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Oscar nominations will be announced on February 2.  We’re counting down to the big day by offering some hard-hitting analysis and incisive opinions on the toughest questions surrounding the nominees.  We tend to focus on the “major” categories (acting, directing, writing, picture), but let’s take a look at the artistic and technical categories.  What would you like to see happen in these lesser profile categories?

John: I Am the Grand Poobah of Smaller Categories

I’m having a hard time choosing just one hope for the smaller categories. The three I really care about, The Informant! and Avatar for Score and “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart for Song, are already probably nominees. So I’ll highlight a few that were noteworthy to me, all of which I thoroughly like but whose exclusion will not cause me extraordinary pain.

Depression Era” from stalled Hal Holbrook vehicle That Evening Sun for Song. It’s a simple, soulful folk tune from Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood. The Song selection is sort of weak this year but this one stands out.

I’d also like to plump for one of Karen O’s tunes from Where the Wild Things Are for Song; “Hideaway”  and “All Is Love” are eligible. Beyond those mentioned above, some scores that made me sit up and take notice include those from The RoadPonyo, and The Secret of Kells, though I think the final one is ineligible for Score.

I love me some An Education so some recognition in Art Direction and/or Costume would be wonderful.

Finally, how about some love for The Brothers Bloom for the costumes? I didn’t enjoy all of the self-conscious quirky elements of the film, but I did enjoy the clothing, which did serve to develop the film’s offbeat characters.

And, oh yes, I can’t finish without whining again about the obnoxious sound in Star Trek.

Adam: What do tigers dream of? Oscar gold.

Since my Dracula’s Lament piece last year failed to sway the Academy (and yes, most Academy members read our blog), I’ve decided to tempt failure again and make my plug for “Stu’s Song” from The Hangover. Another Hangover piece you say? Yes. While I did thoroughly enjoy the movie, the reason I am picking it again is it is a no brainer for these types of posts – i.e. great movie that will get no love. I would pick Zombieland, but John is a Blog-Nazi and won’t let us pick something that has no shot at any kind of nomination…*cough* LAME *cough* *cough*.

Oh, right, “Stu’s Song”. Apparently humor and originality don’t factor into the nomination process for the Oscars. Like “Dracula’s Lament” last year, this was a hilarious song, well written, and original. What about it makes it unviable? I mean, it’s short, but why does that matter? The video just has clips from the movie, but that actually adds to the song. It’s in a comedy – and I think we have a winner. Once again the Academy shows it’s small-mindedness by completely overlooking a legitimate contender because it does not fall within their comfort zone. Well done.

[As John points out, don’t miss Helms’s tailoring of the song for Conan:]

Jared: Destroy Visual Effects

I’m really happy John proposed we tackle this question, because I otherwise spend very little time thinking about these categories.  Part of it, I suppose, is that I tend to believe I’m appreciating a movie for its story, so I pay less attention to its visual or auditory approach.  I’m clearly not qualified to talk at all about some of these categories (for the sound categories, if you haven’t already done so, I’d urge you to check out the really cool stuff at SoundWorks Collection).  I’m the last person in the world to notice costume design, for example, but it strikes me as a little odd that so often the nominees are predominantly period pieces.

Anyway, I’m here to plump for 2012‘s visual effects.  Granted, I may enjoy Roland Emmerich’s movies a little more than the next guy.  But the point, I think, is that when you think Emmerich, you think of sh*t done gettin’ destroyed.  Unlike some other films likely to get nominated here, 2012 doesn’t have any sort of coherent storyline or fascinating turn of events.  No, in this disaster movie, you get exactly what you’d expect.  Nonstop, relentless, continuous destruction of every landmark (natural or manmade) imaginable.  But, to me, at least, it doesn’t get boring.  And kudos for that, in my mind, should be placed squarely at the feet of the visual effects crew.  Tasked with creating tons of scenes of destruction, they came through brilliantly, and it seems odd to me that their work could be diminished just because their movie was little more than the results of their efforts.

Brian: Single Man Deserves Recognition — Say What?

I can’t believe I am actually writing a mini-post in favor of A Single Man, considering I found it absolutely boring and pretentious (I rated it less than a 4 out of 10), but I’m pretty surprised to see that it is not expected to be nominated for either Art Direction or Costume Design. If fashion-designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford knows anything, it’s style, and his movie has lots of it. Colin Firth is quite particular about his shirts and suits — and while I didn’t enjoy Julianne Moore’s big OSCAR(!!!) scene, her apartment and outfit seemed apropos of both the character and the film overall. Maybe this is just Mad Men withdrawal, as both of them cover the same time period, and both have problems with pacing and that all important thing called “plot,” but I’d be pretty disappointed if Single Man got an Oscar nom for best picture, but was left out for what it did best: highlighting both the cool and the isolation of early 1960s America.


Even a cursory review of this blog reveals that where John hews closer to arthouse (typical John post: “I would have liked this movie more if it moved a little more slowly, had less plot, and really just focused on the main character’s thoughts as he walked the fourteen steps from the hallway to his art studio.”), I’m maybe something closer to adolescent heartland (typical Jared post: “I would have liked this Fellini film better if it had explosions.  With fireballs.  And robots.”)

So I’m calling you out, John.  What on earth did you see in Avatar?  Obviously, like everyone else in the world, I’ll preface my thoughts by acknowledging the sheer beauty of the visuals.  The 3-D worked stunningly well.  There is a scene early on (in an aircraft, I believe), showing some instrumental panels that would be at the top of my list to convince people 3-D doesn’t have to be a fad or kitschy, just because of how the 3-D added to the vividness of the quiet scene.

But here’s the thing.  James Cameron aspires to not only have incredible images, but to tell a story well.  Which is a (maybe the) big difference between Cameron and, say, Michael Bay.  Cameron takes breaks from the action for attempts at theme and story.  Bay takes breaks from the action for…well, I suppose the concept of Michael Bay taking breaks from action is more of a hypothetical.

My evidence for Cameron’s intentions in Avatar would be all the (relatively) non-effects-laden scenes in the film, where ostensibly some sort of narrative is taking place.  Except nothing gets developed at all.  All of the characters are stock characters at best (Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana), ciphers at worst (hulking Vince McMahon lookalike (apologies, Stephen Lang), guy from Dodgeball, Michelle Rodriguez).  Which isn’t a knock on the actors (I wouldn’t necessarily cry at a Saldana nom) as much as what happens when Cameron tries to cram story into his visuals, because I think that learning Rodiguez’s backstory, or seeing some of pressures Ribisi’s character is facing could both be really interesting, for example.  Instead, their stories are glossed over or assumed.

We’ve all seen and heard the jokes comparing Avatar to the Pocahontas story.  Frankly, I don’t see the relevance.  A compelling story is a compelling story.  I’m reminded of the old saw about how Shakespeare appropriated plots for many of plays.  The problem here, then, isn’t that the film uses an unoriginal framework, but rather that it never takes the next step by filling in that framework with anything meaningful.

Cameron’s ambition may be his undoing.  He’s created an extraordinary vision of the future, but tries to show too much in too short a time frame.  Maybe the story would have best been told as a miniseries, each episode focusing on a different character.  I dunno, perhaps this is a reason I don’t generally like fantasy.  For example, I’d rather not use my imagination to think about the other Na’vi tribes that happen to show up at the end, but would be happier with a subplot  (or at least a scene) concerning tribal relations.  Or something more than a montage (sorry, Brian) showing Worthington’s assimilation into the Na’vi culture.  Even the concept of avatars itself, a worthy addition to the sci fi philosophical discourse on the connection between mind and body (just off the top of my head, other examples being: Dollhouse, The Matrix, Total Recall, the Star Trek holodeck, Ender’s Game, Frankenstein) isn’t really explored.

I understand liking Avatar.  I understand how a little of the most awesome visual effects put on film could go a long way.  But I fail to see how they can completely cover for the times where the film is, well, pedestrian.

The land the Wild Things inhabit is a land where all your expectations about a children’s movie are turned on their heads. The elements that are usually trite and shallow in most children’s films are fresh and fully-developed but the parts that usually work in children’s movies don’t work here.

Where the Wild Things Are expands upon the classic book (necessary because the book is something like nine sentences long) in some interesting ways. We meet Max in the real world, where he lashes out angrily at his sister and bites his mom. He runs away from home and comes across a boat that takes him to the land of the Wild Things, who now have names and personalities. Max becomes their king and leads them in a variety of pursuits like fort-building and dirt clod fighting.

While the film never explicitly says so, this is all an adventure in Max’s imagination. And it really does play out as if a child made up the story. Staying truthful to a child’s vision is quite interesting intellectually and conceptually, but in a lot of ways it doesn’t really work as a movie. It’s just aimless (kids don’t think in story arcs). Max become king because he says so. The dirt clod war ends with hurt feelings. A fort sounds cool so they build it. The actual plot doesn’t really do anything. It stays remarkably true to the conceit of an adventure a child in a certain mood might imagine but there’s a reason kids don’t write many movies.

The film succeeds in other ways, however. It creates some very well-developed and complex characters in Max and the Wild Things. All the Things are distinct, with their own personalities, flaws, and problems. The way we get to understand these characters is truly remarkable for any movie, let alone a kids’ movie where characterizations are often paper thin.

Director Spike Jonze also succeeds in imbuing the film with intense and earned emotion. This is not a happy kids’ flick that glosses over the negative parts of being a kid. It understands that kids feel the same emotions the rest of us do: anger, sadness, aggression. Like Dorothy in Oz, Max’s real life problems and emotional issues find homes in various Wild Things. (“And you were there,upset-for-being-ignored! And you were there, sister-abandonment-issues!”) And while this is fairly obvious, Jonze does a good job of not beating you over the head with it. Once again, the film’s emotional depth is a wonderful achievement.

But it doesn’t really make for a good movie. It’s technically quite proficient at imparting the emotions it wants but those emotions are all intensely mopey so that the film has an oppressively melancholy quality to it. The breaks for levity are just too few and far between. I’m not necessarily against a melancholy film or an aimless plot for that matter, but together they are a deadly combination, especially since the melancholy itself is aimless. There’s no apparent reason for the Things to be so despondent and there’s no real resolution. With motionless plot and characters the film feels slow.

And so I appreciate the concept of the film intellectually, respect its ambition, and have found some very fascinating and thoughtful discussions about it online, but it makes for a fairly dour and slow viewing experience. Ultimately it didn’t work for me but I appreciate how it’s given me much to think about. I’m curious if a second viewing would be more stimulating now that I’ve had a chance to ponder it a while and maybe I’ll give it another shot on DVD.

Some prognosticators thought it might sneak into the expanded Best Picture list this year but that seems unlikely now. The Things are technological wonders with furry bodies and computer animated heads. I could see a Visual Effects or Costume nod. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a band I really like, provides the music for the film, often accompanied by a chorus of children. I’ve listened to the soundtrack and I think the songs mostly work better as little snippets within the film like in the rousing music that marks the beginning to the wild rumpus. Still maybe a Song nomination is possible.

To recap:
Most children’s movies: Happy, fun, and full (often too full) of plot but with thin characterizations and little emotional complexity
Where the Wild Things Are: Aimless, dull plot full of moping but populated with complex characters and emotional sincerity

Why are all these posts concentrating on little categories like “Best Actor” and “Best Director” when what we all really care about is Art Direction and Costumes? In the course of seeing all of the films nominated for the big eight I ended up seeing most of the films nominated for all those other categories they hand out awards to in the middle 2 hours of the Oscar telecast. Since you obviously care about my make-up preferences, please, read on!

Best Song
“Falling Slowly” Once, “Raise it Up” August Rush, “Happy Working Song” Enchanted, “So Close” Enchanted, “That’s How You Know” Enchanted

For some reason I feel like I already covered this category. But since the Academy stupidly ignored my recommendations, let’s take a look at these inferior choices.

The clear winner for me is “Falling Slowly.” It’s the central song in the wonderful musical Once that embodies the heartbreak and loneliness of the main characters. “Raise it Up” is actually fairly offbeat and I imagine it works well in the film, schmaltzy as it surely is. Nothing against Enchated, but if one of its triumvirate wins it better be “That’s How You Know,” a clever take on the Disney fairy tale tune set in modern times. “Happy Working Song” is a cute but uninspiring ditty while “So Close” is a toothless and unmemorable love song.

Snubs: See my breakdown of the eligible songs to find about a dozen songs I liked better than all the non-Once songs. Read the rest of this entry »

August 2019
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