It’s been a godawful year for Hollywood blockbusters—one that brought us the vacuous orgy of twisted metal that was Transformers: Age of Extinction, those off-putting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and whatever The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was trying to accomplish.
But if you dug a bit deeper, you’d discover plenty of gems amid the pricey wreckage. There was Richard Linklater’s poignant coming-of-age saga Boyhood, filmed off-and-on over the course of 12 years; Jonathan Glazer’s first film in 9 years, the surrealist sci-fi flick Under the Skin, featuring Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress picking off blokes on the streets of Scotland; and the always exceptional Paul Thomas Anderson’s gonzo neo-noir Inherent Vice, to name a few.
While the 87th Academy Awards—hosted by the one and only Neil Patrick Harris—won’t air until the evening of February 22, the Oscar nominations will be announced the morning of January 15. These are The Daily Beast’s picks for what are, in our humble opinion, the deserving nominees in the six major categories.
A master class in precision, editing, direction, acting, and foresight, Richard Linklater’s 12-year project chronicling the growth of a young boy (newcomer Ellar Coltrane) from age 6-18 will inspire numerous Proustian flashbacks to one’s own halcyon follies of youth, and make you grateful for your own humanity. Life is a series of seemingly throwaway moments strung together in a peculiar tapestry, and Linklater has captured it beautifully.
One of the more underrated qualities of Paul Thomas Anderson is his mischievous sense of humor, from the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly’s one-liners in Boogie Nights (and Alfred Molina, of course) to the absurdist end of There Will Be Blood. But his gonzo nature is on full display here in this wacky, scatterbrained neo-noir involving a stoned private eye, missing people, cocaine-huffing dentists, and a mysterious ship. It’s The Big Sleep meets The Big Lebowski—a delightfully weird rollercoaster ride of degeneracy.
Yes, we live in a sad, sad world where the deplorable J. Edgar Hoover got the Hollywood biopic treatment before Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike that makeup heavy mess, Ava DuVernay’s story of the MLK is a vividly-rendered and well-rounded study. Told through the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, it covers King’s expert (oftentimes backdoor) politicking and grace under pressure, as well as his missteps—including Bloody Sunday and accusations of infidelity. It’s a film that’s truly worthy of the man, the myth, the legend.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Years from now, when everyone’s watching films in the comfort of their own homes, cineastes and film scholars will come to appreciate the unique stylings of Wes Anderson—one of the only filmmakers working today whose oeuvre offers a distinct look. And The Grand Budapest Hotel is his most colorful, elaborate confection to date, a rollicking caper replete with more eye-catching set pieces and set-ups than a dozen films. This love letter to Stefan Zweig is a true work of art.
Under the Skin
It’s the one film this year that will plant itself deep in the recesses of your memory like a virus, and continually hatch. Jonathan Glazer’s first film since 2004’s Birth is a surreal, poetic journey of an alien seductress (Scarlett Johansson) prowling the streets of Scotland in a van and preying on civilians (mostly unknowns improvising). The scenes between Johansson and Adam Pearson, a man with neurofibromatosis, are some of the most delicate and visceral this year. A magnificent mindfuck.
Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice
It still tickles me that one of the greatest masters of film composition and form purposely dropped out of film school by plagiarizing an essay, but PTA is indeed a master, and Inherent Vice epitomizes what makes him such a special director—an utterly bonkers cinematic journey that feels haphazard in its insouciance, but look closer and you’ll see the expert craftsmanship on display, from finely calibrated performances to framing to the anarchic tone.
Ava DuVernay, Selma
2014 was the year of the movie publicist-cum-filmmaker, with Justin Simien (Dear White People) and Ava DuVernay. But this portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1965 voting rights marches is the right mixture of power and grace, from Dr. King’s rousing speeches to the vivid, horrifying depiction of Bloody Sunday. Her previous feature Middle of Nowhere signaled a filmmaker of great promise; Selma proved DuVernay is a serious force to be reckoned with.
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Richard Linklater has directed 19 films, many of which we cherish (Dazed and Confused, anyone?). Yet, for god knows what reason, his name is never brought up in the “Great American Filmmaker” conversation. Not anymore. This 12-year project cements the humble Texan’s status as one of our finest. The precision it took to craft such a cohesive, wholly compelling work over 12 years is nothing short of remarkable.
Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
“My films are always held to a weirdly high standard,” Nolan told me. You know what? He’s right. And the reason why people do it is because he’s the benchmark for Hollywood filmmaking by which all others are judged. Unlike his idol Kubrick, Nolan is a bit too seduced by star power—which explains Interstellar’s bizarre interlude—but the craftsmanship and technical expertise on display here is indisputable. This is a Hollywood director at the height of his powers creating original, wildly ambitious epics. It’s something worth celebrating.
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll say that Anderson is a singular filmmaker with a distinct style and vision. The majority of directors come across as rank cynics who loathe the human condition, but Anderson is someone who revels in our myriad eccentricities and peccadilloes. You can tell he loves his characters, like the wonderfully suave Gustave H., imbuing them with an infectious playfulness and rebel’s spirit.
Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice
There is no better actor—right now—than Joaquin Phoenix. He throws every fiber of his being into each performance, altering his posture, elocution, temperament, and more. Phoenix is the most uncompromising actor of his generation, and his madcap turn as private eye Doc Sportello is never less than mesmerizing.
David Oyelowo, Selma
We all have a grand vision of Martin Luther King Jr. in our heads, and by capturing both his burning passion for progress, evidenced by his rousing speeches, to his quieter, conflicted moments, Oyelowo somehow managed to make that vision even more dynamic, and profound.
Jack O’Connell, Starred Up
He’s fine in Unbroken, but his O’Connell’s turn as Eric Love, a young, violent offender in a rough U.K. prison is the most ferocious, intense performance of the year—making the scenes where his character breaks down and bonds with his overbearing father all the more stirring.
Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
From Amon Goeth to Voldemort, Fiennes has, with his deep-set eyes and mumbling voice, mastered the art of onscreen villainy. So it’s even more startling how downright charming and delectable his “liberally perfumed” Gustave H.—an eccentric dandy with a penchant for cologne, octogenarian women, and pastries—is. Fiennes is a snobby, fatalistic riot.
Tom Hardy, Locke
I can’t stand listening to even my best friends on speakerphone, but somehow, Tom Hardy spends the entirety of Locke conducting various dealings—personal, professional—on speaker in a car speeding down the highway, and is absolutely riveting. There aren’t many other actors that could pull off a one-man show like this.
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
It’s hard to be still onscreen—but it’s a trait Johansson has mastered. And it’s her impermeability, or the fact that you never know what she’s thinking, that makes her such a compelling actress. Her best performances are ones with little dialogue, where she’s free to react, as in Lost in Translation, Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Avengers, and of course, Under the Skin. As an alien luring Scottish men into her chamber of secrets, she’s seductive, haunting, menacing, and genial—all at once.
Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant
Like Phoenix, Cotillard is the greatest actress alive right now, and as such, every performance of hers deserves awards consideration. The reality is she’s chalked up two award-worthy turns this year (see: Two Days, One Night), but her portrayal of a Polish émigré in 1920s New York is the stronger of the two. It’s no wonder she’s the daughter of a mime, because Cotillard has the most expressive face of any actress not named Naomi Watts.
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Julianne Moore should have several Oscars by now. Amber Waves. Maude Lebowski. The list is endless. She’ll finally, it seems, get a long-deserved one thanks to her stellar turn as a linguistics professor whose life (and fertile mind) slowly begins to unravel due to early-onset Alzheimer’s. It’s a courageous, insular performance and Moore reportedly prepped 9 months to get it just right.
Hilary Swank, The Homesman
Nobody is talking about this impressive, Tommy Lee Jones-directed western because it’s a pretty big downer, but Swank is at her unglamorous, heroic best as a frontierswoman thriving in a man’s world. She fills her characters up—strong women beating back against a sexist system—with so much heart.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beyond the Lights
As a conflicted, Rihanna-like pop star struggling with the trappings and pressures of fame, Mbatha-Raw delivers a raw, emotionally nuanced performance that elevates everyone and everything around her. Sometimes, a performance transcends the film. This is one of those times.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
From his first infomercial to his jaw-dropping final scene, Brolin’s Det. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen is deadpan-hilarity at its finest. In Pynchon’s (and PTA’s) world, the most straitlaced fella is also the most confounding.
Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Do you want to be on the wrong side of history, Academy? It’s time to start honoring the great Serkis for his motion capture work, epitomized by the rebellious, thoughtful simian Caesar. This is acting in every sense of the word—bringing an unevolved animal to life and making it utterly believable. Pretty damn magical.
Michael Fassbender, Frank
Michael Fassbender wears a giant fake head for most of Frank, acting with his body movements and the varying rhythms of his voice. And, as the enigmatic front man to an avant garde indie rock group, he is droll, perceptive, and splendidly weird.
Zac Efron, Neighbors
The ex-High School Musical star was, by most accounts, on a “Paris Hilton in the aughts”-amount of cocaine during the making of this coming of age comedy. And man, did it raise the level of his performance. Efron’s demonic frat boy is absolutely terrifying—like The Exorcist’s Regan with six-pack abs and a killer tan. But then he winds it back for the quieter, more tortured moments, too. An ace comedic turn that, in lesser hands, would come off as one-note.
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Usually, when you’re acting in a film, you’re down the rabbit hole for a number of weeks or months, and then emerge from the character. But Hawke had to be inside his klutzy-compassionate father’s head for 12 years. This is no small feat. Hawke’s rendering of Mason Sr. is as naturalistic as they come (for a trained actor).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Probably the biggest shoo-in winner this year—and there are no arguments from anyone. Arquette’s performance, over the course of 12 years, is a tour de force; one of the most compelling, emotionally rich, and downright laudable depictions of valiant motherhood ever put to screen. We don’t ever show our mothers enough appreciation for all they’ve done/do, and Arquette’s performance reminded us to.
Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer
Talk about a wild year. Tilda Swinton donned gobs of prosthetics to portray an 84-year-old socialite in The Grand Budapest Hotel; a glamorous, blood-guzzling vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive; and, last but not least, the oddball Mason, leader of the upper class with a killer overbite, in Bong Joon-ho’s superb post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick Snowpiercer. It’s a playful, whimsical, and loopy turn by Swinton, who steals every scene she’s in with this strange creation.
Kristen Stewart, Still Alice
It’s been a big year for Stewart, too. Her overlooked turn as a green Gitmo guard in Camp X-Ray. The garrulous assistant to a fading screen siren in Clouds of Sils Maria. And this, her touching performance as the rebellious daughter to a mother stricken with Alzheimer’s who, in her time of need, comes to her aid and puts her life on hold to be by her side.
Uma Thurman, Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1
“Would it be alright if I show the children the whoring bed?” Yes, Uma Thurman is only in Lars von Trier’s bewildering, 3-hour psychosexual odyssey for a single 10-minute scene, but what a soul-crushing sequence it is—a spurned wife and mother who brings her children over to confront her two-timing husband at the titular nympho’s flat, laying waste to the place like that nightclub packed with Crazy 88’s. Hell hath no fury like an Uma scorned.
Eva Green, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a complete mess of a film, packed with unconvincing vignettes that fail to gel. But boy, Eva Green. You cannot take your eyes off her for the entire film, as she vamps about, chewing up scenery and spitting out hearts. One of the most sensuous, enthralling femme fatales to come along in quite some time