OSCAR COUNTDOWN 2015: Best Picture, Director & Final Predictions

Tonight’s it. After tonight, I’ll still be able to say Fifty Shades of Grey is better than half of the Best Picture nominees, but not with the same snarky satisfaction. You know, stuff that’s relevant now, and not simply a long drawn out appreciation of work whose time has come and gone. Mind you, I’ll be thinking of some of these films well beyond tonight, but I won’t be thinking about them because of tonight. So let’s dig in and bring this to a finish

BoyhoodBest Director

This and Best Picture are so conjoined at the hip this year that’s difficult to tell whether they’ll go in step, or diverge between contenders. Two have emerged as the frontrunners in both categories, though, given this mostly varied slate of Director nominees, that need not have been the case. The worst self-sabotage the Academy can commit tomorrow is handing the Director Oscar to the only nominee that feels like an irksomely generic Oscar candidate. The Imitation Game falls into a similar category as The King’s Speech, meaning it’s a fast-talking, heart yanking British biopic whose visual instincts are fairly muted. Morten Tyldum is the lone nominee who feels like he struggles to find something meaningful to say with his story beyond simply representing it.

Bennett Miller is probably even further off from winning, but it’s the disciplined craft and suffocating atmosphere of Foxcatcher that’s ensured it a place here at all. The film clearly wasn’t too far off the Best Picture ballot, presumably only offset by its ostensibly merciless tone. It’s to Miller’s credit that he finds avenues for bleak humor amidst the dark, pale cracks of America’s mid-80s corruption.

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest HotelMiller’s brand is roughly known, but not nearly as emphatically as Wes Anderson’s. The visually distinct auteur breaks his usual confinement in the screenplay categories to prove a major contender in the director race. He’s overdue, even if his work’s never been nearly as refined as The Grand Budapest Hotel, at once his most bursting-at-the-seams work and his most economic one. Not an element here isn’t working extraneously against the greater whole, a previous tendency distracting Wes’ previous films.

But there are two frontrunners locked in combat here, as they have been for much of the season. Given the way the Academy often veers in this category, you’d expect the frontrunner to be Alejandro G. Innaritu, whose vision for Birdman is the most reliant on bravura tactics and audacious decisions. I, for one, am in the corner of thinking that his technical ingenuity distracts from how undercooked, and gratuitously broadened, Birdman‘s ideas are. In any usual year, I’d expect his dominance here.

Alejandro G. Innaritu, BirdmanBut this is not a usual year, and I’m expecting more and more a tight split between Best Picture and Best Director. You wouldn’t think that Linklater would be at an advantage here instead of Best Picture, given the mellow, ostensibly unobtrusive quality of his work. It’s his mind-blowing patience, however, that’s often seen to be the reason for Boyhood‘s success. “Anybody could’ve followed the same actors for 12 years,” has been the lazy argument against him, but that’s so quickly countered by the fact that he not only did it – a frustrating and anxiety-ridden mission for anyone – but did so without ever losing focus of the story he’s been telling. It’s the most sensitive, open-minded of the director’s work, and I expect he’ll be appreciated for it in some way tonight.

Will Win: Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Should Win: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

DirectorDream Oscar Ballot

  • Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin
  • James Gray, The Immigrant
  • Jennifer Kent, The Babadook
  • Richard Linklater, Boyhood
  • Lars von Trier, Nymphomaniac

Runners-Up: Ava DuVernay, Selma; Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher; Jesse Moss, The Overnighters; Pawel Pawlikowski, Ida; Andrei Zvyagintsev, Leviathan

In a category where there’s already more vision than there’s often been in the past, I still wish their tastes ran a little more alternative. Three out of five of these directors are men tackling female stories, and thankfully supplanting their gazes with the woozier headspaces of their protagonists. James Gray crafts a gorgeous vision of 1920s New York while making plenty room for moral seediness to take root even in the purest of individuals. Purity is not a tactic Lars von Trier is using lately, and if Nymphomaniac isn’t as physically punishing as Antichrist, it still sees him utilizing a variety of formal techniques which augment the story into something random, exciting, yet surprisingly cohesive. In slight contrast, Johnathan Glazer approaches human sexuality with more foreplay than action, and the heightened atmosphere of fear, hesitation and desire is made crystalline by the remarkable abstraction of Glazer’s form. Jennifer Kent’s working in a similar, if more character based wheelhouse, delving into a more frenetic female subconscious and splitting it open onto the walls in exciting ways. Linklater’s work may be muted by comparison, but as mentioned above, is no less distinct in how it tints his story.

BirdmanBest Picture

We’re so close to being back to the five nominee field, I hope. Perhaps not, since we’ve been banging that drum for years, but it’s only a matter of time. Given how this year only brought out 8 nominees, the Academy may consider the extended field a useless trifle at this point. Let’s consider, first, the films that made it in because of the extra room space. Common knowledge is that Whiplash hasn’t a prayer, the Sundance favorite making the cut due to the extreme vocalness of its fans. I’d argue the film’s working at an even higher volume, though one that feels shrill and works surprisingly without deeper symbolism lurking under the cymbals.

You’ll hear even less passionate advocates, though, for The Theory of Everything, in spite being more graceful in terms of craft than something like The Imitation Game. While not over-the-moon for James Marsh’s breakthrough into the Oscar sphere, I’m quite fond of how above-average a work of ostensible Oscar bait it is. The performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are quite nicely inhabited, and that craft undeniably puts a little effort towards feeling as ethereal as the wider universe, but it’s still held back by Brit biopic tropes it feels the need to adhere to.

SelmaI ponder if Selma would have made it into a five nominee field. It has a lot of passion behind it, though much of that is coming from that liberal white Academy guilt complex that increasingly feels like a gag-worthy factor in the awards season. In another twenty to thirty years, we may have amended those issues somewhat, but the film argues quite powerfully that exerted effort is still needed. The way organized protest and civil rights movements are pulled gravitationally together in Selma is inspiring as history, but there’s an unflinching attention to the emotional and political manipulations involved in making that work. Its balance of hopeful and bleak sentiments makes it such a powerful beacon of the category. I just think it needed a little more time to make the waves it needed.

But golly, what a sour nomination morning it would have been if American Sniper was the wild card entry muscling Selma out of the race. There’s already been some box office contention between the two, ostensibly at opposite poles of the political spectrum. I’ve definitely warmed to American Sniper more than I’d have expected based on the conflicted hyperbole. It’s a requisitely ambivalent depiction of the Iraq war, but more crucially the resolute ideologies it reinforced in its combatants. Eastwood’s tough skinned approach is actually quite appropriate for a film where sensitivity and damage lurk buried deep beneath the exterior. There was once an argument it could make a run for the win. That has since faded, but it’s not the most embittering winner possible.

The Imitation GameIs The Imitation Game the most embittering winner possible? I’ll try not to dig my teeth too deep into its hide, but the film certainly would’ve benefited from being more introspective of Turing’s. There could have been a polite avenue for a safe win for this film, but that note seems to have been more soured than strengthened by the “Honor the Man. Honor the Film” campaign. It would be all the more disappointing a winner, frankly, for it being the least visually distinctive one nominated. It looks like it was made wholly by committee, rather than by a director with distinct things to say.

If there’s a dark horse in this field – though the voting system seems to preclude it – I’d say it’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which has fiercely worked its way back into the public conversation long after its debut a year ago. It’s very much a cyclical film, working its way endlessly back around to itself so as to create an inescapable loop of imagined decency and grotesque fascism. It may emotionally be on a wavelength similar to Her, but it ticks Academy boxes for ingenuity, energy and… well, Holocaust movie. I wondered pre-nominations if the peoples’ hesitations in taking it seriously as a contender would halt its momentum. I wonder now if that same hesitation means it can’t possibly win here.

BoyhoodBut there’s only room for one winner, and the common conversation is that it’s a close race between Birdman and Boyhood. One has been a critical and audience darling ever since it hit screens in July. The other has all but swept the major guild awards for the past few weeks, only notably missing out on a Golden Globe win. What I wonder is how much love is there for one over the other? Birdman is certainly an industry favorite, and how could it not be for how overtly the film plays to people in the industry. I question, though, how mean-spirited and skeptical it is towards every part of that industry, in spite it being a film whose ideal is excess in departments of performance, writing, direction and craft alike. It’s a weird tonal fit, but if it does win tonight, it will at least be a formally ambitious work.

But it’s clear that I’m pulling for Boyhood. Living in the insular college world I’m currently inhabiting, I tend to blankly think “isn’t everyone pulling for it?” I know there’s a lot more to it than that, just as there’s a lot more to the film than just its broad conceit. I’ve already touched on the gradual, crushing percolation of identity in the film, but what stings most upon return visits is how stunted the maturation of minor characters is. This is a film where the main character is called gradually to question the way his life is shaped, and it’s even reflexive in how inadvertently Linklater’s film has reshaped the lives of the cast. It’s both affecting and profound as a film and as an experiment. I’ll be pulling for it till the last, but I admit that you’ll have smarter odds on Birdman.

Will Win: Boyhood (though you should probably bet on Birdman if you want to be right)
Should Win: Boyhood

PictureDream Oscar Ballot

  • The Babadook
  • Begin Again
  • Boyhood
  • Foxcatcher
  • The Immigrant
  • Leviathan
  • Nymphomaniac
  • The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
  • Under the Skin

I have to say, I’m a little reluctant to place forth a complete ballot in this category, as it still stands to shift to and fro. You can read more of my feelings in my Top 20 of 2014 list (The Immigrant made my 2013 list), when I was in significantly less hazy place. Since the ballots allow it, I’m keeping my list condensed to a tidy nine. I know there’s a worthy tenth placer, but at this time I have difficulty deciding between slow burn favorites like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Force Majeure and belated discoveries like Beyond the Lights and The Overnighters.

IdaFinal Predictions

I don’t have a salary that relies on being reliable about predictions, though that may soon be a factor in my life, so perhaps I should be. In any case, I’m predicting a number of surprises tonight. There are some areas where I’m still submitting to the expected winners. I never got around to analyzing the Documentary, Animation, Foreign Language or Short film races, many of which I still haven’t had the time or fortune to see. I blanked so entirely on the shorts that I’m relying on others to be better informed than I. In visual effects most have been predicting Interstellar, but I’m still expecting Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The group of people who believe Bradley Cooper can pull an upset is strong, but convincing enough for me to join them.

I still have to say that this year’s lineup of nominees feels too confined to the Best Picture race and its also-ran contenders. There are places where things should have been more distinct and surprising, and I’d give anything to see some Foreign Language, Animation or Documentary flavor in the Best Picture category. It’s an imperfect world we live in, but we do live in it, so why neglect it?

Best Picture: Boyhood
Best Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Best Actor: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette,
Boyhood
Best Original Screenplay: Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Adapted Screenplay: Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Best Foreign Language Film: Ida
Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour
Best Animated Short: The Bigger Picture
Best Live-Action Short: The Phone Call
Best Documentary Short Subject: Joanna
Best Original Score: Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Original Song: “Glory” from
Selma
Best Sound Editing: American Sniper
Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash
Best Film Editing: Whiplash
Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Makeup & Hairstyling: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Cinematography: Birdman
Best Visual Effects: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

What are your final predictions? What do you think will be the surprise of the night, if anything?

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