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!

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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.