American Gangster – Arthur Max, Beth A. Rubino
Atonement – Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
The Golden Compass – Dennis Gassner, Anna Pinnock
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo
There Will Be Blood – Jack Fisk, Jim Erickson
Will win: For the record – and I sort of alluded to this earlier, but you, er, might have skipped over it – “art direction” is a fancy way of referring to a movie’s physical production design, namely its stages and sets. The award is also sometimes dubbed “art direction / set decoration”, just to make things extra confusing.
Anyway, I think the logic here is pretty simple: Any time there are two dueling Oscar heavyweights and you have a category in which only one is included, that one is probably going to win. Call it the Theory of Duelality. Get it, duel-ality instead of duality? Never mind.
In terms of the other contenders, the odds of either American Gangster or The Golden Compass winning roughly equal the odds of my buddy Mike passing up a contested three-pointer on the break. Atonement shouldn’t be discounted entirely, given its Best Picture nomination, but I don’t see it as much of a threat. Sweeney Todd is probably the only legitimate challenger, if only because its sets made London look so freaking evil.
But it didn’t feature anything as iconic as that flaming oil derrick. There Will Be Blood takes it.
Should win: The nomination for American Gangster really confuses me. It’s as if voters said to themselves, “O.K., the movie isn’t great, so we can’t nominate it for anything really important, but it’s damn entertaining, so let’s just throw it into a random category – I know, how about Art Direction!”. Nothing about the film’s production design is remotely memorable. Moronic. (Someday we’re going to make the Academy enforce membership standards by requiring members to submit a write-up explaining all of their choices for nominees. And yes, the Manifesto would absolutely be my meal ticket. Come on, you’re telling me the Oscar selectors couldn’t use some pretentious young blood?)
(And yes, I know, the Academy did nominate American Gangster for something significant: Ruby Dee for Best Supporting Actress. But I’m trying to pretend that didn’t happen.)
The Golden Compass has some nice sets, but I remember it more for its impressive visuals, earnest attitude, and sagging story. The mansion in Atonement is majestic, but it could serve as the setting for any period love story; the movie will be immortalized, but not because of its production design.
That leaves Sweeney Todd versus There Will Be Blood (hmm, I’ll probably get my throat cut either way, won’t I?), and I’ll go against the grain here and take the barber over the oil baron. Most of the majesty of There Will Be Blood’s visuals derive from the movie’s sense of vastness, its great open terrain. In contrast, Sweeney Todd’s grimy alleyways and shadowed rooms feel glutted and overflowing. The former might be more impressive photographically, but the latter has the superior hallmarks of shrewd, inventive production design.
(Admit it: You’re proud of me for not just writing that “Sweeney Todd wins by a shave”. I do what I can for my readers; besides, I don’t need puns, my wit is already razor-sharp.)
I Am Legend. Huge omission here. A post-apocalyptic tale of the last man on earth, I Am Legend’s first act works precisely because of its extraordinary vision of an empty, desolate New York City. The opening scene, in which Will Smith drives for what seems to be miles down empty roads in search of game, is a splendid introduction to the barrenness and solitude of this new age of men (man?). Few movies depend so much on the exactness of their locations, and few highlight that exactness with such splendid effect.
300. I didn’t like 300 nearly as much as most people did. It was loud (which I’m O.K. with), sort of pointless (which is a little irritating), and generally boring (the last straw). But its postmodern representation of Sparta was pretty fucking cool. With its immense mountains and foreboding buildings presented in dusky, smoky hues, the movie showed us a place of virile men, spirited women, and the palpable stench of death. Call it a hunch, but I do not think I would not have done well in ancient Sparta.