So I’m back at ‘er after a protracted absence from blogging. And in style. Here is my altogether-too-long list of movies from 2012 that tore into my heart and made it their own. But maybe that’s over-dramatic. Here are some good movies and some things I wrote about them. I’ve ordered them according to some misguided quest to rank personal preference and, if you disagree, by all means do it loudly.
12. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan) [Scotiabank Theatre, Vancouver, BC]
So The Dark Knight Rises is relatively low on my list. Not because it’s a bad film. But because relative to Christopher Nolan’s usual calibre of film, I find it lacking. Of course, a mediocre Nolan film is better than most Hollywood fare, but my high hopes for TDKR were left wanting. I loved how dark it got emotionally. Bruce Wayne has always been a troubled fella, but this film rips his entire safety net out from under him. With no access to his money or to the stalwart Alfred, the Batman must rise from a low, low place. And that makes for some damn good cinema. What I didn’t find effective was how Bane’s story played out. His prison origin was fascinating, but once he actually has control of Gotham, his plan has more or less played itself out and there is nowhere left to go. His decision to take on Ra’s al Ghul’s mantle and simply destroy Gotham seems a weak decision from such a strong character. Though, SPOILER ALERT – seeing as how he is motivated out of loyalty to Talia al Ghul rather than his own desires is actually quite romantic. END SPOILER. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I am quite pleased with this film. Though I thought the supposedly-climactic return of the Batman played out a little bit like Escape From New York and I kept expecting Snake Plissken to show up. And the end, in which the Batman SPOILER AGAIN hauls the bomb out of the city before it explodes, making everyone think he is dead is such a common trope that it was almost eye-rollingly obvious. (Other examples of “relocating the bomb” include, but are not limited to: this year’s Avengers, The Iron Giant, Superman II, Angels & Demons, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Stargate, Heroes (Season 1), 24 (Season 2), Lost, and an episode of Pokemon). END SPOILER(s). So I guess, in summation, I’m a little torn on how much I like this film. There was so much good in it, as well as so much mediocrity. Though it seems like simply by writing about it, I find that I like it more than I initially thought I did. Which is often the mark of a good film.
One-Line Review: Dark and atmospheric but suffers from weak dialogue (relative to what I’d expect from the Nolans) and plot clichés.
11. Skyfall (Sam Mendes) [Scotiabank Theatre, Vancouver, BC]
James Bond films are rarely known for their resemblance to family dramas. But the Daniel Craig era has been one of reinvention and the third installment is one of the reinventiest. Without skimping on action, gadgets or cars, Skyfall also gives us some classic Freudian melodrama. Bond returns to his childhood home and some serious mother-son issues are hashed out (though not in the way you might think). I’ve always been of the opinion that throwing some serious emotional weight behind action sequences makes them more satisfying to watch and Sam Mendes delivers. The closest Bond has come to having a family previous to this was in the ever-popular George Lazenby installment, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which he is married for all of 37 seconds before his wife is riddled with bullets by Telly Savalas. But here the drama is sharp, the action intense, and the cars just as cool as ever. Mendes obviously has a respect for the history of the James Bond franchise and does his best to pay homage to it whenever he can (perhaps mitigating the sweeping thematic changes he’s making to the series).
One-Line Review: My new favorite Bond girl is Judi Dench.
10. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson) [DVD]
I came late to the Moonrise Kingdom bandwagon. I’d been told many great things, but while I’ve always liked Wes Anderson’s films, I’ve never loved any of them (with the exception of Royal Tenenbaums which is just marvelous). Moonrise Kingdom, however, is right up there with Tenenbaums for me. Maybe I was feeling sentimental at the time. Maybe something about Anderson’s fairy tale version of 1965. Maybe it was the deadpan-comic-serious way Anderson’s actors deliver their lines. But there was something altogether charming about this little love story, which is played with utmost sincerity and emotional weight. We know the two runaway lovers are only 12 years old, but they teach us to take them as seriously as they take themselves. Moonrise Kingdom is a charming love story that doesn’t deviate from Anderson’s established style, but is still effective and heartwarming.
One-Line Review: Wes Anderson at his best.
9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson) [3D, 24fps, Empire Theatre, Sydney, Nova Scotia]
Tackling The Hobbit in three movies is a wholly different approach from taking on the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (well, hexalogy if you’re counting) in as much time. Where Jackson had to hack and slash his way through Lord of the Rings, he is here expanding and drawing out the material, exploring scenes to their full potential. And for this I applaud him. Though it’s been a good 12 years (Jesus, really? Time to start coloring my hair) since I’ve read The Hobbit, I can still tell that Jackson is staying as true to the material as a filmmaker can, scenes often playing out word-for-word. And Jackson’s additions are not blasphemous to the faithful either (well, they might be to the fanatics, but they were going to be upset regardless so it’s a moot point). The addition of a pale orc named Azok with a mission of vengeance against the throne-less dwarf-king Thorin is a necessary addition from a filmic perspective. The film covers only the first third of the novel, in which there is an absence of any true antagonist, and Azok is an appropriate through-line.
It’s an interesting result. With his film, Jackson is returning to the serial format, popular in the silent era with The Perils of Pauline or the French Les Vampires, in which audiences would have to return to the cinemas for each new installment. Yes, it’s a none-too-subtle studio money-grab, but it also changes how we experience going to the cinema. Because it is not a whole film; it is only a portion of one. Jackson and his team do an admirable job of getting the film to stand alone. But the fact remains that, despite a rollicking good adventure, very little has been accomplished or resolved. We found the same thing happen with Harry Potter and Twilight (sorry for grouping them together) splitting their finales into two films: the first half just wasn’t really a film. Seen together, Harry Potter 7 is a sprawling epic and a worthy ending for the series. Seen apart, the second installment is still very good but the first falls flat. So the question is: do we judge The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on what we’ve seen? Or in anticipation of what we know we’re going to see as the series continues?
Also, the 3D was nice and I’m sure the 48fps wasn’t too nauseating. I saw it in reg’lar ol’ 24fps and am just going to ignore that entire discussion. Oh, and Andy Serkis, I love you.
One-Line Review: So… Gandalf and Galadriel were totally hooking up, right?
8. Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski) [SilverCity Metropolis Theatre, Burnaby, BC]
Cloud Atlas Concept Art
My experience of Cloud Atlas is colored very strongly by the fact that I saw it almost immediately after finishing David Mitchell’s novel. It had been on my to-read list for ages, but the release of the film forced me into it because I wanted my experience of the novel to be purely imaginative, not tainted by being unable to see anyone other than Tom Hanks in every role or Hugo Weaving in drag. Reading fiction is a very personal experience; you create the world and the characters from the words on the page. Film does the work for you. I wanted my own world, and as grand as the Wachowski siblings own vision of the Cloud Atlas sextet was, I prefer mine (as I’m sure many readers do their own).
This is not to say that it was not an excellent film. It lost some of the subtlety that is possible in fiction and less so on the screen. (And when I say “some” of the subtlety, I mean “shit, son, you done just spelled it all right out, di’n’t you?”) The film gets a lot of flak for being “pseudo-deep” and relying too much on the whole reincarnation thing (and too much on Tom Hanks). But the film actually does a number of interesting things. The book follows six story lines, each taking place during a different point in history (including an Orwellian future and its post-apocalyptic beyond). Mitchell presents his material palindromically, telling each story (except the middle one) in two parts (a 12345654321 structure). By chopping up Mitchell’s hexapalindromic structure into filmic cross-cutting, the chronological progression of each storyline plays out in synch with the others. In Mitchell’s novel, the midpoint in the book represents the furthest point on a world-time scale, before continuing backwards in time to wrap up the initial story lines and conclude thematically. But the film has free access to each story whenever the filmmakers see fit to cut to it.
Both structural techniques can be read very explicitly as expressions of “counterpoint” within their medium. Counterpoint is a musical term (prominent during the Baroque period and mastered by Bach) describing the relationship between voices that are harmonically-interdependent, but independent in both rhythm and contour. Counterpoint was the primary expression of music theory during Bach’s time (1685-1750) and music theory was largely dictated by Church doctrine, which contained a series of very specific rules declaring what made a melody acceptable. The types of intervals you can use, the order in which they are allowed to be played, the number of times a directional interval is allowed, are all explicitly laid out in the rules of counterpoint. By making a composer one of his protagonists, Mitchell was very consciously translating counterpoint theory into fiction. The Wachowskis and Tykwer are doing the same thing to Mitchell, translating counterpoint fiction into film. The thing about counterpoint is that it’s difficult to be original or creative when you have very restricting rules to which you must adhere. But this is the genius of both the film and the novel: like counterpoint intervals, we’ve seen all this before. The slave drama, the political thriller, the Orwellian future, the post-apocalypse. They are all familiar to us. But like Bach, who wrote exquisite, emotional music using the rigid counterpoint system, Cloud Atlas’s success is not in the originality of any of its stories, but in the way in which the stories are played together using their respective familiar pieces. All criticism of the poorly-executed Asian-face aside, reusing actors in each of the sextet’s voices is crucial to the film’s own self-imposed rules of counterpoint. No singular story in the film is so great that it warrants its own movie. But played together, they form a score for something new, something creative, something affecting. The cross-cutting techniques inherent in producing a film lend themselves well to counterpoint, even more so than Mitchell’s palindromic structure. And the Wachowskis’ film plays out the independent rhythms and contours of each voice, while inextricably linking it to the whole.
One-Line Review: Despite its shortcomings, the Wachowski-Tykwer-Mitchell film-fugue is a resounding success.
7. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) [Scotiabank Theatre, Vancouver, BC]
Django Unchained Issue #2 comic book cover by artist Mark Chiarello.
The far left critics think it’s a flippant portrayal of the history of slavery. The far right critics think it’s reverse racism. Spike Lee refuses to watch it. It’s even taken some of the heat off of Modern Warfare 3 as the scapegoat for violence in entertainment breeding violence in real life. Hooray for controversy! I really don’t feel it necessary to respond to any of the critiques leveled at Tarantino’s latest film; there’s enough of that floating around the Interwebs as it is. I just thought this movie was great fun. Structurally, it’s essentially Taken written as a slave story. Liam Neeson (Jamie Foxx) has his daughter (wife) kidnapped (legally sold) into slavery (slavery). To get her back, he uses his very special set of skills to kill everyone in Europe (Mississippi). Granted, Tarantino’s film is much more nuanced than Taken, but at its heart, it’s just immensely satisfying to watch Jamie Foxx kill all those white people (ahem, slavers). There isn’t much room for complex characters in a film that’s so outrageously violent it’s basically a cartoon. With the exception of Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz, everyone in the film is either a racist or a slave (or both if you consider Samuel L. Jackson’s fantastic performance as Stephen the house slave). Waltz shoulders all of the racial tension in the film – he’s the only character who exists in the gray. He abhors slavery on moral grounds, but just finds it so useful sometimes. It’s an enormous responsibility to put on one character and one actor, but Waltz handles it masterfully, bringing his Inglourious Basterds charm to the dubiously-gallant Schultz. Of course he opposes slavery, because owning a human being is a barbaric notion, but… he still feels vaguely superior when faced with a black “equal”. Django Unchained is a fantastically-entertaining Spaghetti Western slapstick revenge drama that contains faintly-controversial race relations (and a wonderfully-maniacal Leo DiCaprio as plantation owner Calvin Candie).
One-Line Review: Dear Spike Lee: If you’re so mad about this, why don’t you rally some funds and make your own damn slave drama. Despite your occasional, inexplicable incompetence (i.e. She Hate Me), you’re still black cinema’s golden boy. Act like it.
6. Holy Motors (Leos Carax) [VIFF: Centre for Performing Arts, Vancouver, BC]
This is probably the weirdest film on my list. Holy Motors is an absolute trip. It was the chosen film for the Vancouver International Film Festival’s closing gala. Wine, awards, speeches, and then… this. There is no way to summarize this film in any sort of coherent way, but I’ll do my damnedest. Denis Lavant plays a gallimaufry* of strange characters and attacks each of them with reckless abandon. He is a motion capture actor, a man on his death bed, a bag lady, an assassin, and at one point he bites a man’s fingers off, kidnaps Eva Mendes, hauls her to the sewer, and eats her hair. The tenuous thread holding together these disparate characters is the fact that Lavant plays an actor who is hired to play them. He travels the city in a limousine/dressing room, doing his own make-up and preparing his own costumes while he is shuttled between jobs. The film is a love song to the cinema, in all of its foibles, its technological advancements, its gratuitous ego. And it is a director’s love affair with an actor, Carax trusting Lavant to carry his battleship of a film through all the murky waters he sends it. It’s all very meta, very abstract, blurring the lines of artifice, reality, narrative, and totally screwing with filmic conventions. Lavant dies several times on screen and, even though we know it’s all a show, we’re still affected by his death(s) because of his astounding stage presence and emotive capabilities. But Carax doesn’t so much exploit his audience’s yearning for affective connection as he does expose the strengths and weaknesses of film’s ability to bring affective response about. Near the film’s climax, we find Lavant performing a soaring musical theatre-esque duet with none other than Kylie Minogue and, sentimental and contrived as it is, we find ourselves relaxing into the musical’s familiar conventions after being jostled about so vigorously. Of course, we’re never allowed to relax for too long and pretty soon Lavant is returning home to his wife the chimpanzee and we’re left at the Holy Motors garage, where the limousines park at night and discuss the days events with garish cartoon voices à la Pixar’s Cars.
At the film’s screening at VIFF’s closing gala, the festival director relayed an appropriate anecdote. Holy Motors premiered at Cannes alongside David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (which is also worth a watch, though it missed my Top 12). Cosmopolis stars Robert Pattinson as a billionaire investment banker who tours the city in his white limousine in search of a haircut. When he idly ponders, “Where do all the limousines go at night?” a savvy Cannes viewer shouted “Holy Motors!” to a smattering of applause, laughter, and disapproving tsk’s. And this is what Holy Motors has the ability to do: garner laughter, applause, disapproval, disgust, and invade other films by virtue of its mere existence.
One-Line Review: *Gallimaufry – a confused jumble or medley of things.
5. Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) [VIFF: Vancity Theatre, Vancouver, BC]
Here is a film that deserves to be seen. It is absolutely brimming with love and violence. Unlikely couple Marion Cotillard (a killer whale trainer) and Matthias Schoenaerts (a bouncer and underground MMA fighter) are electric, tender and real. Theirs is a love story that destroys sentimentality while still clinging fiercely to it. There is an immediacy to Audiard’s direction that puts sharp feeling into punches, tears, and sex. And it boasts perhaps the most emotionally-affecting use of a Katy Perry song (“Firework”) that has ever or will ever exist. It should be getting a relatively wide release, so seek it out if you can.
One-Line Review: Sexy, sad & violent.
4. The Hunt (Jagten) [VIFF: Vancity Theatre, Vancouver, BC]
This stark drama is Danish filmmaker (and co-founder of the Dogme 95 movement) Thomas Vinterberg’s best film since his breakout The Celebration (Festen). I realize that I am now in serious film-snob territory, considering the fact that I’m going on about Dogme films and that numbers 6, 5, and 4 on my list all had verrry limited release. But whatever, bite me. I like movies. Mads Mikkelsen plays a divorcee struggling to maintain a relationship with his son. His already troubled life is shattered wide open when he is accused of pedophilia. A well-loved elementary school teacher in a small Danish community, he becomes an immediate pariah, condemned by insidious popular consensus. Mikkelsen displays a tightly-wound tension between vulnerability and defiance in what I believe to be one of the year’s best performances. Vinterberg’s direction is tight and atmospheric, never dipping into melodrama in a very melodramatic situation. It is perfectly-paced and, like all great films, gets to the heart of human nature (ugly as it often is).
One-Line Review: Dark, gripping & powerful.
3. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) [Park Theatre, Vancouver, BC]
PT Anderson’s latest is less a continuously-progressing story than it is a series of inter-connected vignettes in the lives of dangerously-damaged WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Late-40s America gets the PT Anderson treatment, exposing the menacing disquiet underlying the facade of idyllic suburbia. Phoenix encapsulates male post-war malaise with aching perfection. And Hoffman’s preening is a brilliant lampoon of Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard. But the film is more than any of these things, as Anderson’s films always are. It’s about power, personality, a desperate search for home. But perhaps overshadowing even PTA’s talent as a filmmaker is Joaquin Phoenix’s monumental performance as Quell. His stoic self-destruction (consuming self-brewed concoctions of various household chemicals, including residual liquid from unused aerial bombs) is terrifying and utterly captivating to watch. It is one of the most astounding feats of acting I have ever seen and if he doesn’t win an Oscar, I’ll eat my shoe.
One-Line Review: I’m lost in this world and I want to stay that way.
2. The Avengers (Joss Whedon) [Galaxy Cinemas, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan]
The Avengers makes you feel like a 12-year old again, creating rudimentary spreadsheets of superhero stats and staging imaginary battles to find out who would win. Wait, you didn’t do that? Doesn’t matter. This is what blockbuster cinema is meant to be. Joss Whedon’s dialogue shines (as it always does, and as pop-Hollywood dialogue tends not to). Putting Whedon in charge of such a financially-ambitious project was vindication for all those Firefly and Buffy fans who’ve felt cast aside over the years. With such a collection of alpha male egos (plus Whedon’s token ass-kicking female in the form of Scarlett Johansson), the danger was having an over-saturation of awesomeness, resulting in a cacophonous mess. But Whedon handles the characters like a fan would. Egos do clash, but in the service of the story. And you know you’ve got good writing on your hands when straight-man Agent Coulson (his first name is “Agent”) can upstage Ironman and have the audience entirely at his back. Though it works well as a stand-alone film, seeing its precursors (in particular the mostly-disappointing Thor) is necessary to complete the Avengers experience.
One-Line Review: A (Hulk) smash hit.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin) [5th Avenue Cinemas, Vancouver, BC]
Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film is a monumental achievement. It’s one part fairy tale, one part poetry, and two parts intense realism. The film takes place in a fictional community in the Louisiana bayou called “The Bathtub”. The lead character, five-year old Hushpuppy is played with extraordinary surety by Quvenzhané Wallis (now the youngest Oscar-nominee in the history of the awards). She and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) survive day-to-day in the overwhelming poverty of the Bathtub and weather a devastating tropical storm (with shades of Katrina) together. Hushpuppy longs to seek out her absent mother and deals with Wink’s alcoholism and unreliability with her own child-like stoicism. There is so much love and beauty in this film, with an array of amazing performances and spectacular visuals creating an atmosphere unlike any other. The mostly-amateur cast (Dwight Henry was a bakery-owner who wasn’t even looking for an acting job when he was cast) deliver noteworthy performances all around. The film has a strong non-linear visual spirit throughout, bolstered by Hushpuppy’s poetic, philosophic narration, but the story takes over at the film’s climax and the non-linear tone resolves its emotional journey with Zeitlin’s powerful storytelling.
One-Line Review: Magnificent. That is all.
- Looper (Rian Johnson)
- Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan)
- Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
- A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel)
- Prometheus (Ridley Scott)
- The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
Films I’ve Missed Thus Far (which may eventually change the list)
- Something In the Air (Apres mai)
- Zero Dark Thirty
- Monsieur Lazhar
- We Need to Talk About Kevin
- Silver Linings Playbook