10 Best Films I Watched in 2012

10. Bright Star (2009) – Jane Campion

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I wrote a review of this a few months ago.  I’m starting to go a little crazy for Ben Whishaw; there’s something enigmatic about him, and although I’ve only seen him in a few films, he seems to have a real range.  Here he plays Romantic poet John Keats in a tragic love story that is, as New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott points out, surprisingly steamy considering no clothes are ever removed.  This movie falls somewhere between Pride & Prejudice and Shakespeare in Love.

9. Seven Psychopaths (2012) – Martin McDonagh

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I also reviewed this one — saw it twice in theaters.  This film is cleverly metafictional, with a dash of absurdism and a little existentialism.  Hilarious, dark, and devilishly exhilarating.  Sam Rockwell really steals the show as Billy, a devoted friend with some psychopathic tendencies.

8. The Green Mile (1999) – Frank Darabont

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This is a gruesome story with some Tom Hanks levity and a little magical realism.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is the way it unfolds in chapters, smaller stories encapsulated in the larger one. Stupendous performances all around (including, again, Sam Rockwell in particular).

7. Rope (1948) – Alfred Hitchcock

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This is not one of Hitchcock’s better-known films, nor is it one of his best, but it’s a pretty fascinating experiment in both form and content.  Two young men strangle their classmate, hide his body in their apartment, and then host a dinner party.  The entire film takes place in the apartment, and the story is filmed exclusively in long takes, ten minutes at most (the length of a film camera magazine).  The experience is not unlike that of watching a play, with the added bonus of Hitchcock’s characteristic fluid camerawork. Even more interesting are the homoerotic undertones between the two killers.  This film is either incredibly progressive with its putatively homosexual leads, or condemning, with its rendering them murders.  I can never decide.  An unusual film, strangely mesmerizing to watch.

6. Laura (1944) – Otto Preminger

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In this hard-boiled detective film, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is hired to investigate the murder of the beautiful Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney).  Intrigue, romantic tension, and plot twists (multiple!) ensue, as well as some really interesting narrative paradoxes.  There are also moments of this movie that genuinely frighten me, which is unusual for a movie made so long ago.

5. Ratatouille (2007) – Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava

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There were points when I had to pause this movie because I was laughing too hard.  It is hilarious, heartwarming, and a little bit bizarre.  I cannot get enough.

4. Vanilla Sky (2001) – Cameron Crowe

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This film opens with pretty formulaic setup — Tom Cruise plays David, a handsome and successful businessman, who meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl Sofia (Penelope Cruz) and is immediately attracted to her — but warps unexpectedly into something closer to science fiction.  I won’t say too much because I think the less you know in advance, the more exciting the ride is.  The film is both emotionally and mentally stimulating, and I found myself thinking about it for days after I watched it.  (It also has a killer soundtrack.)

3. The Ides of March (2011) – George Clooney

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I am beginning to realize that Ryan Gosling is more than just the guy from The Notebook.  He is magnetic in this, holding his own against George Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman (be still my beating heart, I love that man).  In this political drama Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, junior campaign manager to Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney) who finds himself entangled in political subterfuge.  This film is smart, dirty, and unsettlingly relevant.

2. Funny Games (2007) – Michael Haneke

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I am obsessed with Michael Pitt.  He is a dream.  He’s terrifying in this — cool, aloof, methodical, dressed in pristine white.  Funny Games could so easily be just another slasher film, but Haneke takes the clichéd premise (two young men come to a family’s house to torture and kill them) and twists it around, experimenting with both narrative structure and character.  This film is captivating not because of its gore — most of the violence actually occurs off screen — but because of the mesmerizing, anomalous world that Haneke creates.  Just when you think you’ve figured out the rules of the game, they change.

1. The Shining (1980) – Stanley Kubrick

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Surprise, surprise. I wrote a sort of obsessive review of this movie when I watched it this summer.  Something about The Shining just facilitates obsession — there are so many patterns, dangling threads, layers of meaning.   You almost experience Jack’s madness yourself trying to figure everything out.

The end.  Suggestions for more movies to watch are always welcome!

Skyfall (2012) – Sam Mendes

After a close shave with death and a prolonged absence, James Bond (Daniel Craig) returns to the British secret service to defend both M (Judi Dench) and the British national security from a dangerous figure from M’s past.

My mom and I went to see this together after Thanksgiving dinner.  The first Bond movie I’ve ever seen in its entirety!  Now I understand what I’ve been missing all this time.  This film is straight up sexy.  Every aspect of it is sleek and shiny, from Bond’s demeanor to his high-tech weaponry to the women he seduces at every turn.  As far as action films go, Skyfall is an aesthetic triumph, clean and precise, with ample use of dramatic silhouettes against vibrant backgrounds to boot.

The Bond tradition brings with it a lot of clichés, and Skyfall pays homage to those earlier films without being stale.  The score, while mostly original, occasionally incorporates in the familiar Bond theme, and Bond gets the obligatory, “Bond. James Bond” line out of the way without too much trouble.  In the bar in Macau, we see the bartender shaking a martini for him.  “That’s perfect,” he says, hinting at but not outright saying the also obligatory, “Shaken, not stirred”.  These little references are quaint nods to legacy that precedes this film, and they’re understated enough not to be hokey and distracting.  There are, of course, also some references that are more tongue-in-cheek (it must be hard to resist); after presenting Bond with his weapons, for instance, Q (Ben Whishaw) asks with mild humor, “Were you expecting an exploding pen?”

In general, this film is packed with allusions. Especially towards the end, I noticed several — perhaps unintentional — Hitchcock references.  Bond and M lure Silva (Javier Bardem) to the Scottish moor, a setting not unlike that of The 39 Steps.  The final showdown is shot at twilight (a directorial choice that I thought was brilliant; the milky blue light slowly deepening into night provides added sense of urgency, not to mention it’s gorgeous to look at), which is reminiscent of Scottie and Judy’s twilit confrontation in the churchyard in Vertigo.  And the final combustion of Skyfall seems to be a nod to Manderley’s burning at the end of Rebecca, both mansions being filled with haunting memories from the past.

Haunting memories from the past are all over this film.  Bond has his own demons to deal with, the climax of the film taking place at his childhood home.  He is himself in some ways a memory from the past, everyone having assumed him to be dead until he reemerges unscathed (well, not quite).  And Silva is a previous agent of M’s, come to have his revenge for what he sees to be a betrayal.  His hacking of her computer reminds her, “Think on your sins.”

Javier Bardem’s performance as Silva is both haunting and weirdly charismatic, as all good villains should be.  Physically he is unsettling to look at; the blonde hair is peculiar with his complexion.  Interestingly, he is dressed often in light colors, browns and creamy whites, whereas Bond and M are always in blacks and grays — reversing the common symbolism of dark = evil, light = good.  This is fitting, as Silva is a bringer of chaos, attempting to dislodge Bond’s loyalty to M and to paint her as heartless and manipulative.

Silva’s sexuality is ambiguous throughout the film.  When he first captures Bond, he caresses Bond’s chest and runs his hands briefly over Bond’s thighs.  Later, when attempting to kill M, he begins to breathe heavily while holding the gun to her face, almost as if deriving sexual pleasure from the thought of killing her.  At first I was a little apprehensive of Silva’s physical flirtation with Bond (I wasn’t fond of the idea of homosexuality being used as a weird, unsettling quality in the film’s main villain), but with his reaction to holding a gun to M’s face, I realized that Silva is getting off on chaos and violence more than anything else.  His complete ease with himself and willingness to do pretty much anything is what makes him strangely charismatic and alluring — a quality that heightens how frightening he is.

My only real complaint with the film is the character of Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) — or rather, the role she plays in the film.  She serves more as a plot device than anything else.  Mysterious, beautiful, and entangled in some really dangerous business, Sévérine has all the makings of a classic femme fatale.  And, like all femme fatales, her fate is to be either punished or redeemed — to die or to be saved by a man from her sinful ways.  In Sévérine’s case, her fate is not a happy one. Within a half hour of screen time she provides Bond with information and a route to Silva, sleeps with Bond, and is killed in one of Silva’s wicked games.  Sadly, her death does little but demonstrate Silva’s cruelty and provide Bond with a clever but (I thought) somewhat cruel one-liner: “That’s a waste of good scotch.”

To me, Sévérine’s story is a tragedy to which the film does not do justice.  Even in her brief time on screen Marlohe gives a beautiful performance, flashing radiant smiles whose transience belies how rehearsed they are.  I was disappointed both in the blasé way Bond handles her death, and in the fact that an interesting character was eliminated so quickly.  There is certainly a tradition of chauvinism in the Bond films, and these women have come a long way — but while Sévérine’s character could have been worse, I do think she also could have been more fleshed out and given more agency.

Otherwise, I loved this.  Loved it.  It had all the thrills and chase scenes and explosions of a good action flick, but it was also ideologically rich and cohesive.  It was even a little funny.  And my god was it beautifully filmed.  Bravo.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) – Tom Tykwer

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It’s a strange coincidence that I watched this film the same day that this article on olfactory art was posted in the Daily Beast!  Check it out – creepy and interesting (just like Perfume…).

Ben Whishaw is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man whose superior sense of smell inspires him to seek a method to preserve every scent.  His passion for perfume takes a dark turn when he begins to pursue in particular the scents of beautiful young women.

We begin in medias res, with Grenouille in chains, being sentenced to death in front of a crowd of furious people.  The film then takes us back to the beginning of Grenouille’s life, his discovery of his incredible sense of smell, and his teenage years working as a tanner’s apprentice.  Even before we know why Grenouille will be sentenced to a violent death, there is something disquieting about him, something that makes us distrust him.  Whishaw, with whom I became familiar in the very different film Bright Star, is here taciturn, filthy, and vaguely simian in his movements.  Grenouille creates his perfumes with the meticulousness of an artist, but pursues scents with the unthinking instincts of a beast.  Death follows him in his wake, whether he is causing it accidentally or on purpose.

Cinematographically, the film is impressive.  It is an interesting project, to use a visual medium to tell a story that hinges on olfactory experiences, and the result is a visually rich and creative film.  Tykwer makes great use of swift, zooming shots – either zooming across great areas to demonstrate the breadth of Grenouille’s sense of smell, or into smaller, detailed spaces to illustrate his precision.  The film also often employs a series of short, close shots to render Grenouille’s ability to smell a subject: a woman’s shoulder, her hair, her lips.  Through these shots, we are able to see how refined his sense is, as well as the unsettling and almost violating intimacy he is able to reach with it.

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The film makes a few off-putting choices in the presentation of the narrative itself, especially towards the beginning.  The hokey British narrator describes the events of the plot in a theatrically hushed tone, giving the effect of telling a story to small children.  Another misstep is the casting of Dustin Hoffman as Giuseppe Baldini, the Italian perfume-maker who teaches Grenouille the basics of perfume.  Hoffman looks out of place in his make-up and powdered wig, and his Italian accent does not read.  Thankfully, he is featured only briefly – and Alan Rickman’s subsequent performance as Antoine Richis, the father of Grenouille’s last victim, is more believable, bringing us back into the world of the story.

Once you are able to get past these strange distractions (and once you accept that the majority of the film will feature Whishaw wandering around with his eyes closed, sniffing loudly), Perfume actually has something very interesting to say about the power of beauty and pleasure.  As the narrator describes it, it is “a power stronger than the power of money or terror or death: the invincible power to command the love of mankind.”  And in the end it is this power that proves the most deadly, and what starts off as Grenouille’s bizarre fetish ultimately provides him with incredible and terrifying power.

This film is perhaps a more successful aesthetic experiment than anything else.  The narrative is a little absurd at times, but overall there is a certain allure to the film, a tantalizing juxtaposition (and perhaps combination) of the beautiful and the gruesome.

Bright Star (2009) – Jane Campion

ImageBen Whishaw and Abbie Cornish bring to life the historic love affair between Romantic poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, which is cut short by Keats’ early death.  Get ready for a good cry.  And you will have no one to blame but yourself, because you knew the ending going into it.

I can’t imagine that it’s is an easy task to portray a Romantic poet as an exciting and appealing hero.  I’ve seen it done successfully in Shakespeare In Love, but Whishaw’s Keats—pale, slender, brooding, and soft-spoken—does not have the manic charisma of Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare.  John has his own enigmatic attraction, certainly, but in the end it is Fanny who really carries the film.  She’s introduced to us as a seamstress, stitching all of her own clothing by hand, and her creations are both impressive and absurd.  We see her first in a bright red and yellow combination—later in a frock with a “triple mushroom collar”.  She wears the clothing confidently, and enthusiastically describes it to anyone who will listen.  When she meets John, she sends her younger sister Toots (Edie Martin) (so cute!!!) to buy his new book of poems.  Toots tells the bookseller, “My sister has met the author, and she wants to read it for herself to see if he’s an idiot or not.”

Fanny’s strong-willed personality is, of course, ultimately softened, and we see the tender side of her as she and John fall in love.  I think that Cornish’s performance convincingly captures that feeling of first love—the euphoria, the desperate longing, the feeling that you’re about to die all the time due to extreme emotion.  She lies sick in bed for five days after John leaves for the summer, waiting for a letter from him.  When she finally receives one, she is deliriously happy.  She lies down in the field, kisses Toots and tells her she loves her.  I especially loved this moment because I found it so true to life: the idea that while happy in love, everything—even your annoying little sister—seems beautiful and precious.

There is, of course, a childishness and a rashness to Fanny’s passion.  She throws a veritable temper tantrum when she finds out John is leaving for the summer, crying and telling him that she hates him.  She tells her mother, “When I don’t hear from him, it’s as if I’ve died.  As if the air is sucked out from my lungs, and I’m left desolate.  But when I receive a letter, I know my world is real.”  We hear her and are moved by her passion, but we also can’t help but chuckle.  She is so dramatic and so young.

However, our knowledge of John’s impending death puts a dark spin on Fanny and John’s naive young love.  We know all too well that Fanny’s childish tears over a summer apart or a delayed letter will ultimately give way to tears of very adult grief.  I think this is a big part of the reason the film works.  There is an interesting and terrible tension throughout the film between youth and death.  John writes to Fanny in a letter, “I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”  Fanny reads this and fills her bedroom with butterflies.  But, sadly, in a way John and Fanny really are like the butterflies of which he writes, living only in mere moments together.

This is a heavily romantic and stylized film, and it just barely steers clear of being seriously cliche.  John and Fanny spend a lot of time gazing into each other’s eyes and reciting poetry.  There is plenty of letter-writing, weeping, and walking back and forth across the heath.  And yet, there is something so charming about it, and so genuine.  If you are a poetry lover, or just want to enjoy some good old-fashioned nineteenth-century romance, it is definitely worth the tears.