The Oscars have problems. We all know that.
It’s not just about the presentation this year, which hopes to get a boost from Neil Patrick Harris’ hosting. This awards season, we’ve already had plenty of discussions about whether the Oscars properly viewed people of color as only one film about African-Americans, “Selma,” received a major nomination — and “Selma” itself, though up for best picture, was ignored for acting, directing and writing.
But we could just as easily have been talking about gender. There are eight nominees for best picture — “American Sniper,” “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “Selma,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash.” Each can easily be seen as male-centric, the women confined to supporting roles at best. (Underscoring this point is the way the Oscar nominators’ best lead actress picks include only one from a best-picture nominee, Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything.”)
And there is the inevitable prestige-vs.-box-office disconnect. The best picture race has generally been seen as a duel between “Boyhood” and “Birdman.” But, by Box Office Mojo’s estimation, “American Sniper’s” $307 million take so far is more than the total revenues for all seven other best-picture nominees. Runner-up “The Imitation Game” is at $80 million — and even that’s twice the take for “Birdman” and “Boyhood” combined. So it’s likely that the biggest winners in the Oscars telecast will be movies that most of the audience has not seen — and does not find all that interesting.
So we could argue about all these things. Or we could just see Sunday’s awards ceremony for what it is, the Super Bowl of movie awards. And, much the way football fans had to put aside talk about pigskin air pressure to focus on the game, it’s time to talk about Academy Award winners.
Well, my winners.
Although every now and then I get nudged into predictions, I have never much liked them. I’d rather talk about what’s worth seeing instead of what has most successfully worked the Oscar system. To be sure, there’s some overlap, especially this year. But, if you hear a shocked howl of pleasure at some Oscar upset on Sunday night, then it just might be me doing the howling.
So let’s look at some key categories.
Few things would make me happier on Oscar night than seeing “American Sniper” win, and only because it would acknowledge all the people who have been drawn to the film.
It’s a powerful reflection of what people go through in war. The arguments about its accuracy could also be raised about any fact-based movie, and the arguments about its supposed politics overlook its basic, human story. I would make some of the same claims for “Selma,” my runner-up here. Yes, I made a ranking.
After those two come, in descending order, “The Imitation Game,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Birdman,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Whiplash” and — far more boring to regular audiences than it has been to many critics and Oscar voters — “Boyhood.”
This category has four top-notch performances in Bradley Cooper (“American Sniper”), Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”), Michael Keaton (“Birdman”) and Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”). Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher” is more problematic; I thought Channing Tatum was better in “Foxcatcher” than Carell, and would further rank Carell behind Chadwick Boseman in “Get On Up” and Jake Gyllenhaal in the creepily compelling “Nightcrawler” as well.
But, focusing only on the nominees, this has been a two-man race between Keaton and Redmayne, and I have changed my mind repeatedly about who should win. Keaton is excellent, and undoubtedly the sentimental favorite here, but I tilt slightly to Redmayne.
Julianne Moore laps the field as a woman with Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.” Runner-up: Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl.” There’s nothing especially wrong with performances by Jones, Marion Cotillard (“Two Days, One Night”) or Reese Witherspoon (“Wild”). They’re just not on a level with the other two, and no one’s matching the long-overdue-for-Oscar Moore.
I don’t really have a passionate pick here. Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”) has long been the presumed favorite, and that’s fine. She gives a nuanced performance — and I am sure CBS is just waiting to trumpet that its new series “CSI: Cyber” stars an Oscar winner. Of the others — Laura Dern (“Wild”), Keira Knightley (“The Imitation Game”), Emma Stone (“Birdman”) and Meryl Streep (“Into the Woods”) — the choice I most question is Stone, whom I thought was awful.
The runaway train that has been J.K. Simmons picking up every possible award for “Whiplash” has reminded me yet again of the way different show-biz audiences fail to intersect. While he’s really effective as the vicious bandleader in this film, those of us who know Simmons from HBO’s “Oz” saw him display this malignant charisma more than 15 years ago.
Still, he’s the standout in this category; the only one close to him is Edward Norton in “Birdman.” (Other nominees are Robert Duvall, very good in the very bad “The Judge”; Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood”); and Mark Ruffalo (“Foxcatcher”).
Clint Eastwood, the director of my best-picture fave, is not even nominated here. Neither is Ava DuVernay of “Selma.” So I am going to hope — probably futilely — for Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”). I get the technical dazzle being credited to Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) and Alejandro G. Inarritu (“Birdman”). Still, Anderson is the complete filmmaker, and his movies are beautiful puzzles to linger over. Also nominated: Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”) and Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”).
I’ve already mentioned some admiration for “Nightcrawler,” and I’d extend that to best-original-screenplay win for Dan Gilroy. For best adapted screenplay, I’d like to see Jason Hall’s “American Sniper” work carry the day.
I’d also like a ceremony with some good entertainment, a moving moment or two and a tightly constructed telecast. Call me a cockeyed optimist.
©2015 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)
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