Monday, February 23, 2015

Oscars 2014 recap: "Birdman" soars, "Boyhood" slips, and Neil Patrick Harris flops (and Sean Penn cracks wise and ill-advised)

So how were this year's Oscars? It depends on which part of me you're asking. As a movie fan, they were intriguingly democratic—each of the eight Best Picture nominees walked away with at least one statuette—even if I was disappointed in the Academy's choice for its top prize. As a show business fan, they were pretty awful, with a limp performance from host Neil Patrick Harris and a draggy first two-and-a-half hours that were only marginally redeemed by some strong speeches on the back end.

But as a prognosticator, they were pretty good. I went 17-for-21 this year (81%), a dip from last year's career-best 19-for-21 performance, but still reasonably impressive given the relative unpredictability of this year's slate. (Translation: I couldn't just check off Gravity for one-third of this year's races.) My success, as always, was the combination of painstaking research and dumb luck. I'll take it.

Before we get to the awards themselves, I want to discuss Harris' performance. The role of Oscar host has been redundant for years now; the producers could just use a voiceover to introduce the various presenters, and the show wouldn't miss a beat (and would shave its bloated running time). But the gig still exists, and in my view, a successful Oscar host needs to do two things. First, he needs to crush the opening monologue/song. Second, he needs to be quick with an ad-lib and generally adapt to the show's overall flow without drawing too much attention to himself. And to Harris' credit, he knocked the first task out of the park. After a killer one-liner to open the telecast ("Tonight we honor Hollywood's best and whitest, sorry, brightest!"), Harris showed off his musical chops with a corker of an opening number, featuring a spry Anna Kendrick and a gamely contrarian Jack Black. (On Saturday night, my friend Allison and I discussed how the show might comment on Harris' character's fate in Gone Girl, but we couldn't have imagined a more appropriate reveal than Kendrick belting it out at full volume, followed by Harris' aghast, "Spoiler alert.") And sure, his ode to "moving pictures" constituted unabashed navel-gazing, but that's what the Oscars are all about, so the performers might as well have some fun while they're slapping themselves on the back.

From that point forward, however, Harris vacillated between anxious and disastrous. Over the course of the evening, he landed an astonishingly low percentage of his jokes, which led him to spend most of the night wearing a sheepish, apologetic grin. Worse, his running gag with Octavia Spencer was a total dud, with a weak payoff that didn't come close to justifying its insipid, drawn-out execution. And his occasional forays into the aisles left me longing for Ellen DeGeneres, a more perky and compliant presence who, for all her faults, excels in putting celebrities at their ease. With any luck, Harris will return in the future for another musical performance, but I can't imagine him retaining the hosting gig.

But so it goes. On to some quickie analysis of the awards, listed in order of their presentation:

Best Supporting Actor
Predicted winner: J.K. Simmons—Whiplash (confidence: 5/5)
Preferred winner: J.K. Simmons—Whiplash
Actual winner: J.K. Simmons—Whiplash

It's deeply gratifying when my predicted/preferred/actual trio all read the same. Sadly, this alignment would only occur twice more on this Oscar night. Nice speech by Simmons with the "Call your Mom" bit, though I remain disappointed that he didn't drop a "Not quite my tempo" line at the orchestra.

This was followed by Liam Neeson introducing two of the eight Best Picture nominees, one of three such montages on the evening (a tricky feat, given that eight is not divisible by three). After that, a nervous Dakota Johnson introduced Adam Levine and his painfully awkward performance of Begin Again's "Lost Stars", complete with bizarre gesticulations and random kneeling. The producers could have at least tied it in with the movie and cut to Keira Knightley gazing at him with disappointment from the wings, but no dice.

Best Costume Design
Predicted winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel (confidence: 3/5)
Preferred winner: Maleficent
Actual winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

No surprise here, though I suspect most of the audience was wondering who designed Jennifer Lopez's dress.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Predicted winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel (confidence: 4/5)
Preferred winner: Guardians of the Galaxy
Actual winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

As expected, The Grand Budapest Hotel dominated early in the evening. Nice touch from the producers turning the set into a Budapest-like façade, complete with doormen. Also, presenting awards is a secretly tricky task, but Reese Witherspoon made it look completely effortless.

Best Foreign Language Film
Predicted winner: Ida (confidence: 1/5)
Actual winner: Ida

Boom! One of the biggest question marks of the night, and I nailed it thanks to my ingenious "Pick the Holocaust movie" strategy. Props to Pawel Pawlikowski from yammering right through the orchestra's play-off music. Have you seen Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love, starring a pre-Devil Wears Prada Emily Blunt? You should.

Now, you know how people complain that the Oscar telecast runs too long? Consider the following sequence of events after Pawlikowski left the stage, none of which involved the presentation of a feature award:

First: Shirley MacLaine introduced the next crop of Best Picture nominees. She was a little shaky, but if I'm that coherent at 80 years old, I'll be more than happy.

Second: Harris prowled the aisles and made seat-fillers uncomfortable, then somehow neutered Steve Carell's comic genius.

Third: Tegan and Sara and the Lonely Island delivered an appropriately rambunctious performance of "Everything Is Awesome". Sure, it was a bit chaotic, and it failed to properly incorporate Will Arnett's brilliant "Darkness" bit, but it had some pep. It also gives me an excuse to plug Tegan and Sara's "Closer", their terrific single from their strong 2013 album, Heartthrob.

Fourth: Kerry Washington and Jason Bateman presented the live-action shorts. Now, at least these were live presentations, and I don't want to be overly dismissive of the shorts, but let's not pretend that the audience cares about them. This did, however, result in one of the show's stranger moments. One of the creators of the documentary winner rambled on and on, leading the other to desperately cut in as the orchestra attempted to play her off the stage, only for the music to (wisely) stop when she announced that her son had committed suicide. At that point, a completely tone-deaf Harris somehow felt it was appropriate to follow that revelation with the joke, "It takes a lot of balls to wear a dress like that." Classy.

Fifth: Viola Davis introduced a video clip of the Governors' Awards (which, again, no one cares about), followed by Harris roping in David Oyelowo for one of his typically weak bits. On the plus side, as the crowd applauded Oyelowo, Harris delivered a rare zinger with, "Oh sure, now you like him!" On the minus side, the joke about Annie landed with a gigantic thud.

Sixth: Gwyneth Paltrow introduced Tim McGraw to perform the nominated song from the Glen Campbell documentary.

Seventh: Harris did his Birdman homage, walking to the stage in his underwear to the sounds of a percussive score. As far as comic bits go, this one was a tad obvious, though featuring Miles Teller as the drummer was inspired and legitimately surprising.

Eighth: Teller and Margot Robbie (wearing what looked like the Hope Diamond slung around her neck) introduced a pre-taped bit on the Scientific and Technical Awards, yet another group of awards that nobody cares about.

And then, finally, Sienna Miller and Chris Evans arrived to introduce the sound awards. In case you weren't counting at home, a whopping thirty-four minutes passed between the presentation of Best Foreign Language Film and the next award for a feature film. Note to the producers: You can cut some of this stuff out. No one is going to stop watching the Oscars because you forgot to talk about the Governors' Awards.

Best Sound Mixing
Predicted winner: American Sniper (confidence: 1/5)
Preferred winner: Whiplash
Actual winner: Whiplash

And after a 4-for-4 start to the night, my first miss. I can't be too disappointed, especially since Whiplash deserved this one for its crucial, incredibly precise mix.

Best Sound Editing
Predicted winner: American Sniper (confidence: 2/5)
Preferred winner: Interstellar
Actual winner: American Sniper

And we're back on track. Cute moment here when Miller, one of the stars of American Sniper, yelped in delight when Evans announced the winner.

Best Supporting Actress
Predicted winner: Patricia Arquette—Boyhood (confidence: 4/5)
Preferred winner: Keira Knightley—The Imitation Game
Actual winner: Patricia Arquette—Boyhood

Kudos to Meryl Streep for laughing at Jared Leto's "in accordance with California law" line. Anyway, tough to grade Arquette's speech. On the one hand, I will never understand how actors can memorize thousands of lines, yet they still need to read a 45-second speech off a piece of paper. On the other, regardless of your politics, at least Arquette had something to say with her impassioned plea for equal pay for women.

After this, Josh Hutcherson introduced Rita Ora to perform Diane Warren's nominated song from Beyond the Lights. It was a fine rendition, but imagine how great it would have been if Gugu Mbatha-Raw had been up there singing Nina Simone's "Blackbird" as she does in the film.

Best Visual Effects
Predicted winner: Interstellar (confidence: 2/5)
Preferred winner: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Actual winner: Interstellar

Nice. Sure, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes unquestionably deserved to win, but at least Chris Nolan's space epic, which I rather liked, can now be referred to as "the Academy Award-winning Interstellar".

After this, Anna Kendrick and Kevin Hart showed obvious chemistry when presenting the award for Best Animated Short. Could Hart's jittery energy and affable presence make him an appealing future Oscars host? Hmm...

Best Animated Feature
Predicted winner: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (confidence: 3/5)
Preferred winner: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Actual winner: Big Hero 6

Ouch. Of my four misses on the night, this was the only one that really surprised me. On the plus side, not only did Zoe Saldana and Dwayne Johnson do a nice job with the presentation, but teenagers everywhere started frantically Googling, "Zoe Saldana breasts."

Best Production Design
Predicted winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel (confidence: 5/5)
Preferred winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Actual winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

And here's the second occasion where the winner matched both my prediction and my preference. At this point—especially with Felicity Jones observing, off-the-cuff, "They've won so many tonight, haven't they?"—Grand Budapest Hotel was looking awfully good for a screenplay win.

Best Cinematography
Predicted winner: Birdman—Emmanuel Lubezki (confidence: 4/5)
Preferred winner: Birdman—Emmanuel Lubezki
Actual winner: Birdman—Emmanuel Lubezki

No-brainer. Given that this is Lubezki's second straight win, Roger Deakins might be thinking about having him killed.

This was followed by Meryl Streep introducing the annual "In Memoriam" montage. A few thoughts here. First, holy shit, Meryl Streep is good. In a mere minute and change, she somehow made this ritualistic exercise feel deeply touching, and the quavering tremors in her voice felt genuine rather than maudlin.

Second, I'm shocked that the Academy saved the closing image for Mike Nichols rather than Robin Williams. Nichols was a great and influential filmmaker, but the Manifesto didn't eulogize him with a lengthy post detailing his 10 greatest contributions to cinema, as it did for Williams.

Finally, the producers really need to kill off the post-montage celebratory song. This year, Jennifer Hudson showed off her pipes with "I Can't Let Go". She can sing, but it's a completely redundant gesture following the montage.

Best Film Editing
Predicted winner: Boyhood—Sandra Adair (confidence: 2/5)
Preferred winner: Whiplash—Tom Cross
Actual winner: Whiplash—Tom Cross

And with that, Boyhood's Best Picture hopes officially started circling the drain.

Also, if there's anything Benedict Cumberbatch isn't spectacular at, I'd love to hear about it. He just rules. Perhaps the producers should have used him to introduce the final grouping of Best Picture nominees, rather than a rambling, off-book Terrence Howard, who struggled mightily. Perhaps he was just overly emotional, or maybe he was just seeing stars.

Best Documentary Feature
Predicted winner: CITIZENFOUR (confidence: 5/5)
Actual winner: CITIZENFOUR

No surprise here. Laura Poitras' veneration of Snowden in her speech will undoubtedly be controversial, but she seemed deeply sincere. Harris then nastily undercut that sincerity with his savage crack that Snowden "could not be here tonight for some treason". To be fair, that's an awfully funny pun, and it might have worked in a different context, but it didn't exactly gel with Poitras' heartfelt speech.

After this, Common and John Legend delivered a stirring rendition of "Glory" from Selma, with some nice staging from the producers, who turned the backdrop into the landmark bridge from the movie. This was followed by Idina Menzel and John Travolta reuniting after last year's fiasco to present the award for Best Original Song. I give them both credit for trying to spin the incident into comic relief, even if it felt a tad awkward, with Menzel seeming legitimately angry and Travolta looking legitimately haunted. In any event, it led to the speech of the night when...

Best Original Song
Predicted winner: Selma—"Glory" (John Legend and Common) (confidence: 4/5)
Preferred winner: The LEGO Movie—"Everything Is Awesome" (Shawn Patterson, feat. Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island)
Actual winner: Selma—"Glory" (John Legend and Common)

Wow. Common completely drilled his speech here, delivering a poetic recitation about the metaphoric power of Selma's bridge (and without once referring to any notes). Then, Legend took it a step further, decrying the incarceration rates of blacks and the overall racial injustice that still plagues America. Both of them were natural, direct, and powerful. Well done.

Scarlett Johansson then popped up to introduce Lady Gaga for her medley of The Sound of Music. What a bore. Look, I have nothing against Lady Gaga (I can't say the same for The Sound of Music), but was anyone really clamoring for a tribute to The Sound of Music? Besides, this isn't even the 50th anniversary of the movie's Best Picture win (it's actually the 49th). Even bringing Julie Andrews on stage to present Best Original Score couldn't redeem this gigantic waste of time.

Best Original Score
Predicted winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel—Alexandre Desplat (confidence: 1/5)
Preferred winner: Interstellar—Hans Zimmer
Actual winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel—Alexandre Desplat

Kapow. Of all my predictions, this was the one I felt least certain about, with the majority of prognosticators picking The Theory of Everything. Good to see Desplat finally get recognized for his genius.

Best Original Screenplay
Predicted winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel—Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness (confidence: 2/5)
Preferred winner: Boyhood—Richard Linklater
Actual winner: Birdman—Alejandro González Iñárritu et al.

Ouch. And with that, Boyhood was officially dead. This would not be the last time this evening that Iñárritu ascended from the seats to the stage. More on that in a bit.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Predicted winner: The Imitation Game—Graham Moore (confidence: 2/5)
Preferred winner: Whiplash—Damien Chazelle
Actual winner: The Imitation Game—Graham Moore

If Common and John Legend gave the speech of the night, Moore was an awfully close second. He somehow combined the typical string of thank-yous (including one to Oprah) with a stunningly open declaration about his own sexuality and attempted suicide, not to mention a moving tribute to Alan Turing, and he did it all without rambling. And yet, when Harris rattled off his faux predictions at the end of the night, he reduced Moore's entire speech to his "stay weird" line. Ugh.

Best Director
Predicted winner: Alejandro González Iñárritu—Birdman (confidence: 3/5)
Preferred winner: Wes Anderson—The Grand Budapest Hotel
Actual winner: Alejandro González Iñárritu—Birdman

At this point, Birdman was just running up the score. But since I want to spend my Best Picture analysis discussing the quality of the film itself, I'm taking this time to address Sean Penn's instantly infamous "green card" comment. Yes, it was tasteless, and Penn clearly wasn't thinking about the broader implications of his joke. But let's be clear about this: It was a joke. Penn worked with Iñárritu a dozen years ago on 21 Grams, and Iñárritu himself said afterwards that the two are good friends and that he found Penn's remark "hilarious". There's no enmity between the two whatsoever. Now, if you don't think it was funny, that's fine, and Penn's decision to use racial humor in front of millions of viewers was certainly foolish. But I think it's dubious to ascribe systemic racism to an ill-advised, improvised wisecrack.

Best Actor
Predicted winner: Eddie Redmayne—The Theory of Everything (confidence: 3/5)
Preferred winner: Benedict Cumberbatch—The Imitation Game
Actual winner: Eddie Redmayne—The Theory of Everything

After Birdman's double-victory for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, Michael Keaton had to like his chances here. No such luck.

Best Actress
Predicted winner: Julianne Moore—Still Alice (confidence: 5/5)
Preferred winner: Rosamund Pike—Gone Girl
Actual winner: Julianne Moore—Still Alice

Ho hum. Nice speech. Is this show over yet?

Best Picture
Predicted winner: Birdman (confidence: 1/5)
Preferred winner: Whiplash
Actual winner: Birdman

Even before this award was announced, the narrative was already forming online that if Birdman were to win at the expense of Boyhood, history would view its victory with disdain. Maybe so. Certainly I think Birdman is an undeserving winner—in fact, it's my least favorite Best Picture victor since Crash nine years ago.

But here's the thing: I don't really care what "history" thinks about particular Oscar winners. Lots of people insist that the Academy should be ashamed that they honored Kramer vs. Kramer instead of Apocalypse Now, or Ordinary People instead of Raging Bull, or How Green Was My Valley instead of Citizen Kane. The problem with this mode of thinking is that it replaces personal opinion with generalized groupthink. Every cinephile has his own particular tastes and preferences—that's why talking and arguing about movies is so much fun. But the notion that there's a right winner and a wrong winner is fundamentally antithetical to the reality that art is subjective and personal, and that it means different things to different people.

Am I happy that Birdman won and that Boyhood lost? No. I thought Boyhood was a better movie. (Of course, I thought Whiplash was better than both, but no matter.) But I also think that Forrest Gump is really good, that Shakespeare in Love is terrific, and that American Beauty is a national treasure, even though the critical consensus now suggests that each of those movies wrongly stole the Oscar from a more worthy film (in order: Pulp Fiction, Saving Private Ryan, The Insider).

So, the next time you hear someone grumble that the Academy blew it again and that 20 years from now, we'll all look back in disgust at how the Oscars pitifully failed to recognize Boyhood's genius when it awarded its Best Picture trophy to Birdman, remember that such discontent is a reflection of individual attitudes, not objective truth.

But man, Academy, terrible choice. What were you thinking?

'Til next year.


Kat Berg said...

Great run-down, I was pleased Alexander desplat finally won as well, though all were great! HANS! There was a Samsung commercial that used Hans' popular piece from true romance, think of wooden xylophone and happiness. I wish Budapest won for best picture and best director and was really disappointed that Ralph Fiennes wasn't even nominated- that was such a charming role for him. Agree completely with the host, fell really flat and the Octavia Spencer bit should have been CUT- who cares?! And though I could give 2 hoots about the sound of music Gage's voice was liquid gold! She sounded better than Julie Andrews ever did!

Jeremy said...

No question that Lady Gage strutted her stuff. I just wish it had been in the service of something meaningful.

I generally skip straight past commercials, but there was a killer Samsung ad that caught my eye, so I'm guessing that was the one with Zimmer's music.