2012: The year in film

16 Jan

Every year when critics post top ten lists and such my natural thought is to compile my own list of favorites from the year. That’s sometimes frustrating because I don’t see all the movies and I can’t always remember all of the movies I saw. This year I was prepared. Throughout the year I kept a list of all the movies I went to. I didn’t have a blog at the start of the year, but the idea was sort of in my head. Here are some of my thoughts about all of these movies. I think in 2013 I’ll maybe write something about each movie as I see them or once a month or something because this is like a jillion words long. But for 2012 it’s all in one shot. Enjoy. And this is like two weeks late. One trend I hate is movies opening in New York and Los Angeles right before the new year and then a week or two later everywhere else. It’s lame when Oscar nominations come out before all the nominated movies are even in theaters. Spoilers abound, by the way. If you haven’t seen these movies by now I’ll assume you’re not going to.

Haywire
This was a good action thriller. Steven Soderbergh is a good director. This movie makes me wonder why there can’t be more movies like it. It was leaps and bounds better than most $100 million action thrillers. It’s not the explosions that make these movies entertaining. The fight scenes were never boring in this. That’s a great credit to Mr. Soderbergh. I’m usually not interested in more than the first two punches thrown in a fight. Most action thriller fight scenes are overblown and ridiculous. Maybe this is a consequence of casting an MMA fighter in the lead role. Are good directors like Mr. Soderbergh really so rare, or is it that they don’t want to make action thrillers? Anyway, more movies like this please.

The Grey
Liam Neeson is a caricature of an actor at this point. He’s always so busy acting that it’s hard to pull your attention away from the fact that he’s acting. This was a pretty cool premise for a movie. A small crew of guys in the subarctic being hunted by wolves. I like bleak winterscapes in my movies.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home
I don’t love the Duplass brothers as much as some. There were some good moments here, but overall it didn’t really grab me. There were some odd tonal shifts. There was all this depressing stuff about Jason Segal and then he gets involved with this subplot about his brother’s wife cheating on him. That could have worked on its own as a screwball comedy but I didn’t think all the pieces really fit together as is. I like Judy Greer, she should get better roles.

The Hunger Games
I enjoyed this movie. I’d consider it the best-case scenario for this kind of thing. I do think it was a mistake to cast known actors as the adults. I can’t take Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson seriously with all the crazy clothes and affectations. The whole Hunger Games concept is really good. The story isn’t perfect, but when your one sentence summary is “a bunch of teenagers are let loose in the woods and have to fight to the death” it’s hard to go wrong. A better ending for the movie would have been for Katniss and Peeta* to eat the berries and die. But that doesn’t work when you have sequels to make. Jennifer Lawrence is very attractive.
*I just had to look this guy’s name up again. I spent the whole movie thinking it was Peter until I got home and looked it up for the first time. Maybe I should have read the book first.

Damsels in Distress
I love Whit Stillman. I think most people have never heard of him. That’s too bad. Metropolitan is one of my favorites. I’m a sucker for movies skewering old money East Coast WASPs. There’s a scene where this blowhard pseudointellectual college student starts earnestly praising Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie even though he obviously has no idea what it’s about. “It’s about time someone started defending the bourgeoisie! We’ve been unfairly criticized for so long!” or something. Hilarious. This movie wasn’t as good but I still really liked it. Mr. Stillman has a sort of Wes Anderson quality. If you can embrace and celebrate his quirks and pretensions instead of being annoyed by them his movies are highly enjoyable. Although I can certainly understand how people would be unable to do that.

Bernie
This was a really pleasant surprise. Jack Black was great. He’s great in the right situations. (his performance in Margot at the Wedding was another one I enjoyed.) The way Richard Linklater put this together was really creative. It’s a true story, and half of the movie consists of interviews with real people who were involved. The other half is a dramatization of the events. It’s like the best-ever History Channel documentary. It’s a pretty morbid tale, and the movie is a comedy, really. It takes balls to keep a lighthearted tone when you’re dealing with a protagonist who murders someone and stores the body in a freezer. Mr. Linklater pulled it off. Kudos to him.

Moonrise Kingdom
I love Wes Anderson. This movie was pretty Wes Andersony, more so than The Darjeeling Limited, his last live-action movie. All the little production design details, the offbeat jokes, the opening shot of the Bishop house, etc. I realize that not everyone’s into that kind of thing. I recall in an interview Mr. Anderson said something to the effect of the plot being something he wished had happened to him when he was twelve. I thought he did a god job of conveying that feeling. I know that’s how I felt watching it. The two kids at the center of it were both better than I’d expect kids that age to be acting in a movie. I did think Bill Murray and Frances McDormand were a bit underutilized. They’re both so good you can’t help wanting more of them.

Safety Not Guaranteed
This movie wasn’t great, but it had its moments. Firmly in “pretty good” territory. I didn’t think the ending was ideal, but I don’t know if I can think of a better one. It’s a pretty hard story to end in a satisfying way. Mark Duplass is becoming ubiquitous in our culture. He was in like eight movies this year. He’s also on TV and he writes/directs movies with his brother. Enough already, Mark Duplass! I think I’m a little too old to have a celebrity crush but if I did it would be Aubrey Plaza.

Take This Waltz
Michelle Williams gave the best performance of the year in this movie. She gave the best performance of last year if you add up Meek’s Cutoff and My Week With Marilyn. She gave the best performance of 2010 in Blue Valentine. Michelle Williams is the best. I can’t say it often or loudly enough. This was sort of an inconsistent movie. There was like a 20-minute coda that felt unnecessary. Seth Rogen was choppy and Sarah Silverman seemed miscast. Even if it wasn’t a great movie, it was definitely memorable. There were a few really well-executed shots/scenes/moments that were just perfect.

To Rome With Love
In the “forgettable” category of Woody Allen’s oeuvre. I still enjoyed it. The fact that Mr. Allen still writes and directs a new movie every year is amazing. I wonder if he does it in part so he has a built-in excuse if a movie isn’t very good. “What do you expect, I have to come up with something new every year!” I think he could make two movies a year and they’d all still be enjoyable.

Elena
This was a Russian movie about a second wife who plans to poison her rich husband because he’s going to write her out of his will and give his estate to his feckless daughter. It was bleak and quiet and suspenseful and I loved it. It was set in Moscow. The parts of Moscow they shot in looked practically postapocalyptic. It really adds to the movie. (The wife’s family is poor, she and her husband live in a nice home in the suburbs, etc.) I know there are parts of America like this, but not many movies are made there. I wonder why not. You could transplant this story into Detroit or Buffalo or West Virginia and have a really good American remake.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
I always try to celebrate weird, unconventional, ambitious, and above all interesting movies. I’ve never seen anything quite like this one. I didn’t think everything in it worked, but I’m willing to forgive that. All or most of the actors were nonprofessionals and they were mostly great. My instinct is to give the credit for that to the director but maybe that’s a simplistic view. It could be that professional actors just aren’t able to give the kind of naturalistic performance that this movie demands. I don’t know enough to say.

Farewell, My Queen
Period drama! In French! Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution seems like tired territory, but I actually thought this was really good. The main character is a servant whose sole job is to read to the Queen. It’s hard to imagine why the Queen was so unpopular. I don’t know how accurate the portrayals of the real people were, but the relationship between Marie Antoinette and the reader was developed in an interesting and satisfying way. The ending was terrific and dramatic and unexpected and subtle and maybe a little ambiguous. I wish there were more of that in American movies.

Dark Horse
Todd Solondz makes weird and dark movies. This was less so than some of his others, but I thought it was just as compelling as, say, Happiness. Making a movie with an intensely unlikable protagonist is not something many filmmakers would bother to try, but Mr. Solondz pulls it off. He even makes you want to root for him sometimes. Mia Farrow was in this, and she was good. Where has she been lately? I feel like she hasn’t been in a movie in like twenty years.

Queen of Versailles
This is a documentary about a woman who left a career as an engineer to become a trophy wife. Her husband embarks on building the largest private residence in America and then goes bankrupt before it’s finished. The couple seem to actively dislike both each other and their kids. They’re both oblivious to the people around them. Highlight: the newly poor trophy wife takes a trip and has to rent a car. She asks the guy at the Hertz counter what her driver’s name is while he gives her a blank stare. High comedy. The lazy perspective is that this is a good look at a bunch of terrible people who embody everything that’s wrong with America. Just because it’s lazy doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Ruby Sparks
I don’t know if this really qualifies as a romantic comedy necessarily, but it was an interesting idea and I liked how they executed it. Zoe Kazan is the star and also wrote the screenplay. She’s Elia Kazan’s granddaughter. That was probably an interesting family to grow up in. Paul Dano is the co-star. I like him. I get the feeling that a lot of people find him unappealing. I can see that. He has an intensity that can be almost unsettling and his voice is kind of grating. I’ve seen him in four movies and he’s been good in all of them. He’s also dating Ms. Kazan in real life. She’s quite the looker and she’s smart enough to write at least one pretty solid screenplay. Cheers to you, Paul Dano!

Compliance
A lot of people hated this movie. Like, really hated. Critics and filmgoers alike. Lots of walkouts, apparently. I didn’t really get that. The reasoning seemed to be something like, “All the characters were so stupid! It just wasn’t believable and made me angry!” I don’t know how you can react that way knowing it’s a true story. Whatever storytelling liberties the movie took, it didn’t seem to diverge very far from the truth, at least from what I read online. I thought it was a pretty compelling demonstration of how human nature works. Ann Dowd had some Oscar buzz and I thought she was pretty good. I also thought Dreama Walker was convincing as the lead. That was a tough role and I thought she played it as well as it could be played. Also: Dreama is a totally ridiculous name for a person.

Sleepwalk With Me
I like Mike Birbiglia. He is funny. It’s a cliché, but he’s redefining what stand-up comedy can be. His act is closer to David Sedaris than Louis CK. Maybe it’s more about how we define stand-up comedy. Is David Sedaris reading a story he wrote really that much different than what Louis CK does? He’s onstage by himself trying to make people laugh. Sleepwalk With Me is based on a one-man show of Mr. Birbiglia’s. The one-man show is essentially him onstage for an hour telling this crazy story about himself. It’s not really a traditional stand-up hour, but if you watch his stand-up act you can tell this is the inevitable evolution. The movie version was nothing special, really, but if you haven’t heard the audio version, you might as well see the movie. Definitely worthwhile in one format or another. Mr. Birbiglia’s also done some pieces for This American Life, which I have enjoyed and I’m sure you can find via Google.

The Campaign
This movie was terrible.

End of Watch
I think it was Roger Ebert who noted that this movie was an excellent portrayal of how cops saw themselves. That makes sense. The two main characters are heroic and noble while policing South Central LA. I think a more accurate description is from an episode of The Wire, where Bunny Colvin (I think) says that cops view the city as occupied territory and citizens as enemy combatants. I’m probably butchering both of those descriptions. The big gimmick of the movie is that it’s shot as if by one of the cops filming some kind of video project. I thought that was a really cool idea, although it’s hard to stick with it in every shot and have it make sense.

For a Good Time Call…
Not really a noteworthy movie. Bland and innocuous. Enjoyable enough if you’re not thinking too hard. It’s saying something that I found a movie about phone sex operators bland. I have a fun story about when I saw this movie. Sometimes on a weekday afternoon I’ll go to the movies by myself. When you go to the theater when it isn’t busy, it’s easy to see a movie and then duck into another theater and see a second movie. That’s what I did for this one. Meaning, I didn’t buy a ticket for it. When I sat down in the theater, I was the only person there. Literally the only person. I was hoping someone else would show up, but no one did. I was kind of nervous that they would not actually play the movie since no one bought a ticket. But the movie started and I watched it alone. About halfway through the movie a theater employee came in with one of those air traffic controller glowing wands. That made me a little nervous. I thought that maybe they had checked the box office receipts and realized no one had bought a ticket. Then when they saw me in the theater they would bust me. Nope. He walked across the aisle in front of the stadium portion of the seats and walked out. He came in again towards the end of the movie. That made me nervous that he’d be waiting to confront me in the lobby when I left the theater. So I went out the side door. Thanks for the free movie!

The Master
This was one of my two favorite movies of the year. Visually stunning. So many shots stick in my head months after the fact. Joaquin Phoenix passed out at the top of a Navy destroyer while the crew throws bananas at him, running away across a barren field, riding a motorcycle, leering at a roomful of naked dancers, tearing apart his jail cell while Philip Seymour Hoffman stands still in the adjoining cell. I could go on. There are more. Yes, P.T. Anderson is a brilliant director. No, not everything in the film connects. Maybe it’s not meant to. Sometimes a film just generates an emotional reaction. This one did and I loved it. Maybe I won’t love it as much on a second viewing, but I know I’ll remember it more than anything else I saw this year.

Note that I called this a film. I usually stick with movie. This is because not all movies are actually shot, or especially projected, on film anymore. This one was. 70mm even. I wonder if we’ll go on calling movies “films” like we call titanium golf clubs woods or if the term will die out, like calling movies “pictures”. Check back in twenty years.

Looper
This was some good lighthearted fun. It’s a cool idea for a movie, and I enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Bruce Willis impression. Those two only had one or two scenes together. I wish they had had more. The whole second half of the movie spun off into a plot that wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. It wasn’t really bad, but it felt like playing to a weakness rather than a strength.

Argo
I don’t understand people who want to use this movie to say that Ben Affleck is a great director. Really? There aren’t a dozen or several dozen other directors who could have done just as well? And I bet most of them would have cast a better actor than Ben Affleck as the lead. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a bad movie, and Mr. Affleck isn’t a bad director. I just didn’t think it was exceptional. Capably executed, I would say. It hit all of its marks, but not more than that. Nothing unconventional or unexpected. I could have told you how the ending was going to play out before the movie started. Alan Arkin and John Goodman gave good performances. That’s what happens when you cast good actors.

Cloud Atlas
What a crazy movie this was. I think it was generally a failure, but what a spectacular one. I’m glad I saw it. I feel like it’s tough to evaluate without having read the book first. My understanding is that the narrative of the book is difficult to impossible to film, so the Wachowskis took some creative liberties. One of the central devices they used was having the same actors play different characters in each of the movie’s different stories. The makeup etc. was so good that I didn’t always realize who was playing who. I think the whole point was that the audience was supposed to recognize the actors and connect the different characters together. They gave each actor a montage of his/her characters during the end credits. When you need to explain things like that over the end credits, maybe that’s a hint you needed to do things a little differently. Also the different stories had wildly varying tones and styles, which is usually jarring and distracting, but I thought it worked here. I think the idea there was similar to the multiple role thing.

Flight
Denzel Washington is great. It’s a total expected cliché when this happens right at the start of the movie, but he still looks like a badass walking in slow motion in his pilot uniform and aviator shades. (Do you think if a pilot tried to wear a different kind of sunglasses he’d be ostracized?) After the opening plane crash, this movie was on a collision course with predictability.* Denzel has his breakdown and redeems himself in the most hackneyed and implausible way possible. In this kind of movie I always root against that ending and I’m always disappointed. I wish big Hollywood productions would at least try to do something unexpected or interesting.
*Do you like this plane crash metaphor?

A Late Quartet
This was my other favorite movie of the year. Four subtle and affecting acting performances. Sometime it’s easy to forget what a good actor Christopher Walken is since he spends so much time playing up the caricature version of himself. The personal relationships of groups of musicians who play together is an interesting topic. I think most people would approach that in terms of a rock band, but using a string quartet is probably a better illustration of that dynamic. Since they don’t play any original music, it’s hard for one person (the songwriter) to naturally dominate the group. Of course, there are several power dynamics at play, and they were drawn out skillfully. The subplot of the daughter having an affair with the first violinist was a tad unrealistic if you ask me, but the interesting part of that from a story point of view wasn’t the affair itself, but how it affected everyone after the fact. So I can forgive it I suppose. I love small and deliberate movies like this. I wish there were more of them.

Lincoln
Tony Kushner should write more movies. This is the kind of project that can pretty easily turn into an overwrought boring drag. I think with a lesser screenwriter that’s exactly what would have happened. Even with Mr. Kushner involved it got dangerously close to that territory at times. This was probably the best-case scenario of an Abraham Lincoln biopic. It was entertaining even though: it didn’t contain much insight that we didn’t already have; it was very safe, sticking to the standard Lincoln hagiography; that shot of a candle in which Mr. Lincoln appears at the end was so silly it made me laugh out loud. Daniel Day-Lewis was great. No surprise there. I thought neither Sally Field nor Tommy Lee Jones were especially noteworthy, which seems to be a minority opinion. James Spader was better than both of them if you ask me.

Django Unchained
Reading about this movie made me very aware of the differences in critical theory between movies and books. If Django Unchained were a book every review would talk about metafiction and postmodernism and that kind of thing. No one in film criticism talks like that. I think this movie is every bit as conscious of itself as film as Lost in the Funhouse is of itself as text. I’ve never heard the term “metafilm” even though there are innumerable examples going back many decades. I think that’s precisely what this is. I’m talking about movies that self-consciously use technical or narrative devices to jar the viewer and remind her that she’s watching a movie. Jean-Luc Godard and his jump-cuts, as an example off the top of my head.

Lots of critics have talked about the violence of the movie, and their discomfort at all the violence directed at slaves. Some have even pointed out the difference between that violence and the violence Django unleashes on white people. Namely, violence perpetrated by whites on slaves is presented in a very stark and realistic manner, whereas the reverse is presented as obviously exaggerated. Scoring these scenes with rap music heightens the unreality–it’s impossible to look at what’s happening as a portrayal of any kind of reality. Everyone I’ve read has totally missed what I think Quentin Tarantino is trying to do there. Scenes like the mandingo fight and the runaway slave being torn up by dogs are historically accurate and are presented in a way that I think seems realistic. Mr. Tarantino’s trying to make it realistic because these are things that actually happened. Django shooting up a house full of plantation denizens looks more like The Matrix than a historical drama. The audience is obviously not supposed to take this as any kind of realistic portrayal. Presenting it this way is a constant reminder that we’re watching a movie, which is the opposite of what most movies try to do (cf. Lincoln, for example). Drawing this contrast is meant to direct our attention to the historical fact of slavery, which I think a lot of white people are very happy to forget or trivialize. We’re shown two types of horrible violence. One needs to be almost cartoonishly amplified to match the reality of the other. It’s hard to watch what’s happening and not spend some time thinking about that reality.

p.s. I know very little about academic literary/film criticism and I might have just embarrassed myself.

Silver Linings Playbook
I went into this movie thinking it would be about mentally unstable Eagles fans. I love mentally unstable Eagles fans. Then the whole plot revolved around a dance contest. Talk about false advertising. OK that’s my jokey review.

I thought both the football and dance aspects of the movie were pretty unrealistic. A retired blue-collar Philly guy starts a second career as a bookie? Come on. All of the gambling stuff was obviously meant for an audience that knew nothing about gambling. I thought all the actors did a good job, although I don’t think Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver had a whole lot to do. I was pleasantly surprised by Bradley Cooper. This was the first movie I saw him in where he didn’t play a smarmy asshole. He looks to have a lot more range than I would have thought. Hopefully he’ll not go back to the smarmy asshole roles. Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific actress. She’s also 22. I don’t know how we’re supposed to take her seriously playing a widow. Especially since she’s now best known as Katniss Everdeen, 18-year-old archery enthusiast. I don’t get all the award hype for this movie. It’s just not that good. Hidden bright spot: Ms. Weaver wears a Kevin Kolb jersey in one scene. I hope she makes Straight Cash Homey. Here’s the obligatory clip of David O. Russell losing his shit on the set of I Heart Huckabees:

The Central Park Five
Most of my thoughts about this are encapsulated in my David Denby thing from a couple weeks ago. This is the kind of documentary that is exactly what you expect. It’s designed to make you angry and despairing at our justice system and succeeds.

Promised Land
This movie stars Matt Damon and Frances McDormand, was directed by Gus Van Sant, with a “story by”* Dave Eggers. That seems like the base of a great movie. Instead it was a pretty straightforward denunciation of fracking and the oil industry. I don’t get movies like this. Everyone who sees it will already be against fracking. Is it just self-congratulatory feel-goodism? Do they think they’ll actually get people to change their mind on the issue? Totally forgettable. This group of people could have come up with such a great movie and instead they came up with this.
*The screenplay was by Mr. Damon and John Krasinski. On this kind of thing I always wonder what the contribution of the “story by” guy is. Did he just come up with a one-page treatment or did he have the whole thing laid out, just not in screenplay form? I wish the credits would have a paragraph detailing the process.

Zero Dark Thirty
I’m not interested in talking about the politics of the movie, but I thought it did a good job of showing the difference between the actual badasses in the Navy SEALs and the pretend badasses in the CIA. I enjoyed the movie, but it dragged a lot in the first half. They could have cut at least a half hour without losing anything. It’s an interesting story, but it felt to me like a 150-minute TV procedural with high production values. I didn’t think it was especially notable, frankly. I thought the actors were uniformly good. Jessica Chastain carried it, although she’ll need to be in a couple more things before I stop seeing her in gauzy light whispering, “You’ll be grown before that tree is tall.” This was a fun cast of recognizable faces in bit parts. Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Michael from Lost, The Federal Marshal from Lost, Chris Pratt, the coach from Friday Night Lights, Henry Francis from Mad Men. Bonus points for that.

Amour
This was very sad and emotional movie, but it never drifted into sentimentality. That’s hard to do. The whole thing takes place in a four room apartment. That’s also hard to do. One of the two main characters is in just about every frame of the movie, and both of them are present for most of it. I thought it was a very realistic portrayal of the process of watching an elderly person slowly dying. From my experience anyway. Like I said, it never became schmaltzy or overbearing, which is the easy thing to do whenever someone is dying in a movie (Terms of Endearment is the archetype). Restrained is a good word. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva were both excellent. They’re both European screen legends apparently. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of European film, but I will throw out a plug for The Conformist with M. Trintignant. One of the greats.

Here are two movies that I saw in the theater this year even though they weren’t released this year:
Raiders of the Lost Ark
I had never seen this movie before, if you can believe that. I’m glad I did. It was an interesting experience, since this movie has become so ingrained in popular culture. I hadn’t seen it, but I knew all of the important scenes and lines and characters and the ending. It was cool to fill in the gaps. It might have been more fun to see it knowing everything rather than going in cold. One other note: this was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 1980s, and is much better than almost every recent blockbuster. The correlation between quality and commercial success shrinks every year.

Lawrence of Arabia
This is a great movie. It was fun to see on the big screen. It really is better that way. Omar Sharif riding his camel in from the horizon is probably the most famous scene in the movie. It’s just not the same on TV. I saw a digital HD restoration. It was fine, but I would have preferred to see a 70mm print, film dust and all. The current obsession with doing everything digitally is too bad. Vinyl has made a resurgence in music after so many years of CD dominance, I wonder if we’re at the start of the CD phase of a similar cycle with movies.

Here are a few movies that I didn’t see but I still have comments about:
The Dark Knight Rises
I haven’t seen any of the new Batman trilogy. I would kind of like to, but that’s like an eight hour investment now. I should have seen them all when they were released. Now it seems like an insurmountable task.

The Sessions
I like John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, but I didn’t have much interest in seeing this. I read the essay the movie’s based on a couple years ago, and it’s hard to imagine the movie living up to it. Highly recommended reading.

The Life of Pi
Les Misérables
Am I the only person who gets tired of the breathless hype for this kind of emotional powerhouse movie before they’re even released? I know this is unfair, but if my mom sees a movie and then gushes about it afterwards I know I should avoid it. Translation: movies designed to elicit emotional responses from white upper middle class baby boomers don’t appeal to me. Last year’s best example: The Help.

Hyde Park on Hudson
This is a perfect example of a new and growing genre: the movie that exists solely to win awards. I don’t have too much sympathy for them when they fail to do so as spectacularly as this one did.

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