By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 16, 2015 at 5:27PM
Going into the season, only a handful of pre-fall movies had Oscar potential; critics and guild groups kept them in the conversation over the long haul. They include Wes Anderson's well-wrought hit "Grand Budapest Hotel," which gains points for lush period but loses some for comedy. The March Fox Searchlight release was the highest-grossing indie of 2014 and remarkably, stayed in Academy voters' minds and took home the Best Comedy Golden Globe.
Similarly, Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" (IFC) earned critics' kudos for its daring and unique 12-year time travel. The small-scale indie--and summer hit-- sustained itself over a year, from January's Sundance through the long awards slog. So far, so good, as "Boyhood" keeps racking up key wins such as Best Film from the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics and the Best Drama at the Golden Globes. Both films scored with critics groups, SAG and the Golden Globes. Also emerging from Sundance with stellar reviews was intense crowdpleaser "Whiplash," starring breakout young star Miles Teller and character veteran J.K. Simmons, who leads the supporting actor contenders.
That SPC coming-of-age jazz tale went on to wow Cannes, which yielded more SPC awards contenders: Bennett Miller's precisely directed "Foxcatcher," starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo; Mike Leigh's exquisite period portrait of the great master painter, "Mr. Turner," whose Timothy Spall took home the Best Actor prize and later, won Best Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle but failed to land a BAFTA or Oscar nom; eventual foreign frontrunners "Wild Tales" (Argentina) and "Leviathan" (Russia) and Wim Wenders' exquisite four-hankie doc contender "The Salt of the Earth."
Breaking big at both Venice and Telluride, followed by NYFF closing night, was Alejandro González Iñárritu's scabrous and exhilarating showbiz comedy "Birdman," starring superb acting contenders Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone (all are collecting key nominations and awards). Telluride debuted three lit adaptations: writer Nick Hornby and director Jean-Marc Vallee's film version of Cheryl Strayed's "Wild," a mother-daughter drama starring strong actress contenders Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon (Searchlight); and Weinstein Co.'s World War II code-cracking thriller "The Imitation Game," starring a blazing Benedict Cumberbatch with ace support from Keira Knightley. All three are gaining momentum with critics groups and SAG.
Toronto brought yet another period Brit biopic (catnip for Academy voters: see "The King's Speech") from Working Title/Focus Features, James Marsh's "The Theory of Everything," a two-hander boasting superb performances from Eddie Redmayne --as another genius, physicist Stephen Hawking-- and Felicity Jones as his equally heroic wife Jane. Other performances earned plaudits at TIFF and strong reviews: Jake Gyllenhaal as a Travis Bickle-esque sociopathic news videographer in Open Road's "Nightcrawler" and Julianne Moore as a college professor with Alzheimer's in "Still Alice," which became a must-see the second it was acquired by SPC. Opening nighter "The Judge" (Warner Bros.) yielded mixed reviews overall but positive notices for Robert Duvall in the supporting title role.
A strong opening nighter at the New York Film Festival was the much-anticipated mystery thriller from David Fincher, "Gone Girl" (Fox), starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, which earned kudos from many critics and went on to score with audiences. Fincher failed to land a DGA nod, and the film wound up only nabbing a Best Actress nod for Pike. Paul Thomas Anderson's free-wheeling adaptation of the 70s-set Thomas Pynchon novel "Inherent Vice" was met with critical acclaim and small box office.
Late-breaking movies faced daunting odds this year from movies with already established buzz and momentum, including AFI FEST opener, J.C. Chandor's follow-up to "All Is Lost," the muted 1980s crime drama "A Most Violent Year," starring an excellent Oscar Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis") with solid support from the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain. While initial critical response was upbeat for this rumination on right and wrong in the business world, distributor A24 faced heavy competition in the months ahead.
Also breaking at AFI, with enthusiastic support, was Ava DuVernay's sprawling Martin Luther King biopic "Selma," starring a magnificent David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. (backed by Oprah Winfrey's Harpo, Brad Pitt's Plan B, Pathe and Paramount) and Clint Eastwood's well-made true war story "American Sniper," starring Bradley Cooper in a transformative title role, which rode Eastwood and Cooper's star power to multiple Guild nominations and five Oscar nods including Best Picture.
Both opened well in limited release on Christmas Day. Finally Indie Spirit Award nominee "Selma" only mustered Best Song and Best Picture nominations under sustained attacks on its historical accuracy; in the intense race for Best Actor, Cooper land Carell scored the last two spots at the expense of Gyllenhaal, Oyelowo and Fiennes. Both may wind up Best Picture contenders.
Among the usual late-year entries not booked on the fest circuit, original writer James Lapine and "Chicago" director Rob Marshall's lavishly entertaining Disney version of Stephen Sondheim's fairy tale musical "Into the Woods," yielded a supporting actress slot for Meryl Streep, logging a record 19 nominations.
Also scoring in tech categories--including a 12th nomination for cinematographer Roger Deakins-- was director Angelina Jolie's late-breaking World War II survivor story "Unbroken," which was savaged by some critics and snubbed by both SAG and the Golden Globes.
Nominations are listed below in alphabetical order, with my winner picks in bold.
Performance by an actor in a leading role
Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”
Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything”
Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Robert Duvall in “The Judge”
J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash”
Performance by an actress in a leading role
Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night”
Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”
Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood”
Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods”
Best animated feature film of the year
“Big Hero 6” Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura
Achievement in cinematography
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Emmanuel Lubezki
“Unbroken” Roger Deakins
Achievement in costume design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Milena Canonero
“Mr. Turner” Jacqueline Durran
Achievement in directing
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Alejandro G. Iñárritu
“The Imitation Game” Morten Tyldum
Best documentary feature
“CitizenFour” Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
“Virunga” Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara
Best documentary short subject
“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry
“White Earth” J. Christian Jensen
Achievement in film editing
“American Sniper” Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
“Whiplash” Tom Cross
Best foreign language film of the year
“Wild Tales” Argentina
Achievement in makeup and hairstyling
“Foxcatcher” Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Alexandre Desplat
“The Theory of Everything” Jóhann Jóhannsson
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
“Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie”
Music and Lyric by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois
Best motion picture of the year
“American Sniper” Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper and Peter Morgan, Producers
“Whiplash” Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook and David Lancaster, Producers
Achievement in production design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
“Mr. Turner” Production Design: Suzie Davies; Set Decoration: Charlotte Watts
Best animated short film
“The Bigger Picture” Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees
“A Single Life” Joris Oprins
Best live action short film
“Aya” Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis
“The Phone Call” Mat Kirkby and James Lucas
Achievement in sound editing
“American Sniper” Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
“Unbroken” Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro
Achievement in sound mixing
“American Sniper” John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin
“Whiplash” Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley
Achievement in visual effects
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill and Dan Sudick
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer
“American Sniper” Written by Jason Hall
“Whiplash” Written by Damien Chazelle
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo