When it premiered on the opening night of the New York Film Festival, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi left plenty of viewers talking Best Picture, each of them reeling from all that massive scope and Academy-friendly uplift. Lee sure seems to have a contender on his hands, as his latest is an adventure of titanic proportions—and that’s not just a knowing wink at the old tell-me-your-story framing device, or the awesome, middle-of-nowhere sinking of a ship. Based on Yann Martel’s runaway hit novel, which many deemed “un-filmable,” Life of Pi is indeed an eye-popping beauty, and what may be the key thing in its Oscar plus column is it’s a prestige picture that puts the money up on the screen. Les Misérables is bound to be a spectacle, and Cloud Atlas surely doesn’t skimp on the wow factor, but this race needs a horse that strives to push the medium forward, and no candidate better fits that bill than Life of Pi. While a win seems unlikely, it’ll crack the top lineup, with other nods sprinkled throughout behind-the-scenes categories.
Most filmgoers who see Lee’s magical-realist marine life, from bioluminescent jellyfish to migrating trout that fly, will be quick to dub the film the Visual Effects frontrunner. It’s hasty hyperbole to call Life of Pi a game-changer, but like Avatar, it does boast a visual smorgasbord that’s ultimately profound, if only because the technique is so artfully cutting-edge. The quality of the 3D puts the movie in a very exclusive club, where post-conversion and subpar polish need not apply. The format ropes you in from minute one, as the zoo that hero Pi (Suraj Sharma) calls home is filmed with all its reach-out-and-touch-them critters front and center. And then there’s that all-important tiger, affectionately known as Richard Parker, who’s quite possibly the greatest CGI creature ever rendered for film. Life of Pi is a visual-effects force, boasting stunning environments, ace 3D, and a pristine star attraction. It’s easily the film to beat in this category.
It may also have a fighting chance in the Cinematography race, as Avatar proved there’s minimal stigma around new-school lensing of not-yet-realized worlds, and DP Claudio Miranda, a David Fincher favorite, netted a nod in 2008 for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. If Miranda slips in, a development that, at this point, seems quite likely, then Tim Squyres’s Editing may well get recognized too, thoroughly hoisting Life of Pi’s Best Picture hopes. The last nod for Squyres came thanks to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Lee film to which most folks compare this new epic. A virtuoso bit of collaborative pizazz, the boat-sinking scene may be, on its own, enough to lock up a spot for Squyres, whose work helps to make the film unfold like a riveting ride. Elsewhere in the realms of technical magic, the movie is all but sure to drum up noms for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, joining genre hits and, perhaps, last-minute Christmas fare (like Zero Dark Thirty or Les Miz) as the literary entry among booming comers. The nods would give worthy recognition to aural wizards Drew Kunin and Philip Stockton.
As for Lee himself? Plenty of pundits have the oft-sober auteur ranked high on their lists of hopefuls, and that recent win for Brokeback Mountain sure does work in his favor. But, in truth, Life of Pi is no consummate achievement, and Lee really shouldn’t be considered a lock. He does little to downplay the frequent awfulness of David Magee’s screenplay, and the manner in which the film jerks from past to present hardly screams “exemplary craft.” But what he otherwise delivers is sweeping enough that voters may leave enchanted, and ready to offer a wave of kudos to the movie and its maker. In Lee’s hands, Life of Pi sure does fit the film year’s running theme, standing as another survival story after the flood.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Visual Effects; Best Cinematography; Best Editing; Best Sound Editing.
Possibilities: Best Director, Ang Lee; Best Sound Mixing; Best Original Score.
Shouldn’t be Overlooked: Best Supporting Actor, Irfan Khan.