Friday, February 01, 2013

Top 10: 2012

Steven Soderbergh, discussing his (hopefully temporary) retirement in an interview with Vulture, commented that "I just don't think movies matter as much any more, culturally," observing that the audience for original content aimed at adults has largely moved to television. Quentin Tarantino has also repeatedly discussed his plans to retire, citing the industry's switch to digital projection as "not what I signed up for." Paul Schrader has repeatedly referred to the "post theatrical era" in interviews for his upcoming movie The Canyons, a microbudgeted thriller that relied on crowdsourcing for financing and to assemble much of its crew. Whether the traditional moviegoing experience or the cultural importance of film is dead or dying remains to be seen - in Soderbergh's case, his comments reveal more about him than they do about the medium - but it's clear that the massive transition to digital production and exhibition, coupled with the ever-multiplying number of distribution channels, will effect film culture and history in ways that none of us can quite predict yet.

The future is already here; the last movie I saw projected on film was The Master, appropriately enough. Before that, I saw a few movies - Prometheus and The Expendables 2 - projected on film over the summer at a local multiplex. The sound was muddy and the prints were already a mess after a few days. It was clear that the theater wasn't even trying anymore. It has since switched over to digital, as did the art house theater where I worked as a projectionist for eight years (thankfully, they've kept their 35mm projectors). I loved that job, but had I known I was literally witnessing the end of the era, I would have spent more time rewatching and appreciating every print and less time farting around on the internet between reel changes.

We're in the midst of a paradigm shift, and just as the greater national (global?) paradigm shift (coupled with a particularly divisive election year) have made us more prone to defining ourselves by our differences, our varying tastes and pop cultural proclivities have also become more heated, in both trivial and unsettling ways.  Shortly before The Avengers' record-setting opening, I tried to explain in detail to a friend who had implied that my lack of excitement for the film was pretentious that I couldn't get excited for what was, at its heart, an elaborate act of corporate synergy. His response was "So you're more of a DC guy." It's not a new thing for geek culture to be contentious, but as once-marginal genres and properties are, more than ever, dominating the box office and the cultural discussion, the bullies became more vocal. A movie like Prometheus could go from the rabidly anticipated film of the year, every detail of every trailer analyzed in minute detail, to a completely picked-apart carcass that one would be ridiculed for liking by the end of its opening weekend. "Did you see the Red Letter Media review?" "Did you see the 'How Prometheus Should Have Ended' video?" I mention Prometheus not because it isn't a flawed film, but because no movie better represents the triumph of left-brained thinking in contextualizing popular art. A chorus of voices demanding to know what Lard-Ass did after the pie eating contest.

And then there was The Dark Knight Rises, a movie I like very much but is no fun to talk about, as it means aligning myself with the bullies who told any critic who dared not praise a movie that is by no means beyond criticism that they should die violently. Then twelve people actually did die violently while watching The Dark Knight Rises, and most of us remembered how trivial any of this ultimately is and how lucky we are just to be able to go to a movie and live and be happy. Still, this remains a climate where all discussion about Django Unchained boils down to whether or not Tarantino overused the word "nigger" and countless op-ed pieces have been written about whether Zero Dark Thirty is saying torture is good or bad (after having had enough of the anti-Zero Dark Thirty pieces, I joked to my girlfriend, "That's it, I'm a Republican now"). Every film has a cultural context when it is released that it both creates and is created for it; right now, we're letting that context be defined by the talking point generators and the quipsters, reducing everything down to whether a film is awesome or sucks, whether it's liberal or conservative, whether the filmmaker reinforces or contradicts our biases. Whether this is truly the post theatrical era or something we don't have a name for yet, it seems more important than ever that film critics and real cinephiles do whatever we can to broaden the conversation.

And in the midst of all this were films that looked back into the (sometimes recent) past to discover what our history can teach us about the present. Others looked into the future, realizing our anxieties about where we may be headed in frightening detail, yet also finding hope in unlikely places. At least one movie looked to the past and the future. Several of the best movies of the year were independent films, but the definition of independent films is changing - it can refer to someone like Megan Ellison investing tens of millions of her own fortune into ambitious, medium-budget films that would have been mid-level studio productions not long ago. And while I never deliberately adjust my list to ensure diversity, it makes me happy that, after an election that signaled that diversity is not just a growing but an essential component to where we're headed, my favorite movie of the year was directed by a woman. That's not why it's my favorite movie, but somehow it feels right this year.

It was a strong year for movies, and while I've never liked the idea of an "honorable mentions" list, I've decided to include my full ballot for the upcoming Muriel awards as a hat tip to some of the other excellent films released this year. I can't guarantee that you'll like any of the movies listed here, but they're all worth checking out, on the big screen or Netflix Instant or on TNT a few years from now. I don't think cinema is dying, but if I'm wrong, it's having one hell of a death rattle.

1. Zero Dark Thirty

I have to give Jen, my girlfriend, credit for pointing out something about Zero Dark Thirty that I haven't read in any review - its production history is like Fever Pitch, the Drew Barrymore/Jimmy Fallon rom com that was supposed to end with Drew and Jimmy breaking up and the Red Sox losing until the team's 2004 victory prompted a rewrite and a new happy ending provided by reality (not that I'm equating bin Laden's assassination with the Sox winning the series). Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty began as an existential thriller, like Zodiac, about the cost of the seemingly endless pursuit of Osama bin Laden until reality necessitated a drastic rewrite. Several people whose opinions I respect have speculated that the earlier version of Zero Dark Thirty may have been the more interesting film, but the film that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have made has hardly sacrificed narrative complexity or moral ambiguity - it's a difficult, often deliberately upsetting film that is honest about the emotional catharsis most of us felt upon hearing of bin Laden's death while also challenging our assumptions about what we sacrificed to get to that point and whether we can ever get it back. In her single-minded pursuit of bin Laden, Jessica Chastain's Maya is a surrogate for our national preoccupation with - revenge? justice? - acheiving closure through giving an ending to a story that has no real ending (it's in this way that the film most resembles Zodiac). Zero Dark Thirty is a brilliant procedural that also had more to say about this moment in time than any other film this year; I know that it's great, but I suspect that I'm still too close to it to fully understand why.

2. Looper

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year - I thought it would be good, but I was blindsided by just how original and ultimately moving Rian Johnson's third feature is. Johnson's first film, Brick, is one of the strongest debuts in recent years, and it's exciting to see him bringing his talents to a bigger-budget sci-fi/action movie that is consistently tense, exciting, smart and is still clearly born from Johnson's idiosyncratic sensibility and philosophical preoccupations. The chase between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as a younger and older version of the same character is a great showcase for both actors; as with Moonrise Kingdom, Looper is also a fascinating exploration of the underlying world-weary sadness behind Willis' stoic appeal. The film stands alongside The Terminator and Back to the Future with its witty, sometimes grim exploration of the storytelling possibilities of time travel; it's both technically superb and capable of marvelling with a low-tech editing trick or a perfectly timed camera movement. But what makes Looper really special is the ingenious way that, after using the time-travel plot as an exploration of the often scary idea that we inherit the world our elders have left for us (or that we create for ourselves in our foolish youth), it reveals late in the film what it's really about (with one important detail established early on in a brilliantly off-handed bit of misdirection). The film is a brilliant inversion of the "What if you could kill Hitler?" question, carrying a hopeful (and earned) message about the ways that love, mercy and a single act of personal sacrifice can echo through the years. I was not expecting a violent action movie starring Bruce Willis to arrive at a place of authentic grace, and it was a pleasure getting there.

3. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's three most recent films all come back to Carol J. Clover's assertion that exploitation movies afford their makers the opportunity for a more honest and direct examination of racism, sexism and our ugly history. Tarantino is clearly unconcerned with questions of good taste, and yet for all their blood and  pulp, his movies have a consistent (if cockeyed) sense of moral responsibility. In Django Unchained, the scenes involving plantation owners' violent exploitation of their slaves are brutal, protracted and difficult to watch, but the scenes involving the masters' violent comeuppance are cartoonishly gory and, frankly, a hell of a lot of fun. I can understand why this is problematic for some, and maybe this is a sign that I'm not fully morally developed, but I hope black audiences enjoy the hell out of watching Django (Jamie Foxx) get paid to kill white people. Django Unchained isn't as perfect a film as Inglorious Basterds, but it's more emotionally satisfying and may be the one I revisit a bit more in the future. As with all of Tarantino's movies, it's gorgeously shot, has a great ensemble cast and is both a smart deconstruction of and a fully satisfying example of its genre. Unlike any of his previous films, it has not just a moral but a political dimension; Tarantino reveals himself as the kind of liberal I can relate to, not preoccupied with the vanity of philosophical perfectionism but possessing a real and urgent understanding of justice and equality. That he expresses it by literally burning our ugly past to the ground is the icing on the cake.

4. Lincoln

I was tempted to call Lincoln the MLK to Django's Malcolm X, but then, Steven Spielberg's film isn't really about slavery as much as the political process and the thorny, sometimes dubious means by which real and meaningful progress is achieved. Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing, but it would have been shocking if he phoned it in. It's Spielberg who is the big surprise here - while this is clearly his film, but aesthetically and in its generosity towards its characters, it's not quite the earnest, teary-eyed biopic I would have expected (frankly, I was fearing Amistad 2). Working from a brilliant Tony Kushner script, Spielberg has made a film devoted to the slow, often frustrating process of passing the 14th Amendment, its moral the necessity of pragmatism and compromise. In other words, it's subject matter that could have been deadly dry, and I'm not exactly surprised that I was literally the only person under 50 in the audience when I saw the film. But when Lincoln inevitably becomes a mainstay in high school history classes, I think that its teen audience will be surprised by how funny, suspenseful and relateable it is; maybe it'll even keep them awake until the bell rings. I kid because I'm acutely aware that this is the squarest movie on my list, and one easily dismissed as calculated Oscar bait. But it really is so more than that, and I urge my fellow millennials to stop texting and listening to the hip hop for a little bit and give it a try.

5. Magic Mike

The most fun I had this year was watching this with a sold-out audience of riled-up women. Thanks to you, Mr. Soderbergh, the theatrical experience is not only alive and well, its panties are wet. The experience would have been a blast even if the movie was terrible, but it was surprisingly great, a deadpan comedy that recalls Shampoo in its mix of cheerful smut and sly social commentary. Channing Tatum is ridiculously likable, the dance sequences are a blast to watch, and I would happily watch a sequel that focuses entirely on Matthew McConaughey's character. That Magic Mike is so much fun but also smart and incredibly well-made is something of a marvel - audiences were able to hoot and holler at all of Tatum's moves without feeling bad about it in the morning. If Soderbergh is truly done with filmmaking, at least he's going out with a bang.

6. The Master

I got a bit burnt out on discussions of The Master, mostly because of their repetitive nature ("Who is the real master here? Is Amy Adams the real master?") but also because, after seeing it, I was just the slightest bit let down. You can feel in what I wrote about the film back in September that I'm taking a "Maybe it was me?" attitude, but after talking with friends that had the same reaction, I'm not so sure. For 80% of the movie, I was convinced that Anderson had made another masterpiece; then it gets to London and "Slow Boat to China," and I couldn't help feeling like this wasn't exactly Daniel Plainview screaming "I told you I would eat you!!" at Eli Sunday. I'm still a bit baffled by the film, but I'm very eager now to revisit it; I still suspect that, like Kubrick's later films, The Master's seeming vagueness could prove to have dimensions I haven't considered on repeat viewings. If I discover the film supports my suspicion/hope that its actually about how, as I wrote in September, pussy is the only thing worth believing in, than it IS a masterpiece. But maybe not. All of this is a roundabout way of explaining why The Master isn't higher on my list, as it also boasts three of the strongest performances of the year, is technically astounding, contains scenes that are as great as anything Anderson has written and directed, and is so clearly and completely the work of a filmmaker committed to realizing his singular vision. The Master is a movie I have to live with longer before I'm sure how I feel about it, but even if it turns out to be not as great as the sum of its parts, its imperfections are more fascinating than any number of movies that aim straight for the middle and succeed.

7. The Dark Knight Rises

The final chapter in Christopher Nolan's trilogy is actually better than its predecessor in one important way - the action sequences are more fluidly shot and edited. But it was probably impossible to replicate the astonishing impact Heath Ledger's performance had on the previous film, and Nolan was wise not to try. That said, it's a thematically and emotionally satisfying resolution to the trilogy - it's easy, at this point, to forget just how radical Nolan's approach to Batman really is, and the greatest pleasure of The Dark Knight Rises is seeing the payoff thematic and narrative threads set up in Batman Begins that we didn't realize at the time. It's also the most fun of the three films - after the surprising brutality of The Dark Knight, it's fun to watch Nolan introduce elements of James Bond and Hitchcock's lighter capers and even a little romance into the film. Whoever reboots the franchise next would be wise to take it in a more comic book-y direction, as these films have probably taken a serious take on Batman as far as it can go. But I'm so glad we'll always have these three films - as far as big-budget franchises go, none match Nolan's films in terms of ambition and intellectual depth while still sticking the landing.

8. Holy Motors

Holy Motors is an interesting example of whether or not one is committing the intentional fallacy by interpreting it using biographical information about its director. Although the movie ends with a photo of Leos Carax's wife, Katerina Golubeva, who passed away last year, I didn't know who it was until I read it after the film, and the movie doesn't explicitly identify her. So while I was watching the movie, I read it as a sort of requiem for analog filmmaking; on reflection, it's also a literal act of mourning, with Carax making himself inseperable from his medium, reflecting on its mortality as a way of acknowledging his own. Either way, for a film that is about endings, it's surprisingly exuberant, clearly intoxicated with the playful possibilities of moviemaking. Its protagonist, Oscar (Denis Lavant), who works his way through a variety of surreal, sometimes ridiculous scenarios over the course of the day, is clearly tired of his work. And yet a movie that contains a mid-movie performance by a chorus of accordions just because it can reflects no apparent resignation on the part of its director. It's one of the most pleasurable expressions ever of an artist raging against the dying of the light.

9. Cloud Atlas

An unwieldy, cumbersome beast of a movie that threatens early on to turn into a complete disaster but is ultimately a beautiful and astonishingly original adaptation of David Mitchell's novel. What the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer have achieved is so unique not just because it weaves together multiple storylines - D.W. Griffith was doing that 100 years ago - but because the movie's themes of breaking down conventions and personal transformation are so clearly reflected in its form and the collaborative nature of its creation, both in its directorial threesome and the obvious commitment of its repertory cast. It's flawed and messy in a beautiful way, a movie that takes huge chances that are head-scratching in the moment but pay off beautifully.  It challenges our notions about narrative and form and what a movie should be in ways that are witty, lyrical and surprising. And it makes a passionate and intelligent case for the eternal soul, which I'm a sucker for. If most movies were half as ballsy as Cloud Atlas, we'd be immeasurably better off for it.

10. Silver Linings Playbook

After hearing about the premise of Silver Linings Playbook, I honestly didn't expect it to end up on this list. I'm very averse to movies about the power of love to cure mental illness, and the plot sounded like a mess - a dance contest? Really? Luckily, David O. Russell's adaptation of Matthew Quick's novel is, if not bluntly realistic, an honest and perceptive character study about mental illness; that it's also a sharp, sweet romantic comedy reminiscent of Billy Wilder, and that it succeeds at being both things, is something of a minor miracle. And the dance contest turned out to be a plot point that stems perfectly from the characters (aided by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence's strong performances, and a great ensemble cast), rather than contrived device, that leads to a resolution that is sort of beautiful. This isn't a movie about love conquering bipolar disorder, it's a movie about two flawed people who care about each other enough for each to encourage the other to become healthier and stronger. I can see why it could be very grating for a lot of people, but it touched a lot of nerves in a good way - no movie this year made me feel as happy. I heard a critic on a podcast say recently that emotion can be an impediment to critical judgement, but I think that's only true if you don't trust your own emotions. Maybe I shouldn't. I don't know. This movie was so goddamn cute.

The rest of the ballot:

Best Lead Performance, Male 

1. Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
2. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
3. Jack Black, Bernie
4. Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained
5. Liam Neeson, The Grey

Best Lead Performance, Female 

1. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
2. Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
3. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
4. Kara Hayward, Moonrise Kingdom
5. Sarah Paxton, The Innkeepers

Best Supporting Performance, Male 

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
2. Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike
3. Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
4. Michael Fassbender, Prometheus
5. Bruce Willis, Moonrise Kingdom

Best Supporting Performance, Female

1. Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
2. Amy Adams, The Master
3. Doona Bae, Cloud Atlas
4. Shirley MacLaine, Bernie
5. Sarah Silverman, Wreck-It Ralph

Best Direction 

1. Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
2. Rian Johnson, Looper
3. Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
4. Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
5. Steven Soderbergh, Magic Mike

Best Screenplay (original or adapted)

1. Rian Johnson, Looper
2. Tony Kushner, Lincoln
3. Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
4. Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
5. Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty

Best Cinematography
1. Mihai Malaimare Jr., The Master
2. Robert Richardson, Django Unchained
3. Norm Li, Beyond the Black Rainbow
4. Dariusz Wolski, Prometheus
5. Roger Deakins, Skyfall

Best Editing 

1. William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor, Zero Dark Thirty
2. Bob Ducsay, Looper
3. Lee Smith, The Dark Knight Rises
4. Alexander Berner, Cloud Atlas
5. Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Music (original, adapted, or compiled)

1. Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas
2. Jon Brion, ParaNorman
3. Howard Shore, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
4. Jeremy Schmidt, Beyond the Black Rainbow
5. Nathan Johnson, Looper

Best Cinematic Moment

2. 30 year montage, Looper
3. Emergency extraction, Prometheus
4. First processing, The Master
6. “You lie to me and I hurt you,” Zero Dark Thirty

Best Cinematic Breakthrough
(vague explanation:  a performer, filmmaker, or technician who made a notable debut in film, took his/her career to a higher level, or revealed unforeseen layers to his/her talent during the year 2012)

1. Panos Cosmatos, Beyond the Black Rainbow
2. Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods
3. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, Moonrise Kingdom
4. Channing Tatum, Magic Mike
5. Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Best Body of Work
(a performer, filmmaker, or technician who made superior contributions to multiple films released in calendar year 2012)



1. Megan Ellison (Lawless, The Master, Killing Them Softly, Zero Dark Thirty)
2. Matthew McConaughey (Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, The Paperboy)
3. Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables)
4. Steven Soderbergh (Haywire, Magic Mike)
5. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises, Premium Rush, Looper, Lincoln)

Best Ensemble Performance

 1. Lincoln
2. Moonrise Kingdom
3. Django Unchained
4. Argo
5. Silver Linings Playbook

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