2014 has been a year for independent films to reign. The season was free of mass-scale epics or the frills and thrills of green screen production — just profound truth telling from dedicated auteurs.
It has been a long and winding road toward the Oscars, but the journey ends Sunday, Feb. 22. Here are my breakdowns and predictions of the top categories:
This was the year of the leading man. In fact, the surplus of standout performances could have filled a second ballot with Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year), David Oyelowo (Selma), Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice) and Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner).
On any given Sunday, any one of the lucky nominees — Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Michael Keaton (Birdman) or Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) — could justifiably go home with an Oscar. But Redmayne has separated himself from the pack with his galvanizing portrayal of Stephen Hawking.
Rather than allowing Hawking’s physical disability to encumber his acting, Redmayne is set free. Stripped of natural instincts, his acting tools are reduced to limited facial expressions, and he doesn’t miss a beat. From beneath his furrowed brow, Redmayne’s piercing blue eyes translate passion, sorrow and wonderment. His soulful gaze allows Hawking’s spirit to shine.
It is a rare gift for an actor to score such an intricate role, and Redmayne seized his moment. He has already amassed hardware from the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice Awards, SAG awards and BAFTAs. Come Sunday night, he will top off his collection with Oscar gold.
One of Oscar’s illustrious bridesmaids is at long last poised to be his bride. Arguably the greatest actress of her generation, Julianne Moore has gone home empty-handed following four previous nominations for Boogie Nights, The End of the Affair, The Hours and Far from Heaven (and she was snubbed out of nominations for Magnolia, A Single Man and The Kids are All Right).
This year it is her harrowing performance in Still Alice that has put her on path to finally capture that elusive statuette.
Make no mistake, there are only five films (not eight!) that belong in this category: Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game. But only one of these films made cinematic history while resonating with audiences all over the world.
As children we are unaware that our parents are human. We look to them for guidance and expect they have all the answers to life’s questions. In truth, parents are just as misguided as the children they are raising — Boyhood examines this dynamic.
Moviegoers witness the evolution of a family as they navigate the slopes of chance, commitment and yearning. It is a quiet film that takes a hard look at romanticism and pain. With wins at the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice Awards and BAFTAs, it is clear Boyhood is destined to claim the Oscar.
Two master storytellers are contending for this prize. Director Alejandro G. Inarritu defied conventional wisdom by shooting Birdman in a single camera take. He assembled a thrill ride of hysteria, comedy and tragedy, and weaved a common thread of hope through a tribe of lost souls.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Richard Linklater, nominated for Boyhood. This craftsman spent 12 years erecting a real-life storybook. As with all his films, Linklater demonstrates restraint with Boyhood. He doesn’t require bleeding plots to drive his films — Boyhood doesn’t even have a plot — the power of dialogue and strength of character guides each scene.
Both men are independent filmmakers who march to the beat of their own drummers, but only one can claim top prize. Inarritu was handed the coveted Directors Guild of America Award, while Linklater walked away with a Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice Award and BAFTA. Directorial, it’s a flip of the coin, but momentum is shifting towards a big night for Linklater.
Best Supporting Actor
This field is stacked, and J. K. Simmons is atop the heap. He took a psychological trip to unknown depths to portray punishing jazz instructor Terence Fletcher in Whiplash. Simmons morphs into a beast of energy with bulging biceps and adrenaline that never stops pulsating. Dressed in black from head to toe, Fletcher plays Grim Reaper to the hopes and dreams of his pupils by transforming his band room into a torture chamber.
Fletcher’s physical, verbal and psychological abuse is primarily waged upon lead drummer, Andrew, portrayed seamlessly by Miles Teller. The venomous outbursts and seething chastisements cause Andrew’s passion to slowly dissolve into a pool of blood, sweat and tears.
Best Supporting Actress
It is puzzling why two of the women in this category were given nominations. Meryl Streep is not worthy for her bleak performance in the Disney dud Into the Woods and Laura Dern’s nomination for her role in Wild is baseless. Her character is one-dimensional, and she shows no range of emotion. Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year), Carmen Ejogo (Selma) and Sienna Miller (American Sniper), are exceedingly more deserving of a nomination.
However, Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) secured her rightful spot and has this one all sewn up.
In Boyhood, Arquette plays a single mother desperately seeking security for herself and her children. Throughout the span of 12 years, we watch her make honest mistakes and innocent blunders. Arquette’s performance is a salute to all the mothers who claw their way through life to afford their children the opportunity to thrive.
Best Original Screenplay
This is a hotly contested race between Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel and Inarritu’s Birdman. Anderson had a big win in this category at the BAFTAs two weeks ago, but Inarritu nabbed wins at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards.
Anderson is at the top of his game with his glorious crime saga. He creates a fictional winter wonderland where trysts of greed and seduction are a way of life. The dialogue is swift and the dazzling array of characters is punchy little scoundrels that one can’t help but fall in love with.
Birdman is equal parts comedy and tragedy as a troupe of struggling actors battle personal demons in their quest for stardom. Inarritu examines egoism, mental illness, betrayal and abandonment with incomparable wit and irony.
It is a fearless script bereft of scene cuts, and each actor delivers Inarritu’s risqué dialogue with grace and fluidity. He takes a bold new step into the genre of dark comedy and incorporates a splash of science fiction (a first for the screenwriter).
By channeling his successes from Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, Inarritu utilized every weapon in his screenwriting arsenal to produce his astounding script. Because of this, I predict Birdman will soar to Oscar gold on Sunday.
Best Adapted Screenplay
This category is a bit of a crapshoot. Early in the season, it appeared as though The Imitation Game was the clear favorite following its critical acclaim in early releases. Then, as Whiplash picked up steam with a Best Picture nomination in January, a buzz engulfed screenwriter Damien Chazelle’s daring script. Now, The Theory of Everything is gaining traction after a win at the BAFTA awards. I’ll place my bets on Whiplash — an emphatic indie flick that hits all the high notes.
Chazelle produces a pulse-pounding script of grit and bravado. There is intention behind each and every word and actors J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller are in sync throughout the film. The dialogue is quick and cunning, and the actors never miss a beat. The title “Whiplash” is most befitting because Chazelle produces a whirlwind of tension that leaves the audience spellbound.
*This article also appeared in the Loyola Phoenix.