Sunday, January 25, 2015

Oscars preview

How did the Academy flub the Oscar nominations?  Let me count the ways....actually, I don't need to do it because a very thorough poll and discussion on one of the top websites,, has done it for me.  The poll's author is diplomatic and calls the items "surprises", but most (not all) are screw-ups.

To be fair--momentarily--to "the Academy", let me stipulate that 2014 was an excellent year for film, with many valid claimants for consideration.  So, those who lament the absence of a nomination for X film for Y category need to back that up by making the case that X is better in Y dimension than Z film that was nominated.  With two exceptions:  Best Picture can now have up to 10 nominations, and only eight were nominated, so there is room to make the claim for  a couple of other films that should have been nominated, and the Makeup category nominators showed restraint, with only three nominations.

I will try to follow my own directive when I can, but as always, I must beg indulgence:  I am just an ordinary filmgoer, not able to attend the Film Festivals, not given special Academy screen access or distributions of courtesy copies.  I have done my best, but I still have a fairly lengthy list of feature-length movies relevant to the awards season that I want to see and have not yet seen:  Wild, The Theory of Everything, Selma, Whiplash, A Most Violent Year, Still Alice (if that can be found anywhere) and American Sniper (more on that later).

I'm not going to make predictions on the winners this year.  It should be a very difficult year to make the picks, but there is too much Twitter, interviewing, even polls of members, so the trends are all too apparent, and they are presented well in the current edition of Entertainment Weekly--I can't improve on their graphical presentation of the probabilities of winners for the principal categories.  (Note: The website has some of the articles from that issue, but not the preview:  they are wising up. Get the issue, not the subscription.).  There should be more suspense than there is at this point, in a year that should be a wide-open competition.  ,

So, Where Are the Beefs?
Best Picture - The scuttlebutt is that this category is coming down to a battle between Birdman and Boyhood.  This doesn't bother me too much, as each is an exceptional achievement in film-making, but I would say that duel is more appropriately for Best Direction, and the race for Best Picture is, or should be, broader.  In particular, I would suggest The Imitation Game as a film that is fully worthy of winning Best Picture in most years--well-produced, acted, hugely important in its content--it's a movie that does more than just entertain.

In terms of the nominations, I would add three:  Interstellar and Unbroken are two films which I was surprised were not nominated, and not pleasantly surprised at that, though each has significant flaws.  Then, I would add The Lego Movie!  I am not so much arguing that  it deserves to win the Oscar for Best Picture, but it is as deserving of nomination as others--for example, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was an amusing, well-made ball of fluff.  "Lego" was the comedy of the year.

The one I would remove?  American Sniper.  I am unapologetic about not having seen it--it was released to the public January 15; it is a 2015 movie release.   I will get around to seeing it, after I have seen the 2014 movies that rate my viewing sooner--the ones that deigned to present themselves to me last year. Same goes for A Most Violent Year, but that one, loved by the critics, did not rate any nominations.  I have not yet heard anything which tells me "Sniper" is different from, better than, or somehow needed after the success of The Hurt Locker--as much as I have loved some Clint Eastwood-directed films, that in itself does not distinguish it.   In fact, I am afraid a feel-good patriotic rush may end up carrying it to the Best Picture Oscar in Argo-esque fashion.

Best Supporting Actress, Jessica Chastain - I am not sure whether the problem is that she is in too many movies, splitting the votes among her admirers, or that the members are jealous of her incredible screen presence.  This year, she was deserving for her role in Interstellar; I hear she also gave a huge performance in A Most Violent Year.   Now, I will admit it is not easy to identify the one who she should replace, as the field in that category is very strong (stronger than for the Best Actress category, in fact)--Laura Dern in Wild, maybe?  Foregoing the inevitable Meryl Streep nomination, for once?  I would agree with the prevailing wisdom that Patricia Arquette is the big favorite, with Emma Stone's amazing Birdman performance the main alternative.

Best Animated Movie, The Lego Movie - I think my feelings on this are already sufficiently clear--it should win this category, going away, but cannot, as it was not nominated.  Which to remove?  All of them, but let's start with "How to Train Your Dragon - 2".  Please.  

I hope and expect that guilt about this nomination failure will lead the Academy to vote an Oscar for its Altogether Awesome Original Song, but I have two worries on that score (not to be confused with Original Score--we'll get to that momentarily):  one is that a similar guilt trip about Selma (nominated only for Best Picture, for which it has no hope, and for Original Song) will get it for "Glory", and the other is the dark-horse candidate song by Glen Campbell, a formidable sympathy play (he is suffering from Alzheimer's).

I have just read a very interesting piece about the nominations--how many voters there are, and the processes to nominate in the different categories.  Please check out this link; I think then you will see that the process for selecting Animated Film nominees is urgently in need of reform.  What appears clear to me from that description is that, unlike most of the categories in which a small number of passionate supporters can get a film nominated in a category, in this one a small number of passionate opponents can block it.  Clearly, there was some snobbish, "this isn't what I call animation" kind of viewpoint among some which caused the snub.

Best Actor - David Oyelowo, Selma - Others, perhaps more qualified, have opined on the excessive Uniformity of Whiteness among the 20 acting nominees.  Oyelowo is everywhere these days, Jessica Chastain-like, and the bits I have seen suggest his portrayal of MLK was both accurate and brave.   Who to remove?  I would say Michael Keaton for Birdman, but that's just me.  Probably, the same could be said of the next one I would suggest to remove, Bradley Cooper in American Sniper--and I like Cooper's acting (sometimes)--see above.  I would hope this category will come down to Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch, but I have seen this kind of race go to Keaton-like comeback efforts too many times (see Mickey Rourke).

Since I nominated two to remove, I can suggest another who should be added:  Ralph Fiennes, for the surprisingly over-nominated Grand Budapest Hotel.  (Surprising because it's a comedy, and because it was released so early in the year.) The production, the sets, costumes, etc. were all good, but I would gladly take away the writing and Directing nominations and put him in the actor nominations:  it was his performance that made the movie.

Best Documentary Feature - Life Itself - The biopic of Roger Ebert.  As self-obsessed as Hollywood is, I am very surprised this will not win the category, let alone get a nomination.  Maybe he offended too many, with the hate expressed by Keaton's character to the drama critic in Birdman being operative?

Supporting Actor--Bill Murray, St. Vincent -  The only question is whether he should be considered a supporting actor, as his was the key role of the film.   Take out the inevitable Robert Duvall nomination--he really doesn't need another, and the movie was a dud.  I guess the favorite is J.K. Simmons' scenery-chewing jazz teacher from Whiplash, but I would like to speak up for Ethan Hawke, whose performance in Boyhood I rate nearly as highly as I do Patricia Arquette's.

Best Actress - Amy Adams, Big Eyes - As always, a standout performance from Amy.  I suppose the movie could be said to have major flaws, though I think as a story it was quite fascinating.  I can't suggest who to remove, as the only nominee I have seen is Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, and while I didn't like the movie--at all--her performance was remarkable.  I will repeat myself and say that I'd like to see the performance of the award favorite, Julianne Moore, if I can find it.

More Omissions, and The Wrap: On Gone Girl, Birdman, Boyhood
Best Musical Score, Trent Reznor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Gone Girl - Speaking of GG, I think the music and the dialogue were both terrific.  I just hated the movie's subject and treatment:  these are just the kind of bogus, prurient, voyeuristic stories that do predominate in our culture, and this presentation--critical though it was--implicitly bought into their significance, instead of dismissing them.

Take out one of the Alexandre Desplat nominations for Musical Score--it can only hurt his chances, let him pick the one to take out, or the one that got less votes--and for Adapted Screenplay, take out any of them except Inherent Vice.  I think it's also appropriate here to mention the use of the drum track (and drummer, drum set) in Birdman--I have never seen better use of such a device to drive the emotional level of the film.

The two screenplay categories are hard to handicap, but for Original Screenplay, I'd be extremely surprised if anything besides Birdman wins.  (Once again, the rival would appear to be Boyhood.) In sum, while its drab premise--washed up superhero actor tries a dramatic comeback--was indeed fully borne out as being unworthy of such superb treatment, I have very little else to criticize about the movie (OK, I still don't like Michael Keaton, pretty much in anything he has done.)  Five minutes into the movie, I realized I had been caught unaware by something special--yes, in my case it was indeed "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance".   For me, it was above all social satire: biting commentary on our society's narcissism, especially that of the entertainment fields, but also highly humorous.

Still, I will be pulling for the early-season indie on Oscar night, though due to my personal circumstances, I doubt I will be watching.  Boyhood is a one-of-a-kind film that deserves all the recognition it can get,  Director Richard Linklater in particular, but also his two big stars, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.  It's a film with something for anyone who sees it, and there is a really important statement, on the importance of parenting regardless of family circumstances and on the resilience of some children as they develop, despite unfavorable circumstances but assisted by parental love.  I am sure Linklater will come away with something, and I will be pulling for Hawke and Arquette, as well.


Chin Shih Tang said...

I dildn't mention the prize for Cnematographer. I will repeat--though correct slightly--my comment from last year ( that they should not only give the award to Emmanuel Lubezki (I mistakenly called him "Ernest" last year--at least I got his first initial right), they should retire the current award, rename the Cinematography award after him, and give it to the second-best Cinematographer each year. Lubezki should win the award again this year (he won last year for "Gravity") for "Birdman"--this is his sixth nomination.

Chin Shih Tang said...

Post-Oscar comments: The Academy did a reasonably good job of parceling out the awards among the many deserving movies: only "Boyhood", and its Director, Richard Linklater, really got short-changed. "Whiplash" and "Grand Budapest Hotel" may have won more awards than they deserved, but (with the exception of the Screenplay for GBH), they were not the central awards.
I love the emergence of the MMM (Mexican Movie Mafia) as a big-time force in today's production of quality films. The big winners of the night were Birdman Director Inarritu, cinematographer Lubezki, and Inarritu's writing team.
I would put Inarritu's final acceptance speech, at the top of the highlights of the telecast, along with Neil Patrick Harris' inspired takeoff of the "Birdman"/underwear scene (complete with "Whiplash"'s Miles Teller doing the drum bit) and the live performance of "Everything Is Awesome".
OK, Lady Gaga/Julie Andrews and John Legend/Common were the big hits with the crowd at the site, but those standing O's were a little too predictable (as was, unfortunately, "Glory"/"Selma" winning the best song for the reasons I predicted in my post).
Harris' MC performance was good enough (though a bit too central to the telecast), and I liked his magic bit with the predictions, but my prediction is he will not choose to return.
The liberal sensitivities were way evident in the winners' acceptance speeches, with the plugs for women's equal pay, ALS, Alzheimers, gays (under the name "feeling different"), voting rights act, and Mexicans (immigrants and those remaining in-country); whereas "American Sniper" got relatively little play (despite, as Harris pointed out, having about as much box office as the other seven Best Picture films combined). Clearly, "The Academy" is an elitist institution, but I'm OK with that. I also detect a strong effort to try and shift the program's demographic younger and more diverse--fighting the makeup of the awards' electorate.