Sunday, March 10, 2013

Wilde.Dash's 15 (um, 16?) Best of 2012

This entry is overdue. Not by a little bit, but by almost three months. We're so far into 2013 already that I very nearly skipped this completely. I mean, really, what's the point? Everyone's completely exhausted by the ranking and awarding of last year's films, and I certainly have better things to do. That said, this thing just keeps gnawing at me.  So, I'm putting together the list if for no other purpose than for my own records. As mentioned, I found 2012 to be a year of solid films, but often fairly uninspiring ones from my vantage. Strange, perhaps, since there were so many films that read as real artistic risks on paper (Life of Pi, Cloud Atlas, Anna Karenina, for example) that somehow wound up seeming rather mundane in actualization.  The movies that made my list, it seems, are the ones that broke beyond the balanced 'good' and gestured towards greatness in ways, I think, different from the Academy's narrative standard. 

A film I'll admit I didn't particularly "like" in the conventional sense of the word, but which I've puzzled over and grown to respect quite a bit.  Holy Motors resists your gaze. It is not interested in engaging you. It does not care to piece together a plot for your convenience.  It does not want to make the reasoning behind its form at all transparent. Of course, given compelling elements, this kind of film can be tremendous fun to unpack, particularly when it teases at its own possibilities.

When I describe Oslo, August 31st as a film about a recovering junkie (Anders Danielsen Lie) who takes a day trip into the city from his rehab program to take a job interview, I suspect you get the wrong idea. This isn't one of those 'guy struggling with addiction' movies we've seen time and again.  The expected form has been emptied of that content and rewritten, recast as a wandering, deeply human drama about what happens when a person wakes up from a chemical daze and discovers, strangely, that the world has continued, that people have moved on. 

A startling example of barely moving indie drama, Compliance is a film that will make you want to crawl out of your skin, beat its gullible characters to a pulp, and yell at people for hours on end.  What it asks us to watch, what we are coerced into participating in seems impossible even as we know, somehow, that the car crash before us is based in fact. When fast food manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) receives a phone call from a police officer claiming one of her employees (Dreama Walker) is guilty of an earlier theft, she and her co-workers take the girl into the backroom for holding and listen to the voice on the other end, willing to do anything to remain in compliance. The results are shocking and upsetting, confusing and cruel. This is a true story, and one you'll have trouble looking away from even though you may desperately, desperately want to. 

A film that seems oddly like a trifle in memory while at once reading like an instant classic.  While it’s true that Brave fits comfortably into the fairy tale world of the Disney brand, and many will cite an adherence to ‘convention’ as a reason why it doesn’t quite meet their expectations for Pixar’s emotional rollercoasters, I’d urge you to give it a close look and admire all the small details that are contributing to the very sense of something effortless that many are scoffing at.  Where past Pixar outings have offered us glimpses into imaginative spaces that challenge elements of the world as we see it (inside the toy box, inside the aquarium, behind the child’s closet), Brave will undoubtedly be discounted for its grounded, human elements. 

A film that has been building in my esteem since the viewing, Perks is a perfectly wrought, very real account of the highs and lows of high school; of a time when the wounds cut deep. Perks is committed to the lonely realities of adolescence, and the film presents itself in earnest.  This is the new new sincerity, a place where indie-movie sentiments never read as ironic but become heartbreakingly honest.  Stephen Chbosky took the directing reins on his own material, and he's cast his story well.  It reads like an indie from a decade ago, something that works in its favor as a strange dose of nostalgia for the book's first generation readers.   

I found it pretty tough to throw one of these films on here without the other. There's a phenomenal amount of work involved in both of these under-appreciated animated gems, and each has been gently twisted towards darkness in a way that doesn't play down or underestimate what its young viewers are capable of processing.  Frankenweenie and ParaNorman are sweet little horrors that dilute the strange joy of their parent genres to capture the nostalgia of different periods (Universal Monsters and Toho Studios for Frankenweenie, 70's and 80's zombies and slashers for ParaNorman), mixing in sparkling bits of humor with surprising amounts of substance.  They're the perfect Halloween double feature.

At the halfway mark of the year, you may have expected to see Prometheus all the way at the top of the heap.  Time and repeated criticisms, though, have managed to wear away some of the raw glee I experienced while watching Ridley Scott's so-called "prequel." It's true, yes, that it's a tremendously flawed film packed with logical leaps which, when considered, wear away at the fabric of the film. That said, Ridley Scott's sci-fi pictures have a history of arriving on the scene with a thud, only to be reappraised and appreciated far later as a step towards something. For my money, Prometheus gets the space exploration blockbuster right, and beautifully so.  It's a film very much like its resident android, David (Michael Fassbender).  It's invitingly cold and seems to take a certain jolt of pleasure from curiously tampering with the lives of the mortals in its care. That means, too, that while it's an aesthetic improvement or technological advancement on an old idea, it's still a familiar trope at heart.  For those seeking a 'more' substantial amount of pure originality from a panic room bit of sci-fi: I wish you luck. 

Though not a film I enjoyed watching as much as Prometheus, Zero Dark Thirty is one of this past year's solid, Oscar-buzzed movies that managed to impress me with its quieter merits. You will note that Katheryn Bigelow's controversial, too serious film made it where Argo did not, and while one may be more entertaining than the other (a feat in itself), it seems to me that Zero Dark pulls off the more intriguing coup (at least from an academic standpoint). Zero Dark is patient and cold, a procedural that asks you to commit to a character  realistically bound by government bureaucracy    and which resists, time and again, the trappings of a thriller. Evenly tempered, brilliantly paced, and tough as nails.

Yes, there's a place on this list for a really solid, really superior action film, and yes, I believe that film is Skyfall and not Argo.  It's a perfect entry in the long history of 007, the proof that sequels can and will keep kicking, and a movie that seems to have single-handedly resurrected a groundswell of interest in the franchise's past. Sam Mendes has found the raw beauty in the Bond mythos and Skyfall has a love letter of a set-up, an elegant construction built up around a deep, abiding homage payment to traditional formula. Where Skyfall begins with a verbal denunciation of "the old ways" it winds up cleverly employing them for a new generation.  Where the last two films have worked at digging into the psychology of the Bond character, Skyfall succeeds in finding a way to marry a more dimensional version of the character to the potentially cheesy formula elements that make up "a James Bond picture." 

A deliciously depraved journey into a full set of very dark hearts and very small minds. Killer Joe is as pitch black as comedy gets, and crosses far beyond the limits of good taste at nearly every turn.  Its bottom feeding exploitative plot elements become frighteningly compelling art that challenges its viewers to keep watching with a knowing smirk. This is an art film, and the phenomenal cast feeds us the film's poison without breaking a sweat.

A pure, resonant comedy everyone seemed to love until it was time to actually put numbers on the so-called 'best' of the year.  Silver Linings plays things light, and at the end of the day it's easy to pass it off as nothing more than a smartly crafted romantic comedy.  But...if the material is sharp, the energy kinetic, the performances real, and the feeling you get from it makes you want to return...what's so bad about that? 

Amour possesses a placid assurance, a strange calm which -when broken- resonates with a power unlike just about any damn thing out there.  There's not a hint of melodrama here, no sentimentality, nothing to latch on to for support or which will allow you to remind yourself it's "only a movie."  The score is absent, silent, and music is used only to evoke memory.  Haneke shows us something that feels unbearably real, that sits with us and lingers as the one true universal. This is an inside glimpse at what it's like to be heartbroken over and over and over again, to feel helpless as death comes rushing on. You will grow to care for these people. You will understand these characters in ways you did not think possible. You will appreciate the film even as you desperately want it to reach its inevitable end.

As a director, Wes Anderson has always seemed to hold the bittersweet simplicity of children's literature close as a source of inspiration, and it occurs to me now that he seems to be equally intimate in his understanding of their literary construction, of what it is that appeals to us as children and what brings us back to a world time and again.  He knows how to position a camera, how to cast a spell on even the cheapest luxury that removes it from any definite temporal placement and makes it desirable and just a little sad. Anderson's films manage an alchemy.  They close the distance between childhood and adulthood and treat everyone within their world, regardless of actual age, as the same confused equal on a daring, everyday adventure. Moonrise Kingdom is perhaps Anderson's most purely realized original 'storybook', a world so comfortably lived in that it seems like magic. 

Django Unchained is operating according to a set of guidelines that only Tarantino can make work. It's a big, overblown, labyrinth of a film that seems to constantly turn inward on itself or grow a new appendage where the dust of a previous denouement has only just settled.  It chooses the elements of past genres and pre-existing films and artfully, lovingly arranges them to create something that never feels anything but brand new.  It has a soundtrack that splices hip hop into the soundscape of the spaghetti western and we don't dare roll our eyes because, well, there's nothing here that falters or gives us pause to second guess what we've seen.  It's a damn shame Django couldn't snatch Best Picture away from the expected. 

Moonrise Kingdom and Django Unchained were all in a row, and deciding which to push where was, well, tough. Ultimately, though, it seemed unreasonable to run with anything other than The Master, a film I haven't been able to shake from my memory since seeing it last September.  Beautifully photographed and breathtakingly acted, The Master is an intricate puzzle, a thing that warrants patience, discussion, and revisiting.  Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted what I believe is the most literary of this past year's films. It's a work that immerses itself in the raw language of cinema, which builds scenes at times just to captivate us with their poetry, and which devotes itself to the crafting of characters so unlike those we have seen before that we are unnerved.  The Master invites interpretation, immerses us in a world, and challenges its viewers in the most wonderful of ways.


  1. Great list. I am really looking forward to watching The Master again (and again, and again.

    I AM happy to see a spot on your list featuring Matthew McConaughey (though it's well deserved in this case).

    1. Yeah, I really need to just buy The Master already. Feeling the trance. Need some processing.

      The list feels quite odd to me this year. There are a few too many movies on it that I thought were very good, but which I don't love in a way that would make me want to watch them again. Compliance, Oslo, Zero Dark Thirty, and, I suppose, Amour are all great films, but 2011 was just packed with films I'd be fairly happy watching over and over.

  2. I agree with the ones I've seen, meaning Perks, Skyfall and Silver Linings, except Prometheus and Compliance, but that's solely because I didn't really feel them, so I understand your choice. On the other hand, I just might break my classic hollywood phase to watch some of the other ones -- your words certainly got me interested again.


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