It’s been three months since my last post, and I’d like to say that I had a legitimate excuse. I’d like to blame it on my graduate classes, which have taken up a decent amount of time, even more so now in this fall semester than in the summer sessions, but I could have certainly set aside some time to write. At the moment, I’m leaning towards a general lack of motivation, arising mainly from the fairly underwhelming crop of summer releases, where only a select few stood out from the pack. That’s not to say that it’s been an underwhelming year for film overall, just that the year has been characterized by big releases that have failed to live up to expectations (I’m not sure how I’m going to handle it if Looper and Skyfall underwhelm). At least in terms of smaller releases and unanticipated gems, 2012 has been a spectacular year.
This is one of the big reasons why I wanted to make a Top 10 list at this time, to highlight some of the films that may have flown under the radar for most people. The other big reason is to highlight some of the films that will more than likely not be on the list when the year ends. Traditionally, studios save what they consider to be their best and most prestigious releases for the later months of the year, in part to capitalize on awards buzz. For the average moviegoer, this means that between September and December there are more potentially great releases every week than there are at any other part of the year. In the next week alone, there are two films that feel like early contenders to end-of-the-year Top 10 lists: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master expands to a wide release tomorrow, while Rian Johnson’s Looper releases on the 28th. If previous years are anything to go on, I expect that only my top 5 films have a chance of staying in my list (I’d be surprised if the top two drop too far down at any point). Regardless, I consider all of these films to be worthwhile, the best that 2012 has had to offer so far.
Safety Not Guaranteed and Ruby Sparks
Before getting to the Top 10, I wanted to highlight a pair of films that just missed the cut. Safety Not Guaranteed and Ruby Sparks both offer low-key romances with sci-fi/fantasy twists. The former follows a socially-awkward girl (Aubrey Plaza) and her relationship with a strange but charming loner (Mark Duplass) who asserts that he has built a machine that allows him to travel through time. The latter follows a struggling writer (Paul Dano) as he falls in love with his written character Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) on the page, and then in real life when she manifests herself into his apartment. Both films can be enjoyed simply as indie-spirited romances, but both offer some deeper food for thought that is nowhere to be found in more mainstream releases. The latter, in particular, ventures into some dark territory that takes the film to an entirely different level. I felt bad not giving any recognition to these two unique and memorable works, which is why they’ve gotten a deserved mention here at the beginning.
The Hunger Games
I know plenty of people who would vehemently disagree with this forthcoming statement: the first half of 2012 has been rubbish for blockbusters. I’ve tried to convince myself that both Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises underwhelmed due to my high expectations, but the truth is that they underwhelmed because they were thoroughly average films, plagued by script problems and delusions of greater importance. Other big releases included The Avengers, which I thought was a solid piece of popcorn entertainment but nothing I needed to ever revisit again, and The Amazing Spider-Man, which constantly raised the question “Didn’t we see this exact same film a decade ago, and is there are reason that this exists besides money?”
No, the only “event” film that managed to distinguish itself as something special was The Hunger Games, and I never would have thought that was remotely possible entering the year. Unlike Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises, the film adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’ popular series has a firm grasp on its thematic content without ever forgetting to provide excitement and entertainment. It’s not perfect, hence the low placement on the list. Most noticeably, it suffers from a laggy middle section that edges close to Logan’s Run territory in its campy portrayal of the Capitol’s inhabitants. Still, I can forgive the film’s flaws because, unlike the other blockbusters of the first half of the year, it didn’t just feel like it was going through the motions. It had a pulse, a rare feat indeed from a product of the Hollywood system.
The Secret World Of Arrietty
The latest offering from Studio Ghibli doesn’t quite reach the heights of previous Japanese animated masterpieces like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Grave Of The Fireflies. Then again, very few films even come close to matching the quality of those films, and first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s adaptation of The Borrowers is pretty damn breathtaking any way you look at it. The narrative is compelling and at times touching, the characters are interesting and dynamic, and the film’s hand-drawn style is incredibly arresting, especially since it comes in this modern day and age of 3d digital animations. It’s a film that doesn’t need to rely on cheap pop culture references to keep the attention of the viewers. Rather, it’s a proper family film that can be enjoyed on a variety of levels from young and old alike.
The Cabin In The Woods
I’ve read some harsh dismissals of this film in the time since it was first released. Complaints usually come down to two areas. The first is that, for a supposed horror film, it’s not especially scary. The second is that the film is too smug and ends up becoming a sharp dismissal of horror movie fans. In regards to the first criticism, I’ll echo my thoughts from my full review that The Cabin In The Woods is not a horror film, but a comedy about horror conventions (see Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil for another example of this kind of film). My response to the second criticism is that both the filmmakers and horror fans know that the genre operates on certain kinds of cliches and conventions, and the film is a celebration, not a dismissal, of those cliches and conventions. It’s the kind of film that appeals best to those familiar with the workings of the genre, but even non-horror fans can find elements to appreciate, as long as they can tolerate a darker sense of humor. On my second watch, I still found the ending doesn’t live up to what comes before it, but it does little to diminish what Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon have accomplished here.
On nearly the complete opposite side of the spectrum from The Cabin In The Woods is Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which starts out as a film of slow-burn suspense before exploding into outright horror in its conclusion. Revealing any plot details would be wrong, as the film works the best if you go into it knowing as little as possible. A word of warning though: Kill List is not for the faint of heart. Unlike so many modern horror films that believe jump scares to be the height of terror, this film generates terror by building a steady feeling of unease and paranoia. When the tension finally gives way, the film erupts in moments of maniacal, violent horror. I’m due to revisit the film for a second viewing in the near future, in part to see if the specifics of the narrative hold up to closer scrutiny. My guess is they don’t, but that won’t negate the uncomfortable and chilling atmosphere that the film as a whole creates.
The Raid: Redemption
There is an unfortunate phrase that has become common in criticism today, particularly in relation to action films. It’s been used constantly in association with The Raid: Redemption, and it needs to stop immediately. The wordplay may be different, but it generally reads like this: “It’s the movie equivalent of a video game, with our hero tackling level over level of enemies before reaching the final boss and the ‘game over’ screen.” This is lazy, shallow criticism, and it completely dismisses everything that is special about The Raid: Redemption, a film that gives the action genre a much-needed shot in the arm. Reminiscent of what John Woo accomplished back in the early ’90s with Hard Boiled, Gareth Evans fashions an action tale that treats extreme violence almost as ballet, with fight choreography that can legitimately be described as “artful.” Combine that with a directing and editing display that never creates confusion as to what’s going on, itself a rare feat in today’s action preference for intense shaky-cam, and you get one of the most adrenaline-pumping film experiences of not just this year, but of the last several years.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild
At first glance, some of the specifics of this Sundance festival favorite seemed tailor-made to irritate me. A main character named Hushpuppy? That alone set off warning signs in my mind that the film would be too precious and, forgive me, “twee” for my tastes. It didn’t take long, however, for Benh Zeitlin’s film to win me over. Part of it has to do with the film’s atmosphere and sense of location, evoking Katrina-era New Orleans and the southern romanticism of Mark Twain at the same time; another part of it has to do with the central performances from newcomers Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, stunningly believable and naturalistic as their relationship heads towards its inevitable conclusion. The film sometimes has a tendency to over-romanticize its backwoods inhabitants, and a brief detour into magical realism feels like a misstep, setting up an overly-obvious metaphor for Hushpuppy’s assertiveness in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Regardless, the film is confident and a true original, and it signals a promising new directorial voice.
Chico & Rita
It took a long time for this film to find its way over to the States, and even when it finally did it didn’t exactly debut with much fanfare. Like another film still to come on this list, Chico & Rita is in need of a larger audience. Unlike the overwhelming majority of animated films currently in the market, this one is not for kids (due to some scenes of sex and nudity, keeping in line with the film’s sensual tone). The film tells the story of Cuban pianist Chico, who meets and falls in love with nightclub singer Rita. When Rita is offered the opportunity to advance her career in America, the two are separated from each other. Over the course of many decades, the two lovers meet a handful of times but never stay together for long. While the film’s conclusion feels slightly “off” to me, revealing a character’s act of devotion that comes across as more insane than romantic, there is so much to admire here. The hand-drawn animation leaps off the screen in waves of tremendous color, and the narrative and soundtrack features jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, among many others. The film has just recently been released on DVD/Bluray, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
William Friedkin has always been a filmmaker who provokes strong reactions from the audience/viewer. His best successes are The French Connection and The Exorcist, two films that still have the power to shock and disturb today. He’ll probably always be known best for those two films, but he’s been provoking reactions throughout his career, whether it be the ill-judged “Al Pacino enters the New York gay nightclub scene to catch a serial killer” film Cruising, or the terrific, stripped-down paranoid thriller Bug. Now he’s back with Killer Joe, a NC-17 rated modern noir featuring the most demented white trash trailer-park family you’re likely to ever see in a film. Even though the film is adapted from a play by Tracy Letts and features a small cast of characters, Friedkin still brings an appropriately cinematic quality to the proceedings. The performances are also terrific across the board, none more so than Matthew McConaughey as the chilling title character. It’s a career-defining performance, but it’s only one of the many reasons why you should check out the film, provided you’re not averse to the harsher content that comes along with the more restrictive rating.
Along with Chico & Rita, this is the one film of 2012 that needs to be seen by more people. You’d be forgiven for looking at the promotional photos and thinking that the film is all about a romance between two (admittedly gorgeous) people. While that element is certainly present, the film offers so much more. The film stars Ewan McGregor and Eva Green as two people who enter into a relationship just as humanity is starting to break down. All over the world, people have lost their sense of smell, and over a small period of time, other senses start to fade as well, one by one. Director David Mackenzie, working with a low budget, keeps everything suitably intimate and personal, providing small glimpses at the bigger picture without removing the focus from the central characters. There are some truly harrowing moments, particularly when people realize their senses are fading and make last-gasp attempts to take everything in before it’s gone, but there are some deeply affecting moments as well, as everyone learns to continue on with their lives, if only for a short while before the next change. The best comparison film-wise is the equally overlooked and tonally similar Never Let Me Go. If you saw and appreciated what that film had to offer, chances are you’re going to feel the same way about this one. It’s an incredibly moving and powerful piece of work that is destined to become overlooked.
It always takes a little time for me to warm up to the Wes Anderson universe. His impeccable set design and camera placements/movements, as well as his dry style of writing and the accompanying mannered and arch performances from the actors, can certainly require an acquired taste. Moonrise Kingdom was the first Wes Anderson film that I surrendered myself to right from the very start. A filmmaker with this kind of style and complete mastery of his craft doesn’t come along too often, and to nitpick about certain awkward deliveries or idiosyncrasies seems almost pointless. It helps that the world Anderson creates in his latest film, as well as the characters that inhabit the world, might be his very best.
A common criticism about Wes Anderson is that his films are too emotionally-detached, a criticism that I don’t understand in the slightest. You think back to the scene in Rushmore when Herman Blume learns the truth about Max’s father’s occupation, or the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums when Ben Stiller’s Chas finally breaks down, or the scene in The Life Aquatic when Steve Zissou and his crew finally encounter the jaguar shark. These are incredibly emotional moments, and the ending of Moonrise Kingdom, when the meaning of the title is revealed, belongs in the same company. I’ve seen it twice now, and it might be my favorite Wes Anderson film. At this point, it’s my favorite film of the year.