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With Oscar nominations just days away, I must admit this is a weird year for me. First, I feel somewhat less engaged than normal. The earlier nominations (they are announced two weeks earlier than they used to be) mean that I’ve seen fewer of the contenders. Perhaps I’m paying a bit less attention. Maybe I haven’t found anything to champion. But this year it’s not for a lack of good movies but because many of the ones I liked are getting plenty of awards chatter.

But surely there will be a few things that would excite me on Thursday morning.

oblivion

1) Let Oblivion get nominated for something. In particular I have M83’s fantastic score in mind. The film’s end credit song, naturally called “Oblivion,” is eligible in the Best Original Song category and would be a good choice in a year of lackluster choices. A nod in the Visual Effects category would be well-deserved too. In other words, I’m hoping for an Original Score nod but would take the others as consolation prizes.

isaac llewyn davis2) I’m worried Inside Llewyn Davis is turning out to be the contender that will be just on the outside. If anything is going to get edged out in some big categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay), this seems to be the one. It’s not a movie I immediately loved, but it’s sticking to my bones and that’s usually a sign of a film that I grow to love. I hope Oscar Isaac sneaks into the Best Actor lineup.

louis dreyfus gandolfini enough said3) Some love for Enough Said would be wonderful. I was the Golden Grouch detractor on Nicole Holofcener’s last film, Please Give, but I was totally on board with this one. James Gandolfini has received due praise (though I can’t help but think his death is playing a role in that) but Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a revelation. It seems extremely doubtful that she’ll claim a nod but she’s at the top of my list so far. A Gandolfini Supporting Actor nomination or one for Holofcener’s Original Screenplay would be excellent.

gatsby lana4) I don’t think it’ll have much trouble getting them, but some craft nominations for The Great Gatsby would be nice to see. Production Design would be at the top of my list. Meanwhile, the film contributes my favorite of the Best Song contenders, Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful,” which has the added benefit of having a killer placement in the film. “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” from – gasp! – Fergie would also be a decent choice.

 

 

broken circle breakdown5) It’s not exactly a fair wish as I haven’t seen the other films on the shortlist, but I’m hoping for a Best Foreign Language nomination for The Broken Circle Breakdown. It doesn’t always work, but the parts that do pack some of the most powerful punches in 2013 cinema.

So that’s my list. In two weeks when I’ve finally caught up with the likes of Fruitvale Station, Wolf of Wall Street, Her, and Nebraska I’ll probably have a lot more to add. I’ll look back at this prior version of myself who contentedly set his hopes low and pity him once I know better. But for now I’m an easy man to please.

Here’s a quick round-up of what we think should win tonight. Follow along to see what Oscar gets right! (Hint: use the “John” column)

Jared John
Picture Argo Django Unchained
Director Spielberg Lee
Actress Lawrence Chastain
Actor Day-Lewis Day-Lewis
Supporting Actress Hathaway Hathaway
Supporting Actor Waltz Hoffman
Original Screenplay Flight Flight
Adapted Screenplay Argo Argo
Animated Feature Wreck-It Ralph Brave
Animated Short Paperman
Cinematography Lincoln Anna Karenina
Costume Mirror Mirror
Film Editing Argo
Makeup and Hairstyling Les Miserables
Production Design Anna Karenina
Score Life of Pi
Song Skyfall Skyfall
Sound Editing Django Unchained
Sound Mixing Les Miserables
Visual Effects Life of Pi

The Oscars are quickly approaching. Because we’ve spent the time to see the nominees and because we’re really smart (and I, at least, have impeccable taste), we’re telling you what should win in all the categories.

Best Production Design

The nominees are:

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

John

Meerkat island aside, what part of Life of Pi earned it a nomination in this category? The look and feel of the lifeboat? The precise level of surreal air given to any particular scene surrounded by vast open sea? But the Art Directors Guild gave it the win in the fantasy film category so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.

I specifically saw Les Miserables on a larger screen because I thought the sets would be fun to see, but they were underutilitzed in the film. Director Tom Hoopers constant closeup shots didn’t bother me as much as it did others, but it certainly made it hard to appreciate the backdrops. The film also lacked the epic air I expected it to have, part of that due to uninspired (and overly-digital) period sets.

Lincoln and The Hobbit both have very effective production design that subtly help establish their settings without getting in their way. They are also both somewhat unmemorable and The Hobbit‘s sets aren’t really breaking any new ground. There are a few new castles, but otherwise much of the film takes place outside or in settings first created for Lord of the Rings over a decade ago.

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That leaves me with Anna Karenina. I love the creative use of sets in this film. Many scenes take place in an old theater that is constantly shifting to represent different settings, from a horse race to a train station to a ballroom. The film notably loses its luster in its second half when it moves away from the theater more often. I am somewhat conflicted, however, because I’m not sure it’s much more than a gimmick. I pilloried the nomination Nine received in this category a few years back because it was basically creative use of scaffolding and I don’t want to be a hypocrite. But, hell, the production design by itself greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the film so I’ll roll with it, even if the “living life on a stage” allegory is a little trite.

There were several films with really interesting production design that would have made for a stellar list of nominees. What about the various spacecraft of Prometheus? The numerous time periods – particularly the future dystopia – of Cloud Atlas? And, especially, Skyfall for its villain lair, Shanghai skyscraper, gloomy London offices, and creaky Scottish estate?

Jared

annakpd2

I haven’t been able to bring myself to see The Hobbit, so I won’t submit a vote, but I wanted to a say a few words on behalf of Anna Karenina, my clear favorite among the other four nominees. Granted, I’m not sure the production design was used as well as it could have been (I’m putting that more on Joe Wright). But I can vividly remember the sets from the film (no small feat), a wide array of different settings. And different levels, really, thanks to the odd play within a movie effect that Wright seemed to be going for, some of the time. Those meta-sets were all extremely clever. I also thought the design team put together some pretty impressive sets which were a little more traditional. Oblonsky’s workplace and home, the cottage in the field, Vronsky’s apartment, really, just about everywhere felt heightened without going over the top, a large range of different types of sets, all of which enhanced the feel of the movie.

Best Costume Design

The nominees are:

  • Anna Karenina
  • Les Miserables
  • Lincoln
  • Mirror Mirror
  • Snow White and the Huntsman

John

mirrormirror2As usual, this category is dominated by fantasy and period pieces. Lincoln, Anna Karenina, and Les Miserables all have flashy period costumes, but I’m a little tired of frilly frocks taking this prize year after year. Plus, as advocates for more contemporary designs often point out, a lot of period costumes can simply be rented. Not to deride the costumes in these films – all are notable and interesting in their films – but none feel vital to their films or their visual designs except that they are period-appropriate.

mirrormirror1The Snow White films do more. In Snow White and the Huntsman, I’d say Cherlize Theron’s Evil Queen wardrobe really drove the nomination and her clothing, in turn, helped set the tone for the character. But Mirror Mirror takes only about five minutes to win the battle of the Snow Whites and, therefore, this category. The late Eiko Ishioka designs a wide range of bizarre yet delightful designs that contribute to the film’s fun, campy tone. An animal-themed costume party and the seven dwarfs’ slinky pogo pants are two standouts for me.

Looking at some other films that might have made an impact here, how about combination of period clothing and Andersonian design for Moonrise Kingdom? Or the bizarre fashion and dystopian look of The Hunger Games?

Nominations are less than a day away! Time to put our forecasting mettle to the test and see if we can’t pick the nominees. Jared and I did all non-short categories and Brian joined us for the big six. I’ve highlighted in yellow where we differ.

Check back tomorrow to see how we did!

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Over the past two weeks we’ve been revealing our choices for most of the Oscar categories. Here is a handy recap of those picks! Refer to this page often during tonight’s telecast to see if you should be agreeing with the winners! (Hint: use the “John” column)

Adam Brian Jared John
Picture Hugo The Artist Midnight in Paris
Director Allen Scorsese Havanavicius Malick
Actress Mara Mara Williams Streep
Actor Dujardin Dujardin Dujardin Oldman
Supporting Actress Bejo Bejo Spencer Chastain
Supporting Actor Hill Nolte Branagh Plummer
Original Screenplay Midnight in Paris Margin Call The Artist Midnight in Paris
Adapted Screenplay Hugo The Descendants Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Art Direction Midnight in Paris Hugo Hugo Hugo
Cinematography The Tree of Life Hugo The Tree of Life The Tree of Life
Costume Anonymous Jane Eyre
Film Editing Hugo Moneyball The Descendants
Makeup Harry Potter The Iron Lady Harry Potter The Iron Lady
Score The Artist The Adventures of Tintin
Song The Muppets The Muppets The Muppets
Sound Editing Transformers The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Transformers Drive
Sound Mixing Transformers The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Transformers Transformers
Visual Effects Transformers Rise of the Planet of the Apes Harry Potter Transformers
Animated Short A Morning Stroll A Morning Stroll A Morning Stroll Wild Life
Live Action Short Time Freak Time Freak
Documentary Short Saving Face The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

The 84th Academy Awards is almost here! Leading up to the event, we’re going to put all the hours we spent watching these films to good use by giving our thoughts on all the categories, big and small. We may not be experts on everything, but I daresay that’s never stopped anyone from blogging before. On the (very remote chance) you disagree with us or the (much more likely chance) you want to applaud our picks, please chime in below.

Art Direction

The nominees are:

  • The Artist, Production Design: Laurence Bennett; Set Decoration: Robert Gould
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Production Design: Stuart Craig; Set Decoration: Stephenie McMillan
  • Hugo, Production Design: Dante Ferretti; Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo
  • Midnight in Paris, Production Design: Anne Seibel; Set Decoration: Hélène Dubreuil
  • War Horse, Production Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Lee Sandales

JOHN

Art Direction is probably my favorite small category after Song. Why? I love sets! Many a mediocre film has been upgraded in my eyes due to neat sets. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is a lot of noise but the film’s stylish take on Victorian London always gives you something to look at when the plot takes another stupid turn. Or how about a similar entry from this year, missing from the nomination list: Captain America devolved into a lot of mind-numbing explosions, but it happened in some fantastic-looking enemy bases with their mix of Nazi, supernatural, and mechanical elements.

There’s a clear best in show winner for this year in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which of course wasn’t even nominated. There’s a film with meticulous, detail-rich sets that help establish the film’s cool style. Is there a set image more iconic from 2011 than the egg-crate insulation in the MI6 isolation meeting rooms? That and that neat doorframe in the middle of the desert in The Tree of Life, of course!

So my winner will instead be Hugo, another film whose setting really sets the tone for its overall style. It’s colorful, busy, and often quite beautiful. The train station will get most attention, but the designs of Méliès’s studio and house are also quite memorable. The film intent to pull the audience into its sense of magic didn’t really work on me, but I can understand how the production design would help sweep away those who fell under its spell.

The Artist also looks great. Design is a different beast in black and white and the film still has a nice sense of artistry as well as a neat period look. Furthermore, War Horse also has some effective sets. They’re not as flashy, but I liked the look of the windmill and the family’s house at the beginning of the film. The war scenes, mostly stripped of any gore, work as well as they do to show the horrors of war with the help of the design of the bleak trenches and No Man’s Land.

JARED

As anyone who has seen my room may attest, aesthetically pleasing spaces are maybe not so much my forte.  Being a war movie may have made War Horse a shoo-in, but I found the sets merely adequate.  Similarly, nothing in particular stood out for me with Midnight in Paris.  Though I suppose big and bold is what tends to get my attention in this category, and that may not be fair.  Speaking of bid and bold, though, this Harry Potter was the first that I’ve seen.  The wide range of locations were really impressive, but I wonder if maybe people are conflating their love of the series with admiration for the art direction.

I love many things about The Artist, and the scenery is certainly up there.  I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, but putting together a modern take on an old-timey look isn’t easy, and the crew pulled it off with style.  In particular, I’m thinking of the movie sets and scenes at the studios, which felt wonderfully alive.

Infringing on Brian’s turf here, but I think Hugo is my pick here.  I’m a big enough man to admit that even though I disliked much about the film, creating the world of the train station was really something special.  From the inner workings where Hugo lived to the bookstore, to the wide open concourses, the film established a magical, vivid world.  And Ben Kingsley’s film set was pretty neat too.

BRIAN

Hugo

ADAM

Midnight in Paris

 

Oscar nomination morning comes with its share of surprises and disappointments. We can argue endlessly on the merits (or lack thereof) of the nominees and the snubbed. But it also brings a certain amount of the absurd: the sort of things that, regardless of personal opinion, just don’t make sense. That’s what I want to briefly talk about today. Three weeks after nominations and I still don’t get these.

Only two Best Song nominees

Thankfully this has gotten lots of press. This was a fairly good year for movie songs. I didn’t do my once-annual song roundup this year though not due to a lack of compelling options like last year, but just a lack of time. In the mix of fun Muppets ditties, above-average animated tunes, and compelling fade-to-black melodies from the likes of The National and Chris Cornell that appropriately encapsulate a film’s atmosphere, there were several good options.

Instead, the music branch nominated just two songs. The nomination process was tweaked two years ago. Branch members see clips of all the qualified songs as they appear in their movies then rate each on a 6-10 numeric scale. Only songs that receive an 8.25 average or above may be nominated. The result is the number of songs can fluctuate each year.

The fact that the branch felt fit to nominate only two songs annoys me, but I suppose it could be a true difference of opinion. I don’t think War Horse is one of the year’s best films, either. But what really kills me is that last year had the exact same nominating process and four songs received nominations. Last year’s list of qualified songs was really bland and the four nominated songs were totally unmemorable. I don’t know how anyone could look at that list of songs and see more quality choices than this year. Even if we disagree on which songs, there’s no way there are twice as many deserving songs last year compared to this year.

I hope the outcry this year makes the Academy rethink the nomination process.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Screwed

It’s hard to call many things locks when it comes to craft categories, but one of the surest to me was Maria Djurkovic for Best Art Direction in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Here’s a film that is heavily steeped in its setting, particularly in the memorable building housing the MI6 spy service. Djurkovic swept through critics and precursor awards. Some precursors have catch-all technical awards, placing craft artists from different disciplines together in one category. Djurkovic wasn’t just nominated but she was winning, beating out the best costume designers and makeup artists.

I just don’t get how she missed when it came to the Oscars!

We’ve been releasing our takes on the big eight categories throughout the week with a few more to come. Before the big show tonight, I wanted to take one last look at some of the smaller categories that we didn’t bother to do the full treatment on, mostly because we have successful careers and vibrant social lives. Mmmhmm

Art Direction

Nominees: Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 1, Inception, The King’s Speech, True Grit


How many of these movies have rotating hallways and a flooded Japanese pagoda-style mansion? Oh, just Inception? Then I pick that.

Makeup

I’ve only seen The Way Back, but what a makeup job it is. This is a film about escaped prisoners traveling across Siberia and the Gobi desert. That is a hard trek and the makeup really sells it: sunburn, bug bites, extreme thirst, swollen limbs. The makeup is integral, noticeable, and realistic. Also, Colin Firth has some badass tattoos.

Documentary Feature

Restrepo and Exit Through the Gift Shop are both terrific and number among my favorite films of the year. I do like Restrepo slightly more, though I’m rooting for Exit because it’s so different from the usual Oscar documentary and because I love the idea of Banksy as an Oscar winner.

There’s been some talk of Waste Land coming up on the outside and sneaking in for the win. That would be unfortunate. It follows an artist as he recruits trash pickers in Rio de Janeiro’s largest dump to help him create large-scale works of art out of garbage. It’s a decent film, but it piqued my interest in ways I don’t think it intended. The first half deals a lot with the pickers’ daily lives. Where the film sees degradation I see fascinating economic forces at work – mainly positive ones. The film also has an intense Savior Through Art theme, which is probably the common movie theme that I hate the most. It drives my left-sided economist brain crazy. Savior Through Economic Growth, Technological Advancement, Improving Institutions, and Access to Credit, anyone?

I haven’t seen the other two nominated documentaries.

Animated Feature

Toy Story 3 is still my pick, but I have seen The Illusionist since my look at this category a month or so back. (You can go there to see my thoughts on Toy Story and the third nominee, How to Train Your Dragon.)

The Illusionist is amazingly gorgeous. The hand-drawn, watercolor style is breathtaking and creates a wonderfully colorful and vivid version of Scotland. It also has one of my favorite shots of the year, one that starts on a grassy hilltop and swoops through the streets of Edinburgh. I literally gasped, which I believe no 3D animated film has made me do. Director Sylvain Chomet also composed his own music, and it’s very good.

I wish Chomet would break away from the wordless style that he uses here and in Triplets of Belleville. Both films feel slight on plot without dialogue to advance them, which makes them drag. The whimsy and the animation go a long way, but a little more needs to happen to really push me over the top.

Live Action Short

Shorts International and Magnolia have been releasing the Oscar nominated shorts theatrically for the past few years. I would encourage those who can to see out this year’s Live Action program (I believe you can also find them on iTunes).

My choice is Wish 143, about a teen with terminal cancer who gets to participate in a Make A Wish-type program. His wish? To lose his virginity. This film killed me. It does a great job of portraying one’s reaction to illness. The teen, played by Samuel Holland, is so richly realized. For most of it I wondered if it would be appropriate to put a short on my Top 10 list. Unfortunately the ending stumbles a bit.

Na Wewe is my second choice and will be your winner tonight. A van is stopped by rebels in Burundi during the Rwanda/Burundi genocide in the 90s. The rebels separate the passengers into Hutus and Tutsis, planning to execute the latter. The passengers try to convince the rebels to spare them. It has basic emotional elements (suspense/ tragedy/ injustice), an important issue (genocide), and a well-developed and feel good – albeit somewhat obvious – theme (self-definition and how we’re all connected). A natural winner.

The other nominees are God of Love, a cute film about a modern-day hipster Cupid who uses darts instead of arrows; The Crush, a trite story of a young boy who has a crush on his teacher and will fight for his love; and The Confession, a good-looking but sort of pointlessly bleak tale of two boys who can’t figure out what to confess for their first Confession so they set out to cause some trouble.

Animated Short

I try to catch these every year because it usually features some really creative animation. I was underwhelmed with this slate. Check out the live action shorts if you can only see one.

Madagascar, carnet de voyage (Madagascar, a Journey Diary) is the only one that wowed me. And even then, it’s much more style than substance. It’s about a trip into the Malagasy countryside, visualized as a scrapbook come to life. The story is sort of bland, but the animation pops with some cool use of perspective. The Malagasy music used as accompaniment is also a treat.

Let’s Pollute is an amusing take on a 1950s public service film, sarcastically promoting the benefits of pollution. The Lost Thing follows a boy who finds some sort of alien-robot on the beach and tries to find a home for it. Honestly, I just didn’t get it. Day & Night is the cute Pixar short preceding Toy Story 3 about two characters representing the two times of day. I hear it’s great in 3D, but I’ve only seen it in two dimensions, where it’s rather flat, pardon the pun.

The Gruffalo is by far the longest and features the voices of several famous actors like Helena Bonham Carter. The animation is nothing special and the plot is aimed at the toddler level. At 30 minutes, this adult was very restless by the end as I knew where it was heading about 5 minutes in. And yet, except for one brief mention of Madagascar, it was literally the only film people were talking about walking out of the theater. It makes me wonder if it has a shot for the win.

We’re finishing off our look at the smaller categories today with a look at the ones that we care to talk about.

Original Song

The nominees, with videos so that you may listen:

  • “Almost There” Princess and the Frog, Music and lyric by Randy Newman
  • “Down in New Orleans” Princess and the Frog, Music and lyric by Randy Newman
  • “Loin de Paname” Paris 36, Music by Reinhardt Wagner and lyric by Frank Thomas
  • “Take it All” Nine, Music and lyric by Maury Yeston
  • “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” Crazy Heart, Music and lyric by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett

Jared starts us off:

Randy Newman has written many smart, catchy songs for film and for his albums.  “Down in New Orleans” is an example of some of the dreck he’s also come up with.  Reminds me of that bit from Family Guy about Randy Newman singing what he sees (couldn’t find video, but here’s the audio).

“Loin de Paname” was a surprise nominee, but having heard the song, it totally makes sense.  Because it is basically “La Vie en Rose”.  Except they say “Paris” a lot.  New rule of thumb for picking Oscar song nominees: If it sounds like it could play over a Sabrina-like character finding herself in Paris montage, it is probably going to get a nomination.

“Almost There” sounds almost exactly like I’d expect a song from a Disney animated to sound.  Fits right in with the throwback feel the studio was going for with the movie.  Anika Noni Rose does a lovely job with the song, but to me, the tune is lacking soul.  It is a fine song, but doesn’t have that extra oomph to really make it memorable.

Since Oscar voters get to see the context in which the songs appear in their respective films, it is no wonder that “Take It All” received a nomination.  Heck, I’d probably consider some Nickelback if it got Marion Cotillard to strip.  But really, it is an average burlesque number, and Cotillard isn’t nearly bold enough a singer to cover for the song’s lack of originality.

So yeah, no surprise that “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” is the class of the bunch.  Haunting and at time soul-wrenching, it is a pretty little number that perhaps raised my expectations for the film a little too high.  There was absolutely space to use the song in a much more striking fashion, like in many other areas, the film fell short.  Still, a great song used to good effect in the film.  A worthy nominee and hopefully more.

But John sets him straight

I like this slate of original songs. Of course if I had made the nominees they would be substantially different, but it’s a good mix of seriously good songs, contenders, and a completely from left field entry. The song category is good for these outlier nominees and it keeps it interesting even if I don’t always agree.

That outlier is “Loin de Paname.” To me it’s a nondescript French tune, as if someone set out to write a song that was stereotypically French complete with accordion.

“Almost There” is too simplistic for my tastes. Too much of the lyrics simply repeat the title. I think the music is fine.

“This Is It” didn’t strike me as particularly noteworthy when first listening to the eligible songs. It starts alluring and ends dramatic, so I could sort of see the appeal. But I totally understand after watching Nine where this number is easily the best scene in the film. It works in a way that the rest of the movie does not so the song’s inclusion here makes a lot more sense. On its own I think it’s still only okay, but at least now I can picture the film while it’s playing.

The final two songs are terrific. Jared’s dismissal of “Down in New Orleans” is disappointing. I really dig this jazzy tune. It has some catchy lyrics and a more complex structure than “Almost There.” Part of the key is listening to the version sung by Dr. John that comes early in the film rather than the Anika Noni Rose version, which is split between a prologue and epilogue. I’m always tickled by the way Dr. John croons “They got music,  it’s always playin’/ start in the day time, go allllllll through the night.”

The winner of course is “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart. It’s heartfelt and beautiful and fits the tone of the film perfectly. I also appreciate the song’s role in the film itself. If anything it’s problem is that it’s so much better than everything else in the film! With this song playing over the trailer I expected some great music going into the film, just to be disappointed when every other Bad Blake song is bland mainstream country.

Snubs: I’ve had two songs stuck in my head the most this season along with “The Weary Kind.” One is “Help Yourself” from Up in the Air which was deemed ineligible. But I hear this song and I am transported right back to the film’s powerful atmosphere.

And the other – would it be weird to say? – was the Sinead O’Connor end credits track to The Young Victoria, Only You.” The combination of her breathy voice and a catchy hook and chorus combo completely draw me in.

And of course I was hoping for a Karen O entry from Where the Wild Things Are because she’s so great.

Original Score

The nominees:

  • James Horner, Avatar
  • Alexandre Desplat, Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, The Hurt Locker
  • Hans Zimmer, Sherlock Holmes
  • Michael Giacchino, Up

Brian lets us in on his musical brilliance:

So I write this as a guy who would consider buying satellite radio for the sole purposes of listening to Cinemagic — the movie score channel — all the time. Movie scores are grossly underappreciated, I think, and are the equivalent of the concertos and symphonies written by the musical masters of the 19th century. So I go into this category with pretty high expectations and a healthy dose of snobbery. A couple of caveats and qualifiers: I haven’t seen two of these films in theaters, so I’m judging based on what I can listen to online and my favorite composers (James Newton Howard, Michael Newman, and Philip Glass) aren’t up for awards this year — which is a good thing because I’m going through this with an open mind. Lastly, had Marvin Hamlisch been nominated for The Informant, he would have won my vote.

In order of least favorite to favorite, with only really one disappointing score among them:

James Horner — Avatar

In my Lock That Shouldnt Be post, i wrote about how I really wished that Horner would get ignored, but that was not meant to be. I’m generally disinclined to like any score that uses choirs as heavily as Horner does in Avatar. If I wanted to hear falsettos chanting unintelligbly, I’d go to the opera or buy a CD of Gregorian chants. Using the Carmina Burana has become so cliched that composers like Horner just try and mimic it with middling success. A moaning chorus is a hallmark of bad action movies. A great score sets the tone of what is happening on the screen and when standing on its own, should be evocative of the same emotions as the movie — but Horner bolds, underlines, italicizes his notes too much. I have the same problems with the score that I had with the movie — bombastic, bludgeoning and too in love with itself to uncover the subtle emotions within.

Marco Beltralmi – Hurt Locker

Here’s the first of four scores that I would definitely want to hear on Cinemagic. Taking a cue from Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores, the score underscores Jeremy Renner’s “go it alone” manner. The bomb detonation squad is almost like the classic Eastwood cowboy — they’re the ones who have to face danger head on in the hot desert while the rest of the town (army) waits until the coast is clear. Heck, there’s even a shootout in The Hurt Locker. Beltraimi infuses the heavy metal music preferred by Renner’s SGT James into the score in a much more effective use of that music than what was done in, say, The Messenger — where it was merely a cliched example of how Ben Foster’s character is coping with the war. It’s really great score and I think a textbook example of how a score can improve a movie.

Hans Zimmer — Sherlock Holmes and Alexandre Desplat — Fantastic Mr. Fox

Here are the two films I didn’t see — so I feel somewhat unqualified to give them a full appraisal, but I really love what I’ve heard so far. Zimmer is one of the most prolific composers out there — so he’s done his share of forgettable and memorable scores in the past. While this isn’t as good as his work for The Dark Knight, which may be one of my favorite scores of the past 10 years, it ranks up there with the Pirates of the Caribbean in terms of catchiness and ability to stand on its own as a musical composition. It’s so good, that it even makes me want to go see the movie whereas before I’d probably have been happy to let it slide.

As for Desplat’s Mr. Fox — it too is another score that makes me want to see the film from another veteran on a hot streak. His score for The Queen was a significant contributor to how much I liked that movie, and I can hear shades of it in the Mr. Fox themes. It’s light, playful — the staccato strings liven up a breezy mood — one that I hope is dominant in the film itself.

Michael Giacchino — Up

This may be my second favorite Pixar score — falling behind The Incredibles which, surprise surprise, was also composed by Giacchino. The versatile 8-note motif comes up over and over again, but in totally different styles and in different situations. You hear it during the heart-warming prologue, the momentous occasion when the house lifts into the air, during the climactic chase scene with the dogs. And its been stuck in my head for days at a time, and I couldn’t be happier for it. It’s such a joyful theme that is a great start to making my best scores list of the 2010s. It’s my pick for this year in what amounts to a very talented group. Do doo do dooo….do doo do dooo….

And John makes his points, albeit less artfully:

There are some neat pieces in The Hurt Locker score if you listen to them on their own. They are interesting and very good. The rest of the tracks are sort of generic tension-building soundtrack music. But I just watched the film again and I still barely noticed the music – and I was listening for it!

The music for Fantastic Mr. Fox is playful and not a bad listen. But it also doesn’t grab me and the most successful music in the film are the pop songs, not the score. I haven’t seen Sherlock Holmes but I dig the the score. I don’t know how you compose the score for Sherlock Holmes and say, “You know what this needs? Fiddles and banjos!” And it works.

There are two clear front runners for me. One I got a bit more pleasure out of while watching the film, the other I think is better on its own. It’s a tough choice between the two and maybe I’ll change my mind a few times before the show tonight.

The Avatar score made a huge impact on me during the film. Brian dislikes the choral use but I eat that stuff up. Two scenes that stand out to me as especially enhanced by music are Jake’s first flight on an ikran and when the Na’vi try to save Grace at Hometree. That music struck me as very powerful. And the bombastic score during the climax and as it fades to credits? Wonderful.

Was I humming the tune as I left the theater? No. But the music was absolutely part of my thoughts on my walk home, and I can’t say I’ve ever really learned a film’s music enough after one viewing to be able to hum it. So I listened to the soundtrack several times in subsequent days. It’s a good listen, but outside the context of the movie it’s not quite as noteworthy.

I’m giving the edge to Up because I think it holds up a bit better on its own and because, when I listen to it, I’m transported back to the film and how it made me feel. All of it is just so integral part of that wonderful film as it weaves its motifs into different scenes and tones. But while same themes appear again and again, they’re used differently enough to not feel repetitive. And, of course, the music is very lovely.

Animated Feature

The nominees:

  • Coraline
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • The Princess and the Frog
  • The Secret of Kells
  • Up

John chimes in on this one:

I’m really thrilled this category got expanded to five films this year. It was a good year for animation. Furthermore, I’m quite happy that middling efforts from big studios like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Monsters vs Aliens were left off in favor of some more interesting films. There is a clear winner here, but any Academy member that took the time to watch these films surely had a great time.

Except when they watched Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is too self-consciously quirky for its own good. Wes Anderson is too beholden to his style at this point that he fails to tell a coherent story that we care about. I did not find Anderson’s ruminations on modern ennui to work in a film about foxes. Even the stop-motion animation wore out its welcome by the end.

The Secret of Kells looks fantastic with the most distinct visual style of the nominees. It’s a hand-drawn film, full of bright colors and a playful use of perspective. The music is also wonderful. I found the story to be a chore to get through, however.

The Princess and the Frog is a nice return to form for Disney hand-drawn animation. It’s funny, sweet, musically catchy, and beautifully drawn. I think it tried to do too much with its story and themes; the thing has about a half dozen lessons. A really nice film.

Coraline is seriously creepy. It even creeped me out a bit and I’m twice as old as the target audience. I love the way it looks, particularly its use of contrast between darkness and bright colors. Again there are some story elements that left me a little cold.

And naturally my winner is Up. It just has the whole package from great writing to beautiful animation. It’s not just a great animated film but a great film.

Snubs: I was hoping that if Cloudy wasn’t going to make it in that Mary and Max or 9 would instead.

The Rest

None of us wrote about the sound categories because we are neither knowledgeable nor interested enough to do so. We also didn’t see enough films to comment on Art Direction, even though that’s one of my favorite technical categories. One quick observation on it though: Nine had to be nominated for its use of its stage set for its musical numbers, right? None of the real world sets are particularly interesting. But neither is the stage set- it’s just simple and used in mildly imaginative ways. A nomination for building scaffolding. Wonderful.

And Visual Effects is a cakewalk for Avatar, but I recently saw District 9 again and was reminded how terrific the special effects are in that film. The aliens, the weapons, and the main character’s metamorphosis from human to alien are all stunning.

So it all comes down to this. Nominations come out tomorrow and the Grouches are staking their pristine reputations on their predictive powers! Brian, Jared, and John took a stab at the top eight categories while John and Jared went on to predict the rest of the non-short categories. There’s a lot of overlap, so any picks where we differ has been shaded.

The Big Eight:

And the rest (note we also predicted how many Best Song nominees there will be, since there can be 0, 2, 3, 4, or 5)

Who will reign supreme? We’ll declare a winner tomorrow!

May 2017
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