“And the Oscar goes to…” Roughly 40 million viewers will tune in this coming Sunday evening to hear those words and, more importantly, the name or title that follows. In terms of viewers, The Academy Awards may not be the Super Bowl, but they are the crowning jewel of popular media, drawing twice as many viewers as the Golden Globes or the Grammys and nearly three times as many viewers as the Emmys. Many of those viewers will already have their ballots filled out in hopes of winning a friendly wager, or simply bragging rights, among friends or co-workers. I am one of those viewers. So, here I present my thoughts and predictions for this year’s Oscars.
Mine is not a “who should win list” but a “who I actually think will win” list. I like to win, and I try not to let personal preferences cloud my judgment of the way the system actually works. I do my homework by keeping up with the other award ceremonies, some being “worth” more than others, and looking at past trends in the Oscars themselves. And then there’s always a wild card or two: the win no one saw coming. When making my predictions, I try to look at nominated films as a whole rather than isolated categories, considering why some films receive multiple nominations, while others receive only a Best Picture nomination, or why a director is nominated when the picture and actors he directed were not (for more on that, see my post on Selma).
In the early years of the Academy, the categories were much looser than they are now. The first ceremony, held in 1929, honored films released in 1927 and 1928 and had three nominees for Outstanding Picture—the category that would become Best Picture—and three nominees for Unique and Artistic Production—a category that was dropped the next year. The second, third, and fourth ceremonies each had five Outstanding Picture (or Production, depending on the year) nominees, but the fifth ceremony increased the number to eight, the sixth to ten, and the seventh and eighth to twelve. In 1936 at the ninth annual awards, the number was lowered to ten and lowered again in 1944 to five, where it remained until 2009 when the number was increased to ten for two years before settling on the now “between five and ten” rule. This year we have eight.
Why this little history lesson? Because I often try to figure out what would not have made the cut if the Academy were to return to the top five rule that held sway for 65 years. This year’s nominees were all great films: American Sniper, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash. Sure, others could have been nominated, but they weren’t. Deal with it. I’m more interested in what could/would/should have been left out if the Academy were willing to hold their ground. The first casualty would have been Whiplash. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great movie with an amazing, award-winning performance by one of our most under-rated actors, J.K. Simmons. But it’s Simmons’ maniac performance that everyone is talking about. It’s a film that hinges on that performance, and that’s why it won’t win Best Picture this year and would have not even been nominated if we had fewer slots.
The next cut is more difficult to determine because it involves one of my favorite films of the year by one of my favorite directors. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a brilliant Wes Anderson film. But that’s the problem. Everyone who talks about this film generally says something like, “I just love Wes Anderson’s movies. They’re so quirky.” I do love Wes Anderson. His films are a complete vision. He creates a bizarre, unbelievable world and writes bizarre characters who we believe inhabit that world. He’s comedic Kubrick. If you don’t believe me, watch one of his films with no sound and you’ll think you’re watching something framed and shot by the master. He won’t win this year because his appeal is not broad enough. Too many people believe he’s a one-trick pony. It may be a brilliant trick, but it’s still one-trick. This may have also been enough to keep him off a shorter list.
This brings us to the final six. Four of those pictures are out of the running to win this year, but it’s a toss-up as to which one may have been left out of a top five (in fact, two may have been cut if The Grand Budapest Hotel had enough backers). Those four are American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Selma, and The Theory of Everything. Again, these were all great films with great performances, but they cancel each other out because they are all historically situated films based on real people and real events. As different as their individual stories are, the films are too similar in execution. Of the four, Selma is the only one that more or less moves along chronologically, giving us exact dates, times, and official notes from the Bureau of Investigation about King and his movement. The other three play with time by juxtaposing scenes from different points in the protagonist’s story, and moving back and forth in the story’s chronology. American Sniper opens with Chris Kyle on a rooftop, staring down a scope, but then moves back and forth in time to try to get a sense of the boy who became the man, the husband, the father, and the solider who is on that rooftop. The Imitation Game intercuts three separate periods of Turing’s life, asking the audience—like Turing’s machine—to figure out the puzzle. The Theory of Everything saves its time travel to the end, but inserts snapshots of Stephen Hawking’s life—marriage, the birth of his children—throughout and announces these temporal shifts with various color grading schemes. They are all well-made and beautifully rendered, and were this any other year, any of them would have a shot at the top prize.
But it’s not any other year. It’s 2015, and we’ve seen movies like them before—historical dramas that are more artfully realized than standard TV mini-series fare. However, Boyhood and Birdman are two films that are equally well-made, beautifully rendered, and push the limits of the art form. Over the years, the Academy often gets it wrong. They make mistakes and choose films that simply do not hold up over time. Everyone complains (justifiably) about Crash (2005), but does anyone still watch The English Patient (1996)? How did it beat Fargo, a film that now has an award-winning television series based on it? It’s because that was a year that the Academy, as it often does, gave in to “the epic.” Whichever film has the longest running time, the most beautiful, sweeping landscape shots, and an all-star (preferably international) cast must be the best picture. It was a bad call, and everyone knows it. But occasionally the Academy is dead-on in recognizing films that are ahead of their time, films that push the limitations of the medium. Boyhood and Birdman are two such films.
Linklater’s decision to film a movie over a twelve-year period was a risky one. What if something happened to him or one of the cast members? What if the young boy he chose ended up being a terrible actor as he got older? But Linklater pulled it off. The film is remarkable and reminds us just how beautiful film, the actual medium, can be. Linklater knew if he wanted consistency, he couldn’t shoot digitally. So he went old school and the results are amazing. The opening and closing shots may have been the two most vibrant shots this year. The performances were also spectacular. Boyhood was a worthwhile experiment in filmmaking and attempted something no other film had ever done, and it succeeded.
However, it’s the “experiment” that’s the problem. Linklater has always been an experimental filmmaker. From Slacker to Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, the Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy, Bernie, and finally Boyhood, Linklater often has an idea for an experiment he wants to see play out. They aren’t gimmicks. They’re better than that, but the films center around these devices. With Slacker it was following around random people and having no central protagonist. Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly both play with rotoscope technology. His trilogy says, “hey, let’s follow a couple around for a length of time and just listen to their conversation.” Bernie mixes actors with real people in a documentary-style that breaks down where reality/art begins/ends. His two most successful traditional films are Dazed and Confused and School of Rock, while his other traditional films tend to be forgotten: SubUrbia, The Newton Boys, the dreadful Bad News Bears remake. Linklater is at his best when he’s pushing the form to tell his story, but the flaws from his other films are still present. Boyhood is wonderful as a whole, but individual scenes are often too disconnected from the previous or following scenes. Though it covers a twelve-year span, character development happens in jumps and starts or not at all. There are weaknesses in the film that, were it not made the way it was made, would have caused it to be dismissed at just another lackluster Linklater film. It is not the year’s best picture.
Birdman, like Boyhood, is pushing the limits of the medium and doing it in a very conscious meta-method. The meta-nature of the movie has been discussed and is pretty obvious, even to people who haven’t seen the film. An actor who became famous playing a superhero and then disappeared from the screen for a while plays an actor who became famous playing a superhero and then disappeared from the screen for a while. The film is not hiding what it’s doing. But the meta-nature of the movie goes beyond that. It’s more about the nature of art itself and its relationship to reality. Film has often been the lesser-appreciated, little brother to the theater. Theater scholars, critics, fans, actors, actresses, and playwrights have absolutely no problem bashing film at every chance they get. Film stars often feel that they have to prove themselves by trying out the stage and are usually criticized for taking away a spot from a “real actor.” The most common criticism is that what happens on the stage is “real” unlike what happens in a film with its multiple takes.
Birdman calls out the theater by showing that by the time a play opens, it has been through hours, days, weeks, and months of rehearsals, workshops, and previews. The stage is no more real than the screen. They are both artifice. They are simply different mediums trying to convey a sense of life. They use some of the same tools—scripts, lights, actors—but they each do something different with those tools. Yes, theater happens “live” in the moment, but film can capture everything on and off the stage. Set changes, costume changes, backstage romances—nothing is hidden. The audience sees everything and experiences it as one, long take. By shooting the film in this style, Iñárritu is able to use the medium to comment on the message: life is the only thing that’s real. And, you only get one shot. One take. Unlike the theater or film, there are no dress rehearsals, no previews, no second takes in life. Iñárritu tells a beautiful, cohesive, artful story that comments on the nature of the art form itself. This is why it’s the best picture of the year.
So my predictions are Birdman for Best Picture, but I think Linklater will take Director because of the realization of a twelve-year vision. Iñárritu won the DGA, but there are more actors than directors in the Academy and I think they will reward an actor’s director. I don’t think either film will win for its screenplay. The Academy will want to award the also-rans, so will give Best Original Screenplay to Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel, while Adapted Screenplay will most likely go to Whiplash by Damien Chazelle, who also directed the film.
So what about the acting awards? Three of those awards are already a lock: J.K. Simmons for Best Supporting Actor, Patricia Arquette for Best Supporting Actress, and Julianne Moore for Best Actress. The only one that I’m a little put off by is the award for Moore. Not that she doesn’t deserve it, it’s just that the award was won more for the campaign for the award than the performance itself. The film was only given wide release a week ago, so viewership was limited to Hollywood insiders and major film critics. General audiences hadn’t even heard of the film before Moore started sweeping the awards. So, again, it’s a deserving performance, but I wish the film had actually been more widely accessible before the awards.
As for actor, this is the one true race this year. The two front runners are Michael Keaton for Birdman and Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything, who’ve both split most of the major ceremonies up until now. The Academy has a history of rewarding certain performances and performers: actors who play real people, actors who play someone with a disability, and actors who are being rewarded for their “body of work.” There are four “real people” represented this year: Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, Steve Carell as John Eleuthère du Pont, Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. The fact that Redmayne is a real person with a disability may tilt the odds in his favor. But the Academy may decide to go with the body of work and give it to Keaton. The dark horse in all of this is Bradley Cooper. This is his third nomination in three years and the Academy may want to give American Sniper, a film he also co-produced, something. My money’s on the career award and Keaton.
As for the rest of the awards.
Best Foreign Language Film will go to Ida from Poland. It’s the film that has received the most press so far and also seems to have had the widest release.
Best Animated Feature Film should go to The LEGO Movie, but since it wasn’t nominated Big Hero 6 will probably take it.
Best Documentary Feature will go to Citizenfour. Its style will most likely elevate it above the others.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to catch the short films this year, so my predictions are based on buzz. Best Documentary Short will probably be “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” but I wouldn’t count out “Joanna.”
Best Live Action Short Film will most likely be “Parvaneh,” but the “cuteness” of “Boogaloo and Graham” might boost it.
Best Animated Short Film will probably be “Feast.” It’s cute. It has a dog. It’s Disney.
The music in this year’s films was again excellent, but I think Jóhann Jóhannsson will take Best Original Score for The Theory of Everything. It’s the most sweeping and orchestral of the all the scores. Best Original song will, unfortunately, be Selma’s only win with John Legend and Common taking it for “Glory.” “Everything Is Awesome” is fun but I don’t think it stands a chance, unless voters see it as a protest vote for The LEGO Movie being left out. A dark horse could be Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” Like Keaton, it could be seen as a career award.
The technical awards are always tricky because it’s the only place that big budget blockbusters stand a chance of winning, but voters still tend to like to vote for the more artful fare. I think American Sniper will take both Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. It’s a hit film with a message starring an Academy Award nominated celebrity and directed by an Academy Award winning celebrity.
Earlier I mentioned that Wes Anderson creates filmic worlds that are a complete vision. For that very reason, I’m going with The Grand Budapest Hotel to win Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling—come on, did anyone really know that that was Tilda Swinton under all of that makeup?
Emmanuel Lubezki has already won the American Society of Cinematographers award for Birdman, which makes him the frontrunner for the Oscar. But, I would like to see Roger Deakins finally win. He may be the best cinematographer working today. Deakins has been nominated twelve times (twice in 2008 for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men), but has never won.
Best Film Editing will most likely go to Boyhood for the daunting task of having to edit together twelve years of footage.
Finally, Best Visual Effects will be the token award for Interstellar. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might slip in, but the three superhero films will cancel each other out.
Those are my picks. Let me know what you think.