Sunday, February 23, 2014

Best of 2013, part 4: craft categories

Commence with the weeping and lamentation, for today marks the last big list-dump before I go crawl back into my cave and blog-hibernate for another year. It's a tough blow, I'm sure, but we'll get through it together. Today, we're going to spend a little time showing some love for all the elements that go into making a movie great but never make anyone famous: the craft categories, aka where the cool kids are at.

Before we get going, here's handy guide to the categories, in case you want to know what I'm talking about:

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.
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.

Moving right along, then...

Art Direction
5. Inside Llewyn Davis-Greenwich Village of the 1960s re-imagined as a Dante-esque purgatory. Smoky cafes, impossibly long hallways, and mercilessly cluttered offices.
4. Her-a near-future just futuristic enough to look like the kind of place into which our society could evolve in the next ten years. Gorgeous pastel colors bleeding into sharp-lined architecture.
3. The Great Gatsby-the world in Baz Luhrmann films is never the one we live in; instead, it's the world we wish we could live in. Like the film itself, the design never stays still, constantly evolving and mutating into a brightly conceived Jazz Age fever dream.
2. Stoker-if the world of The Great Gatsby grew up, got depressed, and moved farther north, then it would like just like Stoker. Such an ornate, cathedral-like suburbia, constructed like a quiet, smirking nightmare.
1. Pacific Rim-thank God someone still makes blockbusters with colors. A daffy neon Hong Kong, utterly ridiculous robots that somehow looke exactly like the nation they represent (if that nation were a 100-foot tall robot), and Darwinian sea-monsters that look like an entire evolutionary tree's worth of drunken, late-night mistakes.

Honorable mention: the clash between traditional and modern-day China in The Grandmaster

Costume Design
5. The Bling Ring-lifestyles of the rich and famous, as taken and perverted by a bunch of fame-hungry kids.
4. American Hustle-I just don't even have words for the necklines in this movie. All of the best (or worst, depending on perspective) instincts of the 70s, thrown into a polyester blender and vomited out into a grotesque menagerie of sequined dressed and plaid suits.
3. Stoker-such vividly realized, angrily colorful threads at work. Character-defining specificity disguised as new shoes, borrowed suits, and deep purple dresses.
2. The Great Gatsby-the overall philosophy of the film--that more and bigger is always better--brought to ghastly, unnatural life. Impossibly expensive outfits that hang off the noveau riche like sulky liquid gold.
1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire-Those collars. Enough said. Dystopian Capital couture that looks like a mix between high fashion and artfully torn dead animals. In a good way.

Honorable mention: Furs, fedoras, and fantasy in The Grandmaster

Visual Effects
5. Pacific Rim-every kid's action-figure fantasies come to life--giant monsters versus giant robots in a gorgeously rendered neon landscape.
4. Elysium-photo-realistic space stations, cyborg-enhanced combat, and one hell of a convincing exploding head.
3. Man of Steel-it would be unfair to steal the original Superman's "you'll believe a man can fly" tagline, but it's nice to see that 35 years after the original, the movies are still dedicated to showing us that they can, in fact, make us believe that men can fly.
2. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug-points for this one are mostly gotten through that unbelievably detailed, imaginative rendering of Smaug, whose every move is like a softly veiled threat, festooned by endless showers of gold.
1. Gravity-yeah, like anything else was going to take this spot. Simply put, some of the most impressive visual effects as yet seen in the movies.

Honorable mention: massive spaceships and the destruction of most of San Francisco in Star Trek Into Darkness

3. American Hustle-the most ridiculous hair-design of the year--all of those impossible curls, Bradley Cooper's perm, and Christian Bale's punchline of a combover.
2. Lone Survivor-finely detailed visions of how much punishment a body can take before it simply stops going. Relentlessly graphic war wounds, all too lovingly applied.
1. 12 Years a Slave-like Lone Survivor, this movie earns its spot through bodily injury, albeit of a more subtle type. Perhaps the best way the passage of time is conveyed in this film is through the slow, steady pile-up of new scars on a body--each one telling a new, horrific story.

Honorable mention: as usual, the world of Middle Earth is stunningly realized in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Film Editing
5. Douglas Crise-Spring Breakers-such a ruthless, whimsical sense of juxtaposition. Sappy statements of love and place, followed by hypnotic ballets of gunfire, followed by bizarre series of slow-motion parties. This thing has the rhythm of a bad acid trip.
4. Jennifer Lame-Frances Ha-the most ingenious comedic timing of the year. A string of perfectly orchestrated smash cuts, reaction shots, and the occasional languidly paced stretch, as if we're being given a chance to breath.
3. Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger-Gravity-in any other year, this ceaseless construction of tension, suspense, and temporary release would probably have taken first place. As chance would have it though, a couple other movies experimented with editing in such a daring way that I've got to relegate this one to third.
2. Mike Munn-Stories We Tell-easily the most confounding structure of the year. Stories We Tell is a labyrinthine monolith of shifting perspectives, each narrative arc enfolding in such a way to simultaneously undermine and enhance everything that came before it.
1. Shane Carruth and David Lowery-Upstream Color-a vivid, lilting construction unlike anything else this year. Time, space, and linear progression all lose their meaning in a hazy stream-of-consciousness style.

Honorable mention: effortless tension and action conjured in Captain Phillips

5. Harry Savides and Christopher Blauvelt-The Bling Ring-careful composition, coldly dispassionate light, and long takes (and long shots) that emphasize the disconnect of the world the characters are living in.
4. Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini-All is Lost-for turning everyday objects into beautifully imagined abstractions, and for using such clear, concise colors and light in the potentially monochromatic ocean landscape.
3. Bruno Delbonnel-Inside Llewyn Davis-for making New York City look like a freezing circle of hell. Smoke, grime, fog, and drifting snowflakes that visually embody the barrier between Llewyn's dreams and his unflinching reality.
2. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel-Leviathan-it's really hard to not give this one the top spot. The things this documentary accomplishes with its constantly roving, innovative camerawork is simply astounding. Any other year. This year, however....
1. Emmanuel Lubezki-Gravity-yeah, this one was always going to end up in Gravity's hands. As usual, everything Lubezki touches turns to perfectly photographed gold.

Honorable mention: Hoyt van Hoytema's gorgeously lit, pastel futurescapes in Her

Original Score (I'll link to my favorite tracks from each movie)
5. Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo-Prince Avalanche-synethesizers backing melancholy little clarinet cadenzas, piano solos, and random brass instruments to create something wistful and lovely.
4. Clint Mansell-Stoker-Mansell at his icy, aggressive best. Skittering high notes and malevolent base swirling around in a maelstrom of minor chords and general unfriendliness.
3. Shane Carruth-Upstream Color-Like the rest of the movie, Upstream Color's soundtrack kind of defies explanation. It's low-key but it's not, it's gorgeous except when it isn't--at the very least, it's certainly never traditional. Side note--can we all take a moment to praise Shane Carruth, who wrote, directed, starred in, editing, shot, and composed the music for Upstream Color? That's utterly ridiculous.
2. Alex Ebert-All is Lost-grandiose when it needs to be, delicate whenever it can be, always unique, emotional, and interested in deeping the world of a man lost at sea.
1. Daniel Hart-Ain't Them Bodies Saints-clapping, fiddles, acoustic guitars, and an endlessly original sense of rhythm and repetition combine to make the best movie music of the year.

Honorable mention: the wacky combination of pianos and things that sound like modems in Her

One special mention: I really, really loved Hans Zimmer's main theme for Man of Steel. But then he falls into the movie trap of playing it too often, too loud, and too soon. Still, the original thing is awfully gorgeous. Have a listen:

Sound Mixing
5. Lone Survivor-an aural assault which does its best to make the audience hear what combat sounds like, and probably comes pretty close. A whirlwind of sound and fury which every now and again pauses for the occasional bout of ominous silence.
4. World War Z-for relying on that most lost art of blockbuster film-making: subtlety. Because the plot in no small part revolves around everyone being as quiet as possible, the sound mix becomes particularly important, apprehensively progressing on tenterhooks, maintaining eerie stillness to such a degree that something as simple as a footstep can sound like a cannon blast.
3. All is Lost-the admittedly unpleasant experience of being shipwrecked, captured and distilled into a claustrophobically empty environment.
2. Upstream Color-I'm running out of ways to extol the virtues of this little technical masterwork of a film, so just trust me when I say that it sounds every bit as unique and wonderful as it looks and feels.
1. Gravity-for being the first film since 2001 to remember that there's no sound in space. The ways it does find to produce sound--and the cacophony of their sudden arrival--makes for an arresting and immersive cinematic experience.

Honorable mention: the harsh plantation life evoked in 12 Years a Slave

Sound Editing
5. Lone Survivor-like watching a tornado ravage an armory. Dreadfully specific snaps of bullets, stentorian artillery, and the all-too-accurate ragged thumps of injury.
4. 12 Years a Slave-speaking of injury: telltale snaps of a whip, surprisingly inobstrusive pieces of thrown glass, and the constant background hum of plantation life.
3. Upstream Color-yup, these guys again. If I haven't yet convinced you to give this movie a look, just go for it. You'll be perplexed and maybe frustrated, but you'll be better for it.
2. All is Lost-the insistent slap of the waves, lonely howls of the wind, the inevitable crash of thunder, and the pressing emptiness of total isolation.
1. Gravity-my, Gravity does seem to find itself at the top of quite a few of these, doesn't it? Guess that happens when your movie pushes the limits in just about every one of its technical aspects.

Honorable mention: grumpy sea-monsters and the robots who love them in Pacific Rim

Original Song
5. "For the First Time in Forever"-Frozen-sure, it's a little cheesy, but it's a Disney musical, so it ought to be. It's energetic, grand, and lovely--plus, it gifted me with "don't know if I'm elated or gassy/but I'm somewhere in that zone," which will stay with me forever.
4. "A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)"-The Great Gatsby-Ok, I apologize for the Fergie. But Gatsby sure knows how to throw a party, and I'm such a sucker for crappy dance music, so here we are. It's not Mozart, but man does it get your pulse going in the context of the scene.
3. "I See Fire"-The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug-yes, I am also a sucker for Middle Earth credits songs, apparently. But this one's just so gorgeous, I can't not--from that a capella opening to its plaintive strumming and big ending, I'm just a goner.
2. "Let it Go"-Frozen-this one's already become rather iconic in and of itself (and deservedly so), so you hardly need me to extol its virtues to you. It's a great come-at-me ballad sung to perfection by Idina Menzel, and the sequence that houses it is one of the best parts of the movie. Where can you go wrong?
1. "Young and Beautiful"-The Great Gatsby-but I am way too much of a Lana Del Rey fan to let anything else take the cake. What can I say--her style just gets me in a way that few other popular acts do right now. So congrats, Lana. Your weepy, overly sentimental pop anthems are exactly what I'm looking for, apparently.

Honorable mention: I hated the movie, but "Happy" from Despicable Me 2 is actually a whole lot of fun.

Well, believe it or not (and something tells me you'll believe it), that's it for another year. I'll be back tomorrow to wrap everything up and put a little bow on it, but that's it as far as new content is concerned. For those of you playing along at home, here's a list of the movies that showed up the most in my lists:
Inside Llewyn Davis-6
All is Lost-6
The Bling Ring-5
12 Years a Slave-5
Upstream Color-5
The Great Gatsby-5
Before Midnight-4
Frances Ha-4
American Hustle-4

As for most wins, a surprising number of films (four! Ohala!) managed to snag more than one award: 
Gravity: 5 (Director, Visual Effects, Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing)
Inside Llewyn Davis: 2 (Picture, Actor)
12 Years a Slave: 2 (Supporting Actress, Makeup)
Ain't Them Bodies Saints: 2 (Supporting Actor, Original Score)
Note: for what it's worth, if I did all categories here, The Act of Killing would also take two awards home, in that it'd have both Foreign Language Film and Documentary Film. But I don't really see enough of those every year to really make a good list, so I tend to not post those categories.

Well, another year done, then. What say you? Where've I gone wrong?

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