I can’t really say I enjoyed Les Miserables, the big-screen adaptation of the beloved Victor Hugo-inspired 1980s musical, but I liked it in the moments when the material found a way to sneak around the film itself. I went into it a bit wary, and probably a bit prejudiced thanks to the Twitter chatter about Tom Hooper’s direction, but I left feeling that, if anything, the sniping had been understated. The opening 10 minutes of this movie feel like the work of someone with little command of shot composition and even less of a sense of editing. The sets look spectacular but Hooper seems determined to shoot the movie as an homage to a filmed stage production, cutting from here to there for no particular reason and pacing behind Hugh Jackman as he ponders his fate at a monastery like an overzealous dad with an iPhone. In its worst moments, it feels like a film shot on sets years in the making over the course of a long, rushed weekend.
The film calms down a bit from there and the musical itself, when allowed breathing room, has some tremendously moving moments. Here at least, they’re weighted toward the first act of the film and mostly tied to Anne Hathaway’s character who—spoiler?—isn’t around the entire film. The back half’s a slog of badly staged action, lesser songs, and thinner characters. I’d never seen the musical in any form and while some of the songs will stick with me, I suspect my most lasting memories of the film will be my annoyance at the way it was filmed: all those unmotivated, Adam West-era Batman-style dutch tilts and shots of actors positioned on one side of the screen and singing out into a frame that’s 2/3 negative space, connecting with nothing, the viewer least of all.
I may have posted something about this before but, oh well: This is a song combining “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” with a recitation of James Taylor’s dialogue (maybe every line of his dialogue) from Two-Lane Blacktop. It shouldn’t work but it certainly does, at least to he ears of this lover of that film.
The 10 Best Films of 2012: An Incomplete But Annotated List
In my experience, no best-of list is ever done. No matter how diligent one is in trying to watch everything of note throughout the year, the end of the year is always a crush, always an exercise, to borrow a term from Dan Kois, in triage. There’s simply no way to see everything, particularly if you have other professional responsibilities, as I did in 2012 and in the 15 years prior. Since turning in my top 10 list to The A.V. Club, the Chicago Film Critics Association, and the polls for Village Voice and Indiewire (think I missed the deadline on the last one) I’ve already seen one film—Only The Young—that might have made my list and spent a lot of time thinking about another—Not Fade Away—that might easily creep on the list if I were to revise it in a year or so. Then there are all those movies that Scott Tobias insisted I watch, like Miss Bala and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, that I never quite got around to seeing—but which I’ll spend some time with next week in advance of another project in which I’m involved that I’ll be talking about soon. Oh, and I wasn’t in town for the preview screening of Django Unchained, which I’m finally seeing tomorrow. Tarantino’s a favorite. This list didn’t even give him a chance. If nothing else, it’s incomplete because of that, in addition to all the other reasons. Nonetheless, here’s a list.
10. Holy Motors
I’ve tried to explain the concept movie to others and it’s like trying to describe a particularly vivid dream that blurs at the edges. Then again, that’s more or less what it feels like watching Leos Carax’s comeback feature, which doubles as a grand statement on the power of movies and illusion, a collection of ideas that are brilliant on their own but pick up cumulative power as they’re gathered together here.
9. The Loneliest Planet
Nothing and everything happens in Julia Lotkev’s long trek through the Caucasus Mountains, wherein one moment upends the relationship of a young couple. The scenery is breathtaking, the moment in question shocking and troublingly plausible, and the film’s deliberate pace allows gives both the room they need.
8. Beasts Of The Southern Wild
I don’t think there were two more divisive films this year than Zero Dark Thirty and this tour through the far ends of the Louisiana bayou sometime after civilization has begun to collapse. Both worked for me, this one thanks to director Benh Zeitlin’s eye for offhand beauty and the performances of first-time actors Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis.
7. The Deep Blue Sea
Squint and it actually is a remake of the Renny Harlin shark movie—it’s desire that emerges seemingly out of nowhere to devour the unsuspecting victims.
6. The Kid With A Bike
Shocker: The Dardennes deliver a moving drama about moral choices and their consequences. Is it just that we’ve started to take them for granted that this didn’t show up on more lists?
Michael Haneke’s depiction of age ravaging an elderly couple is as unblinking and true of any of his films, even though it deals with a more everyday sort of devastation. (Or at least those I’ve seen: I’m not a timid viewer, but—true confession—I’ve bailed on Funny Games twice after 15 minutes.) That there’s no irony to makes it all the more powerful.
4. Wuthering Heights
Never mind Anna Karenina: The real breakthrough in offering a fresh take on familiar literary material this year came from Andrea Arnold, who dug into the Yorkshire soil for a raw take on Emily Bronte’s novel. Her vision perfectly captures the book’s oppressive romantic gloom and accentuates some of its key scenes by casting two black actors as Heathcliff (one as a child and the other as an adult).
3. The Master
Sure, it was inspired by Scientology, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s remarkable film is also the bigger story of a generation confronted with new freedom, deep doubt, and the maw of unknowing in the wake of World War II.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
It was a good year for Andersons. Wes Anderson’s melancholy picture book sensibility found a beautiful outlet in this coming-of-age story, in which children and grown-ups alike struggle with disappointment and receive just enough hope to make the struggle seem worthwhile.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
When the smoke clears on this one, it will be recognized not just as a stunning procedural about the hunt of Osama Bin Laden but as a psychic snapshot of a decade spent in the moral wilderness. Yes, the torture is there, and yes, the characters operate as if it’s necessary to do their jobs. (Whether it is useful or necessary remains an open question, at least in the version of the film I saw.) Would it be honest to depict the process any other way? Would it make us so uncomfortable if we didn’t feel some collective guilt for wondering if maybe, in the thick of those dark years, it was necessary? What’s also been lost in the discussion: The rest of the film, which is stunning, tense, upsetting and, in the end, offers no real sense of relief, only the possibility that the cycle will repeat itself.
Need to see again: Lincoln
I liked it and wrote as much. But this is one of those reviews I filed thinking I might have missed something and the reaction of others tells me it’s definitely time for a second look. (It’s the converse of last year when I begged everyone to give War Horse another look.)
Flight, Argo, Declaration Of War, Bernie, and Oslo, August 31st. And more, no doubt, when I revisit this even a week from now.
• Cigarettes: I hadn’t seen the original Die Hard for years until I rewatched it again last night with my wife, who’d somehow never seen it, and a few friends. One of the first things that struck me, having not really watched any older action film in a while is John McClane is one smoke-happy action hero, pulling out a cigarette the moment he gets off a plane and smoking every chance he gets until the end. Typical of the film, which doesn’t let any element go to waste, his habit plays into the plot, allowing him to learn a bit about the bad guys based on the brand they smoke, and providing another way for the film to show the passing of time based on the number of smokes left in his pack. Bruce Willis smokes beautifully, too, letting his attitude toward the butt in his hand express his mood. It all plays into the film as a whole without drawing too much attention to itself. There’s a reason this movie got ripped off so much in subsequent years: It’s a model of how to make a tense thriller without losing sight of the characters, or why we should care about them.
• McTiernan: That efficiency’s there in the direction, too. There are a number of John McTiernan films I haven’t seen, including The Hunt For Red October, which people seem to like. But I don’t think too many object to the statement that this is finest hour. (Predator never impressed me that much, but I guess an argument could be made for it.) I’ve seen enough of his later films to know he lost the flair on evidence here, becoming just another competent-enough action hand who directs like he’s seen Die Hard a few times. What happened? Was it having Jan DeBont as his DP that made the difference? If nothing else, DeBont captures some the most apocalyptic-looking L.A. sunset I’ve ever seen.
• California: One trick the film pulls off with the same sort of efficiency is the way it slowly adds to its cast, bringing in cops, reporters, and FBI agents until it becomes a real Los Angeles movie. That all the action—and most of the movie—takes place in a single skyscraper helped make Die Hard stand out in 1988 but the way that location becomes the focus of the entire city over the course of the film makes the canvas feel much broader. So does MacClane’s New York-born distaste for casual California culture. It’s little more than a collection of eye roll-inducing California clichés floating through the ’80s (though, oddly, no sushi jokes), but Willis makes it work.
• Women: The background business of the movie is MacLane’s attempt to repair his marriage and I’d never noticed before how the first act of the film keeps throwing attractive women in his path only to have him notice them and pass them by. He’s got other business, not that the thought doesn’t cross his mind. (Even once the action starts, there’s still that nudie calendar posted in the back passageways that he uses to mark his place.
• The towering inferno: It’s not as easy to watch Nakatomi Plaza explode the as it was before 9/11. All those falling bodies and office paper floating against ash and smoke doesn’t quite look the same.
• The way of the gun: MacLane’s walkie talkie exchanges with LAPD Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) provide the film with some of its highlights. So do his talks with Han Gruber (Alan Rickman), and between the two ongoing conversations the film seems to be trying to work out some ideas about what an action hero was supposed to be in 1988. Gruber taunts MacLane with comparisons to John Wayne and Roy Rogers, but the taunts don’t stick. He digs those guys and the film posits him as a contemporary equivalent of their heroism, in contrast to Gruber’s effete, cerebral villain. As for Powell, he explains his humiliating desk duties as an ability to shoot his gun—this might be symbolic—after accidentally killing a teenager. At the tail end of the climax, he guns down a bad guy and McTiernan shoots the barrel of his gun with almost erotic affection. It’s, frankly, a little gross. Or maybe this film would find my machismo wanting, despite my deep affection for it.
• The end: I’m mostly okay with the Die Hard sequels. I remember Die Hard 2 as being a fun cartoon of a movie and dozing off during the fourth one, which was part of drive-in double feature. (The first part was Transformers. It wore me out.) I didn’t really care for the third one but it’s not terrible. None, however, are necessary. This is an almost-perfect self-contained action film that didn’t have to become a franchise. But such is the way of the times. Yippie-kay… I forget the rest.
I’ve been laid out flat with some kind of stomach virus all day, which I’ve treated as an opportunity to watch some of the screeners I’ve had laying around the house. First up was Only The Young, which snuck to the best films list of the publication I used to edit unexpectedly. Watching it, I can see why and wonder if it would have snuck on to my own list, too. A lyrical documentary co-directed by Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, it follows a year in the life of some Christian skate punks living on crumbling edges of the north L.A. suburbs. It’s beautifully shot, delicately observed and I’m pretty sure I’m going to wonder about the goodhearted kids at its center for the rest of my life even though the film’s very much about a specific moment in their lives. Filmed across the year leading up to their high school graduation, it finds them making choices about who they are, who they want to spend their time with, and what one means to another as they wander a landscape filled with broken-down miniature golf courses and abandoned buildings. The setting is particular but the feeling of childhood drawing to an end feels universal. (I’m not sure if it’s still in theaters, but it’s worth catching on the big screen if you can. If not, as an Oscilloscope release it will likely turn up on Netflix at some point.)
Hitchcock, on the other hand… yeesh. I’d heard bad things but I didn’t expect this account of the making of Psycho to feel so thin. Hopkins’ impression is uncanny but it feels like the sort of thing that a good actor could put together just by studying Alfred Hitchcock’s old TV intros. (And, indeed, the film uses that as a framing device.) One scene—Hitch conducting the screams of an audience seeing Psycho for the first time—almost redeems it but this is otherwise a pretty half-assed attempt at Hollywood history.
Life Of Pi is the most beautiful movie I can’t bring myself to love. Or even like without a lot of equivocation. I read and enjoyed the Yann Martel novel on which it’s based years ago, but it quickly revealed itself as one of those books whose power started to diminish the moment I closed the cover, turning on a late-book revelation that’s unexpected, beautifully unveiled, movingly rendered, and ultimately banal. As with the book, so with the movie, but getting there is quite the trip.
There were scenes in Ang Lee’s film where I felt like I was watching a contemporary equivalent of the end of 2001, only with sea creatures filling in for heavenly bodies and other moments when I felt like I never wanted the movie to end, long langorous stretches of a boy and tiger afloat in the ocean filled with digital graphics and 3D effects wondrous enough to win over even a skeptic on both fronts . Two hours of that with no set-up and no pay-off would have been enough.
There’s more to it, though, mostly a lot of mushy theorizing about God and the power of storytelling framed by sequences in which the grown-up protagonist (well-played by Irrfan Khan) telling a novelist / Martel stand-in (Rafe Spall) about his experiences. When the other shoe drops on his tale there’s a shot of Spall that’s supposed to show he realizes the shattering profundity of what he’s been told. It plays like the movie undeservedly patting itself on the back. There’s a lot it should be proud of—a tiger menacing enough to give William Blake pause, an island swimming with meerkats, those fish, those dolphins, the glow of the ocean beneath the lifeboat—but it has more to do with the eye than the soul.
The Sessions, on the other hand, offers little visually. My colleague Scott Tobias couldn’t stop complaining about the way he looked after he saw it. Watching it at home, that felt like less of a problem. Writer/director Ben Lewin (a television vet) doesn’t worry much about making a great-looking film, letting the acting shoulder the burden of a taken-from-life story of an iron lung-dependent polio survivor (John Hawkes) who decides to lose his virginity at the age of 38 and enlists a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him. It mostly works out for the film. Hawkes is great here, breaking with the menace familiar from his work in Winter’s Bone and other projects to play a character whose only defense against the world is his resilience and dark wit. I was less enamored of Hunt’s work. She brings a clipped, theatricality to her line readings, as she usually does, that kept me from loving her performance and any time the movie shifted to her home life it lost my interest.
But mostly Lewin seems to realize that Hawkes’ story is where the emphasis belongs. Dana Stevens’ admiring review at Slate focuses on the sex scenes. It’s hard not to: They’re graphic, nudity-filled, and detailed. Hawkes’ disability has kept sex inaccessible to him—he can’t even masturbate—but the hang-ups, dysfunction and, finally pleasure he experiences with Hunt will be recognizable to many. It’s not the most gracefully shot movie and it gets sidetracked more often than it should, but The Sessions has a remarkable way of erasing the distance between one man’s particular experiences living life with some remarkable constrictions and the way most of the rest of us experience the world.
This week at The A.V. ClubI reviewed The Watch a sci-fi comedy/Costco commercial starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, as you’ve seen them before, Jonah Hill as Seth Rogen in Observe And Report and new-to-the-States Richard Ayoade as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise tired, and tiring movie.
Also reviewed: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a good, if by necessity incomplete, look at Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, who’s turned his work and life into the artistic equivalent of that guy who stared down the tank in Tiannenmen Square. I didn’t know much about him before, but I’ll be following his story from here.