Aug 13, 2013

Screening Log, June & July 2013

The Act of Killing (d. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn & Anonymous, Denmark/Norway/UK, 2013) A
Devastating, complex documentary is aesthetically innovative and psychologically haunting: it's one of the rare documentaries as fascinating formally as for its subject matter, and if it doesn't quite supply us with a wealth of contextualizing historical information, that might be because the film is more interested in grappling with the eternal question of genocide than with one of its particular manifestations. Oppenheimer, a London-based filmmaker, collaborates with two Indonesian co-directors (including one who, fearing reprisals from the current government, remains anonymous) in revisiting an unthinkable period in the country's history: the murder of more than half a million “Communists” (often simply labeled as such by their executioners) in 1965-66, after President Sukarno was ousted by his successor, Suharto, in a violent coup. The filmmakers' approach is ingenious: they ask a number of the original executioners (many of whom continue to hold positions of importance in the government) to reenact their genocide in whichever cinematic style they choose, as an attempt to understand how and why they still boast about their brutality with repugnant candor. These “gangsters” from Northern Sumatra profess their love for Hollywood movies, modeling themselves after Marlon Brando and John Wayne and styling their reenactments after their favorite genres: Westerns, musicals, gangster and horror pictures. We predominantly follow Anwar Congo, who murdered close to 1,000 people by strangling them with wire: a seemingly monstrous yet ambiguous character, he cheerfully recounts his sadistic reign and the formation of the corrupt, violent paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila (which continues to extort Chinese expats and induct children into its murderous campaigns), yet he also breaks down when he portrays one of his own victims in a reenactment and (in an unforgettably disturbing scene) dry-heaves interminably while visiting one of his execution sites. How are human beings capable of such unthinkable brutality? And can that overwhelming violence ever be truthfully conveyed onscreen, when cinematic mediation always partially retains an element of dissociation? These are the unanswerable questions the movie tackles, and it does so with astonishing sobriety: never looking away from the atrocities depicted onscreen (whether it's the fictionalized recreations or unsettling documentary footage of children crying during paramilitary demonstrations), it forces us to be sickened by them, and to question our very act of watching itself. Truly groundbreaking in the history of movies, and a documentary on par with Shoah and Hearts and Minds in attempting to come to terms with a historical episode that shockingly proves the horror of which humanity is capable.

Before Midnight (d. Richard Linklater, USA, 2013) B+
The third part of Linklater's fertile collaboration with Hawke and Delpy finds the lovers, Jesse and Celine, married and with twin daughters, spending the summer in the Peloponnese; in addition to the difficulties of married life, he's dealing with his distant relationship with his son and ex-wife, and she's struggling with her unfulfilled ambitions and lack of appreciation. With a pitch-perfect screenplay co-written with Hawke and Delpy, Linklater allows these lengthy conversations to convey a humane, complex appreciation for human life in all of its pain, joy, and lengthy confusion. The miseries faced by Jesse and Celine are, at times, brutal to watch, but the movie is ultimately hopeful and aptly ambiguous. A mid-movie lunch shared by a group of lovers, thinkers, and novelists of all ages is actually the film's highlight: it develops with the naturalism of organic conversation, and somehow suggests the sweet confusion of being alive and in love.  

The Bling Ring (d. Sofia Coppola, USA/UK/France/Germany/Japan, 2013) C+
What seems like ripe material for Coppola—the based-on-real-events story of the Bling Ring, a group of privileged teenagers who stole more than $3 million of goods from the luxurious homes of celebrities—is surprisingly tepid: the movie is mostly straightforward, doing little to subvert or expound upon the subject in an original or insightful way. The story has its own built-in social commentary, so aside from stylish montages of designer gear and close-ups of ubiquitous Facebook pages, there's little subtext going on here—it's all overt, and not terribly interesting. That said, the cast is fun to watch and there are some sharp one-liners; The Bling Ring works better as a wry comedy than anything else.

The Comedy (d. Rick Alverson, USA, 2012) B+
Episodic character study about a privileged, asshole hipster who is so detached from reality that every encounter becomes an excuse to provoke and enrage—the more shocking the altercation, the better. The movie seems to ignore the maxim that the essence of drama is character development: apparently Tim Heidecker's repugnant protagonist remains juvenile and hostile throughout, though it's to the movie's credit that its ambiguous naturalism might actually find him self-loathingly grappling with mortality and inadequacy at the end. Heidecker is fantastic: his soulless gaze and the depravity of his attention-grabbing stunts hint towards a stunted desire to feel anything genuine, even if it's hatred and disgust. The movie caustically criticizes his irrational superiority without overtly moralizing—it's a dead-aim attack on the hyperbolic worst of an entire generation. 

The Conjuring (d. James Wan, USA, 2013) B
All of the old horror standbys are here—the eerie porcelain doll, the creaking floorboards and slamming doors, levitating objects, Satanically possessed innocents, macabre backstories, and so on—but The Conjuring is a prime example of expert craft enlivening tired material: each scare is perfectly calibrated, each scream well-deserved. I'm admittedly a sucker for well-made, old-fashioned haunted house stories, but there is legitimate skill and satisfaction in how director James Wan crafts his setpieces: like the intermeshing gears on a well-made watch, everything clicks to deliver one of the most solid horror movies in years. Wan still doesn't know how to direct actors when they're not in sheer terror—the movie is pretty awful to begin with, rushing through the obligatory exposition in disappointingly clumsy fashion—but when the real scares start they don't let up. Call it a guilty pleasure—though the few sleepless nights that The Conjuring might provoke can attest to the actual talent on display.

Elysium (d. Neill Blomkamp, USA, 2013) D
Blomkamp's 2009 debut District 9 may have been heavy-handed and overindulgent, but it was also viscerally exciting and occasionally inspired: its allegory may have been weak but it was emotionally resonant and thematically ambitious in ways that many action movies aren't. For his sophomore feature, Blomkamp is given Hollywood resources for a more blatantly allegorical sci-fi flick: Los Angeles in 2154 has become a poverty-stricken shantytown where Spanish has replaced English as the official language; the wealthy elites all live on a ritzy space station called Elysium orbiting the planet, which resembles any number of gated exurban communities. There's no depth or complexity to the themes here: the poor earthlings are all noble sufferers, banded together in their universal plight; the upper classes are all unanimously villainous, though they're conveniently replaced by a more generic baddie. Superficially, the movie is a progressive critique of class disparity and the vicious lengths to which governments will go to protect a privileged hegemony, but the movie's setup is actually sickeningly conservative: in Elysium's view of our country's future, we've been overrun by Mexican immigrants, which (ludicrously) turns the nation into a decrepit wasteland. (Like The Dark Knight Rises, the movie's hollow, manipulative politics can be construed to appease either liberals or conservatives—the better to avoid offending any of the movie's potential audience members.) Blomkamp has as little confidence in his narrative and characters as in his themes, beating us over the head with lugubrious music (enough with the “ethnic” chanting!), incessant flashbacks, and stereotypes of gruff yet loyal ruffians that were outdated by the mid-20th century. To round out the movie's insufferable flaws, the action scenes themselves are filmed with a dizzying handheld camera and spliced together to emphasize frenzy over clarity, making the sci-fi mayhem more obnoxious than exciting. Here's hoping Blomkamp settles down and trusts his audience a bit more next time.     

Evil Dead (d. Fede Alvarez, USA, 2013) C
Alvarez's remake certainly tops the original in sadistic gore—the highlight (or nadir) being a scene in which a possessed woman slices off her own face—but is inferior in practically every other regard. Hypothetically the remake's attempt to imbue the characters with emotional resonance is admirable, especially with a striking plot device regarding a protagonist's attempt to kick her cocaine addiction; but the performers and script are too weak to really carry off the pathos, and in any case what the remake proves is that the original's campy, acrobatic vibe—like a blood-drenched episode of Looney Tunes—is essential in reprieving the audience from the nonstop brutality. After the twentieth or so time we see a blood-spewing demon impaling its victim with some kind of sharp object, we're craving Bruce Campbell's silent-action-star anachronisms and Sam Raimi's sheer evanescent verve (which reached its acme with Evil Dead II). Ultimately this retread is content to copy countless horror films before it, including (but not limited to) its predecessor; the camerawork is stylish and there are a few decent scares, but this is ultimately just another remake that points towards Hollywood's money-grubbing laziness.

Germany Year Zero (d. Roberto Rossellini, Italy/France/Germany, 1948) B+
It's still astounding to see a foreigner try to make an honest, sympathetic film about the plight undergone by the German people during and after World War II, made only three years after the armistice—though Rossellini certainly attempted to evoke the same catharsis for Italians with Rome Open City and Paisan, the kind of postwar reckoning and guilt we see here would not be attempted by the German film industry (obviously in a state of ruins) for many decades. Germany Year Zero shares with A Foreign Affair the distinction of being the first narrative fictional film shot in the devastated rubble of postwar Berlin. Yet where Open City and Paisan succeed, Germany Year Zero sometimes falters: though characteristically using a non-professional cast and local dialects (achieved through a translator, since Rossellini directed them in French), the director still relies too much on simplistic character traits to lionize or vilify (such as the Nazi officers who lecherously paw at young boys' supple flesh at every opportunity) and contrived behavior in order to twist the plot into melodramatic directions (the understated populism of De Sica is generally more convincing). Call the film an unsuccessful yet audacious experiment, and a bleak commentary on the souring of humanity that is still remarkable for its bitter yet sympathetic outrage.

Gunga Din (d. George Stevens, USA, 1939) D+
It's the virile Anglos versus the evil, blackfaced natives in this unabashed celebration of colonialism (based on the Rudyard Kipling poem). It can only flimsily be defended as a product of its time and place, or as a ripsnorting adventure that's not meant to reflect reality; such a claim ignores that the two spheres are never so easily separated. Impressively grand and beautifully photographed, those technical resources are nonetheless devoted to a portrayal of masculinity and Western entitlement that, to modern eyes, gives everything a sour taste.

The Hunger (d. Tony Scott, UK, 1983) D
A ludicrous vampire melodrama that reeks of 1983, The Hunger is all post-punk music, soft blue lighting, perfume-ad bombast, and bouffant hairstyles, telling a nonsensical story (edited into incoherency) about an ancient Egyptian vampire (Deneuve) who seeks a new mate—and finds one in a gerontologist (Sarandon) who may have just found an Elixir of Eternal Youth. No moment can exist without self-indulgent pomposity surrounding it, and the sexual conservatism (watch out for those lesbians or you'll get a deadly virus coursing through your veins!) is both tawdry and insensitive.

I'm So Excited (d. Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2013) B
The tongue-in-cheek opening disclaimer says that I'm So Excited is entirely fantasy and bears absolutely no resemblance to reality, but this isn't quite true: the characters include a businessman whose financial swindling has him facing an interminable prison sentence and a Mexican hitman who works for one of the most feared drug lords in troubled Mexico City. But that disclaimer's gist remains true, as the movie is primarily a slight, zippy, candy-colored sexual farce in which most characters are gay or bisexual, preoccupied with carnal desire, and often in some state of inebriation. Raucous and shameless, what really matters is whether the movie's comedy succeeds, and it is genuinely hilarious. Almodovar hardly tries anything new here, but at least the colors evoked by him and his cinematographer (Jose Luis Alcaine) remain brighter than any other modern filmmaker's. It's also undeniably sexy, making for one of the year's best date movies (gay or straight) so far.

Identity Thief (d. Seth Gordon, USA, 2013) C–
By-the-numbers comedy about a financial advisor who becomes the target of a garish Florida-based identity thief. The movie does pay more attention than expected to extreme economic disparities in the U.S., and it's assembled an excellent cast, but the main problem with the film is that it's just not funny: even on the few occasions where McCarthy is unleashed into free improvisatory reign, the results are forced and only slightly amusing. Meanwhile, a cheesy moral lesson about knowing and embracing who you are makes this comedy lifeless and schmaltzy, adding extraneous minutes to a plot that's already an overstuffed, ramshackle mess.

Johnny Guitar (d. Nicholas Ray, USA, 1954) A–
Ray's florid, emphatic allegory for the Red Scare witch hunts of the 1950s stars Crawford (who bought the rights to the novel and whose tyrannical behavior onset enraged at least two costars) as brazen saloon-owner Vienna, who is hysterically accused of murder and robbery for affiliating with a gang of petty crooks. The political paranoia that underlay McCarthyism is audaciously repurposed as sexual hysteria, as the primary motivation for Vienna's persecution is another townswoman's carnal jealousy. Along with The Furies and The Outlaw, this is surely one of the most lustfully unhinged Western ever made (though, true to the subversive style of the best 1950s Hollywood cinema, its carnality is suggested through such visual symbolism as the holstering of a revolver). Made on a shoestring (which is evidenced by the surreally artificial sets, most notably Vienna's saloon – check out her piano solo against a rocky outcrop that looks like a Disneyland attraction), Johnny Guitar is marvelously overheated, unique, wild, and intelligent. The dialogue and performances never even attempt to be realistic: modern audiences might find it difficult to accept the bombastic gesticulations and frenzied line readings, unless we view the movie as a sort of abstracted tragedy, removed from any kind of legible historical setting – it's a more timeless evocation of hysteria, lust, and violence, with Mercedes McCambridge's Emma – one of the best villainesses in movie history – ripping into the screen every time she appears.

La Chinoise (d. Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967) B+
Seen by many as the film (along with Weekend) that bifurcated Godard's career into the earlier, jazzier, pop-deconstructive era and his latter-day political agitations, La Chinoise presciently portrays a group of bored and idealistic college students who, occupying a bourgeois apartment for the summer, embrace Maoism and Marxist-Leninism, naively veering towards political terrorism. It remains shocking how prophetic La Chinoise was: released in France in August 1967, it predates both Columbia and Kent State in the US and the May '68 riots in Paris. Awash in blistering primary colors and dogmatic slogans running the gamut from Dostoevsky to Aragon, Lenin to Mao, Godard's crash course in Communist ideology (and anti-American castigation) would be off-putting if it weren't so self-critical and audaciously Brechtian. Employing the visual, aural, and dialogic equivalents of dialectical materialism, Godard espouses one political ideology only to immediately contradict it: paradoxes, contradictions, and self-negations abound, and even though Godard was and is a zealous Communist and truly thought Maoism could resurrect socialism (a political naivete that's somewhat embarrassing in hindsight), his radical intellectualism makes La Chinoise less a piece of political agitprop than lightning-in-a-bottle political theater. To Godard's credit, he allows an extremely lengthy dialogue to question the validity of political terrorism (while some of his influences, namely Sartre, were more unquestioningly supportive of anarchical violence), and while the cruel setpieces of his following film Weekend often stress pedantic aesthetics over genuine political insight, La Chinoise is easily as intelligent as it is stylistically flamboyant. 

The Magnificent Ambersons (d. Orson Welles, USA, 1942) A
Perhaps the most notorious instance of studio meddling disastrously overhauling the director's original vision—with Welles in Brazil shooting It's All True, RKO, after a disastrous preview screening held only months after Pearl Harbor, chopped 50 minutes off of the movie and tacked on a happy ending—The Magnificent Ambersons remains a masterpiece as troubling for what it doesn't show as what it does. Welles was, of course, right to be indignant about the drastic reedit (he claimed it appeared to have been edited by a lawnmower), but we still have 85 minutes (out of 88) that comprise one of the most darkly beautiful, ambitious, and caustic portrayals of American progress and class inequality ever made by a Hollywood studio. If watching the movie now offers its own unavoidable conjectures—though Welles' memos to RKO meticulously delineate his original vision, we are still left to ponder exactly what visual form these scenes would have taken (including an uninterrupted tracking shot through the Amberson mansion that RKO reedited arbitrarily)—the film still teems with troubling undercurrents (repressed lust and one of the most extreme Oedipal complexes ever portrayed among them) and a shadowy visual palette that's much darker than even the blackest film noir, with much of the Gothic sets often bathed in silhouette, as though the opulent Amberson mansion is condemned to misery from its very inception. The mobility of the camerawork and Welles' insistence on uncommonly long takes in some ways add to and retroactively complicate Gregg Toland's masterful work on Citizen Kane—it's fascinating to see how the aesthetic differs here, with Welles forced to work with a new (yet, arguably, equally great) cameraman, Stanley Cortez—emphasizing how each character truly seems trapped within emotional and social straitjackets, either of their own design or passed down by a ruthless American culture in the throes of relentless progressivism. This may not be the grand, operatic, somber vision that Welles originally had, but we can still detect the bold style and emotional depth of a master, its brilliance obscured but hardly smothered by crass, commercialistic concerns.

Monsters University (d. Dan Scanlon, USA, 2013) C
Prequel to Monsters, Inc.—one of my favorite Pixar movies—is too blatantly an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the first. This time, Mike and Sully are tendentious roommates at college, embracing (maybe futilely) their dreams of becoming top scarers. The rampant sight gags, infectious wit, and humane tenderness of the first film are mostly missing, though it's entertaining throughout and the studio's visual splendor remains (predictably) intact.

Only God Forgives (d. Nicolas Winding Refn, France/Thailand/USA/Sweden, 2013) A–
Refn's nasty, heavily abstract phantasmagoria resembles a particularly bloodstained Hieronymus Bosch painting: we seem to descend through all seven circles of Hell, bearing witness to the awful interpenetration of sexuality, violence, and transcendence. The director of another of 2013's best movies – Post Tenebras Lux's Carlos Reygadas – claimed that narratives are simply formulae to raise funding for what remains, at heart, formalist constructions of sights and sounds, and Only God Forgives demonstrates that perfectly (and unsettlingly): Refn and his cast seem to realize that the story is ludicrous and almost perfunctory, as the film is an excuse to patch together a series of overwhelming symbolic and visceral imagery. This is not a criticism: you only need to watch the first five minutes of the film – a series of lateral tracking shots interspersed with static compositions, timed and pitched to perfectly correspond with the droning music – to realize how brazenly Refn tries to make the film an expressionist, baroque patchwork (the unnerving synchrony of image and audio brings to mind Eisenstein's stylized visuals in Ivan the Terrible, which were meant to visually manifest Sergei Prokofiev's sheet music). While the narrative construct is a simple revenge fantasy, the images astoundingly evoke Freudian sexuality and violent abstraction: the two culminate in an image of a character splitting open his dead mother's stomach and inserting his hand into her bowels, in an outrageous but undeniably singular expression of returning to the womb. Not a pleasant movie, clearly, but it's less hypocritical and self-satisfied than Drive (not to mention a hell of a lot weirder and more provocative); it hardly seems accidental that the only gratuitously gory image in Only God Forgives – an extreme close-up of an eyeball being punctured by a knife – inevitably brings to mind the eye mutilation in Un chien Andalou, another film known for its aggressively surreal evocation of male sexual violence.

Pacific Rim (d. Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2013) C+
This special effects orgy takes a basically foolproof concept—human pilots commandeer robot Jagers to wage hand-to-hand combat with gargantuan monsters named Kaiju, who emerge from an alternate universe through a portal hidden deep in the Pacific Ocean—and imbues it with as much ravishing detail and childlike astonishment as possible, allowing del Toro to elaborate on his trademark blend of small-scale creativity and huge-scale bombast. If only the storyline exhibited the same originality: the plot is strictly by-the-numbers, with character arcs you can see coming from a mile away, an ensemble of cliches, even a sappy climax involving everyone applauding in unison and a cutaway to an adorable dog. But even if the movie's blockbuster DNA is a bit too blatant at times, the movie excels at what you really want to see—badass monster-vs.-robot fights that will make your inner six-year-old euphoric—and likable performers are able to carry off the generic story with charm and sweetness.

Room 237 (d. Rodney Ascher, USA, 2013) B+
A series of interviews regarding elaborate, fairly outlandish interpretations of Kubrick's classic The Shining, exploring subtexts ranging from the Holocaust to the genocide of American Indians to the faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Some of these readings are more convincing than others (the theme of massacred Native Americans is the only one that seems fairly incontrovertible), but more interesting is the movie's evocation of postmodern film theory: the fact that authorial intent is not always as significant as individual viewers' emotional and intellectual relationships with films, and that art's labyrinthine complexity really comes alive when it enters an organic cultural discourse. While the movie's sound design is flawed and its themes eventually become redundant, its interest in interpretive agility and the visual creativity with which it espouses these ideas (the film consists entirely of archival footage and scenes from cinematic history, with no mundane talking heads to speak of) remain compelling.

Stories We Tell (d. Sarah Polley, Canada, 2013) B+
Polley's heartfelt, ardent documentary recalls the films of Ross McElwee; while it is more focused on a single linear narrative, it is just as attuned to the personal and cultural ramifications of storytelling. What starts off as a multivalent portrait of Sarah's mother, a dynamic singer/actress in Toronto, becomes an intimate family history that is both disarmingly ordinary and overwhelmingly dramatic. Along with the idea that each lived life and family dynamic is an artful story in itself, Polley emphasizes that every memory—like every film—is an untrustworthy, subjective recollection, though no less emotional for it. In fact, Polley oversells this last point in an overlong conclusion, and she's a little too ready to let spoken monologues convey ideas that might have been more interesting if they were solely visual—but these are quibbles for a movie as intriguing and poignant as this one.

The Suitor (Le soupirant) (d. Pierre Etaix, France, 1963) B
Charming comedy—the feature debut from beloved (if relatively unheralded) actor/director/comedian/illustrator Etaix—borrows the stonefaced sight gags of Buster Keaton and the formal audacity of Jacques Tati in its agreeable story of an introverted loner whose parents force him to find a wife and settle down. The narrative is predominantly a structure around which to lace Etaix's episodic sight gags, but themes of loneliness, cultural miscommunication, even the allure of pop culture all make fleeting yet thought-provoking appearances. The comedic sequences are all beautifully performed and shot (the highlight is probably a foray into the woods for a picnic, from which the Suitor desperately tries to escape from a harping paramour), and the film (at only 85 minutes) wisely ends before it wears out its welcome.

This Is the End (d. Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, USA, 2013) B
Rogen and Baruchel show up at James Franco's swanky Beverly Hills mansion, where a bevy of self-absorbed, over-the-top celebrities are soon annihilated by a fire-and-brimstone apocalypse. The movie itself is self-absorbed and over-the-top – those tired of the whole Judd Apatow gross-out man-child dick-paranoia brand of comedy should stay as far away as possible – but the performers' natural charisma and skill with absurdist improvisation shines through all the cock-and-balls swagger. Rogen and Goldberg display a likable fondness for horror cinema (a nod to Rosemary's Baby is especially hilarious), and all of the narcissism is tempered by a robust strain of self-deprecation. It's the kind of movie that throws everything at the wall to see what sticks, but thankfully much of it does, and the film's built-in defense for its own petty boorishness – the fact that those are the very traits which may lead to the characters' eternal hellfire banishment – is a clever (though only half-successful) apologia for this entire brand of sophomoric comedy (which I'd be lying if I said I wasn't amused by).

The Tin Drum (d. Volker Schlöndorff, West Germany/France/Poland/Yugoslavia, 1979) B+
Oskar Mazerath is a young German boy in the eastern region of Danzig; his mother is a tempestuous Kashubian, his “uncle” (or maybe father) is a proud Pole, and his mother's husband an overzealous German who jumps at the chance to join the Nazi Party. Amidst the torrid family affairs of his parents (which he observes, quietly traumatized, from a distance), his fractured country devolves into genocide and barbarism; as a response to this deluge of inhumanity, Oskar—at only three years old in 1927—vows to willfully stop growing, remaining forever childlike and self-obsessed while the adult world goes to hell around him. Casual absurdism meshes with a horrific depiction of war (much like the 1985 Soviet film Come and See), painting an unforgettable, haunting portrait of a childhood pitched (as Oskar's opening voiceover opines) somewhere between wonder and disillusion. Schlöndorff's adaptation of Gunther Grass' novel utilizes a brightly colored landscape, making brilliant use of Germany's architecture and natural beauty, to accentuate the brutality of humanity; clocks feature prominently in the film, emphasizing the cyclicality of overwhelming violence (namely the World Wars taking place within three decades of each other, yet also the fact that America was deploying ballistic missiles throughout contested parts of Europe at the time of the film's release while the Cold War intensified). At times Oskar's dual storylines—the historical centrality of the Holocaust and the Oedipal undercurrent of Oskar's infatuation with both his mother and a young maid who has an affair with his father—do not mesh well, and the film can be too allegorically on-the-nose (especially with a traveling troupe of midgets, the leader of which informs Oskar that little people cannot simply sit in the audience, watching while “the big people” stampede over the innocents). Yet despite its unevenness, the movie is visually ravishing (the opening scene and Oskar's birth, filmed from his perspective as he emerges from his mother's womb, are probably the standouts) and its sickened commentary on the evil of humanity remains (sadly) forever prescient.

Touki Bouki (d. Djibril Diop Mambety, Senegal, 1973) A–
Made in the artistically fertile late '60s/early '70s period of Senegalese independence, Djibril Diop Mambety's audacious experiment melds Eisensteinian montage, Godardian jump cuts and voiceover techniques, and distinctly Senegalese aspects such as the use of a griot and juxtapositional depictions of Christianity, Islam, the lower and upper classes, and Europeans and Senegalese in order to suggest the simultaneous vibrancy and destitution of modern urban life in Dakar. Opening with a grisly contrast between free-roaming cattle and those being slaughtered in an abattoir, Touki Bouki primarily functions through such contradistinctions, ultimately conveying Mambety's ambivalent attitude towards postcolonial Senegal. If the writer/director's philosophy can sometimes be too caricatured—whether depicting a foppish upper-class gay man or piggish, racist French tourists—his bold cultural pride and aesthetic experimentation remain abrasively powerful.

Jun 7, 2013

Screening Log, May 2013

The Docks of New York (d. Josef von Sternberg, USA, 1928) A–
Two years before his first collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, von Sternberg was already turning studio sets (here awe-inspiringly designed by Hans Dreier) into sparkling snowglobes in which Hollywood fables play out. Here, a stalwart coal stoker on an ocean liner (George Bancroft) saves a despondent prostitute (Betty Compson) from a suicide attempt, then proceeds to marry her in a fit of drunken whimsy. Bancroft and Compson deliver a pair of silent performances for the ages, exemplifying how silent Hollywood cinema (at its finest in 1928) achieved an emotive splendor that turned seemingly generic plots into something transcendent. Arguably more powerful than many of von Sternberg's later films with Dietrich, The Docks of New York literally seems to radiate off the screen: the meticulous lighting and dazzling camerawork are a wonder to behold.

The Gang's All Here (d. Busby Berkeley, USA, 1943) B+
Berkeley (on loan to 20th Century Fox from MGM) at his most eye-poppingly bizarre: there will be elaborate musical numbers involving enormous bananas, black-draped dancers wielding neon Tron-like hula hoops, and a climax involving a plethora of dismembered heads flying at the audience in order to perform "The Polka Dot Polka." Oh, and Carmen Miranda at her most cheekily vivacious, and Benny Goodman perpetually looking like he'd rather be anywhere but on camera. It must be seen to be believed, and is never less than entertaining, but the songs themselves are pretty atrocious (hence, Benny Goodman) and the characterizations do not age well: the movie's profoundest mystery is why two women would fight over the same cardboard, casually sexist cad. (Well, aside from the fact that he's a GI – don't forget to buy your war bonds!)

Star Trek Into Darkness (d. J.J. Abrams, USA, 2013) B
Reliably satisfying genre work from Abrams, proving he's the right man to take over the reins on the (interminably) continuing Star Wars series: he's injected some postmodern self-reflexivity, opulent glitz, and shameless brawn into his Star Trek reboot. The movie often moves too quickly for its emotional interludes to truly register, but it may be futile to criticize a summer blockbuster for being too fast-paced: it's definitely wiser to be viscerally in the moment when watching Into Darkness (dwelling too long on its convoluted story will expose vortex-sized plot holes). Ultimately Abrams cannot elevate above mere craftsmanship (and, despite Benedict Cumberbatch's sinister charm as Khan, the movie's villain can't compete with the sheer terror of Eric Bana's Nero from the first film), but at least Abrams knows how to give his audience what it wants. Bonus: you get to see Peter Weller back on the big screen.

Upstream Color (d. Shane Carruth, USA, 2013) C+
If Shane Carruth's 2004 debut Primer treated the mind-boggling metaphysics of time travel as the subject for aching human drama, his newest film, Upstream Color, treats human relationships like an abstract cypher for its participants (and the audience) to unpack – which might explain why the new film is, surprisingly, much colder and emotionally distant. Despite its numerous allusions to Thoreau, its Malick-inspired whispered voiceovers, and metaphorical imagery of animals, ultimately Upstream Color comes off as lugubrious and numbingly symbolic – especially with a godlike character who records sounds from the natural world and releases them as New Age soundtracks, while apparently peddling a mind-melding drug harvested from maggot-like worms. Carruth's ideas and freewheeling plot are certainly original, but he doesn't achieve a distinct form to match his striking conceits: handheld cinematography, brief snippets of scenes edited together into a nervy patchwork, and actors bedecked in pullover sweaters intoning their lines in a self-serious mumble all start to resemble 90% of American indie movies by the end. This is one of the most acclaimed movies of the year so far, so I'm in the minority, but it's difficult to see what has wowed the majority of critics.

Possession (d. Andrzej Zulawski, France/West Germany, 1981) B+
Zulawski's mad, bitter, indescribable horror show must be seen to believed, but I'll attempt a synopsis anyway: described elsewhere as a mixture of Bergman psychodrama, Polanski surrealism, and Cronenberg body horror (with a little Fassbinder mindfuck and Godardian political subtext thrown in), Possession details the gruesome fallout of a spectacularly bad divorce in West Berlin. The woman, beset by guilt and self-loathing, apparently gives birth to two divine twins, Good and Evil – one of whom miscarries, the other of which mutates into a hideous creature who needs the flesh of men to survive. There's also a coke-addled womanizer named Henrich, several doppelgangers, and a toddler who may or may not commit suicide. Fresh off of a brutal divorce, Zulawski (not unlike Cronenberg with 1979's The Brood) lets his spurned hostility fester into the nightmarish film we see here: clearly not a sensitive depiction of womanhood or female sexuality, Possession nonetheless powerfully conveys the intense, desperate emotion of divorce, lust, parenthood, and jealousy. Unquestionably one of the most disturbing movies I've seen, although its dialogue and performances are pitched at the level of hyperbolized hysteria: like everything else in the film, its drama eschews realism in order to achieve a kind of heightened revulsion, making for an unforgettable experience.   

To the Wonder (d. Terrence Malick, USA, 2013) B–
There's much to embrace about To the Wonder: its mostly dialogue-free emphasis on impressionistic and atmospheric visuals, its analogy between the void left by both long-gone romantic partners and an absent God whose seeming non-existence forever torments us, its juxtaposition of transcendental places on earth with those that have been ruined by human meddling, and (maybe most of all) the possibility that it's really a dance movie, with its performers' languid motions coming closer to ballet than characterization. But for all of its earnestness and thought-provoking philosophy, there's no getting around the fact that the people we see (and obliquely hear) come nowhere close to relatable characters: by the halfway point (at the latest), we've become frustrated with Ben Affleck's stoic pensiveness, with Olga Kurylenko's angelic whimsicality, with Rachel McAdams' saintly suffering – or, more generally, with Malick's eternal contrast between the stern emotionlessness of men and the angelic tenderness of women. Malick's aesthetic seems, at times, to go in new directions, but more likely it's just the most uninhibited expression of his stylistic obsessions: the whispered, faux-spiritual voiceovers, waltzing camera, and cutaways to symbolic imagery come dangerously close to self-parody. If The Tree of Life approached divinity through appropriately grandiose terms (flashing back to the beginnings of time and the furthest reaches of the cosmos), To the Wonder approaches it through the mundane: bland suburban homes, Oklahoma sunsets, environments assailed by pollution and oil-drilling. Narrowing his milieu while maintaining his ambitious scope might be Malick's most brazen risk here, but it doesn't quite pay off: To the Wonder too often seems like poetic imagery in search of a legitimate conduit, populated by people who never register as legitimate human beings.

Gertrud (d. Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1964) A
Dreyer's disarmingly austere study of a woman with unattainable ideals regarding love and human existence might be the epitome of a cryptic rebus whose seemingly simple surface masks a tantalizingly puzzling inner life: Gertrud is a natural counterpart to Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961), though it's much less overtly oneiric. As Gertrud holds a throng of suitors at arms' length, claiming they could never match her romantic ideals of men who give everything for a transcendent ideal of love, the actors offer blank-eyed line recitations amid minimalist compositions rife with multiple shades of gray. All of this has led to the movie's reputation as the ultimate arthouse dirge, but there's much more going on than meets the eye: for one thing, Gertrud's refusal to accept any of the men in her life for their perceived stolidity (a contrast of male impassivity and female emotionalism that reappears in Terrence Malick's films) amounts to a willful solitude, making the film not so much about the impossibility of love as about the importance of free will and living life according to one's own credo. For another, a number of bewildering aesthetic decisions – hazy overexposure in a number of scenes, a symmetrical (non-)narrative structure, voiceover narrations that shuffle between a number of characters, a dynamic use of mobile and still camerawork – suggests that the entire film might be a dream, perhaps projected by Gertrud in the waning years of her life (as the constant allusions to the past, youth, and the irretrievability of history suggest). Finally, as Jonathan Rosenbaum's excellent analysis in Sight & Sound points out, the movie might be most accurately read as a guarded autobiography by Dreyer, obliquely alluding to the biological mother he never knew and his own cruel foster mother – a life story that points towards the theme that no identity can ever be truly fathomed, that every individual necessarily lives within themselves, unable to completely connect with another soul (one of Abbas Kiarostami's favorite subtexts). So while Gertrud might not be as emotional and character-driven as its preoccupation with romance might suggest, it may be more gratifying to read the movie as a willfully misleading cypher: a personal statement whose implicit form spins its explicit subject matter in a number of fascinating directions.

If... (d. Lindsay Anderson, UK, 1968) B–
A haunting yet morbidly funny allegory for the wave of revolution and violent activism that seemed to pervade the globe in the late 1960's and early '70s, with a draconic boarding school in the English countryside acting as a microcosm for worldwide oppression and retribution. Images of Lenin, Che, and Geronimo, prominently placed in the mise-en-scene, emphasize the movie's focus on the nature of insurgency itself, though the sadistic glee with which the students rebel in the final ten minutes complicate the movie's anti-establishment agenda. This is the kind of movie that Pauline Kael, circa “The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties” essay, would have hated: loose plotting, self-important formalism (with constant switches between black-and-white and color, only vaguely motivated), and a modish investigation of the nature of tyranny and rebellion. Yet unlike the other movies Kael critiqued in that essay (La Dolce Vita and La Notte most notably), If... may not have enough political insight or ingenuity to justify its confrontational air. The ultimate theme of the movie seems to be that a tyrannical status quo will breed an outraged revolutionary youth – a fairly obvious conclusion that plays much too lazily into the hands of the progressive culture that made the movie a hit. The movie's occasional dabbling in absurdism fares best.

The Great Gatsby (d. Baz Luhrmann, Australia/USA, 2013) C+
Luhrmann's up to his usual tricks here – orgiastic style, relentlessly mobile camerawork, opulent CGI, and storylines that emphasize tragic, doomed romance – so if you're looking for a subtle, understated adaptation of Fitzgerald's classic, look elsewhere. (Then again, no good adaptation has ever been made of The Great Gatsby, so you're probably better off sticking with the book.) Overlong, syrupy, and sledgehammer-obvious where Fitzgerald's prose is lithe and agile, this reworking is undoubtedly an MTV-Cliff's Notes simplification for modern audiences devoid of attention spans; that said, the movie does ably convey the book's primary underlying theme (that Daisy is Jay Gatsby's Rosebud, an emblem of unattainable happiness shrouded amongst all of his material possessions), and the eye-popping glitz can at least be defended as an implicit critique of the spectacular wealth to which Gatsby disastrously aspires. (Of course, Luhrmman's aesthetic glorifies that spectacle as much as it critiques it.) DiCaprio is reliably powerful, but Gatsby's elegiac life story, compressed as it is into a brief flashback, can't compare to the original's power. Most interesting might be the suggestion that this is really a story about New York itself: a symbol of exorbitant wealth that disguises all of the pain, backstabbing, and self-absorption that propels its richness. 

Spring Breakers (d. Harmony Korine, USA, 2013) B+
Korine's hallucinatory, gleefully deconstructive experiment in genre and pop sensationalism casts four starlets – three of them pop idols, made famous by the tween audiences of the Disney Channel and High School Musical – and proceeds to both fetishize and subvert their sexuality during a Spring Break from demented hell. Willingly toppling into an amoral void of automatic weapons, hard drugs, and murder (with the help of a cornrowed James Franco, a little too self-reflexive as a Florida rapper), the girls obliviously breeze through a candy-colored Fantasyland, only fleetingly recognizing the peril and insanity of their descent. An implicit analogy is made between sensationalized sex, glorified violence, and the reckless love of money and possession, suggesting the three as inextricable corners of an outsized capitalistic triangle. What might appear to be Korine's most mainstream venture on the surface is a sly subversion of both genre form and glitzy entertainment; it's always fascinating, though the characterizations tend to suffer in the shadow of all the postmodern absurdity. 

Behind the Candelabra (d. Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2013) B
This Liberace biography starts out close to kitsch but ends with all-out tragedy, powerfully conveying a shallow culture whose emphasis on wealth and appearance makes happiness and personal connection nearly impossible. Douglas' performance as the legendary showman excels at reveling in fantastic glamour while simultaneously suggesting the underlying loneliness and fear of aging; Damon's performance, while it falters in some of the later drug-addiction scenes, is touchingly vulnerable. At times the editing is a little scattershot, as the movie becomes more episodic as it goes on and misses a number of chances to tease out thematic and emotional connections between scenes, but the digital cinematography is gorgeous and impeccably glitzy throughout.

Re-Animator (d. Stuart Gordon, USA, 1985) B
A one-of-a-kind mix of sleazy B-grade horror, liquescent gore effects, outrageous camp, and respectful H.P. Lovecraft adaptation – and it all somehow works, flying along on its singularly weird vibe. The goofy tone is infectious and most of the cast gives surprisingly effective performances (especially Barbara Crampton). 

The Place Beyond the Pines (d. Derek Cianfrance, USA, 2013) B–
Cianfrance is obviously going for an epic of mythic, almost biblical proportions, but the results are scattershot and only occasionally powerful. The tripartite structure (in which the sins of fathers come to bear upon their sons) is intriguing, offering a narrative that's more conceptually driven than most, but audience engagement and characterizations suffer: motivations are poorly developed or inscrutable. That said, the middle portion (focusing on Cooper's character) is the most powerful and thematically complex, darkly portraying class animosity in America, and Cianfrance's control over moody visual and aural atmospherics provides some shudder-inducing moments.  

Post Tenebras Lux (d. Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany, 2013) B+
Leaping through space and time with only loose metaphysical and thematic connections, Post Tenebras Lux is Reygadas' most non-narrative, impressionistic film yet (which is saying something). Essentially the story of Juan and his wealthy family – a product of modern Mexican urbanity, conspicuously out of place in a primal countryside – the movie includes baffling diversions such as a red-rotoscoped Devil figure, a muddy rugby match that seems to feature none of the movie's recurring characters, a visit to an orgiastic bathhouse with rooms named after Hegel and Duchamp, and a distraught character tearing off his own head in destitution. The emphasis on the sensorial nature of remembrance and the complexity of a fully-lived life recalls Proust, but the style is more reminiscent of Joyce's Ulysses: a parade of signifiers without a signified, immersed in its author's singular headspace, yet amounting to a sensorial fabric for the (often bewildered) audience. Best viewed as a sort of psychedelic quasi-autobiography, the movie succeeds in spite of its dissociative coldness: the sounds and images are so ravishing that we can still sense the heartache and passion underneath.

Feb 15, 2013

2012: The Year in Film

If 2011 was one of the best cinematic years in the 28 years I've been alive (or, at least, the 14 or so years I've been semi-seriously paying attention to movies), then 2012 was its underwhelming denouement – a year in which many of the most heralded films lacked the creativity, vitality, or emotional power for which they were acclaimed. Two years ago, a roster of international filmmakers, both established auteurs (Kiarostami, Scorsese, Reichardt, Apichatpong, Ruiz, Kaurismäki, von Trier, Wenders, Malick, Herzog, Cronenberg, et al.) and relative newcomers (Andrew Haigh, Sean Durkin), stepped up to the plate with impressively vigorous, visceral, stimulating works. In 2012, though, while superstar directors like the two Andersons (Paul Thomas and Wes) and Leos Carax were excessively lauded and breakouts like Benh Zeitlin and Alex Ross Perry were deemed momentous discoveries, few such works actually pushed at the boundaries of filmmaking as we know it, or even attempted to. (Not that every great film has to revolutionize the art form, but they should at least resist the temptation to trace genres, styles, and narratives that have been drummed into audiences' heads to a mind-numbing extent.)

I don't pretend that this has anything to do with some kind of zeitgeist: some years are overwhelmingly strong, some less so (such is the capricious nature of art). It's not like the digital revolution had anything to do with 2012's lukewarm offerings, as the switchover from celluloid to digital production and exhibition was already in full swing as of 2011 (and inspired stellar ruminations, made on both formats, on the nature of nostalgia and cinematic perception).

I also don't mean to sound like a dour curmudgeon, one of those film writers who, year after year, decry the state of modern moviemaking because "they don't make 'em like they used to" (whatever that means). I have no doubt that movies will continue to provoke excitement and controversy, and even continue to occupy a significant discursive place in modern society, though the actual forms of spectatorship will inevitably change. In other words, if this year was less-than-stellar cinematically, it's not because the art of cinema is in its death throes; in some ways, it has more democratic, do-it-yourself potential than it's ever had before.

All of the movies on this list received at least a limited US release date during the calendar year of 2012. This means that a few films considered by some critics to be 2011 releases (such as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) are 2012 movies in my book; it also means that other festival showings during 2012 (Leviathan, Beyond the Hills) will count as 2013 releases once they finally receive a limited stateside release. Such is the convoluted nature of international release dates.

Finally, while I usually only write about my top twenty films of the year, I've decided this time to include a complete checklist of every new 2012 release I saw, with a brief capsule review for some of them. This is precisely because many of the most acclaimed movies of the year – notably Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, and Silver Linings Playbook – are nowhere near as vital or insightful as some critics proclaim them to be.


1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (d. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey/Bosnia and Herzegovina)
If Tarkovsky had tackled the murder-mystery genre – or if Dostoevsky, working a century later, had funneled his inspirations for Crime and Punishment into cinema instead – the result might look something like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. This is all the more remarkable considering the mystery at the heart of the film – the murder of a seemingly ordinary gas-station owner and the disappearance of his corpse – is never clearly unravelled. In a sense, the audience is asked to play detective themselves: Ceylan (director of Distant and Climates, both acclaimed festival standouts) stays away from extravagant reveals, littering clues and fleeting insights into both the narrative and these characters throughout the chilly aesthetic of the film. It's as though he respects these people (the investigators, victims, and suspects) so much that he doesn't want to sensationalize their misery with a worn-out crime thriller; as in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, the chilly, long-take style, while on the surface inhumane or pedantic, is in fact achingly sincere, a way of treating the characters with the distanced complexity they deserve.

A number of fascinating supporting characters revolve around the central narrative maelstrom, a plurality of voices which constitutes one of several similarities with Dostoevsky; another is a metaphorical analysis of the nature of good and evil, memorably evoked in one dialogue sequence which culminates in an astounding tracking shot of some apples rolling down a hill, ultimately carried away in the current of a stream. It's a sign of Ceylan's prowess as filmmaker that a traveling shot of some apples might be the most breathtaking cinematic moment of the year. But there's tragic substance and real-world complexity beneath the meticulous form – for example, in the revealing depiction of these Turkish villages as straddled tensely between the European and Arab worlds, an insight which foregrounds the characters' personal intrigues against a similarly fraught geopolitical backdrop. In other words, though Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is cerebral and hyperreal, it also recognizably takes place in our own turbulent world.

2. This Is Not a Film (d. Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran)
The production backstory is well known: after he was nebulously convicted of conspiring against the state by the Iranian government, Jafar Panahi was forbidden from making another film or giving interviews to the press for 20 years, and sentenced to indefinite house arrest (which has since been lifted). It was during this house arrest that Panahi – and This Is Not a Film's "official" director, Panahi's friend and fellow filmmaker Mirtahmasb (one of many ways that the movie skirts the restrictions passed down by Panahi's sentence) – wielded a digital camera and his own iPhone to record his artistic quarantine. Their collaboration made its way to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival (where it had its premiere) on a zip drive hidden inside of a cake.

This context might suggest an impassioned though narrowly-focused diatribe against government-sanctioned censorship, noble in intention yet limited in impact. Thankfully, This Is Not a Film turns out to be closer to Chris Marker's cine-essays than the first-person narratives of, say, Ross McElwee (no disrespect to the latter). Reviewing scenes from his previous films on DVD or carrying out the pre-production process of a project he knows he might never be able to make, Panahi is able to deconstruct the very act of making and perceiving art, questioning what the process of "directing" actually entails. (His point: filmmaking never really begins until you're on set or on location with a cast and crew, which is why his activities in This Is Not a Film abide by the ban on directing passed down to him.) As Fireworks Wednesday (a pre-Islamic Iranian holiday which has morphed into a collective demonstration against the restrictive regime) rages on outside, Panahi encounters a few sympathetic bystanders; their compassionate warnings accompany his tentative steps outside his home at the end of the movie. This Is Not a Film, like Panahi's similarly impassioned Offside, thus ends on a note of hope, as artistic freedom is equated with political activism – both tactics for counteracting a strict government that hopes to rule through hegemony and oppression.

3. The Deep Blue Sea (d. Terence Davies, USA/UK)
Terence Davies' depictions of historical settings – especially in his semi-autobiographical pair of masterpieces, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) – are somehow both radiant with nostalgia and grittily immersive: immaculate set design and finely-tuned performances achieve the difficult task of making us believe we're actually contemporaries of these historical characters, with the movie screen acting as a time-travel portal into the past. With The Deep Blue Sea, this journey into history takes on an operatically tragic tone, as we witness one woman's dissolution into all-consuming despair. In postwar London, Hester (Rachel Weisz), the wife of a mild-mannered judge many years older, stumbles into a passionate affair with a self-absorbed RAF pilot. An early montage, nearly wordless, of the initiation of their affair is as warmly vivid as the end of their affair is violently inevitable.

The movie is flooded with melancholia and tragedy (after all, it opens with one of Hester's suicide attempts), but that suffused ambience of despair remains compelling in the manner of the best melodramas; why should Davies resort to levity when Hester has no such reprieve? The relationship between the director and Rachel Weisz seems mutually inspirational: Weisz, despite her many magnetic performances, is still revelatory in an extremely precarious role (how easy it would have been to overplay Hester's misery), and Davies has found an elegant, plaintive face perfectly suited to his bittersweet portrayal of the past. Even more fascinating: the specter of World War II makes an unexpectedly phantasmal appearance here, especially in an unforgettable closing shot that brings the audience closer to a gaping chasm surrounded by rubble – a black hole that might symbolize either rebirth or annihilation.

4. The Kid with a Bike (d. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy)
Modern cinema's masters of vérité humanism, Belgium's Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, shift their empathetic focus to a tempestuous redheaded orphan: dropped off by his deadbeat dad at a boys' home in the deceptively picturesque town of Seraing, young Cyril simply will not accept his father's abandonment, resorting to whirlwinds of ceaseless motion in order to vent his pent-up frustration. (The father is played by Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier, who played a similarly volatile youth in the writer-directors' debut La Promesse – a self-reference that subtly suggests the extent to which abhorrent parenting can tragically trickle down into future generations, perpetuating the same behavior.) Ultimately, Cyril finds potential parental figures in both a compassionate hairdresser who guardedly agrees to take him in, and a teenage thug who embroils Cyril in his petty criminal plans. In other words, we are thrust into Cyril's life at a point in time when his path might lead to either love or violence.

The story might sound sentimental, but the Dardennes avoid melodrama at all costs, instead observing their characters' behavior with compassionate remove and aching naturalism. Alain Marcoen's camerawork is as mobile as Cyril, though the handheld camerawork here is in fact meticulously controlled, utilizing the corners of the frame in responding to and accommodating the characters' motions. The precision of the cinematography and editing helps to explain why the Dardennes' films, for all their no-frills succinctness, are often breathtakingly thrilling, yielding something close to vérité action. This is why a brawl at a gas station and a freefall from a tree in The Kid with a Bike whip us into an emotional frenzy despite their apparent simplicity: the drama of real life is more exciting to the Dardennes than the machinations of narrative filmmaking, and the emotional payoff is overwhelming even as it takes on the unassuming form of everyday existence.

5. Anna Karenina (d. Joe Wright, UK)
The question of whether Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina rivals Leo Tolstoy's original novel is almost wholly irrelevant: some people might still assume that movie adaptations should slavishly follow the words that inspired them, but I'm more impressed by Anna Karenina's ability to use the original as a springboard, catapulting it into its own heightened realm of melodrama and formal experimentation.

The theatricality of Wright's adaptation – the fact that much of it visibly takes place (and was shot) in an immense, dilapidated theater, with characters crossing the stage to segue between scenes and models of dollhouses and railroad tracks standing in for actual locations – may be the movie's distinguishing gimmick, but it's also surprisingly purposeful: life is a stage for the Russian aristocracy in the 1870s. The histrionics of the storyline carry a more muted elegance in Tolstoy's original, but here, they're intentionally made as vivid and hyperbolic as possible. The overstated style of it all should remind us that late 19th-century Russia and modern America aren't very far apart in this respect, given modern media's infatuation with the carnivalesque dramas of the rich and famous. Apart from its self-reflective play with the melodrama genre, Anna Karenina is also visually ravishing, with each impeccable widescreen composition and dazzling use of color reminding us how little most movies actually embrace the fact that cinema is a visual art form. In other words, if the movie's achievement is predominantly visual, that emphasis on opulence should be considered a surprisingly rare achievement in modern movies; it's one of the few films in recent memory that harkens back to the Technicolor sheen of Powell/Pressburger and Douglas Sirk. Amidst its artifice, Anna Karenina's indulgence in hyper-tragedy remains surprisingly effective, with Keira Knightley's porcelain beauty meshing perfectly with the film's style (she wears a mannequin mask to conceal the depression raging within).

6. Neighboring Sounds (d. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil)
A series of black-and-white still photographs: rotting fences, defiant faces, homes in the countryside. We're then thrust into motion in modern-day Recife, following a young girl riding her tricycle. Her mother smokes weed and achieves sexual gratification with a vibrating dryer; the dog next door won't stop barking, so she feeds it tranquilizers. Another woman's car is burgled on the same street; her boyfriend's father almost literally owns the block, and wants to accept her into the family business. Another man pitches a neighborhood watch that's closer to a three-man militia, but the direst threats against this community appear to be already festering within it.

These concurrent storylines parallel each other, making room at times for surreal, sometimes horrifying intrusions; modern life is an eerie creature in Neighboring Sounds, in which the uncomfortably close proximity of turbulent lives is evoked through the collage-like soundtrack (ambient noises float in on top of each other, heightening the dreamlike power of most scenes). And in the end those still photographs make a circuitous, implicit reappearance, brilliantly injecting sociopolitical commentary into the enigmas at hand. Fireworks have rarely been so unsettling, so cataclysmic.

7. Zero Dark Thirty (d. Kathryn Bigelow, USA)
Does Zero Dark Thirty condone torture? In many ways it's unfortunate that this question is all people talk about in regards to the movie, which also provides a disturbingly ambivalent observation of American militarism and the destructive extent to which political machination and personal vendetta intermingle (among other things). But it would also be foolish to ignore the elephant in the room, since the movie's complex view of state-sanctioned retaliation, neither liberal nor conservative, hinges on its intentionally sickening scenes of torture. Portrayal is not endorsement, Bigelow has claimed in interviews, but there are also lines of dialogue which regard the U.S. detainee program somewhat fondly; engaged viewers should be able to conclude that these words are the subjective voices of flawed individuals representing a wide political spectrum, but others (including those who have condemned the film) might conclude that these words are the ideology that the film espouses.

The movie walks a dangerous tightrope, in other words – but should we fault a film for being problematically complex? The smattering of articles, statements, even government directives responding to the film have made the ethical nature of torture as well as terrorism and push-button warfare a central concern in American social discourse, something which didn't happen to the same extent after 9/11 or public images of Abu Ghraib (nor during the eight years of the Iraq War). In addition to pointing out the inextricable linkages between mass media and political discourse (a connective tissue which usually remains concealed in the United States), Zero Dark Thirty offers a fascinating (though fleeting) depiction of modern Kuwaiti and Pakistani life, as well as a disturbing reminder that international diplomacy depends on individual, sometimes misguided, often flawed decisions. One thing's for sure: Argo is infinitely more xenophobic and disrespectful than Zero Dark Thirty.

8. The Turin Horse (d. Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/France/Germany/Switzerland/USA)
The prologue relates a story about Friedrich Nietzsche: in 1889 Turin, the nihilist philosopher (and progenitor of existentialism) desperately shielded a horse being whipped with his own body, then fell into madness and spent the remaining 11 years of his life mute and insane. We know what happened to Nietzsche, the film's onscreen text muses; but what happened to the horse?

There is in fact a horse that plays a recurring role throughout the rest of the film (indeed, it's the starring player in the awe-inspiring opening shot: the camera tracks dizzyingly alongside a horse and carriage, conveying – like the beginning of Sátántangó – the beastliness of man through the movement of animals). But the connections between the opening anecdote and the rest of the film may just as easily be allegorical. The Turin Horse departs, with extremely intense focus, from this simplest of all narrative conceits, wielding simplicity in order to suggest the looming apocalypse and the nature of humanity in confronting extreme devastation. Granted, all of this is insinuated through slow, graceful camera movements and extremely austere subject matter: the peeling of potatoes, the retrieval of water from a well. Yet the gorgeously spare cinematography, multilayered sound design, and unexpectedly precise plotting (meant to obliquely suggest the Book of Genesis) all serve to pare human existence down to its mundane essence – labor, doubt, unfulfilled hope. If this is Béla Tarr's last film (as he has claimed), then at least it is appropriately portentous, honest and rigorous in a way that few filmmakers (e.g., Dreyer, Bresson, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Tarr) have ever been able to accomplish.

9. Amour (d. Michael Haneke, France/Germany/Austria)
Michael Haneke suppresses some of the more confrontational tendencies we might have seen in Funny Games or The Piano Teacher – a softening-of-the-edges that partially explains the semi-absurd sight of Haneke winning a Golden Globe award – but that quiet solemnity does not prevent Amour from being one of the director's most emotionally devastating films (which is saying something). With a sobering directness untypical from Haneke (his trademark cryptic ambiguity is scarce here), the film simply observes an aging couple after the wife succumbs to a vicious stroke and begins to lose control over her mind and body. It's both as simple as it sounds and unsettlingly more so; the questions regarding love and death that the movie asks us are only suggested, forcing us to do the dirty work of moral interpretation ourselves.

Haneke is known for his chilly austereness, but there's nothing ironic about Amour's title: this is a story about the inflexible bonds of love as much as about the fragility of life. And despite the disturbing complexities folded into the movie's DNA – a frightening dream sequence; a morbid, dancelike episode with a trapped pigeon; the expected but no less unfathomable end to their ordeal, which poses one of those unanswerable questions that will forever torment humanity – this is ultimately a work of humanism, bearing mute witness to a shattering experience most of us would rather look away from. This makes sense, considering the film was based in part on the death of Haneke's own aunt from a degenerative disease. This intimate emotional connection might also explain why Haneke abstains from subversively deconstructing his characters this time around, though Georges and Anna in Amour clearly belong to the same elitist, bourgeois culture that spawned such destructive enigmas as Georges in Caché or Erika in The Piano Teacher. Maybe more important: class has little bearing on Amour, the story of two people divorced from ethnographic categories, confronting the tyranny of death with their own desperate love. The question of which is triumphant in the end remains unanswered, gnawing violently at the viewer long after the movie is over.

10. Kill List (d. Ben Wheatley, UK)
Something happened in Kiev: something horrifying, barbaric, unpronounceable. Something terrible enough to erode a man's soul – as happens to Jay, a hitman and veteran of the Iraq War, who has been sleepwalking through life for the past eight months in a shellshocked daze. Whatever happened in Kiev, its skin-crawling effect on us, the audience, is as overwhelming as the footage that Jay and his partner, Gal, discover in the basement of a pornography warehouse – footage which, though it remains offscreen for us, causes two tough Yorkshire assassins to break down in tears. Kill List, though extraordinarily violent and gruesomely explicit at times, also recognizes the horror-movie maxim that what remains unseen (and unseeable) carries the most dread.

Kill List is not a horror movie about "found footage," vampires, J-horror ghosts, serial killers, or any of the other cliches we'd expect to see in modern-day horror; like many of the best horror movies, it is about pure evil itself, the capacity for humanity to devolve into demonic barbarism. There is a shadowy cabal at the center of Kill List, but we never learn its true nature: It is a Satan-worshipping cult? An empire of crime? The minions of the Devil himself? Whatever it is, they have recognized that Jay is only moments from snapping into pure bloodlust, and they orchestrate a climactic of violence that is jaw-droppingly cruel and disturbing. Not a pleasant movie, clearly, but Kill List is able to walk a treacherous tightrope upon which few movies successfully balance: it shows us unflinchingly violent images not to titillate us, but to make us experience all of its traumatic horror, the suffering it creates (I Saw the Devil and The Devil's Rejects, on the other hand, fail when they attempt this balancing act). Jay has served in the military and long held a job in which he's compensated for mindless brutality, so if he is pushed into the black hole of evil, that descent stems not only from Jay's corrupted soul, but from a demonic world that brought him to the brink in the first place. Few thoughts are more horrifying than that.


Looper presents classical entertainment at its finest: plot-driven, loaded with subtext, with form and content so intuitively interfused that it seems impossible to separate the two. As such, the characters are key to conveying the film's themes in inconspicuous, believable ways, and they're flawlessly conceived by a strong cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, muddying his typically elegant veneer of honor and innocence, as a "Looper" (an assassin circa 2044, tasked with offing the unknown targets that have been tossed back to him from thirty years in the future); Bruce Willis, nicely subverting his macho prototype as Levitt's older self; and Emily Blunt as the woman who plays an unexpectedly integral role in deflecting the path of time: the future (and whether or not it will be a blood-soaked wasteland devoid of morality) depends on her and her son. A wealth of narrative and thematic information is stuffed into the two-hour running time, but it never feels forced or hurried; the movie achieves the difficult task of infusing its plot with mind-bending ideas so thoroughly that it doesn't need to explicate them overtly. A lesser movie would either underestimate or overindulge the audience's intelligence; Looper is so confident that we're wrapped up in the plot that it simply assumes we'll be able to follow the narrative to its logical, unsettling undercurrents.

Like The Turin Horse, Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet employs radical minimalism (long periods of minimal narrative activity and aesthetic austerity) to achieve a hyperreal intensity of emotion. An engaged couple (Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) hire a native Georgian guide to lead them on a hike through the Caucasus Mountains; the first hour of the film, essentially, involves the trio traipsing through gorgeous scenery, with the cracks in their relationship only barely noticeable beneath the exoticism. Around the midway point, a traumatic encounter – disturbing in its matter-of-fact simplicity – casts a shadow on everything that's come beforehand, and those emotional fault lines begin to spread. The movie's technique is dangerous – this kind of slow-moving, intensely focused, tightly-wound minimalism can easily oversell its own importance, achieving pretentiousness rather than depth – but in The Loneliest Planet it turns the three main protagonists into disarmingly real characters, and suggests the devastating emotional effect of real-life trauma more ably (and hauntingly) than a flashier aesthetic could hope to do.

4:44 Last Day on Earth must be the least extravagant end-of-the-world movie in history, which appears to be the point: faced with their impending doom (the entire world has been made aware that its existence will end on a certain day at exactly 4:44), a bohemian couple in New York's Lower East Side wiles away their final hours. They drink, fuck, struggle to abstain from drugs; more importantly, they Skype with their distant loved ones, suggesting modern digital communication as a bridge for communication rather than a hindrance. These characters are powerless to thwart the apocalypse and, rather than making grandiloquent gestures on their last day, they struggle to reach out to other people any way they can (even offering their laptop to a Chinese food deliverer so he can Skype with his family back home). 4:44 Last Day on Earth – helmed by the provocative, unpredictable Abel Ferrara, whose unexpected simplicity here is practically a transgression in itself – is thus a humanistic subversion of such somber (though excellent) apocalyptic dirges as Melancholia and The Turin Horse.

Take This Waltz has a few too many cliched rom-com moments (including, tragically, a dramatic race down a city sidewalk while a pseudo-uplifting emo song plays on the soundtrack), but ultimately those cliches are used to contradict the movie itself, to remind us that fairy-tale love doesn't happen in reality the way it does in the movies. The last twenty minutes of the movie are what clinches it: this is meant to be an ardent rebuttal to most happily-ever-after tributes to monogamy, and it goes about making this point with surprisingly bold plot construction. The movie is ultimately soberingly cynical, but that adamant bleakness is a refreshing departure from genre form. Take This Waltz also offers (1) an incredibly erotic depiction of lust, both consummated and unconsummated, which even the most sexually frank movies have difficulty doing; and (2) another spellbinding Michelle Williams performance, crucial in conveying a character whose reckless naivete could easily infuriate us.

It's ludicrous to criticize a movie for being too ambitious, but that honestly seems to be the main hindrance with The Master – a movie which attempts to do no less than encapsulate the overwhelming confusion and anxiety that proliferated through America in the postwar years. This moral imbalance, this headlong rush towards reckless capitalism, is refracted through the two main characters, both of whom remain enigmas: the movie spends its time tracing the erratic behavior of an alcoholic Navy veteran and the mentor-slash-cult-leader who takes him under his narcissistic wing, but those characters remain unknowable to us, their inner turmoil so messy as to remain invisible to the camera's eye. I'm spending so much time noting what's wrong with the movie because everything else seems so incredibly right: the dreamy cinematography (with Paul Thomas Anderson working for the first time with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr.), Jonny Greenwood's ephemeral score, the vitriolic performances. Ultimately, The Master can only remain an enigma to the audience, but it's a ravishing, mind-boggling enigma.

Empire, cinema, lost love, youth itself – the past is a melancholy paradise in Tabu, a seductively bizarre subversion of F.W. Murnau's 1931 classic Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. Miguel Gomes' 2012 film begins in modern-day Portugal ("Paradise Lost") and flashes back to an unnamed African country (it was shot in Mozambique) where a forbidden romance between two Europeans transpires. The latter half of the film is conveyed without dialogue and only a smattering of disorienting sound effects, concocting a dreamy modern-day version of silent cinema (though it's hardly content to merely regurgitate the period's form, unlike The Artist). Some have accused the movie of offering a rosy, nostalgia-hewn recount of European colonialism in Africa, but it should be remembered that the second half of the movie is the narration of an old man in modern-day Lisbon, grasping at the love and hope he had felt decades ago, in the shadow of Mount Tabu. The fact that he reexperiences his youth in the heightened style of silent cinema transmutes empire into cinema, suggesting the recklessness with which colonizers viewed Africa as their own personal fantasy, their paradise to attain. Even the man who narrates the second part of the film recognizes his oversight in mistaking colonialist life for a European playground, as the devastating tragedy in which he's embroiled is ultimately explained as a rebellious uprising against the colonizers by the indigenous population. The metaphors and analogies continue from there, insightfully complicating the violent legacy of colonialism and its disastrous fallout for both native and colonizing populations.

Richard Linklater's pseudo-documentary Bernie blurs the line between fact and fiction as cannily as the non-fiction films of Werner Herzog or Ross McElwee. In the small East Texas town of Carthage (close to where Linklater grew up and currently owns a summer house), the universally beloved Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) struck up an unlikely relationship with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), an elderly widow reviled by the entire community for her stinginess and acerbic vitriol towards everyone around her. Both characters are fascinating puzzles who we are only partially able to decipher; part of the point of Bernie is that the truth is never entirely knowable, that those around us portray a character in public, their inner nature innately hidden. Flitting back and forth between dramatic reenactments performed by an expert cast (Black has never been better) and talking-heads interviews with Carthage's actual residents (who also reappear in many of the staged scenes), Bernie deftly and complexly portrays an entire community as its own unique character; the movie combines sophisticated self-reflexion and compelling entertainment with incredible dexterity.

David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis is a fascinating complement to his earlier take on radical alienation, 1995's Crash: if, in the latter movie, characters resort to gruesomely staged reenactments of violent car crashes in order to feel any kind of emotional response, then Cosmopolis' protagonist – a 28-year-old billionaire named Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) – similarly finds it impossible to interact with the world around him, although in this case that impenetrable buffer is built by his obscene riches. Essentially a series of surreal, Brechtian encounters that convey Packer's increasing dislocation from humanity as we know it, Cosmopolis is boldly artificial, even intentionally off-putting, forcing us to see the world as its discombobulated "hero" does. The robotic dialogue readings and skewed, CGI-warped environs comprise an audacious deterioration of reality; if we accept that Cronenberg is trying to estrange us from the film, we might recognize that it is in fact a shockingly unique, highly disturbing portrait of the demigod alienation bestowed by excessive wealth.

A chilly, slow-build analysis of class structure and family dynamics in modern-day Russia, Elena convincingly introduces us to a tense extended family, only to watch it come apart at the seams thanks to the allure of money. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev – whose first two features, The Return (2003) and The Banishment (2007) have led some to proclaim him the modern heir to Tarkovsky – Elena is ultimately less shattering and hypnotic than those two masterworks, but it has its own unsettling power. Though hardly a Marxist statement, the film reveals the potentially devastating push-and-pull between love and materialism, condemning a modern society that values monetary gain above all else. Thanks to gorgeous cinematography by Mikhail Krichman, a moody score by Philip Glass, and ingenious plot construction, this heady drama never loses touch with its tragic human element.

The lack of a strong narrative in many kung-fu movies has an implicit potential: unconstrained by a slavish attention to telling a story, we might be reminded that movies are primarily colors, lines, and shapes in motion, a formal entity at its foundation if not in its very essence. It's absurd, of course, to call The Raid: Redemption the best avant-garde movie of the year, but what other film was so consistently awe-inspiring purely in its formal arrangements? The premise is something you'd see in the most puerile first-person-shooter video game (a SWAT team has to make its way to the top floor of a Jakartan high-rise in order to eliminate a sadistic gang leader), yet its clocklike precision and morbid beauty transcend the juvenile action mayhem this might suggest.


B (Good)

21. Samsara (d. Ron Fricke, USA) Samsara borrows heavily from the template already established by Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy, and furthermore relies on some dubious coffee-table exoticism and cliched symbolic imagery (a geisha shedding a single tear? really?). But there's still no denying the fact that Ron Fricke's spellbinding visual poem, which was shot on crystalline 70mm film and globetrots through 25 countries, shows us things we would presumably never see outside of this film, which is one of the most valuable things that cinema can offer us. The movie also has a surreal episode in which a deskman in a high-rise slathers clay and make-up all over his face, performs a monstrous pseudo-dance, gouges out his fake eyes, and repeats the process incessantly – a scene which is even more batshit crazy and horrifying than it sounds.

22. Holy Motors (d. Leos Carax, France/Germany) To be honest, some of the film's ardent, surreal cinephilia wears out its welcome: this is most definitely a movie whose parts are superior to the whole. But when those parts include a a CGI foray involving dazzling light display, modern dance, and dragon sex; a hideous troll absconding with ludicrously beautiful Eva Mendes into a Parisian sewer, draping her in a makeshift burka and exhibiting his relentless erection; and a poignant homecoming involving a family of chimpanzees, it's hard to complain. Ultimately, it may amount to little more than a bizarre eulogy for the death of celluloid, but that being the case, it's hard to think of a more fittingly visceral and oneiric ode than this one.
23. The Five-Year Engagement (d. Nicholas Stoller, USA) Sophisticated comedy (no gross-out gags or pop-culture parody here) that marvelously buoys its compassion for its characters with its laughs.
24. Moonrise Kingdom (d. Wes Anderson, USA) It would be nice if Wes Anderson started breaking out of his mold a little bit (the pitfall of a director with enough clout to do whatever he wants is that self-repetition becomes the name of the game), but when the results are as sweet and engaging as Moonrise Kingdom, I'll take whatever he gives us.
25. The Cabin in the Woods (d. Drew Goddard, USA) Postmodern gimmickry at its cleverest and most enjoyable, with a climax that's designed to give fanboys a unanimous orgasm.
26. Attenberg (d. Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece) Possible incest and sexual infantilism in a modern-day Greek industrial wasteland; never less than thought-provoking, but its self-serious arthouse dialogue (including lots of talk about erect phalli and mating rituals) becomes tiresome.
27. Killer Joe (d. William Friedkin, USA) Friedkin's second collaboration (after the superior Bug) with playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts is in the worst possible taste (its depiction of Texans as repugnant hicks offers no depth, and the last 20 minutes provide an onslaught of sexual humiliation and extreme violence), but it's so off-the-walls insane that it warrants at least one viewing. Matthew McConaughey is chillingly excellent, and the movie does have some ideas on its mind (namely, a new and hideous revision of the nuclear family, hyperbolized for a sensationalistic tabloid age).

28. The Dark Knight Rises (d. Christopher Nolan, USA/UK) Nolan knows how to film and edit an action scene better than anyone, but the movie's politics are insultingly hollow (both a conservative celebration of insular wealth and a liberal condemnation of a police state, with heavy emphasis on the former) and the ending is laughably simplistic.
29. The Miners' Hymns (d. Bill Morrison, UK)
30. The Avengers (d. Joss Whedon, USA) Overlong and uneven – and further proof that American audiences love to see our metropolises eviscerated onscreen about as much as we hate any kind of social criticism in real life – but it's still impressive how ably this superhero epic manages to please a vast constituency of disparate fans, introducing characters and plot in a minimal amount of time with maximal impact.

B– (Above Average)

31. Skyfall (d. Sam Mendes, UK/USA) A noble attempt at deepening the characters of both James Bond and M, with action scenes that are thankfully cohesive (as opposed to its atrocious predecessor, Quantum of Solace), but I'm not in the camp that thinks this is one of the best Bond movies ever. (My affinities lie with Casino Royale.) Many characters (especially Javier Bardem's villainous Silva, strangely shrouded in homophobia) remain cliches, but at least the cinematography and scenery are gorgeous.
32. Lincoln (d. Steven Spielberg, USA/India) Strangely schizophrenic: the movie wants to be both a complex historical document and a generic crowdpleaser, and it also wants to celebrate American democracy at the same time it reminds us that liberalism relied upon corruption and coercion from the very start. (It's even possible that the movie argues that manipulation and bribery are acceptable as long as they have virtuous ends – a dubious proposition, to say the least.) In any case, Daniel Day-Lewis' performance and Tony Kushner's script are worthy of the numerous commendations they've received.

33. Life of Pi (d. Ang Lee, USA/China/Taiwan) Visually spellbinding, but otherwise its treatment of religious faith and dogmatic squabbling remains pretty trite. Much of the dialogue sounds like it's lifted from a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. The thinness of the characters is surprising, considering that's usually Ang Lee's strength.
34. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (d. Timur Bekmambetov, USA) I'm apparently one of the few people who thinks that this proudly ludicrous fantasia deconstructs history, myth, storytelling, and the insidious legacy of slavery and American colonialism more ably than Django Unchained (see below). The closing credits sequence (which is alone worth the price of admission) clearly illustrates that the building of this country was drenched in the blood and exploitation of innocents, which seems a more interesting subversion than Quentin Tarantino's celebration of hyperviolent retribution.
35. The Color Wheel (d. Alex Ross Perry, USA) The Mumblecore subgenre gets a slight twist here, but only very slight, and only at the very end. Otherwise, we're asked to spend an hour and a half with two of the most unlikeable people imaginable. (Character studies of horrible human beings are only compelling if the characters have depth – a lesson many writer/directors seem to forget.)

C+ (So-So)

36. Beyond the Black Rainbow (d. Panos Cosmatos, Canada) I ardently wanted to like this movie more than I did; its compendium of hypnotic, surreal, highly formalist imagery (with a commendable resistance to narrative cohesion) seemed right up my alley. Unfortunately, Cosmatos' promising debut reminds us that some complexity, unity of vision, or at least graceful aesthetic mastery is what makes such hallucinatory enigmas work. That said, it has one of the best scenes of the year (which I think involves a man climbing into a vat of oil, witnessing the face of God, decomposing, and then reanimating himself) and is worth at least one viewing (probably more).
37. Haywire (d. Steven Soderbergh, USA/Ireland) The fight scenes are terrific, the cast impressive, but the story so slight that it's practically nonexistent. Whereas The Limey (Soderbergh's previous collaboration with screenwriter Lem Dobbs) was impressively lean and tough, Haywire simply seems like it has nothing on its mind.
38. Damsels in Distress (d. Whit Stillman, USA) Stillman's verbose, high-spirited follow-up to The Last Days of Disco (1998) is a sun-dappled musical comedy set at a satirically ripe liberal arts college where suicide is an epidemic issue. Stillman seems to be going for some Sirkian subversion here: the movie ends with a parade of happy romantic unions, but the "damsels" we meet are all infinitely superior (more intelligent, eloquent, compassionate, charming) than their suitors. The sprightly tone is at odds with the unfortunate couplings on display. But if Stillman is trying to deflate both the artifice of romantic comedies and the pomposity of upper-class colleges, it's shrouded in the dull trappings of a mediocre comedy, and any self-reflexive subtext that may exist does little to enliven the proceedings.
39. Red Hook Summer (d. Spike Lee, USA) Lee's semi-sequel to Do the Right Thing was intentionally shot on a digital camera with a shoestring budget on a very condensed schedule. This time, the setting is another Brooklyn neighborhood (the rapidly-gentrifying area of Red Hook), but the focus is shifted to an iPad-wielding vegan adolescent from the suburbs of Atlanta spending the summer with his uncle. Lee's attempt to confront a bewildering array of sociopolitical issues is admirable, but (aside from Clarke Peters' and Thomas Byrd's performances) the acting is uniformly atrocious, and although the experiment was to write a rapid-fire, semi-intuitive screenplay, the plot is a self-destructive mess.
40. The Bourne Legacy (d. Tony Gilroy, USA) Surprisingly dull; this reboot to the franchise is about 80% exposition and 20% action, though Jeremy Renner is reliably charismatic.
41. The Innkeepers (d. Ti West, USA) An old-fashioned ghost story with a charmingly laid-back air, but ultimately it's too laid-back: the story is patched together from a number of reliable tropes, and the fleeting instances of visual wit are too few and far between.
42. Wanderlust (d. David Wain, USA)

C (Problematic)

43. Django Unchained (d. Quentin Tarantino, USA) My thoughts about Tarantino's latest are more fully fleshed out here (in a back-and-forth blog post I wrote with Jeremy Meckler on the Walker Art Center website), but I'll summarize: if Inglourious Basterds was a clever but precarious comment on how mass media ultimately entrench popular opinions of history (thus replacing fact with fiction), Django Unchained devolves even further into the postmodern void, positing slavery as a mere excuse for the director to indulge his fanboy inclinations. Placing brutal scenes (albeit mostly offscreen) of slaves being ripped apart by guard dogs and Mandingo fighters gouging out each others' eyes next to juvenile, cartoonish violence (gunshots to genitalia, one villainess blasted out of a scene with a shotgun, etc.) does not provide a comment on history or racial antagonism or mediation; it's just vacuous and irritating. Tarantino's simplistic infatuation with gory retribution has never been more facile: when the climactic massacre is followed by two of the movie's heroes reveling in the carnage, we get the impression that nothing matters anymore in reality (or history) so we might as well embrace artifice. Maybe more important: Tarantino has also started ripping off himself; there's nothing in Django Unchained that we haven't already seen in at least one of his previous movies.

C– (Aggravating)

44. Prometheus (d. Ridley Scott, USA/UK) A stellar cast marooned with an abysmal screenplay; the appeal of the original Alien trilogy (we'll forget Alien: Resurrection) was mostly its tough, pared-back simplicity, while this "reboot" overloads the portentous mythology. The setup is admittedly tantalizing, but there's no payoff, and it gets more and more ridiculous as it goes on (though the self-performed abortion is at least insane enough to be memorable).
45. Intruders (d. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, USA/UK/Spain)

46. Beasts of the Southern Wild (d. Benh Zeitlin, USA) bell hooks said it better than I could: "There is nothing radical about the age-old politics of domination the movie espouses – insisting that only the strong survive, that disease weeds out the weak (i.e. the slaughter of Native Americans), that nature chooses excluding and including. If Wink represents the dying untamed primitive then what does Hushpuppy represent?" It's the stereotypical noble savage all over again, only this time it's contextualized against the traumatic backdrop of Hurricane Katrina (a tragedy which proved all too painfully that racial inequalities – whether among the rich or the poor, in the north or the south – are still very much present in modern America). The movie's unique opening half-hour makes it easy (too easy) to brush past its offensive cliches, but as the plot settles down into the usual depiction of primitive, plucky savages, it's impossible to ignore its casual racism.
47. Rust and Bone (d. Jacques Audiard, France/Belgium) Audiard's macho melodrama is a parade of ridiculous behavior and symbolic characterizations: Marion Cotillard is the former orca trainer and double-amputee forced to ponder whether humans are merely animals at heart; Matthias Schoenaerts is the reckless bare-knuckle boxer whose pent-up rage ultimately saves the day, in a laughably melodramatic contrivance. The director's previous A Prophet was accused of glorifying violence, but it's Rust and Bone that glorifies both violence and idiocy.

D+ (Bad)

48. Silver Linings Playbook (d. David O. Russell, USA) Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence suffer from mental illness, but it's the kind of Hollywood crazy-sexy that ensues when attractive people simply behave slightly out of the ordinary. And anyway, everything will be okay and they can triumph over their "insanity" if they can only win the big dance competition! (They have Chris Tucker to provide them with some "soul.") Oscar voters are never the most perceptive bunch, but they deserve special castigation for lauding this offensive cartoon.

D (Abysmal)

49. Argo (d. Ben Affleck, USA) I didn't think the prospect of Ben Affleck (possibly) running for senator was appalling until I saw this jingoistic travesty: yet another xenophobic story about Americans stranded in a "hellish" overseas land, unable to understand why anyone would want to hurt God-blessed, patriotic Americans. The movie has absolutely no sensitivity to or interest in the plight Iranians actually suffered during the 1979 hostage crisis: it treats them the same way Jimmy Carter did during his presidency, labeling them as terrorists and anarchists despite the fact that their support for the Iranian Revolution was a response to a CIA-backed coup that replaced Iran's democratically-elected president, Mohammad Mosaddegh, with the American-friendly puppet regime of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In other words, the CIA had also staged a coup at the American embassy in Iran 26 years earlier – but Argo only has time to vilify those bloodthirsty Arabs, not the American bureaucrats and officials who were initially responsible. It's astonishing how clearly you can see the movie's propagandistic tunnel-vision: despite onscreen text at the end which states that none of the American hostages were tortured or killed, the movie constantly asserts (through numerous characters) that the Iranian militants are torturing their captives; apparently an ambiguous portrayal of American torture (when it actually happened) in Zero Dark Thirty is unacceptable, but constantly suggesting that the Iranian militants tortured Americans (when it never actually happened) in Argo is totally okay. Even the cleverest part of the movie – the juxtaposition of Hollywood artifice and real-world political intrigue – becomes offensive when a storyboarded scene of space explorers fleeing a hostile planet is intercut with scenes of the American hostages being flown out of Tehran, positing Iran as a Hoth-like deathtrap from which the American heroes must escape. So yes, critics, you're right that the movie is well-made – but if critics stopped only paying attention to the craftsmanship on the surface and started realizing that movies play a complicated political and social role in cultural discourse, that esteem would likely (hopefully) become muted very quickly.

D– (Unforgivable)

50. Headhunters (d. Morten Tyldum, Norway/Germany) Honestly I remember practically nothing about seeing this cliched crime movie about seven months ago, except for thinking it would have made a bad Law and Order episode.

51. V/H/S (various directors, USA) According to V/H/S, women are: (a) wan vampires eager to castrate jock morons; (b) vindictive new wives who will slit your throat and steal your money; (c) fertile testing grounds for some kind of para-human hybrid natal experiments; or (d) the Devil herself. True, the men in this movie are all equally horrible (though less demonic), which means no one is deserving of our sympathy or engagement. Like spending two hours with a sadistic fratboy who's just shotgunned a Schlitz.
52. Darling Companion (d. Lawrence Kasdan, USA) Offensive in a completely different way: if V/H/S shows a callous disregard for humanity, Darling Companion flounders in a callous disregard for any kind of filmmaking proficiency. How to compose a shot, how to edit together sequences, how to craft a compelling plot, how to light a scene without making it seem flat and lifeless – these are all facets in which Lawrence Kasdan is not remotely interested. And to offer so few reenforcements to such a great cast (Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Richard Jenkins) is its own kind of cruelty.

F (Crime Against Humanity)

53. The Dictator (d. Larry Charles, USA) The worst thing to happen to America's global image since George W. Bush. Middle Easterners are goat-rapists, pedophiles, uniformly genocidal, and throw their female infants out with the trash – these are the kinds of xenophobic jokes we're supposed to laugh at mindlessly. But the offenses expand beyond mere cultural stereotypes: there are also shit-missiles storming a New York City street, the severed head of a black activist standing in as a ventriloquist dummy, and two characters searching around a pregnant woman's womb for a lost cell phone. The movie bursts at the seams with hatred, condescension, juvenility, nationalism, and a kind of willful stupidity; it has no reason to exist.