Friday, February 25, 2011

What awards mean, with a detour through the Eisners — plus Oscar picks!

I'm going to use the 83rd annual Academy Awards, which are being presented this Sunday (in case you didn't know) as an excuse to talk a bit about awards in general and to make my picks for the winners this year.

First of all, I have my own rule about awards and their significance: The only thing any award signifies is the opinion of the people giving it at the time they're making that choice. It means nothing else. This means it's nice to win, but I'm not going to stop liking a movie I already admire if it doesn't win, and some movies can get all the awards in the universe and still be, in my opinion, complete crap.

That said, the thing that makes some awards more special than others comes down to who is presenting the award and the exclusivity of the award. The Oscars are a great example of both. Winners have the satisfaction of knowing that the industry — people who know what they're doing when it comes to making movies — admire their work. They also know that these awards are exclusive and subject to rules that are (for the most part) fair and inclusive of all the work that's been done in a particular year.

The exclusivity part is best illustrated by what happens when awards are not exclusive. For example, each year only five actors get nominated for best performance by an actor in a leading role, and only one wins. This means out of hundreds of potential choices, only one per year gets to take home the statue. That's a tough choice for people to make, but it usually means the winner has done something interesting or unusual to earn it. But if you started to, say, split the category up and award a best actor in a drama and a best actor in a comedy and maybe a best voice acting performance for animation, then the exclusivity of winning a best actor Oscar is diminished and it's not going to be as special. You would always end up with a debate over which of the multiple winners was the best and slights against someone who wins who others will say deserves it slightly less than another of the winners. So keeping the awards exclusive like this is something the Academy wisely resists, and there is a ton of pressure put on them to add more categories because the publicity and marketing machinery of Hollywood would love to have more races to run and those magical "Oscar Nominee" or "Oscar Winner" labels to slap on ads and DVD cases.

To bring this back to comics, when I was a judge for the Eisner awards back in 2005, there were a lot of discussions at the start of the judging process about whether we wanted to add, delete or merge categories. I resisted and argued against adding new categories, and against instances of expanding the number of nominees precisely because doing so undermines the exclusivity (and therefore the prestige) of the awards. Also, I thought making those tough choices was what we had signed on to do, so failing to whittle down the number of nominees to the typical five just because we couldn't bring ourselves to make a hard choice between two nominees was a cop out.

The one award I argued most vehemently against adding was one for best reality-based comic. My rationale was that comics don't really do nonfiction. You can stories based on real events, to be sure, but it always has to be adapted into a narrative and filtered through the creators into a form that is otherwise indistinguishable from any other comic. Prose and film can do nonfiction — you can present facts and make a case in both of those media without having to turn it into a story. In film, you can show directly people speaking, places and events as they happen. In prose, you can describe and relate the same sorts of items in a detached, third-person and factual manner. In comics, you just can't do that and still have the comic book medium be the best way to communicate the points you're trying to make. The most obvious case for this is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, which is essentially an academic paper on the mechanics of comics done in comic book form. And for that, McCloud had to re-create himself as a character who narrated the chapters and moved through them in a linear fashion that essentially turned each part of the book into a narrative story. So, I argued against it and won the point. It lasted all of a years — the next year's group of judges felt differently and went right ahead and added the category.

The other trick for legitimizing your awards is to make sure that they are presented for specific works rather than to a person. If you look at the fine print, you'll see the Oscar's don't give an award for best actor, but for best performance by an actor in a leading role. Voters are choosing a specific work, which is different from voting for a person as best actor. If I think that, say, Jack Nicholson is the best actor every year and he's not in a movie this year (or not in one that stands out enough for awards attention) it would still be intellectually honest to vote for him as best actor, which would not be the case if the award is for best performance by an actor. It's a difference that gets easily glossed over, but I think it's an important one.

On to the fun part: My picks for this year's Oscars. (FYI, for folks needing help with their Oscar pool ballots: my track record in picking these things is not very good, so follow my picks at your own risk.)

Best Picture

  • Should win: Toy Story 3. I admit, I'm biased, having covered it extensively, but I still think of the nominees this was the most all-around entertaining and well-made movie I've seen all year. 
  • Will win: The King's Speech. This is a good movie, and it's pure Oscar bait. And I'd like to think the academy is too smart to give it to The Social Network, which was good but not the groundbreaking film everyone seems to think it is. I think they're confusing the importance of Facebook in people's lives for the movie itself being important.

Best Director

  • Should win: Joel and Ethan Coen. They're always great, but of all the noms, True Grit was the one film that I think would have been completely different and far less interesting in the hands of any other helmer.
  • Will win: Tom Hooper. See above.
Best Actor

  • Should win: Javier Bardem (Biutiful). Is this guy ever less than excellent? Nope.
  • Will win: Colin Firth (The King's Speech). This is an excellent performance, and it will triumph because it also hits all the Academy's biases.

Best Actress

  • Should win: Natalie Portman (Black Swan). 
  • Will Win: Portman. This is in a class by itself this year.
Best Supporting Actor

  • Should win: Christian Bale (The Fighter)
  • Will win: Bale. Again, nothing else is as memorable as Bale's Boston junkie.
Best Supporting Actress

  • Should win: Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech). I think she's horribly underrated in Oscar circles. She's always fantastic and was especially superb in this role. I usually love anything Amy Adams is in, but this wasn't her best role. Steinfeld would be my second choice — her performance was as essential to True Grit as Bridges.
  • Will win: Melissa Leo (The Fighter). She's very good, though I think her role is a bit too supporting in that the real conflict in that movie was between the brothers. Her role is not what I remember when I think of this movie.
Original Screenplay

  • Should win: Inception. I really dug this movie and felt it successfully pulled off more daring writing stunts than any other movie this year.
  • Will win: The Kids Are All Right. This movie was written about ad nauseum when it first came out here in L.A., so I'm sure it will win something and this is it. 
Adapted Screenplay

  • Should win: Toy Story 3. Again, I'm biased. I think Michael Arndt did a great job on this script.
  • Will win: The Social Network. Everyone loves Aaron Sorkin for some reason.
Best Animated Film

  • Should win: How to Train Your Dragon. As great as Toy Story 3 is, I really loved this movie. Plus, I think it has a strong chance to pull off an upset, a la Happy Feet beats Cars.
  • Will win: Toy Story 3. By nominating it for best picture, it's nevertheless pretty clear how the Academy feels about this movie.

Best Foreign Film

  • Should win: Biutiful (Mexico). 
  • Will win: Biutiful. This is one of those wild card categories, plus I admit to not having seen all of these. But Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu makes fantastic movies and I am hard pressed to imagine any of the others surpassing it.
Best Art Direction

  • Should win: Inception.
  • Will win: Inception. I can see Alice in Wonderland or The King's Speech playing spoiler, but the production design on this is  pretty spectacular. Plus, Guy Hendrix Dyas is a great guy and he deserves it.
Achievement in Cinematography

  • Should win: True Grit. Roger Deakins 
  • Will win: Deakins. Everyone loves his work, and this film really looks spectacular. 
Achievement in costume design

  • Should win: The King's Speech, Jenny Beavan. I don't always notice the costumes when they're trying to be subtle, but I thought the costumes were used to excellent effect in this movie. I noticed what the actors were wearing without it being distracting at all.
  • Will win: Alice in Wonderland, Colleen Atwood. This is just a hunch, but the outfits in this were pretty spectacular and splashy in the way the academy sometimes likes to reward.
Best Documentary Feature

  • Should win: Inside Job. If you haven't seen this yet, it is the definition of a must-see. If you don't leave the theaters absolutely enraged, then something's wrong with you. 
  • Will win: Exit Through the Gift Shop. This was a great year for docs, and this is easily one of the most bizarre and fascinating stories put to film.
Best documentary short subject

  • I have to pass on this one, because I've not seen any of the nominees.

Achievement in film editing

  • Should win: The King's Speech, Tariq Anwar
  • Will win: Anwar. This was beautifully edited, with much of its power coming from the pacing that Anwar gives it. 
Achievement in makeup

  • Should win: The Wolfman, Rick Baker and Dave Elsey. Come on, it's Rick Baker! He's the whole reason this movie got made.
  • Will win: Barney's Version, Adrien Morot. But the Academy won't go for a werewolf movie, so I guess this will win.
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)

  • Should win: How to Train Your Dragon. John Powell
  • Will win: Powell. Hollywood has really taken to this score — and for good reason. 
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)

  • Should win: "We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3. Music and lyric by Randy Newman. 
  • Will win: Newman. This one sticks with you long after you leave the theater. And Hollywood loves Randy Newman. 
Best animated short film

  • Should win: Day & Night. Teddy Newton.
  • Will win: Day & Night. The others are really well done films, but this was a terrific idea that works only in animation and really only in 3D. It may be the only 3D movie to come out this year where the 3D is truly essential to the experience.
Best live action short film

  • Again, I have to pass, having seen none of these. Look for tips on your Oscar pool elsewhere.

Achievement in sound editing

  • Should win: Toy Story 3. Great stuff.
  • Will win: Tron: Legacy. This one usually goes to a big effects movie and the sound work in Tron was very strong. 
Achievement in sound mixing

  • Should win: True Grit. Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland. 
  • Will win: True Grit. I can still hear this movie in my head, so good job.
Achievement in visual effects

  • Should win: Inception. Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb.
  • Will win: Inception. There was no cooler image in a movie this year than Paris bending. I think that will edge out the sequels in contention, while Alice in Wonderland isn't as seamless and Hereafter just plain lacks the volume of shots.

No comments: