Oscars 2022: The Envelope, Please

Do they still use envelopes? You really can’t call those $200-apiece cardboard craft projects envelopes.

The 94th annual Academy Awards are upon us. My penultimate round of picks, made under duress:

Music (Original Song)

Can’t go wrong with Queen Beyoncé. “King Richard” was the only sports movie ever that made me cry.

Prediction: “Be Alive”

Still, the artistry of Billie Eilish can’t be denied. This music video captures more emotion than the movie did — in fact, the Bond clips kinda ruin the video. Anyway, it won’t win, but I sure like the poetic convergence of “Be Alive” and “No Time to Die” in this category. Keeping the movies alive that keep us alive!

Pick: “No Time to Die”

[Update post-Oscars: “No Time to Die” was the winner!]

Feeling obligated to share the also-rans, just in case you missed them. You can play them while you “read” (scroll). And de verdad, “Dos Oruguitas” shouldn’t win — not only because no one can remember how to spell it, but because even Disney is voting against it by promoting “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” instead; see quibble at the end of the post.

Visual Effects

For the first time ever, I enjoyed seeing all the action movies tied to this category.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings” broadened me culturally. So much humor and I didn’t fall asleep during the battle scenes as I typically do. The story was weak, though. Super far-fetched. (As if the rest aren’t?) One point against it: The VFX team used the exact same “ring of fire” portal effect for the characters to step through to other dimensions as was used in “Spider-Man.” Is there a setting on the MacBook for “ring of fire portal”?

“Dune” — Just wasn’t feeling the sandworms. Sleep-inducing. Like a lullaby. Check back when we get to Part Two. [UPDATE: While watching the run-up interviews on March 27, all the VFX artists were explaining their techniques, and I might have made the wrong call here. “Dune” probably has the artistic edge. If only the movie hadn’t felt so dull.]

“No Time to Die” — Big surprise! The hero dies! (You knew that, right?)

Prediction: Spider-Man: No Way Home

Can’t bet against the most popular movie of the year. I honestly felt queasy as he swung around, so I guess those were some rad visual effects. Enjoyed the star power and the multiverse science stuff, too. But because of the ordinary “ring of fire” effect, it loses points and can’t be my pick.

Pick: Free Guy

“Free Guy” is the only movie in this category I’d be inclined to rewatch. It’s “Groundhog Day” meets “The Truman Show.” Chris, if you’re reading this, you MUST check out this flick. Augmented reality is part of my daily life, so it stimulated my imagination — and not just in scenarios featuring Ryan Reynolds, but, yeah, that, too. Now I gotta cue up “Deadpool”! (Yes, I’m the only one in the universe who hasn’t seen it.)

[Update post-Oscars: “Dune” was the winner.]

Costume Design

“Cruella” was smashing, but its extreme fashions catered to mostly one person. “Cyrano” was credible, but nothing too special — and seeing Peter Dinklage’s wardrobe only made me feel worse for the protagonist of the live-action short “The Dress,” about a woman with dwarfism who struggled to find any nice clothes to fit her. Throughout “Dune,” I felt the urge the do laundry. Nothing against the stylistic “Nightmare Alley”

Prediction & Pick: West Side Story

… but nothing can compare to “West Side Story,” whose wardrobists had to outfit an entire mob. While the costume design was enmeshed in its production design — could the dance at the gym have been better coordinated? — every garment in every frame simply sizzles and energizes. They paid homage to the original while freshening and upping their game. The costumes contribute more to the characters than any other nominee.

[Update post-Oscars: “Cruella” was the winner.]

Cinematography

This is the one category in which I will yield to the front-runner — although I am still secretly (or not so secretly) rooting for “West Side Story.” I think the power of “The Power of the Dog” is all in its cinematography, so throwing it a bone here.

Prediction & Pick: The Power of the Dog

[Update-post-Oscars: “Dune” was the winner.]

International Feature Film

Flabbergasted that the critics gave a 100% score to Bhutan’s “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” about a reluctant teacher in the most remote classroom on Earth. That and Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s near-pornographic, self-indulgent, autobiographical “Hand of God” are the only two I can safely eliminate. (Sure, now you’re all gonna race to stream that one.) Denmark’s “Flee” and Japan’s “Drive My Car” were brilliant — but “Flee” has other chances to win in the animated feature and documentary feature categories. Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World” was probably the most relatable and engaging entrant for me — I also had the chance to see it in the theater, so maybe that gave it an advantage. (I featured it in an earlier post.) But it has a chance to win in the original screenplay category, whereas I doubt “Drive My Car” will snag best picture or adapted screenplay. So making the most charitable pick here.

Prediction & Pick: Drive My Car

[Update post-Oscars: “Drive My Car” was the winner!]

Documentary Feature

Ah, cursed category in which I was unable to screen all five submissions. “Writing With Fire” remains elusive (its public premiere is March 28, the day after the Oscars telecast), so I’m not wholly qualified to judge. It also received 100% positive reviews from the critics, but who knows — many Academy voters may not have gotten through all their screening materials. It certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of ink, being a journo flick. It may indeed win. But this category is so strong, it’s anybody’s race. I wrote a whole post early on about “Attica,” and “Ascension” simply blew me away — a fly-on-the-wall study of the Chinese work ethic, classism, and that pervasive “Made in China” label. The sex-doll factory alone! “Flee,” again, was mesmerizing. Yet I’m compelled to go with the most entertaining and the best-edited documentary — the solid-gold “Summer of Soul.”

Prediction & Pick: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

[Update post-Oscars: “Summer of Soul” was the winner!]

Animated Feature

Prediction & Pick: Flee

[Update post-Oscars: “Encanto” was the winner.]

“Encanto” fans will call this pick blasphemy, but I’m making the choice based on art here, not formula. Besides, my favorite song/scene in “Encanto” is “Surface Pressure” — and no one ever talks about that one (instead “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” gets all the attention — it wasn’t even the nominated song, and yet it will be performed during the live telecast, upstaging its own nominee). “Surface Pressure” also contains the only Titanic reference I recall among all 52 Oscar nominees I’ve seen.

And that segues into what I consider the top eight categories — all four acting awards, best picture, best director, and, most important, the two writing awards (original and adapted screenplay). That’s too much pressure for me to process tonight. No doubt you’ve made up your mind already on those and don’t need me to weigh in, anyway. No mistakes, no pressure! tick…tick…BOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

[Update post-Oscars: My score was a dismal 3 of 7 among these.]

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Oscar picks: Cinematography

The nominees:

The Grandmaster (Philippe Le Sound). How do you translate Terrence Malick into Chinese? Bingo. Every shot here is painstakingly precious — the super-slow-mo kung fu gang warfare in a downpour is an explosive but choppy opening.  Impressive that the cameras didn’t get waterlogged. This movie does play like an epic poem.  Eventually, though, the effort to make every frame a piece of framable art (or velvet painting, in some cases) gets cumbersome. Cinematography should be the medium, not the entire masterpiece. Solly, Chalrie, too indulgent for my tastes. The trailer deceives you into thinking there is more story there — the movie feels more like a brochure for a martial arts school than a history lesson. Could it be the language barrier?

Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki). Contrast the choppy opening of The Grandmaster with Lubezki’s 12- to 20-minute continuous opening shot (depending on your source). OK, now that’s just showing off. Academy voters are likely to vote for this because the vista of space tickles their fancies — even though it was all done with wires and “mirrors,” i.e. the Light Box that I’m sure you’ve read about. Great invention, this 3-D projection chamber with 4,096 programmable twinkly lights.  I simply can’t vote for robotic cameras and puppetry in this category. For visual effects, sure, hands-down, it wins the Oscar, but give me humans operating a camera any day.

Inside Llewyn Davis  (Bruno Delbonnel).  Now we’re talking cinematography. Delbonnel did Amélie — he has a magic touch. This movie was like a painting, so lyrical … mostly blue hues, with spots of brown marking Llewyn and the cat, little splashes of red opportunities and life flashing by. It’s the kind of film you can watch with the sound off and it will still hold your interest. The cinematography supplies half of its character. Perfection.

Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael).  I’m really torn between the previous nominee and this one, a rare black-and-white entry. Papamichael also shot 2011’s The Descendants — he’s a master at narrative photography. And that’s what he calls it, “photography,” so in that respect I feel the images were a bit static. Sometimes I got the sense I was looking at a storyboard not a finished film. But the black-and-white wasn’t flat at all —it somehow helped bring the bleakness of these folks’ lives to life.  There was one shot that made me disgruntled, though —one weird rack focus moment in which Will Forte and Bruce Dern switch places in their vehicle, and the camera lens changes shape then rights itself — I tsk-tsked that, was it intentional? Made me dizzy. But overall this is a true contender. Stacy Keach! That was Stacy Keach. At 72,  he’s only five years younger than Bruce Dern, but man, he looked 20 years younger.

Prisoners (Roger A. Deakins). I may be the only one who saw this movie showcasing Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo and Viola Davis. I know, right? The cinematography was so suspenseful it pulsated like a horror movie, even though it’s your basic twisty crime detective story —expertly crafted.  Sadly, because no one saw it, it can’t possibly win.

My prediction: “Gravity”

My pick: “Nebraska”

(Ultimately, because these are American awards, Nebraska should win over the foreign-feeling Inside Llewyn Davis — also probably too many words in the title for folks to remember, as this is The Year of One-Word Titles. Nebraska is like an American Gothic, or Wizard of Oz without the color fantasy section … but I wouldn’t be sad if Inside Llewyn Davis took home an Oscar.)