Oscars – Who Gets The Gold And Why
I think it is relatively straight forward as to who will be taking home an Oscar this year. In some cases there will be multiple Oscars, others no Oscars at all for our favorite films and filmmakers. In many of the categories, the choices can quickly be whittled away by removing the least likely candidates from the list. While this seems like an odd proposition, one must consider the countless decisions that go into the nomination process and consequently things we never hear about. We want to believe the award is based on merit and talent alone but we know other factors weigh in as well and it would be impossible to deny that personal agendas and preferential treatment finds a way to the ballot box. As an example, take the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading role. Contrary to the nominee committee, Annette Bening delivered a modest performance in The Kids Are Alright, hardly the best of her career. The film tries too hard and despite Golden Globe wins feels contrived and grandiloquent as though the dramatic through line of gay family life and reproductive roles could survive beneath the weight of its own self-importance. Bening and Julianne Moore make for awkward partners, hardly believable and while the set-up had potential, we are never truly allowed to spend quality time with the characters before everything is wrapped up with a Hollywood bow. If you are interested in a superior film in nearly every way, consider Bening in American Beauty or The American President. Moore shines in A Single Man, so transformed and present she compliments Colin Firth’s character in every way; her performance is effortless and calculated to the finest detail, challenging Firth in reserved but desperate needing. Jennifer Lawrence, while quietly effective in the kempt film Winter’s Bone, was memorable but lacked range, though this might be attributable to Granik’s directing style as her previous film, Down To The Bone with Vera Farmiga contained a similarly singular range of emotions. For the sake of clarity, I’ll comment on each category with my selection and why.
Actor in a Leading Role
The Oscar should go to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. It really is that simple. His performance is remarkable, exemplary of a career that spans over 60 films and television projects, a hearty culmination of a distinguished list of performances that has gone on far too long without merit and worthy acknowledgement. While Bardem in Biutiful and Bridges in True Grit were also in-depth and appealing, we have seen better performances from them in other projects. Eisenberg delivers his all too familiar brooding, emotionally one-dimensional performance that is no more varied in The Social Network than just about anything he has done. While Franco has a variety of successful films behind him, most notable perhaps is in the Spider Man franchise, 127 Hours is an odd choice and an unlikely vehicle for him to take home the Oscar.
Actor in a Supporting Role
As varied and talented the nominees are for Supporting Actor, Geoffrey Rush seems a shoe-in to take home the gold for his work in The King’s Speech. Hawkes, Renner, and Ruffalo have better films behind them and perhaps other opportunities down the road but their respective roles are the least memorable of the actors chosen here. If there is any competition for Rush it would be Bale who continues the tradition of method acting by transforming himself both physically and mentally to portray deeply emotional, damaged characters that are frequently consumed by their tragic flaws. While his performance is Oscar material, The Fighter overall feels like everyone involved is trying too hard for attention. Against the widely popular and critically praised Kings Speech, which continues to bedazzle audiences and critics alike, all other nominees must give way. Perhaps we are all in need of a little uplifting these days and as such, The King’s Speech delivers en mass.
Actress in a Leading Role
While The Kids Are Alright earned a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Comedy or Musical and Best Actress in a Comedy for Bening, she seems hardly a contender for the Oscar in this category given the competition. Bening’s performance might have caught attention for the easily bemused or the contemporary message of the new nuclear family, a twist on the notion of family as it has steadily changed over the years. I for one think her nomination is unwarranted. There is nothing wrong with the performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Nicole Kidman but in all honesty there is nothing new there. The race for the Oscar is going to down to Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams for their emotionally raw, riveting performances. Given the buzz over Black Swan and the continued interest in the film by critics and audiences, it seems that the smaller, indie Blue Valentine with its considerably weightier and morose overtones will most likely lose out in the end.
Actress in a Supporting Role
If there is any justice at the Academy Awards this year there is no denying the Oscar can only be given to Hailee Steinfeld for her brass, charismatic performance in True Grit. Her portrayal of the tough as nails child on a path for revenge commands our attention and at no time during the film does she falter. In many ways, as others have commented on, her role might have easily been considered a leading part but that’s better left for another discussion at another time. I for one am reminded of a young Natalie Portman in The Professional and Anna Paquin in The Piano – both evocative films with captivating young child stars who go on to extensive careers. While Helena Bonham Carter and Amy Adams gave their usual all to their roles, Melissa Leo and Jacki Weaver are hardly contenders for the gold.
Animated Feature Film
Another hands down and obvious winner for best Animated Feature Film is Toy Story 3. The other choices are solid films in their own right but there can be only one and that one is Toy Story 3. Pixar remains relatively unchallenged in the field of feature-length animated motion pictures, second perhaps only to the collaborative efforts of Dreamworks Animation Studios, Disney Animation, and Marvel. Pixar continues to build franchise films that never quite seem to run out of steam before they are retired and something new is brought to theaters. Toy Story 3 is inventive and clever, a film that plays equally well to children and adults, connecting generations and audiences who are loyal followers of the animation studio and show no signs of jumping ship anytime soon.
While all the nominees excelled in Art Direction, there are only three films that stand taller than the rest – Harry Potter, Alice In Wonderland and Inception. Given the vast appeal of Inception it would seem nearly impossible for the others to win out in this category. Inception does contain a blend of new and old techniques to bring the story to life and I believe this alone will bring the gold home to Stuart Craig and Stephanie McMillan. A feast for the eyes that gives the film more visually appealing elements than the story, stylistically driven Art Direction is a key element to any production and the value of it here is demonstrative of some of the finest work around. Now if only the convoluted story and unnecessary exposition had been curtailed I might be more excited by Inception’s eight Oscar nominations. Read my review here.
It is easy enough to remove both The Social Network and The King’s Speech from the running for best Cinematography. Neither film feels as epic or as cinematically claustrophobic as Black Swan or Inception. While True Grit is lensed by master Roger Deakins, and it shows, the choice really comes down to the heavy hitters in the category – Black Swan and Inception. This is a difficult choice as audiences seemed particularly impressed with Inception both for its visual style as well as the allure of the dreamscape created by Nolan. While Wally Pfister is hardly a match for the prolific and stylish camera work of Libatique, and given my personal disfavor of Inception, I am boldly going with Black Swan. The camera work is subtle and genuine, purposefully reserved so that the psychological and emotional transformations are emphasized and driven by the performances. Black Swan should take the Oscar for Cinematography.
This is another difficult category as each of the films do extremely well for different reasons. The lavish, artful designs used in Alice In Wonderland are beautifully realized and help to enliven an old story with a fresh new look and sensibility. I Am Love is rich and textured, elegance personified that might easily be missed for the restrained and carefully detailed designs. While True Grit is every bit as detailed and calculated, the costumes were effective yet hardly the most original; but then again, there is only so much one can do with the western motif without compromising the period or lending too much attention on the surfaces rather than the characters and landscape. The King’s Speech, while specific, does not resound with a lasting impression nor that of The Tempest – though the later was indeed accomplished. Pressed to choose, I would give the Oscar to Alice In Wonderland and Colleen Atwood.
Perhaps the most difficult choice behind Best Picture is selecting from the bevy of talented auteurs at the helm of some of the biggest and most widely received films of the past year. Each director is in their own right the best of the best, specific and masterful filmmakers with unique and ‘brand name’ appeal. Aronofsky is at home with matters of psychology and strained emotional situational story telling as personified in Black Swan. David O. Russell reminds us that his attention to character is quirky and fun, both as a writer and director with memorable, oddball stories and characters only truly found in his films. Tom Hooper gives The King’s Speech an internalized complexity, both human and genuine, the performances are guided by an assured hand and clear vision. David Fincher seemed an unlikely director for a film like The Social Network, more renown with dark, brooding films like Se7en, Fight Club and Panic Room, he gives the material a sense of weight and movement that empowers the story and makes the characters larger than they might otherwise seem. What does one write about the Coen brothers with their extremely personal and individual style of filmmaking? The brothers give their films an essence that is undeniably the work of master filmmakers. It does not help to think of the individual or collective body of work between the nominees nor is it necessarily helpful to consider style, subject matter, or genre. In this case the choice comes down to personal appeal and for me Black Swan is a film that resonates and survives after the credits role and much later, weeks even when the full impact of the film has had a chance to settle inside. Black Swan is a film that will continue to draw attention long after taking the Oscar home.
Choosing a documentary is an extremely personal decision and one that is impossible to stretch across the varied nominees without first considering your own tastes and reactions to the projects. Some films, like Exit Through The Gift Shop, seem to have garnered much more attention than others, though this in and of itself does not mean the film was vastly superior to the other nominees. If pressed, I would choose Inside Job as it is topical and swiftly chronicles the financial meltdown that continues to haunt not just the United States but the world economy as well. A more important documentary seems beyond the scope of the other nominees, that pushes the boundaries of the format and results in a film that lives beyond a simple document of a person, persons, or events. In this case, Inside Job is a polished and direct account of one of the most serious events to affect us today and while sobering and at times emotional, this is the film that has earned the Oscar.
Documentary (Short Subject)
Short subject documentary’s can be thought of as the most distilled idea or portrait that has no room for excess or inessential. Another difficult choice is the top pick for best short subject Documentary. Each film has a specific message and clear direction with interesting subjects and talented filmmakers but if pressed I would choose Poster Girl by Sara Neeson and Mitchell W. Block. Poster Girl tells the story of Robynn Murray who was once featured in a recruitment poster for the army. Robynn returns home from service with PTSD and the film chronicles her fight to receive veteran’s disability benefits. Robynn’s story is a personal one but sadly not an uncommon one as many war veterans coming home from active duty face a veterans administration that is unable to address the needs of the men and women putting their lives on the line for their country. Poster Girl is my choice for the Oscar for short subject documentary.
Film Editing is an art form unto itself. While each nominee is representative of quality films with engaging story lines and solid editing, it is often difficult to gauge the quality of editing when films do not rely upon the editing style as an external, recognizable element to the film. However, I am drawn to The Social Network for the overall aesthetic and swift movement of the story that makes the subject vastly more interesting than it might otherwise come across. The Social Network could have easily fallen victim to the pitfalls of the biopic, though obviously the message or underlying theme of the film was to define how Facebook was indeed a collaborative project. In Black Swan, the editing is clearly an important element of the psychological and physical transformation of Portman’s character, but Aronofsky is more interested in refined camera work and traditional edits to tell the story. The Social Network, on the other hand, was the most talked about in terms of the editing and as such is my pick for best Film Editing.
Foreign Language Film
It seems impossible to steer away from the weighty, though exquisite film from Mexico, Biutiful. Javier Bardem is magnetic and easily carries the film beyond a character study without sentimentality. This is a film that looks in on itself as a commentary on life and death as guided by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s sheer footing as a storyteller and master filmmaker. Biutiful feels like an ode, a visual poem that carries the viewer on a difficult but important journey that gives us pause and consideration of our own lives. Biutiful resonates complex, at times conflicting emotional and spiritual values, collecting along the way experiences like memories to be held onto long after death. Bardem shines under Iñárritu’s direction, an actor gifted with a full season of expressions; Bardem imparts every performance with something special that is or is not relevant to the story at hand but always just below the surface, a thought, an insignificant gesture. Bardem gives quiet a place within and lets it out seconds at a time.
While The Wolfman was a dismal film otherwise, the special effects and makeup clearly gives it a leg up on the other nominees. The makeup was amazing, if not expensive, sometimes derivative of previous incarnations of the character, but clearly in league with some of the best makeup and special effects people working in the business today. It is a shame that the film suffered from such a poorly written script choked by clichés, delivered with deadpan arrhythmia from actors who had much more to offer than was extrapolated by the director. The Wolfman feels out-of-place in a category for best anything, especially at the Academy Awards, but one must remember that every department on a film acts collectively but suffers alone and hopes alone to be acknowledged for their work regardless of the outcome of the film. The Wolfman works on so few levels the makeup is one of a few that exceeds expectations.
Music (Original Score)
While partial to Trent Reznor‘s music for some time, I was surprised that he was brought on board David Fincher’s film. Reznor’s work on The Social Network seamlessly empowers the film in unexpected, and at times evocative ways, like tiny waves like an undercurrent of uneasiness that fuels the visual mood and tone of the story. Along with the odd choice of David Fincher to helm the film, I was at first curious to imagine what a Trent Reznor score would sound like for a film about Facebook but was pleasantly surprised as all notions of awkwardness about Reznor’s prior music had no effect on how well the score worked with the film.
Music (Original Song)
We Belong Together from Toy Story 3 feels like the right choice both in terms of the successful style of a charming, enjoyable film as well as the inventiveness of the song as representative of the overall theme of the story. Pixar is famous for story and character but the important bridge of the two is theme and Toy Story 3 is loaded with layers of varying themes that are brought to the forefront by Randy Newman‘s song. The song feels like a tip of the hat to the franchise, a farewell song to the last installment of the Toy Story films and an embrace of the meaning of moving on in your life. It is the very idea of moving on while retaining relationships that seems most fitting here and Newman strikes all the right keys. The song fits and it deserves the Oscar.
Any one of these films could take home the Oscar and they would be deserving so. However, 127 Hours, The Kids Are Alright, and The Fighter are lesser films in comparison and as such seem to be the least likely to win. I think the major players in this category are Black Swan, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, and Inception, though I wouldn’t completely rule out The Social Network and The Kings Speech. Black Swan, however is an immensely invigorating film that builds to a crushing crescendo that leaves you at the edge of your seat. Inception is grand if nothing else, an inventive effects driven epic that often seems tangled in its own illusion of complexity. Inception, though not my personal favorite, connected with a broad audience and received a great deal of attention. The Social Network also maintained a buzz for a long spell as did the late comer, The King’s Speech. It is hard to know if the little film will sneak away with the gold, much like The Hurt Locker did against Avatar, or if the specificity of the different films will allow one to separate from the crowd and be the clear front-runner for the award. My personal favorite for Best Picture is Black Swan as much for the lasting impression it left with me as the importance of character and depth driven into every film Aronofsky has made. Black Swan feels like the next step in Aronofsky’s evolution as a filmmaker and one that shows his prowess and command of the cinematic language. The producers deserve credit for giving this picture the support and care it needed and deserve the Oscar for Best Picture.
Short Film (Animated)
It’s challenging to pick a best short animated films as the nominees are each in their own way the best of the best from talented and diverse filmmakers working in animation today. The one film, however, that sticks out among them is Day & Night – a clever, intelligent and funny short that was as inventive as it was memorable. The animation feels timeless, blending age-old techniques with modern technology, or seemingly so to tell a simple story in a direct fashion without taking itself too seriously. Day & Night is my pick for the Oscar.
Short Film (Live Action)
It was easily apparent to me that the best live action Short Film Oscar winner is God of Love – a film that accomplishes a great deal in a short amount of time. God of Love is a comedy about a lounge-singer and darts champion who receives a package of love-inducing darts and becomes a kind of oddball, quirky Cupid. The film won the gold medal at the 2010 Student Academy Awards; special jury recognition at Aspen ShortsFest; as well as first prize and the King Award for Screenwriting at the NYU First Run Film Festival. The most significant thing about Luke Matheny’s film is the genuineness of the story and the casual, though confident manner in which he presents his film as a kind of nod to the romantic comedies of the past that relied less on Hollywood formalism and more on the natural chemistry between characters who share a goal – even when that goal is to become the god of love.
This was a difficult choice as all of the nominees are well made films that don’t especially stand out for their Sound Editing. When I think of sound editing I’m reminded of films like Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July, and The Godfather; films where the sound was as intricate a part of the film as anything. Tron Legacy is an epic film, the sort of genre film that has a difficult time finding a place in the big awards ceremonies. The sound editing in the film is an important and complimentary extension of a big screen special effects driven experience with the volume turned up loud.
Sound Mixing is one of those elements of a film production that is often overlooked, hardly noticed, and barely acknowledged unless it isn’t executed with precision and skill. To fully appreciate the art of sound mixing you should consider the book Practical art of motion picture sound by David Lewis Yewdall. For the purpose of choosing the film that deserves an Oscar for Sound Mixing, one need only look at Inception and the work of Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick. By all rights this is a complicated film, one that pushes the boundaries of the medium in ways that are successful and not so successful. But in the mix, so to speak, is the essential element of sound and the way in which Nolan uses sound in a variety of ways to underscore the various dreamscapes, altered realities, and special effects sequences. I choose Inception for best Sound Mixing.
Inception feels like a film that is first and foremost about the visual effects. It would be impossible to talk about the film without first exploring the intricacies of the various dream levels and effects sequences – the fight scenes are stylistic and realistic, often employing traditional real-world techniques rather than green screen to achieve some of the altered reality moments. Nolan is very much a visual filmmaker, one who envisions a grand stage with larger than life effects and altered perceptions in order to pull audiences out of their seats and overtake their senses. If Inception is anything it is a visual effects buffet and rightfully deserving of the Oscar for Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb.
Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Aaron Sorkin‘s adapted screenplay for The Social Network manages to swiftly and effectively capture the real life story of the founder of Facebook and the tumultuous beginnings of what has become perhaps the most popular social networking portal anywhere. Sorkin gives the material a fast paced quality, one that mirrors director David Fincher’s style of establishing character and then immediately putting them into the heart of the story. By keeping the story moving we’re spared the tiresome details that some biopics fall victim to, the layer upon layer of extraneous facts that are hardly cinematic and often result in a film that is vastly less interesting than the real people portrayed in it. There really isn’t much competition for Sorkin given that The King’s Speech doesn’t fall into this category and Toy Story 3 would have a tough time against a live action feature. Facebook versus Pixar. I’m voting for Sorkin.
Writing (Original Screenplay)
The King’s Speech with a screenplay by David Seidler, is a testament to solid writing, research, and the right filmmakers, actors, and talent coming together to make a little picture with a big voice. There are so many reasons this screenplay topples the competition, from the actual diaries and photographs of the real therapist who worked with the king that were used for inspiration and source materials, to the clever and uplifting story about every one of us, our quips and quibbles, our own failures and shortcomings personified in the character of a king facing the biggest fear of his life. Mike Leigh’s films are not so much written as manufactured over the course of his unique style of filmmaking, and The Fighter was more of an ensemble that never fully rested long enough to be as interesting as it could have been. Inception is a mess both as a film and screenplay, bloated exposition and unnecessarily complicated, the writing got stuck in the mouthes of the actors so often it was nearly impossible to know or care about them. The Kids Are All Right is a contrived effort that has moments but never completely arrives anywhere. David Seidler deserves the Oscar for a competent, enjoyable screenplay that engages and uplifts in a time when ascension is more important than ever.