Best Special Effects: Life of Pi
Without believable special effects and a worthwhile story, a film can drown in its own shallow existence. If there was ever a film that heavily relied on realistic special effects, it would be Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. Set on a life boat lost amidst a seemingly endless body of water, Life of Pi finds our protagonist seeking refuge with a variety of animals, none of which is more significant than the presence of a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. From his shifting fur to his seamless integration into the world at large, Richard Parker is an absolutely breathtaking creation. The sheer magnitude of the film’s special effects isn’t restricted to Richard Parker, but his existence represents the perfect marriage between story and manufactured entities.
Best Screenplay: Rian Johnson for Looper
Somehow Rian Johnson’s wonderfully inventive screenplay failed to receive an Academy Award nomination. Hopefully, he’ll sleep better at night knowing his screenplay is my favorite of the year. Arguably the year’s most original script, Looper is a masterwork in narrative structure and character. Looper fantastically pits two iterations of a man, one redeemed by the future and one rotting in the past, in a literal self-destructive battle. Johnson’s handling of time travel is impressive, but he never lets it undermine the larger themes at play.
Best Cinematography: Mihai Malaimare Jr., The Master
Here’s yet another Academy Award snub. Malaimare Jr.’s work on The Master is unequivocally the year’s best. Through the 70 mm format, Malaimare helps director Paul Thomas Anderson capture the vibrant growth experienced in the 1950’s, as well as the desolation found in a post war world. Crushing blues wash over us constantly, emulating the tumultuous nature of our protagonist Freddie Quell, while intense close-ups allow the actor’s facial expressions to pierce the screen. In many respects, Malaimare’s vision brings to life a 1950’s still photo.
Best Score: Jonny Greenwood, The Master
I was going to cop-out and call this category a tie between Jonny Greenwood’s work for The Master and the southern fried magic conjured up by Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer for Beasts of the Southern Wild, but Greenwood’s work once again haunts the annals of my brain. Featuring percussive beats that adequately resemble the rattle and hum banging about in Freddie Quell’s mind, as well as woodwinds and strings that hearken back to a lost time, Greenwood’s compositions perfectly capture all the character’s instability while maintaining the integrity of the film’s established time. Much like his work in There Will Be Blood, Greenwood has crafted another ingenious score that will generate discussion for years to come.
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
My disappointment in Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables didn’t blind me from seeing a terrific performance given by Anne Hathaway. For merely a handful of minutes, Anne Hathaway gives Les Misérables its only level of resonance by delivering an emotionally invasive version of “I Dreamed a Dream”. For the song alone Hathaway deserves our admiration, but with her shaved head and despair filled eyes, Hathaway delivers an emotional punch Les Misérables misses throughout its lengthy running time. Once Hathaway’s Fantine succumbs to a vicious life, we end up spending the rest of the film recalling her greatness, wishing she’d sing one more time.
Best Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Asserting my love for The Master is the impressive acting on display. One of the film’s most powerful performances comes from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who possesses a commanding screen presence as a religious leader named Lancaster Dodd initiating a faith movement in the 1950’s. Hoffman delivers hypnotic and persuasive sermons that convince us he’s the genuine article, but boiling deep below the surface is an immense level of anger stemming from his group’s highly scrutinized existence. Despite Dodd’s emotional chaos and megalomania tendencies, Hoffman installs him with a surprising amount of empathy and earnestness.
Best Actress: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
In a matter of a year, Jessica Chastain has become one of my favorite actresses. Her performance in Zero Dark Thirty further cements my love for her unbelievable skills. In the role of Maya, Chastain encapsulates the hope and disappointment found within America’s decade long search for Osama bin Laden. Outside of personifying America’s emotional pendulum, Chastain gives Maya an unmatched level of confidence while also exploring her unraveling psyche. The personal dissonance Chastain wears on her face anchors us down, leaving us deeply invested in Maya’s feverish investigation. Giving into Zero Dark Thirty is easy because Chastain’s presence has an immense gravitational pull.
Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Joaquin Phoenix probably had the toughest role in film this year. Playing a beast of a man named Freddie Quell, one that has an overbearing appetite for women and booze, Phoenix delivers an extremely nuanced performance that borders on tragedy and comedy. Featuring a bent, hunched over posture, suggesting that his demons are bending him like a pretzel, Quell is a despicable man on the surface, but Phoenix transforms his monster into a misguided beast. Through dialog and minute ticks, Phoenix subtly exposes Quell’s sordid past, and paints the picture of a lost soul barely treading water. It’s an intense and full-bodied performance from Phoenix, who can’t help but make us feel sorry for his deeply flawed character.
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty finds Kathryn Bigelow delivering another taut film running rampant with political and moral ambiguities. Moving slower than her previous film, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty finds Bigelow meticulously recreating America’s search for Osama bin Laden through the prism of a woman determined to accommodate her country’s need for retribution. Bigelow is constantly generating a nauseating tension through intense character examinations and a keen sense of place. More specifically, she takes the volatile environment of the Middle East she perfectly captured in The Hurt Locker and mixes it with the obsessive nature of David Fincher’s Zodiac. Political monologue aside, Bigelow gives us an intense, brooding affair that you need to see.