2012: The Year in Rearview

Well that flew by. Another year is now in the books, and by extension, another year of film is as well (funny how that works). As I look back on the cinema of 2012, a few things hit me right away. First, the independent arena didn’t really offer the stunning gems that it frequently does. As Brennan said, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is wonderfully clever and charming, but it doesn’t stick in my mind the way that others do. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has been wildly acclaimed for its vivid performances and shoestring-budgeted production design, but I don’t feel that the entirety of praise is deserved. I admire the film’s scrappy energy and its command of evocative mood, but it didn’t fully come together for me. “Your Sister’s Sister” could have been a masterpiece—and two-thirds of it promise to be—but it starts spinning its wheels in nearly irremediable ways. Usually every year doles out a low-budget indie drama that knocks me over with its impact (hello, “Blue Valentine”), but I can’t say that for 2012. The second thing that jumps out at me about 2012 is that all of the prestige titles really delivered. Every year, you hear about over-hyped, critically adorned Oscar ponies that turn out to be deflating when they finally wind up in theaters near you. But this year, everything that was raved about truly earned the raves. So the autumnal studio fare overpowered the indie landscape in 2012. Finally, what characterized this past year for me was a more than typical drought before the fall players arrived. This is nothing new, of course—every year features way more quality post September than it does pre—but aside from two summer juggernauts (“The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises”), 2012 offered little of note before the air started getting chilly. With that in mind, I will give my take on the cinematic highlights of the past year. I toyed with the idea of doing a Top 10, but aside from the fact that I haven’t seen everything—”Zero Dark Thirty” will likely be on there—I opted not to because year’s end is typically too early to really start ranking favorites. Some films require a second viewing to show that there was more substance to its surface; some films require a second viewing to show that there was less. It takes time for some films to truly sink in, while others wow you right away and emerge as mere afterthoughts months later. I can’t say which of these titles will become closest friends with my DVD player in the years to come (or closest with my mind, if any), but I can say that these movies are well worth noting if you’re going to review 2012 in film.

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The Master: Say what you will about writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s juicily divisive sixth feature film—and say plenty of it, please—but here’s one thing you can’t deny: it’s impossible to forget. It’s been four months since I’ve seen it and I can recall more of it than I can films that I saw a month ago. Does that automatically make it a masterpiece? No. But there’s something to say for a film that grabs you and won’t let go. I agree with many of the criticisms out there—its shapeless second half, its staunch elusiveness, etc.—but I also agree with the majority of the praise. The cinematography is transfixing; the atmosphere is inscrutably haunting; and the central performances (particularly in tandem) make the accolade “Acting at its finest” seem more descriptive than hyperbolic. If I’m honest, I still don’t really know what I think about “The Master,” but I know that I want to think more about it.

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Looper: The third time was most certainly the charm for writer/director Rian Johnson. He finally blended familiar genre tropes and singularly voiced originality into a fully satisfying concoction. You kind of have it all here: a plot that recalls film-noir as much as it does science-fiction classics, archetypes that surprise you with depth, dialogue that carries some emotion behind the wit, existential struggles that feel only appropriately Hollywood-ized, and a montage that deserves consideration as an all-time great. It’s pulpy storytelling writ resonant, and Johnson shows he could pull it off all along.

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The Dark Knight Rises: Talk about divisive. Some critics had the knives ready for this one, but audiences didn’t much care. They knew that Christopher Nolan would give them what they’d come to expect: heightened romanticism, pseudo-gritty realism, indelible characters, comic one-liners, big set pieces, brooding contemplation, and continually escalating stakes. If it’s not your thing, fine, but “Rises” is much more in line with “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” than detractors would have you believe. While not without flaws (an oddly paced first act, a contrived character motivation, etc.), “The Dark Knight Rises” is far from a misfire. It’s big, fun entertainment that floors the pedal halfway through and doesn’t let up. And most importantly, perhaps, it ends Nolan’s trilogy in a way that feels suitably romantic and unsurprisingly, well, Nolan-esque.

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Argo: Ben Affleck, one of our most inconsistent actors, has become one of our most reliable directors. This is masterful storytelling, plain and simple. There’s an effortless efficiency at work here that is downright jaw-dropping. The actors are in top form; the camera work is fluid and unimposing; the dialogue is bitingly witty; and the editing is absolutely to-the-bone, finding a place of tension that few films can manage. Some have jumped all over it for narrative embellishments (creative license)/historical inaccuracies and thematic thinness, but who declared it a crime to tell an important sociopolitical story in an entertaining fashion? From where I’m sitting, the theme might be simple but nevertheless potent: “Argo” is about courage and collaboration, and it strikes effectively emotional chords while remaining an entirely easy film to watch.

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Skyfall: 007 is back, and in the seemingly unlikely but unquestionably capable hands of Sam Mendes, it feels like Christmas. At once a throwback to the classics and an entry into the recently developed sub-genre of big-budget films that feature an existentially struggling hero and a tone that shifts between romantic levity and gritty realism (I wonder—did Mendes feel obligated to give Christopher Nolan a cut of his paycheck?), “Skyfall” does everything you want a Bond film to do and more. It’s modern but refined, revisionist but familiar, narratively divergent but atmospherically aligned. It plays with the archetypes but never acts like it’s not a Bond film. And it builds to a climax that represents one of the best sequences the franchise has ever given us. Mendes proved himself to be an ideal dance partner for the world of 007, and filmgoers—Bond fans or otherwise—are all the happier for it.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: It’s been a long time since we’ve journeyed to Middle Earth, but ushered back there by “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson, it feels like we never left. Seeing someplace like Rivendell is like seeing an old home, and seeing someone like Galadriel is like seeing an old friend. But “The Hobbit” succeeds on more than nostalgic grounds. It expertly adapts scenes from the book and imbues them with indelible characterization. Ultimately, this is a thrilling adventure story about enormous strength and courage found in the unlikeliest of persons.

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Lincoln: With its honey-soaked visuals, remarkable monologues, and towering central performance, “Lincoln” seems at first swipe to be something we don’t encounter often: an instant classic. It is “capital H” history without the stiltedness and behind-closed-doors politicking without modernist wheel-spinning. Tony Kushner’s extensively researched, astonishingly erudite screenplay is par for the playwright’s course, but Spielberg’s warm direction balances out Kushner’s high-minded dialogue and keeps the proceedings from being too talking-heads cerebral. This improbable pairing between a writer famous for verbosity and a director famous for imagery makes for something quite special.

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Les Misérables: Tom Hooper had his work cut out for him: a beloved musical, live singing on set, showstoppers portrayed largely in close-up, etc. And for the most part, he succeeds. The second half feels a bit uneven, but this film’s pros far outweigh its cons, no doubt due to its formidable cast, all of whom bring ample technical skill and hit raw emotional nerves of nearly terrifying intensity. “I Dreamed a Dream” might be the best thing in it, but that does not mean the rest should be discarded.

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Silver Linings Playbook: This one gets off to a wobbly start, as its quirky indie-ish rhythms and incongruous drama-comedy tonal shifts fail to mesh in sustaining ways. But then, something happens (for some viewers, that is), and from then on, you can’t really describe the ride that you’re on; you just like being on it. That “something” has a great deal to do with the arrival of a someone, Jennifer Lawrence, who steals every second she’s on screen and shares palpable chemistry with a similarly fantastic Bradley Cooper. She takes this fairly standard romantic-comedy-of-sorts to a new level, but so does writer/director David O. Russell, who—as he did with “The Fighter”—mines familiar narrative territory for gems in the form of intensely specified family tension and atmospheric locale. On paper, I wouldn’t really like “Silver Linings Playbook,” but in execution, I kind of love it.

django-unchained-leonardo-dicaprio  Django Unchained: Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to make a movie that I can only halfway describe. It’s a nineteenth-century western (or “southern,” according to QT), but it features deeply anachronistic songs, like one by rapper Rick Ross. It doesn’t shy from realistic portraits of the brutality of slavery, but nor does it shy from the kinds of cartoony, over-the-top anime-esque bursts of violence that “Kill Bill” was founded on. It doesn’t decry our nation’s great sin with a “capital H” historical hammer, but it somehow never trivializes the severity of the issue. While some filmmakers attempt to speak truth to power, Tarantino speaks cool to it, and, well, that works too. Calling on blaxploitation cues, the wild director of “Pulp Fiction” takes a slave and turns him into an action hero (a western hero, in essence), empowering the black man with a bit of revisionist history and simultaneously communicating with ongoing social roles as well as portrayals in other movies. But this isn’t homework, by any means; it’s a rocking and rolling good time. If I hadn’t been a fan of Tarantino for many years, I’d be inclined to say I’m shocked that he pulled this off.

So there you have it: some of my favorite films of the year. What did you all respond to in 2012?

-Rob

Welcome, 2013!

Sorry for the absence guys, but we’re back online and back to life! I realize we missed quite a few big things in December and early January but hopefully we’ll get a chance to catch up.

What things you may ask?

Hobbit
Les Mis
Django
Red Ray Player
Red 4k Distribution
Red Dragon
World Didn’t End

You know, minor things :) We’ll be back with all that shortly. Thanks for sticking with us!

Brennan

Safety Not Garaunteed: Plainly Enthralling

When I popped in, “Safety Not Guaranteed,” my perspective on the film was just a bit tainted as I have grown weary of the “quirky, indie comedy/drama.” They seem to be boiling over the Anti-Hollywood crockpot and they have begun to feel as widespread and annoying as Instagram and Hipsterism. I feel like everyone is getting a camera, picking a filter and shooting whatever suits their weird sense of humor and then calling it indie film (which, strictly speaking, it is, but only in the way that Instagram is considered creative photography)

However, it didn’t take long for the honest and unpretentious tone of this film to resonate so deeply with me that I came out calling it, “One of the Best Films I’ve Seen This Year,” and, really, one of the best indie movies I’ve seen since I’ve watched indie movies.

What saves Safety Not Guaranteed from the pretentious monotony or presumptuous quirk is that it never feels like its trying to be different, it just succeeds at being so.

Part of this is due to some impressive acting on all counts.  But it is also the interweaving of these characters and their subplots that is so sparingly yet evenly paced that you can’t kill your never ending curiosity to want see them all resolve

The conclusion is so very smile-inducing that anyone who doesn’t at least smirk by the end of the film should probably just go ahead and be honest with themselves that they are in fact the snob they always feared becoming.

5/5 for Safety Not Guaranteed

One of the best 2012 offered

Brennan

The Most Exciting Camera since The Scarlet

Cameras and blog posts about cameras have been on an exponential rise for the last 2 years Red, Arri, Sony, Canon, Nikon, Blackmagic, Panasonic, and JVC all introduced or made very innovative changes to their current camera catalogue. Blackmagic cam out as the underdog toppling the champs by introducing their cinema camera that challenges the big 3 (Red, Arri, and Canon) at a much lower price point ($3k) and with very cool, pro features.

The trend was to pack the biggest punch into the smallest pack possible (thank you Apple). Red with Epic and Scarlet, Arri with the new modular Alexa model, Canon with the compact-handheld redesign of the Panasonic and Sony DV and P2 cams of old (old being 5 or 6 years ago here), and of course Blackmagic with its pivot from the Red model of design taking the squared prism to a more wide, monitor-like form factor with the look and touchscreen design of Apple.

With all of these innovations, true originality was becoming something of an old-wives tail. No one complained though as the camera makers were packing in some serious stuff for very reasonable costs in mostly pleasant form factors. But Aaton, who had been working a bit under the radar over those two years, were cooking up something truly, disruptively unique in their once film-camera-only world.

I could run about all the rich histories Aaton played a part in but I will let you peruse the great google if you want to truly know (it is, indeed, a great story). But instead I’ll introduce you to the latest Cinema Camera revolution since the Red Scarlet: the Aaton Penelope Delta.

I had known about this camera for sometime after perusing the reduser forums over the last several years, but it has made some serious progress since then and the features and design are amazing. If you want to check out a full breakdown, head on over to No Film School!

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What Did Argo Mean to Me?

What did Argo mean to me? 1 thing, to be perfectly frank: I’m a coward.

The film was so well crafted that I really only had time to react in the moment. I felt every decision, consequence and dire circumstance the characters did. Normally I’m analyzing, digesting, really thinkgin on what I’m seeing. Not so with Argo.

I’ll give a you a very compact review

1. This is arguably Ben Affleck’s best film (out of 3 very very very good films)

2. The editing is precise and the storytelling is surely swift.

3. The casting is brilliant and the acting is superb

4. The story is unbelieveable

5. The unbelievable part is, the story is true

What I walked away from Argo thinking was that the actions and decisions of this group of people was so antithetical to people in general. I would say that people tend to be more courageous in groups but what we see here is the bravery of individuals who go for the best of many bad scenarios.

What a scorn to me and my cowardly way of throwing my hands up when a difficult situation doesn’t have an easy answer.

As a believer I felt a conviction that people who, for all I knew, had no spiritual awareness or at least no spiritual conviction were able to risk their lives for each other. Could I do that?….Can I do that?

If anything this film has taken me from a place of apathy where I wait for the spiritual fighto to come to me while I border myself up in some sort of spiritual “embassy.”

Wake up! ( I say to myself)

The situation is not good but your God is, and He gave you a good and clear answer to your issue; stop pretending you have anything to lose and start living like you have everything to gain: eternity with Jesus

Brennan

Looper: Now in theaters

I urge you all to go see “Looper,” which opened on Friday. Since I’m hesitant to talk about specifics, this post stands as nothing more than a recommendation to see a great movie. I’ll be writing another post about it which will delve into spoilers and plot points, but for those who want to go in with a blank slate (which I strongly suggest), I’ll write-up my initial reactions. First, the acting is terrific. Joseph Gordon-Levitt mimics Bruce Willis (with some help from makeup) to an alarming degree and brings heart and believability to a character we’ve more or less seen before. Emily Blunt does something very different here but no less effective. The occasionally austere British actress gets to dive into broad character strokes, only to breathe new life into them much like Gordon-Levitt does. The young Pierce Gagnon has astonishing presence. Jeff Daniels has a blast in a small role. And Bruce Willis does what we might expect, but he’s good nonetheless. The acting, however, is only one of the treasures that “Looper” offers. Every once in a while, the rare film comes along that works as both genre and revisionism, as both what it’s doing and a commentary on what it’s doing. “Looper” is such a film, as it fulfills certain familiar tropes and overturns others. It trades in genre tenets before reversing your expectations and emerging as all the more satisfying as a result. I was amazed by how “Looper” appeared to be its first 45 minutes—a smart, fast-paced, gimmicky science-fiction yarn—and eventually becomes something bigger, deeper, and more emotionally resonant. It keeps you interested throughout as it drops new information on you at every turn. And it’s constantly morphing itself into another kind of movie, which could have felt disjointed but feels appropriate and substantive.

For me, “Looper” kind of has it all. Gritty neo-noir. Pulpy dialogue. Heady time-travel science-fiction. Bloody action. Archetypes that eventually become great characters. A surprising amount of depth. A great blend of quiet contemplation, writerly banter, and showy set pieces. A believable existential struggle. Some romance. Some comedy. And even a bit of western thrown in there. I was stunned by how absorbed I was, how much I cared about what was going on and the emotion that it carried. It sets up a futuristic world without too much exposition. It deals with the paradox of time travel while recognizing it as a paradox. It contains expansive character work, especially since you’re seeing the same person at two different stages in life. And it has one of the best montages I’ve seen in a long time. Obviously, I really loved this movie and can’t wait to see it again. In a year that already includes “The Master” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” is it heretical to say that “Looper” might be my favorite so far? Check it out and tell us what you think.

-Rob

Themes of Paul Thomas Anderson

Now that “The Master” is out, it’s time to examine thematic trajectories in Paul Thomas Anderson’s output. Critics have been doing this since the Venice Film Festival, and it’s given me a whole new admiration for Anderson. Since his films are so different from a perspective of style and story, I have been missing many of the themes which now appear to be obvious. The writer/director is a true auteur in the sense that he continually returns to his pet fixations, of which there are many. “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” of course, do not look favorably on religion, as the former equates it with capitalistic greed and the latter does so with deceptive, hollow mysticism. But I plan to focus on what is sort of an amalgam of different themes, which gets to the heart of PTA cinema and represents (I think) why I respond so immediately to this director. In reviews of “The Master,” many critics have described a particular brand of relationship that repeatedly appears in Anderson’s films. Guy Lodge puts it this way: “For his part, the feckless, psychologically stunted Quell never seems as invested in Dodd’s philosophies as he does in Dodd himself: like ‘Boogie Nights,’ ‘Magnolia’ and ‘There Will Be Blood,’ ‘The Master’ powerfully delineates the influence, for better and worse, that men can wield over boys.” Scott Tobias defines it a little more concretely: “The Master extends a tradition of Anderson films about fathers and sons, whether of the real or surrogate variety: Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in Hard Eight, Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood.” This father-son/influencing-influenced dynamic opens up a lot of doors. Reilly’s John becomes fascinated with Hall’s Sydney in “Hard Eight.” He admires him, and he eventually grows to love him. Wahlberg’s Eddie does the same with Reynolds’ Jack in “Boogie Nights,” and Phoenix’s Freddie does the same with Hoffman’s Dodd in “The Master.” This observation, however, is just a starting point for me.

My interest is not that these boys become enthralled by men but why they do. It’s because they have nothing and no one. They have often been rejected and damaged by their parents. They are loners. It’s here where I begin to see why Anderson adheres to me so diligently. He combines bleak, 1970s-era American loner cinema (Taxi Driver, The Conversation, Five Easy Pieces, etc.) with the hopeful grace notes of Woody Allen cinema. Films like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” portray relationships (and particularly their outcomes) realistically but not really negatively. They contend that coupling is a good, healthy thing. Just don’t pretend it can never go sour, and don’t expect it to completely save your life and rescue you from yourself. The characters in Anderson’s films are hurting. They have been hurt by those who claim to love them. Some, meanwhile, and hurting those they claim to love. Generally, the biological father-son dynamic is portrayed scathingly. Earl Partridge abandoned his family years before the events in “Magnolia” take place, and Rick Spector pressures his son Stanley to a repulsive degree. Sometimes the surrogate variety is a favorable alternative (like in “Hard Eight”), but sometimes it’s just as terrible. Day-Lewis’ Plainview, for example, coldheartedly abandons his “child” in “There Will Be Blood.” It’s interesting to note comparisons and contrasts between Frank’s return to Earl in “Magnolia” and HW’s return to Plainview in “Blood.” Sometimes the “son” disappoints the “father” (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights). Sometimes the father disappoints the son (Blood). Sometimes they both disappoint each other (The Master). Sometimes the relationships are restored, and sometimes they’re damaged beyond repair. But Anderson cinema is not just about fathers and sons in various forms. It is about the wider, universal dynamics of being alone vs. being coupled, of rejecting love vs. accepting it, of self-destruction vs. redemption.

Guy Lodge is right when he says that “The Master” is more a romance than a father-son story, but then, in their own ways, so are all of Anderson’s father-son movies. The pattern of enthrallment, love, disappointment, and restoration/destruction repeats itself in so many permutations. This idea of loners latching onto someone is not confined to boys and men. It extends to Jim and Claudia in “Magnolia,” and, of course, Barry and Lena in “Punch-Drunk Love,” the director’s only overt romance. This is where I see that I respond to Anderson because he uniquely deals with the human condition. I interpret his output’s thematic amalgam as something like this: Left to our own devices, we will destroy those around us, make of ourselves an island, and ultimately destroy ourselves. But if we are willing to step outside of ourselves, to love and be loved, we can be redeemed. Put more succinctly, we will naturally be Daniel Plainview, but if we open ourselves to the world, we can be Barry Egan. The problem with this is that we can’t put all of our faith in people, because, well, they’re people. But I still love Anderson’s ultimately hopeful perspective, which even the bleakness of “Blood” and “The Master” can’t diminish (he’s going after different targets there). Left to our natural desires, we will be Freddie Quell. We will isolate ourselves and pursue addictions, like Claudia (who really is where the soul of “Magnolia” can be found). We will think we are better than everyone and beyond reproach, like Eddie Adams. We will smash up bathrooms and break windows when we don’t know what to do with our anger, like Barry Egan. We will be consumed by greed, vices, pride, and hatred until we abandon those who love us and run from all possibilities to love. Thankfully, we don’t have to be this person. It’s just the person toward which we will naturally gravitate. A professor of mine once said that “Magnolia” is two hours of hell and one hour of heaven. And I agree that there’s something powerfully, almost spiritually redemptive about the movie. But the key question is whether hopeful, loving coupling can ultimately suppress our self-destructive, immoral, base impulses. The movie ends but our lives continue. And the truth is that Anderson’s humanistic answer to life’s pain only temporarily saves us from ourselves (or seems to). The Daniel Plainviews and Freddie Quells are still lurking within us, just waiting for the right time to unleash themselves and wreak havoc once more.

I remember immediately responding to “Magnolia” so intensely, but I didn’t understand why. And I’ve since become a devotee of Paul Thomas Anderson, even if I still don’t completely understand why. But now I’m closer to doing so. Something about Anderson’s thought processes line up with mine. Something about his stylistic sensibilities line up with mine. Something about his thematic fixations line up with mine. More significantly, though, I feel that his worldview mirrors mine to a degree. We both recognize how terrible the world can be and how terrible we as people can be. We both also recognize that the world and people can be different than this, can be better. There is a hope at the end of Anderson cinema that I respond to. But again, humans are too frail of creatures to handle the weight of our faith. They might hold out for a while, but they will eventually buckle beneath it. We need something greater, something supernatural and superhuman. Anderson’s latest treatises against religion rightfully point out flaws within it and potential dangers of it. But until we move beyond criticizing “religion” to acknowledging a God greater than ourselves, then we will continue to grasp at straws, like all of Anderson’s hurting, searching characters.

-Rob

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