|Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, is the frontrunner for Best Picture at tonight's Academy Awards.|
Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.
The nominees are:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
It would be difficult for this year’s Academy Awards to top last year’s for me, just from an awards perspective. After more than a decade of closely following the Oscar race, seeing 12 Years a Slave win Best Picture was one of the most exciting things I have ever seen on the show. Just thinking about it still gives me chills – but 12 Years a Slave is a once-in-a-generation movie. For a film like that not only to get into the Oscar race but to triumph in Best Picture, that does not happen every year. It cannot happen every year.
What we have, then, is a group of fine films, and several of these would make handsome winners, the kind the Academy will be able to look back on fondly. These eight films share little in common, covering a wide variety of subjects and characters – from history makers to artists to ordinary people in extraordinary situations and ordinary people in ordinary situations. There are biopics, war films, and prestige pictures of the kind we normally associate with the Academy, and there are small-scale fantasies and fables that found an audience outside the art house this year.
Some have called this a weak year for Oscar films, but the eclecticism of this group of nominees speaks directly to how patently absurd that is. Sure, there are more deserving films that have been left on the sidelines, but not one of these will go down as an embarrassment when the history books are opened and the year in film is reconsidered. The Academy can be proud of this group – and of course, so can the responsible filmmakers – and that alone is something to cheer about. A case could be made for any of these winning – and that is what we will try to do below – but it really comes down to two films: Birdman or Boyhood.
Birdman (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu) – All signs point to Birdman, and particularly after its coronation at the Independent Spirit Awards last night, this seems like a foregone conclusion. If that is true, you will get no complaints from me. It is a formally daring, technically impressive film with great performances, sharp wit, and a strong point of view on the world we inhabit. About an aging actor who just wants to make art raging against the Hollywood system that has produced endless sequels and superhero films, you could see why the industry might embrace Birdman.
Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) stands in for all of the voters who got into this game for the love of the art and have watched as the industry is corrupted by money and rots from the inside out. He speaks for them when he talks about passion for the work and respect and adulation and the desire to make something that lasts. So much of what Hollywood produces is ephemeral. It matters today and means nothing tomorrow. Thompson is fighting a losing battle against the transitory nature of the business.
No one wants to be left behind, and that includes Oscar voters, so why would they not vote for the film that speaks most directly to them?
Boyhood (directed by Richard Linklater) – If feels like we have lived with Boyhood for a long time. After The Grand Budapest Hotel, Linklater’s low-key coming-of-age drama was released the longest ago of the Best Picture nominees, hitting theaters back in July last year. Still, no one has lived with it longer than Linklater. His dedication to the project has been remarkable, filming over a dozen years, shooting concurrently with a number of his other projects, and remaining squarely focused on one goal: to tell the story of what it is like to be a young boy growing up in America.
It has been a long road for the film from its inception to its filming to its release to nominations morning. For the most part, that road comes to an end tonight in the Dolby Theater. There is a very real possibility that road ends with Linklater holding two Oscars for producing and directing Boyhood. It would be a fitting image, something like finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. He could just as easily win neither award, but hey, at least we all still have the rainbow.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (directed by Wes Anderson) – What makes The Grand Budapest Hotel different from any of Anderson’s other movies? It is a question I have wrestled with throughout this Oscar season. It is critically beloved, sure, but so are many of his films. Anderson fans have embraced as they would be expected to, but less expected, for me at least, has been its tremendous awards run, which I fully believe will continue tonight. It will not win Best Picture, but I would call it the frontrunner in at least five of the nine categories in which it is nominated.
If it wins five awards, that will be the biggest haul of the night, and I can envision a world in which that will happen, but I still do not get it. It is a confectionary blend of Anderson-style whimsy and dollhouse design work that layers on top an allegory about World War II and fascism. I can only imagine voters feel its darker elements even out the sugary sweetness of it all. It is a fun romp, no doubt, and Ralph Fiennes’ leading performance is absolutely magnificent, but it is a far jump from there to the industry’s top award.
American Sniper (directed by Clint Eastwood) – If you ask the majority of folks on the street what will or should win Best Picture, they will tell you without hesitation American Sniper. It makes sense. To the movie-going public, this is the most popular, best film in the lineup. It is a box-office smash with more than $300 million in earnings, starring a huge international star and directed by a beloved Hollywood icon. It is a smart, well made war film with not a lot going against it, but it will not win.
American Sniper may have captured the public zeitgeist – and with an ongoing trial related to events depicted in the film, it is very much in the news – but the industry has not embraced it the way it otherwise might. Obviously, Warner Brothers would love to add “Best Picture winner” to all its advertising, but the studio’s victory is this film’s phenomenal financial success, not to mention its public adoration. It is certainly a threat for the win, but it would be a shocking upset to most pundits, if not to viewers.
The Theory of Everything (directed by James Marsh) – Anchored by two brilliant leading performances, both nominated tonight, The Theory of Everything is a tribute to the kind of love it takes to overcome any obstacles and how difficult that truly is to achieve in real life. The story of Stephen and Jane Hawking is one of passion and struggle but also of inspiration and perseverance. The movie makes it clear that while Stephen Hawking is a rightly renowned physicist and mathematician, both he and his wife are extraordinary people.
When the Oscar race began this season, it was easy to compare The Theory of Everything to The Imitation Game, given their similar, Awards-baiting premises and obvious sight-unseen merit. To the surprise of many, however, The Theory of Everything has been the more beloved story, even beating out The Imitation Game for best British film at the British Academy of Film and Television awards. The reason seems pretty clear. While the Alan Turing biopic holds its audience at a distance, Marsh’s film seems like it is pulling viewers in to embrace them. It would be hard not to embrace it back.
Whiplash (directed by Damien Chazelle) – Festival hits have a tendency to die quick deaths. They can look like a breakout hit one minute, then as soon as the next shiny object comes along for admiration, they are no more. Whiplash was the talk of the town at Sundance in 2014, and now, more than a year later, it remains as much in the conversation as ever. Since Little Miss Sunshine broke through in 2006, Sundance has been a launching pad for independent films into the Best Picture race. No Sundance film has won the top prize yet, and Whiplash will not be the first, but by any measure, Chazelle’s film has been a success.
What is remarkable is that while no one believes the film has a shot at Best Picture, myself included, Whiplash is legitimately in the mix for each of the four other awards for which it is nominated. JK Simmons will win Best Supporting Actor. It would not be surprising for Chazelle to take Best Adapted Screenplay. The editing has seen support from a number of different awards bodies, and musicals always have a chance in Best Sound Mixing. Something else will be named Best Picture, but it will not be shocking if Whiplash comes away feeling like the night’s big winner.
The Imitation Game (directed by Morten Tyldum) – Early in the season, The Imitation Game was picked as the frontrunner for Best Picture, and why not? It checks all the boxes we think of when we think of prestige, Academy Award-winning movies. It is a true story about a great historical figure and his accomplishments set during World War II. It features a lot of fancy design work and some great performances, and it closes with an important social message. Audiences have taken to it both at festivals, where it has won a number of audience awards, and at the box office, where it has earned an impressive $159 million worldwide.
However, it now finds itself trailing in this race, not only behind the frontrunners but behind several other second-tier candidates. So, what happened? I would say that the film just is not that good, but that is a subjective and only semi-defensible position. The film did garner eight nominations, behind only Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel. There is obviously support for it. Backed by The Weinstein Company and one of the best Oscar strategy teams in the business, the success has been getting a good-but-not-good-enough movie this far in the race.
Selma (directed by Ava DuVernay) – To me, Selma was the best American film of the year. Of these nominees, it is the most deserving winner, but it will not be getting anywhere near the Dolby Theater stage. If it were to win, it would constitute one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history. That is not hyperbole. The numbers back that up. The victory, then, is that the film made it into the Best Picture lineup at all, which is nothing to sneeze at. The love is there, just not enough
Sadly, Selma got caught up in a political firestorm both before and after the nominations. Amid its release and subsequent critical acclaim, conservative talking heads blasted the film for its supposed historical inaccuracies. After the film was mostly shut out at the Oscars, liberal pundits lambasted the Academy for racism and elitism, a furor that spawned the ubiquitous #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. It has been a political and cultural hot potato all season, which is unfortunate.
If audiences could get beyond all the noise on both sides of the issue and simply see the film, they would find an unparalleled artistic achievement announcing the arrival of a bold, brilliant new voice in cinema. DuVernay’s film deserves to stand on its own, apart from all the commotion caused by forces beyond its makers’ control. That does not seem possible now, but in a few years, when we have long forgotten the controversy, Selma will be ripe for rediscovery. Then, it will take its place in the pantheon.
The final analysis
The numbers say Birdman, and it is really hard to get away from that. A film that many pundits thought would be divisive in the industry has proven to be anything but. In truth, based on guild awards and insider talk, Birdman is one of the most broadly popular movies since Slumdog Millionaire won eight Oscars in 2008. Even in categories where it is not nominated such as Art Direction, Score, and Editing, it has support. It is a widely liked film that remarkably few have anything bad to say about, but I cannot shake the feeling that Boyhood will triumph.
I have little to go on to support that assertion except the immense critical praise lavished on Boyhood and the fact that it won the Golden Globe for best drama and the BAFTA for best film. Thanks to the preferential balloting system, which requires voters to list their choices from favorite to least favorite, movies that can be loved by many and liked by most have the best shot at winning this award. To me, that describes Boyhood. Either could win, and neither would shock me, but recent history suggests Academy members vote with their hearts, not their heads. As smart and well made as Birdman is, Boyhood feels like the heart vote.
Will win: Boyhood
Should win: Selma
Wish it had been here: Leviathan