Sunday, February 7, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Costume Design

Sandy Powell's costumes for Cinderella are bold, brilliant, and beautiful.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Costume Design

The nominees are:


As with production design, the Academy likes its costumes big, flashy, and period, plus a whole lot of them. If you designed a historical monarch’s royal court, so much the better for your chances of going home with an Oscar. That is no exaggeration. Just in recent history, during a stretch from 2006-2009, the winners of Best Costume Design were: Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Duchess, and The Young Victoria.

Diving deeper into this, just one film in the last 30 years has won for contemporary costumes. That was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994, which certainly qualifies as flashy, if nothing else. Other than that, it is fantasy or period all the way down the line, either of which could describe every single nominee this year. The most likely winner, i.e., the one that checks the most boxes: a period fantasy with a massive royal ball as its centerpiece.

Cinderella – Director Kenneth Branagh’s Disney adaptation was a surprise hit last spring, pulling down huge numbers at the box office for a decades-old property with limited appeal outside its core demographic. The reason, best as I can tell, is that it is actually pretty good. While audiences get bombarded with gritty reboots of every fairytale under the sun, Branagh and company play it straight with the simple fable of an abused girl who finds strength and love.

In this case, playing it straight means hewing very closely to the Disney animated version of the story, and Branagh takes the central ball, where Cinderella dances with her prince, and turns it into a visual extravaganza. Every element is simply stunning, but Sandy Powell’s costume designs are impossibly beautiful. Powell draws from cultures around the globe to give each princess from a different land a specific identify, and she has some fun inserting ball-gown versions of classic Disney princess costumes in among the extras.

Of course, the real treat is Cinderella’s iconic blue dress, a feat of costuming that boggles the mind. The colors are lush and vibrant, and the fabric is adorned with 10,000 Swarovski crystals, each hand placed. The point of the dress is to turn heads at the ball, and it sure does that. When one remembers the same care and thought went into clothing the hundreds of extras in the scene, the herculean nature of the task becomes clear, and that is not even accounting for the rest of the film’s equally impressive work.

Carol – Powell’s biggest competition this year may come from herself for designs that could not be more different from the fairytale work she pulled off in Cinderella. The costumes in the 1950s-set Carol are instantly character defining. When Cate Blanchett walks onscreen as Carol, with her fur coat or red jacket, we know immediately who this woman is. From the vests, scarves, and hats to the women’s dresses and men’s suits, Powell’s nuanced designs are a wonder to behold but never overtly call attention to themselves within the film’s muted color scheme and dingy aesthetic.

Only four designers have more nominations in this category than 12-time nominee Powell, and only four designers have more wins than Powell’s three. Her first nomination came in 1993 for the British dramatic fantasy Orlando, and her most recent nod came for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in 2011. She won for the aforementioned The Young Victoria, Scorsese’s The Aviator, and Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love. With the two strongest contenders in the race this year, she seems almost certain to add a fourth Oscar to her mantelpiece.

The Danish Girl – Director Tom Hooper’s biopic of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe is an inspired nomination in the category since so much of Lili’s early transition in the film is told through her clothing choices. As Lili comes more and more into her own as a person, her clothes become increasingly feminine until finally she does away with all of her male garments. Designer Paco Delgado also has the opportunity to explore a number of different styles within the film’s 1920s setting as Lili’s story takes her from Denmark to France to Germany, each with its own specific set of cultural markers.

Delgado is a two-time nominee who was previously nominated for his work on Hooper’s Les Miserables. Both films stand out on Delgado’s résumé, which is populated primarily by contemporary Spanish and Latin America cinema with directors such as Pedro Almodóvar and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Appropriately, however, a number of those films also deal with themes of gender, identity, and transformation.

Mad Max: Fury Road – The least traditional work in the category this year comes from another titan of costume design, Jenny Beavan, a 10-time nominee whose early career was defined by her work on Merchant-Ivory productions such as The Remains of the Day, Howards End, and A Room with a View. She earned nominations for all three of those films and won her only Oscar for A Room with a View. Her most recent nomination came in 2010 for the Best Picture winner The King’s Speech.

This time, Beavan steps way outside her perceived comfort zone of reserved period work with the punk-rock insanity that colors every corner of Mad Max: Fury Road. From the peasants to the warriors, Beavan has an instinctive feel for the way this post-collapse world has forced the people to cobble together clothes from whatever was left lying around the wasteland. While working essentially with just one or two colors, Beavan establishes the characters with little details such as the bric-a-brac that adorns the dusty clothing and various degrees of decay into which the wardrobes have fallen. This film would be an unconventional winner in the category but certainly not undeserving

The Revenant – Another film with an extremely limited color scheme, The Revenant requires designer Jacqueline West to create something out of virtually nothing. Working with almost exclusively grays and browns, West piles on the furs and hides to establish a very specific kind of Old American West. Her designs have the same naturalistic feel of so much of the film and seem to be pulled directly from nature itself.

West is a three-time nominee who has never won the award. Her previous nominations came for more traditional work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Quills, and like so many of Iñárritu’s other collaborators on The Revenant, she has a long history with director Terrence Malick. West’s designs for The Revenant are impressive and certainly further the thematic explorations of the plot, but the costumes may not be flashy enough to pull off a win. Even in years when one film dominates the crafts categories, Best Costume Design still tends to go to work that screams out for recognition.

The final analysis

This is Powell vs. Powell, and either film could win. A number of pundits are predicting Carol to walk away with the award, mostly based on the film’s overall popularity with the Academy. This is a fair point as the film does have six total nominations to Cinderella’s one. However, I would look at the fact that Carol failed to make it into the Best Picture lineup as evidence of slight weakness with voters. Cinderella on the other hand is a popular Disney adaptation with the exact kind of costume work that usually wins in this category. Neither win would shock me, but it is hard to bet against the brightest, boldest work of the lot.

Will win: Cinderella
Should win: Carol
Should have been here: Brooklyn

Tomorrow: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Production Design

The recreation of the Berlin Wall in Bridge of Spies is one of the most impressive feats of production design this year.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Production Design

The nominees are:

If the point of film is to transport us to other worlds, which I believe it is, then the art directors, set decorators, and production designers are the people who make those worlds feel real. They provide the texture and life that allow us to get lost in places we never imagined finding ourselves. They create the universes in which filmmakers set their stories and the spaces in which actors explore their characters’ lives. Their job is to make the artifice of film feel like reality for a couple hours.

It is probably for all those reasons the Academy has shown disproportionate love to period and fantasy films over the years. It has been nearly 40 years since a contemporary drama won this category – All the President’s Men in 1976, primarily for its recreation of the office of The Washington Post. This year, the only nominee that could even be considered contemporary would be The Martian, and it is a sci-fi film set in the future, so even if it were to win, I think the streak stays alive. The rest of the nominees fit firmly within the confines of the Academy’s wheelhouse.

Mad Max: Fury Road – From that jumping-off point, Mad Max: Fury Road is a fantasy, I suppose, but in only the loosest sense of that word. George Miller’s twisted post-apocalyptic actioner takes place in a true hellscape. Every element of this film looks like it was created by demons, which is absolutely perfect for the feeling Miller is trying to evoke. There are a lot of beautiful little details in this film, but if we are being honest, what people remember are the war rigs and other vehicles. They are fully operational marvels of design and craftsmanship – and they look damn cool.

Production designer Colin Gibson, a first-time nominee with few feature films to his credit, came up with the designs for most of the war rigs, and he and his team brought his nightmarish ideas to life. Meanwhile, set decorator Lisa Thompson, also a first-time nominee, populates each scene with the kind of small touches that sell the truth of this hell.

Bridge of Spies – Moving from the creation of a whole new reality to the recreation of an old one, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a gorgeously realized Cold War thriller that takes audience back in time to early 1960s Berlin. While much of the film is wonderfully decorated – James Donovan’s home décor and the Soviet offices are particularly impressive – the element that stands out most, as I mentioned at length in my review, is the Berlin Wall. To watch the wall go up in Spielberg’s film is to forget the last 50 years of history and be transported to the moment when a world was literally and figuratively split in two.

Adam Stockhausen, the film’s production designer, won his first Academy Award just last year for Wes Anderson’s storybook The Grand Budapest Hotel, and he was previously nominated two years ago for 12 Years a Slave. Meanwhile, these are the first nominations for set decorators Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Heinrich. DeAngelo did, however, win an Emmy for production design for her work on the pilot episode of Mad Men, which evokes a similar early ‘60s feel, though with a clear emphasis on Americana.

The Danish Girl – A bit of a surprise nominee, though not entirely unpredictable, director Tom Hooper’s Lili Elbe biopic may not have caught on much with the Academy, but it is nothing if not beautifully rendered. This is the second year in a row a film about the life of an artist has been nominated in this category – after the excellent Mr. Turner last year – and with good reason. The controlled chaos of an artist’s workspace is not easy to capture, while the extravagant interiors of the high-class art world are an equally difficult challenge to master.

Production designer Eve Stewart has two previous nominations for wildly different work – the ornate designs of Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy and the understated reserve of Hooper’s The King’s Speech. Michael Standish on the other hand has been set decorator on just three feature films, though his work on last year’s Victor Frankenstein stands out despite that film’s critical and commercial failure. Stewart and Standish’s work on The Danish Girl is admirable, but they are up against four Best Picture nominees in this category, which means they are probably the least likely winners.

The Revenant – It is easy to get lost in the gorgeous, natural exteriors of The Revenant, but the production design team is as responsible for the beauty of the film’s world as Mother Nature. The work particularly shines in the varied designs of the camps of the many disparate groups trudging through the wilderness such as the French-Canadian fur trappers, the various native tribes, and Hugh Glass’ roaming campsite. In addition, Fort Kiowa, the destination for every major character in the film, is a tremendous feat of design and art direction, appearing as a sanctuary of human establishment amid the bleak and unforgiving wild.

Production designer Jack Fisk, a previous nominee for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, has worked extensively with director Terrence Malick. Indeed, his work on Malick’s The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and in particular The New World feels of a piece with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s very Malick-like meditation on the natural world and man’s place in it. Set decorator Hamish Purdy has spent most of his career as an assistant on big-budget blockbusters, but he finds the right level of restraint and detailing to fit perfectly into the world of The Revenant.

The Martian – I complained last year that the Academy sometimes is inexplicably wowed by sci-fi films that recreate the complex inner workings of spaceships. Specifically, nominations in consecutive years for Gravity and Interstellar felt unwarranted. I stand by those complaints, but Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a different story. Yes, it also features a number of sequences aboard semi-futuristic spaceships, but its real standout work is in the Martian basecamp and the NASA headquarters, which each take elements familiar to us and make them fresh and interesting.

Arthur Max is a three-time nominee who has worked almost exclusively as a production designer for Scott the past 15 years. As much as Scott has hopped across genres, Max has followed him there with wonderfully varied work on films as disparate as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, and Prometheus. Set decorator Celia Bobak, a previous nominee for the musical adaptation The Phantom of the Opera, has not worked in the sci-fi genre before, which probably works to her advantage in making us feel like The Martian is not set very far outside our own reality.

The final analysis

The Art Directors Guild, the only real precursor for this category apart from the BAFTA Awards later this month, hand out three feature awards – fantasy, period, and contemporary. The winners this year were Mad Max: Fury Road for fantasy, The Revenant for period, and The Martian for contemporary. Bridge of Spies and The Danish Girl were also nominees for period. If we narrow the field to just the three winners, it seems probable the Academy will be drawn to the ostentatiousness of Mad Max: Fury Road, giving that film the slight edge here.

Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should have been here: Ex Machina

Tomorrow: Best Costume Design

Friday, February 5, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Editing

The Big Short is among the frontrunners in a number of categories this year, including Best Editing.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Editing

The nominees are:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The four films with the best chance of winning Best Picture are matched against each other in only three categories – Best Picture, Best Director, and here in Best Editing. It is a fitting trio of nominations for these films. If these are the four best films of the year, it stands to reason they are also the best directed, but once the director’s job on set is finished, the editor’s work begins. None of the hard work of getting the film in the can means anything if the editor cannot piece it together into a coherent whole.

The Academy of course is well aware of this, which is why Best Editing is so strongly tied to Best Picture at the Oscars. Since 2000, seven of 15 Best Editing winners have won Best Picture, while 12 of 15 have been nominated in the top category. Even more striking, since the Best Picture lineup expanded beyond five nominees in 2009, only two films have been nominated for Best Editing without a corresponding Best Picture nod – surprise Best Editing winner The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2011 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens this year.

All of this means we are probably looking at a four-way race for the award this year with Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the outside looking in. One thing that has been consistent through the years is that voters tend to like their editing big and flashy. They want to be able to see the cuts working on screen, which gives a leg up to the first nominee below.

Mad Max: Fury Road – Starting in the 1980s, action pictures have actually done quite well in this category, even without earning a larger stamp of approval from the Academy. The editors have seen fit to nominate films such as Aliens, Top Gun, Die Hard, Speed, and eventual winner The Bourne Ultimatum. Not one of those was nominated for Best Picture. Well, Mad Max: Fury Road has gotten a tremendous stamp of approval from the Academy, and its editing is the boldest of the bunch.

First-time nominee Margaret Sixel is tasked with assembling a linear narrative from essentially a series of action set pieces. She does so and more as the film’s rambunctious style and propulsive energy owes a great deal to Sixel’s machine-gun editing. It is no easy task to begin with, but keeping in mind this is just Sixel’s third feature film, it seems utterly impossible. All of those films have been for her husband, director George Miller, and based on the work they have produced together, it might be fair to say they bring out the best in each other.

The Big Short – Director Adam McKay’s Wall Street satire jumps around constantly from character to character and storyline to storyline with a whole bunch of stops in between. While the plot is straightforward, McKay turns the film into a wandering exploration of modern greed in all its terrible incarnations. The only reason the whole enterprise does not spin out of control is because editor Hank Corwin is perfectly tuned into the machine. He knows what every part does and where it fits, and as a result, what appears clunky and cumbersome on the page runs smoothly and effortlessly on screen.

Corwin is another first-time nominee, but he started his career as an assistant editor on Oliver Stone’s JFK, which won Best Editing. More than two decades later, Corwin is still wrangling wide-ranging tales of governmental conspiracy, except this time, instead of the assassination of a president, it is the assassination of the world’s economy. If The Big Short works for you, it is because Corwin was able to tie all the loose threads McKay was intent on following into one, tightly tied knot.

Spotlight – This is the subtlest work in the lineup and, therefore, a surprising and welcome nominee. Spotlight is a film about people doing work, slowly and laboriously. The characters dig and prod and dig some more. Little by little, they uncover the depths of corruption in the Catholic Church. There is no big “gotcha” moment, no climactic chase sequence, or anything like that. Director Tom McCarthy’s film relies on the cumulative effect of the reporters’ investigation for its power, and editor Tom McArdle displays tremendous patience and skill in allowing all the elements of the story to build on top of each other until the result is simply overwhelming.

McArdle, who has been at this game for nearly 25 years, has mostly spent his career in independent film, including editing all five features directed by McCarthy. Spotlight, McArdle’s first Oscar nomination, is of a piece with the rest of his career and follows the rhythms of an indie drama much more closely than the big-budget legal thrillers with which it also shares DNA. McArdle never forces false drama or artificially raises the stakes. The story is important enough, and McArdle is content to ensure it plays out the best way it can.

The Revenant – Alejandro González Iñárritu’s slow-burn western plays like a cinematic riff on the quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamic trumpeted by musicians such as Kurt Cobain. It alternates seamlessly between long stretches of meditative silence and wild bursts of extreme violence. The action only works because of the contrast, the moments when the world seems to stop so the rest of us can listen. Then, when we are deepest in our reveries, everything comes crashing down around us and snaps us back to the present.

Stephen Mirrione is the only previous nominee on this list. He won an Oscar for Traffic and earned another nomination for Iñárritu’s 2006 drama Babel. Mirrione’s career highlights, which also include the Ocean’s 11 trilogy, Good Night and Good Luck, and Birdman, mostly revolve around large ensembles and sprawling stories, and he has shown a tremendous facility for balancing disparate elements within a narrative. Here, he adapts his style to help tell the perilous journey of one man, and rather than be constrained by the narrower focus, Mirrione seems freed by the opportunity to step outside the narrative and explore the thematic wilderness of The Revenant.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – This is just the second Star Wars film to be nominated for Best Editing after the original film in 1977, which ultimately took home the award. The difference is that original film was also nominated for Best Picture, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens could not find any traction outside the crafts categories. Still, you will not find many ready to argue against its inclusion here. It is a critically acclaimed adventure spectacle that benefits greatly from fight scenes and action sequences that audiences can actually comprehend in real time, unlike so much other action fare.

Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey have edited each of director JJ Abrams’ feature films, including Mission Impossible III and the two most recent Star Trek pictures. Their collaboration on those Star Trek films seems to have come in particularly handy as the team does an excellent job of balancing the desire to pay homage to a beloved property while also establishing a unique identity. Brandon and Markey never allow the tributes and nods to the original trilogy (and the prequel trilogy, too, I guess) interrupt the flow of the story or distract from the clockwork pacing of the plot.

The final analysis

The American Cinema Editors handed out top awards last week to Mad Max: Fury Road for dramatic feature and The Big Short for comedy, making those the two frontrunners here. However, The Big Short is probably little more than a red herring as this seems to belong to Mad Max: Fury Road through and through. It is big, flashy, and popular, a combination that almost always spells victory, regardless of other factors.

Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should have been here: 99 Homes

Tomorrow: Best Production Design

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Cinematography

Director of photography Roger Deakins earned his 13th nomination for Best Cinematography for Sicario.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Cinematography

The nominees are:


As I said last year, this is my favorite category, and everything I said then holds true now. I would also add cinematography might be the most democratic craft where general audiences are concerned. The average movie-goer does not necessarily know what makes for a good sound mix or whether something is well edited, but anybody can look at an image onscreen and understand its beauty. Photography is visceral. We respond to it because we feel it instinctively.

That said, it is among the most technically challenging aspects of filmmaking. Composition, depth of field, color, the interplay between light and shadow – these are intellectual, artistic pursuits. Only the masters can make it seem as easy as pointing a camera and rolling film. The audience feels the image because of the care and effort that went into creating it. Few use greater care or put forth more effort than these five nominees.

The Revenant – The images Emmanuel Lubezki captures boggle the mind. The ways his camera moves through space, frames action, and observes stillness are on a level we have never seen. I would call him the best cinematographer alive today if not for the fact I think he has a legitimate claim as the best of all time. A quick greatest hits from the man they call Chivo: Sleepy Hollow, The New World, Children of Men, The Tree of Life, Gravity, Birdman, and now The Revenant. Every frame from every one of those films could hang in a museum.

Perhaps it sounds like I am overstating his brilliance, but I promise the modern history of cinema will not be written without mentioning Lubezki. His work has always been otherworldly, but his two collaborations with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman and The Revenant, have changed the way we think about the art form. The Revenant is composed of a series of gorgeous gray and white tableaux that evoke the primal forces of nature in their grandeur and objectivity. Lubezki has no rival, and The Revenant has no equal this year in cinematography.

Lubezki has been nominated nine times and won twice – of course, he should have won at least twice more. His two wins have come in the last two years for Gravity and Birdman, making him only the fourth person in history to win consecutive cinematography Oscars. No one has done it three times, but this work and this artist might just break that streak. The only person standing in the way is the next nominee on our list.

Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale retired a few years ago with a résumé that included four Oscar nominations and one win for The English Patient, as well as countless other popular and critical hits. His legacy was secure, and he could have left it at that. Instead, he let George Miller talk him back to work for the gonzo action epic Mad Max: Fury Road. Thank god he did because the 73-year-old director of photography brings to the film the energy and nihilism of someone 50 years younger but the skill of a craftsman who has been in this game forever.

When you watch Mad Max: Fury Road, the first thing you notice is the color. The hyper-saturated vistas of Miller’s post-apocalyptic wasteland are absolutely striking. Never has a desert been so orange, and at night, you never saw the earth so blue. It is audacious and bold and innovative in ways lesser filmmakers would shy away from, but Miller provides the canvas, and Seale paints the picture. Whether Seale will win the Oscar this year is an open question, but our victory as an audience is simply that he came back for one last ride – and on a war rig, no less.

Carol – Ed Lachman may not be the star the rest of the nominees in this category are this year, but his chameleon-like adaptability behind the camera has made him the perfect fit for genre-hopping director Todd Haynes. Every time they come back together, Lachman seems inspired to push his work in new, exciting directions. Beginning with the Sirkian melodrama Far From Heaven and onto the Bob Dylan biopic as experimental art film I’m Not There and cable miniseries Mildred Pierce, Lachman always seems to find new notes to play for Haynes.

So it is with their latest collaboration, Carol, a 1950s-set romance that is thematically similar to their previous work but as stylistically different as can be. Since the story is set primarily in New York City, Lachman has license to go darker and dirtier than one typically would expect for the era being depicted. This world feels lived in, and Lachman constantly obscures the frame with rain or curtains or windows or all three to suggest the hidden lives of the characters, the lives nobody sees or wants to see.

Sicario – Twelve previous nominations for Roger Deakins and no wins. This is his 13th nod, and he will not win this one either, putting him in a tie with the late George Folsey for Oscar futility in this category. To nominate him that many times, his fellow cinematographers must respect him beyond belief, and that respect is due, but the Academy as a whole simply has never been willing to go there. For actors and directors who get repeated nominations without winning, there is often a groundswell of support as members rally behind the artist and finally award him or her. That does not seem to be true for craftspeople such as Deakins.

The work itself this year, well, of course it is awesome. This is the fourth consecutive year Deakins has received a nomination, and Sicario is the best work he has done of the bunch. The night-vision sequence alone is enough to leave even accomplished filmmakers scratching their heads and wondering how it was done. Deakins uses shadows and silhouette the way musicians use silence, finding meaning in the emptiness. It is truly fine work and Deakins’ best probably since the one-two punch of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men in 2007, but it still is only the third- or fourth-best nominated work this year.

The Hateful Eight – Like Lubezki and Deakins, Robert Richardson is a giant of cinematography. His work with Oliver Stone (10 films, three nominations, one Oscar) and Martin Scorsese (four films, two nominations, two Oscars) would be enough to secure his place in the canon. Yet, his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino are likely the films for which he will be most remembered – five films, three nominations, no Oscar yet.

Richardson has proved to be the ideal director of photography to capture Tarantino’s twin loves of American westerns and martial arts films. If you ask me, Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2 constitute a crowning achievement in paying homage to a genre while establishing a unique voice outside the genre’s confines. Go figure, those are the only two films together for which Richardson was not nominated.

The Hateful Eight is a grand experiment in bringing a long-dormant film process back to life, glorious Ultra Panavision 70, as it was billed. It lives up to that billing in the movie’s opening sequences, set amid a blizzard in the mountains of Wyoming. However, when the film moves indoors for the last two hours and 20 minutes or so of its three-hour runtime, the wider frame loses some of its punch. The nomination is a nice bit of recognition from fellow cinematographers, but I doubt if the work will do much for the rest of the Academy when put up against this list of nominees.

The final analysis

Mad Max: Fury Road or The Revenant, flip a coin. The Academy likes its winners to be pretty, innovative, or both. That sounds more like The Revenant, but I have this nagging feeling that voters will be reluctant to award Lubezki for a third straight year. The work certainly deserves it, but with a viable alternative and a great story in Seale, it is just as possible members go that direction.

Carol and Lachman would be the likely beneficiary of a split vote between the top two films, and Lachman received the lion’s share of critical plaudits this season, though most of those awards came before The Revenant had screened. In the end, I am predicting Lubezki will pick up his third in a row because it is the film more Academy members are likely to have watched, and to watch it is to be in awe of it.

Will win: The Revenant
Should win: The Revenant
Should be here: The Tribe

Tomorrow: Best Editing

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Visual Effects

JJ Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens is nominated for Best Visual Effects at this year's Academy Awards.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Visual Effects

The nominees are:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What a strange and refreshing category this year. Normally the domain of big-budget action spectacles, the Academy has given over Best Visual Effects to some of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. It would be hard to overstate just how unusual this lineup is in terms of the recent history of this category, but let’s take it step by step. The history of Best Visual Effects at the Oscars is a little hard to pin down, but we will start in 1963, when it basically took the shape it is in now – give or take a few changes over the years.

In the entire history of the category, only four times has the Academy nominated more than one film in both Best Picture and Best Visual Effects (1995, 2003, 2009, and 2015). This year, there are three – Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, and The Revenant – which is a first. The difference in those three previous instances is that there were only two or three nominees in the category each time. In 2010, the Academy changed the rule to allow for five nominees in Best Visual Effects.

Since that change, last year was the only year in which no Best Picture nominee was nominated for Best Visual Effects. In every other year, a Best Picture nominee won this category over four non-nominees, while last year, Interstellar won Best Visual Effects and was the only nominee cited in more than one other category. This is a long way of saying: Having mind-blowing effects is great, but if you want to win, the Academy better embrace your film in a much bigger way.

Circling back around to this year, in addition to the three Best Picture nominees, we also have the new Star Wars film and Ex Machina, one of the lowest budgeted films nominated in this category in at least the last 20 years. So, I say again – how strange and how refreshing. The two most likely winners – and you will hear this a lot throughout this series, so get used to it – are Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant, but with voting split among five clearly popular films, anything could happen.

Mad Max: Fury Road – A visual feast in every way imaginable, the most remarkable thing about writer-director George Miller’s action extravaganza is how its effects work is both awe-inspiring and seamless. Of course, the stunts are the big draw, but the way those stunts are incorporated into the almost impossible world of the story is breathtaking. The film also features the kind of big, showy set piece that craftspeople appreciate in its sandstorm sequence.

The nominees are Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, and Andy Williams, who are all sharing their first Oscar nomination, though Williams was a technician on the Best Visual Effects winner Hugo. What they all have in common is extensive work in the action genre, each having contributed to numerous films that blend the fantastic and the real in ways that engage the audience rather than distract.

The Revenant – Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s gritty western is the least fantastical of these nominees but also the most impressionistic. It takes us to a place and time we never knew but have long imagined, before our westward expansion drained the natural world of much of its beauty. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, it also contains a bravura effects sequence remembered even outside the context of the film in its horrific bear attack.

Richard McBride, Matt Shumway, and Jason Smith are all first-time nominees, while Cameron Waldbauer is a two-time nominee, having earned recognition last year for his work on X-Men: Days of Future Past. McBride, Shumway, and Smith, however, have all worked in the effects department on previous winners in this category. Most notable perhaps is Shumway’s work on Life of Pi and The Golden Compass, both of which prominently feature computer-generated animals that are stunning in their realism.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – The most conventional nominee this year is of course the big-budget sci-fi space adventure that features alien planets, alien spacecraft, and, well, aliens. JJ Abrams’ blockbuster is wall-to-wall effects with an admirable blend of CGI and miniature work likely to appeal to more traditional members of the Academy. In another year, this would be a good threat for the win. Of the seven Star Wars franchise films, six have been nominated for Best Visual Effects, and three have won. Working against it is the fact that all three of those wins came for the original trilogy.

This is a veteran group with 11 nominations and four wins among them. Chris Corbould is a three-time nominee who previously won for Inception. Neal Scanlan won for his only previous nomination, Babe (directed by Mad Max: Fury Road helmer Miller). Roger Guyett is a four-time nominee, and three of his nominations now have come for Abrams films – Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Star Trek. Pat Tubach’s previous nomination also came for Star Trek Into Darkness. It would be foolish to underestimate the Academy’s willingness in the crafts categories to vote for people it has voted for in the past.

The Martian – The other Best Picture nominee in this category, The Martian is also the other sci-fi movie here, along with the next nominee below. The Academy clearly loves this movie, evidenced by its seven nominations, third-most behind The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. However, it is neither as beloved as those two films nor as adventurous as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The effects are grand but probably not grand enough to win in this field this year.

Chris Lawrence is a previous winner for Gravity, Richard Stammers has been nominated three times, and Anders Langlands and Steven Warner are each enjoying their first nomination. No one would dispute the quality of their work on this film, but in a year with such a rich list of nominees, The Martian probably will not be a factor for the win.

Ex Machina – This is my favorite of these nominees and unfortunately the least likely to win, but for integration in the film and importance to the story, the effects in writer-director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina have no equal. Every shot with Ava (Alicia Vikander) is an effects shot, but none of them seems that way because the effects – and Vikander’s incomparable performance – make us feel as though we are watching just another human. This to me is the goal of great visual effects.

Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Sara Bennett, and Mark Williams Ardington are all first-time nominees, but despite the recognition for their subtle, self-contained work on Ex Machina, all have worked in departments on major blockbusters. Whitehurst, Bennett, and Williams helped bring various films in the Harry Potter franchise to life, while just this year, Ardington also worked as a character technical director on Ant-Man and Spectre.

The final analysis

There are three ways this category could go this year. The Academy could be head over heels in love with nominations leader The Revenant, and the bear sequence will stick in voters’ minds as reason enough to reward it; Mad Max: Fury Road will be a crafts juggernaut and sweep up Best Visual Effects along with a number of other below-the-line awards; Star Wars: The Force Awakens will earn the award for the sheer scope of its effects work, while also benefiting from those other two likely splitting votes. For now, I am guessing option No. 1 will rule the day.

Will win: The Revenant
Should win: Ex Machina
Should have been here: Everest

Tomorrow: Best Cinematography