MY TEN FAVORITE THEATRICAL RELEASES OF 2012
Holy Motors (Carax)
This Is Not A Film (Panahi)
The Turin Horse (Tarr)
Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (Ceylan)
Bestiaire ( Côté)
How To Survive A Plague (D. France)
Marvel's The Avengers (Whedon)
Oki's Movie (Hong)
And a few more: The Kid With A Bike (Dardennes), Barbara (Petzold), The Invisible War (Dick)
Did not see: Zero Dark Thirty, Tabu, Amour, and plenty others
There was no doubt about my top five, which is a bit depressing to me since they're all critical darlings (“Cosmopolis” seems to be the only divisive one), all familiar sights atop the year end polls, but I'm not going to battle consensus just for the pleasure of being a contrarian. See links above for my reviews of “This Is Not a Film” and “Once Upon A Time in Anatolia.”
“Cosmopolis” and “Holy Motors” make an obvious pairing because they're both about enigmatic protagonists who operate out of white stretch limos (white stretch limo being the breakout star of 2012), but they were meaningful to me because they both addressed a question that has obsessed me for a few years now: What do we do with our bodies in the digital age?
“Cosmopolis” portrays a world in which human existence has been sublimated into the ubiquitous, global flow of data. Money has become an abstraction, and even familiar English words, delivered rapid fire by half-comprehending conduit-speakers, blur together until they stream across the screen like stock ticker symbols. Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) can make capital leap from Shanghai to New York (by way of Toronto) in a nanosecond, but try as he might, the hot-shot hedgie can never become one with the yuan. The super trader is still encumbered by a body (one that plugs neatly into his tricked-out limo seat/USB port), his body is encased in a boxy white sarcophagus with wheels, and that body has to make the arduous physical journey through several blocks of a city choked with other bodies in order that the mighty Mr. Packer may tend to his body's needs by getting a haircut. Poor Eric still has to piss and worry about his asymmetrical anatomical parts; ultimately he resorts to extreme physical measures for the diminishingly rare pleasure of feeling anything at all. Goddamn the old flesh.
“Holy Motors” isn't concerned with capital flow (though bankers don't fare well here), but director Leos Carax celebrates the archaic machine known as the human body from the opening shots of Etienne-Jules Marey's 19th century studies in locomotion; it can't be a coincidence that Carax chose Kylie Minogue, whose first pop hit was “The Loco-Motion,” for a major cameo, can it? Actor Denis Lavant proves to be a living, breathing Marey study himself, a lithe, feral body in motion who, as the multi-talented Monsieur Oscar, conducts a series of missions in Paris while being chauffeured in a limo (another beautifully archaic machine) by Edith Scob. M. Oscar's missions involve donning a motion capture suit to writhe around with the most pliable actress of the year, literally chewing the scenery, and squeezing the f**k out of an accordion. “Holy Motors” maintains its kinetic fury as it mourns losses both great and small, many of which involve the human race's unquestioning embrace of anything that is small and portable and convenient, because goodness knows convenience is the source of all great art. For those of you think that all of this fussing over the digital takeover is just a bunch of Neo-Luddite hand-wringing, all I have to say to you is: trois, douze, merde!
Is this really the last time the master of Hungary, Hungary Hypnos will send enervated festival goers stumbling for the exits? I'm betting not, but if he sticks to his word then Bela Tarr has crafted a final film that sure as hell looks and feels like a final film. In "The Turin Horse," an elderly peasant and his daughter live it up on the old farm where they get to stare at dust clouds through the living room window and eat all the boiled potatoes they could ever want, provided they only want one each. The stark black-and-white film unfolds at the pace of a day per act, though these might be Biblical days that stretch out for eons (or longer for the poor viewer who doesn't dig it). Soon enough it becomes apparent that the world is ending, though it's hard to tell for sure over the constant howl of the all-cleansing wind. Fortunately the starch-fed protagonists have low expectations in life. When the light (possibly all the light in the world) goes out, the daughter responds with a resigned, “What's this darkness?” Each day of Tarr's slow-motion apocalypse is a slightly degraded copy of the one prior, bits and shreds of existence flaking off until finally there's just not enough left to sustain life, or a film. I also think the movie is funny as hell, but I've been told by reliable sources that means I'm crazy.
If for some reason you wish to win my instant affection, all you have to do is make a movie in which animals stare into the camera. “Sweetgrass,” “Nenette,” “Au hasard Balthazar,” it's all good, as is “Bestiaire.” Director Denis Côté's unblinking look at the occasionally blinking menagerie at a Quebec safari park is deeply unsettling and moving, but I feel inadequate to speak intelligently about it after a single viewing. I think it's a film that scrutinizes the act of scrutiny itself. The camera, of course, is a completely mechanical gaze, but don't be too sure that the animals' gazes are any less comprehending than those of the gawping human tourists.
“How To Survive A Plague” is one of the most inspiring portraits of grassroots activism I have ever seen. Benefiting from some remarkable footage at meetings and rallies, David France's documentary shows how thousands of AIDS activists from ACT UP and its splinter groups stepped up to the plate in the '80s when their government would not, which should surely make this documentary a favorite among Tea Partiers, right? Power to the people.
I see all of the flaws in “The Avengers.” The cinematography is haphazard, the CGI is as bland and flat as CGI usually is, the script relies heavily on smug one-liners that always remind us the the characters totally kick butt and are never at risk, and the climactic battle with the bug-eyed monsters is a chaotic mess. And I don't care. I've already seen it three times, and I will watch it several more. These characters have been my friends since I can remember, and I cannot imagine them translating any better to the screen. Mark Ruffalo's Hulk is the key. Whoever decided that the permanently tormented Bruce Banner should cancel his fifty year long pity party in order to achieve a graceful state of Zen-rage and even a smidgen of happiness deserves a gamma irradiated pat on the back. What a joy to see heroes who actually express a sense of joy instead of mopey dark knights and dysthymic dark Bonds, grim warriors for a grim world who dare not smile for fear that somebody might think they're having fun.
I saw “Oki's Movie” almost a year and a half go now and I don't want to embarrass either of us by attempting to write about Hong Sang-soo’s movie which inspired this scribbled entry in my 2011 festival journal: “Wow!” OK, it's not really a journal; I just wrote that on the back of the ticket. I will just point you to Andrew Tracy's superb review for “Cinema Scope” for more info.
I also saw “Extraterrestrial” almost a year and a half ago, but had a chance to watch it again on DVD since then. I admit that a film that had me in stitches at the Toronto Film Festival didn't work quite as well when I watched it alone at home, but I am still convinced that Nacho Vigalondo is a young director to watch. His low-budget time travel flick “Timecrimes” (2007) was a minor masterpiece that spoke of a sharp and self-deprecating wit, and his new film follows up admirably. “Extraterrestrial” is an alien invasion movie without the aliens or the invasion. Three men and a woman are left alone in Madrid after the arrival of a UFO which does nothing but hover in the sky, and they don't care about the UFO any more than it cares about them. Each character views himself or herself as the story's protagonist and each has his or her own constantly shifting and only partially revealed agenda. Vigalondo is great at capturing this sense of personal dynamism. His characters aren't always smart, but they've always got a plan, as well as an ability to perceive the world precisely in the way that makes them feel most important, or most victimized. Which makes them feel a whole lot more human than just about any of their Hollywood counterparts.
AS FOR THE ANDERSONS
“The Master” I didn't get it. And that's all I mean. That's not a negative evaluation, I just plain didn't get it. I'm sorry, I know you loved it. I'll try again. I thought it was beautifully filmed and certainly had some interesting elements, but as for what P.T. Anderson did with those elements... I didn't get it. The movie started and finished and I was left thinking, “Huh?” Last time I had the same baffled reaction... “There Will Be Blood.” I feel like I SHOULD love both of these movies, but right now I'm just not tuned into this Anderson's wavelength. Or, apparently, to the other Anderson who made a movie that everyone else loved. That flick was also... interesting, but left me completely unaffected emotionally. Put your hand down if you think I'm talking about “Resident Evil: Retribution.”
CHRISTOPH WALTZ IS RIDICULOUS
I liked more of “Django Unchained” than I disliked, but most of what I liked involves Christoph Waltz who deserves every acting award that exists. There is nobody in his orbit right now. He's becoming a problem because most other actors shrivel up when they're forced to share the screen with him. Tarantino-Waltz might be the greatest director-actor collaboration going today.
TOP TEN BLU-RAY AND DVD RELEASES OF 2012
Get A Life: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory)
On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Vol. 1 (Milestone)
The Turin Horse (Cinema Guild)
The Gold Rush (Criterion)
Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin: Eclipse Series 31
Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr.: Eclipse Series 33
World On A Wire (Criterion)
Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (Cinema Guild)
Obviously, I'm only talking about North American region releases, and I'm limiting myself to ones I actually own. You can read all my reviews at the above links, so I'm not even going to talk about Criterion who dominates as usual, though I want to give an extra shout-out to the Eclipse folks for taking chances on more esoteric material like the fabulous Gorin and Downey Sr sets. I didn't care for the Norman Mailer films they also put out, but I'm thrilled there's a label releasing that kind of work.
Milestone once again deserves the award for the most exhaustively (I picture them working for caffeine-fueled months at a time on each title and then just collapsing at their terminals when each one is finished) and lovingly crafted release of the year. “On the Bowery” is a heck of a movie, but it's the wisely selected extras on this disc that make it the year's standout; what an extraordinary tribute to filmmaker Lionel Rogosin, and to think there's another Rogosin volume coming! Nobody does it better than Milestone.
Cinema Guild has plenty to be proud of too. It seems I've fallen off their mailing list for some reason and it sure would be nice if that changed, but I'm not bitter, not when they consistently find a way to get their hands on the finest contemporary films. They only released a few titles this year, but still tabbed two of the very best in “The Turin Horse” and “Once Upon A Time in Anatolia.”
But at the very top of my list is the title I quote whored myself for. I described “Get A Life” as “the DVD event of the year” and I'm sticking to my guns. I'm not ashamed to admit I did it in hopes of getting quoted by Shout! Factory and therefore having my name eternally associated with this greatest of all tragicomedies. My gambit worked, and I apologize to nobody. For years, I subsisted on fifth-generation VHS copies of Chris Elliott's (and indeed Western Civilization's) greatest masterwork, and I don't even care if the transfers on this DVD set aren't much better. All I need now to go along with this set: cheese-flavored pants.