Monday, April 29, 2013

At Long Last The Best Movies of 2012

Scene from Cloud Atlast

2012 was a movie year so complicated I'm only just now getting around to it. A lot of very good films came out, to the extent that I wondered if I was being overly generous in my grading (something a critic, amateur or not, really needs to not fuss over.) But at the same time there are a couple of worrying trends that make me worry about the modern movie audience just a little. Still, the state of the industry isn't something to panic over just yet. Here's my Top 10.

1. Cloud Atlas. The most ambitious and least cynical film since, well, the last time the Wachowskis went behind the camera. The siblings and Tom Twyker weave together radically different stories with the natural language of film editing, harmonizing them and affirming a message that every action we take echoes in time for good or ill. A worthy successor to Griffith's Intolerance nearly a century after the fact.

2. Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson's gift for creating fantastic and richly populated comic worlds goes nicely with a wistful look at the awkwardness of young love. Simply charming, a warm and lovely story told with just enough of an edge, and a little craziness.

3. Django Unchained. The horrific legacy of American chattel slavery, served as a sleazy revenge fable. Probably not the most sensitive portrayal of its subject, but it conveys the ugly truth of one of America's worst chapters even as it plays loose with the facts. Perverse and hugely satisfying.

4. Looper. A smart, tightly written sci-fi tale that earns a lot of trust by frankly admitting that the exact mechanics of time travel aren't going to be clearly explained. It's primarily a study in fate and predeterminism, and the moral problems raised by foreknowledge, and the execution blends strong action with good character building and two excellent performances by Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon Levitt.

5. Prometheus. Manages the neat trick of evoking a Golden Age sense of wonder and thrill of exploration, while at the same time pointing up the dangers of discovering primal knowledge and the irrational arrogance that can manifest. Yeah, the characters don't always make optimal decisions, but that's arguably the point and the film does a fine job engaging with the mindset that leads to such folly. My enthusiasm for this film is only bolstered by my impatience with fussing over its tactical shortcomings.

6. ParaNorman. It starts breezily and unassumingly enough with a kid seeing ghosts everywhere, builds to a fun comic horror riff, and then builds even further to climactic scenes that are genuinely dramatically powerful in a way you don't expect. It's possible I'm letting the end of the film disproportionately elevate my opinion of the whole, but then it just wouldn't work if it didn't earn it.

7. Killer Joe. William Friedkin proves he has lost none of his edge over time, again collaborating with Tracy Letts and this time creating a grimly hilarious fiasco story which repeatedly crosses the line of good taste. The cast is amazing, the humor is disarming, and while it's hard to say just what this story is telling us about the human condition, it leaves you shaken nonetheless.

8. Brave. Some critics took Pixar's latest to task for being too conventional, but I can't argue with the execution. It's simply charming, a comic fable about a relationship between mother and daughter, with warm visuals, appealing characters and some very nice voice acting, notably by Kelly MacDonald as Merida.

9. Beasts of the Southern Wild. A rich and intense experience, another world existing inside ours- issues can be raised about the responsible portrayal of poverty stricken communities, but the story is told so relentlessly from the perspective of Hush Puppy that a certain unreliability is assumed. We are living the girl's experience, and the filmmakers conjure indelible images and a sense of reckless, dangerous joy.

10. Skyfall. The Bond series yet again found itself having to reconsider its place in our pop culture landscape, and the resulting self-examination makes for one of the best entries in the series. A tense, vivid spy thriller which manages to deliver the traditional thrills alongside a sense of an era's slow passage.

Barely missing the cut: Chronicle, Dredd, Cabin in the Woods, The Dark Knight Rises, Lincoln

Best Opening Credits Sequence: Skyfall.

The Most Underrated Movie of the Year: John Carter / Battleship / Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (THREE WAY TIE!)

And this is where I get off on a rant, because the failure of these films with the general public points to something worrying.  To be fair, John Carter didn't have much of a chance, due to an obtuse ad campaign designed by the director himself, but the knowledge that it was likely to flop became reason enough for many to dismiss it out of hand. A warm, sincere, wide-eyed pulp adventure film seemed antiquated, obsolete before anyone laid eyes on it, and more is the pity.

Battleship was just plain a well made action adventure film which happened to be based on a board game. Again, this alone was reason for everyone to dismiss it before and after the fact; critics didn't even want to engage with it on a sincere level and audiences thought themselves above it. It doesn't seem fair, though, considering how Peter Berg essentially beats Michael Bay at his own game, creating a high-tech sci-fi effects-driven spectacle with vibrant action sequences, surprisingly engaging characters, and a subtext about missed communication and culture clash that sailed right over the heads of people who are supposed to take film seriously. Good movie, bad show by the film community.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter was similarly much smarter than it looked, but since it didn't look smart critics and audiences didn't bother paying attention. In a way it anticipates Tarantino's slave-revenge epic by blatantly arguing for the parasitic inhumanity of the Confederacy, denying nearly a solid century of Southern apologism by the film industry. Again, there is also humanity and some sweetness, a remarkable lead performance, and some utterly brilliant action.

Look, how many times do people have to be told not to judge a book by its cover? Sure, nobody has the money or time to see every film that is released and we filter our selections accordingly, but it's one thing to let something slip by and another to actively dismiss it for superficial reasons. Whether something is a board game, has a gimmicky title, or is positively drenched in flop sweat shouldn't matter. Quality shines through.

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