With the Oscar nominations announced, it feels about time that I weighed in on my personal ballot. Franky, this year might be the furthest stretch from my personal ballot of any year in recent memory. Entire films are about to be ignored in favor of movies that I find offensive. It can be difficult to hear names of the less deserving get called out due to politics or personal relationships. Certainly, this is not unique to the Oscars, so the feeling should feel familiar. Well, this is me wading into the deep end of the pool, accepting that most of my personal favorites won’t find their way into the race tomorrow morning. Let’s dive.
- Bad Times at the El Royale – Seamus McGarvey
- Eighth Grade – Andrew Wehde
- Free Solo – Jimmy Chin, Matt Clegg, Clair Popkin, and Mikey Schaefer
- If Beale Street Could Talk – James Laxton* WINNER
- Roma – Alfonso Cuarón* RUNNER UP
From the opening shots of If Beale Street Could Talk, James Laxton captures a love walking through the streets of Harlem. The beauty of each moment sets up the ride you’re about to go on and captures these two lovers at a moment in time. No director is better at portrait shots than Barry Jenkins, and Laxton perfectly frames these extreme close-ups. Combined with the use of color, surprisingly well spacing, and letting the camera walk us through the world, Laxton simply astounds and helps Beale Street shine through the crowd.
This was a tough race to judge because Alfonso Cuarón shows that if he wasn’t a world-class director, he would have been a world class cinematographer. The black and white world of Mexico City comes to life with stunning brilliance. Long takes running down the street are brilliantly staged, as is the beautifully emotional finale of the film. When you look at Roma, every image could be hung on a wall.
Speaking of hanging, the four-person camera crew of Free Solo captures the side of a mountain in a way you’ve never seen before. This wasn’t just drones flying overhead, but instead extreme closeups of a climber on the edge of a mountain. To climb solid granite and rock, while hauling camera equipment adds a degree of difficulty few could imagine. Free Solo works because of the gorgeous images captured by this team.
Seamus McGarvey brings the stylized world of Bad Times at the El Royale to life. There are so many moments of pure cinematic bliss that there’s no denying the stellar work of McGarvey. The one-shots in the tunnels, the framing devices in the lobby, the shining neon against the dark rain, or Hemsworth’s creepy stroll into the casino/hotel makes the world pop.
Last but certainly not least, Andrew Wehde drives home the sincerity of Bo Burnham’s beautiful work. His cinematography adds a personal touch that gives the film a dream-like quality that creates nostalgia for youth. The pool sequence, the truth or dare game, and the immediate aftermath of the sequence sells the emotion of the film. Wehde never received his due for his work, and it remains some of the best of the year.
Best Makeup & Hairstyling
- Black Panther* WINNER
- Hairstyling Team – Camille Friend, Jaime Leigh McIntosh, & Louisa V. Anthony
- Makeup Team – Joel Harlow, Ken Diaz, & Sian Richards
- Mary Queen of Scots
- Hairstyling Team – Jenny Shircore & Marc Pilcher
- Makeup Team – Jenny Shircore, Hannah Edwards & Sarah Kelly
- Stan & Ollie
- Hairstyling & Makeup Team – Jeremy Woodhead & Mark Coulier
- Suspiria* Runner Up
- Hairstyling & Makeup Team – Mark Coulier, Fernanda Perez, & Manola Garcia
- Uncle Drew
- Hairstyling & Makeup Team – Jonah Levy & Matthew Silva
This year more than most, makeup effects were out of this world. The makeup teams this year were outstanding, both in creating characters, but also bringing words to life. My winner is Black Panther for the incredibly complex work of recreating traditional African tattoos and piercings. It is easy to look at Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, or Letitia Wright to see some of the effects come to life. However, it’s the background characters and tribe-specific marking that sell the transformations. Frankly, there are images I wanted to include about how they made the lip attachments, but they’re so weird looking you might throw up. The world becomes far more expansive because of this work, which adds textures to each of the six tribes that make up Wakanda.
Meanwhile, Suspiria might feature the most transformative makeup effects of the year. They literally swapped Tilda Swinton‘s gender and then transformed her into another demon monster. She plays three characters in the same scene, and you’d never be able to tell if you didn’t know it was her. Then, you’ve got the grossest blood and gore sequences of the year, and it will chill your bones. It was incredible work, and horror films often do not get their due.
Meanwhile, both Stan & Ollie and Uncle Drew feature outstanding character makeup. Well-known celebrities, including Chris Webber, Kyrie Irving, Steve Coogan, and John C. Reilly are unrecognizable. John C. Reilly has the best application and looks massive compared to the other characters on screen. Meanwhile, the character work on Kyrie and the other players was far more difficult than one might guess. To look as good as Coming to America, but have your characters go through rigorous athletic activity, really speaks to how well made the prosthetics were applied.
Finally, Mary Queen of Scots really pops for capturing disease and scarring. There are also hair stylings for more than two dozen characters, and despite the period setting, characters hold completely unique visuals. Perhaps no character has better makeup design that Elizabeth, played by Margot Robbie. With multiple prosthetics applied, and the pox scarring included, the work is brilliant.
Best Visual Effects
- Avengers: Infinity War* WINNER
- First Man* Runner Up
- Mission: Impossible – Fallout
- Solo: A Star Wars Story
Visual Effects and CGI can be the difference between a movie becoming an all-time rewatchable film or becoming instantly dated. Luckily there are a lot of great films in that department this year. My winner, Avengers: Infinity War, represents the best CGI of the year and creates immaculate worlds through the use of the technology. While other films tried to pull off the same trick, none did so more effectively. Thanos (Josh Brolin) emotes in ways we’ve never seen from a CGI created character like this one before. Worlds like Titan became instantly iconic. Even the dusting effect was pulled off to perfection. No film used CG better this year, and it wasn’t close.
Meanwhile, both First Man and Solo attempted to revolution effects by completing some before the film was even completed. Both films set up massive screens so the actors could react in real time to unfinished effects for the film. This was not simply blue or green screens at work, and that work helps blend CG and practical effects in ways we haven’t seen in a film before.
Ultimately, each film surprises with brilliant effects of their own, including the Gemini 8 spinning out of control, a droid rebellion, and a train heist all serving as high points for their films. Solo also created hundreds of fully CG characters, showcasing that Star Wars will always be a leader in visual effect technology.
Last, Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Annihilation were extremely specific uses of visual effects. In the case of Mission: Impossible, the effects were nearly all practical. This gave the film a visceral feel that allowed it to become one of the best action films of the decade. Also, if you look at the image above, you can see the curvature of the Earth. They were very high up.
Meanwhile, Annihilation utilized a small CG budget to enhance the creepy aesthetics of its world. A humanoid bear stands out as the best scene, but the shimmers, video recordings of twisted creatures, and a dance with a doppelganger made the film into a headscratcher that will stand the test of time.
Best Original Song
- “All the Stars” from Black Panther
- “Everything Must Go” from Hearts Beat Loud* WINNER
- “Hearts Beat Loud” from Hearts Beat Loud *Runner Up
- “Upbeat Inspirational Song About Life” from Teen Titans Go! to the Movies
- “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
For most audiences, A Star Is Born will reign supreme for the year in music. For me, I won’t be able to stop thinking about Hearts Beat Loud, which features music that sounds like it should come from a Wilco or LCD Soundsystem style band. “Everything Must Go” should be the song of the year, both for its emotional resonance in the movie and because its an absolute jam. The titular “Hearts Beat Loud” is a lot of fun as well, and makes for some fun pop rock to blast as you drive around.
“All the Stars” remains one of the best songs of the year as a musical hit, and for any song that came from a movie. It’s a pop/rap banger that accentuates the film wonderfully, and anytime you can reward Kendrick Lamar, you have to consider it. When Kendrick gets SZA to collaborate, it’s undeniable. The two use their combined powers to write one of the pop ballads of the year.
As my beautiful wife points out on occasion, I might secretly like country music. Perhaps nothing is better evidence than my love of “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings,” a beautifully constructed ballad for the Coen’s latest Western. The song feels like it is straight out of an old Western songbook, and fits in with the “Davey Crockett” style songs of the era.
Last but not least, “Upbeat Inspiration Song About Life” remains one of the most underrated songs of the year. Michael Bolton cheeses it up, but its a genuinely fun song in its own right. Plus, he plays a Tiger that looks like it’s out of a Lisa Frank design. Who rides a cloud. With a Dolphin drummer. Pretty fantastic.
Best Original Score
- Black Panther – Ludwig Göransson
- Burning – Mowg
- First Man – Justin Hurwitz *Runner Up
- If Beale Street Could Talk – Nicholas Brittel* WINNER
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Daniel Pemberton
Each of the scores this year was reaching for splendidly different themes, and each accomplishes them with grace. It was a tough one to pick a winner, but I ultimately settled on the one that brought the most out of me emotionally. When watching If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell finds his ways into the crevices of this relationship. He turns something specific and unique into a feeling of epic scale and proportion, and that makes the film resonate in ways many other films cannot reach. The film is about love and hope, and you can hear it in every note that Britell elicits from the orchestra. It’s a beautiful score that should become an all-timer. The sound could only come from this film and this place, and it soars.
Justin Hurwitz got unlucky. His score for First Man should also be an all-timer, and it does so much work to sell the film. He makes the trip to the moon and back feel tangible, while never underplaying the moments. Instead, Hurwitz gives the story of Neil Armstrong a strong and quiet resolution deserving of the man himself. Ludwig Göransson crafts an authentic score for Black Panther that feels unique to the world of Wakanda. He had to create a culture’s musical history from scratch, and whenever you hear the beats of the drums combined with African EDM, Göransson should come to mind. The use of flutes and winds shouldn’t be ignored either. That Killmonger theme is incredible.
It would be terrible to not discuss the Burning score from Mowg. It is atmospheric and weird in ways that Alfred Hitchcock would approve. You feel each moment unfold in the tense drama because of the minimalism of this score. It might be the secret MVP to the film and sets the mood wonderfully.
However, no score brings more style and flair to a film like Daniel Pemberton‘s work on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The beats and electronic score feel perfectly at home with Miles, and help bring his reality to life. Most important of all, it helps you understand the film you’re in for and works to lift up the grandiose moments of the film. It’s special, and easily one of the most compelling scores of the year.
Best Sound Mixing
- A Quiet Place – Michael Barry & Brandon Proctor
- A Star Is Born – Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve Morrow
- First Man – Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee, & Mary H. Ellis *WINNER
- Hereditary – Lewis Goldstein & Tom Ryan
- Roma – Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan, and José Antonio García * RUNNER UP
The ability of a sound mixer to disorient you should never be forgotten. They have the ability to plunge you into total chaos and make you question what is happening around you. Luckily that was the plan from the word go for First Man. It was impossible to fully gain your bearings while in the cockpit, and in an IMAX theater, you’d believe you were heading to the moon. There was a visceral feel to the journey, and it helped to sell the experience as one of the most complex soundscapes ever.
Not far behind was Roma. It was unnerving at times to watch this film in theaters, with the precision of the sound placement simply astounding. At times, it felt like the people behind me were talking. The thing that made this impossible was that my 10 PM showing left me in the back of the theater. There was not anyone behind me. The directionally of the sound was something I had never seen before and were it not for the complete sonic immersion of First Man, this would have been my pick for Best Sound Mixing.
Meanwhile, the mixing of the other films on my list was on point. Hereditary worked to make you feel unease at every turn. Like Roma, the directions of the sounds made you squirm, and the levels of sound would make you question whether or not you were actually hearing the tongue clicks. A Quiet Place needed to level out the sounds that were used for the plot, and the team worked wonders integrating a score into a mostly silent film.
Finally, A Star Is Born used the musical skill of its protagonists to craft a unique experience. While other films this year used music well, A Star Is Born made you feel like you were in a concert. It was enthralling.
Best Sound Design
- A Quiet Place – Ethan Van Der Ryn & Erik Aadahl
- The Favourite – Johnnie Burn
- First Man – Ai-Ling Lee & Mildred Iatrou Morgan* WINNER
- Roma – Sergio Díaz and Skip Lievsay* RUNNER UP
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Geoffrey G. Rubay, Curt Schulkey, & Gary A. Hecker
For sound design, you’re looking for what kinds of sounds are put into a film. The creation of the sound is key here, and once again, First Man comes out on top. The creaking and screeching of metal felt visceral. I’ve never imagined what it meant to sit in a bucket and fly to the greatest heights. Now, we know that feeling. It was an extraordinary work of sound design, and I’ve never felt so scared to watch a drama (let alone one that I know the ending).
Meanwhile, the absence of sound has never felt so discomforting. Yet A Quiet Place reminded us that you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone. No theater experience in 2018 felt more unique or tension-filled. People would shush fellow audience members for simply drinking their cokes. It was a cool and singular experience in theaters, and you could feel everyone around you hold their breath during the scariest moments. The sound work here was simply extraordinary.
Both Roma and The Favourite bring unique, period soundscapes to life in unique ways. With Roma, you hear the world of Mexico City in the 1970s, but the love letter to Cuarón’s hometown made the world bristle to life. The Favourite really blew me away by crafting a unique soundscape. Perhaps the most intriguing sounds pulled from the film were the acoustics pulled from the oddly shaped rooms. Also at play was the removal of digital sound, something that doesn’t seem difficult until you try to pull every mechanized sound out of a recording. As someone who has difficulty getting the sounds of dogs out of our podcast, I cannot imagine that struggle.
Last but not least, the alternate world of Brooklyn came to life in a big way with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. There are unique sounds that immediately let you know you are in a different world altogether. To start from scratch and build a world from the ground up must have been difficult. Yet the crew of Spider-Verse crafts a wonderfully fun soundscape with cartoons, Spider-People, and a rollicking city.
Best Costume Design
- Black Panther- Costumes Designed by Ruth E. Carter * WINNER
- Crazy Rich Asians – Costumes Designed by Mary E. Vogt
- The Favourite – Costumes Designed by Sandy Powell
- If Beale Street Could Talk – Costumes Designed by Caroline Eseline
- Mary Queen of Scots – Costumes Designed by Alexandra Byrne *RUNNER UP
There are some incredible costumes in film this year, but none stands out more than the gathering of tribes from Black Panther. Again, crafting the world of Wakanda only works if you bring it to life visually. Ruth E. Carter does just that by bringing unique designs to each class, soldier, and member of the royal family. No designer could possibly bring out the world so uniquely, or tell such a wonderful history of culture, entirely through costumes.
The rest of the year has some wonderful work as well. Crazy Rich Asians get the benefit of going big. I mean really big. Not only did costume designer Mary E. Vogt have to dress the characters for a life of wealth, but also show off that wealth in a massive wedding. The clothes worn to parties, out on the town, or even in the various pop music driven montages creates beautiful visual moments throughout.
The Favourite gets to be big and showy as well. Considering that they were designed by Sandy Powell, a three-time Oscar winner, this does not surprise. The costumes are frilly, big, and boisterous. We’re in the Queen’s court, and Powell makes sure you realize the beauty of those at the highest levels of society, even as the film begins with Emma Stone literally shown in excrement.
If Beale Street Could Talk has some wonderfully unique period costumes, helping us relive the 1960s in the process. Watching KiKi Layne go through pregnancy, dress for a high-end job, and still create a vibrant love story provided a challenge. Yet designer Caroline Eseline does a marvelous job at making Fonny and Tish real people through their clothing choices.
Last but definitely not least is Mary Queen of Scots. Once again, Alexandra Byrne takes on Queen Elizabeth’s court, as well as Mary’s, and continues to prove herself a top period designer. The use of unconventional materials, specifically denim, this time around comes from director Josie Rourke, whose background with Donmar Warehouse helped to bring a unique sensibility to the project. It works, and the costumes are amazing.
Best Production Design
Annihilation – Mark Digby
Black Panther – Hannah Bleacher
Crazy Rich Asians – Nelson Coates * RUNNER UP
First Man – Nathan Crowley
Hereditary – Grace Yun *WINNER
Building worlds can be difficult, especially when you want it to look very stylized. However, building a set as if one of the characters was making a model makes your world feel doll-like. In the case of Hereditary, we already feel like we are someplace we don’t belong. This added aesthetic solidifies that feeling. Grace Yun made this house feel like the creepiest miniature you’ve ever seen.
Black Panther builds the world of Wakanda and there are dozens of instantly iconic locations brought to life. From Warrior Falls to the Wakandan Throne Room, and even M’Baku‘s palace, Wakanda was a lived-in fairy tale world. Credit to the designer Hannah Bleacher for making a world that allowed audiences to understand the distinct geography of the nation.
Meanwhile, Annihilation offered a vision of hell on Earth in the sci-fi trip beyond the shimmer. Perhaps no moment stands out more than the body that exploded onto the walls. It is marvelously twisted, but also gorgeous at the same time. If you were unaware of the clearly dark end for the soldier, it would be a beautiful sculpture. Hats off to Mark Digby for bringing the stunningly dark world to life.
However, if you’re looking for realism, the two sets to look at were Crazy Rich Asians and First Man. With Crazy Rich Asians, you get to see how the other side lives. The extremely wealthy lifestyle gives production designer Nelson Coates the ability to spread his wings. No moment is this more obvious than when we get the wedding sequence. However, the bachelor and bachelorette parties are intricately designed, as are the houses where we spend the majority of the film.
Meanwhile, First Man painfully recreates a period and time. The rust, metal, and bolts feel tangible in this world. For the first time, the stakes of these missions became exceedingly real. Nathan Crowley brings this world to life with stunning realism but also throws in perfect subtle touches. The spaceships sell the grandiosity of the film, but the quietly suburban Armstrong house gives key insights into the characters.
American Animals – Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, & Julian Hart
Black Panther – Michael P. Shawver and Debbie Berman
First Man – Tom Cross* RUNNER UP
Minding the Gap – Bing Liu & Joshhu Altman * WINNER
Mission: Impossible – Fallout – Eddie Hamilton
To piece together hundreds of hours footage is an underrated skill. To then turn that much footage into a semi-cohesive feat unto itself. However, what Bing Lui accomplished with Joshua Altman on Minding The Gap was simply another level of skill. The two took years of footage about kids skateboarding in a small mid-western town and captured a beautifully unique story about domestic abuse and the generational impact it can create. To capture so many intimate moments in young men’s lives, Lui showcased his talent as an ethnographer. However, to turn the camera on himself, and contemplate what this meant to his own family is what elicits such a massive reaction from audiences. This was a Hoop Dreams level accomplishment, and the skill to pull tell a focused story like this makes it the best editing of the year.
Not far behind was American Animals, which might feature the most unique creative blend of documentary and narrative among recent film. Utilizing actual documentary interviews with the men who committed these acts of violence, and then combining it with the narrative footage shot by director Bart Layton, the film hums. It remains one of the very best heist movies of the past decade and features some top-tier work from the editing trio of Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, and Julian Hart.
The last three films all share an action film and extremely upbeat DNA. For First Man, Tom Cross took more footage than La La Land and Whiplash combined to tell the story of Neil Armstrong. His editing of the space sequences, particularly the moon landing and Gemini 8 remain high points for the year in film. The intensity his edit brought to the picture was stunning.
Meanwhile, Mission: Impossible – Fallout cuts together an intense fight sequence to craft the most energetic film in the franchise yet. The cutting together of the various action sequence, that were obviously shot apart from each other makes the film feel seamless to the viewer. Cutting together a film that might be the best action film since Mad Max: Fury Road speaks to the level of work Eddie Hamilton put into the film.
Last but not least, Black Panther features constructive editing from Michael P. Shawver and Debbie Berman. For all of the different aspects that helped to bring Wakanda into the real world, their use of footage helps sell the country as a living and breathing entity. Having the guts to cut away from our main characters in order to watch meat grilling, or haggling in shops brings you into the world. It establishes the stakes of the impending civil war about to erupt, and who will suffer because of it. At the same time, the action set pieces, including a faux-oner in the casino, demands to be expertly stitched together. Combining kinetic energy with world building through diverse shot selection helps sell the finished product.
AJ’s Nomination Count
6 – First Man (2 Wins) & Black Panther (2 Wins)
3 – If Beale Street Could Talk (2 Wins), Roma
2 – A Quiet Place, Annihilation, Crazy Rich Asians, Hearts Beat Loud (1 Win), Hereditary (1 Win), Mary Queen of Scots, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
1 – A Star Is Born, Avengers: Infinity War (1 Win), American Animals, Bad Times at the El Royale, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Burning, Eighth Grade, Free Solo, Minding the Gap (1 win) Solo: A Star Wars Story, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Stan & Ollie, Suspiria, Teen Titans GO! to the Movies, Uncle Drew