As I did last year, apropos of my blog’s title, I hereby offer a tribute to the best in art direction for films released in 2010. As I said in last year’s version of this post, I love the use of drawing, painting, models, constructed sets, and CGI to create an imaginative cinematic world that transports the viewer to another place. It might be a world that no one can ever visit in reality. Or it might be a real place that you can visit on your own, though the cinematic rendering of it reveals details and textures we might never perceive beyond its presentation on film.
Considering the 61 movies I've seen in theaters this year, I was a little disappointed with the art direction in comparison with previous years. No one built the Alamo or Troy or drew up an imaginary world as fantastic as Pandora.
Nevertheless, here are my favorite little worlds from 2010, presented in order in which I saw them, and I well might add Tron: Legacy, this year’s Yuletide CGI fest, to make this list an even ten.
High Noon Apocalypse from The Book of Eli
Making a post-apocalyptic film? Just film it in some place like Nevada and your work's done for you. But this movie wants to be a post-apocalyptic Western, so when Eli wanders into town off the desert, we find ourselves in a suitably dismal hamlet that nicely calls to mind the Westerns of Sergio Leone. Out in the middle of nowhere, a lone house is home to a kickass aged couple, and a CGI rendering of San Francisco features the Golden Gate Bridge missing its middle.
The Island in Your Mind from Shutter Island
The bleak wooden dock, that formidable gate, the institutional grounds, the damp corridors, the cliffs, the tower – all of it could be real, but all of it brilliantly evokes what’s going on in Teddy’s mind. Rats swarming over damp rocks, cliffs jutting into the gray sea, the look of this film is a major achievement.
Alice in Tim Burtonland from Alice in Wonderland
Tim Burton's vision of Wonderland is full of variety - from an overgrown garden that's a whimsically mad jungle to a wall embraced by thorns to a countryside that looks like it's been hit by an atomic bomb where you wouldn't be surprised to see a shabbily dressed father and his son pushing a squeaky shopping cart. Palaces and tea tables in the middle of the woods, the world of Lewis Carroll is a feast for Burton's imagination and a feast for our eyes.
Vikingland from How to Train Your Dragon
Those little huts on the hilly seacoast are toast when the dragons attack (love how the dragons carry off the bleating sheep), but the thick forest is full of wonder, the little canyon with the pond constitute a magical location in which a Viking boy can meet a dragon and learn how to train it. There’s texture and memorable depth to this colorful little world.
Ozark Boonies from Winter’s Bone
You feel the winter in your bones just looking at Ree’s shabby log cabin with the trampoline out front for the kids. During her quest to find her father, Ree visits places just as bleak or bleaker, and set decoration does a great job with interiors, making it clear these are the kind of people who think nothing of putting a gun on the lazy Susan next to the coffee mugs.
“We’ll always have Paris” from Inception
I love how, in Paris, the size and look of the buildings on one side of the street matches the other side. This symmetry works well for Ariadne when she bends illusion in one of the most mind-bending scenes in this film. Now the Paris street hangs down from above. Cool! Just walk right up!
Los Alamos in Winter from Let Me In
Is winter in New Mexico this stark? The apartment complex where Owen and Amy live is a dark, derelict, cold place. Owen likes to hang out in the courtyard where the climbing bars match the lines of his Rubik’s cube. Interiors are drab and rundown, and Amy’s apartment is an austere shack – just the kind of cozy place a vampire would love. Don’t go in the bathroom!
The Infected Zone from Monsters
Signs warn against entering the “Infected Zone,” and we don’t see much of the alien monsters that have infected northern Mexico, but I love how the props suggest the threat: destroyed tanks, ruined buildings, a jet’s turbine on a donkey cart. The U.S. border is supposedly protected by a massive Lord of the Rings-like wall, but it seems southern Texas has become infected as well, and here the set looks like real hurricane damage.
The Ministry of Doublespeak from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
When our heroes infiltrate the sinistry Ministry, this detailed set alludes to all kinds of totalitarianism, historical as well as fictional. You can just imagine the automaton drudges in Metropolis shuffling off to do labor down that subway-like, low-ceilinged hallway (see above). The desks in regimented rows where workers churn out propaganda evoke the mindless bureaucracy of Brazil and 1984. The allusions to the Third Reich are inevitable as well. (I’ve always wondered if the S.S.-type guards are wizards who flunked out of Hogwarts. Anybody know?)