Sunday, January 27, 2013

Best of 2012 Wrap-up: Best Director, Worst of the Year and more

Final wrap-up for 2012 as I run through various categories and say what really impressed me

Director of the Year: Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master)
Yeah, yeah, real surprise I know. I can’t help it- Paul Thomas Anderson is easily my pick for the best director working today, and he makes one of his greatest films with the challenging but fascinating The Master. Anderson makes every shot a portrait unto itself, whether he’s isolating Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell from the rest of the world or capturing a group of sailors returning from WWII. The film fits perfectly into his body of work as yet another perfect exploration of loneliness.

Honorable mentions: Wes Anderson challenged PTA in terms of making every shot a portrait in Moonrise Kingdom. Michael Haneke’s patient, stark style made every moment of Amour breathless. Kathryn Bigelow’s instincts as a first-rate director of action powered Zero Dark Thirty, but she also made it one of her most personal and mournful films. But Leos Carax came closest to PTA in terms of sheer cinematic exuberance with his batshit insane masterpiece Holy Motors.

Screenplay of the Year: Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master)
Anderson wrote and directed the single greatest relationship on film this year with Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd’s push-pull relationship between a surrogate father and son. Quell and Dodd were 2012’s two most complete characters, two men searching for answers to unanswerable questions, men who were destined to go through life unfulfilled.

Honorable Mentions: 2012 was a great year for writer-directors, between Whit Stillman’s typically witty but atypically loopy work on Damsels in Distress, Quentin Tarantino’s emotional but hilarious revenge story Django Unchained, Rian Johnson’s typically twisty-turny and poignant work on Looper, and Wes Anderson’s quirky but melancholy Moonrise Kingdom. Mark Boal brought the same journalistic approach that served The Hurt Locker well to Zero Dark Thirty. Tony Kushner wrote one of the greatest films ever made about politics with Lincoln. But PTA’s closest runner-up is Michael Haneke, whose deeply compassionate Amour marks the apex of his skill as a writer.

Best Cinematography: The Master
I swear The Master won’t win everything. But Mihai Malaimare’s work on The Master is undeniable (except by the Academy, apparently). Milahaire showed he was one of the best directors of photography in the world with his gorgeous work on Francis Ford Coppola’s recent films, but his work on The Master is cinematography as pure art, each perfectly framed, each lit like a masterpiece. And the fact that he and PTA put it on beautiful, beautiful 70mm (which I unfortunately missed) only added to the brilliance.

Honorable Mentions: Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet uses the Caucausus mountains beautifully while achieving a perfect sense of stillness and simplicity. Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse used black-and-white photography and long takes to drain all sense of hope form the world, particularly in its brilliant opening shot. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time Anatolia has a sense of patience and a hypnotic mood that’s absolutely stunning, particularly in its night scenes, where Ceylan and cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki used headlights as a great source of night. And Roger Deakins’ brilliant work on Sam Mendes’ Skyfall made a strong argument that digital can look just as good as celluloid, particularly in a stunning fight sequence set in a neon-lit Shanghai.

Best Editing: Zero Dark Thirty
In no other film this year was the editing as central to a film’s success, particularly in its stunning final raid on bin Laden’s compound. Bigelow and editors Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg masterfully cut between night vision and stark darkness, capturing the immediacy and the tension of the situation.

Honorable Mentions: Argo showed Ben Affleck’s considerable chops as a thriller director, but credit also goes to editor William Goldenberg’s masterful work. Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty were just as impressive with their work on The Master, particularly in a long sequence late in the film as the Cause tries desperately to rehabilitate Freddie. Skyfall was the single most exciting blockbuster of the year, in large part thanks to editors Stuart and Kate Baird. And Steven Soderbergh served as his own editor under a pseudonym with Haywire, constructing a fascinating, elliptical, hard-hitting thriller.

Best Visuals: Life of Pi
Life of Pi was one of the most stunning pieces of pure spectacle this year, from its gorgeous CGI environments to the wholly believable CGI tiger Richard Parker. But it’s more than pretty pictures: Ang Lee connects the beautiful images and rip-roaring adventure story to his moving parable on faith and storytelling.

Honorable Mentions: Almost as impressive on a 3-D/CGI level was Ridley Scott’s beautiful sci-fi film Prometheus. In terms of practical effects, Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises were brilliant spectacle. And Flight and The Impossible only had one major effects sequence each, but both were among the most gripping and nerve-wracking action sequences of the year.

Best Score: The Master
Jonny Greenwood follows up his perfect score on There Will Be Blood with another strange, unsettling score, one that perfectly captures the cracked psyche of its troubled protagonist.

Honorable Mentions: Writer-director Benh Zeitlin also co-wrote the fantastic score to Beasts of the Southern Wild, where Alexandre Desplat wrote the best of his three scores this year for Moonrise Kingdom. Damsels in Distress’s score fit the film’s loopy tone. And Mychael Danna’s sumptuous score for Life of Pi added another layer of lush beauty to an already gorgeous film.

Best Song: Who Were We (Holy Motors)
No other song this year better fit the central theme of its film. As sung by Kylie Minogue, “Who Were We” captured the past lives of Minogue and Denis Lavant’s characters while also commenting on the past roles of actors and past lives of film in a lovely, lyrical moment in Holy Motors.

Honorable Mentions: Christina Aguilera’s fantastic title song from Casa de Mi Padre played like a Spanish James Bond knock-off, in the best possible way. Django Unchained was packed with great songs, but two worth singling out are Rick Ross’ pounding anthem “100 Black Coffins” and Ennio Morriconne’s typically beautiful “Ancora Qui”. And Adele’s “Skyfall” was the best Bond theme in years, a throwback to the Shirley Bassey days of the Bond songs that made us wish that Adele would just do all the Bond themes now.

Best Use of Preexisting Music: Let My Baby Ride (Holy Motors)
Holy Motors was packed with great, inexplicable moments, but perhaps the most exciting was an interlude involving Denis Lavant leading a band for an accordion cover of R.L. Burnside’s blues song “Let My Baby Ride”. It’s a moment of pure ecstasy in one of the year’s most exuberant films.

Honorable Mentions: Anyone gets points for using the lovely song “Things Are Looking Up”, but Greta Gerwig’s cover in Damsels in Distress was particularly wonderful. Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom had one of its best moments when Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman danced to the great French pop song “Le Temps de l’amour”. The Perks of Being a Wallfower had one of the year’s finest soundtracks, its use of David Bowie’s “Heroes” being particularly memorable. But the close second to Holy Motors’ best scene comes from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which uses Ella Fitzgerald’s “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” in a key scene that shows Joaquin Phoenix trying, and failing, to adjust to society.

Best Makeup: Holy Motors
The most essential use of makeup I’ve seen on film in over a decade. It was all important to transform Denis Lavant into his various forms (flower-eating troll, elderly bag lady, hitman), making him unrecognizable while still retaining some sense of familiarity.

Honorable Mentions:  Both Lincoln and Django Unchained captured the styles of their eras perfectly, with props going to the former for its transformation of Daniel Day-Lewis. The Hobbit might have been a disappointment, but it had no trouble in vividly realizing each and every creature of Middle-Earth. And Looper was something truly special in its use of makeup, believably turning Joseph Gordon-Levitt into a young Bruce Willis.

Best Costume/Production Design: Moonrise Kingdom
Combined because I have the same winners/honorable mentions for both. A Wes Anderson film should win these every year he makes a film. No other director makes costume design more essential to his characters, and Anderson’s meticulous detail to his backgrounds is unparalleled.

Honorable Mentions: Take your pick between the masterful period work in Lincoln, Django Unchained, and the slightly more contemporary The Master. Or, if you’re impressed by more modern work, give Looper a look.

Best Sound: Zero Dark Thirty
Another award for most essential use of sound. Particularly strong in the harrowing opening, where Bigelow and her sound editors use 9/11 recordings smartly, and without reeking of exploitation, to communicate the sense of anger and vengeance Maya feels.

Honorable Mentions: Again, the set-pieces in Flight and The Impossible deserve credit for some of the year’s most harrowing moments. For the most essential use of sound in a blockbuster, look no further than Skyfall. And Django Unchained achieved perfect balance of fun violence and serious violence, the sound doing much of the work signifying the difference between the two.

Most Overrated Film: The Cabin in the Woods
The year’s most self-satisfied film felt that coming up with a great concept was enough, but genre deconstruction doesn’t exactly work if the genre elements are so spectacularly dull. Furthermore, Whedon and Goddard seem to be playing with horror tropes from decades before more than modern ones, and their above-it-all contempt for horror audiences is ultimately a poisoning effect. Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie for people who think they’re too good for horror movies.

Dishonorable Mention: Plenty of people have eviscerated Tom Hooper’s direction and several lousy performances in Les Miserables, but the film’s multiple Oscar nominations and success at the box office mean that it’ll probably stick around for a while. But Les Mis deserved better, and movie musicals deserve better.

Most Underrated Film: Casa de mi Padre
“If it sounds Spanish, man, that’s what it is. It’s a Spanish movie.” So begins one of the year’s most delightfully silly films. Casa de mi Padre made its money back, but it deserves a wider audience as one of the year’s most inspired, most bizarre jokes.

Honorable Mentions: Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 is his messiest film yet, but it’s also one of his most poignant and moving. And Andrew Stanton’s John Carter is the Star Wars prequel that worked. It’s certainly flawed on a storytelling and acting level, but it confirms Stanton’s extraordinary talent as a director. It was fun, goddamn it

Worst of the Year: The Paperboy
Lee Daniels’ hit Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire has gone down in my estimation since its release, but it’s certainly better than this woefully inept potboiler. Every actor is at sea, from the terminally bland Zac Efron to the terminally miscast Nicole Kidman and John Cusack to the game but wasted Matthew McConaughey. Daniels’ every directing choice confuses or otherwise distracts, and the combination of sanctimony and trash is an awfully irritating touch. From idiotic plot twists to a nonsensical framing device to a central plot that none of the characters seem to care about, it’s a slog, both dull and risible. Oh, and as for the “Kidman pees on Efron” scene: it’s idiotic, but hardly the most idiotic scene in the film. That’d be a tough call between a jail scene where Kidman mimes a blowjob while Cusack masturbates furiously (all in the presence of McConaughey and co.) and a brutal rape scene intercut with shots of dead swamp animals. Basically, this thing is abysmal. I hated it as much as anything I’ve seen since Stephen Daldry’s more despicable but less incompetent Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Please stay away from this fucking train wreck.

Dishonorable Mention: Take your pick. Michael, as directed by Michael Haneke’s former casting director, had all of Haneke’s style but none of his wit or hidden empathy, an empty-headed attempt at provocation without substance. And The Devil Inside was too stupid an ineptly made for me to get too angry at it, but it’s still an unbelievable piece of shit.

All Films Seen:
1.       Amour (A)
2.       Argo (B+)
3.       The Amazing  Spider-Man (B-)
4.       The Avengers (A-, downgraded from original A)
5.       The Bay (B+)
6.       Beasts of the Southern Wild (B+)
7.       Bernie (B+)
8.       The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (B-)
9.       Brave (B-)
10.   The Cabin in the Woods (C)
11.   Casa de mi Padre (B+)
12.   Chronicle (B+)
13.   Compliance (B)
14.   Cosmopolis (B)
15.   Damsels in Distress (A-)
16.   The Dark Knight Rises (A)
17.   The Deep Blue Sea (A)
18.   The Devil Inside (F)
19.   Django Unchained (A)
20.   Elena (B)
21.   5 Broken Cameras (B-)
22.   Flight (A-)
23.   God Bless America (B-)
24.   Goodbye First Love (A-)
25.   Goon (A-)
26.   The Grey (B+)
27.   Haywire (B+)
28.   The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (C+)
29.   Holy Motors (A)
30.   How to Survive a Plague (B+)
31.   The Hunger Games (B)
32.   The Impossible (B)
33.   The Innkeepers (B+)
34.   The Invisible War (B+)
35.   I Wish (B+)
36.   The Kid with a Bike (A-)
37.   Jack Reacher (C-)
38.   Jeff, Who Lives at Home (B)
39.   John Carter (B)
40.   Killer Joe (B+)
41.   Les Miserables (C)
42.   Life of Pi (A-)
43.   Lincoln (A-)
44.   Lockout (B)
45.   The Loneliest Planet (A)
46.   Looper (A)
47.   The Lorax (w/o)*
48.   Magic Mike (B+)
49.   The Master (A)
50.   Michael (F)
51.   Moonrise Kingdom (A)
52.   Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (B+)
53.   Oslo, August 31st (B-)
54.   The Paperboy (F)
55.   The Perks of Being a Wallflower (A-)
56.   Premium Rush (B+)
57.   Prometheus (B+)
58.   Promised Land (C+)
59.   The Queen of Versailles (A-)
60.   Red Hook Summer (C-)
61.   Safe (B-)
62.   Silver Linings Playbook (B+)
63.   Skyfall (A)
64.   This is 40 (B+)
65.   To Rome with Love (B-)
66.   The Turin Horse (A-)
67.   Wreck-it Ralph (A-)
68.   Zero Dark Thirty (A)

*Note that a walkout doesn’t mean I found the film unwatchable, but that after about 40 minutes or so I decided that A. the film was not for me, and B. that I wouldn’t be able to write anything interesting about it.

Want to check out my Best of the Year/Best Performances of the Year lists? Click here and here.

Curious about what made my top ten lists for previous years. Well check out my account on Letterboxd.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Best Performances of 2012

Here are my picks for the best performances of the year, broken up into the four categories we’ve come to expect thanks to various awards shows/polls.

Best Actor:

10. Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)- Bradley Cooper has spent the past decade or so playing smug alpha males in films like The Hangover and Wedding Crashers, but his background at the Actor’s Studio in New York and his intelligent interviews have hinted at an actor with a far greater range, just waiting to break out. Cooper got his chance in Silver Linings Playbook, toning down the smarm to play Pat Solitano, a troubled man whose uncontrollable emotional outbursts hide his good nature. The role was initially offered to Mark Wahlberg, but it’s hard to imagine anyone but Cooper here, whose natural charm carries us through Pat’s most difficult moments.

9.  Jack Black (Bernie)- Jack Black burst onto the national scene as a raging id tornado in High Fidelity and School of Rock, but he’s been spinning his wheels in the past few years with dreck like Year One and Gulliver’s Travels. Black’s back at the top of his game with Bernie, in which he and his School of Rock collaborator Richard Linklater make Bernie’s bizarre situation believable by making Bernie damn near the most lovable murderer who ever lived. His zest for life (and sympathy for the dead) put us on his side even after he does in Shirley MacLaine’s nasty old Marjorie…and maybe even get us to make excuses for him.

8. Denzel Washington (Flight)- Denzel Washington has spent the past several years playing quietly dignified heroes that I’d quite frankly grown bored with. Oh, sure, he’s always fine, but he’s most fascinating when playing morally questionable or even dubious men, as in his career-best performances as the charismatically evil Alonzo Harris in Training Day or as the brilliant but complicated civil rights hero in Malcolm X. Washington himself has expressed boredom playing heroes, thankfully, and Flight shows him in top form in morally thorny territory. Whip Whitaker is a man who numbs the pain in his life while harming those he loves, justifying it to himself even as he turns into a mess of a man who may be responsible for the deaths of six people. And yet Washington still gives Whip his dignity, never judging him for his faults, simply showing a complicated man struggling to maintain.

7. Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained)- For a while, it seemed like Jamie Foxx was all done. After a burst of brilliance in the early 2000s culminated in his double Oscar-nominations for Collateral and Ray, Foxx spent too much time in transparent Oscar-bait like Dreamgirls and The Soloist for anyone to care. But Foxx’s work in Django Unchained ranks right up with his best as he plays one of the best taciturn heroes since Russell Crowe in Gladiator, a man whose every action is carefully measured and modulated, lest he give something away and be killed. And yet Django has that quick Tarantino wit to him as well, as seen in a late scene where he bargains his way out of chains and back on the road to saving his beloved wife.

6. Jean-Louis Trintignant (Amour)- Trintignant’s status as an aging French New Wave legend certainly does much of the work in Michael Haneke’s heartbreaking drama Amour, but Trintignant’s casting wouldn’t mean much if he weren’t up to the task. As it is, his work as Georges ranks among his best. He plays a man determined to keep his wife alive, despite all the evidence of A. her rapidly approaching demise, and B. her desire to die soon, and without pain. His normally gentle demeanor sometimes gives way to curt reactions towards those around him, but he’s ultimately motivated by love, by his desire to make everything OK for his wife (and, true, for himself) when he knows it’s not going to be.

5. Sean William Scott (Goon)- The single most surprising performance of the year. Scott suggested untapped greatness in his work in David Wain’s Role Models, but Goon fulfills that promise. The film wouldn’t work without Scott’s balance of sweetness and dumbness as Doug Glatt, a man too nice to master trash talking (biggest laugh: “I’ll light your ass back up…on fire!”). He’s the kind of guy who feels so bad for stealing another man’s girlfriend that he lets the guy beat the shit out of him. We believe it because Scott believes it, and we go along with Goon because we like him so damn much.

4. Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe)- Talk about the comeback of the year. Matthew McConaughey’s early work in Lone Star and Dazed and Confused suggested a talented character actor who was about to take over Hollywood (people seriously compared him to Paul Newman), but a decade of terrible romantic-comedies washed away most of the good will towards him. But 2012 is the year of McConaughey, and it culminates with his terrifying performance in Killer Joe. McConaughey retains his cool Southern charm, but it’s all a carefully measured act to hide his sociopathic depravity and sadism. If there was a more frightening performance this year, I don’t know it.

3. Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)- No other actor has made every performance he gives an event like Daniel Day-Lewis (ignoring Nine). The man makes so few movies and goes all-out every time he does, so it isn’t surprising that he’s been canonized the greatest actor in the world. Day-Lewis fans certainly found more ammunition for their argument in Lincoln. Day-Lewis gave the performance of his career in There Will Be Blood, but his work in Lincoln comes awfully close as he inhabits the role like no other actor could have, hitting the right balance between what made Honest Abe a legend in his time and what made him a flawed, recognizable human being. Whether he’s telling a joke or demanding his staff find the votes for the 13th Amendment, Day-Lewis never loses that balance. Is he the greatest actor in the world? He’s certainly right up there.

2. Denis Lavant (Holy Motors)- Is it possible to declare someone one of the greatest actors in the world solely off the basis of one performance? How about 11 performances in one movie? Director Leos Carax said that if Denis Lavant has said no to Holy Motors, he would have asked Charlie Chaplin or Lon Chaney. It’s easy to see what Carax means: no other actor could possibly have pulled this off. Whether he’s playing an old man on his deathbed, a hitman going after his own doppelganger, or a weird, shambling creature who eats flowers and fingers, Lavant pulls off every role and finds some sort of strange sense of order to it all, acting like the Virgil to our Dante, exploring the strange but inviting world of Holy Motors.

1. Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)- In a recent speech for the London Film Critics Circle Awards, Joaquin Phoenix accepted his award while acknowledging that his work would mean nothing without the work of others, and that he alone was not responsible for creating the character of Freddie Quell. And it’s true- Phoenix’s work wouldn’t have the same power had Paul Thomas Anderson not written the single most complete and fascinating character of the year, or had Phoenix not been working with equally brilliant actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. But it’s impossible to imagine anyone playing Quell half as well as Phoenix did, his wiry body and cracked face showing a man who’s constantly coming apart at the seams, his animalistic behavior and fierce commitment earning welcome comparisons to Brando or James Dean. As played by Phoenix, Freddie is at once unlikeable and deeply sympathetic, a man forced to question just as he thinks he’s found the answers, and a man who at once wants to both join society and break from it.

Honorable Mentions: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper), Guy Pearce (Lockout), Liam Neeson (The Grey), Daniel Craig (Skyfall), Tom Holland (The Impossible), Will Ferrell (Casa de mi Padre), Channing Tatum (Magic Mike), Gael Garcia Bernal (The Loneliest Planet), Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), Thomas Doret (The Kid with a Bike), Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Dane DeHaan (Chronicle), Paul Rudd (This is 40), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Premium Rush), Robert Pattinson (Cosmopolis)

Best Actress:

10. Lola Creton (Goodbye First Love)- Mia Hanson-Love’s Goodbye First Love is one of the most honest and tender depictions of young love in years, and it owes much of its success to Lola Creton’s performance. Creton’s character often acts self-absorbed and foolish, but it’s only because, well, she’s at that age. Creton and Hanson-Love never judge her character’s behavior, and her growth as a person to someone slightly older and wiser registers because of it.

9. Hani Furstenburg (The Loneliest Planet)- Going into The Loneliest Planet, I had only heard of Gael Garcia Bernal, who’s reliably excellent as always. But I was even more impressed by Furstenburg, who I’d honestly never even heard of. As Nica, Furstenburg is goofy and playful, one of the most delightful presences on screen this year. But when the film reaches its big event midway through the film (believe me, it’s not whatever you’re thinking), her reaction is subtly heartbreaking, one of pain and confusion towards her partner. It’s not the showiest role of the year, but it’s one of the most complicated.

8. Kara Hayward (Moonrise Kingdom)- Young Hayward’s co-star Jared Gilman is impressive as the oddball camper Sam, but Hayward’s work as Suzy is noteworthy for her especially severe demeanor for a child actress. Suzy is like a young Margot Tenenbaum, intimidating but ultimately sympathetic, a young girl searching for a companion in a lonely world. Hayward’s awkward affection for Gilman is so charming that it’s downright heartbreaking when she’s briefly hurt by him. He meant no harm, but her pain registers.

7. Cecile de France (The Kid with a Bike)- Previously best known for her work in the French slasher High Tension, de France impresses in The Kid with a Bike as a hairdresser who takes in the troubled young Cyril out of deep sympathy for his rejection by his father. She’s the loving parental figure that Cyril so desperately needs, so her patience amidst Cyril’s often shocking behavior is even more touching.

6. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)- With her work in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence has proven adept at playing strong but often prickly women. Silver Linings Playbook, however, shows us something new from the talented young actress: she’s funny. Playing an woman just as damaged as Bradley Cooper’s protagonist, she’s less a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and more a Manic-Depressive Angry  Girl, her performance hitting the right note of anxiety and likability.

5. Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)- The discovery of the year. Dwight Henry’s performance in Beasts and Benh Zeitlin’s impressive direction certainly helped give the film shape, but the whole film rests on the shoulders of nine-year-old Wallis (only six when she was cast). She’s perfect, giving a refreshingly naturalistic performance as a resilient and inventive young girl growing up in poverty. Wallis’ combination of strength and curiosity drives the film past its sometimes vague writing and towards a heartbreaking finish.

4. Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress)- Greta Gerwig is just about the most delightful presence on film today, and her loopy turn in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress fits the tone perfectly. As Violet, Gerwig is often hypocritical, a snob who hates snobbishness, someone whose apparent confidence hides deep insecurities. But she’s well-meaning and ultimately sympathetic, too busy trying to help everyone else to see that she suffers from the same crippling neuroses.

3. Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)-  The most heartbreaking performance of the year. Riva’s turn as Anne starts out so lively that it’s painful to watch her slowly lose control of her body and speech. We see her passion for life slowly fade as every task requires herculean effort. And yet it never becomes a wallow in misery, even as Riva’s suffering becomes unbearable and we’re forced to wonder when she’ll finally escape from her pain. We’re too reminded of that charming old lady who delighted in teaching her students piano.

2. Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea)- As Hester, Rachel Weisz leads a life of quiet desperation, surrounded by wealth and affection but deeply unhappy. When Hester takes what she wants, however, she’s thrown into emotionally devastating territory. Weisz kills all of the most emotionally charged scenes, but the quieter moments are even better. In one flashback during the bombing of London, writer-director Terence Davies pans alongside a group of people singing the Irish-standard “Molly Malone”, only to find Hester unable to join in, isolated among a crowd of people. Another scene involving a phone call between Hester and Freddie makes full use of Weisz’ expressive face as the camera slowly pushes in on her, showing her in all of her pain.

1. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)- 2011 was the year of Chastain: she appeared in six movies and quickly became the breakout actress of the year. She fulfills the promise of Take Shelter and The Tree of Life in Zero Dark Thirty. The film’s best moments come from Chastain as the steely Maya, her quiet determination and frustration shining through as she deals with apathy towards the bin Laden hunt and casual sexism from her fellow CIA officers. She’s a feminist hero, to some degree. But she’s also a an all-too human face on America’s hunt for justice: decent but fatally flawed, consumed by obsession, destined to dissatisfaction and emptiness. The film’s final moments show Chastain not overjoyed at bin Laden’s death, but rather filled with a sense that she no longer has a reason for being. With Chastain’s work as Maya, what could have been a pat revenge story finds the moral thorniness it requires.
Honorable Mentions : Ann Dowd (Compliance), Nadezha Markina (Elena), Gina Carano (Haywire), Naomi Watts (The Impossible), Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games), Leslie Mann (This is 40), Sarah Paxton (The Innkeepers), Noomi Rapace (Prometheus), Analeigh Tipton (Damsels in Distress)

Best Supporting Actor:

10. Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)- A friend of mine debated with me, saying that Jones was good in Lincoln but that it didn’t seem that different from what he usually does. My answer: and? Jones’ casting as Thaddeus Stevens is key to that role’s success. Stevens is a righteous crusader, but he needs a prickly presence like Jones to turn him into something more complicated. With Jones, he’s an often disagreeable man whose nature obscures his ultimate goodness.

9. Javier Bardem (Skyfall)- James Bond found one of his most entertaining nemeses in Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva, a cross between a classical Hollywood villain (complete with omnivorous sexuality) and a modern one, a sign of what Bond could become if he were to stay in the game too long. His character got the single best introduction of the year in one long take that communicated his power and his outright delight at being evil.

8. Simon Russell Beale (The Deep Blue Sea)- Theatre vet Beale has perhaps the most difficult role in The Deep Blue Sea. He’s less outwardly emotional than Rachel Weisz or Tom Hiddleston, a man whose sense of security and goodness is buried under a milquetoast demeanor that’s sadly not the kind of passion Weisz desires. He never explodes into theatrics, but rather shows all of his pain and sadness in remarkably subtle expressions.

7. Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty)- Clarke was so likable as Dan in Zero Dark Thirty that it made his role as a torturer even harder to watch. His actions are inexcusable, but Clarke gives Dan his humanity and shows the toll all that cruelty takes on a human, even if he never admits it.

6. Bruce Willis (Moonrise Kingdom)- Willis gave his best work since Twelve Monkeys as a lonely sheriff whose situation makes him more sympathetic to Jared Gilman’s Sam than any of the other adults in the film. When Sam’s foster parents reject him, Suzy’s parents demonize him, and Social Services turns him into nothing but a cardboard problem child, it’s Willis who stands up for him, recognizing a good kid underneath all the troubled behavior.

5. Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)- In Django Unchained, Waltz plays a sort of good twin to his sadistic but erudite Nazi in Inglourious Basterds. He’s just as delightfully verbose as King Schultz, another man whose love affair with language makes him the perfect character (and indeed actor) to deliver Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue. But he’s also the single most racially sensitive man in the film, one whose disgust at Calvin Candie’s treatment of his slaves is barely masked until he finally can’t stand it anymore.

4. Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike)- Who knew that McConaughey would be the one actor to show up on two of my best of lists? Certainly not me. But as Dallas in Magic Mike, he takes on a welcome bit of self-parody as the constantly shirtless, bongo-playing Emcee-like character of the Xquisite club. He’s a man who’s overt sexuality and devilishness makes him a born performer, one who plays on the crowd of eager women with a trademark “alright alright alright!”.

3. Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained)- The most fun DiCaprio has ever had on film. Calvin Candie is very much the Hans Landa of Inglourious Basterds, equally sadistic beneath the charm. But DiCaprio knows that there’s a subtle difference between Candie and Landa that makes it more than a rehash: the utterly pretentious Candie is full of shit. DiCaprio never tips his hand, playing Candie as a man who believes in every bit of racial hatred he spouts, but he’s also a man who knows far less than he claims, who’s far less in control of his estate than he appears, one who depends on one particular slave to run his business. With that, DiCaprio and Tarantino mark the innate hypocrisy of the whole ugly business.

2. Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained)- As time has gone by, Jackson’s performance in Django Unchained is the one that’s stuck with me the longest. It’s the most complicated role in the film, one that could easily be offensive with a less talented actor. But Jackson knows when Stephen is putting on his Uncle Tom act (in what’s a hilarious parody of the history of black actors on film) and when he’s in control of the situation, the man with the most to lose if Django succeeds. He’s both the year’s most complicated villain and its most venal.

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)- Philip Seymour Hoffman has put together just about the finest resume of any actor working today, but he does his best work ever as Lancaster Dodd, the complicated cult leader of The Master. The character is inspired in part by L. Ron Hubbard, but there’s some Orson Welles charisma and showmanship in there as well as a magnetic figure who seems like he has it all together…until his work is questioned. In Freddie Quell, he sees the ultimate conquest for his movement and the ultimate companion, but his frustration dealing with a man who proves, in fact, that man is an animal. He’s a man looking to make sense of a world without sense, whose well-rehearsed persona comes crashing down in a handful of startling moments whenever his work is questioned. Hoffman and Phoenix created the single most fascinating relationship on film this year, a push-pull relationship between a father figure and his son, two men looking for answers to unanswerable questions.

Honorable Mentions: Michael Fassbender (Prometheus), Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook), Bruce Willis (Looper), David Straithairn (Lincoln), Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle), Michael Shannon (Premium Rush), Matthew McConaughey (Bernie), Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers), Gael Garcia Bernal (Casa de mi Padre), Clarke Peters (Red Hook Summer), Bidzina Gujabidze (The Loneliest Planet), Thomas Haden Church (Killer Joe), Emile Hirsch (Killer Joe), James Spader (Lincoln), Michael Caine (The Dark Knight Rises), Tom Hiddleston (The Deep Blue Sea), Diego Luna (Casa de mi Padre), Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom), Pierce Gagnon (Looper), Ewan McGregor (The Impossible), Alan Arkin (Argo), John Goodman (Argo), Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables), Frank Grillo (The Grey), Richard Jenkins (The Cabin in the Woods), Bradley Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods)

Best Supporting Actress:

10. Megalyn Echikunwoke (Damsels in Distress)- Echikunwoke wins the prize for the year’s funniest use of an accent. Her exaggerated English prep accent is so cartoonish and so in tune with her character’s pretentiousness that one can’t help but laugh even when it doesn’t totally convince. And then it turns out that it’s a fake accent, and I laugh even harder.

9. Genesis Rodriguez (Casa de mi Padre)- Rodriguez’s experience on Spanish telenovelas made her a perfect fit in Will Ferrell’s ferociously underrated Spanish-language comedy Casa de mi Padre. She’s completely at home the hilariously fake backgrounds, the melodramatic plot turns, and the insane relationships, so she never bats an eye at any of the overt silliness. Her committal to the work is what makes 
Casa de mi Padre one of the funniest films of the year.

8. Emily Blunt (Looper)- Blunt served as the heart of Rian Johnson’s twisty-turny sci-fi/noir, a good woman trying desperately to make up for past mistakes and raise her young son right. As with anyone in a noir, she has dark secrets. But she’s determined to keep them at bay, convinced that if she does everything right and keeps her son away from the evils of the world, everything will turn out OK.

7. Elizabeth Banks(The Hunger Games)- The year’s most underrated performance. Banks is completely unrecognizable as Effie, a woman whose prim, proper behavior and extravagant wardrobe combines into a cold, creepy embodiment of the government’s manipulation. Whether she believes in the system or is just going along for the ride, she acts as the face of The Hunger Games’ world.

6. Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises)- Hathaway will likely win an Oscar for her emotionally wrenching work in the otherwise unsuccessful Les Miserables, but she’s even better in Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film. As Selina Kyle, she’s a perfect femme fatale, someone whose early shift from a lost little lamb act to a powerful and complicated woman ranks as one of the year’s finest acting moments. She’s the conflicted soul of the film, one torn between her natural instincts for self-preservation and the goodness that hides beneath the moral murk.

5. Sally Field (Lincoln)- Sally Field has played so many mother figures in recent memory that it’s easy for one to underestimate her. But as Mary Todd Lincoln, Field is perfect as a woman who’s clearly aware of her unbalanced state of mind, yet completely unable to control it. She’s the film’s most tragic figure, someone whose fear of loss and death is ultimately, and unfortunately, fulfilled in the worst possible way.

4. Kelly Reilly (Flight)- Reilly’s performance as a heroin addict in Flight starts out as a mirror of Denzel Washington’s own addiction, particularly after the two become companions. But she’s someone who realizes that her survival means a second chance, and that staying with Washington will destroy her. When she leaves him, it’s a point of sad necessity, brilliantly played by Reilly as a woman who knows her second chance will likely not give way to a third.

3. Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty)- Ehle’s role as Jessica Chastain’s one true friend in Zero Dark Thirty is perfect in the way it contrasts from Chastain. Where Chastain’s Maya is solitary by nature and steely, Ehle’s Jessica is more comfortable where she is, less obsessed until she befriends Maya in the film’s most charming relationship. Yet she’s also less cautious than Maya, seemingly less aware of the inherent danger of her situation, which leads to one of the film’s tensest moments.

2. Judi Dench (Skyfall)- When Judi Dench was cast as the new M in Goldeneye, it stood as welcome feminist concession to the often sexist James Bond series. Over the years, M’s relationship with Bond has morphed from contentious but fun to a complicated relationship between a mother figure and a troubled young son. That relationship reaches its peak in Skyfall, in which Bond’s relationship veers from contention to hate to love as he’s forced to protect the closest thing he has to family left. Dench, for her part, is given some of the most emotional material in the series as a woman forced to face her the mistakes she’s made over the years.

1. Amy Adams (The Master)- When she first burst onto the scene, Amy Adams was a delightful, sunny, living Disney Princess (literally in Enchanted). 2010’s The Fighter gave her a chance to show her range as a tough but still warm barmaid. But Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master shows a new side to Adams ability. As Peggy Dodd, she’s chilly, controlling, and powerful, just as much of a master as her husband. She’s not quite a villain- the admires her power and intelligence too much- but she’s the most frightening character in a challenging film, an intense, unnerving, woman who’s the only one with a firm grasp of who she is.

Honorable Mentions: Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers), Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Frances McDormand (Moonrise Kingdom), Juno Temple (Killer Joe), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Edith Scob (Holy Motors), Gina Gershon (Killer Joe), Alison Pill (Goon), Jackie Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook), Tilda Swinton (Moonrise Kingdom), Isabelle Huppert (Amour), Kerry Washington (Django Unchained), Samantha Barks (Les Miserables), Kylie Minogue (Holy Motors), Laura Dern (The Master)

Want to check out my Best of the Year list? Click here.

Want to check out my top ten lists for previous years? Well here you go.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Best Films of 2012: Better Late Than Never

Yeah yeah, I know, it’s awfully late for a best of 2012 list. Lateness comes with being a college student struggling to balance classes, grad school applications, and daily stresses with a need to see all of the year’s most prestigious films. As with any year, there will be some notable omissions of films that just aren’t widely available yet,
but I’m happy enough with this list of the year’s best to publish it at this point. I’ll publish a list of the year’s best performances later this week, followed by a list of various bests (directing, writing, etc.).  But first, here’s the best of the best:

Honorable Mentions: Argo, The Bay, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bernie, Casa de mi Padre, Chronicle, The Grey, How to Survive a Plague, The Innkeepers, The Invisible War, Magic Mike, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Prometheus, Silver Linings Playbook, This is 40

25. Haywire- Steven Soderbergh has spent his whole career not only as a highly adventurous and intellectually curious director, but as a man interested in subverting gender roles- think James Spader’s curious, impotent hipster in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, or Jennifer Lopez’s pragmatic DEA agent in Out of Sight. Soderbergh’s two films this year, Haywire and Magic Mike, played with gender roles, but the elliptical feminist action-thriller Haywire was a real standout. Fueled by Gina Carano’s terse performance as secret agent Mallory Knox, Haywire didn’t have much in the way of coherent plot, but it was hard to mind when we got a chance to see UFC fighter Carano beat up the likes of Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and Ewan McGregor in some of the year’s most exciting action sequences.

24. Killer Joe- 2012 was the year of Matthew McConaughey’s resurrection from slumming rom-com star to the quirky character actor he promised to become in the 1990s. The height of McConaughey’s comeback came with Killer Joe, the second collaboration between playwright Tracy Letts and Exorcist-director William Friedkin after 2007’s similarly nasty Bug. Killer Joe shared Bug’s claustrophobic intensity and wicked, pitch-black humor while adding one of the better subversions of a famous screen persona in recent memory. McConaughey’s charming Southern exterior showed predatory signs in his career-making role in Dazed and Confused, but Friedkin takes McConaughey one step further into a cold-hearted killer whose depths of depravity and sadism are barely hidden beneath his calm control.

23. The Perks of Being a Wallflower- Stephen Cbosky’s adaptation of his beloved YA-novel is one of the warmest teen movies in recent memory. The film hits the sweet spot as a movie that plays to teens going through hard times while also bringing older viewers back to the feeling of depending on close friends through at a confusing age. Props to Cbosky for highlighting the talents of his young cast, particularly Ezra Miller as the alternatingly sensitive and theatrical Patrick.

22. Wreck-it Ralph- Former Simpsons director Rich Moore (he directed my all-time favorite episode “Cape Feare”) certainly borrows from animation classics Toy Story and The Iron Giant, but it’s hard to complain when it works so well. Moore packs Wreck-it Ralph with great videogame in-jokes and a winning cast (particularly John C. Reilly as the big-hearted Ralph and Sarah Silverman as the troublemaker Vannellope Von Sweet) while expertly weaving together subplots for a sweet and surprising finale.

21. Goon- One of the year’s best surprises came from this Jay Baruchel-penned hockey comedy, a terrific blend of the sweet and the profane. Few performances this year were as winning as Sean William Scott’s turn as a bouncer turned hockey player so nice he apologizes for beating people up. Scott anchored a film that celebrated its sport without falling into the cornball self-importance that too often plagues sports movies.

20. The Avengers- Joss Whedon’s team-up of superhero titans followed a series of Marvel Studios films that lacked a distinct flavor, too often feeling like assembly-line product than popular art. Whedon’s The Avengers, on the other hand, bears the stamp of its creator as a film about self-sacrifice, clashing personalities forced to work together, and the meaning of heroism in a superhero age.

19. Flight- Calling Flight Robert Zemeckis’ best film in years would be damning it with faint praise. Instead, let’s praise what’s truly one of the strangest and most exciting studio films of the year, one that combined the disaster movie, the social problem film, and the conspiracy movie all while centering on a flawed but all too relatable hero in Denzel Washington’s Whip Whitaker, a man whose inner demons are only amplified when it a brush with death (in one of Zemeckis’ very best set-pieces) makes him seem almost invulnerable.

18. The Queen of Versailles- On paper, a film about a family of former billionaires struggling with being only millionaires sounds almost stunning in its lack of perspective. But director Lauren Greenfield’s empathetic touch makes the Siegels’ problems far more relatable than one would think. They’re not altogether different from the rest of us, a family who, after the recession, struggled to learn how to live with far less than they thought they’d ever have.

17. The Turin Horse- Bela Tarr’s final film is an unrelentingly bleak experience, a deliberately paced exploration of the heaviness of life. But while The Turin Horse certainly isn’t an easy sit, it’s also one of the most vividly realized worlds put on film this year, from its bravura, hope destroying opening shot to an ending that’s like a lower-key version of Melancholia’s apocalypse. It may not be the end of the world by the film’s close, but it’s certainly the end of hope.

16. The Kid with a Bike- The latest film from naturalistic filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne features just as many heart-stopping moments of pain and bad decisions as their previous films, with Thomas Doret’s Cyril constantly pushing back against Cecile de France’s kind-hearted hairdresser, the warm-hearted parental figure he’s so desperate for. But there’s also a sense of warmth and sweetness to de France and Doret’s relationship, with the Dardennes mixing in a hard-won optimism to all the lower-class troubles of their world.

15. Goodbye First Love- Can we please get more coming-of-age love stories like this? Mia Hanson-Love’s tender and elegant film captures all the awkwardness and insecurity of young love, with Lola Creton’s central character going from self-absorbed teenager to a woman still suffering from past mistakes but on her way to moving on. If only half of the teen-romance films made today were as honest and good-natured as this one.

14. Damsels in Distress- Whit Stillman’s first film in 14 years alienated some fans with its loopy style, but the film retains Stillman’s brand of dry wit and affection towards groups too often smugly dismissed in films (in this case fraternity members and preppy girls). Driven by yet another vivacious performance from mumblecore-darling Greta Gerwig, the film fits perfectly into Stillman’s tales of young people struggling to define themselves in a world that deems their world pretentious or snobby…and slowly realizing that it might be true.

13. Life of Pi- The film version of Yann Martel’s best-seller went through three A-list directors before Ang Lee took over, but here’s a case of a troubled production resulting in a triumph. Lee’s film is his deftest blend of spectacle and humanity since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and his most moving work next to his masterpiece Brokeback Mountain. Lee combines a thrilling adventure tale with a moving parable about faith into a film that’s ultimately about the joy of storytelling.

12. Lincoln- The last time Spielberg worked on a film this talky and politics-driven, it resulted in the interesting but uneven Amistad. But he’s on much surer ground here, aided by Janusz Kaminski’s gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting, Tony Kushner’s complex script, a murderer’s row of great thespians, and the damn-near incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis. Lincoln fits alongside Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan as one of Spielberg’s richest explorations of the difficulty of doing the right thing.

11. The Dark Knight Rises- Christopher Nolan’s ambitious Dark Knight trilogy came to a stunning close with The Dark Knight Rises. The film was likely more flawed that its predecessors, but it’s also filled with the series’ most stunning moments, taking the series’ exploration of 21st century fears (terrorism, destruction of major cities, powerlessness, and the idea that our heroes are imperfect and doomed to fail) to a powder-keg of a conclusion. Godspeed to whoever has to follow this.

10. Looper- Rian Johnson made his name with the twisty-turny high school noir Brick, so it’s no surprise that his first sci-fi film is a time travel movie. As with any time travel movie, one could easily nitpick the logical hiccups that plague damn near every film of its kind. But it would be a shame to get lost in the murk when Johnson so ably explores how we change as we age, how we promise not to make the same mistakes, and yet how we manage to be blind to how closely our present situation mirrors our past.

9. Skyfall- The year’s most exciting blockbuster was also its most gorgeous, with born image-maker Sam Mendes and master cinematographer Roger Deakins staging some of the most beautiful action sequences in recent memory. But Skyfall wouldn’t be worth much if it were just a bunch of pretty pictures. The film is the Bond series’ most successful in terms of grappling with 21st century fears, but also its most reflective, exploring the connection between Daniel Craig’s Bond and Judi Dench’s M as a complicated relationship between surrogate mother and son.

8. The Deep Blue Sea- Terence Davies’ gorgeous melodrama is the best film of its kind since Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, another film that understands the genre’s emphasis on all-powerful isolation and life-changing emotional connections. Anchored by a career-best performance by Rachel Weisz, the film’s combination of wistfulness and bitterness fits a movie that shows how moments of passion punctuate lives of disappointment and desperation.

7. The Loneliest Planet- Julia Loktev’s deceptively simple exploration of gender expectations has only one major event (which should not be spoiled under any circumstances), but that event shapes the second half’s dynamic in a wildly divergent way from the first half’s easy charm and humor. Loktev’s depiction of two people madly in love turns into a simmering story of barely restrained emotion and pain, all set against the gorgeous environment of the Caucasus Mountains.

6. Django Unchained- Quentin Tarantino’s latest film isn’t the best film of the year, but it’s almost undoubtedly the most fun. Django Unchained doesn’t have Death Proof or Inglourious Basterds’ thematic depth, but it makes up for it with pure, unfiltered emotional power. Rather than succumbing to self-importance and soberness, Tarantino expresses his belief that a rip-roaring exploitation film might be more successful at communicating the weight of slavery than its more “respectful” antecedents. Mission accomplished.

5. Moonrise Kingdom- Wes Anderson’s best film in ten years plays like a combination of his two most celebrated features, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, in its look at how loneliness affects children and adults. Anderson’s brilliant blend of whimsy and melancholy looks at how childhood is marked with pain, loneliness, and a desire to escape the pain and loneliness that affects adults. But the film isn’t a dirge- it’s gorgeous, hilarious, and full of life, two parts Francois Truffaut and one part Charlie Brown.

4. Amour- Contrary to popular belief, Michael Haneke’s chilly austerity betrays a certain amount of empathy even in his most assaultive works (see: Funny Games). But that empathy branches out into full-fledged compassion in Amour, his heartbreaking but hardly heartless film about how love is less about romance and flowers and more about pushing oneself to the absolute limit to make someone’s final days more bearable. It’s an emotionally devastating film at once visceral and delicate.

3. Zero Dark Thirty- Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker plays like an expansion in ambition on the earlier film, another taut, nerve-wracking thriller. But here Bigelow also takes on the decade-defining, soul-destroying revenge hunt that plagues Jessica Chastain’s steely, obsessed protagonist. That it doubles as a feminist portrait of a woman struggling under a male-dominated intelligence agency is only a bonus.

2. Holy Motors- Leos Carax’s  first film in thirteen years communicates the director’s sadness that celluloid is being phased out by digital cinema, but it also works against its own arguments in the best way possible. Carax’s batshit insane masterpiece is proof of the power and vitality of cinema, with Denis’ Lavant’s incredible performance (or, rather, performances) connecting each strange vignette into a defiant “FUCK NO” to anyone who thinks cinema is a dying art form.

1. The Master- Paul Thomas Anderson’s rough-edged masterpiece went from a critical favorite to a polarizing conversation piece for understandable reasons. Few films this year asked more questions and provided fewer answers. But that fits in a film that’s largely about looking for answers to life’s greatest questions- why are we here? Where did we come from? Why are our lives plagued with loneliness and pain? Anderson takes the year’s two most complicated and fully-formed characters, Joaquin Phoenix’s animalistic Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s controlling Lancaster Dodd, and forms a fascinating push-pull relationship between two men looking for answers, one for a place to belong, the other to make sense of a world that doesn’t. The two believe to find the answers in the other only to realize that neither can provide everything the other wants. It’s another portrait of loneliness and alienation from Anderson, a film about men who wander forever, searching for answers and a place to belong, never to be fulfilled. 

Note: links only provided to films I gave full reviews to. If you want to see the snapshot reviews I gave to the rest, feel free to search for them.

Additional note: Because no one ever sees every important movie of every year, I keep a running, always ready to be edited list of top ten films per year. I've had certain friends ask me if I'd ever share the rest of them. Enter Letterboxd, an awfully helpful site for reviewing and ranking movies. I've put up my top ten lists from 1987 onward, and I'll be adding more as I find the time. One disclaimer: I go by original premiere dates (festivals and whatnot) for my top ten lists, so don't be confused if my top ten of 2012 list looks different than the one I've published here. It's only because I'm anal and sick in the head and feel the need to put The Loneliest Planet as a 2011 film because it premiered at Toronto 2011. Anyway, feel free to delve.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Overlooked Gems #51: Living in Oblivion

Grade: 75 (B+)

As anyone who’s ever worked on a film set can attest, the actual process of making a movie can be a bitch. Whether you’re an A-list director or just some snot-nosed kid with a camera, things tend to go wrong on set. An actor will quit, change lines, or refuse to hit his marks. The equipment will get ruined. If you’re Terry Gilliam, an asteroid will hit the set while God’s hand comes out of the heavens to point and laugh at you. The process is so common that it should be no surprise that plenty of great movies have been made about the difficulty of making movies. Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion isn’t the most famous, but it might be the most relateable.

Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi) is a director in production on a rather difficult independent film. Lead actor Chad Palomino (James LeGros) constantly changes the blocking of his scene. Lead actress Nicole (Catherine Keener) is deeply insecure about her talent. Pretentious cinematographer Wolf (Dermot Mulroney) argues with Nick about creative decisions. Most of the rest of the crew is incompetent. And Tito (Peter Dinklage in his first credited role), a dwarf hired for a dream sequence, isn’t too happy with his role in the film. Nick deals with these stresses while pining for Nicole and trying to just get this damn thing finished.

The film is a bit of a who’s who of 90s independent film stars: Buscemi is perfect as a neurotic DiCillo surrogate who frequently has to either fight for his (sometimes misguided) vision or cater to the demands of his actors, as is Keener as a woman whose insecurities mask genuine talent (one of the film’s best scenes comes from her having a moment of brilliance…while the cameras aren’t rolling). But perhaps LeGros gets the biggest laughs as the pompous movie star (frequently said to be based on Brad Pitt, though DiCillo has dismissed this) whose fickle demands derail one of the film’s biggest scenes (example: LeGros demands the shooting be delayed because he thinks his character should have an eye-patch).

Living in Oblivion was released in 1995 during the independent film boom, and some of the material dates it considerably (a line referencing Tarantino sticks out like a sore thumb). But DiCillo captures the annoyances of filmmaking with great detail, parodying the various types of films made by pretentious 90s filmmakers- low-budget DIY comedy, overwritten family drama, cheap retro throwbacks, and a particularly absurd dream sequence involving Dinklage- using a variety of film stocks. Even better is his depiction of the various problems that come up during most film productions- boom mics in the shot, big name actors who think they’re the second-coming of Brando, and various sound problems that plague indie films. Making movies can be a pain in the ass, but, as DiCillo expertly shows, pains in the ass can be uproariously funny.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Grade: 96 (A)

Michael Haneke has spent the past twenty years as one of European cinema’s greatest provocateurs. Bracingly unsentimental, chillingly austere, and with a tendency to fill his films with moments that leave the audience’s mouths agape (see: Funny Games, Cache), Haneke isn’t exactly a director whose work one puts on to find any sense of comfort. But while it’s often missed under his stark, pitiless style and tendency to moralize, there’s a sense of empathy within Haneke’s best films. That empathy branches out to outright compassion in Haneke’s typically emotionally grueling but deeply felt Amour, Haneke’s second Palme D’Or winner, the film that made him an unlikely Oscar-nominee, and one of the best films of the year.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are an octogenarian couple, both retired music teachers. One morning, during breakfast, Anne has a catatonic episode that she cannot remember as soon as she snaps out of it. Frightened, Georges takes her to the hospital, where an operation goes wrong and leaves her paralyzed on her right side. Georges promises not to take Anne back to the hospital. Anne’s condition worsens as she’s left almost totally unable to move or speak and Georges is left to watch the love of his life slowly deteriorate.

While there are a handful of brief appearances by other actors (most notably Isabelle Huppert as their daughter), Trintignant and Riva are the only major characters in the film. It’s a smart piece of casting by Haneke, as Trintignant and Riva are former French New Wave/European cinema stars (he of My Night with Maud, Z, and The Conformist, she of Hiroshima, mon Amour), both part of a generation of filmmakers and directors increasingly approaching their twilight years. The casting wouldn’t mean anything if the two weren’t up to task, though. Trintignant gives one of his greatest performances as a man determined to keep his wife alive, despite all evidence pointing towards a rapidly approaching demise. His normally gentle demeanor sometimes gives way to curt reactions towards his daughter when he can’t bear to see Riva in pain, or towards unfeeling nurses who don’t take proper care of his wife. Riva is equally excellent as a spirited woman whose gradual loss of ability is only made more heartbreaking by her likability.

Haneke doesn’t fill the film with any major set-pieces as in Funny Games or Cache, though one startling moment near the end will no doubt wreck audiences across the country. Mostly he boils his austere style down to its base elements: simple but powerful and stark cinematography (with beautiful soft lighting by master director of photography Darius Khondji), an unsparing look at life’s most grueling moments, and an emotionally powerful core, somehow both visceral and delicate. Haneke cuts through the potential sob-story plot and tells a tale of how love is less about flowers and romance and more about pushing yourself to the absolute limit to make someone’s final days more bearable. Let no one say anymore that Haneke is heartless.