For a strained but strangely pertinent analogy: Netflix has a setting on its website where you can select the video quality of your streaming service. The three potential options are – and I swear I'm not making this up – "Good," "Better," and "Best". (Aside: These happen to be the same choices I give a woman whenever I ask her to critique my sexual prowess.) Applying that rubric to the Oscars, these are the "Good" categories. So if the text on your screen suddenly turns into Wingdings, or if the quality of the embedded videos reminds you of that time in 1995 when you kept watching late-night Cinemax even though your Dad wouldn't pay for the channel and all you could really see were jagged lines and occasional glimpses of a woman's bare shoulder, don't worry, it'll get better for the "Better" and "Best" fields.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Yikes. Can I pass? This category is typically governed by two rules: Always look toward the period piece (The Young Victoria, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), and always pick the film with the glitziest, look-at-me! costumes (Alice in Wonderland, Marie Antoinette). Naturally, all five nominees this year are period pieces, while none (with the possible exception of W.E., which I haven't seen) features costumes that are particularly showy.
So, back to basics. I'm eliminating Anonymous and W.E. because they're both critically reviled, and the Academy generally frowns on rewarding bad movies with trophies, regardless of their merit in a particular field (though the costume branch is admittedly more freelance than most). Each of the remaining three films could win here, but if we're whittling it down, I'm knocking off Jane Eyre next, if only because this represents its lone nomination and it's sandwiched between two powerhouses.
So we're down to the two most heavily nominated movies of the slate: Hugo (the leading candidate with 11 total nominations) vs. The Artist (10 nominations but the frontrunner for Best Picture). And the key question, and one that will animate my analysis for many of the remaining categories, is this: Just how long are The Artist's coattails? Can the silent, black-and-white drama dominate along the lines of a juggernaut like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (which swept all 11 categories in which it was nominated back in 2003), or at least emulate a heavy hitter like Slumdog Millionaire (which won eight of its nine nominations in 2008)? Or is it more akin to a less craft-oriented picture such as The King's Speech (which garnered trophies in four major categories last year but whiffed on all of its technical nominations)?
My guess is that it's somewhere in the middle, and while most pundits are tabbing The Artist to take the prize here, I don't think it has quite enough juice. The costumes in Hugo are a bit more showy (not to mention in color), and three-time winner Sandy Powell has already flexed her muscle in Scorsese collaborations in the past when she won for The Aviator. Hugo takes it.
Again, I've yet to see W.E., so I abstain there. As for the remaining candidates, it's difficult for me to muster enthusiasm for any of them. The debonair threads in The Artist are fine, but from a craft perspective, it's the polished cinematography and tremulous score that truly linger. Similarly, Hugo is far more memorable for its innovative visual effects and free-wheeling camera movements than for its costume design. The sinister elements that creep through Cary Fukunaga's impressively foreboding re-imagination of Jane Eyre are worthy of a horror film, but the costumes lack any real snap. Anonymous, to its credit, marries its towering Gothic production design with Elizabethan-era elegance, then curdles them both with rot. With this slate of nominees, that's enough for me.
MY IDEAL BALLOT
The Adjustment Bureau
A Dangerous Method
Mysteries of Lisbon
The Princess of Montpensier
As mentioned, Anonymous features award-worthy design work. The Adjustment Bureau illustrates that contemporary films can nevertheless serve as a showcase for finely tuned costume design that advances a movie's central ethos (in this case, that bureaucratic angels in dark suits can be nasty pieces of work). A Dangerous Method has that dress (not to be confused with That Dress, but still). As period pieces go, the costumes are rarely more intricately detailed than those of Portugal's Mysteries of Lisbon, though France's The Princess of Montpensier gives it a go.
My ideal winner: Mysteries of Lisbon.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
The Iron Lady
Aging has always been the safest route to a Best Makeup Oscar (a recent example is the uglification of Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, which somehow fended off Oscar tour-de-force Norbit), and that should hold again this year. It's possible that the overall stench emanating from The Iron Lady is so sour that voters will be dissuaded from voting for it altogether, but it's still the clear favorite here.
It irks me that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – only my favorite movie of the entire year – earned just three Oscar nominations, yet I can't help but feel that this one wasn't particularly deserved. Of course, it's considerably more deserving that the nod for Albert Nobbs, which might have made sense if Glenn Close were completely convincing as a man (she isn't). As for The Iron Lady, the opening scene of the film features a batty old woman buying milk. Watching it, I had absolutely no idea that the woman in question was Meryl Streep, so much so that I started wondering if I'd accidentally stumbled into the wrong theatre (no such luck). And sure, part of that derives from the impressive, faltering physicality of Streep's acting, but the makeup certainly had something to do with it.
MY IDEAL BALLOT
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Iron Lady
The Skin I Live In
The Iron Lady deserves to be an Oscar winner, which is deeply disturbing on a basic level, but such is life. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has the temerity to give nice-girl Rooney Mara a stupendous mohawk – it deserved recognition for that alone (remember, hair is included in makeup, not costume design). I can't even describe why The Skin I Live In merits mention here without spoiling it, so you'll just have to take my word for it.
My ideal winner: The Iron Lady.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
In Darkness (Poland)
Monsieur Lazhar (Canada)
A Separation (Iran)
As is typically the case, I've yet to see any of these films, as none is available at a local theatre nor on Netflix. (Per its official website, A Separation should be arriving in my neighborhood next week, though Sony Classics said the same thing for months about A Dangerous Method, so they're not exactly trustworthy with their release information.) That handicaps my evaluations somewhat, but regardless, A Separation is absolutely beloved by critics (seriously, its scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are a little scary). In Darkness is a Holocaust movie, so it can't be completely ruled out, but I have no choice but to go with A Separation here.
MY IDEAL BALLOT
Leap Year (Mexico)
Love Crime (France)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Portugal)
The Skin I Live In (Spain)
Just because I've yet to catch up with this year's nominees doesn't mean 2011 wasn't fertile ground for foreign cinema. An ambitious film that spans multiple continents and generations, Incendies balances its high-pitched melodrama with crisp editing and sharply drawn characters. (It was actually nominated in this category last year, but it didn't play in American theatres until 2011, so deal with it.) Leap Year examines sexual masochism in ways that are genuinely disturbing and surprisingly moving. Love Crime features one of the most deliciously head-spinning screenplays of the year, as well as a masterfully nuanced performance from Ludivine Sagnier. Mysteries of Lisbon fuses monumentally ambitious storytelling with exquisite cinematic technique and proves that movies can successfully challenge audiences without actively alienating them (looking at you, Tree of Life). And The Skin I Live In is Pedro Almodóvar's finest film in some time, a bizarre, hypnotic exploration of sexual perversion and gender identity.
My ideal winner: The Skin I Live In.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Hell and Back Again
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Like with Best Foreign Language Film, I haven't seen any of these nominees; unlike with Best Foreign Language Film, I have no intention of doing so. Also, for the record, with the exception of the categories discussed in this post (and the shorts), I've seen every single film nominated for a 2011 Oscar, so I won't have to keep minimizing my credibility by claiming ignorance. So there's that.
Anyway, the smart money here is on Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, not least because mainstream directors are falling all over themselves in a race to turn its disturbing true-to-life plot into a feature (Atom Egoyan's adaptation is already underway and will star Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, while Johnny Depp is also working on his own project). Its biggest challenger is probably Wim Wenders' 3-D dance film (you read that correctly) Pina. I could tell you more, but, you know, I haven't seen any of the movies.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
A Cat in Paris
Chico & Rita
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss in Boots
Rango. And easily.
Rango. And easily.
(Full disclosure: I haven't seen A Cat in Paris or Chico & Rita. And that's the last "I haven't seen it" disclosure of the year. I promise.)
MY IDEAL BALLOT
The Adventures of Tintin
Yeah, that's it. I suppose I could include the reasonably diverting Arthur Christmas as well, but these are the only two animated movies this year that I actively liked. Fortunately, they make for a hell of a pair, with Rango's sly, tongue-in-cheek humor and aggressively weird characters contrasting nicely with Tintin's earnest storytelling and dazzling action sequences. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more purely enjoyable double bill.