2014 was, in my opinion, a pretty awesome year for production designers. There was an extremely rich variety of work on display, from trippy sci-fi to austere period pieces, and from autere sci-fi to trippy period pieces! It's a shame that only five can be honoured by the Academy (the guild has three categories over which to spread the wealth), because I can definitely think of at least ten worthy of a nomination.
And yet, as outstanding as so many sets were in so many movies this year, there's only one that has rightful claim to this award. And fortunately, that's the one on track to win.
Back in March when I first saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, I knew right away that nothing else this year was going to top it in terms of production design. Given its early release and the fact that no Wes Anderson film has been nominated here before (wtf?), I figured Adam Stockhausen would be lucky just to get the nomination. But flash forward ten months and his crazy-good work in the film has become a sweeper in this category. It fulfills the description of having both the "most" and the "best", which most people assume is how the Academy votes on the craft categories (a simplistic assumption, but not always a bad one if you want to make accurate predictions). The Best Picture heat for the film has obviously kept the Grand Budapest and its unforgettable environs in everybody's mind.
I don't see how it can lose this.
There is one other Best Picture nominee competing in the category besides The Grand Budapest Hotel, and its probably the default runner-up because of that. The Imitation Game features authentic depictions of WWII-era Britain, with a few detours into the 20s and 50s as well. However, its nomination doesn't please me so much on its own merits as it does because it makes an Oscar nominee out of Maria Djurkovic, who was robbed a few years ago for her excellent work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. If it can right that past wrong, then I guess I'm on board with The Imitation Game occupying a slot that could have gone to a slightly more deserving film. Congratulations to her, although I can't imagine her subtle designs pulling a Lincoln against a steamroller like Grand Budapest.
Mr. Turner. Despite missing out on a nomination from the ADG, the BAFTA and Oscar branches saw fit to correct that oversight by recognizing Suzie Davies' impressive recreations of 19th century Europe. But her achievement goes beyond mere historical accuracy. She uses colour and texture to make the world captured onscreen look like something Turner would have painted himself (with a huge assist from Dick Pope's photography). But the very reserved film hasn't caught on with the industry in general, so a win, however inspired a choice it would be, is not gonna happen.
As usual, the production designers branch made room for a couple of fantasy efforts in this category, although both are likely bringing up the rear on account of their deliberately murky colour palettes. The uninformed Oscar viewer might assume that Interstellar, being a space-aged sci-fi, would boast an overtly fantastical look. But cinephiles familiar with Christopher Nolan's modus operandi know that he always aims to ground his films in as believable a reality as he can. On that front, Nathan Crowley has done a swell job at creating a plausible future earth, along with weathered spacecraft with more of a utilitarian 80s aethetic than a 2001 sleekness. It's smart, tangible work throughout, but is unlikely to tickle the fancy of voters in a category where they often go for beauty over griminess.
Oscar winner Dennis Gassner has his fifth(!) career nomination for Into the Woods, which might sound like a typical winner on paper by virtue of being a fantasy and a musical. However, much of the film takes place (as the title suggests) in the woods, which many a voter may mistake as not being very "art directed". That's poppycock, obviously, as many wooded sets had to be created on a sound stage. But you have to admit that this fantasy doesn't feature many environments that actually look all that fantastical. Medieval, maybe, but not fantastical.
Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Runner-up: The Imitation Game
Should win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should have been nominated: Snowpiercer