It’s no secret that music is extremely important to the success of any film, at the same time an overly present score can be a real annoyance. Confession time… I don’t really know what I’m talking about here. I don’t really pay that much attention to original scores and barley remember a lot of the music in the films I choose. Still I do have a very clear idea of which of these is the best and stand by my final choice.
300: For his score to 300, Tyler Bates mixes traditional film score orchestration score, choral voices, middle eastern influences, and modern electronic elements. The film sounds in many ways like a soaring battle anthem for the Spartan warriors, but never forgets that it is a hip reimagining of the traditional epic.
Grindhouse: Here we are specifically looking at the Rodriguez half which featured an original score, rather than Tarentino’s half which used a collected soundtrack. Rodriguez, being the one man band that he is, opted to create his own score for “Planet Terror” and it is a catchy set of music for sure. The music here, if nothing else does more to establish a more humable theme than the rest of the nominees here, and that is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Eastern Promises: This is almost certainly the most traditional and most orchestral score nominated here, which probably says more about my personal tastes than about the music that was created this year. For this film, frequent Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore delivers a subtle but still noticeable score. Matching the film’s themes, there are Slavic elements incorporated into the score, but not in a way that is distracting.
Sunshine: Sunshine’s original music by John Murphy and the electronic band Underworld is a score with a real knack for having its cake and eating it too. It’s manages to feel epic, yet still restrained. It uses electronic elements while still feeling like a traditional score. It underscores the majesty of the situation while still accentuating the danger that’s present. Most importantly it’s able to bring the character’s emotions to the forefront without feeling manipulative.
There Will Be Blood: Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, There Will Be Blood, featured an absolutely killer soundtrack from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. As one would expect from someone with a guitar background, Greenwood’s score heavily emphasizes strings, and to great effect. Greenwood almost sounds like he’s scoring an action movie rather than a drama, and his music seems to improve every scene its present during.
The Golden Stake goes to… There Will Be Blood
It was surprising when P.T. Anderson decided to go with a guitar player from a rock band rather than a veteran composer, but it was a hell of a choice. Greenwood brings an outsider’s ear to the world of film scoring, the result was amazing.
A soundtrack category is a completely different beast from a score category. This is a category that revolves around individual songs, usually with vocals, combined into the overall mood. The songs can be either original or licensed and can be either performed onscreen, or played in the background diageticly or non-diageticly. However, this is based on a viewing of the film, and I have not reviewed any of these soundtracks as albums.
Black Snake Moan: Black Snake Moan is a filmed personification of the blues, naturally it also features blues music. Original music was created with Samuel L. Jackson providing vocals. No, he can’t really sing that well, but his acting and general spirit on the track will make you forget that. The real standout here was an absolutely primal cover of the blues standard “Stagger Lee”.
The Darjeeling Limited: As a film, The Darjeeling Limited left me rather cold; but Anderson’s style was still visible, more importantly it was still audible. Basically its more of the same from Anderson, who reportedly wanted to use Beatles songs but couldn’t get the rights. As such, he fell back on his standard British invasion selections. The Kinks are featured the most, but the track most viewers will most vividly remember is The Rolling Stones “Playing With Fire.”
Grindhouse: This time we focus mainly on the Tarentino half of the Gindhouse music experience. Tarentino is a director well known for his ability to meld interesting pop music pieces into his films, and here he continues that trend. With “Death Proof” he has compiled a selection of songs that are much more obscure than even the usual Tarentino soundtrack, I wasn’t familiar with any of the music here before seeing the movie. I don’t know where Tarentino digs this stuff up but I’m glad he does.
Into the Wild: Here we have an example of there being a thin line between soundtracks and original scores. This is a collection of earthy folk music composed by Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder. I don’t know that I’d want to hear this stuff separated from the film, but in the right context its perfect. Vedder’s gravelly voice and acoustic guitar are perfect for this story.
Once: Here again we have an example of music I wouldn’t necessarily care for if it was divorced of its context, but within the film it is just what was needed. The acoustic pop featured here isn’t really all that much grander than numerous other compositions by likeminded artists, but there is a real passion in the performances that lets it transcend its Starbucks nature.
The Golden Stake goes to… Grindhouse
Though officially, this award is mainly aimed at the songs selected in the Tarentino half, I couldn’t help but be influenced by the catchy score from the Rodriguez half here. The one two punch of both elements really made me feel Grindhouse’s full soundtrack deserved this award, and this fits in well with the two for one nature of the film itself.
Sound is an important, yet often overlooked part of the cinematic experience. Sound effects editing and sound mixing are rightfully separated by the AMPAS, but such a separation will not happen here simply because I’m a layman and not quite experienced enough to separate the two.
300: 300 provides viewers with spectacular visuals, but also a sonic rollercoaster ride. From the sound of 300 Spartans chanting war cries to the sound of 300 spears going into the chests of 300 Persians the soundscape here is not to be missed.
Black Snake Moan: Black Snake Moan may not have massive explosions or frantic action scenes, but complex sound is just as important to it. It is the film’s music and the way it is implemented that sets Moan above its peers. The music here is great but never sounds canned, particularly a scene where Jackson plays a guitar during a thunderstorm.
The Bourne Ultimatum: Action movies traditionally have strong audio tracks, but The Bourne Ultimatum goes above and beyond the call of duty. Every punch and every shot really jumps off the screen. This soundtrack really kicks and adds a lot to the film’s frantic energy.
I’m Not There: I’m Not There is another example of another film about music that uses sound design to really bring the music through. Here the mix comes across more than the editing. Dylan’s music is sonicly reworked and sent through surround tracks in a great way.
Zodiac: Fincher’s recent film lacks loud action scene or a music heavy soundtrack, but it is worthy of praise for the way it manages to manipulate sound in subtle and interesting ways. Consider for example, the first scene, which is able to effectively juggle period music, fireworks, and silenced gunshots all in one coherent set piece.
The Golden Stake goes to… 300
While it would be fun to go for a less obvious choice like Zodiac or Black Snake Moan, in the end 300 simply had more impressive work. It is interesting though, that 3/5 of the nominees here came out within about a week of each other, it seems the spring was a great sounding time for cinema.
While almost all films use make-up to some extent, certain film need to go above and beyond the traditional requirements of the makeup department. The following films are the nominees for the 2007 Golden Stake award for best make-up:
28 Weeks Later…: No one said that being undead was pretty. The Weeks Later… series took the lead of George Romero’s zombie make-up and took it to the next level.
The Diving Bell and Butterfly: Julien Schnabel’s film was disturbing and clostrophobic while it was confined to Jean-Dominique Bauby’s first person perspective, but the film was in some ways even more disturbing when the full extent of Bauby’s condition was on screen in full.
Eastern Promises: Viggo Mortenson’s character in Eastern Promises wouldn’t seem like as much of a makeup challenge as say, a zombie, he was possibly a bigger challenge. The character was covered head to toe in a large assortment of tattoos that had to be replicated during every day of shooting.
Grindhouse: Grindhouse, had the challenge of living up to the gory standards of 1970s exploitation films. Makeup artists were forced to create zombie makeup, gore effects, and a really big scar.
Rescue Dawn: In Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, makeup artists needed to depict the ravages of imprisonment and starvation while living up to the authentic standard of the film’s iconic director.
The Golden Stake goes to… Grindhouse
The main reason Grindhouse wins this award is the sheer number of different things the makeup team needed to do. Rodriguez’s segments had some of the most original zombies in recent memory, and a variety of other gruesome creations, Tarentino’s segment had a memorable scar, and the fake trailer provided us with the likes of werewolf women and a turkey man.
Another often misunderstood technical Oscar category. The art director is basically the film’s visual designer; he or she controls the film’s basic look and creates the film’s sets.
300: For the movie 300 designers were required to create an ancient Greece like no one has seen before. Featuring red skies, hot gates, a tree of bodies, a wall of bodies, and a platform that traveled on the backs of Persian soldiers; it was clear this was not your daddy’s battle of Thermopylae. 300 managed to be a wonder to look at throughout and the art direction was a major part of that.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End: Though most other elements of this mess of a film were lackluster, the design team maintained the high standard they established in the first two installments of the series. The design work is a major part of why this series has been appealing from the beginning, in many ways this alternate universe reinvention of pirate lore is an art directors dream come true. Particularly impressive in this installment was Shipwreck island, and an afterlife where ships can go over sand dunes.
Sunshine: Space, the final frontier. Sunshine is a film that forces the art direction team to design the excellent futuristic interiors of a spaceship heading for the sun. The exteriors of this ship are in and of themselves original and important to the film’s plot. The interiors are detailed and creative, yet not elaborate to the point they seem unbelievable.
Sweeney Todd: This is by no means the first time a Tim Burton film has been recognized for its art direction, and it likely won’t be the last. The design here turns 19th century London into a landscape all Tim Burton’s own. Nice touches like a slanted window in the title character’s barbershop add to a detailed universe that on one level seems real and on another level a figment of Tim Burton’s imagination.
Zodiac: With Zodiac David Fincher and his design team were forced to emerge their audience in the world of late sixties San Francisco and have the audience follow then through the seventies. The film creates a believable period setting yet doesn’t dwell on it or distract the audience with its setting.
The Golden Stake goes to… 300
Including 300 in this category almost seems like a cheat, as the true art director of this film is not the credited as such. Frank Miller, who wrote and drew the graphic novel upon which the film is closely based is the real design force behind most of 300’s visuals. So in a matter of thinking it is one of the simplest art designs of the year. However what is seen on the screen, regardless of source, is definitely great design.
Editing is one of, if not the, most important elements of cinema, without it we would have never advanced past the level of the Lumière brothers. Yet editing is one of the hardest categories to assess and rank. Without seeing all the raw footage the editor had to work with it is impossible to truly know the extent of their work. It is also a hard category to discuss, and to justify one’s choices. Basically I’m following my instincts with this category.
28 Weeks Later…: While many of the films nominated here wait until their endings to really let their editors go wild, the great editing here is present in the very first scene. The film uses editing to extenuate the action on scene. The film allows the viewer to become disoriented, when you aren’t sure what’s going on around them, it increases their fear level.
The Bourne Ultimatum: The editing in The Bourne Ultimatum can be described in one word “intense.” Turning Paul Greengrasses fierce handheld camera work into cohesive scenes is not an easy task but Christopher Rouse lived up to the challenge, forming some of the most exiting action scenes this year.
Into the Wild: While the editing in most of the movie is fairly conventional, what really earned the film a nomination in this category was the way the ending was handled. Every cut in this finale was so perfectly timed as to fully ratchet up the emotional impact of the film’s dramatic conclusion.
No Country for Old Men: If “intense” describes the editing in The Bourne Ultimatum, straight up “tense” describes the editing in No Country for Old Men. Every cut in the film seems perfectly calculated to ratchet up the tension in the suspense scenes before this tension is finally released.
Sunshine: Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is another film that mainly uses traditional editing techniques up until its finale, at which point it really takes off. When discussing the ending, many people focus on the character that is introduced, but the real focus should be on the kinetic energy that is injected into the film at this point. The finale reminds us that this is a film from the director of 28 Days Later…
The Golden Stake goes to… The Bourne Ultimatum
While the fast cutting method is often misused by the likes of Michael Bay, it can really heighten the intensity of action scenes when used by a skilled team like Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse. Many complain that the editing here is disorienting, that it obscures the stuntwork, but this is to miss the point. The style her accentuate the scene rather than the stunts, it helps the audience empathize with the confused main character while also drawing them into the intense onscreen action.
Cinematography is one of the better understood of the many technical award categories among the general public, although its sometimes used as a crutch for lazy criticism. All too often people will try to justify the artistic merit of poor movies by saying “the cinematography was really good.” Still, it is an important category that should not be ignored.
The Diving Bell and Butterfly: Great cinematography is not all about extremely vivid colors and lighting, its also about great camera movement and there’s definitely great camera movement to be found here, which isn’t to say it doesn’t have plenty from column A as well. In early scenes from this film the camera acts as the main character’s eye, and moves with the movement of that eye. It’s the most moving camera one’s likely to see in a scene that conjures claustrophobia.
Into the Wild: “Magic hour” is used to great effect in this beautiful film that doesn’t need artificial lighting to show beautiful landscapes throughout. The beautiful sites of the American outdoors are on full display here, and it never looked better. One should not make the mistake of thinking the sun is doing all the work here, there’s a real art to finding the right time to film these vistas, and improving every nuance.
Sweeney Todd: Sweeny Todd’s cinematography has one simple mission: to look as grim as possible, and did it ever succeed. The film is awash in deep blacks, subtle blues, and greys. These dark colors are mainly interrupted by sudden gushes of bright red blood that spurts often.
There Will Be Blood: It’s really saying something that the cinematography in this film can still be nominated when it has a jarring flaw. The black levels here were off, they weren’t deep enough and that was a pretty big problem, but the cinematography everywhere else was so damn strong that it transcended that flaw and still earned a nomination.
Zodiac: David Fincher has never made a film with less then excellent cinematography and this is no exception. The color pallet was great throughout and the camera movement was well executed and also rather innovative, as anyone who saw the taxi cab overhead shot can attest to.
The Golden Stake goes to… Sweeney Todd
Sweeney Todd, narrowly earns this award, mainly because it had the overall most creative use of cinematography. Anyone can make a scene look slick if they have enough cash, but it takes a real creativity to come up with the formula on display here. The black levels here are mint, I’m not sure a DVD can even replicate it, this would be a good showcase for Blu-Ray if it is transferred well. Strangely, the photographic highlight is one of the few particularly bright scenes, a fantasy sequence that makes for a great juxtaposition with the rest of the film. I just love the way Tim Burton and Dariusz Wolski make the ocean look in this sequence.