<p>Russell Crowe in &quot;Les Mis&eacute;rables&quot;</p>

Russell Crowe in "Les Misérables"

Credit: Universal Pictures

Off the Carpet: The Oscar bait got good

They looked great on paper AND the screen in 2012

I never much cared for the term "Oscar bait," at least the consistency with which it's tossed around and the connotation it carries. (Though I'm well aware we launched a feature recently called just that.) Maybe I'm naive, but I don't believe anyone sits down to map out an Oscar movie. It's turning evening, you're chasing the light, the crew's tired, you have tomorrow's schedule to iron out…the last thing you're thinking about are the awards prospects of your project. And I think anyone who feels differently hasn't spent much time on film sets.

Beyond that, it just seems to me a disdainful way to diminish or discredit films of a certain ilk. Biopics, "issue" films, projects shrouded in the prestige of respected and/or previously awarded source material or high-caliber acting ensembles, they signal something for many -- a red flag. Which is odd, but maybe that speaks to the track record of such projects more than the inherent thing of it all. So it's with hesitation that I even begin to say this, but 2012 seems to be the year the "Oscar bait" got good.

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<p>Madonna's &quot;W.E.&quot; was the victim of more than a few 'exuberant pans' last year.</p>

Madonna's "W.E." was the victim of more than a few 'exuberant pans' last year.

Credit: The Weinstein Company

Roundup: On the power of the critical pan

Also: 'Silver Linings' vs. the heavier contenders, and 'Sugar Man' wins again

I had never heard of Guy Fieri until a few days ago, so I have no dog this fight, but I'm interested in how the media kerfuffle over a single scathing restaurant review has opened up a conversation on critical boundaries and responsibilities in all fields. The New York Times, who ran the offending review to begin with, has fed back into it with a piece by Margaret Sullivan on the necessity of what she terms the "exuberant pan" -- the review that zestily takes no prisoners in shooting down a creative endeavor, whether it's a film or a diner. Having written a few such pans myself -- I'm likely never going to be on Madonna's Christmas card list, nor Julie Taymor's -- I side with Sullivan: criticism is an artform itself, with no place for bland prose or tempered honesty, but the harshest words should be, in her words, "an arrow reached for only rarely." [New York Times]  

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<p>Jessica Chastain in &quot;Zero&nbsp;Dark&nbsp;Thirty&quot;</p>

Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty"

Credit: Columbia Pictures

Kathryn Bigelow's 'Zero Dark Thirty' tells it straight, to varying effect

Will the 'Hurt Locker' director be back for Oscar seconds?

When Kathryn Bigelow walked away with honors for Best Picture and Best Director at the 2009 Academy Awards, she was the little guy. The narrative was David vs. Goliath as James Cameron's "Avatar" was the big dog on campus, the money-guzzler, "the future." This year things are a little different.

"Zero Dark Thirty" arrives amid a cloud of secrecy. Columbia Pictures -- and Bigelow and Mark Boal -- have been very careful about what is and isn't known about the film, which details the near-decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. Even the particulars of Jessica Chastain's character had been held somewhat close to the chest. But enough peek-a-boo.

The film is as clinical as they come, a 160-minute procedural. It details Chastain's "Maya," what may be a slight composite but is in all likelihood "Jen," the woman recently heralded by the member of Seal Team Six who wrote a book about the final raid on Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. She came into the CIA young, entered the Bin Laden case early and did nothing else until he was confirmed dead.

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<p>Hugh Jackman performs &quot;What Have I Done?&quot; in &quot;Les Mis&eacute;rables,&quot; one of many moments that brought a round of applause in this afternoon's screening.</p>

Hugh Jackman performs "What Have I Done?" in "Les Misérables," one of many moments that brought a round of applause in this afternoon's screening.

Credit: Universal Pictures

Tom Hooper unveils 'Les Misérables' to over-the-moon, theater-loving NYC audience

The crowd of guild and Academy members (and press) ate it up with a spoon

NEW YORK -- "Happy Thanksgiving," director Tom Hooper said by way of introduction to an Alice Tully Hall packed with guild and Academy members this afternoon. He was on hand to present his latest film, an adaptation of the musical "Les Misérables," his first effort since the Oscar-winning "The King's Speech" two years ago and one of the awards season's most anticipated titles.

The film had screened for Screen Actors Guild Nominating Committee members earlier in the morning, but Hooper nevertheless made the crowd feel special with a little white lie. "In case you feel you're slow to the party, you are the first audience to see the film," he said. "We finished it at 2am yesterday."

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<p>Keira Knightley in &quot;Anna Karenina.&quot;&nbsp;</p>

Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina." 

Credit: Focus Features

Tech Support: Jacqueline Durran on playing with history (and Chanel) in 'Anna Karenina'

The British costume designer seeks her third Oscar nod for Joe Wright's latest

It's rare that a single garment in a film takes on an iconic status independent of the character or performer wearing it, yet such was the case five years ago when British designer Jacqueline Durran created That Dress for Keira Knightley in Joe Wright's “Atonement.” I needn't describe it: the shimmery emerald number launched a thousand prom-night knockoffs, has entire blogs devoted to it and is currently on display in London's Victoria & Albert Museum. Durran may have lost the 2007 Oscar to “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” but it turns out there's more than one way to reward great costume design. 

Intricately in-period, yet subtly, flexibly modernized, Durran's creations were a vital collaborative element in Wright's first two films with actress Keira Knightley: two years before “Atonement,” she earned her first Oscar nod for her youthfully mud-splashed Regency garb in “Pride and Prejudice.” 

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<p>Thelma Schoonmaker at the 2004 Academy Awards.</p>

Thelma Schoonmaker at the 2004 Academy Awards.

Credit: AP Photo/Kevork Djenasezian

Roundup: Thelma Schoonmaker on the perils of digitization

Also: Older women in the Oscar race, and a 'Grave of the Fireflies' remake?

It's obviously a slow day for movie news, but this Atlantic piece about the danger posed to classic cinema by the digital revolution really registered with me. Much column ink has already been spilled on the demise of 35mm in contemporary film -- some of it overly doom-laden -- but less has been said about the effect the digital switchover will have on repertory screenings. Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who recently found herself unable to obtain a new print of "The Age of Innocence" for a museum screening, is worried, not just about the future availability of older titles, but the preservation of the ones that do get converted: "I saw a digitized version of a film that David Lean made during World War II, and it looked just like a TV commercial that was shot yesterday. It was wrong, the balance was completely off. [Colorists] have no idea what these movies should look like anymore." [The Atlantic]    

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<p>Anthony Hopkins in &quot;Hitchcock&quot;</p>

Anthony Hopkins in "Hitchcock"

Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Tell us what you thought of 'Hitchcock'

The Master of Suspense gets his own close-up this weekend

We don't have much more to say about "Hitchcock" around these parts. Greg Ellwood was mostly positive at the AFI Fest premiere. I was surprised at how much it's tale of an artist desperate to feel the spark of creativity again spoke to me. We've talked to star Helen Mirren and even dedicated some content to Hitchcock's own history at the Oscars. But now it's time to hear your thoughts on Sacha Gervasi's film, which makes its way to limited release today. So if you aren't too stuffed with Thanksgiving goodies, give us your take. And feel free to rate it above.

<p>Russell Crowe in &quot;Les Mis&eacute;rables&quot;</p>

Russell Crowe in "Les Misérables"

Credit: Universal Pictures

Tech Support: 'Avengers,' 'Les Mis' and 'Skyfall' stir it up with others in Best Sound Mixing

One of the most competitive crafts categories is an embarrassment of riches

Last year’s Best Picture winner highlighted one of the great innovations in cinematic history – the introduction of sound. As I noted in my cinematography column, it is the moving picture that, first and foremost, distinguishes cinema from other art forms. But in the absence of sound, our films feel incomplete. On this American Thanksgiving (even if I’m spending the day north of the border), I’m very grateful for our movie sound artists.

The category of Best Sound Mixing awards those who bring all elements of a movie’s aural experience – music, dialogue, effects – into a soup of sound. When done well, it exquisitely develops the atmosphere and brings the audience into the world on screen.

Up to three re-recording mixers are eligible for the prize (concerned with mixing in post-production) and the production sound mixer (who has the exceptionally important task of capturing and leveling the sound during filming). This is certainly a category where favorite artists tend to do very well as many, many sound re-recording mixers have seven-to-15 nominations over the course of their career, or even more.

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<p>A scene from &quot;Hannah and Her Sisters.&quot;</p>

A scene from "Hannah and Her Sisters."

Credit: Orion Pictures

Roundup: What are your favorite Thanksgiving movies?

Also: The year in film music, and Winslet's royal appointment

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! Everybody who gets to participate in it, at least: the rest of us are getting on with our working days and eating less-than-festive dinners. My experience of Turkey Day comes mostly through the movies, so I'm interested to hear if you have any go-to Thanksgiving movies that make the holiday complete. "The Ice Storm" comes first to mind for me, though it's hardly celebratory. Tim Grierson makes a solid case for "Hannah and Her Sisters," which is one of my favorite movies, period. Woody Allen's film, he writes, "recognizes that life is never perfect but that sometimes we can cobble together enough happiness to keep going... there are reasons to be thankful all around us, if only we’ll stop and appreciate them." What films give you that feeling? [IFC]

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<p>Suraj Sharma in &quot;Life of Pi&quot;</p>

Suraj Sharma in "Life of Pi"

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Tell us what you thought of 'Life of Pi'

Ang Lee's visionary adaptation hits theaters just in time for the holiday

Ang Lee's addition to the season is finally here as "Life of Pi" -- hotly anticipated for years -- hits the multiplex. I was favorable when I saw the film at the 50th annual New York Film Festival, though I took some mechanics issues with it. I still feel that way, though the creamy center has really felt richer and richer the further I've spun away from it. HitFix's own Drew McWeeny, meanwhile, has a completely different take, a disagreement with fundamental elements. But let's see what you have to say. Drop your comments below when you get around to seeing the film, and as always, feel free to rate it above.