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The Oscar follies: Handicapping the Academy Awards

George Clooney is nominated for best actor in “The Descendants.” Courtesy photo

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From page A1 | February 19, 2012 |

The Golden Globes may be more freewheeling and snarky; the People’s Choice Awards may be more populist. For prestige and historical significance, though, nothing compares to the Academy Awards.

True, the show can be creaky, overlong and sycophantic. I sometimes worry that the folks onstage will break their arms, from patting each other — and themselves — on the back so much.

But the Oscar ceremony is what it is, and producers should stop trying to “improve” it with silly little adjustments. Last year’s attempt to attract younger viewers did nothing but embarrass co-hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway, and the gushing, on-stage tributes to the acting nominees have got to stop.

On the other hand, a few of the Academy nominating branches really do need to get their acts together. How, for starters, could “The Adventures of Tintin” have been overlooked in the animated feature category?

One suspects that the voters regarded its motion-capture technology “suspect” in some manner, but that’s ludicrous. Way back in the day, Max and Dave Fleischer’s first “Superman” short cartoon garnered a 1941 Oscar nomination; its rotoscoped animation style is a direct forerunner of motion-capture.

Besides, if Andy Serkis can’t get an acting nomination — despite heavy lobbying — for his nuanced performance as the ape Caesar, in last year’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” then clearly the motion-capture technique involved is regarded as CGI animation, rather than live action. And if it’s animation, then “Tintin” was robbed.

Although irritating, that hiccup pales in comparison to the behavior of the Academy’s music branch, which this year deemed only two (!) tunes worthy of a best song nomination. That’s absolutely daft, not to mention a gross insult to the many talented songwriters who fielded the 39 submissions initially considered.

Blame a 2009 voting rules change, which since then has required songs to score at least 8.25 (on a scale from 6 to 10) to earn a nomination. If fewer than five songs do that well, we get fewer than five nominees. If no song gets at least 8.25, then the category is eliminated.

Say what?!?!?

That’s clearly brainless, and it gets worse: Music branch members only watch clips that include the eligible songs, as opposed to viewing each entire film. How, then, are these voters able to evaluate — and now I’m quoting the actual music branch rules — a given song’s “effectiveness, craftsmanship, creative substance and relevance to the dramatic whole”?

I added the italics. Couldn’t help myself.

This year, the music branch, in its infinite wisdom, snubbed 37 of the initial 39 submissions. Those left behind include:

* Elton John’s “Hello, Hello” and “Love Builds a Garden,” from “Gnomeo and Juliet”;

* Bryan Byrne and Glenn Close’s “Lay Your Head Down,” so eloquently performed by Sinead O’Connor in “Albert Nobbs”;

* Mary J. Blige’s “The Living Proof,” from “The Help”;

* Alan Menken’s “Star Spangled Man,” from “Captain America”;

* Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s (She & Him) “So Long,” from “Winnie the Pooh”;

* Zac Brown’s “Where the River Goes,” from “Footloose”; and

* Elvis Costello’s “Sparkling Day,” from “One Day.”

Really, would it be so difficult to select the five songs that score the highest? Isn’t this country all about grading on a curve?

But enough kvetching; time to get to the meat of the matter. Let’s see how many right answers I can talk myself out of this time …

Visual effects

A busy category this year, with five nominees (usually no more than three). I’ll follow the “Star Wars” precedent here: That 1977 classic won six “lesser” Oscars, by way of compensating for its shutout in the major categories. I suspect the same will be true, this year, of Martin Scorsese’s labor of love … ergo, his film will pick up categories such as this one. I’ll therefore go with Robert Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann and Alex Henning, for “Hugo.”

Makeup

This category often is a battle between opulence and subtlety. The folks who worked on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” certainly were kept busy, but fantasy makeup has become a bit same old/same old. I was much more impressed by the flawless manner in which Meryl Streep aged, in “The Iron Lady.” I’ll therefore select that film’s talented duo: Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland.

Sound mixing

This category represents the totality of the sound-mixing process — the music, the dialogue, the background noises and everything else – whereas the next category focuses more specifically on fabricated sound (sound effects, like visual effects).

The Motion Picture Sound Editors’ annual Golden Reel Awards generally aren’t much help, since they divide the spoils within even more sub-categories. Their 59th annual ceremony takes place tonight; you can check news feeds tomorrow, for the results.

“Moneyball” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” seem like minor candidates here: definitely not in league with the other three. My personal choice would be Gary Rydstrom and his colleagues, for putting us into the heart of World War I carnage, in “War Horse.” Sadly, I’m sensing that Steven Spielberg’s efforts won’t get any Oscar love this year.

For the reason cited above, then, I’ll go with the delicate, marvelous blend of location sound work that helped make “Hugo” so charming, and expect to see twin Oscars embraced by Tom Fleischman and John Midgley.

Sound editing

No question: Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty, for all the clockwork and mechanical contraptions given such marvelous noises, also in “Hugo.”

Art direction

This category more properly should be called art direction/set design, since it honors the two individuals responsible for those duties. The annual Art Directors Guild Awards, presented Feb. 4, were divided into three branches, for period, fantasy and contemporary; the winners were, respectively, “Hugo,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The latter isn’t among the Oscar candidates, and therefore can be ignored.

All the candidates are worthy, the others being “War Horse,” “Midnight in Paris” and “The Artist.” This is, in fact, the first category with a head-to-head competition between “Hugo” and “The Artist”: both period films involving cinema’s early days.

That said, the fabricated early Hollywood sound stages of “The Artist” simply can’t compare to the marvelous intricacies of the Gare Montparnasse train station, not to mention the labyrinthine passageways concealed behind its public concourse. I’ll therefore cite Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo, for “Hugo.”

Costume design

“Anonymous” and “W./E.” are much too obscure, and therefore easily ignored. That leaves us with “The Artist,” “Hugo” and “Jane Eyre.”

The category heavyweight is Sandy Powell, with nine previous nominations and three wins (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Aviator” and “The Young Victoria”). She’s up this year for “Hugo,” which makes her a formidable opponent.

The annual Costume Designers Guild Awards, which will take place Tuesday evening, also are divided into the same three branches: period, fantasy and contemporary. In what must be a first, four of the Oscar nominees also are vying for a guild award in the same category (period). The guild champ therefore will be a strong candidate for the Oscar, as well.

Powell’s name recognition notwithstanding, this is where “The Artist” will begin its sweep … and, in fairness, Mark Bridges met a much more difficult challenge, designing all those wonderful clothes for the black-and-white delights found within “The Artist.”

Original song

Gee, should we just flip a coin?

Much as I’d love to see Sergio Mendes go home with an Oscar — for his involvement with “Real in Rio,” from “Rio” — the momentum feels stronger for Bret McKenzie’s much cuter “Man or Muppet,” from “The Muppets.”

Original score

John Williams made history with his 46th and 47th nominations, competing with himself in this category, for “War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tintin.” He’s now the all-time most-nominated composer, having finally surpassed Alfred Newman (45 nominations, nine wins). Unfortunately, this will split Williams’ voting fans and further diminish his chances of a win (see no love for Spielberg, above).

The bigger question is whether Ludovic Bource, who scored “The Artist,” will suffer from the idiotic kerfuffle that erupted over his brief use, at a climactic moment, of Bernard Herrmann’s themes from “Vertigo” and “Marnie.” I certainly hope not, because no composer worked harder last year; “The Artist” is wall-to-wall music, since the score must help convey the emotion and dramatic content usually presented by dialogue.

So I’m still going with Bource, for “The Artist.”

Animated feature

I feel like boycotting this category, since it’s impossible to make a fair prediction when two of the nominees are so obscure that they haven’t secured wide release yet. It’s hardly fair to handicap a field when all the runners aren’t yet at the gate.

That said, I suspect “A Cat in Paris” and “Chico & Rita” are too obscure for the voters, as well.

I also have to vote against my own taste here. I wasn’t at all impressed by “Rango,” but it sure has remained popular. It took the top award at the Feb. 4 Annie Awards — the “Oscars” of animation — although “The Adventures of Tintin” won the Golden Globe, for whatever that’s worth. (Not much, apparently.)

Some nominees win because of their “snark factor,” though, and “Rango” has plenty of that. I’ll therefore expect Gore Verbinski to collect the Oscar, for his warped saga of the chameleon turned reluctant cowboy.

Foreign-language film

Always a tough category, because politics plays so strong a role.

Iran’s “A Separation” clearly has the inside track, both because it also earned a screenplay nod — quite rare, for a foreign film — and because it already won the Golden Globe and 43 (!) other critics’ and film festival awards.

This is only Iran’s second appearance in this category; the first was 1997’s “Children of Heaven,” which lost to “Life Is Beautiful.” Voters love an underdog, even an underdog country.

“A Separation” clearly deserves the win … but Iran isn’t exactly on friendly terms with the United States these days. Will that hurt its chances? Or will iconoclastic Academy voters go with merit?

I expect the latter. Iran, for “A Separation.”

Editing

The American Cinema Editors 61st annual Eddie Awards ceremony took place Saturday evening; their awards are divided between drama and comedy/musical, and all five Oscar nominees were cited within those two divisions. The results therefore could have been helpful, but — alas! — this story went to bed too soon.

That aside, I’m not persuaded that “The Descendants” and “Moneyball” are editor’s films; “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” another of the Oscar nominees, is a much better example of adrenaline-fueled pacing.

The category heavyweight is Thelma Schoonmaker, with six previous nominations and three wins … all for films she made with Martin Scorsese: “Raging Bull,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed.” And, indeed, she’s up again this year for another Scorsese project, “Hugo.”

But I suspect this will work against her, allowing voters to argue that somebody else deserves the prize. Those “somebody elses” likely are Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius, who worked such magic with “The Artist.” Along with its soundtrack, this film’s cutting also is key to its power; think of the marvelous “film shoot” sequence, where Jean Dujardin begins to fall for the captivating Bérénice Bejo.

So: Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius, for “The Artist.”

Cinematography

Very tough choice.

Much as I hated “The Tree of Life,” there’s no denying its superlative cinematography. Every frame is gorgeous, and Emmanuel Lubezki — five nominations thus far, but no victories — clearly deserves the award.

And, indeed, he took the top honor at the 26th annual American Society of Cinematographers Awards banquet, which took place last Sunday.

Alternatively, Janusz Kaminski’s work on “War Horse” is similarly excellent, and this category could be another match-up between “The Artist” (Guillaume Schiffman) and “Hugo” (Robert Richardson). The former is a first-timer; the latter has six previous nominations, with two wins: “JFK” and “The Aviator.”

It won’t matter. “The Tree of Life” may be a yawn, but Emmanuel Lubezki still ought to snag an Oscar.

Original screenplay

I’m delighted to see Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo cited here, for “Bridesmaids,” because comedies rarely are acknowledged by Oscars. But they haven’t a chance, and neither does “A Separation.” “Margin Call” seems equally unlikely, although — again — it’s nice to see J.C. Chandor cited for its excellent script.

No, this will be a dust-up between two heavyweights: Woody Allen, for the only category “Midnight in Paris” has a chance of taking; and Michel Hazanavicius (again!), for “The Artist.”

Could Hazanavicius really win three awards, for the same film? It has happened before; Billy Wilder and Peter Jackson come to mind, and there are others.

Not this year. I’m going with the darker horse: Woody Allen, for “Midnight in Paris.”

Adapted screenplay

Another tough call, particularly with two George Clooney movies in the mix; he even has co-writing credit on one of them (“The Ides of March”). “Moneyball” gets much of its juice from the sharp script by Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin and Stan Chervin … but Sorkin took this category last year, and Academy voters like to share the wealth, when possible.

John Logan did a superb job, bringing “Hugo” to the big screen; Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan frankly worked miracles, condensing John Le Carré’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” into a two-hour film.

If Alexander Payne hadn’t won this category in 2004, for “Sideways,” I’d pick him — and collaborators Nat Faxon and Jim Rash — in a heartbeat, for “The Descendants.” But I worry that Payne’s previous victory may work against him.

What to do, what to do …

Payne, Faxon and Rash, for “The Descendants.”

Supporting actor

Easy: Christopher Plummer, for “Beginners.”

Supporting actress

Also a lock: Octavia Spencer, for “The Help.”

Actor

George Clooney (“The Descendants”) had this sewn up until Jean Dujardin began making waves, for his superlative performance in “The Artist.” Both films demanded extremely subtle work from their leading men; both actors delivered, and then some.

Dujardin won the Screen Actors Guild Award, during its Jan. 29 ceremony. (For the record, so did Plummer and Spencer, in the supporting categories above.) On the other hand, Clooney won the Golden Globe.

The Oscars can be popularity contests, and Clooney certainly is popular. And in all of Academy Awards history, only one foreign performer took this category: Roberto Benigni, for “Life Is Beautiful.” (Foreign actresses triumphed twice.)

So I’ll go with the odds: George Clooney, for “The Descendants.”

Actress

Another two-horse race, this time between Viola Davis (“The Help”), who won the Screen Actors Guild Award, and Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady”), who took the Golden Globe.

Both deserve to win.

Much as everybody loves Streep’s work in “The Iron Lady,” though, the film itself is viewed as deeply flawed. This likely will work against her.

Ergo: Viola Davis, for “The Help.”

Director

While considering this category, we need to remember that — for the most part — the director’s win almost always corresponds to the year’s best picture.

Michel Hazanavicius won the Directors Guild Award on Jan. 28, for “The Artist,” which makes him the man to beat. Since his film also is likely to take the top prize, I see no reason to argue with the DGA results: Michel Hazanavicius, then, for “The Artist.”

Picture

No mystery here: “The Artist.”

— Derrick Bang will be camped in front of his TV set all day next Sunday. Read more of his film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Feel free to argue about his choices here at www.davisenterprise.com

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