03 January 2013

2012: the year in cinema, part 1.

Okay. Mea culpa. So I kind of zoned out during most of December—after I had previously promised myself not to be one of those people who abandons his blog like a drunk Kennedy abandons an underage hooker. I was dazzled by all the blinking Christmas lights and the spectacle of unbridled consumerism. (You probably think I'm being ironic—but you overestimate my economic consciousness. Let them, as the saying goes, eat cake—or other genetically modified foods loaded with nefarious glutens and the semen of disgruntled food processing plant workers.)

Returning to a blog after an unexplained absence is a bit like returning to your college history class after you've ditched for five consecutive weeks. There's some fear involved—and, yes, some guilt too. I have no right to expect anyone's notice. Maybe I'll return to room 203 only to discover the class has decamped for another room with less asbestos in the ceiling—without bothering to leave behind a forwarding address. But that's okay. I've spent the lion's share of my life talking to myself, so this can just be a little more of the same. 

My point in returning today—on the back of a donkey with the villagers waving palm leaves at me—is to discuss 2012: The Year in Cinema. Please notice that I intentionally typed 'Cinema' as kind of a wink-and-nudge  to indicate that we probably won't be talking about John Carter or that one Dark Knight film that caused people to be shot and killed. (I forget what the Dark Knight does in the title. Rises? Returns? Raises chickens? Whatever he does, he can be sure Christian Bale will be doing a lot of scowling and looking like he's trying his darnedest to eject a oversized dry turd from his Bat Rectum.)

As a disclaimer, I should point out that I haven't seen quite a few films that I want to see because I live in South Bend, Indiana, and the sixteen screen-cineplex was too busy showing Rise of the Guardians and Cirque du Soleil on eleven-and-a-half screens to make room for Michael Haneke or Leos Carax. Amour—Haneke's (reportedly) grim reverie on old age, infirmity, and death—isn't exactly a tentpole or popcorn film, but it would likely have placed high on my list of best films of the year, based on Haneke's track record as one of the world's greatest living filmmakers. Other notable omissions from my film-viewing roster this year (as of today) include The Impossible, Silver Linings Playbook, Hitchcock, and Life of Pi, which seems like a punishment the angry Cinema Gods came up with to punish me for watching Paul Blart: Mall Cop. I'm sorry... I don't care how many thumbs up (way up!) that thing gets, I ain't watchin' it. I have to draw the line in the sand somewhere. (The bibliography of movies I watched this year appears at the end of this entry. Although some of these movies were originally released in 2011—or even earlier—in their native countries, I am going by the American release date. This concludes the fine print.)

Let's start out with the unflushable bowel movement in the toilet bowl of 2012. Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild had movie critics across the nation spontaneously ejaculating hither and thither and not caring who had to mop up afterward. The moppers, my friends, are you—and anybody else who might buy into this high-fructose corn syrup rapture. Ostensibly, the film is a poetical-mythical reimagining of hurricane Katrina, in which a precocious little girl named Hushpuppy (gag) becomes an instrument of the filmmaker's catharsis. 

You see, when I first started watching Beasts, I was under the impression that the film was made by a black man. I don't know where exactly this impression came from. Maybe if we rigorously traced its origins, we'd find a throbbing nucleus of prejudice informing it—but nevertheless, there it is: As I sat down to watch this film, I was in the mindset of a white man preparing to watch a black filmmaker's reckoning with the injustices of Katrina, in an elaborated, mythical sense. 

It didn't take long to realize and to know, without any reasonable doubt, that Beasts was actually the working-out of some hardcore liberal guilt by a (probably young, probably male, probably privileged) white person. You really couldn't come up with a more trite or patronizing take on social injustice if you tried. The people of the 'Bathtub' (the poor, predominantly black lowlands of New Orleans) are intrinsically good, and the people of the higher lands (the more affluent, the more educated, and the more privileged) are either bad or at least terribly lost—what with their basic disregard of the magical mysteries of this wondrous world. The simple folk of the Bathtub are nobler, more authentic, more attuned to basic rhythms of nature—which the (fallen) city folk are too inundated with the noise of science and bureaucracy to sense. 

Make no mistake. This is an attempted shaming of the privileged. Not only are the guilty of an original sin of sorts—i.e., coming from money—they are also estranged from the essential, primitive instincts which make them fully human. (Poor rich white people!) Benh Zeitlin is atoning for his own status by reiterating that tired dualism of nature vs. society that dates back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and even long before. 

Yup, that's the guy. Benh Zeitlin. I know it's unfair to post his photo like this, as if it's some kind of evidence that he can't or shouldn't make a film about poor black people. But I'm not sure he has actually made a film about poor black people; he's made a film about his hang-ups. The budget for Beasts of the Southern Wild was $1.8 million. That's a lot of money to spend on psychotherapy, Benh. Now that you've patted the poor black people on their heads and 'empowered' them through an appropriation of myth, what have you really said? What have you shared with us that's really worth sharing? You know when somebody comes up to you and wants to tell you about a 'weird' dream they've had, and you're bored just thinking about it—because who really wants to hear about what's rattling around in this person's unconscious mind? Well, Beasts of the Southern Wild is Benh Zeitlin's dream. I hope it's made him feel better, but it kind of made me want to throw up all over the place. 

Let's be fair. Zeitlin wasn't the only one toying with myth this year. Ben Affleck turned a curious anecdote from the Iran Hostage Crisis into a cookie-cutter political thriller which can be synopsized (more or less) as 'America, Fuck Yeah!' It's certainly not a terrible movie, but Argo probably wins its plaudits less from its artistry than from a couple of extratextual factors: (1) People are always surprised when an actor can do anything other than act, so a film like Argo is necessarily going to benefit from a little bit of backhanded praise, along the lines of: 'Hey, this Affleck guy directed another movie! And it doesn't suck!' (2) Although in some particulars the real story of Argo has been jerry-rigged beyond recognition, the film is (ostensibly) political, historical... classy. This gives it a certain cachet. It's the kind of film that old Academy members can feel good about voting for, and Lord knows we want nothing else but to make Academy members feel good. 

Ben Affleck is a competent but bland director. He's several notches above a TV movie director, but let's not fool ourselves: he's in the same neighborhood. When all is said and done, Argo feels kind of rote. This isn't to say that there isn't a time and place for rote entertainments—sometimes the familiar and unremarkable can be comforting—but I think the critics have oversold Affleck's talents. He may grow into something better, but let's talk about what he is today: a hard-working, if not terribly gifted filmmaker. Maybe his skill will catch up with his ambition eventually. Stay tuned.

Probably the most (unintentionally) depressing film of the year was Robert Lorenz's The Trouble with the Curve, in which Clint Eastwood surprisingly portrays a grizzled, no-nonsense old grump. (A real stretch for him. I don't know where he summons the wherewithal to play against type like that.) In real life, Eastwood talked to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention, but in Curve, he talks to his penis. I think it was considerate of Lorenz to place this scene right at the beginning of the film. After all, what Eastwood discusses with his uncooperative member is less interesting than what the scene says to us, the viewers: 'This is a baseball movie with Eastwood and Justin Timberlake. What the fuck were you expecting exactly? Fanny and Alexander, for Chrissake?' Yes, viewers, the blame can only be directed at ourselves.

There is a scene early on in which Eastwood visits his wife's grave and sings 'You Are My Sunshine' to her rotting, buried corpse. I think this was supposed to be poignant. And I'm sure if I could have stopped giggling for a minute I would have been deeply moved by it. 

There are so many major problems with this movie that I'm too overwhelmed thinking about them to list them all for you. It's like when you have so many things to do that you can't bring yourself to do even one of them. I will point out two things before I take Curve out behind the barn and put it out of its misery with a shotgun: (1) The plot relies so heavily on coincidence and happenstance that it could very easily have ended up an altogether different and more satisfying film in which all the characters are miserable and suicidal at the end—if only fate would have thrown us a proverbial bone. I'm not even convinced that a script was written for this film. I think the director just said, 'Well, we need everything to end happily so let's just have everything kind of work out somehow and hope nobody notices that none of it makes much sense.' (2) What? You haven't seen Matthew Lillard play enough completely evil bug-eyed villains? Well, Curve has you covered there. Lillard, as always, makes Pol Pot look like Dinah Shore. 

Another crappy film from 2012 worth mentioning is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel starring a bunch of old British people, that kid from Slumdog Millionaire (whose career is about to expire in a few minutes), and Judi Dench's downy mustache. The only reason this movie was ever made was to pacify the elderly. They always complain that movies nowadays are so bad and filled with all that sex and violence. Well, this is the film industry's way of saying, 'Here. Here's your movie. Now shut up the fuck up for another year.'

[To be continued.]

My viewing list for 2012 (that serves as the basis for these blogs) is as follows: 21 Jump Street, Argo, Bachelorette, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Chronicle, Cosmopolis, Dark Horse, The Deep Blue Sea, Django Unchained, God Bless America, Goodbye First Love, Keyhole, The Kid with a Bike, Killer Joe, Killing Them Softly, Les Misérables, Lincoln, The Loneliest Planet, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Oslo August 31st, Price Check, Ruby Sparks, Save the Date, The Sound of My Voice, Take This Waltz, The Turin Horse, Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, The Trouble with the Curve, and Union Square.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I recently saw a WORST films of the year list that put Hitchcock as #1. I find that very difficult to believe...

    2. Don't believe her, believe me! I have impeccable taste!

  2. Hitchcock was better than The Trouble with the Curve, for sure.

  3. PS. The first comment was mine, but I deleted it because I didn't want to be unknown.

  4. I'm disappointed to hear that Beasts of the Southern Wild's characters are so typecast. I think I may still see it, though.

    Don't you have independent theaters around somewhere? Our local 'multiplex' would never play Amour, either, but we have smaller cinemas nearby that would.

    1. Amour MAY play here—if it does well with Oscar noms. No, we don't have independents here. This isn't New England, Morais. This is Middle America. Different world completely.

    2. Sheesh, even I have an independent movie house where I am. I always imagined the Midwest and Upstate NY to be equally crappy. Isn't Notre Dame In South Bend? Doesn't that bring any "culture" to the area?

      I can't wait to see your remarks on The Turin Horse (ha!) and Django Unchained.

    3. No, Notre Dame is fratty, conservative school teeming with business majors.

      Sorry. I think you and Jason underestimate the philistinism of the Midwest.

  5. Moonrise Kingdom! I forgot that was released this year. That one makes my top five along with Killer Joe and Django Unchained.

    1. I think you'd probably like Lincoln and Killing Them Softly—but maybe not top-five-like them.

  6. i didn't see as many movies in the theatre as i normally do this year, and my list is chock full of block busters. i feel guilty saying that given your situation because toronto is a great film town -- the cinematheque runs a wonderful programme, and we get almost everything in first-run, not to mention the whole film festival thing. but i'm bad at going to movies by myself - i end up just picking up a book instead, and the person i used to go to higher calibre films with has ditched me for a boy. my favourite film this year was the raid: redemption, an indonesian action film.

    guilty pleasure of the year? i LOVED expendables 2. i went in thinking it was going to be awful (i'd never seen the first one) but it was all so ridiculous (jean-claude van damme plays a villain called "Villain" which stallone pronounced "Villian", to my utter enjoyment.

    biggest disappointment for me was prometheus. i had high hopes based on the trailer and because i love blade runner and alien so much. it was very pretty but stupid, stupid, stupid.

    i thought hitchcock was a gentle little character study. there wasn't a lot going on there, but i enjoyed hopkins and mirren. but to each their own, as they say. :)

  7. Affleck looks like Keanu Reeves in profile with that beard.