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2015 Academy Awards — Predictions and Preferences

big short -- interiorThe 2015 film year pointedly illustrates Hollywood’s strategy to save the best for last.

While “Woman in Gold,” Woody Allen’s “The Irrational Man,” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” offered some pre-October satisfaction in moviegoing, most of the pictures released before award season were sappy comedies, formulaic action thrillers, overdone historical trash, supernatural twaddle, cutesy animation, and corny melodramas. Previews of 2016 spring and summer fare promise more of the same. Hollywood is aware of how much short-term memory affects award nominations, and it guards against its schmaltz being overlooked by making October through January a field day of excellence while the eight months preceding and following are repeated lessons in mediocrity. Or worse.

You can really tell as stinker when a studio waits until January to release it, the Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar,” being a case in point. Except for musical numbers by Channing Tatum and Alden Ehrenreich (an unlikely name for someone so charming and convincing as a cowboy), “Caesar” is a dud unworthy of the wonderful performers that populate it.

Even when the glut of truly good films began appearing, they were relatively few in number compared to some previous years, the closing months of 2011 and 2013 having been particularly kind to moviegoers.

Nevertheless, they included a slew of wonderful performances. Three of the acting categories are as strong as they’ve ever been. Best Actress is weak by comparison with other years — Look at 1942, 1950, and 1962 if you want to see a powerhouse roster. Even so, four deserving actors will receive Oscars for 2015 because the work that stood out this year tended to be unique and extraordinary. You don’t often see the level, or kind, of performances given by Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Mark Rylance, Mark Ruffalo, Alicia Vikander, or Kate Winslet. Each has an energy or novelty that makes it certifiably special. Fassbender and Winslet managed to work their miracles in a movie that would have been patently unwatchable without them (and Jeff Daniels), Danny Boyle’s muddy, muddled “Steve Jobs.”

You’ll notice I will make a continued point of referring to the awards bestowed on February 28, 2016 as the 2015 Oscars. That’s because Academy Awards were historically dated according to the years the movies being honored were released. Google and other search engines, obviously not compiled by movie buffs, designate awards according the years they are handed to the recipient. I consider this inaccurate and a rather big foul.

Of course, the big controversy this year involved all of the acting nominations going to a group of performers that doesn’t represent American diversity. I consider these nominations the outcome of a random vote that is not prejudiced, conspiratorial, or exclusionary and has as much validity as any nomination roster from any year, given that a tally of individual ballots cast by voters that do not convene, compare notes, or craft a field by committee can and will take different forms in different years. Chips fall where they fall, and they can’t always satisfy today’s penchant for political correctness. While many look at this year’s nominations kerfuffle as an elephant in the room, I consider it more like a chihuahua dressed as an elephant and worry more about gerrymandering a system that works just fine into one that discards it-goes-like-it-goes, luck-of-the-draw randomness for guarantees no one should have.

 

 

Now to the predictions and preferences, which will be handled category by category in the six major contests — Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director.

 

revenant -- interrioBEST PICTURE — The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room, Spotlight — Here’s where you find diversity. These eight films are about as different from each as you can get. “Mad Max” and “The Revenant” depend as much on photography and editing as they do on storytelling. “The Martian” is a great combination of moviemaking and plot expansion. “Bridge of Spies” and “Spotlight” present real-life events in a serious, dramatic fashion while “The Big Short” explains the 2008 bursting of the housing market in comic terms. “Room” tells a personal story. “Brooklyn” chronicles a time and a people, the Irish, as one woman considers whether she should emigrate or stay at home.

The field is strong, but one film stands out above the others for its cinematic achievement that enhances and intensifies its story and adds the topography, beauty, and lushness of the United States to its engrossing cast of characters.

That movie is “The Revenant.”

Alejandro G. Iñárritu makes up for chicanery of 2014, when he and his movie, “Birdman” both received Oscars. Iñárritu is in his milieu, the great and majestic outdoors, in “The Revenant.” The director may have shown how little he knows about Broadway or human behavior in “Birdman,” but he has the intensity and psychology just right in his picture about two men with keen survival instinct, one a frontiersman with lives by his McGyver-like ingenuity, another who lies, finagles, and steals to keep matters to his advantage.

The gripping grittiness of “The Revenant” cannot be denied. I will be the first to admit this is not my kind of picture, but I was constantly impressed, perhaps even fascinated, by the way Iñárritu presents and includes the terrain in his narrative. Not only does Iñárritu make you care about the fate of the lead character, Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, but he makes you appreciate the roughness, variety, and splendor of the territory a severely injured and ignobly betrayed Glass has to negotiate to show he has cheated death.

“The Revenant” is a beautiful movie, and an exciting one. Iñárritu is a master of imagery, and this time, he weds his shots and foreshadows to the story at hand instead of being flashy and trying to use art to cover his ignorance or shallowness. Even when he lingers on a shot, you’re grateful for the extra seconds of grandeur he’s affording you. “The Revenant” is also powerfully realistic in its über-violent fighting scenes and the destined-to-be-iconic sequences when Glass wrestles with a bear (because, in a way that parallels Glass’s own story, he unwittinglycomes between a mother and her cubs, something every hiker is warned not to do).

At almost three hours, you can find places “The Revenant” could be cut or elided, but the art of film, the essences of photography, editing, and visual imagery that make movies so wonderful, is evident of every frame of this movie that includes fine performances by DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, and Domhnall Gleeson.

Believe me, I am surprised to be favoring an Iñárritu movie in a year that includes three pictures that appeal to my more usual taste. I am also surprised at how much “Mad Max: Fury Road” captures the wit and dystopia of the earlier “Mad Max” movies with Mel Gibson. It, like “The Revenant,” deserves consideration for George Miller retaining his cinematic eye and wickedly good humor.

Before I saw “The Revenant,” my personal vote would have gone to “The Big Short.” With great comic flair, and with grandly oversized acting that matches the personalities of the characters being portrayed, director Adam McKay entertains brilliantly while giving a skewed, but handy, primer on the national, and international, economic crisis of 2008. Being from Hollywood, McKay at times goes political when the dialogue and narrative of his and Charles Randolph’s screenplay are doing the job well enough without editorialization, but the fast paced and sure-handed comic tone of his movie override any preachiness or blame-laying. “The Big Short” is funny, smart, concise, and constantly entertaining. Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Jeremy Strong, Melissa Leo, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, and Billy Magnussen are all hilarious in their roles, so “The Big Short” exhilarates as it amuses.

“Bridge of Spies” also holds your attention while acquainting you with one of the major diplomatic developments of the Cold War. Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel is wonderfully deadpan and stoic as he faces life in prison, but Tom Hanks also gives a great performance. His negotiations with the East German and Soviet governments provide insight and entertainment.

“Spotlight” is the probable recipient if voters are reticent to honor Iñárritu and his movie in two consecutive years. Less a mystery than a look at how a crackerjack investigative team develops a complex major story in the days when news organizations still practiced journalism of which they could be proud, “Spotlight” keeps you wanting to see what the Boston Globe reporters will uncover, and how they’ll document their findings for publication. Mark Ruffalo is especially good as a dogged reporter with a mission he takes seriously.

I find “Brooklyn” overrated. Though its story is interesting, it catches fire only when ebullient Emory Cohen or snidely insinuating Brid Brennan is on the screen. I am a dedicated Saoirse Ronan fan, but I think she only scratched the surface while playing Eilis in this slow-moving, relatively undramatic movie.

“The Martian” was fun and inventive. Just watching Matt Damon solve problems was entertaining, and some of the design is magnificent. “Room” is a melodrama elevated by good performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. It’s made well but has sentiments that are one step ahead of Hallmark.

PREDICTION: The Revenant PREFERENCE: The Revenant

 

 

leo -- interiorBEST ACTOR — Bryan Cranston for Trumbo; Matt Damon for “The Martian;” Leonardo DiCaprio for “The Revenant;” Michael Fassbender for “Steve Jobs;” Eddie Redmayne for “The Danish Girl” — It has to be Leo.

When it is Leo, tongues will wag about how it’s “his turn” and that the Academy doesn’t want to disappoint him five times in a row, especially when he contended so seriously for “The Aviator” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Those tongues will be in the mouths of idle gossips who want to overanalyze the obvious, a regular team sport among commentators today. Leonardo DiCaprio gives an epic, monumental performance that goes beyond the physical beating he must have taken while shooting Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film. “The Revenant” shows how deep and accomplished an actor DiCaprio is. You see as much is his facial expressions and reactions as you hear in his dialogue.

DiCaprio doesn’t settle from stock grimaces or other shorthand counterfeits of honest emotion. The pain, determination, wisdom, and perseverance you see on his face is part of a complete performances that depicts a man of courage and ingenuity who is assured in what he knows and loyal to those he serves and is duty-bound to protect.

DiCaprio assists Iñárritu in keeping “The Revenant” from being classified as a overdrawn action picture. He contributes artistry of a high degree. You admire and are concerned for his character from the first time you see him. The calamities that beset Hugh Glass are almost too much for one man to bear, but DiCaprio convinces you of Glass’s strength and resourcefulness. You feel he is triumphing because of his talent and determination and not only because he is the hero of “The Revenant.”

For sheer imagination in characterization and energy in keeping up a complex, idiosyncratic performance, Michael Fassbender deserves high honors. His Steve Jobs is mercurial, unapologetic, pragmatic, and driven. You feel as if he’s on camera for every shot and dominating Danny Boyle’s film with his overarching presence.

Fassbender saves Boyle in significant ways. “Steve Jobs” is too eccentric for its own good. It sometimes looks as if Danny Boyle wants only to show the flinty, seamy side of the computer innovator. He certainly accentuates some of Jobs’s least attractive points and centers the movie on Jobs’s relationship with a child who he denies is his daughter.

The enigmatic zest and zeal Fassbender generates is a delight to behold. In any other year, he’d be a front-runner for the Oscar. This year, he takes a backseat to DiCaprio and Redmayne.

Eddie Redmayne is proving to be the most subtle actor of this time. He can portray people who could be construed as bizarre with insouciant naturalness that brings out the humanity of his characters while conveying all that makes them so different from any common herd. He reserves any self-consciousness for the characters he’s bringing to life but never betrays any of his own.

Matt Damon is delightful and as the jovial, inventive Mark Watney in “The Martian.” At age 45, Damon exudes boyishness. His Watney seems precocious and vulnerable at the same time. He can express glee at his own resourcefulness and face hardship with stoicism.

Bryan Cranston seems a bit stylized as Dalton Trumbo, but his performance grows on you and becomes a symbol of the writer’s specialness instead of a character exaggeration. Cranston received Emmys as “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White and a Tony as “All the Way’s” Lyndon B. Johnson. An Oscar is in his grasp, but he’ll have to find a different year to claim it.

PREDICTION: Leonardo Di Caprio for “The Revenant” PREFERENCE: Leonardo DiCaprio for “The Revenant”

 

 

cate -- interriorBEST ACTRESS — Cate Blanchett for “Carol;” Brie Larson for “Room;” Jennifer Lawrence for “Joy;” Charlotte Rampling for “45 Years;” Saoirse Ronan for “Brooklyn” — All five of these women do wonderful work, but I didn’t have my strong “Oscar” reaction while watching any of them. Two women who were not nominated, both Dames, Helen Mirren in “Woman in Gold” and Maggie Smith in “The Lady in the Van” impressed me more. I also wonder what might have happened if Kate Winslet was considered for this category for her buoying performance in “Steve Jobs.”

This is a category in which any of the nominated could receive the award. Cate Blanchett would get my vote, but I can see how Larson or Rampling can garner equal support. Ronan is a definite contender, but to my mind, is the weakest of the pack. Lawrence, the most vibrant of today’s young actresses, is the one most certain to be an also-ran in 2015.

Blanchett is my favorite because her Carol Aird had the most shadings, the most nuance, and the most mystery of any of these characters. Blanchett used posture, self-control, and a series of subtle expressions to tell you who Carol is. She went beyond dialogue and close-ups to reveal a complete character, whose complexity was enhanced by her performance.

You can see Carol’s mind working as she deals with situations. Blanchett is marvelous at conveying the inner life of her characters, and I think she gives Carol more dimension than Ronan give Eilis or Larson gives her character, Joy Newsome.

Brie Larson’s character has scope that she conveys well enough to rate an Oscar. Larson can be almost childish as the kidnapped mother playing with and taking care of the son she conceived while being raped nightly by her captor. She goes through a gamut of emotions once she and her five-year-old are freed because of her ingenuity and the boy’s courage. Larson’s Joy has as much trouble adjusting to real existence as he did living as a depraved man’s prisoner. There’s depth to her confusion and angst, especially when others want to rush her into talking about matters she’d rather not confront.

Larson’s is a good, varied performance, but I don’t regard it as a special one.

The same can be said for Lawrence’s and Ronan’s.

You expect wonders from Lawrence, so getting them doesn’t seem like such a prize. Once again, she lights up the screen in “Joy,” getting deeper into the character than necessary to flesh out David O. Russell’s screenplay.

Lawrence does broad, entertaining work, but it is not of the kind that screams, “Award!”

Saoirse Ronan’s performance in “Brooklyn” at least whispers “Award,” and it would not be a complete surprise if she is called to the podium for an Oscar. I thought her performance lacked levels that would make Eilis’s plight more dramatic. Eilis plays close to the vest when it comes to emotion, so Ronan withholding, and showing Eilis’s secretive nature, might be fitting, but it isn’t exciting.

How nice to see Charlotte Rampling getting her first Oscar attention after a career of notable performances!

Rampling’s nomination surprised me at first. Not only because she’s been so frequently overlooked but because her Kate Mercer is a character that has to grow on you.

Rampling’s performance is one of cumulative effect. It builds and builds until, before you realize it, you are invested in Kate and interested in anything that affects her and how she’s going to take the various small blows she endures as “45 Years” progresses.

The richness that develops earned Rampling this nomination and could earn her the Academy Award.

PREDICTION: Brie Larson for “Room” PREFERENCE: Cate Blanchett for “Carol”

 

 

ruffalo -- interiorBEST SUPPORTING ACTOR — Christian Bale for “The Big Short;” Tom Hardy for “The Revelant;” Mark Ruffalo for “Spotlight;” Mark Rylance for “Bridge of Spies;” Sylvester Stallone for “Creed” — Best Supporting Actor is always a great category because the five nominated are chosen from thousands of performances.

This year, nominators did themselves proud. Every member of this quintet stood out among others in his movie and gave an enticing spin on a character that could have been played with less distinction and personally.

Mark Rylance, who I regard with Frank Langella, Kevin Kline, and Simon Russell Beale as among the best English-speaking actors of present time, made the Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, adorably avuncular. His slight smile and shrug each time he deliciously read the line, “Would it help?” endeared this enemy to the American people to his American audience. Rylance played Abel with wit and irony. The way he reacts to Tom Hanks’s defense attorney and his description of how he’ll be able to tell if his Soviet bosses are happy about getting back (in exchange for Americans they are holding prisoner, including the pilot, Francis Gary Powers) are priceless for their stoic nonchalance.

Tom Hardy had an amazing year. He well earns this nomination as the nemesis to “The Revenant’s” Hugh Glass. His way of rationalizing everything his character does, and his talent, equal to Glass’s, for survival is entertaining in a way that enlivens “The Revenant” while also making you hate Hardy’s scurrilous Fitzgerald and cleave closer to DiCaprio’s Glass.

Hardy could have received Best Actor nominations for his bravura turns in “Mad Max” and “Legends,” but this nod might be the most fitting. Villains always rate attention, and Hardy makes Fitzgerald one of the most hateful in recent film history. If only by the smug manner he uses to justify his treacherous, dishonest, nefarious acts.

Christian Bale is fun as the slacker and drummer who can also read a spreadsheet with speed and accuracy and see the future in it.

Bale’s character is wonderfully unapologetic in “The Big Short.” His office might be like a surfer’s lair, but his mind is sharp, and he knows how to use what ability to see the full story in numbers to make a lot of people rich, which is his professional aim.

You barely see a performance is Bale’s acting. Eccentric though his character is, he always seems realistic and not only in the moment but ahead of it.

Mark Ruffalo endows his character, an investigative reporter for The Boston Globe, with so much individual personality, you have to admire his intensity on and off the job, assuming he ever grants himself time to be completely “off.”

Ruffalo is like the mad dog killer of journalism. He is determined to get his story and will work his contacts and pursue his leads with professionalism and passion. There’s a core to Ruffalo’s performance that makes him larger than the screen and makes his stand out among a fine ensemble cast in “Spotlight.”

Sylvester Stallone’s performance as Rocky Balboa is as monumental as the statue that sits at the base of the Art Museum steps of the fictional fighting.

Stallone presents the aging Rocky in the here and now while endowing him with an elegiac quality that transcends the film and wins your heart.

If Stallone wins the Oscar, it won’t be from sentimentality alone. The love Stallone has for Rocky shines through his performance, as does Rocky’s love for people, especially people who are willing to work for what they say they want.

Oscar loves rewarding capstones of great careers, and Stallone’s lovely, loveable work will give Academy voters the chance to do just that.

PREDICTION: Sylvester Stallone for “Creed” PREFERENCE: Mark Ruffalo for “Spotlight”

 

 

leigh in eight -- interiorBEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS — Jennifer Jason Leigh for “The Hateful Eight;” Rooney Mara for “Carol;” Rachel McAdams for “Spotlight;” Alicia Vikander for “The Danish Girl,” Kate Winslet for “Steve Jobs” — Like Tom Hardy, Alicia Vikander impressed with several performances this year. And look at the range from playing a robot in “Ex Machina” to the dedicated nurse in “Testament of Youth” and the understanding wife in “The Danish Girl.” If being prolific was the main criterion, Vikander would be given the Oscar in a walk.

I believe she is a strong contender, but I see two nominees who are more likely to receive an award.

Kate Winslet was a marvel in “Steve Jobs.” She was barely recognizable as Joanne, Jobs’s marketing chief who goes with him no matter what company he’s running.

Winslet is the picture of efficient normality as the competent lieutenant who unrequitedly loves Jobs and strives to put his life in order, hoping also to get attention of a kind word from her boss.

Joanne’s role in Jobs’s life seems almost unbelievable, but Winslet always lets you see how important the character is in all things Apple and all things Jobs.

Whenever you see Joanne, she’s always as natural and calm as can be. Then she retreats to her office to contemplate all that is happening around her and wonder why she’s putting up with all the frenzy Jobs creates. There’s also a liveliness to Winslet’s performance the energizes the movie. Joanne is a great foil to Jobs. She is also his conscience. Seeing them commune and make things happen is a joy.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is hilarious as the thief and murderer who keeps her humor intact and does some plotting to keep her character from being tried and hanged.

Jason Leigh has so much fun with this role, you forget she is “The Hateful Eight’s” primary villain, a woman who can make lots happen. Like Brecht’s Pirate Jenny, leading a vengeful band of criminals is exhilarating to her, and she wears her exuberance, confidence, and good sportsmanship like a badge, even when Kurt Russell’s bounty hunter, taking her in to collect his reward, cuffs her and bloodies her mouth.

At one point I dubbed Jason Leigh’s performance the best of anyone’s this year. Now I waver between her and Winslet for this award.

Rooney Mara brings poise and a sense of adventure to her role as a shopgirl who responds unexpectedly to an unexpected proposition in “Carol.” Mara and Cate Blanchett plays beautifully off one another, saying volumes even when they are not speaking.

Rachel McAdams is bound to receive an Oscar once I say she is most obvious also-ran in this category. I enjoyed her acting in “Spotlight,” but she didn’t mesmerize of galvanize the movie the way Mark Ruffalo, Brian D’Arcy James, or Stanley Tucci did. I would have nominated Virginia Madsen from “Joy” or Jessica Chastain from “The Martian” in her stead.

PREDICTION: Kate Winslet for “Steve Jobs” PREFERENCE: Jennifer Jason Leigh for “The Hateful Eight”

 

inarritu -- interiorBEST DIRECTOR — Lenny Abrahamson for “Room;” Alejandro González Iñárritu for “The Revenant;” Tom McCarthy for “Spotlight;” Adam McKay for “The Big Short;” George Miller for “Mad Max: Fury Road — It would be fun to see George Miller receive this award as an accolade for all of his “Mad Max” movies, each of which has been lots of fun in spite of its taciturn or unintelligible characters and rough action. Miller, like Alejandro Iñárritu, makes movies in addition to telling stories.

Tom McCarthy did a wonderful job in creating suspense with a story, the facts and outcome of which we essentially knew. Lenny Abrahamson provided some interesting points of view in “Room.” He certainly made a tiny space seem bigger, and he has those haunting scenes in which the boys hears his mother’s sexual encounters through the slats in the cabinet in which he sleeps. Neither of them was as daring, creative, or cinematic as Miller or Iñárritu.

Adam McKay is not as sweeping as my front-runners, Miller and Iñárritu, but he infused “The Big Short” with such energy, immediacy, and humor, I have to give him consideration I withhold from McCarthy and Abrahamson even though “Spotlight” has a good chance to be chosen over “The Revenant” as Best Picture.

In the long run, I don’t see how the Academy can deny Iñárritu a second consecutive Oscar for “The Revenant.” He uses the landscape both lovingly and dramatically. He keeps fever-pitch tension even when “The Revenant” has lulls in its basic action. He pits two of the most vivid characters, both survivor, against each other in pitched battle. He gives us a look at a time, place, and situation that is foreign from our usual thoughts. He allows “The Revenant” to provoke thought about real, contemporary issues while making sure the movie’s story stays within the context of its time.

A win for Iñárritu means a win for Mexico three years in a row. (Alfonso Cuarón was given the Oscar for “Gravity” in 2013.) Hollywood had better give Donald Trump a list of Mexicans to admit when he builds his promised wall!

PREDICTION: Alejandro G. Iñárritu for “The Revenant” PREFERENCE: Alejandro G. Iñárritu for “The Revenant”

 

My opinion is voters did a fine job in choosing nominees this year. No one was overlooked, per sé, but here are a few others who may have received nominations — Helen Mirren for “Woman in Gold,” Tom Hanks for “Bridge of Spies,” Daniel Craig for “Spectre,” Johnny Depp for “Black Mass,” Tom Courtenay for “45 Years,” Maggie Smith for “The Lady in the Van,” Samuel L. Jackson for “The Hateful Eight,” Jeff Daniels for “Steve Jobs,” Idris Elba for “Beasts of No Nation,” Ethan Cohen for “Brooklyn,” Domhnall Gleeson for “Brooklyn,” Adam Driver for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Jeremy Strong for “The Big Short,” Stanley Tucci for “Spotlight,” Sarah Paulson for “Carol,” Geraldine James for “45 Years,” Jessica Chastain for “The Martian,” Virginia Madsen for “Joy,” and Diane Ladd for “Joy.”

 

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