From The Bloodshot Eye
Read the complete list of movies screened in Memphis during 2012 at John Beifuss' blog.
The year in movies is about to be history, which is appropriate: In 2012, the movies were obsessed with history.
Some, such as "Lincoln" and "Argo" and even "Hitchcock," looked into the pre-millennial past. Others were inspired by recent events — disaster, primarily: floods, hurricanes, financial collapse, terrorism. As presented by filmmakers, emotional chaos and meteorological trauma became inseparable.
According to my records, 596 feature films or film programs were screened for the public in Memphis in 2012. I saw most of the feature films, so when I made my initial list of possible Top Twenty choices, I found I had written down more than 50 titles. Whew.
Here are my choices for the best new releases of the year, chosen from the movies that screened here — the movies that readers also had a chance to see. (Movies yet to open here but getting a lot of attention in the national press, such as the French "Amour" and certain Best Picture Oscar nominee "Zero Dark Thirty," aren't eligible, but might be on next year's list.)
Let me know if you agree with my choices — or disagree.
The Ten Best (in order of preference):
1. "Moonrise Kingdom": An "emotionally disturbed" pipsqueak orphan (Jared Gilman) in a coonskin cap and a "very troubled" girl (Kara Hayward) in glamorous eye shadow, both 12, make themselves fugitives on a New England island in 1965 in this heartbreaking yet rapturous work from writer-director Wes Anderson, who abandons none of his elaborate dollhouse esthetic to deliver what may be his most direct and impassioned film yet — a visit to the kingdom of youth and innocence that inevitably makes exiles of us all. References to Noah's Ark, American Indians and Hank Williams lend a sense of mythic, historic and artistic tragedy to a love story that remains buoyant and funny even as it blazes a trail, alongside its bold Khaki Scouts, through ancient woods where lightning strikes and flash floods are nature's response to the storm and stress of human need.
2. "Beasts of the Southern Wild": Shot on location with unknown actors, by filmmakers living "off the grid," director Benh Zeitlin's debut feature is unlike any movie you've seen: a post-Katrina eco-fairy tale narrated by 6-year-old Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis), a spunky survivor with a nimbus of tangled reddish hair and a defiant stare that can freeze even a prehistoric auroch in its monstrous hoofed tracks. Descendant of Huck Finn, Maurice Sendak's Max and, yes, Buckwheat, Hushpuppy divides her time between her fertile imagination and a swampy landscape at the end of the world where the distinction between the sacred and the humble is irrelevant: Fried alligator functions as a Eucharistic sacrament, and a boat contrived from the back end of a pickup truck becomes a Viking funeral barge. Suspicions of "noble savage" sentiment and accusations of anthropological voyeurism are valid, but the film's freshness and enthusiasm lift it, like a flood tide, above its timid competition.
3. "The Master": Paul Thomas Anderson's film is elusive in meaning and purpose, but the writer-director's — yes — mastery of his art is undeniable: For at least two-thirds of its length, this is the year's most fascinating, mesmerizing movie. Hunched and crablike, Joaquin Phoenix stars as an erratic, alcoholic "dirty animal" and war veteran in 1950 who is adopted as a sort of sidekick by a charismatic intellectual (Philip Seymour Hoffman, channeling Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane) who has created a Scientology-like cult. As the men's connection deepens, it remains ambiguous and unexplained — they might be the equally damaged halves of a single maniac (say, the Daniel Day-Lewis character in Anderson's "There Will Be Blood"), split like Jekyll and Hyde.
4. "A Separation": Arriving late in Memphis, the deserving winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2011 is a masterpiece: a devastating portrait of two families in crisis in crowded, modern Tehran that may shock those whose images of Iran come entirely from demonizing news reports. The title of writer-director Asghar Farhadi's film seems to refer to the breakup of a marriage, but the real "separation" here is a class divide that couldn't be more relevant to the political culture wars in the U.S.: One family is educated, liberal (the wife's veil is more fashion accessory than symbol of Islamic faith) and relatively well-to-do; the other is unsophisticated, devout and struggling.
5. "The Avengers" and "The Cabin in the Woods": Joss Whedon's two 2012 releases registered in the red on the Nerdgasmatron. The first, written and directed by Whedon, was a witty and spectacular action-packed superhero mashup that justified Marvel's multiyear movie master plan; the second, scripted by Whedon and director Drew Goddard, was a "Scream"-meets-"Truman Show" evisceration and reanimation of the traditional teenage slasher film that (like "The Hunger Games") exposed the adult generation's willingness to pay for its security with the blood of the young.
6. "Lincoln": This timely depiction of the backroom finagling and ethically dubious deal-making required to gain even the most virtuous political result (in this case House passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery) is director Steven Spielberg's most actor-centric and word-heavy film, yet the result is as much a tour de force as was "Jurassic Park" — and as much a glorious resurrection of an extinct species: If only some amber-trapped DNA could be discovered to bring some of these great men back to life. Daniel Day-Lewis' wise, rustic, gnarled and, yes, Christ-like Lincoln (a martyred savior who speaks through parables) truly seems a creature from another age; remarkably, there's no apparent vanity in the actor's somewhat hobbled gait or in the high, thin voice that delivers screenwriter Tony Kushner's glorious words ("mephitic," "pettifogging").
7. "Magic Mike": Dropping dollar bills on a judgmental bank loan officer's desk is more humiliating than tucking them into a gyrating dancer's G-string in this wily, vivid and utterly all-American crowd-pleaser from restless, prolific director Steven Soderbergh, who uses a Tampa male strip club as a launchpad for not just funny, irresistible bump-and-grind choreography and offstage debauchery but a pointed commentary on an economic system built on illusion and exploitation.
8. "A Dangerous Method" and "Cosmopolis": 'Reaching Memphis within eight months of each other, director David Cronenberg's latest films bookend a century of history, and suggest that the expansion of human intellect has been unable to stunt human savagery. In the first, Cronenberg — once lauded as the master of "gynecological horror" — applies his directorial speculum to the human cranium to examine the kinship between big brains Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen); in the second, Cronenberg follows a smug, "berserkly rich" asset manager (Robert Pattinson) on an absurdist limo ride of self-gratification and self-destruction that might be a slow-motion suicide.
9. "Keep the Lights On": An intimate, honest and uncompromising study of the addictions -- to drugs, sex and intense emotion -- that may accompany and sabotage love's pursuit, Ira Sachs' semi-autobiographical drama is the most fully realized feature film in the Memphis-born director's almost 30 years of moviemaking. Unconventional in pace and elliptical in storytelling, this is a true art film. Many shots are dusted with a golden light that gives the images an iconic quality, in the original meaning of the adjective: The characters sometimes appear almost gilded with gold leaf highlights, like the martyrs in religious paintings who also suffer for their belief in a holy, transcendent love.
10. "Silver Linings Playbook": "Screwball" is a slang term for "crazy," and perhaps this is what inspired David O. Russell to literalize as well as update the screwball comedy genre in his smart, charming and surprisingly affecting film about an "undiagnosed bipolar" history teacher (Bradley Cooper) who is pursued -- sometimes literally -- by a widowed "slut" (Jennifer Lawrence).
The Second Ten (in alphabetical order):
1. "The Artist": Arriving in Memphis on Jan. 20, five weeks before it won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2011, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius' black-and-white, silent-movie salute to the romance of cinema is terrific entertainment, like an elaborate update of the type of old-movie spoofs that used to be featured on "The Carol Burnett Show."
2. "Carnage": Adapted from Yasmina Reza's Tony Award-winning play, Roman Polanski's extremely black comedy of physical confinement and social breakdown observes the veiled insults, hysterical self-righteousness and smug insinuations that emerge when a meeting between a pair of parents (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly, and Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) in a Brooklyn apartment becomes a no-exit nightmare.
3. "Chronicle": Three teenage buddies gain mysterious telekinetic powers in director Josh Trank's ingeniously constructed and surprising "found footage" thriller, which suggests that fate is as likely to bestow a superpower on an abused, resentful, psychologically damaged high-school loser as on an inherently decent Peter Parker type.
4. "The Comedy": Screened during the Indie Memphis Film Festival, director Rick Alverson's divisive, intentionally hateful, ultimately political provocation casts Tim Heidecker (of the "Tim & Eric" comedy team) as Swanson, a wealthy, slobbish, essentially useless, apparently Old Money heir who baits the people he encounters as well as the movie's audience with racist remarks, Hitler jokes, and other examples of offensive behavior. (In one scene, he and his friends blow out the votive candles in a Catholic church.) Unlike, say, "Swingers," which celebrated its protagonists' unearned sense of privilege, this is a portrait of a self-loathing so deep it lashes out at the world, like tentacles bursting from an infected victim in an "Alien" movie. Armored in an irony that disgusts even him, Swanson almost never loses his sickly smile, even as he invites a comeuppance that never arrives.
5. "Damsels in Distress": Mannered, stylized and as original and distinctive and fairy tale-like in its way as "Beasts of the Southern Wild," writer-director Whit Stillman's much-anticipated return to filmmaking is a puzzling, eccentric, sometimes laugh-out-loud-funny comedy in which Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) and her pretty roommates (all named for flowers) work to improve the quality of life on the campus of "Seven Oaks College," a magical place of "Roman" (as opposed to Greek) fraternities and no cell phones (as far as we can tell). Arch, absurdist, sometimes irritating and kind of brilliant.
6. "The Deep Blue Sea": Rachel Weisz offers a master class in acting as a woman in postwar England who chooses sexual passion and emotional turmoil with a dashing, untrustworthy pilot over "guarded enthusiasm" and physical and economic comfort with her dull husband. The sixth film in 25 years from director Terence Davies is notable for its luminous and painterly compositions, as when a breath of cigarette smoke comes to brilliant, cumulous life when Weisz blows it into an otherwise invisible but purposefully placed shaft of light.
7. "Looper": Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an assassin in the future who tangles with his time-traveling older self (Bruce Willis) in writer-director Rian Johnson's stunner of a science-fiction action-adventure — a film that respects its genre, its audience and even its characters, who never are abused for cheap, violent thrills.
8. "Pilgrim Song": Another Indie Memphis Film Festival exclusive, the moving second feature from writer-director Martha Stephens casts former Memphian Timothy Morton as a deadpan/laconic fired teacher who leaves his wife behind to hike Kentucky's 282-mile Sheltowee Trace Trail. The widescreen wonder of the Appalachian setting is a welcome change from the familiar urbanism of most mini-budgeted independent festival films, but the payoff is more than pictorial: The openness of the forest and mountain functions as a rebuke to the petty, passive-aggressive nature of the teacher. Produced by Memphis-based Paper Moon Films.
9. "Pina": You don't have to be an aficionado of modern dance to appreciate the athleticism, dedication and theatrical intensity of the performances in director Wim Wenders' inspiring documentary about the late German choreographer Philippina "Pina" Bausch. The film is structured as a sort of "tribute album" in which Bausch's dancers — diverse in age as well as national identity — recreate some of their teacher's most famous, challenging and entertaining pieces in ofen public settings that include a monorail car, an escalator and a swimming pool.
10. "Very Extremely Dangerous": This harrowing documentary by Ireland's Paul Duane and Memphis' Robert Gordon might be described as "Grey Gardens" on the highway to hell: a portrait of an ornery old-timer on the edge that is as funny as it is frightening and as compassionate as it is shocking. The film follows rediscovered Sun rockabilly artist, real-life armed robber, William Eggleston partner-in-crime and cancer-stricken drug addict Jerry McGill from one misadventure to another, from Memphis to Huntsville to Niceville, Florida (he seems to take the town's name as a challenge); as McGill shoots up crushed Dilaudid in the back seat of a moving car, attempts to strangle his girlfriend and otherwise misbehaves, the idea that his recklessness is encouraged by his awareness of the presence of the filmmakers becomes part of the story. In fact, the camera loves this "dying outlaw looking for redemption," even if some viewers will want to recoil.
Runners-up: "Argo," "Bernie," "Call Me Kuchu," "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Grey," "The Kid with a Bike," "Killing Them Softly," "Le Havre," "Mourning (Soog)," "Not Fade Away," "Open Five 2," "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," "The Prize (El Premio)," "ParaNorman," "The Raid: Redemption," "The Queen of Versailles," "Red Flag," "Skyfall," "Sun Don't Shine," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "21 Jump Street," "V/H/S," "We Need to Talk About Kevin," "Wreck-It Ralph."