The Ten Best Movies of 2012, Part 2

And here’s the final five! Click here for Part One of the list.

5) Moonrise Kingdom, dir. Wes Anderson, USA.

I’ve always had one hangup with Wes Anderson’s films - all of which I adore - and that’s that they often felt overly crafted, that they were so meticulously designed that they felt more like beautiful dioramas that nary allowed for the little imperfections that make up our normal lives. That small quip was alleviated when I saw Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which shed its rigid formality without losing Anderson’s trademark craftsmanship. In a story that is essentially if Margo Tenenbaum as a child fell in love with a younger version of Max Fischer, Anderson ascends artifice and delivers a love letter to first love. It reminds me of an old Irish proverb, that a man has three loves in his life: his sweetheart, whom he loves the most, his wife, whom he loves the best, and his mother, whom he loves the longest. Moonrise Kindgom is all of those in one, and it’s beautifully rendered, acted, and delivers us a true star in the making in actress Kara Hayward.

4) Brooklyn Castle, dir. Katie Dellamaggiore, USA.

From a kingdom to a castle, this is one of those documentaries - like Lee Hirch’s Bully - that everyone cannot afford to miss. Luckily this film is rated PG (unlike Bully, which is inexplicably rated R, fuck you MPAA) - so kids who need to see this film will be able to.

During the 2012 presidential elections, Mitt Romney made an inflammatory statement, caught on camera, that in any normal given circumstance should have killed any credibility and standing that he had to be the next American president:

"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … These are people who pay no income tax. … and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Romney’s bigoted, numbskull comments should have completely discredited him and caused a public uproar, and yet, strangely enough, it didn’t. He went on to lose but by a smaller margin than any of us could predict. It highlights a pervading thought process in America, that there are the folks in this country who are just too lazy and too dumb to even save themselves, that they are the burden of the smart, hard working WASPs of America’s heartland and industry. The election results proved it - America, by giving Romney 47.2% of the popular vote, is willing to buy into that narrative.

Which is why we need films like Brooklyn Castle to be seen by as many people as possible, from all walks of life and on both sides of the aisle. The film follows the lives of five students from Brooklyn I.S. 318, a junior high school that is considered a below-the-poverty-line public school. Romnian logic would instantly label these kids as unworthy, too stupid, too lazy to be counted, and yet the kids of this school have managed to win more championships than any other school in the United States in a very peculiar sport. The uninformed would assume it’s something ‘street’ like basketball, but in actuality it is chess, the most intellectually demanding and challenging game in the world. This despite persistent budget cuts in after-school programs, cuts that require students, staff and the entire community to make sacrifices that no suburban school would be asked to undertake.

What a remarkable film, showing the passion of kids to pursue what they enjoy despite a nation and government that continually tells them that they are not worthy or even capable. Sure there are kids that simply don’t care and never achieve, but the real crime is to give up on them regardless of disposition, income or race. Every child will not become a chess grandmaster, but each should be afforded the opportunity to try, to explore options, and to find support in the field that they take a shining to. It’s the very minimum that should be awarded to each child everywhere.

3) DREDD, dir. Pete Travis, United Kingdom.

I’ve already lauded DREDD some time ago, you can read it here. I’m still campaigning for a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Olivia Thirlby in the film, she’s just that damn good. Oscar consideration should also go to DoP Anthony Dod Mantle, as he delivered the most gorgeously shot action film in recent memory. It wasn’t however, the most visually beautiful film of 2012, an honor that belongs to the next film on this list…

2) Leviathan, dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, USA.

A couple of years ago I wrote that the indie documentary Sweetgrass, a relatively plotless film that was about Montana sheepherders, should be given the Oscar for best film of the year. That wasn’t my attempt to shock people with indie arthouse cred, that was my honest opinion - it was the very best, most affecting film I’d seen that year, and if the Academy really wants to stand by the words of “Best Picture,” then dammit that was the best picture of the year.

Imagine then my anticipation for Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s follow up to Sweetgrass. Along with co-director Véréna Paravel, Castaing-Taylor tells the tales of the fishing vessels that head out into the turbulent and unforgiving seas in order to deliver that tuna sandwich to our local grocer. Leviathan, like Sweetgrass before it, largely defies narrative and yet stitches together a very cohesive and gripping story of life and death, of the nature of work and, like the nautical muse of Moby Dick, the very nature of obsession. The film speaks on a visual level that transcends conventional filmmaking as we know it, and like Leos Carax’ Holy Motors, it relies upon its audience to connect the dots by digging into our subconscious. This is a raging, dense and powerful film, and as I had the privelege of seeing it at a film festival, I do so hope that it gets a wider release (to see it on the big screen is unforgettable, but we will all have to settle for home delivery) so that people may experience life at its most engaging, the world as a blast furnace of activity, and the elements that make the alchemy of our existence. The clip below is a mere fraction of this film’s visual power. Simply brilliant.

And last but not least, my pick for best film of the year goes to…(drum roll please)…

1) Wuthering Heights, dir. Andrea Arnold, United Kingdom.

First things first, I read Emily Brontë’s brooding novel in high school and it gripped me at a time when few books were able to grab a hold of my fleeting attention span. I loved Wuthering Heights as a document of human brutality, and it ranks right up there with Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence as one of the most violent stories I’ve ever experienced. Violence not in the physical sense, but in terms of psychological anguish and terror, few stories have been able to match up.

When I heard that Andrea Arnold, the reigning champion of human anguish (and I say that in the most admirable fashion possible) was going to adapt Brontë, and that she had cast a black boy in the tortured role of Heathcliff, well it instantly became my most anticipated film of the year. And it did not disappoint one bit. Arnold, who is typically known for her gritty urban tales of women fighting to identify themselves in an unforgiving world, elevates her craft by imbuing Brontë’s tale of forbidden love in an absolute shroud of fog and dread. The film, shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio -unusual for feature films - feels incredibly claustrophobic and yet open at the same time, a feeling that replicates the anguish and liberation of true love. Arnold delivers on two blistering performances from newcomers James Howson and Kaya Scodelario, and the result is the most gut wrenching romance I’ve seen since Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Unlike most period films, there is no swooning, no lip biting or heaving bosoms - Arnold strips the story down to its raw essence, pasting it with mud and grime, and amplifies the rebellion of youth with pugnacious flair.

The film is not for everyone - indeed critical reception of the movie has been divided - but the final judgement on the effectiveness of the film is if it made its viewer feel what the characters felt, and not doing it through overtly manipulative means. I felt Heathcliff and Cathy’s anguish, I felt those pains of love and longing, of not being able to have what the heart desires most. For me, the film was immensely affecting, to the point where it still refuses to let go. It speaks of truth to me while simultaneously existing in a dream state, which is the world in where most burning regrets and forbidden desires lay in all our minds. It is a special, unique film, one that is worthy of our time and patience, and is worthy of being called the very best film of the year.

A final note. With Wuthering Heights, Leviathan, Zero Dark Thirty and Brooklyn Castle, it’s been an absolute banner year for women directors. I love that these films are not stereotypical ‘women in peril’ or derivative romantic comedies, that they are by women observing the world they live in. In the year that saw the passing of Nora Ephron, women in film have made absolutely amazing strides and both the industry and audiences are all the better for it.

Runners-up: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Bully, Argo, End of Watch, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Kid With a Bike, Miss Lovely, The Raid: Redemption, The Master.

Now, I wanna know your picks. What was your favorite film of the year?

Hot Topic: In Defense of the Professional Critic.

I was watching the Chicago Bears play against the Houston Texans last night when the team came upon a 4th and 1 situation; the ball was on the opponents’ 47-yard line and the crowd was screaming for Bears coach Lovie Smith to go for it on 4th down. Of course coach punted the football, but commentator Al Michaels made an interesting quote from legendary Chicago Bulls commentator Johnny Kerr:

"If a coach starts listening to fans, he winds up sitting next to them."

The Bears went on to lose but that quote kept on ringing in my head. Professional sports, like film, is a public entertainment. They both feature highly trained individuals executing a craft that is watched for enjoyment by large crowds who not only watch, but also critique the work of these individuals play-by-play. I remember once going to a Denver Bronco game and hearing fans heckle a wide receiver who dropped a pass.”You should’ve caught that,” one fan screamed, “my grandma could’ve caught that pass, and she’s dead!” Never mind that the wide receiver was backpedaling at full speed and had a 6’2” cornerback draped all over him, and it was 20 degrees outside and snowing. Having played football myself, I empathized with the player, although I was disappointed that he didn’t make the catch, because hey - I want my team to make all of their catches.

We live in a world that is saturated with access, where the public can critically review any given subject via message boards, forums, and review sites. Restaurants can be made or destroyed by customer reviews on Yelp, books can be vaulted into the stratosphere by Amazon reviews, and movies can be made or trashed on iMDB boards. The common thread to all these sites is that they contain reviews by the public, and not from professional critics. And in this, I’m beginning to see a quandary, because just like how I want my favorite football players to catch all the passes thrown at them, so too does the public place their immediate expectations upon the places they eat, the books and film they consume, and the places they frequent. It is these expectations which affects the quality of their reviews, and it is these immediate expectations that the professional critic tempers, because they’re experts in their medium and their barometer of quality is their own experience, education and informed taste.

It seems more and more commonplace that a lot of the things that the public adores - Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, McDonalds, Caribbean Cruises - are consistently trashed by professional critics. I’ve known for awhile now that just because something is popular, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. I do try to read and watch what’s popular to get a feel of the zeitgeist, and I’m often shocked how appallingly bad most bestsellers and blockbuster films are. Take Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code as an example. It has to date done over $250 million in sales, spawned a major movie franchise, and was outsold only by J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It is, by all estimations, a major, major success. So I decided to read it, and after an hour I wanted to gouge my eyeballs out of my head after reading some of the worst writing I’d ever come across. I’m not a professional literary critic, but you don’t need to be when you come across writing like this:

"A voice spoke, chillingly close. "Do not move." On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars."

Voices don’t speak, people do. And frozen people cannot turn their head slowly because, well, they’re frozen. Silhouettes can’t stare. That’s just from the first lines of the book, which progressively went from crap to pure shit as I read it.


Leonardo deserves better.

But the public defenders of dreck like The DaVinci Code or Michael Bay’s Transformers movie franchise will espouse that these exist to purely entertain, and that’s what they see what most professional critics are forgetting when they trash films and books that are staggeringly popular. The “I want to shut my brain off and just enjoy something” mantra is what has driven many a mediocre book or film to stratospheric success, and I’ll be the first to say I too would love to escape in a book or film, and I’d say a majority of professional critics would love to as well. Not all critics want to sit through a two-hour incomprehensible tone poem about the Holocaust by Jean-Luc Godard, and I’d be willing to bet that they’d much rather spend those two hours watching a well-crafted comedy like Bridesmaids or Mean Girls. But the key here is well-crafted. The critic appreciates quality and knows just how hard it is to achieve, much like my empathy for the wide receiver who dropped a pass in a snowstorm. He makes that catch and I know it’s quality work, he drops it and I know it was a hard thing to do. (It’s a different story if he made no effort at all, which is a failure of expectation from a professional athlete and is worthy of criticism).

The public wants immediate expectations met, and the critic wants quality that lives up to expectations. There’s a huge difference. At a restaurant a diner wants something that tastes good and served efficiently without fuss. The critic also wants the same thing, but she also knows the pedigree of the chef, the history of the cuisine and what makes it special, and the proper way a restaurant should be run. Her judgement of the quality of the meal will be placed up against those parameters, and she’ll make a much more insightful and critical choice than someone who just wants a good meal.

But shouldn’t it be enough to just have a good meal? In the short term, yes. But in the long term, absolutely not. Art and dialogue persists through a constant pushing of the medium, and if the public embraces what is simply “good” as opposed to what is exceptional, or what is flawed but a bold new attempt - they will be spinning their wheels. And since the endgame for so much content, food and experience is to make money, producers of such will continue to feed the lowered expectations of the bigger public opinion.

It’s hard to write this and not sound like a pretentious blowhole. I hate a bad review from a critic as much as the next guy, but I also want criticism from people who know that field intimately, are madly passionate about film, and who want to see the medium reach the levels of their taste. Are they a reflection of the greater public opinion? Likely not. But they are there to give the public an opinion - an informed, reasoned opinion - about what they feel is the best or worst representation of that craft. And it’s ultimately up to us to use our judgement whether or not to pursue it.

Critics - and by critics I mean people who are good writers, who have studied their mediums and are passionate about them - are necessary for every field because they act as the filter to separate the bad from the good, and to support what is brave, unconventional and contributing to the medium. And of course critics can get it wrong - many a film has been critically panned and yet later been recognized as a maverick work. But I’d rather a trained critic get it wrong than my neighbor who hasn’t studied cinema for a single minute of his life get it wrong. That’s not to slam by neighbor - I’ll take a recommendation from him any time, but I won’t have him decide what is good or bad for the medium. And that’s what’s happening on the Internet right now. People are overriding the critics, and if writers, chefs, filmmakers and studios keep listening to the people, they’ll proverbially end up in the seats next to them. The barometer of quality should be driven by a balance of both - a critical gaffe can be saved through a supportive public, and a public misconception can be righted by a critical review.


Don’t trust the boxoffice and go see DREDD.

I think of the golden age of cinema - the 50s through the 70s - where films were put through the critical gauntlets of Cahiers Du Cinema and the likes of Pauline Kael, Serge Daney, Manny Farber, Gene Siskel, Andrew Sarris and Andre Bazin, and I can’t help but think that those critics made our medium better. They were critics that wanted to see cinema that not only entertained them, but that also challenged the medium with the intent of making it better, more expansive, and as a greater, deeply textured expression of the human condition. These critics were harsh, but only because they want quality and craft from the people who are the very best in their field. There isn’t a filmmaker, author or chef in the world who doesn’t want to please a tough critic, and when they do, they know that they’ve done something special, and that critic has pushed them to that limit. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and it only works when the public trusts its critics, and the critics are believed in by its craftspeople. And it’s more than okay to disagree with a critic - that’s what they’re there for - and that’s the healthiest thing that can happen for any art form, which is debate and discourse of what is working and what isn’t. It’s absolutely vital to progress, and it is the role of the critic to eloquently and rationally be the firestarter of that debate.

I want to leave you with one of the most beautifully written passages about criticism I’ve ever experienced. It is from Pixar’s Ratatouille, where food critic Anton Ego - voiced by Peter O’Toole - speaks of the responsibility and burden of the critic. It’s staggeringly gorgeous and relevant, and is arguably one of the greatest sequences in all of cinema. Of course that’s my critical opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

New Sharpie Portrait and my thoughts on DREDD, which EVERYONE needs to go see RIGHT NOW. Tell your friends.

sharpieportraits:

Sharpie Portrait:

“Drokk!”

Judge Dredd.

As a comic book-obsessed teen I was seriously burned by Danny Cannon’s disastrous 1995 adaptation of Judge Dredd. Featuring a lifeless Sylvester Stallone, a repulsive Rob Schneider as pained comic relief, and poor Diane Lane trying desperately to hold it all together the best she could, the movie was my equivalent of nipples on the Batsuit; I had treasured my imported copies of 2000 AD that used to come into by local comic book shop, and they were read, reread, copied and traced from mercilessly. Half of them were French imports, so it would take me double the time to translate the word balloons, but I was more than happy to put in the effort. The highlight, of course, were the Judge Dredd stories, slabs of grotesque, satirical violence and metaphor presented in fully-painted glory by one of my favorite artists, the immeasurably talented Simon Bisley. Other Dredd stories were drawn with razor-sharp precision by Brian Bolland, whose ink work influenced much of my own pen styles.

There were few films in my life that I had looked more forward to in my teens than Judge Dredd, and it even had The Cure doing the theme song on the soundtrack. Imagine then, minute after crushing minute, of having to sit through the pure Hollywood desecration of one of the truly great characters in all of science fiction, all set to Rob Schneider’s insufferable cackle. It almost made me cry, it almost made me renounce cinema altogether, it was so bad.

So seventeen years later, you could understand my trepidation walking into DREDD, but I was reassured by a few things before walking in. Andrew MacDonald of Transpotting, Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later was producing, and virtuoso cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle was handling the images, so I at least was guaranteed that the film would be dark and exquisitely made. Also reassuring was the casting of Olivia Thirbly as psychic rookie Anderson. Thirlby has been on my radar as one of the most talented young actresses of her generation, a fantastic combination of nuance and unconventional beauty. I also was a fan of Karl Urban, but I’d yet to see him perform in a role that required some level of range. Judge Dredd was that opportunity, as there is a difficult balance in the character to be maintained, that of deciding what is legal and what is just.

I came out of the theater on Friday night, my jaw on the floor. This was the comic book movie I’d been waiting so long for. Unapologetic, raw, gorgeous and rip-roaring fun. DREDD bristles and cracks with the same energy of 2000 AD comics, and does not hold back on the ultraviolence that permeated those pages. The script is threadbare but efficient, allowing for some the most impressionistic and gorgeous sequences of bloody asskicking that I’ve ever seen. Thirlby is a revelation as a conflicted mutant, pacing her transformation into a Judge pitch perfectly, never losing her instinctual womanhood in the process. Urban plays Dredd with dead-on accuracy, allowing only brief glimpses of humanity as he defies his own rules in accordance to the greater law. There are one-liners and giant leaps of faith, but they are done with perfect integration into the physics of the universe set within the film.

DREDD is, hands down, one of the very best films of the year. Dod Mantle strongly deserves his second Oscar nomination for the impressionistic camera he wields in this film, and I’d even give Thirlby a best supporting nod for this film, which considering it is a hyperviolent action film, is a near impossibility. DREDD is a $50M budget film that outpaced, outsmarted, and eclipsed Christopher Nolan’s $250M The Dark Knight Rises by a mile, it’s the comic book film that we all deserve and should support. Unfortunately DREDD is faring extremely poorly at the box office, which is a tremendous shock to me given its strong critical support. I guess it has to live in the long, depressing shadow of the Stallone original as a half-baked remake of something that was so very atrocious that it needs to be erased from the canon of cinema. It’s a tough hill to climb, I suppose.

So in support of DREDD and an attempt to spread the word-of-mouth, I did a Sharpie Portrait of Judge Dredd, riding his intimidating Lawmaker into the scene of the crime. Drawing the portrait brought back so many fond memories of reading 2000 AD and reveling in the magic of comics, science fiction and sardonic ultraviolence. I will see DREDD again, and so should you. Support great cinema and great cinema will in turn support you via the empowerment of talented storytellers. Spread the word and don’t let DREDD die!

New Sharpie Portrait and my thoughts on DREDD, which EVERYONE needs to go see RIGHT NOW. Tell your friends.

sharpieportraits:

Sharpie Portrait:

“Drokk!”

Judge Dredd.

As a comic book-obsessed teen I was seriously burned by Danny Cannon’s disastrous 1995 adaptation of Judge Dredd. Featuring a lifeless Sylvester Stallone, a repulsive Rob Schneider as pained comic relief, and poor Diane Lane trying desperately to hold it all together the best she could, the movie was my equivalent of nipples on the Batsuit; I had treasured my imported copies of 2000 AD that used to come into by local comic book shop, and they were read, reread, copied and traced from mercilessly. Half of them were French imports, so it would take me double the time to translate the word balloons, but I was more than happy to put in the effort. The highlight, of course, were the Judge Dredd stories, slabs of grotesque, satirical violence and metaphor presented in fully-painted glory by one of my favorite artists, the immeasurably talented Simon Bisley. Other Dredd stories were drawn with razor-sharp precision by Brian Bolland, whose ink work influenced much of my own pen styles.

There were few films in my life that I had looked more forward to in my teens than Judge Dredd, and it even had The Cure doing the theme song on the soundtrack. Imagine then, minute after crushing minute, of having to sit through the pure Hollywood desecration of one of the truly great characters in all of science fiction, all set to Rob Schneider’s insufferable cackle. It almost made me cry, it almost made me renounce cinema altogether, it was so bad.

So seventeen years later, you could understand my trepidation walking into DREDD, but I was reassured by a few things before walking in. Andrew MacDonald of Transpotting, Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later was producing, and virtuoso cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle was handling the images, so I at least was guaranteed that the film would be dark and exquisitely made. Also reassuring was the casting of Olivia Thirbly as psychic rookie Anderson. Thirlby has been on my radar as one of the most talented young actresses of her generation, a fantastic combination of nuance and unconventional beauty. I also was a fan of Karl Urban, but I’d yet to see him perform in a role that required some level of range. Judge Dredd was that opportunity, as there is a difficult balance in the character to be maintained, that of deciding what is legal and what is just.

I came out of the theater on Friday night, my jaw on the floor. This was the comic book movie I’d been waiting so long for. Unapologetic, raw, gorgeous and rip-roaring fun. DREDD bristles and cracks with the same energy of 2000 AD comics, and does not hold back on the ultraviolence that permeated those pages. The script is threadbare but efficient, allowing for some the most impressionistic and gorgeous sequences of bloody asskicking that I’ve ever seen. Thirlby is a revelation as a conflicted mutant, pacing her transformation into a Judge pitch perfectly, never losing her instinctual womanhood in the process. Urban plays Dredd with dead-on accuracy, allowing only brief glimpses of humanity as he defies his own rules in accordance to the greater law. There are one-liners and giant leaps of faith, but they are done with perfect integration into the physics of the universe set within the film.

DREDD is, hands down, one of the very best films of the year. Dod Mantle strongly deserves his second Oscar nomination for the impressionistic camera he wields in this film, and I’d even give Thirlby a best supporting nod for this film, which considering it is a hyperviolent action film, is a near impossibility. DREDD is a $50M budget film that outpaced, outsmarted, and eclipsed Christopher Nolan’s $250M The Dark Knight Rises by a mile, it’s the comic book film that we all deserve and should support. Unfortunately DREDD is faring extremely poorly at the box office, which is a tremendous shock to me given its strong critical support. I guess it has to live in the long, depressing shadow of the Stallone original as a half-baked remake of something that was so very atrocious that it needs to be erased from the canon of cinema. It’s a tough hill to climb, I suppose.

So in support of DREDD and an attempt to spread the word-of-mouth, I did a Sharpie Portrait of Judge Dredd, riding his intimidating Lawmaker into the scene of the crime. Drawing the portrait brought back so many fond memories of reading 2000 AD and reveling in the magic of comics, science fiction and sardonic ultraviolence. I will see DREDD again, and so should you. Support great cinema and great cinema will in turn support you via the empowerment of talented storytellers. Spread the word and don’t let DREDD die!