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Awards Predictions Part Five: And the Oscars Will Go To…

85 Oscars

I always get annoyed at this time of year, as everyone, their cat and the cat’s veterinarian insists that they know better than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  The Academy consists of filmmakers, writers, producers, directors, actors, cinematographers, editors, make-up artists, production designers, sound engineers, visual effects artists and so on, yet any random blogger or Facebook poster somehow knows better than they do.  The Academy members have opinions like the rest of us, and are possibly better informed about what counts as “good” cinematography, editing or sound mixing than lay people.  But if they do not, I hardly think my opinion or that of any one else is superior to that of AMPAS.  The awards presented are based on the opinions of the voters, so they are only opinions like any other.  You may disagree, which is fine, but that doesn’t make your opinion better.  I am not so arrogant, so I offer no position on who should win, but on who I believe will win, and why.  On a similar note, here is an example of how an actual Academy member has voted.

Right, rant over.  The critics awards, the Golden Globes, the PGA, the DGA, the BAFTAs and the WGA have come and gone.  On 24th February the 85th Annual Academy Awards take place, so it’s time to get predictions in.  The votes have all been cast so the decisions are made, and results kept under security comparable to that of nuclear missile launch codes.  The presentation of other awards can indicate the way the Oscars will go, so here are my predictions for the 85th Annual Academy Awards.


Amour: Margaret Ménégoz, Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz

Argo: Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Michael Gottwald

Django Unchained: Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone

Les Misérables: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh

Life of Pi: Gil Netter, Ang Lee, David Womark

Lincoln: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy

Silver Linings Playbook: Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen, Jonathan Gordon

Zero Dark Thirty: Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison

Prediction – Argo

A month ago I would not have believed it, but if the Oscars follow the other awards, as they usually do, Argo will be the first film to win Best Picture that is not nominated for Achievement in Directing since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989.  Based on its track record, I predict Ben Affleck, George Clooney and Grant Heslov will add to their collection this Sunday.

Of the nine nominees, I have seen seven, and they are all strong films.  Les Misérables is a fine musical, but its strengths seem to mostly derive from the music, its cinematic elements working less effectively.  Django Unchained is a strong story, firmly directed, that takes an interesting approach to screen violence, but is overlong and indulgent.  Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi are the lighter films though both deal with serious material.  Silver Linings Playbook presents people with mental illness in a way that is neither indulgent nor patronising, not asking for our sympathy yet generating it anyway, which is impressive.  Life of Pi is a meta-fictional bonanza with extraordinary technical accomplishments, but perhaps a little whimsical for the Academy members’ taste.  Lincoln is an impressive “important” film, that presents its worth themes as a cracking political drama.  Argo is a great comedy thriller, balancing many disparate elements and promoting international co-operation, and it’s based on a true story, which the Academy love.  Zero Dark Thirty is a fantastic thriller that had me clenched in my seat as the events unfolded, which is impressive as the end result was of course known.  Like Argo, ZDT is based on a true story, but a much darker one and the controversy around the film has likely hurt its chances.  It’s a shame that arguments other than cinematic quality influence Academy voters, but on the other hand it demonstrates social awareness, which not a bad thing.

In several ways, Argo fits the bill for a Best Picture winner – positive true story; America gets to be a hero without doing anything nasty; it’s politically correct as the film does not present the Iranian revolution nor Iranians in a negative light; and it pokes fun at Hollywood itself.  A win for Argo will prove that Hollywood does have a sense of humour about itself!


Achievement in Directing

Michael Haneke for Amour

Ang Lee for Life of Pi

David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook

Steven Spielberg for Lincoln

Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild

Prediction – Ang Lee

This is the hardest category to predict, because the obvious contender isn’t nominated.  Ben Affleck has won the Golden Globe, the DGA and the BAFTA, and all well deserved.  Unlike his previous directional efforts, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck did not write Argo and it is not about his hometown, so Argo proves that he can handle different material and, with such a range of tones and concerns in Argo, the film is a triumph of direction.  But AMPAS have not nominated him, which means the field is fairly open.  Not completely, however.  Michael Haneke is a long shot, especially as Amour is very likely to win Foreign Language Picture.  First time nominees do occasionally win, so Benh Zeitlin has a chance, but a very small one considering the weight of the other nominees.  David O’Russell has a slightly better chance, since Silver Linings Playbook is a very honoured film, the first film since Reds in 1981 to be nominated for Best Picture, Directing, Screenplay and in all four acting categories.  Furthermore, SLP has superb direction, generating pathos and bathos with excellent balance, judgement and pace.  A win for O’Russell would be well deserved.

However, I think this category comes down to the two previous winners.  Steven Spielberg won Achievement in Directing in 1993 for Schindler’s List and again in 1998 for Saving Private Ryan.  Interestingly, Saving Private Ryan, unlike Schindler’s List, did not win Best Picture.  Similarly, Lincoln is unlikely to win Best Picture, so it could be a repeat performance of 1998.  That said, Spielberg might pull an upset and pick up both a third Directing Oscar, and a Best Picture win as well.  If I had a vote, it would go to Spielberg.

However, I think it more likely that Ang Lee will win a second Oscar.  He previously won in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain, which missed out on Best Picture.  The reason I think he is likely to win over Spielberg is simply that Life of Pi is a more directed film than Lincoln.  Spielberg himself has said that he took a backseat and let his camera record the actors’ performances of Tony Kushner’s script, rather than employ the range of directorial tricks he has developed over an illustrious career.  Life of Pi, however, is a very mobile film, directed to within an inch of its life.  It uses 3D in a remarkable way, creating depth of field and utilising different planes within the frame, and this was clear to me even though I saw it in 2D.  A great assembly of visual effects, both seascape and character, combined with a meta-fictional story about storytelling, which can appeal to all ages, adds up to a film that is a remarkable achievement in directing.  Therefore, I predict that Ang Lee will pick up his second Oscar.


Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook

Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln

Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables

Joaquin Phoenix for The Master

Denzel Washington for Flight

Prediction – Daniel Day-Lewis

No contest really.  If Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t win this after his success at the Golden Globes, the SAG and the BAFTAs, the sound of jaws hitting the floor will drown out the applause for the surprise winner.  If there were a runner-up prize, I’d predict Hugh Jackman.  But let’s be honest, Day-Lewis has this in the bag.


Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty

Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook

Emmanuelle Riva for Amour

Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild

Naomi Watts for The Impossible

Prediction – Emmanuelle Riva

This is another tough one, as the results have been varied.  Both Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain picked up Golden Globes, but the BAFTA went to Emmanuelle Riva.  Chastain also picked up the SAG, which might give her a slight edge as most of the acting members of the Academy are also guild members.  Of the two I’ve seen, I would pick Chastain because of the steady change her character goes through over the course of Zero Dark Thirty, from brittle to steely to drained.  But age could be a factor here.  Riva is the oldest Best Actress nominee in the history of the Academy, and at the age of 85 is unlikely to be nominated again.  And it was only a few years ago that Marion Cotillard won Best Actress for Ma Vie en Rose, so being in a foreign film is no embargo either.  Furthermore, Riva is playing a character suffering from a disability, which the Academy loves (see previous winners Cotillard, Jamie Foxx, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kathy Bates, Anthony Hopkins).  I have not seen Amour, but based on age and type of performance, I predict that Riva will be the recipient of Best Actress this year.  And I certainly hope she does, as February 24th will be her 86th birthday, and there could be no greater gift than that.


Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Alan Arkin for Argo

Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook

Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master

Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln

Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained

Prediction – Christoph Waltz

A two-horse race, but a very fine set of performances from some very fine actors.  Everyone here has at least one award (and De Niro has two), so who is going to add to their collection?  Based on awards already given, Tommy Lee Jones received the SAG award, while the Golden Globe and the BAFTA went to Christoph Waltz.  I predict the Academy will follow suit, and Waltz will be thanking Quentin Tarantino again come Oscar night.


Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams for The Master

Sally Field for Lincoln

Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables

Helen Hunt for The Sessions

Jacki Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook

Prediction – Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway has won every award available for her stunning performance in Les Misérables, and there is no reason to suspect that will change at the Oscars.  Hopefully her laryngitis will have cleared up by the time she has to make her speech.


Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Amour, Michael Haneke

Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino

Flight, John Gatins

Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola

Zero Dark Thirty, Mark Boal

Prediction – Quentin Tarantino

A fistful of impressive screenwriters, and the only non-contender is John Gatins.  Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola have an outside chance, as do Mark Boal and Michael Haneke.  It’d be interesting for Amour to pull off some upsets, but I predict this will go to Tarantino.  Three years ago, Tarantino and Boal competed for this award, and Boal was victorious for The Hurt Locker.  This time, I think QT will get his second award, eighteen years after winning for Pulp Fiction.


Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Argo, Chris Terrio

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin

Life of Pi, David Magee

Lincoln, Tony Kushner

Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell

Prediction – David O’Russell

Benh Zeitlin is doing well, having this nomination as well as various others (shared, obviously).  That said, I think he’ll have to make do with the nomination, as there are some very strong contenders in this category.  Much of Argo’s power comes from its screenplay, which details the complex events without getting bogged down in detail.  Life of Pi was touted as unfilmable, so to have made a screenplay out of it is a feat in itself.  Lincoln has attracted a lot of admiration, but of all the awards Silver Linings Playbook is up for, this is its best chance to win.  David O’Russell has already won the BAFTA, although the WGA went to Chris Terrio.  SLP has many great features, but its screenplay may be its best element, delicate yet harsh, warm and witty but filled with pain and suffering.  It seems unlikely that a film nominated in all the major categories will leave with nothing, so I predict Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, will got to David O’Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.


Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Brave, Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman

Frankenweenie, Tim Burton

ParaNorman, Sam Fell, Chris Butler

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, Peter Lord

Wreck-It Ralph, Rich Moore

Prediction – Brave

Pixar’s reign over animation looks set to continue, as Brave picked up the Golden Globe and the BAFTA.  I predict it will receive the Oscar as well.


Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Amour (Austria)

War Witch (Canada)

No (Chile)

A Royal Affair (Denmark)

Kon-Tiki (Norway)

Prediction – Amour

Anything can happen, but I expect Amour will get some amour from the Academy.


Best Achievement in Cinematography

Anna Karenina, Seamus McGarvey

Django Unchained, Robert Richardson

Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda

Lincoln, Janusz Kaminski

Skyfall, Roger Deakins

Prediction – Life of Pi

Roger Deakins is long overdue an Oscar, and with Skyfall he did something remarkable with digital cinematography.  But in this extremely technical category, I predict the Academy voters will reward the latest advance in 3D cinematography, Life of Pi.  3D may not be the next big thing in cinema, but it is a major development in cinematography and, like Avatar and Hugo in previous years, I anticipate this award going to the major 3D movie, Life of Pi.


Best Achievement in Editing

Argo, William Goldenberg

Life of Pi, Tim Squyres

Lincoln, Michael Kahn

Silver Linings Playbook, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers

Zero Dark Thirty, William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor

Prediction – Argo

It is a common pattern that the winner of Best Picture also wins Achievement in Editing – note all of these nominees are up for Best Picture as well.  Since Argo is the frontrunner to win Best Picture, I predict it will also win Editing.  Furthermore, much of Argo’s tension and humour is generated by its editing, so it is fitting that it should win this award.


Best Achievement in Production Design

Anna Karenina, Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent, Simon Bright

Les Misérables, Eve Stewart, Anna Lynch-Robinson

Life of Pi, David Gropman, Anna Pinnock

Lincoln, Rick Carter, Jim Erickson

Prediction – Les Misérables

Tough call, as the production design on all of these is impressive.  Period films often pick up this award, so Lincoln, Les Misérables and Anna Karenina are all possibilities.  It is hard to draw a line between visual effects and production design in Life of Pi, so that is less likely.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a good chance, as the design of Middle Earth is breathtakingly realized.  It could go many ways, but I predict Les Misérables.


Best Achievement in Costume Design

Anna Karenina, Jacqueline Durran

Les Misérables, Paco Delgado

Lincoln, Joanna Johnston

Mirror Mirror: The Untold Adventures of Snow White, Eiko Ishioka

Snow White and the Huntsman, Colleen Atwood

Prediction – Anna Karenina

Another one that often goes to costume dramas, unsurprisingly.  I predict Anna Karenina.


Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

Hitchcock, Howard Berger, Peter Montagna, Martin Samuel

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter King, Rick Findlater, Tami Lane

Les Misérables, Lisa Westcott, Julie Dartnell

Prediction – Les Misérables

Les Misérables pulled off the remarkable feat of making the impossibly gorgeous Anne Hathaway look ugly, so I see it attracting an award here as well.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

Anna Karenina, Dario Marianelli

Argo, Alexandre Desplat

Life of Pi, Mychael Danna

Lincoln, John Williams

Skyfall, Thomas Newman

Prediction – Skyfall

I so want Skyfall to win awards that I don’t care what they are.  John Williams’ score for Lincoln is masterful, but I barely remember the music of Argo or Life of Pi.  Thomas Newman has already won a BAFTA, and I predict he will win the Oscar as well.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Chasing Ice, J. Ralph (“Before My Time”)

Les Misérables, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer (“Suddenly”)

Life of Pi, Mychael Danna, Bombay Jayshree (“Pi’s Lullaby”)

Skyfall, Adele, Paul Epworth (“Skyfall”)

Ted, Walter Murphy, Seth MacFarlane (“Everybody Needs a Best Friend”)

Prediction – “Skyfall”

And Original Song should be a no-brainer – Skyfall again.


Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

Argo, John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, José Antonio García

Les Misérables, Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, Simon Hayes

Life of Pi, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill, Drew Kunin

Lincoln, Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, Ron Judkins

Skyfall, Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell, Stuart Wilson

Prediction – Les Misérables

At the Sound Editors Golden Reel Awards, Life of Pi picked up sound editing, music in a feature film and sound editing, dialogue and ADR in a feature film.  Its chances of picking up awards on Oscar night are pretty good.  That said, Les Misérables picked up the BAFTA, and pulls off the impressive feat of balancing live-recorded singing with the other parts of the soundtrack.  Could go either way, but on the night I pick Les Miserables.


Best Achievement in Sound Editing

Argo, Erik Aadahl, Ethan Van der Ryn

Django Unchained, Wylie Stateman

Life of Pi, Eugene Gearty, Philip Stockton

Skyfall, Per Hallberg, Karen M. Baker

Zero Dark Thirty, Paul N.J. Ottosson

Prediction – Life of Pi

I pick Life of Pi for this award.


Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Avengers Assemble, Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams, Daniel Sudick

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, R. Christopher White

Life of Pi, Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik De Boer, Donald Elliott

Prometheus, Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley, Martin Hill

Snow White and the Huntsman, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Phil Brennan, Neil Corbould, Michael Dawson

Prediction – Life of Pi

Life of Pi, easily, because it uses its effects in a rich and immersive manner.  Ang Lee’s film has already won other awards for its effects, and I predict it will continue its winning ways.

Best Documentary, Feature

5 Broken Cameras, Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi

The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh, Philippa Kowarsky, Estelle Fialon

How to Survive a Plague, David France, Howard Gertler

The Invisible War, Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering

Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul, Simon Chinn

Going out on a limb, because it has won some awards already, Searching for Sugar Man.


Best Documentary, Short Subject

Inocente, Sean Fine, Andrea Nix

Kings Point, Sari Gilman, Jedd Wider

Mondays at Racine, Cynthia Wade, Robin Honan

Open Heart, Kief Davidson, Cori Shepherd Stern

Redemption Jon Alpert, Matthew O’Neill

No idea.


Best Short Film, Animated

Adam and Dog, Minkyu Lee

Fresh Guacamole, PES

Head Over Heels, Timothy Reckart, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly

Paperman, John Kahrs

The Simpsons: The Longest Daycare, David Silverman

I’d be very pleased if The Simpsons picked up an award, so I’ll speculatively predict that it will.

Best Short Film, Live Action

Asad, Bryan Buckley, Mino Jarjoura

Buzkashi Boys, Sam French, Ariel Nasr

Curfew, Shawn Christensen

Death of a Shadow, Tom Van Avermaet, Ellen De Waele

Henry, Yan England

No idea.

If I’m right, Life of Pi and Les Miserables will be the big winners this year, each potentially winning four awards.  If Ang Lee wins Directing, that will put him in the unenviable position of having won Directing twice, but neither time having his film win Best Picture.  Conceivably, upsets could be pulled and Pi might have a big sweep, collecting Adapted Screenplay and Picture as well, or I might be very wrong and Lincoln sweeps the board, collecting Supporting Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Picture.  I think this unlikely, but then again, this is Hollywood, where, as we all know, nobody knows anything.



Zero Dark Thirty

ZDT poster

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012) joins a curious set of films that includes Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995), Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) and United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006), among others.  You know what is going to happen, so the filmmaker has to generate tension and suspense despite this.  Kathryn Bigelow delivers this with remarkable power in her film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, or UBL as the CIA referred to him.  Focused on the CIA analyst leading the hunt, Maya (Jessica Chastain), Zero Dark Thirty is compelling, gripping, thrilling and disturbing, striking the viewer in the head, heart and guts.

Zero Dark Thirty effectively begins where Paul Greengrass’ film United 93 ended.  The opening “scene” of ZDT sets the tone, as a black screen fills the frame with only the ominous date, September 11, 2001, visible.  Recorded messages pepper the soundtrack, (presumably) the actual recordings of calls made to relatives aboard flight United 93, and 911 calls made from within the World Trade Center.  Although, like the rest of the world, I watched the destruction of the Twin Towers with mounting horror, voices of the doomed was not something I had heard before.  Particularly chilling and moving were the desperate pleas of a woman describing the blazing floor beneath her, and the 911 operator trying to offer comfort, before the woman is cut off and the operator can only say “Hello?  Hello?  Oh my God…”

The presence of such “real-life” footage places the viewer in the midst of events, a conceit that continues throughout the film and is achieved both narratively and stylistically.  The following scene drops us into the middle of an interrogation scene, with terror suspect Ammar (Reda Kateb) beaten by hooded figures while Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA operative, questions him.  This scene introduces our protagonist, Maya, fresh arrived from Washington.  The cinematography is intimate, the editing abrupt, cutting from close-ups of one face to another, as the frame wavers slightly.  The soundtrack is charged with menace, both from the sounds of the suspect being pummelled and Dan’s threats: “You lie to me, I hurt you”.  This approach permeates this film, Bigelow’s camera often placing the viewer at an uncomfortable proximity to the action onscreen.

Nor is this action necessarily violent – even during briefings with Maya’s team, the camera sits like an extra attendee, almost but not quite at the invasive level.  Never is there a look direct to camera, which adds to the sense of intrusion – we are there, somehow involved but not a part of the story, looking on from a position that is uncomfortable because of its uncertainty.  The tension generated by this uncertainty is increased by intercutting the fictionalised story of Maya and her team with dramatisations of actual events, highlighted by super-text that informs the viewer of the date and time.  This foreshadows what will happen, such as when a bus appears and the caption declares that this is London, July 7 2005, and the viewer knows what is coming.  This attack, as well as the bombing of the Islamabad Marriot Hotel and a US base in Afghanistan, still delivers a shock when the explosion comes, not because it is unexpected, but because it is so utterly incongruous.  A bus driving through London is not supposed to blow up; people sitting in a hotel restaurant are not meant to be flung to the floor by an explosion.  ZDT communicates to a very sheltered person (me) an approximation of the shock and horror of terrorist attacks, and while I may know intellectually what is coming, the visceral impact is still something I am unprepared for.

The film’s suturing of “actual” and fictional events anchors the viewer further within the events of the narrative.  Just as Maya is discomfited by the torture of Ammar, so are we (more on the torture later).  Just as she receives a confusing plethora of information, so are we confronted with a bewildering range of locations, characters and events.  Super-text informs us of the scenario, but it often reads “CIA Black Site” at “Undisclosed Location”, presenting a fragmentary look into a covert world.  This seems obvious – ZDT is a film about secret agents doing secret things – but Bigelow’s presentation allows us to vicariously experience Maya’s investigation, scenes pieced together with little central propulsion, just as the hunt for UBL is pieced together through scraps and snatches of information.  Profoundly postmodern, the film is the search for a master narrative, an attempt to regain an understanding that was shattered by the events of 9/11.

The dialogue is peppered with jargon, a feature of the genre.  Spy film dialogue is similar to that of hard-boiled noir, as it conveys both the environment and the people shaped within it, but it varies depending on the type of espionage being depicted.  The jargon of ZDT, much like that of the Bourne franchise, is very different from the rather charming public school banter of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or even the office chat of the Jack Ryan franchise.  Terse, cold and impersonal, even in moments of high emotion, spy jargon expresses the post-human sensibility of contemporary espionage.  Not only is intelligence the gathering and assembly of information, but the people involved become cyphers as well.  It is perhaps not surprising that torture would emerge within this environment, empathy and humanity placed to one side as human beings become simple receptacles of information.  This dehumanisation is one of the more chilling aspects of the film.

Critics such as Slazoj Zizek and Naomi Wolf have accused ZDT of endorsing torture, with Wolf going so far as to liken Bigelow to Leni Riefensthal.  There are several problems with this view, which is an imposed reading rather than a careful analysis.  Torture is depicted, including the beating of suspects, waterboarding and threats to turn Arab suspects over to Israel (who are, presumably, even more brutal).  But it is easy to overstate the representation of torture rather than consider it in context.  Firstly, the torture occupies only a small portion of the film.  Whereas 24 has multiple scenes of torture-as-spectacle, seemingly as integral to the drama as gunfights and explosions, and Rendition (Gavin Hook, 2007) presents prolonged scenes of torture specifically to criticise the practice, ZDT depicts one victim, in the first act, with scenes that feature him being water-boarded and shut in a box.  Secondly, torture of suspects is one of a variety of methods used within the context of an investigation.  Surveillance of suspects, monitoring of financial transactions and commercial travel, monitoring of phone calls and e-mails, paid and bribed sources, reviewing and re-evaluating existing intelligence – all of these feed into the investigation.  Crucially, the piece of information extracted from a tortured suspect is found to already be in the CIA’s possession, making the torture redundant.  The fortified house in Pakistan that turns out to be the hideout of Bin Laden is discovered by following a different suspect, further demonstrating the futility of torture.  Wolf and Zizek might see this as reason that ZDT “should” launch into a criticism of the torture programme, and the fact that it does not is grounds to condemn the film.

I have a big problem with imposed readings, the suggestion that a film (or any text) “should” do what reader X decides is right.  Rather than declaring that the text is only morally permissible if it takes the stance that reader X dictates, why not look hard at what the text actually does and says?  Zizek dismisses this sort of response with the declaration that torture is simply wrong, and no debate about it is necessary.  He has a point – I agree that torture has no place in a civilised society – but his evidence for Zero Dark Thirty’s endorsement of torture is dubious.  ZDT presents torture as part of CIA procedure, which Zizek calls “normalisation”, perhaps to echo the “banality of evil” used in reference to the mathematical precision of the Holocaust.  When President Obama appears on the television stating that the United States does not engage in torture, the CIA agents barely react.  This may lend credence to Zizek’s argument: the film offers little reaction to the torture and therefore makes it normal.  Zizek argues that ZDT is far more immoral than 24 because of its failure to present torture as horrific, making it part of business as usual: “The normalisation of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is a sign of the moral vacuum we are gradually approaching”, says Zizek.  I suggest, however, that business as usual in ZDT is itself disturbing.

As mentioned above, Zero Dark Thirty is concerned with the search for a grand narrative, the world shattered into post-human cyphers of information.  These cyphers express the only reaction to the torture: Maya grimaces and looks away from the suffering victim; Dan returns to the US because he has seen enough.  This raises accusations that the discomfort of white Americans is of greater significance than the actual suffering of Middle Eastern Muslims.  There is an established argument that Hollywood always privileges white Americans over any other demographic, ignoring the suffering of (in this case) Middle Eastern Muslims who are being physically and psychologically harmed.  I consider myself a liberal, critical of the military-industrial complex, but am dubious of Hollywood being an uncritical promoter of this complex.  I am dubious because accusations like those of Zizek and Wolf overstate the case to a self-righteous and patronising degree, stating their imposed readings as self-evident truths of some undefined utopian ideology.  The subject of Zero Dark Thirty is the CIA hunt for UBL, and the people involved in this hunt.  I see nothing wrong with this dramatic, compelling and relevant subject, and the way that the subject is handled in the film presents a grim and unsettling picture.  It is not an outright condemnation like Rendition or Green Zone (Greengrass, 2010), but it is very arrogant to criticise filmmakers for not doing something they never set out to do.

Furthermore, Zero Dark Thirty does not endorse torture because the practice proves to be redundant in the course of the investigation.  Nor is the investigation itself presented in a positive light, because at no point is there any sense of triumph.  Maya has her victories, such as when her station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) grants her further resources, and she and her colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) make breakthroughs.  The final assault on Bin Laden’s compound is not presented as a gung-ho mission, with Special Ops guys back-slapping and high-fiving, but with all the seriousness that befits an incursion into enemy territory when the stakes are very high.  When the team penetrate the house, Bigelow maintains the uncomfortable intimacy that has run throughout the film, which escalates into an incredibly tense set piece.  Viewed largely through the team’s night-vision goggles, the compound takes on an unworldly, threatening quality, vision restricted by closed doors, staircase curves and bends in corridors.  Violence occurs in quick bursts of gun fire, shocking in its suddenness with a sound design that emphasises its immediacy.  Tension and fear permeates the sequence, a microcosm of the film as a whole.  The viewer is placed in close proximity to the events onscreen, allowing us to feel the threat and danger posed to the soldiers.  Nor are these soldiers presented as heroes – the film presents them as highly-trained, highly-equipped professional killers.  Terse commands, again in military jargon, are the order of the day, rather than bravado and machismo.  Once again, we see a dangerous world of post-human cyphers, operating on the basis of disembodied instructions through modern technology.

The eventual identification of the corpse of UBL is not accompanied by whoops of delight or shouts of triumph.  At best, there is relief, relief that something has been accomplished in this on-going struggle.  But what has truly been achieved?  Considering the events of the film in context, a viewer would be aware that the death of Bin Laden has not ended the War on Terror, so the result of this investigation is little more than a dead body in a bag (although some potentially useful intelligence is gathered as well).

Interestingly, we never see the corpse directly, only digital images of it, perhaps alluding to the controversy over whether the assassination ever actually took place.  Maya provides the identification, but is she reliable?  Clearly she has become obsessed, her commitment to locate her target consuming her completely while her colleagues are re-assigned or killed.  Her identification is all we have to go on, and the final shot of the film lingers on her face, as she breaks down and softly starts to weep.  Perhaps it is just relief, Maya allowing herself to feel the stress and let out the tension she has been holding for a decade.  Could it be anger at herself for not getting the job done sooner?  Or could it even be guilt at a deception she has perpetrated, because she was 100% certain Bin Laden was there, and the prospect of it not being him was just too much?

I am not a conspiracy theorist, so I think that the film does end with Bin Laden’s death and I interpret Maya’s tears as a release, as well as a device that neuters any sense of triumph.  But the ambiguity of the film’s conclusion maintains its refusal to moralise, portraying events rather than judging them.  We are aligned with Maya and her colleagues throughout the film, whether sitting uncomfortably close during meetings or looking over the shoulder of the attack team.  The grand narrative that the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was supposed to recapture after 9/11 is not achieved, this is just one chapter in a post-human world of fragmentary data.  Even the confirmation of Bin Laden’s death is only shown through digital images, themselves a disassembly of objects into data.  This is another reason Zero Dark Thirty is no more an endorsement of torture than it is a criticism.  It is not an apology for torture, nor a valorisation of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and neither a criticism nor endorsement of the CIA.  It is a tale of absolute commitment to an ultimately pointless endeavour, that achieves nothing more than a release.  This is what makes the film disturbing: the business as usual that Zero Dark Thirty presents is a world bereft of grand narratives and meaningful events, a world in which what we do matters little, and what we achieve brings us neither success nor peace.


Best of BAFTA


For your amusement, I present my reactions to the BAFTA Awards 2013.  The show itself was very well done – Stephen Fry is an engaging and very amusing host, and many of the presenters were great.  But what about the awards?

Best Film



Other Nominees:

Les Misérables

Life of Pi


Zero Dark Thirty

There are reasons for Argo standing above the other nominees.  I have seen all but one of these, and the one I am yet to see, Lincoln, has been described by some as dull.  While it is clearly about a weighty subject, making it an “important” film and therefore worthy of attention, perhaps the BAFTA members felt it was insufficiently dynamic or cinematic.  Or maybe they thought Spielberg has done it all, and this is nothing new.  Les Misérables has problems with pacing and direction – Tom Hooper has rightly been left out of many directorial awards because the film is not that well directed.  Multiple narrative and thematic strands in a story like Les Misérables need to be tied together and, when they were, it was through the music rather than cinematic style.  Great musical, not great cinema.  Zero Dark Thirty has likely been hurt by the controversy, and while this has not harmed its box office, it seems awards are not forthcoming for the film by “torture’s handmaiden”.  Life of Pi is visually stunning and an intriguing investigation into storytelling, but perhaps like previous 3D extravaganzas Avatar and Hugo, it is deemed not sufficiently serious.  But Argo is an intensely cinematic thriller, a true story (always worth honouring) about triumph and the US actually doing something good internationally, and strikes a remarkable balance between drama and comedy.  While there may be problems with Argo (I don’t personally know of any), none are as significant as those of the other films.  This makes the film’s continued success understandable, and there is little reason not to expect this success to continue.

Alexander Korda Award for Outstanding British Film of the Year



Other Nominees:

Anna Karenina

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Les Misérables

Seven Psychopaths

This award pleased me immensely, as I fully expected the adaptation of the classic musical of the classic novel to be honoured almost by rote, but instead my top film of 2012 gets the recognition it has otherwise been denied.  Bravo to all involved!

Best Actor


Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln

Other Nominees:

Ben Affleck for Argo

Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook

Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables

Joaquin Phoenix for The Master

I assume the other nominees just turned up for the show (and they were all there), because no one has a chance this year against Daniel Day-Lewis.  If Lincoln were made in another year, then I would have predicted Hugh Jackman to pick up the award.  But nothing stops the Lincoln express.

Best Actress


Emmanuelle Riva for Amour

Other Nominees:

Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty

Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone

Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook

Helen Mirren for Hitchcock

This was a tough one to predict, as both Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence had picked up Golden Globes, Marion Cotillard as well as Emmanuelle Riva wowed the art house crowd, and Helen Mirren is a national treasure.  I predicted Chastain but have no problem with Riva – having not seen Amour I’ll trust the assessments of those more informed than me.

Best Supporting Actor


Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained

Other Nominees:

Alan Arkin for Argo

Javier Bardem for Skyfall

Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master

Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln

This one has been a two-horse race, what with Christoph Waltz winning the Golden Globe but Tommy Lee Jones getting the SAG award.  With the BAFTA to his credit, Waltz is clearly the Supporting Actor of the moment, thanks to Quentin Tarantino.  Funny, we were here three years ago as well.  Django Unchained has its problems, but Waltz is not among them.

Best Supporting Actress


Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables

Other Nominees:

Amy Adams for The Master

Judi Dench for Skyfall

Sally Field for Lincoln

Helen Hunt for The Sessions

Anne Hathaway needs a bigger mantelpiece, with all these awards.  It is nice to see Sally Field back in the limelight, not least because it gave Stephen Fry a chance for some extra fawning.  Poor Amy Adams though – she’s always nominated in this category against really strong competition.  Hang in there, Ames.

David Lean Award for Achievement in Direction


Ben Affleck for Argo

Other Nominees:

Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty

Michael Haneke for Amour

Ang Lee for Life of Pi

Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained

In his acceptance speech, Ben Affleck described his current position as the second act.  I’m not certain where the divisions are, but perhaps the first act ended with the nadir of his career that was Gigli and the implosion of “Bennifer”.  Since then, Affleck re-invented himself with his turn in Hollywoodland and, more importantly, as a director.  Gone Baby Gone was great, The Town was better, and with Argo he has earned a Golden Globe, a DGA award and now a BAFTA.  There may not be an Oscar this year, but keep at it, Ben, and the third act may be even better.

Best Screenplay (Original)


Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino

Other Nominees:

Amour: Michael Haneke

The Master: Paul Thomas Anderson

Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola

Zero Dark Thirty: Mark Boal

It seems that, along with Best Supporting Actor, Tarantino films can’t stop receiving Screenplay awards.  While Django Unchained has its problems, they are more down to QT the director rather than QT the writer.  His scripts are ornate, elaborate, and eloquent, so it is small wonder that actors love working with him and often turn in career best performances.

Best Screenplay (Adapted)


Silver Linings Playbook: David O. Russell

Other Nominees:

Argo: Chris Terrio

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin

Life of Pi: David Magee

Lincoln: Tony Kushner

I thought Argo would pick this up, but it seems that out of the multitude of awards Silver Linings Playbook is up for, this is the one it can actually get.  David O’Russell is a bit of an awards darling, and this might be the start of more accolades for him.  And the script for Silver Linings Playbook is warm and witty without shying away from the suffering of its characters.

Best Cinematography


Life of Pi: Claudio Miranda

Other Nominees:

Anna Karenina: Seamus McGarvey

Les Misérables: Danny Cohen

Lincoln: Janusz Kaminski

Skyfall: Roger Deakins

Roger Deakins deserves an award big time, but never picks one up.  Clearly the way to do so is to work on a 3D film.  Like Avatar and Hugo before it, Life of Pi’s 3D cinematography is clearly worthy of adulation.  Even though I saw it in 2D, I could still appreciate the different planes of action and the extra depth that 3D would have applied.  Skyfall was still more beautiful though.

Best Editing


Argo: Billy Goldenberg

Other Nominees:

Django Unchained: Fred Raskin

Life of Pi: Tim Squyres

Skyfall: Stuart Baird

Zero Dark Thirty: Dylan Tichenor, Billy Goldenberg

Much of Argo’s tension and humour comes from its editing, cutting between different locations at an ever-increasing rate.  While it misses out on writing and acting awards, editing is carrying this beauty to greater glory.

Best Production Design


Les Misérables: Eve Stewart, Anna Lynch-Robinson

Other Nominees:

Anna Karenina: Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer

Life of Pi: David Gropman, Anna Pinnock

Lincoln: Rick Carter, Jim Erickson

Skyfall: Dennis Gassner, Anna Pinnock

The set design for Les Misérables combined the theatrical and the cinematic, working both aesthetically and narratively.  Well deserved, I think.

Best Costume Design


Anna Karenina: Jacqueline Durran

Other Nominees:

Great Expectations: Beatrix Aruna Pasztor

Les Misérables: Paco Delgado

Lincoln: Joanna Johnston

Snow White and the Huntsman: Colleen Atwood

What a shocker, all these nominees had period settings!  I’m calling the swords and sorcery setting of Snow White and the Huntsman period, just accept it.  No surprise that Anna Karenina picked that up.

Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music


Skyfall: Thomas Newman

Other Nominees:

Anna Karenina: Dario Marianelli

Argo: Alexandre Desplat

Life of Pi: Mychael Danna

Lincoln: John Williams

Skyfall is a film that warrants major attention, but aside from special awards, music seems to be its outstanding feature.  I have no problem with it receiving this honour.  Pity Adele didn’t sing though.

Best Make Up/Hair


Les Misérables

Other Nominees:

Anna Karenina


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


Les Misérables pulled off the remarkable feat of making the impossibly gorgeous Anne Hathaway look ugly, so bravo.  Nice that the ears, feet, beards etc of all those weird-looking people got some notification, as well as the efforts displayed in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Best Sound


Les Misérables

Other Nominees:

Django Unchained

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Life of Pi


I saw all of these, but must confess I did not really notice the sound that much.  However, to capture and then combine the multitude of singing voices, captured live during filming of Les Misérables, is a remarkable technical achievement, so it is an honour richly deserved.  Now if only something had been done with Russell Crowe’s singing…

Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects


Life of Pi

Other Nominees:

Avengers Assemble

The Dark Knight Rises

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


All of these I have seen, and indeed all were in my top twelve of 2012, which perhaps says something about my kind of films, except that these are a varied bunch.  The four that did not win are blockbusters, with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey coming from good pedigree when it comes to winning awards.  But Life of Pi is a special effects extravaganza that has also attracted “major” as well as “technical” nominations, so like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, as well as Avatar, visual effects is another bone thrown its way.

Best Film not in the English Language



Other Nominees:


The Hunt

Rust and Bone


Not seen any of these, but after all the attention lavished on Amour, this win was hardly surprising.

Best Animated Feature Film



Other Nominees:



Brave is the only one I have seen of these three, and while it is less outstanding than other Pixar efforts such as Wall-E, Up and all three Toy Story films, it is a fine adventure and great fun.

Best Documentary


Searching for Sugar Man

Other Nominees:

The Imposter



West of Memphis

Documentaries often highlight individuals or events that are otherwise overlooked.  Searching for Sugar Man clearly did this, and while I have not seen any of these, I applaud all of them for their efforts and accomplishments.

EE Rising Star Award


Juno Temple

Other Nominees:

Elizabeth Olsen

Andrea Riseborough

Suraj Sharma

Alicia Vikander

I predicted Suraj Sharma, on the basis of him having made an extraordinary debut in Life of Pi.  However, everyone else has a more established body of work, and Juno Temple made quite an impression in Killer Joe as well as cropping up in The Dark Knight Rises.  I look forward to great things from all of these performers.

Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer


The Imposter: Bart Layton, Dimitri Doganis

Other Nominees:

I Am Nasrine: Tina Gharavi

McCullin: David Manos Morris, Jacqui Morris

The Muppets: James Bobin

Wild Bill: Dexter Fletcher, Danny King

Although I have only seen The Muppets out of this group, I would have been surprised at James Bobin picking up the award as there were a lot of other talents that made The Muppets work.  Everything about The Imposter sounds remarkable, so hats off to Layton and Doganis.

Best Short Animation


The Making of Longbird: Will Anderson, Ainslie Henderson

Other Nominees:

Here to Fall: Kris Kelly, Evelyn McGrath

I’m Fine Thanks: Eamonn O’Neill

Best Short Film


Swimmer: Lynne Ramsay, Peter Carlton, Diarmid Scrimshaw

Other Nominees:

The Curse: Fyzal Boulifa, Gavin Humphries

Good Night: Muriel d’Ansembourg, Eva Sigurdardottir

Tumult: Johnny Barrington, Rhianna Andrews

The Voorman Problem: Mark Gill, Baldwin LI

I confess I have seen none of these so have no opinion.

Awards Predictions Part Four: Directorial Diatribe


The Oscar race is well underway, and the winners are hard to pick because of the spread of nominations and the surprising omissions, as well as the results from other events.  At the Golden Globes as well as the Producers Guild of America awards, Argo picked up Best Picture, while Ben Affleck was awarded Best Director by the Directors Guild of America.  Normally this would be a strong indicator of a Best Picture gong at the Oscars, and if so, it would be the first time since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 that a film wins Best Picture without being nominated for Achievement in Directing.

I confess a slight affront at being 60% wrong in my predictions in this category, and it’s an interesting set of nominees.  I predicted that the nominees for Achievement in Directing would be Ben Affleck for Argo, Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, Tom Hooper for Les Miserables, Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln.  Of these five, only Spielberg and Lee have been nominated.  The omission of Affleck is very surprising, particularly after him being honoured at the Golden Globes, the PGA and the DGA.  I confess to having no idea why he was overlooked.  Another surprising omission is Quentin Tarantino, as, like Argo, Django Unchained is nominated for Best Picture as well as well Best Screenplay, Original for Django Unchained, Adapted for Argo.  After all the honours heaped upon Amour, Michael Haneke’s nomination for Directing is less surprising, but the presence of Benh Zeitlin and David O’Russell is remarkable, and perhaps indicative of how impressed the Academy voters were by, respectively, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Silver Linings Playbook (or, to be more cynical, how impressed voters were by the awards campaigns of the films’ distributors, Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Company, respectively).

Perhaps Kathryn Bigelow and Tom Hooper have been left out because, had they been nominated, it would have been for the first film each of them made after winning the Oscar, for The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech, respectively.  Maybe this counted against them, as Academy voters were unwilling to nominate either for consecutive films.  The King’s Speech may still be fresh in the memory, too fresh for voters who wanted someone new.  Having seen Les Misérables though, I did not find it that well directed, as the different elements of the story were connected rather limply, with insufficient directorial thrust to unite the narrative and thematic strands.

In the case of Bigelow, however, she may well have also been left out due to the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty.  Suggestions have been made that the film affirms the use of torture as a legitimate method in the War on Terror.  This has not stopped the film being nominated for Best Picture, Original Screenplay and Actress in a Leading Role, so if Bigelow has been snubbed for a nod, that seems rather unfair.  I don’t like to reduce this topic to gender, but perhaps Academy members did not want the same woman to be up for the award again.  There may be other female directors worthy of Oscar attention, but they are not in evidence.

Interestingly though, Bigelow’s snub supports an auteurist understanding of film.  If Zero Dark Thirty does valorise torture, then Bigelow is being credited as responsible for this meaning, rather than screenwriter Mark Boal who, along with Megan Ellison, shares producing credit with Bigelow.  Using the director as a reading strategy works both ways – if the film is good, or worthy of approval, the director gets the credit.  If it is bad, or morally questionable, then the director gets the blame.  Regardless of Mark Boal and Megan Ellison’s involvement, Bigelow has been left out of the category where her particular talent or skill could be rewarded.  Boal put the torture scenes in the script, but is Bigelow more responsible for these scenes because she shot them and (one assumes) decided not to edit them out of the finished film?  There is no way of knowing exactly why Academy members voted the way they do (waterboarding would hardly be appropriate), but it is tempting to imagine that they might have been put off honouring Bigelow specifically because to do so might appear to be an endorsement of the controversial stance she is being credited as having.

The writer Naomi Wolf has compared Bigelow to Leni Riefensthal, whose most significant contribution to cinema was the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935).  I find it significant that both Riefensthal and Bigelow are both women, and for them to present such topics as Aryan supremacy and torture can be read (from a particular perspective) as aberrant and perverse.  24 is criticised for its depiction of torture, but creator Joel Surnow has been called a neoconservative rather than a Nazi.  While D. W. Griffith can be described as outrageously racist because of the politics in Birth of a Nation (1915), criticism of him can be tempered by the context in which he was raised and indeed in which he made his films.  Perhaps Bigelow does not have Griffith’s excuse – she is an independent filmmaker in the 21st century, she should know better, because we do.  Don’t we?  Also she’s a woman, so for her to present torture as anything other than hideous and completely unacceptable is very very wrong.  Isn’t it?

Other films have turned an explicitly critical eye upon the use of torture in the War on Terror, such as Rendition (Gavin Hood, 2007) which presents torture and indeed the detention of terror suspects as pointless because of the lack of evidence for the initial suspicion.  One purpose of film, and indeed all art/entertainment (they are ultimately, the same thing), is to pose questions for debate, but the manner in which these questions are posed can be as controversial as the questions themselves.  If not presented as outright condemnation, is it approval?  If Bigelow (combined with Boal and Ellison, the various performers, cinematographer, editor, etc) presents torture as part of the CIA hunt for Osama Bin Laden, within the context of other investigative methods, is that necessarily approval?

I wrote last year on the expectations that are generated by marketing and hype.  Awards season brings out other responses and expectations – after all, Best Picture nominees we might expect to be great, and they frequently are not.  Serious accusations during awards season are nothing new, and I imagine Kathryn Bigelow was prepared for a backlash against her film.  I am yet to see Zero Dark Thirty, but I already have multiple ideas about the film, what it might mean and what to look for in it.  Wolf’s argument that Bigelow will be remembered as “torture’s handmaiden” seems over the top, but perhaps she has a point.  Check back for my response to the film.