2012 Favorites

We now return you to 2013, already in progress

feature_presentationI keep hearing myself say, “I told you the best movies from 2011 were Take Shelter, Another Earth, and Jane Eyre.”  In part so that I can cite the fact that I “told you,” and mostly just because I’ve been wanting to for awhile, I will now hold the Richard Lives equivalent of the Oscars once annually (called “Favorites” because I don’t presume to be any more of an authority on the subject than I seem to be [not to say I don’t make better decisions than the Academy, but I digress]) .  The rules I set for myself are as follows:

I.  Only include movies that I’ve seen/written about here.

II.  Set early February as a deadline.  Do it during awards season.  As such, I won’t have seen every movie of the year, in large part because of my location (for example, I am doing this list before having seen Rust and Bone, as I may not get to it anytime soon.  Apologies to Marion Cotillard, who surely doesn’t need my approval).

III.  Only include movies from the year in question.  Sometimes I see films from the previous year that I never got around to and write about them if I need to, so you’ll see them mixed in with the new movies.  Look at the year of release, listed at the bottom of each review, if you’re wondering why The Lie isn’t included in this year’s list.

IV.  No more than 5 nominees for each category.  Some have fewer.  Some have only one, such as “Favorite Character,” which we’ll also call the Highlander Award, just for fun.

V.  Be honest.  As much as I may like to be seen disagreeing with the Academy, Les Mis was pretty damn good.

I’ll explain the categories as we go, if the parameters aren’t obvious.  The “Body of Work” actor and actress awards refer to actors who had the most prolific year (varied roles, great performances).  2011’s winner was, of course, Jessica Chastain, with seven major roles and no equal in performance and character assortment.

Some categories have several nominees.  Some don’t.  Categories with multiple nominees may have a star (*) next to one, indicating my personal favorite of the year’s best.  However, since the nominees aren’t actually receiving anything from me (positive encouragement notwithstanding) and considering the fact that many of these roles/films are really not comparable (for instance, how do you compare Hugh Jackman’s performance with Woody Harrelson’s and Daniel Day-Lewis’s, and then decide which is somehow “best”?  “Best” according to what characteristics shared by all three?), you may consider all nominees equal winners if I’ve chosen not to “star” anything.  Click the links (movie titles) to see my original reviews.

Without further ado:

Best Pictures

Safety Not Guaranteed             

A Late Quartet                        

Moonrise Kingdom

Les Misérables

Zero Dark Thirty

Best screenwriting

Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained 

Derek Connolly – Safety Not Guaranteed     

Martin McDonaghSeven Psychopaths    

James Ellroy/Oren Moverman – Rampart

Brit MarlingSound of My Voice 

Favorite character

Léa Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde – Farewell, My Queen

Best Actress (single performance)

Jessica Chastain as Maya – Zero Dark Thirty*

Lea Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde – Farewell, My Queen

Juno Temple as LilyLittle Birds  

Jennifer Lawrence as TiffanySilver Linings Playbook 

Sarah Hayward as SuzieMoonrise Kingdom 

Best Actress (body of work)

Jennifer Lawrence

Best Actor (single performance)

Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown – Rampart*

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham LincolnLincoln

Michael Fassbender as DavidPrometheus

Richard Gere as Robert MillerArbitrage

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Robert – A Late Quartet*

Best actor (body of work)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Best supporting actress

Brie Larson as Helen – Rampart*

Imogen Poots as Alexandra A Late Quartet*

Brit Marling as MaggieSound of My Voice

Diane Kruger as Marie AntoinetteFarewell, My Queen

Best supporting actor

Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz – Django Unchained

Robert De Niro as Patrizio SolitanoSilver Linings Playbook

Ben Whishaw as Robert FrobisherCloud Atlas

Best director

Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty*

Oren MovermanRampart

Quentin TarantinoDjango Unchained

                                                                                                                                                   Best book-to-film adaptation

Anna Karenina

Les Misérables*

Silver Linings Playbook       

Dark Horse Favorite

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Biggest letdowns

Skyfall

The Expendables 2

Ruby Sparks
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Most Popular Review

The Moth Diaries

Actors who wrote to me

Lily Cole

Lauren Ashley Carter

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Thanks for reading.  See you next year.

Little Birds

Once you know, there ain’t no comin’ back

I would love to see a movie starring Juno Temple’s character from Little Birds, Sarah Bolger’s character from The Moth Diaries, and Ryan Gosling’s character from Drive.  It’d be a fantastic road movie in which they would, in the words of Pulp Fiction‘s Jules Winnfield, “walk from place to place, meet people, [and] get into adventures.”  But there would be a roadster and a bike involved.  Don’t ask me who would be the voice of wisdom and save them all from certain destruction.

Little Birds was written and directed by Elgin James, which in retrospect makes some of the supposedly “based upon true life experiences” bits seem simultaneously synthetic and hubristic, but I want to forget about the behind-the-scenes stuff for a minute, because Juno Temple’s and Kay Panabaker’s performances here are really worth the sit.

The story centers around Lily (Juno Temple, the reason I turned the movie on), a depressed fifteen year-old who has gone halfway to killing herself at least twice, once by cutting her thigh.  She lives in a poverty-choked town near the Salton Sea – a highly saline lake in California accidentally created by a flood, leaving wreckage, dead fish, mud volcanoes, and a generally run-down vibe.  Lily, tired of this place and feeling neglected by her mother (Leslie Mann), dreams of running away and going anywhere else.  Her best friend, Alison (Kay Panabaker) hangs at her side, also living a sedentary life near the lake and keeping few (or no) other friends.  Alison lives with her seemingly catatonic dad and helps out on a farm owned by her uncle Hogan (Neal McDonough).  The early scenes of Alison and Lily sharing a one-person bicycle may as well be iconic shots from an exemplary youth-rebellion film, which is saying something, because I believe, to an extent, that these characters (or at least their archetypes) are important.

Lily eventually leaves town with the help of Alison, who steals Hogan’s truck, though Alison goes along with this only because she’s afraid Lily will get herself hurt.  They make their way to Los Angeles and follow a trio of boys they met earlier: Jesse (Kyle Gallner), David (Chris Coy), and Louis (Carlos Pena, Jr.).  Jesse, thinking he’d never see Lily again, made out with her and promised this-and-that if they ever ran into each other in L.A.  The boys reveal themselves to be a group of wastrels, living in an abandoned motel and occasionally robbing people on the street.  The active viewer asks, where are their parents (with the exception of Jesse, who explains his preposterous, albeit convenient to the plot, predicament)?  I don’t know.  How are they all so lean and muscular without workout equipment or money for good food?  Beats me.  How did David, the group’s de facto leader, get hold of a handgun?  Couldn’t tell you.  The scenario is handy because it gives Lily an excuse to hang out with people her age and still be unaccounted for.

One of the film’s themes is inertia.  Early on, McDonough’s Hogan, essentially the film’s wise old soothsayer (which I’m willing to buy, considering the fact that farmers literally predict the future with a good degree of accuracy every year in the Farmer’s Almanac) tells Alison a story about traveling all the way to Bora Bora in his youth for much the same reason Lily wants to escape the Salton Sea.  The one pearl of wisdom he took from his adventures was the fact that “people are dumb and cruel everywhere.  I could have just stayed home.”  Alison also starts to believe that excitement about life may be interior, and that staying in one spot is okay if that’s what makes you happy.  The problem here is that Alison (Panabaker is 22, but I’m guessing Alison is somewhere around 14) doesn’t seem to have any aspirations.  Lily doesn’t know where she wants to go, but at least adventure is in her blood.  Is Alison really fine with riding her bike around a depressed neighborhood for all hours of daylight?  Regardless, the situation with the male trio signifies another form of inertia.  These guys, whom to Lily represent independence, freedom, and adventure, are actually doing nothing.  Less than nothing, in fact.  No family, no job, and not even the urge to drift.  Lily, in the absence of her cramped home life for a few days, convinces herself that she’s “really happy.”  Alison, the more down-to-earth of the two, can see that nothing has changed, and more importantly, that there’s nothing for Lily out here.

The boys come up with a harebrained scheme: use a dating site (which is all but named Craigslist) to lure perverts into a trap and rob them, using Lily as bait.  Angry at Alison and blindly in love with Jesse (which seems ridiculous given their short time onscreen together, but makes sense considering Lily’s sheltered life and lack of romantic experience), Lily agrees to the idea.  It works once, then David gets greedy and books another meeting (in the middle of the night) without Lily’s permission.  When Alison stands up for her best friend, she is kicked out of the group, all of whom have been annoyed with her from the start for being a know-it-all, disagreeing with their violent points of view, and for not wanting to “party.”  Of course, the guy Lily meets next knows he’s walking into a trap, and when he sees that his captors are kids, he beats the hell out of all three boys.  Jesse shows his true colors and abandons Lily.

Next comes something problematic.  There’s an attempted rape, but it’s the Movie type of rape – the kind that occurs (or in this case, almost occurs) with the intention of standing for something else.  The rape scene in both versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was horrifying not only because of the event itself and its sense of realism (both of which are horrifying enough), but because it was not used as a symbol or a consequence of the victim’s actions.  Here, we can sense a “loss of innocence” coming, in a very serious and permanent way.  Lily has been rushing her adulthood through the entire film.  Well, the film seems to say, here’s what rushing your coming-of-age gets you.  Really, dude?  Enough with the Big Bad Wolf schtick, and enough babying women.

But Lily gets one more chance.  As Chekhov says it must, the gun finally goes off.  The rapist rolls over, either maimed or dead, and Alison stands there with the smoking pistol.  Her ability to do this is accounted for earlier – she shoots with Hogan on the farm almost every day.  A character detail that not only deepens its character, but actually functions for the story in a satisfying way!  Who would have thought?  Free of the boys and (hopefully) seeing how idiotic all of this was, Lily joins Alison on a trip home, but we don’t see them get there.  We last see them pulling over on a beautiful beach and prancing into the shallows of the Pacific Ocean, reverting to childlike excitement and literally washing themselves of whatever residue remains from the adventure.

Finally, Juno Temple gets an excellent lead role and does what I’ve always known she could do.  Kay Panabaker, previously unknown to me, is also astounding here; both display incredible vulnerability and strength.  The duo make the film worth watching despite the turns in logic and the filmmaker’s attempt to do everything at once – the story touches on suicide, abandonment, and sexuality, but little concerning any of that is revealed or realized.  Also, why is Juno Temple, 23, topless so often in this?  I can guess.

I imagine that the title, Little Birds, refers to the delicacy/vulnerability of young girls and the dangers of temptation.  But as Alison could surely tell you, there are some little birds that don’t buy into the stereotype.  Velociraptor, for instance.

Little Birds (2012); written and directed by Elgin James; starring Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker.

The Dark Knight Rises

Death by exile

Since this may be my last chance, I’d like to examine just a few of the logical missteps in Batman’s modus operandi, many of which were suggested to me by a friend during the car ride to see The Dark Knight Rises: Batman and other masked vigilantes cannot legally arrest anyone.  Without admissible evidence, any villain kidnapped by Batman and left on the stoop of the police department is free to get up and catch a cab home.  Adding the fact that vigilantism is largely illegal, “the Batman” (i.e. a nocturnal maniac in an elaborate costume who beats the tar out of people unprovoked) cannot present himself as a witness without revealing his identity.  The absolute only way Batman would be able to stop crime would be to murder every criminal he came across, curbing his “no killing” rule.  Even if Bruce Wayne were to come forth as witness to a crime or offer open help to the police, he has an endless assemblage of illegal tech in and below his house (including military-grade tanks).  If Christopher Nolan’s Gotham were a real place, rest assured, Batman would be spending plenty more time in his cave than anywhere else.

The final film in the Batman Begins series is an effective ending to the trilogy and the most character-centric film Nolan has done, albeit with more than a few failures.  On the upside, Batman himself appears for maybe ten minutes of total screen time, while his alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) deals with some personal trials after an eight year absence from crime-fighting.  The film focuses on these trials along with the exploits of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who arranges to steal Wayne’s fingerprints in exchange for the elimination of her criminal record.  The film’s deuteragonist, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) climbs the ladder of the Gotham police force and takes on a role very similar to that of Robin, the sidekick of Batman, a non-coincidence that provides some good payoff in one of the film’s final scenes.  The other major players are Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist with a cult-like following bent on purifying Gotham through its destruction, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a determined businesswoman with lots of money and a nebulous agenda.

I’ve discussed Christopher Nolan’s writing problems in the past (see Inception), and although The Dark Knight Rises possesses a more emotional foothold than its predecessors, plenty of fundamental issues are still present, namely when it comes to female characters.  Women get a better deal here (which isn’t saying much, considering Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fate in The Dark Knight): Hathaway’s character gets plenty to do in the way of action, and more importantly, has some personal motivation for getting involved in Gotham’s criminal underbelly.  Cotillard’s character is an important business mogul with serious ideas for a billion-dollar company, but once the action starts, she becomes a damsel in distress, and later, when her true identity is revealed, she satisfies that Generation Nolan film convention in which women with goals must use sex to achieve them and/or be deceptive and snakelike (see also George Clooney’s The Ides of March).  Both women harbor romantic feelings for Wayne, and like Nolan’s two female characters in Inception, these two serve as disparate romance options for the male lead.  They revolve around the guy, and if he didn’t need them, they wouldn’t exist.  Additionally, while Hathaway tries to play against type and be a self-motivated character, these contrived feelings for Batman (not to mention the sexy catsuit and high heels she’s required to prance around in) subvert what is otherwise a valiant effort.  Selina gets a sidekick, Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), commonly known as one of the first openly gay characters in comic books, but Temple is criminally underused while time is wasted on individual male cops and criminals who have no real bearing on the story’s events, including Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, who has appeared in all three films), in a mock courtroom side-story that is never actually resolved.

There are also some interesting “buzz word” moments that I think are worth examining.  Bane’s takeover of Gotham is described by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) as an “occupation,” and Bane proceeds to dismantle the power structures of the city (which includes driving the entire police force into hiding) while claiming that he’s placing the power in the hands of the people; the word people is spoken very deliberately, like a taunt.  The city’s single court room is now run by a mob of cretins, and pyramids of books and papers are scattered and piled everywhere.  Every defendant is killed in a barbaric, Hun-like manner, regardless of guilt.  It seems that when the “people” obtain power and there are no billionaires or police to save us from ourselves, the system falls apart and the doors to the Dark Ages are reopened.  Nolan has already responded to this commentary, claiming that the film is “obviously not” a criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but if it was obvious, viewers would not be making these claims based upon evidence gathered from the film.  You cannot create a story with the intent of having it interpreted; no matter what “side” you’re on, Nolan’s film glorifies the police and reinforces the necessity of the wealthy while trodding on free will and treating ordinary people like commoners.  Wayne’s ascent from a gargantuan (and apparently unsupervised) prison tower among the burbling chants of other prisoners (who all happen to be trained baritones) evokes a sort of religious vibe, satisfying the Rises part of the title while making one wonder what Batman himself thinks of the people – he’s a wealthy man who unconditionally aids the police, but he’s adamant about ensuring that Gotham’s savior “could be anyone.”

Among the leaps in logic is Bane’s (and his boss’s) ultimate plan: destroy Gotham as per the wishes of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), who was defeated in the first film.  Considering how petty their goals are (right up there with Hans Gruber), why are Bane’s thugs so devoted and ready to die for the cause?  The film’s opening brings on this question when a henchman happily goes down with a doomed aircraft simply because Bane asks him to (this scene also features Aiden Gillen as a cocky CIA agent with a pompadour haircut, illustrating the underuse of great TV actors in films).  How do the thugs plant bombs of incredible power beneath massive suspension bridges without anyone (particularly boaters) noticing?  What’s the point of isolating Gotham into a medieval city-state if you’re going to blow it up anyway?  How many movies are going to make use of the trigger-button MacGuffin before filmmakers realize it no longer provides any real tension or drama?

The film effectively book-ends the Batman saga despite the numerous hair-pulling moments, and the statuses of the film’s main characters (not to mention the Batcave) make for a surprisingly pleasing conclusion (with no cliffhangers or silly post-credits scenes).  For full enjoyment, however, please blacken your third eye.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012); written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and Tom Hardy.