Monday, February 11, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: The Heavy Hitters

If I were a reputable movie critic – or at least a blogger of sufficient diligence and planning – I would devote individual posts to each of the following three categories, all of which constitute critical branches of filmmaking and hardly deserve to be unceremoniously lumped together. But the telecast of the 85th Academy Awards is a mere two weeks away, and the Manifesto still has 14 categories to burn through. As such, I can only hope that the cinematographers, editors, and production designers mentioned below take minimal offense to being discussed in a single post. Something tells me they'll get over it.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

NOMINEES
Anna Karenina – Seamus McGarvey
Django Unchained – Robert Richardson
Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda
Lincoln – Janusz Kaminski
Skyfall – Roger Deakins

WILL WIN
Over the last few years, the Academy's thinking regarding cinematography has undergone a sea change of sorts. Whereas in the past, voters tended to favor stately, elegant compositions (witness wins for Road to Perdition and There Will Be Blood), photographers now are more likely to gain acclaim for feats of daring and bravura skill. To wit, the last three victors in this category (Avatar, Inception, and Hugo) also claimed Oscars for their visual effects. Given that Life of Pi has the latter category sewn up – not to mention that, as with Avatar and Hugo, it was filmed in 3-D – it's difficult to envision a scenario in which it doesn't take home the statuette for its cinematography as well.

If pressed, I can make a half-hearted argument to the contrary, though it centers on the photographers themselves rather than their films. Specifically, three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson clearly has considerable traction with the Academy, so Django Unchained can't be completely ruled out, though I think Richardson's nomination is his reward. More intriguing is the case of Skyfall's Roger Deakins. The legendary cinematographer has been invited to the show a whopping nine times over the past 18 years but has gone home empty-handed every single time, so there's always the possibility of a sympathy vote.

So there are your token counterarguments. Convinced? Neither am I. Life of Pi takes this one comfortably.





SHOULD WIN
Richardson's work on Django Unchained is serviceable, but it's hardly awe-inspiring, especially when compared to quasi-Westerns of the recent past (such as Deakins' work on True Grit and No Country for Old Men). Janusz Kaminski's lensing of Lincoln is similarly muted, though it does feature a spectacularly gorgeous shot of the president curtained in shadow that by all rights should have ended the film. Overall, though, Kaminski allows his work to recede into the background, letting the performances and Tony Kushner's screenplay come to the fore; it's the appropriate and responsible approach, but that shouldn't equate with Oscar recognition.

The remaining three nominees comfortably earned their spots at this year's gala. Claudio Miranda composes images of striking, elemental beauty that elevate Life of Pi's transcendent seafaring sequence to high art. His use of 3-D is effective without being distracting, presenting action on multiple planes that helps draw the viewer into the screen. On Skyfall, Deakins lays waste to the notion that action scenes have to be presented with clutter and confusion, and his meticulous digital framing gives urgent, vigorous life into the film's genre elements. In the end, Skyfall may not quite be the best Bond movie ever made, but thanks to Deakins, it's undoubtedly the best-looking.

My clear winner, though, is Seamus McGarvey's astonishing work on Anna Karenina. McGarvey already proved he was a maestro (and perfectly paired with director Joe Wright) on Atonement, but his photography of Wright's latest and most sumptuous film takes things to another level. His camera glides through the frame like a winged predator, circling its human prey with aroused curiosity, turning something ordinary like a waltz into an exhilarating dance between character and viewer. The result is a picture of both supple grace and breathless vitality. Splendid stuff.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Anna Karenina – Seamus McGarvey
Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda
Moonrise Kingdom – Robert D. Yeoman
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – Gökhan Tiryaki
Skyfall – Roger Deakins

Strong showing from the Academy in this category, as three of its five selections match my own. Moonrise Kingdom's camera presents its mannered universe with immaculate precision, then retains that stylistic discipline even as the film bursts into buoyant, boisterous life. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia offers darkly lit images of restrained, captivating loveliness, assuming you haven't already fallen asleep.

My ideal winner: Anna Karenina – Seamus McGarvey.

Also deserving: Farewell, My Queen – Romain Winding (for finding the rapture amidst the decadence); The Master – Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (for its somber beauty, 70-millimeter format or otherwise); Prometheus – Dariusz Wolski (for the best use of 3-D in any film since Avatar).


BEST FILM EDITING

NOMINEES
Argo – William Goldenberg
Life of Pi – Tim Squyres
Lincoln – Michael Kahn
Silver Linings Playbook – Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
Zero Dark Thirty – William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor

WILL WIN
O.K., Argo, it's your time. I've been giving Ben Affleck's hostage drama short shrift thus far, partly because its transformation from also-ran to frontrunner has been a gradual one, partly because I'm skeptical that its below-the-line elements have enough flash to curry favor with the Academy. If we accept, however, that it really is the leader for Best Picture at this point – and I can't deny the power of that locomotive any longer – then this category is the logical place for it to affirm its status. First of all, there's a moderate if not staggering correlation between Best Picture and Best Film Editing, with six of the past ten top dogs also scooping the latter prize. More importantly, Argo's strongest challenger here is likely to be Lincoln, yet according to my hasty, unofficial research, the last film of Lincoln's length to win for its editing was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. Furthermore, the Academy tends to favor suspenseful pictures in this spot, as evidenced by recent victories for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Bourne Ultimatum, and Argo's tension-laden narrative is the most suspenseful of the nominees. And finally, the last movie to win Best Picture but no other Oscars was Mutiny on the Bounty, and that was released way the hell back in 1935. (For the record, I preferred the 1984 version with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, but no matter.)

The point is this: Argo has to win something, and Best Film Editing is as sensible a choice as any. Mark it down.





SHOULD WIN
The best editing in Life of Pi simply involves staying out of Ang Lee's way. The film works best during its quiet, hypnotic stretches involving nothing more than a boy, a boat, and a tiger. Unfortunately, David Magee's screenplay calls for a flashback structure that, while handled competently, invariably robs the proceedings of tension and drive. Silver Linings Playbook isn't exactly a tense motion picture either, but its inclusion here is nevertheless a welcome surprise, as the Academy typically ignores movies with a strong comedic element. The cross-cutting during the movie's pièce de résistance – which is really just a many-membered conversation – is a masterful display of precision editing. As for Lincoln, its length is less oppressive than well-intentioned, but the stretches of the film that focus on the protagonist's family feel inessential when compared to the vital, robust debates surrounding the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment; as a result, it's impossible to suppress the feeling that some of the former sequences should have been trimmed.

Zero Dark Thirty runs nearly as long as Lincoln, but there's no fat on its bones – it's a lean, pure thriller through and through. The screenplay barrels through a decade's worth of intelligence-gathering with gusto, and even during the film's many talky scenes, a sense of urgency and desperation hovers in the air. The movie also sports a pair of excruciatingly suspenseful sequences, and the merciless editing heightens the sense of queasy anticipation to an unbearable peak.

Still, as impressive as the editing of Zero Dark Thirty is, I'll side with the Academy's presumed winner this time around, partly thanks to one of my favorite baseball statistics, VORP (value over replacement player). Take away the ruthless editorial approach from Zero Dark Thirty, and Kathryn Bigelow would likely still have fashioned a compelling police procedural. The on-point editing in Argo, however, is utterly critical to its success. That's especially true of the film's latter passages, in which the hostages must evade the Iranian authorities not through strength and speed but subterfuge and guile. Viewed in retrospect, some of these scenes – particularly a monumental telephone call with life-and-death implications – seem a bit hoary. In the moment, however, they're unadulterated white-knuckle tension, and the rhythm of the editing – especially in the expertly timed transitions from the hostages to the authorities and back – blinds the audience to the manipulative nature of the material. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it's an editor's job to maximize the value of the film he's cutting, and on that level, Argo is an unqualified success.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Argo – William Goldenberg
The Bourne Legacy – John Gilroy
Cloud Atlas – Alexander Berner
Looper – Bob Ducsay
Zero Dark Thirty – William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor

The first 45 minutes of The Bourne Legacy function as a master class in how cutting across multiple locations can generate suspense; as the film bounces from Alaska to Asia to Manhattan, we become enthralled in an invigorating game of cat-and-mouse. Cloud Atlas is easily the most ambitious picture to be made this year, and its editing nearly pulls off the herculean task of extracting thematic meaning from six entirely disparate story strands. Looper's scope is almost as ambitious, but its editing is far more tightly focused, and it also features a virtuoso flash-forward sequence that propels the movie into its second act with audacious verve.

My ideal winner: Cloud Atlas – Alexander Berner.





BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

NOMINEES
Anna Karenina
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Les Misérables

WILL WIN
The production design for Anna Karenina is so vastly superior to its competitors that I'm tempted to just leave my analysis of this category at that. Unfortunately, Les Misérables just won this award at the BAFTAs, plus it has that Best Picture nomination in its pocket, whereas voters seem to consider Anna Karenina to be more of a technical achievement than a legitimate movie. Still, that line of thinking didn't prevent Alice in Wonderland from walking home with this trophy two years ago, and so I – in a display of either clear-eyed optimism or foolish naiveté – choose to give Academy voters credit that they'll focus solely on the merits of each film's production design itself. (Of course, I also consider Anna Karenina to be a better movie than Les Misérables – though I enjoyed both – but that's irrelevant.) And if that turns out to be the case, then it's really no contest. Anna Karenina tabs another well-deserved Oscar.





SHOULD WIN
Poor form, Oscar. With so many extraordinary feats of striking art direction on display in 2012, voters went predictable and period. The sets of Les Misérables satisfactorily evoke the grungy backdrop of post-revolutionary France, while Lincoln reconstructs a plausible vision of Civil War America, but neither film's design merits more than passing commendation. The nomination for Life of Pi is even more puzzling, almost as though voters somehow conflated its extraordinary visual effects and digital photography with its relatively mundane sets. At least The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey features its share of gaudy, memorably designed environments as is typical of a Peter Jackson fantasy film; an underground lair with rickety bridges and vertiginous staircases arguably possesses more personality than most of the film's characters.

Besides, I suppose I should take solace that the Academy managed to highlight this category's crowning achievement. My praise for Anna Karenina at this point may sound repetitive and hyperbolic, and I'll acknowledge that the film has its flaws, but from a pure craftsmanship standpoint, it remains one of the most magnificent cinematic works in recent memory. The production design isn't just impressive – it's integral to the film's conceit. Characters walk out of a hall and into a meadow, or leap from a railway station into a restaurant, resulting in a dizzying sense of claustrophobic opulence that threatens to suffocate our heroine. Central to everything is that opera house, with its rigidly defined seating structure and its implacable fixtures that may as well be gargoyles. That may sound excessively theatrical in the abstract, but the notion of theatricality is critical to a movie in which a woman's actions are the subject of constant judgment and observation. It's a singular accomplishment, and it reminds us of cinema's ability to communicate complex themes through the simple molding of wood, sweat, and stone.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Anna Karenina
Cloud Atlas
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Moonrise Kingdom
The Woman in Black

Cloud Atlas conjures a number of remarkable environments, none more awe-inspiring than the glittering tyranny of New Seoul. The sets of Moonrise Kingdom seem to be paintings that have sprung to life, and they're decorated with the painstaking detail that only a Wes Anderson film can exhibit. With its creaky staircases and forbidding fireplaces, The Woman in Black illustrates just how scary a haunted house movie can be.

My ideal winner: Anna Karenina.

Also deserving: Dark Shadows (for its mansion that seems to sprawl in all directions, hiding secrets everywhere); The Hunger Games (for its indelible contrast between the engineered lavishness of the Capitol and the effortless beauty of nature); Prometheus (for creating a wholly new world, with terror lurking in every crevice); The Secret World of Arrietty (for its ingenious sense of scale); Skyfall (for Shanghai); Snow White and the Huntsman (for bringing menace back into myth); Wreck-It Ralph (for making the land of "Sugar Rush" so candy-coated, you can almost taste the sweetness).

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