Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Oscars 2013: Feeling Gravity's Pull

For such a critically and commercially successful film, Gravity has become weirdly polarizing. One camp of viewers seems to have found it technically stunning but narratively lacking, while the other camp was completely seduced by its marriage of jaw-dropping craftsmanship and intimate storytelling. Yet as much discussion as Gravity has generated, few people seem to actively dislike it; those denigrating it tend to frame their feedback as less absolute ("It was a bad movie") than relative ("It was a good movie, but ..."). That's because, ignoring the physicists carping about the film's alleged lack of aeronautical realism, audiences seem to have reached consensus that the technical aspects of Alfonso Cuarón's space thriller are objectively astonishing. People may have quibbled with Gravity's story, but there's no disputing its skill. Or, to cast the debate in the somewhat archaic language of cinematic snobbery: Not everyone necessarily thinks Gravity is a good film, but virtually everyone agrees that it's a good movie.

And this makes its Oscar candidacy absolutely fascinating. The Academy Awards have never been shy about honoring technically superlative features that achieved box-office stardom; Star Wars won six Oscars, while Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Peter Jackson's King Kong, The Matrix, and Inception all won four. Hell, even Avatar and The Bourne Ultimatum—which is about as unpretentious as mainstream movies get—took home three Oscars apiece. But rarely do such smash hits double as high art, and while those seven movies combined for 28 Oscars, exactly zero came in major categories (i.e., Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, or any of the acting fields). So, although the Academy is more than happy to invite fantastical blockbusters to its party, it generally keeps them at the kids' table.

Gravity is different. It's currently neck-and-neck with 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture, and Cuarón is the frontrunner for Best Director. Yet of its 10 nominations, seven pop up in "below-the-line" categories. (Contrast that with American Hustle, which also received 10 nominations but scored seven in major categories.) That means that Gravity—with its unsurpassed and undisputed technical brilliance—is poised to absolutely dominate the 2013 Oscars in a quantitative sense, but it's also prone to being remembered as an also-ran, one of those visually impressive movies that just couldn't compete with the more artful prestige pictures.

Whichever fate you feel Gravity deserves obviously hinges on which of the two aforementioned camps you adhere to. If you're of the "good movie, not good film" school, you'll likely feel comfortable if it scoops up a handful of technical awards and floats off on its way. Yet if you view Gravity as something more than the sum of its interlocking parts—as, say, a spellbinding motion picture that realizes its lofty artistic ambitions through a bravura combination of maximalist craft and minimalist plot—you may well be disappointed if it eventually becomes the big space movie that couldn't.

Regardless, Gravity currently lies in a unique position in Oscar history. Twenty-one movies have won seven or more Oscars, and only one of those (Cabaret) failed to win Best Picture. Yet by my count regardless of its performance in Best Picture, Director, and Actress, Gravity is a serious contender to take home trophies in those seven below-the-line categories in which it's nominated. As such, this post will walk through those seven categories and consider Gravity's relative likelihood of success, as well as challengers to its very strange potential crown. But first, a brief message from the Manifesto's longtime sponsor, R.E.M.:




BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

NOMINEES
The Grandmaster—Philippe Le Sourd
Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki
Inside Llewyn Davis—Bruno Delbonnel
Nebraska—Phedon Papamichael
Prisoners—Roger Deakins

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: High. The very notion of cinematography is being continuously redefined in today's digital landscape, and some purists grumble that the Academy should segregate movies that employ technological wizardry into their own category so that voters can concentrate on more classical examples of pictorial beauty. But the Oscars have happily embraced new-age photography, as the past four winners in this category (Avatar, Inception, Hugo, and Life of Pi) all skillfully blended traditional shooting styles with modern innovation.

Potential challengers: The Grandmaster and Nebraska have no shot. Venerable photographer Roger Deakins somehow still hasn't collected a single Oscar in his remarkable career (this is his eleventh nomination), but his work on Prisoners isn't flashy enough to bump off Gravity. Inside Llewyn Davis might have had a chance if the movie had built some overall momentum, but given that it only received two nominations, that just hasn't been the case.

Official prediction: Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki.

The Manifesto's personal pick:The Grandmaster showcases some impressive, rain-soaked images, but Le Sourd hardly redefines the look of the martial-arts genre the way Zhang Yimou's earlier films did (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). Nebraska's black-and-white photography satisfactorily conveys the bleak, spartan milieu of its Midwestern setting, but Papamichael's style is pretty much point-and-shoot. More effective in expressing tone is Deakins' work on Prisoners, whose chilly palette and severe compositions evoke helplessness and despair. Delbonnel provides a number of haunting shots in Inside Llewyn Davis—when the title character peers through the snow at a wounded animal, you can almost see the fight leaking out of his soul.

But as beautiful as Inside Llewyn Davis frequently is, it didn't drop my jaw the way Gravity did. Certainly, there's a measure of synergy between Lubezki's photography and the stunning work of the V/X crew, but regardless, the film's 3-D camerawork is simply awe-inspiring, and Lubezki (a six-time nominee who's never won) clearly played a major role. Gravity's camera is practically its own character, as it stoically but earnestly floats through space, tracking the movie's flailing astronauts with both intrepid energy and cool dispassion. It's just a camera pointed at some actors, but it's also a cinematic revolution.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki
Inside Llewyn Davis—Bruno Delbonnel
Only God Forgives—Larry Smith
Spring Breakers—Benoît Debie
12 Years a Slave—Sean Bobbitt

Only God Forgives was among my least favorite films of the year, but Smith's lighting is objectively gorgeous, bathing the proceedings in nightmarish red hues. Debie takes things a step further in Spring Breakers, providing a gauzy, neon-drenched aesthetic that's in perfect keeping with the movie's hedonistic zeal. Bobbitt's disciplined shooting style conforms beautifully with Steve McQueen's rigor, as his camera observes the brutality of 12 Years a Slave with heartbreaking detachment.

My ideal winner: Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki.




BEST FILM EDITING

NOMINEES
American Hustle—Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
Captain Phillips—Christopher Rouse
Dallas Buyers Club—John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa
Gravity—Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger
12 Years a Slave—Joe Walker

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: Moderate. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Best Picture winner trumps here, but the numbers don't bear that out; in the past 15 years, the same film has scooped both trophies just seven times. So even if you're leaning toward 12 Years a Slave for the top prize, that thinking shouldn't result in a concordant bump here. Furthermore, Gravity runs a tidy and economical 90 minutes, and voters may respond to its impressive self-discipline.

Potential challengers: Captain Phillips won the guild award, so it's possible that the frantic cutting and deepening suspense of Paul Greengrass' film will appeal to the Academy (one of Greengrass' prior efforts, The Bourne Ultimatum, stunned No Country for Old Men in this category in 2007). 12 Years a Slave obviously possesses a classical Best Picture pedigree, though Steve McQueen's mercilessly long takes may not feature enough visible editing for voters to take notice. American Hustle is likely too scattered in its plotting to make an impact here. As for Dallas Buyers Club, after its nomination was announced in this category, it received 30 days to live, and its time is up.

Official prediction: Gravity—Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger.

The Manifesto's personal pick: I enjoyed American Hustle quite a bit, but it could have benefited from an extra pair of pruning shears, as its boundless energy occasionally threatens to overwhelm its narrative. Dallas Buyers Club's nomination here simply mystifies me; perhaps I would view it more charitably if the editors had simply piped up at the beginning of production, "Hey, should we just cut Jennifer Garner?" 12 Years a Slave flirts with nonlinear storytelling in its early passages, but it quickly settles into an episodic rhythm, and its editing is less extraordinary than effective.

Captain Phillips and Gravity are obviously very different films, but they share a significant similarity in that they're both about a protagonist placed in an impossible situation and facing long odds for survival. Gravity is more operatic in its ambition and execution, but from an editing standpoint, Captain Phillips is more persuasive. It also benefits from a quantitative advantage—whereas Gravity is mostly a one-woman show, Captain Phillips involves multiple settings and characters—and as it skillfully pivots from a pitiful lifeboat to a glowering warship and back, the sudden-but-precise cross-cutting heightens the tension dramatically. Not bad for a movie about a guy sitting on a boat.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Captain Phillips—Christopher Rouse
Disconnect—Lee Percy, Kevin Tent
Gravity—Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger
Her—Jeff Buchanan, Eric Zumbrunnen
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—Greg Hayden

Disconnect takes a trite everything-is-connected trope and sharpens it through canny editing, lending haunting impact to its title. Her features not a wasted shot. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty adroitly blends mundane reality with souped-up fantasy.

My ideal winner: Disconnect—Lee Percy, Kevin Tent.




BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

NOMINEES
The Book Thief—John Williams
Gravity—Steven Price
Her—William Butler, Owen Pallett (aka Arcade Fire)
Philomena—Alexandre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks—Thomas Newman

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: Moderate-to-high. Price's score shifts from minimalist to bombastic, and that fluidity should register with voters. Besides ...

Potential challengers: ... It just doesn't face a legitimate threat. The only movie I see pulling off an upset is Her, but even that seems far-fetched, given the tentative nature of Arcade Fire's subtly evocative score.

Official prediction: Gravity—Steven Price.

The Manifesto's personal pick: I do my best every year to watch every motion picture nominated for an Oscar, but one always seems to slip through the cracks—this year, it was The Book Thief, so I abstain regarding the merits of John Williams' score. Otherwise, this is a disappointing field. Gravity is a sonic marvel, but Price's score tends to hover at extreme ends of the spectrum, either bombarding viewers with noise or hushing them with quiet. Desplat earned his seventeenth nomination for Philomena, but he could have composed it on autopilot. Newman's score is a perfect match for Saving Mr. Banks, which is to say it's syrupy, overbearing, and dreadful.

Thankfully, the Academy recognized Arcade Fire's gorgeous work on Her. It isn't particularly showy music, but its delicate piano and mournful strings beautifully capture the movie's spirit of repressed longing. Score one for pop music.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Her—William Butler, Owen Pallett (aka Arcade Fire)
The Invisible Woman—Ilan Eshkeri
Oblivion—M83
Trance—Rick Smith
12 Years a Slave—Hans Zimmer

Eshkeri makes the most of his scoring time on The Invisible Woman, enhancing the title character's loneliness with a tremulous piano that recalls Dario Marianelli's work on Joe Wright's films. Working as M83, Anthony Gonzalez showcases what electronic music can do in the right setting, crafting bold cinematic soundscapes perfectly suited to Oblivion's dystopian universe. Smith performs a similar feat in the contemporary-aged Trance. Zimmer subdues his typical flourishes on 12 Years a Slave but still delivers a powerful series of compositions.

My ideal winner: Oblivion—M83.


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

NOMINEES
American Hustle
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Her
12 Years a Slave

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: Uncertain. The movie takes place in the vast void of space, so it doesn't exactly lend itself to glitzy sets. That means it's trailing behind ...

Potential challengers: ... The Great Gatsby. Baz Luhrmann's would-be epic is nothing if not lavishly designed. The mansions of West Egg pop with color and architectural boldness, and the restaurants and hotel rooms of New York City are only slightly less dazzling. 12 Years a Slave—with its rustic plantations and brittle farmhouses—can't be discounted either, especially in the wake of last year's surprise win for period-piece Lincoln. But in the end, to paraphrase a pair of famous American authors, movies about rich people are different from you and me: They have more Oscars.

Official prediction: The Great Gatsby.

The Manifesto's personal pick: This award seems to be losing shape for me. Maybe I'm still bitter about Anna Karenina losing last year—scratch that, I'm definitely still bitter—but it seems as though the Academy is just highlighting distinguished period or fantasy films, with little regard as to the actual quality of their production design. American Hustle is a terrific movie, but other than some '70s-specific cars and nightclubs, what's noteworthy about its art direction? Gravity basically has one set, and while its Russian space station is a neat little vessel with some cool buttons, it isn't exactly a jaw-dropper. Even 12 Years a Slave's recreation of the antebellum south is more serviceable than striking.

With that said, I should compliment the Academy on recognizing Her, as its sleek interiors quietly convey a vaguely uncomfortable future in which innovation begets isolation. (Imagine Edward Norton's IKEA-decked apartment from Fight Club, only stretched 50 years into the future.) And The Great Gatsby itself is well deserving of a statuette; watching the movie, you can almost feel the tactile pleasures of its characters' obscene, oppressive wealth. I just wish this award meant more to people.




MY IDEAL BALLOT
The Great Gatsby
Her
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Oblivion

The Desolation of Smaug conjures a number of remarkable environments, none more astonishing than that mountainous lair of glimmering gold. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is less ostentatious but more sinister, and its landmark arena throbs with hidden danger. Oblivion provides a stunning vision of dystopia, with a suspended-in-air pool that encapsulates its world of gorgeous, not-quite-right elegance.

My ideal winner: Oblivion.




BEST SOUND EDITING

NOMINEES
All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lone Survivor

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: High. The Academy's sound awards basically defy logic, but in the end, the technically superior feature usually wins out.

Potential challengers: Lone Survivor is probably the most feasible upset pick—it's loud and employs an awful lot of gunfire. Don't hold your breath.

Official prediction: Gravity.

The Manifesto's personal pick: It's easy to just grudgingly acknowledge that Gravity is a well-crafted movie and then move on, but its sound design is damn impressive. It's entrancing not just in its noise but in its silence, as lingering stretches of quiet are suddenly punctuated by bursts of cacophonous clatter. Watch that storm of debris shooting toward you in 3-D, and you may find yourself not only shrinking in your seat but also instinctively covering your ears.


BEST SOUND MIXING

NOMINEES
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: High. The same movie has won both sound categories in four of the past six years, so there's no real sense in predicting a split.

Potential challengers: Musicals and war movies tend to fare well here, so both Inside Llewyn Davis and Lone Survivor have a nominal chance. Indeed, Inside Llewyn Davis recorded its musical performances live on set, a technique that resulted in Oscar gold last year with Les Misérables. Of course, Les Misérables also had Anne Hathaway.

Official prediction: Gravity.

The Manifesto's personal pick: I was about to point out that Oscar Isaac has a lovely voice in Inside Llewyn Davis, but that reminded me of Bane saying the same thing before blowing up a football stadium in The Dark Knight Rises. Let's just move on.


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

NOMINEES
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

Likelihood of a Gravity victory: Please.

Potential challengers: Nope.

Official prediction: Gravity.

The Manifesto's personal pick: The choice is obvious, but there's something more intriguing going on here. Each of the last four years, one movie has shattered the preexisting ceiling with its visual effects and made us wonder just what else the medium can accomplish. Those four: Avatar, Inception, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (which inexcusably lost in this category to Hugo, but never mind), and Gravity. Here's the interesting question: Where does Gravity rank among those four in terms of its impact on cinema going forward? I'm inclined to place it second. Gravity reaffirms that 3-D can be boldly effective when utilized appropriately, and it illustrates how big-budget filmmaking can double as museum-grade art. But Avatar got there first, and absorbing its exhilarating technique—not just the supple 3-D, but also the graceful motion-capture technology—remains the seminal "Wow!" moment of my adult filmgoing life. But what's wonderful about this trend is that every year seems to offer a new breakthrough, a seismic event that makes us think, "This shouldn't be possible, but I'm watching it anyway." It's enough to make me excited about going to the movies.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Oz the Great and Powerful
Pacific Rim
The World's End

It's tempting to think that Smaug is all about Smaug, but while the titular dragon is a fearsome example of CGI's power, a number of other sequences in the film are equally spectacular. Both Oz the Great and Powerful and The World's End function as refreshing reminders that visual effects can do more than simply assault audiences, especially when employed with subtlety and surprise. There's nothing subtle about the effects in Pacific Rim, but those robots and monsters sure do look the part.

My ideal winner: Gravity.

A scene from "Gravity"


So to sum up, I'm predicting six wins for Gravity in these seven categories. Will I be right, and if so, will that be enough to give it a Best Picture bump? We shall see.


Previous Oscar Analysis

Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song

No comments: