Tuesday, January 22, 2013

12 Films for ‘12

There are years when I struggle to see enough great movies to compile a Best Of list, and there are years when the list seems to write itself. The former is more common than the latter. This year was one of the latter. I can’t remember a year when the best movies seemed as readily available as they did this year. I can’t remember a year when the quality of the movies that have made up my list have been so high and so similarly well matched. Of any year there was that I shouldn’t succumb to ordering the list into numerical values from best to worst, this was that year. All twelve of these movies are the best movie of the year in my eyes. Even some of the films that didn’t make that list could be the best on any given day.

So here are the films in the order I like them today.

Zero Dark Thirty. Kathryn Bigelow’s cold and precise consideration of the ten year hunt for Al Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden is like no other war film made before for a war that is nothing like what we’ve come to know as war. This procedural takes us through torture and detective work, a presidential administration change and the precision of the special ops mission that resulted in OBL’s elimination as one of this country’s most wanted international criminals after his involvement in the slaughter of some 3000 American civilians on September 11, 2001.

Mark Boal’s expert screenplay is devoid of the typical emotions and character development found in the average Hollywood screenplay. He sacrifices these basic rules to exemplify the nature with which the CIA agents involved in such a hunt must work in order to obtain their goals. The results are much more intriguing than they might sound. Instead we witness the step-by-step process by which these agents work, never losing their need to complete their missions even when tasked with finding one of the most well protected individuals on the planet.

Jessica Chastain’s performance as the agent who drives the investigation into OBL’s whereabouts is as brave as the screenplay in its lack of dependence on traditional forms of characterization. She wholly accepts her job as it is. She doesn’t impose judgment on her character, just as the screenplay reserves judgment about the practices used to obtain vital information in the hunt. This movie lacks all dramatic pretenses, presenting only the necessity of the mission and the necessities of completing it. It is a stark and powerful film.

Moonrise Kingdom. This film is the most accomplished work of Wes Anderson, one of the most original artists working in film for the past 15 years. His work is easily recognizable as a Wes Anderson film, perhaps more so than any other director. People who’ve disliked his films probably won’t find anything to change their minds here. Their loss.

“Moonrise Kingdom” tells one of the most innocent tales of Anderson’s filmography. It follows the budding relationship of two children, one the daughter of an eccentric family living in a lighthouse on a remote New England island, the other an orphan boy spending the summer on the island with his scouting Troup. The young lovers elope with a plan they devised while writing each other over the course of a year. Their disappearance sends the adult lives of the small island community into upheaval.

As is usual with Anderson’s movies, the plot isn’t nearly as interesting as the characters he creates for them. Their eccentricities fuel the developments of the plot and inform them with unlikely revelations about the connections that never die between childhood and adulthood. None of his films capture this notion better then this one. The children’s intentions are pure while the adults have to navigate the walls they’ve built up to connect with the elements of happiness they’ve lost sight of through the years. The cast, which includes such Hollywood icons as Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, and Harvey Keitel, is wonderful and find comedic notes never expected from them. This film is a joy.

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Another joy of the year is the whimsical allegory “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. It examines the heart of the class discrimination discovered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina through the fantastical mind of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy. Told exclusively from the child’s point of view, we are introduced to a community known as The Bathtub located near a large city separated by a levy. When the levy is destroyed, the community is thrown into upheaval and the people from the city come to remove them from the place they are proud to call home.

That is the broad story, but the film focuses on the more intimate story of Hushpuppy herself, who tries to understand this world of grown ups in her own way. Her father disappears for periods of time and her mother has left them. Hushpuppy survives on her own with a fierceness that is never to be confused with anger or unhappiness. She is all child and she lives life to the fullest despite her circumstances. She defines hope and the strength of the human spirit. She is as admirable a movie heroine as I’ve seen.

There’s this misunderstanding between the classes. Those who are better off financially assume that those who aren’t are unhappy because of it. This movie depicts a financially depressed community that thrives off of its own spirit and enjoys life in a way the rest of us should envy. If their lives are more dangerous or unstable because of their socio-economic standing, they fill their societal inequalities with a love of community and an ability to embrace every gift in life with the joy that it deserves. To call this film “magical” is an understatement.

Argo. Ben Affleck’s incredibly accomplished film “Argo” tells of another real life CIA mission in a very different, but no less effective way than Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”.  There are times when “Argo” plays almost like a comedy. At other times it is a taught thriller despite the public knowledge of how the events turned out in the end. At all times it is virtuoso filmmaking; depicting a once classified mission conceived from the mind of a real hero.

During the Iran Hostage crisis in 1980, six Americans escaped the U.S. Embassy that was seized by Iranian revolutionaries and sought refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence in Tehran. They would be killed if they were discovered. Affleck himself plays Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who devised and executed an unlikely plan to extract the Americans from the troubled country under the cover of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake Hollywood science fiction film. As one of the CIA administrators puts it when they try to get the go ahead for the mission, “It’s the best bad idea we have.”

Affleck’s artful direction is executed like the best political cinema produced in the ‘70s—Hollywood’s second Golden Age. He drenches his production design and script in pop culture references from the time to create an impenetrable illusion that the events are depicted as they actually happened. He employs the subtle comedic talents of actors Alan Arkin and John Goodman as the Hollywood producer and special effects man respectively who lent their names to the fake movie production to sell its legitimacy. He plays Mendez with the same subtle energy he imbues to the suspense of the film, building with his direction to a thrilling climax.

Life of Pi. Like “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, Ang Lee’s adaptation of the popular, and some said unfilmable novel, “Life of Pi” goes beyond the term magical and enters the territory of transcendent cinema. Telling the story of an Indian boy who is stranded in a life boat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, the film is a visual feat that embraces the new wave of 3D cinema in an artistic and rapturous way. From sequence to stunning special effects sequence, “Life of Pi” is the most beautiful movie to be made in years.

The movie wisely resists the typical storytelling urges to humanize the tiger and make him a sympathetic character. The tiger is one of the many obstacles the boy must face in his struggle to survive. The tiger’s very existence drives the boy to find the means of survival and so becomes of value to the boy. However, the tiger remains always a dangerous animal and just an animal.

An interesting twist in perception turns the story toward allegory in its final passages and incorporates the effectiveness of faith in a higher meaning as human necessity. This adds to the already enlightening outlook of spirituality the film and its main character take on religion. Never has a discussion of God made more sense to me than it does in this film’s narrative. The visual wonder provided by Lee’s camera only enforces the film’s spiritual leanings.

End of Watch. David Ayer’s “End of Watch” takes the ages old police procedural and spins freshness into it with a dramatic and terse look at the daily lives of a couple of L.A. beat cops assigned to one of the most violent neighborhoods in the country. Unlike many L.A. based cop stories, “End of Watch” isn’t about police corruption. It’s about the true heroism behind some of the bravest men in the country, who might bend a rule or two, but are driven by the pure ideals to serve and protect.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña play the heroes who record their exploits through a video camera for a film class. The method of capturing the story isn’t as important as the story itself, which doesn’t follow a typical plot driven arc. It takes slices of life from different aspects of their daily lives, from precinct briefings to relationships, from mundane and routine calls to exposing a drug cartel that takes out a bounty on their heads. The resolution of the bounty situation forms the film’s climactic sequences, but there is never a sense that the story is being driven in any particular direction.

Ayer’s previous work on films like “Training Day” and “Harsh Times” suggested his passion for this material, but neither of those films are as accomplished as this one, which avoids the expected to present a more honest portrayal of the daily lives lead by these heroes of the police force. I can imagine many police officers from other areas of the country don’t see half of the horrors witnessed by the officers in this film, but anyone can appreciate that what these men sacrifice to bring some semblance of security to the public streets is something to be honored by a film as fine as this.

Flight. Robert Zemeckis’s “Flight” takes another popular cinematic subject—substance abuse—and reinvents it from a small intimate portrait to a large-scale public spectacle involving the most intense airplane crash ever to land on the silver screen. The crash launches the story, but Zemeckis never lets off the throttle as the hero’s demons threaten to destroy everything he has built and take down anyone within his radius at the same time.

Denzel Washington gives a career performance in a career of career performances as Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot who pulls off the impossible with his harrowing emergency landing. Just as harrowing is the way Whip lives his life on the edge of one bender saved only by his next. He’s already sacrificed his family in the wake of destruction his substance abuse leaves in his life and into his vortex swims another abuser who somehow navigates a recovery for herself. Can Whip do the same?

While substance abuse has been the subject of many great films, often with a great performance at their center, “Flight” occurs on a scale greater than any other. The public nature of Whip’s heroic actions places him in the public eye on a national level. This raises the stakes and the pressure on Whip, making his risk and fall that much greater. Washington and Zemeckis handle all this on a giant canvas with grand gestures and a powerful portrait of the excesses of an abuser. It makes for a dramatic portrait.

Lincoln. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” doesn’t so much paint a portrait of the man as it presents a portrait of the ideals behind the 13th Amendment and of the tactics and measures the 16th POTUS needed to use to get his greatest accomplishment passed. It is as intense a look at American politics as has been put forth on the screen. It shows above all that the history books don’t hint that business as usual in Washington is now as it was even for those we see historically as political heroes.

The film centers on the remarkable performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, a man not without his flaws. There is so much resistance on all sides to his proposed amendment that it’s easy to think today’s politicians would lack the backbone to stand their ground. Perhaps they would. What resembles today’s politics are the backroom deals, information manipulation, and down right deception necessary for the president to get things to go his way.

While the film concentrates on one small period in the esteemed president’s tenure, it doesn’t leave itself devoid of personal melodrama and conflict. Sally Field is a surprisingly good choice as Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady who may have had more issues with her stature than those history books suggest. We also get a glimpse into the conflict between Lincoln and his son Robert, which may have been based on the loss of his sons Edward and Willie.

The political process is what this movie is really about, however, which was something that Lincoln was an expert at manipulating. The film displays his great understanding of it and his passion for using it for what he saw as the good of the country. He wielded it better than others who had more reason to want the end of slavery than him. This movie is not only excellent filmmaking; it’s an important document of how democracy works.

Prometheus. No movie this year asked better or more profound questions than Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus”. It seems no other major release was more divisive in its critical reception. Perhaps that’s because it didn’t bother to answer most of the questions it raised. That doesn’t bother me. Few films bring so many elements together to ask the unanswerable. Where do we really come from? What is our purpose? Are we really made in the image of our creator? What does that mean about us? Or possibly more important, what does that say about our creator?

This film is asking a lot of an audience who might just be interested because this is a somewhat prequel to “Alien”, although in many ways it is nothing like that science fiction classic. It pays homage to the film that put Scott on the map, but the director has grown up and is concerned with things beyond whether anyone can hear you scream in space anymore. The films do share many features, a strong heroine, an android with creator issues and his own little God complex, and a strong mother theme. But the biggest issue Scott brings over from the “Alien” film is the question, why would such a killing machine even exist? It’s one of the few answers he provides. Yet it still plays with his ideas about the relationship between creator and creation.

Scott has also rendered a remarkably beautiful film. Expanding on the original Alien designs created by H.R. Giger, he opens his alien world into one that may have inspired much of the beauty of our own world. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski captures the cold nature of the questions asked by the scientists in this film, yet suggests the vast expanse of the natural world, which plays no small part in any  discussion about creation. The screenplay by Jon Spaihts and “Lost” alumnus Damon Lindelhof is intentionally vague in many of its details, suggesting the nature of religion and the interpretations of man.

In the end, everything is left wide open. This doesn’t only serve the purpose of opening the story up to a sequel, although I’m sure no one involved is opposed to such an idea, it also leaves much of the interpretation up to the viewer. Just like any good scripture.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Speaking of "scripture," some people had a problem with Peter Jackson’s restructuring of the Middle-earth "word" in his film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. Expanding the master’s original journey in his fantasy land creation by using material from much later tomes caused many fans to balk that instead of the film deleting too much of the book, this one added too much. I expected to have the same reaction, but instead I felt everything Jackson had done to expand the first portion of the book’s story only enhanced the story and added to what he had already created of Middle-earth cinematically in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

In fact, I’m amazed by the apathetic reception that “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” received from fans of the LOTR films. In this film, Jackson has not only begun another adventure for this mythical land of elves and halflings and dwarves, but he’s taken more care in terms of pacing and clarity, and alleviated the atmospheric doom and gloom of the previous tale. “The Hobbit” is one of the most exciting and fanciful movies of the year.

Jackson has proven his destiny as the cinematic chronicler of Tolkien with this film by creating a fully functional Middle-earth that isn’t all about the One Ring, although it makes its appearance and plays its role here. The different races of hobbits and dwarves and elves aren’t just fantasy races, but separate cultures that each see their world in their own unique perspectives. The dwarves sing slow and heart felt songs, and it feels right to see them do so. A hobbit does not go on adventures, but Bilbo does. He’s different than other hobbits and any other character created by Tolkien. Golbin’s are a rowdy bunch I’d never want to cross paths with in a mountain pass. And Gollum’s game of riddles is playful and menacing at once, just as it was in the book. This is the finest of the Tolkien film adaptations so far.

Django Unchained. “Django Unchained” is the most straightforward film by writer/director Quentin Tarantino. Like his last film “Inglourious Basterds”, it takes its name from an Italian cult film to which it otherwise has no connection. Tarantino’s tale follows a slave who is given his freedom by a bounty hunter who needs his help with a bounty. In exchange, the bounty hunter agrees to help him buy back his wife from a vile southern slave plantation owner. It is another revenge picture, yes; but it takes Tarantino into yet another film genre. He has his usual fun with it.

The film sprawls across the western genre, from which Tarantino pulled much of his inspiration for his previous films. It strays from the genre only in its Southern setting, and in a few of its musical selections. It pays homage to 70’s exploitation on top of being a western, taking key plot points from the 1975 film “Mandingo”. Its musical montage set to Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” is a clear parallel to the inclusion of B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. It’s finale tops even Tarantino’s own bloodiest outings.

Its exaggerated depiction of slavery, or maybe not so exaggerated, has come under fire from some critics; but its message is clear. Slavery is a blight on America’s history. Evil men who thought nothing of equating human life with livestock and property perpetuated it. Like his retrospective message to the Nazis in “Basterds”, Tarantino’s message to these men is clear. You should die badly. There’s nothing quite like the stylized fantasy world of a Tarantino film—shockingly brutal, sublimely eloquent, and darned entertaining.

Arbitrage. As far as evil, vile men go, Richard Gere has the market cornered in this year’s classic thriller “Arbitrage”. Nicholas Jarecki’s film, which landed in theaters for about a week last fall with an almost instant on demand availability, is like a blast from the 80s with its financial themes and likeable bad man for its hero. Of course, the past decade was no stranger to shady financial dealings either.

Richard Gere’s hero is the CEO of a company that has been using its stockholders’ money to cover up the company’s losses after an unwise investment. The company is being sold, and he plans to cover the losses with the sale. He’s hidden all this from his daughter, who is the CFO of the company. He’s having an extramarital affair with an artist, and then an accident happens that brings him under the scrutiny of a homicide detective. Any hint of wrongdoing will upset the sale of the company.

That is the stage set for this fascinating thriller that gets its audience rooting for a guy we wouldn’t want handling our own finances. Gere always plays a man hiding the truth well, and here he gives one of his best performances. Jarecki’s script is ingenious in the way it keeps backing the character farther and farther into the corner with diminishing options for escape. It’s all plot mechanics manipulated for maximum effect. This movie would fit right in with similarly themed 80s thrillers, but also works as an indictment of how we currently protect some of the worst financial criminals today.

Special Jury Prize.
Every year I give out a Special Jury Prize to a film that would fit right in with my best films list in quality but is distinguished in some other way that separates it from that group of movies. This year I didn’t watch many documentaries, but there was one that struck me in a way no other film did this year.

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography. Tells the story of six skateboarders who changed the course of sports in this country by bring popularity to what was once a novelty sport. Their contributions to the sport of skateboarding gave rise to the popularity of alternative sports and eventually lead to the creation of such sporting events as the X Games. What makes this sports documentary different than most is the personal level on which director Stacy Peralta approaches his subjects. It helps that he was the man who brought them together in the first place.

Honestly, I really couldn’t say whether compared to other sports documentaries if this is truly a great documentary or not, because it spoke to me on such a personal level. I was there when the Bones Brigade were making their mark. It was to me that they spoke with their non-conformist profession and attitude toward it. I was a skateboarder, and this film brought those days flooding back in all their teen angst importance to my friends and me.

I can say that thirty years down the line, these six men still make up a fascinating group of individuals. Their lives, even after their years as a skating team, were not ruled by the pitfalls of so many others. These people learned to define themselves when they were at an age that most of us were completely unaware of our individuality. Even as adults they continued to define themselves and not let their sport, or their choices, or what anyone else wanted or expected from them define them. Peralta understands this as he has done the same in his own career and was probably instrumental in instilling these qualities in these unique men.

Best in Animation.
2011 was a fairly unremarkable year in animation. This year continued much along the same trend, but saw the release of an extraordinary number of animated films. The sheer volume of animation this year ensured that some remarkable filmmaking would be witnessed in the medium. Here are my five favorite animated movies of the year.

Chico & Rita. “Chico & Rita” is one of the impressive foreign made animations that was nominated for an Academy Award for Feature Animation last year. It tells the story of a romance that was destined, but took decades to be fully realized. It all takes place around the Cuban jazz scene and incorporates wonderful music to go along with its imaginative visuals. Chico is a piano player who falls for Rita the moment he hears her at a local market. Their story together and apart will spend decades and follow them to separate successes in the United States. Theirs is a love supreme.

Frankenweenie. “Frankenweenie” was the title of director Tim Burton’s first live action film, a short about a boy whose dog is hit by a car. The boy decides to resurrect his dog in the same fashion that Frankenstein made his monster. Even though Sparky comes back from the dead with better results than Frankenstein’s monster, misunderstanding by the small town’s population leads to an unfortunate climax. Now, he’s remade that film as a feature in stop motion animation, Burton’s original calling.

The expanded story plays as homage to everything classic horror and sci-fi. Filmed in beautiful black and white photography, Burton’s original vision is realized with humor and genuine scares, all family safe.

Wreck-It Ralph. Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” is a nostalgia trip down video game memory lane for those who grew up in the eighties and still remember the days of arcades. It’s also a sweet tale about learning to be yourself and to appreciate who you are. It tells the tale of a video game villain who is sick of being the bad guy. He escapes his game and tries a couple of others out for size. Along the way he meets a quirky little girl who has more spunk than anyone he’s ever known. She teaches him to realize his potential on his own terms.

A Cat in Paris. The second of the two foreign made animations; “A Cat in Paris” was also nominated by the Academy last year. It’s a tale about a cat that lives two lives, one with a lonely little girl during the days, the other at night as an assistant to a thief. The hand drawn animation is highly stylized. The filmmakers use the harsh angles and snake like squiggles of their lines to define the actions of the characters as well as their personalities. It isn’t anything like the safe, mostly realistic visual style of American cartoons. It shows how animation can be a more impressionistic way to express a story.

ParaNorman. “ParaNorman” is another horror themed stop motion animation. It’s story about a boy who can see dead people is the weakest of this collection of films, but the beautiful production design makes this one worth seeing. It captures the beautiful fall colors that fill our world at that time of year that we like to think about scary things. Like “A Cat in Paris” it embraces a more severe design style to its character and environments to make their definition and actions more concrete. The use of CGI to enhance some of the supernatural sequences blends well with the detailed design approach and make for some of the most impressive animation sequences of the year.

The Rest of the Best.
As usual, I can never mention all the movies I want to in the limited confines of a list of ten to fifteen films. I suppose I’ve already gone beyond that amount this year, but as I said before, this year contained a great deal of worthwhile cinematic ventures. Here are some of the others that didn’t make the cut, but deserve mention.

The Avengers proves that cinema has all the elements necessary to handle the foundation of teams in the superhero universe, as long as they are handled with the proper understanding and passion for the material.

Bernie finds Jack Black’s calling in this black comedy filled with real life small town elements about a man nobody in that town thought capable of murder.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is an acid trip back to early 80s style science fiction future visions topped with a dose of abstract horror.

The Cabin in the Woods reinvents the dead teenager flick by taking all the clichés of every horror subgenre and turning them in on themselves, making for the most original horror movie since Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”.

Cloud Atlas gives us a bold science fiction epic that explores the primary flaws of man and our attempts to overcome them over the course of six stories taking place in different periods of history and the future with characters reliving lives and influencing other souls on the same recurring journey.

The Grey is an intense story of human survival against the harsh elements of winter and the dominant forces of nature as embodied by a fierce pack of wolves.

Les Misérables finally brings the musical phenomenon to the screen in a vision that blends the grittiness of Victor Hugo’s novel of French struggle with the pageantry of the musical experience.

Looper boldly explores the implications of time travel in a world ruled by crime with a selfish hero who makes the ultimate selfless sacrifice for the good of humanity.

Safety Not Guaranteed takes another completely different look at time travel in this quirky independent feature about a man who places an ad in the classifieds looking for a partner with which to travel back in time.

Skyfall gives us the deepest James Bond picture to date with the first fully realized Bond villain in a story about roots and the mother figure that M has become since the role was taken over by Dame Judy Dench.

Sleepwalk With Me teaches us that while stand up comedy may have its heart in the hardships endured by the comedians who live them, relationships are challenged to endure them and the sleeping disorders that afflict them.

Ted envisions a boy’s dream of having a stuffed animal come to life and then exposes the possible outcome of such a wish with a teddy bear that embraces all the vices of man and gets away with it because… well, he’s a teddy bear.

Your Sister’s Sister provides a new definition to the phrase “bizarre love triangle” when a man mourning his brother’s death sleeps with his best (girl)friend’s lesbian sister before he realizes that she has a crush on him.

Worst movies of the year.
Even in the best of years there are going to be some lemons. As taking risks is a requirement of making great art, some of those lemons come from grand attempts, while other just don’t care.

Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie is unquestionably the worst movie of the year for me. Having not ever seen “Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!”, I didn’t really know what to expect from this duo’s brand of comedy. I hope for their sakes this movie is a poor indication of it with its beyond moronic plot, and its humorless and often tasteless jokes. I wouldn’t spend a dollar on this movie, let alone a billion. Don’t worry, they didn’t either.

These movies also sucked eggs.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is the best example of a sequel that was demanded by no one other than the voices in Nic Cage’s head.

Lockout proves that even B-level actors are willing to sell their souls for a paycheck.

Piranha DD shows us that you can only push a bad idea so far before it becomes a wretched idea.

Premium Rush makes Kevin Bacon’s 1986 film “Quicksilver” look like the “Citizen Kane” of bike currier movies.

The Raid: Redemption raises the preposterousness level of martial arts action movies so high that it smothers its own face in its limitless ridiculousness.

Red Tails has spectacular dogfights that are shot down by a story that relies on its social issues to make up for its lack of a functional screenplay.

That’s My Boy proves that the characters in Adam Sandler movies and the people that watch them should never procreate.

The Three Stooges argues the case of the studio head who said that the Three Stooges can’t sustain a feature length film.

Underworld: Awakening blows us away with the lack of necessity for vampires and werewolves to fight each other like superheroes. Please don’t make me watch any more.

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