Monday, February 27, 2012

Oscars Analysis 2011: Show recap

I'm posting this before I've had a chance to filter through the media consensus on tonight's Oscars, which is probably for the best. Despite investing a disturbing amount of energy to analyzing and predicting the Academy Awards, I've never been particularly passionate about the show itself, and I'm hardly qualified to critique a ceremony that functions primarily as a self-affirming exercise in importance. That isn't to say that I dislike the show – I typically like it fine – but for me, the hoopla, fashion, and resulting snark are tangential to the raw data of the awards themselves.

My guess, though, is that most people were thoroughly ambivalent about tonight's telecast. Self-congratulatory chuckles aside, the return of Billy Crystal paid its expected dividends – in addition to a solid introductory montage, he crushed his opening monologue and song – but it added little actual spark. Following Brett Ratner's firing and Eddie Murphy's subsequent departure, the Academy sprinted toward Crystal, ever the safe choice, and he gave them exactly what they wanted. The show also clocked in at a lean 188 minutes, which is still far too long but an improvement over years' past. (Trimming the song performances helped. Next up: Axe the utterly useless talking heads of actors yammering about why they like movies. I like movies. I do not care why Reese Witherspoon or Adam Sandler likes movies.)

If Crystal was predictably serviceable (and a happy improvement over James Franco), the speeches were typically boring, and most of the presentations seemed strained. Those with promise (specifically the Downey, Jr./Paltrow pairing, as well as Ben Stiller playing straight against Emma Stone) meandered without ever hitting the bull's-eye, and even the Farrell/Galifianakis combo failed to deliver a true belly laugh. In general, the show was a vaguely pleasant snooze.

But who cares? As I said, I watch the Oscars to see who lands the hardware, and the announcements provided plenty of intrigue, especially early on. My predictions, naturally, stunk; I hit on only 14 of 21 picks, a poor showing by any standard but especially putrid given a locked-in Best Picture frontrunner. But some of my early misfires lent the telecast a welcome aura of unpredictability (not to mention one legitimate "HOLY SHIT!" moment), and I found myself leaning forward a number of times in anticipation. In the end, things played out generally as expected, but there was definitely some suspense in the meantime.

O.K., here's some final, blessedly brief analysis for each category (in order of presentation):

Best Cinematography
Predicted winner: The Tree of Life – Emmanuel Lubezki
Actual winner: Hugo – Robert Richardson

Strong start. This is further evidence that the Academy insists on its own following its own path in this category, as Lubezki had been cleaning up on the circuit. Richardson's work on Hugo was undeniably impressive, but more importantly, The Tree of Life can never be called "The Academy Award-winning Tree of Life". It's good to be wrong.

Best Art Direction
Predicted winner: Hugo
Actual winner: Hugo

No surprise with the award, but the timing was interesting, as at this point, it was looking as if Hugo was primed for a surge. But then ...

Best Costume Design
Predicted winner: Hugo
Actual winner: The Artist

I wasn't remotely confident in my prediction here when I first made it, but once Hugo took Best Cinematography, I started feeling better. So much for that theory. Of course, it's possible that Hugo actually won this but that after Hugo took the first two trophies, Harvey Weinstein – who was probably in a blind panic at this point – threatened to have Martin Scorsese killed unless someone switched the envelope. That can't be ruled out.

Best Makeup
Predicted winner: The Iron Lady
Actual winner: The Iron Lady

No-brainer here. If nothing else, for future Oscar telecasts, I no longer have to worry about crying inside while watching a Harry Potter movie lose every single category in which it's nominated. That era is now past.

Best Foreign Language Film
Predicted winner: A Separation (Iran)
Actual winner: A Separation (Iran)

Hey, maybe this will encourage Century Boulder to actually screen the movie. Maybe not. (Also, did anyone else intentionally fast-forward the mini-clips in this category so that you wouldn't be spoiled when the movies finally show up on your Netflix queue in June 2014? Just me?)

Best Supporting Actress
Predicted winner: Octavia Spencer – The Help
Actual winner: Octavia Spencer – The Help

Again, no surprise. I always wonder how actors who are virtually certain that they're going to win can dissolve in tears upon hearing their named called, but Spencer did seem legitimately emotional. Or maybe she's just a good actress.

Best Film Editing
Predicted winner: The Artist – Anne-Sophie Bion
Actual winner: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall

And here's that "HOLY SHIT!" moment I referred to earlier. I was far from confident in my pick of The Artist, and after Hugo's strong early showing, I wouldn't have been remotely surprised to see it show up here, but a repeat from last year's editors of The Social Network was an absolute shock. Given that it was my preferred choice, I couldn't be more pleased. (Also, I can imagine that as this award was announced, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross stopped swilling their martinis, stared at each other in disbelief, and shouted, "What the fuck did we do wrong?" as sounds of gloomy dissonance echoed throughout their postmodern villa.)

Best Sound Editing
Predicted winner: Hugo
Actual winner: Hugo

Hey, I got one of the sound categories! Also, line of the night from one of the winners: "I just want to thank everybody's who here tonight, and everybody who isn't, and everybody who's ever been born, or may be born, or be born again, or reborn." Amen.

Best Sound Mixing
Predicted winner: War Horse
Actual winner: Hugo

Crap. Well, serves me right for being fancy and trying to import some logic into the freaking sound categories. Also, following this announcement, Hugo held a 4-to-1 lead over The Artist, and the latter had just failed to win Best Film Editing, which frequently correlates with Best Picture. I would not have wanted to be Harvey Weinstein's arteries at this point.

Best Documentary Feature
Predicted winner: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Actual winner: Undefeated

This is what happens when you don't watch any of the nominees. Also, apparently the Academy's new rule is that if you drop an expletive, they immediately start the music and play you off the stage. That's lame, but I suppose it's better than being subjected to a $500 k fine from the FCC.

Best Animated Feature
Predicted winner: Rango
Actual winner: Rango

There might have been a riot if this one had turned out differently. Also, Chris Rock was one of the few presenters to absolutely drill his bit. I'd embed the video, but in an effort to spread awareness of the Oscars, AMPAS has blocked all uploads of the telecast.

Best Visual Effects
Predicted winner: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Actual winner: Hugo

I disagreed with a fair number of the Academy's decisions tonight, as I always do, but this is the only one that was truly terrible. Also, Martin Scorsese had to start talking himself into winning Best Director at this point, right? Poor bastard.

(Note: In spite of my mild earlier criticism regarding the Stone/Stiller bit, let me state for the record that I would be willing to watch Emma Stone do pretty much anything. She is absolutely adorable. She could read the first 100 pages of Mitt Romney's tax return and I would be completely transfixed.)

Best Supporting Actor
Predicted winner: Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Actual winner: Christopher Plummer – Beginners

Ho hum. More importantly, great Crystal moment: After AMPAS President Tom Sherak delivers a predictably boring address, Crystal deadpans, "Thank you, Tom, and thank you for whipping the crowd into a frenzy". Nicely done, but he might not want to start practicing his monologue for next year's show just yet.

Best Original Score
Predicted winner: The Artist – Ludovic Bource
Actual winner: The Artist – Ludovic Bource

Weinstein had to be breathing a bit easier after this one. If Howard Shore had won for his forgettable score for Hugo, things would have suddenly become very interesting.

Best Original Song
Predicted winner: The Muppets – "Man or Muppet"
Actual winner: The Muppets – "Man or Muppet"

Hey, The Muppets! Solid speech as well from "Flight of the Conchords" alum Bret McKenzie. Someday I really need to make time to watch that show. Moving on.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Predicted winner: The Descendants – Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash
Actual winner: The Descendants – Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash

BOOM! Sure, this was the only award of the night for The Descendants, but it's a biggie, and it officially eradicates the Clooney Curse of Up in the Air. Well-done.

Best Original Screenplay
Predicted winner: Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen
Actual winner: Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen

I missed my share of tough calls on the night, but I drilled this one. Shockingly, Allen was nowhere to be found. He's probably drinking with Terrence Malick.

Best Director
Predicted winner: Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Actual winner: Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist

Take that, Scorsese. Next time, try making a movie as good as The Departed and we'll get back to you.

Best Actor
Predicted winner: Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Actual winner: Jean Dujardin – The Artist

Once Hazanavicius won Best Director, this was a done deal. Dujardin was agreeably charming in his speech, and I appreciated his work enough that I won't stew too heavily over Clooney being robbed.

Best Actress
Predicted winner: Viola Davis – The Help
Actual winner: Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady

And THUD. Sorry, that was the sound of my prognostication prowess crashing into a crater. Look, I'm not going to say this was a total shock, and it certainly wasn't as stunning as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo winning Best Film Editing. But it definitely qualifies as a surprise, and as surefooted as Streep is, I imagine history will look back on this award unfavorably. On the plus side, this should really put that criticism about the Academy being stuffed with old white men to rest.

(Scary piece of trivia: Alongside The Artist and Hugo, The Iron Lady was the only film of 2011 to win multiple Oscars. Yuck.)

Best Picture
Predicted winner: The Artist
Actual winner: The Artist

And order has been restored. The Artist was far from my favorite film of the year, but it's an impressive and ambitious achievement, and I don't begrudge it this victory one bit. Here's hoping its massive success encourages studios to take more chances on speculative projects.

Thanks for tuning in to the Manifesto's annual Oscar coverage. Till next year.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oscars Analysis 2011: Prediction roundup

Sobering note: In the extraordinarily unlikely scenario in which all of my predictions are accurate, then the actual Oscar winner will match up with my chosen winner in only seven categories. But I can hardly expect the Academy's collective taste to match with my own personal preferences, so perhaps it isn't all that sobering. Besides, if they agreed with me all the time, then I'd have nothing to complain about.

In any event, here you have it: the Manifesto's complete 2011 Oscar predictions, condensed into a single post for maximum convenience. Predictions are listed in order from least confident to most confident (as always, I'm omitting the shorts).

Best Costume Design
Will win: Hugo (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Anonymous
Worst snub: Mysteries of Lisbon

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Margin Call – J.C. Chandor
Worst snub: Rango – John Logan

Best Sound Editing
Will win: Hugo (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Worst snub: Rango

Best Sound Mixing
Will win: War Horse (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Worst snub: Super 8

Best Cinematography
Will win: The Tree of Life – Emmanuel Lubezki (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: War Horse – Janusz Kaminski
Worst snub: Mysteries of Lisbon – André Szankowski

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (confidence: 2/5)
Should win/worst snub: [abstain]

Best Film Editing
Will win: The Artist – Anne-Sophie Bion (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall
Worst snub: Martha Marcy May Marlene – Zachary Stuart-Pontier

Best Visual Effects
Will win: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Worst snub: Green Lantern

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: The Descendants – Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: The Descendants – Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash
Worst snub: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – Steve Kloves

Best Actor
Will win: Jean Dujardin – The Artist (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: George Clooney – The Descendants
Worst snub: Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar

Best Actress
Will win: Viola Davis – The Help (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Worst snub: Keira Knightley – A Dangerous Method

Best Art Direction
Will win: Hugo (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Worst snub: Anonymous

Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: A Separation (Iran) (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: [abstain]
Worst snub: The Skin I Live In (Spain)

Best Original Song
Will win: The Muppets – "Man or Muppet" (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: The Muppets – "Man or Muppet"
Worst snub: Win Win – "Think You Can Wait" (The National)

Best Makeup
Will win: The Iron Lady (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: The Iron Lady
Worst snub: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Best Original Score
Will win: The Artist – Ludovic Bource (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: The Artist – Ludovic Bource
Worst snub: Rango – Hans Zimmer

Best Picture
Will win: The Artist (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: The Descendants
Worst snub: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Octavia Spencer – The Help (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Bérénice Bejo – The Artist
Worst snub: Shailene Woodley – The Descendants

Best Animated Feature
Will win: Rango (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Rango
Worst snub: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Director
Will win: Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Worst snub: Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Christopher Plummer – Beginners (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Kenneth Branagh – My Week with Marilyn
Worst snub: Albert Brooks – Drive

Till next year.

Oscars Analysis 2011: Best Picture and Director

Fact #1: The Manifesto has correctly predicted each of the past five Best Picture winners.

Fact #2: The Manifesto has correctly predicted each of the past eight Best Director winners.

Am I gloating? Not at all. Perhaps it's due to the rise of the Internet era – in which every news nugget, every minor awards' ceremony, every incident that could possibly impact the Oscars is immediately devoured, over-scrutinized, and spat back out by the blogosphere – but there hasn't been a truly suspenseful Best Picture race since 2006, when The Departed held off a late charge from Little Miss Sunshine that would have sent Martin Scorsese on a murderous rampage, not to mention caused my father to have a heart attack. (For the record, I got that one right. My last miss was the year before, in the Oscar Race That Shall Not Be Named.) This year, the procession has been even more formulaic than normal, and tonight's opening of the envelope feels less like a suspenseful announcement than a dutiful, long-awaited coronation.

Which isn't to say that this year's Academy Awards will be entirely predictable. Far from it, as there are a number of intriguing categories – Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing chief among them – in which the ultimate winner is satisfyingly uncertain. Most viewers, however, lack my (perhaps unhealthy) zeal in following those below-the-line categories, so if Oscar really wants to increase its viewership, it needs to reverse its current atmosphere of blasé inevitability (the most likely tack: moving the show up by a month to avoid the onset of awards' season fatigue).

But that's for the Academy to figure out. I'm just here for your garden-variety obsessive analysis. On to the predictions.


Woody Allen – Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Terence Malick – The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne – The Descendants
Martin Scorsese – Hugo

You know the drill: Not since 2002 has the winner at the Directors' Guild not triumphed here, and not since 2005 has the helmer of the Best Picture winner failed to take home his own statuette in this category. There are a number of seemingly surefire bets this year that might nevertheless backfire. This isn't one of them. Hazanavicius takes it.

Can't say I'm too thrilled with this group. Malick certainly exercises unshakable command over The Tree of Life in his uncompromising illustration of a deeply personal vision, but that vision is so personal that it's utterly incomprehensible (and fantastically boring) to most viewers. Allen and Payne are both appropriately low-key and subtle in their control of their respective films, smartly nudging the performers and the script to the screen's center, but sensible restraint shouldn't equate to Oscar recognition. Scorsese shows his usual visual flair, but as a piece of dramatic filmmaking, Hugo is curiously inert, lacking the maestro's usual vitality that so aggressively animated his finer efforts from the prior decade.

Hazanavicius, it should be said, has got some stones on him. It's been 83 years since the Academy has recognized a silent film, but that didn't stop him committing fully to his enterprise, and the result is a glossy, highly accomplished work whose success is due more than anything to directorial vision and ambition. With its bold strokes and broad smiles, The Artist may not shake you up, but it does take you for a heady spin into the heart of nostalgia itself. That kind of backward-looking wistfulness can be dangerously self-fulfilling – if we keep insisting that the past was superior to the present, then at some point it becomes so simply by default – but Hazanavicius isn't interested in academic arguments. He just wants his viewers to have a good time at the movies, and through pure cinematic innovation – switching off the sound, turning up the music, and brightening the lights – he's delivered precisely that.

Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive
Steven Soderbergh – Contagion
Steven Spielberg – War Horse
Joe Wright – Hanna
David Yates – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Refn combines pulpy excess with astonishing poise to create the most electrically entertaining film of the year. With his clipped economy and ruthless pacing, Soderbergh again proves that he's most adept operating within the mainstream. Spielberg's unapologetic lack of irony (and his exquisite technique) lends War Horse its quiet, implacable sense of dignity. Wright pumps up the volume and untethers the camera, but his self-assurance is such that Hanna never succumbs to its surfeit of style. Yates' final sojourn into the world of Potter is his most accomplished yet, exhibiting the clarity and restraint of a master.

My ideal winner: Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive.

Pedro Almodóvar – The Skin I Live In
David Fincher – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Raúl Ruiz – Mysteries of Lisbon
Rupert Wyatt – Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Almodóvar takes no quarter, and his commentary on the grotesque human condition clashes splendidly with his rapturous joy of moviemaking. Fincher returns to his thriller roots, but it's his distinctive skill operating between genre spaces that makes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo memorable. Ruiz lavishes one ostentatious gesture after the next onto his canvas, and that unabashed embrace of the medium transforms Mysteries of Lisbon from costume drama into high art. Wyatt cannily illustrates how special effects can serve a story rather than dominate it.

Also deserving: Michael Rowe – Leap Year (for locating cinematic beauty within sadomasochistic ugliness); Steven Spielberg – The Adventures of Tintin (because he's that good); Pablo Trapero – Carancho (for that ravishing final sequence).


The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

It comes down to one simple question: Can anyone knock off The Artist? In my mind, the silent frontrunner is less than a complete lock. Yes, it's been an absolute freight train on the circuit, picking up wins at the BAFTAs and (more crucially) the Producers' Guild. But invincible as The Artist has seemed over the past two months, it's still silent, it's still black-and-white, and it's still made by a French dude. Those are all qualities that might rub a substantial contingent of voters the wrong way.

The problem, however, is that it's unlikely that those voters can unify behind a single challenger; it's difficult to pick David to defeat Goliath when there are eight equally scrawny Davids thrusting their hands in the air. The Tree of Life is too esoteric. The Help is too polarizing. Midnight in Paris is too innocuous. Hugo's box office was too tepid. Moneyball has too much baseball. War Horse is too sappy (or so they say). The Descendants is too small-scale. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is too terrible.

Those descriptions are obviously glib and reductive, but they nevertheless illustrate that the aforementioned films have failed to construct a campaign that steers voters away from their perceived flaws. And as a result, none of the potential challengers has developed any discernible late-season momentum sufficient to push it over the top. If I had to pick a stunning surprise, I'd probably go with The Help, as it's the most crowd-pleasing of the nominees and also tackles important social issues (if somewhat clumsily). But I could just as easily make analogous cases for Hugo (it has the most nominations!), Midnight in Paris (everyone likes it!), or The Descendants (it's awesome!), yet those are transparent attempts to fabricate a chance for an upset when there's no reason to believe that such a chance exists. We're just fighting the inevitable. And lately, that's what the Oscars are all about – the thundering sound of inevitability.

Or, as I put it in a prior post, you can't stop what's coming. The Artist is 2011's Best Picture winner.

As has become the Manifesto's custom since the Academy expanded to more than five nominees, let's break these into tiers:

Tier 4: What the fuck are you doing here? My condensed thoughts on The Tree of Life are known. From an academic perspective, I admire its ambition and complete disregard of the audience's expectations. But I watch movies as a fan of cinema, not as an academic, and I've rarely been more disengaged while sitting in the theatre than when watching The Tree of Life. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is, in its own way, a bit worse than The Tree of Life, with its hammering sentimentality and obscene attempts at manipulation. To be fair, it's also a highly watchable film, with a fascinatingly hyperactive, unrelentingly obnoxious lead performance from Thomas Horn at its center, and unlike The Tree of Life, it never failed to induce a response from me. Unfortunately, that response was usually disgust.

Tier 3: We spent over two hours in a dark room together, and I still don't know how I feel about you. My immediate reaction to The Help was largely negative, as I was put off by its thuddingly black-and-white (oops) characterizations, its litany of useless subplots, and its heart-tugging sap. Upon reflection, I discredited some of the film's virtues, including its playful humor and laudable earnestness. I plan to see it again, but I can't shake the feeling that it approaches its powder-keg subject matter with blunt force rather than nuanced perspective. I liked Hugo quite a bit more, but I'm having trouble remembering why; it's a perfectly enjoyable movie that exhibits estimable craftsmanship, but its conventional story and aching nostalgia failed to latch onto my memory. I plan to see Hugo again as well, but I'm similarly skeptical that my opinion will improve significantly.

Tier 2: I like you a lot, but I still want to see other movies. As far as nostalgic journeys to the dawn of cinema go, I much preferred The Artist to Hugo – its technique is just as impressive, but its story is more focused, and that simplicity lends it a sheer likability that is impossible to deny. Midnight in Paris is yet another Best Picture nominee that actively traffics in nostalgia, but it does so with a more rueful air, and we can bask in its easy pleasures without being subjected to a sermon on the glory of the past. Woody Allen's dialogue has rarely flowed more effortlessly, and the large cast is magnificently capable (led by a shockingly effective Owen Wilson). Moneyball is more emotionally reserved, which ultimately makes its tale of bittersweet redemption more poignant. It isn't a world-changing movie, but that's part of the point – even for revolutionaries, sometimes there's just too much debris in the way.

Tier 1: You are a beautiful and unique snowflake. One of the great travesties of 2011's cinematic landscape is that no one appears particularly interested in watching War Horse, meaning people have robbed themselves of seeing a richly rewarding film. I've made this point repeatedly over the past several weeks, but Spielberg's unashamedly old-fashioned approach to War Horse should in no way count as a demerit. His stylistic choice isn't independently advantageous either – it's simply the mechanism he chooses to tell his story, and it happens to fit perfectly with the movie's stirring tale of love, loss, and persistent hope. Yes, War Horse is sentimental, but it earns its sentiment through unflinching honesty, stern commitment to character development, and powerful thematic imagery. The result is one of the most purely satisfying experiences at the movies this year.

My Best Picture winner, however, is The Descendants, a movie that is as emotionally accomplished as War Horse but achieves its cathartic impact in fundamentally different ways. Delicately blending pain, humor, and anger, Alexander Payne's film never panders or condescends. Rather, it simply shows us a man attempting to weather a crippling crisis, and it recognizes with resplendent empathy how broken people can be made whole. George Clooney shines yet again as the alternately furious and fumbling father, but The Descendants is a true ensemble picture, and the entire cast (including Robert Forster, Judy Greer, and most especially Shailene Woodley) essay their roles with utter conviction. It's a film that shrewdly observes humanity and all of its glorious flaws, and in so doing, it is flawless.

For this, you'll have to wait until the Manifesto unveils its annual top 10 list. Coming soon.

Oscars Analysis 2011: Best Actor and Actress

Is there an industry in America right now experiencing a bigger talent boom than the acting trade? Pick a movie playing at your local multiplex, and regardless of its overall quality – which is typically dependent on the talents of the director and the screenwriter – it'll invariably be headlined by highly talented lead performers, whether they're in-their-prime movie stars, chameleonic character actors, ageless veterans who can still reach 95 with their fastball, or frighteningly self-assured up-and-comers. Throw in a preposterously deep pool of imported talent, and English-language actors are on a "UCLA in the '60s and '70s" run right now.

Don't believe me? I'll break it down for you:

Movie Stars: George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt.

Quasi-Movie Stars: Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Steve Carell, Robert Downey, Jr., Jamie Foxx, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Tobey Maguire, Jeremy Renner, Kristen Stewart, Justin Timberlake.

Character Actors: Casey Affleck, Josh Brolin, Don Cheadle, Chris Cooper, Vera Farmiga, Ben Foster, James Franco, Paul Giamatti, John Hawkes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Melissa Leo, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Edward Norton, John C. Reilly, Sam Rockwell, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Shannon, David Strathairn, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michelle Williams.

Veterans: Jeff Bridges, Jodie Foster, Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington.

Up-and-Comers: Jesse Eisenberg, Elle Fanning, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anna Kendrick, Jennifer Lawrence, Rooney Mara, Chloë Grace Moretz, Elizabeth Olsen, Hailee Steinfeld, Emma Stone, Evan Rachel Wood, Shailene Woodley.

British Imports: Christian Bale, Emily Blunt, Helena Bonham Carter, Jim Broadbent, Daniel Craig, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth, Andrew Garfield, Michael Gambon, Rebecca Hall, Tom Hardy, Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Ewan McGregor, Emily Mortimer, Carey Mulligan, Gary Oldman, Daniel Radcliffe, Saorise Ronan, Michael Sheen, Tilda Swinton, Juno Temple, Naomi Watts, Tom Wilkinson, Kate Winslet.

Imports from [Random Country X]: Javier Bardem, Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Nicole Kidman, Rachel McAdams, Ellen Page, Natalie Portman, Noomi Rapace, Ryan Reynolds, Geoffrey Rush, Cristoph Waltz, Mia Wasikowska, Emma Watson.

That's one hundred names, and I didn't even break a sweat. They're consistently good in everything they star in, and frequently great. And let's not forget the four-dozen performers whom I stupidly forgot and will sue me for libel (or they would, if the Manifesto's readership ever reached above 17). These are historic times for the movie industry. Let's enjoy it while it lasts.

(And yes, printing the above list means that the Manifesto is one step closer to publishing its Actors' Fantasy Draft, conceptually described here, in which I imagine a fantasy rotisserie league – featuring categories such as earnings' potential, awards won, overall talent level, and public image – then rank every living actor for each category, then conduct a fantasy draft that determines, in order, the 100 greatest actors currently working. We're still about a decade and a half away, meaning there's a 10% chance that Suri Cruise will be the top pick when I finally get around to it. It's my White Whale. I'm pacing myself.)


Demián Bichir – A Better Life
George Clooney – The Descendants
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt – Moneyball

At the time the nominations were announced, I declared that this race would likely be a showdown between Clooney and Pitt, with Dujardin possibly lurking. Things have changed. Over the past few weeks, Dujardin has scooped up wins at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Screen Actors' Guild, giving him the coveted Precursor Triple Crown (and yes, I'm trade-marking that term). I could posit halfway-plausible theories describing how Clooney (perhaps voters will admire how he sheds his movie-star magnetism in a low-key performance), Oldman (Lifetime Achievement Award alert!), or Pitt (see: Clooney, George) might sneak in for the victory, but throw in the fact that The Artist is the Best Picture favorite as well, and it's foolhardy to pick anyone else. Vive la France.

Unsurprisingly, this is a rock-solid group. Bichir is easily the best thing about A Better Life, with his world-weary physicality and restrained emotional palette lending welcome nuance to an otherwise rote drama (and remake of The Bicycle Thief). As Billy Beane, Pitt remains as charismatic as ever, but he also conveys the sorrow of lost potential, a loss that clearly animates his ardor as an executive. Dujardin is pure, beaming delight, and his broad facial expressions and limber movements expertly seize upon the film's conceptual ingenuity.

Throughout his banner career, Oldman has proven equally capable of playing a slimy DEA agent and a Rastafarian pimp, but in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy he recedes within himself, swallowing years of life-threatening, soul-draining work and subsisting merely as a shell of bitterness, resignation, and regret. The film is most effective when it permits its talented actors room to breathe, and in one extraordinary scene – in which the weary civil servant recalls his first encounter with his most fearsome adversary – we can see the spark of life, long extinguished, briefly return to his eyes.

Strong work all-around from those four actors, but they're all a tick below George Clooney's understated, effortlessly convincing, utterly human turn in The Descendants. As a man whose wobbly self-made walls come tumbling down, Clooney is the essence of middle-aged exasperation, but he never overplays his hand, consistently countering his frustration and disgust with warmth, humor, and radiant fatherly love. Clooney could never be an everyman – he's too much of a star for that – but he wields his innate charm to add texture, shaping his character into an emotionally jagged but fundamentally decent man who also happens to be a hero.

George Clooney – The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Tom Hardy – Warrior
Michael Shannon – Take Shelter

Hardy is pure ferocity, yet he still manages to shade his character, coloring his rage with buried torment. Shannon is a disturbingly intelligent actor, and in Take Shelter he articulates his character's mounting paranoia with small gestures and masterful indecision. DiCaprio continues to make a mockery of the art form.

My ideal winner: Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar.

Michael Fassbender – Shame
Mel Gibson – The Beaver
Ryan Gosling – The Ides of March
Brendan Gleeson – The Guard
Brad Pitt – Moneyball

Fassbender perfectly captures the despair of a man who knows he's drowning yet compulsively keeps swimming out to sea. Gibson drills his character's accent and radical mannerisms in a bifurcated, immensely challenging performance. Gosling has received the majority of his acclaim for his brooding, diffident work in Drive, but it's in The Ides of March where he suavely mingles ambition, idealism, and self-loathing, beautifully complementing the film's ethos. As a cantankerous police officer, Gleeson has the most fun he's had in years, accentuating his character's brilliance and stupefying lack of grace with delightful absurdity.

Also deserving: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – 50/50 (for communicating his character's plight with heartbreaking earnestness); Chris New – Weekend (for fearlessly exuding sexuality); Daniel Radcliffe – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (for shouldering the weight of the world and the world's most successful film franchise on his slender shoulders and making us feel every gram); Michael Sheen – Beautiful Boy (for relenting to scorn and rage yet never yielding his dignity); Jim Sturgess – One Day (for traversing his character's emotional roller-coaster with steadfast authenticity).


Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis – The Help
Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams – My Week with Marilyn

Everyone has declared Davis the victor here and moved on, but I'm not entirely convinced. Streep won at the BAFTAs, though admittedly that's less than significant, given that she was playing Margaret Freaking Thatcher. More noteworthy is Streep's triumph over Davis at the Golden Globes, which is about as American as a ceremony can get. And Meryl also won with the New York Film Critics. So the perception that Davis has been romping through this category like a wildebeest is a bit misguided.

Davis does, however, have her victory at the Screen Actors' Guild, and in its 17-year history, the SAG's winner has matched the Academy's ultimate choice in this category 12 times. (It's really more like 12-and-a-half; in 2008, Kate Winslet won for The Reader for Best Supporting Actress at SAG but won for lead at the Oscars.) Still, that synergy isn't all that staggering. In my mind, the more relevant question is this: Will the Academy really be willing to hand out a major Oscar – and finally reward a long-suffering Streep, who has whiffed on her last 12 nominations – for a movie that is so categorically bad? The Iron Lady currently possesses a rating of 53% on Rotten Tomatoes (a figure that I find to be absurdly high, but no matter); the Manifesto's crack research staff has determined that would rank as the lowest score ever for a Best Actress winner since 1960, when Elizabeth Taylor finally received an Oscar for BUtterfield 8. 1960 is so long ago, Meryl Streep hadn't even won an Oscar yet.

So I'm taking Davis. But be warned – this is hardly a sure thing. The good news is that if she loses, Emma Stone has agreed to write an essay on her behalf about the racism lurking within the Academy's ranks.

Blech. In the past, I used to despise this category because I felt there weren't any good actresses out there; in related news, I was single and a bit of a chauvinist. I'm frustrated with the Best Actress nominations this year as well, but that's because the Academy failed to recognize any number of stellar turns from this year's leading ladies. Instead, we're left with four sturdy if unspectacular turns, and one absolutely knockout. C'est la vie.

Not that any of the nominated performances are bad, mind you. Close is appropriately reserved and tentative in Albert Nobbs, and if she fails to emote with any particular resonance, that's partly by design. Davis is the clear moral center of The Help, and her reticence is a bit more convincing, if not quite poignant. Streep delivers yet another technically flawless performance as Lady Thatcher, and if the vehicle carrying her is a train wreck, that's hardly her fault. And Williams' coy, seductive turn as Marilyn Monroe is pleasant and appealing, even if it never digs under the starlet's skin.

So those are four respectable performances. None, however, is remotely as memorable as Rooney Mara's searing work in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Updating Noomi Rapace's inimitable portrayal from a year ago (a performance that found a spot on the Manifesto's 2010 ballot), Mara creates a character of heightened sensation, a fledgling spirit who's both sexually assertive and emotionally frail. Our hearts beat in tune with hers, and the instant she appears on the screen, she commands it, visibly emanating fear, hate, peerless intelligence, and suppressed longing. It's a dizzily electric, furiously compelling, ultimately devastating performance.

Keira Knightley – A Dangerous Method
Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene
Saoirse Ronan – Hanna
Charlize Theron – Young Adult

Olsen announces her arrival on the scene like a gunshot, dominating every moment of Martha Marcy May Marlene as her dogged conviction gives way to acute paranoia. Ronan, with her ice-blue eyes gleaming like a feral beast, takes a vaguely stupid conceit and transforms it into a gripping, moving coming-of-age journey. With her personality as spiky as her heels, Theron tears into her morally ambiguous role with relish, laying waste to the notion that we must sympathize with our protagonist.

A brief word on Keira Knightley's performance is required. She plays Sabina Spielrein, a plagued patient of Carl Jung who eventually matures into both his lover and his professional equal. It's an intensely noticeable piece of acting, complete with a snarling Russian accent and a thrusting jaw. Naysayers might condemn the performance as overacting, and indeed a lesser actress might have dialed down the gesticulation for fear of accusations of needless brio. But Keira Knightley is not a lesser actress, and her absolute surrender to Sabina is testament to her commitment to her craft. The result is an unforgettable performance that shakes you, pulls you into its vortex, and relinquishes you only after you absorb Sabina's peculiar, sadistic jumble of pleasure and pain. It proves, yet again, that Keira Knightley can stop your heart and rattle your soul.

My ideal winner: Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Eva Green – Cracks
Liana Liberato – Trust
Brit Marling – Another Earth
Ludivine Sagnier – Love Crime
Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids

The opening scene of Cracks tells you all you need to know, with Green luxuriating on a rowboat, eyes closed, lips pursed, face tipped gently back toward the sky, embodying completely the conception of feminine power. It's that sense of supreme confidence that makes her subsequent descent into moral depravity so disturbing. Liberato essays fumbling teenage confusion with shattering accuracy. As a fractured women grasping for hope, Marling breaks your heart without ever tugging at its strings. Sagnier alternates between bewilderment and guile with clockwork precision. Wiig clobbers every line reading while also deepening her character's gnawing aimlessness.

Also deserving: Keira Knightley – Last Night (yeah, she's pretty good); Kate Winslet – Mildred Pierce (is it eligible yet?).

[Note: I feel that I should actively acknowledge that, through no fault of my own, I've yet to see We Need to Talk About Kevin, which supposedly features yet another staggering performance from Tilda Swinton. I look forward to seeing the film, but I'm willing to bet that the performance is indeed fantastic because, well, it's Tilda Swinton.]

Friday, February 24, 2012

Oscars Analysis 2011: The screenplays

Sometimes I worry that the rationale behind awarding Oscars for screenplays is utterly fraudulent. Don't get me wrong, I'm not denigrating the importance of writing in today's cinematic climate, not least when high-brow critics constantly grumble about how "Scripts don't matter anymore" and "Young people are too attention-addled to appreciate a proper art film" and "What the hell is Twitter, anyway?". My real concern is that, of all of the prizes awarded at the Academy Awards, the screenplay is the one category that voters can't actually see. For Best Costume Design, they can judge a film's wardrobe; for Best Cinematography, they can follow the camera movements and lighting; for the acting fields, they can watch the performer. You get the idea.

But a screenplay? Hell, a screenplay is just a few hundred typewritten pages that might have been drafted years ago and were lying in a dusty desk drawer underneath some old Superman comics until a director miraculously came along and decided to turn them into a movie. Of course, it rarely works that way (though Clint Eastwood apparently sat on the Oscar-nominated script for Unforgiven for 15 years until he was old enough to play the lead), but I nevertheless wonder if we can accurately judge a screenplay on its own merits rather than as a mere stepping stone to a finished film.

But so it goes. Besides, these are two of the categories in which the Academy regularly exhibits a certain degree of bravery ("The Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" always has a nice ring to it), so I suppose I shouldn't be staring into the mouths of gift horses.


The Descendants – Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash
Hugo – John Logan
The Ides of March – George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon
Moneyball – Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan

For roughly a month, the parallels between The Descendants and Up in the Air absolutely terrified me. Up in the Air, you'll recall, was a beautifully written blend of wry comedy and poignant drama – spearheaded by a charismatic, tender turn from George Clooney – that became an instant Best Picture favorite upon its release, only to stumble down the stretch of a painfully long awards season. This year, I could duplicate that previous sentence, only replacing "Up in the Air" with "The Descendants", and it would be perfectly accurate. The similarities are eerie. And that's the problem, because for all of its critical (and public) acclaim, Up in the Air walked away with as many Oscars as the Philadelphia Eagles have Super Bowl titles: zero.

So that's the concern. But while the momentum of The Descendants has indeed flagged considerably, and while it's clearly languishing on the sidelines in the Best Picture race, I don't think that the ghost of Up in the Air haunts its chances in this category as much as I'd originally feared. The Descendants recently received recognition from the Writers' Guild, holding off competition from its two primary challengers (Hugo and Moneyball) in the process. It's also, along with Moneyball, one of the most writerly nominees, as its pronounced lack of directorial flair will almost shoehorn voters into considering its screenplay above all else.

Of course, that hardly means it's a sure thing. While I'm quite comfortable eliminating The Ides of March and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the only contenders not also nominated for Best Picture) either Hugo or Moneyball could poach the trophy. Hugo's chances, however, are fairly slim, as I expect the membership to appreciate that film more for its craftsmanship and its legendary director than its script. Moneyball is of far graver concern; not only is it a dialogue-heavy film, but it's penned by two of the most well-known screenwriters in the business (plus it's based on a book that was allegedly unfilmable). But Sorkin got his cookies last year with The Social Network, and Zaillian already won (albeit last century) for Schindler's List, so it's not as if they're owed anything. Besides, we can't possibly see a repeat of the Up in the Air disaster – The Descendants has to win something, right?


I throw out this disclaimer every year, but it's always worth repeating: It's impossible for me to properly evaluate this category because I can't read. Wait, that came out wrong. What I mean is that this category recognizes the best adapted screenplay – it places a premium (or at least it should) on the skill with which the screenwriter takes a previously existing story and shapes it into a form that's feasible as a feature film. Because I read so rarely (unless we're talking about reading A.O. Scott's commentaries on the state of contemporary cinema or FanGraphs' analysis of Adrian Gonzalez's opposite-field swing, in which case, I'm voracious), I can't accurately judge the quality of the adaptation. So in 2047, when some higher-up at the Academy gets wind of the Manifesto and invites me to join as a member, I'll likely recuse myself from this category.

That said, I can still tell the difference between good writing and bad writing, and I don't need to have read John le Carré's spy novel to know that the screenplay for Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is bad. It was undoubtedly challenging for O'Connor and Straughan to condense a supposedly labyrinthine book – one that has previously been spun into a six-hour miniseries (and even that was said to be incredibly dense) – into a two-hour movie, but it's a challenge that they failed. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a lovely, occasionally exquisite work of filmmaking, but as a piece of writing, it's a mess. Characters blur into each other with no attempt at delineation, numerous scenes are utterly indecipherable, and the pace is positively glacial. When the movie ended, I could only describe the experience of watching it as an absolutely beautiful waste of time. (Would I feel differently if I'd read the book? Probably. But it's the screenwriter's job to make the movie accessible for veterans and newcomers alike. Someone forgot to tell that to O'Connor and Straughan.)

The remaining four nominated screenplays all represent strong writing, though I think Hugo's is a tick beneath the other three, as it's a fairly generic tale that happens to be impressively told. The Ides of March doesn't really mine new territory either, but it's laced with cynicism and desperation, a tonic that proves highly potent in its dark, dour second half.

Moneyball, naturally, is the one nominee for which I've actually read the source material, and when I first heard that Michael Lewis' stat-heavy geek-o-rama was being adapted into a movie, my reaction was typical among baseball nerds: How the fuck can anyone turn Moneyball into a movie? The answer: Hire Aaron Sorkin. That's glib, but then, so is Sorkin, and for him, the baseball diamond is just another arena in which tortured intellectuals marshal their resources in an effort to conquer the institutions that scoff at their idealism. Moneyball isn't a baseball movie as much as the story of a man courageously bucking the system. That's somewhat rote, but with Sorkin on hand, it's also electric, and the inter-office banter between dueling executives crackles with insider knowledge and, more importantly, buried passion. Not exactly what I'd pictured when reading a chapter about Jeremy Brown's collegiate OPS. (Note: I'm unfairly marginalizing Zaillian's work on the screenplay because I'm borderline-obsessed with Sorkin; in truth, I don't know the extent of each writer's respective contribution. Something tells me Zaillian will get over the slight.)

So Moneyball's screenplay is terrific, but I simply can't pick against The Descendants here. The graceful, sorrowful story of a spiritually broken man trying desperately to reassemble his family, it features the most thoughtful, three-dimensional characterization of any script this year. Clooney's Matt King is a pitch-perfect portrait of a middle-aged man paralyzed by fear, grief, and raging impotence, and the supporting characters come across as fully sketched individuals rather than mere archetypes. The story is acutely moving without straying into hackneyed sentimentality; when it ends, we feel blessed to have spent time with people who remind us so painfully of those we know, and of ourselves.

The Adjustment Bureau – George Nolfi
The Descendants – Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 – Steve Kloves
The Ides of March – George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon
Moneyball – Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian

Strong showing from the Academy in this category this year, as three of its five nominees match my own list. Nolfi's Adjustment Bureau transplants the timeless paranoia of Philip K. Dick to a distinctly modern age, then gilds it with a dash of storybook romanticism. Kloves finishes his exhausting journey on the Harry Potter saga with an unflinchingly grim script, boldly filling out the darkest corners of one of literature's greatest heroes.

My ideal winner: The Descendants – Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash.

Also deserving: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Steven Zaillian (for putting a stunning emotional spin on a chilling thriller); The Muppets – Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (for being awesome); The Skin I Live In – Pedro Almodóvar et al. (for taking us to the brink of humanity's disturbing capacity for revenge); Too Big to Fail – Peter Gould (for challenging Margin Call for the title of "Best screenplay of the year about seemingly boring but actually hypnotic financial markets").


The Artist – Michel Hazanavicius
Bridesmaids – Annie Mumolo, Kristen Wiig
Margin Call – J.C. Chandor
Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen
A Separation – Asghar Farhadi

And here we have the most interesting category of Oscar night. The Artist has Best Picture and Director all but locked up, and the acting categories, if not surefire guarantees, are relatively stable, meaning that, of the major categories, Best Original Screenplay is where the suspense really lies. Yet oddly enough, there are really only two contenders here. Sure, it's technically possible that Bridesmaids, Margin Call, or A Separation could pull a Villanova over Georgetown, but it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that any of them has odds superior to those of your standard lotto ticket. No, this is a two-horse race, plain and simple, between The Artist and Midnight in Paris.

The Artist, frankly, only has one thing going for it: It's The Artist. By which I mean, it's extremely tempting (and perhaps logical) for members who vote for a certain film for Best Picture to vote for its screenplay as well. To wit, it's been seven years since the Best Picture winner didn't receive recognition for its screenplay as well (when Million Dollar Baby fell to Alexander Payne's Sideways) and the last time Oscar's alpha dog lost in this category was in 2000, when Almost Famous knocked off action epic Gladiator (not exactly a screenwriting classic). That said, the correlation here isn't nearly as strong as that between Best Picture and Best Director. More importantly, the Academy tends to equate the best screenplay with the film featuring the best dialogue, and The Artist, for all of its virtues, isn't exactly strong on dialogue. (In a weird way, it resembles the mostly silent Wall-E, which lost in this category in 2008 to the bluntly written Milk.)

That might not matter were The Artist facing meager competition, but Midnight in Paris' screenplay credentials are auspicious. First, it bears the stamp of an auteur; Woody Allen is a screenwriting legend who's been nominated in this category a whopping 15 times (yet he hasn't won since Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986, so there's no fear of oversaturation). Second, its time-traveling conceit is exactly the type of visible screenwriting device that tends to appeal to Oscar voters. Finally, it won at the Writers' Guild, indicating that any lingering resentment against Allen as a result of his personal mishaps has long since dissipated.

That final point is a bit misleading, as The Artist wasn't even nominated at the guild because it was ineligible. (Of course, Hazanavicius was eligible, and in fact won, at the Directors' Guild. You figure it out.) And Hazanavicius has held his own on the circuit, topping Allen at the BAFTAs and also garnering awards from critics' associations in Chicago, Florida, Phoenix, and Vancouver. And while his decision to honor the silent film era necessarily rendered his movie light on dialogue, it's also a bold, novel approach that might receive voters' admiration for its ingenuity.

In the end, though, I don't think it has enough juice. It's far from a sure thing – that seven-year stat certainly gives me pause – but I think it's time that Woody Allen makes his way back to the winners' circle. Midnight in Paris takes it.

Right, so remember how I'd proclaimed that I was done with disclaimers this year because I'd seen all of the remaining nominees? Well, that was before Century Boulder inexplicably defaulted on its promise to start screening A Separation on February 17, despite assurances from Sony Classics' website. Dammit, Century, I thought we were closer than that – I thought we could trust each other. After being wrenched away from my beloved Boston Common three years ago in a parting of Antony-and-Cleopatra magnitude, my heart had finally started to feel whole again, but now you've thrown that all away, just so you could screen Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance a few extra times. You broke my heart.

(The point: I've yet to see A Separation, so I can't comment on its merit in this category. Moving on.)

I like The Artist quite a bit, but it's hard to deny that its screenplay is slight. It's a winning conceptual gambit, but the movie is memorable for its craft, its earnestness, and its impeccable acting. Bridesmaids, on the other hand, is a writers' movie through and through, and Mumolo and Wiig deserve acclaim for mingling piercing insights into relationships and loneliness amidst all of the big, brawny laughs. That said, its tone is a bit spotty, and a handful of scenes feel too forced for it to rank as a true comedic classic.

Midnight in Paris is a pure winner, and it features one of Allen's finest screenwriting efforts in some time, full of warmth and wonder along with his typical (and typically hilarious) neuroticism. My vote, however, goes to J.C. Chandor's Margin Call, a gripping, kinetic, scrupulously intelligent screenplay about ... an investment banking firm? The subject matter for Margin Call – a fictional recreation of a single night just prior to the stock market crash in 2008 – sounds utterly banal (not to mention predictable, given that we already know the ending), but Chandor's script bristles with energy and urgency, turning what could have been an obnoxious, muckraking exposé of corporate greed into an evenhanded, relentlessly compelling thriller. Top marks.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. – Dan Fogelman
The Guard – John Michael McDonagh
Margin Call – J.C. Chandor
Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen
Rango – John Logan

Fogelman illustrates that a movie can dabble in a variety of genres with falling prey to tonal inconsistency, and Crazy, Stupid, Love. supplies a buffet of humor, heartbreak, romanticism, and candor, with some wily plotting mixed in for good measure. (Now Fogelman just needs to learn proper punctuation.) McDonagh's script for The Guard is a pleasingly unhurried, marvelously jagged take on the standard buddy-cop comedy. Logan, I fear, received an Oscar nomination for the wrong film (Hugo), as Rango represents the most vibrant, original storytelling at the movies this year.

My ideal winner: Rango – John Logan.

Also deserving: Contagion – Scott Z. Burns (for its rigorous, horrifyingly plausible depiction of humanity's response to the apocalypse); Love Crime – Nathalie Carter, Alain Corneau (for having the patience to madden its viewers before finally rewarding them); Martha Marcy May Marlene – Sean Durkin (for terrifying us without stooping to cheap thrills); Neds – Peter Mullan (for crafting a coming-of-age story with an agreeably grey-shaded protagonist); Warrior – Gavin O'Connor et al. (for transforming trite into triumph); Young Adult – Diablo Cody (for obliterating the myth of the redemption fairy tale).

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Oscars Analysis 2011: Best Supporting Actor and Actress

Someday, an enterprising young man with a degree in applied mathematics and way too much time on his hands – not that I'm looking at anyone in particular – is going to compile a riveting sociological study on the Best Supporting Actor/Actress Oscars and the economic windfall that they yield for their winners. I mean, do these things really matter? I've always argued that the Academy Awards themselves are highly relevant, at least from a commercial standpoint if not an artistic one. Oscar winners immediately become more marketable as business properties, simply due to their increased visibility; once you win an Oscar, you're somebody. Aren't you?

Lately, I'm not so sure. True, following his ferocious Oscar-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz is now every casting director's first call for the part of "Megalomaniacal Villain" (the only reason he isn't playing the baddie in the upcoming James Bond movie is that fellow Best Supporting Actor winner Javier Bardem beat him to it). But do you realize that the winners of Best Supporting Actress over the past decade include Jennifer Connelly (only two worthwhile credits in the 10 years following A Beautiful Mind), Catherine Zeta-Jones (last quasi-memorable role: Ocean's Twelve in 2004), Renée Zelweger (only function these days seems to involve spreading rumors of another wretched Bridget Jones sequel), Jennifer Hudson (virtually invisible post-Dreamgirls), and Mo'Nique (lone credit since Precious? Steppin: The Movie)? And I haven't even mentioned Cuba Gooding, Jr. yet. I thought winning an Oscar was supposed to energize your career, not torpedo it.

So it's entirely possible that winning an Academy Award for a supporting performance has a 30% chance of derailing an actor's career. Just remember this when you look back 10 years from now and think to yourself, "Who the hell was Octavia Spencer?".

But I digress. On to the predictions.


Kenneth Branagh – My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Nick Nolte – Warrior
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Max von Sydow – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Jonah Hill must feel as if he accidentally wandered into some sort of retirement home for the gifted and talented. Do you realize that Branagh is 51 years old, and he's the second-youngest nominee by twenty years? I've never bought into the shtick about how the Academy is basically a fleet of self-congratulatory stuffy old white men, but someone might want to circulate an email reminding the members that handful of working actors were conceived after World War II. You know, if the members know how to use email.

Anyway, Plummer is the automatic pick here. He's already won the Precursor Triple Crown (BAFTA, Golden Globe, Screen Actors' Guild), plus another 11 awards for good measure. There are murmurs that the Academy is feeling sentimental toward von Sydow, given that he's well-liked, 82 years old, and has never won an Oscar, but I don't buy it, primarily because Plummer is also well-liked, also 82 years old, and also has never won an Oscar. No sense needlessly complicating matters.

Can I pass? Don't get me wrong, I like these performances fine, but I don't expect any of them to be remembered a year from now, much less a decade. Plummer is perfectly convincing as a widower trying earnestly to embrace his newfound sexuality, but the role is too thin to carry any resonance. Similarly, von Sydow does a nice job conveying regret and submerged sorrow without overplaying his hand, but he can't compensate for his vehicle's appalling descent into schlock. In yet another similar role, Nolte fares a bit better as a formerly absentee father yearning for redemption – in one spectacular scene with Joel Edgerton, his mingling of confusion, self-loathing, and dashed hope is heartbreaking – but he's simply upstaged by his co-stars.

For me, it's a choice between Branagh and Hill, and as much as I savor the Academy's recognition of a comic talent such as Hill, I'll go with the Irishman. Uncannily impersonating Laurence Olivier, Branagh is frighteningly imperious, effortlessly establishing Sir Laurence as a titan of his craft. It's a tricky challenge for an actor to play yet another actor of such renown, but Branagh drills both Olivier's merciless talent and his exasperation, only to reveal a slender core of feeling underneath. Jolly good.

Albert Brooks – Drive
Michael Fassbender – X-Men: First Class
Bruce Greenwood – Meek's Cutoff
John Hawkes – Martha Marcy May Marlene
John Slattery – The Adjustment Bureau

Brooks' strait-laced turn as a brutally pragmatic mobster is historic both for its harrowing understatement and complete lack of humor. Art-house star Fassbender refuses to mail it in despite a big paycheck, as he lends an otherwise popcorn-munching blockbuster a real sense of menace and pathos. As an inscrutable guide in the Old West, Greenwood is even more understated than Brooks, if nearly as threatening. Fresh off his Oscar nomination for a terrifyingly amoral performance in Winter's Bone, Hawkes is even more disturbing (and disturbingly seductive) as a Charles Manson clone. Slattery eases into his role as a metaphysical "adjuster" with supreme ease.

My ideal winner: Albert Brooks – Drive.

Paul Bettany – Margin Call
Kenneth Branagh – My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Jeremy Irons – Margin Call
Patton Oswalt – Young Adult

Bettany masterfully essays the disillusionment of the upper crust in Margin Call, while Irons embodies pure, untainted greed without a hint of remorse. Hill plays off of Brad Pitt wonderfully, countering his co-star's charm and guile with bewildered anxiety and quiet dignity. Oswalt is the essence of broken dreams, and his brief liaison with Charlize Theron's demoness is as painful as it is doomed.

Also deserving: Ralph Fiennes – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (for displaying absolute commitment); Alan Rickman – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (ibid); William Fichtner – Drive Angry (for providing a clinic in scenery-chewing); Andy Serkis – Rise of the Planet of the Apes (because it's going to happen eventually, so it might as well be now).


Bérénice Bejo – The Artist
Jessica Chastain – The Help
Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer – Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer – The Help

The comparisons between The Artist and The King's Speech as works of art are fairly strained, but as Oscar contenders, they're quite pertinent. For example, last year's Best Supporting Actress race was a classic bellwether; if Helena Bonham Carter took home the statuette for her turn as Colin Firth's devoted wife, then The King's Speech was in for a monstrous night. Instead, Melissa Leo won here for The Fighter, and The King's Speech contended itself with just four trophies (albeit all in major categories).

The question, then, is whether The Artist has enough pull to swing a win here for Bérénice Bejo, even though The Help's Octavia Spencer is the clear favorite. The answer? No. Pundits might be quick to point out that Spencer could feasibly split votes with co-star Jessica Chastain, but that hardly mattered last year when Leo fought off competition from Amy Adams (not to mention Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit – excuse me while I go punch something). Besides, Spencer is far more of a sure thing than Leo was last year; not only is her role even showier, but as with Plummer, she has the BAFTA/Golden Globe/SAG trifecta under wraps.

Still, this remains a crucial category to watch, if only for predictive purposes. If Bejo does steal the spotlight from Spencer, then The Artist will presumably flex its muscle in other up-for-grabs categories as well, most notably Best Original Screenplay and Best Costume Design. Nevertheless, Spencer remains the safe pick.

I can't help but be disappointed with this quintet as well, though that's more due to the extraordinarily deep pool of talent in this category than any discontent with the nominees. McCarthy and Spencer are both born crowd-pleasers, and they tear into their respective roles with evident relish (though McCarthy provides a modicum of subtext as well). Jessica Chastain's earnestness suits her well, though I frankly preferred her in The Debt (not to mention any of the other 87 movies she starred in this year). McTeer brings some much-needed humor to Albert Nobbs, though she dabbles in sadness as well – it's a well-rounded, deeply satisfying performance that lingers long after the film itself has faded. And Bejo matches Jean Dujardin glance for outsized glance, capturing the joy in her character's ascent to stardom while always retaining her deep reservoir of empathy.

It's almost unfair to pick Bejo as my winner, given that her character commands so much more screen time than the other four – in truth, she probably should have been nominated as a lead – but her performance is the most indelible. Whether it's prophetic of her own career remains to be seen, but I'm hopeful – hers is a luminous quality that cannot fail to warm your heart.

Emily Blunt – The Adjustment Bureau
Elle Fanning – Super 8
Kate Winslet – Contagion
Evan Rachel Wood – The Ides of March
Shailene Woodley – The Descendants

Blunt takes a clever screenwriting conceit and turns it into a fully spun character, with her own desperate wants and shattered dreams. Fanning is utterly mesmerizing – when she's on the screen, you're never looking anywhere else. Winslet's ability to seamlessly slip into a role is borderline lunacy at this point, but regardless, she's completely credible in a stomach-punching turn as a medical field officer. Wood nimbly toggles from coyly seductive to helplessly fragile without splitting her character in two. Woodley ... I admit that I can't even discuss Woodley rationally at this point.

My ideal winner: Shailene Woodley – The Descendants.

Cate Blanchett – Hanna
Jennifer Ehle – Contagion
Anna Kendrick – 50/50
Juno Temple – Cracks/Kaboom
Emma Watson – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Blanchett camouflages her natural sweetness to play a grade-A villainess, with chilling results. With her bustling academic passion, Ehle elevates an environment as banal as a laboratory to a spectacle of scientific inquiry. Kendrick's sublime portrayal of awkward sincerity is both tremendously funny and profoundly touching. I'm doubling up on Temple films, but it's worth noting her range; she brings haughty, wounded pride and coiled jealousy to Cracks while obliterating everyone else in Kaboom with her smoldering sexuality. Watson, sadly, receives far too little screen time for this viewer's liking, but she typically makes the most of it, hammering every nuanced bit for maximum emotional impact.

Also deserving: Jennifer Aniston – Horrible Bosses (for bringing the heat with zero apologies); Vera Farmiga – Source Code (for her affecting blend of crisp and veiled vulnerability); Mélusine Mayance – Sarah's Key (for stealing the show from Kristin Scott Thomas, which is damn impressive given that she's six years old); Morgan Turner – Mildred Pierce (it's cheating, but she goes toe-to-toe with Kate Winslet and holds her own); Evan Rachel Wood – Mildred Pierce (it's still cheating, and I still don't care – she's just too magnificently repellent).

Monday, February 20, 2012

Oscars Analysis 2011: The Big Techies

Given that I dubbed my last post the "Aural Edition", this one should probably be called the "Horror Edition". Why? Because predicting these four categories at this year's Oscars absolutely terrifies me. I don't mean an abstract, intellectual form of terror in the "I'm scared that Keira Knightley might never win an Oscar" or "I'm afraid that Jeremy Lin might pull a Hank Gathers and die on the basketball court if D'Antoni keeps playing him 45 minutes every night" vein. I mean that, if I go 0-for-4 in predicting these deeply important technical categories on Oscar night – a scenario that is alarmingly plausible – then there's the distinct possibility that I'll film myself with tears streaming down my face, babbling, "I am so, so sorry for underestimating the impact that Hugo held with mainstream Academy voters," before wandering into the woods and never being heard from again. In the words of Terius Nash, this shit real.

(Just to confirm: It's not normal to have nightmares about an unwatchable film winning Best Cinematography, right? I'm starting to wonder if I take this whole Oscar thing a bit too seriously. Oh well, too late now.)


The Artist – Guillame Schiffman
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Jeff Crenoweth
Hugo – Robert Richardson
The Tree of Life – Emmanuel Lubezki
War Horse – Janusz Kaminski

Sticking with the terror theme for a moment: Few characters in the past decade of cinema are as abjectly terrifying as Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men. Played by Javier Bardem, Chigurh is disturbingly good at killing people, but what makes him truly horrifying is his inexorability; he is utterly implacable. (That same quality of plodding persistence is what makes Schwarzenegger's Terminator so scary, as well as the zombies from George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead.) When sheriff Tommy Lee Jones visits his uncle for advice, his uncle simply confirms the inevitability of evil: "You can't stop what's coming."

What, you may ask, does this have to do with Best Cinematography? Well, Emmanuel Lubezki's photography for The Tree of Life has developed Anton Chigurh's aura of inevitability. To wit: Lubezki has already racked up a whopping sixteen wins across the precursor circuit; the other four nominees have three wins combined. Moreover, Schiffman can't reasonably rely on The Artist's frontrunner status to help him here – oddly, over the past 11 years, the eventual Best Picture winner has claimed the prize here just once (Slumdog Millionaire, in a dubious victory over The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

Yet, despite all of that seemingly incontrovertible evidence, The Tree of Life isn't a sure thing here. Yes, it's been dominant on the circuit, but those bodies tend to feature more esoteric memberships, and (Best Picture nomination aside) Academy voters are far more likely to be repulsed by the film's meditative mood and aggressively amorphous structure. Remember that, at the end of No Country for Old Men, Chigurh is nearly killed in a gruesome car crash ("Look at that fuckin' bone."). So perhaps The Artist or War Horse can plow their mannered, elegant compositions into The Tree of Life's sun-dappled passenger-side door.

But here's the other thing: Chigurh doesn't die in the crash. He just gets up, mends his grotesquely broken arm, and walks away. You can't stop what's coming. The Tree of Life is an Oscar-winner.


Look, If I were an actual movie critic – that is, if some magnanimous backer deigned to bestow upon me some sort of salary, whereupon I would generate written opinions on the state of contemporary cinema – then I might sit down and compose a 15,000-word diatribe that explains in minute detail just why I dislike The Tree of Life so intensely as a motion picture. But I'm doing this pro bono, and absent suitable compensation, I frankly don't have the energy to give so much of myself to a work of art that gave me so little.

For the moment, all I can really say about The Tree of Life is that I remember the experience of watching it – an experience that essentially consisted of me gnashing my teeth and intermittently asking myself, "Is it over yet?" – more than I remember the actual movie. It's possible that I've erased the majority of the film from my memory so as to prevent myself from reliving a painful, spectacularly boring event. And if a movie was so unbearable that I've actively blocked out most of its imagery, then that imagery probably isn't worthy of a Best Cinematography Oscar.

Thankfully, the remaining nominees are all impressive examples of photographic excellence, albeit they showcase themselves in markedly different ways. The Artist, naturally, is a throwback, exemplifying the extraordinary range of black-and-white. Much like Ludovic Bource's score, Schiffman's lighting is almost a character unto itself, dimming as the film's mood becomes darker, brightening when the outsized emotions pop. War Horse isn't in black-and-white, but Kaminski's photography is perhaps more classical than Schiffman's; the last scene alone instantly recalls the epics of John Ford, but throughout the film, Kaminski gracefully captures the beauty and danger of the natural world.

Hugo is yet another period piece, but Richardson's technique is urgently modern, as his 3-D camera freewheels through space with the verve and excitement of the film's titular protagonist. Crenoweth's work on David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo picks up where the pair left off when collaborating on The Social Network – the film's palette is cold, crisp, and clear, and its steely blue hues only enhance the inherent chill of its location.

So, bravos all around. But I'm forced to pick a winner, so I'll go with War Horse. Spielberg's longtime collaborator, Kaminski is in peak form here, and his deft, dexterous lensing effortlessly advances the film's overarching themes without ever calling attention to itself.

Hanna – Alwin Kuchler
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – Eduardo Serra
Meek's Cutoff – Christopher Blauvelt
Mysteries of Lisbon – André Szankowski
War Horse – Janusz Kaminski

If Kaminski's work on War Horse is stately, Szankowski's photography on Mysteries of Lisbon is downright regal, wielding a remarkably fluid camera that never hurries or wavers, even during countless extraordinarily long takes. Blauvelt's impeccable framing on Meek's Cutoff (shot in the old Academy aspect ratio, with a narrow frame that quickly becomes clammily constrictive) is the Western corollary to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, making the dusty Oregon Trail appear just as treacherously hot as Sweden appears unforgivingly cold. Hanna is a picture of boundless energy, and Kuchler complements director Joe Wright's vision with aplomb, most memorably in a landmark single-take fight sequence (to be discussed in a later post). And Serra does it all on Deathly Hallows, matching the film's grave tone with perfectly composed images lit so dimly that they border on black-and-white.

My ideal winner: Mysteries of Lisbon – André Szankowski.

Also deserving: The Ides of March – Phedon Papamichael (for articulating the film's metaphors through a sublime use of shadow); Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Andrew Lesnie (for showing Richardson that he isn't the only one who knows how to work with a zealous visual effects team).


The Artist – Anne-Sophie Bion
The Descendants – Kevin Tent
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall
Hugo – Thelma Schoonmaker
Moneyball – Christopher Tellefsen

Process of elimination tends to be an easier process when there are things to eliminate. I was all set to knock off The Descendants because it's not particularly flashy and thus isn't likely to be a major player in a craft category, only it just won at the Guild (just to muddle the picture, so did The Artist, as it was competing in the comedy/musical field). Also, while it's tempting to brush off The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because it's the lone option that isn't also a Best Picture nominee, the Academy has proven adventurous in this category in the past (recent winners include The Bourne Ultimatum, The Matrix, and Black Hawk Down).

Still, guild award or no, the Oscar buzz on The Descendants has virtually evaporated, so I can't see it nabbing a trophy here. As for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, although voters are indeed willing to stray from the Best Picture field, I think they'll only do so when the challenger broadcasts itself as a piece of bravura editing, and as proficiently cut as the film is, it isn't showy. Moneyball performs the impressive feat of making phone conversations between snobbish baseball executives appear exciting, but members will probably chalk that up to the sparkling screenplay rather than the editing.

So, in the end, we're left with a showdown between Oscar's two top punchers, and unlike most of the categories, this one really is a fair fight. The Artist has overall goodwill on its side, and it's worth noting that the ultimate Best Picture has tabbed the prize here in six of the past nine years. Of course, one of the three exceptions went to perpetual Scorsese editor Schoonmaker, when The Aviator surprised Million Dollar Baby. Then again, a challenger to the Best Picture winner typically has to feature either a nonlinear storyline or a healthy dose of action, and Hugo exhibits neither. But Hugo is a bit more tech-heavy than The Artist, meaning it bears an indicia of craftsmanship, and Film Editing is, in a broad sense, a technical award. But The Artist is short and fast-paced, whereas Hugo drags a bit during its middle section ...

O.K., now that I've finished talking myself in circles, does anyone have a coin? Actually, never mind – otherwise I might make another No Country for Old Men reference. Speaking of which, that movie won Best Picture but lost Best Film Editing. Fuck it. I'm taking The Artist. Let's move on.

[Note: I changed my mind on this category three times in a five-minute span. Nothing says strong predictions like an extreme lack of confidence.]

Unlike Best Cinematography, I'm less than impressed with this quintet. As I mentioned, Hugo's pace flags occasionally, and while it's far from flabby, pieces of it feel like filler. Moneyball occasionally toggles back to Billy Beane's days of yore, but those sequences are so dramatically paltry compared to the main action that we feel cheated. For its part, The Descendants hums along effortlessly, but it lacks the requisite panache that I, as an attention-addled moviegoer, tend to favor in this category.

For me, it's a choice between The Artist and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and as much as I appreciate the former's brisk pace and steady hand amidst marked changes in tone, I'm more partial to the mounting dread that Baxter and Wall help evoke in Fincher's thriller. Those of us who have seen the Swedish version know where the story is going (at least mostly), but the latter half of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo nevertheless bristles with energy and anxiety, continually ratcheting up the suspense and achieving gripping, sustained tension. When it finally does release the pedal, it's only for a moment before it punches us in the mouth. Now that arrests my attention.

The Adventures of Tintin – Michael Khan
Drive – Mat Newman
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall
Incendies – Monique Dartonne
Martha Marcy May Marlene – Zachary Stuart-Pontier

While The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is suspenseful for its latter half, Martha Marcy May Marlene is hypnotic from its opening frame, and as it lurches from present to past and back, Stuart-Pontier helps transport us into the muddled mind of disconnected heroine. Incendies is similarly fearless with its chronology, only Dartonne delineates the proceedings with precision. Drive is a triumphant union of restraint and excess, and Newman plays the balance just right. With Tintin, Khan (who also edited War Horse) shows he can handle new-school frenzy as well as old-school classicism.

My ideal winner: Martha Marcy May Marlene – Zachary Stuart-Pontier.


The Artist
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Midnight in Paris
War Horse

Alright, I've been spurning Hugo long enough. It held off The Artist to win at the Guild, its sets are generally regarded as marvelously innovative (plus they're showy), and its one true challenger bears the unfortunate stigma of being a fantasy film. I refuse to even try to talk myself out of this.


Here's the one nomination for The Artist I'm not particularly crazy about. Sure, it offers a reasonably impressive evocation of 1930s Hollywood, but its production design is far from memorable. Similarly, while Midnight in Paris delivers a suitably jazzy take on Flapper-era France, it's better conceptually than in reality. For its part, War Horse predictably nails the claustrophobia of trench warfare, though its construction of rural Britain is perhaps a touch mundane.

Now, I admire the production design of Hugo quite a bit – the train station is obviously the marquee attraction, but the rendition of Méliès' glass-roofed studio is another stunner. But the winner in this category for me, and by a considerable margin, is Stuart Craig's exquisite work on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Gringotts Bank is an artistic tour de force, with its towering ceilings and cavernous railways, while Hogwarts Castle has never appeared more sprawling, more deceitful, more alive. Craig and his team set up shop in that castle for more than a decade, and it is with magnificent, loving detail that they finally say goodbye.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Mysteries of Lisbon
Sucker Punch

One could argue that the rotting Elizabethan design, complete with dilapidated theatres, was the most convincing character in Anonymous. Of course, the same could be said about the sneering, wonderfully hostile environments of Sucker Punch. Mysteries of Lisbon, in case you've yet to glean this, is an artistic marvel.

My ideal winner: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

Also deserving: Rango (animated films are art-directed as well, and with its dusty saloons and sweeping landscapes, Rango is a beauty); Mildred Pierce (it's cheating, but I don't care – this is how you do period detail).


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Real Steel
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Transformers: Dark of the Moon

I was all set to pick Rise of the Planet of the Apes without second thought, but over at In Contention, Gerard Kennedy points out two sobering stats: First, the last time a film won this category without receiving any other nominations was in 1992, for Death Becomes Her (have fun Googling that one). Second, no movie that lacked a Best Picture nomination has won Best Visual Effects when a fellow nominee was also in the running for the top prize since ... hold on ... 1970? Yikes.

So, those statistics suggest that Hugo is the sleeper pick here, but I think it's a red herring. First of all, until two years ago, this category (stupidly) typically awarded only three nominations, not five, making it easier for tech-heavy movies to muscle out more refined Best Picture contenders in the past. More importantly, the effects for Rise of the Planet of the Apes are really stunning. It's hardly an exaggeration to argue that the film hinges entirely on the validity of its computer-generated apes, and those apes look awfully convincing. Finally, it's one thing when the tech-heavy picture is a moronic, critically drubbed blockbuster (e.g., Transformers: Dark of the Moon in the Sound categories), but critics generally appreciated Rise of the Planet of the Apes, even if it failed to receive recognition elsewhere from the Academy. Put everything together, and the case for Hugo is awfully hard to make. Caesar & Co. take this one.

First, a kudos to the Academy for nominating Real Steel, which wields its impressive effects in service of its (predictable but nevertheless thoroughly enjoyable) story. I could say the same of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but then I'd be lying. The V/X wizardry on display in Deathly Hallows is more low-key than in your typical fantasy film, but it's stellar nevertheless. Hugo's effects are similarly unobtrusive – perhaps overly so, as I confess that I have difficulty recalling more than a handful (one could chalk that up to supremely subtle artistry, but I'm skeptical).

In any event, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is just a knockout. Good visual effects wow us with their ingenuity and technological innovation. Great effects simply exist, blend into the screen, and disappear. Watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you aren't thinking, "Holy shit, the Weta Digital team really outdid itself this time!". Instead, you're thinking, "I wonder how Caesar is going to manipulate the gigantic gorilla to his side" (and possibly, "James Franco seems kinda bored"). The apes don't call attention to themselves in the way that they naturally interact with their environment. They're just there. And that is a remarkable thing.

Green Lantern
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Real Steel
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Transformers: Dark of the Moon

For once, it's hard for me to argue with the Academy's selections. I do feel that the effects of Green Lantern were unfairly marginalized, given that they serve the story quite nicely. Of course, the issue may be that the story itself is crap, but that's hardly the V/X team's fault.

My ideal winner: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.