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  • Rough Cut Staff

Make the Case: Technical Wizardry

Universal; 20th Century Fox; A24; Neon

Awards season, by and large, is when the film community suffers from a crippling plague of What-Aboutism. No set of nominees can ever be good enough; no winner can ever be worthy enough. But what about this movie? What about that performance?  At Rough Cut, we like to use the months leading up to the Academy Awards to forecast the symptoms of our collective What-Aboutism. In an effort to draw attention to some of the most worthy aspects of the year in film, we started our Make the Case series, in hopes that we could draw a few extra eyes to otherwise under-seen movies, performances, and technical bravado.  Last month, we published our underrated acting performances. This month, without further ado, we present the best in audio and visuals from the year in film. 

20th Century Fox

Ad Astra - Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema

Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has shown us space and the near future before. But despite his incredible work in films like Interstellar and Her, the images he creates in Ad Astra may be the finest of his career. He shoots the vast expanse of space in a way that makes it appear majestic enough to inspire exploration, yet still containing an unshakeable sense of foreboding. Still, a film like Ad Astra wouldn’t work without the performance at its center, and HvH makes sure to always keep the focus on Brad Pitt. By framing him against the vastness of his surroundings, HvH emphasizes the alienation and loneliness that Major McBride feels, allowing his emotional journey to anchor the film. Audiences may have overlooked Ad Astra during its theatrical run earlier this year, but it would be a shame for critics and awards bodies to do the same--especially when it comes to its incredible cinematography. - Jonny Diaz


Beach Bum - Sound Mixing by Scott Clements

Some people -- a lot of people, actually -- have called Harmony Korine’s pointless and nihilistic Beach Bum a “good movie.” I emphatically disagree. It has been praised as “visually sumptuous,” which, in the sense that Korine and cinematographer Benoit Debie had good equipment and understood how to turn it on and then throw a bunch of colors into the frame, I suppose that is correct. It has also been praised as “atmospheric” and “a mood piece,” and, again, I guess because it makes such little effort to find meaning or plot or characters with any nuance, it technically cannot be called anything else, and therefore that is also correct. All that is to say that I’m the last person who would be bringing positive attention to Beach Bum, and yet here I am, making the case for Scott Clements’ perfectly appropriate sound mixing techniques. Beyond blending the ideal fusion of Florida ambiance and trippy chords, Beach Bum is one of the few movies to use overlapping and fractured dialogue coverage to proper effects. At a time when such techniques are used almost exclusively just to be clever, Clements actually marries his approach to that of the film he’s mixing for: the dialogue in Beach Bum is not intended for narrative purposes, rather it is just another discordant element to be added to this faux-philosophical salad of a movie. Even stomach-churning salads have a couple good ingredients, and Clements’ mixing is one of the few in Beach Bum. - Zach D'Amico


Us - Costume Design by Kym Barrett

Jordan Peele’s Us does not seem poised to receive the same level of awards recognition as his hit debut Get Out (a possible Oscar nomination for Lupita Nyong’o appears to be the ceiling), but it is similarly deserving of consideration, especially in the technical categories. Us is in many ways bigger than Get Out, a work of impressive collaboration that strives to use every tool in the toolbox to achieve its ambitions, from its eerie score to its tension-building cinematography. But Kym Barrett’s inspired costume design is the unheralded star of the show, creating striking visual motifs that do much of the film’s heavy lifting. Every costuming choice serves both the thematic and narrative storytelling needs with a level of care that too often goes unremarked upon and for which we lack the space here to fully do the work justice (for a greater appreciation of the intricate thought process behind her choices, Barrett’s interview with The Atlantic is well worth your time). But even if Us can’t take home the gold on Oscar night, Barrett can be proud of that fact that with those disconcertingly red jumpsuits and ominous single gloves, she created a day-one inductee into the Iconic Horror Movie Outfit Hall of Fame. - Carson Cook


High Life - Production Design by Jagna Dobesz, Ólafur Eliasson, François-Renaud Labarthe, and Mela Melak

The production design was a crucial part of High Life, a story set on a spaceship that is simultaneously a prison, a greenhouse, and a science lab - a machine built to sustain life until the mission takes it away.  The design expertly captures the somber and reflective tone of the film through the use of complementary and contrasting elements. The main sections of the ship are bleak and barren, then neon lighting and padded walls contributing to the eerily sterile and unsettling feeling of an existence that at any point could transition from order into chaos.  And the lab’s clean and ordered design provides a deliberate contrast to the inhumane and invasive experiments Dibs (Juliette Binoche) conducts on the inmates. The set helps drive the disturbing and reflective themes of the movie home, enhancing the emotional and cerebral experience for the moviegoer.  It’s a shame High Life is not getting more Oscar buzz for this category. - Sara Murphy D'Amico


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