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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI film professor shares his Oscar picks

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KINGSTON, R.I. -- February 24, 2012 -- In a year that celebrates the art of filmmaking, Tom Zorabedian, the assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Rhode Island and a film professor, says The Artist is the picture to beat at the 84th annual Academy Awards.

It's not, however, the best film, nor is it the best homage to filmmaking among this year’s group, he said.

When making his picks for this year’s Academy Awards, which will air Sunday, Feb. 26 at 8 p.m. on ABC, Zorabedian said the film that was the greatest achievement was a children’s movie directed by a man known more for making pictures about “the family,” rather than making movies for families -- Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese’s film Hugo is among nine nominees for Best Picture and Scorsese is nominated for Best Director. The film garnered a total of 11 nominations. Hugo is Scorsese’s homage to Georges Méliès, the filmmaker who made the landmark 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon (remember the rocket crashing into the eye of the Man in the Moon?).

It is also Scorsese’s first attempt at making a 3D film, an endeavor Zorabedian said the director pulled off without making it a visual gimmick.

“It’s like a hyper-reality, high-resolution film. You kind of forget it’s in 3D,” Zorabedian said. “It’s not designed to come out of the screen at you. He really explores the spatial relationships of everything on the screen.”

It was an ambitious project for a man whose previous films have largely focused on crime in New York City, Zorabedian said.

“If you know Scorsese’s work and you saw this film without knowing who made it, you would never know it was his film. That said, you still see things that are very much part of his style. For instance, the camera is always moving,” Zorabedian explained.”

Despite the craft of Hugo, Zorabedian’s favorite film was Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which he called a “delight.” An homage to art, literature and 1920s Paris, the film is characteristically Allen. It contains the elements of fantasy that run through many of his films as Owen Wilson travels between modern day Paris and nights spent with Dali, Gertrude Stein and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

“It has this notion that the nostalgia of a time is better than the reality of that time,” Zorabedian said.

Zorabedian expects French nostalgia to win big at the Academy Awards, but it won’t be Allen’s film. He expects the big prizes to go to French director Michel Hazanavicius and his film, The Artist, a silent picture that evokes the heyday of Hollywood silent films as they gave way to films with sound. The Artist garnered 10 total nominations, including Hazanavicius for Best Director, Jean Dujardin for Best Actor and Bérénice Bejo for Best Supporting Actress.

Shot in black and white and in the 4:3 aspect ratio that was commonly used in films until Cinemascope and Panavision introduced wider aspect ratios, The Artist follows the romantic story of an aging silent film star and a young starlet. While Zorabedian was impressed with the craft and acting of the film, he said it wasn’t particularly a groundbreaking story.

“It was a good film, but it was a little light,” Zorabedian said. “It was a bit derivative – it has elements of Singing in the Rain or A Star is Born in it. It’s not the only modern silent movie, either. Mel Brooks did it with Silent Movie, and his was funnier. … It is the odds-on favorite, but if there’s a chance for an upset, I’d say it’s Hugo.”

Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the Best Picture field to include as many as 10 nominees, the expectation has been that more popular movies would garner nominations. District 9, for instance, was a blockbuster that benefited from the expansion at the 2010 Academy Awards.

This year’s field, which also includes Moneyball, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Tree of Life, War Horse, The Descendents, and Midnight in Paris, doesn’t contain any true blockbusters.

None of the top 10 grossing films of the year is nominated for Best Picture -- The Help was the highest grossing film among the nominees with $170 million (13th) – which was a bit of a surprise to Zorabedian.

He also was surprised Sarah’s Key, starring Kristen Scott Thomas, did not receive any recognition from the Academy. The film follows an American journalist (Scott Thomas) living in France, who researches the fate of a Jewish family that once occupied the apartment she and her husband are about to move into before it was dispossessed by Nazis in 1942.

Zorabedian also was surprised to see the lack of affection Academy voters had for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which received great praise from critics. He was glad to see that film's Rooney Mara, who played Lisbeth Salander, get nominated for Best Actress, noting what a demanding role it was, both because of the film’s content and because the role had recently been played by Noomi Rapace to critical acclaim in the Swedish version.

However, Zorabedian said he’s rooting for Viola Davis, who starred in The Help, to take home the statue because of her Rhode Island roots. Davis, a Tony Award-winning stage actress, grew up in Central Falls and majored in theater at Rhode Island College.
“She’s always been a good actress,” Zorabedian said.

Davis has worked on three films with George Clooney, who is nominated for Best Actor for his role in The Descendants. Zorabedian said he thinks it’s a two-person race between Clooney and Dujardin in the actor category.

“I think Clooney may win it because he’s been campaigning a lot for it,” Zorabedian said. “I didn’t respond to the film as much as some others did, but he was very good in it.”