The AV Club has published a list of the 50 greatest special effects in movies of all time. This list is a very interesting compilation, with films dating from 1901 through today, and covering a wide variety of types of special effects. From costuming, makeup, miniatures, and practical effects, to the seamless integration of animation, motion capture, and digital effects. The movies listed include some of the most iconic movies ever made (The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane) and some of the most obscure (Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, anyone?). There is a heavy focus on horror, largely because of the advancements in makeup and prosthesis, whether it is an amazing gill-man suit in the Creature from the Black Lagoon, an amazing transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London, or an iconic alien queen in Alien.
The list does include some of my favorite special effects that I've seen. A rocket hitting the face of the man in the moon in A Trip to the Moon. The tornado in the Wizard of Oz. Masterwork with miniatures and matte paintings in Star Wars. The best integration of live-action and animation put to screen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Dinosaurs that still hold up (better than anything in the following films) in Jurassic Park. Photoshopping before it was a thing in Forrest Gump. And a master class in live stunt work in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Special effects are one of the things that truly make movies special. It's the magic of cinema that keeps audience's marveling "how'd they do that?." Even in this day and age of overblown special effects laden action films, quality special effect work stands out. Particularly when something truly looks real. It is impressive to note that thirty-one of the movies in the list are there for practical effects, and that many of the digital effects in movies like Independence Day, Jurassic Park, Pan's Labyrinth, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were used to enhance practical effects rather than replace them.
The danger is over-saturation. With nearly every film being CGI filled, it becomes harder to identify certain stellar special effects. Makeup is a category that can still be easily recognizable and impressive. Gary Oldman's transformation in Darkest Hour is jaw dropping at times. He disappeared into the role. In other areas, the good special effects are designed not to stand out. They are designed to not draw attention to themselves. Like the digital recreation of San Francisco in Fincher's Zodiac. If you did not know, you would never guess how much of the setting was digitally recreated to restore San Francisco to a time period appropriate look.
If anything, bad special effects are much more noticeable today. It's easy to talk about movies with bad CGI. Or perhaps, easier to identify films where the special effect is just not quite there yet. Like the digital anti-aging makeup Marvel is so fond of using, or the digital resurrection Peter Cushing in Rogue One. They are attempts that are still at that uncanny valley point. Technology that is so close, but still unnerving, particularly in regard to how the mouth and eyes move.
Looking over the list, I tried to think of the last special effect that really impressed me. The Shining sequence in Ready Player One is pretty neat. As mentioned before, Oldman's makeup in Darkest Hour is incredible and the stunt work in Mad Max: Fury Road shows why stuntmen and women are amazing.
I'd love to hear what has impressed you. What are your favorite special effects of all time? What did the AV Club miss? What have you seen recently that made you still wonder "how'd they do that?"