Thursday, February 26, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service—Making Violence and Stupidity Look Cool

Colin Firth tutors Taron Egerton in "Kingsman: The Secret Service"

The centerpiece of Kingsman: The Secret Service, a happily idiotic action comedy from Matthew Vaughn, takes place in a Kentucky church. As a bigoted preacher spouts fiery rhetoric to his eagerly racist flock—including an undercover spy played by Colin Firth—an invisible toxin is released, infecting everyone in the pews with a bloodthirsty savagery. For the next five minutes, the church turns into a carnival of death, with the parishioners murdering one another with any and all weapons available (guns, knives, grenades, organ pipes), until only Firth's impeccably dressed secret agent is left standing. It's a sequence that sounds nightmarish, but it plays almost like a musical number, with limber choreography and a rollicking tempo. All that's missing is the "applause" button.

Welcome to the world of comic-book writer Mark Millar, an execrable place of severed limbs, exploding heads, and casual misogyny. It's the kind of cinematic universe where the hero saves the world, then rewards himself by having anal sex with a Scandinavian princess. Cool, right? OK, maybe not. Yet as loathsome as Millar's worldview may be, adaptations of his work can at least carry a certain charge, even if it's not the provocative kind that Millar would wish. That's especially true when the man doing the adapting is Vaughn, a nimble and fast-moving filmmaker whose fleetness allows him to faithfully recreate Millar's orgies of revulsion without lingering over their repellent implications. Take that scene in the church. From any sane perspective, it is thoroughly grotesque. But Vaughn stages the horrific spectacle with such alacrity and flair that, as the camera swoops and soars and the blood spurts everywhere, you may find yourself tapping your foot to the rhythmic slashing of arms and the symphonic spray of bullets.

Firth stars as Harry Hart, aka Galahad, a member of the eponymous kingsmen—their codenames all double as Arthurian knights—whom we first meet casually kneecapping a suspected terrorist. (In Millar's vision of justice, counting to 10 before blowing someone's head off constitutes due process.) Tasked with replacing a fallen comrade, Harry sets his eyes on the man's son, Eggsy (Taron Egerton, holding his own alongside British acting royalty), a hotheaded teen with a destructive streak and a healthy distrust of authority. Harry wins him over, however, first by springing him from jail, then by confronting a bar full of thugs and, after imperiously intoning "Manners maketh man", pulverizing them all with an arched eyebrow and a souped-up umbrella. At that point, the boisterous lad all-too-eagerly accompanies the debonair gent to a remote mansion, where he and a handful of other bratty teenagers compete to become the next knight of the agency's round table.

Kingsman paints itself as an ultraviolent James Bond parody, but the movie it most resembles in its early going is Men in Black. As with Will Smith's brash cop in that film, Eggsy enters a heretofore secret society, one complete with its own wardrobe, language, social codes, and high-tech gadgetry. There, he receives instruction from Merlin (Mark Strong, enjoyable even on autopilot), befriends fellow recruit Roxy (Sophie Cookson), and makes enemies with the smug Charlie (Edward Holcroft). The setup is hardly novel, but the particular challenges are interesting, whether it's attempting to escape from an underwater chamber or contriving how to survive a skydive without a parachute. For a time, Kingsman coasts amiably on its cavalier absurdity, mingling the platoon-bonding dynamic from An Officer and a Gentleman with its own chic sense of cool.

Eventually, though, the James Bond elements come to the fore. They're emblematized by Richmond Valentine, a climate change alarmist-cum-megalomaniac who has decided the safest way to ensure humanity's survival is to massacre 99% of it. Valentine is played, in a stroke of either genius or madness, by Samuel L. Jackson, donning a New York Yankees cap and adopting a lisp that is sure to induce murmurs of disapproval among more sensitive viewers. But Jackson has far too much fun with the role for his portrayal to warrant legitimate analysis, and Valentine is a sufficiently colorful baddie—in a nice touch, he abhors actual violence and despises the sight of blood—that he provides the movie with some unpredictable juice. He also, naturally, comes with an indestructible henchman, though it's actually a comely henchwoman (Sofia Boutella) who sports curved blades in place of feet. (Please hold your Oscar Pistorius jokes.) It's all very silly, but the ridiculousness occasionally generates its own sense of charm.

It's somewhat disappointing, then, that Kingsman transforms into a meta movie, constantly winking at viewers with supposedly sly referential humor. These moments are more often tiresome than clever, as they merely remind you of other, better movies you'd rather be watching. All the same, it can be satisfying to watch high-caliber actors elevate mundane material. At one point, Valentine and Harry circle each other verbally, chatting in delightful doublespeak about the heroes and villains of old thrillers. When Valentine asks Harry if he likes spy movies, Harry replies that he prefers the classics, as the modern ones are "a little serious".

Touché. And for all its faults—its retributive zeal, its insipid comedy, its general stupidity—Kingsman never feels dour, instead keeping its tongue firmly planted in cheek. As he did with Kick-Ass, his prior adaptation of a Millar comic, Vaughn demonstrates a refreshingly light touch to go with his sharp eye. (Remove Vaughn from the equation, and you get the dreadful Kick-Ass 2, which replaced with original's wide-eyed curiosity and bizarre playfulness with relentless bloodletting and deep-seated ugliness.) There are a couple of too-obvious reveals (including the old switcheroo!), and the finale succumbs to the usual mundane shootouts in which countless faceless minions are gunned down by an intrepid hero. But there is also a memorably outlandish sequence in which Eggsy and his gang activate a failsafe (don't ask), resulting in a merry montage of heads exploding across the globe, all scored to "Pomp and Circumstance".

Millar doubtless intended for that moment to be thought-provoking. It's not. But it is eye-catching, and it's over in a blink. That's why the best thing about Kingsman, apart from its indecently talented cast (Michael Caine even shows up as the agency's wizened leader), is its brisk pace. Vaughn keeps things moving so quickly that you can't focus on the inherent flimsiness of the source material, so instead you indulge in the outrageousness of what's on screen. It's the work of a director who clearly believes that, while manners may maketh man, momentum maketh movies.

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.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscars 2014: The Manifesto's Complete Oscar Predictions

Last year, the Manifesto had an incredibly strong showing at the Oscars, correctly predicting 19 of the 21 feature categories. I can assure you that will not be the case this year. But the surprises are part of the fun, and I look forward to seeing just where I went disastrously wrong in my predictions. Scanning through this list, I wonder if I've overrated The Grand Budapest Hotel (which I'm pegging for five wins) and underestimated American Sniper (which I've chalked up for just two wins, both in the sound categories). It's also rather bizarre that I came close to choosing Boyhood to win Best Picture, yet I'm ultimately predicting it walks away with just two trophies (and only one of those victories is relatively assured).

In any event, here are the Manifesto's official predictions for each of those 21 feature categories (per usual, I'm skipping the shorts). I'm organizing them in order of confidence levels; I try to distribute these evenly, even though I'd really rather assign the lowest possible confidence to 14 different categories.


Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: Ida (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: [Abstain]
Worst snub: Force Majeure

Best Original Score
Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel—Alexandre Desplat (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Interstellar—Hans Zimmer
Worst snub: Gone Girl—Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Best Picture
Will win: Birdman (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Whiplash
Worst snub: Gone Girl

Best Sound Mixing
Will win: American Sniper (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Whiplash
Worst snub: Get On Up

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: The Imitation Game—Graham Moore (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Whiplash—Damien Chazelle
Worst snub: Gone Girl—Gillian Flynn

Best Film Editing
Will win: Boyhood—Sandra Adair (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Whiplash—Tom Cross
Worst snub: Edge of Tomorrow—James Herbert, Laura Jennings

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel—Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Boyhood—Richard Linklater
Worst snub: A Most Violent Year—J.C. Chandor

Best Sound Editing
Will win: American Sniper (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Interstellar
Worst snub: The Babadook

Best Visual Effects
Will win: Interstellar (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Worst snub: None. Good ballot.

Best Actor
Will win: Eddie Redmayne—The Theory of Everything (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Benedict Cumberbatch—The Imitation Game
Worst snub: Tom Hardy—Locke

Best Animated Feature
Will win: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Worst snub: The LEGO Movie

Best Costume Design
Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Maleficent
Worst snub: Get On Up

Best Director
Will win: Alejandro González Iñárritu—Birdman (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Wes Anderson—The Grand Budapest Hotel
Worst snub: Christopher Nolan—Interstellar

Best Cinematography
Will win: Birdman—Emmanuel Lubezki (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Birdman—Emmanuel Lubezki
Worst snub: The Immigrant—Darius Khondji

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Guardians of the Galaxy
Worst snub: Snowpiercer

Best Original Song
Will win: Selma—"Glory" (John Legend and Common) (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: The LEGO Movie—"Everything Is Awesome" (Shawn Patterson, feat. Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island)
Worst snub: Muppets Most Wanted—"Interrogation Song" (Bret McKenzie and Paul Roemen)

Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Patricia Arquette—Boyhood (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Keira Knightley—The Imitation Game
Worst snub: Tilda Swinton—Snowpiercer

Best Actress
Will win: Julianne Moore—Still Alice (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Rosamund Pike—Gone Girl
Worst snub: Shailene Woodley—The Fault in Our Stars

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: CITIZENFOUR (confidence: 5/5)
Should win/worst snub: [Abstain]

Best Production Design
Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Worst snub: The Double

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: J.K. Simmons—Whiplash (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: J.K. Simmons—Whiplash
Worst snub: Christoph Waltz—Big Eyes

Oscars 2014: Best Picture and Director — Boyhood vs. Birdman

And here we are. Thus far in the Manifesto's Oscar analysis, we've looked at the technical categories, including the ones that really matter and the ones that matter a little less; the supporting actor and actress fields; the screenplays; and the lead actors. And now, we come to the two big ones. In a refreshing change of pace from the Oscars' usual predictability, they're two of the more uncertain awards of the night.


BEST DIRECTOR

NOMINEES
Wes Anderson—The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alejandro González Iñárritu—Birdman
Richard Linklater—Boyhood
Bennett Miller—Foxcatcher
Morten Tyldum—The Imitation Game

WILL WIN
Given how much low-hanging fruit The Grand Budapest Hotel is likely to scoop up over the course of the evening, Anderson has a theoretical shot. But this is really a faceoff between Iñárritu and Linklater, the helmers of the two Best Picture favorites. As it result, it really comes to what Academy voters value in this category. The argument for Linklater is more conceptual than technical; there's obviously never been a movie like Boyhood, and it took its director's incredible vision to make it happen. But as recent wins for Gravity's Alfonso Cuarón and Life of Pi's Ang Lee suggest, the Best Director award is increasingly becoming tied to technical achievement. And as astonishing as Boyhood is in its scope and its storytelling, it's fairly ordinary in its technical execution, whereas Birdman is a showy and dazzling piece of cinematic artistry. On that score, Iñárritu is the pick. (He also has the guild nod, which hardly hurts.)


SHOULD WIN
Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the work of an undeniably gifted filmmaker. That it unfolds with an aura of quiet melancholy only makes Anderson's technical achievement more impressive.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Wes Anderson—The Grand Budapest Hotel
Damien Chazelle—Whiplash
David Fincher—Gone Girl
Doug Liman—Edge of Tomorrow
Christopher Nolan—Interstellar

Aside from Anderson, the latter four directors here made my four favorite movies of the year, which is hardly a coincidence. Each film features a director elevating his material, whether it's through rigorous control (Chazelle), playful genre manipulation (Fincher), robust and clear-eyed action scenes (Liman), or pure ambition (Nolan).

My ideal winner: Christopher Nolan—Interstellar.





BEST PICTURE

NOMINEES
American Sniper
Birdman
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash

WILL WIN
I just can't do it.

Look, I want to pick Boyhood here. I really do. And it certainly has a legitimate shot. But first, let me make something clear: If you pick a movie other than Birdman or Boyhood here, someone had better be giving you odds. Sure, it's possible that the two top dogs could somehow split votes, leaving room for an interloper like the zeitgeist-hitting American Sniper or the trophy-gathering Grand Budapest Hotel. But if you're just trying to predict who's going to win the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2014, you need to take either Birdman or Boyhood.

And again, the case for Boyhood isn't entirely manufactured. It's as critically beloved as any movie in recent memory, with a nonsensical 100 Metacritic score. It's startlingly original. And in terms of Oscar-centric statistics, it has two hugely valuable wins at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes. (The latter win was for Best Drama—Birdman actually lost the Best Musical/Comedy race to The Grand Budapest Hotel.) If you want to reach, you can even point out that Birdman lacks a Best Film Editing nomination, and no movie without one has won Best Picture since Ordinary People in 1980. This is not an unreasonable case.

But here's the thing: Birdman won at the Producers' Guild, the only voting body that uses the same (insanely complex) preferential ballot system as the Academy. It also won the Best Ensemble Cast award at the Screen Actors' Guild (their equivalent of Best Picture), and actors make up more voters in the Academy than any other occupation. Oh, and it won at the Directors' Guild as well. The only movie to have won all three and fail to triumph at the Oscars is Apollo 13 in 1995 (the first year of SAG's award), when it lost to a little movie called Braveheart.

Critics love Boyhood. But critics don't get a vote with the Academy. You know who votes? Actors, directors, cinematographers, composers, costume designers, sound mixers, and gaffers. They all seem to love Birdman. And that's why Birdman is your Best Picture winner.

(To be clear: I hope I'm wrong. But I'm afraid I might be right.)





SHOULD WIN
Not quite my tempo.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
For this, I can refer you to the first 10 titles on my year-end list.


And that's a wrap of the Manifesto's 2014 Oscars predictions. Go here for a full roundup of all our picks. We'll be back on Monday with a quick recap of the show.

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.

Oscars 2014: The Screenplays (Best Original and Best Adapted)

Unlike with the supporting actor and actress fields, both screenplay categories are a bit trickier to predict this year. Let's get to it.


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

NOMINEES
Birdman—Alejandro González Iñárritu et al.
Boyhood—Richard Linklater
Foxcatcher—E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel—Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler—Dan Gilroy

WILL WIN
It's tempting to view this as a duel between the two Best Picture favorites in Birdman and Boyhood. But Academy voters tend to broaden their scope a bit with this category, which makes me lean away from the prizefighters and toward The Grand Budapest Hotel. It triumphed at the BAFTAs, and it defeated Boyhood at the Writers' Guild (Birdman was deemed ineligible). It's also more writerly than the other two screenplays, with snappy dialogue and a quirky time-jumping structure. Given that the two heavy hitters have failed to separate from one another, I don't think either has the tidal wave of support that would bring this award in with the tide. The Grand Budapest Hotel bags yet another trophy.





SHOULD WIN
Birdman is a fun movie, but its screenplay borders on obnoxious, with gimmicks and meta commentary standing in for real writing. Foxcatcher, meanwhile, coasts more on mood than real drama, and its script never satisfactorily explains its horrific true-crime story. Nightcrawler creates a tremendous character in Louis Bloom, with his endless stream of inane corporate rhetoric, but its chiding of modern news consumers feels a tad scolding. So for me, this is a choice between Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and as delightful and sorrowful as the latter film's story may be, it lacks the extraordinary depth and scope of Boyhood's screenplay. Its sheer conceptual nerve is astonishing enough, but its heartfelt, intimate approach to growing up is where it really distinguishes itself.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Boyhood—Richard Linklater
Dear White People—Justin Simien
The Grand Budapest Hotel—Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
Interstellar—Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
A Most Violent Year—J.C. Chandor

Dear White People examines race relations in contemporary America with refreshing frankness and estimable wit. Interstellar tells a story of remarkable ambition but still marries it to flesh-and-blood characters. A Most Violent Year is the most unpredictable screenplay of the bunch—you keep expecting it to zag, but it never does.

My ideal winner: Boyhood—Richard Linklater.





BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

NOMINEES
American Sniper—Jason Hall
The Imitation Game—Graham Moore
Inherent Vice—Paul Thomas Anderson
The Theory of Everything—Anthony McCarter
Whiplash—Damien Chazelle

WILL WIN
Cross off Inherent Vice—one of the more baffling nominations of this year's Oscars—but the remaining four contenders (all Best Picture nominees) are in play. American Sniper is certainly a movie of the moment, and The Theory of Everything won at the BAFTAs, but neither features a particularly showy script. More intriguing is Whiplash, with its riveting and deeply memorable story, but it may be too intense for Oscar voters. So I'll go with guild winner The Imitation Game, a smart, sincere, secretly angry exploration of a compelling historical figure.





SHOULD WIN
Whiplash, because it dared to be great.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Edge of Tomorrow—Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Gone Girl—Gillian Flynn
Guardians of the Galaxy—James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
The Imitation Game—Graham Moore
Whiplash—Damien Chazelle

Edge of Tomorrow is ingenious, not merely in concocting its time-loop concept but in twisting that concept in exciting and unexpected ways. Gone Girl is electric storytelling, daring viewers to keep up with its leaps in chronology and changes in perspective. Guardians of the Galaxy is, pound for pound, the single funniest movie of the year.

My ideal winner: Gone Girl—Gillian Flynn.





Coming tomorrow: predictions for the final four categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture).

Oscars 2014: Best Supporting Actor and Actress

After starting our Oscar predictions yesterday with the technical categories, both big and small, we now get to the good stuff. Unfortunately, there isn't much suspense to either of this year's supporting awards, but there are still plenty of terrific performances to cover.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

NOMINEES
Robert Duvall—The Judge
Ethan Hawke—Boyhood
Edward Norton—Birdman
Mark Ruffalo—Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons—Whiplash

WILL WIN
Simmons. He's already won pretty much everything else, sweeping the Holy Acting Trinity of the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Screen Actors' Guild, not to mention twenty-nine other awards as recognized by IMDb. Seriously, the guy's won everywhere from Austin to Vancouver. The only remotely theoretical challenger is Norton in the event of a Birdman sweep, but that's just not happening. Mark this one in ink.


SHOULD WIN
So every year, I make it my mission to watch as many Oscar-nominated movies as possible prior to the telecast. This year, across the 18 non-specialized feature film categories (i.e., everything except Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Foreign Language Film), a total of 31 different movies received Oscar nominations. I watched all but two of those movies. One that I missed was Glen Campbell... I'll Be Me, a documentary that randomly popped up in the Best Original Song field. And the other, sadly enough, was The Judge, a tepidly received October release that supposedly features a typically excellent turn from Robert Duvall. (It's currently sitting atop my Netflix queue, but it isn't actually available on Netflix until Tuesday.) So I can't officially opine as to whether Duvall deserves to win this award. Sorry.

Moving on to the four contenders whose performances I actually did see: Ruffalo is quite good in Foxcatcher, capturing his character's tentativeness and quiet fraternal affection, but he isn't in the same class as the other three nominees, whose portrayals happen to be my three favorite supporting performances of the year (of either sex). I've already declared Hawke to be the secret star of Boyhood, with his casual charm and astonishing naturalism. Norton is similarly the best thing about Birdman—he's having an absolute hoot the entire time, but he also supplies some rare and genuine pathos to a film that's too eagerly ironic. But Simmons has racked up those 32 precursor awards for a reason. He's simply incredible in Whiplash, somehow adding the tiniest intimations of sadness to his ruthless conductor without ever softening his powerful ferocity. It's the crowning performance of an already brilliant career.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Ethan Hawke—Boyhood
Edward Norton—Birdman
Joaquin Phoenix—The Immigrant
J.K. Simmons—Whiplash
Christoph Waltz—Big Eyes

As mentioned, Hawke, Norton, and Simmons combine to form a monstrously talented trio. Phoenix brings his inimitable brand of soulful melancholy to The Immigrant. Waltz is a terrific villain in Big Eyes, running the gamut from sneakily suspicious to outright terrifying to just plain pathetic.

My ideal winner: J.K. Simmons—Whiplash.

[One note: My friend Brian argued that Simmons should be considered a lead actor, given that he has considerably more screen time than your typical supporting performance. It's a fair point, but the problem is that Miles Teller is unquestionably a lead in Whiplash, and in general, it's incredibly rare for multiple actors of the same gender to be considered co-leads for the Academy's campaigning purposes. (This results in hilarious category fraud like Daniel Brühl being labeled a supporting actor in Rush.) To wit, only once in the past 30 years has a movie received two Oscar nominations in the same lead acting category (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon for Thelma & Louise), so it's understandable that Sony Classics steered Simmons into the less competitive supporting field, even if Teller never really had a shot at a lead nomination. (This is the part where my father starts grumbling about how Dustin Hoffman would have won Best Actor in 1969 for Midnight Cowboy if Jon Voight hadn't siphoned off votes.) At the same time, it would be spectacular if someone casually asked Simmons whether he felt he was a lead or supporting actor in Whiplash, followed by him suddenly erupting, "SO YOU DO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE!"]





Also deserving: Toby Kebbell for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (because Andy Serkis shouldn't get all the love); Tyler Perry for Gone Girl (for having an absolute blast and barely being able to contain himself); Matthias Schoenaerts for The Drop (for being quietly but insistently dangerous); and Michael Fassbender for both Frank (for somehow delivering a compelling performance without a head) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (for showing what true power looks like).


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

NOMINEES
Patricia Arquette—Boyhood
Laura Dern—Wild
Keira Knightley—The Imitation Game
Emma Stone—Birdman
Meryl Streep—Into the Woods

WILL WIN
Arquette. As with the Best Supporting Actor field, you could make an argument that Stone could play spoiler if Birdman racks up wins, and it's slightly more plausible here, given that Arquette hasn't been quite the steamroller on the circuit that Simmons has. In other words, she's only won 25 additional awards compared to Simmons' 29. Don't be a hero. Arquette is a no-brainer.





SHOULD WIN
Sadly, this field is much weaker than its quintet of male counterparts. (Thankfully, the same is not true in the lead categories.) Arquette is the sturdy anchor of Boyhood, but she's completely overshadowed by Hawke, not to mention Ellar Coltrane's impressive "I'm literally maturing before your eyes" performance. Dern is fine in Wild, but I liked her considerably more in The Fault in Our Stars, where she invests an archetype (the doting, grieving mother) with considerable color and pain. She's nevertheless superior to Streep, who is effective but, aside from one stirring moment, ultimately unmemorable in Into the Woods. (If voters wanted to pluck a random cast member from that film, they'd have done better choosing Emily Blunt.) Stone is quite good in Birdman, bringing real spunk and unpredictability, but her performance still feels like an echo compared to Norton's.

The clear winner here for me is Keira Knightley, who plays opposite a tremendous Benedict Cumberbatch and somehow holds her own, creating a character of steely resolve and quiet yearning. It isn't the best performance of her career—it probably isn't even in her top five—which means it's merely spellbinding rather than historically great.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Emily Blunt—Edge of Tomorrow
Christelle Cornil—Two Days, One Night
Keira Knightley—The Imitation Game
Jena Malone—Inherent Vice
Tilda Swinton—Snowpiercer

Blunt is effortlessly persuasive as a tough-as-nails action heroine. Marion Cotillard received all of the acclaim for Two Days, One Night, but Cornil is startlingly poignant in her brief screen time. Malone positively pops off the screen in Inherent Vice. Swinton's sustained run of greatness is approaching "UCLA under John Wooden" levels.

My ideal winner: Keira Knightley—The Imitation Game.





Also deserving: Jillian Bell for 22 Jump Street (for stealing every scene); Jennifer Lawrence for X-Men: Days of Future Past (for not mailing it in); Stacy Martin for Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (for doing the impossible and bringing some heart and happiness to a Lars von Trier movie); Emma Watson for Noah (for her unimpeachable tenderness).


Up next: the Screenplays.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oscars 2014: The Big Techies (Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and more)

We've already ripped through eight less significant (in this viewer's opinion) technical categories. Now it's time to get to the big guns. Not only are these categories independently intriguing, but their winners could also foreshadow some of the night's more high-profile awards.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

NOMINEES
Birdman—Emmanuel Lubezki
The Grand Budapest Hotel—Robert D. Yeoman
Ida—Lukasz Zal, Ryszard Lynzewski
Mr. Turner—Dick Pope
Unbroken—Roger Deakins

WILL WIN
Birdman. Lubezki is on a heater right now after winning for Gravity last year, and besides, the entire movie looks like it was shot on one freaking take. Call that technique facile if you want, but Academy voters are going to respond to it.





SHOULD WIN
Very strong field here. Birdman may be showy, but Lubezki's achievement is undeniable. The Grand Budapest Hotel is as meticulously photographed as any Wes Anderson picture, with its fastidious framing and elegant camera moves (not to mention its varying aspect ratios). Deakins finds beauty amid the squalor in Unbroken, never more so than when capturing the dwarfing bleakness of the Pacific Ocean. And Ida's luminescent black-and-white imagery is as expressive as its actors' remarkable faces. Forced to pick a winner, however, I'll back Pope's extraordinary work on Mr. Turner, which somehow honors its subject with striking visuals that are both mathematically precise and exquisitely natural.

MY IDEAL BALLOT
Birdman—Emmanuel Lubezki
Ida—Lukasz Zal, Ryszard Lynzewski
The Immigrant—Darius Khondji
Inherent Vice—Robert Elswit
Mr. Turner—Dick Pope

Hard to complain when three of the Academy's five selections make my own ballot, with the other two just missing the cut (as did Seamus McGarvey's stunning work on Godzilla). The Immigrant's lighting is magnificent, with Khondji bathing everything in golden, nostalgic hues that encapsulate the film's plaintive tone. And Elswit continues his fruitful collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson (he also shot There Will Be Blood), heightening Inherent Vice's spaced-out mood with rich color and invisible technique.

My ideal winner: Mr. Turner—Dick Pope.





BEST FILM EDITING

NOMINEES
American Sniper—Joel Cox, Gary Roach
Boyhood—Sandra Adair
The Grand Budapest Hotel—Barney Pilling
The Imitation Game—William Goldenberg
Whiplash—Tom Cross


WILL WIN
Yikes. There are five Best Picture nominees slugging it out in this category, and you can make a case for each. (Well, except for American Sniper—that one's dead.) This award has skewed toward the technical in the recent past, which bodes well for a nattily crafted picture such as The Grand Budapest Hotel. Whiplash won here at the BAFTAs, and its furious cutting is essential to its depiction of the cruelties of rhythm. And The Imitation Game is a handsomely dressed and briskly paced movie, so it can hardly be ruled out.

But I'm picking Boyhood for two reasons. First, as you may have heard, it was shot over 12 years; presumably cutting a dozen years' worth of footage into a feature film involved quite a bit of work. (Interestingly, Richard Linklater has stated that the movie required less editing than typical, but I doubt Academy voters either notice or care.) Second, this is the lone category in which Boyhood isn't competing against its archrival in Birdman. (The upshot of this: If Boyhood in fact loses this category, its Best Picture chances are pretty much kaput. Just something to keep in mind during the telecast's opening hour.)





SHOULD WIN
American Sniper lurches a bit when hopscotching between the States and Iraq, and its editing never really settles into a rhythm. Both Boyhood and The Imitation Game are excellent movies, but there's little about their editing that's especially compelling. The Grand Budapest Hotel, on the other hand, is brilliantly edited, nimbly leaping back and forth in time without ever disorienting viewers. But even it doesn't compare to Whiplash's vigorous cutting, which simply shows a guy hammering on his drum set and somehow amplifies its energy a hundredfold.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Edge of Tomorrow—James Herbert, Laura Jennings
Gone Girl—Kirk Baxter
The Grand Budapest Hotel—Barney Pilling
Interstellar—Lee Smith
Whiplash—Tom Cross

Edge of Tomorrow's editing is absolutely crucial to its central time-loop gimmick, and Herbert and Jennings clip every repeated scene at just the right moment. Gone Girl dazzles with its parallel structure, constantly keeping viewers on their toes. Interstellar is arguably too ungainly to pop up here, but its stunning cross-cutting in a late sequence affirms cinema's unique power.

My ideal winner: Edge of Tomorrow—James Herbert, Laura Jennings.




BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

NOMINEES
The Grand Budapest Hotel—Alexandre Desplat
The Imitation Game—Alexandre Desplat
Interstellar—Hans Zimmer
Mr. Turner—Gary Yershon
The Theory of Everything—Jóhann Jóhannsson

WILL WIN
This is likely a two-horse race between Golden Globe winner The Theory of Everything and BAFTA winner The Grand Budapest Hotel, though neither Interstellar nor The Imitation Game can be completely ruled out. (Mr. Turner, on the other hand, can be unequivocally ruled out.) The Theory of Everything has the more classical score, and unlike Desplat, Jóhannsson isn't at risk of splitting his own vote. Still, I keep returning to my gut feeling that The Grand Budapest Hotel is going to clean up in the crafts categories, and I think its coattails are just long enough to sweep this one into its orbit, especially given that The Theory of Everything is essentially an also-ran everywhere else except for Best Actor. Also, Desplat hasn't ever won an Oscar before, which seems absurd at this point, given that he seemingly composes the music to 20% of all high-profile releases.





SHOULD WIN
Of Desplat's two nominations, The Grand Budapest Hotel is his weaker work. It's fitting for the film's jaunty tone, but it's flighty and fidgety, as though it's uncertain what type of music it wants to be. His score for The Imitation Game is far more forceful, with a sweeping main theme and robust compositions. Jóhannsson's work on The Theory of Everything is adequate, but it's uninspired, and while Yershon provides Mr. Turner with some stirring string-work, it's far too sparsely used to make a real impact. There is, of course, nothing sparse about Hans Zimmer's triumphant, organ-based score for Interstellar, but its extravagance is in perfect keeping with that movie's gargantuan scale and epic ambition. Zimmer proves, as he did in Inception, that he is Christopher Nolan's ideal scoring partner.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Gone Girl—Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
The Imitation Game—Alexandre Desplat
Interstellar—Hans Zimmer
Maleficent—James Newton Howard
Noah—Clint Mansell

Gone Girl's eerie, ambient music elevates the movie's sinister vibe to brilliant effect; this is Reznor and Ross' third collaboration with David Fincher (they earned an Oscar for The Social Network), and it's their best yet. Howard offers a rousing score that befits Maleficent's fantastical feel. And Mansell's work for Noah is both Biblical and intimate, soundtracking both the fateful flood and the quiet spaces of doubt that lie between.

My ideal winner: Interstellar—Hans Zimmer.


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

NOMINEES
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Interstellar
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

WILL WIN
The Grand Budapest Hotel. This one's a no-doubter. And just to keep track, I've now analyzed 12 categories, and I'm predicting The Grand Budapest Hotel to win four of them. Should I start taking it seriously as a Best Picture candidate? Hmm...


SHOULD WIN
Beyond the extraordinarily detailed fixtures of The Grand Budapest Hotel, the only nominee whose production design I really admire is The Imitation Game, with its flawless period design and its hulking proto-computer. Interstellar does create some dazzling environments, but neither Into the Woods nor Mr. Turner belongs in this category.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Big Hero 6
The Double
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Maleficent
Snowpiercer

Animated movies never receive consideration in this category, but Big Hero 6's creation of a fictional metropolis called San Fransokyo is as immaculate as it is imaginative. The Double should have been a home run here, with its Brazil-like subterranean setting serving as its own form of analog beauty. Maleficent's ominous forest looks like it will reach out and pluck you from your seat the moment you turn your head. Snowpiercer provides a marvelous new look with each successive train car.

My ideal winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel.





BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

NOMINEES
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
Interstellar
X-Men: Days of Future Past

WILL WIN
Here we go again. But have I learned my lesson, or have Academy voters learned theirs? See, three years ago, I tentatively proclaimed that Rise of the Planet of the Apes would win this category because its effects were amazing. It lost (to Hugo, of all films). This year, once again, a Planet of the Apes movie sports the most remarkable special effects of any film in the field, and it's not close. But it's facing two formidable foes: Interstellar, a well-regarded prestige picture with some stunning effects of its own (it just won the BAFTA), and Guardians of the Galaxy, a box-office behemoth that might prove irresistible to some voters.

So do I stick to my guns, or do I hedge my bets? Do I choose what is right, or what is easy? Screw it. If I'm going to lose again, I'm going to lose because the Academy adapted, not because I failed to adapt. I'm picking Interstellar.


SHOULD WIN
Gee, I wonder.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
In a startling occurrence, it's the exact same as the Academy's ballot, an alignment that happens roughly as often as a solar eclipse on Friday the 13th. Good work, Academy. Don't get cocky.

My ideal winner: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.





Coming tomorrow: Posts on the supporting actor/actress categories and the screenplay categories.

Oscars 2014: The Little Techies (Best Animated Feature, Best Costume Design, and more)

With the Oscars airing on Sunday, and with the Manifesto having finally wrapped up its rankings of every 2014 release, it's time to get down to brass tacks and analyze the 21 feature categories. We'll begin with the technical categories. This post will cover "the little guys"—the fields you probably don't care that much about but that nevertheless recognize important contributions to a movie's overall worth.


BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

NOMINEES
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

WILL WIN
The LEGO Movie. Guh. But with the year's most critically and commercially successful animated film mysteriously missing the cut, there's a bit of intrigue to be found here. The Boxtrolls has its admirers, but in all likelihood, this will come down to a battle between two studio-backed heavy hitters in Fox's How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Disney's (not Pixar's, as my friend Katie chastised me last month) Big Hero 6. The former is arguably at a disadvantage because it's a sequel, whereas the latter is an original production (in case you're confused, Big Hero 6 is not the sixth installment in the "Big Hero" franchise). In the brief 13-year history of this category, the only retread to win the award is Toy Story 3 (defeating the original How to Train Your Dragon, in point of fact), and that was also a Best Picture nominee—How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn't operating with that level of cachet. Still, it's a more classically beautifully and stirring film than the fun but familiar Big Hero 6, and I'm guessing voters will respond to its childlike sense of wonder. How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes it.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The LEGO Movie
The Wind Rises

As infuriated as I was over The LEGO Movie's omission here, the animated pictures that did crack the field are worthy contenders. (Full disclosure: I've yet to see either Song of the Sea or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, a failure I plan to remedy in the near future via Netflix.) Big Hero 6 is a brightly colored adventure with a brilliant invention in the form of Baymax; if it had resisted the urge to cater to an action-hungry marketplace, it could have been something special. The Boxtrolls' main characters are disappointingly ordinary, but it compensates with vivid visuals, terrific villains, and an impressively weird universe. The Wind Rises is similarly strange, a wistful paean to the values of innovation and discovery. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is exhilarating in its airborne sequences, but it's also legitimately frightening in its depiction of danger. None, of course, can compare to the sharp humor and powerful themes of The LEGO Movie, one of my favorite films of the year.

My ideal winner: The LEGO Movie.





BEST COSTUME DESIGN

NOMINEES
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inherent Vice
Into the Woods
Maleficent
Mr. Turner

WILL WIN
This is shaping up to be a fascinating Oscars, not just because there's no clear frontrunner for Best Picture (more on that Friday), but because no technically dominant film is positioned to sweep the crafts categories. Still, if I had to peg one movie to rack up a handful of below-the-line awards, I'd go with The Grand Budapest Hotel. It's a period piece, it's impeccably detailed, and its director is renowned for creating works of painstaking craftsmanship. (It also happens to be really good.) It also won the Best Costume Design award at the BAFTAs, and it just picked up the guild nod last night for period film (Into the Woods won for fantasy work). I'm going to agonize over my predictions in far too many categories at this year's Oscars, but this isn't one of them.

The costumes of "The Grand Budapest Hotel"



SHOULD WIN
Into the Woods is the only nominee here whose presence is undeserved—sure, its costumes are colorful, but there's nothing noteworthy or unifying about its design. Mr. Turner has the advantage of putting Timothy Spall in a top hat, though its period evocation isn't nearly as sensuous as the leisure suits and hippie attire of Inherent Vice. The wardrobe design for The Grand Budapest Hotel is undeniably impressive, but even it seems pedestrian compared to the grand costumes of Maleficent, which silently conjure an aura of villainy and despair in their harsh black cloth.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Get On Up
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Maleficent
A Most Violent Year
Snowpiercer

A Most Violent Year is the type of movie that escapes notice in this category, but its muted colors and natty threads are critical to its evocation of a very particular time and place. Get On Up allows us to remember James Brown in all his ostentatious glory. Snowpiercer crams roughly seven different costume motifs into its two hours, with none more eye-catching than that canary-yellow coat amid a train full of coal-smudged laborers.

My ideal winner: Maleficent.

Angelina Jolie in "Maleficent"



BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

NOMINEES
CITIZENFOUR
Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth
Virunga

WILL WIN
From the beginning, this was supposed to be a titanic showdown between CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras' investigation of whistleblower/traitor Edward Snowden, and Life Itself, Steve James' warts-and-all remembrance of legendary film critic Roger Ebert. But, just as happened 20 years ago with James' Hoop Dreams, the Academy forgot to nominate Life Itself. And so, CITIZENFOUR takes this in a walkover.


BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

NOMINEES
Ida
Leviathan
Tangerines
Timbuktu
Wild Tales

WILL WIN
Uh oh. First of all, it's not easy to predict a category when you've only seen 20% of the nominees. (This, I would like to point out, is hardly my fault, as Ida is the only contender that screened in my neighborhood.) Furthermore, apart from Tangerines—and seriously, I have no idea what that movie is—the remaining contenders here are all well-regarded, though Timbuktu appears to be more of a critical darling than an Academy favorite. That means I'm left to choose among Ida, a gentle but devastating Polish drama; Leviathan, a supposedly bruising Russian production; and Wild Tales, an Argentinean favorite that I've heard described as a crowd-pleaser. That latter adjective suggests that Wild Tales is right in the Academy's wheelhouse, but I suspect that in the end, they'll turn to Ida, unable to deny its quiet power. And if I get this wrong, I am more than willing to blame the Academy for refusing to send me screeners despite my repeated telepathic requests.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Bethlehem
Burning Bush
Force Majeure
Ida
Like Father, Like Son

As always, I have no idea whether any of these titles were actually eligible for this year's Oscars, as I have no interest in playing by the Academy's arcane rules. But they were all released domestically in 2014—lucky for us. Bethlehem is a harsh and gripping look at the collateral damage inflicted on the doomed citizens of Israel. Burning Bush is a more patient depiction of entrenched struggle, though it is no less persuasive. Force Majeure is a startling whatsit, a domestic drama disguised as a social comedy that looks and feels like a horror movie. Ida is as sensitive in its emotional catharsis as it is exquisite in its lithesome photography. Like Father, Like Son is a terrifyingly plausible fable, one that raises profound questions about the nature of paternal love.

My ideal winner: Force Majeure.





BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

NOMINEES
Foxcatcher
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy

WILL WIN
Remember what I said about The Grand Budapest Hotel dominating those below-the-line categories? Well, it won this award at the BAFTAs, and it also took home a guild nod. To be fair, Guardians of the Galaxy also scored with the guild, which splits its awards into period and contemporary contenders. (Of course, you could argue that Guardians is even less of a contemporary film than Grand Budapest, given that it takes place in the future in a distant solar system, but no matter.) And between Zoe Saldana's green skin and Dave Bautista's polygonal tattoos, it arguably features more visible makeup work. That said, Grand Budapest is the prestige candidate, and besides, its image of an 84-year-old Tilda Swinton is pretty indelible (though on the rankings of "Indelible Tilda Swinton images of 2014", it comes in at a distant second place—see below). The Grand Budapest Hotel takes another.

Tilda Swinton in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"



MY IDEAL BALLOT
Guardians of the Galaxy
Snowpiercer
Under the Skin

Guardians of the Galaxy earned its nomination, with even subsidiary characters looking like they hail from a particular, far-off world. Snowpiercer makes Tilda Swinton look positively ghoulish, with a set of prosthetic teeth that practically demand their own entry in the credits. (At some point, it's fair to wonder whether Swinton's startling transformations are the work of makeup artists, or whether she is simply a witch who can reconfigure her physical appearance at will.) Under the Skin somehow made blonde bombshell Scarlett Johansson unrecognizable to an entire freaking country.

My ideal winner: Snowpiercer.

Now, remember when we were talking about indelible Tilda Swinton images?

Tilda Swinton in "Snowpiercer"



BEST ORIGINAL SONG

NOMINEES
Begin Again—"Lost Stars" (Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois)
Beyond the Lights—"Grateful" (Diane Warren)
Glen Campbell... I'll Be Me—"I'm Not Gonna Miss You" (Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond)
The LEGO Movie—"Everything Is Awesome" (Shawn Patterson, feat. Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island)
Selma—"Glory" (John Legend and Common)

WILL WIN
This category is oddly being positioned as "The Battle of the Snubs". In one corner, there's The LEGO Movie, which—and stop me if you've heard this before—inexplicably failed to garner a nomination for Best Animated Feature. In the other, there's Selma, which did land a Best Picture nod but failed to score in other high-profile categories where it was highly regarded. Will voters experiencing remorse for shutting out The LEGO Movie use this category as an opportunity to atone? Possibly, but the outrage over Selma is just as loud, and its entry is far more topical (and has been more heavily promoted) than Tegan and Sara's radio-friendly hit. "Glory" takes the trophy, meaning Selma can at least call itself an Academy Award-winning film; something tells me that's small consolation to Ava DuVernay.


SHOULD WIN
I'd never even heard of Glen Campbell... I'll Be Me until an hour ago, so I'll have to abstain there. Otherwise, because these are the Oscars, I approach this category not just in terms of the music but in how that music integrates itself into the film. That's why "Lost Stars" is a curious fit here. It's a fine song, and Adam Levine's falsetto is affecting, especially in combination with a thumping bass line. The problem is that, in the context of Begin Again, this anthemic version of "Lost Stars" is a vulgar desecration from its original form, which was designed to be whispery and quietly sincere. The whole point of "Lost Stars" is that it didn't want to be an Academy Award nominee—it wasn't supposed to be engineered for mass appeal. As a result, its presence here means either that voters missed the point or that Begin Again itself failed in its near-mystical veneration of musical whimsy.

But at least "Lost Stars" actually appears in Begin Again; both "Glory" and "Grateful" pop up over their respective film's closing credits. That doesn't make them bad songs, but it also highlights the superfluous nature of this category, a field that seems more designed to boost ratings for the Oscars' telecast than it does to pay homage to greatness in film. Perhaps I should brush past my philosophical concerns and simply support the best piece of music, but I want the songs to serve the movies, not the other way around.

Thankfully, "Everything Is Awesome" isn't just incorporated into The LEGO Movie—it's absolutely essential to the film's thematic success. It helps that the song is an undeniable earworm; it may not be all that musically sophisticated, but Tegan and Sara's vocals are bouncy and enjoyable, and its chorus will ring in your ears for days. More importantly, it will make you recall The LEGO Movie's sly message about the perils of mindless conformity. Now that's an Oscar winner.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Big Eyes—"Big Eyes" (Lana del Rey)
The LEGO Movie—"Everything Is Awesome" (Shawn Patterson, feat. Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island)
Muppets Most Wanted—"Interrogation Song" (Bret McKenzie and Paul Roemen)

"Big Eyes" is a sudden and surreal contribution from Lana del Rey, who enhances the film's strange mood with her sultry vocals and gentle piano. "Interrogation Song" is one of the rare moments in Muppets Most Wanted that feels inspired, with Ty Burrell and Sam the Eagle turning a jailhouse Q&A into an enchantingly idiotic duet.

My ideal winner: Muppets Most Wanted—"Interrogation Song" (Bret McKenzie and Paul Roemen).





BEST SOUND EDITING

NOMINEES
American Sniper
Birdman
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Interstellar
Unbroken

WILL WIN
Gravity. No? OK, how about Inception? Dammit. But the sound categories are so much harder to predict when there isn't a technically dominant juggernaut in the midst. I'm comfortable crossing off The Hobbit and Unbroken, but any of the remaining three could put up a fight. When in doubt, though, the war movie is always a safe bet in the sound fields, so I'll go with American Sniper.

MISSING
I wasn't quite as taken with The Babadook as some, but its sound design is ingenious, forcing you to constantly strain your ears for the slightest whisper of an intruder, then to cover them in terror when things suddenly go boom.


BEST SOUND MIXING

NOMINEES
American Sniper
Birdman
Interstellar
Unbroken
Whiplash

WILL WIN
The Academy has honored the same film in both sound categories in four of the past five years, so if I'm picking American Sniper for Sound Editing, I should probably double down here. The complicating factor is that musicals fare well in the Mixing field; past winners include Les Misérables, Dreamgirls, and Ray. Whiplash isn't a musical, but it's sufficiently embroiled in the musical arts that voters might take notice. Nevertheless, I'll stick with the big, loud war movie in American Sniper.

MISSING
It's disappointing that, given the Academy's predilection for honoring musicals here, it failed to recognize the stellar mixing of Get On Up, which flawlessly dubbed James Brown's vocals into its numerous concert scenes.

Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper"



That wraps up the little guys. Click here for the Manifesto's analysis of the big techies.