Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012

This list comes unusually late this year because I decided to hold off making it until after I’d seen “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Amour”—neither of which opened in my city until mid-January. That turned out to be a good call, as the list reflects. Unfortunately, there are still quite a lot of movies I missed last year (primarily documentaries and foreign films) that I’d like to have seen. Of the ones I did see, though, here are my top ten.


It may not be the deepest, most provocative, or most artistically daring movie on this list, but it remains, minute for minute, the best executed. Riveting from start to finish, there’s not a moment that feels extraneous or out of place. Fittingly for a movie that's so much about the absurd power of Hollywood, this is Hollywood filmmaking at its best.


Easily the weirdest film I saw all year, it was also, for perhaps that reason, the most fascinating. By turns wry, poignant, hilarious, and grotesque, you could say it’s about life, or art, or acting, or the movies, or all or none of the above. And that’s what makes it so fun. It’s a cinematic Rorschach test that keeps you constantly tilting your head to get a new and different angle.


A quietly devastating portrait of the last stage of a happy marriage that’s eroded—or corroded—by one partner’s slow descent into total physical and mental debilitation. All the more heartbreaking for being utterly unsentimental (Michael Haneke is the director, after all), it puts the age-old vow of “in sickness and in health” in a merciless light. The kind of film I’m glad I saw...and never want to see again.


It doesn’t condone torture. It doesn’t glorify the larger mission of taking out Osama bin Laden. What it does do, and do very effectively, is show the depths of the obsession, both individually and collectively, that led to the fulfillment of that mission. The result is a film that makes even inertia feel unbearably tense and the thrilling denouement feel, after the fact, oddly hollow. Which, to my mind, is a testament to its power.


To borrow a quip from another website, this is basically “Inglourious Basterds: Slavery Edition”—that is, an over-the-top, excessively self-indulgent Quentin Tarantino rewrite of history as unfiltered revenge fantasy porn. And ya know what? Like “Inglourious Basterds,” against all odds, it works. For all his faults, QT has real flair as a storyteller (even if he never knows when to cut himself off) and a rare gift for creating characters and scenes that sear themselves indelibly into the viewer’s brain, and these talents are on full display in “Django.” Once you’ve seen Candieland, you’ll never forget it—and what’s really scary is you won’t want to.


Strangely, from a film about a semi-abandoned small child in a semi-abandoned part of the world, where both natural and human-made disaster always seem just around the corner, what I retain most vividly is an abiding impression of warmth. I mean tenderness and camaraderie and laughter, even feasting and merrymaking on the cusp of doom. Of course, there’s a dark side to these ties of community and affection, a counter-narrative of willfulness, neglect, even abuse, which “Beasts” certainly doesn’t gloss over or excuse. But somehow it’s the images of warmth and beauty—and tears of love rather than rage—that linger longest, and strike the deepest chord.


The Wes Anderson mannerisms are off the charts; the visual design looks even more dollhouse-like than usual for him; and the last act drags on too long. And yet, there’s a genuine innocence and bittersweet melancholy at the core of this quirkfest that charmed me and carved out its own little place in my heart.


In a year filled with movies based on amazing true stories, this one just may be the most amazing story of them all. If you’ve ever wondered about parallel existences or alternative universes, the strange life and career of Sixto Rodriguez may be as close you’ll ever get to seeing them in real life. Poses thought-provoking questions on the meaning of fame and the enduring power of good music.


A deceptively modest little comedy about a man and his robot caretaker that sneaks up on you with its perfect balance of humor and pathos, as well its delicate navigation of such thorny subjects as aging, the tenuousness of memory, and man’s increasing reliance on technology for emotional connection. Its touch is so light that the film risks being overlooked or dismissed as a mere trifle, but it really deserves better. It’s a keeper.


2012 was a red-letter year for the Hollywood blockbuster. Not only did the big-ticket franchises dominate the box office, they also produced a surprisingly solid array of well-crafted stand-alone movies. “The Hunger Games” did an excellent job creating a believable dystopia and capturing the visceral emotions roused by the games. “The Avengers” took what could have been a soulless marketing ploy (mo’ superheroes, mo’ money!) and turned it into a funny, appealing band of bros (and sisters) the audience could actually enjoy cheering on, both individually and as a team. “The Dark Knight Rises” took Batman back to his mythic roots and away from the yawning black hole of nihilism represented by the Joker, yielding the most all-around, good old-fashioned entertainment of the entire trilogy. And finally, “Wreck-It Ralph,” besides being a delightful nougat of nostalgia for gamers and Generation X-ers, also provided a clever spin on the usual hero-villain dynamic of most animated films (or, for that matter, most films). Taken together, all four serve as a happy reminder that a movie can be part of a huge franchise or targeted at a huge audience and still be genuinely, pleasurably good.

Monday, January 28, 2013

"Amour": Every spouse or child's worst nightmare


directed by Michael Haneke
starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert


Review to come

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Zero Dark Thirty," "Django Unchained": Payback's a bitch

I hadn’t originally planned on seeing “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Django Unchained” in the same weekend, but there’s no denying they made for a fascinating double feature. Two films, each freshly nominated for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, each in its own way a tale of revenge, each a controversial commentary on a dark chapter in American history, also happen to be as dissimilar in every other way as two films could possibly be. Which, I suppose, is no more than one would expect from filmmaking sensibilities as different as those of Kathryn Bigelow and Quentin Tarantino. Interestingly, the sharpest difference isn’t in style but in ethos—specifically, the moral vision each film brings to the particular slice of history it tackles. One remains resolutely agnostic, refusing to nudge the audience towards any kind of clear judgment on the ugly choices it depicts, while the other whips up the viewer’s righteous outrage only to channel it into a baroque fantasy or alterna-history about what ought to have happened if evil had gotten its just deserts just a little earlier.

In other words, it’s “The Hurt Locker” versus “Inglourious Basterds” all over again, echoing the last time Bigelow and Tarantino faced off at the Oscars, even though neither stands much chance of nabbing the top prize this time. And the juxtaposition once again highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of their respective approaches, which might be summed up as the difference between exercising too much restraint on the one hand and too little on the other. It seems unlikely these two directors ever really talk, which is rather a pity, as each could learn something from the other.


directed by Kathryn Bigelow
written by Mark Boal
starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt

Too much has already been written about this movie, both good and bad, and coming to it after not the first or even the second but the umpteenth wave of controversy has a peculiarly insidious effect on a new viewer’s experience. It’s hard not to limit one’s reaction to the parameters set by those who have already seen and had so much to say about it. I.e., does it get the facts right? Does it incorrectly imply that waterboarding and other forms of torture led to the discovery of bin Laden’s whereabouts, and does it sanction such methods? And to the extent that it does endorse torture, or even if it doesn’t but still distorts history, how much should this affect our critical assessment of the movie qua movie?

Don’t get me wrong, these are all important questions to which I don’t have any particularly novel or insightful answers. I don’t know how much of the facts Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal got right; notwithstanding a blizzard of congressional and journalistic queries (some driven by nobler motives than others), accounts conflict, and much of the underlying information is, after all, still classified. On the torture issue, the film at most suggests that torture may have contributed, indirectly, to the discovery of information that led to bin Laden’s personal courier. As to whether any of this matters in judging the film’s quality, I don’t believe it does. It would only matter if Bigelow or Boal glorified, or even sought to justify, the undeniably heinous acts committed in the pursuit of bin Laden. But that’s exactly what they don’t do. They simply let the story speak for itself—a story presumably but not indisputably based on fact, which encompasses heinous acts—and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions about whether those acts were justified. And while some viewers, not without reason, may find this stance lacking in moral courage, that’s a far cry from finding it morally irresponsible, let alone indefensible.

For “Zero Dark Thirty” is, at bottom, America’s revenge story, and a good revenge story seldom keeps its morality completely black and white. The film opens powerfully with a black screen and the sounds of actual recorded 911 calls on 9/11, setting the stakes for what follows. Thereafter, the hunt for bin Laden is filtered primarily through the individual most obsessed with finding him, a young CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain). Our first sight of her is in a ski mask at a CIA black site, silently witnessing an “enhanced interrogation” session; later, when the mask comes off, she looks uncomfortable but undeterred from her larger goal. Stationed in Islamabad and ostensibly assigned to a broader range of counterterrorism duties, she pursues all potential leads to bin Laden (including attending more torture sessions) with a single-minded zeal that isn’t always well received by her superiors, especially when the trail seems to go cold or subsist entirely on her hunches. Nevertheless, Maya’s combination of intuition and grinding perseverance pays off in the end, ultimately leading to the now-famous compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and culminating in the SEAL attack that brought down bin Laden in May 2011.

That last scene is as gripping as advertised, notwithstanding that we all know how it ends. Foregone conclusion or no, Bigelow’s an expert at building tension in situations where the fate of an operation could hinge on a single wrong turn, or look, or missed signal. She shows it earlier in the film, in other set pieces as riveting, or even more so, than the raid on the bin Laden compound. But it’s what happens between the explosions that makes up the heart of ZDT, as Bigelow and Boal manage to cover a decade’s work of intelligence work, including various setbacks, false leads, and periods of stagnation, and condense it all into a thoroughly absorbing narrative. At times their interest in the details of the process and mechanics of the search calls to mind Steven Soderbergh (e.g., “Contagion,” “Traffic”)—and as with Soderbergh, this proves to be a mixed blessing. Because even as the film engages the analytical part of the brain on all cylinders, it tends to mute, or at least hold at a remove, any emotional response. While the thrill of fear, pain, elation, and anticipation comes through, there’s no real attempt to probe the deep-lying passions or motivations of those caught up in the chase.

The counterweight to this sense of detachment seems intended to be Maya, whose intense personal investment in finding bin Laden, in turn, calls to mind a non-bipolar version of “Homeland”’s Carrie Mathison. But even Maya remains something of an emotional cipher. The depth of her obsession, certainly, is apparent: she works ceaselessly, eats distractedly (and poorly), sleeps fitfully, and appears to have no friends outside of the CIA, no lovers, no family, not even a sense of humor to divert her attention from her main object. However, without context or self-reflection we don’t know what drives her obsession or what, if anything, she gave up to pursue it. Jessica Chastain is a fine actress, but there’s only so much she’s able to do here to make Maya feel like a real person rather than a symbolic projection of a national, collective need to get the man who did this to us, whatever the moral, physical, and psychological costs. Ironically and somewhat disquietingly, it’s Maya’s torturer colleague Dan (an excellent Jason Clarke), who emerges as by far the more recognizably human character of the two. (Jennifer Ehle, too, is appealing as a fellow bin Laden hunter who tries to draw Maya out of her shell but inadvertently ends up reinforcing her hyper-focused resolve.)

In the final, pointed yet wonderfully ambiguous scene, Maya sheds tears—of relief? Regret? Loneliness? (She is, as ever, alone at that moment.) Uncertainty over what’s left for her now that her life’s mission is accomplished? The fact is we don’t know, because we never really knew why she was so fiercely devoted to the mission in the first place. Ultimately, for all the attention the film gives Maya, for all the painstaking care it invests in reconstructing her quest, it’s not really her story. It’s the viewer’s story, a cinematic Rorschach test that lends itself to myriad interpretations of its meaning. And there’s little doubt that it will continue to invite different interpretations for years to come.



written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo di Caprio, Samuel L. Jackson

There’s nothing quite like the experience of watching a Tarantino movie. Even at its most pleasurable, it feels like peering into the brain of a 14-year-old boy. Not just any 14-year-old boy, mind you: clearly a filmmaking prodigy, possessing exceptional skills joined with an irrepressible enthusiasm for movies (all movies, good, bad, and ugly) and a decided taste for the outré—a walking embodiment of Pauline Kael’s famous edict, “Trash has given us an appetite for art.” You marvel at the visions of this brain, at its ability to create compelling narratives out of reams and reams of pastiche and homage to countless genre movies of wildly varying quality. You may roll your eyes at the adolescent excesses. You may wince at some of the violence. Odds are, though, you will be highly entertained. But can you also be edified? Elevated? Hell, does it matter if you’re not?

It’s a question that’s been trailing Tarantino for a while now, especially as he moves physically further and further away from age 14, or even 29 (when he first burst on to the movie scene with “Reservoir Dogs,” and “Pulp Fiction” the year following). Now nearing 50, he enters what for many directors of his abilities would be the “mature” phase of their careers. But what, if anything, does that mean for QT? With “Django Unchained,” following on the heels of its kissing cousin, “Inglourious Basterds,” he appears to be taking on the kind of heavy-duty subject matter—history, war, genocide, slavery, race—that usually draws directors who want to leave a mark, but in his own, on-the-QT way. He dares to have fun with it, openly and shamelessly, by rewriting historical wrongs into searing revenge fantasies wherein the oppressed get to turn the tables on their oppressors.

This approach has netted the director his fair share of controversy for supposedly trivializing or misappropriating the very real, historical sufferings of others. But that criticism, I think, is misplaced, and doesn’t give him enough credit for recognizing the gravity of the injustices he’s gleefully, if fictionally, righting. A more valid question is whether that glee isn’t an oversimplified (and, let’s be frank, kinda porn-y) response to a complex problem. At first glance, Tarantino doesn’t especially seem to care why or how such pernicious evils as Nazism and slavery could be so broadly institutionalized in a civilized society; he just wants to go to town on them. However, a closer look at “Django,” at least, suggests he does have some interest in the subtler effects of such evil on the power dynamics between perpetrators and victims.

It takes some time to get to, admittedly. Initially “Django” plays like another entry in the “QT loves spaghetti Westerns!” and “QT loves Christoph Waltz!” canons, one that just happens to throw both these elements into the antebellum Deep South and make the gunslinging hero a former slave because—well, why the hell not. Christoph Waltz, so memorable as the totally evil-yet-charming Nazi Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds,” is almost as memorable as the good guy here, a German-immigrant bounty hunter named Schultz who seeks out a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx—not to be confused with original-recipe spaghetti-Western Django, played by Franco Nero, who has a brief cameo here) to help him track down a trio of slave-driving brothers on his bounty hit list. Schultz, who displays a marked distaste for slavery, takes a liking to Django, frees him, and trains him to be his partner-in-bounty hunting. Django proves a natural, especially at marksmanship, and the partnership flourishes. This first third or so of the film is a rollicking good time, apart from glimpses of brutal slave abuse that are generally matched, pound for pound, by slave payback. It’s also remarkably funny, thanks in large part to Schultz’s unflappable panache, as well as visual gags like the bouncing large fake tooth on top of Schultz’s wagon (formerly a dentist’s wagon), or the sight of Django strutting about in a powder-blue suit with a frilly white cravat (a costume of his own choosing), stoically ignoring the gaping astonishment of passersby, or a throng of none-too-bright Ku Klux Klan members who can’t see out of their own hoods.

Eventually, Django lets Schlutz in on his heart’s desire: to find and free his wife (Kerry Washington), Brunhilda (yes, that’s really her name), a fellow slave from whom he was separated when the two of them tried unsuccessfully to escape their previous owner. Kindly Schultz helps him trace her to one Calvin Candie (Leonardo di Caprio), a particularly nasty piece of goods even as slave owners go. Young and dapper, he’s also best known for buying and training slaves to fight each other to the death, and apparently has Brunhilda serving as a de facto comfort girl to the fighters. Schultz, not trusting Candie to simply sell her to them, concocts an elaborate scheme that involves his posing as an interested newcomer to the slave-fighting business and visiting Candie’s plantation to look at his best fighters.

It’s at this point that “Django” simultaneously darkens and moves into a higher gear. There’s a long, tense ride to “Candieland,” punctuated by polite chitchat laden with ominous undercurrents and a chilling encounter with an attempted runaway, followed by an even tenser sojourn at Candie’s house. These are extraordinary scenes, filled with a powerful sense of dread. (Not quite on par with the cat-and-mouse scenes in “Inglourious Basterds,” but close.) They’re boosted by outstanding performances by di Caprio as charming psychopath Candie and Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s head house slave, Stephen—the sharpest from either of these actors in years. As the person most directly responsible for setting Schultz and Django’s plans awry, Stephen is arguably the most fascinating character in the movie. Even as he plays, alternately, a toadying, fawning clown and an irascible old coot in public, in private he wields no small influence over his master and a reign of terror over the slaves. His relationship with Candie serves as a kind of dark obverse to the Django-Schultz bond, and an illustration not just of the inherent immorality of slavery but of its morally corrupting effects on everyone entangled in it. Stephen hates Django on sight, of course, and ultimately proves to be his most formidable enemy, as well as Tarantino’s best answer to the charge that the film is just shooting fish in a barrel.

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of fish-in-barrel shooting in the last third or so that doesn’t add much other than unnecessary length and the requisite QT cartoonish geysers of blood. (Which, incidentally, are a lot less disturbing than the scenes in which sadistic pain is suggested but not actually shown.) Tarantino has undeniable flair as a storyteller, but disciplined he is not—as evidenced by a totally superfluous sequence near the very end in which Django temporarily leaves Candieland only to come back with guns a-blazing. The film also suffers from QT's general tendency to linger too long on scenes and characters he finds funny. (Even the KKK scene, while hilarious, goes on a beat too long.) At 2 hours and 45 minutes, the movie really could have stood a heavier hand in the editing room.

Still, at his best no one can create more vividly memorable characters and moments than Tarantino, and in that respect “Django” is right up there with his best work. More significantly, perhaps, his subversive treatment of the master-slave dynamic in the Schultz-Django and Candie-Stephen relationships shows a willingness to engage a serious subject—playfully and irreverently, yes, but not flippantly—and flashes of insight into the moral questions it raises. The latter aren’t fully explored, and remain largely subordinate to his love of gory revenge sagas and shoot-em-up samurai-inspired Westerns. But at least it's there, complicating to some degree the rather unholy visceral thrill of watching Django, in his own words, "shooting white folks and getting paid for it." The 14-year-old in Tarantino may never completely grow up, but he seems to be evolving.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Golden Globes 2013 - a few thoughts

I'm too tired to do a full-on recap of tonight's Golden Globes, but here in no particular order are some of my thoughts on the evening.

SO HAPPY FOR BEN AFFLECK. To the Academy: ARGO fuck yourself.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler: BEST HOSTS EVER. Can we get them for the Oscars too, please?

Jodie Foster receives the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award, and...words fail me. Was that a coming out speech, an anti-coming out speech, a thank you, a farewell, a giant "fuck y'all," all of the above, or none of the above? Doesn't help that a key line was apparently bleeped by the censors. I think my favorite moment was the cut to a slack-jawed Mel Gibson, clearly just as befuddled as the rest of us. You know it's a hell of a Golden Globes when a surprise appearance by BILL FRICKIN' CLINTON is NOT the biggest "whoa" moment of the night.

And speaking of Clinton, best comment ever on his "Lincoln" intro, courtesy of the internets: "I think Spielberg brought a Bill Clinton to the Harvey Weinstein knife fight."

The Weinstein still had a pretty good night, even if the Hollywood Foreign Press ultimately loved Ben Affleck and Les Mis more than his babies (Silver Linings Playbook, Django). I loved Argo, and while I didn't love Les Mis, I love Hugh and Anne, so I'm happy for them.

On the TV side, big night for "Homeland" and "Girls." I think the former went a bit downhill this season and I've only seen two episodes of the latter, but again, because I like the people involved in both shows, I'm happy for them, too. But Mandy Patinkin was robbed!

Fashions: nothing remarkable, unless you count JLo's peekaboo lace dress. Personally thought JLaw(rence) looked better. Something about JChastain's dress didn't quite work, though I liked the color.

Handsome check: how does George Clooney manage to look more dapper with each passing year? And how does Ewan McGregor stay so pretty? Can Hugh Jackman ever not be charming?

Cutest Hollywood couple: def John Krasinski & Emily Blunt. I heart them.

Oh, and finally, an honorary award for best stonyface of the night: Tommy Lee Jones, looking painfully unamused by Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig (who, in fairness to TLJ, were not nearly as funny as they thought they were). Runner-up: Taylor Swift's bitchface at losing out to Adele for Best Song. I'm sorry, Taylor honey, but "Skyfall" was the better song, Adele can sing circles around you, and her acceptance speeches, unlike yours, are a riot. Adele = awesome.

On to the Oscars!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

One to Watch: Ben Whishaw

Continuing my occasional series ”One to Watch,” highlighting up-and-coming actors who have caught my interest lately, here’s a new entrant:


You may know him from: "Skyfall,” as the new Q

I first noticed him in: "Bright Star,” as the young, doomed, tubercular Keats

Other noteworthy work: “The Hour,” BBC America’s fantastic TV series about a fictional BBC news show in the 1950s - sort of a cross between “Mad Men” and “The Newsroom,” only better than both (pleeeeze renew, BBC!); “Cloud Atlas”; “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” He also played Sebastian Flyte in the recent film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, Ariel in Julie Taymor's gender-bending take on Shakespeare's The Tempest, and, most recently, Richard II in the BBC's TV-movie production of the Henriad (which hasn't yet crossed the pond but was well received in Britain).

Upcoming big break: Well, I think he just got it as Q.

When I knew he had me: Season 1, Episode 4 of “The Hour.” Wherein Freddie Lyon – the spiky, scrappy, maddening yet oddly magnetic reporter played by Whishaw – accidentally discovers on his birthday that his best friend & the love of his life is having an affair with his chief rival at work. At the moment he finds out, something quietly dies in his eyes, even as he conceals his shock so well the bearer of the bad news doesn’t even realize he didn’t know; later, at his own birthday party, he flirts drunkenly and charmingly with his beloved, showing he knows it’s hopeless but it doesn’t matter—he’ll always love her anyway. Wonderful stuff, to break the heart.

Why he’s swoonworthy: He’s a runt, so skinny he looks like you could snap him in half, scruffy, at first glance unprepossessing. And yet there’s a spark in his eyes—intelligence, a little impishness, and despite flecks of vulnerability, a will of steel—that forces you to take a second look, and then a third. Ok, maybe I’m just describing his character on “The Hour.” But damned if he doesn’t steal your heart on that show, despite the proximity of his much more conventionally heartthrobby co-star, Dominic West. Plus he has great hair.

Yes, it's another Brit: Let's face facts - when it comes to compelling actors, no one does it better than the good ol’ UK.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

"The Hobbit," "Les Mis" - Great expectations, not quite fulfilled


directed by Peter Jackson
starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis; brief appearances by old friends Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee
based on the novel (and other writings) by J.R.R. Tolkien



directed by Tom Hooper
starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham-Carter, Sasha Baron Cohen, Samantha Barks & other Broadway veterans