STIR’reel’: A compendium of films from 2021 with exceptional architecture and design

From period dramas to fantasies to sci-fi epics, STIR rounds up the best of architecture and design in this year’s mainstream cinema offerings.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Dec 29, 2021

Film and architecture share a rather intrinsic relationship, a didactic one that is worthy of every scholarly research. Not only is one highly informative of the other, they are also increasingly derivative of each other. While the supposed 'background' in films impinges upon the mood of the film, often even reflecting the characters' states of mind, the architecture of fancy in films has also influenced architecture in real time, conversely. This dual relationship is what makes cinematic architecture so endearing, so intersectional, as a discussion. And that is what outlines this selection of films: not only did these films have entire universes that outlined their characters and their subsequent arcs, they pushed boundaries in interpretation and abstraction, all the while enriching the mainstream.

As the year draws to a close, STIR presents a compendium of the finest architecture and production design in films this year: a ready list for you to binge upon this holiday season.

1. The Green Knight

The opening shot of The Green Knight, set inside Camelot | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
The opening shot of The Green Knight, set inside Camelot Image: Courtesy of A24 films

Recreating history on film is one task. However, recreating history merged with high fantasy is another, and director David Lowery delivers this fusion in a rather experimental manner. Comprising myriad visions, tinted in the macabre mood of the scene (mostly green, obviously), the film, starring Dev Patel in the lead, is a high fantasy retelling of the 14th century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , penned in Middle English. The medieval high fantasy setting is brought alive in this rousing tale of Arthurian legend through details in abstractions, in line with the seemingly haphazardly edited visions that guide the film's narrative. 

  • An interpretation of King Arthur and his knights’ roundtable in the film, along with the Green Knight | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
    An interpretation of King Arthur and his knights’ roundtable in the film, along with the Green Knight Image: Courtesy of A24 films
  • The film’s architecture fuses medieval architecture with elements of high fantasy | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
    The film’s architecture fuses medieval architecture with elements of high fantasy Image: Courtesy of A24 films

The film is shot mostly in natural light, appending the mood of the tale, and this effect comes in full force especially in the interior shots, wherein light seeps in through carefully engineered orifices, as if casting the spotlight on a stage. The opening of the film in a crowded brothel, the near pantheonic opening atop King Arthur’s roundtable, the Camelot castle, and the tower for the Green Knight’s summoning ritual are all fine manifestations of that. The outward architecture here appreciably steers away from the archetypes of a medieval English castle, to create structures that truly belong in a medieval fantasy world.

2. The French Dispatch

The film is structured as an anthology of three short stories published in the final issue of a fictional magazine, ‘The French Dispatch’ | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
The film is structured as an anthology of three short stories published in the final issue of a fictional magazine, ‘The French Dispatch’ Image: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

At this point in Wes Anderson's filmography, any roundup list on set and production design that doesn’t include his cinema should be considered blasphemous. Say what you may about the narrative or written aspects of his films, all of them are crafted as immensely precisely staged love letters brought to life. There is no cinematic style as visually resplendent, definitive, and identifiable as his: one may even take a moment to identify a Tarantino film, but among popular auteurs, Anderson and his films stand out and how.

  • The city of Angoulême stood in for the fictional urban setting of the film, Ennui-sur-Blasé | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
    The city of Angoulême stood in for the fictional urban setting of the film, Ennui-sur-Blasé Image: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
  • The final segment, ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner’ makes the most extensive usage of the monochrome format | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
    The final segment, ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner’ makes the most extensive usage of the monochrome format Image: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

His latest this year was a cause of much euphoria for his fans in a year without any for most. The world of The French Dispatch, designed as a “love letter to journalism”, is a concrete declaration of Anderson's love for all things symmetric, pastel, and picture-perfect. As with a number of his other films, most recently including The Grand Budapest Hotel, this one too is meticulously arranged: as spotless as a newly opened bone-china dinner set, and puts Anderson’s characteristic 'inside the box' aesthetic on fine display. Anderson is freely indulgent here, as is visible in the vast A-list cast including Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Benicio Del Toro, Timothée Chalamet, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jeffrey Wright. His indulgences further manifest in both, the exterior shots of the fictional historical Ennui-sur-Blasé; and the interior shots, with the press office, kitchen, and Rosenthal’s prison cell being definite highlights. Through every picture perfect frame, candy doused or monochromatic, square or widescreen, Anderson manages creating a fine montage glimpsing his own work through the years.

3. Dune

The protagonist Paul, in the Atreides home world of Caladan | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
The protagonist Paul, in the Atreides home world of Caladan Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Dune was the movie event of the year for me, and was clearly the superior cinematic adaptation that the massive book deserved. Apropos that, when film is discussed in architectural and design circles, this is exactly what they talk about: a built universe, a world which the film’s characters inhabit as their own. And the painstaking universe-building in Dune was second to none this year, especially considering there is no shared universe to begin with here. The sole responsibility of introducing, engrossing, and engaging audiences into the desert world of Arrakis lay on this film, and Dune delivers in all aspects, not just one. A fair share of the credit on this goes to director Denis Villenueve’s persistent efforts in bringing the expansive world of Dune to life. It is visible that Villenueve’s newfound, big-budget sci-fi production expertise from Blade Runner 2049 is finessed into a dusty canvas here, albeit in a different kind of dystopia. The visibly invested cast, including Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, and Zendaya, take the rest of the credit in inhabiting this world willingly.

  • The interior spaces in Arrakis are formed with particular care, and have a fortress like quality | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
    The interior spaces in Arrakis are formed with particular care, and have a fortress like quality Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
  • The Baron in the Harkonnen stronghold on Giedi Prime, visualised intently to be pitch dark | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
    The Baron in the Harkonnen stronghold on Giedi Prime, visualised intently to be pitch dark Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Why this film should be considered an absolute win is not just because it’s a good film by all means, but it’s a good film that looks and sounds brilliant, while adapting source material that has been termed unfilmable by many culture pundits. Dune’s aesthetic is jaded and dust laden. This is a futuristic world without any computers and AI, and the production design brings that world to life by striking a balance between futurism, the very mythic and religious undertones of Dune’s world, and a plethora of history. In such a world, the meanings of power, luxury, and elation: emotions most readily manifested in film architecture through scale, material, and form or colour: are entirely different. It is interesting to see these interpretations, but in structures that have endured a thousand dust storms, the patina of time literally imprinted on them. A fortress-like structural quality, a solitude coupled with a controlled sense of natural lighting from either skylights or shaded windows pierces every structure in both Arrakis and Caladan. The Harkonnen home is obviously an exception, which is decidedly pitch dark.

4. Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley’s production design is heavily influenced by Art Deco motifs and tropes | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
Nightmare Alley’s production design is heavily influenced by Art Deco motifs and tropes Image: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Few filmmakers have such an avid hold over abstraction in cinema, over creating feverish dream worlds in their films the way Guillermo Del Toro does. For the second feature film adaptation of the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, Del Toro experiments in Noir and crafts his latest as a psychological thriller. Everything constituting the film’s setting, from the 1920s carnival in the first half of the film, to the 1930s Buffalo corporate offices in the second half of the film, is given a dark, dreamy, macabre Del Toro twist. A few of the shots and scenes from the carnival setting, particularly, were eerily reminiscent of Del Toro’s fantastic Pan’s Labyrinth, channeling the same atmospheric surrealism, but in a much more grounded sense.

  • The film fuses elements of noir with the structure of a psychological thriller, reflective in the film’s lighting and design as well | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
    The film fuses elements of noir with the structure of a psychological thriller, reflective in the film’s lighting and design as well Image: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
  • Director Guillermo Del Toro on one of the green-tinged interior sets of the film | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
    Director Guillermo Del Toro on one of the green-tinged interior sets of the film Image: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The art deco style reigns heavily in the interior settings of the film, right from the furniture design to the decorative wall panels. Doused in dark pastel shades and heavily accented in gold that lends the film its all overcoming ember tonality in its second half, the rooms and spaces the film’s players inhabit become uniquely their own, albeit in monotone, as opposed to the varicoloured setting of the carnival. A clear case in point is the femme fatale in the film, played by Cate Blanchett, employing a markedly different setting for effect: devious, cunning, lustrous: materialised in golden.

5. West Side Story

West Side Story is the second feature film adaptation of the 1957 stage musical of the same name, and recreates the architecture of the time with finesse | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
West Side Story is the second feature film adaptation of the 1957 stage musical of the same name, and recreates the architecture of the time with finesse Image: Courtesy of Disney

The film may have performed rather poorly at the box office, but being a Spielberg film on its own merits dissection. You see the master of commercial cinema put together an entirely faithful adaptation of the 1957 stage drama replete with colour, flavour, fervour, and of course, song. A household name by now, Steven Spielberg is behind some of the best theatrical experiences of my life, right from Jurassic Park to Ready Player One. While West Side Story may not live up to that mantle, its production design, composed of a strict typological construct that is immediately reminiscent of 1950s New York, is expectedly A-grade.

  • The film is a fine display of the New York CIty in the 1950s | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
    The film is a fine display of the New York CIty in the 1950s Image: Courtesy of Disney
  • Director Steven Spielberg inside the set of Doc’s general store, an important location for the film’s finale | Films with the best architecture 2021 | STIRworld
    Director Steven Spielberg inside the set of Doc’s general store, an important location for the film’s finale Image: Courtesy of Amblin Entertainment

The film opens with the camera fixed upon a wrecking ball, having wreaked havoc upon a demolished neighbourhood, clearly comprising traditional NY brick tenements, creating ground zero for the now iconic Lincoln Centre. Another iconic scene, with Tony (played by Ansel Elgort) and Maria (played by newcomer Rachel Zegler) on the steel balcony and fire escape is as New York City as it gets, and is faithfully adapted to be the money shot of the film. Interestingly, like a lot of other stage dramas, the entire film, especially in the shots at night, has a stage-like quality to the production. In saying that, I do not imply that the background lacks the depth of the third dimension, but rather fades and merges with a nothingness, while a spot or flood light bathes the rich brick scenery. As I stated before, faithful recreation is key here to the translative success of the film’s environs.

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