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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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Royal Flush

Wes Anderson never wastes a frame. Every shot in his filmography is packed with so much information: about his quirky-but-traumatized characters, their ornately imagined worlds, and his own artistic influences. So his masterpiece—can I say “masterpiece”? Yeah, let’s go with that—The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) is an especially apt pick for The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series. As luck would have it, I actually wrote about my favorite (bloody) shot in the movie a couple years ago in a piece called “Suicide and Irony in The Royal Tenenbaums.” So this time I’ll discuss my second-favorite shot, pictured above.

From left to right, the shot’s subjects are Richie, Henry Sherman, Etheline, Chas, and Margot; “Dr. McClure,” who’s actually Royal’s accomplice Dusty, stands behind the camera as he informs them of Royal’s fake prognosis (i.e. “not good”). I love the sheer wealth of data Anderson embeds in their reactions, outfits, and positions within the shot. Take Henry Sherman, for example. Of the five, he has the weakest tie to Royal, so it makes sense that he’s located in the back and tough to read. As always, he’s well-dressed and radiates polite professionalism, but here it’s ambiguous. Is that mild concern over his would-be rival’s illness, or a growing skepticism of it?

In the foreground, Richie and Chas stand side by side, but with opposite dispositions. Richie’s receding, tucked away behind his shades, beard, and headband, whereas Chas is demonstrative, leaning in toward the camera with knitted brow and crossed arms. Although raised in the same household, they’ve developed radically different coping techniques, with Richie—the “Baumer,” a retired tennis player and mass of failed potential—settling for passivity where tracksuited business prodigy Chas opts for aggression. More than anyone else in the family, Richie’s icy demeanor aligns him with the object of his forbidden love, Margot, who slouches against the corner in the far end of the frame.

It’s a pose that Gwyneth Paltrow reprises later at the hospital, and it’s consistent with the rest of her aloof performance. For years she’s been wounded by her father, so now that he’s “sick” (and her marriage is collapsing) all she can do is retreat to the nearest surface or plant herself in the middle of the frame like another one of Anderson’s antique fetish objects. Anything to avoid acting or interacting with this absurd family drama. And finally, there’s poor Etheline, rigid and anxious as she anticipates Royal’s death. Anjelica Huston, in this shot and throughout the film, plays such a complex string of emotions: scared for her children’s father, aware of what a bastard he is, with a vague sense of obligation to reconnect with him despite her encroaching remarriage.

It’s a lot to get across without dialogue, but of course Huston’s up to the task, and she’s aided here by Anderson’s spatial eloquence. So many of his distinctive shots depend on great blocking in confined areas, whether it’s the Whitman brothers aboard the titular train of The Darjeeling Limited, or preteen girls putting on bird costumes in Moonrise Kingdom. Superficially, this scene in The Royal Tenenbaums is just a matter of exposition, needed to further establish Royal’s scam and Chas’s animosity. But thanks to the dense composition and the actors’ static faces, it becomes a quick emotional cross-section of the whole movie.

(For more evidence of Anderson’s pictorial flair, watch Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay “The Prologue to The Royal Tenenbaums, Annotated.”)

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Link Dump: #58

Isn’t this kitty from Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld just the cutest thing ever? Just look at it! It’s such an adorable kitty! And to complement the kitty’s cuteness, we’ve got some truly spectacular links this week:

We had several amusing, pussy-themed search terms in the past week—”.1 like to wonenand womenate pussy,” for example. (Dear lord what does that mean.) Two others added a strange equine theme as well: “poney likes wife pussy” and “horse-like vomen pussy,” the latter of which you should probably read with a Yakov Smirnoff accent. In Soviet Russia, vomen pussy like you!

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Suicide and Irony in The Royal Tenenbaums

Sorry to start out on a depressing note, but this is my favorite image from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Maybe it’s because I have a morbid love of well-shot (if gruesome) suicide scenes. Maybe it’s how, despite the messiness of the blood, hair, shaving cream, and water, Anderson still makes the shot symmetrical and picturesque. Maybe it’s the very evocative contrast of red and blue. Maybe it’s partially the lingering association of this shot with Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” which plays over it. Or maybe it’s because this is one of the rare scenes where Anderson lets us fully see the pain festering in his characters’ souls, stripped (almost) of any irony, leaving behind only aching, naïve sincerity.

Comedy and tragedy have a strange, alchemical relationship to one another in The Royal Tenenbaums. Even though the film centers on the painful, long-lasting alienation of a father from his children, Anderson maintains his ironic distance through the scrupulously composed frames, the tastefully stylized color scheme, and the undercurrent of dark humor always waiting to emerge. In the midst of the suicide scene, the soundtrack goes silent for seven seconds as the neurologically impaired Dudley, a gawky teenager in oversized glasses, opens the bathroom door and discovers Richie’s bloody body. Just as Dudley is about to scream, “Needle in the Hay” resumes and we cut to:

It’s not an overtly humorous image, but traces of that dark humor are scattered about. I’m talking about the snappy visual and audio editing; the precise symmetry—right down to the bloodstains!—in what should be a frantic, disordered scene; the rhythmic coordination between the medical team’s flight down the hallway and Smith’s guitar; and most importantly, the dead serious look on Bill Murray’s bearded face. From Rushmore on, Anderson has demonstrated an acute understanding of Murray’s pop-cultural significance and mastery of deadpan humor. His performance as the cuckolded Raleigh St. Clair springs from these attributes, and so even an action as grave as pushing his dying brother-in-law through a hospital is tinged with comedy.

I don’t mean to say that Anderson doesn’t take Richie’s attempted suicide seriously or sympathize with his emotional pain. It’s just that our experience of that pain is always mediated by the film’s thick, pervasive style. As indicated by the film’s intergenerational subject matter and narrative segmentation (complete with ornate chapter headings and Alec Baldwin narration), The Royal Tenenbaums is intended to have the scope and detail of a novel, but informed by the literary eccentricities of Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson. Perhaps this helps account for the film’s tone, which is best embodied by Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow), Raleigh’s wife and Richie’s sister. Her face expresses stolid indifference for a majority of the film, only occasionally cracking into a smile.

Or maybe the key to the film’s tone is really patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman), the smooth-talking, washed-up ex-lawyer who waltzes back into his wife and children’s lives after being kicked out of his hotel room. He seems, on some level, to grasp the irreparable damage that his self-absorption has caused Richie, Margot, and their brother Chas (Ben Stiller), but he’s still unable (or unwilling) to change, feigning cancer to gain their forgiveness. To Royal, it’s all a big game that can be won through the right maneuvers, and to some extent the film sides with him. Royal is more childish than the children he hurt, and Anderson cherishes this wide-eyed childishness, even in adults who should know better.

Referring to his now-ex-wife’s fiancé Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Royal observes, “He’s everything that I’m not.” It’s true: he’s conscientious, responsible, and mature. The Royal Tenenbaums is about immaturity, and this manifests itself throughout the style and narrative. The Tenenbaum kids are unable to face trauma head-on and develop elaborate coping methods, regressing back to their time as child prodigies. With his perfectly symmetrical frames and fetishistic attention to background detail, Anderson is also regressing, trying to preserve childhood in an icy stasis. He’s less like J.D. Salinger, and more like Holden Caulfield himself. Having said all of this, I confess: I really love The Royal Tenenbaums, exactly because of everything I’ve cited. On the surface it balances empathy with irony, but underneath it shares a gnawing yen for innocence with Anderson’s heroes Satyajit Ray, Hal Ashby, and François Truffaut.

This brings me back to Richie’s attempted suicide and “Needle in the Hay.” (The biographical resonances with Elliott Smith and his suicide apply here too.) It’s such a shocking moment, arriving in the middle of a film that appears harmlessly quirky despite being about infidelity and familial discord. Although it’s presented in a style nearly identical to that of every other scene, and therefore isn’t really much of a departure, the gravity of Richie’s act eradicates any viewer expectations about the rest of the movie. It’s a brilliant, poignant narrative curveball that jump-starts the film’s momentum.

And it results in the image I started with, which so effectively encapsulates the film’s dual preoccupations of emotional dysfunction and formal harmony. It reveals a new side of Richie’s character with unexpected, uncomfortable openness. In short, it tests the limits of Wes Anderson’s art, and what new developments his vision can accommodate. Beyond all this, it’s one of those movie scenes that has burrowed itself permanently in my head: the split-second glimpses of Margot and Mordecai the falcon; the shaving cream on Richie’s face; and, finally, the blood streaming from his wrists. It sticks with me.

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