Once again, there is no runaway favorite in this year's Academy Award race. "Boyhood" and "Birdman" have duked it out for frontrunner status during the awards season, with each picking up their share of preliminary prizes.
"Boyhood" had the early lead as the sentimental pick, but "Birdman" has has come on strong late in the process by winning both the director's guild and producer's guild awards, indicating it may have more artistic respect.
I happen to think both are spectacularly overrated films, though "Boyhood" is clearly the superior of the two.
To me, this year's Oscar story is about the plethora of good-not-great movies pushing the deserving ones out of the limelight. We had a handful of truly great movies -- "Whiplash," "Life Itself," "St. Vincent," "The Imitation Game," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" -- that received few or no Academy nominations.
Meanwhile, many of the highest-profile films are on some level disappointing to me. Along with "Boyhood" and "Birdman" I would add "The Theory of Everything," "Selma," "Foxcatcher," "Interstellar," "Into the Woods" and "Unbroken" to the list of movies that are undeserving of their bounteous recognition from the Academy.
Perhaps the one that has received the most attention is "Selma," which caused genuine outrage when it only received two -- how dare they! -- Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
Much of the discussion surrounding "Selma" has focused on racism, the lack of diversity among Academy voters, backlash against the film's liberties with the historical record, and so on. I think the real reason it didn't fare better is simpler: it's just not that good of a movie. Outside of the powerful march sequences, it's stiff and stodgy. The film's similar lack of support from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, etc. only serve to underline that sentiment.
So here are my picks and predictions for Sunday's Academy Awards in all 24 categories. As in past years, I'll tell you who will win, who should win, and replace some nominees with ones I think are more deserving. I've called this last part various things over the years, but I'm sticking with "Chris Cross" from last time, since I'm crossing names off a list and writing in new ones.
Best PictureWill Win: "Birdman"
Should Win: "Whiplash"
Chris Cross: "St. Vincent", "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and "Wild" replace "
I think Academy voters are in a mood to split up the awards again this year. "Boyhood" will win a number of key awards, including director, screenplay and supporting actress, and most Oscar voters will feel that's enough. They'll go for "Birdman" to win the top award because everyone else is talking about how ambitious and serious it is, so they'll think so too.
Michael Keaton is great in "Birdman" but Alejandro Iñárritu's directorial choices seriously sabotaged the film. It almost felt like the director was trying to jump in between the actors and his floaty camera to scream, "Look at me!"
I like a lot of things about "Boyhood," but in the end it works more as an actors' workshop project than a coherent film.
It's notable that these two movies lead the pack due in large part to their status as "actor movies." Actors make up the largest voting bloc of Academy members, and tend to favor (imho) showy performances over telling a riveting story.
"American Sniper" has been having a historic run at the box office -- it could actually wind up as the top-grossing film of 2014 -- so it has a puncher's chance to win Best Picture. If so, it would replay the strategy of "Million Dollar Baby," another Clint Eastwood drama that made a late charge in the season.
Personally, I don't think that'll happen because the film has been swept into partisan political debates, unnecessarily and unfairly. Since it's now perceived as a "conservative movie," liberal Hollywood won't go for it.
"Whiplash" is my pic for best film of the year, for reasons I've outlined before. The lack of any nominations for "St. Vincent" is disappointing but not surprising, given how small a film it was. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" was the best of the big-budget spectacles of 2014, which always are overlooked at Oscar time.
Best DirectorWill Win: Alejandro Iñárritu, "Birdman"
Should Win: Wes Anderson, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Chris Cross: Clint Eastwood and Damien Chazelle replace
Yes, that's right: me, the perceived perpetual Wes Anderson hater, thinks he deserves the golden statuette for directing. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" was his best in years, mainly because he finally got unstuck from his artistic rut.
Damien Chazelle of "Whiplash" didn't get nominated because he's too new -- probably the same reason Ava DuVernay of "Selma" was left off this list.
Conversely, Clint Eastwood's status as a legend who's already received his due probably hurt his chances, along with the partisan squabbling. The lack of a directing nomination for Eastwood is also the best evidence that "Sniper" won't win best picture.
I don't like showy direction that calls attention to itself, so Iñárritu is out for me. Hollywood was bamboozled by his camera trickery, so there you go.
A directing nod for Miller when "Foxcatcher" didn't get a best picture nomination is the biggest head-scratcher of the season. I thought that movie got lost in its own mood swings.
Best ActorWill Win/Should Win: Michael Keaton
Chris Cross: Bill Murray and Ralph Fiennes replace
This one's a real nail-biter between Keaton and Eddie Redmayne of "The Theory of Everything." The latter is the traditional choice, since the Oscars love actors who portray characters with physical or mental challenges, especially true-life ones.
Keaton was genuinely brilliant in "Birdman," though, and my quibbles with the film are mostly about the direction rather than his performance. Plus the Academy loves to see actors turn their flagging careers around with a brave role; see Matthew McConaughey's win last year.
Bradley Cooper won't win, but I'd love to see it happen. He changed his game with this bold, watershed performance. Notably, he's been nominated in this category three years in a row. That's quite an accomplishment, but hardly unprecedented: he's the 10th actor to do so.
Tough to cross anybody off this list, but I loved Bill Murray in "St. Vincent" and Ralph Fiennes gave a complex, funny/sad portrait in "Grand Budapest." I'll kick Carell and Redmayne because they seem like such deliberate Oscar-bait parts.
Best ActressWill Win/Should Win: Julianne Moore
Chris Cross: Hilary Swank replaces
The easiest pick this year. Julianne Moore caps a career of terrific performances, and finally takes home an Oscar on the fifth try. And she deserves it: she's authentic and sensitive as an Alzheimer's patient in "Still Alice."
Until I saw Moore I thought Swank gave the best female turn of the year in the flawed "The Homesman." People like to joke about Meryl Streep getting nominated just for showing up, but Cotillard's work in "Two Days, One Night," while solid, is hardly among her best.
Best Supporting ActorWill Win/Should Win: J.K. Simmons
Chris Cross: None
OK, I lied, this is the easiest pick of the season. Simmons has won virtually every preliminary award for his portrayal of a vicious jazz conductor, and deserved to. In the wrong hands it could have so easily become a cartoon villain a la Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave." Simmons dared us to snicker.
I can't complain about any of these worthy nominees. Usually this is one of the busiest categories -- last year I swapped out four out of the five nominees. But I can't think of any this go-round.
I've heard some harrumphing about Robert Duvall, but he was genuinely terrific in "The Judge," starting with a one-note character and adding layers. Name another actor of his generation who could've pulled off that courtroom testimony scene so well.
Best Supporting ActressWill Win: Patricia Arquette
Should Win: Meryl Streep
Chris Cross: Melissa McCarthy and Jessica Chastain replace
OK, this time I really mean it, this is the easiest category to predict. Like Simmons and Moore, Patricia Arquette has run the table in other contests. I thought she was good, not great -- Ethan Hawke had the meatier part of the two parents in "Boyhood." Her character kind of just ends up reacting to everyone else.
Meryl Streep was the best thing about "Into the Woods." She sang, she danced (a bit), she was scary, she was funny, and the movie slipped a couple of gears slower whenever she wasn't onscreen.
McCarthy gave her finest performance in "St. Vincent," and Chastain was solid in the largely humdrum "A Most Violent Year." Laura Dern's part seemed like it was written as simply a string of "Oscar clip" scenes where she gets to be wistful and sympathetic, rather than actually building a character. Emma Stone was better in "Magic in the Moonlight" than in "Birdman."
Original ScreenplayWill Win: Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"
Should Win: Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Chris Cross: "The Babadook" and "St. Vincent" replace "
Another slugfest between "Boyhood" and "Birdman."As I've said, I think Academy voters will reward the direction of "Birdman" and give Richard Linklater the nod for his write-as-you-go screenplay effort. Wes Anderson could possibly sneak in here with a win if those other two split the vote, and that would be a fine thing.
The little-seen Australian horror film "The Babadook" was a marvel of originality, and the characters oozed with authenticity in "St. Vincent."
Adapted ScreenplayWill Win: Graham Moore, "The Imitation Game"
Should Win: Damien Chazelle, "Whiplash"
Chris Cross: "Gone Girl" replaces "
There was a big kerfuffle about "Whiplash" being included here rather than in the original screenplay category, in which my critics' group, the Indiana Film Journalists, was right in the middle. Near as I can figure, we were the only critic or industry group to categorize it this way, and were much ribbed for it. Now that the Oscars decided the same way, not so much laughing now.
It's simple: A short film version of "Whiplash" came out the previous year, did quite well on the festival circuit, and raised enough interest to finance the feature-length version. The film's backers have argued they only made the short film to finance the full-length one. Well, that's fine, but you're talking about intent. If they hadn't been successful with the short film, then that's the only version of "Whiplash" that would've existed.
The irony is that "Whiplash" has a much better chance of winning an award here than in the much more competitive original screenplay category, where it would've been crushed by "B&B." However, virtually all the other prognostications I've read are putting "Imitation Game" down as the frontrunner to win. Reluctantly, I'm going with my head instead of my gut and following the crowd in my prediction.
I thought Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" a colossal waste of talent and time, so I'd been inclined to replace it with just about anything. The careful revelations of information in "Gone Girl" were a primary part of its appeal.
CinematographyWill Win: Emmanuel Lubezki, "Birdman"
Should Win: Robert Yeoman, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Chris Cross: "Interstellar" replaces "
Look, I'm all for artists trying new and inventive things. It's just that those attempts are best done in service to the greater good, aka the story and the performances. I thought the floating, no-cuts aesthetic of "Birdman" did it far more harm than benefit. It prevented me from getting really invested in the characters, as the focus of the viewpoint overshadowed that of the people. It was artsy for the sake of being artsy.
"Interstellar" was also a deeply flawed film, but the visuals were sumptuous and transporting. "Grand Budapest" was visually fun and colorful.
Documentary FeatureWill Win: "CitizenFour"
"Life Itself," easily the best documentary of the year, was not nominated, in a category that is more famous for the films it's unfairly ignored than the ones it has honored. The sad result, in my case, is that I ended up with a roster of five nominees of which I've not seen a one. I'd have to go back 20 years for the last time that happened. "CitizenFour" seems to have this locked up.
Documentary Short SubjectWill Win: "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1"
On the flip side, it's very unusual for me -- or anyone -- to have seen any of the documentary shorts beforehand. Stab in the dark, as usual.
Animated Feature FilmWill Win: "Big Hero 6"
Should Win: "The Boxtrolls"
Chris Cross: None
Much complaining about "The Lego Movie" not being nominated, but it was merely a pretty-good movie in a terrible year for animated films. "The Boxtrolls" and "How to Train Your Dragon 2" were the only ones even worthy of being nominated, imho. The fact the entirely lackluster "Big Hero 6" is the frontrunner is worthy of a depressing rumination on the state of cartoons.
Animated Short FilmWill Win/Should Win: "The Dam Keeper"
Usually Disney/Pixar has owned this category, but I've been bitten in recent years by making the jaded pick instead of my favorite, and ended up getting it wrong. "Feast" is lovely and joyous, but I adore the haunting animation and theme of "The Dam Keeper."
Live Action Short FilmWill Win: "Boogaloo and Graham"
Should Win: "Aya"
Several terrific nominees this year. "Boogaloo" is sentimental and has a pat ending, "Aya" is contemplative and ambiguous.
Foreign Language FilmWill Win: "Ida"
Costume DesignWill Win: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Should Win: "Maleficent"
Back when I saw "Maleficent," I noted that it would seem to have this award and the one for makeup locked up, given Angelina Jolie's unearthly appearance. But it didn't even get nominated for makeup (!) and appears headed to a loss in this category. The costumes were magnificent in "Hotel," so this isn't a "Gandhi" vs. "Tron" travesty.
Film EditingWill Win: "Boyhood"
Should Win: "American Sniper"
Voters are going to give it to "Boyhood" for stringing together 12 years of footage. But I think the tension of the battle scenes in "American Sniper" is a more worthy achievement.
Makeup and HairstylingWill Win: "Foxcatcher"
Should Win: "Guardians of the Galaxy"
Chris Cross: "Maleficent" replaces "
Tough one to call. I found Steve Carell's get-up in "Foxcatcher" distracting, not to mention not even resembling the guy he was depicting. (WTF was up with those rabbit teeth?) But Hollywood likes transformations where famous actors become unrecognizable. "Grand Budapest Hotel" has a shot, too, but I'll take the excellent creature features of "Guardians." I really don't think "Maleficent" would've been the huge international hit that it was if not for Angelina Jolie's inhuman look.
Production DesignWill Win/Should Win: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Wes Anderson finally abandoned his precious little dioramas for actual sets, and the results were smashing. A great, great-looking film.
Sound EditingWill Win/Should Win: "American Sniper"
The soundscape of the combat scenes in "American Sniper" was at least as important as the visuals.
Sound MixingWill Win: "Birdman"
Should Win: "Whiplash"
Chris Cross: Any film released in 2014 replaces "
When large swaths of the audience are talking about how awful the sound mix of your movie was, it's astonishing that "Interstellar" got a nod here. Remember, Academy Award nominations are determined by the voters in each respective field. So I guess professional sound people liked director Christopher Nolan's "bold" artistic choice to wash out the dialogue with thrumming music and sound effects. Awful, awful decision. If it wins, I may put hot pokers in my ears.