Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oscars 2014: The Little Techies (Best Animated Feature, Best Costume Design, and more)

With the Oscars airing on Sunday, and with the Manifesto having finally wrapped up its rankings of every 2014 release, it's time to get down to brass tacks and analyze the 21 feature categories. We'll begin with the technical categories. This post will cover "the little guys"—the fields you probably don't care that much about but that nevertheless recognize important contributions to a movie's overall worth.


BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

NOMINEES
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

WILL WIN
The LEGO Movie. Guh. But with the year's most critically and commercially successful animated film mysteriously missing the cut, there's a bit of intrigue to be found here. The Boxtrolls has its admirers, but in all likelihood, this will come down to a battle between two studio-backed heavy hitters in Fox's How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Disney's (not Pixar's, as my friend Katie chastised me last month) Big Hero 6. The former is arguably at a disadvantage because it's a sequel, whereas the latter is an original production (in case you're confused, Big Hero 6 is not the sixth installment in the "Big Hero" franchise). In the brief 13-year history of this category, the only retread to win the award is Toy Story 3 (defeating the original How to Train Your Dragon, in point of fact), and that was also a Best Picture nominee—How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn't operating with that level of cachet. Still, it's a more classically beautifully and stirring film than the fun but familiar Big Hero 6, and I'm guessing voters will respond to its childlike sense of wonder. How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes it.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The LEGO Movie
The Wind Rises

As infuriated as I was over The LEGO Movie's omission here, the animated pictures that did crack the field are worthy contenders. (Full disclosure: I've yet to see either Song of the Sea or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, a failure I plan to remedy in the near future via Netflix.) Big Hero 6 is a brightly colored adventure with a brilliant invention in the form of Baymax; if it had resisted the urge to cater to an action-hungry marketplace, it could have been something special. The Boxtrolls' main characters are disappointingly ordinary, but it compensates with vivid visuals, terrific villains, and an impressively weird universe. The Wind Rises is similarly strange, a wistful paean to the values of innovation and discovery. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is exhilarating in its airborne sequences, but it's also legitimately frightening in its depiction of danger. None, of course, can compare to the sharp humor and powerful themes of The LEGO Movie, one of my favorite films of the year.

My ideal winner: The LEGO Movie.





BEST COSTUME DESIGN

NOMINEES
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inherent Vice
Into the Woods
Maleficent
Mr. Turner

WILL WIN
This is shaping up to be a fascinating Oscars, not just because there's no clear frontrunner for Best Picture (more on that Friday), but because no technically dominant film is positioned to sweep the crafts categories. Still, if I had to peg one movie to rack up a handful of below-the-line awards, I'd go with The Grand Budapest Hotel. It's a period piece, it's impeccably detailed, and its director is renowned for creating works of painstaking craftsmanship. (It also happens to be really good.) It also won the Best Costume Design award at the BAFTAs, and it just picked up the guild nod last night for period film (Into the Woods won for fantasy work). I'm going to agonize over my predictions in far too many categories at this year's Oscars, but this isn't one of them.

The costumes of "The Grand Budapest Hotel"



SHOULD WIN
Into the Woods is the only nominee here whose presence is undeserved—sure, its costumes are colorful, but there's nothing noteworthy or unifying about its design. Mr. Turner has the advantage of putting Timothy Spall in a top hat, though its period evocation isn't nearly as sensuous as the leisure suits and hippie attire of Inherent Vice. The wardrobe design for The Grand Budapest Hotel is undeniably impressive, but even it seems pedestrian compared to the grand costumes of Maleficent, which silently conjure an aura of villainy and despair in their harsh black cloth.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Get On Up
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Maleficent
A Most Violent Year
Snowpiercer

A Most Violent Year is the type of movie that escapes notice in this category, but its muted colors and natty threads are critical to its evocation of a very particular time and place. Get On Up allows us to remember James Brown in all his ostentatious glory. Snowpiercer crams roughly seven different costume motifs into its two hours, with none more eye-catching than that canary-yellow coat amid a train full of coal-smudged laborers.

My ideal winner: Maleficent.

Angelina Jolie in "Maleficent"



BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

NOMINEES
CITIZENFOUR
Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth
Virunga

WILL WIN
From the beginning, this was supposed to be a titanic showdown between CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras' investigation of whistleblower/traitor Edward Snowden, and Life Itself, Steve James' warts-and-all remembrance of legendary film critic Roger Ebert. But, just as happened 20 years ago with James' Hoop Dreams, the Academy forgot to nominate Life Itself. And so, CITIZENFOUR takes this in a walkover.


BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

NOMINEES
Ida
Leviathan
Tangerines
Timbuktu
Wild Tales

WILL WIN
Uh oh. First of all, it's not easy to predict a category when you've only seen 20% of the nominees. (This, I would like to point out, is hardly my fault, as Ida is the only contender that screened in my neighborhood.) Furthermore, apart from Tangerines—and seriously, I have no idea what that movie is—the remaining contenders here are all well-regarded, though Timbuktu appears to be more of a critical darling than an Academy favorite. That means I'm left to choose among Ida, a gentle but devastating Polish drama; Leviathan, a supposedly bruising Russian production; and Wild Tales, an Argentinean favorite that I've heard described as a crowd-pleaser. That latter adjective suggests that Wild Tales is right in the Academy's wheelhouse, but I suspect that in the end, they'll turn to Ida, unable to deny its quiet power. And if I get this wrong, I am more than willing to blame the Academy for refusing to send me screeners despite my repeated telepathic requests.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Bethlehem
Burning Bush
Force Majeure
Ida
Like Father, Like Son

As always, I have no idea whether any of these titles were actually eligible for this year's Oscars, as I have no interest in playing by the Academy's arcane rules. But they were all released domestically in 2014—lucky for us. Bethlehem is a harsh and gripping look at the collateral damage inflicted on the doomed citizens of Israel. Burning Bush is a more patient depiction of entrenched struggle, though it is no less persuasive. Force Majeure is a startling whatsit, a domestic drama disguised as a social comedy that looks and feels like a horror movie. Ida is as sensitive in its emotional catharsis as it is exquisite in its lithesome photography. Like Father, Like Son is a terrifyingly plausible fable, one that raises profound questions about the nature of paternal love.

My ideal winner: Force Majeure.





BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

NOMINEES
Foxcatcher
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy

WILL WIN
Remember what I said about The Grand Budapest Hotel dominating those below-the-line categories? Well, it won this award at the BAFTAs, and it also took home a guild nod. To be fair, Guardians of the Galaxy also scored with the guild, which splits its awards into period and contemporary contenders. (Of course, you could argue that Guardians is even less of a contemporary film than Grand Budapest, given that it takes place in the future in a distant solar system, but no matter.) And between Zoe Saldana's green skin and Dave Bautista's polygonal tattoos, it arguably features more visible makeup work. That said, Grand Budapest is the prestige candidate, and besides, its image of an 84-year-old Tilda Swinton is pretty indelible (though on the rankings of "Indelible Tilda Swinton images of 2014", it comes in at a distant second place—see below). The Grand Budapest Hotel takes another.

Tilda Swinton in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"



MY IDEAL BALLOT
Guardians of the Galaxy
Snowpiercer
Under the Skin

Guardians of the Galaxy earned its nomination, with even subsidiary characters looking like they hail from a particular, far-off world. Snowpiercer makes Tilda Swinton look positively ghoulish, with a set of prosthetic teeth that practically demand their own entry in the credits. (At some point, it's fair to wonder whether Swinton's startling transformations are the work of makeup artists, or whether she is simply a witch who can reconfigure her physical appearance at will.) Under the Skin somehow made blonde bombshell Scarlett Johansson unrecognizable to an entire freaking country.

My ideal winner: Snowpiercer.

Now, remember when we were talking about indelible Tilda Swinton images?

Tilda Swinton in "Snowpiercer"



BEST ORIGINAL SONG

NOMINEES
Begin Again—"Lost Stars" (Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois)
Beyond the Lights—"Grateful" (Diane Warren)
Glen Campbell... I'll Be Me—"I'm Not Gonna Miss You" (Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond)
The LEGO Movie—"Everything Is Awesome" (Shawn Patterson, feat. Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island)
Selma—"Glory" (John Legend and Common)

WILL WIN
This category is oddly being positioned as "The Battle of the Snubs". In one corner, there's The LEGO Movie, which—and stop me if you've heard this before—inexplicably failed to garner a nomination for Best Animated Feature. In the other, there's Selma, which did land a Best Picture nod but failed to score in other high-profile categories where it was highly regarded. Will voters experiencing remorse for shutting out The LEGO Movie use this category as an opportunity to atone? Possibly, but the outrage over Selma is just as loud, and its entry is far more topical (and has been more heavily promoted) than Tegan and Sara's radio-friendly hit. "Glory" takes the trophy, meaning Selma can at least call itself an Academy Award-winning film; something tells me that's small consolation to Ava DuVernay.


SHOULD WIN
I'd never even heard of Glen Campbell... I'll Be Me until an hour ago, so I'll have to abstain there. Otherwise, because these are the Oscars, I approach this category not just in terms of the music but in how that music integrates itself into the film. That's why "Lost Stars" is a curious fit here. It's a fine song, and Adam Levine's falsetto is affecting, especially in combination with a thumping bass line. The problem is that, in the context of Begin Again, this anthemic version of "Lost Stars" is a vulgar desecration from its original form, which was designed to be whispery and quietly sincere. The whole point of "Lost Stars" is that it didn't want to be an Academy Award nominee—it wasn't supposed to be engineered for mass appeal. As a result, its presence here means either that voters missed the point or that Begin Again itself failed in its near-mystical veneration of musical whimsy.

But at least "Lost Stars" actually appears in Begin Again; both "Glory" and "Grateful" pop up over their respective film's closing credits. That doesn't make them bad songs, but it also highlights the superfluous nature of this category, a field that seems more designed to boost ratings for the Oscars' telecast than it does to pay homage to greatness in film. Perhaps I should brush past my philosophical concerns and simply support the best piece of music, but I want the songs to serve the movies, not the other way around.

Thankfully, "Everything Is Awesome" isn't just incorporated into The LEGO Movie—it's absolutely essential to the film's thematic success. It helps that the song is an undeniable earworm; it may not be all that musically sophisticated, but Tegan and Sara's vocals are bouncy and enjoyable, and its chorus will ring in your ears for days. More importantly, it will make you recall The LEGO Movie's sly message about the perils of mindless conformity. Now that's an Oscar winner.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Big Eyes—"Big Eyes" (Lana del Rey)
The LEGO Movie—"Everything Is Awesome" (Shawn Patterson, feat. Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island)
Muppets Most Wanted—"Interrogation Song" (Bret McKenzie and Paul Roemen)

"Big Eyes" is a sudden and surreal contribution from Lana del Rey, who enhances the film's strange mood with her sultry vocals and gentle piano. "Interrogation Song" is one of the rare moments in Muppets Most Wanted that feels inspired, with Ty Burrell and Sam the Eagle turning a jailhouse Q&A into an enchantingly idiotic duet.

My ideal winner: Muppets Most Wanted—"Interrogation Song" (Bret McKenzie and Paul Roemen).





BEST SOUND EDITING

NOMINEES
American Sniper
Birdman
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Interstellar
Unbroken

WILL WIN
Gravity. No? OK, how about Inception? Dammit. But the sound categories are so much harder to predict when there isn't a technically dominant juggernaut in the midst. I'm comfortable crossing off The Hobbit and Unbroken, but any of the remaining three could put up a fight. When in doubt, though, the war movie is always a safe bet in the sound fields, so I'll go with American Sniper.

MISSING
I wasn't quite as taken with The Babadook as some, but its sound design is ingenious, forcing you to constantly strain your ears for the slightest whisper of an intruder, then to cover them in terror when things suddenly go boom.


BEST SOUND MIXING

NOMINEES
American Sniper
Birdman
Interstellar
Unbroken
Whiplash

WILL WIN
The Academy has honored the same film in both sound categories in four of the past five years, so if I'm picking American Sniper for Sound Editing, I should probably double down here. The complicating factor is that musicals fare well in the Mixing field; past winners include Les Misérables, Dreamgirls, and Ray. Whiplash isn't a musical, but it's sufficiently embroiled in the musical arts that voters might take notice. Nevertheless, I'll stick with the big, loud war movie in American Sniper.

MISSING
It's disappointing that, given the Academy's predilection for honoring musicals here, it failed to recognize the stellar mixing of Get On Up, which flawlessly dubbed James Brown's vocals into its numerous concert scenes.

Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper"



That wraps up the little guys. Click here for the Manifesto's analysis of the big techies.

No comments: