Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Best of 2012, Part 4: Craft Categories

Well, it's the last big 'best of' post for another year, so I suppose we all ought to savor this together. Today we're going to look at all of the craft categories, which is to say all of the awesome elements of film-making which most audience members tend to ignore. So let's shower these movies and these people with love! Someone ought to, after all.
Before we get started, I suppose I ought to define some categories:
Art Direction: Production design: creating, designing, and building the world in which the movie takes place. Generally associated with set-building, but also stretches to conceptual aspects
Costume Design: ...The design of the costumes.Visual Effects: Special Effects. CGI, models, etc.Makeup: ...makeup.Film Editing: Editing the movie: cutting in some places, lengthening in others. Generally responsible for the rhythm of a film, as well as keeping continuity and making sense of the plot.Cinematography: In layman's terms, how pretty the movie is. Screen composition, lighting, camera techniques, etc.Original Score: Music composed for the film itself.Sound Mixing: Blending the four film sound elements (dialogue, sound effects, ambient noise, music) to create a coherent overall mix.Sound Effects Editing: creating the sound elements and sound effects heard in the film.Original Song: Songs written specifically for the film.

Now that we've got all that straight...

Art Direction

5. Django Unchained-The Antebellum South as seen through a pulpy haze. Calvin Candy's gothic mansion which feels like a slave-run Gingerbread House, Mississippi slave markets, and that silly, silly carriage.
4. Skyfall-The exotic, beautiful world that we all like to imagine exists just beyond the shadows. Silva's empty ruins of a lair, a hallucinatory Shanghai, and the final Scottish Highlands standoff which feels like Downton Abbey gone terribly, terribly wrong.
3. Cloud Atlas-Six centuries of evolving dreams as cityscapes; a pit for cannibal teeth, a fading Victorian mansion, working-class 70s apartments, the party-world of deceitful publishers, jaw-dropping Neo-Seoul, and everything that comes after.
2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey-For showing us yet again that Middle Earth will never be anything less than fascinating to explore. A Dwarf mountain more opulent than MTV's "My Super Sweet Sixteen," hidden waterfall alcoves, a Goblin city that even Dante would have said was all a little too much.
1. Anna Karenina-Sets as nesting Russian Dolls. Ballrooms become skating rinks become racetracks become households become busy streets, all in the context of one writhing, aggressively sentient theater.

Honorable mention: Creepy catacombs and distressingly phallic worms in Prometheus

Costume Design

5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey-Those rich dwarves aren't going to clothe themselves. Points for finding ways to make each of the enormous cast look unique (even when the writing can't), and for making the Elf King look like David Bowie at his absolute glam-iest.
4. Lawless-Because every ruthless, possibly immortal bootlegger needs a bitchin' collection of cardigans. Tom Hardy's slightly feminized wardrobe is an inspired choice, as is Guy Pearce's, whose clothes make him look like a Victorian Terminator-cum-dominatrix.
3. Django Unchained-For that suit. The blue one. You know it. But also for making Leonardo Dicaprio a foppish dandy, for making Samuel L. Jackson a mix between Uncle Tom and Alfred from Batman, for the mercenary who never removes her bandanna, and for those puffy, puffy dresses.
2. Mirror Mirror-Legendary costume designer Eiko Ishioka's swan song: Butlers as chess pieces as ships, the silliest top-hat this side of Canal Street, for garish reds and deep blues and every conceivable color in between. Ishioka's passing means losing one of the most talented designers every to grace film with her presence. It makes me sad.
1. Anna Karenina-Clothing as architecture. These aristocrats build themselves from the petticoats up, draping themselves in every manner of finery, with designs inspired by haute couture of the 50s, the Victorian era, really any period designer Jacqueline Durran wants. It's giddy and inspired and mind-boggling to watch.

Honorable mention: The wacky, bird-like finery and appropriately gross working class misery in Les Miserables.

Visual Effects

5. Prometheus-Beautifully rendered alien landscapes, practical yet elegant spaceships, and those freaky-ass penis-shaped worms with the vagina mouths. Gross.
4. Cloud Atlas-Slave ships, china shop fantasies, nuclear plants, a futuristic city being slowly swallowed by an ocean, and a satellite that looks like a blooming flower. Wonderful work.
3. The Avengers-The Hulk, obviously, but also the aliens, the mayhem, the flying shark/dragon/chaos hybrids, somehow managing to make Thor's powers not look ridiculous, and (on that note) the Hulk (again).
2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey-for rendered background and tableaus that are nothing less than painterly, for lurking, unnerving shadows-creatures, for wargs and orcs and eagles and Gollum and every other conceivable fantastical beast under the sun.
1. Life of Pi-For Richard Parker, a tiger so realistic that I would never be able to tell you what was digital and what was real based on appearance along. Ditto all of that for the Zebra, the Orangutan, the Hyena, the endless expanses of ocean, that heart-stopping sinking sequence, and some of the best use of 3-D yet seen in film.

Honorable mention: One hell of a tsunami sequence in The Impossible.

3. Cloud Atlas-Ben Whishaw as an uptight younger woman! Halle Berry as a tiny Asian doctor! Hugo Weaving as a demonic nurse! The transformations in this movie are (mostly) incredible as six actors repeatedly morph throughout the centuries.
2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey-Probably more prosthetic facial hair than ever before seen on screen (outside of the movies in which Tom Cruise needs to grow a beard). Each dwarf has a unique, lived-in, totally believable style (as long as you don't see it in 48 fps, allegedly), and the elves have never looked fancier or better groomed.
1. The Impossible-I see myself as somewhat hard to shock at the movies. Sometimes it feels like I've seen it all. So imagine my surprise when I found myself almost turning away when confronted with the gruesomely realistic tsunami trauma in this film. I'm not sure I'll ever forget the first reveal of Naomi Watt's shorn-open leg, or her oozing chest, or any of the other horrific wounds which are created with such merciless detail.

Honorable mention: turning Daniel Day-Lewis into the titular character for Lincoln.

Film Editing
5. Christopher S. Capp, Stephen Mirrione, Juliette Welfling-The Hunger Games-for improbably making sense of the film's ill-advised love of shaky-cam, for conjuring action and suspense in a narrative in which the main character must survive, for balancing the rough style of the districts with the elegantly mobile camera of the capitol.
4. William Goldenberg-Argo-for effortlessly wringing tension out of every scene, for playing the audience like a violin during that nail-biting climax, for lending the whole film a relentless, propulsive energy which it wouldn't have found on its own.
3.William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor-Zero Dark Thirty-years and years of narrative packed into a tempo which perfectly captures the sense of time slowly bleeding away, the slow, irascible frustration of hours becoming months becoming years without success, and then throwing all that out the window for the perfectly conceived compound attack sequence. 
2. Crockett Doob and Affonso Goncalves-Beasts of the Southern Wild-for hitting the ground running and never letting up. From the racing, giddy prologue through all the quiet moments until that perfectly timed confrontation, Beasts of the Southern Wild's heart beats with a frantic, unstoppable pulse. (also, Crockett Doob is the best name in the history of your life. Just saying.)
1. Alexander Berner-Cloud Atlas-It seems nothing less than a miracle that this movie would fit together at all. And yet it does--seamlessly, effortlessly, joyously. This editing job crafts one long, beautifully shaped narrative out of six short stories with a sharp sense of juxtaposition, rhythm, and storytelling sense.

Honorable mention: The desperate, manic tempos of Anna Karenina.

5. Claudio Miranda-Life of Pi-Painterly, expressive use of light and space. Placing the camera in every possible position: for one remarkable shot, the camera drifts under the water as the ocean's surface acts as a permeable membrane separating the vastness of the ocean from the void of the night sky.
4. Robert Richardson-Django Unchained-shooting with an eye for iconography: Django's shadowy silhouette cast against the wall, tiny figures against unforgiving landscapes, and that already infamous shot of blood splashing on a field of cotton.
3. Mihai Malaimare Jr.-The Master-compositions as sparsely depopulated as the main character's life. Freddie Quell exists in a void, lit like a slow-motion nightmare, composed like a study in solitude, and choreographed like a dance with vengeful spirits.
2. Roger Deakins-Skyfall-Roger Deakins is a demigod, obviously. His use of light and color and texture is almost unsurpassed in contemporary cinema: the stark grays of Silva's lair, the sun-burnt opening, the woozy reds and oranges of the Shanghai club, and, of course, that shot: the silhouettes, the jellyfish. Pure genius.
1. Seamus McGarvey-Anna Karenina-for camerawork as alive and vital as anything I've seen recently. The camera doesn't observe--it dances with the characters, pushing in close to deprive them of their privacy or pulling out to regard them in their greater context, all while riffing on theatrical lighting schemes to create something totally unique and memorable.

Honorable mention: The woozy picturesque bayou photography in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Original Score (I'll link to my favorite tracks from each movie)
5. Alexandre Desplat-Moonrise Kingdom-music that perfectly sets the time, place, and tone. Idiosyncratic, quirky, a beautiful mix of whimsy and melancholy. Ridiculous, inspired orchestration.

4. Cecile Corbel-The Secret World of Arrietty-Bringing a surprisingly Celtic tone to Studio Ghibli may feel jarring at first, but it adds an unexpected depth and energy to the film, creating a lilting soundscape that manages to integrate its origins while respecting Ghibli's musical traditions.

3. Johnny Greenwood-The Master-As always, Greenwood's music toes the line between inspiration and insanity, giving voice to Freddie Quell's tortured inner demons. The violins sound like screams, the flutes like snake charmers, and the percussion never gives anyone a moment's rest. In another year, this could have taken the top prize.

2. Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer-Cloud Atlas-I'm a sucker for classic film music, and the Cloud Atlas score harks back to the days of classic-era studio scoring: bold themes, full orchestras, beautifully echoed continuing motifs. This music ties the six plot-lines together by acting as their one collective soul.
This piece is the best example of the movie's overall theme:
But this one, a piece of movie music masquerading as a classical piece, is just gorgeous:

1. Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin-Beasts of the Southern Wild-Film music is evolving into something completely astounding and unique. Every year it seems like I find a score which pushes the boundaries of what's acceptable for movie scoring, and this year is no exception. Romer and Zeitlin's score plays like a bluegrass daydream as interpreted by a ska-band/folk group co-production. Though this film is nothing less than a masterpiece, I legitimately believe it would be a lesser film if not for this music's driving, emotionally naked rhythms and melodies. This score should be taught in a class for effective, original movie soundtracking.
I think this piece is probably the best music to come out of movies this year:
But this one is just so alive it's ridiculous: 
And this one is so fragile and beautiful it hurts: 
Seriously, just listen to this whole soundtrack. It's absolutely worth your time.

Honorable mention: The lusty, melodramatic, Russian-flavored music from Anna Karenina.

Sound Mixing
5. Chronicle-A study in balance. The film is quiet and brooding when it needs to be, but it pulls out all the stops when it has to, in a movie much better than anyone is giving it credit for. Think of the maelstrom of the final showdown compared with the achingly lonely howls of the wind in the final shot.
4. The Avengers-At least one third of this movie is one prolonged action sequence, and yet the audio never loses its clarity or becomes confusing. Everything has its own sense of place, even when all of downtown Manhattan is under siege.
3. The Hunger Games-for the most interesting use of diagetic ambient noise in movies this year. There's always something happening on the soundtrack--cicada cries during the Reaping, muffled partying throughout the capitol scenes, that booming cannon echo. This mix makes for an engaging and immersive experience.
2. Life of Pi-The most aurally complex, loneliest sea voyage anyone's had in a long time. All the voices of nature falling silent one by one, before rallying together in a bravura storm sequence, just to prove that they're still there.
1. Skyfall-perfectly controlled chaos. Gunfights as sharply punctuated bouts of silence, train crashes as stentorian divine judgement, and the eerier roar of a burning mansion drifting over the moors.

Honorable mention: Delightfully wacky balances in Django Unchained.

Sound Editing
5. Life of Pi-Realistic animal sounds, vengeful, angry thunderstorms, and the relentless pounding of the waves, insistent like a bitter lover.
4. Django Unchained-life as it should sound, not life as it is. Deliriously heightened splashes, roars, shatters, and cacophonous explosions. This movie sounds like the inside of a sociopath's joke shop.
3. Chronicle-telekinesis as you've never heard it before. The final showdown had me gasping--it's a brutal symphony of broken friendship, played on crashing buses, shattering glass, and the threatening hum of superpowers gone wrong.
2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey-Goblin shrieks, the sound of wolves on fire, the clammy flap-flap of Gollum's feet on hard stone, and the telltale song of Sting messin' up some orcs.
1. The Avengers-Every character's actions have a distinctive voice--Thor's hammer which plays like orchestral bells, the Hulk's roar, Iron Man's cheeky missiles (how the hell do you make missiles sound cheeky?)--pitted against an alien army that sounds like dubstep if it were played inside a washing machine.

Honorable mention: the all-too-realistic combat of Zero Dark Thirty.

Original Song
5. "Touch the Sky"-Brave-Celtic-infused whimsy, serving as an energetic introduction to our feisty main character.
4. "Freedom"-Django Unchained-a wistful acceptance of a terrible system which can't be beaten alone, but must be fought anyway.
3. "Skyfall"-Skyfall-A lilting, melancholy ode to nihilism which perfectly sets the darker tone which hangs over this Bond outing like a plague.
2. "Breath of Life"-Snow White and the Huntsman-the only part of this film that earns the 'epic' status for which it so desperately aims, Florence and the Machine's operatic wails on the chorus as juxtaposed with the fragile piano melody in the verses is a delicate and beautiful construction.
1. "Song of the Lonely Mountain"-The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey-Ok, you guys know me too well to think that a Middle Earth power-ballad would ever lose this category. 80s hair bands as interpreted with a Lord of the Rings feel: banjos, restless violin chords, clapping. This song kicks so much ass.

Honorable mention: the twisted John Phillips Sousa march that is "Abraham's Daughter" from The Hunger Games.

Well, that's it for the year, believe it or not. I'll be back tomorrow to wrap everything up and put it in one place, but here ends the listing. We're all very, very sad I'm sure. In summation, here are the movies with the most nominations:

Cloud Atlas-8
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey-7
Beasts of the Southern Wild-6
Django Unchained-6
Anna Karenina-5
Life of Pi-4
Magic Mike-3

As far as most wins is concerned, only three movies managed to rack up more than one win: 
Beasts of the Southern Wild-4 (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score)
Amour-3 (Actress, Original Screenplay, Foreign Language Film [which I didn't actually post...])
Anna Karenina-3 (Art Direction, Costume Design, Cinematography)

Well, that's it then. Where did I go wrong?

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