Cinema Chatter #7 – Resonance

I considered going through a fairly standard analysis of the Academy Award nominees and predicting the winners. I even started something, though it quickly read off as a list cementing The Artist’s dominance on the awards circuit - it all comes to a head on February 26 when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces it as the Best Picture of 2011. And while The Artist will etch its place in cinematic history, I really do have to wonder if the picture will extend beyond that.

Take 2009’s winner, Slumdog Millionaire. Has it stood any sort of longevity test? It was a zeitgeist picture that came and went – frankly, I strain my memory to recall its most basic plotting. Similarly, last year’s winner, The King’s Speech, a film that I admired upon viewing, has left me with the slightest lasting impression. It was a film that I found touching, though nothing out of the ordinary. At the same time, David Fincher’s The Social Network continues to linger in my consciousness as the sort of picture that extends beyond contemporary gravitas and speaks to a larger culture. It’s been well over a year since I’ve last seen it, but its icy and precise structure echoes clearly in my memory.

This doesn’t simply extend to winners and losers either. While many are heralding George Clooney’s performance in The Descendants as being the best performance of his career, those same people seem to be forgetting his far superior performance in 2010’s The American. It’s a film that came and went, but its lingering affect is remarkable. I frequently look back on it fondly, and it’s a picture that seems to seep into my viewings of other films (Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive being the clearest example).  It’s the sort of film that does resonate as you step away from it, a quality that a lot of recent Best Picture winners have been lacking.

The general feeling I get out of films like The Artist, The Help, and War Horse is in their very blatant way at tugging at your heartstrings. They’re effective in that manage to lob that softball of emotions, but there’s something so terribly artificial about their structure. Regardless, they are films that work for a larger consensus. Just like Slumdog Millionaire or The King’s Speech – they’re simply films that audiences can gravitate toward for a light cinematic experience. Films like The Tree of Life, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Take Shelter, Drive and the aforementioned The American don’t lay out the emotional groundwork for all to see – they’re enigmatic and require a bit of deciphering. They’re emotionally messy and blur moral lines that force viewers to question what they viewed.

I guess a big problem with these awards ceremonies in general is the hastiness involved in it all. People are quick to make that top ten list (I know I was) or label a particular film “the best of the year” without allowing the picture to sit for a while in their consciousness. It explains why a film like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was nominated over other critically acclaimed pictures – it was the final picture that was screened to audiences and voters. It’s the last thing that made an impression and therefore stood strongest in people’s memories. There is a reason why “Oscar” films get released at the end of the year, wherein being the last one out of the gate bodes well for securing a nomination.

Obviously, like with any viewer, I’ll champion my favorites. The Artist is not a favorite of mine. Nor was The King’s Speech, or The Hurt Locker before it, or Slumdog Millionaire. And I’m not looking for validation for my taste. Rather, it would just be nice to see my favorite films and filmmakers receive recognition from a broader audience. Winning and losing these awards don’t do much beyond short-term recognition. And as we remove ourselves from 2011’s offerings, I’d think films like The Tree of Life and Drive will discussed far more than The Artist or The Help.  I guess the trick is not minding for the time being.

Thursday Ten – Best 2011-2012 Academy Award Nominations

My first foray in Oscar prognostication was… to be expected. Netting a ho-hum 66/104 in all the categories I predicted, I take some consolation in going 5/5 in the cinematography field, though getting massacred in the sound categories makes me wonder what the hell I should be listening for. Regardless, there were plenty of surprises that make this whole game worth playing. So while many may be preoccupied with the various snubs throughout the fields, I’ll take a “glass half-full route” and focus on the positives – my favorite citations of the year.

10. 

Best Documentary Feature: “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

The documentary branch, like the foreign language branch, has historically been a sour bunch of voters. And when films like The Interrupters, Into the Abyss, and Senna were deemed ineligible for an Academy Award, it left little hope for the remaining finalists in the field. Popular films that manage to make it on the initial shortlist rarely get to the final stage of voting – 2010’s critical darling, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is one of the few documentaries to have achieved such a feat.  And what had handicapped Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger’s film from the start was a sense that the duo were on the outside looking in, as their previous pictures and association with HBO seemed to have exiled them from the rest of the branch. Whatever perception existed has officially been denounced with this pleasant nomination, as the conclusion to Berlinger and Sinofsky’s fascinating trilogy has not only secured them a nomination, but looks to have placed the two in contention to take the award.

9.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Rooney Mara for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

I had initially predicted Rooney Mara to score a nomination to the detriment of Glenn Close – unfortunately, Mara’s nomination seemed to have kicked Tilda Swinton out of the category. Despite the bittersweet nature of her nomination, I am glad that Mara managed to secure a nomination. Her performance was the best aspect of a film that could have easily been overwhelmed by David Fincher’s precise direction or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score. Her transformation made her virtually unrecognizable – watching a film like Tanner Hall a few days after seeing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo displays the sort of range she has as a leading actress.

8. 

Best Original Screenplay: “A Separation”

I haven’t seen A Separation yet, so my appreciation for this nomination comes from a different place. Every year or so, there’s typically one renowned foreign film that manages to speak to a larger social milieu. Unfortunately, the Academy has limited its progressive scope over the past few years. While Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon managed to secure a surprising cinematography nomination in 2009, there hasn’t really been a crossover success with the Academy since 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth. And with A Separaton, one of the most critically adored pictures of the year, the Academy has managed to nominate a foreign film outside of its alienating category. While the Academy hasn’t really stepped up as of late with a foreign film nominated in the Best Picture field, this sort of small step forward is, well, a small step forward.

7.

Best Adapted Screenplay: “The Ides of March”

The whole deal with The Ides of March is a perplexing one. At one point considered a Best Picture favorite, the film slowly faded away following a lukewarm reaction from those at the Venice film festival. From there on in, The Ides of March carried an aura of disappointment. That initial tepid reaction had served to remove the picture entirely from the awards conversation, up until its strong showing at the Golden Globes. But even then, it simply could not shake that initial tepid debut. But in what could have been a strong awards play for Ryan Gosling, George Clooney (both as supporting actor and director), and Philip Seymour Hoffman have to settle for a single citation in the Best Adapted Screenplay field. Not that I’m complaining – it could have easily been shut entirely.

6. 

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Gary Oldman for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I am pleased that Gary Oldman has finally managed to secure an Oscar nomination. After decades of solid work, usually offering a twist and sense of nuance to eclectic characters, he finally received a nomination for his quiet and subdued work in Tomas Alfredson’s film. Looking back on his career, I look at his quirky work in Luc Besson’s Leon as his best performance. And while his nomination comes at the expense of one of two of my favorite performances of the year (Michael Fassbender in Shame and Michael Shannon in Take Shelter), his work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is certainly worth the notice.

5.

 Best Costume Design: “Jane Eyre”

There wasn’t going to be any hope for Jane Eyre in the best picture race. And acting nods for either Mia Wasikowska or Michael Fassbender were, to put it nicely, a long shot. The quiet film from earlier in the year was, like so many other early releases, going to be forgotten. But thanks to the rather eclectic taste of the costume design branch, the picture managed to survive its early release date and score a nomination for its corset-crunching and lavish garments. Sure, it would have been nice to see some more bold citations for the picture, but as it stands, spreading the wealth to a film like this is its own prize.

4.

Best Director: Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”

During his heyday in the 80s, it was fairly commonplace for Woody Allen to secure both a writing and directorial nomination. But ever since 1994’s Bullets over Broadway, Allen has been sidelined by the director’s branch, and often snubbed by the writing branch as well (his previous citation being 2005’s Match Point). And while Allen will undoubtedly cause us to question our reawakened interest in his work sooner or later, it’s nice to see the auteur once again recognized for his sharp wit and swift directorial ability. With reverence for cinema’s legacy becoming a popular theme this year (given the across-the-board nominations for The Artist and Hugo), it’s Allen who taps into a larger spectrum of nostalgia that I don’t think either Hazanavicius or Scorsese attain in their films.

3.

 Best Picture: “The Tree of Life”

The Tree of Life was always a bit on the fence in the Best Picture race. While grand in scope and a marvelous feat of filmmaking, the picture’s confounding nature prohibited widespread appeal. And with an early release date, the Palme d’Or winner was faced with a steep climb in the race. Would the film have been a nominee had it not been for the new voting system? It’s doubtful. But the picture touches upon an anxious social zeitgeist that, thankfully, enough passionate voters responded to.

2.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Demián Bichir, “A Better Life”

Demián Bichir was a dark horse amongst dark horses. Despite getting nominated by the Screen Actors Guild, most prognosticators dismissed his nomination as softness on behalf of the actor’s branch, perhaps as a residual effect of A Better Life being the first screen released to voting members of the Academy. And with few critical citations,   Bichir just wasn’t on anyone’s mind. Of course, his nomination took many by surprise, but I’m glad it happened. The actor gave a very subdued and naturalistic performance, and stood as one of my favorite performances of the year – it’s by far my favorite performance in the category. While his chances of winning are minimal, the mere fact that he’s nominated amongst mega stars like George Clooney and Brad Pitt means that performances can carry their weight, no matter the name behind it.

1.

Best Director: Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”

When David Fincher was cited by the Director’s Guild for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the expense of Terrence Malick, the general sense was that it was over. With The Artist and Hugo obtaining a majority of attention from the guild and critics, the idea that Malick and The Tree of Life would get nominated in anything other than cinematography seemed unlikely. But then it happened. Having the picture and auteur recognized for such a remarkable accomplishment washes away any sense of dissatisfaction I might have had for other snubs.

While a film like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close get the ire of various publications and blogs for its mention, few recognize what they can champion in a race. Not to be dismissive of other films, but I could care less as to what poorly received film gets nominated - it’s basically a tradeoff. For every The Tree of Life or Midnight in Paris that is nominated, there’s a War Horse. And well, I’m pretty sure the opposite holds true for others.

Cinema Chatter #6 – Reassessing

Oscar nominations will be announced tomorrow and any worthwhile prognosticator will tell you that it’s still a very open field. Part of the confounding guesswork stems from the unknown number of Best Picture nominees that will be announced. Ranging from five to ten, the Best Picture field is more volatile than usual. The difficulty of the season rests with the fact many prestige pictures were left until the end of the year for screening – films like Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close were touted as frontrunners. Of course, such sight-unseen presumptions worked against both films, with the former on life support while the latter being critically slaughtered.

Insecurities don’t just rest with the Best Picture field – virtually all the acting categories have one or two potential spots that have pundits predicting a wide assortment of contenders. And the tech categories aren’t any easier. But as one could expect, it’s all part of a game, and that’s what makes this whole deal so much fun. Of course, I have my hopefuls, and that comes a bit into play in my predicting. Check out the predictions page for a more thorough analysis of each category. For now, you can check out the sidebar or the below for my picks.

Best Picture

 “The Artist”
“The Descendants”
“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”
“The Help”
“Midnight in Paris”
“Moneyball”
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
 
 Other Possibilities:
“The Tree of Life”
“War Horse”
“Drive”
 

Best Director

Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
David Fincher, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”
Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
 
Other Possibilities
Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”
Steven Spielberg, “War Horse”
Tomas Alfredson, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

Best Actor

George Clooney, “The Descendants”
Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
Michael Fassbender, “Shame”
Gary Oldman, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
Brad Pitt “Moneyball”
 
Other Possibilities
Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”
Leonardo DiCaprio “J. Edgar”
Demián Bichir, “A Better Life”
 

Best Actress

Viola Davis, “The Help”
Rooney Mara, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”
Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
Michelle Williams, “My Week With Marilyn"
 
Other Possibilities
Glenn Close, “Albert Nobbs”
Kristin Dunst, “Melancholia”
Charlize Theron, “Young Adult”
 

Best Supporting Actor

Kenneth Branagh, “My Week With Marilyn”
Albert Brooks, “Drive”
Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
Brad Pitt, “The Tree of Life”
Christopher Plummer “Beginners”
 
Other Possibilities
Nick Nolte, “Warrior”
Corey Stoll, “Midnight in Paris”
Armie Hammer, “J.Edgar”
 

Best Supporting Actress

Bérénice Bejo, “The Artist”
Jessica Chastain, “The Help” Melissa McCarthy, “Bridesmaids”
Octavia Spencer, “The Help”
Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”
 
Other Possibilities
Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
Carey Mulligan, “Shame”
Vanessa Redgrave, “Coriolanus” 
 

Best Adapted Screenplay

 “The Descendants”
“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”
“The Help”
“Hugo”
“Moneyball”
 
 Other Possibility
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

Best Original Screenplay

“The Artist”
“Beginners”
“Bridesmaids”
“Midnight in Paris”
“A Separation”
 
Other Possibility
“Win Win”

Best Art Direction

“The Artist”
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2”
“Hugo”
 “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
“War Horse”
 
Other Possibilities
“The Tree of Life”  
“Anonymous”
“The Help”
 

Best Cinematography

“The Artist”
“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”
“Hugo”
“The Tree of Life”
“War Horse”
 
Other Possibility
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

Best Costume Design

“The Artist”
“The Help”
“Hugo”
“Jane Eyre”
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
 
Other Possibility
“War Horse”

Best Film Editing

“The Artist”
“The Descendants”
“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”
“Hugo”
“The Tree of Life”
 
Other Possibility
“War Horse”

Best Makeup

“Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life”
“Hugo”
“The Iron Lady”
 
Other Possibility
“The Artist”

Best Music (Original Score)

“The Adventures of Tintin”
“The Artist”
“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”
“Hugo”
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
 
Other Possibility
“War Horse”

Best Music (Original Song)

“Lay Your Head Down” from “Albert Nobbs”
“The Living Proof” from “The Help”
"Coeur Volant" from "Hugo"
 “Life’s a Happy Song” from “The Muppets”
“Man or Muppet” from “The Muppets”
Other Possibility
"Star Spangled Man" from "Captain America: The First Avenger”

Best Sound Editing

“The Adventures of Tintin”
“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”
“Rango”
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
“Super 8”
 
Other Possibility
“War Horse”

Best Sound Mixing

“The Adventures of Tintin”
“The Artist”
“Hanna”
“Super 8”
“The Tree of Life”
 
Other Possibility
“War Horse”
Best Visual Effects
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”
“Hugo”
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”
“The Tree of Life”
 
Other Possibility
“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

Best Animated Feature

“The Adventures of Tintin”
“Cars 2”
“Kung-Fu Panda 2”
“Rango”
“Wrinkles”
 
Other Possibility
“Chico & Rita”

Best Documentary Feature

“Bill Cunningham New York”
“Hell and Back Again”
“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
“Pina”
“Project Nim”
 
Other Possibility
“Buck”
 

Best Foreign Langauge Film

Poland, “In Darkness”
Iran, “A Separation”
Canada, “Monsieur Lazhar”
Israel, “Footnote”
Germany, “Pina”
 
Other Possibility
Germany, “Bullhead”
 

Nomination Count

11 – “The Artist”

10 – “Hugo”

7 – “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” , “The Help”

6 – “The Descendants”

5 – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, “The Tree of Life”

4 – “Moneyball”, “The Adventures of Tintin”

3 – “Midnight in Paris”

2 – “Beginners”, “The Iron Lady”, “My Week With Marilyn”, “Bridesmaids” “A Separation”, “War Horse”, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2”, “Super 8”, “Pina”, “Rango”, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” “The Muppets”

1 – “Albert Nobbs”, “Shame”, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”, “Drive” “In Darkness”, “Monsieur Lazhar”, “Footnote” “Bill Cunningham New York”, “Hell and Back Again”, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory”, “Project Nim” “Cars 2”, “Kung-Fu Panda 2”, “Wrinkles”, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, “Hanna”, “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol” “

Cinema Chatter #5 – Hypothetically

The critics groups have had their say. There are announcements from time to time from slightly more obscure groups, but the tone that was set by the New York Film Critics in late November has largely been embraced - The Artist is the frontrunner to win Best Picture. But unlike previous years, the generally agreed upon films to secure a Best Picture nomination has fluctuated throughout the awards season. From the ho-hum response to Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to the warm reception of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the whole season has been an odd one. Dark horse Best Picture contenders such as Bridesmaids and Drive seem increasingly appealing as a film like War Horse stumbles with snubs by the Directors Guild of America and the American Society of Cinematographers. The Best Picture landscape remains shapeless, particularly given that prognosticators don’t even know how many films are slated for a nomination. While I had initially pegged the race down to six nominations, I’m slowly feeling that the race could very well expand to the full ten.

Seeing as how Academy Award ballots are expected to be in no later than Friday, January 13, I thought it appropriate to toss in my own hypothetical ballot  Feel free to check out the Prediction Page and sidebar for updates throughout the next few weeks – nominations are set to be announced on Tuesday, January 24.

Best Foreign Language Film

France, “Certified Copy” Belgium, “The Kid with a BikeSpain, “The Skin I Live In Romania, “Tuesday, After Christmas” Norway, “Turn Me On, Damnit

Fun Fact: Not a single one of these films was shortlisted or even submitted by their respective countries for the Academy Awards. So my favorites are really a non-factor. But it was an interesting year in foreign cinema, ranging from forays in genre filmmaking to stark relationship dramas.  But as it’s often the case, distribution for most of the major foreign Oscar contenders are held over the first quarter of 2012 – so I’ll need to catch up on those.

 Best Documentary Feature

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” “The Interrupters” “Into the Abyss” “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” “Senna”

It was a remarkable year for documentaries in 2011 – even if the Oscar nominated shortlist doesn’t leave you with that impression. With the exception of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, not a single one of my nominated films were shortlisted for the Best Documentary category. As unfortunate as it may be, the backlash that stemmed from The Interrupters and Into the Abyss’ omissions seemed to turn heads. But then again, whether it is a startling omission in the foreign language category (2007 for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) or documentary feature category (1994 for Hoop Dreams), there’s little the Academy does to prevent future oversights.

 Best Animated Feature

“The Adventures of Tintin”  “Cars 2”  “Kung-Fu Panda 2” “Puss in Boots”  “Rango”

Unlike previous years, the Best Animated Feature category will be populated by fairly mediocre films. In a year where Pixar stumbles and Dreamworks dispense all good will admiration from How to Train Your Dragon, it’s Nickelodeon that provided the two best animated endeavors of 2011, with The Adventures of Tintin and Rango. With Rango, the animation house provided one of the more peculiar films of 2011 – one rich with cinematic reverence, with references to Chinatown, Apocalypse Now!, and Once Upon A Time in the West.

 Best Visual Effects

“Hugo” “Melancholia” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” “The Tree of Life” “X-Men: First Class”

While Rise of the Planet of the Apes impressed me with its integration motion capture animation, it was the final scene in Melancholia that left me with the greatest visual sight – the collision of planets. In a year that explored the many ways the world could end, no film captured that visual quite like von Trier’s film.

 Best Sound Mixing

“Drive” “Melancholia” “Rango” “The Tree of Life” “We Need to Talk About Kevin”

 “Play it loud” is the suggestion at the beginning of The Tree of Life on Blu-Ray.  It certainly enhances my appreciation for the film’s soundscape, which is so layered and precise. From its seamless integration of classical compositions to the rapturous creation sequences of the universe, The Tree of Life is as much a beautiful voyage of sounds as it is a visual feast.

 Best Sound Editing

“The Adventures of Tintin”  “Rango”  “The Tree of Life” “Warrior” “We Need to Talk About Kevin”

A tough decision between We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Tree of Life is split by some hair raising transitions found in the former picture. With We Need to Talk About Kevin, the audience enters a fragile state of mind. The film layers sound together in the most compelling way, as moments of celebration fade into the foreboding sound of police sirens. And then there’s a curtain, gently drifting in the wind, with the sound of sprinklers heard in the foreground. Few films leave such a remarkably tense mark on you based solely on the sound of the minute.

Best Original Score

“Attack the Block” “Contagion” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” “Hanna” “The Skin I Live In”

It was an interesting year for film scores – it seems like last year’s winner, The Social Network, has had a substantial effect on the category. I admired Cliff Martinez’s effort in Contagion (and Drive for that matter) and I found Attack the Block’s score to be its most impressive aspect, but it all paled in comparison to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ back-to-back collaboration with David Fincher.. Even if they didn’t do anything particularly innovative (as I commented before, it was essentially a B-Sides version of The Social Network’s soundtrack), the duo effectively constructed a score that elevated mood and tension, perfectly complementing Fincher’s cold and brooding eye.

Best Makeup

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” “The Skin I Live In” “X-Men: First Class”

I haven’t really seen much this year that wowed me in the makeup category (though I haven’t had the chance to see the current frontrunner, The Iron Lady). So I approach the category with a bit of a shrug. I did admire Elena Anaya’s transformation in The Skin I Live In, and along with the subtle touches to an increasingly insane Antonio Banderas, the film’s makeup department left a more substantial impression on me than any other.

 Best Film Editing

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” “Senna”  “Take Shelter”  “The Tree of Life” “We Need to Talk About Kevin”

Both Senna and Martha Marcy May Marlene hinge on their editing to make a compelling feature, so this category was a bit difficult to narrow down. Take Shelter was an impressive editing feat, particularly in its stark transitioning between dream and reality. And the seamlessness of images that unite The Tree of Life is astounding. But again, with We Need to Talk About Kevin, the picture fluidly moves through past and present, illustrating a haunting state of mind to a tangible degree.

 Best Costume Design

“A Dangerous Method” “Jane Eyre” “Midnight in Paris” “Shame” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

Shame’s costume design was truly superb and a beautifully realized contemporary effort. But it was Jane Eyre that managed to bridge a particular gap, as eloquence was found even in drabness. It all worked wonderfully with the other mechanics of the picture, ranging from the rich cinematography to its stellar art direction.

Best Cinematography

“Melancholia” “Shame” “The Skin I Live In” “Submarine” “The Tree of Life”

It was a year of beautiful cinematography. It partly due to the themes that were addressed for the year, as the creation of the cosmos and end of the world were touched upon by two of the best looking films of the year. But in the end, everything about Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography in The Tree of Life was astounding. It’s not just the best looking film of 2011, but the best looking film in quite some time.

Best Art Direction

“Drive” “Jane Eyre” “The Skin I Live In” “Sleeping Beauty” “The Tree of Life”

From the cool swagger that drips from Drive’s art direction to the meticulous details of opulence found in Sleeping Beauty, my preferences vary from the contemporary to period pieces. But there was simply something so vibrant about Carlos Bodelón’s work in The Skin I Live In. It’s a picture that runs a fairly murky path, but manages to maintain a rhythmic quality to visual set pieces.

 Best Adapted Screenplay

“Carnage” “A Dangerous Method”  “The Skin I Live In” “Submarine” “We Need to Talk About Kevin”

My preference is somewhat biased given that I actually read Lionel Shriver’s novel. And knowing the text only serves to reinforce my appreciation for what Lynne Ramsay did to adapt it for the screen. What starts as a verbose correspondence is turned into a fragmented screenplay on the nature of memory and recollection. It’s a meticulously crafted screenplay that captures a different side of the novel.

 Best Original Screenplay

“Certified Copy” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” “Midnight in Paris” “Take Shelter” “The Tree of Life”  

Part of what makes this category so difficult is trying to remove the screenplay from the other elements of the film – how effective is it on its own? With all the films but Midnight in Paris, there are particular qualities that stand above the screenplay – the directorial prowess of The Tree of Life and Certified Copy, the performances in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Take Shelter. With Midnight in Paris, the smile-inducing script is what draws me in more than any other aspect of the film.

Best Supporting Actress

Elena Anaya, “The Skin I Live In” Jessica Chastain, “Take Shelter” Jodie Foster, “Carnage” Melanie Laurent, “Beginners” Carey Mulligan, “Shame”

This isn’t really much of a contest – Jessica Chastain gave one of my favorite performances of the year and nothing else in the category comes close. It’s the sort of role that can be viewed as fairly typical, but the way in which Chastain realizes it is truly exquisite. I admired Carey Mulligan in Shame and Jodie Foster in Carnage, but both exemplify a sort of overreaching method of acting that I don’t usually gravitate toward. Melanie Laurent’s quiet performance in Beginners could have really benefitted had she some more screen time.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Brad Pitt, “The Tree of Life” John Hawkes, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” Viggo Mortenson,  “A Dangerous Method” John C. Reilly, “Terri” Christoph Waltz, “Carnage”

This is a particularly difficult category to get behind anyone. The five I selected are my favorite at the moment, though only Christoph Waltz in Carnage and John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene have left me with any sort of lasting impression. The snide charisma that Hawkes brought to such a reprehensible role is enough for me to give him an edge though.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Juliette Binoche, “Certified Copy” Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Elizabeth Olsen, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” Mia Wasikowska, “Jane Eyre”

This is perhaps the most stacked category of the year – there were a lot of impressive performances by women this year, even if the material they were working with was less than substantial. In the end, it was between Juliette Binoche and Tilda Swinton, both giving monumental performances. But perhaps a result of my overall appreciation for We Need to Talk About Kevin, the pendulum swung in Swinton’s favor.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Antonio Banderas, “The Skin I Live In” Demián Bichir, “A Better Life” Michael Fassbender, “Shame” Hunter McCracken, “The Tree of Life” Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”

Shannon’s performance in Take Shelter stands head and shoulders above the remaining actors in the category, though the vastness in roles for men is truly impressive. From an illegal worker, to a sex addict, to a mad scientist, the performances and roles for male actors were diverse and brilliantly realized. Nothing, however, impressed me quite as much as Shannon’s meltdown, where he speaks to friends and family of the coming apocalypse, only to crumple to pieces after delivering his prophecy.

Best Director

Richard Ayoade, “Submarine” David Cronenberg, “A Dangerous Method” Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life” Lynne Ramsay, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” Nicholas Winding Refn, “Drive”

As I’m piecing this column together, it’s really not too difficult to narrow down my choices here: it’s between Terrence Malick and Lynne Ramsay. Malick may have been a bit more refined in his directorial choices, but it’s almost as if the slip-ups that Ramsay makes only adds to the whole structure of the film – an ill selected song serves to reinforce other aspects of her film. On one day it might be Malick, but for today, it’s Ramsay.

Best Picture

“Carnage” “Drive”  “Hugo” “Into the Abyss” “Midnight in Paris” “The Skin I Live In” “Submarine” “Take Shelter” “The Tree of Life” “We Need to Talk About Kevin”

After watching Carnage, there’s been a bit of tweaking on my favorite films of 2011 since my previous Thursday Ten, but what hasn’t changed – and what should be pretty clear based on my selections – is my admiration for Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. It’s the best film of 2011 and  yet probably won’t get nominated for a damn thing (outside of Tilda Swinton… maybe) come January 24th.

For the nerd in all of us:

Tally Count

11 – The Tree of Life

9 – The Skin I Live In

7 – We Need to Talk About Kevin

5 – Take Shelter

4 – Carnage, A Dangerous Method, Drive, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Midnight in Paris, Shame, Submarine

3 – Certified Copy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Jane Eyre, Melancholia, Rango

2 – The Adventures of Tintin, Hugo, Into the Abyss, Senna, X-Men: First Class

1 – A Better Life, Attack the Block, Beginners, Cars 2, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Contagion, Hanna, The Interrupters, The Kid with the Bike, Kung-Fu Panda 2, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Puss in Boots, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Sleeping Beauty, Terri, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tuesday, After Christmas, Turn, Me On Damnit!, Warrior

Wins:

6 – We Need to Talk About Kevin

3 – The Skin I Live In

2 – Take Shelter, The Tree of Life

1 – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Into the Abyss, Jane Eyre, Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, Rango

Cinema Chatter – Clearing the Fog

As we’ve entered the early November lull, awaiting the New York Film Critics Circle to announce their best films of the year, some of the mysteries of the season have been solved. Press screenings, early reviews, performance clarifications; it all has helped to address some of the looming question marks of the season. The lines are being drawn, campaigns are underway, and most of all; everyone is going to get a chance to see the films.

A Badge of Honor. One of the more obvious pieces of news of the past few weeks has been the announcement that Shame will be rated NC-17. The film, which stars Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender, sees both actors going full-frontal. But unlike last year’s Blue Valentine, which also had received the NC-17 rating before appealing, there will be no intention of appealing the rating on behalf of studio Fox Searchlight. If anything, the studio intends on flaunting the film’s risqué subject matter, as studio co-head Steve Giulia notes that the film’s rating is to be worn as a “badge of honor, not a scarlet letter.” The buzz for the film’s rating is similar to that of Blue Valentine’s, in that it’s getting people interested in the film; but Blue Valentine’s Academy Awards play was strictly limited to Michelle Williams’ Best Actress performance; it’ll be interesting to see if Shame can expand its play and involve Michael Fassbender in an incredibly tight Best Actor race. At this point, it’s looking like Carey Mulligan could become a serious player in the Best Supporting Actress category, as it’s far more fluid and open.

Supporting “Carnage”. One of the lingering questions of the season was how the Carnage cast was going to be broken down into individual categories; that question has been answered in the form of tossing em’ all in supporting. The foursome, comprised of Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet are all going in the Supporting Actress/Actor category. In a move that draws parallels to how Modern Family goes about its awards season, Carnage all of a sudden looks far more viable than it ever had before. While Winslet and Foster have divided pundits as to who gave the better performance, Waltz has drawn considerable praise on the male side of things. And given the rather fluid state of the Best Supporting Actor category, he certainly seems like a strong contender.

“A Dangerous Method” Upended. Well, it just doesn’t seem like it’s the year for David Cronenberg.  One of cinema’s greatest working directors is not likely to have a single nomination going for his film, A Dangerous Method. The buzz for A Dangerous Method has diminished considerably in the past few months, and with a release just a few weeks away, there really hasn’t been much to keep it in the conversation. The last piece of news has seriously unfurled any sort of traction the film could have picked up, as Kiera Knightly is now going for Lead Actress category. Whereas she may have had a chance in Best Supporting Actress category, her chances have taken a significant hit as she is now in the same category as Glenn Close, Tilda Swinton, Felicity Jones, Elizabeth Olson, Michelle Yeoh, Michelle Williams and Rooney Mara; all of whom are battling it out for two spots (with slots reserved for Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, and Charlize Theron).

I See (some of) You! Unlike previous years, this awards season is going to be largely decided last minute, as festival darlings haven’t made the dent we expected, and big films from big directors are held off until the end of the year. But the unfurling process for some of these late releases is certainly interesting. And for now, four big films have been seen by the press/pundits/general audiences.

As Young Adult makes its way to various venues, the film’s buzz continues to grow. The screenings have solidified Charlize Theron’s Best Actress chances, and seem to have added fuel to the Patton Oswalt Supporting Actor train. Its Best Original Screenplay chances seem strong too. The film has found its nook within the awards conversation and seems to have nestled in quite nicely. As the film will likely have a good critical response, it could make a play if the stars align commercially.

While Young Adult is making the rounds in larger cities, War Horse heads for smaller, rural venues. Undoubtedly a reflection of its ideals and demographical constituency, War Horse seems to be drawing very divisive reactions; reactions range from the film being a masterpiece to being blatant Oscar-reaching tripe. It serves to affirm my fears from its initial trailer: it’ll be a film of superficial values.

An unfinished version of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo premiered at the New York Film Festival to generally positive reactions. I had initially pegged the film as a possible spoiler earlier in the season, and unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like it’ll be the case; expectations that the film will likely be a contender in the technical fields remain, but it’s not likely to make much of a splash in the above-the-line categories.

Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar premiered at the AFI Fest to a general consensus: it’s going to come down to Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. The praise for the film tends to only involve DiCaprio, with Eastwood’s direction and Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay left to wolves to pick apart. Its Best Picture play will likely be minimal, though it remains a contender; as does Armie Hammer’s supporting performance.

So, there’ll be five. And on the lighter side of things, the animated feature film shortlist has been announced, confirming that there will be five films up for the prize in the category. If anything, it gives Pixar a little breathing room to hope that Cars 2 will get nominated, though the contest will be largely between Rango and The Adventures of Tintin, with the obscure international film, Wrinkles playing as potential spoiler.

Check out an updated Contenders page here. Also, expect a visual overall of each category page in the weeks to come; especially as the season begins to unfold.

Cinema Chatter – Guesswork

Part of what enamors me about the whole concept of Oscar prognostication is the mystery of it all. It’s trying to separate between your own taste and those of a larger voting body. It’s attempting to understand the perspective of studios in terms of pushing one actor over another. There’s nothing artistic about the process; if anything, it strips the artistry of filmmaking to a science. The science can become repetitive and mind-numbing; at my recent prescreening of Young Adult, director Jason Reitman expressed fatigue when dealing with the press and pundits. After the disappointing performance of Up in the Air following a long festival campaign to push the film, it’s no wonder he has opted to pursue smaller individual venues to get the word out. It works for me; Young Adult is one of the year’s best films, and the whole experience of having him, writer Diablo Cody, and actor Patton Oswalt to do Q&A was terrific.

Just a year after Reitman’s Up in the Air fiasco, director David Fincher went all out on a press campaign for The Social Network. The film was critically lauded and looked to have had its Best Picture and Best Director wins sealed; that is until the Producers Guild of America awarded The King’s Speech instead. Things went south fast for The Social Network, so it’s no wonder Fincher has opted against any sort of awards campaign on his part for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

But as you can see on the updated sidebar, I’m thinking the film is going to play big. Like the Coens’ True Grit, I’m getting a sense that it’ll be the sort of late player that doesn’t have a wider buzz circulating around it until after its release. And perhaps this is a bold statement, but I’m thinking the film will be a larger commercial player than any of Spielberg’s films in the December timeframe.

Part of what makes this whole prognosticating thing a snap is that I’m working with historical data. When you have someone like Meryl Streep, who’s been nominated 16 times since 1979, it’s going to be likely that she’ll be nominated again given the weight of her role in The Iron Lady. Sight unseen, you’re taking a logical bet. Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s one-two punch with War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin lead me to believe that he’ll secure a nomination (for the former, though it’s not out of the question for the latter) for either Best Picture and/or Best Director. Numbers are on your side.

There are plenty of curveballs to throw you off though; there are typically one or two first-time nominees who enter the field. From there, you’re basing your information on others expectations, adding up praise and subtracting dismissals. One can attempt to create a formula to the whole affair, but then, there are those odd-ball nominations that simply come out of nowhere and can’t be justified (Tommy Lee Jones for In The Valley of Elah for one).

But as we wait for the upcoming New York Film Critics Circle to outline what will certainly alleviate confusion as to who are “contenders” (which will be followed by the National Board of Review’s top films), it’s all guesswork. And well, it’s the best time for this sort of thing; it’s probably the closest any Oscar pundit gets to actually implementing their own cinematic taste into the proceedings.

So for now, here’s my first stab at predicting the 2012 Academy Awards. It’ll be lots of fun to see how off I am come February 26.

Best Picture: The Artist

Best Director: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Best Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants

Best Actress: Viola Davis, The Help

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life

Best Supporting Actress: Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus

Best Writing (Adapted): The Descendants (Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash)

Best Writing (Original): The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

Best Art Direction: Hugo

Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life

Best Costume Design: The Artist

Best Film Editing: The Artist

Best Makeup: The Iron Lady

Best Music (Original Score): War Horse

Best Music (Original Song): The Muppets 

Best Sound Editing: War Horse

Best Sound Mixing: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Visual Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Best Animated Feature: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Documentary Feature: Tabloid

Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation 

 

Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)

In a rare, packed house at the Music Box Theater, cinephiles were greeted with a “secret” screening of Young Adult. It wasn’t much of a secret; the film’s co-star, Patton Oswalt, spilled the beans over his Twitter. But the buzz for the film was electric, and as management started teasing of what the film would be (the announcement of Happy Feet 2 was met with faux-storming out by several audience members), we were greeted by not only Patton Oswalt, but director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. They’d stay for a Q&A session that was marked by Oswalt’s impeccable comic timing and a remarkably thoughtful and detailed outline of the writing/directorial process from Cody and Reitman. I’ve been to my fair share of prescreenings and Q&A sessions, but this easily takes the cake as my favorite.

As for the film, for those who admired Cody and Reitman’s previous effort in Juno, it’s a bit surprising to see how much a departure Young Adult is in terms of tone. It bares more similarities with Reitman’s previous outing, Up in the Air, at least in terms of achieving a darker comic tone while shifting the material to a more mature setting (though if Young Adult is about anything, it’s about immaturity).

Young Adult focuses on the sense of loss that comes with adulthood, particularly on those who emphasize a great deal of importance on a specific time in their life; such is the case for Mavis (Charlize Theron). She’s a young adult fiction ghost writer who has left her tiny, fictional town of Mercury, Minnesota for the “Mini-Apple”. But as her life falls into a routine, she is greeted by the news that her high school flame has just had a child. The news prompts her to leave the cityscape and retrieve something that was lost decades ago.

The film balances an astutely dark comic tone with individual scenes of poignancy that made for an experience similar to Up in the Air. Comparisons  to Billy Wilder’s work was a topic often touched upon during Up in the Air’s press campaign, and I doubt Reitman is going to dodge those same comparisons when Young Adult screens for critics. But what I admire most about Young Adult is its sense of time and place; Cody understands a specific type of character in Mavis, and creates a grand sense of time while containing her to what is essentially a weekend. We get a very in-depth history of Mavis’ depression, alcoholism, and anxieties that is realized in a very organic and believable way. And the town in which Reitman and Cody operate under only serves to accentuate why Mavis is the way she is.

Cody makes a rather risky decision in the film’s final act that will likely turn off some viewers, but frankly, I thought it kind of makes the film. There’s a scene where Theron’s character is forced to decide between paths and what motivates her to choose is incredibly rich as both a dark comedic moment and telling as a commentary on those enamored by a different place in time.

Rating: 8/10

As an aside: Young Adult’s awards prospects. Reitman’s been nominated twice in a row, and both Cody and Theron have an Academy Award to their name.  Young Adult’s darker tone will make it a tough commercial sell, though with (kinda) similar films like Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher breaking $100 million, it might not be quite so tough. I’m betting Theron will get a Best Actress nomination and Cody will be up for Best Original Screenplay. Beyond that, it depends on its success critically and commercially; the field could potentially expand to Best Picture and Best Director, though I doubt it. What’s really on the fence is Patton Oswalt’s Supporting Actor performance; he’s good, though Young Adult has to really play well for me to believe he’s in the fray. But with an unseen performance from Max Von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and a still-in-question performance from Kenneth Branagh in My Week with Marilyn, it’ll need support.

Thursday Ten: The Chicago International Film Festival

The 47th Annual Chicago International Film Festival opens today until the 20th.  Punctuated by a tagline of What the World is Watching, one has to wonder why, oh, why their opening film is The Last Rites of Joe May. Starring Chicago theater actor Dennis Farina, the film really has no place opening an international film festival, particularly one with such a rich history. As New York City vies for screening the many yet-to-be-seen films of the year (rumor has it that J. Edgar or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close could have a special screening), Chicago‘s minimalist approach is a bit disheartening.

But I don’t mean to say that I’m not excited for the festival – because I’m utterly jubilant. My excitement stems from watching a lot of the Cannes, Toronto, and Telluride holdovers that I currently have slated for my festival schedule. And it’s perhaps the most stacked in terms of prolific directors – I’ll be viewing films by Werner Herzog, Lars von Trier, Lynne Ramsay, and the Dardenne Brothers. And I’ll be treated with a discussion with one of my favorite actors, John C. Reilly.

To start off what will be a new weekly column here on Chicago Cinema Circuit, I’ll delve into the ten screenings I’ll be watching at the Chicago International Film Festival.

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

David Cronenberg is simply one of those directors that I am drawn to, as the mere prospect of a new project is enough to get me interested in his work. Starring rising star Michael Fassbender and acting collaborator Viggo Mortenson, A Dangerous Method looks to be the sort of Cronenberg feature that meshes the cerebral elements of his recent films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) with his more explicit older work, particularly Crash and Dead Ringers.

Buzz on the film has been fairly muted – it is a Cronenberg after all, and one can understand how it could make people uncomfortable. Such quiet praise has only gotten me more amped for the film.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

I’d be lying if I said that I really believed this film would amount to a hill of beans. Ever since the trailer dropped, I suspected the film would be a trite exercise that subscribes to typical indie clichés. And I can’t say that I wholeheartedly reject that notion just yet. But The Descendants has received some of the very best critical reviews out of the festival circuit, and being a rookie Oscar prognosticator, I simply could not resist the temptation to see it for myself. If I’m going to make an argument to or for it, I really need to see it and dive into that conversation.

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

You know it’s quite the year when you get a double dose of craziness in the form of two Herzog documentaries. His early year 3-D feature, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is one of my favorite films of the year, but the sheer grounded reality of Into the Abyss has gotten me quite excited. The topical nature of the film is of obvious interest, particularly given the recent release of the West Memphis Three and the film Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the philosophy and ethics behind the death penalty are once again contemporary.

The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The brutal and simplistic way in which the Dardennes approach their subject matter always makes for a rousing experience. I have yet seen a film by the two that I have not found extraordinary. They are simply two of the most underrated writer/directors going at the moment. The Kid with the Bike was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and continued the duo's streak of walking out of that festival with a reward under their belt – unfortunate that their films have yet to catch on with the American public. And even more unfortunate is that the film was not selected by the Belgium film committee to compete at this year’s Oscars. But as it stands, the Dardennes will continue on. As some critics have noted, The Kid with the Bike is more of the same from the brothers – that’s fine by me.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

I’ll be starting out my festival experience with Lars von Trier’s latest. I had seen Antichrist at the 2009 Chicago Film Festival and had a fantastic time (not only was the film utterly explosive, Willem Dafoe happened to be in attendance as well). It’s been unfortunate that Melancholia has been a bit drowned out by Lars von Trier’s rather disheartening remarks at the Cannes Film Festival. Despite his gaffe, Kirstin Dunst managed to score a Best Actress win at the festival. Melancholia has had a rough festival run since, but the quality of the film is considered remarkably high – it’s the controversy surrounding the director that has hurt its chances as an Oscar contender. Trier is a director that I am very high on and have come to expect great things from; Melancholia looks to continue his thread of cinematic excellence.

Shorts 2: Pen and Paper

I tend to be drawn by animated short films. With films that include a reimagining of Bill Plympton’s Guard Dog short and a variety of foreign shorts, I’m hoping to catch some early possible entries into next year’s Best Animated Shorts category. Oh, and to have fun too. These films always tend to tell very simple but narratively astute stories that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the genuine sense of glee that so many animated shorts display.

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh)

A film presented by one of my favorite female directors, Jane Campion, Sleeping Beauty bares such a striking visual sense from its trailer that I immediately knew that the film would be on my “too see” list. Its response at Cannes was fairly negative, though Guy Lodge of Incontention gave a glowing review that certainly maintained my elation. It has been a while since I even heard about the film, but to seeing it slated for the Chicago International Film Festival has renewed my interest in the film.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)

While it’s not my most anticipated film, Turn Me On, Dammit! has an interesting premise. It’s fairly typical in terms of what you get out of American indie comedies, particularly those based on teenage sexuality. But to see it played out in a foreign context will hopefully take the material in a new direction. And if there’s one way that the film festival can live up to its motto, it can be to introduce the Chicago audience to a subject matter that is familiar to them, but handled in a different way.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

My most anticipated film. Having read Lionel Shriver’s novel, I am intriguing to see how the talented Lynne Ramsay handles the incredibly difficult material. Adapting Shriver’s novel is a task upon itself, but given everything that I’ve seen so far in clips of the film, there’s definitely an eerie sense that is realized in the film that is apparent throughout the novel. It certainly seems like the film will work. The film also happens to star two of my favorite actors, Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly. The fact that Reilly will be in attendance just seals the deal.

Without (Mark Jackson)

Perhaps the dark horse of my viewings, Without doesn’t really have a whole lot of buzz behind it. But its premise is so intriguing that I’d have to think that, if properly executed, the film could be a tremendous success. First time director Mark Jackson will certainly have his work cut out for him, but if his lead actress, Joslyn Jensen delivers with such difficult material  (it is about a young woman who becomes a caretaker to an old man on  a remote island), we could see something truly revelatory.

Cinema Chatter - Belated Recognition

When Jeff Bridges won his Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Crazy Heart, there was little debate to if he would win. After decades of nominations, starting with his excellent work in The Last Picture Show, Bridges had established himself as a true Hollywood actor. He had earned his spot. He had paid his dues. He deserved recognition. Excuse the actual content of the performance (which, I must say, was very good); he could go no longer without winning an Oscar. Martin Scorsese’s quest for an Oscar was perhaps even more tragic. How this man could have gone without being nominated for his direction in Taxi Driver is beyond me. But he chugged along and produced his greatest directorial effort in Raging Bull. He failed to get the gold. This was then followed by subsequent nominations for Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator. No such luck there either. It always struck me as a cruel joke that Scorsese would be victorious for his direction in The Departed – his most stylistically flawed and directorially muted outing yet.

This is often the case – talented auteurs who have a life work of exceptional performances and/or films find themselves getting recognized for efforts less than the trail behind them. It’s a flawed system, but it is part of the appeal of the whole awards season – there are narratives to mined and extracted. When Colin Firth won for his performance in The King’s Speech, there was a sense of entitlement to the award. After all, the year prior, he gave an arguably better performance in A Single Man. But that was the year that Jeff Bridges had rolled out and annihilated any competition. It was Colin’s turn. And as part of a greater narrative, The King’s Speech ended up dominating the conversation over David Fincher’s critically lauded The Social Network. It's yet another rebuff for Fincher on behalf of the Academy, Fincher must be feeling a little anxious about when it will indeed be his turn for the award. Because when you direct something as technically proficient and stellar as The Social Network, well, I have to wonder when my turn would be too.

At this point in the conversation, there seems to be one concrete nominee that Oscar prognosticators can generally agree upon – it’s that Christopher Plummer’s performance in Beginners is virtually set. With a career that began in the 50s, Plummer astoundingly only has one Oscar nomination (The Last Station). From his performances in The Sound of Music to The Insider, Plummer stands as an actor who tends to get overlooked by voting bodies. While someone like Peter O’Toole, who has been nominated on 8 separate occasions (with 8 losses), at least he is in the conversation. With Plummer, there seems to be a need to recognize the unrecognized; the mere fact that he has been working as long as he has with only one nomination is enough to work a narrative around his Oscar bid.

Plummer’s bid took an unexpected hit yesterday though when the trailer for Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close dropped. The trailer hints at a performance from another actor who has seen constant slights throughout his career – Max von Sydow is now in contention.  With such a storied career, he too, has only had one Oscar nomination for the film Pelle the Conqueror. I’m a bit more familiar with Sydow’s career, and found him to give excellent performances in both The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Hannah and Her Sisters. Both performances went unrecognized.

There’s a narrative to be mined out of these two. Both Plummer and Sydow are of the same age and have contributed their part in the language of films. They have starred in landmark features and have worked their way through smaller independent works. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close largely remains a question mark at this point, but the credentials are there. Plummer may hold a slight edge now, but we’re still very early into the Oscar season for there to be a clear cut winner, and frankly, I sense that the conversation could shift to Sydow’s favor by December.

Speaking of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I have to wonder if there’s any director with the sort of track record that Stephen Daldry has. He has made three films, Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader. All three films have snagged Daldry the coveted Best Director nomination. None have secured him the win. It’s interesting, in so much that there, again, can be a narrative mined out of Daldry’s shortcomings. I’m hedging my bets that Daldry’s film will not be nominated for Best Picture, but is it feasible for Daldry to get nominated for direction? Given the nature in which the Best Picture landscape has changed in the past year, and the general disagreeable tone I got out of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’s trailer, I’m sensing that the film won’t be much of a play and will ruin Daldry’s streak. It’s all speculation at this point, but that’s the nature of the game.

If there’s one director that certainly deserves recognition, it’s Terrence Malick. Having perhaps reluctantly accepted the role of cinephiles' new director of worship following the death of Stanley Kubrick, it’s not hard to understand the following that Malick has. Of course, this is coming from someone who worships at the altar of Malick; so again, I have to put my feelings aside on these sort of things. But there certainly seems to be a group of people out there who are going to vote in his masterwork The Tree of Life into the Best Picture category, and with that, I find it difficult that anyone could neglect that craftsmanship that is employed in creating the film. Malick is the film, and the very specific and methodical way it is constructed leads me to believe that he will get recognized for his direction. It would mark only the second time he will receive notice for his stellar directorial work in a career that has spanned four decades.

At the center of Malick’s film is a performance from Brad Pitt that has shown a different side of the actor. Well, I shouldn’t say that entirely, as Pitt has, for the past few years, made some incredibly interesting character decisions that certainly adds credibility to his legacy. Perhaps taking himself more seriously, the actor has worked with an array of talented directors such as Joel & Ethan Coen, Andrew Dominik, and David Fincher to develop and hone his craft. With Fox Searchlight pushing Pitt for supporting in The Tree of Life, I sense that he will be the year’s only double nominee, as his lead performance in Moneyball has garnered him praise as his best performance to date. In a year where the Best Actor field is as crowded as it is, a nomination is a reward in itself. But there’s a certain novelty to the possibility of getting nominated in two separate acting categories, and given what Pitt has done for Hollywood in general, a win might be the self-congratulatory pat on the back for his good work.

Pitt would have his hands full to take a potential win from possible nominees in Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow. And the Best Actor field is no guarantee either, particularly when you’re dealing with one of an overdue actor like Gary Oldman. Having had a career resurgence with his work in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise, Oldman seems to be in line for his first nomination. Having often been considered a snub for performances in Sid & Nancy and The Contender, Oldman stands as an actor whose time may have finally come. With Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the actor is receiving some of his best buzz yet, and has been amongst the key figures in the Best Actor race to get a nomination. Given Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’s December release date and growing buzz for Oldman, I’d say it looks like he’ll finally score that nomination, perhaps on track to securing that win.

As you can see, the site is still in construction, so excuse the clutter. Check out the Contenders section for my most up-to-date predictions. Check out next Monday for another addition of Cinema Chatter. Until then, check out upcoming reviews for The Hustler, Branded to Kill, and In Cold Blood!

Buzz is a Bitch: Best Picture 2011-2012

Best Picture Contenders

As I bought tickets for the Chicago International Film Festival today, I found myself prioritizing films based on their buzz, neglecting smaller pictures that may sound good but won’t be in the awards conversation for the year. It comes to a point where you have to embrace the hysteria around Oscar prognostication and take part in the conversation to the fullest extent possible.

Fortunately for me, the Oscar conversation seems to be taking place outside of the festival realm. It gives me greater reign to actually look at films with little to no shot of entering the conversation due to lack of distribution or obscurity. But for films that have been garnering traction over the past few months at Toronto, Telluride, Cannes, and Venice, there’s a sense that it’s simply not enough. Whereas films like The King’s Speech or Slumdog Millionaire had an irresistible-force aura to their festival runs, no film really stands out over the festival circuit to lay claim to the prior two films’ crown. The Ides of March debuted at the Venice Film Festival and had its fair share of acclaim, but hardly the sort of fanatic diehard reception that a Best Picture nominee typically receives, let alone a potential winner. Steven McQueen’s Shame seems to be an actor’s showcase for Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, but its appeal as a Best Picture contender is strictly contained to the art-house crowd. Madonna’s W.E. was a bust. Roman Polanski’s Carnage has failed to impress.

What were left from the festival rubble are Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Michel Hazanaviccius’ The Artist. The three films are anchored by strong leading male performances, and while they are at this point, likely nominees, neither is on solid footing.

The Artist

The Artist debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and has garnered universal praise. The film will undoubtedly garner enough passion votes to secure a nomination come the big day, but I sense a backlash forming. This is largely in part due to where it stands in the minds of the voters – as new films enter the conversation by the week (Moneyball this week, 50/50 next, etc) there seems to be a decline in the film’s staying power with audiences. The fact that it did not win the Audience Award at Toronto (an award that was bestowed on Best Picture nominees and winners like The King’s Speech, Precious, and Slumdog Millionaire) does not bode well for The Artist’s standing. And given that the film may come across as gimmicky for its own sake, its positioning is nowhere near as secure as one is led to believe. But then again, The Weinsteins are behind the film, so I’m probably just imagining it all.

The Descendants fits a specific pedigree of indie filmmaking that tend to get nominated once a year (Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, The Kids are All Right), but it has already been acknowledged as a lesser effort from those who saw it at Telluride. It’s still riding a wave, but I have reserved expectations on its potential once it gets a wider release. Its comedic roots aren’t going to do it any favors, nor will the fact that Payne has already been recognized (albeit, in the Adapted Screenplay category). There is typically a time when individuals get recognized for their efforts – this was the case with Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side,  the Coens for No Country for Old Men – it’s not meant to dismiss the accomplishments of the individual performance or direction, but rather it serves as a lifetime achievement award. Simply put, Alexander Payne’s time doesn’t seem to be just now.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has the benefit of a British contingent to bolster its chances and has a good awards-story in Gary Oldman getting a role that will finally get him recognized with a nomination.  It, for all intensive purposes, achieves a particular role of what to expect in a “Best Picture” nominee, and from there, I’d say it’s in better position than The Descendants  The buzz for the film seems to have run stagnant for the past few weeks since its debut at Venice, which I take as a positive – I doubt Focus Features would to bust their load from the onset. Instead, there seems to be a conscious effort to keep Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in a quiet buzz period, before releasing it to a wider audience come December.

The Festival Darlings

  1. “The Artist”
  2. “The Descendants”
  3. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”

Alt: “The Ides of March”

Then we have the summer crop. The summer gave us some concrete possibilities of other nominees with Tate Taylor’s The Help, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life leading the charge. I’d wager all three movies have the potential to make it to the end of the race, as they all tend to rouse a sort of passion vote that is a requirement in meeting the 5% (of first-place votes) needed for a nomination in the category. This works particularly well for The Tree of Life, as its polarizing status won’t necessarily do it any harm come the end of the race – there are those who love it and hate it, and only those who love it will be acknowledged come nomination time. Amongst outside contenders, the only one that bares any possibility seems to be the final addition to the Harry Potter franchise – given its critical acclaim, there’s a sense that the film could sneak in for a nomination. I think not – unlike The Lord of the Rings franchise, none of the previous Potter incarnations have garnered above-the-line awards recognition. I sincerely doubt that will change.

Summer Hold-Overs

  1. “The Help”
  2. “Midnight in Paris”
  3. “The Tree of Life”

Alt: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”

War Horse

So we have six. This leaves us with the possibility of yet another four. Here’s where things get particularly tricky as we explore a great deal of unknowns. The general consensus has placed Steven Spielberg’s War Horse as the one to beat, and quite honestly, it’s not hard to see why. It’s a period piece, set against the backdrop of a war, with Spielberg at its helm. I talked about it being someone’s time earlier in this piece, and if anything, this season seems to be geared toward rewarding Spielberg yet again – his time seems to be here yet again.

Remaining amongst the unknowns include Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. I’m hesitant to lobby for Eastwood’s place in the Academy’s circle, particularly given that he has been largely shut out of the larger awards for the past few years with Invictus, Changling, and Gran Torino. But then again, so has Woody Allen, and Midnight in Paris was a return to form, so it’s hard to make such blanket statements with no word on the actual quality of the film.

Jason Reitman’s Young Adult is bypassing the festival circuit entirely, leaving one to question where the film stands at all. It’s written by Diablo Cody, which begs more questions than answers. Reitman’s previous two films have garnered directorial and Best Picture nominations, which lends itself to the same logic that has people believing that Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a lock for a nomination. My take: neither film will make much of an impact come nomination time, but if there’s one that might, I’d go with Reitman’s film.

A big question mark that remains in the Oscar season and one that I sense could truly make a play that pundits are ignoring, is Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. The trailer displays incredible detail in the craft department, though there certainly seems to be a nostalgic essence to the film that could resonate with voters. Again, like with War Horse, J. Edgar, Young Adult, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, we’re in a wait and see mode with these films, but the possibility definitely seems there.

The Unknowns

  1. “War Horse”
  2. “J. Edgar”
  3. “Hugo”
  4. “Young Adult”
  5. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

And that concludes my first column of what I hope will be a weekly column that looks at the Oscar race. In the meantime, the site will be going through periodic updates as I attempt to create a more interactive and in-depth Academy Award interface. The focus of the site will still remain on my reviewing of the films I see (with a new post coming soon) but hopefully I’ll be able to supplement that with my own obsessive thoughts on the Oscar race.