Friday, February 20, 2015

Boys, Birds and Budapest Hotels – 2015 Oscar Predictions

As enthusiasts of the movies, there are certain rituals we partake in that are equal parts amusing and infuriating. The annual ceremony of the Academy Awards is the most definitive of those traditions. Each year they seem to creep up on us without warning or rhythm, and in nearly all instances our enthusiasm is evenly matched by a sense of exhausted de ja vu, as if to imply not enough time has gone by to warrant yet another exercise in public popularity contests. Yet we watch on without reservation like spectators at a game of chance, knowing full well that the outcome is always the same even as the selections of movies evolve creatively and artistically through the pass of time.

Now in its 87th year, Oscar does not seem destined to take many new risks with that formula. That may in part be due to the fact that 2014, in general, was far less impressive for the movies as 2013 was; the overall selection of quality was more sparse than that of the prior, and in most cases those films that really did stand out only did so relative to what they were compared against. A lackluster domestic box office highlighted that sentiment, and the fact that fewer people went to see movies last year than any other year this decade is indicative of a Hollywood that has hit a creative wall.

Those honored with nominations at the 2015 Academy Award ceremony are, for the most part, the exceptions to the rule. This Sunday, industry elite will descend onto a little auditorium in Los Angeles to honor these selections in one last bout of praise in awards season, and chatter amongst industry insiders and observers continues to be interlaced with wonder: just days before the final envelopes are opened, a clear victor in the biggest award of the night has yet to emerged. Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” went into the race as the undisputed favorite, but tense competition from “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” have all but evaporated that momentum, and both films walked away with more nominations than any other picture in the race.

That dynamic certainly adds to the challenge of accurately predicting who will walk away with Oscar gold this weekend, but it’s an endeavor that we in the press love, especially as lines between sure bets and possible upsets is blurred by the trends that precede it. Below is a personal projection of how this year’s festivities will probably go down.

American Sniper
The Imitation Game
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Theory of Everything

Observations: Moreso than any occasion in recent memory, this year’s contenders for Best Picture all possess the common bond of good deeds. Warped by psychology or regarded with deadpan sincerity, all of the main characters in the eight nominated films are people who have one agenda, and that is to make a difference in a world that has yet to realize their potential. That is perhaps no more obvious than in “The Imitation Game” and “Whiplash,” two of the best movies about such underlying narrative currents, but neither picture has been nearly as lauded as a handful of the other contenders. Their victory as nominees is ultimately their reward. “The Theory of Everything” made more notable strides in the public consciousness, but those achievements have often been rewarded to the actors rather than the actual picture. And “Selma,” this year’s social achievement, unfortunately finds itself cast in the shadow of “12 Years a Slave,” which won Best Picture last year and is still fresh enough in the voting body’s mind to undermine the odds for a thematic repeat.

“American Sniper” was nominated as a gesture of goodwill to Clint Eastwood, who is the Meryl Streep of directors: the one who gets recognized by merely showing up (this contrary to the running narrative that his film is seen as a right-wing propaganda piece, especially in more politically minded film circles). That leaves “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which share most of the year’s nominations, and “Boyhood,” the most well-reviewed film of the year. Early indicators suggested that Linklater’s ambitious opus about a boy who is followed by a camera over the course of 12 years was on target for the final prize, but that momentum all changed when Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman” won the Producer’s Guild award as well as the ensemble distinction at the SAG awards earlier in the month. Neither has been an absolute guarantee when it comes to playing the odds on Oscar night, but I suspect both wins indicate a very distinct shift in the minds of voters, many of whom will have likely come to see “Birdman” as the year’s true victor well before they turned their ballots in. Wes Anderson’s “Budapest Hotel,” meanwhile, will settle for several technical wins, which are ultimately the film’s greatest virtue.                                                                                                                                                                            
Prediction: “Birdman”

Richard Linklater for “Boyhood”
Alejandro González Iñárritu for “Birdman”
Bennett Miller for “Foxcatcher”
Wes Anderson for “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Morten Tyldum for “The Imitation Game”

Observations: No other industry award has proven to be as reliable as that of the Director’s Guild, which has accurately predicted all but seven of the Best Director winners since the award’s inception (three of those anomalies have occurred since 2001, mind you). Many have been lucky to make last-minute assumptions based on the exceptions of more recent times (notable among them: Ang Lee winning the Oscar for “Life of Pi” in 2012 while Ben Afflect received the DGA honor), but based on the momentum of his film in the recent weeks, it would be foolish to think that Iñárritu’s guild win has not cemented his chances of walking away with the Oscar. Linklater would be a possible upset, but that chance is very remote.

Prediction: Alejandro González Iñárritu for “Birdman”

Steve Carell for “Foxcatcher”
Benedict Cumberbatch for “The Imitation Game”
Bradley Cooper for “American Sniper”
Michael Keaton for “Birdman”
Eddie Redmayne for “The Theory of Everything”

Observations: Guild wins for the Screen Actors have not been nearly as effective at predicting Oscar victors, and perhaps that’s comforting at a time when Michael Keaton – who gave the best lead male performance of the year – seems to have lost some footing in the days following Eddie Redmayne’s shocking win at the SAG awards. Redmayne was brilliant in “The Theory of Everything,” and the Academy loves to honor actors who live their roles both physically and mentally. But if there’s one thing they enjoy more than honoring those sorts of underdogs, it’s honoring their seasoned stars who emerge victorious in the wake of problematic careers. Such reasoning propelled Jeff Bridges to the top of the awards pile just a few short years ago, and that sentiment, I think, will carry over for Keaton here, whose return to form in “Birdman” was the sort of Cinderella story that makes for the kinds of emotional acceptance speeches that fuel the minds of voters.

Prediction: Michael Keaton for “Birdman”

Marion Cotillard for “Two Days, One Night”
Felicity Jones for “The Theory of Everything”
Rosamund Pike for “Gone Girl”
Julianne Moore for “Still Alice”
Reese Witherspoon for “Wild”

Observations: For two years in a row, there has been no more sure a bet than the wins bestowed on Lead Actresses. Cate Blanchett was victorious in 2014 after an endless series of industry awards for “Blue Jasmine,” and that trend is destined to repeat itself for Julianne Moore, who has won nearly every competition she has been involved in since her heartbreaking turn in “Still Alice” came to the movie screen last fall. Does she deserve it, especially in a category with fabulous endeavors by Marion Cotillard and Rosamund Pike? Hell yes. Moore’s work as an actress for the last 20 years has been some of the most intense and consistent, and the fact that she was so phenomenal in a story of a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s disease certainly anchors that sentiment for voters, who believe she is long overdue for the statue to begin with. Betting against Moore is not merely a gamble, it’s an act of lunacy.

Prediction: Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”

Robert Duvall for “The Judge”
Ethan Hawke for “Boyhood”
Edward Norton for “Birdman”
Mark Ruffalo for “Foxcatcher”
J.K. Simmons for “Whiplash”

Observations: In any ordinary year, a lineup of these five names would seem like the fiercest of major award competitions. But in a year where J.K. Simmons is featured for his brilliant turn in “Whiplash,” such inclusions feel like a mere formality. That sentiment is not arrogant or misplaced, either; even though the film itself didn’t exactly rise to notoriety until it won a Best Picture nomination, Simmons’ portrayal has been hot on the lips of the industry for months, brought there by the notion that the actor’s reputation for rather innocuous roles in film and television were a glaring contrast to what he exhibited here. Already decorated to the nines by the critics and the guilds for this revelatory performance, you can bet that Oscar gold will be sitting on his shelf this Sunday night, too.

Prediction: J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash”

Patricia Arquette for “Boyhood”
Laura Dern for “Wild”
Keira Knightley for “The Imitation Game”
Emma Stone for “Birdman”
Meryl Streep for “Into the Woods”

Observations: The typical trend in this category denotes that the young rising talents are often the winners, but not so fast. While Emma Stone is the youngest and most promising of the new talents nominated for a top prize, hers is a name not yet in resonating circulation with voters (this despite a fantastic job in “Birdman”). Knightley is another youthful presence in that regard, but her work is too upstaged in a film that has loftier goals, and her name hasn’t been nearly as consistent on the mind as those of her peers. Streep’s record 19th nomination is yet another notch on her dashboard of acheivements, but she is long past the stage of being isolated for singular achievements. In a body of work that is rivalled only by Katharine Hepburn, her continuous presence as a nominee in these categories is ultimately her reward.

Patricia Arquette and Laura Dern have been getting raves for their turns this year in very successful human dramas, but it was Arquette’s lengthy dedication to Linklater’s challenging coming-of-age vehicle that stirred the most hearts: for many, her presence was so deadpan that it transcended the façade of filmic impersonation and went to the heart of relatable experiences. Couple that notion with the fact that the Academy will want to honor “Boyhood” in some regard beyond technical categories, and you have the perfect storm of circumstances that support a win. It doesn’t hurt matters that she has won most of the recent industry honors, either.

Prediction: Patricia Arquette for “Boyhood”

Boyhood - Richard Linklater
Birdman - Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Foxcatcher - E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler - Dan Gilroy

Observations: Writing honors tend to go to the films that ride ambitiously on the coattails of more promoted frontrunners, and for that reason it’s easy to deduce that Wes Anderson and Hugo Guiness will be accepting an award on Sunday for their original screenplay. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was the second most nominated picture of the year, too, and that doesn’t hurt its odds – because the notice is so prominent (and its chances in higher categories so meager), that gives it the much-needed edge here, especially after it already walked away with honors at the Writer’s Guild Awards. Besides, what better way is there to bestow some sort of gold on a movie that is so clearly the work of an enthusiastic writer?

Prediction: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

American Sniper - Jason Hall
Inherent Vice - Paul Thomas Anderson
The Imitation Game - Graham Moore
The Theory of Everything - Anthony McCarten
Whiplash - Damien Chazelle

Observations: Echoing the sentiment of voters in the Original screenplay category, the Academy will honor a film with an adapted script that stands little chance of walking away with higher honors. Both “The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game” are clearly the frontrunners when one considers this prospect, and with good reason: the Academy adores stories about real people, especially those that have been overlooked in the proverbial spotlight of awareness. It’s anyone’s guess as to which of these two will come out on top, but I’d wager that the WGA win for “The Imitation Game” gives it enough of an edge to claim the gold. Still, stranger things are possible.

Prediction: “The Imitation Game”

Animated Feature: “How to Train Your Dragon 2”
Foreign Language Film: “Leviathan”
Documentary Feature: “The Salt of the Earth”
Cinematography: “Birdman”
Film Editing: “Whiplash”
Production Design: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Costume Design: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Makeup and Hairstyling: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Original Score: “The Theory of Everything”
Sound Mixing: “Interstellar”
Sound Editing: “American Sniper”

Visual Effects: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

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