Brandon Curtis takes over for movie man Eddie Strait, who thought he’d be able to write more about the Oscar nominees leading up to the ceremony on Feb. 22. Instead of watching Oscar films, he caught up on Cinemax slugfest “Banshee,” watched “The Wedding Ringer,” and being the Jennifer Lopez completist that he is, he also saw “The Boy Next Door.” The only way he could have gone further in the opposite direction would probably be by watching “Grown Ups 2.” Without further adieu, Brandon’s thoughts on the major categories.
Steve Carrell (“Foxcatcher”): All semblance of Michael Scott is gone, and a completely malevolent force seems to have taken his place. Carrell brings a credible sense of unease and delusion to his role as wrestling enthusiast/ benefactor/ stalker/ murderer John DuPont. There’s also something occasionally tragic there. It’s a pretty wide ranging performance and finally Carrell’s validation for his near boundless talent.
Bradley Cooper (“American Sniper”): Vanishes effortlessly into the skin of Chris Kyle and sparingly but effectively doles out his character’s inner turmoil throughout while still maintaining the stoic veneer that probably makes war survivable for most. It goes without saying, he’s a man of many talents.
Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”): The least transformative of all the performances nominated. Alan Turing is an incredibly sympathetic character but with his genius IQ, remoteness, possible autism, and deep and abiding love (revealed in flashback) for another man, Cumberbatch is essentially playing a warm version of “Sherlock” and while that’s fine there’s stronger work to be found in the field.
Michael Keaton (“Birdman”): I’m sure the attendant angst in Keaton’s performance has to come from a real place, when you’ve been semi-retired for as long as Keaton has, it becomes normal to wonder about your legacy, to get the fires of passion burning enough to come out swinging, and just revel in the craft all over again. It’s also enough to drive you crazy. It’s a performance that feels real and immediate, that can only have come with time to bake. Without question, however much the other nominees can burrow into the souls of their characters they’re never as naked– literally or figuratively– than Keaton’s Riggan Thompson is here.
Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”): As physical transformations go, I was impressed by this one. Redmayne imbues Stephen Hawking with an awkward but honestly straightforward appeal that makes his early scenes with Felicity Jones go down like a spoonful of sugar. The gradual degradation of his body is well handled, but the soul of the performance has always been in how Hawking wishes to be understood. He honors that beautifully as his body and marriage slowly fall apart around him.
With apologies to Hawking: Keaton takes the prize.
Marion Cotillard (“Two Days One Night”): Another win for Cotillard wouldn’t hurt my feelings one bit. Cotillard is divine as a woman breaking through the throes of depression, forced to go hat in hand to all of her fellow employees and beg them to sacrifice their much needed bonuses for a chance to save her job. It takes a person worthy of deep sympathy to pull off such a role and Cotillard takes a no-frills approach, she knows it’s asking a lot and she’s not expecting much. Every ‘yes’ strengthens her and every ‘no’ hardens her resolve. Sure, she’s shaken along the way but what’s most on display is a testament to the human spirit: a real display of what grace and time can do for us when we thought we were broken.
Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”): I love her chemistry with Redmayne, how lovely and supportive and endearing she was as a character, even when their marriage deteriorated her love for and belief in Stephen never wavered. I wish I connected with the performance they way I did with some of the others, but it appears to function best as an accessory to Redmayne’s. That said, I look forward to a wealth of future nominations from her.
Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”): Another performance that immerses you deeply into the character’s malady. As Alice Howland’s struggle with Alzheimer’s heats up, we see Moore go from brimming with confidence and intelligence to a woman stumbling for the language that used to come so naturally to her. Moore sometimes possesses the glow of someone who hopes they can overcome the impossible odds, to someone just hoping to lose a little less this day than all the others. It’s a quiet and devastating peformance, and Moore is more than equal to the task
Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”): I’ve had my misgivings about Pike’s approach to the role of Amy Elliott Dunne. I thought the total icy, sociopath approach was the wrong way to play the character–who we have to believe and believe in until the script requires that we don’t. Regardless, there’s no denying that Pike is still dynamite at throwing ice. She’s a clever, cold, calculating bitch of a woman. It’s the first performance I can think of in a David Fincher movie that matches Fincher’s own cold remove. That’s not nothing, folks.
Reese Witherspoon (“Wild”): Witherspoon is easily the best thing about this film from “Dallas Buyer’s Club” helmer Jean Marc-Vallee. She plays Cheryl Strayed, a young woman wrestling her life. She battles the demons of addiction and various other temptations after a downward spiral following her mother’s death. This performance is the sort of reminder–nine years too late, maybe–that Witherspoon can be a damn fine actress when she puts her mind to it. When you put her up against a cast of dynamite character actors, she can be one too. Another win isn’t in her future, but I hope she takes this as a sign she should use smaller films as a path to career resurgence.
I’d like to call this a race between Cotillard and Moore, but Jones is the dark horse.
Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall (“The Judge”): I guess you can nominate Robert Duvall for being Robert Duvall, he’s good at being a gruff old cuss and if you give him a nice young man to spar with, by god, straw becomes gold. But truthfully, the material just isn’t worthy of the performance and this feels like a generic placeholder nod for a consummate old professional. Remember the scene in “The Judge” when Duvall shits himself and the camera lingers on it a little too long? And you realize it played so very poorly because the director (David Dobkin, “Wedding Crashers”) does comedies and he thinks doing a drama means courageously not averting the camera when the actor shits himself?
Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood”): Fitting that the man who never looked like he wanted to settle into domesticity–who looks like it fits a little ill when he finally does it, the rudderless drifter, the man who would never lose his adventurer’s heart or scruff as he got older is the one who got nominated for “Boyhood.” As the father, Hawke is effortlessly cool and smart, but also a fine embodiment of how boyhood, for some people, seems to be a transitive state that can almost last a lifetime. Hawke is never better than when he works with Richard Linklater.
Edward Norton (“Birdman”): Like Keaton before him, Norton’s performance traffics in reality. Norton is notoriously difficulty as a collaborator, known for wresting control of films and rewriting scripts. His performance here celebrates these things as virtues. Norton motivates his fellow actors to be better and the fact that he is the film’s most likable character svalidate how right he is to be difficult. I didn’t expect to find the work quite so endearing, but as with others in the film, Norton succeeds in laying out insecurities and having honest moments of self reflection. A surprising favorite of mine in a pretty stacked category.
Mark Ruffalo (“Foxcatcher”): I’m always in support of the possibility of Ruffalo gold. The man can convey heartbreaking depth no matter the material and the more spare that material, the more he rises to the occasion. Here he’s a man of few words and gestures but they say a lot about his deep and abiding love for his brother. He’s wonderful as the immovable object to DuPont’s unstoppable force. Unfortunately, Ruffalo functions much more as a foil. He deserves to win for a fuller role. For now, Ruffalo will have to settle for coming back a few more times over the years.
J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”): Simmons is the man to beat in this race. He oscillates between a friendly face and the kind of drill seargeant who could make R. Lee Ermey cry. He makes no bones about the notion of having to break someone down and then build them back up again. He does it unapologetically, and with terrifying ease. His speech about how damning the phrase ‘good job’ is to the developing youngster of American society is as good a justification as any for why a man like him is needed. Still, in spite of it all, the pettiness, the anger, the desire to break you down, there are glimmers of humanity in the performance. When he’s kind, you believe that he really means it. When he finally gives you that nod of respect, it means you won the race. The one where he forced you to outrun your own limitations.
J.K. Simmons’ prize to lose. Also acceptable: an Ethan Hawke win.
Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”): No one conveys the emotional turmoil of the film quite like Arquette does. She’s the one whose relationship woes have a real weight to them as she marries flighty young boys and abusive drunks. She’s the one who has to run off with her children, constantly reinvent herself and strengthen her resolve, fall apart at the idea of losing her children to time. There isn’t a character in the film who has to handle half as much as Arquette does. When she finally hugs her child for the last time before releasing him into the world, there’s something cataclysmic to it. It’s like losing a piece of your soul in a decades long struggle that you were never meant to win.
Laura Dern (“Wild”): I love Dern’s openness and when I look at her I shudder at the thought that anything bad happens to her character. She brings to the film a sense of intelligence and self assuredness, she also brings a lot of weight to the notion that your mother will always be the best friend that you have. But she’s an emblem. It’s Witherspoon who makes us feel the loss more, so in the pantheon of sainted mothers she’s at a little bit of a disadvantage.
Keira Knightley (“The Imitation Game”): Knightley acts as a fantastic mirror to Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game.” She plays a young cryptographer recruited to join his team She’s as smart and peculiar as she is beautiful. If Knightley seems like eye candy, well … she is, but her character is not. She’s the one who makes real the tragedy of Turing’s situation when she begs him to marry her despite his inclination towards men. She cares so very little about that and loves him enough for his mind that she’s willing to perpetuate a lie. It’s the entire struggle of the film writ large in one heartbreaking moment.
Emma Stone (“Birdman”): Emma Stone is great as the reflective, thoughtful, feisty, struggling addict daughter of Keaton’s Riggan Thompson. It allows Stone her first honest chance to hold her own with Oscar-level contemporaries.She has the capacity to provoke honesty and disarm us with vulnerability and piercing wit–the rooftop scene with Norton is Oscar-worthy on its own. This isn’t her year to take home the prize, but it’s a warm welcome to the big time for one of the finest young actors of her generation.
Meryl Streep (“Into The Woods”): Not to diminish the effort that went into preparation for the role and all the singing and what not, but this nomination is simply what happens when no one wants to put any actual effort into searching out a fifth worthy performance. So cheap and easy.
Patricia Arquette. It was only ever going to be Patricia Arquette.
“American Sniper”: A fairly even-handed account from Clint Eastwood about what it takes to survive war and the toll it takes on the men fighting it. Eastwood’s film manages to say a lot without getting political. It offers a fine showcase for Cooper to disappear into a role. It offers thoughtfulness and thematic consistency to Eastwood’s body of work.
“Birdman”: A self-aware rumination on the actor’s craft, legacy, and what it means to engage with art. The performances are really quite good and the actors all mesh well with one another. I’d like to call it a risky pick for the Academy but it celebrates actors in a way that they love so it could potentially be a no-brainer. Plus, its interesting technically with its fluid, one-shot trickery.
“Boyhood”: Ambitious in scale and scope, “Boyhood” captures growing up in a way that wasn’t foreseeable a dozen years ago. I hope it isn’t just the gimmick that people are embracing, but the way that life’s pivotal moments kind of sneak up on you and the way that one chapter of your life opens into the next without quite preparing you. It’s a great film about being in transit for about a dozen years and probably a dozen more we don’t get to see.
“Grand Budapest Hotel”: This was a rather unexpected treat. It tells the story of hotel concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), one of the last denizens of a world of sophistication and servitude through the eyes of his now-grown protege, lobby boy Zero. It’s a story about having no one in tumultuous landscapes and finding unlikely allies therein. It’s a tale told with high style and no small amount of charm. It also has a pretty thrilling last act. I kind of wish the movie ultimately had a better shot at winning but it’s an adequate enough recognition of the movie’s charms.
“The Imitation Game”: This biopic of the life of Alan Turing, breaker of the Nazi Enigma code machine, boasts a sense of urgency. Whatever it lacks in visual audacity, it makes up for in clever structuring: the turns of the investigation that bookend the film mirror pivotal events in Turing and his “Turing machine’s” development. The film is a tragedy as well and does an adequate job of conveying the great sense of loss we feel at Turing’s premature demise, and the indignities that preceded it.
“Selma”: This feels like the right time for “Selma.” In a year that has seen lots of racial injustice and serves as a crippling reminder that, for as far as the nation has come, there is so much farther we have to go, there’s no more prescient a film. However, it has to make one wonder what more has to align than the voices of people saying that they’ve had enough, what other powerful people have to listen, and how many more martyrs will it take?
“The Theory of Everything”: It’s nice to watch an actor do transformative work, but the truth the picture itself is really nothing remarkable. It gives us a sense of who Hawking was and what his disease cost him, the lack of synchronicity between mind and body and how those chasms drive people apart, but it lacks a visual flair, urgency, or distinction in the biopic game.
“Whiplash”: On the whole, I’m not a big fan of “Whiplash” and its bullying-as-teaching methodology, but I can appreciate it. It’s an electric experience. It defies our relationship with movie assholes by embracing and allowing us to understand someone so resoundingly unpleasant. Not every film has to be full of likable people. It’s odds are the longest of shots, but at least there’s a shot.
I really want “Selma” to win more than anything. It’d be a nice corrective to some of the more egregious snubs it endured (David Oyelowo for Actor, Ava DuVernay for Director). I’d also be happy with “Birdman” or “Boyhood” victories.
I like to vote with my gut and my gut had a lot to say this year just don’t go betting the house in Vegas on my account.