By Johnny Pomatto
It’s that time of year again, people. This Sunday night will be The Academy Awards. There was a time when that was the most important night of the year to me. That’s become less and less the case with each passing year. I’ve talked at length on this blog about how Oscar campaigning and Academy Screener DVD’s have threatened to destroy the voting process, so I won’t bore you with any more details on the subject. You can find all of that HERE. All you need to know is that there’s only one award show that matters anymore and that’s THE JOHNNY AWARDS! No studio campaigning has affected my decision-making. Below you’ll find my picks of what I believe are the best performances of the year, or at least my personal favorites.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Patricia Arquette- BOYHOOD
Jessica Chastain- A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
Rene Russo- NIGHTCRAWLER
Tilda Swinton- SNOWPIERCER
Uma Thurman- NYMPHOMANIAC
And the winner is… PATRICIA ARQUETTE in BOYHOOD. This award could have easily gone to Jessica Chastain, who gave her best performance to date in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. If only her film could have given her character as much to do as Chastain was clearly capable of giving. It’s an excellent performance but I wanted more of it. Rene Russo also gave an outstanding performance in a role that was underwritten and designed to merely support Jake Gyllenhaal’s star showcase. She held her own opposite his manic powerhouse, and was the perfect calm to counter his persona. Tilda Swinton continues to prove herself as one of the most daring and care-free performers in film history. She clearly doesn’t care about awards and I wish more actresses followed her example. Uma Thurman shocked and stunned in her sole scene of a movie that’s most famous for its generous close-ups of genitals. But if I’m going to align myself with any likely Oscar night lock, it will be in this category. I have not always been a fan of Arquette’s work. For every great performance she’s given (“True Romance,” “Ed Wood”), she’s had others that I’ve found really grating and annoying. However, her performance is what drives and truly supports the quiet, meandering nature of BOYHOOD. Some have argued that she deserves to be in the Lead Actress category for that very reason. But while Arquette’s performance is unforgettable, it never attempts to steal focus or be the center of the story its telling. Just like the character she portrays, Arquette realizes that everything she is doing in this film is to help guide and tell the story of this young boy’s journey to manhood. She’s as much the film’s mother as she is to little Mason.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Ethan Hawke- BOYHOOD
Philip Seymour Hoffman- A MOST WANTED MAN
John Lithgow- LOVE IS STRANGE
Edward Norton- BIRDMAN
J.K. Simmons- WHIPLASH
And the winner is… ETHAN HAWKE in BOYHOOD. I’ve spent months heaping praise on J.K. Simmons’ thrilling performance in WHIPLASH that my pick feels just a tiny bit hypocritical. But Simmons has won virtually every award leading up to the Oscars, and is almost guaranteed to win Sunday night, so forgive me for spreading the love. Part of me wanted to give this to John Lithgow for his criminally unrecognized performance in LOVE IS STRANGE, but it occurred to me that that whole film is full of wonderful performances, all perfectly complimenting one another. I just couldn’t give it to him without acknowledging the group effort, but if I had an “Ensemble Award,” that film could have been the recipient. Edward Norton gave his best performance in years in BIRDMAN, and reminded me of what a great actor he still is. And nothing makes me sadder realizing that I will never see another performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his swan song in A MOST WANTED MAN was one of his best. But I went with Ethan Hawke for several reasons that just recently became clear to me. If Patricia Arquette is the maternal figure of the movie BOYHOOD, then Hawke is its cool dad. Hawke doesn’t have the weight of the movie on his shoulders, but he gets to swing in periodically and provide levity with full-hearted, but half-thought attempts at wisdom. I also stopped to think about Hawke’s personal timeline over the twelve-year span of making this film. While I always thought Hawke was a credible actor from a young age, I realized that I started to notice him improving and increasing my fandom in films like “Before Sunset” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” as well as onstage in productions of “Hurlyburly” and “The Coast of Utopia.” All of these events took place during the filming process of BOYHOOD, and it’s fascinating to not just see Hawke and his character age and mature within the film, but to also observe his growth into one of our finest actors, which seems more than a little assisted by Richard Linklater’s direction and guidance. I can’t wait to see what else Hawke does over the next twelve years, and that is not a sentiment I would have had a mere decade ago.
Marion Cottillard- THE IMMIGRANT
Essie Davis- THE BABADOOK
Paulina Garcia- GLORIA
Elizabeth Moss- THE ONE I LOVE
Hilary Swank- THE HOMESMAN
And the winner is… ESSIE DAVIS in THE BABADOOK. I don’t think there was a category in this year’s Academy Awards that was more mishandled than Best Actress. I wouldn’t qualify any of the performances as particularly bad, far from it. They’re just overly safe, familiar, and in some cases, dull. For instance, Felicity Jones gives a pretty great performance in “The Theory of Everything,” considering the script gives her virtually nothing to do. It’s the exact same strong, supportive wife role that Jennifer Connelly won an Oscar for thirteen years ago in “A Beautiful Mind.” Actors can rise above mediocre material all the time, (see: Julianne Moore in this year’s “Still Alice”), but I prefer to see a great performance in a fully realized character rather than a credible one layered over a template we’ve seen many times before. The most appropriate nomination the Academy made in this category would be Marion Cottillard in 2 DAYS, 1 NIGHT, but I believe Cottillard gave an even stronger performance in James Gray’s THE IMMIGRANT. This might just be nitpicking or just a demonstration of what an excellent actress Cottillard is in every movie she does. GLORIA was a Chilean film that hardly anyone saw, though I hope that changes with its recent addition to Netflix. Paulina Garcia was masterful in the role of a middle-aged divorcee getting reacquainted with her still thriving libido. I urge you to see this film before Meryl Streep attempts to make an inferior American remake. THE ONE I LOVE was merely too small a film for Moss to get enough attention for it, but I believe that the only reason why Hilary Swank isn’t a frontrunner in this category for the Oscars is because Tommy Lee Jones never played it safe in his dark and pessimistic western. As if it’s not hard enough to get awards recognition for a western in these modern times, it’s even harder for people to take horror movies seriously. The horror genre produces some of the worst films to come out in any given year, but when one is done properly, it can make you think differently about its potential and quality. That was certainly true for this year’s terrifying THE BABADOOK and all credit goes straight to Essie Davis. The titular boogeyman is in many ways the least scary thing in this film. Davis’ fear becomes the audience’s fear, and we become more and more unsettled as we see her slowly losing her mind. We’re right there with her every step of the way and I can’t imagine a better guide through this strange and original film. Because of their shocking nature, horror films don’t often lend themselves to repeated viewings, and often not even a first viewing. I’ll be watching THE BABADOOK for many years to come just to see the terror in Essie Davis’ eyes a few more times.
Bradley Cooper- AMERICAN SNIPER
Ralph Fiennes- THE GRAND HOTEL BUDAPEST
Jake Gyllenhaal- NIGHTCRAWLER
Oscar Isaacs- A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
Timothy Spall- MR. TURNER
And the winner is… TIMOTHY SPALL in MR. TURNER. As usual, this is the most competitive category of the year. There’s been much talk of snubs and omissions. I don’t believe that the thousands of members of the Academy can actively and collectively snub anyone on purpose. I would have been absolutely fine with David Oyellowo taking a spot away from Oscar nominees Steve Carell or Eddie Redmayne, (two particular performances that I find to be perfectly adequate), but as you can see, when even choosing my top five picks, Oyellowo doesn’t make my personal cut. When did giving perhaps the 6th best performance of the year become something not worth celebrating? I say ignore the Oscar politics. I don’t believe that me picking four white men (and one Hispanic) over Oyellowo is in and of itself a racist snubbing, especially because I don’t think many would claim the performances I did pick to be undeserving of recognition. If my personal preferred performances are sincere picks then who is to say that the thousands of Oscar voters didn’t vote their heart as well? Sadly I feel the primary purpose for nominating the way they did was because of heavy campaigning for films like THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING and not nearly enough for SELMA, and to me that’s a much bigger problem. Perhaps my most controversial inclusion is the only nominee to overlap with the Academy’s picks, Bradley Cooper. There are several reasons to not like Clint Eastwood’s AMERICAN SNIPER, many of them valid even, but I couldn’t deny that his film would be almost unwatchable without Cooper’s outstanding performance. Much like Julianne Moore does with the even worse film, STILL ALICE, Cooper elevated his film so much that even now, in light of ongoing debates and controversy, I can’t bring myself to not recommend AMERICAN SNIPER based on Cooper’s performance alone. Ralph Fiennes proved this year the age old rule that the Academy doesn’t consider comedy to be an art worth honoring, but surely Fiennes, who is never not extraordinary, is long overdue for some awards recognition, especially after giving what might have been the funniest performance of the year. In this very column a few months ago, I predicted that Jake Gyllenhaal was not only going to get nominated for an Oscar, but may win one as well. After the McConaughey narrative last year of the Academy celebrating the reinvention of a movie star into becoming an actor, it seemed like a sure thing. Perhaps NIGHTCRAWLER wasn’t aggressive enough with their screener campaigning, but Gyllenhaal has become a greater and greater actor in the last few years, and I firmly believe he’s just a few years away from a statuette, likely for a performance not quite as good as his one in NIGHTCRAWLER. Oscar Isaacs has been ignored for stellar performances two years in a row now, (after last year’s “Inside Llewyn Davis”), but watching his quiet intensity in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, I was reminded of a style of acting that hasn’t been seen much since the 1970’s. He’s like watching a young Al Pacino or Gene Hackman, and I sincerely hope that his inevitable success as a mainstream movie star in the upcoming “Star Wars” and “X-Men” films doesn’t corrupt the work he’s done to date. With such intense and flashy performances in this category, some may scoff at my choice for picking the quiet, reserved performance from Timothy Spall as my favorite of the year. One has to already be an extraordinary actor to work with director Mike Leigh in the first place; otherwise they will never survive his harrowing process of improvisation and character creating. Spall is a veteran of Leigh’s films and has never been better than he is in MR. TURNER. Playing a man who grunts more than he actually speaks, Spall had to create a fully lived in presence for a real life character who’s life details are not well known by many. By the end of the film, we feel there is very little mystery left to Turner, and while Spall must share some of the credit for that with Leigh, I can’t imagine another actor being able to accomplish what he does in this film.
That’s all for now, friends. Be sure to watch the Oscars this weekend and keep my words in mind as the parade goes by. Please comment below with your own picks of your favorite performances of the year, or just use the space to tell me how wrong I am.