Wednesday, January 16, 2013

LeapBackBlog 2012 Film Awards – Part 1: Technical Achievements

Film in 2012 may not have been quite as strong overall as 2011, but right at the top there were a lot of good and very entertaining films. 2012 also featured many wonderful performances, particularly among men (many great performances that would have made my lists in past years were sadly left off). The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.

Hugh Bateup & Uli Hanisch – Production Design – Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas is insanely ambitious. Most production designers have a difficult enough task creating one narrative world – Hugh Bateup (working with the Wachowskis) and Uli Hanisch (working with Tom Tykwer) each created three (to make up the film’s six different stories). The worlds range from the mid nineteenth century South Pacific to modern day London to far into the future in Seoul to the post-apocalyptic (almost like the rebirth of society) tribesman on the Hawaiian Islands. And yet, even with such a grand undertaking of scale and scope, plus two different crews filming different stories, the film still has a unified feel and look, and a lot of that goes to the absolutely amazing work of Bateup and Hanisch.

Roger Deakins – Cinematography – Skyfall
2012 saw a lot of very good cinematography work, but Roger Deakins’s photography in Skyfall is simply the best of the year. Working with director Sam Mendes (their third collaboration), Deakins delivers aesthetically stunning work – from the gloomy fog covered moors to the crisp sheen of red lights against the night in Macau, or the almost sci-fi feel of Bond’s fight with an assassin in Shanghai. Visually, the film is never content to just be a straight forward action film, or just another entry in the Bond franchise. It completely blew me away.

I often joke about composer Alexandre Desplat being the hardest working man in Hollywood – well, in 2012 he scored eight films, including Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Rust and Bone, and Moonrise Kingdom. Working with director Wes Anderson, Desplat has created a fun, playful, and charming score for Sam and Suzy’s adventure (in their second collaboration). Like the best pieces of film music, it matches the tone for the film and sets the mood for the audience. Desplat is one of the great composers working in cinema today (or at the very least the most prolific). His work is always brilliant.

Greig Fraser – Cinematography – Killing Them Softly
Director of photography Greig Fraser had three films hit theatres in 2012 – Snow White and the Huntsman, Zero Dark Thirty, and Killing Them Softly. Now while Zero Dark Thirty will likely get more accolades and coverage, it is Killing Them Softy that is far more aesthetically interesting and artistically ambitious. Working with director Andrew Dominik, Fraser’s photography gives the film a sort of a post-apocalyptic feel, with lots of stormy skies, broken down landscapes, and  exaggeration of violence (along with morally corrupt characters populating the narrative). Dominik and Fraser use extreme slow motion to drag out the violence or drug use, making it feel more impactful and poetic (reminding me of the moving stills in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia). It is brilliant and absorbing work.

After their fantastic collaboration on There Will Be Blood (creating 2007’s best score along with Dario Marianelli’s score for Atonement), composer Jonny Greenwood and director Paul Thomas Anderson worked together again on The Master. Greenwood’s score both fits the period in places and provides an uneasy and wondrous experience for the viewer, emotionally and psychologically matching the character of Freddie Quell perfectly. The music is unlike anything else in cinematic scores right now, pushing the boundaries artistically.

Sarah Greenwood – Production Design – Anna Karenina
Joe Wright threw everyone involved in the production of Anna Karenina a curveball when for budgetary reasons he decided to shoot most of the film inside a theatre. Production designer Sarah Greenwood rose to the challenge creating the year’s best design work (in her fifth feature collaboration with Wright). Every set is perfectly fitted to match the tone and style of the scene and characters, be it the high society parties (which are marvelously decorated) or the slum back ally-like stage rafters. Visually, the film is unparalleled, and that is thanks to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, director Joe Wright, and especially production designer Sarah Greenwood.

Claudio Miranda – Cinematography – Life of Pi
Life of Pi is an absolutely beautiful film to watch. The visuals capture the imagination and dazzle with a stunning array of colors and pristine composition. More so than any other of this year’s top films, Life of Pi is very much an emotional and visual experience, and Claudio Miranda’s work is magnificent, to say the least. In my opinion, he is one of the ten best directors of photography working in Hollywood today (along with Wally Pfister and Roger Deakins, both making this Awards list as well). It is impossible to watch this film and not be completely enamored with the photography and use of color.

Wally Pfister – Cinematography – The Dark Knight Rises
The most impressive aspect of Wally Pfister’s cinematography in The Dark Knight Rises is that everything lighting-wise the viewer sees in the final film is done in camera – which means that Pfister and director Christopher Nolan did not color correct in post-production (a very common practice these days, even among the best D.P.s). Pfister’s work with IMAX cameras is also very impressive, as the film has a massive sense of scale – it truly is a phenomenal experience to see in IMAX. Pfister is directing his first film in 2014 with Transcendence, but hopefully his collaboration with Nolan will continue as well – they are one of the best teams working today (if not the best period).

Ed Verreaux – Production Design – Looper
Working with director Rian Johnson, Ed Verreaux creates a wonderful look for Looper. The film mixes genres, feeling like a sci-fi film, a crime drama, and a western in different parts. Verreaux’s production design gives the film a taste of each of these genres. The city is a mix of futuristic technology and sort of a collapsed society feel (most of the vehicles are junk-cars from today adapted to run on a new fuel source). The design work is also very artistically interesting, with aesthetically pleasing patterns and lights. Verreaux’s work may be overlooked given the great action, psychic abilities, and a time-travel plot, but it really grounds everything in a world that feels real and thus is a crucial part of what makes the overall film brilliant.

Hans Zimmer’s collaborations with Christopher Nolan have yielded fantastic scores (notably for Inception), including the first two films in The Dark Knight Trilogy. With The Dark Knight Rises, Zimmer gives the film such a brutal and hard hitting accompaniment perfectly matching the film’s main villain Bane. For Selina Kyle his score is sleek, slinky, and refined, but with a touch of immediacy – again matching the character wonderfully. The music grips the audience from the start and matches the tone throughout. Like the film itself, the score is big and masterful.

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