Some Harmless Fun

It's the time of year for me to be utterly torn -- torn by my knowledge that the Oscars are a ridiculous ritual and by my fascination with them. They are, as somebody (I don't remember who) once said, the Superbowl for gay people, and I have often dreamed of tailgating the ceremony whilst wearing my pink feather boa. (Or maybe Tayari Jones's coat. Except I think I somehow look like Rudy Giuliani in that picture.) And yet I also agree with a lot of what A.O. Scott said about them: "The Oscars themselves may be harmless fun, but the idea that they matter is as dangerous as it is ridiculous."

So I'm going to give up on matter for the moment, and instead indulge in harmless fun by offering unsolicited and utterly useless opinions on films I have seen and not seen. (Do note, though, that last year I lost on Oscar betting to Ms. McCarron.)

Here we go, with the help of the official list:

Actor: Consensus seems to be that Daniel Day-Lewis will win, and that seems deserved to me. Some people have carped that his acting was showy or external or something like that, but such criticisms seem to me to come from a limited view of what acting is and can be, the sort of view that privileges the most Method of Method Acting (bleccch) over everything else. Day-Lewis's performance made me think of Meyerhold's biomechanics and of some of Grotowski's ideas about acting. My other favorite male performance of the year was not nominated: Tony Leung Chiu Wai in Lust, Caution, a performance that is brilliant in exactly the opposite way that Day-Lewis's is: its power comes from Leung's restraint, from how much he is able to convey with a glance, from how masterfully he uses stillness and silence, and how stunning it is when he breaks the stillness and silence. I thought the movie itself fell flat, but his performance was entrancing.

Supporting Actor: I'm rooting for Hal Holbrook or Casey Affleck here. I didn't much like Into the Wild, but Holbrook did a lot with the little he was given. It's strange that Casey Affleck, who is pretty much the protagonist of Jesse James, was put forth in the supporting category, but that's probably how they thought he had the best shot to be noticed, given the number of attention-getting lead roles there were this year. He deserves the award for making an otherwise vapid movie at least somewhat interesting and for his flawlessly focused performance.

Actress: Of these films, I've only seen Away from Her, and Julie Christie, was, indeed, marvelous in a role that could easily have been sentimental. That it was not is a testament to Christie's performance, as well as the writing and editing of the film.

Supporting Actress: I want Cate Blanchett to win just because I'm annoyed that my favorite film of the year, I'm Not There, didn't get more nominations. Stupid Academy people! Bah!

Animated Feature: I only saw Persepolis, but I liked it quite a bit -- the animation was engaging from beginning to end, and the wonder of it, I thought, was that it made every frame of the film feel like a blank page, a place where any sort of movement might happen. That's the virtue of animation in general, but I've rarely encountered animated films that so vividly exploit this virtue.

Art Direction: Hmmm. I find this category completely uninspiring. I want to be excited at the idea of Sweeney Todd winning (will it? I don't know), but in retrospect, there's something too monotone to that movie's art direction for my taste -- I wanted it to be somehow both livelier and grittier. Or maybe I just think Across the Universe deserved to be here and I'm bitter. Yes, that's probably it. Stupid Academy people! Bah!

Cinematography: In some way or another, all of these films deserve to win (well, I haven't seen Atonement yet, but I'm feeling generous). My last choice would probably be Jesse James, because it felt too pleased with its own cinematography to me, and self-satisfaction annoys me. Which could just be a product of my own self-satisfaction. Still, it was a better movie visually than most of what was out there. I liked other aspects of No Country for Old Men better than the cinematography, but it was certainly excellent. There Will Be Blood would probably be my second choice in this category, because there was something organic and messy about the photography and lighting, and in the couple of moments when I wasn't thinking about how much I liked Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, I was thinking about the cinematography. But my choice for winner would be Diving Bell and the Butterfly, because I think cinematography is the film's greatest strength. There was a lot I didn't like about the movie after the first half hour, but cinematographically it's a masterpiece. The most deserving movie I know of for this category, though, isn't here: Zodiac. (See this American Cinematographer article for an explanation of some of what went into filming Zodiac.)

Costume Design: Across the Universe! Yay! If anything else wins, I will go to Fifth Avenue and burn all my boas in the street!

Directing: No Country stands out for me here, more so than in any other category, really. There Will Be Blood is just too much of a mess in its second half for me to find it deserving of this award, even though I generally found the mess fascinating. Anderson's great movie is still to come. No Country displayed some gutsy directorial choices, and felt to me like a summation and apotheosis of so many of the Coens's obsessions and proclivities that it stands out here for me.

Documentaries: I didn't see any of the nominated documentary features or shorts. I didn't get excited by documentaries in 2007 because, whether justifiably or not, I felt that most were the sorts of things you only needed to read a summary of and look at the poster for to know most of what you'd get from them. I'm prejudiced against documentaries in general, though, because for most subjects, I'd rather just read a book.

Editing: I kind of want Bourne Ultimatum to win here, even though it was my least favorite of the Bourne movies -- the editing kept the movie moving at such a pace that it was occasionally difficult to realize how limp the thing was at its core, and this, in its own weird way, is a triumph. No Country may deserve the award, too, because the Coens (pseudonymously) did their own editing; in some ways, though, I think of it as being an extension of their directing, which I've already said is the award I think they most deserve. The editing category is another one where I miss the presence of Zodiac -- I don't know if it's the movie I would have chosen for a winner, but it certainly belongs in this company.

Foreign Language Film: The absence of Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days here is so glaring that I have trouble taking this category seriously, which is a shame, because last year I thought the Foreign Language category was the strongest one in the lineup.

Makeup and Music: Not categories I have any opinion about, amazingly enough. Except I think there should be more music about makeup.

Best Picture: I'm Not There. And it's not.

Short Films: I have a weird prejudice against short films, a complete resistance to them.

Sound Editing: No Country is a good choice here, because it does what few American films do: eschews music. Well-placed music can be wonderful in a movie, of course, but I do wish American movies weren't so beholden to it. That No Country created as powerful an atmosphere and mood as it did is in no small part the result of the sound editing, and so it deserves, methinks, notice.

Sound Mixing: I am generally unqualified to judge all of the categories for the Oscar, but in this one I am particularly unqualified, knowing nothing whatsoever about sound mixing. If you're in desperate need of my opinion here (in which case you are desperate in ways I don't even want to imagine), then here it is: Sound mixing? I am in favor of it.

Visual Effects: Didn't see the films.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay): I think Away from Her deserves this one, though No Country will probably win. There were a number of things that made Away from Her as effective as it was, but the element that most impressed me was the writing -- Sarah Polley's script (PDF), based on Alice Munro's "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" is masterfully understated -- what could have easily been a disease-of-the-week weepie became so much more through the intelligent and restrained construction of scenes.

Writing (Original Screenplay): This is a strange collection, and not a particularly strong one. (I'm Not There deserved this award, too.) The only worthwhile thing about Lars and the Real Girl is that it contains a sex doll as a main character and yet could have received a G rating. Otherwise, it's just about as insipid as the average Hallmark Hall of Fame movie.

Whew! That's enough bloviating for me for quite some time!

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