2012 Wrap Up

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I’ve always been of the opinion that in the world of Cinephillia the years go from Oscar night to Oscar night rather than from January to January.  So now, almost two months after the rest of the world moved on, I’ve finally decided to leave 2012 for the history books.  It’s been a hell of a year and I’m leaving it now with a two retrospective pieces looking back at the year in film.

Firstly, I’ve posted the results for my Sixth Annual Golden Stake Awards.  For those who don’t know, the Golden Stakes are a sort of personalized award show I put together where I single-handedly pick both the nominees and winners in a variety of categories ranging from Best Actor to Best Fight Scene.  I’ve put one together every year, but I’ve never really found a good way to present it on the blog until now.  All of the choices can be found at the link below, and I hope to go back and add results from previous years as well once I recover from all the work of putting together this one.

The 2012 Golden Stakes

And those looking for a more concise snapshot of the year’s best film can go over to the page for Top Tens, where I’ve added my choices for 2012.

Yearly Top Tens

So now it’s time to look forward to 2013.  There are some interesting sounding movies in the pipeline for this year and I look forward to reviewing them.  I also have some plans to make this blog a little more personal in 2013 and hope to be writing more than just a whole bunch of reviews.

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DVD Round-Up: 2/22/2013

Mea Maxima Culpa (2/5/2013)

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Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest film, Mea Maxima Culpa, is one of a number of documentaries to cover the long lasting Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal and while it doesn’t necessarily bring a ton of new information to light it serves as a good reminder that this is an ongoing issue that should not be forgotten.  The first half of the film focuses in on a priest who molested a number of boys at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin and how this was covered up.  It proves to be a pretty good case study which does a good job setting up the film’s second half, which is a more comprehensive examination of the wider scandal and how the church has responded to it.  Mea Maxima Culpa is a good documentary, but certainly not a great one.  Its filmmaking is highly competent, but there’s nothing groundbreaking about.  The story itself is an important one worth telling, but it’s not necessarily a shocking one that keeps the audience guessing throughout.  The film debuted on HBO, which is a good place for it to be because it’s not really a film I would ever recommend running to a theater to see but is something worth checking out if you’re interested in the subject and see it airing on a Saturday or something.

*** out of Four

Ruby Sparks (2/16/2013)

I skipped Ruby Sparks in theaters because it looked twee and derivative, but it did at least look moderately interesting so I didn’t mind giving it a chance on the small screen.  To be sure it is derivative (a sort of Weird Science meets Stranger than fiction), and it’s definitely twee, but there were certain things about it I enjoyed.  For one thing I think Zoe Kazan (who also wrote the film) did a pretty good job in the title role.  Also there is at least a slightly intriguing idea in the concept; this is more a deconstruction of the manic pixie dreamgirl than the celebration of the archetype that I expected.  On the other hand, I thought Paul Dano was kind of terrible in the film and I didn’t think his character was all that well written either.  Otherwise the film just didn’t seem all that creative or exceptional.  We’ve seen these kind of high-concept indies before and this one just didn’t do much to stand out.

**1/2 out of Four

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Bully (2/18/2013)

2-18-2013Bully This documentary, made to capitalize on the “it gets better campaign,” caused a stir earlier this year when the MPAA dared to hold it to the same standards as every other movie and gave it an R-rating for having more than one F-word in it.  Now that I’ve seen the film I’m even more certain that the hullaballoo was trumped up by Harvey Weinstein as a publicity stunt, because on its own this really isn’t a very good documentary.  The film seems to have no real purpose other than to say “hey, school yard bullying really is bad” as if that wasn’t already obvious. The film offers almost no real solution to the problem it addresses, nor does it delve much into the psychology of those who bully or into the major reasons that schools are unable to address the issue.  Instead it comes off as a rather shallow and exploitative piece.

** out of Four

Sinister (2/21/2013)

In October this surprised a lot of critics who held it up as the great horror movie of the season.  Many of them were perhaps overly wowed both by low expectations and by the fact that the film is a lot better than Paranormal Activity 4.  In fact the film has its flaws (namely an over-abundance of jump scares in its third act), however, when the film is at its best it really is pretty creepy.  In particular I was really impressed by a number of rather disturbing scenes where the main character is watching super 8 reels which depict families being murdered in a number of rather grotesque ways.  None of these are overly bloody or graphic but they’re shot to look like very real snuff films and they have a definite impact.  Beyond that the film’s main plot is a surprisingly competent mystery which comes together in a mostly satisfying way.  It’s no classic, but like Insidious last year it exceeds the modest expectations that most have come to have for one-off Hollywood supernatural thrillers.

***1/2 out of Four

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Side by side (2/22/2013)

2-22-2013SidebySide Side by Side is an odd film to try to review because it does pretty much everything it sets out to do, but at the same time that doesn’t seem like a wildly impressive accomplishment.  The film, about the influence of digital photography on filmmaking is definitely not for anyone who isn’t pretty intensely interested in cinema.  There’s a lot of “inside baseball” discussed here, but at least it’s discussed by a very impressive roster of interviewees including David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese, but also a murderer’s row of great cinematographers both young and old.  The film also delves into a lot of topics I didn’t think it would get to like a comparison of various digital cameras and a discussion of the difficulties of archiving digital images. It’s all very well made, but at the same time it feels more like an over-ambitious DVD bonus feature than a cinematic documentary in its own right.

*** out of Four

Amour(1/19/2013)

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It’s pretty widely acknowledged that the golden age of foreign cinema (at least from an American perspective) was in the late fifties and early sixties when titans like Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Godard, and Antonioni were regularly putting out bold and original films that would later become staples of repertory theaters.  It’s hard to believe we’ll ever see a braintrust that grand again, but if one were to put together a pantheon of modern international auteurs there are a number of names that would surely be on the list like Almodóvar, Kiarostami, Von Trier, and the Dardennes.  Still, no one quite embodies what it means to be a European auteur quite like the Austrian born Michael Hanake, who’s been making provocative and influential films since the late eighties.  Personally, I’ve had a bit of a bumpy ride going through his filmography.  I disagree philosophically with, Funny Games, the film which more or less made his reputation.  I also didn’t get too much out of his 2001 film, The Piano Teacher.  However, he’s made a string of solid films since then like Time of the Wolf, Caché, and The White Ribbon which have more or less converted me to the pro-Haneke camp.

His latest film (his second effort in a row to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival) is Amour, a stark exploration of what happens to a marriage deep into old age.  The film follows Georges and Anne Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, respectively), an aged French couple living in a large Parisian apartment.  The two of them were once respected piano tutors but now they’re more or less happily retired.  Unfortunately, Anne suffers a stroke early in the film which begins a process in which she becomes both physically and mentally debilitated.  From here the film never leaves the Laurents’ apartment, which becomes increasingly tombelike as the film progresses, and the audience watches as Georges has to cope with Anne’s decline and the various indignities involved in her care.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are of course both veteran French actors who’ve worked with storied filmmakers like Resnais, Rohmer, Melville, Bertolucci, and Kieślowski (both actors appeared in separate installments of the Three Colors trilogy), and this could be a great capper to both amazing careers.  Emmanuelle Riva clearly has the more showy and noticeable role.  She convincingly conveys her character’s physical disability but that aside you can still see the lovable person who once lived beneath her decaying body.  It’s a little harder to love Jean-Louis Trintignant’s work if only because much of what he’s doing is well beneath the surface because his character faces the situation that he and his wife are in with a lot of stoicism.  It’s so easy to get wrapped up in these two performances that it’s easy to forget that the great Isabelle Huppert also has a nice supporting role in the film as the daughter of the two leads in which she reacts to the same situation much more openly than her father does and there’s an interesting contrast in the way the two characters deal with their grief.

I usually associate Michael Haneke with cerebral films about weighty themes that need to be sorted out, but Amour seems like a much different type of film from Haneke.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it emotional, because Haneke maintains his usual dethatched and unsentimental perspective.  Rather, I’d call the movie visceral.  Not “visceral” in the conventional sense that the word is used to describe intense action scenes, more in the sense that you’re really wrapped up in these people’s situation and you actively feel their pain as you watch the film.  In many ways it’s a film to be experienced rather than written about and it’s made all the more painful when you consider that an experience not unlike this will be in the future of anyone who doesn’t die in a quick and unexpected way.

**** out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 2/9/2013

Klown (1/26/2013)

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We don’t often see straightforward low-brow comedies from foreign countries (I’m sure they’re made, but I’m guessing that most aren’t deemed worthy of export), and that in itself makes the Danish farce Klown seem oddly unique.  The film is based on a hit television show in its native country and seems to be something of a fusion of rowdy sex comedy with “Curb Your Enthusiasm” style awkward situation comedy.  The film’s story about a pair of friends (one meek, the other debauched) going on a road trip is not overly original; in fact it’s basically a cruder and stupider version of the movie Sideways.  With that in mind I’d never compare it to any kind of challenging world cinema, but I’d also peg any attempt to dismiss it for its vulgarity is also wrongheaded because there is some funny stuff to be found here.  In general, I think this would fit in well sitting right next to American comedies like The Hangover and Wedding Crashers, nothing more and nothing less.  I’m fine with that.*** out of Four

The Imposter (1/27/2013)

The Impostor may not be the year’s best documentary but it’s certainly the most well produced. The film tells the story of a European con man who convinced the authorities that he was an American child who was kidnapped years prior and is sent home to the family of this kidnapped child.  This family, shockingly, believes that this guy is indeed their prodigal son and take him in.  It’s one of those “stranger than fiction” stories that’s certainly worth exploring and director Bart Layton finds a number of interesting ways to conduct said exploration.  What he’s made is a very cinematic documentary shot in a widescreen aspect ratio and blending Errol Morris-style interviews with fully produced reenactment segments.  Layton seems to have gotten interviews with pretty much every relevant person involved including the conman himself and he edits it all together in a really slick and interesting way.***1/2 out of Four 1-27-2013TheImposter

Paranormal Activity 4 (2/1/2013)

2-1-2013ParanormalActivity4 While the original film is clearly the series’ highpoint, I did find things to enjoy about its first two sequels to Paranormal Activity, in part because I was rather amused by the way they fleshed out and explained aspects of the first film while maintaining an aura of mystery as well.  After the third film, which was actually a prequel, it seemed the series was ready to finally move into the ultimate endgame that things have seemingly been building toward.  Instead what we get with Paranormal Activity 4 is a padded tangent of a story that does almost nothing in order to advance the series’ larger narrative.  There is still some potency left in some of the franchise’s signature tricks and scares, so someone simply looking for a few nice jumps may find something to enjoy here, but that is decidedly not why I’m still checking in on this series.  For the next installment the creative team had better stop trying to expand the gravy train and start getting things going or this is quickly going to start moving toward “direct to video” territory.** out of Four

Searching for Sugar Man(2/2/2013)

The running joke about documentaries is that most of them make you want to cut your wrists shortly after seeing them because they cover some depressing social ill, and there’s certainly some truth to that sometimes.  However, the documentary format can really be used for all sorts of different things and it’s foolish to assume that all of them are depressing.  Case in point is Searching for Sugar Man, a popular documentary which looks at the case of Rodriguez: a singer-songwriter who put out two generally unpopular albums in the late sixties before slipping back into obscurity, but whose music apparently struck a major chord in South Africa, where he’s considered to be on par with The Beatles and Paul Simon.  The documentary looks at Rodriguez’ story from a South African point of view and follows a record store owner and a rock journalist as they try to learn who Rodriguez was and about his eventual fate.  The draw here is certainly the story itself moreso than the filmmaking techniques (though the film’s craft is certainly quite adequate), and the story is certainly compelling and interesting, albeit somewhat misleading about certain facts.***1/2 out of Four 2-2-2013SearchingForSugarMan

To Rome With Love (2/9/2013)

2-10-2013ToRomeWithLove Woody Allen rarely ever makes two good movies in a row, so most fans were ready to be disappointed by his Midnight in Paris follow-up, To Rome With Love.  Of course when Allen drops the ball the results are still usually at least a little entertaining, so I at least expected moderate entertainment out of the film and it was mostly able to match those mild expectations.  For the first time that I can recall, this is the first time that Woody Allen has tried to make a film by bringing together four mostly separate storylines with little more than a setting in common.  There is a kernel of a good idea in all four of these stories and all of them showcase a couple of interesting performances, but as they stand each one of these stories somehow feels both under-developed and over-long at the same time and there seems to be little reason for all of them to be in the same movie.  I’m afraid that I have to suspect that the whole thing was simply thrown together to capitalize on an offer to fund the film by people looking to advertise Rome as tourist destination.  I think it’s about time Woody Allen was called out for making these long advertisements for European cities.  If Coca Cola, Nike, or McDonalds were paying him to make films about their products people would be rightfully offended, and this is only marginally different.  Still, Woody Allen is a guy that seems largely incapable of making a movie that doesn’t amuse me at least marginally well so I can’t stay mad at the movie for long.**1/2 out of Four