1. DJANGO UNCHAINED!
Some films this year were loftier or more intellectually advanced, but none provided the pure visceral cinematic euphoria of DJANGO UNCHAINED! And none have as much to say about this country (the USA) and balls and the N word.
What this year's election showed us, incontrovertibly and probably permanently, is that when minorities and liberals and freaks like me stick together we can finally and forever outvote the repressive white Christian male conservative bloc. They can drag their heels in the sand over every new little change if they want but if we stick together they will go down. DJANGO is the dancer on their grave. It is the year's cinematic equivalent of a lit stick of dynamite tossed into the stagnant Mississippi swamps of conservative oppression.
Of course like all QT's films, DJANGO references far more of cinema history than its title would indicate, namely the social issues and mood of late 60s-early 70s cinema like THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and MANDINGO (1975). Critics at the time (with a few exceptions, like Robin Wood) misunderstood and panned MANDINGO during its original release, and it's a harrowing stretch of dehumanizing violence that clearly traumatized DJANGO director Quentin Tarantino as much as it did me. (See my "Whither Mandingo?"). And like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS before it, DJANGO uses a title from an Italian action flick from a certain drive-in era to deconstruct issues of cinematic genre, social oppression, class, and history, all while delivering visceral, awesome revenge highs only dreamed of by lesser directors with lesser running times who don't understand how to build tension and so their films are all release, no tension, and so suck.
On the subject of lesser filmmakers it's interesting that the first DJANGO feedback I heard was condemnation from Spike Lee for the same reasons he badmouthed JACKIE BROWN in 1998, and echoed the same sort of knee-jerk faux-liberal reasons some critics gave for their maligning BASTERDS (see my "What is it about this color that disturbs you, Marnie?), inferring Quentin didn't have the right to tell a Jewish revenge story. Similarly, here Tarantino undoes the open ending of the original MANDINGO, which left a horrific plantation in bloody disarray, but hardly broken, and and obliterates it all with a howling vengeance and splattering of blood that for once actually does what such violence is supposed to do in movies, provide a heady cinematic catharsis that connects the multiracial multiplex in all the good ways, finally. In short the film delivers what the great 70s trailers promised. It vindicates all film, and all shackled souls who resist dehumanization no matter what the cost to their own safety. For in honoring our cinematic dead more than the tropes of bare life we honor ourselves. Sam Peckinpah, your Wild Bunch did not die in slow motion vain.
(Wait there's more!) yea, for in the unchaining from the soul-crushing bonds of antebellum mentality (the film includes a blood-curdling phrenology lecture) we can finally rise up and be the apocalyptic nightmare the red state uneducated "Christian" right think we are. Let them arm and barricade themselves in bunkers and strangle themselves on the twisted nylons of their own hatred; their progeny will see the benefits of having an open palm instead of a balled-up fist and they will be as 'the boy' who leaves 'the man' to his death on THE ROAD. As the great Stevie Wonder once sang, and I paraphrase, we don't even need to do nothing to them / they cause their own country to fall. It's their country that falls, that has never done anything but fall, and ours that has already been rising, and has always been rising.
And Leo, you took my advice and added some truly Widmarkian relish to a despicable dandy fop villain and hit it so far out of the park those racist rednecks will be picking that swatted fly out their teeth for the next 300 years. I wanted you to be evil but I could never imagine you'd go THIS evil! I go all the way around from worrying about you growing all puffy from beer and tough guy from the streets-itis to once more worshipping you as the elfin powerhouse actor demi-god you are. Dig those tobacco-blackened leprechaun teeth! If Oscar rewards you as it should with a best supporting, the way they did for Waltz as Tarantino's last super villain, my faith in Oscar will be restored after the aggrandizing nostalgia-huffing of last year.
As Claire Trevor says in Murder My Sweet "Let's dispense with the social drinking shall we?" pouring Marlowe and herself heroic tumblers of Scotch from her rich feeble husband's crystal decanters. The Grey dispenses with all the tommyrot about kidnapped daughters and struggles for freedom and lengthy debates over cannibalism and just crashes a plane in Alaska, sets the dire wolves upon the trail of Liam Neeson and company. I don't want to spoil it but the ending is one of the toughest and best since the Black Swan or Runaway Train. What else do we have, as men, in the end, other than how we face our own Sebastian-ish rending? With cringing arms up to block, or out to embrace the fangs of our final freedom, Neeson and cast are, of course, top notch, and the action flows like a blast of Arctic air. And it's not long... aye... not long.
Pair-bond romance has always been Wes Anderson's weak point, but here he nails it by bringing together a bespectacled but eerily confident weirdo boy scout together with a slightly more mature girl who's got mad '64 style. Their romance is never weak or sappy or creepy because they are outcasts and they fight back when pushed. They do not cower! That is rare. Underneath Anderson's moon vest beats the heart of a basement fight club brawler.
We all have felt this type of heady connection, this thrilling outlaw romance, at some point in our lives, I hope. I would regret anyone missing it, this lightning bolt that comes at any age, at any time, and we either rise to its challenge or spend the rest of our life cringing, instead of running through the wild we try to drown our wolves in the bathtub like Paltrow's snuck cigarettes. Moonrise Kingdom commands you turn them loose and hope they don't get run over crossing the highway, but don't impede, or you will get bit. And this is maybe the best and most undrowned wolf of a film Anderson film he's ever released into the wild, it's a true wolf whirlwind. Did I cry? I did.
4. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
Is this the best movie about the first love and acceptance of a mentally-scarred high school freshman? Yes. The heady acting chemistry of the three leads and the deep American Beauty-style cinematography turn Pittsburgh into a magical place where anything is possible, including finding cool friends who recognize the beautiful genius buried inside you. As always it was in the pre-CD burner era, wherein this film is set, the bonding glue of friendship is mix tapes. Here they are so important that the music used--even if we've heard the songs before--seem deliriously new, even Dexy and the Midnight Runners.
In addition to all that is a refreshing absence of the bawdy sexual humor that mars 95% of coming-of-age films, and the energy pulses so well with the colors that it becomes a dizzying dream I still can't let go of. Emma Watson made my knees weak, even when her longing is cliche'd she has the guts to ride right through. When a film is this good it can have cliches, because the actors will be so faithful to the material they show why the raw true grace of the original. Ezra Miller blows any complaints about the gay best friend stereotype clean out of the picture and has such magical alive chemistry with Watson that when the movie was over I already missed them. I wanted to write them all a letter from camp. It's majestic.
(7/12/13- I didn't see this until now-- but it had a profound effect on me, and still haunts me in some ways, to the point I had to travel back in time and add it to this list, bumping lesser titles off. If like me you avoided it because you're wary of Tom Hanks, maybe even especially if you're wary... you must come baaaack....see here)
Hilarious and disturbing in its low level candor, Dr. David Cronenberg turns Don Delillo's book of post-modern Wall Street Samuel Beckettishness into a sophisticated addendum to his misunderstood semi-masterpiece Crash. Critics may decry it but I dig Robert Pattinson's performance; he wryly critiques his Edward mystique in a manner that's not trite and seems always about to morph into some new Cronenbergian advanced hybrid life form. His square alien face seems like a computer monitor with pale skin stretched over. Note the way his British mouth twists and curls with druggy last-ditch hunger at Juliette Binoche's mention of an available Rothko chapel. Such pointless desire recalls Christian Bale freaking out over business cards in American Psycho, but that was an isolated moment of high brilliance the rest of the film never quite matched. Cosmopolis is like if that one scene was slowed down to 90 minutes and moved to a car. So yeah, I'm getting in. Keep you chainsaw 'fantasies' and cocaine, Cosmopolis is far more subversive. Pattinson brings it to life in ways I never could get from just reading the book (I've always felt Don Delillo's absurdist dialogue can get old fast on the page -- everyone talks exactly the same so it needs different actors with different spins on it - as is the case here).
As the film and vehicle progress we realize Pattinson's billionaire alien (think David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth) can't really die because he barely exists, and a lot of the credit for that surely goes to the actor's queasy fearless self-implosion. It's a marvel the way he can convey such moment-by-moment disintegration without any of Cronenberg's usual prosthetics (there may be some ultra subliminal CGI at work on his skin tones, or I was just hallucinating). Critics may grumble now but when his demographic gets older they will write of him the way mine write of Karloff or Lugosi today. He's far more complex with that strange alien face than maybe any of us--except Cronenberg--currently understand or give him credit for. Robert Pattinson is the future. When he begins to get older and more in control of his career, look out. This being is no ordinary heartthrob but a reptilian hybrid with a willingness to contort into shapes and moods yet to be imagined by sober men.
Lana Del Rey - "Ride'
No, it's not art, or trash, just the best film made about the American endless highway since Natural Born Killers. Lana Del Rey proves with "Ride," that even if its an act she's got the truest sense of operatic-sexy-sad-dangerous going in music, cinema, or anywhere.... she's sexy-dangerous, not Madonna or Miley dress-up dangerous, but the flagging down Mike Hammer's roadster in the middle of the desert dangerous, the kind where self-cutting, anorexia, nymphomania, and pill addiction all swirl together to keep a young girl one step ahead of her suicidal ideation. She goes in this video where most coy lip biter pouter jailbait-poseur pop girls wouldn't no matter how much attention their gigolo boyfriends promised. She goes right over the cliff, into the arms of a bunch of guys at least twice her age. She gyrates like a cub in their lion paws and they award her a gun, a bottle of whiskey, cigareetes, a Native American headdress, and a bonfire full of fireworks.
I was lucky in enough to attend the NYC premiere of the third installment last month and it was a perfect fit to a hilarious, fun thrilling time. Del Rey's video features a persona I know very well, and while Kelly's vast array of personae are well outside my zone of direct experience, they're such a fun, crazy, tragic, hilarious, and insightful array I love them all anyhow. With that catchy yet hookless incessant repeating stanza, Kelly sings the vocals of all the characters, even females. My favorite is the mighty stuttering Pimp Luscious and his three special ladies one of whom is blind. And if the whole powerful fade out with 'the package' reverberating across endless phone lines in the second chapter is gone, the mystique and fun and sheer ballsy difference of Kelly's aimless narrative remains, making it a perfect double bill with Del Rey's long form "Ride" --two portraits of two different artists who somehow in their fractured role playing managing to capture the gist of America's strengths and sadness while they smoke and look good and do damned well whatever they please.
Dewars' Scotch ads with Claire Forlani as a sexy after-hours Lady MacBeth
Claire Forlani may not be really Scottish but it's about time we had more 'Red Flag' style nutcase women pitching booze and ruling in hell rather than letting these khaki-wearing 'regular guys' think a new flavor of Bud Lite is heaven. I vote for the natural hell habitat of stumbler psycho hotties storming through 4:20 AM clubs, ranting about some guy you've never met pouring you enough post-last call slugs of near-top-shelf from behind the bar that her anger and narcissistic indignation is seductive instead of chilling. You'd follow her anywhere rather than listen one more minute to the still preachy echo of last call wives and moms and bosses and sanity hand rails and mothers-in-law, all shuckered loose from as you inhale the scent of her skittering perfume and real fur (faint scent of kitty litter and/or bile amidst the Chanel), her marble ice covered in melanin-melting thinner in older age hand slipping from yours soon enough, aye Angus, if skin were mottled fur, out along the slimy ocean cobblestone streets, into more and more warming drinks, floating you home on blackened bruise cushions (for the nonce mere tingles), a vague memory of a cab driver shouting but no sound in the oceanic roar of your ears, handing a crumpled twenty like a flag of surrender, the hallucination of soft applause dampening your fall into the comfortable trash pile.
UFC kickass Gina Carano is the hottest most believably ass-kicking American babe since Cynthia Rothrock, but this is no Hong Kong cheapie, this is Steven Soderbergh making up for the outrages of his ill-conceived CONTAGION. Here Carano herself is the contagion and the men don't have a chance of survival if they cross her. My favorite film in Soderbergh's canon, including OUT OF SIGHT. I've already seen it four times and it's going to be with me forever, thank god for Netflix streaming. I could go press play and re-see it right now! (PS - it's ideal to see in an airport on your kindle or iPhone while waiting for a delayed flight back from Arizona to NYC, then finish watching when you get home at 6 AM and the sun is coming up over the skyline. Word)
I know, I know -- only number nine? It's a Masterpiece! Nyuk Nyuk. PTA found the problem at the heart of the American male once again but wasn't able to mend it the way he's done in the past, or Quentin or Liam or Wes Anderson did this year. He could only to point at it and then encourage us to both marvel and wince while Phoenix and Hoffman acted the roof off to ultimately no cumulative cathartic or moving effect. Maybe I was just too damned apathetic to take a subway, dirty and dank, into Manhattan to see it on 70mm. My 35mm trip to BAM (much closer) gave me lots to write and think about (i.e. here) but no real Plainview-style jolt, no emotional wallop, no moment of stand up and cheeritude, only little spurts of insanity that are then crushed by the concern of the clueless cultists and local law enforcement. This is Anderson's driest work since HARD EIGHT. Is he at the point in his artistic evolution where alchemically masculine outbursts against idiots must be considered childish? Who was the girl, Steve?
These two big cold films have a lot in common: a crazy villain who represents everything our hero has failed to incorporate into his persona over the course of a long, embittered life; analog masculinity facing the computer digital generation; the tragic sudden self-awareness of how a fleeting male fantasy has ground into a permanent way of life. Both films raid Homer's archetypal trough in telling of an old Odysseus-type, thought dead, lost at sea, now returned to save his bride (Q, Gotham respectively) from Vandals, and does he have any new tricks up his old dog sleeve, and once more unto the breech dear friends, live and die on this day, time to dust off our hidden go bags, kiss the Catwoman and...
In each case it seems odd that so much firepower, manpower, triple-crosses, and imprisoning would be expended on something as banal as revenge. Bane claims his vendetta is a 99%-er social experiment and Bardem's macho fey nutcase claims he wants revenge against 'mum' for leaving him to rot in an enemy cell. Both have anticipated the hero's every move, both use the sewers and underground tunnels to stage attacks and both draw endless amounts of arms and armed support from out of nowhere. Just as the main 'woman' of 2012 is the 1963-retro beauty combination of Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom and Lana Del Rey, the 'man' is old enough to be their father's boss, but still wearily facing younger, sharper, or more damaged foes. (for Dark Knight see here)
HONORABLE MENTION: 21 Jump Street, Chronicle, Snow White and the Huntsman, John Carter, Cabin in the Woods, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance