Would you prefer to have another year with a few outstanding films adrift in a sea of mediocrity, or a year where a rising tide of passion and skill lifted many filmmakers to high watermarks in their careers? Only one film truly blew me away this year; some may find that reason to complain, but I am reminded of Crash Davis’ advice to Nuke LaLoosh in BULL DURHAM: “Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls – it’s more democratic.” 2012 was not a great year for movies, but it was a very good year.
We’ve had 50 years of James Bond films, and numerous incarnations of Batman, but both of these films are unique in their series in that they each complete a trilogy. SKYFALL and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES arrived with heavy expectations, and were greeted with commercial and mostly critical success; both also had every lose thread tugged at by detractors during the inevitable backlash. Despite the flaws, or sometimes in complete rejection of them, I enjoyed both finales. The thing about Bond and Batman is that fans from multiple generations can claim to have grown up with them. But who may lay claim to their interpretation of each hero being the one true version? I’ve heard it said that SKYFALL diminishes 007 by giving him too much back story; aficionados Ian Fleming’s novels know that Bond comes with enough history to be explored by no less than Kingsley Amis. As technology and gadgets became more of a staple of Bond’s arsenal, the films lost sight of his three close-quarter combat skills from the novels: pistol shot, boxer, and knife thrower. I’m probably making too much of this moment, but one of my biggest smiles in the movies this year came when Daniel Craig vanquishes one key opponent with a thrown knife, a skill that I’m pretty sure we have not seen since Roger Moore in OCTOPUSSY. The Bond films starring Daniel Craig have served a purpose similar to D.C. Comics Crisis on Infinite Earths: they smoothly reconcile all those stray threads and different generational interpretations of Bond in one handshake. All that has past is prologue; Bond now belongs to the ages, as much as King Arthur or Sherlock Holmes.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is one of those films that could have been shorter, but I’m glad I wasn’t the guy who had to make the decision what to cut, because so much of it resonates exactly because of its operatic grandiosity. Even moreso than in Christopher Nolan‘s first two Bat films, I loved the elevation of Gotham City to a battleground as epic in scale as Middle Earth, and as American as a litany of road movies. I saw Yvonne Craig (Batgirl in the 1960’s BATMAN TV series) at a comicbook convention shortly after Tim Burton’s BATMAN opened in 1989. She remarked that she had trouble buying Burton’s Gotham as a place in America. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and New York, and I know my way around London, Pittsburgh, and Newark. I loved that chases through Gotham in 2012 would begin in one city, turn a corner into another, and collide in yet another. Gotham in Nolan’s hands became like an expertly mixed DJ mash-up: a cohesive location comprising other cities. Nolan’s singularly desperate image, right before all hell breaks lose, of two stained and frayed American flags hanging over the Gotham Stock Exchange may be the most powerful political image I’ve seen all year. Batman and company hail from a divided America where both sides are beaten and battered and neither is the better for it. The full immersion into this world is what makes THE DARK KNIGHT RISES a fitting conclusion to Nolan’s Bat trilogy, and also makes this trilogy the 2nd most ambitious achievement in comicbook adaptation we have yet seen.
I dropped the ball earlier this year. In the past few years, I have written summations of two of my favorite local film festivals, but this year I allowed myself to be distracted. For me the biggest surprise of the 2012 Boston Underground Film Festival was Richard Bates Jr‘s EXCISION. This film is the sort of unsettling, deviant, macabre trip that makes me look forward to BUFF. AnnaLynne McCord plays a geeky high school outcast who fantasizes herself a mad doctor, and who endeavors to use her fantasy life to rescue her little sister from Cystic Fibrosis. The film pulls off a potentially ridiculous story largely because it is grounded by a strong cast, including camp veterans John Waters, Traci Lords, and Malcolm McDowell, all playing their roles completely straight. Keeping hipster irony in check, they manage to tease layers of sorrow and fear that would have been smothered had they gone more tongue in cheek. I spoke briefly with Traci Lords (you get to meet a lot of cool people at comic shows!); she is very proud of this film, and feels it is her best work yet. I have to agree. Her collaborations with Waters and Kevin Smith revealed her to be an under-rated comic actress; here she shows equal dramatic range. This film never made me jump from my seat, but it got under my skin more than any other horror film in recent memory.
Late 2012 gave me two very cool flashbacks to films of the 1970’s, though technically they recalled genres that I did not become familiar with until the ’80’s. Andrew Dominik‘s KILLING THEM SOFTLY reminds me of badass 70’s crime movies like THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE; both films were adapted from novels by Boston crime writer George V. Higgins. KILLING THEM SOFTLY also recalls Cassavetes films like THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE and GLORIA. The characters of this film often have the same flaws that doomed Eddie Coyle’s crew, while Dominik invokes Cassavetes’ exploration of downtime amongst the underworld to further flesh out his characters. You are told a little, but shown everything you will need to know, about how and why each of these men kills and dies. My inclusion of this film amongst my favorites of the year is something of an investment; much as I enjoyed it when I first saw it, I expect it will grow on me over the next decade.
My awareness of the films Quentin Tarantino channeled in DJANGO UNCHAINED began with the another great film born from westerns and blaxploitation films, BLAZING SADDLES. This is Tarantino’s second opus wherein audiences and critics mistake it for a revision of revisionist history. As with the fantastic historical inaccuracies of Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, his DJANGO succeeds when you consider it a revision of cinema history. It’s as if he’s toying with our acceptance of cinema legend rather than genuine history, and taunting us to accept an even more slanted expression, one with no pretense of telling you “how it really was” through a veil of the studio development process. Tarantino unapologeticly and proudly makes fiction with a capital F. Mel Brooks challenged generations of American myth building with BLAZING SADDLES by shattering the fourth wall with Marx Bros style slapstick. Tarantino has taken some heat for presenting a film that seems less comedic and more dramatic than BLAZING SADDLES, though I could argue that it is only the violence quotient that makes anyone regard this film any more seriously than Mel’s.
Steven Spielberg‘s examination of the final season of the life of Abraham Lincoln is not without its flaws. Some have gone as far as to hate it for the fact that it blows a perfect ending by continuing for another 3 or 4 scenes. To them I must respond “don’t let perfect be the enemy of pretty damn close!” This is not a movie for people who want to hear Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches read by Daniel Day-Lewis. This is a behind closed doors story of a common man, where in his closed doors happen to be the office of the President, and the bedroom of a husband and father trying to hold his family together following the recent loss of a son. This is not a biopic full of all the major moments we’ve all heard about since elementary school. This is a political nailbiter for anyone who sees the drama in Sunday morning news shows, for people who understand the difference between common language and the letter of the law, for policy wonks who thrill to a well reasoned and well stated argument. And yes, it is thrilling the hear Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, James Spader, and Hal Holbrook whisper and thunder in these divergent halls of power.
6. Life of Pi
Your average movie fan acknowledges AVATAR as the first masterpiece of the most recent wave of 3-D films. Cinefiles gave hesitant respect to 3-D as a legitimate tool for serious filmmakers after it was used by Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders. For my money, Ang Lee‘s THE LIFE OF PI is the most significant advance in special effects since the motion capture work in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and it is the first modern movie that absolutely had to be in 3-D. This is such an internalized story that it had to feel like you could reach out and touch it, and such a challenging tightrope of perspective that it needed to be this explosively vivid to make us believe, doubt, and believe again in all the possible interpretations. We go to the movies to see something we have never seen before, something we’ve never imagined and didn’t even know we hungered to witness; in achieving this THE LIFE OF PI elevates 3-D to its own art form.
5. Les Miserables
I have never seen the stage musical of this story. I read the book in high school, but we had to read it too quickly for it to impact a slow reader like me. I loved this movie because it is a timeless example of what big studios with big budgets can do when they hire big talents to express big ideas and emotions. At first glance the immenseness of this production may seem to drown out any trace of subtlety. Closer inspection reveals it to be one incisive subtlety after another. Much has been written about the live singing on set with live accompaniment, and the unpolished immediacy that lent to the performances. Anne Hathaway‘s singing in her heartbreaking rendition of the staple “I Dreamed A Dream” is only half the reason this scene is one of the signature moments in musical history. Watch carefully: this was shot in one take. We never cut away from her face. If Hathway moved a few inches to her left or right, or made any of the grand gestures that this song might engender, she could slip out of the frame and the artifice would become obvious. In the medium of live theater musical this would have looked underplayed; in the film musical medium she is explosive. Expand this minute attention to physical detail and emotional authenticity to Tom Hooper‘s entire film, and you will understand why this story that had never mattered much to me before managed to blow me away this year.
4. Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope
At first glance you may think “there goes the nerd, naming the Comic Con doc as one of his favorites.” And that may be true, but Morgan Spurlock‘s film reminds me of a phenomenal and underrated graffiti doc called Next, plus some of the better hip-hop docs. Spurlock laughs more with people than at them. His are films made by a searching soul seeking to connect, which is why he examines each issue from multiple angles. Here he meets aspiring comicbook artists, costume cosplayers, collectors, vendors and fans. Any of these groups could be the subject of an entire movie, but like hip-hop docs that touch on DJing, MCing, dance, and graffiti, I think Spurlock explored the humanity of each group without going so far into the minutia as to lose those not within this culture. I literally heard an audience burst into action movie-level applause for one aspiring artist in the film when they receive a job offer from their dream employer. Don’t discount how special an experience it is for a nonfiction film to capture that moment.
We get a couple of these per decade, if we’re lucky. Like The Square and A Simple Plan, this is a tight as a drum thriller with delicious twists of fate punctuated by believable but shocking character moments. Like CABIN IN THE WOODS, the less you know, the better. I love how many buttons this movie pushes in its first act. Half way through the second act when you think you might know where it’s heading, you’ll be reminded of another wrinkle established at the opening. I’m already telling you too much! Just bring a strong stomach, and be ready to see a absorbing mystery, before it’s diluted by a Hollywood remake.
2. Burn and Detropia
I’ve already mentioned dropping the ball earlier this year on summarizing my experience with the Boston Underground Festival. I also failed to discuss the Independent Film Festival of Boston, where I saw these two fantastic films, both focused on Detroit. BURN was produced by Denis Leary, no stranger himself to stories about firefighters. The unprecedented stylistic choice this film makes is the use of the same cameras attached to the helmets of NFL players to follow Detroit firefighters straight into infernos we can only imagine from Backdraft. Going deeper still, the film illuminates the lives of firefighters from several ladder companies, as they face city politics and community needs over the course of one year.
DETROPIA makes Detroit into a microcosm for the country, possibly the whole world, for the financial downturn of 2008 and 2009. It briefly addresses challenges faced by police and BURN’s firefighters, as well as a local symphony facing the drying up of benefactor resources. As much as Spurlock’s Comic-Con film could have focused diligently on one aspect as BURN did, DETROPIA benefits from a similarly wide-cast net. For all the loss of the Detroit that was, equal time is given to the stalwarts who will not be moved, though they are the last house on their block not foreclosed upon. With hesitant enthusiasm, the IFFB audience embraced the artists and bohemians (and heralds if gentrification) who migrated from New York and other art hubs where rents have out-priced the artists who create the next wave of design and perception. As much as DETROPIA gives us hope for the Detroit of tomorrow, BURN puts us in touch with those in immediate need to build that future.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
I can’t say much more about this than I already have written. This film has become like a prayer for hope. I can barely speak the title of this film without a lump emerging on my throat. 10,000 years from now, scientists in the future will find filmed evidence of HushPuppy who lived in the Bathtub, but you can see her now, before she’s gone.
PLUS A FEW OTHER FAVORITES:
Argo – This movie reminded me so much of Cold War-era thrillers like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR and GORKY PARK that it made me feel nostalgic for something that I couldn’t have possibly know about, because it was classified!
Cabin In The Woods – Way to turn that title on its head and inside out. I won’t say more, because if you’re among the few nerds who hasn’t seen this yet, I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure!
End of Watch – beat cops wresting with a criminal conspiracy worthy of a James Ellroy novel are given unexpected intimacy by some creatively used first-person camera.
The Impossible – Nevermind the flawless performances and emotionally wrenching story; the sound design on the sequence where Naomi Watts is swept nearly drowning through a tsunami is why movies matter.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Because it reminds you what it was like to be 19, and raises your appreciation and hope for those experiencing that period right now.
The Raid: Redemption – I gotta go back to THE ROAD WARRIOR for the last time a film made on a modest budget without big studio support redefined how we film and edit action sequences.
Rust & Bone – Love comes at times we are not prepared for and in forms we do not anticipate. Not so often that movies reflect that, and never as well acted or excruciatingly written as this.
Silver Lining Playbook – David O. Russell has a knack for slipping in extra dimensions into any genre he plays with. “The Fighter” could have been just a boxing movie, instead of one of the better movies in the past generation about dysfunctional families and addiction. This could have been just another romantic comedy, instead of a smart movie about emotional and mentally damaged folks that skillfully avoids most cliches and RAIN MAN cuteness.
Whore’s Glory – The final film in Michael Glawogger‘s trilogy on globalization focuses on the sort of underground economy examined in books like Eric Schlosser’s “Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market,” but too rarely in films. I love this movie for making people walk out of the screening I attended. This movie pulls no punches, and it shouldn’t; it will hurt you, and it should.
Zero Dark Thirty – Truth? I expected a movie about the final weeks or months before the raid that assassinated Osama Bin Laden. I did not expect an espionage epic (such an overused word, “epic,” but thematically it fits here) about the decade-long search leading up to that mission. I do not mean to diminish this film by comparing it to a Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner cartoon, but that is what it is at it’s core. Rather than the immovable object, the unstoppable force so voraciously confronts such an ever-moving target that the film feels like you are trapped inside an atom smasher.