Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Oscars 2016: The big techies; the screenplays

Jennifer Lawrence in "Passengers", a dual Oscar nominee
The Manifesto’s analysis of the 2016 Oscars continues. Yesterday, we checked in on eight different miscellaneous categories. Today, we’re finishing up the technical fields, analyzing five categories that I’m a bit more passionate about. And due to time constraints, we’re also looking at the two screenplay races. Let’s dive in.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

NOMINEES
Arrival—Bradford Young
La La Land—Linus Sandgren
Lion—Greig Fraser
Moonlight—James Laxton
Silence—Rodrigo Prieto

WILL WIN
For casual moviegoers and Oscar-watchers, this year’s awards season has inevitably (and obnoxiously) centered around the question of whether La La Land, the clear Oscar frontrunner, is actually a good movie. (Spoiler: It is.) But for the historians, one key subplot underlying this year’s ceremony is whether La La Land will match (or even surpass) the existing record for Oscar wins, which is currently shared by Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (11 apiece). What’s interesting about La La Land is that, for all its magnificent craftsmanship, it isn’t your typical below-the-line showstopper; it doesn’t have the sheer size of Titanic or Lord of the Rings, nor the bravura special effects work of Gravity (which took home seven trophies despite losing Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave).

Of course, Damien Chazelle’s deceptively wistful throwback musical is a tremendous aesthetic achievement. But beyond that, there isn’t an intimidating technical behemoth to pick in its stead. If La La Land were competing against Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road or Inception, I’d be less inclined to favor it in a technical field such as Best Cinematography. But the other four nominees here are all relatively muted; even Arrival, a nominal science-fiction picture, relies more on obfuscation than showmanship. None is glitzy enough to unseat the favorite. La La Land bags another Oscar.

SHOULD WIN
Both Lion and Moonlight have their distinctive moments—the tunnel scene for the former, the whirling opening shot for the latter—but they lack the consistent craftsmanship of the other three. I’m no fan of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, but it does evoke the depths of its protagonist’s anguish with haunting ethereal beauty. Where Silence capitalizes on the natural world, Arrival uses smoke and shadow to lend its alien beings a tenuous gravitas. But La La Land is just on another level here, the camera swooping and soaring through each scene with precision and grace.

THE MANIFESTO’S BALLOT
Arrival—Bradford Young
The Handmaiden—Chung Chung-hoon
La La Land—Linus Sandgren
The Neon Demon—Natasha Braier
Sunset Song—Michael McDonough

The Handmaiden is a marvel of elegance and poise. The Neon Demon is unwatchable in stretches, but if you can keep your eyes open, its garish images pack some serious pop. Sunset Song harnesses the loveliness of its pastoral location to stunning effect.

The Manifesto’s winner: La La Land—Linus Sandgren

Honorable mention: Café Society—Vittorio Storaro; The Light Between Oceans—Adam Arkapaw.


BEST FILM EDITING

NOMINEES
Arrival—Joe Walker
Hacksaw Ridge—John Gilbert
Hell or High Water—Jake Roberts
La La Land—Tom Cross
Moonlight—Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders

WILL WIN
The foregoing analysis for Best Cinematography essentially applies here as well. The presence of the kinetic and muscular Hacksaw Ridge could raise a red flag, but I still don’t see any of the other contenders unseating La La Land.

SHOULD WIN
Strong group. Each of these nominees is well-paced, with fluid cutting that informs but doesn’t overwhelm. I could easily go with La La Land or Hell or High Water, but I’ll take the arrhythmic and deceptively brilliant editing of Arrival, which amplifies the film’s suspense and sets up its brain-tickling twist.

THE MANIFESTO’S BALLOT
Arrival—Joe Walker
The Handmaiden—Kim Jae-Bum, Kim Sang-beom
Hell or High Water—Jake Roberts
La La Land—Tom Cross
Manchester by the Sea—Jennifer Lame

The omission of Best Picture nominee Manchester by the Sea in this field is a real head-scratcher, given that it patiently arranges its dominos, then levels them, knocking the wind out of you in the process.

The Manifesto’s winner: The Handmaiden—Kim Jae-Bum, Kim Sang-beom.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Jackie—Mica Levi
La La Land—Justin Hurwitz
Lion—Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka
Moonlight—Nicholas Britell
Passengers—Thomas Newman

WILL WIN
La La Land. Don’t overthink this one.

SHOULD WIN
This is a flat field. Most critics adored Levi’s dissonant score for Jackie, but its jaggedness failed to move me; the same is true for Britell’s ragged score for Moonlight. Newman’s work on the underrated Passengers is solid enough—better than the forgettable Lion score—but it’s hardly awards-worthy. These relative weaknesses make it look like I’m taking La La Land by default, but Hurwitz’s terrific score hardly needed the help; it adds tremors of feeling to a movie already brimming with emotion, and it elegantly threads the film’s seasonal structure together, resulting in a cohesive musical identity that becomes all the more powerful when the relationships fracture.

THE MANIFESTO’S BALLOT
Hacksaw Ridge—Rupert Gregson-Williams
The Handmaiden—Jo Yeong-wook
Kubo and the Two Strings—Dario Marianelli
La La Land—Justin Hurwitz
The Light Between Oceans—Alexandre Desplat

Gregson-Williams supplies a robust, triumphant score that’s in keeping with Hacksaw Ridge’s spirit of old-fashioned excess. The Handmaiden’s music is arguably the most beautiful thing about it, which is saying something. Marianelli captures the pluck of Kubo and the Two Strings, as well as its sadness. And Desplat elevates The Light Between Oceans’ syrupy tragedy with a characteristically delicate and moving work.

The Manifesto’s winner: The Handmaiden—Jo Yeong-wook.


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

NOMINEES
Arrival
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
La La Land
Passengers

WILL WIN
OK, here’s where we might finally see a crack in La La Land’s armor. It’s a gorgeous film, but its sets aren’t entirely eye-catching, so I think one of the nominees with a grander scale might pull the upset. Arrival is the only other contender with a Best Picture nomination, but voters don’t necessarily gravitate toward their favorite films here. So I’ll put my money on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—in terms of overall quality, it’s a dramatic step back for the Harry Potter franchise, but its environments are still awfully impressive.

SHOULD WIN
The other four are all fine, but I’ll take the sleek, antiseptic design of Passengers, which brings some technical polish to its sudsy melodrama.

THE MANIFESTO’S BALLOT
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Handmaiden
Nocturnal Animals
Passengers

The visual effects of Doctor Strange are amazing, but that shouldn’t detract from its inventive and impressive design. Nocturnal Animals is a narrative and thematic mess, but it sure looks gorgeous. The Handmaiden should just win everything.

The Manifesto’s winner: The Handmaiden.


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

NOMINEES
Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
The Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

WILL WIN
The computer-generated prowlers of The Jungle Book take this in a walkover.

SHOULD WIN
Don’t get me wrong, the effects of The Jungle Book are spectacular. But they’re more a refinement of existing techniques than a revolutionary expansion of visual storytelling. Doctor Strange, on the other hand, features special effects that redefine what comic-book movies can be. They bend worlds and, in the process, blow minds.

THE MANIFESTO’S BALLOT
Arrival
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Jungle Book
Passengers

Arrival’s low-key effects work is quietly stunning, just like the rest of the film. Passengers’ chaotic final act is overheated, but that gravity-suspension scene in the pool warrants a nomination here all by itself.

The Manifesto’s winner: Doctor Strange.


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

NOMINEES
Arrival—Eric Heisserer
Fences—August Wilson
Hidden Figures—Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder
Lion—Luke Davies
Moonlight—Barry Jenkins, Tarell McCraney

WILL WIN
La La Land. Whoops. So much for our foolproof strategy. But while it’s going up against four other Best Picture nominees, Moonlight seems to be the clear pick here. It was billed as the Oscar favorite for a few months, but it will likely have to settle for this trophy (and perhaps an acting award) as its consolation prize.

SHOULD WIN
Arrival. It’s not close.

THE MANIFESTO’S BALLOT
Arrival—Eric Heisserer
The Handmaiden—Park Chan-wook, Jeong Seo-kyeong
Love & Friendship—Whit Stillman
Moonlight—Barry Jenkins, Tarell McCraney
10 Cloverfield Lane—Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, Damien Chazelle

The screenplay for Love & Friendship really is a work of art. As for 10 Cloverfield Lane, note that Chazelle was involved with two great 2016 movies, not just one. Maybe someday I’ll even forgive him for Grand Piano.

The Manifesto’s winner: The Handmaiden—Park Chan-wook, Jeong Seo-kyeong.


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

NOMINEES
Hell or High Water—Taylor Sheridan
La La Land—Damien Chazelle
The Lobster—Efthymis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos
Manchester by the Sea—Kenneth Lonergan
20th Century Women—Mike Mills

WILL WIN
Whew, I can pick La La Land again. But I’m not going to. This is an exceedingly close race, but my concern is that voters will see music and think “songs” rather than “writing”. That would be foolish, but this category tends to lean dialogue-heavy. That could bode well for Hell or High Water, but I’ll take Manchester by the Sea, which could otherwise walk away from Oscar night empty-handed (depending on how a certain acting race shakes out).

SHOULD WIN
The Lobster. Its premise alone is ingenious, but it’s the way it uses its dystopian future to probe into contemporary romance that really astounds.

THE MANIFESTO’S BALLOT
Hell or High Water—Taylor Sheridan
La La Land—Damien Chazelle
The Lobster—Efthymis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos
The Witch—Robert Eggers
Zootopia—Jared Bush, Phil Johnston

Together, these five screenplays—smart, incisive, and provocative—handily dispense with any argument that cinema is in its death throes. Much like the evil coursing through The Witch, it is very much alive.

The Manifesto’s winner: The Lobster—Efthymis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos.


Tomorrow, we check out the acting categories.

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