Oscar Preview – “Big Four” Categories

It continues to be an unusually busy week – so in the spirit of “something’s gotta give” this post may be the only Oscar Preview post that I have a chance to write. Better discuss the Big Four Categories in that case:

Best Director

This feels like Richard Linklater’s year. I know Birdman has gotten a lot of buzz lately and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is just as accomplished, if not moreso, than Linklater. I’m still leaning toward Linklater.

It really is a tough choice. Granted last year was too, but Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are such different films that you could see a divergence between voters who emphasize storytelling and those who emphasize technical achievement. Birdman and Boyhood each have a little bit of both, so it’s harder to make a clear split between a director emphasizing story versus one emphasizing audiovisual artistry.

Yes Inarritu won the Director’s Guild Award, but the Director’s Guild has a much different composition than the Academy (the DGA has more members than the Academy’s Director’s Branch for example). I’ll go with Linklater here.

Best Actor

This is another close category this year. It comes down to Eddie Redmayne for playing Stephen Hawking versus Michael Keaton in Birdman. Redmayne has been cleaning house this award season and is the clear favorite. The Academy loves physical transformation and prestige biopics, so usually it would be a slam dunk for Redmayne.

I still think Redmayne is going to win, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Keaton did. The big trinity of Best Actor favorite aspects is typically physical transformation, prestige biopic, and career achievement. If you look at Best Actor winners over the years, the winner usually meets one of those three criteria. Redmayne meets two out of three, but Keaton beats him in the third one. It depends how many voters feel that Keaton deserves an award for his body of work and this is his last shot, while simultaneously feeling that Redmayne has a bright future and will get more chances. I don’t think a lot of voters think this way – but I could be wrong. In any event, Redmayne is the smart choice here.

Best Actress

There isn’t much question that Julianne Moore is the clear favorite. Physical (or at least mental) transformation, plus prestige biopic, plus career achievement would make her unstoppable here in most years. In this year she has those plus not winning an Oscar before plus having won every major award in the category this year. There are other fine performances in this category, but this one feels like a done deal.

Best Picture

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen 7 of the 8 Best Picture nominees. Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up.

The Surprise Nominees

Whiplash is the one I haven’t seen, but it’s a bit of a surprise nomination. Surprise nominees don’t win Best Picture, especially in this era of 5-10 nominees. The same goes for The Grand Budapest Hotel, a fine film but once again, a surprise nomination.

The British Films

The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game are British performance pieces. These types of movies can really clean house at the Oscars (The King’s Speech (2010) and The English Patient (1996) being prime examples). It’s hard to see that happening this year with two such movies being nominated, effectively canceling each other out.

The Historical Dramas

Selma and American Sniper are excellent films. Both are the kind of films we may look back on one day and ask, “How did that not win an Oscar?”

The issue is that too many people have started looking at any film about recent history through a biased political lens – demanding a depiction of history that conforms to their understanding of how things really happened. Endless online editorials and think pieces from the likes of Slate, Salon, and the Washington Post reinforce this problem. This type of debate would be entirely appropriate if we were talking about two documentaries, but we are not.

Works of narrative film should not, and in many ways cannot, be viewed the same way as documentaries. Many of the best documentaries apply the concept of Cinema Verite, presenting fact without comment, with images speaking for themselves. The concept of Cinema Verite cannot by definition be applied to works of fiction. Yet here we are, criticizing two fine films because they do not depict history exactly as it happened (or as we like to think it happened). Unfortunately this likely means no Oscar for either Selma or American Sniper.

The Contenders

This leaves us with Boyhood and Birdman. Boyhood was cleaning up in early awards, Birdman has been doing so with more recent awards. This happened a little bit last year too, with 12 Years a Slave having early victories and Gravity (and oddly enough American Hustle) coming in late to have what was seen as momentum.

Having known my share of theater and arts people, such folks love films about themselves. This is how Saving Private Ryan lost to Shakespeare in Love in 1998. When in doubt, movie people are going to want to give themselves a pat on the back. In some ways, both Boyhood and Birdman give them the opportunity to do so.

Birdman shows that movie people care about art (despite what theater people think of them). It plays into concerns that artistic cinema is being crowded out by summer blockbusters. It uses a ton of tracking shots. It has an ambiguous ending. It stars a Hollywood veteran who has always been more appreciated inside the industry than outside the industry.

Boyhood is a lengthly passion project by a director who has always been more appreciated inside the industry than outside the industry. It shows that movies can be about regular people, allowing Hollywood to scream, “Hey we’re just like you!” The long production and continuity of the the final product demonstrates fantastic editing and directorial vision.

Let’s read the tealeaves and see what the Academy wants to tell us this year. Do they want to say, “Look we understand regular people,” or “Look we care about art?” It’s a battle of dueling movie industry insecurities. Since the Academy Awards are nothing if not an annual display of how much movie people supposedly care about art, this means Birdman will likely win.

Do I think Birdman is the best movie of 2014? No. Fellow nominees American Sniper and Selma are superior films, and time may look upon other 2014 films that weren’t nominated more favorably than Birdman. But if it’s between Birdman and Boyhood, the smart pick is Birdman.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe