By Bob Clark
Last week I posted my favorite retrospective screenings of 2012, showcasing the kinds of rereleases unique to the New York art-house circuit, along with the occasional wide or touring release that allows audiences of any generation to experience a film in its natural theatrical habitat long after its debut has passed. And though it’s a great experience to go back and devote significant time to gems by the likes of Godard, Miyazaki, Moretti and the like, there is one natural disadvantage it has– it eats up a lot of the rest of the movie-going time you have throughout the year. As a consequence I didn’t see nearly as many late releases as I would’ve liked to last year, and even fewer that I liked enough to actually put on a list like this. Therefore, this is something of a compromised entry, with at least one film that doesn’t belong by any measure of “late release” definition, one that’s questionable, and one that fits but is something of a recycle from the year of its initial release. But who cares? There’s a superflu terrorizing the East Coast and I’ve got to try and get a shot in before heading out to another Godard retrospective screening (screw this new junk anyway), so let’s get to it.
Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard
With the blockbuster success of The Avengers, 2012 was a gala year for one of my least favorite pop-culture auteurs, Joss Whedon. Yes, I was able to get into Firefly and Dollhouse after a while, but not enough for me to see Buffy and everything connected to it as anything other than overwritten, overwritten and poorly shot trash. For years I’ve always tried my best to shrug off my dislike for the show in the face of so many devotional droves to it by just ticking off the checks of its genre affiliations. After all, it’s mainly a teen drama/comedy with heavy doses of horror mythology, a bunch of things I really couldn’t care less about no matter how many other genre strains you try to throw at it. As such, when Cabin in the Woods was announced a year or two ago and then shelved of its originally planned 2011 release, it barely passed as a blip on my radar. A delayed release for a Whedon-written movie that attempts to further explore the teen/horror genre that I can’t be bothered to muster up any curiosity in? Whatever.
Call it a pleasant surprise, then, that I could go see this movie and not hate the experience completely. Granted, I can’t see it as anything remotely near the hyperbolic masterpiece so many online critics have called it, but as a smart piece of entertainment that seeks to subvert and celebrate the underpinnings and motivations for slasher films on the part of creators and audiences alike, you could do a lot worse. It helps that Whedon is a little more muted in this film, and that frequent collaborator Drew Goddard steps up as co-writer and director, which means that the script is still punchy in its dialogue but much more driven by its action, and that the visuals have something of a coherence and competency to them that the Buffy-creator has never been able to accomplish on his own. With a story that’s fun and inventive (but not that inventive– I haven’t figured out the central plot twists of a movie this far in advance since The Prestige, and at least in the case of the Nolan film it took me midway through to figure it all out; here, you get almost enough hints in the first 5 minutes alone to successfully spoil the film in advance) and a sense of sane cinematic style, it may represent the ideal form of expression for Whedon’s storytelling in the future, spared of the endless wheelspinning and soul-searching that comes with televised serial narratives. Just don’t see it in a theater with a foaming-at-the-mouth fanboy behind you (unless you are one of them yourself, I suppose).
Neighboring Sounds, Kleber Mendonça Filho
And here’s where I make something of a film faux-pas. So often when you tour the art-house circuit in the city, you assume that the better part of what you’re seeing are late releases of foreign movies that have already been screened in their domestic countries, or in various international festivals. That’s what I assumed when I went to see the Brazillian Neighboring Sounds, an aesthetically pleasing but narratively dull exercise in the same kind of short-leash modern realism that Yorgos Lanthimos has been up to, following the various inhabitants of an economically diverse urban neighborhood as they wrestle with crime, unfinished business, and domestic boredom. But lo and behold, it appears have been screened in festivals just early enough in 2012 to count as an official year release.
Well, good for it. I still think it’s boring as hell, but oddly enough it’s because of how the movie attempts to adhere to narrative conventions. Looked at simply as a collection of immaculately shot widescreen observations of modern urban living, it would be a vibrant, entertaining and disturbing piece of semi-anthology filmmaking, a kind of Short Cuts with a sharp edge. Instead, there’s an obligatory feel to many of the revelations throughout the movie, making it feel like an attractively lensed, better acted soap opera. Maybe I’ll feel differently about it on television, where that sort of thing belongs. As a 2012 release, does it really belong here? No, but I wouldn’t put it on my top 10, so whatever. I wouldn’t have even had space for it if I hadn’t missed that Madoka Magika screening anyway, so I could give a damn.
Haywire, Seven Soderbergh
When Steven Soderbergh was announced to be teaming up with his Kafka and The Limey writer Lem Dobbs, I was overjoyed. When word came out that the director would be teaming up with a bonafide MMA superstar to put the hurt on a baker’s dozen of respected actors in an international spy-thriller, I was even happier. Happy enough to overlook the casting of Channing Tatum, even. Even when I heard of the various flaws of the film– that outside of life-or-death battles star Gina Carano couldn’t act to save her life, or that the script fails to even bother finding a way to resolve the myriad of stories and conflicts it leaves stubbornly open-ended– I was willing to give it an open-minded try. After all, I’ve liked movies despite issues with acting and writing in the past, and Soderbergh had proven himself in the past with this kind of paperweight material. So is there any chance that Haywire would appear significantly higher on this list if Carano had more charisma than a splintered two-by-four, or if Dobbs’ script didn’t feel content to drive us to the cliff and ask us to hang from it ourselves? Probably. But it’s good enough to warrant a look.
The Flat, Armon Goldfinger
This humble little documentary was a surprise, but I don’t know if I could call it a pleasant one. After his grandmother passes away and her surviving family begin the arduous task of cleaning out her Tel Aviv apartment, Isreali filmmaker Armon Goldfinger begins tracking down the roots to an increasingly disturbing mystery involving his grandparents and their friendship to a key party-player in Nazi Germany. Meticulously documenting every step of his investigations, from the exhuming of the ancient, Teutonic apartment itself to the leg-work of discovering, communicating and finally meeting the living descendents of his grandparents’ friends, Goldfinger manages an impressive minor feat, for how it restrains itself. What’s so marvelous about the film is how he lets the various revelations, and the on-camera witnessing of individuals discovering uncomfortable truths about their families, stand for themselves. This isn’t an act of the documentary as an accusation, as it often winds up becoming, but rather something much more humane. How would you react if you found out your parents were friends to those who were party to mass murder, or party to such things themselves? It takes an act of courage to allow yourself to be seen on camera reacting to such information, and equally weighted act of compassion to know when to turn the camera off.
Letter to Momo, Hiroyuki Okiura
Children Who Chase Voices, Makoto Shinkai
The Secret World of Arrietty, Hiromasa Yonebayashi
And now another three entries from what’s become an annual event for me, the New York International Children’s Film Festival, which is probably one of the only reliable places you can see relatively new anime features on the big screen in the metropolitan area (so say nothing of the rest of the country as well). I already called Makoto Shinkai’s Children Who Chase Voices the best film of 2011 after catching it at Comic-Con (which I will never, ever do again, unless there’s another such plum anime debut), but its wider release as a part of the NYICFF warrants its recognition for a second time. At the very least, it failed to lose any of its warmth or magic a second time on the big screen, and underlines Shinkai as one of the most important voices in animation working today. The other significant debuts at the festival– Letters to Momo and the Miyazaki-scripted The Secret World of Arrietty– are pleasant enough and sometimes dazzling exercises in the same kind of family-friendly fantasy world building that Ghibli and its domestic imitators are experts in. They aren’t much more than that, but they don’t necessarily have to be. It’s only when you stand them in contrast to Shinkai’s dazzling, sometimes dangerous vision that they begin to pale, somewhat. I’m giving Arrietty the edge here for being a new release for 2012 and for the wide release that Disney saw fit to grant it (would that other companies would do the same for Evangelion), but Children Who Chase Voices is by far the better film.
The King of Pigs, Sang-ho Yeon
And now another entry from a new annual habit for me, the New York Asian Film Festival at Lincoln Center, another place to see new animation, not only from Japan but from the rest of the continent as well. This low-budget indie feature from 2011 was easily one of the most impressive feats I’d seen all year, not only for how it tells a savage story of abject institutional cruelty on the part of students and teachers alike in heavily class-conscious Korean society of the 90’s, but for how it does so on a surprisingly light production, using little more than Flash CG and hand-drawn digital tools. Though occasionally it swims in the same Uncanny Valley trenches as other low-fi digital animation like Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, its unflinching violence and nightmarish surrealism helps it push past your sense of disbelief.
Sherlock, Series 2
Don’t ask me why, but late releases take more forms than just theatrical features nowadays. I’d hoped that with the advent of BBC America’s growing popularity in the states, it might be possible for the second series of Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock to be shown closer in unison to its debut airings. After all, if it can work for Doctor Who, why not the Great Detective, especially given that this new show has gaining its own cult of audience in the States. One can only hope that by the time that the third series rolls around a better release strategy will have been found so American viewers won’t have to wait even longer to discover how this past series’ cliffhangers are resolved, but in the meantime there’s always the chance to revisit the explorations into Holmesian canon taken here.
Benedict Cumberbautch and Martin Freeman remain near-perfect distillations of Holmes and Watson’s spirits in the modern era, with Lara Pulver a standout addition as the domineering Irene Adler (Is the fact that Moffat makes her a literal embodiment of that adjective a little too easy? Perhaps, but it works). Andrew Scott’s take on Moriarty remains a nasty little knife to the gut of a performance, and co-creator Mark Gatiss as Mycroft remains one of my favorite undersung components of the show, a comfortable pair of warm slippers with a distractingly stubborn pebble stuck in them. Perhaps most impressive over the long haul of the program is the team of directors led by Paul McGuigan, who help visualize the inner process of both the minds of the Great Detective himself, and Moffat and Gatiss’ scripts, as they attempt to wrangle the antique twists and turns of Arthur Canon Doyle’s original stories for the modern day without losing any of the artistry of their spirit. Series 3 can’t come fast enough.
Alps, Yorgos Lanthimos
Dogtooth was one of my favorite releases of 2010, back when I hadn’t yet separated late films and indigenous releases into their own lists (I put it right behind the modern classic anime Summer Wars near the top of the list, and sadly that movie ought to have been deemed a late release as well), and Alps may yet be an even more impressive feature, as time goes by. Yorgos Lanthimos continues exploring a strange world of people living self-consciously meta-fictional lives, this time following a team of volunteers who role-play the identities of the recently deceased for families of the bereaved, supposedly to give them time to gain a sense of resolution with their loss. It goes without saying that the lines soon become blurred, with families and performers themselves gradually growing dependent on their roles, such to the point that it almost seems natural that the leader of this crew would go to extreme measures and discipline to maintain strict order, only for his grip to come to even more extreme terms. As such, it’s another experiment in disturbingly possible and disquietingly real small-scale dystopia, as Lanthimos again uses his widescreen canvas to isolate his lonely performers as they nurse their emotional and psychological pain for the tenuous benefit of others.
While in the director’s previous film we had a portrait of the nuclear family as an insular, incestuously tight-knit cult, here we have of a loose, but no less constrictive social arrangement of voluntary participants. Each of the members of the Alps group decides to join, and indeed must prove themselves worthy of their assignments and continued membership, lest they be cast out. At least the arrested-development prisoners of Dogtooth were born into their world, raised with a psychopathic world-view that would take the better part of a decade to deprogram somebody from in the real world– that the people of Alps choose to become a part of their own sinister disenfranchisement takes the stakes even further. While I wish a movie like this would be released prompter in the States, at least it got to play in theaters at all, where its games with fiction, performance and human connection are afforded a more dynamic scale thanks to the public venue of cinema. Together as an audience, the communal spirit adds something to the experience as Lanthimos isolates his fractured characters in his frame and pulls them further and further apart from even the thin veneer of narratives from which they live their lives. We see a portrait of the human social instinct pushed to its furthest conceptual extremes. What kinds of contacts are we willing to accept, in the face of loneliness? And what will we do to maintain them, even when they don’t do us any good?
Next week, my picks for the best 2012 releases.