2013: An Oscar Primer

20130220-124555.jpgI didn’t post immediately this year because, once I saw the nominees, I realized that I was very close to having almost all of them checked off. It seemed worth waiting longer to see the several additional films I knew I could get to quickly. Not counting the difficult foreign and documentary categories, there are only 8 nominees I haven’t seen yet, and it should be down to 2 by Oscar night.

I remember being very irritated last year at nomination time because it had been impossible for me to see a significant number of the nominees. And, in particular, those included nominees with many nominations that had been showing in some parts of the country for months. That problem seems less pronounced this year, though I suspect (as I look at the list of nominees) that it’s because Oscar has made some abnormally middle-of-the-road selections. It is highly unusual for a list of nominees to emerge without any titles I haven’t heard of and only a tiny handful I’ve had no way of seeing.

Perhaps that explains why the pool of nominees feels so small, as well. I’m very much used to reading down the list and feeling that I really have my work cut out for me as I try to see as many nominees as possible. But that’s not so, this time. And that’s a little bit of a let-down, in some ways. I’m missing that feeling of discovery. I expect there are some great films from 2012 that I haven’t heard about and made note of to see, but I didn’t find much of that on the Academy’s list.

Speaking of which, there are 9 nominees for Best Picture this year:

Amour – A slow, French relationship drama about an aging couple? I don’t know, I’d need to be in a really specific mood to- Michael Haneke? Let’s do this! Haneke’s last film, The White Ribbon, was among the very best of the decade, and went all but ignored by the Academy. This one, which I may or may not be able to see before Oscar time, is nominated for 5 awards: Best Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Foreign Film. Every category dripping with prestige, but consequently hotly-contested.

Argo – Ben Affleck’s debut film, Gone Baby Gone, was fantastic, but hardly anyone saw it. His follow-up, The Town, got a lot more attention, well-deserved, but didn’t make the Oscar cut. Argo, Affleck’s first film set outside his native Boston, has exploded into awards season, scooping major nominations and wins all over the place, though Affleck himself has again been snubbed by the Academy. The movie is up for 7 awards: Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Sound Editing. The nominations are a testament to craftsmanship, and though it remains to be seen how many the film can win, Affleck is clearly (and deservedly) on the rise. I got a big kick out of Argo, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Most films are prose, this one is poetry. Story is secondary to theme and emotion and art, but the performances and the writing and the way the film is put together are stunning. It is clear immediately, and the feeling never fades, that this isn’t just another movie. It’s doing unique things in a new way, and it’s a pleasure to see. It is nominated in 4 categories: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress (for, I believe, the youngest performance ever nominated).

Django Unchained – Tarantino continues in his previous vein of gleeful revisionist history through the resurrection of neglected genres. A few years ago, he took on the Holocaust with a Dirty-Dozen-style war flick. Here he tackles slavery via the spaghetti Western, and if he is not quite as successful this time around, the result isn’t any less fun. His film invites multiple viewings, and I have indulged it in this case. Django Unchained, as Tarantino movies often do, grew on me the second time through, and it is a worthy addition to an already masterful filmography. The Academy has nominated it for 5 awards: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound Editing, and Best Cinematography. The nominations are all solid, but I’m surprised it didn’t get any attention for the music. Tarantino’s soundtracks are second to none, and not all of the film’s music comes from outside sources.

Les Miserables – The backlash has been heavy and harsh against one of the last remaining nominees that I haven’t seen. I like musicals and I love the story and characters of Les Miserables, but I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about this version. It doesn’t seem to justify the artistic choice to sing (“sing”) every word of dialogue, and emotions stay at such an exhausting fever-pitch throughout that I find it harder to feel anything at all. That said, I am looking forward to seeing this for myself, and I hope to enjoy it more than my fellow curmudgeons out there. Obviously someone likes it, since it has 8 nominations: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Original Song, Best Makeup, and Best Costumes.

Life of Pi – If you didn’t see this film in 3D on the big screen, you’re missing out on something truly breathtaking. Ang Lee tops even James Cameron and Martin Scorsese, who have directed the most significant 3D films to date. He plays with the size and shape of the frame and transports the audience into the middle of mystical, magical place without ever quite veering off into wholesale fantasy. This is an impressive achievement of adaptation and of filmmaking, and its 11 nominations are no surprise: Best Director, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song. There is a notable absence of performance nominations, however, and I can’t help but think that if Suraj Sharma were better-known, or American/European, he’d have gotten some attention.

Lincoln – Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie has been on the horizon for years, and it turned out to be worth the wait, thanks in large part to Daniel Day-Lewis’ incarnation of the title character. Perhaps you have no trouble remembering that you’re not actually watching Abraham Lincoln himself on screen. But I couldn’t do it. The film has scored the largest number of nominations this year, with 12: Best Director, Best Editing, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Costumes, Best Sound, Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Production Design. At this point in Spielberg’s career, it makes very little sense to say that he has “outdone himself,” but this is certainly a very fine film.

Silver Linings Playbook – Such a wonderful, fun movie, the kind of movie that makes you want to gush, despite yourself. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are both fantastic in it, and the writing is full of life and humanity. I couldn’t help but enjoy this movie from beginning to end. It has 8 nominations: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing. Prestigious nominations, every one, and the only film eligible to win a fabled “Grand Slam” of the 5 most significant awards. That won’t happen, but still, not too shabby.

Zero Dark Thirty – I am skeptical, always, of the urge to commit true events to film soon after they have transpired, but I’m always happy to be wrong. And, after all, this is Kathryn Bigelow, whose film The Hurt Locker is still the only good movie about the War in Iraq. Jessica Chastain delivers a wrenching performance, becoming a human vessel that holds and carries the American obsession with finding Osama bin Laden to its end. Along the way we get a contemporary intelligence procedural that is easily as riveting as the suspenseful raid on bin Laden’s compound. The movie is up for 5 awards: Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Sound Editing.

Now, more briefly, the other nominees, beginning with the ones I’ve seen:

Skyfall, 5 nominations. The most-nominated film with no Best Picture nod, though it probably usually feels like a slap in the face, has landed in an interesting spot this year. Skyfall is now, I believe, the most-nominated Bond film (in addition to being one of he best, for what it’s worth), and that’s nothing to sniff at.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 3 nominations. Oh, Peter Jackson, your first Tolkien film was so good, and we’ve gotten diminishing returns ever since. The Lord of the Rings films were nominated for a combined 30 Oscars, and won 17. The Hobbit films probably aren’t going to get there, or deserve to, judging by the first. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, Jackson has the craftsman in the movie business working for him, and these particular nominations are well-deserved. In fact, the score and songs should have been nominated, as well.
Flight, 2 nominations. It’s hard to imagine any competition for Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln this year, but you see Denzel Washington in Flight, and you wonder if just maybe . . . Well, probably not, but he is great in it. The flight scenes in this are as gripping as anything I saw at the movies this year, and the great supporting cast and emotion-packed story pull you in and don’t let go until the final scene.
Snow White and the Huntsman, 2 nominations. While the nomination for effects comes as no surprise (on the merits of the battle with the forest troll alone), I’m somewhat baffled as to what put this over the edge in the costume category. Why not The Hobbit or The Hunger Games? I mean they’re good, of course. Very good. Just seems an odd choice.
Mirror Mirror, 1 nomination. Speaking of odd, there were two live-action Snow White movies last year, and now they’re both competing for an Oscar? That’s odd. I liked this one better, overall. It was silly, but it possessed a careless whimsy that was almost totally lacking in the other film’s Game of Thrones treatment of the fairy tale.
Moonrise Kingdom, 1 nomination. This was the best film of the year, my favorite film that I’ve seen this year, probably Wes Anderson’s best movie to-date. The single nomination it received is a travesty and a disgrace. This is the first time that my favorite movie of the year that I had seen by nomination time wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, and this is a pretty significant oversight.
Brave, 1 nomination. Enthusiasm for this film has seemed a bit muted, but I thought it was a splendid comeback for Pixar from last year’s Cars 2, and of all the animated nominees, the most deserving of additional nominations (for its music).
ParaNorman, 1 nomination. Mildly charming and reasonably amusing stop-motion riff on monster movie mayhem. And, in this case, category-filler.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits, 1 nomination. Meh. I was pretty disappointed by this movie, particularly considering that it came from the people who made Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit. But maybe my expectations were a factor, and I should give it another try someday.
Wreck-It Ralph, 1 nomination. 2012 was the 75th anniversary of Snow White, the animated film that started them all. Disney has had its bright periods and its dark periods over the years, but for now the good streak continues with this candy-coated gem. This is a classic I look forward to revisiting soon.
Ted, 1 nomination. Guh. This is an Oscar-nominated film? Really? It has as many nominations as Moonrise Kingdom? Really? It has more nominations than [all the movies that weren’t nominated]? Really? Hmph.
The Avengers, 1 nomination. The Avengers don’t care about this nomination. They made all of the money last year, and in Hollywood, isn’t that the real victory?
Prometheus, 1 nomination. Weird, kind of incoherent, but not-without-appeal prequel to the Alien movies that not many people were asking for, and no one was expecting. I’d see it again before I’d watch Alien 3 again.
Hitchcock, 1 nomination. Seldom have I wanted to enjoy a film more, and wound up enjoying it less. I’m not sure what the filmmakers wanted to accomplish, but I know what this film could and should have been, and it’s pretty much the opposite of that.

The nominees I want to see:

Anna Karenina – I have not yet read the massive Anna Karenina . . . Perhaps someday. Meanwhile, though, there is Joe Wright’s luscious (by all accounts) adaptation of the novel, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, and 4 Oscar nominations under its belt. Yum.
The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest epic, always An Event, is noticeably absent from most major award nominations, but it made a strong showing in the performance categories, with 3 nominations, and likely at least 1 win.
Frankenweenie – Tim Burton’s films and I are not on speaking terms at the moment, but I keep giving him one more chance to emerge from the creative stagnation he has been mired in for . . . I don’t know. Too long. But here he is returning to his roots a bit, and leaving Johnny Depp out . . . Promising signs? I look forward to finding out.

The nominees I don’t care about:

The Impossible, 1 nomination. I actually will probably see this, and I’ll probably even like it, but the idea of it is so strange. The film is about the 2005 tsunami that struck Southeast Asia, killing hundreds of thousands of people in one of the most devastating natural disasters of modern times. And part of me finds it very odd that the first story the movies are telling about this 3rd-world calamity is about how a wealthy European family had their vacation ruined. I’ll be happy if that is a false impression.
The Sessions, 1 nomination. I admit, I am mildly curious about what sort of treatment made this a story worth telling, and a story that generated critical acclaim. But not curious enough to go out of my way, I think.
Chasing Ice, 1 nomination. This sounds about as compelling as . . . Well, as watching a glacier melt. Has a documentary ever been nominated for an Oscar but for the documentary award before? Not exactly a vote of confidence for its quality as a film that the sole nomination is for a song which, presumably, plays over the end credits.

Foreign/Documentaries, two elusive categories that can be difficult to get a handle on during the brief weeks between nominations and awards. I’ve pretty much never seen any of them beforehand, often never heard of them at all, so I haven’t much to say. I’ve listed them here in the order of my interest in seeing them. And I’ll note that the documentary category seems even more political than usual this year, and the foreign films, as usual, skew European. And that’s about all I’ve got:

Searching for Sugar Man
The Invisible War
War Witch
The Gatekeepers
5 Broken Cameras
A Royal Affair
How to Survive a Plague

The non-minees, neglected movies that made me ask, “What happened?”

Cloud Atlas, a flawed, but supremely audacious, towering spectacle in a tradition of moviemaking as old as Hollywood itself. I’m surprised not to see nominations for things like writing, music, acting, editing, production design, or visual effects.
Looper, this, not Prometheus, was the sci-fi thriller of the year. It should have been nominated for its writing, if for nothing else.
Lawless, mixed reviews notwithstanding, this is a great telling of a great story with some great performances, and forsure should have been a candidate for its music.
Sleepwalk With Me, this thoroughly-charming little movie based on comedian Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show came right out of left-field . . . A little too far out of left field, apparently, since the Academy gave it a miss. It’s a weird blend of fact and fiction, with the main actor playing himself. Maybe they just didn’t know how to treat it.
The Dark Knight Rises, What. The. Heck. This, not The Avengers, was the superhero film of the year. See above. It seems like a silly joke that the towering conclusion of Nolan’s trilogy, a trio of films that literally reinvented the genre, was completely shut out of awards consideration. Maybe it is. If not, what an absurd blunder.
Safety Not Guaranteed, this a lovely film, and a sneaky one, approaching its emotional center through the eyes of a jaded, cynical protagonist who is as caught off-guard as we are to end up where she does. Brilliantly uses time travel as a conceit for meditating about nostalgia, past mistakes, and wasted youth. More people should know about this and see it, and Oscar should be helping.
Bernie, I don’t think it’s just that I lived several years in the quirky corner of Texas where this film is set. I think it’s a great film, and one of the best and funniest of the year. Jack Black is excellent in it, and the writing, editing, and direction all deserved some attention.
The Hunger Games, this was a huge hit early in the year, and a very successful adaptation with stunning visuals as well as stunning visual effects, a strong ensemble cast, great music, great costumes, great sound . . . What happened?!
The Secret World of Arrietty, the best animated film that I saw last year is somehow ineligible to compete, for reasons no doubt understood only by a few musty-headed rule lawyers in the Academy. Miyazaki’s most soaringly-delightful film in years will apparently just float by entirely unnoticed by the awards season hoopla. It was released in Japan in 2010, but didn’t compete then, either. Something is certainly wrong somewhere.

Predictions . . . Well, not predictions per se, so much as hopes. I play the prediction game, just like everyone else, just to see how well I can “score,” but if you want real predictions, go read Roger Ebert. He’s the one to check with. I’m not interested in trying to publicly call where the awards will go, because ultimately I’m just making it up in the dark, or relying on someone else’s expert knowledge. That seems like a waste of space. Instead, here are the victories that would make me happy:

Best Picture: I’ve enjoyed every nominee I’ve seen, and I don’t think any win would really upset me. My favorite film of the year, Moonrise Kingdom, isn’t in the running. So, other than that, I’ve got a 3-way tie between Argo, Life of Pi, and Lincoln, with Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained in the 2nd tier, and the other films trailing behind.

Best Director: I think I’d most like to see this Oscar go to Steven Spielberg. Lincoln is a great achievement. But I’d be happy with an Ang Lee win, too.

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, no contest.

Best Actress: I’m rooting for Jessica Chastain, but I still need to see Emmanuelle Riva.

Best Supporting Actor: Tough choice, but I’d probably give it to Christoph Waltz. At least until I’ve seen The Master.

Best Supporting Actress: I haven’t seen enough of these yet to say, but why hasn’t Amy Adams won an Oscar yet?

Best Original Screenplay: Moonrise Kingdom, obviously.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Definitely Lincoln.

Best Cinematography: Life of Pi, for sure, though it is high time Roger Deakins won an Oscar.

Best Editing: Lincoln.

Best Production Design: The Hobbit or Life of Pi . . . Ehhh, Life of Pi.

Best Costumes: I like Mirror Mirror for this, actually, though I see the case for Anna Karenina.

Best Makeup: I think The Hobbit deserves this win.

Best Original Score: A lot of great material in this category, but Thomas Newman is long overdue for a win, and I liked his best.

Best Original Song: I think this one should go to Skyfall, as well.

Best Sound and Sound Editing: Lincoln for the former, Django Unchained for the latter.

Best Visual Effects: Definitely, definitely Life of Pi.

Best Animated Feature: This will be the 12th time that this award has been given, and I am shocked to realize that it has never gone to a Disney Animation Studios release. This should be their year, thanks to the delightful Wreck-It Ralph.

Bring on the Awards!

~ by Jared on January 31, 2013.

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