Well, here I am contemplating today’s DFW metroplex ice storm, grateful for the opportunity that life has slowed down enough for me to indulge in my annual Oscar fascination even though I’m uncharacteristically uninspired by most of this year’s nominees. Of course, the good thing for any Oscar nominee is that it only competes against the year’s other films and not memories of Oscars past. If that were the case, I don’t really think too many of this year’s batch would even qualify for a nod, but I digress… I also freely admit that I used to be a much bigger Neil Patrick Harris fan than I am currently. Now, I find him mostly insufferable. Maybe he’s over-exposed? Even as a nod to Birdman, his skivvies stunt was in bad taste, an all new Academy low, and I bet a lot of viewers turned off their TVs at that point. Didn’t Ellen do a bang-up job last year? Should we expect a ratings dip this year? Probably, but not just because of Neil Patrick Harris.
Okay, so after Mr. Harris’s lackluster but mercifully brief monologue, beautiful Lupita Nyong’o emerged to award Best Supporting Actor, and the winner, unsurprisingly, was J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) who has dominated his category this year thanks to his blistering portrayal of a merciless jazz conductor. I’m happy that it was this actor, who has been so good for so long in such enterprises as Law and Order and The Closer, not to mention those catchy Farmers Insurance commercials, which i’d still rather watch instead of Neil Patrick Harris. (His performance in Gone Girl was also a turn-off.) Plus, I LOVED Whiplash, the year’s sleeper Best Picture candidate, but I have a wee persnickety problem with Simmons, and that is that it’s really hard to think of Simmons in Whiplash as a supporting player. Nope. He’s the second lead, the antagonist to star Miles Teller’s protagonist. Without Simmons, there is no movie. That noted, I don’t know that if I had had the chance I would have voted any differently even though Edward Norton was a lot of fun in Birdman. Right now, I can’t recall an outright supporting actor snub among 2014 releases.
Oh, and good call on the Academy’s part for honoring Whiplash‘s sound team. Perfect. The movie is all about its sound.. The audience has to hear every note–every nuance, every inflection–to fully absorb the story’s dynamics. What a way to go! Understandably, Whiplash also won for Best Editing, pretty much for the same reasons. What’s super amazing is that Whiplash won in a category normally dominated by movies that feature high-octane action sequences, including science fiction/fantasy extravaganzas and/or war movies: Gravity (2013), Hurt Locker (2009), Black Hawk Down (2001), Saving Private Ryan (1998), etc. Still, Whiplash, even as a micro-budgeted two-character study, is all about rhythm, so its victory over the likes of American Sniper and the massive endeavor known as Boyhood (with 12 years’ worth of footage) is welcome, and, really, reveals Academy members to be quite astute. Yay! Three Oscars for Whiplash is smashing, but I was hoping that writer-director Damien Chazzelle would take home his own golden statuette for Best Adapted Screenplay. Oh, sure, Imitation Game‘s Graham Moore’s exceptional speech ranks among the evening’s highlights, no problem there, but Chazzelle’s story–based on his own short film–is quite the ride, with second and third act twists that up the suspense quotient. Now, that’s what I call storytelling.
Hooray for costume designer Milena Canonero of The Grand Budapest Hotel, her fourth win after Barry Lyndon (1975), Chariots of Fire (1981), and Marie Antoinette (2006); moreover, Canonero’s win signaled the first of 4 awards for Texas native Wes Anderson’s lavish comic caper, a win immediately followed by the Oscar for Best Makeup (Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier). Yay! On the other hand, I would have easily welcomed a makeup award for the super silly blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy. (Too bad Guardians of the Galaxy lost Visual F/X Oscar to the tiresome Interstellar, a major hit that did not snag as many nominations as predicted much earlier in the season.) Of course, The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s production design team of Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock walked away with Oscars for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration. I think this has been a no-brainer ever since the movie opened last spring. Finally, The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s composer Alexandre Desplat won his first Oscar after 7 previous nods, sort of, one of which was also 2014’s The Imitation Game. Win some, lose some, right Alex? After all that, I was primed for Grand Budapest writer-director Wes Anderson to duke it out for Best Original Screenplay honors with fellow Texan Richard Linklater (Boyhood).
Jared Leto sauntered onstage and made a funny joke about Meryl Streep, and then announced the winner for Best Supporting Actress. Again, no surprise: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), and she looked lovely! Well, good for her. Oh, and that speech about women deserving equal rights. WOW! Whatta way to tear the house down! (This a good thing, I assure you!) The audience ate it up, seemingly led by, yes, Meryl Streep. Alas, after months of build-up, Boyhood stalled right then and there, a bit of a surprise Sure, Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Directors Guild Award for Birdman, so his cleanup at the Oscars could hardly be called an upset; however, I really thought that Texan Richard Linklater’s vision and commitment to Boyhood would impress Academy members more, resulting in a consolation prize in the screenwriting category. Nope. Linklater lost in the Best Original Screenplay category to Iñárritu and company as well. (Unofficially, I still feel Selma‘s Carmen Ejogo was, to put it mildly, robbed.)
I wasn’t really surprised when Big Hero 6 won for Best Animated Film because my students overwhelmingly gave it their vote when polled about their favorite movie of the year. Okay, now I will definitely watch it. That noted, it was still a shock that the also incredibly popular Lego Movie was snubbed, meaning no nod at all. Less surprising though no less disappointing was the Academy’s snub of Rio 2, a great big colorful gift of a movie, but that’s just me I guess.
Applause, applause for Common and John Legend for “Glory” from Selma. The song was stirring, the audience loved it, and I respect anyone who quotes Nina Simone in an Oscar acceptance speech. I’m glad “Glory” won even though I have a soft spot for “Everything is Awesome” from the aforementioned Lego Movie. The other song nominees included the moving “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from the documentary chronicling 60-70s music and TV star Glen Campbell’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, Glen Campbell: I’ll be Me (emotionally, if shakily, performed by Tim McGraw). Also, trivia alert in that “Lost Stars” from Begin Again (performed by Adam Levine of Maroon 5) is co-written by Danielle Brisebois, whose name is familiar with anyone who remembers her stint as young Stephanie, Edith Bunker’s niece, on All in the Family and the retooled Archie Bunker’s Place.
Most of the show was just dull, dull, dull, and so predictable. Do I care that Julianne Moore won an Oscar for Still Alice, a movie that most Americans have not seen? (Approximately $8 million at the box office and counting.) Well, okay, I guess, and now the movie will likely expand its audience thanks to its Oscar cred. I guess that’s a good thing for a movie starring a reputable actress over 50. I like Moore well enough, and I alway have, but I can’t seem to work up much enthusiasm for watching her play a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. [Still Alzheimer’s?] I’d rather watch Glen Campbell’s documentary. At least he’s not ACTING, ACTING, ACTING for the camera. This is the one time when I feel like I must draw the line at what at least appears a calculated stunt on the Academy’s behalf. Over the past week, I’ve read articles unanimously agreeing that Moore surely had this one in the bag, on her fifth nod, while also arguing that she’s been better in other offerings, including her recent Cannes triumph, Maps to the Stars. Oh, and to clarify, I’m not especially bowled over by Redmayne’s gimmicky performance, but he at least has the advantage of portraying an important, complex, real-life historical figure. Still Alice is based on a novel, but it’s still fiction however well-meaning. I have a hard time believing the movie’s sole purpose is and was to land Moore an Oscar. My personal pick for Best Actress, among the official nominees, would have been Reese Witherspoon (Wild), and I have already gone on record with that. Unofficially? Hilary Swank, brilliant–as usual–in The Homesman, or maybe Jenny Slate in last summer’s buzzworthy indie, Obvious Child.
Again, even though J. K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and even Julianne Moore gave incredible speeches, their victories were entirely predictable. On the other hand, Eddie Redmayne’s Best Actor triumph for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything was a wee bit of a surprise. Oh sure, Redmayne won the SAG award, a reliable Oscar indicator, so his Oscar win wasn’t a HUGE surprise, but given the Academy’s love for Birdman, Redmayne’s victory over sentimental favorite Michael Keaton has to register as an upset on some level, at least to Keaton. That noted, as much as I admire Redmayne, he wasn’t my first choice. I would have gone with either Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) or, yes, Bradley Cooper (American Sniper). Oh, I know, American Sniper has plenty of detractors, most of whom direct their vitriol toward the movie’s politics, but I see it much differently, to be addressed later; however, i have to say that Cooper’s performance as Texan Chris Kyle, the titular real-life figure ironically killed on American soil after serving multiple tours of duty in Iraq, took me by surprise. I’ve often found Cooper a lightweight: likeable, sure, but sometimes over his head in dramatic–or weighty–roles, but not so in American Sniper. There are moments in the film in which his acting choices startle(d) me, and I can’t say the same for Redmayne as his physically intense performance impresses on a much more obvious level. And I’m not alone. I read two articles over the past week heralding a last minute surge in Cooper’s favor. (Unofficially, I still think Selma‘s David Oyelowo deserves props.)
In the end, the two most nominated movies, Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, tied for the most awards: 4 for 9 in both cases. Birdman‘s take also included cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a rare back-to-back winner in his category. [John Toll was similarly honored in the 1990s with Legends of the Fall and Bravheart.] Last year, you’ll recall, Lubezki finally took home the gold for Gravity in his sixth Oscar race. In Birdman, Lubezki creates movie magic by working in long, seemingly unbroken Steadicam shots. A neat trick, that, but I was rooting for 11 time nominee Roger Deakins (Unbroken). I loved Unbroken, maybe my favorite movie of all 2014, and Deakins is consistently worth watching as evidenced by the likes of Skyfall (for which he won the American Society of Cinematographers award), the 2010 True Grit reboot, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, among others.
Meanwhile, all 8 Best Picture nominees won awards. Aside from Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Whiplash: American Sniper (Best Sound Editing, aka Sound Effects), Boyhood (Best Supporting Actress), The Imitation Game (Best Adapted Screenplay), Selma (Best Song), and The Theory of Everything (Best Actor). On the other hand, how is it that the second or third most moving segment of the whole night had nothing, NOTHING, to do with any film released in 2014? Of course, I’m referring to Lady Gaga’s absolutely stellar rendition of songs from The Sound of Music, not the least of which was the gloriously rendered title tune. Then, for Julie Andrews to come on stage immediately afterward, so obviously moved, there’s that word again, so gracious. That’s the difference between making a movie for the ages and making one, such as Birdman, for the moment. Furthermore, keep in mind that in spite of all the huzzahs, Birdman has proven only slightly more accessible than Moore’s Still Alice. Per Box Office Mojo, Birdman has earned a relatively moderate 38 million on a budget of 18 million. Not impressive. No, the movie, about a former movie super hero trying to stage his own Broadway comeback, plays mostly to viewers who dig show-biz insider jokes (including, obviously, Academy members). Oh, and speaking of inside jokes, as tasteless as Best Picture presenter Sean Penn’s green card crack was regarding Iñárritu’s win for Birdman, I’m willing to let it go if Iñárritu is since he and Penn have a history, meaning 2003’s 21 Grams. Still, it wasn’t Penn’s best move, yet we’re used to it by now whether we should be or not, but I digress. On the other hand, and for what it’s worth, the one Best Picture nominee to overwhelmingly connect with moviegoers, American Sniper ($320 million + three weeks at no. 1) is also the title that has most seriously divided media hacks. Hard to imagine that fifty years from now anyone will care about the too-meta-for-its-own-good Birdman, with its trippy camera work, non-ending, and convenient casting (as a former Batman portrays the former Birdman), or even Neil Patrick Harris, but the hills will always be alive with the sound of music…
Thanks for your consideration….