Why group these three categories together? Because they all award craftsmen whose job is to make their movies look prettier? Or because I just randomly decided to lump three categories into a single post? As Yoda would say, it matters not. Let's get to it.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Snow White and the Huntsman
Life of Pi's only competition here is itself. The movie's visual
effects are so good – by which I mean they're so beautifully rendered
and subtly deployed – that voters might not even recognize that they're
watching computer-generated imagery at all. Then again, even the most
blockheaded Academy member is unlikely to be so obtuse as to actually
believe that Ang Lee put a real tiger in a boat with a 19-year-old kid
and then just let the cameras roll. There's also the obscure point of
trivia that a Best Picture nominee has lost the Best Visual Effects
Oscar to a non-Best Picture candidate only once in the category's
49-year history. That's a slightly misleading stat, as no Best Picture
contender was even in the running for Best Visual Effects in 22 of those
years, but it's still something.
And again – and more importantly – I'm not sensing even the slightest predatory whiff from any of the tiger's rivals. The Avengers, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and Prometheus
all feature commendable effects work, but that work hardly stands out
in today's era of perpetual technological magnificence. And Snow White and the Huntsman
seems to be here for no other reason than its (admittedly impressive)
transplantation of a septet of well-known British actors' heads onto the
bodies of dwarves. None of the four challengers features a gasp-worthy,
"Holy shit, did you see that?" moment that will have audiences buzzing
as they leave the theatre.
Life of Pi, by contrast, doesn't just feature
that gasp-worthy moment – it extends it for upwards of an hour. You may
not remember the movie's muddled spiritual themes or its sagging
epilogue, but you will remember that tiger. And that's more than enough
to earn it the Oscar.
The problem with modern visual effects is not, in empirical terms, that
there's a problem at all. Visual effects in contemporary movies are very
good and getting better. The issue is that the bar has already been set
so astronomically high – thanks most recently to the astounding
artistry and innovation on display in pictures such as Avatar, Inception, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes
– that it's becoming exponentially more difficult for V/X crews to
truly wow their audiences. We're like fans of UCLA during the Wooden
dynasty, when even winning the national championship became mundane.
And so, as I suggested previously, the special effects of The Avengers,
with its flying aircraft carriers and speeding superheroes, are
thoroughly impressive but not especially memorable. The same is true of
the majority of the V/X work in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, with the notable exception of Andy Serkis' Gollum, who looks as lifelike and spindly as ever but nevertheless evades the uncanny valley. Prometheus
does create an extraordinary new world that makes you want to breathe
in its air (if it were breathable), but I credit the production
designers and director Ridley Scott's overall invocation of awe more
than the binary code. As for Snow White and the Huntsman, those
dwarves look reasonably realistic (at least once you get past the
inevitable "Wait a minute, isn't that Ian McShane?" reaction), but one
well-executed gimmick is hardly cause for Oscar recognition.
Thankfully, Life of Pi provides yet another
historic advancement in the realm of visual effects, and that
advancement's name is Richard Parker. He's the computer-generated tiger,
of course, but it feels more appropriate to refer to him by name than
by species given the sheer magnitude of personality he exudes. As a
digital creation, Richard Parker is utterly sublime, with rippling fur
and a true sense of weight and space. But watching him stake out his
corner of the lifeboat in Life of Pi, audiences will spend little
time marveling at the gleam of his sharp teeth or the agility of his
prowling movements. They will be too busy engaging with him, whether
afraid that he's going to devour the movie's main character or
sympathetic that he's just another wayward soul searching for home. The
point is that Richard Parker is more than a visual effect – he's a
character. And that's why he's a great effect.
MY IDEAL BALLOT
Life of Pi
Rust and Bone
Chronicle exhibits extraordinary subtlety in its seamless
depiction of telekinesis, which is critical given the importance of
levitation to the film's central conceit. Rust and Bone reminds
us that special effects can play a vital and valuable role in cinema
that exists outside the world of big-budget Hollywood spectacle. John Carter,
meanwhile, stands as an opposing reminder of sorts, a big, brawling
blockbuster whose top-notch digital wizardry hypnotically draws viewers
into its richly realized, decidedly new universe.
My ideal winner: Life of Pi.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Snow White and the Huntsman
Unlike with Best Visual effects, the winners of Best Costume Design
exhibit virtually no correlation with Best Picture. In fact, The Artist's
victory in this category last year broke a string of six consecutive
telecasts in which the winner wasn't even nominated for the top prize.
So while it might initially be tempting to elevate Lincoln and Les Misérables to the top of the pack, the more prudent approach is to focus on the quality of the costumes themselves.
Unfortunately, separating the contenders from pretenders is quite
difficult; all possess hallmarks of an award-winner (and all, for that
matter, are either period or fantasy films), but none cries out for the
statuette. Lincoln, in spite of his prestige pedigree, is
possibly the weakest candidate here, as its parade of men in top hats
and tails may be grudgingly accurate but is hardly beautiful. And the
nineteenth-century wardrobe of Les Misérables is similarly drab.
In general, the Academy tends to prioritize sumptuous design over period
precision, and neither Best Picture nominee offers the former.
Snow White and the Huntsman does feature its share of impressive
threads, most notably in the various gowns that cling to Charlize Theron
like shimmering barnacles, but the overall color scheme of the movie is
likely too dark compared to Oscar's preferred palette. Mirror Mirror,
in contrast, dazzles viewers with a plethora of bright dresses and
ornate blouses. Still, I suspect that the Academy will ultimately be
seduced by Jacqueline Durran's supremely elegant costumes for Anna Karenina,
a distinguished period picture that just happens to feature a number of
attractive women donning flamboyant, ruff-laden outfits. Its powerful
combination of stateliness and flair should have voters salivating. Not
that I have anyone in mind.
(And yes, it helps when the most beautiful woman in the world models your costumes for you.)
For most categories, my foregoing analysis in the "Will Win" section
varies markedly from my own evaluations of the field's nominees. That's
because my studious stargazing requires me to place myself in the
perspective of a typical Academy voter, a perspective that rarely aligns
with my own. With Best Costume Design, however, my opinions are
virtually identical to those of my hypothetical AMPAS member. To wit,
the wardrobe exhibited in Lincoln and Les Misérables is
suitably tasteful but hardly revelatory; similarly, notwithstanding the
Wicked Queen's savagely sexy attire, the warrior garb featured in Snow White and the Huntsman is serviceable but forgettable.
Mirror Mirror at least features colors that pop off the screen,
and its vivid threads do well to advance the movie's sense of impish
playfulness. But the costumes on display in Anna Karenina
are flat-out knockouts. The film's wardrobe is undeniably pleasing to
the eye, but it's also singularly evocative of a particular time and
place. Indeed, one of the central paradoxes of Anna Karenina, at
least in a cinematic sense, is how a movie about death, depression, and
suffocation can feel so alive and look so breathtakingly beautiful. But
that's a thematic question for a different day. This category is about
the costumes, and they're pure gold.
MY IDEAL BALLOT
Farewell, My Queen
Farewell, My Queen lifts Anna Karenina's conceit and
multiplies it to fit the scale of revolutionary France; it's a film in
which opulence entwines with rot, and its ravishing wardrobe somehow
underscores its characters' hopelessness. John Carter's visual
effects are its primary calling card, but its distinctive costumes
further substantiate the depth of the movie's scope and originality. The
myriad stylings displayed in Moonrise Kingdom emblazon the film with Wes Anderson's unique stamp but also deftly recall universal memories of childhood.
My ideal winner: Anna Karenina.
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Hell if I know. But curiously, each of these movies features its own brand of recognizable, Oscar-centric makeup. Hitchcock puts the typically gaunt Anthony Hopkins in a fat suit. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey applies a bevy of grotesque ornaments – along with bushels of facial hair – in order to create its many misshapen faces. And Les Misérables ages its main character over a span of several decades (remember that Barney's Version nabbed a nomination here for speculating as to just how many wrinkles Paul Giamatti's face would sport once he reached 70).
So who wins? I'll take a "more is more" approach and go with The Hobbit. Say what you want about the movie, but there sure was a lot of it, makeup included.
The problem with weighing the merits of a movie like Hitchcock in
this category is that it's difficult to separate the work of the makeup
artists from those of the primary artist (that is, the actor). The
Academy faced a similar conundrum last year with The Iron Lady,
but the makeup there was so startlingly transformative that it was clear
that Meryl Streep's likeness as Margaret Thatcher wasn't just a
result of the actress' uncanny impersonation. Here, however, I'm more
partial to credit Hopkins' gruff, growling performance as the reason he
so effectively inhabits the master of suspense. And because, as with the
film's costumes, Les Misérables' makeup is solid but little more, that leaves me with The Hobbit,
and while I may have arrived at my choice through process of
elimination, it's a reasonably worthy winner. Look at it this way:
Either the makeup work was entirely convincing, or else Peter Jackson
magically transfigured half of the population of New Zealand into a
bunch of orcs. (Not that we should rule the latter out.)
MY IDEAL BALLOT
If Hitchcock earned its nomination for turning Hopkins into one particular character, Holy Motors
surely deserves recognition for having the audacity to mutate lead
actor Denis Lavant into no fewer than eleven distinct personalities. Looper,
meanwhile, casts the wiry Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the brawny Bruce
Willis as the same character and gets away with it, and the makeup
contributes significantly in that regard.
Cloud Atlas has been stupidly criticized for its use of white
actors to play Asian characters (a critique rendered all the more vacant
when considering that the movie also employs the same technique in
reverse), but regardless, the makeup – which allows seven different
actors to play radically different characters across six different time
periods – is mind-blowing. More importantly, it's effective. Yes,
there are moments when the audience recognizes the meta concept, but
that recognition is intentional, as it provides with filmmakers with a
silent avenue to communicate their theories on the universality of the
human condition (trust me, it's far less dry than it sounds). Brilliant
My ideal winner: Cloud Atlas.