Friday, February 20, 2015

Oscars 2014: Best Actress / Best Supporting Actress

Every year, I try to make it a point to see every one of the films nominated in the top eight categories, so that when I compile these previews and make my predictions, I can do so from a place of authority. In recent years, I've managed to do this successfully just about every year. Unfortunately, this is not going to be one of those years, as I failed to see one of this year's Best Supporting Actress nominees: Meryl Streep in Into the Woods. It's my own damn fault: I waited too long, not taking the opportunity to see it on one of my precious few days off from work, and by the time I did have a chance it had just left theaters in the Greensboro area. So I apologize for failing in this; when I do finally see it, I will update my ballot and say a few words about Streep's work.

In fact, I was concerned that I would miss a whopping three of the nominees, as Best Actress contenders Still Alice (Julianne Moore) and Two Days, One Night (Marion Cotillard) had not yet opened in the area (and still haven't; Greensboro is a horrendous movie market). A trip to Asheville, North Carolina allowed me to see both films, so we will have a complete Best Actress preview for you this year.

Enough about me, though. On to the nominees:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS


Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Of all of the Arquettes, Patricia always seemed like the one most destined for a long-time career as an actor. And in many ways, her role as Mom here allows her to prove her worth. Arquette's performance is remarkable to behold, an encapsulation of messy maternity and the difficulty of raising two children as a single parent. But throughout the poor relationship decisions and tender love for her children, Arquette never lets this woman fade into just being another screen mother. She's fully alive, a human being with wants and needs who worries who she will be once her children have grown up and moved out. She's afraid of being left behind and forgotten; with this performance, Arquette proves that there's no chance of that happening to her in the industry.

Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Abstain. We'll talk more about Streep when I actually see the movie.


Kiera Knightley, The Imitation Game

As Joan Clark, the only woman on Alan Turing's (Benedict Cumberbatch) team of cryptologists tasked with breaking the German enigma code, Knightley faces the tall task of providing what's pretty much the only feminine voice of the film. What's remarkable about her performance is that she takes what's written to be a secondary character and imbues her with a world that is completely her own, turning Joan into a figure that stands out from the very first frame she's in. She's a woman who seeks an escape from convention, but knows full well that she cannot avoid the trappings of 1940s society altogether. Her relationship with Turing is knotty and complex, built on a love that's based in mutual admiration and a chance to better herself. Knightley is nothing short of delightful in this role, proving her dramatic chops and capping a terrific year for her as an actor.

More after the jump.


Emma Stone, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Anyone who saw her 2009 breakthrough film Easy A knows that, in addition to being an incredibly gifted comedic actor, Stone can also bring pathos to a role, making otherwise goofy creations feel grounded in reality. Her performance as Sam, Riggan's (Michael Keaton) fresh-out-of-rehab assistant/daughter, takes those gifts to the next level. She absolutely owns the withering asides Sam tosses Mike Shiner's (Edward Norton) way, and her "you don't matter" rant to Riggan is a burst of id that's unbelievable to watch unfold. Stone gives herself completely to this role, showing shades of her talent that haven't been seen before. If Easy A announced her as someone to watch, Birdman proves that she's one of the most talented actors of the moment, with the power to stay even longer.


Laura Dern, Wild

Of all the nominees in this category, Dern probably has the least amount of screen time. Her Bobbi, mother to Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), is seen only in flashback, her death being the main impetus of Cheryl's cross-country trek. But Dern makes the most of her limited time, playing Bobbi as a woman who's made her fair share of mistakes but chooses to keep on living her life. She's full of jubilance and zeal for life, a creation that's so joyous that it makes the dramatic moments land even harder. It's a small performance, to be sure, but Dern is excellent nonetheless.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." Arquette has more or less owned this category throughout the season, including wins at the Golden Globes and SAGs. There's no reason to believe that she won't win the Oscar as well, unless the Academy is just really feeling Birdman and opt for Stone instead. Even then, though, it'd probably be foolish to bet against Arquette.

BEST ACTRESS


Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Witherspoon has never been better than she is as Cheryl Strayed, a grieving woman who seeks peace in hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone onscreen for much of the film's running time, Witherspoon is a magnetic force of nature, commanding the attention of the camera and delivering a performance that's never over-the-top. Her performance is rooted in bruised humanity, as Cheryl's life spirals out of control amid grieving the death of her mother, falling into heroin abuse, and dissolving her marriage as a result of multiple affairs. Through it all, she makes Strayed a complex woman worthy of spending two hours (mostly) alone with. It's an incredible performance, and proof that, even if Witherspoon doesn't act as much as she used to, she can still deliver devastatingly good work.


Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

With her nomination, Cotillard joins the ranks of only a handful of women who have been Oscar nominated for multiple foreign-language performances. Her performance as Sandra, a solar-panel company employee who must convince her coworkers to vote against accepting their bonuses so that she can keep her job, is more than worthy of the distinction. Cotillard plays Sandra's depression as a towering mountain that she must face every moment of the day; she's easily discouraged, and just the act of interacting with another human being is an impossible undertaking. Even as she perseveres, Cotillard never loses that sense of fragility, understanding just how enormous this is for Sandra. It's a startling performance, though at this point we've come to expect nothing less from this astounding actress.


Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

In the role of "Amazing" Amy Dunne, Pike isn't giving a terrific performance so much as she's giving what feels like ten great performances. That's because Amy herself is a performance, a woman who's always played a role for everyone in her life to the point of being a cypher. She writes in her journal about not being the "cool girl" anymore, yet you can't shake the feeling that Amy isn't sure she believes in any of the women she's played for everyone in her life. Pike walks the thin line between all these sides of Amy with incredible precision, never once tipping too far over into any of them. The most amazing thing about her performance(s) is that the more we in the audience learn about Amy, the less we seem to really know about her. If nothing else, this introduced Pike's incredible talent to larger audiences. Over the course of the film's running time, Amy becomes a puzzle, and Pike becomes a star.


Julianne Moore, Still Alice

It comes as a surprise to no one that Moore can act. She's been knocking out fantastic performance after fantastic performance pretty much since the moment her career began, to the point where it seems like she should have multiple Oscars at this point. Her work as Dr. Alice Howland, a linguistics professor suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's, is typically excellent. She gets deep into how memory loss will affect a person, especially someone who's intellect is not only a point of pride but the very basis of their existence. Moore plays Alice as a woman who is quickly losing herself, but doesn't sanitize the character by sanding off the rougher edges. It's a fully committed performance, one that could finally see her win the Oscar, even if it's not likely to be remembered as one of her absolute finest hours.


Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

To a certain extent, watching The Theory of Everything almost makes you feel bad for Jones. She plays Jane Hawking, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking's first wife, as a woman who is of great intellect and compassion, studying medieval Spanish poetry and devoutly believing in God. It's undeniable to see why Stephen would be attracted to this woman, and in these early scenes Jones radiates optimistic energy and humane empathy. Then the film keeps chugging along, and Jane - Jones along with her - is relegated to the sidelines, leaving Jones to play various notes of nagging wife. It's a pity, because Jones is clearly doing the best she can with the material. But the film loses all interest in the character, and as a result Jones' performance suffers as well.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." It's Moore's to lose. At this point, it seems like a done deal, as much in recognition of her work in Still Alice as it is the "she's overdue for a win" storyline that's taken over this category. No one else even seems close at this point.

My ballots:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

1. Emma Stone, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
2. Kiera Knightley, The Imitation Game
3. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
4. Laura Dern, Wild
-. Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

BEST ACTRESS

1. Reese Witherspoon, Wild
2Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night 
3. Julianne Moore, Still Alice
4. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
5. Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

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