Sunday, January 6, 2013

My Favorite Films of 2012

10) The Raid: Redemption

Roger Ebert gave this movie one star on the basis that it is pandering to a built-in "fanboy audience," appealing to us solely on the basis of our "reptilian complex," and does it all by approximating the critical capacities of people who enjoy the film to those of cats and dogs. Okay, whatever, The Raid: Redemption has a stupid plot. The characters are non-existent. I'm sure it would all have been better if a capable writer had helmed the thing. None of this matters because it is 101 minutes of unflinching martial arts action and it looks awesome. Listen, I will lament the dearth of thematically interesting, character-driven genre films for days, but sometimes you just need to watch a professionally trained martial artist kill two men with a door. There is no shortage of creative material out there with which to stimulate your cerebral neocortex, but hanging razor-sharp action filmmaking - of which there is so little these days! - out to dry because it's not tickling your intellectual fancy is completely absurd. In spite of us plebeians, he managed to find an ideologically challenging action film in Taken 2, which he awarded 200% more stars. ("Not to worry; this is only PG-13-rated hanging upside down and bleeding to death." MOTHERFUCKER NO ONE WENT TO TAKEN 2 FOR PG-13-RATED BLEEDING TO DEATH.) It's never taken a lot of effort to poke holes in Ebert's argumentation, but is this seriously the consistency of critical thought we've come to accept from the most prominent film reviewer in the world? Who watches the watching men?

9) Chronicle

If it makes you feel any better, though, Chronicle set the 2012 bar exceptionally high by being an intelligent action film. It managed to do so in February, dead in the middle of the studio dump quarter, and then it managed to make ten times its budget worldwide. In a year characterized by blockbusters that were repetitive, infantilebloated, or inexplicably formulaic, this wee misfit slithered out of the vomit-colored morass and turned all the right heads by being none of those things. Chronicle is a potent rereading of a classic adolescent horror story, the nightmare of high school framed by the sinister creep of portable video technology into every aspect of our lives, public and private. It's a lean ride, but it has fun and pathos and energy to spare, and as an added bonus it won't insult your Ebertian viewing sensibilities.

8) Safety Not Guaranteed

Perhaps the aforementioned excess and puerility of the year's output highlighted the virtues of the modest, the authentic, and the earnest moreso than normal. Safety Not Guaranteed didn't turn a whole lot of heads (though four million dollars on about a quarter as much is never anything to sneeze at), and in another year I think it would have turned even fewer. It isn't trendy, or trying to impress with linguistic showmanship. Its premise is gently bizarre, but it eschews quirk. It's quiet, but not in that intentionally stifled mumblecore way. It feels like the cumulative efforts of an in-sync creative group to take a wryly amusing concept and animate it in a way that plays out as realistically as possible. For fans of Parks and Recreation, watching Aubrey Plaza reshape her characteristic misanthropy into the shape of a muted, downtrodden girl with noble intentions is one of the film's greatest pleasures. Those kinds of subtle pleasures - a dulcimer performance in the forest, a flirty rendezvous by a soup can display, the unusual unfolding of a thoughtful message about time and love - feel personal and unique, blessed antitheses to all the interchangeable parts that most contemporary movies are made of. It's a movie that you'll probably see once, maybe twice, but that's all it needs to take up warm sweet residence in the back of your head.

7) Silver Linings Playbook 

Silver Linings Playbook is like a romantic comedy that used to be really badly hooked on inhalants and now, after a long and painful rehab, is mostly back to normal. You still see the phantoms, though: the arrhythmia, the emotional imbalances, the way it lingers on everything slightly longer than it should. These would be detriments to essentially every other film, but paired with the subject matter - the exploits of two volatile, deeply scarred people trying to pick up the pieces together while allowing their neuroses to keep them apart - the rollercoaster tone and rambling pace are a surprising fit. The third act stretches credibility, but is pulled out of the fire by the unstoppable chemistry of its two stars. Bradley Cooper can reasonably claim this as his breakout performance, a highwire balance between unstable anger and regretful contrition that he inhabits without a hitch, and Jennifer Lawrence is so charming and natural that it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. To see these two crazies in mutual orbit of one another is frightening, hilarious, and sad, sometimes simultaneously. Being a challenging feel-good movie seems like an oxymoron, but Silver Linings Playbook pulls it off with impressive results.

6) Argo

Ben Affleck is a director of peculiar ambitions. He's now made three action subgenre films that make no mistake about their status as genre films: detective, heist, and with Argo, political thriller. They're flashy and fast-paced and more than a little bit pulpy, but each of them comes with a rather portentous intent to Say Something Bigger. Affleck has managed to keep this impulse tolerable simply by getting better at it with each film, and in finding and expertly crafting this oddball of a true story, he's produced his finest yet. This story's greatest value is in its limber unification of Iranian revolutionary politics, a hostage crisis that the CIA must resolve gracefully in the eyes of the American people, and the absurd utility of Hollywood film production. By nature of being a movie, Argo cannot explore all three of these dramatic catalysts in exceptional depth (and the movie's inability to robustly engage with its international politics is its primary weak point), but Affleck is careful to allow each aspect of his work enough development to inform the others at an intuitive yet quick pace. Especially impressive is the film's ability to create and sustain dramatic set pieces around action that mostly involves characters walking really quickly. If you can look past the fact that this story has obviously been sexed up to give it a bit more cinematic intrigue, it's an efficient, savvy bit of adult fun.

5) Beasts of the Southern Wild

This is a movie about a six-year-old girl who says "poop" in a really cute way and LOOK SHE'S TALKING WITH A DUCK TELEPHONE! AHHHHHH

4) Looper

It seems strange for Rian Johnson to consult Shane Carruth, the mind behind the brilliant Primer, on the time travel mechanics of this movie...only to have good ol' Mister Willis tell us that they don't mean shit. Graceless though it may be to visibly dismiss the science behind the movie's concept, they're ultimately auxiliary to the story the movie wants to tell, and that story is so vividly imagined and exciting and morally complex that it almost totally manages to forgive the soggy disinterest in its own mechanics. More points still for being unpredictable: after watching the first half hour of the movie, could anyone have predicted Joseph Gordon-Levitt ending up in a remote farmhouse with a telekinetic shotgun-wielder and her scary child? And I should have seen it coming because Johnson knows his way around a shot, but I'd never have guessed that it would look so damn good on a $30 million budget. (JGL's eerie mannequin/Travolta prosthetics notwithstanding.) Come into the film without your prepackaged notions of a "time travel" movie and the implicit invitations to unravel it, and you'll find yourself handsomely rewarded.

3) The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Internet has made it so much easier for today's outcasts, misfits, freaks to remind themselves that they belong somewhere. Marginalized youth are allowed outlets where they can communicate with other marginalized youth. Figuring out whether or not someone likes the same obscure band as us takes one Facebook search. Weirdness may not be completely embraced here in 2013, but it's definitely easier to find a place where it may be than it was in early 1990. The Perks of Being a Wallflower captures those anxieties and transposes them on a time where someone who's different had little choice but to stumble blindly into the arms of a couple of people who might accept him. Charlie does, despite the deck being stacked against him at every turn, and the resultant joy only makes the impending pain and confusion hit even harder. It's to the film's credit that it does all this without being dour or miserablist; the movie doesn't grind to a standstill when Charlie hits his lows, but instead demonstrates that life goes on around us, and we have a responsibility to the people around us not to detach completely. Its messages are positive and thoughtful, and it presents them with complete sincerity. Required viewing for youth, but adults will find plenty to love as well.

2) Holy Motors

Hardcore film nerd porn. If you aren't totally steeped in the form, you may not take much from this, short of an absolutely insane sensory thrill ride through nine seemingly disconnected vignettes. But the film demands closer study, as the pieces of something greater are clearly there. It has something immensely significant to say about the death of film as a physical medium and its newfound conversion to digital; Holy Motors takes place in a theoretical future where film as it was first invented is gone, replaced completely by "cameras that are nearly invisible" and gaudy CGI. Director Leos Carax is careful not to write off digital technology's role in the filmmaking process completely, as evidenced by the fact that the film is shot on digital and the stunning images of its main character recording a series of movies in a motion-capture suit. Every other fantasy scenario we see enacted, however, is performed entirely through the magic of makeup, prostheses, clever camera angles, and good old-fashioned acting. The titular "holy motors" are the machines, seemingly outdated, that made all of this movie magic possible. Carax recognizes the film industry's sea change, but simply wants us to know that the two forms can coexist. All of this doesn't even begin to address the film's stance on the role of the artist, film's fulfillment of our human needs, a poignant autobiographical layer that tinges the film in a retrospective sort of sadness...Holy Motors is tempting to write off as thoughtless, masturbatory arthouse indulgence, but the depth of thought and the subtlety of the messages are unbelievably rewarding. If you consider yourself a fan of the movies, or bear even a little knowledge of its growth as an art, watching this will expand your mind and pose a series of questions completely original to the cinema.

1) Cabin in the Woods

I recently talked to somebody who told me that they enjoyed this movie, but they found it a little disappointing in light of all the hype surrounding it. For a small, devoted group of fans (most of them pre-converted Whedonites), Cabin in the Woods became a cause celebre: tell everyone about it, but don't tell them too much!!! You should go see it, but don't read anything about it or spoil it for yourself!!! The element of mystery, of subverted expectations, was billed as part of what made the movie so great. Unfortunately, someone can only hear these sorts of things so many times before the product they've imagined for themselves and the one they actually get are joined in disunity. So maybe I'm part of the problem, having played into the aforementioned rhetoric and putting this at the top of my favorite movies of the year. Hype is intrinsic to the movie industry, though, and aside from the glowing critical reviews Cabin in the Woods wasn't exactly getting much of it out of the gate. You can't blame its fans for recognizing an underwhelming marketing push and taking it upon themselves to let people know about a movie that really is that great. The expectations a person brings to any experience are ultimately their own, and it's up to them to objectively separate their preconceptions from their final thoughts, if they should so choose.

Here's what this movie is, in case there's any confusion, or you don't know already: it's a horror movie that analyzes the tropes of its genre, a little like Scream. But quite unlike Scream, it mechanizes both the tropes and their reasons for existing. Wes Craven got to the "what?" part; Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon take a crack at the "why?" and knock it out of the park. If you're looking for straight horror to idle away 90 minutes, Cabin's got plenty of it, albeit with some strange and memorable flourishes. If you're a big fan of the genre, looking to mull over why these gory pieces of shit appeal to you so much, this is a massive success on any level you look at it. Either way, it's fun and smart and spooky and deserves whatever audience it can get, hype be damned.

Almost there!

Sound of My Voice: Strange little Brit Marling. Writes and stars in two barely-seen movies about time and space, then somehow wanders into Hollywood and makes friends with all the right people. This moody and vibrantly acted quandary about time is a plum role for her; it's not difficult to understand the fascination. Though she struck out with this year's Arbitrage, her slate of upcoming projects are all intriguing, and I'm thrilled to see more from her.

Killer Joe: Raunchy, violent, and trashy as hell, Killer Joe is a nasty piece of work. It's possibly the highlight of Matthew McConaughey's banner year, and marks the complete reinvention of someone once thought to be a insubstantial beefcake. Done no harm at all by Friedkin's masterful composition, his cold, hawkeyed performance as a contract assassin/hick wrangler is one to remember him by. Perhaps a bit less important than it fancies itself, the movie is nonetheless a harrowing trip into some really awful human behavior.

Ruby Sparks: Zoe Kazan takes a brutal potshot at writerly narcissism and sexual entitlement in this off-kilter examination of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Paul Dano, a personally dissatisfied writer who expects an unrealistic woman to fix all of his problems, is an able navigator through what starts as a folksy romcom. Ruby Sparks gradually develops a sinister preoccupation with the role of fantasy and what these women really mean to the men conceiving them. Unfortunately, the ending doesn't quite sell what it needs to, which leaves the film with a sour aftertaste.

Damsels in Distress: Lampoons the oblivious elitism of certain east-coast liberal arts students while allowing them a considerable degree of depth and sympathy as well. Greta Gerwig is flawless as usual. The jokes get a little tired toward the end, but for a majority of the movie the laughs come hard and fast. A fun little caricature of college.

Regrettably unseen: Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables???, Smashed

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