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I’ve now seen most of the films that had a release in 2014. This makes me more qualified to vote for the Oscars than 97.548% of the Academy’s membership. With the Oscar ceremony occurring tonight, I’ve picked, as I have the previous two years, who I think the nominees and winners should be in the bulk of the major categories. Once again, the foreign film category will be left off because I simply haven’t had access to enough foreign films to make a comment on them. Those that have made it to my neck of the woods, I will say, have been very good for the most part.

As I look back over my picks from last year, I’m not sure I would change any of them, which is surprising. Usually I have an epiphany about something I overlooked.

Let’s do this…

Best Picture

calvary posterBoyhood
Calvary* (winner)
Gone Girl
Inherent Vice
It Felt Like Love
Obvious Child
Only Lovers Left Alive
Snowpiercer
Under the Skin
Whiplash

Whittling down the top ten (even though the Academy only inexplicably chose 8 films this year), was difficult. Leaving out films like Birdman, Nymphomaniac, The Zero Theorem and others was tough. But alas, I may look back and see the error of my ways when I do this again next year. No film made an impact on me more than John Michael McDonagh‘s CalvaryBrendan Gleeson gives the best performance (male) of the year as a priest who receives a phone call telling him that he will be murdered in one week as penance for the sins of all previous priests who were pedophiles even though he is not one. The ticking clock nature of the narrative brings real tension and suspense and watching Gleeson‘s Father James try to navigate the uncertainty he faces about whether the threat is real or not grabs you and doesn’t let go until well after the conclusion. It’s simply a stunning film. 2014 brought us really lush, interesting and original films and I think I honored that with my top ten. Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer‘s triumphant return to the cinema, was so visually stunning and featured a top flight performance from Scarlett Johansson as an alien trolling for men to use for nefarious purposes. Jim Jarmusch‘s Only Lovers Left Alive finally gives a meditative, minimalist vampire film that we can sink our teeth into. With incredible music and fantastic performances from Tilda Swinton (as always) and Tom Hiddleston, this is a film that should have been at the top of everyone’s list. Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Inherent Vice is top-form stuff from him as usual. The guy just makes great movies every time. Tackling a Thomas Pynchon novel for adaptation is not an easy task and Anderson made it look easy. Eliza Hittman‘s It Felt Like Love is a gritty look at a young girl coming of age in New York City. This is a film that isn’t afraid of scenarios that befall young women today and embraces them. This is a brave film and one worthy of watching. Gillian Robespierre‘s Obvious Child is another brave film that features the best female performance of the year from Jenny Slate who plays a comedian coming to terms with getting an abortion after a one-night stand. Outside of CalvaryDamien Chazelle‘s Whiplash stuck with me the most. J.K. Simmons’ likely Oscar-winning performance was picture perfect and Miles Teller‘s surprised me. I’m not much a jazz guy, but this story was really quite interesting.

Best Director

The Moet & Chandon Lounge at The Santa Barbara International Film Festival - Day 8

Paul Thomas AndersonInherent Vice* (winner)
Jonathan GlazerUnder the Skin
Eliza HittmanIt Felt Like Love
Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman
Jim Jarmusch – Only Lovers Left Alive
John Michael McDonaghCalvary

This was an especially tough year to whittle down this pool. So many fantastic films out there as evidenced by my above list. So I had to cheat and add a sixth director to this group. That I had to leave Richard Linklater, Damien Chazelle, Gillian Robespierre, Ava Duvernay and David Fincher was really hard to do. But what’s done is done. Glazer just killed it with Under the Skin as he has with his other two films. Many people didn’t care for Birth, but I think it’s wonderful. The almost ten year wait for his big screen return was well worth it. Jarmusch is at his best since Ghost Dog with Only Lovers Left Alive and maybe his best since Down By Law. Every beat, every scene are calculated and meticulous. I fucking loved it. Eliza Hittman‘s gritty effort It Felt Like Love hit me like a ton of bricks, so elegant. Birdman is Iñárritu‘s best film since Amores Perros and may well be his masterpiece. The life he was able to coax out of this tale is insane. Such a breath of fresh air, really. McDonagh, like his brother, embody the age old notion that the Irish are superb storytellers. Calvary hits you on every level and does so unapologetically. It was hard to pass him over for my choice as best director, but as far as I’m concerned, as long as Paul Thomas Anderson is making movies and they are as good as Inherent ViceThe Master, There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, he will get my vote for best director. There is no single director working today that gets my blood pumping for one of their films. He’s that fucking amazing. I’m glad he sticks to material that he likes because his films don’t register on the radar of many filmgoers because they tackle material that asks more of the viewer than just their time. He makes you complicit in the actions of his films and to me that’s the experience I want from the medium.

Best Actress

obvious child - jenny slateCharlotte Gainsbourg Nymphomaniac
Julianne Moore Still Alice
Scarlett JohanssonUnder the Skin
Jenny Slate – Obvious Child (*winner)
Tllda Swinton Only Lovers Left Alive

For once, there was an abundance of really great roles for women this year. It’s a shame that the Academy didn’t delve a little deeper into films that were little off the beaten path, but I guess we’ve come to expect that. I will admit it’s hard to pass over Julianne Moore for this award especially since she has earned it 4 or 5 times by now. Jenny Slate just knocked it out of the park and it’s a shame that more comedic roles aren’t rewarded at the Oscars. Frankly, it think it’s a lot harder to be funny, but what do I know? Scarlett Johansson merits mention in this category for her performance in Under the Skin. Did we ever think that we would see her as an alien cruising for dudes? That all of scenes with her picking up guys were filmed in real time with the men not knowing that they were being filmed makes it all the more interesting. Charlotte Gainsbourg‘s performance in Nymphomaniac is among the most brave I’ve ever seen. There is plenty available to read about Lars Von Trier‘s approach to working with actors and let’s say it isn’t the most warm of environments. This story is tough and she dove right in. Loved it. Tilda Swinton brings it every time and to me, her performance in Only Lovers Left Alive is second only to her’s in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Great fucking stuff. Julianne Moore is spectacular as she always is. This, couple with her turn in Maps to the Stars, certainly merits many awards. I’m happy that she will win the Oscar finally.

Best Actor

brendan gleeson - calvaryBrendan Gleeson – Calvary (*winner)
Tom Hardy – Locke
Tom Hiddleston Only Lovers Left Alive
Michael Keaton – Birdman
Joaquin Phoenix Inherent Vice

Brendan Gleeson gave my favorite performance of the 90s as Martin Cahill in The General and has given so many great performances since then. And then he delivers another career defining performance as Father James in Calvary, which came as no shock to me. Largely ignored by awards talk, I couldn’t pass this one up. It is simply outstanding and indicative of Gleeson‘s efforts during his 30+ years acting. Tom Hardy is such a joy to watch. That he can take a role that is situated for 95% of the time in car talking on his cell phone and make something as special as he did is simply amazing. I can still hear him saying, “the traffic is fine…” Good shit. Hiddleston was off his ass, much like Tilda, in Only Lovers Left Alive. A musician vampire lamenting the decline of humankind’s ability to care for themselves…what more can you ask for? Michael Keaton‘s comeback film and performance are simply outstanding. It’s hard to look past him for this award as he was so incredibly good. Many people say that he is basically playing himself in this one and even if that is the case, which I don’t think he is, he’s crafted a wonderfully complex character. I think that in Doc Sportello we have found Joaquin Phoenix‘s finest performance. Stoner private detective mixed up in multi-layered hijinks is a perfect fit for him. To me, the Oscars always weight performances in biopics far too highly and this year’s crop 4 of the 5 nominations fit that bill. Boo to that. I will say this, David Oyelowo is as deserving as any of the men listed above. I thought he gave a terrifically powerful performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma.

Best Supporting Actor

whiplash - simmons

Josh Brolin  –  Inherent Vice
Edward Norton Birdman
Alex Rennie Awaful Nice
Mark Ruffalo Foxcatcher
JK Simmons – Whiplash (*winner)

I hate it when I agree with the Academy as much as I did with this category, having three of the same nominees, but I can say that I enjoyed each of the three and agree with who we all know is going to win this award, JK Simmons for Whiplash. As Fletcher, the hardass music conductor/instructor and tormentor to Miles Teller, Simmons channels his character from Party Down and turns it up to 11. Painful to watch, it’s still hard to look away. Edward Norton is back much in the same way that Keaton rose like a phoenix in Birdman. When he’s on, he’s on and this is the best performance from him in quite some time sort of parodying his reputation as a tough-to-work-with actor. The dark horse in this group for me is Alex Rennie, who gave the funniest performance of the year to me in Todd Sklar‘s criminally underwatched Awful NiceRennie encapsulates the manchild better than anything that Judd Apatow has ever committed to celluloid. It’s truly a shame that more people haven’t seen this film. Ruffalo is a nice counterpoint to the other characters in Foxcatcher. As always, he really delves deep into David Schultz‘ tragic story. And lastly, Josh Brolin is fucking amazing in Inherent Vice as the meathead cop Bigfoot Bjornsen. How the Academy overlooked this one is beyond me…oh wait, it’s the Academy. The film didn’t earn $300 million at the box office. Sigh.

Best Supporting Actress

stand clear of the closing doors - ana suarez

Jessica ChastainA Most Violent Year
Maggie GyllenhaalFrank
Andrea Suarez PazStand Clear of the Closing Doors (*winner)
Emma StoneBirdman
Tilda SwintonSnowpiercer

Here is another case where I and the Academy have differed greatly. It’s obvious that I have left out Patricia Arquette from Boyhood here. While I loved her performance, I think these above hit me on more of a gut level than hers. The standout performance here is Andrea Suarez Pazthe distraught mother of an autistic teenager who is lost in New York City. This was the most impactful performance of the year for me. It’s a shame that few people saw the film as it, too, is equally wonderful. I adored Maggie Gyllenhaal in Frank, so caustic yet protective. She made me laugh and cringe equally and I loved every minute of it. Jessica Chastain had another incredible year between Interstellar, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and her incredible turn in A Most Violent Year. She really can do it all. Get this woman an Oscar for the love of all that’s holy. Emma Stone is another gem in the cast of Birdman. She seems to make the most of the roles she is given (well, except for Gangster Squad, but then again, who did in that one?). And here we are again with Tilda for her role as Mason in Snowpiercer. Aside from JK Simmons’ character in Whiplash, she creates the most loathsome character of the year. To be able to do that requires talent, something that Ms. Swinton has in spades.

Best Documentary

Finding Vivian Maier poster 2Citizenfour
Finding Vivian Maier (*winner)
Life Itself
One Million Dubliners
The Unknown Known

I love documentaries and 2014 was exceptionally strong year in that category. It’s hard to disagree with the choices the Academy made for their nominees as the four that I’ve seen are quite exceptional (The Salt of the Earth is the only one I have yet to see), but my three replacements captured my interest and attention more. Citizenfour is one of the most intense films I’ve seen in some time and it will win the Oscar. It’s crazy to think that Edward Snowden had the wherewithal to contact director Laura Poitras to have her document everything that unfolded with his document and information leak. AMAZING. But, Finding Vivian Maier just edged it out in my opinion. An almost unbelievable story – a young man comes across a trove of old photographs and undeveloped film at an auction and unearths and undiscovered genius. That he is able to track down people who knew her and get a full backstory on her is just amazing. The film is very reminiscent of Jessica Yu‘s In the Realms of the Unreal which is incredible as well. That the Academy chose not to nominate Steve JamesLife Itself about film critic extraordinaire Roger Ebert and his last days battling cancer was the most egregious error in this category. Life Itself is so touching and a really in depth look at Roger’s journey to becoming the most recognizable film critic of my generation. I had the pleasure of seeing the film with director Steve James in attendance at the IU Cinema this past fall and it was incredibly amazing. Shame on you, Academy. One Million Dubliners (see my full review of the film here) is a film that may not have made it across the pond in time for Oscar consideration, but I loved it. Ostensibly about Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin where nearly all of its famous political figures are buried, it also becomes a portrait of one of its tour guides, Shane Mac Thomáis. A truly moving film, this one left a mark. And lastly, Errol Morris‘ The Unknown Known is the last of the group. Done in similar fashion as his Oscar-winning doc The Fog of War with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in front of the interrotron, The Unknown Known (read my full review here) queries controversial Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld. Interesting to say the least, I really wish Morris would have pushed the envelope more with that bastard Rumsfeld. Despite this, the film was quite fascinating and certainly helped solidify my feelings that Rumsfeld is an unapologetic douchebag who truly deserves to be in prison.

Best Original Screenplay

calvary - jmm on set

Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando BoBirdman
Jim Jarmusch Only Lovers Left Alive
John Michael McDonagh
Calvary (*winner)
Lars Von TrierNymphomaniac

While it seems like so many of the films that landed in my top 25 or 20 this year were adapted from other source material, I think that the list above offers a really wide spectrum of terrifically interesting and wonderful films. Funny, serious and a mixture of both, all of these films blew me away with the quality of writing and their ability to transport me to Ireland, the mountains of Europe in the middle of last century, to Detroit and Tangiers of present day and to various decades of England. Wes Anderson does it again in his finest film since Rushmore. Chock full of familiar quirk, The Grand Budapest Hotel is typically funny and incredibly engaging and features an ensemble cast that most directors would kill to work with. As of now, Budapest‘s main competition for the Oscar is Birdman which has been flying quite high leading into today’s Oscars. A story perfectly suited for Michael Keaton‘s reemergence, Birdman mixes superhero lore, backstage theatrics a la All About Eve and magical realism to create one of the most interesting films of the year. The four writers credited on this film really knocked it out of the park. Don’t be too surprised if it takes home multiple awards including Best Picture. I can’t speak highly enough of Only Lovers Left Alive as you can tell from my asides in the above categories. Jarmusch brings his minimalistic writing (and directing) approach to the vampire genre and frankly shuts the door on it (Ana Lily Amirpour‘s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night that also came out in 2014 helped as well), effectively torching the damage done by the shitty Twilight franchise. The winner here, and it should be no surprise, is Calvary. A deeply moving film littered with black humor, I frankly don’t think the Best Picture can possibly win without having the best script. If it does, and I’m looking at you James Cameron and the incredibly awful Titanic, then the Academy voters should have to answer for it, because there’s no reason for that to happen. As the basic building block for the film, it has to be solid. Lars Von Trier has been on fire lately, despite the ridiculous shit he says at press conferences. I really loved Melancholia and Antichrist was a thinkpiece that really stretches the audience and both will leave you think well after they’ve ended. Nymphomaniac is cut from the same cloth. Brutal and honest, like the great bulk of Von Trier‘s films, Nymphomaniac is epic in scale and among the more provocative films you’ll see at this point.

Best Adapted Screenplay

whiplash - chazelle on setPaul Thomas Anderson Inherent Vice
Damien Chazelle – Whiplash
Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer Under the Skin (*winner)
Gillian FlynnGone Girl
Gillian Robespierre – Obvious Child

Rare is the year that I will pass up giving Paul Thomas Anderson the nod for best writing work. He’s been spot on with all of films before, but this is the year it happened. Inherent Vice is wonderful and he did as good of a job as one might be able to do in translating a Thomas Pynchon novel to the big screen. It’s fun and weird as shit and all I could hope for in a film. Whiplash, as noted above, is a film that has stuck with me far more than I expected. Damien Chazelle, the writer-director, made something far more tolerable for me than I ever thought possible…jazz. Well done, sir. Under the Skin is the hands down winner for me. I’d like this film to Shane Carruth‘s Upstream Color in tone, and that one blew me the fuck away. Jonathan Glazer got a bad rap for Birth, which I really loved. This film is like anything you will see this year and that’s what I look for in a script and film. Gone Girl is a movie I was surprised that I liked it all. David Fincher never fails me, so I should have known, but when a film is based on a novel as popular as Gone Girl, I had to be skeptical. I’ve not read the novel and I know there were some alterations to the narrative. Kudos to Flynn for this one. And lastly, Obvious Child rounds out the group. This script was built for Jenny Slate and the approach that Robespierre took towards the decision for the Donna Stern character to take regarding her abortion was fresh and insightful and I hope it made people think a little deeper about what it takes to make a decision like that. Filled with humor in a movie you don’t think could be, Obvious Child represents some of the best writing of the year without a doubt in my mind.

Cinematography

girl walks home alone at night

Robert Elswit Inherent Vice
Yorick Le SauxOnly Lovers Left Alive
Sean Porter It Felt Like Love
Lyle Vincent A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (*winner)
Bradford Young Selma

I’m a sucker for black and white photography and this year Lyle Vincent‘s work in A Girl Walks Home Alone was flat out amazing. The photography should add another level to the film and that’s precisely what Vincent achieved with this one. An Iranian vampire movie shot in B&W…how does that not sound interesting to people? Elswit, already an Oscar-winner for his work in There Will Be Blood, proves that working with the same director over time pays off in Inherent Vice. The photography was lush and he did such a great job recreating the 70s look of the film. Really a true achievement. Le Saux, a frequent collaborator with François Ozon, did such a good job shooting in the darkness that the vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive inhabited. Films shot only at night are so difficult to light and Le Saux did an incredible job. Sean Porter‘s work in It Felt Like Love was quite inspiring. His photography really gave another level of grittiness to a film that already had an abundance of grit. It served the story well and that’s what you need in the photography of the film. And last, but certainly not least, Bradford Young‘s work in Selma was inspiring. The crane shot on the Pettus Bridge is award-worthy in and of itself. Two years in a row Mr. Young has given us work nothing short of amazing (last year’s was Ain’t Them Bodies Saints).

So there you have it. Once again, 2014 had a ton of great films to offer and it’s a shame that the Academy, in typical fashion, stuck to giving accolades to their big budget fare and ignoring the down and dirty films that really offer so much more. And I will say this – if American Sniper wins even one award tonight, it is one too many. That it received 6 nominations is an absolute tragedy.

Enjoy the show and hopefully Neal Patrick Harris will be mildly entertaining. Personally, I think they should have stuck with Ellen DeGeneres. But what do I know?