From ‘Birdman’s’ big victories to ‘Virunga’s’ famous fans, the year’s films traveled a crazy road to Oscar
It was the year of “Birdman” and “Boyhood” and “Budapest,” of an unconventional frontrunner losing to an equally unconventional winner. Controversy raged around “Selma” and “American Sniper,” and the Academy was accused — not for the first time and no doubt not for the last — of being too old and too male and too white.
It was a long, odd awards season that began at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014 and didn’t end for 13 months — a blink of the eye compared to the time it took to make “Boyhood,” perhaps, but a lengthy slog through noise and uncertainty and occasional glory for its participants.
Also read: Oscars 2015: TheWrap’s Complete Coverage
And at the end of it all, every Best Picture nominee went home with at least one statuette, while the Academy went home knowing that one big-grossing movie and a bunch of indies are not the stuff of which big ratings are made.
TheWrap chronicled the whole crazy mess, provided a guide to what soared and what flopped, and crossed paths with the major players from international film festivals to local eateries. So here’s my annual roundup of 10 moments to remember in the past year on the awards circuit.
1. Little Drummer Boy
Let’s start back in January of 2014, on the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival. One of the night’s world premieres was a second feature from a young filmmaker named Damien Chazelle, a supercharged tale of a drum student and the sadistic conductor of the top jazz band at a prestigious music school.
Chazelle and producer David Lancaster didn’t want “Whiplash” to be the opening-night film, a Sundance slot that rarely yields top narrative films. But they felt indebted to Sundance, which had screened the short Chazelle had made to try to raise financing for the feature, so they accepted the slot, won a standing ovation and went on to grab both the audience and jury prizes at the festival.
They also got a deal with Sony Pictures Classics, enormous buzz for actor J.K. Simmons and, before the dust had cleared, five Academy Award nominations and three wins.
Eddie and Michael, Michael and Eddie. From the fall festivals on, it was clear that the Best Actor race was going to come down to “Birdman” star Michael Keaton and “The Theory of Everything” lead Eddie Redmayne — the former playing an egomaniacal actor trying to save his career by staging Raymond Carver on Broadway, the latter transforming himself into Stephen Hawking both before and after the renowned scientist found he has ALS.
Keaton and Redmayne were ubiquitous on the awards circuit, and they were a delightful contrast. Redmayne was gracious, friendly and relentlessly good-natured, while Keaton was sharper and more cynical, but clearly enjoying the ride.
On the red carpet at the Oscars, Redmayne lingered and talked about how happy he was to be making another movie, the first time he’d acted since “Theory.” Keaton, meanwhile, moved down the line fast, talking about how much he enjoyed the fuss but good-naturedly snapping at journalists who took too long to ask questions.
And when the question was something as obvious as “How do you feel?” (I didn’t ask it, but somebody near me did), he put on a quizzical face (see photo) and said, “I feel fuckin’ awesome. How do you think I feel?”
3. Still Julianne
Lots of movies went into the Toronto International Film Festival with high hopes and big buzz: “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Wild” among them.
And then there was “Still Alice,” a small movie from directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer that only began shooting in March and came to the festival with little in the way of advance hype. The last film that Glatzer and Westmoreland had brought to TIFF, “The Last Days of Robin Hood,” had drawn tepid reviews and little attention and had taken more than a year to find its way to theaters — so there was little reason to expect more from “Still Alice,” the story of a college professor finding she has early onset Alzheimer’s.
Little reason, that is, except that the film starred Julianne Moore, who had never won an Oscar but was one of the most highly regarded actresses this side of Meryl Streep. And “Still Alice” turned out to be not only a terrific showcase for a wrenching performance from Moore, but a subtly affecting film that delivered far more than audiences (and many critics) were expecting.
Moore later told me that she and the filmmakers had little hope of actually getting the film a distribution deal that would put it in theaters by the end of 2014, a priority given Glatzer’s delicate health. (He has ALS.) But the Oscar buzz was immediate, Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film within a couple of days of its premiere and had it in theaters by the end of the year, and Moore breezed to the first Oscar of her career.
4. Double Bill of Controversy
The AFI Fest had an unexpected and dramatic double bill on Nov. 11. First, what had been announced as a sneak preview of 30 minutes of footage from Ava DuVernay’s unfinished “Selma” turned into a full screening of a work-in-progress version of the film. Then, Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” which he told me he’d finished only four days earlier, made its premiere as the festival’s surprise screening.
The two films screened back-to-back at the Egyptian Theatre, and afterwards people were raving about “Selma” and more divided on “Sniper.” Still to come were the controversies that would rage around both films, the two nominations (and two big snubs?) for “Selma” and the six nominations and huge boxoffice for “American Sniper.”
The AFI Fest audience knew that the Oscar race changed that night, but they didn’t know how much the evening’s double bill would come to dominate conversations for the next two months.
5. The Al Pacino Show
“The Humbling” was a small Barry Levinson comedy that never really had much shot at getting nominations, but that didn’t stop its star Al Pacino from doing interviews and screenings to promote the film. One of his stops was an early December Wrap screening of the film, Pacino was a delightful interview guest — funny, candid and of course charismatic, spewing out stories about his days in the theater and replying to one question about his many movie catchphrases with a priceless anecdote about how the “Attica! Attica!” line came to be in “Dog Day Afternoon.”
It was the second-consecutive year in which a veteran actor provided the highlight of our extensive screening series, following Bruce Dern’s uproarious appearance in 2013. And while “The Humbling” didn’t make any noise with awards voters, it and Pacino made a mighty noise that night, which was enough for me and for everyone in the room.
6. The Margaret Keane Show
One other Screening Series highlight came unexpectedly a month later, when TheWrap screened Tim Burton’s film “Big Eyes.” It was also the most last-minute screening we did, a casual conversation with the Weinstein Company that turned into a booked screening in the space of about 24 hours. Best of all, our guests were star Amy Adams and the 88-year-old artist she portrays in the Tim Burton film, Margaret Keane.
Keane, who’d only done one other screening, was an absolute delight as she shared stories about her life with her ex-husband Walter, a master salesman who took credit for her work and bullied her into silence for years. The screening turned into a Margaret Keane love-fest, with so many questions directed to the artist that I began to feel bad for Adams — after all, she was the one who stood to gain an Oscar nomination if her pitch-perfect performance got enough notice.
I mentioned that to Adams when I saw her again a few days later, and she immediately shook her head. “Oh, no,” she said, “I loved how the audience responded to Margaret. That really made me feel great.”
“Big Eyes” didn’t get any Oscar nominations, but it made Margaret Keane feel like a star.
7. The Producers Turn the Tide
As “Boyhood” won one critics’ award after another throughout December, many of us Oscar watchers wondered one thing: Could the understated film remain the frontrunner once the Hollywood guilds began giving out their awards?
David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” after all, had enjoyed a similar sweep through the critics’ awards four years earlier, only to find its status as the Best Picture favorite come to a crashing halt at the Producers Guild Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Directors Guild Awards, all of which went to “The King’s Speech.”
Until the guilds spoke, the race would remain a big question mark — and on Jan. 24, the Producers Guild spoke by giving its top award to “Birdman.” SAG followed suit the next night, followed by six other guilds, including the DGA.
Also read: ‘Birdman’ Wins Top Producers Guild Award
It wasn’t so much a turning point in the race as a convincing illustration of what had been there all along: The critics preferred one movie, but the people who make movies preferred a different one.
8. An Afternoon at the Movies
The shift in the race that came when the guilds began to hand out awards probably didn’t come as a huge surprise “Boyhood” director Richard Linklater, who always thought it was nuts that his low-budget family drama had been anointed the Best Picture frontrunner back in August. “How can we be anything but David to somebody’s Goliath?” he asked me when we had drinks at the Sunset Marquis during one of his many awards-season stops in Los Angeles.
But Linklater remained resolutely calm and laid-back in the midst of the craziness, serving as a smart and articulate spokesperson for his film without ever seeming to shift into salesman mode. And beneath it all, he remained a true film lover — which is why when he came to the Landmark Theater in West Los Angeles for a Wrap screening of “Boyhood” in early February (left), he was excited to learn that Jean-Luc Godard’s film “Goodbye to Language” was playing in the next theater.
“I’ve wanted to see that for months,” he said of the 3D film, which had trouble securing screens because few arthouses were equipped with the appropriate technology. I told him I’d wanted to see it, too, since missing it at Cannes the previous May, and we both impulsively decided that our schedules just might allow us to catch the 3:45 screening the next afternoon.
That happened to be Feb. 5, the day that Oscar voting began, so I didn’t think that Linklater would actually be able to play hooky for an afternoon screening. But I wanted to see the film, so I headed to the Landmark, bought a reserved seat — and found myself sitting next to Linklater, who had indeed taken the afternoon off to see a movie.
And for the rest of the season, every one of our frequent conversations included some mention of that afternoon, and that crazy 3D Godard.
9. Out of Africa
One of the first Oscar-nominated films I saw in 2014 was the documentary “Virunga,” which I caught at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and immediately loved for its inspiring, cautionary story of a civil war and an international oil company threatening the existence of some of the last mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park in the Eastern Congo.
Netflix picked up the film after Tribeca, and it landed a spot on the Oscar doc shortlist and then a nomination. In a year in which “Citizenfour” essentially ran the table, “Virunga” was never more than an Oscar dark horse — but Netflix waged an aggressive campaign for a movie that remained one of my favorite 2015 films from any genre. “Virunga” got enough attention that a couple of weeks before the Oscars, the Church of England issued a statement saying that they would pull their sizeable investment in SOCO International unless the company made assurances that it would not drill in the park.
As the most openly emotional of the doc nominees, the film also picked up a large number of fans who were as deeply touched by it as I was — including Jessica Chastain, who tweeted her support for “Virunga” right after she saw it.
So when I returned to the tent where the Spirit Awards were held last Saturday after filing my story on the event, I was delighted to see that “Virunga” director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara had found Chastain and introduced themselves.
The filmmakers — and one of their subjects, Virunga park ranger André Bauma (photo above), a hero of the film for his almost fatherly relationship with the gorillas — shared a warm conversation with Chastain. And after they left, she wiped away tears and talked about how much the film had meant to her and how touched she was that they had introduced themselves.
It was the kind of unexpected, lovely moment that awards season can provide, a beautiful grace note in a mad, noisy environment.
10. Speech Lessons
I didn’t particularly care for the Oscar show itself, which I thought wasn’t the worst of the three Craig Zadan–Neil Meron shows (the Seth MacFarlane–hosted one takes that prize), but was much flatter than last year’s Ellen DeGeneres show.
But the show did have one crucial thing going for it: its acceptance speeches. “Boyhood” actress Patricia Arquette had been a favorite of mine all awards season, eloquent and frank about how she had battled to forge a career as a single mother. As she won one supporting-actress award after another, her speeches had always been good, though they left me hoping that by the time she got to the Oscars, she’d dispense with the pieces of paper she carried to awards-show podiums and speak without notes.
She did so at the Spirit Awards the day before the Oscars, so I was disappointed when she pulled out a sheet of paper onstage at the Dolby Theatre. But her pointed speech calling for equal pay for women was so galvanizing that it didn’t matter that she was reading it — she seized the biggest stage and knew exactly what to do with it.
So did “The Imitation Game” screenwriter Graham Moore, who gave stirring speeches about his subject, Alan Turing, whenever he won an award for his script. But at the Oscars, he took the speech to a new, surprising place he’d never before gone, talking about his suicide attempt at the age of 16 and encouraging kids who feel that they don’t belong to “stay weird.”
There were other great speeches on Oscar night, too, from “Ida” director Pawel Pawlikowski to John Legend and Common (or John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn, to use the names under which they won Oscars for writing a song from “Selma”). At the end of a season filled with so much noise, a few moments of eloquence go a long way.