I Am DB

February 21, 2015

Oscars 2014: The Envelope Please

In past years, I’ve called this post “My Annual Absurdly Long Predictions Opus,” but that no longer felt right since this post is never actually as long as the one in which I attempt to predict the nominees — a stage at which many more movies are in play than now, when the field has been narrowed down. Sure, this piece is always long, but by my usual verbose standards it’s really not absurdly long. So beginning next year, I may transplant the “Absurdly Long” title to my nominations predictions post. For this one, I’ll take the opportunity of a fresh start to use an antiquated phrase that no one actually says at the Oscars or any other awards show anymore but which is somehow still a Thing in the culture.

Anyway, where were we we? Ahh yes, Oscar predictions. Last year, I worked backwards through the categories all the way up to Best Picture because there were some unique elements to the race that made that approach more logical. This year, I’m going to try it again, because it might just be a better way to go in general.

As usual, I’m afraid (and embarrassed) that I have nothing to offer you in the Documentary, Live Action and Animated Shorts categories, nor can I wade into Best Foreign Language Film or Best Documentary Feature. (Well…Doc Feature is probably going to be Citizenfour.) Maybe some day I’ll get my act together with these films. In the meantime…

BEST SOUND MIXING & BEST SOUND EDITING
The four nominees common to both categories are American Sniper, Birdman, Interstellar and Unbroken. Sound Mixing also has Whiplash, while Sound Editing has The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which is the only nominee I’m willing to say has no real shot. In the absence of a clear below-the-line juggernaut like last year’s Gravity, any of these seem like conceivable winners. Sniper, Birdman and Unbroken each won an award from the Motion Picture Sound Editors, which breaks their discipline down into specific categories, while The Cinema Audio Society, which honors sound mixers, gave their award to Birdman (with Sniper, Interstellar and Unbroken all among the nominees.) My suspicion is that once you factor in votes from the Academy members outside of the sound field, Birdman falls away because most people won’t think of it as a “Sound” movie. Then again, it’s probably the most widely admired movie in each line-up, so that often makes the difference. Both categories could go any number of ways, with Sniper the likeliest candidate to double-up, but my guess is that they split this year. Sound Editing, which recognizes the creation of sounds that were not captured during filming, goes to American Sniper. Sound Mixing, which honors the blending of sound effects, dialogue, music and all other sonic components, goes to Whiplash.

Personal: I really have no horse in this race, but if not Whiplash for Sound Mixing, I’d love to see it go to Interstellar as a middle finger to everyone who complained about the mix and couldn’t see what director Christopher Nolan was going for.


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BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

For the first time since 2007, none of the Best Picture nominees are also up for Best Visual Effects. That’s worth noting  because without an obvious winner like Avatar or Gravity, this category is sometimes claimed by whichever Best Picture nominee is among the options, and that’s not always the movie with the most deserving visual effects work. Though to be fair, most of the post-2008 winners of this category — The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Avatar, Inception, Life of Pi and Gravity — deserved the trophy. The only exception was in 2011, when Hugo somehow beat Rise of the Planet of the Apes (as well as the easily more deserving Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Transformers: Dark of the Moon). Voters have a chance to rectify that error this year by voting for what is hands-down the most impressive achievement in the category, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Building on the motion capture technology that was already impressive when it was used to help create Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Apes is a movie that puts these digitally-rendered characters front and center. Actors like Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell perform the primates (exceptionally, I might add), but the figures we actually see in the movie are created by visual effects. These are lead characters, holding the camera in long close-ups and often conveying emotions silently. They do not exist without the visual effects work, and yet we never for a moment question their presence. We never stop to think, “Hey, this ape wasn’t actually there on set acting opposite Keri Russell or these other live human people.”  Yet they never come across as less than 100% real. It’s incredible, incredible work.

The question is, are voters really tuning into that? I fear that too many of them might not have seen Apes and/or don’t understand how impressive its effects are. The closest thing to a Best Picture nominee in the category is Interstellar, and they’ll probably go with that instead. Nolan’s sci-fi drama has lovely work for sure, but shows nothing that we haven’t seen in a dozen other outer space movies. There’s also the chance that voters could skip the prestige film and go for the super fun movie that they, like everyone else in America, loved: Guardians of the Galaxy. There will absolutely be people who vote for it because they want to see it win something. Will there be enough? Maybe, but I’m going with Interstellar all the same. I hope I’m wrong. I’d gladly surrender the bragging rights of a correct prediction in order for such an astounding accomplishment to be recognized.

Personal: I think it’s pretty clear that in my eyes there’s no contest. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, all the way.

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BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Only three nominees in this category, but none can be dismissed. Guardians of the Galaxy has aliens with blue skin, green skin, yellow skin, red eyes and all manner of other eccentric appearances, all of it elegantly and expertly applied. The Grand Budapest Hotel, with the exception of Tilda Swinton’s brief turn as an elderly countess, features more grounded work with lots of moustaches and carefully coiffed hair, plus Saoirse Ronan’s Mexico-shaped facial birthmark. Foxcatcher‘s makeup centers on making Steve Carell look like the creepy John du Pont by changing up his nose, teeth, eyes and hair. The work in all three films is highly effective, and all seem like plausible winners. Foxcatcher fans may want to throw it a bone, and many voters may choose this category over Visual Effects as a place to give something to Guardians. My sense is that the overall appreciation for Grand Budapest will extend here and carry it to victory, but anything feels possible.

Personal: I’m partial to the colorful, exotic work on Guardians of the Galaxy.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Gary Yershon’s nomination for Mr. Turner was a nice surprise, but we can rule it out right away. I’d give Hans Zimmer’s score for Interstellar better odds if the movie were nominated in some of the top categories. I’m not sure why that seems more important for its chances here than in the visual effects or sound categories, but it does. That leaves The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel. With the latter two, Alexandre Desplat collects his 7th and 8th nominations, all the more impressive considering that his first was only in 2006. He’s still awaiting his first win, and it could come for either of those Best Picture nominees, both of which feature distinctive scores that nicely complement their movies. The Theory of Everything seems to be the favorite, however. It won the Golden Globe, and its classical stylings are certainly pretty. But it also strikes me as having the least amount of personality among the contenders. As I think I say year after year, I’m always looking for a score that not only works for the movie but also as a listening experience on its own. I was pleased to see a recent interview with Desplat on In Contention in which he described that as something he strives for:

It’s the goal I’ve always tried to achieve, writing music for a film that can stand on its own. That’s the lesson that John Williams has given to all of us. And Bernard Herrmann has given all of us. And Nino Rota. And Georges Delerue: to write great music for a film that can stand on its own.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Theory of Everything score definitely has recurring motifs, but to my ear it’s the least singular among the nominees. I like it, but think there are better choices to be made here. Sadly, my ear has no vote. Keeping that in mind, I’d say Theory may well prove victorious in the end, but I’m giving a slight edge to Desplat’s playful, Eastern European-influenced work on The Grand Budapest Hotel, which captured the British Academy Award (BAFTA) and just won a Grammy earlier this month.

Personal:
Interstellar. Christopher Nolan’s movies are so visceral and physically affecting, and Zimmer’s music is often a big part of the reason. His work in Interstellar soars and carries us with it.
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BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Should I be embarrassed that I didn’t know who Glen Campbell was until I started to hear about this song? Granted, I’m not much of a country music guy, but I know the names of most of the big artists in that genre all the same. Apparently Glen Campbell is a country legend, but somehow he was never on my radar. If anyone else is in the same boat, this article served as a nice introduction, even though it’s mostly specific to the documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, which follows the tour he embarked on even as he fell victim to Alzheimer’s Disease. His nominated song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”, which frankly addresses his affliction, comes from that movie and won a Grammy a couple of weeks ago. It’s sweet and simple, and could be a sentimental favorite.
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The catchiest of the nominees is surely The LEGO Movie‘s “Everything Is Awesome,” and I have no doubt it will capture a lot of votes, especially from fans of the movie disappointed by its absence from Best Animated Feature. But I don’t expect it to go all the way. Barring a swell of support for Campbell, I think the award will go to “Glory” from Selma. It’s a powerful song, and like “Everything Is Awesome,” some of its votes will probably come from people who thought Selma got the shaft. More people will vote for it for the former reason, but political motivations will help its case.

Personal:
It would be a kick to see “Everything Is Awesome” take it, but mine eyes have seen the “Glory.”
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BEST COSTUME DESIGN

I suppose I could offer some brief commentary on the other nominees, but what is there to say other than, “The Oscar goes to The Grand Budapest Hotel?”

Personal:
The exquisite threads of Grand Budapest tower over the competition.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Pretty much the same can be said here. Admirable as the nominees are (though I’m still not sure how Interstellar got here), nothing holds a candle to the splendor of The Grand Budapest Hotel. These two design awards have been a long time coming to the work of Wes Anderson, and watching them both win will no doubt be among the ceremony’s more satisfying moments for me.
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Personal: Take a guess.
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BEST FILM EDITING

Birdman is notably absent from this category, and many Oscar observers have pointed out that its omission bodes ill for the movie’s Best Picture chances, citing a favorite annual statistic that no movie has won Best Picture without an editing nomination since Ordinary People in 1980. Yes, that’s true. Even Driving Miss Daisy was nominated for Film Editing. At the same time, that factoid is one of those little pieces of Oscar trivia that holds true until it doesn’t. Birdman may or may not win Best Picture, but its lack of an editing nomination is not a signal of its fate, and won’t be a factor either way. Does anyone honestly think that the average voter is looking over their ballot and drawing a line between Best Picture and Best Film Editing?
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The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel can probably be ruled out, leaving American Sniper, Boyhood and Whiplash, all films in which editing feels more central to their film’s total accomplishment. I say “feels” because voters, and most of us laymen, are usually voting on instinct here, not on any real understanding of the craft. The same can be said for most categories of course, but you can look at costumes or sets or visual effects, or you can listen to music, and come away with a clear opinion. That doesn’t mean the most deserving work in those categories wins; it just means that most of us can judge design more easily than the elusive art of editing.
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If Sniper wins here, it could signal bigger things to come. But I don’t think that will happen. It will come down to Whiplash and Boyhood, and I think the latter will emerge the winner for the sheer fact that editor Sandra Adair had to create a smooth and organic film from 12 years worth of footage, and did so with subtle, unassuming transitions. Whiplash is the more technically superior achievement, Boyhood the more emotionally effective one. Emotion will win the day.
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Personal: I can’t argue with Boyhood, but I’d have to go with the intensity of Whiplash.
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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

In the analysis of Best Visual Effects, I mentioned this was the first time since 2007 that none of the nominees were also in the running for Best Picture. This is also the first time since 2007 that there is no common nominee between Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography. For the past five years, in fact, both awards have gone to the same film: Avatar, Inception, Hugo, Life of Pi and Gravity. That alignment has been controversial to many cinephiles, as it suggests a blurring between the two disciplines that is not actually real and does a disservice to the artists in both arenas. So it’s nice this year to see a slate of nominees free of those implications, where the look of the film is clearly the work of the team running the camera. The category is full of terrific work, and there were many more stellar efforts that deserved nominations. Still, impressive as each of these are, how does this not go to Birdman? The one-continuous shot illusion is stunning enough, but consider the physical challenges behind implementing it, plus actually making what’s in the frame look good on top of just impressing with the technical prowess. It’s a rock star achievement, and for pulling it off, last year’s winner for Gravity Emmanuel Lubezki — Chivo, as he’s known to his friends and collaborators — will become the fifth back-to-back winner in this category.

Personal: It will be sad to see the great Roger Deakins — nominated for Unbroken — remain Oscarless after his 12th time at bat, but as good as his work (and all the rest here) is, anything other than Birdman will be a disappointment.

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BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Like Ben Affleck’s no-show in the Best Director category for Argo two years ago, the absence of The LEGO Movie is the kind of Oscar miss that really changes the race, because it so obviously would have won had it been here. But it’s not here, so who gets the gold? It’s unlikely that enough voters saw Song of the Sea or The Tale of Princess Kaguya for either to triumph, and even The Boxtrolls didn’t catch on as widely as Laika’s previous nominated films ParaNorman and Coraline. So it will come down to Big Hero 6 or How to Train Your Dragon 2, neither of which have a clear advantage or momentum over the other. There are those who think the sequel factor will hurt Dragon 2, and it may lose some votes on that count, but I don’t think most people will hold that against it. It was a well-reviewed box office hit, emotionally rich, beautifully animated, touching and funny. All of which apply to Big Hero 6 as well.

It’s pretty much a coin toss, and my guess is that it comes up tails. Because dragons have tails.

Personal: I was really sweet on Big Hero 6, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya was a quiet knockout. But I think I have to go with How to Train Your Dragon 2, partly to make up for the first film not winning. I didn’t enjoy the sequel quite as much, but I adore the original, which would have had my non-existent vote in 2010 had it not been up against the truly masterful, in-a-league-of-its-own Toy Story 3.

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The tricky thing about the screenplay categories is that the actual screenplay is not really what’s being judged. We all know that voters are not reading each screenplay and casting their vote based on what comes across on the page. Rather, they’re watching the movie and then working backwards, evaluating the quality of the writing and the structure, but from a finished product that has inevitably evolved from what was on the page even in the final shooting draft. The Adapted Screenplay category complicates things even further, because it’s unlikely that all the voters have read the source material for all the nominees, so they aren’t really judging the most effective translation of that source material to the screen.

If they were, perhaps Inherent Vice‘s Paul Thomas Anderson would stand a better chance for being the first person to adapt Thomas Pynchon, and for doing it so well. (From what I hear anyway. I haven’t read Inherent Vice, or any other Pynchon, but I’ve gathered that PTA nailed it). As it is though, Anderson is probably dragging in last place. To my continued surprise, American Sniper seems to have a lot of support, and that might come through here, but I don’t (or perhaps won’t) see how it can win. The Theory of Everything took the BAFTA, though I’ve read that the movie was particularly well-received in England. I’d be surprised if it repeats here. I see it coming down to The Imitation Game and Whiplash. There was a time when The Imitation Game seemed like it could be the movie to beat for Best Picture, but it’s been largely sidelined by the unexpected strength demonstrated by Birdman and Boyhood. It remains popular with Academy members though, and this looks like the last best place to honor it. Whiplash has plenty of admirers too, and their support could turn the beat around in its favor. But I’m going with The Imitation Game.

Personal: Tough call between Imitation, Vice and Whiplash. Any of the three would make me happy, but I think I’d go with Inherent Vice. It was a crazy, twisty plot that even PTA himself has acknowledged was hard to follow and was secondary to mood and tone, and yet for all its sprawling threads, it really does cohere. Can I explain to you the details of what happens in the movie? No. Yet I can see how the pieces all fit together. And on top of that, it’s really funny and kinda sad and all-around bewitching.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher are on the outside looking in, leaving the category a three-way race between Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel…just like Best Picture and Best Director. In fact, it’s difficult to talk through this category without pulling those two in as well.  From the time award season began in early December, these have been the three most honored movies of the year. Each one is the work of a visionary filmmaker, and it so happens that each filmmaker is a nominee in all three categories. So if the voters want to send all of them home with a prize, the prevailing logic is that Budapest‘s Wes Anderson wins here, while Boyhood‘s Richard Linklater and Birdman‘s Alejandro González Iñárritu could go either way for Best Picture and Best Director. Those two gents are in a showdown for those top two categories, so really this is the only place Anderson has a shot to win. He’s got the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) award, but didn’t have to face Birdman in that arena since it wasn’t eligible. He’s been nominated here before, he’s never won, and this movie has clearly captured the fancy of Academy members. On the other hand, Birdman is such an audacious piece of work, packed with rich ideas and operating on manifold levels. As for Boyhood, a couple of months ago it looked like it might be frontrunner here, but the screenplay isn’t the movie’s chief talking point. It’s now running in third, although if Academy members aren’t voting with the intention of making sure all three of these guys win something, then they may choose to give Linklater this award, save the two big ones for Birdman and send Anderson home empty-handed. I just don’t know. Will it be the honesty and simplicity of Boyhood, the fiery wit and boldness of Birdman, or the charm and utterly unique Wes Andersoness of The Grand Budapest Hotel? I’m betting on the latter.

Personal:  For me too, it comes down to Birdman and Budapest, and it’s a killer choice. If I rule out all other factors, I go with Birdman. But I would so love to see Wes Anderson win an Oscar, and who knows if he’ll ever be better positioned than he is right now. The Grand Budapest Hotel has a momentum that he’s never had before. In my first Oscar post of the season I talked about how little enthusiasm the Academy has shown to his films over the years. Grand Budapest has obviously struck a big chord with them, and with no way to know if this fortune will smile on him again, I’d love to see it capitalized on now. So this is tough for me. Birdman or Budapest. Either way I’ll be really happy and also little crestfallen.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Patricia Arquette’s buzz started when Boyhood debuted at Sundance, and when award season began, that buzz turned into booty. She’s won the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award, the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) award, the New York Film Critics Circle award, the National Society of Film Critics award, and by the count I’ve kept, 21 additional regional or national critics prizes. The next closest tally was 4 wins for Jessica Chastain, who was passed over by the Academy. Upsets can always happen, but with this kind of momentum, any other choice seems unfathomable. Arquette takes it.*

Personal: There’s really no performance here that I find Oscar caliber. Laura Dern’s part in Wild was too small; Kiera Knightley didn’t do anything particularly impressive in The Imitation Game; Emma Stone was strong in Birdman, but lots of other actresses could have played that part just as well; and Meryl Streep didn’t seem to have a take on her character in Into the Woods. I like all these actresses, and with the exception of Streep, who just didn’t do it for me in this role, they all did solid, enjoyable, moving work. But an Oscar? Meh. As for Arquette, I’ll say it: I don’t get what the big deal about her performance is. I enjoyed her, I agree she does a really nice job, but the kind of dominance she’s had confounds me. With no clear favorite, I’d give it to her or Emma Stone, and not be especially committed either way.

*Note to orchestra: Since Boyhood doesn’t have an instrumental theme, when Arquette wins, can you please play Hans Zimmer’s “You’re So Cool” from her great 1994 film True Romance as she walks to the stage? Thank you.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Like Arquette, J.K. Simmons’ domination began at Sundance and never wavered. He’s won all the same awards I mentioned by name above, and 24 more along the way. Only Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo have siphoned awards away from him, and barely. Simmons is a respected character actor who’s earned fans and industry admirers with his varied work in movies and TV for years, and it’s rare for a guy in his position to get a role like this and a moment in the spotlight like the one afforded him by Whiplash. Everyone’s rooting for him. He’s got this in the bag.

Personal: Norton is so, so good in Birdman, and I wish the field were clear for him to take this. But like everyone else, I’m pulling for J.K. Simmons.

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BEST ACTRESS

It’s nice when the narrative that a certain actor’s “time” has come is attached to a performance for which they actually deserve to win. Such is the case this year with Julianne Moore. Consistently one of our finest actresses in all manner of genres and styles, Moore has been nominated four times prior to this, been inexplicably ignored a few (seriously, no nomination for The Kids Are All Right?) and maintained a high position on the list of actors overdue for an Oscar. Her name comes off that list this year, thanks to her matter-of-fact, utterly truthful work as a successful academic facing early onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice. She faced strong competition on the critic’s award circuit from Gone Girl‘s Rosamund Pike and Marion Cotillard of Two Days, One Night. But in the post-nominations phase, Moore has won all the big ones: SAG, BAFTA, BFCA, and Golden Globe. It’s her moment.

Personal: It really will be nice to see Julianne Moore finally holding that Oscar.

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BEST ACTOR

Despite their excellent work, Steve Carell and Benedict Cumberbatch are on the sidelines of this race. Bradley Cooper, who, I’m sorry, should be out in the parking lot somewhere, is being talked up as a potential spoiler in what we all assume will be a tight contest between Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne. One article I read made the good point that Cooper is a wild card. Having not been nominated for any other major awards, we don’t know how his presence might have impacted other contests that ultimately went to Keaton or Redmayne. American Sniper is a huge hit and a major conversation piece, but I just don’t buy that Cooper stands any real chance here. If I’m wrong, and he somehow pulls out a surprise win, I will launch a cyber attack on Hollywood that will make Sony’s hackers the Guardians of Peace look like some kindergartners playing on a hollowed-out Commodore 64.

The thing that makes trying to predict this category so hard is that both Keaton and Redmayne embody narratives that the Academy eats up like candy. In Keaton’s favor: he dominated the critics award circuit, and won the BFCA and the Musical/Comedy Golden Globe. He’s a beloved actor — well-liked, admired, versatile. Birdman is something of a comeback for him, which Oscar voters love. Also, he plays an actor. The Academy’s largest voting group are actors…and they will relate to this character in a big way. He gives an emotionally bare performance, the movie has earned broad support across the guilds — which means it’s admired by more than just actors — and he’s been clearly touched by the recognition he’s received, delivering good speeches at other award shows. (Why should that matter? It shouldn’t. But it does.) Also, the Best Actor award favors veterans over beginners. (Redmayne broke through in 2006, but his career is young and just taking off.)

In Redmayne’s favor: he won the Golden Globe for Drama, as well as the SAG and the BAFTA. Those two are big. Also big — huge, even — he plays a famous, respected, real-life figure and undergoes an incredible physical transformation in the process. Voters looooove transformations. (Sorry Steve Carell; I guess you were out-transformed this year.) Also, like Keaton, he’s been a big hit with his previous acceptance speeches, demonstrating great poise, eloquence, charm, and gratitude.

Clearly, Academy members face an impossible decision. I’d like to think Keaton will have the additional benefit of voters knowing that he probably won’t be in this position again, riding this high a wave of acclaim. But that was also true of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and Viola Davis in The Help. Both deserved to win and had a momentum that doesn’t happen often if you aren’t someone like Sean Penn or Meryl Streep — the people Murray and Davis lost to, respectively. Still, despite the signs pointing to Redmayne, I have to go against the grain here. I really do think — not just because it’s what I want to see — that Michael Keaton will pull it off. But it’s a nailbiter, and I can’t deny that the tide seems to be with Redmayne.

Personal: I want Michael Keaton to win this Oscar. He has always been one of my very favorite actors, and what a vehicle this was for him. Redmayne did an amazing job as Stephen Hawking, and if he wins, there’s not much of an argument to make against it. But I badly want Michael Keaton to win this Oscar.

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BEST DIRECTOR
Normally this would be a pretty easy pick. Birdman is clearly loved within the industry, and director Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) award. That should seal it right there. It probably does seal it right there. Only seven times in the 67 years of the DGA’s existence has the winner not gone on to win the Oscar, and in three of those cases the DGA winner wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar.

But here’s the thing that’s eating away at me: I just find it really hard to believe that Richard Linklater is leaving the Dolby Theater on Sunday without an Oscar. If I’m right — and who knows if I am? — the question becomes which category he wins: Original Screenplay, Director, or Best Picture. I’m guessing he wins here, for undertaking a daunting, against-the-odds passion project that no one has ever tried to do in this way before, and for pulling it off so beautifully. There are equally strong cases to be made for both him and Iñárritu, not least of which is that both of these guys took an incredible artistic risk with their respective movies. They each tried something fresh and daring, and they were each making deeply personal films with something to say about the human experience. History is on Iñárritu’s side thanks to that DGA award, but the DGA members only had this one chance to honor him. Academy members have other ways to bestow an Oscar on Iñárritu. With that in mind, and connecting it to my theory that Linklater’s goes home with an Oscar for something, I’m going out on a limb — a limb which, a month ago, wouldn’t have been a limb at all but rather the sturdiest part of the trunk — and calling it for Linklater.

Personal: When Boyhood came out, I thought Linklater would be a dark horse candidate for a Best Director nomination. I thought the movie might be perceived as too small, too simple to get him that recognition. But I really wanted it for him. The film is a visionary piece of work, and “visionary” doesn’t have to mean Gravity or Inception. Visionary doesn’t have to be grand. It can be small and intimate too. It took incredible balls and drive to conceive of and execute this movie, and the ability to inspire trust and faith in his actors, making them comfortable enough to bring their own personal life experiences to the table, is part of his achievement. It was moviemaking without a net, and I wanted to see Linklater recognized for that…and indirectly, for a career of moving smoothly and successfully between indies and studios, experimental and commercial. And it turned out he got the recognition, no uphill battle necessary.
 
Now that it comes time for the actual award, though, my heart is with Iñárritu. His directorial challenges seem even more varied, more risky, and ultimately more impressive to me. I’ll be happy with either outcome, but while I’m glad Linklater got the nomination, I want Iñárritu for the win.
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BEST PICTURE

Once again, and now in the end, it comes down to the birds and the boys, and while it could go either way, my money is on Birdman. Largely because nearly every industry guild or society has honored the movie, indicating support across all branches of the Academy. Birdman won the Producers Guild of America award, the DGA, the SAG award for Best Ensemble and the American Society of Cinematographers award. It’s been feted by the Art Director’s Guild and the Costume Designers Guild in their Contemporary categories; it’s won awards from the Makeup and Hairstyling Guild, the Motion Picture Sound Editors, and the Cinema Audio Society (all three of which honored other movies as well). The only guilds that didn’t recognize it are the WGA (where it was ineligible) and the American Cinema Editors. None of this means Boyhood can’t still win, but the wind really does seem to be beneath Birdman’s wings.

Is there anything else in the running that could emerge a surprise winner? American Sniper has a lot of fans, and everyone thinks highly of The Imitation Game as well. Boyhood and Birdman, for all the awards they’ve collected and the domination they’ve exhibited, are divisive movies. There are plenty of people who find Boyhood slow and boring. There are also plenty of people who find Birdman pretentious or annoying or who just don’t get it. Best Picture is chosen by a preferential ballot, which aims to award the movie with the broadest support. If Birdman and Boyhood are each championed and cast aside in somewhat equal measure, it’s not impossibe that something like The Imitation Game could sneak in. This helpful video, produced last year by The Wrap‘s Oscar guru Steve Pond, explains the preferential ballot. I included it last year, I’m including it again, and I’ll probably include it every year. If you like to know how the vote is counted, this is worth watching. It’s not just “the movie with the most votes wins.”


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Normally I wouldn’t introduce the idea of a last minute shocker when there are one or two movies that are clearly ahead of the pack. But normally you wouldn’t have two movies in such a position that are as unconventional — and therefore as polarizing — as Birdman and Boyhood. In a year like this, it doesn’t seem impossible for a more consistently admired movie to work its way in. Were that to happen, The Imitation Game would probably be the one. (American Sniper has too much controversy of its own.) But I still think Birdman and Boyhood are the last two standing, with Birdman ultimately flying away the winner.

Personal:
Most of the nominees are among my favorite movies of the year, but Birdman…there’s just nothing else like it.

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And there we have it. From where I stand, we’re in for a pretty damn exciting Oscar night. Neil Patrick Harris is a consummate host, and although he — like Ellen DeGeneres and Seth MacFarlane in the two years before him — must stand in the shadow of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s killer Golden Globes gig…

…Harris has proven many times that he’s more than up to the task. From the first moment to the last, his turn at the helm of the 2011 Tony Awards is one of the best performances by a host I’ve ever seen.

Seriously…watch that clip. Brilliant writing first and foremost, but NPH crushed it. If some future award ceremony can get him, Fey and Poehler to host together, they might just conquer the world.

Anyway…Oscar show producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, back for their third consecutive year, once again seem to be obsessed with musical numbers that will probably wind up being a mixed bag. In addition to performances of the nominated songs by the likes of Common, John Legend, Tim McGraw, Adam Levine, Rita Ora, Tegan and Sara, and The Lonely Island, Meron and Zadan have recruited Frozen‘s Oscar winning songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen-Anderson Lopez to write a number for NPH, plus they’ve lined up Lady Gaga, Jennifer Hudson, Anna Kendrick and Jack Black to perform. (It hasn’t been stated that Black and Kendrick are doing musical numbers, but the announcements made it sound that way.)

We’ll see how that stuff goes, but yay or nay, I at least expect NPH will be a dynamite host. And the real reason to be excited is, of course, the awards themselves. Most of the winners that are locked in, from Julianne Moore to the sets and costumes of The Grand Budapest Hotel, deserve their surefire victories. Then you’ve got those top races — Picture, Director, Actor and even Original Screenplay — that are so hard to call and will probably shake out in ways that result in simultaneous elation and heartbreak for us fans. (For the real Oscar geeks, even categories like Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup and Hairstyling will have that effect.) Whatever happens, I’m really trying to appreciate the rarity of a year where the top contenders are all unique and quirky in a way that the Best Picture frontrunners usually aren’t. I mean, I liked recent winners Argo and The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave a great deal, and although I’d have picked Lincoln over Argo, or The Social Network or Inception or The Fighter over The King’s Speech, even those movies are pretty typical. Nothing wrong with that at all. But take a moment to relish the fact that the three movies duking it out this year are as out there and atypical as Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel. When I look at the 2014 award season and the movies it’s honored, even with the disappointing omissions (your day will come, Chadwick Boseman), I gotta say: everything is awesome.

(Nominee Luncheon. Click to enlarge and play Who Can I Recognize?)

 

February 14, 2015

Oscars 2014: And the Nominees Are…

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 4:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Complete List of Nominees

Yes. The Oscars are next weekend. Which makes this post, like, three weeks overdue. So instead of devoting precious time to self-deprecating commentary about that, I’ll get right into it. As always, the morning of the Oscar nominations offered surprises both satisfying and disappointing. In a nice move that I hope becomes a new tradition, all 24 categories were announced live, instead of just the usual “top” ones. J.J. Abrams and reigning Best Director Alfonso Cuarón handled the first part, followed by Chris Pine and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs with the big categories as well as some additional below-the-line races. As is my usual habit, I got up at 5:30 in the morning to watch the announcement live, and had to settle for local TV news coverage since apparently E! Entertainment Television — a channel entirely dedicated to covering the entertainment industry — didn’t feel that the Academy Award nominations merited interrupting a block of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. And the local news channel couldn’t be bothered to air the full announcement, cutting to a commercial in the middle of Abrams reading the nominees for Best Animated Feature. Nice move, dipshits. Luckily the event is preserved on YouTube, so I can go back and relive all the excitement for years to come.

 

Okay, so the excitement was minimal.  It could have used some of the playfulness that Seth MacFarlane and Emma Stone brought to the shorter announcement two years ago. Still, it was nice to see all the nominees get their due with a public acknowledgement instead of being relegated to a press release. And by the way, what was up with Isaacs bizarre pronunciations of really simple names and titles? I’ll forgive her the slip-up of calling Best Cinematography nominee Dick Pope “Dick Poop,” which she immediately corrected, but what about the way she kept saying Richard Linklater as if his name was a three-parter: Richard Link Later. Or the distinct emphasis she placed on “The” in The Theory of Everything when announcing Best Actress nominee Felicity Jones. I know it’s early in the morning, but these are not hard names.

I had a middling year in terms of my predictions. There was no category in which I went 100%, though perhaps the judges will give me partial points for Best Picture. I predicted there would be nine nominees, and there were only eight…but my nine included the eight that made it, so that’s something, right? In 12 categories, I was only off by one, which matches my guesses from last year. But my average was dragged down by having my single worst category since I’ve been keeping track, with only one of the five Best Sound Mixing predictions correct.

Here are some thoughts, category by category…omitting a few where I have nothing to say at this stage.

BEST PICTURE/BEST DIRECTOR
This was the fourth year that there could have been anywhere between five and ten nominees, and I said in my last post that I would continue to guess nine — the tally for the past three years — until I had evidence not too. Well, now I’ll have to figure out what to do next year, based on only eight movies making the cut this time around. The one I had anticipated which didn’t make it was Nightcrawler, which had reportedly been playing like gangbusters with Academy members. Those reports are probably true, but apparently there wasn’t quite enough support to hit the necessary number of votes that would have secured a nomination.

After all of my skepticism and fretting, the Academy finally embraced Wes Anderson, with The Grand Budapest Hotel scoring nine nominations, tying with Birdman for the most of the year. But the big story out of the nominations was the disappointingly weak showing for Selma, which did score one of the year’s coveted Best Picture nominations, but only managed one other, for Best Original Song. It was absent from key races in which many, including myself, thought — or at least hoped — it would be recognized. Ava DuVernay missed out on a Best Director nomination, David Oyelowo didn’t make the Best Actor list, and the screenplay was overlooked as well. Cinematography and Editing might also have been possibilities had the film been embraced. Selma‘s underwhelming presence, combined with the blinding whiteness of the 20 acting nominees, led some impetuous voices (Al Sharpton, special interest groups like ColorOfChange.org) to proclaim racial motivations, while more level-headed responses (producer Reginald Hudlin, author Mark Harris) understood that several factors were likely at play, and racism was among the lesser of them.

As the latter two commenters — and several others as well — have noted, the problem is not with the Academy but with the industry at large. The film industry simply doesn’t create enough opportunities — in any capacity, on either side of the camera — for non-whites, or to a lesser but still highly problematic extent, for women. (Jessica Chastain touched on this issue in a wonderful, eloquent speech the evening the Oscar nominations were announced, when she was presented with an award by the Broadcast Film Critics Association for her body of work in 2014.) So taking the Academy to task is the wrong battle right from the start. Yes, the 2012 Los Angeles Times report about the Academy’s demographics, which was referenced in almost all of these reactions to the Selma omissions, shows that the Academy is overwhelmingly white, male and older. But so is the entire industry (white and male, at least; I’m not sure about older). Until that changes, the Academy can only do so much. And it is doing something. The organization extended invitations to far more people in 2013 and 2014 than it typically used to per year, and the desire for greater diversity has been the driving force behind this. Even Spike Lee, a critic of the Academy’s problems in this area and someone who has been personally affected by them, acknowledges that efforts to broaden the membership have been happening (while mincing no words about Driving Miss Daisy‘s victory in the same year that his seminal race relations masterpiece Do the Right Thing earned only a Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor nomination). But it will still take time to flush out the ranks and turn this crusty Caucasian sausage party into a membership that has greater balance among races and genders.

I could go much further into all of this — it deserves its own post, really — but this piece is already weeks overdue, and most of what I’d say has already been well covered by others. To that point, this article from Vulture is a great overview of some of the problems that befell Selma‘s Oscar campaign, pairing nicely with observations in the Mark Harris piece linked to above. Also, to the discussion about DVD screeners not reaching key voting groups in time to make a difference, I would add Kris Tapley’s remarks from the comments section of an article he wrote on In Contention, where he points out:

With screeners going out around 12/19, arriving 12/21 — typically mailings for directors and actors don’t arrive direct. They go to agencies. Which were more or less closed by then for the holiday. I have little doubt a great many people didn’t get their screener until after the New Year, and by then, voting was already well underway (and I’ve even heard from some who got paper ballots a full week before the end of the year this season, which is odd).

In addition, Ava DuVernay herself said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly conducted about a month before the nominations were announced that she did not expect to be in the final five, citing her lack of connections within the Academy. I don’t think that necessarily makes a difference, as I’m sure some past nominees have received the nod from their peers without being entrenched in their ranks. But maybe we’re all a lot more shocked on her behalf than she is herself. I should also say that yes, Ava DuVernay would have been the first African-American woman nominated for Best Director (and only the fifth woman at all) had things gone that way, but that should not have been the reason to vote for her. The reason to vote for her should have been that she demonstrated superb directorial skill in realizing Selma. Simple as that.

Like Mark Harris, I won’t be so naïve as to say a form of institutionalized racism was not at play in any way. The EW article about DuVernay quotes an anonymous Academy member saying, “It’s almost like because she is African-American, we should have made her one of the nominees. I think that’s racist. Look at what we did last year with 12 Years.” That last bit could be interpreted in a few ways, and one of them (just one; I don’t know what this member intended to convey) suggests that by voting for 12 Years a Slave, the Academy has met its quota of acknowledging “the black experience.” Would it surprise me if there were a small number of voters who felt that way, whether or not the speaker was one of them? No, it wouldn’t. (For what it’s worth, some Oscar journalists have brought up the fact that many Academy members privately admitted to voting for 12 Years a Slave last year without having seen it.) I’d wonder, though, if voters who held that opinion would feel that honoring The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech and The Artist over three consecutive years was too much recognition of “the white experience.” It’s also difficult to watch Selma take heavier hits over questions of its historical accuracy than films like The Imitation Game, American Sniper and Foxcatcher and not wonder why the film coming under the most vocal fire for dramatizing real-life events is the one directed by the black woman, depicting a story about black characters and their battle against an oppressive, largely white system. Of course, these annual attacks are ridiculous to begin with. These movies aren’t documentaries, and are not — contrary to what an another anonymous Academy member says in the EW piece, regarding Selma‘s depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson — “obligated to present it [history] correctly.” These movies are fictionalized versions of true events, and as such they are entitled to dramatic license.

At the end of the day though, I just don’t buy the racism thing. In the industry, yes, but not in the Academy. This is an organization that awarded Gone With the Wind‘s Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 (and don’t start in with the fact that she was playing a servant). If the number of black performers who have won since then is low compared to white performers, well again, the Academy can only reflect the industry. Have there been performances by black actors and actresses that should have been nominated and weren’t? Absolutely. Just like there have been performances by non-black actors that should have been nominated and weren’t. Bottom line, only five people get nominated per category, and outstanding work finds itself sidelined every year. But if the Academy were comprised of a bunch of racists, they wouldn’t nominate actors of color at all. Racism isn’t selective. It doesn’t come and go from year to year. If an institution and its members are racist, they’re consistently racist, at least until enough new people who embrace acceptance arrive in large enough numbers to change the institution’s actions. Selma and most of its filmmakers were not nominated this year, and no performers of color were nominated this year, and that’s unfortunate. But it’s not because one year after the success of 12 Years a Slave, Academy members’ latent racism suddenly flared up. In the last 10 years, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer and Lupita Nyong’o have all won Oscars. In the same period, nominations have gone to Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx (in addition to his win), Sophie Okenedo, Terrence Howard, Will Smith, Djimon Hounsou, Eddie Murphy, Ruby Dee, Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis (twice), Morgan Freeman (in addition to his win), Gabourey Sidibe, Denzel Washington, Quvenzhané Wallis, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Barkhad Abdi. Other non-whites who have won in the same period? Well, only Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. But nominations went to Catalina Sandino Moreno, Penélope Cruz (twice in addition to her win), Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Javier Bardem (in addition to his win) and Demián Bichir. All totaled, yes, these numbers are far fewer than they are for white nominees. But if the industry makes fewer movies in which actors of various ethnicities have the opportunity to play great roles, the Academy is not to blame. Even if those movies and roles exist, they have to earn enough acclaim and attention to become part of the Academy conversation in the first place. And even then they have to be lucky enough to break into the list of five nominees. There are always politics at play when it comes to Oscar nominees and winners, but they’re seldom the politics of race. Ejiofor, Abdi and Nyong’o were all nominated last year, but Fruitvale Station‘s Michael B. Jordon and Octavia Spencer were not, nor were Forest Whitaker or Oprah Winfrey for Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Were those four actors the victims of a racist agenda? Or were they the victims of only five nominations available per category and a surplus of deserving contenders, just like Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Oscar Isaac, Emma Thompson, Julie Delpy, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Daniel Brühl, among even more? If the Academy had a race problem, it wouldn’t have nominated or awarded all those people named above. If the Academy were not interested in non-white stories, its members wouldn’t have voted Best Picture nominations to Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Slumdog Millionaire, Precious, The Help, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave and yes, Selma.

Keep in mind that while we talk about the Academy as this giant Thing!, it does not operate on a hive mentality. The Oscar nominations and winners are not decided by a committee sitting around a table arguing and debating. They are decided by roughly 6,000 individual people expressing their own opinions, and then having those opinions collected and tallied.

Finally, let’s remember this above all: no one is entitled to an Oscar nomination. The way people like Al Sharpton and others who decried the all-white acting races and the omission of Selma talk about the situation, you would think that Ava DuVernay or David Oyelowo or Get on Up‘s dynamo Chadwick Boseman were promised Oscar nominations only to have those promises revoked at the last minute. There will always be great work that is passed over for an Oscar nomination, and I have certainly spent my fair share of time ranting about such cases over the years. But it’s all part of the game, and sometimes the movie and the actor you want to receive that honor just doesn’t receive it. Even though everybody thinks they should have. Sometimes they just don’t. The complaining about it is part of what keeps us engaged with the whole circus in the first place. But when that complaining morphs into defiance and allegations and legitimate outrage, it’s time to take a few steps back, get some perspective on what we’re talking about, and demonstrate a little understanding of how processes work before you start convening panels to address them.

All of that said, Ava DuVernay should totally have been nominated.

Whew. I said I wouldn’t get get too deep into this, and look what happened. Okay, just a couple more observations about these two categories. Of the people who did get nominated for Best Director, four of them were widely expected. The fifth slot, which some thought would go to DuVernay and others thought might go to Director’s Guild of America (DGA) nominee Clint Eastwood, instead went to Foxcatcher‘s Bennett Miller. It wasn’t a total shock — he was considered a possibility — but few had him in their final five. Interestingly, Foxcatcher was not one of the eight Best Picture nominees, making Miller the first person to be nominated for Best Director without a Best Picture nomination since 2009’s expansion of Best Picture beyond five nominees. I do wonder — and I’m probably not alone — if Miller benefitted from a boost in support after Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher, went on a vicious social media tirade against the film and Miller in late December, suddenly attacking a project he had supported all along. He offered a reserved apology soon after, and several more apologetic tweets after the nominations came out, specifically addressing Miller at certain points, but that initial outburst was lathered in vitriol. Could it have moved some of Miller’s fellow directors to show their support by voting for him? Not that Miller couldn’t have simply earned the nomination 100% because members of the branch admired his work, but these outside factors always make one wonder.

Lastly, American Sniper made the Best Picture list too, though I can think of at least a half-dozen other movies more deserving. Sniper just isn’t that great. I didn’t dislike it, but it’s really nothing special and I’m baffled by all the love. If you watched the clip of the Chris Pine and Cheryl Boone Isaacs above, did you notice that each of Sniper‘s nominations elicited cheers and applause from some of the journalists in attendance? I don’t get it. The movie tread on familiar ground that was covered more compellingly and effectively in The Hurt Locker and last year’s Lone Survivor. It was solid, but by no means one of the year’s best movies. Yet America has embraced it like it was delivered forth by Jesus himself. It entered wide release the day after the nominations were announced, and won an enormous box office victory over Martin Luther King Jr. Day Weekend, bringing in unprecedented numbers for a January release and breaking records along the way. I could bring up the ironies around American Sniper doing such amazing business during that particular timeframe while the movie about the man whose legacy is meant to be honored and remembered on that day struggles to find an audience, but you probably see them for yourself. There’s a lot more to explore with this movie as well, regarding why it’s such a massive hit and why it’s been so controversial, but this time I really am avoiding those waters, if for no other reason than how little they have to do with the movie’s Oscar standing.

BEST ACTOR
We sort of covered David Oyelowo in the previous section, so let’s see what else happened here. I’m not surprised Steve Carell was nominated. Despite his (and Foxcatcher‘s) inconsistent fortunes throughout Phase One of the season, I felt pretty sure that the acting branch would speak up for his unsettling, change-of-pace work. My mistake was thinking that in an effort to deal with a painfully overcrowded field, they would take the same course as BAFTA and shift him into Best Supporting Actor. (Also because that’s probably where he really belongs, though I can see the argument for Lead.) But they kept him in Best Actor, and so it turns out those four guys who seemed like locks as far back as October — Carell, Cumberbatch, Keaton and Redmayne — managed to stay in the game, leaving only one open spot and slew of worthy contenders. I can’t believe it was Bradley Cooper. I’m sorry, but no way. Cooper is great, and I was 100% enthusiastic about his previous two nominations, for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. But this? No way. There is nothing about his performance or character even remotely as interesting or exciting as Jake Gyllenhaal’s in Nightcrawler, and nothing as powerful or magnetic as Oyelowo’s in Selma. Those were the two I thought would get in, but if not them, I can still name a dozen other performances more compelling than Cooper’s. I did name them, in the previous post. Ralph Fiennes, Chadwick Boseman, Matthew McConaughey, Miles Teller, Tom Hardy…literally every single person I listed would deserve this nomination more than Bradley Cooper. I don’t want to suggest he isn’t good in the movie. He is. But lots of people are good, even very good, in their movies. They don’t all deserve Oscar nominations though. We’re talking about one of the five best performances of the year? I’m sorry, but no way.

BEST ACTRESS
For all the emphasis we players of this Oscar nomination guessing game put on the precursor awards to guide our selections, sometimes the tea leaves aren’t worth a damn. Despite several nominations from regional critics organizations, and a handful of wins, Marion Cotillard had not been cited by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, or the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). However to correct my last post, she was among the six nominees from the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), which makes her placement here slightly less unexpected…but not by much. It’s nice to see her back in the game since first winning in 2007 for La Vie En Rose, but few thought she’d make it. Her fellow nominees — Rosamund Pike, Reese Witherspoon (who also produced Pike’s film Gone Girl), Felicity Jones and Julianne Moore — were all expected to place, and most pundits were predicting Jennifer Aniston for the fifth spot, probably because she did have Golden Globe, SAG and BFCA nominations, and there wasn’t a large group of viable contenders to begin with. At least, not without looking to unusual suspects such as Jenny Slate (Obvious Child), Essie Davis (The Babadook) or Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights). It’s rare for someone with all three of those nominations to miss with the Academy. Not unheard of (Leonardo DiCaprio for J. Edgar, Mila Kunis for Black Swan, Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall Street), but rare. I had a feeling Aniston wouldn’t make it, though I guessed — for lack of anything that made more sense to me, really — that Big Eyes‘ Amy Adams would take the open spot.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
No surprises here. Despite his general awesomeness, I thought Duvall would be passed over, given the underwhelming reception for The Judge. I hoped that when the moment of truth came, voters would see through the film’s cliches, picking instead a role more interesting than the one that The Great Duvall was stuck with. But they went for it, making this category identical to the way it shook out with the Golden Globes, SAG and BFCA with Ethan Hawke, J.K. Simmons and Incredible Hulks Mark Ruffalo and Edward Norton filling out the list. (The BFCA added Inherent Vice‘s Josh Brolin to those five, and I would definitely rather have seen Duvall’s slot go to Brolin.) Duvall was good in The Judge because he’s always good, but that’s not good enough for an Oscar nomination.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Laura Dern was one of the bubble contenders for her role in Wild, and she managed to sneak in there, which stirs mixed feelings for me. On one hand, I’ve always been a champion for Dern, who I consider among our most underrated actresses. It’s really nice to see her recognized, 23 years after her only previous nomination (Best Actress in Rambling Rose). On the other hand, Dern’s time in Wild is brief, and while she does typically lovely work, she doesn’t get to do enough of it. I think I end up saying this about at least one acting nominee every year, but with rare exceptions a performance should have more presence and more meat than the one Dern has here in order to deserve an Oscar nomination. But here she is, and I can’t say I’m not happy to have her.

Also, nice to see someone else speaking up for Mr. Turner‘s shoulda-been-a-contender Dorothy Atkinson.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Apologies if I sound like a broken record, but American Sniper?!? Are you kidding me? For what?? Writer friends, please explain this to me, because I truly don’t understand. This movie just isn’t that good. I understand why it’s doing so well with audiences, but I can’t get my head around the award recognition, maybe even more so in this category than in Best Picture or Actor. I can honestly say that in a heartbeat I would have nominated Guardians of the Galaxy over this, and other genre fare like Snowpiercer, Edge of Tomorrow and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Under the Skin would have been a more deserving alternative too, but that movie was beyond the Academy’s sights. Wild was considered a good bet, and although Still Alice didn’t register in this category with other groups, it would have been worthy of a place here. Certainly more so than American Sniper. Best Screenplay. I can’t figure it.

Not that Sniper‘s nomination was a surprise. BAFTA called it out, and it got a WGA nod too. I just hoped the Academy would go for something more interesting. The true surprise in this line-up is the absence of Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn adapted her own novel and picked up a number of wins along the way from regional critics, with the BFCA being her most high-profile victory. In fact, across the entire landscape of precursor awards, Gone Girl won far more prizes for Adapated Screenplay than any other film. It seemed like a sure thing, and Academy members have shown their love of David Fincher’s work over the last few years. Not this time. Gone Girl‘s sole nomination went to Rosamund Pike.

The good news in this category is that the last minute shift from Original Screenplay didn’t throw off voters from nominating Whiplash. And Paul Thomas Anderson broke in for Inherent Vice, so that made me happy. That’s a movie that should have been a bigger player this year.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Everything was not awesome for The LEGO Movie. Here was a category where everyone got it wrong. Not only was The LEGO Movie‘s nomination a sure thing, but pretty much everyone assumed it would win. I have a theory about why some animators may not have voted for it, and I can’t explain it without giving a major spoiler. But those who have seen the movie know that it takes an unexpected turn toward the end, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if some voters felt that the move was a betrayal, for lack of a better word. Maybe I’m way off base, and there’s no way to know without surveying members of the animation branch, but I could see that being a reason for casting it aside, even if I think my explanation would be an incredibly stupid reason not to vote for a creative and inspired movie worthy of recognition. I also heard reports that many members of the animation branch come from a hand-drawn tradition and a European background, and were maybe put off by the pop culture saturation of The LEGO Movie while also wanting to champion traditionally drawn films. So that might have been at play too.

As it is, the films that were nominated are all quite good. (Actually, I haven’t seen The Boxtrolls, but I heard good things and should finally be able to catch it this week.) I mentioned Irish filmmaker Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea as a possibility, and he did make it, scoring his second nomination and once again taking people by surprise. People seemed equally caught off guard by the inclusion of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, though I’m not sure why. It comes from Studio Ghibli, the legendary Japanese company whose Spirited Away won this category in 2002, and which had Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises nominated in the years since. So Princess Kaguya was always a viable contender.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
I missed by one in this category, but I’ll give myself a half point for even mentioning the possibility of a nomination for the Polish black and white film Ida, which also scored a nod for Best Foreign Language Film. Although…I described it as “a long longshot” so maybe a half point is too generous. I’ll take an eighth and be on my way.

BEST FILM EDITING
Although Birdman seemed like a good bet here, I shouldn’t be surprised that it missed. I’ve said before that voters — even the editors themselves, at the nomination stage, apparently — often equate best editing and most editing. Birdman, with its numerous long takes, is definitely not among the year’s most edited movies. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t carefully and rather brilliantly put together however, with the editors crucially helping to seal the illusion of the movie appearing as almost one ongoing shot.

I won’t argue with the American Sniper nomination this time. It’s the sort of movie that does well in this category, and I did predict it, though I would much rather have seen the wonderful, more abstract editing of Wild nominated. That’s a big oversight.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Nothing to say here really, except finally, finally, finally, a Wes Anderson movie gets nominated for its set design. A long overdue honor for one of the most visually imaginative directors ever. No, I’m not overstating.

Also, I’m a little baffled by Interstellar showing up in this category. It picked up nominations from other groups along the way, so I knew it was a possibility and said so in the previous post. But the movie didn’t strike me as anything special in the design sense. Everything was well done, but there was really nothing out of the ordinary or so special as to seem worthy of singling out. Not when films like Snowpiercer, The Immigrant and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes were left out. Birdman, too, was the rare contemporary film that seemed to have a shot in this category, as the design of the aged, cluttered Broadway theater added immeasurably to the overall effect of the movie.

Okay, so I guess there were a few things to say here.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Just as with Production Design, it must be celebrated that a Wes Anderson movie finally scored a nomination in this category. I was also pleased that two of my personal picks — Inherent Vice and Maleficent — made the cut, displacing my predictions The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. The latter two did feature some fine costume work, but sometimes period films with Best Picture pedigree get swept into categories like this one at the expense of choices that exhibit a little more thoughtfulness. It’s especially nice to see the costume branch spring for Inherent Vice, which has the period piece factor that these voters love, but a more contemporary period than often gets recognized from a voting block that gravitates toward more historical eras like the one in the also-nominated Mr. Turner. The costume work in Vice goes a long way toward defining the characters, and also did more to capture a specific time and place than the costumes of Imitation and Theory, which seemed more likely to get nominated, so kudos to those who voted for it.

I still think Guardians of the Galaxy deserved a spot here, but with the inclusion of Budapest and Vice, I can’t complain.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Between the crazy number of potential nominees and the problematic method the selection, this category is always a crapshoot, so I was pleased to see four of my five predictions bear out. The one I missed was “Grateful,” from the very good, underseen romantic drama Beyond the Lights, about a talented singer who has been manufactured into a pop star and finally starts to take control of her image and her life. It’s a nice song that ties into the movie’s story, but the same could be said for a lot of songs that seem to get brushed aside by the rules that govern the voting in this category. I’m not sure what makes this one so special as to deserve recognition. It’s not particularly distinctive or powerful. Like I said, it’s nice, but there were more inspired choices to be made here.

Starting with some of the songs from Muppets Most Wanted, all of which were incorporated directly into the movie. I mention that because voters in the music branch are presented with clips of all the eligible songs exactly as they appear in their respective movies, the idea apparently being that songs should be judged as much for context as for musicality. If this is the goal, maybe the category needs to be clearly redefined — and renamed — as “Best Use of an Original Song.” And if that’s the thinking, then voters would have done well to include “Sing Along” from Rudderless, an intimate song performed in the movie’s final scene by Billy Crudup as a father grieving for his deceased son. Yet there lies one of the problems with this method of voting. A song like “Sing Along” really needs to be seen (or heard) in light of everything that’s come before it in order to be understood and appreciated, and with 79 eligible songs, there’s no way voters can watch each full movie to understand every song’s place within that movie. So really, the voters should just receive a CD with each eligible song and judge the song on its own merits. Maybe that ends up benefitting something like “Grateful” even more than the current system. I don’t know. What I do know is that a) the system as it exists contradicts itself at every turn, and b) this fine but average song being nominated over this hilariously clever and loopy one just ain’t right.

Thankfully, the voters didn’t ignore every silly option, giving a nod to “Everything is Awesome” from The LEGO Movie. It would not have surprised me if voters had skipped over this popular tune, which is insanely catchy but admittedly simple and repetitive. (The song appears multiple times in the movie, leaving me to wonder what clip was presented to music branch voters. The portions performed by Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaeffer only appeared during the end credits version, but they’re a big part of what makes the song so great.)

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Although I predicted that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies would be nominated, I acknowledged why it might not be, and it turns out I was right to see its vulnerability. It became the first of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films to miss a VFX nomination. And unless Jackson dives into The Silmarillion, it will also be the last. Also falling short was Transformers: Age of Extinction, which I also predicted but felt was not a sure thing. As it is, we wound up with a strong, respectable slate. Now let’s see if the voters do the right thing when it comes time to pick the winner.

BEST SOUND EDITING/SOUND MIXING
I did dreadfully in Sound Mixing, with American Sniper being my only correct prediction. I was on the fence about whether to go with Interstellar, which did end up getting nominated, because there were widespread complaints about the sound mix being unbalanced, with the sound effects and music score occasionally overwhelming the dialogue so that people couldn’t understand what was being said. Personally, I thought it was a deliberate creative decision intended to evoke accurate circumstances in which noise probably would make it difficult for you to hear someone talking to you. It detracted from the movie for some, but had the opposite effect for me, drawing me into the experience even more. I was happy when Nolan discussed the sound shortly after its release to confirm that his choices with the sound mix were absolutely deliberate. Nevertheless, I wasn’t sure how his approach would affect the film’s Oscar chances in the sound categories. I settled on the idea that the branch would overlook the movie, but I’m happy to see that they appreciated what Nolan was going for.

I also thought Into the Woods would follow the many musical or music-centric films that earned Mixing nominations before. The film missed out, but the branch did give a slot to Whiplash, which was nice to see. It was also great to see Birdman show up in both categories. I mentioned in the last post that the film’s drum-driven score was deemed ineligible for that category, but it’s such a vital component of the movie, and I feel like the two sound nominations acknowledge that, as the score does the job of sound effects and music at the same time. And may I say, having recently seen Birdman again, how ridiculous it is that the music score was not allowed to contend for a nomination? No other score all year was more at one with its movie than Antonio Sánchez’s for Birdman. But the music branch clings pig-headedly to a number of asinine rules that continually undermine the very achievements they are tasked with celebrating. They badly need to get their shit together.

Back to the topic at hand, the most interesting this about the nominations in these two categories is that they both ignored the summer blockbusters that usually find a home here. No Transformers (the first time in that franchise there hasn’t been a sound nomination), no Guardians of the Galaxy, no Godzilla, no Planet of the Apes, no Captain America, no Edge of Tomorrow or X-Men or Spider-Man. Instead the categories were populated by the more prestige films like Birdman, Unbroken, American Sniper and Whiplash. Yes, Interstellar and The Hobbit are in the blockbuster mold, but the Middle Earth movies have always been big players with the Academy, as have Christopher Nolan’s films.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
I don’t usually cover this category because I never have the chance to see most of the movies, but it’s worth noting that the voters didn’t nominate Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert. It seemed a likely contender, given the subject matter was man who loved movies and dedicated his life to celebrating them (and yes, often deriding them too). It’s also noteworthy because the film’s director, Steve James, has been here before. He’s had a few films that went into the nominations with big buzz only to be ignored, most notably Hoop Dreams, whose omission from this category in 2004 is widely held up as one of the most egregious oversights in Academy history.

Amusing sidenote: one of the five films that did get nominated this year is Finding Vivien Maier, and its nominated co-director is Charlie Siskel, nephew of Gene Siskel. Two ironic thumbs up.

X

Now then, sorry to rush out out of here without cuddling, but I’ve got another big post to write, and it involves me actually making some decisions about what I think will win. So we’ll get together again next weekend, and in the meantime you can amuse yourself with this classic Oscar moment of Jack Black and Will Ferrell.

 

 

January 14, 2015

Oscars 2014: Nominations Eve

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 8:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

It feels like I just finished writing about last year’s Oscar season, and here we are, back for another go-round.

BEST PICTURE
Our story begins with Boyhood. Our story may well end with Boyhood too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That’s a consideration for a different post. For now, we can head into the Oscar nominations knowing that Boyhood‘s slot is secure. Sitting pretty right alongside it are Birdman, The Imitation Game, and probably The Theory of Everything.

From there, the guesswork begins. Since early December, various regional critics associations from around the country have had their say, and if their influence is to be believed, then The Grand Budapest Hotel is a sure thing. For me, the film’s status as one of the three most honored movies of the year – alongside Boyhood and Birdman – has been one of the season’s biggest surprises. I remember the reviews being strong when the movie came out all the way back in early March, but not that strong. Its consistent presence as either a winner or nominee for Best Picture and Best Director among these many critics groups, as well as its appearance in several other categories, suggests that it will do well at the Oscars too. Or could it be a critical darling that doesn’t translate to the Academy? I’ve been burned with Wes Anderson before. Moonrise Kingdom seemed like a safe bet for a nomination here in 2012, but it didn’t materialize. Granted, Budapest is having an even stronger showing with these precursor awards than Moonrise did, but I’m still not 100% convinced. Even in crafts categories like Cinematography and Production Design, where Anderson’s films always shine, his work has never gained traction with the Academy. Only the Writer’s branch of the organization has ever warmed to him. If Moonrise Kingdom couldn’t catch a break here, can Budapest? It’s a bit darker and colder, whereas Moonrise Kingdom had a sweetness, innocence and charm that seemed more like Academy fare. Fact is, this shouldn’t even be a question. The critics have showered it with attention, it just scored a surprise Golden Globe win for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy over Birdman, and nearly every guild has nominated it so far, including the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and, just yesterday, the Directors Guild of America (DGA). Clearly the movie has support not just from critics, but within the industry, where it matters for Oscar voting. Only the Academy’s past lack of interest in Anderson leaves me skeptical…though that DGA nomination speaks pretty loudly. The movie’s got too much momentum to bet against it, and this entire paragraph has probably been a waste of time. But if one of tomorrow’s big surprises is that Budapest is MIA in this category, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

One last thing on this topic: if Budapest does land with the Academy, it will land big. Like, maybe the-most-nominated-film-of-the-year big, given how many categories it has the potential to hit.

So what else? Gone Girl? The Academy has taken a shine to David Fincher’s work in recent years (where were they in ’95, when Seven should have raked in the nominations?), and Girl has done well on the critic’s circuit, so it could find a place here, but it doesn’t feel like a lock. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had experienced love from both critics and industry guilds by this point in the 2011 Oscar season, making a Best Picture nomination seem likely. It didn’t happen. Then again, Gone Girl‘s depiction of a marriage gone wrong could prove more relatable to voters – which sounds really twisted assuming you know the details of the film or novel – but movies about troubled marriages (to put it gently in this case) can become conversation pieces and must-see movies for couples. That might give it more favorable odds than Dragon Tattoo had.

You can usually count on a couple of celebrated indie films to crack the Best Picture race, and the two this year that seem likely to follow in the footsteps of Precious, Winter’s Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild are Nightcrawler and Whiplash. I’m pretty confident the former will make it, and almost as confident that the latter will as well. It’s always exciting to see smaller films like these emerge out of the festival circuit – be it early in the year at Sundance, where Whiplash won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, or in the fall festivals like Telluride or Toronto, where Nightcrawler first showed up – and inject themselves into the award season conversation because they’re genuinely good, and not because their plot descriptions or talent roster make them presumptive contenders. Unbroken and Into the Woods are two notable films that fall on that side of the line. Neither has borne out the strong showings that their pedigrees had us expecting, and despite being respectively received, both have struggled to find a foothold. Interstellar also came into the season with high hopes in top categories, but those ambitions haven’t panned out. If the PGA had included it among their 10 nominees, it might have still had a shot. The PGA often throws in a mainstream blockbuster (Star Trek, Bridemaids and Skyfall have made their list in recent years…as did Moonrise Kingdom, by the way), so if Interstellar didn’t make their cut, a Best Picture nod from the Academy seems more unlikely. Still, the PGA vote is coming just from producers, while the Academy’s Best Picture nominees are selected by the entire membership, including the artisans whose work is always well-served by Christopher Nolan – visual effects artists, production designers, etc. So while down, it’s not necessarily out. (Unbroken and Woods also missed with the PGA.)

Some people are worried about Selma‘s chances, as the movie hasn’t achieved the level of awards attention so far that would seem necessary to carry it into the Oscar race. It’s recognition from the guilds so far has been soft, but part of that is likely due to the fact that the movie was finished so late in the year that screener DVDs weren’t available to be sent out to guild and Academy members until late December. That was probably one factor in a high-profile miss with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), but the same thing happened last year with The Wolf of Wall Street, and that would up doing just fine nomination-wise. Selma has key nominations from the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which hands out the Golden Globes, and even though its absence from the PGA, DGA and British Academy of Film and Television (BAFTA) lists is disappointing – all three organizations share crossover with the Academy membership, unlike the HFPA or BFCA – Selma is garnering strong attention and hitting the right notes. I think it’s in.

The remaining films that I could see going either way are Foxcatcher, Wild and American Sniper. I thought Foxcatcher would be a major force to be reckoned with, given the glowing reviews coming out of the Cannes Film Festival last summer. Yet it’s had a surprisingly weak showing with the critics groups. Still, it has received lifelines when it’s needed them most, in the form of SAG and Golden Globe nominations for Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo, as well as a Best Picture nod at the Globes, and also nominations from the PGA, Art Directors Guild (ADG) and Writers Guild (WGA). Will its grim, unsettling aesthetic hold it back, or can it become director Bennett Miller’s third consecutive Best Picture nominee after Capote and Moneyball? As for Wild, the focus has been on Reese Witherspoon’s performance, but the movie comes from the same director as Dallas Buyers Club, which became last year’s little movie that could. Wild could have been a lot less interesting and well-made than it is, and though I’d call it a long-shot, it could crack the Best Picture race. American Sniper, meanwhile, just seems to be hitting its stride over the past two weeks, with nominations from the PGA, DGA, ADG, WGA and American Cinema Editors (ACE). That guild support demonstrates broad respect across disciplines. I think there are better, more deserving films out there (like A Most Violent Year and Inherent Vice, neither of which seem to have much of a shot here, though I suppose Year could sneak in), but Academy members aren’t particularly concerned with what I think.

The biggest question these days for Best Picture isn’t about what will be nominated, but how many nominees there will be. It could be anywhere from five to ten, and in every year since that rule was introduced, the list has held at nine. I’ll continue to expect that number until it comes in at something different, which it inevitably will one of these years. When the change was announced in 2011, the press release explained that the Academy’s accountants applied the new method to the Best Picture races from 2001-2008, and during that period there would been years with five, six, seven, eight and nine nominees (though never ten, interestingly). Until I see evidence to the contrary, I’m guessing we’ll get another field of nine this year.

Predictions:
American Sniper
Birdman
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Nightcrawler
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash

Personal Picks:
A Most Violent Year
Birdman
Boyhood
Chef
The Imitation Game
Interstellar
Nightcrawler
Selma
Whiplash
Wild

BEST DIRECTOR
Back in July, I thought that come Oscar season I would have to make a case for Richard Linklater to be nominated for Best Director, citing his unique place in the filmmaking world and his determination to capture authenticity onscreen in a way that, as evidenced by Boyhood‘s 12 year production, few American filmmakers ever attempt. All for naught, as it turns out. There’s no case to be made and no minds to sway. Without any help from me, Linklater’s nomination is assured, and as of now he stands as the frontrunner for the prize. So perhaps I’ll save some of the comments I had in mind until a later time. Instead, let’s focus on who will be joining him, beginning with the category’s other sure thing, Birdman helmer Alejandro G. Iñárritu. If the Academy does embrace The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson has to be a favorite here, although given the cold shoulder his work has gotten from the Academy before, I could also see the director’s branch denying him recognition. As I said above, Anderson did score his first DGA nomination, so that’s a a good sign. But the DGA and Academy almost never line up five for five in their nominations, so at least one name on their list is probably out with the Academy. In addition to Anderson, Linklater and Iñárritu, the DGA nominated Clint Eastwood for American Sniper and Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game. Eastwood…I love the guy of course, but this is such a disappointing nomination. American Sniper is a solid movie, but we’ve seen it before. It has more than a little in common with The Hurt Locker, and there are just better, more original, more interesting movies that deserve this spot. Will Clint get the Oscar nod too? The Academy loves him, but they also love The Imitation Game…so much that some people think it could overtake Boyhood for the top award when all is said and done. Like Grand Budapest and Birdman, guild support for Imitation has been strong, indicating popularity across Academy branches. And if they love it that much, Tyldum may be an obvious choice for them to make, even if he lacks Eastwood’s name recognition.

So who else has a chance here outside of the DGA’s selections? I believe Ava DuVernay is still very much in this thing for Selma, though the DGA nod would have been a nice boost. The DGA has several thousand members (many from television) and tends toward popular picks, whereas the Academy’s directing branch has only a few hundred members (all working in film), and frequently looks outside the box. With that in mind, Whiplash director Damien Chazelle is a possibility, and a nod for Nightcrawler‘s Dan Gilroy is a longshot but not inconceivable. If they wanted to step way outside the box, Under the Skin‘s Jonathan Glazer would be a bold move, but that’s highly doubtful. There are plenty of names in the general mix, like David Fincher, Bennett Miller, James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) and J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year), but I feel like without a nomination from the DGA, those names are DOA. Chazelle and DuVernay seem like the only ones who stand a legitimate chance of breaking in. Linklater and Iñárritu should be fine, and I just don’t know about Anderson. He should be a no-brainer, but uncertainty keeps gnawing at me. My gut tells me Eastwood bumps him, but Grand Budapest‘s unwavering show of force throughout the season tells me he’s in. So maybe DuVernay gets squeezed out? AHHHHHHHH, this is so hard!

Predictions:
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Birdman
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum – The Imitation Game
Ava DuVernay – Selma

Personal Picks:
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Birdman
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Christopher Nolan – Interstellar
Ava DuVernay – Selma
Jean-Marc Vallée – Wild

BEST ACTOR
For the second year in a row, the array of contenders in this category is stunning, and no matter what happens, some remarkable work is going to be left out. Let’s start with the four guys who have been considered the frontrunners since as early as October: Michael Keaton for Birdman, Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything, Steve Carell for Foxcatcher, and Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game. It seemed impossible that any of these guys might not go the distance, but Carell’s standing has weakened considerably as he’s been omitted from the majority of critics awards nominations. He did get SAG and Golden Globe nominations, which are key, but he can no longer be counted on as a sure thing. I can’t imagine people aren’t impressed with the performance, so perhaps the problem has been that Carell’s character John du Pont falls somewhere between lead and supporting. He doesn’t have enough screen time to be called a lead, and Foxcatcher is really the story of Channing Tatum’s character. Yet du Pont looms large over the whole film, and his actions largely drive the story and set events in motion. So it’s a tough call. Sony Pictures Classics, the studio behind the film, opted to campaign Carell (along with Tatum) as a lead, but the BAFTA voters recognized him in the Supporting category. It does happen occasionally that voters ignore a studio’s campaign and move an actor into a different category than where they were promoted. So Carell is in an interesting position. Will his fellow actors honor him here, put him into Supporting Actor instead, or pass him over altogether?

If he doesn’t make it here, there is no shortage of worthy successors to take his place. Redmayne and Keaton – who both won Golden Globes this week – remain locks, and Cumberbatch is probably safe too, though I can absolutely see him being the guy everyone assumed was locked in who ends up out in the cold. If he makes it, that leaves two spots and a dozen contenders in addition to Carell. The two most likely to find their way in are David Oyelowo for Selma and Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal has SAG, Golden Globe, BFCA and BAFTA nominations in his favor, and has been the most frequent winner amongst the critics next to Keaton, who has been the season’s big victor so far. Oyelowo’s place is less assured. He missed out on the SAG nomination, but as mentioned earlier, screeners were not available during SAG’s voting period, so there was no way that most voters would have been able to see his work yet. More surprising is his lack of a BAFTA nomination. Still, I get the sense that he – and Selma in general – is gaining steam.

Next are a pair of gentlemen who seem to be on the cusp: Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner (also known to fans of the Harry Potter films as Voldemort and Wormtail.) Both are terrific in their roles, but neither has broken through with the momentum they would probably need to get nominated. Still, I wouldn’t count them out, with Fiennes standing the better chance of the two. He has a Golden Globe nomination (in the Musical/Comedy category; that division poses limitations in the jump to an Oscar nod, especially since he was up against Keaton), as well as a BFCA nomination (note that BFCA categories have 6 nominees vs. the Academy’s standard 5) and a BAFTA nomination. He’s also in a film that could turn into a big player with the Academy. Spall has none of these advanatges; just a couple of victories from high-profile critics groups (as well as a Best Actor win at Cannes, though that hardly translates), and the benefit of appearing in a Mike Leigh film. The Academy is quite fond of Leigh, so you can be sure Mr. Turner is on their radar, regardless of how well it ultimately does.

I should also mention Bradley Cooper, gunning (no pun intended) for his third consecutive nomination with American Sniper. I’ve stated my thoughts on Sniper, and they extend to Cooper. Nothing against him or his fine work, I think there are much more noteworthy performances that deserves the attention. But as I also mentioned earlier, American Sniper was gaining a foothold just as the deadline for Oscar nomination ballots was getting close. Ben Affleck recently stumped for Cooper, and his comments about why the film and Cooper’s performance are important at this moment in time could very well resonate with the Academy. He’s on the outside looking in, but he’s coming up fast.

But wait, there’s more! Although none of these people have a chance of making the cut, the fact is that all are worthy of a place at the table. In a just world, Chadwick Boseman would be in the thick of the conversation for his dazzling work as James Brown in Get On Up; reigning champ Matthew McConaughey crushes it once again with an emotional performance in Interstellar; Locke is set entirely in a car, in real-time, with Tom Hardy captivating as a driver who shifts from one cell phone call to another juggling huge personal and professional dilemmas; Oscar Isaac, who should have been nominated last year for Inside Llewyn Davis, deserves a spot again for his quiet, wonderfully specific work in A Most Violent Year; the similarly titled A Most Wanted Man features one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last performances, and even near the end his work was potent as ever; Joaquin Phoenix, who also should have been nominated last year for Her, is a hilarious but grounded guide through the beautifully strange trip of Inherent Vice; in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis continues to deliver rich, stirring work utilizing motion capture technology; Jude Law’s electric, uproarious turn in Dom Hemingway was completely ignored in the year-end critic’s accolades despite the universal praise he received when the movie came out in April; Channing Tatum is riveting as the centerpiece of Foxcatcher, as deserving of awards as his two co-stars who have been the ones getting honored; Whiplash star Miles Teller has also been overshadowed by a co-star’s success, but does fiercely committed work. There’s also Bill Murray in St. Vincent, Brendan Gleeson in Calvary, Jack O’Connell in Unbroken, and John Lithgow in Love is Strange – all performances that have generated buzz, though none have quite the force they’d need to make the cut even in a less crowded year.

So…wow.

Predictions:
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton – Birdman
David Oyelowo – Selma
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Personal Picks:
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton – Birdman
David Oyelowo – Selma
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

BEST ACTRESS
Sadly, as is too often the case, the embarrassment of riches in the male actor categories is not equaled here.The pickings aren’t slim exactly, but there are far fewer strong options than in Best Actor. The winner on the critics side so far, though not by a great distance, is Gone Girl‘s Rosamund Pike. When she was being touted as a contender around the movie’s early October release, I wasn’t sure she could sustain the buzz, but now she’s a frontrunner for the nomination. She is sure to be joined by Reese Witherspoon for Wild and Julianne Moore for Still Alice. In fact, ever since Alice debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, Moore has been dubbed the one to beat. Her march toward victory may have begun Sunday night with her Golden Globe win. We’ll see how she does from here with the BFCA, SAG and BAFTA. Felicity Jones, who plays Stephen Hawking’s wife in The Theory of Everything, is also a likely nominee.

The other actress to collect a fair share of critics prizes is Marion Cotillard. She has two shots, with excellent performances in The Immigrant and the French film Two Days, One Night. Some critics groups cited her for both, but Two Days, One Night has been the primary focus of attention. (I haven’t had a chance to see it, unfortuntely, as it just opened in Los Angeles this week.) I think Cotillard’s recognition ends with the critics. It’s unlikely that, in a crowded season with too many movies to see, enough voters will see this film to boost Cotillard into the final five. If she couldn’t make it this far in 2012 for Rust and Bone, with the wind of SAG, Golden Globe, BFCA and BAFTA nominations in her sails, I’d be surprised if she could make it here with none of those.

A surprising contender who does have those nominations in her favor except for BAFTA (I don’t think her film had been released in England in time to be considered) is Jennifer Aniston, who plays a hardened woman suffering from chronic pain in Cake. I could see things going either way for her, but it would be nice to see her land the nomination given that she’s still defined by her TV work. Cake is a dramedy and allows Aniston to utilize her well-honed comedic skills, but through a much darker, more bitter filter than we’re used to seeing. And she palpably carries her character’s extreme and constant discomfort. It succeeds as a change-of-pace performance, no doubt, but will enough voters find the time to see the movie?

Beyond these six actresses, there are a handful of others who have dotted the award landscape so far, but none have any considerable momentum. Amy Adams is fine in Big Eyes, but there’s not a whole lot to the role that would seem to earn her a place here. She’s beloved by the Academy though, so she’s always a possibility. I’ve bet against her before and lost. She won the Golden Globe award in the Musical/Comedy category, and has a BAFTA slot that might have seemed destined for Cotillard, so she can’t be dismissed. Many critics groups have taken notice of Essie Davis, an Australian actress who impresses as a haunted single-mother in the psychological horror film The Babadook. She deserves consideration, but this movie is well outside the Academy’s comfort zone. Even with vocal championing from William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist – one of the rare horror films that did well with the Academy – I doubt enough people have seen the movie. Under the Skin‘s Scarlett Johansson, The Homesman‘s Hilary Swank, Obvious Child‘s Jenny Slate and Beyond the Lights‘ Gugu Mbatha-Raw have garnered a bit of attention from critics groups – Johansson’s received a fair amount, actually – but it’s hard to imagine any of them can land in the final five. It’s a shame that Shailene Woodley hasn’t been talked about, because she does really lovely work in The Fault in Our Stars and deserves serious consideration. You know who else does? Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I. The role of Katniss Everdeen has always been a rich one with a lot to offer, and Lawrence is an actress who knows what to do with it. She gets to play a lot of different beats in this movie, and shouldn’t be overlooked because the movie is seen as a blockbuster and nothing more. It’s more.

This is a category that could really benefit from a bold stroke or two this year. Whether that’s Lawrence or Johansson, Mbatha-Raw or Woodley, it would be nice to see a big surprise to make up for the lack of worthy roles.

Predictions:
Amy Adams – Big Eyes
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon – Wild

Personal Picks:
Marion Cotillard – The Immigrant
Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Shailene Woodley – The Fault in Our Stars
Reese Witherspoon – Wild

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
We already know who’s going to win this, but the game must be played nonetheless, so who will join Whiplash‘s powerhouse J.K. Simmons on the list of nominees? Start with Edward Norton, the only guy who could maybe give Simmons a reason to sweat. Birdman provides Norton with his meatiest role in ages, and he tears into it with all the gusto you’d expect from a guy with his talent. Next is Ethan Hawke, who has been a consistent nominee among critics groups for his convivial dad in Boyhood, and Mark Ruffalo for Foxcatcher. Ruffalo has been much more of a force than Carell among the critics groups, chalking up nominations from almost every organization that names nominees (as opposed to just citing a winner and maybe a runner-up). That doesn’t mean the performance is more appreciated than Carell’s, which most groups probably kept in the more crowded Best Actor discussion. It’s probably just a result of there being more room to play with in this year’s Best Supporting Actor arena.

Quite a bit of room, actually. The list of viable contenders here is unusually small. Robert Duvall in The Judge has SAG, Golden Globe and BFCA nominations, but with all due respect to a legendary actor who should have won a second Oscar by now, I’ll be hugely disappointed if the Academy wastes a spot on him for a movie that was as predictable as it gets, and a stock role that an actor of Duvall’s talent could play in someone else’s sleep. Instead, how about going for Josh Brolin in Inherent Vice? The acting branch responds well to the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, and although Vice didn’t land as an across-the-board player this year, Brolin’s turn as a no-bullshit cop with a vehement disdain for hippies is seen as one of its best chances for some Oscar love. As discussed in the Best Actor section, there’s also the possibility that Steve Carell pops up here for Foxcatcher. If that were to happen, I assume he’d be nominated alongside Ruffalo, rather than knocking his co-star out of contention (which would be an ironic turn of events given their character’s relationship). Riz Ahmed, who plays Jake Gyllenhaal’s naive co-worker in Nightcrawler, could potentially be the beneficiary of what appears to be a lot of admiration for that movie among Academy members, while Alfred Molina earned a couple of critics nods for Love is Strange. The Academy still owes him for Frida, so in the absence of a strong roster here, I’d be okay with that. Doubtful it will happen though. Equally doubtful: that Andy Serkis will finally break through. He deserved it back in 2002 for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and again in 2011 for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I brought him up in the Best Actor section for Rise‘s follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and if Academy members consider him at all, that’s really where they should do it, as his ape leader Caesar really is the lead performance. His co-star Toby Kebbell meanwhile, deserves the consideration in this category. But we must ease into these things, and the Supporting category is probably where any voters with the smarts to vote for Serkis at all would put him. If that’s what it takes, I’m okay with it. Alas, it’s all wishful thinking. Voters still have to come around to motion capture performances being given their due.

Predictions:
Steve Carell – Foxcatcher
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
Edward Norton – Birdman
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

Personal Picks:
Josh Brolin – Inherent Vice
Steve Carell – Foxcatcher
Edward Norton – Birdman
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Like Best Supporting Actor, this category has a way-out-in-front frontrunner in Boyhood‘s Patricia Arquette. She’ll likely be joined by Jessica Chastain for A Most Violent Year, Emma Stone for Birdman, and probably Kiera Knightley for The Imitation Game. Does Meryl Streep get the fifth nomination for Into the Woods? Most likely. She has the Golden Globe, SAG and BFCA nomination hat-trick, and she is, of course, Meryl Streep. Personally I was a somewhat underwhelmed by her performance as The Witch. I thought she didn’t do much of anything with the character.

Also in the running is Tilda Swinton, who fared well with the critics for her gleeful antagonist in Snowpiercer, though I wonder if that film was widely seen by voters. Laura Dern for Wild, Rene Russo for Nightcrawler and Katherine Waterston for Inherent Vice are all circling, and any of them could get lucky, but the biggest obstacle may be that the parts are all fairly small. That’s most true for Dern, although she does shine in the scenes she has. Russo meets the challenge of conveying a lot about her character in a short period and without always being able to get things across through dialogue, and the admiration for Nightcrawler is raising her profile. Relative newcomer Waterston (son of Law & Order‘s Sam), meanwhile, makes a strong impression in Vice, leaving her mark all over the movie even when she’s not on screen.

Naomi Watts snuck into the SAG race for her funny, enjoyable work as a Russian prostitute in St. Vincent, taking a slot that Chastain has occupied in most other races (like Selma, Chastain’s A Most Violent Year wasn’t able to get screeners out early in the season), but the chances of her repeating that with the Academy are slim. I would argue, however, that she deserves consideration for Birdman, even though the attention there has all been on Emma Stone. I’m also partial to Carrie Coon as Ben Affleck’s dour twin sister in Gone Girl. And Kristen Stewart was quite good as Julianne Moore’s perceptive daughter in Still Alice. The Polish film Ida, a possible nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, features an actress named Agata Kulesza who made a number of critics lists, but like several other films I’ve mentioned so far, it’s doubtful that enough voters have seen it to consider her. Assuming that turns out not to be a problem for Jennifer Aniston and Cake, voters could warm to Adriana Barraza. A nominee in this category in 2006 for Babel, Barraza does lovely work as the weary employee of Aniston’s prickly character.

The problem with many of these performances – even some of those most assured of a nomination – is that they aren’t as substantial as you would want an Oscar nominated (or winning) role to be. It’s frustrating, because the actresses all do excellent work, but this category features so few parts with the necessary screen time and/or character depth to really let them soar. If that’s just how it is, then one performance I’d mention that hasn’t garnered any talk in the precursor stage but which left an impression on me was Dorothy Atkinson’s in Mr. Turner. As the title character’s longtime housekeeper, Atkinson barely has any dialogue, but her awkward stance and pining eyes reveal a lifetime of experience. In a field that will mostly celebrate roles where the characters don’t have enough to do, Atkinson would be a welcome surprise.

Predictions:
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year
Kiera Knightley – The Imitation Game
Emma Stone – Birdman
Meryl Streep – Into the Woods

Personal Picks:
Dorothy Atkinson – Mr. Turner
Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year
Emma Stone – Birdman
Tilda Swinton – Snowpiercer
Katherine Waterston – Inherent Vice

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
If there’s one category where The Grand Budapest Hotel is a safe bet, this is it. It will easily be joined by the other two leaders of the award season, Birdman and Boyhood, with Nightcrawler also a near-guarantee. The fifth slot would likely have gone to Whiplash, until the Academy threw a late-in-the-game curve ball. Whiplash has won or been nominated for a number of Original Screenplay awards among critic groups, including the BFCA, as well as BAFTA and the WGA. But last week, news broke that the Academy had ruled the script an adaptation. Writer/director Damien Chazelle wrote Whiplash based on personal experience, then filmed a lengthy sequence from early in the script as a short film which he could use as a calling card to drum up – ha! –  financing for the feature. His effort was successful, and off he went. But because of that short film, which even won a prize at Sundance a year before the feature played the festival, the Academy considers Whiplash an adaptation.

Remember, the Adapted screenplay category is technically named Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published. In the case of Whiplash, they’re focusing on the “Previously Produced or Published” phrase, when what they should be paying attention to is the word “based.” Whiplash the feature is not based on material previously produced or published. It is based on an original screenplay, a portion of which was filmed as a contained short before the feature was made. If Whiplash had been conceived as a short film and then later expanded to feature-length – like another terrific film from this year, Obvious Child – then Best Adapted Screenplay would have been the proper place for it. But that wasn’t the case. Best Original Screenplay is where it really belongs, but the Academy has spoken (albeit so quietly that no one associated with the movie was told about the reassignment) and this category now has an open spot.

In addition to Whiplash, the WGA nominated Foxcatcher, Boyhood, Budapest, and Nightcrawler, but as always it’s important to note that prominent films are left off the WGA’s eligibility list each year, either because the writers aren’t WGA members, or because certain guild guidelines were not followed in the making of the film. The exact reasons for each omission are never explained. Whatever the causes, this year’s list of ineligible films on the Original side include Birdman, Selma, Mr. Turner and Calvary. Birdman will definitely right its course with an Oscar nomination, so can Foxcatcher repeat its WGA recognition and take the Oscar slot that would probably have gone to Whiplash? Possibly, but I’m inclined to think the space will go to Selma. One of the obstacles to making a movie about Martin Luther King for all these years has been the King estate’s refusal to grant rights to his speeches (from what I understand, they haven’t wanted to participate in a film about Dr. King that included references to his infidelities). So Selma proceeded without obtaining those rights, which partly meant channeling the spirit of Dr. King to write speeches that he never actually made, but which sound like he did.

Working against Selma‘s chances at recognition here is a dispute – a quiet one, to the credit of all involved – over writing acknowledgement. The original script for Selma was written by Paul Webb, a sixty-something British screenwriter. The project went through various incarnations on its way to getting made (Lee Daniels came close to doing it in 2010, and even had a cast in place that included Hugh Jackman, Liam Neeson, Cedric the Entertainer, Lenny Kravitz and Robert De Niro in addition to David Oyelowo, who remained attached as King). When Ava DuVernay came on to direct, she did significant re-writing that changed the structure of the script, shifted the focus, and included those originally-crafted speeches for King that I just talked about. But the story goes that Webb’s contract guaranteed him sole credit if he desired it, and that he chose to exercise that right despite the work to the script done by DuVernay. Because DuVernay is not a WGA member, she couldn’t fight for shared credit through the guild’s arbitration process. Without knowing the exact details or hearing Webb’s point of view, I’m left to think that his refusal to share credit is quite the dick move, similar to ones we’ve seen before. Just last year in fact, a similar situation arose with 12 Years a Slave, with writer John Ridley – who went on to win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay – choosing not to share credit with director Steve McQueen, who helped re-write the script after signing on. In 2009, Jason Reitman significantly re-wrote Sheldon Turner’s script on his own for Up in the Air, but Turner was allowed to retain co-credit, leading to some awkward appearances on the awards circuit that arguably cost the film an Oscar win. While the Selma situation hasn’t blown up into a public feud, it’s probably well-known in the filmmaking community, which could impact voters’ decision to nominate it. Will they ultimately decide to honor the work regardless of whose name is on it, or will fellow writers punish Webb by denying the nomination altogether? With admitted uncertainty, I’m going with the former. But if the nomination doesn’t happen, I’ll wonder if this was part of the reason.

If neither Selma nor Foxcatcher make it here, Mr. Turner is a possibility. The writer’s branch has nominated Mike Leigh five times before, so they obviously admire his work. J.C. Chandor’s first film Margin Call broke through in 2011 to win a nod, so while his latest A Most Violent Year seems to have been unfortunately lost in the crowd, the writing branch may take note. Animated movies get recognition here every now and again, so it’s not out of the question that the clever and witty script for The LEGO Movie could pop up. And while it is pretty much faded from the conversation, there was a time when Jon Favreau’s Chef was considered a strong contender for a spot here. I wish that buzz hadn’t evaporated.

Predictions:
Birdman – Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Boyhood – Richard Linklater
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson
Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy
Selma – Paul Webb

Personal Picks:
A Most Violent Year – J.C. Chandor
Birdman – Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Chef – Jon Favreau
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson
Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The expected nominees here are Gillian Flynn’s faithful adaptation of her own best-seller Gone Girl, and British Genius biopics The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. The addition of Whiplash into the mix shakes things up for the remaining two spots, one of which I’m sure will now go to Chazelle. Theory of Everything was ineligible for the WGA Awards and Whiplash was classified as an Original, so along with Gone and Imitation, the guild’s nominees were Wild, American Sniper and Guardians of the Galaxy. The latter two came as surprises, especially since Inherent Vice was passed over. Sniper‘s appearance here is a mark of its increased strength, though I’m not sure it can pull off the Oscar nomination. Guardians, meanwhile, has even less chance with the Academy, though it’s fun to think about. Its guild mention is the kind of happy twist that can occur when typically Academy-friendly fare is deemed ineligible. Wild and Inherent Vice are still probably the best bets to round out the category, but one of them will probably be pushed out because of Whiplash. Then again, they aren’t the only players in the game. If voters look elsewhere regardless of the Whiplash factor, they could throw a bone to Unbroken, which has the impressive line-up of writers William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Misérables), Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Horse Whisperer) and Joel and Ethan Coen (no credit samples necessary). Into the Woods could also show up here, but without the guild nominations or the overall attention that movies of their stature might have received, Unbroken and Into the Woods remain long shots. Snowpiercer earned some critics groups nominations, but if the Academy were going to gravitate toward a genre film, Guardians seems a likelier candidate.

Predictions:
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
The Imitation Game – Graham Moore
The Theory of Everything – Anthony McCarten
Whiplash – Damien Chazelle
Wild – Nick Hornby

Personal Picks:
The Imitation Game – Graham Moore
Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson
Obvious Child – Gillian Robespierre
Whiplash – Damien Chazelle
Wild – Nick Hornby

BEST ANIMATED FILM
Predicting this category is always challenging since the pool of contenders usually includes some foreign and independent films that have not received wide exposure. In addition, the number of nominees can vary based on how many films qualify by playing theatrically in Los Angeles. 20 animated features were submitted for consideration this year, but several had not yet held their qualifying runs at the time of that announcement in early November, and I don’t know how many of them have followed through. Assuming they all have, a slate of 20 contenders means there could be up to the maximum five nominees. Looking at the mainstream releases, we can safely say that The LEGO Movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6 will score nominations. The Boxtrolls is probably in too. Among the remaining broad releases, only The Book of Life seems a viable candidate, having been mentioned by several critics organizations. (I’m disappointed that I missed both of these movies in theaters and neither has arrived on DVD yet.) Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Rio 2, and The Penguins of Madagascar have all been completely ignored so far, except for some Annie Award nominations, and I’d be surprised to see any of them suddenly earn an Oscar nomination. Aside from these selections and few others that got broad-ish U.S. releases but have absolutely no shot of getting nominated (sorry Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return and Planes: Fire and Rescue), the highest profile film in the running is The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a gorgeous and mature hand-drawn film from Japan’s beloved Studio Ghibli. There’s also a new film, Song of the Sea, from Irish animator Tomm Moore, whose previous film The Secret of Kells surprised everyone with an out-of-nowere nomination in 2009, illustrating that members of the animation branch were looking beyond the mainstream. So don’t count him out for return visit.

Predictions:
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The LEGO Movie
The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Personal Picks:
Big Hero 6
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The LEGO Movie
The Tale of Princess Kaguya

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Last year’s winner in this category was Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity, and he finds himself at the front of the line again for his brilliant work on Birdman, which is intricately constructed to appear as if nearly the entire movie is one continuous shot. And as seems to be the case year after year, there is enough phenomenal photography to fill the category three times over. The American Society of Cinematographers, in addition to Birdman, selected Unbroken, Mr. Turner, The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel. The only surprise was Imitation Game, which hasn’t received much attention for its camerawork, and which takes a spot that would better suit any number of other films. Where to begin? Gordon Willis, the great cinematographer who shot The Godfather trilogy and All the President’s Men among many others, passed away in May, but his spirit and style were very much alive in films like The Immigrant (shot by Darius Khondji), A Most Violent Year and Selma (both from relative newcomer Bradford Young). Under the Skin featured some of the year’s most striking images, as did the little-seen Dostoevsky adaptation The Double (which I have to say, I disliked so much that I turned it off before finishing, which I pretty much never do). On the opposite end of the indie/mainstream spectrum, Interstellar and Gone Girl each boasted the kind of impressive work we’re used to seeing in films from Christopher Nolan and David Fincher, while Dawn of the Planet of the Apes featured sensational compositions from beginning to end. Robert Elswit served up two L.A. stories this year, shooting Inherent Vice on film and going digital for Nightcrawler, with excellent results for both. The branch likes to go for black and white when it can, and some of the critics groups cited Ida, so that could be considered a long longshot to show up here. Fury, The Homesman, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash, Into the Woods, Wild…the members of this branch (and dorks like me who pretend that our selection on our dumb blogs mean something) have some hard choices to make.

The Academy usually strays slightly from the guild, so I’m guessing Imitation Game misses. On the other hand, voters sometimes go for the movie they like the best even if it isn’t the most deserving showcase in a given category. Overall enjoyment of Imitation probably helped score it the guild nod in the first place, so that could repeat here. But I’m taking my chances and betting elsewhere. With so many options though, I might as well pick a name out of a hat.

Predictions:
Birdman – Emmanuel Lubezki
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert Yeoman
Interstellar – Hoyte van Hoytema
Mr. Turner – Dick Pope
Unbroken – Roger Deakins

Personal Picks:
Birdman – Emmanuel Lubezki
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Michael Seresin
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert Yeoman
Inherent Vice – Robert Elswit
Under the Skin – Daniel Landin

BEST FILM EDITING
With 12 years worth of footage to sort through, even if shooting only occurred for a few days each go-round, Boyhood editor Sandra Adair had a delicate task in choosing how to transition the characters through their growth, so count on a nomination for her. As mentioned in the previous section, Birdman is presented largely as if it were one fluid take. That’s not possible, of course, so the work of editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione had to be even more invisible than editing usually is in order to sustain the effect. Put them down for a nomination too. The broad appeal of The Imitation Game will probably help it find a slot here as well. Whiplash definitely deserves a spot, and stands an excellent chance of making it, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see it squeezed out by something that isn’t necessarily as impressive on the editing front but which gets marked down anyway because voters sometimes equate this category with Best Picture too blindly (a nod for The Theory of Everything would be an example of that trend). Given that I’m predicting a Best Picture nomination for Whiplash, my doubts may be unfounded. I just don’t think it’s completely safe, even if it should be.

Gone Girl and American Sniper were cited by the American Cinema Editors (ACE) in their Drama category (along with Boyhood, Imitation and Whiplash), and Gone Girl may have an edge. The Academy’s editing branch loves them some David Fincher, as evidenced by the surprise Oscar win in 2011 for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (a year after the same editors won for Fincher’s The Social Network). Sniper, meanwhile, is the kind of action-drama that voters like to reward here. There’s also Selma, which missed with the guild but could still break in with the Academy.

In ACE’s Musical or Comedy category, Birdman is nominated alongside The Grand Budapest Hotel, Into the Woods, Guardians of the Galaxy and Inherent Vice. Budapest and Into the Woods could show up, but Vice and Guardians are less likely. If the editors were eyeing a straight-up action blockbuster, they would do better to nominate Edge of Tomorrow than Guardians. Interstellar also has a chance, though only a small one in the absence of overall support for the movie. I’d love to see Wild make the list, but unless the film does really well across the board, it will probably be passed over.

Predictions:
American Sniper
Birdman
Boyhood
The Imitation Game
Whiplash

Personal Picks:
Birdman
Boyhood
Edge of Tomorrow
Whiplash
Wild

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Hard as it is to believe, not one of Wes Anderson’s movies has ever been nominated for art direction and set decoration. The Royal Tenenbaums? Nope. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou? Nothing. The Darjeeling Limited? Uh-uh. Moonrise Kingdom? Didn’t happen. I still don’t know how that’s possible, but I’ve got to believe the pattern ends this year with the immaculate, exquisite design of The Grand Budapest Hotel. I refuse to entertain the notion that Adam Stockhausen’s phenomenal work will be passed over. In fact, forget the nomination; we should be jumping ahead to give him the Oscar right now.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…Voters in the design branches are always partial to period films and sci-fi/fantasy, so The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Inherent Vice, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Unbroken, The Immigrant and Mr. Turner all have a claim to stake on the period side, while Into the Woods, Maleficent, Guardians of the Galaxy and Interstellar lead the charge for the sci-fi/fantasy vote…although Interstellar is really more grounded than your usual sci-fi movie, eschewing the fantastical settings usually expected in the genre. The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies should be mentioned too, though I have a feeling that series has run its course in these two races. Snowpiercer, with its many distinctive train cars from grimy and filthy to shiny and glistening, is standout work that deserves a shot, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes‘ depiction of a decrepit San Francisco and the ape village in the redwoods was marvelous. Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam movies often do well with these branches, but Burton’s Big Eyes landed rather quietly this year, and Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem came and went with almost no attention paid (I enjoyed it, for what it’s worth). Also, despite my earlier comment that I couldn’t get through The Double, I’d be remiss not to mention it here too. It was a triumph of cinematography and production design, even if I wanted to punch every character in the face so badly that I had to stop watching.

Contemporary films rarely catch on in the sets and costume categories, but Birdman could be an exception thanks to the claustrophobic theater in which almost the entire movie is set. The way Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera prowls through the space shows it off in a way that makes it feel like its own character, and voters might respond to that.

Predictions:
Birdman
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Personal Picks:
Birdman
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Snowpiercer
The Zero Theorem

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
In the interest of time, I’m just going to grab the first paragraph from the previous section and use it again here, with a few minor tweaks:

Hard as it is to believe, not one of Wes Anderson’s movies has ever been nominated for art direction and set decoration costume design. The Royal Tenenbaums? Nope. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou? Nothing. The Darjeeling Limited? Uh-uh. Moonrise Kingdom? Didn’t happen. I still don’t know how that’s possible, but I’ve got to believe the pattern ends this year with the immaculate, exquisite design of The Grand Budapest Hotel. I refuse to entertain the notion that Adam Stockhausen’s Milena Canonero’s phenomenal work will be passed over. In fact, forget the nomination; we should be jumping ahead to give him her the Oscar right now.

The same rules apply to costumes as they do to sets, in terms of what Academy members gravitate toward, so once again The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Inherent Vice, Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Immigrant, Mr. Turner, Into the Woods, Maleficent, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Guardians of the Galaxy, Selma and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I are all in play. Personally, I’d throw in mentions for The Two Faces of January and A Most Violent Year too.

Predictions:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner
The Theory of Everything

Personal Picks:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Imitation Game
Inherent Vice
Maleficent

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
This is the last piece of the post I’m trying to write, and I’m running out of time and patience, so I’ll keep this one uncharacteristically brief, and perhaps share a few more thoughts post-nominations. Steve Pond of The Wrap writes a comprehensive rundown of the eligible songs each year (there were 79 this time), so it’s a nice overview of the field. With so many choices, and with the notoriously idiotic rules by which the music branch votes, there’s usually at least one headscratcher in the bunch. We’ll see how it plays out. One song that I was disappointed not to see among the 79 possibilities is “I Love You All,” an odd yet oddly catchy and moving song from the movie Frank, about an eager, wannabe musician who stumbles into a gig with an avant garde indie band – The Soronprfbs – whose lead singer Frank wears a giant papier-mâché mask at all times. He’s played by Michael Fassbender, and that’s him singing.

Would have been fun to see them perform that on Oscar night. Oh well.

Predictions:
Lost Stars – Begin Again
I’m Not Gonna Miss You – Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
Everything is Awesome – The LEGO Movie
I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu) – Muppets Most Wanted
Glory – Selma

Personal Picks:
The Last Goodbye – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Everything is Awesome – The LEGO Movie
I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu) – Muppets Most Wanted
We’re Doing a Sequel – Muppets Most Wanted
Glory – Selma

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Whether it’s standard rules and policies or bad calls specific to each year, you can always count on the music branch to fuck things up right from the outset. This year, they’ve obliged by disqualifying what should absolutely be one of the five nominees: Antonio Sánchez’s percussion-driven score to Birdman. The Academy’s reason, in short, is that they felt the film used too much pre-existing music in addition to Sánchez’s original work, thereby lessening the impact of the score. The Hollywood Reporter offered a thorough play-by-play of what took place, with excerpts of the letters written by Sánchez and director Alejandro González Iñárritu as part of an effort to appeal the decision, as well as the Academy’s response. Unfortunately, the decision stood, despite efforts to explain how essential Sánchez was not only to the finished film, but to the production. Unlike most composers, he was involved early, working with the actors and crew in ways that are wholly atypical to how film scores usually come about. (Sánchez described the process in an interview with In Contention in early November, and spoke to the site again the day that the appeal was rejected. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski also brought up the score in a brief Hollywood Reporter story about the camerawork, explaining how key a role the music played in his own efforts.)

Sánchez’s work is essential to the film, underscoring beats physical, emotional and psychological, and functioning – like the camera and the sets – as yet another character occupying the labyrinth of the Broadway theater that serves as the movie’s primary locale. It’s a shame he won’t be included. Getting to who will be, the impossibly prolific Alexandre Desplat could be a double nominee for The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel, with the former being the more certain nomination of the two. Hans Zimmer should also be a good bet for the rousing, propulsive score of Interstellar, and Jóhann Jóhannsson is a likely nominee for his classical work in The Theory of Everything. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won this category in 2010 for David Fincher’s The Social Network, stand a good chance of a return trip with their typically unsettling score for Gone Girl. John Powell was nominated that year too, for How to Train Your Dragon, so perhaps the sequel could repeat. And if the members of the music branch are feeling adventurous, we could see a nod for the eerie tones created by Mica Levi for Under the Skin. Other scores that seem unlikely to break in but not impossible are The Homesman, Noah, A Most Violent Year, Selma, Unbroken and Mr. Turner.

Predictions:
Gone Girl – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat
The Imitation Game – Alexandre Desplat
Interstellar – Hans Zimmer
The Theory of Everything – Jóhann Jóhannsson

Personal Picks:
Birdman – Antonio Sánchez (Hey, I don’t have to play by the Academy’s bullshit rules)
Gone Girl – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
The Homesman – Marco Beltrami
The Imitation Game – Alexandre Desplat
Interstellar – Hans Zimmer

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Unlike the song and score categories, which have 79 and 114 possible nominees, respectively, the Makeup and Hairstyling category has only seven, an executive committee of branch members having been generous enough to review the full slate of options earlier and narrow it down. Three nominees will be chosen from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Maleficent, Noah and The Theory of Everything. If my opening comment sounds tinged with a bit of sarcasm, well, it is. I don’t know why this branch (and the Visual Effects branch, coming up next) continue to employ this whittling-down process ahead of the nominations instead of just letting branch members cast their vote as they like for whatever makeup and hairstyling achievements from the year appeal to them. The films listed above are all worthy, but so are Snowpiercer, Get On Up, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Unbroken, and probably some others I’m not mentioning.

Of the seven, there are really four that seem to have the edge, and that’s one too many. As Foxcatcher‘s work is mainly limited to transforming Steve Carell, I suspect that may be the one that misses in favor of my three guesses below. Then again, the same could be said about The Theory of Everything and Eddie Redmayne’s transformation into Stephen Hawking. But I give Theory the edge over Foxcatcher because a) it’s the movie more Academy members will probably enjoy and therefore nominate across multiple categories, and b) turning Redmayne into Hawking was a gradual process throughout the film, whereas turning Carell into John du Pont was a one-shot deal…applied daily, of course, but there was no variation to the makeup itself. The branch is no more inclined toward fantasy creations than it is toward realistic ones, so maybe Guardians gets nosed out by Foxcatcher. Or maybe those both make the cut and Grand Budapest gets bumped. So few contenders, so many possibilities.

Predictions:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Theory of Everything

Personal Picks:
Same

TheoryStellar - Banne

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Although the Visual Effects branch also culls the year’s offerings down to a select few for semi-final consideration, at least their longlist now features ten films and eventually five nominees. They used to match the Makeup branch with seven and three. This year, voters can choose from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Interstellar, Maleficent, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Transformers: Age of Extinction and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

I think we can dismiss Maleficent and Night at the Museum from the outset, buy any combination of the other eight seems possible. Every one of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films has been nominated, so the final adventure would seem a slum dunk. But is it? It’s the first of the films that doesn’t really have anything new to offer in the way of effects, and it’s easy to imagine that a bit of fatigue has set in where these are concerned. Neither of the previous Hobbit films has won, whereas all three Lord of the Rings films did. Telling, or just a matter of more groundbreaking competition from past two winners Life of Pi and Gravity? The Transformers movies are as ridiculous as ever, but their visual effects have always been superb. If only the scripts could be as good. Two of the three prior entries in the series were nominated. Where will this one fall? (If I’d seen it, it would probably make my personal picks, but I haven’t. It’s just so hard to sit through them…). None of the X-Men films have been able to crack this category, and I can’t recall much about the specifics or the quality of the work in Days of Future Past…except for that one fantastic Quicksilver/prison break scene which is so good that the movie could land a spot just based on that alone.

Predictions:
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Interstellar
Transformers: Age of Extinction

Personal Picks:
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Godzilla
Guardians of the Galaxy
Interstellar
X-Men: Days of Future Past

BEST SOUND EDITING/BEST SOUND MIXING
I’m always repeating myself when this category comes around, but I should relax and acknowledge that nobody remembers what I write in these columns from year to year. I doubt anyone will remember in five minutes. I mean, c’mon…are you even still reading this? What the hell is wrong with you?

What I say every year is basically this: that nobody knows what makes good sound editing or sound mixing. Except for sound editors and sound mixers and maybe James Cameron. So even though I’ve finally got a handle on what the two crafts mean, that doesn’t really illuminate who or what should or will be nominated. In the giant guessing game that is Oscar predicting, the sound categories are among the guessiest. But I’ll try anyway. To quote directly from my post last year: the sound editors record or create sounds that could not be captured during filming, either because dragons nuclear-mutated lizards [I figured I’d at least update that bit] are not real (so I’m told) or maybe because the location was too noisy to get a usable recording of a particular real-world sound. Sound mixers then take all the sound effects and the music and the dialogue, and blend it all together in proper relation to each other.

So with this category, we’re looking at every action movie and summer blockbuster; we’re looking at sci-fi and fantasy; we’re looking at war movies; we’re looking at musicals or movies with big musical numbers; and we’re occasionally looking at animated films. It’s a wide field, and although my predictions don’t include The LEGO Movie, Begin Again, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fury, Unbroken, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gone Girl, Selma, or Whiplash, any of them could conceivably show up…as could any number of other titles. So how’s that for making a bold stand?

Sound Editing Predictions:
American Sniper
Birdman
Guardians of the Galaxy
Godzilla
Interstellar

Sound Mixing Predictions:
American Sniper
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Into the Woods
Transformers: Age of Extinction

Another thing I always say about these categories is that I think, with my admitted lack of understanding of the sound field, that both of these categories should be eliminated in favor of one category recognizing overall Sound Design. It is in this fantasy category that I always select my personal picks…because I have no framework for making personal picks in the actual categories. My Sound Design nominees would be: Fury, Godzilla, Interstellar, Under the Skin and Wild.

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Now then…having wasted more than enough of everyone’s time, my own included, that about wraps it up. As usual, I’m far too in the dark about the documentaries and foreign language films to venture any guesses, and forget about the short films; that’s just not happening.

The nominees will be announced tomorrow morning, and in a new experiment for the Academy, all categories will be unveiled live, beginning at 5:30am PST. (Usually the on-air announcement covers only Picture, Director, the acting categories, the writing categories, Animated Feature, Foreign Language Film and Documentary Feature.) Half the nominees will be announced by J.J. Abrams and current Best Director champ Alfonso Cuarón, then the rest – including those major categories I just mentioned – will be read by Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Chris Pine. For those who like to know exactly what they’re getting into, here’s how it will break down. (Jeez, they couldn’t have thrown Abrams and Cuarón one “major” category? Best Director might have been logical…)

I was going to leave you with a clip from a past Oscar show, but then I stumbled upon this, and that was pretty much that.

August 31, 2014

Movie Mixtape #2

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 11:00 am
Tags: ,

Well, it’s taken us long enough, but the wait is over. 14 months after the first release, and nearly 13 months after this compilation was started, we’ve finally got something to show for it. Without further ado, Burnce and Frants Present Movie Mixtape #2.

 

BA: Alright kid. Our first Movie Mixtape was clearly a huge success. Picked up on several blogs, shared by thousands of film lovers all over the world. Let’s not leave them wanting for too long. Also, let’s make clear that, honestly, maybe ten people total read our first Movie Mixtape, and most of the preceding claims here are lies. But hey, films are lies too, right?

As you may know, I went on a bit of a film noir kick a few years back. Rewatched some that I already loved, like Double Indemnity. Discovered some new ones to love, like Out of the Past. Needless to say, I have developed quite an affinity for the genre, so I’m going to start Movie Mixtape #2 with one of my favorites. One of the many reasons I love this one is that it feels like the first Post-Noir film (not neo-noir). Most people tend to date the film noir movement from around ’41 to the late 50s. This film is from 1957, so it’s just under the wire there. And it has all the qualities you’d expect: the dirty city, corrupt and powerful men, duplicity, depravity, personal destruction. But it’s not about gangsters or detectives or police. It’s about a press agent and a gossip columnist. The noir elements are there, but the film’s been ‘miscast.’ That’s why it feels post-noir: someone said, “Hey, let’s make a noir, but let’s change up the characters.” It feels like the first major film that tipped its cap to the genre instead of being implicitly part of it.
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The script is just wonderful, so many wonderful one-liners and rapid-fire back and forth (eat your heart out, Aaron Sorkin). The performances by Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster are dripping with sleaze. I tell ya, it’s just tops.
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Sweet Smell of Success
Dir. Alexander Mackendrick
Wrt. Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman
1957
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DB: In one of this movie’s many great lines, Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker describes Curtis’ Sidney Falco (GREAT names, by the way) as “a cookie full of arsenic.” The same could be said of the movie itself. If only all poison went down so easily. I think studio executives often worry that a movie has to have a main character that the audience can relate to, and/or sympathize with. I’ve never agreed with that. I don’t have to like, admire or identify with the protagonists. I simply have to be interested in them. This movie could stand as Exhibit A in defending that position. Hunsecker and Falco are despicable through and through, but what fun it is to watch them play their games of power and manipulation. By making them so enjoyable to watch, the movie makes us complicit in their shady dealings at the same time that we’re rooting for the victims of their plotting to win the day. It’s a nifty trick of dramatic orchestration. You aren’t kidding about the performances, either. The physically imposing Lancaster keeps cool while personifying menace and malice, and Curtis shuffles between private anxiety and public confidence with artful ease, maintaining an underlying moral vacancy all along.
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Our last mixtape touched on movies that captured the thrill of New York City on film, and this one really achieved that for me. Half of this movie feels like it’s happening at 1:00 in the morning, which seems fitting since Hunsecker and Falco are vampires of a sort. But no matter what time of day the events are happening, Mackendrick portrays a city that is pulsing with activity and energy. He gets some help in that department from Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score and the cinematography from the great James Wong Howe.
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Sweet Smell of Success hovers on the edge of the journalism world. For the follow-up, I give you a movie that brings us directly into that scene. This one spends a lot more time in the newsroom (while still plenty outside of it), as our lead characters – another two man team – exemplify a more virtuous side of the field than J.J. Hunsecker. They are sometimes forced to play games and manipulate too, but they do so toward more noble ends than their own power or personal glory. I’ve always enjoyed stories about the newspaper industry, and as it continues to fight for survival, this movie is the ultimate reminder of the important role that print journalism has played in American history.
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All the President’s Men
Dir. Alan J. Pakula
Wrt. William Goldman
1976
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BA: There’s not much new insight I can bring to such an iconic film. As far as a ‘procedural’ goes, this one doesn’t let up. Peeling back layer after layer, starting to realize you’re poking a tiger, then that you’re poking a thousand tigers. It almost begins to play like a horror movie. But maybe because I recently rewatched Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (’75), I do have something that feels worthy of pointing out. The Cold War gave something to film history that filmmakers have struggled to replace since the fall of the Soviet Union: a high stakes bad guy that everyone understood straight off. There was a constant bipolar tension in the world then. Damon Lindelof recently talked about the stakes in event films these days: once your budget passes $100 million, you have to save the world. That’s given us a crazy tent-pole season that I called The Summer of Peak Fist. But during the Cold War, the stakes were always that high, such that one man (like Redford’s Condor) could be running around the city, also trying to save the world. One mistake, one misunderstanding, could result in a simple button press and POOF, it’s all over. We don’t have that situation anymore. Die Hard gave us the “rogue terrorist” formula that worked well for years, and of course now we have the post-9/11 terrorism films, but terrorism plots, no matter how heinous, are almost always local. During the Cold War, the world needed saving every second of every day.
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The spy film genre flourished under this situation, profiling the clandestine methods in which we kept the world from exploding. Criterion just released a fine example in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (’65). What I want to point out here, though, is what the subject of All The President’s Men – the Watergate scandal and resulting cover-up – seemed to do to the genre. Before Watergate, there was always a double agent, a communist threat, a Russian spy. But then Watergate happened. And so look at Three Days of the Condor (spoiler ahead!!!): a hit on a CIA office, led by German Max Von Sydow, leads the audience to naturally assume, “It’s the commies!” But it turns out to be American spy agencies protecting their own operations.  Three Days of the Condor is a spy film that chooses as its bad guy not the Soviets but ourselves. And the movie doesn’t have any closure, but rather ends with the suggestion that the government can even tell the media what to print. Without closure, without “And that’s that,” the audience leaves the theater with a new mistrust of everything around them. That All The President’s Men was released the following year, also with Redford, almost feels like kismet: “See what we did in Condor? This is why it’s the new normal.”
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This is all speculation, of course, heightened by the coincidence of me watching both films within a week of each other. But it feels right, no? Regardless, in looking for my next suggestion, I strove to find another historical event that changed the way filmmakers approached their storytelling. I arrived at World War II. Things were going well, and then BAM, war again. It gave us the gung-ho, USA!-USA! war hero films. It gave us more and more escapist musicals. It gave us the dark, dirty noir genre. And by the end of the war, it even gave us introspective looks at ourselves, in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (’46). I almost recommended that one, but I thought I’d spice it up with a comedy. And so here’s an unexpected film made during the war, that deals with the over-patriotic hero worship in a surprisingly frank way. A man comes back to his hometown, having lied about going to war, and is honored as a hero. As with any comedy, the momentum of it all results in our ‘hero’ going along with it as best he can, as it snowballs out of control. With a kooky performance by Eddie Bracken, I give you wartime political satire that’s just as relevant today, even if the jokes feel a bit dated.
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Wrt & Dir: Preston Sturges
1944
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DB: Excellent insights into two movies that clearly demonstrated Robert Redford’s disillusionment with the American government in the 1970’s…a sensibility that was shared by much of the country and which was reflected by so many of the great films of that decade (a decade bursting with great films). Interesting thoughts as well on the changing face of the movies’ big baddie over the last several decades.
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There’s no bad guy to overthrow in Hail the Conquering Hero. Instead it’s the protagonist’s own shame that must be overcome, along with the tidal wave of adulation that prevents him from doing just that despite his repeated efforts. That was one element that prevented me from fully embracing the movie. I tend to lose patience with stories in which people won’t just shut up for a minute and listen to what someone is trying to tell them, which happens over and over again here as Eddie Bracken’s Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith tries to come clean with his hometown worshippers, only to be steamrolled each time by their frenetic enthusiasm and insistence on celebrating him. I also found the tone distractingly inconsistent. Was it a satire of what you called “overly-patriotic hero worship,” or was it the kind of broad, goofy comedy in which the band keeps playing at the wrong moment and the mayor is a buffoon? It couldn’t quite decide. Bracken’s performance seemed to belong in the latter, while much of the activity crowding around him seemed more of the former. This made it harder for me to buy into the relationship between Woodrow and Libby (played by the lovely Ella Raines). Her devotion to him never quite made sense to me, since they seemed like such an unlikely pair. Unlikely because while her performance was grounded, his was comically exaggerated. Only in the early scenes, prior to his newfound Marine buddies inventing the lie about his military service, and the climactic scene where he makes his confessional speech, did he seem like he was in the satire rather than the screwball comedy of errors. Still, I enjoyed Bracken’s performance on its own. I only knew him from his small role years later as Walley World founder Roy Walley in Vacation, so it was neat to see him in his heyday. There were a lot of colorful supporting performances as well, but I’m afraid the movie didn’t quite jell for me.
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As it pertains to our mix tape endeavor, I did notice something interesting. Even at this early stage, we seem to be repeating a characteristic among our choices: movies about people who get caught up in a lie or misunderstanding, whether or not they themselves are responsible for it. Looking at the previous tape, we had Meet John Doe, The 39 Steps, and Doc Hollywood (and maybe you could argue Brewster’s Millions). I’m not sure whether my next pick perpetuates this coincidence or uses it as a jumping off point, but whereas the main characters of all those movies are aware of their circumstances and consciously dealing with them in one way or another, here the character in question is completely oblivious to the effect he has on those around him. In my mind, that separates it from the other selections.
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He’s a simpleton who stumbles into the corridors of power and finds himself influencing policy at the highest level. Kind of like most of today’s Republican party…if the protagonist here was sinister, manipulative, and willfully ignorant and childlike as opposed to naturally so. (Sorry to get political, but as I write this, we’re nearly two weeks into the federal government shutdown, so idiots behaving like children while occupying positions of power are top of mind.) In cinematic terms, the character is like a forerunner to Forrest Gump, and he’s brought to life through a delightful performance by Peter Sellers that is every bit the equal of the classic character work he delivered in Dr. Strangelove and The Pink Panther films, but without makeup or funny accents to conceal him.
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I look forward to hearing what strikes you about this movie, both because there are so many things in it that ring true nearly 35 years later, and because its final scene has the potential to reframe everything that’s come before it.
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Being There
Dir. Hal Ashby
Wrt. Jerzy Kosinski
1979

BA: Let me go grad student on you here: for me, so much of this film is about the power of filmmaking itself. If you were to turn this film on somewhere near the end, you’d find a charmingly quiet man standing at the bedside of a dying man. And when that dying man gives up his last breath, the quiet man reaches out and puts his hand across the dead man’s forehead. It’s a touching gesture, a moment of final human connection. But it’s none of that, because the quiet man – Peter Sellers’ brilliant portrayal of simpleton “Chauncey Gardner” – is just aping something meaningless from earlier: in the opening scenes, when his caretaker dies, the maid informs him that she felt his forehead, and he was cold as a fish. So he went upstairs to the dead body and felt the forehead. That’s what you do when there’s a dead body, he must think.

In a weird, infinity-mirror type of way, that’s the magic of a film. It shows you what it thinks you need to see, and the overall experience delivers a certain emotional journey. Here, that journey is of an ‘idiot’ being mistaken for a profound genius, because the people he’s interacting with haven’t seen the rest of his story and don’t bother to try. We as the audience are privy to it, and so the comedy comes from something we know that they don’t. On top of that, Gardner himself can only come across as competent – however accidentally – because he himself has spent a lifetime clicking around the television stations. He never stays on one show for very long, so what he’s seen of other people interacting with each other are to him out of context. So we have this crazy snowball effect, where a simple man who’s only seen snippets of filmed stories walks around repeating those snippets when a similar context arrives, and the people he repeats them to, themselves having only seen this snippet of his life, think they understand it just as he believes to understand a soap opera or exercise show. It’s only the audience that knows the whole story……
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….. or do we? That last shot, for all its Christ-like allusions and state-of-mind easiness, delivers something else: there’s a magic in a film, unlimited possibilities. Even the audience, who have been in the know this whole time, is surprised by it. A common reaction may be to say, “How did that happen? Is there a sandbar or hidden floor? Is it literal or a metaphor?” But that’s beside the point, because the entire film is filled with people who simply accept what they’ve seen as what they think it is, no questions asked. They’re ‘experiencing’ life, not analyzing it. This is driven home when director Ashby includes end credit outtakes of Sellers and crew giggling through a particularly silly moment that didn’t appear in the film. Ashby gets the last word, pointing out, “And even YOU didn’t see everything. You only saw what I wanted you to see.” Sure, there are cynical lessons here about politics and media that are relevant today (and, I may add, continue the trend discussed earlier: Watergate changed the enemy, and from then on the natural artistic response is analysis [….President’s Men], a new reality […Condor], and finally, satire), but I think the real magic here is in the details themselves, and how they combine to form a complete and deliberate vision.
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So, let’s stick with that. The telling of a story, the completeness of a life, and the limitations of two hours of screen time. This next film is crazy, in the best way. Your mind starts to reel at it all, but it kind of makes sense despite itself, because its progression is our progression. From the loony mind of a gifted writer, in his directorial debut.
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Dir./Wrt. Charlie Kaufman
2008
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DB: Ooof. When I saw you had selected this movie, I was both excited and…I’m not sure what word to use. Overwhelmed? Excited because ever since I saw it when it first came out, I’ve wanted to see it again. Overwhelmed because the main reason I wanted to see it again is that it’s so dense and so heady and there’s so much going on that I had no idea what to make of it on first viewing, beyond being once again enraptured by the dizzying imagination of Charlie Kaufman. There could be an entire, semester-long course dedicated to this movie. My brother took a class in college on the James Joyce novel Finnegan’s Wake, which is so complex and challenging that there are actually companion books the class read in conjunction with the novel itself in order to help understand it. I feel like this movie would benefit from similar assistance.
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If you and our reader(s) will indulge me a personal side note, you said something in your Being There commentary that struck me. Describing the characters in the movie, you said, “they’re experiencing life, not analyzing it.” I think that’s true of the different ways that you and I watch movies. I wrote at the top of my post about my favorite movies of 2012 that I experience movies emotionally, not intellectually. Maybe every now and then I have a more analytical take on something, but more often my response is a simple gut reaction. I’m all about the surface pleasures. So although I’m an avid movie watcher, I’m also a shallow one.  With this mixtape project of ours, that leaves me a bit outmatched as you continually extrapolate the most interesting, inside-out takes on these movies. Your thoughts on Being There are so far removed from anything that would ever occur to me. And then as if to highlight this contrast, you offer up fucking Synecdoche, New York. You magnificent bastard.
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Still, when it comes to this movie, I can’t beat myself up. I don’t think anyone can watch it just once and walk away with more than a small amount of comprehension. And though this was my second time, it may as well have been my first given the passage of years since I initially saw it. There is so much happening both visually and thematically – and all at once – that it demands repeat viewings. One interesting thing I learned through the DVD’s special features is that Cotard, the last name of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s central character, is taken from a mental health condition called Cotard Delusion, or Cotard’s Syndrome, which finds the afflicted believing that they are dead or do not exist, or are slowly dying, or losing their blood and internal organs. Hoffman’s Caden Cotard is introduced as a death-obsessed hypochondriac, and his ongoing debilitation bears out the meaning of the name. The title itself is also loaded. “Synecdoche” is a term for part of something that is used to represent the whole, or vice versa. (Wikipedia offers the examples of a congregation being called “the church” or workers being referred to as “hired hands.”) See, before we even get into the actual movie itself, the work begins.
I don’t want to suggest that I’m uninterested in movies that make you think or make you work, but in the case of a movie as packed as this one, I rarely feel like I have the time to spend on thoughtful consideration. There’s just too damn much to do. Rumination at the level required by Synecdoche is a luxury I can’t afford. I know…poor me. So because I don’t possess the hours or the intellectual capacity to unpack this movie even superficially, let me hone in on one small aspect of it to finally lead us into our next track. (The flow of these posts don’t convey the time between movies, but it’s been nearly two months since you sent me this selection.)
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Caden is a theatre director, married to an artist named Adele, and they have an adorable young daughter named Olive, upon whom both selfishly and ignorantly dump their neuroses. Adele soon takes Olive to Berlin for a work related trip, and never returns, even keeping her from Caden when he travels there to see her some years later. While Caden’s life goes on, and he sinks deeper and deeper into the quagmire of his massively staged, hopelessly layered, eternally unfinished creation, the loss of Olive is a throughline that haunts him. Not that he was ever fit to be a father, and he probably had no idea the damage he was doing to her when they were together, but his love for her was always sincere. There’s not much in this movie we can trust as real; in fact, I’m not even confident saying that Olive was ever real. But she’s certainly real to Caden, and so is the effect of losing her.
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This is something we’ve seen before in art, and sadly in life. Children become pawns in the manipulations of their fucked-up parents. Maybe the parents really love their child, or maybe they’re incapable of loving anything beyond themselves. It’s a tragedy that was played out quite beautifully in a movie from just this past year. So with nothing but respect and admiration for Charlie Kaufman, I’m nevertheless unabashedly happy to pass the “Now Leaving Synecdoche, New York” sign and move on to this adaptation of an 1897 novel by Henry James, updated to the present day and starring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as the self-involved parents of a little girl who can’t even comprehend that she’s fighting to retain her innocence as she gets tossed around from guardian to guardian. The young actress at the center, Onata Aprile, will both warm and break your heart.
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What Maisie Knew
Dir. Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Wrt. Nancy Doyne, Carroll Cartwright
2013
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BA: This touching and heartbreaking little film highlights two important parts of filmmaking. And with this particular subject matter, the two parts bump up against each other. The first is an established perspective. The entire film is from Maisie’s point of view, often with the camera literally at her level, the adults cut off at the top of frame. If the parents are arguing and Maisie wanders back to her room, we can no longer hear the argument. We’re just with Maisie as she avoids whatever it is the adults are yelling about and focuses on a book, or a drawing, or looking out the window. Having even a single scene without Maisie present would have broken the whole film apart. It’s not just that she has to be in the scene; the audience can only know what she knows. Only then can we really try to connect with her innocence emotionally, because we’re denied the full adult story if she tunes out or walks away.
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Which brings up the second point: knowing your audience. What works against a film like this, where you’re trying to experience life as a young girl does (Onata Aprile’s quiet performance is lovely). The audience is very likely comprised wholly of adults, and adults will bring with them an understanding of what’s really going on. What the judge says, the petty underhanded fighting, one parent fishing for info on the other through seemingly innocent questioning of the daughter. WE know what they’re really up to, and we get protective of Maisie. Because we know she doesn’t hear that stuff and know what it really is. Thus, the film has to live in this in-between space: trying to portray the innocence of a child’s perspective to an audience that has already lost it. You can’t put the rabbit back in the hat, but you can remind us there was a time when the hat surprisingly produced a rabbit. It’s just that now, we’ve seen the hidden compartment.
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That disconnect prevented me from all-out loving the film, though I did enjoy it completely. Maybe that disconnect is the filmmakers’ intention, too (there is a running theme about a moat, the barrier between a castle and the dangerous animals outside). But I’ve seen that story before. I wonder if you can even make a film that gives you a true experience of childhood to anyone other than a child. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought of it, either. I’ve been taking notes for at least 8 years on a film I’d like to find a way to write someday that completely captures, visually as well as emotionally, what it was like to be a kid. So far, it’s a bizarre mash-up of Willy Wonka Technicolor meets Gondry-like visual devices. Who knows? It’s hard to have an adult experience a story about childhood without the nostalgia element. Beasts of the Southern Wild got the closest, I’d say. And it required magical animals and a flooded landscape.
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I knew pretty quickly what the next film on our mixtape should be. It also tells a story through a child’s perspective, an incomplete understanding of the realities of the adult world influencing conclusions about what’s what. Only here, we add the DNA of a spy film. An Embassy on foreign soil, an accidental death, and ever so many lies. Before Carol Reed and Graham Greene gave us the classic The Third Man, they gave us this unique thriller.
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Dir. Carol Reed
Wrt. Graham Greene
1948
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DB: Our running theme of characters caught up in lies continues with this nifty little thriller. One of the key differences here, however, is that some of the falsehoods are of a much more innocent nature. Phillipe is told many lies during the course of the movie, and they are the same lies children are told everyday because the truth is too complicated, or beyond their comprehension. And as the film goes on, it becomes painful to watch this poor little boy try to work through the confusion that these lies have wrought. Every time he thinks he’s trying to do the right thing to help his friend Baines, his actions instead threaten to seal the man’s fate. It starts to feel like you’re watching a rag doll get kicked around. By the end, I just wanted the adults to listen to what he was so desperately trying to tell them…even though if they did, it would just mean another strike against Baines.

There’s also the fact that Phillipe himself is lying to protect Baines, even though he mistakenly thinks Baines has just killed someone. It struck me immediately that the obvious follow-up to this movie would be Atonement, another story in which a bright but naive child sees something – or rather, doesn’t see what they think they’ve seen – and reacts in a dangerously misguided fashion because they don’t understand the truth. Those two movies would make for a nice double-feature. But I’m not picking that, since it’s a bit too much of the same. Children, misunderstandings, harmful lies…I think we need to go in another direction, which also rules out some other good follow-ups that I considered and which further involve the consequences of lies. Instead, I’m taking the concept down a different but related road. In The Fallen Idol, Baines has regaled Phillipe with tales of his adventures in Africa. We soon learn that these are lies as well, since none of the events ever took place. We don’t consider them to be lies though, do we? They’re stories, told for the boy’s amusement. But really, what are stories if not lies that we tell for the purpose of entertainment? And aren’t movies and TV shows the biggest lies of all? You brought up the same idea in the very first paragraph of this post. Acting, editing, sets, special effects….all tools to construct an illusion. This is an idea that plays directly into a project you’re working on right now, so I know you know what I mean.

For the last 15 years or so, reality television has blurred the lines even further. Sure, the situations may not be fictional exactly, but they are very much constructed; shaped to create a narrative, with real people jammed into roles of good guys and bad. These shows are not reality. They’re fiction, blatantly manipulated, yet audiences welcome these “lies.” They view the programs obsessively, and thus become active, willing partners in their own deceit. This next movie concerns one gigantic lie, designed to entertain the masses. And that it does. With the exception of the person at its center, everybody’s in on it, everybody’s caught up in it, and nobody has ever stopped to consider the cost because they’re all enjoying it too much.

The Truman Show
Dir. Peter Weir
Wrt. Andrew Niccol
1998

BA: So the story goes that Andrew Niccol’s first draft of this script was a dark sci-fi thriller, set in NYC, and that Brian de Palma was going to direct. Makes sense coming from the guy who wrote (and directed) Gattaca, but what a different movie that would have been! Probably closer in tone to that same year’s Alex Proyas thriller Dark City. Once Peter Weir came on board, he began to craft it into the timeless setting of Seahaven.

I’ve seen this more than a few times, but it’s been a while. So this time around, two things really jumped out at me. First, it’s a lot quicker than I remembered. I think that’s a testament to the depth and detail of the film. The way we’re introduced to the world as if we’re watching the TV show, the way 99% of the camera shots are of the ‘hidden’ variety (almost a precursor to ‘found footage,’ in a way?). The structure of the film gives us Truman’s life, interrupted almost immediately by the light that falls from the sky. And then we get flashbacks, and then when we finally meet Christof (a little on-the-nose with that name), we do so via an interview during which we get to experience the entire life of Truman from birth to now. All of this in a lean hour-plus, which then takes us into Truman’s falling apart and eventual awakening. By the time he opens that door at the end and steps through, we’re hit hard with it, because we feel like we’ve been watching the show for decades as well.
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Much of that, too, comes from the art direction. And that’s the second thing that jumped out at me. The music the characters listen to, the clothes they wear, their furniture and appliances feel like the 1950s. And yet there’s modern cars, computers, phones. It’s this odd mixture of past and present, which is really interesting when you step back and think about it. Part of it was no doubt to draw a solid line between Truman’s world and the modern world looking in at him (Christof’s production has all the tech he could ever need, even a Weathermaker!). Truman’s almost 30 in the film, which means that the show started in 1968. So even then, the 50s thing would’ve been somewhat dated. And yet it didn’t change. Maybe that’s the appeal of a familiar TV show: your favorite characters will always be in their familiar spots. The Cosby Show‘s living room, ER‘s hospital, 21 Jump Street‘s 21 Jump Street. It’s yet another trove of detail that shows you how deeply everyone involved with this film really thought it all out.
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It’s off this latter point that I pivot to the penultimate film on our mixtape. The choice to film in the cookie-cutter town of Seaside, Florida really drove home the homogeny of the environment created around Truman. Rightfully so, too, because Christof wants complete control over what affects his main character. Seahaven is a blank slate, everything so alike and innocent that you don’t even notice it. Then all Christof has to do is start a fire, or make it snow, or throw in a love interest, and he’s guaranteed that the drama will come from that action, not something unexpected. But, like the false elevator wall Truman discovers during his ‘breakdown,’ things are never so cut and dry. Even in the picture perfect, let’s-move-to-the-suburbs, nuclear family/Donna Reed 50s that the art direction is modelled after, shit gets real.
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Even during the 1950s themselves, filmmakers were pulling back the curtain and showing America that behind the ambrosia salad and rotary mowers, life really was ugly and imperfect. One director in particular made his name doing just that, and I give to you my favorite of his soapy, soapy films.
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Dir. Douglas Sirk
Wrt. Peg Fenwick
1955
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DB: I’ve been wanting to see this movie for over a decade, ever since watching Todd Haynes’ 2002 film Far From Heaven, his homage to these “women’s pictures” on which Douglas Sirk made his reputation. All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life (which I also have yet to see) are considered the primary inspirations for that film, but I never got around to watching them after seeing it, despite my intentions. Now that this one is under my belt, its influence on Haynes is clear. And though I’d assumed his effort was just a thematic interpretation of Sirk’s work, now I see that Haynes also recreated Sirk’s stunning use of color.
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Perhaps the colors stood out so much because the light was refracted through all of the suds in which the movie is lathered. Your description of “soapy” was apt. Melodramatic as it may be though, it was hard not to get caught up in the drama. Almost everyone in Cary’s life – from her college-age children to her so-called friends from the country club and cocktail party crowd – react so disdainfully to her romance with the younger, blue-collar Ron, and there were a few characters I found myself talking smack to out loud for their treatment of the couple. Yet at the same time that I felt defensive on behalf of their relationship, the romance felt a little rushed to me. I don’t think the movie did much to build up their attraction, which went from 0 to 10 in little more than the time it took to tour Ron’s rundown mill.

If I wanted to follow this up with another story of lovers battling outside forces that threaten to break them apart, there would be no shortage of movies to choose. But what will linger with me over time about this movie isn’t the story or the social commentary, but those vibrant, gorgeous colors. There were moments – think of those wide shots of Ron’s mill – that looked like they were animated. Cary and Ron might well have been walking around in a Disney cartoon. I mean, Jesus – there was even an adorable reindeer hanging around! A reindeer, Brantley!

So it’s color and cartoons that I’m thinking about as we wrap up this set. And while I have two movies in mind that might actually be more applicable than the one I’m going with, my ultimate selection accomplishes a couple of additional things. Yes, it elaborates on the idea of live actors in a world that sometimes seems (and at least briefly is) animated, but it also offers a nice bit of symmetry by serving as another riff – albeit a much lighter one – on the film noir origins that inspired your pick for our opener, Sweet Smell of Success. Lastly, it allows me to pay tribute to a terrific actor who recently left us. So enjoy revisiting this classic from our childhood, and raise a drink to Bob Hoskins as you do.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Dir. Robert Zemeckis
Wrt. Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman
1988

BA: What can you say about Roger Rabbit that any movie lover in our generation doesn’t already know? That they got the rights to cartoon characters from every conceivable studio. That Hoskins was asked to do the near-impossible, acting alongside greenscreens and practical gadgets that would later be drawn over. Watching it again, from start to finish, you can see all the noir tropes it’s supposed to have: a private detective, his trusty gal, a femme fatale, a musical number, a gin joint, a mystery in Los Angeles that (like Chinatown) is basically just a land grab. And as you said, a solid way to wrap up Movie Mixtape #2. Not just because we’ve bookended this thing with noir, but because in just two months, I’ll be getting married in the very movie theater in which I first saw Roger Rabbit. An old school Art Deco theater that would fit in quite nicely in Eddie Valiant’s world.

Coming Eventually: Movie Mixtape #3

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August 24, 2014

Emmy Nominations 2013-14: Reaction Mishmash

Filed under: Emmys,TV — DB @ 9:45 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Emmy Awards are upon us, and once again this year’s crop of nominees reminds us that there is an astonishing level of quality across today’s television landscape…if it can even still be referred to as television now that online entities like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are presenting original programming. Unfortunately, it tends to be what isn’t nominated that serves as the reminder, for no matter what makes the cut, there remains so much great work that is left out. As I say every year, there is simply too much good work out there for all of it to receive the celebration it deserves come Emmy season. But that doesn’t stop TV critics and avid watchers from sounding off anyway. For the past couple of years I’ve offered a slate of write-ups for work that stood out to me as nomination worthy but went unrecognized. I really need to work on those throughout the season, while the shows are fresh in my mind, but I dropped the ball this year. Still, I have thoughts on what was and wasn’t nominated, and I’ll be damned if I’m just going to keep them to myself. I’m a blogger! So here’s a down-and-dirtier version of this annual post. I’m not making predictions here; the Emmys are far too erratic and offbeat for me to apply my Oscar mojo. This is just a rundown of the nominees, accompanied by thoughts and opinions where I have them. Maybe I’ll get my act together next year. Until then….

 

OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES
The Big Bang Theory
Louie
Modern Family
Orange Is The New Black
Silicon Valley
Veep

Thoughts: As entertainment award travesties go, the annual omission of Parks and Recreation is one for the books. How does this show get passed over year after year after year? With all respect to the fine Modern Family, Parks and Rec dances circles around it. It’s more ambitious in its storytelling, it develops its characters with greater depth and it continues to offer surprises each season while Modern Family and other shows just do more of the same…even if they do it well. And on top of all that, it’s hilarious and still has the best comedic ensemble on TV right now. I don’t watch The Big Bang Theory, but I’d bet it too falls short of Parks and Recreation in almost every metric.

On the upside, it’s nice to see Silicon Valley land a nomination for its debut season. The show came out of the gate strong and never faltered. I have yet to get around to Orange is the New Black, but by all accounts it’s a true original and a deserving nominee…if not necessarily the right fit for this category.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Lena Dunham – Girls
Edie Falco – Nurse Jackie
Melissa McCarthy – Mike & Molly
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Veep
Amy Poehler – Parks and Recreation
Taylor Schilling – Orange is the New Black

Thoughts: At least Amy Poehler got some love for Parks and Rec, though the fact that she hasn’t won yet is every bit as scandalous as the show itself not being nominated. Yes, we all adore Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but she’s got plenty of Emmys at this point, and while her work on Veep is excellent, the character doesn’t have the range of Poehler’s Leslie Knope. She won her first Golden Globe for the role in January. Perhaps this will finally be her year at the Emmys as well?

Also, how about getting some Mindy Kaling up in this joint?

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OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Louis C.K. – Louie
Don Cheadle – House of Lies
Ricky Gervais – Derek
Matt LeBlanc – Episodes
William H. Macy – Shameless
Jim Parsons – The Big Bang Theory

Thoughts: Ricky Gervais’ nomination for the Netflix series Derek is quite the surprise. The series hasn’t garnered the acclaim or noteriety of The Office or even Extras, so it’s a testament to Gervais’ appeal that he made the cut over more widely predicted people like Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Andy Samberg (who took the Golden Globe) and Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch. I’m also giving a shout-out to the great Chris O’Dowd, who was a real joy as the lead in Christopher Guest’s mellow HBO comedy Family Tree.

As for the win, I gotta go with Louis C.K.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Mayim Bialik – The Big Bang Theory
Julie Bowen – Modern Family
Anna Chlumsky – Veep
Allison Janney – Mom
Kate McKinnon – Saturday Night Love
Kate Mulgrew – Orange is the New Black

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Fred Armisen – Portlandia
Andre Braugher – Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Ty Burrell – Modern Family
Adam Driver – Girls
Tony Hale – Veep
Jesse Tyler Ferguson – Modern Family

Thoughts: Can someone explain to me how Fred Armisen is a Supporting Actor on Portlandia? He’s the co-lead and co-creator of the show. He doesn’t belong here, especially at the expense — yet again — of any member of the Parks and Recreation crew. Nick Offerman remains the show’s most egregiously overlooked cast member, but Chris Pratt, Aziz Ansari and Adam Scott are plenty deserving.

Silicon Valley also boasts an impressive group of supporting players, any of whom — T.J. Miller, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods or the late Christopher Evan Welch — would have been welcome additions here.

Returning nominees Adam Driver, Tony Hale and Ty Burrell all deserve a place once again, and Andre Braugher is a welcome addition for his deadpan precinct captain. His co-star Joe Lo Truglio would have been deserving too…though again, neither outshine the men of Parks and Rec. I really don’t get the Emmy’s aversion to that show.

I would love to see Driver take this. Reigning champ Hale is terrific, but Adam Driver is one of the most exciting actors anywhere right now. His work on Girls has been remarkable from day one, and he continues to take his character in fascinating and unexpected new directions.

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OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Uzo Aduba – Orange is the New Black
Laverne Cox – Orange is the New Black
Joan Cusack – Shameless
Tina Fey – Saturday Night Live
Natasha Lyonne – Orange is the New Black
Melissa McCarthy – Saturday Night Live

The Guest Performer Emmys were handed out last weekend at the Creative Arts ceremony, and the prize went to Uzo Aduba. As I mentioned above, I have yet to see Orange is the New Black, but even I’m aware of her breakout character Crazy Eyes.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Steve Buscemi – Portlandia
Louis C.K. – Saturday Night Live
Gary Cole – Veep
Jimmy Fallon – Saturday Night Live
Nathan Lane – Modern Family
Bob Newhart – The Big Bang Theory

Thoughts: Another Parks and Recreation omission: is it not far past the time to recognize Ben Schwartz for his hilarious recurring work as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein? This is a show that has done such a phenomenal job of building up a roster of recurring characters to fill out the town of Pawnee, and none are funnier or more well-honed than hipster doofus Jean-Ralphio. His impact on the show has been significant enough that the creators gave him an equally hilarious sister Mona Lisa (Jenny Slate) and this past year introduced Henry Winkler as their father. Given how this show has been passed over by Emmy voters across the board, I can hardly expect Schwartz to be singled out. But he sure deserves it.

All that aside, the winner was Jimmy Fallon.

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OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A COMEDY SERIES

David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik – Episodes (Episode 305)
Louis C.K. – Louie (So Did the Fat Lady)
Liz Friedman, Jenji Kohan – Orange is the New Black (I Wasn’t Ready – Pilot)
Alec Berg – Silicon Valley (Optimal Tip-To-Tip Efficiency)
Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, Armando Iannucci – Veep (Special Relationship)

Thoughts: Cheers to the voters for nominating the season finale of Silicon Valley, which featured one of the funniest sequences I saw anywhere all year: a serious discussion amongst software engineers about how one of them could theoretically jerk off 800 men in ten minutes. This was inspired. The best part is that, as with much of the show’s shop talk, the concept had to be worked out with the help of a legitimate engineering genius — 27 year-old MIT grad Vinith Misra. While discussing his work as an advisor to the show in this interview, he mentioned that his tasks included “performing a detailed mathematical analysis in support of a penis joke.” Fantastic.

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OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A COMEDY SERIES

Iain B. MacDonald – Episodes (Episode 309)
Paris Barclay – Glee (100)
Louis C.K. – Louie (Elevator, Part 6)
Gail Mancuso – Modern Family (Vegas)
Jodie Foster – Orange is the New Black (Lesbian Request Denied)

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OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES

Breaking Bad
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
House of Cards
Mad Men
True Detective

Thoughts: Although I don’t watch The Good Wife, I gathered that it had a strong season. I couldn’t escape the news of a major cast member’s dramatic exit, so it’s surprising that the buzz didn’t translate into a nomination. Much as I enjoy Downton Abbey, I’m not sure if it belongs here when other acclaimed shows like Good Wife, The Americans, or Masters of Sex were shut out. The Bridge had an impressive debut run too. It would also be nice to see more genre shows join Game of Thrones. Neither The Walking Dead nor Bates Motel have Thrones’ prestige factor, but both are coming off high-quality seasons. And Hannibal is not only riveting, but one of the most visually arresting shows on the air. Also, I have to say, True Blood bounced back in a big way last year.

I’d like to think this will be the year that Game of Thrones triumphs, but it’s a tough call. It’s unanimously agreed that Breaking Bad’s final season completely nailed it, and might even have been the show’s best yet. But those episodes aired a year ago, and it may be too far out of mind to claim the prize for the second year in a row…though most fans of the show would say that only one Outstanding Drama Series win is not enough. True Detective is the big threat here. Fueled by the presence of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, the show was highly anticipated and lived up to the potential. It was an instant hit — smart, engrossing and atmospheric. And it’s probably more in Emmy voters’ wheelhouse than Game of Thrones. One potential hiccup is that earlier this month, accusations surfaced that True Detective‘s creator Nic Pizzolatto plagiarized portions of the show’s dialogue. He and HBO have denied the charges, and the timing does seem suspicious. The show ended its run in March, but this story doesn’t hit until August, in the middle of the Emmy voting period? Sounds like the work of Tywin Lannister…

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Lizzy Caplan – Masters of Sex
Claire Danes – Homeland
Michelle Dockery – Downton Abbey
Julianna Margulies – The Good Wife
Kerry Washington – Scandal
Robin Wright – House of Cards

Thoughts: Does Michelle Dockery really belong here? She does good work as Lady Mary, but in a crowded field, I can think of a few performances that have more going on than hers. How about Vera Farmiga, nominated last year for her wonderful work on Bates Motel? The Bridge’s Diane Kruger, might have been a more interesting choice as well. I don’t watch any of the following shows, but what I hear of Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Keri Russell (The Americans), Connie Britton (Nashville), Katey Sagal (Sons of Anarchy) and the usually-nominated Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) suggests that all are eminently Emmy worthy.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Bryan Cranston – Breaking Bad
Jeff Daniels – The Newsroom
Jon Hamm – Mad Men
Woody Harrelson – True Detective
Matthew McConaughey – True Detective
Kevin Spacey – House of Cards

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Thoughts:
Poor Michael Sheen. The Masters of Sex star is always the bridesmaid to his co-stars. The Queen: Helen Mirren wins the Oscar, but he’s not nominated. Frost/Nixon: Frank Langella gets the Oscar nomination, Sheen is passed over. Now Lizzy Caplan is welcomed into the Emmy race for Masters while Sheen is yet again ignored. Perhaps he can take some consolation in the fact that as always, this is a jam-packed category. There’s really nobody here who doesn’t deserve their place. Some might say Jeff Daniels, who pulled off a surprise win last year, but critics and pundits just don’t like The Newsroom. Whatever they think of the show though, Daniels is terrific. Many expected James Spader to be a shoo-in for The Blacklist, and there were hopes that Matthew Rhys would find his way in for The Americans. But there can be only six.

Jon Hamm remains Emmy-less for Mad Men, which probably should be rectified at some point, but it’s unlikely to be this year. While Bryan Cranston could take it one final time for Breaking Bad, this award seems destined for McConaughey, who was spellbinding on True Detective. His first foray into series television further bolstered the hot streak that he’s been on in the movies. He’ll need some more shelf space to add all the True Detective awards he’s bound to win over the next six months to the swarm he already collected for Dallas Buyers Club. His next two projects are with Christopher Nolan and Gus Van Sant. Dude is crushing it.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Christine Baranski – The Good Wife
Joanne Froggatt – Downton Abbey
Lena Headey – Game of Thrones
Anna Gunn – Breaking Bad
Christina Hendricks – Mad Men
Maggie Smith – Downton Abbey

Thoughts: I’m always pleased by any recognition for the Game of Thrones cast, so I’m happy to see Lena Headey score her first nomination. I still say Maisie Williams is the cast’s most deserving female, but I’ll take what they give me.

I didn’t expect the Emmys to suddenly find room for The Walking Dead in a main category, but Melissa McBride certainly deserved a place here this year. McBride’s Carol has had the best character arc on the show, coming a long way from the meek, abused wife she was at the start to the badass warrior momma she is now, one of the toughest of the survivors, who makes difficult life or death decisions and then follows through, all for the greater good. Her evolution and do-what-needs-to-be-done attitude were crystallized in this season’s episode “The Grove,” which saw Carol execute her most heartbreaking decision yet. I had some issues with the how the story played out — I think the writing failed to explore the situation as fully as it needed to (and easily could have) before the ultimate solution was reached — but I have no issues with McBride’s performance. It was a textbook example of the kind of showcase episode that should earn an actor a nomination.

I also want to make a stand for Caitlin FitzGerald, from Masters of Sex. As the warm, supportive wife to Michael Sheen’s intense title character, FitzGerald had the challenge of taking a 1950’s housewife whose lot in life seems to be supporting her man, and turning her into a character who was, in her way, just as strong and compelling as Lizzy Caplan’s less conventional woman of the era. FitzGerald quickly evolved into my favorite character on the show, as I found myself looking forward to her scenes more than anyone else’s.

Lastly, while I can’t comment on Baranski, Gunn or Hendricks, I can say the category should have found room for The Newsroom’s Olivia Munn. Probably the least experienced of the show’s primary cast members when it debuted, she was strong from the start and does great work week in and week out. If she had been giving the same performance on The West Wing, she’d have been nominated.

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OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Josh Charles – The Good Wife
Jim Carter – Downton Abbey
Peter Dinklage – Game of Thrones
Mandy Patinkin – Homeland
Aaron Paul – Breaking Bad
Jon Voight – Ray Donovan

Thoughts: Could sentiment be with Josh Charles, given his character’s high-profile departure from The Good Wife? Or will voters look to Aaron Paul one last time for Breaking Bad? No surprise, I’m rooting for Dinklage to win for a second time. His arc this season provided great material, both showy and subtle, and he was as stellar as ever. Unfortunately, he is once again the show’s sole representative. Several of his castmates could just as easily join him here, but all were overlooked. One particular absence stings because the character won’t be returning, and has been one of the standouts each year. I’m avoiding his name for spoilers sake, but those of you watching probably know who I mean. Frankly, if this entire category were comprised of Thrones actors,  it would be entirely justified.

Voters might also have considered Jeffrey Wright’s work on Boardwalk Empire. He was an excellent addition to the show, and a more interesting character than Bobby Cannavale’s Emmy-winning villain from the previous season.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Kate Burton – Scandal
Jane Fonda – The Newsroom
Allison Janney – Masters of Sex
Kate Mara – House of Cards
Margo Martindale – The Americans
Diana Rigg – Game of Thrones

Thoughts: Kate Mara? Really? Nothing against her or her performance, but her arc on House of Cards was pretty brief this year. Does she really deserve this slot? Diana Rigg is so good on Game of Thrones, but she was in much less of the season this year than last. If she didn’t win then, it’s unlikely that she would now.

And she didn’t. The award went to Alison Janney, and that’s hard to argue with. Janney was heartbreaking as a wife and mother experiencing her sexual awakening as she learns that her husband — fellow nominee Beau Bridges — is not the man she thought he was.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Dylan Baker – The Good Wife
Beau Bridges – Masters of Sex
Reg E. Cathey – House of Cards
Paul Giamatti – Downton Abbey
Robert Morse – Mad Men
Joe Morton – Scandal

Thoughts: Pedro Pascal came into the crowded Game of Thrones cast and immediately carved himself a place of honor with a compelling portrayal of a revenge-minded prince. He seemed a shoo-in for recognition here. I mean, it was a fun to see the great Paul Giamatti pop up on Downton Abbey, but I’d trade his one-episode appearance for Pascal’s pivotal season-long role in a heartbeat. It’s disappointing to see him passed over.

I’ve only seen half of these nominees — Giamatti, Bridges and Cathey. I’d have gone with Bridges’ wrenching turn as a married man grappling with his homosexuality. The scenes of his professional relationship — he plays Michael Sheen’s longtime friend and boss — are terrific, but the character’s personal struggles deepen the role and allow Bridges to do some beautiful work. Alas, the winner was Joe Morton (Miles Dyson, for all you Terminator 2 fans). Though I don’t watch Scandal, I’ve always liked Morton, so it’s nice to see a working actor like him get some recognition.

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A DRAMA SERIES
Moira Walley-Beckett – Breaking Bad (Ozymandias)
Vince Gilligan – Breaking Bad (Felina)
David Benioff, D.B. Weiss – Game of Thrones (The Children)
Beau Willimon – House of Cards (Chapter 14)
Nic Pizzolatto – True Detective (The Secret Fate of All of Life)

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OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A DRAMA SERIES

Tim Van Patten – Boardwalk Empire (Farewell Daddy Blues)
Vince Gilligan – Breaking Bad (Felina)
David Evans – Downton Abbey (Episode 1)
Neil Marshall – Game of Thrones (The Watchers on the Wall)
Cary Joji Fukunaga – True Detective (Who Goes There)

Thoughts: Without having seen the Breaking Bad episodes, I have no doubt both were expertly crafted. And the nominated episode of True Detective got a lot of attention for its lengthy tracking shot that moved in and out of several houses as it followed McConaughey’s character on an undercover assignment gone bad. But how can anything here compare to the directorial challenges and superb execution of the battle for Castle Black on Game of Thrones? The extensive use of visual effects to create so much of the surroundings, the multiple storylines playing out within the limited location, the ability to make it all look so impressive and cinematic on a TV budget. This is the first directing nomination Thrones has received in three seasons, and its omission from the past two years is absurd. It deserves the award not just for this episode, but as compensation for past mistakes.

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OUTSTANDING MINISERIES

American Horror Story: Coven
Bonnie & Clyde
Fargo
Luther
Treme
The White Queen

Thoughts: American Horror Story is always a force to be reckoned with, but Fargo was the buzzy critic’s darling this year, and accomplished the impressive feat of standing on its own in the shadow of a classic piece of contemporary cinema. I wasn’t totally sold on it at first, but it grew on me steadily as it went along, and I still find myself thinking about it. I’ll definitely have to revisit it eventually.

OUTSTANDING TELEVISION MOVIE
Killing Kennedy
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight
The Normal Heart
Sherlock: His Last Vow
The Trip to Bountiful

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Helena Bonham Carter – Burton and Taylor
Minnie Driver – Return to Zero
Jessica Lange – American Horror Story: Coven
Sarah Paulson – American Horror Story: Coven
Cicely Tyson – The Trip to Bountiful
Kristen Wiig – The Spoils of Babylon

Thoughts: How awesome is it to see Kristin Wiig sneak into this line-up for her performance in the absurd comedic series The Spoils of Babylon? This show was totally ridiculous, and totally hilarious. Not everyone’s style of comedy, I’m sure, but for those who appreciated what they were going for, it was lots of fun, and Wiig was aces.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Benedict Cumberbatch – Sherlock: His Last Vow
Chiwetel Ejiofor – Dancing on the Edge
Idris Elba – Luther
Martin Freeman – Fargo
Mark Ruffalo – The Normal Heart
Billy Bob Thornton – Fargo

Thoughts: The delightful ubiquity of Martin Freeman is evident in the fact that half his fellow nominees are actors he’s worked with. He’s joined here by his Fargo co-star Thornton, as well as his Sherlock and The Hobbit pal Cumberbatch. Plus he and Ejiofor were both in Love, Actually. But they had no scenes together, so maybe that doesn’t count? You decide.

Jesus, this is a strong line-up. Tough, tough call.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Angela Bassett – American Horror Story: Coven
Kathy Bates – American Horror Story: Coven
Ellen Burstyn – Flowers in the Attic
Frances Conroy – American Horror Story: Coven
Julia Roberts – The Normal Heart
Alison Tolman – Fargo

Thoughts: No surprise that this category is dominated by ladies of American Horror Story. Bassett, Bates and Conroy were all fantastic. The latter two especially, had probably the best roles they’ve had in ages thanks to Ryan Murphy and his team, who can always be counted on to create roles that actresses can tear into. It’s no wonder they signed on to return for the upcoming season, American Horror Story: Freak Show. It will be a challenge to choose between them. So maybe the voters won’t, going instead for Allison Tolman’s wonderful breakout turn in Fargo.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Matt Bomer – The Normal Heart
Martin Freeman – Sherlock: His Last Vow
Colin Hanks – Fargo
Joe Mantello – The Normal Heart
Alfred Molina – The Normal Heart
Jim Parsons – The Normal Heart

Thoughts: This category is kind of a slap in the face to Taylor Kitsch. He was the only main cast member of The Normal Heart to be overlooked, and he was just as good as everyone else. He certainly had a bigger role than Joe Mantello, but Mantello had something that Kitsch unfortunately didn’t: a showstopping scene in which he took center stage and was allowed to fly. He was basically nominated for that one scene. All the other cast members had at least one standout moment like that. Kitsch’s character didn’t, and it probably cost the actor a nomination.

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A MINISERIES, MOVIE OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL
Brad Falchuk – American Horror Story: Coven (Bitchcraft)
Noah Hawley – Fargo (The Crocodile’s Dilemma)
Neil Cross – Luther
Larry Kramer – The Normal Heart
Steven Moffatt – Sherlock: His Last Vow
David Simon, Eric Overmeyer – Treme (…To Miss New Orleans)

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OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A MINISERIES, MOVIE OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon – American Horror Story: Coven (Bitchcraft)
Adam Bernstein – Fargo (The Crocodile’s Dilemma)
Colin Bucksey – Fargo (Buridan’s Ass)
Stephen Frears – Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight
Ryan Murphy – The Normal Heart
Nick Hurran – Sherlock: His Last Vow

OUTSTANDING VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Real Time with Bill Maher
Saturday Night Live
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Thoughts: The golden of age of television we continue to find ourselves in is not limited to fictional series. The late night field is also full of gems, as evidenced by how strong this category is. Saturday Night Live is always going to be hit or miss, but the rest of these shows are just great. Conan could easily be here too, as could some of the other shows which pop up in the Writing category below (despite the list of nominees, this isn’t actually a late night category). Last Week with John Oliver probably debuted too late in the season to qualify, but its chances next year are looking great. Strong as all of these shows are though, none of them equal the satirical brilliance of The Colbert Report, which finally won this award last year after a record-setting 10 years of domination by The Daily Show.

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Inside Amy Schumer
Key & Peele
Portlandia
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

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OUTSTANDING ANIMATED PROGRAM

Archer (Archer Vice: The Rules of Extraction)
Bob’s Burgers (Mazel Tina)
Futurama (Meanwhile)
South Park (Black Friday)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Manhattan Project

Thoughts: Much was made of the fact that for the first time in 23 years, The Simpsons wasn’t nominated. The consenus may be that the show is long past its prime, but I still probably laugh harder and more often during a Simpsons episode than I do at any other series. Now maybe Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is good…but better than The Simpsons? I seriously doubt it.

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I’m looking forward to seeing how it all shakes out. Seth Meyers hosts the show, which airs tomorrow night, Monday, August 25, on NBC. Go Amy Poehler and Game of Thrones!

And now I leave you with another classic moment of Emmy past.

 

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