Thursday, February 14, 2013

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Top Ten: Beasts of the Southern Wild

This year for the Hollmann Awards, we're counting down my Top Ten of the Year -- one entry per day, coupled with two categories -- leading up the naming of Best Picture of the Year.

#10. Beasts of the Southern Wild

dir: Benh Zeitlin
wr: Lucy Alibar/Benh Zeitlin, from the play Juicy & Delicious by Alibar
cin: Ben Richardson

Following its tremendous bow at Sundance, Beasts of the Southern Wild came to theaters sometime in May or June, with a lot riding on its shoulders. Was this going to be the crowdpleaser promised by its Park City debut, or would lower altitudes reveal that it was all a load of hooey? Judging by arguments I get into on Facebook, it's both, which is more evidence that no one can ever be right or wrong when it comes to film (except for The Descendants), and each cinematic experience is a subjective, personal experience that we bring our own baggage to.

For me, Beasts of the Southern Wild is effective because it can be read so many different ways. Now, everyone knows that it's the coming-of-age tale of little Hushpuppy, who lives with her daddy in a shack-town known as The Bathtub in the Louisiana swamps. The real question is what director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin and co-writer/source author Lucy Alibar are trying to say. Is this really one of those white liberal valentines to poor people more in touch with the land, people we just don't get as we cluck-cluck at their remaining in hovels during a hurricane? Are we really meant to root against FEMA and the relief nurses when they get our protagonists out of their mud-soaked homes and into an emergency room? What the hell is with those aurochs?

I prefer to think that the filmmakers do not, actually, agree with any of those positions, but are presenting the world through the eyes of a precocious six-year-old. Of course FEMA seems threatening; of course you want these old drunks your dad hangs out with be on your side; of course you remain in this swamp shack when there's nothing to eat. A child may question things, but he/she is also trained from an early age to defer to adults when it comes to judging the seriousness of a crisis. And some adults are just not equipped with the right judgment, whether through pride, stubbornness or an addled brain. Ultimately, Beasts of the Southern Wild is about a little girl discovering that she may be more capable than the adults.

It's also nominated for two Hollmann Awards, including Best Original Score, which we'll take a look at today. But before we do that...let's look at Best Visual Effects.


5. The Avengers

 Chris Brenczewski/Daniel Sudick, special effects
Eric Nash/Janek Sirrs/Colin Strause/Greg Strause/Guy Williams, visual effects
Zack Judson/Nikos Kalaitzidis, digital effects
The Marvel films continue to boast an Iron Man that always has me wondering when it's the suit and when it's the effect. If I can't tell, that's a good thing. The Avengers also gave us an incredible Hulk that actually resembles his Bruce Banner counterpart, while looking more like the comic book iteration than any previous adaptation. Finally, those multi-limbed alien creatures in their flying reptile demons were grotesque enough to make me go, "Euucck" in the theater.

4. Cloud Atlas

Dan Glass/Stephane Ceretti, visual effects
Most obviously utilized throughout the New Seoul sequence, a dystopian future that is sinking ever more underwater. But aside from the flying ships, do-it-yourself bridges, underwater tunnels and zapping guns, Cloud Atlas also boasts some very subtle effects work, the sort that allow Ben Whishaw in the 1930s to occupy the same space as James D'Arcy in the 1970s. The most effective sequence: the alternately fragile and sturdy china shop.

3. Ted

Blair Clark/Glenn Melenhorst, visual effects
James W. Brown, animation
Avi Goodman, C
It's just one character, really, but what detail! The adorable shine of the eyes and clean cotton fur go with that perfect innocence of childhood, only to be replaced by this raggedy, threadbare thing with stained feet and a missing bowtie in adulthood. It looks like a bear that's seen some things, but more than that -- it looks like a stuffed animal that's been loved over the years.

2. Prometheus

Richard Stammers, visual effects
I still can't tell if the Space Jockey is great makeup or VFX. Combination, probably, but I have to ask. The Prometheus itself, both in disrepair and in perfect condition, is certainly a sight, as is the Space Jockey's ship in action. The alien creatures we see are suitably slimy and awful. The piece de resistance: android David seeing the map of the galaxy.

1. Life of Pi

Bill Westenhofer, visual effects
When the trailer first came out, I mocked how fake and terrible it all looked. When I saw the finished product I was, of course, in awe. Richard Parker, the tiger who joins Pi in the lifeboat, is a stunnign achievement all his own; he's complemented by meerkats, an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, flying fish, a whale, a sinking ship, a hallucinatory dream sequence. 

5. 21 Jump Street

Mark Mothersbaugh
A perfect blend of modern dance beats and 80s synth sincerity, with a lovely romantic theme that entrances as effectively as Brie Larson does Jonah Hill.

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Dan Romer/Benh Zeitlin
Instantly iconic, unmistakably homegrown-sounding yet almost ridiculously epic, appropriately adapting traditional jazz instruments into a fantastical soundscape.

3. Anna Karenina 

Dario Marianelli
Epically lush strings with an Eastern European (or, hell, Russian) flair, underlining Wright's theatrical setting yet never distracting from the story itself.
2. On the Road

Gustavo Santaolalla
True jazz, spontaneous and unexpected, energetic and erotic, a perfect soundtrack for the trips, road and otherwise, undertaken by Sal and Dean and Mary Lou and the rest of the Mad Ones.

1. Cloud Atlas 

Reinhold Heil/Johnny Klimek/Tom Tykwer
If it was nothing but the main theme, it would deserve this award still. Beautiful and perfect, marching alongside time.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is also nominated for Best Art Direction. Don't give up hope yet!

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