Top 10 of 2012

One of the better years for cinema in recent memory, 2012 was a year of generous quantity, and out of quite nearly 150 films determining a top ten has been more difficult than ever. I am pained at the mere thought of leaving out films such as "Like Someone in Love", "End of Watch", "Amour", "Spring Breakers", "Girl Walk / / All Day", "Your Sister's Sister", "To the Wonder", "Prometheus", "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Haywire"! In many given years these (randomly assorted) honorable mentions and others would be shoe-ins for top marks, and the fact that they've arrived alongside so much other greatness-- well, I suppose it goes without saying that this is no fault of their own as ranking by year is admittedly an arbitrary enterprise... but who am I to resist it, particularly when it's so fun and convenient?

So here we are - the 2012 Top Ten episode of Almost Arthouse has debuted on Sound on Sight and I have viewed all the accessible 2012 films I intended to (films not yet available for viewing are listed below, in descending order of my anticipation for them), so let's get to it.

10. Paradise: Love  (Ulrich Seidl)
I had just landed in Toronto and barely out of my cab I was rushing to "rush" this unexpected experience - my first film of my first major festival and, as I exclaimed to my previously internet-only colleagues upon our in-person meeting immediately afterward in that very auditorium, one hell of a film at that. Seidl's wholly unique approach to the mutual exploitation of Kenyan sex-tourism is thickly layered with themes of self-image and cultural hierarchy. The camera is content to remain set back, observing the sprawling vacation's poignant redundancies in what is practically a documentary-like fashion. All told, "Paradise: Love" accomplishes everything a great film can, on both basal and more complex levels, and I highly anticipate the opportunity to view the concurrent and succeeding installments in Seidl's trilogy, respectively. Read the full review at Sound on Sight.

9. The Master  (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Out of nearly 150 films viewed for 2012, number 9 may still feel "too low" for this masterful "Master" from the modern master himself, Paul Thomas Anderson. In terms relative to these lists I do tend to favor films I more personally connect to. Although "The Master" never holds me at arm's length as has been a wide criticism, it winds up as one I find myself respecting more than loving (which is not to say I don't love it). But enough of this silly defending of what could easily be a member of any top 5 out of mere obligation! I have been a great fan of Anderson's Altman phase, and after the nearly Kubrickian "There Will Be Blood" shocked me due in equal parts to its stylistic departure and just how stalwartly solid it is, "The Master" has won me over and then some with similar qualities. Next to "Hard Eight" it is perhaps Anderson's most original work, and next to "Magnolia" perhaps his most bold (which is saying something, considering "Boogie Nights").

8. This Is 40  (Judd Apatow)
Like others to come on this list, "This Is 40" strikes an ideal balance between entertaining mainstream sensibilities and winningly raw honesty - a film that is equal parts fun and rewarding. It is also the first example herein of my aforementioned preference for "personal connection" films (read on and you'll see just how prevalent that preference made itself this year). Sam Mendes' "Away We Go" came out at a time when my pregnant girlfriend and I were on the heels of a cross-country road trip in search of a place to establish our new family together, and about four years later "This Is 40" feels just as relevant an echo of our lives now as that did then. Watching characters we already loved and constantly quote from the otherwise middling "Knocked Up" ("Go to India!") experience such familiar issues from the wrappings of a Judd Apatow film makes for wonderful healing. Listen to the Almost Arthouse episode at Sound on Sight.

7. Promised Land  (Gus Van Sant)
It's old news by now that Gus Van Sant seems to embody two opposite sensibilities throughout his filmography. There's "Elephant", "Last Days", "Paranoid Park" Van Sant, and there's "Good Will Hunting", "Finding Forrester", "Milk" Van Sant. It may also sound strange that after such a prolific career of soaring ups and cringe-worthy downs and even the recent awards success "Milk" enjoyed ("The Wrestler" deserved that attention, damnit!), I was beginning to view Van Sant as irrelevant. Honestly, I would not have even given the apparently drab and preachy "Promised Land" a chance were it not a potential candidate for review on the podcast I co-host. The film does fall more on the "Good Will Hunting" side of things, but with consistently beautiful and narratively subtle cinematography that embraces pastels and an excellent script from Damon and Krasinski that mixes in rewarding motifs while challenging us with refreshingly blurred lines between antagonists and protagonists, it winds up as likely my biggest surprise of 2012, and certainly one of my favorites to discuss after the fact. Without running on too much longer, I would encourage anyone to give "Promised Land" a go, as what we have here is a character-driven journey of morals and humanity built in to a fairly presented hot political topic as opposed to a celebrity platform that condemns one viewpoint or the other.

64:44 Last Day on Earth  (Abel Ferrara)
Perhaps due to widespread 2012 doomsaying, alternate, mainly insular approaches to apocalypse films have been in vogue of late. The inherently potent subject matter can be housed within audacious ingeniousness or even elevate relative lesser offerings, with Lars von Trier's allegorical "Melancholia" making my top list last year and this year's nearly insufferable "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" glimmering with unearned gravitas in its third act. Ferrara's masterstroke here covers ideas found in the latter but with the ingenuity of the former, making for a thoroughly compelling examination of where humanity has come through the lens of one couple spending the majority of their final day in their apartment. The most interesting aspect here - beyond the fully realized concepts of sentimentality and stubbornness while knowing one's quickly impending expiration date - is that even from within an isolated two-person apartment the entire world can be watched. International and domestic video of both worldly and personal nature - some not necessarily related to the end - is syndicated or streamed live on many screens. Many films on this list forego screenwriting convenience to embrace the contemporary ubiquitousness of iPads, Skype, etcetera, but none more than "4:44". On top of it all, a fascinating idea to consider is that the scariest part of this apocalypse film is not when the world actually ends, but when the internet cuts off.

5. Passion  (Brain De Palma)
What was positioned as my final film at TIFF (before impulsively deciding to seize the moment when an "Aftershock" ticket was hawked in my direction on the way home) wound up being one of the highest points of my festival experience. I have seen a fair handful of De Palma work, but prior to priming myself for "Passion" (which I booked solely due to having no better option, timing-wise) with "Blow Out", I had apparently been watching all the wrong titles (which, to further abuse the parenthetical as I am so prone to do, is not to say what I had seen is necessarily bad, I.E. "The Untouchables" or "Mission to Mars"). I am now of the mind that De Palma is the American Argento, the difference being that De Palma hasn't lost his steam. In fact, the deliciously pulpy "Passion" is far and away the best of his filmography I've enjoyed thus far. Being present to sing "Happy Birthday" to the director with the help of Rachel McAdams and subsequently being able to ask him a question about his characters' frequent subversion of modern communications technology were cherries on a sexy, thrilling ride that giddily never lets you know which was is up. It's like being thrown in to a perpetual tumble through exquisitely shot images. Between this, "Prometheus" and the music video for the Rolling Stones' "Doom & Gloom", Noomi Rapace is my woman of the year. Read the full review at Sound on Sight.

4. Thanks for Sharing  (Stuart Blumberg)
Months separated from my viewing of Stuart Blumberg's winning directorial debut and little word has arisen regarding its deserved wider release (so little that I can't conjure so much as a satisfactory screenshot, hence the male cast photo). Without being able to revisit such an impactful film, over time it does become difficult to distinctly recall the power of its effect - that strong connection that overcomes what is otherwise a fairly generic picture at face value. Don't get me wrong - I take no issue with successful writer Blumberg's reliance on script over presentation, and there is actually nothing wrong with his impressively apt work behind the camera, not at all, but the key reasons I care for this picture the way I do are its definitively strong characters and their power to change audience members' lives. Sound cliché? Well, this may be touted as a "Shame"-lite examination of sex addiction (sounds good enough to me - when I finally saw it after having already published my 2011 top ten, "Shame" shot up to being my #2 of that year) but its probing themes are universal. The film caused me to look at myself with a humility I had previously been afraid to breach, and as a result I began to successfully fight a nearly decade-long obsession with a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Thinking of "Thanks for Sharing" inspires me, and aids my will to keep fighting. More than any yet-distributed festival film, I cannot wait to revisit this. It surely sounds as though I'm not sure it should be ranked this highly, but really due to circumstance I sort of feel bad I'm not ranking it higher. Read the full review at Sound on Sight.

3. Brave  (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman)
More sentimentality! Well, this may be better prefaced with the note that I am not generally a Pixar fan. Yeah, the first "Toy Story" is fine, well and good, and "Monsters, Inc." occupies a special place, but beyond that I have not been won over... until "Brave", that is. "Brave" would be a practically perfect movie if not for its occasional reliance on cheap laughs housed in the characters of the hit-or-miss triplets and Maudie, their maid. Beyond those minor nitpicks, I am utterly in love with this upending of the princess stereotype from its consumate visuals to its intricately layered story that brings both sides of a parent/child issue in to balance while bringing peace to a kingdom. Furthermore, here finally is a family film that respects children. The pathetic pandering to youth in all forms of media has become grotesque, and how reassuring it is to find a film that actually challenges kids, and isn't afraid to frighten them now and again. This was the first real "movie night" for my now three-year-old daughter. I mean, she'd watched movies before and done alright, but this was the first "Okay, we're turning off the lights and this is what we're doing for 90 minutes without breaking for toddler nonsense." Not only did she uphold excellent behavior throughout, she was invested in the film and didn't quit talking about the protagonist for weeks. The free spirit Merida, unburdened by a defining longing for love - talk about a role model! I still haven't made it through the "Touch the Sky" sequence (pictured) with dry eyes.

2. Red Hook Summer  (Spike Lee)
Though there were a few anomalous successes worth getting excited about in this context (such as "Think Like a Man" topping the box office two weeks in a row), in 2012 the quashing of non-white cinema came that much more to the forefront. "Red Hook Summer" is one of several results of studios saying "no" - if the triumphantly defiant Spike Lee could not make his "Inside Man" sequel even though crossover box office sensation Denzel Washington had reportedly agreed to star, he would take his own money and get back to basics in Brooklyn. Poisonous reviews out of Sundance had me all the more fired up to see what "Red Hook" had become, and boy was the wait worth it. In fact, I couldn't stop watching the infectious "Red Hook Summer" for about two weeks (after renting via VOD it was mercifully added to Netflix Instant). Featured here is a new energy for Lee's familiar formatting - another chapter of community development as only Lee can do it, this time with an angelically persistent soundtrack from Judith Hill. This is Spike off the leash (as if he's ever really been on one), and through Bishop Enoch (vigorously realized by Clarke Peters) the one-of-a-kind auteur has developed a platform that allows him to preach his mind while focusing on the character development at hand. One may find "Red Hook" to hurl Christianity in their face on a surface level, but more than anything it is truly about the characters behind the words and how their faith (or lack thereof) helps or hinders, confines or redeems them. A beautiful, beautiful film with power in all the right places - good on you, Spike.

1. Killer Joe  (William Friedkin)
I've been told I gravitate toward movies that leave you scratching your head when the credits hit, and if that is true "Killer Joe" takes the cake (or the fried chicken, as it were). I don't know what to do with myself when "Joe" ends - I just sit there cackling to myself like a madman. That's just one of so, so many compliments I could open a capsule sum-uppance of Friedkin's latest film with. With a story this insane, captured with some of the year's best cinematography, the superb performances across the board are just bonuses - and considering Juno Temple's Dottie, Gina Gershon's Sharla, Thomas Haden Church's Ansel and Matthew McConaughey's Joe (one of a generous number of excellent recent performances from the man), what a bonus they are! Friedkin here is wholly plunged in to the nature of these characters that the film reeks of deep Texas - every moment is thick with this mentality and the darkly interwoven comedy comes naturally as a result, large credit to Tracy Letts' source play as well, I'm sure. There are few cinematic experiences that can rival what this one accomplishes. Even amongst so many worthy 2012 achievements, "Killer Joe" deftly rises to the top.

Not yet available for my consideration
The Fifth Season (Peter Brosens)
Welcome to Pine Hill (Keith Miller)
Paradise: Faith (Ulrich Seidl)
Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)
LUV (Sheldon Candis)
Mud (Jeff Nichols)
Filly Brown (Youssef Delara, Michael D. Olmos)
Middle of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay)

Complete 2012 list on Letterboxd (rankings subject to change).


EDITORIAL: Django Chained: Tarantino and the American Slave

Considering ethics alone, I find myself compelled to place "Django Unchained" toward the bottom of the 2012 stack (in the cold company of "John Carter", "Mirror Mirror" and "2016: Obama’s America"), and certainly that of Tarantino’s career thus far, even if that may sound like a hyperbolic stretch based on the fact that the lowbrow material’s sole aim is to but entertain. Therein, however, does lie one major issue, in that more than 2.5 hours of being bombarded with graphic brutality against the enslaved does not entertainment make. Okay, there is more to "Django" than just that but the barrage of visceral cruelty against those who were then considered 1/3rd of a person is so persistent that it demands to be addressed, and this introduces the more important issue: "Django Unchained" is ultimately not concerned with slavery despite its gratuitous focus on as much.

This is a revenge picture and nothing more – which would be perfectly acceptable; not every movie with slavery in it needs to be "Amistad" or "Roots", or even "Lincoln" for that matter – but at nearly every turn "Django" puts itself in a position where it becomes its obligation – nay, its responsibility – to address the viciously inhumane setting its characters are weaving through and in certain cases enforcing. It is calling out for our hero to become Tarantino’s Nat Turner, though stubbornly it can’t be budged beyond its selfish aim. This is an overt social disrespect that makes fools of we the audience and a fool of its otherwise impressive filmmaker.

Read the full editorial at Sound on Sight.