Saturday, March 23, 2013

Films of 2012

The following, in alphabetical order, are my favorite films of 2012. 
If Giorgos Lanthimos' fourth film (his second to reach Stateside) isn't quite the jolt that his previous film, Dogtooth, a film that more and more seems like the Breathless for the New Greek Cinema, was, it's not for lack of trying. Like Dogtooth and compatriot Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg, this is an audacious, strange, potently emotional film. Essentially following a small group who are paid to fill in the roles in families left by the recently deceased, Lanthimos finds odd corners and indulges in the same kind of games, dances and outbursts of violent emotion that his characters did in Dogtooth. It's fascinating to watch, and as you unpack the unpredictable emotional terrain Lanthimos treads in, it becomes a powerful one too.

The Palme d'Or winning entry from Michael Haneke is less austere than his previous (also Palme d'Or winning), nearly perfect The White Ribbon, but though it flirts with a more conventional film making style than Haneke has employed before (one unfortunate dream sequence looks like it could be out of Mirrors), it retains Haneke's emotional detachment, with a denouement worthy of Haneke's notoriously cold, isolating career. The bulk of the movie is reliant on the performances of two French film icons, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. It's a rare and great opportunity to see such great actors at such an advanced age give such strong, emotionally complex performances. It's their work, particularly Trintignant, that keep the course of the film from meandering into more maudlin territory.

Six years after the first rush of so called Romanian New Wave films in 2006, one would not be wrong to wonder if the movement had been merely a flash in the fickle international film scene's pan. It seemed as if in the years following the Palme D'Or win of Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the once flourishing movement was already in its last breaths, so it's reassuring to find, five years after that triumph, Mungiu return to feature film making with an enlivened voice. Though retaining the Romanian penchant for long, static takes, Mungiu treads in territory one is more likely to find in early Bergman or Rossellini. Set in a snowy monastery in the hills, Mungiu's film tackles the necessity and extremes of religious devotion and ritual, and particularly the role of spiritual leaders as arbiters for morality and justice. It is a strangely objective film, considering the horrors within, but as with the best of this nascent movement, its surface objectivity allows for a far more devastating effect. By showing the natural progression of events, and the consequences of them, Mungui illuminates the more bleak aspects of humanity in a way few other filmmakers outside of Bresson are capable of doing.

Alex Ross Perry's second film is at once a sloppily put together comedy, and also perhaps the most important rallying call for American independent cinema. Shot on 16mm black and white, Perry eschews the easy, often hermetically tinkered over digital cinema that makes up a majority of no budget film making these days in favor of a mistake filled, accident prone, meandering road movie that offers none of the familiar beats of a road movie and is at often times aggressively unfunny in a purposeful way. Perry and co-writer Carlen Altman are to be credited with the subtle telegraphing of the film's conclusion, which on the surface might seem like an arbitrary shock, but is actually tightly woven into the fabric of the film from the first minutes. The film is very funny though, and even it's unexpected conclusion doesn't alter mordantly funny, misanthropic tone of the film.

An aching film, part tragic romance, part elegy for a long forgotten England. Centered on two wonderful performances from Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, Terrence Davies' film offers nostalgia without sentimentality, a kind of outre, less poised version of Atonement. Aesthetically, Davies always seems to flirt with the subtly avant-garde, and that pervades the screenplay too, adapted from Terrence Rattigan's play. Nearly nothing the characters say is what they mean, but the stellar cast communicates the internal lives of the characters so well that its as if a separate screenplay is being read in their faces, their posture, their movement. It's a devastating film.

By no means the out and out masterpiece that Inglorious Basterds is, Quentin Tarantino's seventh film continues his streak of unwavering quality. Essentially his take on a revenge movie/western, it hits a lot of the familiar Tarantinian beats, but with dialogue so enjoyable delivered so wonderfully, it's hard to complain. It also features some of Robert Richardson's most beautiful work behind the camera, and more than a few delightful monologues by Christophe Waltz, an actor perfectly suited to Tarantino's world. There is a difference, both in pace and tone from the rest of Tarantino's work, which I think can be attributed to this being the first film he's made without the late Sally Menke, a collaborator as integral to his work as Schoonmaker is to Scorsese's.

I've long been cool to the films of So Yong Kim, and so I was surprised and happy to find this one so engaging. The film is essentially a character study of an absent young father/failing rock star (Paul Dano) and his attempts to reconnect with the daughter he's abandoned. One thing I've always admired in Kim's films has been her direction of children, and the saddness of 6-year-old Shaylena Mandigo is heartbreaking, and holds the emotional center of the film. Dano is great aswell, and the cinematography of Reed Morano (who shows up again on this list) is as observant and right as one could hope for with such a piece. The film's ending, borrowed from an iconic American film of the 70s, hits exactly the right note and betters everything that happened before.

On my first viewing of the Dardenne brothers' seventh feature at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival, I took it as perhaps their lightest work, I thought they'd gone soft, providing the kind of easily marketable personal drama they'd so long avoided (hell, they even had a score, albeit a sparsely used, small snippet of a Beethoven piano concerto), and casually wrote it off as a disappointment. But when the film came out that following Spring I revisited it, and what I found is perhaps one of the strongest films the Belgian duo has made. Every gesture of the film is centered on the confused, frightened face of Cyril (Thomas Doret), and if the Dardennes are less hard on him than their other protagonists, it's because that face demands a more gentle, sympathetic touch. Few filmmakers are able to invest you so strongly in characters, particularly ones you may find irredeemable at points, but they invest you here, perhaps deeper than they ever have.

 Yes, the running commentary of the 2008 election is unnecessary, yes, using "Heroin" during a scene where characters take heroin iss too on the nose by about a thousand, and yes that final speech is clunky and doesn't deliver the kind of astonished wallop you know Andrew Dominik envisioned when he was writing it. So why is this one of the best movies of the year? Flawed though it may be, no one took more chances aesthetically on what is largely a crime movie. There's a hell of a lot more to it than just the crime plot, and even putting aside the political parallels throughout, it's a movie of tone. Tone of conversation, of rooms, of movement of the camera, of sound, of picture. It's pure movie-making and it's a god damn thrill to watch.

That a movie centered around a male stripper has far more in commong with '70s character studies like Serpico, and Five Easy Pieces than a fireman's calendar is entirely owed to Steven Soderbergh. With his continuously adventurous camera work (serving as his own DP again, Soderbergh busts out what is now a new trademark, the unmotivated pan, it's as if his camera is looking around his story, seeing if there's anything more interesting elsewhere), and natch for finding interested ways of exploring pretty boring people in a fascinating way, he's made a movie that is at once entirely familiar and feels quietly thrilling. After starting out the year with the great, underrated Haywire, Soderbergh delivered a small-scale summer blockbuster that is by turns a somewhat seedy character study, a romance, and a non-preachy comment on the capitalist, enterprising American Dream. Most of all it's incredibly fun.

 It's daunting, even in short, to try and talk about Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth film. Part of this is that the film, by its nature, announces itself as an event. From the opening shot of the ocean, seen in crisp 70mm through Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s camera, a striking immediate representation of the vastness this film will encompass. Anchored by a slew of great film performances, perhaps most especially the one by Joaquin Phoenix, incredibly dense production design, great sound, stunning images, it's a film of a higher class in its making than most. But when you combine all of these elements you're left with a film of ideas, and it's those ideas, identity, death, love, purpose, etc. that are hard to talk about. Few filmmakers tend to top themselves with each successive movie so thoroughly and surprisingly as Anderson, but, with The Master, he has. This is the best film of the year.

Taking what he learned making the wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson applies that miniaturized, controlled mode of film making to his return to live action. Anderson's first overt period piece is both a funny, touching portrait of a community, and a tender, nostalgic story of young love. Working for the first time on super 16mm, Anderson embraces not only the 1960s period music and clothes, but also its film aesthetic, fusing it with his own distinctive style to make another great Wes Anderson film.

A funny, touching, fascinating, awesome portrait of the end of my favorite band. Yes, the film works better if you know LCD Soundsystem, even better probably if you, like me, attended that final show, but the film is more than that. James Murphy is a fascinating person, he makes great music, he walks his dog. Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern smartly structure the film non-linearly, jumping from the show, the day after the show, and intersperse a conversation Murphy has with Chuck Klosterman, the film is stylishly shot by Reed Morano (see!), and it's aesthetic caliber elevates it. This is far more than a concert film (though it's a great one) and it's far more than a band documentary, it's a portrait of a unique artist who works only on his terms, and it is, ultimately, a great movie.

Olivier Assayas' does well with revolutionaries, particularly misguided or ineffective ones. He also does well with period, and this thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully shot film (by the godly Eric Gautier), is a great portrait of young political activism amongst a group who is a generation too late to really be involved in the major rebellions that occurred just years prior, and the way that political awakening and frustrations weaves through their art and relationships.

One of the most remarkable things I've seen. Part video diary of the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, contained on house arrest, and barred from film making, we see him as he talks with his lawyer, pets his iguana, maps out the film he intended to make at the time of his arrest, and tries to engage with the world he's been cut off from. This stunning film ends up being far more than a portrait of governmental oppression, it's heartbreaking, funny and indicative of a much larger political and human landscape than just Panahi's story.

What an odd film. It is, in some respects, a barebones adaptation of Emily Bronte's much adapted novel, naturalistic to the extreme, but it's really far more avant-garde than that. It's a film textures, of wind, of wheat and grass and wood and dirt and cloth and hair and heartache. It's almost as if Andrea Arnold was able to reach into the English countryside and pull out all of the longing and pain and anger from its muddy, overcast hills and put them on film. A truly staggering film.

It's a story we all know, to some degree, and the outcome of which is isn't a surprise, but it's that journey getting there, funneled through one woman played extraordinarily by Jessica Chastain, that is so interesting and grand in scope. Kathryn Bigelow is able to find striking images anywhere, and with this, her second consecutive film centered on military operations, she may have found her genre. Like Leone with the Western, Bigelow is perfectly suited to these settings, and in Mark Boal she has found the writer who is as investigative with his words as Bigelow is with her camera. A great film by a great filmmaker.

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