In the absence of a de facto Best Picture frontrunner, the Oscar here usually goes to the slickest contender. This certainly explains the recent victories for The Bourne Ultimatum, The Social Network, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, three films whose respective visual canvases hinged heavily on their varying ranges of unorthodox editing techniques. Given this trend, the weak Best Picture favorite in this year’s race, 12 Years a Slave, will likely not garner any attention for Joe Walker’s understated work. Likewise, the acting showcase Dallas Buyers Club gains little from its nondescript editing and can also probably be ruled out. By contrast, the frenzied rhythms of American Hustle’s editing, though stylistically derivative of the Martin Scorsese films to which the crime caper owes a significant debt, fit the mold of previous winners rather comfortably. An even stronger contender, however, is Christopher Rouse’s masterfully compact cutting for Captain Phillips. Coupled with his previous Oscar win for Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum, Rouse’s recent ACE Eddie Award triumph for dramatic feature editing would seem to present a solid case for him coasting to a victory here, particularly given how much Captain Phillips derives its tension from his maximum-impact cutting. Standing in his way, however, is the technical titan Gravity. Editing may not be the film’s primary showcase, but its fluidly breathless compositional sense is as much a credit to Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger’s intuitive splicing techniques as any anything else. How far the film’s benchmark-defining pedigree will take it beyond the technical categories remains the million-dollar question, but it’s safe to say that the honors the Academy bestows on the film on Sunday will also encompass this one.
The Bourne Ultimatum (#1–10 of 10)
This past weekend, Gravity claimed the Live Action Film award for sound mixing from the Cinema Audio Society, one more precursor voting body whose results could prove prescient when it comes to Oscar’s March 2nd endgame. But, really, even if the CAS had tossed a lifesaver to Captain Phillips, or a dollar into the hopelessly lightweight guitar case of Inside Llewyn Davis, it still wouldn’t have changed our opinion that this statuette belongs to Alfonso Cuarón’s minimalist, outer space-set spectacle, which is poised to pick up more technical Oscars than any film since The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King. Had the Coen brothers’ folksy ode to failure had more rafter-shaking pizazz (a la Les Misérables, Dreamgirls, and other musicals served well by this category), and had Captain Phillips had the hyperkinetic technical muscle of Paul Greengrass’s three-time Oscar winner The Bourne Ultimatum, there might be arguments worth having here. But there really seems to be no stopping Gravity’s craft-category onslaught, and its victories in the sound races in particular will prove that, in the cinematic silences of space, everyone can hear you scream, breathe, howl, “detach!” and hurtle toward rebirth.
Last year’s tie in this category allowed us the unique opportunity to call it either 50 percent right or 50 percent wrong, depending on how generous we’re willing to be with ourselves for accurately giving Skyfall our “could win” designation. (On the downside, our “will win” prediction for Life of Pi went the way of the tiger.) But lest anyone think we’re playing it safe by predicting that this year’s contest will add another to what ought to be a near sweep for Gravity in the technical categories, let me be the umpteenth person to point out the perception that the movie’s deliberate lack of woofer-rocking explosions makes it an unorthodox frontrunner. I say “perception,” because even though in space no one can hear you Foley, you’d have to be deaf not to note that Glenn Fremantle’s work, as delivered to your bleeding eardrums via freshly installed Dolby Atmos systems, unleashes some of the most punishingly cacophonous noise this side of Chelyabinsk.
At present, the Tom Hanks Oscar vehicle getting the most buzz is Saving Mr. Banks, an apparent dual biopic of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and some underachieving schmo named Walt Disney (Hanks). Having premiered at the recent London Film Festival, Banks, one of the season’s last expected awards players, is netting some glowing reviews, despite such red flags as its insta-baity industry back-patting; the direction of wholesome and Red State-y maestro John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side); and the peddling of an Americans-tame-the-stuffy-Brit narrative. Admittedly, I haven’t seen Saving Mr. Banks, and it may well be as winning as Escape From Tomorrow is overconfident, but let’s hope it doesn’t overshadow Hanks’s other contender, Captain Phillips, a film that, regardless of missteps, deserves to appear in a handful of categories.
The first success of the new Bourne poster? It expresses the frenetic speed of the franchise better than any of its predecessors. You don’t quite get “briskly-edited spy pulse-pounder” from a bland image of Matt Damon running in place, but you might get it from a dark one-sheet cut into venetian-blind slivers, each one looking a bit like its own passing locomotive, and evoking the ample splicing that marked the Paul Greengrass chapters. Sleek noir action is what Universal and Cold Open are shooting for, and I dare say they’ve achieved it, despite the feeling that the result boasts only moderate visual interest.
“There was never just one,” reads the tagline, desperate to assure you that the Damon/Jeremy Renner swap isn’t just a smooth transition, but one that’s long been in the cards. Renner, whose face is different enough to personalize but similar enough to maintain brand identity, plays a new mystery man whose circumstances are prompted by what Bourne left behind (hence “Legacy”). The metallic palette reads “gun,” the bulging bicep reads “role commitment,” and the eyes read “unshakable focus.” Indeed, with every sliding panel, the makers of this trilogy extension want to communicate a retention of hallmarks, and cling to the ghost of that eponymous anti-Bond.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Few would argue against The Tree of Life being one of the very best films of the year, but it remains the biggest wild card of awards season, a massively beloved masterpiece whose impressionistic style and ostensible inaccessibility have presumably prevented it from surging forward as a sure thing. Since claiming the Palme d’Or (which does mean something despite the common lack of Cannes/Oscar overlap), the film has landed on scads of top ten lists and picked up Best Picture wins and nominations from the BFCA, the OFCS, the Chicago Film Critics, the Detroit Film Critics, the Houston Film Critics, the San Diego Film Critics, the San Francisco Film Critics, the Toronto Film Critics, and the Gotham Independents. It has not, however, managed to declare itself an all-but-certain holder of a Best Picture slot a la The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo, War Horse, Moneyball, The Help, and Midnight in Paris. Its complete Golden Globes shutout is hardly surprising, ditto its SAG snubs, but yesterday’s diss from the Producer’s Guild was a bit more unexpected, and a lot more crucial in terms of its overall Oscar hopes. Even with all the resounding support, can The Tree of Life stay in the big race?
I don’t mean to speak for Ed here, but this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve started pulling back and rethinking the momentum of our day-by-day Oscar-winner forecasts, especially as the winds of buzz begin to drift during the last week before the telecast (if for no other reason than Oscar addicts, even in this shortened Oscar season calendar, do begin to resent the steady flood of critics’ and guild awards turning a wide-open race into a dutiful coronation of predestined winners). Last year saw me mistakenly picking The Queen for Original Screenplay before realizing, too late in the game, that Little Miss Sunshine would clearly sass its way to a win. Conversely, Entertainment Weekly this year is apparently going through some last-minute soul searching of its own as it puts Michael Clayton in strong runner-up positions in nearly every one of its main categories. As much as we don’t respect that decision or, really, just about any decision in EW, we gotta say we can relate. Case in point: At this point where we have to wonder whether No Country for Old Men is really the sort of contender that wins as many awards as we have it down for now. It’s hard to see it keeping company with Titanic and The English Patient—the coattails for a movie like No Country can only trail so far, right? Two movies to consider here might be American Beauty and Million Dollar Baby, both of which managed to snatch Best Picture on a plurality rather than as a result of the widespread support one would recognize by the bloated “Winner of 8 ... 9 ... 10 Academy Awards!” totals of yore. Neither won Best Editing, which has often been touted as the secret bellwether of the eventual Best Picture winner for as long as people made it a business to prognosticate the Oscars. Instead, the statuettes went to, respectively, The Matrix and The Aviator. Call us chicken or tell us we’re overthinking it, but we could easily see the razor-sharp but often invisible cutting of No Country making way for another Bourne Ultimatum win. The American Cinema Editors certainly did, as they did previously for…The Matrix and The Aviator.
In all the hubbub about Kevin O’Connell’s 20th nomination (well, actually, more like the residual hubbub about his 19th nomination last year that many presumed wouldn’t have to carry over to this year), no one has brought up the fact that the sound mixer’s co-nominee for Transformers, Greg P. Russell, has 12 winless nominations under his belt as well, and has in fact been nominated nearly every year since his work on 1996’s The Rock. That no one ever brings up Russell’s name when discussing what has been sold as the greatest Oscar injustice since Richard Burton or Peter O’Toole lost on their respective seventh and eighth times at bat suggests what the O’Connell buzz really boils down to: PR. If the Sound Editing category is more forgiving of bluster, Sound Mixing favors subtler textures—or at least a surfeit of musical numbers. In the absence of the live instruments that helped Dreamgirls hand O’Connell his 19th loss, we have to admit O’Connell’s odds likely haven’t been this good since the year his nominations for both The Rock and Twister were edged by, um, the tasteful, subtle, Best Picture-nominated textures of The English Patient. Déjà vu. This year’s slate also contains a sole Best Picture nominee, one whose spare but surprisingly inventive sound (inspired by Robert Bresson, not that I imagine most voters would give a shit) also just won the award from the Cinema Audio Society. While it’s true the CAS-to-Oscar track record isn’t quite as solid as either the DGA or SAG, it should be noted that O’Connell hasn’t won a CAS either. And with some of the action-addict votes undoubtedly being siphoned away by The Bourne Ultimatum, we preemptively wish him the best with nomination number 21.
Not every tech category where No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are facing off will settle in either of their favor. Case in point, and waaay down on the totem pole for most Oscar pool voters, is Best Sound Editing. Because it’s the sister sound award, Best Sound Mixing, that gets the more tasteful shorthand designation of “Best Sound” over on IMDB, we have to assume many will take this award to mean Biggest, Brashest Boomage, even though it’s the other sound category where you’ll find Steven O’Donnell, the Susan Lucci of big, dumb action spectacles, nominated. (What? His name’s Kevin O’Connell? Oops, well there goes the notion that the PR behind his campaign has made him into a household name. We promise to get his name right in a couple days when we get around to his category.) Because There Will Be Blood’s textures are more apt to convey the ominous creaks of wooden oil derricks, and because the most tangible sonic effect is Daniel Day-Lewis’s roar, I doubt it’s much contest for No Country’s terrifying web of gunfire and ricochets. But even No Country’s sonic tour de force might read more as a coup in sound mixing. This is the category where shattering panes of glass, screeching tires, and flying knives tend to stake their claim of the territory, meaning cunning Oscar pool voters might want to use this category as an opportunity to deviate from the “vote for the Best Picture nominee” ethos that will probably decide more categories than usual this year. Pixar won this category three years back with The Incredibles, so Ratatouille may find similar success with the same recipe of sound-from-scratch. Transformers, all heavy-duty kazoos, is the traditionalist’s choice in this field. When in doubt, though, it’s never a bad idea to bet against the adult-contemporary action movie with a relatively strong critical pedigree. So, in the spirit of Speed, The Matrix, and Master and Commander (and, arguably, Saving Private Ryan and Letters from Iwo Jima), we see voters using this award to christen the Jason Bourne series as the great white hope for reasonably intelligent Hollywood actioneers.
Maybe it was the casting of Franka Potente in The Bourne Identity (and, briefly, in its equally competent sequel The Bourne Supremacy) that got me thinking that the Bourne films are simply Run Lola Run overloaded with an exposition-heavy plot involving amnesia, corrupt government spooks and international globetrotting.
Replacing Lola, of course, is Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), a super-spy trained to kill, trapped in a world he never made, and desperate to discover the secrets of his forgotten past. What made Run Lola Run special was its understanding that genre requirements for this sort of movie are so arbitrary and even ridiculous that it became the film’s running joke. The movie was not about the mysteries and unpredictability of life; it was in effect saying that the allure of action pictures is simply watching a tough and determined hero or heroine, with single-minded purpose, racing so magnificently you want to pin an Olympic medal on them.