At the mid-point of our week-long Oscars dialogue, we're going to take a quick look at some of the "secondary" categories before picking back up with the Big Four categories tomorrow and Friday.
CHRIS HERRINGTON: Still a relatively new category for the Academy Awards and one that seems to be growing up a little as the Academy seems to be finally expanding its definition beyond movies with fast-food tie-ins and we seem to be in a new golden age for animated features. (This is only the second time in nine years of giving the award that there have been a full five nominees.) Still, despite the growing diversity in the field, this award has so-far seemed pretty much designed to recognize the union of art and commerce that is Pixar, the studio that accounts for a full half of the eight winners in this category since it began in 2001 (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL*E). This year, Pixar makes it five of nine. Will Win: Up.
Should Win: I haven't seen two of these nominees: The Princess and the Frog, which was surprisingly tagged the year's best film by Time magazine, and which my normally Disney-hating wife thought was pretty decent, and the obscurity The Secret of Kells, which did not screen locally. The other three — all of which made my 15-film Top Ten list for 2009 — are all films I really like, but I'll give my nod here to the underdog of the bunch, Coraline, Henry Selick's stop-motion animation story of a young girl who finds an alternate universe via a path through the wall of her new house. Not only are the visuals beautiful, but the characterizations are surprisingly detailed and perceptive, and the film's feel for the emotional and psychological terrain of childhood makes it every bit the girls' answer to Where the Wild Things Are.
Got Robbed: As far as I know, there are really only three strong contenders here that weren't nominated: Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo, unscreened-in-Memphis art-house selection Sita Sings the Blues, and kid-directed Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which has its critical supporters (among them our colleague Addison Engelking). But I haven't seen any of them, so I have no argument to make here.
GREG AKERS: I've seen the same three you have and like you think they're all first-rate animated films. I agree that Up Will Win. It won the Annie Award for Animated Feature this year, and only twice has that winner not gone on to take home the Oscar since the Academy has been interested in such films. (Kung Fu Panda lost to Oscar winner WALL-E in 2009 and Cars lost to Oscar-winner Happy Feet in 2007.) As a Best Picture nominee, it stands to reason Up will take care of business here. And though I didn't see The Princess and the Frog, my 5-year-old daughter assures me it was a worthy return to 2D hand-drawn animation for Disney. Actually, she said it was "funny" and "scary," but I knew what she really meant to say.
Should Win: As much as I appreciated Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox was pretty cussing fabulous — a total charmer. After something of an artistic rut (though if one can call The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited a creative slump, I'd take that kind of problem), it's good to see filmmaker Wes Anderson pushing himself outside his comfort zone and doing stop-motion animation.
Got Robbed: Though I didn't see it, I'm going to take umbrage on Hayao Miyazaki's behalf and cry foul on the snubbing of Ponyo. For shame, Academy. For shame.
Moving on now.
Best Achievement in Editing
Nominees: Avatar, District 9, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious
Will Win: There's not a strong correlative between the winners in this category and Best Picture winners — in the last decade, it's worked out five times and not worked five times. Hey, sometimes you do the research and it doesn't help you figure things out at all. And there aren't any name editors nominated here, no Thelma Schoonmaker or Walter Murch or Michael Kahn lurking about. So I'm going to give the nudge to The Hurt Locker here, because the editing helped the audience immensely in understanding how each of the missions was unfolding, beyond what the script provided.
Should Win: The Hurt Locker, for the reasons above. If they give editing awards just for sheer volume of material to cut, Avatar would win. A really lot of stuff happens in that movie. Inglourious Basterds got its rocks off in most scenes with drawn out shots logically woven together. Not much intercutting between disparate events.
Got Robbed: Richard Marks, Julie & Julia. As the films' two stories volley back and forth, the editor maintains a lovely balance and inertia and pleasing structure. Also notable: A Serious Man. Just once, I ask that Roderick Jaynes win. I'd love to see that acceptance speech.
A scene from The Hurt Locker:
HERRINGTON: I have some fear ("fear" — like I care that much) that Inglourious Basterds will win this because it's long and cinematic, with a twisty narrative. But like you say, it's really just a succession of long scenes, without the interweaving of a Pulp Fiction or even really a lot of substantial cutting within the sequences, though the pacing of the opening farmhouse scene and the later tavern conversation are terrific. Then again, there is that hotshot film-within-a-film stuff — A Nation's Pride, right?. I think I just talked myself into Inglourious Basterds as the deserving runner-up in this category, but what WILL WIN is also what SHOULD WIN, and that's The Hurt Locker, which gives a clinic on how to edit (and stage and frame, etc) action scenes, with patience and a respect for establishing spatial coherence. In The Hurt Locker, you understand where the characters are in relation to each other and the considerable dangers the landscape provides, and that helps create tension.
Got Robbed: You make a great point about Julie & Julia. I'm not the booster for that film you are, but how did it not get nominated here? But I'll echo you with A Serious Man, which is precisely constructed in a way that extends beyond its terrific script. And I'll throw a wild-card vote to Joe Swanberg's Indie-Memphis-screened Alexander the Last (Swanberg edited as well), which weaves together two sex scenes — one "real," one "pretend" — in a centerpiece sequence that carries the emotional subtext of the whole film.
And now to wrap this one up with cinematography.
Best Achievement in Cinematography
The Nominees: Avatar, Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, The White Ribbon.
Will Win: Unlike you, I'm a truly terrible Oscars prognosticator, so hopefully I'm wrong in assuming Avatar will take this despite the copious CGI. It's the big wide-screen epic with all the pretty pictures, so I'm guessing it gets the votes, even if it can be hard to figure out where "photography" ends and post-production trickery begins.
Should Win: I'm torn. Inglourious Basterds is certainly well-shot, and I think The Hurt Locker is bravura work in all the pure-filmmaking components. But I'm going to throw my vote to the just-happy-to-be nominated The White Ribbon. The mere fact that this little-seen German-language film received a nomination in this category should tell you that the cinematography must be pretty special, and it is. Obviously, the beautiful black-and-white makes it stand out, but it's more than that, from the many immaculately framed still shots to some tracking shots that are elegant and effective yet subtle. Great work here from cinematographer Christian Berger.
The trailer for The White Ribbon:
Got Robbed: Most Coen Brothers flicks are well-photographed, in the least, and A Serious Man is no exception. I'll give it second-runner-up. First-runner-up goes to Where the Wild Things Are for its unusual mix of gritty and dreamy, especially in its early, homebound scenes. But the "got robbed" top prize goes to director Jane Campion's Bright Star (cinematographer, Greig Fraser), which is gorgeous to look at even if I wasn't as moved by the story as I was supposed to be. Bright Star's sensuous outdoor photography is more hyper-real than Avatar, and those scenes of Abbie Cornish lolling around in her bedroom, sun and breeze wafting in or butterflies fluttering about, were the most beautiful of the year.
AKERS: I'm not sure how good a prognosticator I am here, but I'm feeling Robert Richardson's work for Inglourious Basterds Will Win and he'll win take home his third Oscar (JFK, The Aviator). If I'm wrong then you're probably right and this category will fall in lock step with a march of Avatar wins Oscar night.
Should Win: I didn't see The White Ribbon, though I will say its trailer was probably the most beautiful I saw last year. Does that count? No? Then I'll nod to Inglourious Basterds, which was gorgeous, particularly in the cinema and tavern scenes.
Got Robbed: I'm going to surprise myself a little and pick Peter Deming for Drag Me to Hell. That movie is a masterpiece of effective atmospherics, and though director Sam Raimi probably gets the lion's share of credit for that, the cinematographer has got to receive some recognition, too. Plus, he shot Mulholland Dr., so it's kind of a lifetime achievement thing.