Thursday, February 14, 2013

ABANDONDED THEATER: TJ's Top 20 Films of 2012 (20-11)

First, check out my Honorable Mentions. Read it? Good. Now, let's continue. . .

Lists are funny. Lists made by groups, like our Your Personal Opinion is Wrong best albums of the year list, exist as a way to express tastes of a group and combined views on the best in music. Robby, Danny, and I are releasing our individual Top 20 Film lists as a way to show individual film tastes. Each of us has our own unique perspectives and takes on “the best in cinema” of 2012. You’ll note as you read the lists that Robby is a bigger Joss Whedon fan than I am, while I’m a bigger Christopher Nolan fan than he is. Danny has three animated films in his Top 20—all good movies!—and I don’t have any. We have our differences, and our similarities, be we each have something to add to this blog and to all of our conversations on film. If you haven’t read their lists do so and leave some comments.

Isn’t that the point of lists, anyway?  Aren’t they inherently conversation starters? I chose the films on my list for that reason. They are all conversation starters, and have started some interesting conversations in my life and online at this blog. I value a movie’s ability to stick, to create conversation, to achieve a high level of filmmaking prowess, and to last. I believe these 20 movies did that exact thing.

20. Oslo, August 31st

Writer-Director Joachim Trier crafted 2012’s (or 2011’s if you count this film’s festival circuit) feel-bad film of the year, but to wrack it up as sad-sack art house is to discredit the film’s completely desolate beauty. Staring in this film is, in a powerful performance, Anders Danielsen Lie as a character also named Anders, whose drug addiction and whose inability to fit into the world has crippled him from any meaningful relationship. Anders (the character) hurts those around him and sabotages any chance he has in making a name for himself in the publishing world. He is intellectual and fierce, but these characteristics do not help him as he interviews for a job that perfectly fills his skill set. He makes those around him angry or agitated, and even shrugs of invitations of intimacy. No one is entirely comfortable around him, and he stands no chance of changing anyone’s opinion of his past (and present or future). He will always be an addict, in act and in the eyes of those he loves. The end of the film is justifiably quiet and numb, but underneath that numbness is a vibrant heart. You are meant to be sad, but you are, more importantly, meant to feel empathy with Anders and his plight.  

19. Anna Karenina

A year or two ago, you could not get me to see a costume drama without at least a mild eye roll. It is a genre that has lacked a few new ideas for the past decade or two. That is a fault of mine as much as it is the genre’s. I am someone who loves Russian literature (Dostoevsky, in particular) so you’d think that I’d be rushing to see a Leo Tolstoy adaptation like Anna Karenina. But if it weren’t for the man behind the scenes, Joe Wright, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this film. If there is a voice out there that can help the genre rise from its own pretentions, it is the flashy but precise Joe Wright. The anti-Baz Luhrmann, Joe Wright uses restraint when it’s needed, even at his flashiest, which certainly includes this stagey production of Anna Karenina. With the help of year-best production design (Sarah Greenwod) and costuming (Jacqueline Durran), sharp and playful cinematography (Seamus McGarvey), a wonderful Nino Rota-meets-Russia score (Dario Marianelli), a true-to-form screenplay (Tom Stoppard of Shakespeare in Love and Brazil fame), and the best Jude Law and Matthew Macfadyen performances in ages, Anna Karenina is a wonderful film and one I’ll gladly see again and again. The film is also a sum of its parts, adding up to make a comment of the façade of nobility, one that ends tragically for its heroine, played wonderfully by Keira Knightley. Anna Karenina is one of the most misunderstood films of 2012, with many calling its stage-resembling production design inconsistent in its usage. To that criticism, I only reply with this: When are the characters literally on a stage?  They are acting when they are in those big, bustling, political cities, not when they are in the country. Now where does Tolstoy/Stoppard/Wright believe peace is found?  Exactly.

My review of this film is here.

18. The Cabin in the Woods

Joss Whedon (and this film’s director, Drew Goddard) is the sort of writer-director that has his super fans, and he has he super haters, but there are few people between. I consider myself a fan—loving Firefly and really enjoying The Avengers—but I also recognize that Whedon is playing in a particular sandbox that is not for everybody, which is to say he is a “genre” filmmaker. Some people are not into “not genre” films, too. It is just the subjective world where we live in, where people’s tastes define their personalities. We have nerds and bros and intellectuals and artists and soccer moms and all sorts of people. Cabin in the Woods, however, is the sort of movie that transcends taste and genre. It unites nerds and bros. This is because it is an awesome diatribe, and love letter, to horror movies, a genre that consistently dominates the box office. Cabin in the Woods is scary, but even more so it is smart and hilarious. That makes it the transcendent film that it is. The characters are fleshed out (and fleshed off *evil laugh*) people chemically repressed back into archetypes. This movie reveals early that there is more than meets the eye, and each reveal is an immense pleasure. Cabin in the Woods may not have been the most fun meta-movie of the year, but that is only because of stiff competition. In most years, Cabin in the Woods would have been the cult classic everyone associated with the entire year’s scope. And really, it might still be that cult film. Only time will tell.

Whedon’s fingers are all over this movie, though, and while The Avengers did much the same thing with smart humor and meta-references, Cabin in the Woods is the better of the two movies.

17. Bernie

Richard Linklater has shown that he is capable of making any damn movie he pleases, from cult classics like Dazed and Confused, to experimental animated features like Waking Life, to family films like School of Rock, to amazing indie classics like the Before Sunrise / Before Sunset series. And now with Bernie, he has made a fantastic docudrama. Based on a real-life mortician, Linklater and his star, Jack Black, show that nuance is key when investigating real-life people. Black has his career best performance as the flamboyant “76 Trombone” singing mortician from Texas, and he drives the movie from its genius first scene. With great supporting turns from a wide cast, including Shirley MacLaine and of course, another awesome 2012 performance by Matthew McConaughey, Linklater fleshes out a very accurate and heart-felt portrayal of the weird idiosyncrasies of rural Texas. Linklater shows off his journalistic chops, as well as continuing to make some of the funniest films of the last 20 years, to prove that he is truly a master of the indie-film generation with many years ahead of him.

Will Before Midnight (due out in 2013) be his masterpiece?  If not, Bernie could suffice.

16. Monsieur Lazhar

Prepare to cry when you watch this film. Monsieur Lazhar is another example of an ambiguous release date for a festival film. This film, made in French Canada by Writer-Director Philippe Falardeau, is a heartwarming tale about an Algerian immigrant to Montreal as he works as a long-term substitute teacher. Monsieur Lazhar is a complex man who is working on healing scars in his life while doing his best at a profession that his wife worked back at his home country—a teacher. He is teaching students who are healing from their own scars as their teacher recently committed suicide. Replacing the deceased teacher is no easy task, but Monsieur Lazhar is up to it as he makes concrete relationships with the kids, played brilliantly one and all. I’ve never seen so many talented child actors in one film, with proves to be its boon, because not once did I not believe in their performances. The end of the film is heartbreaking, if not a bit sentimental, but every bit of sentiment is earned in this truly beautiful story. You see as the students and teachers all overcome their scars together, and even when the “All is Lost” moment hits, it is not without development in the characters’ lives. Maybe Monsieur Lazhar hits home with me because I’m a teacher myself, and the story rang particularly true with me, or maybe it just hits me right because it is a brilliant and wonderful film.

I’m betting on the latter.

15. Seven Psychopaths

2012’s funniest movie is Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. A movie that is very aware that it is a meta-movie (like Cabin in the Woods) this smart Shih Tzu caper features a strong cast of “characters” played by a strong cast of character actors. The film, shifting in and out of “reality,” as Marty (Colin Farrell) struggles with his screenplay Seven Psychopaths.  Some of the psychopaths are real, and some are fake, and the real ones are originally planted as if fake, but end up, of course, being real. Sam Rockwell and Tom Waits dominate their scenes with their elaborate personalities, and Farrell and Woody Harrelson pull their weight, but the MVP here is Christopher Walken in a surprisingly restrained performance as Hans. He plays a character with heart in a bloody violent world. While there are plenty of campy violent scenes that lampoon the sorts of western standoffs that are all too familiar in modern action movies, this film is at its best when Hans, Marty, and Billy (Rockwell) are shooting the shit about writing Marty’s screenplay. There is truth here, through the humor and violence, which is handled with some heart in an otherwise whacky movie. This heart holds the movie together as it threatens to derail itself in every scene.

If writing was always this fun, everyone would do it!

 14. The Dark Knight Rises

The first truth about superhero and action movies: they are by definition stupid. They simultaneously do not exist in the real world and even in the worlds where they do exist, they break their own rules. How can Bruce Willis heal from all his wounds in time for the Die Hard sequels, seriously? These genres of films are in a constant state of one-up-manship with themselves, including sequel after sequel of increasingly unrealistic action sequences and sloppy plotting. Bond. Die Hard, Spider-Man, and yes, even Christopher Nolan’s seminal Batman trilogy suffers from this same problem. But no one can deny that superheroes and action stars have lasting impact on generations of moviegoers, much like any major franchise, a-la Star Wars or Marvel films, and no one can deny that for millions, these movies are just too much fun to pass up.

Christopher Nolan, during the process of his first two films, was heralded as the savior for those who like to mix of fun (yet always unrealistic) superhero movies, but wanted more in terms of theme, character, acting, and just overall filmmaking. People, like me, wanted more out of superhero movies than JUST popcorn entertainment. With Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Nolan gave me and millions of others exactly what they wanted. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) was finally the torn soul from the comic books, and realistically sympathetic. He was very aware that Batman was a symbol more than a hero, meant to strike fear into his enemies and hope into the innocents of Gotham City. In The Dark Knight, Batman was matched by an equally powerfully-minded and equally-symbolic villain in the Joker, and a tragic Shakespearean ally in Harvey Dent. The themes of the Patriot Act snuck into the screenplay as well, asking important moral questions that you don’t normally see in a superhero movie. There were actual themes to go along with my over-butter popcorn and slurpee! After The Dark Knight left theaters, and rumors of a third Batman movie began, many thought that Nolan was guaranteed to end his trilogy as strongly as he had started it.  But there was no way that this was going to beat The Dark Knight in terms of impact or quality, and to think it could was already setting oneself up for disappointment. And The Dark Knight Rises didn’t quite live up to its predecessor, because it couldn’t. It disappointed because of loose plotting, of several key plot holes, and because it didn’t have Heath Ledger in it. (RIP)

The Dark Knight Rises is its own film, with its own intense experience, that concludes Nolan’s Batman trilogy in a powerful way. The film almost always falls under the weight of its own pretense, but it never actually collapses in on itself. Where the film succeeds is in its execution of theme, its technical ability, and the expansiveness of the world Batman created. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) said at the end of Batman Begins that escalation would become a problem, and that no matter what Batman throws at the enemy, they will react and throw something better his way. And in this case, Bane (Tom Hardy) stands in Batman’s way in securing the safety of Gotham City. He is Batman’s intellectual equal and physical superior, with an army at his disposal. The theme of rising, of pain, of Christ-like rejuvenation was executed delicately for such a big, loud, clunky action film. The world is big, sloppy, schizophrenically corrupt on every level, and decayed. Terrorists like Bane, in their own sadistic way, torture the city just to destroy it in the end anyway as a form of elaborate punishment.  

But who can save us from ourselves?

We save ourselves from ourselves. That’s who. We save ourselves, allied with a symbol, as Bruce Wayne pointed out from the start, that is bigger than any one person. It is bigger than Bruce Wayne himself, bigger than Catwoman, Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordon, or Robin. It is bigger than the Rogue’s Gallery of villains. The symbol permeated the trilogy, of fear and heroism, and in the end, after Batman hangs it up with his “sacrifice,” it is only the symbol that remains to protect us, and clarify the confusing, schizophrenic world we live in, as insane as the darkest minds of Arkham Asylum. And that is enough for Gotham.

I could care less about plot holes. Give me a compelling idea and run with it, Nolan. Then I’m sold.

My review is here. 

13. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

When a movie starts one way, and by its halfway point reveals that it is becoming so much more, and it lives up to that promise, it is a beautiful thing. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia starts as a police procedural as a group of police officers and a murder suspect go around looking for “the body” that has been buried. With elegant digital cinematography, which richly captures the headlights of the caravan of cars searching for the body in the Anatolian night, Ceylan’s film never hides the fact that it is a contemplative film. When the characters search for the body, they reveal themselves (the doctor, the police chief, a lawyer ect) to be very different people. The search for the body ceases to be about the body, or the crime, but about so much more. With a third left in the 2 ½ hour film, the crew finds the body and day breaks over Anatolia.

The contemplation follows the body back to the town of Keskin, where we see the deceased family, and eventually the doctor performs the autopsy. He has seen the eyes of the killer, and knows that in order to preserve any sense of moral integrity he might have to fudge the facts a little. These sorts of moral questions are strung throughout Anatolia in the most infatuating way. Few films in 2012 will leave this deep of an impact on their audiences. And that sort of power makes Once Upon a Time in Anatolia one of the best films of the year. 

12. Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln could have been that run-of-the-mill biopic filled with sentimentality and cliché- after-cliché. It wasn’t. Spielberg, Daniel Day Lewis, and Tony Kushner craft a supremely intelligent film about the difficulties of hurdling politics to fulfill a moral necessity. Lincoln knew it was right to free the slaves, and in the face of a civil war and a strong, loud opposition, he pressed forward as a politician and a man to lead the country when it needed it most. Spielberg recognizes that he is working with the best, and more so on this film than ever in his career, he recognizes the collaborative process of filmmaking. He does a damn fine job directing this film by letting his actors and the rest of his crew do their jobs incredibly well. From Tommy Lee Jones awesomely playing Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens (always entertaining) to Janusz Kaminski’s elegant cinematography, Two major aspects of this film make it one of the best of the year (and a deserved Best Picture contender at the Oscars).

1. Daniel Day Lewis is Abraham Lincoln. There is no ambiguity, the king of all method actors inhabits the role with completely believability, is entirely nuanced, and makes everyone in the audience enthralled with what is happening on the screen. Of course, as audience members we know that films are not real. They are merely perspectives, but it will be difficult to imagine Lincoln any way but Lewis’s from here on out.

2. Tony Kushner’s screenplay is the best adapted screenplay of the year and deserves to win that award at the Oscars on the 24th. Kushner’s screenplay reads like a play, a political procedural, and an insightful biopic all wrapped flawlessly into one. There isn’t a false note in the writing, and by the end of the movie, everything feels concise and brilliantly plotted. Those with low attention spans might be bored, but with a willingness to learn and experience, Lincoln is as important a film, and as well-written, as any other this year.

This may be a back-handed compliment, but it is true: Lincoln will forever be required viewing for high school history students. It maintains that authority, and already feels like that sort of classic, filling that necessary niche in our social entertainments.

My review is here. 

11. Looper

Rian Johnson’s Looper is one of the most fun couple of hours I spent in the movies this year. It features one of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s best performances (outside of 50/50?) and one of Bruce Willis’s best performances. The two actors play off one another so well that the film depicts an accurate passing of the torch from Willis to Gordon-Levitt [1].

Johnson’s smart film combines the science-fiction tropes of time travel, near-future dystopia, and even telekinesis, and uses theses clichéd ideas in a fresh new story that focuses more on characters, what they think and feel, and why they think feel what they think and feel. He’s reached these highs before in Brick, also staring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which played with hard-boiled detective story clichés in a fresh, character-driven way.  The best genre films surpass the trappings of what many consider a “popcorn” film. Directors like Rian Johnson, Christopher Nolan, and Joss Whedon, with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg before them on their best days, only care about one thing: the strength of the act of storytelling. Just because one character is staring their future self in the face due to some time-travel contrivance or a man decided to dress up in a rubber bat suit does not mean that their fictional lives are without fascinating detail and powerful storytelling.

Rian Johnson proved that dusty mode of thinking wrong with this great, fun, dark, twisted, violent, even heart-warming film.  And for that, the Writer-Director deserves praise.


To read my Top 10, continue here.  Bring on the debate, all!


[1] It was a strange theme in 2012, with established heroes, from Batman to Bruce Willis, giving Gordon-Levitt the OK to take over. We’ll see where this goes over the next 20 years or so. Disaster or obvious next-in-line?  There is no telling at this point. Oh yeah, he was in Lincoln too. What a year. 

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