Last year, in a small act of rebellion against the relentless Oscar handicapping, which I find mostly boring, I wrote a column focusing on the merits of the nominations instead of the odds. Now that the Oscars are starting in just under four hours, and everyone will stop caring about this year’s nominations in about eight hours or so, I figure I ought to do it again while the window of opportunity is still cracked open.
Picture: Even more so than last year, this year’s slate of ten nominees is surprisingly non-embarrassing, with the only outright dud in the bunch being Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. The big favorites, of course, are The King’s Speech and The Social Network, but I think both are being vastly overrated. In something of a rarity, my #1 overall film of the year is also nominated for Best Picture, and so while I greatly admire Inception and Winter’s Bone, Black Swan to me is a very easy pick.
Actor: For whatever reason, the Best Actor field is usually stronger than the Best Actress field, but this year is a stark reversal of that. Not that there are any actual bad performances here, but there’s not a single performance amongst these five that I feel enthusiastic about. At the same time, it’s hard to think of many performances that I liked a lot this year (at least, of the 74 or so Academy-eligible movies I saw this year) that weren’t nominated. Clooney in The American, or maybe Stiller in Greenberg. Maybe Ed Norton in Stone or Stephen Dorff in Somewhere. I dunno, that’s four guys there and that doesn’t seem like an overly strong list, either. It was just a weak year for dudes. If I had to pick among the actual nominees, I’d go with Jesse Eisenberg, I guess.
Actress: As I said, this field is much stronger than that for the Best Actor category. In fact, I think it may well be the best slate in this category in the 15 years or so that I’ve been paying close attention, and in most years I’d be happy with any of the five taking the prize (although Bening was better in Mother and Child, in a classic example of the Academy recognizing the lesser of a performer’s two performances). Nevertheless, I think Kidman and Portman both separated themselves from the pack, both doing what I consider to be the best work of their careers. But Portman’s role was the bolder and more demanding of the two, and so Natalie Portman is my pick.
Supporting Actor: It’s easy to me to narrow this down to two: Bale and Hawkes. I liked Renner, too, but more in an “honorable mention” sort of way, and I have little use for Rush or Ruffalo either in general or in terms of their nominated performances. Anyhow, I’d be happy with either a Bale or Hawkes win, but I suppose if I were voting, I’d pick Christian Bale. It seems like a trickier role to me, and in the hands of a less disciplined actor, I could see Dicky being almost unbearable.
Supporting Actress: I think Hallie Steinfeld should be nominated in the big category, but either way, she was tremendous and an easy pick over a bunch of rather mediocre nominees.
Director: Another easy pick. I admire David O. Russell for giving a well-worn sports story a distinctive treatment, but I have no real reason not to pick the auteur behind my #1 film, Darren Aronofsky.
Original Screenplay: I don’t really understand this category at all, since three of the scripts (The Kids Are All Right, The Fighter, and The King’s Speech) strike me as indistinguished, even average, at least from what I can tell from watching the films. That leaves Another Year, which was a bit of a mess, and Inception, whose originality and complexity make this an easy pick.
Adapted Screenplay: I suppose The Social Network is the fashionable pick here for its snappy dialogue, but I thought that Aaron Sorkin’s script was somewhat superficial and a bit facile, reducing its story to a Big Idea (the Facebook guy has no friends!) that didn’t seem very insightful. Just for contrast’s sake, though, it’s not nearly as bad as Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy’s idiotic “Celebrate life! Lose an arm!” angle for 127 Hours, so I don’t want to sound too negative about Sorkin. I think Winter’s Bone was probably the best work here, creating a terrific character (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and a handful of memorable supporting characters, all in a setting that I haven’t seen much of in the movies.
Animated Film: I guess I’d pick Toy Story 3, although I didn’t love it, and it’s right there with The Illusionist. Haven’t seen How to Train Your Dragon.
Foreign Film: I’ve only seen Biutiful and Dogtooth thus far, and of those two, I thought that Biutiful was fairly nasty, and that Dogtooth was also fairly nasty, but in a good way. I actually thought it was one of the better films of the year, so Dogtooth it is, with all the appropriate caveats about the other three, of course.
Cinematography: Roger Deakins has long been a favorite of mine, and if anyone deserves the de facto “Lifetime Achievment Award”, it’s him. But … I just didn’t feel like this was particularly strong work. The photography in True Grit often had an overly-manipulated, artificial feel to it, as if there had been just a few too many hours playing around with the DI. I thought that Matthew Libatique’s (mostly 16mm, from what I understand) work on Black Swan was superior.
Editing: Geez, who knows. Looking at the list of nominees, the inclination is to go with the movie I liked the best, but honestly I don’t know if I could say anything of even minor substance about the editing in Black Swan. Perhaps the best I could do here would be to say that I greatly respected the way the fight scenes in The Fighter were put together, so I’d probably vote for that. It’s not much of a reason, but I suspect it’s no worse than 95% or so of the reasons actual Oscar voters could put forth.
Art Direction: I’m not 100% sure what this category is about, but I always interpret it as “the movie with the prettiest sets and stuff.” I honestly don’t have much of an opinion here, other than hating basically everything about Alice in Wonderland. Is it dumb to pick Inception just because I thought the limbo scenes were cool? that’s all I got.
Costume Design: We’re getting pretty deep in the weeds here, but, The King’s Speech? For putting the king in a suit? What am I missing here? I guess I’d go with True Grit here, mostly because The Tempest was a bit of a fail and because, once again, Alice in Wonderland was disgusting.
Makeup: I’ve only seen The Wolfman of the three nominees, so there you go.
Original Score: Easy pick here, to give to Hans Zimmer for Inception and his great use of the Piaf song. I’m not sure why this gets nominated and Clint Mansell’s incorporation of Tchaikovsky for Black Swan gets disqualified, but I assume there’s a perfectly minor technicality that makes it all OK.
Original Song: Really, who cares. I’ll never see Tangled or Country Strong, anyway. Newman’s song for Toy Story 3, why not.
Sound: Of the nominees, Inception was the only one that used sound as part of its story, so I’ll go with that.
Sound Editing: This one’s about sound effects, right? Didn’t see TRON or Unstoppable, but I have no reason to think their sound effects were lacking. So of the rest, Toy Story 3, I pick arbitrarily (again, like I assume most voters do). If nothing else, that clapping monkey was friggin’ hilarious.
Visual Effects: Nothing here really beats, either in conception or execution, the city folding in on itself in Inception.
Documentary Feature: I’ve only seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, and it makes for a perfectly acceptable winner as far as I’m concerned.
Doc Shorts, Animated Shorts, Live-Action Shorts: Haven’t seen any of the nominees here save for Day & Night in the Animated category, which strikes me as appropriately inventive for an Oscar winner.