2012: An Oscar Primer
I didn’t even prime the primer last year, because the demands of my job make it difficult to watch the announcement of the nominees and respond immediately, but I wanted to go ahead anyway this year. I’ve still been trying (with mixed success) to keep up with the race, but I find myself having to go farther and farther out of my way to see even the films with the biggest buzz surrounding them.
Nearly half of the Best Picture nominees, including the two that are considered this year’s front-runners, have not yet been released in my city. Now, I may not live in the cultural capital of the nation, but there is still a large audience for all things cultural in my city. We, and other large swathes of the population of this country, are consistently excluded from this conversation and fed a steady diet of inane mediocrity and worse. Alvin and the Chipmunks 3 is still taking up multiple screens here (really? over a month and you think everyone who wants to see that still hasn’t made it in? just release it to Redbox already), and I have small hope that many more of the films I most want to see will arrive before Oscar night.
There is a lot of talk about the problems of Oscar ratings and drawing in viewers, and I’ve heard it said that people don’t watch the Oscars because the Academy passes over the films they like in favor of the films they’ve never heard of. The Academy has attempted to fix this in recent years by dramatically increasing the pool of Best Picture nominees, but the real problem is something else entirely. People have never heard of the films that are being nominated because the studios behind them don’t bother to market those films to a wide audience, let alone make them accessible to that audience. I feel kind of lucky that I only have to drive 100 miles to see limited releases, though even that has become largely impossible with full-time work, a baby, and a limited budget.
Anyway, we have nominees to discuss. The Academy has introduced yet another wrinkle into its nomination process, and the number of Best Picture nominees will now vary each year between 5 and 10 depending on how many films meet a minimum “first-place votes” requirement. Basically, it’s complicated, but don’t worry about it because I’m kind of expecting this rule to change next year. In any case, that means 9 nominees for Best Picture this year:
War Horse – Some people might call this conventional, cliche, and sentimental. I’d call it old-fashioned, a throwback to classic films and filmmakers and to a time when sentimentality wasn’t so deliberately cloying. I loved it. And, particularly after the massive disappointment of Spielberg’s Tintin, it was a welcome relief to go to War Horse and get lost for hours in the simple pleasure of being at the movies. It has 6 nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Music, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. These categories speak to the rich auditory and visual experience of watching this film, and I think I agree completely with the nominations it got and did not get.
The Artist – By now it’s no surprise to anyone who is paying attention to see this title on the list. But if you had told me last year that a foreign silent film would score 10 nominations and be considered the front-runner of this year’s race, I would have laughed and reminded you that it has been 83 years since a silent film was nominated for Best Picture, and that foreign language nominations (does this count?) are rare and never win. And I think Schindler’s List, nearly 20 years ago, was the first black-and-white film to win in decades. If I had somehow believed this could happen, I would then have lamented that there was no chance of the film coming to a theater near me, but I guess I’ll stop whining about that. Since I haven’t seen it, I don’t have much to say about it, except that I really hope I get to see it before Oscar night (it looks like it will be coming to town in early February). The other nominations are: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costumes, Best Editing, and Best Music.
Moneyball – I am really not into sports films, but Moneyball offered me a glimpse of why people care so much about sports and think they matter. That’s an accomplishment that has to count for something. It’s a highly-enjoyable and well-made film, based on actual events, with some great performances, and a strong screenplay. Very solid pick for this category, and a movie I wouldn’t mind seeing again. And now we’ll start seeing trailers that mention “Academy Award Nominee Jonah Hill,” so that will be weird. The film has 6 nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.
The Descendants – This film has some major acclaim behind it, and is surrounded by rave reviews, which was confusing to me until I saw it. Well, it’s still a little confusing. There is something unique about the delicate, graceful way that it navigates a string of painful and emotional situations, transitioning seamlessly between laughter and tears. The writing is strong, and the performances are strong. It’s a good movie. But a great movie? I don’t know. I don’t think so. It’s still the best Hawaii movie since Lilo and Stitch, though. The Descendants has 5 nominations: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Editing.
The Tree of Life – I think it’s fair to say that this is the movie that inspired the most conversations, and the most passionate conversations, this year. Although he is showing signs of becoming more prolific, a new film by Terrence Malick is rare enough to be considered An Event. This is his most ambitious project yet, a semi-autobiographical meditation on birth, childhood, death, creation, evolution, life, the universe, and everything. I was fortunate to have a chance to see it in the theater, and I found it challenging and thought-provoking, but also dense and murky at times. It is certainly not a film with an obvious point to make, or one that reveals all of its quirks and mysteries on a first viewing. That can make for either a rewarding or an irritating experience, depending on the spirit you approach it with, but the most serious criticism that one could charge it with, in my opinion, is that it swings for the stars and only hits the moon. It only has 3 nominations: Best Director and Best Cinematography.
Midnight in Paris – Everyone says this is Woody Allen’s best film in years, and they’re right. When Allen is on, he is on fire. This is only his second screenwriting nomination in a decade (his 15th nomination), his first directing nomination in nearly 2 decades (his 7th nomination), and his first film to be nominated for Best Picture in a quarter of a century (his 3rd nomination). All are well-deserved in this case. This is one of those Woody Allen movies that leaves me wanting more, and sends me looking for more of his films that I haven’t seen. It has 4 nominations, with the last being Best Art Direction.
The Help – I passed on several chances to go see this film because I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to. It is clearly a popular favorite, and the way it was being praised and reviled reminded me very much of the reception for The Blind Side a few years ago. And I hated that movie something fierce. In any case, I caught it on DVD over Christmas, and found the comparison to be somewhat apt. Both films pander to mainstream white audiences’ smug complacency about race and racism, are loaded with cliches and feel-good chuckles, and feature a stand-out performance by an actress that even detractors of the film are willing to praise. I liked The Help better than The Blind Side, but I also had a serious academic interest in it, as I wrote my thesis on adaptations of Southern novels into films. The movie has four nominations: Best Actress, and two for Best Supporting Actress.
Hugo – I can say with no reservations that this is my stand-out favorite film of the year. Martin Scorsese’s first children’s movie is also a passionate plea for film preservation, and it turned out to be a strong justification for the existence of film critics, as well. The advertising for the movie was so spectacularly inept that I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it if it had not been championed by so many. It is a lush and glorious cinematic experience that reminds us all why the world first fell in love with the movies and their wondrous magic over a century ago. It leads the field this year with 11 nominations: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costumes, Best Music, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – This is the one film on the list about which I am genuinely baffled. I had not seen anyone predict its inclusion since it was released to decidedly poor reviews some weeks ago. And I’m not really happy that I’ll now feel obligated to see it. I guess the Academy just can’t resist Stephen Daldry. This is his 4th film, and he received a Best Director nomination for the previous 3, along with Best Picture nominations twice. The movie has a very weak 2 nominations, with the other being Best Supporting Actor. Seriously, what is this movie doing here?
And now for a brief look at the other nominees, beginning with those which I have already seen:
-The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 5 nominations . . . having the most nominations with no Best Picture nod is a dubious distinction, but well-deserved in this case. Despite Fincher’s involvement and some solid elements, this remake failed to either improve on or distinctively alter the previous cinematic version. I’m glad to see it’s better qualities recognized, and nothing more.
-Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, 3 nominations . . . the epic conclusion of the decade-long, 8-film Harry Potter franchise gets about as much attention as previous installments: Recognition for its technical quality, and that’s it.
-Bridesmaids, 2 nominations . . . Kristen Wiig’s movie was the talk of the summer, and deservedly so. Kudos to the Academy for nominating her fantastic writing, and for nominating the great performance by Melissa McCarthy. Comedies are rarely noticed in either category.
-My Week with Marilyn, 2 nominations . . . really great performances from both Branagh and Williams as Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe, respectively. I’m happy to see them recognized.
-The Adventures of Tintin, 1 nomination . . . I was having trouble expressing how much of a dud this film was, despite so much talent and innovation being poured into it, but now Oscar has done it for me. Only John Williams walks away from this looking good.
-Drive, 1 nomination . . . will likely be remembered as the snub of the year, particularly in passing over Albert Brooks’ incredibly unsettling performance, the hauntingly unconventional score, the screenplay, and the editing. I would have expected between 5 and 7 nominations. This is an iconic film, and Oscar really missed the boat.
-The Ides of March, 1 nomination . . . between this and Drive, I’m pretty surprised Ryan Gosling didn’t walk away with a Best Actor nomination. He totally killed both performances. Ides offers some timely and hard-hitting political commentary, and it’s too bad it didn’t get a little more recognition.
-Rango, 1 nomination . . . recycling the plot from Chinatown into a trippy computer-animated western populated by bug-eyed desert critters doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for a classic . . . and, in my opinion, it wasn’t. But a lot of people disagreed.
-Kung Fu Panda 2 & Puss in Boots, 1 nomination each . . . Dreamworks really stuck it to Pixar this year, turning out, not 1, but 2 far better sequels and better films in their follow-ups to Kung Fu Panda and the Shrek series than Pixar managed with its shallow but highly-merchandisable Cars 2.
-Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 1 nomination . . . as a long-time fan of the Planet of the Apes, I went into it hoping for a campy good time, and was totally blown away by an all-around awesome movie experience. I would totally have passed Serkis an acting nomination for his incredible motion-capture performance in this, but that was a bit too radical to hope for, apparently. A writing nomination would have been well-deserved as well, for earning some respect for a decidedly low-brow franchise.
-The Muppets, 1 nomination . . . this brilliant revival of the beloved characters in all their zany glory deserves more recognition than this, like a writing nomination, or a hosting gig. Still, this is a welcome nomination for a great song.
-Rio, 1 nomination . . . I don’t much see the point of a 2-song category, particularly when 1 of the songs is as mediocre as this one. A mediocre song from a mediocre film.
The nominees that I plan to see:
-Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 3 nominations . . . for going on 2 months now, the most obvious sign that all is not right with the world has been that I have had no way to see this movie. How is it possible that a star-studded cerebral adaptation of a best-selling spy novel can’t get a genuine wide release? What gives? Seriously.
-Albert Nobbs, 3 nominations . . . don’t know much about this except that Glenn Close is apparently really great in it, and that it has refused to be even remotely accessible for me to watch.
-The Iron Lady, 2 nominations . . . the buzz is that this is a not-so-great movie wrapped around yet another incredible performance by Meryl Streep. I find the subject interesting enough that that’s a good enough incentive for me to try to see this.
-A Separation, 2 nominations . . . this is that rare foreign language film that breaks out of the non-American ghetto into another category. As such, it becomes a priority.
-Anonymous, 1 nomination . . . it’s out on DVD, so I guess I’ll see it, but I heard enough to know that I’m probably not going to appreciate Emmerich’s conspiracy-theorist take on Shakespeare. Having destroyed the planet in his last disaster movie, the director appears to have shifted to targeting literature.
-Beginners, 1 nomination . . . this got a lot of attention when it was released several months ago, but I never had an opportunity to see it. I’m very excited to do so now.
-A Better Life, 1 nomination . . . I hadn’t heard of this at all until I saw the nominations, but one look at the trailer and I can’t wait to check it out. I love when I find something new among the nominees.
-Chico & Rita, 1 nomination . . . There’s usually an animated release that I haven’t seen and may not even have heard of among the nominees. This year, there are 2, and this is the 1 of those that I want to see. The subject is interesting, and I like the animation style. Now to somehow get ahold of it . . .
-Footnote, 1 nomination . . . I’ve almost never heard of any of the foreign nominations, but this one I had. I latched onto the trailer for this months ago, and I’ve been watching carefully for a chance to see it ever since. It looks fantastic. I wish there were a better process for foreign releases to reach our shores.
-Jane Eyre, 1 nomination . . . I liked the look of this trailer when it appeared ages ago, and then I never saw an opportunity to actually see the film. There was almost no fanfare or advertising about it, and it just quietly faded away. Now I have both a reminder and an excuse to track it down.
-Margin Call, 1 nomination . . . a meaty, critically-acclaimed, star-studded take on the recent Wall Street meltdown? Yes, please.
-Monsieur Lazhar, 1 nomination . . . of the other foreign language nominees, this is the one I most want to see besides Footnote. I don’t know if it’s because of the teacher angle, or what, but it looks really good.
-Real Steel, 1 nomination . . . I thought this looked like some shallow, entertaining fun, and it’s been in the dollar theater here for weeks. I’m 100% more likely to go check this out than the other giant robots movie occupying the visual effects category.
Nominees that don’t really interest me (but which I may end up watching anyway):
-Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 3 nominations . . . Everyone said this was better than the previous Transformers. Talk about damning with faint praise.
-A Cat in Paris, 1 nomination . . . the animation style and the plot revealed in the trailer were not particularly compelling, so I’ll pass unless that opinion finds a reason to change.
-Warrior, 1 nomination . . . nothing about this looked very interesting, and I’m not a fan of the subject or the genre.
-W.E., 1 nomination . . . meh.
The non-minees, neglected movies that made me ask “What happened?” (undoubtedly incomplete):
-Limitless, Maybe this was all about expectations, but (in contrast to the trailer) I was blown away by the way this movie handled its core concept. The writing was solid, and there were a number of interesting cinematic techniques that lent visual support to the ideas.
-X-Men: First Class, It really feels like summer blockbusters got the shaft this year, even in the technical categories they normally dominate. This one revitalized a franchise I had given up on, in a big way, and featured one of several great performances by the unnominated Michael Fassbender.
-The Guard, A hilariously-foul little black comedy in the vein of In Bruges, with fantastic writing and performances by Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson. I’m not sure that it was ever on the Oscar radar, but it should have been.
-Winnie the Pooh, This joyous, beautiful visit to the 100-Acre Wood was totally delightful, and should have been a shoe-in for the animated feature category, both for its wonderfulness, and for how well the nostalgia it inspires fits the apparent theme of the other nominees.
-Super 8, Abrams managed to out-Spielberg Spielberg this year with his homage to the great director’s early-80s oeuvre. It’s yet another slice of nostalgia that somehow didn’t score any Oscar attention.
-Contagion, Soderbergh struck out across the board with his global pandemic drama. I thought it had some really great characters and ideas, and it was different from anything I’d seen before. Unfortunately, “different” can be a bad word at the Oscars.
-Attack the Block, Speaking of “different,” this British alien invasion action dramedy, featuring a gang of teen thugs taking on a horde of space monsters, really wowed me when I finally had a chance to see it. Definitely one of the better movies of the year, and definitely deserving of some attention.
-The Mill & the Cross, I haven’t seen this yet, but based on the trailer alone, I’m surprised it didn’t at least get some visually-oriented nominations.
-Win Win, This movie got a lot of attention early in the year, but apparently it wasn’t enough to get any at the end of the year. I have yet to see it, but it’s still on my list.
-Take Shelter, I’m very excited to see Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to Shotgun Stories, especially after some personal recommendations, but it’s kept a pretty low profile.
-Melancholia, This film inspired reactions almost as extreme, if not as shrill, as The Tree of Life. I’m guessing Lar von Trier’s silly Nazi remarks at Cannes sunk any Oscar chances his movie might have otherwise had.
-Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, I spent months hearing about Elizabeth Olsen’s incredible performance in this, only to see her come up empty-handed on nomination day. What gives?
-50/50, A cancer comedy, huh? Not so much with the awards, I guess.
-Shame, Michael Fassbender has exploded onto the scene with no less than five high-profile performances this year. By all accounts, this is the one everyone will remember that Oscar didn’t nominate him for.
-A Dangerous Method, The third Fassbender flick to make this portion of my list. And a Cronenberg movie, to boot. Tragic.
-Coriolanus, I am super psyched to see Ralph Fiennes’ Shakespearean directorial debut. It’s got to be better than Julie Taymor’s take on The Tempest, and that at least got one nomination.
-Drive, I know I mentioned this already, but seriously? A single nomination for sound editing? That’s almost worse than none at all. It says, “Yes, we saw you, and this was the only thing that stood out to us.” I think this will likely go down as the big mistake of 2011.
-The Muppets, Second verse, same as the first. A single nomination for its song? This movie was so clever, a top-notch production in so many ways, and this is all the recognition it gets? Ridiculous.
-Rise of the Planet of the Apes, And one more time. A single nomination, for visual effects? Well, at least that’s better than the song thing, but Avatar got 9 nominations for being the technical feat of its year and not much else (well, I guess there was the billion dollar gross). This had some depth and substance in addition to being an incredible achievement. You do the math.
Finally, last and least, my own predictions and hopes for the final outcome:
Best Picture: By all accounts, The Artist has this so locked-in that it’s not even an interesting race. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t say I hope it will win. Right now my preference is on Hugo, a totally magical movie experience that I can’t wait to repeat. What a great way to introduce the 3D generation to the wonder of silent films. Midnight in Paris and War Horse round out my top 3, with Moneyball floating not too far behind. The Descendants is the long-shot.
Best Director: Here, again, I think The Artist is favored, but I almost can’t imagine the award going to Hazanavicius when Scorsese, Allen, and Malick are all nominated. Malick deserves to win, no question. Though, again, I’ll put in another plug for Scorsese, if only because I’m afraid that, 11 nominations notwithstanding, Hugo will go home almost empty-handed.
Best Actor: I’ve only seen two of the nominated performances. Based on that, I’d give the award to Clooney for The Descendants. I think it has a definite shot. But this is another strong category for The Artist.
Best Actress: I think Viola Davis will win this award for The Help, and deserve it. Rooney Mara was very good in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but Noomi Rapace was far better. It would also be nice to see Michelle Williams win for briefly bringing Marilyn Monroe back from the dead.
Best Supporting Actor: I believe Christopher Plummer is the favored choice for Beginners, which I have not yet seen. Jonah Hill was very good in Moneyball, but not Oscar-good. Right now, I’d give the award to Kenneth Branagh for his spectacular channeling of Sir Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn.
Best Supporting Actress: I’d give this award to Melissa McCarthy, but I don’t think that will happen. I’d also give it to Jessica Chastain (for The Tree of Life, even though she’s nominated for The Help), which might happen. Most likely, though, is that it goes to Octavia Spencer for The Help, which would be less than ideal. Viola Davis played a human being. Octavia Spencer played a cardboard cut-out of one.
Best Original Screenplay: I’m rooting for Woody Allen here. He really knocked it out of the park with one of his strongest screenplays in a long time. Fantastic. I’d also be happy to see Kristen Wiig win, just because. Yet again, we have a category with The Artist, but I think that would be a mistake (even though I have not yet seen it).
Best Adapted Screenplay: I think this should go to Hugo, and hooray for a major category where it doesn’t have to compete with The Artist. This is a stronger overall category than Original Screenplay this year, so I could almost see the award going to any of the nominees. I’ll predict Moneyball.
Best Cinematography: War Horse and Hugo are totally gorgeous and visually sophisticated, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a strong contender. In fact, there are no unworthy nominees. But this award must go to The Tree of Life. There’s no doubt about it.
Best Editing: I would give this one to Moneyball, or to Hugo. However, Editing is most frequently aligned with the Best Picture winner (though not always), which will likely be The Artist.
Best Art Direction: This is another strong category, with The Artist, Midnight in Paris, and War Horse, but I’ll predict for Hugo. I probably shouldn’t count out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which might win an award for the series as a whole. This is Harry Potter’s 4th nomination in this category, with no wins as yet.
Best Costume Design: Here’s yet another category with nominations for both Hugo and The Artist. But I think that this will be a toss-up between Jane Eyre and Anonymous, the true costume dramas of the race. I’m leaning in the direction of Jane Eyre.
Best Makeup: I’d say this is Harry Potter‘s best shot at a win.
Best Original Score: Some of the best music of the year was shut out of this category, so I’m not sure what to go with. What little backlash The Artist has faced has centered around its use/misuse of a classic theme from Vertigo, so it would be odd if it won here. Hugo has charming music, and the score for Tintin was as forgettable as the movie. But the score for War Horse was really good. I think I’ll lean in that direction. John Williams continues to be the most-nominated living person, scoring his 46th and 47th Oscar nominations this year, but he hasn’t won since Schindler’s List in 1993. We shall see.
Best Original Song: Out of a pathetic field of only 2 choices, I’m definitely going with The Muppets. I will be seriously annoyed if it doesn’t win.
Best Sound Mixing & Sound Editing: These are, to my mind, the most technical of the awards, which makes my personal choice the least-educated. I’m going to say The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Drive.
Best Visual Effects: I’d say Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the most deserving this year, but I do have that soft spot for Hugo and its brilliant evocation of the movie magic of yesteryear.
Best Animated Film: After winning this category for the last four years running, Pixar doesn’t even have a horse in this race, which leaves a double opening for Dreamworks, which hasn’t had a win for a computer-animated film since Shrek won in the category’s first year. I think their time has come again, and they’ll get it for Kung Fu Panda 2. But I’m being very bold, because without Pixar in the mix, this category feels strangely unpredictable.
And there it is, my nominee analysis, only 1 week late. Not bad considering my general business, and I’ll be back here in just under a month to see how I did! I’ll know a lot by the time the ceremony starts that I don’t know now, and will hopefully have seen several more of the nominees, which will change things up, but it’s always interesting to see where I was in my ideas right after the nominations hit. See you then!