Hey, AMPAS voters and Oscar pool filler-outers! You know everything there is to know about picture, director, acting and screenplay, right? (At least you think you do.) But what about all the rest? Well, the folks at Variety are here to help, with these snapshots of the remaining 16 categories at the Academy Awards.
The Acad reaffirms its love for the oldest, most painstaking form of animation by offering three slots to stop-motion films, including “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” the latest feature from “Wallace and Gromit” studio Aardman. Previously nommed for “Corpse Bride,” director Tim Burton offers a black-and-white homage to classic monster movies with “Frankenweenie,” while Laika (the Portland-based new kid on the block which was up for an Oscar in 2009 for “Coraline”) offers an eye-popping comedic spin on zombie movies with “ParaNorman.” Those three hand-tooled toons compete against a pair of blockbuster CG features, Disney’s vidgame-themed “Wreck-It Ralph” and Pixar’s girl-power adventure story “Brave.”
Voter’s tip: Pixar has won this category five of the past 11 times, which bodes well for “Brave,” though it was actually the lowest-reviewed film of the lot. “Wreck-It Ralph” plays to grownups as well as kids, thanks to a PG rating (instead of the usual Disney “G”), while the three stop-motion pics each advance the medium in impressive ways, introducing camera moves and a level of detail that have previously proven too difficult to pull off in a technique captured one frame at a time.
— Peter Debruge
A dynamic combination of animated shorts — the majority of them receiving significant audience play — are vying for the category’s next Oscar. PES’ “Fresh Guacamole” has been an online staple for the better part of a year, drawing more than 7 million views on one YouTube thread alone. Disney doesn’t disappoint with the whimsical yet touching “Paperman,” which received major exposure through its pairing with “Wreck-It Ralph.” Even greater crowd awareness awaited “Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare,’” not only an offshoot of “The Simpsons” but of a 20-year-old storypoint of the series. (“Maggie” was shown in theaters before “Ice Age: Continental Drift.”)
Voter’s tip: Don’t cast your ballot without seeing two other nominees that are more obscure but hardly lacking for style. U.K. National Film and Television School student film “Head Over Heels,” from Timothy Reckart, speaks ever so softly but packs the category’s biggest emotional punch. And “Adam and Dog,” from Disney feature animation designer Minkyu Lee, re-envisions Biblical beginnings in lovely hand-drawn (and canine-focused) light.
— Jon Weisman
There’s no lack of diversity in this year’s cinematography crop, from the lush theatrical artifice of Seamus McGarvey’s work in “Anna Karenina” to the chiaroscuro portraiture of Janusz Kaminski’s handling of “Lincoln.” For Oscar triviaheads, there’s no denying the intrigue surrounding Roger Deakins’ 10th career nom (for “Skyfall”), given that he’s never won, and with this being the first Bond film to vie for anything other than music and vfx, his supreme craftsmanship on the most psychological of the series transcends genre. Robert Richardson (“Django Unchained”) already has three Oscars, and yet his vibrant palette for Tarantino’s pulp revisionist fantasy is on a level with his most expressionistic work with Oliver Stone at his peak. Richardson won last year for his 3D lensing of “Hugo,” which bodes well for Claudio Miranda’s unusually nuanced use of the medium for Ang Lee’s maiden voyage in 3D waters, “Life of Pi.”
Voter’s tip: Any d.p. worth his weight in lenses will tell you it’s all about advancing story and character, so keep this in mind while luxuriating in all the imagery.
— Steve Chagollan
The nominees for this year’s costume design Oscar echo the genre breakdown of the production design contenders: three period and two fantasy films. In fact, the period pics are the same in both categories: “Anna Karenina,” “Les Miserables” and “Lincoln.” All three meticulously re-create the costumes of their respective era: the elaborate apparel of Russia’s upper classes, the tattered rags of France’s street rabble, and the dense, layered garments of Washington politicians. Both fantasy contenders interpret the “Snow White” fairy tale: “Mirror Mirror” with a mix of opulence and frill, “Snow White and the Huntsman” with a darker combo of haute couture and images of death.
Voter’s tip: History subliminally informs the votes of many ballot-casters. This year they’ll recall Colleen Atwood’s costumes in “Alice in Wonderland” as they savor her somber concepts for the evil queen. They’re aware that Jacqueline Duran’s “Pride and Prejudice” designs influenced her Russian garments, that Joanna Johnston’s “War Horse” experience boosted her Civil War creds, and that Paco Delgado’s France drew inspiration from his Spanish creations such as “Biutiful.” And many will remember the admired work of “Mirror Mirror’s” late Eiko Ishioka, whose long stage and graphic design career extended into a film opus that includes “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”
— Peter Caranicas
Bearing out the strength of Sundance’s nonfiction programming, three of the five nominated films premiered at Park City last year: “The Invisible War” (Kirby Dick’s hard-hitting look at the frequency of rape in the military), “How to Survive a Plague” (David France’s well-crafted chronicle of the fight against AIDS) and “Searching for Sugar Man,” Malik Bendjelloul’s rousing investigation into the life and career of musician Sixto Rodriguez. Rounding out the category are two scorching entries from the frontlines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Droh Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers” and Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s “5 Broken Cameras.”
Voter’s tip: With the DGA’s docu helming prize and a higher B.O. gross ($3.2 million) than any of its rivals, “Searching for Sugar Man” would seem to have the edge in this race. If Academy members are in less of a feel-good mood, don’t count out “The Gatekeepers,” perhaps the best-reviewed title of the bunch, although its nuanced, morally anguished critique of the Israeli occupation could encounter some resistance.
— Justin Chang
back: When was the last time you saw a documentary short in theaters? Exactly.
In what has effectively become the Oscars’ unofficial “Emmy” category, a crop
of smallscreen-bound nonfiction works vie for a prize that seems as far removed
from the theatrical experience as giving Oscar statues for “best Super Bowl
commercial” — only these are all earnest, weight-of-the-world essays on such
issues as aging (“Kings Point”), cancer (“Mondays at Racine”), homelessness
(“Inocente”), poverty (“Redemption”) and third-world medical care (“Open
Heart”). Four of the entries are destined to appear on HBO, while the last,
MTV-produced “Inocente” (in which a Latina teen tries to develop her artistic
identity amid family hardship), aired last August.
tip: Kief Davidson’s “Open Heart,” about a Rwandan girl who receives
life-saving heart surgery from a dedicated surgeon in Sudan, echos recent winners “Smile Pinki” (in which humanitarians repair an Indian
girl’s cleft lip) and “Saving Face” (about doctors determined to help Pakistani
women who were victims of face-scarring acid attacks). This category is always
a tear-jerker, but the most uplifting may be “Mondays at Racine,” which
captures the human side of cancer as ordinary women cope with the effects of
— Peter Debruge
Conventional wisdom holds that no one wins Oscar’s top prize without an editing nom, though the reverse isn’t necessarily the case (last year, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” took home the editing prize without making the best picture cut), proving that technical innovation can be as important as good clean storytelling when it comes to honoring editors. In that respect, Ang Lee’s 3D, effects-heavy “Life of Pi” (edited by “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” vet Tim Squyres) could prove the most impressive. On the continuum of experience, three-time winner Michael Kahn turned policy-making into white-knuckle stuff with “Lincoln,” while newcomer Crispin Struthers paired up with Jay Cassidy to make “Silver Linings Playbook” the snappy crowd-pleaser that it is.
Voter’s tip: Consider finding a way to honor the editor nominated for two different pics in the category: William Goldenberg cut both “Argo,” lending the Ben Affleck-helmed thriller a pulse-quickening urgency while leaving room for the characters to shine, and “Zero Dark Thirty,” in which he and partner Dylan Tichenor sifted through reels of multicamera, documentary-style coverage to zero in on the essence of the tense manhunt story.
— Peter Debruge
Austria’s “Amour” has been the presumptive favorite in this category since its Palme d’Or-winning premiere at Cannes, and the fact that it’s in contention for four other Oscars has done nothing to weaken its hold. Still, its rivals all have their strengths and partisans: Scandinavian entries “A Royal Affair” (Denmark) and “Kon-Tiki” (Norway) are perhaps the most accessible of the lot, while Chile’s Gael Garcia Bernal starrer “No” (like “Amour,” a Sony Classics pickup) and Canada’s “War Witch” have both scored festival acclaim.
Voter’s tip: Surprises in this race have been known to happen. But as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life Is Beautiful” demonstrated, when a foreign-language film nominee scores multiple nominations in other races (including picture and director), the stars have a way of aligning exactly as expected.
— Justin Chang
An international influence can be felt deeply in this year’s live-action short nominees, all but one of which are set outside the U.S. The exception would be “Curfew,” directed, written by and starring Shawn Christensen in a touching if occasionally startling story of city-bound despair. Otherwise, the journey beyond borders could begin with Yan England’s “Henry,” which serves as a de facto distillation of the past year’s “Amour” and “Looper.” “Death of a Shadow,” from Tom van Avermaet and starring Matthias Schoenaerts (“Rust and Bone”) travels similar themes of love and death.
Voter’s tip: By now, more people have become familiar with the two shorts featuring untrained child stars, Bryan Buckley’s “Asad” and Sam French-directed “Buzkashi Boys.” If not, the journey through this year’s shorts isn’t complete without their windows into the youth of two troubled regions, as well as into the ambition and resourcefulness of the filmmakers.
— Jon Weisman
Hair, lots of hair, defines this category. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” required Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane to conceive and create looks for the 13 central dwarf characters, each with distinct facial hair, not to mention prosthetic noses and other features. The revolutionaries of “Les Miserables” are given an appropriately grimy, unkempt look of the period, a time when daily personal grooming was reserved for the wealthy, by Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell. Anne Hathaway’s short coif, though, is on its way to becoming an chic icon of movie hair history.
Voter’s tip: Don’t overlook the subtlety of re-creating the real people of “Hitchcock”: Howard Berger, Peter Montagna and Martin Samuel transformed Anthony Hopkins into the Master of Suspense, made Helen Mirren frumpy and turned Scarlett Johansson into Janet Leigh.
— Carole Horst
If Alexandre Desplat was given the opportunity to choose which of his many scores for 2012 the Academy might have nominated him for in early January, chances are “Argo” would not have topped the list. But now that the Argonauts at the guilds have given that film strong momentum leading up to Oscar night, Desplat’s mixture of Middle Eastern and Western influences appears to be a stroke of good fortune. Ethnic flavors also predominate in Michael Danna’s tapestry of Persian, Indian and Tibetan strains in his “Life of Pi” score. Dario Marianelli upped his game by matching his classically inspired waltzes and Russian folk music to choreographed movement in “Anna Karenina,” much like his Oscar-winning music for “Atonement” at times mimicked the sound of a typewriter. And John Williams’ American Pastoral score for “Lincoln” is unusually restrained for a man whose five Oscars weren’t earned for their subtlety.
Voter’s tip: Give credit to Thomas Newman — the biggest bridesmaid of the bunch (11 noms) — whose score for “Skyfall” deftly balances brash, muscular 007 tradition with a more reflective take on the Bond franchise.
— Steve Chagollan
Following a year in which the Academy only saw fit to nominate two tunes for original song — the injury added to the earlier insult of canceling song performances from the kudocast — this year’s Oscar hopefuls paint a refreshingly rosier picture. The presence of the most successful solo artist of the past decade (Adele, who performed and co-wrote the titular theme to “Skyfall” with regular collaborator Paul Epworth) obviously brings excitement, and fellow Grammy darling Norah Jones will also be around to croon “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” from “Ted” (music: Walter Murphy; lyrics: Seth MacFarlane). “Suddenly” (music: Claude-Michel Schonberg; lyrics: Herbert Kretzmer, Alain Boublil) managed to add material to the canonical “Les Miserables” songbook without jarring, while “Life of Pi’s” Mychael Danna pulled off the rare feat of notching noms in both score and song categories, and his collaboration with Bombay Jayashri, “Pi’s Lullaby,” reps the first Tamil-language song to be Oscar-nominated.
Voter’s tip: While he may be the least-known of the nominated tunesmiths, J. Ralph is a considerable talent who has devoted most of his songwriting efforts to documentary film. His Scarlett Johansson-sung “Before My Time” from “Chasing Ice” is worthy of a listen.
— Andrew Barker
In what will be the first Oscar ceremony since the art direction category was re-named production design, the five films competing for this year’s trophy will forever be remembered for their sets and backgrounds. Three take place in very different 19th century environments — the glittering world of Russia’s aristocracy, the impoverished masses of 1830s France, and the military and political tumult of America’s Civil War — while another follows a boy adrift at sea on a fantasmagorical journey and the fifth conjures an entirely invented world.
Voter’s tip: If you like period films, you’ll have a hard time choosing among the lavish, theatrical sets and the stark Russian backgrounds that production designer Sarah Greenwood created for “Anna Karenina,” the atmospheric and palpably gritty Paris that Eve Stewart built for “Les Miserables,” and the magisterial yet musty halls of government that Rick Carter re-constructed for “Lincoln.” And fantasy buffs will have to decide whether they prefer David Gropman’s luminescent, dreamy nature scenes in “Life of Pi” or Dan Hennah’s storybook dwellings, resplendent palaces and Middle-earth landscapes in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
— Peter Caranicas
Sound editors for this year’s nominees traveled far and wide to gather what was heard in this group of films. “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” editors went to pains to have native speakers record chants or shouts heard throughout their Middle East landscapes. Editors on “Life of Pi” found a group of tigers to sample the various emotions they needed. “Skyfall” and “Django Unchained” both powered through their battle scenes with sounds taken from weapons and machines specific to their stories.
Voter’s tip: Don’t put tiger roars in a smackdown against helicopter blades. While all these talented editors went to incredible lengths to get just the right sound, what ultimately counts is whether it feels real and (almost subliminally) convinces the audience that what they’re seeing is genuine. It’s about sounds that take you there and continue to suspend any disbelief.
— Karen Idelson
Just about every type of film — musical, action, historical drama, adventure — is nommed in this race. “Les Miserables” earned raves for its raw vocal performances coupled with a universally known score. “Skyfall” balanced the sonic acrobatics of an action film with the cool undertones of a moody thriller. “Argo” blended multiple locations and languages for its harrowing journey. “Lincoln” guided audiences through history with sounds from the White House along with Daniel Day Lewis’ carefully constructed vocals. And the allegorical voyage “Life of Pi” featured a soundscape to back gigantic storms and an island covered with meerkats.
Voter’s tip: With a wildly diverse group of nominees this year, remember to see each film for its individual achievements, rather than as part of a particular genre. Films like “Skyfall” and “Life of Pi” bring subtlety and clarity to big film mixes, while “Argo” and “Lincoln” take a bold look at their historical subjects and “Les Mis” is a mix focused on emotional clarity more than perfect vocals.
— Karen Idelson
The visual effects category is Oscar’s home for the blockbusters, and none of the nominees could have been made in live-action without extensive vfx. Voters must decide for themselves what makes visual effects “best.” Quantity? Technical innovation? Originality? Contribution to the story? Sheer beauty? Each can arguably rate the top spot, depending on that answer. All are very polished technically; it’s easier to find an out-of-focus closeup than a technically bad vfx shot nowadays. “Prometheus,” “Life of Pi” and “The Hobbit” were in native 3D, and “The Hobbit” was finished at 48 frames per second — so all were technically daunting. “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Prometheus” and “Pi” are especially highly art-directed. “The Avengers” not only had to unify the visuals of its diverse superheroes, but get laughs with those CG-animated heroes to boot.
Voter’s tip: Try see these movies on a big screen, not at home on screeners. Their vfx should be judged in their most advanced presentation: 3D and/or HFR, where applicable. Don’t skip surprise nominee “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which brings some lovely Hayao Miyazaki-flavored fantasy imagery to life.
—David S. Cohen