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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.

Actor in a Leading Role

The nominees are:

  • Demián Bichir, A Better Life
  • George Clooney, The Descendants
  • Jean Dujardin, The Artist
  • Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • Brad Pitt, Moneyball

JOHN

Actor is the hardest category this year. It’s a super strong line-up and I’m having a hell of a time picking a favorite. Honestly, I don’t think you can go wrong. It may even be the best slate of nominees in a major category since we’ve started this project. There’s also a convenient split in the type of performances represented here: the subdued and the classic movie star.

In the former category I’d put Bichir and Oldman. Neither are showy performances but both make a powerful impact. Bichir does a great job of selling the desperation of his situation as a man who is not used to displaying much emotion. I really liked his scenes with his son and the mixture of awkwardness and exasperation in their interactions. Oldman, meanwhile, turns in one of those blank slate performances that wow me every so often. He’s a closely guarded guy, used to the secrecy and politicking of spycraft and yet he can say so much with a little flicker or movement. Every action is so precise and measured.

Clooney, Pitt, and Dujardin instead shine as classic leading men. They have the charisma, conviction, and, indeed, the looks to really lead a film. You may say that’s not all that impressive, but think of how many films sink as their leading men can’t carry them on their shoulders. How many films must sink under Ryan Reynolds’s floundering?

I’ve been a long time Clooney proponent and have given him great praise in this space in previous years for Up in the Air and Michael Clayton. I know people seem to think he plays the same role again and again, but I maintain there’s nothing wrong with taking similar roles. While within something of a “Clooney Realm,” all have their own impressive nuances. His part in The Descendants is a great match for him and he gets to show a little range compared to the previous Best Actor nods. The film bounces around tonally and it works partly because he carries it, balancing the anger, bewilderment, sadness of his predicament. (The narrative doesn’t work nearly as well but that’s not his fault.)

Dujardin brings great physicality to his silent role in The Artist. Presumably he’s never tackled such a role before but he’s a natural. The heightened emotiveness needed for a silent film could easily come off as mimickry or over the top in less suave hands. He just has a magnetism that makes it work. I have a bit less to say about Pitt. The guy is always solid and he does a good job, though I didn’t really find myself thinking, “Pitt is awesome” while watching Moneyball. But I understand that to those who fell for the movie his performance was a big part of it. A good, confident leading performance.

So who should win? At any given moment I could go for Clooney, Dujardin, or Oldman. But I suppose I’ll pick one and I’ll go with Gary Oldman, who is also sort of a sentimental pick. Though this decision is prone to change at any time!

It was a strong year all around for actors. As great as this slate is, it would have also been great to see Michael Fassbender (Shame), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), and Leonardo DiCaprio (J Edgar). I don’t know how I’d pick just five out of all of these great performances.

JARED

I’ll give Adam the voice he’s lacking: Where’s Brendan Gleeson?!  Playing basically a mix of all the characters who did get nominated, he absolutely belongs in this list.

I like Gary Oldman a lot.  If I ran the world, he’d probably already have at least one Oscar.  I’m thrilled he finally got a nomination.  But I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger here.  He’s received lots of plaudits for his super-restrained, barely emoting performance.  At some point, though, doesn’t that just translate to a boring performance where nothing happens?  I wouldn’t go that far here, but I’m not seeing what others are.

It is too facile to dismiss Clooney’s role as another one in a series of charming Clooneyesque guys dealing with #whitepeopleproblems. I also wouldn’t have gone so far as to give him a nomination.  There’s a lot of good stuff here, though.  And I think Clooney was a solid choice to portray the not quite sympathetic “hero” of the story because he certainly makes the film more watchable, and he adds a lot of needed nuance to the script.

I have to make a conscious effort to not just say for all of these guys how much I like their body of work.  Brad Pitt is no exception.  But I’m just not quite seeing it here.  To me, he’s just doing a Coach Taylor imitation.  And granted, everyone should be doing a Coach Taylor imitation.  But I’d love to see Oscar and Pitt better line up with each other.

I’m tickled pink that the Academy saw fit to nominate Bichir.  A Better Life went out super early to members, so maybe that turned out to be an effective strategy.  For me, this performance was a case study in how a role doesn’t have to be showy to have a big impact.  There’s nothing you’d expect from a typical Oscar performance, such as wild swings of emotion.  Bichir commands the screen here, nearly flawlessly portraying the character and turning it into something quite real.

It was always going to be Jean Dujardin for me, though.  Not because his is the biggest and broadest role of the bunch.  But because he is just so darn good in the role.  I mean, honestly, even his crooked half-smile lights up the day.  Dujardin creates a character that feels so much like the actors of yesteryear would pull off, screwball and slapstick while also being dramatic and serious.  Dujardin nails the range and the depth of the character. And it feels like he is having tons of fun, a feeling that can’t help but be infectious.

BRIAN

Jean Dujardin

ADAM

Jean Dujardin

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.

This time we are going to talk about Score.

Music (Original Score)

The nominees are:

  • The Adventures of Tintin, John Williams
  • The Artist, Ludovic Bource
  • Hugo, Howard Shore
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Alberto Iglesias
  • War Horse, John Williams

BRIAN

I enjoyed many of the scores that came out this year and am generally pleased with this crop of nominees. I’d have liked for there to have been room for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ work on The Social Network was stronger, but their collaboration was a good match for Lisbeth Salander’s detached perserverance. Other good scores: X-Men: First Class and Super 8. (I’m a sucker for Michael Giacchino’s work)

On to the nominees (with an interesting note — only the film names are included on the ballot, not the composers):

John Williams for Tin Tin and War Horse: Unfortunately I didn’t get to see Tin Tin, so my knowledge of this score comes solely from YouTube audio streams. I’m guessing if I saw it I’d have stronger feelings, but what I heard didn’t sound very adventurous or exciting. Williams’ composition for War Horse was one of the high points of the much-maligned (unnecessarily, honestly) film. He transposed an Irish jig tune into a moving theme that popped up throughout the movie. It’s not Williams’ fault that the movie itself was overlong and melodramatic, but the score fit the tone well.

Howard Shore for Hugo. I loved this movie for many reasons, and Shore’s score helps it along. But where Williams’ War Horse succeeds by infusing what the audience knows (an Irish motif) with something new, Shore’s Hugo fails by being too close to the cliched Parisian cafe tones. The multiple train station characters were enough of a reminder of what I loved about Amelie — the music made it just too much.

Alberto Iglesias for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: This nominee is probably my least favorite of the bunch, though my criticisms of it are also the same I have of the movie itself: too plodding and sparse, not enough tension. Giving it a 2nd and 3rd listen don’t bring back any visceral memories of watching the film — no specific memories or callbacks. A good score should at least do that.

And my pick for winner, which I think will be the Academy’s as well, is Ludovic Bource’s phenomenal work for The Artist  Just consider how much heavy lifting the score had to do to keep the action moving. There were at least 2 or 3 distinct reoccurring themes that had as much personality as the characters each represented. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mock Kim Novak for her bizarre tirade against Bource’s sampling of Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo. The absurdity of it makes me think that she may be mentally ill, so I won’t dwell on it or mock Novak for it, but the homage was far from “rape.” I thought it was a great wink-and-nudge for the film buffs in the audience. The Artist gets pretty bleak in parts, and theVertigo score was used well. Now if it had been used in The Hangover Part II, then maybe Novak would have something to stand on.

JOHN

Original Score is an interesting category because who I want to win and who should win are a bit different. The best of the nominees is John Williams for The Adventures of Tintin. It’s the right amount of playfulness for the fun motion-captured/animated adventure flick and it’s consistently complementary without overwhelming the rest of the film. That’s not the case with Williams’s other nomination, for War Horse. That score is more quintessentially Williams and overbearing. That dude knows how to hammer home a swell in the music and it becomes way too much.

But Williams already has five Oscars and this is a fairly insular branch. It’s good for everyone to spread the love around a bit in this category. I would probably vote for Alberto Iglesias’s work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a string-heavy, understated yet tension-building work. I think The Artist will win and I wonder if that’s partly because there’s just so much music. The score is the dialogue and is therefore very noticeable. But is any of it really memorable? Don’t get me wrong, it complements the film well and has a nice period-appropriate style. I just hope voters have the right motives.

I’ve heard a lot of good music in movies this year, even if they didn’t always qualify as original scores for the Oscars. The Tree of Life uses music marvelously though much of it was not original to the film. Other great uses of music include the electronic scores in Hanna and Attack the Block and the colder but still terrific Contagion and Drive. Music went a long way to establishing the disturbing atmospheres of Shame and The Skin I Live In.

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.

This time we are going to talk about Adapted Screenplay.

Adapted Screenplay

The nominees are:

  • The Descendants, Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
  • Hugo, John Logan
  • The Ides of March, George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon
  • Moneyball, Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan

JOHN

No need to beat around the bush here. This category has a very clear winner, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan pack an incredible amount of detail into this story. I understand there’s a lot more going on in the original novel and they have performed a master work of consolidation and narrative structure. Just think of the precision needed to properly order the scenes for the mystery to slowly unwrap. You can’t just rely on the novel for that when excising so many other plot lines. I also appreciate the intelligence the script assumes of the audience. It rewards careful attention and rarely feels the need to stop and explain things. There are no stray lines of unnatural dialogue meant to catch the audience up. I understand that some viewers found it confusing, but it kept me incredibly engaged.

Because we are the Grouches, let me whine about a couple of the other nominees. Moneyball improved a bit on second viewing with me, but it still feels like maybe a quarter of a story. Odd parts get a lot of attention: the big dramatic sports moment is the attempt at a 20th straight win, which is a cool achievement but wouldn’t a film about the quantitative revolution in baseball acknowledge that it’s still just one game, no more or less important than any of the other 161? And then it speeds right through the team’s upswing. The movie moves from several big trades to a montage where Billy Beane and Peter Brand are giving the players advice and the team begins its ascent. But these are unrelated episodes. What would a series of personnel movements have to do with telling players to take more pitches? If you’re changing the way people think about baseball, why would you wait to have these conversations until mid-season? And its quick presentation glosses over these important aspects of the Beane philosophy. As a baseball fan, a lot of little things like this hit me just a little wrong. And I’m not even as steeped in the game and the numbers behind it as some of my colleagues here on the site.

And while I’m ranting, what’s the deal with The Descendants? There are three major plot threads running through the movie: George Clooney’s wife is dying, he discovers she cheated on him, and he needs to make a decision about the development of his family’s land. Why don’t all of these come together better? I don’t often say this about movies, but give us more about the land trust! There’s probably a pretty profound statement to be made by connecting these threads about the responsibility to family and one’s place as a link in the generational chain but The Descendants just doesn’t do it. It has several wonderful scenes but it really needs to come together better.

I’ll finish with something that’s been driving me nuts about The Ides of March. the story hinges around the fact that Ryan Gosling’s character met with the campaign manager of the other candidate. This is viewed as a huge betrayal. But it never explains why. These guys are all Democrats. They run in a small circle of elite political consultants. They’ll all be on the same side after the primaries are done. Why is it so horrible to talk to the other side? This is all too under-explained for me and it really took away from the film’s impact.

JARED

Coming into Oscar season, if you had told me that the nominees in the category would include:  An actor on Community, the guy writing the upcoming Bond movie, a political thriller, a script about baseball and economics co-written by Aaron Sorkin, and a spy thriller, well, you could have made a lot of money betting with me.  But had I believed you, I’d be one happy camper.  Until I saw the movies, that is.  What a horribly disappointing category, chock full of uninspired scripts.  There’s nothing even to root for.  I realize the  films eligible don’t overlap, but for comparison, here are the films nominated for Best Scream-play at the 2011 Scream Awards: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2Black SwanScott Pilgrim vs. the WorldSuper 8, and X-Men: First Class.  I mean, geez, that’s not even close, Academy.

Since this category matters a bunch to me, I’m going to delve deeper.  Hugo is a bad movie for a number of reasons, chief among them, I’m sorry to say, is the script.   It is impossible to get attached to any of the main characters, since none of their developments are fluid.  The stuff with the early movies feels tacked on.  The bits with the characters who inhabit the train station are  a huge waste of time since they aren’t developed enough to care about them. Oh, perhaps most importantly, the movie is really really boring.

Speaking of boring, hello Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy!  Maybe it is just me, but I’m of the belief that if you are going to have a spy movie about uncovering which one of four or five people are actually double agents, then those people should appear on screen for more than two or three scenes before the big reveal.  Because I totally was not invested in the outcome.  I honestly don’t understand complaints that the action was hard to follow, because there wasn’t really much action to speak of.

The Ides of March is a great idea, in theory.  But it sputters in practice.  I agree with John’s points above about the movie under-explaining things.  He talks about the meeting, but that’s just one of any number of plot points where the film didn’t explain to the audience why it was such a huge deal in the context of the story.  It isn’t much fun to have a movie about the game of politics if the film doesn’t explain what the rules are.

Moneyball was always going to be a tough sell.  I’ll give credit to Chervin (and/or whoever) for figuring out how to turn the book into a movie.  That wasn’t an easy nut to crack, and a clear case where the adaptation from the source material required some serious work.  But a truly successful adaptation apparently required more work.  I’m a tough judge here, since baseball and economics are my thing.  But you know what?  I’m more or less OK with how they handled that aspect of the film.  I’ve more a problem with characters and how they flitted in and out in a desultory fashion.  I get that this is a film about Beane and Pitt.  But if you are going to have other characters in the film, you might as well use them with some coherence.  Also, and this goes to what John talked about, I think the writers got sidetracked a little too often from the main story about Beane learning, adopting, and arguing for this new line of thinking.

John also mentions this above, but all of the Grouches agreed that we wanted to know more about the land deal in The Descendants.  If we all are agreeing about a plot point pertaining to real estate, I have to think we are right on this one.  There’s nothing particularly memorable about the dialogue, either.  And I just realized by default that this movie gets my pick.  So I should say something nice about it, I guess.  Um.  It wasn’t terrible?  No, that’s a little harsh.  The script is fine.  I think it does a pretty decent job sketching out the different characters and making them distinguishable, and also like they seem they are from the real world.  Sure, the daughter’s boyfriend or the grandfather may be a little cartoonish, especially at first, but they get smoothed out over the course of the script.  Which is kinda like real life.

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!

Oscar nominations will be revealed Tuesday January 24th. As we get closer, the Grouches will be sharing some thoughts, hopes, and predictions. You can read thoughts on the so-called “major” categories all over the place, but this time around, we share our wishes for nominations in the technical categories.

John: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Oscar Nomination

For me, the technical categories are all about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I think the film has to be a front runner for Art Direction, so I’m not too worried about it getting a nomination. But it should also get a Costume nomination.

Here is a film that lives so fully in its setting and time period. Think of the detail in every room of MI6, from the library to the isolation meeting rooms. And the costumes just scream 70s. I think in particular of some of the ostentatious garb at the Christmas party, including one suspect’s garish shirt with matching bowtie made of cloth of the exact same garish pattern. A spy film could easily get away with generic costumes but Tinker Tailor always gives you something to look at.

Jared: Sucker Punch My Immortals

I’m not really a visual person, but I’ve been in the tank for everything that appears on screen in  Tarsem Singh’s movies since The Fall.  It would be a big mistake to overlook the art direction and costumes in Immortals just because the movie didn’t really live up to expectations.  I saw the film months ago and I still have a relatively vivid recollection of most of the sets.  The movie had a flair far surpassing the typical sword and sandals film.  It was big and bold and flashy, but in a way that served to the enhance the movie, not overshadow it.

Speaking of disappointing over the top action movies, I’d also like to stump for Sucker Punch.  We can have all sorts of debates over the gender politics and artistic merits of the film.  But speaking on a strictly technical basis, I think it would be very difficult to argue against the film’s images being incredibly evocative.  Indeed, primarily fueling all the talk of the film being Zack Snyder’s wet dream, or whatever, are the stark images of the ladies of the film dressed how they were, in the crazy environments Snyder dreamed up.  Regardless of whether you think the film is misogynistic or empowering, the visuals sure left a lasting memory.

Brian: Loves movies about movies and America

I was going to go with Captain America for Hugo Weaving’s makeup, but I forgot that the Academy hates America, so its not even on the shortlist vetted by the Makeup Branch, meaning there’s no chance it shows up as a nominee. I would have said that the Weaving’s menacing take as Red Skull kept the rollicking “ripped from the comic pages” tone going while also being just incredibly kickass.

Instead I’ll offer two hopes in this post for a technical award I’d love to see — one which will likely happen, the other not so much. This is the first of what will be a series of posts where I talk glowingly of Hugo and the rest of the Grouches ignore or denigrate me for that opinion. Not since Avatar came out has a movie used 3-D so beautifully. The falling snow and the swooping shots through the clocks of the Parisian train station sucked me in from the start and the movie didn’t let go of me until the final credits.

Maybe the art directors for Super 8 just raided the warehoused archives of The Goonies and E.T., but the sets, props, location shots — everything was just perfect at recreating that early ’80s atmosphere. J.J. Abrahms 80%-good-film relied heavily on that nostalgia for both a “simpler” era and childhood nostalgia — so much that he forgot to complete a good story (that’d be the 20% not-so-good part). He owes his art direction team for that.

Many people (including John) quite liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  A common reason for their appreciation of the film seems to focus on how the movie kept peeling back layers upon layers of spy intrigue to eventually reveal which of the four people represented by the codenames (or actually five, Poorman is a suspect as well), high up in the British spy department, is actually a mole, reporting back to the KGB.  That’s a generalization, of course, but I think a fair one.  And anyway, I come not to attack a strawman, because I think this argument is perfectly logical and reasonable.  The film does slowly reveal information, I don’t want to say in the style of Rashomon but we learn more and more about certain things, until it arrives at a rather satisfactory answer.

For me, however, that’s like saying a present was good because it was packaged in a whole lot of wrapping paper, even if it did end up being a pair of socks.

The overaching problem, for me, is that the “suspects” were on screen for so little time that it was impossible to be emotionally invested in the outcome of the investigation.  Ciaran Hinds, for example, is in maybe five scenes, and has more than one line in two of them?  Colin Firth and Toby Jones each have maybe three or four scenes.  It is telling that none of these superb actors are even on the periphery of the Oscar conversation and haven’t been cited by any awards so far.  And that lack of presence was an unhurdled stumbling block for me.

The script focuses more on the process and events that lead Gary Oldman to his conclusion.  Which is why, in part, the two supporting actors nominated by the British Independent Film Awards were Tom Hardy, playing an agent in the field, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who becomes Oldman’s right hand man.  If you’ll indulge me (and you really shouldn’t), let’s take a brief detour here.  In pretty much every review/news item about this film, Cumberbatch’s name will be mentioned in the same breath as Sherlock, the BBC series where he plays the famous detective.  As pretty much everyone else says, the first three episodes of Sherlock were simply fantastic and deserve to be watched.  So I’m happy, in that sense.  But, excuse me?  Ever hear of a little movie called Starter for Ten, where Cumberbatch plays the mildly annoying captain of a college quiz bowl team?  Well, you should have.  Look, I’m not saying I’m a better person than everyone else for being in love with this movie and thus being on (if you will) Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, and Alice Eve before their current rise to fame.  But I think it is pretty well implied.

Like every other decent human being, I’m a big Gary Oldman fan.  It is so rare that we get to see an actor disappear into such a wide swath of roles.  How many other people could play over the top villains in things like The Fifth Element or The Professional or maybe Red Riding Hood (seriously, he’s INSANE in that one) and also be so serenely restrained in The Dark Knight?  Here he’s much more the latter.  Seemingly cold and emotionless but never quite veering onto the cruel side of the fence, he’s everything you’d expect from a British spymaster.  But here again, I think the script gets in the way of the awards, preventing him from showing something truly top-notch.  Believe me, I wouldn’t be unhappy to see a Gary Oldman nomination, and if he gets it, he won’t be the worst nominee.  But I don’t really see how someone could pick this role over, for example, Brendan Gleeson’s in The Guard.

For me, the script substitutes vagueness and confusion for misdirection and half-truths.  The plot (and maybe this is on Le Carre, I haven’t read the novel) is actually relatively straightforward. But needing to kill a couple hours, the film takes its sweet time getting to any useful information.  By which point, the intel barely seems relevant.

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