Roll out a carpet or something! Camp out at the LoveSac beanbag chair store at Hollywood and Highland! Very soon the stars will pay their annual visit to a neighborhood where they otherwise would not be caught dead! It's Academy Awards season, and Exploding Kinetoscope will not pretend that there will not be a pizza party and watching of television on that thrilling night.
Rather than lapse into extended gripe about the politics of the selection process, bemoan the middling taste that is its inevitable outcome, or question the very idea at the core of the Academy Awards... let's just skip it this year. Yours truly is simply getting too old to a) take seriously the door-prizes handed out at Hollywood self-congratulation parties, b) deny that it is still fun to watch and might provide good talking points. b) is the hard one for some of us to admit.
I find myself in a good mood this Oscar season, as I have been revisiting Danny Peary's 1993 book Alternate Oscars. For those without a copy, Peary journeys through every Oscar ceremony, tosses off opinions of the Best Picture, Actor and Actress awards, editorializes on why certain pictures and performers were honored, then provides his personal preferred selection. With his earlier Cult Movies series, work in sf criticism and premature retirement from the film writing field, Peary has evolved into something of a cult film critic himself (check out the infamous site exhaustively devoted to his Guide for the Film Fanatic). Pretty much everyone is in the Danny Peary fan club. His strengths are in placing films in historical context, appreciating performances, and a staggering breadth of knowledge of film history. Any critic could write a book in this subject, but Peary seems extra qualified due to having apparently seen every movie ever made. Peary's taste is wide-ranging and eclectic, but tends to level out to an unspoken worldwide tradition of quality. His books have mostly been built as celebrations of designated classics and semi-canonical underdog pictures, providing much opportunity for the warm-hearted critic to wax nostalgic, spread goodwill for beloved performers and share personal fondness for favorite films. Appreciation and tribute are where Peary is at his best, and the celebratory tone of his books has probably contributed to his enduring appeal to cinephiles: he seems like one of us, only more articulate, and pitches discussion at chatty, amiable level, as if he cannot stomach any clinical academic distance.
All of these qualities coalesce to make Peary an ideal candidate for one-man Oscar committee, voting block and presenter. We all play a casual version of this game, and where I am prone to make choices like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein for Best Picture 1948, Peary's approach, conscious or not, is slightly different. His choices are certainly personal favorites, but are also legitimate possibilities for Academy consideration, with picks like Boris Karloff for The Body Snatcher (1945) few and far between. Finally, he (mostly) treats the project with a wide 20/20 hindsight view, an opportunity to spread the statue-love around to the under-awarded; so for example he is comfortable giving the 1941 Actor award to Gary Cooper for Ball of Fire rather than Bogart for The Maltese Falcon, because he knows Bogart's little gold man is coming up for Casablanca in two years. In other words, he operates rather like the Academy itself but with less bias against comedies, an eye to pictures and performances of lasting influence and popularity and without the influence of faddishness and finance.
We don't know what Mr. Peary's Alternate Oscar picks would be for the last 18 years, and I can't pretend to exercise Peary's brand of even-tempered judgement. But who can hear the Oscar nominees without some flinch, glimmer of interest or small smile? As we walk through the list together, I won't be offering many predictions of the contest's outcome. I've always been terrible at such speculation anyway. It may become boring, but it only makes sense that a small pool of films should hog all the awards. Those playing along at home may wish to consult a complete list of nominees.
The big scandal for me is...
ANIMATED FEATURE. Despite the strongest group of worthy contenders in the brief history of this award, the best animated film of this award season was Ponyo (on the Cliff by the Sea, I hear in my head; my head also thinks it is a 2008 film). Ponyo is head, tails, flippers above the others in its category and most in every other category. Perhaps the nominating committee was put off by the English language dub, which, if I understand Academy rules, is the version they're supposed to have seen.
The other big scandal already happened, which is the outrage of Roger Corman, Gordon Willis and Lauren Bacall not being presented with Honorary Lifetime Achievement awards on live TV. While Warren Beatty asserted that it was "better" that these shimmering, glowing stars of the cinema firmament be honored in the clubby atmosphere of super-secret ceremony, I guess I don't see his point. Willis and Bacall's awards are long overdue itch-scratches, and Corman's is probably the greatest Oscar ever awarded. The Lifetime Achievements are an important part of the telecast because they acknowledge with much fanfare that sometimes the Academy fails, over and over, to honor the right achievement in the eyes of history, and sometimes — as in Corman's case — a body of work is important beyond the Best-itude of an individual film. So the March 7th proceedings are already robbed of their best moment, which was Quentin Tarantino's verbal award to Corman: "The movie fans of the world thank you."
Those awards selected by cabals of technicians always disappoint me. While general audiences may only be nudged into "noticing" sound elements, makeup, costumes, editing, etc. when they are particularly loud, showy and bold, the people who make their livings at these tasks watch every movie through the lens of their field of expertise. I do/don't understand why noisy action movies constitute the bulk of the Sound Mixing & Editing category. I'd have picked The Hurt Locker, Basterds and the tricky, clever job on Drag me to Hell for mixing, but otherwise shouldn't this category always be populated by... documentaries? Don't they have the most obstacles to overcome with production sound? Sound Editing should be loaded with animated features, in which the entire sound design has to be built from the ground up. This makes sense to me only, apparently, though my choice would be the sonic wonder A Serious Man.
Makeup and Costume are the most baffling categories, because I'm not even sure politics are involved. Makeup ought to be split into two awards (effects makeup and, uh, not-effects). I only saw Star Trek of these, and it seems like an awful choice. Perhaps it is the cinematography's fault, but Chris Pine's skin looks bad and Zach Quinto simply looks disgusting. I'd have picked Drag Me to Hell, duh, or Basterds which required several neat makeup tasks from glamour to gore, recreation of historical personalities to a convincing noose scar to B.J. Novak's sickly pallor. Costume is really The Most Numerous Pretty Dresses Award, and I'd go another route and pick Fantastic Mr. Fox, for which several dozen animal puppets had to be outfitted with penny loafers... and bandit hats!.
Original Score is the usual round of Whatevers, Horner's work on Avatar being utterly terrible, clichéd and maybe "offensive" in its (inadvertent?) musical quasi-jingoism. It's A Serious Man again, not nominated, that should've been a shoe-in for Carter Burwell. Mr. Fox is a damn delight, though, and of the noms, Alexandre Desplat is my preference by far. Original Song is worse, as per usual. No worthy winner here, so hand out a goodwill award to T-Bone Burnett. I would pick, I guess, the infectious sing-along theme for Ponyo (Japanese version only) or Mary J. Blige's solid ode to Precious "I Can See in Color", but mostly because she's Mary J. Blige.
Film Editing: good for all five noms, even the atrocious but slickly, reasonably-paced Avatar. I'd give it to Murawski and Innis for the impeccable Hurt Locker or (Hi Sally!) Menke for the funky elegant Basterds. Outside the nom-box, I'd have picked the Coens/ Mr. Jaynes or possibly Alexander Berner for Baader Meinhof Complex.
Effects? Psh. This one's usually a bozo choice. That is odd, because it is one of the awards involving something closer to objective evaluation. None of these pictures really earned such an award. I'm almost tempted to say that no one earned a Special Effects award this year... until I remember Moon! The Moon people gave us the most memorable, hypnotic, haunting, mysterious and in camera effects.
Art Direction is one where I'm most heavily invested; there's just a better shot at worthy winners here. Avatar is remarkably ugly-ass and tastelessly art directed. So when it wins, I will grump. I am loathe to say it, but I think Audouy/Jarvis/Steuart/McDowell (with an assist from Dave Gibbons) probably aced this one with Watchmen (the Makeup dept., however, loses!), low-key award to Hideki Arichi and Tony Noble for Moon, neither of which is a nominee.
How is Avatar (or Fiore, rather) a Cinematography nominee? Why isn't it just a Best Animated contender? For much of the movie there are absolutely no photographic elements in the frame! Whatevs, Richardson ought to take it (Basterds), Ackroyd's an excellent pick (Locker), Deakins and A Serious Man should be there but aren't, and I haven't seen White Ribbon. I'd throw in Andrew Dunn and Darren Lew for the lurid, sizzling Precious, Lance Acord for the weather-moody Where the Wild Things Are, and Gary Shaw for his stark, spooky work on Moon. And I'm gonna say the Cinamatographer's Local 151 has some good eyes for picking Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which makes very interesting use of long lenses and blurred-out backgrounds to the point that the movie seems to take place on a shallow theater stage with a monochromatic Impressionist backdrop; it's all lighting cues, color splotches and foreground. Good on them for picking this interesting experiment, but here's a category that could use 10 nominees.
I haven't seen a one of the Shorts (all categories) or Docs yet. The Foreign Language category will be ignored because I find it vaguely offensive and the nomination procedure is ridiculous.
For a second I thought Vera Farminga was nominated for Orphan! But that was pretty much a lead, I reckon. I dunno why Orphan got shut out, though (oh, wait, I know). Both its female leads (Farminga and Isabelle Fuhrman as a special little demon) would be worthy Best Actress noms. Aryana Engineer who plays the deaf-mute "bio-daughter" (as Nancy Grace would say) would've been a great Supporting Actress pick! That kid is terrific.
As it stands, Best Supporting Actress is Mo'Nique's award, also my pick regardless of circumstances, and she earned the living hell out of it. Mary Lee Johnston is the best movie villain of the year, alongside Col. Hans Landa! She's a majestically vile force in every scene, and in her final horrific monologue seems to melt into a pile of slime before our eyes. It's like when Oogie Boogie's burlap falls off in Nightmare Before Christmas, but with no special effects! Bummer about Mélanie Laurent, but I'd give it to Mo'Nique anyway.
Best Supporting Dude is all Christoph Waltz, natch, and my pick too. I would like to add that Mr. Tucci was remarkably mannered and obnoxious in Love Dem Bones, and his nomination stands with Avatar's art direction as the Most Wrongest of the year: just because it has the most doesn't mean it's the best. I could stand to see Waltz's pals Daniel Brühl, Brad Pitt and (even!) Eli Roth also nominated, which is a thing I never thought I would type; this always happens with great ensembles. You've predicted it by now, but I dunno why those Serious Men Fred Melamed, Richard Kind and George Wyner aren't here, except that they are not handsome or doing weird crazy voices. Could maybe find room for Alan Rickman as the dark heart of Half-Blood Prince or Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the only perfect element of the frustrating Watchmen.
The Best Female Actors are largely nominated for things I did not see. I do know that Gabourey Sidibe fully embodies and invests in Precious Jones. She has to give hardcore sullen and mumble semi-coherently for most of the picture, but that's not all; in one of my favorite sequences, Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken, playing it only sort-of-cool as she orders, yelping as she swipes the food: as she laughs loudly and galumphs triumphantly down the street with her prize, it's like a big hearty beam of sunshine. Then she gobbles it all up and pukes! Mo'Nique steals the picture but Precious is the picture, and Sidibe gives a gut-level, physical and deeply felt performance. She's my pick of the noms, but missing are: Mélanie Laurent in what is really the female lead of Basterds, the ladies of Orphan, and above all: Alison Lohman in Drag Me to Hell!
Best Man of Acting is like, boring choices, guys. Renner is magnetic and cool and screwed up in The Hurt Locker, and Sgt. James is such a complicated, difficult part as written that it would've been easy to blow it. I consider this nomination restitution for the Academy ignoring his peerless work as Jeffery Dahmer in 2002 (he won a Spirit Award though). Clooney: whatever, though Mr. Fox was his best work in '09. M.I.A. but not forgotten are: Sharlto Copley doing a full-body 180 in District 9, Nic Cage topping Harvey Keitel, Moritz Bleibtreu as rockstar idiot terrorist in Baader Meinhof, and Sam Rockwell x several in Moon. But face it, I trade them all for Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik.
Poor writers! Directors and actors take/are given much credit for the inventions of writers, but at least those poseurs are later forced to vote on the screenwriting awards. One seriously doubts that many voters (or nominators) bother to, say, read any screenplays during the awards process. I read as many as I can, but haven't gotten my hands on all the nominees. Adapted: District 9 of the noms, for a stronger script than the execution. As you may've gathered, my favored adaptation of '09 was Fantastic Mr. Fox, equal parts Dahl, Anderson/Baumbach and something else synthesized out of that dialectic. Could also toss in the Rami Bros.' Drag Me to Hell, which arguably swiped its story from a Haunt of Fear comic.
Original Screenplay's between, double-duh Basterds and A Serious Man, both so perfect I don't wanna pick a favorite. If the award is for writing, though, one set of typo-prone stoners at least spelled their title right, while the other typo-prone stoner littered his script with bizarre (always entertaining!) asides (e.g. the brutality of strangling someone, which only humans do, because of their opposable thumbs).
Directing, yes, we all like that Cameron is up against his ex, who made a better movie. I like that a woman has a very good shot at it. If it's Bigelow, fine and well: that's some tough, intense directing. And I want Quentin Tarantino to win. I am still surprised that Basterds has been such an awards powerhouse, especially these awards. Secretly, I believe it's a fluke, or subconsciously wonder if "they" (?) don't understand the movie, which is pretty much Kill Bill set in WWII, and it's up for these awards because it's in historical dress. And I don't know if Tarantino will ever be on that stage again. And plus he, y'know, did the best movie directing. Missing, if you hadn't noticed, are Joel and Ethan Coen, which is b.s. and nonsense, and they also did the best job movie directing. It is nice to see Lee Daniels in the mix (Daniels' technique truly transforms, shapes, makes the material), but I'd swap him for Hayao Miyazaki in a heartbeat, and as the kids say, Wes Anderson owns Jason Reitman.
It makes no sense that something can be a Best Picture nominee without major representation in most other categories. You know what I'm pulling for by now: Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man in a tie, and a write-in for Ponyo. Forget that for now.
Ten nominees, eh? Big whoop, they did that in '33! There were twelve nominees in 1934 & '35! Wimps.
Here is what the supposed novel big deal change wrought: there's no way to know! Avatar bought a slot. There's no shame in it; Avatar earned its place like Star Wars did in '77 (though, Senator Na'avi, you are no Star Wars). As Danny Peary would remind us, the first few awards presentations were little but studio publicity stunts. But with only four other spaces, who knows? Maybe it would've been The Blind Side, Up in the Air, An Education and Crazy Heart. That would be the kind of middle-middle-middle adult contemporary drama the Academy goes nuts for and always has (plus Avatar). What we got instead is a neat, diverse spectrum of contenders. They're not synonymous with my top ten, but my top two are there. I'd only agree that the expanded category provided breathing room for Up in the category we all assumed we would never see another animated feature.