What makes the perfect Best Picture winner at the Oscars? If recent history is anything to go by, it’s a film which has once- in -a- generation levels of originality (The Artist), gripping technical proficiency (Argo) and a courageous, beautiful and haunting emotional and historical relevance (12 Years A Slave). Amongst this year’s nominees you’ll find all of these boxes ticked, and arguably in more extreme portions than any other year. Boyhood (directed by Austinite auteur Richard Linklater) lives and dies on the premise that its central concept, to take a life lived over a period of over a decade and commit it to film, has never been seen before and likely never will be again (although given the Hollywood model of imitation, we wouldn’t be surprised if some studio boss somewhere was already planning a whole franchise of films about a boy growing up, although they’d probably ruin it by putting in silly things like magic and wizards). Likewise, the second frontrunner – Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman – has a similarly attention–grabbing trick in that the whole film is framed to look like one long shot. There is more to love about these films than just their surface ‘gimmicks’, but in a ceremony rarely known for its nuance and subtlety their party tricks could be the factor that puts the odds in their favour.
Boyhood and Birdman may be the favourites, but the other nominees show too much promise to be drowned out from the discussion. The film may have lost a significant amount of its hype momentum on account of the fact that it came out in March last year, but The Grand Budapest Hotel demonstrates Wes Anderson’s progression from the quirky indie niche to powerhouse mainstream, and admirably unlike comparable film-makers he’s lost none of his original voice while making the long transition (looking at you Tim Burton). For long-time fans of the Anderson-verse, Grand Budapest represents the pinnacle of a careers’ worth of growth. For all that’s said about the distinctive style of all Anderson’s films, he has clearly matured as a director. Yes, Ralph Fiennes’ Gustav is another suave–but–secretly–hapless and morally dubious protagonist, but Anderson tackles bigger themes with Grand Budapest than he’s ever done before, examining the rapid changes the face of the Europe was subjected to throughout the twenieth century and what might really lie behind all the nostalgia and loss. Like a kind of David Lynch after too many Smarties, Anderson has a growing talent for surreally juxtaposing the darkness that lurks behind seeming ideals.
This is Anderson’s first nomination for Best Picture and as Best Director. If the stars align, this could be Wes’ moment. If Budapest Hotel is his masterwork, the culmination of a truly one–of–a–kind career, it would be heart-breaking to see the pinnacle work of one of the most original American film-makers of this generation get all but overlooked.
Elsewhere among the nominees there’s plenty of flair on display in Whiplash, the second feature of director Damien Chazelle (who missed out on a Best Director nod in favour of Foxcatcher’s Bennett Miller, the only nominee without a film in the Best Picture category) which is effectively the greatest sports movie to ever not feature any sports-playing at all and instead be entirely about drums. The film is anchored by two tremendous performances from the oft- overlooked Miles Teller and the tempestuous J.K. Simmons (surely his Supporting Actor nomination is the most sure-thing shoo-in in the entire race).
Then there’s Clint Eastwood’s controversial, politically problematic American Sniper. If the Oscars want to pursue courting controversy as a method of boosting publicity, as seems to have been the case in recent years (cf: The Lego Movie snub, Seth Macfarlane’s hosting, James Franco’s hosting), then where better to go than the tornado around American Sniper. While the film is a technically proficient effort – nothing less than what you’d expect from a man who has been directing for 44 years – it’s difficult to warm to a film in which the term “savages” is used, Conrad–style, without a hint of irony or self-awareness.
Rounding off the nominees are Selma, which in another world might have made a clean sweep of the major categories but here is unusually given Best Picture as it’s only nod, and Brit biopics The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything – notable primarily for the central performances from public school heartthrobs Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne.
But it’s still hard to shake the feeling that whoever wins, Wes loses
Traditional wisdom would dictate that director of the Best Picture winner would be the obvious shoo-in for the Best Director gong, but in recent years Mr. Oscar seems to be deliberately moving away from that trend, with Alfonso Cuaron and Ang Lee picking up the big prize these past two years for -Best Picture winners Gravity and Life Of Pi respectively. Those two in particular would seem to suggest more of a focus on technical achievements in the Director category of late. Both Gravity and Pi are visually stunning, and on that front the obvious candidates among this year’s crop of nominations would be either Grand Budapest or Birdman (which shares a Director of Photography with Gravity in the form of Emmanuel Lubezki – a man who presumably has a phobia of clapperboards). Those two are also unique for being the only two films in the category to also receive a Best Cinematography nomination (last year Gravity was also the only film in both the Directing and Cinematography, while the year before that Life of Pi was also one of only two films nominated in both categories).
Ultimately, though, the overriding general feeling is that the major awards will belong to either Boyhood or Birdman. In some ways, both have equal claim although as films they couldn’t be more different. The warm, lightly melancholic Boyhood is actually a kind of antidote to the jet-black, cynical i or to give it its full title Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Both represent film-making at its best in terms of pure ideasmanship and technical mastery. But it’s still hard to shake the feeling that whoever wins, Wes loses.