Outside of football season, one of my favorite events to share with you fine folks has always been the Oscars. Back during the KSK days, the Oscar liveblog was an oasis in an offseason that, by three weeks in, had already gone on for far too long. I often had barely watched any of the movies in those days, but it didn’t matter. The jokes were easy, because Hollywood is ridiculous.
I watch a lot more of the movies now. Last year, if I remember right, I’d watched all but three by the time of the ceremony, and this year I’m unjustifiably proud to announce that I’ve watched fifty-nine of the sixty nominated films already. (It looks like the sixtieth may be completely unattainable, but I tried.) As I’ve explained before, I do this partly because movies are fun and partly because I like having opinions. I probably don’t know much more about film now than I did when I was just cracking dumb jokes in those liveblogs, but at least I know it about a lot more films!
And so, today through Sunday evening, I’ll be posting my highly uneducated takes on every nominee in every category. It’s my hope, dear readers, that by the time Jimmy Kimmel starts his opening monologue, you’ll all know as little as I do. Let’s get started.
Arrival – Cinematographer Bradford Young excels at shooting big, open spaces, a talent that I’m sure will serve him as well on the upcoming Young Han Solo movie as it does here. But Arrival‘s remarkable for both its majesty and its intimacy, and Young’s fully capable of handling the latter as well, capturing every detail of Amy Adams’ complex and delicate performance as the linguist Louise Banks.
La La Land – The flashiest of the contenders by a wide margin. Damien Chazelle never made any secret of the fact that he wanted to evoke the look and feel of classic Hollywood musicals in La La Land–with a bit of his own modern spin, obviously. And you can definitely see that in Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, which features beautiful long takes of the film’s big song-and-dance numbers. The film’s use of color is often not subtle, but it is lush and vibrant, contributing to the sense of a world that’s more L.A. than the real L.A.
Lion – Greig Frasier has a real gift for composition, which he showed off this year first in Lion and then once more for good measure in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. There’s one shot in particular that stood out to me, early in Lion: The young Saroo, alone on a bridge at night, barely bigger than a speck in comparison to the massive structure. It is, of course, easy to get on an intellectual level that Saroo is lost in India at this point, but this shot conveys an idea, maybe indescribable, of what that’s actually like, better than any dialogue or plot event ever could.
Moonlight – Moonlight‘s the primary competition for La La Land for this award (and for many others, including the top prize), and I can’t come up with a principled reason to prefer its cinematography to the musical’s. The lighting is probably better; cinematographer James Laxton is more restrained with color here and absolutely great with shadows. The scene where young Chiron learns to swim, shot with just Miami’s natural daylight, is the single most beautiful thing I’ve seen onscreen this year.
Silence – I wanted more for Silence, one of my ten favorite movies of the year, a searching and wrenching interrogation of Christian compassion, but the movie may have arrived too late and with too little fanfare to really build any momentum. It’s far from perfect, and suffers from a plodding, Return of the King-like epilogue that takes about twice as long as it needs to to make its point, but a single nomination seems a little stingy. That one nomination, though, is thoroughly earned. Rodrigo Prieto, the only DP in this race who’s not a first-time nominee, provides three straight hours of gorgeous imagery whether he’s shooting the Japanese coastline, some town or village, an isolated prison, or close-ups of the principals’ expressions, twisted in existential anguish.
Will Be/Should Be: La La Land. The Academy seems to love a high degree of difficulty when it comes to cinematography, and while Sandgren probably doesn’t reach the same level of difficulty or actual execution in La La Land that Emanuel Lubezki did in his last three films, the movie’s still eye-poppingly impressive.
Upset Special: Lion. Fraser won the American Society of Cinematographers award, so he’s clearly got the respect of his peers. That’s just the most likely upset, though, in my opinion; The quality of the camerawork is so great all the way through this category that the Academy could give the statue to anyone without really shocking me.
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, La La Land – “Audition” comes at the most pivotal moment in La La Land, and works as a sort of dramatic monologue for Emma Stone. Is it okay to say that it’s a little underwhelming? I hate saying this, because I know I’m going to come off as just another contrarian dickhead hating on the movie because it’s popular, but the truth is that across the board, I expected a little more from the actual songs in La La Land. Stone’s awesome on-screen presence elevates this number, but I couldn’t help feeling as I watched that the music wasn’t equal to the moment.
“Can’t Stop the Feeling!”, Trolls – Trolls was never going to be nominated for Best Animated Feature in a year like this one, and maybe not in any year, but it’s still a whole lot of fun as a typically lighthearted kids’ movie and a nostalgia piece about weird 90s toys. And “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” encapsulates the movie’s irrepressible, bubbly spirit perfectly, like “Everything is Awesome” did for The LEGO Movie a couple years ago.
“City of Stars”, La La Land – If La La Land is going to win this award, it really should and probably will be for City of Stars, a wistful minor-key meditation on loneliness. It’s the most interesting piece in the movie (other than John Legend’s frankly alarming dubstep-jazz mashups, obviously) and the movie song that’s gotten stuck in my head the second-most this week. (Thanks to Moana for providing the song at the top of that particular chart.)
“The Empty Chair”, Jim: The James Foley Story – I haven’t checked this at all, but my perception at least is that there’s been an uptick in songs getting nominated out of documentaries. Jim, which missed the 15-film shortlist for Best Documentary Feature, tells the story of war journalist James Foley, captured and executed by ISIS in 2014. Sting’s somber tribute to Foley is not going to win, but it’s also not unworthy of its place here.
“How Far I’ll Go”, Moana – However, with all respect to Sting, I’d rather have seen Moana get a second nomination in this category, for the other shortlist contender, “We Know the Way”, or my personal favorite, “You’re Welcome”, or even Jemaine Clement’s hilarious “Shiny”. Yeah, I know, all the fawning over Lin-Manuel Miranda has gotten a bit tiresome, but he did a hell of a songwriting job on Moana, and lead actress Auli’i Cravalho actually sounds better singing the pièce de résistance, “How Far I’ll Go,” than Alessia Cara does performing it in the end credits. (Unfortunately, I’m sure we’ll get the Cara version during Sunday night’s presentation.)
Will Win: “City of Stars”. I mean, come on. It’s La La Land. It’s a musical. It made more money than any other Best Picture nominee and everyone in Hollywood loves it because it’s about them, and it’s also just an excellent movie in almost every respect. There’s no way for it not to win this, right?
Should Win/Upset Special: Well, maybe. In the event of a split vote between La La Land‘s two submissions, I think an upset by “How Far I’ll Go” genuine possibility here. I’m not as cynical about La La Land as a lot of people seem to be, but the truth is I just plain liked “How Far I’ll Go” better than anything in Damien Chazelle’s film, and I have to admit to thinking it’d just be funny to watch the biggest musical of the year clean up in the other categories but lose out on the one award that you’d think would be a shoe-in. If we can’t laugh at the Oscars, what are we even watching them for?
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Jackie – Mica Levi’s score is foreboding, eerie, maybe even a little disturbing. It’s the perfect accompaniment, in other words, for its protagonist’s tortured state of mind. Almost everything about Jackie, from the clothes and sets to Natalie Portman’s accent is rigorously period-authentic, but the music seems much more rooted in primal emotions like grief and fear.
La La Land – Okay, La La Land fans: Here’s your sure thing. As much as I was underwhelmed with the focal-point songs, the music throughout La La Land is varied and it’s excellent. The bit that’s most stuck with me, predictably I suppose, is “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme”, which pulls double duty as soundtrack leitmotif and actual, in-universe composition. Justin Hurwitz is the film’s composer, but some credit also has to go to Ryan Gosling, who is actually playing some pretty challenging music.
Lion – Lion‘s music, for the most part conveys a sense of continual forward motion–appropriately, but not in a way that overpowers the action. Of the nominees, I think it’s the one I’d most enjoy just sitting and listening to.
Moonlight – The orchestral score of Moonlight is not particularly grounded in the movie’s time or place. Instead, it feels like a direct window into Chiron’s mind and emotions. It’s beautiful and wide-ranging, and it does arguably overwhelm the visuals at times, but I suspect that in a movie like Moonlight, that’s sort of the point. So in function, it’s a lot like the score of Jackie, but it’s decidedly gentler music for a (usually) gentler story.
Passengers – That’s right, Passengers! The lavish sci-fi romance epic with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence where he sentences her to die of old age decades before her time on a lonely spaceship, never again to see a living, breathing human being other than him! I’ll be honest: I found things to like about Passengers around the periphery, but good God was it doomed from the start with that premise. And I can’t say the score jumped out at me. On a second listen, it certainly has its moments, but I think I’d still have preferred Michael Giacchino’s fresh take on Star Wars in Rogue One, or the unfortunately disqualified Jóhann Jóhannsson score for Arrival.
Will Win/Should Win: La La Land and if it does somehow lose here, it’s almost got to be part of a complete ballot-wide collapse.
Upset Special: A win for Jackie would be way, way out of left field, but the score’s one advantage is that it’s wildly unconventional. It probably won’t beat out La La Land, but the more traditional contenders definitely won’t.
Arrival – At its heart, Arrival is an intimate psychological drama about memory and loss, but that hasn’t stopped director Denis Villaneuve from constructing a massive and detailed world, set thirty seconds into the future, around it. The movie doesn’t skimp one bit on its military-fiction and sci-fi bona fides, and the sound design team have calibrated the scream of supersonic jets, the overwhelming white noise of helicopter rotors, and the eerie vocalizations of the decapod aliens for maximum impact.
Deepwater Horizon – I bitched about having to watch Deepwater Horizon back when the nominations were announced, and while it definitely didn’t prove especially interesting to watch, I have to admit the movie sounds absolutely great. Every mechanical failure, every explosion, is thoroughly felt, giving the movie’s action an immediacy that the acting and script, for me, couldn’t quite deliver.
Hacksaw Ridge – A war movie’s always a great opportunity to rack up nominations and awards for sound, and just this past weekend Hacksaw Ridge picked up the Motion Picture Sound Editors’ awards for both effects and dialogue. Like Deepwater, it packs quite a bit of punch, and its overall quality makes it much more likely to attract the Academy’s attention.
La La Land – Here’s something fun: That opening number on the freeway, with the car horn instrumental? The horns–if you think about it, probably the most Los Angeles of instruments–were carefully designed by La La Land‘s sound editors for just the right pitch.
Sully – I said it in my recap of the nominations, and I’ll say it again here: Sully’s sound crew really brings every feature of the crashing plane to life, and they’d better, because the film leans heavily on that thirty seconds or so, returning to it over and over for much-needed injections of drama into a story without a particularly compelling core conflict.
Will Win: La La Land, and it wouldn’t be unearned in the least. Like The Revenant and Mad Max last year, La La Land‘s stellar craftsmanship from the bottom up sets it apart from almost everything else released this year, and the sound editing is no exception. The closest competition, probably, will be Hacksaw Ridge.
Should Win/Upset Special: Call me crazy (and buddy, you’d be justified), but I really like Deepwater Horizon for this. If the Academy wants to give this prize to a top-flight film, they’ve got no shortage of options, but the sheer force of the sound effects in Deepwater blew me away.
Arrival – One of the best things about the sound in Arrival is the way it pulls back at the movie’s most awe-inspiring moments, a very audible cue that emphasizes the majesty of the visuals. It’s hard to talk about any one aspect of Arrival‘s production individually, really, because it’s all so carefully woven togther; the sound effects serve the visual ones expertly, the production design is also writing in a very literal sense, and the score (disqualified from competition due to the inclusion of a non-original Max Richter piece that the Academy felt might cause confusion for voters) is practically narration.
Hacksaw Ridge – The sound mixer for Hacksaw Ridge, Kevin O’Connell, has been nominated for this award a staggering 21 times without a win. He’s worked on Terms of Endearment, and Top Gun, and Transformers, and a fuckton of other movies, some of which probably didn’t start with T. Immersion is a key goal for any sound mixer, I’d think, and especially important when a movie is trying to convey the heightened terror of going into battle without carrying a weapon, as its real-life hero Desmond Doss. O’Connell achieves that immersion in Hacksaw Ridge to frightening effect.
La La Land – La La Land is musical even when there’s no actual music going on, thanks to its consciously soundtrack-like use of everyday background noise. One particularly tense dinner scene between Stone and Ryan Gosling might be the best example. And when its big musical numbers are in full swing, everything sounds just right.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – It’s probably not the worst thing in the world for a movie’s sound mixing to be practically invisible. I don’t doubt that Rogue One did good work in this area–and that I likely missed it because I was too distracted by the beautiful shooting and unexpectedly emotional story–but I wasn’t looking out for it when I saw the movie, and I couldn’t pretend to offer any insights on it now.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi – Regardless of content, you can’t hate a movie too much when it features Captain Flynt from Black Sails barking lines like, “I need a bag full of money and a flight to Benghazi.” 13 Hours is not a movie to be taken seriously, but its obligatory firefights are crisp and well-balanced.
Will Win/Should Win: Hacksaw Ridge. La La Land is as big a betting favorite here as it is in most nominated categories, but Hacksaw, to me, is the more impressive achievement.
Second Choice: Arrival.
Deepwater Horizon – In contrast to Deepwater‘s sound design, its visual effects didn’t strike me as out of the ordinary for a disaster movie. I’m willing to allow the possibility that I missed something, but all the explosions and geysers of water and mud felt merely par for the course, and the movie’s quasi-anatomical depictions of conditions inside the failing drilling riser instantly seemed dated, somehow.
Doctor Strange – When Ex Machina won the visual effects Oscar last year, it felt like the Academy expressing a preference for the philosophical thriller’s thorough integration of its effects with its deeper themes, over the inarguably more astounding technical accomplishments of heavyweights Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant. Doctor Strange, too, is probably more impressive to look at than Ex Machina, but if it pulls off a similar upset, I suspect it’ll also be for similar reasons. The literally world-bending abilities that Doctor Strange‘s sorcerers show off on the macro level are incredible just to watch, but they’re also of a piece with the mind-over-matter control Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange desperately wants to harness on a much more personal level to make his own broken body work again.
The Jungle Book – There’s no doubting The Jungle Book‘s sheer volume of impressive effects; it boasts scene after scene packed with incredibly detailed CG animals. But for me, a few of those animals slipped into the uncanny valley just a bit too often. (I guess it’s kind of inevitable, to be fair, that talking animals will present a special challenge in this respect.) Having said that, for sheer impressiveness of CGI spectacle, there’s probably no equal this year to The Jungle Book, and there’s evidently a lot of general goodwill toward this film across Hollywood.
Kubo and the Two Strings – The most incredible stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen forms the basis for everything else that makes Kubo an honest-to-god masterpiece, but the digital enhancement gives it an epic scope that it couldn’t possibly have achieved otherwise, with beautiful, expansive environments and fluid, kinetic representations of its characters’ magical abilities. But back to the stop-motion: Kubo features the largest stop-motion puppet in the history of the universe, 16 feet tall, a character that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention The Revenant‘s bear got last year, but maybe deserves it?
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – It’s unfortunate, but you can’t really discuss the visual effects in the newest Star Wars movie without talking about the CG stand-ins for Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher. If I’m being honest, I didn’t find them especially jarring in appearance—I wasn’t even sure at first that the CG Fisher wasn’t the actual actress in makeup—but I suppose it makes me a bit uneasy to see actors brought back from the dead like something out of The Congress. There’s plenty to unreservedly like about Rogue One‘s visuals, though, like its reliance on real, solid objects rather than CG effects where possible, and its characteristically stunning imagery in big set pieces both on the ground and in space.
Will Win/Should Win: Kubo and the Two Strings. I’m going out on a limb here, since The Jungle Book is pretty clearly the betting favorite. But Kubo‘s a special film that’s pushed the limits of what a filmmaker can do with stop-motion, and with some serious doubt about whether it’ll win the animated feature prize (more on this later, of course), I can’t see it going away empty-handed.
Upset Special: There’s another reasonably close comparable for Doctor Strange: 2011 winner Inception, which did a lot of similar things with cityscapes and gravity. Maybe the Academy sees some of that stuff as old hat by now, but [Peter King voice] maybe not!