Oscars 2015: Variety Critics Pick Who Should Win

Oscar night is nearly upon us. Variety reviewers Scott Foundas, Justin Chang, Peter Debruge and Guy Lodge don’t get ballots, but if they did, here’s how they would vote in the top eight categories.

SCOTT FOUNDAS

BEST PICTURE: “American Sniper.” It’s funny that my two favorite films in this category, “Sniper” and “Selma,” are the two that have been repeatedly pitted against each other by awards-season pundits scrapping for a fight. The wildly disproportionate box office grosses of the two movies has added a certain David-vs.-Goliath aspect to the narrative, too — at least until you consider that “Selma,” with close to $50 million domestically, has far outgrossed both presumptive best pic frontrunners, “Boyhood” and “Birdman.” But all such comparisons only serve to diminish the artistry of two movies that cast unusually sober and sophisticated gazes on contentious periods of American history, one still unfolding daily in the headlines, the other a half-century old but equally au courant. If I’m giving “Sniper” the slight edge on my imaginary ballot, it’s because it’s the movie that has expanded and deepened the most in my mind since my initial viewing. But, in an ideal world, I’d call it a tie. Who will win on the big night? Mounting circumstantial evidence to the contrary, my gut still says “Boyhood.”

BEST DIRECTOR: Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher.”  Writing from Cannes last year, I argued that, in dramatizing the strange case of the Pennsylvania millionaire John du Pont and his murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz, Miller had made not only a great American film, but a great film about America. Nine months later my enthusiasm remain undiminished.  That the Academy couldn’t find a slot for “Foxcatcher” in its expanded best picture category only further exposes the folly of the whole awards gambit, and if there were any justice in the cosmos, Miller would take home the directing Oscar as consolation. But regardless of who ekes out a win in the topsy-turvy best picture race, this category feels like Alejandro Inarritu’s to lose for the bravura “Birdman,” and I certainly won’t begrudge him that.

BEST ACTOR: Michael Keaton, “Birdman.” It’s the actors who show you all the Herculean effort they put into becoming their characters who routinely get to kiss Oscar on the cheek. This year, that trend is favoring Eddie Redmayne for his technically accomplished if rather soulless performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” But my personal vote goes to the magnificent Keaton, whose imploding Broadway debutant Riggan Thomson was the manic engine propelling “Birdman” down its elaborately mirrored hall of art and ego. Keaton’s performance was too casually dismissed in some quarters as a kind of self-portraiture, which is really another way of saying that Keaton is so very good that you never catch him acting.

BEST ACTRESS: Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night.” Like Keaton, Cotillard is another actor who exhaustively transforms herself for each role she tackles but never lets you see her sweat. In 2015 alone, that meant she was first a Polish-speaking emigre lost in the bowels of 1920s Manhattan in James Gray’s sadly neglected “The Immigrant,” and then a down-at-heel Belgian factory worker fighting to save her job in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s “Two Days, One Night.” Cotillard is the first major international star the Dardennes have invited into their very particular filmmaking process, and she disappeared seamlessly into their working-class milieu, her every gesture charged with a deep-seeded desperation, but also an inviolable dignity. Alas, just as Cotillard’s character, Sandra, can’t rally enough votes to keep her job, the real Cotillard doesn’t have a prayer this year against four-time Oscar bridesmaid Julianne Moore (who was, admittedly, also wonderful in “Still Alice”).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash.” At last, something on which the Academy and I see eye to eye. Simmons will — and deserves to — take home the gold for his anxiety-inducing turn as the jazz band director only a sadist could love in Damien Chazelle’s dynamic tale of music and madness. The dark-horse success of “Whiplash” (five nominations including best picture) is one of the happy surprises of this year’s Oscar narrative, and the happiest part of that is Simmons, a veteran character actor who finally got his chance to take center stage in the kind of tailor-made role that comes along only once in a career. And boy does he own it: From his closely shaved head to the tips of his constantly moving fingers (used to indicate his preferred, but never achievable tempo), it’s exhilarating to watch Simmons burn up the screen.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood.” As many have noted, Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making family drama could easily have been called “Motherhood” for Arquette’s immensely touching performance as an overextended, often single mother who makes a lot of poor life choices for herself but always does her best by her two growing children. We’ve seen a lot of going-off-to-college scenes in movies over the years, but none as anguished and truthful as the one where Arquette’s Olivia Evans, stricken with the realization of her soon-to-be-empty nest, lashes out against Father Time and his swift onward march. Expect to see that clip on Oscar night, shortly before presenter Jared Leto pulls Arquette’s name out of the envelope.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Anderson is a two-time prior nominee in this category, where the Academy’s writing branch has long recognized his gift for creating inimitable movie universes and populating them with characters as gleefully eccentric as they are intensely relatable. But the smart money says he’ll finally (and deservedly) win for this miniaturist epic of life in an imaginary Mittel-europa kingdom during the brief calm between two very real wars. Drawing inspiration from the writing of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, Anderson (and collaborator Guinness) beautifully captured the comic melancholy that flows through not only Zweig’s work, but that of so many other self-exiled European emigres who flocked to Hollywood in the 1930s and re-created their lost homelands on the studio backlot.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice.” Like most of his post-“Boogie Nights” output, Anderson’s sprawling, cockeyed detective opus — inventively yet faithfully adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel — baffled many critics and moviegoers but seems sure to grow in cult cachet with the passing years. In the meantime, Anderson’s fourth screenplay nomination (and sixth overall nom) will be as far as things go for “Inherent Vice,” which seems almost sure to be trounced here by the entirely worthy “Whiplash” (competing in the adapted category because of its roots in Chazelle’s 2013 short film of the same name).

JUSTIN CHANG

BEST PICTURE: “Boyhood.” So many films are locked in a battle against time — a mad scramble to meet deadlines and minimize risk at the production stage, followed by a long struggle to maintain their hold on the attention spans and memories of a fickle moviegoing public. If Richard Linklater’s quietly monumental, deeply transporting family epic feels unique in the pantheon of instant classics, it’s because it’s the rare work to surrender itself to time rather than fighting it, and to embrace risk as a natural, healthy consequence of living life and making art. The best picture Oscar is its just reward. The movie is ours.

BEST DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater, “Boyhood.” The New York Times’ Mary Jo Murphy has a stunning grasp of the obvious: No, Linklater is not Michael Apted. But he is perhaps the only American filmmaker who’s come close to inheriting the mantle of the late Edward Yang, another master realist-humanist whose unassuming modesty can obscure the depths of his observation and emotional insight. Locked in an unbreakable tie for second place in the envelope of my dreams: Wes Anderson for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Bennett Miller for “Foxcatcher,” both of whom delivered perhaps their finest, most fully realized work to date.

BEST ACTOR: Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper.” This race may come down to Eddie Redmayne’s adroit Stephen Hawking impersonation and Michael Keaton’s weightless meta-shenanigans, but if there’s an upset from the sidelines, it’ll deservedly favor Cooper, who turned in by far the most haunting and subtly expressive work in a crowded field. If there’s a reason some of the dismissals of “American Sniper” felt so weirdly blinkered, it’s that all those critics allegedly seeking nuance and political complexity couldn’t see it staring right back at them from Cooper’s war-torn visage — the face of a soldier permanently lost in his own emotional and ideological sandstorm.

BEST ACTRESS: Julianne Moore, “Still Alice.” A virtual toss-up between Moore and Marion Cotillard, whose performance in the Dardenne brothers’ “Two Days, One Night” represents one of the canniest subversions of an actor’s star power in years. But Moore was no less piercing or revelatory in “Still Alice,” tracing a slow, steady arc of mental disintegration that stands easily alongside her career-defining work for Todd Haynes: The more we see Alice lose her grip on her cognitive and expressive powers, the more triumphant this actress’s demonstration of her own peerless control. Bonus points, too, for the most shattering use of a podium and a yellow highlighter ever captured onscreen.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher.” J.K. Simmons is stupendous in “Whiplash.” But my personal preference runs toward the quietest performance in this category, given by an actor who doesn’t have a showboating bone in his body. Stepping into the shoes of the doomed wrestler, brother, husband and father Dave Schultz in “Foxcatcher,” Ruffalo conveys the essence of fundamental decency without dullness or sanctimony, the softly beating heart at the core of the year’s most tightly wound psychological triangle. “Supporting” never felt more accurate.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood.” Whether you think she belongs in lead or supporting for her magnificent embodiment of flawed but heroic motherhood in “Boyhood,” it’s almost unfair to the competition that Arquette simply has so much more to work with: Hers is the only turn here that feels essential rather than merely decorative. That cathartic final scene wouldn’t reverberate as powerfully as it does were the whole performance not so studded with indelibly offhand moments — a smile of contentment as Olivia reads a bedtime story, a shudder of fear as her latest marriage violently disintegrates, a climactic swell of pride at the children she’s managed to raise. Arquette makes her the very embodiment of the film’s watchful, nurturing spirit.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Between its graceful homage to the spirits of Stefan Zweig and Ernst Lubitsch, its many hat-tips to the Golden Age of detective fiction, and its deeply civilized lament for an era of vanished refinement, Anderson’s highly nourishing confection has at least as many exquisite layers as it has aspect ratios. Strip away all historical subtext and you’re still left with the spryest screen comedy in many a year, paced and plotted with a dexterity that transcends the manic conventions of farce to achieve an almost musical density of detail.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice.” A curiously anemic lineup, thanks to a bizarre combo of category misplacement (“Whiplash”), unaccountable neglect (where’s “Gone Girl”?) and simple lack of imagination (“The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything”). That leaves this year’s other perpetual Oscar bridesmaid named Anderson a too-easy choice for his hugely ambitious, appreciably deranged take on Thomas Pynchon — a sinuous detective yarn that, no less than “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” conjures an otherworldly time and place and then allows it to slip away into the ether, like a half-remembered dream.

PETER DEBRUGE

BEST PICTURE: “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Forget “best.” This prize nearly always goes to the film of the year, and in that respect, “Boyhood” has by far the most compelling narrative — not necessarily onscreen, but behind the scenes, where indie stalwart Richard Linklater pulled off the revolutionary task of watching an actor grow up in character on camera over a dozen years. That said, I like the other seven nominees a whole lot better, especially the one from fellow Texan Wes Anderson, whose imagination has carried him the furthest from his own boyhood. His sensibility isn’t to everyone’s taste (and therefore won’t win), but “The Grand Budapest Hotel” brilliantly demonstrates the cinema’s capacity to create not just characters, but entire worlds from scratch.

BEST DIRECTOR: Alejandro G. Inarritu, “Birdman.” This is a tough one, as I’d like to see Linklater rewarded for all that “Boyhood” represents. Even so, I’ll cast my vote for the ballot’s “most improved” director: Having finally moved past the gritty miserablism of “Babel” and “Biutiful,” Gonzalez blew me away with the sheer technical ingenuity of “Birdman,” a backstage showbiz satire so cleverly designed that you can’t detect the cuts, allowing the film’s delirious, high-strung energy — and equally loony performances — to escalate to ludicrous heights.

BEST ACTOR: Michael Keaton, “Birdman.” Eddie Redmayne has arrived, and I’m happy for the kid, who will never have to make another “Jupiter Ascending.” But it’s Keaton, whom I hadn’t even considered a very good actor, that I now consider the “best actor” for making the most of a late-career rarity: a role that surpasses anything else he’s done, while taking unique advantage of the star’s unique CV (and assumed insecurities). Steve Carell surprised me, too, going to a dark and ugly place to portray a crusty old oligarch. I’m pretty sure Benedict Cumberbatch’s and Bradley Cooper’s best work still lies ahead.

BEST ACTRESS: Julianne Moore, “Still Alice.” Alas, it’s too late to reward Marion Cotillard for her work in “The Immigrant,” whereas I could never shake the impression that every frame of “Two Days, One Night” was designed to remind us what a great performance the actress was giving. It’s criminal that Rosamund Pike is nominated for a role that a wildly against-type Reese Witherspoon should have played, while America’s sweetheart got stuck shooting heroin and hiking the Pacific Rim. Loved Felicity Jones as a woman dealing with her husband’s disability, but I thought Julianne Moore did an unmatched job of letting us experience Alzheimer’s through her character’s eyes.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash.” Sorry, no contest. Duvall’s a legend, Hawke showed up, Ruffalo bulked up, Norton pissed on his own blowhard offscreen persona, but this one goes to the drill sergeant who makes a drum recital feel like a matter of life or death.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood.” Linklater says that somewhere along the way to making a movie about his own Texas upbringing, he realized he was really making a movie about his mother. I suspect he also realized that his lead actor wasn’t growing up to be the next Matthew McConaughey or Ben Affleck, so he shifted the focus to Arquette, whose character is by far the film’s most compelling — the support who steals the show. Elsewhere, Laura Dern gave good mom in “Wild,” Emma Stone made “Birdman” feel even more unpredictable, Keira Knightley was tasked with representing her entire gender in “The Imitation Game,” and Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” The contest here is between two Fox Searchlight movies, “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (although if I ran the zoo, I’d give the trophy to the distrib’s undersung “Calvary”). I give “Hotel” the advantage for its “faint glimmers of civilization … in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity,” which is to say, for the beautiful way in which it celebrates the written word — not just great dialogue, but the very art of storytelling — at a moment when improvisation and everyday speech are so much en vogue.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Graham Moore, “The Imitation Game.” For some reason, it’s become popular to hate on “The Imitation Game” for what it’s not, implying that the movie should have been more engaged with the tragic consequences Alan Turing faced as a gay man at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in England. One day, I hope to see that movie, but in the meantime, “The Imitation Game” remains a beautiful piece of writing, blending a classical gift for language with an intricate nonlinear structure.

GUY LODGE

BEST PICTURE: “Boyhood.” My admiration runs deep for half the films in this lineup, but picking one is still easy. Detractors of Richard Linklater’s spirited, sun-warmed survey of an American family gradually finding its feet will tell you that the film wouldn’t amount to much without its novel 12-year shooting schedule — which is a bit like saying that a diary wouldn’t amount to much if written in one go. Without affectation or arrogance, Linklater’s film found the most formally apt way to map how parents and children alike come of age before each other’s eyes. Already vastly rewarding in the present day, it’s a film one senses will reveal new facets and cross-generational perspectives as the viewer matures with it.

BEST DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater, “Boyhood.” Unlike the Academy (which has, to its credit, loosened up on this front in recent years), I’m not wedded to the notion that the year’s best film must automatically be its best-directed. In this case, however, separate acknowledgement of Linklater’s direction feels appropriate: It’s easy to praise the film for its conceptual gumption and depth of feeling, but Linklater’s shaping of scenes, his steerage of actors, and even his seemingly iPod-curated soundtrack choices are all as cumulatively astute as they are deceptively casual. And while this shouldn’t be a career achievement award, “Boyhood” does seem the ideal summation of his under-rewarded gifts.

BEST ACTOR: Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper.” Rarely has an acting category been more competitive at the nominations stage; at least nine plausible contenders went to the wire, and while I’m not sure the Academy chose the optimum roster of five, I’m pleasantly surprised that this quietly startling turn made the cut. As punters continue to debate the political stance of Eastwood’s Rorschach-like war drama, Cooper’s taut, taciturn, physically volatile interpretation of Chris Kyle — bristling with unresolved internal tensions of his own — can take much credit for keeping the conversation aloft. He deserved to win best supporting actor last year for “American Hustle,” in my book; hopefully, this third nod’s the charm. 

BEST ACTRESS: Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night.” Yes, Julianne Moore is owed an Oscar and then some, and you won’t catch me complaining when she inevitably wins for her moving, finely calibrated work in “Still Alice.” But Cotillard, currently on a hot streak of form that should have netted her further nominations since her 2007 triumph, is both technically immaculate and unquantifiably soulful in the Dardenne brothers’ latest Belgian breadline drama. Playing a woman whose very survival depends on persuasive personal charisma, she’s operating at once as earthy character actress and elevatory movie star. Bonus points: She’s even better in James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” a revisionist romantic masterwork shamefully uncampaigned for by the Weinstein Co.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher.” If not for the Academy idly defaulting to Robert Duvall’s own default orneriness for the fifth slot, this could have been a category for the ages; as it is, J.K. Simmons’ certain victory notwithstanding, it’s still one of the hardest in which to pick a favorite. I’m tempted by Ethan Hawke’s loose-limbed yet painstakingly observed portrait of a deadbeat dad making good, but ultimately it’s Ruffalo’s devastating embodiment of defeated decency in “Foxcatcher” — this chilly film’s humane go-between, bridging more remote, equally impressive work by Channing Tatum and Steve Carell — that narrowly gets my vote.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood.” Whatever the fate of Richard Linklater’s erstwhile best picture frontrunner on Sunday (and I fear the worst), this is one award it has in the bag, and rightly so. Playing an openly flawed parent shaped, but never beaten, by her own worst impulses, Arquette the actress seemingly grows, toughens and relaxes with her character, while maintaining the woman’s defining personal values and mannerisms from first frame to last — no mean feat considering the unorthodox shooting schedule. Arquette’s “big” scenes are few in number, but that’s the point: How often does a mother seize the spotlight in her child’s life?

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, “Foxcatcher.” I tend to have reservations about biographical films competing in the original screenplay category — after all, if Academy rules state that all sequels are adaptations because they feature pre-existing characters, why are real-life figures any different? That caveat aside, however, I would gladly vote for Frye and Futterman’s elegantly oblique mystification of a modern American tragedy wherever it happened to qualify. A daringly structured screenplay that reads literately between the lines of the facts to hand, it brings harsh wit and complex social and sexual politics into what could have been a movie-of-the-week dissection. Would that all this year’s prestige biopics had such a striking blueprint.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice.” This is a perilously weak category this year: If it was too much to hope that the writers’ branch might cotton to Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell’s ingenious, medium-attuned reconfiguration of “Under the Skin,” they might at least have sought out middlebrow alternatives to several films in which the writing is an active debit. Anderson’s lively, language-enamored and suitably sprawling navigation of Thomas Pynchon’s serpentine prose is a grandly imperfect achievement, and the most commendable in this field by some distance. Naturally, it hasn’t a prayer.

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