Fuse film critic Tim Jackson picks the best of the past year in movies, a round-up that includes some grievously overlooked documentaries, independent, and foreign films.
By Tim Jackson.
In case you are trying to balance your budget and time while catching up with The Dark Knight Rises, Hunger Games, Twilight, Spiderman, Django Unchained, Skyfall, and The Hobbit, I’m listing 12 other films that may have slipped by. Two of this year’s mega-hits were wonderful, but they have already made buckets of money so I am recommending mostly harder to find films that connect with viewers on a more human scale. That said, Skyfall and The Hobbit were among my favorite movie experiences this year. A word on those first.
Skyfall is director Sam Mendes’s rousing, nostalgia-filled celebration of the 50th year of the Bond franchise. Daniel Craig is a great modern Bond, and Mendes has made use of the actor’s gifts to add some needed humanity to the icon. Not that action is neglected: sequences occur in the air, atop trains, in glass buildings, across rustic landscapes, and in and out of great, exotic cities. The combatants hang from elevators, make underwater escapes, and survive crumbling buildings while being chased by myrmidons of henchmen, including a killer Komodo Dragon. There’s even an impossible escape from death itself.
I am not necessarily a fan of fantasy but I am enchanted by the huge public appetite for these mythologies. The Hobbit to me is chimerical folderol, but I recognize its power on the imaginations of generations raised on the stories. The Hobbit at 48 frames-per-second was breathtaking. Though I favor psychological complexity, uncertain story-lines, overt politics, and ambiguous characters, I was ga-ga over the 3-D, despite the fact that I was never sure who’s fighting who and for what purpose and why I should care. The prodigious proboscises and beards confused me. But if this kind of story is your taste than filmmaking at this scale and with such eye-filling visual panache will undoubtedly enthrall.
The following were also some the year’s best films from around the world:
Monsieur Lazhar (France)
I Wish (Japan)
In Darkness (Polish)
Turin Horse (Czech)
Oslo, August 31st (Norwegian)
It was a great year in documentary: Ten particularly worth mentioning are
How to Survive a Plague
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
This Is Not a Film
The Queen of Versailles
Beware Of Mr. Baker
Paul Williams Still Alive
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
West of Memphis
The Central Park Five
A Dozen Narrative Films from 2012
(As of today I haven’t yet seen Michael Haneke’s Amour nor Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. With those yet to see, here are my dozen must-see films for 2012.)
1. The Master – The films’s ambiguity, lack of traditional structure, and knockout performances by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams put this on the top of my favorites. Paul Thomas Anderson is becoming the most interesting contemporary director we have, though he has considerable competition. Arts Fuse review
2. Lincoln – In contrast to my colleague’s review on this one, I was surprised how much I liked Steven Spielberg’s history film. To make a thriller out of the efforts to pass the 13th amendment was a bold choice for subject matter. Together with screenwriter Tony Kushner, director Speilberg and team have created an emotional drama that works 150 years after the fact. The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski — sepia tones with chiaroscuro-lit assemblages of grand, whiskered statesman — is state-of-the-art motion picture photography. This is Hollywood filmmaking of the highest caliber, blockbuster as civics lesson. At the screening I attended, more than one audience member was wiping away a tear at the end.
All the actors strive to do their best work in the shadow of Daniel Day Lewis’s brooding, laughing, storytelling, philosophizing, towering image of Lincoln: this will surely go down as one of cinema’s greatest performances. Tommy Lee Jones is a stand-out as the stalwart abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Arts Fuse review
3. The Sessions – Audiences may have dismissed this was a kinky movie about invalid sex, but they missed a humane and brave story that was also one of the year’s funniest films. It has three of the top performances of year: Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, and a brilliant John Hawkes. Arts Fuse review
4. Life of Pi – I don’t think it is a guilty pleasure to admire Ang Lee’s masterly, 3-D interpretation of the beloved book for young adults. The Hobbit will blow you away with its mind-bending array of fantastical worlds and imaginative creatures. Life of Pi is a wondrous dream that never leaves the planet. Arts Fuse review
5. Bernie – Richard Linklater finds ways to balance documentary and narrative filmmaking in ways that lend his films a fresh and personal tone. He has a knack for encouraging spontaneity in his actors and infusing substance into his fictions. These highlights include the rhythms and ramblings of Slackers, the discursive philosophizing of Waking Life, the Ethan Hawkes/Julie Delpy scripts and minimalist direction of Before Sunset and Before Sunrise, and Jack Black convincingly hamming it up as the teacher who brings rock and roll to the classroom in School of Rock.
Based on a true story, Bernie casts Black as Bernie Tiede, mortuary owner and beloved member of the small Texas community of Carthage. He befriends the town’s wealthiest and most despised citizen, Mrs. Nugent, but, despite his comically sweet and charitable nature, the man is pushed too far. Today Tiede sits in jail after having murdered Mrs. Nugent, keeping her in a freezer until her body was accidentally discovered. Ironically, no one missed her, but everyone still loves Bernie.
Linklater’s co-screenwriter was Skip Hollandsworth, whose Texas Monthly magazine article, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” served as the basis for the film. Black extensively interviewed the real Bernie. Actual townsfolk play some of the parts. They said seeing Black was like being in the presence of the real Bernie. Supported by a wickedly good Shirley MacLaine, Black represses his customary manic energy, performing without a false note. Bernie contains some of the actor’s best and most charming work.
6. Kid With a Bike – Another Dardenne Brothers masterpiece. It’s a French renaissance of film: along with Michael Haneke, the Dardennes consistently deliver compelling and engrossing movies about the human condition. Arts Fuse review
7. Moonrise Kingdom – I came late to appreciating Wes Anderson, but this film is the one I hoped for. The director is in control of the movie’s style and whimsy from its quaint beginning to the unruly ending. Arts Fuse review
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild – This was a year of precocious performances, particularly the young performers in Moonrise Kingdom, Boy With A Bike, and Tomboy. However, Quvenzhane Sea Wallis, at age 6, was the real surprise in this hypnotic, unclassifiable, mythic, southern adventure story. Arts Fuse review
9. Rust and Bone - The best reason to see this film is actress Marion Cotillard. She plays Stephanie, a whale trainer who loses her legs and then rediscovers life through her friendship with Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), an itinerant laborer, security guard, and bare-fisted street boxing champion. While Stephanie longs for her physical self, Ali trashes his own body to make money in a betting pool. The pair seem to be a mismatch, but Ali accepts and loves Stephanie. Their lovemaking scenes together are astounding.
If the plot sounds melodramatic, it is, but what director Jacques Audiard has done is weave together images and moments that methodically draw you into the mind of Stephanie, where images of flesh, skin, legs, physical endurance, struggle, and lovemaking fuse into a powerful psychological portrait. Like several other films this year, the ending leaves you breathless.
It is Cotillard’s performance that makes the movie work. For me, this is the year’s best performance by an actress. Her face can suggest a wide range of emotion in an instant. There is not a false note in her embodiment of a very challenging character. Not only is Cotillard stunningly beautiful, but she’s so honest in her acting that the film lives in her face. This is a major achievement that the Oscars overlooked.
10. The Deep Blue Sea – Terrence Davis films are a revelation. This movie completely took me over. He turns what might have been a 1950′s “weepy” into a transcendent period piece on madness and obsession. Arts Fuse review
11. Your Sister’s Sister – I am in a minority in my enthusiasm for this film. Lynn Shelton’s 2009 movie Humpday studied the absurdities of male sexuality and bonding by way of a woman’s eye and the improvisational approach of the Mumblecorps acting style. Your Sister’s Sister casts rising Mumblecore star Mark Duplass as Jack, a man who takes off to his brother’s ex-girlfriend’s family cabin to recover from the death of his brother. After a night of heavy drinking, he finds himself by sleeping with his ex-girlfriend’s supposedly gay sister.
I love the chemistry that Shelton creates with her small casts. Duplass, Emily Blunt, and the brilliant, last minute casting of Rosemary Dewitt (as the sister’s sister), bring charm and warm humor to this portrait of the foibles and hypocrisies of a rapidly aging 20-, now 30-something, generation. Compared to Judd Aptow’s recent cloying attempt at coping with aging and responsibility in This is 40, Shelton’s films come off as more honest and less gag-driven.
Marc and Jay Duplass, (Puffy Chair, Baghead, Cyrus) along with Joe Swanberg (Hanna Takes the Stairs), the Safti Brothers (Daddy Longlegs), Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation), and new golden girl Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture and the cable series Girls) are creating a new kind of film. Your Sister’s Sister is up there with the best of the group’s achievements.
12. Goodbye First Love – There has to be one guilty pleasure on my list. I found this movie completely charming in its depiction of lost first love as well as a compelling coming-of-age chronicle. Lola Créton, who was so interesting to watch in Catherine Breillat’s 2009 film Bluebeard, gives an equally enchanting performance here as the 15-year-old Camille. She has one of those quirky-pretty French faces that conceals emotion. Her character, equal parts charming and annoying, will probably leave an audiences uncertain in their sympathies. But welcome to adolescence!
Camille is in love with Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who wants to leave college and take a solo trip to South America. He wants hit the pause button on their passionate, young love affair. This decision sends Camille into a nearly suicidal depression. Eventually she begins to recover, taking up an affair with an older professor. The boyfriend, of course, returns. The conclusion to all this relationship hopping is ambiguous, as are the characters’ motives. Director Mia Hansen-Love calls Camille “determined but not triumphant.”
As in any well-shaped French film, the script is minimal and smart, sexuality is treated with disarming frankness, and viewers are invited to feel as they like towards its characters, freely encouraged to simultaneously complain, denounce, understand, and connect.