Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Best Films of 2012

The Ten Best New Films of 2012: 
1. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
2. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
3. The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2011)
4. Barbara (Christian Petzold)
5. Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
6. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) 
7. In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo)
8. Here and There (Antonio Méndez Esparza)
9. Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2011)
10. Footnote (Joseph Cedar, 2011)  

First Runner-Up:
Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2011)

Performance of the Year/Second Runner-Up: 
Seann William Scott, Goon (Michael Dowse, 2011)

Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order):
Las Acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, 2011)
Argentinian Lesson (Wojciech Staroń, 2011)
Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010)
Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2011)
I Wish (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2011)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
Miss Bala (Gerard Naranjo, 2011)
Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, 2011)
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
We Have a Pope (Nanni Moretti, 2011)

The above films represent the best new commercial releases and festival premieres that I first viewed in two thousand-twelve. Excluded are those commercially released features that I screened previously - mostly at the 2011 New York Film Festival. For those choices, see last year's selection of the Ten Best Films of 2011. Of course, I would be remiss were I not to mention the large swath of 2012 premieres, which have not yet had their local festival or commercial debuts. Please assume that my exclusions of films such as Amour, Leviathan, Like Someone in Love, Neighbouring Sounds, Night Across the Street, You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet, and Zero Dark Thirty reflect my inability to see the films before year's end, and do not constitute intentional slights. 

However, I do not wish my readers to assume the same about The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and The Master - three films that impassioned audiences and/or critics, but which left me greatly underwhelmed. As for the lauded Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Cosmopolis, Looper and Magic Mike, while I found all five to be creditable works of the English-language cinema, none felt quite list-worthy to me. I might be inclined to say the same for Paul W. S. Anderson's Resident Evil: Retribution, were its substantial virtues not overlooked by most critics. So for it, let me offer the 'best use of 3-D' garland and one last 'honorable mention' citation.     
Excellent Belatedly Screened 2011 Commercial Releases (In Order of Preference):
My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa, 2010)
To Die Like a Man (João Pedro Rodrigues, 2009)
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)

Twenty-five Outstanding Older Films Seen for the First Time (In Alphabetical Order):
Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)
The Adventures of Robert Macaire (Jean Epstein, 1925)
Au bonheur des dames (Julien Duvivier, 1930)
The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958)
A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929)
Clouds of May (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 1999)
Fedora (Billy Wilder, 1978)
Flowers Have Fallen (Tamizo Ishida, 1938)
From Saturday to Sunday (Gustav Machatý, 1931)
The Girl I Loved (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1946)
Letter Never Sent (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1959)
Lifeline (Víctor Erice, 2002)
Martha (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
Only Yesterday (Takahato Isao, 1991)
Phoenix (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1947)
The Portrait (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)
Prix de beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930)
Remorques (Jean Grémillon, 1941)
The Report (Abbas Kiarostami, 1977)
School for Scoundrels (Robert Hamer, 1960)
The State I Am In (Christian Petzold, 2000)
The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts, 1933)
The Stranger (Satyajit Ray, 1991)
Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondō, 1995)
Zorns Lemma (Hollis Frampton, 1970)

Major Films that I Came to Appreciate Considerably More (In Alphabetical Order):
The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Hallelujah! (King Vidor, 1929)

Finally, there are my nominations for film event and screening of the year: Sight & Sound's commendable selection of Vertigo (1958) as "the greatest film of all-time"; and a private, six-person screening of the film in a pristine, 1983 re-release print, a matter of weeks before the announcement of the poll results. In almost any year - and certainly in 2012 - seeing Vertigo under these extraordinary circumstances would qualify as my single best cinematic experience. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Best of 2012 In Review: The Deep Blue Sea

Adapted by the director from Terence Rattigan's eponymous 1952 play, Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea (2011) opens in a procession of powerfully cinematic figures, from the filmmaker's Ophülsian (commencing) crane work to a breathy collection of cross-dissolves and fades that seem to inhale along with the on-screen heroine. As Rachel Weisz's Hester slips into a suicidal unconscious, Davies' film slides imperceptibly into Hester's recent fire-lit past, thereby initiating a Proustian temporality that will continue to obtain throughout the remainder of the filmmaker's highly refined reworking of Rattigan. With Samuel Barber's stringed Concerto sobbing along with the unhappily married lead, Davies cuts to the obsessed-over object of Hester's diffusely-lit memory, Tom Hiddleston's impeccably tailored, laddish combat veteran, Freddie Page. With their kiss - wrapped in the amber warmth of a London pub - becoming an almost gender-less knot of pale white flesh, Davies' camera circles above his adulterous pairing in the first of a set of similar rotations that will return the viewer back to Hester's receding present. It will remain for a sudden hard sound edit to snap Hester and the spectator back into the diegetic now, to break the narcotic spell of Davies' opening romantic salvo.

Through its masterful manipulations of space and time, light and sound, Davies' Deep Blue Sea beginning bolsters the filmmaker's already unimpeachable status as the very best that the British cinema currently has to offer. So too does the physical precision that Davies pulls out his performers, whether it is Sir William Collyer's (Simon Russell Beale) hovering hand that in the faintest measure of his all-but-absent sensuality makes next to no tactile contact with the surface beneath it, or the achingly beautiful rhythmic rise and fall of wife Hester's seizing chest. The Deep Blue Sea's feeling for gesture, in this respect, elicits comparisons to the extraordinary observational acumen of the director's Mizoguchian masterpiece The House of Mirth (2000), while the fragmented temporal structure of Davies' very great Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) returns in Hester's fluid subjectivity. Similarly present is the Liverpudlian Davies' pop sensibility, which as it happens belongs much more to The Deep Blue Sea's pre-rock-and-roll early fifties moment than to the 1960s British Invasion sound that Of Time and the City (2008) excoriates.

Davies' diegetic use of pop, in his signature sing-along format, serves to construct The Deep Blue Sea's proletarian public. In the film's first group sing, a collective public-house rendition of  "You Belong to Me," Davies establishes the class disparity that divides lovers Freddie and Hester, and which finally denies the latter full membership in the film's postwar community: where Freddie freely belts out the 1952 hit, Hester only sporadically mouths the familiar pop lyrics. However, amid the socially leveling experience of World War II bombardment, Hester and her husband Sir William are allowed temporary membership in London's closely knit public: in another of the film's fluid long-takes, Davies discloses the upper-class couple, huddled together on a populated tube platform, as they sing along with the Dublin street anthem, "Molly Malone." In this flashback-within-a-flashback, inaugurated by an architectural madeleine, Lord and Lady Collyer join an historical British public that is finally defined by a shared popular culture.

Even more than its carefully rendered class dynamics and its exceptional aesthetic sensitivity - save for the supremely focal remembered warmth of the postwar period's interior illumination and the dull morning light that stages the work's prodigious melancholy - The Deep Blue Sea emphasizes the staggering romantic commitment of Hester to her beloved Freddie, a love that Hiddleston's objet du désir ultimately refuses to reciprocate. Lady Hester risks everything for Freddie's occasional gift of himself - an offering that he only rarely extends to the endlessly devoted heroine. Hers is an absolute in passion that landlady Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell) nonetheless distinguishes from real love. (Mrs. Elton defines genuine love rather as wiping someone's ass to preserve their dignity.) For her cuckolded husband - whom it should be noted learns of the affair in a static, behind-the-back framing of Weisz that constructs an expectation of discovery - their story is fundamentally tragic, a worthy heir to the filmmaker's Ophülsian and Mizoguchian sources. For Hester, however, her great love of a man who does not share her feelings is merely "sad," not least of all as it proves an experience that can be overcome. Indeed, Davies ends with an emblem of perseverance: in a circular return to the film's nocturnal opening, the psychologically ruins of the Second World War are presented in the clear light of day, following an unexpected shift in Hester's heretofore gloomy disposition.

The Deep Blue Sea is currently available on the Netflix Instant streaming platform and on home video.   

Sunday, December 02, 2012

New Film: Holy Motors (2012)

A work of enterprising vision and aggressive newness that finds all narratives exhausted, Leos Carax's Holy Motors (2012) emerges as one of the year's most fully realized ruminations on the current and coming status of film art. With flash Muybridge inserts, Hugoesque fiction and a battery of prosthetic disguises, Carax's first film in thirteen years brings the century of cinema's invention into contact with the incidence of its digital expiration and even its extrapolated fictionalized future. Holy Motors is a film without an outside, a cinema that is all cinema - a cinema as dream, in the spirit of Carax's opening metaphor - that nonetheless feels the fatigue of the productive act in the ages of the DCP multiplex, satellite broadcasting and inevitably, Internet image-making.

Holy Motors constructs its allegory for the twenty-first century artefactual experience as a omnibus-style sequence of nine "appointments" (in addition to a reflexively surreal prologue, de-constructive musical intermission, and post-human epilogue) that the aptly named M. Oscar (Denis Lavant) keeps over the course of a single, extended work-day. Chauffeured to each by professional associate Céline (Édith Scob, pictured, beneath the mint-green mask), Oscar is charged with incarnating a series of disparate figures that he cometically contrives in the spacious backseat of stretch limousine. (Holy Motors almost inevitably suggests an aleatoric companion-piece to David Cronenberg's fellow Cannes premiere, Cosmopolis; 2012.) In thus relying so exceedingly on the mise-en-scène of the celluloid index (make-up, costuming), Carax's film openly resists the transformative capacities of digital editing.

What Holy Motors opts for instead is already and more profoundly present in Muybridge: the movement of a body in space. In Carax's latest, the ubiquity of Lavant's physical presence suggests nothing less than the displacement of the traditional film index onto the actor's body. In fact, the body is so central to Holy Motors that it remains the focal presence even when it is submitted to technological effacement: in the instance of M. Oscar's employment as a motion-capture actor, it is not the animated adult-fantasy imagery that provides the chief source of the passage's spectacle, but rather the astonishing bodily contortions performed by Lavant's co-star (in addition, of course, to the glowing abstractions produced by the body-suit sensors). In any case, it is the body in space once again that perseveres as Carax's subject - even when it is submitted to digital conversion.

Oscar's fantastic motion-capture 'appointment' contributes to Holy Motor's comprehensive cataloging of genre, with forms as disparate as Gothic horror, deathbed melodrama, the musical, and science-fiction comedy also included in Carax's encyclopedic project. This same omnibus structure equally serves to inscribe the changing cultural tenor of contemporary Paris: indications of radical Islam, single-parent households, demographic exhaustion and (of course) celebrity all emerge over the course of Carax's nine-part narrative. (In attempting on some level to contend with Paris as it is now constituted, Holy Motors achieves a surface-level contemporaneity that is absent all-too-often among art-house French imports.) Finally, Carax's shifting subjects and settings afford the director the opportunity for revisiting his own cinematic past, from the return of his "Merde" (2008) sewer-dweller to the sparkling nocturnal presence of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf's (1991) focalized structure.

It is Paris ultimately that completes Holy Motor's historically grounded sense of the cinematic index. However, it is a Paris that the spectator will never fail to behold without the filmmaker's self-conscious mediation. Holy Motors is cinema that perpetually reminds its viewer of its status as fiction, explicitly transforming the often familiar, though rarely less than fresh narratives that surrealistically unfold as a series of acting 'appointments' into the stuff of the capitalistic commodity. Holy Motor is a film for our media-saturated moment and one of the few releases of 2012 that might just merit the title masterpiece. Minimally, Carax's latest represents a career peak for the director, and at the risk of damning with faint praise, a new high for the filmmakers of France's Cinéma du look.

This review was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Holy Motors is currently being distributed in North America by Indomina Releasing.