Around Town: Oscars Red Carpet Party @ Malmaison, 2/22/15

Birdman Movie

Every year, I get very wrapped up in the race to the Oscars, and I get invested in my favorite nominees!

On Sunday, I’ll go to Malmaison (3401 Water St. NW, DC) in Georgetown for the Washington Film Institute’s Red Carpet Party. Join me there if tickets remain available!

My Oscar “picks” aren’t always who I think will win but they are always those that resonated the most with me personally. This year, for example, I had a lot of love for “Birdman” but I didn’t think too much of “Boyhood,” and so I don’t think the latter film should win too many awards.

In this post, the first of two parts, I’ll share my thoughts with the nominees for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Find me later for additional thoughts on Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress.

Best Director

Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Birdman”

Birdman was my personal favorite movie of the year. Iñárritu’s use of long continuous takes, stagey immediacy and choice of cast of course went a long way toward making that so. He captures an atmosphere that’s a mix of comic timing, doom, pensive reflection, and occasional outrageous shenanigans while at the same time giving us a somber exploration of what it means to be an artist. It was a terrific movie all around, and my personal vote for winner of this award.

Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”

Linklater’s Boyhood was an intriguing intellectual exercise that deserves some sort of recognition merely for its method of examining a boy’s life as he grows up — film the same actors over 12 years! It’s bound to open doors on how we think about film in the future. The problem however is that the film is dragged down by Linklater’s fascination with slacker kids. The boy in question is absolutely not interesting. And while various scenes pulled from his life seem real, ultimately many of them contribute nothing to moving the film forward or to helping us gain insights into the kind of life into which we are supposed to gain insights. So all in all, it falls a little flat and that’s surely no way to win an Oscar.

Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”

Foxcatcher was a very procedural movie. I was intrigued mostly because I spent seven years in Delaware, where the name DuPont is inescapable, and I was interested in learning more details on the story behind the film. The film, however, is dull and plodding. We are given little to care about, no mystery, no excitement, and no personality, spirit, or innovation. And so we are giving no Oscar.

Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Wow! I’m surprised The Grand Budapest Hotel received a leading nine nominations (tied with Birdman). The best thing about the movie, however, was Ralph Fiennes, who not only carried it on his back, but ran a jaunty marathon while doing so. (And yet no nomination for him, as is the case with comedies typically!) Still, it’s refreshing to see Anderson’s name here, and Grand Budapest Hotel is indeed a solid film that I enjoyed quite a bit. I just cannot fully endorse a win here.

Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game”

Tyldum made a very serious yet also very entertaining movie with The Imitation Game, and in so doing did something that Bennett Miller could not. You are invested in the plot and the characters, and you actually spend most of the movie enjoying it because of the way everything effortlessly comes together. We could chalk that up to good acting from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kiera Knightly and Matthew Goode, but the good directing was also in abundant evidence. A worthy second choice for Best Director.

Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Robert Duvall, “The Judge”

Robert Duvall is apparently very good in “The Judge.” But I didn’t see it. All said, however, this isn’t his year. “The Judge” never reached critical buzz to warrant seeing until this point, but I’ll likely catch it down the road on Netflix.

Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”

In earlier discussions of “Boyhood,” I observe that Patricia Arquette’s character undergoes development and transformation. And to some degree, the same is true of Ethan Hawke’s dad character, adding to the list of characters in the movie more interesting than the boy of “Boyhood.” Tied to his family but already divorced at the start of the film, Hawke’s character starts out as a bit of a drifter before growing into increasing levels of responsibility until becoming downright respectable by the end of the film. And Hawke’s easygoing charm and sincerity make the whole thing believable and easy to watch. It seems natural, which speaks of the fine job and the level of consistency Hawke brought to the project over 12 years of filming. There simply are more remarkable performances in this category, however.

Edward Norton, “Birdman”

For my money, Edward Norton should be winning this award but he’s eclipsed by a performance way bigger than his. The merits: Norton brings a great dash of intelligence and liveliness to his actor character, who manages to serve as a legitimate foil and erstwhile ally of Michael Keaton’s older main character. The testerone-driven clashes between them seem completely expected and yet it’s also natural that they are able to collaborate so effortlessly in their stage production. There is a metalogistical effort here: As Keaton’s character is excited to land Norton’s character in his production at the beginning of the film and as the supporter’s performance elevates the whole, so does Norton in the actual film, drawing out terrific flashes of jealousy, mistrust but even joy from Keaton in the overall film. It’s a shame that it seems he won’t win!

Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”

“Foxcatcher” is a very procedural film and Mark Ruffalo, a fine actor and indeed one of my favorite nominees this year, turns in a very procedural performance. The actions of Ruffalo’s character are dominated by concern for his brother and concern for doing well by his family. I understand that he put in a lot of time to master the wrestling involved, but it’s hardly heady stuff nor is it terribly engaging (at the risk of sounding like the pompously dour Jean du Pont, as portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave). Interestingly, Sienna Miller appears as Ruffalo’s concerned wife until she goes on to do the same sort of thing in much bigger fashion in “American Sniper.”

J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”

Sometimes the Oscars aren’t fair. And there are always a lot of politics involved. So sometimes calculations are made, and decisions follow. Such decisions often turn around deliberations as to where to place a nomination. In this case, J.K. Simmons is really a leading figure, if not *the* leading figure of “Whiplash.” But the studio knows he’s not going to win Best Actor. So he’s entered into Best Supporting Actor. And in this case, he’s going to kill it. He’s phenomenal. I went into the film reluctantly, although I generally enjoy movies about music, in part because I feared that Simmons’ character was going to be a one-dimensional villain. But he’s not. He’s passionate, driven, committed and fully realized. You feel the weight of his self-imposed responsibilities, and you see the cost he pays emotionally. And at the very end, you see that light go on inside his head when he finally achieves what he’s been seeking. And it’s pretty amazing. Few other actors could have done so much so convincingly. So Simmons deserves the award. It’s just a bit unfair that he’s here in the Supporting Actor category with a character who is an 800-pound gorilla in contrast to actual supporting roles.

Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”

An interesting thing happens in the unfolding of “Boyhood”: the titular character, so boring, occupies the foreground while his mother, in the background, changes and grows like a real character. It would give Richard Linklater too much credit, I think, to imagine this happened on purpose, but it would not be misplaced at all to give credit to Patricia Arquette, who portrays said mother. In the 12 years of filming, Arquette’s character goes from listless to accomplished while maintaining an easily believable maternal persona—no small feat. And frankly, she looks good while doing it. Of all things “Boyhood,” Arquette’s performance is the clear differentiating factor, and indeed the only aspect of the film that truly deserves award recognition.

Laura Dern, “Wild”

Laura Dern is generally terrific, but I didn’t see “Wild.” My “Oscars sense” tells me that despite its ambitions, the movie is going home empty-handed. And everyone in the movie seems really annoying.

Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”

What’s to say about Keira Knightley’s performance in “The Imitation Game?” Knightley does as Knightley does. She shows up winsome and determined, flashes a lot of gold-standard smiles and bedazzles (or worries so!) through her beacon-like eyes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this—indeed, much is right in the world with such a “typical” Knightley performance—but it’s simply not what I would consider distinctive or remarkable in any sort of way.

Emma Stone, “Birdman”

Emma Stone offers a great deal of appeal in “Birdman” but she’s mostly there to serve as a living embodiment of the concerns Michael Keaton’s character has developed as an old man. Her role doesn’t require her to do a lot other than to serve as a reflecting pool for Keaton’s emotional states. She’s not written to be sophisticated enough to be an actual foil to his character, or even to Ed Norton’s shallower supporting role, to which she is drawn. I personally like Emma Stone a lot, but she doesn’t really have a lot to work with here, and the movie essentially would have been the same movie if her character had been cut completely.

Meryl Streep, “Into the Woods”

This movie adaptation of “Into the Woods” was an interesting misfire—not completely committed to being dark enough to offer a true translation of the stage version but way far from light enough to be misconstrued for conventional fairy tale fare. At the center of it all, Meryl Streep’s witch glowers, preens and admonishes, and she does a very good job with all of it. Sometimes, you really kinda want the witch to win, and you understand in some ways that she’s the only one who has a full view of the world around her. But the world around her in this case hasn’t fully materialized in a manner truly representative of the play. Notably, the witch’s adopted daughter Rapunzel survives the carnage, taking a huge chunk of the witch’s actual sorrow and remorse away from the proceedings and the character. At the end of the day, perennial nominee Streep gives a game performance to an empty stage.

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