The 20th century and its landmark events are major sources of inspiration for at least eight major awards contenders this year and artisans had their hands full re-creating a period of turbulence, war and immense social change.
“Selma” takes us back to a seminal moment of the civil rights movement in the U.S., when the brutality of a white Southern police force striking against peacefully marching blacks, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., turned public opinion against segregation and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act by Congress in 1964. Elements like vehicles, guns, billy clubs, furniture and costumes — all well documented in thousands of photos and newsreels — had to be gathered or created.
Artisans for Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” faced an even larger task because they had to reproduce period looks of three continents as athlete Louis Zamperini competes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, joins the U.S. military and ends up a POW at a Japanese prison camp. Another WWII-set movie, “Fury,” depicts the European battleground toward the end of the war.
Sound designer Paul N.J. Ottosson used various tricks to simulate the sounds of exploding bombs and whizzing artillery shells, and the shock of giant explosions.
The third major WWII story released this year, “The Imitation Game,” about how troubled mathematician Alan Turing helped break the codes used by Germany’s military, takes place entirely in England. The producers secured locations that resembled the bases and labs where the British code-breaking team worked, and actors were clad in genuine garments that dated back to that era of shortages and rationing.
“The Theory of Everything,” the other film in this year’s race about a British genius, takes place mostly in the second half of the 20th century and extends into the 21st to tell the story of Stephen Hawking, author of “A Brief History of Time,” who became a noted scientist and best-selling author despite the toll that ALS had taken on his body. As with “Game,” the filmmakers re-created Britain’s urban and rural landscapes from the recent past.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” combines a 20th century middle Europe setting with the fantasy world of helmer Wes Anderson, who drew inspiration from the writings of Stefan Zweig. Locations, buildings, decorations, artifacts and costumes — all meticulously created — don’t exactly reproduce the period but rather embellish upon it and give it a surreal air.
“Foxcatcher” and “A Most Violent Year” both take place in the 1980s. “Year” is set in a New York City beset by lawlessness; its cinematography perfectly captures the bleak mood of wintertime violence as one crook with principles battles others with fewer scruples. In “Foxcatcher,” standout elements include makeup that totally transforms comic Steve Carell into one of darkest characters ever seen on film, and — to a lesser extent — turns Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum into down-and-dirty wrestlers.
Of course, not every picture among this season’s standouts is set in the last century.
Two films — “Noah” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” — take place in biblical times. Two others — “Interstellar” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” — are space sagas, the former serious, the latter more tongue-in-cheek. “Whiplash” and “Birdman” reverberate with intense, driving drum scores. “Boyhood,” filmed over 12 years, stands out for editing. “Mr. Turner” uses the pre-Impressionist’s palette to color the film itself, and “Into the Woods” melds Stephen Sondheim’s music with stunning vfx, costumes and sets.
All in all, on the artisans front, 2014 turned out to be the year of the 20th century, with some Bible stories, period pieces and space sagas thrown in for good measure.