Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Oscar Reactions

Well, I did about as well with my predictions as I thought I would - 15/24.

About 5 or 6 of them I really should have known better but I lost objectivity and picked what I wanted to happen instead of what I thought actually would. Waltz, Lawrence, Lee, Terrio - I should have just stuck with them instead of hoping for Lincoln love or Riva to upset. Oh well.

But that's it, that's the year - a few great wins, a few disappointing ones. The only win that I'm really truly upset about because I think it's just flat-out wrong is Argo winning Adapted Screenplay, but whatever. I'll get over it. It will forever bug me that Les Mis has more Oscars than Lincoln, but whatever. I'll get over it.

I'm glad ZDT got something technical, and that Skyfall got more than just Song.

People will continue talking about Roger Deakins now being 0/10 and Thomas Newman being 0/11.

A few people will talk about Alexandre Desplat being 0/4.

Almost no one will mention sound mixing guru Greg P. Russell now being 0/16.

And almost no one even cares that Kathleen Kennedy - Spielberg's producing partner - has now lost all 8 of her nominations for Best Picture. Because apparently this year everyone was all in such a big hurry to give Ben Affleck and George Clooney their second Oscars, and not wanting to give Spielberg another one, that Kennedy goes yet again unrewarded, which is a crime.

So in case anyone is keeping track -

People with Oscars: Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Hudson, Anne Hathaway, Jamie Foxx, Jean Dujardin, Roberto Benigni, Nicholas Cage, Sandra Bullock, Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, Cher, Cuba Gooding Jr., Mira Sorvino, Anna Paquin, Geena Davis, and Goldie Hawn.

People without Oscars: Glenn Close, Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Peter O'Toole, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Amy Adams, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, Liv Ullman, Viola Davis, Robert Altman, Alfred Hitchcock, Emmanuel Lubezki, Roger Deakins, Greg P. Russell, Kevin O'Connell, Joan Allen, Albert Finney, Thelma Ritter, Thomas Newman.

Well, there it is.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

2012 Oscars: Final Predictions

The past few years I've had an approximate success rate of 75% predicting these things - usually about 18 categories correct. I'm not sure I'll do that well this year given the how weird some of these races are, so I'm going to be a bit bolder in some of my picks than usual and hopefully it'll pay off. Probably not. We'll see.

Best Picture: Argo

Best Director: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln - I know some are jumping towards Ang Lee for Life of Pi but I think industry respect will keep Spielberg ahead.

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Best Actress: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour - I correctly predicted Marion Cotillard for the French upset back in 2007, I think it will happen again tonight.

Best Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln - My head says it will be Waltz, and my gut feels De Niro for the upset, but since I'm probably gonna get this wrong no matter what, I'm following my heart and predicting Jones

Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables - even though I'm hoping somehow support fell off during the last weeks of voting and Field can upset, I know better than to predict it.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Tony Kushner, Lincoln - Again, I think industry respect and the fact that this actually deserves to win over Argo will have kept it on enough ballots. I will not be at all surprised to see Chris Terrio win for Argo, but I'm calling Kushner.

Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Best Editing: Argo

Best Cinematography: Life of Pi

Best Production Design: Anna Karenina - This is another where people have started to shift towards Pi, but I think it's still Anna Karenina's to lose, and Lincoln's next in line, not Pi.  I could of course be very wrong.  God help us if Les Miserables wins.

Best Costume Design: Anna Karenina

Best Makeup & Hairstyling: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My head says Les Miserables will probably get this, but I'm going with my gut and the track record of big prosthetic-based stuff winning here.

Best Sound Mixing: Les Miserables. My gut says Skyfall or Pi, but here I'm going with my head.

Best Sound Editing: Life of Pi. I think. Maybe.

Best Visual Effects: Life of Pi

Best Original Score: Life of Pi

Best Original Song: "Skyfall" from Skyfall

Best Foreign Language Film: Amour, but I will not be at all surprised by an upset.

Best Animated Feature: Wreck-It Ralph

Best Animated Short: Paperman

Best Documentary Feature: Searching for Sugarman, but again, The Gatekeepers won't shock me.

Best Documentary Short: Inocente - if not this, then Open Heart

Best Live Action Short: Buzkashi Boys - if not this, then Curfew

So those are my predictions.

If you're counting, I'm calling Beasts of the Southern Wild AND Silver Linings Playbook AND Zero Dark Thirty to go home empty-handed.

Les Mis to go the Dreamgirls route with Sound Mixing and Supporting Actress.

Argo to get only Picture and Editing.

Lincoln and Life of Pi to tie for most wins at 4 apiece.

I'll be happy if I get 16 right. I'm not confident I'll get more, as there are about 10 categories here I'm predicting based on a guess or wishful thinking.

I'll probably be live-tweeting @sl8rlawrence if you'd like to follow along.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

2012 Oscars: Directing and Picture

Okay, final analysis post.

Tomorrow I'll be back with my last-minute, very final predictions (some have them have changed since my initial postings).

Best Director 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

5. David O. Russell - This was a writer's and actor's film, not a director's. Yes, Russell did write it well and he directed his actors well, but I think his work as a director was less substantial than the other nominees.

4. Michael Haneke - I like Haneke's slow and steady pace, and I like his use of sudden, hard-to-watch images to maximize emotional impact. But in Amour, I think that pacing was just a bit too slow and it made for a pretty boring movie.  Fascinating, yes, but boring. This is just personal preference, but I also can't deny that Haneke's fingerprints are all over this movie. It's definitely a director's piece, but that just means its failures should be reflected in a loss here.

3. Benh Zeitlin - A friend posted an article about the subtle racism and glorification of poverty in Beasts, and while there are definitely some things to consider, I think the argument had some flaws. I'll touch on that in a second, though. Zeitlin took a peculiar story and creatively assembled a fun, sad, exciting, frustrating movie out of it.  He expertly handled water, children, and animals (three challenges directors are generally advised to shy away from).  I've seen him accused of "sentimentalizing poverty," but I don't think that's what happened - I think he's telling a fairy tale in a real-world setting, he's asking us to look at the characters and the family dynamic and how tightly they want to hold on to the lives they know. He's not asking us to condone their lifestyle or their acceptance of it, he's just asking us to consider it's importance to them.  That article referenced one critic who praised Wink's parenting skills. Of course, Wink isn't a very good father most of the time, but he's still Hushpuppy's father and they love each other no matter what. This is, I think, Zeitlin's accomplishment - he doesn't sentimentalize anything except what's already sentimental: the very real love and affection flowing through this Bathtub community. It's a very strong debut, and I'm looking forward to what he does next.

2. Ang Lee - The first time I saw Pi, I was floored by the visuals, but not the storytelling. Of course, I loved it anyway because I loved the novel. The second time, I saw past the visuals to the storytelling, and I grew to love the film itself. Ang Lee did what no one thought possible in bringing Pi to the screen, and he also had to deal with water, children, and animals. He balance the real and the fantasy elements of his story and plays with the more malleable aspects of Truth. At first, I didn't feel he kept the "real story" lot device ambiguous enough to keep a debate going, but I changed my mind after watching the movie again. The main reason he's my #2 here is hat I'm not crazy about the way he had Pi delivery his 2nd story at the end of the movie - he seemed too sincere, not flippant enough the way I think he was in the book. It's a small thing, but I think it was a misstep.

1. Steven Spielberg - Lincoln might not be Spielberg's greatest film, but I think time will remember it as part of his top five or so. Spielberg reminded us this year that he still knows how to make a great movie, not just a good movie with great sequences and polished filmmaking. He showed restraint and nuance when he could have sanctified his subject.  He allowed room for the president's moral and even legal doubts about his situation. His casting of almost-kinda-familiar faces was fantastic, as was the inspired use of Alan Shore James Spader to great comedic effect to remind us that even 150 years ago, politics were really silly.  Don't forget Spielberg brought a whole slew of solid performances from those "lesser" actors; not to mention that although Day-Lewis is, well, who he is, even he relied on Spielberg's direction to shape his Lincoln.  Meanwhile Kushner is getting lots of (deserved) praise for his script, but it was a lot of Spielberg's guidance that led Kushner to his structure and tone, and the decision to focus on the legislative process behind the 13th Amendment was also Spielberg's. While this doesn't look or feel quite as quintessentially "Spielberg" as some other ventures, there's no doubt to me that this is his movie through and through, and it's a tremendous success.

Will win: I'm still gonna predict Spielberg, even though there's a strong possibility of Lee for the "upset."
Should win: Spielberg.
Should have been nominated: Ben Affleck. If Affleck had been nominated, I'd have picked him as #1. Argo was, above all else, a director's showcase, and everything that worked about it worked because of Affleck. Keep in mind that I said this before I rant for the next few weeks about how Argo didn't deserve to win best picture.

Best Picture Nominees
I'll keep these relatively short since almost

9. Les Miserables - It's just pretty shoddy filmmaking through and through. A few great acting moments, lots of forgettable acting moments. And yeah, I'll say it, Russell Crowe was my favorite part of the whole thing. He's the only person who made his character interesting and fleshed out, everyone else was just painting by numbers.

8. Zero Dark Thirty - A lot of expertly crafted sequences awkwardly strung together to make an episodic jumble that loses almost all tension until the raid on the compound redeems it.

7. Amour - Like I said above, it's fascinating and moving and haunting and beautifully acted. But it's really boring.

6. Silver Linings Playbook - It's pretty formulaic, honestly, but it steps outside the box just enough to stay interesting and entertaining without getting too predictable. It's a nice film, a good film, an interesting film. Not a great one.

5. Argo - It's good. It's maybe even great. But it loses it's luster and I think it's historical gaffs are more problematic than Lincoln's or Zero Dark Thirty's. It's riveting, in a way, but ultimately doesn't really say or do anything that interesting.  It's well-crafted, but fluff. It's going to win and will join the ranks of The Artist, The King's Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire as unoffensive, heart-warming, easy to like, but ultimately insubstantial Best Picture winners.

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild - I briefly addressed some of the complaints regarding this film above. I don't feel like getting into it more. It was a lovely, creative, moving movie that I don't believe asks anything more of us than to simply consider Hushpuppy. To consider her life and what she feels and why she feels it. It's more fairy tale than film, and it's certainly not reality. Anyone who judges it based on "real life" is setting themselves up for frustration from the start. If you want a story, well here's a good one.

3. Django Unchained - It's just flat-out one of the most entertaining movies of the year. It's funny, it's graphic, it's uncomfortable and exciting. It's about fifteen minutes too long, yes, but long movies always feel shorter a 2nd time, and by the 3rd the good times just fly by. Great acting and writing, and personally I think that it tackles subjects of violence and slavery in a unique way, by treating them as subjects and not issues. This isn't a think piece, it's not a discourse, it's pure emotion. You feel what's right and wrong, you feel what has to happen and what can't happen and what shouldn't happen, and hope it plays out right. A few peculiar directing choices aside, Django was some of the best storytelling and filmmaking of the year.

2. Life of Pi - I pretty much address my praises of the film throughout all the categories and especially with Lee above. I think it misses out on a bit of Martel's wonderful prose, and I think the final scenes are a tiny bit too straightforward, but it's a movie that I will go back to many times. Each time I will love looking at it, and each time I think I'll love thinking my way through it again. I still don't know what to believe, but I know which story I prefer.

1. Lincoln - Of the nominees, I think this is the movie that uses the most expertly crafted filmmaking elements and brings them together to the greatest whole film. I personally didn't find a second of it dull or uninteresting, I didn't find a single performance to be out of place, and I think it's a movie that we'll go back to for decades to remind ourselves that America has always been a mess, and that there are always people on the wrong side of history, but there will always be people on the right side of it too, and there's always reason to hope that we'll get where we're going eventually.

Will win: Argo
Should win: Lincoln
Should have been nominated: The Master, Cloud Atlas, The Impossible, The Sessions, and the best movie of the year, Holy Motors.

Friday, February 22, 2013

2012 Oscars: Performances

Okay. All the acting categories. Let's go.

Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

5. Jacki Weaver - Okay, I'll concede that it's a very good performance, despite the fact that you hardly notice it. She's the worried mom always in the background trying to keep everyone calm and happy and protect her children from sad things in life. In other words, she's a mom. But with such little dialogue and being constantly upstaged by her castmates... yeah, she didn't deserve this nomination and everyone knows it.

4. Anne Hathaway - I know she's going to win. That's fine, whatever. She absolutely nailed "I Dreamed a Dream," you'll get no argument from me there, and if that was her only scene in the whole movie, maybe she'd get my vote. But it wasn't, and she was really bad in all her other scenes. She was an over the top, scenery chewing, begging for awards, crying, coughing, dying mess. It was pouty, it was silly, and worst of all it was false.

3. Amy Adams - This was kind of a thankless, subtle role overshadowed by two powerhouse male ego-driven performances from Hoffman and Phoenix, but Adams had an intensity that was simultaneously comforting and terrifying. I haven't seen the film a 2nd time, but I suspect that her performance will resonate more and more with repeat viewings.

2. Helen Hunt - She broke my heart. Simple as that, I felt her sadness so deeply, but I understood her code so completely, and the tension between them was devastating. This was a remarkable piece of acting. Hunt is probably really a tie for my pick with...

1. Sally Field - I know some people found her annoying or unnecessary, but I think she walked a tightrope between grief, insanity, and saavy First Lady that would have thrown almost any other actress off balance. She was funny and crazy and smart and sad and noble, and she did it all in just about 15 minutes. People don't realize that Field had less screen time than anyone, not Weaver or Hathaway. But people only remember Hathaway's 3 minute song, and Field she gave a meatier performance so I think people just assume she was there more. 

Will win: Anne Hathaway
Should win: Field or Hunt
Should have been nominated: Kerry Washington, Django Unchained

Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

This is one of the most unpredictable races this year. They're all good performances, they're all previous Oscar winners, 3 of them have the Harvey Weinstein "I don't care if it's really the best as long as it wins" campaign powerhouse behind of them. I'll make a list based solely on the quality of the performance, but personally I would ignore Hoffman and Waltz when voting because they're really lead performances and don't belong in this category over other deserving supporting performances.

5. Alan Arkin - He just had a bunch of good one-liners and brought some personality to the role, but he wasn't more deserving of a nomination than his castmates John Goodman or Bryan Cranston. This is a dull filler nomination that got swept in on the movie's coattails. 

4. Robert De Niro - This is actually a very good performance. There's a lot of restraint, and it's actually very funny (which people often forget De Niro is... he's very funny.) But there's an intense anger below the surface as well, a quirky physicality to the character, and the range of emotion on display is impressive. My gut is getting this weird feeling that De Niro will pull an upset here, and I wouldn't totally mind that.

3. Christoph Waltz - This performance definitely feels a bit familiar given Waltz's last win for Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, but while we've heart that bouncy, articulate cadence with Tarantino's dialogue from Hans Landa, we haven't seen this character. Where Landa had an ice-cold heart devoted only to his own sense of control over his surroundings, Dr. Schultz is indifferent towards criminals' - he's out for his bounty, after all - but has a softness deep down, a gentle confusion over slavery and brutality over innocents for brutality's sake. Landa would have never flinched so uncomfortably at the sight of dogs ripping apart a Jew - this is definitely a different performance, and very nearly as good.

2. Tommy Lee Jones - Brilliant delivery of Kushner's words, and a strong sense of who his character is, what kind of power and influence he has, and deep down in his eyes you can see that he always knows his motivation as well - it's more clear during a 2nd viewing. It's a wonderful performance and I hope Jones wins.

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman - Based solely performance quality, Hoffman is best here. He is a perfect foil for Phoenix, who I believe was forced to up his game due to the heavyweight class of his contender.  While he has less screen time than Phoenix, his presence is just as felt, just as memorable, and in many ways I believe his character is more complex. That said, I think this is a co-lead performance, so while I think it's the best acting in this category, I'm not sure I can get behind it for a win.

Will win: My brain says Waltz, but my gut says De Niro. In this category, I'm going with my head and predicting Waltz.
Should win: Jones
Should have been nominated: Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained; Tom Holland, The Impossible; Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild - instead of Arkin, Waltz, and Hoffman. And I'm torn on whether or not DiCaprio in Django should replace De Niro. Maybe. Time will tell which performance is best remembered... I suspect DiCaprio and Django will be remembered and studied and viewed for much longer than Silver Linings Playbook.

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

5. Naomi Watts - This is a great performance. The only problem is that about halfway through the movie her character gets on a hospital bed and pretty much lies around and groans the rest of the movie - in many ways this is practically a supporting role. So it's hard for me to pick it over more "lead" performances. That said, it's a great movie and amazing acting, so find it and watch it.

4. Jessica Chastain - Again, this is great acting. I'm not crazy in love with the movie, but I get that Chastain did something special in bringing Maya to life... most of the time. Other times I felt she had no personality, no history, really no character. Maybe that's intentional, and she's supposed to be a kind of a 2-dimensional figure who's main trait is her drive and her obsession. In that case, the performance works. Unfortunately in that case, it's also a boring performance. Did Chastain really do anything that a dozen or so other actress couldn't do just as well? I'm not convinced. 

3. Jennifer Lawrence - I love her so much, I want to be best friends, I think she's going to keep on doing amazing things and making amazing movies. But as great as she was most of the time in Silver Linings Playbook, there were just a handful of moments when I thought she lost the character. In interviews she's admitted that when she first started with the role she couldn't figure who Tiffany really was, and I think that shows every now and then. She won't be an undeserving winner, but she won't be remembered as the most deserving either.

2. Emmanuelle Riva - She shows a lot of control and subtlety in her aging/sickness/dying. (Hathaway could have learned a thing or two.) I think the movie is alright and all, but she really makes it work. The early scene with her first stroke, there really is just nothing going on in her head, you can't see a single sign of life or mind in her eyes, they're just completely blank. It's remarkable actually, the more I think back on it.

1. Quvenzhane Wallis - I know she's young, and maybe she wasn't "acting" so much as just reading lines in a fierce kind of way, but you know what? Haters gonna hate. I completely bought her as Hushpuppy, she had a childish attitude but behind it was a very adult understanding of life and loss. She just made me feel for her - I never thought about what I was watching, like I did with Chastain, Lawrence and even Riva to a lesser extent. I just felt

Will win: Lawrence. Some are predicting a Riva upset, which would be cool, but I think Weinstein and the massive campaign for SLP doesn't let it slip away from Lawrence.
Should win: Wallis
Should have been nominated: I haven't seen the films yet, but I'm sure Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone and Rachel Weisz in Deep Blue Sea were remarkable per usual.

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

5. Jackman - Honestly, no business being here. He was incredibly uneven and he never seemed very sure of his character. His eyes were constantly searching around like he was thinking, "Hmm, how should I sing this line here?" And actually, oddly, I felt that a lot of his care for Cosette was out of obligation more than actual love. He just went through the motions. 

4. Cooper - Cooper's a really good actor, and I'm glad people are noticing it. But this isn't an award for "Best performance proving to us that you're actually worth something," it's for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Cooper doesn't belong here.

3. Washington - One of Denzel's best in years. A extremely careful character exploration, he's weak-willed and strong-willed at the same time, he's dependent and independent in the same moment. Really great acting that probably could win in almost any other year.

2. Phoenix - He built a character from the ground up, and actually fooled me into thinking that Freddie Quell was a complex character. But when I realized that he really isn't a complicated human being after all, I couldn't really say he deserves to win here. Freddie is obsessed with sex. And that's really about it. It's not more complicated than that, he just wants to get drunk and stick his dick in things. And props to Phoenix (and Anderson) for making that into a fascinating character, but I'm convinced there's not a whole lot more than that going on here. That doesn't mean it's some of the most brilliant acting we're likely to ever see, though.

1. Day-Lewis - Because really, he's the best this year. He navigates through Lincoln's personal grief, his moral obligations, and his professional duties with strong emotion, logic, and control. But he also gives us just the slightest hint that at any moment he might lose his grip on any of those. He's just amazing, and although many will argue for Phoenix deserving the upset, I don't think there was a finer performance this year than this one.

Will win: Day-Lewis
Should win: Day-Lewis
Should have been nominated: John Hawkes, The Sessions, and Denis Lavant for Holy Motors. Seriously. Denis Lavant. Check that movie out, it's astounding. And you know what? I'd even nominated Tom Hanks for Cloud Atlas. Deal with it.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

2012 Oscars: Foreign, Documentary, and Shorts

These are the categories in which I haven't seen all of the nominees, so rather than ranking the films I'll just discuss each award and hopefully the commentary should move quickly.

Tomorrow I'll break down all the acting categories.

Foreign Language Film Nominees
A Royal Affair
War Witch

Of these, I've seen Amour, A Royal Affair, and War Witch.  A Royal Affair was a beautiful costume drama, based on the true story of the affair between the Queen of Denmark and the king's personal physician. It was beautiful shot, costumed, and acted... but once the actual affair begins, the rest of the movie just seems like a predictable, inevitable downward spiral. It loses a lot of tension. Amour is good, great even, but it's awfully slow, and I wonder if there's really something all that original there. My favorite was definitely War Witch, about a young girl who becomes a child soldier. There was a fantastic element of magical realism, the performances were heartbreaking, and I felt like the movie actually had something to say about the relationship between innocence and violence. Plus it wasn't nearly as action-driven as this trailer lets on, it was much more restrained than all that.

These are all categories where voters have to have seen all the nominees in order to vote. Amour is far and away the front-runner, but that could just be because it's the one most pundits have seen. Whenever I've seen people state their preferences, the picks are all across the board.

Will win: Amour. I'll still predict it, but do not be surprised by another one of those upsets we've seen so often in this category.
Should win: War Witch
Should have been nominated: How could I even know?

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

The only one I haven't seen is The Gatekeepers. Last year, it was the one film with a late release that I hadn't seen that ended up winning. I doubt that will happen here - Searching for Sugar Man will probably win this no problem. And it's very good. I thought How to Survive a Plague was interesting in some ways but dull in many others. The Invisible War sheds light on some pretty big problems with sexual abuse in the military and 5 Broken Cameras was a fascinating look at the life of a non-violent Palestinian town. These are all good films - but none of them really made me jump up and down. Sugar Man has the most off-beat, peculiar subject matter, so sure, I'll say it can win.

Will win: Searching for Sugar Man
Should win: Sugar Man or The Invisible War
Should have been nominated: I haven't seen many other docs this year, but there's always several that miss the cut here - look them up from people who know more about it.

Live Action/Documentary Short Films
I had the opportunity to see these nominees when they came to a nearby theater, but money and time prevented me from taking that opportunity. I'll update with actual predictions based on what I can figure out closer to Sunday.

Animated Short Film Nominees
Adam and Dog
Fresh Guacamole
Head Over Heels
The Longest Daycare

I've not seen Adam and Dog or Head Over Heels. The Longest Daycare is basically a short episode of The Simpsons - it's clever and fun to watch, but do we really need to give the Simpson guys an Oscar? Fresh Guacamole is also fun, but not really substantial. Paperman is the frontrunner here - but again, that's the one nominee that probably everyone has seen because it's Disney, it showed before Wreck-It Ralph screenings, and they released it online a few weeks ago. The voters have to have seen all five, so who's seen the two I haven't? I've seen trailers, and I have to say that Adam and Dog looks beautifully animated, and it's a story about man's best friend...  I wouldn't be shocked to see it upset here. Paperman is pretty and cute and sweet... but it's also not exactly new. In fact, the "boy sees girl in opposite buildings" setup looked to me like it practically ripped off this other short film, "Signs," that I rather enjoy:

So... although it's lovely and deserving, I'm not exactly crazy about it the way some people are.

Will win: Paperman - again, I'm predicting conservatively for now, but look out for a spoiler.
Should win: Based on the trailer alone, I'd almost argue Adam and Dog
Should have been nominated: Again, no clue.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

2012 Oscars: Original and Adapted Screenplays

There are an awful lot of categories this year with no clear winner (score, the sound awards, cinematography could surprise, supporting actor is way up in the air). Even many awards with frontrunners have a 2nd or 3rd option close behind. The frontrunners appear to be Argo and Django with Lincoln and ZDK as spoilers, respectively. But we could also see SLP and Amour win these... I'm not sure either writing category can be considered a "lock" at this point, but who really knows?

Sorry I haven't taken the time to get photos and video clips, but it's crunch time and I just wanna get this stuff out there.

Best Original Screenplay Nominees
Amour - Michael Haneke
Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino
Flight - John Gatins
Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty - Mark Boal

5. Flight - This was clearly a filler nomination. Not a bad screenplay by any means, but overshadowed by the style of the filmmaking and the quality of performances. That said, I think that way this film tackled alcoholism was even more fascinating than a movie like Young Adult, despite the risks it takes in addressing the disease head on. It avoided movie-of-the-week cheeseball stuff, so I don't mind that it made the cut. Made the cut over The Master? Eh...maybe not.

4. Amour - This was a nice movie, but Haneke's strengths really seem to be as a director. Sometimes I felt like I was watching the same scene over and over again. They were varied slightly, to move the story along just slightly, and that worked most of the time. But if a different director had taken this screenplay, and made a 90-minute movie instead of a 2-hour movie (which seems plausible given the scant amount of material to work with), would we still be praising the screenplay? I'm not convinced.

3. Zero Dark Thirty - This is the screenplay giving Tarantino the most competition right now, and coming off a WGA win, it may very will win the Oscar as well. (It's hard to say, given Django wasn't eligible for the WGA award.) While I wasn't crazy about the film, I'm not sure that's the screenplay's fault. The movie was too episodic - too jumpy - was that the screenplay's lack of organic transitions through time? Or was it Bigelow's directing that pushed from event to event? A combination? I'm honestly not sure. I think my biggest problem with the screenplay is the fact that I really don't find Maya - the lead character - very interesting. We know we has one singular obsession, that she has an ambivalent relationship with torture, and that she's got a strong will and mind to back up her emotions. But... is that a character, really? Or is it just a collection of a traits designed to push a story forward?

And I won't lie, I still a have a grudge against Mark Boal for his totally undeserving win for The Hurt Locker in 2009. He doesn't need another one.

2. Moonrise Kingdom - This movie was just delightful and charming and wonderful to behold. Anderson's directing and always unique look elevates it visually, and the performances are all off-beat and perfect, frequently showing us new sides to actors we thought we knew completely. The way the screenplay handles young romance is delicate, and at moments uncomfortable, but underneath all the quirky Wes Anderson-ness of it all, it's honest to its core. But I submit the same challenge here that I posed with Amour - give this screenplay to a different director, and is it still the screenplay that shines? Maybe it's not fair to separate a writer/director's writing from his directing but these are different categories after all, so I'm not sure this is the screenplay that quite deserves to win.

1. Django Unchained - I had a few issues with this movie as well, but those were limited almost entire to directorial choices. I think this screenplay passes the test I've used - give this screenplay to a different director and I suspect the movie would still work. It would be different, but it could be nearly as good as long as it was well-cast and the director has just the right amount of crazy. (I hesitate to ask, but without Tarantino behind the camera, could it have been an even better movie?) The movie could have been shorter, but that's an editing problem not a writing one. Some of the characters are archetypical, but that fits in with Django's mythological themes. Most of the characters are remarkably fleshed out. The dialogue, as always, is fascinating and intelligent and disarming. This seems like the most deserving winner to me and I suspect it will keep the momentum until Sunday.

Will win: Django Unchained
Should win: Django Unchained
Should have been nominated: The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson. Regardless of one's opinions of the movie, it was a fascinating character study. I know people who hated the movie once they got outside the theater, but while they were inside they couldn't take their eyes off the screen. Also, NOT Looper, which I applaud for originality, but had some serious plot issues.

Best Adapted Screenplay Nominees
Argo - Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild - Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Life of Pi - David Magee
Lincoln - Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook - David O. Russell

If Original Screenplay is about bringing to life a world from scratch, I compare the screenplays merits with the work on the production and try to determine where the credit is deserved. With Adapted Screenplay, though, I consider the challenge of the adaption itself as well as the writing merits.

5. Argo - I don't hate Argo. I even think it deserved more nominations than it got (Director, Prod. Design, Costume Design). But the screenplay was one of its weakest elements and it pisses me off that it's currently the most likely winner in this category (also Best Picture, but that's a different conversation). Every single character in this screenplay is a cardboard cut out. Arkin's character is just a bag of one-liners, Affleck's character is the most boring man alive. At least Bryan Cranston made his boring character interesting to watch. There was basically zero character development or change over the course of the film, and the only really emotional thread was a very thin subplot about Affleck's kid. The dialogue is merely efficient, but that seems appropriate for this sort of procedural. And the blending of pseudo-thriller scenes with historical commentary made for a more interesting movie. But overall, honestly, how do people think this is writing that deserves to win the same award won by Larry McMurtry, Aaron Sorkin, Joel & Ethan Coen, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Robert Bolt, Horton Foote, James L. Brooks, and Billy Wilder?

4. Silver Linings Playbook - This is fine enough I guess.  It's got great characters, but those were in the book.  I suspect Russell wrote some of the stronger scenes to his taste and he deserves credit there.  But near the beginning of the movie, Bradley Cooper sits down with his therapist, who appears to already know him and know his backstory. Then Bradley Cooper narrates in full all the events that got him where he was. To someone who already knew. Plus we get awkward flashback-type scenes during the monologue showing us how his wife was cheating on him. There HAD to have been a better way to tell us who this character was and what he'd been though than having him deliver lines to a character who doesn't need to hear it again. It was just lazy.

3. Life of Pi - The challenge of this adaptation alone deserves recognition. It's a meandering story at times, a poetic and philosophical novel whose narrative is really secondary to its themes, one of which is that the details or reality of a narrative are secondary to the experience of the narrative itself... and so on and so forth.  Yet the screenplay here efficiently condenses the breadth of novel's plot without sacrificing its depth, and for a book supposedly "impossible to film," that's a tremendous accomplishment. It's only #3 in my personal preferences because I went back and thumbed through some passages of in the novel, and unfortunately the "efficiency" of the screenplay did sacrifice large bits of really beautiful prose - prose that probably would have seemed overly flowery if it had been translated word-for-word - but beautiful nonetheless, and I felt that the language in the screenplay lacked a certain gravitas or transcendence. Those qualities were more than compensated for with the visuals, but this is the screenplay category. So, well, there it is.

2. Beasts of the Southern Wild - I don't know the source play for this film, but basically all the pretty language I think Life of Pi had to discard for the sake of cinema, Beasts managed to maintain due to it's almost pidgin-like dialect. It was fascinating and immersive language servicing a unique story and complete human characters who were defined by certain functions but never confined to them. This, to me, is Moonrise Kingdom's adapted counterpart - a 90 minute film with unique characters and circumstances that seem implausible in the real world, but somehow convince me of their reality nonetheless.

1. Lincoln - I'm gonna throw something when this doesn't win on Sunday. Kushner doesn't begin with "characters" the way most of these other adaptations do, he begins with historical figures and then gives them flesh and blood and brains until they become characters in an historical battle of wills. Unlike Argo which fills in the necessary spots with stand-ins for the people who were really there, Kushner recreates those people, gives them motivations and emotions and some of the most brilliant dialogue on screen this year. Consider Lincoln himself, not a saint here but a man struggling to work within the limits of his power, questioning even his own political excesses - his speech on why and how he exercised the power of the presidency to make the Emancipation Proclamation, despite its potential illegality, is a powerful insight not only into period politics but into the self-reflective nature of a man confined to the rules of those politics. There are moral issues of slavery at work here, but as is frequently the nature of politics, morality comes second to what can actually get done, and the stress it causes to those moral men and women is apparent in every scene of this film. Kushner's screenplay balances character, history, and drama in one of Euclid's triangles that Lincoln speaks of with such tension that despite knowing the outcome of history, we're left always worrying that tension will snap and give way. Some criticism was given to Joseph Gordon Levitt's subplot, but I appreciated it more with a second viewing.  Creating Mary Todd Lincoln as a woman overcome with grief to the point of flirting with insanity, but not falling over the cliff, showed remarkable restraint by both Kushner and Sally Field. And there was even room left over for a few surprises, regarding, for instance, Stevens and the person who finally reads the 13th Amendment out loud. And finally, as wonderful a job as Spielberg did crafting this film, this is one of those screenplays that could be read on its own, or given to another director and still make an excellent film (though perhaps not quite the same caliber as the one Spielberg made). On top of all this, Kushner tackles one of my favorite challenges to see screenwriting overcome - taking a story which by rights really ought to be dull and making it a fascinating character study and process story. Consider the work Sorkin did to turn a book about the creation of facebook for crying out loud into an exciting... legal drama? buddy comedy? cyber thriller? A movie about getting votes in congress just shouldn't be this good.

I'm reminded as I write this of Neil Simon. I've seen bad productions of Simon's plays. Like, bad direction, bad acting, bad timing. But the audience was still laughing. Because Neil Simon is almost impossible to mess up, he's just that good. Similarly, Kushner here is so good that it's hard to imagine really bad film resulting from this screenplay. Unlike Argo which required Affleck's deftness, or Life of Pi which required Ang Lee's ambition and soft heart and remarkable effects, or Silver Linings Playbook which is nothing without its cast. Lincoln is, simply, a remarkable screenplay.

And I'm going to throw something when it doesn't win.

Will win: Argo
Should win: If you read this far, I'm not going to bother answering that.
Should have been nominated: Eh, Cloud Atlas maybe? I still haven't gotten around to Perks of Being a Wallflower, but I know many people who feel that was snubbed here.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

2012 Oscars: Editing and Animated Feature

So there's only a week before the awards, and I've gotten behind on these posts, so I'm doubling up to unrelated categories today.

Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

5. Silver Linings Playbook

There was nothing especially bad or wrong with the editing here, but it was mostly just efficient - there were no particular challenges the editor had to overcome. It was a mostly straightforward dramedy with a few characters in a few locations - I imagine the editor mostly just followed the script. And even so, there were one or two distinct scenes where the film lost all sense of space and direction - the camera was flipping all around the eyelines and the editing didn't do much to fix it. I expect this is more David O. Russell's fault than anyone else's, but it was still a problem.

4. Zero Dark Thirty

On the whole, I thought ZDK was a collection of extremely well-made sequences that didn't amount to that great of a film, and one of the problems was the pacing. The first hour of this already long movie was laboriously slow, it struggled to keep my attention and by the time the movie really got going I almost didn't even care anymore. That said, the entire raid on the compound scene at the end was remarkably crafted on all levels, including the editing, so I don't want to dismiss it's nomination entirely - I just hope it doesn't win.

3. Life of Pi

I had the opportunity to hear Tim Squyres speak about the editing process on Pi and sounded like a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. How do you edit in a way that maintains a logical sense of space when your scenes are set on an endless sea? Ultimately, Squyres held strong to the emotional needs of the story, allowing some interesting layered dissolves to transition through space and time, and keeping the pace of the film spot-on as it moves back and forth between action-filled scenes like the sinking of the Tsimtsum and more contemplative sequences like Pi's stay on the floating island. Not to mention the challenges of editing in 3D with lots of effects.

2. Lincoln

All of the problems I had with ZDK's editing slowing down an already slow story, Michael Kahn avoids with Lincoln. The movie might be 2 1/2 hours, and by the end you might feel like you've been sitting through a lot of history, but while I was watching it, I was constantly engaged - and when a long, dialogue-driven movie that's a difficult think to accomplish. I felt that the story was always driving forward, stopping for emotional beats along the way, but never losing sight of its end goal. In my opinion, Kahn's editing deserves as much credit as Kushner's script for making a seemingly dull legislative process come alive.

1. Argo

This is perhaps the only award Argo truly will deserve come Oscar night. Take all the strengths of the other 4 nominees, and William Goldenberg utilizes them here - balancing multiple locations and subplots, keeping a sometimes dull story or sequence feel exciting, keeping the action and comedy scenes feeling light and the heavier scenes feeling...well, heavy. Unlike Silver Linings Playbook, I feel as though Goldenberg used the script as a tool to inform his work rather than dictate it. His cross-cutting, the inserts of the Iranian press conferences and other historical details, it all works to keep you engaged in a film that, by rights, shouldn't be all that interesting.

Will win: Argo
Should win: Argo
Should have been nominated: Cloud Atlas

Animated Feature
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph

5. The Pirates! Band of Misfits

I mean, I guess this was alright and all... it has some funny moments, but I didn't really get why I was watching it, why it was made. The characters were 2-dimensional, the pseudo-history wasn't even that amusing. I...yeah, I dunno.

4. Frankenweenie

I wanted SO much to like this movie, but I just couldn't. I loved the voice acting, and most of the design. I really did buy the love between Victor and his dog. But the 'villains' weren't really villains, they were just brats. The Vincent Price figure was just a rehashing of characters Burton has done better in other films. That one Asian student was... really pretty offensive, wasn't he? There are ways to make stereotypes interesting and funny and insightful, but none of that happened here.

3. Brave

I really did enjoy this one, it was just a tad too traditional - I feel like we've seen this story before in one way or another. It was beautifully animated, very funny, heart-warming, all that. But just kind of "meh" at the end of the day.

2. Wreck-It Ralph

Very funny, great characters, tremendous writing - the "bad guys" therapy session in particular - it has so much going for it. And the more video game-literate of my friends tell me it had an awful lot of added humor if you know where to look for it (apparently the detail of certain lines, sounds, and labels referenced who knows how many other games). It was great. But again, walking out of the theater, what did I leave with? Something about accepting people for more than what they seem? Not exactly new ground.

1. ParaNorman

But then I'm going to sound like a hypocrite because this film has basically the same message - don't write people off just because you don't understand them. But the way it's delivered in ParaNorman was so much more emotionally satisfying than in any other film this year. It's a very dark movie, and not just because it features a boy who speak with ghosts. At the heart of all of it is a very troubled young girl from centuries past who is still scarred from the way she was, essentially, bullied by her friends and elders. There is such a strong theme here about the dangers of bullying and intolerance because it shows its devastation across the generations, rather than just in someone who's a bit sad right now. And when the people in Norman's town are faced with the horror of their own behavior, what an epiphany it is to learn that they are the true monsters, more so than the risen dead walking amongst them. And of course I haven't even addressed the beautiful blend of stop-motion animation and CGI effects - at times this film looks even more real than the ones with real people! This was the best animated feature of the year and if there's justice in Hollywood it will win the Oscar next sunday.

But there isn't, so it won't.

Will win: Wreck-It Ralph
Should win: ParaNorman
Should have been nominated: Not really sure as I didn't see too many animated features this year, but I heard wonderful things about The Painting. I didn't hear too many complaints about Hotel Transylvania and Rise of the Guardians missing out here...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

2012 Oscars: Production Design

Yikes, the show is creeping up on me and I've still got plenty of categories to do...

Trucking along, then.

Anna Karenina
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Miserables
Life of Pi

5. Les Miserables

The whole movie was a close-up on faces. We almost never get to see the sets, and when we do they look bizarre, cartoonish, and disproportioned. For a movie trying to capture something realistic in its musical material, the design at times looks weirdly like a Tim Burton movie. Stupid, lazy nomination.

4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Any trip to Middle Earth is going to look astounding, and there were plenty of new elements here - Goblin's cave, the Misty Mountain goblin kingdom, etc. But we've seen most of this stuff before - the Shire, Rivendell, etc. So not a stupid nomination, but still a lazy one.

3. Life of Pi

Bearing in mind that production design encapsulates the entire visual world of the film (except the framing of the camera), and not just the sets, justifies Life of Pi's nomination. Technically speaking, makeup, costumes, and visual effects are all subcategories of Production Design.  So if we were just looking at the lifeboat, well that would be a bit too simplistic. But there's also the zoo, Pondicherry, the floating island, and Adult Pi's house. Then there's the visuals of the sunsets and the water, the whale and the flying fish and the jelly fish. THEN there's the tiger-vision sequence which was really a beautiful experience all by itself.

2. Lincoln

The basic job here was historical authenticity. The filmmakers wanted to recreate a time period, and they did it impeccably. They fully immersed you in this time period and these locations and this world. The only reason I list it above a movie like Pi is that I was at times only slightly more of the effects-driven nature of Pi's design. It's a minute, subjective reaction and I'd be totally cool if either film wins this award.

1. Anna Karenina

One of the most talked-about production design jobs of the year, Sarah Greenwood's theatre-inspired sets for Anna Karenina made for a fascinating, fun, and challenging experience. Some people hated the whole idea of the film, creating it like a play taking place mostly in one theater. But most people were at least intrigued by it, and I think it worked. And look at all the things they did with that space! Ballrooms and bedrooms and office spaces and an ice skating rink and a freaking horse race all existed here. The transitions were noticeable, yet somehow not jarring. Because the filmmakers were so committed to their theatre-inspired world, it all gelled naturally and efficiently. Sure, it might take some getting used to, but I would be that many people who hated it the first time might like it a little more the second time after knowing what they were getting themselves into. Yes, this is the most obvious or most production design in the bunch, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not the best.

Should win: Anna Karenina (though Lincoln or Life of Pi would be just fine)
Will win: Anna Karenina, because the Academy tends to skew towards the obvious pick in this category. Possibly Lincoln if they're looking for more ways to reward it since there's no way it wins best picture now with the way Argo has picked up steam.
Should have been nominated: Argo, Cloud Atlas

Friday, February 8, 2013

2012 Oscars: Cinematography

This is a strong year for this category, featuring strong work in strong films, and including a few long overlooked nominees. The nominees range from flashy 3D CGI work to subtle, tableau-crafting compositions, with some retro homage and bold colorful action sequences thrown in for fun. Almost any of these nominees could win and deserve it, but a few stand above the rest.

Anna Karenina - Seamus McGarvey
Django Unchained - Robert Richardson
Life of Pi - Claudio Miranda
Lincoln - Janusz Kaminski
Skyfall - Richard Deakins

5. Anna Karenina

Basically, the camerawork here was just capturing all the movement of the sets and actors. Which is no small feat, to be fair, and the theatrical lighting is impressive. I saw one article, though, that suggests the long take of Anna and Vronsky dancing almost deserves this award by itself... except it was really a triumph of staging and choreography more than cinematography, and was really just ripping off (or perhaps intentionally referencing) the scene from West Side Story where Tony and Maria meet for the first time. 

4. Django Unchained

Richardson is always remarkable, but in Django, all of the B-movie flourishes and fast zooms distracted more than enhanced. And although there was certainly gorgeous scenery shots and a great Western feel, the work here seemed more serviceable than really interesting.

3. Skyfall

Roger Deakins isn't a big budget action movie cinematographer. But then, Skyfall isn't your typical action movie. Even the basic action scenes like motorcycle chases were framed somehow more elegantly than they had any right to be. And the lighting schemes in the Macau casino, the fight in the skyscraper, and obviously all the fire and nighytime photography at the climax... well, it's all breathtakingly beautiful work that elevates this Bond flick to visual poetry. That said, having the best cinematography in an action film of the year doesn't necessarily mean it's the best cinematography of any film of the year, there...

2. Lincoln

It's almost not even noticeable how hard Kaminski was working here. It's very tempting and almost very easy nowadays to give way to epic crane shots, fast hand-held work, and strikingly wide lens angles or shallow depths of field. But Kaminski restrains so much here. He locks his camera down or if he moves it, it does so so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. He allows his composition and Spielberg's blocking to dictate his camera. And these are the conscious decisions of a master - don't forget this is the guy who helped popularize the docu-drama shaky-cam with Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, so he can do all of that too, but that's not what Lincoln calls for. This is a film that calls for a claustrophobically shot cabinet meeting, with cigar smoke in the air and a shuttered windows letting only the necessary light seep in. Or white-washed windows with sunlight flooding the halls of Congress, keeping the outside world both invisible and impossibly bright. There is so much going on here, if you blink you might miss it. I very nearly wish this would win, if it weren't for...

1. Life of Pi

I'm still not sure what to do with the relationship between heavy visual effects use and the cinematography.  How much credit should Miranda get for images which were likely constructed in a computer? I'm not entirely sure, but neither can I deny the fact that the images captured here were utterly transcendent. And there was plenty of principal photography on the water and of course on sets during the opening scenes of Pi's childhood, so it's not exactly Pixar we're talking about. And does adding a digital sunset, for instance, really compromise the work of the cinematographer any more than the heavy color correction that almost certainly went to Skyfall compromises Deakins'? The sinking of the Tsimtsum was a triumph of visual effects, yes, but also of cinematography. And nighttime on the floating island? Well sure the meerkats were digital, but the lighting on Pi during his night in the trees was haunting. I'm going to continue a philosophical debate in my head for a while about the relationship between CGI and the Cinematographer, but this year at least, I can't deny the partnership was a necessary symbiotic one when it comes to the most visually stunning work this year. You can't have one without the other here, so I say give them both Oscars.

I couldn't find a decent standalone clip on youtube, so just go watch the trailers.

Should win: Life of Pi (or Lincoln)
Will win: Life of Pi (or possibly maybe Skyfall)
Should have been nominated: The Master, Cloud Atlas

Saturday, February 2, 2013

2012 Oscars: Song and Score

As usual this year has some easy picks, and as usual there are some out-of-left field picks, and as usual many of the more popular songs were left by the wayside.

How all of the original music from Django Unchained got ignore, I'll never know or understand. But at least with Skyfall we get a nominee that was a commercial pop success for the first time in several years.

And sorry, but I was just too lazy to embed or link to any of these songs. Do it yourself, I'm not your mother.

Best Song Nominees
"Before My Time" - Chasing Ice
"Everybody Needs A Best Friend" - Ted
"Pi's Lullaby" - Life of Pi
"Skyfall" - Skyfall
"Suddenly" - Les Miserables

5. "Suddenly"

Aside from the fact that the song wasn't necessary to the film, and aside from the fact that this is clearly just another stage musical that adds an original song likely for the sole purpose of garnering this very Oscar nomination, this song just isn't very good. It wasn't memorable, it wasn't necessary, and it wasn't exactly Hugh Jackman's finest moment in the film. It shouldn't be here.

4. "Everybody Needs A Best Friend"

It's a fun enough song, and Norah Jones is always nice to listen to, but this song doesn't really do anything new or different or unique compared to the songs Randy Newman has already won Oscars for, except perhaps with a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the lyrics.

3. "Before My Time"

This is the one film I wasn't able to see, but for this category that isn't always necessary. Simply put, it's a really lovely song, a sort of lament, that seems to go well thematically with a documentary about glacial melting.

2. "Skyfall"

I know this is probably going to win, and that's okay. It's nice to see a song so closely associated with a film become to popular - that used to be a regular occurrence up until around the beginning of last decade. And look, Adele is great and everyone would love to see her win another award, but let's face it: the song is built on pre-existing musical motifs and occasionally nonsensical lyrics. It's a pleasant thing to listen to, and I like it a lot, but objectively it's not exactly a great song.

1. "Pi's Lullaby"

I never would have thought to nominate this song, and it's probably only here because it got swept in with some greater love for the movie it's from and a desire to show some diversity with an ethnic sound rather than the merits of the song itself. But you know what? It's a really cool song. It's seamless integrated into the film's score at times, and the lyrics are actually really insightful when you think about what the movie is really about:

"are you the peacock or the plumage of the peacock?are you the cuckoo or the cry of the cuckoo?are you the moon or the light of the moon?are you the eyelashes, or the dream?are you the flower or the nectar?are you the fruit or the sweetness?"
It really is a lullaby of sorts, and the questions it asks drive straight to the heart of the movie - what are we dealing with? The truth? Or something that is a shadow of the truth? Reality, or our sensation and perception of reality? 
Should win: "Pi's Lullaby"Will win: "Skyfall"Should have been nominated: "Who Were We" from Holy Motors, "Who Did That to You" from Django Unchained, or almost any other original song from that movie. Also one of the songs from Brave would have been nice to see here. Possibly "Song of the Lonely Mountain" from The Hobbit.
Best Score NomineesAnna Karenina - Dario MarianelliArgo - Alexandre DesplatLife of Pi - Mychael DannaLincoln - John WilliamsSkyfall - Thomas Newman
5. Anna Karenina
Dario Marinelli tries to recreate the magic of his Atonement score with a few more intergrated sound effects into the music (rubber stamps and actors playing instruments, etc.) but aside from a few cues, the score here never really does anything that interesting. It works for the film, sure, and it has some nice Russian-inspired instrumentation and themes, but it's more serviceable than anything else.
4. Argo
When I saw this nomination, I scratched my head trying to even remember the music from Argo. Then I went and listened to the score and found it fairly interesting, noticed some truly beautiful musical moments, and thought that it was something new and different from Desplat's other work. Unfortunately, it's not that new from music that other composers have already written for other film set in and around the Middle East - most of the time it just seems like cookie-cutter Arabian-sounding thriller fare.
3. Skyfall
Thomas Newman is one of my favorite composers and it's a crime that he's gone 0-10 at the Oscars so far in his career. But while he definitely elevates action film music Skyfall to a new level with his signature sounds - unique chord progressions, that crystal clear oboe - at the end of the day, much of it remains typical and let's not forget that he still obligingly draws heavily on the James Bond theme and sound that already exists in everyone's mind. That's not a criticism, mind you - it should be somewhat typical because we go into a Bond movie expecting some degree of familiarity. But it's hardly the best work of the year.
2. Life of Pi
Beautiful work here, and nearly ceaselessly playing during the film. The music really helps tell the story. It is delicate and fascinating. My main problem is that eventually it all sort of sounds repetitive and similar. It would be a completely deserving winner, don't get me wrong, it just doesn't consistently get to me on a gut level. At time it is transcendant, but falls short too often for me to pick it. 
1. Lincoln
I almost didn't even notice the music when I first saw Lincoln. John Williams shows great restraint, frequently letting the music work underneath the images and dialogue, slowly, subtly, but necessary and present nonetheless, almost never drawing attention to itself. The folksy fiddle tunes are wonderful comic relief and do wonders for the scenes in which they are used, the few "themes" are not over used, nor especially catchy - and that's a good thing. The music stays with you, but it doesn't get stuck in your head. And near the end of "The Peterson House and Finale" - essentially a suite summarizing the whole score - I still get chills when the music swells and reminds me of the triumph the movie celebrates (the passage of the 13th Amendment), as well as the triumph the movie is. Some have complained the score sounds like a little too typically John Williams, not exactly his most innovative stuff.  And sure, it's not as radical as his scores for Prisoner of Azkaban, Memoirs of a Geisha, or Tintin, but classic John Williams is still better than 95% of the scores out there. 
Should win: LincolnWill win: Life of PiShould have been nominated: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Cloud Atlas

Friday, February 1, 2013

2012 Oscars: Sound Editing and Mixing

These are probably the most difficult categories for your average everyday moviegoer to figure out, along with Editing. After all, when the post-production team is doing their very best work you aren't supposed to notice it! Things are supposed to look and sound seamless, real, authentic. No one wants to hear dialogue that seems out of sync with an actor's lips, and no one wants to hear explosions or music so loud that important dialogue becomes indiscernable. We notice the bad sound but not the good, so how do we evaluate a category like this?

I don't know, but I'm gonna do it anyway.

Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty

5. Zero Dark Thirty
There really wasn't anything bad here, it's just that at times I felt like the sounds I was "supposed to hear" didn't feel like they were naturally part of the scene I was watching. I can't explain or pinpoint it, there were just moments when I thought "that doesn't sound quite right."

4. Argo
Argo had really good sound actually, but if suffers from not having especially impressive sound. Everything fits into place and works, but it all seems like relatively simple recording.

3. Skyfall
Action movies are natural choices in sound categories because they typically have higher technical demands than the typical Oscar-bait dramas. Skyfall excels on nearly every level, and the sound is pristine. Explosions and gunshots, of course, but also atmospheres. Consider the background noises in the Macau casino, or the  always busy yet somehow empty sounds of the underground MI:6. Not to mention this is a surprisingly dialogue-heavy action film, and all of those weighty conversations were also recorded well. This would be a worthy winner.

2. Django Unchained
I place Django higher than Skyfall for two reasons: first, because I don't remember ever noticing the sound sticking out anywhere, and second, because of the challenges of creating sound for a period piece. There were shootouts and dynamite and minutes-long scenes of nothing but dialogue, and wagons and horses and blood spattering the walls. And none of it ever seemed out of place. Plus the recording had to eliminate anything that sounded too distinctly modern - the gunshots had to be antebellum pistols, the wagon wheels had to creak with their age, and and anything remotely electric had to be eliminated. This film was impressive because I never noticed.

1. Life of Pi
Of all the films here, my bet is Life of Pi had the least amount of usable production sound (or sound recorded on set during filming). They shot much of the movie in boats on water and in green-screen studios. I suspect that roughly 95% of every sound you hear in the movie was recorded separately from the images you see. Flying fish, meercats, zebras, tigers, orangoutangs, and other animals not included, you're also dealing with thunderous storms, the wood and canvas of a lifeboat, a giant ship sinking, and even the slightest sound of still water lapping against Pi's raft. To face this kind of monumental recording challenge and pull it off, every bit of audio sounding authentic, is remarkable.

Should win: Life of Pi
Will win: Life of Pi (Possibly ZDK or Skyfall)
Should have been nominated: Wreck-It Ralph

(This category has a habit of nominating dialogue-heavy movies - like The Social Network or The King's Speech a few years ago - because mixing dialogue is both difficult and vital, but rarely rewards that work.)

Les Miserables
Life of Pi

5. Les Miserables
Musicals frequently get nominated and frequently win this category because they combine the challenge of mixing dialogue/words with music/instrumentation on top of all the other sounds that go into fleshing out a scene. Les Mis get a lot of attention this year for recording the singing life on set, meaning the sound recordist/mixer did a lot of work on the ground making sure the recording itself was mixed well. It was a challenge, I'm sure, and for most of the film I think it usually worked out fine. Except not always. For about the first 10 minutes I was straining to hear and understand a single thing anyone was singing.  The soloists sounded muffled because the chorus overtook them. It could have been my theater's speakers, but I was in a Regal theater's RPX set up so I doubt it. Eventually I got used to the audio and I could hear things most of the time, but the orchestral music was so overwhelming usually that I had to work just to follow the scenes at times. This might actually win the award (due to the attention paid to its recording-live technique), but I sincerely hope not.

4. Argo
Same problem as above, this is quality work, just not particularly unique or impressive. The opening scenes of the embassy takeover and the groups excursion to the bazaar are probably the standout moments when it comes to mixing. But there's a lot of dialogue that has to be mixed well so that the movie still make scenes sound authentic in various locations, which deserves more attention than it will probably get.

3. Skyfall
Technically there's not a thing wrong here, but in terms of sound work it's not really anything new or interesting. It's an action film with a better script than most, more dialogue than most, and executed with skill on a higher level than most. Like above, this would be a worthy winner, but not an especially interesting one.

2. Lincoln
This is probably the film most likely to get overlooked in this category - I wouldn't be surprised to learn it comes in 5th place. It's easy to think, "Lincoln? For sound?" But quieter movies are frequently more difficult to mix because the very slightest variation in the audio will draw the viewers attention, whereas in big action films, if an explosion is a bit too loud or a tad too soft, usually the car chase is already in another location before the audience has time to think about it. But think about the quiet emptiness of the cabinet meetings, where all you hear are words and clothing rustling. Or the scenes in Congress where everyone tries to shout over each other, but we always seem to hear exactly what the director and screenwriter want us to hear in order for the story to move forward. It is a quieter movie than its fellow nominees, yes, but the sound mixing is all the more impressive because of it.

1. Life of Pi
Same reasons as above, this is the movie that probably had the most work to do, and there's not a hair out of place. Of course, there's the sinking of the Tsimtsum, but I think the scene I remember being most impressed by is one where Pi is trying to train Richard Parker, who is stubbornly clawing at the seats in the life boat and, well, pouting. The claws, the wood splintering, a grown tiger growling and mewing like a kitten (but with gravitas), all set against a background of ocean water and breeze. The big scenes are probably what will win the Oscar for this film, but it's the quiet ones that earn it.

Should win: Life of Pi or Lincoln
Will win: Les Miserables because I think they'll want to give it more than just supporting actress for Hathaway, but depending on how much the Academy loves a given film come the big night, this could go to Argo, Skyfall, OR Life of Pi.
Should have been nominated: The Impossible