Monday, February 25, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Show recap

Writing a post-Oscars recap always feels a bit odd, as the Manifesto's area of expertise is not the telecast itself. (Of course, given the success rate of my predictions this year, it's questionable whether the Manifesto has any area of expertise. No matter.) So if you're looking for analysis on just how adorable Quvenzhané Wallis looked, or whether Kristen Stewart was hammered (nope, she just had a broken foot), or the awesomeness of Anne Hathaway's nipples, you'll find plenty of fodder elsewhere on the web.

I do, however, want to comment briefly on Seth MacFarlane's turn as host. From the beginning, MacFarlane made it clear that he knew he was an outsider ("It's an honor that everyone else said no"), and a prolonged skit with William Shatner – partly painful, partly very funny, particularly the "Flight in sock puppets" bit – instantly established his sheepish, near-apologetic demeanor. In the era of instant micro-analysis and trends on Twitter, where a rabid online audience will ravenously seize on the latest mishap or malfunction, the hosting gig at the Oscars is virtually predetermined for failure. MacFarlane seemed amusingly resigned to that fate from the get-go, with Shatner displaying fake screenshots from the future that read, "MacFarlane worst Oscar host ever". It's the sort of self-insulating shtick that can come off as preemptively defensive, but it showcased a cute self-awareness in which MacFarlane acknowledged that he was swimming over his head.

Except that he wasn't. Sure, some of MacFarlane's jokes were clunkers, but many of them landed (his line about the director of Argo being classified was an instant classic), and his convincing musical performances were natural and seamlessly integrated into the show. (It also doesn't hurt that the dapper comedian is much better-looking than anyone thought the voice of Peter Griffin could possibly be.) But more importantly, MacFarlane found the appropriate tone for emceeing such a ludicrously self-important event as the Oscars. Whereas Ricky Gervais famously spun his outsider status at the Golden Globes into spiteful nastiness, MacFarlane struck the appropriate balance of solemn respect and anarchic humor. "There are so many distinguished nominees here tonight. You guys have made some beautiful, inspiring movies," MacFarlane said sincerely, then deadpanned, "I made Ted." And while quips about the respective ages of the nine-year-old Wallis and 86-year-old Emmanuelle Riva were to be expected, MacFarlane's ability to tie those cracks to the telecast's preposterous length – and let's face it, it was way too long – demonstrated a fleet-footed savvy that's critical for such an improvisational assignment (and if they were pre-planned, he sold them well). I for one would welcome him back.

As for the awards themselves, here's my final, extremely brief analysis of each category (in order of presentation):


Best Supporting Actor
Predicted winner: Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln (confidence: 2/5)
Actual winner: Cristoph Waltz – Django Unchained

Well then. I'm happy for Waltz, as any nominee in this category other than Alan Arkin was worthy. Unfortunately, my prediction meant that my father was able to start gloating about his prognosticating supremacy after the show's very first award. Not a good start.


Best Animated Feature
Predicted winner: Wreck-It Ralph (confidence: 3/5)
Actual winner: Brave

Oh dear. At this point in the night, I started wondering if I was in for a "John Starks in Game Seven of the '94 Finals" performance. Also, Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy are two of my favorite comedians – witness Rudd's hilarious Super Bowl commercial with Seth Rogen or McCarthy performance in Bridesmaids – but their interplay in introducing this award was excruciating.


Best Cinematography
Predicted winner: Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda (confidence: 4/5)
Actual winner: Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda

And we're off the schneid! Also, the banter of The Avengers cast, particularly Jeremy Renner pointedly insulting Samuel L. Jackson's age, was natural, sharply timed, and utterly hilarious. In other words, it was the exact opposite of the Rudd/McCarthy pairing.


Best Visual Effects
Predicted winner: Life of Pi (confidence: 5/5)
Actual winner: Life of Pi

No surprise here. And at this point, I would happily co-sign a petition requiring Jackson and Robert Downey, Jr. to co-present every award.


Best Costume Design
Predicted winner: Anna Karenina (confidence: 3/5)
Actual winner: Anna Karenina

That's "Oscar-winning Anna Karenina" to you, thank you very much.


Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Predicted winner: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (confidence: 1/5)
Actual winner: Les Misérables

O.K., so at this point, I was two-for-two in categories where my confidence was a 4 or 5, and one-for-four where my confidence was 3 or lower. Does this mean that I'm bad at predicting the Oscars? Or does it mean that I'm incredibly good at guessing which categories I'm more likely to get wrong? Doesn't it take a special level of talent to predict the success of your own predictions? No?

Also, I should mention that this award was followed by a terrible, hyperactively edited tribute to the James Bond franchise that was then instantly redeemed by a stunning rendition of "Goldfinger" by 76-year-old Shirley Bassey.


Best Documentary Feature
Predicted winner: Searching for Sugar Man (confidence: 4/5)
Actual winner: Searching for Sugar Man

Of the 21 feature categories at this year's Oscars, I watched every nominee in every single category ... except for this one field. And I drilled it. I don't like what this says about how I spent the past month of my life.


Best Foreign Language Film
Predicted winner: Amour (confidence: 5/5)
Actual winner: Amour

Ho hum. Also, was anyone else prepared for Haneke to deliver an absolutely withering speech, then coldly walk off the stage while the camera smoothly tracked his movements and then lingered on a motionless curtain for the next five minutes? Just me?

Also, this award was followed by a very long, entirely unnecessary tribute to recent musicals, including Chicago (featuring a lip-synching Catherine Zeta-Jones), Dreamgirls (featuring a very loud Jennifer Hudson), and Les Misérables (featuring most of the film's cast, including a knockout Samantha Barks, who completely blew away the rest of the field and sadly didn't then shout, "Where's my Supporting Actress nomination, motherfuckers?"). And they wonder why people complain about the show running too long.


Best Sound Mixing
Predicted winner: Les Misérables (confidence: 2/5)
Actual winner: Les Misérables

Kaboom! Don't tell me I don't know my sound categories. Of course, this was followed by ...


Best Sound Editing
Predicted winner: Life of Pi (confidence: 1/5)
Actual winner: Skyfall, Zero Dark Thirty (tie)

Wait, not only did I get this category wrong, but I somehow got it wrong twice? Ouch. Also, kudos to Mark Wahlberg for his visible disgust when announcing that the voting resulted in a tie. Nice work, Academy. Six thousand-plus members, and you still run your ballots like you're electing a fourth-grade class president.


Best Supporting Actress
Predicted winner: Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables (confidence: 5/5)
Actual winner: Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables

Not a shocker. And at this point, Les Misérables had nabbed three Oscars, which was three more than Argo and Lincoln combined. Ang Lee had to be talking himself into an upset right about now.


Best Film Editing
Predicted winner: Argo – William Goldenberg (confidence: 3/5)
Actual winner: Argo – William Goldenberg

Ah, there we go. Any chance of a stunner for Best Picture got quashed right here.


Best Production Design
Predicted winner: Anna Karenina (confidence: 3/5)
Actual winner: Lincoln

God dammit. I was relatively sanguine about this year's Oscars, and as the telecast started, I realized that this category was the only one I really cared about. And they blew it. Lincoln is a better movie than Anna Karenina, but its production design was merely impressive, whereas Sarah Greenwood's design for Joe Wright's film was revolutionary. I hate caring about this stuff sometimes.


Best Original Score
Predicted winner: Life of Pi – Mychael Danna (confidence: 2/5)
Actual winner: Life of Pi – Mychael Danna

Of course, Anna Karenina deserved this one too, but I didn't harbor any delusions this time around.


Best Original Song
Predicted winner: Skyfall – "Skyfall" (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth) (confidence: 4/5)
Actual winner: Skyfall – "Skyfall" (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth)

On the plus side, Adele gave a reasonably heartfelt speech and seemed sincerely delighted that she won. On the minus side, her actual performance of "Skyfall" during the show was nowhere near as memorable as Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger". Oh well, she'll have to settle for dominating the world music scene for the next decade.


Best Adapted Screenplay
Predicted winner: Argo – Chris Terrio (confidence: 2/5)
Actual winner: Argo – Chris Terrio

Argo may not have had the breadth of Slumdog Millionaire or Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, but it cleaned up where it counted.


Best Original Screenplay
Predicted winner: Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino (confidence: 2/5)
Actual winner: Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino

My best call of the night resulted in the best speech of the night, namely Tarantino's manic, obscenely self-congratulatory paean to the genius that is Quentin Tarantino. Just like with his movies, he may be vulgar and unconventional, but he always has something to say. "If people are, like, knowing about my movies 30 or 50 years from now, it's going to be because of the characters that I created." He's amazing.


Best Director
Predicted winner: Steven Spielberg – Lincoln (confidence: 1/5)
Actual winner: Ang Lee – Life of Pi

Any chance the Manifesto had to salvage its night just went up in smoke. But Lee is a good guy, and he did a damn good job with extremely difficult material, so I can't be too upset.


Best Actress
Predicted winner: Emmanuelle Riva – Amour (confidence: 1/5)
Actual winner: Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook

YES! The nice thing about not actually wagering on the Oscars is that I can root for whom I want to win, even if that desire conflicts with my predictions. So I emitted a roar of approval when Jean Dujardin announced Lawrence's name, even if my record continued to disintegrate. Now here's hoping viewers remember Lawrence for her extraordinary, fearless performance and not for her tumble on the stage's steps.


Best Actor
Predicted winner: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln (confidence: 5/5)
Actual winner: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln

Thank Christ. I really wish that after Meryl Streep introduced this category's quintet with the line, "In a normal year, any one of these performances would have stood out," she would have followed it up with, "Except for yours, Hugh Jackman". I also liked that the camera cut the presentation such that Streep appeared not to even open the envelope. Why waste time?


Best Picture
Predicted winner: Argo (confidence: 4/5)
Actual winner: Argo

I'll be honest: When Jack Nicholson appeared on stage, I immediately had flashbacks to his horrifying announcement of Crash seven years ago. Coincidentally, Argo becomes the first Best Picture winner since that wretched film to win just three total Oscars. Something tells me it'll hold up slightly better.


And that's a wrap. Thanks to everyone for tuning in. For the record, I hit on 14 of 21 categories, a relatively middling performance that equaled my success rate from 2011. Fortunately, there's always next year. Until then.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Prediction roundup

For your annotated pleasure, below are the Manifesto's official predictions for the 85th Academy Awards. I strongly recommend printing the list out and following it while watching tonight's telecast – it will allow you to make fun of me that much more quickly when these predictions turn to dust.

One note: I'm changing my prediction for Best Adapted Screenplay from Lincoln to Argo. I made my initial pick way back on January 27, just after Argo had won at the Producers' Guild and before its momentum really got rolling. Since then, the movie has cleaned up everything in sight, including a critical win with the Writers' Guild, which has correctly forecast seven of the past eight Oscar winners for Best Adapted Screenplay. I still think Tony Kushner's more visible screenwriting has a chance to take home the gold, but I'd be foolish not to back Argo at this point.

On to the picks, organized by level of confidence. Remember, I'm omitting the three short categories because I'm as knowledgeable about them as I am about cooking.


Best Actress
Will win: Emmanuelle Riva – Amour (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Worst snub: Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone

Best Director
Will win: Steven Spielberg – Lincoln (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Ang Lee – Life of Pi
Worst snub: Joe Wright – Anna Karenina

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Will win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Worst snub: Cloud Atlas

Best Sound Editing
Will win: Life of Pi (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Zero Dark Thirty
Worst snub: Wreck-It Ralph

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Argo – Chris Terrio (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell
Worst snub: The Dark Knight Rises – Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan

Best Original Score
Will win: Life of Pi – Mychael Danna (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli
Worst snub: Beasts of the Southern Wild – Benh Zeitlin, Dan Romer

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Worst snub: Looper – Rian Johnson

Best Sound Mixing
Will win: Les Misérables (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Skyfall
Worst snub: Wreck-It Ralph

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Worst snub: Leonardo DiCaprio – Django Unchained

Best Animated Feature
Will win: Wreck-It Ralph (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Wreck-It Ralph
Worst snub: The Secret World of Arrietty

Best Costume Design
Will win: Anna Karenina (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Anna Karenina
Worst snub: Farewell, My Queen

Best Film Editing
Will win: Argo – William Goldenberg (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Argo – William Goldenberg
Worst snub: Cloud Atlas – Alexander Berner

Best Production Design
Will win: Anna Karenina (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Anna Karenina
Worst snub: Cloud Atlas

Best Cinematography
Will win: Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Anna Karenina – Seamus McGarvey
Worst snub: Moonrise Kingdom – Robert D. Yeoman

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: Searching for Sugar Man (confidence: 4/5)
Should win/worst snub: [abstain]

Best Original Song
Will win: Skyfall – "Skyfall" (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth) (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Skyfall – "Skyfall" (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth)
Worst snub: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – "Misty Mountains" (Howard Shore)

Best Picture
Will win: Argo (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Zero Dark Thirty
Worst snub: Looper

Best Actor
Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Worst snub: Jean-Louis Trintignant – Amour

Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: Amour (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: [abstain]
Worst snub: Headhunters

Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Helen Hunt – The Sessions
Worst snub: Emma Watson – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Best Visual Effects
Will win: Life of Pi (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Life of Pi
Worst snub: John Carter

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Picture

And here we are. With such a suspenseful and unpredictable Oscar telecast looming, it's perhaps disappointing that the big prize is already predetermined. But such is life.


NOMINEES
Amour
Argo
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Les Misérables
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

WILL WIN
Argo.

But seriously, can we just leave it at that and move on? If you're unfamiliar with the narrative surrounding the extraordinary surge in momentum for Ben Affleck's hostage-crisis thriller over the past month, there's no point recounting it here. Attribute it to what you like – compensation for Affleck's Best Director snub, the fluky mechanics of the preferential voting system, Hollywood's love affair with movies about movies – but Argo has had this award sewn up for weeks.

Duty perhaps requires me to make a halfhearted case for a challenger, and I can locate three. Life of Pi is the technical juggernaut, and as voters find themselves ticking off boxes for Ang Lee's adventure film in the cinematography, visual effects, and sound editing areas, perhaps they'll be swayed to consider its overall merits for Best Picture. Silver Linings Playbook is the purest crowd-pleaser of the bunch, and if it somehow picks up steam in the various acting categories – wins in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor fields are entirely plausible – it could leverage that momentum into a run for the top prize. And Lincoln, initially viewed as the frontrunner in this race after receiving 12 total nominations, remains an impeccably crafted film about a hugely important time in American history, meaning socially conscious voters might be inclined to look in its direction.

But there's still that damn preferential ballot to consider. Sure, the aforementioned three films may pick up a smattering of first-place votes each, but how many of those ballots will have Argo ranked #2? It's such an enjoyable, populist movie that even those who don't love it seem to at least really like it. Affleck, of course, is ineligible for that Best Director trophy, so he'll have to settle for his third feature staking its claim on history. Argo is your 2012 Best Picture winner.





SHOULD WIN
Let's see, we have nine nominees to dissect, and the telecast is a mere handful of hours away. Time to break these into tiers.

Tier 5: You're cute, but you don't belong here. I tried my best to like Beasts of the Southern Wild. It's well-intentioned, it has heartfelt regard for its characters, and it features terrific acting from Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. But its floating structure, in which the camera casually drops in on various residents of a Louisiana community called The Bathtub, is so haphazard that it's ultimately boring. It isn't until the film's second half – when an actual plot emerges – that Beasts of the Southern Wild snaps into focus, but by that point, the movie has already squandered most of the goodwill bought from Wallis' and Henry's natural, lived-in performances. The movie shows enough bursts of filmmaking talent to inspire intrigue as to what could have been, but in its final form, it's a borderline success at best.

Tier 4: Some editing required. The lasting memory of Life of Pi is an exhilarating, sublimely beautiful central passage that is bookended by extraneous fluff. Ang Lee does what he can, but the scenes that take place before and after that remarkable shipwreck and subsequent lifeboat journey feel comparatively lifeless. Les Misérables starts out strong, and once you get past its whipsaw editing and Tom Hooper's hectic camera movements, it's impossible not to get swept up in that magnificent music. But as the movie plunges on, it becomes a wearying experience, and once it transitions from intimate, character-based struggle to half-baked revolutionary politics, what's initially a captivating experience turns into a movie to be regarded from a distance. Your eye might admire the meticulous production design, and your ear may discern the varying quality of the (mostly good) singing, but you're never fully absorbed into its chaotic, screeching vortex. Those bland freedom-fighters may spout off about desire and despair, but Les Misérables ultimately induces exhaustion rather than passion.

Tier 3: Amour. Michael Haneke's unforgiving look at love and death gets its own tier, because it's unlike any other nominee, and any other Haneke film for that matter. It's bruising, unflinching, and generally agonizing. It's also flawlessly executed, marvelously acted, and deeply moving. How can an undeniably good movie be so difficult to watch?

Tier 2: You were glorious, and then you fucked up the endgame. For its first two-thirds, Django Unchained is an electric revisionist fantasy, as well as a delightful showcase in which a number of supremely talented actors are blessed with the opportunity to speak in the music of Quentin Tarantino's inimitable dialogue. Then two main characters die, the gunfights begin in force, the hip-hop starts blasting, and everything basically goes to hell. It's still highly watchable, but it nevertheless represents a severe downgrade from the brooding suspense and tense comedy that precede it. Argo's tumble into last-act melodrama is less drastic, partly because it's so skillfully edited, but it nevertheless feels like a betrayal of the nuance and wit that saturate its first 90 minutes. Still, it's a thoroughly enjoyable film from front to back, by turns scary, funny, and thrilling. It may not be the best movie of the year, but that doesn't mean it isn't a worthy Best Picture.

Tier 1: Varying degrees of excellence. In its own way, Silver Linings Playbook is as manipulative as Argo, but it's so genuinely romantic that I'll happily embrace its sentiment. Crowd-pleasers can easily come off as mawkish, but there's such messy vivacity in Bradley Cooper's and Jennifer Lawrence's lead performances – and such texture in David O. Russell's assured screenwriting – that every on-the-nose moment in Silver Linings Playbook rings completely true. Lincoln rings true as well, but it replaces broad comedy and manic drama with sly wit and quiet introspection. Steven Spielberg's latest opus takes its time, but as its stakes sharpen into focus, and as Daniel Day-Lewis' heroic performance builds in stature, it becomes a breathtaking reimagination of a crucially important slice of history. Yet as noble and grand as Lincoln may be, it's founded on immaculate, delicate craft, from the nimble word-smithing of Tony Kushner's script to the smoky atmosphere of Janusz Kaminski's cinematography to the sneaky scene-stealing of James Spader and David Strathairn. It's a movie about people coming together, so it's only fitting that its success derives from the efforts of a unified, wholly committed ensemble.

My ultimate choice for 2012's Best Picture, however, is Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's riveting account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The movie has been clouded by controversy, and that's a real shame, because regardless of your viewpoint on the film's historical merits, the enflamed conversation surrounding Zero Dark Thirty's politics has obscured the mastery that is the movie itself. A gripping, searing model of a director applying her craft with absolute authority, Bigelow's film is less about torture or authenticity than it is about dedicated men and women working tirelessly to accomplish their goals. And ironically, the controversy is a boon to future generations, because Zero Dark Thirty will be debated for ages, and that means that viewers will be compelled to investigate it. When they do, they'll find not just a critical document of a landmark historical event, but a bracing exemplar of pure filmmaking. And if the winner of the Best Picture Oscar is destined to be remembered, then by that metric, there is no other choice.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
As usual, you'll have to wait until the Manifesto unveils its annual top 10 list. If nothing else, I promise that it'll go up sooner than last year.

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Director

The last time this category was even moderately exciting was in 2004, when Clint Eastwood won for Million Dollar Baby and held off Martin Scorsese for The Aviator, followed by Eastwood gunning down Scorsese outside a rain-soaked saloon and gravely intoning, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it". Here's to some actual suspense for once.


NOMINEES
Michael Haneke – Amour
Ang Lee – Life of Pi
David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg – Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin – Beasts of the Southern Wild

WILL WIN
Ben Affleck. Just kidding. Though really, he has as much of a chance as Zeitlin. (Frankly, I think that Academy members were so confused with the new online voting system this year that they attempted to nominate Zeitlin's score but accidentally clicked on the wrong link.) But the remaining four nominees are all legitimately in play here, making this the most intriguing Best Director race since, well, ever. It's possible that the Academy's elder contingent was moved by Haneke's graceful but startlingly frank examination of death in Amour, and if the top two contenders wind up splitting votes, he could feasibly steal the statuette. Still, no director has ever won here for a foreign language film, and while the Oscars' worldview has become impressively more global over the past few years, I still don't see that barrier coming down without an accompanying Best Picture push. Haneke does have slightly better odds than Russell, as I believe Silver Linings Playbook is receiving more attention for its splendid cast – even though I'm ultimately predicting that it will walk away from the Oscars empty-handed and perhaps go out drinking with Zero Dark Thirty afterward – than for Russell's dexterous tonal control.

In the end, this appears to be a showdown between two former Oscar-winners in Spielberg and Lee. Coincidentally, both have already accomplished the rare, somewhat ignominious feat of winning Best Director but having their film lose Best Picture (Brokeback Mountain for Lee, Saving Private Ryan for Spielberg, though Schindler's List of course won both), a feat the winner will almost certainly replicate again this year. In any event, the challenge in predicting this category is that the precursor awards are virtually no help at all, as Affleck cleaned up at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, and of course the Directors' Guild of America.

That means we need to turn to the movies themselves, and it's here that I think Spielberg pulls ahead by a hair. It's true that Lee's directing of the oceanic voyage in Life of Pi is more visible than the quiet chamber drama Spielberg navigates in Lincoln. But I'm not certain that Academy members evaluate this category from that perspective. Rather, I think they look to the film itself, specifically its importance. For example, the last instance of a Picture-Director split (ignoring Lee's own win for Brokeback Mountain, which was the heavy Best Picture favorite) was in 2002 when Roman Polanski won for The Pianist, his sober, serious exploration of the Holocaust. And Lincoln, for all its scruffy charm and crackling humor, is undoubtedly an Important Film, whereas Life of Pi is, well, a story about a boy and his tiger. That doesn't mean Lincoln is the better movie (although, at least in this blogger's view, it assuredly is), but it does mean that voters are more likely to recognize its director. Spielberg takes Oscar number three.





SHOULD WIN
Benh Zeitlin brings a distinctive, new voice to Beasts of the Southern Wild, but his commitment to scrappy, messy atmosphere sacrifices narrative drive, and while Zeitlin's appreciation for local custom is laudable, his lack of urgency ultimately grows wearisome. But keep your eye on him – if he finds a project that allows him to better channel his efforts into story development, he could do great things (well, beyond directing a movie that earns four Oscar nominations in major categories).

Zeitlin is still a relatively unknown commodity, whereas at this point in Michael Haneke's career, you know what you're going to get: extraordinary formal rigor, excruciatingly long tracking shots, studious detachment, an aroma of curdled immorality. What's astonishing about Amour is that all of those elements remain in place but are rearranged into the context of a love story rather than Haneke's typical condemnation of human impulse. Yet Amour is still a bit grueling to watch, and while Haneke's ruthlessly unsympathetic approach helps underscore the icky ugliness of his characters' decrepitude, it certainly doesn't do the audience any favors. There's nothing inherently wrong with movies that are depressing or unpleasant, but Haneke's pitiless technique – particularly in holding shots and lingering over scenes far longer than necessary – betrays a punishing instinct that, for all its heartfelt emotion, Amour struggles to shake. It's undeniably impressive directing, but "impressive" doesn't always equate to "best".

There's little that's immediately impressive about David O. Russell's direction of Silver Linings Playbook, a sharply funny, often scary story of love and depression that unfortunately bears the dreaded "comedy/drama" label, as though it's somehow indecisive about the type of movie it wants to be. But Russell displays a deft hand with the camera as well as the pen, and it's easy to miss how smoothly he manipulates viewers into various states of feeling. The film's signature scene, in which Jennifer Lawrence boldly confronts Robert De Niro while a host of onlookers watch in fidgety fascination, is a masterstroke of subtle tone-shifting, and Russell initially stages it for high melodrama only to imperceptibly nudge it toward broad comedy, a transition that shepherds his audience from apprehension to giddy ecstasy. It's the sort of emotional directing that's wholly absent from Michael Haneke's pictures, but Russell's uncanny ability to fluidly slide between moods marks Silver Linings Playbook as earnest and sincere rather than obvious or sentimental.

Where Russell operates mostly in the background, Ang Lee's directorial flourishes in Life of Pi are right out in the open. But there's no element of showmanship in his craft; it's more that Life of Pi is structured such that it places its life – which is to say, its ability to persuade and move its audience – entirely in the hands of its maker. Mechanically speaking, the movie's breathtaking central passage involves merely a single actor, some stunning effects work, and Lee's own vision of a young man's battle against an ocean. And Lee executes that vision flawlessly, focusing on the practical problems that plague his hero but also taking the time to bask in the stark, merciless beauty of nature itself. In fact, there's a riveting quality to these scenes that, paradoxically, makes the remainder of Life of Pi feel woefully ordinary. But Lee should nevertheless be commended for both his bravura technique and his overall audacity. In the end, Life of Pi is a film about spiritual ascendance, and while it might not reach the heights it strives for, its creator elevates it as best he can.

If Life of Pi is bold to the point of being operatic, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is intimate and even small-scale. Spielberg recently stated that it's the quietest directing he's ever done, and indeed the film lacks the grandiosity (not to mention the dinosaurs and aliens) that characterizes many of the Beard's more bombastic pictures. As fraught with importance as Lincoln's subject matter may be, the movie itself involves little more than people talking, but it's telling that as Lincoln steadily gathers steam, its meticulously staged conversations become charged with an aura of monumental consequence. In a sense, Spielberg is making a sports movie, only the big game's outcome – which he choreographs with lithe, supple camera movements and minimal fuss – is destined to shape the course of American history. It's a brilliant, hard-won achievement that's all the more impressive for appearing to have been made with such ease.

In the end, though, I'll go with Lee, thanks to my old friend VORP. Few directors other than Spielberg could have fashioned Lincoln into such a compelling and invaluable historical document, not to mention a funny and engaging dialectic, but at least they would have been armed with Tony Kushner's wily script and Daniel Day-Lewis' immense talent. For Life of Pi, Lee was essentially on his own, and he turned a potentially mundane adventure tale into something both invigorating and poetic.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Wes Anderson – Moonrise Kingdom
Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty
Rian Johnson – Looper
Christopher Nolan – The Dark Knight Rises
Joe Wright – Anna Karenina

Anderson brings his usual, unparalleled fastidiousness to the universe of Moonrise Kingdom, but for once he invests equal effort in developing his characters as he charts the course of their stirring union. Bigelow takes a contentious topic and transforms it into a vital, exhilarating thriller through pure craft. Johnson matches the lofty ambition of his ideas with bracing technique and sharply channeled energy. Nolan, with his electric pacing and disdainful dismissal of genre conventions, takes a so-called superhero movie and turns it into something transcendent. Wright transcends the cinematic form altogether.

My ideal winner: Joe Wright – Anna Karenina.

Also deserving: Sam Mendes – Skyfall (for proving that formal clarity and artistic ambition aren't antithetical to blockbuster entertainment); Gerardo Naranjo – Miss Bala (for observing his heroine's terrifying travails with masterful restraint); Josh Trank – Chronicle (for injecting fresh life into the found-footage formula).

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Actor

You know how some baseball teams decide to move in the fences in order to increase home runs? I feel like the movie gods have moved in the fences when it comes to this category. This year's Best Actor lineup is so loaded, they might as well hold the Oscars at Coors Field.


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

WILL WIN
Daniel Day-Lewis has already won at the BAFTAs, the Screen Actors' Guild, and the Golden Globes. The last time a performer won all three such honors but lost at the Oscars in any of the four acting races was in 2001, when Russell Crowe racked up a litany of precursor nods for his performance in A Beautiful Mind but lost to Denzel Washington for Training Day. The only semi-plausible reason to go against Day-Lewis here is that he's already won two Oscars, so perhaps the Academy will be reluctant to give him the hat trick, but that's a rationalization posing as a reason. Anyone picking against Day-Lewis at this point is just trying to hit a lotto ticket. It's over.


SHOULD WIN
"If you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker." That's the first and perhaps most famous line from Rounders, and I can't help but think it's running through Hugh Jackman's head right about now. He has to be looking around the table and thinking to himself, "How the hell did I get here?". It's not that his work in Les Misérables is bad, mind you. If nothing else, Jackman can sing, and there's an emotional clarity to his delivery that adds resonance to Jean Valjean's existential dilemma. (It doesn't hurt that he's often paired against Russell Crowe, whose singing ranges from mediocre to flat-out terrible, often making Jackman look like Stevie Wonder by comparison.) But Jackman has always been an actor of limited gravitas, and it's difficult to separate his earnest singing here from the enjoyably debonair routine he employed when hosting the Oscars in 2009. He's also hamstrung by a story that marginalizes Valjean as it embarks on its woozy exploration of revolutionary freedom-fighting. In the end, the remaining four performances in this field are all home runs – it's just a matter of how far they sailed over the fence. Jackman hit a line-drive single.

Given the pedigree of the competition, you might think that Bradley Cooper – heretofore an engaging comedian with movie-star looks but uncertain range – would be the sucker in this quintet. But Cooper's work in Silver Linings Playbook is revelatory. It's a busy, antic performance, with lots of gesticulation and numerous bursts of volume and rage, but it's laced with an edgy, uncomfortable volatility that gives even the showier moments real dramatic heft. Cooper's offhand delivery of the line, "O.K., I snapped, I almost killed him" instantly establishes his character's psychosis, but with his piercing eyes and irrepressible energy, he also exhibits a magnetism that helps make the love story of Silver Linings Playbook so convincing.

Convincing audiences has never been a problem for Denzel Washington, an actor best known for his effortless displays of irrefutable competence. Washington is often criticized for simply playing a variation on the same type, a criticism that seems blind to his nuanced, darkly shaded turns in recent films such as American Gangster, Safe House, and Man on Fire (to say nothing of his riveting work in the '90s in Malcolm X and the underrated Courage Under Fire). Still, the joke's on us in Flight, the story of a supremely talented pilot who gradually withers into a broken man due to his own hubris. Washington's ability to exude cool aptitude is unrivaled, and it's the erosion of that command that makes his character's freefall into addiction all the more compelling. But the genius of Washington's performance is that he doesn't play that descent as a straightforward linear journey; rather, he melds his character's proficiency and toxicity into a unified portrait of a highly capable, deeply flawed man. And so, even when he's slurring his speech and cracking his head on toilets, we can still sense his ardent belief that he's the best damn pilot in the sky. Competence has never looked so marvelously unglamorous.

Like Washington, Joaquin Phoenix brought his own preconceived baggage to his work on The Master, thanks to his multi-year hoax project I'm Still Here; unlike Washington, he shreds any possible accusation of typecasting within seconds. As Freddie Quell, Phoenix is off-putting and often unpleasant – he mumbles frequently, and his movements have an agitated quality to them, as though he's a caged animal lurching about in an effort to escape. That impression of anger and confusion amplifies Quell's identity crisis tenfold, and it also encapsulates the plight of an entire generation of sailors and soldiers, all searching desperately for some meaning in their lives in a foreign postwar America. But Phoenix's performance is far too detailed and individual to be merely symbolic. Quell is his own singularly miserable creation, and his frustration with society stems less from his antagonistic circumstances than his own human failings. Yet Phoenix makes us sympathize with him all the same, and while The Master is ultimately lacking in emotional impact, the brunt of what we do feel derives almost entirely from Phoenix's unflinchingly honest depiction of a man who alienates everyone around him in his lifelong quest to be loved.

So that's a trio of terrific performances. In the end, though, Daniel Day-Lewis makes them look like also-rans. It begins with his voice, that wheezy but wondrously articulated drawl that bubbles up from his diaphragm with pristine clarity. ("He speaks so beautifully!" my father gushed about Day-Lewis. Of course, that was 10 years ago, and he was talking about Gangs of New York, a film in which Day-Lewis employs a dramatically different elocution, but that decade-old analysis remains equally applicable here.) But acting isn't just about talking, and Day-Lewis' incarnation of Honest Abe is one of absolute conviction and sincerity. His Lincoln is less about grand speeches and formal eloquence than political glad-handing and convivial educating, and Day-Lewis delivers Tony Kushner's dialogue with folksy charm and wry, self-aware wit. These are small, quiet gestures, but they betray a deep, simmering passion, and the moments when a towering Day-Lewis invokes the full measure of Lincoln's presidential power are gloriously terrible to behold. It's a performance so good that it's almost unnerving to watch; Abraham Lincoln is such a beloved figure of American history, by all rights he shouldn't have been reimagined with such extraordinary vitality and humanity. But these are the movies, and they give us the opportunity to breathe life into what's been long dead. In that sense, Day-Lewis is less performer than necromancer, and in Lincoln, he proves yet again that acting is its own inscrutable form of magic.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Anders Danielsen Lie – Oslo, August 31st
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
Matthias Schoenaerts – Rust and Bone
Jean-Louis Trintignant – Amour
Denzel Washington – Flight

Three of the Academy's five choices made my own list, and Cooper just barely missed the cut. Lie's performance is a companion of sorts to Washington's, as he illustrates with excruciating quiet that even once addiction itself is conquered, suffocating emptiness can remain. (In fact, Oslo, August 31st serves as a stern rebuke to the unwarranted sunniness of Flight's ending.) Schoenaerts answers costar Marion Cotillard's radiance with a touching mixture of brusque ferocity and hidden gentleness. Trintignant brings haunting realism to the part of a husband who is forced to watch his wife die, and watch his own soul shatter in the process.

(And yes, I'm including six actors on here because I unforgivably forgot to mention Trintignant on my first draft, and I didn't want to unceremoniously bump anyone. Sue me.)

My ideal winner: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln.


MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
Richard Gere – Arbitrage
Jared Gillman – Moonrise Kingdom
Daniel Henshall – The Snowtown Murders
Denis Lavant – Holy Motors

Gere affirms his status alongside Michael Douglas as one of America's leading slimeballs, and he brings just enough texture to his part as a wealthy philanderer to humanize him without lionizing him. Gillman perfectly captures the giddy confusion of young love, as well as the piercing pain of social shunning and its attendant emotions of spite and superiority. Henshall is never more terrifying in The Snowtown Murders than when he's politely serving a family breakfast – his smiling charm is the perfect cloaking device for his utter remorselessness. Lavant can't quite bring unity (or sense) to Holy Motors' disparate storylines, but he gamely slips from one nonsensical character to the next with stunning fluidity.

Also deserving: Matt Damon – Promised Land (for imbuing his corporate henchman with just the right tinge of ambiguity); Paul Dano – Ruby Sparks (for the courage to be insipid, selfish, and even cruel); Martin Freeman – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (for bringing a human center to a film devoted to whiz-bang excitement); Andrew Garfield – The Amazing Spider-Man (for reincarnating Peter Parker with the proper combination of earnestness and contempt); Anthony Hopkins – Hitchcock (for doing what he does); Greg Kinnear – Thin Ice (for his deliciously smarmy salesmanship); Brad Pitt – Killing Them Softly (for doing what he never does, namely being rough and unlikable); Matthias Schoenaerts – Bullhead (for bringing the same ferocity he brought to Rust and Bone, only double); Robert Wieckiewicz – In Darkness (for not overplaying his arc from mercenary to savior).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Music and Sound

Hey, a grouping of categories that actually makes sense! Admittedly, I only really care about one of the following four fields, but we at the Manifesto are nothing if not thorough.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

NOMINEES
Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli
Argo – Alexandre Desplat
Life of Pi – Mychael Danna
Lincoln – John Williams
Skyfall – Thomas Newman

WILL WIN
I've had a tough time getting a handle on this category, as none of the scores really stands out overall, and more importantly, none features a dominant musical theme that captured voters' hearts over the course of the season (as was the case with the "Married Life" theme from Up in 2009). That means, rather than culling information from industry buzz, I need to resort to strategic guesswork. First up is to eliminate those contenders that lack a corresponding Best Picture nod, as no film has won here without a nomination for the top prize since Frida in 2002. That means we can say goodbye to both Anna Karenina and Skyfall; I'm a bit hesitant about omitting the latter so casually, especially as it just won at the BAFTAs, but I don't think Newman's hard-charging score features enough lyrical moments to curry favor with the Academy.

That leaves three, and my choice of winner hinges on my (rather esoteric) musings regarding how voters view this category as a whole. In the past, the Academy tended to reward soothing, stately music, leading to victories for Finding Neverland, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Red Violin. However, recent wins for Slumdog Millionaire and, more notably, The Social Network – whose ambient stylings topped the more staid compositions of presumed frontrunner The King's Speech – suggest that voters are skewing toward more ambitious offerings. It's a transition that mirrors the sea change taking place in the Best Cinematography field, where the Academy is recognizing innovation and technical bravura rather than painterly, picturesque framing. (And yes, this means I'm doubly nervous about omitting Skyfall here. Grr.)

The irony is that the one nominee here that actually features this sort of imaginative daring, Dario Marianelli's brilliant work on Anna Karenina, is the least likely to win, simply due to the film's overall stature, or lack thereof (remember the caveat about Best Picture). Life of Pi, however, has the trappings of a technical tour de force – not coincidentally, I'm predicting it to win for Best Cinematography as well – and I suspect that reputation will trickle down to the film's music, regardless of how ordinary and inoffensive it may be. It's hardly ironclad reasoning, but when the nominees themselves do little to separate from each other, we're left to wade into the murky machinations of the voters' minds, and I think those voters have somehow convinced themselves that Danna's score is technically superior simply because it's housed within a technically superior film. Life of Pi takes it.





SHOULD WIN
Blech. The Academy may have submitted some inspired choices in this category over the past few years, but voters this year seem to have gone out of their way to pay homage to the most pleasant, least troubling music available. Danna's score for Life of Pi is so sleepy that it barely registers, and it does little to deepen the title character's existential plight. Williams' main theme for Lincoln is typically resonant, but otherwise it similarly fails to energize or elevate the material. As an action score, Newman's work for Skyfall is at least a bit of a curveball, but it's highly mundane genre work, noisy and fast-paced but offering little variation or sonic wit. Desplat, who authored no fewer than seven scores in 2012, continues to showcase himself as a musical jack-of-all-trades, but while his work on Argo is suitably restrained, it's more effective than inspiring.

Only Marianelli's stunning score for Anna Karenina distinguishes itself, both as independently exhilarating music and also as a quietly insistent voice in the film as a whole. Adding a decidedly Russian flavor to his usual British elegance, Marianelli mingles barking trumpets with restless violins, evoking the opulent but chaotic universe in which his characters reside. He also introduces an element of coy playfulness – witness the scene in which rhythmic percussion is synchronized with bureaucrats mindlessly stamping papers – that breathes life into a movie already bustling with activity. Marianelli already has an Oscar to his credit (for his staggeringly great score for Atonement), but if he keeps this up, he'll be forced to find more room in his trophy case before long.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Benh Zeitlin, Dan Romer
Brave – Patrick Doyle
Cloud Atlas – Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Howard Shore

With all of the attention the Academy lavished upon Beasts of the Southern Wild, I remain baffled that it failed to recognize the film's score, a collection of stirring, vital compositions that helps channel the occasionally rudderless picture and supply it with the proper focus. I'm a sucker for Celtic music, and Doyle's lilting work on Brave is buoyant and wondrous but never saccharine. The score for Cloud Atlas, as befits the film's premise, is a marvel of variety and ceaselessly changing tones, and its delicate piano-based themes provide some of 2012's most haunting music. Shore is a full-on epic mode with The Hobbit, and he reminds audiences just how flat-out powerful an orchestral brass section can be.

My ideal winner: Beasts of the Southern Wild – Benh Zeitlin, Dan Romer.





BEST SOUND EDITING

NOMINEES
Argo
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Skyfall
Zero Dark Thirty

WILL WIN
Uh oh. And you thought I was clueless in the Best Original Score section. Look, I could spend five paragraphs developing an extraordinarily complicated rubric that analyzes patterns of past winners, correlates films' success here to their presence in other categories, and ultimately yields an algorithm so sophisticated that it would make Deep Blue weep with envy. Or I could just rely solely on one piece of quasi-conventional wisdom: that the winner of this category is invariably the Tech Heavy, i.e., the movie generally regarded as the superlative example of technical achievement. Last year, that was Hugo. The year before, it was Inception. This year, it's Life of Pi. Done.

(Just don't be surprised if Skyfall pulls the upset, as you could make the argument that ... screw it, let's move on.)


SHOULD WIN
Zero Dark Thirty. Put aside my halcyon days when I routinely spent 14 straight hours playing "Metal Gear Solid", and I can safely say that I've never felt that close to actually participating in a raid on a terrorist's compound as during the film's final sequence. With those helicopter blades and bullets whirring all around you, it's all you can do not to duck.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
The Impossible
The Three Stooges
Wreck-It Ralph
Zero Dark Thirty

The aural component of The Impossible enhances the film's terrifying atmosphere, as you can almost feel the impact of those waves crashing down around you. The sound design of The Three Stooges is about as terrifying as a sonorous Morgan Freeman voiceover, but its array of wacky sound effects is critical to advancing the movie's madcap tone. No movie's sound scheme, however, is more crucial to its success – nor more endlessly innovative – than the remarkable wizardry on display in Wreck-It Ralph, which bolsters its fully realized videogame universe with a marvelously subtle barrage of sound effects, wielding new-age gadgetry with superb effect while also delivering many a wink to the classic arcade games of the distant past.

My ideal winner: Wreck-It Ralph.





BEST SOUND MIXING

NOMINEES
Argo
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Les Misérables
Skyfall

WILL WIN
Aha! You thought I'd just echo my lament about how difficult this would be from the Best Sound Editing category, didn't you? But Best Sound Mixing is different, especially when there's a musical involved, as recent winners include Dreamgirls, Ray, and Chicago. Throw in the fact that it received considerable attention for its decision to record its songs live on set rather than looping them beforehand, and Les Misérables should take this one.





SHOULD WIN
Zero Dark Thirty. Wait, what?


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Les Misérables
Pitch Perfect
The Woman in Black
Wreck-It Ralph
Zero Dark Thirty

Les Misérables grabbed the headlines, but Pitch Perfect's mix perfectly synthesizes the many voices belting out a cappella covers with perfect clarity. The rattling, whispery sound of The Woman in Black confirms that this particular house is very haunted indeed.

My ideal winner: Wreck-It Ralph.





BEST ORIGINAL SONG

NOMINEES
Chasing Ice – "Before My Time" (J. Ralph)
Life of Pi – "Pi's Lullaby" (Mychael Danna, Bombay Jayashri)
Les Misérables – "Suddenly" (Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer, Alain Boublil)
Skyfall – "Skyfall" (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth)
Ted – "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" (Walter Murphy, Seth MacFarlane)

WILL WIN
God what a waste this category is. At least after last year's travesty in which only two songs landed on the ballot, the Academy tweaked its rules so that five songs received nominations this time around. Anyway, "Skyfall" is winning here. Like the Academy would pass up a chance to bring Adele up on stage? Please.

SHOULD WIN
"Before My Time" has a lot in time with Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia – namely, it's an insufferable bore, as well as proof that art featuring Scarlett Johansson isn't automatically sexy or even interesting. Les Misérables is obviously loaded with timeless music, but its creation of "Suddenly" smacks of writing a song for the sole purpose of cracking this category; it isn't a terrible song, and it's sung with feeling by Hugh Jackman, but it's in no way memorable, and its instrumentation is muted to the point of irrelevance. "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" trots out Norah Jones for some jazzy soul, but it's less exciting than merely adequate.

"Pi's Lullaby" nicely bottles the ethereal spirit of Life of Pi, and if it meanders a bit, that sort of woozy daydreaming is at least in keeping with the movie. Still, I'll go with "Skyfall". It's an atypical James Bond theme, but then Skyfall is a atypical James Bond film, and Adele's voluptuous, full-bodied voice is well-suited to establishing the stakes of such a grand and ambitious entry into the 007 oeuvre.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Brave – "Touch the Sky" (Julie Fowlis)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – "Misty Mountains" (Howard Shore)
The Hunger Games – "Abraham's Daughter" (Arcade Fire)
The Secret World of Arrietty – "Arrietty's Song" (Cecile Corbel)
Snow White and the Huntsman – "Breath of Life" (Florence + the Machine)

"Touch the Sky" captures Brave's tone of free-wheeling adventure and matches it with a giddy, thoroughly appealing tune. Richard Armitage brings his deep, rich bass to "Misty Mountains", a hypnotic piece of music that has the added benefit of yanking The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey from its bout of bizarre playfulness and lasering its focus, if only briefly. On "Abraham's Daughter" modern rock legends Arcade Fire tap into the dystopian unease surrounding The Hunger Games, as a cruel, merciless snare counters Régine Chassagne's delicate vocals. "Arrietty's Song" is whimsical and touching, much like the film. "Breath of Life" is by Florence + the Machine.

My ideal winner: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – "Misty Mountains" (Howard Shore).

Monday, February 18, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Actress

The gender gap in Hollywood may not have closed entirely, but between the increasing availability of plum parts for women and the rising crop of supremely talented actresses – not to mention Katniss Everdeen, Bella Swan, and Princess Merida burning up the box office – it's definitely shrinking. And chauvinist pig that I am, it's nice to live in a world where the performances in the Best Actress category aren't clearly inferior to those of their male counterparts. Just remember that I wrote that the next time I make a tasteless crack about the true purpose of Scarlett Johansson's role in The Avengers.


NOMINEES
Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts – The Impossible

WILL WIN
Wallis and Watts are out. As for Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty will cross the $90 million mark this week, and it's one of the most compelling pieces of historical fiction ever made, yet for some strange reason, no one seems to be talking about it anymore. Perhaps its momentum peaked too early, though that's hard to believe given that it didn't even receive a nationwide release until January 11. In any event, unless there's a silent resurgence going on behind the scenes, I'm starting to accept that Zero Dark Thirty will leave Oscar night empty-handed, meaning Chastain is on the outside looking in.

She's peering in at a duel between Jennifer Lawrence and Emmanuelle Riva, and while Lawrence is the odds-on favorite, I'm decidedly wary of a Riva upset. It's the age factor. Lawrence is a stunning young talent who just tabbed her second Oscar nomination at the age of 22 and also happens to be anchoring a massive film franchise for Lionsgate; absent a random "Jason Williams hopping onto a motorcycle"-level disaster, she'll be back to the buffet multiple times in the years to come. Riva, on the other hand, will turn 86 on the night of this year's ceremony, so science suggests she won't be around much longer (just to underscore that point, she plays a character who spends her entire movie slowly dying). The pieces are in place, then, for a sentimental vote, as voters could feasibly rationalize that they'll have opportunities to recognize Lawrence in the future, whereas this is almost certainly Riva's last shot at Oscar glory.

Lawrence, however, does have a handful of precursor awards to her credit, including the all-important SAG nod. But Riva wasn't eligible with the actors' guild, and more importantly, she won at the BAFTAs, a body that singled out Meryl Streep last year when everyone else was looking Viola Davis' way. And while Riva's French-language performance might appear to put her at a disadvantage, the Academy proved it can recognize Parisian performers in 2007 when it awarded the Oscar to Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose – a performance that, not coincidentally, also won at the BAFTAs. In fact, the BAFTAs are a disturbingly strong indicator of Oscar success, as no Oscar winner has lost in Britain since Gwyneth Paltrow in 1998. (O.K., technically, Hilary Swank, Halle Berry, and Charlize Theron won Oscars but failed to take home BAFTA trophies, but due to fluky eligibility rules, they competed at the BAFTAs a full year after winning their Oscars. In fact, Swank and Berry both lost to actresses who also won at the Oscars, only a year later. Don't bother trying to puzzle through the math on this – just take my word for it that winning the BAFTA is a big deal.)

That's too much history on Riva's side. Lawrence may have been the de-facto frontrunner when the nominations were announced, but Riva is peaking at the perfect time. Throw in the sentimentality factor, and Oscar has its oldest winner ever.


SHOULD WIN
The Academy's chosen quintet may have omitted some of the Manifesto's more personal choices, but it's hard to find fault with any of this year's nominees. It's tempting to look at the nine-year-old Wallis – she was actually six during the majority of filming – and think, "Oh how cute," but Wallis' blunt, no-nonsense performance is entirely free of the shrill sympathy-seeking that characterizes most child portrayals; she carries the weight of an entire film on her tiny shoulders with startling ease. Chastain delivers a similarly sturdy, committed performance as an obsessed intelligence officer, and while Zero Dark Thirty functions primarily as a police procedural, the moments when Chastain's implacable face melts into confusion and loneliness lend the film a powerful emotional gravitas. Watts' work in The Impossible is more physically obvious but no less affecting, and in her panicked, desperate movements, she communicates single-minded fear with acute intensity. That level of physicality is the cornerstone of Riva's performance as well, though in her case, it's all about what she can't do; initially paralyzed on one side of her body, her character becomes increasingly immobilized throughout the film, and as she strains to rise from her wheelchair, Riva makes you feel the agonizing effort of every step.

My favorite of the five, however, is Jennifer Lawrence's aching turn in Silver Linings Playbook as a lost soul seeking love, or companionship, or sex, or really solace of any kind. Lawrence has a physical toughness about her that she used to great effect in Winter's Bone, and in Silver Linings Playbook, she initially seems almost abrasive, a potty-mouthed girl who walks tall and spits out her lines as though she's brandishing a spiked mace. It's all a front, though, designed to disguise the brittle, deeply wounded woman whose vulnerability is the true source of such provocative aggression. Late in the film, these two warring halves reconcile, and with eyes ablaze Lawrence delivers a spectacular speech laced with such long-simmering passion that you can practically see her heart soaring in her chest, doing its best to keep up with your own.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone
Kara Hayward – Moonrise Kingdom
Zoe Kazan – Ruby Sparks
Keira Knightley – Anna Karenina
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook

Cotillard matches the physical grace of Riva's performance and supplements it with a quiet, disconsolate yearning that proves to be both devastating and uplifting. Hayward beautifully illustrates adolescent confusion while also displaying extraordinary maturity and poise, helping to turn a whimsical teenage romance into something timeless. Kazan takes a necessarily incomplete construct and fills in the blanks; she navigates her character's artificial transitions effortlessly, but it's her restless sadness in just "being Ruby" that proves most compelling. Keira Knightley conveys a multitude of emotions with a flick of her eyes and a purse of her lips – her Anna is not just a social pariah but also a mortally grief-stricken creature, and Ms. Knightley somehow embodies the spirit of Tolstoy's operatic melodrama without ever resorting to maudlin theatrics.

My ideal winner: Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone.





MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Linda Cardellini – Return
Lola Créton – Goodbye First Love
Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games
Léa Seydoux – Farewell, My Queen
Mary Elizabeth Winstead – Smashed

Cardellini (of "Freaks and Geeks" fame!) articulates the crippling confusion surrounding her eponymous journey home with heartbreaking clarity. Créton's character is utterly paralyzed by her emotional dependency but also fully aware of it, resulting in a nuanced portrayal that registers every stage of relationship turmoil, from bliss to hopelessness to (most troubling of all) nagging discontent. Lawrence's role in The Hunger Games requires less emotional range than her Oscar-nominated turn, but it remains a stunning display of composed physical subtlety. Seydoux counters Diane Kruger's flamboyant titular performance with unnerving restraint and treacherous guile. Winstead fearlessly demonstrates the perils of addiction without succumbing to the pratfalls of overacting.

Also deserving: Emily Blunt – Your Sister's Sister (for her bracing emotional honesty); Aggeliki Papoulia – Alps (for gamely buying into Giorgos Lanthimos' bizarre universe and giving it credibility in the process); Aubrey Plaza – Safety Not Guaranteed (for her tender transformation from acerbic cynic into true believer); Michelle Williams – Take This Waltz (for her courage in being ruthlessly unsympathetic).

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: The Ghetto Categories

Cinema is a democratic medium, and the following three categories demonstrate the extraordinary diversity of the movies. Of course, while works in the Animated Feature, Foreign Language Film, and Documentary Feature categories accomplish their craft in decidedly different ways, they nevertheless conform with the standard filmmaking process – that is, they create moving pictures and then streamline them into a narrative. But these categories share another, more troubling similarity: They're all a farce.

I don't mean to denigrate the films that the Academy recognizes in these categories each year; as with most categories, the quality of the nominees tends to range from very good to mediocre. It's the very existence of the categories that vexes me. Rewarding particular types of movies specifically because they're made according to a certain method propagates a sort of ghetto culture, a suggestion that these pictures are somehow lesser in stature compared to "real" movies. And what's to stop the increased proliferation of such ruthless segregation? If we have a Best Animated Feature category, why not a Best Action Film, or Best Movie Based on a True Story, or Best Picture with At Least Two Black-and-White Dream Sequences?

Admittedly, I'm overstating things a bit. In recent years – and, not coincidentally, once the Academy expanded the field to 10 nominees – the Best Picture category has featured several animated contenders (though the omission of Wall-E in 2008 still rankles), and foreign-language films have garnered recognition in other categories with greater regularity over the past decade (as with quintuple-nominee Amour this year). And I suppose some acknowledgement of these achievements, even if it brands them as "other" movies, is preferable to ignoring them entirely. Still, I can't help but view these categories, at least in principle, as vulgar consolation prizes, complete with a note from the Academy that reads, "Thank you for submitting your minor work for our consideration, and please accept this token Oscar – now leave the room so the adults can finally talk."

Such is life. In the meantime, these categories are here, and unless the Manifesto's readership suddenly multiplies by several million, there's no indication that they're disappearing any time soon. As such, we soldier on with our predictions.


BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

NOMINEES
Brave
Frankenweenie
Paranorman
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph

WILL WIN
This is a two-movie race, plain and simple, between Brave and Wreck-It Ralph. The argument for Brave is that it was marginally more popular with the public, as it raked in $237 million at the box office, while Wreck-It Ralph was forced to settle for a measly $185 million. That said, there isn't a pure correlation here between box-office supremacy and Oscar gold, as past winners Rango, Happy Feet, and Spirited Away can attest. The more relevant metric is critical appreciation, and while Wreck-It Ralph may not have been as beloved as prior victors such as Toy Story 3 and Ratatouille, it's still generally viewed as a triumph, whereas notices for Brave were warm but not ecstatic. The burly brawler holds off the spirited redhead.





SHOULD WIN
Frankenweenie and Paranorman are strikingly similar films, as both focus on outcast youths who must suddenly become saviors of their endangered communities. They're also both disappointments, beginning with promise and flavorful characters before lapsing into dull, loud, generic action sequences. Of the two, Paranorman is more fully realized, but neither escapes the sensation of unfulfilled potential. The Pirates! Band of Misfits, meanwhile, is playful and humorous, but it ultimately feels more like a sketch comedy that strains when stretched to feature length.

It says something about the extraordinary heights to which the Pixar brand has ascended that Brave can be viewed a relative failure. A pleasant, familiar tale of a plucky heroine desperate to forge her own identity, Brave admittedly lacks the spark and ingenuity of past Pixar greats. But it is by no means a bad movie. Visually breathtaking even by Pixar's standards – watch the curls of Merida's flaming red hair bob and bounce as she rushes through the Scottish countryside – it also functions as a resounding reminder of the limitless possibilities of animation. Many scenes in the movie's second half, in which a fearsome-looking bear behaves in a decidedly un-fearsome manner, are milestones of physical comedy and grace, and they elevate an otherwise traditional story into a new-age marvel.

Still, Wreck-It Ralph is my winner here. Nearly as magnificent-looking as Brave – the gorgeous, wild environments within the film are all lovingly detailed – it sets itself apart with its screenplay, a wonderfully inventive work of whimsy and surprise. A quest story set inside an ingeniously designed universe, the movie makes sly thematic points even as it unveils one breathtaking sight after another. As the imperatives of its genre demand, Wreck-It Ralph is noisy and flashy, but it is also sharp of mind and pure of heart.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Brave
The Secret World of Arrietty
Wreck-It Ralph

Not the strongest year for animation, but these three pictures are various degrees of enchanting. Brave is visually spell-binding, while Wreck-It Ralph is ceaselessly funny and inventive, but The Secret World of Arrietty is pure magic, a tender, heart-wrenching tale of friendship and survival in a big, scary, all-too-real world.

My ideal winner: The Secret World of Arrietty.





BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

NOMINEES
Amour
Kon-Tiki
No
A Royal Affair
War Witch

WILL WIN
No need to get fancy here. I've heard positive rumblings about No, and costume dramas such as A Royal Affair always play well with a broad contingent of the Academy. But here's a simple stat: No movie ever nominated for Best Picture has lost in this category. Picking against Amour is just foolish.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Amour
Headhunters
The Kid with a Bike
Miss Bala
Rust and Bone

I can't complete my "Should Win" field, as I've only seen one of the Academy's nominees due to lack of theatrical distribution, but that doesn't mean 2012 didn't offer a number of stellar subtitled pictures. Amour is a worthy Oscar winner, and its shattering tale of resilient love and protracted death is made all the more painful through Michael Haneke's restrained, fiercely unsentimental approach. Headhunters is a crackerjack thriller that never stops entertaining. The Kid with a Bike, being a Dardenne Brothers film, considers human frailty and compassion with an unadorned style as quiet as it is powerful. Miss Bala uses similarly deliberate and technically accomplished means in order to achieve far more explosive and kinetic ends. Rust and Bone flatly refuses to pander to its audience in crafting a deeply moving story of loss and redemption.

My ideal winner: Headhunters.

Also deserving: Declaration of War (for its unflinchingly honest look at scared-shitless parents); Farewell, My Queen (for its ravishing beauty); The Flowers of War (for fearlessly finding dignity within depravity); Goodbye First Love (for examining love and heartbreak with clarity rather than sentimentality); In Darkness (for telling a compelling story, no matter how clichéd); Michael (for examining human ugliness with clinical detachment); Sleepless Night (for earning its title by never releasing its foot from the gas pedal).





BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

NOMINEES
5 Broken Cameras
The Gatekeepers
How to Survive a Plague
The Invisible War
Searching for Sugar Man

WILL WIN
O.K., here's where I declare myself a gigantic hypocrite, especially in light of my holier-than-thou introduction to this post. I don't watch documentaries. It's the one class of movies that I'm simply incapable of enjoying. It has nothing to do with their content; it's that, if there isn't an element of artifice involved, I can't engage. Now, let me be clear: This failing is entirely mine. I do not dispute that the documentary is a perfectly valid form of filmmaking and that many documentaries are objectively good. I just can't watch them. Sorry.

Anyway, because I haven't seen any of the nominees, predicting the winner here is a bit tricky. That said, the buzz on Searching for Sugar Man has been strong, and it just won at the BAFTAs, so I see no point in going against the grain.

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).