Monday, February 7, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: Five totally unrelated categories

I'm lumping the following categories for one reason: I don't particularly care about them. I don't mean to suggest that they're unimportant. I would never impugn the invaluable contributions of, say, a film's costume designer, and besides, as a rabid Oscar fan, I think every category is important. But I lack the motivation to delve into these categories with the Manifesto's typical zeal, and rather than spreading the analysis over a series of separate posts, I figured I'd just blow through them all at once. As Ron Livingston said in Office Space, "It's not that I'm lazy – it's that I just don't care". Indeed.


Alice in Wonderland
I Am Love
The King's Speech
The Tempest
True Grit

I'm bouncing I Am Love immediately, as its nomination here was a total surprise, and it lacks the corresponding guild nod. (Strangely enough, this represents the lone nomination for I Am Love, a movie that was very well-received by critics, if not by my Dad.) True Grit does have a guild nomination, but according to my research, no western has ever won this award, and I don't see the Coens bucking the trend. The Tempest does feature work from three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, but the movie was absolutely ravaged by critics, and I doubt many Academy members even saw it.

This means we have a two-horse race between Alice in Wonderland and The King's Speech, and it's an intriguing litmus test to see just how far the latter's reach can extend. Alice in Wonderland is clearly the showier product in terms of its costumes, and the design branch has never shied away from honoring relatively ill-regarded movies – past winners include The Young Victoria, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Marie Antoinette. Those, however, were all period pieces, whereas Alice in Wonderland is a fantasy film, a genre the Academy has been hesitant to embrace (The Lord of the Rings excepted). Throw in its historical setting and British pedigree, and The King's Speech gains the edge almost by default.

Yawn. I haven't seen The Tempest (and given that its current gross stands at $272 k, who has?), so I have to punt there. The costumes in The King's Speech are hardly memorable (seriously, close your eyes and name me two outfits from that movie), and the same goes for True Grit. Tilda Swinton paraded around in some stylish garb in I Am Love, but she looked at her best with her clothes off, and I can't give the costume designers credit for that. Alice in Wonderland, at least, got to toy with Helena Bonham-Carter's prim-and-proper image, and while praise for the Red Queen's flaming auburn hair should more properly be recognized in Best Makeup, the outfit as a whole remains impressive.

The Duchess
Never Let Me Go
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Pride & Prejudice

Whoops, I loaded up on past Keira Knightley movies by mistake. Yeah, like there will ever be a better costume than that dress. Let's just move to the next category.


Barney's Version
The Way Back
The Wolfman

This one's tricky for me, as I've only seen one of the nominees, meaning I'll have to omit the "Should Win" section for this category. (In theory, I'll catch Barney's Version before long, provided Century Boulder follows through after playing the trailer 18 times in the past three weeks. Sadly, I can't say the same for Peter Weir's The Way Back, which has barely sniffed a multiplex outside of New York and Los Angeles.) That said, I can't imagine The Wolfman losing here, unless voters are skeptical and think that Benicio del Toro is actually a werewolf and that no actual makeup was applied. Which is totally possible.

(Note: Massive spoilers on this Wolfman clip. But the movie is lame, so you probably shouldn't care.)

Alice in Wonderland
Let Me In
The Wolfman

The Wolfman's makeup needs little elaboration. As I mentioned, the makeup artists of Alice in Wonderland deserve considerable credit for the occasionally magnificent look of Tim Burton's latest. (Sadly, they couldn't save the story.) As for Let Me In, it takes considerable courage to physically transform a young girl into a bloodthirsty (albeit emotionally sensitive) vampire, and the crew of Matt Reeves' Let Me In pulls off the feat with impressive visual force, thanks to many a bucket of blood.


Biutiful (Mexico)
Dogtooth (Greece)
In a Better World (Denmark)
Incendies (Canada)
Outside the Law (Algeria)

Again, I'm flying partially blind here, having seen only two of the five nominees thus far. (This is honestly no fault of my own; I'm typically forced to wait until Netflix to peruse foreign fare, at least until Boulder caves in to the demands of its fanatical Algerian base and opens an upscale art-house.) Naysayers will grumble that the Academy favors inspirational, borderline innocuous films here, thus marginalizing more ambitious but less formulaic films. I don't entirely buy that argument – recent winners The Lives of Others and The Secret in Their Eyes can hardly be characterized as soft-pedal entertainment – but there is some general aversion to riskier pictures.

Given that, a victory for Dogtooth is virtually unfathomable, given that the movie traffics in incest, child abuse, cat-killing, and other less-than-family-friendly tropes. Not that the relentlessly depressing Biutiful fits the Oscar bill either, nomination for leading man Javier Bardem notwithstanding. The latter film is a rough, often torpid slog through Barcelona's underbelly, and it isn't likely to inspire even faint praise, much less outright admiration.

Unfortunately, that means I'm forced to choose from three films I've yet to see. The smart money is apparently on Susanne Bier's In a Better World, especially given Bier's relative popularity (she was nominated here four years ago for After the Wedding, while her Afghanistan film Brothers earned an American adaptation). Yet the prospect of forecasting victory for a movie I've never watched feels, frankly, disingenuous. As such, I'll throw my hat in with Biutiful, as Bardem's nomination has to carry some weight here. And if I step wrong, I'll let you know why eight months from now, when In a Better World finally shows up on Netflix.

There are depressing movies that shake you to your core because you feel deep empathy for the fate of their characters, and then there are depressing movies that you just want to fucking end as soon as possible because you're sick of watching people stuck in wretched situations and acting miserable. Biutiful is the latter. If it had done its job, it would have ruined my appetite; instead, I just kept thinking (and thinking, given its interminable 145-minute running time) about how excited I was to eat a Chipotle burrito when the damn thing was finally over. That isn't quite my definition of an Oscar winner.

Dogtooth is by no means a happy film, but it is endlessly interesting. Its twisted blend of black humor, social satire, and outright repulsion doesn't necessarily coalesce into a cohesive thematic whole, but it's never boring, and the picture it paints of a cloistered family is, in its own nightmarish way, unforgettable. Just don't go in expecting a movie about pets.

Dogtooth (Greece)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden)
I Am Love (Italy)
Lebanon (Israel)
The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina)

I can't really criticize the Academy's current slate of nominees, given that I haven't seen 60% of them, but I can lament the exclusion of several of these sterling selections. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a model suspense thriller, with Noomi Rapace's fearless performance anchoring a marvelously chilling story. I Am Love, for all of its self-indulgence, is a thoroughly fascinating film, featuring yet another mesmeric performance from Tilda Swinton. Lebanon takes a potentially grating concept – the movie takes place entirely within the confines of a tank during a disastrous land assault – and spins it into a claustrophobic nightmare. And The Secret in Their Eyes actually won this award in 2009, but I didn't catch up to it until this past June, and I can't possibly leave out its deftly woven, multi-timeline screenplay.


Exit Through the Gift Shop
Inside Job
Waste Land

Hey, more movies I haven't seen! I can only blame myself this time around (perhaps someday I'll overcome my aversion to documentaries, but not this year). In any case, in the wake of the rather astonishing exclusion of Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman, the clear favorite here is Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's supposedly acidic examination of the recent Wall Street meltdown. (From what I've heard, it's similar to Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, only it replaces obnoxious grandstanding with actual filmmaking.) The wildcard here is Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is apparently some sort of super-subversive "Is it really real?" movie about a graffiti artist. I've been intentionally ignorant of most of the self-generated buzz regarding that film's various hoaxes, mainly because that stuff doesn't interest me in the slightest. More to the point, I doubt it interests Academy members either. Throw in the fact that its chief competitor is critically beloved – A.O. Scott named it the best movie of the year – and Inside Job takes it.


How to Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 is the overwhelming favorite here. That said, there's always danger that its inclusion in the Best Picture field could rob it of some votes in this lesser (and totally unnecessary) category. Furthermore, How to Train Your Dragon was itself a strong performer with critics and audiences alike, so this is far from a lock. In the end, however, Pixar's quality won't be denied.

I'll be seeing The Illusionist as soon as it arrives at the nearest theatre, but until then, the jury's out. My thoughts on Toy Story 3 are known, but I want to discuss How to Train Your Dragon briefly. It's being positioned here as the scruffy underdog, and that representation isn't entirely accurate. From a marketing and polishing sense, the DreamWorks product is virtually on par with its Pixar foe. Its animation is undoubtedly first-class – colors pop, movement is remarkably lifelike, and some of the flying scenes capture the soaring spirit of childhood joy that the medium is designed to encapsulate. The voice casting is also spot-on, with Manifesto fave Jay Baruchel effortlessly embodying the lead character's balance of nerdery and bravery. Yet from a story standpoint, How to Train Your Dragon is disappointingly ordinary. It's a perfectly pleasant movie, and it hits all of its notes precisely, but it does little to carve out new territory. It's a nicely told, expertly-made movie, and that's as much enthusiasm as I can muster for it.

My enthusiasm for Toy Story 3, by contrast, has no upper bound. Carry on, Pixar. And please make sure that Cars 2 doesn't suck.

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