If you don’t know that this is Academy Awards season, then you may not have heard of the Academy Awards; for that matter, you may not have heard of movies. Oscar obsession is inescapable in the year’s last 7 weeks, for which the studios make us wait the other 45. Three new films center on performances that are about as close to sure things as the caprices of the Oscar nomination process allow for, with all their actors playing individuals overcoming themselves and the demons that visit them in the form of grief, estrangement, and the treachery of the human body.
Reese Witherspoon gets to play both a slut and a woman on a journey of self-discovery, which means the role is made to order when it comes to awards, and which also sounds a little more cynical than I intend. Cheryl is reeling from the premature death of her mother (supporting actress contender Laura Dern) and a marriage that consequently has fallen apart, and after stampeding through a debauch of shooting smack and having sex with seemingly any guy she pours coffee for at the diner where she works, she resolves to hike from the Mexican border to the Canadian. On the Pacific Crest Trail she’s alone with herself in a way she’s never been before, reliving in her head every stupid mistake she’s made, every emotional triumph and defeat, while confronting the physical challenges of sheer survival, from being in the desert with no water to being in the snow with no shelter, meeting strangers who pose threats that are real and threats that aren’t.
Everything about Wild is obvious and not just because it’s based on a true story you may already know and a best-selling book you may already have read, here adapted by High Fidelity novelist Nick Hornby and directed by Dallas Buyers Club’s Jean-Marc Vallée. Where the movie ends isn’t the point as much as how it gets there, and the personal transformation that comes of Cheryl’s trek. Witherspoon’s convincing turn might also be a metaphor for a career that peaked almost a decade ago when she won an Academy Award at the age of 29 for Walk the Line and has underwhelmed since; these past couple of months she’s suddenly in several high-profile pictures, including The Good Lie, playing a job counselor in Kansas who helps Sudanese refugees, and Inherent Vice, where she’s the attorney girlfriend of a hippie detective. People who know the actress claim that her driven student-body-presidential candidate in 1999’s Election verged on typecasting—so maybe the Sierra Nevada of Wild is where most-likely-to-succeeds with wills of iron vanish before emerging on another Oscar night on the other side of oblivion.
As portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, Alan Turing would seem to be his own worst enemy until you learn his secrets and how much his arrogance is a survival strategy. Turing is the English World War II mathematician who helped break Enigma—the Nazis’ ostensibly unbreakable code—and at the same time all but invented computer science; in the opening moments of The Imitation Game you may worry that Cumberbatch is just backdating his utterly updated and digitally tricked-out Sherlock Holmes of the British TV series. But assuming Holmes has any demons at all that the detective is willing to call by that name, they’re no match for those of Turing, whose homosexuality was a crime in England punishable by prison (and in earlier times, execution) until as scandalously late as 1967. Turing’s sexual orientation isn’t the subject of this retro cyberthriller period piece that is more conventional than such a hybridization would seem. As directed by Scandinavian Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game is about the key to cracking Turing’s own code and the thing that makes it as impossible for others to be around him (and his work) as it is for him to be around himself.
Cumberbatch has amassed a U-Haul’s worth of prizes and nominations in theater and television, but cinema is a relatively recent medium for him as he nears 40. Considering his Dickensian name and elfin features, he isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a movie star, but his cool factor has grown exponential enough that only Turing’s machine could calculate it, with matinee idol screams echoing in his ears at The Imitation Game’s premiere in Telluride and Toronto—something Cumberbatch seems smart enough to find bemusing. Playing a man ruthlessly and stupidly persecuted by his country after he saved it (and who can’t even prove himself to himself let alone to anyone else), Cumberbatch more than any of the other Oscar competitors this year breaks our hearts and defies our hopes for a happy ending. If the great question of Turing’s career is whether a machine can think as a person, the question of this movie and Cumberbatch’s performance is whether a machine can feel as a person feels, or with more compassion.
In 2004’s Hawking, his first starring feature, Cumberbatch played scientist Stephen Hawking, who now is portrayed by Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne is another English actor on the move, especially since he dallied with Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn three short years ago, stopping along the way to lead the Paris Uprising of 1832 in Les Misérables. As the physicist who has pondered nothing less than whether time has a beginning while his body and its every function have crumpled under the onset of the neurodegenerative Lou Gehrig’s disease, Redmayne gives what may be the most impressive physical performance since My Left Foot won Daniel Day-Lewis his first Academy Award. The Theory of Everything is as stately as you would imagine a movie shot in and around Cambridge to be, gorgeous to look at with a few too many overvisualized epiphanies—swirls of cream in the coffee cup and flames in the fireplace seen through the weaves of a sweater that provide eureka moments about black holes, big bangs, and how to explain the universe in a single equation.
As with the characters in Wild and The Imitation Game, Redmayne’s Hawking in The Theory of Everything has the same relationship to the real Hawking as the movies have to life. Though taking its title from a Hawking book, the movie is based on a memoir by Hawking’s first wife, Jane, played by Felicity Jones, and when a crucial climactic scene concerning the Hawkings’ relationship and marriage turns out to be the movie’s most disastrously false note, we can’t be sure whether it’s Stephen or Jane or the filmmakers who are whitewashing the implications. At that point the movie, as so often happens, counts on its actors to carry the argument, and we realize then, if we haven’t suspected it sooner, that for all the ways that Redmayne plays the apparent biographical subject of The Theory of Everything, in fact it may be Jones’s movie. Carrying the story’s emotional weight and functioning as our surrogate, she is the year’s stealth Oscar contender after all, the spirit who answers to the monument of Redmayne’s indomitable wreckage.