Thursday, February 26, 2015

What We Learned From the 2015 Oscars

Every year when the dust of the Oscars settles, it’s time to look at them like Bunny Colvin looked at any given situation in The Wire: What did we learn? Most of the time, we intentionally avoid the real lessons and just pretend that the lesson is The Academy has terrible taste and the Oscars mean nothing. But that’s the cop out response. What did we really learn? Four major things:

1. Hosting and producing the Oscars is the worst job ever.

We always commend baseball players for how hard they have it, being in a job where even the best have roughly a 70% failure rate. But the hosts and producers of the Oscar telecast actually have a 100% failure rate. The problem in this regard is that failure with the Oscars is a subjective issue that morphs into objectivity. If enough of the population subjectively decides the show was terrible, then that becomes reality. And because enough of the population comes to that conclusion every year, it’s an objectively impossible job.

It’s also a self-fulfilling trap. Every year, when the public finishes saying that Host X was utterly wretched, they follow that up by saying “But man, they should totally get Host Y for next year!” But if everyone thinks the host sucks every year, what’s the possible incentive for the hosts we want to actually take the job? It’s the same reason LeBron refuses to enter the dunk contest—because winning wouldn’t matter, losing would be a disaster, and there’s a 99% chance that the Internet would declare it underwhelming.

My objective reality towards the Oscars is that both the show and the host are never as bad as people think. Usually, they’re pretty decent. When Bill Simmons wrote about the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary show a few weeks ago, he said it was bloated, and that a lot of the segments fell flat, but then concluded that of course they did, and that’s just what SNL fans accept with the show. In the 40-year history of SNL, there has probably never been a single episode in which every skit worked. You really just have to hope that each episode concludes with the amount of times you laughed your ass off being greater than the amount of times you thought What the hell were they thinking with that bit? The Oscars are the same thing. There will literally never be an Oscar telecast where at least one major thing the host tries doesn’t fail. This year it was the locked up predictions, last year it was Ellen ordering the pizza, the year before it was Seth McFarlane’s classy “We Saw Your Boobs” song, the year before that it was Billy Crystal’s genial old-man humor that felt like it flew in from the time machine no one ordered, and the year before that it was literally everything that involved James Franco. This is just how it goes; some of it’s gonna suck. If you aren’t ready for that, that’s your own fault.

And yeah, some of what NPH did sucked. But certainly not all of it. The opening number was great, and confirmed why he was hired in the first place. And the Birdman segment, where he walked out in his tightie-whities, was priceless (as was the reveal that Miles Teller was the drummer and NPH snapping at him, “Not my tempo!”). He also nailed some of the presenter intros, like saying Benedict Cumberbatch is how John Travolta would introduce Ben Affleck. Other jokes didn’t work and looked awkward, as they always do. The bit with NPH interviewing audience members, like David Oyelowo, was especially bad.

But that brings us to the producers, who have an even more thankless and hopeless job, and ultimately give approval to every terrible bit the host takes part in. The only annual Oscar tradition that goes back further than bitching about how bad the host was is the one where everyone says the show was “too long,” and it “tried too hard to entertain.” This happens every year. Let me get on my pulpit here for a moment and just say that I can’t stand it when people bitch about how long the Oscars are. If you think they’re too long, you know where the power button on your TV is. The Oscars have 24 awards to hand out, 24 sets of nominees to announce, 24 winners that need to hug their spouses and walk to the stage, and 24 acceptance speeches to be heard. With commercials, the show has about 44 minutes per hour to work with. If you’re one of those people that just can’t believe the show would ever go longer than three hours, then do some quick math with me: a three hour show would allow approximately five and half minutes for each award, and absolutely nothing else. No introductory musical number or comedic monologue, no death montage, no Best Picture clips, no Best Song performances, no historical tributes like this year’s Sound of Music segment… nothing. And if you hate that the Oscars try so hard to entertain you or point out how wonderful movies are… I mean, those two things are basically the entire reason the Oscars exist.

So at a certain point (really, most points), annual bitching about the Oscars becomes a completely masochistic activity, in the same way that bitching about SNL is a masochistic activity; either accept them for what they are, warts and all, or cut them out of your life (which you’re entirely welcome to do). Making the same complaints about the Oscars every year is like hating a dish you ordered at a restaurant, and then going back for that dish every month. Just stop.

2. The Oscars have diversity, as long as you’re okay with your diversity being, you know, diverse.

One of the biggest talking points about the Oscars this year was the lack of diversity in the nominees, specifically in regard to the perceived snub of Selma. But if you were someone who cited lack of diversity in this year’s Oscars by using “diversity” essentially as a synonym for “African-American,” the real problem is in the lack of diversity in your use of the term. Of the 24 Oscar categories awarded this year, Latinos won four of them, which is (I believe) a new record. This was the second year in a row that a Mexican has won the Best Director Oscar, the third year in a row that it was won by a non-Caucasian (Ang Lee won in 2013), and the fifth year in a row that it was won by a foreigner. Additionally, John Legend and Common won Best Original Song this year for Selma, which made this the fourth year in a row (and ninth year this century) that at least one Oscar has been won by an African-American.

Are those results perfect? Of course not. But they’re also a far cry from the unmitigated failure that the media and the Twitter-verse is labeling them to be. Fair or unfair, the Oscars do not control what gets released in a given nomination cycle. It is disappointing that none of the twenty acting nominees this year were non-white, but that speaks less to an agenda or racial bias of the Academy than it does to the unfortunate fact that there were no performances by minority actors in 2014 that were better than the twenty nominated performances. Look, not all years were created equal. Some years don’t have any worthy Best Picture winners. That’s why Chicago won Best Picture in 2002—not because it was a timeless masterpiece, but because there was nothing better to give it to. Some years don’t have any Original Songs that are worthy of an Oscar, which was the case in 2011 when there were embarrassingly only two nominees, and both of them were exceedingly average. Every category goes through years that simply don’t reflect the norm. If you roll a die six times and the number four never comes up, it’s not a sign that your rolling technique is defective or that the laws of physics have a hidden agenda against the number four.

Of course some of this is debatable. If you personally thought that David Oyelowo as MLK or Chadwick Boseman as James Brown was a better lead actor performance than Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, I won’t necessarily disagree with you. This was an extraordinarily tough year for the Best Actor race, which had at least a dozen performances worthy of a nomination. Miles Teller in Whiplash, Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner, Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year, Jake Gylenhaal in Nightcrawler, and Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel are five more that might have had a good chance in any other year. As I said, not all years are created equal. But seeing that neither Oyelowo or Boseman made the final list of five Best Actor nominees and immediately concluding that race was the key factor is simply an unfair conclusion to draw, as well as being a conclusion that just doesn’t follow from recent Oscar precedent, when African-American actors have been nominated (and won) at a very high frequency. Nine African Americans have won acting Oscars so far this century, and 23 have received at least one nomination. Several, like Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Will Smith, and Morgan Freeman, have received more than one.

As to the rest of the alleged Selma snubs, well, all I’ll say about why Ava DuDuvernay might have been left off the list of Best Director nominees is because I believe (and the vote would suggest that others also believe) that Selma was not an exceptionally directed film. Selma deserved to win exactly one Oscar, and it won that Oscar: Best Original Song for the wonderful, triumphant “Glory.”

The real issue isn’t that the Oscars have a diversity problem, it’s that the film industry has a diversity problem. That’s a problem that can only be fixed over time if we all put our money where our mouths are. If you want a more diverse slate of films, then you have to pay to see the films that already do promote diversity. Heavy rumors started surfacing a few days ago that the next big screen Spider-Man very well may be played by a black actor, and if you’re someone that’s against this (as many people apparently are), or if you’re one of the people who’s rampantly opposed to Idris Elba being the next James Bond (which is also heavily rumored) make sure you’re not also bitching about the Oscar diversity problem that you’re directly contributing to.

3. The Birdman camp and the Boyhood camp are both mostly unaware of what a mirror is.

It was hilarious reading on Facebook and Twitter after the announcement of Best Picture how many Boyhood fans were dismissive of Birdman for the exact same reason that so many people were dismissive of Boyhood in the first place. Both fan bases see the other film as merely a “gimmick,” which immediately became the most overused word on the Internet Sunday night and Monday morning.

No one is required to like either or both films. Personally, I loved them both, and think they were the first (Birdman) and fourth (Boyhood) best films of 2014. But for a fan of either one to dismiss the other as a gimmick is pretty hypocritical. A huge aspect of the greatness of Boyhood is that it was made over twelve years, with the characters aging in real time. A huge aspect of Birdman is that it’s created to all look like one continuous shot. To dismiss either of those elements as mere gimmick is to entirely misunderstand what the film is attempting to say, convey, and play with.

Boyhood is a film about the passage of time and the way we experience that passage. The best way to show this was to literally show it. Birdman is a film about someone aspiring to meaningful creativity while descending into the chaos of their own mind, so the single-take style of it is reflective of both the way our mind meanders around our ideas and the way the main character constantly weaves around the theater he’s working in. In both cases, the films use a specific stylistic strategy to make their playground more narratively exciting, and their goals more uniquely emotable. These creative elements are only gimmicks in the loosest definition of the word—the one where a gimmick is a strategy designed to increase appeal—and in that sense, virtually all commercial art employs gimmicks. But as to the more devious definition of gimmick, I just don’t see how it could apply to either of these films. They both use their creative elements in pure service to the story they’re trying to tell. If you think both films employed gimmicks, I guess that’s fine. But saying one did and the other didn’t isn’t an argument that can easily be made cogent.

4. The Oscars remain on a hot streak.

This is the third year in a row that the Best Picture Oscar has gone to my favorite film of the year, and the one I named the best film of the year several months before the Oscar ceremony. This (sadly) doesn’t mean that I wield amazing powers or that I’m incredibly prescient, but it does mean that the Oscars are more in line with my taste than they’ve ever been. Only three times in the dozen years from 2000-2011 was Best Picture given to what I thought was the year’s best film (The Hurt Locker in ’09, No Country For Old Men in ’07, and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in ’03). Because I’d like to think that, as a film critic, my taste skews towards the more objective side of things, I’m inclined to believe this means the Oscar results are becoming more accurate. I wrote about this trend a few weeks ago—the idea that as the nominated films no longer feature many crowd-pleasing box office hits, there’s much less pressure on the Academy for the results to be crowd-pleasing.

But the bigger picture of what this means is that the rough draft of history that the Oscars represent is the least rough it’s been since the second Hollywood Golden Age of the 1970s. Everything may not be awesome, but that definitely is.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Predicting the 2015 Oscar Winners

Last year, we spent a solid five months arguing which was better between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, and ultimately the top two Oscars split between them, with Gravity’s Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron, winning his own Oscar, while 12 Years a Slave took home Best Picture. This year, having spent the last five months arguing between the merits of Boyhood and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), we may end up with the exact same result: An Oscar for Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the Mexican director of Birdman, and Best Picture going to 12 Years a Boy(hood). Let’s break it down.

Best Picture
American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

There are ways to believe in the chances of any one of the eight nominated films. Selma could get the sympathy vote because of its virtual shut-out in the other categories; The Grand Budapest Hotel won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy (beating Birdman) and might be the most purely enjoyable film on the list; American Sniper surprised everyone with how much overall support it has, and the Academy has demonstrated its love for Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper several times over; Whiplash is the most exciting nominee; The Theory of Everything is the only nominee to also be nominated in both lead acting races, as well as being the only love story on the list and the only film with a female protagonist; And The Imitation Game is the most classic Best Picture-ish film in the bunch, a perfectly executed biopic with an important message at its core and the indomitable Harvey Weinstein running its campaign.

All of that logic is centered on good, sound ideas. It’s also all logic that people will heavily regret buying into by the end of Sunday night. No matter how much anyone may want to believe otherwise, this is a two-way race between the two best films of the year—and most years.

Boyhood and Birdman are the two best films of 2014, and one of them is going to win Best Picture. Which one that is has been a toss-up amongst awards season so far. Boyhood swept the major critics’ prizes, as well as winning the Golden Globe. Birdman has completed a virtual sweep of the Guild awards, which tends to be the most reliable data set for predicting the Best Picture winner. But placing too much faith in the precedents of previous years is always dangerous for Oscar predicting, and the Oscars break past precedents (while setting new ones) every year.

It’s true that none of the groups who have already awarded Boyhood Best Picture contain any Oscar voters. It’s also true that all of the Guilds that have given Birdman the year’s top honor boast a lot of Oscar voter overlap. But the Guilds represent virtually every living person to have worked in their given field, while the Academy represents only those who work at the highest level. That slight difference may explain why the Guilds favored Birdman but the Academy still might favor Boyhood. Birdman is a tremendously exciting viewing experience about working—and struggling to work—in the industry, which is something that virtually every guild member (most of whom struggle to work themselves) can relate to. For members of the Academy, that struggle to get work and make it meaningful will be less overly familiar, but what might be especially familiar is the amazing achievement to get funding and a green light for a passion project that would film over the course of 12 years, and would see no financial return on the investment during the course of that time. If there’s one group that would most appreciate the fact that Boyhood exists at all, it’s the Academy, and that’s why I expect it to win Best Picture.

Best Director
Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Birdman or (The Unexpected      Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher
Morten Tyldum – The Imitation Game

This is without a doubt the most difficult race to call on the entire board, but that’s not because it’s anyone’s game. It’s been 85 years since the Oscar for Best Director went to someone whose film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, so Miller is out. And Tyldum is, let’s face it, probably lucky to be here. The Imitation Game is a very good film, but the story and performances carry it more than the direction.

Some prognosticators believe Wes Anderson has a decent chance as a spoiler, but I just don’t see it. It’s not that The Grand Budapest Hotel is bad by any means—far from it. But Anderson has been making films for almost twenty years, and they’re almost all of similar quality. There’s just no particular reason to award him now. If this were a lesser year without front-runners, I could maybe understand how Anderson might break through, but this is not a lesser year.

Like Best Picture, this race firmly boils down to Boyhood versus Birdman, Linklater versus Iñárritu. And like Best Picture, both are so good that it feels unfathomable for either to lose. Both directors weave a sort of magic that is so special it seems no one else could have done it. For Linklater, it’s helming a passion project over the course of 12 years, filming a little bit every year, and trusting that it would all come together through the power of his vision. Not only has that never been done before, but also it’s never been attempted. Hell, it might never have even been thought of. It represents everything about the kind of creative audacity and daring-do that the truly great filmmakers are supposed to have.

For Iñárritu, the achievement is less about the planning and vision that occurred off set, and more about the planning and vision that fed directly into the camera. What Birdman achieves visually and stylistically is stunning. While it’s not the first film to appear as though it were all one shot (Hitchcock’s Rope did the same thing over 60 years ago), it is probably the first film to use the single-take tracking shots in such an athletic, dexterous, magical way. Appearing to be a single shot while functionally capturing the chaos of someone’s psyche, weaving around the backstage of a theater as though travelling through their brain, is a level of filmmaking agility that we just haven’t seen before.

So which is the more impressive achievement? It’s not just an impossible question, but also an unfair one. And even more frustratingly, it’s a question that voters will have to figure out a way to answer. The key might be in exactly what any given voter thinks directing predominantly entails. If the majority of the Academy thinks Best Director means achievement in shepherding a film from the first day of pre-production to the final day of post-production, then Linklater’s twelve-year odyssey would be the likely winner. If the majority of the Academy thinks Best Director means achievement in helming the actual on-set production of a film, then Iñárritu would probably come out on top. My inclination is to believe that voters will give slightly more credence to the work Iñárritu did on set than the work Linklater did off it, but who really knows?

There is, however, one more factor that could help sway the race. This is the kind of year where the top two films are both so strong and so beloved that voters might actively look for ways to award both. Because of the widespread assumption (accurate or not) that Boyhood has the slight edge in the Best Picture race, that might provoke voters to pick Alejandro G. Iñárritu for Best Director simply to spread the love among two astonishing filmmaking achievements.

Best Actor
Steve Carell – Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper - American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue      of Ignorance)
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Here’s the one acting category where we don’t already know who will win, and in a race that could have just as easily had ten nominees, these five gentlemen boast a lot of support. Carell and Cumberbatch seem to have the lowest chance of winning, though I personally think people are taking Carell’s performance as the crazy, ultra-rich wrestling fan John du Pont for granted. The unsettling fear he creates via silent, unmoving stares is the best we’ve seen since Anthony Hopkins first spoke about pairing human livers with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Bradley Cooper is the great unknown here. It seems he’s in third place in the winning likeliness rankings, but considering few people even thought he’d be nominated (which was also the case last year, and the year before), it’s probably time we stopped making assumptions on how low his chances are. The Academy clearly loves him.

But even still, Keaton and Redmayne are the front-runners, and they’ve evenly split the precursor awards. There are several factors to consider for both actors. Redmayne gives what is certainly the more physically challenging performance, while Keaton gives what might be considered the riskier one. Redmayne fits the Academy’s tradition of honoring performances that limit what tools an actor can use, while Keaton fits the Academy’s tradition of honoring performances that don’t simply culminate a career, but seem to comment on it as well. Both are also fighting the backlash of what a vote for their performance might symbolize; with Redmayne, it’s the Oscar-baitiness of playing someone who can’t move, while with Keaton, it’s the idea of fairness in factoring someone’s career into a vote for what’s supposed to be just about a single performance.

Either man losing would surprise no one except his agent. Redmayne won the Screen Actors Guild award, which has gone to the eventual Oscar winner every year since 2004. But a streak like that just calls attention to how inevitable it is to be broken, and the SAG award and Oscar went to different actors every year from 2000-2003, which just proves that the two voting bodies aren’t always in line. The Academy hasn’t had this good of an opportunity to reward an actor for dramatizing the struggle of acting since Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie 32 years ago, and that’s just one of several reasons that I think Michael Keaton will ultimately be the one that takes the podium on Sunday.

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon – Wild

This year’s Best Actress race pits two former winners (Witherspoon and Cotillard) and two first-time nominees (Jones and Pike) against a beloved five-time nominee that’s never won. Yet. Julianne Moore is the very definition of due, having been one of the best actresses of her generation for going on twenty years, and the Academy has been patiently waiting for the right opportunity to reward her. And what’s great about her performance as an early-onset Alzheimer’s patient in Still Alice is that it truly is the right opportunity.

No matter how due Moore may be, this is no career achievement Oscar. She’s devastating in Still Alice, but it’s a calm, quiet kind of devastating that never goes for the big moment. There’s no cliché Oscar clip in this movie, no scene that just feels like an acting showcase. Every year, we label certain films and roles as “Oscar bait,” and the problem with that mentality is that it makes us under-appreciate films about characters with real struggles, because we only see them as having an ulterior motive for existence. Anytime a central character has a disease or handicap, there’s a tendency to discredit the acting performance as merely gunning for a statue, but Still Alice truly feels like a case where Moore simply loved the role and wanted to bring the character to life. She nailed it.

(Oh, and the other four actresses are really good too. Go see their movies.)

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
Laura Dern – Wild
Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game
Emma Stone – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue          of Ignorance)
Meryl Streep – Into the Woods

Patricia Arquette has won every single precursor award that it’s possible to win, and her competition likely doesn’t have anyone with the potential to syphon away enough votes to make this a real race. She’s not just the safe bet; she’s really the only bet.

But for the record, and just for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, my imaginary vote would have gone to Emma Stone. The way Stone lays her entire emotional self on the line in one of Birdman’s climactic scenes really floored me, and the fact that she did it all in one take (as she does everything in the film) without it seeming unnecessarily showcase-y is really a testament to how good she’s become. It’s disappointing how long ago this race became a foregone conclusion, but that’s what it seems to be. Let’s hope Arquette is prepared to give us a better speech than she delivered at the Globes.

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall – The Judge
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
Edward Norton – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue        of Ignorance)
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

All evidence points to this race being just as much of a foregone conclusion as Supporting Actress. Like Patricia Arquette, J.K. Simmons has won every single precursor award that it’s possible to win. But when you look at his competition, it’s difficult to believe the narrative that no one else has a chance.

I don’t take Duvall’s presence seriously. He was good in The Judge, but the biggest reason he’s here is because the category needed a fifth nominee. But the other three names aren’t to be taken lightly. Here’s what Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton, and Mark Ruffalo have in common: they’ve all been nominated before, but have never won; they’re all nominated here for films which received a lot of overall support across several categories; they’re all widely respected veterans of the industry that are (to varying degrees) seen as “due”; and they all turn in what is quite possibly the best work of their career for their nominated films. Given all of that, the idea that none of these three can win seems ludicrous.

My imaginary vote would go to Norton, who is so perfect in Birdman that it’s almost unfathomable his role could have gone to anyone else. That can’t be said of Simmons. While he’s incredible in the film, it’s easy to imagine several other people in the role. Hollywood has no shortage of old male actors that are great at being angry. But I also don’t want to undersell how good Simmons he is; you’re on the edge of your seat every moment he’s in the frame, like he’s the proverbial bomb under the table that Hitchcock was always going on about, ready to explode at any moment.

J.K. Simmons is the front-runner for a reason, and I’m not quite crazy enough to pick against him. It would be a huge shock if he lost. But having said that, if there’s any category that could have a shocking winner, this is the one I think it would happen in.

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
Whiplash, by Damien Chazelle

Let’s start here: it is my opinion that the screenplays to American Sniper and Inherent Vice are legitimately terrible. American Sniper juggles every message that a war movie has ever had to the extent that all of them are undermined, and it ultimately has no idea what it wants to say. Inherent Vice, while quite funny in parts, is mostly incoherent and explains its plot so poorly that it feels like more of a lesson in how not to write a screenplay than the reverse. Neither screenplay is expected to have a chance at winning, and that’s a good thing.

Next, let’s eliminate The Theory of Everything. It’s a great story, but that greatness comes across much more in the film’s performances than it does in the screenplay itself.

And then there were two. The Imitation Game is the prototypical Oscar winning Adapted Screenplay. It tells a great story in a competent, effective way. It fuses witty dialogue with human tragedy. It’s paced extremely well, telling its story briskly without ever feeling rushed or plodding. And just for good measure, it topped the Hollywood Black List a few years ago, which is an annual rundown of the best unproduced screenplays floating around the industry. A vote for it can be seen as an affirmation that Hollywood is still the dream factory, and that the system still works.

Whiplash, on the other hand, isn’t really any of those things. It doesn’t use wit or humor. It doesn’t tell a beautiful story of human tragedy. It didn’t spend years floating around the industry. It’s just a visceral two-hour slap to the face, a cymbal flying at your head. It might be the best story ever written about the real stakes of aspiring for greatness, and the dark underbelly of the competitive fire that can drive us.

There’s no doubt that Whiplash has a dedicated following. After all, you can’t get a Best Picture nomination without at least 5% of the Academy picking you as the best film of the year. But the people who aren’t in Whiplash’s corner might be very far away from it. It’s a polarizing movie for some people, one that goes way too far towards condoning cruelty. The Imitation Game, on the other hand, likely has a much broader range of support across the Academy, and that’s why I expect it to win here.

Best Original Screenplay
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),        by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone,        Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
Boyhood, by Richard Linklater
Foxcatcher, by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel, by Wes Anderson & Hugo        Guinness
Nightcrawler, by Dan Gilroy

Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher, well written though they are, have no chance here. But the other three all have a very good chance, so much so that it’s very difficult to choose between them. Anderson and Linklater are both nominated in this category for the third time, and this year certainly represents their best chance at a first win. No one associated with the Birdman screenplay has been previously nominated, and the fact that it was written by four people would seem to be a disadvantage, as Screenplay Oscars don’t typically go to films with so many names attached. But despite that knock in its corner, Birdman really is the most worthy winner.

What Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel have in common is that they’re good stories which turned into wonderfully executed films, but Original Screenplay winners typically go to films which have not only good stories, but also great dialogue and daring, original plot contrivances that might seem unwieldy if not for such great writing. That’s Birdman.

If there were an Oscar for best story pitch to get green lit, that would go to Boyhood. But Birdman is so much more than just a great pitch—its dialogue manages to be funny, tragic, daring, original, and informative on the human condition. Its structure manages to constantly surprise without ever going off the rails. It checks off every box that a Best Original Screenplay should hit. The fact that four people wrote it together somehow only makes it seem more impressive.

Best Animated Feature
Big Hero 6 (Directed by Don Hall & Chris Williams)
The Boxtrolls (Directed by Graham Annable &              Anthony Stacchi)
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Directed by Dean            DeBlois)
Song of the Sea (Directed by Tomm Moore)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Directed by Isao        Takahata)

While it’s always tempting to believe that Studio Ghibli movies have a chance in this category, it’s doubtful that enough voters saw The Tale of the Princess Kaguya to really give it a shot at competing against the big boys of the race, which are Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2. It’s sad The Lego Movie isn’t here, because it could have really made this race interesting, but as it is it’s still a two-movie showdown that could go either way.

The case for Big Hero 6 is that it’s funny, innovative, heart-warming, tells a great story, and isn’t a sequel. The case for How to Train Your Dragon 2 is that it’s funny, innovative, heart-warming, tells a great story, and won the Golden Globe. The fact that the Venn Diagram of those cases has an 80% overlap goes a long towards explaining why no one knows who will win this race, and predictions seem pretty split. The Oscars and Globes have differed on their Best Animated Film pick 25% of the time, and those times that it’s happened are the years when there isn’t a Pixar shoo-in, which is also the case here. In what’s basically a toss-up, I’ll go with Big Hero 6, because I liked it ever so slightly better, and that seems like as a good a reason as any for a race this close.

Best Documentary Feature
Citizenfour (Directed by Laura Poitras)
Finding Vivian Maier (Directed by John Maloof &          Charlie Siskel)
Last Days in Vietnam (Directed by Rory Kennedy)
The Salt of the Earth (Directed by Juliano Ribeiro      Salgado & Wim Wenders)
Virunga (Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel)

There are two kinds of documentaries: those that capture their subject as it occurs, and those that tell the story of their subject years after the fact. The documentaries which capture their story as it’s occurring almost never cover the hugely important topics of history, because the odds of the cameras rolling at the right moments—particularly as the story is beginning—are incredibly low. And that’s what makes Citizenfour so amazing—it does tell one of the most important stories of our time, and it does so by capturing the entirety of that story as it happened, in real time, via a first hand account, with the cameras rolling from minute one.

Citizenfour tells the story of Edward Snowden blowing the whistle on how much information was being collected by the NSA, and what’s so fascinating about the film is not just that it captures the entire story as it occurred, but that the film actually is the story. When Snowden had decided to leak the information he had on the NSA, he specifically did so by leaking the information to a documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras, and then having her help control and document how that information was disseminated to the world. As a result, Citizenfour feels like the origin story of a Breaking News Alert, and an indispensible document of America in the 21st century.

For these reasons, Citizenfour will almost definitely win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, but I wouldn’t quite call it an absolute. I haven’t yet seen The Salt of the Earth, but that’s precisely why I don’t think it has a chance—it’s the only nominee that hasn’t really been available to viewers. On the other hand, Virunga has been streaming on Netflix for a few months now, Last Days in Vietnam streamed on PBS’s website, Finding Vivian Maier was released on DVD quite a while ago, and Citizenfour had a major theatrical release last fall.

I don’t really think Finding Vivian Maier has a chance either, because it’s too small a story in comparison to the topics covered by the other nominees. Virunga, the powerful story of preserving a wildlife refuge in the heart of the Congo against all of the warring groups trying to strip-mine the land, is a moving and wonderfully made film, but really doesn’t fit the Academy’s voting trends. When they go for a heavy documentary (as opposed to a more light-hearted, uplifting one like the last few winners have been), they typically go for a very American-centric one, and Virunga is definitely not that.

But Last Days in Vietnam absolutely is that. Expertly directed by Rory Kennedy (youngest daughter to Bobby, niece to JFK), Last Days tells the widely unknown story of everything that happened with the American involvement in Vietnam after the war had “officially” ended. It’s the exact kind of film that would win this award in other years, when there isn’t a once-in-a-generation type of film like Citizenfour. I fully expect Citizenfour to win, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Last Days in Vietnam pulled off the upset. The Academy has a long history of awarding great Vietnam films, and the Kennedy name at the top of the credits might go a long way with liberal Hollywood voters.

Best Foreign Language Film
Ida (Poland, Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski)
Leviathan (Russia, Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev))
Tangerines (Estonia, Directed by Zaza Urushadze)
Timbuktu (Mauritania, Directed by Abderrahmane          Sissako)
Wild Tales (Argentina, Directed by Damián Szifron)

There are exactly two categories this year where the incredible passion I feel for one nominee is effectively preventing me from accessing any semblance of objectivity on the race. This is one of them. Wild Tales represents the first time I’ve ever shouted out “Oh Jesus Christ!” while in an actual (packed) theater. It’s such a bonkers, hilarious, daring work of no-rules-fantasy that I’m compelled to believe anyone who sees it will feel the same way.

The key part of that iffy rationale is the “anyone who sees it” gambit. How many voters will actually see it? It wasn’t released in any theaters before voting ended, so to think it has a decent chance to win requires the belief that a wide enough swath of voters actually watched all five of their foreign language film screeners. I’ll be unreasonably optimistic and believe that (even though I really don’t).

Leviathan won the Golden Globe, but that’s only voted on by a small number of people, and it’s likely too long, too slow, and too Russian for a large enough Academy contingent to pick it. Timbuktu doesn’t have any of those problems, but it’s also the most poetic and least narratively driven of the nominees, which isn’t likely to galvanize a lot of voters. I haven’t seen Tangerines, which is the one film in the field that no one had heard of before the nominations. That might make some voters especially curious to watch their screener, but not enough to make it a contender.

Ida is the heavy front-runner here, and anyone actually betting money on this category would be wise to pick it. First off, it’s a beautiful film, and it’s the rare foreign language Oscar contender to also be nominated in other categories (it’s a cinematography nominee), which proves how much support it has. And perhaps most importantly, it’s been available to stream on Netflix for a few months now, which means it’s the only film in the field not dependent on Academy members watching their screeners to acquire votes. But I’m not betting money on this race, I’m only betting my bragging rights, and I’ve been boasting about how infectious and unforgettable Wild Tales is since I saw it in Toronto five months ago. I just have to hope enough voters watch it and see for themselves.

Best Cinematography
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) –        Emmanuel Lubezki
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert Yeoman
Ida – Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
Mr. Turner – Dick Pope
Unbroken – Roger Deakins

(Click HERE for a video of each film's Cinematography style)

Poor Roger Deakins. Arguably the greatest American cinematographer of the last twenty years, Deakins perpetually shoots the second best looking film of the year, every year. This is his twelfth nomination, and it will be his twelfth loss. No amount of “he’s due” voter sentimentality will give him enough of a chance to beat Emanuel Lubezki, who is a sure thing to win for the second year in a row, after his trophy for another of his Mexican compadre’s films last year, Gravity.

Best Cinematography is always a frustrating category, because the five nominees usually look so good that you can effectively talk yourselves into any of them. Mr. Turner creates a handful of scenes where the mid-day light soaking in through the windows is so utterly perfect that it almost feels like CGI. Ida uses negative space and still shots so beautifully that every image in the film could have been a framed photograph hanging in a museum. And yet, they’re both going home empty-handed on Sunday. Lubezki’s acrobatically choreographed tracking shots are the unforgettable visual signature of the year’s most exciting visual film (Birdman), and they’ll be studied in film school for decades to come.

Best Costume Design
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inherent Vice
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Costume Design is one of a handful of categories—along with Makeup, Visual Effects, and both Sound categories—that the average Academy member probably votes on very quickly, without expending too much thought. Given that, the best way to predict the winner is usually to try and figure out what the easiest and most tempting “fast logic” would be. Which of the five nominees is easiest to recall what the costumes looked like? That’s likely the key question for voters, and it probably knocks Mr. Turner and Inherent Vice out of the race immediately. Into the Woods is trickier, until you realize that remembering what a film looked like and remembering what the characters were wearing are actually two different things.

It probably comes down to Maleficent versus The Grand Budapest Hotel, and within the Academy, Budapest is the far more highly seen film. Three-time winner Milena Canonero is working with Wes Anderson for the third time here, and her incredibly distinct work has also been recognized for films like Dick Tracy and Marie Antoinette. She tends to design costumes that are highly memorable without overwhelming the film, and her work on Grand Budapest Hotel is no different.

Best Film Editing
American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game

Along with Best Foreign Language Film, here’s the other category this year where I have a horse I’m so passionate about that I simply can’t pick against it. Boyhood is the smart pick, for sure. It edits together 12 years in the lives of its characters so seamlessly that the transitions never call too much attention to themselves, allowing the viewer to focus less on the gimmick (if you want to call it that) and linger more on the powerful themes of growing up and discovering who you are. But I’m picking Whiplash.

Here’s a surprising tidbit: the Best Film Editing Oscar has actually only gone to the eventual Best Picture winner in ten of the last twenty years, which is less often than most people might think. In fact, in a lot of years the eventual Best Picture winner almost seems like the fallback pick when there isn’t anything else that voters feel especially passionate for. I don’t see this as being one of those years.

For one, there’s American Sniper, which could also easily win here. For all the film’s flaws (and they are legion), the level of suspense it builds is well done, and war films have a history of doing well in this category. But with a little stretching, Whiplash could almost be seen as a war film as well. The way the editing handles the competitive playing of instruments feels like machine gun fire, and creates a life or death intensity among the actors that goes just as far towards making the movie work so well as J.K. Simmons does as the merciless antagonist.

The biggest mitigating factor might be how long voters take in deliberating this category. The faster they make their pick, the more likely it favors Boyhood. But the longer they think about it, the more they could be seduced by the is-it-rushing-or-is-it-dragging tempo of Whiplash.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy

As with Best Costume Design, the big question to ask yourself here is not which film had the best makeup (which none of us are probably qualified to figure out anyway), but which film had the most memorable makeup. Guardians of the Galaxy had some memorable looking characters, for sure, but they could just as easily be the result of copious amounts of body paint than actual Oscar-worthy makeup work. And The Grand Budapest Hotel probably had the most makeup work, but that’s not the same as most memorable. When you think of what Foxcatcher looked like, the odds of you immediately recalling Steve Carell’s prosthetic nose and creepy face are pretty high, which is why it should win.

Best Original Score
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat
The Imitation Game – Alexandre Desplat
Interstellar – Hans Zimmer
Mr. Turner Gary Yershon
The Theory of Everything – Jóhann Jóhannsson

(Click HERE to listen to the themes of each nominated score)

Only once this century has the Best Original Score Oscar gone to a film that wasn’t also a Best Picture nominee, and that was in 2002, when somehow only one Best Picture nominee—the minimalist Philip Glass score for The Hours—even showed up in the race (Frida was the winner that year). So that precedent would seem to eliminate Interstellar and Mr. Turner pretty quickly. Of the remaining three, The Grand Budapest Hotel score is probably far too playful and even Vaudevillian for a wide enough swath of Academy voters to push it over the top.

It’s unfortunate the all-percussion score for Birdman didn’t make the final cut, because something like that has absolutely no precedent, and it’d be interesting to see how it might fair. But we still have a final race between two wonderful contenders. 

Jóhann Jóhannsson is a first-time nominee for his very classic, romantic score to The Theory of Everything, and Alexandre Desplat (an 8-time nominee who’s never won) is in this race for the seventh time in nine years for his dramatic and important-things-are-afoot score to The Imitation Game. By reading that sentence, you might assume Desplat has a huge edge, but the average Academy member has no idea Desplat is even nominated, because the actual Oscar ballot only lists the film titles, not the names of the nominees. That might seem unfair, but it’s probably for the sake of preventing that exact type of “Oh, he’s due” vote. So the sentimental advantage Desplat might seem to have isn’t likely big enough to matter, and anyone who does vote for Desplat because he’s due might just as well pick the other film he’s nominated for, The Grand Budapest Hotel. That risk of vote splitting for Desplat, and the fact that Jóhannsson’s score for The Theory of Everything is used so prominently in the film, should be enough to give it the win.

Best Original Song
Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie, by          Shawn Patterson
Glory” from Selma, by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn
Grateful” from Beyond the Lights, by Dianne Warren
I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell… I’ll        Be Me, by Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond
Lost Stars” from Begin Again, by Gregg Alexander        and Danielle Brisebois

(Click on each title to hear the song)

Best Original Song already feels like an anti-climactic category compared to last year, when two of the nominees—“Happy” and winner “Let It Go”—became actual classics that were completely ubiquitous on the radio all year. There’s nothing here with that sort of potential, but there’s still some good stuff.

“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” could get some sentimental votes, but probably can’t conjure enough total support to win, and “Grateful” is just the overall least compelling of the bunch, so it’s out. “Lost Stars,” from the John Carney film Begin Again, does have some nice precedent behind it, as the last music film by John Carney was Once, which won this very Oscar for the lovely “Falling Slowly.” But despite its charms, “Lost Stars” just isn’t quite that good, and the film it’s from hasn’t inspired anywhere near as much passion as Once did.

So that leaves us with two songs that are not only very good, but also come from beloved films that are perceived as having been screwed by the nominations and can’t really get honored anywhere else (unless you think Selma’s winning Best Picture). They’ll both be the beneficiaries of sympathy votes for their films as a whole, but one of those films just provokes a lot more sympathy than the other. The heavy money is on “Glory,” and it’s a powerful, triumphant anthem of hope and perseverance that perfectly communicates its film’s themes. Of course, “Everything is Awesome” also perfectly communicates its film’s themes, and you’d be wise not to underestimate its chances here. It legitimately could win. But it won’t.

Best Production Design
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Every year I do a deep dive into Oscar history, precedent, and voting trends to prepare for picking the winners, and every year, that dive teaches me something new and unbelievable. Two years ago, it was learning that a James Bond song had never won the Best Original Song Oscar, which felt impossible. This year, it was learning that a Wes Anderson film has never (never!) even been nominated for Best Production Design. When people think of Wes Anderson films, production design is usually the first thing that comes to mind. No other films look like Wes Anderson films. When people discuss his visual style, they really aren’t talking about the way he edits, or the angles he shoots from, or the lighting he uses… they’re talking about the production design.

The fact that an Anderson film has never been nominated in this category is likely a result of how resistant this Academy branch is to non-period/non-fantasy work. Prior to Moonrise Kingdom in 2012, all of Anderson’s films had taken place in the present, in the real(ish) world. But now that his work has finally broken through to be nominated in this category, it’s subject to being voted on by the Academy as a whole. Given how much support Anderson has across other branches—particularly actors and writers—and how much support The Grand Budapest Hotel has this year, the other four nominees shouldn’t even have a chance.

Best Sound Editing
American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Of every category on the board, the two that voters almost certainly spend the least amount of time with are the two sound categories. Most voters probably glance at the list of nominees and just hope to see a war movie. Because the list is alphabetical, American Sniper will be the first thing they see. Done.

Best Sound Mixing
American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

This one is actually hard to call. While all of the logic for Best Sound Editing also applies here (signaling a likely win for American Sniper), that gun-fire-music in Whiplash is probably just as impressive to anyone that takes a minute to think about it. Whether any voters actually will take that minute to think about Best Sound Mixing isn’t something I’d bet on, but here’s what I will bet on: that enough voters didn’t love—or even like—American Sniper to tip the scales towards Whiplash.

Best Visual Effects
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
X-Men: Days of Future Past

Comic book movies rarely win this award, and with three of them on the ballot (possibly leading to votes cancelling each other out), none of them feel like a smart pick. It’s easy to assume that Interstellar would win here because it’s the more prestigious option (and because the last Christopher Nolan sci-fi epic, Inception, also won this Oscar), but it’s just not a film where any of the specific special effects feel particularly dazzling. Nothing stands out quite like the city folding in on itself in Inception did. That’s not the case with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, where the effects team mastered the technique of applying human facial emotion to CGI characters. Rise of the Planet of the Apes lost this Oscar to Hugo in 2012, but that could just be because Hugo was a Best Picture nominee, and every time there’s a Best Picture nominee in this category, it wins. With no Best Picture nominee in the field this year, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes should be able to pull through.

Best Short Film – Animated
The Bigger Picture
The Dam Keeper
Me and My Moulton
A Single Life

Best Animated Short Film is a weaker field than usual this year. The Dam Keeper has the most artistic animation, but is also the longest and bleakest of the five, so it’s hard to imagine voters falling in love with it. Me and My Moulton is charming, but the animation style—while effective for the film—is far less visually impressive than the others and doesn’t really have any degree of difficulty or originality. A Single Life, at just two minutes, is probably too brief to win people over. I think it’ll come down to The Bigger Picture and Feast. Everyone that sees Feast, the Disney short which played before Big Hero 6, instantly falls in love with it, but Disney also has a bizarre history of losing in this category, perhaps because voters perpetually see it as the Goliath against four Davids. But Feast is just too utterly adorable to succumb to that trend, and none of the other nominees is in its league.

Best Short Film – Live Action
Boogaloo and Graham
Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak)
The Phone Call

Best Live Action Short Film is always one of my favorite categories to try and predict, because it’s the only Oscar race in which no precedent, “due-ness,” momentum, campaigning, Oscar narrative, or pre-conceived worthiness of any kind exists. People are pretty much voting strictly on taste. Imagine that!

Of course, with The Phone Call boasting two actual name actors in its cast (Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent), it may get some “Oh I love him/her!” votes, but it could just as easily win because it’s the one voters liked best. Parvaneh is a little too meh, Butter Lamp is a fascinating idea but the least viewer-friendly of the bunch, and Boogaloo and Graham is the funniest but also slightest and most gimmicky. I thought Aya was the strongest, and it displayed the emotional subtlety of really strong filmmaking. But as the longest and arguably least eventful of the films, it probably doesn’t stand a chance.

Best Short Film – Documentary
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Our Curse
The Reaper (La Parka)
White Earth

Best Documentary Short, on the other hand, is always my least favorite race to try and predict, because it’s the only race where I don’t see the films. Crisis Hotline is the one that every other Oscar prognosticator seems to be picking, and because it’s on HBO, it’s also probably the most widely watched. So because I have no reasoning of my own to provide, I’ll just agree with others’. Crisis Hotline for the win!