Previously I posted about my top 10 cinematic highlights of 2012. But there were more than 10 noteworthy movies last year, naturally…
In alphabetical order:
Director: Ben Affleck
A huge step up from 2010’s The Town — Ben Affleck made a good movie once he stopped worrying about his Boston street cred. Everyone involved clearly had a good time with the affectionate satire of Hollywood circa 1980, but the movie makes an impressive changeup midway through — the scenes in Tehran are tense and effectively underplayed, for the most part. And Affleck gives the last word to Jimmy Carter, a generous gesture.
Real-world postscript: The Iranian government has announced that it will finance a rebuttal to Argo, to counter what it describes as the historical inaccuracies and “Islamophobic” nature of the Affleck movie. The director is Ataollah Salmanian, characterized in a N.Y. Times story as “a minor figure in the Iranian film industry.” (You mean Abbas Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi weren’t available? I’m shocked.) Full story here.
Director: Joss Whedon
The antidote to a bad day. I’ll confess I had my fill of superhero movies years ago — maybe it was after enduring the third Sam Raimi Spidey, or the Brett Ratner–directed X-Men debacle — but there were a lot of darn good jokes in this (cf. Captain America and flying monkeys). Maybe that should come as no surprise, given that Joss Whedon wrote the script. But the levity was a welcome note, given how the superhero genre has come down with a bad case of portentousness in recent years.
What I noticed the most was how much this felt like the real sequel to Iron Man, with Robert Downey, Jr. far more engaged (and inspired, when he was acting opposite Mark Ruffalo) than he seemed to be in the dud that was Iron Man 2. He should have his contracts stipulate that only Whedon can write Tony Stark from now on.
Director: Christian Petzold
East Germany, 1980: A doctor from East Berlin is banished to the boondocks for trying to emigrate across the Berlin Wall. Her lover from the West has a plan to smuggle her across the border, but the East German secret police are everywhere.
What’s most memorable about Barbara is the atmosphere of quiet paranoia — the title character finds herself relocated to a picturesque, faded country town, benign on the surface, but where every personal interaction is ambiguous, and laced with potential menace. This is a world of suspicion, where there is no distinction between public and private: Barbara (Nina Hoss) has to fear being watched out in the remote countryside and in her own bedroom. It’s no wonder she seems so walled off, inscrutable.
Christian Petzold’s dry, observational storytelling may try the patience of some viewers, but it’s possible the movie evokes the fearful, uncertain nature of living in a police state better than a louder, more melodramatic approach might. Click here for the review.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Does this movie belong on this list? I’m not sure. There’s a lot to admire, even love, in the first two-thirds or so. But during a long, long scene where Tarantino’s penchant for stretching tension to the breaking point finally hits its limit, I found myself ahead of the movie, and pretty much able to predict everything that was going to happen next. And that’s never happened for me in a Tarantino picture before. Plus the endless spurts of blood struck me as witless in a way QT has never been before. Click here for the review.
Farewell, My Queen
(a.k.a. Les adieux à las reine)
Director: Benoît Jacquot
Benoît Jacquot was able to film Farewell, My Queen on location at Versailles. The result is no tourist brochure: This Versailles feels not lavish but lived in, scuffed up. For once the oft-mentioned detail that the real-life halls of Versailles reeked of urine is easy to credit from what we see on screen.
Focusing on the relationship between Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), her “favorite” the Duchess Gabrielle (Virginie Ledoyen), and her loyal reader (Lea Seydoux) as the revolution draws near, the film finds a way to wring unexpected suspense from a historical outcome that everyone already knows. Three good parts for the lead actresses, and a cracking historical drama. Click here for the review.
Mexico, 2011 (U.S. release, 2012)
Director: Gerardo Naranjo
Inspired by a true story: A naive beauty-pageant contestant in Mexico finds herself being used as a pawn in a bewildering turf battle between the police, the army and a drug cartel, none of whom are exactly hesitant to break out the heavy firepower. Gerardo Naranjo immerses the viewer in such unnerving, chaotic shootouts that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Michael Mann is studying this movie.
It’s as if the heroine falls through a series of trapdoors, as she discovers there is always another level of corruption, always another illusion to be shattered. Tragic and absurd in equal measure, in keeping with the characters’ daily lives.
The Raid: Redemption
(a.k.a. Serbuan maut)
Indonesia/U.S., 2011 (U.S. release, 2012)
Director: Gareth Evans
Welcome to the 21st century: a movie made in Jakarta with no stars, for just over a million bucks, is the funniest and most exhilarating action flick in years.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Director: Colin Trevorrow
In the first few minutes I felt like I was condemned to indie-film purgatory, but Safety Not Guaranteed proves that the “quirky” tag need not be a death sentence for a movie. Continually surprising, this agreeably modest indie sleeper mashes up several genres — the most bittersweet of comedies, two-bit conspiracy thriller, even science-fiction — with a light touch. And dang if I didn’t feel something for this crew of goofballs and misfits before it was over. Click here for the review.
Director: Sean Baker
If I describe Starlet as a touching indie film about an unlikely connection between two strangers, how many people will roll their eyes and banish the movie from their queues forever? This dual character study is affecting yet impressively unsentimental, and it goes in some unexpected directions. The less you know about Starlet going into it, the more the movie will take you by surprise.
An astute viewer may intuit what’s afoot in Starlet early on, and part of the pleasure of the movie is how the screenplay leads, 45 minutes in, to a major “reveal,” as they say in Hollywood, without having to cheat or mislead the audience. But more important, as I discovered, knowing the surprise in advance doesn’t detract from what a good movie Starlet turns out to be, and it doesn’t prepare you for how unexpectedly poignant another revelation turns out to be, in the last two minutes of the film. Click here for the review.