Favorite Movies of 2012

Ruby Sparks

I’m surprised how little press I saw about Ruby Sparks. It is the sophomore feature from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, and written by young Zoe Kazan, who also plays the titular character. It may not be a great film but it is a good film, filled with delights and twists of magical realism. Ruby Sparks tells the story of an author played by Paul Dano who, after a long bought of writer’s block following a major literary hit, writes about the girl of his dreams and is shocked when she suddenly shows up in the real world, fully formed and in love.

As someone who has spent a fair amount of time staring at the blank page while daydreaming of imaginary people, and is similarly bespectacled and cardigan-clad, the story certainly touched a nerve. There are a few chapters in the film that didn’t quite work – Calvin’s minor freakout at his free-loving parent’s house didn’t seem justified, and the dramatic climax was a lot of sound and fury amounting to nothing – but overall the movie delivers a charming and novel story.

That the movie was written by its 29 year old star, Kazan, personally adds another layer of charm, as I’ve been trying to write film for a few years and I’m intrigued to see someone my age, plus two, find success. Coincidentally I was happy to recognize some scenes around Los Feliz where I had seen film crews working months earlier. I suppose film crews around Los Feliz aren’t much of a rarity.

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson is the most intriguing filmmaker working today, in my opinion. All of his films will be playing with regularity on Turner Classic Movies in the year 2080.

The Master, as you likely know, is partly inspired by the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, but the film is not about Scientology. It is about the relationship between the charismatic figure played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and the gnarled bag of tension played by Joaquin Phoenix as a soldier returning from war.

Anderson could create a perfectly timed three act story with all of the traditional Hollywood movie beats, but he chooses not to. Instead he forces us,  with uncomfortable clarity, to experience the relationship between these two men who are pulled and repulsed to and from one another. The faux-Scientology is just a backdrop used to smash these dipolar men together. The story of their connection does not have a comfortable Hollywood structure; there is no seizing of the sword or redemption and no one gets the girl. I cannot say that you will enjoy it as a movie, but I can tell you that I’m still thinking about it six months later.

I was lucky enough to see a vivid 70mm print of the film as I was in Hollywood at the time. As others have said, it’s as close as you can get to 3D without glasses. There was, however, a slightly unpleasant flicker, like an old monitor with a low refresh rate, that digital projectors do not have.

Moonrise Kingdom

How does Wes Anderson so effectively create a sense of nostalgia for a time and place that doesn’t exist? I’m not sure, but Moonrise Kingdom is a beautifully charming film about a renegade scout and his love, set on a small northeastern island. It’s like watching a piece of animation. Anderson’s movies are made knowing that you know you are watching a movie, and so the reality he portrays is not ours, but that of the movie’s world. It is with this in mind that the strange, outlandish, quirky characters, sets, art direction, and mise en scene can exist without taking you out of the story. In that regard he and Tarantino are similar. They know we know that we are watching a movie.

I do admit, there are two moments in the movie when Anderson really does treat it like animation and I wish he didn’t, because those ‘fake’ moments did take me out of the story for a second. Nonetheless, I love it and it will live on my shelf for many years.

Lincoln

The surprising thing about Lincoln is how much of it is a comedy. At times it felt like one of the Cohen Brother’s films, which are not comedies but are often hilarious. Lincoln is surprisingly restrained compared to Spielberg’s tendency towards audacious spectacle, and instead feels like an adaptation of a stage play, appropriately written by Tony Kushner. I did not expect this movie. Some folks have complained that it drags, but I just wanted to curl up in a blanket and watch it for hours and hours.

And I also related to Daniel Day Lewis’s honest Abe, who trudges around with a miserable smile trying to communicate his point with jokes and stories and leaving most folks with no idea what he’s trying to say.

Others

There’s also Django Unchained. What can you say? Tarantino is Tarantino and is a delight. It’s a mistake, I think, to treat Django as a companion piece to Inglourious Basterds because Django does not attempt to clearly fictionalize the course of history in the same way.

There’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is indeed awe-inspiring in a scaled-down Spielbergian way, but to be honest, I already forgot about it. Pixar’s Brave was solid and beautifully executed, but it relies on so many familiar fairy tale tropes—tropes that are new to Pixar, which began by priding itself on moving away from tired formulas—that the film feels safe and forgettable.

The 3D 48fps technology of The Hobbit was an amazing spectacle. For me, it really created the sense that I was watching a live stage play, which actually made it more difficult to surrender myself to the story. The movie itself is nice and fun and I look forward to the next. Oh, and James Bond in Skyfall, an exciting and gorgeously shot film. As good as it was, I wasn’t really blown away by Skyfall.

As always I was happy to see Woody Allen’s latest, To Rome With Love, and was especially happy to see Woody on screen, but it’s a silly, amusing, insubstantial film that should be rented and not purchased.

I still need to see, and am hopeful for, Zero Dark Thirty, This is 40, Safety Not Guaranteed, Silver Linings Playbook, Seven Psychopaths, Looper, Paranorman, Frankenweenie, and countless documentaries. To Netflix!

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