Production Design in film is the place to where the audience escapes. Creating the visual backdrop and supplying the context that moves the narrative forward, it’s the art behind the film.
Thanks to Joseph at http://www.cinemamonster.com for accepting my “Top 10” list about the history of Production Design in film. Shouldn’t a cardinal rule in films be to offer great artistic design? After all, film is a visual experience that clings to your consciousness; the chance to create an alternate reality is a powerful medium. When I think of beautiful films, the ones that pop into my head are settings which showcase the grandeur of nature. Flawed films are elevated when breathtaking natural settings such as Legends of the Fall or The Last Samurai surround mediocre scripts. Take a strong script and watch the film catapult to near-perfection like Last of the Mohicans. Some criticize directors for providing style over substance like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, but they get away with it because they create artistic wonderlands.
Originally called “Best Art Design” the category was renamed in 2012. Since 1947, it has shared the award with “Set Decorator”. Looking at the Academy Award winners, I’ve tried to narrow down the ‘Best of the Decade’ from 1920s to the present. Since it’s my list, feel free to disagree. I’m just sticking with Oscar winners. Your favorite film might never have been nominated and unjustly so. Here’s my Top 10 by decade:
There were only two years to choose from, 1927/28 and 1928/29. I picked The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1929) released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It’s a remake of the Thorton Wilder Pulitzer winning book. A great read. Have you seen the 2004 version starring Robert DeNiro?
In 1938, Warner Brothers released this swashbuckling classic starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains, and Basil Rothbone (What a name!) Filmed in Technicolor, the original men in green tights never looked so good.
Now it gets harder. Citizen Kane and Rebecca were nominated but did not win. Those that did win, Gaslight, Anna and the King of Siam, and The Yearling had memorable art design. But, I’m going to pick my favorite ballet film, The Red Shoes (1948).
Oh, boy. Look at these mighty contenders: Ben-Hur. On the Waterfront. Gigi. A Streetcar Named Desire. Sunset Boulevard. An American in Paris. How can I pick only one?
I’m going to go for my personal favorite. Dr. Nemo’s underwater world mesmerized me. That organ! Remember Bach’s Taccata in D? How perfect for the mysterious journey. My bet goes to the Jules Verne classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea starring Kirk Douglas, James Mason, and Peter Lorre.
Anthony Masters is the man. 2001: A Space Odyssey was nominated but did not win in 1968. Other winners throughout the decade included Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, and Camelot, but I have to go with my heart and proclaim West Side Story the winner of the decade.
With grand choices like Cabaret, The Sting, and Patton to choose from, I opted for my film favorite, Star Wars.
This decade was easy to pick. Dangerous Liaisons was a perfect period piece.
A fabulous decade for film, I suggest a tie for 1993, Schindler’s List and 1997, Titanic.
Okay, I know I’m supposed to pick Avatar, but I don’t want to. I’m not really a fan of the film. With CGI in full swing, worlds are magical places. It makes it harder to pick from Memoirs of a Geisha, Moulin Rouge! Chicago, Lord of the Rings I – 3, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I vote for the stunning world of the 1920s and classic Hollywood, The Aviator.
This should be easy, right? There’s only four choices: Alice in Wonderland, Hugo, Lincoln, and The Great Gatsby. Since I just picked Leo and the 1920s, I’ll skip it. Though I can do without Johnny Depp in make up, wonderland was a magical place and worthy of the award.
Would you dare to pick an overall winner from the 1920s to the present? CGI seems like cheating to me. It was harder to create colorful, magical places that were believable back in Hollywood’s classic era. That’s why The Red Shoes wins for me.