Wednesday, October 19, 2016

OVP: Art Direction (2007)

OVP: Best Art Direction (2007)

The Nominees Were...

Arthur Max and Beth A. Rubino, American Gangster
Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, Atonement
Dennis Gassner and Anna Pinnock, The Golden Compass
Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Jack Fisk and Jim Ericsson, There Will Be Blood

My Thoughts: British manor houses.  Decrepit London streets.  A fantastical land in a world alien from our own.  The 2007 Art Direction nominees leaned pretty heavily upon major contenders in the Picture/Acting races (only one of these films didn't actually get nominated in those categories), but that doesn't mean they didn't fall heavily into the tropes of this category.  In fact, only one of the nominees in 2007 here at first feels like the kind of nomination that normally wouldn't be amongst this list, and perhaps looks at first to be "over-nominating" the Best Picture contenders, but in fact the film itself rather earned its slot in this field...

American Gangster is hardly what you'd consider a set design delight-after all, we've seen New York in the 1960's countless times in most Martin Scorsese films, but I have to commend the Art Directors' branch here-they actually chose an inventive nominee.  I love the little touches that Max/Rubino put into the film, frequently giving details like boxes of paper and photos that feel authentic to the homes and not just there to remind you of the connection between a character and another character.  They're helped by Harris Savides' fine work behind the camera, giving us a warm light that glows across the browns and yellows of much of the interior in a way that compliments the entire film.  It's also multiple set pieces, different, but not starkly different (the era would have demanded them to have relatively similar interiors, especially in public buildings).  This isn't a film that I would have instantly noticed this visual detail, so bravo for finding it AMPAS.

Atonement, on the other hand, is of course a film that Oscar would notice, and really we all would, when it came to art direction.  The interiors of stately English countryside homes are kind of what this category was invented for, and yet here too they find some lovely details.  The fountain in the critical scene between Cecilia and Robbie is appropriately gaudy, and the film actually works the scenery to emulate the characters.  Think of how sloppy Robbie's quarters are, right before he ruins his life with a single letter, or how the immaculate bookcase adds to the smoldering forbidden of the sex scene.  And of course there's the wonderful moments on the beach, where we see a ferris wheel, a gazebo, a tattered ship, and dozens of other minutia that we're meant to invest in alongside of Robbie as he walks the beach, taking in the ongoing motion of tragedy.  The tracking shot, which we discussed in Cinematography below, is a home run for me, but it wouldn't work if the art directors hadn't invested so much in the detailing here.

One of the few nominations here that perplexed me was The Golden Compass.  The film is, of course, in the Academy wheelhouse in terms of it being fantasy, and there are certainly major interior scenes, decked in gold and white, that are worth noting, but really-does anything stand out in your memory here?  The only thing that really sticks out to me is the alethiometer, and that feels more because it's a major plot point and not because it's fetching or striking in any way.  Most of the film, therefore, becomes just a series of visually-perfected snow shots, which may count as art direction, but in my opinion is more on the visual effects artists.  All-in-all, a nomination that probably made sense at the time (again, it's worth noting this was supposed to be the next Harry Potter-style franchise) but in hindsight sort of feels like a blasé filler citation.

Sweeney Todd is another nominee that was an "of course" and not just because Dante Ferretti is always seemingly nominated.  The movie gets an excellent pastiche from Stephen Sondheim, and it certainly utilizes it well.  It's hard to find a lot to criticize here, except it's been so overdone in the years since.  That's not Sweeney's fault at all, and I shouldn't punish it for it, but man has Tim Burton gone back to this particular color scheme well dozens of times.  We had also seen this in some ways before in Sleepy Hollow, except there it felt more like a creepy little town and less like a Tony-winning set.  I guess for me the problem with this isn't the look or feel, it's that I don't remotely believe that anyone lives in a world like this, and considering Sweeney is largely supposed to take place in our own reality (unlike Golden Compass, or something like Dark Shadows which borrows from it), that's a hit for me.  Still, it's pleasant enough to look at, and I can't really fault it in that department.

Finally we have Jack Fisk's minimalist approach to There Will Be Blood.  When I'm judging this category, generally I'm looking into three things: does this feel authentic to the world the characters are living in, how much detailing (not to be confused with excess) adds to the movie itself, and is this memorable?  On all three counts, There Will Be Blood delivers.  The film doesn't have a lot of settings, but the ones that they do have, like the gigantic oil rigs, or the Arthur Miller-like church, or the eventual mansion of Daniel Plainview, are all instantly recognizable and feel organic to the story.  Like American Gangster, Fisk is helped by the way the film is lensed-the shots of the church add to its rigid, imposing nature, and the darkened shots of Plainview's drawing room make it feel danker, more covered in the shadows of his nasty soul.  Overall, it probably got in for the oil rigs, but honestly this whole film is a marvel in terms of Art Direction.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Art Directors Guild gives us fifteen nominees to sort through, in three separate categories: contemporary, fantasy, and period.  As you can see up-top, most of these movies are actually period films, so There Will Be Blood topped Oscar nominees American Gangster, Sweeney Todd, Atonement, and non-nominated Elizabeth: The Golden Age.  Contemporary went with No Country for Old Men's Texas living rooms over The Kite Runner, Michael Clayton, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and The Bourne Ultimatum, while in fantasy The Golden Compass did take the trophy against 300, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Ratatouille, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.  BAFTA went with Atonement as their victor, with the only other Oscar nominee in the lineup being There Will Be Blood (also losing were Elizabeth, Harry Potter, and La Vie en Rose).  In terms of sixth place, Harry Potter and Elizabeth: The Golden Age were both strong options, but I suspect the Virgin Queen would be higher on the list, if only because it's more in the Academy's wheelhouse (royal, royal, royal) and it won Best Costume Design back when these two branches voted together.
Films I Would Have Nominated: For starters, I would have made room for No Country for Old Men, which has that iconic look (that hotel sequence!) while also feeling appropriately lived-in (if I had a nickel for every time I see a house onscreen that clearly no one would possibly live in...).  I also would have found room for Zodiac, a film that captures San Francisco during the time of Ted Cruz (sorry, I had to go there-that's a joke that's only going to have cache for a couple more weeks before he disappears into the background of history).
Oscar’s Choice: I actually had to look this one up, which may be the first time in this project I couldn't remember who won the Oscar.  It turned out to be Sweeney Todd, probably just triumphing over Blood and Atonement.
My Choice: It's a tough race between Blood and Atonement for me, but I'm going to ever so slightly go with the latter because the tracking shot, so critical to the movie, would have slogged if the art direction hadn't been so on-point and the rest of the film is near that snuff.  In third I'd pick Gangster, surprisingly, with Sweeney and Golden Compass bringing up the rear.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Are you with me that Atonement's gargantuan British undertaking deserved the Oscar or are you more inline with the worst pies in London?  Do you think the outdoors-focused work of Jack Fisk will ever win him a twin Oscar to go alongside Sissy Spacek's?  And which of the Harry Potter films do you think deserved wins/nominations in this category?  Share below!

Past Best Art Direction Contests: 20082009, 2010201120122013, 2014

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