Saturday, December 29, 2012
Best Favorite Films of 2012: A Big Year For Small Gems
I can't on good conscience do "Best" lists, seeing probably less than 10% of the new releases over the year. I'm very selective of what I go to see and not infrequently disappointed by what I do, so I wonder if having to view the truly bad films would make me go easier on the merely mediocre. Whatever the case, this year I found the heavily hyped "big" movies often underwhelming (two of my favorite filmmakers, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, whiffed big-time), yet several small gems impressed and delighted. Consider then the following a sample survey of the Year In Film.
Favorite Film: Friends and family scared me away from seeing The Grey (they hated it), until I halfheartedly caught up with it near the end of the year on DVD. For a while into the picture it seemed they were right. Even though I admired the craft of the movie (the plane crash is a model of economy), I thought the early wolf attacks, while terrifying and upsetting, were staged for nothing more than cheap thrills. Then somewhere along the way, the film stopped looking like a survivalist docudrama and turned into something more mysterious and substantial. Richard Bellamy on Twitter perceptively cited Jack London ("To Build a Fire" comes vividly to mind), and I also recalled what one critic said about Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue (reportedly a far gentler movie): It's a poetic allegory about a dying man coming to terms with his own mortality. I disliked Joe Carnahan's ballyhooed 2002 debut Narc and avoided all of his A-Team, Smokin' Aces Hollywood product since, but now he has my attention: His work in The Grey, anchored by Liam Neeson's stirring performance, has the diamond-hard integrity of Peckinpah at his peak.
Other Faves: Moonrise Kingdom turned out to be a fragile classic, more beautiful and delicate than any of Wes Anderson's previous films while miraculously avoiding their pitfalls. Leos Carax's Holy Motors was the year's best movie about movies, a self-reflexive subject that's growing tiresome, but which Carax navigated with thrilling unpredictability. David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis was a sleek, masterful satire about an unfeeling robot (Robert Pattinson's billionaire limo-rider) who yearns to be a real boy. 2012's most impressive debut goes to Kleber Mendonca Filho's Neighboring Sounds, an Altmanesque survey of economic stratification in urban Brazil; while the nimble action-thriller Haywire was Steven Soderbergh's most entertaining, unfussiest work in over a decade. Forget the perfunctory plot: the real story was about a pointy-headed nerd-director falling in love with Gina Carano's physical prowess and staging her action scenes with verve and alacrity.
Also: Mia Hansen-Love's Goodbye First Love was a touching, observant film about the pain and joy of young romance, and Terrence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea the same - yet even better - about a middle-aged affair (with Rachel Weisz winning the year's Kirsten Dunst-in-Melancholia Award for most unexpected great performance). Last and possibly least, Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts was the wisest and most generous of the year's obligatory naval-gazing American indies. It's also the kind of movie a lot of other people don't like, and has the kind of setting (college campus) and theme (the precipice of middle-age) that together may make a blind spot for me. So be it.
Favorites of 2011 I saw in 2012: I was very glad to see Asghar Farhadi's superb A Separation at Ebertfest, a docudrama-thriller whose gradual revelation of its central event keeps expanding your understanding of what happened (and of Iranian culture in general) and shifting your loyalties even as it expertly tightens the screws. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was, for me, an immeasurably superior adaptation to the slow-as-molasses BBC miniseries, whittling down its visual syntax to a fine blade. Finally, The Big Year, David Frankel's uncommonly gentle comedy, makes some keen observations about the loneliness of obsessives and the bonding and competitiveness that derive from shared obsessions (rather topical, I thought). Among numerous lovely touches, Steve Martin's acceptance of facing "the abyss" is his most moving moment ever on screen.
Favorite Revivals: For the second full year, the Indiana University Cinema was the place to be (if you don't live in New York, Chicago, or L.A.) for revivals of classic films. Things peaked early, with a January screening of Once Upon a Time in the West, a 35mm presentation introduced by the supervisor of the restoration, retired film preservationist Barry Allen. Other delights were seeing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (2K DCP) with my dad, followed by Casablanca (2K) and The Third Man (35mm) with both my mom and dad. 2012 also ended on a high note, with a ravishing 2K digital restoration of The Leopard. As the laments over digital grow increasingly tiresome (as do the "See, I told you so!" reports of technical foul-ups at screenings, from folks forgetting all the occasions where film reels have broken or unspooled), the quality of both film and digital at the IU Cinema reinforces that it's the skill and experience of the projectionist that matters most.
I'm Probably Overrating: The Avengers. Admittedly, it's a bit messy, with too many superheroes to keep track of, some more interesting (e.g., Mark Ruffalo's Hulk) than others. But it's still a rare comic-book movie that possesses a genuine's artist's worldview, and Joss Whedon's light touch with so much character and incident was a balm following more heavy-handed affairs (see below).
Everyone Else is Overrating (But I Still Liked It): I might have enjoyed Richard Linklater's Bernie more had I not read so much about the plot in advance. Nevertheless, Jack Black's finely-tuned performance as a kind-hearted self-aggrandizer and murderer (on the heels of his fine work as a completely different character in The Big Year) is a showcase for his unappreciated depth and range.
It's Not That Bad: John Carter. Can a motion picture cost $250 million and still qualify as a "B"-movie? I'm somewhat skeptical, yet Andrew Stanton's old-school sci-fi epic feels lively rather than bloated, silly instead of self-important. That's a compliment.
And there were disappointments:
Biggest Load of Hot-Air: The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson's loud, posturing postwar/Scientology/male-bonding character study huffs and puffs on a whole bevy of topics without saying anything remotely insightful about any of them. It's never a good sign when scenes from the trailer not in the final cut looked more intriguing than what remains onscreen.
Biggest Load of Hot-Air (Comic-Book Version): The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan stumblebummed his way through another grim portrait of the Caped Crusader, only this time with greatly diminished returns, trotting out a half-assed allegory of the financial crisis and Occupy Movement (see Cosmopolis for a superior take) so we never forget, as always, that he means Serious Business. It's been a long time since I've seen a movie repeatedly blow one potentially stirring moment after another.
Most Inexplicable Comparison to Alan J. Pakula: Argo. Ben Affleck's lame Iranian hostage-crisis thriller reduces a fascinating real-life incident to a stockpile of Hollywood cliches. Brilliant!
Betrayed By Its Own Ending: Friends with Kids. For the majority of its running-time, Jennifer Westfeldt's anti-romantic comedy challenges cultural assumptions of marital superiority, only to validate them with a deeply phony cop-out climax.
Good Will vs. Wretched Excess: Peter Jackson's The Hobbit returns to Middle-Earth without the heart and emotion of the original trilogy. Turning a feather of a story into a sledgehammer, it plays like a padded DVD Extended Edition released theatrically. Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained starts strong before getting uncharacteristically bogged down in its own unconvincing plot developments (some convoluted nonsense about an offscreen character named Eskimo Joe), rather than following through on the freedom-vs.-power, working-outside-the-system vs. manipulating-from-within friction between Jamie Foxx's bounty hunter Django and Samuel L. Jackson's plantation servant Stephen. It's the kind of glib, shoddy work Tarantino's critics have always accused him of delivering, but hadn't until now.
A Good Movie with One Unfortunate Distraction: the Dardenne brothers' The Kid with a Bike is a lovely, touching, well-acted film. And the entire drama hinges on a recurring plot device so irritating that more than once I blurted out: "Geez, kid, get a lock!"
Other Bummers or Near-Misses: Gary "Mr. Literal" Ross's visually incoherent The Hunger Games is the year's most breathtaking demonstration of directorial ineptitude. Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress has some witty early moments yet repeats itself and bottoms out by the end. Walter Salles's On the Road is a well-made adaptation of material that no longer speaks to me. Oliver Stone's silly Savages makes a lot of noise without going anywhere. The low-budget indie sci-fi comedy Safety Not Guaranteed has a few nice offbeat touches and won over some admirers, but for me Mark Duplass's dealbreaker performance is the definition of anti-charisma.
Have Yet to See: Zero Dark Thirty and Tabu. Both coming soon to Bloomington. And Soderbergh's Magic Mike, which I missed in theaters, is up next in my Netflix queue.
Can't Bring Myself to See: Les Miserables, which many have despised and a few defenders went in ready to love in advance and have told everyone else to shut up and so there. Maybe Tom Hooper will prove me wrong when I finally catch up to it, but I doubt it. I'm more interested in Lincoln, due to the participation of Daniel Day-Lewis and Tony Kushner, but something keeps holding me back. I may finally give in before the year is up, but right now the thought of Spielberg and speeches is too much to bear.