Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 in Review: My top 11 of the year

I swear I started trimming my 2012 top 10 list weeks before the year ended. I just kept failing to narrow it down to a neat but meager 10, and the list didn’t take shape until days after the new year dawned. Anyway, long story short, this time I decided to go with 11 features. 

A confession to make—a trivial one, really—before we go down the list: whenever I work out a year-end review, it’s such a tempting idea to devise some sort of coherent narrative encompassing all listed items, even though they are as disparate as my top 11. Truth be told, I tried hard to do just that, but soon jettisoned the idea. On second thought, it’s ludicrous to somehow lump together, say, a story about a self-absorbed adolescent whose involvement in a tragic bus accident forces her out into the real world and a story about a couple whose divorce battle serves as a jumping-off point for reflecting on the class-divided Iranian society. It’d seem equally asinine to cram in the same bracket a story about a cult leader and his protégé’s relationship set in postwar America, a story about arguably the most respected U.S. president and his dedication to the passage of an amendment that abolished slavery, and a story about a funeral director whose destructive relationship with a rich but extremely unlikable widow, only because they are all intrinsically American stories.

So I’ll just run down the list of my top 11 of 2012, one by one, in ascending order: 

11. Wuthering Heights

Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of the Emily Brontë classic is replete with deliberately unrefined emotions. Though the 4:3 aspect ratio at first seems an inexpedient choice to capture the bleak, wide open spaces surrounding the titular house, it turns out to be an effective approach to infusing a claustrophobic and desolate feel into the interior of the shambles. Instead of offering a clear-cut, logical depiction of ill-fated love between the unruly Byronic hero Heathcliff and the equally unkempt Catherine, Arnold juxtaposes instantaneous, fragmentary impressions of the two’s unique way of communicating affection, while interspersing them with metaphorical vignettes of things of nature. The cast does a fantastic job overall, but a special mention should go to Solomon Glave who was such a marvel to watch as the young, scarred Heathcliff. 

10. Haywire

It’s hard to believe a single director is capable of making gems like this so consistently as Steven Soderbergh does, especially when you consider the rate at which he cranks stuff out each year. The year before, Soderbergh made Contagion that has a smartly interlaced narrative; this year (meaning 2012), he made two equally superb films, Haywire and Magic Mike. While the latter seems more in line with the worldwide trending mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid,” I see the former as more successful filmmaking.

Just look at the opening diner fight scene, in which Gina Carano, playing the protagonist Mallory, beats the shit out of Channing Tatum’s Aaron. There are no unnecessary cuts or changes in composition here; instead, Soderbergh lets the scene play out in a way that draws viewers into a clearly delineated, precisely choreographed fight. Every fight scene in the movie not only makes logical sense but exhibits the director’s keen awareness of spatial relations between the figures/objects in the scene (which, again, eliminates the need for excessive cuts). Though Haywire draws on flashback-driven non-linear storytelling, it doesn’t feel disjointed but offers a smooth revenge ride.

9. The Deep Blue Sea

Terence Davies’s melodrama set in postwar London constantly drifts in and out of memories that belong to Hester, who is snared in a loveless marriage to an upper-class judge and helplessly in love with a philistine vet, Freddie. It has one of the year’s best performances by Rachel Weisz and is bookended by crane shots of the shabby flat, which encapsulates at once sepia-toned melancholy and a tinge of auspiciousness about Hester’s unknown days ahead.    

8. Bernie

It’s a bit tricky to put a label on Richard Linklater’s second collaboration with Jack Black. Starting with a jaunty opening scene where Black’s titular mortician demonstrates his embalming skills, it’s equal parts a so-called dramedy and a semi-documentary. Based on an actual murder case in a small town in Texas, it fictionalizes the unknown parts of the murderer-victim relationship, while incorporating interviews with the real townspeople of Carthage. Indeed, Linklater adopts such a precarious approach by crossing over between the two completely different styles, subjecting himself to the accusation of condescension towards the townsfolk. I have to say, though, part of the movie’s charm comes from the mildly satirical tone seeping through, say, the townsfolk’s gossipy chat about whether Bernie’s sexual orientation had a part in his crime. But at the same time, Linklater maintains an endearing attitude to the Carthage residents and their tendencies to disbelieve the murderer’s identity—which really is an expected reaction, considering the efforts Bernie has put into making the people (and probably himself, too) think he’s the type of person everyone likes and God would accept. 

7. Beyond the Hills

A cursory viewing of Cristian Mungiu’s third feature may very well result in the foregone conclusion that it’s just a scathing denunciation of blind faith. On the contrary, it seems Mungiu tries to head off any rash attempt to turn his work into an ideological springboard for some sort of blatantly anti-Christian argument. Watching Beyond the Hills, in fact, requires constant guessing—especially on the characters’ reactions to one another during conversations. By eschewing the shot/reverse shot pattern and doggedly keeping the characters in medium shot, the director takes a step back, observes them, and avoids dictating the viewer’s emotional responses. The level of detachment achieved here does not, however, mean complete impartiality in ethics or the lack of the author’s point of view. While centering on the disastrous exorcism performed on a girl named Alina, Mungiu repeats the alternation of chillingly static long shots wherein the nuns futilely bustle about and the close-ups of their panic-stricken faces, conjuring up a vaguely satirical vibe. He also touches upon, but does not openly discuss, Alina’s familial background and her mental illness, as well as her relationship with her only friend Voichita who has recently decided to devote her life to God. This is a remarkable achievement of disciplined filmmaking that grants no easy answers or ready-made judgments.

6. Lincoln

Having not read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, I went in half expecting this to be another Hollywood-crafted hagiography. Though it may still be a glorification of an American historical figure, Steven Spielberg’s most successful film in years is devoted for the most part to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives, and the compromises that had to be made, with occasional portrayals of the personal aspects of Lincoln’s life—as a husband and a father to (now) two sons. Of its many accomplishments at nearly every level, from Tony Kushner’s meticulous screenplay to the delicate performances particularly by Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones, I’d like to single out the mutually enhancing effects of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography and Rick Carter’s production design.

The synergy produces the most remarkable results in the conversation scenes, whether in cabinet meetings or in House debates. In one of those cabinet meetings, while Lincoln listens to his cabinet members, the camera first captures the toned-down room jammed with furniture and maps letting in only a tiny amount of light through the half-curtained windows, thereby creating an intimate atmosphere. Soon it starts circling around the table slowly as Lincoln steers the conversation in the direction he intends. Then, it places Lincoln at the center of the frame and gradually pushes in to a close-up of his face, when he finally drives home his point: wrap the whole slavery thing up now. For the House debates, on the other hand, a more dynamic approach prevails: the camera switches back and forth between the floor and upstairs, between the speaker’s platform and the seats, implying varying levels of interest. And all the while, the use of backlit silhouettes and shadows mirrors Lincoln’s more personal sides and the sense of isolation he felt. Such effects might be seen as hints of apotheosis, but the film makes sure to show that, unlike such radicals as Thaddeus Stevens, Lincoln himself wasn't an advocate of uncompensated abolition of slavery, nor did his efforts come without compromise. 

5. Tabu

Named after F.W. Murnau’s 1931 silent film, Miguel Gomes’s black-and-white Tabu comes in two parts, Paradise Lost and Paradise. Part 1 is about an ordinary middle-aged woman, who lives drama-free, while seeking catharsis in the cinema and companionship in political activism, and goes out of her way to take care of her senile neighbor Aurora. Part 2, on the other hand, recounts the fascinating past of Aurora and her love affair set in a Portuguese colony in Africa. The first part feels like an inexplicably constipated, contrived exercise in style, whereas the second part, after an abrupt shift in tone, is a vibrant reminiscence of a deceptively nostalgic romance. I believe one way to appreciate this film is to redirect your attention to what’s not being foregrounded in the story; further contemplation on the people kept out of focus, and the blatantly overlooked otherness, will throw into sharp relief the lovebirds’ utter unawareness of the sociopolitical milieu of their time.  

4. The Master

3. Holy Motors

I’m not sure I will ever be able to find the words that best convey my experience of Leos Carax’s first feature in over a decade. Let me try nonetheless: for me, its instant attention-grabber is the duality of its form. The narrative of Holy Motors is fragmented and yet functioning with an overarching unity maintained by the protagonist Oscar’s very existence. Carax ensures that what holds it all together is the intermittently reminded oneness of a shapeshifting Oscar’s core identity as an actor riding and prepping for his next gig in a limo, which doubles as his dressing room. The roles Oscar performs each occupy an episode, and these episodes, or chapters if you will, make up the whole narrative, but they are also part of other stories that are outside this story world and that can be envisioned as extended versions of the given events. 

Oscar begins each part in medias res and exits it unfinished (so that maybe he can return to the story the next day and pick up where he left off) or somewhat finished. What it would be like as a whole is thus entirely up to audiences, and the movie enthusiastically invites spectatorial engagement. As unmistakably shown in the opening scene featuring sleeping or dead spectators, cinema is seen literally as a medium for collective dreaming, through which everyone enters into the same state and takes away their own meaning from it. That, together with the scene of a cemetery Oscar tramps as Monsieur Merde, has spawned a handful of readings that bemoan the death of film culture; perhaps, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to link the unconscious audience directly to the demise of the moviegoing experience—just as Oscar muses, “What if there is no beholder?” To my mind, however, even such images of death that abound in the movie do not feel so pessimistic. Rather, Carax seems to celebrate film as a gateway to unexplored stretches beyond the confines of what’s immediately available to viewers.  

2. A Separation

Asghar Farhadi’s meticulously structured drama opens with a couple filing for divorce looking directly into the camera, establishing the audience in the judge’s position before it guides it into the couple’s lives. Then, with the introduction of a nurse hired to tend the husband’s father, this tale of family disintegration becomes an exposé of the class divide both specific to Iranian society and relevant to a broader audience. What elevates the movie to a work of cinematic genius is Farhadi’s thoroughgoing pragmatism: he wisely refrains from resorting to a flashback-driven narrative and lets the characters create the story gaps by deceiving each other while keeping the audience in the dark as well. Also, his lens seems oriented solely to what needs to be displayed at a particular point in time, in a particular situation, in order to advance the plot exactly as planned. His charting of conflict and tension between the characters allows for no deviation or subjectivity, yet the emotional blow it eventually lands is so immense that you end up feeling for every character in it.  

1. Margaret

My best film of 2012 is Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s cacophonous, sprawling, elegiac ode to a confused adolescent and a city still overcoming collective trauma. In it, growing up couldn’t be more painful and complicated. Lisa Cohen, a teenager living in a upper-middle-class Manhattan home, inadvertently finds herself thrust out of her sheltered life and launching a legal battle after she becomes indirectly responsible for a fatal accident. 

Combing an ever-expanding web of relationships among people breathing the same air of a grief-soaked city yet irreconcilably disconnected from one another, Lonergan, primarily through his ingeniously crafted, realistic dialog, sculptures characters practically impossible to reduce to certain types or patterns but familiar and relatable. As Lisa continues to grapple with ethical dilemmas beyond her grasp, the saga reminds that coming of age is at once the loss of innocence and about realizing the world doesn’t revolve around you, that your strong convictions about right and wrong may not have as rock-solid a foundation as you want it to be. That’s sort of what Lisa is taught during her confrontation with the victim’s friend Emily, but Lisa simply doesn’t get itEmily assures her that she will, as she gets older and when she finally understands caring too easily can be as damaging as not caring at all. 

In all fairness, though, Lisa seems spot-on when she says people no longer relate to each other: even her mother, Joan, fails to fully meet her daughter’s need for support because she, too, is plagued with her own career and relationship issues (as Lisa tells Joan, “I’d rather not talk about it when you have one foot out the door”) and Lisa’s conversation with her father gets constantly interrupted—let alone her unintentionally poor choice of words and difficulty better expressing herself.  As if to prove Lisa right, Lonergan amplifies background noise and lets a jumble of chatter and horns drown out the main characters’ conversation; he also interjects shots of Lisa traversing the streets, tuning out her surroundings, or blending in with crowds rather awkwardly. Through this coming-of-age tale, Lonergan’s ambition seems to transfer New York's cityscapes in their entirety to the screen, which is delivered successfully.

My top 11 of 2012:

11. Wuthering Heights (UK)
10. Haywire (USA)
9. The Deep Blue Sea (UK)
8. Bernie (USA)
7. Beyond the Hills (Romania)
6. Lincoln (USA)
5. Tabu (Portugal)
4. The Master (USA)
3. Holy Motors (France)
2. A Separation (Iran)
1. Margaret (USA)

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