Monday, December 31, 2012

My Favorite Films of 2012

2012 has been a very good year for movies. Box office has been up. More people are going to the movies again. Even the worst films of this year weren't as bad as the worst films of the past couple years. Of course, no one can tell how this year will hold up and be evaluated by future generations of critics, but in the here and now, I’d say 2012 was a special year in movies.

This is odd for me to say since I haven’t been writing about movies much since October. If movies have been so good, why haven’t I been writing more about them? Well, it’s been hard to find the words as of late. Writing about movies is something that pretty much anyone can do (of course, quality will vary dramatically), and the Internet has turned everyone into wannabe Roger Eberts, Gene Shalits, Pauline Kaels, and Rex Reeds. Unfortunately, most of what I read is similar to most of what I write: bi-polar, thumbs-up-thumbs-down, hyperbolic advertising. Only a handful of critics out there seem to understand that film criticism is more than just a Consumer Reports article that can be easily translated into a number on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to bash Internet critics, or make it seem like there’s nothing positive about blogging.

I just feel like I've got nothing to say.

I've got nothing to say that hasn't already been said, and probably better. Take my review of Cabin in the Woods. I loved the film, and called it genre-defining and revolutionary. Well, so did pretty much everyone else who liked the movie. I could have written a review of Argo, but it would have amounted pretty much to “Ben Affleck's film is an edge of your seat thriller, and his direction and command of tone have put him on the map as one of America’s premiere filmmakers.” That was said by a large number of critics across the country.

So, I’m not writing much anymore until I feel like I've found a way to write about movies that feels fresh, at least to me.

In the meantime, I can’t resist the temptation to write my annual list of favorite movies. I say this is my list of favorites because you can’t argue with me over it. These are my favorites, and indicative more of my tastes and psychology than they are of actual merit or worth as a piece of film. A good list should reflect the list maker, giving you a good idea of what makes him or her tick. It’s the easiest way to see a critic’s perspective of the world.

Unlike previous years, though, I’m putting this list in a non-alphabetical order. These are my favorites, and I liked #1 more than #10, but not by as much as you may think.

10. The Grey

It’s rare that a movie in January is on any “Best of” list, since January is typically the graveyard month for movies Hollywood wants to dump on an unsuspecting public as they push their Academy Award nominees at the box office. Yet, somehow, The Grey sneaked into theaters, received some critical acclaim, and was out just as quietly as it had come. And then a funny thing happened: it appeared on Netflix and suddenly people started talking about it. There wasn't a week in my life as a teacher that a student did not come to me and ask, “Hey, Dollins, you seen The Grey yet?” Usually, when teenagers start asking me if I’ve seen a movie, I cringe, only because they usually want me to watch garbage like Project X. But the follow-up question was usually something like, “What did you think of the ending?”

Well, the ending is the reason why The Grey is on my list. Without its remarkably effective ending, the film is a very good survival film featuring a fine performance by Liam Neeson. But with the ending, The Grey transcends its genre and becomes something resonant. It’s a movie not about survival so much as it is about finding the will to live, even in the worst of circumstances. That’s a pretty simple message, all told, but there’s something so visceral, powerful, and honest in Neeson's performance in those final frames, as he breaks bottles and creates a weapon to fight off the last of the wolves that have been hunting him. This is a man who starts off the film wanting to live for others – for the memory of his wife, for the crew of men that come to trust him – and finally decides that he wants to live for himself, on his own terms. It’s an existentialist drama that has aged well over the year, and looks to continue doing so.

9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

As a child of the 90s, and as an outsider with a small, but great group of friends, The Perks of Being a Wallflower resonated with me in a way that many films haven’t. Some films hit us on a personal level, and they matter, whether they are quality films or not. Fortunately, Perks is a quality film. I knew I was in for a treat during an early scene at a Homecoming dance, when Charlie, our main character, is noticed being the titular wallflower by Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Erza Miller). The use of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, combined with a beautiful tracking shot of the back of Charlie’s head as he enters the dance floor stunned me, recalling all the nerves and excitement that craving validation in high school brings. That the film combines a soundtrack featuring David Bowie and the Smiths, and confesses a love affair with The Rocky Horror Picture Show while simultaneously never wearing its 90s setting as wink-wink kitsch, only made me fall in love. This is the best film John Hughes never made.

8. The Master

Anyone who spoke to me, or read my review, knows how much this movie challenged me. Now that I’ve had a couple months to process P.T. Anderson’s latest, I realize that I was trying to apply traditional understanding of film to my criticism. The Master is not attempting to tell a traditional narrative. There’s a hint of a story, but its strength lies in its power of observation. Freddie Quell’s twisted, drunken state plays more as a symbol of what America was after WWII, while Lancaster Dodd is the healer, come down from his self-made mountain to provide the easy answers in the face of truth. Of course Dodd wants to control Freddie, wants to make him whole again, because it would validate his lie. Yet, Anderson’s film isn’t that simplistic. It’s also a lament of lost innocence, a dark love story, and about the nature of alcoholism. I don’t think I saw any other film this year as packed with ideas and metaphor, from the images of the waves to the brutal handjob delivered by Amy Adams’ taskmaster wife, Mrs. Dodd. The Master is a movie that I want to see again, multiple times, like a great novel: it’s challenging art, but worth the work to understand it.

7. Argo

Can Ben Affleck get any cooler? When I first saw Gone Baby Gone, I was mesmerized that this guy who had only a few years earlier embarrassed comic book fans, like myself, by playing Daredevil, was able to make such an excellent film from behind the camera. When The Town happened, I was excited to see that he did it again, this time with even better source material. Argo is evidence that Affleck’s directorial voice is legitimate, strong, and influenced by great directors like Lumet and Coppola. Argo makes politics fun, as it combines the CIA world of the Iran Hostage Crisis with Hollywood in a story that is so odd that it absolutely has to be true. But this movie would not have worked if not for two things: 1) the great airport sequence and 2) the casting. The airport sequence is one of the most suspenseful moments in cinema this year, cranking up the tension in increments until the release is nearly orgasmic. The casting, though, makes the film, as Affleck and his team wisely dipped into the worlds of TV and motion pictures to find the right mix of players in Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Kyle Chandler, and Victor Garber.

6. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Oh, Hushpuppy, how I just want to give you a big hug (which you would, no doubt, smack me upside the head for doing)! I loved Beasts for its passion and grit. Six-year old Quevanzhenne Wallis carries this movie on her tough shoulders and inspired me to fight for what I care about, even in the face of losing her father and her home. Her Hushpuppy is one of the great characters of cinema, and will no doubt be talked about for years to come. I had a chance to meet screenwriter Lucy Alibar earlier this year during a screening of the film in Palm Springs, and her earnestness about dealing with the death of her own father when she wrote the original play she adapted for the screen was heartwarming and valuable. It made this film all the more poignant, yet the furthest thing from sentimental. In any other year, this would probably have been my #1 film, but 2012 wasn’t any other year in film.

5. Life of Pi

This is a hard film for me to write about because it is too personal for me, yet I can’t ignore the hold that it had over me. I have spent the last few years of my life clinging to the title of “atheist,” mostly because I had spent 13 years of my life living a Christian lie, and hating myself for it. If religion – or any belief, really – is to play a huge role in our lives, it should fulfill us, give us strength, make us secure and whole. Christianity did not do this for me, but I stayed in the faith a long time, thinking the problem was in me. My rebellion a few years back was to take a complete 180 and return to the atheism of my father and my formative years when God was merely a concept my mother threw around when she was suffering. Life of Pi was a reminder to me that maybe there is indeed more to life than they way I’m living now, that maybe I’m more of a believer than I give myself credit for. In the beginning, a journalist approaches Pi and says, “I hear you can tell me a story that will make me believe in God,” and by the end, I found myself wanting to believe again. Not necessarily wanting to believe in the same way, but wanting to find the joy in the Sublime, the unexplainable, in the mystery of Life and the Universe. Life of Pi is great cinema – it’s a series of paintings telling an epic tale of a little boy lost, and of the power of tales to inspire us and help define this great and marvelous world. While I know some are angry with the ending, I think its ambiguity is what makes the film great – as with all things involving faith, we have to make a choice as to what we choose to believe, and that thing is our god.

4. Looper

There were two sci-fi films that dealt with this idea this year, Colin Trevorrow’s debut film Safety Not Guaranteed and Rian Johnson’s remarkable Looper. Both films capture the heart of time travel—the emotional ideas that compel a person to attempt it. Looper’s strength—and what makes it one of my favorite film’s of the year—is that it avoids explaining how time travel is possible, and thumbs its nose at all the paradoxes time travel stories inevitably create in an attempt to give us a beautiful love story and a profound tale of self-discovery. This is a consuming drama about a hitman forced to track down his future self to “close the loop” on his life, and the consequences this has in the present. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance is outstanding, and Emily Blunt’s character is one of the most compelling female characters on screen this year, even when you consider the great work from Amy Adams, Jessica Chastain, and Jennifer Lawrence.

3. Moonrise Kingdom

Thank you, Wes Anderson, for writing this year’s greatest romance. The story of Sam and Suzi, two preteens in the mid-60s who find each other and run away together, is beautiful, subtle, funny, and charming. No film this year brought a bigger smile to my face, or warmed my heart more. I know how silly that sounds in our cynical day and age, but I want the movies to make me feel something. Moonrise Kingdom transported me to an enchanting island village where a down-on-his-luck cop, an overzealous Scoutmaster, lawyer parents, and the coolest group of kids since The Goonies made me want to grab my binoculars, a record player, and a cache of children’s books and move in.

2. The Cabin in the Woods

One of the year’s most polarizing films, for sure. I’ve had any number of people talk to me about how much they hated it, especially the mythologically epic finale; at the same time, I’ve had several discussions with people about how awesome and profound the film is, too. All I can say is that no other film this year got me to fork over money to see it three times theatrically, followed by a purchase of the Blu-ray and subsequent viewings. Cabin in the Woods does something no other horror film in recent memory has been able to do—dramatically represent the reason we watch horror films. It also serves as a strong response to anyone who wants to point fingers at violent movies—and especially horror films—as one of the reasons for societal violence, like what we recently saw in Oregon or Newtown. The reality is that we need these films to give us an outlet for the darkness that resides in our hearts and souls. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard recognize this and made one of 2012’s most entertaining treatises on the subject.

1.       Django Unchained

Had Django been released earlier in the year, no doubt I would have gone to see it multiple times, just as I did Pulp Fiction back in 1994. These characters are the year’s most memorable, most exciting, and most iconic. Tarantino has made a career on creating iconic characters, from Mr. Blonde to Vincent Vega to the Bride to Hans Landa, and with Django Unchained he reaches into spaghetti westerns, German mythology, and the darkest corners of American history to create a new American mythology. Much is being talked about the shocking violence, use of racial epithets, and historical accuracy, but Django Unchained cannot be reduced to such simple debates. Like Tarantino’s best work, it redefines archetypes and reveals some deep truths about our America, past and present.