When these threads were begun, I felt like I'd just covered the material in the one-by-one categories, and couldn't work up the enthusiasm required to go through it all again. However, for the record (especially since I was cited by name in here):
I, like BJ, would have been happier with an almost entirely different slate: Jake Gyllenhaal, Timothy Spall, Ralph Fiennes; Oscar Isaac and Joaquin Phoenix, both for the second year in a row -- I can't recall a year where the actual nominees looked so milquetoast compared to alternatives that were fully mainstream and in the discussion.
And milquetoast is the very word that sums up my feeling about Eddie Redmayne's performance. Of course he 's not BAD; he acquits himself adequately, and does the physical stuff with full competence. The problem I have is that so many people equate this kind of physical transformation with taking some huge risk -- where, as I see it, Redmayne as an actor almost completely avoids risk, by practically begging the audience to love him. (I've felt this about him almost everywhere I've seen him) Throughout this performance, I see him looking at the camera as if to say "Aren't I adorable?" This is why it so galled me to hear people compare him to Day-Lewis in My Left Foot -- beyond the strenuous physicality, Day-Lewis just about DARED the audience to like him; his behavior was by and large inexcusable. Yet, somehow he got people on his side; that was the miracle of his performance. Redmayne, to me, just coasted on the natural sympathy for Hawking's condition, and batted his eyelashes in puppy-dog cuteness.
Okay: that's the last time I'll trash Redmayne here. Until he turns up again next year.
Steve Carell is perfectly believable but, beyond his initial scene, not especially interesting. The problem with having such a recessive character is, there's nowhere to go with him. Miller and Futterman are partly to blame, for not giving us any real insight into why this guy underwent such a climactic explosion.
For me, Bradley Cooper's work meets the definition "solid" -- he carries the film without effort, making his character feel fully lived-in. But he (properly, I believe) has no breakout scenes, and best performance of the year requires at least something of that, for me. I'm quite interested to see what he does next, but hold back on him, here.
Like BJ, I end up with Cumberbatch in second place, though I don't entirely disagree with dws's take, either. It's a showy sort of performance -- a turn -- but it's an entertaining one and (okay: one more Redmayne slam) it doesn't cheat by hinting to the audience he's deep-down lovable. The role is fairly thinly written (I think Uri had it right, analogizing Imitation Game to one of those Young Adult versions of historical events he -- and I -- used to read back in grade school), but Cumberbatch does what he can within the conception.
Anyway, nobody's close to Michael Keaton, who takes command of his film from the opening and never lets go. Keaton has always had a gift for rapid-fire dialogue, as in Beetlejuice or Night Shift, but here he manages to toss off the lines while conveying a wealth of subtext -- about his feeling for what he's doing, his contempt for his past, his dissatisfaction with and guilt over his human relationships. This while, of course, effectively playing three roles: Riggan, his onstage character, and Birdman. And if you're looking for an Oscar scene: that bit where he confides details of his childhood, completely convincingly, to Norton, only to turn around and declare it complete bullshit in the next breath, can stand alongside anything anyone did this year. This is my easiest choice in all the top categories: Keaton for best actor. I only wish the Academy had thought the same.