Thursday, February 7, 2013

Top Ten Films of 2012

Last year was certainly a strong one for movies. We were given quite a few great films, and at least two modern day classics in the making by my book (and one a hair away from being such). From a young boy trapped in the middle of the ocean with a tiger, to a manic depressive in Philadelphia just trying to put his life back together, we were treated to so many compelling characters to connect with and worlds to explore. So without further adieu, let us countdown the definitive list of the top 10 best films of the year. 

10. The Raid

The Raid is the best martial arts films in at least a decade, and one of the best action films of the past several years as well. The film tells the story of a SWAT team (or whatever they're called in Indonesia) that raids an apartment complex ruled by a ruthless mobster and drug lord. But when the mission goes horribly awry, soon the SWAT members find themselves hunted by the vicious tenants of the complex. Featuring the Indonesian martial art known as Pencak Silat, The Raid is just flat out brutal from start to finish. Star in the making Iko Uwais (whom director Gareth Evans discovered when Uwais was but a mere truck driver for a living) and fight choreographer Yayan Ruhian (who also plays one of the film's main villains) display and choreograph some of the most jaw dropping fight scenes I have ever seen. The film feels almost like a twisted ballet.

The most amazing aspect of this film, though, is its nonstop sense of tension and dread. From start to finish, Evans will have you on the edge of your seat, whether it be with another epic piece of choreography or with merely a slow, hold-your-breath shot of gunmen in the darkness overlooking our heroes, ready to pounce. And what about the pulse pounding score by Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda? Following in the footsteps of Daft Punk and Nine Inch Nails, Shinoda delivers a soundtrack here that perfectly captures the atmosphere every step of the way.

It's almost hard to imagine that this film was actually more or less a means to an end for writer/director Gareth Evans, who originally wanted to make a much larger and more ambitious film titled Berandal. When he couldn't secure the financing, he came up with a bold idea. Write a simpler, bare bones prequel, that takes place all in one location, and use it to show what he can do. Now, Berandal/The Raid 2 is finally set to begin filming this year. Personally, I can't wait to see what Evans, Uwais, and Ruhian pull off next.

9. Argo

Ben Affleck may not be the greatest of actors, but he sure is on his way to becoming one hell of a director. Argo has already landed him the Golden Globe for best picture and director, the PGA, DGA, and SAG awards, and likely will soon win the Oscar for best picture (despite Affleck oddly not getting nominated for director). It is certainly one of those stories that caters to the tastes of the Hollywood elite. CIA operative Tony Mendez must pretend to be location scouting for an epic science fiction film in order to rescue six Americans from Iran who escaped the hostage crisis and are trapped at the Canadian embassy. It's quite the uplifting story, but, unlike a certain other film this year about an important classified CIA mission that has been accused of such, this film actually contains  quite a bit of American jingoism. 

But hey, that's ok, because the film is seriously well made and compelling from start to finish. The opening scenes that mix documentary and new recreated footage of the beginnings of the Iranian hostage crisis are absolutely chilling. The fake location scout will have you on the edge of your seat. The film also features a number of great supporting performances, from Bryan Cranston back at CIA headquarters, to all six of the Americans stuck in the embassy. We really get insight into these people and the swirl of emotions they are suffering through. By the end, you feel like you have lived through the whole ordeal right along side them. The photographs and voice over during the end credits seal the deal, and might just grab a tear or two from you.

I only wish the film didn't go into such cliche action movie territory during its climax. Do we really need a shot of police cars chasing after a plane? 

8. Life of Pi

Life of Pi, more than any other movie on this list, seriously caught me off guard. I had absolutely no interest in seeing this film. Afterwards, I was shaken. Never did I think I would see a film that so thoroughly and compellingly conveyed my feelings about the various aspects of faith and religion. In the film, Pi must struggle to survive after he finds himself stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a Bengal Tiger as his only companion. The film is deeply emotional; you truly feel the complex relationship between the boy and this Tiger, and how they both struggle and grow through the ordeal. It also features some of the most beautiful digital effects I have ever seen, from the gorgeous neon imagery to the expressions and actions of Richard Parker the Tiger. Plus, it displays the greatest use of 3D imagery to date (with Hugo and Coraline close behind, and Avatar in a distant fourth). In many ways, the story echoes that of the Book of Job, but it goes so much deeper philosophically in displaying what spirituality and faith are actually all about.

There's really only one problem with the film, and that is the explanatory exchanges that for some reason the screenwriter felt the need to interject. The dialogue in this film is just way too on the nose. One conversation early in the film will have you shrugging a bit as it feels a little forced. That's ok though. But the one conversation later in the film that feels the need to break down and bluntly explain the entire metaphor of  the film, nearly ruins the entire movie. Personally, I choose to ignore that bit. Hopefully you will too, because the rest of the piece is truly breathtaking.

7. Beasts of the Southern Wild

While I was thoroughly entertained by Beasts of the Southern Wild, and that alone warrants its spot at #6 on the list, this is perhaps a film that you actually appreciate even more than you enjoy it. Beasts is the story of young Hushpuppy and her daddy, Wink, who is sick and possibly dying. They live in the "Bathtub", a run down ghetto on a small island just off the coast of New Orleans. When a brutal storm hits, they must struggle to survive in the flooded region, and must deal with the government trying to evacuate them from their homes. This is the first feature from Benh Zeitlin, who is a member of Court 13, a collection of young film makers and artists. He is from New Orleans, and wanted to make a film that reflected the spirit of the region. You truly feel the sense of community with this film. This is a piece more about the flavor of the people and of the place than it is simply about just the plot. Pretty much everyone on screen is a non actor. Dwight Henry, who played Wink, owns and runs a bakery right across the street from the production office Court 13 was operating out of and had never acted before. Quvenzhane Wallis was just five years old during filming, and gives a performance you would never think possible from someone her age. All of the town was built on location to be fully explored and functional. They even built for real a boat out of the back of a pickup truck. The truck was actually the director's sister's old truck that literally exploded one day in their yard. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous handheld Super16mm with minimal artificial lighting, though it is a bit overly shaky (the director actually says this is because the DP was constantly being attacked by bugs and the director was having to slap them away repeatedly during most of their shots). The effects are mind blowing and never once feel artificial.

But most importantly, it all comes together and you truly feel the emotion between this young girl and her father. Some moments, such as when Hushpuppy and Wink scream "Who the man?" "I'm the man!" at each other slam you back in your seat and feel incredibly real. The more fantastical elements of the narrative that make this a grey area between fairy tale and reality actually aid the emotional core of the film, rather than distracting from it. Beasts is such a fresh piece of filmmaking that feels like nothing I've ever really seen before. If this film is any indication, then Mr. Zeitlin and the rest of Court 13 certainly have a bright future ahead of them.

6. The Grey

The Grey is one of those films that received quite a bit of attention early in the year, and then quietly faded out of memory as the summer movie season came and went. At first glance and from trailers, you might think it's just another B movie action story trying to capitalize on Liam Neeson's Taken success. When their plane crashes in the middle of the arctic, a sharpshooter must attempt to lead a group of survivors to safety as they are hunted by a vicious pack of wolves. Wow, badass Neeson fights some wolves? Seriously? But no, the film is oh so much more than that. The reality is a piece that is less an action story, and more a contemplative, metaphorical tale about the acceptance of death. The result feels eerily similar to the greatest of John Carpenter's works. This is certainly a step up from director Joe Carnahan's last couple films (the wretched A Team and Smokin' Aces) and is a welcome return to form, more in the vein of his quite compelling feature from 2002, Narc, that launched him onto the scene

Liam's near nomination worthy performance perfectly portrays the man who yesterday was on the verge of suicide, but now finds himself in a position where he must attempt to lead these men to survival. Every supporting character, especially Diaz, played by Frank Grillo, feels fully real and fleshed out. Along with the great genre writing, the chilling cinematography Masonobu Takayanagi and melancholic score by Marc Streitenfeld (the best of the year and of his career) perfectly help sell the desperation of the situation faced by these men. A lot has been said about how this film depicts the wolves as vicious, near demon like creatures who will stop at nothing to hunt these men down. I think what the detractors fail to realize are that the wolves are not meant to be 100% realistic depictions, but are rather meant to be metaphors for the death facing these men and for the harsh environment at large. I hope The Grey finds a cult following in the years to come. It certainly deserves it.

5. Silver Linings Playbook

Of all the main characters in films this past year, I probably had the hardest time identifying with this one. I mean here is a man suffering from deep depression and massive anger issues, whose life falls apart after his now ex cheated on him and left him. Now several months later, he finds himself moving back in with his parents, one of which is an avid sports fan. He begins a friendship with another manic depressive young woman with awkward social skills, who tangentally knows his ex, and has a reputation for being a bit of a slut. Soon this relationship is the key to our protagonist putting his life back together and moving on from his ex, and perhaps it will grow into something more. And his name is Patrick...hrmmm...wait a minute...FUCK YOU DAVID O RUSSEL! YOU STOLE MY LIFE! I WANT MY MONEY!

Ahem...where was I? Silver Linings Playbook is the best romantic comedy since Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Bradley Cooper gives the best performance of his career, and Jennifer Lawrence, though I took a bit of a cheap shot at her in my last blog post, continues to prove why she is one of the best young actresses in the biz. As Patrick's superstitious sports fanatic father, Bobby D gives his best performance in years. There are two standout aspects that make this film so compelling. First is its ability to truly make us care for and empathize with such strange and "screwed up" main characters. And second is its constant use of genre cliches and how it elevates them to a new level. This isn't a film that tries to rewrite the rules. Instead, it knowingly plays into the cliches and has fun with them, and somehow makes these moments feel real and organic to our characters and to this world. I've never seen anything quite like those moments. David O'Russel, first with The Fighter and now this, is truly on a hot streak and is proving himself to be one of the best modern auteurs in the industry today. If there is any justice, he'll be taking home Oscar gold for his efforts come February 24th.

4. Skyfall

When Daniel Craig first portrayed Bond back in 2006's Casino Royale, it was one of the finest Bond films ever made. Unfortunately, the writer's strike lead to a massive disappointment with the follow up, Quantum of Solace. But when oscar winner Sam Mendes of American Beauty and Road to Perdition fame was announced as the next director in the franchise, we knew we were in for something special. Due to the various issues surrounding the MGM bankruptcy, it may have taken a while for the film to arrive, but the result was certainly worth the wait. It's also quite possibly better than Royale. Skyfall is one hell of a classy Bond film that somehow simultaneously pays tribute to the most classic aspects of the franchise whilst also updating the story and atmosphere to a post 9/11, modern world. How it manages to juggle these various elements is certainly a site to behold. One moment we're being treated to the classic Bond theme whilst James and M cruise around in the vintage Aston Martin from Goldfinger, and the next we've entered a quiet and dusty country home that is the setting for a stripped down standoff where Bond has nothing more than a shotgun and a few shells of ammunition with which to fend off his foes. 

One of the strongest aspects of the film is its ability to constantly shift its mode of storytelling. First it's more a classic Bond film, then it's more a domestic terrorism show, then it's a western. It always feels fresh and never forced. Now in his third outing as the MI6 agent, Craig delivers his best portrayal of him to date, and solidifies his position as the second best Bond of all time. But the greatest element of this film is certainly its cinematography. Roger Deakins delivers some of the greatest digital photography ever captured. In his best moments here, such as the scenes in Shanghai, or on the casino floor, or during the deadly night chase through the fields at the end of the film, Deakins isn't just trying to merely emulate the look of film. Instead, he is playing to digital's strengths, delivering a picture that only digital cameras could capture and produce. The result is something that you've never seen before, because it was impossible to capture before. Skyfall is the perfect follow up to Casino Royale (it's best to pretend Quantum never existed) and the ending will have the little kid in every true Bond fan jumping for joy. 

3. Django Unchained

Django Unchained is a thoroughly entertaining spaghetti western, and a borderline modern day classic. It's also remarkably linear and well structured for a Quentin Tarantino film, but that only frees Quentin up to more easily explore these characters and this world within the genre he has chosen. Django, a former slave turned bounty hunter, and Dr. Shultz, the bounty hunter who freed him, must find Django's wife and attempt to free her from her existence as a slave to a despicable plantation owner, Calvin Candy. It's a simple, straightforward plot, but filled with such great flourishes of style. Somehow, with a nearly three hour runtime, you never once feel the length. This is the quickest moving film of this length that I have ever seen. Quentin's direction is pitch perfect. His dialogue is as sharp as ever, and features some of the funniest exchanges of his career. And his characters continue to leap off the screen. Christoph Waltz is just as electrifying as he was in his Oscar winning performance in Tarantino's last film, Inglourious Basterds. Jamie Foxx is the perfect badass of very few words. Leo DiCaprio camps it up gloriously as Calvin Candy, which is exactly what the role needs and deserves. And Samuel L Jackson delivers the best performance of his career since his turn as Jules in Pulp Fiction. Steven is such a deeply layered character who will stick with you for quite some time.

One of the crowning achievements of this film is its depiction of violence and of the slave world. While the shootouts and explosions that Django engages in are absolutely glorified, the slave world violence is horrific and realistic. Even as we are enjoying the action adventure and comedy, we also feel the brutal real world that these men and women were forced to endure. It is to Tarantino's credit that he was able to explore such a place and dark chapter in our history through this entertaining genre. People like Spike Lee seriously need to pull their heads out of their asses, because this is an important and fun movie that needs to be seen by everyone.

2. The Master

How The Master has not received more critical acclaim and recognition is beyond me. This is surely a film that is destined to be viewed as a classic and a masterpiece in years to come. I should note here that putting this at number two on my list was wholly arbitrary, as I feel my number one and number two picks are virtually tied. 

The Master was shot in gorgeous 70mm, and that is the format the film was meant to be viewed in. It's definitely the most stunning cinematography of the year. It also features the best leading performance of the year and the best supporting actor performance (which I detailed in my last blog post). Despite how the academy and guilds will and have voted, I'm confident history will be on my side in making that statement. Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerizing as Freddie, a deeply disturbed young man who finds himself the object of a strange master/obedient subject relationship when he joins a newly forming cult that mirrors Scientology. The bond gives his life structure. It also gives Lancaster Dodd, the cult leader, the ultimate companion given his personality and nature. Too many people went into this film expecting a hit piece on Scientology and on the nature of cult. That is not this film, though there are plenty of aspects within it that explore why people follow and why people lead such institutions. And perhaps that false expectation is partially to blame for the film's lack of critical success. Instead, the film is mainly a character study of these two individuals, specifically Freddie, and of their bond. I could write an epic essay breaking down this film, its character arcs, its beats, its metaphors and the meanings behind them, but I think it's more important to absorb this story for yourself. I encourage everyone who did not appreciate this film on first viewing to give it another viewing, and another, and another. This is a piece that deserves to be meditated on and given time. For me though, on first viewing, I was thoroughly entranced by it from start to finish. P.T. Anderson has once again proven why he is the greatest director working today.

1. Zero Dark Thirty 

Zero Dark Thirty is the kind of movie I go to the theater hoping to see. The neutrality and almost Brechtian distance with which this film studies its controversial and sometimes brutal subject matter and its main character had me absolutely entralled the whole way through Maya's final moments on screen, as she sheds a few tears in the wake of her mission being complete. In case you weren't aware, Zero Dark Thirty details the CIA manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, and its narrative centers on "Maya" (her real name remains classified), the CIA agent most responsible for following the lead that finally led us to him. Such subject matter, especially with it being so fresh, was bound to be controversial. And sure enough, there seem to be scores of people calling the film "Jingoistic", "Right-Wing Propaganda", "Pro Torture" and the like. There was even a semi-campaign to try and deter Oscar voters from casting their ballots for it. 

Of course, the film is none of these things, and luckily the overwhelming majority of professional critics were clear headed enough to see that. Too often, people resort to "manufactured outrage", or feel the need to interject their own politics into something even if that film is only tangentially related. Also, far too often, more radically liberal people tend to lash out at a film if it isn't propaganda in their favor. It's the worst kind of hypocrisy.

But Zero Dark Thirty isn't about the war on terror at large. It is specifically about the hunt for Bin Laden. The first third of it does touch heavily on torture used during the Bush administration, and part of what makes this film a masterpiece is that it does not take a stance or shove a viewpoint down our throat. It would be all too easy to push a theme out of "Did we go too far? Did we lose our souls and become as bad as the terrorists while in the hunt for them?  How far is too far?" but the result would feel massively manipulative and false. If you want to explore messages like that, I'd point you to Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" or especially Ron Moore's "Battlestar Galactica". Those pieces were able to explore such messages more bluntly and were able to moralize partially because they were one step removed and were of a fantastical nature. But when you're dealing with the subject head on, it requires a light touch, a distance, a more journalistic approach that allows the audience to reflect on what we did. And in the end, even if torture did lead to that one piece of evidence that was a clue (that was then followed up on with actual detective work) does that excuse what we did to those people? After watching this film, my answer is a clear NO.

But this film is more than just a study of torture. It is also a great procedural, laying out in incredible detail the process that led us to Bin Laden and hoping you are smart enough to keep up and follow along. Some details, such as the bribing of an official with a Ferrari in order to obtain a phone number, are so bizarre that you feel they must be true. The ending is expert level filmmaking, depicting the raid on Bin Laden's compound nearly exactly how it went down, and in near real time.
Every single performance on screen here is pitch perfect. Mark Strong and James Gandolfini are at the top of their game. Kyle Chandler gives the best performance of his career. 

But what makes this film work and holds it together is Maya, and Jessica Chastain's award worthy performance as her. Even through all of the procedural beats and plot heavy elements, we never lose our connection with Maya. When the film begins, she is a bit of a cipher. As it progresses, though, we learn more and more about her, and connect with her deeper and deeper. We feel her determination and focus. We struggle with her as she tries to prove herself to her male superiors who won't listen, sometimes displaying a bit too much arrogance and bravado in the process. If Zero Dark Thirty is about anything first and foremost, it is about our need for closure and release. We feel the struggle Maya goes through as she desperately seeks closure to 9/11 and all the horrific Al Qaeda attacks that she sees (and we saw) on TV thereafter. When her friend dies in one of those attacks, we feel her desperation even more. The opening of the Zero Dark Thirty smartly is not of manipulative images of 9/11 or recreations of the events. Instead it is a black screen, with 911 calls from the day playing for all us to hear once more. As we listen, we place ourselves there on that day and remember back to what we saw and felt. When Maya sits alone on that aircraft at the end of the film, reflecting back on all she's done, good and bad, to finally catch this man, and she sheds her tears of release, we're once again sitting there right beside her.

Honorable Mentions:  11. Indie Game: The Movie  12. Compliance  13. Chronicle  14. Arbitrage  
15. Searching for Sugarman

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Best Performances of 2012

I may be a bit late to the "best of film" season, but with the Oscars still a few weeks away, I think maybe I'm still ok.

There were many great performances this year. We had Daniel Day Lewis portraying one of the greatest presidents in American history, Quvenzhane Wallis giving one of the best young child performances in history, and Eddie Redmayne in a criminally unrecognized outing as Marius in Les Miserable. But there can be only one Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Supporting Actor. The Academy will make their choices in the coming weeks, but these were the ones that stood out the most in my personal universe, the only universe that matters.

Best Supporting Actor - Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master

It's not easy to embody a character whose natural state within the film is to be wildly theatrical and over the top. In The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman does it with ease. You never question that Hoffman fully is Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic and eccentric cult leader, and not simply Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor, showing off for the audience. Lancaster Dodd is such a complex character, so full of energy for the crowd, so caught up in his own hype machine, and yet deep down so insecure and fragile. Hoffman does an excellent job at displaying the subtle nuances of this person, fully developing the public persona while also giving us glimpses here and there to the man underneath. Most importantly though, Hoffman fully conveys this man's complex connection to and attachment with his prize subject, his pet of sorts, Freddie Quell. It is that relationship on which the entire film hinges. Only a great actor could pin down the master/follower, dominator/dominated relationship of this film without either missing the emotional connection with the audience, or twisting the relationship into something it isn't. Hoffman hits it out of the park.

Best Supporting Actress - Ann Dowd in Compliance

No actress so embodied her character, so completely disappeared into her role this year as Ann Dowd, who played the naive Fast Food Manager duped by a prank caller impersonating a police officer in Compliance. Her performance is so complex, so nuanced, that we're honestly not sure what to make of her character. Should we be empathizing with her? Shunning her? Hating her? Mocking her? Learning from her? Many of her seemingly irrational or "moronic" decisions will make you cringe, but Ann plays each one of these moments with 100% earnestness. She is not judging her character. Every gut wrenching beat on screen is filled with such subtle touches of real, genuine, conflicted emotion that flesh out this person into one of the most complex characters of the entire year. It's a damn shame this film, and especially this performance, were never backed by their distributor enough to get more mainstream recognition and awards traction. Compliance is certainly a hard one to watch, but being hard to watch does not mean it and the actress are not deserving of recognition. Simply put, no woman gave a more daring performance this year.

Best Actress - Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

In Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain does an extraordinary job at playing reserved, cold emotion. Unfortunately, doing so may keep her from grabbing Oscar gold, as the academy is more prone to award theatrical, big, obvious performances that draw attention to the star playing them (I'm looking at you, Jennifer Lawrence). Zero Dark Thirty is perhaps a much more plot driven and procedural film than the other big awards contenders, but that doesn't stop Chastain from making Maya a fully three dimensional character. From start to finish, you completely feel Maya's struggle and determination, her push against her superiors, her headstrong and arrogant attitude, her loneliness and isolation, even if the colder style of the film keeps you slightly at distance from her. And though there are many plot points, Bigelow is also careful to sprinkle little quiet bits of character driven beats throughout the narrative, all of which Chastain knocks out of the park. It's honestly hard to talk about this performance, because, unlike some others on this list, there's absolutely nothing "show-off-y" about it. This is a classic case of "do nothing" acting. Just be in the scene and do nothing. Simple looks and glances. Simply being present in every scene. Simply being natural. It's a talent that regularly gets overlooked. Its so much easier to notice an Al Pacino screaming "Whoo Ah!" and mugging to the camera (don't get me wrong, I love me some classic Pacino scenery chewing). Too often we forget that some of the best acting is also some of the most minimalistic.

Best Actor - Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

What can I say? In The Master, Joaquin Phoenix gives undoubtedly the best male performance of the year. In fact, he gives the flat out best performance of the last few years, and what will surely be the best of his career. While I certainly have to give props to another great Master of acting, Daniel Day Lewis, for his fine work in Lincoln (for which he surely will win the Oscar), there really is no comparison between what he did in that film (a great, albeit quite theatrical, outing) and what Joaquin accomplishes here. Mr. Phoenix completely gives himself over to this role, achieving such moments of utter raw emotion that rarely are captured on screen. He lets loose and disappears into the insane world of Freddie Quell. No scene this year even comes close to capturing the emotional power of Freddie's outburst when he is a photographer, or when he engages in the "no blinking" exercise with Lancaster Dodd, or when (in what I can only imagine was an improvised and unscripted moment) Freddie completely loses all control in a prison cell, slams his head repeatedly against the bunk repeatedly and then smashes a toilet into oblivion.

Joaquin even completely transforms his physical appearance with superficial facial ticks and twitches. In another actor's hands, these could be rather shallow transformations, but he seamlessly and naturally works them into the complex tapestry of this character. He displays such a range of emotions, from the most quiet and reflective to the most outlandish and destructive. His performance is not simply "weird" or "Joaquin being his crazy self." It is as deeply layered as the film in which it resides, a film which hopefully will grow to be appreciated with time. Personally, I have no doubt that history will be on The Master's side, and that this will be the performance that is by far the most remembered and studied in the years to come.