Notes on an Awards Season

Oscars-Birdman

This article isn’t a recap of the Oscar show itself. It’s about the entire season, and why the winners won and why the “losers” didn’t. The show, as to be expected, was a misfire. Save for a few poignant speeches, it was a tone-deaf bore—misguided, over-long and dumb—that left poor Neil Patrick Harris stranded in comedy hell. It started off well but quickly devolved into a cringe-worthy affair. Then again, you can’t expect a terrific show when it’s produced by the guys who brought us The Bucket List and the Footloose remake. Moving on…

And just like THAT, the sprawling dog and pony show we call “Awards season” came to an end. As the dust settles, the campaign managers and studio heads at IFC Films and The Weinstein Company are trying to comprehend what went wrong, especially since their films—Boyhood and The Imitation Gamewere frontrunners for the majority of the season. Morten Tyldum’s Alan Turing biopic made a huge splash at Telluride and Toronto last fall while Richard Linklater’s brilliant one-of-a-kind family drama swept the critics’ circuit, plus the Golden Globes and the BAFTAS. Many even expected it to become the first Sundance premiere to win Best Picture.

But it wasn’t to be. On Oscar night, the two films came away with just two Oscars combined, soundly thumped by the brilliant strategic campaigning of Fox Searchlight whose two films—The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman—netted eight Oscars in total. Wes Anderson’s comic caper, my favorite film of 2014, was a crafts juggernaut, winning Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling and Best Original Score (for long overdue French composer Alexandre Desplat). While I was disappointed that Anderson himself didn’t take home any hardware, I doubt he’ll have a lot to complain about considering how well his film did.

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The acting Oscars all went to the expected frontrunners (and SAG winners): The Best Actress in a Leading Role winner was sentimental favorite Julianne Moore who finally won her first Oscar for Still Alice on her fifth nomination while Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) and J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) won in the Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Actor in a Supporting Role categories.

Simmons’ win was one of three for Damien Chazelle’s riveting Whiplash which was the surprise winner in the Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing categories. Other winners included American Sniper for Best Sound Editing, “Glory” from Selma as Best Original Song, Interstellar for Best Visual Effects, Ida for Best Foreign Language Film, Citizenfour for Best Documentary Feature and in a huge upset, Big Hero 6 for Best Animated Feature.

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But the big winner of the night, and by extent the awards season, was obviously Birdman, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s wildly ambitious, technically-dazzling but flawed comedy (read my review). Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough, Birdman told the story of a washed-up movie star attempting to launch a comeback by staging a play on Broadway. It won Oscars for Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki), Best Writing – Original Screenplay, Best Direction and the most important award of all: Best Picture. In doing so, it became one of the most eccentric (and in my circle, polarizing) movies to win the award. But with a subject that resonated deeply with many members, especially those in the massive acting branch, maybe we should have read the tea leaves a little earlier.

Birdman’s ascent began when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in late August 2014. Although every awards pundit expected it to be top contender, most figured it was too weird, too inside-baseball, too emotionally distant, to actually compete for the win (that fucking ending!). It did really well with critics groups (including winning Best Picture from the FFCC, a group which I’m a voting member of) but its success with critics wasn’t a surprise. No, the big surprise was its unexpected wins at the industry guilds. In a span of two weeks in late January and early February, it won top honors at the Holy Trinity of precursor awards: the Producers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild—thus turning the tide of the race completely. As I stated in my Oscar predictions column last week, only one film in awards history lost Best Picture after winning those three awards: Apollo 13. And that was because 1995 was a batshit insane awards season with enough drama to fill a small book.

I didn’t think Birdman was going to be another Apollo 13, not with its “Hooray for Hollywood wink, wink” subject matter, and especially not with that one-shot gimmick and cast of beloved actors spearheading it. I stuck to my guns and predicted it in both Best Picture and Best Director even as some of my friends brought up the old “It wasn’t nominated for Best Film Editing so it won’t win Best Picture” argument. That argument was always a flimsy one, and after today, it’s gone, POOF, just like “You can’t win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination.” Some precursors like the Guild awards trifecta, and the BAFTAS (which went 8-8 in the craft categories) will always be strong barometers but every year should be viewed on its own terms, with statistics referenced only as loose guidelines, not rules.

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As for Boyhood… It may have taken home just one award (for Patricia Arquette’s sublime performance) but we’ll never know how close it (and Richard Linklater) came to winning Best Picture and Best Director respectively. For a good part of the year, it was the little movie that could… a truly monumental achievement that defined the independent spirit. But then it swept the critics groups and was quickly anointed by Oscar bloggers as the frontrunner, just like The Social Network was in 2010. Sometimes that title works wonders for an awards campaign (The Hurt Locker), but most of the time, it doesn’t, especially when the anointed frontrunner is as passive, plot-free and slow-moving as Boyhood. IFC Films’ limited budget and comparative lack of experience with campaigning also played a part. Nevertheless, just the fact that this tiny movie received so many nominations is a huge win in and of itself. Prior to 2007, Boyhood would barely have been part of the awards conversation. To be fair, neither would Birdman. I still can’t believe that an eccentric, original comedy with numerous scenes of people levitating won Best Picture! This type of movie usually wins a Screenplay award, and that’s it. I’m not a huge fan of the film but its win over traditional Oscar-bait like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything is refreshing. For those of you who are still mad that it won (I’m looking at all the Birdman haters), here’s some words of consolation:

 

“The Oscars should not in any way be considered the last word in what constitutes excellence in film. What the Academy Awards represent is simply the collective judgment at a particular point in time of several thousand people who work, in, used to work in, or have ties to, the film industry. Demographically, the average Oscar voter is politically liberal, well educated, and much better off financially than most Americans. Academy members are primarily craftspeople, and generally don’t possess the critical faculties and scholarly approach of cinephiles and the best film reviewers, nor are they as steeped in Hollywood history as your garden variety movie buff. They tend to be drawn to movies that are aesthetically conservative, but which contain humanistic or “uplifting” attitudes… In all fairness, though, sometimes Academy voters do get it right.”

— Damien Bona, Inside Oscar 2

 

To add to his point, I’ll reiterate that in the end, time is the ultimate judge of these things. Iñárritu stated as much during his acceptance speech. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is considered by many to be one of the, if not the, greatest film of all time but back in 1958, it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture! The winner that year was Gigi, a musical that’s mostly remembered today for being the answer to the following trivia question: What film won the Best Picture Oscar of 1958?

 

Tomorrow: One final look at the season with some Records, Milestones and Feats Achieved at the 2015 Oscars.

 

FULL LIST OF WINNERS: 

If you’re curious, I went 19/24 in my predictions. Not my best but much better than last year.

Best Picture
American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash

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

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

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

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Adapted Screenplay
Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Jason Hall, American Sniper
Anthony McCarten, The Theory of Everything
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game

Best Original Screenplay
Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, Foxcatcher
Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Foreign Language Film
Leviathan
Ida
Tangerines
Timbuktu
Wild Tales

Best Documentary Feature
CITIZENFOUR
Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt in the Earth
Virunga

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

Film Editing
American Sniper
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Whiplash

Best Song
“Everything is Awesome” from The LEGO Movie (written by Shawn Patterson)
“Glory” from Selma (written by Common and John Legend)
“Grateful” from Beyond the Lights
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
“Lost Stars” from Begin Again (written by Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley and Nick Southwood)

Best Original Score
Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game
Johann Johannsson, The Theory of Everything
Gary Yershon, Mr. Turner
Hans Zimmer, Interstellar

Best Cinematography
Roger Deakins, Unbroken
Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman
Dick Pope, Mr. Turner
Robert Yeoman, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, Ida

Best Costume Design
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inherent Vice
Into the Woods
Maleficent
Mr. Turner

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Foxcatcher
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy

Best Production Design
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Interstellar
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Best Sound Editing
American Sniper
Birdman
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Interstellar
Unbroken

Best Sound Mixing
American Sniper
Birdman
Interstellar
Unbroken
Whiplash

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

Best Short Film, Live Action
Aya
Boogaloo and Graham
Butter Lamp
Parvaneh
The Phone Call

Best Short Film, Animated
The Bigger Picture
The Dam Keeper
Feast
Me and My Moulton
A Single Life

Best Documentary, Short Subject
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Joanna
Our Curse
The Reaper
White Earth

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