Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscar - Best Picture

What a weird year for Best Picture. So many good films, yet such a strange turnout. Let's recap:


Metacritic: 86
US Box Office: $128 Million
7 Nominations: Picture, Supporting Actor, Editing, Adapted Screenplay, Music - Score,  Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
Awards: Everything (Critics Choice, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Producers Guild, Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild Ensemble, Writers Guild, Editors Guild, Scripter Award, 9 Critics Groups' Best Picture)

  • Admired since its release to date
  • No one hates it, everyone can agree on it
  • A (mostly) true story with suspense, comedy & a weight of political importance
  • NB - Hollywood & the CIA working together to make a happy ending
  • When critics scared off Zero Dark Thirty, they nearly unanimously flocked towards Argo, making Ben Affleck seem like a lock for a Best Director nomination
  • When the Oscars felt otherwise and excluded Affleck from the Best Director race (marking it as less significant than Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild), Affleck and Argo became overnight underdogs. And everyone loves an underdog.
  • Immediately after Affleck's Oscar "snub" as Director, Argo wins Picture and Director from the Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards
  • Argo becomes the little Iranian comedy / thriller that could and goes on to win the Directors Guild Award, the Producers Guild Award, the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award and everything else (significantly, its adapted screenplay beats logical frontrunner Lincoln to both the Scripter and Writers Guild award).
  • When even the British Academy Awards name it Best Picture and Affleck Best Director, it's clear we have an unstoppable juggernaut on our hands, barring the Oscars resisting groupthink enough to stick by their guns. 
  • NB - Ben Affleck's charm offensive, backed by Producer George Clooney's legendary smile,  continue to win hearts as their film wins all the awards.
  • All in all, Argo remains the film everyone likes and no-one hates. That does tend to win Oscars these days. It's not the 1970s anymore.
  • Argo still has no Best Director nomination. No film has won Best Picture without it's Director being in the race since Driving Miss Daisy in 1990.
  • Even Lincoln - a period film about a law being passed - has better Box Office
  • Lincoln, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook & Les Miserables all have more Oscar nominations than Argo. Box Office and Nominations aren't everything, but they are something. They show to what extent the public and the Oscar voters responded to the film.
  • The Academy may resist the peer pressure from the Guilds and stick to their guns - they presumably excluded Ben Affleck for a reason and may decide to back the films they did initially respond to.
  • There may even be Argo backlash at this point, considering it's a very good film being held up as a great one. Don't count on it, though. It didn't work for The King's Speech


Metacritic: 94
US Box Office: $4 Million (lowest)
5 Nominations: Picture, Director, Actress, Original Screenplay, Foreign Language Film
Awards: Cannes Palme D'Or, European Film Awards, Cesars, National Society of Film Critics Best Picture of the Year

  • Started off with a bang, winning the Palme D'Or (or Parmz Dorz, as Twitter Michael Haneke would say) at Cannes and went on to win every Foreign Language Film Award (excepting the Golden Satellites who went with Intouchables) and clean out the European Film Awards and the French Cesar Awards
  • The frontrunner by a mile to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar
  • A dark horse to upset Best Actress 
  • With the Oscars announcing their nominees early, they couldn't copy and paste the Producers Guild and Directors Guild. Thinking for themselves, they lavished love on Amour, nominating it for five big ones.
  • Michael Haneke previously contended for Best Foreign Language Film for The White Ribbon in 2010 but lost, unexpectedly, to The Secret in their Eyes. That gives Haneke a bit of an Oscar IOU.  
  • Subtitles scare the average Cinema goer, and a film that requires them has never prevailed as Best Picture
  • Amour is an unsentimental film about the decay of old age, and death. Not a feel good situation. 
  • The lowest Box Office of all the nominees suggests that the arty Amour has a select audience only 

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Metacritic: 86
US Box Office: $12 Million
4 Nominations: Picture, Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay
Awards: Sundance Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic)

  • Micro-budget Sundance Jury Prize winner
  • An Indie Spirit favourite, with four nominations
  • A very early, dark horse Best Picture and Best Actress contender that somehow survived the hype & release of Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables and Django Unchained to be embraced by the Academy 
  • A wildly unique cinematic experience with a bold perspective and execution, it marks the arrival of a distinct new talent in producer / director / writer / composer Benh Zeitlin  
  • Shoestring indies about poor, 8-year-old black girls' metaphorical, emotionally cathartic journeys, flooded with poetic impressionist imagery and ambiguous magic realism don't tend to win Oscars.
  • If the Academy loved it enough to give it Best Picture, they wouldn't have overlooked its exceptional cinematography and score.

Django Unchained

Metacritic: 81
US Box Office: $158 Million
5 Nominations: Picture, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound Editing  
Awards: None

  • Tarantino is a true original with only one Oscar to his name - for writing Pulp Fiction
  • Django joins Lincoln in bringing America's slave history back into the zeitgeist. It's a topic worth talking about 
  • Django is a morally challenging, abrasive film. It is also indulgent and unfocused and, though significant and daring, certainly not Tarantino's best. The only equality at play here is the equal right to an unhealthy gun culture. That is my opinion, but I raise it because I am sure Django is not everyone's cup of tea. It's highly unlikely to be backed by enough Academy members.
  • The film's strong black performances - by Jamie Fox, Samuel L Jackson & Kerry Washington - were overlooked
  • Leonardo DiCaprio's much buzzed villain was similarly overlooked, indicating a lack of support from Academy voters.

Life of Pi

Metacritic: 79
US Box Office: $112 Million
11 Nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Production Design, Music - Score, Music - Song, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects 
Awards: None (other than every Visual Effects Award, almost every Cinematography Award, a Golden Globe for Score and two surprise Sound Mixing Awards)

  • Eleven nominations suggest the Academy loved Life of Pi, and certainly it's an easy film to like and a hard one to hate.
  • With Life of Pi, Ang Lee filmed an "unfilmable" book (can we please stop using that clearly irrelevant term?) which previous directors (Jean Jeunet for one) had attempted and walked away from. He stretches himself technically and has to balance the spectacle of the film with its nuanced spiritual undertones. He pulls it off beautifully and clearly the Academy noticed. It's a distinctive visual film with enough heft and gentle emotion to feel like a significant Oscar contender.
  • It's the clear frontrunner to win Score, Cinematography and Visual Effects, and a strong contender for Sound and Sound Mixing as well. Wins beget wins and these could translate to bigger categories like Best Director and, at a stretch, Best Picture.
  • Ang Lee appreciation has really taken off in the weeks leading up to Oscar night
  • It may be too lightweight or family friendly for a Best Picture winner.
  • No wins so far other than the technical categories.


Metacritic: 86
US Box Office: $177 Million (highest)
12 Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Music - Score, Production Design, Costumes, Sound Mixing
Awards: None (other than every Best Actor Award, a Screen Actors Guild award for Supporting Actor and some Critics Awards for Supporting Actress)

  • Spielberg's biopic is such a lovingly detailed, layered, respectful, immersive work. It's a pity it has so many people actively campaigning against it - wait, that's against. I'll get there.
  • Pre-release, it was already considered a strong Best Picture contender, just based on calibre
  • Post-release (to critics), it had lived up to expectation, even exceeded it, and was cemented as a Best Picture contender
  • Post-release (to the public), the public loved it, earning it the highest box office of all the Best Picture contenders, the president loved it, screening it at the White House, Bill Clinton loved it, endorsing it at the Golden Globes
  • With 12 nominations, the most of all this year's contenders, the Academy clearly loved it.
  • If any director was to join ???, a??? and ??? in the distinction of having three Best Director Oscars, wouldn't you want it to be Spielberg?
  • A huge cast led by the brilliant and universally acclaimed Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones.
  • Jeff Wells, & a whole bunch of critics / bloggers actively campaigning against Lincoln, mainly on grounds of it being boring (regardless of its great box office)
  • The NY Times, at least for more ostensibly moral / historical reasons 
  • Spielberg already has two Oscars
  • Despite consistent nominations across the board, Lincoln has yet to win a major award outside of the acting races.
  • There's no way Tony Kushner should have lost the Scripter and Writer's Guild awards for his adapted screenplay. But he did. 
  • Although each of its 12 nominations are richly deserved, it is the frontrunner in only one - Best Actor. It's even only a strong threat in two - Best Supporting Actor and Best Director.

Les Miserables

Metacritic: 63 (Lowest)
US Box Office: $146 Million
8 Nominations: Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Music - Song, Production Design, Costumes, Make Up & Hair, Sound Mixing
Awards: Golden Globe Best Picture (Comedy / Musical) (Also every Best Supporting Actress award and Best Actor (Comedy / Musical) Golden Globe)

  • Pre-release expectations for Les Miserables were epic
  • Although divisive on release, those who loved it were giving tear-soaked standing ovations and declaring it the obvious, hands-down Best Picture winner.
  • Anne Hathaway's live, single-close-up-take rendition of I Dreamed a Dream is zeitgeist dynamite
  • Wolverine sings in a tenor and weeps, and wins a Golden Globe
  • Les Mis beat Silver Linings Playbook, which is understandable as the Globes are such suckers for Musicals they even nominated Mama Mia, but still significant, considering Playbook's general momentum
  • Wall to wall singing isn't everyone's cup of tea
  • Hooper's creative choices - mostly his preference for extended close-ups - have been criticised
  • The live singing trick has been as much criticised as celebrated; mostly it is celebrated in reference to Anne Hathaway & criticised in reference to Russell Crowe.
  • Hooper's snub in Best Director implies appreciation, but not passion, from the Academy

Silver Linings Playbook

Metacritic: 81
US Box Office: $103 Million
8 Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing
Awards: Golden Satellites Best Picture (and sweep)

  • It's this year's quirky little indie that could. Who can resist a quirky, crowd pleasing romantic comedy? Well, many, actually, but far many more ate it up hook line and sinker and those who really support it, really support it
  • No one really cares about the Golden Satellites, but when an indie comedy wins pretty much everything, people do notice, and wonder if the movie can repeat the trick elsewhere
  • Bradley Cooper - he of The Hangover - gives a career-changing performance, and instantly ups Oscar telecast ratings
  • Jennifer Lawrence's brilliant, sudden rise to the very top of the A-List with this & Hunger Games' $408 Million box office
  • David O'Russell's comeback - he fell badly out of favour when he screeched insane insults at Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees - yes, you can relive it here - and pissed off George Clooney by allegedly assaulting extras, but made a big comeback with 2010's The Fighter, earning universal praise, his first Best Director nomination and Oscars for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. That appreciation clearly remains, as he is the very unlikely recipient of a Best Director nomination over presumed frontrunners Kathryn Bigelow & Ben Affleck.
  • More than that, O'Russell has a great PR story, making no secret of the fact that he adapted Matthew Quick's book to make his son, who suffers from unspecified mental illness, feel he has a place in the world. Even I can't resist that story, and I only mostly like the film.
  • The film was nominated in every category it reasonable could have been - including each of the four acting categories: an honour it share with Sunset Blvd, A Streetcar Named Desire, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Network and, most recently, Reds (amongst others). The Academy clearly like this movie. A lot.
  • Dr Oz, who has helped lend the film a heft of seriousness as an important film about the stigmas around mental illness.  The jury's out on that one, but the speculation can't hurt it's Oscar campaign.
  • Don't tell anyone, but ultimately this is just a romantic comedy, which drops in quality somewhat in the second half. It's still a really good rom com, but as a film about mental illness it feels underdeveloped, and it may not hold up well as a Best Picture winner. 
  • Bradley Cooper gives a good performance, yes, but his portrayal of bi-polar highs and lows doesn't stand up against 10 minutes of Claire Danes in Homeland. Sorry bro.

Zero Dark Thirty

Metacritic: 95 (highest)
US Box Office: $90 Million
5 Nominations: Picture, Actress, Original Screenplay, Editing, Sound Editing
Awards: National Board of Review Best Picture, 10 Critics Groups' Best Picture

  • Still the best reviewed film of the year
  • Jessica Chastain's Maya remains one of the definitive screen characters of 2012 (okay that's just my opinion, but it will endure to be true. Just watch!)
  • Pre-release, Zero Dark Thirty was one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year and, post-critics-release, it didn't disappoint, being hailed almost universally as a masterpiece
  • Before the torture debate started, it was winning every single Critics Choice Award available, paving a seemingly unstoppable path to an Oscar clean sweep.
  • Even before the torture debacle really took off, the possibility of Bigelow joining the distinguished company of Frank Capra, Fred Zinneman, Robert Wise, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, David Lean, Milos Forman & Clint Eastwood as history's two-time Best Picture / Best Director winners - in the span of only three years no less - freaked people out. Some felt her career filmography simply doesn't warrant this kind of distinction, which is probably a fair point. Personally, I feel if she made the best movie of the year twice in a row, power to her. As for being distinguished by Oscars, Kevin Costner had one before Scorsese. Sandra Bullock has one, but Julianne Moore doesn't. Mira Sorvino has one, but Annette Bening doesn't. The list goes on. Career filmographies and Oscar wins are clearly separate things.
  • Then the torture debate began and things got really ugly. Bigelow & writer Mark Boal were accused of being pro-torture, the CIA was accused of sharing classified information and actors like Ed Asner & Martin Sheen (although he later clarified his position) actively campaigned against Zero Dark Thirty. It stopped winning awards and ended up nominated only in the most unavoidable fields.
  • Critics needing something new to vote for quickly bandied behind Argo, a lighter, happier, non-controversial middle eastern alternative to Zero Dark Thirty.
  • Its lack of nominations for Directing, Sound Mixing, Score and Cinematography are telling.

What will win: Argo
What should win: Zero Dark Thirty
What might win: Lincoln

After the cut, the Best Picture contenders ranked by Metacritic scores & Box Office:

Oscar - Main Categories

Best Picture:

This is an epic discussion. For once, it really will be a nail biter on Oscar night. Okay, it will probably be Argo, but I can't help hoping.

My full best picture breakdown will follow soon.

Best Director:

Michael Haneke - Amour
Ang Lee - Life of Pi
David O'Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin - Beasts of the Southern Wild

Anyone's guess. Had Ben Affleck nominated, he'd be your man, scooping up gold with Argo's unstoppable winning streak. Then again, had Ben Affleck nominated, he'd be the frontrunner, not the underdog, and his film arguably wouldn't be enjoying such an unstoppable winning streak. But then again, who knows? Even the British and the French awarded Argo over the other brilliant American films of 2012. Affleck being outside the race as he is, Best Director is wide open.

Let's presume Benh Zeitlin is the contender that's just happy to be there for his micro budget, breathtaking Beasts of the Southern Wild. That's one down.

David O'Russell seems the most lightweight contender, but his film has a fanatic support base that takes his quirky mental illness rom com very seriously indeed. It was fairly rapturously received by the Academy with not just nominations in the big four - Picture, Director, Editing and Screenplay - but every one of the four acting categories as well. His film is a strong contender for Best Actress and Supporting Actor and remains an outside threat for Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture - so a Best Director win is not out of the question. What he has going for him, other than an extremely popular film, is that, unlike Spielberg and Ang Lee, he has never won an Oscar and, unlike Haneke and Zeitlin, everybody knows and, surprisingly (given his notorious fallouts with Lily Tomlin and George Clooney), likes him. There could be a perception that he is due after not winning for The Fighter. What he has working against him is that every other director deserves it more. I just can't see Kathryn Bigelow being snubbed and David O'Russell winning. But stranger things have happened.

That leaves three distinguished directors at the top of their game: Spielberg, Ang Lee and Michael Haneke. Haneke would be the art house pick. He is a first-time contender with a respectable, distinct filmography whose film was a surprise hit with the Academy. His leading lady is a big threat to win Best Actress and he is all but guaranteed to win Best Foreign Language Film. There is no Oscar precedent for a Foreign Language Film actually winning Best Director (although they were fond of nominating Federico Fellini in the 60s and 70s), presumably cause it's hard to really notice the directing when you have to read all those damn words at the bottom of the screen. Technically The Artist was a french film, but not a language one, so it doesn't count. Haneke's films are also known to be cold and, while Amour isn't, it is uber sad, in a very detached, realistic way. 

Which leaves the more likely Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee. The Academy adored their films, adorning them with 12 and 11 nominations respectively. Both directors are previous winners who have lost Best Picture in legendary upsets. Both are also respected enough to warrant additional directing Oscars on their mantelpiece. With Argo the de facto Best Picture winner, however, both men would be winning detached Directing Oscars for the second time in their careers (Spielberg won Best Director for Saving Private Ryan when Shakespeare in Love took Best Picture, and Lee won Best Director for Brokeback Mountain while - shudder - Crash took Best Picture), which would be a curious distinction.

I favour Ang Lee for two reasons:
  1. Spielberg has two previous wins - for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. If the Academy is going to give him a third Director gong, it will be because they love Lincoln. And if they love Lincoln that much, it would win Best Picture as well. But given the Argo situation, that won't be happening, so I just don't see Lincoln winning an isolated Director Oscar. That is weird logic, I know, but there it is.
  2. Ang Lee has only one previous win, and it makes more sense for Life of Pi to win an isolated directing Oscar. Though it feels just a slight touch too lightweight to win Best Picture, it is an undeniable director's accomplishment - Lee balances epic spectacle with nuanced spiritual metaphors and gentle emotions and pulls off both with aplomb. His film is already likely to win 3 to 5 technical Oscars; adding Best Director to the list seems as plausible as anything, to me anyway.
Will win: Ang Lee
Should win: In this list? Probably Spielberg.
Could win: Michael Haneke

Best Actor:

Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
Denzel Washington - Flight

Hugh Jackman and Bradley Cooper are Box Office stars making good as legit Oscar Contenders, and are sure to secure good ratings for the Oscars Telecast. But neither hold a candle to Daniel Day-Lewis' landmark performance. That doesn't mean Bradley Cooper can't win. But I don't want to think about that. So let's move on.

Denzel Washington is a hugely accomplished actor turning in a great character study as a brilliant but reckless pilot struggling to face up to his alcoholism. In another year, he would be a strong contender to win. But even Denzel boozer redemption can't beat Daniel-Day Lewis channeling Abraham Lincoln.

Joaquin Phoenix is a sadly unpopular actor turning in a blazingly brilliant performance in a sadly unpopular film. His against-the-odds nomination (which should have been a slam dunk Day-Lewis threatener) is a testimony to the power of his performance, but sadly he's not currently likeable enough to give ol' Dan a run for his money.

Daniel Day-Lewis loses himself in his nuanced, gentle, funny, inspiring, unsentimental, intimate performance as probably America's greatest president since Josiah 'Jed' Bartlet. Even though this will be the THIRD Golden man Day-Lewis takes home (and remember how nearly he won for Gangs of New York), it seems nothing but logical to give him the prize. And although he has enjoyed a practically unbeaten winning streak so far, his win will still feel like a triumph rather than a bore. There is more than enough unpredictability elsewhere.

Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Could win: Bradley Cooper Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress:

Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts - The Impossible

An 85-year-old french woman, an indomitable 9-year-old, a bizarrely underappreciated Australian thesp and two rapidly rising stars battle it out for Best Actress.

Both Naomi Watts - as a real life Tsunami survivor and mother hanging on to life by a thread - and Jessica Chastain - transforming from a delicate, driven CIA operative to a fierce, relentless terrorist catcher over the span of ten years - should be strong contenders for the prize: Watts has been overlooked for years and Chastain has made herself impossible to ignore in the space of just 48 months.

Let's face it, though - Best Actress is now a two-horse race between the irresistible Jennifer Lawrence and the brilliant Emmanuelle Riva. With dozens of Critics awards to her name, a Golden Globe and the influential endorsement of the Screen Actors Guild, Lawrence has the clear edge to win for breathing new, unpredictable life and captivating energy into Tiffany, a typical tramp with a heart of gold. She's extremely funny, she's constantly surprising, and her emotional beats are genuinely touching. To add to that, Lawrence is young, hot, hard working and almost bizarrely level-headed (she took her parents to the SAG awards). She also owned the Box Office this year, headlining the Hunger Games franchise with another strong performance. Being likeable and owning the Box Office is a trick that worked wonders for Sandra Bullock just three ominous years ago, and Lawrence gives a better performance, although she has less industry cred. It also doesn't hurt having Harvey Weinstein backing your campaign.

But Emmanuelle Riva has an ace up her sleeve - simply the most breathtaking female performance of the year. She's been surprisingly overlooked in the awards race - sidelined by the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild in favour of hotter Frenchy Marion Cotillard - but those that have had the good sense to nominate her have also been smart enougn to let her win (with the exception of the Critics Choice Awards, who went with Jessica Chastain). The BAFTAs signalled her first victory directly against Lawrence and, sadly, she wasn't there to make an acceptance speech (a good speech does wonders for a campaign, and Lawrence gives great speeches). But BAFTA upsets are known for creating Oscar prescendents (see Marion Cotillard finally getting the edge over the great Julie Christie in 2008 or The Pianist suddenly becoming a real contender after winning big at the BAFTAs in 2003). The Oscars were one of the few awards bodies outside Europe to generously appreciate Amour with five nominations, so presumably enough Academy members actually saw Amour to know that no-one deserves it more than Riva. If they need more convincing, someone should mention that, if she wins, it will be on her 86th birthday and she will be handed the award by hugely charming frenchman Jean Dujardin. That's a better morning after story than Lawrence peaking at 22.

Will win: Emmanuelle Riva (I know I am voting against the odds, but what's the use of predicting the obvious?)
Should win: Emmanuelle Riva
Could win: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Supporting Actor:

Alan Arkin - Argo
Robert De Niro - Silver Linings Playbook
Phillip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained

Not since 1995 has this category been so hard to predict. That year, Brad Pitt had won the Golden Globe (12 Monkeys), Ed Harris the Screen Actors Guild (Apollo 13), Tim Roth the BAFTA (Rob Roy) and they all contended for the Oscar, which Kevin Spacey won (for his legendary performance in The Usual Suspects). The Academy made the right call and, to be fair, it was a plausible call after Spacey's good run with the Critics Awards.

This year, Christoph Waltz has the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, Tommy Lee Jones has the Screen Actors Guild, Phillip Seymour Hoffman won the Critics Choice, but nothing else, and is the only contender whose film isn't in the Best Picture race. Alan Arkin and Robert De Niro have no big wins (De Niro even lost the Golden Satellite, where Silver Linings Playbook cleaned out), but Arkin is the only acting nominee from the De Facto Best Picture frontrunner (and Screen Actors Guild ensemble winner) and De Niro is an Oscar veteren in a hugely popular film with more acting nominations than anything else.

For the first time in Oscar history, there is not a single first-time Oscar nominee among the Supporting Actor contenders, and - to up the stakes - each of these men have an Oscar on their mantelpiece already. Which makes for an interesting race.

Alan Arkin & Christoph Waltz are the most recent winners and, arguably, don't stray far from their previous winning roles. Waltz bested the strongly buzzed Leonardo DiCaprio to a supporting nod for Django, and it's easy to see why - he is the only sustainably likeable character in the film and has all the best dialogue (and he sure knows how to deliver Tarantino dialogue). He's brilliant, but his work is more subtle than in Inglorious Basterds and giving him another award for another Tarantino film so soon may feel like overkill. Arkin, on the other hand, has a tiny part in Argo, but all the best lines. He is reliably cranky and funny as a jaded Hollywood Producer and aces all his scenes, but he won just six years ago as the cranky, funny grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine, and he lacks the tender moments in Argo that he had in Little Miss Sunshine. The only reason to think he could win is that Argo is winning everything.

Hoffman is the only one in the bunch never to have won Supporting Actor, which seems an odd distinction to make since he did win Best Actor for Capote but, given that he is one of the most reliably brilliant and brilliantly reliable supporting actors in Hollywood, it seems only fair that he should have a Supporting Actor gong to go with his Capote gong. And there's no doubt he is deserving - his complex performance as a charismatic cult leader struggling to conceal - and deny - his own flaws and insecurities is easily the best in the category (although to be fair it is actually a lead performance). Sadly his film wasn't particularly embraced by the Academy and he feels destined to be an also-ran.

Tommy Lee Jones and Robert De Niro are probably the easiest to imagine as winners. The case for each of them:
Robert De Niro has been absent from the Oscar race for a good 21 years. And with good reason. The legendary actor has been making the worst movies of his career, one after the other. That he redeems himself in Playbook is significant, and welcome, but he hardly stretches himself far from the cantankerous father he played in the Meet the Parents movies. That being said, this is a strong supporting part, even if it doesn't live up to De Niro's best work (little could). He plays a difficult, superstitious OCD gambler, husband and father. His mental illness, unlike the cute, quirky variety afflicting Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, is genuinely unpleasant at times, and affords De Niro some good screen rants. More significantly, he also has tender moments with Bradley Cooper, even shedding a few tears, which are probably the bits that will earn him the win. He has won no prizes for this part, but Silver Linings Playbook is a hugely popular film, and De Niro is an Oscar legend who has been doing some solid campaigning. He hasn't won since 1981. A third Oscar seems plausible.

Tommy Lee Jones is great fun as the grumpy (seems to be a bit of a trend this year), acerbic Thaddeus Stevens, forced to publicly compromise his strong ideals to see his cause succeed. It's a meaty performance with some great lines, plenty of good laughs and a significant chunk of the film's climax. His sourpuss demeanour at the Golden Globes earned him momentary grumpy cat meme status, and he didn't show up to collect his award from the Screen Actors Guild. He doesn't seem too interested in campaigning for the award, which shouldn't make a difference but does. So who knows how this will turn out for him. If Lincoln does well, he'd be unstoppable, but that seems unlikely. He also turned in a strong performance opposite Meryl Streep in Hope Springs, which could count in his favour. He won supporting actor for The Fugitive in 1994 and was nominated once, for Lead Actor for In the Valley of Elah, since.
Will win: Robert De Niro
Should win: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Could win: Tommy Lee Jones

Best Supporting Actress:

Amy Adams - The Master
Sally Field - Lincoln
Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
Helen Hunt - The Sessions
Jacki Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook

Amy Adams is unsettlingly creepy as the devoted wife and disciple of Seymour Hoffman's cult leader - who may or may not be aware of the extraordinary power she wields over himSally Field redeems Mary Todd Lincoln from the footnotes of history, playing her in multiple shades of intelligence, social awareness, vigor, intelligence, obsession, barely suppressed hysteria and madness; Helen Hunt is brave, warm, honest and mostly nude as a compassionate sex surrogate (note, not a prostitute) and Jacki Weaver is the most lovable mother of the year, making crabby snacks and home mades as she quietly keeps her family of crazies together.

But Anne Hathaway has owned this Oscar from the moment the first Les Mis trailer showed her singing I Dreamed a Dream, with a shaved head, waning hope and plentiful supply of bitter tears. Her live singing, single take, close up performance of the song has almost become a cliché, but that shouldn't detract from the sheer power and force of her performance. It's a tricky thing to pull off and Hathaway is intensely mesmerising as she gives herself completely to the part she saw her mother perform on stage as a little girl. Tragic prostitute with a heart of gold who sings? No competition.

Will win: Anne Hathaway
Should win: Arguably, Sally Field
Could win: Highly unlikely, Sally Field

Best Original Screenplay:

Wes Anderson & Roman Coppolla - Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal - Zero Dark Thirty
John Gatins - Flight
Michael Haneke - Amour
Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained

Mark Boal may have won in 2010 for The Hurt Locker, but there's no one who deserves it more this year. His painstakingly, and controversially, researched procedural of the hunt for Bin Laden is nothing short of masterful. But sadly his film has suffered badly from the controversy surrounding it's depiction of torture. His recent win from the Writer's Guild may or may not have redeemed in but, sadly, Boal is not currently the frontrunner he should be.

John Gatins, an open former alcoholic, presumably poured much of his heart and soul into the story of a heroic pilot struggling to come to terms with his alcoholism. It's a strong character piece but likely not enough to wipe out the competition - where he goes up against three Best Picture nominees.

Wes Anderson is back in the Original Screenplay race, this time with Roman Coppolla, and his tale of troubled pre-teen lovers fleeing their small town angst is as tender as it is unpredictable. It's got all the usual Anderson trademarks - precocious children, emotionally stunted grown ups, random activities for Bill Murray - but touches on something enigmatically poignant.

Michael Haneke wrote and directed a spare, ferociously unsentimental portrait of a loving, complex elderly couple facing the realities of physical decay and death. It's a downer, but a touching one, and it has a lovely circular structure that echoes the way we tend to end life the same way we started.  

Which just leaves Tarantino's anarchic, post-modern take on American slavery. It's a conversation-starter, I'll give it that, and its red hot anger at America's sordid, lingering, past is seductive, but it's not the best Tarantino effort - it's overlong, indulgent and morally unsettling. From the film's opening scene it is clear that there is no moral higher ground here; in Tarantino'd bloodthirsty world the oppressed, given the chance, gleefully turn as sadistic and inhuman as their oppressors. That belies the phenomenal, unwarranted restraint with which Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela demanded rights for black citizens in America and South Africa respectively. But, you know, it's bold and it's funny and Tarantino lost to Mark Boal in 2010. Though this is a far less sophisticated script than Inglorious Basterds, conventional wisdom says the Oscar is Tarantino's to lose. I'm not convinced he won't, though. I just don't know who they're likely to prefer.

Will win: Mark Boal (again, I am voting against logic here)
Should win: Mark Boal
Could win: Michael Haneke

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Tony Kushner - Lincoln
David Magee - Life of Pi
David O'Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
Chris Terrio - Argo
Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar - Beasts of the Southern Wild

This one should be Tony Kushner's to lose - his detailed, thoughtful account of Lincoln's struggle to get slavery abolished in a country that didn't want to let it go is both a fascinating window on an amazing man and a time and place. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's definitive biography on Lincoln, Kushner's gorgeous dialogue illuminates ideas and dilemmas we should would do well to keep discussing today. It's a detailed labour of love that should easily win, but sadly there is the matter of:

Argo keeps winning everything. The Academy might resist the trend and vote otherwise, but groupthink is a powerful thing - if everyone else thinks something is that good, there must be something to it. There's nothing wrong with Chris Terrio's script. It's a near-perfect thriller blended with an unlikely Hollywood farce and it all happens to be true. Personally, the resolution was a bit too tidy for my liking, but it's good writing nonetheless. Doesn't mean it's the best, though.

David O'Russell is a big potential upset here, as he's made no secret of why he adapted Matthew Quick's novel - to make his son, who himself suffers from mental illness, feel like he has a place in the world. And it's a beguiling backstory that's hard to resist. It even makes you forget that this is basically an upgraded romantic comedy. But I guess there's nothing wrong with a good romantic comedy. Especially if it gives people hope.

David Magee beautifully distilled Yann Mantell's sleeper hit literary novel, and Benh Zeitlin crafted the most poetic script of the year from Lucy Alibar's play. But this is a three-way race:

Will win: Chris Terrio
Should win: Tony Kushner
Could win: David O'Russell

Best Editing:

William Goldenberg - Argo
Michael Kahn - Lincoln
Tim Squyres - Life of Pi
Jay Cassidy & Crispin Struthers - Silver Linings Playook
William Goldenberg & Dylan Tichenor - Zero Dark Thirty

I include Editing as a Main Category, rather than a technical one, as it so often has a direct bearing on the directing, and therefore the Best Picture, race.

William Goldenberg is a double nominee. Zero Dark Thirty is the film he should win for, Argo is the film he will win for. Simple as that. (Barring Lincoln, Life of Pi or Silver Linings Playbook taking over the Best Picture race).

Will win: William Goldernberg (Argo)
Should win: William Goldenberg & Dylan Tichenor (Zero Dark Thirty) 
Could win: Jay Cassidy & Crispin Struthers (Silver Linings Playook)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Oscar Technical Categories


Roger Deakins - Skyfall
Janusz Kaminski - Lincoln
Seamus McGarvey - Anna Karenina
Claudio Miranda - Life of Pi
Robert Richardson - Django Unchained

Claudio Miranda seems to have this category all but sewn up, with landmark work in a popular film, but surprises do happen - last year there was no film more jaw-droppingly visual than Tree of Life, but lenser Emmanuel Lubezki went home empty handed, losing his Oscar to two-time previous champ Robert Richardson for the lovingly rendered Hugo (hard not to be glad about that one). Life of Pi need not worry about any such upsets, though. Unlike divisive outsider Tree of Life, Pi is the second most nominated film at the Oscars, with no cause for backlash.

Miranda's only real competition is Skyfall's Roger Deakins, who has nine unsuccessful previous Oscar nominations to his legendary name. Deakins claimed the top prize from the American Society of Cinematographers, who would logically want to endorse traditional lensing, as opposed to Life of Pi's digitally enhanced approach. But the Academy has had no trouble embracing Virtual Cinematography with Avatar and even, to an extent, Hugo. Statistically, the odds in this category are always in favour of the Best Picture nominee, which also gives Miranda the edge over Deakins.

The other nominees are last year's winner Robert Richardson, for Django Unchained, frequent Spielberg collaborator (and two-time winner, for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan) Janusz Kaminski and Seamus McGarvey, who probably made a strong bid for the prize for 2008's Atonement, but is unlikely to have enough momentum to pull off a surprise win for this year's divisive Anna Karenina. 

Conclusion: Roger Deakins is a living legend and turned in probably the most beautiful action film ever, but Life of Pi remains the most talked about visual achievement of the year.

Will win: Life of Pi
Should win: Skyfall
Could win: Skyfall

Original Score

Mychael Danna - Life of Pi

Alexandre Desplat - Argo
Dario Marianelli - Anna Karenina
Thomas Newman - Skyfall
John Williams - Lincoln

Though a respectable list, some of the year's best scores (The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty) have been sadly left off, but I will surely rant and rave about that elsewhere. For now, who among the safe five will claim the prize?

Like Skyfall cinematographer Roger Deakins, Thomas Newman has ten nominations to his name (think Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty and WallE), with no wins. Newman's Skyfall score is probably the most urban and inventive of the five, but his layered, urban action score is unlikely to bag him the big prize, although BAFTA thought otherwise, so he remains a threat.

Alexandre Desplat has five unsuccessful prior nominations and scored no less than nine films in 2012, including Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Moonrise Kingdom, Ruse and Bone and Rise of the Guardians. Two of these went on to be Best Picture nominees and he is nominated for the de facto Best Picture winner, Argo. Seems like a logical winner, but his vibey, suspenseful, sometimes sentimental middle eastern score simply isn't his most distinctive work.

Dario Marianelli is a recent winner for Atonement (swoon), while Spielberg staple - and five-time winner (from 48 nominations) John Williams delivered a spare, dignified score with playful Southern hayseed interludes which is surprisingly fun, but only stands any chance of winning if Lincoln sweeps. And let's not get our hopes up.

Which leaves Mychael Danna, channeling whimsical wonder, danger and Parisian / Indian vibes for Ang Lee's Life of Pi. The Oscar is his to lose.

Will win: Mychael Danna - Life of Pi
Should win: Thomas Newman - Skyfall
Could win: Alexandre Desplat - Argo

Production Design & Set Decoration:

Anna Karenina
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Miserables
Life of Pi

A bunch of good eggs. Anna Karenina takes literal the Shakespeare adage that all the world is a stage and lets the great Russian melodrama play off entirely in sets constructed inside an old theater.

There is similar innovation in Les Miserables, which strikes a careful balance between realism and stylised theatrical sets to evoke 19th century France.

The Hobbit initially covers the same Shire ground as the Lord of the Rings trilogies, but soon explores brand new forests, Goblin caves and VIP sections of Rivendell in gorgeous detail, not to mention the awesome art-deco-ish designs of the lost Dwarf mountain kingdom. While much of The Hobbit's execution is CGI, the design remains breathtaking.

Life of Pi may seem an odd pick, considering it's mostly the story of a dude and a tiger in a boat, but the production design is a significant layer to the visual experience that is Life of Pi. Those ocean scenes were filmed in a giant water tank with bluescreen backdrops before the digital awesomeness was added; the meerkat island scenes were first filmed in a Taiwanese Banyan tree reserve before CGI rounded it out and the gorgeous scenes in Parisian India themselves leave plenty to ogle. 

Finally, Lincoln plays off in beautiful, fanatically detailed historical sets filled with significant character and period detail that helps transport us back to a critical moment in history.

So who wins? Hard to say. The Art Directors Guild divide their awards into Contemporary, Period and Sci Fi / Fantasy categories and awarded Skyfall, Anna Karenina and Life of Pi respectively. The BAFTAs went with Les Miserables, the Golden Satellites went with Lincoln and the Critics Choice chose Anna Karenina. 

Karenina would appear to be the logical frontrunner (and could tie in nicely with its expected Costume Design win), but that could all change if Life of Pi, or Les Miserables, sweep the technical awards. Or Lincoln sweeps in general. But let's not get out hopes up.

Will win: Anna Karenina
Should win: Anna Karenina 
Could win: Life of Pi 


Jacqueline Durran - Anna Karenina
Paco Delgado - Les Miserables
Joanna Johnston - Lincoln
Eiko Ishioka - Mirror Mirror
Colleen Attwood - Snow White and the Huntsman

The inclusion of both Snow White movies is refreshing and a welcome departure from the Best Picture race. Snow White and the Huntsman's Colleen Attwood is the veteran of the category, with nine previous nominations and three wins to her name. Charlize Theron spent not a moment of the film looking less than awesome but, suffice it to say, Huntsman as a whole isn't exactly the pinnacle of Attwood's career.

Mirror Mirror's Eiko Ishioka has won previous nomination - and win - a full twenty years ago for Bram Stoker's Dracula. Mirror Mirror seems like the featherweight in the race, but its costumes are the most inventive of the bunch and Ishioka is a distinctive talent (with notable work for Tarsem Singh and Bjork) who passed away in January 2012. If anyone could pull off a surprise win, it's Ishioka. You never count out the film with the Queen.

Joanna Johnston is a first time nominee for her detailed period costumes for Lincoln. Other than Sally Field's suitably flashy get ups, her costuming is mostly on the understated side and, while they are gorgeously effective, flashy tends to win in this category. Flashy Queens.

Paco Delgado is another first-time nominee, producing stylised costumes for a huge cast that evoke the stage without pushing the point. While his Les Mis costumes certainly don't lack flash and colour, they're more on the gaudy squalor side of things, as the story demands, which is why Anna Karenina has the edge.

This is Jacqueline Durran's third nomination for her outstanding work on Joe Wright's period films (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement). Anna Karenina is gorgeous eye candy, with the costumes easily holding their own alongside the Oscar-nominated sets and lensing. With the most lavish, opulent period costumes for a large cast, Anna Karenina seems easily the frontrunner, challenged only by the inventive Mirror Mirror.

Anna Karenina and Mirror Mirror were each honoured by the Costume Designers Guild (in the Period and Fantasy fields, respectively), but Mirror Mirror failed to be nominated at the BAFTAs or the Critics Choice Awards, both of which Anna Karenina won. Mirror Mirror did, however, prevail over Karenina at the Golden Satellites. But who cares about the Satellites? The strongest case for Mirror Mirror is that the movie with the Queen in it is usually the winner.

Will win: Anna Karenina
Should win: Anna Karenina
Could win: Mirror Mirror

Make Up & Hairstyling

Les Miserables
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Squalid 19th Century Parisian suffering, Middle Earth and 1950s Hollywood. Singing squalor wins.

Will win: Les Miserables
Should win: Les Miserables 
Could win: The Hobbit

Visual Effects:

Life of Pi
The Avengers
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Snow White and the Huntsman

Who are we kidding? Life of Pi has already made it into the Visual Effects annuls. On top of that, it's the only Best Picture nominee in the list. It has had a virtually perfect winning streak so far (barring the odd Golden Satellites award for Flight, not nominated here). Think leaping whales, epic boat sinkings and Richard Parker. It's in the bag.

Will win: Life of Pi
Should win: Life of Pi
Could win: Avengers

Sound Editing:

Life of Pi
Django Unchained
Zero Dark Thirty

The Sound Editing award is for the sourcing and recording of original sounds for a film. War and action films tend to dominate. Expect the prize to go to one of the Motion Picture Sound Editors winners - Skyfall or Life of Pi. 

Will win: Life of Pi
Should win: Zero Dark Thirty
Could win: Skyfall

Sound Mixing:

Life of Pi
Les Miserables

Sound Mixing, on the other hand, is the art of taking available sounds (including those created by the sound mixing team) and blending them together into the film's scenes for optimum effect. Musicals almost always dominate this category when they are in the running, and Les Miserables is particularly worthy as it blends live singing with separately recorded orchestral arrangements for wall-to-wall singing. It also has the Cinema Audio Society's Award, and the BAFTA to its name. In the bag.

Will win: Les Miserables
Should win: Les Miserables
Could win: Life of Pi

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Life of Pi and the matter of Virtual Cinematography

With Life of Pi all but sweeping the year's cinematography awards, and expected to take the Oscar on 24 February as well, I'm struggling to make peace with the odd idea of virtual cinematography being honoured over traditional lensing. I appreciate the need for virtual cinematography and certainly admire its results - the visual awesomeness of Avatar, Tron Legacy and Life of Pi is undeniable - but where is the line between Cinematography and Visual Effects?

There's no doubt that Life of Pi is the visual movie event of the year, but to see the prize for best lensing go to a digitally manufactured product is odd. In the past few years, it has been the Academy's preference: Avatar winning for an almost entirely virtual world in 2010, Hugo (with its virtually filled in cityscapes) beating the jaw dropping photography of Tree of Life in 2011. It could be that both those films were simply more popular than their contenders, but it's interesting how easily the Academy has embraced the reliance on CGI in this most essentially cinematic craft.

The acting fields are notoriously resistant to motion-capture performance (Andy Serkis, in particular, has been repeatedly snubbed for his groundbreaking work as Gollum, King Kong and Caesar in The Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit, King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, respectively), even though the primary work is done by an actor and only digitally adapted in post-production (much like the seascapes of Life of Pi). Somehow they still see Gollum and Caesar as a Visual Effects achievement, rather than an acting one. Any arguments about unfair disadvantages from digitally "enhanced" acting count just as strongly against virtual cinematography.

Of course, digitally enhanced cinematography isn't a new phenomenon. Back in 2001, Bruno Delbonnel was one of the first to use computers to enhance the hues and tones of his footage in post-production for Amélie. But is it cheating, or at least an unfair advantage? Perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps it's just how the industry is changing. When it comes to complex, effects-driven 3D films like Avatar or Life of Pi, digital enhancement is a fairly logical extension of the filming process, but when it comes to handing out little gold men for the year's best representation of the Cinematographer's trade, what are Cinematographers awarded for? Lighting? Composition? Movement? Visual metaphor? Mood? Technical dexterity or innovation? Getting the right angle on a gorgeous landscape? Of course it depends from film to film. So when a film and story like Life of Pi is so reliant on the poetry of its visuals, a cinematographer who rises to the occasion, with or without the help of computers, to deliver what his director envisions is one worth awarding (although I'd argue we'd be falling over ourselves in a whole different way if he did it without the computers).

So if the visual design and execution and effect is what we're awarding, regardless of how the cinematographer got there, why not recognise some of the incredible landscapes created by Pixar in recent years? The great (Oscarless) Roger Deakins, for example, consulted on the "cinematography" of Wall-E, advising the technical team on effective lighting and realistic camera movement (to create a more immersive cinematic experience with all the authentic bumps and shakes of a real camera). There's no denying the visual beauty of a film like WallE, or the technical brilliance of the underwaterscapes in Finding Nemo (which go to great pains to capture the light and shade of an ocean backdrop). So what sets WallE apart from Life of Pi, or even Avatar, where a large chunk of the film is digitally animated?

While we're at it, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland won an Oscar for its Production Design, even though much of the execution was digital. Burton Produced Nightmare Before Christmas, on the other hand, features iconic, influential sets as tangible as the chair you're presumably sitting on, only miniature. But what did it contend for at the Oscars? Visual Effects. Once again, WallE features impeccably designed sets, but you'd barely see it contend for them. And while inserting a photo-real (for back then) Gollum into an actual real life background will win you a Visual Effects Oscar, placing animated fish into a photo-real (if mildly stylised) ocean backdrop will not even get you nominated. But perhaps I am splitting hairs.

So what's the distinction? Does it only count as cinematography or production design if it features at least some real actors? Perhaps the distinction is the real collaboration between two worlds - it's okay that Avatar or Life of Pi were largely finished on computers, because they started on real sets, with real cameras, even if just for the bones of the eventual visuals. For Pixar, it's all computer. Perhaps that is a fair distinction.

On Oscar night, both Claudia Miranda and the Visual Effects team will pick up Oscars for their respective contributions to the film's astounding visuals. And power to them. Digital enhancement is here to stay and, if it  ups our movie going & movie making experience, let's embrace it (even if it means Roger Deakins goes home empty handed, again).

While we're at it, let's take a look at some of the good old-fashioned camera work that was overlooked by the Academy this year, after the cut: