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2012: Endings and New Beginnings

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Cosmopolis, Magic Mike, The Grey

Because the tradition of a “top 10” is cruel and arbitrary, and because I loved so many of this year’s movies so intensely, here are 15 more candidates for best of the year, ordered alphabetically, before I really begin: Amour, Barbara, The Cabin in the Woods, Cosmopolis, Girl Walk//All Day, The Grey, How to Survive a Plague, The Imposter, In Another Country, Lincoln, The Loneliest Planet, Looper, Magic Mike, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and Your Sister’s Sister.

And because all the same is true of performances, here are 10 more of those, too: Carlen Altman, playing sisterhood as venom The Color Wheel; Ann Dowd and her Middle American sincerity in Compliance; Thomas Doret with his wounded puppy look in The Kid with a Bike; Tommy Lee Jones topping his own Lincoln work in Hope Springs; Fran Kranz as horror’s new stoner hero in The Cabin in the Woods; Anders Danielsen Lie, haunted by himself in Oslo, August 31st; Kelly Macdonald (collaborating  with Pixar animators) in Brave; lonely, frumpy Teresa Madruga in Tabu; Aggeliki Papoulia and her roleplaying breakdown in Alps; and Sean Penn, screwier than ever in This Must Be the Place.

Oh, and this year’s award for Best Performance in a Documentary—previously given to Exit Through the Gift Shop’s Thierry Guetta and Tabloid’s Joyce McKinney—goes to Frédéric Bourdin in The Imposter.

And now, my 10 favorite films and 20 favorite performances of 2012…

10) Tabu, directed by Miguel Gomes

Nostalgia pervades the films on this list. Each of them contains some yearning for a past, pre-lapsarian and long-gone, whether before the war, the digital age, or the onset of maturity. Tabu couples this same yearning with postcolonial critique, embedding them both in its form and bisected structure. Languid and bittersweet, throbbing with forbidden romance, the film dances to the beat of its own playful postmodernism. For Gomes, the histories of film genre and sound design are like tropical fruits on the branch, just waiting for an adventurous filmmaker to stroll up and take a bite.

Dame Judi Dench finally got something to do in a James Bond movie, leaving the office and weaponizing her stiff upper lip as Skyfall’s stakes grew personal.

Michael Shannon seemed to bend Premium Rush’s gravitational field around him, making the movie as much about his demented giggles as it was about bikes.

9) Oslo, August 31st, directed by Joachim Trier

This spiky Norwegian character study is in some ways the anti-Trainspotting: subdued instead of stylized, it shifts the emphasis of substance abuse away from the act of shooting up and onto the aftermath—the alienation and awkward apologies. They’re the quicksand that recovering addict Anders must shuffle through on his day-long furlough from rehab. He bounces between bistros and apartments, from one mangled relationship to another, but he can never shake the disappointment and self-loathing that choke up Oslo’s frames. The resulting film is quietly devastating, with an ending that’s still metastasizing in my soul.

In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck wore a tacky blond wig; as Killer Joe’s femme fatale, Gina Gershon wears a merkin. Her white-trash performance will forever leave a tragic imprint on the words “However much!” and the object known as a breaded chicken drumstick.

Seven Psychopaths was a lumpy witches’ brew of a movie, but Christopher Walken improved it with every second he was onscreen, his idiosyncratic cadences enriching the film with grief and absurdist comedy.

8) Goodbye First Love, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve

Sunlight floods this tender French bildungsroman as young Camille, played by the incandescent Lola Créton, grows from infatuation to heartbreak and regret. Season by season, her story blossoms. Year by year, the burdens of adulthood settle around her shoulders. Time flows here like a mountain stream, making Goodbye First Love a hard movie to hold in your hands. Its sensory details are so rich, yet they recede so quickly thanks to the film’s merciless momentum. But such is the pain of maturation, and Hansen-Løve captures exactly that beneath a warm, glimmering surface.

I loved every one of Damsels in Distress’s damsels (see below), but Megalyn Echikunwoke’s faux-British accent and delivery of the word “operator” cracked me up more than I thought humanly possible.

As the cuckolded husband, Simon Russell Beale has The Deep Blue Sea’s quietest role. Yet he says so much with merely a knit brow, conveying both how alien his wife’s actions are to him, and how gravely they’ve wounded his pride.

7) Moonrise Kingdom, directed by Wes Anderson

Last summer, I wrote about Anderson’s knack for dense, poignant compositions using an example from The Royal Tenenbaums. But I could as easily have made the same point with his latest film, the pastoral lovers-on-the-run tale of two wounded children. Its audiovisual density is startling, whether in the endless bon mots, art design Easter eggs, or musical selections from Benjamin Britten and Françoise Hardy. And yet more startling is the acute loneliness that gnaws at the film’s small island community. Moonrise Kingdom is as heartfelt as it is deadpan; as joyous as it is pained.

The one big saving grace of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows is Eva Green, cackling and seductive as the wickedest witch this side of Margaret Hamilton.

The highlight of Hong Sang-soo’s lost-in-translation comedy In Another Country is Yu Jun-Sang as “the lifeguard!” who repeatedly, clumsily tries to hit on different iterations of Isabelle Huppert.

6) The Kid with a Bike, directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Little Cyril has two loves: his deadbeat dad, and his oft-stolen bike. That’s it. That’s the whole foundation for this heartbreaking fable, a film of extreme narrative clarity and unadorned technique. The Dardenne Brothers merely follow Cyril, swiftly panning as he runs or bikes across the frame, and by following him extract a complex vision of childhood—as a garden of forking paths; as a blank slate written on by every nearby adult. As pure potential, embodied by flinty child actor Thomas Doret. Helpless, wanting only to be loved back, he’s the heart and soul of this sparse, simple tearjerker.

As the pregnant wife of The Master’s title character, Amy Adams both fulfills and defies the “earth mother” archetype. She bares her teeth as the film nears its climax, especially through an unforgettable, power-exerting hand job.

In Cosmopolis, Paul Giamatti plays unemployment as abjection, turning himself into a lump of malignant flesh, a one-man dose of Cronenberg’s trademark body horror.

5) The Turin Horse, directed by Béla Tarr

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, not even with a whimper, but with the precise formal control and mordant humor that have permeated Tarr’s filmography. It’s an incredibly experiential movie, making us feel every inch of ground covered by that old dappled mare and every boiled potato dined on by her owners. Broken up schematically into days and interminable long takes, the film grinds—and Mihály Víg’s score grinds with it—toward a small apocalypse. Yet for all its gloom, The Turin Horse is a film of palpable physical realness, and in that realness lies a measure of minimalist beauty.

Jumping, kicking, flying, Anne Marsen is hyperkinetic in Girl Walk//All Day, throwing her whole body into a feature-length fantasy of free dance.

Rarely has Liam Neeson’s low, Irish growl been used better than it is in The Grey. He gives a performance of reluctant leadership wreathed with pain.

4) The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Furthering the elemental violence of There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s new film is an American epic carved from sea, sun, and rock. The relationship between two souls—one broken by war, the other longing to mend that damage—forms its spine, but the real meat of The Master is its images: a ship’s churning wake, a tracking shot through a 1950s shopping mall, the jagged face and jerky gait of Joaquin Phoenix. The Master recasts the postwar years as a war of their own, one that pits atavism against modernity and is destined to end in stalemate.

Ensconced snugly in a gilded cage, Keira Knightley goes through hell in Anna Karenina and registers each mounting indignity across her delicate face.

Jack Black refines and restrains his broad comic persona in Bernie, playing the film’s benign murderer as a smiling surface without a hint of guile.

3) Damsels in Distress, directed by Whit Stillman

No conversation is too frivolous or too silly for this through-the-looking-glass comedy of college life. No bit of zigzag plotting is too digressive. Everything is fair game on Damsels’ verbal playground, from donuts and the smell of soap to dance crazes and mental illness. Led by Greta Gerwig, the film’s feminine ensemble savors all of this absurdity, extrapolating lifestyles from one-liners and collectively establishing a very different, very funny kind of world. Not for a second does Damsels take itself the slightest bit seriously, yet its rhythms and mock-wisdom gave me more pleasure than nearly anything I saw all year.

Emmanuelle Riva’s work in Amour is so physical, vulnerable, intimate. Every year of life experienced by the elderly actress is visible onscreen.

Was Klaus Kinski reincarnated as a ’50s Method actor? Did someone hire a hungry jackal to star in a movie? No, sorry, it’s just Joaquin Phoenix in The Master.

2) Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax

I dreamed I saw a movie that dismantled the whole engine of cinema, then went on being a movie anyway. Or maybe I just saw the weird and poisonously funny Holy Motors. Energized by “the beauty of the act,” chased by ghosts of the past and future, it hops from one genre to another as if allergic to stasis. It takes on the shapes of different stories, always a little melancholy but never less than entertaining. Carax acknowledges through the film that filmmaking is impossible, immoral, and draining, yet nonetheless… 3! 12! Merde!

In Take This Waltz, Michelle Williams works layers of immaturity and emotion into her body language, casually reminding me that she’s one of the greatest living actresses.

As the star of Holy Motors, Denis Lavant delivers a performance about performance—roughly a dozen of them, in fact—and it’s rendered all the more impressive by how deftly he balances grace and grotesquerie.

1) The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Terence Davies

My favorite movie of the year could so easily have been a soporific, middlebrow prestige piece. But instead of filming a conventional adaptation, Davies shattered Terence Rattigan’s play and transformed it into pure cinema from the inside out. Faceted like a diamond, The Deep Blue Sea criss-crosses time and memory with a frozen-in-amber aesthetic. (Much like The Master, it’s a story of postwar trauma involving a toxic veteran named Freddie.) The bulk of the film consists of strained conversations in private rooms, but that’s all it takes for the small cast and their muted passions to create a tragedy. In an age when the romantic melodrama often seems a dying art, The Deep Blue Sea proves it ecstatically alive.

And, in fact, I wrote about Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea for my answer to the Criticwire Survey question on the best performance of the year:

Just listen for the smoke and mystery in her voice; watch for the sardonic arch of her eyebrows, or the way her body seems to pulse with secrets rather than blood. Her work here, so finely attuned to the film’s postwar milieu, suggests a bottomless capacity for both pain and romantic ecstasy, and makes Hester Collyer one of the most tragic heroines in recent memory.

The last performance I’ll single out is Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe, who resembles either Robert Mitchum or a horny panther. As the film nears it climax, he uses his whole angular body (especially that monstrous jaw) to elicit maximum terror. 16 years ago, a young McConaughey starred in the fourth Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This year, he is the massacre.

[Movies I have yet to see include Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Comedy, Django Unchained, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Middle of Nowhere, Rust and Bone, This Is Not a Film, and Zero Dark Thirty.]

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Link Dump: #53

Hey, it’s Kirara, Sango’s demon-cat companion from InuYasha! Pretty old-school, right? Brings back memories of watching Adult Swim at 2 AM. (For me, anyway.) She’s here, in her cute diminutive form, to welcome us into December. And to entreat you to check out this compendium of fun, fascinating links:

And we’ve got search terms! Like “creepy distorted face music video.” Which, c’mon, doesn’t that refer to like 95% of all pseudo-avant-garde music videos? We had “define:pussy”—FYI, Google says it’s “2. vulgar. A woman’s genitals.” And finally, “satanic whore gets fucked on pentagram.” I’m sure there’s porn out there for that. Or, again, music videos. Lots and lots of awful music videos.

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I will not Reason & Compare

While walking to this library a short time ago, I spotted two very young children standing next to a church and mumbled something to myself about how I hope they make a good next generation for the world. And, well, it depends a lot on what circumstances they’re born into. It’s just kind of sad how some kids are surrounded by neglect or bad intentions – and stranger still how sometimes despite the worst conditions, some become fantastic people. There’s a very confusing correlation here. I can’t claim to understand it well.

I’ve also been thinking more about similar ideas to what I was discussing yesterday – about the effects that the economic systems in which we live have on our lives. How we make compr0mises and sacrifices, just in order to get enough money to be able to do this or that, pay rent and eat food, buy products and services outside our homes. We have strange relations with the concept of consumption, negotiating our options and desires. Everything seems to flow in an unbalanced cycle, from factories and natural resources into stores and shipping, to trash cans, streets, dumpsters, landfills, wherever… as a wise man named Deep Throat once said, “Follow the money.” And in the midst of this system all of us live, trying to puzzle out its ins & outs, causes & effects (or not – or happily accepting whatever the systems chooses to throw at us, and passing it along, enabling the cycle). We did not ask to be born into this world but we were born nonetheless.

I’ve been reading a lot of William Blake lately – I once cited him as an “especially deluded and fractured artist” – so pardon me if I allow his writings to heavily inform my thinking; he speaks to the necessity of creation & imagination, the confusing conditions of life on earth, & my love of ampersands, so I find his ideas very valuable in my lines of thought. So consider these lines from his “Auguries of Innocence”:

Every Night & every Morn

Some to Misery are Born.

Every Morn & every Night

Some are Born to sweet delight.

Will we be born to misery or to sweet delight? We really have no say in the matter. It’s just a matter of fortune. I’ve marveled many, many times during my life that I was born to an affluent society on a dying planet at the turning of what we call the new millennium – what are the odds of that? Why wouldn’t I have been born to what Blake calls “Endless Night,” or born centuries ago, or in some antique land? Why here and now? Some would say there’s purpose behind all of it. Others would say it’s all completely random – but why my particular self, my identity, my subjectivity, in this body temporally localized within 1990-2009 and so on? Well, here I am in this current mix of misery & sweet delight.

"The Shadow Out of Time" (1936)

This also reminds me of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time,” which I read over the course of a few weeks this spring. Its premise suggests that a Great Race, who dwelt on the earth before the dawn of man, learned how to transfer their minds into bodies spread across time and space, and thereby mastered time travel, eventually able to forgo their own extinction by fast-forwarding to the bodies of a species that lives after the death of mankind. Using this ability, they were able to see the conditions on every planet where life exists (or has ever existed), deep into the past – to the very beginning of life – and into the future, till the existence of the last living thing. The Yithians are a race capable of avoiding this random placement into misery or sweet delight, as they can switch between the two whenever they choose (albeit with the aid of an easily-constructed device). This connects back to my earlier explorations of how authors of speculative fiction, like Lovecraft, can comment on existential problems hounding us at this very moment.

Anyway, here I am and here we are, in the midst of unending strife & chaos, attempting to be good people but constantly foiled by the way we are and the way the world is. It just occurred to me that there are a lot of quotes and speeches that zero in on how there are two kinds of people in the world. The kind I’m specifically thinking of are the ones that identify the givers and the takers – good people who lose out, and bad people who get what they want. Though here’s another kind of quote like that, from John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, as said by villainess Connie Marble, played by Mink Stole:

I guess there’s just two kinds of people, Miss Sandstone: my kind of people, and assholes. It’s rather obvious which category you fit into. Have a nice day.

This is an interesting tendency itself: dichotomizing the entire human population into good and bad, light and dark, lions and lambs, hunters and hunted, doers and talkers, whatever. For what it’s worth, I say, Fuck that. People are psychologically complex organisms. Hitler liked his dog. Etc. We have irrational, conflicting drives affected by numerous factors, biological and environmental; this isn’t Brave New World and we aren’t systematically conditioned from birth to be an Alpha Plus or Gamma Minus or somewhere in between. Granted, we are systematically conditioned from birth. And I’m sure a lot of advertisers wish (on some level) that people could be brought up in corporate schools where they’d have product consumption associated day after day with pleasure, and non-consumption associated with pain. Hell, kids want candy, toys, and explosions as it is. But my point is that it’s far from absolute. There’s a lot of space in human minds still devoted to curiosity about the world outside themselves, experiencing new and different sensations, and creating something new. And my point is that consumerism and advertising tend to oppose this. I haven’t read Brave New World in an awful long time, but its lessons are still very relevant. “The more stitches, the less riches.” Throw away everything dusty or old; covet only the shiny and new. I’m really not sure what point I’m driving toward here, but I seriously do have a point.

For a long time, money has disgusted me. It still does. I was thinking the other day how it felt like money & alcohol, two things which have ruined countless lives and brought on endless misery, were being shoved into my face by my peers, by authority figures, and by society at large through popular culture, advertising, media products, etc. To me, this is tantamount to waving a jar of rat poison in my face as a delicacy. In my view, money should be treated like kryptonite or plutonium and contact should be limited. Carrying large quantities around could cause a disease far worse than radiation poisoning. But I’ve said all this before. But consider how readily people become willing to sell off the world’s great treasures just for a quick cent. To quote Al Roberts, the doomed sucker at the heart of Edgar G. Ulmer’s film noir masterpiece Detour: “Money. You know what that is. The stuff you never have enough of.”

But I think what I wanted to talk about in the first place was our position here as consumers/producers (?) stuck in the middle of a world not of our own creation. And it brings me back to the William Blake quote I was considering when I started writing, what Blake called “The Poet’s Motto”:

I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s.

I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.

It’s this issue of trying to fit into the grand scheme of things while retaining your personal sovereignty, your independence, your freedom as a human being – which is itself highly in question in the first place, living both in this economic system and in an unwanted contract with a domineering government. But at the very least, your artistic selfhood, individuality; your ability to create what you want without being strangled by “another Man’s” System. Of course, it all depends on how you read this quote, since no one starts out a genius – not even Blake himself – and we all have to place our roots somewhere in antecedents. It’s the tension between being ourselves, being 1 person, and yet being only one of many, one single element of a great mass, a collective brotherhood of mankind spanning the entire earth and all its history. How do we reconcile this? I have no fucking clue.

Incidentally, in the course of researching Blake online I found this highly appealing book, William Blake and Gender by Magnus Ankarsjö. Because of course, with every artist, it’s always more fun when you analyze their attitude toward gender & sexuality. From my reading so far, I really can’t discern too much of Blake’s opinions on this matter, but hey, here’s a resource to explore it! Includes such appealing chapter titles as “Apocalypse, Utopia and Gender.” Oooh.

Come to think of it, yesterday’s viewing of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies connects pretty well to this whole issue of art, society, and necessity, so why not invoke it. The film is long, eerie, slow, and cryptic. The plot is simple: a small town is on the edge of violence for some reason – rumors hint at economic troubles and growing unrest of some kind. A circus trailer arrives in town housing a giant whale and “the prince” who can apparently bend others to his will. Crowds gather, people go crazy, a night of violence ensues, and the film ends with its innocent protagonist János recuperating in his uncle’s care. It’s hard to determine the film’s intended meaning – some of course might say “It’s not supposed to mean anything!”, an assertion that invariably pisses me off – but I think, maybe, it shows how close a superficially civilized, organized group of people lie to full-scale panic and hysteria, ultimately storming a hospital and smashing everything in sight.

The town seems to be a fairly empty, quiet place during the film’s first half, an impression reinforced by the stark B&W cinematography, the drawn-out long takes, and the frequent spells without dialogue. And then the creaky system that held it all in place falls apart, and almost everyone descends into madness. Tarr insists that films can’t be metaphors – he’s photographing something real, and since physical objects are recorded, they exist as they are and not as symbolic stand-ins for anything else. I can concede this point – though it does raise some interesting questions which remind me of André Bazin’s theories – but I still feel like the lack of specifics, the anonymity in Tarr’s film enables me to draw out broader conclusions, with this town as any town and these people as any people, although they speak Hungarian.

So, my ultimate point, I guess, is that it’s hard to exist both as one man and as one of many men (men used here purely in the “mankind” sense). And I want to be able to live and make decisions outside of the constraints imposed by most institutions, be they media conglomerates or the United States government. I don’t mean a kind of Nietzschean way of living beyond the concepts of good & evil endorsed by everyone else. I just mean being able to live outside of this cage imposed on us by the Powers That Be. Which is all very nice and revolutionary-sounding, I know, but this really is the conclusion I’ve been drawing to (more or less). My business is to Create.

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