Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ballots in hand: Five Oscar-worthy feats the Academy should consider

Nomination ballots went out yesterday to the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Members of each branch – such as actors, writers, editors, musicians, ect. – will vote for their favorites in 24 categories, delivering between three and five Oscar nominees in each, except for Best Picture, which will be between five and 10 nominees.

As the Academy makes its decisions, I thought it would be fitting to make a few suggestions to members of the specific branches and urge them to take a closer look at some films that might be flying below their radars. Admittedly, few if any of the people mentioned will have their names called out on nominations morning, but hopefully, by calling them out here, I will encourage fans of great cinema to check out their work as well.

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died in February, it was a crushing blow to the film community. Inarguably one of the best actors of his generation, Hoffman was never afraid to take a chance with a character. For his final starring role, Hoffman tackled the part of Gunther Bachmann, a German intelligence official trying to come to terms the terrible things he has done and seen in the name of protecting the innocent.

Sometimes the Academy gets a little sentimental and tosses a nomination or an award to someone who has died, but rest assured, this would be no sentiment nomination. Hoffman, whose resume speaks for itself, is doing career-topping work in A Most Wanted Man. From the accent to the walk to the posture, Hoffman puts everything he has into creating the full portrait of a man who came to a crossroads long ago and wishes he could turn back and travel the road not taken.

Best Cinematography: Fabrice Aragno for Goodbye to Language

When Jean-Luc Godard makes a movie, it is an event in the cinephile world. The master French auteur has spent more than 50 years reinventing what can be done on film. He has pushed the boundaries of form, style, and storytelling with basically every feature he has made, but he has not done it alone. To push the craft, he has enlisted the help of some of the best up-and-coming craftspeople in the business.

Cinematographer Fabrice Aragno has shot only two fiction films in his career, both for Godard. His work on 2010’s Film Socialisme and this year’s Goodbye to Language 3D has been the perfect complement to Godard’s latest avant garde obsession. Some of the shots in Goodbye to Language boggle the mind for their visual complexity and emotional intensity. With so much 3D trash in the marketplace, it is refreshing to see a film that uses the technology to break down the barriers of what is possible on screen, and that is worth celebrating.

Best Original Screenplay: Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan for Frank

This could show up in a number of places on a list like this – supporting actor, original song, costumes, sound mixing, etc. – but it all starts with Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s weird, funny, and ultimately poignant story of the strangest rock band of which you have never heard. The beauty of the concept is that the story is told from the eyes of a pretender. He does not belong here, but in trying desperately to change the chemistry of the thing he loves, he blows it up.

Few scripts are as succinct and cutting when it comes to the world of artists, particularly the world of a bad artist. The main character is a fraud who fancies himself a talent, but when he meets a truly impressive group of people, his fragile ego breaks, and he sets off on a path of destruction, whether intentional or not. Ronson and Straughan’s script is a stirring rebuke of those who try to create but can only destroy.

Best Editing: Chris Gill for Calvary

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a thriller, and like all thrillers, it is beholden to its pacing. Unlike most thrillers, it does not rely on quick cuts, fast action, and choppy storytelling. It is a measured consideration of a priest’s crisis not with his own faith but with the faith of a town whose soul has blackened. Calvary simmers and seethes, and only in the end does it boil over, but by that time, the audience has stewed so long the release of pressure is more of a jarring punch to the gut than a relief.

Gill is one of the best editors in the business, though his work is sometimes overshadowed by the flashier tendencies of the directors he works with, most notably Danny Boyle on 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Calvary might not make Gill a household name or bring him more prominence in the industry, but it should. His invisible contribution to the world of this story is indispensable, and without it, the whole house of cards would collapse.

Best Sound Mixing*: Jesper Miller, et al, for Force Majeure

It is remarkable how much of human relationships is predicated on silence. We try to define our interactions by what we say and how we say it, but the quiet moments in between speak louder than any of that. The trick director Ruben Ӧstlund plays in Force Majeure is to turn the normal silences in a long marriage toxic.

Sound mixer Jesper Miller and his team work wonders with the moments between lines of dialogue, when two people whose lives have taken a turn neither expected cannot summon the words to speak. The air is heavy, and the tension is overwhelming, which makes it that much more stunning when Miller brings in the prerecorded music, pitched at a volume greater than we would expect. The oscillation between the quiet and loud and the intelligence to know when to use which make Miller’s achievement breathtaking and turn the film from a marriage drama into a natural disaster epic.

*Note: Sound mixing refers to the adjustment of the levels of sound in a film and the balance of elements such as dialogue, music, and sound effects.

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