Saturday, February 18, 2012

Oscars Analysis 2011: Aural Edition

Cinema may be a visual medium first and foremost, but its visuals would be pretty fucking useless without their auditory companions. And while my list of things to do before I die includes compiling the Manifesto's Mute-Movie Hall of Fame – a list of films that are effective as works of art even with the sound turned off (current candidates include Avatar, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Hero, The Man Who Wasn't There, and every Pixar movie ever made) – for the most part, a film's aural component can be critical to its success. So recognition from the Academy for achievement in these categories (with one exception – more on that later) makes perfect sense.

(Also, if you're wondering why no Terence Malick productions made my random shortlist of Mute Movies, that's because they're too busy fighting for a spot on the Anti-Sound All-Stars, a select group reserved for movies that actually become worse once you turn on your speakers. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, you've clearly never seen The New World or The Tree of Life.)

With that said, I have to confess that only one of the following four categories really interests me (though it's one of the most important fields of the entire Academy Awards). I acknowledge the importance of the next two without fully partaking in their spirit, primarily because, after writing the Manifesto for 11 years and spending thousands of hours reading film criticism exclusively devoted to the Oscars, I still don't really know what they mean. Oh, and the last category is worthless.

Alright, on to the predictions.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

NOMINEES
The Adventures of Tintin – John Williams
The Artist – Ludovic Bource
Hugo – Howard Shore
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Alberto Iglesias
War Horse – John Williams

WILL WIN
I'm struggling mightily to predict the majority of this year's categories, so I'm automatically suspicious that this one seems a tad too easy. But just for due diligence, let's work backwards. The one nominee I'm comfortable eliminating immediately is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – it's a fine score, but it's far too muted and understated to make an impact with voters here. I'm also reasonably secure knocking off The Adventures of Tintin, as Williams' work is solid but doesn't deliver one of his trademark themes.

That leaves us with the three Best Picture nominees, which is hardly surprising – only once in the last 11 years has the victor here not also been contending for Oscar's top prize (Frida in 2002). But the correlation makes sense given that the Academy evaluates these scores not in a musical vacuum but in terms of how they contribute to the overall film. Last year's Oscar winner – Trent Reznor's and Atticus Ross' chilly, ambient score for The Social Network – isn't something you'll play on your iPod regularly, but its moody dissonance was vital in establishing the film's bleak, disillusioned tone. And paradoxically, no movie this year hinges more on its score than the silent picture The Artist. Of course, The Artist technically isn't silent at all; on the contrary, the lack of spoken dialogue requires the film to be filled with music virtually wall-to-wall, almost as if it's a visual symphony. And music can speak awfully loudly when no one else is talking.

Hugo and War Horse can't be discounted entirely – Hugo because of its perceived status as "craft frontrunner" (remember, it leads the field with 11 total nominations), War Horse because it's classic Williams, complete with a lilting flute theme and a series of rousing, crowd-pleasing passages. But neither is as pervasively present as Bource's work in The Artist. You can't separate the music from the movie, and you can't separate Bource from his statuette.





SHOULD WIN
I love this category, so it's especially sobering that I find this quintet of nominees wanting. Iglesias' restrained, tremulous compositions for Tinker Tailor Solider Spy mesh nicely with the movie's atmosphere of controlled suspense, but the excellence of the film's cinematography and production design renders his music almost inconsequential. Williams' brisk, breezy score fits Tintin's adventurous spirit similarly well, but for such a great artist, it's hardly memorable. And Shore's score for Hugo is disappointingly flat (it's also oddly reminiscent of Michael Giacchino's work on Ratatouille, perhaps because both are French-flavored) – frankly, I much preferred his work on A Dangerous Method.

I admit, however, to having a soft spot for Williams' sweeping, unapologetically old-fashioned sonic broadsides for War Horse. Critics will dismiss the score as pandering, but its earnestness – from its thundering percussion to its plaintive trumpets – complement the movie's blunt honesty perfectly.

In the end, however, I can't deny the sheer magnitude of Bource's music for The Artist. Shepherding us through every scene of the film's pleasingly predictable emotional journey, Bource's score is, in its own way, as crucial as any character on the screen. And given that The Artist is, by and large, a joyous achievement, it's impossible not to give its composer his due.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Drive – Cliff Martinez
Hanna – The Chemical Brothers
Jane Eyre – Dario Marianelli
One Day – Rachel Portman
Rango – Hans Zimmer

Needless to say, my choices for the year's best music in film didn't exactly synch up with those of the Academy. Nevertheless, this was a great year for movie composers. Martinez outfits '80s retro-flick Drive with a pulse-pounding electronic score that sounds as though it was belched from under the hood of a flame-painted Corvette. (Naturally, the Academy declared the score to be ineligible, probably because it included too much kickass music not composed by Martinez.) Not to be outdone, the Chemical Brothers deliver relentless energy with their beat-driven, heedlessly aggressive soundtrack for Hanna. Marianelli, by contrast, raises his profile with yet another gorgeous period accompaniment, while Portman illustrates that classical beauty can still find a home in a contemporary setting. I discussed Zimmer's work in detail here, but it's worth reiterating that his score is a winning pastiche of timeless Western motifs, updated with his own bracingly modern identity.

My ideal winner: Rango – Hans Zimmer. (In a peculiar footnote, Zimmer himself – a nine-time Oscar nominee – declined to submit any of his 2011 scores for consideration by the Academy. That's a shame, because Rango represents him in absolute peak form.)

Also deserving: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (for doubling down on last year's revolutionary ambience and helping to make frigid Sweden appear thoroughly uninviting); Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – Alexandre Desplat (for shrewdly interweaving disparate themes across the entire franchise into a unified whole); Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – Michael Giacchino (for nailing the quintessential action soundtrack).





BEST SOUND MIXING

NOMINEES
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Hugo
Moneyball
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

WILL WIN
Inception. Shit, that was last year. But that's the problem with predicting the craft categories this year – there isn't a technological behemoth that can muscle its way through the more esoteric fields. In theory, that candidate would be Transformers: Dark of the Moon – the most obviously tech-heavy film in this group of nominees – but voters typically have trouble recognizing movies that were critically panned, regardless of their achievement in a particular field. Instead, the most plausible candidate to slip on the wolf's clothing and dominate the technical categories is Hugo, given that it racked up 11 nominations and bears the stamp of the legendary Scorsese.

In my mind, though, Hugo is more sheep than wolf. Sure, it's a very well-made film, but its technical proficiency is more quietly nuanced than overtly visible. It would be one thing if it were the favorite for Best Picture, but it's clearly second fiddle behind The Artist at this point, and I don't think it has enough juice to rack up wins solely on reputation.

Which means, sadly, that I have to evaluate this category on merit. O.K., back to Sound School 101: The key difference between sound mixing and sound editing is that editing involves creating entirely new sounds, whereas mixing involves blending the sound palette into a cohesive sonic whole. So it makes sense that war movies tend to do well here (past winners include Platoon, Glory, Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, and The Hurt Locker), given the array of sound elements they need to incorporate. And in addition to the standard military tropes (crackling gunfire, booming artillery, etc.), War Horse adds the terrified braying of its equine heroes to its mix. Sold.

SHOULD WIN
Super 8. Yeah, I know it isn't nominated, but did you see that train crash? More importantly, did you hear it? I still have flashbacks whenever I see a railroad crossing.


BEST SOUND EDITING

NOMINEES
Drive
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Hugo
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

WILL WIN
It's here where I think Hugo can finally wield some of its clout. War Horse, while technically impressive, is adamantly old-fashioned, meaning it relies more on painstaking craftsmanship than ingenuity. Hugo, on the other hand, has its automaton, as well as other various gadgets that have the spark of creation (and remember, this category is all about creating new and dynamic sounds). Of course, the potential spoiler remains Transformers, but I'm still banking on its poor critical reception to rob it of any chance at recognition.

SHOULD WIN
Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Say what you want about Michael Bay, but his commitment to detail when it comes to alien robots is no small feat. His commitment to storytelling is rather less impressive.





BEST ORIGINAL SONG

NOMINEES
The Muppets – "Man or Muppet"
Rio – Real in Rio

WILL WIN
The Muppets. Trust me.


SHOULD WIN
Who the fuck cares? I don't want to get into an absurd discussion of the nomination rules surrounding this area – mainly because I'd rather have Jon Hamm from Sucker Punch give me a lobotomy – but it's pretty damn obvious that the category represents nothing other than a gigantic waste of everyone's time. It was one thing when Alan Menken was hammering out showstoppers year after year like he was Albert Pujols, but at this point, there's simply no synergy between cinematic quality and some random song that sounds as if it were pilfered from Katy Perry's trash bin. If we take as a given that the Oscars are designed to reward achievements that make movies better, shouldn't we have categories in which achievement in those fields actually correlates with better movies?

Of course, not only is the category useless to begin with, but now we have two nominations? In what universe is this considered acceptable? Would you have an all-NBA team with just two players? A Tony Awards with just two categories? A school for wizardry and witchcraft with just two houses? The only rational explanation is that there were originally five nominees, but Harvey Weinstein ate the other three.

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