Emmanuel Lubezki wins the ASC Award

Emmanuel Lubezki has won the ASC award for his work on The Tree of Life.

The American Society of Cinematographers awarded his stunning work on Terrence Malick’s film on Sunday night at the Hollywood and Highland Grand Ballroom in Los Angeles.

The Mexican-born Lubezki had previously won the ASC Award for his groundbreaking work on Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), and has been nominated for five Academy Awards.

He was also shortlisted for Cuarón’s A Little Princess (1995) and Malick’s The New World (2005).

The Tree of Life is quite simply one of the best looking films in recent history. Maybe one of the best ever.

Todd McCarthy’s review in The Hollywood Reporter nailed it:

“Emmanuel Lubezki outdoes himself with cinematography of almost unimaginable crispness and luminosity. As in The New World, the camera is constantly on the move, forever reframing in search of the moment, which defines the film’s impressionistic manner”

When they first teamed up, Malick and Lubezki created a series of creative constraints that evolved during the making of that film and spilled over into this one.

In an interview with American Cinematographer Lubezki revealed that rules were part of his creative process:

“In all the movies I’ve done, I always worked with a set of rules — they help me to find the tone and the style of the film. Art is made of constraints. When you don’t have any, you go crazy, because everything is possible.”

Or as Kathryn Bigelow might say (when quoting Andre Gide):

“Art is born of restraint and dies of freedom”

The same article went on to describe the parameters they used on the film, which the cinematographer and crew members nicknamed ‘the dogma’:

  • Shoot in available natural light
  • Do not underexpose the negative Keep true blacks
  • Preserve the latitude in the image
  • Seek maximum resolution and fine grain
  • Seek depth with deep focus and stop: “Compose in depth”
  • Shoot in backlight for continuity and depth
  • Use negative fill to avoid “light sandwiches” (even sources on both sides)
  • Shoot in crosslight only after dawn or before dusk; never front light
  • Avoid lens flares
  • Avoid white and primary colors in frame
  • Shoot with short-focal-length, hard lenses
  • No filters except Polarizer
  • Shoot with steady handheld or Steadicam “in the eye of the hurricane”
  • Z-axis moves instead of pans or tilts
  • No zooming
  • Do some static tripod shots “in midst of our haste”
  • Accept the exception to the dogma (“Article E”)

Lubezki also noted:

“Our dogma is full of contradictions! For example, if you use backlight, you will get flares, or if you go for a deep stop, you will have more grain because you need a faster stock. So you have to make these decisions on the spot: what is better in this case, grain or depth?”

“The most important rule for me is to not underexpose. We want the blacks; we don’t like milky images. Article E does not apply to underexposure!”

One thing that was striking about the film was its amazing use of natural light:

“When you put someone in front of a window, you’re getting the reflection from the blue sky and the clouds and the sun bouncing on the grass and in the room. You’re getting all these colors and a different quality of light. It’s very hard to go back to artificial light in the same movie. It’s like you’re setting a tone, and artificial light feels weird and awkward [after that].”

Shooting on the Arricam Lite and Arri 235 with Kodak film stocks, his decision to shoot in 1:85 and not anamorphic or Super 35 was also interesting:

“Even though anamorphic has more resolution, we decided on 1.85 because the close focus was going to be extreme — we were so close to the kids, their faces, hands and feet. And we didn’t want the grain of Super 35.”

It is well worth reading the full interview here.

The full list of winners from the evening were:

  • Feature Film: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life
  • Television Episodic Series/Pilot, One Hour: Jonathan Freeman, Boardwalk Empire (Ep. 21)
  • Television Episodic Series/Pilot, Half Hour: Michael Weaver, Californication (Ep. Suicide Solution)
  • Television Movies/Miniseries: Martin Ruhe, Page Eight

The Honorees were:

  • Board of Governors Award: Harrison Ford
  • ASC Lifetime Achievement Award: Dante Spinotti
  • ASC Career Achievement in Television Award: William Wages
  • ASC Presidents Award: Francis Kenny
  • ASC Bud Stone Award of Distinction: Fred Godfrey

> ASC
> The Tree of Life review

The Best Films of 2011

Although it was a year with a record number of sequels, there was much to feast on if you really looked for something different.

The year will be remembered for momentous events which overshadowed anything Hollywood could come up with: the Arab Spring, the Japanese Earthquake, Hackgate, the death of Osama Bin Laden and the continuing meltdown of the global economy.

But cinema itself underwent some seismic changes: in April the thorny issue of the theatrical window raised its head, whilst James Cameron suggested films should be projected at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24.

But by far the biggest story was the news that Panavision, Arri and Aaton were to stop making film cameras: although the celluloid projection will effectively be over by 2013, it seems the death of 35mm capture is only a few years away.

So the medium of film, will soon no longer involve celluloid. That’s a pretty big deal.

As for the releases this year, it seemed a lot worse than it actually was.

Look beyond the unimaginative sequels and you might be surprised to find that there are interesting films across a variety of genres.

Instead of artifically squeezing the standout films into a top ten, below are the films that really impressed me in alphabetical order, followed by honourable mentions that narrowly missed the cut but are worth seeking out.

THE BEST FILMS OF 2011

A Separation (Dir. Asghar Farhadi): This Iranian family drama explored emotional depths and layers that few Western films even began to reach this year.

Drive (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn): Nicolas Winding Refn brought a European eye to this ultra-stylish LA noir with a killer soundtrack and performances.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Dir. Martin Scorsese): Scorsese’s in-depth examination of the late Beatle was a passionate and moving tribute to a kindred soul.

Hugo (Dir. Martin Scorsese): The high-priest of celluloid channelled his inner child to create a stunning digital tribute to one of the early pioneers of cinema.

Jane Eyre (Dir. Cary Fukunaga): An exquisite literary adaptation with genuine depth, feeling and two accomplished lead performers that fitted their roles like a glove.

Margin Call (Dir. J.C. Chandor): The best drama yet to come out the financial crisis is this slow-burn acting masterclass which manages to clarify the empty heart of Wall Street.

Melancholia (Dir. Lars von Trier): Despite the Cannes controversy, his stylish vision of an apocalyptic wedding was arguably his best film, filled with memorable images and music.

Moneyball (Dir. Bennett Miller): The philosophy that changed a sport was rendered into an impeccably crafted human drama by director Bennett Miller with the help of Brad Pitt.

Project Nim (Dir. James Marsh): A chimpanzee raised as a human was the extraordinary and haunting subject of this documentary from James Marsh.

Rango (Dir. Gore Verbinski): The best animated film of 2011 came from ILMs first foray into the medium as they cleverly riffed on classic westerns and Hollywood movies.

Senna (Dir. Asif Kapadia): A documentary about the F1 driver composed entirely from existing footage made for riveting viewing and a truly emotional ride.

Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen): The follow up to Hunger was a powerful depiction of sexual compulsion in New York, featuring powerhouse acting and pin-sharp cinematography.

Snowtown (Dir. Justin Kerzel): Gruelling but brilliant depiction of an Australian murder case, which exposed modern horror for the empty gorefest it has become.

Take Shelter (Dir. Jeff Nichols): Wonderfully atmospheric blend of family drama and Noah’s Ark which brilliantly played on very modern anxieties of looming apocalypse.

The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius): An ingenious love letter to the silent era of Hollywood is executed with an almost effortless brilliance.

The Descendants (Dir. Alexander Payne): Pitch-perfect comedy-drama which saw Alexander Payne return to give George Clooney his best ever role.

The Guard (Dir. John Michael McDonagh): Riotously funny Irish black comedy with Brendan Gleeson given the role of his career.

The Interrupters (Dir. Steve James): The documentary of the year was this powerful depiction of urban violence and those on the frontline trying to prevent it.

The Skin I Live In (Dir. Pedro Almodovar): The Spanish maestro returned with his best in years, as he skilfully channeled Hitchcock and Cronenberg.

The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick): Moving and mindblowing examination of childhood, death and the beginnings of life on earth.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir Tomas Alfredson): Wonderfully crafted John le Carre adaptation which resonates all too well in the current era of economic and social crisis.

Tyrannosaur (Dir. Paddy Considine): Searingly emotional drama with two dynamite lead performances and an unexpected Spielberg reference.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsey): Audio-visual masterclass from Ramsay with a now predictably great performance from Tilda Swinton.

Win Win (Dir. Thomas McCarthy): Quietly brilliant comedy-drama with Paul Giamatti seemingly born to act in this material.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

A Dangerous Method (Dir. David Cronenberg)
Anonymous (Dir. Roland Emmerich)
Another Earth (Dir. Mike Cahill)
Attack the Block (Dir. Joe Cornish)
Bobby Fischer Against The World (Dir. Liz Garbus)
Confessions (Dir. Tetsuya Nakashima)
Contagion (Dir. Steven Soderbergh)
Four Days Inside Guantanamo (Dir. Luc Cote, Patricio Henriquez)
I Saw the Devil (Dir. Kim Ji-woon)
Into the Abyss (Dir. Werner Herzog)
Life in a Day (Dir. Kevin MacDonald)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Dir. Sean Durkin)
Midnight in Paris (Dir. Woody Allen)
Page One: Inside The New York Times (Dir. Andrew Rossi)
Super 8 (Dir. JJ Abrams)
The Adventures of Tintin (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
The Beaver (Dir. Jodie Foster)
The Deep Blue Sea (Dir. Terence Davies)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dir. David Fincher)
The Ides of March (Dir. George Clooney)

2010 FILMS THAT CAME OUT IN 2011

Armadillo (Dir. Janus Metz)
Beginners (Dir. Mike Mills)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Dir. Werner Herzog)
Submarine (Dir. Richard Ayoade)
Cold Weather (Dir. Aaron Katz)
Tabloid (Dir. Errol Morris)

Find out more about the films of 2011 at Wikipedia
End of year lists at Metacritic
> The Best Film Music of 2011
The Best DVD and Blu-ray Releases of 2011

Sight and Sound’s Top Films of 2011

This year’s Sight and Sound poll has been topped by Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

The UK film magazine polled around 100 critics and – as usual – the list has surfaced on various websites before the official one, even though they have confirmed the top two films on their Twitter feed:

“Most of you guessed right: our film of 2011 is The Tree of Life (by a country mile)”

Which begs the question, why has this film got the reputation of being critically divisive?

Whilst a minority booed at the Cannes press screening and it presumably baffled some audiences, if you look at the filtered critical consensus there is a lot of love for Malick’s opus: 85/100 on Metacritic, 84% on Rotten Tomatoes, 79/100 on Movie Review Intelligence and 7.3/10 on IMDb.

As is often the case, there is a good spread of European auteur royalty amongst the list (Von Trier, Dardennes and Tarr), which makes it read a bit like Thierry Frémaux‘s contacts book, but its good to see Michel Hazanavicius, Tomas Alfredson and Asghar Farhadi join the club with films of real distinction and class.

1. The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick).

2. A Separation (Dir. Asghar Farhadi).

3. The Kid With a Bike (Dir. Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne).

4. Melancholia (Dir. Lars von Trier).

5. The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius).

=6. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan).

=6. The Turin Horse (Dir. Béla Tarr)

8. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsay).

9. Le Quattro Volte (Dir. Michelangelo Frammartino).

=10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir. Tomas Alfredson).

=10. This Is Not a Film (Dir. Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmashb)

Sight and Sound (follow them on Twitter or connect on Facebook)
Wikipedia on 2011 in film

Stanley Kubrick and The Tree of Life

Is a Stanley Kubrick quote from 1968 the best description of The Tree of Life?

There are more than a few interesting parallels between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terrence Malick’s latest film.

In their different ways, both ask questions about the origins of human existence, contain astounding visuals courtesy of Douglas Trumbull, use a lot of classical music and have attracted rave reviews.

Both have also been incorrectly labelled as difficult, divisive films – 2001 was a major critical and financial success but because four prominent New York critics disliked it, was labelled as getting a ‘mixed’ response.

Malick’s latest film currently has outstanding critical scores on review aggregation sites like Metacritic (85), Rotten Tomatoes (85) and a very respectable IMDb rating of 7.9, despite some critics recycling the words ‘pretentious’ and ‘perfume ad’.

But after seeing Malick’s film I was immediately reminded of something Stanley Kubrick once said in a Playboy interview around the release of his sci-fi epic:

Playboy: If life is so purposeless, do you feel its worth living?

Kubrick: Yes, for those who manage somehow to cope with our mortality. The very meaninglessness of life forces a man to create his own meaning.

Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre (a keen enjoyment of living), their idealism – and their assumption of immortality.

As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong – and lucky – he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan (enthusiastic and assured vigour and liveliness).

Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining.

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

Stanley Kubrick in interview for Playboy, Stanley Kubrick Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2001, p.73

Is this not a near-perfect summary of The Tree of Life?

> My review of The Tree of Life
> Kubrick interview at Google Books
> The Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey at the IMDb

The Tree of Life

UK cinemagoers can now finally see Terrence Malick’s latest film but how does it hold up after all the buzz and anticipation?

Ever since his debut Badlands (1973) screened to acclaim at the New York Film Festival nearly 40 years ago, a Terrence Malick film has become something of an event.

One of the most audacious directorial debuts in US cinema was followed five years later with Days of Heaven (1978), a troubled production which fortunately yielded one of the most visually remarkable films of the 1970s.

Then there followed a twenty year period where Malick didn’t make any movies, a time which stoked his legend and made people revisit the extraordinary beauty and craftsmanship of his work and cemented his place in the canon of American cinema.

Just when it seemed he would become the J.D. Salinger of US cinema, in the mid-90s it emerged that he was actually returning with an adaptation of the World War II novel The Thin Red Line (1998), which has the distinction of being one of the greatest and most unusual war films ever released by a major studio.

Six years later he made The New World (2005), a retelling of the Pocahontas story which contained the same slow-burn ecstasy as his previous work along with some breathtaking use of imagery and music.

Malick remains an enigma as his refusal to do any publicity or play by conventional Hollywood practice is matched by an extensive network of admirers and supporters throughout the very system he flouts.

Up to this point his forty year career has been highly singular.

Not since Stanley Kubrick has a filmmaker achieved such creative control nor inspired such reverential awe amongst his peers and true cineastes.

Financing for this film was presumably a bit trickier than his last two, but River Road Entertainment and producer Bill Pohlad managed to raise the reported $32 million budget and followed the recent Malick formula of casting a big star alongside talented newcomers.

The production was three years in the making, with the bulk of photography taking place in 2008 and various other elements stretched out until it eventually premièred at Cannes back in May.

One of the most hotly anticipated festival screenings in years, it seemed to divide initial reaction at the festival (it was both booed and cheered at the press screening in the morning), but with high praise from experienced trade critics, the film was rapturously received at the evening premiere and went on to win the Palme d’Or.

Malick was actually spotted at the festival, but the producers accepted the award on his behalf and there was a wonderful symmetry to The Tree of Life winning a trophy of golden leaves.

Over the last few weeks Fox Searchlight have given it a platform release and amongst discerning film goers it has become one of the must-see events of the summer.

After all, this is a work by one of America’s most revered directors featuring one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.

But exactly is The Tree of Life all about?

It charts the memories of an architect (Sean Penn) as he remembers his childhood growing up in 1950s Texas, with two contrasting parents: his stern father (Brad Pitt), loving mother (Jessica Chastain) and two brothers.

At the same time, there is an extended sequence which explores the beginnings of creation and the development of life.

But the surprising aspect of the film is how these seemingly disparate strands do actually mesh.

Whilst it may divide opinion, there is nothing here that should perturb anyone with a genuinely open mind.

It is difficult to discuss specific story points without spoilers, but this is not some kind of art house indulgence but an inspired meditation on human existence and memory.

The signature Malick motifs are here: internal monologue voiceover, magic hour visuals and elliptical editing, and it follows themes he has previously explored, such as life, death and the nature of man.

Here Malick explores how life began but also asks the more pressing question of how death affects how we live our lives: should we embrace the selfish instinct to merely survive or a more compassionate approach to appreciate the present?

These two ways are embodied in the characters of the father and mother but also relate to any living thing in the history of the world, which is why the inclusion of Malick staples such as creatures and plants is not only appropriate but significant.

That the film relates these to the story of Penn’s character and his memories of childhood is part of its particular wonder: it is almost as if Malick was born to make this.

Parallels have been drawn to the director’s own life story and there is no doubt that this is an acutely personal film which I suspect has been brewing inside of him for a very long time.

Some viewers of a particular experience may find certain sequences hit home with an almost unbearable emotional intensity.

But the lasting power of The Tree of Life is how manages to find the universal within the particular.

Viewers may be jolted by the juxtaposition of the cosmic with the domestic, but aren’t experiences of childhood and our later memories filled with such existential questions?

Is there a creator? Why are we born in order to die? What happens in the afterlife?

These are pretty big questions and the fact that Malick tackles them head on with an admirable lack of detachment is actually amazing in this day and age of recycled narratives and endless sequels.

Cinema is a medium wonderfully suited to getting inside people’s thoughts and feelings and Malick is a past master at capturing both the internal and external landscapes of the human experience.

That he does so again here with his impeccable artistry is to be richly savoured as the technical achievements of The Tree of Life are extraordinary.

For the Texas sections, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki creates stunning images with a fluid intimacy that captures both the wonder of growing up and the internal emotions and memories of the major characters.

He used natural light and Steadicam to amazing effect in The New World (2005) and here he repeats the ecstatic brilliance of that film with photography that is appropriately transcendent.

The actors respond with considerable distinction: Pitt captures the simmering frustration and deep love of a stern but loving father; Chastain is magnetic as the ethereal mother; whilst the child actors – Hunter McCracken, Tye Sheridan and Laramie Eppler – fully convince. (Incidentally, Eppler looks uncannily like Pitt, although they aren’t related).

Pitt is cursed with a celebrity that often overshadows his acting work, but his performance here is quietly brilliant: his changing moods and inner conflicts are powerful to watch and this is his best work since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).

Penn has a much smaller role but he is a key presence and powerfully depicts a haunted, introspective man reflecting on his life. His role is brief in terms of screen time, but he is an important lynchpin for what happens.

Malick fans may like to note that Penn’s sequences are the only one Malick has ever set in the present – all of his previous films have been period pieces and there is a weird jolt at seeing mobile phones and skyscrapers here.

As for the scenes involving the rather large subject of the creation of mankind, they not only convince but provide something of a master class in the visual effects work of the last forty years.

Supervised by Dan Glass, they are genuinely awesome blend of high-resolution optical photography, modern CGI and unspecified trippy stuff which looks like nothing I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen.

The presence of VFX pioneer Douglas Trumbull on the effects team is obviously going to invite comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but I suspect his own film Brainstorm (1983) may have also been an influence in hiring him (although a forgotten sci-fi thriller it has sequences which visualise similar themes).

There is a grand sweep to the creation sequences which involves spectacular footage of natural phenomena, both in space and on earth: planets, meteors, volcanic eruptions, waterfalls, microscopic cells, jellyfish and even dinosaurs are all used.

Careful viewers may actually notice how they link to the Texas story, as there appear to be subtle visual and thematic clues between the creation of life and the individual lives depicted on screen.

Some stunning sound work throughout the film also helps anchor two seemingly disparate worlds, as the rumblings of nature and space are contrasted with the carefully constructed scenes of the family at home. (Malick aficionados might want to listen carefully for a particular recurring sound that also appears in the The Thin Red Line).

Although Alexandre Desplat worked on a score, Malick has opted to go for a score filled with classical composers, such as Bach, Berlioz, Smetena, Mahler, Holst, Górecki and John Tavener.

Again there may be comparisons to Kubrick, but Malick has his own style and edits to music like no other filmmaker working today, including some exhilarating sequences as the young boys grow up.

The period feel of 1950s small-town Texas is expertly captured by production designer Jack Fisk and the costumes by Jacqueline West give it a vivid period feel, which neatly evokes the power of childhood memories.

The Tree of Life is not a film that will be embraced by everyone and I suspect some may resent the fact that this is pure, distilled Malick with no compromise to conventional Hollywood storytelling clichés.

It is unashamedly ambitious and emotional, which are two qualities that put some audiences immediately on the back foot.

But there is a compelling story here, which is clearer than one might initially think – it just happens to be told in an unconventional way.

Malick has always made films built to last, even if recurring themes and motifs have vexed some viewers of his most recent work.

But the mere existence of this film in 2011 is almost as miraculous as the mysteries depicted within it.

A sublime work in the truest sense of the word, its beauty, vastness and grandeur make it quite something to behold.

It will probably be debated and thought about for a long time, which is entirely appropriate as it both reflects the questions and feelings of life itself.

> Official site and Tumblr blog
> Reviews of The Tree of Life at Metacritic
> Find out more about Terrence Malick at Wikipedia