Forget the debate as to whether 2012 marked the end of movies or not: on a personal front it was the absolute worst year in memory for getting out to see anything in the theater. Watching at home wasn't much better - I've been trying to really think about why I'm deciding to watch something, and "because it's new and you should review it" is no longer something I have any interest in. One major theme I want to explore in Stranded Below Nirvana is why I'm consuming the media I am. If we're made up of our experiences, and the vast amount of what we experience (at least in my case, something I want to change) is passively consumed via books, music, and especially movies, then it begs a close examination. When you go on a diet the first thing you do is take a good, hard look at what food you put in your body - why wouldn't you do the same thing with the visual stimuli you're zapping into your brain at 24 (or 48 if you happened to catch the HFR version of The Hobbit in theaters) fps?
I'm not going to say the films below were subjected to the rigorous examination I want to do in the future (nor, I suspect, will many of the things I will wind up watching in 2013, but let's cross that bridge when we come to it), nor should they in any way be taken as the best 2012 had to offer - I've seen far too few movies to have any authority on that. Instead, please think of these selections as examples of things that left their mark on me long after the screen went black. In alphabetical order:
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Benh Zeitlin's polarizing debut film is a gorgeous slice of magical realism that presents the Louisiana Bayou community known as "The Bathtub" through the eyes of six year old Hushpuppy. Constructing her own mythology in between the damage of the storms and the violent striving of her drunk and angry father, Wink, as he tries to build a life for the two of them in the Bathtub, Zeitlin accentuates every moment with a sledgehammer of bright visuals, sweeping music, and powerhouse acting by the two unknown actors (Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry as Hushpuppy and Wink). Beasts may wear its heart on its sleeve, but its storytelling and visual feast was among the best of the year.
The Cabin in the Woods: Yes, Marvel's the Avengers made more money than some nations at the box office this year, but The Cabin in the Woods was the Joss Whedon movie of the year. Refusing to stoop to parody, Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard instead turn the horror genre on its head, crafting a hilarious and horrifying homage to everything that scares us, inverting each trope and cliche while reminding us that horror can be fun without being dumb.
Chronicle: In a year where you couldn't go 30 seconds without bumping into massive budget superhero spectaculars, it's easy to overlook Chronicle, unfairly lumped into the glut of "found footage" dreck arriving in the wake of the Paranormal Activity series. But for my money Chronicle was easily the superhero movie of the year, balancing coming of age drama with superpowers and epic battles. Writer Max Landis and director Josh Trank make sure to ground their characters in a very real and painful world while simultaneously amping up the spectacle to offer characters we come to believe in even as they engage in unbelievable things. "With great power comes great responsibility," Uncle Ben famously told Peter Parker (inexplicably missing in this year's Amazing Spider-man reboot) and nowhere was that message better spelled out than here.
Django Unchained: Spike Lee aside, Quentin Tarantino's "Southern" paints the horrors of slavery in bold, bloody strokes, creating a avenging angel here to correct the ills of a bastard society with a six gun in his hand. Or something like that - it's possible Tarantino thought it primarily a good setting for the type of violent genre splicing that is his specialty. That shouldn't diminish the work done here: The performances across the board are fantastic, particularly Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson as evil plantation owner Calvin Candie and his head of household Stephen. The dialog is quintessential Tarantino and the film, beautifully shot by Robert Richardson, makes full use of the physical medium of film, utilizing different grains and lenses to get to the heart of each scene. Provoking and controversial in the same way as previous film
Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino is moving into the apex of his career. The one weak spot? He needs to stop casting himself in his films...immediately.
The Grey: See that image right there? The one all the crappy marketing sold the movie on? Liam Neeson fighting a wolf with broken liquor bottles? That's NOT what this movie is, and not why you should see it. You want to see The Grey because, like
The Cabin in the Woods and Chronicle, it uses genre as a template only to rise above it. Liam Neeson is heart wrenching in this, as a grieving man searching for a reason to live and finding it in a situation that will almost certainly lead to death. Directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan, The Grey feels much of the time like a dark poem, much like the one that bookends the film itself, and less like the Iron John pablum many critics leveled at it.
Looper: I know a lot of people that can't stand time travel movies because they get all caught up in the logistics of time travel rather than the movie itself. Those people should calm down. Looper uses the time travel conceit not only as a mechanism for a great crime thriller, but as a study how our past haunts us, and how our needs can destroy us. Plus, Bruce Willis actually acts again in a movie. What's not to love?
The Master: When I left the theater I didn't get what I had just seen. I still don't think I completely got it. But over time more and more images and scenes from Paul Thomas Anderson's latest haunt me, and the characters of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) refuse to be easily categorized as surrogates for Scientology. The Master is not an easy film to watch, but perhaps more so than There Will Be Blood it is an essential one.
Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson finally makes a film that takes place in the time period all his other movies feel like they're in, and crafts his most heartfelt story about two troubled kids finding each other, and how that romance affects the adult world in surprising ways. Once again we get a Bruce Willis performance that doesn't rely on tired mugging, a fantastic soundtrack and score courtesy of Alexandre Desplat (by way of Benjamin Britten), and that home-made dollhouse aesthetic that is a trademark of all of Anderson's films.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: Over the course of one night a group of policeman, a doctor, and a pair of brothers search the Turkish countryside for the body of a man the brothers are suspected of murdering. Even with Kenan, the primary suspect's help, it's a difficult search - he admits he was drinking heavily at the time they buried the body, and in the dark much of the countryside looks the same. Not much of a plot, but the beauty in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's film lies in the way we learn about each character over the course of the night, and the beautiful way every scene is lit, and the small conversations that carry you through the story and into the lives of everyone out that night, looking for a reason as much as a body. Long and deliberate in its pacing, this is a film to savor on as large a screen as possible to take in every nuance.
Paranorman: Not enough people saw Paranorman, and that's a damn shame. Of all the films here, this one affected me the most. Lovingly crafted by the folks at Laika (who also did Coraline), Paranorman also plays with convention, taking the tried and true zombie invasion plot and turning it on its head, giving us a tender story about bullying, fear, and accepting others' differences. Plus, you know...zombies.
Special Honorable Mention to Girl Walk//All Day, the music video/movie set to the great Girl Talk record which, while not released theatrically, still provided more pure exuberant joy than should be allowed and ranks among the best visual experiences I had all year. Best of all? It's available to watch for free right here: