Well it’s that time of year again. I’ve been watching the brouhaha of the Academy Awards Ceremony since I was a little kid. I was born in 1962, so that means I’ve been watching for nearly fifty years. I have never missed the Oscars, ever.
My mom and dad were working class parents and children of the Depression. We didn’t go a lot of places when I was growing up, but the one place we did go was to the movies. We went nearly every week, sometimes more than once a week. So when the Oscars rolled around, it was pretty much guaranteed that we had seen most of the main contenders. (My parents brought me to anything and everything). Oscar night was always a really big event in our household, and I have many memories of hunkering down in the family room and watching the awards, the gowns, the songs, and the music numbers. They seemed so much better back then, but maybe that’s just how memory works. Nostalgia for the past can skew the reality of what it really was. I can say with confidence that my most powerful childhood Oscar memory is from 1972 when Isaac Hayes wheeled out on stage in a suit of chains to perform the Theme from Shaft. I was nine years old, and he was badder than bad ass. I was awed, and to this day I still am.
We don’t see Isaac Hayes in chains on the Oscars these days. The musical numbers are not only white-washed, but they are abominably bad with no soul of any variety. Though this year’s Best Picture contenders do include an MLK Jr biopic that includes a short appearance by Malcolm X, there is little sense of mainstream cinema as groundbreaking and political as it was in the late 60s and early 70s. This is 2015, and the Oscar nominees show the schizophrenic culture we live in.
The Best Picture category includes four biopics supposedly depicting “real life” events. This is one of the biggest illusions Hollywood perpetuates – that any movie is actually a representation of real life. It is all created for the screen, whether based on real events or not! This year’s biopics themselves are a mess of cultural confusion. Clint Eastwood brings us American Sniper, the story of Chris Kyle, a Texas cowboy who signed up to kill Iraqis after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. He was so self-righteous that he wrote an autobiography about being “the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.” There’s a claim to fame. Kyle didn’t live to see Eastwood’s heroic portrayal of him because Kyle himself was killed by a fellow veteran because, well, war fucks people up. Eastwood attempts to make that point, but mostly he does a great job of orchestrating the sounds of gunfire for probably close to 120 of the 132 minute running time of the film. Hollywood does tend to like a war hero, but is this the year that we need to be celebrating a cold blooded assassin as a hero? Probably not.
Pit American Sniper against other biopic Best Picture nominee Selma, and you have a real schism going. American Sniper is white as white gets. Eastwood likes to fashion himself as a liberal champion of the working class and the underdogs of America, but he isn’t a black woman which is what Selma’s director Ava DuVernay is. She has used her perspective as a black woman to create a film about Martin Luther King Junior as an actual real man and not a god (as he is seen by so many). While Eastwood deifies soldier and killer Chris Kyle, DuVernay un-deifies and humanizes King. Interestingly, one of these pictures is the story of a deified assassin while the other is the story of a man gunned down and killed by an assassin. Certainly in this light, it would seem that American Sniper doesn’t stand a rat’s chance in hell to win Best Picture. Besides, does Clint Eastwood really need another Oscar? Isn’t it about time that his last film really is his last film? On the other hand, an Oscar has never once been awarded to an African American woman director, so maybe Selma stands a chance because the Academy has been making efforts to clean up its racist past. Maybe Best Director and Best Film will be split. This is a compromise Hollywood has been practicing lately to best appease all sides (money backers). DuVernay could get director, and some other film will get Best Picture.
The remaining two biopics fall into the Tortured and Brilliant Souls (TBS) category. This year’s nominees for TBS include The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the guy who took down the Nazis in WWII, invented the computer, was tried as a homosexual, and committed suicide. Talk about Oscar bait! Too bad the Cumberfuck sold his soul to the Weinsteins because he actually gives a damn good performance in this film. It is one of the best in the Best Actor category, but it is corrupted by the motivations of the film (a Weinstein production created solely to win Best Picture). This is the kind of movie that would have won Best Picture in the 1950s, so it makes sense that Cumberbatch made the regrettable mishap of referring to black actors as “colored” during an interview when he was actually attempting to champion for more careers for black actors in the States. This poor linguistic choice was an unfortunate convergence of Cumberbatch being the ancestor of plantation and slave owners combined with having his head stuck in the 50s from working on this film. With Selma on the ticket, I think Cumberbatch has no choice but to duck his head in shame, though I’m sure he’ll show up on the red carpet with his Publicity Stunt Wife at his side (another Weinstein Production, no doubt). It’s a damn shame the guy doesn’t realize it doesn’t work that way anymore. You don’t have to get married to win an Oscar. In fact, you don’t even have to be straight. Maybe if Cumberbatch came out of whatever closet he’s in, he could stop tying his own noose (and becoming a real life manifestation of the tragic character he plays in The Imitation Game).
The second Tortured Brilliant Soul film is The Theory of Everything in which Eddie Redmayne plays scientific genius Stephen Hawking who wrote The Bible of Science A Brief History of Time. My mom had a saying, and yours may have shared the same one: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Well, fuck that advice. I’m going to tell it like it is. Nothing makes Oscar Fodder like an overwrought performance about a crippled (yes I used the “C Word”) genius tripping over his own feet, losing his speech, and slobbering all over himself while trying to speak brilliant truths of the ways of the world and the universe. This movie is SO WRONG in so many ways that I can’t even count them. Anything that inspires me to say, “Oh no, not the crippled feet AGAIN!” is a result of what’s wrong with the film not what’s wrong with me. Period. The movie, however, does make a point to emphasize the fact that Hawking’s penis was still alive and functioning since he produced three children with his sperm. Unless he was secretly inventing artificial insemination in the backroom, then he was actually still fucking his wife, according to this Oscar contender. Is it wrong of me to find Redmayne’s slobbering muttering unendurable after 60 minutes? Or is the film egregiously exploitive as well as being just plain bad. Then there’s the whole God/church thing thrown into the mix because nothing increases the Oscar Ante like showing the complexities of science and religion and the people torn between the two. Despite its lofty intentions, this movie doesn’t stand a chance either. It blows too hard.
Now let’s get on with the Not-Biopics – the films that actually have a shot at winning and really are some of the best pictures of the year: Birdman, Boyhood, Grand Budapest Hotel, and Whiplash. I like all four of these films in this exact order: 1) Grand Budapest Hotel; 2) Boyhood; 3) Whiplash, and 4) Birdman. Let me tell you why in reverse.
I’ll start with Birdman (directed by Hollywood favorite Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Michael Keaton). I had a hard time really loving this movie about a former action movie star trying to regain some self-respect and rekindle his acting career by giving a stab at Broadway with a personal adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Mean When We Talk About Love. This film is almost too clever for its own good with its rapid fire pacing, literary references, nods to social media, and frenetic absurdity. But in the end, I think it is really sincere and what makes it work for so many people is that it’s about world-weary, haggard yet somehow naive losers who want to be winners. There is aninnocence in the characters’ plundering “been around the block but keep ending up at the same place” attack on life. Michael Keaton is a super anti-hero, and we can’t help but root for him even while he makes us kind of sick. That’s life. It’s absurdly complex. I predict Birdman will win Best Picture because it’s a safe bet and an industry film. It opens with a poster for Actor’s Equity on the wall of Keaton’s small dressing room. It is a movie about acting, and it is directed by and stars Hollywood insiders. It takes the weight off the Academy to vote for a politically charged movie like Selma which reads all too closely to this year’s news headlines straight out of contemporary Ferguson, Missouri.
Whiplash is a great counterpart to Birdman, sharing a heart-racing jazz score and characters with an obsessive drive to succeed. But this is a different story, one about a young kid jazz drummer (Miles Teller) who is literally whipped into success by his sadistic and ultimately lonely and pathetic teacher (an astonishing performance by Best Actor contender J.K. Simmons ). The cinematography and pacing in this film are extraordinary, and it is a terrific portrayal of the creative drive and the pain of being creatively driven. As much as I loved it and critics loved it, it is way too much of an outsider film to win Best Picture, though Simmons may walk off with the Best Actor Oscar.
This brings me to the last two Best Picture nominees – Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood. I love both these films beyond measure. You can read my extensive review of Boyhood here. I never wrote about GBH though I saw it in the movie theater at least ten times. It was the kind of movie I have never stopped loving to watch. Sometimes I’d be home on a Saturday night, and on the spur of the moment I’d drive to the movie theater in my pajamas and slippers just to watch GBH because I love the movie and the whole cinematic aura of the film. But also, I wanted to spend time with the characters because they seemed like old friends. I also watched Boyhood about a half dozen times in the movie theater. I see these films as opposite sides of the same coin. While GBH seems like constructed artifice, at its heart it is completely sincere and human. On the other hand, Boyhood seems completely authentic and hides the fact that it is an artificial creation – a film. Both films are timeless but come at timelessness from different directions.
I had a tough time deciding which was going to take my Best Picture vote, but ultimately GBH won because it harkens to everything I love about movies. Movies have been a refuge for me since I was a very young girl. They were where I went when the “real” world seemed unbearable. Grand Budapest Hotel captures the magic of timeless cinema and so many genres that are wrapped into its history while also touching on the loneliness and longing that lead us to the movies to escape the terrors of the world. Terrors exist in GBH, but so do imagination and magic like in all Wes Anderson films. However, Wes Anderson is way too much of a quirky outsider (and the film is way too quirky of an outsider film) to win. This is another reason I love it. It is a movie about quirky outsiders but also beckons to the quirky outsiders who turn to cinema for a place to go when the world is too much for them. I am one of them, and I turned to this movie many times this past year.
Originally I would have banked on Boyhood to take Best Picture, and there is an outside shot that it still might. But to go back to Texas and Selma, it is hard for me to imagine the Industry giving the Oscar to a film directed by a white Texas boy and Hollywood outsider when it’s running against Selma. Boyhood is perfectly timely for the Hollywood’s Age of Zen Mindfulness (living in “the moment” and all that trendy stuff), but I don’t know if it will be able to carry enough weight to carry the Oscar home. Some have critiqued the film for failing as a coming of age story as its title suggests it should be, but they are missing the point that part of what the movie is saying is that none of us ever grow up. We are always growing, learning, fucking up, and evolving.
My guess is that Hollywood is either going to give Best Picture and Best Director to Birdman, or they are going to split the ticket, giving Best Picture to Birdman and Best Director to Linklater for Boyhood, or vice versa – Best Picture to Boyhood and Best Director to Iñárritu. Remember last year’s nod to Alfonso Cuarón to keep Hollywood’s business relations South of the Border healthy. Mexico and Hollywood have a strong business marriage. There is a chance that they will throw a bone at Ava DuVernay for the Politically Correct Black Woman Director award. Also DuVernay is aLos Angeles native. She was raised in Compton and got a degree in English and African American studies from UCLA, so she very well may get some recognition. Selma has a lot of interesting stuff going on in it, and it certainly isn’t a bad movie, but I don’t think it’s the best either.
That concludes my take on Best Picture, so let’s move onto acting which gets a little more difficult to nail. Best Actress nominees make for a tough prediction. Personally, my choice is Marion Cotillard for her role as the economically depressed Sandra in the Dardennes Brothers’ harsh critique of Darwinian Capitalism Two Days, One Night. Cotillard completely embodies desperation, depression, endurance, spirit, and the desire to both fight and give up. It is a brilliant performance, but she will never win because she is way too far removed from the Hollywood movie industry. (Read my complete review of the film here.)
On the other hand, Julianne Moore pulls out all the stops in Still Alice in which she plays a Columbia linguistics professor diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s. (She’s only fifty when she discovers she has the disease). I love Julianne Moore, but I still had a hard time watching this film on the heels of Two Days, One Night. Maybe it’s not fair of me, but it sure is hard to stomach a competition between Julianne Moore and Marion Cotillard. Both actresses spend much time staring into despairing space with their entire bodies encompassing defeat while also holding onto the last threads of fight. However, Alice has a Manhattan townhouse, a beach front house and a rich and dedicated husband to help her out. Sandra, on the other hand, is facing being jobless and the prospect of returning to public housing. Her husband is dedicated, but he works as a low-wage cook who can’t cut the mustard to care for the family on his own. Maybe it’s unfair to feel a twinge of FUCK YOU at Still Alice because of the class disparity between Moore’s character and Cotillard’s. Human suffering is human suffering, right? But holy shit, imagine Sandra with Alzheimer’s?! There’s a role!
Still, Moore does pull out a dynamic performance. It is noted in the film that Alice came from hardship and worked to the bone to succeed. And Moore can pull off tears of desperation like no other contemporary actress. That woman knows how to SOB ON COMMAND, and she did bring some tears to my eyes during a number of scenes. (That’s what weepies are for, right?) While I seriously doubt Cotillard stands a chance, Moore might take home a gold statue. Hollywood loves to champion stories of people battling diseases (see aforementioned story of Stephen Hawking), and Julianne Moore is an industry favorite and a hell of an actress. Her performances are epic in the two Paul Thomas Anderson films Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999).
I can’t even believe that Felicity Jones was nominated for her role as Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane. Seriously, she is such a god-awful stereotype – the total self-sacrificing woman with unmentionable longings she doesn’t give into because, well, she is righteous and religious. Ugh. What a reactionary role. Then there is Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl who makes one goddamn awesome psychopath. (A great counterpart to Jones’s saintly Jane Hawking!) Pike does a chilling job at portraying the artificial construct of gender roles, marriage, economics, class, and power and how they are all tied together. She is a classic Hitchcock woman turned on her head into villain, heroine, and monster. I give her a thumbs-up though I doubt Hollywood will.
This brings me to the final nominee and the one I think will win – Reese Witherspoon for her role in Wild, the biopic based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, a young woman who gave up drugs, men, booze and sex to trek the Pacific Crest Trail and find herself. The film has everything Hollywood loves – a feminist view of the female survivor (represented not just by Reese’s character but also her mother played by Laura Dern). It’s one of those “buy a bunch of camping junk from REI and return to nature and rip-off your toenail tales” that makes audiences champion for the lead character and all the women who fight their way to survival and self-discovery. To me, the story rings false even if it’s based on real events. Personally, I think Laura Dern’s performance (who is nominated for Best Supporting Actress) is way more interesting than Reese Witherspoon’s. But Witherspoon is a “younger” Hollywood insider, earning her industry cred from Clueless (1995) on up. She showed her face as a “serious” American Realist actress in a small role in last year’s Mud, and I think she’s going to get the award because the Academy likes to honor the new alongside the old. Stephen Hawking won’t get it, nor will Alan Turing, but the young girl from Oregon who hikes her way to self-discovery will.
I’ve already touched on some of the Best Actor nominees, but l’ll go ahead and quickly run through them. First of all, despite the crippled feet and brilliant brain (Eddie Redmayne), the Iraq war assassin/ PTSD veteran (Bradley Cooper), the great make-up job and overbite (Steve Carell), and the tortured closeted homosexual genius (Benedict Cumberbatch), there isn’t a chance in hell that Michael Keaton is not walking way with the Best Actor award for his role in Birdman. In fact, he is my choice too. His role is so sincere. In a way, Keaton plays himself – the former Batman and actor who’s been on the skids– making a comeback though he’s washed up, wrinkled, old, flabby, bald, and a more than a wee bit tawdry. Not only that, but Keaton hails from a working class family, the youngest of seven children, and he got to Hollywood through hard work. He’s a classic Hollywood success story, and his role reflects that with all the ambition and letdown – the desire to create and become something special while also being weighed down by the reality of being a flawed and fucked-up human. Keaton is a likeable guy, and so is his character even when he is self-deluded and ignorant. Remember the subtitle to the film is “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” There is something to be said for that. Ignorance can make us awful or make us more human or both. Keaton gives us all sides.
Supporting roles are both difficult to pick and to predict because they are almost always all really good performances since their very nature is to support (or provide strength) to the lead characters. In the case of Best Supporting Actor, I’m pretty much left saying that all the roles are great in different ways, so I have no idea who the Academy will pick. Certainly Robert Duvall has earned his Industry cred, and everyone will get all warm and fuzzy if he wins. I love Robert Duvall. He plays rugged real roles. In many ways, he always plays the same role in different guises – the tough hard-edged guy with a code of ethics and fixed rules that muddy his relationships with others and often end up being compromised, but he does it so well. I think the weakest is Mark Ruffalo who also plays himself except with a beard.
The real tough call for me is between Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton and J.K. Simmons. All three are spectacular but very different performances. Ethan Hawke has nailed the deadbeat dad trying to do right in Boyhood. He’s got the line delivery, the body language, and the subtle changes in character as he evolves throughout the film. Edward Norton is an absolute riot in Birdman as an impotent hard-on, a waxed sagging middle-aged egomaniac who is obnoxious, pathetic, human, and utterly unlikeable yet likeable at the same time. Finally, J.K. Simmons pours himself into his role in Whiplash. His entire body and voice are coiled tight as a jazz score ready to explode (and he does plenty of exploding). But he’s not just a nuclear bomb of rage and sadism. He is a mixed up mess of confused drive and motivation. The split in his character between the desire for the art of perfection and the perfection of art is a complex and confusing mix which causes terror, drive, self-delusion, defeat, and triumph. All that said, I think I’d have to make him my pick, but really I think it’s a tie between Hawke, Norton and Simmons. I have no idea who the Academy will pick. Maybe they’ll throw a veteran award to Duvall.
Finally I come to Best Supporting Actress. First of all, does Meryl Streep really need another Oscar? The answer is simple. No. Other than her, I can toss aside Emma Stone because staring out of big lizard eyes like a shell shocked yet deeply emotive struggling daughter of an egomaniacal actor does not necessarily make a girl the Best Supporting Actress. She needs a few more roles and nuances under her belt. Keira Knightly usually plays the same role – skinny, quirky, strong and determined girl who is the sidekick to a freaky guy, in this case Alan Turing, and I just am not seeing anything new, fresh and alive in her acting. This leaves me with my picks for the best two supporting actresses: Laura Dern in Wild and Patricia Arquette in Boyhood. Interestingly, both roles are mothers. While Dern shows us a mom struggling for independence and voice while still being firmly committed to being a mom to her kids, Arquette shows us all the complexities of parenting: the fact that parents try but fuck things up, that they are parents but also terminally kids. Hands down, my vote goes to Arquette, and I think the Academy will go the same way. She completely embodies the terrible mess of contradictions we endure as parents.We care about our children so much but also try to carve out a place for our own life, and most importantly, we “don’t fucking have the answers to everything,” (to quote Arquette in the film). As parents, we have to endure and ultimately set our kids free while at the same time figure out how to live ourselves. Arquette captures all this, and she wins in my book.
That takes me through the major categories. As far as other categories go, I just want to give a nod to cinematography and my documentary pick. Unequivocally, Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s stunning black and white cinematography in the Polish film Ida (also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film) is the most masterful and beautiful filmmaking I have seen this year. Shot in black and white in 4:3 Academy Ratio, every single frame is an exercise in cinematic and photographic perfection. The images are stunning, minimalist, empty yet claustrophobic. The play of light and shadow, the placement of the figures within the frame, the landscape and mise-en-scene are all painfully beautiful as if we are living inside a painting, one that is both closing in on us yet offering us exits just beyond reach. It is like Bela Tarr except the whites become as excruciatingly alienating and claustrophobic as Tarr’s blacks.
For a more “mainstream” film, I choose Robert Yeoman’s work on Grand Budapest Hotel for best cinematography. Whether you like the film or not, it would be hard to deny that every single frame is meticulously and beautifully composed. One of the reasons I watched it so many times is simply because I wanted to get lost inside the magic of the world it creates cinematographically – the colors, textures, patterns, and worlds within worlds. And it looks like nothing else. It is a delectable treat for the eyes and senses. However, I don’t think the Academy will pick either of these films. I predict it will pick Emmanuel Lubezki for Birdman, a film which most likely will sweep the Oscars.
Finally, for documentary I pick Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, and I think the Academy will as well. At first, I thought the Oscar would go to Finding Vivian Maier, but there is too much controversy over the rights to her work, exploitation, and, in the terms of the movie industry, piracy. Citizenfour follows Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle blower who is both a hero and anti-hero of our time. The film, though flawed, is really interesting because we are never quite sure what Snowden’s motivations are. The murky places are what make the film interesting. Snowden has staged his role as whistle blower, while Poitras has staged the film to tell the story the way she wants to tell it on her and Snowden’s terms. In the end, the idea of truth is put into question, and we are reminded that not only is the government not to be trusted, but neither are documentaries. They are constructions with their own agenda, and no construction is pure truth.
That wraps up my predictions and my picks for the main categories. Now we can get on with the brouhaha on Sunday night. I have maintained my tradition and continue to watch the Oscars every single year, even though I am older and wiser now and understand that the Oscars are just a big Industry Promotional Event and that Best Picture has nothing to do with what’s best. But as much as the Oscars piss me off every year, I still can’t help but get caught up in the hoopla. Making my picks for winners, predicting who is going to win, and most importantly jeering and yelling at the outrage, bad jokes, horrific musical numbers and fashion mistakes is a lot of fun. My daughter watches every year with me, so we have carried on my family tradition.
This all may seem trivial, but it’s fun, and sometimes fun is okay. The Oscars are like sports for movie fans. It’s the Cinematic Super Bowl. I know a lot of people like to crap on Hollywood, and certainly there are plenty of reasons to dump on it, but I want to remind you that Hollywood provides a lot of jobs for people who otherwise would be on the skids. When you watch those credits roll at the end of the film, think that every single one of those people is someone who has a job, probably with health benefits and a decent pay check. Many of them are union jobs. Sandra in Two Days, One Night wouldn’t mind having one of those jobs, nor would a lot of other people looking for work. It’s easy to criticize the big bad movie machine, but that machine employs a lot of people. I am a working mom who just came off of seven months looking for a job, so I can tell you that I appreciate an industry that provides paychecks for everyone from the caterer to the set designer to the stunt man and the secretaries. I also appreciate an industry that gives me a place to go to for refuge and escape when the world is too much for me – the movies – and I will never get tired of going there.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.