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Oscar Analysis

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With apologies to the Muppets, let’s just say Oscar 2002 is something of a Grouch.
In the Academy Awards’ tech/craft categories (art direction, cinematography, costumes, editing, makeup, sound editing, visual effects), 19 of 33 ballot slots are filled by representatives of the five Best Picture nominees – including all five editing finalists. Toss in four nods to Road to Perdition and two for Frida and a staggering 76% of the ballot is taken up by just seven movies.
Were it not for the scrupulousness of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, one might presume Academy branch members were issued a list of picture finalists prior to voting. Alternatively, it’s possible eligible nominators were just too busy working to see more than 10 movies from 2002’s crops.
Still, by the time the full membership has cast its votes, the likelihood of Chicago, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers or Gangs of New York sweeping the categories they were nominated in seems remote.

Art Direction

All five nominees are period pieces, with three largely set in the 1930s. However, the film most likely to emerge from the pack is the 1860s-era Gangs of New York, in which Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo replicated the Five Points on sound stages in Rome. Ferretti has been nominated, but never awarded, on four earlier occasions, and received an exhibition of his set designs earlier this year at the Academy. His work in Gangs is perhaps a bit overpowering and obvious, but don’t expect voters to opt for subtlety. My ballot is marked for the equally Herculean work of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Cinematography

It’s rare that Oscar honors posthumously, although it occurred in this category in 1980 when the late Geoffrey Unsworth was cited with Ghislain Cloquet for Tess.
The recent passing of Conrad Hall might ordinarily have helped Road to Perdition’s Oscar chances, had he not received a recent statuette for American Beauty. His work in Perdition is exquisite but unlikely to take home the prize. The category’s nominees include three first timers. One in particular – Far From Heaven’s Ed Lachman – has received considerable acclaim for imbuing the film with the bygone luster of 1950s Technicolor melodramas. Though the homage is striking, and initially seems like a gimmick, Lachman doesn’t overplay his hand and should prove the favorite when the envelope is opened.

Costumes

This category includes two past winners – and all five nominees have prior nominations. Again, the challenge was to address a bygone time and, in the case of Ann Roth’s work in The Hours, three eras, including the present. Voters, however, may be drawn to the gaudy razzle-dazzle that Colleen Atwood brought to Chicago or the flamboyance of Sandy Powell’s work in the already visually pumped-up Gangs of New York. Personally, I prefer the restraint that is the hallmark of Roth’s work. The demand of three separate signatures that identified time, place and character was non pareil, and effective without calling undue attention to the distinct look of the film.

Editing

Apart from Thelma Schoonmaker – a four-time nominee and winner for her superb work on Raging Bull – the slate is filled by Oscar first-timers.
Schoonmaker’s tireless work in shaping Gangs of New York is already legendary, and prompted actor Daniel Day-Lewis to quip that she could not attend an award’s dinner with him because “she’s working on the five-hour DVD and Martin wouldn’t give her the night off.” She gets an A for effort, but not the paperweight.
Chicago’s Martin Walsh might be better appreciated, though his frenetic cutting frequently appeared to be hiding the singing and dancing limitations of the film’s performers. It’s certainly an “in-your-face” approach that stands in sharp contrast to the seamless transitions and elegant flow provided by Peter Boyle in The Hours, or the cohesion-in-the-face-of-chaos found in Herze de Luze’s cutting of The Pianist.
However, all these qualities and more are evident in Michael Horton’s work on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Horton (taking over for John Gilbert) faced tremendous challenges in piecing together the middle section of the Rings trilogy, and provided a body and momentum that is truly worthy of Oscar glory.

Makeup

What were the members of this branch thinking when they chose Frida and The Time Machine as representatives of top achievements in their crafts? Nicole Kidman’s nose alone was worthy of consideration, not to mention Nicolas Cage’s hairpiece. But one has to Adapt, and Hours is not to reason why.
The category has been further reduced by the decision not to include sequels. Rather than casting ballots, it ought to be decided by a coin toss.

Sound and Sound Editing

These are the two categories most Academy members find mystifying … and for good reason.
Short of a decent tutorial, even the experts can be stumped when it comes to discerning whether the final audio artistry was provided by the location sound recordist or the post-production mixer.
As a consequence, it’s not surprising to see so many former nominees on the slate, including the categories’ own version of Randy Newman: 16-time nominee Kevin O’Connell, who teamed up with seven-time good sport Greg Russell and new-to-Oscar Ed Novick on Spider-Man. (That’s 23 misses for one team if you’re counting. No wonder Oscar time is known as “Passover” in our household.)
However, it’s likely that a musical has the edge in this category, and that would mean second-time Oscars for Chicago’s Michael Minkler and David Lee, and a first for Dominick Tavella.
In sound editing one can marvel at Minority Report’s Peter Hyms and Gary Rydstrom’s collective 19 nominations and seven statuettes, but the smart money favors Michael Hopkins and Ethan Van der Ryn’s work on The Lord of the Ring: The Two Towers.

Visual Effects

Spider-Man’s John Dykstra made his mark and earned an Oscar for Star Wars, and now he’s in competition with the newest chapter of the George Lucas saga, Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones. However, the team behind The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – Jim Rygiel, Joe Letteri, Randall William Cook and Alex Funke – appears poised once again to take home the gold.

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