Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Snooch to the Nooch!

Inspired by a note a friend of mine posted on Facebook recently, I’ve decided to try and take a different direction with my final Oscar blog before the big night Sunday (with Jon Stewart hosting). I hope you enjoy it.

Before I get to the festivities, though, an update on where my Top 10 Best and Favorites for 2007 stand now.

Brian’s 10 Favorite Films of 2007
1. “Spider-Man 3” (Sam Raimi)
2. “The Simpsons Movie” (David Silverman)
3. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (David Yates)
4. “Ratatouille” (Brad Bird)
5. “Music and Lyrics” (Marc Lawrence)
6. “Zodiac” (David Fincher)
7. “Lars and the Real Girl” (Craig Gillespie)
8. “Transformers” (Michael Bay)
9. “Hot Fuzz” (Edgar Wright)
10. “No Country for Old Men” (Joel & Ethan Coen)

Brian’s 10 Best Films of 2007
1. “Away From Her” (Sarah Polley)
2. “Zodiac” (David Fincher)
3. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (Julian Schnabel)
4. “Across the Universe” (Julie Taymor)
5. “Once” (John Carney)
6. “No Country for Old Men” (Joel & Ethan Coen)
7. “There Will Be Blood” (Paul Thomas Anderson)
8. “Lars and the Real Girl” (Craig Gillespie)
9. “The Darjeeling Limited” (Wes Anderson)
10. “Ratatouille” (Brad Bird)

Viva la Resistance!

Brian Skutle

What makes an Oscar nominee? Well, the votes of the Motion Picture Academy for one thing, but what else? Or should I say, what else should make an Oscar nominee? Many different schools of thought exist on the subject, and its’ unlikely any two are the exact same.

Well, let’s start off with the obvious one. The Oscars are first and foremost an award Hollywood gives to itself for excellence and filmmaking for the calender year. At least that’s what it’s supposed to be. Of course, that begs the question- what makes an excellent film? This is where it gets tricky, so let’s just go into what I feel make an excellent film. For a look at some of the films that made the cut for me this year, take a look at my 10 Best list. Let’s look at the nominees this year, however (all nominees are listed in order of personal preference, with my top choice in bold; my Oscar Predictions will be at the end- sorry).

Best Picture
**“No Country for Old Men”**
“There Will Be Blood”
“Michael Clayton”

There’s no set criteria on what makes a film universally excellent- how can there be when different films are made for different reasons? So let’s go with a favorite saying of Roger Ebert’s- it’s not WHAT a film is about but HOW it’s about it. By that respect, I personally take no issue with “No Country for Old Men,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “Juno” making Oscar’s final five, even if none of them would make my personal one. “Atonement” was good but a bit on the boring side for my taste, while “Michael Clayton” was compelling without really firing my passions for the subject the way another George Clooney Best Picture nominee- “Good Night, and Good Luck.”- did two years ago. Others no doubt disagree, others still might feel that none of them deserve to be there. But an important thing to consider is your reasons for feeling as you do- do you truly feel that way, or do you have a problem with the subject matter? Or maybe you just are going against the grain of what other people think? To not see a movie because you don’t approve of the subject matter is one thing, and it is our right to feel that way, but to say it shouldn’t be made- or that it’s a bad film- BECAUSE of its’ subject matter is to do it a disservice (especially if it’s sight unseen). Art of any kind is subjective of course, and our preferences can move from one spectrum to another over time, or they are hardwired into us at an early age, but to criticize something for the reason it exists- whatever reasons that may be- is unacceptable.

Best Director
**Julian Schnabel, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”**
Joel & Ethan Coen, “No Country for Old Men”
Paul Thomas Anderson, “There Will Be Blood”
Jason Reitman, “Juno”
Tony Gilroy, “Michael Clayton”

There are times when Oscar just doesn’t make any sense, though. Best Director is a great place to start. It’s rare to see a year when Best Director and Best Picture match up in their respective nominees. This has to do, more than likely, with the process. Directors nominate directors, actors nominate actors, and so on and so forth through the categories; everyone nominates for Best Picture (all voters take part in final voting for all the categories). It may not make sense to some people, but I know whenever I consider what my top choices are every year, I make no qualms of having a director of a film outside my top 5 for Picture be in my top 5 for Director, which is why Tim Burton was my top choice for his work on “Sweeney Todd”- I didn’t necessarily think his film was top 5 material given the other ones I’d seen, but his work in bringing all of the elements of the storytelling together was exemplary. It seems like an odd idea, but I think a lot of film buffs will get where I’m coming from, but consider the filmmakers who would have missed out on much-deserved Oscars if the two categories completely coincided- Steven Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”), Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”), Roman Polanski (“The Pianist”), Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”). And that’s just in the past ten years. Of course, in some cases their films deserved to win as well, but that’s another matter.

Best Actor
**Johnny Depp, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”**
Viggo Mortensen, “Eastern Promises”
Daniel Day-Lewis, “There Will Be Blood”
Tommy Lee Jones, “In the Valley of Elah”
George Clooney, “Michael Clayton”

Best Actress
**Ellen Page, “Juno”**
Marion Cotillard, “La Vie en Rose”
Julie Christie, “Away From Her”
Laura Linney, “The Savages”
Cate Blanchett, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”

Best Supporting Actor
**Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men”**
Hal Holbrook, “Into the Wild”
Casey Affleck, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”
Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Charlie Wilson’s War”
Tom Wilkinson, “Michael Clayton”

Best Supporting Actress
**Saoirse Ronan, “Atonement”**
Cate Blanchett, “I’m Not There”
Ruby Dee, “American Gangster”
Amy Ryan, “Gone Baby Gone”
Tilda Swinton, “Michael Clayton”

Actors nominate actors. That’s why you see nominations for films as little seen as “Jesse James” and “I’m Not There” over bigger films, or you see nominations for respected veterans like Ruby Dee and Hal Holbrook over more obvious performances. More than any other category, this is where Academy screenings (and DVD screeners for voters) come into play. The critics’ awards and the end of the year don’t hurt, either, which is why Amy Ryan and Casey Affleck made the cut over perhaps more deserving contenders such as Tommy Lee Jones (for Supporting for “No Country”), Marisa Tomei (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”), or any of the actors from “Zodiac” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” That’s why some Best Picture nominees get major notice (see “Michael Clayton’s” three nominations for actors) while some seem to get lost (where’s “Atonement’s” doomed lovers Kiera Knightley and James McAvoy?). It also doesn’t hurt that some actors are Oscar darlings (which would explain Cate Blanchett’s ceremonial nomination for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”; how else do you explain it?)- the Academy’s gotta have its’ perennial contenders like Hepburn and Nicholson. That actors nominate actors helps explain why the occasional surprise in the Oscar winners (Tomei for “My Cousin Vinny”; Adrien Brody for “The Pianist”; Jim Broadbent in “Iris”) generally comes from the acting categories- because actors do the nominations, when everyone votes and sees the films, they’ll find surprises in performances you may not have expected. It also helps explain the presence of vets like Ruby Dee and Hal Holbrook, who’ve never won in their long careers and who have made something memorable of a rich role late in their lives (think last year’s winner, Alan Arkin, for “Little Miss Sunshine”). Will any of these scenarios- a surprise win, a de facto lifetime achievement award- factor into this year’s Oscars? That’s why we watch.

Best Original Screenplay
**“Juno” (Diablo Cody)**
“Lars and the Real Girl” (Nancy Oliver)
“Ratatouille” (Brad Bird, Jim Capobianco, Jan Pinkava)
“The Savages” (Tamara Jenkins)
“Michael Clayton” (Tony Gilroy)

Best Adapted Screenplay
**“Away From Her” (Sarah Polley)**
“No Country for Old Men” (Joel & Ethan Coen)
“There Will Be Blood” (Paul Thomas Anderson)
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (Ronald Harwood)
“Atonement” (Christopher Hampton)

More than any other categories, here’s where it pays to be independent, and as you can tell by the category, originality pays off dividends in at least the first category (see past winners “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Piano,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Fargo”). But being independent also is where a lot of viewers are lost on Oscar night. Unless a movie becomes an outright smash like “Juno,” years where many of the top nominees are independent films (this year, four of five Best Picture nominees are) generally don’t bring in the viewers. Don’t be surprised if this is one of the lowest-rated Oscar casts in recent memory as a result. Not helping matters on the consumer end is the fact that the smaller films- and typically, hottest Oscar nominees- don’t really make their way into most markets outside of New York and L.A. until after the New Year. When nominations come out, how many of us had genuinely had much of a chance to see even some of the bigger nominee possibilities? As a geek, it’s not fun having to play catch-up leading up to the big night; as an average moviegoer, who isn’t as likely to be following the race, who’s going to know about a movie if we don’t see ads (or see it in theatres) until mid-late January? Of course, not every film can be released before the holidays so that most filmgoers can see it in time for nominations (film production schedules just don’t always work that way), and with the large amount of films being made nowadays, it’s almost impossible to put together a strong ad campaign when 12 other films are being released the same week, but there are ways to fix that… 🙂

All of this does bring up the question of box-office, however- should it matter for the nominations, let alone the wins? If you’re supposed to be awarding quality in film, absolutely NOT. True, some box-office hits deserve consideration (some even deserve to win), but just because a film is successful doesn’t make it good (although box-office dollars do help smaller films win awards- I’m not that naive); it just means that Hollywood has succeeded in making the film profitable through a skillful marketing campaign. Similarly, just because a film is independent doesn’t make it good (trust me, I’ve seen my share of clinkers over the years). Oscar isn’t about the most popular movies (or, it shouldn’t be; that’s what the People’s Choice and MTV Movie Awards are for), even if popular ones sometimes win the big boy (“Return of the King,” “Titanic,” “Braveheart”). Problem is Hollywood forgets that at time

Marketing savvy has become integral to Hollywood on the Oscar front, however, also. Not only do films that get nominations get a boost at the box-office, but if a film is cited as an Oscar possibility by critics (be it through 10 Best lists or critics’ awards), the studios put mucho dinero into marketing it not only to audiences but to voters (by now I’m sure most people are aware of those “For Your Consideration” ads the trades). This is where the Weinstein Brothers were masters of advertising back when they were at Miramax; how else do you think the light-weight “Shakespeare in Love” toppled “Saving Private Ryan” for Best Picture? Or “Chocolat” got nominated for anything at all? Sometimes it backfires, though (“Chocolat” didn’t win shit…deservingly). Still, sometimes it works (Lionsgate’s smart release timing of “Crash” on DVD no doubt helped that film beat “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005). Similarly, however, a lack of nominations can kill even some good films at the box-office. True, some of these films deserve to die (not saying which ones), but others (“Sweeney Todd” anyone? “Into the Wild”) would’ve benefited from the added exposure of big-time nominations.

Best Original Score
**“Atonement” (Dario Marianelli)**
“Ratatouille” (Michael Gianchino)
“3:10 to Yuma” (Marco Beltrami)
“Michael Clayton” (James Newton Howard)
“The Kite Runner” (Alberto Iglesias)- Haven’t Heard

Best Original Song
**”Falling Slowly” from “Once” (Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová)**
“Raise It Up” from “August Rush” (Jamal Joseph, Charles Mack & Tevin Thomas)- Haven’t Heard
“Happy Working Song” from “Enchanted” (Alan Menken & Stephen Schwartz)- Haven’t Heard
“So Close” from “Enchanted” (Alan Menken & Stephen Schwartz)- Haven’t Heard
“That’s How You Know” from “Enchanted” (Alan Menken & Stephen Schwartz)

If originality is an asset with writing, it’s almost a detriment in film composing. The Original Song has leveled off more over the years, going outside the box for past winners like “An Inconvenient Truth,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Philadelphia,” and “Wonder Boys.” Original Score, however, is about as antiquated as the winners in the major categories tend to be- it’s not often enough when a score is even worthy of a nomination, let alone a win (“Finding Neverland” in a year with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “The Village” people?). But Original doesn’t mean the same thing in these categories as it does the Screenplay category; here it means original material written for the film, not including previous music (which is why Johnny Greenwood’s brilliant score for “There Will Be Blood” got the shaft). Fair enough, I suppose, but shouldn’t the best score be the one that best serves the film it was written for? That’s how I would take Best to mean in these categories. Some years- the “best” score wins (see “Return of the King,” “Fellowship of the Ring,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”)- and some years, bold scores actually win (“Babel” last year) even if there were better ones that didn’t even get a nomination (“The Fountain”). But do voters not of the music branches actually know what they’re voting for in this category when they get the final ballad? True, composers should, and they sometimes drop the ball big time (Danny Elfman and Carter Burwell are still Oscar-less somehow), but I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Best Animated Feature
“Surf’s Up”

Isn’t it nice that family films have their own category now? OK, I’m being somewhat sarcastic, as there are several live-action family films that couldn’t qualify here (and “Persepolis” is hardly a family film itself), but unless an animated film breaks new ground in truly astonishing ways, I wouldn’t expect another animated film to be nominated for Best Picture the way “Beauty and the Beast” was back in 1991 (that “Beast” IS the only animated film to do so begs the question, how could Hollywood not do that for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which was a landmark for the art form?). In that respect, it’s unfortunate that this category exists, ghettoizing animation in a way it doesn’t deserve to be treated (though the best, see “Ratatouille,” do tend to extend their nomination totals in other categories…see below), although the nomination for “Persepolis” (and in 2003 with “Triplets of Belleville”) show that Americans, or at least Hollywood, are starting to accept animation more as an art form capable of more than just talking animals and family entertainment (see “Beowulf”). Maybe there’s hope for this category yet.

Best Foreign Language Film
“12” (Russia)- Haven’t Seen
“Beaufort” (Israel)- Haven’t Seen
“The Counterfeiters” (Austria)- Haven’t Seen
“Katyn” (Poland)- Haven’t Seen
“Mongol” (Kazakhstan)- Haven’t Seen

Best Documentary Feature
**“No End in Sight”**
“Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience”– Haven’t Seen
“Taxi to the Dark Side”– Haven’t Seen
“War/Dance”– Haven’t Seen

Here’s where Hollywood and the indies really irk me from year to year- most of the films you see nominated will barely be released in theatres before even the Oscars are handed out, if they find theatrical distribution in the States at all! Most of these are listed as “Save” on Netflix, meaning don’t expect them out soon. It’s not shocking what with how little room most theatres have for even the bigger films that come out (topic for another blog), but come on folks! At least have releases planned for these films on DVD before the calender year’s out. Sheesh…

Best Visual Effects
“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”
“The Golden Compass”– Haven’t Seen

Best Sound
“No Country for Old Men”
“The Bourne Ultimatum”
“3:10 to Yuma”

Best Sound Editing
“No Country for Old Men”
“There Will Be Blood”
“The Bourne Ultimatum”

Most years, I tend to think the sound categories- which by the way, Best Sound deals with the WHOLE mix, Sound Editing is just the sound effects- sort of encapsulate one of my biggest beefs with Oscar when it comes to the nomination process. True, sound guys nominate sound guys and so on and so forth, but sometimes I wonder whether different departments have sort of an unspoken agreement to make sure the nomination totals are high on certain films so that studios can tout in there ads, “Nominated for 8 Academy Awards,” or “Nominated for 11 Academy Awards.” Is “3:10 to Yuma’s” sound mix REALLY more impressive than those on “Sweeney Todd,” “The Kingdom,” or “1408,” which used sound in a way horror hasn’t experienced since Kubrick took on King in “The Shining?” And no way can you tell me “Norbit’s” makeup effects (clearly derivative from the “Nutty Professor” films) were better than the ones in “Stardust” (which made Michelle Pfieffer ugly) or “The Namesake” (which looked at three decades in the life of one family, and aged the parents effortlessly).

I could be wrong; the voters in these categories are experts in their fields- their opinions have to count for something. But as a layman who’s learned a lot about film over the years, I think I know a little bit of what they’re looking for, and many times, they don’t honor the best- they just go for getting films the biggest nomination counts, when I’d be happy just to hear the words one day about a film of mine, “Nominated for 1 Academy Award.”

Best Cinematography
**“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”**
“No Country for Old Men”
“There Will Be Blood”
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

Best Film Editing
**“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”**
“The Bourne Ultimatum”
“No Country for Old Men”
“There Will Be Blood”
“Into the Wild”

Best Art Direction
**“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”**
“There Will Be Blood”
“American Gangster”
“The Golden Compass”– Haven’t Seen

Best Makeup
**“La Vie en Rose”**
“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”

Best Costume Design
**“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”**
“Across the Universe”
“La Vie en Rose”
“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”

Here are the three awards those most devoted to movies care about. I haven’t seen any of these, so all these are just guesses.

Best Short Film- Live Action
“At Night”
“Il Supplente”
“Le Mozart des pickpockets”
“Tanghi argentini”
“The Tonto Woman”

Best Short Film- Animated
“Meme les pigeons vont au paradis”
“I Met the Walrus”
“Madame Tutli-Putli”
“Moya lyubov”
“Peter & the Wolf”

Best Documentary Short Subject
“La Corona”
“Salim Baba”
“Sari’s Mother”

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for- my predictions. Hope you enjoyed the commentary. I’ll be back Monday with my final thoughts. -Brian Skutle

Oscar’s Picks (My Predictions)
Best Picture: “No Country for Old Men”
Best Director: Joel & Ethan Coen, “No Country for Old Men”
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, “There Will Be Blood”
Best Actress: Ellen Page, “Juno”
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men”
Best Supporting Actress: Ruby Dee, “American Gangster”
Best Original Screenplay: “Juno” (Diablo Cody)
Best Adapted Screenplay: “There Will Be Blood” (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Best Original Score: “Atonement” (Dario Marianelli)
Best Original Song: “Falling Slowly” from “Once” (Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová)
Best Animated Feature: “Persepolis”
Best Foreign Language Film: “Beaufort”
Best Documentary Feature: “No End in Sight”
Best Visual Effects: “Transformers”
Best Sound: “Ratatouille”
Best Sound Editing: “Transformers”
Best Cinematography: “No Country for Old Men”
Best Film Editing: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”
Best Art Direction: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
Best Makeup: “La Vie en Rose”
Best Costume Design: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
Best Short Film- Live Action: “Le Mozart des pickpockets”
Best Short Film- Animated: “Peter & the Wolf”
Best Documentary Short Subject: “Freeheld”

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