There is something mystical about the Academy Awards. Even when actors and directors and cinematographers try to deny it, the Oscar remains Hollywood’s grandest and most cherished prize. Despite the glaring omissions that plague the list of winners and nominations every year, The Academy gets it right sometimes, which is more than many awards shows can say. It helps, of course, that the Academy is favored by a 87th year long history that when compared to the 72 years of the Golden Globes, or the 67 years of the Bafta, it makes the accolade all the more respectable and appreciated, if only for its accumulated wisdom over rivals.
The Academy Awards are also the fertile ground of film critics who fill their mouths and their computers with denouncements about how this year, like every previous year, the Academy got it wrong. This is not to say that I am above it all, because I play the same game, and I like doing it. What is important is that we use the Oscars not just as a self-congratulatory empty shell of a ceremony, but as an opportunity to celebrate art.
The field comprises 8 films this year (of the maximum of 10 allowed), of which I have seen exactly half. Missing from my list is the most-talked about film of the awards season: American Sniper, the Stephen Hawking’s biopic The Theory of Everything, the much lauded Selma, and the quirky comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel.
As the award ceremonies leading up to the Academy Awards have suggested, this is the year of either Boyhood or Birdman, which have been exchanging the top spot since it all began. Both are very good films, but only one is a true testament to artistry and, ironically, it is not the film about actors and their delusions and egos. If awarded, Boyhood could be the simplest bit of cinema to ever win the coveted prize. It is, after all, the story of a family without the eccentricity or the uniqueness that we come to expect from families portrayed in film. Despite its lack of escapism, Boyhood remains intriguing and universal. What touches us about Boyhood is not an unexpected twist or a sudden moment of revelation, but the little moments, those we all live through and that we tend to remember forever rather inexplicably because life is a compendium of small moments, not of big life-changing events.
However, if there is anything truer than Boyhood is that Hollywood loves films about itself, or about the behind-the-camera shenanigans that accompanies the making of movies and theater. Birdman winning the top prize of the night would not be surprising at all, and it would continue the long-held tradition that goes as far back as All About Eve, or as recently as The Artist.
I would love to see Boyhood take the prize, but my personal favorite would actually be Whiplash. In my recent review of the film, I talked about the great performances, the awesome score and the frenetic tempo of the story. Though all of those components amount to a great deal, what truly struck a chord with me was the final sequence, which is easily the best bit of movie magic I have seen all year.
There will always be snubs unless the Academy begins to nominate 20 or 30 films per year. Until then, we are bound to be disappointed by any crop of candidates, no matter how thoughtful the choices might end up being. What I do criticize are patterns of omission. Even though the Academy has shown signs of improvement in recent years by nominating and even awarding very good films (as compared to Shakespeare in Love winning Best Picture in 1998 over Life is Beautiful or Saving Private Ryan), the crop of films that are usually nominated are rarely that unique. If there is anything we can count on is that the Academy will rarely pick an outsider, or a film that challenges our notions about film-making or is unlike anything we have ever seen. The Academy claims it picks excellence, and it often does, but rarely does it pick films that are ahead of their time. As a result, the Academy is always a step or two behind where it should be.
To make my point across I will illustrate that there are 4 semi-biographical films of various merits, while an art-house gem like Under the Skin remained undetected and unmentioned by everyone that matters, except for critics. Would it not be more interesting to have more of these “odd” films so that others are encouraged by it and experiment? Do we really need 4 films based on true events nominated?
As is Academy convention, it is rare when we see an action flick make up one of the slots for Best Picture. This year the Academy, as well as every prize before it had the chance to do so with the surprising Snowpiercer, which gathered amazing reviews from critics and yours truly only to be completely shunned from the awards season. Then there is the incredibly engaging indie film Blue Ruin which, until recently, was sitting pretty as my pick for #1 movie of the year. Once again, the Academy would have made a big statement nominating an indie film with a paper thin budget and unknown actors. Perhaps the factor at play here is that very few people saw it and Harvey Weinstein and its apparatus of respectable movie making was not backing it.
For the three films highlighted above, it was always going to be a difficult road to the Oscars considering that they received very little publicity, they barely made any money, they did not have the backing of a big studio or distributor, they were all released prior to November and all three can easily be labeled as too “weird” for the Academy. To add insult to injury, underrated stars were associated with them, as is the case of Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans. Both delivered their career-best performances with Under the Skin and Snowpiercer respectively and they have yet to be given the kind of praise that they deserve for their efforts.
I have only seen 3 of the nominated 5 films in the second most important category. Of the nominees I have not had the pleasure to see Foxcatcher, though I plan to, and neither have I seen The Theory of Everything. What is curious about the first is that it received the best director nod without receiving the best picture nomination which makes me believe that this is a candidate we can all agree has no chance to win.
In this category, like that for Best Picture, the field has to be narrowed down to two choices: Birdman or Boyhood. Like I have read around the web, it could end up being one of the odd cases of a film getting the best director prize without getting best picture or vice versa. Such is the competition between these titles. To make the decision even harder, this is undoubtedly the best work Iñarritu and Linklater have ever done as cineastes or, at the very least, their most daring and original work to date.
Both Iñarritu and Linklater deserve the prize. What they did with their films is nothing short of amazing. If we look at it more practically though, Iñarritu’s career is just taking off now, right after that of Alfonso Cuaron’s with Gravity (not to forget the underrated Children of Men), which makes me believe that he will have more opportunities down the line. On the other hand, the career of Linklater has always been great in indie and critical circles, but not as much with mainstream. This is the case of a director who has always been praised, but never to the point where he finds himself today. Linklater also feels less likely to be there again, not for his lack of skill, but for the kind of movies he makes. Also, I very much doubt he will ever make something as deceptively simple and beautiful as Boyhood. For that, I choose Linklater as Best Director.
Instead of explaining the merits of Snowpiercer, Under the Skin and Blue Ruin, all of which were crafted beautifully enough to merit a best director nod, I will also include Gone Girl in the conversation. Sure, I did not enjoy it as much as other cinephiles out there, but I recognize the awesome work of David Fincher as one of the few well-known directors who are capable of being daring, and still make films that resonate with large audiences. Gone Girl was certainly a people’s favorite and, for that reason alone, it should have been considered. Again, it is sadly the case of the Academy fearing the work of those that are too risky for a 40+ million viewer telecast.
BEST ACTORS – LEAD
Granted I have only seen Rosamund Pike from the pack of female lead nominees, I very much doubt that Reese Witherspoon did more with her role. Having said that, I have heard many great things about Julianne Moore in her turn as an early-Alzheimer’s victim in Still Alice, and she seems to be the favorite going in. However, there is always a certain Marion Cotillard who tends to excel in everything she does and I would not discount her completely given the kind of love she has received from Academy voters before. As for Felicity Jones, I have only seen her in Like Crazy and she impressed me, but I will go with the popular consensus on this one and say that her time is yet to come, and it won’t be thanks to The Theory of Everything that she will take home the statue.
Among the male leads, I can’t help to be swayed by my fondness towards Cumberbatch‘s magnificent turn as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Besides my own bias for the role and for the tragic yet heroic story of the man he played, Cumberbatch certainly delivered his career-best performance in film so far (leaving out TV’s Sherlock). He was the most outstanding aspect of a movie that left me wanting a bit more given the fascinating subject matter.
Even though Bradley Cooper is stealing all the headlines with American Sniper, this has always been the race between Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton. For Academy voters it would be good to remember what happened just a few years back when they chose Sean Penn over Mickey Rourke, even when the latter played the hell out of a character that was so true to life that both were indistinguishable. If this is evidence of a trend, then it is clear that Keaton might be the sore loser. However, I am hopeful that experience will trump youth this time around. For one, Keaton is a much better liked actor than Rourke is or ever will be. Also, Redmayne’s youth may incline voters to think that his career is just starting out and he will likely get more chances in the future. Not to be discounted is that Redmayne may be undone by his critically mocked display in the recent box office disaster that is Jupiter Ascending. Never disregard recent memory as a powerful antidote come Oscar time.
There were a few snubs that should have been considered in my book. There was the captivating delivery of Scarlett Johansson as the observant alien in the dazzling Under the Skin. Easily, the breakthrough performance of her career.
Equally impressive, though it may belong in an entirely different (and yet non-existent) category, is Andy Serkis, the man behind the impressive Caesar in the very good Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Of all of the good performances that Jake Gyllenhaal has delivered, Nightcrawler was the most accomplished of his very interesting career. His turn as the immoral and unscrupulous man seeking for shocking footage around Los Angeles is the epitome of the modern creep who is willing to do anything for fame and fortune. Certainly a breakthrough role that deserved recognition.
Then there was Miles Teller, who was as good as J.K Simmons in the awesome Whiplash. In my humble opinion, this was one of the biggest injustices of the award season and I am not surprised to see Simmons include his fellow actor in all of his acceptance speeches. Teller has been increasingly impressive in his young career, following up his very solid work in the Spectacular Now, with a fantastically complex character in Whiplash.
Other performers gathering good reviews such as Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain from A Most Violent Year or Joaquin Phoenix from Inherent Vice suffered the fate of being a part of films that came out very late in December to a limited number of audiences. At the moment, this humble servant has not seen either film, so I reserve from making any further comments.
BEST ACTORS – SUPPORTING
The list of supporting characters is usually more fascinating to me than that of leads for the fact that it tends to include less starlets, more diversity, surprises and even complete unknowns. In the case of the supporting actress race, the main candidate, and deservingly so, continues to be Patricia Arquette for her nuanced role as the mother in Boyhood. Hers is a career-best turn that demanded a great commitment and a lot of personal introspection.
The rest of the candidates quite frankly do not excite me that much. Emma Stone played the hell out of her role in Birdman, but I did not think she was given enough screen time to merit a nomination. The same can be said of Keira Knigthley in The Imitation Game, who did excellently, but was little more than a sparring partner for Cumberbatch.Then there is the perennial nominee Merryl Streep who, like in previous ocassions, was handed the opportunity to be in contention despite other worthy actors.
In the male race for best supporting actor, I think both Edward Norton and Ethan Hawke were highly deserving of the nomination. I would be fine seeing either of the two take it home if it weren’t for a certain J.K. Simmons and his spectacular performance as an intimidating and aggressive jazz instructor in Whiplash.
There were many that could have been included of course, but I will limit my comment to only one in this case. In the female race I would have liked to have seen Tilda Swinton for her quirky yet despicable character in Snowpiercer. Like it happened with me, voters were perhaps not sure if it was her at all given the very good makeup job and the eccentricity of her display. I mean, did we really need to nominate Merryl Streep again even though she is not in contention to win? Instead, Tilda could have easily been recognized for an even stranger character in a much better film.
LAST FEW THOUGHTS
The hands-down favorite of the entire award season for Best Animated Film was The Lego Movie and deservingly so. However, Academy voters did themselves a lot of harm by leaving it out of the race. I seriously do not understand this choice no matter how many times it is explained to me.
Last but not least, I hope the Academy takes a risk and awards Citizenfour with the Oscar for best documentary. Easily the most surprising and controversial of all the contenders.
Note: I will reserve judgement for other important categories like Best Foreign Language Film as I have not seen most of the nominees as of yet.
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on the nominations for this year’s ceremony.