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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.

It’s last week’s news at this point, but the music branch of the Academy ruled Randy Newman’s score for The Princess and the Frog ineligible for Best Original Score. The branched cited the rule that a score cannot be “diminished on impact by the predominant use of songs.” Apparently all the original music for this musical had too many lyrics on top of it.

I’m not here to comment on the legitimacy of the rule. I understand it despite its awkwardness. And, while I’ve heard the film’s Oscar-eligible original songs, I haven’t seen it nor listened to its score. I liked the songs and I imagine at least one will get a nomination.

What’s troubling is the inconsistency. I rewatched Slumdog Millionaire this week. (Incidentally, I really enjoyed it, which surprised me. I liked it a lot the first time through but had sort of already consigned it to the “underwhelming Oscar winner” category.) I’m very familiar with its terrific, multiple Oscar-winning music and fully enjoyed its pulsating beats. But almost every piece is a song! And not just a piece with some vocal elements, but a full on song with meaningful lyrics! How in the world was this eligible?

In 2007, Eddie Vedder’s wonderful score to Into the Wild ran afoul of the same rule and I wouldn’t call that film any more song-centric than Slumdog. Ditto for Karen O and Carter Burwell’s music for Where the Wild Things Are this year. Crazy Heart didn’t even bother to submit due to the song restrictions.

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

January 2021