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« Complete the New Year Sentences. | Main | Happy New Year ! »

Best of Year Pt 1: I Am Thirty-Two Flavors

I tossed. I turned. I Excel'ed. I Worded. I laughed at myself. I laughed at everyone else and their equally crazy assertions during top ten season. I worried what y'all might think. I worried about how I do think! And then I cast it all aside and just started typing and getting real with myself. You see, in earlier drafts of this Hugo and The Tree of Life, for example, were much higher but you know what? This is not consensus. This is me. Year End "Best" naming rituals are meant to be personal even though they're communal. Gather 'round my fire. There are plenty of places to keep warm, this being just one of them. (If you must skip ahead a few pages The Tree of Life dropped a few notches and Hugo no longer appears at all; I do not miss it and, thus, made the right call.)

I kept trying to find a cutoff point for my year end "best" that I feel comfortable with and the magic finally happened at 32! The thirty-two highlighted films are my touchstones from this year at the multiplex. They're the only ones I just could not let go of when I tried to gather my memories and glue them awkwardly into this online scrapbook thingie known as The Film Experience. Two of the films even got glued together and I couldn't get them unstuck (Longtime readers will know I don't approve of ties but what the hell: new decade, more flexibility! If you're a purist shove everything else down one notch.)

squint your eyes and look closer
I'm not between you and your ambition
I am a poster girl with no poster
I am thirty-two flavors and then some
and I'm beyond your peripheral vision
so you might want to turn your head
cause someday you're going to get hungry
and eat most of the words you just said

The following thirty-two pictures were presented in vaguely ascending order but then the stairs were all rearranged to fit them into categories and for flow so don't read anything into the order...

Planet Ape
The year's cinema was overflowing with adorable dogs (too many to mention) and doomed cats (The Future, Dragon Tattoo) but the animal that seized the heart and truly shook us -- opposable thumbs are so handy! -- was the chimpanzee. The Oscar documentary finalist Project Nim charts the disastrous emotional fall out of a science experiment in the 1970s in which a chimp ("Nim") was raised by agonizingly fallible humans and taught sign language. Rise of the Planet of the Apes charts the disastrous sociological fall out of a science experiment in the right-now in which a chimp ("Cesar") is raised by a agonizingly naive human and granted super intelligence. Nim was a very real living thing and his heartbreaking story makes you want to scream "NOOOooooooo" as forcefully as the imaginary Cesar does at the climax of his own tale. That Cesar feels nearly as real as Nim is thanks to the Marlon Brando of mo-cap acting Andy Serkis, a brilliant visual effects team, and the superb action direction of Rupert Wyatt. (Wyatt's command is so impressive that the pictures fairly obvious flaws don't even register until well after the movie ends. If I were a Hollywood executive I'd be wining and dining him and offering him every franchise job on the calendar until he picked one.)

Favorite Unrewardables
The best thing I saw this year that's not eligible for my annual Film Bitch Awards is The Loneliest Planet (previously reviewed), about an engaged couple exploring a foreign land, which went unreleased. It had me from the stomping alien mundanity of its first image but in the end what really made it work for me was its sense of touch. That's rarer and rarer in our weightless CGI world but the images just felt so tangible: a lovers caress, cold water in your hair, rocky ground under foot; turns out when a movie is that good at touching, it's hard not to feel it. I could reward Clio Barnard's The Arbor, which did get a brief release, but I wouldn't know how. It's ostensibly a memoir doc about the short life of the troubled playwright Andrea Dunbar. But is it a documentary? Barnard's riveting experiment still uses traditional documentary tools like reenactments and talking head interviews but performs them instead, with actors lipsynching. There are so many layers it's suffocating; all the better to pull you under with these lives trapped in hand-me-down poverty and addiction. That probably doesn't sound like an endorsment but The Arbor sure is a fascinating novelty act.

Hip To Be Square
Who knew that we needed a 29th version of dusty Jane Eyre? Turns out we did! Okay okay okay... even if we didn't it was welcome since it was a beautifully rendered stride forward in four cinematic journeys we're on board with: Michael Fassbender seems to take another leap forward every three months, Mia Wasikowska is one of our most promising young actresses and this is her best film performance yet, director Cary Fukunaga and his cinematographer Adriano Goldman, who are two for two (see also Sin Nombre) are not just unusually capable but also unpredictable. We'll jump on their next vehicle whether that means more speeding trains or horse drawn carriages or something else entirely.

Two more unhip choices, abundant foreign pleasures and a few "only you could make this" treasures... After the jump.

Of the thirty-two films I'm highlighting, I'm aware that the next two are decidedly uncool. But I'm okay with that. Let's call them gourmet popcorn. Captain America: The First Avenger is the only pleasure on this list that I actually feel guilty about... though it's far too earnest to be a "guilty pleasure" in the traditional sense. I'm aware that it does a lot of things wrong or at least doesn't do them more than adequately. At its worst it comes across, as so many franchise entries, like a patchwork conveyor belt introducing us to new merchandisables as it passes each corporate mandated station: prologue, origin, setpiece 1, setpiece 2, setpiece 3, setpiece 4, setpiece 5 climax, epilogue as commercial for next film. And yet I feel inordinately fond of it. Was it the period setting which gifted it with a throwback naivete and unusual costuming and musical beats? Was it Chris Evans' square jaw, honest face and perfect triangular body, a winning triple when you're aiming for superheroic super soldier? Was it just that it felt as self-effacing, human and modest as its hero in a sea of overtly cocky largely CGI-fakey superheroes pic surrounding it? Was I just in a really good mood when I saw it? Whatever it was, I was buying those war bonds after joining in the kick line.

I thought about calling The Help (full review) the year's most underrated picture but then I laughed at how absurd that sounded; the 11th biggest surprise hit of the year will probably soon be a Best Picture nominee so it can't really be "underrated"! Or can it? Critically speaking, its been too easily dismissed, reflexively compared with numerous pictures from the white liberal guilt school which are quite inferior to it, most of them not giving their black characters even half the depth this film gets courtesy of Viola Davis and to a lesser extent its choral voice of supporting domestics. Its light spirit, ensemble heart, and abundant humor make it surprisingly rewatchable, which is more than can be said for many of its fellow "issue" pictures which take themselves far too seriously in proportion to their limited merits and are thus no fun at all and thus, ironically, hard to take seriously to begin with.

P.S. I love this recent tweet above  from my friend and podcast guest Nick. TRUTH. That Viola Davis isn't scoring so well in critics awards for Best Actress is another reminder that critics are often willfully blind to brilliance within a motion picture that they don't otherwise like or respect. That's a shame since film is a collaborative art form and the quality of individual contributions in films can vary greatly whether the film is a classic or a dud.

The Best Toon
It was a relatively bleak year for animation -- even tasty confections like Puss in Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2 left a fast food aftertaste -- so Rango shone all the brighter for it. From that rustic title card opening sung by an endearingly morbid mariarchi owl band, the film was overflowing with funny, inventive, absurd details.

Rango Rango Rango Rango Rango ♫
We are gathered here today to immortalize in song the life and untimely death of a great legend.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy your low calorie popcorn and assorted confections while we tell you the strange and bewildering tale of a hero who has yet to enter his own story..."

The film's MVP? It's a gunslinger's duel between a cinematographer and a composer. Roger Deakins sojourn into animation consultation has truly raised the game for animators; the plays on light in WALL•E, Kung Fu Panda and Rango can make your eyes go wide to soak up all the beauty and detail. Deakins has also been hard at work resurrecting the mythic western these past few years (The Assassination of Jesse James, True Grit and now Rango). Meanwhile Hans Zimmer's score, peppered with great singing owl interludes is always beautifully playing with Western tropes and it's never overbearing despite being truly rousing which is far more than can be said for many animated scores.  Such a pity that he didn't submit the score for Oscar consideration; it'd be a  deserving nomination.

I Subtitles
For as long as I can remember, whenever a year wrapped and I would be reading movie articles bemoaning the sorry vintage my first reflexive thought was always... 'Do you see nothing with subtitles?' While it's demonstrably true that some years are better than others at the movies, it's almost statistically impossible to have a terrible year if you cast a wide net and at least glance at reviews before buying your ticket.

And speaking of wide nets, a quick survey of the best non-English language films this year gives you a wide variety of genres: If you're in the mood for campy all-star comedy France's Potiche will keep you giggling throughout its running time (and giggling is a highly underrated activity.); If Shame thrilled you with its long dramatic high-wire takes for its actors Romania's marital-crisis drama Tuesday After Christmas is unmissable and just as sexually frank and devastating; If you're itchy for a robust melodrama, a rich mystery or a psychological horror flick, Spain's The Skin I Live In will scratch all three itches since Pedro Almodóvar virtually never disappoints; if you want more Art at your arthouse you need to support the "difficult" movies like Thailand's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Full Review) which could only have been made by the inimitable Achipatpong "Joe" Weerathesakul.

...Speaking of "Only YOU Could Make This"
Ladies and gentleman... Miranda July's The Future.  

I wish I were a smidge more attractive. Right now I'm right on the edge... everyone has to decide for themselves."

PawPaw's bandage haunts me. That elastic living yellow tee alarms me. The sad drawing of a girl and her pet annoys me. The halting telephone calls and solo dances amuse me. The middle age panic (with accompanying time-stopping superpowers) speaks to me. 

The Macro and the Micro
Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats and Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret are in some ways polar opposites. Heartbeats is brief (95 minutes), focused on three people and contained... some would say its too slight for a feature film as it visually obsesses over a menage a trois that never really was. Margaret is long (150 minutes), crowded with characters and messy... often spilling over its own edges as it verbally obsesses over a tragedy witnessed and then claimed so stridently by teenaged Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) that it shapeshifts into something it never really was. They're very different pictures in tone and style but they're both lively and crush-worthy for movie fans. In their ultra specificity and parasitic feeding on their protagonists' narcissicism they end up conveying rich and sometimes uncomfortable truths about the way people self-dramatize and distort their own experiences.

Margaret is reaching for much more as well and whether or not it has the arm span for it, it will continue to be a critical talking point. My personal cinephilia is more visual in nature so I tend to gravitate towards filmmakers like Dolan and those he clearly borrows from (like Wong Kar Wai and Almodovar) whose storytelling is image-oriented. If Lonergan, who made the wonderful You Can Count on Me before Margaret, steps up his game visually a masterpiece is probably right around the corner. (If by corner you mean 11 years from now with film number three).  But I mostly group them together for my own convenience because they're just outside of the top sixteen.

To Be Continued...

Part 2: Honorable Mentions: The Tree of Life, Midnight in Paris and more...
Part 3: Top Ten Finale and Best Picture nominees at the 12th annual Film Bitch Awards.

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Reader Comments (22)

Nat, did you ever get around to watching "Incendies?" I noticed that you referenced it in your 20:11 screen shots column, but never knew what you thought of the film.

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

Jane Eyre and Rango make my Top 10. I'm still blown away by Jane Eyre. Who would have thought the 87th adaptation would be the one to best capture the Gothic tone?

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

See, I'd understand the mid-life panic of "The Future" if Miranda July wasn't obviously the sort of artist whose reached a point in her life where she can be financially secure enough as to seemingly do nothing but YouTube videos and take six years off between making films. She's clearly not as destitute as the character she's portraying, but the character she's portraying is obviously herself so it's a curiou push pull relationship. I dunno. I felt it was a bit insulting to the audience.

I also found this year to be a strange year for foreign language films. Saw a lot of great ones, but most are absent from my top ten. But, then again, Australia hasn't gotten many yet like "A Separation" or "Poetry".

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Happy new year, Nathaniel! Thanks again for being the blog I can't go a day without reading. Can't wait to read the rest of your year in review posts.

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Yay Jane Eyre. I wish it was garnering more critical attention. I hope at the very least it gets some love in the tech categories like cinematography, art direction and costume.

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

Mia Wasikowska deserves an Oscar nomination for Jane Eyre more than Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Michelle Williams, and Tilda Swinton deserve for their respective films this year.

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

Took your advice and gave TUESDAYS AFTER CHRISTMAS a watch (its streaming on Netflix). Wow… terrific performances and such shrew writing—that confession scene is galvanizing

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRyanSt

Two too many people on my Twitter feed hate on JANE EYRE, saying it's conventional and not as strong as its first five minutes. Seeing it in your and Guy's year end lists makes me happy that I'm on the right train. One more adaptation was necessary to see how clean and well-performed the story could be.

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

Nathaniel - I just clicked on the "Picture" page for the Film Bitch Awards and saw the previous winners across the header... Any timeline on the older FBA's being viewable from the new site?

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Fiore

I'm Team Jane Eyre too!

First time I heard about Fukunaga was in a podcast. You were praising "Sin nombre". Saw it shortly after and loved it! He's definitely a great talent (and he's sooo handsome)

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Thank you for referring to Margaret's Lisa Cohen as strident. "Strident!?"

That scene would have felt on the nose if it wasn't so perfect in taking a small moment, exploding it (which Lonergan does so well in Margaret), and nailing two characters--simultaneously--in the process.

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick McC.

Miranda July always seems much more articulate, forthright and just generally, you know, 'together' in interviews than she does in her films. I don't think it's fair to say she's just 'playing herself'. She's playing with her personal hangups, for sure, but she isn't just playing herself. At the very least, I would argue that in The Future she's self-deprecating and self-aware rather than self-absorbed or self-conscious.

I felt that she played with all that quirk and self-pity in a very sharp and knowing way. Also a hilarious way ("and forty's basically fifty...").

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergoran

i realy enjoy reading this post.

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercarmenmonget

This is a great read. Look forward to parts 2 and 3.

Totally agree on Margaret, too. It's a fascinating and frequently great movie, but ultimately I feel like Lonergan the director wasn't quite up to the challenges posed by Lonergan the writer. Awesome cast, though, and the finale at the opera is exquisite.

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

As far as great foreign films, my favorite movie of the year (foreign or otherwise) was Of Gods and Men. Were you able to see it?

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commentershawshank

Liv Ullman + Meryl Streep = Jessica Chastain

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYoyo

It amazes me no one seems to remember how great of a performance Mia Wasikowska turned in for Jane Eyre at year end. She for sure deserved a nomination comes Oscar time.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBryan

I think Miranda July has a set of themes she likes to play with that can give the impression that she's just playing or writing about herself. What really changed my mind about her was her short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. Each story is different in its own quirky/absurd way, but they all deal in some way with love, loss, identity, and aging. She's not stuck in a loop of exploring herself. She just arrived into the entertainment consciousness with a real clear artistic identity.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Thank God you didn't describe "The Help" as the year's most underrated picture! It would have been a little excessive. Viola Davis is a thrill to watch but Tate Taylor is pretty clumsy with everything else: the tone, the length, the depth...

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Have to disagree about the visual style of Margaret. Longergan isn't showy like Dolan, but his aesthetic seems considerably more mature. The beautiful grainy, low-lit apartments and long takes (like the first conversation between Damon & Paquin), the gorgeous tracking shot of Paquin descending the stairs at the opera. Attention isn't being overtly called to the visuals, and the story is "indulgent" enough that exhibitionist camera tricks might have caused the print to explode, but it's all rendered with such subtly that I find it infinitely more interesting than a copycat like Dolan. To say Longergain's aesthetic isn't fully formed seems unfair.

Although, to compare it to Almodovar doesn't make sense, as they're worlds apart.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLev Lewis

Lev -- i've only seen Margaret once and I distinctly remember You Can Count On Me being visually unremarkable so it's possible that I went in not expecting much (and thus not seeing) much. But i also think it's really early in his filmography -- or Dolan's for that matter -- to assume we know him visually or that his aesthetic is fully formed.

I'm fully aware that Dolan's voice isn't fully his own yet but i expect it to be. and it's true that i am more enamored of flashy visual styles than some cinpehiles since i worship Almodovar and Luhrmann, you know. to each their own.

that said, I don't want tricks. I just want a fully developed style.

SHAWSHANK -- i did see Of Gods and Men but it did not make the list. I liked it though.

CASEY -- because of the makeup of the site and the what's available in terms of structure i can only have three years visible (so the last two are available currently 2010 and 2009 and the 2011 pages are blank and about to be filled in. I know i promised a book for purchase but i'm having trouble figuring out how to transfer the material into a format suitable for a book. argh. i'll figure it out. hopefully post oscar when this slow down a bit.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Seems I inadvertently knocked Almodovar, which was not at all my intention. Agreed that Dolan has potential, and as someone invested in Canadian cinema I'd love to see him become great, which doesn't seem impossible. But, I do think his form is currently made up of 'tricks' evidently stolen from greats and employed not so intelligently.

Also, agree re: You Can Count On Me, but think Margaret's another beast altogether.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLev Lewis
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