Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: The Pretty Categories

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

NOMINEES
The Avengers
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Prometheus
Snow White and the Huntsman

WILL WIN
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.


SHOULD WIN
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
The Avengers
Chronicle
John Carter
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

NOMINEES
Anna Karenina
Lincoln
Les Misérables
Mirror Mirror
Snow White and the Huntsman

WILL WIN
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.)


SHOULD WIN
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
Anna Karenina
Farewell, My Queen
John Carter
Mirror Mirror
Moonrise Kingdom

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

NOMINEES
Hitchcock
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Misérables

WILL WIN
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.

SHOULD WIN
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
Cloud Atlas
Holy Motors
Looper

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 stuff.

My ideal winner: Cloud Atlas.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Adapted Screenplay

It may be the Oscar obsessive in me, but I've always envisioned the Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay categories as rival gangs similar to the East and West Baltimore clans in "The Wire". The Adapted Screenplay category, with its strong literary pedigree and snobbish sense of entitlement, would clearly hail from East Baltimore, where Prop Joe systematically uses his network to maintain a stranglehold on imported drugs. The Original Screenplay field, with its more inventive and daring scripts, is emblematic of the ingenuity and fearlessness with which West-siders Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell attempt to increase their market share. Continuing with my anthropomorphized, possibly delusion vision, the screenplay categories typically run in their own circles and protect their own turf, but they're also ruthlessly competitive, with each side sneering at the other that its respective quintet of nominees exhibits the superior writing. And perhaps the two categories, in their thirst to establish their dominance, would officially decide the matter in some sort of sporting contest akin to the riveting basketball game between East and West B-more that takes place in the first season of "The Wire".

In fact, the Academy should strongly consider instituting a single Best Screenplay award that mirrors that very basketball game. The Oscars are all about supremacy, so shouldn't there be one screenplay to rule them all? And here's my point: If the Academy were so inclined to take the Manifesto's advice, the 2012 Best Adapted Screenplay field would absolutely annihilate its Original Screenplay counterparts. The East Side is simply unstoppable this year. These nominees look awfully impressive, and in the immortal words of Prop Joe, "Look the part, be the part, motherfucker".


NOMINEES
Argo – Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Life of Pi – David Magee
Lincoln – Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell

WILL WIN
Told you. In addition to being more loaded than Jimmy McNulty after guzzling fourteen shots of Jameson, this field is one of just three categories comprised entirely of Best Picture nominees (the others being Best Director and Best Film Editing), which makes weeding out the chaff more difficult than usual. The only nominee I'm truly comfortable eliminating is Beasts of the Southern Wild, a scrappy independent film that can't seem to shake the dreaded "I'm just happy to be here" vibe. Voters will doubtless applaud themselves for having had the bravery to nominate such small-budget, anti-Hollywood fare in the first place, but they'll award the actual trophy to a contender with legitimate studio muscle. I'll also knock off Life of Pi, whose bare-bones screenplay lacks the narrative drive – not to mention the quantity of dialogue – of a typical Oscar winner.

The remaining combatants, however, are not so easily dismissed. It's worth noting that no Best Picture winner has lost this category since 2004, when Sideways knocked off Million Dollar Baby. Of course, that tidbit would be more meaningful if I currently had any idea which movie will actually win Best Picture; sadly, the Producers' Guild's recent crowning of Argo has thrown everything out of whack.

That means I'm left to sift through the screenplays themselves, and I think Lincoln has the slightest of edges. True, Argo's screenplay provides for a taut, exciting reenactment of a landmark real-world event, while the script for Silver Linings Playbook offers three-dimensional characters who speak in rich, flavorful dialogue. But Lincoln features both. Its screenplay follows a roster of scruffy, colorful men who partake in a playful, engaging double-talk that belies its monumental historical importance. And Lincoln's curious combination of sly comedy and grave solemnity – a potentially antithetical mixture that instead functions as a dizzying, invigorating brew – distinguishes it as the rare historical biopic that refuses to collapse under the weight of its own pomposity. And that should be good enough for Oscar.




[UPDATE, 2/24: I initially wrote this post just as Argo was starting to pick up momentum but well before it had established itself as the frontrunner. Following its win at the Writers' Guild, I have no choice but to officially change my pick. Argo takes it.]


SHOULD WIN
As I caution every year, evaluating these screenplays on their merits is somewhat impossible for someone of my literary failings. A critical element of an adapted screenplay is how well it translates its source material to the screen – as I haven't read any of the books or plays on which these scripts are based, I can hardly comment on the dexterity of their adaptations. Nevertheless, I like to think that I can distinguish between good and bad writing, and in that regard, Beasts of the Southern Wild is wanting. The movie has a great deal to recommend it: a strong sense of place, a phenomenal score, powerful symbolic imagery, and two terrific performances. But its screenplay feels vague and malnourished, more a sketched-out concept than a fully formed story. Supporting characters are poorly defined, and a late detour smacks of artifice when it should ring true. It's a commendable film that would have greatly benefited from a rewrite or two.

Also commendable is David Magee's attempt in Life of Pi to address religion head-on, even in the context of an adventure film. Unfortunately, the spiritual elements of Life of Pi feel ungainly and tacked-on, especially when compared to the bracing oceanic voyage that occupies the movie's thrilling middle third. In fact, the adventure scenes in Life of Pi are so well-executed that they render its lengthy prologue largely irrelevant. As for the conclusion, Magee's efforts to extract larger thematic meaning from the title character's exploits are noble but unsuccessful, and they risk drowning the film in sap.

Silver Linings Playbook features its share of sap, but its sentimentality feels earned in light of the bruising emotional journey undertaken by its two main characters. David O. Russell's screenplay accomplishes the extraordinary balancing act of nimbly jumping from comedy to drama and back, and it traffics in humor and pathos in equal measure. If the proceedings occasionally feel chaotic, that's only because Russell's script acutely recognizes the messiness of real life, not to mention the perilous randomness of mental illness. It's a winning portrait of two people searching for their own identities and finding each other, and even as it skirts danger and pain, it gladdens our minds and warms our hearts.

Argo is a different beast entirely, a white-knuckler that finds room for some wry, sidelong commentary on Hollywood politics even while amping up the suspense surrounding its central hostage crisis. Chris Terrio's screenplay falls victim to some Hollywood temptations itself, and Argo's climactic scenes lack the nuance and thoughtfulness demonstrated in its first 90 minutes. For the most part, however, Terrio's script smartly sets the template for a gripping, fast-paced suspense picture while also essaying a number of well-developed, sympathetic characters. Most impressively, and similar to Mark Boal's original screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty, he succeeds spectacularly in creating an atmosphere of terror and anticipation even when the majority of the audience knows the ending.

The ending of Lincoln is presumably well-known as well, but Tony Kushner's screenplay focuses less on the destination than the journey. More than anything, Lincoln is a persuasive portrayal of the political process in action, and Kushner's script manages to energize the proceedings without burdening them with undue exposition. He also provides a number of characters with electrically vivid dialogue, and Lincoln's most mesmeric scenes involve little more than men engaged in antic, sweaty conversation. Kushner's suggestion of the sixteenth president's frayed relationships with his family isn't quite as perfect, but that's less an indictment of his grasp of human emotion than a testament to the magnetism with which his Lincoln persuades, cajoles, and even bribes his fellow politicians in order to achieve his ends. Political scholars may take note that the wrangling and whipping of votes represented in the film bears strong resemblance to today's doings on Capitol Hill, but Kushner's screenplay can hardly be reduced to mere allegory. It exists entirely in the moment, a sympathetic, deeply moving study of a man so desperate for moral peace, he went to war.

And so, my top two choices are clearly Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, and as fond as I am of Kushner's acidic dialogue and cagey storytelling, the romantic in me is compelled to select Russell's stinging, stirring depiction of potentially toxic relationships, and the love that sees them through. Silver Linings Playbook gets my vote.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
The Dark Knight Rises – Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Lincoln – Tony Kushner
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
The Secret World of Arrietty – Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa
Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell

The marginalization of The Dark Knight Rises as some sort of "lesser sequel" is one of the quieter ongoing tragedies of this year's awards' landscape; the Nolan brothers' screenplay is comfortably the best of the trilogy, concocting a frightening, fascinating tale of oppression and terrorism heretofore unheard of in blockbuster entertainment. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky deftly transports his own epistolary novel to the screen, and it's a sharp but tender portrait of the pangs and pains of adolescence. The Secret World of Arrietty is Studio Ghibli's strongest import in over a decade, a wonderfully whimsical story of the bonds of family and friendship.

My ideal winner: The Dark Knight Rises – Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan.

Also deserving: Headhunters – Lars Gudmestad, Ulf Ryberg (for enlivening the genre thriller with wit and suspense); Cloud Atlas – Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski (for even trying).

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Supporting Actress

NOMINEES
Amy Adams – The Master
Sally Field – Lincoln
Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables
Helen Hunt – The Sessions
Jacki Weaver – Silver Linings Playbook

WILL WIN
If I had to rank the biggest gambling locks of the new millennium, the list would probably look something like this:

1. Daniel Day-Lewis winning Best Actor for There Will Be Blood (2007)
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King winning Best Picture (2003)
3. The Patriots winning the Super Bowl over the Giants (2008)
4. Colin Firth winning Best Actor for The King's Speech (2010)
5. Slumdog Millionaire winning Best Picture (2008)
6. The Lakers winning the NBA Finals over the Sixers (2001)
7. Anne Hathaway winning Best Supporting Actress for Les Misérables (2012)
8. Helen Mirren winning Best Actress for The Queen (2006)
9. Brokeback Mountain winning Best Picture (2005)
10. Rafael Nadal winning the French Open (any year when his knee was fully intact)

Now, as items #3 and #9 can attest, even the biggest lock is never truly a lock until it actually happens. But while we can't tell the engravers to start etching Anne Hathaway's name onto the Oscar statuette just yet, it's clear that there isn't a safer pick in this year's entire field. An attractive actress who uglies herself up and plays a destitute character who just happens to perform a devastating musical number? The ballot practically writes itself.

It helps that she's facing minimal competition. Adams will break through and snare a trophy eventually – this will be her fourth Best Supporting Actress loss in the past eight years, but I'm still not worried about her venturing into Randy Newman territory – but her atypical work in The Master is likely too stern and off-putting for most voters. The Sessions accumulated less than $6 million at the domestic box office, and any slim chance of Hunt scoring an upset dissipated when John Hawkes failed to land a mirror nomination. So, short of Jacki Weaver pulling a Tilda Swinton in 2007 (when Swinton's win for Michael Clayton shocked everyone, including herself, leading to her to describe the announcement as a "reverse Zoolander moment"), Hathaway's only legitimate challenger is Sally Field, and that's more due to Lincoln's frontrunner status than Field's unmemorable performance; it basically needs to sweep all 12 categories in which it's nominated for Field to have a chance here, and I don't see that happening.

So in a gambling sense, Hathaway may not be as rock-solid a lock as the '08 Patriots, but luckily for her, David Tyree isn't on the ballot. Anne Hathaway wins her first Oscar.

(Historical "how the hell did this happen?" tangent: Let's time-travel back to 2004. Anne Hathaway has just appeared in her second of two Princess Diaries movies; her only other credit of note is her moderately appealing work in a forgettable film called Ella Enchanted. Meanwhile, Lindsay Lohan has just demolished the leading role in Mean Girls, one of the most iconic and insightful comedies about teenage life ever made. You're told that nine years from now, one of them will be winning her first Oscar, while the other will have just finished shooting a sexually explicit movie with James Deen. Who picks Hathaway as the Oscar winner? How the hell did this happen?

(And for the record, I still haven't given up on Lindsay Lohan. She's only 26 – she still has a chance to develop into the great actress she was always intended to be. She just needs to shed the bad influences from her orbit. I blame her mother. She's a life-ruiner; she ruins people's lives. But as it stands now, no potential superstar has squandered this much potential since Len Bias. Let's move on.))




SHOULD WIN
I have very little to say about Sally Field's performance in Lincoln, mainly because I remember very little of it. To the best of my recollection, she speaks all of her lines in a clear, intelligible manner, and she hits all of her marks without stumbling out of frame. Otherwise, there's virtually nothing commendable about her work. It isn't bad, mind you – and, to be fair, Field can hardly be blamed for being hidden in the shadow cast by Daniel Day-Lewis' towering titular performance – but it certainly isn't Oscar-worthy.

Neither is Amy Adams' performance in The Master, though it's considerably more elusive. As the wife of Philip Seymour Hoffman's cult leader, Adams is an alternately warm and prickly presence. She plays the public relations game, but there's also the sense that her clipped, polite demeanor masks a baser, more nefarious individual with her own dark agenda. Unfortunately, Paul Thomas Anderson – as he does with much of The Master, a film rife with potential but scant on content – leaves the scenario thinly sketched and open to interpretation, and the result is that Adams' performance, however intriguing, is ultimately incomplete. But it's nevertheless a welcome reminder of the versatility of a highly talented actress who had been teetering toward predictability with a recent string of bubbly roles.

"Bubbly" would be the antithetical description of Jacki Weaver's prior Oscar-nominated performance, when she introduced herself to American audiences two years ago as a ruthless mother in Australia's Animal Kingdom. That context makes her turn in Silver Linings Playbook as an entirely different sort of mother all the more impressive. Seamlessly adopting a Philadelphia accent, Weaver's anxious, fretting performance is a striking portrait of maternal love, as she warily watches her time bomb of a son with a pained mixture of empathy and apprehension. It may not be the year's showiest performance, but it is among the most quietly moving.

As for showy performances, considering Anne Hathaway's work in Les Misérables reminds me of – bear with me – basketball. There's a school of basketball analytics that focuses on per-minute averages, operating under the theory that scaling a player's production to his actual time spent on the floor yields a more accurate quantification of his value rather than merely totaling his overall statistics. It's grounded in simple math: If Jamal Crawford scores as many points per game as Josh Smith (currently 16.5 each), but Smith averages six whole minutes more per game than Crawford (35 vs. 29), then Crawford is probably a more talented scorer than Smith, even though they score the same number of total points.

But movies are different. Screen time is an important criterion in evaluating a performance's overall weight, and while actors can certainly make a memorable impression in a short span (witness Alec Baldwin's legendary single scene in Glengarry Glen Ross), greater volume affords them the opportunity to round out their characters, adding nuance and dimensionality. I bring this up not to digress into the arena of nerdy statistical sports analysis but to acknowledge that, on a per-minute basis, Hathaway's performance as Fantine in Les Misérables is quite something. She effectively establishes her character's plight in her preliminary scenes, with her timid voice and wide-eyed expressions accentuating Fantine's mounting panic and desperation. And her mesmerizing rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" – performed in a single take, and one of the few moments in the film in which director Tom Hooper blessedly resists the urge to artificially enliven the material with rapid-fire cutting – stops the movie in its tracks, temporarily transforming a hectic, overly busy ensemble picture into an intimate depiction of one woman's suffering.

But shortly after her signature song, Hathaway disappears from the movie, which – and this is arguably another point in Hathaway's favor – suffers irretrievably in her absence. The result is that, while Hathaway is unforgettable whenever she appears on screen, she does so in such a limited capacity that her ultimate contribution to Les Misérables is relatively slight.

That's especially true when compared to Helen Hunt's performance in The Sessions. As with Hathaway, Hunt's portrayal is so assured that her movie loses its luster whenever she's not on screen; the difference is that Hunt thankfully spends a great deal of time in the audience's view. (In fact, in a more honest awards' culture in which the phrase "category fraud" had no meaning, Hunt would be competing in the Best Actress category.) As a sexual therapist drawn to a disabled client, Hunt initially displays deep reserves of decency and compassion. Those noble qualities never dissipate, but over time, they mingle with a more private longing, as well as an innate sadness. It's a touching, thoroughly honest performance that emphasizes her character's own wants and fears, along with her selfless desire to teach a wounded man about the overlapping worlds of sex and love.




MY IDEAL BALLOT
Emily Blunt – Looper
Anne Hathaway – The Dark Knight Rises
Helen Hunt – The Sessions
Diane Kruger – Farewell, My Queen
Emma Watson – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The 29-year-old Blunt delivers the most daring performance of an already-extraordinary career, conveying steely toughness that camouflages her vast loneliness. As bluntly terrific as Hathaway is in Les Misérables, she's even better in The Dark Knight Rises, where she seizes the opportunity to spin a fully developed character, complementing her jewel thief's spiky aggression with subtle suggestions of regret, indecision, and dread. Kruger's Marie Antoinette is a spellbinding creation, careening from playful impishness to haughty imperiousness while also hinting at repressed sexual longing and a tinge of madness.

In her first major post-Harry Potter role, Emma Watson wisely selects a markedly different character, jumping across the pond to play an American navigating the far more normal but no less treacherous path of adolescent confusion. Remnants of Hermione's intelligence and earnestness remain, but they're now filtered through an entirely different screen persona, one more wild and impetuous but also tender and nakedly vulnerable. There's a breathtaking moment in The Perks of Being a Wallflower in which Watson stands up in a moving car, her arms outstretched, and spares a conspiratorial glance down to the camera before turning back to the heavens, her face lit like a moonbeam. She's exultant, and rightly so. This is her time.

My ideal winner: Emma Watson – The Perks of Being a Wallflower.




MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Samantha Barks – Les Misérables
Jennifer Ehle – Zero Dark Thirty
Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables
Jacki Weaver – Silver Linings Playbook
Rebel Wilson – Pitch Perfect

Barks goes toe-to-toe with Hathaway and more than holds her own; her hypnotic, emotionally wrenching rendition of "On My Own" is the indisputable high point of the movie's otherwise turgid second half. Ehle takes a patchwork of seemingly throwaway scenes and somehow weaves them into a distinct individual, one whose passion for her work suggests an indefatigable spirit. Wilson obliterates any preconceived notions about how big-boned women in cinema should behave, belting out her numbers and clomping through her dance moves with an unashamed delight that instantly passes to her audience.

Also deserving: Kate Beckinsale – Total Recall (for striding through the computer-generated dystopia with unapologetic savagery); Rosemarie DeWitt – Your Sister's Sister (for the same luminescent tenderness she brings to every role); Eva Green – Dark Shadows (for gleefully devouring the scenery in the sexiest way imaginable); Keira Knightley – Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (for her inimitable blend of winsome charm and heartfelt feeling); Genesis Rodriguez – Man on a Ledge (for this); Juno Temple – Killer Joe (for imbuing a preposterous character with mystery, savagery, and beauty).

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Terror, Torture, and Tradecraft

"This is tradecraft," a CIA operative states at the rough midpoint of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's riveting, exhausting account of the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. The statement is repeated shortly thereafter by another agency bureaucrat; in both cases, the speaker is explaining the elaborate countersurveillance tactics employed by bin Laden and his cohorts. Both agents are frustrated and worn down, exhibiting a bitterness brought on by years' worth of sleepless searching that has thus far produced no tangible results. But there is also a sliver of admiration in their assessment of their enemy, a grudging acknowledgement that their quarry know how to do their job, and do it well.

So does Bigelow. Zero Dark Thirty is many things – a gripping procedural, an ambiguous morality tale, a desperate quest for redemption – but above all it is a study of men and women enthralled in their work. And Bigelow, whose prior feature was the similarly magnetic (if entirely different) Hurt Locker, demonstrates a singular appreciation of the motivations of workers striving to accomplish their goals. Yes, her movie is about the successful assassination (or, depending on your point of view, unsanctioned murder) of one of the most formidable terrorists the world has ever known, but it is also about the far more personal journey toward vindication: the pure satisfaction derived from completing a designated task, no matter how monumental.

The primary assignee of that task is Maya (Jessica Chastain), whom we first meet as a relatively green CIA intelligence officer . After a black-screen opening in which 911 dispatchers attempt to console callers trapped inside the blazing World Trade Center – a chilling sequence that immediately communicates the movie's stakes without even displaying a frame – Maya arrives in Pakistan just in time to witness the interrogation of a low-level Al Qaeda operative. The interrogator is named Dan (Jason Clarke), a physically imposing figure with a scraggly beard who later introduces himself to one prisoner as "bad fucking news". He isn't kidding. Within the movie's first 15 minutes – with Maya looking on silently, her implacable face occasionally betraying flickers of fear – Dan has subjected his victim to a variety of horrific humiliations, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other revolting techniques described in the field manual of "enhanced interrogation".

By which, of course, I mean torture. As you may have heard, Zero Dark Thirty has courted quite a bit of controversy for its depiction of torture, with some decrying the film as a commendation of inhumane tactics and others skewering it as a condemnation of the Bush presidency. The central question in many viewers' minds appears to be whether or not Bigelow actually supports the practices that she presents so baldly to the audience. It's a question she answers with savvy, resounding silence. From a political standpoint, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote the script for The Hurt Locker) appear to be making no statement at all. It's highly ambiguous whether the torture featured in the film actually produces any actionable intelligence, an ambiguity Bigelow is only too happy to leave dangling. Either way, she's simply documenting an uncontroverted truth: that torture happened, and that it was ugly.

More to the point, Bigelow depicts the interrogations in the least glamorous way possible, thereby defeating any charge of jingoism. The torture scenes are decidedly queasy and unpleasant, with the harsh interior lighting illuminating the blood trickling across the floor. Yet their most disturbing element is not one of image but of sound, namely the victim's shrill screams, a disconsolate wail that Bigelow repeatedly underscores by cutting to Maya's silent (but uncertain) reaction. Given this wretched display, to argue that the movie advocates for torture is to deliberately evade what appears on the screen.

And from a purely cinematic perspective – which, in my mind, should serve as the primary prism when evaluating Zero Dark Thirty on its merits – the torture scenes are effective, not just as a blunt acknowledgement of their existence but also as a framing device, illustrating Maya's swift progression from squeamish spectator to hands-on facilitator. When questioning a suspect later in the movie, Maya regularly conveys commands to have him slapped, a punishment she looks upon with little to no emotion. Chastain – in one of many subtle gestures that combine to form a complete, committed performance – transforms her face, initially haunted and anxious, into a mask of steely resolve.

 

















But this is not to suggest that the interrogators of Zero Dark Thirty are bad, remorseless people. Bigelow is too sensible to pass judgment like that, and besides, she's too busy being fascinated by their everyday movements and activities. The movie's middle third is comprised mostly of CIA agents talking, wading through papers and assimilating newfound intelligence. Boal's script emphatically eschews hand-holding (Bigelow does supply a handful of title cards, the majority of which are more cryptic than explanatory), and while this lends the proceedings ample verisimilitude, the result is that the characters' spook-speak – a parlance that invariably features unfamiliar idioms along with tossed-off abbreviations such as "KSM" and "ISI" – can be difficult to parse.

But what Boal sacrifices in clarity, Bigelow compensates for in atmosphere. She is not quite a master tactician, as her urgent, occasionally chaotic style lacks the refinement of compatriots such as Steven Spielberg or David Fincher. But she has a deep-seated understanding of the restless drive that animates her characters, and of how determination can deteriorate into obsession. And so, as agents pore over photographs and devour data, their potentially mundane actions are laced with an undercurrent of vital, invigorating significance.

Given that significance, it's perhaps inevitable that Zero Dark Thirty is more about plot than character, but that doesn't prevent Bigelow from individuating her players, thanks in large part to her crack cast. Maya could be considered a less frantic, more stable cousin to Carrie Mathison, the brilliant, bipolar CIA analyst on Showtime's "Homeland", and Chastain delivers a forceful performance that communicates both single-minded tenacity and its heartbreaking costs; the film's final shot, in which Chastain holds the frame for near eternity, is devastating visual proof that you can never go home again. But the real stars are Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle. Clarke, whose complete absence on the litany of year-end award ballots is one of this Oscar season's most mystifying omissions, offers a master class in modulation; his Dan alternates seamlessly from savage inquisitor to smooth-talking suit not because he's erratic but because he's simply a loyal public servant, doing his duty as his country requires. As one of Maya's colleagues, Ehle maximizes her too-brief screen time, mingling Maya's passion and zeal with her own sense of giddiness, an inimitable delight at doing a job well done.





















Ehle's character, Jessica, is the centerpiece of Zero Dark Thirty's most fully realized sequence, which takes place at Camp Chapman, a CIA base in Afghanistan. After methodically building tension via a number of in-office scenes, the suspense crests when Bigelow suddenly transports the action outdoors, where Jessica and a handful of operatives await the arrival of a potential informant. There are only a few elements in play here – a gate, a guard tower, a long and dusty road, a fateful decision of trust – but Bigelow stages the scene masterfully, drawing out the informant's approach with a patience that mounts to such excruciating dread, it borders on sadism. It's a sequence whose ultimate impact is, both literally and figuratively, shattering.

And then, of course, there is the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's compound, a last-act tour de force that also embodies the spirit of the entire film. It's a raid that will be discussed and analyzed for eons, yet Bigelow's reenactment is entirely free of any sense of inflated self-importance or congratulatory rhetoric; even the historic kill shot is received only with the whispered words, "Potential jackpot". Instead, she presents the action in a series of meticulous phases – a door must be breached here, a flight of stairs ascended there – that belie the overarching gravity of the moment. Aided by Greig Fraser's eerie cinematography, which offers frequent glimpses through the SEALs' night-vision goggles, Bigelow focuses completely on the soldiers, emphasizing their teamwork and skill (plus some snatches of their mordant humor). It's a sequence that bears no indicia of a historic event, which, in a cinematic sense, is precisely why it's historic.

Speaking of history, the legacy of Zero Dark Thirty has yet to be determined. Ultimately, its lasting reception may come down more to the preconceived expectations of its audience than the actual quality of the finished product. For my part, I choose to savor the movie itself. In a breathless two-and-a-half hours, Bigelow has expertly streamlined one of the most important events in recent history, but Zero Dark Thirty is no mere academic lesson. It's an exhilarating, kinetic thriller that shows us how the fate of the world can be changed through something as reliable and sturdy as the careful, rigorous application of tradecraft. Jackpot.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Oscar Nomination Prediction Results

I suppose it's only fitting that, shortly after a knuckleballer won a Cy Young Award, the Oscars delivered one of the most vicious curveballs they've ever thrown. For the most part, my predictions were reliably mediocre; I hit on 50 of 69 picks in all, good for 72% and matching exactly my success rate from 2011. But if the Manifesto is becoming strangely predictable (let's hope not), the same certainly cannot be said of the Academy, at least not when it comes to one key category.

But we'll get to that. Overall, though, AMPAS provided us with yet another array of respectable, slightly uninspired nominations. As tends to be the case, the movies about which I'm maximally passionate achieved minimal success; in fact, my (tentative) favorite trio of the year combined to receive precisely zero mentions. But as always, there are plenty of laudable pictures and performances to be found in the list below, as well as a smattering of off-kilter surprises to keep us on our toes and remind us that the Oscars are the product not of mathematical science but of the whims of a free-thinking and spirited collective. And as long as the Academy continues to pay annual, careful attention to the cinematic landscape, so shall I.

On to the results. Incorrect picks are in red.


BEST PICTURE
Argo
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Les Misérables
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
The Master Amour
Moonrise Kingdom Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained

Takeaways: As it turns out, my most prescient statement in my predictions – indicative of both the Academy's leanings and, paradoxically, my own failings as a prognosticator – was the following: "I'll hardly be surprised if any of Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Django Unchained makes the list (possibly at the expense of The Master or Moonrise Kingdom)." So, yes, I half-expected one of those films to crack the lineup. What I certainly did not expect was for all of them to show up. But for the second consecutive year in the Academy's fancy new ballot system – which requires nominees to receive at least 5% of the first-place votes cast – nine different movies made the grade, illustrating that there's plenty of passion to go around.

Snubbed: Looper. It never had a chance at the Oscars, but that doesn't diminish the power and vitality of the year's most compelling, exhilarating film.

Current favorite: Lincoln, I suppose, although if you examine the rest of the slate, Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook look awfully frisky. Of course, I went into this morning's announcement fully prepared to write something about how there was no clear frontrunner for the first time in years and that instead Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and Les Misérables would engage in an exhausting battle over the next month and a half. But then ...


BEST DIRECTOR
Michael Haneke – Amour
Steven Spielberg – Lincoln
Ben Affleck – Argo Ang Lee – Life of Pi
Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
Tom Hooper – Les Misérables Benh Zeitlin – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Takeaways: There's a hilarious minor scene in The Great Escape when the three Americans in the prison camp convert a bushel of potatoes into a jug of moonshine; after they're finished, each of them then tastes it and simply remarks – in escalating degrees of amazement – "Wow". Well, that's how I felt when staring at this year's Oscar nominations for Best Director. I mean, WOW.

If you're nonplussed by my astonishment, permit me a brief statistical digression. The Directors' Guild of America has been nominating five filmmakers every year since 1970. For the past forty-two years, at least three of those five directors have also been cited by the Academy. Thus, since the DGA switched to a five-man lineup, this marks the first year ever that only two guild nominees find themselves in the running for the Oscar. What's even more baffling is that all three who received the cold shoulder (Affleck, Bigelow, and Hooper) made movies that earned a Best Picture nomination. Yet they're ousted in favor of a different trio of helmers (Haneke, Russell, and Zeitlin) whose films are also in the running for the top prize. Again, wow.

Current favorite: Spielberg. Lee is his only real challenger here. Besides, he hasn't won since Saving Private Ryan in 1998, and since then all he's done is make Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, and War Horse. Frankly, he's overdue.

Snubbed: Joe Wright – Anna Karenina. Wright took an epic novel of massive literary prestige and transformed it into a breathtaking cinematic document.


BEST ACTOR
Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Hugh Jackman – Les Misérables
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
Denzel Washington – Flight

Takeaways: My one perfect category. Kudos to the Academy for eschewing the Screen Actors' Guild and paying homage to Phoenix's revelatory turn as a disconsolate man searching for meaning that consistently slips out of his grasp. The remaining four thespians were all relative locks, so I can't congratulate myself too much.

Current favorite: Day-Lewis. Sure, it would be his fourth Oscar (following wins for My Left Foot, Gangs of New York, and There Will Be Blood), but he simply towers over everyone else in the field, and ... wait a minute, he didn't win for Gangs of New York? This is unforgivable. Hell, for his next movie, Chris Nolan should make a thriller about an obsessed, deranged Oscars' fan who time-travels back to 2002 in order rejigger the voting and correct this travesty, only to catastrophically alter the space-time continuum in the process. Joseph Gordon-Levitt would be perfect – he even has my eyes.

Snubbed: Anders Danielsen Lie – Oslo, August 31st. The movie itself is a rather depressive slog, but Lie is hypnotic as a drug addict seemingly bent on his own destruction.


BEST ACTRESS
Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone Naomi Watts – The Impossible

Takeaways: Coincidentally, the category is bracketed by the oldest and youngest nominees in its history (Riva is 85, while Wallis is a pup of nine). Anyway, Watts had the SAG nod, so she's hardly a huge surprise, and I'm pleased that the Academy kept the fiery Wallis on the ballot.

Current favorite: At this point, I'd go with Lawrence, although we'll have a better idea of Chastain's chances after Zero Dark Thirty's nationwide expansion this week.

Snubbed: Kara Hayward – Moonrise Kingdom. She was surrounded by venerable adult actors, but it was Hayward's poise and emotional dexterity – along with child costar Jared Gillman's bracing honesty – that made Wes Anderson's latest enchantment sing.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Alan Arkin – Argo
Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master
Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
Matthew McConaughey – Magic Mike Cristoph Waltz – Django Unchained

Takeaways: Turns out Tarantino didn't spread the wealth too thin after all. McConaughey was my true wildcard pick, so I can't pretend to be shocked that he missed here, though I would have expected Javier Bardem to slide in rather than Waltz, especially given his presence at SAG. In general, though, it's something of a relief to see the Academy supply its own, highly individual choices rather than following the guilds like docile cattle.

Current favorite: Jones. He isn't quite a slam dunk, but I just don't see any of the remaining contenders challenging his playfully irascible performance as a republican firebrand.

Snubbed: Leonardo DiCaprio – Django Unchained. Waltz was predictably excellent, but it was DiCaprio's inimitable electricity that elevated Tarantino's revenge fantasy to another level.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams – The Master
Sally Field – Lincoln
Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables
Helen Hunt – The Sessions
Maggie Smith – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Jacki Weaver – Silver Linings Playbook

Takeaways: Take that, Dowager Countess! To be fair, I had no problem with Smith's pleasant, inoffensive performance, but Weaver's presence here is highly gratifying, as I'd been concerned that she was being overlooked. Not that it matters because ...

Current favorite: Hathaway. Anyone who thinks otherwise is, ahem, dreaming.

Snubbed: Emma Watson – The Perks of Being a Wallflower. You were expecting someone else?


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Amour – Michael Haneke
Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino
Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson
Zero Dark Thirty – Mark Boal
Looper – Rian Johnson Flight – John Gatins

Takeaways: I suppose even a single Oscar nomination for Looper was more than I could have hoped for, though I certainly didn't expect it to fall at the hands of Flight. Anderson's presence here gladdens me; that he represents the lone mention for Moonrise Kingdom, saddens me.

Current favorite: None. With most of the heavy hitters over in the Adapted Screenplay field, this is the most intriguing category of the entire ceremony. Will Tarantino's brazen tale of murder in the antebellum South find more champions than Boal's dissection of more modern-day killing? Or will voters opt for the wistful strains of Anderson's coming-of-age story, or perhaps be seduced by, well, whatever crazy shit Haneke pulls this time around? One thing is for certain: Gatins is just happy to be here.

Snubbed: Ruby Sparks – Zoe Kazan. It was difficult to top Looper for ingenuity, but Kazan's script is wildly inventive without sacrificing character development.


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Argo – Chris Terrio
Life of Pi – David Magee
Lincoln – Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky Beasts of the Southern Wild – Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin

Takeaways: In case there was any doubt, the Academy really liked Beasts of the Southern Wild. In this particular category, unfortunately, that admiration came at the expense of Chbosky's warm, tender adaptation of his own novel.

Current favorite: Lincoln. Silver Linings Playbook is probably its strongest competitor, but Kushner's brisk, wily script is rife with colorful dialogue and also imparts an important history lesson with sincerity.

Snubbed: The Dark Knight Rises – Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan. The most thematically fascinating installment of their trilogy, the Brothers Nolan expanded the Gotham universe to an extraordinary scope while also exploring the inherent tension between heroism and self-aggrandizement.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda
Lincoln – Janusz Kaminski
Skyfall – Roger Deakins
The Master – Mihai Malaimare, Jr. Anna Karenina – Seamus McGarvey
Zero Dark Thirty – Greig Fraser Django Unchained – Robert Richardson

Takeaways: So I should probably mention that The Master didn't fare quite as well as I'd expected. It did scrape together nominations for three of its actors, but it was entirely shut out otherwise, so apparently those passionate hordes I've been hearing about reside outside the Academy. In its stead, Richardson's presence for Django Unchained is hardly a surprise, as this marks his eighth career nomination. McGarvey's inclusion, on the other hand, is deeply rewarding, as I'd been worried that he might miss the cut despite his stirring, sweeping camerawork.

Current favorite: None. I could make a case for any of these nominees. More interestingly, this category will serve as an early bellwether on the night of the telecast. If Kaminski takes the statuette, expect to hear Lincoln's name called frequently. If Miranda pulls out the win, however, then things could get awfully interesting later in the evening.

Snubbed: Farewell, My Queen. This ravishing costume drama never reached most audiences, meaning they missed an immaculately crafted piece of cinema.


BEST FILM EDITING
Argo – William Goldenberg
Lincoln – Michael Kahn
Zero Dark Thirty – William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor
Les Misérables – Chris Dickens Life of Pi – Tim Squyres
Skyfall – Stuart Baird Silver Linings Playbook – Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers

Takeaways: So much for my hunch that Skyfall would be a major player in the craft categories. Also, its omission here – combined with Tom Hooper failing to crack the Best Director lineup – makes Les Misérables a dead man walking in the Best Picture field.

Current favorite: In a lineup of five Best Picture nominees, it's difficult for any one contender to separate. I'd probably still go with Lincoln despite its length, but Silver Linings Playbook could be a real threat here.

Snubbed: Cloud Atlas. The most ambitious film of the year also exhibited a remarkable display of the power of cross-cutting. It wasn't perfect, but it sure was watchable.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli
Life of Pi – Mychael Danna
Lincoln – John Williams
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin Argo – Alexandre Desplat
Cloud Atlas – Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer Skyfall – Thomas Newman

Takeaways: Oh come on. Beasts of the Southern Wild racks up four nominations in major categories, and it can't get recognized for its magnetic score? Meanwhile, Skyfall can't garner an editing nod, but Thomas Newman's bland, generic music shows up here? I give up.

Current favorite: Call it a toss-up between Lincoln and Life of Pi. Enterprising gamblers would be wise to consider a parlay with Best Cinematography, as I'd hardly be surprised if the same picture snatches both trophies.

Snubbed: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Howard Shore. The movie may feel never-ending, but Shore's vibrant, rousing score is ceaselessly energetic and absorbing.


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Anna Karenina
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Lincoln
Les Misérables
Cloud Atlas Life of Pi

Takeaways: There's a reason I missed on Life of Pi here – it's production design just isn't that impressive – but it racked up 11 nominations in total, so perhaps voters simply got swept away by the storm. (Get it?)

Current favorite: Anna Karenina. Any other choice would be farcical.

Snubbed: The Woman in Black. Because that house was really fucking scary.


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
The Avengers
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Prometheus
Cloud Atlas Snow White and the Huntsman

Takeaways: Poor Cloud Atlas. I'm pleased that Prometheus snuck in, though that pleasure pales compared to my confusion regarding the Snow White and the Huntsman nod.

Current favorite: Life of Pi. Maybe if Lincoln featured a computer-generated stovepipe hat, the two could duke it out in yet another category. As it is, this one's over.

Snubbed: John Carter. Sure, the movie was a bit of a mess, but that shouldn't mitigate the extraordinary work of the V/X team.


That's a wrap. Stay tuned over the next month as we bring you detailed analysis of each category.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Manifesto's Official 2012 Oscar Nomination Predictions

There are a number of disadvantages to being a lowly blogger rather than a bona fide movie critic – I have to pay to see movies rather than being paid to see them, I lack access to studio executives, no one takes my opinions seriously, etc. – but my greatest hardship when it comes to predicting the Oscars is one of timing. Unlike actual critics, who are afforded the blessed opportunity to watch most films before they arrive in multiplexes, I'm required to wait until a local theatre has the decency to screen them. I also happen to live in the quasi-metropolis of Denver, a very nice city that isn't exactly a thoroughfare for art-house pictures. The result is that I'm placed in the problematic position of prognosticating about the Oscar potential of a number of movies that, much to my dismay, I've yet to see.

Which brings me to Michael Haneke and Amour. If you're unfamiliar with either of them, Haneke is a controversial German director whose films typically range from decidedly unpleasant to utterly nauseating. He's a bit of a darling in Europe – five of his seven most recent movies have nabbed major awards at the aggressively haughty Cannes Film Festival – but outside of a few Best Foreign Language Film nominations, the Academy has never warmed to his chilly sensibility. Amour is his latest film, and it's being hailed by an extraordinary number of critics as an absolute masterpiece. It's also reputedly his most tender and inviting picture to date.

Now, in my experience, Michael Haneke's movies are about as tender and inviting as Jim Harbaugh after a missed David Akers field goal. Prior to Amour's rapturous reception, I never would have believed that any Haneke film would even sniff a seat at Oscar's main table. And since I have no firsthand knowledge of Amour, it's difficult for me to square its deafening buzz with my own preconceptions of Haneke as a hostile, borderline-sadistic filmmaker. All of which is a way of saying that before I predict whether or not Amour will receive a Best Picture nomination, I'd really like to see the fucking movie first.

But such is life. The Oscar nominations will be announced on January 10, and Haneke's latest metaphorical incision into the human psyche is nowhere in sight, or at least not in Denver. In the meantime, the Manifesto plunges on with its official predictions for the 2012 Academy Awards. Remember we're only handicapping the 13 most interesting fields at this point in time; I'll predict actual winners for all 21 feature categories over the next month.


BEST PICTURE
Argo
Les Misérables
Life of Pi
Lincoln
The Master
Moonrise Kingdom
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Comments: Remember, anywhere from five to 10 films can be nominated for the top prize. Remember also that the key here is passion: In order to make the cut, a movie must be ranked number one on at least five percent of voters' ballots. (See last year's writeup if you want the gory details.) Therefore, movies with small but ardent followings are paradoxically more likely to crack the field than those that are widely respected but not quite loved. What's interesting about this year is that most of the fringe candidates fit that elusive profile. The Master, for instance, is an enigmatic, deeply polarizing movie that bewilders the majority of viewers but also engenders fanatical support in cult circles (see alsTree of Life, The). The question is whether those circles sufficiently overlap with the Academy voting bloc. That same question hovers over the prospects of a number of other Oscar hopefuls, whether it's the scruffy indie charms of Beasts of the Southern Wild; the divisive, racially charged politics of Django Unchained; the spiritual adventure and philosophical musing of Life of Pi; or the mannered magnificence of Moonrise Kingdom. All are viable contenders, but it's also entirely possible that none of them generates a strong enough groundswell of support to make the cut. We just don't know.

So let's talk about what we do know. There are four absolute locks here – Argo, Les Misérables, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty – and I'm fairly comfortable slotting Silver Linings Playbook into the fifth spot. After that, the guesswork begins, and I'm betting my money on the filmmakers more than the films; Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson can each lay claim to a sizable subset of adoring fans, so I think The Master and Moonrise Kingdom both sneak in. I can't make the same argument about Ang Lee, but I think Life of Pi is more broadly liked than the other two, and its epic tale of high-seas adventure should earn it the requisite number of first-place votes.

Potential upsets: As discussed, I'll hardly be surprised if any of Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Django Unchained makes the list (possibly at the expense of The Master or Moonrise Kingdom). Skyfall is also a player here, as it nabbed a nomination from the producers' guild, but I just don't see it topping too many ballots.

Longshots: The Avengers (it lost its chance when it flopped with the guild); The Dark Knight Rises (ibid); The Impossible (buzz has been relatively quiet, but it has its fans); The Sessions (too kinky).


BEST DIRECTOR
Ben Affleck – Argo
Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty
Michael Haneke – Amour
Tom Hooper – Les Misérables
Steven Spielberg – Lincoln

Comments: This category was easier when the Best Picture lineup only featured five films, as it usually matched at least four of them. But the general theory that the strongest Best Picture contenders will also have a presence here remains applicable, which is why Affleck, Bigelow, and Spielberg should all make the ballot. Hooper isn't quite a lock, but his adaptation of the Broadway smash was certainly busy, so he should pop up here as well. My X-factor is Haneke. Ang Lee earned recognition from the directors' guild for Life of Pi, but the Academy has shown a predilection for honoring makers of foreign-language films in the past, even when those films lacked a corresponding Best Picture nomination (Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Fernando Meirelles for City of God, Pedro Almodóvar for Talk to Her). Furthermore, while I've yet to see Amour (frustrating, I know), Haneke's prior productions all exhibit a heavy directorial presence – when you watch The White Ribbon or Caché, you know you're watching a Michael Haneke movie – and that sort of signature could prove significant, especially when compared to Lee's earnest, measured approach to Life of Pi.

Potential upsets: Lee is virtually in a coin flip with Haneke, but David O. Russell could also be a player for Silver Linings Playbook. Of course, Quentin Tarantino can never be ruled out, but I think voters will recognize Django Unchained for its screenplay.

Longshots: The Anderson Brothers (Wes for Moonrise Kingdom, Paul Thomas for The Master, and no, they're not really brothers); Sam Mendes for Skyfall (the chasmic tonal difference between the Bond picture and American Beauty could earn him a few admiration votes); Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild (maybe if the Academy had budget quotas).


BEST ACTOR
Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Hugh Jackman – Les Misérables
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
Denzel Washington – Flight

Comments: Day-Lewis is rock-solid here, and I'm highly confident in Cooper and Jackman as well. (Not coincidentally, I'm pegging all three of their films as Best Picture nominees.) The real wildcard here is Phoenix. Hollywood's most committed hoaxster has been a bit of a prat on the press circuit thus far, dubbing the Oscars "bullshit", and such brazen obnoxiousness could easily rub a number of his fellow actors the wrong way. Still, others might view it merely as frank commentary, and Phoenix's performance is so revelatory that I simply can't envision voters leaving him off their ballot. If he is included, it will be at the expense of either Washington or John Hawkes for The Sessions. I'm scrubbing the latter despite his Screen Actors' Guild (SAG) nod because I think the sexually explicit material in The Sessions might make a number of prudish voters uncomfortable. Still, Hawkes, Phoenix, and Washington are basically playing musical chairs with only two seats available.

Potential upsets: In addition to Hawkes, Jean-Louis Trintignant could sneak in for his work in Amour, though his costar seems to be generating considerably more buzz (see below).

Longshots: Richard Gere for Arbitrage (maybe if Roger Ebert were president of AMPAS); Anthony Hopkins for Hitchcock (maybe if the movie hadn't appeared DOA); Ben Affleck for Argo (only if the movie sweeps); Jamie Foxx for Django Unchained (ibid); Bill Murray for Hyde Park on the Hudson (only if the movie isn't as terrible as everyone seems to think it is).


BEST ACTRESS
Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Comments: Here's where things start to get tricky. Chastain and Lawrence are solid bets, but no one else has sure footing. I'm choosing to omit two SAG nominees – Naomi Watts for The Impossible and Helen Mirren for Hitchcock – which is automatically a dicey strategy. That said, Beasts of the Southern Wild wasn't eligible with the guild, and I think Wallis' plucky charm earns her a spot. Furthermore, Hitchcock has been limp ever since it arrived in theatres in November (its domestic gross is a pathetic $5.5 million), and my limited read of Amour's landscape is that it's best positioned as a vehicle for its elderly star, so I think Riva displaces Mirren. Watts is more of a threat in my mind, but her screen time is relatively short (one could argue that Tom Holland is the film's true lead). Of course, Cotillard is hardly, ahem, standing on solid ground, SAG nomination notwithstanding, meaning Watts could bump her from contention. Or maybe voters aren't comfortable voting for two foreign-language nominees, in which case Cotillard might stick around at the expense of Riva. And then there's all of this CIA-related controversy about Zero Dark Thirty, so maybe even Chastain could be a shocking snub, which would mean ... I'm getting dizzy.

Potential upsets: Watts and Mirren.

Longshots: Rachel Weisz for The Deep Blue Sea (a pure critics' movie if I ever saw one); Keira Knightley for Anna Karenina (grr); Judi Dench for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (let's hope not); Meryl Streep for Hope Springs (like you'd really be shocked if she popped up here).


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Alan Arkin – Argo
Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master
Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
Matthew McConaughey – Magic Mike

Comments: Jones and De Niro are relative locks, and Hoffman should be fine unless The Master completely tanks with the Academy at large (if he doesn't show up here, there's no way the movie cracks the Best Picture lineup). Argo is littered with terrific minor performances, but Warner Bros. seems to have thrown its weight entirely behind Arkin. That makes four prior Oscar winners, and there could easily be a fifth in Javier Bardem or Cristoph Waltz, but I'll venture outside the box and cast my lot with McConaughey. He just took home a prize from the National Society of Film Critics, and his oily, charismatic performance as an entrepreneurial stripper (or stripping entrepreneur) could catch fire with Academy voters who decide to be adventurous for once.

Potential upsets: Quentin Tarantino is the Drew Brees of directors; he spreads the wealth around so generously that everyone gets a small piece of the action, but in the end, no one averages more than six catches per game. And so it goes with Django Unchained, a movie that features no fewer than three deserving candidates for Best Supporting Actor in Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cristoph Waltz. Any of them could crack this field, but my bet is that they all muscle each other out of contention. The other major player here is Javier Bardem for his delectable scene-chewing performance in Skyfall. Bardem is armed with both an SAG nod and the Academy's goodwill (don't forget his nomination two years ago for the wretched Biutiful), so he's as likely as any of Tarantino's posse to displace McConaughey.

Longshots: Dwight Henry for Beasts of the Southern Wild (similar to Arkin with Argo, Wallis has swallowed up all attention); Eddie Redmayne for Les Misérables (maybe if Marius weren't such a twit); Tom Holland for The Impossible (wishful thinking).


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams – The Master
Sally Field – Lincoln
Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables
Helen Hunt – The Sessions
Maggie Smith – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Comments: Field, Hathaway, and Hunt are all golden. Then, as with Best Actor, there appear to be three contenders fighting for two spots. Smith has an SAG nod, as does Nicole Kidman for her work in the lightning-rod film The Paperboy. I've yet to see The Paperboy, primarily because I refuse to hand $10.50 to the Esquire Theatre just so I can wedge myself into a cramped seat in the upstairs auditorium while watching a blurry projection on a screen that's roughly three times the size of my Sony Bravia. Not that I'm bitter. In any event, that means that I can't accurately judge the Oscar potential of Kidman's performance. Still, from everything I've heard, it's somewhat inflammatory, whereas the venerable Smith delivers the kind of safe, inoffensive performance that Academy voters (especially the sizable British bloc) tend to love. It's possible both could make it, but I seem to be throwing my lot in with The Master, so I might as well go down with the ship and peg Adams for her fourth nomination.

Potential upsets: Kidman.

Longshots: Jacki Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook (she's been weirdly marginalized, given the film's overall reception); Samantha Barks for Les Misérables (she'll likely be stuck on her own, get it?); Emma Watson for The Perks of Being a Wallflower (only if there's any justice in this cruel, cruel world).


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Amour – Michael Haneke
Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino
Looper – Rian Johnson
Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson
Zero Dark Thirty – Mark Boal

Comments: Guild nominations for the screenplay categories are only helpful to a certain extent, as a number of scripts are ineligible with the WGA but remain possibilities with the Academy. In the Original Screenplay category, the most significant of those is Tarantino's colorful, bombastic script for Django Unchained, which should land here quite comfortably, its absence among the guild nominees notwithstanding. I'm also confident that both Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson's most heartfelt story since Rushmore) and Zero Dark Thirty (from Oscar-winning Hurt Locker scribe Boal) will make the grade. My remaining picks, however, are considerably shakier. Both have guild nods, but Amour was ineligible there, and if Haneke's screenplay documents as touching a love story as most critics suggest (have I mentioned that it's exceedingly difficult to weigh Amour's Oscar potential when I've yet to see the film?), it could push out either Looper or The Master. This is likely personal bias, but I think Johnson's brilliant time-travel tale is on firmer footing than Anderson's elliptical narrative.

Potential upsets: In addition to The Master, the most obvious contender is John Gatins' screenplay for Flight; it scored a guild nod, but outside of Washington's chances for a Best Actor slot, the movie's buzz seems to have diminished entirely.

Longshots: The Intouchables (the Academy is often willing to dip into foreign markets in the screenplay categories); Middle of Nowhere (critics like it, so why have I barely heard anything about it?); Brave (could Pixar's first female empowerment picture get a push?); Seven Psychopaths (only if voters are in a meta mood).


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Argo – Chris Terrio
Life of Pi – David Magee
Lincoln – Tony Kushner
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell

Comments: Argo, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook are all in – they all have guild nods, and they're all likely Best Picture nominees as well, so mark 'em down. Life of Pi and Perks of Being a Wallflower received guild nominations as well, but again, that's partly circumstantial, as neither Beasts of the Southern Wild nor Les Misérables was eligible. Still, Magee took a supposedly unfilmable book and gave it cinematic shape, while Chbosky found fresh and vigorous life in his 13-year-old novel, so I think we're looking at a perfect match with the WGA quintet.

Potential upsets: As it's a major player in the Best Picture field, Les Misérables might seem like a logical choice here, but while the film is admirable in many respects, its screenplay is virtually a recitation of its source, so I can't see the voters rewarding it. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a more intriguing candidate, but I'm still not buying any major nominations other than Wallis. If Skyfall really is a dark horse for Best Picture, it needs to show up here as well; given that I'm bearish on the former, I don't see it cracking the latter lineup either.

Longshots: The Sessions (again, too much sex); Bernie (too quietly creepy); The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (crikey); Cloud Atlas (speaking of supposedly unfilmable books).


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda
Lincoln – Janusz Kaminski
The Master – Mihai Malaimare, Jr.
Skyfall – Roger Deakins
Zero Dark Thirty – Greig Fraser

Comments: Talk about unfair: The guild nominations for cinematography aren't announced until the day before the Oscar nominations are revealed, and given that I want to give my readers sufficient time to pore over my precious picks, I need proceed in the relative dark. In any event, the three major players here are Life of Pi, The Master, and Skyfall, as all have been recognized by at least six different critical satellites. Zero Dark Thirty should slot in here as well, as the grainy nighttime photography is presumably essential to the film's success (I'm seeing it on Friday, and yes, I'm excited). My biggest question mark is Lincoln, but it's a beautifully saturated film, and Kaminski (Spielberg's longtime collaborator) already has five Oscar nominations under his belt – no reason he shouldn't make it six.

Potential upsets: The most likely spoiler here is Django Unchained, lensed by the venerable Robert Richardson, a three-time Oscar winner. Les Misérables and Moonrise Kingdom have each picked up a handful of precursor nominations, so they can't be counted out either.

Longshots: Anna Karenina (Seamus McGarvey's work has been utterly ignored thus far, which is both baffling and infuriating); Argo (never discount a Best Picture contender here); The Dark Knight Rises (Skyfall appears to have stolen its blockbuster thunder); Cloud Atlas (let's face it, there was plenty to see).


BEST FILM EDITING
Argo – William Goldenberg
Les Misérables – Chris Dickens
Lincoln – Michael Kahn
Skyfall – Stuart Baird
Zero Dark Thirty – William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor

Comments: As with Best Cinematography, the guild nominees have yet to be announced, so I'm flying slightly blind here. Still, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are virtual locks, as they've each scooped up a handful of trophies on the circuit. I don't view Skyfall as a Best Picture contender, but I do view it as a legitimate threat in the craft categories, with 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum – which actually won a stunning three Oscars – as its doppelganger. Les Misérables and Lincoln are shakier picks, but the rule in editing is simple: When in doubt, roll with the Best Picture contenders.

Potential upsets: I'm betting against The Master here, as its meandering plot and hazy focus suggest an undisciplined editing approach (now watch this be the only category in which it's nominated). It's possible that I'm giving short shrift to Django Unchained, but the movie is damn long, and unlike Lincoln, it doesn't maintain its momentum for the entirety of its run time. There's also a chance that Life of Pi pops up here, though I think its flashback structure might prove ungainly to some voters.

Longshots: Cloud Atlas (if the category were called "Most Editing", it would be in the bag); Silver Linings Playbook (again, never discount a Best Picture threat).


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin
Cloud Atlas – Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer
Life of Pi – Mychael Danna
Lincoln – John Williams

Comments: This category is a relative free-for-all, so I'll be pleased if I go three-for-five. Williams is an institution, and if he can be a double-nominee for War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin, he should certainly earn a spot for scoring a picture as well-regarded as Lincoln. Danna is also on solid ground, as the Life of Pi soundtrack appears to be highly popular, while Marianelli is a prior Oscar winner (for a little film called Atonement, which this blogger rather liked) who delivered a flavorful score for Anna Karenina, so he's in fine shape. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a somewhat frisky pick here, but the music is robust and energetic (much like the movie), and I expect voters to respond to its vitality. My shakiest pick is Cloud Atlas, but Tykwer & Co. provided a stirring, memorable score that suited the film's epic scope.

Potential upsets: Alexandre Desplat. Yes, that's a man, not a movie, but he's been nominated four times in the past six years, and given his prolific output this year, he could actually pop up multiple times in 2012. His best chances are likely Best Picture nominees Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, though he also has Moonrise Kingdom and Rise of the Guardians in play.

Longshots: Jonny Greenwood for The Master (too unsettling); Thomas Newman for Skyfall (tempting, but too action-oriented); Howard Shore for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (also tempting, but too lousy a reception for the movie itself).


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Anna Karenina
Cloud Atlas
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Misérables
Lincoln

Comments: Hey, the Academy changed the name of this category (formerly Best Art Direction) to something that actually makes sense! Anyway, for most categories, the trick is to ferret out Oscar-worthy candidates that for some reason failed to receive recognition from their respective guilds. The art directors' guild, however, nominates 15 total films in three different fields (period, fantasy, and contemporary), so it's a virtual certainty that all five Oscar nominees will have a corresponding guild nod – it's just a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff. The Academy tends to favor period pieces; combine that with a presumable Best Picture nomination, and both Les Misérables and Lincoln are sturdy bets. Anna Karenina will not, of course, receive a Best Picture nod, but its production design is so striking and extraordinary that it simply can't be excluded. For the remaining two slots, I'm going with two "fantasy" productions in Cloud Atlas and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but don't be surprised if the period design of either Argo or Django Unchained (both much better-received overall) cracks the list.

Potential upsets: In addition to Argo and Django Unchained, The Master and Moonrise Kingdom are two Best Picture contenders that could strike here, although they both lack the coveted guild nod. The Dark Knight Rises was the superior blockbuster, so it might be a better bet than The Hobbit. And while I expect Life of Pi to garner more attention for its visual effects and cinematography, a mention for its design certainly can't be ruled out.

Longshots: Prometheus (maybe if it had arrived in theatres in December rather than June); Skyfall (Roger Deakins' cinematography should monopolize its press); Flight (because there's always the possibility that the claustrophobic plane set will haunt voters' dreams).


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
The Avengers
Cloud Atlas
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Prometheus

Comments: The Academy could just save everyone the suspense and hand the trophy to Life of Pi now, but the game must be played. The Hobbit is the only other safe bet here.

Potential upsets: The five ultimate selections here are lifted from a shortlist of 10. Of the remaining five, The Dark Knight Rises probably has the best chance to topple either The Avengers or Cloud Atlas (or Prometheus for that matter). Outside of Life of Pi, Skyfall has the strongest critical reputation of any film on the shortlist, but I don't think it's effects-driven enough to pop up here.

Longshots: John Carter (deserving, but its label as a bomb should torpedo its chances); The Amazing Spider-Man (no buzz); Snow White and the Huntsman (please).


Check back soon to see how we fared.