Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Best Films of 2012

Many people said that 2012 was a down year, or a bad year, for movies... and I basically agreed with them, as there was a lot of shit and it seemed like not a lot of good stuff. But then when I sat down to make this list, I realized that there were actually a lot of good or interesting movies that were worthy of a "best of the year" designation, albeit many of them very small art-house or foreign fare (or even very, very small film geek stuff)... so many, in fact, that I'm not satisfied merely doing a Top Ten list. 
I hereby submit my list of the 41 best films of 2012 (including a few ties). I would say that 41 good movies out of the 130 that I watched—a 31% success rate—is not terrible... or maybe it is... 
Here you go:

1 Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) 
2 Almeyer's Folly (Chantal Akerman)
3 Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
4 Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)
5 The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
6 Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
7 Keyhole (Guy Maddin)
8 Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold)
9 Declaration of War (Valérie Donzelli)
10 Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)
11 Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
12 The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)
13 The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) 
14 The Law in These Parts (Ra'anan Alexandrowicz)
15 The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh)
16 Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) 
17 Post Mortem (Pablo Larraín)
18 Bernie (Richard Linklater)
19 Headhunters (Morten Tyldum)
20 Alps (Giorgos Lanthimos)
21 Planet of Snail (Yi Seung-Jun)
22 Oslo, 31 August (Joachim Trier)
23 Brooklyn Castle (Katie Dellamaggiore)
24 Haywire / Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)
26 The Day He Arrives / In Another Country (Hong Sang-Soo)
28 The Fairy (Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy)
29 The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Chad Freidrichs)
30 The Grey (Joe Carnahan)
31 Gerhard Richter - Painting (Corina Belz) 
32 Turn Me On, Damnit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)
33 Norwegian Wood (Tran Anh Hung)
34 Michael (Markus Schleinzer)
35 Footnote (Joseph Cedar)
36 Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
37 Beast of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
38 Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs)
39 How to Survive a Plague (David France)
40 Argo (Ben Affleck)
41 The Bourne Legacy (Tony Gilroy)

(Forgive the formatting; Blogger is stupid.)

The Worst Films of 2012

I saw 125 new movies in 2012 and 38 of them were good or great. There were another 20 of them that were horrible, including some of the most incompetent, incoherent filmmaking I've ever seen in my life. 

Here is a list of the worst movies of 2012: 

1 Les Miserables
2 The Intouchables
3 The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
4 Prometheus
5 The Dark Knight Rises
6 The Hunger Games
7 The Avengers (3D)
8 Flight
9 The Sessions
10 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (HFR 3D)
11 Not Fade Away
12 Red Hook Summer
13 For Ellen
14 Friends with Kids
15 Natural Selection
16 The Five-Year Engagement
17 On the Road
18 W.E.
19 Damsels in Distress
20 The Sound of My Voice

Hi There! It's Been a Long Time—How Are You?

So it's been about six months since I've posted anything here. Mostly that is a result of me getting busy (with grad school and work) and not being able to review everything I see. So, in an effort to make it up to you, I wanted to list the films I saw in 2012, after I stopped blogging, and what my rating (out of four stars) they got.

So here goes:

64 Headhunter 3.5
65 Bourne Legacy 3
66 Alps  4
67 The Dark Knight Rises 1.5
68 The Queen of Versailles 2
69 Planet of Snail 3.5
70 Marina Abromovic: The Artist is Present 3
71 Ruby Sparks 2
72 Searching for Sugar Man 2
73 Almayer's Folly 4
74 Red Hook Summer 1
75 Meet the Fokkens 2.5
76 Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry 3
73 Almayer's Folly 4
77 Cosmopolis 4
78 Compliance 3
79 Lawless 2.5
80 Keep the Lights On   3.5
81 Side by Side 3
82 The Master 3
83 For Ellen 1
84 United in Anger: ACT UP 1.5
85 How to Survive a Plague 3.5
86 End of Watch 1.5
87 Looper 3
88 Argo 3
89 Holy Motors 4
90 Wuthering Heights 4
91 Flight 1
92 Cloud Atlas 2
93 Seven Psychopaths 3
94 Loneliest Planet 4
95 Anna Karenina 2.5
96 In Another Country   3.5
97 The Sessions 1.5
98 A Late Quartet    3
99 Skyfall 2.5
100 Silver Linings Playbook 2
101 Lincoln 2.5
102 The Life of Pi 2
103 The Law in These Parts 4
104 Rust and Bone   4
105 Hitchcock 2
106 This Must be the Place 2.5
107 Amour 3
108 Middle of Nowhere   1.5
109 In Our Nature   2.5
110 The Central Park Five 2
111 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (HFR 3D) 1
112 Not Fade Away 0.5
113 On the Road 1.5
114 Barbara 2.5
115 Zero Dark Thirty 2.5
116 This is 40  2
117 Django Unchained 4
118 Tabu 3
119 Les Miserables   0
120 West of Memphis 2.5
121 Detropia 2.5
122 Promised Land 2.5
123 Chasing Ice 3
124 Brookyln Castle 4
125 The Kid with a Bike 4

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Well Digger's Daughter (Thursday, July 12, 2012) (63)

Perhaps best known for Claude Berri's two 1986 adaptations of his novels, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, Marcel Pagnol remains one of the most important romantic writers and filmmakers of the pre-War era in France. Described by Jean Renoir as "an author of genius," Pagnol mostly wrote about early-mid-twentieth century rural France and all the colorful, modest and immodest people who live there.

Daniel Auteuil, who played Ugolin, the stubborn farmer in Jean de Florette, makes his writing and directoral debut with an adaptation of Pagnol's The Well Digger's Daughter, a light story that seems to fall in perfect like with the films of Berri, not to mention the lighter fare of Renoir or Pagnol himself.

Pascal Amoretti (Auteuil) is a very proud well digger in southern France. His devoted daughter, Patricia (the absolutely gorgeous Astrid Berges-Frisbey), takes care of him and his passel of young kids now that the mother is dead. Due to some quick economic figuring, Patricia had been partly raised in Paris by a rich lady and only came back south recently. Because of her brief flirtation with bourgeoisdom, she tilts her head a bit too far up and has a slightly fancy air about her.

She meets Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the son of the local grocery store owner and a dandy and a total snob. He woos her and she gives in quickly -- and they have a quick fling in the hay loft. He is then sent off to War (WWI) suddenly and is unable to tell her he loves her, etc. She becomes doubly sad, not just losing her boyfriend, but also because she gets pregnant from their tumble.

Pascal and her go to the Mazel house to ask for help, but they turn them away, seeing them as gold diggers. When news arrives that Jacques has died in battle, Pascal sets himself to raising his grandson with pride in his family and a bitterness for others.

There is a lot of discussion here about classism, sinful pride and snobbery and how it comes in all shapes and sizes from all directions. At first the Amorettis are treated badly by the Mazel's for being poor, but then Pascal responds by treating them with contempt for being out of touch. Jacques and Patricia's relationship, though brief, is filled with each one trying to gain upper-hand through money, body or psychology.

This film plays mostly as a charming chamber piece, light and funny at times and melodramatic at others. It is a very good movie with a seemingly timeless story, although it is not really brilliant and feels ultimately small and sometimes too shallow. Still, it's enjoyable and done in a very clean, naturalistic way.

Stars: 3 of 4

Magic Mike (Sunday, July 1, 2012) (62)

Film directors these days seem to trip into genre holes, where they make one kind of movie, either action movies, comedies, dramas, trashy popcorn fare, etc. Steven Soderburgh, on the other, hand makes all sorts of different kinds of movies, and seems to approach the movies he makes these days as experiments in genre analysis, more than just story-telling itself.

Last year he made Contagion, which, although being disappointing, was a contemporary effort at a disaster flick. Earlier this year was Haywire, a very small and totally solid bite-sized action movie. Now he comes out with Magic Mike, a movie that is more about an examination of trashy exploitation fare (something out of the late-'70s and early-'80s) than it is about male strippers. To look only at the beefcake on stage is to miss the point of the movie. This is a send-up of that moment when B-movies went mainstream, the kind of thing you would have seen playing on a loop on some Turner network in the late-'80s and groaned but continued to watch (and now quote to your friends nonstop).

The eponymous Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) is a scrappy young man in Tampa who works as a roofer and handyman during the day and a stripper at night. His boss, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the entertainment boss of the review show is a bit older and has bigger dreams than just taking over the Gulf coast. Mike seems to have no problems with the women, sleeping with whomever he wants. One day he takes under his wing a younger guy at the construction site, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who is a bit of a lost soul and lives on the couch of his (super hot) older sister, Brooke (Cody Horn).

Mike gets Adam to strip one night and Dallas believes he has the goods to do the work and become part of the troupe. Mike and Adam become best friends, of course, until Adam gets naively involved in side projects like drug deals. Mike has to figure out what his figure is (if it's with Brooke or not) and how he can work with Dallas and Adam going forward.

On its surface, this is a ridiculously stupid movie. There is nothing complicated about the plot and the elements of the narrative (from the guys being construction workers to Brooke being silly hot but unable to connect to guys) seem banal or even forced. Yet Soderbergh is too smart a guy to not know what he's doing. He includes all of these details because this is what the genre dictates. (This reminds me a bit of Verhoeven's Showgirls, a superficially ridiculous movie that recasts All About Eve as a story of strippers in Las Vegas. But there too, a surface look misses the point of what the director is doing. He's mocking the genre and mocking the ridiculous consumerist culture of entertainment and movie-going.) 

Soderbergh is also, of course, very interested in an examination of the genre and how more broadly it can be a Nicholas-Ray-like critique of masculinity in our culture. These men are all perfect physical specimens, of course, but they generally function only a half-level above drooling dogs. The lifestyle that Dallas represents and advocates is empty and impotent in the long run, and Mike has to go through the journey to discover this. Throughout all of this there's the paradox that these super-men are doing a job that's incredibly homoerotic, but makes women get horny. 

For me, this is a really fun and interesting film, partly because it's just silly and sexually interesting and partly because, on a meta level, it's a very harsh criticism of our culture. I love that for most it comes off as not being political in the slightest, just being an easy-to-swallow pill. Soderbergh shows (again) that he's a great actors' director and gets a hell of a performance out of Tatum, that's both multi-faceted and profound. Listing the actors the director has worked with over the years shows that he knows what he's doing on set; watching this movie shows that he's really thinking about a lot of interesting stuff behind the camera as well.

Stars: 3.5 of 4

Take this Waltz (Saturday, June 30, 2012) (61)

Canadian dynamo actress/writer/director Sarah Polley's first feature film Away from Her is a very interesting, personal look at love and devotion during Alzheimer's. The film has the decency and carefulness of Atom Egyoan, a director Polley worked with in the past as an actress, and shows a tremendous amount of restraint and talent. In her second film, Take this Waltz, Polley looks again at love and devotion, although this time from a younger point of view. One could see this film as a "prequel" to Away from Her, as an examination of a couple struggling to stay together. 

Margot (Michelle Williams) is a woman in her late-20s/early-30s who lives with her loving husband Lou (Seth Rogan). They lead a rather typical young urban life (in Toronto, natch), where she writes travel guide books and he is a cookbook author. On a visit to a tourist destination she meets a guy to whom she's immediately attracted. Lo and behold, it seems he's her next-door neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby). The two flirt for awhile and end up beginning an affair together. 

Margot, who never expected to fall out of love with Lou, is suddenly faced with an existential dilemma about the future of her marriage. We see how happy she is with Daniel and how hum-drum her married life is. 

Polley has a really nice style and a very careful and visually connected presentation. She tells much of the emotional story through simple camera angles and compositional elements. At one point while Margot is struggling with her feelings for the two men, we see a straightforward shot of the married couple on two sides of the kitchen window. She's inside with (diegetic) music playing, while he sits outside on the porch, cut off from her literally and emotionally. 

Later, we see Margot and Daniel on a date in a carnival tilt-a-whirl. Polley shoots the pair from inside the car, so they stay in the shot, while the rest of the world literally spins around them. Both of these shots are very clever and translate volumes of emotional material efficiently. This is the touch of a great director who is able to convey deep feelings in a naturalistic context without the audience noticing. 

A strange recent trend in (Canadian) cinema is not knowing when to end a film -- or ending it a whole scene or section too late (see Heartbeats and Incendies). Polley suffers a similar fate as she adds on an unnecessary coda that shows Margot in the months that follow her decision about the two men. This does serve to tie up the story in a very neat and tidy way, and makes her personal journey a slight bit more complete, but it really just gives more information that doesn't help us understand her psychology more. (There's also a totally silly over-the-top sex montage that is more laughable than powerful.) The film would have been much cleaner and tighter without this postscript. 

Still, this element is mainly a writing issue (the script is also by Polley) and doesn't really take anything away from the very good picture that precedes it. Polley is clearly a very talented director and seems to have an independent vision for filmmaking and story telling. I very much look forward to her next film  -- and hope she knows when to stop it at the right time.

Stars: 3 of 4

Beast of the Southern Wild (June 26, 2012) (60)

Beasts of the Southern Wild, by first-time feature co-writer and director Behn Zeitlin, is much more of a portrait of an emotional moment and feeling than it is a narrative story that follows a character from one point in her life to another. It has the eerie lyricism of a Terrence Malick film (particularly Days of Heaven) as it examines the relationship between neorealism and magical realism that can coexist in a child's psyche.

Loosely described, the film tells the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), an 8-year-old girl being raised by her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in a (fictional) area called the Bathtub in southern Louisiana, in the wilderness south of New Orleans. It seems in this near-post-apocalyptic time, the polar ice caps have melted and have flooded the low bayou. Residents of the Bathtub live a semi-amphibious lives jumping between boats, house trailers perched in high trees and houseboats. There are several dozen residents in this community, where they seem to live life in a non-linear, joyful way. There is a sense that somewhere north of them is civilization, continuing mostly as it seems for us today, while they down below try to avoid that world.

Hushpuppy and the other kids her age go to a makeshift school where their teacher Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) teaches them they they "are all just meat". She tells them that they have to watch out for themselves because if they don't some other animal will come to eat them.

Hushpuppy's mother, it seems, has left in the years before, although it's never totally clear whether she actually walked away from the Bathtub or if she died and Wink just told the girl that her mother had "left". This concept is one of the first times we are faced with an oblique concept due to a mix of fantasy and reality in Hushpuppy's perception of the world. She is haunted by visions of massive beasts running roughshod over the land toward the Bathtub to eat them.

Throughout the film, Zeitlin interjects moments and scenes that don't totally follow in a narrative path, but add to the general feeling of happiness and innocence of the location. The film opens with a magnificent party, shot hand-held, that easily conveys the joy of the village and the community feeling of all the people. Later, there is a craw fish boil with singing and a wonderful feeling of warmth and support as Hushpuppy is taught how to open crabs by "beasting" them (ripping them) apart.

Zeitlin cleverly plays with New Orleans culture and recent history as he alludes to typical tropes from the area. One moment, above all others, is particularly powerful, as the Bathtub is flooded by a storm and the residents blow up the levee that separates the Bathtub from the mainland. When they do this, the water drains, like out of a tub, into the land above. This is a very deep and significant allusion to the common conspiracy theory that the US government blew the hold in the levees that flooded the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Here it's the poor people (mostly black) who are flooding the richer, nicer areas north of them.

Stylistically, Zeitlin weaves a very interesting tale, where dream-like sequences of the wild beasts, in Hushpuppy's imagination, are cut in with more hard-nosed, brutal images of the living conditions of the people and their struggle to survive. Added to this are segments that seem to exist neither in a totally naturalistic place nor a totally fantastical place, as when Hushpuppy and some of her friends go out looking for her mother and end up in a floating brothel in the bayou where the girls dance with the prostitutes (whores in New Orleans, an allusion to several New Orleans movies and stories over the years). The story becomes a spectrum of reality and surreality, ranging in degree from one shot to the next. At one point the Bathtubbers are discovered by what seems to be FEMA workers and taken to a hospital. Suddenly everything is clean and made of plastic in right angles. It's both super-real (from our point of view) and incredibly uncanny (from Hushpuppy's point of view).

The cinematography by Ben Richardson is beautiful and dreamy. It seems to be shot mostly digitally, though that adds a quickness and naturalness to settings and situations. We see lens flares and sun spots as the hand-held camera pans around a dark room, lit only by the sunlight peeking through the cracks in the wooden shack wall. The music, by Dan Romer (the brother of a close friend of mine, full disclosure) and Zeitlin is ethereal and classical in a sense not normally seen in a small film like this. It is very evocative of Morricone's score for Days of Heaven, as well as the Saint-Saens "Carnival of the Animals"excerpt from the same movie.

This is an excellent first film that shows a true directoral voice and point of view. I appreciate that Zeitlin doesn't answer too many questions, but leaves us open to figure out the puzzle ourselves. As a snap-shot story, there is no tidy ending, only a slow fade out of the characters and action. This is a movie about dreams, and as such, is hard to nail down as meaning one thing or another. Yes, some of the imagery is a bit heavy-handed, though that too is the nature of dreams. At time this film is frightening, exuberant, dark, funny, sad and hopeful. This is a roller coaster of emotion and tone, but feels warm and very well made.

Stars: 4 of 4