The 92nd Academy Awards, which take place earlier this year on February 9th, are almost here, and the nominations are in. And as usual, the spring and summer releases and biggest box office films of the past year, including such global juggernauts as Avengers: Endgame (the year’s top-grosser which pulled in an astounding $2.8 billion-plus haul) and
The Lion King ($1.6 billion), and other members of the billion-dollar club such as
Toy Story 4, will have to vie for voter attention with the crowded fall and winter crop of potential contenders.
And while all those sequels, reboots, retreads and spin-offs still drive the box office, they don’t galvanize Academy members when it comes to voting and awards. Instead, audiences will see the golden boys handed out to films that many of them haven’t even seen (or even heard of). For ‘tis the season when the studios momentarily turn their backs on familiar brands, sequels, tentpoles, money-making toons, superheroes and escapist fare (i.e. every one of those blockbusters), and give their full attention to such (mostly) serious, Oscar-worthy prestige projects as “The Irishman,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “1917,” “Parasite,” “Little Women,” “Joker,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Judy,” “Marriage Story,” “Bombshell,” “Ford v. Ferrari,” “Harriet,” “Pain & Glory,” “The Two Popes,” and “Richard Jewell.”
So will Oscar, as usual, largely turn a blind eye to popular summer popcorn hits (except in sound and visual effects) in favor of fall and year-end releases? Impossible to tell, but with all that in mind, we now look into our crystal ball and present our annual top picks list of likely nominees.
BEST PICTURE/ BEST DIRECTOR
Oscar has always loved a good period film — and especially a good period war film, and while at press time these top races were still very much undecided, some strong frontrunners have emerged — most of them period pieces.
Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, is an epic, three-and-a-half hour-long saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th century. Spanning decades, the film chronicles one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, the disappearance of legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and offers a monumental journey through the hidden corridors of organized crime: its inner workings, rivalries and connections to mainstream politics.
But there’s a twist to this latest Mob drama which Scorsese directed for Netflix from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian. Gone are the flashy wise guys and the glamour of “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” Instead, the film examines the mundane nature of Mob killings and the sad price any survivors pay in the end — old age, loneliness, illness and death in an old folks’ home.
Editor Thelma Schoonmaker has been Scorsese’s go-to editor and key collaborator over the course of some 25 films and half a century, winning Oscars for “Raging Bull,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed,” and she should get some Oscar love for her meticulous, detailed work on the saga. Talking about her process on editing the film and the main challenges, she reports that Scorsese and she “edited for a year and the footage was so incredibly rich, the only challenge was to make sure we chose the best of it and took advantage of the wonderful improvisations the actors gave us. It was a complete joy for Scorsese and me to edit this film. After we locked the film we turned over to ILM so they could do the “youthifying” of the actors. That took about seven months.”
Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning director whose credits include “Skyfall,” “Spectre” and “American Beauty,” looks like a very strong contender with his World War I epic, “1917.” Co-written by Mendes and shot by frequent collaborator and Oscar winner Roger Deakins, it tells the story of two young British soldiers, Schofield (“Captain Fantastic’s” George MacKay) and Blake (“Game of Thrones’” Dean-Charles Chapman) who are given a seemingly impossible mission — to cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop a deadly attack on hundreds of soldiers — Blake’s own brother among them. Just technically, the film is a tour-de-force that tells its story in one, nearly uninterrupted shot, which Mendes told me needed “over half a year of planning and rehearsing” to get right. Deakins’ bravura, immersive work makes it almost certain that the 14-time nominee — who finally won for his work on “Blade Runner 2049” — will be nominated. Other possible noms could come for “1917’s” production design, sound mixing, score and editing, although Lee Smith’s editing may be unfairly dismissed by voters as ‘too easy’ a challenge in a “one-shot” film, as was the case with “Birdman’s” editing team of Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” another period piece, set in the late ‘60s, is the latest film from two-time Oscar-winner Quentin Tarantino. Starring Oscar-winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, it’s the director’s nostalgic love letter to Tinseltown, the movie industry and a studio system and era undergoing huge changes. For veteran production designer Barbara Ling, who previously created another ’60s L.A. facelift — for Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” “the biggest challenges were dealing with busy Hollywood Boulevard and Westwood Village, and re-facading and restoring buildings, as they were tearing them down faster than we could shoot, and Quentin didn’t want any CGI for anything up close. He wanted it to look as real and authentic as possible.” While Ling, whose wide-ranging credits include “Batman & Robin,” “Batman Forever” and “Fried Green Tomatoes,” oversaw the work on real locations, VFX houses including Luma, Lola and Pixel Pirates provided visual effects to help create a seamless trip down memory lane.
South Korean Bong Joon Ho is rising in the Oscar race for Best Director for his unsentimental but emotional thriller “Parasite,” New Zealander Taika Waititi deserves attention for his black satire “Jojo Rabbit” and Spanish master Pedro Almodovar has been getting a lot of buzz for his latest drama “Pain and Glory,” and all may be the latest foreign filmmakers in a long line of winners over the past decade, following such recent recipients as Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”), Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity,” “Roma”) and Alejandro G. Inarritu (“Birdman,” “The Revenant”), England’s Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), France’s Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”) and Taiwan’s Ang Lee (“Life of Pi”). The only American director in the group? Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”).
Oscar-nominated writer/director Todd Phillips may have begun his career in comedy and made some of the most successful comedy films in Hollywood (his global blockbuster franchise “The Hangover” made $1.4 billion), but with “Joker” he left comedy far behind — and a long line of outraged critics in its wake, as the bleak, disturbing and chilling tragedy racked up an astounding worldwide total of $1 billion — and counting, making it the seventh highest-grossing film of 2019 and the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. Co-written with Oscar-nominated Scott Silver (“The Fighter”), the filmmaker’s original vision of the infamous DC villain is an origin story and exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is portrayed — and fully inhabited — by three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix, who deserves another nomination.
Like “The Irishman,” “Joker,” another period piece, relied heavily on location work masterfully shot by Phillips’ go-to director of photography Lawrence Sher (“Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” “The Hangover” trilogy). The team used locations all around New York City, “a big challenge as it’s far harder than it sounds,” says the director. “But it was so important to the vibe and feel of the movie, and so many superhero movies use lots of CGI, but I needed that gritty reality of the actual streets. And I think that’s why it’s so unsettling to people as it does feel so real. Luckily we had Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who’s one of the great New York producers and was key in getting locations.” Ironically, Koskoff was also instrumental in finding locations for “The Irishman.”
Other films in the running include “Little Women” and Greta Gerwig (see my Post Nov/Dec issue story), who may find herself up against partner Noah Baumbach and his acclaimed drama “Marriage Story.” Then there’s the well-received “Ford v Ferrari,” directed by James Mangold, which chronicles the story of race car legends Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and their cars that culminates in the historic showdown between the U.S. and Italy at the grueling 1966 24 hour Le Mans race in France.
“We built and shot real cars,” says Mangold, “and we shot the Le Mans race all in camera, rather than using CGI, although the film has quite a few VFX — more than you’d guess.” Olivier Dumont, the visual effects supervisor and VFX supervisor for Method Studios, led the Method team. The movie is another period piece, but because the original Le Mans course doesn’t exist anymore, the filmmakers used several locations in Georgia to double for the famous racetrack and the film’s climactic sequence which lasts some 40 minutes.
Had enough of war, crime, murder and heavy drama — but still prefer a period piece? Well, voters have at least two good options, including “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” starring Oscar-winner Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in a story of kindness triumphing over cynicism. It’s helmed by award-winning director, writer, and actress Marielle Heller, who most recently directed three-time Academy Award nominated film, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
VISUAL EFFECTS & POST WORKFLOW/ EDITING & SOUND
Some of the year’s biggest hits — “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Lion King,” “Toy Story 4,” — also feature some of the year’s most spectacular VFX.
And it took many hands to do the heavy lifting on “Endgame” - Weta, ILM, Framestore, DNeg, Cinesite, Digital Domain and others worked on some 2,500 VFX shots - while for “The Lion King”, MPC used over 1,250 artists and animators from 30 countries.
At press time, it’s shaping up to be a tight race between The Russo’s “Endgame” and Jon Favreau’s photo-real “The Lion King” in the VFX contest. And “The Lion King” looks like the favorite thanks to its ‘Is it live action or is it animation?’ stunning visuals. Favreau and his team, led by VFX super Rob Legato (“Avatar,” “The Jungle Book,” “Titanic”), created a revolutionary virtual production by previs’ing and then shooting in VR with a live-action crew that included six-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and marrying that with MPC’s animated characters and environments (no animals were even scanned or motion-captured). The team combined meticulously researched character and set design to render each scene within a VR environment that spanned hundreds of virtual miles using the Unity video game engine. The characters themselves took about six months to create, with all their hair, muscles, facial expressions.
It was also a year of innovation, especially in 3D CG animation (check out Thanos and Hulk in “Endgame,” and Pixar’s beautiful global illumination in “Toy Story 4”). And while in years past a time machine often featured at the center of many a sci-fi movie, now a new kind of time machine — digital de-aging — helps drive the plot, as evidenced in Scorsese’s “The Irishman”. “The Lion King” did the same thing for fur and whiskers.
ILM used new de-aging software to create a younger Robert De Niro (who plays the titular character, a hitman reflecting back on his violent career), Al Pacino (who plays Jimmy Hoffa) and Joe Pesci (who plays a crime boss) for “The Irishman’s” decades-spanning mob tale.
But there’s a downside to the innovative technology, which, because of its huge costs, reportedly helped push the final budget of “The Irishman” to a record-busting $160 million for a drama aimed at adults. Sure, Netflix can afford it, but some voters I talked to felt the results seemed and looked a bit stunt-driven at times.
Glam rockers and director Dexter Fletcher had another huge year. After getting the $903 million global smash “Bohemian Rhapsody” over the finish line (he was brought in to direct after Bryan Singer was fired), Fletcher helmed “Rocketman,” another music film about another legendary performer, Elton John. But while the Freddie Mercury film was more of a conventional, family-friendly biopic that opted for a PG-13 rating and approach that sidestepped a lot of the darker elements of the singer’s life, ‘Rocketman’ fully embraced its R-rating and dives headfirst into the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll circus that was Elton’s life at the time.
“We posted at Hireworks in London, and then we did all the sound and the mixing at Goldcrest,” he reports. “All the big musical numbers were the big editing challenge for editor Chris Dickens, as you have make the music and visuals all work together, and you’re working to a playback track. And you’re very exposed when it comes to changing the tempo or rhythm of a scene. You can’t just cut a few words, as you’re locked into the track. And everyone knows the songs. And songs like ‘Your Song’ and ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ were done totally live, so it was pretty complicated. But Chris is very experienced with all that, as he cut stuff like ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ That end musical number there is a total triumph of editing.”
With the goal of making “an epic musical, and something that was different and imaginative,” Fletcher also used a lot of VFX.
“Cinesite in Montreal did them all, with a few by Atomic Arts, and we had a lot of artists and VFX guys working on them, as we had so many, from fireworks to scenes with people floating, and of course all the crowd scenes at stadiums where we had to recreate fans in the ‘70s,” he notes. So some of that stuff was fairly standard, but they did a brilliant job I think. I quite like working with VFX, as it allows you to do so much more with a period piece like this.” The DI was done at Goldcrest with colorist Rob Pizzey. “It’s very important to me and [DP] George Richmond who’s worked on every film I’ve made. We wanted to get a very particular look and texture to it, and in the DI Rob, me and George worked very closely on it.”
And “Joker” deserves some Oscar love for its crafts, including its great attention to editing and sound. Director Todd Phillips and go-to editor Jeff Groth (“War Dogs,” “The Hangover Part III”) carefully built up a complex portrait of the infamous DC villain, and an origin story infused with, but distinctly outside, the character’s more traditional mythologies.”There are a lot of delusions in Arthur’s head, so it was a big challenge to know when to hide them and when to reveal them,” reports Phillips. “The scene order in the final film is pretty different from the scripted order, and that’s all about deciding when to reveal information.” He goes on to note that “I direct movies and go through all the stress of production and shooting just to get to the editing room. Post is your last shot at getting the script right.”
To get the sound design right, and to bring the film’s immersive soundscape to life, Phillips turned to supervising sound editor Alan Robert Murray, a two-time Oscar winner for his work on “American Sniper” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” (he was also Oscar nominated for “Sully,” “Sicario” and “Space Cowboys”). “Todd had a very well-crafted plan about the sound design going in,” reports Murray. “He wanted to evoke a Gotham living on the edge, that was gritty and had this ‘70s style – meaning you heard these big V8 engines and mufflers on the street, with aggressive horns, and people shouting in their apartments. And he was so specific about certain things, like the sirens.” Murray also worked hard to make sure that the sound design dovetailed neatly with the film’s dark and mournful cello score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, as well as with such soundtrack elements as Cream’s iconic “White Room.” “That song worked so well for the riot scene, and we made a point of keeping the timbre of the sirens so they’d be there and play through the music,” he notes. “Joker’s” soundscape was mixed in Atmos on the lot at Warner Brothers by Tom Ozanich and Dean Zupancic.
Although not flashy, “Joker’s” bloody VFX play a big role, and were overseen by VFX super Edwin Rivera who used various VFX houses, including Scanline, Shade and Branch. “There was no real blood — not a drop — used on set, and that’s one of the great things about VFX now — that you can do all the blood work in post,” notes Phillips. “And that’s so liberating.” The DI was done at Company 3 with his regular colorist Jill Bogdanowicz. “We shot it digitally, though the original plan was to shoot 65mm large format, and when that fell through, to shoot 35mm. Then [DP] Larry Sher and I did a lot of tests, and decided we’d shoot digital and make it look like film, and thanks to the way he lit and all the work he and Jill did, it has this weird photo-chemical feel and look. It’s not quite film, but it’s definitely not digital. It’s somewhere in the middle, its own thing.”
And don’t count out year-end blockbuster releases like “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” for its visual effects work.