The Addison Recorder has a lot of movie nerds on staff. Not all of us, of course, but enough to make the others bend to our will. So in anticipation of this week’s Oscar ceremony the staff is going to do their Will/Should/Dream winners picks for the category we care most about with some brief accompanying comments. The cinema nerds will have seen enough (or feel self-righteous enough) to really make it seem like their opinions and guess have weight and meaning. The others have said they are throwing darts. Either process is as valid as actual Oscar voters filling out a ballot proclaiming one work of art objectively better than another.
Also, sometimes an Alex can’t help himself and has to respond to the other writers. It’s just something an Alex does when shaken.
Will Win: Gravity – A really tight race between this and 12 Years a Slave, but like I said in last week’s column it feels like the survival in space story beats the survival in the South story. Neither environment looked very appealing to me.
Should Win: 12 Years a Slave – I stand by what I said in November, this movie is absolutely mandatory viewing. It’s a wrenching and unflinching look at one man’s struggle to retain his humanity and hope after being sucked in the “peculiar institution” of slavery. The film illuminates the emotional and physical ravages of inhumanity as well as the wide-spread rot that such an evil spreads through the societies that support it.
Dream Winner: Her – As great and necessary as I think 12 Years a Slave is, it also fits a certain pattern of Oscar winners. Self- important and treated as a museum piece before it was even released. By contrast, Her has a premise that seems like a joke and a style that treads lightly between comedy of manners and insightful character drama. It would be a wildly unlikely and idiosyncratic winner.
Nightmare Win: American Hustle – This will make me sound like a sourpuss, but part of the fun of Oscar season is bellowing condescendingly about movies that you think suck. But, really, the disaster of storytelling that was American Hustle should be nowhere near a nomination for Best Motion Picture of 2013. I don’t dislike David O. Russell films as a rule, but they rarely connect all the way for me, and his latest crystallized why: he has no interest in telling stories. Russell has said in interviews that the original script for this movie, then titled American Bullshit, was essentially a procedural about the ludicrously cinematic ABSCAM sting. He remade the script for Hustle to make more room to just let his characters hang out acting crazy and then hung the loose shreds of the ABSCAM scandal onto that. It…does not work. Whole sequences exist for no narrative reason, the themes are incoherent and poorly articulated, and the end result is a turkey dressed up in an ugly tux and a bad comb-over. If it wins anything big I will bellow at the TV.
Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity – The DGA is usually, though not always, a good indicator of who takes home this award. I believe that Gravity’s technical prowess, combined with masterful storytelling, will result in Cuaron netting his first directing trophy at the Oscars. To be honest, it’s a trophy that’s well deserved – Gravity could have been another jaunt in space, but instead became as close to a must-see film event as we had this year that didn’t involve comic book fantasies or Jennifer Lawrence doing target practice.
Should Win: Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave – Cuaron made the terror of space into high art. Steve McQueen went even further with the historical drama of 12 Years a Slave. Art-house cinema as a term is overused, I feel, to apply to any movie trying to make a statement – the world is littered with award-bait, film-school projects that try to hard to convey thematic depth and to portray visual acumen that they often forget about the storytelling. (Again, this is why I have zero problems with Cuaron winning) McQueen’s background as a visual artist is clear in the story of Solomon Northup, but it’s the way he uses the design of the movie to expose the raw wound that is America’s history of slavery. The shot of Northup hanging from the tree is seared into my brain even as I write this, and is probably the most powerful scene of any of the nominated movies this year.
Dream Win: Spike Jonze for Her – Science-fiction had an excellent year this year, with Gravity and Her representing the peak of the bubble. I loved the world Jonze created, the characters who inhabited it, and most of all the story he told about that world. It was a masterpiece of direction, and one that should go recognized.
Nightmare Win: David O. Russell for American Hustle – It’s an award for Best Director, not Best Acting Coach.
(Editor’s Note: This may be the first year since they met that Travis and Alex agree on the big prizes. That can only foretell doom.)
WILL WIN: Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyer’s Club. In what is increasingly called a “McConaughissance”, good ol’ “Alright, alright, alright” McC himself wins a trophy for Best Actor. It’s pretty well assured at this point – he’s riding the same narrative that Sandra Bullock rode to an Oscar for The Blind Side, and the Oscar voters can’t wait to get this one into his hands as quickly as possible. By the way, the Over/Under on whether he starts his acceptance speech off with “Alright, alright, alright” is set at even money right now, or fifteen Zoey licks. Whichever comes first.
SHOULD WIN: Chiwitel Eijifor for 12 Years a Slave. There’s a 30 second clip of this movie, wherein nothing happens onscreen. At least, nothing except that Eijifor breaks the 4th wall and stares into the soul of the viewer. So much happens in those 30 seconds. So much is running through his face. He’s making something beautiful, something searing, something incredulous out of absolutely nothing at all. It’s an impossible challenge, and he does it better than any other actor did anything else at all this year.
That’s why, ultimately, awards are moot. Because those 30 seconds exist. They’re not showy, they’re not flashy, they don’t explode off the screen. But they’ll stick with me longer than anything McConaughey did in DBC, or Christian Bale’s hair, or Bruce Dern bearing an uncanny resemblance to my father. Leonardo DiCaprio totally deserves an award as well, with his Jordan Belfort being one of the most likable villains in movie history…who also makes you feel like you need to take a shower to clean yourself afterwards. But, to my money, Eijifor should win. (No disrespect to McC)
DREAM WIN: A three way tie between Eijifor, DiCaprio, and Joaquin Phoenix from Her. The complete opposite of any of the bat-crazy over-acting he did in The Master, Her succeeds for multiple reasons, but one of those is that Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly works perfectly within the story and as a character. It’s a tribute to Phoenix’s multifaceted talents, and a marvelous performance. Three statues, please.
NIGHTMARE WIN: Christian Bale for American Hustle. We get it. He’s a chameleon. But if you’re going to give Bale another Oscar, can it be for something good, with some depth to it?
…and now for some quickies.
Best Visual Effects
WILL WIN: Gravity. The name is already inscribed on the statue. All that’s left to do is to hand them their statue for collectively blowing our minds.
SHOULD WIN: Gravity. See above.
NIGHTMARE WIN: Anything else.
WILL WIN: Dallas Buyers Club. This isn’t so much a merited win (the white powder and facial lines to convey, well, AIDS works well) as it is a sign of the Academy’s reluctance to give an award to a film with the prefix of “Jackass Presents”
SHOULD WIN: Bad Grandpa. Seriously, if we’re going by makeup alone, this one looks best.
NIGHTMARE WIN: The Lone Ranger. Because Johnny Depp in white/redface needs no Oscars. Let’s just forget this movie happened, kay?
WILL WIN: Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine – I still haven’t seen it. But by all accounts, she gave a tour-de-force performance that never dissolved into overacting but let a real, broken, flawed person in all their comedy and tragedy shine forth. When you impress my father so much he keeps talking about your acting, I know you’ve done something for the ages.
DREAM WIN: I’m flipping Alex’s order here a bit to talk one more time about Amy Adams for American Hustle. The perpetual bridesmaid has never been better in her career (Editor’s Note: Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?! Her work in Junebug, Enchanted, and The Master beat the pants off this performance), diving into a nonexistent script and creating a towering figure, a survivor with the vulnerability of her dream girl romantic roles and the force of will of her breakthrough turn in The Master, combined with the most lightning-quick delivery imaginable when you’re switching accents on a dime and an irresistible sex appeal. If you had somehow never fallen in love with Adams before, you would fall in love with her now.
And the reason I flipped was…
SHOULD WIN: Blanchett or Adams. Exactly like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, they were both magnificent for different reasons with one’s success not detracting from the other’s in the slightest. The Academy does itself proud in honoring either one.
NIGHTMARE WIN: Meryl Streep for August: Osage County. Again, didn’t see it…yet what I’ve heard was that a Pulitzer Prize winning drama laced with black humor became an outlandish family comedy, with Streep tearing it up at the center, the previews suggesting she was playing the matriarch as a combination of Julia Child and Donna Sheridan with all the physical over-the-topness one suspected. Yet the Academy is a sentimental creature, and may be inspired to give the greatest actress of our time her fourth Oscar to tie her with Katharine Hepburn. Wait, let me wake up from that thought.
Best Original and Adapted Screenplays
WILL WIN: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for American Hustle and John Ridley for 12 Years a Slave – Ridley turned in what was head and shoulders the best piece of adapted cinema of the year, carefully selecting and embellishing the most powerful moments from a powerful life. That’s outstanding. Not so outstanding? The Academy, in their love of nostalgia that doesn’t leave too many negative feelings, mistaking the terrific improvisations of the actors for Singer and Russell’s really nonexistent screenplay, just an outline for situations with no theme.
SHOULD WIN: Spike Jonze for Her and Mr. Ridley – See Alex and Travis’s earlier comments on Mr. Jonze, who took a very unusual premise and crafted a heartwarming and truly original film from it. ORIGINAL and WRITTEN.
DREAM WIN: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke for Before Midnight – It has no chance against 12 Years, but I wish there was a way, The Return of the King style, to recognize how this trio spent two decades meticulously creating, with the precision of Michelangelo sculpting or painting a ceiling, one of the greatest trilogies of our time and the most honest, heartbreaking, ultimate celebration of love and its power to transform us there is. Before Midnight was a perfect conclusion to Jesse and Celine’s story, told from the perspective of maturation, experience, and decision. So, so magical.
NIGHTMARE WINS: Billy Ray for Captain Phillips and Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack for Dallas Buyers Club – Not that these are bad films, but, ooh boy, let’s hit every beat by the numbers and shift the perspective of the true story enough to make the audience feel good about what it’s hearing. America rules! AIDS is bad! We’re going to have setbacks but the ending will turn out to be just what you wanted it to be and we’ll hammer the message home every step of the way! In a year that gave us the three really terrific screenplays above, plus magisterial work from Terence Winter and the team of Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, honoring either of these would be a slap in the face.
I’m one of the AR staff that’s definitely not a film buff, so I’ll be playing darts today. Luckily, we have the freedom to pick which categories that we’re weighing in on, so I’ve picked Best Original Score and Best Animated Feature. A little scatter shot, sure, but at least I’m familiar enough with the material to make an educated guess.
Best Original Score:
Will Win: The Book Thief. John Williams is a goliath in this category, having written the scores for Star Wars, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and about a million other movies. He was the right choice for period film about love and kindness in Nazi Germany.
Should Win: Gravity (Steven Price). Listening to this next to William’s score, I was struck by an almost raw quality to the music. I had a hard time not immediately replaying it as soon as the song ended.
Dream Win: Philomena (Alexandre Desplat). The score seemed whimsical and light, moving without being heavy handed. The plot of the movie has a lot of seriousness and tragedy, but the music is buoyant. It’s a song that I don’t want to stop listening to.
Nightmare Win: Her (Arcade Fire). Sorry Alex! Compared to the competition, I found this one boring. (Editor’s Note: Karen is wroooooooooooooong. The nominated score and song from Her are lovely and luminous in their understatement. This means they stand .001% chance of winning. – Alex)
Best Animated Feature:
Will Win: Frozen. Big studio movie that’s turning an old familiar idea on its ear? Yep. Oscar bait.
Should Win: … Also Frozen. If you’ve already read my article, you know I loved this movie. It’s saying something new about relationships, or if not new then new for movies. It’s arguing that love isn’t the end goal, displaying a mature and complicated sibling relationship as the primary relationship in a Disney movie. It’s stepping away from parent-child relationships and doing something new. I loved it.
Dream Win: I haven’t yet seen Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, and I’m a devout lover of Studio Ghibli. The movie has received massive international acclaim after it’s Japanese release mid-2013, but was only released in the United States last Friday. If it won, it would shocking to US audiences, but would almost definitely deserve it.
Nightmare Win: Despicable Me 2. How was it nominated? It’s not a bad movie, don’t get me wrong– I genuinely enjoyed watching, but it was formulaic and not challenging or innovative in any way. (Editor’s Note: Because the Academy’s rules dictate either three or five nominees in this category. – Alex)
These Next Few Picks are Terrible, and Require a 1d6/1d20 Sanity Check
courtesy of J. Michael Bestul
The nominees for this category are a collection of prisons and prison-masters. They form a delicate and convoluted puzzle, one which you must never solve. To piece these disassociated pieces together would open such terrifying vistas of reality – and of your frightful position therein – that you would go mad from the revelation…
Pick: … or you would flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. Retreat into your own locked room, Inside Llewyn Davis. We are all in our own locked rooms, Inside Llewyn Davis.
Nightmare Pick: You have been warned, fool. Solve this puzzle if you must, but in doing so know that your personal apocalypse precipitates humanity’s downfall. You are the domino.
Best Costume Design
It is a masquerade, all of it. Every action, every word, every gesture is but an elaborate choreography that obfuscates the nothingness at the heart of everything. When you stumble upon this epiphany, the only response is to cover it up with more elaborate and intricate costuming. The masquerade continues until we all unmask, and laugh at the hollow beauty.
Pick: The Academy understands nothing if not the need for garish aesthetics to dress up the emptiness of one’s soul. To them, Gatsby is like looking at a party-goer whose face bears no mask: its visage is a perfectly reflective mirror.
Nightmare Pick: The presenter opens the envelope. There is no winner. There is only the terrible realization of purposelessness, of no reason or guiding hand behind anything. The King has now taken from you the power to direct or to escape your dreams.
Best Film Editing
Real life is terrible. Hence, four of the five nominees in this category are based on real-life stories: real life is only interesting once it has been revised, edited, and spoon-fed back to you at a substantial mark-up. You are welcome, suddenly-interesting person.
Pick: Choose astronauts. Or, choose pirates. Both films give us Death hovering above the protagonists on that big silver screen. It doesn’t matter, in the end. Only too late do we realize that Death is the audience, and we the film what needs editing.
Nightmare Pick: The Old Ones have decided that your life is more enjoyable when told in nonlinear fashion. Tomorrow, the moments leading up to your demise will be interspersed with jump-cuts from the day you first learned to walk as a baby. This montage will last an entire week, before the editors return you to the present – alone in your room – staring at a half-empty bottle of ranch dressing. The fate of the dressing is left unresolved.
Best Original Song
In a controversial decision, the Academy choose to un-nominate “Alone Yet Not Alone,” the haunting ode to the Yellow King, from whose presence you can never stray. Never. Those responsible for this drastic action will be visited by The Stranger, who will leave slivers of Yhtill lodged firmly within the fragmenting hive consciousness of the Academy. (Editor’s Note: Obligatory image for Alone, Yet Not Alone goes here.)
Pick: “Let It Go” is an utterly inhuman earworm, and we all know that such earworms are to be loved and cared for, lest we invoke the wrath of the King. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living god.
Nightmare Pick: You will never be happy. You will gaze upon the distant landscapes seen in the moon, and they will be a reminder that you have moved past ‘ordinary’ definitions of love and happiness. Only when you let go of your humanity will the pain cease.
Best Original Score
How many of us would yearn to have the stories of our lives scored by the likes of John Williams or Thomas Newman? How many of us would instead learn that our lives move to a wholly different music, maddening compositions not meant for human ears played upon blasphemous instruments?
Pick: To struggle against so primal a force as Gravity is to encompass the futility of human existence. To struggle against this Oscar pick is to encompass the folly of man.
Nightmare Pick: When your life is scored by Her Song, the King is not far behind. It is the Song of my soul, and my voice is dead. It dies, unsung, as tears unshed shall dry and die in Lost Carcosa.
Best Sound Editing
To edit sound is to alter reality. Pray that we don’t alter it further.
Pick: What did we just say about struggling against Gravity? It’s as though you let our words slip in one ear and drop out the other. We can fix that. Turn your head. Please do not scream as we pour boiling lead into your auditory canals.
Nightmare Pick: ALL IS LOST. This is not an Oscar prediction; we are simply confirming the current state of the world.
Best Sound Mixing
If editing is the alteration of reality, then mixing is the combination and re-combination of that reality. With enough re-combination, the Lutece field is born, and the inhuman secret to immortality is revealed. But at what cost, meat puppet?
Pick: By this point, you know that Gravity will win. The idea has been sealed up between your lead-bound ears.
Nightmare Pick: If you combine and re-combine reality enough times, any nominee can and will win this category. In the reality you have created, Bio-Dome with Pauly Shore just won this Oscar. You have created a terrible reality and should be ashamed.
(Editor’s Note: I’m going to now go crawl into a hole and wait to be devoured by inevitability. See ya. – Travis)
(Also – Welcome to the Recorder, Chris)
“Let It Go” – by Idina Menzel, from Frozen
This song is the frontrunner, an old school Disney juggernaut. The response to this song has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s the most dynamic of the nominees, with the most complex instrumentation, including an evocation of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which is a cheap and easy way to win points with me, “Rhapsody” being one of my favorite songs … ever. Complexity alone doesn’t make a good song, but this one has it under control, beginning simply, doling out the different timbres, and building to an explosive finish, Menzel’s Broadway-tested vocals nailing the shit out of every note. (Editor’s Note: Broadway vocals kill me. I hate them. Menzel personifies them completely. This combination makes me want to claw my ears off and it seems like she gets a big Broadway crossover hit once a decade. Those years suck.)
Originally intended to be a villain’s song, it ended up instead an anthem of self-expression and the joy of personal freedom. I contend that this is actually new territory for Disney. The big female songs of classic Disney are reliably ballads, expressing a specifically romantic love or yearning. This is one of the few songs sung by a female lead that is unapologetic in its power, and I think this has a lot to do with the reaction the song has had.
There is another version of this song, sung by Demi Lovato, and the main debate swirling around “Let It Go” isn’t whether or not you like it but which version you prefer. I choose Menzel’s version. Lovato’s isn’t terrible, but she/the producers make a few choices that hinge on cheap pop tricks for a deeper emotional response. First off, the pop version plays its hand way too fast, blowing out the first chorus with the full weight of the music. The song has nowhere to go. The final chorus in Menzel’s is its most triumphant, and that gives the song momentum that the pop version doesn’t have. Lovato also isn’t embodying the lyrics in the way Menzel is. Lovato’s singing them; whereas, Menzel is feeling them. Lovato also suffers from an all-too-common pop-star disease that paralyzes a singer’s diaphragm when they hit a certain register, turning what would otherwise been a solid note into a whispered nothing of a falsetto. Other symptoms include Quiver Chin and Spontaneous Ornamentation on notes that don’t need it. It’s double-funny to me when the lyrics are “stand” and “stay,” words that are meant to project the character’s stability, a stability that is immediately undercut by the singer’s flailing up and down the musical scale. Last, it tries to force a religious experience on me.
Scientific Sidebar: Our auditory system can process a pretty amazing range of volumes, even if it does pale in comparison to some animals. It has ways to protect itself from being overloaded, but it can feel really good to overload it under the right circumstances. When music tops 115 dB (the sound of a jackhammer a few feet away), the sound can saturate our brains, causing the neurons involved in processing it to fire on all cylinders. That’s a whole lot of our brains firing all at once, and when they are firing that fiercely, physical brain states that aren’t possible when the neurons are firing normally can arise. These emergent properties are a reason some people really love live concerts. For some, this brain state can even feel like a religious experience. /Sidebar
So when the music cuts out after the bridge and then pounds back at full volume for the last chorus, it’s a way for Lovato and the other musicians to try to force that response. It’s a very common trick these days, especially in pop songs that are trying to reach anthem status.
“Happy” – by Pharrell Williams, from Despicable Me 2
There are songs you can listen to all day, ear worms that crawl into your head and won’t leave for days at a time. Rare is the song that achieves this feeling of tortured mania while listening to it for the first time. “Happy” manages that for me. I have listened to it three times: once when I first heard it was nominated and twice more while writing this. All three times, I did the same thing. For the first minute, I started bouncing along with Pharrell and the rest of the very happy dancers in the video. The complex meter keeps the song sailing along, and then somewhere around 2:30 I realize I still have a minute and 30 seconds of this, and it’s not going to build or change or resolve or anything. It just repeats, relentlessly. It is possibly the least dynamic, bouncy song I’ve ever heard in my life. Props if you can listen to it for 24 hours, as is possible thanks to the website 24hoursofhappy.com, set up by the artist.
It has a lot going for it too: a complex meter, complimented by clapping that stays constant but variable just enough keep you surprised, a bass line that dances all over the scale, and … two verses? The lyrics take a far backseat to the energy of the song. It’s all about dancing to the chorus. I just can’t take it, and I think it’s a touch telling that the annotation to subscribe to Pharrell’s channel on the youtube video (something that normally pops up at the end) comes at the 2:38 mark, where I think the song naturally wants to end. But it keeps going, till I close the browser tab.
“Ordinary Love” – by U2, from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Of the two words in the title, it is unfortunate that this song leans heavily on the “ordinary” side. But, honestly, it’s a pleasant enough song. It’s definitely U2 and they are definitely U2ing us, The Edge still milking all he can out of the same reverb setting he’s been using since the 80s. It just feels like it was meant to be played over a slideshow of Mandela’s life, as opposed to evoking his life, his struggles, his most extraordinary love that helped him crack and, with others, break apartheid. There isn’t a lot of passion in this song, which is weird and underwhelming coming from the band that gave the world “Pride” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.” It’s also a peculiar song in that I don’t know how I’m supposed to relate it to Mandela. Is the song about him? Is it instead sung … from his perspective? It isn’t that intimate, and I don’t think a pop supergroup from Ireland could or should have pulled that off at all. So the song ends up being a more or less abstract appeal from Bono on Mandela’s behalf for us to love everyone ordinarily. It feels like a milquetoast cash-in on an African people’s struggle that isn’t worthy of the man it purports to honor. Even the chorus is more of an outro, which it ends up being, as the song fades away into silence.
“The Moon Song” – by Karen O, from Her
At two and a half minutes, with only a guitar and two voices, this is certainly the most humble nominee, and yet it manages more than the previous two. This is a song that harnesses its simplicity, a simplicity that is its foundation. Dreamy, ethereal, the song is a lullaby and an awkward and intimate expression of innocent love, the kind of love that can make two vulnerable people stronger. It is a simple song, but that simplicity is deceptive, like the simple vocabulary in a Vonnegut novel. And unlike “Happy,” it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Karen O opens her heart, shares a very intimate place with us, and ends it simply, inspiring a generation of ukuleleists everywhere. The sweetness of this song is only diminished a little by being a near-perfect replication of the verse chord structure of “The Best That You Can Do,” from the film Arthur. Or perhaps it is enhanced by this. Because Liza.
But, oh, what’s that you say? This list of nominees is complete … yet not complete? That’s because there was one more:
“Alone Yet Not Alone,” from the film by the same name, is a hymn performed by famous evangelical Christian and quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada. This song … oh, this song. A clear and shameless ripoff of “Amazing Grace,” practically no one had heard of it or the movie before it secured its nomination. So how does an unknown song from an unknown film get nominated for an Academy Award? It helps if it was written by Bruce Broughton, ex-Govenor and current Executive Committee Member of the Academy’s music branch and if the film it appears in was scored by William Ross, the conductor for this year’s Oscar ceremony. But you know what—nevermind the sappy, overt proselytizing; nevermind the emotional manipulation of using a quadriplegic singer who devotes the song to God; nevermind the cringe-inducing portrayal of Native Americans in the film; I so so so wanted this song to win for no other reason than the sheer LOLWUT of it. Unfortunately, Broughton illegally campaigned for the song’s nomination, using his Academy clout when legal campaigning didn’t garner the necessary backing for the film.
My Choice: “Let It Go”
Without the loltastic “Alone Yet Not Alone,” this is a two-horse race. “The Moon Song” isn’t undeserving, but it can’t beat “Let It Go” for the sheer number of things “Let It Go” does so right. If the Academy wants to shock, it’ll go with “The Moon Song,” but “Let It Go” deserves it more.