Cinema Autopsy on the 83rd Academy Awards Nominees (including predictions)

25 February 2011
Inception

Inception

The 83rd Academy Awards are only a few nights away so once again I’ve allowed myself my yearly indulgence of commenting on the nominations and attempting to second guess how everything will pan out. If you don’t want to read all this then you can jump to my ranked list of nominated films or my predictions list. Also, rather than being yet another source to list all the nominations I’ll simply point you towards the nominations page on the official Academy Awards website so you can get that information first hand.

I forget where I first heard this theory but apparently while a broad spectrum of films can gain nominations, as they have done this year, the films that win tend to be the more middle-of-the-road films rather than the truly memorable films. This is because films that are genuinely interesting, bold and ahead of their time usually divide opinion. Meanwhile the safe, crowd-pleasing films usually don’t ruffle any feathers so while they may not be the absolute best films on offer, they tend to be the films that everybody agrees are pretty good and therefore are able to secure the votes they need to win. So with that theory in mind let’s take a look at the various categories:

Best Motion Picture and Best Director

The two widely embraced and safe-bet contenders for both of these awards are The Social Network and The King’s Speech. Don’t get me wrong; these are both intelligent and immaculately crafted films that I rate extremely highly but they are also inoffensive crowd-pleasers. I’m predicting a win for The Social Network in both categories simply because it’s got an American focus rather than a British/Australian one. And who would begrudge David Fincher getting some award glory?

Black Swan

Black Swan

However, the two films that I think would be far more interesting to focus on are Black Swan and Inception. Both have been widely and enthusiastically embraced but both have also attracted strong criticism from their detractors. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground with these films.  I’m not a fan of Black Swan although I have been fascinated (and admittedly frustrated) by how well it has been received by so many people I respect, trust and usually agree with. On the other hand I loved Inception and believe it is the film that deserves to win in both categories, which is impossible of course considering Christopher Nolan rather astonishingly didn’t even get a director nomination.

For me the differences are that Inception contains the abstraction and complexity of a traditionally art house film while presenting itself as an easy-to-follow heist/action genre film. On the other hand, Black Swan is a shallow and simplistic melodrama/exploitation film with a false veneer of sophistication and depth. Inception allows for the possibility of a variety of critical readings while Black Swan is painfully literal and obvious. Nevertheless, I predict that both films will continue to resonate after the other nominated films (except The Social Network and possibly Toy Story 3) are largely forgotten.

Acting awards

Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine

I know Natalie Portman is widely tipped to win the best female actor award for Black Swan and she probably will. I really like Portman and she was one of the elements of the film that sustained my interest. However, from where I was sitting she did very little except appear to be constantly on the verge of tears (with the exception of the scenes where she cried). I think Michelle Williams is far more deserving for her outstanding work in Blue Valentine, but really, any of the other female actors are a more deserving recipient.

Aside from feeling that both Julianne Moore and Ryan Gosling unfairly missed out on acting nominations, for The Kids Are All Right and Blue Valentine respectively, I have no strong feelings about the other acting awards. I’d probably prefer to see James Franco honoured for his very fine work in 127 Hours but I suspect Jesse Eisenberg will win the best male actor award for The Social Network and that would hardly be undeserved. At the risk of sounding all patriotic I think it would be marvellous if Jacki Weaver won the female supporting actor award for Animal Kingdom but I suspect newcomer Hailee Steinfeld will get it for True Grit. Male supporting actor will likely come down to Geoffrey Rush for The King’s Speech and Christian Bale for The Fighter; advantage Bale.

Writing Awards

The Social Network

The Social Network

While I think the writing on display in Toy Story 3 is some of the tightest and cleverest writing seen in years (especially in mainstream cinema) it is very hard to not be seduced by the rhythmic dialogue that propels The Social Network, so I suspect that will win the adapted screenplay award to the delight of writer Aaron Sorkin’s very loyal fan base. Christopher Nolan should and is likely to win the original screenplay award for his Inception script, if nothing else as a sort of compensation for not getting a direction nomination.

Technical awards

All of the films nominated are great looking films and while I may lean more towards Inception and True Grit for the cinematography award I think it will go to Black Swan. As well as Franco’s performance, a big part of what made 127 Hours work as well as it does is the editing so I’m hopeful it will win the editing award that it deserves. As for the sound awards, I’m tipping Inception for sound editing and True Grit for sound mixing based on a gut reaction with no intelligible justification. Inception should win for visual effects.

Production awards

True Grit

True Grit

During last year’s awards Best Costume Design award winner Sandy Powell expressed my frustrations that big films about “dead monarchs or glittery musicals” always  tend to win production and design awards over films that do things like use setting, costume and makeup to convey important character information. Having said that, I think the two period films The Kings Speech and True Grit will be the main contenders for the art design award with the votes leaning towards True Grit, which I have no problem with. However, I’d really like to think that the outstanding use of fashion in I Am Love will earn it the costume award but that may be wishful thinking rather than a rational prediction. The Way Back should and probably will get the makeup award.

Other

The best music score will be a close tie between Inception and The Social Network but with the later most likely to win, while “If I Rise” from 127 Hours will win the best song. The folks from Pixar will go home once again with the best feature animation award and although I loved both How to Train Your Dragon and The Illusionist, I really adore Toy Story 3 so that’s fine by me. I believe that Inside Job is the best nominated feature documentary, however, I strongly suspect that Restrepo will win in that category, which would be more than appropriate considering its subject matter and bold approach. Finally, considering the high profile director and lead actor behind Biutiful, it’s almost certain to win the best foreign language film award although of the three nominated films I’ve seen I prefer In a Better World.

I haven’t seen any of the live or documentary short films so I can’t comment on those. I’ve also only seen two of the short animation films, The Lost Thing and Day & Night. I am extremely fond of The Lost Thing, especially as I was part of the jury that gave it one of its first awards, but I thought Day & Night was sublime and I’d be very surprised if it didn’t win.

Read my follow-up post on the award winners


Ranked list of all nominated films

I’ve listed all the nominated films below in the order that I would rank them, although you should probably take my rankings with a rather large grain of salt.

Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) 8 nominations
Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, 2010) 1 nomination
Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) 4 nominations
Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010) 1 nomination
Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010) 1 nomination
127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010) 6 nominations
Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010) 1 nomination
The Illusionist (L’illusionniste, Sylvain Chomet, 2010) 1 nomination
The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) 9 nominations
Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, 2010) 1 nomination
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010) 4 nominations
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) 11 nominations
True Grit (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2010) 11 nominations
In a Better World (Hævnen, Susanne Bier, 2010) 1 nomination
How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, 2010) 2 nominations
Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, 2010) 1 nomination
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) 4 nominations
Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010) 1 nomination
I Am Love (Io sono l’amore, Luca Guadagnino, 2009) 1 nomination
Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2010) 2 nomination
Tangled (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, 2010) 1 nomination
GasLand (Josh Fox, 2010) 1 nomination
The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) 7 nominations
Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010) 1 nomination
The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010) 1 nomination
The Way Back (Peter Weir, 2010) 1 nomination
Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, 2010) 3 nominations
Hereafter (Clint Eastwood, 2010) 1 nomination
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (David Yates, 2010) 2 nominations
Unstoppable (Tony Scott, 2010) 1 nomination
Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009) 1 nomination
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) 6 nominations
TRON: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010), 1 nomination
Salt (Phillip Noyce, 2010) 1 nomination
The Wolfman (Joe Johnston, 2010) 1 nomination

Not seen yet
Barney’s Version (Richard J. Lewis, 2010) 1 nomination
Country Song (Shana Feste, 2010) 1 nomination
Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010) 1 nomination
Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi, Rachid Bouchareb, 2010) 1 nomination
The Tempest (Julie Taymor, 2010) 1 nomination
Waste Land (Lucy Walker, 2010) 1 nomination


My predications list

Best Motion Picture: The Social Network (Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca and Ceán Chaffin)

Directing: The Social Network (David Fincher)

Actor in a Leading Role: The Social Network (Jesse Eisenberg)

Actress in a Leading Role: Black Swan (Natalie Portman)

Actor in a Supporting Role: The Fighter (Christian Bale)

Actress in a Supporting Role: True Grit (Hailee Steinfeld)

Writing (Adapted Screenplay): The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin)

Writing (Original Screenplay): Inception (Christopher Nolan)

Cinematography: Black Swan (Matthew Libatique)

Film Editing: 127 Hours (Jon Harris)

Sound Editing: Inception (Richard King)

Sound Mixing: True Grit (Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F Kurland)

Visual Effects: Inception (Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb)

Art direction: True Grit (Jess Gonchor for Production Design and Nancy Haigh for Set Decoration)

Costume design: I Am Love (Antonella Cannarozzi)

Makeup: The Way Back (Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng)

Music (Original Score): The Social Network (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)

Music (Original Song): 127 Hours (“If I Rise”, music by AR Rahman, lyrics by Dido and Rollo Armstrong)

Animated Feature Film: Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)

Documentary Feature: Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)

Foreign Language Film: Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2010)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Black Swan (2010)

20 January 2011
Black Swan: Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman)

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman)

In order to dance the parts of both the White Swan and the Black Swan in a radical new interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has to ‘let go’ to embrace the dark desires within her. She’s a technically proficient enough dancer to fulfil the requirements of the White Swan role but she’s too repressed to give the Black Swan the sexual energy that such a role supposedly requires. As Bruce Lee said in Enter the Dragon, “Don’t think. Feel!” The problem is that once Nina does start to tap into her repressed emotions, she discovers that achieving artistic ambition results in self-destruction and madness.

Director Darren Aronofsky has intentionally created Black Swan to serve as a companion piece to his 2008 film The Wrestler, but the comparison is surface level at best. Both films are heavily influenced by melodrama but while The Wrestler took it’s cues from social realist cinema to present a desperate man whose self sabotaging behaviour means that he runs out of options, Black Swan is heavily indebted to more subjective and psychological cinematic trends. In fact, it closely mimics Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Repulsion in its depiction of a woman whose hysterical sexual anxieties are expressed in the physical world of the film. While both The Wrestler and Black Swan have strong martyrdom themes and feature stigmata-type traumas to the body, Black Swan goes a lot further in romanticising its lead character’s suffering in order to create a spectacle out of her mental illness. While such subject matter allows Aronofsky to display his admittedly accomplished command of film style to maximum effect, there is something insidious about the whole exercise.

Black Swan: Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) Before surrendering to her dark desires, which will liberate her to dance the part of the Black Swan, Nina is always dressed in white and surrounded by infantile objects such as the array of stuffed animals that cover her bed. Plus, she still lives with her overbearing mother, is hopelessly sexually repressed and always on the verge of tears despite getting this far in the extremely tough career of being a professional ballet dancer. When she begins to find a sense of liberation and embrace her dormant sexuality she literally begins wearing black. Perhaps the blunt symbolism throughout Black Swan is just staying true to the straightforward nature of the Swan Lake ballet and overly theatrical flourishes in cinema can work magnificently. However, in the case of Black Swan the direct appropriation of theatrical settings and costumes feels crude, making their meaning embarrassingly blatant. Powell and Pressburger managed to pull off the blend of melodrama, ballet, theatrical aesthetics and hyper-reality magnificently in The Red Shoes without it ever feeling as basic and childish as it does in Black Swan.

Simplicity is by no means a bad thing but Black Swan reduces everything to a series of reductive binary opposites, represented literally by Nina playing both the White Swan and Black Swan. Nina can remain repressed, pathetic, passionless and infantile but at least she gets to stay sane. On the other hand, she can give in to her passions to become sexual, liberated and an artistic triumph but the price she pays is violent insanity. It’s a cruel choice and the audience are supposedly meant to sympathise with Nina but too much of the film is designed to present her as a hysterical freak show.

Black Swan: Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) Black Swan is little more than exploitation cinema but its heavy pop psychology and complete lack of subversiveness make it shallow exploitation rather than transgressive. And unless you buy the film’s disturbingly romanticised vision of mental illness, it isn’t much fun either. The final climatic sequence is virtuoso filmmaking but if you haven’t got on board with the mood and ideas behind the film by then, it will not deliver the exhilarating sensory and emotive rush that it has been designed to. Perhaps those of us who ‘don’t get’ Black Swan are the poorer for it but it’s very difficult to ignore the juvenile representation of madness and use of film style that runs throughout this film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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