Monday, December 31, 2012

Big, Bold Ideas, On Small Stages And Large Ones

A scene from the fantasy-drama adventure "Cloud Atlas".  Warner Brothers


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, December 31, 2012

It was a good, impressive year at the movies, but I thought 2011 was stronger.  Still, what separated 2012 from other film years was the number of quality of films that challenged audiences -- including a number of Hollywood films -- which, refreshing in vision and ambition, engaged audiences to think more.  You could look at bigger budget films like "Cloud Atlas", "Looper", "Lincoln", "Les Misérables", and "Argo", to name just a few, and be bowled over by not only their technical and muscular prowess but also be impressed by the imagination and smarts that they possess.

Then there were a few films that had scenes that stood out for their singularity.  If audiences had hearts in their mouths for Tom Cruise's escapades on the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai for "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" last year, then how must they have felt seeing Daniel Craig and Ola Rapace dueling on a moving train in the breathtaking opening scene of "Skyfall" this year?  As for Mr. Cruise this year, one might say that singing as Stacee Jaxx in "Rock Of Ages" and stretching as "Jack Reacher" was risky business.  The latter film, poor as it was in many areas, was a guilty pleasure, even as alarm bells sounded before, during and after its debut.  (Singing proved to be disastrous for Russell Crowe in "Les Misérables" despite fronting his off-screen rock band "30 Odd Foot Of Grunts".)

And what of the wonderfully-directed dinner scene in Jennifer Westfeldt's "Friends With Kids"?  The scene, featuring Jon Hamm, Adam Scott, Kirstin Wiig, Ed Burns, Maya Rudolph, the director and others, had tension, drama, fine editing, and just happened to be in the best comedy of 2012.  "Friends With Kids" balanced romantic comedy with the biting, honest reality of being a parent and how that affects relationships with friends.  Women had a strong year behind the camera, directing excellent films like "In Darkness" (Agnieszka Holland), "Middle Of Nowhere" (Ava DuVernay), "Zero Dark Thirty" (Kathryn Bigelow) among others.

Some smaller scale films provoked discussion long after their end credits rolled.  "Bernie", "Red Hook Summer", "Compliance", "In The Family", "The Comedy" were among them -- all featured strong performances, notably Clarke Peters in "Red Hook Summer" and Ann Dowd in "Compliance", but were seen by very few.  Each of these films was topical and timely, reality-based if not inspired by true stories.  All were distinct and unfiltered.  The hugely underrated -- and in my humble opinion, misunderstood -- "Red Hook Summer" still sticks in my mind.  Who can forget the charged scenes in Spike Lee's drama?  The director's heartfelt and resplendent celebration of Red Hook, Brooklyn, accompanied by the song "Want You To Know" by Minnie Riperton & Rotary Connection?  The three-minute tracking shot with Mr. Peters as "Jesus Is The Lover Of My Soul", by The Edwin Hawkins Singers, blares?  Colorful, penetrating, even irritating at times, Mr. Lee's strong film was hard to deny.

Sometimes in 2012 directors of visions large and small had a do-for-self approach that arrived on the big screen.  Mr. Lee self-financed "Red Hook Summer" and shot it in 18 days.  (His first feature, "She's Gotta Have It", was shot in 12.)  Mr. Lee also brought "Bad 25" to the big screen as a documentary.  George Lucas fought tooth and nail to get "Red Tails" in theaters, self-financing the distribution with some $75 million of his own money.  I would have wished for a better film, but if nothing else Mr. Lucas drew attention to the long-realized fact that strong stories featuring black actors and characters still face uphill battles in Hollywood's story-challenged studio system unless they are named "Django Unchained", a monstrous, insulting disaster, a poorly-constructed three-hour train-wreck. 

Clarke Peters, memorable in "Red Hook Summer", directed by Spike Lee.  David Lee/Variance Films

Ava DuVernay, a one-woman vituoso, used her AFFRM credentials to bring the scintillating "Middle of Nowhere" to theaters, a striking, beautiful film with Lorraine Toussaint in a fine supporting role as the mother of a woman in limbo, played impressively by Emayatzy Corinealdi.  Bradford Young, the cinematographer who in 2011 lensed another great film directed by a woman (Dee Rees, "Pariah"), burnished his credentials even further with Ms. DuVernay's drama.

Nate Parker was in "Red Tails" and "Red Hook Summer", and was good in both, yet better in "Arbitrage".  Omar Sy was noteworthy in "The Intouchables", and, as much as I loathed "Django Unchained" and its characters, Samuel L. Jackson was cringe-worthy and great as Stephen, a nefarious character and Quentin Tarantino device, one I still insist serves dually as an antebellum menace and contemporary Tarantino conduit for some in the audience to comfort in their own prejudices through a character who (among others) constantly utters that ugly six-letter word, just because -- not just because of the (year 1858) times.

There was a body politic on the big screen that was clearly evident -- with films that focused on physicality and bodies, either inadvertently or purposefully, like "Django Unchained", "Compliance", "Lincoln", "The Sessions" (with remarkably good work by Helen Hunt), "The Central Park Five" (a crucial documentary that touches on legal habeas corpus issues and injustice), "The Invisible War", "Magic Mike", "The House I Live In" and "Crazy Horse", among others.  All made political statements about gender or race, or both, sometimes tastefully and other times inartfully, in service of a greater point: to corral or contain personhood, or liberate it from institutionally racist and sexist societies.

The above-mentioned films and others gave American audiences a lot to chew over, and the 2012 film year overall brought audiences back to the multiplex too, thanks to "The Avengers" and "Skyfall", among others.  Film technologies grew, with 48fps used for "The Hobbit", a poor effort by Peter Jackson.  Digital projection emerged in classic old-style theaters such as this one in San Francisco, and many other vintage cinemas in America.  Famed marquees in various parts of America closed for good this year too, making multiplexes, like Best Buys for electronics, the nearly exclusive go-to places for their movies.  Netflix, Hulu and on-demand viewing were still strong, however.

There were revivals, like the 2011 film "Margaret", which more than a few film critics (including myself) championed, that returned to the big screen this year in limited release.  Anna Paquin is great in the epic film, which Kenneth Lonergan directed back in 2005.  Mr. Lonergan's wife, J. Smith-Cameron, and Jeanne Berlin are outstanding.  For good measure Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon appear as morally conflicted teachers in and out of school.  Mark Ruffalo, portraying a similarly conflicted bus driver appears in the same film.  Mr. Ruffalo was also good in this year's megahit "The Avengers" as the best Bruce Banner ever put on the silver screen.  Jack Black was great in "Bernie", and Chris Rock did well in "2 Days In New York", Julie Delpy's funny but uneven comedic follow-up to "2 Days In Paris".

The late Tony Scott, who committed suicide in August.  Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

There are a few people who also passed away this year who we'll never forget: Whitney Houston (who featured effectively in "Sparkle"), Larry Hagman, New Yorker film critic Andrew Sarris, film critic Judith Crist, Charles Durning, Jack Klugman, Russell Means, Herbert Lom, Michael Clarke Duncan, Tony Scott, Sherman Hemsley, Lupe Ontiveros, Richard Zanuck, Nora Ephron and Andy Griffith, among others.  I can't forget Etta James, whose vocals serenaded such films as "Rain Man", and was played by Beyonce in the 2008 film "Cadillac Records".

In 2012 there was a kinder, gentler Michael Haneke film, "Amour", which sensitively chronicled old age and death so very well, and Emmanuelle Riva, France's great legend was amazing in it, as were both Jean-Louis Trintignant and Haneke alumna Isabelle Huppert.  It was difficult to top Nuri Bilge Ceylan's excellent "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia", a masterful epic film from Turkey every moviegoer should see.  The Dardennes Brothers struck gold for me with "The Kid With A Bike".  (I only wished I had seen "Holy Motors", which everyone is still buzzing about.)

There were huge disappointments: "Prometheus", "The Dark Knight Rises", "The Hobbit", "Life Of Pi", "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" and "Silver Linings Playbook" -- all films which should have been far better than they were.  From these films, Jennifer Lawrence (also of the very fine "The Hunger Games"), Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry performed very well -- the latter two first-time, non-professional, film actors (as was Ms. Corinealdi in "Middle Of Nowhere".)

Better than expected films included Oliver Stone's "Savages", Todd Solondz's "Dark Horse", Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows", Joe Carnahan's "The Grey", Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower", Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man", Whit Stillman's "Damsels In Distress" and the films "Casa De Mi Padre" and "21 Jump Street".

Underrated films included "Cosmopolis" and "John Carter" -- films that grasped the curiosity of the seemingly incurious, placed in suddenly immense circumstances that they calmly if not perfectly adjusted to.  There was also Woody Allen's colorful, funny and farcical "To Rome With Love", which I admired a great deal.

Then there are the year's worst films: "The Queen Of Versailles", "People Like Us", "For A Good Time, Call...", "The Babymakers", "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen", "The Impossible", "This Is 40", "A Little Bit Of Heaven", "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", "Django Unchained", "The Lucky One", "The Paperboy", "A Thousand Words", "Act Of Valor", "Gone", "This Means War", "W./E.", "The Woman In Black", "One For The Money", "Man On A Ledge", "Won't Back Down", "Taken 2", "Paranormal Activity 4", "Brave", "Promised Land", "Hit And Run", "Red Tails", and "Red Lights"

Which of these is the very worst?  Probably a tie between "The Queen Of Versailles", "Act Of Valor", "Gone", "This Is 40", "The Babymakers", "Red Tails", "People Like Us", "A Thousand Words" . . . you get the idea.

Happy New Year to you all.  Thanks for reading the reviews on this website.  Have a healthy prosperous new year.  May the year 2013 be an even better year on the big screen.

Jennifer Westfeldt on the set of her film "Friends With Kids", with Ed Burns Roadside Attractions

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