Oscar picks 2015

The 87th Annual Academy Awards are upon us. And for the first time, I’ve seen each and every major Oscar film. Yes, my wallet is bit thinner, but two-for-the-price-of-one double feature deals helped a lot. Especially the ones AMC wasn’t aware of. In light of this, I thought I’d offer my Oscar picks for the year.

Please note this list is not comprehensive, nor is it designed to try and predict the winners of each category. Although I’ve been reading up on the various Oscar favorites, I’m no expert myself, and any attempt of mine to deduce the winners would just be culled from what I’ve read by other critics. Therefore, this list is strictly about what I think should win, not what will win (though I do acknowledge the favorites). You’ll see my choices for all of the major categories and a few of the minor ones, but sadly nothing on the documentary or foreign language front, as I haven’t seen most of those films. That said, I’m excited to plunge into the discussion of the year’s major films. Please read on and enjoy! Comments welcome.

Best Picture

Most Oscar critics have deduced this category is a toss-up between “Birdman” and “Boyhood.” Others feel that “American Sniper” might steal a victory, but I personally believe there is no contest. “Sniper” is a visionless, jingoistic dud of a war film, and I can’t believe it’s even on this list. “Boyhood” is a technical achievement, but lacks the heart, wonder, and focused personal vision that makes “Birdman” soar. “Birdman,” despite the many players involved in its production, coheres as a remarkably singular film, with seemingly effortless craftsmanship. It’s the immaculate conception of Oscar movies, and my definitive pick for Best Picture.

My pick:Birdman”

Best Director

In another BvB, Alejandro Inarritu and Richard Linklater are neck-and-neck in the director race, but for me it’s Inarittu’s direction that truly stands out. Linklater’s achievement is noteworthy, but really is predicated on the sheer length of time he spent on his subject. Taking that aside, “Boyhood’s” direction is comparatively hands-off, and the film works primarily through editing magic rather than a definitive directorial shape. This is polar opposite to “Birdman,” a uniquely personal tale that, again, feels almost miraculous in its cohesion of cinematography, actors, sets, music and editing. Inarittu’s singular vision is the glue that holds together the film’s key players, and his hand pumps the beating heart of Riggan Thompson. The directorial choices shape the film in a way that the other nominees on the list simply cannot match.

My pick: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Birdman” 

Best Actor

This is a tough call. I want Michael Keaton to win this. I really do. As an actor who’s struggled in the shadow of Batman for over 20 years, it’s remarkable to see him finally land a role that allows him to display his full talents. Anger, sadness, joy, frustration, heartbreak – it’s all there in a performance that runs the full gamut of human emotions. That said, I have to admit that Eddie Redmayne gave the superior performance. His transformation into Stephen Hawking is truly astonishing. The way he slowly conforms and contorts his body, subtly changing his physical presence and his speech to authentically create the effects of ALS. Most remarkably, despite the physical deterioration, the spirit of Hawking continues to shine through Redmayne’s eyes. With subtle facial expressions he conveys a glib awareness and devious sense of humor that reminds the audience just how alive Hawking remains. It’s a transformative performance that will go down in history as one of cinema’s greats. Sorry Michael. If only Birdman had been released a different year.

My pick: Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”

Best Actress

It seems that the best actress race is one of the few sure bets this year, with Julianne Moore’s performance in “Still Alice” set to finally give the actress her Oscar. It’s easy to see why. Her performance as an Alzheimer’s disease patient is subtle and heartbreaking. She conveys so much pain and defeat by shadowing the emotions rather than allowing them full reign. And while I’ll be happy see Moore finally earn a statuette, my choice for the win is Felicity Jones. In a film that could have easily been entirely dominated by Redmayne, Jones remarkably matches him and sometimes even steals his thunder. Jones’ Jane Hawking is the beating heart of “The Theory of Everything.” She is Redmayne’s anchor, bringing his emotions forth through the incredibly real relationship they create. It’s amazing just how much Jones is able to convey through facial expressions. Through necessity she is strong and determined, yet underneath the exterior, her sadness, vulnerability and uncertainty shine through. Her eyes practically glow with heightened awareness. She is able to express just as much as Redmayne can through minimal dialogue. And in a way, hers is the more difficult task. As Hawking, Redmayne expresses through his eyes because he cannot speak. As Jane, Jones expresses through her eyes because of what she chooses not to say. Perhaps another year Jones could have managed a win. It’s a shame for her, really. In a more balanced world, Redmayne wouldn’t pull off the win without her.

My pick: Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”

Best Supporting Actor

J.K. Simmons. Need I say more? I actually wasn’t the biggest fan of “Whiplash.” I believe the movie’s energy and musical whimsy secretly serve to mask an absurd plot that’s filled with holes and contrivances. But J.K. Simmons is simply on fire as the maniacal, authoritarian “Bleed for your work” music teacher. All of “Whiplash’s” energy is channeled through Simmons – the maniacal gleam in his eyes and feverish determination to teach with an iron fist. All of this is rendered palpably authentic in a role that too easily could have become cartoonish. A shout out to Edward Norton as my runner-up choice, in a similarly crass and energetic role. But there’s simply no way he’s taking the award from Simmons.

My pick: J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”

Best Supporting Actress

As with Moore, Patricia Arquette is pretty much a lock for the win for her performance in “Boyhood.“ Which frankly I don’t fully understand. I think she’s great in the role, but nothing about her performance stands out as particularly unique or daring. She gives the emotions that Linklater wants from her, and she does it pretty well. But I don’t think she does it with the same rawness and vulnerability as the other mother role on this list – Laura Dern in “Wild.” A film which, by the way, should easy have been a best picture nominee. That said, Dern is phenomenal, and creates the perfect portrait of a woman who wants nothing more or less in the world than to be a mother. Not perfect, not always self-assured, but a mother whose heart and entire being belong to her children. Through subtle acting choices, Dern shows the purity of her feelings. The pure joy her children bring her in the beginning, and the pure sadness she feels when she can no longer be with them. It’s a wonderful performance that captures the essence of motherhood more fully than Arquette’s – or frankly any mother performance I’ve seen in years.

My pick: Laura Dern, “Wild” 

Best Original Screenplay

This is a tough call. Wes Anderson’s script for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is fresh, original and packed with zing. It’s certainly Anderson’s best chance for Oscar gold on Sunday. Inarritu’s script for “Birdman” is another close contender, packed with loads of original characterization and fascinating dialogue interplay. But at its core, “Birdman’s” greatness stems from the direction, not the script. For “Budapest,” the direction is more of the standard Wes Anderson style, but the script gives the movie its wit and energy. For that reason my vote goes to Anderson.

My pick: Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Best Adapted Screenplay

For me the adapted screenplay race is a much easier choice. There are several worthy candidates here, but “The Imitation Game” stands heads and tails above the rest. The movie’s screenplay is a fascinating, self-solving puzzle. Much like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing – who spends the movie unraveling the mysteries of his enigma machine – the script seeks to unravel the enigma of Turing himself. Graham Moore has brilliantly crafted a three-tiered structure. Starting on the outskirts of Turing’s character, the script slowly mines and probes him, creating brilliant parallels between Turing’s exploration of the machine, his underlying exploration of humanity, and the audience’s exploration of Turing. The result is a screenplay that provides the foundation for the movie’s greatness.

My pick: Graham Moore, “The Imitation Game”

Best Film Editing

This is damn near a three way tie. If the script for “The Imitation Game” provides the blueprint for the film’s structure, the editing cements it firmly in place. The film’s use of flashbacks and flash forwards creates a story in three time lines that never feels jumpy or confusing, thanks to editor William Goldenberg’s smooth and streamlined cutting. In “Whiplash,” the editing stands out for different reasons. Rather than smoothing over the cracks, editor Tom Cross gives the film its energy and frenetic sense of panic. This especially shines through in intense scenes of Miles Teller performing on stage. The editing creates a rhythmic, heart stopping battle to the death between Teller and his drum set. But this is the one category that I’m going to give over to “Boyhood.” Like with “The Imitation Game,” “Boyhood’s” editing smooths over the potential fissures in the storytelling. But even more impressively, it manages to create a coherent narrative through the piecing together of 12 years of footage. If I could point to one person responsible for Boyhood’s incredible technical success, it would have to be editor Sandra Adair. She managed to take Linklater’s decade-spanning vision and turn it into a three hour film print.

My pick: Sandra Adair, “Boyhood”

Best Original Score

This is a close call between Alexadre Desplat’s score for “The Imitation Game” and Johann Johannsson’s score for “The Theory of Everything.” And actually the scores are somewhat similar in the role they serve for their respective films. In both cases the scores create an emotional underpinning for the main character’s journey. This is accomplished through strong thematic material and swelling orchestral sweep. The scores are very traditional in that respect, but Johannsson’s score is probably the more diverse of the two. Dipping and rising, fading and swelling, the music creates a sense of symmetry throughout the film, providing the foundation for the Hawkings’ emotional connection just as effectively as the actors themselves. The score is their perfect accompaniment, the springboard from which their performances soar. As much as I’d love to see Desplat finally win an Oscar, I’m siding with Johannsson’s work as a truly distinctive and beautiful piece of scoring.

My pick: Johann Johannsson, “The Theory of Everything”

There you have it, my Oscar picks for 2015! Can’t wait to see it all play out on Sunday. Please let me know what you think of my choices and feel free to list your own. Any feedback would be welcome.