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. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

More on The Big Year, with notes on the Extended Edition

I've become a little obsessed with The Big Year, the birding comedy I reviewed just three weeks ago and have seen a couple more times since. The movie isn't a towering masterwork, but it has the ability to shake the bad thoughts out of your head, a quality some of us could use these days, and which you're not going to get out of something like Au Hasard Balthazar. I'm not a birder - or even, really, much of an obsessive - but whatever granular inaccuracies the movie may have, it seems to get the essence of birding right. Although the film pokes some gentle fun at its subject, it's surprisingly respectful, even reverential on the whole. A cast that features Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson may promise the kind of big yuks (or, given their recent collective track record, unfunny ones) that The Big Year has no intention of delivering, yet David Frankel, who directed, offers something more: a sustained, sublime bliss.

The Blu-Ray (recently purchased, as a Christmas present for myself) of The Big Year contains both the Theatrical Release and an Extended Edition, and the two offer a vivid comparison of the choices filmmakers make in post-production. The theatrical version runs 100 minutes, the extended 103 - either one still about 40 minutes shorter than the average Judd Apatow joint. The additional three minutes don't provide any more laughs; they're mainly superfluous character development scenes that the movie is better for having cut (e.g., a phone call from Black's ex-wife). Frankel, who did fine directorial work on HBO for a number of years (most famously on Sex and the City, but also two of the best episodes of Band of Brothers: "The Breaking Point" and "Why We Fight"), as well as the brisk, entertaining feature film The Devil Wears Prada, is a modern-day comedy director who obviously understands the value of editing. Fashion and birding aren't exactly topics that lend themselves to the term "fast-paced," yet both The Devil Wears Prada and The Big Year move swiftly, not as wild knockabout farce, but through character beats that cumulatively build narrative momentum. (Frankel's editor on both films is Mark Livolsi, who does a stellar job; yet watching Livolsi's work on Cameron Crowe's plodding We Bought a Zoo or Vanilla Sky suggests that Frankel is the prime mover for how nimbly his own films move.)

With a plot involving a trio of protagonists, a timeframe that covers 365 days, and a milieu expanding across the country, The Big Year offers some enormous editorial challenges; yet the most significant difference between the extended and theatrical version isn't anything we see but what we hear. The theatrical, which I saw first, features extensive narration from Jack Black, who plays the blue-collar birder Brad Harris, and an early in-and-out voice-cameo from John Cleese, whom Brad cheekily introduces as "this English guy" who briefly and loftily explains what a "big year" means in the world of birding. The theatrical release's narration foregrounds Brad as the main character, yet it also offers some occasionally incongruous phrasing and moments where Brad tells us about his principal competitors, retiring billionaire Stu Preissler (Martin), and big-year record-holder Kenny Bostick (Wilson), even though he couldn't have known what they were up to when he wasn't present.

The Extended Edition explains these oddities: Brad wasn't the original narrator. It was John Cleese, whom I am calling "John Cleese" because he never appears as a character onscreen. He plays, in fact, an omniscient narrator, whose voiceover in the extended version provides a kind of ironic counterpoint to what we see onscreen. Cleese's supercilious tone appears designed to resemble a ornithologist giving a presentation at an academic conference, the idea seeming to be that we should regard birders as possessing the attributes of a particular "species." I encourage you to see the extended version, but only after viewing the theatrical release, because the former - however clever the original narration may have sounded on the pages of Howard Franklin's script - is instructively disastrous on the screen.

While the J.C.V.O. levels the playing field between Brad, Stu, and Kenny - viewing each of them equally, objectively - the ironic detachment severs the movie's emotional connection, which Brad, as the most sympathetic character, provides. Consequently, even though Martin and Wilson come across as slightly more secondary in the theatrical release, they make stronger impressions there than in the extended edition. (This is Steve Martin's most committed performance in two decades, and possibly - particularly in his scenes with Black - his warmest ever; and the prickly qualities of Owen Wilson's Bostick, when viewed through Brad's eyes, come across as the temperament of an uncompromising artist devoted to his craft.) Cleese's inflections, while amusing for the "history of the big year" segment, intrude on the genuine passion and affection that The Big Year has for its subject. So while some of Cleese's scientific jargon sounds a little strange coming out of Black's mouth - much of it is rephrased or eliminated, but bits and pieces sometimes slip through - Black gets the emotions right, and that's what counts.

I don't know if the changes were the decision of the filmmakers or the studio, but they enhance the impact of the movie considerably. Even if nobody saw it. It's easy to denounce a studio's lack of imagination in the release of a movie that's a tad unconventional - a movie about birds that features no scenes where characters are crapped on from on-high is undeniably a tough sell - and I certainly did, but I'll give Fox 2000 Pictures and its financial partners a token of credit for being at least adventurous enough to green-light the picture in the first place. The Big Year didn't give them a hit; but it is a movie that deserves to be seen. It has my favorite line of dialogue from any movie all year. ("Fallout.") And it contains my favorite montage since the one where Anne Hathaway goes to work in an array of outfits in Frankel's Devil Wears Prada. In The Big Year, it comes during the middle portion of the movie on Attu Island (actually the Yukon), a remote hinterland that offers some of the best birding in the world. As the birders collectively set out, the names of the species they find are captioned on the tundra; and Frankel's scoring of this sequence to Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" becomes the most elating use of a major pop hit since U2's "With or Without You" in Tell No One. Like much of The Big Year, the words of the song aren't important to the scene; it's the feeling that's transcendent.