Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best FIlms of 2012

This new decade continues to offer up dozens of films that directly refute the seemingly endless cottage industry of “thinkpieces” devoted to cinema’s death. Directors who proudly stick with film until it is ripped from their hands are joined by inventive users of digital, be they up-and-comers or adaptive old masters, people forging new possibilities of visual language with a new format. And for the film viewer, access has never been so open, closed as it may still sometimes seem. Like last year, 2012 offered up an embarrassment of riches, so much so that narrowing down selections proved even more arduous than in 2011. Not only were the movies themselves great, many contained parallels with each other. As such, I arranged my picks for the best the year had to offer as a series of double (and one triple) features that link up thematically, stylistically, or both.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Top 10 Michael Powell (And Emeric Presburger) Films

I do not know if any director has had as formative an influence on the films I love than Michael Powell and his creative partner, Emeric Pressburger. The film that sits in the number-one slot on the list that follows radically altered what I look for in movies, and it remains my favorite of all time. On his own, Michael Powell was an extraordinarily gifted director, an innate visual genius and a conservative in the Fordian mode, reflected in films that looked fondly on a traditional Britain but also displayed an ambivalence, even borderline acceptance of the nation’s fading importance in the 20th century. (His breakthrough, The Edge of the World, recalls Ford’s How Green Was My Valley in its wistful but clear-headed appraisal of a secluded hamlet eroding to modernity for ill and good.)

With Pressburger, though, Powell crafted not only some of the most sumptuously beautiful films of all time, but some of the most resonant as well. Their propaganda films are anything but, and their postwar work celebrates the preservation of their beloved country even as it offers firm, and sometimes critical, assessments of what needs to be done to maintain Britain’s spirit. Even at their most troubling, however, the filmmakers communicate such vivaciousness of life through some of the greatest Technicolor work in history that an optimism blazes to the surface on their aesthetic mastery. The films below are not merely some of the best ever made, they are also some of the most endlessly, exuberantly entertaining.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Girl Walk//All Day, Sound of Noise, Sound of My Voice

Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick, 2012)

Watching Jacob Krupnick’s Girl Walk//All Day, my focus was initially drawn less to Anne Marsen’s wide-smiling, unashamed dancer than the parade of awkward smiles and uncomfortable glances of the real pedestrians of New York among whom she leaps and twirls and slams. But what would a portrait of New York City be without some crazy person making the average person on the street alternately amused and anxious? Girl Walk//All Day gradually builds as it wears on, Marsen’s infectious energy spreading among other dancers who intermittently pop up and, occasionally, random bystanders who get caught up in her rhythm. Admittedly, the filmmaking isn’t nearly as inventive as the soundtrack that inspired it, but the energy builds and builds throughout until I found myself more entertained than I had been all year. The film’s only exchange of dialogue (delivered in subtitles as the music continues to dominate the soundtrack, almost recalls The Red Shoes’ “Why do you dance?” dialogue. A Hasidic Jew asks Marsen, “Why are you dancing?” with a look of mild discomfort and genuine curiosity. “Because I’m happy,” she cheerfully replies, still bouncing. The man smiles. “You should always be happy.” Grade: B+

Sound of Noise (Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, 2012)

Stomp made into an anarchic hunt for unshackled music, Sound of Noise is, by turns, a caper and a romantic comedy, pulsing with its unorthodox percussion and tittering with its makeshift cymbals and blocks. A metronome becomes the equivalent of a bomb detonator for a group of anarchist drummers who make the world into music, thus rendering it soundless for the tone-deaf policeman who chases them. It is a great conceit and routinely funny in execution, but what the film is not is the city symphony for Malmö it feels as if it will become at nearly every moment before falling short. Its ingenious street compositions are thrown off by routine plot mechanics that not only puts too much dead air between performances but often interrupt the few bits of music we get. The film is still enjoyable, but it feels like so much untapped potential. Grade: C+

Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij, 2012)

The Sound of My Voice recalls other recent films about cults—Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Master—not merely in its subject matter but in its strengths and weaknesses. In all three films, the actor playing the cult leader does an exceptional job of capturing the ambiguous tone between someone projecting freewheeling improvisation and eerie omniscience. But Brit Marling’s excellent performance, all soothing but firm suggestions that crucially stop just short of direct commands, is undercut by everything around her. All cults are thinly sketched (the aforementioned cult movies even make this a key aspect of their observed sects), but rarely are the people they comprise so vague as well. Sound of My Voice offers no sense of how or why anyone ever gravitated toward Marling’s Maggie, much less how they developed the fanatical loyalty necessary to overlook her obvious fakery. Oh, but is it fakery, dear reader, for the film contains a twist! Admittedly, it does go to the trouble of laying track toward the climactic revelation, but the twist still feels like a lazy counter to everything the film had been saying to that point. Grade: C-

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Barbara (Christian Petzold, 2012)

This wonderful German drama feels like a thriller that draws all of its suspense from the moral quandaries that flash across Nina Hoss' focused eyes in an instant, a world of possibilities (most of them dismal) processed in a second. Petzold's camera proves that subjective shots not only do not require handheld shaky-cam but are often foiled by it. His calm, level gazes produce an intense feeling of always being watched, save for when Barbara retreats to areas of howling, microphone-drowning wind. One of the year's best.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, 2012)

It is both immediately apparent and hard to believe that Alex Ross Perry’s second feature, The Color Wheel, is entirely scripted as the director claims. The flesh-peeling barbs that Ross Perry and co-writer Caren Altman lob at each other as warring siblings Colin and J.R., respectively, are so deft and precision-targeted that the broader strokes of improv responses seem inadequate for producing them, yet the speed and rhythm with which they deflect and parry feels so spontaneous, not at all memorized and practiced. The dialogue is as separated from the prevailing status quo of American comedy as it separates the characters from each other, from the sardonically drawled “Nice shirt” that opens the film to a multi-front war the siblings open between themselves and everyone around them.

Likewise, Ross Perry’s direction serves to radically break the film from modern trends of American independent filmmaking. Instead of being shot on affordable, slick, color DV, Ross Perry and cinematographer Sean Price Williams use black-and-white, gloriously grainy 16mm film stock. The choice of filming material is the film’s first and best-sustained joke, its anachronism an ironic reminder that its format used to be the preferred method of filming “realism” but now looks like artistic license. What was shorthand for real now looks decidedly the opposite when stacked against HD video, and it makes one wonder when that, too, shall be seen as almost classical. And though the film concerns two twentysomethings in the grip of anomie and stagnation, the 16mm removes The Color Wheel from even the most stretched definition of “mumblecore,” a nebulous term carelessly used by all (including this writer). Nothing about this is Sundance fare, but that only further defines it as a true independent work of art.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Capsule Reviews: End of Watch, Flight, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

End of Watch (David Ayer, 2012)

Whether the cops in End of Watch talk like cops matters less than the joy of them talking like actual human beings. Jake Gyllenhaal and partner Michael Peña enjoy a natural chemistry that works with Ayer’s hyperactive, disjunctive direction to give the impression of normal police work on L.A. streets even as the calls to which they respond are not only blatantly cinematic on an individual basis but also link up in a building narrative arc. That frenetic direction is the result of handheld cameras, most of which appear diegetically, toted by cop and criminal alike as their colleagues attempt to dissuade the would be filmmakers from carrying around evidence against them. It figures: the one time these characters are spared the weight of allegorical importance, they strive to be symbolic stars of their own movies. Admittedly, the sheer frantic collision of shots holds the film back, but it also pays off in some nearly surreal setpieces, especially during a rescue effort in a burning house that actually manages to communicate the terror of heat forming physical barriers and exits being lost behind smokescreens at a second’s notice. Besides, the technique cannot be too distancing, as End of Watch creates an immediacy of emotional connection rare to cop films. Grade: B+

Monday, December 17, 2012

Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, 2012)

When set against the experience of seeing a production of Les Misérables,Tom Hooper’s adaptation single-handedly disproves Chaplin’s notion that life is tragedy in close-up and comedy in long shot. Hooper is so fixated on the musical’s reputation as a tear-jerker that he has no sense for its epic sweep, and his camera is rarely more than inches from an actor’s face as he or she sings. At times, performers even lurch suddenly toward the lens in a disorientingly pop effect, a gesture of spontaneity that sometimes comes across as their way of saying, “Would you back the hell off?”

Based, of course, on Victor Hugo’s epic, social romance novel, Les Misérables is one of the few musicals ripe for the current fetish for “realism” (emphasis on the quotation marks). Hooper always makes sure each face is covered in grime just so, that the stars’ teeth are not sparkling but also not blackened like the extras or significant characters of disrepute. These details make the film seem more fake than a stage show, not less, though the camera does such a fine job of its own on that front that the relatively minor sin of aesthetically arranged grit. One might not even notice this if, again, Hooper could bear to mix up his agonizingly long close-ups with a medium or long shot that lasted more than a second.

Friday, December 14, 2012

It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

Don Hertzfeldt brings a trilogy of short films about a psychologically impaired everyman named Bill to a close with It’s Such a Beautiful Day, his longest and most ambitious work to date. The 23-minute film is a tour de force for the filmmaker from its opening images, which flicker onto the screen and back into darkness with a literal gasp. Hertzfeldt’s prior two films, Everything Will Be O.K. and I Am So Proud of You, delved into Bill’s life with aesthetic subjectivity. The director’s mash-ups of forms, avant-garde collages of images, objects and lights, were never more prominent as he used them to visualize the poor protagonist’s slipping grasp on reality as his mind slowly rebelled against him.

Taken with those films, as a feature-length fusion of the three shorts now allows, It’s Such a Beautiful Day begins as a (relatively) logical continuation of the mounting visual instability. On its own, however, the Brakhagean intensity that ushers in this final chapter is radical in its immediate impact and only more powerful when the intellectual play of the construction is bent toward emotional communication. The foundation of Hertzfeldt’s wild compositions are deceptively simple pencil drawings, the sort where a single figure is always visibly shifting even when not moving as each frame shows contains an outline with subtly different shading.

Consuming Spirits (Chris Sullivan, 2012)

A whopping 15 years in the making, Chris Sullivan's work of cross-format animation is not only a beautiful ode to outsider art but a deeply felt human drama on its own terms. Filled with uncomfortable humor and wrenching insights into its disturbed, lonely characters, Consuming Spirits is as powerful a reminder as any that ennui affects the poor and rural, not just the wealthy and urban. It is one of the great surprises of the year, and one of my favorites in a year that has given me nearly 30 contenders for placement in a top 10.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)

For the last decade, David Cronenberg has retreated from his body horror nightmares of modernity and moved into the traumas that inherently exist in life, well outside contemporary anxieties. The postwar kitchen sink drama cum shattered mental breakdown of Spider. The instinctual savagery of man displayed even in the title of A History of Violence. The histories made visible on bodies via gang tattoos in Eastern Promises. The formation, and potential inadequacies, of theories to explore the psychology of all of this in A Dangerous Method. The old monsters still remain, if they are not as visible. Where the mind tends to ooze out of suppurating wounds in prior Cronenberg films, the dynamic reverses in Spider to make the body horror internal as the body collapses into the mind. In A Dangerous Method, it is Keira Knightley herself, her jutting jaw and angular frame thrown into disarray as her illness complicates the work and professional relationship of its two psychiatrists.

Cosmopolis bridges the earlier, topical body horror with the abstract, unseen terrors of Cronenberg’s late period. Indeed, in this film, the monster may be the camera itself, an Arri Aflexa that renders a picture of undeniable ugliness. Black levels pool like ink, unreal colors bleed into each other, and attempts at old-school in-camera effects make some of Hitchcock’s laughable rear-projections look like location shoots in comparison. That this is all clearly deliberate does not, on the face of it, serve as a full defense of the garish unpleasantness of the frame, and those alienated from this alienating movie cannot be blamed much for pushing outside of it. Speaking for myself, though, Cosmopolis is just about the most enthralling film of the year, capable of sucking in a viewer into the same black hole that consumes the image and the strange (and even more strangely delivered) dialogue. Not explicitly an apocalypse movie nor a Death of Cinema picture, Cronenberg’s latest feels like both, as the sudden meaningless of money threatens to take the world (and film) with it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Ladykillers (1955) vs. The Ladykillers (2004)

For my latest Re-Make/Re-Model piece for Spectrum Culture, I compare the blisteringly funny, darkly funny Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers with the Coens' 2004 remake. The latter is my least favorite of the brothers' work, so I had hoped to see something of value on a second watch. Sadly, watching the two films back to back only made its failings that much more apparent, and all the (very Coenesque) charm of the original is lost on weak irony, puerile scatology and offensive caricatures. It is everything Coen haters accuse the brothers of being but otherwise never are, and I shall continue to put it out of sight and mind when evaluating their incredible body of work.

My full piece is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Capsule Reviews: The Deep Blue Sea, Cloud Atlas, Rust and Bone

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2012)

Lit in a stuffy haze by Florian Hoffmeister, Terence Davies’ adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea continues the director’s penchant for visualizing the confining boundaries of conservative British upbringing. Ambiguities poke through, though, as they did for his masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives. Here, the cukolding love triangle of Rachel Weisz, lover Tim Hiddleston and elder husband Simon Russell Beale certainly exhibit melodramatic flourishes—“To the Impressionists!” is a boisterously funny outburst begging to join the ranks of a cinephile’s referential quotes. Yet the material also resembles a British take on Anna Karenina, where the cheated husband responds not with blustering, annihilating anger but a measured, conflicted tone of hurt and resignation. Weisz and Hiddleston face the negative consequences of passion, but it is Beale who grounds the film and threatens to steal the film as the person truly suffering in all this. His flicker of a smile and the pant of excitement in his voice when he notes Weisz still wears her wedding ring is so delicate the film threatens to blow away with the extra breath in his exhale, and his subsequent offer to help her transition away from him in any way he can is more poignant and heartbreaking than the subsequent travails Weisz faces with her impetuous new beau. Grade: B+

Friday, December 7, 2012

This Is 40 (Judd Apatow, 2012)

In Knocked Up, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) played a side role to Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl’s unstably formed relationship. Mann played Heigl’s sister, and the rough patch of Pete and Debbie’s established bond ran parallel to the shaky formation of ties between the leads. Yet their arguments quickly crossed the line from the disruptions that test a relationship’s mettle to obvious, serious problems between two people clearly wrong for each other. Their eventual reconciliation is meant to show that Rogen and Heigl can and should make it too, but the desperate, artificial consolation left lingering fears of a futurish, even more nightmarish breakdown.

Enter This Is 40. Approaching their nearly simultaneous 40th birthdays, Pete and Debbie have regressed further in the last five years, their prickly resignation at spending the rest of their lives with each other now wholly removed of any evidence of true love save a few, futile lines of dialogue. In the Knocked Up DVD commentary, Apatow noted that Mann, his wife in real life, would never be able to stand Rudd’s lackadaisical, unserious approach to problems. This tension between the actual actors was visible in their supporting appearances in that film, and it seeps into every frame of this (over-)full-length examination of Pete and Debbie at a crossroads. The result is a terrifyingly toxic film in which the usual Apatow humor falls flat in the face of its nightmarish depiction of an entire family in freefall.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Capsule Reviews: The Day He Arrives, Bad 25, The Sessions

The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo, 2012)

Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives begins with a man walking down a street and taking a left. It ends with him returning to that street and going right. This mirroring movement captures the film, so reflective that even the lead actor’s name, Yoo Jun-sang, is spat back out as the character Yoo Seong-jun, an ex-filmmaker who returns to Seoul to catch up with friends, pitifully attempt to rekindle an old flame, and idly philosophize. Hong’s subtle but pristine compositions and varied repetitions tease out character beliefs, hypocrisies and longings as Seong-jun’s rants against the lies of fate that cinema propounds even as he chases a waitress solely for resembling his ex. The repetitions also cinematize the life he feels is so separate from the artifice of movies, the distorted sense of time starting over until Seong-jun “gets it right” recalling a more poetic Groundhog Day. But it’s that poetry that makes all the differences, making even Hong’s cheeky (sometimes outright funny) reflexive details so human that they work not only as critical observations but affecting conduits for the character’s own feelings. Grade: A

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)

Miguel Gomes’ cinephilic tendencies are embedded into the very title of Tabu, taken from F.W. Murnau’s final film and modeled after its bifurcated structure. Black-and-white photography, visibly shot on film instead of digital, only exacerbate the cinematic artifice. Yet the Portuguese director’s aims go well beyond referential touches, and the one on-screen character linked to filmmaking in any way is described in narration as finding movies trivial. Tabu dabbles in trivial matters of its own, but they are played against themselves as Gomes traces the ennui and isolation of the first half back to surprisingly poltiical roots in the second.

A hint lies in an enigmatic prologue that precedes the two stories. A melancholic colonialist stands about idly with sad eyes as African servants labor around him. A Murnau-esque smooth track over hilly terrain speaks to the man’s detached boredom as a narrator (Gomes himself) talks of a lost love that tugs at his heart. The segment ends with the colonialist transformed into an equally sad crocodile, a strange image that will return in the film’s second half.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

There's Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

[The following is my belated October entry for Blind Spots. I hope to catch up on last months and watch my final pick for the year on time.]

Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) has made a life of modest prosperity for himself. He has built a reasonably sized toy manufacturer from the ground up, offering him enough affluence to afford a nice house and a servant to help around it. Unlike Douglas Sirk’s “women’s pictures,” There’s Always Tomorrow remains with Cliff, who, in darkly amusing irony, is everything the husbands in those other melodramas is not. A decent, hard worker and a loving family man, Cliff is not the tyrant of his household but the ideal vision of the postwar American man. And yet, he exists in a prison as much the housewives who dot typical domestic dramas from the period, caged not by abuse but neglect, objectified not as a provider of care but of material sustenance.

Sirk inverts the usual dynamics of melodrama to tell Cliff’s story. The director wanted to shoot the movie in color but could not secure the money to do so. Nevertheless, Russell Metty’s black-and-white cinematography visualizes the different social pressures and archetypes at work on men. The emotive, visceral use of color is thus swapped for a kind of remove, denying Cliff an aesthetic outlet for his feelings to ensure he does not have any unmanly outbursts. Deep focus shots capture the vastness of the home’s interiors, and the cold space they create emphasizes how stark and dead the middle-class comfort around the man has become.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Viewing Log: November 2012

Theatrical/Screener Viewings

Anna Karenina: Joe Wright finally over-directed his way into my heart.
Bad 25: Solid doc on the album and cross-format world takeover planned with it.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Vomit.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: As dreary as its title.
The Comedy: One of the year's best. Irony as a life vest that has taken on too much water.
Generation P: Satiric reach exceeds grasp.
Holy Motors: A work of cynicism so filled with life that the cynicism crumbles.
Life Without Principle: Beats to hell and back all American financial collapse drama-thrillers.
Lincoln: Hampered by Spielberg's worst impulses but also powered by new levels of maturity.
On the Road: Man, and you thought the book was self-absorbed and unbearable!
Romancing in Thin Air: This Is Not a Film finally got topped for my year-end list.
Skyfall: Might have been a bit harsh on this but even my initial thoughts were mostly positive.

First Time Viewings

49th Parallel: No one made humanist propaganda like Powell/Pressburger.
The Bridges of Madison County: An Eastwood high point. Never once ironically distances himself from the melodrama.
The Day He Arrives: Hilarious, beautiful, and perfectly directed.
Detention: The best parts of Donnie Darko and Southland Tales mashed together without all the crap.
Election: No democracy among gangsters. To is, of course, a master.
Fixed Bayonets!: Fuller's second Korean War film of 1951, and somehow the superior of the masterful Steel Helmet.
Hatari!: Both Hawks' most laid-back and one of his most foreboding. Here, even the safe microcosm can fight back.
The House of Steinbrenner: Too slavishly loyal for my tastes. Slaps more clay on the feet of Steinbrenner's statue.
I Know Where I'm Going!: Even light romance is pure poetry in the Archers' hands.
Ishtar: The weakest of the three Elaine May films I've seen, and still incredible.
The Ladykillers (1955): Perfectly directed and extremely funny.
The Last Wave: Effectively makes concrete and workmanlike the abstractions of Roeg.
Lockout: New rainy-day film alert.
Perfect Blue: Finally watched a Kon movie. More than lived up to expectations.
Streets of Fire: It's like everything I want in a film, including big dumb Jim Steinman sing-alongs.
There's Always Tomorrow: A women's picture for men. Appropriately hollowed out as a result.
Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie: Insane enough to work.
The Turin Horse: Tarr goes out and takes the world with him.
White Hunter, Black Heart: One of Eastwood's best, and maybe his purest self-deconstruction.
Woman is the Future of Man: I really need to explore Hong's work after the end-of-year rush dies down.

Repeat Viewings

The French Connection: About as visceral as cop thrillers come. An entire way of filmmaking came out of this, and almost nothing can match it.
The Game: Oh to be a filmmaker so good that this would be considered a "minor" work.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011): The feeling that this is a summary work of Fincher persists, but the notion that this may be a masterpiece of new digital cinema is a fresh one.
Johnny Guitar: What can I even say? A masterpiece.
Little Shop of Horrors: First time with the newly restored director's cut. A big improvement over an already watchable film.
Moonrise Kingdom: I think Darjeeling Limited has officially been replaced as my favorite Wes.
The Rescuers: Not as good as I remember from my childhood.
The Rescuers Down Under: Even less good.
Week End: This year is all about either apocalypse movies or Death of Cinema movies. Jean-Luc beat allll y'all to the punch.

Total Films Seen in 2012: 390
Total New to Me Films: 274

Top Five First Time Films Viewed in November (excluding new releases)

1. There's Always Tomorrow
2. White Hunter, Black Heart
3. Hatari!
4. Fixed Bayonets!
5. Streets of Fire