, and I was not disappointed. On the contrary, I was totally blown away by this movie’s intensity, great jazz, and J.K. Simmons’ spectacular performance. The ending in particular left me feeling completely breathless, and I eagerly anticipate experiencing it again at some point in the future. If it weren’t for The Grand Budapest Hotel, I’d have a hard time choosing between this and Selma for Best Picture (personally, anyway . . . neither is likely to win). It has 5 nominations: Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

The nominees I’ve seen:
Foxcatcher, 5 nominations. Steve Carell gives a riveting performance in a film that I found less-than riveting at times (although at other times, I couldn’t look away). This is certainly the strangest true story at the Oscars this year, and one of the strangest I’ve ever seen depicted on-screen.
Interstellar, 5 nominations. For me, this is Christopher Nolan’s first real misstep as a writer/director. A lot of fans and non-fans don’t agree . . . Some think that already happened in an earlier movie, others loved this movie. I loved the idea of this movie. I loved that it was big and bold and shot for the stars. It just . . . missed. But it’s up for a bunch of technical awards, and the nominations are all pretty solid.
Into the Woods, 3 nominations. From what I’ve experienced, this seemed like pretty typical Sondheim: some really solid songs (but always a bit too talky in spots), and trying a little too hard to be dark. I hate phony, unearned happy endings as much as the next guy, but a downer that feels tacked-on isn’t that great either. I enjoyed the first 90 minutes a lot more than the last 30. This is the source of the obligatory semi-annual Streep nomination (6 nominations in the past 8 years), which is starting to feel like a practical joke the Actors’ branch is playing on her. And surely she’s getting tired of it, too? She is easily the best thing about this movie, but it’s hardly an Oscar-caliber performance.
Ida, 2 nominations. Poland’s entry in the foreign film category, this is also nominated for it’s stunning cinematography. It’s the only foreign film I’ve managed to see so far (and you can, too! It’s on Netflix!), and I was seriously impressed by it. I heard nothing but good things, and they were all right.
Guardians of the Galaxy, 2 nominations. Star Wars meets The Avengers? Basically? But not quite as good as the former, and better than the latter? This movie definitely runs the Marvel formula, but so well-disguised that you miss it at first. It has a lot of humor, charm, and charisma, but I’ve seen it 3 times, and I’ve liked it a little bit less each time.
Wild, 2 nominations. There’s nothing I can put my finger on that I’d complain about in this film, and both of its nominations are well-deserved, but it just didn’t do it for me overall. Maybe it was that terrible CG fox. I don’t know. I enjoyed it while I was watching it, but I felt like it really lost steam towards the end, and I don’t think I’d enjoy it a second time.
Two Days, One Night, 1 nomination. A quiet, spellbinding film about a woman emerging from depression who has a weekend to convince a majority of her co-workers to vote to give up their bonuses in order to return to her job. Marion Cotillard’s performance is the entire film, and vice-versa, and she is truly amazing in scene after scene after scene. I’m glad I don’t have to try and select which scene best showcases her performance on Sunday night.
Gone Girl, 1 nomination. An adaptation of a thriller I haven’t read (like Fincher’s last film!), I was hooked very early-on and then just held on for the ride. I wonder how the experience would have differed had I known all of the twists and turns in advance, but I’m glad I didn’t. I’d like to see this again. It could have easily been another Best Picture nominee as well.
Nightcrawler, 1 nomination. I had barely heard of this movie when it appeared here and the reviews compelled me to see it. What a fantastic surprise! This should be the 9th nominee for Best Picture, no question. It is a film I expect to revisit more than once. It is both a heart-pounding thriller and a brilliant and unsettling social critique. So great.
The Boxtrolls, 1 nomination. Ugh. I expect better from this team. This movie was utterly bland when it wasn’t being actively grotesque and unpleasant.
Big Hero 6, 1 nomination. Of the animated nominees I’ve seen, this is my favorite. It’s not the work of art that Princess Kaguya is, but I found it much more enjoyable. Another solid feature from Disney.
How to Train Your Dragon 2, 1 nomination. This was alright, and certainly had some great moments, but I didn’t particularly care for it as a sequel, and I wasn’t a fan of some of the directions the story took.
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, 1 nomination. As I said above, this is the clear winner (again, of the animated nominees I’ve seen) in the artistic category. I rarely know what to expect from a Japanese animated feature, but I can usually count on it doing things that Western cartoons aren’t even contemplating. This is no exception to that rule. The story, based on an old folktale, didn’t really resonate with me, but the movie was excellent.
Maleficent, 1 nomination. I gave this movie a miss in the theater, and then gave it another miss in the dollar theater, but I saw it on DVD, and it was way better than I thought it would be. It looked like another story in the vein of the recent live-action Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful (which were awful and mediocre, respectively), but it was more like Wicked‘s clever, deconstructive twist on a familiar story.
The Lego Movie, 1 nomination. I’m not really sure I’ll ever understand why this film wasn’t nominated in the animation category. I feel pretty unenthusiastic about all of the other entries because there’s this big, gaping, Lego-shaped hole where this movie should be. It could have been nominated for Best Picture, even. Chalk it up to another missed opportunity for Oscar.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, 1 nomination. Peter Jackson’s trashy, bloated Hobbit trilogy finally arrived at its inevitable, overblown, artless conclusion. Why these movies keep getting even token nominations while the vastly better (and far higher-grossing) Hunger Games trilogy has gone completely, bafflingly ignored by the Academy, I simply do not get. Hopefully (and presumably) the Hobbit Oscar shut-out will be complete by sometime Sunday evening.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 1 nomination. I liked this movie a lot better on second viewing. It really probably is the best (at least one of the best) of the Avengers movies to-date. It’s still a formula, and a formula that I’m getting tired of, but it’s a strong formula, and a profitable one, so more power to them, I guess?
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 1 nomination. In a better world, the fact that this is a Planet of the Apes movie wouldn’t pretty much bar it from consideration for some of the more prestigious categories. I think it should at least have a writing nomination and a music nomination, plus some of the other technical awards. It was easily the best science-fiction film of the year, and the best sequel . . . Which is damning it with faint praise. Against all odds, it is an all-around spectacular film.
X-Men: Days of Future Past, 1 nomination. It’s not quite as good as X-Men: First Class, but it does a really great job bringing the best of both franchises (the old and the new) together into one (mostly) seamless whole, while managing to have a good time mucking around with a new set of historical events. Extremely fun.
Begin Again, 1 nomination. This charming little film is only nominated for 1 song, but there are at least half a dozen other great ones in the soundtrack. I think Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley are both better and more enjoyable in this movie than either is in the films they’re nominated for. Well, Knightley definitely is, anyway, this is precisely the sort of role she most excels at.
The Judge, 1 nomination. I really wanted to see this when it came out, but reviews were poor and I didn’t get around to it. It’s not a great film, by a long shot, but Robert Duvall is great in it, and so are Robert Downey, Jr. and Billy Bob Thornton. I don’t know if you’ll wring 140 minutes of enjoyment out of its 140-minute run-time (seriously), but you’ll probably get at least half that.
Last Days in Vietnam, 1 nomination. Fascinating documentary about the American evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, with lots of great eyewitness accounts, but no good picture of the larger context of the war.
Virunga, 1 nomination. Feels extremely important and intensely thrilling, but the latter only sporadically. Full of great personalities, but not constructed in a way that tells a very interesting story. It’s an important film chiefly because of the light it shines on a desperate situation that wouldn’t be getting enough attention otherwise, and (for now) at has accomplished its goal of scaring an evil multi-national corporation away from a lot of a bad publicity.

The nominees I want to see:
Mr. Turner, 4 nominations. This gets “most nominations for a film I basically hadn’t heard anything about” . . . But I’m definitely intrigued. Judging by the nominations, it obviously looks and sounds great, at least.
Inherent Vice, 2 nominations. Man, I can’t believe I haven’t seen this yet. Oh, wait, it hasn’t shown up in a theater in my town, despite being the latest film of one of the greatest American directors working today. Yeah, that sounds about right.
Still Alice, 1 nomination. I’ve heard great things, and Julianne Moore is, I believe, the favorite to win for this movie. Just need to prepare myself for a downer.
Song of the Sea, 1 nomination. This is the only hope I have of a worthy contender to justify the absence of The Lego Movie. Even if it doesn’t win, just having a really great film that was even nominated would be nice. But of course I haven’t seen it yet because it hasn’t appeared anywhere in America (that I know of) for whatever reason. It’s almost like no audience exists for it, except I know that isn’t true, so . . .
Leviathan, 1 nomination. It’d be nice to see all of the foreign film nominees before the awards, but that’s just not the world I live in. This is the only one I might have a shot at seeing in time.
Citizenfour, 1 nomination. It’s the Edward Snowden documentary! Definitely want to see it.
Finding Vivian Maier, 1 nomination. But I’m even more excited to see this one. Sounds like a fascinating and surprising story, only recently brought to light. Just the kind of documentary I love the most.

The nominees I can take or leave:
Unbroken, 3 nominations. And this gets “most nominations for a film I’m indifferent to.” It looked really good, but the reviews were terrible in ways that made it sound uninteresting. Will probably still end up seeing it.
Beyond the Lights, 1 nomination. The reviews for this were great, but nothing about it grabbed me. Will also probably still end up seeing it.
The Salt of the Earth, 1 nomination. Wim Wenders definitely makes this worth seeing, but I can’t gin up any enthusiasm for it. I’ll see it if it appears within my orbit.
Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, 1 nomination. This actually sounds like it could be really good. But I know almost nothing about Glen Campbell, and I don’t know that I really want to see it.

The non-minees, neglected movies that made me ask, “What happened?”
Noah, Almost everyone seems to think this was the worst movie of the year, and the audience that should have embraced it the most fervently has been the loudest in condemning it. Well, they’re wrong. It was one of the best films of the year, and I’d give Emma Watson Meryl Streep’s nomination, Darren Aronofsky Morten Tyldum’s directing and Graham Moore’s writing nominations for The Imitation Game, as well as giving Noah The Imitation Game‘s editing nomination, the production design nomination that Into the Woods got, and Interstellar‘s visual effects spot. But it has 0 nominations. You can still watch it and experience it’s greatness, though.
The Babadook, The best straight horror film that I have seen in several years. Actually, just a great film, no genre qualifiers. Super-scary while you’re watching, but something besides the scares will stick with you for days or even weeks after you’ve seen it, because it’s humming along on multiple levels. Really spectacular stuff.
Calvary, This should have gotten Brendan Gleeson an Oscar nomination. But then, that’s true of a lot of other roles, and somehow none have managed it yet. Possibly the most spiritually-significant film released last year, this can play equally well for both thoughtful religious and secular audiences.
A Most Wanted Man, Featuring one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performances (he’s excellent, as always), this is an awesome contemporary thriller that feels intensely relevant to the dangerous world we live in, where no one in power seems to know anything but everyone is in a big hurry to act on their ignorance of the facts.
Belle, I was so glad I went to see this, despite the lack of attention around. It’s a fascinating piece of speculative historical drama that should appeal to just about anyone. It’s one of those rare great films that I can also recommend to people who won’t consistently watch anything above a PG rating.
Life Itself, I was sure this would be on the documentary list, but no. I’d have voted for it, based on what I’ve seen of the other entries so far. An amazing, moving portrait of the life of Roger Ebert, as well as a discussion of how film criticism changed during his life, and the immeasurable contributions he made to the art.
Edge of Tomorrow, A really fun sci-fi romp that plays out like Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day, this should at least have gotten a technical nod. Highly-entertaining.
Mockingjay, Part I, So, at this point it’s clear: The Academy just isn’t going to nominate any of the Hunger Games films, even though they have amazing production design, costumes, visual effects, and some A-list performances from A-list performers. Plus, they were the top-grossing films domestically for the past 2 years running. Still, somehow they don’t exist come awards season. What gives?
Godzilla, Gareth Edwards brings Godzilla back to American movies after Roland Emmerich all but ruined it back in 1998. You probably couldn’t find a flatter protagonist than the human star of this film, but that’s not really the point, is it? Another strange absence from the technical category.
Fury, Brad Pitt’s WWII tank movie may not have been as epic as a lot of WWII movies, but it was good stuff. Kind of surprised it didn’t at least get a nod for the sound or something.
St. Vincent, Bill Murray heads up a surprisingly strong ensemble in this charming-but-not-too-charming dramedy. I guess I’m not shocked it didn’t get any nominations, but lesser films did.

Hopes for Sunday night:

Best Picture: The Grand Budapest Hotel, obviously. Oh, please, oh, please! Won’t happen, but that’s my hope. After that, my hierarchy goes: BoyhoodSelmaWhiplashBirdmanThe Theory of Everything. Basically, anything but American Sniper would be bearable, but The Imitation Game would be extra-lame. I hear rumors that Birdman will most likely win. It’s in my top ten from the last year, but half of the other nominees are ahead of it, plus another four movies that weren’t even nominated, so . . . the usual.

Best Director: It’s cool if Iñarritu wins, I guess, but it’d be way cooler if Richard Linklater, or especially Wes Anderson won. This should so be Anderson’s year. He’s churning out masterpiece after masterpiece lately.

Best Actor: After seeing The Theory of Everything, I have to go with Eddie Redmayne on this one. But Michael Keaton would be a very satisfying choice, as well.

Best Actress: This field is much stronger than the Best Actor field this year. Since I haven’t seen Still Alice yet, I’d have to go with Marion Cotillard. Felicity Jones was awesome, and so were Rosamund Pike and Reese Witherspoon, for that matter, but Cotillard is way out in front.

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, no contest.

Best Supporting Actress: Absolutely Patricia Arquette.

Best Original Screenplay: I’m torn between The Grand Budapest Hotel and Nightcrawler, but since Grand Budapest is unlikely to win any of the previously-mentioned awards, it gets the edge here.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Whiplash, with The Theory of Everything a distant second. But, of course, I haven’t seen Inherent Vice yet.

Best Cinematography: Of the three nominees I’ve seen so far, definitely Grand BudapestIda is brilliant, and I loved the one-shot gimmick in Birdman, but there’s just so much going on in Grand Budapest.

Best Editing: Kind of torn here, but probably Boyhood. They did an incredible job assembling a movie out of 12 years of filming. But Whiplash would be good, too. And, of course, I just want Grand Budapest to win as many awards as possible.

Best Production Design: Grand Budapest x 1000.

Best Costumes: Of the ones I’ve seen, Grand Budapest or Maleficent.

Best Makeup: Probably Foxcatcher. (But, y’know, also Grand Budapest!)

Best Original Score: I thought The Theory of Everything had a particularly lovely score, as did The Imitation Game (probably the best thing about it, actually). Grand Budapest isn’t one that I’d probably listen to independently of the film, but it suits it so brilliantly. I’m a bit worried about Desplat’s double nomination splitting the votes for him. Seems silly to have the nominations fall that way. I think he should win for both scores, regardless of which one they end up saying he won for.

Best Original Song: “Glory” from Selma, but with a big soft spot for “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie and “Lost Stars” from Begin Again.

Best Sound Mixing and Sound Editing: Whiplash and American Sniper, respectively.

Best Visual Effects: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes!

Best Animated Feature: The Lego Movie. Because come on.

Phew! And there it is, all primed and ready for tomorrow’s broadcast! See you then!

~ by Jared on February 21, 2015.

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