Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 in Film

2012 was a good year for movies. 'Course, they all are, except 1988 (FIGHT ME ABOUT IT), but all the same, this year is continuing the hot streak that we've been in since at least '07. Night photography has never been better than it is in movies like The Amazing Spider-Man, which has lovely crystalline views of Midtown NYC, camera movement is gracefully unencumbered like in the operatic long opening take of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. Desaturation seems to be falling out of favor, and thank god. It's a relief to see some vivid color back on the screen. Sexual barriers are crashing down, like the brave young romance of Moonrise Kingdom. These'll be remembered as artistically significant times. 

The state of film criticism is less rosy. This year was marked with multiple attacks on films by bloggers and pundits before they'd even seen their targets. From trailers and promotional material alone we were assured that Lincoln was a racist throwback to the Dunning school of Reconstruction, despite being the only positive portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens in major cinema; that Zero Dark 30 was pro-torture neocon propaganda, despite being from the woman who made the anti-war The Hurt Locker; and that Django Unchained somehow managed to be both anti-white and anti-black. The Grey was knocked because it wasn't "Taken with wolves" and Battleship was "stupid" because it was based on a board game - because Clue obviously turned out so poorly. The future of film writing is in the hands of dedicated amateurs on the internet, and that being the case, we gotta grow up some in 2013.

I'm still some heavy hitters away from a full grasp on the year - Magic Mike & The Central Park Five are on my to-do list, but here's where I've landed on every 2012 release I saw this year, in rough order from best-ish to worst-ish. I look forward to bitter and divisive arguments below! Happy 2013, folks.

Towering, elegantly dissatisfying creation myth which casts our hunger for inevitably artless and schematic sequels as the product of a theological "need to believe," and it's probably right about that. This is the best sci-fi since Jurassic Park; a film which prioritizes nightmarish poetry over Wikipenis "canon correction".

Beasts of the Southern Wild
It's like Harper Lee's The Road, and it's as beautiful and delicate as anything I've seen in a long long time. Has a fluid, Victor Erice-like mingling of reality and fantasy which somehow only helps ground the unusual setting. Simply tremendous filmmaking.

I've said my peace about this one already, so I'll leave it at this: This is the kind of effortlessly elegant filmmaking that you see once or twice a decade. Spielberg's in the middle of a late-career revival gunning for Saint John Ford's spot as GOAT.

The Grey
Perfectly named for a film about the moment between life and death. Death hits punishingly hard in this film, which got flak from the same artless crowd that rejected Prometheus. It's not "Taken with wolves," it's something much better, and of course they "don't act like real wolves," they're grim reapers. Neeson, who I don't often like, puts in a career high here. Death is palpable in every frame and in every line on his face. Joe Carnahan has proved here that he can make a lasting film, I hope he tries for it again. Bilge Ebiri's thoughts on it are worth reading.

Django Unchained
Starts out as a fun, quirky action/comedy, ends up a surprisingly touching historical horror film about the utter grotesqueness of slavery (AL:VH went into similar territory but this one has a much more grueling and shaking approach). Waltz, Foxx, et al. put in great work and the gleeful complicated violence that literally paints the cotton and white walls of the plantations is Tarantino's best action choreography. The story is a bit too loose, it falls sort of the structural perfection of Inglourious Basterds, but only just.
This was a cute touch.

It's Such a Beautiful Day
Deeply beautiful and quietly brilliant piece of art about our fears and insecurities, and the beauty of the things around us. Hertzfeldt's occasionally too-cutesy stick figure style is used to great effect here, stripping things down to their most banal and basic elements until suddenly things burst into color and vivacity. Lovely, life-affirming.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
It's perhaps not the miracle Regeneration was, but it is without question one of the most daring and thoughtful films of the year. It expands on Regeneration'Unforgiven-esque simultaneous condemnation and exaltation of film violence, by stripping it all even further of meaning and stakes. John Hyams, who shoots "banal" violence like home invasions and car chases like horror scenes, has the potential to be a cinematic Hemingway, restoring the animalistic power to worn-out film language. Hyams's first study of film violence was called The Smashing Machine, and the dark implications of that title have obviously never left him.

The Master
A film that crept up on me. The scenes work better individually than as a whole, but a few days after viewing that quality only strengthens the powerful and uneasy sense of animal dissatisfaction at the story's core. The frank and nuanced view of sexuality was refreshing and further evidence that we're moving away from the prudishness that's always marked Hollywood. Great to see Laura Dern again, and Jesse Plemons is one perfect role away from greatness.

Double feature blast of Yeezy's infectious designer rebellion. Beautiful location work and iconic imagery. I know it's not called Theraflu anymore, but it's still Theraflu.

The thematic conclusion to this whole era of grim superheroics. Dark and funny and darkly funny, it invests all of its energy into its characters and its production design, so even when things get a little lumpy near the end, you're hooked. Karl Urban, Lena Headey, and Olivia Thirlby all crush their parts, and the score is a hell of a lot of fun, it feels like I was playing Doom again. This one is bound to be a cult classic.

Moonrise Kingdom
Anderson's precision and dollhouse-like parsing of space is oppressive as usual, but his human interactions are stronger than ever. The Badlands-lite camping stuff is the highlight, loving and uncomfortable in all the best ways. Bruce Willis finally remembered how to be sympathetic.

The Invisible War
It feels trivializing to even mention this film alongside so much fiction - it's nothing but harsh and painful truth. This is the story of rape victims, both male and female, in the military. It's the story - a story that we all kinda sorta are aware of but rarely have to confront ourselves with - of the shameful way we treat our veterans and the terrible things we let happen to people whose only ambition was to serve the nation. It is a patriotic responsibility to watch this film, and it's one of the hardest things you'll have to do.

A pleasant surprise! I was expecting fluff and got a beautifully composed, open-hearted story of a misfit. It has all of the kid's movie problems - a tendency to over-explain and some clunky jokes - but it's better than the last few Pixar films and at its best, it's really something. The first half slice-of-life stuff is better than the Scooby Doo mystery - mostly for their impeccable recreation of late Fulci on the TV but also for their impeccable re-creation of my childhood room.

Judged before it even hit theaters, trashed for being everything it isn't. It's a surprisingly smart and pretty bit of popcorn filmmaking. Strong sense of humor, an impressively progressive approach to casting, and a haunting implication that the bad guys weren't so bad at all. It's an aesthetic and philosophical rebuttal to Transformers, and the great first contact scene reads like an alternate, sadder ending to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Queen of Versailles
"The man who made W. president" learns the effects of the Bush years. It's tempting to look at it as nothing but schadenfreude, as the mega-rich start setting aside money for their kids' college and struggle to pay their mortgages, but Lauren Greenfield has an even hand and one always remembers that these people are not evil, they're just horribly normal people who've grown out of control. The interviews with their nannies and poorer relatives are an unforgettable contrast.

Memorial Land
Bill Brown's cross-section of homemade 9/11 tributes quietly tells us a lot about loneliness, narcissism, and obsession in America.

It's toothless and too baby boomery for its own good, but for the most part Flight dodges the tiring treacle of Zemeckis's worst with a thrilling first act, strong ending, and a wonderful cast. This is the first time Denzel's gotten to stretch his horizons in a while, and Bruce Greenwood doing his best Tom Skerritt impression, Don Cheadle as a nerd, John Goodman, and Melissa Leo round out a fun cast. It's too bad the core romance of the second act is boring and, ultimately, pointless.

Satisfying mash-up of a billion genre movies. It uses its found footage conceit in a really slick way, finding a happy medium between showing nothing and showing too much. There's talk of a sequel but I'm skeptical, it doesn't feel like there's anywhere to go now that the central relationships are unexplorable. The beautiful, loud, frightening, invigorating flight sequence is the film's unequivocal highlight.

Soderberg's cool minimalism allows some of the most fun actors in the business to outshine the action. Gina Carrano is impossibly beautiful.

The Amazing Spider-Man
The Spiderman stuff is the worst part, but the wonderful high contrast NYC footage and tremendous, charmingly awkward performances by Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield make this a lot of fun in the same hangout kind of way Thor was. It treats Parker as a teenager, which the others didn't really do, so his transformation from kid with powers to hero is given a lot of weight. Truth is, I'd rather have a Peter Parker movie than a Spiderman one.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Gets trashed by people who smugly remind us ol' Honest Abe wasn't a vampire hunter, but a viewer without a chip on their shoulder will get a fun deadpan comedy about the degree we go to lionize our heroes, and our willingness to believe anything as long as it validates our worldview. Beyond that, Dominic Cooper plays Blade. That's terrific.

4:44 Last Day on Earth
Abel Ferrara's apocalypse is an idealogical rejection of most apocalyptic fiction, by putting its faith in small intimate moments of human contact instead of leering at carnage. It leaves something to be desired, but in its best scenes it's a beautiful and eerie elegy. The constant touching weighed against constant Skyping really hammer home the frustrations of virtual communication.

The Raid: Redemption
The story doesn't even show up, unlike the similar-but-better Dredd, but the hyperchoreographed action is pure kinetic beauty. It's like a Busby Berkeley musical with blood.

It's like two movies slapped together, and one, the dull teen horror about a goopy face monster and evil kids is trash, but the other, a series of short snuff films, is absolutely viscerally horrifying, all the more for the tedium that surrounds it. Cut it down to about 8 minutes and it's a masterpiece.

Rise of the Zombies
This SyFy Channel Original has, at best, middling writing, but it's elevated by some excellent and unexpected performances from Mariel Hemingway, Levar Burton, and Danny Trejo. There's a commitment to the unironic sadness of the post-Night, pre-Dawn era of the genre. It pulls off the tone The Walking Dead consistently bungles. This kind of unexpected treat is what low-budget horror is all about.

Tom Hardy puts in some of his best work in one of the most beautiful and pointless films ever made. It seems impossible to make this story boring, but Nick Cave and John Hillcoat's reliance on the shock of violence instead of anything approaching drama seals its fate. Guy Pearce is at his worst.

Paranormal Activity 4
Lightweight and the first real disappointment of the series scares-wise, though it pays off a lot of voyeur tension lingering since the first film.

Les Misérables
Anne Hathaway doesn't miss a beat, Jackman's at his most charming, and Eddie Redmayne (who I've never seen before) elevates one of the least interesting roles of the play into a highlight of the film. But it's all for naught because the director brings nothing to the table. It's a gray, flat void, as ugly a film as I've ever seen.

The Dark Knight Rises
The single biggest waste of resources since the Spanish-American War.

The Cabin in the Woods
Tedium trying to make a point about the staleness of horror films that, in part because it doesn't know a damn thing about the genre, only manages to be one of the stalest of all. Shambolic horror sequences and repetitive comedy bits. The scene with the wolf's head was terrific and pointed the way to a better movie that never came. Cool snake, though!

The Watch
The epitome of third act collapse, but it's worth the ride for Ayoade and Jonah Hill's ongoing deadpan competition.

Dragon Eyes
John Hyams's weakest film. Peter Weller gets one great bizarrely comic scene where he interrupts a man's S&M session to torture him, but the rest is pretty unremarkable. Hyams continues his motif of smashing machines backed into corners because of The System, but it just doesn't have the same weight without the shadowy government stuff he does so well.

Star Wars Uncut: Director's Cut
The first Star Wars is charming in its inflation of the cardboard-and-plaster sci-fi Lucas grew up on, so it's kind of cool to see it reduced back to those elements, but the actual experience of watching it is an overload of hammy nerds in their living rooms.

John Carter
Absolutely no sense of forward momentum. There's an okay hour and a half movie lost in this bloated wilderness. Great production design, though.

Area 407
It's guilty of every failing they accuse of the found footage genre.

The Words
A film about writing by people who very transparently do not read. Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde are at their worst - he comes off creepily angry through the whole thing. It revolves around a great novel which, from the excerpts we're given, was written by a child. The cinematography is lovely, though the production design is hilariously generic - Central Park is represented by a tree and a deserted pond. I love Zoe Saldana and she really swings for the fences here, but this is easily the least literate screenplay of the year.

A Therapy / Electric Holiday
A pair of genuinely revolting wannabe-viral high fashion shorts. A Therapy is Polanski for Prada, and it's the old man at his worst, featuring dull performances from Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Kingsley, two actors who consistently refuse to live up to their potential. It bungles the punchline of its one joke. Electric Holiday is the worse of the two, it's a pathetic and stomach-churningly ugly Barneys short which combines fashion icons with nasty reinterpretations of Disney icons. I haven't been back to Barneys since this one came out, it left a gross staleness over their entire image.

It's as morally broken and joyless as a Soviet pawn shop. Nothing but a screeching demand to consume, this blotchy and cluttered mess must be what the world looks like through the glasses from They Live.

(Actually the best film of 2012 is the soaring and life-affirming Complete Mars Curiosity Descent, but I'm not counting works made by robots. I've included it below, though, because how can I leave y'all with Foodfight!?)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Weightless Dance

The Simpsons "Deep Space Homer" (1994)
dir. Carlos Baeza

The Big Lebowski (1998)
dir. Joel Coen

from Cody Clarke

The Ending

Magnolia (1999) (last shot)
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

"Every Single Night" (2012) (last shot)
dir. Joseph Cahill for Fiona Apple

from Kurt McAllister

The Foreshadowing (17)

Ethan Edwards on the Comanche corpse whose eyes he gouged out:

"He can't enter the Spirit Land. Has to wander forever between the winds."

Ethan Edwards at the end of the film:

The Hospital

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
dir. Stanley Kubrick

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)
dir. John Hyams