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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Funny Games (2007) – Michael Haneke

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In this shot-by-shot remake of Haneke’s 1997 Austrian film by the same title, Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play Ann and George Farber, a couple headed to their summer home with their young son Georgie and their golden retriever Lucky.  All is well until Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbett), two young men who seemed to be staying with the family next door, appear at the house asking to borrow a few eggs.  The two men refuse to leave the Farbers’ home, and throughout the next twelve hours torture the family with a series of violent “games”.

From what I can tell, this is not your ordinary horror film.  Almost all of the violence occurs off camera, a choice which is relieving and tasteful, but also eerie in its own way.  Often there will be a scream or a cry of pain, and the camera does not even turn to acknowledge what has happened.  Sounds of violence become as commonplace as the sound of a television on in the background.

The film also does not use any sort of score, except for a jarring screamo metal song in the beginning and end credits.  This is impressive because most horror films rely heavily on music to evoke fear or suspense in the viewer.  The effect is that everything feels horrifyingly true-to-life, and we feel almost as though we are in the house with the characters.

This sensation of being pulled into the story is heightened in the several points when Paul actually breaks the fourth wall and turns to the camera.  The first time he does it—as he is leading Ann around the driveway in a sick game of hot-and-cold—he glances over his shoulder and smirks at us.  It’s a quick moment, and it’s terrifying.  Did he just look at us?  Later, when Paul is proposing a bet with the family, he turns and says to the camera, “I mean, what do you think? You think they stand a chance? Well, you’re on their side, aren’t you. Who are you betting on, hmm?”

This breaking of the fourth wall brings up the unsettling question of the role that we play in this violent story.  Paul posits that we are “on their side”—that we are rooting for the Farbers.  And yet, later, while removing Ann’s gag, he says to her, “It’s boring when the mute suffer. We want to entertain our audience, right?”  And indeed, why are we watching this film if not to be entertained by two men torturing an innocent family?  Who are we really rooting for?

Kudos to Pitt and Corbett—Pitt especially.  Their performances really blew me away.  They are such unlikely and terrifying villains: handsome (although Peter’s hair looks distinctly unwashed) and young, clean-cut and pulled together, with gentle speaking voices and calm demeanors.  They seem wealthy and educated.  They are polite, friendly, interested in golf.  Throughout the film, this sense of sophistication, control, and politeness is never dropped.

The two men are dressed almost completely in white, including white gloves, and they are often surrounded by white.  When Peter first appears at the Farbers’ house, his face is obscured by the screen door, blanched by the angle of the sunlight, so that only his voice can be heard.  The scene in which the dynamic between the two men and the family turns from pleasant to violent takes place in the Farbers’ spotless white foyer, and the two men almost blend into the walls.  The confrontation between Paul and Georgie also takes place in a white hallway.

The two men have a distinct lack of background.  Paul tells the family several stories about Peter’s past, each time undercutting the last story and presenting them with a new, entirely different one.  We have no sense of where the two men came from, or how they came to be in this vacation neighborhood.  Paul does not even consistently call his companion Peter, but often refers to him as Tom, sometimes even in the same line.  “This is Peter. Come here, Tom, where are your manners? Shake the man’s hand.”  Paul and Peter’s association with whiteness, then, connects to that utter blankness.  They have no true identities, and there is an inhuman cleanliness and an emptiness about them.

The impressive performances all around, as well as some really nuanced camerawork by Haneke, make this film both engaging and surprisingly intellectually stimulating.  It is artful even while being horrifying and sick.  It also raises the dark question of what we consider entertainment today, the use of the word “games” being particularly noteworthy.  The ride is perhaps not as rocky as other horror movies, but the unsettling feeling you will have for hours afterwards should not be underestimated!