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Who Should Win the Oscars -- The Teaser Categories

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So here are the Oscars. I'm feeling saucy, and so I'm going to say what I think about each nominee in each category and try not to repeat myself too much from my column about the Golden Globes. This column features all the categories other than the big 6 -- Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Picture -- which will be appearing in a later column. (I'm ignoring the categories no one sees -- that is, categories in which I haven't seen or heard of a single movie -- like short films, documentaries, and foreign language film.)

"Ratatouille" This was pretty close to my favorite movie of the year, up there with Eastern Promises. It's probably the one I'll end up watching more frequently. It's hard to talk about unhyperbolically -- it's simply magical. Like all Pixar movies (other than Cars), it's good for all audiences, funny, gorgeously animated, warmhearted, and sincere. Pixar does Disney as well as Disney in its prime, and there's really no higher praise.

Also nominated:
"Surf's Up" Mostly notable for the other "S"-movie it replaces, Golden Globe nominee The Simpsons Movie. A slap in the face for Bart and the boys, yes, but a deserved one. You could have taken any episode from their first 8 seasons and it would have been better than a movie about Jeff Bridges as a surfing penguin. These are the depths to which The Simpsons have fallen.

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" Art Direction: Dante Ferretti; Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo When Tim Burton makes a movie, it's beautiful. This is the most fun he's had in years, and it shows. Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow are his two movie-length homages to British horror films, and this one is even grander than the last one, set in movie backlot London, reveling in the gorgeous grotesque. The city they create is everything From Hell wanted to be.

"American Gangster" Art Direction: Arthur Max; Set Decoration: Beth A. Rubino The film was fine, but relatively unremarkable artistically, as Ridley Scott films go. It's a period piece, so that gives the art direction something to do, but while Scott's hallmark as a director is to pack the screen -- think Blade Runner -- this one is more or less a straightforward gangster flick. Josh Brolin's evil mustache is more memorable than the color palette.
"Atonement" Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
"The Golden Compass" Art Direction: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock This movie was deeply disappointing, including in its art direction. It was an example where CGI took the place of miniature work far too often. Some of the sets and locations were beautiful and exactly as they should have been; others were curiously devoid of life and wholly unevocative. Lumpy, uneven art direction to fit a lumpy, uneven movie.
"There Will Be Blood" Art Direction: Jack Fisk; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson The movie indeed was beautiful, and I expect it will win in this category (especially as I do not think it will win Best Picture). Sometimes the grime itself felt a bit self-consciously mannered -- like Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, the overwrought soundtrack and script, and everything else in the film -- but it is undeniably gorgeous.

"No Country for Old Men" Roger Deakins Deakins is one of the more noteworthy Oscar bridesmaids -- he's been nominated 7 times, including twice this year, but never won. He's almost certainly going to win for one, and it'll probably be this one. He's the Coen Brothers' personal cinematographer, and has been responsible for capturing nearly all of their most memorable images. This year, he'll finally get his due.

Also nominated:
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" Roger Deakins Reportedly the more beautiful movie than No Country, but no one saw it, and No Country is shaping up to clean house this year.
"Atonement" Seamus McGarvey
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" Janusz Kaminski Kaminski is Steven Spielberg's personal DP, and an awfully good one, as capable of working in big-budget action as in an arthouse drama like this film. But he won't win for this one.
"There Will Be Blood" Robert Elswit The best part of this movie was the cinematography. It was truly beautiful, and may even have surpassed that of Deakins for pure artistry, though Deakins' served his movie better.

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" Colleen Atwood Tim Burton has the best eye for color of any director working -- his reds are redder, blues are bluer, shadows are darker, greys are greyer. (Only Danny Boyle comes close to Burton, and Sunshine wasn't even nominated for one of the art categories, which is a crime.) Even a middling Burton movies looks gorgeous, and for something as close to Burton's heart as a Victorian murder musical like Sweeney Todd, the costumes are as sumptuous as the rest of the visual palette, stylized, twisted, and perfect for the material.

Also nominated:
"Across the Universe" Albert Wolsky
"Atonement" Jacqueline Durran
"Elizabeth: The Golden Age" Alexandra Byrne
"La Vie en Rose" Marit Allen

"The Bourne Ultimatum" Christopher Rouse Give this movie an award simply for avoiding some of the MTV-style cutting-by-rote that appears in many modern action movies, the forced use of closeups and slow motion to build artificial tension by denying the audience a clear view of what the hell is going on. (Well, the movie doesn't avoid those techniques entirely, but at least uses them more judiciously.) Of course, it is a modern action movie, pulsing and pounding, a shaky camera running following Matt Damon to bring a queasy verite. The remarkable thing is that it feels neither overdone nor cliche. Then again, in a couple years, when every movie looks like this, it'll give a viewer multiple reasons to feel sick to her stomach.

Also nominated:
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" Juliette Welfling
"Into the Wild" Jay Cassidy A beautiful movie, but the editing isn't what makes it remarkable. Sean Penn's restrained direction, Emile Hirsch's impressive performance, Hal Holbrook's lovely cameo, and the gorgeous Alaskan landscape are what give this movie its emotional core. In fact, the only time the movie slips are when it breaks the fourth wall and shows its formal composition, as with Eddie Vedder's recognizable voice singing pedestrian original songs, or when the occasional narration cuts into the narrative.
"No Country for Old Men" Roderick Jaynes This isn't a knock against the editor, but the most frustrating thing about the movie was the way that it more or less skipped the climax, as when Robert Rodriguez self-consciously omitted a "missing reel" in Grindhouse. It was an artistic decision by the Coens, but it was one edit that many audiences would have preferred had not been made.
"There Will Be Blood" Dylan Tichenor Frankly, the movie ought to have been shorter than it was. The section set in 1927, for all its intentional or unintentional hilarity, really might have been better left on the cutting room floor, or the second DVD of the Criterion Collection release. That's not Tichenor's fault, as the director Paul Thomas Anderson surely was involved in every step of the editing, but this is a movie that could have stood to cut a bit of fat.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" Ve Neill and Martin Samuel The makeup was fine, I guess. The bloated character design for Davy Jones is as unnecessarily busy in this film as it was in the last one, but it's a mask that's more CGI than makeup. Still, someone should probably win an Oscar for Johnny Depp's eyeliner.

Also nominated:
"La Vie en Rose" Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald
"Norbit" Rick Baker and Kazuhiro Tsuji Rick Baker is one of the best effects men ever to grace the streets of Hollywood, but if Norbit gets an Oscar, it will be the greatest failure of the democratic process in the history of humanity.

"Ratatouille" Michael Giacchino I honestly don't remember the score, but I'm going to vote for Ratatouille by default in any category like this where I have no idea.

Also nominated:
"Atonement" Dario Marianelli
"The Kite Runner" Alberto Iglesias
"Michael Clayton" James Newton Howard Howard is a nice composer, albeit mostly faceless. He never hurts a movie, and never draws attention to himself. You don't leave the theater humming the score, if you know what I mean. He can work in most any genre and hit the right mood to let you watch. And that fit the film well, as it was a solid genre piece with nothing extraordinary but everything done right.
"3:10 to Yuma" Marco Beltrami

"That's How You Know" from "Enchanted" Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz The songs in Enchanted weren't great on their own, but the visual sequences built around them were stunning. This one provided the climax of the movie, an all-out feast for the eyes in Central Park, complete with steel drummers, birds, flowers, poisoned caramel apples and an evil-looking Timothy Spall, Dr. McDreamy, and all sung by favorite actress of the year, Amy Adams.

Also nominated:
"Falling Slowly" from "Once" Music and Lyric by Glen Hansard and: Marketa Irglova I heard this movie was amazing and so were the songs. It wouldn't be such a bad thing if they won.
"Happy Working Song" from "Enchanted" Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz As you might expect, this is more or less a ripoff of "Whistle While You Work," in theme if not in melody, and again, the music isn't totally memorable. But the onscreen images -- creepy crawlies and birds all swarming around a real-life princess to help clean up a single dad's apartment -- are really stunning. It's another of the best scenes in one of the unexpectedly best movies of the year.
"Raise It Up" from "August Rush" Nominees to be determined
"So Close" from "Enchanted" Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz This is a song that really ought to have been sung by Peabo Bryson. As it is, it's a pleasantly bland, faceless slow dance that doesn't belong in the discussion for an Oscar.

"Ratatouille" Randy Thom and Michael Silvers For rationale, see "Original score"

Also nominated:
"The Bourne Ultimatum" Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg These are the categories that few people outside the industry really understand. (While watching a movie, I really couldn't tell the different between its sound editing and sound mixing, or really how to identify virtuosity in either. As with the the Best Picture and Best Director categories, virtually the same films get nominated in both, which suggests the voters don't see much of a distinction between the two.) As with all the technical categories, great action movies like Bourne require great proficiency to mix together all the things that go whizz and bang, and this movie would be a deserving winner if it gets the award.
"No Country for Old Men" Skip Lievsay I think this movie will actually win this category. It's No Country's year, and I wouldn't be surprised if it really swept the Oscars much as it swept the SAG awards.
"There Will Be Blood" Matthew Wood The sound in this movie was as terrible as the visuals were arresting, but that wasn't the editors' or mixers' fault, as it all came through crystal-clear. Rather, blame composer Jonny Greenwood for composing a completely incoherent score that had precious little to do with the images onscreen -- he actually reused parts of a piece he'd composed for the BBC years earlier -- and blame screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson for writing poor dialogue to go with it.
"Transformers" Ethan Van der Ryn and Mike Hopkins Like Bourne but infinitely dumber, Transformers certainly looked expensive and was fun to watch and listen to. The hordes of effects guys in computer farms making the robots talk did their job well.

"Ratatouille" Randy Thom, Michael Semanick and Doc Kane For rationale, see "Original score"

Also nominated:
"The Bourne Ultimatum" Scott Millan, David Parker and Kirk Francis
"No Country for Old Men" Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter Kurland
"3:10 to Yuma" Paul Massey, David Giammarco and Jim Stuebe
"Transformers" Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell and Peter J. Devlin

"Transformers" Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Russell Earl and John Frazier This movie should win an award just for not being as utterly terrible as everything else Michael Bay has made since Armageddon. (And, yeah, Armageddon sort of sucked too.) The visual effects were fine. It's an awfully weak category this year. Frankly, for live-action setpieces that made New York City appear to be an animated Disney landscape, Enchanted ought to have been nominated and ought to have won.

Also nominated:
"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson and John Frazier The visual effects were pretty good. And the bizarre desert scene where Depp is alone on his ship is pretty great. Other than that, it was a bloated and ridiculous movie; the second and third Pirates movies weren't as bad as the second and third Matrix films, but they certainly didn't come close to the enjoyability of the first, and between them were at least a collective hour and a half longer than they should have been.
"The Golden Compass" Michael Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris and Trevor Wood The special effects in this movie were AWFUL. (To be fair, they looked fine, but they completely detracted from the movie rather than serving it.) Blame the director, Chris Weitz, who was clearly out of his depth -- he moved from About a Boy and American Pie to a hundred million dollar CGI fantasy epic and clearly had no idea what he was doing. Far, far too many shots were unnecessarily overwhelmed by aimlessly busy (and undoubtedly costly) computer animations, including the tacked-on prologue, any scene involving the Compass itself, and the major battle scenes, in which death is represented by a silly shower of golden sparks, representing the character's soul. I would be only slightly less annoyed by a win for this movie than by a win for Norbit.

"No Country for Old Men" Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen Aaron Sorkin's a notable snub here, after getting nominated for a Golden Globe for Charlie Wilson's War. But the Coens did a good job, and distinguish themselves notably from P.T. Anderson below -- while his script was dissonant with the images onscreen, theirs harmonized with the casually brutal imagery. Not the best movie of the year, perhaps, but one of the most memorable, and the script was in perfect accordance with the film.

Also nominated:
"Atonement" Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
"Away from Her" Written by Sarah Polley
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
"There Will Be Blood" Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson This is not a good script. Paul Dano is miscast, but that's no excuse for his utterly tin-eared "You stupid man" monologue. Anderson does a great job setting up the images, but the script (including the climactic, absurd "milkshake" line) is nowhere near as good.

"Ratatouille" Screenplay by Brad Bird; Story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird Brad Bird is one of the best writer-directors working in Hollywood today. Interestingly, 6 of the 10 nominees in the script categories are writer-directors (depending on how you count the Coens): Polley, Anderson, the Coens, Jenkins, Gilroy, and Bird, and in my opinion he's the best in the list.

Other nominees:
"Juno" Written by Diablo Cody There's no way this movie is losing. But God, what an unnecessarily stylized script. While Brick cleverly brought hardboiled detective patois into high school, and the television show Deadwood wrote the Wild West with a Shakespearean inflection, Juno is more of a cryptogram, substituting "junk" for "penis," "intercourse" for "sex," "pop-pop" for "grandfather." The dialogue is forced without a clear purpose for why. Despite that, it's a very funny movie, and Cody is clearly, and deservedly, on her way up in the world. Still, you hope that she'll rein herself in the next time around -- or else find a more laconic writing partner.
"Lars and the Real Girl" Written by Nancy Oliver
"Michael Clayton" Written by Tony Gilroy Good script by a terrific screenwriter, the guy who wrote the Bourne films. I don't think a legal procedural's the best he can do, but it's a good start. I'm looking forward to his next one.
"The Savages" Written by Tamara Jenkins It's been a long time since Jenkins' 1998 debut, Slums of Beverly Hills, which was quite good, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney could be heartbreakingly funny reading Rod McKuen. I didn't see the movie, but I'm happy Jenkins got nominated. I hope it helps her make movies slightly more frequently this decade.