In 1982, Tron was made, the first film incorporating large amounts of computer graphics. (Actually it only included about 15 minutes of actual graphics. The rest of the film was drawn art designed to look like computer graphics, whereas the reverse would probably be done today). The film was not successful at the box office, but it was mind blowing and it was a tremendous influence on many people working in computer animation and special effects today. However, the film did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. The reason was that the people who nominated films in this category were traditional special effects artists, and that meant mattes (ie drawn artwork) and models. Using computer graphics was seen as "cheating", and thus Tron was overlooked. This is why it was ironic that when I suggested to another blogger a couple of weeks ago, he said that Master and Commander was mostly "not special effects", because it was done with models in a tank in Mexico (the same tank that James Cameron had built for Titanic) rather than with computer graphics. (That said, the film does use some computer graphics, just not as intensively as, say, The Lord of the Rings). However, as far as I am concerned Master and Commander does use special effects, computer based or not, and in fact it uses them dazzlingly, as I felt that a 19th century ship in the Royal Navy was really like that. Getting this kind of thing right is breathtakingly hard, which is why the film deserves the Oscar. But it probably won't get it.
Best Animated Film. Easy. Finding Nemo is a shoo in. Some people like Bellezvois Rendez-vous (released in the US as The Triplets of Bellevois). These people are heartened by the fact that a film from the non-English speaking world, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won last year, and think that it could happen again. No way. That’s not to criticise the film – it is indeed excellent. However, in American animation Pixar have been the most financially and critically successful company of the last decade. Their run of five huge hits in a row (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo) is utterly extraordinary in Hollwood terms. It’s probably an even bigger thing to have pulled off than what Peter Jackson did. (Pixar have invented an entire new way of making films (computer animation) as they have done it, too). Nobody manages five hits that big in a row, and they are also wonderful films. This is the third year that the oscar for “Best Animated Feature” has existed, and Pixar are yet to win it. This is anomalous, and a little bit embarrassing also, and they will want to fix it. Two years ago Shrek won ahead of Monsters Inc. and in retrospect that looks like a bad decision. Not a terrible decision – Shrek is also a good film – but the fact is that the Academy gave the award to a slightly crude film full of cheap shots at Disney CEO Michael Eisner rather than a sweet and beautiful film from Pixar. Last year Pixar had no eligible film. Spirited Away won because there were four other nominees, and there was no standout film from there. That and it was a wonderful film. This year, Pixar is eligible, there are only two other nominations to split votes, and their film was a critical and audience triumph. Finding Nemo is the surest of sure things.
(And, if you are into that kind of thing, voting for it is actually another way to have a shot at Michael Eisner. Pixar and Disney have recently announced that they have failed to renew their contract, and they will not be making movies together after their present contract expires after they have made two more movies. Apparently, negotiations between Pixar CEO Steve Jobs and Disney CEO Michael Eisner broke down acrimoniously. (This is hardly surprising. Between them they have two of the world’s largest egos). One of the issues behind this was that Michael Eisner saw an early cut of Finding Nemo a year ago, was of the opinion that it was not as good as Pixar’s other films, deliberately stalled negotiations with Eisner because he thought that Finding Nemo would be a disappointment at the box office and that he would have a stronger negotiating position afterwards. Idiotically, he also told this to financial analysts (check?). As it happened, Finding Nemo was the highest grossing animated film ever. (At least, it was in nominal terms. In inflation adjusted terms, The Lion King is still bigger). So instead of being weakened, Steve Jobs’ negotiating position was actually strengthened, and as he saw it he had been insulted publicly as well. Giving the Oscar to Pixar now would in a sense be another way of hammering the nails in. Of course, Comcast has recently launched a takeover bid for Disney. If this results in Eisner being ousted as Disney CEO (either because the bid is successful, or because Eisner is sacked by the Disney board as part of the effort to see off the takeover bid), it wouldn’t be too surprising if Disney and Pixar reopen negotiations. Anyway, Finding Nemo to win this one in a canter).
For Best Picture and best Director I think The Return of the King, simply because the magnitude of what Jackson pulled off. Once in a while Hollywood likes to honor a huge blockbuster. Someone who fought the studio system, got his way, made a hugely successful film, and made a huge sum of money for his studio. Jackson did that. The last time such a film got a pile of Academy Awards the film was James Cameron’s Titanic. The Lord of the Rings films have not individually made as much money as that film did (although they have well and truly done so in aggregate, and between them they didn’t cost much more to produce than that film did on its own), but they are better films, Jackson is a nicer guy than Cameron (not hard), and Cameron was an established director of big hits, whereas Cameron had never made a hit before in his life. If there is a weakness, it is that a substantial portion of the Academy consists of aging costume designers, make up artists, and that kind of thing. These people are not Tolkien fans, and are rather suspicious of fantasy in general. These sort of people found the three films rather solid endurance exercises, and it is conventional wisdom in Hollywood that The Return of the King is flawed by having an ending that is far too long, and that the film should have ended with the coronation of Aragorn. (Of course, this is the opposite of the reaction of Tolkien fans, who mostly believe that the ending is much too short and should also have included the scouring of the Shire. So Jackson had a delicate line to tread, although virtually everyone complained a little about the ending).
However, I think the strengths are too strong. I don’t believe that The Return of the King will be beaten for Best Picture. The three films are two immense an achievement. I do not believe that the film will be beaten for Best Director either, although this one is not quite as certain. I think there are two other possibilities: Clint Eastwood for Mystic River and Peter Weir for Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World. Sofia Coppola will not win for Lost in Translation as it is too small a film and she is too young and inexperienced. (She will likely win for Best Original Screenplay, however). The fifth nominee is Fernando Meirelles for City of God This is genuinely one of those "The reward was just to be nominated" situations.
As for the other two, Mystic River is a good film, one of Eastwood’s best. (I had one or two little issues with the plot, but it was a most enjoyable couple of hours in the cinema). It contains some fine performances (although I thought the best performances in it were from Kevin Bacon and Laura Linney, whereas Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden are the ones who received Oscar nominations). Eastwood is a fine director who doesn’t indulge in the usual Hollywood bullshit (he brings films in ahead of schedule and under budget – heaven forbid) and is immensely popular because he is apparently an extremely down to earth and nice guy who is an utter pleasure to work with. (Read William Goldman’s description of working with him on Absolute Power in either of thesebooks). However, he has won before, for Unforgiven, in my mind a better film. If he had not won before, I think I might pick him to win, but he has.
Interestingly enough, Peter Weir is almost the exact opposite. Australia’s finest film director has now been nominated five times, but has never won. Master and Commander is considered by almost everyone to be a fine piece of work, but it did not really catch fire at the box office. Weir is perceived to have done a fine job, everyone thinks he deserves an Oscar, and Master and Commander is the sort of film that aging costume designers and make up artists are impressed by, perhaps partly because the costume design and make-up is so good in it. At the BAFTAs yesterday, Master and Commander won for Best Director, and did very well in technical categories (as it deserved to – it is technically a superb piece of film-making). If the feeling is that Peter Jackson is too out there for conservative voters, the combination of fine work and a sense that he deserves to win and hasn’t could mean Weir has a chance. I think I would actually rate him second favourite after Jackson. But I think Jackson will win.