By Bob Clark
It’s been fine year of proclaiming the death knell of cinema and the end of its relevancy as the dominant mode of popular art and entertainment. Most of this high talk and hot air has been ballied about online, but a fair amount of it has made its way into ink through publications like the New Yorker and the Village Voice and subsequently in books from the same authors, who read doom for art-cinema in the tea-leaves of blockbuster franchises, a steady rise in the quality of the rival medium of television, and a steep decline in the readership and employment of their own traditional print critics as online reviews become the norm. But the movies and their connoisseurship have been under these same threats and competitions for decades, or even the better part of half a century by now in some form or another, and the silver screen hasn’t been tarnished beyond the pale of public sight just yet. If there has been anything that’s fallen into some kind of danger over the past year, or several years, it’s been the idea of “the movies” as a public theatrical event, something witnessed in a crowd of patrons on a screen at least as tall as a basketball net, in lieu of shorter and shorter waiting periods between a film’s initial debut and its eventual home-video release in the various formats of DVD, Blu Ray, download and on-demand streaming. Though it’s routine to mix cinema and television freely on this blog and countless other sites, I’ve made sure to only include 2 works created for the small screen on this final personal top-ten for the year, and one of them was seen in part on the big screen, anyway. So let’s get to it.
10– Django Unchained
While we’re on the subject of the cinematic experience versus the cinematic experience diluted through television, what to make of Tarantino, who famously gained the lion’s share of his film-buff devotion from working as desk clerk at an LA video store and borrowing his boss’s VHS copies of classic film broadcasts from the legendary Z-Channel? Being one of the first of the video generation to successfully net a career as a filmmaker, Tarantino stands as one of several directors whose work is informed less by experiencing movies in the big screen than watching them on television, and even if we’re talking the best of all letterboxing conditions there’s always going to be some level of reduction in the quality of the experience. How much does that rub off on the director in question? In the case of Tarantino perhaps it leads to his outlook on character-driven pieces as a kind of “hang out” movie, where the chemistry between the leads and the musical rhythms of the dialogue are more important than the visuals on display. Thankfully, however, even from the beginning he’s always been conscious of the aesthetic opportunities of cinema, and especially the canvas of both 2.35 widescreen and the various grindhouse genres of his youth, resulting in a strange blend of spectacle that favors style above all to let the substance sink in.
As such, what to make of Django Unchained, the latest of his neo-Spaghetti Westerns, and the closest he’s gotten to a pure exercise in the genre yet after the free-for-all mixes of Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds? Much has been made already of how the director took the manners of Leone and Corbucci to create a gunfighting saga set against the backdrop of the American south, and the social implications of that decision. In interviews Tarantino’s offered reading of Corbucci’s original Django and various Spaghetti Westerns as expressions of pent up aggression against Italy’s fascist period are interesting (all the more so for how many movies of the genre were filmed in Franco’s Spain). Tarantino’s film stands as the latest in a long line of unofficial Django remakes and homages that cover other Spaghetti Westerns to American features like El Mariachi and Attack of the Clones and even to a surprising number of anime releases (Nicholas D. Wolfwood of Trigun will always be my favorite Django-esque) one if there’s one thing that holds many if not most of them in common it has been placing the mercenary figure against the backdrop of civil oppression, in this case the national tragedy of American slavery.
It goes without saying that Tarantino has mastered the technical side of conceiving and staging massive action sequences on a relatively limited budget, putting together modestly impressive set-pieces throughout that recall the best of the Western genre from Italy and America (the explosiveness of the finales recall Peckinpah at his most playfully bloody), but again the real ace he holds in his sleeve is the talent he has for behind the typewriter. Here, it isn’t so much the big speeches that won over viewers and critics of his previous films, but the short exchanges of dialogue that subtly illustrate the power of knowledge and how tragically it can be held back in an oppressive social regime. All the racial slurs and violent lashings of the whip can brutally intimidate the viewer, but somehow it’s the sad moments of seeing a slave who can’t understand every word he hears or reads, despite likely holding a digit or two on the slaveowners in terms of IQ. Being the smartest person in the room doesn’t necessarily count for much in a legal environment that affords enfranchisement almost solely on the basis of race or money, and as such Django Unchained becomes a movie that succeeds not just in telling a rip-roaring revenge fantasy against the evils and injustices of the American past but offers a story intimate enough to remind one of the inequities of the present as well.
9– The Dark Knight Rises
7– Moonrise Kingdom
For over a decade now Wes Anderson has made good on developing an instantly recognizable and frequently imitated aesthetic blend of pristinely composed visual stylings and eclectic musical choices. If one were to go by the direction that television commercials have taken in the past ten or so years (some by the filmmaker himself, most simply aspiring to look like they could’ve been), then Anderson might just be the most influential modern director this side of Ridley Scott. That uniquely characteristic directorial style– somewhere between French New Wave, storybook illustrations and dioramas from the Museum of Natural History– lends itself to a certain kind of nostalgia, especially for a retro-fetishist history of Salinger-esque precocious childhood, though strained through an increasingly noticeable level of adult content and alienation. At times it’s seemed as though he were making unofficial adaptations of beloved stories from his own youth, but adding the occasional taste of sex, violence and other vulgarities in order to set a contrast, to illustrate innocence against the backdrop of adult disappointments.
Then came the movie just previous to this, the stop-motion animated feature adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the first effort that Anderson had ever made that could be readily seen by anyone under the mandated audience for an R-Rated feature. That movie was more or less about the adulthood crises of parenthood and middle-age, however– with Moonrise Kingdom he’s finally made a movie about childhood (the subject matter he’s never really abandoned in full since Bottle Rocket and Rushmore) that can actually be seen by children. And working with the fuller frame of 1.78 again instead of the confines of 2.35 (being, like Tarantino and Nolan, a director of the video generation, one wonders which aspect ratio he sees as the “larger” canvas– the wider or taller), Anderson allows his heavily schemated visual mannerisms to loosen up just a little and relax enough to let his storybook-perfect narrative of young love’s potential and adult alienation develop in full. It’ll be interesting to see which direction he favors in his next features and the rest to come, but for now it’s heartening to find him at a crossroads like these.
6– The Untold History of the United States
Crossroads are seemingly all of what American history is made up of in Oliver Stones’ latest effort, a 10 hour long documentary series charting some of the lesser known facets of the nation’s development during and in the half century or more following World War II. After seeing the first three episodes, primarily concerned with the tragically anecdotal figure of Vice President Henry Wallace and the futility of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at the New York Film Festival, I caught the rest of the series on Showtime and found it compelling, if never quite as revelatory as the title suggests. This is all information that I’ve known since high school or thereabouts, but like I said before, it’s a blessing to have it all concentrated into one place instead of over countless various sources, especially in an age where we can take for granted the Internet spreads out information to the point of irrelevancy. The perspective of scrutiny on the most famous moments and purported interpretations of the past several decades and increasingly speculative takes on what might’ve been at various turning points makes the series an expressly personal take on American history, and one that’s all the easier to appreciate for how it eschews the talking-head formula of standard documentaries.
Instead, relying largely on his own narration with only occasional actor-supplied readings of text from famous figures and hours culled from documentary footage or clips from popular films (everything from The Best Days of Our Lives and Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Star Wars and Gladiator), the series feels as close as one can get to getting a first-person cinematic experience, a long-form essay that cuts out as many appeals to outside sources save those to be found in the end-credits. At its best moments, it can even help shed a light on the inner process of the filmmaker through the lens of the various references he finds and the echoes they pose in his own filmography– hearing the snap of Jerry Goldsmith’s drum rolls from Seven Days in May over footage of President Kennedy before cutting to scenes from the Frankenheimer coup d’etat thriller instantly recalls the martial drums from John Williams that begin the conspiratorial JFK. As with that film, Stone employs something of a “throw the spaghetti to the wall and see what sticks” approach to history, freely putting out as many theories as he can, with his personal account allowing everything to fold under as just his own point of view if anything doesn’t quite gel. Is it the best documentary about the American era? Maybe not, but it’s one of the best and boldest attempts, refreshing for what it gets right and laudable for its willingness to get things wrong on the way there.
5– Cloud Atlas
Another effort that’s perhaps more admirable for the intent than the eventual execution, this adaptation of David Mitchel’s multi-narrative novel from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer easily stands as one of the most ambitious and experimental feats to come out of as staid and conventional a Hollywood as we’ve ever seen. It’s hard to know what’s more disappointing then– that the film itself only just about reached the expectations and its potential instead of wildly exceeding them, or the fact that its performance at the box-office fell somewhere short of a misfire, calling into serious doubt any future contenders for similarly ambitious fare. It’s most disappointing of all, perhaps, to think that the movie’s chiefest flaws– the lack of a genuine epic feel to much of the film in favor of an almost too-intimate feeling to the largely conventional coverage throughout, making it feel a bit like a television-miniseries shot in 2.35– probably had little to do with the overall underperformance of the feature, with audiences largely put off by the very idea of a six-storyline juggling act with characters in all manner of multiple roles even before you get down to splitting hairs about the rest of the production.
And yet, in a year in which we’ve seen all kinds of self-consciously meta-textual takes on the nature of storytelling and narrative in cinema– most notably Leos Carax’s overrated Holy Motors with which this film shares a primary concern of seeing people transformed by make-up magic into dozens of different roles at once– there is something about the simple optimism at the heart of Cloud Atlas that makes me look past some of its short-comings and recognize it as one of the most affecting big-screen experiences of the year. Though the Wachowskis and Tykwer feel a little hemmed in from the jaw-dropping aesthetics of their previous films, that has more to do with the visionary direction they’ve employed in the past than it does with any genuine fault here– in the canon of almost any other modern filmmaker, this would be extraordinary even at its most minute moments. And indeed, the restraint they show in keeping things as small and intimate as they manage to do in this era and genre-spanning work may be the one thing that holds all of the disparate directions together and keeps it from falling apart at the seams. It may not have been a hit, and probably won’t lead to any more big-budget experiments in the future, but if there’s one thing the movie may have to say it’s this– there’s no such thing as a minor miracle.
4– The Legend of Korra (Season 1)
Among the things I try to keep an eye open for throughout the year is quality animation from around the world that reaches American audiences. Unfortunately, we haven’t had much of that this year, or at least very little of it from 2012 itself. Sure, there have been the occasional screenings for oddball gems like Asura and Gyo, which are good, but not necessarily “Best-Of” good. And yes, there was pretty much no way of avoiding big releases of the likes of Brave, which managed to kick out its original creator and director and along with it any chance of it being anything more than the usual crowd pleasing Pixar mediocrity (between Brad Bird departing for live-action success and Mark Stanton immolating himself on the disastrous financial and creative failure of John Carter, their roster of talent has taken more than their share of hits). Most painful for me and countless others has been the heel-dragging on new anime releases from Japan that have failed to find any distribution in the States– between Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill and Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion 3.0, you’d think that there would be an audience that would be willing to see these movies even without subtitles, given the desperation with which fans have treated even the release of illegal camrips.
As such, it’s refreshing to find so much quality animation being done in the US for television, and especially this year’s debut of The Legend of Korra, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s long-anticipated sequel to their Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Employing an energetic illustration and animation style heavily influenced by Gainax’s FLCL, the show picks up where the previous series left off after its classic hero’s journey quest came to an end and builds off of the rich blend of Asian spirituality and mysticism to create a steampunk retro-futuristic world that’s equal parts Jules Verne as it is magic and martial-arts. In its adherence to adopting Japanese animation styles and borrowing from all manner of Asian mythological archetypes it sometimes represents a brand of pastiche-storytelling that’s a little bit too indebted to its influences– other recent programs like Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time do a better job of representing their own spirit instead of borrowing from others, something that’s much appreciated the deeper that program goes into its own world-building. Yet in the level of technical expertise the program represents in its visual direction and the depth and sensitivity it affords in its writing and vocal performances, there are few American shows aimed at kids that do as good a job at providing solid, enriching entertainment for all ages as this one. Season Two has big shoes to fill.
3– Beasts of the Southern Wild
It’s hard to imagine so much controversy brewing up over so modest a success as this film, a relatively small budgeted feature based on an unheard of theatrical production portraying a free mix of reality and fantasy in the trials and tribulations of a young girl growing up in a dream-vision of the American south in the permanent aftermath of a hurricane and flood, living in a world populated by monsters and operated by rules not far removed from a fairy-tale or government emergency protocols. Though its usage of symbols from Katrina and other such natural disasters strikes an immediate and obvious chord– perhaps too immediate and obvious especially when paired with the film’s nightmarish take on individualism versus state assistance– there’s a level of genuine magic and wonder present in every frame of this palpably physical vision of destruction that puts it on par with the very best of Spielberg and Terry Gilliam alike for the ways in which it so convincingly builds a world that operates by its own laws and immerses the audience, and for how it elicits such a strong set of performances from its child actors.
In a decade that has seen an increasing frequency of massive disasters stemming from unpredictable weather patterns and geological events all over the world, there’s something inspiring to see a vision of childlike resilience to the elements on the face of ordinary individuals contrasted against bureaucratic incompetence and oppressive impersonality, even if those qualities aren’t exactly the most pragmatic of virtues when countering real-world disasters. But even now, years after Katrina and Fukishima and months after Sandy with government and corporate efforts to repair affected communities coming up short to say the least, I don’t think there’s any question whether or not this film will speak to future generations of children and adults growing up in the midst of a truly monstrous global climate– conservatively, it will speak volumes. First-time director Behn Zeitlin’s work here stands as some of the most impressive fantasy filmmaking in this generation, and if the vision he shares with writer Lucy Alibar winds up offending anyone, it’s only a testament to the ensnaring quality its unique vision of immediate magical realism has. There wouldn’t be any reason to get so upset over it if it weren’t so good.
Call this one the surprise comeback of my personal moviegoing experiences this year. When I first saw Miguel Gomes’ stately black-and-white ode to the cinematic and colonial tapestry of Portugal’s history in Africa, I thought it was a somewhat impressive feature, but there was something about it that put me at arm’s length distance from it. Maybe it was the challenging structure of the film– borrowing from Murnau, Bunuel and Godard alike to balance a crisp mix of reality and dreams as it tells the stories of a middle-aged human rights activist’s growing personal involvement with her next-door neighbor and her decline into senility in one half, and then segues into a travelogue of that neighbor’s youth and romance in the colonies in its second, dialogue-free hour. Maybe it was that exact mix of different aesthetic and cinematic influences, building on top of a collection of directors who include my very favorites, but have always taken at least one or two viewings for me to really get into. Maybe it was simply the unexpected difficulty of watching a 1.33 feature with subtitles in the front rows of Lincoln Center’s huge Alice Tully Hall screen, and the eye-strain it produced.
Regardless, long after I first watched and wrote about this film, I found myself thinking about it over and over, and especially after seeing how sharply it was dividing critics I knew I had to go back and revisit it, if only to see which side of the divide I belonged on. Suffice to say, I know the answer to that now. There are so many moments that make up the deep nuances and pleasures of Tabu that it feels easier to simply describe them than attempt to summarize what they all add up to in the viewer’s experience. There’s the classical, but off-beat way in which Gomes composes his simple, naturalistic frames, producing an image that’s one part pastiche to cinematic past while at the same time a subtle critique of it, something that’s especially clear in his treatment of the easy colonial lifestyle and his characters’ obliviousness to the human cost being racked up all around them. There’s the continuing strains of humanistic concern throughout the film, made especially clear in a stark moment of personal prayer during a political rally, captured in one slow push from the crowd to the individual. There’s the subtle mix of visual and narrative elements to suggest with a gossamer hair that the melodrama we watch in the second half may be little more than a senile fantasy, if not for the weight and heart of the performances and Gomes’ strict direction of them. This was easily one of the strongest theatrical experiences I had in the past year, and though there’s a part of me that wonders how it will fare when I view it on DVD, I won’t hesitate a moment to add it to my collection.
All hail the return of David Cronenberg to making David Cronenberg movies. I’ve spent no end of time venting my frustrations over the turn that one of my favorite of directors has taken in the past decade since he went mainstream for a pair of relatively successful noirs that largely consisted of teamed up with Lord of the Rings star Viggo Mortensen hitting and shooting people in a laughably hokey vision of small-town America and a dispiritingly generic vision of London ganglands. Last year’s A Dangerous Method marked something of a step in the right direction for its technical craft and weightier tale of Carl Jung’s doomed romance with a patient-turned-psychoanalyst and the effect it had on his budding professional relationship with Sigmund Freud, but once you stripped away the impressive deep-focus tricks and tried to look any further into the movie for what it had to say about either of these giants of their field, all it really offered was a professionally mounted, but nonetheless tawdry romantic melodrama which leaned a little too heavily on Keira Knightley and her performance-by-way-of-jutting-overbite to be taken very seriously. I put it up on my top ten for 2011, and I wouldn’t take it down, but as time went on and I felt myself more and more disillusioned with it, I grew to wonder if I would ever see a movie from the real David Cronenberg again, or if we would forever be stuck with “The Director of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises“.
However, there was that one bright shining ray on the horizon in the form of Cronenberg’s then-upcoming adaptation of the novel Cosmopolis, concerning a young business titan’s limo-bound trek across the isle of Manhattan through lovers, protests over a global financial meltdown seemingly of his making and his own impending assassination all to get a haircut, from the celebrated author Don DeLillo. That combination of talent behind the scenes– one of my favorite directors and one of the only novelists whose work I read with anything even resembling regularity– made the film a must-see proposition even before any kind of cast had been attached. The fact that it represented Cronenberg’s return to post-modern literary adaptations, which he’d been a successful practitioner of in contemporary classics like Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch and Crash posed an even greater set of prospects, as it was going back to perhaps his strongest period as a director in terms of sheer craft and subject matter– I still prefer the purity of some of his earlier works all the way back to his experimental hour-longs Stereo and Crimes of the Future, but it’s impossible to deny that Cronenberg’s skills and nuance with actors and the photographic image, especially with longtime collaborator Peter Suschitsky, have only improved with age.
Yet I wasn’t so sure of the quality of the film to come when the film’s trailer came out, which with its pairing of the monotone heartthrob from the Twilight movies and a rave-party like editing scheme made the project look less like anything resembling the work of Cronenberg or DeLillo and more like another botched Brett Easton Ellis movie. Furthermore, the fact that it didn’t show up on the schedule for the 50th New York Film Festival seemed suspicious as well– I didn’t ask many questions following its divisive showing at Cannes (are there any decent movies, from Cronenberg or otherwise, that don’t rub some people the wrong way at that festival?), but it seemed odd nonetheless that the director’s latest wouldn’t appear, especially after he’d made his debut to the festival with A Dangerous Method the year before. It wasn’t surprising then that the film wound up aggravating a good deal of audiences when it was finally exhibited in limited release– on any number of fronts Cosmopolis represents a challenge to any filmgoer, mainstream and art-house alike, for its blend of radical economically minded rhetoric and adherence to DeLillo’s aggressively stylized dialogue, quoting the majority of the book’s spoken text verbatim and photographing with an eye for extreme wide-angle, yet alienating compositions.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way. In Cronenberg’s hands, DeLillo’s tale of an individual and a society that takes conspicuous consumption to cannibalistic lengths is reduced to a strict, spare chamber drama that’s one part a heavily detailed look to the middle-class present and past and another part a cool, sleek and minimalist look at a dystopian future filled with equal amounts luxury and destruction. With its almost dogmatic approach to the book, marrying strict, abstract framings with pages and pages of spoken word that often exists almost in voice-over, Cronenberg effectively returns to the same kind of filmmaking that he practiced in his early career features, silent save for narration against oppressive bricks of brutalist architecture. Confined largely to the inside of the young tycoon’s dark and glowing limousine, which looks something like a cross between a sci-fi set and the William Gibson documentary No Maps For These Territories, the film matches the relentlessly interior landscapes of Shivers and Dead Ringers, only taking us outside of the car to briefly enter other interior locations or to set shocking acts of death and destruction out in the open. In the grotesque landscape of Cosmpolis, acts of violence both epic and intimate, sudden and planned, frightening and comic are all public affairs– private pleasures belong only to the 1 per-cent, and perhaps not even them.
There’s a genuine outsider quality to the way that Cronenberg lenses the entire picture, often pushing his characters out to the periphery of his frame, focusing more on the surface details of the limo and other locations throughout, reducing his figures to isolated fragments, even when shot in close-ups. As a dramatic exercise the film can indeed be trying, especially for how he remains faithful to the episodic nature of the novel, which features few truly recurring characters other than the tycoon himself, with everyone else coming in and out of his limo and his life as variations on one kind of corporate parasite or another. But thanks to Cronenberg’s fatalistic vision and the dream team of character actors assembled to translate DeLillo to the screen– especially Paul Giamatti who in his climactic one-scene appearance all but steals the film entirely– Cosmopolis succeeds as a brazenly challenging act of filmmaking that eschews the traditions of cinematic convention. It isn’t for everyone– not even most art-house patrons, and not even most fans of Cronenberg’s various career demarcations– but it stands as the best possible combination of thought-provoking aesthetics, contemporary drama and sheer entertainment I’ve encountered from 2012. As the jacket notes of DeLillo’s Underworld attest of that book, “It contains multitudes”.