2012 - Best Discoveries

I won't pretend that 2012 was a particularly sensational year for movies, though the stand-outs were superb.  No matter which year we're talking about, it's usually the films that one sees outside of the relentless "cult of the new release" that stand out the most.  Of course, the conversation about film that has blossomed through the increased number of websites, journals, and blogs dedicated to film in recent years has simultaneously made it easier to engage with film culture, and harder to steer clear of the same group of critically fawned-over films.  Even though many of those films made my "2012 - Best Films" list, it sometimes becomes a challenge for those writing about film to separate the movie from the hype, as it were.  Ultimately, my process is something akin to asking myself a question I would like to re-construct from one of my favorite Little Richard quotes (if memory serves me, from the 1973 documentary Jimi Hendrix):  What "thrilled me right down to my thriller"?

Ok...maybe not the most academic of approaches, but it's the one that feels honest to me.  In any case, the most thrilling films I see in any given year are those that come out of nowhere--perhaps creeping up from some long ago recommendation on the Netflix queue, or laying in wait at the bottom of a cinema care-package from a distant friend.  The "Best Discoveries" list is about those pictures that come at you unexpectedly, regardless of what era they were produced, and can range from classics that it seems everyone has seen except for you, to films it seems no one has seen except for you.  The first on my list fits into the latter category, a black and white gem buried deep in the excellent Val Lewton Horror Collection DVD set, but more resonant for me than the films more commonly invoked (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie) alongside that legendary producers name:

The 7th Victim (1943), dir. Mark Robson

Greenwich village is the dark destination for innocent Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) as she searches for her missing sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), encountering a strange array of poets, lesbians, and satanists along the way.  An obvious influence on Polanski's Rosemary's Baby gang, the Palladists of The 7th Victim are an eerie group, and must have seemed even more unexpectedly characterized set against the traditional horror of the early 40's.  But, perhaps what I adore most about The 7th Victim is its uncompromisingly grim finale, which you have to see to believe.  The shadowy menace we expect from a Lewton production is present throughout, as with Robson's second Lewton production of 1943, Ghost Ship.  But, where Ghost Ship feels more like an off-kilter genre exercise in bringing horror tropes to a novel setting, The 7th Victim feels simultaneously separate from horror conventions, yet uniquely and completely terrifying.

A Safe Place (1971), dir. Henry Jaglom

Another film that can be found buried in a great box set called "The BBS Story" from Criterion, Henry Jaglom's first feature was created through the influence of improvisational theater, the French New Wave, and the diaries of Anais Nin.  Among the BBS canon, A Safe Place may not be as enduring as Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces or The King of Marvin Gardens (though certainly more enduring than the Nicholson-directed Drive, He Said), and not nearly as iconic as Easy Rider or The Last Picture Show, but still fascinating in the way it differs from those films in its technique and overall impact.  Where Easy Rider popularized "flash" editing as a sort of stylistic choice, the erratic editing in Jaglom's film is way more pervasive, and in fact an inseparable part of the film's make-up, creating a distinctive psychological space for the viewer, rooted by the intimate and uninhibited performance of Tuesday Weld (Noah).  Along with the non-linear editing, the movement of the zoom lens throughout gives the film an undulating, dreamlike quality (not unlike another great portrayal of female characters from the 70's, Robert Altman's 3 Women), enhanced by the constant presence of decorative stars, candle flames and Christmas lights that line the film's careful and inventive framing.  Jaglom is entirely focused on ideas of memory, time and magic throughout the film, and the technique is inextricably intertwined with those ideas, creating a uniquely feminist portrayal that he saw as missing from the larger picture of cinema at that time.  Orson Welles plays a peripheral Magician character in the film, which carries an interesting connection to Welles' 1973 film F for Fake.  Also, as with many of the great BBS pictures of this time, the film features a terrific performance by Jack Nicholson.

Age of Consent (1969), dir. Michael Powell

Powell and Pressburger's 1946 romantic classic A Matter of Life of Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) could just as easily have made this slot; though I've seen many of the British directing duo's always impressive output I somehow only recently caught up with what is commonly regarded as one of their greatest visual triumphs.  But, Powell's solo directing effort (and one of his last), Age of Consent, has stuck with me more, possibly due to the presence of the captivating Helen Mirren, but more likely because of the way it stands apart from those early masterpieces, drawing a portrait of an aging artist at work in a rather isolated location.  In 1960, Michael Powell directed his disturbing mediation on cinema, voyeurism and sexual obsession, Peeping Tom, nearly ending his career due to negative response from critics and censors alike.  In Age of Consent James Mason stands in for Powell as an artist retreating from a world of facile criticism and consumerism, seeking rejuvenation on the shores of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.  The film is not nearly as complete a triumph as many of the early Powell and Pressburger works, or even Peeping Tom; the comedic sub-plot featuring Jack MacGowran is forced at best, and the closing song in ode to Mirren's character Cora is a real eye-roller.  But, the way in which Powell patiently engages with the landscape and the story more than makes up for the film's shortcomings, particularly when it comes to young Cora's sense of discovery (which could have easily come off as simply lecherous).  Where Peeping Tom showed us a violent side to Powell that no one expected, the bigger picture of this great director seems incomplete without the more relaxed, breezy images of Age of Consent.

A Boy and His Dog (1975), dir. L.Q. Jones

L.Q. Jones, a regular ensemble member of the great Peckinpah westerns (The Wild Bunch, The Balllad of Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid), did little directing work in his career, yet managed to make one of the darkest and most prescient cult classics of the 1970's, A Boy and His Dog.  Based on the Harlan Ellison novel of the same name, Jones adaptation is a sparse and uncompromising satire.  A young Don Johnson plays Vic, a stereo-typically horny teenager in a rather non-stereo-typical relationship with his dog, educator, and mentor Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire) with whom he communicates telepathically.  Set in 2024 against a desolate post-World War IV landscape, the film spends little time laboring to explain the particulars of it's apocalyptic world, but rather allows them to emerge through the character interaction (as when the factor of illiteracy is introduced as Vic barters a clearly labeled can of "Beets" for admission to a dirty movie, telling the gatekeeper they're "Peaches").  The title of the film (as well as the folk/country theme ditty penned and sung by McIntire) evokes an archetype of the American 1950's, later elaborated on through the perverse and preserved civility of the "downunder" that Vic is lured into.  This underground lair, presided over by Lou Craddock (Jason Robards), is a place where the inhabitants exist in artificial light, wear the clothes of country folk and keep their faces covered in clown-like white paint.  The scenes within the "downunder" occupy most of the final half of the film, and carry the most direct connection to our modern times, evoking the current desires of conservative and extremist separatist groups speculating on some rather extreme versions of the "gated community" in the new millennium.  Perhaps the missing link between 71's The Omega Man and 79's Mad Max, A Boy and His Dog seems more current than either of those films.  And, the final punchline is as dark as it gets.

Putney Swope (Don't Rock the Boat...Sink It!) (1969), dir. Robert Downey (a prince)

A "black" comedy for sure, Robert Downey Sr.'s late 60's skewering of the advertising industry is still relevant satirically and artistically, as well as being laugh-out-loud funny.  The urgency of Swope's production (filmed at night in an experimental advertising branch where Downey was employed at the time) translates to the screen to create a gleefully subversive commentary that still feels risky. Also, the underground production quality gives the film a theatrical feel, at times boldly carrying the torch of the Absurd, which had been seeping into American theater and film throughout the 1960's.  Essentially the story of an advertising agency accidentally electing their only black board member (Swope, played by Arnold Johnson, but later re-voiced by Downey himself) to be their new President, the film is constructed of bits, sketches and satirical advertisements (the only sequences shot in color), but avoids feeling like a tedious collection of bits and sketches.  This achievement is due partly to the film's brief running time, but also the way in which race is complicated through the film's main character.  Rather than simply being a tale of black/white inversion, Swope and his comedic entourage also succumb to their position of power, and, by the end, made up in full Fidel Castro garb complete with iconic cigar, Swope is even in cahoots with the President of the United States (played by the very small actor Pepi Hermine, who would appear in Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small the following year).  Released around the same time as Easy Rider, Downey's film feels less stuck in the time of it's making.  Although a few of the references in Swope will fail to play with the same immediacy today, the overall question the film leaves is where this kind of risky, absurd, immediate cinema exists today.

Moneyball (2011), dir. Bennett Miller

I include Moneyball here for those who, like me, may have skipped over it because of suspicions about it being a stereo-typical sports film, which is far from the case.  Bennett, whose first feature was the incredible documentary of the unstoppable Speed Levitch (The Cruise, 1998), does deliver in terms of Moneyball hitting all the high points that make a sports film a sports film.  But, the difference here is how well it works as a finely-tuned character drama, only playing the part of a cookie-cutter, stand-up-and-cheer baseball flick.  Without Zaillian and Sorkin's subtly humorous and deeply human script, and Bennett's ability to capture the fantastic performances of Brad Pitt, Kerris Dorsey, Jonah Hill, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the film would fail to transcend the trappings of the genre; instead, it creates an emotional world for Pitt that goes far beyond what we have seen before in pictures like this.  Phillip Seymor Hoffman's physicality alone feels like a treatise on the state of the modern sports industry.

Finally, two quick recommendations for a couple of "buried treasure" documentaries:

Reel Paradise (2005), dir. Steve James

Documenting the final phases of John and Janet Pierson's year-long attempt to bring cinema to the Fiji island of Taveuni, Steve James captures the rather difficult culture clash that happens when a cineaste puts his faith in the flicker to the test.  James is most known for his seminal documentaries Hoop Dreams (1994), Stevie (2002), and The Interrupters (2011).  Though a lesser-known title, Reel Paradise is essential viewing for those interested in movies about movies.

So Wrong They're Right (1995), dir. Russ Forster

One of my favorite 8-track memories is listening to Queen's "The Game" and always having to anticipate when to hit the button in order to here my favorite track (which was always shifting--"Sail Away Sweet Sister" one week, "Don't Try Suicide" the next).  This odd documentary about 8-track culture is a guaranteed nostalgia trip, particularly for music buffs, featuring some charming characters and a great story about the 8-track of Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music."  So Wrong They're Right is an Other Cinema release, which is worth looking into for their tremendous catalog of documentary oddities and found footage masterpieces.


2012 - Best Films

Better late than never, eh?  In no particular order, a few films I'm still living/grappling/conversing with from 2012.  As is often the trouble with lists such as these, some selections fail to neatly fall into the strict chronology of having been released in 2012, just as some of the selections in my 2011 list (Pina, Into the Abyss, Turin Horse, Anatolia) weren't officially released until later.  Looking back on last year's post, I realize I haven't yet caught up with every film I was anticipating might cause some displacement in the ranks (do we ever really "catch up"?), so I will eventually add to that "Catch Up" list here, as well as include some I've already covered on ECSTATIC in my "2012 - So Far" posting from mid-point last year; most notably, Lynn Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin.  

Ramsay's meditation on motherhood and the repercussions of school violence may not necessarily be at the very top of my list, but it is a remarkable leap forward for the director (currently in the news for being a "no-show" on the production of Jane Got a Gun, slated to feature Natalie Portman and Jude Law), as well as an important part of the continuing evolution of female film roles, fiercely led this year by the dense and risky performance work of Tilda Swinton.  2012 was marked by a unique breadth of work by women (and girls) that has certainly stood out, including the amazing work of Amy Adams in The Master, Anne Marsen in Girl Walk: All Day, Quvenzhane Wallis in Beast of the Southern Wild, and Edith Scob, Kylie Minogue, and Eva Mendes in Holy Motors.  And, I would be remiss not to mention the remarkable women of Television from this year:  Lena Dunham in Girls, Anna Gunn and Betsy Brandt in Breaking Bad, and Laura Dern in Enlightened.  The writing, pacing, and cinematography involved in these shows has taken the continuing TV-evolution of the last decade to a new level of crossbreeding the art of television with some serious film making sensibilities.  Not since the Golden Age of live tele-plays has there been so much potential and life on the small screen.

Breaking Bad
Speaking of Laura Dern, I also want to make note of her brief but memorable appearance in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, the only film for me this year that could appropriately begin this list, and which I assume will be one of the most oft viewed entries for me in years to come.  Without further ado...

The Best of 2012:

The Master directed by Paul Thomas Anderson's

Another remarkable achievement for Anderson, showing a maturity of craft--especially in its complex and subtle resolution--that may even surpass his extraordinary 2007 film There Will Be Blood.  Perhaps the second installment of an "American 20th Century" trilogy, The Master shows us Anderson, Pheonix, and Hoffman at the peak of there craft, transcending reductive readings of the film that may want to contain it as either a Scientology expose, or a tale of latent male desire.  Of course, all of those elements are there, but the truth of this masterpiece is that it radiates so much more.

Holy Motors directed by Leos Carax

I was blissfully unaware of the idea or shape of Leos Carax's new film Holy Motors going in, which is exactly how I suggest experiencing this exuberant and madly inspired ode to cinema, performance, and the absurd.  Other films this year contained some superb humor (Cabin in the Woods comes to mind), but few that allowed me to laugh with such a sense of surprise and wonder.  Holy Motors might be written off by some as more ineffective meta-cinematic muscle-flexing (meta-bation, as I've heard it recently coined), or as simply too weird for its own good.  For me, it fell nothing short of a reminder of what I love most about movies: the ability of the medium to surprise, confound, contort, and simply amaze.

The Rest of the Best:

Moonrise Kingdom directed by Wes Anderson

Girl Walk//All Day directed by Jacob Krupnick

We Need To Talk About Kevin directed by Lynn Ramsay

Django Unchained directed by Quentin Tarantino

Cabin in the Woods directed by Joss Whedon

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning directed by John Hyams

The Future directed by Miranda July

Beyond the Black Rainbow directed by Panos Cosmatos

Honorable Mentions:  Guy Maddin's Keyhole, David O. Russel's Silver Linings Playbook, Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles, Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed, David Gelb's Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Giorgos Lanthimos' Alps, Rian Johnson's Looper, Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk With Me, Johnathan Demme's Neil Young Journeys, Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths, James Marsh's Project Nim, Alison Klayman's Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild.

The Queen of Versailles
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Project Nim
Fragments or Greatness in 2012:  Michael Shannon's inspired portrayal of crooked cop Bobby Monday in Premium Rush; Daniel Day Lewis and James Spader's ability to emerge unscathed from the wreckage produced by the head on collision between Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg that is Lincoln; the early scenes involving Michael Fassbender's "David," and the Noomi Rapace alien abortion scene in Prometheus; Cinematographer Greig Fraser's use of New Orleans, and James Gandolfini's triumphant character work as "Mickey" in Andrew Dominik's unfortunately overstated Killing Them Softly; the insane finale of Peter Berg's Battleship (not to mention the scriptwriter's dedication to actually weaving elements of the board game into the plot!); the wonderfully grotesque bodies of Chris Butler and Sam Fell's Paranorman; the successful bits of the "Creepshow-meets-the-digital-age" short compilation V/H/S; Juliette Binoche's "entrance" in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis;  the production design of the Total Recall remake; Werner Herzog in Jack Reacher; all of the performances in Killer Joe; Roger Deakin's cinematography in Sam Mendes' Skyfall.

Biggest Disappointments:  John Hillcoat's Lawless; Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly; Oliver Stone's Savages; David Wain's Wanderlust; Jay Roach's The Campaign; The Duplass Brothers Jeff, Who Lives at Home; Jason Moore's Pitch Perfect, and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises.

The "Catch Up" List:  Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi's Five Broken Cameras; Matt Piedmont's Casa de mi Padre; Andrew Stanton's John Carter; the Wachowski's Cloud Atlas; Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus; Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31; Steven Soderbergh's Magic MikeMalik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugarman; Michael Haneke's Amour; Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty.