From the gut-wrenching, step-by-step chronology of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad to seafaring cultists practicing Scientology-like rituals in the wake of World War II to the 16th president twisting arms over the passing of the 13th Amendment, the best films of 2012 brought history to life with an extraordinary scrupulousness that still left room for vivid artistic expression. But searching for patterns in a best-of list like the one below does little justice to the films’ diversity and unruliness, and the many wondrous places movies took viewers this year, including the haunted landscapes of Turkey (Once Upon A Time In Anatolia) and Georgia (The Loneliest Planet), revitalized twists on the slasher (The Cabin In The Woods) and noir (Killer Joe) genres, and two vastly different takes on what love really means (Amour, The Deep Blue Sea). Unlike in past years, nearly all films were available to see before press time, with one conspicuous exception: Most of The A.V. Club’s film reviewers weren’t able to see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which might have found a place on the list. (Nathan Rabin did include it on his Top 15.) The Billy Crystal/Bette Midler movie Parental Guidance also wasn’t screened in time, so consider that our invisible #21. For your consideration…
20. I Wish
Hirozaku Kore-eda’s I Wish concerns two grade-school-aged brothers separated by their parents’ divorce, but also weaves in the story of the boys’ family and friends, pondering what people really want out of life, and at what age they make that decision. The title refers to the older brother’s fervent hope that a nearby volcano will erupt, forcing his family to reunite. To expedite this, he plans an excursion to a spot where two bullet trains pass each other at top speed, which the school rumor mill insists will generate such force that it’ll make wishes come true. He and his brother and their friends prep their trip and their wishes, and Kore-eda follows them leisurely, until I Wish’s dozen little subplots and side trips culminate in a touching climactic montage.
Taking place at the ends of the earth, or at least a remote stretch of Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film follows a long night that seems to brush on all kinds of deep truths about human nature that remain just out of grasp. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a procedural, but it’s also a haunting mood piece in which the crime that’s already been committed is known and now being dealt with. A man and his brother try to lead the police to where they buried a body, with great difficulty, since they were drunk at the time. The criminal, the prosecutor, the doctor who’ll perform the autopsy: These men seem to be journeying through purgatory, but it’s an exceptionally beautiful one, full of rolling hills and waving grasses illuminated by the headlights of their cars and the kindness of hosts at a village. When dawn finally comes, it brings with it the understanding that this is a peculiar, profound type of tragedy.
18. Miss BalaMiss Bala suggests the sheer brazenness of cartels that can operate freely and openly, and the ordinary citizens who wriggle under their thumbs. Stephanie Sigman plays an aspiring Miss Baja California who becomes an unwitting Miss “Bala” (meaning “bullet”) in the wake of a nightclub shooting that leaves several dead and missing, including her friend. When she reports the incident to a cartel-friendly police officer, he leads her right to the instigator, who enlists her as driver, gunrunner, and human shield. Miss Bala turns on a nasty irony about Sigman achieving her beauty-queen dreams, but it’s more compelling for Naranjo’s kinetic style, which has viewers riding shotgun through a harrowing odyssey.
17. Killer Joe
2012 was the year of Matthew McConaughey, a career-revitalizing annum in which the hunk escaped, Houdini-like, from the straitjacket of self-parody and reclaimed the boundless promise of his early career. No role shattered his pretty-boy mold more forcefully or perversely than the deranged dark comedy Killer Joe. The divisive, gleefully offensive shocker reunites director William Friedkin with his Bug collaborator, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts, for a scuzzy neo-noir about a debauched, impoverished trailer-park family that hires dirty cop McConaughey to kill someone for an insurance payday, and ends up getting in way over their heads. Killer Joe casts McConaughey as a preening wolf let loose in the henhouse, a corrupt authority figure whose pristine appearance—in a realm where nobody seems to mind looking like death personified—and strange moral code mask a core of pure sadism that comes out in a gruesome, bleakly funny climax that will forever change the way audiences view fried chicken.
Photographer-turned-filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has made the perfect documentary for a recession that never seems to end. The Queen Of Versailles casts an amused but ultimately compassionate eye on the jaw-dropping hubris of David Siegel, a time-share magnate whose spectacular commercial success allows him and his wife Jackie to begin construction on what was to be the largest, most expensive single-family home in America. David and Jackie initially appear to be the stuff of voyeuristic reality shows: a smug, arrogant multi-millionaire and his vacuous trophy wife. But Jackie’s beauty-queen exterior and surgically enhanced charms mask underlying smarts and determination that emerge when the recession hits Siegel’s business so hard, he’s forced to halt construction on the half-finished super-mansion, which then becomes a potent visual metaphor for the couple’s abandoned dreams. The Queen Of Versailles gleans some big, guilty laughs out of its subjects’ rampant egotism and surreal disconnect from everyday reality, but it’s ultimately less interested in laughing at the Siegels’ misfortune than in attempting to understand them. Jackie emerges as the documentary’s unlikely heroine, a consummate survivor who must keep her family together once the money stops rolling in and her husband descends into a depressive funk that shuts out everything but his own misery. The Siegels are fantastic fodder for a documentary precisely because they’re so outsized and outrageous, but their struggles should be relatable to anyone who’s unexpectedly had to make do with far less than they imagined possible.
15. Only The Young
Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims’ lovely documentary chronicles the directionless lives of Kevin Conway and Garrison Saenz, two magnetic, enormously likeable teenagers who don’t seem to see any inherent conflict between their evangelical Christian faith and their love for anti-authoritarian skater punk, in part because they don’t seem to have thought too thoroughly about the larger ramifications of either of those passions. The boys mostly just breeze through their teen years, laughing and goofing their way through the magic hour of late adolescence. Then a spirited young woman named Skye Elmore enters their lives and doggedly pursues Saenz with a sense of purpose unimaginable to the aggressively aimless boys. Only The Young begins as a movie about the friendship between two boys, but Elmore quickly comes to dominate a film that approaches the uncertainty and heightened emotions of youth with unexpected delicacy and compassion. Only The Young is a film of painterly beauty and profound emotional generosity that transforms casualness into a virtue. It miraculously captures the ephemeral magic and wonder of youth, transcending the sentimentality and contrived melodrama that seem to be innate shortcomings of the coming-of-age genre film.
The prospect of Steven Spielberg doing an Abraham Lincoln biopic threatens a return to the earnest “give us free” slave narrative of Amistad, but the brilliance of Lincoln comes from how much weight it gives to the horse-trading and arm-twisting it takes to achieve political goals. Though it captures Lincoln’s eloquence and courage—to say nothing of the terrible burden of leading a country through a civil war—Tony Kushner’s script smartly narrows its focus to the passing of the 13th Amendment and shows an understanding of American congressional process that’s just as relevant today as it was 150 years ago. (Listen closely, and the film sounds like a message to President Obama on how to move gay rights forward in his second term.) As Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis seems to wear the president’s burden on his hunched frame, and he helps make the case that Lincoln’s greatness comes from the skill with which he turned ideals into policy—by any means necessary.
13. Life Of Pi
The middle hour of Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestseller is one of the grandest old-fashioned adventure stories the screen has seen in years, following an Indian teenager as he tries to survive for weeks in the middle of the ocean, on a lifeboat occupied by a man-eating tiger. The combination of clever how-to details and wild fantasy is a throwback to the days of Disney’s live-action man-against-nature films (only slightly grimmer), but it’s flanked by a more down-to-earth depiction of the hero’s youth in a zoo-owning Indian family, as well as a closing sequence that changes the meaning of everything that’s come before. This is a movie that’s both magical and practical, challenging viewers to think about what kind of stories they prefer, and why.
At a time when almost every big-budget Hollywood release is a pre-packaged adaptation, remake, or franchise sequel, Rian Johnson’s mind-bending, thought-provoking Looper offers something truly original. While its tale of near-future mob assassins uses time travel to generate exciting twists and turns, those popcorn elements are in service of a fundamentally character-driven piece about the self-defeating futility of violence. Casting the physically dissimilar Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the same person 30 years apart was a huge gamble that pays off beautifully, thanks less to the prosthetics applied to Gordon-Levitt’s face than to his uncanny youthful replication of Willis’ middle-age mannerisms. And only a filmmaker wholly committed to his personal vision would dare to establish a standard science-fiction dystopia and then shift most of the action to a single mom’s lonely farmhouse. Smart, inventive, pensive, and heartfelt, Looper proves that creating an event movie from scratch isn’t an entirely lost art.
The most fun that could be had at the movies this year, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s clever, funny, scary feature lovingly deconstructs the creaky subgenre of the slasher flick and puts it back together into something that winks at the familiar tropes while never skimping on being rollickingly entertaining in its own right. Why do people in horror movies always make such terrible choices regarding their own safety? Why do they always seem to fit prescribed types? The Cabin In The Woods deals with all these issues and more while fitting in some sly commentary about why we enjoy the spectacle of characters—particularly young, nubile ones—getting slaughtered onscreen. When so many meta efforts boil down to a few back-patting jokes, this film manages to be a sincere, fond, deeply geeky act of fandom that’s far more than just an extended act of congratulations for picking up on all its references.
Andrea Arnold’s unconventional adaptation of the Emily Brontë classic brings race front and center, keeps the camera handheld and low to the ground, and lends the language a profane edge not usually associated with 19th-century English literature. Yet it’s true to the tortured heart of the novel, using raw performances and beautifully forbidding images of the English moors to re-create Brontë’s unrelenting sense of dread.
In 2012’s most impressive debut feature, Benh Zeitlin explores The Bathtub, a corner of the Louisiana bayou that’s grateful to have been forgotten by the rest of the world as the rest of the world has gone about the slow process of falling apart. Its idyll comes to an end shortly after the film opens, however, uprooting a young girl (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) and kicking off a lyrical journey through a mythologized 21st-century South. Self-consciously artful but made of humble material, it’s full of striking images in service of a one-of-a-kind coming-of-age story.
8. It’s Such A Beautiful Day
Watching the three short films—Everything Will Be Ok, I Am So Proud Of You, and It’s Such A Beautiful Day—in Don Hertzfeldt’s “Billogy” back to back is a daunting proposition. On its own, each is devastating; cumulatively, they’re almost too much to bear. Their collective impact is more startling considering that Hertzfeldt’s protagonist is a stick figure, a device that quickly moves beyond being a gimmick to suggest a kind of minimalist everyperson. Drawing every frame himself and relying on a wide range of handmade effects, Hertzfeldt explores mental illness with more perspicacity than Silver Linings Playbook and physical decay with as much intelligence as Amour. Hertzfeldt is one of few filmmakers exploring territory that is wholly his own, and based on It’s Such A Beautiful Day, no one is anywhere near catching up to him.
The rap on Michael Haneke’s Amour is that the famously intimidating filmmaker has gone soft, but Haneke’s idea of sentimental is anyone else’s stringent. True, the story of an elderly couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) dealing with decay and death is more character-focused than explicit parables like The White Ribbon or Funny Games, but that hardly makes this his Something’s Gotta Give. Merciless but not cruel, Haneke steers the couple toward the inevitable with unforgiving clarity, eventually forcing viewers to confront what love means in the final stretch. The film’s beauty comes less from the stark, soft light that filters through the windows of the couple’s apartment than the almost-elemental devotion with which the husband tends to his dying wife’s needs, a duty that goes beyond feeling and is closer to instinct.
Julia Loktev’s drama revolves around one small moment, an unexpected encounter on the road that gives a seismic shake not only to the relationship of the central couple (Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg), but also to their ideas about themselves and what they want from each other. What makes the film so stunning is that they don’t talk about it, and that viewers understand these complex things as they unfold in subtle details over the hiking trip the pair is taking in the company of a guide in the Caucasus Mountains. The Loneliest Planet is set against a giant, gorgeous natural backdrop that sometimes dwarfs the characters, but other times seems like it can scarcely contain the quiet, claustrophobic drama. Power struggles and apologies play out over offerings of snacks or who goes first when crossing a river, and a man and woman deal with expectations about masculinity and protectiveness that they never knew they had, and thought they were above.
Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about an unhappy love triangle gets the Terence Davies treatment—which is to say, it positively swoons in impassioned misery, right from the expressionistic opening montage of its heroine’s suicide attempt. As a woman who’s left her kind-but-dull husband for a dashing cad who doesn’t love her, Rachel Weisz digs deep into a clear-eyed, unapologetic romantic fatalism; her acceptance of her fate may be the purest devotion imaginable, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. And yet the film’s style is rapturous and its story is heartbreaking, exemplified by the strangely muted tinge that makes everything come across like somebody’s burnished memory. Terence D. pays respect to Terence R. by reimagining The Deep Blue Sea in gloriously cinematic terms while remaining true to its claustrophobic sensibility. The experience can be punishing as well as exhilarating… but then, so can being in love.
4. Holy Motors
An elderly bag lady. A motion-capture acrobat. A deformed troll who kidnaps Eva Mendes and eats her hair. The leader of an accordion army. Denis Lavant plays all these roles and several more in Holy Motors, the first feature by French cult figure Leos Carax since 1999’s Pola X. As a meditation on the nature of acting and the various ways in which analog is being supplanted by digital—one look at the title tells you which side Carax favors—this giddy/sad smorgasbord offers plenty of grist for interpretation. But what astounds is its sheer capacity for crazed invention, as if Carax were trying to make all the projects he’d been unable to get off the ground for the past 13 years at once. (He’s admitted in interviews that some of the vignettes derive from abandoned feature ideas.) With any other actor in the lead role, it might have felt incoherent; Lavant commits so fervently to his 1,000 faces that viewers have to just go along for the ride, cruising Paris in a white stretch limo with no idea where they’re headed next.
It all comes down to fishhook earrings. At a pivotal moment in Wes Anderson’s screwball fable, two children rendezvous on an island beach, and the boy gives the girl a pair of earrings fashioned from fishing lures. Pushing the barbed hooks through her unpierced lobes works as a canny metaphor for deflowering, but it also sums up the formula behind Anderson’s best movies: aesthetics plus pain. In The Life Aquatic, Anderson argued that artificiality—faked documentaries, plasticine fish—can be a conduit to real emotions, and in Moonrise Kingdom, he proves the point.
In the months and days leading up to the release of Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the film was pilloried by the right as propaganda for President Obama in an election year, and by the left as a love letter to torture. But director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, the team responsible for The Hurt Locker, are primarily interested in pursuing the truth wherever it leads them, and evoking history without appeal to ideologues of any stripe. Aligning itself with a CIA official (Jessica Chastain) whose decade-long pursuit of bin Laden calls on vast reserves of courage and resolve, Zero Dark Thirty goes deep into the shadow world of “enhanced interrogation” and black sites, details the many leads and red herrings that finally brought investigators to a compound in Abbottabad, and executes the raid itself with stomach-turning verisimilitude. Though Bigelow and Boal pay tribute to the dogged skill of the investigators who found Bin Laden and the SEAL members who stormed the compound, they aren’t interested in rah-rah triumphalism. It’s a sobering journey into the darkness.
1. The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest historical drama is another of his studies of a lost boy and his charismatic parental substitutes, as alcoholic World War II veteran Joaquin Phoenix stumbles into the circle of cult leader Philip Seymour Hoffman and his wife Amy Adams. They’re fascinated by his barbarism; he’s drawn by their unconventionality. There’s nothing programmatic about The Master, which can’t be reduced to a story about a black-hearted businessman, or the insidiousness of organized faith, or anything that simple. It’s more about its times, and how these characters try to make their own place within them. After the opening shots of Phoenix in the Navy, Anderson openly references John Huston’s 1946 documentary Let There Be Light, about mentally ill soldiers. Phoenix’s performance calls to mind James Dean and the other Method actors who transformed the tone of movies in the ’50s. The era The Master covers, from roughly 1945 to 1952, was a tumultuous one in American culture. It was the age of film noir and psychological realism, but also a time when the suburban placidity for which the ’50s is remembered took root. All of that looms in Anderson’s movie, which deals with human impulses that run counter to the clean, composed America the corporate PR machine was selling.
Outliers: Notable films on one critic’s list, but no others
A glorious companion piece to Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained finds Quentin Tarantino once again using the vocabulary of exploitation movies, especially spaghetti Westerns, to tell a tale of revenge and vengeance rooted in a great historical injustice perpetrated against an oppressed minority. Django Unchained even brings back Christoph Waltz, who picked up an Academy Award for Basterds, as a man whose virtuosity with verbiage reflects Tarantino’s passionate, long-standing love affair with the English language. Here, Waltz plays a deadly bounty hunter who is a whiz with guns, but whose greatest weapon is his ability to talk himself out of any predicament, no matter how dire. Waltz frees slave Jamie Foxx, and together, they go on a mission of vengeance that leaves massive trails of blood in their wake. Django Unchained elevates schlock to the level of art, most spectacularly in a shootout for the ages that cross-pollinates Scarface and The Wild Bunch, but with an exhilaratingly anachronistic hip-hop flourish. It’s a brawling, two-fisted epic awash in blood and viscera, yet deeply enamored with the power of words. [NR]
Even some critics who raved about this astonishing true-crime doc didn’t seem to understand what it was attempting. Had it simply told the story of Frédéric Bourdin—a French criminal who somehow managed to pass himself off as a missing American teenager, fooling the boy’s own family even though he looked nothing like him and spoke with a thick French accent—it would still have been compulsively watchable. But director Bart Layton cannily manipulates viewers’ experience of the events, via point of view (Bourdin himself, speaking directly to camera, is our guide), heightened re-enactments, and selective editing of the family’s recollections, until the audience winds up making the same mistake the family did. It’s a dizzyingly effective look at the internal mechanisms of confirmation bias, inviting observers to goggle at other people’s inexplicable behavior while failing to notice a similar choice to believe patent nonsense. Anyone who thinks the film’s ending is ambiguous, implying an unsolved mystery, has failed the test. [MD’A]
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s consistency may make it easy to take them for granted, or maybe it’s their low-key filmmaking style. Or maybe it was just that the brothers’ latest, The Kid With A Bike, received a U.S. release early in the year, far from awards season. Either way, it’s another quietly devastating portrait of the lives and moral dilemmas of those struggling just to hang on. Here, that comes via the story of a boy faced with choices that will shape the rest of his life, choices whose weight he doesn’t always recognize, and for which he hasn’t received nearly enough guidance from those around him. [KP]
A straightforward character drama realized with uncommon skill and insight, Ava DuVernay’s film centers on a former medical student (the luminous Emayatzy Corinealdi) who has given up her studies to be near the prison where her husband is serving out his sentence. What’s impressive about Middle Of Nowhere isn’t just the care with which it’s put together, but the way DuVernay cannily bridges the gap between the ghetto tales and Tyler Perry fantasies that comprise so much of contemporary African-American film. It isn’t aspirational, but neither does it ratify stereotypes about the black underclass. Without a studio behind it, the film got only modest attention in theaters, but people will be catching up with it for years to come. [SA]
Veteran documentarian Ross McElwee was inspired to make Photographic Memory by his strained relationship with his now-grown son Adrian, whom McElwee worries is too distracted by technology. To understand his son better, McElwee revisits his own early 20s, when he was a hippie free spirit, kicking around France and worrying his father. McElwee approaches the generation gap with sensitivity, admitting to his preferences for the slower pace and tactility of his youth, while also conceding that in some ways, his son’s generation is more connected to each other. Meanwhile, McElwee revisits the films and videotapes he has of his son, of his own father, and of a life that keeps slipping by and changing before he can get a handle on it. As he realizes that the memories and associations he has with his old photos are very different from how their subjects experienced those moments, McElwee grapples poignantly with the idea that nothing is fixed: not images, not people. [NM]
Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s semi-documentary was given its title because on a certain level, it isn’t a film in the way of Panahi’s past work—it has no script or actors, it was shot in the Tehran apartment in which he’s been serving out his house arrest, and it’s centered around his talking through the feature he would have made had he not been banned from filmmaking for 20 years. The title is also a nod to that ban: This work, which was reportedly smuggled out of the country in a cake, isn’t a film because Panahi isn’t allowed to make them. But it is also a heartbreaking portrait of an artist who’s been silenced, and Panahi manages to put a human face—his own—on this injustice, and turn what can seem like an abstract violation of rights into something more immediate and terrible, the stifling of a life. [AW]
The great Hungarian director Béla Tarr (Sátántángo) has claimed that The Turin Horse is his last movie, and like a lot of swan songs, it’s about death, following two people whose lives teeter on the precipice, ever a stiff wind away from falling off. Tarr was inspired by an incident that reportedly drove Friedrich Nietzsche to madness: Outside his home in Turin, Italy, Nietzsche witnessed a cart driver who, in frustration over a stubborn horse, started beating the animal mercilessly with a whip. Nietzsche threw his arms around the horse, sobbing, to stop the beating. But with The Turin Horse, Tarr has imagined what the driver’s life might have been like, and the desperation that underpins such an act of unconscionable cruelty. Unfolding in his signature long takes—the opener is a candidate for shot of the year—the film ventures to the driver’s single-room home in a windswept prairie, where he and his daughter subsist on potatoes and wait out a storm of apocalyptic proportions. The Turin Horse feels like a vision out of time, with no reference to other movies or even a world that’s recognizable as our own. It’s 3-D in 2-D, a tactile experience of a biographical side character whose life only Tarr saw fit to comprehend. [ST]
Lebanese writer-director Nadine Labaki keeps the details general in her sharp black musical comedy about women trying to keep the peace in an isolated village populated by equal numbers of Muslims and Christians. Without exploring Lebanon’s own sectarian violence, choosing sides, or justifying behavior—in fact, without naming the country where the film takes place—she presents a fairy-tale metaphor for the conflict, in which the men of the village are quick to arms and to finger-pointing when anything goes wrong, and the women are willing to make any compromise and to try any far-fetched, crack-brained idea to defuse or distract. The film is sometimes heartbreakingly sad; Labaki fully acknowledges the pain of war, and how it tears people apart. But Where Do We Go Now? is also immensely funny, as its good-hearted cast seizes on plans ranging from imported strippers to hashish hidden in the men’s food. The tone is sometimes over-the-top, but the message is that conflict can’t take hold among people who deal with each other in trust, good faith, and common cause, and that no sacrifice is too great for people firmly dedicated to peace. [TR]
Sam Adams Top 15 1. Moonrise Kingdom 2. It’s Such A Beautiful Day 3. Middle Of Nowhere 4. Magic Mike 5. Killer Joe 6. Amour 7. The Deep Blue Sea 8. Wuthering Heights 9. Barbara 10. The Master 11. Zero Dark Thirty 12. Holy Motors 13. Starlet 14. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower 15. Killing Them Softly
PerformanceMatthew McConaughey, Killer Joe/Magic MikeKiller Joe and Magic Mike, he tears into the roles of a murderous cop and a satanic stripping impresario like a starving man, sucking every last drop from the juiciest of roles. There was a similar sense of oily glee in The Lincoln Lawyer, but in truth, McConaughey hasn’t acted with this level of engagement since Dazed And Confused.
UnderratedFriends With KidsLockout get praised to the skies. There’s formula in Jennifer Westfeldt’s directorial debut, but feeling as well. And anyone who thinks it’s far-fetched to see two friends of opposite gender agreeing to raise a child while they continue to date other people hasn’t touched base with single urbanites in their late 30s recently. (It’s absurd, but only by about 10 percent.) If nothing else, the film deserves endless praise for its bombshell kicker, a final line that blasts through the coy innuendo at the heart of most screen romances.
OverratedDamsels In DistressDamsels In Distress is a tone-deaf attempt to change gears from the observational comedy of his early films to a more stylized, absurdist mode. Every performance, every last line, is suffused with an arch self-consciousness that is far too pervasive, like the gauzy light that floods the movie’s make-believe campus. There are flashes of wit—mostly tied to Greta Gerwig’s airy turn as an amateur self-help guru—but running gags about suicide and anal sex fall painfully flat, and once the movie’s minor charms are exhausted, it simply grinds.
Most pleasant surpriseStarletStarlet, whose closest thing to a name actor is the guy who played Ziggy on The Wire. But people found their way to this touching, acutely well-observed character study all the same. Because so many haven’t yet sees the film, its plot must go undescribed, but suffice it to say it’s about an encounter between a young woman (Dree Hemingway) and an old woman (Besedka Johnson) that spawns an uneasy relationship, during the course of which their pasts and presents come to light. Baker perfectly captures the smoggy glow of Southern California, the mixture of languor and submerged aggression that’s always in the air. He also draws fine, understated performances from his raw leads. (Hemingway is a model with little acting experience; Johnson was discovered at a YMCA.) The film is a fragile thing, easy to overlook if it isn’t approached with an open mind and heart, but it’s very much worth doing so.
Future Film That Time ForgotDetachmentAmerican History X and a black-and-white documentary on anti-abortion activists, who could have expected a phantasmagorical tale of substitute teaching? Assembled as a string of sensational episodes—James Caan uses a photo of an infected vagina to dissuade a student from going braless; a blank-eyed boy mutilates a kitten while his peers look on impassively—the film approaches a kind of hallucinatory hysteria, a prolonged shriek of smash cuts and shifting film stock. Frequently insane but never less than watchable, it has to be seen to be believed.
Mike D’Angelo Top 15 1. Holy Motors 2. The Imposter 3. The Loneliest Planet 4. Miss Bala 5. Moonrise Kingdom 6. Amour 7. The Deep Blue Sea 8. Only The Young 9. Looper 10. This Must Be The Place 11. Haywire 12. You Are Here 13. It’s Such A Beautiful Day 14. Argo 15. Sister
PerformanceAnn Dowd, ComplianceCompliance is so certifiably insane, such an apparent affront to common sense, that dramatizing it presented a Herculean challenge. In particular, the part of the store manager demanded an actor who could convincingly take viewers step by step through the evasions of responsibility and the well-meaning rationalizations that allowed the perpetrator to pull it off. Dowd, who’s mostly played stock wives and mothers for the past 25 years (Kim Kelly’s mom on Freaks And Geeks; Bettie Page’s mom in The Notorious Bettie Page, etc.), takes full advantage of this nearly impossible role, depicting the manager not as a terminally gullible hick, but as a perfectly ordinary woman whose first instinct, in common with most of us, is to assume that others are trustworthy until they demonstrate otherwise. It’s a perfectly calibrated performance, un-showy and fully grounded in the mundane, workaday world we all inhabit.
OverratedSilver Linings PlaybookThe Fighter. It scored him an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, so now he’s adapted a popular novel… and stooped to outright pandering. Russell’s penchant for barely controlled chaos just isn’t funny in the context of diagnosed mental illness, and while Playbook’s late shift into a conventional, crowd-pleasing rom-com works exceedingly well, it does so at the expense of all the previous manic episodes, making it seem as if men who suffer from bipolar disorder just need to find a screwball dame to nurse them to health via wacky dance routines. Jennifer Lawrence amuses with hectic aggression, but Bradley Cooper, valiantly attempting to expand his range beyond glib jerkitude, is just out of his depth. Even more than The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook is Russell diluted for mass consumption; he may be on the A-list now, but he was at his best when he worked exclusively from inside his own head.
UnderratedLockoutLooper needed, but that doesn’t mean the world no longer has any use for heroes who wisecrack their way through preposterous action flicks. Lockout, known almost universally in critic circles by the more baldly descriptive title Space Jail, feeds that nostalgia like no movie in years, albeit with Guy Pearce in the Willis role. From the opening-credits sequence, in which each title appears in the empty space vacated by Pearce’s head after a hulk named Rupert punches it off the screen, this cheaply made, disposable product of the Luc Besson factory glories in its hero’s cheerfully antisocial persona—Pearce is the whole show here, and he’s having a blast. He’s working opposite Maggie Grace, who’s just as irritating as she was on the first season of Lost, which only heightens the satisfaction when he subjects her to all manner of brusque, who-gives-a-shit verbal abuse.
Most pleasant surpriseThe Three StoogesSaturday Night Live sketch and more like a tribute to the nearly lost art of expertly timed slapstick. It’s admittedly too long—there’s a reason why the original Stooges were confined almost entirely to short subjects—but there’s something bracing about seeing actual routines that clearly required tons of rehearsal to get just right, as opposed to a room full of former stand-up comics and Groundlings alumni semi-improvising their way into laughs. It’s closer to Hong Kong action than to Judd Apatow.
Future Film That Time ForgotIntrudersIntacto, 28 Weeks Later) is talented, but he’ll be burying this overwrought clunker at the bottom of his résumé for many years to come. It’s sure to eventually be rediscovered by aficionados of bad horror, however, both because of its goofy monster—a Dementor-like being called Hollowface, who stalks little children (but only if they write or read stories in which he appears, so they’re kind of asking for it)—and because it stars Clive Owen as… well, it’s best not to get into who he’s playing. Suffice it to say there’s a climactic twist that will set eyes rolling, assuming viewers didn’t tumble to it early on and spend the rest of the movie twiddling their thumbs awaiting the reveal. Intruders actually has something cogent (and rather dark) to say about where fear comes from, which only makes its risible missteps all the more frustrating/cherishable.
Noel Murray Top 15 1. The Master 2. Zero Dark Thirty 3. Life Of Pi 4. Damsels In Distress 5. Holy Motors 6. It’s Such A Beautiful Day 7. Photographic Memory 8. Looper 9. The Queen Of Versailles 10. The Deep Blue Sea 11. Premium Rush 12. Lincoln 13. This Is 40 14. I Wish 15. The Cabin In The Woods
PerformanceGreta Gerwig, Damsels In Distress Stillman’s characters have always been a little eccentric, but in his ’80s-style campus comedy Damsels In Distress, the heroines are downright zany, and possibly mentally ill. Greta Gerwig plays a staunch idealist who helms a suicide-prevention organization and tries to elevate her classmates by setting a good example, and by teaching them to keep their spirits up through proper hygiene. Gerwig has a way with Stillman’s fast-paced chatter, but she also gets that this is a movie about the way young people try to define themselves, always hiding their petty hypocrisies behind convoluted modifications to their public identities.
UnderratedJohn CarterFinding Nemo and Wall-E), he’s learned how to build stories and characters carefully, and to fill the screen with images that delight the eye.
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