Everyone loves lists right, and since we’re entering a new decade, it’s a great excuse to make loads and loads of lists 😀 I’ll be working on various Best of the Decade throughout the year, and I thought I’d start with cinematography since Brittani just listed her 10 top best of 2018 over at Rambling Film blog (hey it’s also her blog 10th anniversary so head over and wish her a blog anniversary!)
I chose these images based on instinct… the one I think is the most indelible and leaves a lasting impression, as a film likely has a bunch of beautiful visuals (esp. those shot by the legend Roger Deakins!) Most of these films have the best cinematography of the decade, but I consider these images iconic in that people would likely know right away where it’s from. Now, it’s tough to whittle it down to just 10 and as we’re entering the [roaring] 20s, there’ll be plenty of Top 20s list this year.
So without further ado, here are my picks in the order of the film’s year of release:
Life of Pi (2012)
Ex Machina (2014) – dance
The Assassin (2015)
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
La La Land (2016)
Rogue One (2016)
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Shape of Water (2017)
Cold War (2018)
Black Panther (2018)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
A Hidden Life (2019)
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
Hope you enjoy my list. Now it’s your turn, what’s some of your favorite shots of the past decade?
It’s a testament of a truly good film when two weeks after I saw it I’m still thinking about it fondly and can’t wait to see it again. I mentioned in this post that I had been anticipating this film for a couple of reasons, but deep down I still wished it’d be good as I like Ridley Scott. Well, glad to report that the 77-year-old British thespian certainly still got it.
If the plot makes you think of Saving Private Ryan because it involves saving Matt Damon, well you wouldn’t be wrong, but the similarities pretty much end there. The film doesn’t waste much time to get to the part when Mark Watney is left alone in Mars following an accident that made his teammates presumed he’s killed. It turns out he survives the accident but that’s only the beginning of his journey being stranded in a desolate planet. The first act pretty much contains scenes of Watney dealing with the concept of surviving on whatever resources is left on the space station, as the next Mars mission would take at least four years.
There are similarities to Gravity and Interstellar, but I think The Martian is a heck of a lot more entertaining than both. It’s an intelligent crowd pleaser that doesn’t dumb down the audience, but it also doesn’t bog us down with scientific mumbo jumbo or bludgeon us with over-sentimentality. Even the scenes in NASA with a terrific ensemble cast doesn’t feel at all boring or obligatory and has its share of amusing and fun moments. The emotional moments throughout the film feels natural and not at all manipulative, a testament to the shrewd script by Drew Goddard and Scott’s direction.
The whole concept of an astronaut growing potatoes inside a space station certainly make for some amusing and highly entertaining scenes. Whether it’s actually possible or not doesn’t really matter, and that’s what I find about this film. I find that I don’t pick apart the science as much as I did with say Interstellar, as I was completely invested in Watney’s journey from start to finish. It helps too that the script is really focused about the ‘bring him home’ storyline and keep it frill-free from unneccessary subplots.
As for that ensemble cast, I’ll mention those who impressed me most, starting with Jeff Daniels as NASA chief Teddy Sanders. He made him memorable even though he’s not the most interesting characters. The same could be said with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong as two lead scientists tasked to help bring Watney home. Sean Bean is always great to watch but there is one particularly memorable scene involving a very famous fantasy trilogy that made his casting even more perfect. They actually have more to do in the film than Watney’s fellow team mates including Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie, though they are all pretty good in their roles. Donald Glover also has a brief but memorable role as a young genius astronomer who provides a key theory for the recovery mission. But the real star here is obviously Damon, who has the most screen time and most of his scenes are basically a one-man-show of him talking to the camera.
The Martian looks phenomenal and has some breathtaking *aerial shots* by Dariusz Wolski of the red planet, shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan, which has a red-colored desert. That said, it’s not a style-over-substance film, in fact, it’s a story and character-driven piece, which is what every film should be. It must have been hellish for Watney to be stuck up there on his own, but thankfully, watching him being stuck there isn’t. The survival story is more akin to Tom Hanks’ Castaway, given the humorous tone and amazing survival skills of the protagonist. This is perhaps one of my favorite roles of Matt Damon, and he’s as likable and funny as he ever as astronaut Mark Watney.
As with any survival story, there is an element of inspiration that make you appreciate what you have on earth, from profound things like spending time with your family to seemingly-trivial things like duct tape. But the film does it in such a droll and fun way, which seems to be faithful in terms to tone to Andy Weir‘s sci-fi novel, described by one book critic as “…sharp, funny and thrilling, with just the right amount of geekery” (per Wiki). I also love that The Martian is not dark and brooding despite the rather grim subject matter of a man being trapped alone in space. It’s also not nearly as violent as Scott’s other sci-fi film, apart from an earlier scene that definitely made me avert my eyes. This could very well be the most enjoyable theatrical experience from Ridley Scott since Gladiator, so yeah sir, we’re definitely entertained. And thanks for making another epic film that I can watch and appreciate for years to come.
Special thanks to Conor Holt for this post. Stay tuned for my full review of Spike Jonze’s her coming this weekend!
Well, this is awkward. Science Fiction is my favorite film genre, but in 2013 one of my favorite films of the year and my least favorite film of the year…are both Science-Fiction. How could this happen?
Well, let’s go back to the Science Fiction Genre. The Science-Fiction genre is one of the more difficult genres to define, since it lacks the same visual iconography & story structure of more concrete genres, like the Western or the Gangster film (if I can remember my Science-Fiction film genre class from college correctly). The Western features cowboys, saloons, shootouts – constant, common visual cues that you’re watching a Western. A Sci-Fi film, however, could feature a time machine, or take place on a space ship, or feature a robot – any and all visuals are possible. A Gangster film almost always features the tragic rise and fall of a criminal in the urban jungle, while a Sci-Fi film could be about changing the past, or fighting aliens, or about a robot learning to be human. Science-Fiction is defined by its very diversity – any time period, any technology, any idea is possible. The only requirement is that the story address and think about that possibility. The “what if?” of the story isn’t just a jumping off point, but the actual crux of the story.
So, back to 2013, and two very different films. Just a few weeks ago, I saw Spike Jonze’s her, and loved it. Absolutely loved it. A tender, beautiful love story between a man and his Artificially Intelligent computer program, and the complications that arise from that. But this Summer, I saw Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium …and there’s really nothing good I can say about it. Matt Damon does his best, but even he can’t save a severely underwritten, poorly-told, simplistic, heavy-handed action film with some robots and space ships thrown in.
Both of these films are technically Science Fiction, yet I had vastly different reactions to them. Why? Well, of course, no one is going to like every film in a single genre. Hell, not every film in a genre is even going to be good – there are probably thousands of terrible direct-to-DVD sci-fi films cluttering Redboxes across the country right now. But I think an important distinction can be made between her and Elysium that address the nature of science-fiction. “her” is about how a man could love an AI, how an AI could love a human, and the challenges they face as a couple that cannot touch each other (as well as looking at an overall world immersed in virtual activity and communication). Elysium features a floating space station for the rich, brain chips, and fancy new weapons, but it’s about a man trying to break in to a restricted area to get healed by a magical healing machine (the film never tries to explain how it works). While her makes the technology and the “science-fiction” part of the story, Elysium uses the science-fiction setting and props to dress up an action film, and a pretty silly action film at that.
Maybe that’s it – the fact that Elysium pretends that it’s a Science-Fiction film, but is really an action film in Sci-Fi clothing is why I hated it so much, that and the fact that it’s a poorly written, hammy over-the-top failure (such a disappointment after the terrific District 9). Good Science-Fiction takes interesting questions about technology, human nature, outer space, and seeks to explore possible answers. They can be action-packed (The Terminator) or comedic (Wall-E) or head spinning (Primer), but they have to explore possibilities in a way only Science Fiction can.
Perhaps the solution to the broadness of the Science Fiction genre is being a little bit more selective about what gets to be called “Science Fiction”. The Action-Adventure genre can have Elysium – we don’t want it. In fact, they can have Gravity too. Gravity is a tremendous film, and one of the best of the year, but nothing about it is scientifically fictitious – everything in it is real, and it takes place today. It’s not Science Fiction – it’s a survival story on a space station.
Science Fiction is a special thing – a creative space for exploring new ideas, possible technologies, unpredicted futures. If other genres want to play around in this sandbox and borrow bits and pieces, that’s fine – but the distinction of “Science Fiction” should be held only by those who truly care about and are defined by their exploration of scientific possibility.
Thoughts about the Sci-fi genre and/or the films mentioned? We’d love to hear what you think!
Conor Holt is the writer, director, and producer of multiple short films. His most recent film, A Better Life, a science-fiction drama about marriage & control, which he directed & co-wrote, played at the 2013 Fargo Film Festival and the Twin Cities Film Fest, and recently won Best Editing & Visual Effects at the St. Cloud Film Festival. He is a graduate of the Minnesota State University Moorhead Film Studies program, and currently lives in Los Angeles, working odd jobs in the film industry and volunteering at film festivals.