Wednesday, January 22, 2014

LeapBackBlog 2013 Film Awards – Part 1: Technical Achievements

Film in 2013 was fantastic. We saw tons of wonderful performances, powerfully emotional dramas, hysterical comedies, gripping thrillers, big and entertaining blockbusters, and grand technical achievements. This year was particularly difficult in narrowing down my choices for my favorite films, performances, directors, and technical accomplishments. For example, I loved Amy Acker in Much Ado About Nothing and Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, but neither quite made the list, and the same can be said for David O. Russell’s wonderful directing in American Hustle or Hoyte Van Hoytema’s sublime cinematography in Her (both just missing out on the list, when they would have made it in most other years). And, there are a number of good films that did not make the list either (and a few I have not yet seen). As it stands, the LeapBackBlog Film Awards are made up, through difficult deliberation, of the films that entertained me and grabbed me as something special, the performances that engaged me, and the craftsmanship that delighted me. These are my favorites of 2013.

Arcade Fire & Owen Pallett – Score – her
Her is a film that address emotions we all struggle with and openly embrace when it comes to our relationship hopes, dreams, and fears. Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett (as well as some additional contributions from Karen O) deliver a score that fits these emotions as well as the hip aesthetic of the film. Her has a cool pop-culture quality to it, and thus it is only fitting that Arcade Fire would be scoring the film. Their music fits the ambiance wonderfully, while also adding an additional emotional accent. It is wistfully optimistic, in that there is an inherent sadness (as there is with the main character Theodore) but also a real hope that happiness and true connection is still a possibility (here is their song Supersymmetry, written for the film).

K.K. Barrett – Production Design – her
K.K. Barrett has made a career out of making films that feature a fresh, modern, and sophisticatedly cool style (things like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Where the Wild Things Are). He does the same again with Her. From the costume design, set decoration, and set design/locations to the lighting, the film has a brilliant aesthetic of bright solid colors that pop against the mundane of normal life. Barrett does not just create his art for the sake of being art; it also fits really well with the film’s narrative. Theodore just wants to find connection, when he feels so alone. With his bright shirts, he is always singled out in the frame, amplifying the sense that he is separate from the world around him. Barrett’s design work in Her is extraordinarily cool (I want to live in Theodore’s world – his apartment, his office, the restaurant he goes on a date too – everything is so interesting and artistically compelling).

Judy Becker – Production Design – American Hustle
American Hustle is a film that will likely be best remembered for its standout performances, but also for its fabulous production design (and costume design, courtesy of Michael Wilkinson). The whole affair is grand game of dress up with outrageous hair styles and extravagant costumes, but Judy Becker’s work does something magical. It completely embraces the con-man genre and all the shenanigans that come with it, while also grounding the film in what feels like a realistic world. She offers a backdrop that is playfully nostalgic with a sense of realism as well (given the world of the narrative). It is splendid work.

Sean Bobbitt – Cinematography – 12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave is a heartbreaking tale of Solomon Northrup’s perseverance in the most treacherous and humiliating years of his life – a free man tricked and sold into slavery. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is beautiful as he uses natural lighting to great effect. The Louisiana plantations that Solomon finds himself tethered to feel lazily sublime and even whimsical through Bobbitt’s photography, remarkably juxtaposed to the horrors that Solomon witnesses and is forced to endure. But there is also a tension and inner darkness to Bobbit’s work as well, as if this exquisite backdrop only exists as a thin veil desperately trying to conceal a rotten and decaying society – a façade to hide pure evil (similarly to the way the film shows that really the true villain of the South is the honorable man who simply abides and takes part in slavery – who is more a villain Ford or Epps?). Bobbitt’s collaborations with Steve McQueen have and continue to produce some of cinema’s finest work. And, on a side note, Bobbitt’s photography for The Place Beyond the Pines was also very good.

Bruno Delbonnel – Cinematography – Inside Llewyn Davis
It is no secret that Bruno Delbonnel is one of my five favorite active cinematographers (along with Emmanuel Lubezki, Roger Deakins, Wally Pfister, and Robert D. Yeoman). He continues to bring his style of color saturated photography to the films he works on with such an elegant mastery. With Inside Llewyn Davis, he gives the film a feel and look that is almost surreal but at the same time very fitting for the time period and place (1960s Greenwich Village). It echoes the sadness of the film, while still adding a resonating beauty. It is phenomenal work.

Emmanuel Lubezki – Cinematography – Gravity
One might ask: “Why does Gravity feature 2013’s most impressive cinematography? All the visuals are created digitally.” Simple, while Emmanuel Lubezki and director Alfonso Cuaron worked with the visual effects team to create the look of Space, Lubezki still painstakingly needed to match everything that happens in the visual effects, lighting wise, on the actors’ faces when they were filmed live – no small task (in fact, a very difficult task). Lubezki’s lighting is perfect, beautiful, and enthralling. His collaborations with Cuaron continue to push the boundary of what is possible in film.

Anthony Dod Mantle – Cinematography – Rush
A lot of what makes Rush a great sports drama is its atmosphere of high stakes. Anthony Dod Mantle’s brilliant digital photography gives the film all the atmosphere it can handle. His work creates a thrilling and realistic experience for the audience, often giving them the feeling that they are right there with the drivers, whipping around the track. His ability to mix his footage with actual footage seamlessly is also paramount to the film’s perceived realism and ability to pull the audience into its narrative. As much as I like and support film still being shot on film, Dod Mantle continues to make a strong argument for digital.

Steven Price – Score – Gravity
Gravity is an exciting, intense film. Steven Price’s score works perfectly with the visuals and emotions of the film, creating an ‘edge of your seat’ experience for the audience. The music also captures the feeling of isolation very well. There is a removed sense to it, a sadness that comes from being lost and alone (the piece entitled Don’t Let Go is a good example). Working with director Alfonso Cuaron, Price plays with his score as well. There are moments in which he blows it out to jolt and captivate the audience. It is wonderful work. And, on a side note, his score for The World’s End is very good too.

Adam Stockhausen – Production Design – 12 Years a Slave
Adam Stockhausen’s production design in 12 Years a Slave is paramount to the film’s success, as he must create a world that feels as honest and natural as possible. He does this and more. The film looks and feels real, which only pulls the audience further into the narrative and emotional power of the film. Solomon’s world is bright in the North as a free man, but when he finds himself enslaved his world becomes utterly bleak. His cramped, dark, and decrepit world is presented in the shadow of the grand homes of his masters. Stockhausen is able to put the audience in Solomon’s place, making the experience all the more devastating, haunting, and ultimately uplifting (in that Solomon does preserver in the face of everything that would strive to bring him down).

Hans Zimmer’s score for 12 Years a Slave is probably my favorite of 2013. Not because it is necessarily the best composed music (though, it is quite elegant and moving – his piece entitled Solomon comes to mind), but because Zimmer also employs incredibly raw (almost off-putting) distorted noise as well to create a very visceral and unnerving experience (the score used during the riverboat scene when its paddlewheel is thrashing is particularly intense). It is this modern musical aesthetic applied to what is otherwise a very naturalistic period piece that stands out and is so striking. It is ambitious and brilliant work from Zimmer, collaborating with director Steve McQueen. Zimmer also provided great musical scores for Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger, and Rush in 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment