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Top secret leakage from my 2010 Muriels ballot!

It's a wrap for the 2010 Muriel Awards, but although the winners have been announced, there's still plenty of great stuff to read about the many winners and runners-up. ('Cause, as we all know, there's so much more to life than "winning.") I was pleased to be asked to write the mini-essay about "The Social Network" because, no, I'm not done with it. (Coming soon: a piece about the Winkelvii at the Henley Gregatta section -- which came in 11th among Muriel voters for the year's Best Cinematic Moment.)

You might recall that last summer I compared the editorial, directorial and storytelling challenges of a modest character-based comedy ("The Kids Are All Right") to a large-scale science-fiction spectacular based on the concept of shifting between various levels of reality/unreality -- whether in actual time and space or in consciousness and imagination. (The latter came in at No. 13 in the Muriels balloting; the former in a tie for No. 22.) My point was that, as far as narrative filmmaking is concerned, there isn't much difference. To illustrate a similar comparison this time, I've used a one-minute segment out of "The Social Network" (Multiple levels of storytelling in The Social Network). You might like one picture better than the other for any number of reasons, but I find their similarities more illuminating than their differences:


A couple interesting items about composer Carter Burwell

(Photo by Dean Parker)

"Carter Burwell's score, drawing from themes from American folk music of the era, is one of his greatest." -- Glenn Kenny, review of "True Grit" on MSN Movies


I had missed the news, quietly announced in late December, that Carter Burwell's score for the Coens' "True Grit" (which includes Mahleresque orchestrations based on the traditional hymn, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arm") and Clint Mansell's Tchaikovsky-influenced music for "Black Swan" (of course he's going to interpolate "Swan Lake" into the score -- that's the challenge!) would not be eligible for consideration in the Oscars' Best Original Score category. But the category is for score, not Best Original Tune. The presence of a hymn melody or passages from a famous ballet are key to what these compositions set out to accomplish, and how they are integrated into their respective movies. Those things shouldn't be held against them.

Orchestral composers have worked with folk music and other melodic sources for centuries. Mahler used "Frehre Jacques" in his first symphony and other traditional Jewish and folk tunes are found throughout his works. (For that matter, the melody -- and even part of the arrangement -- for TV's "Star Trek" theme is right there in Mahler's Seventh!) And Tchaikovsky -- jeeez, the 1812 Overture is just the French and Russian national anthems. But the composer fragmented them, wove them together and otherwise re-composed them into one of his most famous pieces.

(Besides, we've known for months that Hans Zimmer's score for "Inception" -- which is nominated -- is built on a slowed-down, sampled and otherwise manipulated recording of Edith Piaf singing "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien." That's using an existing tune in a movie score, too, isn't it? Seems to me that all of the above are legitimate compositional techniques.)


The really important Oscars

There are two of them that matter most to me, I think -- and not in the Best Picture category. ("The King's Speech" over "The Social Network"? Really? I can only shrug. Forget it, Jim -- it's the Academy...) I'm much more interested in seeing Roger Deakins and Skip Lievsay get their due recognition. DP Deakins, unquestionably one of the handful of great cinematographers working today, is nominated for "True Grit" (2010) -- his ninth nomination in 16 years, and he has yet to win. How can this be? For the record, here are the films for which he has been nominated by the Academy: "The Shawshank Redemption," "Fargo," "Kundun," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "The Man Who Wasn't There" (black-and-white widescreen, my favorite format), "No Country for Old Men" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (both in the same year!), "The Reader" (co-nominated with the also-great Chris Menges, who should have won for "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada") and now, "True Grit." (What? No nomination for "A Serious Man"?!?!) He also photographed "Sid and Nancy," "Stormy Monday," "Mountains of the Moon," "Homicide," "Barton Fink," "The Secret Garden," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Dead Man Walking" and "The Big Lebowski," among many others.

Watch the impressive featurette/interview above for a few examples of Deakins' brilliance (and, for once, that term is actually intended to refer to the intensity of light!).

The Carpetbagger has a short interview with Deakins today, too (which contains spoilers, although this excerpt does not):


Scanners' Exploding Head Awards 2010

Things in movies that made me feel as if my head would explode, in joy or disgust or both, during 2010.

Shot of the year: That's part of it, up there. "Sweetgrass" (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash)

Best opening shot: "Mother" (Bong Joon-ho)

Best final shot: The terrifyingly comedic/nihilistic ending of "The Ghost Writer" (Roman Polanski). It all comes down to this: meaningless chaos, scattered and swirling in the wind...

Most astounding shot: A slow zoom-in on a mountainside that outdoes the opening of Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God": "Sweetgrass"

Best movie-star shot: The one on the Staten Island Ferry that glides up behind Angelina Jolie and turns into a magnificent profile close-up. "Salt" (Phillip Noyce)


Favorite movies of 2009 movie: The commentary track

The first time I made a year-end list for Scanners, I did it by suggesting double-bills of 2006 films with older films (much like what contributors to The Auteurs did this year). In 2007, I made my first year-end movie, inspired by "L'Eclisse," as a tribute to the late Michelangelo Antonioni and a commentary on the WGA strike that was happening at the time. Last year, the concept was based on a shot of Hannah Schygulla, Goddess of Cinema, waking up, looking into the camera (in Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven") and dreaming fragments of the films on my list.

This year, I'm not quite sure how it came together (see opening title), but I took my cue from my favorite movie of the year, the Coens' "A Serious Man." I knew I didn't want to adhere to any rigid countdown hierarchy this time, but to let the movies converse with themselves through images. I chose the word "conversation" knowing there would be no dialog except at the very beginning and the very end, with the Jefferson Airplane song "Somebody to Love" (recurring element in "A Serious Man") in between. That gave me approximately 2 minutes and 58 seconds for the montage....


A Serious Man and His Music

Nobody makes movies as richly and densely composed as the Coens. I've said it before that when I'm watching one of their films it's like being exposed to the distilled essence of cinema, and it makes me realize how anemic and unfocused most movies are. They pack a world of information into their words and images, but they also find the music within them. Their movies sing, every dimension in harmony or counterpoint with every other. Their soundtracks, created with the collaboration of sound designer Skip Lievsay and composer Carter Burwell, are the most vibrantly imagined anywhere. In "No Country for Old Men" they created soundscapes that served as the score, even though very little of it was actually music (beyond a few tones that almost subconsciously quiver beneath certain moments).

David Schwartz has a superlative interview with Carter Burwell at Moving Image Source, in which he talks about the thrilling sonic dimensions of "A Serious Man." Burwell has worked with the Coens for a quarter century, and they're all in tune with one another's genius:

Before the Coens had even cut more than a reel, they called me to say that they'd like me to start working on a piece of music that comes out of a story told entirely in Yiddish in some unspecified old world and leads right up to the opening bar of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love." The idea was that during this transition from the shtetl to the Jefferson Airplane, you're traveling through the ear canal of this boy in Hebrew school. It's a dark and mysterious tunnel, and when you finally get to the end it turns out that it's the earpiece of his portable radio through which he's listening to Jefferson Airplane. That was the first piece of music I wrote for the film.


And the best Oscar nomination goes to...

Skip Lievsay, sound genius. (photo: Mix Online)

... Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter Kurland -- and un-nominated co-conspirator, Carter Burwell -- for sound in "No Country for Old Men"! (See below.)

Meanwhile, I'm happy to see several mildly surprising nominations: Viggo Mortensen for "Eastern Promises"; Saoirse Ronan for "Atonement"; Hal Holbrook for "Into the Wild"; "Persepolis" for animated feature. No surprise, and absolutely proper: Roger Deakins for shooting both "No Country for Old Men" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (though I hope they don't cancel each other out). But nothing for "Zodiac"? At the very least it should have received a nomination for its amazing visual effects. But unless you've seen the Director's Cut DVD (or some Digital Domain clips on YouTube) you probably wouldn't have known they were effects. That's how good they are.

Looking at the odds, "Atonement" is an unlikely best picture because its director (Joe Wright) wasn't nominated. "Michael Clayton" and "Juno" lack an editing nomination, which (statistically speaking) is are crucial to winning the top prize. On the other hand, "Michael Clayton" is honored in three acting categories, for George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton -- and guess which branch of the Academy is the biggest? "No Country for Old Men" didn't claim a lead acting slot, perhaps because it's an ensemble piece. If you go strictly by statistically significant nominations, only "There Will Be Blood" has 'em all -- an old-fashioned Hollywood epic built around a big performance (by a previous Oscar winner). But will its unremittingly bleak nihilism (and the bizarre ending that alienated even some admirers) prove too bitter for Academy voters? I dunno.

I just want to take a moment here to acknowledge my favorite nomination. (This is where I congratulate myself on my foresight -- hey, I predicted Tom Wilkinson, too -- even though I'm a lousy Oscar guesser.) Back in September when I first saw "No Country for Old Men" in September, I wrote: