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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.

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Jared challenged me to explain why I loved Avatar so much. Believe me, there’s no one more surprised at how much I loved it than me. Big, loud, action flicks aimed towards a broad audience rarely appeal to me, but this is something special. Avatar is a cinematic event that only comes around once in a blue moon, the kind of experience that film fans will talk about for ages.

And, yes, I’m primarily talking about the visuals. The stunning 3-D, lush landscapes, and CGI creatures are wonders to behold. Feeling immersed in this world really does feel like something; even two-plus hours into the film there were visuals that made me jump and cringe in my seat. I have a fear of heights and I don’t think any film has managed to parlay that fear into such pulse-quickening excitement.

Avatar is getting a lot of flak for its plot. I know it’s not an original story, but it’s a classic story for a reason and it is effective. There are enough original story elements to keep me satisfied and as a sci-fi film set on a foreign world the more fantastic parts are acceptable.

But the best thing about it is the world it creates. I love being transported by film to unfamiliar worlds, be they current or past or future, fictional or not. One reason I really liked Frozen River, a film about as opposite from Avatar as possible, is its depiction of life on a poor, cross-border Native American reservation, which is an unfamiliar world for me.

Science fiction and fantasy often create their own worlds, but they don’t usually feel fully realized or they don’t follow a logical set of rules. Harry Potter is fun but which wizards have what level of power and can perform what kinds of spells is inconsistent; the dead are conveniently called upon to fight in Lord of the Rings but then immediately forgotten. Avatar creates a world with its own rules and then adheres to those rules. All the Mother Nature stuff may be hokey to some, but Mother Nature mysticism is what exists in the alien and fictional world of Pandora and it remains consistent, so it is acceptable.

Brian says a major film like this needs a score that makes you hum as you walk out of the theater and James Horner’s work for Avatar falls short. First, I loved the score and found it to be a great accompaniment to the film. It enhances several intense scenes, like the one where the Na’vi encircle the tree, clasp hands and chant to save Dr. Augustine’s life. I’ve listened to the soundtrack at least a dozen times already.

But I also think his criteria are too high. Yes, many classic films have classic scores. But if you walked into the film blind and not knowing the score, would you really know it well enough to hum it on the way out? Not even in Star Wars, I’d posit. The music very much stayed with me as the film ended, but I think it’s too much to expect the actual notes to linger after one viewing and before they enter the mainstream consciousness like many classic scores.

I walked out of that theater totally floored and I still remain literally excited to see Avatar again. In fact, my only regret is that I won’t get a chance to experience it for the first time ever again.

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. While no one know for sure what will happen on Tuesday, some nominees are a foregone conclusion. Which lock for a nomination is undeserved?

John: Voters Blind Sided by Bullock

This has been a good year in that I don’t see any real egregious locks. The silly nominations I see coming, like those for Invictus, I wouldn’t really call locks. So let me highlight a few performances that have been on the track to nominations since their films were released. Neither are bad performances and perhaps both are even deserving of nominations. I have trouble understanding how so many people saw these films and immediately thought, “This is so good she’s absolutely sure to get a nomination!”

The first is Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. I think this is a combination of a name actress who hasn’t received much awards attention in her career, a Southern accent, a big character, and a late-year release date. If any of these components change, does this performance become a lock? It’s a good performance helped by a script that give her lots to work with, but the assumed inevitability of a nomination is puzzling.

The other is Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air. This is a performance I have mixed feelings about. All of her physical acting is terrific: the way she carries herself, her facial expressions, her stiff seriousness. But the way she sort of spits out her lines drives me nuts and that was hard to get past, at least on the first viewing. I just don’t think people talk like that, even the uptight, self-serious ones. I left the theater thinking, “that’s what everyone’s been so ecstatic about?”

To be fair, she’s sharing the screen with two terrific performances from George Clooney and Vera Farmiga and maybe I was just wowed by their excellence!

Both Bullock and Kendrick will get nominated; Bullock may win and Kendrick is probably the only one who can knock off Mo’Nique. And the nominations won’t be wrong, necessarily. I just have a hard time seeing the hype.

Adam: Shouldn’t a Best Picture Actually Be, You Know, Good?

One word – Avatar. Don’t get me wrong, I think this was an enjoyable movie. But Best Picture good? I think not. Let’s look at it’s pros: visually beautiful, moves along pretty well (even for a 3 hour movie) … not much else. Cons: no attempt to re-engineer/better a stolen script/story, no character development (in a 3 hour movie), very weak dialogue, ridiculous scenes (not involving explosions). How can a movie that fails in a majority of the areas that make up a FILM let alone a GREAT film be the front-runner for Best Picture?

For all of those out there that use the advancing technology/3D/movie-going experience argument I have two words for you – Jurassic Park. Back in 1993, Spielberg and company revolutionized the CGI industry and how audiences view movies. Not only that, he did it with a pretty entertaining movie. One reason for this was good material (Michael Crichton’s novel), but also the ability to adapt it reasonably well to the silver screen. After all of that, Jurassic Park won 3 Oscars, but wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. And I think that that was the right call. It didn’t deserve a nomination – and neither does Avatar.

For those of you who want to use the dollars argument, I submit Dark Knight. Last year, Dark Knight made more money in a single day then any other movie in history and went on to make more money than most of the films ever made. Not only that, it was a phenomenal movie and easily the best one last year. Fantastic writing, beautiful scenes, decent dialogue and one of the best villain portrayals ever. With all of that, it didn’t even get a nomination for Best Picture.

So, I submit to you, how is it that a film like Avatar gets a nomination for Best Picture?

Jared: Full of Hot Air

Hm.  Adam took Avatar, I already addressed Invictus, and if I say anything bad about Inglourious Basterds, I think Adam will probably hurt me (though it really isn’t a good movie).  Not sure any other locks make me too angry.  But I will admit to not quite understanding why Up in the Air is receiving plaudits for its acting.  Don’t get me wrong, I love me some George Clooney.  But isn’t his Ryan Bingham just the same thing he always does?  A charming, in-charge guy who needs to be humbled a little bit (but not too much, because he gets his way in the end), and who draws easy comparisons to Clooney himself?  I’m OK with Bingham as a character, but I think that’s due to the writing, and I could see a bunch of people doing justice to that role.  And maybe I’m wrong, but sure seems that one (if not both) of Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are locks as well.  Which I don’t get at all, both roles didn’t appear to be particularly challenging and serve more as mirrors for Bingham than anything else.  Just seems to me that the sheen of the movie is unduly rubbing off on these ladies.

Brian: Avatar Doesn’t Score

Since John is incapable of originality and is once again piggybacking on Jared, I will decline writing about Vera Farmiga’s bewildering lock status. Avatar is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to the Best Picture category, so it jibes that Adam would have gone there; I always look forward to his brutal take-downs. After struggling a bit to find another true lock that I found baffling, I came back around to Avatar, but for musical score.

If I’m coming out of an epic, big, bombastic picture like Avatar, I need to be humming the score as I leave the theater for it to be impactful enough for an Oscar nom. The score is such an integral part of these films that if you name me a commercially and critically successful epic — I can most likely hum the main theme — and thats how it should be. I find James Horner’s work to be uneven — I loved his scores to Enemy at the Gates, A Beautiful Mind, and Apollo 13 — and his work for Avatar was sub-par. Inspiring motifs here or there, but overall bland and forgettable. Perhaps I am being unfair to Horner, since the key to a great score is if it matches the tone of the film — and since I found Avatar to be superficial and derivative — it makes sense that I thought the same about the score. Should Horner be recognized and Marvin Hamlisch be left in the cold for his flighty composition for The Informant, I will be upset.

I considered writing about Lee Daniels’ heavy-handed and distracting direction of Precious, but I think there’s a enough of a chance that he gets pushed out for another director that I didn’t deem him enough of a lock. If he gets the nomination, however, you’ll hear plenty from me on my frustration with him.

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