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.)


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

NOMINEES
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

WILL WIN
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.

(Dammit.)





SHOULD WIN
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.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
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).





BEST FILM EDITING

NOMINEES
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

WILL WIN
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.]





SHOULD WIN
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.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
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.





BEST ART DIRECTION

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

WILL WIN
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.




















SHOULD WIN

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.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Anonymous
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Hugo
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).





BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

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

WILL WIN
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.

SHOULD WIN
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.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
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.

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