Roger Ebert Home

The Great Filmmaking Craft of 2022

As a companion to our beloved feature on great performances, we asked our writers this year to pick out any non-acting element of the year they wanted to highlight. It could be editing, costume design, score, etc. And the responses were fantastic, assembled in the feature below. Again, this is not meant to be comprehensive. There are amazing accomplishments in filmmaking craft that are not included. It's just a way to highlight elements of appreciating in the year in film in a way that you may not have considered.

Carol Spier's production design in "Crimes of the Future"

In terms of invisibility, it can be argued no filmmaking discipline suffers as acutely as the production designer. Costume designers can start fashion trends, cinematographers are always alongside the director in set photos, and editors have even begun to be understood as key creatives. And yet the production designer remains an enigma for many film devotees. 

Designers like the late Sir Ken Adam (the man who invented the Bond villain lair and the War Room in “Dr. Strangelove”) are integral to our collective visual vocabulary. And for some directors, that relationship is absolutely critical. David Cronenberg’s working relationship with production designer Carol Spier is one such collaboration. The Manitoban designer has been working with Cronenberg since 1979 when she served as his first ever art director on “Fast Company,” followed by “The Brood” and “Scanners.” Spier has worked on nearly every Cronenberg film with only a few exceptions (she has also worked with Guillermo del Toro on two occasions). She has been absolutely essential in giving the visionary Canadian’s films a unique tactile quality. 

In this year’s “Crimes of the Future,” from a script Cronenberg shared with Spier 20 years ago, Spier had the formidable challenge of creating a near-future where humankind has evolved past infection and pain. As some find their bodies hurtling forward in evolution, the world around them seems to be accelerating in its decay. The production found what they were looking for in Athens, Greece. The city’s less photogenic, more recent ruins set the tone for the film, but Spier had to create the SARC, a surgical pod where Saul Tenser and his partner Caprice (played by Viggo Mortensen and Lea Seydoux) use the former’s mutant ability to produce new organs as part of their performance art. 

Cronenberg’s imagination has long been fueled by melding dichotomies, specifically the metallic and the organic. Spier has given us the fleshy game pods of “eXistenZ,” the insectoid Clark Nova typewriter of “Naked Lunch,” the surgical instruments in “Dead Ringers,” and her SARC along with Tenser’s Mechano Chair are key artifacts of Cronenberg’s world. The director does not even draw sketches according to Spier. He gives her words, and she transforms the uncanny into the tangible. (Brandon Wilson)

Brett Morgen's editing on "Moonage Daydream"

Editing for documentaries inexplicably fails to get the national attention it deserves. Take the work of Brett Morgen, who took hundreds of hours of footage of Jane Goodall to assemble the powerful and moving "Jane." With his latest, he used his skills as a director and editor to push back against the traditional form of the bio-doc, resulting in a film that captures the spirit of its subject instead of just chronologically recounting his existence. How does one even start to bring David Bowie to life? Most filmmakers would rely on crutches like talking-head interviews, but Morgen exclusively on archival footage, revealing how the public and personal lives of his subject intertwined through his art.

Morgen was reportedly given access to five million items of from Bowie's estate, including art, photos, home movies, etc. How does one even begin to organize them? What's so remarkable about the end result is how organic it all feels, how Morgen's choices feel pulled from its subject instead of coldly framing it. His editing reveals how much Bowie was influenced by the world around him, taking influence from art and reality and filtering them through his undeniable creativity. It cuts across eras and subjects like an album, often moving not chronologically but being more dictated by mood than information. And the way he inserts the right archival interview at the right time almost turns Bowie himself into the narrator of this film. After all, who else could tell this story? (Brian Tallerico)

Justin Hurwitz's score for "Babylon"

It’s odd to proclaim a composer who only works once every couple of years or so “one of our best, most prolific songwriters.” But Justin Hurwitz, whose sole filmmaking collaborator is writer/director Damien Chazelle, is indeed one of our greats. From his modest easy listenings on “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” to his propulsive work on “Whiplash,” to his toe-tapping efforts in “La La Land,” and his elegiac melodies on “First Man," Hurwitz has proven himself a throwback to the glory days of classic Hollywood’s jazz-infused, standards-laden music. His latest achievement, for Chazelle’s meticulously wrought yet visually extravagant critique of early Hollywood, “Babylon,” might be the most sonically sumptuous articulation of his singular style. 

Similar to other great composers, Hurwitz builds upon the themes and passages, the maneuvers and bags of tricks that have long interested him, by combining the tenets of hot jazz with modern patterns and lively rhythms to vocalize the sweat, grime, and majesty of the 1920s and 1930s. You can hear his interests on the soundtrack, in fact, in three variations of one idea. 

The track “Coke Room” places an earworm horn riff within a sparse mix that perceptively leverages the room reverb for kinetic dynamics. That same riff becomes bigger and more emboldened by hooky chants, an octave shift, and a late-stage key change on “Voodoo Mama,” which structurally marries West Coast Revival, Swing, Big Band, and Dixieland Jazz with pop music. “Finale” retools the same riff, and plays over a montage of film clips dedicated to the innovations of cinema and silent film’s influence on those events. It adds a pounding dance beat set to a cascade of cacophonous styles culminating in a climactic final note that breaches the thin layer between the past and future, between elegance and ecstasy, for a piercing shock to the membrane. With a behemoth pulse, “Babylon” is Hurwitz’s most ambitious and searing work. (Robert Daniels)

Florian Hoffmeister's cinematography for "TÁR"

The scariest shot of 2022 occurs just under the one-hour mark of Todd Field’s “TÁR,” when its titular composer-conductor, Lydia (Cate Blanchett), has returned to her apartment. After lighting a candle, she walks to a shelf to retrieve a piece of music. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (“The Deep Blue Sea,” “A Quiet Passion”) frames this moment in such a way that we could easily miss what is staring us straight in the face. I didn’t catch this fleeting detail until my second viewing, and once I did, it haunted every other shot in the picture. Standing next to Lydia’s piano, with her shock of red hair, is Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote), the fellowship program member who Lydia may have sexually groomed before destroying her career after their relationship fell apart. As soon as Lydia obliviously passes by her, Krista goes out of focus before promptly vanishing in the very next shot, which is angled from her invisible vantage point. Lydia sits at the piano and begins to play before suddenly stopping. She looks directly at us, as if sensing an unwelcome presence. It is revealed several scenes afterward that Krista committed suicide around the time she appeared in Lydia’s apartment.

It isn’t until an hour later that Krista materializes again, seated in the shadows of Lydia’s bedroom and glimpsed out of focus in a quick pan. Awoken by the screams of her adopted daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), Lydia races to her aid. This time, it is Petra who stares at us, prompting Lydia to do the same, once again startled by an unseen apparition. Though Krista has very minimal screen time, as a result of Lydia straining to forget her, Field and Hoffmeister make the young woman’s presence palpably felt throughout, beginning with two shots framing the back of her head as she watches her former lover being interviewed onstage by Adam Gopnik. Krista’s face is seen only in the film’s clue-filled teaser trailer, where it is covered in a design that turns up in the darnedest of places throughout “TÁR”—in an anonymously gifted book, near an inexplicably ticking metronome, on Petra’s table in the form of clay and in the newly vacated apartment of Lydia’s assistant (Noémie Merlant). The more times I’ve revisited this film, the more I’ve realized that it is a cinematic gift that keeps on giving, and that is in large part due to Hoffmeister’s endlessly fascinating compositions, each inviting us to take a closer look at what we are seeing, much of which just might exist solely in Lydia’s guilt-ridden mind. (Matt Fagerholm)

Kim Ji-yong's cinematography for "Decision to Leave"

Park Chan-Wook’s "Decision to Leave" has little interest in functioning like a traditional murder mystery or doomed romance, so Kim Ji-yong doesn’t shoot it like one. The veteran cinematographer (he’s worked with Kim Jee-Woon on his marvelous “Age of Shadows,” and helped shoot “Parasite” for Bong Joon-ho, among many others) frames this tragic crime saga like he’s making Rembrandts out of disease cultures. His heroes are stuck in petrie-dish-style frames or dwarfed by beautiful landscapes that cannot move them. Our heroes are circling a drain toward each other and as they become more entwined the world grows smaller and more remote. They seem alien in his perfect images; unreachable, and unable to see anything for what it is. The mystery is what beguiles them and in the end entraps them. Kim’s photography acts as a counterpoint, moving through walls, bodies, and minds to reveal the unassailable truths of the movie’s reality. Every camera movement places us in the head of Park Hae-Il’s detective Hae-Jun. It shakes when he’s unsettled. It moves unnaturally through impenetrable surfaces when he’s reasoning. It moves quickly when he’s had a breakthrough. It sees everything he sees, and how everyone (even the dead) see him. 

Park’s movies are about foregone conclusions. A man has killed children, he must die. Two vampire lovers cannot live in a world of humans. A man’s act of generosity becomes his death. Every story’s end is implicit in its beginning. The moment Tang Wei’s murderous Seo-Rae sees Hae-Jun’s wedding ring, it’s over for them both. Kim films her looking at him, then reveals that we’re looking at a mirror image, the better to see the detective’s face when he knows he’s become infatuated with her. There is nothing now he can do. Kim’s frames have screens and CCTV images and mirrors and windows and binoculars. Nothing is hidden. And yet the detective cannot see what’s right in front of him. This story has but one way to end, and nothing he can do will change the outcome. The camera tells us everything because our heroes know everything. And still, they walk into the traps they set for themselves because a mystery is more important than the truth. (Scout Tafoya)

Bob Ducsay's editing in "Glass Onion"

In a murder mystery story, the editor has an especially tricky balancing act. It is the editor who has to make sure that you see what you need to see but also miss what they want you to miss, so that when it’s over you will want to watch it again for the fun of finding what was hidden in plain sight. Bob Ducsay, who also worked with writer/director Rian Johnson on the original “Knives Out,” was able to work on “Glass Onion” on location before the first day of filming. He created the rough edit as each day’s footage came in, working closely with Johnson to make sure they would have everything they needed for flashbacks and changes in perspective. 

One of the movie’s highlights is the brilliantly edited scene that introduces most of the main characters. Each has received an invitation in a puzzle box that can only be opened by solving a series of intricate challenges. The editing is a puzzle box of its own, almost a Rubik’s Cube of montage, a wildly entertaining and remarkably efficient way for us to get to know the very different characters and how they interact with each other. In an interview, Ducsay talked to me about that scene: “It was just fantastic because of all the intercutting. It's something where film as a medium is different than anything else because of the ability to switch location and time just on a cut. So, it's really pure film editing, a sequence like that. It was an absolute blast.” It is a blast for the audience, too, not just allowing us to meet the characters but inviting us into the world of the film and all of the puzzles ahead. (Nell Minow)

Taylor Swift's original song for "Where the Crawdads Sing"

By the time the Southern Gothic silliness that is “Where the Crawdads Sing” came to its singularly ludicrous conclusion, most sensible theatergoers were hightailing it for the exits, possibly in search of a better movie. Alas, that would have been a mistake because it's just at that moment that the one genuinely graceful and compelling element of the film is finally deployed in the form of “Carolina,” the lovely and haunting theme song written and performed by Taylor Swift that plays over the end credits. 

While some big musical stars employed to contribute a song to a movie are content to offer lesser material that might not have seen the light of day on one of their own albums, Swift has clearly put a lot of thought into this tune, and it shows. Eschewing the big pop hooks of her biggest hits, Swift’s spare and subtle acoustic musical arrangement is reminiscent of the quiet folkie vibe that she utilized on her acclaimed Folklore and Evermore albums (at times; it feels like a spiritual sequel to “No Body, No Crime,” her take on the classic murder ballad format that appeared on the latter album) and nicely evokes the film’s rural backwoods setting. Swift's lyrics do an impressive job of encapsulating the themes of the story and the viewpoint of its mysterious and enigmatic central character—in fact, she does it far more effectively than the film preceding it. 

At the same time, her lyrics go far beyond a mere recap of the film, as Swift utilizes her gift for composing lyrical narratives that feel both deeply personal and achingly universal to the point where even if you haven’t seen the movie, the song still works beautifully. Best of all, Swift manages to accomplish all of this in just over four minutes, beating the actual film by about two full hours. The result is a moving, ethereal work that is more cinematic than most actual movies and serves as yet another feather in the ever-expanding cap of one of the most deservedly celebrated singer-songwriters of our time. (Peter Sobczynski)

Cedric Mizero's costume design in “Neptune Frost

Cinematic Afrofuturism has often been conveyed with the smallest of budgets — “Space is the Place” and “Born in Flames” crafted intricate worlds and new technologies with the crumbs of an independent budget. And in a post-”Black Panther” world, where Afrofuturism has been given the sheen of hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s refreshing to see that cinematic tradition return to its roots in Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s “Neptune Frost.” 

Much of that can be laid at the feed of Rwandan interdisciplinary artist Cedric Mizero, who crafted unique looks for both the comparatively mundane reality of the Burundan anarchist colony in which the film is set and the virtual dimension of wires and circuitry. The results are as lush and dreamlike as the film itself; characters with circuit boards stuck to their clothing, wearing beaded jewelry made of resistors and the bicycle-wheel headdress of the film’s mythical Wheel Man. And as the characters transform, so do the costumes, the titular Neptune moving from the cage-like headdress we see them in early in the film to a stunning red dress after their transformation is complete. 

It’s a film that envisions a liberatory future in the most culturally specific ways possible, leading to some of the most barrier-breaking costuming I’ve seen in years. (Clint Worthington)


Paul Rogers' editing in "Everything Everywhere All at Once"

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is a movie that definitely lives up to its title. Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) owns a struggling laundromat while her relationship with her family isn’t doing too well either. Adding fuel to the fire, an IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis), is ready to take away her business. Everything seems hopeless until a rift in the multiverse opens up offering Evelyn an opportunity to experience alternate lives and perhaps salvage her family. Following Evelyn through countless multiverses could’ve been a nightmare for viewers, but luckily directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as Daniels) hired editor Paul Rogers to assist them in their otherworldly adventure. 

Rogers had worked with Daniels previously on multiple projects including the 2014 music video, “Turn Down for What.” You can see some of the bizarre humor that would become the Daniels signature in that project, but this was another beast altogether. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” not only alternated universes on a dime but the movie also constantly shifts in tone. In one instance, it's a heavy drama as Evelyn and her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) contemplate their marriage, while other scenes have Evelyn with hot dog fingers kissing the IRS agent or a butt plug kung fu fight that could determine the fate of the universe. Trust me it gets even crazier than what I even just described. But that’s what makes “Everything Everywhere All at Once” so magical, it’s this mixture of drama and comedy that’s so hard to get right. 

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the climax of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” sees Evelyn fighting up a flight of stairs to reach her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) before all hope is lost. Along the way, each character that Evelyn interacts with has their own story to finish–whether that’s something as simple as giving someone a hug to helping a chef get his trusty Raccacoonie back. It shouldn’t work, but thanks to Rogers' editing, everything connects as it should. (Max Covill)

Kid Cudi's score for "Entergalactic"

Kid Cudi creates a beautiful and unique score for his animated film, "Entergalactic," now on Netflix. He starts the film on a light note, and with a song that was not originally made for the film, but fit perfectly into the score, "By Design," which features Andre Benjamin. It is as if, upon releasing that song, he was manifesting a life he completely created, including his fictional life of the main character, Jabari. As he “tap(s) into the frequency ‘light,’” the audience glides through NYC and is taken on a high dream, Jabari is literally seen smoking a joint on the edge of a NYC building. The depiction of natural human sexiness is portrayed through the entirety of the film.

"New Mode" brings in an inner peace as Jabari glides through space and the madness of New York City traffic. We are then introduced to the other main character in this love story, Meadow, as she plays "Inside My Love" by Minnie Ripperton. We are serenaded through this romantic film. The film is the dream fantasy of a 20-something or 30-something American. "Do What I Want" highlights the dreamlife, with its’ upbeat, rockstar-like vibration. As her character is introduced, Meadow is playing Dru Hill’s "In My Bed (So So Def Remix)" with Jermaine Dupri. I love how Cudi uses this song to show that Meadow is sophisticated, into older music and maybe a little lame, despite how she is deified.

"Ignite My Love" is like a love letter and "In Love" solidifies that the love is true through its melodic sound and harmonious writing. "Willing To Trust" is refreshing with Ty Dollar $ as a featured artist and character, Cudi sings, “I got you/Don’t worry, Love.”

"Can’t Believe It" is a great accompaniment to Jabari having to face accountability and “closure” with his ex, in order to stay in the loving zone with Meadow. "Entergalatic" is a love affair of artists, accomplishing their dreams, and allowing love to be a part of it. Love is what Jabari/Cudi can’t shake, as he sings “Can’t Shake Her” and ends the film. “You are truly everything, Word to me,” is sung by Cudi as the audience witnesses the reconnection of the two characters, closing out this blend of visuals and music by displaying the creative passion of its creator.

Linda Muir's costume design in "The Northman"

There are a number of craftsmen, artisans, and experts whose work helped to make “The Northman” an incredible historic epic. I interviewed several of them for my book, The Northman: A Call to the Gods, including production designer Craig Lathrop, location manager Naomi Liston, and research experts Jóhanna Friðriksdóttir and Neil Price. I still wanted to single out costume designer Linda Muir because of the detail-oriented and research-intensive nature of her team’s work, which speaks to the inspiring sort of mania that went into this movie’s creation.  

“A call to the gods” is Muir’s description of the sort of prayers, charms, and other identifying imagery that she and her team stitched into clothing worn by Anya Taylor-Joy and other Slavic characters. These hand-stitched details and symbols are like prayers to the gods; they reveal not only where these characters have come from, but their hopes for the future, like fertility or financial prosperity.  

I still think about Muir’s joy and excitement when she described the wooly varafeldur cloak that Claes Bang’s character wears during a climactic early scene. It’s a surreal-looking outfit, with strands of wool that dangle and twist in ways that I hadn’t really noticed until she pointed them out. Knowing the unusual lengths that she went to in order to recreate that outfit made me see “The Northman” through new eyes. It’s tempting to praise director/co-writer Robert Eggers’ singular creative vision, but his collaboration with obsessive artists like Muir guarantees his latest movie’s longevity. (Simon Abrams)

Eddie Hamilton's editing in "Top Gun: Maverick"

Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick” is a stunning piece of entertainment to be admired for a number of top-notch technical aspects, and one of them is the editing by Eddie Hamilton. Although lots of things happen during several key action sequences in the film, we seldom get lost or confused thanks to its precise and efficient editing, and we find ourselves not complaining at all when the movie goes much further than expected during its climactic part. Around that point, we are so involved in the story as well as the actions so we do not mind the extra helping of action without getting tired or bored.  

As he told in a recent interview with SlashFilm, it certainly took lots of effort and time for Hamilton and his editing department crew to get those action sequences done right, but they also paid a considerable amount of attention to small character moments along the story. In the case of that plain but undeniably poignant conversation scene between Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer, Kilmer’s character talked more in the earlier version, but Hamilton persuaded Kosinski to have most of Kilmer’s lines typed on a screen instead for generating more poignancy when Kilmer finally struggles to say a few words to Cruise around the end of the scene. This small but significant change made the final version more refined and touching in comparison, and it will be quite interesting for us to see both versions just for appreciating how editing can make difference in terms of mood and storytelling.

Needless to say, Hamilton’s editing in “Top Gun: Maverick” will be Oscar-nominated in the next year as I and many others predicted right when the movie came out. Yes, the Best Editing Oscar nomination often goes to fast and furious films, but, in my humble opinion, this is a very good one that deserves all the awards it will be nominated for in upcoming months. (Seongyong Cho)

Michael Giacchino's score in "The Batman"

Michael Giacchino's chilling score for "The Batman" builds within minutes of its opening scene, and the melody engulfs the audience. I got goosebumps like a child watching “Batman: The Animated Series” for the first time. Giacchino’s score lets us know this isn’t the ordinary Batman flick.

No, this hero isn’t the cape crusader. He is vengeance, he is the night. We know this rendition of the masked vigilante is a detective before he appears on the screen. Like the character, the music lurks within the shadows. In tandem with Robert Pattinson’s powerful voiceover, the music sets the tone for an investigator tale. Giacchino's simple score of sinister sadness harkens back to the sounds of traditional film noir.

However, the true star of this soundtrack is Giacchino's character theme songs. His theme for our titular protagonist reflects much of Batman's character progression throughout the story, and Giacchino begins the track with a menacing melody. But as the song continues the tone lightens up. Like Robert Pattinson's rendition of Batman, the track evolves from being a vehicle for vengeance to a symbol of hope. The song's end also feels bittersweet as Batman's duty to Gotham City takes precedence over his happiness.

This masterful correlation between melody and story is also extremely evident in Catwoman's theme, one of the most unique songs on the soundtrack. It's melancholic, yet romantic and airy; it makes Catwoman more than a femme fatale. If imagined from Batman's perspective, she is the light in his world—the possibility of another life. (Brandon Towns)

Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography in "Nope"

Even the sprawling desert landscapes of the Agua Dulce ranch where the Haywood siblings train horses have nothing on the boundless expanse of the sky above. In Jordan Peele's dazzlingly cinematic "Nope," shot on IMAX and 65mm by director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, the abstract vastness and grandeur of the sky is intimidating to behold, even before its wide-open spaces fill with uncanny dread upon the revelation of an unknown entity lurking in the clouds. At night, Emerald and OJ look up at this sky with unease, questioning what awaits them in its all-consuming void, just outside their field of vision.

Rather than shooting traditional day-for-night, Hoytema innovated a camera rig that combined an infrared 65mm camera with a 70mm film camera through a prism, overlaying the images to achieve the otherworldly sensation of characters seeing through the darkness, as if the camera's eye is adjusting along with ours, without sacrificing color and grain. "Nope" maximizes the movie-theater screen more ingeniously than any other film this year, heightening our sense of immersion in its universe. This befits a film interrogating the very nature of spectacle: its allure, its exploitation, and its intensely sociopolitical and historical significance. 

Hoytema elsewhere leverages the viscerality of large-format IMAX to enter the subjectivity of characters whose perspectives are limited. The "Gordy's Home" sequence cowers beneath a table with young Jupe to evade a chimpanzee's rampage, moving to lower lenses as Jupe fixates upon strange details, like a shoe standing impossibly upright, and aligning the audience with his point of view so that a close encounter with Gordy feels like staring death in the face, a confrontation we can't hope to survive. That Jupe lives only deepens the nightmarish claustrophobia of another IMAX sequence, where people pulled up into the UFO find themselves lodged in its digestive tract, uncomprehending until they're crushed up against a rotting horse carcass. 

Such iconic images abound in "Nope," though only a few rival Hoytema's final shot of OJ on horseback, partly obscured by smoke and dust, his shape evoking the iconography of Western heroes and the first moving images of his own great-great-great-grandfather. Exploring the limitations of captured images, the implications of their perspective, and the responsibilities of those framing them, "Nope" is a profound vision of filmmaking, and Hoytema's work is a triumphant exploration of cinema's transformational lens. (Isaac Feldberg)

The sound design team of "All Quiet on the Western Front"

It's no secret that war films often win Oscars for Best Sound, and in the last decade films like "1917," "Dunkirk," "Hacksaw Ridge," and "American Sniper" have all proven that trend. But while all of those strived for the sonic accuracy of war, the sound team for "All Quiet on the Western Front" was more concerned with what war might have felt like for a group of teenagers being marched to almost certain death (under the always-suspect guise of patriotism and duty). 

The sound effects editing in the film (basically creating the sounds of war) is as great as you'd expect, but what truly amazes in "All Quiet on the Western Front" are the sound mixing (guiding what our ears hear) and how the film's score is interpolated into the mix. Although a traditional film score is used at times, the dominant musical motif created by composer Volker Bertelmann is an ominous, blaring three-note progression that almost gives the vibe of being played by the Doof Warrior in "Mad Max: Fury Road," except if he were preparing his starving, dehydrated troops to pointlessly die in the freezing mud.

In preparing to write this, I did something I'd never done before: I listened to a movie without watching it. I let "All Quiet on the Western Front" play at top volume as I did chores around the house, and the despair of the film soaked over me as a purely aural experience. The sounds emanating from "All Quiet on the Western Front" are truly different from others of its war-film ilk. It doesn't merely want to evoke what war was like, it wants you to feel it in the subwoofer of your bones. (Daniel Joyaux)

The visual effects team of "Strawberry Mansion"

Although made on an incredibly small budget, the romantic fantasy "Strawberry Mansion" includes some of the year's most impressive visual effects. Co-directors Kentucker Audley (who also stars in the film as James Preble, a tax man who audits dreams) and Albert Birney used a hybrid of DIY artistry, practical effects, green screen, and CGI to achieve the film's most magical sequences. Inspired in part by the work of Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, the imagery of the world–rat sailors, a giant blue demon, a frog waiter, and even a man in a suit made of VHS tape–originated in the form of collage-style sketches on Birney's old Tumblr account. After developing their script for over a decade, the two brought their vision to life working with a strong, nimble, and, most importantly, imaginative crew. 

Cinematographer Tyler Davis used depth of field tricks to make an old doll house look like a grand manor on a hill and a model island look like it was floating in the middle of the ocean. Stop motion artist Lawrence Becker helped craft a giant caterpillar that journeys through a rocky sea, an endless desert and wintry blizzard. Computer artist Matt Lathrom added CGI to enhance a close-up shot of Preble's true love Bella (Penny Fuller), as she embodies a fly on the wall to send him warnings of impending doom. Studio X, which is the faculty-mentored animation production studio run out of the School of Animation & Visual Effects at my grad school alma mater the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, digitally enhanced a buffalo the filmmakers sculpted out of Styrofoam and fake fur. 

The result is a playful kaleidoscope of dreamscape imagery unlike anything else that graced the silver screen this year. From Preble's striking all-pink apartment to his odyssey across space and time filled with monsters unknown to a fireball that falls from space onto a sparkling ice cream cone, Audley and Birney's film truly embodies the magical ability of cinema to transport audiences into the world of pure imagination and proves the adage where there's a will there's a way. I can't wait to see what this duo will come up with next. (Marya E. Gates)

Carter Burwell's score for "The Banshees of Inisherin"

Known best for his collaborations with the Coen brothers, Carter Burwell brings to "The Banshees of Inisherin" a deliberately understated score, punctuated with plenty of silence for conversations. A celesta starts us off, with a moody but minimalist melody, but as the score continues, and the ramifications of Colm (Brendan Gleeson) dumping his longtime friend Pádraic (Colin Farrell) slowly unfurl throughout the story, multiple instruments take up the same notes, echoing with the celesta and adding depth and heaviness. In addition to creating layers of unease, this composition method, perhaps unconsciously, mimics what happens when a tiny island comes to know of your personal business and runs with the story: everyone has their own take on what's happened or what you're doing about it, other relationships are threatened, others' secrets—like the island copper sexually abusing his son, and Pádraic's sister Siobhán (an excellent Kerry Condon) deciding to leave the island—slip out. Gleeson, a violinist, was allowed to compose the music his character plays on his fiddle; the result is lovely if a bit odd, much like Colm himself. 

On his blog, Burwell wrote that he was inspired by Indonesian gamelan music writer and director Martin McDonagh had chosen for the film's non-original soundtrack: "The metal and wood percussion of the gamelan seemed helpful to me. I could imagine it relating to Carl Orff's "Schulwerk"—simple, repetitive, childlike tunes. Burwell found further inspiration reading the Grimm Brothers' version of Cinderella to his daughter, for it features mutilation, a major plot point in "Banshees." The instruments used to create a fairytale-like pathos—celesta, harp, gamelan, marimba—fashion a striking contrast between the innocence of life on a lonely little island and the brutal bloodshed triggered by Colm. 

Even on its own, the score is intriguing and absorbing, but it's aided by a song to which I've become addicted: "Polegnala e Todora" is a Bulgarian folk song, sung without musical accompaniment, and it backs the film's opening establishing shots. So obsessed am I with this simply structured song that I researched its translation, and it fits McDonagh's story quite well: a girl named Tudora is upset at the breeze for waking her, for she'd been dreaming of her first love. Neither she, nor Colm nor Pádraic, are likely to sleep well again. (Nandini Balial)

The production design team of "The Menu"

Delightfully repulsive performances and sharp writing are the obvious heroes in Mark Mylod's "The Menu," but clever production design and a clear sense of aesthetic are what give the film its knife's edge. When COVID restrictions moved the shoot out of Europe and into the American South, Mylod and production designer Ethan Tobman were forced to create the high-end island restaurant Hawthorne from scratch, right down to the surrounding vegetation. This approach makes Hawthorne in the film feel as bespoke and uncanny as the items on Chef Slowik's (Ralph Fiennes) delirious menu.

During pre-production, Tobman looked to artists like John Currin for his grotesque perspectives on class and food, while also drawing on the fiery and tortured religious imagery of Francis Bacon. The product seems straight out of one of those paintings: each "food" item transforms into haunting commentary on the follies of greed and gluttony. Meanwhile, Slowik's deacon-like post in front of his adoring flock quickly becomes a site of extreme violence and righteous anger. The guests, initially believing themselves to be in for an exclusive dining experience, soon find themselves trapped in a carefully tailored morality play from which they cannot escape.

Even the film's intertitles are integral to its constructed tone. As each menu item is presented, salacious food photography spreads across the screen and soft titles fade in to describe the dish with increasingly dark and humorous results. The antiseptic feeling of luxury hotel and dining clashes brilliantly with the raw horror of what happens at Hawthorne. Few films manage to marry their narrative and aesthetic as well as "The Menu." But like Hawthorne, the movie has to be experienced to really understand what it's all about. (Soren Hough)

Ashley Connor's cinematography in "Sharp Stick"

The first word I'd use to describe Ashley Connor's cinematography for "Sharp Stick" would be "soft." Evoking the warm tones and intimacy of the 1960s and '70s "women pictures," the cinematography captures the growing desire and eventual obsession of the film's protagonist, Sarah Jo, as she discovers her sexual identity. Capturing California's winter light, it lacks the white crispness of a snowier locale. The tones are nonetheless cool and blue, offering a contrast to the burning fire burning in Sarah Jo. The coolness of the world welcomes touch, where being held becomes a matter of survival rather than just a passing need. 

In an era where eroticism is conspicuously absent from our big screens, "Sharp Stick" captures how desire envelops a person through framing and focus. There are simple things; the way that Josh, Sarah Jo's older boss, is often the only thing in focus in a frame. The way the light hits his forearms makes them seem inviting and strong. As Sarah Jo and Josh make love, she suckles on a gold chain. The soft focus renders everything in earthy tones of ember and brown as if they were forged from the ground, born only to love and be loved. 

The look of "Sharp Stick" is constructed through Sarah Jo's perspective, which only expands as the film progresses. Once upon a time, her world was only her mother and sister; now, it's everything and everyone. As the film's final scene unfolds, she tinkers with an LED light, and the room goes from blue to green to violet, with brief flashes of gold. Like Francis Bacon, who "wanted to paint the scream more than the horror," hands wrap around her face as the camera zeroes in on her face as she orgasms. (Justine Smith)

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Close
You People
Shotgun Wedding
One Fine Morning
Blood
Maybe I Do

Comments

comments powered by Disqus