The Academy may have expanded the Best Picture category to ten films, but we know that the only nominees with any chance of winning are those that also have Best Director nods. So we decided to take a closer look at the competitors in this category and try to break their work down across the spectrum of the director’s art. Here we look at mise-en-scene (aka use of visual compositions and staging); work with actors, pacing and tonal control, and a key sequence. Then we give our overall assessment of each. Who among these five makes the grade?
– Mise-en-scene: Grainy, bobbing camerawork clings to main character like a stalker; carefully de-saturated color palette emphasizes noirish world of black and white.
-Work with Actors: Distaff ensemble all coached towards transparent and mostly unflattering performances; hard to tell if Vincent Cassel’s turn as Pepe Le Pewish company director is intentional camp.
– Pacing and Tonal Control: Intensity cranked to fever pitch from first sequence, with no chance of slow-burning tension/suspense; film telegraphs protagonist’s madness rather than descending into it.
– Key Sequence: The camera leers at Natalie Portman pleasuring herself beneath bedcovers before a shock cut to her dozing mom; prurience + botched scare effect = Black Swan.
– Overall Assessment: As a pastiche of better directors (Dario Argento, Roman Polanski, Brian De Palma) it’s passable, but borrowed moves can’t disguise underlying desperation. Grade: C+
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit:
– Mise-en-scene: Widescreen vistas evoke classic Westerns; deadpan close-ups evoke other Coen films.
– Work with Actors: 14-year old Hallee Steinfeld holds her own with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, reflecting well on directors; they’re either patient collaborators or ace puppet masters.
– Pacing and Tonal Control: Slightly arch and airless quality of opening scenes opens up once characters hit the trail. A few late grace notes achieved by the end.
– Key Sequence: A nighttime ride tinged by a sense of magic-realism; a possible visual homage to Charles Laughton’sNight of the Hunter.
– Overall Assessment: As in No Country For Old Men, the Coens honor genre traditions while tweaking them under the surface. Grade: B+
David Fincher, The Social Network
– Mise-en-scene: Dark, rich interiors and anodyne business/corporate spaces.; accelerated editing flows in sync with rapid-fire dialogue.
– Work with Actors: Male members of ensemble all given ample room to create strong characters; female actors seem slightly less certain and come off vaguer.
– Pacing and Tonal Control: Sustains acerbic screwball velocity for its duration, with a few odd show-off curlicues (rowing scene) before downshifting for coda.
– Key Sequence: A steamy house-party cross-cut with the online activities of the uninvited, pointedly juxtaposing two very different campus communities.
– Overall Assessment: A fleeter and lighter-fingered work than one might have expected from a director known for heaviness: film has the density of Zodiac with none of the drag. Grade: A
– Mise-en-scene: Asymmetrical compositions with actors either shoved to the edge of the frame or shot at close-proximity with fish-eye lenses.
– Work with Actors: Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush have easy, plausible rapport; background characters either over-drawn or vague.
– Pacing and Tonal Control: Attempts to blend gentle comedy with intimations of world-historical import; shift to the latter becomes pronounced in final scenes.
– Key Sequence: Speech-therapy asRocky-style training montage: the last refuge of an unimaginative filmmaker.
– Overall Assessment: Hooper’s attempts to shake up period-piece prettiness are laudable, but odd visuals can’t mask utterly conventional sensibility. Grade: C
– Mise-en-scene: Camera hovers nervously over characters, even when they’re plunked down in living rooms; ring scenes cribbed from ancient boxing-movie playbook.
– Work with Actors: Mark Wahlberg is positioned as still center of a Supporting-Actor Olympics; Christian Bale and Melissa Leo are duly indulged in their award-mongering.
– Pacing and Tonal Control: Starts as a nervy neighborhood piece before falling into the typical fight-film rhythm, complete with rock-scored training montages.
– Key Sequence: Wahlberg and date Amy Adams are bored stiff at a rep screening of Belle Epoque; art-house in-joke that clarifies Russell’s commercial aspirations while retaining film-nerd cred.
– Overall Assessment: The ever-unpredictable Russell surprises by making his most conventional, accessible movie to date; not a good career move for a possible Hollywood iconoclast. Grade: C