Academy Award Face-Off

By Arthur Aumann

Tight competition in Best Picture and Best Director will highlight the 87th annual Academy Awards, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris.

“Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” lead the way with nine nominations each.

Best picture

A Best Picture nominee should be an experience, a movie you can’t wait to see again; but, half of this year’s eight nominees are formulaic and, in some cases, uninspired biopics.

“The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Selma” are all well-made and well-acted movies per se, but they lack in the storytelling department. “American Sniper” is even worse and certainly isn’t deserving of being nominated, but being directed by Clint Eastwood, an Academy favorite, managed to secure it a nomination.

The other four nominees are excellent and capture what a great year 2014 was for movies.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” showed us how fun movies can be. Starring an entourage of A-list celebrities, Wes Anderson’s vibrant and eccentric comedy is over the top and at times quite dark, but it is definitely the most charming movie of the year.

“Birdman” was one of the most original and stylized movies in years as it satirized the superhero culture Hollywood has become enveloped in and partially mirrored star Michael Keaton’s career.

“Whiplash” was the most surprising movie of the year. It showed a young drummer who didn’t want to be just good; he wanted to be the greatest and would stop at nothing to achieve that. It’s like if Daniel from “The Karate Kid” teamed up with the drill sergeant from “Full Metal Jacket” and they formed a jazz band with the drill sergeant firing vulgarities and insults at Daniel to push him beyond his potential.

“Boyhood” is the movie of the year and the ultimate time capsule. Riding on the strength of its concept and the nostalgia it provokes, the movie is one of the most audacious experiments in the history of film and will likely win Best Picture.

The most glaring omission for Best Picture is Dan Gilroy’s seedy and unnerving “Nightcrawler,” which introduced viewers to the underground world of crime journalism and showed us a side of Jake Gyllenhaal we had never seen before.

The Academy can nominate up to 10 movies for Best Picture, yet it only chose eight. This implies it was a weak year for movies when it was quite the opposite. Other movies that deserved nominations are “Foxcatcher,” “Gone Girl” and “Interstellar.”

Best director

The Best Director category has several veteran candidates who have been nominated in the past but never won.

Bennett Miller is nominated for “Foxcatcher,” which is somewhat surprising because “Foxcatcher” got snubbed in the Best Picture category. Although winning this award may be a long shot, the direction of the movie itself is almost flawless, so the nomination is much deserved.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the best movie West Anderson has directed. Anderson’s work as a director has always been visually pleasing and his latest movie is no exception. While it might seem like a two-horse race between Alejandro González Iñárritu and Richard Linklater, Anderson could be a sleeper to take home the Oscar.

Morten Tyldum is nominated for “The Imitation Game,” but I’m not quite sure why. It wasn’t poorly directed, but if we’re talking about directing, David Fincher and Damien Chazelle did much better jobs with “Gone Girl” and “Whiplash,” respectively, and would have been better choices.

Iñárritu has been crafting beautiful movies for more than a decade and “Birdman” is the most masterfully directed movie of the year. If the Academy decides to hand out the accolade based on pure direction, Iñárritu should win.

Linklater will likely be the winner of the award for “Boyhood” primarily based on the fact that it took 12 years to make. It would be surprising to see the architect of such an ambitious and successful project go unrewarded.

Best actor

Continuing with the Academy’s love affair with biopics are this year’s nominees for Best Actor — four of whom star in biopics with largely uninspired scripts.

Benedict Cumberbatch portrays English mathematician Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.” Cumberbatch is more or less the same character we always see him play: the quintessential “high-functioning sociopath” (as he aptly describes his character in “Sherlock”).

Eddie Redmayne stars as renowned physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Redmayne is quite good in the role, but the screenplay is so uninspired the movie just wastes an otherwise very good performance. But, this is the type of role Oscar voters adore.

Redmayne winning wouldn’t be shocking unless the Academy is tainted from Redmayne’s abysmally unwatchable performance in the recently released “Jupiter Ascending.” It’s seriously awful.

Steve Carell flips the script from his usual comedy roles and stars as a disturbed multimillionaire wrestling enthusiast, John Eleuthère du Pont, in “Foxcatcher.” After seeing video of the real du Pont, it’s haunting how well Carell was able to bring the character to life (thanks in part to some fantastic makeup).

Michael Keaton stars in “Birdman,” which oddly mirrors his own career as he plays a washed-up actor who hasn’t found any success since he left behind his starring role as Birdman. Birdman is a thinly veiled parody of Batman, who Keaton starred as in “Batman” and “Batman Returns.”

Bradley Cooper is nominated for “American Sniper,” although I couldn’t tell you why. It’s not that he’s terrible in the movie — he does a pretty solid job — but there were so many more worthy candidates.

If the Academy was so determined to nominate biopic performances, why didn’t it go with David Oyelowo from “Selma”? Or if we’re not talking about biopics, why not nominate Ralph Fiennes from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or the biggest snub of the entire Oscars, Jake Gyllenhaal for “Nightcrawler”?

Neither of those movies work without the strength of their lead performances. Even Miles Teller from “Whiplash” would have been a better choice than Cooper.

Best actress

Reese Witherspoon goes hiking for 1,100 miles to escape from her demons in a self-discovery journey in “Wild.” While she gives a strong performance, I couldn’t help but think of Emile Hirsch in 2007’s “Into the Wild,” which is essentially a better version of “Wild.”

Felicity Jones stars as Stephen Hawking’s determined wife in “The Theory of Everything.” Jones is fine in the movie, but she is so completely overshadowed by Redmayne that I don’t expect her to win.

Marion Cotillard stars in a movie absolutely nobody had heard of until it was announced as a nominee, “Two Days, One Night.” She’s probably the longest shot to win the award because of the movie’s limited exposure, but I’m always happy to see foreign movies grab nominations in acting categories.

Rosamund Pike has the best female performance of the year in “Gone Girl.” Pike is a cunning and sinister wife who terrifically shows the horrors of marriage opposite of Ben Affleck. Unfortunately this is the only nomination “Gone Girl” received, but it would have been inexcusable if it didn’t receive it.

Julianne Moore portrays a woman battling a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.” Moore is exceptional in the movie, and this is the type of role that generally wins an Oscar and probably will take home the award.

Best original screenplay

“Birdman” was the best and most unique screenplay in recent years. It’s as conceptually timeless as “Sunset Blvd.” while satirizing the state of Hollywood.

While I think “Boyhood” was the best movie of the year, I feel its greatest weakness was the screenplay. It’s essentially the greatest movie of all-time where absolutely nothing happens.

“Foxcatcher” was another interesting pick for Best Original Screenplay because the best scenes in the movie are the ones with the least amount of dialogue, not because the script was bad — albeit it was slow — but because the acting and directing were so on point.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” was an amalgamation of whimsical and dark humor and maybe the most enjoyable movie of the year. It’s the type of movie you can watch again and again, which speaks to its fantastic script.

Finally, “Nightcrawler” gets acknowledgment from the Academy; perhaps it was too dark and gritty for their elegant tastes to be nominated in other categories. It has elements of “Drive,” “Network” and “Taxi Driver” all packed into one movie with a legendary performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. Unfortunately, as much as I loved the movie I can’t say it had a strictly better script than “Birdman.”

Other categories

The Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories should be runaway victories for J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash” and Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood.” It would be criminal if Simmons doesn’t win as he has the best performance of the year.

Best Adapted Screenplay is a pretty unspectacular category and should go to “Whiplash,” though if “Inherent Vice” won that would be acceptable as Paul Thomas Anderson did an exceptional job adapting a book some people thought was unadaptable.

Expect “The Grand Budapest Hotel” to take home awards in Costume Design and Production Design.

Similarly to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” winning many of the artistic awards, expect “Interstellar” to be a sure bet for technical awards, such as Visual Effects and Sound Editing.

Everything is awful in the Best Animated Feature category as “The Lego Movie” was inexplicably snubbed a nomination. At face value, what appeared to be a two-hour advertisement turned into one of the most endearing and lovable movies of the year. It’s not even like the category was overloaded with great contenders; “Box Trolls” was horrendous and should not have been nominated over “The Lego Movie.” In its absence, “Big Hero 6” will likely take home the award.