Best Films of 2012: Part II

January 14, 2013


20.  Holy Motors

Having made it so high on so many Year End lists, I feel inclined to explain here why Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is only at number 20.   To synopsize the film would be madness, as there is no “plot” to speak of, but it boils down to an actor (Denis Lavant, truly one of the acting treasures of our age) moving from appointment to appointment to “act”, though seemingly he’s playing roles in real life or perhaps not.  The film is comprised of a series of disjointed scenarios that never have anything to do with another, and we’re never sure quite what is real and what is fake or if anything can be “real” or “fake”.  We are treated to a series of occasionally dazzling, and even sometimes moving, sequences involving everything from a sewer dweller kidnapping a model, a motion capture performance dance (my favourite visual moment), a father dropping off his daughter, and seemingly old friends meeting in an abandoned building while one sings.  Lavant is glorious, and while it should surprise nobody that he won’t get any real recognition in American awards seasons, it’s still a shame.  So, here’s the minor problem with it:  I don’t know what it means.  I know it’s a cop-out, and it doesn’t even necessarily have to mean anything, but I wasn’t wowed by every sequence (though they were always interesting).  Individually I think there’s a lot to pick apart, but I would have to see it again and possibly more times after that to come to the conclusion of whether it’s just a smattering of ideas or if it all coheres together into something greater.  As it stands, it’s at the very least a compendium of exciting and sometimes ingenious thoughts, all worth considering on their own terms.  Also, if you’re into liking weird shit because it’s cool to like weird shit, well I guess you’ll love this.  It is better than that, of course, I’m just not sure yet how much better.


19.  Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman’s first film in 14 years, Damsels in Distress is a breath of fresh air from the 90s independent chronicler of the yuppie class.  Always given to verbose quick wits and stylized dialogue, he audaciously expands his canvas of humour to go in peculiarly broad directions without losing that particular brand of writing or the easy charm of his characters.  Greta Gerwig’s Violet leads a group of “quirky” friends as they attempt to change the social environs of their fictional, pseudo-ivy league college as well as run the Suicide Prevention Center (their general prescription is to dance).  Gerwig moves away from the improvisational world of mumblecore from which she rose and grabs onto the idiosyncratic dialogue expertly, and she gives a fully formed performance that allows for the believability of her “tail spin” when that veneer of charming condescension gives way to self-doubt.  A film about people who seem assured finding their true selves at college is hardly new, but they’ve never really careened from urbane to broad humour quite like this.  The belief in dance crazes as essential to humanity is sweet and infectious, and as the characters discover the kind of rhythms they each feel most comfortable in, we never really notice any of the creakiness that should by rights be there.  Crucially, this is also easily one of the most consistently funny films of the year.  Due to his lengthy absence and particular style, I had written Stillman off as a product of the 90s.  Damsels proves he’s as relevant as ever.


18.  Lincoln

Nicely sidestepping the pitfalls of a sweeping biopic, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln wisely concentrates on a roughly two-month period towards the end of his presidency.  While it is certainly about Lincoln, the focus is on the passage of the 13th Amendment, and I suppose more specifically, getting it through the hostile House of Representatives.  The process and the backroom dealings are revealing of Lincoln’s character, and though the film is certainly hagiographic in it’s worship (a scene where Mary Todd blows up at him seems to be heading for genuine discord, before he turns it around), there are intriguing facets to the thought process and moral weighing that he’s forced to engage in when deciding between the continuation of a brutal war or a Moral Good that he believes will absolve the country of its greatest sin.  Spielberg’s visual aptitude is on display here as usual, though without the sometimes awe-inspiring storytelling methods that run through a work like War Horse. This is a very talky movie, and he does an incredible job in framing and moving to make the numerous, extended conversations interesting and occasionally powerful.  Indeed, this is one of the most thrilling films of the year to watch on a minute-by-minute basis.  Truly, though, at its core I believe this is Tony Kushner’s movie.  The script is extraordinary in its density of ideas and ease of expression.  The scene where Lincoln has a monologue to explain the difficulties of the Emancipation Proclamation is one of the finest instances of exposition in years, and the scene between Lincoln and two telegraph operators rivals just about any other individual scene I saw all year.  This all works because of the performances, notably Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones – though the huge cast of character actors are all more than able as well – and they’ll get a deserved amount of attention during Awards season.  Elegant, interesting, moving, and timely, it makes politics both ugly and beautiful, and it demonstrates the governmental apparatus as it is requires a lot more than just Moral Goodness to change the nation for the better – it requires compromise, threats, and bribes.


17.  Magic Mike

Raucously subdued, Magic Mike sees Steven Soderbergh once again venture into stale genre territory and leaving something precious behind.  Taking on the “young dancer stuck in a rut and wants to do something with his life” tale, Soderbergh continues Channing Tatum’s amazing rise from wooden beefcake to sharp, skilled star after his shockingly funny turn in 21 Jump Street.  The hook here is that Tatum’s Mike is a male stripper in Tampa who also happens to work construction jobs and dreams of starting a furniture business.  All the requisites are here, from the not-right for him sometime-lover to the obviously-right-for-him ‘true love’ to the young kid he takes under his wing to usher him (and us) into the strange and sleazy and silly world of male stripping.  Tatum is a steady anchor capable of depth when he needs to, but he also comes alive in the dancing sequences, which Soderbergh films with a zesty aplomb (when combined with the action sequences in Haywire, I can’t imagine a better idea than Soderbergh tackling a straight-up musical).  Matthew McConaughey continues his own career resurrection with a charismatically slippery club owner and stripper Dallas, promising that the big money (and the American Dream) is just a little bit ahead if you stick with him.  Soderbergh brings his observant – some would say clinical, others cold – style to the story and he gives us an amazing world tucked away in every nook and cranny of his immaculately framed shots.  The hokey, half-finished excess left over from the boom years reeks of a market-falling hangover.  Indeed, this might be the best recession-era film America has yet produced.  Even if it goes exactly where you expect to, the way it gets there is something special.  The stripping scenes might be the most playful and exciting, but the humdrum counterpoint of the every day grind is just as interesting.


16.  The Cabin in the Woods 

Let’s hear it for fun!  Every now again a film like Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods comes along to give an extra jolt into the cinema and remind us all what the best of popcorn entertainments can do.  It isn’t surprising, then, that it also has something of a brain – or at least a knowingness – as it was written by Goddard and Joss Whedon, himself having a banner year, which is something of a thrill for us Buffy fans.  Making what Whedon called a “love/hate letter to Horror”, Cabin begins by introducing us to a couple of office schmoes in ties (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, both hilarious) before taking us to the familiar territory of a group of semi-cliché friends who are heading off to a remote cabin for a weekend away.  Neatly subverting the type by chemically forcing the fodder into their necessary horror film roles, the film delights in pointing to the suffocating traps our entertainment creates by limiting characters to types and mocking our societal desire to see a very backwards morality bloodily enforced through a cultural prism.  This is all fine and good, but leaving it there would be a one-trick (though a very clever trick, admittedly) curio.  Goddard deserves a lot of credit for building up tension the way he does, and for giving us the most exciting release of the year when we see the innerworkings of the underground facility.  There’s something to be said for old-fashioned thrills, and there was no other “oh shit” moment quite like the “Purge” sequence in The Cabin in the Woods.


15.  Girl Model

David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s documentary Girl Model begins with a harrowing shot of a line of teenage girls in bathing suits waiting to be viewed by various modeling scouts.  We find ourselves in rural Siberia, where agencies are looking to find new faces for the Japanese market.  The emphasis there is on “market”, and if you don’t get the sense of a meat market when you see the opening sequence, you have a stronger institution than I.  The film zeroes in on Nadya, a sweet 13 year old that later has to lie and say she’s 15 who is selected by an American scout named Ashley, who is hovering somewhere around 30 and is an ex-model herself.  Nadya lives in a poor home with a large family and they’re pinning a lot of hopes on her making money in Tokyo.  Through the course of the film we will see Nadya being sent off to live in a tiny domicile with another Russian hopeful as they move from casting session to casting session, generally to no avail.  The process of commodifying youth and beauty is creepy as hell, made even creepier by the unsavoury-seeming men who run the various agencies and departments.  The man who runs the agencies swears he is “saving these girls”, attempting to steer them towards modeling instead of falling into a life of high class prostitution (not really owning the fact that he’s introducing them to the world of high class prositution in the process).  Nadya’s story is stressful and heartbreaking as she has less money then her roommate and only friend and feels terribly alone.  When her roommate gains 2 cm on her waistline, they terminate her contract and send her home, leaving Nadya on her own.  Still, the most interesting thread comes from Ashley, who lives alone in a very nice home in the US and spends most of her time shuttling between Japan and Russia.  She was sent to Japan to model when she was 18, and the filmmakers gain access to some incredibly disturbing video diaries she made at the time where she voices her depression and hatred for the industry.  Some years on she still has no love at all for her work, but she likes the freedom and the money and, yes, the fashion.  Despite her surface responses, she’s horribly conflicted about putting these girls through the meat grinder, and she has to just push all of the prostitution out of her mind.  When Nadya finishes out her contract without landing any major jobs, she’s sent home in debt.  Ashley tells a hopeful parent that it won’t cost them anything, and whether she knows she is lying or not is left up to the viewer to decide, but she’s a fascinating, likeable, and flawed human being both completely aware and intentionally oblivious.  There’s tragedy at every level, and yet it continues on, because we demand it.


14.  Elena

A character study masquerading as a thriller (or is it a thriller masquerading as a character study?), Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena is a nervy and engaging piece about a kind ex-nurse, Elena (Nadezha Markina) who is married to the decent, but distance, wealthy Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov).  Elena has an adult son from a previous marriage, and he is unemployed, living on a run-down estate with his ever-increasing progeny.  Elena gives him money regularly, to which he is grateful but he still refuses to get a job, and it appears that his son is following in his father’s footsteps.  When Vladimir has a heart attack, he decides to see his estranged, spoiled daughter again whom we gather is living a constant life of parties and sex, much to her father’s chagrin.  Still, he loves her, and decides to rewrite his will to leave her everything but a monthly allowance to Elena.  This sets up a quandary after Vladimir rightly refuses to pay for Elena’s grandson’s further education after he fails to make adequate grades to continue.  Zvyaginstev gives everything a clean, intuitive framing that allows us to observe and draw our own conclusions about the issues of class and inheritance and what it means to be “deserving” in a modern capitalist society.  It’s tricky territory, and one can imagine a hardcore conservative loving it for it’s depiction of the slovenly and violent poor and it’s sensible, hard working industrialist.  On the other hand, the industrialist treats everyone as merely property except his daughter, whom he indulges despite her clear and sneering refusal to engage with the rest of the world in empathetic terms.  Markina is a revelation as Elena, complacent in her role as a glorified maid sleeping in a separate bed, but clearly respecting and loving her husband, but still utterly conflicted when she feels she has protect her layabout son the same way Vladimir feels with his own disappointment of a daughter.  There’s a Hitchcockian vibe without ever falling into the more conventional thriller aspects, and eschewing easy judgments of moral correctness.  Late-era capitalism is a messy world, and as much as you might say about the “undeserving poor”, the family ties are the same that continue to promote a new aristocracy.

GoodbyeFirstLove - FINAL POSTER-a

13.  Goodbye First Love 

Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love is about as aptly titled as any film this year.  It is essentially about a teenager, Camille (Lola Creton), dealing with the loss of her first love over a number of years.  As ever, though, it’s the way in which it is told that matters, and it’s told sublimely.  Early passages might seem off-putting in that they trade on a lot of French middle-class – and cinematic – clichés, but once we get to the country villa and the sheer Rohmeresqueness comes to the fore, we understand there is a reason for this.  It is in many ways a Rohmer film with the gender roles flipped on its head, taking a sympathetic look at the utter seriousness of first love and what that loss (especially when it happens by a gradual drift) can do to a young person’s formative years.  Time goes by and Camille leaves school and begins college and embarks upon a successful developing career as an architect, moves on to a new boyfriend, and so on.  The duration is important, as time allows for the maturation necessary for her to understand that there are different kinds of love and emotions that are tied to different stages of life.  The fact that she’s successful both professionally and romantically to some extent is in some ways a broadside against the standard Hollywood tropes of women struggling to make both professional and romantic lives work.  It is a beautiful, intoxicatingly seductive coming-of-age tale told with a keen sense of sympathy and understanding that never denigrates the reality of the emotions, and it announces Mia Hansen-Løve as a major talent.


12.  Tabu 

What is it about European filmmakers attempting to come to grips with their colonial past that produces such a rich vein of material?  Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ attempt is one of the finest in recent memory, turning the completely opposite direction of the wonderful Claire Denis and her impressionistic realism to play up on classical Hollywood traditions and their consideration of “the Other” to tell the story of a love triangle at the end of the colonial era in Africa.  Tabu (taking its name and its general format, only reversed, from the 1931 F.W. Murnau picture, begins with a prologue that could be a dream sequence in the style of a Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn adventure film.  It echoes the story that will come, which is split into two major parts (“Paradise Lost” and “Paradise”).  Filmed in a gorgeous 16mm black and white, the first part takes place in modern day Portugal, where a very lonely elderly woman constantly sticks her nose into the life of her ailing neighbour, who is being cared for by an African woman.  The sheer mundanity of these sequences (she’s wants to give them a carrot cake, they’re not always interested, the neighbour occasionally has fits of racial paranoia) is consistent with a type of neo-realist European cinema.  It sets up the second part, when a man tells the woman the story of his younger days in Africa and his romance with the neighbour.  The entire second half is epistolary, with no dialogue other than the narration largely coming from the letters the two lovers send.  She’s married to a rich man and lives in a villa in the shadow of the mythical Mount Tabu, and she falls in love with a rebellious wanderer friend of her husband.  Their torrid affair continues amongst lavish parties in decrepit estates as the melodrama builds and the colony turns towards self-government.  Much of the second half is constructed out of documentary footage, occasionally with the main characters in period costume mingling with locals anachronistically wearing modern t-shirts.  Playing on the Hollywood escapism that also served to denigrate foreign cultures as “primitive” or “other”, the film gives a formally exciting look into a yearning for a bygone era that was incredibly destructive.  Never receding into a cheap message picture, Tabu stands on its own as both blisteringly romantic and exciting and intellectually and politically engaging.


11.  Girl Walk // All Day

Coming from a Kickstarter campaign, Director and Cinematographer Jacob Krupnick took mash-up artist Girl Talk’s album All Day and made what could be called an extended, full-length music video for it.  Really, though, it’s much more than that.  Amateur dance student Anne Marsen plays “The Girl”, who takes the ferry to Manhattan after leaving behind her black and white ballet class and dances her way through the island.  She is courted by Dai Omiya as “The Gentleman” and stalked by John Doyle as “the Creep”, both professional dancers.  What could have been little more than an amusing viral video quickly reveals itself to be a top-notch musical, with deceptively sophisticated set pieces involving both planted dance troupes as well as on-the-spot passerby participation.  There are story beats and generalized narrative movements here, though they’re largely confined to broad strokes.   From Marsen pulling women together to dance to the “Single Ladies” section to a strange dance in a graveyard with flower people, it incorporates a variety of styles and tactics to get across its feeling of community as well as its periods of isolation and frustration.  One of my favourite scenes involves The Girl dancing through department stores and transforming herself into a stylish consumer, before running across the Occupiers at Zucotti Park and being subsequently booed.  There’s a mindboggling scene on a subway where, aside from the man on the pole and the two leads, I have no idea whether the commuters who get up to spontaneously dance along are plants or just average people who happened to be there.  It all leads to a beautiful finale in Central Park that ties together this expression of community and the power of dancing.  It is an utterly joyous experience.


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