Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 In Review: Same Old Same Old

“A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” --Robert Warshow

Last year, my writing about movies was becoming so ingrained with my own feelings that I entertained the notion I might sub-head "Let's Not Talk About Movies" with "A Personal Journey through Cinema."  Glad I didn't, as nothing could be more obvious.  You can't separate your brain and eyeballs from what is being projected there.  Any writing about "The Movies" is going to be personal and far from objective, and what separates a good reviewer from a bad one is how deeply one sees a film and how well one writes about it.  

Also, I have a day job.  That might actually be the heart of the matter.

I work a day job five days a week, eleven hours a day and my free time is rather precious.  My natural tendency to cherry-pick what I see has been drastically enhanced.  I don't have time to waste any more, which is revealed to me by my lists of films and that I have no literal "Waste of Time" films—my stand-in for "The Worst of 2012"—in my run-down of LNTAM reviews.  That's a good thing, but it is also, curiously, a bad thing.  It ruins perspective and innovation if the only things you see are things you want to see that might be "good." That space seems to have been filled by my quests to find everything in a director's body of work for the "Now I've Seen Everything" series.  The holes I have to fill in from their careers are usually for films I look at and think "What a piece of crap! No wonder I didn't see this..."  so much for the innovation part, but it does give me the perspective that film-making, story-telling—writing, whether with words or images—is a process that isn't mastered immediately.  You have to learn it.

This all struck me as I was previewing the videos for this piece (if, indeed, they show up, as YouTube has been struck by "rights pulls" of an ever-increasing nature).  So often, I looked at the brief—very brief—scenes cut together and thought "I don't remember that/I didn't see that"  I hadn't.  There are a lot of films that I skipped, and these videos just whetted my appetite for catching them on the vid-circuit.  But, also part of it is that a lot of the scenes—filled with swooping CGI created bric-a-brac seemed pretty generic, and everything is starting to look alike.  Don't buy that?  Check out how seamlessly Matt Shapiro makes things join together in his "2012: The Cinescape" video above.*

That makes me think (despite the good films I saw this year) that there was a shallowness, a sameness to this year's crop of movies.  Things were enjoyable, but hardly surprising.  As if to point this out, director Steve Soderbergh's output this year seemed determined to upset the norms—he made Haywire, a chick action flick, and Magic Mike, a stud dance movie, both okay, but they merely broke molds and did not establish new ones.  

Another thing that reinforces that is the diversity in so many 11th hour "10 Best Lists" (which I usually disdain, and see no reason to change my mind).  There are similarities, of course—Zero Dark Thirty, Life of Pi, The Dark Knight Rises**—but, beyond that, the various lists are all over the map.  For example, People Magazine picked Silver Linings Playbook as its No. 1 movie of the year (which fulfills my skepticism about such lists—what lack of perspective would make David O. Russell's admittedly enjoyable scrambled rom-com the best movie of the year?)  So, there's quite a few films that did not line up in my calendar this year, like Atlas Shrugged, Part 2, Cloud Atlas, The Sessions, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, and Les Miz, and are MIA (Missing in Article).

As for my choices this year, I really can't kick, nor would I change them at this point.  Some questions need to be asked, though.  Is The Avengers as good as the Life of Pi?  No.  Of course not.  But, I enjoyed both for completely different reasons...and, contrarily, the same reasons: Entertainment value, and the ability to tell a story with more than words—to really create a resonating narrative through the combination of image and sound.  That's the movies.  And if you're good and you're smart, you can reach an audience and make them believe the illusion, without dumbing it down so much you insult them.

Full Price Tickets:

Life of Pi



Marvel's The Avengers: Probably the loopiest, most over-the-top, giddiest  superhero moment ever (and reflecting what appears to be the general lack of subtlety in movies this year).  The "puny god" sequence between The Hulk (a motion-captured Mark Ruffalo) and Loki (Tom Huddleston).  "Best.  Hulk. Ever."

Moments after he's stormed out of the room because of another damned Lincoln "story," Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) clasps hands with the President (Daniel Day-Lewis) awaiting news (over the telegraph) of the siege at Wilmington.

She had me at "listening to the farm animal's heart-beat's": the performance of Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Look, she was five when she made it and there were great performances by more veteran actors this year.  But, really, I'd like her to get some recognition for this come awards season.

The Hobbit announces it's going to be just a little different with a titanic moment of absurdity early on: a dwarf miner lifts up a chunk of molten gold...and two REALLY BIG mallets swing together to shape it. 

Life of Pi: "So it is with God." It's a line so subtle that a lot of smart people haven't "gotten" it, but it resonates throughout the entire movie and back through time to explain our need for story-telling and the reason to explain everything.  And, as his father says "if you believe in everything, you might as well believe in nothing."

Skyfall—James Bond (Daniel Craig) winks (winks!) before creating the smoke-screen that will allow the evacuation of the Intelligence inquiry that, by that time, has become completely irrelevant.  His aim is true...once again.

The grisliest, mind-blowing death in movies this year: Seth (Frank Brennan), playing the older Paul Dano) literally dying a death of a thousand cuts in Looper.

The mock-seriousness of it all in Moonrise Kingdom.  Do we ever grow up...really?

The Master (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) says good-bye to his failed Apostle (Joaquin Phoenix) by crooning softly "I Want to Get You on a Slow Boat to China."  It's not a homo-erotic love scene so much as an admission of defeat and circumstance, from one "out-there" non-conformist to another kindred spirit that he's tried to reach.

Steven Spielberg uses an old trick in a new and more subtle way: the reverse of "The Spielberg Face" shot, as the camera pulls into the back of his head, after a negro soldier (of the Second Cavalry, Colored) has remembered to him the most important words of the Gettysburg Address and the great man considers the depths of those words...from that man.  Lincoln

Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) opens up a 'fridge in the adjoining room of his hotel room.  The view is from inside of a meltdown of booze staring at him.  He takes one bottle and puts on the fridge and leaves.  Beat.  Beat.  Beat....Beat.  A hand comes out of frame and very deliberately grabs the bottle, simultaneously breaking promises and your heart.  The very down-to-Earth roller-coaster ride of Flight

Emma Watson sure can dance.  The prom.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Hitchcock: The "Master of Suspense" (Anthony Hopkins) paces the theater lobby anticipating "the shower scene" and upon hearing the shrieks of Bernard Hermann's score and the accompanying screams of the audience, begins to conduct the combined high pitches as if it were an orchestra.  Hitchcock (the real one) often made the point that Psycho was an exercise in "playing the audience like a violin" and the movie that bears (and can't diminish) his name hammers the point home in the same obvious way that it does everything else in the film.  Still, it's a lovely little fantasia of terror.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) sits at a Florence cafe in The Dark Knight Rises—it's a comic-book movie, after all (if you think about it: does he go there every day?) and a Christopher Nolan movie where the surface image always has a big pay-off—the playbook of the entire "Dark Knight" trilogy.  Don't think about it, Bruce.  Enjoy.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of superheroes—Andrew Garfield's skinny, stammering, geeky Peter Parker is the one I remember from the comics, not Tobey McGuire's Hamlet.  

Character reveal in ParaNorman.  That's all I'm saying.

And along the same lines: Brave had a really interesting story development that probably freaked a lot of princesses' mothers out, but didn't it all turn out alright in the end?

Two dream sequences: Life of Pi—the tiger with a man's name is caught gazing into the ocean, prompting Pi to follow suit and see the Universe in the depths of their predicament—a sequence that begins on the tiger's eyes and ending on Pi's, linking them (as, indeed, they always have been); Lincoln—in a blurry black and white image, Lincoln recounts standing on the prow of a ship and seeing land...but never getting there.

One of the things that really does works in the very showy, theatrical Anna Karenina: anticipating the sight of Vronsky in a (mock) horse-race, Anna's (Keira Knightley) fan flutters alarmingly fast, like the beating of a hummingbird's wings...or heart.

End of Watch's opening monologue: I am the police and I am here to arrest you.  You have broken the law.  I did not write the law.  I may even disagree with the law.  But I will enforce it.  No matter how you plead, cajole, beg or attempt to stir my sympathy, nothing you do will stop me from putting you in a steel cage with gray bars.  If you run away, I will chase you.  If you fight me, I will fight back.  If you shoot at me, I will shoot back.  By law I am unable to walk away.  I am a consequence.  I am the unpaid bill.  I am fate with a badge and a gun.  Behind my badge is a heart like yours. I bleed, I think, I love, and yes, I can be killed. And although I am but one man, I have thousands of brothers and sisters who would die for me and I for them.  We stand watch together.  The thin-blue-line, protecting the prey from the predators, the good from the bad. We are the police.

Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) in Moonrise Kingdom: "That's very eloquent. I can't argue against anything you're saying. But then again, I don't have to, 'cause you're 12 years old." 

Dodge (Steve Carell) and Linda (Nancy "Mrs. Steve" Carell) listen to the news of the Earth's impending doom, and having two distinct reactions: He looks at her; She looks at him, and bolts out of the car and runs away into the night, leaving him there.  Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Jeez, it's such a rom-com denouement cliché with one of the lovers running after the other, but given how it recalls similar encounters earlier in the film, it made it seem like a refreshing idea: The Silver Lining Playbook

Actors playing actors: Joseph Gordon Leavitt plays Bruce Willis in Looper,  Josh Brolin plays Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black III, and Martin Freeman sure is a lot like Ian Holm in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

One of my favorite sight-gags from Moonrise Kingdom: "Jiminy Cricket, he's flown the coop!"  He's escaped—Shawshank-style—from a pup-tent, you nimrod.

As per usual in his sci-fi films, Ridley Scott shows his preference for the synthetics as Michael Fassbender's David is the richest character in Prometheus. And his exploration of the 3-D star-map is a visual marvel.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower:  Charlie (Logan Lerman) reveals the depth of his loyalty and his psychosis: "Touch my friend again...and I'll blind you."

The title sequence for Tim Burton's send-down of "Dark Shadows"—Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) rides a train to Collinswood to the tune of The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin."  Right there, he gets it totally right, then spends the rest of the movie sending it over a cliff.

The way the younger selves communicate with their older selves, producing horror (see above) and humor ("What's the name of the waitress on weekends?") and the ultimate pay-off.  If, after, you're asking yourself "Why didn't he just shoot off his hand?" then you're not in touch with the nihilism at the empty core of Looper.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Hushpuppy learns to rip open a crab with her bare hands to her community's chants of "Beast it!"  When she does, she lets out a primal roar that takes one aback and makes one smile.

The Dark Knight Rises: In a scene that echoes another in Tim Burton's Batman Returns, Bruce Wayne dances with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) at a costume ball, where he wears no mask...or does he?

Daniel Kleinman's amazing credit sequence for Skyfall brilliantly encapsulates the movie without giving an awful lot away and snappily off-edits it to Adele's not-bad, defiantly splayed stance title tune.  The implacable forward momentum through a morbid landscape (including a series of crumbling, relevantly dissolving skulls) mirrors (shattered by gunfire, of course) the blasted psyche of James Bond.  This is his best work for the series, something that can be said of this film for many of the folks involved in it.

Best sound design of 2012: Life of Pi (Eugene Gearty)

Best music: Life of Pi (Mychael Danna)

Best presentation of a film soundtrack: La-La Land Records' 3-disc set of the complete score to Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Jerry Goldsmith and Alexander Courage, which contains pieces of the "Blaster" Beam, conceived and played by Craig Hurley.  At one point, Hurley hammers his weird metallic combination of metal and electronics, and Goldsmith (who could be quite the cranky-pants) admonishes him: "Don't "kill" it! It's got a soul. Play it!"

And...lest we forget...

And add Jack Klugman, Charles Durning and Harry Carey, Jr. to the list.

* And, as with all these videos, if it doesn't allow you to play it, it'll provide a link so you can play it on YouTube's original source.

** Curiously, I seem to be the only person that liked The Avengers more than The Dark Knight Rises, probably because I thought the latter did more, but came out, overall, with less, but also because I though The Avengers was far more entertaining, despite all its problems, which are pointed out here.

*** After, and in the spirit of, Kathleen Murphy and Richard Jameson's yearly recap of "Moments Out of Time" .  We seem to have a couple in common this year.

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