Thursday, January 30, 2014

Oscars Preview - Part One!

Every year, Chels and I get excited for the Oscars.  No, they are not really that important, and yes, it is in many ways rather silly to give awards for an art form as subjective as cinema.  We don't care.  From the red carpet to the self-aggrandizing acceptance speeches, the spectacle of that night is entrancing.  We know it doesn't really mean much in the end, but it is something we can simultaneously love to hate and truly appreciate because it is a night to reminisce about past viewing experiences and select artistic allegiances.

So, we thought it would be fun to do some (six, to be exact) Oscar posts.  We will begin with run-downs of our favorite categories, then finish just before the Oscars with our respective lists of Top 10 movies from the year that was 2013.  So, sit back and enjoy, and get in the spirit with us.

Best Cinematography

The Nominees:
- Philippe Le Sourd for The Grandmaster
- Emmanuel Lubezski for Gravity
- Bruno Delbonnel for Inside Llewyn Davis
- Phedon Papamichael for Nebraska
- Roger A. Deakins for Prisoners

For Film Novices:
It is the job of a cinematographer to work with a director to determine what the shots that make up a scene will look like (in terms of color, shading, film effects), and then select the appropriate lighting, camera, film stock, lens, frame rate, filter, and more to bring this image to life.  A director might say, “I really want there to be a lot of contrast between light and dark in this scene, but also want the light in the image to really glow,” and it would be the cinematographer’s job to make this happen.

Should Win: Gravity
Despite being a film with the most thrilling and breathtaking visuals of the year, it is Gravity’s
close-ups that are why it should win this year.  There are plenty of great images of space throughout cinema history, but what is most impressive about this film is the skill shown by Lubezki in creating realistic lighting and shadow movement to immerse the viewing experience in the stark darkness of space.  In space, there are few sources of light, and these interstellar sources must reflect off the helmet glass surrounding the faces of Bullock and Clooney throughout the film in a consistent and believable fashion.  The film deserves to win because of the complexity in creating these realistic close-ups despite utilizing all artificial lighting sources and filming almost totally with green screens.

Will Win: Gravity
The film will win because it has the most cinematic, grandiose images of the year.  A picture of Earth from space is a pretty picture, after all.  It deserves to win because of the small details, but this award generally goes to the prettiest pictures, which this year also happens to be the most deserving film – not because of what viewers noticed, but because of what they didn’t.

Weakest Nominee: The Grandmaster
This nomination feels a bit cheap to me.  Kar-Wai’s film was a genre experiment from usually a very thoughtful and candid auteur, and the photography and lighting of this film mostly mirror its action-adventure bent.  While there are some beautifully soft-lit scenes with striking contrasts, it mostly looks average and has too many instances of oddly placed slow motion effects that fall flat and overreach.

Best Non-Nominee: A Touch of Sin
This little seen gem was incredibly beautiful and contains several of the most striking images of the year.  The compositions in scenes like the one outside the massage parlor, with glowing urban light gleaming off slick city streets, or the sequence of prostitutes, backlit with the artifice of their profession and parading with pomp and circumstance for their potential customers are both beautiful and haunting.  The film captures its characters’ emotional isolation and fear with sobering and wrenching effect, and this is effective largely due to its photography.


Should Win: Prisoners
Even people who don’t generally notice this type of thing have commented to me on how good this film looks, recognizing certain shots and movements.  Roger Deakins is a master of lighting and creating contrast in image.  So many shots of this film are just gorgeous.  Although the film is not great (it is very good), its cinematography is another matter.  Not to mention that Deakins has been nominated eleven times and never once won.

Will Win: Gravity
David is right that this film will win because it is the biggest visual spectacle.  And honestly, it’s a deserving winner, but I don’t know enough of Lubezki’s process in creating the images of the film to say how much he had to do with it.  Additionally, lately Hollywood has chosen to award films that have been shot on 3-D, and cynically I think this is because it’s good for business…

Weakest Nominee: The Grandmaster
I’m just going to have to concur with what David says here.  The film itself is weaker than the other Wong Kar-Wai film I’ve seen – In the Mood for Love, which should win every award ever for cinematography with its gorgeous, luscious eye.

Best Non-Nominee: 12 Years a Slave
I was extremely surprised a few weeks ago when this category was announced and Sean Bobbit wasn’t nominated for his work on 12 Years a Slave.  There are several scenes that are just gorgeous in that film.  The way he uses deep focus in a lengthy hanging scene is just incredible and deeply affecting.  There’s also the beautiful scene that’s shot entirely in darkness except one lamp that lights two of the lead characters.  Beautiful, affecting stuff.

Best Editing 
The Nominees:
- Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten for American Hustle
- Christopher Rouse for Captain Phillips
- John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa for Dallas Buyers Club
- Alfonso CuarĂ³n and Mark Sanger for Gravity
- Joe Walker for 12 Years a Slave

For Film Novices:
It is the job of an editor to work with a director to determine the way in which the shots that make up a scene will play out in terms of shot pacing and continuity.  A director might say, “I really want this scene to amp up in tension and pace as it progresses,” and it would be the editor’s job to make this happen.

Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
Of the nominees, this is the film that best captures the editorial rhythm needed to tell an engaging story.  The story of Solomon Northrup is an involving and important one, and the pace of the film’s imagery mirrors the sense of growing hopelessness and desperation in the film.  It shows the maturity, intuition, and guts to slow down when we as viewers need to contemplate and speed up at moments of intense emotion.  Sounds simple, but many films show this to be a rare skill.

Will Win: Gravity
Due to the complexity of editing such an explosive, movement-heavy film, this is the easy winner. And really, I am okay with this, as the near constant camera movement and lack of literal horizon lines to assess continuity must have been a headache to compile.  Coupled with the fact that the film expertly builds suspense in its shot pacing meant that I never felt directional or chronological confusion as a viewer, which is impressive for a film that largely tells a story in real time.

Weakest Nominee: Dallas Buyers Club
Not really sure why this one is here.  Sure, it is edited well enough, but it is a film mostly of conversations, which are relatively easy to compile and make flow.  It is also not a film that cinematically requires much more of an editor than to simply get out of the way and put the shots in a logical order.  I tend to think editing jobs requiring personal artistry and a sense for rhythm should be rewarded, not jobs on films reaching for interpersonal realism like this one.  The film was edited as well as it could be – enough to make the film make sense – but this is a head-scratcher nomination for sure.

This particular sequence was brilliantly edited.
Best Non-Nominee: Upstream Color
One of my favorite films of the year, this twisting science-fiction mystery delves into the psyches of its characters mainly by cross-cutting their present realities with memory and disruptive, outside forces.  Without giving much of its plot away (as you should definitely give the film a chance), much of its mysteries are revealed through complex montage, and the effect is thrilling and affecting.  Director Shane Carruth personally edited the film and applies many concepts from experimental works to convey deeper meaning, and his artistry in the cutting room should be recognized.


I literally am just going to agree with everything you said above.  Although I would like to point out that the Academy may choose to honor Captain Phillips here.  Paul Greengrass’ tense thriller with national treasure Tam Honks would also be a worthy winner.  The editor expertly paced this film for maximum tension building, creating fantastic lulls and extremely suspenseful sequences. 

I agree with your assessment of Upstream Color, although I’m going to take this space to point out the lovely work of Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorcese’s longtime editor.  The Wolf of Wall Street is edited brilliantly, pacing this three hour long film so it hits the exact emotional beats it should for the viewer watching this crazed, debauched lifestyle.