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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cool Cinema in 2012

I think this is my third time re-writing this damnable thing. Be published and gone from my thoughts, vile list!

I originally intended to write a huge thing about film in 2012, but I ran into two problems. First of all, I didn't have the time or motivation to do so. The second problem was that I didn't really see enough films this year to do it with any sort of conviction. I didn't see Holy Motors, I didn't see The Raid: Redemption, and I didn't see The Master, as well as any number of smaller art house films that are probably better pieces of film than almost anything actually on my list, which, when you come down to it, is pretty pop. My excuse is that I'm only really home during the summer, so all I see are summer films.

Given that and since this was a bit of a "yeah, that was decent" sort of year to me, this is a top seven, not top ten. Some runners up were Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Avengers, Argo, Lincoln, and Skyfall.

⑦ Life of Pi
I wasn't going into this film expecting anything great. I expected bromides. I got some of that. It's not as much a film for old white people to feel pan-cultural as I initially feared, but I still do find the milquetoast audience surrogate character to be unneeded and undercutting. I am giving a terrible impression by saying these things right off though, because the rest of the film is so extremely pretty. It is a vibrant film, not just in color, but in the way it uses motion and depth. Ang Lee uses 3d the same way that a lot of American animators use animation. Life of Pi is a film with a great sense for visual space, and that is its main appeal. I do not find Pi's journey especially engaging, or his philosophy interesting, but I like Ebert do appreciate how the film does not "romanticize the tiger." Doing so would ruin the metaphor. Such as it is.

Not Hobbes.

⑥ The Hobbit: An Unexpected 
I don't find it nearly as difficult as I should to put this on my list. It's not a very good film. I might simply be projecting my love and nostalgia for the Lord of the Rings onto The Hobbit, but despite the film being in all honesty a mess, I enjoyed watching this mess. I can diagnose why it's a bad film - it tries to follow the book too closely in structure but makes a half-hearted attempt at making it fit the Hollywood model in terms of characters - but I can't give a general diagnosis for why it still works despite of it. I'd have to tell you about those few vignettes and scenes in the film that hit exactly the right stride and made the rest worth it. I loved how the conversation with the First Age Gang about the Morgul sword played out. I loved the feeling of weight and power the rock giants had. I think the film could have ended on that shot of Erebor in the distance, and I would have been more than happy. The Hobbit does not always hit its stride, but when it does, it hits it quite well.

A hobbit far away from home.
⑤ The Grey
I am not sure why this is up so high on my list. But it is. Maybe I like this film less in retrospect. I'm not sure, but I do know that The Grey gives us something rather uncommon. Liam Neeson's character is badass, but he's a quiet, complicated sort of badass. Middle-aged, working an anonymous job for a faceless company, his skill is made of years of experience. Our protagonist is not emotive, but emotional - he stops short of a suicide attempt within the first few minutes of the film, but he is quietly depressed for relatable, "my wife is dead and I have wasted most of my life" sorts of reasons. Our fellow survivors are equally humanized and characterized in an equally quiet sort of way. Never is the film melodramatic because it's scared it won't get a reaction from us, or that it won't get its point across. Neither is it a work of genius. As I described it above, this film would be Oscar worthy, but parts of it are there in concept but don't work in execution. A lot of the repeated motifs about the guy's wife and childhood are cheesy and dumb and doesn't deserve to be repeated ad-nauseum to us, but I still have a lot of respect for being an action movie that feels so very much unlike a modern action movie.

A wise and complicated badass.
④ Django Unchained
In retrospect, this film suffers just from its having to be compared to Inglorious Basterds. I recognize that as a film, Django might be more important just for its complete evisceration of how the American South is glorified, but I found it lacking in the same charisma that Inglorious Basterds had. Nonetheless, I'm writing this because I enjoyed the film, and it is up very high on my list for a reason. I'm not sure what I should say. Tarantino has a pitch-perfect grasp of visual vocabulary, of how cinema works, and it's not surprising that it's good. Add his own personality to the near flawless technical filmmaking, and I find it difficult to believe that this film could have ever been bad. All the actors give charismatic and entirely non-naturalistic performances (nobody ever thinks for a second that they aren't in a movie, and they don't care), and are super fun to watch, even given the terrible things those characters sometimes do. Standard 20 year old film guy opinion of a Tarantino film: completed.

German dentist + former slave
③ Zero Dark Thirty
I saw Argo. I enjoyed it. Originally, it was on the list, but it got cut due to budgetary restrictions. Also, because I couldn't think of anything interesting to say about it, because when I take a step back and really think about exactly what it was in Argo that I really liked, I found that I was at a bit of a loss. I liked Aflek's 80s hair, I liked how it built suspense, and I liked how it felt fairly mature. Yet, it has that Hollywood soul where I can't quite loose myself in the puppet show because I can see the strings too well.

I don't respect it nearly as much as I do Zero Dark Thirty, which has a soul very much of its own. Zero Dark Thirty is a brave movie. Zero Dark Thirty is not scared that it isn't showing the whole sociopolitical picture, which it feels no real need to show. It is not scared of torture, which it feels no need to address. Zero Dark Thirty cares about a professional woman obsessed with finding Bin Laden, and how she did it. Zero Dark Thirty barely even cares about the character herself. She's directionless once she gets on the C-130 to go back home. Even in the end, the film isn't very intimate with her. It doesn't care if we feel anything - the audience can choose to feel what it will about her ambivalence. Of course, the audience does feel, and it feels quite a lot, because the character is great and the story fascinating. I guess its distance makes it impersonal, but it's never ever cold the same way something like 2001 is cold. The film is just too exiting for that. The third act drops everything to show us the actual operation to kill Bin Laden, and even though this should be a bad choice, it works. Really well.

Maya: CIA agent and hikikomori.

② Moonrise Kingdom
I couldn't care less about two kids and their Newberry-winning coming-of-age story. If Moonrise Kingdom were the sort of book we read in middle school, I would have hated the crap out of it. Books like that feel phony. Something deep in me rejects it like a bad blood transfusion.

Unless, of course, it's by Wes Anderson.

Unlike all those other stories, this film convinced me that the characters have some emotion in them that isn't prescribed by the story. It gives me something to tell me that they're human. Our two kids are seriously troubled, and I love and sympathize with them anyway. No, more than that, I love and sympathise with them because of it. It gives me these completely abnormal, strange, engrossing characters, and then tries to put them through the coming of age formula. When something in the formula doesn't ring true with our characters, it changes the formula. Wes Anderson has made the most quirky and bizarre coming of age film as he could, and he did wonderfully. And naturally given its director, it has an aesthetic to match. Cinema vérité would have only felt hollow. Cinema vérité would have been the death of the film, so it abandons any pretense that anything but the underlying emotions have to be true to life. How boring would it be to shoot a movie like this in by-the-numbers continuity editing? I certainly wouldn't want to make that film.

And, it doesn't forget to have lots of fun either. That's very important. We're all going on a really cool adventure, all things considered, in this whole life thing.

I'm sure they'll find their way.

① Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Beginnings + Eternal
I am a dirty cheating cheater, and here is the test to prove it: I am already in love with the TV anime series of the same name, and these films are not significantly different, so I could have told you these would probably be at the head of the list before I had seen a single other thing. And you know what?

I don't care. I couldn't put anything else as my 1º for cinema in 2012. With all conviction, I hold that these films are important artistically. I acknowledge that they're untenable for a wide audience because of the artifacts of an insular anime industry, and I acknowledge that they have structural flaws that would damage any normal film, but neither of those things are significant.

All that matters is that these two movies are absolutely beautiful Every aspect of the design from the bottom up paints a whole of incredible atmosphere and intricate thematic detail. I find an almost Kubrick-like level of attentiveness and stylistic fingerprint. Magical girls in magical girl anime often fight witches, but never the things that we see here. When we see the enemy, they are profane and arcane and poetic. It all comes together in the form of a script which gives us heartfelt and dynamic characters, and maps out the course by which they will be deconstructed noble intention by noble intention until they lay a broken mess. Only then are they put back together again a shining new whole. Yuki Kajiura composes an eerie, sometimes dramatic, sometimes serene, always very, very memorable score to accompany.

These movies are in equal parts deconstruction and reconstruction. They are cruel and terrible movies about loneliness, uncertainty, despair, and entropy. It rejects self-sacrifice, it rejects egoism, and in the end, even love is uncertain. Yet in the end, it rejects despair too - and embraces hope. Not through any of the trite and bromidic ways we have come to expect - Madoka Magica earns the right to have the message it does, and earns it well and hard. I recall few things that were ever so simultaneously cohesive and compelling.

I have few pieces of media I like as much as these films. I can never be certain who is capable of getting the most out of anime and who isn't, but if you appreciate good film and are open to occasional moments of inexplicable weirdness, I cannot recommend these films enough.



  1. As far as the best all-around piece of visual storytelling, I definitely agree with you on Madoka Magica as the best of last year. In terms of pure, thrilling entertainment, though, the clear winner is Dredd.

  2. I didn't see enough movies last year either. I didn't even see any of the films that made your list though pretty much all of them were on my "to see" list. And definitely see Dredd at some point!

  3. I'll definitely make it a point to see Dredd. That's been on my list too.