Best Movies of 2012

I have actually talked about a few pretty solid movies that came out this past year. While some highly anticipated movies may have failed to live up to their immense hype, fear not! for there was cinematic redemption in 2012. I think I shall bequeath to you, dear ones, my own personal Favorite Films of 2012. (I am so sorry I did not see any 2012 documentaries).

1.fly-with-the-crane 2

Rui Jun Li’s Fly With the Crane feels more like a National Geographic documentary, but it is in fact a fictional narrative. This movie throws you into rural China and makes you a fly on the wall to the events as they unfold. Retired coffin-maker Lao Ma (Xing Chun Ma) is an old man and his adult children treat him more and more like a bothersome piece of furniture. In addition the government is outlawing burials. How will Lao Ma’s soul fly with the crane if he is cremated and turned into smoke? It might be the most unglamorous movie and unromantic about death. This is a devastating, subtle, and unflinching film. I left the theater feeling uncomfortable at how disturbingly sad and real it all felt. Who was the hero? Did he win? What was won? Perhaps I rate this one highest because it left the biggest impact on me. Months later I’m still thinking about it.

2.once-upon-a-time-in-anatolia-2

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (technically made in 2011, but it’s receiving much recognition this year) was a beautiful and enigmatic Turkish police investigation movie. How many other films about boring law enforcement procedures could be this steeped in lush cinematography, subtle existentialism, and dense mustaches? It’s the sort of movie that only moves as much as it has to because it knows a keen observer will be immersed in the story. I was never certain where the plot was heading or what it what it would ultimately say in the end, but that detailed unpredictability made it interesting and every moment was pregnant with possibility. The film feels like real life, but better photographed. Color me captivated.

3.Holy-Motors-2

Possibly the most alienating movie on my list is Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Actor Denis Lavant gets into a limousine and goes from place to place donning various inexplicable disguises and acting out even more freakish and varied scenarios. It is a grotesque, bizarre, surreal, episodic, and aimlessly unpredictable movie. It is definitely not for everyone. While I’m certain there are countless interpretations I can only share my own. The man is a performer (whether or not he is a literal actor or a symbolic everyman is up to you). He only knows how to change roles and perform, even if nobody is watching. So who is he really? Who are we? Who are we pretending to be and why and when will we stop? What would we do if we stopped? What would be left?

4.monsieur-lazhar-2

There is a surplus of awkwardly manipulative educator movies. That said, Monsieur Lazhar, Philippe Falardeau’s French-Canadian drama about an Algerian refugee (Mohamed Fellag)—with a concealed past—who becomes a teacher following an unexpected suicide, sidesteps many a cliche. The characters feel real and down to earth and their pain is not overblown for cinematic effect. Emotions are treated with realism and respect. It was refreshing. It’s a humorous and telling examination of the teacher-student relationship. I daresay it is the best teacher movie since Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939).

5.moonrise-kingdom-2

Love it or hate it. For all the gripes I might have with sylized filmmaker, Wes Anderson, I can honestly say I have enjoyed most of his movies. Moonrise Kingdom might be up there with Rushmore (1998) for me. If it is a smirk at immature romances or a critical prod at supposed mature ones or a humorous juxtaposition it doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful to look at with its creative imagery and very funny in its surreal deadpanned execution. That it achieves its greater intent is just the icing on the cake.

6.chicken with plums 2

From the same mind that penned Persepolis (2007) comes another tale of humor and angst in Iran. Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Chicken With Plums is crafted into an expertly visually entertaining film. Satrapi even aids with directing alongside Vincent Paronnaud. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) stars as a musician, father, and husband who simply decides to die. The results feel like Jean-Pierre Jeunet adapting Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It manages to find a comfortable tone betwixt whimsy and anguish. It’s an innovative film that finds clever ways to express some of its more surreal elements. It’s a little film in many ways but it’s everything it needs to be.

7.Beasts of the Southern Wild - 6

Beasts of the Southern Wild is not a perfect film, but it’s one of those instances where I admire it’s audacity and ambition so much that I forgive it many of its shortcomings. Pint-sized protagonist, Quvenzhané Wallis, gives a wonderfully captivating performance as Hushpuppy in this imaginative examination of Hurricane Katrina as a mythic fable. The music and cinematography really help this film to soar as well. This movie showed me things that I have just never seen in a movie before. Watch Benh Zeitlin’s film for a taste of what else film can be. Was it this year’s Tree of Life? I don’t know about that but it does utilize the medium in some innovative ways.

8.sleepwalk with me 2

I am a fan of comedian Mike Birbiglia so natuarlly I really enjoyed his directorial debut Sleepwalk With Me. It’s a solid indy comedy that manages to feel fresh and personal rather than merely quirky and offbeat. Birbiglia essentially plays a younger version of himself (alter-ego Matt Pandamiglio), a struggling comedian with a stress-related sleeping disorder and some serious concerns regarding his potential future with his girlfriend. It’s a simple and very relateable story. My only complaint is that the comedy album and one man show it is based on is a lot funnier. But translating a series of jokes into a humorous drama film is no easy trick either. Kudos, Mike.

9.skyfall 2

James Bond was back and more satisfying this year with Skyfall. This time we get a glimpse at 007’s destructibility and his inner demons. Director Sam Mendes brings us psychologically closer to the famous spy than ever before. It’s wonderfully shot, has great brainless action, and there are many nods to past elements that made the character such a staple. It actually feels closer to the more classic, grittier British espionage thrillers of the 60’s that weren’t James Bond.

10.In Another Country 2

In Another Country hit me at just the right time. Three French women (all played by Isabelle Huppert) have small relationship-based adventures at the same bed and breakfast. I saw this film just a few months after moving to South Korea. Sang-soo Hong’s character-driven nonlinear vignettes are strange, humorous, and fascinating. Like I said, I am somewhat biased as I really appreciate the clash of western culture against Korean culture. Many of the incidents in the movie were quite familiar to me.   Its a humble and intimate movie, but it’s definitely worth a look.

What the heck? One more.

11.pirogue 2

The Pirogue was another simple but human story. As a movie about desperation at sea in a tiny, vulnerable vessel I am sure it will be upstaged by Ang Lee’s Life of Pi adaptation. Moussa Touré’s Senegalese movie follows several men as they attempt a dangerous and illegal sojourn to Europe in the hopes of finding work and a better life. Their tragic fates are shared by many unfortunate real life immigrants. For a film that takes place entirely on a boat it never gets boring. There is always energy and tension. More than just a film for Europe and Africa, this is a film for Arizona too.

And one more extra. Because you are worth it.

12.comedy 2

This last one will definitely divide people. It is not a fun movie. The ironically titled The Comedy is to hipsters what Easy Rider (1969) was to hippies. Perhaps there is more romance and mythos to hippiedom, but that’s just the point. It’s the end of an era and if this newer era of hipsterdom appears vapid and less than enthralling then its conclusion can only be merciful this time around. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’s, Tim Heidecker stars (Eric Wareheim also makes an appearance) as a pathetic and revolting aging hipster whose thinning insulation of irony is steadily revealing that there is just not much too him. Strip away the aversion to sincerity these characters have and they are totally empty. It is an occasionally funny and frequently uncomfortable movie that questions just how far can the hipster’s ironic ideology go before it burns out.

Note: I have since seen Django Unchained and Seven Psychopaths. Had I seen them earlier my list probably would have looked a little different.

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Breaking the Hobbit

We were all so stoked to love this one too, weren’t we? And I went with three people who had never read the books or seen any of the movies. Two of them didn’t even speak English.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) is a bad movie, but The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a tough act to follow. There are a few improvements over Peter Jackson’s earlier Tolkien efforts, but there’s quite a bit that seems to be huge steps backward and I’d venture to say that most of what is wrong with The Hobbit is that it is one book as three movies—and three post-Frighteners Peter Jackson length movies at that.

hobbit and gandalf

Let’s take it easy. There are a few things that work really well for The Hobbit so far. One is its levity. Some might see it as a detriment, but that it’s tonally a much lighter tale makes much of the action feel a little fresher. Unfortunately too much buoyancy can make the movie feel somewhat flippant compared to the previous films. The fact of the matter is Tolkien’s first foray into Middle-Earth was written to be a children’s story, but movie audiences are getting a reverse ordered experience…and it doesn’t exactly work that way.

The Lord of the Rings seemed to be structured as a serious story with serious stakes and a few humorous touches and some whimsical comic relief characters—but who could still suffer through terrifying ordeals. There’s a lot of seriousness and foreboding. The Hobbit is much more lighthearted with maybe one sort-of heavy character, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). There’s a dumb vendetta an albino Captain Hook orc has against Thorin, but it never comes off as anything more than a tag-on. You can tell Thorin is supposed to be our Aragorn character, but it feels forced. Even Gandalf is a lot more light this time around (which I actually like a bit better than the overly serious Gandalf the White). I like an imperfect mischievous Gandalf.

What’s Better:

Anyway, let’s just be simple about this thing. What do I think is better about The Hobbit? Well, Gandalf’s a lot more fun but I’d say it’s a tie because his function is a little different in this series than in Lord of the Rings. Yeah, Ian McKellan still rocks, but maybe not harder.

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The effects to bring Gollum to life look better for sure and he is treated just as he should be in this film: he is not an all important cog in the wheel of destiny yet. He is a chance meeting. That is what makes him so interesting. We don’t know much about him when he is first introduced. The Gollum scene is such a treat for fans of the book and fans of special effects that it might be worth seeing the whole movie just for that. Once again Andy Serkis’s performance is solid through and through.

When it comes to Bilbo (Martin Freeman) you do have to take humor into account. Bilbo is a much more relateable character than Frodo was, I think. I like Elijah Wood but he was a little hard to relate to as Frodo. He was so dour, starry eyed, and spacey that a quirky, stammering unlikely hero such as Freeman’s Bilbo is a very welcome change of pace. He feels more like how hobbits are supposed to be. Hobbit’s are supposed be simple isolationist folks who like the familiar.

I think that about covers the improvements. Bilbo’s levity, Gollum’s deranged game of riddles, and Gandalf ties with himself. That means everything else falls short of The Lord of the Rings.

What’s worse:

Character dynamics are lacking.

hobbit 1

The dwarfs are okay, but they are essentially a small army of Merry and Pippins. Thorin is too heavy and stands out to almost comic effect. He’s like Oliver Reed sweatily bellowing lines at Muppets. The rest of the dwarfs are hard to keep straight. There’s so many and all their names rhyme and many are not given more than a syllable to utter onscreen that it’s hard to see them as anything but a band of bearded buffoons. Balin (Ken Stott) stands alone as the most interesting of the dwarfs. He’s old and has seen it all, but he wears his experiences gracefully. He reminded me a little of Takashi Shimura’s character in Seven Samurai.

Then there’s the lean, beardless ‘hot’ dwarf for the ladies. It comes off as a little goofy when the rest of his company is so silly, warped, and grotesque looking.

I miss John Rhys-Davies as Gimli.

The other minor characters aren’t bad, but I feel like we need either more or less of them. Radagast the Brown is a perfect example. Played by ex-Dr. Who, Sylvester McCoy, he’s a lovable, quirky fellow but he comes out of nowhere and just sort of disappears. He’s almost too quirky. I understand he will probably return in the other two movies, but something still feels underdone. Either explain more or give me less and let my imagination fill in the blanks.

radagast

Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, Frodo, and maybe a few others are tossed into the shuffle but the energy is not the same. It feels like fan service more than story, even if they did appear in the book.

The special effects are incredible, but there’s so much of them that many of the battles feel like cartoons, which sucks out a lot of the suspense and the sense of danger you need for this sort of thing.

The conflicts are more isolated and the action is episodic. Halfway through the film it just struck me that we will just be watching these characters run away from different monsters, take a false breath, and then run again. Run-away-from-the-special-effects scenes can work if they develop character, feed the plot, or are not the whole movie. It just gets tedious after awhile and the bottomless bag of Deus ex machinas becomes ridiculous, again sucking suspense out of the excitement.

I did not see the movie in 48 fps and I hesitate to attempt it. I haven’t heard a single positive report about it yet. If it’s anything like the display TVs at Best Buy where everything looks feathery and the motion blur is gone then I’d rather not. It just looks unnatural and distractingly unreal. They say it’s more real, but it just looks weird and fake to me.

The biggest problem with The Hobbit is the three movie stretch. This story does not have the same high stakes or the same rich emotional core or the same balance of drama and comedy that The Lord of the Rings had. I think this stuff wouldn’t bother me if this movie had been made first instead. In addition, Lord of the Rings is a solidly dense set of three books, while The Hobbit is just one. Each Rings film can end on a cliffhanger and still feel satisfying and complete its own story arc. As a film told in three parts, The Hobbit feels like 1/3 of a single story arc and thus is not so satisfying as it is frustrating.

As with Jackson’s King Kong remake he has once again managed to take a simple, efficient story and stretch it and bloat it to unnaturally long durations. But I wonder whether all the added time has brought us any closer to these characters.

hobbit 3

Ultimately:

What is the verdict? The Hobbit ain’t perfect, but it’s not bad. Lord of the Rings ain’t perfect neither, but it was a whole lot closer. I was honestly entertained the whole time. I admired the spectacles. You’d have to have an army of mad geniuses to pull off half the razzle-dazzle tricks this movie goes for. The trouble is sometimes mad geniuses are misguided. Because it’s broken up the way it is it just strikes me as incomplete…because it us. Shoulda been one movie. Maybe two. There just isn’t enough material here for three.

All that being said, I liked the monsters and seeing all the cool scenery. And Bilbo is good too. It’s still Middle-Earth, but it most certainly is not the same bold and rich story we might have hoped for. It’s entertaining (if a bit repetitive), just not as substantive.