Saturday, February 26, 2011

Oscar Picks: The Final List

Oscar Night is tomorrow!  If you're like me, you'll clear your schedule and start watching the red carpet coverage at about noon. The show starts at 8:00pm on ABC.  I'm expecting a young, modern show and it's my hope that enigmatic Documentary Feature nominee Banksy contributes to the sets.

Below, you'll find my final picks for the 2010 Academy Awards. I've made a few changes from my initial picks. Melissa Leo has been campaigning hard for Best Supporting Actress and has racked up several awards, but after seeing the movies, I'm sticking to my initial pick of Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit.  She really had a lead role - bigger than Jeff Bridges - and I think she'll walk away with the Oscar.

I previously picked Alice In Wonderland for Costumes and Art Direction, but, looking over my predictions, I only picked The King's Speech for two, including Best Picture, and that makes me nervous.  No Best Picture since Rebecca has earned so few. I suspect that the artistic merits of The King's Speech will be its best shot at a higher total, so I'm changing my picks. 

Otherwise, things are pretty much the same. I'm predicting four wins for Inception and The King's Speech and two each for True Grit and The Social Network. Seven other movies will each take one.  Sorry, Winter's Bone - you were one of my favorite movies of the year, but you're destined to be the only Best Picture nominee to go home empty-handed.  I'm confident in my picks for the acting awards - especially Supporting Actor - but those artistic and technical categories always have a way of biting me. I'm most worried about Cinematography, Costumes, and Art Direction.

Best Picture: The King's Speech
Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King's Speech
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Best Original Screenplay: The Kids Are All Right
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network
Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 3
Best Cinematography: True Grit
Best Editing: 127 Hours
Best Score: Inception
Best Song: "Coming Home" Country Strong
Best Art Direction: The King's Speech
Best Costumes: The King's Speech
Best Makeup: The Wolfman
Best Visual Effects: Inception
Best Sound: Inception
Best Sound Effects Editing: Inception

Friday, February 25, 2011

Best Picture

I rather like the ten-nominee system of the past few years.  It's allowed some interesting films to get recognition when they normally wouldn't.  So here are the ten Best Picture nominees and my assessment of their Best Picture changes:

1. Toy Story 3: A solid film, but animation is still struggling to gain equal acceptance with live-action films.  Its a shoo-in for Best Animated Feature, which will be the extent of its wins.

2. Winter's Bone: One of my favorites of the year.  Fantastic acting, a real, gritty sense of danger, and an excellent surprise.  It doesn't stand a chance.

3. 127 Hours: In short, it's too gruesome to win Best Picture.

4. Inception: Popular, yes, but it's dense as granite and it's sci-fi, which traditionally cleans up in the technical categories and gets overshadowed in the Best Picture race.

5. Black Swan: Too crazy to win.

6. The Kids Are All Right: It's a talky, character-driven family drama with a bitter touch of comedy.  All bode well, but it's missing the epic quality of some of its contenders. Just like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, it's more attractive as a Screenplay winner than as a Best Picture.

7. The Fighter: This one is really an acting showcase. Melissa Leo has a strong shot at Supporting Actress and there's no way Christian Bale can lose Best Supporting Actor, but the movie as a whole is all over the place.

8. True Grit: A real contender.  As I wrote in an earlier post, it's the least-awful Coen Brothers movie.  It's a big story in a big setting with big characters, but perhaps the actors are getting more attention than the film itself.

9.  The Social Network: It has up-to-the-minute relevance and tells a compelling story, but I feel that its screenplay is the real star, rather than the actors or directing.  Also, from a visual standpoint, it's not much to look at.

10. The King's Speech: It's a period historical drama tempered with appropriate levity, it deals with epic events on an intimate scale, and it's filled with notable performances. And the costumes and sets are top-notch.  The King's Speech fulfills every criteria for a Best Picture and, unless voters decide to get all modern and edgy this year, I think it will win Best Picture.

The Fighter & The Social Network

In The Fighter, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is an aspiring boxer with a close-knit family - his mother (nominee Melissa Leo) is a pushy, posessive manager and his half-brother Dicky (nominee Christian Bale) is his trainer.  Dicky's crack addiction is an open secret and its effects ripple out to create trouble for Micky's family and career.  All the negative influences in his life hold Micky back from his true potential, but when he cuts them loose and starts winning, his victories are hollow and, until a balance is found, he is kept from being a true champion.

In The Social Network, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (nominee Jesse Eisenberg) invents Facebook and brings his friends on board for the ride.  As the project grows and expands, reaching the boundaries of his grasp, he befriends Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a controversial figure in internet history for his own groundbreaking invention, Napster. Sean takes Mark under his wing, instilling his cutthroat instincts and paranoia in the young programmer. Sean introduces Mark to a life of excess while insinuating himself into the company and insulating Mark from the friends who first helped him succeed.  As Facebook grows stronger, the friendships fall apart, making all the victories hollow.  What was intended as a way for people to be more connected on a personal level eventually became a wedge between friends and partners.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Best Director

This year's Best Director nominees are Darren Arnofsky (Black Swan), David O. Russell (The Fighter), Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), David Fincher (The Social Network), and the Coen Brothers (True Grit).

The King's Speech might be the front runner for Best Picture, but its director is the youngest and most inexperienced of the five nominees. Though he did some interesting things with lenses, the other four nominees are better-known for their unique artistic visions and visual styles. I think that Russell, the Coens, and especially Arnofsky are considered oddball outsiders who make weird, outside-the-margins movies. Fincher, on the other hand, makes tasteful commercial hits, has never won before, has one previous nomination, has earned Hollywood credibility with films that are considered "modern classics," and his movie has a notable lack of psychotic ballerinas who grow feathers onstage.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Best Animated Feature

Frequent readers of this blog know that I don't pick short films or documentaries because a.) I don't see them and can't make judgements and b.) they tend to ruin my average. 

I would, however, like to pick the Animated Feature category.  The nominees are How To Train Your Dragon, The Illusionist, and Toy Story 3.  With its Best Picture and Screenplay nominations, Toy Story 3 is the obvious choice.

This might be the clearest sure thing in this year's Oscars.

Friday, February 18, 2011

True Grit and Winter's Bone

You may recall that I swore off Coen Brothers movies last year but, unfortunately, True Grit is a juggernaut at this year's Oscars, so I felt compelled to see it.  But I still refused pay for it myself.  That said, I found it to be the least-annoying movie they've ever made.  Probably because their over-written, cloyingly stylized dialogue doesn't sound nearly as grating coming from 19th-Century frontierspeople.  There are Coen-esque annoyances throughout, though.  Mainly the courtroom scene and the dentist. 

End of disclaimer. moving on:

True Grit follows 13-year-old Mattie Ross (nominee Hailee Steinfeld) as she seeks revenge for her father's murder. Mattie hires gruff U.S. Marshall "Rooster" Cogburn (nominee Jeff Bridges) to track and kill Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin).  Constantly underestimated and condescended, Mattie pushes hard to get what she wants, negotiating and bargaining her way through the towns and wilderness with a focused ferocity.  As a child and a female in the Old West, she gets no respect but, in her father's absence, Mattie is now the man of her household and she takes charge of what needs to be done.

In Winter's Bone, Ree (nominee Jennifer Lawrence) is a modern teen in rural Arkansas. Her criminal father has left her to care for an invalid mother and two much younger siblings and, it turns out, jumped bail. Unless Ree can find him and turn him in, she and her family will loose their home.  So Ree searches and asks around, encountering a series of dangerous people who don't want her father found.  But Ree doesn't care if he's alive or dead, what he did, or who is responsible for his disappearance.  She may be looked down on for being a child and a girl, but her stoic, single-minded focus keeps her going until she finds the truth and can save her home. She is the man of the house and, despite warnings and beatings, puts herself in harm's way to provide for her family.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Screenplay Awards

The Best Adapted Screenplay nominees are 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, and Winter's Bone

Can someone explain to me how Toy Story 3 is an adapted screenplay?

But really, the standout is Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network.  It's really the best part of that film and it's the aspect that people are talking about most. The plot zips along like a thriller, it has up-to-the-minute relevance, and the dialogue pops like fireworks.  True Grit might upset here, but the logical choice is the Facebook movie.

The Best Original Screenplay nominees are Another Year, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, and The King's Speech

Inception might be the most discussed and hashed-over screenplay of the year, but Oscar voters tend to favor compelling, small-scale, character-driven films, so I'm going with The Kids Are All Right. It probably won't win in any other category, but it's best shot is for its screenplay.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Best Actor

This year's Best Actor nominees are Javier Bardem (Biutiful), Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Colin Firth (The King's Speech), and James Franco (127 Hours).

I think it's pretty cool that for the first time ever, an Oscar host is also up for an award - and one as big as Lead Actor.  It's also cool that Jeff Bridges could be the third person in Oscar history to win back-to-back Best Actor trophies. 

In the end, though, I think Colin Firth will take home the prize. His character deals with a debilitating physical impediment in an inspirational period film - pure Oscar bait.  Bardem's film is gaining momentum but it's extra-super depressing. Firth's real competition comes from Bridges, who eliminates all vestiges of "The Dude" in his gruff performance as Rooster Cogburn.

Friday, February 11, 2011

127 Hours and The King's Speech

In 127 Hours, Aaron Ralston (James Franco) is the cocksure mountain climber who gets pinned in a narrow Utah canyon and famously ends up cutting off his own arm to free himself.  Though he realizes soon after the accident that he'll probably lose the arm, Aaron takes five agonizing days to actually take the initiative and do what has to be done.  In that time, he ponders his life and the mistakes that led him to that point. He meditates, in his dehydrated state, on his attitudes, his relationships, and his life. The movie makes it clear that without having the time to reflect in the face of death, he would never had achieved the epiphany of self-awareness that led him to free himself.  "That rock was waiting for me my whole life," he says, "The minute I was born, every breath that I've taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the outer surface."

In the King's Speech, the future King George VI (Colin Firth) fights a debilitating stutter and seeks help from Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist with unusual methods.  While Lionel can help "Bertie" with a few tricks and exercises, it's not until the future king opens up about his anxieties and troubled past that lasting progress can begin. After Bertie reluctantly takes on the role of king - a responsibility he never thought he'd have and one that he has dreaded his whole life - England is thrust into a war with Germany and the country finds itself in need of a leader with a strong voice.  Though it is by no means easy, it is clear that he never would have been able to do it at all without help from Lionel and the self awareness that came from his epiphany.

In each film, our main character must face the past that led him to a defining moment. Though their stakes and situations are very different, they must both muster their courage to endure the unthinkable.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Music Awards

Hooray music awards!  This year's nominees for Best Score are How To Train Your Dragon, Inception, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, and The Social Network

I love Alexandre Desplat's music, but I'm surprised at his nomination for The King's Speech, where most of the big musical moments were provided by Mozart and Beethoven.  Also, it's kind of cool that Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor was nominated as co-composer for The Social Network.  Curious but, I though, fruitless.  The award will go to Hans Zimmer for Inception.  If you listen closely, his score actually illustrates the multiple-dream-level idea of the movie with different musical lines moving at different rates, the longest of which belts "Ma Vie En Rose," (a crucial plot point) in long foghorn blasts. Brilliant.

The Best Song nominees are "Coming Home" (Country Strong), "I See the Light" (Tangled), "If I Rise" (127 Hours), and "We Belong Together" (Toy Story 3).  I've learned from experience that songs that are integral to the plot are the ones that win and songs that just play over the credits do not.  That means that "Coming Home" is the likely winner. It's sung in the movie by the characters and directly relates to the action.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Best Actress

Here's an exciting race!  The nominees are Annette Benning (The Kids Are All Right), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), and Michele Williams (Blue Valentine).

First, let me say that if it were up to me, Jennifer Lawrence would get the award. She gave what was easily the best female leading performance of the year. Maybe the best lead performance period.  But sadly, it's not up to me.

No, this race is really between Benning and Portman.  Voters have a choice: they can finally give the Oscar to a Hollywood legend or they can give it to the young actress who suffered for her role.  Both won Golden Globes and are clearly the front-runners, but it comes down to one factor – Portman wants it more.

On talk shows and interviews she never fails to mention her rigorous ballet training and diet for the role. During the nomination voting she announced that she's pregnant and has been showing up to events in baby bump-accenting gowns. She also announced that she is engaged to her Black Swan Choreographer. And if that wasn't enough to keep people talking about her, she took a page from Julia Robert's winning playbook and released a light comedy movie to run during Oscar season.

Remember in 2000 when Julia Roberts was up for Erin Brockovich, a serious dramatic role? During Oscar season she released The Mexican, a light relationship comedy, to remind voters that she has range as an actress.  This also had the benefit of letting her campaign for the Oscar without looking like she was campaigning  – she would go on talk shows and do interviews ostensibly to promote the new movie, but the conversation would always turn to her nomination.  Very clever.  But the plan can backfire – let's not forget Eddie Murphy. He got a nomination for Dreamgirls and then released Norbit, effectively ruining his shot at the Oscar.

So, while Annette Benning floats her way graciously through another awards season, Natalie Portman is focused with steely, laser-like precision on that Oscar. Let's just hope she doesn't fall victim to the "Best Actress curse."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Inception and Black Swan

In Inception, an elite team of thieves that infiltrate peoples' minds to steal information is gathered for an unusual mission - they are hired not to take information, but to leave an idea behind. To do so, they wire themselves and their mark into a computer that allows them to walk through carefully constructed dreams... and dreams within dreams... and dreams within those dreams.  All this dream-hopping is dangerous for our thieves because it's easy to lose track of what's real and get lost forever.  This hazard is all to real for the team leader, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose wife killed herself, thinking she was in a dream and hoping to wake up.  But was she right?  Lines are blurred and reality is in question throughout, as the story unfolds.  What and who is real?  Who can be trusted?  Where is the way out?

In Black Swan, Nina (Natale Portman) is a young, driven ballet dancer who scores not one, but two roles of a lifetime in a new production of Swan Lake - she will play the sad, graceful White Swan as well as the sinister Black Swan.  She is naturally delicate and embodies the White Swan perfectly, but she is pressured by her castmates, her director, and herself, to find her darker Black Swan side. As she pushes her body and mind to the limit, Nina gets lost in the roles, becoming paranoid and delusional, always questioning the people around her and her own sanity.  Who wants her to fail and why? Who and what is real?  Throughout the film, we see a fragile woman break in two with the darkest of consequences.

Both films take you into the mind of its lead characters and show that reality is only as tangible as our perceptions.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Artistic Awards

Let's start with Best Cinematography. The nominees are Black Swan, Inception, The King's Speech, The Social Network, and True Grit.  I hated the camerawork in Black SwanThe Social Network slid into this category by virtue of its Best Picture nomination - it was nothing special.  The lighting and compositions in The King's Speech were fantastic and Inception had the steely look characteristic of all Christopher Nolan films, but my pick goes to True Grit.  First, because it had a wonderful dusty, raw, and... well... gritty look while still being gorgeous to look at. Second, because it's the great Roger Deakins, who has never won despite a gazillion nominations. 

Best Art Direction nominees are Alice In Wonderland, Harry Potter 7a, Inception, The King's Speech, and True Grit.  Most of these films' looks are based on reality - including the one that takes place mostly in a dream - so Alice In Wonderland has a distinctive edge. Everything had to be created from a whimsical imagination. No props could be bought - it all had to come from scratch, so the degree of difficulty is raised.

The Best Costumes category features Alice In Wonderland, I Am Love, The King's Speech, The Tempest, and True Grit.  First, let me note how unusual it is to have a movie with a contemporary setting in this category. I Am Love doesn't stand a chance. No, in this category more is more and the more elaborate the costumes are, the better.  That's why I'm picking Alice In Wonderland - its costumes are so outrageous that it stands out among the other nominees. Also, it varies widely from realistic Victorian looks to the crazy Wonderland apparel.  Also also, it's the great Coleen Atwood who is amazing.

This year's Best Makeup nominees are Barney's Version (a Canadian comedy starring Paul Giamatti), The Way Back (about Russian prison camp escapees), and The Wolfman (the Benicio Del toro monster-movie dud from last winter).  What a weak category.  The Academy really couldn't come up with better Makeup nominees?  The winner here is clear – The Wolfman will get it. 

Interesting note: the makeup for The Wolfman was done by the legendary Rick Baker who, you may recall, won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Makeup for another werewolf movie – An American Werewolf In London.  He was also one of the three people to beat Titanic back in '97.