In the wake of the Academy’s unbelievably tone deaf decision to cut a full third of their awards from the Oscars live broadcast, I think it’s worth taking a moment to look at what AMPAS and their corporate overlords at ABC/Disney do feel warrants inclusion in the ceremony. Under the completely stupid theme of “Movie Lovers Unite” – because I guess only people who hated movies were watching before, necessitating a grassroots campaign – the powers that be have been heavily promoting two hashtag polls on Twitter. You know, the platform for people who really matter (please follow @actually_paid). Users have been asked for the last few weeks to vote for “Fan Favorite” and “Cheer Moments,” with the former being an unofficial adoption of the rightfully torpedoed Best Popular Picture category ABC tried to institute three years ago. Fan Favorite is supposed to be a poll of the most popular films from 2021, while Cheer Moments are meant to be all-time.
As of today, here’s where those two polls stand, with any appropriate context added by me:
Army of the Dead – 67% on Rotten Tomatoes
Cinderella – 42%
Dune – 83%, second in total nominations with 10
Malignant – 75%, though notably only 52% with audiences
Minamata – 77%, but crucially just released domestically this month, so should be ineligible for a 2021 prize
The Power of the Dog – 94%, leads all films with 12 nominations, likely Best Picture front-runner
Sing 2 – 71%, with critical consensus being that it’s really only good when compared to the first one
Spider-Man: No Way Home – 93%, and generally agreed that it should be up for more than Visual Effects
The Suicide Squad – 90%, likely another grading curve due to how bad the original was
tick, tick… BOOM! – 87%, somehow not up for Best Picture while Don’t Look Up is
So basically, the non-nominee movies here are middling at best, and one of them isn’t even technically eligible. In that particular case, it’s part of a concerted online effort to rebuke Hollywood for trying to bury the film after its 2020 debut in Berlin because of Amber Heard lying about Johnny Depp. But this entire list is emblematic of the problem the movie industry has right now. The “favorite” films of the year for audiences are a bad zombie movie, three sequels to previously established IP, a pop singer starring in a remake no one wanted, and only three legitimate Oscar contenders. This is not elitism, this is Hollywood shoving garbage down people’s throats to the point where a good amount of these are examples of the only options most moviegoers have.
“Avengers Assemble” – Avengers: Endgame
“And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” – Dreamgirls
“Speed Force” – Zack Snyder’s Justice League
“Neo Dodging Bullets” – The Matrix
“Spider-Man Team-Up” – Spider-Man: No Way Home
Look at that list. Three of them are from comic book movies, one of which was a recut because fanboys and incels got pissed off that Justice League ended up sucking just as much as we all knew it would. The other two are a special effect that was cool once and has since been done to death, to the point that it was an in-joke in last year’s unnecessary sequel; and a backdoor apology for not nominating Jennifer Hudson for Best Actress. This is what supposedly makes movie lovers cheer?
I mean, I’m sure they do for some, but let’s be honest here. This is an entirely skewed process, because it necessitates Twitter engagement. So really, these are the “Favorite” and “Cheer” choices for those with enough free time and a complete lack of taste to vote 20 times per day and use hashtags rather than language. And because of this very narrow sector of the audience – likely one that won’t actually watch the Oscars – we’re left with a situation where a movie with a 42% on Rotten Tomatoes will get more attention during the ceremony than the actual artists and professionals that the awards are supposed to honor.
To wit, we turn to tonight’s category, Production Design. Notably, two of the nominees do show up on the Favorites list, but that’s not really saying all that much, because I guarantee you the people voting in this poll – especially for the likes of Cinderella or Army of the Dead – do not give two shits about set decoration. As I mentioned last week, this year’s field is something of a rarity, in that the list of films is exactly the same as the one for Cinematography. Such coincidences typically only happened when there were two Sound categories or when Best Picture was still only five nominees, as it was more likely to align with Best Director.
Despite the synergy of the nominated films, the criteria to judge them could not be more different. One is about how the camera is used, while the other is about what artists and designers put in front of it. How well is the set constructed? Is it interactive in a believable way? Is an absence of decoration an asset? Does the design supplement the scene or draw focus away? These are all considerations that the Production Design team has to keep in mind in addition to the more standard concerns about how nice it looks and if it’s appropriate to the theme and setting of a movie (you wouldn’t want to put a picture of a spaceship in the background of a medieval castle, for an extreme example). Color schemes, materials, logistics, location scouting, crafting, all of this enters into the equation, to the point where it almost seems silly that only two people get the award itself. When you put it all together, you end up with a situation where the list of nominees are the same, but the rankings will be completely different.
This year’s nominees for Production Design are…
Dune – Production Design: Patrice Vermette; Set Decoration: Zsuzsanna Sipos
As I’ve said numerous times, Dune succeeds almost entirely because of its sense of scale, whether it’s the gigantic action pieces and visual effects or the intimate character moments. The Production Design is what bridges the gap between the two extremes, and it’s done expertly.
Every set seems to have its own mood, be it the bright yet brooding halls of Caladan and its cliffs overlooking the sea, or the barren wastes of Arrakis that are highlighted by tribal carvings and subtle hints of life along the margins. There are even scenes that call attention to the design itself, as Paul asks one of the Fremen servants about the palm trees inside the city walls that require so much water, and finds out how sacred they are, only for the Harkonnen to burn them to the ground without a care when they invade. Whether it’s a dank black pool that heals the cruel Baron, the shrines of the Bene Gesserit, or the desert rocks that provide strategic hiding places and vantage points, every set seems to have a personality critical to the plot.
Further, while the massive vehicles are more of a Visual Effect than anything else, it still takes a ton of art direction to settle on their look, and this team is largely responsible for that as well. The ornithopters, spice harvesters, spaceships, and troop transports all go through several rounds of design before they make the final product, which uses a mixture of CGI and practical models. The entirety of Dune is a grandiose art design project, so it’s only natural that it would be the front-runner here.
Nightmare Alley – Production Design: Tamara Deverell; Set Decoration: Shane Vieau
I mentioned last week that the overall look of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley remake relied much more heavily on Production Design than Cinematography, and I stand by that. The entirety of this neo-gothic thriller is dependent on its ability to seem just slightly off, and that’s entirely down to the art team. For the entire first half of the film, taking place at the carnival, everything from the geek’s cage to Molly’s stage is intentionally given a dark, punky sheen that leaves you just on the right side of unsettled, helping to ramp up the suspense. And yet, despite the very close quarters, the film highlights the sense of freedom and creative expression felt by the bulk of the workers, including Bradley Cooper’s interloping Stan Carlisle. The confined space is lightly-controlled chaos, but it is orderly.
For the latter half, the entire motif is flipped around in a beautiful display of ironic juxtaposition. Here, you get much more open-looking spaces, from the hotel room that Stan and Molly share as their home, to Lilith Ritter’s psychiatry office (which opens up for even more space as well as the reveal of her recording equipment), to the palatial mansion of Ezra Grindle. There’s a ton of real estate to work with here, but at the same time, it feels more constrictive. The actual space is open, yet the appointments are often quite bare (for example, the room where Carlisle is given a polygraph test), and only of use to those who reside within them. Carlisle controls his showroom, Ritter her office, Grindle his maze-like gardens. And all those who intrude or trespass upon these spaces are at the mercy of their true inhabitants. It’s really quite brilliant, a testament to del Toro and his team’s ability to do more than just make something look weird.
The Power of the Dog – Production Design: Grant Major; Set Decoration: Amber Richards
More than any other nominee on this list, the Production Design of The Power of the Dog is set up in a way that forces you to pay attention, which can be good at some points and a potential crutch in others. Just about every major set piece is its own Chekhov’s gun, be it the piano, the rope, Peter’s paper flowers, or the convenient alley where Phil can watch Rose sneak off for a drink. All of it works, but there are times when it risks becoming a bit too obvious that we’re supposed to pay attention to it.
The real fun is where the team makes clever use of the outdoor sets, creating slight changes that are extremely effective. The delicate path to Phil’s private riverside retreat, the perfectly-sized horse pen at the ranch, the narrow and perilous foot lanes in the hills. These are the areas that allow for the most subtle of character moments, and you only realize after the fact that they wouldn’t have had the impact they did if they weren’t so economically appointed.
Then, of course, there’s the barn, the one area where Production Design and Cinematography truly do work in tandem. It’s a very large space, but action is concentrated to the central area near the large doors, allowing for strategic use of light to illuminate exactly what Jane Campion wants us to see, and nothing else. We all know there’s more stuff in there that could be of interest, but it properly fits in the background, making the scene feel all the more real as the dialogue and blocking takes place in the fore.
The Tragedy of Macbeth – Production Design: Stefan Dechant; Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh
Never have sets so spartan been so compelling. Blending the idea of a stage performance with the overarching themes of Macbeth and his Lady’s creeping paranoia and madness, the sets are intentionally sparse, only providing the bare minimum of what is needed, which aids in Joel Coen’s metaphor of a mental breakdown.
The film’s opening sees the Weird Sisters on an almost bare stage, with only some dirt, a puddle of water, and fog to lay the scene. When Banquo is killed, he and Fleance are accosted in a tiny field of tall grass with a single wall standing vertically in the center. Inside Macbeth’s castle, the walls are completely empty, allowing focus to stay on the actors, partially illuminated by light pouring in from windows that are either stained glass or empty holes in the wall supported by bars. A hallway with a bench fills with water to become the witches’ cauldron as they look down upon Macbeth from wooden rafters. Nearly every prop in the movie is simply what the characters carry on them, save a tray of food or a necessary piece of cloth. The stairs all around are pure stone with no etchings or handrails. Bedding is limited to simple mattresses and drapes.
Furthering this trick on the eyes and mind, it’s the scenes without Macbeth in them that have more noticeable appointments. Early in the film, in Duncan’s tent, we can see several bits of furniture, torches, and weapons. When Malcolm and Macduff meet in England, it’s along a vast, tree-lined road, and their eventual army is outfitted with many branches cut from the woods. When Macduff’s family is murdered, their small house has more decoration than any single room in Macbeth’s castle. This is a great representation of the title character’s naked ambition and madness, as every scene involving him is intentionally sparse and foggy, representing his wayward mind, while everything else is filled with detail to show the sanity of the rest of the story’s world.
West Side Story – Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Rena DeAngelo
As much as I believe this movie shouldn’t exist, and that on the whole it’s just good, not great, the Production Design is one of the true superlative elements, and in a year with less stiff competition, I’d likely vote for it. There are a few too many moments where the sets themselves are clearly CGI inserted into shots filmed on a studio backlot, but outside of those moments, the set designs are arguably the best aspect of the film.
There were three sets that truly stood out to me as being amazing. One is the fire escape where Tony and Maria sing “Tonight.” It’s always been a representation of Juliet’s balcony, but here it almost comes to life, as Ansel Elgort practically has to perform acrobatics to get up to Rachel Zegler’s level. It feels less like a set and more like an actual alleyway in New York City. Second is Doc’s shop, run by Rita Moreno as Doc’s widow, Valentina. It looks exactly how you’d imagine a 1950s corner store to look, with the shelves full of the exact same product, tables to sit and casually dine, and aisles that are just a touch dirtier than they should be. Finally, there’s the bridge for the new version of “Cool,” staged as a game of Hot Potato with a gun over collapsing infrastructure. It gets the message of urban decay across while just being a wildly imaginative piece of scenery for the actors to move around.
On the other hand, just like the movie as a whole, there’s rarely a middle ground for things, so while most of the sets are wondrous, some are just crap. There are three major cases here. The first is the street market where “America” is staged. This is one of the scenes that gives lie to the assertion that this is a “re-adaptation” or “re-imagining” rather than a remake, because in both versions of the movie, the song is performed chiefly by Bernardo and Anita, whereas in the stage musical it’s Anita, Rosalia, and all the Shark girls with no men. In the original movie, it was done on a rooftop, here it’s done at street level. Nothing in particular changes with the choreography, but occasionally there’s a cart or clothes hanger for the dancers to interact with. Otherwise, it’s just a cluttered mess of meaninglessness.
The second is the gym where the dance is held and Tony and Maria first meet. It’s way too large, to the point that it’s impossible for two people to make their way across looking at one another without being knocked over, too full of floodlights and spotlights that would blind anyone trying to dance, and the area behind the bleachers is just superfluous. Finally, there’s the salt warehouse where the rumble takes place. This could have been great, and the lighting is cool despite it also being illogical. But given that this is where the film’s climax takes place, with two major characters being killed, the fact that there wasn’t a more creative use of the salt itself or any practical use of blood effects – which would have added a red-on-white artistic motif along with the metaphor of salt in a wound – it just feels like a missed opportunity.
2) Nightmare Alley
3) The Tragedy of Macbeth
4) The Power of the Dog
5) West Side Story
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, it’s another category deemed unworthy for broadcast, even though ABC and the Academy will rely on it to make the ceremony function at all on our screens. It’s Film Editing!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What was your favorite set piece? How much does the use of props contribute to your overall enjoyment of a film? Would you ever sit in an electric chair at a circus if the carnie assured you it was safe? Let me know!