They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
Interstellar, The Theory of Everything, Fury and the Shifting Oscar Race
By J. Don Birnam
December 1, 2014

One day, I'll get to be a voice on The Simpsons!

Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Interstellar, seemed destined to make noise in the 2015 Oscar race, but a tepid reception may have doomed its chances. The Theory of Everything is also here, and is a mortal lock for a Best Actor nomination. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt’s Fury could make some noise in the “below the line” technical categories. Finally, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman continues to wow critics and audiences alike. So where exactly does the Oscar race stand approximately a week before the New York Critics start it all off?

Let’s review what we mortals don’t know yet: most potential contenders have been seen at least by critics, but remain a mystery to audiences. Thus, Unbroken, Selma, and American Sniper have been seen by critics and could crash the race when they are screened to broader audiences, given how wide open Best Picture seems right now. All three provide strong Oscar bait and have serious industry names associated with them. For what it’s worth, critics seem dazzled by Selma, are currently embargoed from talking about Unbroken, and have dismissed American Sniper as a serious contender.

Here’s what we do know: Interstellar has received mixed audience support and critical reviews, but it has garnered positive reviews from at least some influential critics across the country (the New York and LA Times come to mind). And because of its technical achievements, it should still have a shot at a Best Picture nomination as support among the guilds and craft groups within the Academy could propel it to a slot. Oscar pundits elsewhere disagree, but I refuse to believe Interstellar will go quietly into that gentle night.

We also know that Gone Girl won the top prize at the Hollywood Film Awards on November 14th. “The what?” you may ask, and you have a point. Among the glut of awards wannabes, these publicity-driven awards are more like stunts meant to push nomination bids forward rather than predict them. Thus, the HFA handed out awards to actors in The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Birdman, and Wild (the Reese Witherspoon movie). Regardless of the merits of an HFA award, the publicists for the movies that received prizes demonstrated that they are serious about pushing these projects through the awards season. Finally, we know that respected movies like Boyhood and The Imitation Game remain strong in the game (no real challengers have come along) so those two are likely cruising to a Best Picture nod as of now.

For the rest of the column, let’s focus more on what we have learned since we spoke about the Oscar race last month: the true qualities and audience receptions of Interstellar, The Theory of Everything, Fury, and Birdman. Please note that my discussion of all four movies contains significant plot spoilers.

Interstellar: A Breath of Fresh Air

Obsessive Oscar followers like me have endured several Oscar fiascos in the last decade or so of Oscar-watching in which facile, contrived into simplicity, and prepackaged movies have triumphed over complex, challenging, and groundbreaking projects.

And then directors like Christopher Nolan come along and bare a piece of their soul on that inescapable canvas that is the movie screen, reminding us that the seventh art can be inspiring. Indeed, his latest project spurs us to think and feel not just comfort at the perfectly orchestrated ending, but doubt, fear, and isolation as a path towards a more fulfilled existence.

At some level, I understand that movies like Interstellar will not be universal crowd pleasers. They present grandiose theories, expound one man’s point of view about an important subject, and venture too deep into realms of science fiction. Detractors will have easy access to complaints about contradictions inherent in time travel plots and the impossibility of certain scientific achievements. It is inherent in the nature of award-giving (and perhaps a sad testament to the problem as a whole) that wholly original projects will never defeat easier, consensus-building, mainstream stories.

Despite understanding quite well that this is the nature of the beast, I remain perplexed at the negative reaction that different, brave movies like Interstellar elicit. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. Too often, as our society has aged, have we seen resentment rather than acclaim be directed at vision and triumph. The question that is immediately begged by those who insist on killing movies like Interstellar by a thousand little jabs is this: What director, then, is the yardstick to measure greatness by? We know that for the Academy the answer is pitiful. And audiences, too, have done no better of late, skewering Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese for “boring” or “ridiculous” films while showering prequels and remakes with love. So what, then? Is Saw VII the standard to follow?

But, my social commentary about how we treat bold moviemakers being beside the point, let’s focus on Interstellar itself and its Oscar chances. I would think cinematography, art direction, sound, and score are real possibilities. The question is whether guild support will be enough to propel to a Best Picture nomination. And you can already mark a winner early in this year’s ballot: it will nab Visual Effects hands down like Gravity did last year.

There end the similarities with the Alfonso Cuarón epic. Where Gravity created effects that broke through barriers and challenged viewers, Interstellar has literally taken us to a different dimension. The central theme and character of the movie, if you look closely, is in fact time. At some point Michael Caine’s obscure character confesses that his biggest fear in life is not death, but time.

It is thus clear from Nolan’s body of work that he fears that amorphous Father of Humanity as much as his characters do. The inability to grasp the concept of linear time is the undoing of the lead character in Memento and is the most horrific punishment imaginable and eventually imposed in both Inception and Interstellar: isolation for years and years on end. The horrific panic that the authors evoke in the audience via the passage of long periods of time spent in isolation is subtle but brilliant. It is a new interpretation of humanity’s obsession with its own mortality. We are afraid perhaps not of death per se, but of the fact that it embodies spending eternity alone in some unknown void - a world of dreams, or an outer space quarantine - the allegory of time as both life and death is brilliant.

Interstellar is not a perfect movie. I’ll give in to some of the “the dialogue is trite” critiques, though I cannot resist but mention that those complaints are ironically as overborne as the art they are targeted against, having been used to attack science fiction films from Star Wars to Avatar to Gravity. And some of the characters at times behave irrationally, most notably Jessica Chastain’s dismissal of her father at the end of the movie after a 70+ year wait, and the father’s easy acceptance of that dismissal.

But the score works (dramatic as it is), and the bravery and imagination of the director are unparalleled. The acting, while dramatic, is respectable and boasts more than a handful of past Oscar winners and nominees together amongst the cast. My own views aside, it does seem that the divisiveness the movie has caused will have its Oscar chances fade in the blink of a cosmic eye unless the critics resuscitate its chances.

Possible Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain), Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Sound Mixing

The Theory of Everything: A Little Bit of Everything, A Lot of Nothing

In a Best Actor race that currently features eight to ten credible candidates, few seem as close to a lock as Eddie Redmayne for his stunning portrayal of Stephen Hawking in the biopic The Theory of Everything. Emotional yet cold, sweet yet distant, engaging while off-putting, Redmayne covers all the ranges with his up-curled lip and his piercing eyes while barely moving as he portrays the handicapped genius Hawking.

This movie could very well be one of the top contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in the coming months, as it features many of the characteristics our readers should by now expect of Oscar players: feel-good storylines, flawed but redemptive characters, inspiring results. The Theory of Everything is at times a companion piece to The Imitation Game, basking in its own sense of importance while imbuing the audience with a feeling of romanticism over young love, young passion, and young inspiration. In that sense, the movie is actually inspiring and heartbreaking. Overall, it is one of my favorite movies of this year.

But as an Oscar contender, it presents the perennially safe - and therefore banal - type of easy choice movie that knocks down more challenging cinema. But even more so than the Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything pays not a lot more than lip service to the fundamental contributions to humanity of its central hero and instead devolves into a glorified (if satisfying) love story. Exposition of Hawking’s accomplishments gives way to the complex love stories around the characters. Thus, although the acting does deserve the accolades it will receive, the movie is essentially inconsequential and will not go down in history as a landmark in cinema. Perhaps we should interpret that to mean it is assured of a Best Picture win.

Potential Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, Original Score, Costumes, Editing

Fury: Moviemaking with a Vengeance

For a brief moment it appeared as if Fury would make some noise in the lackluster Oscar race, but for whatever reason critical support has waned behind it. Allow me a brief defense of the movie: it does for war movies in the 2010s what The Walking Dead does for television or what Saving Private Ryan did in 1998 by depicting a gruesomely honest view of the savagery of war. Like most great war movies (Zero Dark Thirty comes immediately to mind) it is both pro- and anti-war at the same time. The zinging of bullets and lighting of explosions and shots fired seemed almost surreal and have been described by an Iraq War veteran to me as extremely realistic.

Still, it is fair to say that Fury does not break any new ground on the broader scale of war movies - the messages it sends have been examined at length before. Although I would think they are worth reexamining ever so often, it is perhaps the case that critics and audiences alike were looking for something more different than the Band-of-Brothers, everything can go wrong style that Fury exhibits. Fair enough but, like Lone Survivor last year, I expect Fury to score at least a couple of nominations in the technical categories, and hopefully a lot of future at home viewings.

Potential Nominations: Visual Effects, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Mixing

Birdman: The Flight of Keaton Continues

After seeing this movie at the New York Film Festival, I spoke positively of its merits and Oscar chances. Audience and broader critical review have confirmed my suspicion: this movie is here to stay. I remain of the view that this movie is too challenging, too complex (not unlike Interstellar) to appeal to the generic Oscar voter. But, in a “weak year” as some are labeling this race, anything can happen.

Or perhaps I’m simply drinking the Kool-Aid of Iñárritu’s mind-bending analysis of age, inspiration, aspiration, and even betrayal in Birdman. Like Bob Fosse did before him in All That Jazz, Iñárritu explores the obsessive mind of the creative performer in fascinatingly introspective and bizarre ways. And while the allegories and analogies are not subtle, the trajectory of the plot is decidedly non-obvious. The viewer is challenged at every turn. The cinematography and editing are also notable, and the movie will be strong with the acting and writing branches. Overall, frankly, this is the movie that has the most support across the Academy and, against my better judgment, I would call it one the current front runners for Best Picture.

All of that, of course, will change very soon.

Potential Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Norton), Screenplay, Editing, Visual Effects, Make-Up