Monday, February 14, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: The big techies

The following four categories can be considered "technical" awards only in the purist sense of the word. True, each field in this quartet involves a highly specific area of filmmaking and thus requires the wielding of precise, technological skill. But to label these disciplines "technical" is to diminish their significance, as it is in these areas where movies can truly distinguish themselves as extraordinary. Moreover, a film's success (or failure) in any of these categories can dramatically affect even casual viewers' opinions, be it consciously or otherwise.

Put more bluntly, these categories matter. Just keep that in mind the next time you hear some Oscar nut raving about Roger Deakins' unlucky streak and think I'm he's out of his mind.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

NOMINEES
Black Swan – Matthew Libatique
Inception – Wally Pfister
The King's Speech – Danny Cohen
The Social Network – Jeff Cronenweth
True Grit – Roger Deakins

WILL WIN
Hey, I was just talking about Roger Deakins! Weird. But the longtime lenser for the Coen Brothers has been nominated eight times previously for this award, and he's yet to walk away with a statuette. And while an 0-for-8 streak may not alone suffice for a sympathy vote, it's looking like this is Deakins' year, though that's more due to the weaknesses of his respective competitors than to his own achievement on True Grit.

Still, it's hardly open-and-shut here. The only contender I'm comfortable eliminating outright is Libatique for Black Swan, whose photography is far too quirky and unsettling to curry favor with Academy members. The Social Network is a visually meticulous film, not least in terms of Cronenweth's scrupulously composed frames, but voters are likely to dismiss it as a dialogue-heavy movie that thus merits no recognition in a visual field. Pfister just earned a trophy from the cinematographers' guild, and a guild win can never be wholly discounted, but I still think the Academy will reserve its admiration for Inception for the more effects-driven categories.

Which leaves Danny Cohen for The King's Speech as Deakins' fiercest rival here. Frankly, even Cohen's nomination is a textbook case of frontrunner syndrome, as The King's Speech's drab visual style has no business loitering in this quintet whatsoever. But the movie was hardly shorn of its coattails after the nominations were announced, and given that it just pulled off a monstrous, seven-gun salute at the BAFTAs, it can't be counted out of any category at this point.

Nevertheless, I'll give the voters some credit; they'll likely pay homage to The King's Speech in a handful of other categories (like, you know, Best Picture), but they won't be able to deny Deakins' mastery any longer. True Grit takes it.


SHOULD WIN
I look forward to this category with considerable eagerness every year, so it is with a heavy heart that I suggest that this year's slate represents a massive disappointment. The King's Speech is hardly the only offender here, though it certainly is the worst, as Cohen's photography is at best unmemorable and at worst staid. Yet it isn't as grating as Libatique's work on Black Swan, which alternates between magnificent, unobtrusive takes (as in the film's ravishing opening sequence) and lurching handheld tracking shots that mistake restlessness for energy.

Inception is a visually dazzling film, but it's dangerous to conflate its inconsistent cinematography with its bravura production design. As he illustrated on The Dark Knight, Pfister has the ability to create extraordinary angles and viewpoints, but he often has trouble sitting still, and several of the movie's chase scenes are unnecessarily jumpy. I have no quarrel with Cronenweth's understated work in The Social Network, though I'm naturally more inclined to prefer the grandeur of Deakins' work on True Grit. Displaying his trademark exactitude, Deakins composes every frame with both delicacy and boldness, resulting in a exquisite production that maximizes the Coens' sly evocation of the Old West.



MY IDEAL BALLOT
The American – Martin Ruhe
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 – Eduardo Serra
Shutter Island – Robert Richardson
The Square – Brad Shield
True Grit – Roger Deakins

If Deakins exercises subtlety in capturing the visual tropes of a classic western, Ruhe employs remarkable restraint in chronicling the travails of George Clooney's subdued assassin in The American. The noir genre has rarely been more clammy than in The Square, thanks largely to Shields' dead-on framing, most memorably in a stunning helicopter shot of a suburban neighborhood that eventually pulls its focus onto a single burning roof. Released from the confines of Hogwarts in Deathly Hallows, Serra delivers one extraordinary shot after another, while he uses harsh lighting to thrilling effect in the snake sequence. Richardson, meanwhile, enhances the unreliable narrator approach of Shutter Island by constantly keeping things off-kilter, resulting in an unsettling visual experience that continually amplifies the viewer's sense of dread.

Also Deserving: Agora – Xavi Giménez (for finding beauty in human depravity); Never Let Me Go – Adam Kimmel (for twinning Rachel Portman's score to images nearly as heartbreaking); A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop – Xiaoding Zhao (for observing the madness of this Blood Simple remake with resplendent detachment).




BEST FILM EDITING

NOMINEES
Black Swan – Andrew Weisblum
The Fighter – Pamela Martin
The King's Speech – Tariq Anwar
127 Hours – Jon Harris
The Social Network – Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall

WILL WIN
Sobering fact: The Best Picture winner has also emerged victorious in this field in four of the last five years, as well as six of the last eight. That would be just fine with me if the snappily edited Social Network had maintained its juggernaut status. But it hasn't. Ironically, the only movie that could derail The King's Speech would be Inception, only Lee Smith's devilishly tricky feat of editing somehow didn't even land a nomination. Whoops.

All the same, the free-riding trend of this category should actually make you prick up your ears on Oscar night when the winner is announced. If The Social Network pulls off the upset, then the Best Director race (if not the Best Picture derby) just got a whole lot more interesting. But don't count on it. The King's Speech continues to pad its stats.

SHOULD WIN
In theory, Harris' nomination for 127 Hours makes sense, because you need taut editing in order to bring cinematic verve to a movie that spends the majority of its running time focusing on a single, immobilized character in a single location. Unfortunately, Danny Boyle's histrionics submarine an otherwise compelling picture, and no editor could have saved Boyle from himself. The quality of Martin's editing on The Fighter mirrors that of the film itself – serviceable, competent, forgettable. I've been harping on The King's Speech a bit, and that's more due to its comparative shortcomings versus other more deserving contenders than its own failings, so I'll acknowledge that Anwar's editing is reasonably brisk and well-paced. More impressive is Weisblum's work on Black Swan, which somehow shepherds Darren Aronofsky's maniacal impulses into a semi-coherent narrative.

But this is a one-horse town, as The Social Network is an editing marvel. Not only does the film pinball back and forth in time with flawless, near-mathematical precision, but every scene seethes with crisp cutting. Consider the following clip: It's a sequence that positively pulses with energy (the electronic score works wonders), advancing the movie's theme (the contrast between the privileged elite and Zuckerberg's own haughty intellectual classism) while also laying out crucial plot points. But what's truly amazing is that this is a scene about a nerd sitting at his computer. Yet it has more rambunctious vitality than any stock action sequence. That's great editing.



MY IDEAL BALLOT
Black Swan – Andrew Weisblum
Inception – Lee Smith
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
The Secret in Their Eyes – Juan José Campanella
The Social Network – Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall

Black Swan and The Social Network earned their nominations. Were it not for a fellow named Chris Nolan, Smith's omission would constitute this year's most egregious Oscar snub; Inception's final third alone – in which the movie canvasses three simultaneous sequences with impeccable clarity – ought to have secured it a spot here. In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the editors pull of the delicate feat of indulging in the film's manic energy while also ensuring that the movie doesn't self-combust. Editing his own film, Campanella maintains the suspense of The Secret in Their Eyes by cutting across different timelines with sharp-eyed acuity.

Also Deserving: Buried – Rodrigo Cortés (takes an already tense situation and ratchets up the tension continuously for 90 minutes); The Town – Dylan Tichenor (would be on my ballot if the final shootout didn't drag on as long as it does).


BEST ART DIRECTION

NOMINEES
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Inception
The King's Speech
True Grit

WILL WIN
Deathly Hallows is out for the simple reason that no Harry Potter movie will ever win an Oscar until God stops hating me, and there's no sign of that happening any time soon. I'm also reasonably comfortable bouncing True Grit, as I think its cinematography will sap up any potential for recognition in other areas.

That leaves three, and it brings us to an odd piece of Oscar trivia. In a bizarre coincidence, the ultimate Best Picture winner has failed to be nominated for Best Art Direction in every year since 2003. What does that mean? It means The Social Network is going to win Best Picture! Just kidding. But it does mean that Art Direction isn't necessarily a category in which a heavy hitter automatically enjoys preferential status with the Academy. Now, one could argue that the mere fact that The King's Speech was nominated suggests that its art direction is especially impressive, thus making it even more of a lock. But I'm not buying that, largely because I've seen its art direction; apart from the throne, it's hardly laudable.

Instead, I'm going to back an upset, and while I don't see Inception receiving much of an embrace here, I do think Alice in Wonderland can pull off a surprise win. The Academy has used this category to recognize films that were less than critically beloved, as past winners include Memoirs of a Geisha, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Sleepy Hollow. Not for nothing, but two of those are Tim Burton pictures, and Burton just happened to direct Alice in Wonderland as well (or so I'm told – you'd never know it from watching the movie). And Burton's fantasy film certainly has plenty of visible art direction. Want more circumstantial evidence? The King's Speech just lost at the BAFTAs in this category (to Inception, but still), and the BAFTAs weren't exactly shy about honoring the prestige product. So fuck it, we're feeling frisky and heading down the rabbit hole.

(I can't believe I talked myself into this.)



SHOULD WIN
Harry Potter. Look, I adore Inception, but the environments in Deathly Hallows are simply jaw-dropping. From the foreboding architecture of the Ministry of Magic to the brittle desolation of Godric's Hollow to the chilly darkness of Malfoy Manor to the aching beauty of the Forest of Dean, every location in the movie is a standard-bearer of bold, breathtaking art direction. Kudos to the Academy for at least nominating it.



MY IDEAL BALLOT
Agora
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Inception
Shutter Island

Alice in Wonderland, for all its (many) faults, is a visual showstopper, and Tim Burton knows how make the most out of his locations (real or otherwise). Inception serves as a flamboyant survey of modern movie architecture, with environments ranging from a pristinely manicured Asian villa to a snowy fortress transplanted right out of a James Bond film. Agora brilliantly realizes ancient Rome, both in its storied glory and its crumbling decay. And Shutter Island makes the title location one hell of a creepy place.

Also Deserving: The Book of Eli (for making a post-apocalyptic world look thoroughly unpleasant); The Company Men (for punctuating its pointed themes about corporate America with gaudy mansions); The Ghost Writer (I would absolutely have believed it was shot in New England if I hadn't known its director was an exiled rapist); Monsters (doing for Mexico what District 9 did for South Africa, sort of); North Face (it emphasizes the sheer lunacy of mountain-climbing just by pointing its camera and gawking); Tron: Legacy (think of it as a minimalist Avatar); Vengeance (for the phenomenal scene in which gunfighters take cover behind rolling bales of rubbish).


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

NOMINEES
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Hereafter
Inception
Iron Man 2

WILL WIN
Wait a minute, where's the automatic nomination for The King's Speech? There must have been some sort of ballot snafu. In any case, the only way Inception loses here is if Alice in Wonderland pulls a Matrix and wins every technical award in which it received a nomination (three, in its case). But that only happened with The Matrix because voters realized they should have nominated it for Best Picture, so they let it sweep the techies as an apology. Alice in Wonderland, for all its visual ingenuity, will be receiving no such apology. Inception wins in a walkover.

SHOULD WIN
It's ironic that the Academy finally expanded this field to five nominees – a change I've been lobbying for since before steroids were an issue in baseball – in a year in which very few films actually distinguished themselves via visual effects. It's also interesting to see Hereafter show up here, as that movie only employs visual effects in its (admittedly stunning) opening sequence. Iron Man 2 does a decent job showing off Tony Stark's kickass gadgets and Bond-like computer software, but it's markedly less successful in its frenetic action scenes. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows wisely uses effects sparingly, never letting them supersede the story, though the opening broomstick chase doesn't quite achieve maximum clarity. And to the best of my recollection, there are lots of neat-o effects in Alice in Wonderland, though I saw the movie 11 months ago and didn't remember it much then.

As for Inception, let me put it like this: It's always a strangely awe-inspiring experience to watch a particular scene and know immediately that it's going to be a landmark sequence in the history of cinema, that it's a piece of celluloid that will be remembered through the ages. Movies survive generations, but we don't remember them in their entirety, just in fragments. So when one of those fragments arrives on screen, that's a monumental event. Recent past examples include the married life montage from Up, the opening bank robbery in The Dark Knight, the Dunkirk tracking shot in Atonement, the bathhouse fight in Eastern Promises, and Kayden Kross' final scene in Flight Attendants.

Well, 2010 actually featured two such historic sequences. The first is the opening scene of The Social Network, a rapid-fire dialogue sequence that will serve as the gold standard for romantic nihilists for years. The second, of course, is the hallway fight in Inception.

There's a moment in the movie Se7en in which Brad Pitt stares in mute horror at the appalling crime scene in front of him, then turns to Morgan Freeman and whispers, in awestruck terror, "Honestly, have you ever seen anything like this?" Freeman's character, the consummate veteran, has seen it all, but he just shakes his head and says "no".

That's the best way I can sum up the visual effects in Inception. I have never seen anything like this. And neither have you. I'd say that deserves an Oscar.



MY IDEAL BALLOT
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Inception
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Splice
Tron: Legacy

If Deathly Hallows employed admirable restraint in toning down the effects, Scott Pilgrim overloads them into every frame of the movie, with giddy results. Splice uses its effects to create a thoroughly disturbing hybrid character who will give queasy viewers nightmares. And Tron: Legacy uses a deft, minimalist approach to build an entire world out of binary code – pity about the script.

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