The Best Films of 2012: Part III

January 15, 2013

Part I is here.  Part II is here.

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10.  Not Fade Away

David Chase, of The Sopranos fame, makes his directorial debut with this strange and glorious ode to that most tired of subjects, rock and roll in the 1960s.  Clearly drawing from a number of very personal memories, the film begins with the dweeby Douglas (John Magaro) seeing the Rolling Stones on television.  The trajectory from this is pretty standard for this type of film.  Douglas has a crush on a Grace (Bella Heathcote), and he’ll win her over through the band, he has disputes with the frontman Eugene (Jack Huston), the culture shock of the late 60s doesn’t sit well with his father (James Gandolfini), and on and on.  Despite the familiarity, the performances and the writing breathe a lot of life and subtlety into even the most cliché developments (Heathcote is especially good).  Beyond that, though, and the real treasure of Not Fade Away is it’s peculiar style.  It’s not easy to get into in the beginning, but somewhere around the first band rehearsal it begins to click: this is all about rhythm, and not a tight one at that.  The editing is incredibly elliptical – scenes seem to wander off and then bleed into another.  There are gaps in the narrative, and not so much in the sense that it is disorienting but that this is a progression of moments and memories.  That word “memories” is important, because I can’t remember a time where a film has felt more like a series of memories that were happening in the now.  The present-tenseness is key, and in that sense, virtually every scene becomes its own mini-pop song.  It’s all part of the whole narrative, sure, but also self-contained.  In its final scenes, the reality bleeds into hazy myth, and the disembodied sometime narrator becomes corporeal and demonstrative of the power of music as an engine for living.  There are very few films that understand rock and roll quite like this one.

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9. The Grey

Liam Neeson’s gruff, wolf-hunting Ottway is suicidal.  Banishing himself to the cold brutality of an Alaskan oil refinery to protect its drunken, debased staff of criminals, he is subjected to a viscerally terrifying plane crash and appoints himself as the leader of the small band of survivors.  They must escape the wolf pack that appears to be hunting them, and make it so safety.  So far, so whatever, and if the name Joe Carnahan means anything to you, you’re probably thinking that this is just another over-the-top shitshow of violence a la his Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team.  Though there is violence, of course, it is modulated by a contemplative air.  Yes, the plane crash is fantastically disorientating, but it’s the scene after, when Ottway bluntly soothes a man into death that it shows itself to be something more than just a survivalist saga.  More Ernest Hemingway than Jack London, it becomes less and less about man versus nature and more and more about man versus death, and the many relationships he has with it.  Rarely do you see Hollywood action films take into consideration what it means to actually be in the situation the characters are in, but this one grabs it by the throat and treats it as though it were the only thing.  The touching flashbacks to Ottway’s father, or those to his dying wife, actually work to build on an idea of what it means to live and die.  At a certain point, the characters stop looking for a way out and begin looking for a moment of grace.  Anyone expecting Liam Neeson: Wolf Puncher will be wholly disappointed by the final scene, but that’s sort of the point.  When hope fades away, you still have a choice.  It’s masculine as all hell, but if masculinity were treated as thoughtful as this, I’m okay with that.

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8.  The Turin Horse

So yes, this is basically a black and white film about two impoverished people eating potatoes day after day.  There are a number of films on this list that I would consider “not for everyone”, but none moreso than this.  If you hate Bella Tarr, this isn’t going to convince you to feel otherwise.  If you don’t know Bella Tarr, then this is about every cliché about European arthouse cinema you can possibly imagine.  For the two of you who are still with me, let me please impress upon you just how great this, the supposed swansong for everyone’s favourite Hungarian auteur, really is.  An opening narration gives us the story of Nietzsche confronting a man beating his horse in Turin, and the subsequent mental breakdown he experience because of it.  The film then asks, “What happened to the horse?”  This sort of intuits that we’ll be following the horse, but it’s hard to say – for one thing, this doesn’t look a damn thing like Turin, but at the same time, it’s not supposed to look like anywhere.  The owner of the horse, Ohlsorfer (János Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bók) live in a small one-room home with an adjoining stable for their rather temperamental and uncooperative horse. They live in an almost barren hell, and a severe and seemingly never-ending windstorm is bearing down upon their land as we follow them over the course of six days.  As this is Bella Tarr, there are the expected long takes (the 146 minute film is only about 30 or so shots), and we follow them through their daily routine of waking up, fetching water from the well, checking on the horse, boiling potatoes (one each) and then eating them (her somewhat elegantly, him less so as he only has one functioning arm).  We see this process, day in and day out, always filmed differently to give us a different perspective on the near wordless tedium of their existence.  There are a few differentiating incidents, however, in the form of an acquaintance coming to stock up on brandy, a group of gypsies stopping by to take water from the well, and then a very funny sequence of the father and daughter deciding to leave the godforsaken place, only to turn around for reasons unknown.  Their circumstance isn’t just grim, it turns out, but apocalyptic, and we follow them as they shruggingly adapt to the ever-worsening circumstances.  Life and all of its mundane tedium continues, even as the world ends.  That’s survival, and that’s what we do.

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7.  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia ostensibly tracks the long night of a farcical expedition into the Turkish countryside to find where a body is buried.  A policeman, a prosecutor, a driver, and the suspect who has admitted to the killing look long and hard for the burial place of the victim, guided by a vague sense that there was a fountain nearby, maybe, or perhaps a specific tree.  This is an anti-procedural, where Ceylan’s camera and editing sap out the suspense of discovery of the murder in favour of the lives of the characters involved.  Long shots of the countryside and the small caravan of cars traversing through it tie the characters to their environment.  It’s less important for a large part of the running time that they find the body than it is to talk about mundane existence and watch an apple float down a stream.  It works beautifully as the lives of the characters deepen as they tell stories or talk about their situation or even how humanely they treat their suspect as he struggles to remember just where he buried the damn body.  The glorious sequence where they stay in a village elder’s home and see his daughter is revealing and moving in the small ways only a truly attentive film can be.  As that dreary morning comes, we get answers about the mystery, but the particulars don’t matter as much as what the doctor – who has largely been our entry point throughout – decides to do with them.  Haunting and gorgeous, it’s a supreme effort and worth every minute you fall under its hypnotic spell.

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6.  It’s Such a Beautiful Day

It seems a bit of a cheat, but it did technically get a theatrical release as one film this year, so I’m counting it.  Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day is actually a combination of three animated short films that tell the singular story of almost-stick figure Bill, who is suffering from depression, illness, and an increasingly shattered psyche.  With no dialogue other than Hertzfeldt’s constant narration of Bill’s thoughts told in the third person, we’re treated to an increasingly imaginative vision of a cracked mind.  Bill is ill, and he has or had a job and he had a girlfriend but he’s lost or is losing them as his mental state deteriorates.  Through the bizarre myths or realities of his family history up to his contemplation of mortality and immortality, we’re treated to a dizzying representation of a life lived (or not) through a stunning array of photographic and animated skill.  Acerbically funny and incredibly moving, it’s a sad, beautiful, life-affirming exploration of existence.  Animation is rarely quite like this, utilizing an impressive array of resources for a DIY aesthetic that speaks to the thematic and emotional core of the story.  It is absolutely not to be missed.

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5.  Cosmopolis

David Cronenberg’s supposedly “minor” work is also a return to the more flat-out weirdness we’ve missed in his last decade of filmmaking.  Adapted almost verbatim (supposedly, I’ve never read it) from Dom DeLillo’s novel, Cosmopolis takes place in a near future and follows the hugely successful, young trader Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) as he travels in his luxurious and technologically advanced limo across the city to get a haircut.  What follows is a strange, funny journey through a dystopian future (or present?) as Packer gives into his death drive (see what I did there?).  Timely as hell, we get a portrait of a ruling technocratic elite divorced from emotion and to some degree reality, eerily echoing the post-recession world of Occupy Wall Street and Too Big To Fail Banks that has brought to the fore the crippling realities of late-capitalism, income inequality, and the supposed deserving rich.  Cronenberg navigates this world with a sense of unreality and humour that he’s best known for, and the film features a number of brilliant sequences including a hilariously sexual meeting during a proctology exam and a fascinatingly blank conversation with an advisor (Samantha Morton) that plays out as though both characters are monologuing to each other.  As Packer loses his fortune, or watches the head of the IMF get mutilated on live TV, or passes the protestors self-immolating, there’s a distant contemplation of the breakdown of the mathematical structuring of society from which he has made his fortune.  This all leads to a spellbinding scene between him and a deranged ex-employee (Paul Giamatti) that manages to be complex and absurd.  This final scene and especially the final shot sees Packer breaking away from his cold façade and it suggests that Pattinson is no mere teen pin-up.  It’s brilliant and fascinating, and Cronenberg proves himself once again to be one of the most vital filmmakers working today.

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4.  The Deep Blue Sea

Terrence Davies’ first narrative feature since The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea is a formally brilliant exploration of love, honor, desire, class, and British society in the 1950s.  Rachel Weisz gives the performance of her career as Hester, the wife of an older judge (Simon Russell Beale) and respectable member of the aristocracy who falls in love (or has fallen in love with) a ravishing alcoholic ex-RAF pilot played by Tom Hiddleston.  Past and present are mixed in a glorious opening sequence, and through the style of a classic British melodrama (all “old chap” and Noel Coward and, well, Terrence Rattigan, who wrote the play upon which the film is based), Davies explores the ideas and ideals and passion and love and society in a peculiarly impressionistic way.  Not so much about the constraints of society’s accepted practices than it is about the acceptance of true passion as something different than true love, or maybe that true love is relative, the film uses its melodramatic trappings to dig deeper into Hester’s psyche.  It is rife with exquisite moments, from the intertwined bodies of Hester and her pilot to the deeply respectful exchange the judge has with Hester after she has left him to the stunning flashback to the Blitz, where a long tracking shot witness all of the people hiding in the underground tunnel whilst a man mournfully sings “Molly Malone” and everyone joins in.  The retro-sytlized nature of the piece only enhances its brutally emotional core.

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3.  This is Not a Film

For this documentary, backstory is important.  Jafar Panahi is one of Iran’s most lauded filmmakers internationally, and he was charged of making anti-Iranian propaganda by the government.  Sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on screenwriting and directing, Panahi’s career is basically over.  There was an enormous outcry from the international filmmaking community, but so far it is to no avail.  This is Not a Film, made by Panahi and his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, takes place over a few days (though it is edited to look like one day, which is one of the many fascinating questions the film raises) as Panahi films himself on his iPhone and then Mirtahmasb comes over with a prosumer camera to help him out.  Unsure as to what they’re even doing, Panahi just seems bored and restless.  We see him talk to his lawyer about the prison time, and the fact that because it is a political prosecution as opposed to a judicial one there is no chance of an appeal.  Panahi puts tape down in his living room and attempts to play out what his next film would have been, before eventually giving up when realizing that if you could “tell” a film, there’s no reason to make one.  He discusses his hopes for that film, however, and plays scenes from his earlier films on his TV to talk about the amazing spontaneity of filmmaking – not everything can be planned, and true inspiration can just be happenstance.  There are discussions about his sentence and his fate, and it all leads to an absolutely extraordinary final sequence where he’s in the elevator talking to a sometime resident who is charged with collecting the garbage.  The film was supposedly smuggled out of Iran to the Cannes Film Festival on a USB drive hidden in the middle of a cake.  In not making a film, Panahi has made one of the most revealing films of the year.  It gets to the center of what art can do, what it can be, and what’s so damn important about making it.

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2.  Moonrise Kingdom

Oh, I know it was utterly predictable, but I absolutely loved Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.  He has solidified himself as one of the best filmmakers in the world today with this film, charting the love affair between too misfit children on a fictional island in 1960s New England.  I’ve reviewed the film already, so for the particulars you can go back and read that, but suffice it to say it feels like a culmination of his career in a number of ways.  His very particular style is on display here perhaps more aggressively than it ever has before, and he’s now got it so totally in sync with the narrative that it’s hard to think of anyone else working today that has such a clear vision and sheer mastery of the ability to put ideas in the head onto the screen.  Anderson has managed to focus all of his quirks and fantasies into a singularly sweet and powerful experience, contrasting the optimistic love of two young people with the devastating death of love in their adult counterparts.  His famous use of music is brought to new levels here, as he moves away from merely highlighting moments with the perfect song to structuring an entire film around a single piece.  The opening sequences predict what is to come, and the romantic fatalism is never lost.  Good work from the young first-timers is complemented by some of the most touching work of Bruce Willis’ career.  For some reason I always feel that the next Wes Anderson film will be the breaking point where quirky idiosyncrasy overtakes the emotions of the story, and though it might yet happen, I’m feeling much more confident about his next feature and the one after that.  This will be the film I come back to more than any other on this list.

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1.     Oslo, 31st August

There are surprisingly few times in your life when the right film comes along at just the right time, but it happened in 2012 for me with Joachim Trier’s Oslo, 31st August.  This is not to say I’m a drug addict or anything, but there are very few films that have meant as much to me when I saw them as this one.  The particulars aren’t as important in this case as the general emotion on display.  The film follows Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a recovering addict who attempts to kill himself in a lake before walking back to the shore a failure.  He’s been given a day’s leave from rehab to go to Oslo for a job interview, and while he’s there he plans to see his sister and a few old friends.  Beginning with a montage of old films and home movies of Oslo, Trier sets up a feeling of a place both real and fictional; the city is a collection of memories as much as it is a real place in the present where a future might be possible.  While there is a degree of cliché Euro-shaki-cam gritty realism on display, it is punctuated by gorgeous pans and following shots that get us right into Anders’ head.  A scene in a café where he overhears a number of amusing and banal conversations perfectly exhibits the way in which we can appreciate the everyday lives of those around us whilst also feeling completely separate from it.  The agony of the job interview, where Anders proves himself to be exceedingly intelligent (he was raised in a very educated, middle class home) but haunted by his past transgressions is utterly brutal.  His descent into the long night is less about tragedy than it is about an elegiac wandering through a life once beautifully lived.  His conversation with a good friend reveals how Anders is now coming to grips with the way his actions have seen life leave him behind, unable to ever fully catch up and reach his potential.  This is a film about the way time catches up with you, and if the present in brutally hopeless, there’s still beauty to be found in the past, even if its ends are tragic.  Trier conveys this in a way that feel so familiar and yet outside of reality.  His floating camera in the later stages of the film catch the silly but beautiful scenes of puffs of a fire extinguisher being let off from the back of a bike, or the glory of the early dawn at a swimming pool.  It might seem wholly depressing to some, but for me it was a gorgeous, honest, and celebratory look at a failed life.

-M

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