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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