Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscars 2014: Best Actor and Best Actress

I say this every year, but modern cinema is blessed with an abundance of high-quality acting talent. You can argue about whether the movies themselves are better or worse than they used to be—I'd suggest that it's a bit of both—but the caliber of the actors is as good as it's ever been.


BEST ACTOR

NOMINEES
Steve Carell—Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper—American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch—The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton—Birdman
Eddie Redmayne—The Theory of Everything

WILL WIN
Carell and Cumberbatch are out. American Sniper somehow became a phenomenon late in the season, so it's possible Cooper could pull an upset here, but his name hasn't been mentioned as regularly as either Keaton or Redmayne. If you're pegging Birdman to rip through Sunday's entire show, then Keaton is the pick here. But as well as Birdman has performed on the circuit, I don't think it's ever achieved a Slumdog Millionaire-level of momentum. Redmayne won the Trinity—again, that's scooping awards at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Screen Actors' Guild—and more importantly, he plays a famous historical figure with a physical disability, thereby hitting two of the Academy's sweetest spots. Eddie Redmayne wins his first Oscar.





SHOULD WIN
What's crazier: that these are five very strong performances, or that only one of them cracks my list of the top ten lead male performances of the year? I told you the acting industry was loaded. As for this field, Carell and Keaton are a tick behind the other two. Carell effectively burrows deep within his troubled billionaire, but he never quite establishes what makes him tick. (He also isn't really the film's lead.) Keaton is suitably harebrained and panicky, but he can't turn his construct into a real character, and his presence seems to recede whenever he's on screen with Edward Norton (and, to a certain degree, with Emma Stone).

The remaining three, however, are terrific. Packing on muscle, Cooper looks the part of a Navy SEAL, but he's also beautifully withdrawn and tentative when he isn't peering through his rifle's scope. Redmayne's physicality (and lack thereof) is obviously impressive, but he somehow communicates an array of emotions without gestures or words. Neither performance, however, quite reaches the heights of Benedict Cumberbatch's work in The Imitation Game, in which he mingles selfishness, cluelessness, desire, and pain into a singularly persuasive portrait of a misunderstood genius.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Ralph Fiennes—The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jake Gyllenhaal—Nightcrawler
Tom Hardy—Locke
Oscar Isaac—A Most Violent Year
Joaquin Phoenix—Inherent Vice

Fiennes breathes human life into the fastidiously constructed Grand Budapest Hotel, combining supreme elegance with hysterical disgust. Gyllenhaal is magnetically repellent as an amoral bloodhound. Hardy, with his haunted eyes and precise elocution, shows why he sports the highest WARA (wins above replacement actor) of any performer working today; swap him out for Shawn Hatosy or Zach Braff, and Locke turns from a delight into an ordeal. Isaac instantly recalls a young Al Pacino while also bringing his own intelligence and unpredictability to his faux gangster. Phoenix gives Inherent Vice is woozy, wistful soul.

My ideal winner: Tom Hardy—Locke.





MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Tom Cruise—Edge of Tomorrow
Benedict Cumberbatch—The Imitation Game
Brendan Gleeson—Calvary
Timothy Spall—Mr. Turner
Miles Teller—Whiplash

Cruise brings both humor and pathos to his role as a bureaucrat who wills himself into becoming a hero. Gleeson carries himself with a tangible weariness that nevertheless allows glimmers of light to shine through. Spall grunts and growls and never betrays an ounce of weakness. Teller makes you feel both his passion and his pain.





Also deserving: Chadwick Boseman—Get On Up (for feeling good); Nicolas Cage—Joe (for giving a shit); Jesse Eisenberg—The Double (for putting a new twist on the twin movie); Jude Law—Dom Hemingway (for going for broke and nailing it); Philip Seymour Hoffman—A Most Wanted Man (for giving us one last gift); Matthew McConaughey—Interstellar (for locating the emotion amid the bombast); Andy Serkis—Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (for doing it again).


BEST ACTRESS

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

WILL WIN
Moore. If you're thinking about backing an upset, forget about it.





SHOULD WIN
It's possible this quintet is even stronger than the Best Actor field. Cotillard is enormously sympathetic without ever asking for your pity. (That her work in Two Days, One Night isn't even her best performance of 2014 should hardly be held against her.) Playing opposite the showier Redmayne, Jones is the true anchor of The Theory of Everything, gradually allowing cracks of doubt and regret to creep into her portrayal of a fiercely committed wife. Moore never goes too broad or cheap, which makes her character's gradual descent into invalidity all the more agonizing. And Witherspoon allows you to perceive her wanderer's isolation while still making her standoffish and even unappealing.

But my single favorite performance of the year, from any movie, is Rosamund Pike's stupendous turn in Gone Girl. With her searing rage and flawless technique, she dwarfs everyone around her, including her fellow nominees.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Felicity Jones—The Theory of Everything
Gugu Mbatha-Raw—Beyond the Lights
Julianne Moore—Still Alice
Rosamund Pike—Gone Girl
Shailene Woodley—The Fault in Our Stars

Mbatha-Raw uses her magnificent voice to create a portrait of a confused and wounded artist. Woodley just makes your heart glow.

My ideal winner: Rosamund Pike—Gone Girl.





MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Rose Byrne—Neighbors
Marion Cotillard—The Immigrant
Essie Davis—The Babadook
Scarlett Johansson—Under the Skin
Reese Witherspoon—Wild

Byrne elevates Neighbors from a crass comedy to a sharp and refreshingly reciprocal study of marriage. Cotillard combines outer fragility with inner strength. Davis makes you ache for her, except when she's scaring you to death. Johansson locates uncharted depths, disappearing into her role of a curious, malevolent visitor.





Also deserving: Angelina Jolie—Maleficent (for taking herself seriously); Jenny Slate—Obvious Child (for making a fool of herself); Tessa Thompson—Dear White People (for doing both).


Up next: the big ones—Best Director and Best Picture.

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