PREVIEWAwards season has been in full swing for weeks now.  Predictions are being modified, expectations tempered or increased, disappointments at the ready, and maybe a few surprise upsets to keep things interesting.  So far much of the winners at the Golden Globes, DGA, and SAG ceremonies were expected; and even though they can certainly build momentum for a picture or its actors, it’s no guarantee of the prize on February 22nd.  Halfway into 2014 there didn’t seem to be any sure things, but as the year finished it became clear certain performances captured the hearts of audiences and critics more than others.

The host this year is none other than NPH himself.  Neil Patrick Harris is the Billy Crystal of the modern era when it comes to hosting duties.  He’s covered the Tonys and The Emmys; and now is in charge of one of the least forgiving awards shows for any host.  The Academy Awards this year will give him some good material to work with and you can expect a musical number or two.  He’s even performing a song written just for him by the songwriters of Frozen.  So what nominees will he be riffing on this year?

There are too many categories to go over in this article, but I will do my best to go over the main ones.  All the films nominated are terrific, but some deserved to be in more categories.  I intend to cover these omissions or snubs in part two of my Oscar series; and will also mention films and performances that weren’t Oscar caliber but still deserve recognition.

 

Best Picture

In 2009 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences(AMPAS) decided to update the voting rules to allow more nominated films into the best picture category.  The rules were modified a few times and now five to ten are allowed to be nominated if they meet certain voting criteria.  This year only 8 films made the cut.  American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash.  It’s possible for the Academy voters to split their votes among two contenders and allow a third to slip past and claim the Oscar, but at the moment it seems Birdman and Boyhood are the front-runners.  I’ve seen all but one of the nominees in this category and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper could be in contention.  Even though it is garnering lots of attention at the box office recently it won’t be enough to win.  Not that box office means anything to Academy voters.  Overall direction and performances are what matter, but a little name recognition can tip the scales in anyone’s favor.  If Meryl Streep is almost guaranteed a nominee for acting, Clint Eastwood can also be guaranteed a nominee for directing and/or best picture.  They do deserve the accolades, but in this case they may have to be content with just a nomination.

I think Birdman is a wonderful film with a unique direction.  Told in a two-hour single shot format, it covers the life of an actor trying to find his purpose in life.  The cast as a whole brings their A-game and the music works really well.  Boyhood is a charming movie as well and I wouldn’t underestimate its pull with voters, but the story of Birdman is more intriguing so it will be close.  Selma is a terrific movie for a first-time director and worthy of a nomination.  It didn’t get a lot of attention so close to the deadline for consideration, but it presents a very iconic character, Martin Luther King Jr, in a personal way like we haven’t seen before.  The Theory of Everything was all about Eddie Redmayne and his uncanny, brilliant performance as Stephen Hawking.  The movie could have had a much larger story, but the intimacy with which it gave us Hawking’s life allowed us to see him in all facets of his personality besides the genius scientist.  Whiplash is phenomenal from front to end.  Miles Teller wanted to do this film badly and he committed blood, sweat, and tears into his drumming.  J.K. Simmons, as his music teacher, is a shoe-in come Oscar time.  The ending to this film compared to all of them is my favorite by far.  The Imitation Game is a little dry, but carries itself well by the stunning cast.  Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Alan Turing, and Keira Knightly, his protegé, captivate us with their determination to solve the riddle of the German Enigma machine.  The story about how Turing managed to shorten a war that could have stretched for years longer than it did is why it should be seen.  His dilemma to hide his homosexuality, despite this amazing accomplishment, is also a noteworthy piece of history.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is, I believe, Wes Anderson’s best work.  With a large cast of great actors, this movie elegantly takes us through decades of time at a hotel in a fictional town during the period between World Wars.  The music and color schemes are perfect.  It’s a definite pleasure watching Anderson’s scenes dance on-screen.

  • Will Win: Birdman
  • Should Win: Birdman
  • Could Win: Boyhood

 

Best Supporting Actor

The only performance I have yet to see in this category is Robert Duvall and I hear it is terrific.  In fact it has been mentioned as the only redeeming aspect of The Judge.  With that being said, this award doesn’t seem to be a close race from the way things are going.  Edward Norton is probably my favorite part of Birdman, Ethan Hawke plays a weekend dad and does it effortlessly in Boyhood, Mark Ruffalo possibly steals the spotlight from Channing Tatum and sometimes Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher for me, but my money is on J.K. Simmons in Whiplash.  The energy he brings to the film is music personified and elevates the film beyond measure.  Add to that the jazz ensembles and drum solos and you have yourself a wild film that tackles perfection and obsession.

  • Will Win: J.K. Simmons
  • Should Win: J.K. Simmons
  • Could Win: Mark Ruffalo

 

Best Supporting Actress

I haven’t yet seen Wild, but if Laura Dern can put up a performance that isn’t overshadowed by Reese Witherspoon, who inhabits the majority of the film’s scenes on her own, it is certainly worth a mention.  Keira Knightly in The Imitation Game pairs well with Benedict Cumberbatch and, as the only noticeable female character in a movie with mostly men, she brings her character out with a unique display of intelligence that certain relationships on-screen don’t often show.  Emma Stone in Birdman is another strong actor in a film with no dull edges.  Her portrayal as the daughter of Michael Keaton’s character never feels insincere as she berates him for his desire to try his hand at real art on Broadway.  The burning angst under each line she delivers is genuine.  Patricia Arquette is great as the overwhelming, responsible mother in Boyhood.  She is one of the most convincing parents I’ve seen on-screen.  All the humor, sarcasm, and discipline she displays works for me.  Meryl Streep replaces Bernadette Peters for the big-screen adaptation of Into the Woods.  She stands out like none other, besides Chris Pine, and I’m ok with her getting a nomination, but it wasn’t her best work or even one of the top five best last year.  Regardless I don’t see her getting a win this time.

  • Will Win: Patricia Arquette
  • Should Win: Laura Dern
  • Could Win: Meryl Streep

 

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper is the wildcard in this category since I don’t know how well he did in American Sniper, but I’ve heard, among the other nominations, he’s not a contender.  Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher has been talked about for months,until recently, and Michael Keaton cannot be ignored in Birdman.  Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game gives an excellent performance as Alan Turing with all his eccentricities.  In fact all of the nominees, with the exception of Michael Keaton, are portraying real-life characters.  It could even be said that Michael Keaton is playing an abstract version of himself.  Only one of these characters is well-known to the world and because of this I have to give it to Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.  He transforms and disappears in this role.  Near the end I almost believe I’m watching the real person that I have only known from short interviews on television.

  • Will Win: Eddie Redmayne
  • Should Win: Eddie Redmayne
  • Could Win: Michael Keaton

 

Best Actress

I can only base my prediction on the few movies I’ve seen for this category.  Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose so I’m looking forward to seeing her performance in Two Days, One Night.  Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar as June Carter Cash in Walk The Line so her talent can’t be dismissed either.  Felicity Jones provides the heart and warmth to The Theory of Everything and really plays excellently the one person who gave us a window into the other side of Stephen Hawking’s life.  The only two actresses I’m torn on are Julianne Moore in Still Alice and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl.  Julianne Moore portrays a woman who suffers early onset Alzheimer’s and shows us how a simple task or idea can be trapped in the mind for weeks or months.  The one lasting resemblance of her character is love; and Julianne’s energy is what makes this more than just a depressing tale of forgetfulness.  It’s in fact memorable.  Rosamund Pike, however, is a whole different kind of memorable.  The story is more Lifetime special for my taste, but her narration and internal thoughts is what makes this movie ooze creepiness in the most artful way possible.

  • Will Win: Julianne Moore
  • Should Win: Julianne Moore
  • Could Win: Rosamund Pike

 

Best Director

Birdman is the most intriguing film, executed by Alejandro G. Inarritu.  The seamless editing and transition from one location to another without a cutaway is remarkable.  The actors move from moment to moment like they are in a ballet.  The music of course immerses you in this world.  Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is a good story, but not the best directed of the year.  Neither is Morton Tyldum’s The Imitation Game.  Again both these stories of real-life characters and events are interesting to watch, but overall as films are nothing special.  Wes Anderson is consistently great at his works and shows us new things out of his familiar toolbox with The Grand Budapest Hotel.  I wouldn’t be disappointed if he won, but to me Richard Linklater should get the prize.  The commitment and risk he took to make Boyhood is something very few directors could ever hope to achieve or even attempt.  Twelve years to get the same actors together in the same place, and at locations that could have been torn down by the end of project.  It’s a feat that deserves recognition for not just the success, but the actual cohesion with each scene he directs from year to year.  The smooth transition as the main child ages into adulthood.  It could have been made in one year and the fact that it looks like it was is what makes Richard Linklater the winner in my opinion.

  • Will Win: Alejandro G. Inarritu
  • Should Win: Richard Linklater
  • Could Win: Wes Anderson

 

Best Animated Feature Film

The strongest contender this year is How To Train Your Dragon 2.  It is garnering many awards leading up to the Oscars and deservedly so.  There was always the assumption that The Lego Movie had this category in the bag, but it didn’t even get a nomination, which still baffles everybody who saw it.  The Boxtrolls is a real treat with its subtle humor and storytelling.  Big Hero 6 is a franchise in the making and delivers great action and an emotional story about brothers and friendship.  The other two films, The Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, could have a chance as well.  Since there were no Pixar movies last year, it really is a tossup.

  • Will Win: How To Train Your Dragon 2
  • Should Win: The Lego Movie….fine How To Train Your Dragon 2
  • Could Win: The Boxtrolls

 

Other nominations to follow:

Best Music

Alexandre Desplat is nominated for both The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel and those aren’t the only films he did last year.  My favorite of his work in 2014 is actually Godzilla which is a weird thing to say.  The movie is wonderful, but the music is phenomenal.  The rest of the nominations are Hans Zimmer for Interstellar, Gary Yerson for Mr. Turner, and Johann Johannsson for The Theory of Everything.  Of all these nominated composers, I can only see Alexandre Desplat as the one who provides an inventive sound to the ear.

 

Best Original Song

I’m bummed Lego Movie didn’t get nominated in the best animated category so I’m giving this one to Everything Is Awesome.  No bias I swear.

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

American Sniper by Jason Hall, The Imitation Game by Graham Moore, Inherent Vice by Paul Thomas Anderson, The Theory of Everything by Anthony McCarten, and Whiplash by Damien Chazelle.  Damien in fact wrote the short film that Whiplash is based on, which is how it arrived at adapted screenplay, per Academy rules.  If I was to guess, Whiplash is the strongest bet with Inherent Vice a close second, according to readers of the book who say it is as close of an adaptation to the original story as you can get.

 

Best Original Screenplay

Foxcatcher is pretty good and I can’t sing the praises enough of The Grand Budapest Hotel.  I’m gonna say it’s between Boyhood, Birdman, and Nightcrawler.  Birdman draws you in with its constant single camera movements and the vibrant interactions with each actor, Boyhood leaves you guessing where each year will take our curious little wanderer, and Nightcrawler has a main character that makes your skin crawl.  The build up to the end of Nightcrawler, in addition to Jake Gyllenhaal’s mesmerizing character Leo Bloom and his online business philosophy rants, makes this movie my pick for original screenplay.

I’m hoping this year’s Academy Awards will be fun and lively like it was last year with Ellen Degeneres.  Whoever wins, the important thing is that we get a few good laughs in between recognizing great works of art.  NPH is the man to make that happen.  New talent is rising in Hollywood every year and I can only imagine who stands out in 2015.  Cheers.