After a genuinely terrific cinematic year in 2013, we were probably due for a letdown in 2014, and we got it. There were of course many very good movies last year, but almost all were flawed in one way or another: too narrow, too unfocused, too emotionally remote, or what have you. I’m not sure whether a single one would have cracked my top five of the previous year.
A weak year can sometimes make for an exciting Oscar race, but that doesn’t seem to be the case this year either. With a few (very notable) exceptions, many of the major awards seem already to be sewn up. In any case, here are my best bets on how the prizes will be awarded Sunday night (as well as how, in a better world, they would be).
I should make my annual caveat here, pointing that a few years ago I explained at length how it was essentially inconceivable that The Hurt Locker would beat Avatar for Best Picture. (Oops.) So those looking to stake their Oscar pools on my picks have no one to blame but themselves if they go belly up. (If, on the other hand, anyone wins a nice pot based on my recommendations, I would be more than happy to accept a 15 percent commission.) I’m only going ten deep, so those looking for picks on documentaries, foreign language film, and technical categories will have to look elsewhere. (Sorry!) Anyone wishing to take a closer look at my track record, can find my last two years’ predictions here and here. Onward…
Nominees: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
First a brief digression: The principal reason that Selma was nominated for only two Academy Awards, and remains far outside the conversation for Best Picture, was its disastrous rollout. The film was completed late, and DVD screeners were not sent to most of the critics associations and guild awards members, giving it little opportunity to build crucial momentum. Moreover, the movie’s creators were clearly caught flat-footed by the brutal accusations of historical inaccuracy—mostly regarding the portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson—that were leveled upon it. That said, the accusations themselves were generally overblown and self-interested, if not flat-out dishonest. (Worst of all of them was the first, a Washington Post diatribe by former Johnson aide Joseph Califano that concluded, appallingly, “The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”)
Why does this matter? Because this will mark the second time in three years that a presumed (and worthy) frontrunner for Best Picture has essentially been torpedoed by political opponents with skin in the game who are from outside the film world. (The last was Zero Dark Thirty, a complex and fascinating picture that never recovered from attacks leveled at it by, among others, John McCain and Dianne Feinstein.) Now, as then, the question of historical accuracy has been secondary when it comes to other nominees (American Sniper and The Imitation Game this year, Argo—which made up its entire final act from whole cloth!—in 2013). If this blackballing of thoughtful films on complex historical subjects continues, well, obviously, we’re just going to have fewer thoughtful films on complex historical subjects and more completely fictional last-second escapes at the Tehran airport. For more detailed defenses of Selma in particular, I refer readers to excellent pieces by Grantland’s Mark Harris and The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson.
But back to our regularly scheduled programming. If Selma won’t win Best Picture, what will? Here I’m going to confidently predict a victory for…. Birdhood! (Or perhaps better, Boyman?) Yes, this is a two-picture race between Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the early favorite, and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman, the dark horse with powerful momentum. (For reasons of space and grammar, I refuse to call Birdman by its full, punctuationally incoherent title.) Both films are unusual contenders for the prize: small, relatively “arty” experiments in cinema (though very different ones), neither of which quite fulfills its larger ambitions. In this sense, they are perfect foils for one another. Whereas both films would probably lose to a more conventional contender, it’s easy to see either of them beating the other.
Even the best predictors are conflicted: Birdman swept the guild awards, but Boyhood triumphed at the BAFTAs. At the moment, the oddsmakers prefer Birdman—and it’s true that the Academy does love movies about the movies—but my gut still says Boyhood. Given the unreliable record of my gut, however, I’m going to ignore it and go with Birdman. But it is, again, very close. Those seeking a truly out-of-nowhere winner could opt for American Sniper (the Academy loves Clint, and the movie’s monster box office can’t hurt), The Imitation Game (though its shameless, Weinsteinian campaign—“Honour the Man. Honour the Film”—doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction), or The Grand Budapest Hotel (what a delight that would be!).
What will win: Birdman
What ought to win: Selma
What was nominated but shouldn’t have been: The Theory of Everything
What wasn’t nominated but should have been: A Most Violent Year
Nominees: Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (Birdman), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
An echo of the above race. If anything, Birdman and Boyhood are more mortal locks in this category than they are in Best Picture, with Iñárritu again a narrow favorite over Linklater. As with the movies themselves, one can easily make a case for either director, for the giddy verve of Iñárritu, or the patient humanism of Linklater. Could there be a split vote? Given how close the races are, it almost seems that there should be a split vote. But I’m going with Iñárritu nonetheless. If you must bet on a dark horse, go with Anderson. Despite its early buzz, Miller’s Foxcatcher never really caught fire. And it’s anyone’s guess what Tyldum is even doing in this category.
Who will win: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (Birdman)
Who ought to win: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (Birdman)
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: Ava DuVernay (Selma), J. C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year), Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)
Nominees: Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
This is always a competitive category, but this year may be as competitive as any I can recall. It’s not hard to come up with five actors who weren’t nominated who one could argue gave performances just as good as (or better than) all of those who were. Let’s try: Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Tom Hardy (Locke), Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year), David Oyelowo (Selma). I would almost suggest busting out the Best Actor category the way the Academy did with Best Picture, except it would have to do the same with Best Actress, which would only further illustrate how many fewer meaty roles Hollywood is offering women than men. But that’s a longer conversation.
In the early going, this looked like a two-man race between Keaton and Redmayne, but the latter has looked like the presumptive winner for a while now. (If you want to pick a real dark horse, there’s Cooper, whom the Academy clearly loves.) It’s a pity, in my view. The Theory of Everything was not particularly good, a biopic of a revolutionary physicist that focused principally on his ability to get it up sexually even when he was in a wheel chair. And while Redmayne’s metamorphosis was remarkable, he was, to a large degree, playing a diagnosis as much as a man—a gambit that has paid off with the Oscars far more often than it should have (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, etc.) Indeed, it’s not hard to envision Redmayne’s performance being incorporated into Robert Downey Jr.’s classic “full retard” speech in Tropic Thunder. (“Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything: Lou Gehrig’s disease? Yes. Retarded? No. Dude couldn’t even talk, but he still revolutionized quantum mechanics…”) Sign me up for a 20-year moratorium on the Academy giving awards for any further roles involving debilitating disease or the Holocaust.
Who will win: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Who ought to win: David Oyelowo (Selma)
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year), David Oyelowo (Selma)
Nominees: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), Reese Witherspoon (Wild)
That moratorium I just mentioned on performers winning for portrayals of disease? Fine, it can start next week. Barring the epic abandonment of probability, and perhaps math itself, Julianne Moore will win her first Oscar for Still Alice on Sunday night. It’s hard to feel bad about this. Moore is one of the great actresses of the last two decades, and has been nominated for four Academy Awards to date without a win. In a year almost as weak for female roles as it was strong for male ones, it’s hard to begrudge her the trophy. That said, the movie for which she was nominated, Still Alice, while well-executed, was a remarkably slender film, like a version of Away From Her (also a portrait of Alzheimer's) or Amour (dementia) stripped of almost all its moral tension and complexity. But there you have it. Wild never took off, Gone Girl has proven an awards non-entity, Felicity Jones would have done better in the supporting category (as Steve Carell would have), and the wonderful Marion Cotillard is a past winner nominated for a movie that no one in the United States saw. We should be glad that the consensus victor is someone as qualified as Moore, both for her solid performance in Still Alice, and for her tremendous career to date. Bet against her at your peril, but if you must, I’d go with Pike over Witherspoon or Cotillard for the (huge) upset.
Who will win: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Who ought to win: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: Emily Blunt (Into the Woods)
Best Supporting Actor
Nominees: Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), J. K. Simmons (Whiplash)
As above, it’s hard to feel bad about Simmons winning, as he is overwhelmingly likely to do. He’s a powerful, versatile, and exceptionally hard-working actor, adept at both comedy and drama. Moreover, he’s terrific in Whiplash. He should be an easy choice over Hawke, a very-good-but-not-quite-great Ruffalo, and Duvall (who should be embarrassed, even at his age, to be nominated for a piece of such overt hackery as The Judge). The problem is that as good as Simmons was in Whiplash, Norton was better in Birdman. His very first scene, in which he casually takes Keaton’s play away from him and reinvents it, was one of those instances of craft so transcendent that it reminds you, with a shock, of the heights that acting can occasionally attain. (Call it the Daniel Day-Lewis Effect.) For a while it looked like Norton could make this a race, but expectations have hardened—as expectations do—and Simmons now appears to be the heavy favorite, relegating Norton to first runner-up in a ceremony that has no runners-up.
Who will win: J. K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Who ought to win: Edward Norton (Birdman)
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: Albert Brooks (A Most Violent Year), Tom Wilkinson (Selma)
Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Laura Dern (Wild), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Emma Stone (Birdman), Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)
Arquette is the clear frontrunner here, and has been from the start. Her greatest challenge was not getting placed in the lead actress category where she would have presumably lost to Moore. She didn’t (despite the L.A. Film Critics Association’s best efforts), and this prize is hers for taking. As it should be. Its title notwithstanding, Boyhood was Arquette’s movie far more than Ellar Coltrane’s: Her travails over a dozen years of (mostly single) motherhood formed both the narrative and moral core of the picture. The other nominees all did solid work, but none were as essential to the success of their respective films. What is maddening is that possibly the best genuinely supporting performance of the year—Carrie Coon’s turn in Gone Girl—was passed over altogether. Anyone who read the novel knows that she brought “Go” to life with vivid perfection. Hell, I might have nominated Kim Dickens's portrayal of Rhonda Boney as well. But these great performances were among the collateral damage in Gone Girl’s rather surprising awards-season collapse. So, again, the statuette is Arquette’s to lose. If you must pick against her, Stone is the best gamble. But it’s still a bad one.
Who will win: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Who ought to win: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Who was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
Who wasn’t nominated but should have been: Carrie Coon (Gone Girl), Kim Dickens (Gone Girl)
Best Original Screenplay
Nominees: Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo), Boyhood (Richard Linklater), Foxcatcher (E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness), Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
Here we have another apparent two-contender race between Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, with the latter a modest favorite. It’s my hope that the Academy will be sick enough of handing out hardware to Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)—damn, I promised myself I wouldn’t be baited into that parenthetical trainwreck—that they will give some love to Grand Budapest, Anderson’s sad, charming, zany tragicomedy. It’s one of the few movies from last year that continues to look better and better over time. Boyhood is definitely a sleeper here, especially if it somehow runs away with the awards generally. Foxcatcher, by contrast, is a substantial long shot, and I’m sure Dan Gilroy is delighted merely to have been nominated for his underrated creep show Nightcrawler.
What will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
What ought to win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
What was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Boyhood, Foxcatcher
What wasn’t nominated but should have been: A Most Violent Year, Selma
Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominees: American Sniper (Jason Hall), The Imitation Game (Graham Moore), Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson), The Theory of Everything (Anthony McCarten), Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
What in the world is Whiplash doing in this category? So glad you asked. Damien Chazelle (who also directed) wrote the screenplay for the feature, then directed a short film excerpted from said screenplay in order to raise funds for the full movie. In a time-travel paradox worthy of Interstellar, the Academy decided that the screenplay was thus an “adaptation” of the short film that had been excerpted from it. You know who’s okay with that logic? Wes Anderson, who hopes to laugh all the way to the Original Screenplay statuette bank.
Whiplash isn’t the favorite here—that would be The Imitation Game—but if you want to pick a fun upset, this might be the place. It’s hard to see another winner in this category: American Sniper has controversies regarding its accuracy (so, for that matter, does The Imitation Game, but its transgressions are at least farther in the past), The Theory of Everything scores second place in the Brit-genius-biopic subgenre, and Inherent Vice is long and woozily cryptic. I’d love to pick Whiplash here just to make things interesting, but The Imitation Game is a relatively big, relatively conventional awards-season contender in a year that saw precious few of them, and the story that it tells is a tremendous one. If that isn’t enough, Weinstein shamelessness may push it over the finish line.
What will win: The Imitation Game
What ought to win: The Imitation Game
What was nominated but shouldn’t have been: The Theory of Everything
What wasn’t nominated but should have been: Gone Girl
Nominees: Birdman (Emmanuel Lubezki), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Robert Yeoman), Ida (Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski), Mr. Turner (Dick Pope),
Unbroken (Roger Deakins)
Unbroken marks Roger Deakins’s twelfth (not a typo) nomination without a single win—a streak that is all but certain to remain (rim shot, please) unbroken this year. As consolation, in a decade or so the legendary cinematographer can star as himself in an adaptation of 27 Dresses entitled 27 Tuxedos or (The Unexpected Virtue of Eat Me, Academy). The only thing that could stop Lubezki from winning for his work on Birdman—of which he was, arguably, the principal star—would be a horrific case of last-year-itis. (Lubezki won his first Oscar last year for Gravity.) But there’s little sign that anyone’s worried about granting him a twofer. Even if he somehow loses, it will probably be to Yeoman for Grand Budapest, a better and more visually memorable film than Unbroken. Besides, the Academy voters no doubt figure they’ll see Deakins here again next year, and the year after that.
What will win: Birdman
What ought to win: Birdman
What was nominated but shouldn’t have been: Unbroken
What wasn’t nominated but should have been: Gone Girl
Best Animated Feature
Nominees: Big Hero 6 (Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli), The Boxtrolls (Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight), How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold), Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore and Paul Young), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura)
Notice anything missing? Let me give you a hint: Fifth in domestic box office last year at $257 million. Let me give you another: 96 percent critic approval on Rotten Tomatoes. There are simply no grounds apart from sheer snobbery on the part of the animation branch for leaving The Lego Movie off the list of nominees. Memo to the judges: The category is best animated feature, not best animation. Your fondness for stop-motion and handcrafted work are duly noted. But another whiff like this and you’re likely to have the award taken out of your hands. Their virtues notwithstanding, The Boxtrolls, Song of the Sea, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya have probably topped out just by being nominated, making this a two-picture race between Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2. And I’m sorry to say, it looks like a race that the charming, inventive Big Hero 6 is going to lose.
What will win: How to Train Your Dragon 2
What ought to win: Big Hero 6
What was nominated but shouldn’t have been: How to Train Your Dragon 2
What wasn’t nominated but should have been: The Lego Movie (duh)