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And… the nominees are:

Robert Duvall The Judge
Ethan Hawk Boyhood
Edward Norton Birdman
J. K. Simmons Whiplash
Mark Ruffalo Foxcather

This might be the most fun category. Many of the most interesting roles are not the leads, and, for better or worse, men tend to get meatier parts than women on average.

If one of the abilities of a good actor is to be able to disappear into a role, then I think all five of the actors here can said to be good.

The Judge was a good movie, but not a great one, and it is unsurprising to me that this is the only category in which the film has received any nominations. Robert Duvall stands out in this picture as a small town judge who may or may not have killed a man to whom he had given a lenient sentence many years earlier and who later went on to commit another crime. Eventually, he is put on trial himself, and one of the factors that might help to acquit him, that he suffers from memory loss due to chemotherapy, is a fact he is trying to hide. Duvall does a notable job portraying the frailty of an aging man. Once, I had an acting teacher tell me that one mistake people make when playing someone who is drunk is that they act drunk, whereas drunk people typically struggle to act sober. We see Duvall negotiate this contradiction. He plays a sick, frail, older man who is trying to hide just how sick and frail he has become. The role gives Duvall the opportunity for more dramatic moments as well as more subtle ones.

Boyhood seems to have really enthusiastic defenders. I am not one of them. I’ve been told that I am not capable of appreciating that the movie is supposed to be about those uninteresting parts of life that happen in between the more dramatic moments that are usually the subject of a movie. Also, it took twelve years to make. Ethan Hawke aged very naturally over twelve years. What else can I say? Here is a scene in which Hawke, who plays a non-custodial parent, tries to make small talk.

Birdman also had its detractors and vocal defenders and in this case I am with the defenders. I walked out of the theater feeling that I had just seen something remarkable. Later, one of my mother’s friends said she hated the movie because the main character was not likeable. In fact, none of the people on the screen are likeable in the banal sort of way that almost everyone except the evil step dads are likeable in Boyhood. Perhaps it says something about me that I identify more with the unlikable, but interesting, characters in Birdman than the likeable, but insufferably boring, ones in Boyhood.

Like Robert Duvall, Edward Norton also had the good fortune to be handed an exciting complicated role. In this case, Edward Norton plays a critically acclaimed actor, Mike, who steps into the role of a play days before opening night. The actor who had previously been in the role has an accident. Mike has a reputation as being difficult to work with, a fact closely connected to his talent since he throws himself into his roles.

Mark Ruffalo is over shadowed by just about everyone else on this list. In some ways, this emphasizes the importance that the writing has as the starting point. Ruffalo’s character is simply not that interesting. I’ve already said in my discussion of the screenplays that I felt that Foxcatcher lacked the intensity of the other films. The two central characters, John Du Pont, played by Steve Carrell, and Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, are people with complicated motivations. Ruffalo’s character, Mark’s brother David, most just wants a stable life and is dragged into the drama happening between John and Mark somewhat against his will. I can’t say I’m overly fond of Ruffalo’s mumbling, shuffling, hunched over interpretation. I’m not really sure who to blame for this. I think the director needs to carry some of the burden. I’m really not very familiar with Ruffalo’s body of work. I was a little put off by the fact that Tatum and Ruffalo had such very different accents. Again, I feel as if the director should have picked up on that and stepped in.

Finally, we come to J. K. Simmons astounding turn as Fletcher, the music teacher, in Whiplash. Like Duvall and Norton, Simmons had the good fortune to be handed a meaty part. It is to Simmons credit that we don’t see Fletcher as purely evil. The following scene has been shown in just about every discussion of the movie, so I was tempted to show a different one, however I decided to include this one after all. In it, we can see the transition Simmons goes through from a demanding, although normal seeming, teacher to every student’s nightmare. (He reminds me of my first acting teacher who would regularly have me in tears at the end of a class. I used to say that he could get a performance out of a rock.) I understand that they first tried the scene faking the slaps but weren’t satisfied. In the end, the slaps are real, as you can see the redness on the student’s cheek. In a later scene, the student tackles the teacher and Simmons, I understand, broke a couple of ribs. It’s really an intense performance.

My own instinct would be to give the award to Simmons, but it would hardly be surprising if Duvall and Norton were to win it. If Simmons wins, Norton may have had the misfortune to get one of his best roles during the wrong year.

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I’ve decided to start my thoughts on the Academy Award nominated movies with the writing awards. I don’t want to speculate on the potential winners as to simply discuss the screenplays themselves.

Of the five screenplays which have been nominated in the Writing (Original Screenplay) category, four to them have the director as the writer or one of the co-writers. In these four cases the movies appear to be the director’s brainchild. Foxcatcher is the exception in this instance. Of the five nominees in this category, three of them, Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel have been nominated for best picture. Only Nightcrawler was not nominated in any other categories.

Birdman Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
Boyhood Richard Linklater
Foxcatcher E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler Dan Gilroy

It is interesting to not that, with the exception of Boyhood, most of the stories have a darkness to them. Nightcrawler is most certainly the darkest of all. In fact, I would say that it falls squarely in the tradition of film noir. Unfortunately, I gave my little collection of books on film noir to one of my mother’s students when he was accepted to film school, so I’ll have to rely on the internet. Nightcrawler could be said to be a social problem film with a protagonist, Lou, who is something of a petty criminal or grifter. He begins as someone who is unemployed trying to find work. Unable to find any, he happens upon and accident and comes across a news stringer who listens to a police radio and heads to accident or crime scenes to try to get video footage for local television reports. Lou obtains an inexpensive camcorder and tries to get his own footage. In an effort to succeed, he begins down a slippery slope towards less and less moral actions. We see a world that in is inherently corrupt, where all human relationships have been reduced to transactions. The movie looks at the reality of a world where jobs are insecure and where news is entertainment. It is a dark, dark vision.

On the surface, The Grand Budapest Hotel would seem to have little in common with Nightcrawler, however if we look at the script rather than the visual style of the film we again see a corrupt, dark world. Unlike Nightcrawler, the world inhabited by the characters in The Grand Budapest is far from unrelievedly dark.  The film has the structure of a story within a story within a story. The central part is narrated by Zero, who, while working as a lobby boy at the hotel, is taken under the wing of the concierge, Mr. Gustave H. Twice, Mr. Gustave H. says something to the effect of, “You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” One of Gustave’s lovers has been murdered and left him an expensive painting in her will. Gustave is pursued by his dead lover’s greedy son and the family’s enforcer. All of this takes place as Europe descend into war in the background. Mr. Gustave H. sees himself as a bulwark against the decline of civilization. The bright visual style of the film belies the far more somber, although absurd, tone of the script. This lurking seriousness grounds the whimsy and keeps it from floating away into frivolousness.

Birdman has a serious, dark tone, but not in the way of the other two. In Birdman it is not a corrupt world that tortures us, rather we torture ourselves. All the characters struggle with inner demons. The main character is an actor who became famous playing a superhero character in multiple blockbusters. Now he’s seek artistic validation by appearing in a drama on Broadway that he has adapted and directed. I was looking at some clips of the movie online to remind me of it since it’s been several months since I’ve seen it. The dialog is very strong.

Foxcatcher, a story of an unhappy multimillionaire who tries to give himself a sense of achievement by nurturing a wrestling team, but become emotionally entangled with one of the wrestlers, is another dark story. As in Nightcrawler, we have another young man, this time played by Channing Tatum, who is struggling. Foxcatcher, while certainly in interesting movie, is not as tightly written as the others. It lacked the tension it needed or the emotional intensity.

Well, it’s getting late, so I’m going to have to wrap this up. There are a lot of interesting themes that were brought up in the original screenplays, the nature of work, the difficulty of making a living, the nature of the media, what defines civilization and humanity. My own personal favorites were Birdman and Nightcrawler. Since Nightcrawler has received significantly less attention than the other films, I’d like to say that anyone who enjoys film noir should try to see it. Jake Gyllenhaal does a great job as Lou.