It is now become a tradition that on the night before the Oscar nominations, I present my own nominees for what I once called “If I Ran the Oscars” and now call “The Antagonists”, which name I prefer because it gets at the real point of these: which is to be contrary for the sake of it. Anyway, below the jump, all the films & performances & works of craft I’d want to see rewarded if I had the ability to do anything real about it.
The nominations and a brief word in their praise follow; the winners come the night before the Oscars.
A complex and deeply sympathetic portrait of adolescent confusion; a beautiful, heady mix of humor and sorrow doubling as an homage to art’s power to move us; an unblinking epic about society and crime and personal growth; a giddy adventure that turns invisibly into a heartbreaking story of growing up and growing old; and a challenging, brilliant tone poem on violence and psychological frailty.
Andrea Arnold, Fish Tank
Jacques Audiard, Un prophète
Sylvain Chomet, The Illusionist
Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine
Claire Denis, White Material
Arnold grounds her film in a mixture of realism and subjectivity that allows her young protagonist to shine. Audiard never permits the pace of his busy film to let up, while also making sure to always foreground the personal aspects of the story. Chomet effortlessly switches between emotional registers without ever forgetting to let the whimsy in. Cianfrance creates an incredibly sophisticated machine to connect us directly to the bitterness and joy of his characters. And Denis’s tight control of an impressionistic, fragmented narrative contributes everything to her film’s omnipresent sense of doom.
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
Tahar Rahim, Un prophète
Alexander Siddig, Cairo Time
Bridges hasn’t been so much fun in ages, finding all that is charmingly irascible and tender in his cartoonishly large Western lawman. Eisenberg’s depiction of a single-minded misanthrope is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime performance that gives his film most of its insight and heft. As a playful manchild and a confused husband in a failing marriage, Gosling finds depths of emotion that practically melt the celluloid beneath his feet. Rahim’s gradual transition from confused boy to corrupt soul is the backbone of a tremendous coming-of-age narrative. Siddig, meanwhile, is intensely quiet and subtle as a middle-aged man whose slow reveal of his feelings lends credence to a simple but tremendously moving love story.
Patricia Clarkson, Cairo Time
Isabelle Huppert, White Material
Katie Jarvis, Fish Tank
Kim Hye-Ja, Mother
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
Clarkson always knocks it out of the park, but even by her standards this performance of a dully satisfied wife discovering a new set of feelings she’d never dreamed of is positively staggering. Huppert, too, rarely manages a “bad” performance, but it’s been nearly a decade since she’s played a woman so complex and unknowable, finding ways to let her inner self creep out in fits and starts. Jarvis, a non-actor who appears to have returned to non-acting, does far more than just “play herself” in a depiction of a teenager’s inner pain that reflects the miseries of anyone who was ever young. Kim is all nerves and determination and outsized emotion, but she inhabits the character so fully you never notice the contrivances; it is a sublime portrait of the EveryMother. Matching and arguably bettering her co-star’s intensely raw work, Williams’s portrayal of a desperately unhappy woman who doesn’t know why she feels so trapped is almost blindingly real and hurt.
Best Supporting Actor
Niels Arestrup, Un prophète
Michael Fassbender, Fish Tank
John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
Ben Mendelsohn, Animal Kingdom
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
As the pathetic old man who thinks he’s an evil genius, Arestrup provides an elegant foil to Tahar Rahim’s ambivalent protagonist. Fassbender has never been better than in this brutish embodiment of unexamined masculine privilege. Hawkes is terrifying and sweet in just the right mixture to give Jennifer Lawrence a solid throughline to continuously react against. Mendelsohn’s dull savage does more than anything else in Animal Kingdom to firmly establish the corrosive effects of a life of violence. And, of course, Ruffalo’s quicksilver performance of a callow playboy discovering the joys of family life is so subdued it almost doesn’t register as “acting”, but he’s such an integral part of what makes the film hold together emotionally that it would be literally impossible to imagine it without him.
Best Supporting Actress
Elena Morozova, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
Donna Murphy, Tangled
Kristin Scott Thomas, Nowhere Boy
Jackie Weaver, Animal Kingdom
Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer
Two very different wronged wives: Morozova plays the cliché as straightforward realism, making us feel the unexpected repercussions of a storybook love affair with a tart bitterness rare in the form, while Williams turns the trope on its ear, stealing the movie from every other actor and revealing a steel-willed woman beneath the used-up exterior. Murphy’s vocal turn is an amazing boon to a movie that doesn’t always quite find its tonal footing, but in her explosions of anger, of faked enthusiasm, and even of genuine hurt, everything gels (and she nails her big song, nearly saving a drifting musical). Scott Thomas delves into the archly British stereotype of her role and provides an aimless movie with a core of yearning humanity. The instantly-classic turn Weaver gives as a dangerously cheerful grandma from hell is equal parts sugar and arsenic.
For Colored Girls
I Am Love
The Kids Are All Right
Toy Story 3
Mike Leigh’s films are always acting showcases; and Another Year is no exception, allowing several brilliant actors a chance to demonstrate various degrees of joy and fear. For all its dramaturgical meltdowns, For Colored Girls allows a criminally under-used cluster of black actresses* a chance to tear into some operatically big roles. I Am Love is being singled out by some as the Tilda Swinton Show, but she is surrounded by a large cast who, to a person, create nuanced and wholly believable supporting characters. The unconventional family of The Kids Are All Right is brought to life by five marvelously lived-in performances, and the film’s whole edifice would fail without the easy chemistry between every combination of actors. The veteran voice cast of Toy Story 3 returns to their iconic characters with breathless ease, finding new elements of the parts in the process, while the newbies fit into the universe like they were born to do it.
Best Original Screenplay
Another Year, by Mike Leigh
Blue Valentine, by Derek Cianfrance & Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis
Everyone Else, by Maren Ade
Fish Tank, by Andrea Arnold
Toy Story 3, by Michael Arndt
Leigh’s laboratory-created semi-improvisational writing style clicks once again with a depiction of the human desire for connection that is warm in places and positively cruel in others. Arnold fills Fish Tank with a wealth of closely-observed details of both place and mind. Arndt and the storywriters behind Toy Story 3 expand on the universe of the first two films with creativity and elegance, with a screenplay that jumps through a mechanical construction with organic ease. Blue Valentine and Everyone Else present two extremely different visions of a relationship on the rocks, the first heaving and exhausting, the second tight and tiny and cutting; but both are above all else, crushingly honest.
Best Adapted Screenplay
The Ghost Writer, by Robert Harris and Roman Polanski
How to Train Your Dragon, by Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois
The Illusionist, by Sylvain Chomet
Un prophète, by Thomas Bidegain & Jacques Audiard
The Social Network, by Aaron Sorkin
The inexorable twists of The Ghost Writer represent the modern paranoia thriller at its finest. How to Train Your Dragon creates a mostly brand-new story so loopy and charming that it’s hard not to fall in love with it in an instant. Chomet’s gloss of Jacques Tati is personal and haunted, giving the old master a bittersweet tribute he himself couldn’t have managed. Un prophète is smart and sprawling, probing into every nook and cranny of the world it creates with the intellectual curiosity of a 19th Century novelist. The already-legendary Sorkin script for The Social Network is not without its flaws (I still don’t like that frame narrative!), but it makes up for it and then some with powerfully insightful characterisations and the year’s most crackling, quotable dialogue.
Best Foreign Feature*
*(not nominated for Best Feature – my arbitrary list, my arbitrary rules)
Olivier Assayas’s huge Carlos doesn’t blend the personal and political, so much as it doesn’t notice the difference between the two, and the result is a magnificently far-reaching treatise on personal identity in an interntational world. Dogtooth is a nasty-minded satire with enough fucked-up tricks up its sleeve to make anyone wince, but it’s never, ever exploitative. The insight of Everyone Else is piercing enough that parts of it go beyond the point of unpleasantness, but its pragmatic honesty always wins out. Mother, a gleeful mess of a thing, depicts the bonds of family with the energy of a Warner Bros. cartoon and the tragedy of a Greek play. Wild Grass finds Alain Resnais as reflective and light on his feet as ever, building a complex frame in which he can explore thorny questions of how human knowledge works.
Best Animated Feature
How to Train Your Dragon
My Dog Tulip
Toy Story 3
The storybook vistas of Dragon are rich and lush enough to make us want to jump right in with the characters and their dragons, the latter among the most imaginative cinematic creations of the year. Tangled takes a much different approach to fairytale content, marrying open, cartoonish designs and exquisitely textured backgrounds with a proud throwback to Disney tradition in both narrative and visual language. The Illusionist is a languid, painterly love-letter to a nostalgic dream of Edinburgh, golden and impossible; My Dog Tulip‘s shortcomings as a story do not obscure its visual creativity, the impressive work of just two animators; and Toy Story 3 continues Pixar’s (unbreakable?) streak of creating worlds as rich and real and cinematically expressive as any live-action film, all within the confines of a computer.
Last Train Home
My Neighbor, My Killer
Last Train Home and Prodigal Sons both depict the difficulty of being in a family from two very different angles with two very different goals; but in both cases, what lingers is the simplicity and honesty of the personality conflicts at their heart. My Neighbor, My Killer is all about the psychic scars of warfare and how a community should best move forward, while Restrepo sets itself in the very heart of combat, always fraught with the knowledge that another bullet is just around the corner, and though they’re hugely different, both of them show the human cost of conflict with a brutal lack of adornment. Sweetgrass is so impressionistic and subjective that it hardly counts as a documentary at all, but its unmediated plunge into a vanishing way of life in America is, in its own way, as instructive as any other nonfiction film released this year.
Black Swan (Matthew Libatique)
Buried (Eduard Grau)
Un prophète (Stéphane Fontaine)
True Grit (Roger Deakins)
Sweetgrass (Lucien Castaing-Taylor)
I dithered a bit with Libatique; there’s something undeniably familiar about his use of high-grain film stock and noirish lighting, but it fits the film so breathtakingly well, I just couldn’t resist. Grau’s work might seem willfully perverse of me, but the sheer effort involved in finding every way to film inside a man-sized box you can think of – and a lot that you can’t – bowled me over just for the sheer ballsiness of the exercise, to say nothing of how effective it is. Fontaine’s treatment of his crime story looks like routine realism at first, but realism doesn’t usually end up as thrillingly Expressionist as this concoction of hard lighting and unforgiving frames. Deakins, as always, is Deakins: his first straight-up classical Western finds him indulging in painterly landscape photography to smashing success, to say nothing of his beautiful nighttime scenes, right out of a Grimm fairy tale. Castaing-Taylor’s work might be the most awe-inspiring of all: using a frankly crappy camera, he makes the Montana Rockies look like Heaven itself, and captures the life of sheep and shepherds from angles that seem absolutely dumbfounding when you think of the back-breaking work it must have taken to get them.
Fish Tank (Nicolas Chaudeurge)
Last Train Home (Lixin Fan and Mary Stephen)
Un prophète (Juliette Welfling)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss)
The Social Network (Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall)
Chaudeurge’s unadorned cutting might seem straightforward, but it so carefully and intensely tightens our perspective with the protagonist’s that it can only be regarded as work of incredible care and fussiness. The same can absolutely not be said for Scott Pilgrim, which is a scurrying mash-up of shots thrown together with infective joy and enthusiasm, perfectly matching the film’s video game-influenced tone of anything-goes delight. Fan and Stephen turn the usual documentary pile of footage into a family story so perfectly constructed you’d almost believe it was scripted. Welfling is responsible for keeping the momentum up in a story that swings from activity to stillness with irregular rhythm, and she keeps the film at a nervy, heightened edginess throughout. Baxter and Wall, faced with Aaron Sorkin’s machine gun script and David Fincher’s merciless formal control, time every beat of The Social Network so that every line and ever character moment lands with exactly the right amount of force.
Best Production Design
Agora (Guy Dyas)
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (Marie-Hélène Sulmoni)
The Ghost Writer (Albrecht Konrad)
I Am Love (Francesca Balestra Di Mottola)
Please Give (Mark White)
Anyone can make an ancient city look real; not everyone can make it look as worn-out and vital as the Alexandria of Agora, a living and breathing city in every respect. Sulmoni’s re-creation of an especially stylish period of the 20th Century not only looks right, it perfectly underlines the the degree to which these characters are defined by the world they inhabit. Both The Ghost Writer and I Am Love portray the lives of the rich and influential as full of tasteful bric-a-brac and devoid of anything living, and in both cases the physical spaces are characters as much as any human onscreen. Please Give is at heart a story about the things people cling to in life, which makes the exact depiction of the places where the story occurs not just a matter of texture, but a crucial part of the theme.
Best Costume Design
Burlesque (Michael Kaplan)
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (Chattoune & Fab)
I Am Love (Antonella Cannarozzi)
Inception (Jeffrey Kurland)
Made in Dagenham (Louise Stjernsward)
Burlesque is all about fun and garish excess; the costumes are such an important part of why any of us want to see the film that even the slightest lapse in imagination would ruin the whole thing, and Kaplan more than rises to the occasion. No film about Coco Chanel can afford to have less than perfect outfits, and Chattoune & Fab’s evocation as clothes as a matter of social identity and artistic sensibility leaves nothing to be desired. Cannarozzi’s late-’90s haute couture tells us so much about the fussy, icy lives of these characters, and contributes so much to the sensual depth of the film, it’s hard to imagine why you’d want to see it without those costumes. The omnipresent suits Inception might seem normal, but they’re so impeccably sharp and classy that they add an excellent sense of texture to an already stuffed film. Lastly, any film where dress subtly tells us as much about how characters change over time as Made in Dagenham desperately needs costuming as sensitive and precise as Stjernsward’s; it’s quite possibly the single most effective element of the movie.
Survival of the Dead
Survival of the Dead features creative and disgusting and playful gore effects that fully live up to the spirit of a Romero film, even if nothing else does; True Grit more than convincingly shows the ravages of pre-hygenic living on just about every male character forced to suffer through the rugged West. Centurion has both: excellent gore and completely immersive “look how worn-out these men are!” effects.
The Ghost Writer (Alexandre Desplat)
Ondine (Kjartan Sveinsson)
The Social Network (Trent Reznor & Atticus Rose)
TRON: Legacy (Daft Punk)
White Material (Tindersticks)
Desplat’s sinuous, ominous ear seduction sets the mood perfectly for a grand thriller; a stand-out piece by one of modern cinema’s greatest composers. Oddly, none of the others are by trade movie composers: Sigur Rós keyboardist Sveinsson graces Ondine with an ethereal dream soundtrack that perfectly matches the film’s magical realism; Reznor and Ross do so much to create the mood in The Social Network (which was originally going to be scored entirely with college indie rock! The mind reels, and then vomits…) that they should be credited right up there with Sorkin and Fincher as its authors; Daft Punk’s techno-symphony is dramatic and pounding and unlike just about anything else, and exactly the right fit for the computer-bound reality of TRON; the British group Tindersticks provide a layer of tonally unsettling dischord that adds considerably to White Material‘s sense of anarchy and fatality.
Best Sound Mixing
The Social Network
The ambient sounds of Toronto are practically another character in Chloe, grounding the film’s melodramatic excess in the banal day-to-day reality of life in the city. Much the same thing is happening in The Social Network, which brilliantly mixes Sorkin’s antsy dialogue with all the sounds of a busy, messy world that Mark Zuckerberg simply cannot engage with. The indelible, subjective blend of sheep and wind and humans in Sweetgrass can only be described as poetic; an attempt to use sound to directly affect our emotions. TRON: Legacy is and must be a completely overwhelming sonic assault, in which the film’s world envelops us; but there are plenty of small moments of aural elegance that are too easy to miss in the face of its excellent battery. It’s not surprising that True Grit has an excellent sound mix, Coen films always do; but the combination of the bustle of the town and the still of the mountains and the creak of the woods leaves True Grit sounding even deeper and fuller than most of them.
Best Sound Editing
How to Train Your Dragon
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
The claustrophobic sound of being trapped underground in a box is key to Buried‘s excellent success as a thriller. All the curious and remarkable animals in How to Train Your Dragon get their own individual and meaningful sonic personality in a film that manages to wholly outclass every other animated film of the year for total creativity. Predators updates the iconic sounds of one of the greatest of all ’80s action movies in a way that makes it feel entirely modern. Speaking of the ’80s, Scott Pilgrim uses video game sound effects to outstanding comic effect, but that’s just the most obvious element of a soundscape that includes every funky noise a comic book adaptation could dream about. And TRON, as before, is such a massive wall of all-encompassing sound, and so much of its success depends on being that all-encompassing; like it or hate it, but you can’t deny that it goes to 11.
Best Visual Effects
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
The tiny effects in Black Swan are modest, but they add immeasurably to the unsettling perfection of its crawly body horror. Here at the end, the Harry Potter series has finally stopped looking like especially classy video games, and has managed to create a digital world almost as tangible and convincing as The Lord of the Rings, still the masterpiece of the CGI Age. Inception‘s burly effects are, uncommonly, used entirely to further the plot even as they dazzle, but oh how they dazzle! and are always so convincing that the plot stays firmly intact. Pushing aside realism entirely, Scott Pilgrim looks a hell of a lot like a cartoon, and that’s exactly the point: it is the romantic fantasy of a particularly unclever video game nerd, and couldn’t look better if they’d doubled the already-robust budget. TRON: Legacy is overwhelming and unabashedly impossible, but the sheer fucking grandeur of it, holding up without flaw even to the microscopic detail of IMAX, is surely worthy of respect, just that thing was done so damn well.