Striving for Greatness: Who Will Win at the 2015 Oscars?

E: This year’s Oscar nominees, all of them, are born along on a relentless tide of ambition. Be someone; do something; make your mark. Figure out how to live, and live up to your promise.  Struggle against your ultimate irrelevance to history. Each of the 8 stories nominated for Best Picture show men (and a few women) struggling to better their own lives or impact the lives of others, from a civil rights leader on the verge of historic change to a lobby boy turned hotelier, from a professor’s wife and caretaker to a college drop out turned professor, from a once-famous actor trying to change his creative legacy to a drumming prodigy hoping to make good on his promising talent, from a scientist attempting to stop a war with a computer to a soldier trying to protect his brothers-in-arms with a sniper’s scope.

Though the critics have been united in their favorite picture of the year, Richard Linklater’s beloved Boyhood, the guilds have spread the love around.  Each of the acting winners will come from a different film, and it’s quite possible that the film that takes best picture could lose all the acting awards and director.  This we know going into the awards ceremony; the acting awards feel pretty solidly set, at least three of the four, but Best Picture and Director are up in the air.  Last year, we waited the entire season for confirmation that Gravity and Twelve Years A Slave‘s picture/director split really would go through; it was an odd separation, but very clear from the critics and guild awards who was going to take home which hardware.  This year, on the other hand, it’s a real toss up.  There’s no consensus, and that makes things pretty interesting.

For your reading pleasure, I have created for you below a comprehensive discussion of the most prestigious Oscar categories.  Who’s going to win the acting awards?  Who will win Best Picture?  Which desperate dreamers, reaching out their hands, will grasp their own little piece of theater immortality?

Best Supporting Actor

And The Oscar Goes To: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

How Certain Am I?: 100%

Perfecting their Selflessly Happy Faces at Home For Their Inevitable Losses:

Robert Duvall, The Judge

Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

Edward Norton, Birdman

Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

Usually, supporting actor is the most abundantly blessed category of the year.  After all, if there’s one thing most movies are lacking, it’s men in fun and colorful small roles, right?  The hero might have to be stoic, but the sidekick?  The supporting categories bring us villains, heroes, mentors, fathers, comics and a wonderful variety of oddballs.  The Academy is normally spoiled for choice.

Not so much this year, though.  This year, we’ve had these five guys, and we’ve had this same result, over and over.  In order to have a real appreciation for the dominance in this category, you need to look at the small precursor prizes, the awards handed out by city-wide groups of critics in places like New York and L.A., sure, but everywhere from Austin to Boston to Dallas-Fort Worth, from Central Ohio to London to Toronto to Santa Barbara and Detroit.  And when you do that, you’ll see that J.K. Simmons has won them all.

The only first-time nominee in the bunch, veteran character actor Simmons (who had a small measure of buzz as the patient if slightly grumpy father in Juno) is this year’s easiest bet to win. Expect a mention – as at the Golden Globes and at least one of the other televised award shows of the season – of his “above average” children, and of course praise for writer director Damien Chazelle and star Miles Teller.  He’s wryly, dryly funny, and has a marvelously sly grin used to effects both comic and (in this film) cruel.  You’ve seen him in bow tie and glasses, avuncular and nerdy on those Farmers Insurance commercials, and loud and barking as Spiderman‘s J. Jonah Jameson; when you see Whiplash (and if you haven’t, what the heck are you waiting for?) you’ll see coiled muscles and tense energy and a terrible, brutal certainty that his vicious teaching methods will produce greatness in the young jazz musicians in his band.  Though the title Whiplash ostensibly refers to a piece of music, Simmons is the whip that strikes his student again and again, single-minded in his tyranny, testing for fault lines, ferreting out unworthiness, pushing to see who’ll break.  It is truly a performance for the ages.

All year, these four men have lost to him, at the Golden Globes, at the Screen Actors Guild, at the Critics Choice.  He won the British Academy Award, too, have I mentioned? So those other four guys have had ample opportunity to school their expressions and look (heck, maybe even become) properly excited for Simmons.

Robert Duvall is something of an outlier on this list; while his competitors have roles in the year’s top films, The Judge is a theatrical flop more akin a really well made Hallmark channel movie than anything else.  Perhaps more significantly, he’s the only winner in the field; his role as the irascible, cancer-stricken judge at war with his sons and accused of a hit and run accident has brought Duvall his seventh career nomination.  Yes. That’s just as convoluted as it sounds, as if the filmmakers thought that piling on maladies and troubles would elevate their cliched source material; on the other hand, the movie has, not only laughs and gorgeous cinematography, but also some beautifully touching scenes between Duvall and costar Robert Downey, Jr, most notably the one where the imperious father falls in the bathroom and the angry son quietly cares for him.

Next in terms of previous Oscar nominations, Ed Norton brings his life time total to three – first for the terrifying supporting role that brought him stardom in Primal Fear, then as a neo-Nazy in American History X, and now as Mike, a brash, egotistical actor who just might save the troubled play at the center of Birdman.  Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, a former superhero actor trying to reclaim his legacy, sees in Mike a bracing honesty and artistry, but whether it’s romancing his new boss’s daughter or getting drunk on stage, Mike’s attempts at authenticity aren’t without cost.  It’s odd, electric work, and Norton’s never afraid of looking ridiculous or unlikable, instead embracing and so almost ennobling Mike’s self-absorption and bravado.

This is the second time Ethan Hawke has been nominated for supporting actor; back in 2001 he rode in on the coattails of Best Actor winner Denzel Washington for Training Day. (Weird Oscar note: Hawke actually played the lead character in the film. The story is told from Hawke’s point of view and gives him more screen time, but since Denzel was the bigger actor with the showier role, and because their PR companies wanted to get both nominations, the two were campaigned in inappropriate categories.  The same thing happened to Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in Collateral a few years later.)  I’ve liked Hawke since Dead Poet’s Society, so it shouldn’t have surprised me quite as much as it did how much I really enjoyed and was moved by his divorced dad in Boyhood. Hawke has an odd genius for playing appealing jerks, and his Mason Senior is no exception; he’s an entertaining playmate when he does show up, trying to treat his young children like little adults, but it takes him most of the film to become the parent his two children needed, when it’s nearly too late.  If Boyhood is ostensibly the story of Mason Jr’s childhood, it’s just as surely one of his father’s climb to adulthood as well.

I love Mark Ruffalo, I truly do, and I’m so happy to see him do well, even if Foxcatcher left me both bored and infuriated.  His work as wrestling coach Dave Schultz was subtle and realistic, which is how Ruffalo rolls even when he’s going Hulk-Smash. Dave defers as much as he can to odd, volatile wrestling patron John DuPont, but struggles to protect his brother and his own wife and children, working to bring them both success and stability in a difficult environment. My favorite scene in the film consists merely of Dave wrestling his brother Mark, played by Channing Tatum; the way the two shake their hands loosely and tap at each other captures the poetry and style of Olympic wrestling beautifully. In a film characterized, even by critics who liked it, as icy, chilly, wearisome and remote, eventual murder victim Dave provides what heart and rationality there is.   I’ve been a fan since You Can Count on Me and swooned for him back in Thirteen Going On Thirty, so like Julia Roberts at the SAG awards, I’ll send a big smile and thumbs up his way, just for making the list.  It’s good to be reminded every once in a while of how terrific some folks are.


Best Supporting Actress

Your Winner: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

How Certain Am I: 95%

The Happy Few With the Privilege of Publicly Losing To Arquette:

Laura Dern, Wild

Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

Emma Stone, Birdman

Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Long time veteran Arquette scored her first notable role as the lead in 1987’s horror classic Nightmare on Elm Street 3; though she won praise and Emmy nominations for her leading role in Medium, and some attention for her work in Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance, Boyhood is Arquette’s first real foray into the awards frenzy. Happily for her, the first nomination will stick.   Sister of similarly famous actors David and Rosanna, the two time divorced single mom plumbed her personal experience to play a woman struggling to raise two children while educating herself, finishing both an undergraduate and graduate degree and becoming a college professor, all the while trying to find personal happiness with a series of less worthy men, alcoholics and abusers and cads.  What she does seems so effortless, so true, and so ordinary that she could be your neighbor, your friend, your buddy’s mom, the woman in front of you in line at the grocery store.  Though we see her live through dramatic times (including a run from her violent second husband) she pulls us inside her story.  She is the anchor, the rock, both for her children and the audience.

Like our presumed winner Arquette, Laura Dern comes from a Hollywood family; her father, Bruce Dern, made the rounds last year for his work in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.  After being shut out of most of the precursor awards, Dern scored her second Oscar nomination in a somewhat surprising upset over two time nominee Naomi Watts, supporting actress winner Tilda Swinton, and recent Oscar favorite Jessica Chastain.  (Chastain, like Amy Adams and Viola Davis, belongs in that category of multi-time nominees who, like Julianne Moore, everyone assumes is going to win someday; 6 time nominee Glenn Close can tell you that such a win isn’t quite that inevitable.)  Though Dern only appears in brief flashbacks, she’s a light as Cheryl Strayed’s mother Bobbi, a luminous figure shining with all the joy her daughter has lost the ability to feel.  Like Arquette’s Olivia, she runs from abusive men and goes back to school, but her journey toward fulfillment is tragically truncated by cancer.

Spritely Brit Knightley scores her first nomination and most awards buzz for a role outside a Joe Wright film (who directed her to applause and acclaim in both Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, though she received a nod only for the former), her second overall and her first in the supporting category.  Codebreaker Joan Clark brings a quick wit and a cheery, determined attitude to her work in a male dominated field (though in secret as the film suggests).  Her compassion and understanding provides an emotional bridge that allows Beneditch Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing to work somewhat more easily with his colleagues and smoothes his way socially; their failed engagement still beats at the heart of the film, and it’s Clark who at the film’s end tries to rally Alan and reminds him of his tremendous contribution to the war effort, one that saved certainly thousands and perhaps millions of lives.  It’s definitely a stereotypically girly role in that way – she’s to look pretty and sound clever (if less clever than the hero) and remind the man how special he is – but not any less well acted for all that.

I feel like the establishment has been itching to reward Emma Stone for something, and found their chance with Birdman‘s high strung, recovering addict working as a personal assistant for her movie star dad.  There’s no shortage of drama as she fights with her father, sneering at his goal of transformation and redemption through the dying art of live theater, pontificates with vacuous conviction about the power of the internet, and hooks up with Ed Norton’s twice-her-age popinjay. Like so many of the nominated characters this year, her Sam is hoping for better, hoping for authenticity, hoping for a measure of truth in a world of self-deceptions. There’s something so marvelously sharp-edged and electric about Emma Stone, and it’s used to great effect in this sizzling film.

And oh, Meryl Streep.  I would laugh and say that there’s some sort of contract out that which requires Meryl to be nominated every other year if she wasn’t so absolutely wonderful and consistently deserving.  And she does, in fact, basically get nominated every other year: since 1979, she’s been nominated a record 19 times.   I say record, but that hardly does her achievement justice; after passing the highest other acting nominations totals (Jack Nicholson and the late great Katherine Hepburn at 12 each) back in 2002, everything she does will be record setting.  For Disney’s twisted musical fairy tale Into the Woods, Streep brings both a wink and softened heart to her role as the wicked witch.

As you can probably tell, the supporting actress field presented more variations than supporting actor, with more names in the mix during the awards season as a whole.  We could have seen Swinton or Watts or Chastain in this number. In fact, there’s no reason Watts couldn’t have scored a nomination for Birdman rather than her more buzzed about turn in St. Vincent. Two names oddly missing from the race, but whose performances were just as moving, original and critically beloved, were Carmen Ejojo as Coretta Scott-King in Selma and Kristen Stewart (yes, I’m completely serious) in Still Alice.  And so in an excellent year, Patricia Arquette’s dominance is a mighty feat, something she should feel a deep and true pride in.  Her speeches so far have been unobtrusive, humble and so generous in praise for her collaborators, especially Hawke, director/writer Linklater, and her onscreen kids, Lorelai Linklater and Ellar Coltrane.

Best Actor

Perhaps Most Likely To Tip the Scales: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

How Certain I Am I?: 60%

If Not Him, Then Who?: Michael Keaton, Birdman

There For the Party:

Steve Carrell, Foxcatcher

Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Here we have the only real acting race of the night, the only place were the precursor awards don’t point to a single result.  We do have a clear favorite, but his victory is by no means assured.

The Academy loves a good disability, and what could be more perfect in the year of the ice bucket challenge than rewarding gentle, youthful Eddie Redmayne for his role as pre-eminent physicist Stephen Hawking?   Not much.  I hope that doesn’t sound glib, but this is a groupthink popularity contest, after all, and in picking these nominees particularly, the Academy basically points out movies they think we in the rest of the country ought to be watching.  They all want to key into the zeitgeist, but from the start, it’s also been about driving up grosses, and finding the most impressive looking way to do that.

Anyway.  It’s incredibly moving to see Redmayne (so effecting a few years ago as Marius in Les Mis) lose control of his body, curled into himself and choose not to give in to despair. Even harder than copying Hawking’s physicality, Redmayne projects his sly wit, his determination, and his  puffed up arrogance without being able to do much more than crane his head, and then not even that.  His is a worthy performance, and is the more likely to take the top prize.

Of course, most people thought that the first time nominee who’d take the prize this year was going to be a different man altogether.  Enough of the early prizes (the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics, etc) — and certainly most of the buzz — went to Michael Keaton who stars in Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s theatrical fantasy.  How’s this for on the nose: former Batman Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, an actor whose luster faded after he turned down the lead role in Birdman 3, refusing to continue the franchise that he’s still most remembered by.  Currently, he’s practically beggared himself to produce (and of course star in) a play based on a Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”  He doesn’t want to be remembered as a callow comic book character; he wants bigger things, he wants respectability within his craft.  (There’s an interesting contempt in the film not simply for critics but also for the audience, all the men and women hoping for a selfie with the has-been hero.)  The flawed striver took home the plurality of critics awards, and a boatload of free press from journalists eager to point out the similarities to Keaton’s own life story.

The Golden Globes considered Birdman a comedy (perhaps because of Keaton’s naked jaunt through Time Square, perhaps due to the magic realism aspects typified by him floating while meditating in the opening scene) ; he won Best Actor in a comedy while Redmayne took Drama. The Critics Choice awards, coming immediately after the Oscar nominations were announced and AMPAS voting opened, confirmed Keaton as the man of the year.  Typically the Globe drama winner is considered the Oscar frontrunner, but Keaton’s buzz (and status as a veteran) still pointed toward him as the likely winner right up until Eddie Redmayne’s name was called at the SAG awards.  Proving it wasn’t a fluke, Redmayne went on to take the BAFTA.  Now, yes, Redmayne’s British, and the film is British, and the British Academy generally doesn’t seem too fond of Birdman, awarding it only for cinematography, but no group overlaps membership so much with AMPAS as BAFTA does. When I talk about buzz, what I mean is that when someone looks like a winner, people vote for them – and because his triumphs occurred during the AMPAS voting period, Redmayne was on display looking like that grateful, humble, adorable winner.

All of which adds up to Redmayne as slightly more likely in an incredibly tight race. If Keaton was the obvious sentimental favorite we thought 6 weeks ago, then he’d have kept on winning, but his support can’t be as solid as we thought.  Now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Keaton triumph after all (especially not after his lovely, heart-felt speech at the Golden Globes), and am sorely tempted to join Entertainment Weekly in predicting him despite the current trend in the race, but in a year where the industry has been spreading the wealth, this is well-respected Theory‘s best shot at a major award, where Birdman contends for many more.  Odd as it sounds, the increase in his film’s standing may actually be working against Keaton’s chances.  Add to that the fact that a SAG winner hasn’t lost best actor in ten years, and the statistical precedents go in Redmayne’s favor.

Cheery, handsome Bradley Cooper bulked up to the point of being almost unrecognizable, especially while wearing a helmet and cheek straps –worlds away from where I first saw him, as Sydney Bristow’s journalist pal Will on Alias.  Despite the joie de vivre and optimistic confidence of his early scenes, especially his charm when courting his wife, there’s a focus and a sort of deadening of self that Cooper practices in his role as the Navy Seal sharp-shooter.  Like most people, I hadn’t been expecting Cooper to score this nomination over the likes of Selma‘s David Oyelowo, The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Ralph Fiennes, Nightcrawler‘s Jake Gyllenhaal (who, particularly, had received nominations at the Golden Globes, SAG and the Critics Choice) or Mr. Turner‘s Timothy Spall, but with his third nomination in as many years, Cooper proves conclusively that the Academy really, really likes him.   Who knows: with a sufficiently showy role, they may actually let him win before he hits fifty!  It’ll be intriguing to see where he goes from here, but you can be sure it’ll be working with top tier directors on prestige projects.

Fun fact?  Cooper’s nominated twice this year, the second as a producer for American Sniper along with director Clint Eastwood.

Sometimes it’s really, really true that it’s an honor just to be nominated, and Steve Carrell fits very well into that category.  By no means assured of a slot, the comedian hustled on to the list for his astounding mimicry of billionaire murderer John DuPont.  The man had an odd cadence all his own; a wooden, disconnected speech pattern; and Carrel simply nails it, unsettling and strange.  He’s helped along, famously, by a fantastic make up job; that new nose takes away the affable comic we think we know, and helps us to see the stilted DuPont instead.  Carrell won’t win (even though his make up artist is another story) but he’s now joined an elite club of comedians nominated for drama, and it just might make it easier for the Academy to take him seriously the next time around.

Finally, there’s Sherlock Holmes himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, playing yet another British hero with a brilliant mind and limited social skills.  This time, however, he’s playing a real genius instead of a fictional one.  In building one of the first real computers in order to break Germany’s Enigma code, Alan Turing arguably both saved Western Civilization and launched the digital revolution, and what did he get for these achievements?  His triumphs swept under the cloak of national security, a conviction for “gross indecency” not ten years after the war he helped end, and a chemical castration (as alternative to prison time) which drove him to suicide.  It’s something in the order of a national tragedy when you think about it, and certainly a crime.  Smart and puppy-dog eager, Cumberbatch and his lovely, pregnant fiancé (or is it wife now?) should be complete charmers on the red carpet.  Hopefully we’ll see some fun and bouncy Cumberbombing.  Benedict has quite a lot to celebrate, and not being in real contention for the win should only make his evening more enjoyable.

Best Actress

And The Oscar Goes To: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

How Certain Am I?: 95%

Basking In The Glow Of Their First Nominations:

Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

You Can’t Feel Too Sorry For These Former Winners:

Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Best Actress is the only race which can be won by someone previously nominated for an Oscar. Julianne Moore is what you call due — one of those consistently terrific and beloved actors that all Oscar watchers expect will win her own statuette whenever she finally lights on the right role. This is her 5th nomination, a total that excludes her brilliant and critically lauded work in Shortcuts, An Ideal Husband, A Single Man and The Kids Are All Right. Having made it very close with Far From Heaven (the most acclaimed performance of 2002), Julianne was slighted in favor of The Hours’ co-star Nicole Kidman, who many felt had been slighted the year before when Haley Berry’s turn in Monster’s Ball beat out Kidman’s lighter but still popular performance in Moulin Rouge.  It can be a frustrating thing when Hollywood decides that an actor or actress is overdue, sometimes rewarding lesser work because of a perceived slight (Russell Crowe winning for Gladiator after being passed over for The Insider and A Beautiful Mind) and other times picking a performance that simply doesn’t stand up to the actor’s amazing curriculum vitae (popular opinion puts forward Kate Winslet in The Reader here, and most egregiously Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman).  Happily, this is not one of those years.  Not only is Julianne Moore generally deserving as an actress, but this performance — as Dr. Alice Howland, stricken with early onset Alzheimers — is worthy of all the attention and praise lavished on it. Driven, ambitious Alice is extraordinary, and extraordinarily portrayed; deeply felt, problematic, subtle, fully realized.  We see how much she has — the worldly success, the happy marriage, the life of the mind — and it breaks our hearts to see it all taken away, piece by piece. Though the film is devastating, we can all feel really good about this one.

Unlike Best Actor, many actresses take the best actress trophy relatively early in their careers; early enough to be established, but certainly not overdue.  In fact, since 1998, seven best actress winners have gotten this win on their first nomination, and two others on their second. (Hilary Swank has won for each of her two nominations during that time period.) Typical of this sort of winners are the two British actresses who’re first time nominees this year, Jones and Pike.  Oddly it’s the younger actress, Jones, who’s been circling awards acclaim for the last few years, after her much buzzed about role in 2011’s aching love story Like Crazy.  (The siblings and other Janeites can pat ourselves on the back for being fans since her lovely turn as Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey back in 2007.)  She took the title role in Ralph Fiennes’ under-appreciated Victorian biopic The Invisible Woman, and made headlines for allegedly turning down the role of Anastasia Steele in 50 Shades of Grey.  Before viewing The Theory of Everything, I somehow formed the expectation that the film would be Stephen Hawking’s story, and that Jones’ steadfast wife Jane Hawking would be more of a background figure, a stock character of strong-willed devotion. And I worried, too, that the film would present a starry eyed romance and gloss over — or even end before — the couple’s divorce.  Instead, it did no such thing, instead presenting a thoughtful vision of a marriage, compassionate to both sides, conscious of the kindnesses and weakness of both parties. Jane is no idealized paragon devoted to her man to the exclusion of all else; she’s an exceptionally strong woman without being a martyr, a supportive believer with a set of ideas very different from her husband’s.

Fellow English rose (or is that sister rose?) Rosamund Pike took a somewhat different path to her Oscar nomination, bursting on the scene with a bravura performance unlike anything expected of her.  Best known as a frankly terrible Bond girl and as sweet, lovely Jane Bennet in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice (costarring with fellow nominee Keira Knightley), Pike launches herself as a force to be reckoned with, fierce and snarling and as committed as it is possible to be.  She’s a chameleon, sly behind that shining wig of sleek blond hair, hiding herself and revealing herself over and over, playing a dizzying number of iterations of herself: Nick’s perfect girl, the dissatisfied Manhattan harpy, the charming suburban best friend, Desi’s ideal high society mate, the victim, the consummate criminal.  Her Amy Elliot Dunne is a monster and a mirror at once, as all the best monsters are; there’s more than a little bit of normal in her, playing the cool girl taken to the ultimate extreme.

Marion Cotillard and Reese Witherspoon each won on their first nominations, though of course Reese was a long established name in America by then, having burst on to the Hollywood scene in the late 90s with unusually respected teen stunners Pleasantville, Cruel Intentions and Election before cementing her place in the cinema firmament in 2001’s Legally Blonde, capturing an Oscar for her role as June Carter Cash in 2005’s musical biopic Walk the Line.  America’s sweetheart returns to the Oscar fold with brutally honest performance as Cheryl Strayed, walking the Pacific Crest Trail to find herself after her mother’s untimely death from cancer.  Oscar loves this kind of gritty role (and loves to see it’s prettiest, most glamorous women scrubbed clean of make up and caked over with dirt) and in another year, Witherspoon might have snagged a second trophy to go with her first.  It’s a crying shame this movie, produced by Witherspoon herself from the acclaimed memoir, didn’t get more notice from the Academy.

I’d been dreading seeing Two Days, One Night.  The French-language drama has the most agonizing premise – a woman trying to convince her coworkers, over one weekend, to give up their yearly bonuses so she won’t get laid off.  I thought it would be an exercise in humiliation, something I’m a bit oversensitive to, and that it would be torture to watch.  This is what I love about Oscar season, though; I delayed, and delayed, and dreaded it, and would never have forced myself to see the movie if it hadn’t been for Cotillard’s surprise nomination, and yet once I did see it, I found it really beautiful, truthful and inspiring.  As Sandra, a troubled mother whose sadistic factory bosses realized that they could do without her while she was on leave for depression, Cotillard excels.  At first it’s hard to watch her delicate sense of honor; she doesn’t want pity, she doesn’t want to beg or pressure anyone, but she and her husband might lose their house if she can’t keep her job.  As she approaches her various coworkers, she struggles with shame and fear and apathy, and there is an improbable beauty in that struggle.

It’s often bemoaned that because modern Hollywood has a deplorable record of making movies starring women, it’s difficult to find five starring roles to fill out Oscar’s slate.  More often than not, the Best Actress performances come from films that aren’t nominated for much, if anything else, and that’s true enough today. (Jessica Lange’s win for her shrill turn in the truly terrible Blue Sky typifies this trend.) This year, however, there’s no pity nomination in the bunch, and plenty of terrific performances passed over, like Amy Adams in Big Eyes, Jennifer Aniston in Cake, and young Brit Gugu Mbatha-Raw who headlined not one but two critically lauded features this year, Belle and Beyond the Lights.  If the Academy were capable of moving past its prejudice against YA properties, they could have chosen from three time nominee and winner Jennifer Lawrence in Mockingjay or Shailene Woodley (who had a near miss with her beautiful work in The Descendants) for The Fault in Our Stars. No, that’s not as many movies as there are with male leads — it shows us an even deeper problem, that Hollywood’s ignoring the good films it does make about women’s lives. In fact, it bespeaks Hollywood and the Academy’s lack of interest in women’s films that two such beautiful, moving and well-reviewed films as Still Alice and Wild were never in contention for Best Picture, and a black mark on this year that literate box office smash Gone Girl (also produced by Witherspoon) was infamously snubbed as well. The Academy didn’t have to fish for these performances; they had to work hard to ignore the films themselves. Even Two Days, One Night, a barely seen foreign language drama, stuck with me in a way that Birdman and The Imitation Game (with 17 nods between them) have not.  So do yourselves a favor if you haven’t already, and use the Best Actress category as a viewing guide.

When she wins, Moore will be flustered and a bit fluttery in her joy; I picture her flapping her hands and rolling her eyes at herself endearingly.

Best Director

And The Oscar Goes To: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

The Super-close Runner Up: Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, Birdman

How Sure Am I?: 51%

Just There for the Free Booze:

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Gosh, this is a tough one.  A really, really painfully tough one.  This year’s slate features auteurs, multi-hyphenates who’re normally relegated to the Original Screenplay, and, obviously, men.  I suppose we should be happy that that not all the men are lily white?  It’s just such a safe slate when there were women, and even women of color, making great films this year; the Academy could have made a little history, but this turns out not to be that year.  The director’s branch is quite a tight boys club, and the most snub-prone of all the Academy’s branches; they like to think outside of the Director’s Guild, big name celebrity-director box (witness their recent exclusions of Ben Affleck, Tom Hooper, Catherine Hardwicke and Quentin Tarantino), but not too far outside of the box.

Both directors in contention here have made remarkable and unusual films, and stand at the head of the line for making unusual choices: Inarritu for the long tracking shots and claustrophobic jaunts through backstage corridors, and Linklater for the patience and vision to film the same story over 13 years.

I’ve long been a fan of Inarritu’s work since his first English language feature, the beautiful 21 Grams, and can’t but admire the stylish magic realism with which he approaches his otherwise earthbound story, Birdman‘s delusions of exaggerated grandeur.  Yes, it’s crass and braying with a swaggering machoismo in a way that’s not uniformly appealing, but there’s an energy and commitment to Birdman that’s hard to dismiss.  On the other hand, Linklater’s work is dreamy for its very ordinariness; it’s as if you’ve lived someone else’s true life.  His work distills the miraculous in the every day; it immerses you with a subtle artistry in authentic human existence. For winning the Director’s Guild Award, Inarritu has to be considered the slight favorite, but Linklater took the BAFTA and the Golden Globe, and can’t be counted out.  Best director used to pair perfectly with best picture, but of late that’s no longer a given. Honestly, it’s my feeling that this is one of those years where no one picture will reign supreme – more like 1996’s triumph for Braveheart over critical favorite Leaving Las Vegas and guild favorite Apollo 13. More often than not, there’s one clear favorite. In fact, Ben Hur, Titanic and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King slaughtered the competition in their years, each taking a record 11 awards; given the distribution of the nominations, that kind of dominance is not even possible this year.  Last year all the precusors and guilds pointed to a clear split pattern, Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuaron as director and 12 Years a Slave for picture. No such obvious pattern has emerged this year. All this is to say that I think it entirely likely voters will look at this year’s competition and say, well, I’ll give the top two prizes to Boyhood and Birdman.  But the trouble there is, if Academy voter A picks Boyhood and Inarritu, and voter B goes with Birdman and Linklater, then who wins?  When the winning director’s name is called this year, there’s one thing I can say for sure: it won’t remove the suspense of the best picture race, whichever man takes it.

Norwegian director Tyldum picks up his first nomination for this most British of features, a big surprise over candidates like Whiplash‘s whiz kid Damien Chazelle, Selma‘s ground-breaking Ava DuVernay, The Theory of Everything‘s James Marsh, and American Sniper‘s Clint Eastwood. It’s also incredibly impressive to see him get this nomination for his first feature in English.  He doesn’t have a chance of winning, but it must be a great thrill for him.  (His is a well-made movie; my issues with it are with its tarted up script rather than any other aspect of the film.)

It’s lovely to see Wes Anderson finally get noticed for something other than his prodigious writing skills.  Moonrise Kingdom remains, in my mind, the superior film, but I’m still pleased to see him honored.  Anderson manages to achieve a dizzying balance of fabulist elements, screwball comedy, and delicate flares of emotion.  No one else can do what he does, or bring his particular sensibility to screen.

Most surprisingly, Bennett Miller makes the list without even directing one of the 8 Best Picture candidates.  It’s rather a puzzle, to be honest, especially given the choice of, say, Gone Girl‘s David Fincher or Wild‘s Jean-Marc Vallee instead.  I adore his Capote and enjoyed Moneyball, but his presence on this list makes me throw up a little in my mouth.  That’s melodramatic, I know, but a duller film I’ve not seen all year.

Best Picture

With the Weight of the Guilds Behind It, The Slight Edge Goes to: Birdman

How Certain Am I?:  52%

Here’s Hoping I’m Wrong:  Boyhood

The Properly Quirky Comedy:

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Critics Also Adored:



The Box Office Champ:

American Sniper

The Pretty Prestige Pictures:

The Imitation Game

The Theory of Everything

I’ve said it over and over again: I’ve been waiting all Oscar season for the Titanic to Boyhood‘s L.A. Confidential, the Braveheart to its Leaving Las Vegas, the King’s Speech to its Social Network.  It’s a time worn Oscar tale: the critical anointed one is overcome by the popular choice, the charming (if more low-brow) alternative.  Without even having seen it, Boyhood seemed too small to me, too unseen, too indie, too intimate for Oscar. It’s a Sundance movie, a film festival movie, but not an Oscar one, right? Where was the crowd-pleasing sentiment?  Where was the epic scope?  What did the movie really have besides the gimmick of filming the same people over 12 years?  Not one critic in praising the film spoke to a storyline that carried through, a point, something that the general public could grab on to.  (Of course once I saw the movie, I got it; there’s something so moving in that passage of time, in the obvious growth and the less obvious changes.)  And so I searched through the season, through all the critics awards.  Could it be Birdman?  No, too insularly Hollywood a movie, and not a hit with audiences; though recent events buck this trend, historically AMPAS has preferred its winners in a more modest sweet spot between blockbusters and flops.  What about The Imitation Game?  World War 2 seems such a good bet, and with the unsung hero persecuted by draconian anti-gay laws, it seemed both reassuringly old fashioned and perfectly of the moment.  And it’s British.  The Academy respects the heck out of the Brits. Then that movie failed to connect with audiences and received only mild praise from critics.  It could have been more a hit — but it wasn’t.

Where’s an Oscar watcher to look next?  Could The Theory of Everything be this year’s A Beautiful Mind, the story of a disabled, odds-defying scientist and his devoted wife with a perfect British pedigree to give the story even more heft?  When the film was marketed as a sweet romance, I couldn’t help wondering whether it would deal with Jane and Stephen Hawkings’ eventual divorce.  It must feel like a cheat, right?  But no.  Perhaps the marketing was a cheat, but the film itself presents a brilliant and complex look at a marriage.  Though it continued to gather support for the acting performances, the movie stuttered at the box office, and the story may have been too morally complicated to hold on to its buzz.

Then audience-beloved Unbroken was sunk by the critics, and Selma (a political masterwork which, like Boyhood, tops this year’s crop of films at 98% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) got torpedoed by allegations of historical inaccuracy.  And, in the latter case, sunk by a dreadful PR campaign that failed to send screeners to any voting body.  AMPAS has never been particularly enamored of Christopher Nolan and unlike many of his earlier films, the critics weren’t even pushing Interstellar; American Sniper seemed stalled, Whiplash too small. What else was there?  When Boyhood took the Golden Globe for drama, I thought that perhaps it was going to hold on to its title for lack of a proper competitor.  I should have remembered that The Social Network had done the same thing – but even when it did, Oscar watchers knew that late-to-open The King’s Speech was coming, knew it was a crowd-pleasing, charming heart-filled film, everything that chilly Social Network wasn’t.  Nothing like that hovered on 2014’s horizon.  It couldn’t be The Grand Budapest Hotel, could it?  Wes Anderson’s charming folk tale took the comedy Golden Globe (presumed to be Birdman‘s), but Anderson had never been nominated for anything other than screenplay before.  Oscar eschews comedy.  Surely that couldn’t be the one.

And then, to my great surprise, the Screen Actor’s Guild went for Birdman.  Birdman?  Why Birdman now?  In the Oscar season, there’s often a gulf between the critics prizes and the Guilds, between the folks who think about movies for their living and folks who make movies for theirs.  Perhaps it’s because SAG loves an actor’s showcase?  Or films about Hollywood and actors?  I tried to write it off as a quirk (after all, actors love their show biz flicks, and SAG historically favors small ensemble casts), but then Birdman took the Producers’ Guild Award and the Director’s Guild and I threw up my hands; the combination of those three is typically unbeatable.  So there it was, I thought.  The shoe had dropped, even if it wasn’t the one I was expecting.  I didn’t have to understand it to acknowledge that it was happening. Even though American Sniper exploded theatrically, hurtling toward the top of the 2014 box office list, it seemed to have entered into wide release just a little too late to catch up. All that was needed to anoint the win was the British Academy Awards, the BAFTAs, the one voting body that overlaps the most with AMPAS, and we would know that the tide had really turned, and that Birdman was this year’s best picture.

And the BAFTA went to Boyhood.

And at home, I started to pull my hair out of my skull.

As Mark Harris has argued brilliantly, Hollywood has of late become overly enamored of films about acting and filmmaking.  In itself this is nothing new, but it is noteworthy that in the previous three years, two of the winners (The Artist and Argo) have been about Hollywood.  In particular, Harris points out that Birdman stands against both critics and against box office, against the new tyranny of the Superhero blockbuster as it stands in the way of great art.  As The Dark Knight showed us, AMPAS may have bent to acknowledge the beauty of one fantasy film, but it cannot stomach superheroes. We might not be perfect, Birdman says of Hollywood — we might, in fact, be miserable disasters — but we’re trying, and that effort should count for something, somewhere.  Our aspiration, our desire for more, our ambitions to bring you truth and insight, they should count for something.  In an article rife with perfect phrase-turning, Harris’ most telling line is this: “Birdman, after all, is a movie about someone who hopes to create something as good as Boyhood.”

And that, I suppose, is the reasoning I’ve been looking for.  Why Birdman now?  Because it’s Hollywood speaking to us, a little more directly than usual.  Is Birdman‘s hero delusional, blind to his real impact on the world around him?  He’s certainly myopic, but yes, he’s also striving, far more aggressively and desperately so than the quieter achievers of Boyhood. When Emma Stone tells her father that his ambitions for his career mean nothing, that like everyone else he doesn’t matter, you can hear the Academy wanting to prove her wrong.   It’s difficult to argue that it’s the best movie of the year, but it does speak to the unofficial theme of this year’s nominees – the struggle to do better than you are, to reach for more, to stand up out of the mud and not simply endure but create beauty.

Coming of age masterpiece Boyhood, if you’ve seen it, is just as much about parenting as it is about youth, as much about family as it is about the titular boy.  There is a strange pleasure in seeing Ellar Coltrane’s haircuts change, see his face plump up and then lengthen, to watch his eyes for his inmost thoughts. The film’s dreamy conversations stick with you, all those meditations on life and Art and love and meaning, the truths that you recognize from phases of your own life.  I really hate predicting against it, especially after the BAFTA win, but when you put PGA and DGA wins together you need to go back to Braveheart in 1995 for a film that lost both and won the Academy award anyway.

Which, of course, is not to say that a Boyhood win can’t happen; statistics mean everything until they suddenly don’t apply.

Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel are tied for the most nominations this year with 9.  Typically the film with the most nominations wins, but in this year of bounty sharing that seems to be less of a predicting factor than usual.  It’s another weird quirk of the Oscars that it’s incredibly unlikely to win Best Picture without an editing nomination, which Birdman lacks.  (On the day of the nominations, wits cracked that perhaps Birdman’s famously long single-take tracks made the movie seem as if it actually was all filmed at once, without use of an editor.)

It might be safer to say that the Academy will spread the wealth, that one film will win Best Picture and the other director – but which one gets which?  You can make an equally plausible case for both directors, and with the pictures so close, even if many voters deliberately mismatch up the two categories, we could feasibly end up with any combination.

The Lesser Categories

The award I feel most sure of Birdman receiving is cinematography; Emmanuel Lubezki is likely to repeat his win after last year’s triumph with Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity.  Guillermo Del Toro, it’d probably be a good idea for you to work with him next; Lubezki’s work seems to have raised the profile, at least, of the other two Three Amigos.  The Imitation Game gets one other great shot at a win with Score; Alexandre Desplat, having received his seventh and eighth career nominations this year, could defeat his own work in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The screenplay categories are surprisingly open at this late date – usually one or even both are clearly locked up early in the process.  Certainly the exclusion of Gone Girl and the preposterous category switch of Whiplash must account for some of the confusion, but still, the major awards giving bodies have failed to agree. Rather to my astonishment, the most likely writer to take Adapted screenplay seems to be Graham Moore, for The Imitation Game, a choice that frankly renders me speechless; I’ll be rooting for Damien Chazelle or Theory‘s Andrew McCarten to upset instead. Fellow WGA winner Wes Anderson has a fine shot at Original Screenplay for The Grand Budapest Hotel, despite stiff competition from Boyhood and Birdman; not only has he won a decent share of precursor awards, but the acceptance he wrote for Ralph Fiennes to give if he won the BAFTA while sitting in L.A. losing the DGA was light and hilarious brilliance.  Like Linklater and Inarittu, Anderson himself is nominated three times tonight as a writer, director and producer, and with a career total of 6 nominations, this might be his category. His quirkily beautiful film also has an excellent shot at production and costume design, although it’s hard to bet against Catherine Atwood amazing fairy tale concoctions in Into the Woods.  (Fun fact: both Atwood and Hotel costumier Milena Canonero have 9 nominations and 3 wins to their names: tonight might break the tie between them.)

As I noted above, it fascinates me that though Birdman is rather famous for its long tracking shots and seamless stream of consciousness feel, it was passed over for the Editing Oscar.  Normally I’d tell you that was a sign that it was likely to lose Best Picture, because the two often go hand in hand, but I’m not sure that odd stat carries weight this year in light of other evidence.  I guess we’ll see!  Either way, Birdman cannot take Editing: ACE Eddie winner Boyhood seems mostly likely to snap up that prize.  If Best Animated Feature follows the Golden Globes and the Annie Awards (the animator’s guild), then that statuette will go to Dreamworks’ gorgeous adventure How To Train Your Dragon 2, and a well deserved triumph it will be even in a year of memorable animated films.

Though the Golden Globes doesn’t have a great track record in this area, they may have found the Best Song winner in Common and John Legend’s “Glory” from Selma.  It would be nice in this evening that looks to spread out the love to see year’s most epic drama to take at least one prize.  With Adam Levine, Jennifer Hudson and Lady Gaga all scheduled to perform, the musical numbers are likely to be a highlight of the night.  Though it’s not always the case (witness Pan’s Labyrinth losing to The Lives of Others) any foreign film nominee that can pull off multiple nods usually takes the big prize, and so Poland’s Ida, the story of a young novice nun investigating her family’s Nazi connections, seems to have the best odds of winning. Russia’s Golden Globe winning Leviathon is its top competition.

The show itself should be fun, despite the best picture nominees not being a particularly popular lot.  Perpetual Tony host Neil Patrick Harris will likely launch the show with an old school song and dance number; his work for both the Tonys and Emmys has been clever and enjoyable.  No, perhaps he’s not quite as memorably funny as revered host Billy Crystal but he sings and dances quite a bit better.  And that, if nothing else, should make for a fun evening.  I’ll certainly be having fun, eating pizza and chocolate-covered strawberries and cheering on my favorites from home.

6 comments on “Striving for Greatness: Who Will Win at the 2015 Oscars?

  1. MMGF says:

    Never, never, never, EVER pay any attention to me again! (Re: Best Director)

    • E says:

      Curse you! But, really, I thought your argument made sense. Linklater DID win way more awards, but the buzz was all Birdman – except Keaton. So strange, that.

  2. MMGF says:

    Nicely done, elsewhere, though! 🙂

    • E says:

      When things started to go Birdman’s way, I thought I was wrong about Redmayne for sure. I know to your sorrow.

      • MMGF says:

        Ahhh, very much to my sorrow. I liked Birdman more than you did, but I didn’t think it was the best picture of the year. That said, I thought Keaton very well may have been the best lead actor of the year.

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