Sunday, February 24, 2013

Film 2012

So, here we are, another Oscar weekend, another self-imposed deadline for cutting off my Best of Films List. There are plenty of films from 2012 that I have positive expectations for, yet, never got a chance to view. As always though, I take reassurance from the fact that my rental queue grows ever longer--better to have too many choices than too few, right? Last year I posted a list of 11 films, plus two honorable mentions; this year, the list has swelled to include 15 best of's and five runners up. Were all the critics right, and this was a stronger year for cinema, or did I simply get out to the theater more often? Or both? Regardless, here they are, in no order whatsoever. (As before, country designations refer to the origins of the directors). 

1. Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, Canada): On paper the plot of this film (the temptations of adultery) may sound awfully familar, but Polley and her actors invest it with a new found emotional force, creating a narrative that I could neither predict, nor decide how I wanted it to end. One of the most honest, moving and sexy films about relationships that I have seen in a long time.

2. The Avengers (Joss Whedon, USA): It is easy to look back now and say that this had a license to print money, but Marvel truly took a gamble on setting up these films the way they did. They have taken the time to construct an actual interconnected film universe. Not all the installments were equally successful, yet it all came together here for one terrifically fun film. Now, let's hope that Phase Two will be just, if not more, rewarding . . .

3. This Is Not a Film (Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi, Iran): Panahi has long been my favorite of the current generation of Iranian directors, his films being essential viewing for anyone trying to gain a fuller view of Iranian society beyond the stereotypes. Currently under house arrest and banned from filmmaking for political reason, he persisted with this "documentary" made inside his apartment, a moving, whimsical view of his current situation. (Still undeterred by the authorities, another clandestine film by Panahi recently debuted at the Berlin Film Festival). 

4. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, USA): Funny, quirky, creepy, imaginative, in other words, a lovely Burton film. The animation is well crafted and devoted to detail -- Frankenweenie's movements naturally mimic those of a dog perfectly. As does Mr. Whiskers, or at least until his not-so-feline transformation . . .

5. For Ellen (So Yong Kim, Korea/USA): A simple story of a young man who despite all his past mistakes, longs to connect one last time with his young daughter before signing away all his visitation rights. Kim takes a familiar set-up, yet consistently avoids any of the cliche plot-turns you would expect from the material (i.e. no child gets lost in a mall). Anchored by a first-rate performance by Paul Dano, this character piece flew much lower under the radar than it deserved.

6. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonca Filho, Brasil): A decade ago, I was raving about the Brasilian documentary Bus 174, and how it portrayed a society completely at war with itself, from the luxury penthouses to the impoverished slums. The intervening ten years have brought to the country unexpected prosperity and previously unthinkable social mobility. Yet, as this powerful depiction of neighborhood life reminds us, not all ingrained ills can disappear overnight, nor can every crime be swept away under the rug of progress. Resentments still linger . . .

7. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA): Not a film that ever explains itself, but why should it? The acting, especially from Phoenix & Hoffman, is outstanding, while the visuals and atmosphere are captivating. Anderson has crafted a tale of drifting veterans and religious shysters of our past, yet, one wonders, how out of place would they be in our own time of war and searching?

8. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France): An ode to the beauty of cinema, a riff on the absurdity of life, the fluidity of identity and the personas we keep shuffling. Technologies may evolve, CGI creatures replacing Lon Chaney's old box of makeup, but our emotions and the stories we tell about them stay the same. 

9.. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA): Yes, it is a history lesson, but one that never drags or feels stale. Yes, Kushner has done a poor job of explaining some of his factual errors, yet, the strengths of his writing remain: his ability to script anachronistic dialogue naturally. In his hands the film is not only a celebration of what has been accomplished in the past, but, I believe, a reminder of the work for equality which remains for the present generation. Oh, and yes, Day-Lewis was that outstanding . . .

10. Footnote (Joseph Cedar, Israel): A portrait of bullying, and how the victim, given the opportunity, grows into a bully themselves. Cedar's insightful screenplay examines this phenomenon not only on the level of the individual (and the all too familiar refrain of "I am not my father"), but on the national level as well. A timely reminder of how we can unknowingly become what we originally feared and fled. 

11. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal): Beginning in the present day, before flashing back to the last days of colonial rule in Africa, Gomes' film is a wistful, moving look at not only a doomed love affair, but the departed (though not forgotten) way of life which was its setting. Lovely. 

12. Amour (Michael Haneke, Austria): Despite the ravages of age and illness, one couple continues to care for each other, trying their best, until the end, to provide whatever comfort, no matter how small, is within their power. Haneke and his actors capture perfectly the couple's interactions, allowing that they occasionally say the wrong thing or lose their patience, even under the best of times, only the devotion never ceases, even under the worst. At the end, Haneke leaves us with the hope, if we chose to believe it, that such bonds will never break, even onto death.

13. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, USA): What could have been another cutesy "quirky souls in love" type story, is instead a non-sentimental view of mental illness. Love does not simply solve all problems, but provides another outlet, another support along the way, as does family, once you figure out how to avoid (literally) strangling each other. A well-crafted story, well-played.  

14. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA): Like great art should, Bigelow and screenwriter Boal prod the viewer to ask many questions without providing many of the answers, the primary one being: Was it worth it? If torture was required to find bin Laden, was it worth it? If Maya denied herself any other pleasure from life but her work, finding herself utterly alone at the end, was it worth it? And what exactly was accomplished? Revenge? Attacks prevented? Possibly the most heart-breaking scene is after the raid, as the Seals unload all the intel gathered from bin Laden's home, and you realize that tomorrow another day will dawn and the conflict will continue unabated. Perhaps, it will never have an ending . . .

15. Argo (Ben Affleck, USA): And finally, a story about the Middle East that has a happy ending (how did Spielberg not get to this first?). Seriously, a fine piece of filmmaking, and one that does not let America off hook for events leading up to the Iranian Revolution. Affleck wisely lets the acting and directing be unobtrusive, letting the setting, the atmosphere and ultimately the story take center stage. From the opening raid of the embassy to the final flight, a gripping film.

Honorable Mention:
1. The Pirates! Band of Misfits (Peter Lord, John Newitt, England): Aardman demonstrates that they have not lost their knack for quality stories full of humor, winning characters and impressive set-pieces. Remember, though, "some of you are simply fish I put pirate hats on . . ."

2. Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary): Two people, a man and a woman, living a desolate existence (possibly) at the end of the world. Haunting. (See my earlier post,, for a close examination).

3. The Dark Knight Rises(Christopher Nolan, England): A true rarity: a superhero film with a true, honest-to-goodness finale. Over three films Nolan created an arc with a real beginning, middle and end that was quite rewarding. True, the last installment did not quite reach the greatness of the previous (though that is a pretty high standard to meet), but it was still a satisfying conclusion. I wonder if this type of approach to film adaptations (creating a series of self-contained arcs) might be a way in which DC could differentiate itself from Marvel's world-building approach.

4.  Elena (Andrey Zcyagintsev, Russia): A woman begs her cold-hearted rich husband to help out her son from a previous relationship. He says no, and thus the plot starts to spin. A bleak look at contemporary society, where there are precious few opportunities for any happiness that don't involve possessing the required cash deposit . . .

5. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, USA): I wanted to love this movie wholeheartedly, but something about it prevented me from being drawn into it 100% emotionally. So it goes. Still, it is a first-rate technical accomplishment with some superb acting.

Repertory Discoveries: This year's list starts with some classic 30's Hollywood comedy, moves on to late 50's drama and ends with a silent Soviet gloss on a Gogol short story. All three brilliant, in their own ways . . .
Ruggles of Red Gap; Bonjour Tristesse; The Overcoat
Performances: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob (Holy Motors); Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master); Michelle Williams, Luke Kirby, Seth Rogen (Take This Waltz); Paul Dano (For Ellen & Ruby Sparks); Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Sally Field (Lincoln); Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises), Tom Hiddleston, Robert Downey Jr (The Avengers); Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained); Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild); Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro (Silver Linings Playbook); Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis (The Hobbit); Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert (Amour

Best Ensemble: Take This Waltz, The Avengers, Lincoln, Neighboring Sounds, Amour

Best Cat: Dino (Cat in Paris)

Best Dog: Franekenweenie (Frankenweenie)

Best First Film: Neighboring Sounds

Best Sound Design: Neighboring Sounds

Best Period Piece Facial Hair: Lincoln (part of me will never grow tired of seeing so many muttonchops in one place . . . seriously, though: credit for making all that antiquated hair appear natural to the contemporary eye).

Best Score: Jonny Greenwood (The Master); Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild); Danny Elfman (Frankenweenie); Alexander Desplat (Argo & Zero Dark Thirty)

Best Use of Non-Original Music: Leonard Cohen's "Take This Waltz", The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" (Take This Waltz); The Ronettes' "Be My Baby"(Tabu); "The Star Spangled Banner" (The Dark Knight Rises); Philip Seymour Hoffman singing "Slow Boat to China" to Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Hardest Working Musicians in Film: That German string quartet in The Avengers. I mean, seriously, come Hell, high water, or an attack by the Norse God of Lies and Mischief, those musicians are just going to sit there and play the gig goddammit (literally, I guess). Now, that's dedication to craft. (Or as my love pointed out, they could have just really needed that paycheck before the weekend's house party).

And You Were Doing So Well . . . : Flight & Ruby Sparks. Two strong films that mishandle the ending. In the former's case, it was a jump-the rails Hollywood cop-out (filled with snazzy ready-made Oscar clip moments), which while disappointing was not surprising. In the case of the latter, it was literally the very last scene which I felt undercut what came before it. Sigh.

Memento Mori: Studying the close-ups of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, his face creased with lines and wondering if this is what his brother would look like today, if he had lived . . . 

Well, that pretty much covers it for the moment. Cheers