Feb 14, 2013

Magicians: 2012's Best in Crafts

In my review of the year's best in acting I mentioned how difficult it was to narrow the performances down to a list of 20. In a foolish attempt to put myself through even more struggle, I've decided to limit my choices in the crafts categories to just ten. Most people seem to think that the below-the-line elements are apples and oranges. How can one compare the work of the sound engineer who mixed the final tape of Les Misérables with the costume designer who designed the hats in Moonrise Kingdom? Where is the common ground between the artistry of Alexandre Desplat and the wizardry of the team who worked tirelessly to create Richard Parker?

The reality is that the work they do shares little but their purpose is the same. They all want the film to succeed. For me, the quality of crafts work in a film comes down to the answer to one question: how does it serve the whole picture? The below-the-line elements have to be at the film's service. They should all gel. They should enhance each other and the performances. And often times, it's a sign of their strength if they don't call attention to themselves individually. With that in mind, I decided to group them all together here and try to judge them on that basis. Naturally, a list this short doesn't allow me to include everything I like. The sound design and music in Tabu, the cinematography in Amour, the sound design and cinematography in Killing Them Softly, the editing in Zero Dark Thirty, the sound work in Looper, and the musical score in Beasts of the Southern Wild were the biggest among the exclusions. In the end, here are the ten I simply could not do without:

10. Production Design and Costume Design in Moonrise Kingdom

Filled to the brim with memorable individual frames, but also coherent as a fully realized universe of its own and a visualization of the youthful energy of the film's leads, the design team bring to the screen Wes Anderson's unique vision with remarkable artistry and colorful pizzazz.

9. Production Design in Beasts of the Southern Wild

The bayou-set world of Beasts is so integral to the narrative that it becomes difficult to distinguish the design as a separate entity a few minutes into the film, but that's the greatest triumph of the designers. The low-key, knots-and-bolts quality of the production enhances the authenticity of The Bathtub.

8. Production Design and Costume Design in Anna Karenina

The costumes and settings in Joe Wright's visionary adaptation not only evoke mood and emotions, but very often they become the storyteller. That Wright manages to conceal the financial limitations of his film with such creative energy is in large part thanks to the contributions of his design team.

7. Cinematography in Skyfall

Roger Deakins relishes the opportunity to flex his muscles in several showy sequences - the neon-lit tower in Shanghai, the lantern-clad casino - but his true mastery of lighting and his painterly instincts are also evident in Skyfall's more understated moments.

6. Musical Score in The Master

Building on the same platform that shaped his indelible score for There Will Be Blood, Jonny Greenwood's string arrangements are appropriately dissonant. The compositions are fragile and haunting, like a window into Freddie's soul.

5. Visual Effects in The Impossible

A frighteningly authentic recreation of the East Asian Tsunami built with a seamless combination of computer animated imagery and mechanical crafts. Much more effectively than the screenplay, the effects team (along with the makeup artists and sound designers) put the audience in the shoes of the victims and convincingly convey their plight.

4. Cinematography in The Master

So much has been made of the 65mm photography that this inclusion feels inevitable, but sometimes certain films live up to the hype and strike gold. The Master was one of those: lush, expansive and thematically flexible, this is an absolutely visionary work of photography, one that serves the narrative but also provides a healthy dose of frame-worthy images from start to finish.

3. Sound Design in Berberian Sound Studio

Quite an obvious choice, but a narrative that centers on the sound editing of a horror film demands expert sound design to be that chilling. This is extremely showy work, so much so that an audience completely oblivious to the aural structure in other films can pinpoint the strengths of Berberian's frightening sonic atmosphere, but its effect comes from a source entirely different from the cheap thrills of jump scares.

2. Makeup and Hairstyling in Holy Motors

The inclusion of the makeup process on screen is the only foundation on which Carax's otherworldly vision is grounded. It provides the only consistent thread in the narrative, but it also paradoxically facilitates the suspension of disbelief, if only because of the artistry with which it is performed. There really is no Monsieur Oscar, only the characters he inhabits.

1. Cinematography in Tabu

Tabu's entrancing, magical effect is in no small part indebted to the resplendent imagery that director Miguel Gomes and cinematographer Rui Pocas create. Their work reveals so much about characters by framing them in different ways in relation to one another (think of the brilliant sequence in the revolving restaurant) and through lighting and change of focus. It also changes the entire thematic and tonal scheme of the film by cleverly switching film gauges. It's a work of flawless technical mastery that resonates on every level emotionally as well.


  1. Excellent picks throughout. Do you think Deakins has a chance come Oscar night? Hard to tell, I think Claudio Miranda might take it for Life of Pi.

    1. I think it's Miranda's to lose, too. CGI seems to be taking over the category, but if they go for pretty as they sometimes do, Skyfall is as showy as it gets.

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