Kathy’s Oscar Picks: February 2015

Different Drummer has never been one to follow the herd, so my Oscar picks, as I noted last year, are not predictions. I will not, like the malleable Academy members, be influenced by the likeability of the actors, the politically correct social causes their films espouse, nor the predictable pack of gushing or scornful critics who seem to care more about what others think of them than making sound and independent judgments.  My picks are based on the excellence of the films and actors in themselves.

This year, the gaping hole between what the critics like and what the public – as well as Different Drummer herself – likes has turned into a wide chasm.  Therefore, I will not limit myself to the official Oscar nominees, but will choose from the entire 2014 field.

I have also created another category: The People’s Choice Award, based, of course, on the picture the movie-going public has voted for with their admission tickets.

People’s Choice Award for Best Picture:

American Sniper (Texas Chicken-Fried Steak Recipe)  has clearly burned the box office down ($304.1 million and counting).  Real world events, such as recent terrorist atrocities around the world, our official tepid reaction to them, as well as the notorious negligence at the Veteran’s Hospitals finally disclosed last spring, have certainly made the public hungry for such a film.

Something else that sets this film apart is the enthusiastic support of Bradley Cooper, the lead who has already had 2 other Oscar nominations in addition to the one for his role here.  Cooper himself went through a demanding regimen to physically resemble Kyle, who “looked like Paul Bunyan” to his fellow soldiers.  Cooper worked out a grueling 4 hours a day to put on the 40 pounds of lean muscle he needed to look the part.  No padded suits for him.

Best Picture

It’s a photo finish betwenThe Imitation Game (Bangers and Mash Recipe)  and the equally wonderful The Theory of Everything (Grand English Plum Pudding Recipe) .

But The Imitation Game wins, largely because it chronicles a person who literally changed the world, Alan Turing, the eccentric genius who cracked the infamous Nazi Enigma Code and probably shortened World War II by 2 to 4 years.  Benedict Cumberbatch embodies all the arrogant awkwardness of the socially backward mathematician with his own acting genius as well.

Perhaps all those years playing Homes in the BBC’s Sherlock (Cold Asparagus with Walnut Drizzle Recipe), an arrogant genius who wears both those labels proudly, makes this character a natural extension for Cumberbatch. 

In a time when most of our so-called heroes are celebrities who merely entertain us with their musical, acting, or athletic prowess, isn’t it about time to honor some real heroes who have changed the world?


But actually, Different Drummer’s personal pick didn’t even get nominated.  Yet The Immigrant (Reuben Casserole Recipe) may very well be the very best film she has seen in her entire life.  Suddenly every other film of the last few decades seems hollow, contrived, and trivial. It’s like kissing a prince and suddenly realizing one has been lip-locking frogs up until that moment.

Simply, this Indie film is the story of Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) and the desperate choices she is forced to make when she and her sister are separated as they arrive at Ellis Island in 1921. Several factors separate this film from others about the oldest profession.  The two most compelling are the quality of its telling, and the depth and complexity of the characters.

Two other aspects make this film a classic, and perhaps they also account for its muted reception as well.  First of all, there are no attempts to gloss over the degradations of prostitution as there were, for instance, in Julia Robert’s Pretty Woman, where she is portrayed as a sort of satisfied sex worker/entrepreneur. 

Another point that probably offends secular America is the sense of sin and redemption, as well as a respect for the clergy. 

Ignore all the Oscar hype and instead see this exquisite film that shows life as it is rather than how the box office panderers pretend it to be. (It is now available for Netflx streaming, by the way.)

Best Actor

Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything: Grand English Plum Pudding) has charmed his way to the prize.  So much of the film’s delight, a serendipitous sweetness despite the affliction from which the cameras never flinch, is in Eddie Redmayne’s phenomenal portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking.  Always there is his shy charm that permeates everything.  Early on, the man who does not dance nevertheless invites fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde to the spring ball, where he mesmerizes her under starry skies with a brief account of the physics behind it.  And then, under their spell, he suddenly begins a few faltering dance steps. 

He explains his idea of traveling back to the beginning of time along the banks of River Cam as he twirls Jane around him like a giddy planet circling the sun. Only someone with a poetic gift could describe theoretical physics as “the marriage of space and time,” as Stephen says of his major when he first meets Jane.

Redmayne is able to show the progress of Hawking’s debilitating disease.  We see him struggle to hold a fork, the effort it takes to swallow, the labored struggle to get his words out even as his mind races to infinity.  Yet, even in the wheelchair he ultimately accepts, his head bobbing sideways, Hawking’s tilted grin and laughing eyes breathe a vitality most of us do not even hope to possess.

Best Actress

Again I return to The Immigrant (Reuben Casserole Recipe) for the excellent Marion Cotillard in her role as Ewa, a desperate Polish immigrant her irrevocable descent into prostitution.

The story is reminiscent of the tragedy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy’s tale of a pure woman who also meets her downfall at the hands of an unscrupulous man.  And the tragedy is just as iconic and classic.

Also like Sofya, the young woman forced into prostitution in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Ewa is also spiritually chaste even as she sells her body:

She becomes more conventionally beautiful as she is exploited, but we are left to see—in her eyes, maybe the best eyes in modern film—that her honor has remained intact.  –David Thompson

Ewa’s self-loathing, exploitation, and disgrace are all told in those soulful eyes.

Best Supporting Actor

Of those officially nominated, Edward Norton (Birdman: Birdman’s Broadway Cocktail Recipe) is my pick.  Playing a Broadway star brought in at the last minute to fill in just before production begins, he is completely obnoxious, egocentric, and violently unpredictable. Yet, Norton is able to project just a few snatches of humanity to draw us in. 

He is as bluntly critical of himself as those around him and painfully honest.  Somehow he seems completely authentic, a whimsical narcissist only too aware of his outsized talent, but also unflinching in his honesty in a world where deceit is a way of life.  In this play within a play, he is anything but make believe.

However, the performance that really blew me away was that of Joaquin Phoenix (The Immigrant:Reuben Casserole Recipe) )

While Norton’s character is merely obnoxious, Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno is actually evil, preying upon immigrants and their desperation.  Perhaps the most difficult aspects of his character are the warring emotions that rage within him.  Phoenix makes us loathe Bruno as he promises the young and beautiful Polish immigrant a respectable job working as a seamstress at the vaudeville theater group he runs, even as he schemes to lure her into prostitution.  Yet, even as he acts as her procurer, Bruno is hopelessly in love with her.  Only an actor with such a prodigious talent could make us believe this contradiction in character.

The conclusion of the film, where we are more often than not disappointed with contrived or implausible endings, reverberates with a moral clarity not seen in our cinema for many decades. If we did not already know it, in that ultimate scene Joaquin Phoenix establishes himself as one of the finest actors in filmdom today.

Best Supporting Actress

Nominated for both the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards for this category, Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year: Sausage Pepper Potato Bake Recipe) nevertheless, did not get nominated by this year's Oscar committee.  Different Drummer sees that as their shortcoming, not hers.  Chastain’s Anna Morales is a complex character, and one tough broad. She is the daughter of a lesser Brooklyn mob type whose husband Abel has bought out the family heating oil delivery business from her father. 

Part sexy bimbo, whose designer suits reveal a cleavage not usually seen in the fashion pages, Anna also keeps the books for the family operation. When we see her punching out the numbers on an old style calculator, pencil in one hand, a cigarette in the other, the smoke that envelopes her has a deeper meaning.  Those books may not fare so well in the light of day. 

Different Drummer is not the only critic to see Anna as “a borderline Lady Macbeth,” when she taunts Abel to arm himself and his drivers.  She handles the Assistant D.A. when he interrupts her 10-year-old’s birthday party with a search warrant with aplomb, first with moral indignation:

Anna Morales: “My husband’s an honorable man. We’re not who you think we are.”

Assistant D. A.Lawrence: “I think I know your father.”

Anna Morales: “Good for you. My husband is not my father, not even close.”

Then with motherly charm, handing out cupcakes to the kiddies as well as to the D.A.as she pleads for time to dismiss the party, but in reality it is so her husband can hide the books under the house, which may or may not be cooked. It’s not that they are incriminating, exactly, Anna says. It’s just that she wants to go through them first before the authorities do. Chastain brings an ambiguous complexity to her role that piques the audience's interst to the very end.

There is nothing ambiguous, however, when she whips out her pistol to kill a dying deer who has collided with their car.

Best Director

Let’s correct at least one Oscar snub by choosing 84-year-old Clint Eastwood American Sniper (Texas Chicken-Fried Steak Recipe) for the Best Director Award.

His film combines tense and realistic battle sequences with a compelling personal story that has resonated with the public, a public largely ignored by the elite critics who think they should give us their politically correct films like daily doses of cod liver oil.

Eastwood also adroitly handled Chris Kyle’s untimely death that occurred after the film based on Kyle's best selling book was in production.  Screenwriters apparently penned five different endings showing the Navy SEAL sniper’s death, but after a request from his widow, Eastwood cut them all.  Taya Kyle did not want her children to remember their father’s gory death.  Instead his collage of the 200-mile procession from Chris’s residence in Midlothian, TX, to Austin for burial that provides the final moments of the film leaves the audience in stunned silence.

Runner up should be Angelina Jolie (Unbroken: Creamy Chicken Gnocchi Soup Recipe) who brings to the screen another true story of an American hero.  Apparently, she also had a special rapport for the real Louie Zamperini, who passed away at the age of 97 just months before the final edit of the film about his wartime captivity.

Best Foreign Language Film

Even though this did not make the official Oscar list, The Lunchbox (Grape Raita Recipe) is Different Drummer's pick. The Indian film is a culinary adventure and a subtle love story set in Mumbai where it's the comfortable gray lives of three lonely souls that need spicing up.

Yet, there is an unyielding core of sadness embedded in this fine film, as well as an ambiguous ending that either frees us to render our own ending, or frustrates us if we are looking for a resolution of sorts.  We have no rousing score to wash over us like welcome rains, nor a final train station dance scene, like an ode to joy, to lighten our hearts, as we had in Slumdog Millionaire (Indian Chai Tea)Instead we get something with more depth and texture, or to further our culinary allusions, like a perfect curry this marriage of spices is bittersweet but near perfect.  To quote Anthony Burgess,

“The curry was like a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It stunned, it made one fear great art.”