Friday, February 8, 2013

Memo to the Academy: Who Should Win the Oscars

Today marks the beginning of the final round of voting for this year’s Academy awards. Most of the winners are most likely already set, and most of them are not the ones I would choose. This whole Memo to the Academy exercise is wishful thinking on my part for 2 reasons – the first being that any of these will actually win, and the second than any Academy member will actually read this and change their mind. But screw it, I’m doing it anyway.

Best Picture: Amour
There are many reasons why Amour should win the Best Picture prize – and the fact that it is the best film nominated is only one – but it is the most important one. This is a solid, respectful line-up the Academy has nominated this year, but among them Amour stands out. The other films try, and often succeed, is being seen as “important” films – films about history or God or “the way we live now” (Ok, so Silver Linings Playbook, not so much – then again for some reason Bradley Cooper and David O. Russell are meeting with Joe Biden to discuss mental illness, so what do I know). Amour is the one film of the bunch to deal with real, normal people, dealing with something that each and every one of us has to deal with – death. It is not an easy film to watch – it is downright painful at times – and the two main characters – brilliantly played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (where is Jean-Louis’ nomination by the way – he had the more difficult role!) – are not wholly sympathetic, but stubbornly remain real people. Haneke’s control of the medium is absolute as well, and his screenplay is brilliant. So that’s why the movie is the best of the year, but another reason to vote for it? This year we will see the  the 85th film named Best Picture of the Year by the Academy. Isn’t it time to award ONE that isn’t in English?

Best Director: Michael Haneke, Amour
The reason Haneke should win is simple – he made the best film of the nominees. But I will also say this. David O. Russell did a great job directing Silver Linings Playbook – but a better one writing it. Steven Spielberg did a great job directing Lincoln, but Tony Kushner did a better job writing it. I respect what both Ang Lee and Benh Zeitlin did immensely this year – but neither are in the same league as Haneke (and Ang already has an Oscar). Haneke’s achievement, to me anyway, is much more about direction than writing (which is weird, since he’ll probably lose here, and win in writing). As well, it is time for a director of a foreign film to ACTUALLY WIN an Oscar for directing it. Over the years, the director’s branch has nominated a few, but the Academy as a whole has never seen it worth actually giving them the Oscar. It’s time that changed.

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
First, let me just say that I have nothing but respect for what will be Daniel Day-Lewis’ third Oscar winning performance in Lincoln. In many other years, it would have been the easy choice for a win, and I have no problem with him winning. Having said that, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master is even better. Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is the biggest enigma of the year – a character damaged from the war, looking for spiritual guidance, and yet can never wholly give himself over to the “Cause”. He remains steadfastly Freddie – a man who responds to ever situation sexually, and thinks everyone else does either – a man who is damaged, and imagines or dreams sections of the movie. Phoenix makes Freddie a distinctly sexual, physical being – keeping people at a distance with his strange posture, and vocal ticks, and yet also able to make them fascinated in him. It is a monumental performance by Phoenix – the best of the year, and one of the few capable of saying it is better than Daniel Day-Lewis’ towering performance in Lincoln.

Best Actress: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
This was a difficult choice for me between Chastain and Riva, but what tips the scales for me in favor of Chastain  is that she is the true lead in Zero Dark Thirty – she carries the film – while Riva has a secondary role to Trintignat. Chastain is brilliant in Zero Dark Thirty, as a woman obsessed. She gives up everything else in her life, has nothing else, except her obsession and her belief that she knows where Bin Laden is. This is the type of movie – and performance – I enjoy the most. Chastain, who brilliantly broke through in 2011 with performances in The Help, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, Coriolanus and Texas Killing Fields (ok, that last one, not so much), elevated her game in Zero Dark Thirty – giving us a complex, flawed, driven, ruthless “heroine”, who is not painted as entirely good, but as a person willing do to anything to get the job done. It is a brilliant performance in a brilliant movie.

Best Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Philip Seymour Hoffman has certainly become an Oscar favorite – getting his fourth nomination in the last 8 years – for perhaps his best performance to date in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. He is everything that Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie is not – at least outwardly – calm, cool, collected, confident, charming. He has that way of talking to you and making you feel like you’re the only person in the world. But his Lancaster Dodd is both more ruthless than he appears, and more powerless – he serves his own master as it were. Hoffman delivers one of the great performances of 2012. Yes, Waltz, Jones and DeNiro would also be worthy winner, but they pale in comparison to Hoffman’s work here.

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, The Master
I know will I lose some people here, who claim that I am so in love with The Master, that I want to win everything regardless of whether it deserves it or. And it’s true – I do love The Master (it was my favorite film of 2012) – but of the nominees, I do think that Amy Adams is clearly the best performance nominated as well. (They should have nominated Ann Dowd for Compliance, and then she would have gotten my vote). Of the three principal cast members in The Master, Adams clearly has the least showy role. She is often in the background, simply observing what is happening. And yet, she never misses anything, and she never misses a chance to exert her power and influence over Dodd – she is really running the show here – she lets him think he is, but she doesn’t hesitate to snap him back under control when needed. Also, doesn’t Adams deserve an Oscar by now? This is her fourth nomination – and she probably SHOULD have won for Junebug in 2005, and in my mind was better than her Oscar winner co-star Melissa Leo in The Fighter (she has the least impressive of the principal roles in Doubt however, and was lucky to be nominated – her co-star Viola Davis should have won). I liked the work of Hathaway and Field (less so of Hunt, and Weaver has little to work with), but this time, I was more impressed with the subtlety of Adam’s work than the bombast of her competitors – however brilliant that bombast may be.          

Best Original Screenplay: Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino
Another tough call, as I would also be satisfied with the spare screenplay or Amour, the tightly structured screenplay of Zero Dark Thirty or the quirkiness of the screenplay for Moonrise Kingdom winning this award as well. However, I chose Tarantino’s work because it really is the most original of the original screenplay, which is odd considering it’s Tarantino’s take on an old genre film – the Spaghetti Western. But what Tarantino does so brilliantly is take his influences, and come up with something wholly new and original. What he has really done in Django Unchained and make the anti-Gone with the Wind or the anti-The Birth of a Nation. He rubs your face in America’s racist, violent past and makes you accept it. He also creates some of the most fascinating characters of the year – from Jamie Foxx’s Django to Christoph Waltz’s King Schultz to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, and perhaps especially Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen (I hope in the promised extended addition, Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda becomes a more fully rounded character) – and the most quotable dialogue of the year. It’s been 18 years since Tarantino won an writing Oscar for Pulp Fiction – it’s time to give him another one.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Lincoln – Tony Kushner
I don’t think it was a necessarily strong year for adaptations – but even if it was, I find it hard to believe something would have topped Tony Kushner wonderful work on Lincoln. It took a well-respected book my Doris Kearns Goodwin, and parred it down to a very brief period in Lincoln’s life. It manages to have a huge scope – a cast with dozens of significant speaking roles – but also make it the most intimate film of Spielberg’s career. The dialogue is wonderful, and delivered by a large, impeccable cast. The film is magnificently structured, with only two slight missteps (the first and last scenes of the film). The only screenplay nominated in this category that really deserves to win an Oscar.

Best Foreign Language Film: Amour - Austria
Perhaps I should abstain here. I’ve only seen Amour and A Royal Affair – Kon-Tiki and No will open sometime this year, and I missed War Witch (keep meaning to catch up with it, since I am Canadian, and it is now on video, just hadn’t had a chance yet). Yet Amour is the best film the Academy has nominated in this category for a few year (due respect to last year’s A Separation) and the second best film of the entire year for me, so I feel confident in recommending this one. I just hope the Academy doesn’t doe what it’s done in the past and pull a switeroo at the last minute – giving something like The Secret in Their Eyes (an admittingly excellent film) the Oscar over two true masterworks like A Prophet and The White Ribbon (like they did in 2009).

Best Documentary: Searching for Sugar Man - Malik Bendjelloul & Simon Chinn
I really, really should abstain here, as by many accounts I may have missed the two best films nominated – How to Survive a Plague (my fault, and I will correct it when it comes to video at the end of February) and The Gatekeepers (not my fault, as it was just released in New York & L.A. last week, and won’t hit Toronto until early March). I’ve seen the other three, and as much as I liked The Invisible War, Searching for Sugar was clearly the best (I didn’t think much of 5 Broken Cameras). And it is the type of documentary that doesn’t win here a lot, because it isn’t “important” enough. It’s just a really good, truly inspiring documentary and a definite crowd pleaser, so it gets my vote.

Best Animated Film: Frankenweenie – Tim Burton
Frankenweenie may have been a box office disappointment, but creatively it was Tim Burton best film in quite some time – and further proof that he should probably do more animation, and less live action, as he is at his best in the former. This is a movie for movie lovers – a film that celebrates the horror and sci-fi films of the past, and makes them new again. It also has Burton’s signature animation style, and is brilliant and beautiful in black and white. 2012 was not a banner year for animation, but Frankenweenie was certainly the best of the bunch.

Best Cinematography: Skyfall – Roger Deakins
No matter what you think of The Master as a film, we can all agree it was a joke it didn’t get nominated for cinematography, right? Okay, now with that out of the way, let me sing the praises of 10 time nominee (for Skyfall, True Grit, The Reader, The Assassination of Jesse James, No Country for Old Men, The Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Kundun, Fargo and The Shawshank Redemption) WHO HAS NEVER WON AN OSCAR. We can all agree he should have won for one of those films, right? But that’s not the only reason why Deakins deserves the prize this year – he also deserves it, because of the nominees, he did far and away the best work. With all the discussion of the film to digital transformation, Deakins works in the later and shows why there is no need to real concern – his digital imagery in Skyfall is brilliant and breathtaking, and helped make this the best looking Bonds film ever made. There is a lot of fine work on display among the nominees this year, but none better than Deakins work on Skyfall.

Best Editing: Zero Dark Thirty - William Goldenberg & Dylan Tichenor
Goldenberg got nominated for his third and fourth Oscars this year – and will almost certainly win – but for Argo (meaning Tichenor, a great editor in his own right, will have to wait for another year). But the work done in Zero Dark Thirty is truly the most impressive editing job of the year – keeping this two-and-a-half hour thriller moving at a brisk pace, even when there are long stretches with no action. This is as tightly constructed a movie as they come, and the editing plays a major role in that. I like some of the other nominees, but nothing even comes close to the editing of Zero Dark Thirty.

Best Costume Design: Anna Karenina - Jacqueline Durran
I actually think Durran will probably win this award this year – the third time she has been nominated, all for Joe Wright period films. There was no movie this year with more beautiful costumes than Anna Karenina – that’s not the only criteria I use (which is why I wish some films like Moonrise Kingdom, Holy Motors or Cloud Atlas had been nominated), but it certainly is a good one. Out of these nominees – fine work done by all – Anna gets my vote easily.

Best Production Design: Anna Karenina - Sarah Greenwood & Katie Spencer.
This is the duo’s fourth nomination (three for Joe Wright period films, another for Sherlock Holmes), and this they will actually win this time. Just like the Costume Design category, pretty is often good enough to win – and no film was prettier than Anna Karenina. But there Production was brilliant as well, helping to disguise a lower budget, and making Wright’s play with a movie structure work better than it probably had any right to. It is brilliant work, and should win the Oscar this year.

Best Make-Up & Hairstyling: Les Miserables - Lisa Westcott & Julie Dartnell
Call this one a win by default, as I happen to think the branch overlooked far and away the best work done in this category this in – in Cloud Atlas and Holy Motors (not to mention Lincoln). But of the three nominees (alongside Hitchcock, which I was unimpressed with, and The Hobbit, which is fine work, but hasn’t it gotten enough), the work making the beautiful people in the film look down and dirty is the best nominated. No, it shouldn’t win, but since they didn’t follow my advice on who to nominate, this would be making the best of a bad situation.

Best Visual Effects:  Life of Pi - Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik De Boer, Donald Elliott
Does this really require an explanation? As much as I admired the work done in The Avengers and Prometheus, really nothing came close this year to the Visual Effects work done on Life of Pi, which seamlessly integrated the articially created animals with the real world. It is stunning and beautiful work, and the best work of the year by a mile. Is this even a race this year?

Best Score: Skyfall – Thomas Newman
If Roger Deakins deserves to win for Skyfall on his 10th nomination with no wins, than so to does Thomas Newman, getting his 11th nomination (10th for score – there’s a song nomination in there) without having won either. How this is possible, I really do not know. But Newman also, to be anyway, wrote the best score nominated (probably 5th best of the year after The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Cloud Atlas – all of which the Academy should have nominated), as he brilliantly mixes the traditional elements of James Bond music with something different. Yes, I like Williams’ Lincoln score, and Danna’s Life of Pi score, and Alexandre Desplat damn well should have an Oscar by now (although, if we’re giving him one in 2012, couldn’t it have been for Moonrise Kingdom?), but to me, Newman’s was the best work, and so he deserves to win.

Best Song: Skyfall – Skyfall (Adele & Paul Epworth)
To me, this year had three GREAT original songs, which is rare as normally I struggle to find one. But even if the Academy had nominated John Legend’s Who Did That to You from Django Unchained and Kylie Minogue’s Who We Were from Holy Motors (which the Academy deemed ineligible, because they’re idiots), Skyfall would still be an easy choice. The Best Bond song in decades, a certifiable hit, and one that pays tribute to the past while still being unique, Skyfall is easily the best song in the running since The Weary Kind from Crazy Heart in 2009.

Best Sound Mixing: Les Miserables - Andy Nelson & Mark Paterson & Simon Hayes
Say what you want about the film itself, or Hooper’s decision to capture all the singing live, that decision made it extremely hard on the sound department, making their achievement all the more impressive. Nelson is no newbie – this is his 19th nomination (he won for Saving Private Ryan), but he deserves a second one – alongside newcomers Paterson and Hayes. There is a lot of great work nominated (I almost want to go with Skyfall, so 15 time loser Greg P. Russell can win on nomination 16), but Les Miserables had the best work, and deserves the win.

Best Sound Editing: Django Unchained - Wylie Stateman
This category has some fine work nominated – I wouldn’t mind seeing the Zero Dark Thirty win the award either – but I’ll go with Django Unchained, which used a lot of great, exaggerated (and at times not so exaggerated) Sound Effects. The work by Stateman is excellent, and this is his 6th nomination, stretching all the way to 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July. He should win this year, but he most likely won’t.

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