Picking Winners at the 87th Annual Academy Awards

Originally posted at BuffaloVibe

Things look pretty cut and dry where the Academy is concerned in 2015. The Oscars are always a somewhat watered-down look at what really mattered in the past year of cinema and this installment is no exception. In fact, it may be all water at this point.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be some intriguing surprises in the second-tier categories like Best Animated Feature (I really hope How to Train Your Dragon 2 loses to one of the other much more aesthetically and conceptually unique nominees) or Short Film Animated (Pixar’s Feast is great, but there are some treats alongside it). I couldn’t even begin to guess who’s winning Best Score now that critical favorites Birdman and Gone Girl are absent.

Where the boredom sets in is with the big awards everyone watching cares about. Sadly, these—Best Supporting Actress/Actor, Best Leading Actress/Actor, Best Screenplay Original/Adapted, Best Director, and Best Film—are almost all guaranteed. Hopefully a few curveballs get thrown into the mix for the sake of entertainment, but I’m not sure reality will comply.

For those handicapping at home, here are the guesses of Buffalo film fanatics Christopher Schobert, William Altreuter, and myself.


Jared Mobarak:

Does anyone really think J.K. Simmons is going to lose this race? He’s been the frontrunner since January—of last year—after Whiplash debuted to an Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. To me, the only person who could give him a run for his money would be Steve Carell from Foxcatcher. Alas, Sony Pictures Classics pushed him into Lead, stealing a spot that should have been either David Oyelowo or Jake Gyllenhaal’s. But I digress.

Simmons was outstanding and has been scooping up prize after prize this awards season. It’s been a long time coming for the character actor and I’m glad he should finally get his due. Next stop is a cameo in a Quentin Tarantino flick … but perhaps that’s a few years down the line.

As for the balance of the category: I had completely forgotten The Judge earned a nomination. Sadly, Mr. Robert Duvall, I did not catch your performance. What looked like a made-for-TV movie at best, I honestly didn’t think I would need to bother. If anything, this inclusion may speak more to the category’s weakness than his performance.

My number two would be Mark Ruffalo who killed it in Foxcatcher, embodying the wrestler demeanor as well as the sibling love perfectly. Edward Norton was a hoot in Birdman and could be a dark horse. If anyone might surprise come Sunday, though, it’s got to be Ethan Hawke. Not because he was great in the film—he was good. His shot comes if the Academy declares Boyhood a sweep.

Frankly, that mindset aside, voters will still feel compelled to give it to Simmons regardless.

A couple others deserve mention, namely Logan Lerman and the late Gary Poulter. The former is a revelation in Fury—itself a wonderful ensemble where the younger actor shines bright. The latter exemplifies the once-in-a-lifetime alignment of stars that occurred on David Gordon Green’s underrated Joe. Poulter wears it all on his sleeve with a performance as much a cathartic look back on his own life as it was a thespian bringing his script to life. I would have loved to see what, if anything, he would have done next.

Christopher Schobert:

Sigh. I hate being boring. But it’s J.K. Simmons. We all know that. We all pretty much agree he is deserving. On to the next one.

William Altreuter:

Oh, good—I get to be the contrarian. Sure, J.K. Simmons has been generating Oscar buzz for a year, but if he wins for this it’ll be one of those awards that we’ll look back on in years to come with some puzzlement. Sure, he gave a great performance, but is Whiplash really the movie the Academy is going to strew rosebuds over? Duvall’s issue is the Streep issue: when you are that good, movies like The Judge aren’t what you win prizes for. Was he the best thing in the movie? Yeah, I suppose, but he is Robert frickin’ Duvall. He’s supposed to be the best.

Funny thing about Edward Norton—he immerses himself so completely in his parts that I frequently find I’ve taken his excellence in a given movie for granted. Birdman is helped by him, but I don’t see his performance as an award winning one. Ethan Hawke has the same problem as Patricia Arquette—the gimmick swallows the performance. I see the award going to Mark Ruffalo. Foxcatcher is a tricky movie, and Steve Carell’s rubber nose didn’t help, but Ruffalo brought the movie to where it needed to be in every scene he was in.


Jared:

While 2015 has proven somewhat lacking for quality Lead Actress roles—I’ll talk about that shortly—it has been spectacular on the Supporting front.

As with Actor, though, no matter how many great roles were left off the list, my favorite performance is the frontrunner. This race is Patricia Arquette‘s to lose. She is the steadying force of a sprawling movie led by non-actors, a mother trying her best to provide a safe environment for her kids over a span of twelve years. No matter your thoughts on the movie itself—I loved it but still find room to supply the overrated label—you cannot deny her crucial importance to the whole.

The rest fall in the following order: Emma Stone, Laura Dern, Keira Knightley, and Meryl Streep.

Starting from the bottom, Streep is the odd woman out. She’s great as the fairy tale witch, but I’m not sure the role is worthy of a nomination no matter how effective the portrayal. It seems more proof that all Meryl has to do is act in one film a year to find herself in award conversations come winter.

Knightley, on-the-other-hand, deserves her spot. Her turn in The Imitation Game is a integral part of the film and a character as progressive onscreen as her male counterpart—a female mathematician blindly oppressed alongside his gay man left in obscurity for far too long. I may have rather seen Jessica Chastain from A Most Violent Year or even Kaitlyn Dever from the misguided Men, Women & Children, but Knightley’s inclusion on the list is definitely an appropriate substitution.

Where Stone and Dern are concerned, both would have a shot at claiming gold if not for Arquette due to their consistently stealing scenes no matter the brevity of screen time given. There’s power behind every word they speak, an economy of language made more important by their emotive delivery. It’s a huge long shot, but I wouldn’t be angry if either found a way to squeak by victorious.

Christopher:

The boredom continues! My pick would be Emma Stone, but you nailed it again: Patricia Arquette wins.

William:

In many ways this is my favorite category every year, because it is where really quality work gets recognized. Supporting Actor is frequently a lifetime achievement award, and the Leading Role awards sometimes seem like acknowledging a performer who did a great job with a gimmick—playing someone in a wheelchair who is not Professor X, say, or playing a person who is not movie star beautiful.

Working backwards, Meryl Streep isn’t going to win a record sixth statue for Into the Woods. There is a Mamma Mia joke in here that I’m not going to make, but I will say this—Streep is always great, but she needs to do something surprising at this point, and we all know that Sondheim is too easy a fit for her. I’ll talk more about Boyhood later (infra, as we lawyers say), but it seems to me that Patricia Arquette is liable to be snubbed: this movie is not the sort of thing where supporting players win prizes because it was the concept that was amazing—the performances sort of slipped into the background.

Emma Stone may get swept up in the Birdman love. Laura Dern was good, because Laura Dern is always good, but Wild is kind of a solo performance by Reece Witherspoon. I think one of the reasons Dern seemed so good was that it was a bit of a relief to see someone else in the movie. I’d give her an Honorable Mention for being in a movie that passes the Bechtel Test.

That brings us to Keira Knightley, who is (a) due, and (b) the glue that held The Imitation Game together. Congratulations Keira.


Jared:

Now this is a stacked category. I can think of at least five more performances that could very well have been included instead of the equally worthy gentlemen above.

Jake Gyllenhaal from Nightcrawler was my personal favorite—a creepy turn that amplifies the type of oddball characterizations he’s been doing forever. Lou Bloom was even better suited to his deadeye stares and slack-jawed smiles than Donnie Darko.

Alongside him on the outskirts are Jack O’Connell’s fierce turn in Starred Up; David Oyelowo’s brilliant channeling of Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma; Brendan Gleeson’s complex priest in Calvary; and the grunts of Timothy Spall throughout Mr. Turner. Each deserves mention.

Of the actual nominees, I don’t think there’s much question about the winner. Jupiter Ascending aside—although I found him fantastically campy in it—Eddie Redmayne is about 80% assured of taking home gold for his rendition of Stephen Hawking. The Academy eats up roles like this and they probably aren’t going to provide an exception to the rule come Sunday.

If they were, however, I’d give Michael Keaton a 19% chance of stealing it away. A victory for the former Batman playing a variation of his own life’s theme in Birdman wouldn’t be a “career vote” either as he legitimately owns the screen in that film. There would be a little of that desire to award him for a long and fruitful run, but not enough to earn an asterisk.

So, for those doing the math at home, that leaves 1% for Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s great in The Imitation Game and needs to be on this list, but a win for him is more a win for Alan Turing. There’s been a lot of media buzz surrounding the late mathematician and his sexual orientation—which led to his tragic demise—so it will be fresh on the minds of voters. This is unlike Bradley Cooper and Steve Carell, both delivering memorable turns in otherwise mediocre films (the latter of which I’ve already stated should have been a supporting nod).

Christopher:

Jared, I agree with your reasoning. I attended the first press screening of The Theory of Everything at TIFF, and I remember, about halfway through the film, thinking, “Well, here’s the guy to beat.” And it is hard not to call him deserving. Personally, I would love to see Keaton take this. But I just don’t see it happening.

William:

I suppose I’ve tipped my hand. I thought Steve Carell was the weakest link in Foxcatcher. In The Theory of Everything Eddie Redmayne gives the kind of performance in the kind of part that the Academy loves to give prizes to (except for actors who are playing Professor X). (I am going to stop using that joke now.) Maybe it’s just me, but movies about mathematical geniuses seem old. I say Nay. I hated everything about American Sniper and predict that the Academy’s politics are close to mine.

What that leaves is Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, but Cumberbatch is hardly a winner by default: he is thrilling to watch in everything I’ve seen him in, and is stone cold terrific in a movie that captures the present zeitgeist quite nicely. I agree with your take on the upset special, Jared—Birdman will get a lot of love, and Keaton’s return is something a lot of people are glad to see. I can envision a statue for him based on the idea that the voters want to see more of him, and reckon that positive reinforcement is the way to get that.


Jared:

When I said it was a weak year for Lead Actresses in 2015, I didn’t mean because of the performances. I was talking about the dearth of quality parts out there. This is a prevalent issue nominee Reese Witherspoon has brought up in interviews when expressing exasperation that the same group of genius women is all vying for but a handful of roles. She’s begun producing films as a result in order to help increase the opportunities.

Well, Reese has done it by facilitating her own award-worthy turn in Wild—my second favorite performance of the year. A raw and visceral portrayal of Cheryl Strayed in isolation against the elements, the journey onscreen is as emotional and psychological as it is physical. And she fearlessly dives in headfirst.

Marion Cotillard in Two Day, One Night is equally powerful. If not for the fact she already has an Oscar on her mantle, I’d almost give her a leg up. But she does and that unfortunately knocks her down a peg in voters’ minds. Especially since a win here would be two for two in foreign language films—something a steady stream of remakes proves Hollywood isn’t too keen on promoting.

Similarly, Felicity Jones and Rosamund Pike find themselves on the outside looking in mostly because this is their first time out. Jones is a young talent with many great years ahead of her and Pike—while already successful—should use Gone Girl to propel her towards more challenging and rewarding parts in the future. I don’t doubt both will find themselves with at least one more nomination a piece before retiring.

While these latter two actors are getting recognition, I’d place a few other superb turns that aren’t alongside them. Joining Jones and Pike in the category’s second-tier are Amy Adams’ Golden Globe-winning role in Big Eyes, Essie Davis’ underrated work in The Babadook, Jenny Slate’s refreshing Obvious Child, and Jennifer Aniston’s solid centerpiece in Cake. Sadly, that’s the extent of bona fide homeruns from a very male-dominated year at the movies.

Which of course leaves Julianne Moore at the top with her depiction of Alzheimer’s in Still Alice. I have my reservations of the film itself, but none are the fault of the woman carrying it upon her shoulders. Her Alice Howland is a touching glimpse at one of mankind’s worst horrors, nuanced throughout and loud only when necessary. Like Redmayne and his cultivated disease, Moore finds herself exactly where the Academy wants her. I think six times is the charm.

Christopher:

This could get very boring—I’m in agreement here, as well. Moore seemingly has this wrapped up; I’m not sure there is even an outside chance of an upset. My personal pick would be Cotillard, but let’s be honest: It ain’t happening. And considering how strong Moore has been for years, including last year’s Maps to the Stars, I cannot help but get behind this one.

William:

This is a two-person race. You’ve gotta figure there’s a lot of respect out there for Reece Witherspoon going out and making a movie that lets her do the things she did in Wild. And I liked Wild—I have a feeling that it is going to be the favorite movie for a lot of people years from now, and that is due in no small part to Witherspoon’s performance.

On the other hand, how many Oscars has Julianne Moore been nominated for that she deserved to win? All of them. Every time Moore has made the list she deserved to win. She has done everything: Rom-Com, funny accents, Art Films, cult films, drama. She has been nominated five times. This is her year.


Jared:

I’ll admit that the Academy got this category right. Besides one of the many taut A24 films this year—Under the Skin, Locke, A Most Violent Year—this is a solid bunch. Maybe Only Lovers Left Alive could have snuck in. Perhaps even an indie puzzler like The One I Love or Coherence?

Of the nominees, though, I want to throw both Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher out of the running. The former from Dan Gilroy is an entertaining nightmare and the latter from E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman a solid suspense drama that might be a little too matter-of-fact. To me the performances in both are what got them this far.

Birdman has been getting a huge push of late, but I don’t really see it winning either. If anything that quartet’s script is too on the nose, a blatant circle of metaphor and duplicity that we’ve seen before. Writing it in a way so the transitions work in their faux seamlessness is a feat worthy of mention, but the mechanics of that go towards the director and cinematographer. (As an aside, is it possible Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t repeat?) So maybe it’s a dark horse, but I don’t quite see it.

To me the only film with a chance at upsetting what I believe will take the prize is Boyhood. The fact Richard Linklater wrote it over twelve years, needing to account for changes in the actors’ personalities and each subsequent year itself, cannot be diminished. There’s some repetition of themes throughout, but not enough to take it out of the running. And as I said with Supporting Actor, Boyhood could run the table. If it does, Screenplay will fall in line.

Since I don’t think that will happen, my choice is The Grand Budapest Hotel. This isn’t because I loved the film—I actually think it was one of Wes Anderson‘s weakest. Moonrise Kingdom was much better and possibly should have won in its own right, but everyone seems to have eaten Budapest up. It is hilarious and sprawling and fun. It also doesn’t hurt that Anderson has still yet to win an Oscar.

Christopher:

Yes, Wes Anderson will win his first Oscar, and we should all be excited about that. Birdman and Boyhood are threats, but as you point out, Budapest has received near universal praise on all fronts, including the Academy.

William:

This gets tricky. I think Boyhood gets slighted because it is more of a concept than a screenplay (at least, one could think of it that way). I think Nightcrawler is really, really well done. I think The Grand Budapest Hotel was a glorious candybox. I think the sexual politics of Foxcatcher will sink it. And I think Birdman wins. A movie about actors! How great! Who could resist it, especially when it is actually really good.


Jared:

In contrast to Original Screenplay, the Academy went super safe with Adapted. While Jason Hall‘s American Sniper, Graham Moore‘s The Imitation Game, and Anthony McCarten‘s The Theory of Everything are good, Sniper and Theory are serviceable at best. Only The Imitation Game truly gives us something emotional to accompany the true-life tale—whether the flashbacks or the way it condenses its history. Theory is by the numbers and Sniper is hindered by its Sniper vs. Sniper subplot (one I’ve read was actually Steven Spielberg’s idea).

That doesn’t mean the trio has no shot at winning, though. I’d give them all a better chance than Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Inherent Vice. He surely did a great job mining what I’ve heard is a dense novel, but it still feels bloated on screen. As an advertisement for the book, showing us a taste of the chaos that happens in its pages, it’s a delight. Otherwise it’s too obtuse and jokey to really get a majority of voters on its side.

My hope, then, is that Damien Chazelle‘s Whiplash beats them all. Being in this category is weird due to the rules stating that expansions from previously produced short films are adaptations, but it could give it a leg up by being so unique amongst biopics and a novel. You cannot deny its craft either both in structure and dialogue. I have it as my frontrunner, but only by a hair. Theory of Everything could totally eek by, but I don’t want to jinx Chazelle by saying it surely will.

What was left off? Much like Whiplash, I think the reworked short to feature Obvious Child could have been included in the mix. One of two doppelganger flicks in The Double or Enemy would have fit nicely too. Wild and A Most Wanted Man are also great. But the one I really wanted to surprise was Edge of Tomorrow trying to make good on Groundhog Day‘s snub years ago.

Christopher:

The winner here will be one of the category’s least-deserving nominees: Graham Moore for The Imitation Game, a handsome, entertaining, wholly unexceptional film. It will likely miss out on all the biggies, but I believe it gets some love here. My upset pick would be Jason Hall for American Sniper; I’d love to see Chazelle take it, but do not see it happening.

William:

No way Hollywood gives this prize to American Sniper. That is too fraught, and you know what? I’m fine with that. I thought it was a despicable movie. I’m rooting for Inherent Vice, but Thomas Pynchon will probably not be in the audience, and both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are more likely. That said, I think this is where Whiplash gets its prize. And I agree that Wild deserved consideration here.


Jared:

Just like with Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow in 2013, the big story with the Directing category in 2015 concerns its glaring omission. Would Ava DuVernay have won? No. But she should have been included. I’ll be the first to say I really enjoyed what Morten Tyldum did with The Imitation Game, but DuVernay flat-out beats his effort on Selma. Do I think her absence was racially or gender motivated? No—at least not maliciously so. I’d love to see the ballot count showing how close she came.

As for the rest, I think the Academy was spot-on. Wes Anderson‘s Budapest consists of a lot of moving parts and he places them together flawlessly. His victory is in the nomination, though, as voters probably think it all quaint just like most viewers. I honestly don’t know if he’ll ever win, but that doesn’t discount his talent. He just isn’t Academy material.

Bennett Miller is, however. He is exactly what the Academy loves and it shows by him getting a nomination despite Foxcatcher missing out on Best Picture. The directing might be the best part of the movie even with its stellar acting, but I still don’t see it happening.

No, this fight is between Richard Linklater and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film that took twelve years to make against the one made to look like it’s one continuous shot. Gimmick versus gimmick in a battle to the death.

I love Iñárritu. To me he hasn’t made a film that wasn’t a masterpiece of cinematic wonder—Babel‘s manipulations be damned. Birdman is a very industry insider film and I believe it has a lot of force behind it with voters, but if they award Lubezki the Cinematography prize they’ll feel their job is done.

So the winner is Linklater and it is very much deserved. The sheer audacity to begin this film with so many unknowns is a feat in itself. The way he was able to make it all work by finding the exact emotional moments from each year to cohesively speak so universally is one for the ages. Boyhood is all about its leader.

Christopher:

Okay, finally a break! My pick, honestly, would be Linklater, who made a very good film under very difficult circumstances. I think the “gimmick” word is getting thrown around too much here, but even if it is a gimmick, it’s a damn good one. But I think the winner will be Iñárritu. Why? The technical achievement is more dazzling, and the style and subject matter of Birdman will resonate more strongly with members of the Academy than Boyhood.

William:

I’d say that Richard Linklater walks away for Boyhood. How could it not? It is a unique accomplishment, and utterly audacious in both concept and execution. In a way, Best Director is the award for films that are too – what’s the word? Cerebral? Artistic? – for Best Picture, and that description fits Boyhood to a T.

Birdman is the other live contender. Foxcatcher and The Imitation Game seem too conventional for Best Director honors, and although The Grand Budapest Hotel is absolutely a director’s movie, it doesn’t feel to me like the movie Wes Anderson should win for.


Jared:

And that brings us to Best Picture—a fight that should play out very similarly to Best Director even though The Imitation Game won the audience award at TIFF like 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire before it.

If you had asked me three months ago I might have said it and Selma had a real chance. Both are perfectly suited for this victory in their message, craft, and acting. But talk of late pitting Boyhood against Birdman with little mention of anything else seems to have inked the writing on the wall.

American Sniper was a surprise nomination for me over Foxcatcher and that’s as far as it goes. The Theory of Everything is a prestige pick and well made enough for the nod but nothing else. Budapest is loved by many and a lot of fun, but I don’t see it. And Whiplash? While it is my favorite of the year and I’m ecstatic it got this far, the indie that could ultimately won’t.

Leaving it to Boyhood and Birdman cements 2015 as a year of certainty and few surprises, yet I can’t help scratching my head as to who will come out on top. Boyhood has a lot of momentum and has remained on top for so long it’s hard to imagine it losing. It may come down to whether or not enough voters took the time to sit through its three-hour runtime like so many vocal prognosticators have.

In contrast Birdman is flashy, fast-paced, humorous, satirical, and relatable to so many with a voice that actually counts. I don’t know if it would be considered a surprise or not, but I believe Birdman exits with the big prize.

Christopher:

Back to agreement … I would not have predicted it a few months ago, but Birdman will win. Its recent run of victories seems to assure this, but I also feel, as mentioned in the context of Best Director, that its subject matter has a greater impact with the “Hollywood crowd” than Boyhood’s does. I loved Birdman, but we must be honest and admit that it tells voters many things they love to hear. (Acting is hard! Critics are jerks!) That it does so in such a visually compelling way seals the deal. Birdman is your Best Picture.

William:

This list makes me feel kind of sick, like an ice cream Sundae blended with a shrimp cocktail. American Sniper is a version of Americans that makes me want to move to Canada—or the moon. Birdman? I mean, I liked it, I thought it was smart, I’m glad it exists, but do we really live in a world where a movie about an actor’s existential crisis is the best movie of the year? It seems to me that calling The Grand Budapest Hotel the best movie of the year somehow diminishes it. I would be happy to see it go to Boyhood, but it won’t.

Whiplash seems like the sort of small, intimate film that wins festivals but isn’t big enough to be Best Picture. Both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything seem to me to be too conventional.

What I am leading up to, I guess, is that Selma deserves this. It is a tough movie. It obliges those of us who are white and relatively secure in our lives to consider that the America it shows us is far from the America that a shocking number of people believe they live in. It is epic in all the good ways, and intimate as well.

Probably what this means is that one of the movies about English people will win, and that’s fine—it’s not a Presidential election we are talking about, or a school board election either. It’s only movies, after all. I’d watch any of these on a slow night at home with Netflix—except for American Sniper.



Jared Mobarak

Supporting Actor:
J.K. Simmons

Supporting Actress:
Patricia Arquette

Lead Actor:
Eddie Redmayne

Lead Actress:
Julianne Moore

Original Screenplay:
Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
(The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Adapted Screenplay:
Damien Chazelle
(Whiplash)

Director:
Richard Linklater
(Boyhood)

Best Picture:
Birdman


Christopher Schobert

Supporting Actor:
J.K. Simmons

Supporting Actress:
Patricia Arquette

Lead Actor:
Eddie Redmayne

Lead Actress:
Julianne Moore

Original Screenplay:
Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
(The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Adapted Screenplay:
Graham Moore
(The Imitation Game)

Director:
Alejandro González Iñárritu
(Birdman)

Best Picture:
Birdman


William Altreuter

Supporting Actor:
Mark Ruffalo

Supporting Actress:
Keira Knightley

Lead Actor:
Benedict Cumberbatch

Lead Actress:
Julianne Moore

Original Screenplay:
Iñárritu, et al.
(Birdman)

Adapted Screenplay:
Damien Chazelle
(Whiplash)

Director:
Richard Linklater
(Boyhood)

Best Picture:
Selma

 

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