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. 


Jake Cole said...

"It's the kind of glib, shoddy work Tarantino's critics have always accused of him delivering, but hadn't until now."

EXACTLY. Was shocked by how listless and self-involved it was. People keep saying, "Well, it's Tarantino," but I think even his most tangential conversations previously had a force to them that is wholly absent in this. Basterds represented a new level for his writing, one in which he used his flowing dialogue to generate suspense, and this utterly failed to keep that going. Not to mention how its inconsistent grasp of what it wants to say drops every 10 minutes.

Hokahey said...

Craig - I like your list. Glad to see The Grey at the top. I would put it on my top ten list - despite the silly crossing of the gorge scene. There is enough Jack Londonesque raw survival adventure to make up for that.

Thank you for fearlessly including John Carter as a favorite. It is silly, yes, but entertaining. I saw it twice at the movies and I've seen it twice on DVD. It does a good job of capturing the sheer adventure of an Edgar Rice Burroughs story.

I also enjoyed Haywire as a simple, unfussy entertainment. I also love Moonrise Kingdom. It is "beautiful and delicate."

I agree. Dark Knight Rises blows its dramatic moments. It is not nearly as memorable as The Dark Knight.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'm putting together the final touches on my 2012 bests list, and THE GREY pops up on it several times. It has numerous glaring faults, but those are rendered insignificant thanks to Neeson, a terrific score and smart sound and imagery.

You liked THE DEEP BLUE SEA and HAYWIRE more than I did, and COSMOPOLIS a lot more than I did, but I'm with you all the way on MOONRISE KINGDOM.

As for 2011: I went with two best pictures last year, one with faults (THE TREE OF LIFE) and one without them (TINKER TAILOR). I'm as confident in those choices now as I was then. TINKER TAILOR was my most watched film of 2012, and I fall in love with it each and every time. A very special film.

Other thoughts ...

* Yes, you and everyone else who believes in Joss Whedon for reasons that non-BUFFY watchers can't begin to understand are definitely overrating THE AVENGERS. I see no "worldview" there. None.

* I'm probably just projecting here, but I suspect that if you see THE MASTER a second time (assuming you've seen it only once) you'll find something much more than just hot air. I think THE MASTER and LINCOLN are probably tied when it comes to crediting films for depth that I'm not sure they earned, but despite initial reservations THE MASTER ends the year strongly in my top 5. Probably No. 2.

* I'm looking forward to my second viewing of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. For real. Despite all its faults, there's a power to Nolan's films that I can't deny.

* Man, I really want to love THE KID WITH A BIKE. Other than the fault you mention, I can't find anything "wrong" with it. But even walking out of the theater it didn't cling to me.

Nice wrap up!

Steven Santos said...

My main disagreement would be with calling THE MASTER "hot air", considering it is the film this year that I have wrestled with and contemplated the most for what it is saying and how it chooses to say it. Perhaps, the most incisive display of the charade that religion requires and the suggestion that it actually gets in the way of forging relationships with others. Still my choice for the best film of the year, when most of 2012 will probably fade from memory.

On the other hand, like Jason, I was not a fan of "Cosmopolis", which, in retrospect, I thought was rather full of it. Scene after scene demonstrating how its main character is hollow on the inside, not helped by its overwritten dialogue. The voice I wanted to hear, Giamatti's character, is paid lip service at the end.

Meanwhile, "The Grey" would wind up in my top 5. I was one of those people making jokes calling it the "Liam Neeson Punches Wolves" film. Then, I was convinced to see it and it has stuck with me the entire year. Still can't believe Carnahan had it in him to pull that one off. As was my surprise that Wes Anderson finally worked his whimsy into a film that I finally connected to emotionally.

I wasn't bothered by "Argo" at all, as I still think a film's main goal is to work as a film and not journalism, a question I've been posing since seeing "Zero Dark Thirty" earlier this week. Amping up real life events for a film is not anywhere near as bothersome as Tarantino plundering historical atrocities to give significance to cheap revenge fantasies filtered through movie references.

Craig said...

Lots to respond to here. Bear with me while I go down the list:

Jake, thanks for your thoughts. I hate to bring out the Sally Menke excuse, but it's a shame we'll never know what she would have made of this. As Kevin Olson (who liked the movie) pointed out, that dinner table scene shows the weight of her absence.

Thanks, Hokahey. Funny, but the gorge scene was actually when I began to come around to THE GREY, when I realized it had more on its mind than I initially thought. Following that came the quiet dignity of Frank Grillo's neither quiet nor dignified character, and I was sold.

JOHN CARTER was an easy target for critics and audiences, especially the generation who has never heard of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Saturday morning serials. Plenty more offensive films out there deserving of the abuse that got heaped onto this one. I enjoyed it enough the first time, and you've prompted me to see it again.

Craig said...

Jason and Steven - I'll address your comments together since they're similar...SIMILARLY WRONG!!!

(Part I):

First, THE MASTER. For everything I admire about Paul Thomas Anderson, I've always found his views on organized religion incredibly trite. It was the weakest (if secondary) element in THERE WILL BE BLOOD and he's moved the subject to center-stage in THE MASTER without increasing his own edification. PTA's understanding of religion boils down to this: "Oh, ho, ho, look at these hypocrites: they pretend to be devout in public, yet in person they know that their beliefs are bullshit." That hasn't been my experience at all with religious folks from where I've lived in this country. PTA seems to think that the problem with these people is they're faking it, when in fact, I would argue, the problem is they're sincere. It isn't acting out a "charade" that keeps them from connecting with people or themselves; it's the literal interpretation of the doctrine itself (whatever it may be) that prohibits connection, empathy, and self-awareness.
Michael Tolkin showed he understood this brilliantly in THE RAPTURE, and pushed the idea to its disturbing yet wholly logical conclusion. PTA approaches it from more of a fuzzy-headed emotional level, and I find his take not only unrealistic, but simplistic and ineffective in terms of both character and narrative. Dodd doesn't articulate his own beliefs; some of his inner circle think they're bullshit; Freddie doesn't seem to believe or even understand all that much either, but he's willing to undergo processing and beat up naysayers anyway. Great. Who cares?


Craig said...

(Part II)

If we were to compare COSMOPOLIS with THE MASTER, I'd come on the side of the former for lots of reasons. It's relatively short; it's more overtly a satire; it uses DeLillo's language satirically (appropriated for our time, yet still as the author intended it), to comment on the ineffectuality of ten-dollar words for a cocooned central character whose entire existence (and power and wealth and influence) is an abstract concept. Whereas Anderson and his drama-queen actors blurt out dialogue indiscriminately, hoping something sticks, Cronenberg and DeLillo employ words strategically, their abstract concepts offset by the tangible reality of the diners, barber shops and low-rent apartments that Pattinson frequents. His performance gains in stature over the course of the movie, whereas Joaquin Phoenix shouts and spins his wheels. I found COSMOPOLIS funny and thought-provoking, and it moved me too.

Lastly on THE MASTER: Jason, I know you didn't mean it this way, and hopefully my facetious tone is apparent, but your "projection" that I'll appreciate the movie more on a second viewing reminded me of Stephanie Zacharek's column from earlier in the year, where she sums up the critical consensus toward the film, and those who don't care for it, as "passive-aggressively dictatorial...'If you didn't get it the first time, keep going back until you do.'" I will see THE MASTER again, eventually, but I'm in no hurry to do so.


Craig said...

(Part III)

Other thoughts:

Joss Whedon's worldview: atheist, humanist, feminist. All these elements factor into all of his work, even something as unabashedly commercial as THE AVENGERS (just one example: Hulk pounding on the bad-guy god right after he demands respect).

I cited Pakula with ARGO because a surprising number of critics have been doing so favorably. ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN probably didn't get all the facts right, either; but it goes through the trouble of convincing the audience that it does. If it featured a scene showing Woodward and Bernstein having a drunken dark night of the soul, touring the monuments, then showed them storming the galleys and calling Bradlee to say, by golly, they're running the story anyway, then Affleck's movie would have reminded me more of Pakula's.

Finally, THE GREY. It's nothing like DRIVE, yet Carnahan reminds me of Winding Refn in how his film takes a singular idea toward the material and goes all the way with it. (I don't know how he got away with not showing the climactic fight, but I think it works. The fight is irrelevant; it's Neeson standing tall in the face of death that matters.) It's a distinctive vision, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good thoughts back. A few more ...

* Hokahey and I have talked about it, so I can better pinpoint the trouble with the gorge scene. It's not what happens in the gorge. It's two things: (1) the way the film rushes through the decision to jump across that chasm to the tree (a fairly big fucking deal that could have been milked for more tension; instead, the dude takes a few deep breaths, makes it, then the two dudes make it across no problem, and then the one guy has his meltdown ... just shoddy pacing), and then (2) the way the wolves apparently all look at one another and say, "Hey, look, they're making a rope line to that tree; even though there's no quick way down to the bottom of the gorge, let's head to the base of that tree so we can be ready in 10 minutes when some douche bag falls out." Obviously, for both of us, it wasn't deal-breaker stuff. Just moments that could have been scripted a bit better.

* You make terrific, articulate points about PTA's view of religion. And so my only disagreement would be that in the end I felt the religion aspect was as secondary to THE MASTER as it is to THERE WILL BE BLOOD. I have no doubt that others disagree, and maybe think I now admire the movie for the "wrong reasons." But in the end I see that movie about two men searching for their place in the world. That a religious movement is part of what brings them together and keeps them apart ends up feeling only like trivia.

* And, yes, I do realize how my prediction seems to echo that sentiment that SZ detected (and I did, too) that refusing THE MASTER was just not allowed. Indeed, I didn't mean it that way. It's just a hunch that the next time you see it, without trying, you'll find more than just "hot air," that's all.

* The ending of THE GREY is perfect. Maybe could have milked it for a few seconds more. Then again, it needs to end before we're quite ready for it to end. That's why it works. It would be my pick for best ending of the year ... if not for MOONRISE KINGDOM.

Craig said...

Good points, Jason, about the gorge in THE GREY. I guess it didn't bother me because by then I started to see the story as not "real." I know that's the kind of escape clause that drives me crazy when other people use it about other films, but I think Carnahan provides a few clues that everything after the plane crash is a type of purgatory, or at least could be interpreted that way.

And no worries about SEE IT AGAIN, SAM (aka THE MASTER). I knew what you meant. It just reminded me of Stephanie's piece and made me laugh. I read another essay just the other day comparing the release of THE MASTER to 2001, implying that PTA's film will one day be as venerated as Kubrick's - a case of rather arbitrary cherry-picking, I think. It's entirely possible history will be kind to Anderson's film, or that I will one day come around, but the two needn't go together. As Tom Shone once said about film criticism: "You don't have to be on the 'right side of history.' You only have to be on the right side of your opinion."

Jason Bellamy said...

I like that quote! I was thinking of something along those lines this morning when I was reviewing my 2012 Bests list (for publication tomorrow) and glanced back at some previous years and noticed that, you know, I'm getting better at this: I'm sure that one, five or 10 years from now I'll have lost interest in something that has me impressed now (or vice versa), but for the most part those reversals are becoming extremely rare. On the other hand, if I looked back 10-15 years ago, when I was in my early-to-mid-20s, it was much more common for me to heap praise on something that even a year later I'd almost completely forgotten.

As for THE GREY: Indeed, one aspect I love about the movie is its unrealness. In particular, I like the way they handle the wolves in the beginning: those bright eyes standing in one line and then vanishing back into the dark, and so on. So the gorge crossing isn't an issue of reality so much (which is why it's not a big deal in the end). Just a case where the movie seems somewhat at odds with itself in terms of the stakes of what's about to happen. Such moments are always glaring the first time, when you're trying to get your bearings, but they become easy to overlook after that.

Adam Zanzie said...

Did you ever get to see Skyfall? I know you were a big fan of Casino Royale; I think there's a good chance you'll like this one even more. It'll be in my Top 5 easily.

We agree on Moonrise Kingdom and John Carter.

I liked Savages more than you did. You liked The Avengers more than I did.

You have me very intrigued on The Grey. I missed Cosmopolis because I got the impression it was one of those "misses" in Cronenberg's pattern of hit/miss releases. I hope to see it soon.

Finally, in regards to Lincoln: I never thought I'd say this, but Tom Carson's review is one of the best. He gets it!

Craig said...

Haven't seen SKYFALL yet. Sorry, but I can't stand Sam Mendes. Hope he proves me wrong. Will get around to it eventually.

LINCOLN too, though I've been disagreeing with Tom on quite a bit of stuff lately.

Hope you get to see THE GREY soon. I think you'll be impressed. Watch it through the end credits. There's one more shot, and it's not incidental.

Dan Heaton said...

It's great that you mention THE GREY, which was a surprise for me in the same way. I was interested in their survival but didn't expect such a moving final act. MOONRISE KINGDOM was my favorite of the year, and "fragile classic" is an excellent description.

On the other hand, I didn't find that DAMSELS IN DISTRESS repeated itself and loved the way that Stillman meandered through this fantastical college story.

I do wonder how THE AVENGERS will hold up to a second viewing. I had a great time seeing it in the theaters and hope it still retains that charm. Finally, JOHN CARTER is definitely a B movie trapped by its giant budget. It was good fun, even with some poor effects and silly acting.

Craig said...

Thanks for your comment, Dan. I know a lot of people like DAMSELS, and I was on board with it for 40 minutes or so. Saw it a second time and it registered even less, I'm afraid. Glad to find another person who enjoyed JOHN CARTER. For such a bloated budget (which most of the critics focused on), it has a light charm.