Every year, we enjoy singing the praises of the films and directors and the people who offered themselves up as the brightest highlights of the twelve months passed. I like doing that too – my top ten list is always my favorite thing to write – but sometimes there are stories, films, performances, and conversations pertinent to film that sort of fall under the radar, and they really deserve a shout-out. What’s more, there is always plenty of crap in the film world to warrant scorn, admonishment and ridicule, and so the asshole inside me just can’t resist embracing his snarky side.
I am now going to share with you my picks for the Heroes (and Villains) of the film community in 2012. So without further ado, let’s jump right in:
The Unsung Heroes of 2012
Dead Dad: Savior of the TCFF
I mistakenly opted out of my favorite “local” film festival this year – The Flyway Film Festival in Pepin, Wisconsin – so I could check out some of the higher-profile movies showing at the Twin Cities Film Fest in the lovely city of Saint Louis Park. Big mistake. Featuring everything from dumb-dumb comedies to tepid “gee, aren’t old people are delightful?!” prestige schlock, to some of the most overhyped awards contenders of the year, I was ready to write off TCFF as a failure. Then came Ken J. Adachi’s Dead Dad, a melancholy, heartfelt little film that speaks quite honestly to familial tumult and the untenable, unshakable bond between siblings. Dead Dad was the last movie I saw at TCFF, and it nearly redeemed the whole event. Do seek it out if you ever can.
Girls Stealing the Show from the Superhero Movies
The two highest grossing movies of 2012 revolved around a team of extraordinary gentlemen rallying together to save a major metropolitan area (and by extension, the world) from certain, cataclysmic doom and despair. And in their own rights both movies were entertaining enough, if a little too self-serious. That’s why I relished every second on the screen occupied by Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises and Scarlett Johannsen in The Avengers. Each is by far the only interesting female character of their respective franchises, with Hathaway being Dark Knight Rises’ sole source of much-needed levity good cheer, and Johannsen of The Avengers, while not quite most interesting character in the movie (that would be Hulk), nonetheless gets the chance to lend her character more personality than she ever could in the terrible Iron Man 2. Maybe it’s time we give one of these characters a franchise of her own?
The Fearless Restraint of Dreama Walker in Compliance
Not unduly, Ann Dowd has been earning the brunt of what little awards buzz was headed toward Craig Zobel’s Compliance. But attention on Dowd’s superlative performance has unfortunately obscured the difficult work her co-star Walker does as a woman being made to “consent” to her own unwitting assailants. Unlike what we’ve seen elsewhere in movies far crueler to their exploited victims, movies like Funny Games (Susanne Lothar/Naomi Watts) and this year’s Killer Joe (Gina Gershon), Walker remains subdued in her emotional output, holding back tears in agonized terror. She resists the temptation to milk her moments for histrionics, thereby helping to keep the movie from (immorally) claiming Becky’s injured body as its own. Compliance walks a masterful tightrope, and Walker deserves some credit for it.
The Defiance of Straws in Looper
We all know how it feels to talk about a movie with somebody, only to have the conversation co-opted by topics concerning the least interesting questions the movie brings up. It’s irritating, right? I mean, who actually cares whether the couple in Certified Copy is actually married, and why do you actually want to know what Bill Murray whispered to ScarJo? I think Rian Johnson finds this irritating as well, which is why his gutsy decision to explicitly dismiss the mechanics of his movie’s time-travel technology with but a single exchange (“we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws”) is as refreshing as it is hilarious. It’s a risky, bordering-on-dickish move for a director to so overtly tell his audience what not to talk about, but it’s a move so consistent with the confidence and audacity coursing throughout the entirety of Looper, I actually don’t mind Johnson actually telling his less curious viewers, essentially, to get over it.
The Ubiquity of Mark Duplass
When everybody’s not busy talking about the omnipresent Matthew McConaughey, it’s likely they’re talking about the equally prolific Joseph Gordon-Levitt or the scene-stealing-in-multiple-movies Anne Hathaway. But let’s talk about Duplass, the adorkable actor who featured not only in five movies this year (his finest work being in Safety Not Guaranteed and Your Sister’s Sister), but even co-directed two films of his own (his latest, Do-Deca Pentathalon is currently available On Demand). While I’ve never been terribly impressed by his efforts behind the camera, I must admit it has been continually a welcome surprise in any movie that gives Duplass a role (imagine my delight to see him in Zero Dark Thirty). With the “Schlubby, Apatovian Man-Child” archetype being rammed so forcefully down our throats, it’s refreshing finally to see a more contemporary, more sensitive and less inherently misogynistic embodiment of masculinity.
Laser Frogs and “Opé?” Texts: Truly Original Movie Booty Calls
I continue to reference Looper in this post and I genuinely don’t mean to, but how can I not give a shout-out to what might be one of the more ingenious booty call-instigating apparatuses in movie history? I really don’t have much of an intellectual rationale for the laser-frog, so I’ll simply say it is awesome, and Emily Blunt’s character is awesome for using it the way she does. Props really need to go out to the coded language used between Stéphanie and Alain in Rust and Bone as well, since use of the word “Opé?” (short for “Opérationnel(le)”) is at once efficient, a unique idiosyncrasy that tells us something about the movie’s scarred lovers, and – this is the important part – practical and easy to emulate.
The Villains of 2012
I’ll maintain what I’ve been saying about The Avengers since last May: it’s more a success of movie marketing than of filmmaking craft; spirited and amusing, but a soulless machine. The Dark Knight Rises has a soul, and it even has a point of view (which is why it’s far superior to that Marvel monster), but it is a meandering, sloppy film of muddled perspective. The Hunger Games made tons of money, but it never offers anything fresh for those wanting more than a visual supplement to the books. Skyfall is admittedly a hoot, but its gender politics and outlook on its own 50-year old action hero are downright regressive. Oh, right. And Prometheus. That happened too. As a whole, franchise films seemed like particularly exhausting exercises this year – even more so than usual. To lament that these are the movies the masses deem are the most worth discussing is a clichéd sentiment by now, but that doesn’t make my laments any less warranted.
David Denby and the Death of Cinema Cavalcade
A.O. Scott already did the work for those who continue to believe in the enduring power and resilience in our cinema by pointing out just how interesting a year it’s been for film (seriously, everybody, he might be the 2012’s most invaluable movie critic), that it almost seems unproductive to resurface the easily dismissed arguments made by the Davids Thomson and Denby, whose critiques on the state of modern movies – while admittedly thoughtful and not-entirely-unfounded – were too mired in their own nostalgia to fully recognize the art as an evolving beast (and as we all know, evolution is neither progressive nor regressive; it simply is). Such “death of cinema” articles were met with deservedly righteous derision from other critics, and thank The Maker for that. To paraphrase Richard Brody: “The movies aren’t dying; they’re not even sick.”
The Lazy Found Footage of End of Watch and Projext X
I already said my piece about David Ayer’s sloppy filmmaking in the deeply overrated End of Watch, so let’s talk about the other found-footage train-wreck from this year that forsook all its found footage rules for no reason other than convenience: the galling and slightly evil Project X. While most of the movie is filmed from the perspective of one sociopath with a camera, we get plenty of camera angles – especially during the extended “party” sequence – that make absolutely no sense. Fortunately, I suppose, formalistic sloppiness is the least of Project X’s problems.
The Selfish Performance of Sascha Baron Cohen
I love Borat, Baron Cohen’s incendiary first collaboration with Larry Charles. I even like Brüno because of how it toys with the own viewer’s discomfort. But I hate their most recent effort The Dictator because, despite the fact that the movie’s creative forces have decided to make a conventional comedy, Baron Cohen continues to occupy a character incapable of “playing nicely” with his other characters (and by extension, actors) sharing the screen. While that process works quite effectively when made at the expense of real-life dupes and bigots, It practically murders the potential for any sense of comedic timing or chemistry with supporting players like Anna Faris and Ben Kingsley, whose own efforts to create characters are given no room to breathe. This is why Baron Cohen’s role in The Dictator is a “selfish” one, and why it is also my least favorite performance of 2012.
The Selfish Direction of Tom Hooper
You know why the solos from Fantine and Éponine are basically the only parts of Les Misérables that work? It’s not just because Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks are talented performers (though they are). It’s because those are the only moments where Hooper, in shooting each number essentially in one well-framed long take, seems able to demonstrate even a modicum of discipline with his visuals (some might say that the long takes themselves are a form of self-indulgence, but I appreciated the respites from all the cutting). Hooper is quite keen to show us through his visuals a “Scrappy!” and “Gritty!” interpretation of the beloved Broadway play, but the schematics of his relentless visuals are so busy, so garish, that Les Miz becomes not a rousing experience, but a dour, oppressive and exhausting one. And it’s pretty much all Hooper’s fault.
John Hawkes’ Shy Penis
Let’s talk about “bravery” for a second, and how it applies to why Helen Hunt is the only part of The Sessions that deserves praise. As trite as it is to call an actress – especially actresses over forty – choosing to bare all for a movie role “brave,” I feel it is fair to recognize the boldness it truly took for Hunt to do what she did. I certainly couldn’t do what she did, and I have this nagging suspicion that John Hawkes couldn’t either. And that is chiefly why The Sessions ultimately fails as any kind of commentary on sexuality, and why Hunt’s “brave” choices are tragically for naught. If Ben Lewin found it so necessary to show the full-frontal nudity of his sex therapist, then I must ask: whither her patient’s wang? While I can’t say I’m exactly jonesing to see Mr. Hawkes fully nude, and while I admit Hawkes is good in the movie, The Sessions ultimately holds its female character to a double standard, one which undercuts the film’s ability to speak honestly to the act of body expression (the strategic angle the camera uses in the scene where Mark O’Brien is made to glimpse his own body in a mirror – only to not actually show his entire body – is criminal).
It’s been argued to me that had he shown all of Mark, Lewin would have risked exploiting the body of a disabled man (one based on an actual person) for the purposes of entertainment. To that my response is twofold: doesn’t that interpretation ultimately rob a disabled person’s ability for his/her own body to be validated as a nonetheless human one, thereby tainting the movie’s ostensible point? Furthermore, if exploitation of the body is the core issue, then why is it okay to exploit Hunt’s?
Not Exactly Sure…
Gerard Depardieu, Incontinent Russian Defector
I really have nothing substantial to say about this, mostly because Dépardieu’s headline-grabbing shenanigans left me speechlessly bemused, and partly because I’m typically loathe to comment on a celebrity’s real-life antics. But like Looper’s booty-call frog laser, I simply can’t resist bringing this up.