Best Movies of 2012

Here’s my list of the best films of 2012: 1) The Kid with a Bike, 2) Beasts of the Southern Wild, 3) Argo, 4) Lincoln, 5) Zero Dark Thirty, 6) A Separation, 7) Silver Linings Playbook, 8 ) Take This Waltz, 9) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and 10) Elena.

Continuing with my list of 2012’s best films, here are my honorable mentions: Polisse, Monsieur Lazhar, End of Watch, Rampart, Moonrise Kingdom, Amour, Headhunters, Bernie and Detachment.

(Note: A Separation won the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and Monsieur Lazhar was nominated, but neither were widely released in the US until 2012. Similarly, The Kid with a Bike was screened in October 2011 at the New York Film Festival, but was not theatrically released in the US release until March 2012. These films are on my 2012 list because, like most Americans, I couldn’t see them until 2012.)

The Kid with a Bike: a riveting and unsentimental story of unconditional love

The Kid with a Bike is an extraordinary film that tells a riveting story of unconditional love.  It is emotionally powerful without being sentimental and is gripping without stunts and explosions.

A 12-year-old boy wants to find the father who dumped him at a children’s home, but meets a woman who becomes his de facto foster mom.  In the face of overwhelming evidence, the boy refuses to acknowledge the possibility that his father doesn’t want him.  He becomes angry, acts out and is poised to make life-ruining choices.  His one chance in life is the woman who is drawn to caring for him, but he could alienate her, too.

The writer-directors, the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes, are two of my favorite film makers (The Son, Rosetta).  Their gift is minimalistic filmmaking that addresses fundamental themes like love, loss, forgiveness and belonging.  To avoid sappiness, they set their stories in gritty industrial towns and employ vividly realistic characters.  As all their work, The Kid with a Bike is an unvarnished and utterly realistic looking film.  This helps them create a fable about absolute goodness and the saving of another human being and present it in a credible, unsentimental and immediate package.

The Dardennes are known for their success with untrained actors, and here Thomas Doret is excellent as the kid – energetic, longing and single-minded.  The Belgian-born French star Cecille De France (Hereafter, The Spanish Apartment) is wonderful as the foster mom – steadfast but unknowable.  The compelling actor Olivier Gourmet (The Son, Rosetta, Mesrine) briefly appears in a bit part.

 

 

 

Beasts of the Southern Wild:   a child’s indomitable spirit, brilliantly depicted

Here’s a great movie unlike any you have seen before.  A small girl and her dad live off the grid in a tiny hamlet on a Southern Louisiana tidal bayou.  Responsible for their day-by-day survival by fishing and gathering, the dad is stressed, self-medicating and ailing.   Then a killer hurricane threatens to obliterate their home, their way of life and them.

The story is told from the child’s point of view. The audience experiences both her reality as she understands it and, when she switches off reality, her imagination.  In her mind, threats can take the form of prehistoric beasts called aurochs.  Writer-director Benh Zeitlin shot the film from child height with a handheld camera, and used an entirely untrained cast.  The result is a boisterous panoply that celebrates the indomitable human spirit.

In her first role, Quvenzhane Wallis carries the movie. She is on screen at least 70% of the time, and her performance is stirring.  Zeitlin audaciously bet his debut feature on the performance of a six-year-old.  He went all in and won the jackpot.

Universally critically acclaimed, it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the first film award at Cannes.

 

 

 

Argo:  a great story, powerfully told

Ben Affleck directs and stars in Argo, unquestionably the best Hollywood movie of the year so far.   In this true story from the Iran Hostage Crisis, a down-on-his-luck spy rescues six Americans hiding in the Canadian Ambassador’s Tehran home by pretending to make a cheesy Hollywood sci fi movie. The scenes in Tehran and Washington are pure thriller, leavened by the very funny Hollywood thread.

It’s a gripping story.  Setting up the audacious plan is only the beginning. It must be sold to risk averse government officials.  And it must be sold to the “house guests”, who clearly understand how risky it is.  The diplomats must learn their cover identities as Canadian filmmakers well enough to withstand interrogation.  And the team must be shuttled past layer upon layer of suspicious, trigger happy and completely unpredictable revolutionaries.  Helluva story, well told.

Thanks to director Affleck, editor William Goldberg and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Argo is brilliantly photographed and constructed.It is economical story-telling at its best, with each shot revealing critical information – the lethal chaos in the streets of Tehran, the paralyzing fear of the house guests, the determination of Affleck’s operative.

It’s a deep cast.  John Goodman and Alan Arkin are hilarious as the movie industry guys.  Scoot McNairy and Christopher Denham are especially good as house guests.  Farshad Farahat is compelling as the commander of the final revolutionary checkpoint.  The rest of the cast is equally superb:   Bryan Cranston, Philip Baker Hall, Richard Kind, Michael Parks, Clea DuVall, Adam Arkin, Chris Messina and Victor Garber.  Watch for a bit role played by 80s horror maven Adrienne Barbeau.

This could have been jingoistic, but Affleck starts the movie with an animated historical primer to remind (or teach) the audience about why the Iranians were so angry.  And he generously included another American perspective during the end credits.  Much more nuance than the standard Hollywood movie –  good for Affleck!

 

 

 

 

Lincoln: Spielberg introduces us to Lincoln the man

At the moment of Abraham Lincoln’s death, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, standing at the foot of Lincoln’s bed, said “Now he belongs to the ages”.  Indeed, Lincoln became immortalized as moral icon, martyr and master of language (all of which he was).  But, because we didn’t see Lincoln campaign and govern on the nightly television news (or even on newsreels), there has been no popular familiarity with Lincoln in the flesh.  With Lincoln, Steven Spielberg has pushed aside the marble statue and re-introduced us Lincoln the man.

The great actor Daniel Day-Lewis becomes the man Lincoln.  We see him as the genius of political strategy who is always several moves ahead of the other players.  We see him as the pragmatist who will do what is necessary to accomplish his goals.  We see him fondly cajoling his wife but gingerly avoiding her outbursts.  We see him as a complex father – grieving one son, doting to a second, distant to another.  And we see Lincoln as a very funny guy –  both a master communicator who tells anecdotes to make his point and a raconteur who enjoys laughing at his own bawdy stories.  Day-Lewis brings all of these aspects to life in a great performance.

Besides Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, as a key Congressional leader, and James Spader, as a political fixer, get the best lines.  Sally Field is perfectly cast as Mary Todd Lincoln.  Bruce McGill, David Straithern, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris (Mad Men) and Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) are all excellent, too.

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner chose to focus on the few months at the end of the Civil War when Lincoln was trying to get Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to ban slavery.   Lincoln knew that, once the Civil War ended, his earlier Emancipation Proclamation was unlikely to withstand legal and political challenges and act to permanently ban slavery.  He also gauged that passage of the 13th Amendment was only viable before the end of the war, which was within sight.  His only recourse was to try to rush a successful vote over both the obstructionism of the opposing party and attempted sabotage by the Confederacy while both wings of his own party refused to join in collaboration.  It’s a horse race.

So we have a political thriller – one of the best depictions of American legislative politics ever on film.  Lincoln retains a team of lobbyists played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and Spader.  These guys know that appealing to the principles of the targeted Congressmen is not going to get enough votes, so they enthusiastically plunge into less high minded tactics.  Spader’s character operates with unmatched gusto and is one of the highlights of the movie.  Lincoln’s lawyerly parsing of a note to Congress would put Bill Clinton to shame.

All of this really happened.  Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s absorbing Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is utterly historically accurate. Lincoln buffs will especially appreciate small touches like Lincoln’s pet name for his wife, Stanton’s aversion to Lincoln’s endless stream of anecdotes, Thaddeus Stevens’ wig, Ben Wade’s scowl, Lincoln’s secretaries (the White House staff) sharing a bed and the never ending flood of favor-seekers outside the door of the President’s White House office.  I think that Mary Lincoln is portrayed a bit too sympathetically, but that’s a tiny quibble.  One more fun note:  the 1860s were to male facial hair what the 1970s were to apparel – a period when everyone could make the most flamboyant fashion choices, mostly for the worse.

Lincoln is one of the year’s best films, and like Lincoln himself, timeless.

 

 

 

Zero Dark Thirty is director Kathryn Bigelow’s inspired telling of the hunt for Bin Laden.  Bigelow, who won the directorial Oscar for The Hurt Locker, once again demonstrates an uncommon ability to enthrall.  She chose to tell the story of the frustrating, wearying and dangerous ten-year man hunt, not just the exciting raid in Abbottabad.

We should all be grateful that this movie was made with Bigelow’s directorial choices.  She is content to invest half of her screen time on false leads and wasted efforts – and makes them utterly gripping.  She neither lingers on the violence nor shies away from it.   In a scene where a CIA operative is looking for a man talking on a cell phone,  the camera pulls back to reveal that he is on a chaotic Pakistani street with hundreds of men on cell phones – perfectly conveying the needle-in-a-haystack aspect of the search.  As  the Navy Seal team returns from the successful raid, the music is deeply thoughtful and reflective, not the triumphalist anthem that many directors would have used.

Zero Dark Thirty contains realistic and non-gratuitous depictions of war, terrorism and torture. The movie is, to my sensibilities, not too uncomfortable for most viewers.   (Tomorrow I will comment on the torture controversy surrounding this movie.)

Jessica Chastain brilliantly plays the CIA analyst who doggedly and passionately pursues an unlikely lead that finally pays off after a ten-year grind.  I’ve already rhapsodized several times about Chastain’s sudden emergence as perhaps our best current screen actress.  She is profoundly gifted and can do anything.   Let’s just say that, as good as Zero Dark Thirty is, she carries it.

The rest of the fine cast includes Jason Clarke (Lawless), Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom), Jennifer Ehle (The Ides of March, The King’s Speech), Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Fares Fares (Safe House), Jeremy Strong (The Guard),  Mark Duplass and James Gandolfini.

 

 

 

A Separation:  brilliant film, tough to watch

A contemporary Iranian couple had planned to leave Iran for a better life in the West, but, by the time they have wrangled a visa from the bureaucracy, the husband’s father has developed Alzheimer’s. The husband refuses to leave his father and the wife leaves the home in protest. They are well-educated and secular. The husband hires a poor and religious woman to care for his father (and she does not tell her husband about her job). Then there is an incident which unravels the lives of both families.

This is a brilliant film. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi has constructed a story in which the audience sees and hears everything that happens, but our understanding of the events and characters evolve.  We think we know what has happened, but then other narratives are revealed.  Likewise, the moral high ground is passed from one character to another and to another.  It’s like Rashomon, but with the audience keeping a single point of view.

Much of that point of view is shared by the ever watchful teenage daughter of the educated couple.  She desperately wants her parents back together, views everything through this prism and is powerless to make it happen.  She is played by Farhadi’s real life daughter.

Religion towers above the action – and not in a good way.  It guides the actions of the religious couple into choices against their interest.  The Iranian theocracy restricts the choices of the secular couple and of the judges trying to sort everything out.  Almost every character is a good person who is forced to lie to avoid some horrific result otherwise required by the culture.

One final note:  it will be a lot harder to make an easy joke at the expense of American lawyers after watching the Iranian justice system in A Separation.

The realistic angst of the chapters makes this a difficult film to watch – not a light date movie for sure. But the payoff is worth it, and it’s a must see.

This film is on the top ten list of over 30 critics, was Roger Ebert’s top-rated film of 2011 and won the Foreign Language Picture Oscar as expected; it is on my 2012 list because most Americans couldn’t see it until this year.

 

 

 

Silver Linings Playbook: strong story, humor and Jennifer Lawrence

In the rewarding family dramedy Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a guy who is trying to conquer his mental illness without medication, and it’s not working out well for him. Although his mom springs him from a locked psychiatric facility, he is prone to violent meltdowns. Worse, he still has the delusion that he can get back with his estranged wife; but it’s clear that his marriage and his teaching career have been irretrievably wrecked by his past behaviors (and there is the matter of restraining orders). He meets a young widow (Jennifer Lawrence) who also has enough issues to know her way around the menu of psych meds, and his life changes in ways that he can’t anticipate.

The fine filmmaker David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster, I Heart Huckabees) invests the first half of the film is establishing the seriousness of Pat’s disorder and the impact on his family. Russell applies enough humor to keep this part bearable, but it can discomfort folks expecting a regular rom com. But this is the key to the film’s success, because he makes the illness realistic and the opposite of cute. If the plot followed the usual rom com arc and pacing, the film would be phony and insulting.

It’s difficult to describe the brilliance of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. Her Tiffany is at once volatile, damaged and enticing. Lawrence demands the focus of the audience in every scene. She was justifiably nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Winter’s Bone, my pick for 2010’s top movie. This performance is as least as good.

We also see Robert DeNiro playing Cooper’s father as a guy who is just as crazy as his son, but neither diagnosed or medicated. In another outstanding performance, Jacki Weaver (Oscar nod for Animal Kingdom), plays the strong and long-suffering mom who must steer her hair-trigger son and tinderbox husband away from self-inflicted disasters. John Ortiz is wonderfully appealing as Pat’s henpecked buddy.

It’s worth seeing Silver Linings Playbook for Jennifer Lawrence’s performance alone, but I recommend the film overall for its strong story, topicality and humor.

 

 

 

Take This Waltz:  a woman’s movie in the best possible way

This is not a shallow chick flick and there’s no wedding scene.  Instead, it’s an exploration of attraction and fulfillment from a woman’s perspective.

Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) have been happily married for five years.  They are affectionate and playful with each other, but they have hit a patch where it’s easy for one to kill the other’s buzz and for a romantic moment to misfire.  But Lou is a fundamentally good guy who loves Margot, and he is definitely not driving her into the arms of another man.

But Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) and is fascinated by him. He is completely attentive – not in a chocolates and flowers kind of way, but by observing her deeply and pointing out things about her personality that she hasn’t recognized herself.  Daniel exhilarates her, and she can’t keep herself from engaging with him.

Michelle Williams is once more transcendent.  She is our best actress.  We know that Rogen can play a goodhearted, ambling guy, but when his character is profoundly hurt, he delivers a tour de force.  Sarah Silverman co-stars as Margot’s sister-in-law, a recovering alcoholic whose relapse sparks a fierce moment of truth telling.

Take This Waltz could not have been made by a man.  In particular, there is a remarkable shower scene in which women of a variety of ages and body types have the type of frank conversation that women share with each other.  Although they are all naked and fully visible, the scene is shot as to be devoid of any eroticism or exploitation.  All that is there is the content of the conversation and the female bonding.

33-year-old Canadian actress Sarah Polley wrote and directed;  Polley’s debut feature was Away From Her, my pick for best movie of 2006.

Take This Waltz is a beautifully shot film, but generally not in a showy way.  The film opens with Williams backlit as she prepares a batch of muffins; it’s a simple kitchen scene, but Polley showcases Williams as Margot reflects on her choices and their consequences.

In one extraordinary scene, the camera swirls with Margot and Daniel on an amusement park ride blaring “Video Killed the Radio Star”.  Their faces show fun, then an urge to kiss, then regret that they can’t kiss, then fun again and, finally, disappointment when the music and the ride end way too harshly.

Later, Polley reprises the muffin baking scene, paired with “Video Killed the Radio Star” in an unexpectedly rich way.  After just two features, Sarah Polley is established as one of today’s top filmmakers.

 

 

 

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: a road trip to the depths of the human condition

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, one of the best movies of the year and an extraordinary achievement in filmmaking, is too long and too slow for most audiences. That’s okay with its director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who says that it’s just fine with him if audiences give up halfway through. That sounds self-indulgent, but there isn’t a bit of self-indulgence in the film’s 2 hours and 37 minutes. It’s just that the movie demands that you meet it halfway. If you don’t, you’re going to be bored. If you patiently settle in to the tempo of the film, you’ll be as transfixed as I was.

Technically, it’s a police procedural because the cops are solving a crime – and, indeed, by the end, we know who committed the crime and why and how. But those aren’t the most important questions posed in the movie, which probes fundamental aspects of the human condition – love, betrayal, loss and decency.

As the movie begins, three carloads of men are driving at night through rural Turkey. They think that they are wrapping up a murder investigation. Two guys have confessed to killing a man and burying his body out in the sticks. The cops are taking the culprits out in the country to locate the body. But the desolate hills and lonely roads all look alike. One of the killers was asleep on the drive and can’t help find the grave. The other one was drunk, and he only remembers a nearby fountain and, unhelpfully, “a round tree”.

They arrive at a potential crime site, but it isn’t the right place. So they drive to another, but strike out again. One group argues about the best unpasteurized yogurt. The men are becoming fatigued and irritable, and, as we listen to snippets of conversation, we learn about each of the characters. We piece together that they all defer to the prosecuting attorney. He has brought along a doctor to observe the corpse; the doctor is living a rut-like existence in a nowhere town, not able to move on after a divorce. The provincial police chief is burned out but puts in long hours to avoid the stress at home (he has a son with a condition, maybe autism or epilepsy). One affable cop goes to the country and shoots his guns to blow off steam. One man is haunted by an event in his past.

This first one hour and twenty minutes of the film is at night – lit only by the headlights of the three cars. Although nothing seems to be advancing the plot, the story is spellbinding as we lean in and try to deconstruct the characters. By now, the rhythm of the story is hypnotic.

The men take a predawn break in a tiny village. The mayor gives them food and tea, acting out of Middle Eastern courtesy and also taking advantage of a chance to pitch a public works project to the official from the capital. The power goes out, and they sit in darkness. Then a door creaks open and the mayor’s teenage daughter brings in a tray with an oil lamp and glasses of tea. She is modestly dressed, beautiful and lit only by the lamp. As she serves tea to each of the exhausted men, we can see that she looks to them like an angel. They wonder how such beauty could appear out of nowhere and about her fate in such a remote village. It’s a stunning scene.

Now the convoy sets off again, and dawn breaks. We see the Anatolian steppe in widescreen desolate vistas like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. As in the nighttime scenes, when they get out of their vehicles, the camera shoots the men in extreme long shot, so they are tiny against the endless steppe. The cinematography is superb.

Forty minutes in, a character begins telling an anecdote to another, but they are interrupted. After another thirty minutes, the listener presses the teller to finish the story and weighs in with some questions of his own. Near the end of the movie, the two revisit the story. This time the teller of the anecdote connects the dots and finally understands a pivotal moment in his own life. This moment, drawing on profound acting by Taner Birsel, is raw and searing.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia won the jury prize at Cannes. I felt well rewarded for investing in its 2 hours and 37 minutes. This visually striking movie, with its mesmerizing story, is uncommonly good.

 

 

 

Polisse how protecting children takes a toll

Polisse is a riveting French police procedural about the child protective services unit in Paris.  Most cop movies are about how the cops solve the crime.  Instead,  Polisse is about the job’s emotional impact on the cops themselves  – when their assignment is rescuing kids from various degrees of abuse.  It’s an uncommonly good film.

Writer-director Maiwenn embedded herself with this police unit for several months.  At the San Francisco International Film Festival screening, she said that, although the film is fictional, everything in the movie happened in real life (except for the love story between Maiwenn’s photographer and Joey Starr’s cop).  Maiwenn also said that, although the real-life cops were rooting for her to do a movie about their most spectacular exploits, she chose to focus on a realistic cross-section of cases to depict the unit’s actual daily experience.

There are about ten cops in the unit, and it’s an excellent ensemble cast.  Joey Starr is the cop who cares too much.  Karin Viard (Paris, Potiche, Time Out) is the seemingly together cop whose family life has been sacrificed.  Marine Fois (seen earlier this year in Four Lovers) is wound way too tight.  Frederic Pierrot (I’ve Loved You So Long, Let It Rain, Sarah’s Key) is the conflict-averse commander trying to keep the lid on his rambunctious unit.

Polisse won the jury prize at Cannes.

 

 

Monsieur Lazhar:  sometimes kids need a hug most of all

A fifth grade class in Montreal loses its teacher in just about the worst possible way – she hangs herself in their classroom at recess.  Monsieur Lazhar is about how the kids face this trauma with their replacement teacher, an Algerian immigrant.  The school gets a psychologist to lecture to the kids, but bans them from otherwise mentioning the suicide in class – a rule designed to minimize the discomfort of the administrators and parents.  Meanwhile, the school’s zero tolerance rule against touching children means that the kids can’t get a reassuring hug.

The new teacher, Monsieur Lazhar (well-played by Mohammed Fellag), is a traditionalist who demands respect but with humor and compassion.  He also seems oddly ignorant of modern teaching methods.  Although mild-mannered, he is fiercely devoted to protecting the kids.  That devotion keeps him from sharing his own burden with the children, for we learn that he, too, has reason to grieve.

Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and won Canada’s equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar.  The child actors are superb.  It’s an uncommonly sweet and powerful film.

 

 

Elena: a vividly dark peek into contemporary Russia

Elena is a superbly crafted film that vividly peeks into a dark, very dark contemporary Russia.  Directed and co-written by Andre Zvyagintsev (The Return), Elena is the triumph of drama over melodrama.  There is an absolute minimum of on-screen action and no histrionics at all, yet the story simmers throughout.

Zvyagintsev builds the story upon his characters.  It is set in a toney apartment in a quiet upscale Moscow neighborhood, home of Vladimir and Elena.  Vladimir is pushing 70 and rich.  I doubt that any softies got rich in post-Soviet Russia, and Vladimir is a hard man, devoid of sentimentality except for his estranged daughter.   Late in life, he has married the working class Elena, his one-time nurse, now in her 50s.  They have a comfortable, frank, affectionate and practical relationship.

Both have adult children from previous marriages.  Vladimir’s daughter Katerina has no use for her father, but he subsidizes her lifestyle of perpetual partying.  Vladimir and Katerina finally share a moment, bonding over their shared cynicism.

Elena’s nogoodnik son Sergey lives in a hard scrabble suburb and embraces his chronic unemployment with alarming indolence.  His equally lazy and selfish teenage son, having an indifferent high school career, is now facing the dreaded Army unless someone can bribe his way into a college.

Elena is desperate to rescue her grandson from his self-inflicted predicament, but only Vladimir’s money can help, and Vladimir despises Elena’s trashy and shiftless family.  The movie is built on this conflict, and it is Elena’s story.   As Elena, the actress Nadezhda Markina reveals Elena’s affection, desperation and determination with her eyes, face and movements.  Perfectly framing Markina’s outstanding performance by isolating it, Zvyagintsev delivers the film in a series of long shots, with terse dialogue and a spare soundtrack. There is no expository dialogue explaining the plot or swelling music manipulating our reaction.

Elena is a dark movie that asks its audience to invest patience, thought and energy – so it’s not for everybody.  Elena is also one of the year’s best films, and an extraordinary example of a very pure breed of filmmaking.

 

 

End of Watch: a thrilling cop movie that rises above the genre

Two cops, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, patrol a hell hole beat in South Central LA.  They are well-intentioned cops, but they are testosterone-fueled young guys. They are always looking for action, and this neighborhood has plenty of action.  They ultimately bite off more than they should try to chew.

Writer-director David Ayer (Training Day) has made a movie that rises above the genre because of the well-written main characters and their relationship.  We watch them chiefly from a camera on the dashboard of their squad car.  We learn that they are both decent guys and both adrenaline junkies, but one is more aspirational and one is more settled.  They are both funny, and the multiracial theater audience at my screening was howling at the ethnic ball-breaking.

There are also some impressive chases, often filmed with the dashboard camera facing forward.  It’s thrilling stuff.  There’s a lot of shaky cam (which I usually hate), but here it works well to enhance the chaos of the setting as well as the action.

The rest of the cast is excellent, most notably Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air) as the love interests, David Harbour, America Ferrera and Frank Grillo as fellow cops, and Diamonique as a fierce gangbanger.

And here’s a shout out to Michael Peña.  In End of Watch, Peña nails both the humor and the action; he’s on-screen almost the whole movie and has an engaging presence.  He has played so many Latino cops, and he really deserves a chance to show what he can do with a different type of role.

 

 

Headhunters:  from smoothly confident scoundrel to human pinata

The smug Norwegian corporate headhunter named Roger Brown (don’t ask) explains his motivation at the very beginning of the movie:  at 5 feet, 6 inches, his insecurity about keeping his six foot blond wife leads him to cut some corners.  As ruthlessly successful as he is in business, he feels the need to also burgle the homes of his clients and steal art treasures.  So the dark comedy thriller Headhunters (Hodejegerne) begins like a heist movie.  But soon Roger becomes targeted by a client with serious commando skills, unlimited high tech gizmos,  and a firm intention to make Roger dead.

Roger Brown is played brilliantly by Aksel Hennie, a huge star in Norway who looks like a cross between Christopher Walken and Peter Lorre. The laughs come from Roger’s comeuppance as he undergoes every conceivable humiliation while trying to survive.  As a smoothly confident scoundrel, Roger is at first not that sympathetic, but Hennie turns him into a panicked and terrified Everyman when he becomes a human pinata.

Headhunters is based on a page-turner by the Scandinavian mystery writer Jo Nesbo.   There are reports that Headhunters will be remade soon by Hollywood.  In the mean time, see Headhunters and have a fun time at the movies.

 

 

Rampart:  A sizzling portrait of a man spinning out of control

In a sizzling performance, Woody Harrelson plays a corrupt and brutal LA cop trying to stay alive and out of jail.  Woody’s Dave Brown is always seeking control.  He manipulates his superiors.  From behind his badge, he unleashes sadistic brute force on every other unfortunate within his sight.  Yet he is a man out of control, whose impulses to bully,  to drink and to seduce increasingly endanger his job security, his finances and what is left of his relationship with his family.  He is already skating on the edge of self-destruction when one brutal incident is caught on video and goes viral a la Rodney King.

Rampart benefits from the one of the best large supporting casts – less an ensemble than a series of great single performances as individual characters tangle with Dave Brown.  Ben Foster (The Messenger) is brilliant as a homeless man with too many drugs and not enough meds.  Robin Wright is also superb as an emotionally damaged lawyer who sleeps with Dave until his paranoia takes over.   Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube are two LA officials who see Dave as a walking, talking threat to public order and the City treasury.  Ned Beatty is the retired cop who has kept his finger in the police corruption racket. The Broadway star Audra McDonald plays a cop groupie that Dave meets in a bar.   As one would expect, Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon are excellent as Dave’s two amiable but bullshit-proof ex-wives.  Brie Larson and Sammy Boyarsky are especially effective as the daughters, who figure in Rampart‘s most breathtaking scenes.

Rampart is a singularly visual film – we always know that we are in the sunwashed, diverse, sometimes explosive anarchy that is LA.  The movie is structured and shot to heighten the experience of both the chaos that Dave causes and that the chaos that he feels.  This is Oren Moverman’s second effort as writer-director, the first being the searing The Messenger, also starring Harrelson and Foster.  Moverman keeps Rampart spinning along wildly as we wonder what will happen next to unravel Dave Brown’s life.

If you need some redemption to leaven a very dark story, this is not the movie for you.  Rampart reminds us that not everyone finds redemption.

 

 

 

Moonrise Kingdom: wistfully sweet and visually singular

In the wistfully sweet and visually singular Moonrise Kingdom, two 1965 twelve-year-olds fall into profound platonic love and run away together, with a cadre of sadly weary adult authority figures in comic pursuit.  Director Wes Anderson has had some quirky hits (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore) and some quirky misses (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), but he’s always original.  This is a hit.

While very funny, the story is deeply sympathetic to the children.  As Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com put it,

Yes, Anderson’s principal subject, and arguably his only subject, is the collision between the emotional lives of adults and children and the paradoxical tragicomedy it can so often produce. But if Anderson’s adults yearn for the comparative simplicity of childhood while his children long for the big, important feelings they believe (wrongly) go with growing up, that in itself is a distinctly adult perspective.

We know that we’re watching something unique from the very first shot, in which the camera swivels to show each room in a home as family members enter their spaces and define their relationships to each other.  As The Wife, pointed out, we look into the family home as would a child looking into a dollhouse.

In a year that is especially rich with able child film actors, the kids here (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayman) are excellent.  Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are also very good as the sad, burnt-out adults.  Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel show up briefly in broad comic roles.

Since Moonrise Kingdom is set in 1965, Baby Boomers will appreciate the Mad Men moments –  a portable record player,  a coonskin cap and adult indifference to a kid simultaneously holding lighter fluid and a flaming torch.  The girl’s books have cover art typical of the era’s quality young fiction (a la A Wrinkle in Time).

This is an excellent movie – and one that you haven’t seen before.

 

 

If you’re lucky, you get old. When you get old, you eventually get infirm and then you die. I generally do not focus on this grim truth, but no one can argue it isn’t part of the human condition, and director Michael Haneke explores it with his film Amour.

We meet a delightful elderly couple played by French film icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. They live a comfortable and independent life, engaged in culture and current events, until she suffers a stroke. He steps up to become her sensible and compassionate caregiver. However, the decline of her health brings humiliating dependence is for her and frustration and weariness for him. It finally becomes unbearable for both of them (and for the audience).

Amour is heartbreaking, made so by its utter authenticity. I have been plunged by circumstance into the caregiving role at times, and I recognized every moment of fear, frustration, resentment and exhaustion that the husband experiences.

I tend to despise Haneke because he is a sadistic filmmaker. I hated his critically praised The White Ribbon because the audience has to sit through 144 minutes of child abuse for the underwhelming payoff that parents of Germany’s Nazi generation were mean to them. In Funny Games, where a gang of sadistic psychos invade a home, Haneke toys with the audience’s expectation that the victimized family will be rescued in a thriller or avenged – but they are simply slaughtered. However, he doesn’t manufacture cruelty in Amour, the cruelty is in the truth of the subject.

Haneke’s brilliant skill in framing a scene, his patience in letting a scene develop in real-time and his severe, unsparing style are well-suited to Amour’s story. He is able to explore his story of love, illness and death with complete authenticity. That, and the amazing performances by Trintignant and Riva, make the film worthwhile. That being said, it is a painful and not enjoyable viewing experience.

Amour is an undeniably excellent film. Whether you want to watch it is a different story.

 

 

Detachment: nightmare for teachers

Detachment is a gripping drama about the failure of American public schools from the teachers’ point of view.   Adrien Brody plays a long-term sub on a 60-day assignment at a high school that has burned out virtually every other teacher.  I can’t use the words  “grim” or “bleak” to describe this school environment – it’s downright hellish.    It’s making their very souls decay.

The students are rebellious and disrespectful, and somehow manage to be zealously apathetic.  No parents support the teachers, but some enthusiastically abuse and undermine them.  Administrators demand better test results but offer little support beyond “flavor of the month” educational fads.   The ills of the high school in Detachment are exaggerated – this is not a documentary – but there isn’t an urban public high school in American that hasn’t endured some elements of Detachment.

Brody won an Oscar for 2002’s The Pianist, and, in Detachment, he makes the most of his best role since.  Brody plays a haunted and damaged man with strong core beliefs, who, faced with a menu of almost hopeless choices, picks his battles.

Detachment’s cast is unusually deep, and the performances are outstanding.   James Caan is particularly outstanding as the veteran educator whose wicked sense of humor can still disarm the most obnoxiously insolent teen.  Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) is excellent as the young teacher hanging on to some idealism.  Blythe Danner and William Petersen (CSI) are the veterans who have seen it all.  Lucy Liu plays the educator who is clinging by her fingerprints, trying not to flame out like the basket case played by Tim Blake Nelson.  Marcia Gay Harden and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Cedar Rapids) are dueling administrators.  Sami Gayle and Betty Kaye are superb as two troubled kids.  Louis Zorich delivers a fine performance as Brody’s failing grandfather.  There’s just not an ordinary performance in the movie.

For all its despair, Detachment doesn’t let the audience sink into a malaise.  Director Tony Kaye (American History X) keeps thing moving, and his choices in structure and pacing work well.  This is an intense film with a dark viewpoint.  It is also a very ambitious, thoughtful and originally crafted movie – one well worth seeing.

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