Hi all! I’ve begun the slow but steady process of writing out paragraph-long entires for my favorites of 2017 in 20 categories. I pray it’ll all be up by this time in April, if not before then, and the long list without write-ups is definitely susceptible to changes, but there’s no time like the present to write about last year’s movies. So, without further ado, here are my five nominees in these five categories.
Best Original Score
- Dawson City: Frozen Time, Alex Somers – It’d be hard, if not unbearable, for any kind of film to evoke a sense of awe in the miracle of its own existence. Imagine most films trying to do this for their entire hour and forty minute run time and not trying to bash your head in. But Dawson City: Frozen time pulls it off gloriously, partially because the film builds such a convincing case that the survival of its subject – hundreds of rolls of silent film footage previously thought lost recovered in 1978 – is a genuinely impressive achievement borne mostly from dumb luck, but also because it does a great job flexing its central themes and melodies to suit the tone of its current scene. The score isn’t derived from period tunes, instead taking on ethereal and atmospheric qualities that never tilts into opera, guiding us through complex histories in Dawson City. Yes, there’s a lot of awe, but also panic and terror and discovery, keying in to the developments of the town through its relationship to cinema, helping us grasp the idea that immortality and survival itself is so precarious under circumstances like these. In large part, the work here reminded me of what Angelo Badalamenti’s score accomplished for Twin Peaks – using emotional and mood-appropriate chords to guide us through heady, unusual material
- Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer – More wall-to-wall scoring, though almost the inverse goal of what Dawson City: Frozen Time is attempting to do. Here the primary objective is delineating between all manner of suspense and fear as Dunkirk’s characters try to survive amidst their own inhospitable conditions. And since those characters are so intentionally blank, his score basically acts like a piece of opera music, a series movements charting the story more than an accompaniment or accent on the film’s scenes. Hope is strung out as chances for escape seem more and more dire, but the score lets the men’s belief that they will be rescued hit as passionately as their fears that whatever latest hell has sprung out of the sky will surely kill them this time. It also has the sense to submerge itself, adding quieter tensions to downbeats as the characters wait for danger to return and search for means to avoid it. Zimmer runs a decathlon based in exhaustion and the very real possibility that these men will die without growing stale or overbearing, keeping the terror lodged in our guts like a bullet.
- Good Time, Oneohtrix Point Never – So accomplished in its sonic textures and moods that calling it exhilarating feels like I’m just scratching the surface. With its reprisals of 80’s synth and electronica, Oneohtrix Point Never’s score maintains all kinds of tensions as the film’s narrative barrels forward. From the opening heist that’s doomed to go wrong (and does, spectacularly so) to scenes of the people orbiting Connie getting trampled as collateral damage, the score finds ways to maintain tension in downbeats while ratcheting it up when necessary, flexing and stretching its motifs to flesh out the psychology of the film’s characters. Buries itself deeply under the audience’s skin without falling prey to any of the pitfalls its musical style entails, and manages to be completely enthralling while fitting perfectly into Good Time’s grotty aesthetic.
- The Lost City of Z, Christopher Spelman – Admittedly, I’m unfamiliar enough with the pieces Christopher Spelman cribbed from for his score here to have known off the bat that some of his operatic flourishes were actually operas. So, maybe not 100% original. But! It’s still pretty original, and smartly incorporates works from other composers that fully contribute to the already-operatic nature of his score for Z. Throughout, Spelman avoids accenting obvious rises or falls in the narrative in favor of applying a continuous sense of motion, suggesting simultaneous beginnings and endings without pointing where it could all be going. This simultaneity also allows for the score to play to multiple moods and ideas at once, like the melancholy inside a joyous reunion between husband and wife, or finding a great discovery pointing towards an unknown civilization you have no tools to investigate. Just as Percy’s relationship to the jungles, to glory, and to enlightenment all change in themselves and become more enmeshed in each other, Spelman’s score helps us track these shifting mental and emotional pathways in him and his companions.
- Wonderstruck, Carter Burwell – Like everyone in Wonderstruck, Burwell has to communicate between two time periods using totally disparate musical eras while including melodies and tunes that can work for both protagonists. He also has the additional challenge of scoring Rose’s scenes like a silent film, complimenting Millicent Simmonds’s performance without overshadowing her own subtle work. And, without succumbing to period clichés or overplaying the “wonder” in Wonderstruck, Burrell delightfully meets the challenges of the film on both sides. He gives both the 20’s silent pastiche and 70’s funk modern accents, keeping in tune with what’s dangerous about this adventure as much as what’s exciting and exhilarating about it. Wonderstruck indeed.
Best Costume Design
- I, Tonya, Jennifer Johnson – Who’s to say about degree of difficulty when having such publicly available/iconic outfits as reference for its real person lead character to wear, but that doesn’t mean Jennifer Johnson’s recreations of Tonya’s outfits are completely dazzling to look at. She’s completely in key with the gaudy charm behind Tonya’s costumes, making them convincingly homemade and lower-class rather than using nicer fabric to beef up their dazzle. That energy is given to the background skaters, though when Tonya starts getting “nicer” outfits she still lets the costume retain their unsightly flair. Supporting characters are dressed in broad, colorful strokes that invoke character details without tilting into caricature. Julianne Nicholson’s coach get lots of soft floral prints, while LaVona always seems to have different versions of the same fur-trimmed coat, blossoming into the pelt she’s wearing in her interview scenes. Tailored to accentuate Janney’s imposing height, their length and flatness makes her look even more physically imposing than she already is. The sweaters Jeff wears are more form fitting than the ones Shawn does, but they’re both cozy-looking and character appropriate. A colorful ensemble of looks that fits the colorful ensemble of characters.
- The Lost City of Z, Sonia Grande – Can we just take a second and appreciate how gorgeously dressed Sienna Miller is at all times in this movie? Decked in full-body dresses, gloves, and glorious hats, her looks are eye-catching and elegant without calling attention to themselves or immobilizing her. All the outfits of the explorers look suitable to their environment and grow convincingly tattered as their expedition continues, and Grande avoids exoticizing the Indian tribes while keeping them specific. More than that, the line about Percy only seeing the lack of medals on his uniform at the opening ball helps clue us in to how the film will insert character details through the baubles they’re wearing, such as the medals decked on the men’s breasts and the jungle-themes ascots Percy begins wearing after coming home from his second trip. Unshowy, unfussy period costuming that’s executed to a tee. Bonus points for the soldier’s uniforms, the fortune teller, and all the suits of the menfolk.
- Personal Shopper, Jurgen Doerig – Gives Phantom Thread a real run for its money as the 2017 feature whose central character’s life revolves most around their film’s outfits. Maureen’s near-invisible boss sure is fashionable, with a taste for chic (sorry Reynolds) and, to put it lightly, suggestive outfits. We certainly get some idea of what Kyra is like through the dresses and accessories Maureen picks for her, and it’s almost a plot point that this woman is so unconcerned with her employees that she’d hire a personal shopper that’s also her size. But damn does Stewart wear those outfits well, using them to bolster Maureen’s self confidence as she enjoys the high of those incredible dresses, doing a better job expressing character via fashion show than Jackie. Just as amazing is the character’s own outfits, layers of sweaters and t-shirts underneath the same leather jacket, somehow a coherent look despite clearly being thrown on at the last minute, or at least chosen for function and comfort when sleeping in them over appearance. A sturdy collection of outfits that all reveal something different about the woman wearing them.
- Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges – Look, all I’m saying is that I was a woman of means in 50’s London, I’d hire Reynolds Woodcock to make as much of my wardrobe as possible. Every outfit he designs for his clients is completely ravishing, but also somewhat regal and ornate, giving the House of Woodcock a rigid style that’s so far away from chic it’s understandably becoming outdated. It’s a portfolio anyone would be proud to hang their hat on, and Mark Bridges gives equal attention to what the three main players in this game are wearing. Cyril’s black-on-black-on-black looks are too modern in their elegant simplicity to have been made by her brother. He also makes repeat looks count for a lot, as when Alma goes to the New Year’s party – whose other attendees have their own, distinctive style – wearing that green and yellow dress Reynolds made so early in their amorphous relationship. The film simply wouldn’t work if Bridges wasn’t at the top of his game, and he hits a bullseye with every look.
- Roman J. Israel, Esq., Francine Jamison-Tanchuck – From the start, Roman’s outfits are noticeably out of place next to the other lawyers we see, not just because the fabric is considerably cheaper but because they don’t seem quite tailored to his size. But they also seem pretty comfortable, and pieces like his magenta suit help him stand out next to the other members of the law firm he’s reluctantly sucked into. After acquiring a good bit of money through illicit means, his new and expensive outfits lose some of that individuality as he gets more in line with a cynical version of the law firm even as it changes itself to meet Roman’s idealism. As the head of that law firm Colin Farrell’s suits are tailored as fine as he is, even accentuating his fineness, while he and his associates go through the exercise of sporting “personalized” ties. The outfits of Carmen Ejogo’s activist leader are believably thrift store but as casually elegant and quietly worn as she is, and it’s exciting to examine the array of protesters meeting with her to see who’s wearing the same kinds of clothing or the imitative, expensive versions of it. Every costume pulls double duty, importing narrative significance and unexpected fashionability to story that didn’t seem to invite it on its face.
Best Production Design
- Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Gasner – How can one call something unshowy even if so much of the film seems devoted to showing of its technical elements? My biggest complaint with Blade Runner 2049 is how so many scenes start at the earliest possible moment only to end as late as possible. In moments like K walking past those broken statues of giant, nude women, it seems as though the scenes have no point except to gawk at the physical environments and design elements that Dennis Gassner created. But damn if the sets aren’t something to marvel at. Not only that, but the flat, gray, angular style of these buildings and drawers and junk-sorting tables look as though they were designed with only function and space-saving in mind. Yes, the casino an important character has been hiding out at for decades is very much old and abandoned in the middle of nowhere, but it has round(!) tables, and the remains of some kind of charisma that would’ve made customers spark to the place if it was an active business. The roundness of there and Dr. Stelline’s lab stands out in contrast to practical flatness of everywhere else the film has taken us. Gassner finds a way to make 2049’s sets absolutely stunning, utterly serving the film’s story and the characters inhabiting those spaces without courting tropes of outright dystopia or any obvious visual charisma to make them easy eye-candy.
- It, Claude Paré – Repeat watches of It have keyed me in to the criticism that the film suffers a real trade-off between scene-by-scene conceits being fully realized while larger ideas about growing up and more aggressive King themes aren’t so much left for the audience to fill in as much as avoided or vaguely implied. But even as the film petters out, the production design remains indelible and attentive in every scene. The kids’ rooms are individualized with clutter and personal objects – love the circus wallpaper in Georgie’s room – and Pennywise’s lair feels like its own, unique haunted house, even into the sewers. Derry itself is believably 80’s, grounding the town and playing to its normalcy rather than a rotting host for an unspeakable evil it’s turning a blind eye too. But the real achievement here are the film’s props, from the MISSING CHILD posters piled on top of each other to the history book Ben reads at the library about the Easter tragedy, evoking a bloody and haunted history even as the town continues to ignore it, brutally emblematized in the endless tower of mementos in the sewer. Bonus points for the army of clown dolls and the dummy in the coffin Richie encounters.
- mother!, Philip Messina – Right off the bat mother! wins points for creating a house that’s convincingly rustic while also balancing ornate flourishes. It’s big but internally coherent, and has a creepy basement without being a creepy house, though it certainly suits the spooky atmosphere and unraveling narrative Aronofsky is going for. But the real kicker comes in the second act, as the house grows and devolves into a place of worship and war in honor of Him and his poetry. The transformation of so many rooms into war zones and actual altars is utterly remarkable and unfussily done despite the immense work it must have taken. It even looks as well-made as it should given the short, dream logic time frame that all of this is occuring in within the film, as though a stage crew is swapping out sets with every new scene of a play, wrecking this carefully built world in only a matter of minutes. Perhaps the least showy and most immaculately constructed part of an aggressively combative film.
- The Lost City of Z, Jean-Vincent Puzos – Yes, a lot of the action takes place in the lush jungles of the Amazonia. But those jungles are believably rendered at every step of the way, teeming with life without falling into exoticism. And the manufactured majesty of the “natural” doesn’t diminish the quality of the homes and communities we get to see. It’s fascinating to see the homes of the colonizers living in those jungles, sturdily made outposts with surreal flourishes and decadent wealth pouring from its most scourigible parts. There’s also the communities built by the Indians that Percy encounters, each clearly their own tribe, as well as the attention paid to wartime trenches and the grand mansions and meeting places of the Explorer’s Guild. The homes he returns to after every journey help illustrate his growing obsession with Zed and his shifting place in English society, going from an upscale house with vine-covered exteriors and leaf-print wallpaper in the bedroom to a cottage practically drowning in the trees surrounding it.
- Wonderstruck, Mark Friedberg – Between his miraculous outings with Todd Haynes on Far From Heaven, Mildred Pierce, and now with Wonderstruck, plus his gargantuan work on Synecdoche, New York, can someone please get Mark Friedberg a Wikipedia page? Hell, his work on Wonderstruck alone should’ve qualified him for that, let alone any awards recognition at all. There’s more applause here for deeply specific bedrooms and homes, but there’s even greater praise for the attention he gives to shops and museum dioramas and the way he, along with every other technician, juggles making aesthetics 50 years apart internally cohesive while finding avenues for both timelines to speak to each other, even outside of shared locations. Friedberg may even have a greater challenge in including objects older than both time periods, like the book advertising the Cabinet of Wonders or the impersonal but captivating dioramas and galleries inside the museum of natural history. But damn does he pull it all off, ending the film with its richest achievement in the deeply personal map that this mysterious father of Ben’s created, a diorama that’s as much a diary, and a story told with non-diegetic sets.
Best Visual Effects
- Blade Runner 2049, John Nelson and Co. – Easily the film that has been in every incarnation of this category since I first saw it, and the one I’ve had the hardest time starting a write-up about beyond asking “How did they do it?!?!?!”. But reader, I have to ask. The blending of CGI landscapes with the film’s already-impressive production design is smooth and unobtrusive. Joi, in all her incarnations, is a pretty incredible achievement. Fluctuating in transparency and functionality, moving in and out of spaces and characters, in skyscraper and human-sized incarnations, the character is fascinating to watch, the constant reminder that she’s an object making Ana de Armas’s warm, emotionally rich and humanizing performance all the more interesting. Dr. Ana’s Stelline’s manufactured memories coming together is practically a short film onto itself, and the ghostly singing holograms are as affecting as the decrepit casino Deckard himself haunts. Consistently breathtaking work that keeps finding new ways to surprise you.
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Christopher Townsend and Co. – I’m still amazed by how fully I’ve come around to Marvel’s side after their 2017 output, but without a doubt I’m still most impressed by the visual style and deliciously saturated color palette that Guardians so perfectly manages. Without ever tipping over into Wonderland garishness, the film indulges in practically every color imaginable in creating its sets and environments and weapons. The hot, neon pink of Yondu’s whistling spear-thing is easily my favorite, as is the blueness of the sky and orangeness of the ground as Gamora sits outside after fighting with Peter, completely unaware of Nebula soaring behind her. Meanwhile, the creation of Ego’s planet and his palace is a truly massive achievement, as are the dioramas detailing his long, hilariously sexy travails across the universe. And they find a way to make Kurt Russell young again without creeping into the uncanny valley. Yes, there’s that one effect in the big climactic fight that weirdly makes it look like Ego and Peter are apparating at each other like in the Harry Potter films, but it’s only a slight bump in a film that’s otherwise full of visual wit and bursting to the brim with as much color as possible, practically daring you to look at it and not enjoy yourself.
- It, Nicholas Brooks and Co. – It’s absolutely ridiculous that the campaign team for Warner Bros. couldn’t even muscle It into the VFX shortlist. If repeat watches have cooled me on Bill Skarsgård’s performance, the graphic impact of Pennywise still hits as hard as that first showing in a packed theater. The many ways that Pennywise contorts his limbs, changes size, takes on new and equally terrifying forms, are as terrifying to me as they are to the kids. Seeing him unwind from that fridge to scare Eddie is still one of the most indelible sights of the year, as is his Meshes of the Afternoon arm reaching out for Georgie. Bonus points for the detail given to the dead kids, particularly the headless Easter Egg casualty and Betty Ripsom.
- mother!, Tamriko Bardadze and Co. – Compared to the scale some of these other teams are operating on, I keep thinking of mother!’s achievements as being somehow smaller. Effects like the burning wound on the floor where a man is killed, the blood from the dying man himself, the beating heart of the house, that pulsing, spindly Thing hiding in a toilet, all are brief but completely impactful. But then I think back to larger spectacles like the house beginning to rot when Lawrence’s character is at her most distressed, the occasionally barren and occasionally lush Outside we get only glimpses of. Then, even bigger spectacles, like every single way that her house is blown apart, and the charred but living and talking body of a character who has instigated its greatest destruction, and I have a hard time calling its achievements small in any way. Supporting, maybe, but as fully realized as it needs to be, and as mad as everything else that mother! is doing.
- War for the Planet of the Apes, Joe Letteri and Co. – I’ll admit upfront there’s a ceiling to how much I can be in awe of a third incarnation of digitally remastered apes, the look of each film improving with technological advances even if I don’t see anything as inherently “new” here as some of my other nominees. But even with that caveat in place, there’s no question that the apes have never looked better. Compare the trailer for Rise in 2011 to what we get in War, and it’s even more obvious how much effort the VFX team has put into making Caesar and his tribe look as realistic as possible. Their faces have never been so expressive; their fur looks so real you could practically touch it, or at least imagine how it feels and smells as they hop between increasingly inhospitable ecosystems, caked in snow and mud and dirt and blood. Even if I’m not as wild about the series as its most ardent fans, their adoration is completely earned with the knowledge that this trilogy has gone out with its most auspicious technological achievement to date.
- Atomic Blonde, Paul Pattinson – A shout out first to the wonderful styling of the minor characters, from the punk hackers working under Bill Skarsgård (and Skarsgård himself) to the functional Russian antagonists, individualizing members on both sides where it counts while knowing who to keep relatively anonymous, even after repeat viewings. John Goodman and Eddie Marsan stand out among the suits dealing with this case, though all the mysterious officials wandering around the story are fantastically groomed. James McAvoy seems to have lost all morality along with his hair, legible as either “disastrous” or still pretty foxy, depending on who’s asking. Still what most interests me are the wigs that Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella’s characters wear throughout the film, wigs that are undeniably wigs to the audience that are treated like actual haircuts in the film. Both of them, Charlize especially, wear the kind of wigs that spies would usually wear to disguise themselves as other people, something only highlighted in how the actual wigs Lorraine wears seem more plausible as real haircuts than her typical bleach-blonde cut. It’s the first real sign that everyone in Atomic Blonde is playing more roles than they let on, and that the film is willing to be far more ambitious than you’d expect from the setup.
- The Death of Louis XIV, Antoine Mancini and Lluís Soriano – There are wigs, and then there’s the magnificence resting on Louis XIV’s head, some kind of lion’s mane passing for a cloud that, like the king, is ready to float off to the beyond at any moment. The gradation of his physical health is the spectacle the whole film is premised upon, and it wouldn’t work if the makeup team wasn’t doing their job so marvelously, oscillating between wilting wigs, full white wigs, or unbelievable and youthful brown wigs. His physical decline is more subtly rendered than my comments on his hairdo let on, and the gangrenous splotch on his leg is appropriate unsettling. Equal attention is given not just to Louis but also to his aides, consorts, and doctors, delineating who is and isn’t bothering to maintain appearances while tending to their king. The Sun God is disintegrating before their eyes, everyone doing their damndest to keep him alive, and still some people have the time to put on makeup and maintain their wigs? Every look is utterly in tune with Serra’s unusual tone and wildly ambitious aesthetic, across a whole host of characters.
- The Lost City of Z, Juanita Santamaria – Boy are Charlie Hunnam and Sienna Miller put together with period appropriate glamour that could easily pass for movie-star shine. Robert Pattinson’s facial hair is wildly unkempt but still well-trimmed and completely convincing, far more than whatever died on Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo’s faces in Foxcatcher. Even better is watching the wear and tear of the jungle taking hold of these men’s bodies, smearing them with dirt and sweat, as well as the infections ravaging their bodies, appropriately painful-looking and and revolting without overdoing it The various menfolk of the Adventurers guild are properly groomed and shaved, and the multiple native tribes are given individualizing looks that avoid broad caricature or blurring them all into one large, amorphous tribe. And all of them are gracefully aged as the film progresses, which is frankly as tough an object to find in most movies as a lost civilization.
- Phantom Thread, No Credited Head – There’s been a lot of well-earned praise about how gorgeous Phantom Thread is, from its costumes to its cinematography to that ornate, endless house. But how about a round of applause for how stunning those actors look? Daniel Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville are immaculately assembled, from their hair (his naturally graying, hers a wonderfully dyed dark brown) to his eyebrows to her lipstick, all without covering up the age and weariness on their faces. Both look a little gaunt around the edges. Vicky Krieps gets that no-makeup makeup look too, with no attempts to make her look more conventionally or exotically pretty, keeping her gorgeous and comparatively plain next to the other models and muses of Reynolds’s that we see. The background players are given their fair share of attention too, but there’s no denying the main attractions here.
- Wonder, Arjen Tutien – Much in the same way that Wonder is a tougher film than I expected but still a remarkably sweet one, I admire the way that the rendering of Tremblay’s disfigurement neither overdoes the surgical scars and deformities nor softens them to the point of being “cute” or “cool”. There’s plenty of room for Tremblay to give a performance underneath all that makeup without simultaneously flaunting the fact that Tremblay is acting under all that makeup the way Darkest Hour so frequently does. The makeup team also does right by the rest of the cast, especially in giving Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson careworn, normal-parent looks better than most films with superstars in those roles manage to pull off. It neither condescends to the normalcy of the characters nor sneaking in ways to remind us that hey, isn’t Julia Roberts friggin’ beautiful. Maybe not as ambitious as Darkest Hour or It, but it’s more consistent across a host of characters while perfectly managing a tricky central character than both films are without showing off or dropping the ball, nailing its assigned tasks to a perfect tee.