Oscar Circuit: Art Direction

5

And the Nominees Are:
The Artist – Laurence Bennett and Robert Gould
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – Stuart Craig and Stephanie McMillan
Hugo – Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo
Midnight in Paris – Anne Seibel and Hélène Dubreuil
War Horse – Rick Carter and Lee Sandales

So where I began with Sizing Up has ended with four of my five “Pole Position” contenders (with Midnight in Paris being the sole “Second Tier” to make it from the outside) being nominated for this award.  And, rather tediously, the film that I had predicted would the whole thing outright is still way out in front on a seemingly unstoppable course to victory.  Barring a huge upset, this will be the third consecutive garishly colorful, CGI-filled spectacle to win this award.  I’m starting to feel a little down on this category in the wake of just how show-offy their preferences have become, especially since recent years have yielded some truly creative visual design choices that consistently get passed over.  Will future big-budget epics just take the hint and follow suit with less and less subtle visual choices?  *Sigh*…okay, enough complaining.  Let’s take a look at the nominees:

Even if it weren’t an awards season juggernaut, The Artist would have been a major contender for this category anyway.  After all, a period piece about Hollywood is by its very definition a film that has eye-popping production design.  Not only are the period details obviously well-researched and the locales appropriately glamorous, but to utilize it in the service of B&W makes it a unique achievement even to an outside observer.  If any film is going to pull off an upset, it’ll be this one, since Best Picture frontrunners should never be totally counted out of any of the crafts races.  Although this is Laurence Bennett’s first nomination, set decorator Robert Gould has been a nominee before for his work on Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Everyone’s favorite young wizard has never won an Academy Award, but has been nominated for several crafts in the past.  As Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is the final film in the series, there had been some chatter on this site and elsewhere that the Academy will take the opportunity to finally “honor” the entire franchise, and since Art Direction has been its most frequent citations with four total, why not here for such lively, creative work?  I still don’t buy it.  For one thing, if there really was a widespread desire from AMPAS to retroactively recognize the entire Potter film series, they would have nominated Deathly Hallows: Part 2 for Best Picture.  The unfortunate (or not, depending on how you feel about these films) truth of the matter is that the Academy never really warmed up to these films the way the public did, and with such a beast way out in front, fans should instead hold out hope for Makeup and…no, actually just Makeup.  Production designer Stuart Craig concludes his decade-long run on the franchise with three additional Potter nominations and three career wins (Gandhi, Dangerous Liaisons and The English Patient) while set decorator Stephenie McMillan’s only previous Oscar win was for Anthony Minghella’s Best Picture winner.

In the end, Hugo appears poised to give legendary husband and wife team Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo their third Academy Award, and to give them a little credit, I’m sure their recreation of the Paris Montparnasse and the Méliès Studio is a major technical achievement on a number of levels.  But no matter how impressive an undertaking it was on that front, I just can’t get over how gaudy and cluttered the final product looks, especially since I suspect Scorsese’s desire to show off his collaborators’ extravagant sets factored into why he was okay with John Logan’s constant efforts to place his heroes in the train station itself even when it didn’t advance the main plot most of the time.  But with so many ardent fans (including our own readers) and its precursor sweep, the pair ought to be practicing their speeches now.

The surprise nominee of this bunch is arguably Midnight in Paris, for its own whimsical recreation of early 20th Century Paris, France.  Despite not factoring in at the precursors or the predictions of most major pundits, this is the sole crafts nod for Woody Allen’s Best Picture winner, and will likely have to settle for the nomination.  This is the first time that Anne Seibel and Hélène Dubreuil have been honored by the Academy.

Finally, the surprisingly very good War Horse rounds out the Art Direction finalists despite seemingly sputtering at the guild awards.  Spielberg’s unique blend of early international film styles made his adaptation of a mediocre play not only one of the most artistically generous gambits of his career, recognizing the various countries involved in WWI in ways unique to cinema (whereas most Hollywood films would prefer we believe that ‘Murica single-handedly won both World Wars), but Rick Carter and Lee Sandales match his ambition beat-for-beat with extraordinary, subtly allusive interior and exterior visual design.  Between the five nominees, this one is easily – and unexpectedly – my favorite of them.  Unfortunately, the presence of the more acclaimed and ubiquitous frontrunners here make War Horse less of a threat than it might have been in other years.  Weirdly, although four time-nominee Rick Carter has been the production designer on a number of Spielberg films, this is his first nomination for one.  This is the first career nomination for set decorator Lee Sandales.

As in previous years, the winner here seems like a foregone conclusion, but there’s always the outside chance, right?  Let me know if you think Hugo is as done a deal as I do in the comments.

Predicted: Hugo – Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo

Snubbed:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Donald Graham Burt and K.C. Fox
Jane Eyre Will Hughes-Jones and Tina Jones
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Maria Djurkovic and Zsuzsa Mihalek