By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com February 23, 2012 at 1:57PM
We're just a few days away from the Oscars, and it's not long before we find out who are going to be the big winners and losers. But at this time of year, it's important not to forget those who slipped through the cracks: there were films released in 2011 that weren't "The Artist," after all.
As we've discussed many times in the past, the Oscars are not necessarily decided on merit. Politics, lack of momentum, no one seeing your film -- all these elements can lead to a seemingly deserving person being overlooked by the Academy. As part of our continuing coverage in the run up to Sunday night, we've picked out ten below-the-line (e.g. directing, writing and technical categories) nods that, while not necessarily more deserving than those who ended up with nominations, deserved to have been in the conversation more. And keep your eyes peeled: a little later, we'll have ten more from the acting categories.
Arguably the most widely-liked of the Best Picture nominees, or at least the film with fewest detractors, "Moneyball," according to the Academy, appears to have directed itself. Bennett Miller, who was nominated for his debut "Capote," didn't just fail to get a nomination this time around, but according to prognosticators, he never really had a shot. But in most ways, it's not surprising: the directing category honors showy work, films which have obviously Been Directed, but Miller's egoless work on "Moneyball" is there to serve his story and his actors. Which, really, is how it should be. Striking the exact right balance between the heart and the head, getting career-best performances from just about everyone involved, and rarely putting a foot wrong, it's the kind of direction that's simply too good for an Oscar nomination.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" absolutely should not have worked. "Deep Blue Sea" with CGI monkeys and a green director? No way. Even the majority of the early trailers looked pretty weak. But it did work, and that's thanks to the astonishing performance-capture turn from Andy Serkis, and, more importantly for our purposes, the killer directing job from Rupert Wyatt. Those of us who'd seen his debut, "The Escapist," knew he had the potential to be a very special talent, but given Fox's usual propensity for steamrolling over inexperienced directors, we were surprised the extent to which he directed the hell out of the franchise picture. He makes the most of a patchy human cast (watch again how he cuts around Franco and Pinto to make them as palatable as possible), while perfectly framing the wordless, pure cinema of the ape sequences. The action, when it comes in the third act, thrills, but he never lets the emotion slip by either. Again, directing, when done well, is an invisible art, and Wyatt's low profile, both within the film and elsewhere, meant he never stood a chance.
In a year where several composers turned in multiple awards-worthy scores without being nominated (see: Cliff Martinez, Alexandre Desplat), it was a pleasant surprise to see Alberto Iglesias nominated. Long one of our favorite composers, and yet somehow without an Oscar, his nominated work on "Tinker Tailor, Solider, Spy" was great, but the music to "The Skin I Live In" was even better, and we'd happily swap his nomination on that film for the Almodovar, particularly considering the latter is his longest standing collaborator. With "The Skin I Live In," Iglesias somehow managed to top himself, with a tense, propulsive score full of quivering violins and unexpected synths. Like the film, it's somehow chillingly menacing, and carries a beating sexuality. Which is quite a trick for a film score.
As a category, cinematography tends to favor certain things: namely, pretty scenery. Point your camera at a plain or a mountain and you've got a pretty good shot at a nomination. Which helps to explain why Sean Bobbitt hasn't featured into the awards conversation to date. The Irish DoP's work isn't traditional awards bait, just as his previous collaboration with Steve McQueen on "Hunger" wasn't either. But there's no denying that the camerawork in "Shame" is stunning; the sleek night-time lighting, the shark-like way it tracks Michael Fassbender's Brandon as he jogs through the streets, the way any possible sensuality is drained from the sex scenes. Bobbitt never places a camera a single degree away from where it has to be, or lights more than it should. In other words, it's far too skilled a piece of work to get an Oscar nomination.
When it comes to picking the winner of Best Cinematography, Academy voters will often go for the film with the most spectacular images, rather than the best lit or framed ones -- witness "Avatar" and "Inception" winning in the last couple of years. But no cinematographer managed to do both quite as well this year as Robert Elswit. The DoP won back in 2007 for "There Will Be Blood," but but few who saw the spectacular IMAX images of Brad Bird's action sequel "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" can deny that his work was deserving; clear and characterful and, in the key action sequences, simply dizzying. Logistically alone, it's deserving (the concept of shooting out the window of the tallest building in the world with gigantic IMAX cameras has us breathing into a paper bag), but even ignoring that, the work seems to have more merit to it than "The Artist" or "War Horse."
When art direction and production design is done well, it creates a world on screen so detailed that you feel you could walk right into it. And recent winners -- "Alice in Wonderland," "Avatar," "Sweeney Todd," "Pan's Labyrinth" -- hold up. Some of this year's nominees, like "Hugo" and "Midnight in Paris," do that, but no film achieved a living, breathing world quite like "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," thanks to production designer Maria Djurkovic. The film's technically outstanding across the board, but nothing contributes to the atmosphere of, as director Tomas Alfredson put it, "damp tweed," than the faded, analogue settings that Djurkovic ("The Hours") was responsible for. Every location, from Control's study, piled high with the detritus of a wasted career, to the Wimpy fast food restaurant that Smiley and Guillam eat in, is an evocative, lived-in reminder of a world soon to be written over.
No film this year relied on editing as heavily as Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Indeed, no film in recent memory revolved around it as much. While much of it was in Sean Durkin's screenplay, the way that the titular Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) falls in and out of time, lapsing through transitions between her time in the sinister commune and her sister's lake house as she "recovers," leaves the audience never quite aware of where they are. Zachary Stuart-Pontier, who previously worked on "Catfish," does an impeccable job in the cutting room, coming in and out of each scene at the exact moment necessary to wring out the maximum amount of breathless tension. The film had a rhythm unlike anything else last year, a steadily clenching fist, and compared to the languid pacing of "Hugo," or the unexceptional work in "The Descendants," it surely deserved to be in the final five.
All the critical plaudits for "Drive" have focused principally on director Nicolas Winding Refn, and deservedly so. But that doesn't mean the credit should be exclusively his. He was working from a screenplay, and that screenplay was brilliantly written by Hossein Amini. Unusually the writer (who was nominated fifteen years ago for the entirely different "The Wings Of A Dove"), was on board all the way through, from its earliest days as a Neil Marshall studio picture to the finished product. And, reading the different drafts from over the years, it's clear how versatile as a writer Amini is, and how he was able to flesh out James Sallis's novel into the gripping noir/love story that it is on screen. Looking at it on the page, one can see how fully formed those indelible characters were -- from Albert Brooks' thuggish ex-movie producer to Bryan Cranston's hapless mechanic -- even before the actors got involved. Amini has had to settle for being one of the hottest script doctors around, with rewrite work on "47 Ronin" and "Snow White and the Huntsman" coming up, but a nomination still would have been nice.
As far as categories go, few favor the blockbuster more than visual effects, and as usual, that's been the way it played out -- if your film doesn't have giant robots or CGI apes, you probably won't end up in there. But given that Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" had an effects-heavy segment, with dinosaurs no less, one would imagine that it would have a clear path to a nomination, particularly as it ended up with nominations for Picture, Direction and Cinematography. But somehow, it didn't turn out that way, even with the presence of "2001" veteran Douglas Trumbull, who received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy this year. Maybe the effects branch thought that that was good enough for him this year, maybe they thought the effects weren't as consistently used, but it's hard to deny that, dinosaurs aside, any film in contention had such a varied and innovative use of effects, or effects that lingered with you for longer. "Real Steel" certainly didn't achieve that, anyway.
Lynne Ramsay has always been a filmmaker who places a particular emphasis on sound design. Her last film, "Morvern Callar," was essentially built around it, and she told us back in September that, "I tend to write the sound design into my films anyway. I think cinema for me, the best cinema, the films I really love, are all about atmosphere, and that's created by sound." While "We Need To Talk About Kevin" proved too divisive for nominations elsewhere, merit alone should have brought it into the sound categories, with Ramsay, and her sound team Paul Davies, Andrew Stirk and Stuart Bagshaw, creating an intricate aural tapestry that melds Jonny Greenwood's score, musical cuts including Washington Philips, and hints of the past and future bleeding through to the present. And was there a single better use of sound this year than the sequence where Eva (Tilda Swinton) takes the constantly crying Kevin in stroller to a construction heavy intersection just to drown him out?