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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

My Picks for the 2015 Academy Awards

             On February 22nd, 2015, Niel Patrick Harris will host the 87th Academy Awards, colloquially known as the Oscars.  As always, there are some things to laud and plenty to be disappointed with regarding the selected nominations, not least of which is the startling whiteness of the acting nominee lists and the crushing maleness of nearly all of the major categories.  Not that that is in any way atypical of the Academy, an institution that is still 94% white and 76% male, with an average age of 63, but it is still immensely disappointing after seeing some glimmering hopes for diversity the past few years, including major award firsts for Katheryn Bigelow, Steve McQueen, and Ang Lee.  The world of our movies, like our politics, seems perpetually out of step with an ever-changing day-to-day reality, and is only allowing itself to change piecemeal.  And it will only change quicker if we collectively stand up and make it so, and no longer simply assume that whatever Hollywood studios hand to us as “awards-nominated art” is the only good stuff and the rest can be forgotten. 

            There are still many worthy accomplishments up for the gold this year; the wholly unjustified snub of Selma makes me all the more eager to see Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel win big.  And even though it won’t likely win, at least my #1 film of the year, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, was nominated for Best Animated Feature.  So, like before, I will tune, keep things in perspective as best I can, and hope for the best. 

            And, same as always, the picks that follow are in no way meant as predictions of what WILL win, but rather what, in my opinion, SHOULD win.  Because as anyone who follows this sort of thing knows, there is often a vast difference between the two.  Such is the nature of the beast.      

**to see my own Top 10 list for the year, click here**

Writing: Adapted Screenplay

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

And the winner is: Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)

            I still need to digest this latest P.T.A. offering, which will probably require a second viewing, but there were few other movies this year where I enjoyed the dialogue and characters more.  Anderson was also unfairly snubbed last time around, with The Master only garnering recognition in the Acting categories, because God help the Academy if they don’t nominate David Russel for anything, apparently.  So I consider at least one Oscar for this one his due. 

Writing: Original Screenplay

Nominees- Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo), Boyhood (Richard Linklater), Foxcatcher (E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness), Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)

And the winner is: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

            The Grand Budapest Hotel might not be the *best* overall movie in this nomination category, but while Boyhood was a powerhouse of an experience, its strengths came less from the writing and more from how effectively the actors balanced out each other on-screen and were complimented by Linklater’s great Directing instincts, so in this particular writing category, I think the best here is Wes Anderson’s latest balancing act between zany, whimsical hilarity and tragic melodrama. 

Visual Effects:

Nominees- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill, Dan Sudick), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Erik Winquist), Guardians of the Galaxy (Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner, Paul Corbould), Interstellar (Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, Scott Fisher), X-Men: Days of Future Passed (Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie, Cameron Waldbauer)

And the winner is: Interstellar (Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, Scott Fisher)

            I realize that Interstellar was more divisive amongst critics and audiences than most (including myself) expected, but if nothing else, it gave something different for our money than the usual litany of explosions set to the most detailed renderings green-screen technology can provide us with.  Seriously, I saw everything in this category (except Dawn, sadly) and Chris Nolan’s panoramas of space travel, wormholes, black holes, and one particular wondrous sequence towards the end (those of you who saw it know the one) stick out in my mind far more than any of the action beats we got this year. 

Sound Mixing:

Nominees- American Sniper (John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, Walt Martin), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Jon Taylor, Frank Montano, Thomas Varga), Interstellar (Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker, Mark Weingarten), Unbroken (Jon Taylor, Frank Montano, David Lee), Whiplash (Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley)

And the winner is: Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Jon Taylor, Frank Montano, Thomas Varga)

            This is one of those often-ignored technical categories where, if you pay attention, you will notice a lot of names popping up multiple times year after year for multiple films (Hi Jon Taylor).  Is the world of sound work really that small? 

            No matter.  Part of the fun of watching Birdman was its hectic and unending mish-mash of dialogue and free-form drumming, quite possibly a metaphor for the building insanity in Michael Keaton’s mind the whole time.  It never jumps towards the foreground through, and never drowns out the dialogue.  The balance between the two was always just enough. 

Sound Editing:

Nominees- American Sniper (Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Martin Hernandez, Aaron Glascock), The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Brent Burge, Jason Canovas), Interstellar (Richard King), Unbroken (Becky Sullivan, Andrew DeCristofaro)

And the winner is: Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Martin Hernandez, Aaron Glascock)

            Similar to my argument above.  Few movies used the changing and shifting of sound, both vocal and music, to the same level that Birdman did. 

Short Film: Live Action

Nominees- Aya (Oded Binnun, Mihal Brezis), Boogaloo and Graham (Michael Lennox, Ronan Blaney), Butter Lamp (Hu Wei, Julien Feret), Parvaneh (Talkhon Hamzavi, Stefan Eichenberger), The Phone Call (Mat Kirkby, James Lucas)

And the winner is: N/A

            I am always aggravated with the fact that the Shorts, be they Documentary, Live-Action, or Animated, are effectively impossible to find for general viewers outside of certain film festivals.  As a result, being someone who does not get all sorts of special access, and cannot yet do this for a living, I was not able to see any of the short this year, and therefore it would be highly unfair of me to vote for any of them. 

Short Film: Animated

Nominees- The Bigger Picture (Daisy Jacobs, Christopher Hees), The Dam Keeper (Robert Kondo, Dice Tsutsumi), Feast (Patrick Osborne, Kristina Reed), Me and My Moulton (Torill Kove), A Single Life (Joris Oprins)

And the winner is: N/A

            See above. 

Production Design:

Nominees- The Grand Budapest Hotel (Adam Stockhausen, Anna Pinnock), The Imitation Game (Maria Djurkovic, Tatiana Macdonald), Interstellar (Nathan Crowley, Gay Fettis), Into The Woods (Dennis Gassner, Anna Pinnock), Mr. Turner (Suzie Davis, Charlotte Watts)

And the winner is: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Adam Stockhausen, Anna Pinnock)

            How could I not pick the absurd daintiness of Zubrowka for this one?  This entire film looks like it was put together by hand.  By a 10-year-old girl.  With an eye for color balance worse than mine.  And I loved it.  I loved it in all its artificially-constructed glory. 

Original Song:

Nominees- “Lost Stars” from Begin Again (Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois), “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me (Glen Campbell, Julian Raymond), “Grateful” from Beyond The Lights (Diane Warren), “Glory” from Selma (John Stephens, Lonnie Lynn), “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie (Shawn Patterson)

And the winner is: “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie (Shawn Patterson)

            There’s no contest here, right?  There should really be no contest here.  Especially since this movie was completely ignored in the Best Animated Feature category.  Therefore, it earns its gold here. 

Original Score:

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

And the winner is: Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)

            I was actually surprised by how much I liked the score for The Theory of Everything (sadly, it was my favorite thing in the movie).  Nonetheless, my favorite from this year’s batch was, hands-down, Hans Zimmer’s latest effort for Interstellar.  I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there is a grandeur and majesty to the sweep of his work here that I think reaches far beyond a lot of his other works. 

Makeup and Hairstyling:

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

And the winner is: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Frances Hannon, Mark Coulier)

            Like with the production design, there is a certain hand-made quality even to the people in Wes Anderson’s world that makes his cinematic creations wholly unique, making them all the more special in a world full of overblown digital effects usually used to alter appearance. 

Foreign Language Film:

Nominees- Ida (Poland- Pawel Pawlikowski), Leviathan (Russia- Andrey Zvyagintsev), Tangerines (Estonia- Zaza Urushadze), Timbuktu (Mauritania- Abderrahmane Sissako), Wild Tales (Argentina- Damián Szifron)

And the winner is: Leviathan (Russia- Andrey Zvyagibtsev)

            Sorry Ida.  I know you are a critic’s darling and the likely winner, but there’s something about the wry humor mixed with bleak despair of living in Putin’s Russia that Leviathan brings across so well, and which really sat with me after I saw it.  One of the best films of the year I saw period, let alone within this category. 

Film Editing:

Nominees- American Sniper (Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach), Boyhood (Sandra Adair), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Barney Pilling), The Imitation Game (William Goldenberg), Whiplash (Tom Cross)

And the winner is: Boyhood (Sandra Adair)

            And here we get to one of the best aspects of this wonderful, wonderful movie- the way the cuts between times are so effectively and subtly done, you often don’t recognize at first that another time jump has happened.  And then what a jolt when one of the characters walks in and has suddenly aged!  It’s one of many ways that the film slowly draws you into its magnetic power.   

Documentary: Short Subject

Nominees- Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (Ellen Goosenberg Kent, Dana Perry), Joanna (Aneta Kopacz), Our Curse (Tomasz Śliwiński and Maciej Ślesicki), The Reaper (La Parka) (Gabriel Serra Arguello), White Earth (J. Christian Jensen)

And the winner is: N/A

            Yup.  See above.  Again.  Grrrrr. 

Documentary: Feature

Nominees- Citizenfour (Laura Poitras), Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof, Charlie Siskel), Last Days In Vietnam (Rory Kennedy, Keven McAlester), The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, David Rosier), Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel, Joanna Natasegara)

And the winner is: Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)

            There is a common belief or attitude, if you will, that documentaries are not really “movies,” the assumption being that they do not use or require the same level of artistic talent and commitment that a fictional tale does.  Citizenfour is a brutally effective rebuke to that notion.  It never makes any claims to complete objectivity, but there is no denying the skill with which Poitras shapes her narrative of the first days of the Snowden leaks, and their immediate aftermath.  She creates a singularly eerie setting for the scenario, and more than once I had to remind myself I was not watching an old-school spy-thriller.  It is a masterly crafted film, and effective and powerful as any of the Best Picture nominees (and vastly superior to a few of them). 


Nominees- Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Boyhood (Richard Linklater), Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson), The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)

And the winner is: Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

            While Alejandro and Anderson would certainly be worthy winners had these films come out any other year, and I definitely want Wes Anderson to win this award in the future, there’s really no holding a candle to the dedicated creative effort made by Linklater over well over a decade to conceive of and then craft one of the most interesting (and effective) ventures to hit the big screen in years.  There are many ambitious projects like this conceived, but so few of them pull through to the end, and even fewer of those succeed as works of genuine art.  Boyhood is one of the few. 

Costumer Design:

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

And the winner is: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Milena Caconero)

            Like with the deliciously hand-made sets, the outlandish dress of Gustav, Zero, and their companions is yet another layer in this adventure I can’t get enough of.  I wish I could compress this world into a cake.  Even if one bite would probably give me diabetes. 


Nominees- Unbroken (Roger Deakins), Mr. Turner (Dick Pope), Ida (Lukasz Zal, Ryszard Lenczewski), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Robert Yeoman), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Emmanuel Lubezki)

And the winner is: Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Emmanuel Lubezki)

            Lubezki is at a dizzying best here, carefully selecting the motions of the camera to create the most sweeping effect, and combining that with very precise editing to make the film not only interesting as a film to watch, but also a fantastic drinking game of “Spot the Edit.”  It is easily the most well-earned statue the movie is likely to get. 

Animated Feature Film:

Nominees- Big Hero 6 (Don Hall, Chris Williams, Roy Conli), The Boxtrolls (Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable, Travis Knight), HowTo Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois, Bonnie Arnold), Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore, Paul Young), The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, Yoshiaki Nishimura)

And the winner is: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, Yoshiaki Nishimura)

            Yeah, big surprise that my favorite film of 2014 is, hands-down, my pick for the lone award the apes running the Academy will allow it to be nominated for.  It is highly unlikely that it will win, which is a shame, because even though this was a pretty good year for animation, none of the works on this list come even close to the level of artistic achievement that Kaguya does.  Which is especially painful for me to say, given that another Laika production is up for the award this year, and I have been hankering for them to win one for years.  Ah well.  Maybe next time? 

Actress: Supporting Role

Nominees- Boyhood (Patricia Arquette), Wild (Laura Dern), The Imitation Game (Kiera Knightley), Into The Woods (Meryl Streep), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Emma Stone)

And the winner is: Boyhood (Patricia Arquette )

            Emma Stone in Birdman might be the only other performance here I would like to see win (that said, I have not yet had the chance to see Wild).  Meryl Streep gave one of her better performances in Into The Woods, but she seems to not be in the running anyway, and Kiera Knightley was ultimately let down by a script that gave her nothing to work with.  Arquette, meanwhile, perfectly inhabits the role of an over-stretched Mom, bringing across all the complex emotions involved in one of the most trying, and for many one of the most rewarding, jobs on Earth. 

Actor: Supporting Role

Nominees- The Judge (Robert Duvall), Boyhood (Ethan Hawke), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Ed Norton), Foxcatcher (Mark Ruffalo), Whiplash (J.K. Simmons)

And the winner is: Boyhood (Ethan Hawke)

            This is a rather tricky one for me, mostly because I have not yet seen several of the nominated performances here yet, but even with the good things I have heard regarding The Judge and Foxcatcher, my vote for this category goes to Ethan Hawke for Boyhood, for how well he plays the seemingly-carefree, often absent father opposite Patricia Arquette’s ever-present mother.  It’s a dichotomy that very much mirrors the many different directions Mason Jr. feels himself being pulled in as he grows up.  I also love the easy charm Ethan Hawke brings across seemingly as simply as breathing.  A lot of actors would be hammy if they tried something similar.  Or sleazy.  Or some sick combination of both. 

Actress: Leading Role

Nominees- Two Days, One Night (Marion Cotillard), Gone Girl (Rosamund Pike), The Theory of Everything (Felicity Jones), Wild (Reese Witherspoon), Still Alice (Julianne Moore)

And the winner is: Gone Girl (Rosamund Pike)

            Given the firestorm of debate about this story ever since the book was first published, it is perhaps not surprising that it would be almost universally shunned by award groups, even though I think it’s actually a much stronger David Fincher work than his last film (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).  And part of what makes it such a powerhouse of an experience is Rosamund Pike’s terrifying turn as one of the most insane characters we’ve had hit theaters for some time now.  This is Heath Ledger’s Joker levels of chilling.  Pike had me squirming in my seat by the end with uncomfortableness.  Which is just another sign of a truly great performance. 

Actor: Leading Role

Nominees- Foxcatcher (Steve Carell), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Michael Keaton), The Theory of Everything (Eddie Redmayne), American Sniper (Bradley Cooper), The Imitation Game (Benedict Cumberbatch)

And the winner is: Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Michael Keaton)

            There is no greater evidence that the Academy exists mainly as a vehicle for insanely rich people to gift gold statues to their personal friends than the fact that Bradley Cooper has now been nominated for the third straight year, something only a tiny number of performers achieve.  Even more astonishingly, all three have been remarkably average performances for movies ranging from mediocre to pretty awful.  Meanwhile, Joaquin Pheonix, as part of his whirlwind return to the big screen, has given us one dynamic, unforgettable performance after another in great films, daring creative works that are off-beat, strange, and on the whole different from the schlock that infests theaters most of the year.  And how many nominations has he gotten over the same period of time?  One. 

            In fact, for the sake of comparison, let’s look at each of the 3 major performances from the last years by these two side-by-side, shall we? 

The Master- Pheonix creates a personality viscerally physical in his urges, with an agonized stare capable to transmitting worlds of emotion in a single scene
Silver Linings Playbook- Bradley Cooper yells a lot. 

Her- In one of the most important movies to come out in recent years, Pheonix’s Theodore is a bundle of tortured loneliness, exuding a gentleness and a kindness, yet also showing an overwhelming inability to really cope with the world (and his life) as it is, until Samantha comes along. 
American Hustle- Bradley Cooper yells a lot. 

Inherent Vice- Pheonix is Doc, a high-off-his-ass private investigator who sees the world through a persona that is almost childish in its simplicity, especially when compared to the vapidness and insane levels of corruption that surround him, yet is never less than fun to follow along with as he wades his way through the underbelly of LA. 
American Sniper- Bradley Cooper stares into the void. 

            And some people wonder why I am sick to death of Cooper as an actor? 

            Alright, alright, I realize I am prevaricating around the bush here, and I apologize for that, but before discussing Keaton, it must also be noted that, in a fair world, this award would have belonged to David Oyelowo the day the nominations were announced.  Selma could not have come out at a more poignant time, reminding us in the wake of Ferguson of how fragile racial progress is, and how important leadership from within the ranks of the oppressed is to push those in power to act.  But I guess, since 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture last year, we are all done with that Black stuff and are now living in a post-racial Utopia.  Joy. 

            So, with the stunning absence Oyelowo and the obligatory Cooper-bashing addressed, the only person left on this list I felt any comfort voting for was Michael Keaton’s performance in Birdman.  Which is a great performance, a return to form for a criminally underrated actor, and is the key that makes the whole film work.  Keaton is so effortlessly selfish and even insane in his characterization that you could almost be fooled into thinking he is simply acting as himself.  Which, in a way, is what all great actors giving great performances do. 

Best Picture:

Nominees- American Sniper, Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Boyhood, Whiplash, Selma, The Grand Budapest Hotel

And the winner is: Boyhood

            In my mind, there is no competition here.  No other movie nominated from 2014 took as many crazy risks and was able to make them pay off so immensely well as Richard Linklater’s latest challenge to movie-making convention.  Few others reached such powerful emotional depths with such seeming ease, by reminding us of the commonality of growing up and trying to come to terms with a world that refuses to make things easy for us. 

            And those are my picks for this year’s Oscars!  For those of you keeping track, a numerical breakdown of who, in my opinion, should be the big winners of the night:

Boyhood- 5
The Grand Budapest Hotel- 4
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance- 4
Interstellar- 2
Inherent Vice- 1
Citizenfour- 1
The Tale of Princess Kaguya- 1
Gone Girl- 1
The Lego Movie- 1
Leviathan- 1

             The Oscar broadcast will be on February 22nd, the Sunday after next.  Tune in with me to rant, and rave, and by the next morning, blissfully forget. 

-Noah Franc 

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