So I got really busy at the beginning of this year, and consequently haven’t gotten around to finishing up my 2012 Movie Favorites list until now. Also, apparently I had a lot to say about these movies, even by my already extremely verbose standards. Which is also to say, obviously, SPOILERS AHEAD. But I’ve finished it now! Three months late!! Here it is!!! GET EXCITED!!!!!!!
(12) Man with the Iron Fists
The RZA is one of the most interesting people in entertainment today. It’s amazing he’s not more well-known than he is. My hatred of Godard is well-documented, but I wish there was some hoity-toity Godard-esque grand poobah of culture who would take the “lowly” art of The RZA and give it the attention it deserves.
The Man with the Iron Fists was such a lovingly rendered genre pastiche and so joyously entertaining that it’s easy to overlook how much that movie has on its mind. First of all, it was far and away the most culturally diverse movie of the year. Secondly, in a year where everyone was talkin’ ‘bout slavery, RZA’s titular character, an escaped slave who hops a boat to China and reinvents himself as a Buddhist weapons-maker was one of the more interesting takes on the archetype of The Slave in cinema. Also funny that much was made over how Spielberg and particularly Quentin Tarantino are two white dudes who made movies about Black Issues and whether or not that was capital A Acceptable. Nobody talked about the one black guy who made a movie that actually had some interesting, personal things to say directly from an actual black filmmaker about the black experience. What a funny world.
Hey, you know what else happened? Bautista had a bunch of cute street orphans jump on his back, and then he threw them all off perfectly onto hay bails. Which was…glorious. It was a great, well-constructed movie in the Shaw Brothers tradition that also felt entirely personal to the RZA.
And it had a killer soundtrack. Better than Django.
Rian Johnson has made three movies, all of which I’ve absolutely adored. I don’t know that anyone’s had such an auspicious one-two-three punch right out of the gate like this for me in a long, long time. Maybe the last one would be Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket-Rushmore-Tenenbaums combo. But even there it seemed like Anderson was developing and honing a style and craft as he went. Johnson seems more fully formed and also harder to peg down. While he’s got a personal style, it’s nowhere near as singular and distinctly auteur-y as Anderson’s. His three movies have been a neo-noir set in a suburban high school, a con-man picture that jumped around Europe and a futuristic sci-fi movie set in Kansas City, Shanghai and a farm.
In what will be a recurring theme on this list, a frustrating thing about this movie was people occasionally not being able to see the forest for the trees. Everyone wants to talk about the rules or plot holes in time travel flicks and they get so wrapped up in trying to “figure things out” that no one actually thinks about what the movie is actually saying. It’s telling that the most talked-about scene in the film was the conversation at the diner between the old and young Joe. Johnson rightly and thoughtfully uses Bruce Willis’s curmudgeonly-ness to dismiss all the typical time travel logic gobbledy-gook, but most people took that to be Johnson saying “Don’t worry about that, just sit back and have fun!” I think what he was actually saying is “This time travel crap isn’t what’s important here, so don’t fixate on it. I’ve got other things to say.”
As is usually the case, my list is going to be a monstrosity, so to cut right to the chase, let’s talk about the film’s ending. SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY. People often complain about sci fi or action or horror movies having their endings boil down to a simple good guy beats bad guy gun fight/ray gun fight/giant knife fingers fight. The ending of Looper, although certainly having some action, is actually tethered on a philosophical question: “How do we best prepare for the future?” Which is, I’d say, the theme of the movie, and it comes to a stunning conclusion. It’s also telling how much of a character arc BOTH Joes have, and how neither of them are GOOD or BAD. I also think the movie is pretty canny about the way it deals with the different generations of this one character. Young Joe is more than happy to sell out his future for the pleasures of today. Old Joe is more than happy to cause any bit of destruction he feels necessary to preserve the life he has, and the maturing version of Young Joe we have at the end realizes the need for sacrifice to protect a broader future and sees that working towards uncertain progress is better than banking on profiting from assured destruction. There’s a lot going on here, and even though the movie was by and large well-loved and embraced, I still don’t think it’s gotten the full acclaim it deserves. None of Johnson’s films have, in my opinion.
The first of this years brilliant movies about people riding around in limousines. There’s not a ton to say about this movie’s content because, as much as I love it, it sure ain’t subtle. What I should do, I suppose, is praise Cronenberg. The man speaks my language, and the way he makes this movie about the world closing in around Pattinson’s Master of the Universe tense, thrilling, sexy and funny all while mostly taking place in a limo is pretty masterful. The movie is based off a book by Don Delillo, who I’m not a fan of, and I think it’s a testament to Cronenberg’s formidable powers as a director that I could totally hear Delillo’s prose in my head, but felt like Cronenberg invested more thought, more punch and more verve into the story than the author himself. Could this be one of those rare cases where the movie is better than the book? That alone deserves some recognition.
The other thing worth mentioning here is Pattinson, who turns in a rather stunning performance. I hope he can pull off a Brad Pitt and shake himself out the pretty boy roles he’s currently largely boxed in and take on more interesting projects like this one. It would be great if this could be Pattinson’s 12 Monkeys.
Here’s the thing with The Avengers. It’s great. That’s pretty much it. It’s great. It’s a big, great, awesome movie. I feel like some people acted as though this was just the way a big blockbuster movie should be. Yeah, I guess. All big blockbusters should be awesome. But they’re not. They tend to be The Green Lantern, or John Carter, or that crappy new Bourne movie, or maybe that all right new Die Hard, or that pretty fun latest Mission: Impossible. It’s actually really hard to make an incredibly engaging movie out of a big, bloated action spectacle. But The Avengers not only did it, it did it the criminal way: they made it look easy. “Oh, OF COURSE it was a fun time,” said some, rolling their eyes. “It had all those other movies leading up to it, it was destined to be awesome.” Here’s the thing: How often are not only big Hollywood action movies awesome, but big Hollywood action movie SEQUELS? And this wasn’t just A sequel, it was the sequel to THREE different movies! That left this movie with SO MUCH POTENTIAL TO STINK. But they nailed it. And by “they,” I mean Whedon.
I love movies, and I have very visceral reactions to movies, and I tend to be greatly moved by a good many of them. I’ll tell you, I’ve seen some absolutely incredible movies in my life, but I’ve never wanted to stand up and cheer in a movie more than the “puny god” moment. Some people I saw it with DID stand and cheer. How often does THAT happen?
(8) The Dark Knight Rises
Look, I know this movie has a lot of plot holes and bits that don’t make a TON of sense, but here’s the thing: I don’t care. Not one single bit. Nolan’s making a movie about iconography, about heroes, about how we make them, why we need them and what we want from them. As much as words like “gritty” and “realism” tended to get thrown around when talking about Nolan’s Batman movies, I don’t think those are the things that were on his mind at all.
And here, I guess, I’d like to get a little heavy. I mentioned earlier about a theme being people not seeing the forest for the trees this year. Another term that gets thrown around with the Nolan Batman films is “nihilistic.” To me, they’re anything but. Nolan not only has something to say, he has a strongly ANTI-nihilism message. All the villains in those movies are, in some ways, agents of nihilism and chaos. The only way to defeat chaos and nihilism is through creating meaning and value. That’s what Bruce Wayne is doing with Batman throughout those movies. He knows that Batman is a symbol, and a symbol creates meaning. The last movie is the most “unrealistic” because it has to be. Because here is the moment where Wayne has imbued Batman with so much meaning that he’s not realistic anymore. He’s a SUPER HERO. That’s the POINT.
When the Aurora shooting happened we got a lot of people talking about how the shooter was crazy, how he was potentially influenced by violence in the media, etc. What I wish we’d heard more of was how he was wrong. He called himself The Joker, but he had no idea what that character actually was or his function in the story. He reportedly said, when being taken to jail, that he was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to see The Dark Knight Rises. I wonder if he would have liked it?
Major spoilers ahead. After the movie came out I heard a lot of people say they were disappointed in the end. They thought either Wayne should have died, or, at the very least, at the end they should have just shown Alfred look up and not show us that he sees Wayne, just, perhaps, intimate it. Not to fall back on that most awful of film nerd responses, but I don’t think they got it. The whole point is that Wayne/Batman wins, and he wins unambiguously, because of the meaning and the value he has created. To leave it ambiguous puts the weight of the story’s meaning entirely in the hands of the audience, which works in some instances, but not when the author/auteur has another, more definite meaning in mind. And killing Wayne puts all the value on the sacrifice and takes AWAY meaning from all the actions and decisions and meaning construction that the three movies had been building from the beginning. Bruce Wayne HAS to survive.
And what bothers me is that no one talks about that. Any of that. Because I feel like we have a hard time ascertaining TRUE meaning and value in this culture. We have touchpoints that we assign to stories, pre-packaged political or social constructs that we quickly look to label a movie or piece of art with, so if something like these Batman movies look “dark” or “gritty” then they must also be senselessly violent, or nihilistic, or cynical. These movies were, in my opinion, a far cry from any of that. Which is what makes me wonder what that Aurora shooter would have thought of it. Would he have understood? Would he have been disappointed? Would he, too, have wished Batman dead at the end? Would he have been disheartened to find, as I did, the ending to this movie to be incredibly uplifting, invigorating and full of hope? If so, it would seem that he would not have been in small company, and that is what truly bothered me. The movie is so much better than that, and deserves to be recognized as such.
(7) The Master
Speaking of people being unable to ascertain meaning and wanting things pre-packaged into easy social/political boxes…One of the standard lines on this movie was that it “didn’t have a point” or “didn’t mean anything.” That it was an exercise in style and pretension with nothing on its mind or at its heart. This completely baffled me. The only reasoning I could come up with was that it wasn’t the super-cynical slow-pitch takedown of Scientology/religion in general that people had wanted it to be. If anything, it gives a fair amount of credence to its charlatan cult leader. Sure, he’s full of baloney, but he also seems to earnestly desire to do good, to help others. Maybe in many ways for his own self-aggrandizement, but still, the impulse is there. And, maybe, that impulse is enough to do some actual good.
I was flabbergasted recently by hearing a movie podcast I enjoy claiming that Phoenix’s Freddie Quell was regressive if not worse at the end of the movie. How? He is, both literally and figuratively no longer poisoning himself. He has found a woman his own age (and not made out of sand) who he’s actually talking to and engaging with. Sure, he’s using the questions from Hoffman’s guru, but those are also the same questions that, through opening doors of intense communication, led him through his breakthroughs. He’s reaching out. He’s trying. And he doesn’t seem to be doing a terrible job of it. He’s gotten better, and maybe Hoffman’s character, maybe that “religion,” did a little something for him.
And just in that one ludicrous assumption I’ve gone into just one of the many, many avenues of meaning in the film. And, indeed, the heart. The incredible sympathy Anderson seems to have for these largely unsympathetic characters is palpable in every gorgeous frame of the movie. When I first left the movie I liked it, but I didn’t love it. However, having heard so many arguments against it, and occasionally having to defend it, I’ve gone back and considered it so often, and found so much in doing so, that I now can’t help but greatly admire it. So maybe all those ridiculous comments actually did some good for both me and the movie. At least there’s that.
(6) Cabin in the Woods
I think it was Whedon who claimed before this movie came out that it would, essentially, be “The last horror movie ever.” It was tongue in cheek, but also had a smidge of meat to it, just like the movie itself. It’s the UR-horror movie, taking as its subject the very nature and meaning of horror movies themselves. Not in an ironic “Scream” way, but as an engaging meta-narrative that really and truly felt like a defining statement.
Also, I saw it for my birthday and a buddy of mine summed my reaction well by saying that once they hit that button and those elevator doors open, that’s pretty much a tailor-made birthday present to me. I honestly couldn’t have asked for much more. That unicorn, man. There was so much, but that unicorn. Magical.
(5) Django Unchained
Hey, that Quentin Tarantino sure can make a movie, huh? Here’s another one I liked but didn’t love when I left it, but the more I thought about it and the more I heard other people complain about it, the more I kinda grew to love it. Part of me was disappointed this movie didn’t take as many crazy stylistic and narrative risks and flights as Inglourious Basterds. I still think Basterds is the better movie, but boy have I started really digging Django.
Continuing my “why didn’t people talk about X” commentary, everyone seemed hung up on the N-word here and whether Tarantino has the “right” to use it, or use with the frequency he did. I feel like people have disregarded a lot of the really meaty bits this movie engaged in regarding race and the effects of slavery. Django’s a fascinating character, and it’s interesting to watch how Tarantino plays up both his innocence and his savviness. Django listens to the story of Siegfreid and Brunnhilde with child-like interest, and when he’s allowed to choose his clothing for the first time he chooses and absurd, dandy-ish ensemble. However, once he’s “behind enemy lines” of sorts, he’s well acquainted with this world and wears his fakery with a mature understanding that borders on terrifying.
In the inevitable hand-wringing over cinematic violence that comes with the release of any Tarantino movie, as usual (see the Dark Knight Rises entry below) the actual meaning of the violence is completely disregarded. Although there is indeed a bloody gunfight or two, the two scenes of truly horrific violence come very close together around the middle of the movie and, unlike a gunfight, are very up close and personal. In one scene, a slave trying to escape the mandingo fights the film’s villain deals in is torn apart by dogs. In the other scene, we see one of the actual fights, where one slave is ordered to beat another slave to death with his bare hands.
There are two primary thing that I found make these scenes interesting and thoughtful instead of mere exercises in titillating violence (outside of the fact that neither scene is really titillating in the least). One is the perspective these scenes force onto Django. Particularly in the dog scene, Django is forced not only to watch the scene helplessly from the sidelines, but must, to keep his mandingo fighting expert character that he’s portraying within the story of the film, act nonchalant about it. When his white partner blanches at the violence, Django has to be doubly stone-faced to cover. Even in their guises as mandingo traders, the white man has the luxury of disgust and outrage that the black man doesn’t. This comes doubly into play with the fight scene. Not only are the slaves forced to watch the violence, two are forced to take part, one being rewarded for killing the other. In a number of interviews about the movie Tarantino referenced the ending of Roots and how in that film, and many other films about slavery, when the slaves can possibly turn on their masters they put down the whips and the weapons and nobly walk away. When Tarantino talks about that not being a satisfying ending, he’s not just talking about the audience’s bloodlust for retribution. He’s talking about simplifying a legacy of violence and damage. By having the slave drop the whip and walk away, the slave is, in some ways, letting the slave owner, and by extension those who have profiteered from the entire system, off the hook. “See, he’s better than that guy! He’s let it go! He’s the better man!” can easily be extrapolated into “What right do any black people have to be upset! Slavery was a long time ago! Get over it! Live and let live!”
But slavery’s legacy is much more complicated than that, and so many movies about that era do its time and its legacy a great disservice by their typical simplification. The more I consider it the more I think Tarantino is being just a sly about how we watch that kind of film as he was in Inglourious Basterds with how we watch war movies. He’s combined the filtered, staid approach of a typical pre-Civil War narrative and put it through the angry, violent, reactionary viewpoint of one of his favorite genres of film, 70s blaxploitation. By not just having one righteous man fight against one villainous one, but by having that man not only put on the costume of a cold-blooded killer, but do it so well he gets lost in it; by having the final villain not be the white overlord, but the dark mirror version of the hero; by showing on slave violently murder another for a slice of prosperity, Tarantino has created a complex system of violence and oppression coming from many sides and many kinds of human experiences. And, as he’s done so many times before, he uses this pulpy vibe to examine and toy with the idea of righteousness. Who has it, how do they use it, can it be corrupted, where does it get lost? Those who can’t find any meaning in Tarantino’s violence simply aren’t looking hard enough.
I wrote about this a lot on Facebook and probably talked your ear off about it at some point, so I’ll try to keep this brief and not repeat myself too much, but ParaNorman was a heck of a fun time, not just entertaining, but ballsy for a kids movie. It’s got horrific slapstick violence and an ending that’s earnestly creepy and includes a flashback to a story in which a bunch of adults who should know better murder a young girl because she’s different. And not only does it do that, but its lesson isn’t goodness will always overcome evil, but that good people will always do bad things because they’re afraid, and there’s no way to get rid of that, so the best thing we can do is try and be as good and fearless as we can be. It’s a movie that treads some pretty incredible ground, but is also consistently funny, exciting and visually delightful. The main reason I didn’t want to watch the Oscars this year was because I knew this would lose to Brave and that would break my heart a little. This movie is exceptional, and deserves to be recognized as such.
(3) Beasts of the Southern Wild
I get that people’s mileage will vary greatly on this film. The actors are far from professional and it’s got a real shambly, shaggy feel to it, but MAN did I love it. It paints a vivid picture of another world, I never knew where it was going next, I found the main girl so extraordinarily charming, I thought it was an absolute blast to watch. I was also fascinated that the movie took the unusual stance of arguing against FEMA intervention for at least some of the displaced people of Katrina. Being the mamby-pampy liberal that I am, I’m well acquainted with one of the great liberal catch-22 quagmires: wanting to celebrate a group’s culture while also wanting to use all the powers of our mighty government to “fix” everything, including things we find “wrong” with other people’s cultures. In this film, the people of “The Bathtub” have their own way of doing things that they know and love, and when Katrina happens the dilemma is do you forcibly extract them or do you let them stay where they want and face the consequences on their own? It’s an incredible movie that has a lot more going on than just that issue, but I’ve so rarely seen such a dilemma treated in such a fun, emotional, imaginative manner. And I also found the film incredibly gorgeous to look at and astoundingly engaging. This was a movie I truly loved.
(2) Anna Karenina
There’s a lot about Anna Karenina that would make it seem like a movie that might not entirely be my cup of tea. However, I found it riveting, and can’t stop thinking about it. Whether you’ll love or hate the movie will largely depend on how much you’re willing to go along with the “gimmick” of much of the movie taking place in and around a theater space. Some found it distancing, distracting and ill-conceived, believing it added nothing to the movie. I loved it, and I think it oddly allowed me to engage with the characters in a way I rarely do in these types of stories. By placing the action within the theater it calls into question all the characters’ “roles” and “motivations.” And so, the central character of Anna, whom I would typically find an over-aggrandizing and indulgent whiner, can be seen as someone trying to find her own role and being entirely unable to. The meta-ness managed to actually humanize the characters for me, which I found a rather incredible feat. Also, the theatrical conceit stopped the movie from getting too bogged down, which these stories certainly are in danger of doing. All-in-all I was shocked at how invested and excited I was by the whole affair. I saw it by myself and I’m fairly certain I said “Oh, wow!” a couple of times out loud in the theater, which is certainly saying saying something.
(1) Holy Motors
Not so much a movie as a miracle, Holy Motors was one of the most incredible movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. The movie takes a bit to really get its motors fully running, so to speak, but after the second “job,” I found myself almost bouncing in my seat with anticipation of what would come next. Every section is its own little masterpiece, and each builds on the last until I was in some kind of pure cinema delirium. One of the greatest things about the film is it’s a pure movie-going experience. I can’t imagine watching it at home. During the “intermission” piece I wanted to turn to the people around me, shake them and scream “DO YOU SEE?!?! DO YOU SEE HOW GREAT MOVIES CAN BE??? THIS IS SPECTACULAR!!!” The build in lunacy is almost too much to take, and just when you think it can’t get any more surreal and sublime, those last two scenes are so epically, perfectly bizarre and oddly touching I found it pretty close to a religious experience. The movie is such a high-wire act of mad tonal shifts, outrageous humor and absurd scenes of strange import, yet it’s also so self-assured it’s almost offensive. It’s the movie I feel like Goddard wished he could have made. It’s nominally about movies and acting, but it’s also pretty much about everything. It’s so heavy with meaning, yet also so light and silly and enjoyable…it makes me ecstatic just thinking about the fact that this movie even got made. It’s such an absolutely, utterly bizarre movie I feel uneasy recommending it to people, but boy oh boy did I love this movie as I have loved few others. Astounding.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Lincoln, Argo, Moonrise Kingdom, Bernie
MOVIES I REALLY WISH I’D SEEN: Zero Dark Thirty, Amour, Compliance, Corialanus, The Grey, The Raid: Redemption, Magic Mike, The Imposter, Red Hook Summer, Lawless, Wuthering Heights, The Paperboy, Seven Psychopaths, Flight, Life of Pi, Rust and Bone, Barbara, The Impossible
LEAST FAVORITE MOVIES OF 2012
Cloud Atlas – I’ve written about this extensively elsewhere, there are parts of this movie that I enjoyed, but there was so much that irritated the hell out of me that it made me go out and write a massive blog post about it. And so.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits – From Aardvark, a company that usually puts out charming films, this movie was so hacky, unfunny and charmless it actually made me afraid maybe their other films weren’t nearly as fun as I’d remembered them. I feel like they are, but I’m now afraid to go back and watch them. That’s how crummy this was.
Silent House – A movie that wears out its gimmick and its welcome 20 minutes in and then hobbles to a “twist” ending it was easy to see coming from a mile away and was also super hacky. Bummer.
John Carter of Mars – If this movie was an hour shorter it’d be a harmless, kinda fun trifle. But guess what? This movie was NOT an hour shorter. So harmless becomes incredibly frustrating and obnoxious and, even as someone who likes Lynch’s “Dune” I found most of this movie confusing and completely unengaging. That fast dog was kinda fun, though. Too bad they didn’t do anything at all with him. Or anything else in the movie.
Prometheus – When I hear people who like this movie talk about it, the movie they’re describing sounds AWESOME. However, it also doesn’t sound like the movie I saw. They talk about a movie in which the characters struggle with the search for a creator who may not care a lick for them, or may even hate them. That sounds kinda neat! The movie I saw was full of a lot of meaningless slight of hand, crappy sci-fi tropes and thoughtless action. I mean, that operation machine scene was pretty neat and I liked Michael Fassbender…but yeah, that’s about all I got. I thought the promo pieces they did were way better than the actual movie.
The Collection/Silent Night – Crappy, crappy horror that doesn’t really deserve to be talked about, except that I’ll single out Silent Night as being a movie that remakes/references two “Bad Movie” classics that manages to be a completely awful movie, making for an intriguing thought experiment over what makes a charmingly terrible movie versus a complete piece of crap.
BEST USE OF CINEMA’S GREATEST LIVING TREASURE, NICHOLAS CAGE: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
BEST PURE HORROR MOVIE: The Innkeepers
BEST PURE COMEDY: 21 Jump Street
BEST PIECE OF DISGUSTING, HORRIFYING, AND ABSOLUTELY HILARIOUS MADNESS: Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie
NEWEST MOVIE CRUSH: Gina Carano – Haywire
LOW-KEY CHARMER: Goon
LOW-KEY CHARMER, ANIMATED: Wreck-It Ralph
MOVIE I LIKED BUT WAS SO HORRIFIED BY I DON’T THINK I’LL EVER WATCH IT AGAIN: Snowtown
MOVIE THAT SOMETIMES FELT CLOSE TO GREAT, BUT NEVER MADE IT PAST FRUSTRATING: Killing Them Softly
AWESOME MOVIE THAT DROPPED THE BALL ON THE TITLE: Lockout – obviously shoulda been “SPACE PRISON!!!!”
MOVIE THAT MADE EVERYONE IN THE THEATER, INCLUDING ME, WANT TO GET UP AND DANCE (AND ONE KID EVEN DID!): Step Up: Revolution
MOVIE I REALLY LIKED BUT WISH I COULD HAVE SEEN THE PLAY: Killer Joe
MOVIE BY A DIRECTOR I REALLY WISH WORKED MORE: Jack Reacher – Christopher MacQuarrie
BEST MOVIE VILLAIN WITH AWESOMELY GOOFY VOICE: Three-way tie: Tom Hardy – Dark Knight Rises; Javier Bardem – Skyfall; Werner Herzog – Jack Reacher
BEST GUY LAUGHING AT HIS OWN JOKE: Robert Duvall, Jack Reacher