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.

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