Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscars Analysis 2009: Director; Picture; Prediction roundup

This is it. For the convenience of my devoted readership who may or may not have skipped my prior analysis, I'm including a summary of all of my predictions at the end of this post. Now let's get to the two most important awards of the night.

Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
James Cameron – Avatar
Lee Daniels – Precious
Jason Reitman – Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino – Inglourious Basterds

Battle of the Exes! Although as battles go, this duel between former spouses Bigelow and Cameron is about as one-sided as the swordfight in Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Wait, have I used that clip before? I don't care, it's still awesome.) Cameron may be King of the World, but Bigelow is Queen of the Academy's Castle, at least for this year. Not only is she poised to become the first woman ever to win Best Director, but she's doing it by making a movie as electrically tense as any action film of the year. Technically, I suppose it's possible that voters have tired of the spousal warfare, meaning Tarantino could be a sleeper here, but I think members will content themselves voting for his screenplay. For his part, Cameron will have to content himself with counting his $700 million. Kathryn Bigelow takes the prize.


Daniels' nomination is the only one with which I actively disagree – his attempts to jazz up the drudgery of Precious with bursts of fantasy rang wholly false to me. The remaining four filmmakers, however, all exert sure command over their respective pictures. Tarantino is best known for his irreverent verbiage, but he shows on occasion in Inglourious Basterds that he can arrest our attention with his camera as well as his pen; the movie's first scene is one of the most riveting cinematic moments of the year. In a similar vein, Reitman has established himself as an auteur of smart, mellifluous films, the most distinctive feature of which is their snappy dialogue, but he brings an assured alacrity to Up in the Air, perfectly capturing the rhythms and cadences of the frequent-flying world. And over The Hurt Locker's first hour, Bigelow stages one exhilarating set piece after another, ratcheting up the suspense with meticulous camera angles and crisp cutting.

But she doesn't show us something we've never before seen, and that's what James Cameron does with Avatar. People go to the movies for many reasons, but my favorite is to experience awe. In creating a wondrous new world of epic majesty, Cameron delivers that awe. With both technical exactitude and sprawling ambition, he transports viewers out of their seats and into his own fastidiously detailed imagination. What more can we ask?


Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
James Cameron – Avatar
Tony Gilroy – Duplicity
Marc Webb – (500) Days of Summer
David Yates – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Comments: If Bigelow and Cameron reaffirmed their status as veteran masters, Gilroy solidified his entrance into the top echelon of contemporary filmmakers with an exquisitely precise second feature that's nearly as perfect as his first (the flawless Michael Clayton). As a debut director, Webb takes a number of daring, potentially ill-advised chances that smack of inexperience; the startling thing is that they all work. (Next up for him: A reboot of Spider-Man.) And Yates continues to apply his own distinct stamp of gnawing paranoia to the Harry Potter franchise, deepening the series' darkness and dread while also implementing some light comedic grace notes with a feathery touch.


Michael Mann – Public Enemies. As far as Michael Mann movies go, Public Enemies can't quite join his top tier, but it nevertheless features his usual virtuoso workmanship, most notably in the brilliantly orchestrated "Lady in Red" sequence just prior to its conclusion.

Sam Raimi – Drag Me to Hell. You'll never hear me criticize Raimi for joining the mainstream and helming my beloved Spider-Man movies, but there's also something undeniably pleasurable about seeing an old-school horror director return to his roots, especially when he's so clearly enjoying himself.

Jim Sheridan – Brothers. Sheridan is a filmmaker who understands the dynamic of the family, and in a superb scene at a dinner party, he emphasizes lingering silence and askance glances in a brilliant buildup of tension.

Tom Tykwer – The International. The script is a bit disastrous, but Tykwer knows how to stage a spectacular action sequence, especially when that sequence takes place in the Guggenheim.

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

This was all set up to be marvelously easy. And then this happened.

Look, I don't pretend to be an Academy insider. I have no detailed knowledge about the torturous behind-the-scenes campaigning process. But I do know these three things:

1. The Academy takes itself – and therefore its rules – very, very seriously.

2. On February 19, Nicolas Chartier, a producer of The Hurt Locker, sent an email to Academy members that was in clear violation of campaigning rules. The email explicitly urged members to vote for The Hurt Locker and obliquely belittled Avatar. As a result of the email, the Academy barred Chartier from attending the ceremony.

3. According to the Los Angeles Times, over 600 Academy members (more than 10% of the membership) turned in their ballots on the final day of voting, well after Chartier sent his nefarious email.

So, not to turn into Hubie Brown or anything, but what does this mean?

Well, in all honesty, we don't know. Before EmailGate (ugh, I hate "gates"), The Hurt Locker was the consensus frontrunner, not least because of the fantastically complicated preferential voting system that I described in some detail here. The operating rationale was that, even if The Hurt Locker failed to rank at the very top of most ballots, it was likely to be in the top three, whereas a more polarizing picture such as Avatar might find itself on the lower half of a significant number of ballots and therefore out of luck.

But now what? Did Chartier's email – admittedly sent in blatant disregard of clear-cut campaigning rules – really affect the thinking of the fuddy-duddy Academy members? And if so, by how much? Did they shift The Hurt Locker down one or two slots, or did they shunt it all the way to the back of the pack? And perhaps most importantly, as Alec Baldwin astutely asked in The Departed: "Cui bono? Who benefits?" And while I'd love to imitate Matt Damon's response – "Cui gives a shit, it's got a freaking bow on it" – the Best Picture race sadly no longer has a freaking bow on it.

So who does benefit? True, Chartier's email does take the form of a snide, petty attack on Avatar, but I have a hard time imagining voters sliding Cameron's behemoth a few notches up their ballots simply because it suffered a bit of intra-industry criticism. More likely, the major benefactors will be films that were lurking on the outside, waiting patiently for an opening. Specifically, I'm speaking of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and – in a scenario that would surely induce apoplexy on the part of some Academy members – Pixar's Up. Both of those are generally well-liked films that, until now, lacked the springboard to leap into high-level contention. (Strangely, I don't think Up in the Air will receive an analogous benefit, simply because its buzz has all but evaporated.)

Of course, the key question isn't whether or not Chartier's email negatively impacted The Hurt Locker's chances, but by how much. Sadly, all I can do is speculate. The preferential voting system, EmailGate, the switch to 10 nominees – there are just too many damn variables. My process of prophesying the Oscars is thoroughly scientific: I examine historical trends, look at the precursor awards, analyze the industry buzz, and then make an informed prediction. But this year, those procedural tenets have been stripped away, and I'm left stumbling around like Eliza Dushku in "Dollhouse", wondering if I just fell asleep.

(Wait, I probably shouldn't be making "Dollhouse" analogies, given that nobody watched it even though it was the best show on TV besides "Mad Men". O.K. fine, I'm left sitting all alone on a park bench, my identity crumbled around me, like Pacino at the end of Godfather II. There.)

But so it goes. And in a weird way, it's refreshing to have a little zest back in the Best Picture race, which hasn't been this exciting since 2006, when The Departed righteously held off Little Miss Sunshine. As a result of the described shenanigans, I'll actually be leaning forward in my seat when the final envelope is opened tonight, and it's hard to be disappointed about that.

Right, as for my actual pick, it really comes down to this question: Do I honestly believe that EmailGate significantly impacted the minds of Academy members? Better question: "You see me doing thrill-seeking liquor store holdups with a 'Born to Lose' tattoo on my chest?" Answer: No I do not. I'll take The Hurt Locker.


Egads, 10 nominees! Looks like we'd better break this down via the old tiering system:

Tier 5: This movie is, in fact, not a good movie. Look, I didn't despise The Blind Side the way some people did. I even enjoyed parts of it. But I remain convinced that it is in no way a good film. It is cloying, predictable, and shamelessly manipulative. It is not an appropriate Oscar nominee; indeed, with the possible exceptions of Crash and Gosford Park, it is the worst Best Picture nominee of the decade. So, no, I do not think it should win.

Tier 4: Fun but flawed. If District 9 hadn't collapsed into rote action sequences in its final third, it might have made my top five of the year. Even so, it's a superlative example of immersive, iconoclastic filmmaking, with a sure sense of time and place. A Serious Man constitutes another fascinating effort from the Coen Brothers, but while it features inspired acting and impeccable craft, it occasionally veers into ego masturbation. Inglourious Basterds, more so than any other 2009 film, is one I feel the need to see again. On my first viewing, I grew restless with is turgid pacing and shameless self-indulgence, but it's lingered in my memory, and it clearly bears the autograph of a signature filmmaker.

Tier 3: Your movie is pretty good. Thanks for coming.
Precious is at times a ruthlessly compelling drama about the brutality of poverty, but it's oddly inconsistent in tone, and that confusion muddles its lasting impact. An Education is a better film overall, nary striking a wrong note and featuring a breakout performance. It isn't overly memorable, but that's less an indicator of failure than a hallmark of its modesty.

Tier 2: Up. Up!

Tier 1: The cream of Oscar's crop. Back in 2007, I experienced a strange sensation of contentment heading into the Oscar telecast because I thoroughly liked all of the Best Picture nominees and would have been satisfied with a victory from any of them. Such comfort is unlikely to avail itself again in the future (especially if the Academy sticks with its 10 nominees), but as long as any of the trio of Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and Up in the Air take home a trophy, I'll be happy. One a cinematic marvel, the second an intimately gritty war thriller, the third a searching exploration of modern American life, all are truly excellent movies.

But wait, you think I'm just going to leave it at that? Maybe I would if I were a communist, but in my country, it's all about winning – that's why it's called Best Picture. And for an illustration of my pick for Best Picture, let's turn to a conversation I had with my Dad last night. He told me he was receiving Precious shortly on Netflix, and we debated whether or not he should see it with my Mom, given its intense subject matter. (Verdict: no.) The conversation then turned to another movie he's acquiring via Netflix, namely Up in the Air, and whether my Mom would want to watch that one. His assessment:

"That she can definitely see. I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't want to see it. It's just such an enjoyable movie."

Quite right, Professor. And that's why Up in the Air is my Best Picture of 2009.


Though I know my readership is clamoring for my own Best Picture ballot, you'll have to wait for my upcoming post where I reveal my Top 10 of 2009. Don't fret, it's coming.

Some years ago, when the Manifesto appeared in annualized form rather than a series of blog posts, my friend Stacy kindly suggested to me that I might want to send out a condensed version, where I enumerated my picks for each category. My response at the time: "What would be the point? Then everyone would miss all the fun stuff."

Stacy, it turns out, had a point, as it's possible that some readers might, ahem, skim over some of my more descriptive prose and instead simply tune in for the bold strokes. So, in that spirit, below are my predictions for all 21 categories for this year's Academy Awards (remember, I'm excluding the three short subjects because even I don't care about those). I hope everyone's enjoyed the coverage this year, and enjoy tonight's telecast.

The Big Eight
Picture: The Hurt Locker
Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious
Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Adapted Screenplay: Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

The "Major" Technical Awards
Cinematography: Avatar
Art Direction/Set Decoration: Avatar
Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
Visual Effects: Avatar
Original Score: Up

The Rest
Costume Design: The Young Victoria
Makeup: Star Trek
Original Song: Crazy Heart ("The Weary Kind" by Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett)
Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker
Sound Editing: Avatar
Documentary: The Cove
Foreign Language Film: A Prophet
Animated Feature: Up

Oscars Analysis 2009: The Acting Categories

Want suspense? Look somewhere else. It's a shame, but of the four acting categories in this year's Oscar race, three are completely sewn up, while the fourth is hardly a tossup. And while this means I can comfortably pad my prediction stats, it sadly removes any element of intrigue from what are usually among the ceremony's most intriguing races.

But such is life. Besides, given the sudden drama developing in the Best Picture race (more on that in my next post), it's rather soothing to be on such firm footing. Let's get to it.

Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart
George Clooney – Up in the Air
Colin Firth – A Single Man
Morgan Freeman – Invictus
Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker

For the majority of 2009, this appeared to be George Clooney's award to lose. Then Fox Searchlight had an epiphany when it recognized this formula: "Long-beloved actor" + "Inspired, heartfelt performance" + "Zero current Oscar wins" = TROPHY. I'm speaking, of course, of Jeff Bridges and his performance in Crazy Heart, which wasn't even supposed to be released until 2010 before the studio wised up and plunked it into theatres in mid-December. Since then, Bridges has been dominant on the circuit, winning at both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors' Guild, as well as a panoply of other critics' groups. Those desperate for an upset could look to Jeremy Renner under the theory that The Hurt Locker will sweep all of the major awards, but Bridges – a four-time Oscar loser – has been awaiting this moment for nearly 40 years. Factoring in that lifetime achievement angle, you can't deny the simple truth: The Dude abides.


Given the pervasive depth of talent among actors in today's cinema, it's become almost impossible for the Academy to bollocks up this category; this year is no exception, as these are all fine performances, and all superlative examples of self-control. I think Bridges' work has been a tad overpraised (similar to Mickey Rourke's performance last year in The Wrestler, a film to which Crazy Heart inevitably compares), but it remains a soulful, deeply affecting performance. His country crooning is effortlessly authentic, while he doesn't overplay the demons tearing at his soul, shading his character with both humor and remorse.

In adopting the accent and cadence of Nelson Mandela's speech patterns, Morgan Freeman could have delved too far into linguistic showmanship, but he wisely keeps a piece of Mandela withdrawn from his audience, only hinting at the unmistakable pain and regret the beloved leader must have carried with him. There's a wonderfully sad moment when a subordinate asks him how his family is doing, and as he responds ("I have a very large family – 42 million"), his eyes take on a haunted thousand-yard stare. It isn't an overly memorable performance, but that's exactly the way it should be.

Colin Firth, that paragon of British restraint and refinement, brings some much-needed discipline to Tom Ford's otherwise wildly undisciplined A Single Man. Firth recently bemoaned that his incarnation of Mr. Darcy in the BBC's "Pride & Prejudice" will forever overshadow his remaining work, and there's certainly an element of Darcy's fierce pride on display here. But as George Falconer, Firth reveals a far more tragic figure – removed, troubled, disgusted with his own superiority. We can never quite get inside George' head, but that's because he's made it his business of fortifying himself from the world, and Firth refuses to sentimentalize George's existential predicament.

As bomb disarmament technician Will James in The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner portrays a potential stereotype: the lone wolf who breaks all the rules. But though James may be a virtuoso, Renner doesn't play him as a preening showoff. It's more as if James can't help his own gung-ho tendencies, and that ingenuousness provides both the character and the performance with a sense of natural artistry. There's a late scene in the film where someone asks James how he can do what he does, and James can't really answer him; he just does it. Same for Renner.

But if I'm forced to pick a winner, I'll unsurprisingly select George Clooney for his magnificent performance in Up in the Air. I've often been accused of possessing a man-crush on George Clooney, a charge to which I'll happily concede – few movie stars are more consistently compelling on screen. As Ryan Bingham, it initially appears that Clooney is in cruise control, secure in his dominion of the lesser mortals of the world, and it's difficult to distinguish the actor from the character. But as the film unfolds, Bingham's carefully constructed façade of invincibility begins to crack ever so slightly. Clooney doesn't push it; the disintegration of one's identity doesn't happen in a flash. Instead he gradually reveals Bingham's emotional vulnerability, exposing the need for human connection that has lain dormant his entire life. The last scene of Up in the Air features one of the most beautifully written voiceovers I've ever heard, and Clooney delivers it with an agonizing combination of quiet pain and muted acceptance. In a movie replete with snappy one-liners and crackling wit, it's these moments of bare humanity that make it immortal.


George Clooney – Up in the Air
Sharlto Copley – District 9
Tobey Maguire – Brothers
Souleymane Sy Savane – Goodbye Solo
Michael Stuhlbarg – A Serious Man

Comments: My thoughts on Clooney are known, and while he's the lone actual Oscar nominee who appears on my ballot, that's less an indictment of the Academy's choices than an indication of the wide-ranging excellence among lead actors in 2009. Copley takes his character's transformation from twitchy, eager bureaucrat to, well, something else (I won't spoil it, though the trailer certainly does), and makes it grippingly real. Maguire continues to expand his range, portraying a soldier capable of both quiet warmth and explosive rage. Savane's bubbly enthusiasm informs Goodbye Solo with an infectious optimism that belies its depressing story. And Stuhlbarg, as the Coen Brothers' de facto Job, absorbs blow after hilarious blow of humiliation with mounting exasperation ("He didn't look busy!").


(As I've said, it was quite a year for actors, and while these performances didn't quite crack my ballot, they were nevertheless highly memorable. Note that I don't consider actual Oscar nominees in the "deserving" section, only on the ideal ballot. Trust me, it makes sense. At least in my head.)

Nicolas Cage – Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans. Nicolas Cage has never been the most subtle actor around, but damn can he be fun to watch.

Russell Crowe – State of Play. Another movie, another unnervingly excellent performance from Russell Crowe. Ho hum.

Matt Damon – The Informant! I'm not sure I'd call this the performance of Damon's career as some have (I'd still go with The Talented Mr. Ripley), but it's a terrifically cagey piece of work.

Robert de Niro – Everybody's Fine. It's been awhile since de Niro has delivered a truly compelling dramatic performance (since Ronin in 1998, actually), which makes this quiet, self-searching turn all the more welcome.

Johnny Depp – Public Enemies. There's a moment early in Public Enemies where Johnny Depp, putting the moves on Marion Cotillard, suddenly and electrically takes total command of the film: "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you. What else you need to know?" Not a thing.

Robert Downey, Jr. – The Soloist
. Iron Man himself deservedly earned positive notices for his titular performance in Sherlock Holmes, but it was this portrayal of an opportunistic, self-loathing journalist that really stuck with me.

Jesse Eisenberg – Adventureland. Bumbling, insecure, romantically naïve, verbally spastic Jewish kid looking for love? Check please.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt – (500) Days of Summer. The movie may been an atypical love story, but this is a typical Gordon-Levitt performance – dynamic, intelligent, and evocatively emotional. When you watch this (incontrovertibly amazing) scene, you feel everything he's feeling.

Sam Rockwell – Moon. I can't disclose too much about Rockwell's work here without spoiling the movie's central surprise (again, just watch the trailer), but it's a canny, nuanced performance that is utterly essential to the film's success.


Sandra Bullock – The Blind Side
Helen Mirren – The Last Station
Carey Mulligan – An Education
Gabourey Sidibe – Precious
Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia

Of the four acting races, this is the only one that isn't a complete lock. But it's close. For a time, it appeared that Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep would be dueling for the statuette all the way until the ceremony, but then Bullock won at the Screen Actors' Guild, and things have been one-sided ever since. Streep continues to have her resume held against her (most members would rather vote for a first-time nominee than one who's been to the Kodak a ridiculous 16 times), while The Blind Side proved to be an absurdly massive hit with audiences (it's about to cross $250 million). Throw in the fact that she delivered a sassy, no-nonsense performance that (unfavorably) recalls Julia Roberts' award-winning turn in Erin Brockovich, and Sandra Bullock bags her first Oscar. You'll forgive me for thinking it's also her last.


Sadly, the overall quality of this group pales in comparison to their male counterparts. (And before you accuse me of misogyny, check out my evaluation of last year's Best Actress race, where I said some very nice things about women.) Bullock is perfectly fine in The Blind Side, which is to say her performance is monotonous and ingratiating. It isn't bad acting, but I'd like to think that in evaluating an Oscar-winning work, I'd be able to muster up a more positive adjective than "fine". I also wasn't particularly impressed with Helen Mirren in The Last Station – she seems to be having a grand old time hurling herself in the camera's direction, but that hardly counts as craft.

The remaining three are, at least, strong performances. Sidibe's most distinguishing feature is her hulking frame, but she uses her bulk to incongruous effect, drawing within herself and shrinking from the camera, emphasizing her character's meekness and fear. As Julia Child, Streep is jarringly perfect yet again, imbuing an iconic figure with a lust for both food and life. But neither performance is as fully realized as that of Carey Mulligan's in An Education. Playing a talented student anxious to discover the world, Mulligan's Jenny is both naïve and keenly self-aware, and Mulligan gives her a world-weary wisdom that contradicts her youth. Watch her go toe-to-toe with screen legend Emma Thompson, and you'll recognize that you're witnessing the birth of a star.


Alison Lohman – Drag Me to Hell
Carey Mulligan – An Education
Saorise Ronan – The Lovely Bones
Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia
Tilda Swinton – Julia

Comments: Mulligan and Streep are undoubtedly deserving of their nominations. If the Academy knew the meaning of justice, Swinton would have joined them. The lone performance of 2009 that made my best of the decade list, Swinton's riveting work as the title character in Julia is a masterwork of finely honed craft and fearless improvisation. Lohman may not reach that level of hegemony, but there's something giddily rewarding about watching her transform from a sweet, mild-mannered everywoman to a bedraggled warrior battling the forces of darkness. (The image below of her standing rain-drenched in a graveyard is one of the most satisfying shots of the year.) For her part, the British Ronan flawlessly slides across the pond in portraying an impish American whose dashed hopes and dreams are palpable.


Abbie Cornish – Bright Star. The movie itself is a bit languid, but Cornish's performance as John Keats' devoted companion is consistently moving.

Michelle Pfeiffer – Chéri. I've never been a huge Pfeiffer fan, but here she bravely presents herself as an aging but beautiful woman who comes to terms with the gradual loss of that beauty. Her lingering, dead-eye stare into the camera makes for a powerful final shot.

Natalie Portman – Brothers. Amidst a swirl of high melodrama, Portman grounds her character's sympathetic predicament in reality, highlighting her character's fundamental decency and compassion.

Matt Damon – Invictus
Woody Harrelson – The Messenger
Christopher Plummer – The Last Station
Stanley Tucci – The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds

Christoph Waltz. The Austrian has been a one-man wrecking crew ever since he won Best Actor at Cannes back in May. Any additional analysis I attempted to provide would be entirely superfluous. There are no potential spoilers. This is over. Let's just move on.


Every so often, the voters get it right. The remaining performances in this category are all serviceable, particularly Damon's intensity and Tucci's intense creepiness, but none even approaches the magnetism of Christoph Waltz's eloquent, multilingual monster. With an unctuous, disturbingly polite tone that drips menace with every word, he glides through Tarantino's ornate dialogue with inveterate ease. Now we just need to hope he drops "That's a bingo!" in his speech.

Jim Broadbent – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Peter Capaldi – In the Loop
Fred Melamed – A Serious Man
Jérémie Renier – Lorna's Silence
Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds

Comments: The only supporting performer of 2009 who could possibly rival Waltz's charisma is Capaldi, who slices his way through In the Loop's satiric smarm with profane relish. As the newcomer to an established fantasy franchise, Broadbent had his work cut out for him, but he invests his cowardly Potions master with palpable, tremulous fear. Melamed creates yet another iconic supporting character in the Coen Brothers' canon, a grotesquely understanding lothario. And as the jittery junkie in Lorna's Silence, Jérémie Renier (anyone else wonder if he's Jeremy Renner's Belgian cousin?) infuses his character's doomed circumstances with brittle pathos.


Bradley Cooper – The Hangover. "Fuck, I keep forgetting about the God damn tiger!"

Colin Farrell – Crazy Heart. Bridges is the star of the show, but Farrell brings a surprising sensitivity and pragmatism to his role as the student who has surpassed his teacher.

Stephen Lang – Avatar; Public Enemies. His gleefully villainous performance in Avatar was a delight, but Lang also effuses solemn dignity as a not-so-coldblooded lawman in Public Enemies.

Benoît Poelvoorde – Coco Before Chanel. In one of the more purely enjoyable performances of the year, Poelvoorde oozes aristocratic charm as Coco Chanel's benefactor.

Ryan Reynolds – Adventureland. Is it me, or is Ryan Reynolds quietly becoming a consistently excellent actor? His sneakily subtle work in Adventureland makes me wonder.

Peter Sarsgaard – An Education. Preying on sexually vulnerable teenagers is hardly an appealing task, but Sarsgaard couples his character's natural deceit with a curious longing. He isn't quite as bad as he seems, which is what makes him so believable and deplorable.

Paul Schneider – Bright Star
. Half-villain, half-confidant, Schneider's Mr. Brown is a bundle of contradictions, and the actor's three-dimensional portrayal defies labeling.

Jason Segel – I Love You, Man. For a man who's made a living playing quirky, sexually awkward men, Segel's foray into the universe of the cool couldn't have gone smoother.


Penélope Cruz – Nine
Vera Farmiga – Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal – Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick – Up in the Air
Mo'Nique – Precious

If voting had taken place back in December, Mo'Nique might have been in trouble, given that she was grousing about the awards season and generally making a mockery of the campaigning process. But she's been a good girl since then, and even if she hasn't been blazing the campaign trail, she's been relatively polite and has let the ferocity of her performance do her work for her. Ironically, had either Farmiga or Kendrick been excluded, the other might have mounted a challenge, but they're destined to split some votes. Perhaps the unlikeliest Oscar winner in the history of the world, Mo'Nique takes the statuette.


Contrary to the lead categories, this group is stronger than the Best Supporting Actor quintet. The only nominee who clearly doesn't belong is Cruz, whose work in Nine is entirely forgettable with the exception of a scorching, near-pornographic dance number (technically, it's more of a "writhe number"). The rest, however, are sterling examples of immersive screen acting. Gyllenhaal is entirely believable as a single mother seduced by Jeff Bridges' southern charm; she knows Bad Blake is bad news, but she can't help herself. Farmiga effortlessly matches George Clooney's charisma (no easy task), fashioning a formidable romantic foil with her own unique set of values. And Mo'Nique storms through the majority of Precious in full-tilt, diabolical fury, then somehow rises to another level in the film's harrowing final scene.

But my pick of the litter is Anna Kendrick for her gruff, scrupulous, and marvelously real performance in Up in the Air. Exuding the pluck and entitlement of a self-righteous teenager, she too matches wits with Clooney, but on an intellectual rather than romantic plane. And similar to Clooney's character, she too undergoes a journey of gradual self-discovery, but these revelations in no way mitigate her crackling intelligence and fiery spirit. Late in the film, someone suggests that hiring Kendrick would be the best decision anyone could possibly make. It's as if he were speaking straight to casting directors.


Vera Farmiga – Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick – Up in the Air
Mélanie Laurent – Inglourious Basterds
Mo'Nique – Precious
Emma Watson – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Comments: It isn't often that I agree with the Academy on a majority of its choices, but that's the case here with Farmiga, Kendrick, and Mo'Nique. It could easily have been four of five if Harvey Weinstein had possessed the humility to campaign for Laurent in the Supporting category. Regardless, Laurent's poised, passionate portrayal is one of Basterds' strongest components. Meanwhile, Watson continues to confirm her status as one of Britain's finest young actresses, ably mingling light comedy with the pangs of adolescent romance.


Helena Bonham Carter – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. On the page, Bellatrix Lestrange is a vaguely one-note servant of evil. On the screen, Bonham Carter is so howlingly wicked that she makes Mo'Nique's character in Precious look like a candidate for Mother of the Year.

Emily Blunt – Sunshine Cleaning. Another British actress who refuses to be pigeonholed within a specific archetype, Blunt is quietly devastating here as Amy Adams' black-sheep sister who's haunted by her past.

Jennifer Garner – The Invention of Lying. Where did this come from? I'm hardly a Jennifer Garner supporter, but she positively sparkles here, radiating a winsome charm that hilariously contrasts with Ricky Gervais' innate bumbling. Besides, it's tough not to get behind her very first line: "You're early. I was just masturbating."

Paula Patton – Precious
. Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe have deservedly earned the majority of the praise for Precious, but Patton brings enormous depth of feeling to her role as an inner-city teacher striving to change the lives of the less fortunate.

Evan Rachel Wood – Whatever Works. Unlike Jennifer Garner, I've always admired Evan Rachel Wood, but as with Garner's performance in The Invention of Lying, I never knew Wood possessed this kind of comedic talent. Playing opposite Woody Allen surrogate Larry David, she's both winningly buoyant and delightfully sincere.

One more post to come.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Oscars Analysis 2009: The Screenplays

Now we're getting somewhere. Having dispensed with the technical categories (in somewhat brisk fashion, I might add), we now move on to what I call the "Big Eight". Why? Because they're big – as in important – and there are eight of them. But seriously, while I concede that the majority of film fans aren't particularly interested in fields such as Sound Editing and Art Direction, I'll posit that even casual moviegoers may hold a vested interest in the winners of the Big Eight. First up are the screenplays (adapted and original), and they present quite a contrast this year, at least in terms of predicting the winner. One category features a surefire champion, while the other represents the most intriguing competition of all of Oscar-night.

Before I get to the analysis, I want to introduce a new feature of the Manifesto, unique to the Big Eight, called "My Ideal Ballot". Loyal readers (hi Dad!) will know that in addition to the standard "Will Win" and "Should Win" analyses, I generally include a "Deserving" section, where I enumerate other high-quality contenders that failed to receive a nomination. I'll continue on that tack, but with "My Ideal Ballot", I'll be limiting myself to five choices (including the actual nominees). The theoretical goal is answer a simple hypothetical: If I were an Academy member, what/whom would I nominate? It's relatively easy to excoriate Oscar voters for their poor cinematic judgment, but I imagine it will be somewhat more difficult to place similar restrictions on my own analysis. We shall see.

Alright, let's get to it.

District 9 – Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
An Education – Nick Hornby
In the Loop – Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, & Tony Roche
Precious – Geoffrey Fletcher
Up in the Air – Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner

Most years, this category features the heavy hitters (four of the five Best Picture nominees of 2008 also fought it out for the Adapted Screenplay prize), but that isn't exactly the case in 2009. In fact, half of the 10 films nominated for Best Picture this year are wholly original creations. Does this mean that modern screenwriters are becoming more inventive and less reliant on preexisting material? Probably not, but it's an appealing thought.

Of course, given that we're dealing with 10 Best Picture nominees this year, this category still finds room for four. The exception is the scathingly satiric screenplay for In the Loop, and while it's tempting to rule it out immediately given its lack of overall recognition (this is its sole nomination), I can't be quite so hasty. The writing in In the Loop is easily its greatest asset, exhibiting the incisive, whip-smart dialogue toward which Oscar voters tend to gravitate. I don't think it will win, mind you, but it can't be dismissed out of hand.

The same can't be said for District 9, which will receive more attention for its allegorical treatise and special effects than its writing. I'll also throw out An Education, which feels to me like more of an actors' picture, despite Nick Hornby being the lone nominee who possesses name recognition.

That leaves Precious and Up in the Air, the two nominees who also received nods in the Best Director category. (Remember, now that Best Picture has expanded to a decathlon, we turn to Best Director to determine the top dogs.) Given that similarity, you might think this is a close race. It isn't. Up in the Air's star has dimmed significantly in the Best Picture race since its premiere in Toronto, but Reitman and Turner have been nothing short of dominant on the screenplay circuit. The frequent flier film racks up some more mileage.


It's difficult for me to evaluate this category properly, and for one very simple reason: I don't read. Like, ever. (Seriously, the last Adapted Screenplay nominee with whose source material I was familiar was Before Sunset in 2004, and that's only because it was based on its own movie. Prior to that, you'd have to go back to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. Anyway.) In my mind, an adapted screenplay's worth cannot be determined in a vacuum; the key component is how effectively the writer extracts key themes from the source and translates those elements to the screen. Culling subplots, altering dialogue, adding or subtracting characters – these are the true tests of movie adaptations.

But as a result of my self-imposed illiteracy, I have no choice but to evaluate these five nominees based solely on what I see on the screen. And while the other three screenplays are perfectly serviceable, for me this comes down to a surprisingly close contest between In the Loop and Up in the Air. I say "surprisingly" because In the Loop's primary focus is the lampooning of politics, and while I consider myself an expert on a few things, politics is not one of them. But a familiarity (or even a vague interest) in the inner machinations of the political world isn't required to appreciate the manner in which In the Loop eviscerates its targets with such ferocious causticity. A sharp-witted, delightfully profane monstrosity, the movie is both keenly intelligent and mercilessly funny.

One facet its screenplay does not feature, however, is depth of character, an element that is crucial to Jason Reitman's and Sheldon Turner's brilliantly nuanced screenplay for Up in the Air. Its premise almost sounds clichéd – a seemingly cold-hearted corporate axe-man discovers what's important in life – but it proceeds with both warmth and shading, generously adding dimensionality to all of its major characters, and a few of its minor ones. The dialogue is satisfactorily snappy, but it's through the moments of silence – such as a devastating phone call near its conclusion – that the movie achieves its true power. I can't vouch for the quality of the novel on which the film is based, but from a cinematic standpoint, Up in the Air represents the pinnacle of screenwriting in 2009.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – Steve Kloves
In the Loop – Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, & Tony Roche
The Informant! – Scott Z. Burns
State of Play – Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, & Billy Ray
Up in the Air – Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner

Comments: Is it me, or is this a really weak group? I'm comfortable sliding in The Informant!, with its devilish structure and unreliable narrator, not to mention one of the few interesting voiceovers in recent memory. But I'll concede that my next two choices are stretches. That said, I commend Steve Kloves for his shrewd decision-making that helped transform the sixth Harry Potter installment from an ostensible prelude on the page to a gripping coming-of-age journey on the screen. For State of Play, Carnahan, Gilroy, and Ray were charged with condensing a remorselessly detailed six-hour BBC miniseries into a standard-length Hollywood thriller, and they effectively maintained the sweeping scope of the original while also appending a valentine to the dying newspaper industry.

Still, given that I struggled mightily just to come up with five adapted screenplays deserving of Oscar consideration, I think it's safe to say that this was a weak year for the category. Fortunately we have ...

The Hurt Locker – Mark Boal
Inglourious Basterds – Quentin Tarantino
The Messenger – Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman
A Serious Man – Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Up – Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, & Thomas McCarthy

And at last, intrigue! O.K., we're dumping The Messenger immediately, and I'm reasonably comfortable eliminating A Serious Man and Up as well in spite of their Best Picture nominations. But the duel between Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker is about as much of a toss-up as you can get – the photo finish in Seabiscuit wasn't this close. In the Basterds' corner, we have the man himself, Quentin Tarantino, whose name is synonymous with originality. Now, cynics frequently accuse the Academy of being overly middlebrow when bequeathing its major honors, but it tends to branch out a bit in this category (past winners this decade include Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Basterds sports the kind of nervy audacity that might appeal to the voters' more daring side.

For its part, The Hurt Locker is far from conventional; in fact, you could argue that its screenplay – which steadfastly refuses to follow a traditional narrative arc – is even more atypical than that of Basterds. Perhaps more importantly, it's the consensus favorite for Best Picture, and that grants it some lengthy coattails (the winner of the top prize has also claimed victory for its screenplay in five of the past six years).

For no particular reason, I imagine that voters here are fighting an internal debate with themselves: They want to vote for Inglourious Basterds on the merits of its screenplay, but they also believe The Hurt Locker is the better film overall and are thus debating whether that superiority should trickle down to this category. If that theory is correct – and there's absolutely no evidence that it is – then Basterds really should take the trophy (at least in the minds of the members), but there's always the possibility that the voters outthink themselves.

Who wins out? I have a particularly irksome habit of giving the Academy too much credit – always a bad idea – but if there's a category in which I can be optimistic, it's this one. (Of course, that's what I said last year when I predicted that Wall-E would defeat Milk. Whoops.) And so, with minimal confidence, I'm declaring that the members will actually vote with their Nazi-hating hearts and go with Inglourious Basterds. And now that I've given myself a migraine by attempting to peer into the subconscious of an imaginary Academy member, I'd like to move on. Thanks.


Oddly enough, while I admire all of these screenplays, I can't profess undying love for any of them. The first half of The Messenger is terrific, but it goes AWOL in its final passages. Similarly, The Hurt Locker's story becomes strained once it attempts to follow a centralized plot that unfortunately lacks punch. The writing in A Serious Man is half-brilliant, half-pretentious (anyone who can adequately explain the meaning of its opening scene and how it ties into the rest of the film, please do so in the Comments). Inglourious Basterds is awesomely entertaining, or at least it would be if Tarantino didn't indulge himself so egregiously, resulting in some agonizingly lengthy scenes (this movie earned an editing nomination?). And while the story in Up is for the most part splendidly original, it settles a bit too comfortably into standard action fare as it journeys toward its conclusion.

Then again, it's somewhat erroneous to apply the word "standard" to a film whose action scenes involve a floating house, a dirigible piloted by dogs, and a multi-colored tucan-esque bird that loves chocolate. Throw in the fact that it's both heartwarming and hilarious (let's not forget this spectacular scene), and Up is on the up-and-up.


(500) Days of Summer – Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Adventureland – Greg Mottola
Duplicity – Tony Gilroy
Funny People – Judd Apatow
Up – Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, & Thomas McCarthy

Comments: Much better. I'm a bit surprised that my favorite original screenplays of the year all have a comedic slant to them – perhaps dramas are more likely to be harvested from existing material, whereas comedies are freshly written. Regardless, while all of these movies are funny, they're in no way similar. (500) Days of Summer takes the classic romantic comedy and twists it inside out, spilling its conventions on the floor with a sigh of disgust. Adventureland flawlessly captures both the monotony of dead-end summer life and the clumsy complexity of burgeoning relationships. Funny People isn't a perfect film, but I commend it for its ambition in examining the dynamics of friendship and the endurance (or lack thereof) of lost love. Up, as I mentioned, is a superb fusion of humor and pathos. And Duplicity creates a preposterously convoluted narrative, then somehow navigates it with effortless precision, with some playful whimsy thrown in just for fun. Now that's good writing.

Next time out: the acting categories.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Oscars Analysis 2009: Technical Awards, Part II

We now turn to what I term the "major" technical awards. While I recognize that the vast majority of moviegoers couldn't care less about evaluating a film's editing or production design, I honestly believe that the following categories are critical to a picture's success (or, in some cases, failure). Do I have any evidentiary basis for this belief? No. That's why I chose not to attend film school, so I can continue making bald claims about cinematic values without having any educational pedigree with which to defend them. It's more fun this way. Alright, let's get to it, starting out with most important technical award of the entire ceremony.

Avatar – Mauro Fiore
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – Bruno Delbonnel
The Hurt Locker – Barry Ackroyd
Inglourious Basterds – Robert Richardson
The White Ribbon – Christian Berger

Harry Potter. Just kidding. But this is a doozy of a category to predict, with all contenders other than our burgeoning boy wizard possessing a legitimate chance. Still, if forced to eliminate a second nominee, I'll strike down Inglourious Basterds next. Richardson is an inveterate photographer – this represents his sixth Oscar nomination, and he's already won twice (for JFK and The Aviator) – but I think Tarantino's film will garner more recognition for its audacious storytelling and historical tinkering than its craftsmanship.

That leaves an intriguing triangle of contenders. Two are Best Picture heavy hitters with a combined 18 nominations, while one is a foreign film with only one other credit on its Oscar resume. One is shattering global box-office records daily, while the other two combined for less than $15 million. One is photographed in stark black-and-white; one pops off the screen in startling, fantastical, three-dimensional color; and one traffics in the gritty, earthy tones of desert warfare. And all are, in their own unique way, beautiful.

In the end, it really comes down to the voters' tendencies as opposed to the quality of the cinematography at issue. Do they reward the tech-heavy Avatar, the all-around excellence of The Hurt Locker, or the chilling austerity of The White Ribbon? I'll roll the dice with the eye-popping giant and predict Avatar. But note that if The Hurt Locker wins here, it automatically becomes the champion for Best Original Screenplay. That's just how this stuff works.


This is a three-picture race for me as well, although I'm eliminating The Hurt Locker (whose photography is impressive but secondary to its heart-thumping action scenes) and replacing it with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. While I happily acknowledge my obsession with all things Hogwarts, my bias doesn't diminish the delicate, haunting beauty of Bruno Delbonnel's compositions. Even darker than its predecessor, Half-Blood Prince at times looks as if it's set under a permanently clouded sky, with omnipresent shadows stretching in every direction. Delbonnel continues his precursors' technique of desaturating color for dramatic effect; the climactic cave sequence is so leeched of color that it's virtually in black-and-white (at least until a roiling orange fireball explodes out of the heavens). He also delivers perhaps my favorite shot at the movies the entire year, when a concerned Harry slowly descends a staircase to comfort Hermione, and we see him only in shadow. It's a sad, elegant moment in a movie full of them.

Of course, if Half-Blood Prince occasionally dips into subdued hues, The White Ribbon is permanently muted. The decision to shoot in black-and-white makes sense; the film's premise is that our world is devoid of life and color, so its palette might as well suggest the same. In addition to some magnificent static shots, Christian Berger frequently delivers extraordinary long takes on the move (complying with Michael Haneke's fondness for lengthy shots), and his camera never slides out of frame.

Still, I can't vote against Avatar. One can debate just how much actual photographing Mauro Fiore performed, but the end result is undeniably majestic. Every shot in Avatar is immaculately composed, yet none is listless or inert. The film shows us a land of incomparable richness, and Fiore's cinematography superbly captures how it teems with life.

Duplicity – Robert Elswit. There's a scene in Duplicity in which Julia Roberts is sitting at a table in the foreground, while Tom Wilkinson looms behind her in the background, delivering some cockamamie speech about the invention of fire. It is one of the most perfectly composed images I have ever seen. Both actors are in the exact center of the frame, the spacing is perfect, and every inch of what we see just radiates with clarity and precision. It's as if it came out of a Coen Brothers film.

A Serious Man – Roger Deakins. As I said.

Public Enemies – Dante Spinotti. Many purists complain about Michael Mann's embrace of digital photography, but it doesn't bother me. Regardless of the specific technique applied, I can't deny the photographic excellence of the movie's extended final scene, where Spinotti's camera tracks Johnny Depp through a smoky haze until he reaches his demise. It's a spectacular sequence that should demolish any concern about the limits of the digital revolution.

Star Trek – Daniel Mindel. In addition to the specific shots I mentioned in Half-Blood Prince and Duplicity, one of my favorite images of the year occurs in the opening sequence of Star Trek. It's a shot of two spaceships: one an enormous, seemingly teething Romulan ship, the other a tiny, speck-like figure that is the U.S.S. Kelvin. The two are on opposite sides of the screen, only the Romulan ship is so massive that it appears poised to devour its prey. The movie itself isn't quite as remarkable as its fans would attest, but this shot is sci-fi filmmaking at its apex.

Sherlock Holmes
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Young Victoria

In case you aren't a rigorous student of the Academy's irrational lingo, "art direction/set decoration" really means "production design", which essentially translates to the following question: "Which of these five movies features the best sets?" That introduces a thorny complication this year because Avatar – the one film destined to dominate the technical categories – doesn't really have any sets. At least not in the physical sense – most of the movie's environments were created in a computer. But I still think it has the edge here, if only due to its meager competition. Nine's buzz has fizzled completely, while I'm skeptical how many voters even watched The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (its nomination is its own reward). The Young Victoria could be a sleeper, but I think most voters will pay homage to its costume design instead. Sherlock Holmes is the lone challenger that did big business and relied appreciably on a cagey, idiosyncratic production design, but it didn't feature any floating mountains. Avatar takes it.


With the exception of a gorgeously empty stage in its opening musical sequence, Nine's sets are hardly laudatory, while The Young Victoria could take place in any stately British manor house. As with many of Terry Gilliam's pictures, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus certainly features some impressive, enigmatic creations, but none was overly memorable. Sherlock Holmes, on the hand, stages its lengthy action climax atop the half-finished Tower Bridge in London, one of the most visually arresting sequences of the year.

Now, I'm on record as being a huge fan of Avatar, but I actually think the curmudgeons who protest its recognition in this category have a point. Sure, what we see is spectacular, but that's primarily courtesy of the film's extraordinary visual effects technicians. That said, obviously someone designed those environments in conceptual form before they became binary code, so I don't want to prejudice against them solely due to their lack of corporeality. But it can be a mitigating factor, and in addition to that Tower Bridge sequence, Sherlock Holmes has an awesomely Gothic look to it overall, with musty buildings and smoky alleyways. Its storyline may be a tad incomprehensible (and irrelevant), but it looks damn sweet.


District 9. Part of me is scared to ask, but are those slums where the government forced the aliens to live actual slums? They sure look real.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Scariest. Cave. Ever.

The Lovely Bones
. Consider this a tandem pick with Avatar. Its evocation of a young girl's personal Heaven is mostly computer-generated, but it is nevertheless a remarkably original place.

Public Enemies
. If this movie didn't feature Michael Mann's distinctive glossy, high-definition camerawork, I would absolutely believe that it was shot in the 1930s.

The Road. Maybe the biggest omission of the group. No 2009 film relies more on the atmosphere of its surroundings, and The Road's sets expertly conjure the movie's central elements of bleakness and desolation.

A Serious Man
. The Coen Brothers are renowned for their mutability, but as craftsmen, they're incredibly consistent perfectionists. The period setting here, this time recalling the mundanity of 1960s Middle America, is another impeccably detailed feather in their production design cap.

Avatar – Stephen E. Rivkin, John Refoua, James Cameron
District 9 – Julian Clarke
The Hurt Locker – Bob Murawski, Chris Innis
Inglourious Basterds – Sally Menke
Precious – Joe Klotz

I'm notoriously inept at predicting this category, possibly because I invariably disagree with the Academy's final selection. Just to make things even more challenging this year, all five nominees are also Best Picture contenders (a first since 2003), so it's not as if any can be automatically discarded. So fuck it, I'll just play the "Clash of the Titans" card and call this a race between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. And unlike with most of the technical categories, I'm going to put my money on the war movie here. Why? Because I'm a moron and can't help picking the candidate I actually think deserves to win. I think Avatar is a terrific movie, but it's two and a half hours long, whereas The Hurt Locker is an incredibly taut war thriller. Will the Academy recognize this? Probably not, given that this is the same organization that bestowed an editing Oscar on The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King even though people were openly walking out during that movie's interminable final 22 minutes (and let's not forget they failed to nominate Return of the King for a cinematography Oscar that same year – never forget this). But for no particular reason, I'm feeling optimistic.


The Hurt Locker, and in a cakewalk. This is the kind of picture that defines stupid sound bites like "white-knuckle action!" and "you'll be on the edge of your seat!". Sure, those are inane, overused clichés, but they actually apply here. The majority of The Hurt Locker truly is excruciatingly suspenseful, and Bob Murawski's and Chris Innis' editing plays a central role in elevating and sustaining that tension. This isn't a competition, it's a coronation. At least, it should be.

(500) Days of Summer – Alan Edward Bell. First time director Marc Webb brings a considerable amount of flair (pomposity?) to his debut, and Bell assists him ably. The "Expectations vs. Reality" sequence in particular is a superlative example of how canny film editing can ensure a filmmaker's vision effectively reaches his audience.

Drag Me to Hell – Bob Murawski
. Quite a year for Murawski. When he wasn't ratcheting up the tension in Iraq, he was terrifying Americans on the home front while cutting this throwback horror flick. "BOO!" "GASP!" "Where'd she go?" "AHHHHHH!"

Duplicity – John Gilroy. Tony Gilroy's brilliantly convoluted screenplay features its share of twists and turns, but his younger brother John makes certain we never get lost in the labyrinth.

The Informant! – Stephen Mirrione. The Informant! conveys a tremendous amount of, ahem, information, but instead of feeling like a turgid documentary, it remains consistently energetic and surprisingly suspenseful. Mirrione helps us avoid getting bogged down in the details so we can instead enjoy the unanticipated contours of the narrative.

Up in the Air – Dana E. Glauberman. I generally disfavor rapid-cut sequences, but Glauberman employs them in perfect measure here, emphasizing with vitality the main character's habitual lifestyle.


District 9
Star Trek

There are certain Oscar categories in which I need to expend a great deal of verbal energy describing all of the potential scenarios, addressing any preexisting voter biases, analyzing historical Academy trends, and generally engaging in stupendously thoughtful analysis that may or may not be total bullshit.

This is not one of those categories. Avatar wins, in the biggest lock of the night.


Star Trek's effects didn't do too much for me, but I'd be remiss if I didn't commend the technical wizardry of District 9. There are great effects that are clearly effects, and then there are great effects that are invisible. It's the latter where technical innovation translates to filmmaking success because the audience can focus on the story rather than being distracted by the novelty. The prawns (er, aliens) in District 9 are all computer-generated, but they lack any digital identifiers. Instead they blend seamlessly into their environment, so when we're watching them, we aren't nodding admiringly about how impressively they're rendered; we're listening to them complain about persecution. And that's the signifier of truly excellent visual effects.

Given that, is it somehow possible that District 9's visual effects are remotely as impressive as those on display in Avatar?

(I'm thinking.)


The Lovely Bones. Ideally, this would be a tandem nomination along with Best Production Design (grr, I mean Best Art Direction/Set Decoration). Regardless of the category, Peter Jackson's vision of Heaven (or wherever it was) is startlingly surrealistic, and more than memorable.

2012. Let's face it: That scene where John Cusack is driving madly down a Los Angeles highway and an earthquake is literally chasing him all the way ... well, that's pretty sweet.

Watchmen. Did I like the movie? Not exactly. Does Billy Crudup look badass as a gigantic floating bald blue radioactive superhero? I'd say so.


Avatar – James Horner
Fantastic Mr. Fox – Alexandre Desplat
The Hurt Locker – Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders
Sherlock Holmes – Hans Zimmer
Up – Michael Giacchino

Intriguing. Fantastic Mr. Fox and Sherlock Holmes are both out, and I'm willing to discount The Hurt Locker as well despite its Best Picture nomination – its score is just too abstract to take home a statuette. That leaves Avatar vs. Up, and while I consider Avatar the primary heavyweight for technical categories, I'm not convinced Horner's music has enough depth to claim victory here. Instead I'll roll the dice on Giacchino's Up, which has been performing well on the circuit and features a sweet, life-affirming theme called "Married Life." No composer has won for scoring an animated feature since the incomparable Alan Menken for Pocahontas. Giacchino ends the drought.


Meh. I'll be honest, I'm not too impressed with any of these selections, which is a shame, given that this is usually one of my favorite categories. The Hurt Locker's music may be functional in its setting, but it's hardly awards-worthy. For Sherlock Holmes, Hans Zimmer (normally one of my favorite composers) has created a twitchy, off-kilter mix in the vein of his "Jack Sparrow" theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest; it's an interesting sound but one short on musical sustenance. Alexandre Desplat's score for Fantastic Mr. Fox is similarly jangly, and it aligns nicely with the film's restless nature, but that doesn't make it enjoyable (frankly, I vastly preferred Desplat's work on The Twilight Saga: New Moon). As for Up, it's an adequately pleasant score, but aside from a few emotionally stirring moments, it lacks bravura.

So I suppose I'll go with James Horner's score for Avatar. It's far from the prolific composer's best work, but at least it features some robust themes.

I just can't help feeling disenchanted, especially given that the Academy failed to recognize the best score of the year, which was ...

Star Trek – Michael Giacchino. Whoopsies, the voters picked the wrong Giacchino score. And boy did they miss a good one. Star Trek isn't just my favorite score of the year – it's one of my favorite scores of the entire decade, along with Dario Marianelli's music for Atonement and Patrick Doyle's score for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Replete with booming brass and howling horns, it's unabashedly bombastic music, but that's what makes it so terrific. Failing to recognize this score constitutes one of the Academy's biggest misfires of 2009.

A Single Man – Abel Korzeniowski (with Shigeru Umebayashi). You might think that an elegant period piece (made by a fashion designer, no less) would feature complacent, overly prettified compositions. That's what makes the urgency of Korzeniowski's string arrangements such a welcome surprise.

Moon – Clint Mansell. It might not match his nightmarish overture from Requiem for a Dream, but Mansell's "Welcome to Lunar Industries" theme is insidious in the best possible way.

Coming up next: the screenplays.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Oscars Analysis 2009: Technical Awards, Part I

Hey, turns out the Oscars are in less than a week! Given that the Manifesto's official raison d'être is to provide detailed analysis of every category of the Academy Awards, only I've yet to publish a single post-nomination prediction, I should probably pick up the pace. As a result, we're instituting a Five-Post Plan this week, whereby I evaluate each of the 21 categories across, well, five separate posts. Given my style of writing (which could charitably be described as "less than brief"), such a task is about as difficult as the Patronus Charm, but duty calls.

For the first installment, I'll be focusing on some of the "minor" technical awards. (Benefit of having a blog readership of fewer than 100 people: No disgruntled costume designer is going to send me a letter bomb after I characterize her life's work as "minor".) I'll move on to "major" technical awards next, followed by the screenplays, then the acting categories, and finally Best Picture and Best Director. Of course, this is all theoretical, as it's possible my Legal Writing professor will randomly assign a 5,000-word memorandum in the middle of the week, but I'm aiming high.

Let's get to it.

Bright Star
Coco Before Chanel
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Young Victoria

Two-horse race here between Bright Star and The Young Victoria. Costumes themselves are an actual plot point in Bright Star, but this category represents the film's lone nomination, whereas voters also recognized The Young Victoria for its makeup and production design. Throw in the fact that the Academy invariably bestows this honor on films about British royalty (the past two winners were The Duchess and Elizabeth: The Golden Age), and The Young Victoria comes out on top.


I'm a bit astonished that I'm voting against a film whose primary function is to photograph Emily Blunt looking beautiful. But the costumes in Jane Campion's Bright Star are a character unto themselves – they just pop off the screen.


Jennifer's Body. Come on, like you wouldn't vote for this costume?

A Single Man
. Apparently first-time director Tom Ford is also a famous fashion designer. I didn't know that going into the film, but I should have figured it out when Julianne Moore popped up in this stunning yin-yang-style dress.


Il Divo
Star Trek
The Young Victoria

The Academy occasionally throws a random, hitherto unrecognized film into this category (Click, Norbit), but the inclusion of Il Divo is nevertheless a complete shock. Suffice it to say that it's walking around with one of those "I'm just happy to be here" faces like Orlando Magic fans during last year's NBA Finals. I'm not completely discounting The Young Victoria, given that it's a very pretty film, and Best Makeup is all about rewarding prettiness. Still, I think voters will skew more toward the assertive, distinctly visible cosmetology of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek.


I pride myself on seeing every single movie that receives even one Oscar nomination – excluding foreign films (which rarely gain sufficient distribution) and documentaries (because I'm a phony and just can't watch documentaries) – but every year, a few manage to slip through the cracks. This year, of the 35 different films up for an Academy Award (ignoring the short subjects, because honestly, nobody gives a fuck about those), I've seen 32. Sadly, Il Divo missed the cut, meaning I can't comment on its makeup. I apologize profusely for my unforgivable negligence.

As for the two remaining contenders, I can't pretend to be too motivated about this category. The Young Victoria is presumably on here for its hairstyling, but little about its makeup stood out to me. Of course, I could say the same thing for Star Trek, but when in doubt, I'll take the sci-fi movie about time-traveling alien races over the delicate British costume drama.

District 9. Among pundits who closely (unhealthily?) follow the Oscars, the omission of District 9 from the Best Makeup field was one of nomination morning's more gasp-inducing moments. And understandably so. Say what you will about the picture's allegorical story, but its makeup – involving the lead character's gradual transformation from human to something not-quite human – is simply astounding. The Academy dropped the ball on this one.

The Box
. For Frank Langella's face. If I were a standup comedian, I'd make a joke about how I couldn't have imagined that he'd play Richard Nixon one year, then play someone even scarier the next. This may be one of the innumerable reasons I am not a standup comedian.

Drag Me to Hell
. Kudos to Sam Raimi for revitalizing a classic horror trope: the disgustingly creepy crone.

. Look, zombies!


Crazy Heart – "The Weary Kind" (Ryan Bingham, T-Bone Burnett)
Nine – "Take It All" (Maury Yeston)
Paris 36 – "Loin de Paname" (Reinhardt Wagner; lyrics by Frank Thomas)
The Princess and the Frog – "Almost There" (Randy Newman)
The Princess and the Frog – "Down in New Orleans" (Randy Newman)

"The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart. It's a pleasant but emotionally sophisticated country tune, it features prominently in the film's plot, and it's the only nominated song from a film that's actually about music. Nothing else stands a chance.


I have to abstain on "Loin de Paname", since Paris 36 is one of the three nominated films I haven't seen. (I did listen to the song though, and in my professional opinion, it's French.) Much as I admired Marion Cotillard's performance in Nine, "Take It All" is the kind of breathy performance number that I can't really stand (I preferred Kate Hudson's more energetic "Cinema Italiano"). As for the two songs from The Princess and the Frog, "Almost There" is a nice jaunty little ditty that sadly isn't remotely memorable; thankfully, it doesn't approach the unbearable sonic clatter of "Down in New Orleans". So I'll follow the Academy and select "The Weary Kind", which is certainly a nice enough song, though you'll forgive me if I seem less than excited. This category always frustrates me, as voters perpetually omit the few songs that I actually like. Typical.

(God what a worthless category.)

Where the Wild Things Are – "All Is Love" (Karen O & the Kids). You really think I'd leave off an original song from the frontrunner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, one of my favorite music groups around? It's hardly on par with her best work, but it captures the exuberance of childhood in a way that the film, interestingly enough, steadfastly refuses to do.

The Princess and the Frog – "Friends on the Other Side" (Randy Newman)
. It figures that the voters pick two mediocre songs from Disney's innocuous musical only to neglect its best number, which also doubles as the movie's high point. Sporting an inspired vocal performance by Keith David, "Friends on the Other Side" is like Aladdin's classic "Friend Like Me", only if it were filtered through a demonic R&B station.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon – "No Sound But the Wind" (Editors). Holy shit this is a gorgeous song. New Moon was widely hailed (or derided, depending on the snark level of your audience) for landing a number of top bands on its soundtrack (Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, The Killers, Muse, even Radiohead's Thom Yorke), but I'd never even heard of this British quartet. I have now. The soaring, graceful melody belies some alarmingly apocalyptic lyrics ("Help me to carry the fire/We will keep it alight together") that would fit right at home in The Road. Not exactly what you'd expect from a pulpy romance about teenage vampires and werewolves, but no matter the context, this is beautiful music.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon – "Meet Me on the Equinox" (Death Cab for Cutie). "Everything, everything ends," Ben Gibbard croons on his chorus. Not everything, and certainly not Death Cab for Cutie's consistent musical excellence.

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

If there's one gaping hole in my credentials as an Oscar expert, it's my utter lack of expertise about the sound categories. What's the difference between Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing? What key qualities do Academy members look for? Will my heretofore unassailable credibility vanish if I confess my bewilderment about these matters?

Such is life. For no particular reason (well, other than that they're the two biggest competitors for Best Picture), I'm boiling this down to a two-picture race between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. So do I go with the Best Picture frontrunner or the technical behemoth? I'll go with the war flick on this one.


The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek

In performing some hasty research, I learned (from an entirely unreliable source) that "sound editing" involves creating new sounds, whereas sound mixing involves incorporating those sounds into the film's overall audio mix. Even if this is accurate, I still don't entirely understand what it means. That said, I'm warming to the notion that Avatar, which is of course the most revolutionary motion picture since Birth of a Nation, will earn recognition for creating brand new sounds, whereas The Hurt Locker, a slam-bang but mildly more traditional war film, scores more points for melding its sonic elements together. And hey, that isn't an entirely unreasonable thought process, right? I certainly feel more confident than last year, when I picked The Dark Knight for Sound Mixing and it won for Sound Editing instead, and I wound up losing my Oscar pool as a result. Bad times. Anyway, I'll roll with Avatar on this one.


The Lovely Bones. I know that I've already professed my utter cluelessness regarding sound in movies, but while watching The Lovely Bones, even I perked up at some of the sound design on aural display. Part of this is undoubtedly due to Peter Jackson's intermittently masterful direction, but there's one scene in the film where I found myself desperately straining my ears, the better to hear the tiniest whisper of noise (think the second motel scene in No Country for Old Men). Expertly done.

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country
The Cove
Food, Inc.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Which Way Home

I really wish I could watch documentaries without falling asleep. But I can't. Anyway, although Food, Inc. could present a challenge here if voters are feeling queasy about their diets, The Cove is the near-certain winner. Think about it: Would you really vote against a movie that exposed the routinely horrific murder of dolphins? I didn't think so.


Ajami (Israel)
The Milk of Sorrow (Peru)
A Prophet (France)
The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina)
The White Ribbon (Germany)

This one's legitimately interesting. Critics absolutely reamed the Academy last year for rewarding Departures – allegedly a safe, banal film – over two more challenging pictures (The Class, which was good but boring, and Waltz with Bashir, which was shockingly excellent). As such, I'm curious to see if there will be any backlash this go-round, and The White Ribbon is the perfect test subject: It won the Golden Palm at Cannes, but it's the type of harsh, unpleasant film that historically plays poorly with Oscar voters. Similarly, A Prophet is apparently an uncompromising prison drama, whereas The Secret in Their Eyes is supposedly a more traditional movie. (I'm speaking in vagaries here because I haven't seen any of these films other than The White Ribbon. This isn't a conscious choice as with documentaries; it's simply a consequence of the unfortunate fact that few foreign films receive wide distribution.)

So what's the rub? I simply can't imagine The White Ribbon earning support from a plurality of Academy members. It's just too ... unlikable. But I do think voters are feeling a bit of heat to expand their comfort zone in the foreign film category, meaning I'm pegging A Prophet as this year's upset victor. (And if all goes well, it will arrive in Boulder in a few weeks and I can determine actually acquire a personal opinion on its merits. That'd be nice.)


Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon is the kind of movie that makes me falter in my professed adoration for cinema as an institution. That's because it's in many ways an excellent film, yet in no way is it an enjoyable one. Photographed in stark, haunting black-and-white, it tells with merciless veracity the story of a small German village and the horrors that take place there. Its central thesis, I suppose, is that brutality is generational, and that children are forever destined to suffer at the hands of their irredeemable parents in a self-perpetuating cycle of blame and hate and tyranny. This is, it's safe to say, heavy stuff.

But is it worth watching? I don't have a problem with cinema as a medium for philosophical expression, but I need a film's hypothesis to attach to its characters, and the whole point of The White Ribbon seems to be that specific characters are irrelevant. Everyone is evil; none can escape the darkness. Well, thanks a lot for the morality lesson, but if you're really going to get me to change how I think about the world, you'd better show me how this evil affects individuals, not just illustrate that it exists ubiquitously. This is the type of movie where, when people ask me what I thought, my initial response is positive: "It's beautifully made." Then they ask me if they should see it, and my answer is unequivocal: "No."


Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells

This category isn't going away – in fact, it features five nominees this year for the first time since 2002 – so I might as well stop boycotting it, though I don't want to devote any more attention to it than absolutely necessary. Still, it's an easy call again this year. Fantastic Mr. Fox might have warranted sleeper consideration if it had landed a screenplay nomination, but as is, the Pixar train rolls on, with Up taking this year's trophy. (So maybe the Pixar hot-air balloon keeps elevating. Never mind.)

And we come to the third nominated film I haven't seen, The Secret of Kells. I'll catch it when it premieres on Netflix in 2013, but for now, I abstain. As for the rest, I admired Coraline, but its unsettling exploration of childhood identity didn't speak to me as it did to most critics. Fantastic Mr. Fox offers the relaxed, ramshackle feel typical of a Wes Anderson picture, though thankfully it couples that with a functional plot. That said, it's hardly a memorable movie. The same can be said of The Princess and the Frog, which is an agreeable enough musical diversion, if totally forgettable upon its closing credits.

Up, thankfully, represents another sterling achievement for that quality tycoon, Pixar. Combining predictably dazzling animation with an original story that nevertheless conveys pleasingly familiar themes, Up is generously warm-hearted, consistently hilariously, and frequently poignant. It also signifies Pixar's first (if long overdue) recognition in the Best Picture field, and while the studio has released better films, that in no way should diminish the joy that courses through this one.


Ponyo. Hiyao Miyazaki may never ascend to the cinematic heights he reached with 1999's glorious Princess Mononoke, but Ponyo is a singular effort all the same. A tender, unremittingly hopeful story of childhood friendship, it may lack the depth of Up's characters, but it matches it for buoyancy.