WHICH GUILTY PLEASURE will win out at Sunday’s Oscars: The Academy voters’ love of film-nostalgia’s glow — or their passion for the City of Light?
Paris vs. the Past? In the case of some nominated films, it’s even Paris and the Past. These themes and settings run like a cresting Seine through some of the Best Picture contenders, including “Hugo” (set largely in post-WWI Paris!); “The Artist” (creatively sprung from Paris and harking back to the silent-film era!); and “Midnight in Paris” (the title alone seems to evoke most everything the amorous Academy is swooning over this season). Even the WWI-set “War Horse” manages to gallop through a shell-pocked France.
Whether the Gallic draw or the gauzy past holds greater sway Sunday could affect not only many of the live-action Oscars picks. The Academy’s fickle favoritism could even flow through the Best Animated Feature category.
“Rango,” you see, was arguably the first big-time cinematic Valentine of 2011 — its thespian chameleon referencing and riffing-on a slew of old movies well before the release of “Hugo,” “Midnight,” or the Cesar-winning “Artist,” which were still Champs-ing at the bit. (And perhaps it’s no coincidence that John Logan helped pen both “Hugo” and “Rango.”)
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The desert-set film — which re-teams director Gore Verbinski with his “Pirates of the Caribbean” shipmates Johnny Depp (the many-octaved voice of Rango) and Bill Nighy, as well as creative first-mate James Ward Byrkit — largely mines our nostalgia for the classic films of Leone and Hitchcock, Ford and Ford Coppola, genuflecting before everything from Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Westerns to the ‘70s masterpieces “Chinatown” and “Apocalypse Now.” “Rango” often time-travels only back to midcentury for its references, so the ILM-animated film primarily kicks up personal “living nostalgia” for its many middle-age-and-older viewers who, like Verbinski, have played life’s “front nine.” That’s in sharp contrast to the “acquired nostalgia” for the Roaring Twenties (in general) lushly rendered in “Hugo,” “Artist” and “Midnight.”
In other words: Will Academy voters — who reportedly tend to skew older — view “Rango’s” filmic nostalgia with as much feel-good warmth as they do movies that take us back to a time before “talkies”?
Fortunately, the ravishing “Rango” -- as a unique visual beast — should win because it outclasses 2012’s “off-year,” Pixar-less field.
And yet: All bets are off if the Academy’s fondest amour Sunday is “Paris.”
And looky here: Both of the nominated non-CGI entries frolic in the Eiffel Tower’s romantic shadow.
Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli’s “A Cat in Paris (Une Vie de Chat)” is a stylish charmer about a cat burglar, spotlighted by all the warmth of pastels. And then there’s “Chico & Rita,” the seductive Fernando Trueba/Javier Mariscal film that pulsates with Latin-jazz rhythms as it trots the globe (including Europe, Havana and New York) as it swivels back in time. If “Rango” weren’t quite so good, the Academy might let Paris reign in Feature Animation, too.
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As for the other fine nominees — the “Shrek” spinoff “Puss in Boots” and the “Kung Fu Panda” sequel — two CGI hits from the DreamWorks Animation franchise machine, it would seem (as the saying goes) just an honor to be nominated.
For next year, Pixar’s visually brilliant “Brave” is already looking like a best-bet for an Oscar nomination -- with its flame-haired 10th-century heroine leading the way, perhaps 2013 will be the year of old Scotland.
But for 2012, we’ll always have “Casablanca”-warm film nostalgia. And Paris.