Sunday, February 24, 2013

Top 10 of 2012

Hello all. Mike here with my Top 10 for 2012. Not at the end of the year I know, but I'm not paid to do this, so I'll live it. As long as I post a list pre-Oscars ceremony, fine by me. Overall, this was a very good year in film. A pleasant mix of indie and studio work. So good in fact that coming up with just ten films became difficult for me. Positions 6-10 were particularly tough. In any other year, Bernie, The Hobbit, Mea Maxima Culpa Silence In The House Of God, Seven Psychopaths, Lincoln, Argo, The Dark Knight Rises, Take This Waltz and Cloud Atlas would have prime positions on other Top 10 lists, or form a respectable list all on its own. But not for 2012.

I'm sorry I missed out on the 5 Best Documentary nominees when it came to putting together this list, as well as two of last year's Best Foreign Language Film nominees, Monsieur Lazar and Footnote, plus Flight, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, Safety Not Guaranteed and Rust and Bone . But I'm not sorry that I've skipped both The Impossible and Brave. I just couldn't care, sorry. And once again, I reserve the right to change things around, like I did with my Best of 2010 list, when I replaced the documentary Gasland with the Greek film Dogtooth. But for now, I'm fine with this list, especially the positions of my Top 2. Here we go:

10) LIFE OF PI- Interesting, visually arresting take on faith from director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee. The set-up involving a young author coming to the character Pi as a middle age man for his story, I suppose that was a necessary evil. Sorry for Tobey Maguire that he was replaced by Rafe Spall to make the author less of a distraction. Lee's decision worked up to a point. Forcing us to try to care about the author's crisis of faith filled me with the feeling of "I don't care I don't care I don't care . . ." throughout, so a few demerits there. This may sound like nitpicking, what with the film's beautiful look, marvelous visual effects and heady mix of Castaway and internal study of Faith, and it probably is. But for a Top 10 list, nitpicking can determine placement, as it does here. I'm not upset with the set-up, just not as thrilled as I am with the films preceding Pi on this list.

9) SKYFALL- As much as I liked the start of the Avengers and Hunger Games franchises, the end of Christopher Nolan's Batman series (though a repeat viewing of Dark Knight Rises brought up too many plot contrivances and logic holes to ignore), the unnecessary Spider-Man reboot and The Hobbit (but do we really need a trilogy as opposed to merely two films?), only one franchise pulled it off in terms of artistry and entertainment; the James Bond franchise with Skyfall. In terms of Bond films, only On Her Majesty's Secret Service and From Russia With Love were better than this. None of us were expecting a prequel trilogy, including I'm sure the Bond producers. But the three on the whole blow away Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy by a lot. Beautiful Roger Deakins cinematography, assured direction from Sam Mendes and a smart script keeps the film flowing, and makes the whole project a James Bond film for the 21st Century, not some Jason Bourne carbon copy with British dialects. Javier Bardem's villain may not be the best Bond villain ever, but he's on the short list. We buy the development of Bond into something close to the smooth unstoppable figure Connery's Bond was. Hell, we can even buy Judi Dench's M as an unofficial Bond girl/woman, based on her importance to the story. Seeing it on IMAX made this even more impressive, especially the Malasyian scenes. A lot of fun, good luck to Mendes on his next Bond film.

8) SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK- The Best Picture nominee I was not expecting to fall for, not to this extent. David O' Russell's best film since Spanking The Monkey. Smart script, even if it's predictable. Don't buy the hype of it being comedic; think of it as a romantic drama, with the occasional bits of humor, that doesn't sugar coat the effects of bi-polar disorder on the sufferer, nor the effects that and violence have on the family and friends around the suffering person. Though I'm not sure what causes more suffering, bi-polar disorder or being a Philadelphia Eagles fan. KIDDING! Just kidding, but barely . . . 

Yes, Jennifer Lawrence impresses, but Bradley Cooper impresses even more in a no-frills stripped down performance. O' Russell on the whole might be a better director of actors than with the visuals at this stage of his career, though his use of the montage was better here than in The Fighter. Second best behind the film at number one on this list. Hell, Chris Tucker isn't annoying in the least, he's darn good in his supporting role. If that doesn't impress me, nothing will.

7) DJANGO UNCHAINED- Not Quentin Tarantino's best film, but it's up there. It feels more awkwardly paced than his previous films, even Jackie Brown. I don't know if it's because of the genre he's working in, the spaghetti Western, or the rush to get the film ready for award season, or that he's missing his longtime editor, the late Sally Menke, or any combination of these things. I don't have to figure it out, I just feel this isn't a problem with the top four films on this list. With that said, I'm a fan of Westerns in general, and boy does this feel right. Better gunfights than in Inglorious Basterds.

I won't attack Spike Lee's attack on Quentin regarding the N-word; if he doesn't like Quentin's usage of it, fine. But since I've been hearing Spike attack other directors without seeing their work since Brain de Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities in 1990, I just ignore him and watch the film itself. Not only a good Western, but a good drama of life as a slave pre-Civil War. I'm not sure if it's historically accurate, but when my only sources on the big and small screen in America are Roots, Amistad, Blazing Saddles and Gone With The Wind, this does feel believable, and brutal. Your liking of Leonardo DiCaprio's performance does depend on how you feel about him going in; I bought him as an arrogant twerp surrounded by money, slaves, and men with guns. But not for a Supporting Actor nomination, and certainly not over Christoph Waltz's Obi-Wan/Gandalf-with-a-gun mentor performance. As properly stoic as Jamie Foxx is in the title role, and as fascinating as Samuel L. Jackson is as DiCaprio's house slave, you miss Waltz's energy whenever he's off-screen. Kerry Washington? Stuck in a one-dimensional role and only able to do so much with it; speaking German doesn't count to me as dimension.

6) THE MASTER- Paul Thomas Anderson's latest. Probably the film on this list that I understood the least, but that didn't keep me from liking it, especially in all its 70mm glory. It's probably best not to think of it as an examination of the early days of Scientology, and more the journey of a damaged G.I. who served in the Pacific theater in World War 2. Not the stereotypical veteran depicted all happy from previous films, or even the kind dealing with issues as in The Best Years of our Lives or Flags of our Fathers. More of a man who was damaged in some way prior to the War, and became even more screwed up afterwards. A man who finds temporary relief, whether its in the arms of a woman, or in the early Scientology-like training scenes, but who may never find anything more than that. I admired the storytelling technique of most scenes coming from his point of view, whether forward like alcoholic blackouts between days months and even years, or flashbacks that intrude on his present reality. Great lead perfs from Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, their first session together is a fantastic scene. But let's have some love for Amy Adams' performance. Not a warm person, but alternately strong, yet also vastly insecure, the cracks show no matter how much willpower she tries to assert. Understandable that this film wasn't embraced, but ignore it at your peril.

5) LES MISERABLES- Big budget movie making at its best. While there may have been a few too many close-ups for some people's tastes, I had no issues at all with that. I was also ok with a sight switching around with the order of one of the songs; it worked for West Side Story and it worked here. The new song, Suddenly, fits in to the point where if you didn't know the stage show, you wouldn't know it was a new addition. As opposed to Beyonce's song in Dreamgirls, which I can't remember the name or how it went. I'll admit that not every performer's singing voice was up to par, but this won't be a raging screed against Russell Crowe. Yes, his voice didn't match up to the quality of say, Hugh Jackman or Anne Hathaway. But I liked his performance just fine. His depiction of a man serving only the letter of the law who is slowly crushed by his rigid mistakes later in life, I bought that. Beside, did you get a load of Helena Bonham Carter's voice in this film. Far weaker and more of a letdown, just like it was in Sweeney Todd (except for the By The Sea performance). Also, the energy of the film wavered a bit once the siege began in earnest. Again, these are relatively minor complaints for me. Not enough to knock it out of the top 5, but enough to put Les Miz below two of the nine Best Picture nominees, including the film at number 4 . . .

4) ZERO DARK THIRTY- Might not be on the same level as director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's The Hurt Locker, but pretty good. Don't get tied up with all the political drivel that the film is pro or anti torture. It depicts it in the starkest, least 24-esque terms possible; as a means to get information with no clear idea if it was helpful or not. And if the unnamed Seal Team Six member from the recent Esquire interview is correct with regards to the night raid to get Bin Laden being depicted as too noisy, it still works in the film more believably than the end of Argo on the tarmac. And if you have proof that the film is almost completely false that doesn't come from some preening ass-covering Senator, bring it or piss off, I have movies to see.

The tension doesn't let up for the entire 2 plus hour running time as we follow every path and blind alley through the eyes of ultra determined Jessica Chastain. When a CIA character thinks there's a reason to feel a little safe, beware. Aside from locations, there is very little to indicate to the audience of time in history. You better recognize who is giving the speeches and who Leon Panneta is, because Bigelow and Boal figures the audience is full of adults. While we may not know every detail, the blanks are filled in soon enough, as our heroine faces two enemies; a group of terrorists who strike when she least expects it, and most of her CIA colleagues, who despite some of their bravado, seem afraid to be wrong to the point of near-paralysis. The aforementioned night raid on Bin Laden's home becomes the masterful last section of the picture. From the difficulty of tracking down the home in Pakistan, to the difficulty in planning the raid, to the difficulty of getting anyone to approve the plan, to the actual raid itself. Exhausting in a good way, the best studio film of 2012.

3) THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE- From directors David McMahon and Sara & Ken Burns. I lived through the time period depicted. I thought I knew the story. Five underage black and Latino youths were arrested and convicted of raping and nearly beating to death a white female jogger in Central Park back in 1989. They served over a decade of their sentences when a serial rapist was found to have committed the crime. I vaguely remember the youths, now grown men, were released from jail and had sued the city but thought nothing else of it. Why would I, I know the story. After seeing this film however, boy was I wrong.

We see enough of the media clips from 1989-1991 to get a sense of the horrible crime, the way this story was almost cherry-picked by media outlets, base on location gender race and brutality of the crime (in that order?). We see enough clips and most of the interrogation tapes to see this film has been the closest the five men have ever received in terms of a fair shake. Especially when we see articles, such as one from the New York Post's Andrea Pyser, still damning the five men in print. No one from the police or District Attorney's office attached to the case (aside from former D.A. Robert Morganthau who moved quickly to have the convictions vacated) were willing to talk with the filmmakers. There might be people out there complaining that the report is far more accurate in terms of tackling legal complexities. I'm taking that with a huge grain of salt. Yes, there might be reason to criticize why there is no explanation as to why the teenagers were in the park that night, but probably the best we can charge the directors with here is a sin of omission. It's also acceptable to critique the competence of their defense lawyers. But that's not a good reason to sideline ignore or dismiss a well made documentary. For me, the Ken Burns imprint is enough to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, not their critics, and certainly not the New York City officials who took them to court over the outtakes. 5 young men pushed by desperate put-upon cops into a judicial system that seemed more influenced by mob mentality than anything else. All occurring in a more obviously racially divided city with problems from the crack epidemic, the AIDS epidemic and gang violence that was hurting communities and police alike.

The films lives by the interviews with the 5 men (one only in voiceover), breaking down their lives prior to the arrest and the difficulty of their interrogations. Plus an interesting interview with the one holdout juror who felt browbeaten into a Guilty vote, describing his experience that the filmmakers paralleled to what the youths went through in police interrogations. Throw in no narration but title cards written with as much information and as little emotion as humanly possible, allowing the viewer's internal dialogue to work overtime, The Central Park Five deserves a place alongside such documentaries as The Thin Blue Line and the Paradise Lost series. How this didn't go beyond the equivalent of the Oscars' Best Documentary voting is beyond me.

2) AMOUR- The best of the nine Best Picture nominees at this year's Oscar. Boy have I been slow to develop a taste for writer/director Michael Haneke's work. I made a mistake to see The Piano Teacher and Cache on TV; that format didn't work well for me. The experience of sitting through the English language version of Funny Games made me wonder what did I do wrong in my life, while occasionally fascinated with a few individual scenes. It wasn't until The White Ribbon, a near miss on my Best of 2009 list, that I fully began to appreciate and like Haneke's style. But I appreciated Haneke's tighter, laser-like focus with Amour.

Very similar to Sidney Lumet's classic Twelve Angry Men, where both films mostly take place in a confined space, and both directors managed to make emotionally heartfelt cinema. The older couple may live in a specious Parisian apartment, but as the aged wife deteriorates and the aged husband gets closer and closer to caretaker burnout, they're as emotional trapped as Lumet's jurors. We get hints of the life outside and of the couple's life together prior to the wife's stroke. We get hints of the family issues with daughter Isabelle Huppert, but only when she makes her infrequent visits. If anything the pace is similar to The Master, but instead of jumping forward and backwards like an drunken stupor, we jump forward here. Forward a day or so at a time or weeks at a time, as we watch a loving couple's agonizing final weeks and months together. Neither uplifting nor soul-crushing nor unrealistic. Just a well acted, well captured glimpse into a great romance as it literally reaches Til Death Do You Part. No way Emmanuelle Riva could be ignored for a Best Actress nomination, no matter what bullshit rules SAG used to disqualify Amour. But more than John Hawkes' performance in the otherwise decent The Sessions, I felt Jean-Louis Trintignant was an even more disappointing omission for Best Actor.
And no, I don't know who should have been dropped from the Best Actor category in favor of Trintignant. But I wished the admirable Beasts of the Southern Wild was dropped from Best Picture for my favorite film of 2012 . .  . . .

1) MOONRISE KINGDOM- Sad to see it only acknowledged for Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola's Screenplay, but that's better than nothing at all. One of the better romantic comedies of recent years, even though the gentleness and partial serious approach of the story doesn't make the genre obvious. Two kids, an outcast orphan boy who's an adept Scout and a girl who feels alone both in school and in her own family, become each others first loves. They might even be each others' True Loves. They decide to run away together, traveling around the small New England island where the story takes place, the year 1965. The adults around them are all afflicted with their own feelings of loneliness and/or inadequacy and/or guilt. Issues that the young kids witness in pieces but are unable to fully comprehend, at least not yet. How these adults react to and handle these two outcast kids will affect them for the rest of their lives. Small scale in terms of our world, but epic for the kids and we have that sense played out for us quite well. With some seriousness, with some wistfulness, but with a lot of humor. Good ensemble work from the adults, especially from Edward Norton and Bruce Willis. A Willis retrospective sounds more interesting as the years go by, but I digress.

It's the casting of the kids, not just of Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman as the young leads but also of the casting of their friends relatives and enemies, that help make the film shine. If you're telling the story through the vantage points of two 12 year olds, don't screw up the casting. Hayward and Gilman are just right. Special props for the way Anderson depicts their courtship, that's the way you use a montage. Needless to say, Anderson's best film.

No comments: