Tag Archives: Four Stars

The Best Movies of 2012

Now that the Oscars have come and gone I guess I have to get off my butt and write something about 2012 in review. There’s a few I haven’t seen that have been delaying a year in review piece, not to mention my general inertia. 2012 was a good year for movies. We had smart blockbusters, moving and intelligent dramas and creative genre flicks. It was not, disappointingly, a banner year for animation. Pixar’s Brave, despite its Oscar, was good not great; Wreck-It-Ralph was middling if above-average; the year’s stop-motion offerings never sold me on investing the time to watch them (we can’t all be Coraline, I guess). There are lot I would still really like to see, including the early-year Studio Ghibli offering from Disney The Secret World of Arrietty. If you’ve any desire to watch that, ArgoBeasts of the Southern WildSeven Psychopaths or something that I overlooked, call me up and let’s get together.

Here are my top 10:

10) The Cabin in the Woods

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If you’d like to see a Joss Whedon movie from the past year which holds up under multiple viewings and whose last act is not its weakest half hour, The Cabin in the Woods is your bloody alternative to The Avengers. Written by Whedon and directed by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield), Cabin is a riotous deconstruction of the horror genre with loads (buckets?) of third act payoffs.

9) Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings somehow manages to feel sharp and loose at the same time. As evidenced by the all around nominations for its leads (Jennifer Lawrence, Jacki Weaver, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro), the story is lit up by vivid characters with believable personalities that aren’t romanticized. Director David O’Russell cooked up a spicy jumble with their various talents, but the different roles don’t quite coalesce into a cohesive dramatic texture. DeNiro is Acting and Cooper is Acting but often next to each other rather than in conversation. Still, the film is an interesting personal story involving mental illness, family and healing. Even if it doesn’t quite have the subtle charms of great drama, it’s involving nonetheless.

8) Flight

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Compared with its predecessor on this list, Flight is the better film about mental illness. It gets a lot about addiction right, even if Denzel’s DWI pilot skills strain credulity. His raw magnetism helps the film focus around the character and draw us into the question of what will become of his self-destructive behavior.

7) Moonrise Kingdom

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Wes Anderson’s latest changes gears by focusing his childish aesthetic on actual children rather than childish adults and/or adults with troubled childhoods. In a sense, the central question of the film is whether these kids will be allowed to thrive or whether they’ll one day wear that thousand yard stare Bill Murray always affects with such comic detachment. Its delightfully rewatchable, even if at times it feels like Anderson’s silliest effort.

6) Django Unchained

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Tarantino’s second revenge-themed historical fiction isn’t as narratively tight or philosophically intriguing as its predecessor Inglourious Basterds, but its hard to begrudge a film that wants to put slaveholders under the knife. Django may be the bloodiest, wildest and most uncomfortable of Tarantino’s myriad works. That said, the tone befits the subject material. There is no reverent historical detachment here: just queasy, loquacious cruelty.

5) Premium Rush

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Too few films have the single-mindedness of David Koepp’s Premium Rush, a film so committed to its namesake that it reminds you of how threadbare elements can be masterfully spun into tension and thrills. The bicycle chase premise sounds lame but the movie makes a breathless, nail-biting go of it. What would seem to be the throwaway picture in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s stellar year is actually the stand out winner.

4) Indie Game: The Movie

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Perhaps less deserving than all the acclaimed documentaries I didn’t see this year, Indie Game does for game developers what Exit Through the Gift Shop did for street art: reveal a little known and understood subculture as a lively home for the artistic soul. The film focuses on three very small development teams and illustrates how they put their hearts and bank accounts on the line in the process of trying to bring their games to market. If Roger Ebert still cares about whether video games can be art or not, Indie Game: The Movie should settle the question for him.

3) Les Miserables

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My friends (i.e. my readers) may be surprised to hear that Les Mis is one of the most critically contentious films of the year, seemingly drawing the intense ire of some voices due a perceived threat to what counts as “good art” in the film world. I have to say, there are a lot of creative choices in this film that don’t really work. But, like other adaptations of the same, Les Mis works nearly in spite of itself. It helps that the source material is so strong, the musical so well-written and deeply moving. But understand, those aren’t strengths of the movie–the critical question is how well this particular adaptation handles the various parts. But I’m willing to engage with it as a surface experience in toto, and in that regard it was one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.

2) Zero Dark Thirty

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Otherwise known as the best Law & Order episode ever made, the ever-sharp Kathryn Bigelow has given us the War on Terror as the ultimate police procedural underscored by the heartfelt cost of human lives weighed against the ethical cost of “enhanced interrogation”. The film’s torture scenes read nothing like the grisly fare one might be expected to see at the movies, yet they’re deeply unsettling for their closeness to home and reflection of reality. Zero Dark Thirty sidesteps questions of rah-rah jingoism by recasting patriotism as hearts panged with the loss of innocents and faced with the dehumanized treatment of POWs. The film is tense, single-minded, emotionally arresting and by all accounts a masterwork of filmmaking.

1) Lincoln

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Finally, though Lincoln doesn’t have the austerely taut perfection of Zero Dark Thirty, I’m giving it extra points for moving dramatic sweep. Spielberg frames Daniel Day-Lewis’s superb turn as the sixteenth president with the political process of the constitutional amendment to end slavery, sublimely underscoring the connection between the personal and the political. Like Les MisLincoln celebrates the Christian-liberal virtues of human dignity and equality–it just makes a seriously fewer number of mistakes in being a movie that does that and is so much stronger for it.

While I am sure I am eventually going to get to the smaller films I didn’t see this year, I have to say this was a great year for studio movies. Even the year’s biggest film, The Avengers, had the wit and verve of Joss Whedon animating it. I am disappointed that the year’s animation offerings weren’t stronger, but what is most clearly an artist’s medium will surely yield great works again in the future. It would be great for there to be a 2D animation renaissance driven by a Miyazaki-like auteur, though it’s safe to assume the CGI films will continue to dominate the market.

I am happy that the some of the strongest films on offer this year were full of hope. I still love No Country for Old Men, but I think our culture doesn’t need any help in being amoral and nihilistic. Les Miserables has proven the deep and broad appeal of fundamental Christian proclamations, probably showing the church part of the direction it should take in order to intuitively appeal to our culture. Lincoln has this moral urgency as well; even its twisted counterpart Django Unchained has its own morality, however bloodthirsty. And Zero Dark Thirty stands at their intersection, squeamishly juxtaposing heartfelt humanism–and its enduring symbol, the immutable value of a single life–and bloodthirsty revenge.

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Once Upon A Time In The West (****, 1968)

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Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is a masterful work of storytelling. First and foremost, it runs on patience. The plot does not unfurl with the directness of most films, but through a series of extended scenes which at first seem disconnected. Dark-purposed men waiting for a train. A homestead family murdered in cold blood. Two testy cowboys pushing each others’ buttons in a combination bar and general store. The film takes these sequences as an opportunity for mood-setting and the accumulation of details that give everything a lived-in quality. The set dressing in the bar, for example, is wonderfully ramshackle and cluttered to overflowing; the longer the film lingers there the more it seems like lived-in space rather than a movie set.

The best part about these scenes is the urgency they carry in spite of their languidness. At nearly three hours, the film had plenty of chances to drop its hold on my Twitter-addled attention span. I originally intended to watch it in parts, gradually taking it all in over several viewings. But Once kept making me wonder, “Well, now what is she going to do?” or “How is this going to fit in?” and so on. It patiently lays out a set of narrative stakes that incite these questions. We know Charles Bronson is going to be important, but just why is he hanging out here? What’s up with the criminal Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and why doesn’t he seem all that bad? And what kind of woman is this gorgeous widow (Claudia Cardinale)?

The sharp acting gives the urgency much of its punch. Even the most laconic characters have a sharp intensity imbuing their words and actions with palatable gravitas. The young widow, vulnerable and protected as she is, has clear agency and a kind of fiery self-reliance. The film wisely chooses to keep this under the surface in the early parts of the film rather than knowingly nudging us that she is no pushover right up front.

I am loathe to say too much about the plot, as one great pleasure of the film is how carefully it is told. There is money at stake and there is a rich man looking to protect his interests. Questionably lawful men end up protecting the woman caught in the crosshairs of the decidedly unlawful Frank (Henry Fonda), a hired gun looking to swing things in favor of the rich man. I am under-schooled in the Western genre, but as I understand it the “Spaghetti westerns”–made by Italians like Leone and Sergio Corbucci–marked not just a stylistic turn in the genre but also a philosophical one. Instead of America-minded romanticism of the frontier, the Europeans played up the nihilism and violence of a world at the edge of the rule of law. The film is not quite anti-romantic, yet none of its characters are heroes or virtuous exemplars–just hardscrabble people trying to get by on the frontier and do the right thing if they can manage. They’re distinguished from the villains less by their impeccable righteousness than by their lack of cruelty and exploitation, though the story does eventually extend a measure of nobility to each of the principal characters by the last act.

Genre-wise, I also have little to compare the cinematography to. I don’t know how it compares to, say, a John Ford staple–it’s sumptuous nonetheless. The vistas are wide and a vibrant clay red. The staging is clear and concise, action and acting alike never confusing in terms of spatial relations. Plenty of high and wide shots showcase the immense and detailed sets made for the film, most impressive of which is a train track site that is a work-in-progress and milled about by hundreds of extras. There are times I noticed that technically, with current effects, the director could show more and more of these things, but nothing replaces the tactile specificity of the real and Once has it on display everywhere.

I am always surprised when I stumble across an older movie that I love deep in my bones, as many of the ones I saw growing up were perfunctory and boring. That goes doubly so for Westerns. I started watching Once Upon a Time in the West on a whim and was drawn in by it for the next two and three quarter hours. It is epic and gripping yet full of small moments of and subtle performances. If only I could say that about more movies.

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Lincoln (****)

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With certain kinds of subjects, it can be hard to separate out the quality of movies made about them from the relative significance and emotional freight which they carry. Given that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln had me fighting back tears in the first five minutes, it just might be that race in America is one such subject for me. As a critic interested in aesthetics, I have to insist that movies that are righteous in their values may in fact be reprehensible in their quality. Taking on racism or genocide or Jesus does not get you a free pass and, in a better world, would guarantee you a universally higher standard. The world we have, however, celebrates all variety of creative abominations solely for their noble intentions (not least in the Church, Kyrie eleison) and such I feared would be the cultural pressure attending a movie about slavery in an election year with a black president. Unlike so much noble agitprop, however, Lincoln shows the craftsmanship of Spielberg, et al. gelling virtuosically into a wonderful film that is by turns a political procedural, a character study and a historical snapshot.

It is not, in fact, a war movie, despite opening with a few spare minutes of combat that are just enough to register the bloody stage on which the rest of the film will be set. It’s an arrestingly chaotic sequence, shockingly intimate bayonets thrusting and fisticuffs in the mud. Black soldiers are center frame in this sequence, unsubtly underscoring the life and death struggle of which they are the unwilling locus. We stay with them immediately following the initial battle, as we’re introduced to Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) speaking one-on-one with troops after battle. As famous as he is for his speeches, in Lincoln it is face-to-face that he seems more at home. Spielberg and Day-Lewis present us a wily introvert with an iron will and a thousand undercurrents, not a gregarious statesman.

Day-Lewis, a brilliant and notorious method actor (likely much of the inspiration for Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder), turns in yet another intensely mannered performance which avoids calling undue attention to itself. It’s somehow both studied and seemingly effortless. The punctilious method fits the task of depicting this certainly punctilious character. We get Lincoln the pragmatist, the do-whatever-it-takes political workhorse. The film literalizes one of the president’s many metaphors, assuming that we know the “true north” of the situation (slavery is wrong and must end) and immersing us in the deserts and swamps which waylay our heroes on their journey towards the goal. It’s only in the contested, miry thick of it that we are introduced to our most lionized and mythologized national leader.

The crux of the film hinges on the sixteenth president’s decision to push for an amendment to the Constitution that will abolish slavery. Rather than take us through the tired motions of yet another hagiographical biopic replete with infancy and passion narratives, Spielberg wisely chose to make a film about Lincoln-as-leader, a man revealed in the process of doing what it was that makes us keep on remembering him. We don’t need to know where he went to law school or what dating Mary Todd was like, we just want to know what made that iconic bearded beanpole so special. Lincoln charts out a fascinating picture of federal political process during the height of war–the backroom deals, the speechifying, the intractable divisions, the hand-wringing, the pull-no-punches lengths deemed to be necessary means. And it shows us how Abraham Lincoln walked a tightrope through all of them.

I am cynical about politics, and Lincoln kind of Leslie Knope’d me. I am easily distracted and distraught by the darkness of human past and present; Lincoln lit some flickers of hope in my soul. It inspired me. It’s a picture of a hard-nosed man who decided what was right and did what it takes to ensure that it happened. The notion of a political “decider” fell out of vogue this past decade, but Lincoln should stir you with its willful leader and his electrifying appraisal of human dignity. It’s a beautifully composed painting about doing the right thing and a righteous inspiration to anyone who’ll listen. And it’s reminder that you might get shot in the head if you follow in his footsteps.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (****, 1981)

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“They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, ‘Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.’ For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there; those who did not die were stricken with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.” ~ 1 Samuel 5:11-12

By chance I caught that today was the end of a limited engagement showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark in IMAX and managed to get my good friend to go with me. We were a little early–other “classic” re-screenings I’ve been to have been packed, especially a showing of Back to the Future at the same theater two years ago. This theater was anything but packed, but our punctuality was rewarded with extra minutes of advertising drivel, leading into more drivel in the form of the preceding trailers. I’m not sure why the particular trailers were chosen–Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania, possibly others–but I was particularly struck by their willfully ignorant loudness, content to be sloppy audio-visual assaults being passed off as entertainment. I’ll be going to see The Master this month, thank you very much, and none of these.

Of course, if Raiders is anything it’s a loud, busy film, downright assaultive in its unrelenting momentum. But from frame one it is clear the movie has been crafted with patience and intention. The South American peak and the foregrounded Jones fill the screen, gloriously magnified in IMAX, the first of many sharp compositions to prove revelatory when writ large rather than shrunk for a home-bound screen. Spielberg puts so much on the screen, whether the lush vegetation of the forest or the carefully crafted arcana of a subterranean crypt. It’s less than the hyper-intricate sound and fury made possible by the digital era but so much more effective cinematically.

Without the hindsight of the series in toto, it is by no means obvious at any point that the film will head in the potently supernatural direction of its face-melting climax. The characters are hardened skeptics, men of orders and men of science, pontificating on “becoming” history and the “religion” of archaeology while dismissing the numinous as “the bogeyman” and “Sunday school”. As silly as some of the sequences are (why don’t the Nazi truck drivers ever just step on the damn brakes?), they evoke the gravity of real stakes and keep the hero vulnerable and black and blue. Jones might be winking at us, but he’s bleeding on us too.

I paid special attention in this viewing to the film’s various faces awash in golden light. As a recurring motif it seems to signify deep desire and fixed attention, occurring first as it does when Indy lays eyes on the golden idol at the film’s beginning. As he approaches the gape-mouthed figure (with white eyes and brown irises! Never noticed that on the small screen) his face is lit from below with an abundance of the yellow hue. Read literally, it can’t be possibly emanating from the idol given the angle it shines from, underscoring it as an illumination of Jones’s deep motivation and pleasure: the hunt, the adventure, the prize.

Our next golden faced character is Marion, who lights up while holding the medallion in one hand and the cash in another, drunkenly contemplating Jones’s offer and probably Jones himself. Her motivations are crossed between the purely financial and the emotional, choosing even between her father (the medallion) and the money she needs to get out of Nepal.

Of course her indecision is cut short by Toht, who lights up as he closes in on her with a mind to torture her with a hot iron. Spielberg has silently established deep facts about the main characters with this motif, and can therefore turn it unexpectedly to suggest something about the unknown evil depths of this laconic Nazi stooge hunting mystical artifacts in the Himalayas.

Finally, the ark itself is bathed in golden light, streaming up from beneath it as it is uncovered by Jones and Sallah, thereby suggesting–what? That the ark itself is compelled to some end? Or that the deep desires felt by these central characters are somehow encapsulated by this most sacred object? As it is the pursuit–the raiding–of this object that drives the whole film, this seems a reasonable conclusion. The ark is intensely desired but for what reasons? Greed, romantic love, and hate all drive the raiders of the lost ark, but not devotion to the God of Israel. And Spielberg’s thrilling surprise is that Yahweh will have none of it.

By contrast, when Belloq and the Nazis open the ark the scene they are not lit with yellow/gold light but with white. It suggests a shift from the human gaze of desire to a holy presence, the transcendent otherness of the one indwelling the ark, the purifying judgment of God. The irony of the film, in an explosive twist of sorts on The Maltese Falcon, is that the object of everyone’s desire will not submit to those desires. As an both an echo of that film and as a singularly astounding film climax, Raiders‘ conclusion really is the stuff that dreams are made of.

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Ghost World (****, 2001)

At first, Ghost World seems to be an “edgy” comedy about two immaturely misanthropic teenagers and their middle-finger-to-the-world snarkiness. A very young Scarlett Johansson and American Beauty’s Thora Birch play besties Rebecca and Enid, girls just finishing high school and always ready with a withering remark for everyone. Classmates, teachers, parents, business owners, passerby–no one is spared their biting disdain. It gradually becomes clear, however, that the film will not be about indulging the girls’ hip bitch camaraderie but instead exploring their needs for identity and intimacy–especially Enid’s (Birch)–that percolate beneath their prickly surfaces.

Their aggressive detachment takes on humanizing consequences when they play a prank on a lonely man (Steve Buscemi) by responding to his personal ad in the paper and standing him up on the blind date they arrange. Enid offends her own conscience, and her sympathy for the sad sack Seymour is the beginning of an unusual friendship which gradually takes on a Harold and Maude quality. It is clear they are kindred spirits from early on, and their shared off-kilter tastes in music and pop art irony quickly forms a natural bond bridging their generational and gender gaps… almost. Buscemi’s Seymour is clearly torn between his need for connection and his awareness of the inappropriateness of their relationship, while young Enid is blissfully ignorant of their friendship’s strangeness. Together they are tragic and sweet, pulled together and pushed apart by their mutual brokenness.

Ghost World captures something important about the way kitschy weirdos get lost in obsessions because of feeling alienated and in turn how their alienation pushes them deeper into cultural obsessions and away from meaningful relationships. It strikes the perfect tone by neither romanticizing nor ridiculing such obsessions, but instead sympathetically mining the characters’ alienations and longing for relational intimacy.

The “ghost world” in question is the arch-world of pulp magazine covers and antiquated mid-century pop art that evokes a certain time and place in our cultural imagination–very much like the Jack Rabbit Slim’s restaurant in Pulp Fiction–but that never really existed as anything more than a confluence of graphic art sensibilities. Director Zwigoff finely evokes the way in which writer (of both screenplay and the original graphic novel) Daniel Clowes’ characters live at a kind of threshold between the “real” and the “ghost” worlds, forever at the mercy of their tortured souls and on the edge of retreat from psychological and emotional health.

It’s ultimately a sad film, because it’s characters cannot hope to be cured of their pain and social dislocation. Zwigoff does reserve a special dignity for them, a sure affection for their offbeat sensibilities, and the conviction that embracing your identity is better than trudging along with the blind seismic waves of culture en masse. It’s not much, but it’s something. Better people probing for meaning in life than comfortably numb. Still, it left me wishing for a sequel where Enid and Seymour both come to know a saving power bigger than their wounded hearts.

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