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 Latinos, stoners, African Americans, women, academics, Jews, foreigners, queers, freaks, liberals, beatniks, hairbags, poets, Mansonesque junkies, alcoholics in out of the rooms, unrepentant druggies, 99%-ers, and Hispanics all stick together we can outvote the traditional white Christian (and ex-pat Florida Cuban) male conservative bloc. If we stand divided, they win; if we stand together, they can drag their heels in the sand over every new little change if they want but their protests will be as ultimately futile as the protests of children over booster shots. And DJANGO is the proof. 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. The main two films referenced are THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and MANDINGO (1975) rather than the original DJANGO. Critics at the time (with a few exceptions, like Robin Wood) misunderstood and panned MANDINGO (1975) during its release, probably due to its shock value and lurid poster. Even now the film remains 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 comes back 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.
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 already treat us as. Let them arm and barricade themselves in bunkers and strangle themselves on the twisted-up 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 ROADt. 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 even if you never read it 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! This is so far beyond my wildest dreams 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! Yee-Haw! Sold! It's your best work since Man in the Iron Mask. Leo - you were born to be elfiny evil! 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 is like that. It dispenses with all the tommyrot about kidnapped daughters and struggles for freedom and lengthy debates over cannibalism and just crashes a plane in Alaska and sets the dire wolves upon the trail of Liam Neeson as an ultra tough security officer whose wife left him and who shoots wolves through a sniper scope as they come charging at pipeline workers.
Liam is in his element, forced to cross existential thresholds since there's no one to rescue him and his fellow dudes, nothing left to be selfless for, just their own survival. Too bad his gun quickly freezes over; the bullets go quickly and the landscape gets more untraversible; and the wolves get bigger and have nothing but time. 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.
Romance has always been Wes Anderson's weakness but here he nails it by bringing together a bespectacled but eerily confident weirdo boy scout orphan and a slightly more mature girl who's got mad '64 style, which I guess is when the film is set. Their romance is never weak or sappy or creepy because they are outcasts and they fight back when pushed. They do not cower. Underneath Anderson's moon vest beats the heart of a basement fight club brawler.
We all know and feel that we have felt this type of heady connection, I hope. I would regret anyone missing it. I don't care if it destroys your comfort zones. I hope it does. It's worth it. It lights up your basement and sends the rats skittering away, to make room for wolves. It's the kind of 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 as we try to drown our wolves in the bathtub like Paltrow's snuck cigarettes. Turn them loose and hope they don't get run over crossing the highway, that's the best you can do. And this is maybe the best and most undrowned Anderson film he's ever released into the wild. He's transcended the rich kid cinema quirk ghetto and unchained 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, especially the gorgeous extrovert Ezra Miller, and the deep American Beauty-style cinematography turn Pittsburgh into a magical science fiction landscape where anything is possible, including finding cool friends who recognize the beautiful genius buried inside you. As always with such kids circa 1985-95, the bonding glue is love of great music; mix tapes, in the days before DVD wiped out cassettes. 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 there's such seductive American Beauty-style lighting and such interesting, beautiful people, and such 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 in this movie; even when her longing is cliche'd she has the guts to ride right through it. When a film is this good it can have cliches, because the actors have the guts to dive right into them and it's suddenly all so new. Ezra Miller blows any complaints about the gay best friend stereotype clean out of the picture. You feel the heartbreak when he's not around because he lights up the screen. He and Thompson have such alive chemistry and beauty and aliveness as the step siblings who rescue our hero that when the movie was over I already missed them. This is how it is when a group of friends is in love with each other. 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 around and even off the list. If like me you avoided it because you're wary of Tom Hanks, maybe even especially if you're wary... you must come back....see here)
Hilarious and disturbing in its low level candor, Dr. David Cronenberg turns Don Delillo's book of post-modern Wall Street Beckettishness into a kind of sophisticated addendum to his misunderstood semi-masterpiece Crash. Critics may decry but I dig Robert Pattinson's performance. It critiques his Edward mystique in a manner that's wry and yet not trite and he seems always about to morph into some new Cronenbergian advanced hybrid life form. His square alien face seems like skin covering a computer monitor. Note the way his mouth twists and curls with druggy last-ditch hunger at the mention of an available Rothko by his older lover art dealer (a still firm Juliette Binoche). 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 in.
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 enough here this video would probably make it banned from MTV if MTV still played music. It's not Madonna faux dress-up dangerous, it's the real thing -- the kind of danger 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, who give her a gun, a swig, a drag, a Native American headdress, and a bonfire full of fireworks.
It would definitely be the wrong thing to emulate. I imagine the moms must get nervous if their daughters like Lana Del Rey. Where's her helmet? Is she smoking? Those guys are old enough to be her dads! but her line that "there's no use in talking to people who have a home. They have no idea what it's like to seek safety in other people," explains it all. As Lou Reed said when introducing his song "Heroin," "this song's not for it or against it. It's just about it." He later noted, "Some people never a voice to talk with / that they can even call their own / so the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be, why, they follow it / you know, it's called bad luck." I listened to a lot of Lou when I was in high school. He was my patron saint. If Del Rey was around then, I would have been in even worse trouble.
I was lucky in enough to attend the NYC premiere of the third installment last month and got to sing "I believe I can fly" with the man himself. It was a perfect fit to a hilarious, fun thrilling time. Del Rey's video features persona I know very well, and while Kelly's vast array of personae are well outside my zone of direct experience, but like the sing-a-long at Sunshine Cinema, the experience of watching Kelly embody such a fun, crazy, tragic, hilarious, and insightful, even tasteful array of folks all to that catchy yet hookless incessant repeating stanza, singing the vocals of all the characters even females with a total deadpan, stopping to embody the amazingly named Pimp Luscious, replete with stutter, or the book-of-the-same-name hawking reverend, is a joy. And if the whole powerful fade out with 'the package' reverberating across endless phone lines in the second chapter is more or less forgotten, or dealt with, the mystique and fun and sheer ballsy difference of the concept, the aimless narrative, the interconnected folk tale malarkey, remains, making it a perfect double bill with Del Rey's long form "Ride" featurette, 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.
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 Scotch and ruling in hell rather than these khaki-wearing 'regular guys' who will never leave the safety of their heaven-lite Budweiser perches.... 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 and how he did her wrong (I'm not going to admit I don't know him).. . but clearly she fucked the guy who owns the place at one point and now owns it or thinks she does and anyway she's pouring you enough post-last call slugs of near-top-shelf from behind the bar that her anger and narcissistic indignation is seductive like a slightly less cold freight train down an ice cold mountain you've been climbing til yr fingers were frozen bloody and then down down down rather than listen one more minute to the still preachy echo of last call wives and moms and bosses and sanity hand rails and Up All Night marathons with mothers in laws and all that shuckered loose from and grab the last falling skittering perfume and real fur (faint scent of kitty litter and/or bile amidst the Chanel) and 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 from weak wavy fingers soft applause dampening yr 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 but post-modernly interesting CONTAGION. Here Carano herslef is the contagion and the men don't have a chance. Only the beautiful shades of gray and blue survive, and this becomes the best film in Soderbergh's canon for my money since OUT OF SIGHT. I've already seen it twice 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! Yeah, because as profound and astonishing as this was, and maybe it's because I didn't see it in 70mm when I had the chance, it was more intellectual than moving. PTA found the problem at the heart of the American male once again but wasn't able to mend it the way Quentin or Liam or Wes Anderson did. He could only to point at it and then encourage us to both marvel and wince while Phoenix and Hoffman acted the roof to ribbons to ultimately no cumulative cathartic or moving effect. Maybe I was just too damned apathetic to take a subway, dirty and dank, into Manhattan, all sold-out and safe now, to see it on 70mm. My 35mm trip to BAM gave me lots to write and think about (i.e. here) but no real Plainview-style jolt, no MAGNOLIA-motional wallop, no moment of stand up and cheer cinematic PUNCH-DRUNKeness, only little spurts of insanity that are then crushed by the concern of the clueless cultists and local law enforcement. This is his most emotionally distant Anderson film since HARD EIGHT. Is PTA at the point in his artistic evolution where alchemically masculine outbursts against idiots are childish? What was the name of 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; masculine feelings of inadequacy ("low T."?) as the computer digital generation runs virtual circles around him; and tragic sudden self-awareness of how long each has been around, a permanent way of life instead of a fleeting young male fantasy. 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 cat woman, set the booby traps and wait.
In each case villain motivation is always fuzzy: it seems odd that so much firepower, manpower, triple-crosses, and imprisoning would be expended on something as banal as revenge. Bane claims his is a 99%-er social experiment and Bardem's macho fey nutcase claims he wants revenge agains 'mum' for leaving him to rot in an enemy cell... it's fuzzy logic but in the process he becomes the coolest villain since Heath Ledger's Joker from the previous Dark Knight film.
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