2013 IN REVIEW: Duncan’s Dream Oscar Ballot (Part One)

StokerIt’s not just me bragging… okay, it’s mostly me bragging, but…

In my early years of film blogging one of my favorite recurring posts was Guy Lodge’s Dream Oscar Ballots at In Contention. They’re a fun gimmick to stick it to the Academy and vouch for your own favorites, but more than that, they helped me realize how much great work there is, even beyond my own personal favorites. A film that wins Best Picture shouldn’t necessarily get every award it’s nominated for subsequently. The chemical makeup of cinema doesn’t work that way, and it’s great to give smaller, perhaps less uniformly extraordinary films credit where it’s due.

But isn’t that the point of the Film Misery Awards? Well, yes, and I’m grateful also that we have a place where each of the writers get a stake in the finding a consensus of films and performances we all (hopefully) love, but there’s a risk of washing out more niche titles that other writers may not have seen. I’ve seen nearly 200 films of 2013, a number I don’t mean to brag about, and in fact resent a bit because that’s the amount of work I have to dilute in every category. So I don’t mean to make my favorites more particular than others, but I couldn’t remain totally silent about these commendable individual elements.

If I had an Oscar ballot, this is what it’d look like. I hope the average Academy member will have put just as much thought into theirs as I did into mine.

* – Film Misery Awards overlap
** – Academy Awards overlap
*** – Film Misery *AND* Academy Awards overlap

2013 Production DesignBest Production Design

  • Julie Berghoff, The Conjuring
  • Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby***
  • Jess Gonchor, The Lone Ranger
  • Estefania Larrain, No
  • Beth Mickle, Only God Forgives

Runners-Up: American Hustle; Her; Shadow Dancer; Something in the Air; Stoker

Further Thoughts: In a frightfully rare feat, the Film Misery Awards slate for Production Design directly mirrors that of the actual Oscar nominations, and none of us are sure if the Academy succeeded or we simply failed, but know that the sameness isn’t for lack of trying. The only commonality from my ballot is Catherine Martin’s glorious inflation of spectacle on The Great Gatsby. My other choices were no less extravagant, either in the American mainstream or the foreign indie market. My studio picks both wisely channeled the old-fashioned aesthetics of their genres, The Conjuring constructing its intensely creepy scares from giddily decrepit, unsettlingly playful memorabilia. Meanwhile The Lone Ranger emphasized the wildness of its west, adding touches of kink and surliness to its rustic buildings, though its insane, practical action set-pieces would’ve cinched a vote from me on their own. Only God Forgives also steeps itself heavily in genre, but its oozes the mentality and style of a chamber piece, its Bangkok restaurants, brothels and boxing rings becoming places of worship, confession and penance. Finally Pablo Larrain and co. brought his Pinochet trilogy to an expressive close, balancing the recovering desolation he wrought in Post Mortem with No‘s intentional feats of progressive whimsy.

2013 CinematographyBest Cinematography

  • Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity***
  • Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel, Leviathan
  • Adam Arkapaw, Lore
  • Bradford Young, Mother of George
  • Benoit Debie, Spring Breakers

Runners-Up: Bastards; Her; The Selfish Giant; Side Effects; To the Wonder

Further Thoughts: Any worries I had that great cinematography only had one hue were effectively dispelled by the diversity of the visual offerings, even amongst the same cinematographers. Lubezki and Young were the MVPs among the D.P.s this year, the former gliding at once lyrical and kinetic across vast, stunning reaches of visual effects space with Gravity (and also To the Wonder), the latter imparted intensely gorgeous hues upon its Nigerian Brooklyn community with Mother of George (and also Ain’t Them Bodies Saints). Adam Arkapaw was also a standout double-dipper for his simultaneously crisp and inky lensing of Lore and Top of the Lake, even if the latter wouldn’t *technically* qualify as film for some (though damn it, it should!). While each of those film remain confidently narrative driven, Leviathan and Spring Breakers both abandon narrative coherence in their complete sensory immersion. SEL’s highwire doc achieves such immersion to make one question how they achieved it with such clarity, while Benoit Debie’s work varies from neon to granulation to gratuitously MTV-style pornography to cover us head to foot in a warped mindset. He arguably has more solid footing in this regard than Harmony Korine.

2013 Costume DesignBest Costume Design

  • Kurt and Bart, Dallas Buyers Club
  • Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby***
  • Trish Summerville, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  • Mobolaji Dawodu, Mother of George
  • Kurt and Bart, Stoker

Runners-Up: Blue Jasmine; The Conjuring; Her; The Invisible Woman; The Place Beyond the Pines

Further Thoughts: My increased passion for costume design doesn’t change the fact that I only get one vote in this category. Naturally only the most obvious and widely scene showcase makes the cut, with Catherine Martin filling her grand mansions with a menagerie of diamond-riddled gowns, precociously tailored suits and gorgeous bodies to rock them. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was seen by just as many, if not more, but its district-specific wardrobes, either grandiose or gritty, were niche delights even beyond the girl on fire. Kurt and Bart’s work on Dallas Buyers Club, meanwhile, was almost destined to be overlooked by many, the specificity of both its period setting and its characters’ manifold personalities and prejudices being lost on many. The duo would get an even nattier outlet in Stoker, plotting the maturity of its lead character, the withering of Kidman’s black widow, and the creamy, boyish charm of Matthew Goode’s evil uncle. Both Kurt & Bart’s films still got a wider audience than Mother of George, whose passionate display of devoted Nigerian garments doesn’t whitewash the sleekness of its characters’ alternating charming and thorny personalities.

2013 Film EditingBest Film Editing

  • Chris Dickens, Berberian Sound Studio*
  • Jennifer Lame, Frances Ha
  • Nick Fenton, The Selfish Giant
  • Nicolas De Toth, Stoker
  • Shane Carruth and David Lowery, Upstream Color*

Runners-Up: Blue Is the Warmest Color; The Broken Circle Breakdown, Her; Mother of George; Side Effects

Further Thoughts: Our thoughts on what makes great film editing tend to stray often towards the most bravura examples of it. Admittedly my own list contains at least three examples of markedly extreme editing, namely our Film Misery Award winner Upstream Color, which gives incredibly ethereal symbolic and emotional shape to narrative that’s anything but straightforward. Even if we can’t fathom the plot, the editing makes it clear about how we should feel about it. Berberian Sound Studio and Stoker both use their editing to wrap us in a psychological cocoon, in the former’s case, a smothering blanket of its own world-obliterating craft; the latter, a casing of its own fragmented moral and sexual questions, wrapping us back around to the same murders to uncover further distinct and contradictory emotions. By comparison Frances Ha and The Selfish Giant may be less cutting-edge, both cut with the severity of a deep scalpel, alternately lending to their spiky personas and slicing through its characters false-confidences. Extra points to Frances Ha for being edited by someone aptly surnamed “Lame”. Aptly for the film’s theme, I mean. Not her work on it.

2013 Makeup & HairstylingBest Makeup & Hairstyling

  • American Hustle*
  • The Lone Ranger**
  • Lore

Runners-Up: Evil DeadUpstream Color, Warm Bodies

Further Thoughts: I worried once that the renaming of the category to “Makeup AND HAIRSTYLING” would have no effect on how the category is voted for. With the omission of American Hustle from the Oscar race, it’d seem I was right, the dos in O. Russell’s latest having taken on a media life of their own. They still beguile beyond the length of a gimmick, acting as fine character details in a film with much craft specificity. By comparison The Lone Ranger seems to play rather broadly with its makeup, but it goes well beyond the flaky facepaint of Tonto, also adding age, disfigurement and gnarly grizzle to its wide array of characters. One film that wasn’t even considered, sadly, was Lore, which managed the melting visages of its pretty protagonists as well as Shortland managed the rapidly fading complexion of post-Nazi Germany.

2013 Original ScoreBest Original Score

  • Tindersticks,  Bastards
  • Sarah Neufeld and Colin Stetson, Blue Caprice
  • Hans Zimmer, The Lone Ranger
  • Keegan Dewitt, This Is Martin Bonner
  • Shane Carruth, Upstream Color*

Runners-Up: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; Berberian Sound StudioHer; Side Effects; The Wind Rises

Further Thoughts: No other Oscar race gives me such a consistent headache year-by-year that this. Much as Oscar loves John Williams, Alexandre Desplat and Thomas Newman, handing them nominations for everything they do kind of abuses the currency. Even if they wanted to appreciate a familiar, beloved face, they could’ve done better with Hans Zimmer, who’s done beguiling work on 12 Years a Slave and Man of Steel, but The Lone Ranger rings truest in terms of both cathartic bombast and loving genre homage. The rest of my ballot resides in smaller titles, and the Academy would do well to lean towards less grandiose titles in the future. Certainly scores for Bastards and Blue Caprice played on the dark side, the former for erotic noir purposes; the latter as yet another twisting knife of distorted isolation. Shane Carruth’s compositions for Upstream Color built a lyrical, supersonic dreamscape that blended beautifully with sound design. Perhaps equaling it in terms of beauteous innovation is Keegan Dewitt’s score for This Is Martin Bonner, using disintegration loops to their most startling, fanciful, melancholic, yet hopeful effect to date. Long may Dewitt (and others) explore and invent.

2013 Original SongBest Original Song

  • “In the Middle of the Night” from The Butler
  • “Love Is an Open Door” from Frozen
  • “Please, Mr. Kennedy” from Inside Llewyn Davis*
  • “So You Know What It’s Like” from Short Term 12*
  • “Young and Beautiful” from The Great Gatsby

Runners-Up: “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” from Frozen; “Let It Go” from Frozen; “The Moon Song” from Her; “I See Fire” from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; “Duet” from Stoker

Further Thoughts: No other race has such an all-over-the-place tendency as the Original Song category, which can have a tendency to bring even the worst films to an Oscar nod (Hi, Alone Yet Not Alone). Not to be left out, Fantasia’s “In the Middle of the Night” offered the most genuine heartbeat to The Butler, a film of garishly forced ones. There were plenty films with multiple song offerings, some handled better than others. While The Great Gatsby‘s hip-hop/jazz fusion was overflowing with impassioned work, only “Young & Beautiful” was given central treatment and served as the backbone of the film’s materialistic romance. Frozen, too, had a bevy of bright showtunes, and the catharsis it elicits begs me to choose “Let It Go”. However I doubt any other song in the film had as lickety-split energy and wit to it than the naive love ode “Love Is an Open Door”. Inside Llewyn Davis, by comparison, had only one “original” song, but it was one of such well-timed comic genius as to pull a number of deep belly laughs out of me in such a short time span. They’re all great, but none was quite as searing, on its own or within the film’s context, as “So You Know What It’s Like” from Short Term 12, not only 2013’s best cinematic song, but the best music moment of 2013 cinema.

2013 Sound EditingBest Sound Editing

  • Berberian Sound Studio*
  • Gravity***
  • Stoker
  • To the Wonder
  • Upstream Color

Runners-Up: The Bling Ring; Blue Is the Warmest Color; Captain PhillipsThe Selfish Giant; Side Effects

Further Thoughts: Sound Editing and Sound Mixing have been lumped together for ages, often ignorantly by voters. They don’t seem to get that these are two separate categories, and that there are only two films overlapping in both my ballots should emphasize that. To describe Film Editing to the best of my knowledge, it’s the manipulation and editing of sounds in post-production to create the auditory soundscape of the film. They can work to convey the cosmic void of space (both literally and symbolically) in Gravity or the fierce chasm that rises between two people in a declining relationship in To the Wonder. They can be diegetically manipulated in the story as the (perhaps) the sensory connective tissue of all humanity in Upstream Color, or simply as a harsh, shrill prison for one man’s mind in Berberian Sound Studio. And in Stoker they can help us to hear what “others cannot hear”, inviting us eerily into scattershot heart of its lead.

2013 Sound MixingBest Sound Mixing

  • Berberian Sound Studio*
  • Captain Phillips**
  • Gravity***
  • The Lone Ranger
  • Man of Steel

Runners-Up: The Conjuring; The Selfish GiantStoker; Upstream Color; The World’s End

Further Thoughts: As for Sound Mixing, its successes are perhaps less narrative based and more experiential in impact, the job of this field being to actually create the sounds that inhabit the soundscape the sound editors work on. To that degree the harsh, effectively crude sounds created in Berberian Sound Studio easily fit the bill, as do the carefully muffled, but subtly jarring sounds of Gravity. Certainly my ballot leans towards the mainstream, but not joylessly so. The most sweeping visceral aspect of Captain Phillips was the propulsive thrash of steel and water. The Lone Ranger also used steel as a symbolic set-piece, Gore Verbinski’s love-hate relationship with industrialism climaxing more than once in a elegantly composed cavalcade of trains and bullets. And yes, I must admit to voting for Man of Steel more than once, because for all its blundering stupidity, its supersonic sound work did much to elevate its third act apocalypse in the realm of inflicting mass terror.

2013 Visual EffectsBest Visual Effects

  • Gravity***
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Lone Ranger**
  • Man of Steel
  • Stoker

Runners-Up: Beautiful Creatures; Ender’s Game; Her; The Secret Life of Walter MittyUpstream Color

Further Thoughts: So the Oscars got more right than the Film Misery Awards? Not to throw my fellow voters under the bus, but that’s exactly what I’m doing. Admittedly the visual effects races are often a mess, and The Hobbit, Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim and Elysium perhaps are the most obvious choices, alongside the equally obvious, but inarguably superior effects work in Gravity. Perhaps the most glorious feat of unabashed *spectacle* was The Great Gatsby, beautiful and blundering in equal capacity and all the more entertainingly wild for it. Speaking of wild (west), the practical spectacle of The Lone Ranger is aided by just as astounding visual effects that rarely feel like they’re intruding on the desert landscape. Much the opposite is Stoker, whose effects may be small, but quite theatrically bridge scenes and whole characters together in subtler ways than some would notice (ex. the field of Nicole Kidman’s hair). And while there may be a lot of animosity out there for Man of Steel, the visual effects ought not to be chided, as they’re the crispest, most dynamic element on display, without which the film wouldn’t have even astonished its genuine fans.

And that’s the first half of my ballot. Tune in Friday for Part 2, but until then enjoy how the nominations are shaking down so far.

5 Nods: The Lone Ranger
4 Nods: GravityThe Great Gatsby, Stoker
3 Nods: Berberian Sound Studio, Upstream Color
2 Nods: Lore, Man of Steel, Mother of George
1 Nod: American Hustle, Bastards, Blue Caprice, The Butler, Captain Phillips, The Conjuring, Dallas Buyers Club, Frances Ha, Frozen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Inside Llewyn Davis, Leviathan, No, Only God Forgives, The Selfish Giant, Short Term 12, Spring Breakers, This Is Martin Bonner, To the Wonder

What would make your Oscar Ballot for the tech awards that wouldn’t necessarily make others’?

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  • wow! What a dazzling list of nominees.

    I can’t really comment on every single nod, overwhelming but personally I would keep MOS away from everything. Frances Ha and Upstream Color would make my editing category.

    Also you understand Costume Design! Such amazing picks there.

    I’ll be doing my own end of the year awards before the Oscars take place so this will really help me remember some deserving picks in such tech categories.

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