Here's another category that underwent a name-change this year. Despite the fact that it awarded a film's production designer and set decorator, up until now this category was called "Best Art Direction". This year, it was given the more appropriate "Best Production Design" title. A production designer is the person in charge of designing the overall look of a film. His or her most common job is to design the sets. The job of the set decorator seems pretty self explanatory.
This category, like its sister "Costume Design", likes period and fantasy movies above all. That is why such unique work done in contemporary movies like this year's Beasts of the Southern Wild don't manage to get a nomination. Like we're used to, this year we have four period and one fantasy nominee.
The fantasy nominee is Ang Lee's Life of Pi, whose visually striking look blurs the line between visual effects and more traditional production design. Still, the guys behind the movie shouldn't worry too much about it, the past three winners in this category have all relied heavily on computer-generated sets and backgrounds. Yes, the Academy didn't mind that the artists behind Avatar, Hugo and Alice in Wonderland used their computers to come up with those films' final look.
This precedent sure puts Pi in a favorable position for the win, but before we call this race it would be wise to take a look at the other nominees. Lincoln may be very truthful in its recreation of the mid 19th century white house, but there doesn't seem to be much going for it with showier nominees in the category. Similarly, I would be shocked if the award went to The Hobbit's rehash of Grant Major's already winning Middle Earth designs. The BAFTA award went to Les Misérables, which does have some wonderful sets. The constrained and highly theatrical production design of its third act was one of the biggest problems I had with the movie, but Oscar voters seem to like it way more than I do.
This category seems like a real head-scratcher, except that if I were a voting member I would have absolutely no doubt about which movie to vote for. Sarah Greenwood's work in Anna Karenina is simply fantastic. It's grand, period, showy, everything Oscar likes in its winners. It is, also, one of the movie's biggest selling points. The most genius aspect regarding the film is director's Joe Wright's decision to set the whole movie in a type of theatre, putting the private lives of the aristocratic protagonists not on a metaphorical, but an actual stage.
If I were voting, this would be a no-brainer. Alas, I am not a voting member of the Academy. Still, I think Anna Karenina will rightfully win the award, although I wouldn't be surprised if a more popular film like Life of Pi or Les Misérables takes the trophy.
Will Win: Anna Karenina
Should Win: Anna Karenina