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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Oscars 2015: Going, going, gong: top bets for big prizes

'Boyhood' and 'Birdman' will dominate tonight, but the Academy is known to have a few surprises too...

Paul Whitington

Hollywood could never be accused of forgetting to congratulate itself, and tonight the great and good of America's film industry will gather at the Dolby Theatre for their annual orgy of shameless mutual backslapping.

The 87th Academy Awards boasts a new host, Neil Patrick Harris, and an Oscar race that is expected by many to be dominated by two films, Birdman and Boyhood. In fact a few months back, it seemed as if Boyhood would romp home in most categories, but the other award ceremonies have shown that Richard Linklater's coming-of-age saga is not for everyone.

If there's any justice in the world it will emerge with the most awards, but we all know there isn't, and some of the categories, particularly Best Actor and Actress, are likely to be very close-run affairs indeed. Here, in any case, are my predictions and wish list for tomorrow night, as well as a spot of moaning about the films and actors who should have been nominated but weren't. And the best of luck to Irish contenders Tomm Moore and Cartoon Saloon for animation, Song of the Sea.

Best Film

Since 2009, up to 10 movies can be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but this year only eight have made the list. Perhaps the most surprising inclusion is Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, a competent but totally unremarkable account of a marksman's adventures in Iraq that achieves the singular feat of saying absolutely nothing about that rather controversial war.

It won't win and neither, despite all its accomplishments, will Wes Anderson's delightful historical confection, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Michael Keaton, left, and Edward Norton in a scene from 'Birdman'. Photo: AP Photo.
Michael Keaton, left, and Edward Norton in a scene from 'Birdman'. Photo: AP Photo.
Susan Sarandon photographed by Chris Buck at Spin Ping Pong Social Club, New York
Jennifer Aniston in Cake
David Oyelowo in 'Selma'
Meryl Streep in Into The Woods
Emma Stone in Birdman
Ralph Fiennes in Grand Budapest Hotel
Benedict Cumberbatch
Reese Witherspoon in Wild

Morten Tyldum's solid wartime drama The Imitation Game seems a little out of its depth here, and I don't think James Marsh's fine but rather safe Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything stands much of a chance either. Damien Chazelle's delightfully stylish jazz drama Whiplash is too esoteric to win, and while Ava DuVernay's Selma would be a most worthy winner, I think Best Picture will be between Birdman and Boyhood, and I think Boyhood will win.

Best Director

You'd think it would be a matter of course that the Best Director award would invariably be awarded to the film that won Best Picture, but that's often not the case. Last year, for instance, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave won best picture, but Alfonso Cuaron was awarded Best Director for Gravity. Only five nominees in this award, and I don't think Morten Tyldum is going to win for Imitation Game here either. Neither is Wes Anderson, for the reasons I mentioned above.

Bennett Miller is up for Foxcatcher, an interesting film that dares to tell the bizarre true story of millionaire murderer John du Pont at a moody, almost funeral pace. I would be surprised, though, if Miller beats either Richard Linklater or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to the award. Inarritu's direction in Birdman is outstanding: his camera soars and swoops around the labyrinthine corridors of a Broadway theatre so compellingly that the venue almost becomes a character in its own right.

But I still think Linklater ought to win for Boyhood, a brilliant and painstaking account of a painful transition from childhood to adulthood filmed over 12 years.

Best Actor

This is always a fascinating category, and this year I think we can dismiss two candidates as also-rans. Benedict Cumberbatch is a very fine actor indeed, but his convincing and witty portrayal of wartime code-breaking genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game was a little too reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes for me. And while Bradley Cooper was perfectly ok as legendary marksman Chris Kyle in American Sniper, neither he nor Clint Eastwood's film deserve their nominations. That leaves Eddie Redmayne, Michael Keaton and Steve Carell.

Eddie Redmayne has already won a BAFTA, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe for his skilful portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and I would not be entirely surprised if he wins again here. The Academy loves wheelchairs and disability, and in fairness Redmayne handles Hawking's physical deterioration brilliantly. But the Oscar voters have always been fond of a fake nose as well, and Steve Carell was both chilling and unrecognisable playing the deluded and possibly psychotic multimillionaire John Eluthere du Pont in Foxcatcher.

He would be a popular choice, but I'd love to see Michael Keaton get it for Birdman. He's a wonderfully edgy and unpredictable actor, and it's great to see him in a meaty starring role again.

Best Actress

If it were up to me, I would give this year's Best Actress Academy Award to Marion Cotillard, who was absolutely compelling in the Dardenne brothers' Two Days, One Night. In that lean and mean Belgian drama, she played Sandra, a woman recovering from a nervous breakdown who tries to persuade her factory co-workers to back her when she's fired by the management. But as Two Days, One Night is a foreign language film, half the Academy voters probably won't have watched it, so unfortunately her chances may not be good.

Julianne Moore has already won a Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA for her portrayal of a woman dealing with the onset of Alzheimer's in Still Alice, so must be a strong contender here. I loved Rosamund Pike's turn as a sarcastic maniac in Gone Girl, and she may stand a chance too, though I think Felicity Jones is the outsider, despite her strong and detailed performance in The Theory of Everything. Reese Witherspoon suffered competently in Wild, playing a character 10 other actresses could have played as well in a story that told itself. But the Academy loves her, so don't count her out. Cotillard should win, but Julianne Moore probably will.

Best Supporting Actor

Ethan Hawke and J.K. Simmons are the two frontrunners for me here. I thought Ethan Hawke was exceptionally good in Boyhood, playing a father who initially seems like a bit of a flake but turns out to be a sincere and committed parent. He always does his best work for Linklater, and would fully deserve the Oscar if he got it, but I think J.K. Simmons will win for Whiplash. If ever there was a compelling villain, it's Terence Fletcher, the snide and dictatorial music teacher whose pursuit of excellence usually comes at his students' expense.

Mark Ruffalo is as good as ever in Foxcatcher, playing Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz, whose suspicions about his wealthy benefactor John du Pont turn out to be all too well founded, and I loved Edward Norton's performance as histrionic Broadway diva Mike Shiner in Birdman. But I think Robert Duvall's nod for The Judge is a sentimental one: he's a little over-the-top in a pretty average film, and J.K. Simmons should get the nod.

Best Supporting Actress

Meryl Streep earned a record-breaking 19th Oscar nomination for her fruity portrayal of a singing witch in Disney's Into the Woods. And very good she is in it too, but while one can never discount her chances, I don't think she'll win Best Supporting Actress tomorrow night. I find Keira Knightley a bit stiff and mannered at times, but she was better than usual playing female scientist Joan Clarke in The Imitation Game. I don't think she'll win though, and neither will Laura Dern, whose appearance as Reese Witherspoon's mother in Wild is fleeting and sketchy.

Emma Stone is a very interesting young actress, as she's proved in films like Easy A and Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight. She's exceedingly good playing Michael Keaton's unhappy daughter in Birdman, and her rare talent definitely deserves to be recognised. But the smart money for this award will definitely be on Patricia Arquette. Stephen Fry may have mistaken her for her elder sister, Rosanna, at the BAFTAs, but she still won the gong, as well as a Golden Globe. She was absolutely outstanding as a harried mother in Boyhood, and deserves to win her first Oscar.

Best Screenplay

There are actually two awards in this category, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Screenplay. In the latter, Foxcatcher, Birdman, Boyhood and Grand Budapest Hotel are nominated, as well as Nightcrawler. Dan Gilroy wrote a slick and intelligent script for that film, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal as an insanely ambitious Los Angeles news cameraman. The others you know, though I don't think E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's work on Foxcatcher is going to get the nod. Either Boyhood or Birdman could win, but I'd like to see Wes Anderson prevail for Grand Budapest Hotel's witty and whimsical screenplay .

In the Best Adapted Screenplay category, American Sniper, Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, Inherent Vice and Whiplash are up. You probably know at this stage how I feel about American Sniper, and while Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice has its fans I'm not one of them - I thought it was a messy, incoherent, self-indulgent film.

Anthony McCarten's screenplay for The Theory of Everything was superbly handled, particularly when you realise how much science and personal detail he had to cram in, and Graham Moore's Imitation Game script told a complex story very well. But I'd like to see Damien Chazelle win for Whiplash, a wonderfully inventive film.

Some notable absentees

If there's one film that's glaring in its absence from the 2015 Academy Award nominations it's J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year. While I accept that it might be a little slow and moody for some tastes, and that it was released too late to gain traction among Academy voters, I thought Chandor's psychological thriller set in early 80s New York was one of the films of the year, and featured two terrific performances from Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain. Either of them would have deserved Best Actor and Actress nominations more than, say, Bradley Cooper or Reese Witherspoon, but instead A Most Violent Year got not a single nomination, a baffling exclusion in my view.

Selma is nominated in the Best Picture category, but few observers can comprehend why David Oyelowo didn't get a nod for his amazing and nuanced portrayal of Martin Luther King. I thought Selma's director Ava DuVernay handled King's complex historical legacy superbly, but no nomination for her either. The Lego Movie and Gone Girl were two of the most intelligent and entertaining mainstream movies of the year, and can both consider themselves unlucky to have been omitted in the Best Picture category. As, in the Best Actor category, can Ralph Fiennes and Jake Gyllenhaal, for Grand Budapest Hotel and Nightcrawler respectively.

But I think the actor who must feel most aggrieved this year is Jennifer Aniston. All too often she's been restricted to dumb roles in bad comedies, but was given the chance to show her range in Cake, playing a woman recovering from a car crash who's at war with the whole world. Had she been nominated for Best Actress, she might well have won.

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