Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: Prediction roundup

Last year, my friend K-Bails told me that she printed out all of my Oscar predictions and scrutinized them while watching the actual telecast. I have no idea why she did this; all I know is that when she told me, it was the proudest moment of my life since I made a game-winning over-the-shoulder catch in my first ever rec league softball game. Moments such as those are all too elusive – you have to treasure them.

Accordingly, I'm consolidating my 2010 predictions in this post for handy reference. Go nuts, K-Bails.

Also, in general, this is one of the more difficult Oscar slates in recent memory, as a number of races are incredibly close, while several others could go a number of ways. As such, I'm supplying a confidence level for each of my predictions, just to illustrate where I'm reasonably comfortable and where I'm completely grasping at straws. Of course, I'll probably wind up drilling the difficult categories and whiffing on some of the easy ones, but I suppose that would only prove my point (sort of).

Here goes nothing. Categories are listed in order of least to most confident (as always, I'm omitting the shorts):


Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Worst snub: Lesley Manville – Another Year

Best Art Direction
Will win: Alice in Wonderland (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Worst snub: Shutter Island

Best Original Score
Will win: The Social Network – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: How to Train Your Dragon – John Powell
Worst snub: Never Let Me Go – Rachel Portman

Best Original Song
Will win: Tangled – "I See the Light" (Alan Menken, Glenn Slater) (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Tangled – "I See the Light" (Alan Menken, Glenn Slater)
Worst snub: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse – "Let's Get Lost" (Bat for Lashes/Beck)

Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: Biutiful (Mexico) (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Dogtooth (Greece)
Worst snub: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden)

Best Film Editing
Will win: The King's Speech – Tariq Anwar (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: The Social Network – Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall
Worst snub: Inception – Lee Smith

Best Costume Design
Will win: The King's Speech (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Alice in Wonderland
Worst snub: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Best Makeup
Will win: The Wolfman (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: abstain (haven't seen the remaining nominees)
Worst snub: Let Me In

Best Director
Will win: Tom Hooper – The King's Speech (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
Worst snub: Christopher Nolan – Inception

Best Cinematography
Will win: True Grit – Roger Deakins (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: True Grit – Roger Deakins
Worst snub: The American – Martin Ruhe

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: Inside Job (confidence: 3/5)
Should win/worst snub: abstain

Best Picture
Will win: The King's Speech (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Inception
Worst snub: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Best Actress
Will win: Natalie Portman – Black Swan (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Worst snub: Tilda Swinton – I Am Love

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Christian Bale – The Fighter (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Christian Bale – The Fighter
Worst snub: Sean Penn – Fair Game

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: The King's Speech – David Seidler (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Inception – Christopher Nolan
Worst snub: The Square – Joel Edgerton, Matthew Dabner

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin
Worst snub: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 – Steve Kloves

Best Sound Mixing
Will win: Inception (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Inception
Worst snub: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Best Sound Editing
Will win: Inception (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Inception
Worst snub: How to Train Your Dragon

Best Actor
Will win: Colin Firth – The King's Speech (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Worst snub: Ryan Gosling – Blue Valentine

Best Visual Effects
Will win: Inception (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Inception
Worst snub: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Best Animated Feature
Will win: Toy Story 3 (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Toy Story 3
Worst snub: Tangled


And that's a wrap. Thanks for following the Manifesto's 2010 Oscar coverage. As a reward, here is a clip of one of the greatest opening scenes in movie history.

Oscars Analysis 2010: Best Picture and Best Director

For most of the Oscars' history, the categories of Best Picture and Best Director were virtual redundancies, with the filmmaker of the former almost always being honored in the latter. Yet the Academy started spicing things around the turn of the century, and in the eight-year span from 1998 to 2005, four directors earned trophies for movies that failed to come away with the big prize.

The last four years, however, have signaled a return to the systematic overlap of the prior half-century. Will 2010 prove to be different? We can only hope.

BEST PICTURE

NOMINEES
Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

WILL WIN
I normally save my analysis of Best Picture for last, but this year, there's little point, given the complete lack of suspense. Anyone picking against The King's Speech is grasping for an elusive justification and ignoring the simple truth. (For example, those desperate to pick an alternative might eagerly point out that The King's Speech takes considerable liberties with the facts, namely that the character played by Guy Pearce was actually a Nazi sympathizer. It's an entirely correct charge, and it's just as entirely meaningless. Indeed, you could levy that exact same complaint against The Social Network. This isn't an award for best documentary, folks.)

That simple truth is twofold. First, The King's Speech bears all the hallmarks of a classic Oscar winner (historical drama, British pedigree, triumphant ending, protagonist with physical disability, naked Gwyneth Paltrow – O.K., that last one only applies to Shakespeare in Love, but everything else is valid). Second, the movie won at the Producers' Guild, an association that uses the same (moronic) preferential voting system as the Academy and that just happens to be the single best predictor of Best Picture at the Oscars.

Defy those facts at your peril. I wish I could mount a serious argument in favor of The Social Network, but as ardent a supporter of that film as I am, it just doesn't have the Oscar juice. This race was over a long time ago.




SHOULD WIN
With 10 nominees, let's break these into five tiers of two films apiece.

Tier 5: These aren't the droids you're looking for. I liked Winter's Bone just fine, but why critics singled it out as the standard-bearer of the 2010 indie scene is beyond me; it's an appropriately small-scale film that doesn't try to do too much, but its ultimate impact is correspondingly slight. 127 Hours is almost the opposite – a brash, sensory-heavy experience that can't recognize when to hit the brakes.

Tier 4: Decent movie. Can we go now? The Fighter is a suitably pleasant filmgoing experience that, outside of Christian Bale's extraordinary performance, takes no chances and breaks no new ground whatsoever. The Kids Are All Right is more cagey and ambitious, but it can't quite connect its themes of familial strife and sexual identity into a unifying thesis.

Tier 3: Solidly workmanlike and thoroughly enjoyable. The King's Speech may be as safe as The Fighter in terms of its traditional style and its exploration of underdog genre tropes, but it proceeds with such clarity and fluidity that it's impossible not to enjoy. True Grit similarly mines familiar territory, but the Coen Brothers' masterful dexterity elevates it to high art.

Tier 2: Prepare to get your world rocked. Black Swan, in its own maniacal way, provides the giddiest moviegoing experience of the year, as if you surrender yourself to its flights of phantasmagorical fancy, you'll be hypnotized with horror. Toy Story 3, meanwhile, revisits old friends with a strikingly new perspective, resulting in the most emotional moment at the movies this year. Either way, you're feeling something, and that's what great movies are about.

Tier 1: Wow. My two favorite films of the year, as I've been saying for some time, are Inception and The Social Network. Both are products of impeccable craftsmanship, but the similarities may end there. Inception is a daring, singular vision, a lavishly designed thrill ride down the rabbit hole of our own minds. The Social Network, in contrast, is a precise, surgical character study of innovative genius and a gripping examination of the twin desires for individual recognition and human connection. Both are magnificent cinematic achievements that will be remembered long beyond this year's Oscar ceremony.

So which is better? It's a bit unsavory to reduce the discussion of two monumental works of art to a question that is so vulgarly binary, but the award is for Best Picture, so such is life. The answer, I think, depends upon what you most value in movies. Do you favor intimate, dialogue-driven pictures that prod at society's eternal need for relationships in an increasingly isolated world? Or do you prefer excruciatingly detailed, boldly original set pieces that function both as thrilling escapism and as probing philosophical questions about the very nature of dreams?

Again, this is a false choice, as the proper answer is "both". But the question must be answered, and fantasy junkie that I am, I tend to favor the latter. Make no mistake, The Social Network is perfect. But Inception is transcendent. And that's why it's the best movie of 2010.




MY IDEAL BALLOT
I'll unveil this at some point when I post my own top 10 list for 2010. My reason for waiting isn't that I'm intentionally teasing my readers (the nerve! the suspense!) but that I want to see as many movies as possible before finalizing my list. Granted, of all the releases in 2010, I watched 92 in theatres, plus another 34 on Netflix, but there are still many more I need to consume. A movie fanatic's work, it appears, is never done.


BEST DIRECTOR

NOMINEES
Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
Joel & Ethan Coen – True Grit
David Fincher – The Social Network
Tom Hooper – The King's Speech
David O. Russell – The Fighter

WILL WIN
Now we're talking. The curious thing about this year's Oscars is that, while the Best Picture award is virtually a foregone conclusion, the Best Director race remains thoroughly in debate. It's merely a two-party show, however, as the only real contenders are Tom Hooper for The King's Speech and David Fincher for The Social Network. The prevailing theory from some pundits is that The Social Network, being fucking awesome, has to win at least one major category, and given that Colin Firth is a Fenster-Sneckler-380 lock for Best Actor, Fincher is the Facebook crowd's best bet. Moreover, said pundits contend that Fincher is a known name amidst Academy circles, whereas Hooper is a relative amateur, meaning the latter hasn't yet paid his dues.

Unfortunately, I have major issues with that theory. First, Hooper won at the Directors' Guild, and no filmmaker who won that award has lost at the Oscars since Rob Marshall for Chicago in 2002. Second, I'm already pegging The Social Network to win a major award, namely Best Adapted Screenplay. And finally, Fincher isn't exactly Clint Eastwood – this is only his second nomination, and he's still just 48 years old, so voters will have plenty of opportunities to reward him in the future.

I hope I'm wrong, of course, as I do in so many categories at this year's Oscars. But too many arrows are pointing in Hooper's direction. And if I'm right, well, here's to what Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park.




SHOULD WIN
Russell's nomination is a sham and merits no further discussion. Hooper's isn't much more deserved, as his workmanlike approach to The King's Speech is serviceable but hardly award-worthy. The Coens do their usual magnificent work in True Grit, and even if the result is strangely unmemorable, that shouldn't take away from the Brothers' poise and precision.

Now, outside of the completely badass Henley Regatta sequence, it's tempting to overlook Fincher's masterful command of The Social Network, given that the film plays host to Aaron Sorkin's superb screenplay and a bevy of flawless performances. But it's Fincher's movie, and he ensures that the pacing remains tight, the editing crisp, and the visuals sharp yet unobtrusive.

That said, I'm actually going to go against The Social Network and take Darren Aronofsky for his startlingly ambitious work in Black Swan. Part of it is just a matter of relative value-add; Fincher started his movie with a great script and a top-notch cast, whereas the premise of Aronofsky's picture is utterly preposterous and stars an actress who, until this film, had never truly wowed audiences. But the helmer of Requiem for a Dream dives into the absurdity of Black Swan with both a fanboy's relish and a maestro's discipline, transforming a potentially laughable horror flick into an unforgettable movie that is delectably nightmarish.




MY IDEAL BALLOT
Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
Christopher Nolan – Inception
Martin Scorsese – Shutter Island
Edgar Wright – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
David Yates – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Aronofsky's nomination is welcome; Nolan's snub is criminal. Scorsese abandons all sense of discipline and turns a nonsensical mess into a compelling psychological thriller. Wright brings boundless energy to the off-kilter universe of Scott Pilgrim, and the result is pure joy. Yates, in contrast, approaches the penultimate installment of a landmark cinematic franchise with patience and restraint, creating an exhilarating adaptation that stands quite well on its own.

(Note: I could write 3,000 words about the following clip and still have plenty left in reserve. Suffice it to say that it perfectly embodies everything that's great about Yates' adaptations – refusal to bind himself slavishly to the books, willingness to let music and visuals tell his story, and a deft, unassuming hand with his actors. It's magic.)




MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Joel & Ethan Coen – True Grit
Nash Edgerton – The Square
David Fincher – The Social Network
Luca Guadagnino – I Am Love
Roman Polanski – The Ghost Writer

A former stunt coordinator, Edgerton brings the same ruthless craftsmanship that the Coen Brothers brought to their debut 26 years ago in Blood Simple. Joel and Ethan, meanwhile, have hardly lost their touch, as True Grit shows. Guadagnino proves that Scorsese isn't the only director who never knows when to stop, converting potential schlock into serious art. Polanski, the great auteur, has rarely seemed to be enjoying himself more than in The Ghost Writer, right down to his devilish final shot.




Also deserving: Ben Affleck – The Town (for injecting energy into a stock crime picture); J. Blakeson – The Disappearance of Alice Creed (for that riveting silent opening sequence); Juan Jose Campanella – The Secret in Their Eyes (for that riveting single take at the soccer stadium); Anton Corbijn – The American (for proving that imagery can speak as loudly as dialogue); Giorgos Lanthimos – Dogtooth (for observing insanity with extreme detachment); Matt Reeves – Let Me In (for illustrating that scary movies aren't all about the "Boo!" moments).

Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: Lead Actor and Actress

In his column detailing the 10 best movies of 2010, New York Times critic A.O. Scott – better known in some circles as "God with a typewriter" – delivered the following gem: "Only a great director can make a great movie, but a good actor can make a bad or mediocre or not-quite-great movie much better." It's a perfect truism, and it also buttresses my current assessment of contemporary cinema as a whole. I don't see very many truly great movies these days, and that's partly because there aren't very many truly great directors operating behind the camera. But I do see plenty of good movies, and that's substantially a result of the surfeit of talented actors currently practicing their craft. So while I always find plenty to grumble about come Oscar season, the only real complaint I can lodge against the lead acting categories is that they limit themselves to five nominees.


BEST ACTOR

NOMINEES
Javier Bardem – Biutiful
Jeff Bridges – True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Colin Firth – The King's Speech
James Franco – 127 Hours

WILL WIN
Firth. Four months ago, Eisenberg may have had a shot, but that ship has long since sailed, and Bridges' victory last year for Crazy Heart nullifies any chance at a lifetime achievement award for The Dude. And as perversely entertaining as it is that The King's Speech was apparently shot on the same set as a gay porno called Snookered, that news didn't surface until the day ballots were due, so it's nothing more than a bizarre footnote.

(Massive spoilers in this clip.)




SHOULD WIN
Quite the quintet here. The only actor whose work didn't speak to me was Bridges, as the cagey veteran turns in a serviceable performance that is nevertheless thoroughly overshadowed by that of his 14-year-old costar. Bardem's great achievement is that he almost makes the drudgery of Biutiful watchable, bringing quiet dignity to his character even as he sinks into despair. And Franco's riveting performance is really the only reason to see 127 Hours, as the actor communicates the gravity of his protagonist's plight without ever pleading for our sympathy.

But for me, this is really a duel between Eisenberg and Firth. The latter is, if you'll pardon the British colloquialism, spot-on in his portrayal of the World War II monarch. It's true that Firth has the benefit of a character with a speech impediment (at the Oscars, the advantage always goes to the disadvantaged), but the actor doesn't use the stuttering problem as a crux. You can see the pain on his face in every scene, and Firth uses his character's forced silence to communicate his revulsion, both with the world and with himself. For this regal man, opening his mouth is pure torture.

Yet as impressive as Firth's performance is, it can't quite rival the astounding work from Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. Playing Mark Zuckerberg as half-revolutionary, half-asshole, he delivers an unyielding performance of matchless rigor. Eisenberg's command of Aaron Sorkin's ruthlessly rapid-fire dialogue is nothing short of masterful, but it's his nonverbal acting that elevates the performance to immortality. It's always dangerous playing an unlikable protagonist, but Eisenberg somehow conveys the torrent of emotions that buffet Zuckerberg internally, even while displaying a steely, off-putting exterior. Watching him, we are watching a man who is simply smarter than we are (watch the way his eyes constantly dart around a room, as if he's continuously assimilating additional information). Yet as a result of the chasmic intellectual gap between this innovator and the ordinary mortals surrounding him, he can't connect with those close to him, and Eisenberg illustrates Zuckerberg's massive isolation without softening the edges of his prickly persona. He brought the whole world together, and he's all alone.

(Did I adequately answer your condescending question?)




MY IDEAL BALLOT
Leonardo DiCaprio – Shutter Island
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Colin Firth – The King's Speech
James Franco – 127 Hours
Ryan Gosling – Blue Valentine

Eisenberg, Firth, and Franco earned their seat at the ceremony (interestingly, as with the Best Supporting Actress race in 2009, a majority of my suggested candidates in this category match the Academy's – a rare case indeed). DiCaprio continues his run of impeccable performances with a nervy, immersive portrayal of a man on the brink; it's a tour de force of acting that is borderline-unhinged but also perfectly controlled. Gosling, meanwhile, finds humor amidst the heartbreak in Blue Valentine, though in the end, heartbreak wins out.




MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
George Clooney – The American
Aaron Eckhart – Rabbit Hole
Edward Norton – Leaves of Grass
Al Pacino – You Don't Know Jack
Ryan Reynolds – Buried

Clooney sheds his cloak of stardom to deliver a quiet, unflinching performance that is muted but no less resonant than his more typically glittering work. Eckhart matches Nicole Kidman blow for emotional blow as a grieving father. Norton creates not one but two compelling characters in Leaves of Grass. Pacino simply disappears into the role of Jack Kevorkian – it's his most fully committed performance since The Insider. And Reynolds gives Franco a run for his money in the "I'm trapped and am about to fucking die" sweepstakes.




Also deserving: Casey Affleck – The Killer Inside Me (for being singularly creepy); Russell Crowe – The Next Three Days (for somehow being convincing as a wimpy badass); Matt Damon – Hereafter (for lending credence to the movie's overall absurdity); Ricardo Darín – The Secret in Their Eyes (for his longing); Robert Downey, Jr. – Iron Man 2 (for continuing to be awesome); David Roberts – The Square (for his hopelessness as he descends into Hell).


BEST ACTRESS

NOMINEES
Annette Bening – The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine

WILL WIN
Portman, although this one isn't as locked in as Firth's certain victory for The King's Speech. Black Swan earned its share of nominations, but it's a highly niche film that might chafe some of the Academy's more old-fashioned members. In that case, Bening could sneak in for a surprise win. But Portman has been cleaning up on the circuit, and it would be foolish to predict the Oscars would have the audacity (or the stupidity) to buck the trend.




(And for the record, yes, the sex scene in Black Swan between Portman and Mila Kunis does indeed win the Femme Fatale Award for Best Sex Scene in a movie this year. In a distant second is the impressively graphic scene in The Girl Who Played with Fire, followed by the bordello scene in The American.

Also for the record, the 2010 winner of the Irreversible Award for Worst Sex Scene is, without doubt, Blue Valentine. If you watch this movie with your girlfriend, be prepared to fly solo for the following month. Ugh. Let's just move on.)

SHOULD WIN
This is another strong group, although it isn't as collectively overpowering as its set of male counterparts. Bening gives a typically nuanced portrayal of a strong, self-empowered woman whose world starts to crumble. Kidman, as beautiful and forcefully present as ever, never succumbs to histrionics and ensures that Rabbit Hole doesn't either. Lawrence has the burden of carrying an entire film thrust upon her fragile shoulders, and she carries the weight ably, refusing to crack even when her character finally does. And Williams, though not matching her costar punch for punch, brings poignancy to the misery of Blue Valentine.




Natalie Portman, however, outshines them all, and frankly, it isn't close. The sheer lunacy of Black Swan is part of the fun, but it wouldn't work without Portman's fully committed, coyly duplicitous performance. As a character, she's meek, she's vengeful, she's terrified, she's terrifying. As an actress, she's just good.

MY IDEAL BALLOT
Kim Hye-ja – Mother
Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Noomi Rapace – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Tilda Swinton – I Am Love

Portman delivers by far her career-best work in Black Swan. As a woman committed to protecting her son at all costs, Kim Hye-ja is impressively disturbing and wholly unforgettable. Rapace embraces the challenge of playing a larger-than-life protagonist and creates an iconic character in the process. Steinfeld captivates the screen for the entirety of True Grit's run time in a debut performance that hopefully heralds the start of a stellar career. Swinton, who just happens to speak Italian for this movie (apparently with a Russian accent, no less), should just have a fucking statue named after her already.




(By the way, I couldn't mention the music of I Am Love in my Best Original Score analysis because it isn't original music but previously existing work from a composer named John Adams. That said, the use of Adams' music in the movie is absolutely phenomenal, adding further spectacle to a film that is already magnificently operatic.)


MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Greta Gerwig – Greenberg
Anne Hathaway – Love & Other Drugs
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
Giovanna Mezzogiorno – Vincere
Mary Elizabeth Winstead – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Gerwig is a naturally incandescent presence who lights up Greenberg whenever she's on screen. Hathaway strips away all remaining vestiges of her Princess Diaries image, as well as her clothes, and both of those are fine with me. Mezzogiorno brings single-minded intensity to her role as Mussolini's mistress, though even she can't save Vincere from tedium. And Winstead offers a laconic, arch portrayal that nicely counterbalances the overall zaniness of Scott Pilgrim's world.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: The screenplays

The prevailing trend of criticism among stuffy movie reviewers over the past few years (or decades, or millennia) is simple: Hollywood pictures are too rote. Scan the web for reviews of movies such as The A-Team, and you'll invariably find cineastes grousing about how studios are recycling the same tired ideas over and over and how filmmakers are prioritizing action and star power over foundational elements like plot and character. Now, the Manifesto has always prided itself on steering clear of this haughty line of scholarly arrogance; I can't say that I've never met a blockbuster I didn't like, but I've never dismissed a movie solely because it made money.

Nevertheless, if we assume that these stodgy critics actually have a point (and, on occasion, they do), then perhaps no two Oscar categories are more important to modern cinema than the next two. Good movies begin with good scripts, so the celebration of top-tier screenplays is particularly noteworthy in the current era. In theory, an Oscar-winning screenplay could shape the contours of stellar screenwriting for years to come. Or it could be the script for Crash.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

NOMINEES
127 Hours – Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy
The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin
Toy Story 3 – Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich
True Grit – Joel & Ethan Coen
Winter's Bone – Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini

WILL WIN
It's tempting for me to just triumphantly shout "SOCIAL NETWORK!" and be done with it. But I'm wary of that film's 2009 doppelganger, a truly excellent movie that dominated on the awards' circuit for most of the season before inexplicably lagging during the home stretch, ultimately coming away with exactly zero Oscars. The film I'm referring to is, of course, Up in the Air, which charged out of the gate only to fizzle at the finish, with the final insult coming when it lost this category (where it had been perceived as a virtual lock) to Precious. And the similarities between Up in the Air and The Social Network are alarming: Both received near-unanimous adulation from critics, both were warmly embraced by audiences, both were initially perceived as the Oscar frontrunner at the time of their release, and both eventually ran out of steam (presumably, in the latter's case).

The crucial difference, at least for this category, is that whereas Up in the Air featured a highly visible cast – with an established superstar in the lead role – The Social Network's most recognizable figure is Aaron Sorkin. Don't get me wrong, Jesse Eisenberg is already a phenomenal actor, and Andrew Garfield is fast on his way to becoming one, but they don't yet have moviestar cachet (nor does Justin Timberlake – remember who's voting here). Sorkin, on the other hand, is the guy who created "The West Wing" and is reputed as one of the most gifted writers in the business.

It helps that his competition isn't particularly strong. (Of course, I said that about Up in the Air vis-à-vis Precious last year. Grr.) 127 Hours features limited dialogue, and the Academy tends to focus on wordplay more so than storytelling in this category, while the sparse, slow-paced narrative of Winter's Bone is unlikely to inspire many voters. Toy Story 3 packages a delightful story within its witty script, but if Wall-E can't win this award, no animated movie can.

The only true challenger to The Social Network comes from the Coen Brothers, who already won a screenwriting Oscar three years ago for No Country for Old Men. Yet while the redemption tale of True Grit is undeniably appealing, the movie is less memorable for its screenplay than for its striking imagery and breakthrough performance. In any case, none of the competitors features the snap-crackle-pop dialogue that only Sorkin can pen. So even if the movie will find itself grotesquely marginalized for the majority of Oscar night, The Social Network can at least content itself with this award for Sorkin. Why? Because he's CEO, bitch.




SHOULD WIN
I always feel obligated to throw out a cautionary note here in that I'm not qualified to weigh in on this category. That's because the award is for best adapted screenplay; the key is how skillfully the writer can translate previously existing material to the screen. And given that I haven't read the source material for four of the nominees, I can't opine with authority about the relative quality of the adaptations.

That said, The Social Network is my clear winner here for a number of reasons. First, 127 Hours is a screenwriting zero; Aron Ralston's journey may have been extraordinary, but Danny Boyle's and Simon Beaufoy's script fails to adequately communicate the metaphysical weight of his struggle. Second, Toy Story 3 shouldn't even be here – it's an entirely original story that just happens to be based on characters created 15 years ago, so what the hell is it adapting? Third, Winter's Bone was boring. And fourth, as enjoyable a movie as True Grit is, it never digs under the skin of its characters and discovers what makes them tick.

Which is not to say that Sorkin deserves his Oscar as a result of mere process of elimination. The omnipresent danger of a Sorkin script – and the best and worst thing about "The West Wing" – is his tendency to outsmart his audience and cross the line from intelligent writing to outright showmanship. But the dialogue of The Social Network, while smart, is never condescending. True, the characters frequently engage in Sorkin's whiplash-style back-and-forth, but the banter has a surprisingly naturalistic feel, resulting in a script that's both sharp and honest. Throw in a dizzying, brilliantly conceived narrative structure that fluidly dips and dives across multiple timelines and character arcs, and you've got a screenplay for the ages.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Fair Game – Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 – Steve Kloves
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright
The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin
Toy Story 3 – Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich

The Butterworths do a magnificent job encapsulating years of thorny political gamesmanship in Fair Game while nevertheless providing a refreshingly partisan perspective. Steve Kloves continues his impressive run with the Harry Potter franchise, excising subplots and spinning new scenes that are fully cinematic yet still feel as though they were birthed in the Potterverse. Wright and Bacall keep the pedal to the metal in Scott Pilgrim in a spirited effort to capture the colorful vitality of a graphic novel. And if I'm forced to consider Toy Story 3 in the adapted category, it's certainly making my ballot – the following scene says more than I ever could (spoilers follow).




Also deserving: The Ghost Writer – Robert Harris, Roman Polanski (for turning something as potentially boring as political intrigue into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse); Love & Other Drugs – Charles Randolph et al. (for never fearing to mix humor with emotion, even if the mixture never quite settles); Never Let Me Go – Alex Garland (for its patience); Rabbit Hole (for its sensitivity); The Secret in Their Eyes – Eduardo Sacheri, Juan José Campanella (for tying its multi-timeline story together with grace and economy).


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

NOMINEES
Another Year – Mike Leigh
The Fighter – Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington
Inception – Christopher Nolan
The Kids Are All Right – Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg
The King's Speech – David Seidler

WILL WIN
You know the drill. The past five Best Picture winners have also scooped an award for their screenplay, so it's impossible to pick against The King's Speech here. It's true that the Oscars have shown the tendency to go off a map a bit in this category, awarding such oddball titles as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Talk to Her. That, however, is potentially a byproduct of the curious fact that seven of the past nine Best Picture winners have served as adaptations of previously existing material. The last time the winner in this category triumphed over the eventual Best Picture victor was when Almost Famous knocked off Gladiator in 2000.

If there's a potential spoiler here, I'd point to Inception, as its sheer originality could give it the, ahem, kick that it needs. Alternatively, The Kids Are All Right is a dialogue-heavy film that resides right in Hollywood's backyard. But those are both hefty longshots, so Seidler should feel plenty secure.




SHOULD WIN
Inception, and handily, but I do want to acknowledge Mike Leigh's muted, perfectly pitched screenplay for Another Year. The movie isn't perfect – it could have trimmed a decent chunk of its material without fear of losing its theme (as my father put it, "They should have called it Another Nine Months") – but Leigh continues to showcase a sharp ear for the nuances of everyday conversation, as well as a keen eye for the desperation that clouds the banality of everyday life.

That said, Leigh's screenplay doesn't feature a freight train barreling through a crowded city street as projections of the dream subject's subconscious open fire on a team of extractors who are waiting to burrow two levels deeper into that subconscious before they plant an idea about corporate espionage disguised as a cathartic father-son reconciliation, even though they're all actually just sleeping on a freaking jumbo jet the whole time. Nolan's does. So there.




MY IDEAL BALLOT
Agora – Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gil
Another Year – Mike Leigh
Inception – Christopher Nolan
The King's Speech – David Seidler
The Square – Joel Edgerton, Matthew Dabner

Agora is a curious combination of scientific discovery, religious zealotry, and historical bigness, and the script blends it into a thoroughly engaging melodrama. I've been harping on The King's Speech quite a bit recently, mainly in a comparative sense, but Seidler's screenplay is both economical and reasonably stirring. The Square, meanwhile, is chilly noir at its darkest and finest.

Also deserving: Ajami – Yaron Shani, Scandar Copti (for taking an intimate look at a cultural problem); Black Swan – Mark Heyman et al. (for making ballet batshit crazy); Dogtooth – Giorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou (for making homeschooling batshit crazy).

Monday, February 21, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress

And now, we get to the good stuff.

Of course, you could argue that the supporting actor/actress categories are, in a weird way, overrated by the moviegoing public. That's partly because the awards often pay homage to the quality of the role more so than the actual performance, meaning they're saluting the screenwriter rather than the actor. There's also a visibility issue: Everyone notices actors, but fewer viewers appreciate the labors of cinematographers, art directors, composers, and other craftsmen whose contributions are no less essential to the overall quality of a film. And because so many performers these days are so damn talented, supporting actors typically sport a low VORP (value over replacement player) – swap one out for another, and it's unlikely your movie will suffer terribly as a result.

(For the record, I briefly addressed VORP and its unlimited allegorical potential here. But I'm going to repeat what I said previously: Never, ever use VORP as a metric for evaluating girlfriends. Not unless you want to become the most reviled misanthrope this side of Louis Farrakhan.)

But that last point is exactly why I love the supporting categories. Hollywood is absolutely loaded with high-caliber actors right now. As far as movies go overall, I only find myself blown away 2-3 times per year, but I'm astounded by the quality of a particular performance with far greater frequency. The movies may be stagnating – that's a debate for another day – but the actors keep getting better, and there's no harm in paying homage to that.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

NOMINEES
Christian Bale – The Fighter
John Hawkes – Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner – The Town
Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush – The King's Speech

WILL WIN
More than any other category, this race represents the threshold test for The King's Speech. Christian Bale is the heavy favorite here for his transformative work in The Fighter, and it would be foolish to predict anyone else. That said, he isn't officially a lock, as it's feasible that Geoffrey Rush could sneak away with the statuette. If that happens, then The King's Speech's awards pedigree mutates from sturdy frontrunner with coattails (think Slumdog Millionaire) to absolute behemoth that will slaughter everything in its path (think The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Currently, I have The King's Speech pegged to win seven Oscars out of its 12 nominated categories; if Rush wins here, then the pleasant prestige picture could feasibly take home 11 trophies (a win for Best Sound Mixing isn't happening), which would tie it for the most in Oscar history.

What's especially intriguing is that the Best Supporting Actor award is usually announced early in the telecast, so we'll know early on what to expect. If Bale wins, Social Network fans can keep holding onto that fledgling feeling called hope. If Rush wins, we could be in for a long, boring, thoroughly depressing night.



SHOULD WIN
See what I mean about talented actors? Just a tremendous group here, with Jeremy Renner as the lone weak link, and even his performance is eagerly entertaining, if entirely lacking in subtext. Hawkes' nomination is particularly satisfying, as the reliable character actor of "Deadwood" fame disappears into his role without a hint of artifice. Another scruffy character actor, Ruffalo has received somewhat better recognition for his talents to this point, but he nevertheless delivers a career-best performance in The Kids Are All Right, adding a barely perceptible scent of desperation to his otherwise easygoing charm. Geoffrey Rush faces the danger of being swallowed in Colin Firth's formidable shadow, but he proves a worthy foil, parrying his costar's pronounced pain with both empathy and sly wit.



Christian Bale, however, is in another league here. As my sister pointed out, the minute he walks onto the screen, you're transfixed. The performance is simply mesmeric. Unfortunately for The Fighter, he's only in about half the movie, and the other half is dominated by the haplessly outmatched Mark Wahlberg, but that doesn't make Bale's work any less of a knockout.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Christian Bale – The Fighter
Andrew Garfield – The Social Network
Sean Penn – Fair Game
Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
Justin Timberlake – The Social Network

The Academy's utter indifference toward Fair Game represents the quietest injustice at this year's Oscars, and Penn's portrayal of righteous dignity ranks among the best performances of his career (and this is Sean Penn, so that's saying something). Garfield – one of the hottest risers around and starring in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot – counterbalances Jesse Eisenberg's ruthless intellect with painful poignancy, bringing pathos to a picture already brimming with feeling. Timberlake, meanwhile, demolishes every scene he's in, reeking so heavily of charisma that you can almost smell his cologne.



MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Niels Arestrup – A Prophet
John Hawkes – Winter's Bone
Danny Huston – You Don't Know Jack
Geoffrey Rush – The King's Speech
Michael Shannon – The Runaways

Forgive me, but I can hardly limit myself to five. If Penn brings righteous fury to Fair Game, Arestrup brings merciless cruelty to his role as an aging gangster in A Prophet. As Jack Kevorkian's lawyer, Huston nimbly straddles his character's dual nature as protective surrogate and wily opportunist. Shannon is absolutely electric as the flamboyant rock promoter in The Runaways – he gets bonus points for taking a role diametrically opposed to his work as the terrifying prohibition agent in "Boardwalk Empire" and being frighteningly convincing in both.

Also deserving: Kieran Culkin – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (for being hilarious every time he opens his mouth, thanks as much to his perpetually winking delivery as the stellar screenplay); Edward Norton – Stone (for continuing to take adventurous roles long after he's ascended to the A-list); Sam Rockwell – Iron Man 2 (for never mailing it in); Michael Sheen – Tron: Legacy (for being the only person in the movie who seems to be having any fun).




BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

NOMINEES
Amy Adams – The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter – The King's Speech
Melissa Leo – The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Jacki Weaver – Animal Kingdom

WILL WIN
This is where the pros make their money. With the exception of a few categories (namely Best Picture and the lead acting fields), this year's Oscar races are generally difficult to handicap, but the Best Supporting Actress field is easily the toughest of the entire show. Aside from Jacki Weaver, any of the nominees has a legitimate chance at the prize. If you're going to win your pool on Oscar night, you need to drill this category, and you're probably going to guess wrong.

Alright, I'll knock off Amy Adams, as she'll function more as a vote-siphoner from Leo than as an actual contender. (Oddly, this is the second time in three years in which Adams has shared a nomination in this category with a colleague, last time with Viola Davis in Doubt.) But a strong case can be made for the remaining three. Leo was the de facto frontrunner following the nominations, and she strengthened her case with a win at the Golden Globes, but she's facing several obstacles. First, The Fighter's buzz has dimmed noticeably over the past month, as the movie failed to cross the magical $100 million mark at the box office. Second, there's the Adams issue, and even while Leo has the showier role, Adams is well-liked and just happens to turn in the superior performance. Third and most bizarrely, Leo took the unprecedented step of actively campaigning for herself by purchasing her own "For Your Consideration" ads, which has drawn considerable flak from the Oscar community. (I would say such a reaction is inexplicable, but there might still be some residual fear after Harvey Weinstein bought up nominations during the late-'90s like a teenage girl who just stole her mother's password to gilt.com).

Meanwhile, if The Fighter has diminished as a vehicle, Bonham Carter has the virtue of appearing in the year's most beloved film. She's also highly regarded in Hollywood but has never won an Oscar, meaning she could be in line for a sympathy vote, though perhaps it's a bit early in her career for that. Finally, she's British, and it's a known truth that British people give superior acceptance speeches specifically and that they're just better than we are generally.

The real wildcard here, though, is Steinfeld, as it's difficult to get a read on her chances because we weren't even sure which category she'd be up for until three weeks ago. And even though voters grotesquely marginalized her when they shunted her into the supporting category, they actually did her a favor in terms of her awards chances. Not only is this a weaker field overall (i.e., Natalie Portman isn't in it), but young actresses have traditionally had success in the supporting category (with Tatum O'Neal and Anna Paquin serving as the prime examples).

Of course, all of this analysis hasn't brought me any closer to predicting a winner, but I'm going to take Steinfeld, and here's why: Presumably, at least a handful of voters acted with sense and initially nominated her for the lead actress award, yet she still had enough strength to muster her way into the supporting field. Now, those (sensible) voters can consolidate their ballots with the other (lazy) members who pegged her as supporting in the first place. Throw in the fact that Leo will split votes with Adams and that Bonham Carter, well, just isn't that good, and Steinfeld gets the edge.




SHOULD WIN
Steinfeld. Not by a little.




MY IDEAL BALLOT
Keira Knightley – Never Let Me Go
Mila Kunis – Black Swan
Lesley Manville – Another Year
Ellen Page – Inception
Emma Watson – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Keira Knightley effortlessly embodies the hopeless struggle that chokes the characters in Never Let Me Go, conveying her predicament with heartfelt passion and despair. Kunis seethes sexuality in Black Swan, transforming a seemingly innocuous pursuit such as ballet into a wrathful seduction. Manville defines heartbreak and will make you fucking cry. Page pulls off the tricky feat of acting as the audience's surrogate while also shaping a fully developed character with her own fears and desires. And Emma Watson, sidelined for the better part of the past two Harry Potter pictures, returns to the fore in Deathly Hallows and continues to shine, imbuing Hermione Granger with both fierce intelligence and radiant warmth.

(Note that I'm not including Hailee Steinfeld here because I consider her to be the lead in True Grit because I am not an ageist.)



MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Amy Adams – The Fighter
Rosemarie DeWitt – The Company Men
Gwyneth Paltrow – Iron Man 2
Mia Wasikowska – The Kids Are All Right
Naomi Watts – Mother and Child

Take a look at Amy Adams and you wouldn't exactly peg her as a foul-mouthed bartender from Lowell, but there's such feeling in her performance that you'll find yourself convinced. DeWitt takes an assignment fraught with danger (nagging wife alert) and somehow spins a testament to the enduring strength of marriage. Paltrow parries one-liners with Robert Downey, Jr. with experienced ease (and blows Scarlett Johansson out of the water in the process). Ironically, The Kids Are All Right earned most of its critical praise for its adult actors (who were certainly better than all right), but Wasikowska is equally compelling as a frustrated and confused teenager coming to grips with life's sticky unpleasantness. Watts, meanwhile, bares her fangs in Mother in Child, then bares her soul in a vain quest for redemption.

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.

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.


BEST COSTUME DESIGN

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

WILL WIN
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.


SHOULD WIN
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.



MY IDEAL BALLOT
Atonement
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.


BEST MAKEUP

NOMINEES
Barney's Version
The Way Back
The Wolfman

WILL WIN
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.)



MY IDEAL BALLOT
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.















BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM


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

WILL WIN
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.



SHOULD WIN
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.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
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.


BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

NOMINEES
Exit Through the Gift Shop
GasLand
Inside Job
Restrepo
Waste Land

WILL WIN
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.


BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

NOMINEES
How to Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

WILL WIN
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.

SHOULD WIN
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.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: Music and Sound Categories

For our first batch of categories for this year's Oscars, we're taking a look at the music and sound branches. So I suppose you could call this the Aural Edition. Whatever works.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

NOMINEES
Country Strong – "Coming Home" (Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges)
127 Hours – "If I Rise" (A.R. Rahman, Rollo Armstrong, Dido)
Tangled – "I See the Light" (Alan Menken, Glenn Slater)
Toy Story 3 – "We Belong Together" (Randy Newman)

WILL WIN
In eight years of detailed Oscar analysis, the Manifesto has predicted this category correctly exactly twice (ignoring one abstention in 2003). That's a worse rate than Baron Davis' three-point percentage. And given that the producers of this year's telecast apparently planned an entire segment around a song that wound up not even being nominated ("You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" from Burlesque – insert quip on the title here), it's not as if there's a frontrunner, so I'm in some trouble here.

Accordingly, I'll have to perform some more devious (i.e., desperate) analysis. Specifically, what's interesting about the modern Best Original Song category is how the nominees are presented to the voters. In the past, Academy members used to listen on audio; now, however, they receive DVD clips that show how the songs play in the context of the actual movies. Thus, songs that feature in closing credits are far less likely to win than those integrated into the film. As such, I'm willing to write off "If I Rise" despite the Best Picture nomination of 127 Hours, as I don't even remember that song playing in the movie. Similarly, "We Belong Together," despite originating from industry legend Randy Newman, plays over Toy Story 3's credits, and while it's nevertheless accompanied by cute visuals, I don't think the sequence carries much dramatic weight.

"I See the Light," however, is the musical centerpiece of Tangled (which isn't saying much, but still), and it plays on screen as a pleasant but emotionally resonant duet. (For the record, I can't comment on the context of "Coming Home" because I haven't seen Country Strong, but I'm guessing most voters haven't either.) An Alan Menken tag has never hurt a song's chances, and while Newman is no Oscar slouch himself (this represents his twentieth nomination across the two music categories), I think Menken adds a staggering ninth statuette to his mantel.


SHOULD WIN
Technically I should abstain from weighing in on Country Strong, not having seen the movie and all. I did, however, zip through "Coming Home" on YouTube, and it's a reasonably sturdy number – well-produced, with a burgeoning second half that makes it a pleasant overall listen. That's more than I can say for "We Belong Together" – I know Randy Newman's had an impressive career, but that doesn't make his voice any less insufferable. "If I Rise" features a breathy Dido sighing her way through A.R. Rahman's delicate orchestrations; it's innocuous enough, but it's ultimately insubstantial.

I can't say I'm a huge fan of "I See the Light", but compared to its competition, it's the clear winner. Mandy Moore's and Zachary Levi's tentative vocals complement each other nicely, and the chorus, while not lyrically revolutionary, provides a catchy summation of the movie's general theme.




MY IDEAL BALLOT
How to Train Your Dragon – "Sticks & Stones" (Jon Thor Birgisson)
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – "I Remain" (Alanis Morissette)
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse – "Let's Get Lost" (Bat for Lashes/Beck)
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse – "Eclipse (All Yours)" (Metric)

Sigur Rós front man Jónsi takes a break from crafting haunting, atmospheric melodies and delivers a piece of perfectly modulated pop music, with Jónsi's trademark falsetto accompanied by a surprisingly insistent rhythm section. As for Twilight, perhaps no artist is better equipped to lend voice to the franchise's theme of unrestrained longing (or rather, desperately trying to restrain such longing) than Bat for Lashes' Natasha Khan, with her trembling timbre and ghostly beauty. For that film's title track, Metric shrewdly tailor their alt-rock sensibilities to Howard Shore's score, resulting in a triumphant ballad that effortlessly conveys the movie's go-for-broke spirit. As for the Prince of Persia track, I'm not sure if you knew this, but Alanis Morissette can really fucking sing.




BEST SOUND MIXING

NOMINEES
Inception
The King's Speech
Salt
The Social Network
True Grit

WILL WIN
If The King's Speech wins here, then its coattails are so long that Colin Firth could probably get elected as the next U.S. President while running on the Tea Party ticket. Still, despite the few scenes that involve some tricky calibration of 1930s radio, sound didn't exactly play a central role in this year's Best Picture favorite, so it's out. Also out are True Grit (because it's far more noteworthy for its visuals than its audio) and Salt (because it's Salt). A few weeks ago, I might have considered The Social Network as a player here as part of a sweep, but that was then. As it is, Inception takes this one comfortably, in the lamest attempt at a consolation prize since Xander asked Willow to Spring Fling after Buffy shot him down.

SHOULD WIN
Inception, obviously. When my sister walks out of a movie gushing about its sound design, it probably deserves an Oscar.


















But I want to briefly discuss the sound of The Social Network here. When I watched the movie recently with my parents on Blu-ray, my mother complained that the mix was poor because she couldn't make out the dialogue during the film's music-heavy scenes. I understood her complaint, but it wasn't the fault of the mix; the problem was that we were watching on a thoroughly shitty sound system. And given the current consumer trend toward home theatre (and away from the multiplex), it's important to point out that unless you're willing to pay for a truly kickass sound setup, you're going to have issues with this sort of thing, regardless of the audio quality of the Blu-ray disc.

My point isn't to encourage people to drop two grand on a Yamaha system but rather to encourage people to go to the theatre to watch movies. I had absolutely no difficulty discerning the dialogue when I watched The Social Network in the theatre – in fact, the sound mixing was pitch-perfect, which is why its nomination here is well-deserved – but the same wasn't quite true at home, meaning the latter constituted an inferior viewing experience. Obviously this is coming from the perspective of an obsessive filmgoer, but it's disheartening to me that more casual movie fans are unwittingly subjecting themselves to a rendition of a movie that's technically subpar. Just keep this in mind the next time you're complaining about the sound quality of that random Russian movie you rented off Netflix.

[Note that I'm omitting the "My Ideal Ballot" section for the sound categories. If you have a friend who considers himself qualified to evaluate the relative merits of the sound editing of The Wolfman and The Chronicles of Narnia, I'd love to meet him.]


BEST SOUND EDITING

NOMINEES
Inception
Toy Story 3
Tron: Legacy
True Grit
Unstoppable

WILL WIN
Interesting to see just a two-film overlap across the two sound categories (both are Best Picture nominees), the lowest ever in the five years since this category expanded to five nominations. Given that I've already summarily dismissed the sound quality of True Grit, I have no hesitation about picking Inception here as well. The only potential challenger I see is Tron: Legacy, but given that movie's surprising omission in the Best Visual Effects field, it appears as though voters have marginalized it. (And it's hard to blame them.)

SHOULD WIN
What's here isn't as important as what's missing, namely the extraordinary, wide-ranging sound design from How to Train Your Dragon. Animated films are traditionally a showcase for sound engineers to really strut their stuff, but while I'm a huge fan of Toy Story 3 in general, its rival from DreamWorks was clearly superior in the sound department. Pity.



BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

NOMINEES
How to Train Your Dragon – John Powell
Inception – Hans Zimmer
The King's Speech – Alexandre Desplat
127 Hours – A.R. Rahman
The Social Network – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross

WILL WIN
Yikes. First of all, it's worth noting that the Best Picture winner has doubled as the victor here only once in the last six years. In four of those years, however, the top dog didn't even earn a nomination for its score, so that negative correlation is a bit misleading. Still, the music branch has shown a willingness to diverge from the popular vote, with one-off titles such as Frida and The Red Violin taking trophies home in the recent past. And they've even paid homage to animation (last year with Up), meaning How to Train Your Dragon – the lone contender here that doesn't also find itself in the Best Picture field – can't entirely be written off either.

All of which is a convoluted way of me saying that I really have no idea. If we ignore the films' overall currency and just look at their music, then The Social Network seems like the logical first cut, as Reznor's and Ross' score is likely too chilly and ambient to find a home with most voters. Then again, this is the same branch that singled out current nominee Rahman's propulsive, highly percussive score two years ago for Slumdog Millionaire. But that movie had the added advantage of winning Best Picture ...

Alright, I need to stop. I could feasibly talk myself into any one of these contenders. So I'm just going to take a leap of faith and go with The Social Network. If they were ballsy enough to nominate it, they're ballsy enough to give it the win. (Maybe.)

SHOULD WIN
One could make an engaging argument that a comparison of the musical scores of The King's Speech and The Social Network mirrors the debate over the two films as a whole. For the former, reliably polished composer Alexandre Desplat has crafted a stately, well-mannered, piano-centric score that complements but never inspires. The latter, in contrast, features an edgy, ultra-modern, electronic-based accompaniment by the guy from Nine Inch Nails. The dynamic of traditional versus new-age has rarely been so obvious. That's overly, reductive, of course, but it's an intriguing microcosm nevertheless. All the same, I'm not a huge fan of either score. Desplat's delicate keystrokes fail to conjure a memorable musical theme, while Reznor and Ross, though intermittently energetic (not least when they're boldly adapting Edvard Grieg's legendary "In the Hall of the Mountain King"), keep their sound in the background. It's an approach that serves the film well, but this listener requires a bit of bombast before doling out an Oscar.

There's bombast aplenty in Inception, as Hans Zimmer has never been one for restraint. Yet while Zimmer's electric (if not electronic) score adds yet another tool of impeccable craftsmanship to Inception's belt, I surprisingly find myself more partial to John Powell's soaring music for How to Train Your Dragon. Creating themes both towering and tender, Powell's varied compositions function almost as their own character, an impressive feat for the man who once made his living off the thumping theatrics of the Jason Bourne trilogy.















MY IDEAL BALLOT

How to Train Your Dragon – John Powell
Inception – Hans Zimmer
Never Let Me Go – Rachel Portman
Toy Story 3 – Randy Newman
Tron: Legacy – Daft Punk

Powell and Zimmer earned their nominations and then some. Portman remains the most effortlessly elegant composer working today, and the aching melancholy of her score for Never Let Me Go finds her at the top of her form. I may not be a fan of Newman's voice, but he's a talented composer, and the breadth of his score for Toy Story 3 is astonishing (he even brings in electric guitars), bouncing from playful action to quiet emotion with aplomb. Electronica outfit Daft Punk was the ideal choice for a project as effects-driven (and character-deficient) as Tron: Legacy, and they deliver with a giddily enjoyable romp through modern soundscapes; if I were being cynical, I'd argue that their music is the most fully developed character in the movie.