Oscar Update: Memo to the Academy - For Your Consideration

Laura Dern in Wild: Sunshine in human form.

The race is approaching the finish line! Oscar voters have until February 17 to cast their ballots, and many of this year’s races feel so close that winners could be determined by just a few votes. Here a few worthy nominees that we submit for the Academy’s consideration:

Best Documentary Feature: Finding Vivian Maier

Hey, Oscar voters and doc fans! If you like 2012’s Oscar winner Searching for Sugarman, then you are going to love this year’s nominee Finding Vivian Maier. This year featuring documentary race is one of the strongest of late, and Finding Vivian Maier deserves the prize because it breathtakingly fuses form and content as all the very best documentaries should. Directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel perform an extraordinary feat of storytelling and investigation by mining into a wealth of negatives and photographs to uncover the mystery of the elusive identity of late street photographer Vivian Maier.

Finding Vivian Maier stands as an excellent film on both facets of documentary filmmaking because the directors use the visual power of the medium to give Maier’s work its due by bringing her haunting and arresting art onto the screen in a series of still frames while using archival footage—old documents, photographs, and more home movies—and interviews with various people who crossed Vivian’s path during her idiosyncratic journey. The showcase of Maier’s work, on one level, calls to mind the powerful way that 20 Feet from Stardom showcases the unsung voices of many back-up singers in the music industry, for Maier’s work wouldn’t find a larger audience if not for the wide reach afforded by the film. The film therefore poses a powerful example for the democratic power of documentary form, since it shines a light on one under-represented voice and gives her more exposure than one quick stint in a gallery ever could. Moreover, Finding Vivian Maier’s exploration of the psyche that keeps such a talent from the public eye expands into a larger analysis of the artistic canon—why some artists simply cannot break through while others flourish—as well as  the individual insecurities and fears that keep any person, artistic or not, from achieving his or her full potential. The film is as beautifully composed as it is entertaining and enlightening—both because of Vivian Maier’s own obvious knack for artistry and for that of Siskel and Maloof as their own playful inquisitiveness engages the viewer in the mysteriousness of this reclusive artist.

Laura Dern as Bobbi in Wild.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern in Wild

The Academy made a smart move on the morning of the nominations and included one name that largely escaped recognition from many voices clambering about during the award season glut: that of Laura Dern. Thank goodness, because Dern’s performance as Bobbi in Wild is the best supporting turn of 2014. Dern is so good in Wild that even I, an avowed Streep fan who would gladly and enthusiastically give Meryl Oscar #26 just for eating lunch, think that this performance should be victorious on Oscar night.

Dern’s merit in both the nomination and the award is evident in her ability to make Bobbi such an omnipresent character in Wild even though she has fairly little screen time. Capturing an effusive lust-for-life and an indefatigable spirit as Bobbi, Dern creates a tangible character through the cutaways and puzzle pieces of Wild’s memory game. This spirit essentially lets Wild achieve such rich, understated catharsis as Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, who also deserves consideration for Best Actress) says goodbye to the love of her life as she recalls her greatest memories with her mother and finds her strength in Bobbi’s unshakable optimism and humour.

Just look at the pivotal kitchen scene that comes near the climax of Wild when Cheryl recalls the death of her mother. It’s a scene that puts Cheryl’s own recklessness and disorderliness into perspective. The scene begins with one of the gestures that typify Bobbi’s presence in Wild: she dances to the tune of one of her musical influences that guide Cheryl along the Pacific Coast Trail. She bops with spirit, spunk, and energy: she is sunshine in human form. Instead of cutting away from Bobbi as Jean-Marc Vallée frequently does in the film, though, Wild builds upon its emotionally associative editing and holds the shot for one of Bobbi’s biggest moments. Dern turns to Witherspoon after Cheryl dismisses her mother’s unfaltering happiness. Bobbi transforms with a brief flicker of jarring severity before she recounts each of the hard knocks that Cheryl thinks should strip her mother of her happiness and she finds the beautiful outcomes that make each experience worth the trials, and Dern voices each cross without the slightest hint of unhappiness. It’s the same lesson of finding one’s best self that returns in Cheryl’s final monologue about not having any regrets because her experiences transform her into the women she is by the end of the film, and Wild arguably would not be as bracingly life affirming as it is if it were not for the wisdom and genuine love that Dern injects into the film.

2014 offered some of the best and most memorable mother characters amidst a small, but rich, field of strong female performances, and Dern’s range is evident in her one-two punch of Wild and The Fault in Our Stars by showing just how far an actress can take the standard “mom role” and make it the life force of a film. Dern’s radiant presence is the best embodiment of maternal love among them all. She deserves this.

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice.
Warner Bros.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice

I really don’t think one can understate the difficulty and ambition in tackling an adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. The scope and ballsy brilliance makes Paul Thomas Anderson’s work on Inherent Vice the worthiest of the four adaptations nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay to represent the art of adaptation this year. Inherent Vice is a difficult book to tackle simply for the sheer density of the book with its innumerable characters and exhaustingly convoluted plot (intentionally so), each word of which seems inextricably essential for building the rambling world of Inherent Vice. However, Anderson matches it (and exceeds it in some cases) by running with the wacky Pynchon-esque elusiveness of the novel and ensuring that Inherent Vice never really fits into any clean category nor satisfies any demand for conventional classical cinema. (Does it even have a beginning, middle, and an end?) Writers, film lovers, and book worms appreciate the audacity of a page-to-screen endeavor like Inherent Vice, which shows its roots to the novel with the addition of a loony and unreliable narrator who brings Pynchon’s wacky prose to the screen in an enjoyable feat of misdirection.

Inherent Vice is an entirely new experience even if one has read Pynchon’s novel since Anderson brings a hip grammar and a madcap energy to the sprawling LA underworld and web of paranoia. Don’t let all the characters and nonsensical chaos of Inherent Vice fool you: this adaptation smartly tackles the wackiness of Pynchon’s world with the flair of a Robert Altman film hepped-up on goofballs. The film has too many characters to count, but each one of them brings something unique and memorable to the film as they jive in sync to the weird psychedelic-noir-comedy of Pynchon and Anderson’s world.

Zany, manic, and utterly original, Inherent Vice finds the beat and syntax to match its drugged-out cast of characters, and Anderson writers a perfectly bong-hazed atmosphere to convey the surreal sense of American finding itself in a time of uncertainty and change as Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) leads the audience along a typically Pynchon-esque mystery that’s really a McGuffin of sorts for a larger musing on contemporary culture.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Charles Dance stars in The Imitation Game. 
Elevation Pictures/Jack English

Best Original Score: Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game

Another year, another plug for Alexandre Desplat. When will he win? Let his banner year in 2014 be the one that finally brings him an Oscar. Desplat’s extraordinarily strong and prolific year is evident in his pair of nominations for The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (He also scored Unbroken, Godzilla, and The Monuments Men.) Either nominee could bring a well-deserved win for Desplat, but as much as I adore the playful friskiness of his score for the Wes Anderson film, his work for Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game easily stands as the best nominated score of the year.

The Imitation Game boasts the signature sweep and complexity of Desplat scores like The Painted Veil, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Tree of Life. The score seems like a straightforward classical composition on the surface, but Desplat’s compositions are as complex and enigmatic as The Imitation Game’s chameleon-like protagonist Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). Desplat’s score draws out the loneliness of The Imitation Game’s code-cracker with the coldness of the piano keys, but it also has the engaging flounce of a game, of the pure, genuine thrill that Turing gets from trying to break the codes as the score evolves and embellishes itself with mysterious strings. Desplat’s work propels The Imitation Game with the pulse and atmosphere of a thriller and it gives the film a dual emotional resonance both as a celebration for heroic deeds and as an elegy for an outsider.

Keira Knightley and Adam Levine in Begin Again.
eOne Films.

Best Original Song: “Lost Stars,” Begin Again

Did you ever read the Nick Hornby book Juliet, Naked? It’s one of Hornby’s best and funniest books as it launches a messy break-up from a simple disagreement: is music best served by a raw and stripped acoustic version, or does a song bring the fullest range of its emotions with an over-produced poppy orchestration? That disagreement forms the same emotional current of Begin Again as Gretta (Keira Knightley) and her ex Dave (Adam Levine) see the dissolution of their love embodied in the concurrent bastardization of Gretta’s soulful love ballad “Lost Stars.”

“Lost Stars,” which has the strongest narrative and thematic role of any of this year’s nominated songs, works as a musical embodiment for Gretta and Dave alike, and for the differences that separate them as artists and lovers. The song first appears as a bare bones ditty that Gretta sings to Dave as a personal gift. It’s an honest and intimate phrasing of their romance. But “Lost Stars” then reappears towards the endpoint of Begin Again once Gretta has finally found her footing as an independent musician and artist: songs, for Gretta, are an expression that are meant to be shared and evoke feelings; they’re not about profits, chart rankings, awards, or YouTube hits. (She’s an idealist, for sure.) She confronts the other side of the industry when Dave presents her with his final version of “Lost Stars”: a full studio production embellished with fake instruments and tuning, which stands as the complete antithesis of Gretta’s eclectic work. She’s insulted, but Dave insists that she come hear the song as it’s meant to be heard: live and on stage, complete with authentic emotions as Dave shares his soul with the audience. It’s a lovely, bittersweet apology. The contrasting versions of “Lost Stars” are beautiful evocations of Begin Again’s musing of the ways that music defines the individual, and of how a single song can save your life.

Which version of “Lost Stars” do you prefer?

The acoustic Gretta version:

... or the studio label Dave version:

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Edward Norton, and Michael Keaton on the set of Birdman.
Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Best Picture Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)  

and Best Director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: the adaptation nut in my loves, loves, loves the film/theatre dynamic of Birdman. It’s absolutely thrilling to see director Alejandro G. Iñárritu harness the seemingly disparate energies of the two art forms. Academic jargon aside, theatre has an ‘inward’ momentum that sees all action converge towards the stage, whereas film has an ‘outward’ energy that shoots the boundaries of art and storytelling away from the seeming inertia of the stage’s fixed plain of action. Birdman ingeniously combines the two energies by devising a backstage drama shot in a maverick ‘long take’ à la Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (i.e.: a bunch of long takes spliced together to form one seemingly continuous shot) and the perceptual momentum of the long take grants Birdman the feeling of a live performance as it moves in, out, and around the Broadway theatre, and soars away from the limitations of the stage to grand cinematic moments of snazzy explosions and special effects.

The inward/outward pull of Birdman is a lot more than just one bravura gimmick, although the awesome difficulty of executing those long takes in fluid choreography with the actors, the camerawork by Emanuel Lubezki, and the jazzy drum score by Antonio Sanchez alone merits the Oscar for Iñárritu. Birdman never forgets that this seemingly bipolar collision/fusion of artistic identities acts as an expression of the psychological chaos brewing in the mind of Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton). As Birdman’s leading man struggles with his own fear of being a man defined by Hollywood (yet he clings to any shred of his cinematic stardom), the über-cinematic Birdman is itself a dazzling act of reinvention for Iñárritu, whose previous films have relied heavily on raw aesthetics and fractured storytelling.

If Oscar wants to hit us with his best shot, then Birdman’s the film.

What nominees do you think Oscar should consider?