The Wonder Awards Post-Mortem: Dissecting the Best Achievements in Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror from 2008

Now that Cinefantastique’s 2009 Wonder Award Winners have been posted, it seems like a good time to do a little post-mortem, offering some of the voters a chance to explain their choices and voice their agreement or disagreement with the final results. After all, as interesting as the list of winners is, it is still only a list; the real meat of the matter resides in the reasons why certain films were favored over others.

BEST PICTURE

This category resulted in a tie between a Hollywood blockbuster and a foreign art house film: THE DARK KNIGHT and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, respectively. How did these two prevail over IRON MAN, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, and WALL-E?
For myself, I thought all the nominees were worthy, but DARK KNIGHT provided the most meat to chew on; it’s a rich, engaging, thought-provoking film – so much so that any weaknesses are virtually eclipsed. I enjoyed LET THE RIGHT ONE IN almost as much, but I was not so overwhelmed by it that I was blinded to its few minor flaws. For that reason, I had to vote for DARK KNIGHT.
How, then, did LET THE RIGHT ON IN become the Little Film That Could? John T. Stanhope explains why he cast his ballot for this title:

I loved every one of the nominees, though I did have a few little quibbles with THE DARK KNIGHT, BENJAMIN BUTTON and the final, big confrontation at the end of IRON MAN. But the film that truly made me sit up and take notice and which took me somewhere I felt I hadn’t been before at all was LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. I have for years been lamenting the direction that most of the Hollywood efforts have been taking the Vampire film. In my opinion there are completely untapped veins (oops, sorry for that one) related to that story concept. This little Swedish film, based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, managed to find one of those veins. It shows TWILIGHT for the little teeny-bopper movie that it is. And although LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is about children, it certainly wasn’t written for those with the mentality of children (no offense, kids, but a person does gain something with age). It delves deftly into the realm of the sweet awkwardness of young friendship, love and loyalty. It also explores the acceptance that youth can allow in. Yes, this one was perhaps my biggest pleasant surprise of 2008 and I’m giving it a lot of points for its originality and its subtle, overall execution.

Not everyone voted for one of these two films.  In rationale of a Conflicted Contrarian, John W. Morehead of Theofantastique offers an argument for why WALL-E should have taken the Best Picture crown:

WALL-E was the best overall cinematic experience of the fantastic for 2009. This film took computer animation to new heights, from the height of its realism and the detail of its opening scenes as it depicted a dystopian vision of a planet decimated by pollution, to the depth of emotion the animators were able to invest in its leading characters, Wall-E and Eve. In addition to its visual beauty, the film also told a very human story through its robotic characters as well as the humans adrift in space and in need of a healthy reconnection with the Earth, their own bodies, and community.

BEST DIRECTOR

Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan

This was a bit of an odd case. Although voting in the Best Picture Category was evenly split between DARK KNIGHT and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, Christopher Nolan easily won in this category for helming the former film. Brian Collins, of Horror Movie a Day, explains why he split his votes between Best Picture and Best Director:

I voted Nolan because he did an amazing job in every aspect of the film. Choices that seemed odd at first (not just Heath) – shooting some of it in IMAX, grounding Gotham in reality – all of it paid off, and then some. You can really tell that he’s a guy who puts time into creating and designing every last detail in his head, and it’s almost a guarantee that even with the same script, the finished product would be nothing like the movie we pretty much all love, had another director been behind it. I didn’t quite get that sense from Tomas Alfredson on LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. I wouldn’t compare the two; they are not in the same genre, and both are incredible in their own way. I had to pick one or the other for best film; I went with LTROI not because it was “better”, but because it was more original and daring, and it’s nice to have a horror movie get nearly universal acclaim for once. But for direction, it was no contest – Nolan made that film great.

Offering a contrary opinion, John T. Stanhope felt that odd-man out David Fincher should have gotten the nod for his work onr BENJAMIN BUTTON:

All I can say is that this was a very charming and commanding turn for Fincher within a genre he does not normally work. A most thoughtful effort. I was also very impressed with how he handled the various periods in which the film takes place.

BEST SCREENPLAY

Voting favored Jonathan & Christopher Nolan’s script for DARK KNIGHT even more than Christopher Nolan for directing the film. Stanhope, who selected LET THE RIGHT ON IN for Best Picture, explains why he split his votes, selecting DARK KNIGHT in the script category:

This was a tough call. I felt I had good reason to select any one of the contenders. However, in the end I decided to go with THE DARK KNIGHT. I have to take my hat off to anyone who can take what had turned into a horrible, laborious, campy franchise and turn it into something hard-hitting, thought provoking, emotionally engaging and… well, respectable, which is something I felt the material had long deserved. I only wish it could have surpassed the over bloated soap opera that was TITANIC as the highest grossing film of all time.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

Cate Blanchett
Cate Blanchett

This category offered up another tie, this time between Cate Blanchett in BENJAMIN BUTTON and Lina Leandersson for LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. In this category, the contenders were not particularly strong this year. Not that the performances were in any way weak; there simply were not many roles that were clearly full-blown leads. Blanchett is strong, but her character is clearly secondary and comparative limited in screen time. Leandersson comes much closer to playing a true leading role, but even there, the story is told from the point of a view of a neighbor boy who gradually discovers that her character is a vampire.
In a relative toss-up, I voted for the younger actress because she had to manage the difficult trick to seducing the audience into sympathizing with an amoral predator. As much as it is a horror film, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is also an intimate drama about two lost and lonely characters who find each other; by the end, I felt moved just as much as I was by the more obvious tear-jerker moments in BENJAMIN BUTTON.
Stanhope also liked both performances but ultimately came down on the other side of the fence in making his selections:

I wasn’t hugely drawn to Blanchett’s character in BUTTON, but Blanchett showed tremendous range throughout the film. My heart kinda roots for Lina Leandersson–and she was very good–but in the end I had to go with Blanchett’s solid range. BUTTON was a perfect vehicle for one to show her strengths as an actress and Blanchett seemed to manage it effortlessly.

Of course, not even these two choices cornered the market on all the votes. John Cozzoli of Zombo’s Closet of Horror, voted for a non-horror contender, Gwenyth Paltrow in IRON MAN.

First, let me say all three are excellent in their roles and it was a difficult decision. The key element that made Paltrow stand out for me is the chemistry she created with Robert Downey Jr. Yes, they all excelled in their respective roles, but when you can generate chemistry when another actor is flying at mach speed with his or her role, it takes experience and skill to blend your acting well enough to fly along while maintaining your own identity.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

This was a no-brainer for me. IRON MAN is a great film across the board, but in the final analysis it was slightly outclass in all categories but this one. Robert Downey Jr.’s role is so central to the success of this film that all the action and special effects cannot eclipse the fact that this is virtual a showcase vehicle for his talents. The other nominees were all great, but Downey is the one who sticks in my memory months later; I simply cannot imagine that the film would be nearly so good without him.
Stanhope, conversely, beliefs that Brad Pitt’s star turn in BENJAMIN BUTTON was the year’s greatest achievement by an actor:

I’ve never been Pitt’s biggest fan, but he made two films in 2008 in which he knocked my socks off. One was BURN AFTER READING and the other was BUTTON. Frankly, I thought he was superb in BUTTON. Again, my heart kinda wanted to go with Daniel Craig in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, because he’s pretty much untouchable as 007, but realistically I had to admit that Pitt took me to places I never thought he would, or perhaps even could.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Judi Dench
Judi Dench

This category offered our third split decision, between Tilda Swinton in THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON and Judi Dench in QUANTUM OF SOLACE. My vote went for Dench because she has always been strong as M, but only the recent Craig films have done full justice to the character. M is no longer a plot device – the mouthpiece handing out Bond’ assignment each film – but a fully realized character, and Dench makes you believe her as a character who is both impressed with and exasperated by 007’s methods. Swinton is great, too, in a completely different way, engaging the emotions on a more overt level in her role as a middle-aged woman who has an affair with Benjamin.
This is one of those categories that makes you sad you have to pick a winner; even with two winners, thanks to the tie, there is still a sense that some worthy nominees were short-changed. Stanhope makes the case for Taraji Henson in BENJAMIN BUTTON:

Another excellent demonstration of range here. Henson understood the periods in which her character lived. Nothing hacks me off more than actors who don’t get, or care about, the period in which they’re supposed to be. Henson was just right.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Even more than for Lead Actor, this was a no-brainer category, thanks to Heath Ledger’s stunning turn as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. I could go on from now till Doomsday trying to second guess my choice – debating whether the actor’s untimely death affected my judgment, wondering if perhaps the role and the performance were just too obvious, looking for some more subtle, trickier performance that deserved my vote instead – but there is no reasonable way I can see for avoiding the obvious acknowledgement that this was not merely a great performance but a once-in-a-lifetime piece of magic, the proverbial lightening captured in a bottle.
That’s not to say that no one else deserved consideration, and Stanhope argues a valid case in favor of Jared Harris in BENJAMIN BUTTON:

Harris was one of my early picks in the nomination process and I’m going with him for the award. Yes, Ledger was spot-on, but scenery chewing is showy, and in a sense, Ledger was lucky enough to get a part in which he was allowed to let it all hang out. I loved him in the role, but Harris was perhaps more genuine in his showiness and had more of an opportunity to demonstrate different sides of his character. I pretty much enjoyed every moment he was on screen.

BEST SPECIAL EFFECTS

The easy winner in this category was HELLBOY2: THE GOLDEN ARMY. This is perhaps understandable, considering the depth, breadth, and imagination of the work on display, but I found myself voting against the film because I seldom found the work convincing. The fairy tale quality has a certain charm, but it seems out of place in the world of Hellboy, who is (despite his his devilish appearance) basically a working-class stiff doing a dirty job. The key to his character is that his method of transportation is not a super-duper batmobile but a gargage truck. In this context, the more realistic and down-to-earth the monster and effects are, the better.
As for the other contenders, the work in BENJAMIN BUTTON was thoroughly convincing, and IRON MAN was colorful and spectacular. But THE DARK KNIGHT is the one film that I don’t think of as a special effects film; to me it looked like something that was filmed entirely live. Such seamless work deserved the honor, in my opinion.
The spectacular imagery of SPEED RACER might have seemed as if it had the potential to pull an upset victory in this category, but Brian Collins explains why the film did not get his vote:

I am glad to see Speed Racer get shut out of the technical things. While they were certainly impressive, they represent the exact wrong way to use CGI in a film. CGI should be used to help tell a story; a story shouldn’t be told around CGI. The only time in the film I thought they were doing it “right” was, ironically, the intentionally crude effects in the scene with young Speed in the classroom, with the hand-drawn racetrack around him. I never root “against” a movie, but in Speed‘s case, I was happy to see it fail.

BEST MAKEUP


Brad Pitt
Brad Pitt

This was a very close call between BENJAMIN BUTTON and HELLBOY 2. Ultimately I opted for the former because the aging process of Brad Pitt’s character is essential to the film; if it doesn’t work, the film doesn’t work. Also, it is a more difficult challenge to pull off this fakery convincingly in a film that asks audiences to believe the story as if it were really happening. HELLBOY 2, on the other hand, was the sort of movie that relied more heavly on willing suspension of disbelief.
Maybe so, but John Morehead argues that HELLBOY 2’s makeup was simply too good to be swept under the rug:

Yes, the makeup effects of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON are impressive as Brad Pitt’s character ages in reverse. They certainly compliment this great fantasy story, but in my view they do not make an overall contribution to the film as HELLBOY 2’s makeup effects do or to the depth at which we see them in the latter’s makeup efforts. In the case of BENJAMIN BUTTON the makeup effects must be believable and are certainly integral to the storytelling as we experience the strange journey of a man who moves forward through time and yet grows biologically younger. But the makeup effects in this case are not as broad or as central as in HELLBOY 2. In Hellboy’s world we shift from a fantasy story within the real world as in the case of BUTTON, to the portrayal of a fantasy world involving elves and fairies who inhabit realms closer to ancient mythologies and fantasy stories like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The makeup effects created for HELLBOY 2 are thus more broad, rich in expression, and central to the storytelling, and for these reasons HELLBOY 2 is the clear winner

 BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Even if HELLBOY 2 got stiffed in the makeup department, its beautiful look was more than enough to make it the favorite in this category. I was not a particular fan of this film, but most of my objections relate to the script and the special effects; in terms of production design, no one can deny the visual splendor of Stephen Scott’s work.
This is a category in which one of 2008’s most derided films seemed to have a chance for an upset victory. That did not happen, but Stanhope makes the case for Owen Patterson’s production design in SPEED RACER.

Again, all of the films in this category looked great, but I’m gonna do with one that no one else would most likely go with. As good as all of the other designs were–and they really were–to my way of thinking it was easier to wrap one’s mind around and understand and work with their requirements. I believe one genuinely had to think ‘out of the box’ on SPEED RACER. I understand that it was too much for a lot of folks. Still, I kept thinking that the production design department really had to be on its toes to pull off the Japanese anime in live action form. This I thought they legitimately did. Paterson and team nailed the look and overall mood from the goofy ’60s cartoon. That took a lot of hard, detailed effort.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY & BEST EDITING

It was inevitable that THE DARK KNIGHT had to win some technical awards in recognition of its monumental achievement. Although based on a comic book character, the film has the look of a modern film noir, sleek and utterly convincing. It also has a complex story that seems to fly along like a rocket despite a running time of well over two hours. So it’s easy to see why our voters would favor it in these categories.
Even here, there is room for reasoned debate, and Stanhope lists the virtues of two other nominees:

BENJAMIN BUTTON had sublime cinematography by Claudio Miranda. It was one of the points that had me entranced throughout the entire film. It was rich, full of depth and true where it needed to be true, and offered a touch of fantasy in just the right places. Just exquisite. Although LET THE RIGHT ONE IN was on a much smaller scale than the rest of the nominees, Hoyte Van Hoytema matched the intended environment and mood of his subject matter with subtle simplicity and in almost a painterly fashion.

As he did in the Production Design category, Stanhope champions SPEED RACER’s editing: 

Yes, yes, I know, people said SPEED RACER was dizzying, but still I have to ask, wouldn’t it be if it were to capture the hyper mood of the TV show? And I know that I’ll be lambasted for choosing a film that seemed “over edited” to most, though again I point out that Andrew Barton and Zach Staenberg put on screen what was true to their source material. They had to work their tales off to put out the effort they did (the weak, repetitive racing effects were not their fault). They literally gave us the cartoon in live action form. Go, SPEED editors!

BEST MUSIC

I suspect also that voters were eager to give WALL-E, a crowd-pleasing favorite that was pushed out of the winner’s circle in all the other categories, a win in at least one category, but that is not to suggest that the win was undeserved. A big chunk of this movie is essentially a “silent” (or, more accurately, non-dialogue) film – the sort of pure cinema where character and action are conveyed through a combination visuals, sound effects, and music. This is a great film on many levels; one of its many strengths is that it is a “feel good” movie that never feels phony or saccharine. Much of the credit for that goes to composer Thomas Newman for conveying the emotions of the inarticulate robotic title character without lapsing into John Williams-type overstatement.
Stanhope, on the other hand, thinks that Johan Soderqvist should have edged out his worthy competitors with his score for LET THE RIGHT ONE IN:

Here’s another category filled with good choices. I’d like to pick ’em all. However, Howard & Zimmer were traversing familiar territory and already had a sense of what was needed and what to do. The same can be said for William’s take on Indiana Jones. Powell did a stand up job on BOLT and I’ve got a soft spot for what he acheived with it. Frankly, up until a few days ago I would have selected WALL-E (I think the score is near perfect and I’ve listened to it a good 50 times already), but then I saw LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. And although it’s not a score I would probably listen to as many times as some of the others, it absolutely captures every nuance of the entire film. Who would have thought that a vampire movie could be so full of bitter sweetness and genuine pathos and heart? Well, I’m here to tell you that it is, and Johan Soderqvist understood every minute of that film, every minute. Much of its heart belongs to him.

THE EDGAR G. ULMER AWARD

Perhaps DIARY OF THE DEAD, coming from old pro George Romero, was a “sentimental” favorite (if that word can be used in relation to a movie about flesh-eating zombies), but the movie was also an impressive achievement that rebooted the living dead franchise for the Internet generation. Made on a low-budget and released in only limited engagements, the film still managed to earn back more than its small production budget ($4-million) from ticket sales before going on to DVD. In this sense, it was the perfect candidate for an award named after a director remembered for making memorable films with virtually no resources. The Ulmer Award casts the spotlight of recognition on this type of achievement, which might otherwise go unnoticed, and Romero’s film certainly made something new and exciting out of the same old material.
Though not taking issue with Romero’s achievement, Brian Collins thinks that another contender merited the Ulmer Award even more, REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA. He states his case thus:

Not only was it far more original than any of the other nominees; it pulled it off on a very limited budget. It may have been higher than that of Teeth or Diary, but let’s look at it ‘bang for your buck’ style – Teeth was more or less about a girl in a house or classroom, and Diary was a bunch of no-name actors running around with video cameras, occasionally fighting zombies. Repo, on the other hand, presented an entirely constructed world, some name actors that probably dont come cheap (Paris Hilton, Paul Sorvino, Anthony Head), 60 songs – all for a reported $8-million, less than that of the Saw sequels. In a time with so many lousy independent horror movies blaming lack of money for their shortcomings, it was nice to see a film that, for once, had every penny up on the screen, and telling an original story to boot. Now, don’t get me wrong: I enjoy both Diary and Teeth; both are deserving of recognition as well. I just felt Repo did more to help the overall world of low-budget horror.

And there you have it: a glimpse behind the scenes at the often agonizing, frequently fun process of measuring last year’s greatest achievements in fantasy films, horror movies, and science fiction cinema. You may not agree with all our choices, but they were not selected lightly. Some were clear winners; others were close calls or outright ties. Whatever the final results, 2008 offered many worthy contenders, and at the very least, an exercise like this provides an opportunity to look and rekindle our appreciation for films that aimed high and hit the target.

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