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Monday, April 15, 2013

My Top 10 of 2012

A day of jury duty gave me the chance to finally finish up my Top 10 list.  While there are a few releases I still want to catch up with, here are the best of the 61 2012 releases I saw.

Runners-Up (And it was a strong year!):

Life of Pi:
While the bookends of this movie are pedestrian, the lengthy middle section of Life of Pi is a marvel to behold.  The great Ang Lee (who won the Best Director Oscar) connects modern visual effects to a touching story of a boy and his tiger.  

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present:
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see performance artist Abramovic at MOMA.  This documentary (my favorite of many fascinating nonfiction films this year) traces her preparation for the landmark show.  A fascinating look into a controversial performance artist.

No, Chile’s entry into the foreign film race, is kind of a Latin American Mad Men with higher stakes.  A light hearted, loose,  yet weighty look at how a simple message of hope can prove a trigger for real change.  Bonus points for how the cinematography matches the 80s video look.

A Royal Affair:
Another foreign language film nominee, this one from Denmark.  The luminous Alicia Vikander stars as Catherine, a Queen of Denmark who teams with the king’s physician to bring modern life to a backwards country.  Impeccably filmed, extremely entertaining, and educational in the best sense.

Take This Waltz:
This one bounced off and on my Top 10 list, and eventually landed in number 11.  That said, I thought about this movie about as much as any of the movies on my top 10 list.  Director Sarah Polley directs (with great skill) this tale of a trio of Toronto hipsters navigating tricky relationships.  Michelle Williams adds another amazing performance to her resume. It's a little messy, and you may hate the characters, but it's a singular film.

10. Anna Karenina: I was both excited and apprehensive to see a film version of my favorite novel of all time.  While director Joe Wright didn’t give me the Anna I envisioned, he did give his own daring conception of Anna and the stifling world around her.  His choice to film the movie in an abandoned theater was brilliant, given a fascinating theatricality to the whole affair.  My major caveat is that I wanted even more of Levin and Kitty’s stories.

9. Oslo, August 31st: There isn’t a misstep or false moment in this portrait of Anders, a drug addict on leave from his treatment program to go for a job interview.  It’s portrait of lost opportunity and possible rebirth is profound, deeply personal, and occasionally formally experimental.  Director Joachim Trier (who made the wonderful Reprise in 2008) is one to watch.

8. Django Unchained: Following the Kill Bill movies and Inglourious Basterds, here is another revenge fantasy from Quentin Tarantino, and this one is his best film since Pulp Fiction.  A daring and bold takedown of all the myths of the old South, this movie is both tremendously fun and genuinely moving.  It’s close to 3 hours, and not a minute too long. 

7. Silver Linings Playbook: Director David O. Russell gives us a big-hearted movie about Pat Solitano, a bipolar man who is struggling to reclaim his old life.  A kind of modern screwball comedy, this movie has it all: laughs, tears, and a great climax. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence have the most chemistry between two stars I’ve seen in a long time.  

6. The Kid With a Bike: Movies about goodness are perhaps the hardest to pull off, as they so often descend into sentimentality.  Leave it to the Dardenne brothers, the Beligan filmmakers who are modern masters, to portray with great sincerity nothing less than the saving of a lost soul.  Young Thomas Doret and Cecile de France give beautifully naturalistic perfroamnces.

5. Moonrise Kingdom: This movie crept up my Top 10 list until it landed at 5, and it seems the movie most likely to climb even higher as the years proress.  I was actually skeptical of this movie before I saw it, as I felt like director Wes Anderson had become repetitevely twee in The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson returns to the heights of his best movies with Moonrise Kingdom.  It is as impeccably and artistically constructed as any of his movies, filled with humorous dialogue, and also achingly poignant and romantic.  I can’t stop thinking about that last scene.

4. Argo: This year’s Best Picture winner was probably the most flat-out entertaining of the year.  Ben Affleck directs this true (with some Hollywood license) story of an escape from revolutionary Iran aided by the wonders of Hollywood.  The performances are great, the directing top-notch (sorry for that Best Director snub Ben!), and I hardly moved a muscle for the entire movie.

3. The Master: Easily the most divisive movie on my list.  Strange, gorgeous, off-putting, fascinating, confusing, and epic are all words I can use to describe this movie. I’ve now seen it twice and its mysteries continue to haunt me.  It takes the beginning of a Scientology-like cult as it starts, and becomes something even more haunting and mysterious. As in There Will Be Blood, P.T. Anderson shows us the darker side of a period American history (this time post-WWII), forcing us to hold up a mirror to the worst in our culture, even while giving us haunting and beautiful images.

2. Amour: Simply shattering.  The great Austrian director Michael Haneke is often accused of cold-heartedness, but here he makes a movie named “Love.”  A true love story about what love looks like in the last days of life, this is a movie I will never forget.  I wept through at least half of this movie, and bow down to the great work done by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as the pair who have to learn how to exist in a new pardigm.  

1. Lincoln:  My best movie of the year was never really in doubt.  Director Steven Spielberg, writer Tony Kushner, and actor Daniel Day Lewis are a trio made in heaven.  A historical movie that doesn’t try to do it all but
instead focuses on a historic moment in Lincoln’s life, the passing of the 13th Amendment.  This movie is incredibly smart about the intricacies of the personal and the political, and never for a moment did it feel boring or educational.  An American masterpiece I’m sure will be remembered for a very long time.

It was a great year for the movies, and I hope 2013 can match it!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

What Ebert Meant to Me

Roger Ebert, a true giant of film criticism, has died.  I literally gasped when I heard, and then the tears came.  It's because I feel like I knew him, having spent countless hours hearing him talk and reading his reviews.  Other writers can give you the play-by-play on all the ways he influenced our film culture, so I'll stick with what he meant to me.

As a kid, I always loved movies.  What Siskel & Ebert did for me was turn me, in my formative young teen years, into a self-identified cinephile.  I watched them religiously every Saturday night at 6:30 pm. I keept a spiral notebook filled with each week's reviews, and which way each of their thumbs faced.  I owned several of his film guides, which he released each year, and used them well when checking out the local video store.

What made Siskel & Ebert so special?  They showed me that movies don't have to simply be entertainment.  They are works of art worthy of being immersed in, studied frame by frame, puzzled and argued over.  What I specifically loved about Roger was his sense of wonder that never dissipated.  You could tell he didn't go into movies with his knives out, he went in trying to love what he saw.  Some criticized him for being too soft, but he was just that open-hearted.  He knew how hard it was to make a film, and he gave every filmmaker the respect they deserved.  He also allowed films to connect to him personally, and not just in a cerebral way.

In my own criticism, I aim to enter each movie in the same spirit.  While I can look back and criticize as much as many critics, I also try to allow myself the immersive experience of enjoying film.  The magic of cinema to make me laugh, cry, or get angry will never get old to me.

With both Siskel & Ebert gone, I honestly feel like it's the end of an era.  Before the age of the internet, I didn't have such unfettered access to so many film writers, and they were my erudite guides into loving film.  Goodbye, Ebert.  There'll never be another like you.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

BTP Awards: Actors and Actresses

I continue the Ben’s Talking Pictures 2012 awards with my choices for the best Actors and Actresses.  This was a great year for both categories, with many towering performances on both lists.


Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
After breaking out in a huge way in 2011 (The Help, Tree of Life, Take Shelter), Chastain gets another juicy role as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty.  Since the script gives Maya little outward emotional heft to work with, Chastain has to so often give us this character’s inner life through only her eyes, her body, and her tone of voice.  With such a diversity of great performances so quickly, Chastain is the new Meryl Streep.  

Cecile de France, The Kid With a Bike
How often do we reward performances of everyday goodness on screen? Cecile de France plays Samantha, a hairdresser who ends up caring for the very troubled Cyril in this profoundly quiet and beautiful Belgian movie (look for it on my Top 10).  She creates a vivid depiction of a regular woman who quietly and confidently does a remarkable thing, and its incredibly moving.

Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
A true knock-out movie star performance.  Can anyone believe Lawrence is only 22? As Tiffany, a troubled woman falling in love with the bipolar Pat, Tiffany brings equal doses of emotional pain and screwball zaniness to her very real depiction that rivals her amazing performance in 2010’s Winter’s Bone.  If Lawrence keeps her grounding and continues to make such great career choices, she has a huge career ahead of her.

Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
I have almost no words to describe the emotional impact of Riva’s performance as Anne, a woman dealing with a quick descent towards the grave.  Riva has to make intense physical and mental changes between scenes, and there is not a second in the film that isn’t believable and searing.  A work of art.

Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz
Margot, Michelle Williams’ character in Take This Waltz, makes many choices that the viewer will inevitably question and disagree with.  It’s a testament to Williams’ immense talent, then, that I was with Margot on her journey every step of the way.  As a young married woman testing a flirtation with a neighbor, Williams does her typical stellar work.

My Pick: Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)
#2 Pick: Michelle Williams (Take This Waltz)

Runners-Up: Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone), Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina), Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair), Naomi Watts (The Impossible), Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea)

Matches with Oscar: Oscar agreed with me on the 3 frontrunners, Lawrence, Chastain, and Riva.  Naomi Watts was quite good as well and made my runners-up list.  While I was completly charmed by Quevenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, I had to give more credit to the director than such a young actor.


Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
After making almost no impression on me in The Hangover, I was completely bowled over by Cooper’s performance.  As Pat Solitano, a good-hearted but very damaged bipolar man, this movie rests on Cooper’s shoulders.  We follow every twist and turn the story takes and root for Pat, because Cooper makes him so specific and real.

Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
Day Lewis disappears into his roles, staying in character during filming even when the camera is off.  It really shows in his towering performance of Lincoln, which is one for the ages.  Day Lewis probably gets my vote as the best actor currently working.  Just contrast this quiet, restrained, but powerful performance with his unhinged, violent Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood (his last Oscar win).  Absolutely remarkable.

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Watching Phoenix as Freddie Quell brought to mind a young Brando.  The inner sense of danger, the unknowable soul, the complete devotion to method acting all work to make this performance something very strange and terrifying.  Phoenix commits body and soul to this performance, and it’s one for film history.

Jean-Louis Tritignant, Amour
Emmanuelle Riva got her more-than-deserved praise for her transcendent performance in Amour, and yet Tritignant seems to have been sidelined in awards season.  That’s a real shame, becuase he is every bit her equal in this two-handed drama.  Georges has to (mostly) stay physically intact as he deals with his wife’s decline, but his emotional fall is just as difficult to portray as Anne’s physical decline.  His closing scenes in this movie are some of the most moving of the year.

Denzel Washington, Flight
I had issues with Flight’s script, which seemed a little messy and unstructured, but I still enjoyed watching the movie because of Washington’s grounded, masterful performance as Whip Whitaker.  Many actors take addicts as a chance to overact, but Washington keeps his character grounded and true-to-life as he shows his slow unraveling.  

My Pick: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
#2 Pick (Can I just call it a tie?): Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln

Runners-Up: Gael Garcia Bernal (No), Thomas Doret (The Kid with a Bike), Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained), Denis Levant (Holy Motors), Liam Neeson (The Grey)

Matches with Oscar: 4/5.  I put in Tritignant while Oscar chose Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables.  I enjoyed Jackman in Les Mis, but he didn’t hold a candle to the others on my list, or even to Hathaway in the same film.