The Year in Cinema

After a incredible (and incredibly taxing) few months of science writing, a time out for few thoughts on a good year at the movies.  The list comes with an asterisk on account of some notable omissions – as of this writing, I have not seen ArgoSilver Linings PlaybookDjango Unchained, Searching for Sugar Manor Zero Dark Thirty, all of which I’m fairly certain I’ll enjoy.

But these ten alone make for a worthy playlist, I think, with a little something for everyone.  You’ll notice a few recurring themes on this list.  Many of the best movies of 2012 wrestled with the notion of power, the subtle dynamic between master and disciple, the illusion and the reality of control.  Identity is slippery; someone you think you know may turn out to be a stranger.  A photographer goes to the end of the earth to document the world’s disappearing ice.  There are two movies about cults and two about time travel that couldn’t be more different – one a flashy shoot-em-up, the other a sweet romance between a couple Pacific Northwest oddballs.  Not all of these are happy stories, but fortunately, the two that stood above the rest are both exuberant, delightful, and idiosyncratic.  Either one could have earned top honors – they should really be 1 and 1A.  Your mileage may vary on whether you prefer the unruly anarchic spirit of New Orleans over the mannered storybook anachronisms of New Penzance, but by all means, seek them both out.  You’ll leave the theater on a soaring high.

10. The Imposter

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Image credit: Erik Wilson

16-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing in Texas in 1994.  Three years, later, a boy was found huddled in a phone booth in Spain.  Though he had different colored eyes and a French accent, he claimed to be Nicholas  — and the Barclay family believed it.  That’s the true crime premise of this sneaky, shocking documentary, which uses cannily crafted reenactments to show how con man Frederic Bourdin preyed on one family’s hopes and fears.  Bourdin himself is interviewed, still puckish and unrepentant.  But the film makes it clear that the real villain is the bottomless human capacity for self-deception.

9. Compliance

compliance

Magnolia Pictures

Compliance isn’t a documentary, exactly, but it may as well be.  Based on a prank call that occurred at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky, the story unfolds over the course of a busy Friday night at a generic fast food restaurant.  A man claiming to be a police officer phones up the harried manager, telling her that the pretty blonde cashier stole money from a customer.  He can’t come down to arrest her himself, so the manager will need to detain her in the back and strip-search her instead.  As the man’s instructions grow ever more horrifying, the manager continues to push ahead, convinced by the smoothly authoritarian voice that she’s doing the right thing.

Shot on a shoestring budget, this film is, at times, as difficult to watch as any horror film (and prompted walkouts when it screened at Sundance).  But unlike the recent glut of torture porn, which fetishizes cruelty though a prism of grotesque obsession, Compliance is a useful reminder that in real life, most evil is banal, rooted only in our primal desire to please.

8.  The Master

Weinstein Company

Weinstein Company

The Master is, in form and function, a cult classic.  Superficially, it’s a gloss on the mid-1950s rise of Scientology and its charismatic leader L. Ron Hubbard.  But those looking for insight in to Tom Cruise’s love life will be disappointed.  It’s a nuanced study of two broken men who crave control even as they resent it.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s master hides his temper beneath a façade of restraint; Joaquin Phoenix’s ex-Navy drifter makes moonshine out of photographic chemicals and rages against the world like a feral animal.

The Master is a tough sell to those who prefer things to, you know, actually happen over the course of two and a half hours in the theater.  But Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few filmmakers who has earned the right to make rambling mood pieces and this one mostly works.  Where There Will Be Blood gushed with fire and brimstone, The Master opens its poison petals more slowly.   The film is closer to a tone poem than it is to prose, a meditation on dreamers and seekers in the American west.

Hoffman and Phoenix are sure to get all the press around award season.  But don’t be surprised to see Amy Adams slide in to the Supporting Actress category too.  As Hoffman’s wife, she has ferocious instincts, especially during that scene in the bathroom where she lets her husband know exactly what she thinks about his new pet.  She’s a vision of fierce maternity, the true power behind the throne.

7.  Sound of My Voice

Fox Searchlight

Fox Searchlight

I was a big fan of Martha Marcy May Marlene last year, and now here I am, back defending another low budget indie movie about cults directed by an unknown and starring a pretty up-and-coming ingénue.  Well, this one is just as creepy and nerve-rattling, withholding enough information to keep the suspense high throughout.  In the phenomenal first scene, a husband and wife determined to expose a Los Angeles cult as a sham allow themselves to be blindfolded, handcuffed, and led to a room full of devotees in white robes.  The leader, a wispy twenty-something blonde (Brit Marling), claims to be a refugee from the future with a special mission for the group.  It all plays out like a moody nightmare, and as the couple gets in too deep, Marling’s eerie, otherworldly presence begins to unnerve and divide them.  Who exactly is playing whom?

6. The Loneliest Planet

IFC Films

IFC Films

I wish we could have more than one Julia Loktev film per decade, but if she needs that much time to create movies this good, so be it.  Built on small moments rather than big events, slight glances rather than spoken words, The Loneliest Planet will undoubtedly test the patience of any art house viewer.  A pretty young couple (welcome, Hani Furstenberg and welcome back, Gael Garcia Bernal) is traveling through Georgia (the former Soviet Republic, not the state).  They sample local cuisine, practice their headstands, and go on long hikes in the gorgeous mountains with a curmudgeonly guide.  To the extent that there is a plot, it turns on a single moment halfway in, a split second decision that no good review should even hint at.  Suffice to say, it throws the rest of the trip – and the lovers’ trust in one another – in to utter chaos and you’ll forget about that slow buildup.  The film is a master class in minimalism and its the truest look at fracturing relationships I’ve seen in a while.

5. Looper

Film District

Film District

Ambitious, brainy sci-fi is rare, but then again, so is director Rian Johnson’s knack for making gee-whiz concepts work on screen.  If you can buy in to a future where time travel exists and the mob (led by Jeff Daniels) sends its victims back 30 years to be offed by specialized assassins (the “loopers”), well, then you’re in for a fun evening.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a pro at killing his marks – that is, until his future self (Bruce Willis) shows up as his next target.  Plenty of twists ensue.  Wisely, the film never gets too bogged down in its own byzantine ideas – it sets a few ground rules and takes off.  It’s a kinetic blend of 12 Monkeys, Blade Runner, and The Twilight Zone.

4. Safety Not Guaranteed

safety-not-guaranteed_320Time travel is by no means a given in the whimsical Safety Not Guaranteed, but it serves as a MacGuffin that gets sourpuss Aubrey Plaza (she of the epic eye rolls on Parks and Recreation) out on the road in search of somebody who wants it to be.  She’s tagging along with her boss, a Seattle Magazine writer who’s looking for the author of a bizarre classified ad that begins: “Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me.”  The guy, a grocery store clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass), may just be delusional but he’s never less than sincere.  The film, which shares some common DNA with the semi-funny, semi-tragic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, delightfully winds up being the reverse of many romantic comedies – here, it’s the a kooky guy who gets the dour girl to lighten up.  By the end, its protagonists are true believers and you will be too.

3. Chasing Ice 

chasing-ice-glacier-370x230James Balog, a National Geographic photographer, wanted to see the ice before it was gone.  And it’s a good thing he did – it’s disappearing faster then ever.  Amidst news that Arctic ice hit a record low this past September, Balog’s images from Iceland, Greenland, and Canada are nothing short of astounding.  Ice sheets the size of Manhattan crumble before your eyes.  Entire glacial valleys open up in the course of just one season.  In one sequence, the camera has to be rotated four times to capture the full retreat.   Balog, fighting a bum knee, rapells in to bottomless caverns, walks in to the frigid ocean barefoot, and hikes sheer cliffs to place cameras in some of the most treacherous spots imaginable.  It’s no exaggeration to say that the photography is breathtaking, and the implication is compelling enough to make you call your senator.

2. Moonrise Kingdom

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Perfectly symmetrical camera shots; French pop music; binoculars; vintage record players; goofy headwear; Bill Murray without his shirt on – yes, all of the Wes Anderson mainstays are there in Moonrise Kingdom.  Anderson is a pro at creating hermetically sealed worlds, Technicolor dollhouses in which precocious children and damaged adults coexist uneasily.  His track record is decidedly mixed (I didn’t care for The Royal Tenenbaums or The Darjeeling Limited at all, but I’ll defend The Life Aquatic  as a well-intentioned misfire and Rushmore  (15 years old already!) as the most fully-formed of them all).  But I flat out loved this one.  I didn’t stop smiling the entire time.

On the story book  island of New Penzance, Sam Shakusky, a laconic orphaned Boy Scout who dresses like a mini Daniel Boone, hatches a plan to run away with his gal, literary schoolgirl rebel Suzy Bishop.  They fly the coop, heading to the wilderness with a compass, a picnic basket, and Sam’s survival skills as a storm of the the century bears down, forcing the adults on the island to reckon with their own angst as they mount a search party.  This group includes Edward Norton (as the bewildered Scout Master Ward) and Suzy’s bickering lawyer parents (the aforementioned Murray and Frances McDormand).  Bruce Willis tamps down his usual macho to give an unexpectedly tender performance as the island’s only policeman, Jason Schwartzman shows up in a perfectly absurdist cameo (he’s usually best in small, concentrated doses), and Bob Balaban pops in periodically to deliver narration on history, weather, and other miscellany.  There is nary a Wilson brother in sight.

Writing out the plot on paper doesn’t do it justice – you have to see all the visual tics and sly jokes and truly impressive camera angles, especially in the finale, for yourself.  Anderson cares deeply about the small details in his frames, and if it’s true that his films can seem overly mannered and cerebral at times, it’s also true that he’s created a unique form of storytelling.  Amidst all of the decoration, he’s working from a simple premise: that Sam and Suzy are just two misunderstood kids, caught up in the single-minded pursuit of young love that would be perfect if only the adults would stop getting in the way.  Anyone who’s ever had a summer fling, be it at age 14 or 40, knows the feeling.  It’s usually fun to spend time in Anderson’s head, but in this film, he’s finally found a way to connect his head to his heart.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild 

video-beasts-anatomy-articleLargeYes, there are actual beasts here, but the hulking prehistoric aurochs roaming through a vaguely post-apocalyptic New Orleans aren’t the only untamed creatures in town.  The real force to be reckoned with is newcomer 6 year old Quvenzhané Wallis as the pixie-like Hushpuppy, holding the screen with wide eyes and wilder hair.  She’s only a child, but in the flooded ward known as the Bathtub, she’ll have to learn to survive on her own quickly.  Her daddy (played by Dwight Henry, a New Orleans local who was hired away from his day job at bakery down the street from the set), is sick and grimly realizes that he won’t be around forever.

Beasts works as almost anything you want it to be – a fable, a tall tale, a post-Katrina allegory, an ode to libertarianism.  Hushpuppy lives amongst a rag-tag group of locals who refuse to be evacuated from their houseboats and shanties, and whether she’s learning to break a crab in half with her bare hands or hunkering down to ride out the next storm, she learns that the world is at once remarkable and terrifying.  During one bout of heavy rain, Hushpuppy’s father straps miniature water wings on to her frail arms, a small moment that’s both wonderfully funny and incredibly moving in context.  First time director Benh Zeitlin, a Wesleyan graduate, has real affinity for the residents of his adopted home and it shows.

The film bounces along amiably on the sheer audacity of its premise of magical realism – how else to explain a floating brothel, an alligator stuffed with dynamite, and those gigantic warthog-like things?  It doesn’t always cohere, and it likely doesn’t intend to.  The Bathtub is an archetype that’s unwieldy and diverse and contradictory – much like this country.  As in the Whitman poem, it contains multitudes.  But Beasts is like nothing like you’ve seen before.  It’s a rough-hewn American gem.

 

Now, have at it.  What did I miss from 2012?

 

Other notables, in brief:

21 Jump Street, a remake of the 1980s undercover buddy cop show, is better than it has any reason to be.  Channing Tatum can be funny (who knew?) and so can Jonah Hill (well, we did know that).  Full of winks and nods to the acid-washed jeans era, it’s got killer cameos from Johnny Depp and Ice Cube, having blast as the no-nonsense sergeant.

The Dark Knight Rises is a satisfying, Occupy-tinged conclusion to the Christopher Nolan’s pitch black Batman trilogy.  If it didn’t quite live up to its predecessor, it’s only because Tom Hardy’s masked antagonist Bane couldn’t match the ferocious charisma of Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Skyfall brings Daniel Craig back as James Bond, squaring off against a wily cyber criminal (Javier Bardem, bringing some serious crazy in another unhinged villain role).  The actions scenes are well done, but the whole endeavor is marred by an evil plot that’s just plain ludicrous (even by Bond standards).  One of the deepest Bond casts ever, with Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Naomi Harris, and Ben Whishaw all chipping in.

Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits the lanky frame of Lincoln like a familiar overcoat, uncannily mimicking everything from the folksy stories to the high-pitched voice.  Steven Spielberg (mostly) contains his usual sentimentalism and wrings some effective drama out of the decidedly unsexy business of a House roll call vote. Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, and Sally Field have scene-stealing supporting roles while others like Joseph Gordon Levitt (as Lincoln’s son) and Jared Harris (as Ulysses S. Grant) are wasted.

No one can accuse Marion Cotillard of taking easy, glam roles.  In Rust and Boneshe plays a killer whale trainer who takes up with a kickboxer after suffering a horrific accident.  This could have been a sappy disability movie; instead, it turns into a bracing romance that’s harrowing and refreshing at the same time – the cinematic equivalent of an ice bath.

Don’t pet the alien cobra-thing.  Just don’t do it.  Prometheus, the long-awaited Alien prequel is passable, but not very lovable or memorable (the other day, someone had to jog my memory that it even came out this year).  Filled with frustrating plot holes, glaring omissions (actual aliens; vents for said aliens to hide in), and bewildering character decisions (run sideways, Charlize Theron, and you’d have been fine), the whole thing is kind of a mess.  Michael Fassbender does what he can as the android with a soul, and poor Noomi Rapace’s signature scene – cutting a baby alien out of her own abdomen with a laser scalpel – goes for naught.

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