by Will Ross
This is the first of a series of posts where I’ll comment on the best work I saw on the screen (or heard while watching) in 2018. I’ll be posting these about twice a week; maybe more when time permits, in the following order:
Best Poster, Best Special Effects
Best Editing, Best Acting Performance (coming March 20, 2019)
Best Original Music, Best Screenplay (coming March 22, 2019)
Best Production Design, Best Costumes
Best Cinematography, Best Sound Design
Best Motion Picture
Eligibility includes anything that was initially available for viewing here in Vancouver, Canada in 2018, outside of festivals. Television is also eligible, though I don’t have nearly enough time to be comprehensive in surveying many shows that require 10-hour-plus commitments to watch. Of course nobody can see enough to (honestly) purport to offer a definitive ranking that considers all notable cinema from a given year, but I hope you’ll still find interest in these selections and my arguments for them.
This category is defined based on the posters used to advertise in venues outside screening rooms and how well they function as art. While admittedly this category is almost wholly separate from the actual experience of movie-viewing, these still images are specialized towards the motion pictures they represent, and at their best they show beauty or insight that can improve our understanding of those works — or even distinguish themselves as worthy of praise and consideration as stand-alone artworks.
5. VENOM - Spin Destiny
Using a photograph of black ink dropped in a body of water manipulated to resemble the sometimes-villain sometimes-anti-hero comic icon is a brilliant way to at once capture the ability of the murderous symbiote to morph its shape at will as well as the microscopic nature of its connection to the human host Eddie Brock. An excellent example of remixing existing imagery in bold new ways; the red text organizes the frame by adding some punch in the corners, yet the colour is used sparingly enough to ensure that Venom himself remains the focal point.
4. MANDY - Unknown Firm/Artist
A successful distillation of the movie’s arresting commitment to a neon-drenched recreation of the sort of texture and subject matter you’d find on an 80s heavy metal album cover. The swirling gradient between purple, pink and red creates a thick sense of mood. The central 3-pointed shape references the film’s reliance on triangular compositions, and all the poster’s illustrations are contained within that sub-shape. The message: the plot elements are in subservience to an experience that’s defined by style, the film overall presents an idiosyncratic, one-of-a-kind package.
3. THE COMMUTER - LA
A bold yet old-fashioned thriller poster, drawing from a heavy Saul Bass influence without falling into the kind of cheap imitation that a nu-Bass style often creates. The pattern of ears and hair framing the “tunnel” at once suggests a conspiratorial atmosphere and a psychologically intense experience. The use of faded paper instead of white keeps the focus on the geometric precision of the poster, rather than an overwhelming impression of colour-over-composition (see: the Overlord poster). A marvelously witty and punchy tagline, small enough that it doesn’t overestimate its own value, completes the package.
2. FIRST REFORMED - P+A
The only photograph-based poster on the list, and a very simple, self-serious one, but absorbing in the austerity and economy of its storytelling. A handful of elements communicate everything: the attractive but middle-aged face rounded by a white clerical collar, the soft light washing over him and emphasizing a worried look in his eye. A line of fire across the center (with a tiny silhouette of a church on the left) promising an apocalypse that may be internal or external or both; spiritual or earthly or both. All these elements set over black with a tasteful, traditional looking serif font. All in all, an image that sets up seemingly traditional dramatic elements with a tiny but frightening promise of disruption running through it. It would probably be better without the pullquote up top, but it does negligible damage to a poster that uses minimal elements for a grand emotional effect.
1. SUSPIRIA - LA
The only poster for the Suspiria remake that I even like, and the one with the busiest layout where the most was likely to go wrong, yet it’s my favourite poster of any movie released in 2018. The hand-crafted pop-art style of the letters, taken on their own, could seem playful in their near-random arrangement and proportions, but it registers as disorienting and chaotic when set in relief against disembodied and distrustful eyes, the up-facing teeth of that comb, the sickly background that evokes age-yellowed paper and of course that massive upwards splash of blood, the only part of the image granted a hint of depth through subtle highlights and shadows that define the overall image’s texture. The removal of any one of those elements would massively damage the whole, making for a triumphantly maximalist poster, at once dizzying and engrossing in its surfeit of ideas, but disquieting in the harshness of its visual cacophony.
Honorable Mention: PACIFIC RIM UPRISING - LA
The drips and splatters of paint and the slight asymmetry make great use of the robots’ primary colours to offer a refreshing take on the split-face design trope. The “flaws” created by the messy use of wet paint do a great job of suggesting the large, messy conflict inevitable when giant robots set out to break things.
Best Special and Visual Effects
Unlike most awards bearing this title, this category is defined not merely on the technical complexity and fidelity of effects, but how well those particular effects function as aesthetic components unto themselves. Originality is just as prized here as in any other category. The definition used for what constitutes “Special and Visual Effects” is slightly more fluid than other categories, but includes any technical attempt, be it in production or post-production, to supply textures, illusions, and other pictorial imagery that is not achievable through conventional use of “the real thing.” These effects require specialized skills which fall outside the purview of other categories (e.g. a bold, kaleidoscopic use of lighting belongs in the cinematography category, not here). Since it can be frightfully difficult to sort through the credits on effects, there are no names attached to these films, suffice to say the collective efforts of all the effects artists are appreciated. Alas, fully animated films are excluded from this category.
I have to admit that I was not at all a fan of Annihilation’s cinematography on the whole, but it can’t be argued that its effects do it enormous favours. The motif of uncertain borders between places, identities, memories, and time itself is beautifully expressed by that iridescent wall (the “shimmer”), as well as the grotesque prosthetics, that terrifyingly unfamiliar “bear”, and that faceless, humanoid alien form in the climax.
4. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS
The digitally-driven sunset in the last short is a worthy experiment, but it’s the opening of this anthology — the story of Scruggs himself — that finds gangbusters success with special effects. While it may not be brimming with them, that uncanny opening shot (which seems as though Buster must be traveling through a studio with a matte painting behind him, but boasts far too much convincing depth and parallax for that to be the case) and the Tex Avery cartoonishness of the ending that sees Buster rising from his dead body as an angel do an enormous amount of work in establishing the world Buster moves through, one that pushes dime-novel adventurer tropes up against Looney-Tunes parody to quickly establish the Coens’ central theme: iterations and deconstructions of the Western myth in all its violent forms. A terrific example of the massive impact that a small number of effects can have.
3. THE IMAGE BOOK
Jean-Luc Godard has been operating on the notion that a man with editing equipment can be a one-man special effects team more and more over the course of his career, and The Image Book continues that trend beautifully. Every single visual, be it personally recorded by JLG or snipped from some classic or forgotten piece of long-past cinema, has been manipulated far beyond the appearance of its raw photographic form. Often the effect is a near-abstract work of amorphous beauty, and just as often it registers as a (purposefully) cheap digital corruption of the original shot. This allows Godard to guide the audience between states of euphoric discovery and dim recognition (and sometimes both) while never allowing them to forget the fundamental fact that all images in cinema are manipulated, and challenging the viewer to mediate and interrogate them with endlessly curiosity.
Besides its use of lighting and colour correction to drench its imagery in texture, Mandy also uses numerous effects both obvious and subtle to supplement its unprecedented style. The haunting, crumbling face, spark-spewing chainsaws, and the eye-popping gore-head of the climax are among the most overt practical effects, and none of these aim for mere verisimilitude, but a heightened, even poetic evocation of imagery that is barely impossible, yet visceral in its violent, uncanny physicality. Numerous fake flares and image morphing effects in post also exist to take Mandy’s visuals beyond the aim of mere photography and into a genuinely painterly sensibility.
1. PADDINGTON 2
Compare these effects to 2018’s other sequel in a franchise based on beloved British children’s books that mixes live action characters with animated ones, Mary Poppins Returns. In truth, there is no comparison at all. Rob Marshal’s latest musical may rival Paddington 2 on a purely technical level, but its great failure is in the lack of marriage between those effects and the language of cinema. Paddington 2 uses its ample CGI in perfect synergy with expressive lighting changes, hugely variable camera lens, and an unchained approach to camera movement. All this creates a picture-book world that is soft and dynamic instead of flat and calculated, which allows the film’s best effect of all — Paddington himself — to thrive as the most charming, funny, boisterous bear he can be.