OSCAR COUNTDOWN: Best Production Design

Anna KareninaThroughout Oscar season, Film Misery will be offering almost daily breakdowns of the categories in the Oscar race. Today we continue with the Best Production Design category.


The Nominees
:
Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, Anna Karenina
Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent and Simon Bright, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson, Les Miserables
David Gropman and Anna Pinnock, Life of Pi
Rick Carter and Jim Erickson, Lincoln

LincolnThe award for Best Production Design is a rather difficult one to pin down this year, simply because the category’s in something of a transitional period. What new breadth of assumption does the distinction of production over art direction have over the eventual winner? We’ll soon see, though there’s little denying the name change was necessary, given that the art directors weren’t even the ones rewarded on Oscar night. Two films in particular highlight the effect this change has had, though neither has a particularly strong foothold over the race.

The weakest link of here, and in this writer’s unfortunately biased opinion many categories, is Les Miserables. Though worthy consideration is due for the inherent difficulty in adapting such a difficult work to film, few sets truly jump off the screen in grandiose fashion, aside from perhaps the harbor-set opening. Also lacking in the fly-off-the-screen factor is Lincoln, whose nonetheless noble work fleshing out the structural aesthetic of the period does little more to accentuate the conflicted atmosphere of the times.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, though not exactly in the good way, is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Few would contest that the film does harken off the screen for attention, but Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth has two knocks against it. First is the feeling that we’ve seen gorgeous New Zealand vistas win this category before. Second is that the film practically screeches for attention, which may prove less harmonious and more off putting to Academy voters. Furthermore, it’s not even the best fantasy work in the race.

Life of PiThat honor goes to Life of Pi, which wouldn’t even be contested in a field still titled Best Art Direction. Given the track record of this award going to effects driven fantasies – Hugo, Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Pan’s Labyrinth, etc. – there’s considerable evidence in support of the film’s chances. If it does walk away with the statue two weeks from now, it’ll be perfectly in keeping with the history of the category, as well as the Academy’s growing favor with Ang Lee’s film.

For this year, though, I feel vindicated enough to break that expectation ever so slightly in favor of Anna Karenina. Designer Sarah Greenwood has been nominated in this category three times before for Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and Sherlock Holmes, so she may well be overdue for this consideration. Foremost in Greenwood’s favor is that this is the first year where an emphasis has been placed on production, and in that field particularly does Anna Karenina soar. Even the film’s strongest detractors cite Greenwood’s unparalleled in most years work as what truly defines the film’s strengths. I doubt the Academy will find a better occasion to award this rising artist of the craft her first honor. As for Life of Pi‘s David Gropman, assuming Ang Lee sticks with him, he may well return here for more deserving work if the rumors of Lee’s involvement in Cleopatra prove true.

Predicted and Preferred Winner: Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, Anna Karenina
Write-In Vote: Jack Fisk and Amy Wells, The Master

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