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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.

The nominees are:

  • Michael Haneke, Amour
  • Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
  • John Gatins, Flight
  • Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
  • Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty

John

This is another tough category for me. It contains a number of films I admire but trying to pick the best writing achievement from them is a hard proposition.

Amour is at the bottom of the pile for me. For those that love the movie, what do they love? The story? The dialogue? The character arcs? No, it’s probably the performances, the shot choices, the pace, and Haneke’s visual style. So vote for him for Best Director.

The problem with Zero Dark Thirty is not torture, per se. All the political hand-wringing about whether it condones torture is overblown. I don’t think it has any duty to explicitly show the downsides of torture (though it is pretty explicit about its horrors). But I think it may have been a better movie if it had. I found the story to be distressingly linear. The key to finding Bin Laden gets discovered very early in the film and much of the rest of the story relentlessly follows that lead, overly simplifying a fascinatingly complex process. Yesterday, Jeff Wells published a response from someone connected to ZDT to yet another editorial about the film. He argues that the film does show the inefficiencies of torture and the years of false starts, but cites literally two lines of dialogue to back that up. I just think the film could have been richer; the film mostly left me with a desire to read a book on the subject to get a more complete view of it. One other script quibble I have is that the film diverts to show literally every major terror attack after 9/11, presumably to add some explosions to the film.

Django Unchained is my favorite film in this category. My favorite film nominated in any category, in fact. Tarantino has made an immensely entertaining film, which is a compliment coming from me as someone who has never fully been on the Tarantino bandwagon. But while I enjoyed the story and the dialogue, all the other elements are what make it so great. The shots, the music, the visual flourishes. There’s no doubt Tarantino “authored” this movie’s success, but in the sense that I’d vote for him for Best Director. (Plus the story tends to meander a bit. People say he needs an editor to cut down on bloated runtime but I think he needs some help tightening up the scripts as well.) I could say the similar things about Moonrise Kingdom. Interesting characters and story but non-script elements make it special.

John Gatins

John Gatins

This leaves Flight, which I think is the movie whose success is most fueled by its script. It takes a story about alcoholism in a creative and compelling direction. Whip Whitaker is a fantastic and complex character. The script also injects some levity into the story, keeping it from getting too bogged down in dreariness. Denzel Washington’s performance and a harrowingly-realized plane crash are other important elements, but a lot of the film’s success started on the page.

Still, if I’m being honest, I’m rooting for Django or Moonrise so that one of them can win something.

What should have been here? I really had high hopes for Looper and it’s a shame it didn’t make it.

Jared

I get on Wes Anderson’s case a lot and I don’t regret any of it. However, his script with Roman Coppola for Moonrise Kingdom does have a lot of sweet moments. The quirkiness gets in the way of everything, but underneath is a touching story of first love and adolescence and being an adult and lots more interesting stuff.

The events of Amour are…”mundane” might be the wrong word, but they are largely commonplace. Which isn’t necessarily an obstacle to making an engaging movie, but throughout Michael Haneke’s whole script I felt like I was watching someone’s home videos. I understand that’s an appealing quality for some people, but I didn’t see the point.

The next three are among my favorite original screenplays of the year. Mark Boal’s script is part procedural and part action thriller. Perhaps unsurprisingly I prefer the latter. The first part of the movie is less remarkable, but it slowly builds to an epic climax. Boal seems really in his element writing tense war action, and maybe a little less confident in the investigation side of things.

I still maintain that Quentin Tarantino would benefit from an editor of some sort to tighten up and slim down his films. But not too much, because there’s a lot of fantastic stuff in there. Tarantino has an absolutely wicked sense of comic relief, the scene with the hoods may be one of the funniest of the year. But like the gruesome shootout at the end (which may be one of the best showdowns of the year), I question how they fit into the movie as a whole.

Great characters start on the page

Great characters start on the page

I was absolutely thrilled to see John Gatins get a nomination here. I thought he had two major roadblocks in his way: the fantastic crash sequence and the stellar work of Denzel Washington. Both of which, of course, stem from the fantastic screenplay. The story is well-plotted and the main character is fascinating. From hotel bed of sin to plane crash to hospital to farm to hearing, the film is always riveting, exquisitely paced, and thought-provoking.

Should have been here: I’d keep Boal, Tarantino, and Gatins. And I’d throw in David Wain and Ken Marino, Wanderlust and Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild, Ted.

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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 Original Song

The nominees are:

  • “Before My Time,” Chasing Ice (Scarlett Johansson)
  • “Everybody Needs a Best Friend,” Ted (Norah Jones)
  • “Pi’s Lullaby,” Life of Pi (Bombay Jayashri)
  • “Skyfall,” Skyfall (Adele)
  • “Suddenly,” Les Miserables (Hugh Jackman)

Jared

For all my hate of Les Miserables, there actually is some good (maybe even great) music in there. “Suddenly” is not that. There are a few exciting measures around the “Trusting me the way you do/I’m so afraid of failing you” bit, but the rest feels like a poor man’s imitation of a lesser Muppet song or something. John and I were talking about the problems with Jackman’s speak-singing, and I think some of those are manifested in the song, in that the music isn’t terribly interesting to begin with, and since Jackman isn’t going all out, the song ends up pretty boring.

Maybe it is because I first came across the song on YouTube, but “Before My Time” sounds exactly like it should be played over the end credits. Always gently moving forward, it presumably allows for some mild reflection as it provides the soundtrack for your exit. Somber and inoffensive, I’ll completely forget this song in 15 minutes.

So, my listens of “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” are probably colored by two other things I’ve been listening to lately. Norah Jones’s “Miriam” (thanks Ian!) is a murder ballad that, frankly, makes me terribly frightened of the chanteuse. But she’s so good on it, I keep wanting to hear a sinister undertone to this song. Which is on me, I know. And then yesterday I listened to Emmy Rossum’s new album of standards. Anyway, where I’m at is that “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” is a perfectly fine throwback to the olden days, and one of the reasons I’m cautiously optimistic about Seth MacFarlane hosting the show. The song is an earnest attempt at a standard, but I’d argue is hampered by its timidness. MacFarlane can be quite clever, but the lyrics lack a hook or spark that I heard in some of the stuff on Rossum’s album. Granted, it is a bit much to ask an Oscar nominee to be a classic, but the point still holds.

I have to admit that the first three or four or times I listened to “Pi’s Lullaby”, it felt inconsequential. But then something finally clicked. Especially once the main theme kicks in around a minute and a half into the song. I think the key is to think “lullaby”. Danna creates a dreamy, almost lush, sound that is light and effervescent, playful and calming.

adele

But obviously it was always going to be “Skyfall”. Obviously it sounds exactly like what you’d expect an Adele Bond theme song to sound like. But that’s OK, because I’d expect an Adele Bond theme to be amazing. You know, I’ve spent the past ten minutes trying to figure out how to reconcile this song with the rest of the Bond movie (which I’d argue save for the opening sequence, the plot point cribbed from The World is Not Enough, and maaybe the last five minutes, isn’t really a Bond film). I think it was too easy for this collaboration to happen, it would have been more difficult to come up with a different plan. And while everything about this is on the nose, again, that doesn’t make it bad.

John

I enjoy the Original Song category, but damned if it isn’t frustrating. Some years there’s a crappy crop of songs and the Academy dutifully nominates a crappy slate. Then other years there are a number of good and compelling songs… and the Academy nominates a bunch of crappy songs. At least this year they are nominating five unlike last year’s debacle. This was a decent year and if you made a playlist of the eligible tunes you’d be sure to find many you like. So it’s too bad this year’s list of nominated songs is so bland.

There’s a clear winner. Thankfully, it’s also a darn good song used to good effect in its film and not just the best of a weak crop. And that winner is “Skyfall.” Adele was made to sing a Bond song, don’t you think?

“Pi’s Lullaby” is the only other nominee I like and it’s sort of an unmemorable Indian chant tune. “Chasing Ice” and “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” are totally bland. “Suddenly” is not helped by Hugh Jackman’s heavily-emoted singing and it sounds pretty bad out of context. I might say maybe it would be better if it was recorded in studio, but it just isn’t a very good song.

So what should have been here? I don’t know how both of the folksy tunes from Brave, “Learn Me Right” (Mumford and Sons” and “Touch the Sky,” missed here. The latter is even part of a neat early scene in the film. For some hip hop, check out “100 Black Coffins” from Django Unchained. “He’s Everything” (Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah) from gospel choir movie Joyful Noise and “Let It Rain” (Badly Drawn Boy) from Being Flynn are two longshot favorites of mine.

Best Original Score

The nominees are:

  • Dario Marianelli, Anna Karenina
  • Alexandre Desplat, Argo
  • Mychael Danna, Life of Pi
  • John Williams, Lincoln
  • Thomas Newman, Skyfall

John

We have a nice slate of Original Score nominees and there isn’t an obvious winner. I’d say Anna Karenina and Life of Pi are the only two nominees whose scores truly caught my attention during the film. Joe Wright always lines up some interesting music for his films. Marianelli’s previous contribution to a Wright film in Atonement won him a well-deserved Oscar and check out last year’s Hanna for a pulsating score from the Chemical Brothers. The Anna Karenina score doesn’t have quite the gusto of Atonement, but it is a great complement to the film’s inventive scenes. Life of Pi works better in the film than on its own. Without the stunning visual displays it feels a bit incomplete but it is a vital part of the film as a whole.

Every year there always seems to be one understated nominee in this category and Argo fits the bill this year. Good music with interesting Middle Eastern twinges to some of the compositions, but not particularly memorable.

Finally, there are the brash nominees. Williams leaves no doubt that he is scoring a Spielberg film and sometimes Lincoln is suffocated in swells of music that hammer home every emotional beat. But the woodwind motifs make it feel like an instant classic (or is it so derivative of previous Williams compositions that it just feels like a classic?). Finally, Skyfall is in your face, loud, and thrilling. It’s probably the best of the bunch when listening to it on its own.

Mychael Danna

Mychael Danna

So which to choose? Is it better to lean towards the work that I simply like the best or is its use in the film most important? It’s a very close race for me between Life of Pi, Skyfall, and Lincoln. At any given point my mind may change, but for now I lean towards Life of Pi. It doesn’t quite hold up to the other two as standalone compositions, but it’s so successful in the context of the film and essential to the film.

Should have been here: Aside from Les Miserables, the only soundtrack that has received numerous replays from me this year is Brave with its Scottish folk compositions. It can be overbearing, but the music in Cloud Atlas sometimes feels like a separate character while the pulsing music from Beasts of the Southern Wild perfectly punctuate a few great scenes, particularly at the end. And I’m not sure if it was eligible, but Johnny Greenwood gives Paul Thomas Anderson another brilliant, off-kilter composition for The Master.

Best Sound Editing

The nominees are:

  • Arog
  • Django Unchained
  • Life of Pi
  • Skyfall
  • Zero Dark Thirty

Best Sound Mixing

The nominees are:

  • Argo
  • Les Miserables
  • Life of Pi
  • Lincoln
  • Skyfall

John

I’m no expert on the subject, but I usually have some sort of opinion on the sound categories. But I look at these nominees and I’ve got nothing. The mixture of Western and blacksploitation styles in Django Unchained gets my vote for Sound Editing. That film wasn’t nominated in Mixing, so I’ll switch allegiance to Les Miserables. I didn’t think the live singing always worked as a stylistic choice, but it did always feel realistic and gave the mixers an extra challenge to properly balance the vocals, backing music, and effects. Plus bonus points for the extra-loud, extra-gross sound of Jalvert’s body slamming into the stones below while committing suicide!

 

The Impossible: Not nominated but memorable

The Impossible: Not nominated but memorable

Last year I made a comment that action movies do not have realistic sounds and compared the digital clangs in Transformers to the terrifying noises produced by tsunami footage found online and in last year’s Documentary Short nominee The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. I said an action movie should try some more realistic sounds and one actually did this year, with a tsunami to boot! The Impossible‘s tsunami scenes expertly use sound to terrify the audience. The relentless pounding of the current displays the awesome power of the sea. The groans, cracks, and crunches of debris feel deadly and not just digital creations. Then the film does all the above while underwater to bring home the utter chaos of it all. This is immersive, thrilling, and terrifying work.

The Oscars are quickly approaching. Because we’ve spent the time to see the nominees and because we’re really smart, we’re telling you what should win in all the categories.

Best Cinematography

The nominees are:

  • Anna Karenina, Seamus McGarvey
  • Django Unchained, Robert Richardson
  • Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda
  • Lincoln, Janusz Kaminski
  • Skyfall, Roger Deakins

John

This is a good crop of nominees though maybe not very flashy. A number of them do interesting things with lighting and color. Django Unchained features a number of interesting shots – think of blood splatter against white cotton bolls – and Lincoln is an achievement of atmospheric lighting, usually framing its noble protagonist. Skyfall‘s probably here for two big scenes: the Shanghai office building where neon lights reflect through rows of glass walls and the shoot-out in the foggy Scottish highlands at the end. Both are pretty fantastic, though there isn’t as much that’s memorable through the bulk of the film.

karenina

Life of Pi will probably win. I feel like the film is more an achievement in directorial vision and visual effects, but good cinematography partially through digital manipulation is still good cinematography. It just isn’t as showy as it was in Avatar. While I think any of the nominees would make fine winners, I’ll toss my vote to Anna Karenina. The first half of the movie wows with its stylistic visuals, the camera swirling through hundreds of extras in intricately-choreographed scene changes. The second half of the film didn’t keep up the visual flourishes, but I think the material provides less opportunity.

Jared

This category has a stellar group of nominees. That said, I’m not a terribly visual person to begin with, so I’m won’t bother stepping through each one and talking about how pretty the pictures were. I’ll just say that I have the order (from last to my pick) as: Robert Richardson, Django Unchained; Seamus McGarvey, Anna Karenina; Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi; Roger Deakins, Skyfall; Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln. (With apologies to Deakins, who has been the bridesmaid far too many times without ever being the bride.)

lincoln_cin

Do I look good in this light?

But I was continually struck by a very specific aspect of Kaminski’s work in Lincoln. Virtually every shot of Day-Lewis seemed iconic. And where a somewhat similar approach may have felt unearned or over the top in, say, War Horse, it was pitch perfect here. Lincoln wasn’t exactly a hagiography, but it only added to the (mostly true) legend of the man. And virtually every scene saw the character framed and lit so memorably, as if every moment of his life was potentially the one that would make the cover of his biography. This approach may have been a bit much in a movie dominated entirely by the character, but with such a sprawling cast, the decision to constantly glorify Lincoln this way worked magnificently, heightening the dramatic effect and seamlessly enhancing the script.

Best Film Editing

The nominees are:

  • Argo
  • Life of Pi
  • Lincoln
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Zero Dark Thirty

John

argo_edit

Cut to: dramatic close-up

I’m not very versed in the art of film editing, but I lean towards Argo for its great pacing and skillful use of suspense even though we’re pretty sure we already know what happens. By the same standards Zero Dark Thirty is close, though I didn’t find the bulk of the film’s pace as effective. I think that may have been more in the screenplay, however.

Silver Linings Playbook is getting some notice in this category with its backers citing its comedic timing. It’s a good argument with one major flaw: it’s not funny.

The Oscars are quickly approaching. Because we’ve spent the time to see the nominees and because we’re really smart, we’re telling you what should win in all the categories.

The nominees for Best Supporting Actor are:

  • Alan Arkin, Argo
  • Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
  • Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
  • Chritoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Jared

Look, I think it is great that Robert De Niro wasn’t a parody of himself for the second time in two decades (I’m a strong believer in his performance in Stardust). I hope this is a sign he’s getting his groove back. But do we need to give the guy a nomination and maybe even an award for it? He’s got plenty. I understand mental illness is catnip for Oscar, but come on. He’s out-acted by every one of his co-stars in every scene he is in. De Niro’s nomination is one of those things that makes you wonder if the Academy really is qualified to be doing this.

I think it is great that the Academy sometimes finds space for the small roles in this category, and Alan Arkin turns in a fine performance. I personally don’t get the nomination, though, and read it more as a combination of the need to nominate someone from the cast and the irresistible temptation of the Hollywood producer character. Arkin approaches the character with zeal and zest, but I think the role is just too limited.

Tommy Lee Jones pretty much makes everything better. If I had to nitpick here, maybe I’d come up with something about how the character may be too broad, but really the only complaint I could have is that the character occasionally gets lost in the sea of characters the script needs to service. He’s on the bubble for my personal list.

The Master is a horrendous movie, so maybe I’m overcompensating here. But it is kind of astounding how smoothly Philip Seymour Hoffman slips into this mesmerizing persona. The role isn’t always showy, but instead provides a stark spotlight to highlight everything else in the film. I don’t think Amy Adams gets a nomination here without being able to play off of Hoffman. The thing is, while I don’t think the argument is as clear cut as the next guy, because I had to spend some time thinking about it, but I have Hoffman as a lead actor in this role. I’m willing to entertain discussion otherwise, but compare his role to that of Alan Arkin or Tommy Lee Jones.

Your choice pleases me. You will not be killed.

Your choice pleases me. You will not be killed.

My toughest decision in this group was whether to put Christoph Waltz first or last. He wouldn’t have been on my Supporting Actor ballot. Because he’s not a supporting actor. He’s quite clearly a lead actor, and I’d probably argue the main character of this film. And I can’t stand category fraud. But Harvey Weinstein is a genius and made it happen, so if I had a ballot I guess I’d have to go with Waltz. Honestly, I’d probably be transfixed by him reading a set of Ikea instructions. He’s just a perfect match for Tarantino’s dialogue, making every bit of the script count.

Should have been here: I would have gone with a completely different five, I think. Javier Bardem, Skyfall; Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained, Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained; Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike; Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

John

Emma Stone and Seth MacFarlane noted while announcing the nominees in this category that all five men had won it once before. To them it was a joke, but I wonder how many rode their previous successes to a nomination this year.

I left the theater with little impression of Jones, De Niro, or Arkin. All are famous actors and all play characters with memorable lines or story arcs, but never once did I give their performances any special consideration. Arkin, in particular, seems to be taking advantage of his character’s funny quips. And while I agree it’s nice to see De Niro not phoning in a performance, the screaming-OCD-guy act wasn’t wowing me. Then there’s Jones. If he’s not playing a character with such sympathetic morals, does he get so much awards attention?

Another one under my spell

Another one under my spell

I am quite happy with the Waltz and Hoffman nominations, however. I love how Waltz can be so subtly creepy even while turning on the charm. My vote goes to Philip Seymour Hoffman. While I didn’t particularly care for The Master, his intensity is really something to behold. He’s a little crazy but I can see why his followers would feel attracted to him.

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