Yikes, the show is creeping up on me and I've still got plenty of categories to do...
Trucking along, then.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
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.
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