Sizing Up the Best Art Direction Field

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As my colleague Joey Magidson wraps up his series on the contenders for the “major” categories, I’m going to take a look at the Oscar chances of those hard-working folks behind the camera.  Also known as the “technical” or “below-the-line” categories, these award fields honor the building blocks of cinema, the kind of work that most people don’t pay attention to.  Unfortunately, even fewer people seem to truly understand the technical aspects of filmmaking, and the Academy isn’t that much better.  The rule for predicting the nominees and winners of these categories usually boils down to how noticeable and obvious is the technical element in question.

Take for example today’s installment: Best Art Direction.  Despite its title, this trophy is not actually awarded to the Art Director of a film.  It goes to the Production Designer and the Set Decorator(s) of the film with presumably the best use of set design in its overall mise-en-scène.  Looking through Oscar history, it’s apparent that truly unique production design most essential to the overall effect of a given film rarely even get nominated (see: The Ghost Writer or Synecdoche, New York), yet showy sets that draw attention to themselves – even if the effect is intrusive – have the highest chances of victory (see: Alice in Wonderland or Memoirs of a Geisha).  This is why period pieces and fantasy films have the most successful track record here.  It also helps if a film is an Academy darling overall.  As we’ll be observing in this series, this is a pattern that manifests throughout just about every category at the Oscars.

Wishful Thinking

With that in mind, here are the films that – deserving or no – are DOA in this race

  • The Conspirator
  • Hanna
  • The Lady
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  • Red State
  • Thor
  • X-Men: First Class

Each and every one of these movies contains a substantial amount of production design and elaborate sets, but it’s highly unlikely that they will be even be whispered as possible contenders as the precursors go on.  It’s obvious to see why for some them; in the case of films like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, they were far too unpopular among audiences and critics to ride any “wave of support” for recognition in any category.  Hanna and The Conspirator might have had a better shot had they released later in the year and built up more buzz.  No matter the reason, I would warn against betting on any of these films.

Dark Horse/Long Shots

These are the films that I’m not quite ready to write off just yet, but I acknowledge that their chances of making it are not that high:

  • The Adventures of Tintin
  • Captain America: The First Avenger
  • The Descendants
  • Drive
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  • Melancholia
  • The Muppets
  • The Skin I Live In
  • Water for Elephants
  • We Bought a Zoo
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin

Some of the films listed, like The Descendants, will probably do very well in other categories.  But remember that the technical achievements have to be noticeable in these films to be major contenders, and while many of the film’s considerable amount of fans do praise the film’s visual choices, it doesn’t scream “Sets!”  to really anyone.  Some of these films (at least based on their trailers) look like they employ intricate mise-en-scène and may very well be worthy.  Take Drive, for example, and its hazy urban environments?  Not something the Academy typically goes for, and but for Drive’s critical accolades I would put in the “Wishful Thinking” spot.  But that’s the point: if a film is well-loved enough (and Refn’s chilly genre pastiche could be a tech surprise), it’ll have a generous serving of technical citations to go with it.  The big question mark here – to me at least – is The Adventures of Tintin. A surprising number of readers appear to be quite confident that Steven Spielberg’s ambitious performance capture epic is going to take the world by storm, and while no animated film has ever been nominated for the award (unless you count Avatar…zing!), if anyone can make the Academy soften up on genre/medium bias, it’s Steven Spielberg.

The other ones listed certainly have the chops to be surprise nominees and may have been major contenders in other years, but have the unfortunate luck of weaker campaigns than the films we’re about to see…

Second Tier Contenders

These films have been bandied about in some corners of the internet as possible contenders, and with all of them there’s only a few that will likely make it:

  • A Dangerous Method
  • Anonymous
  • Coriolanus
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Immortals
  • Jane Eyre
  • Midnight in Paris
  • My Week with Marilyn
  • Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
  • The Tree of Life
  • W.E.

These contenders all have what it takes to be in the nominees circle save for the competitiveness of other more viable contenders.  If I had to guess (which I suppose I “have to,” given the very nature of this column), I’d say that one or two of these could very well be nominated, especially Jane Eyre, Coriolanus, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and/or Midnight in Paris.  Those four have elaborate and noticeable production design that could easily trump one of the frontrunners for a spot with Oscar’s love nuggets.  That’s not to say that the others couldn’t edge in, either, particularly Immortals’ dazzling tableaux of fantasy/mythological set pieces, The Tree of Life’s accurate and evocative recreation of 1950’s suburbia, and the harsh modern imagery of Coriolanus.  There’s also the possibility of Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows repeating the nomination of its predecessor or A Dangerous Method still having some sort of presence in the Oscar race.  Either way, one should still keep an eye on these films.

Pole Position Contenders

And now we come to the majors.  These are the films that stand a very good chance of getting a nomination in this category:

  • The Artist
  • Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
  • Hugo
  • The Iron Lady
  • J. Edgar
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • War Horse

I’d be shocked if more than, say, four of these films were left off of the Best Art Direction shortlist.  They tick off the boxes for typical winners in the category, are all extremely noticeable in their set design, and have all seen historical precedence in their favor.  Some of you might be surprised by the appearance of J. Edgar on this tier, since it imploded and all, but plenty of early frontrunners that crashed and burned in the Best Picture race have found love in this category, including Nine, Revolutionary Road, and The Good Shepard.  Since Harry Potter was a gigahumongnourmous box office and critical success, chances are good that the Academy will honor it with a ton of technical nods to make up for genre bias à la their treatment of The Dark Knight.  But the way-out-in-front contender here has got to be Hugo, with Dante Ferretti’s elaborate and gigantic set pieces rivaling the scope of even his Gangs of New York, and with its recent critical citations, now a likely Best Picture contender.

There you have it; the current state of the Best Art Direction race.  Let me know which of the craft categories you are most looking forward to tracking, and your thoughts about this slate of possible contenders.  Next up…Best Cinematography!