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Head Trips: My Favorite Movies of 2012

January 24, 2013

Anyone who follows me on Twitter would be forgiven for assuming I hate movies. I spend a lot of time cursing the darkness (looking at you Zero Dark Thirty). When I do get excited about a movie, it’s usually an online cat video– really the only new art form of the 21st century– where the Japanese formalists are in a race with the Russian New Wave to define the genre. The truth is that I saw nearly  a hundred features last year (and 200 more if you count the films I screened for Sundance and AFI). I liked a lot of them. So I made a belated list of my favorites.

Most of the movies I loved last year showed their characters in perpetual motion. Two take place almost entirely inside of limousines. Two followed lovers on fateful camping trips. One was a car vs. fixies chase through the streets of New York. Maybe I’m just restless, but these are the films that took me somewhere new.

1) Holy Motors

Leos Carax’s triumphantly weird return to filmmaking is many things. An elegy for the death of movies, a showcase for Denis Lavant’s chameleonic acting and a surreal hybrid of everything from David Lynch and Jacques Tati to Matthew Barney and Pixar. I enjoyed it as an (almost) sci-fi story about a near future where cinema has been subsumed by the surveillance society. Lavant’s shapeshifting Mr. Oscar is an actor, but he’s also just like the rest of us– dislocated subjects lost in the matrix. He applies fake beards and pops through manhole covers with the same ease with which we log in and out of our various online avatars. Like us, he’s just looking for a few moments of authentic connection.

2) Cosmopolis

Like Holy Motors, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is structured around a crosstown limo drive with various “appointments” as narrative detours, but this is a freakier, kinkier ride. Where Holy Motors mourns the death of cinema, Cosmopolis is a funeral procession for undead capitalism. Robert Pattinson plays a modern vampire, a currency trader entombed in a coffin-like stretch limo, getting daily prostate exams that ensure his immortality. This vampire loves to count, speaking in the abstract patter of pure capital. The dialogue is so alienating that you may wish for death. Our protagonist sure does.  He’s a 1% ghoul who just wants a haircut and a wooden stake through the place where his heart ought to be.

3) The Loneliest Planet

Julia Loktev’s unsettling drama follows a young couple who, while backpacking in the Caucasus Mountains, experience a trauma that throws assumed gender roles into sharp relief. By rights, The Loneliest Planet should have launched a thousand angry MRA blog posts, with aggrieved men complaining about the unfair expectation of male heroism. But Loktev isn’t simply out to push buttons or take sides in a battle of the sexes. Instead, she shows how one small moment can reveal character and forever alter a relationship. Her film charts the couple’s shifting power dynamics with an uncomfortable intimacy, all the more impressive for being rendered in mostly wordless long shot.

4) Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s childhood fable looks like it was shot through the world’s most twee Instagram filter and, like all of his films, it revels in artificiality. Somehow it’s also his most deeply felt movie. The adults are two dimensional while the young lovers in the foreground are almost painfully real. Anderson takes childhood seriously and deploys his imaginative skills to give us a child’s eye view of love. Fleeing their cartoonish authority figures, our young heroes make their own seaside Eden. The film centers around a first kiss, which is at once poignant and unsettling in its eroticism. Anderson doesn’t idealize innocence, but instead reminds us of the moment when we lost it.

5) Premium Rush

David Koepp administers an adrenaline shot of pure genre filmmaking with a welcome (accidental?) subtext for post-OWS times. Joseph Gordon Levitt is the hotshot leader of a scrappy mutiracial band of bike messengers. Michael Shannon is a bug-eyed murderous NYPD who chases him through the city streets. The misfit messengers are the heroes while the Keystone KKKops are the bad guys. Whose streets?

6) Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman’s idiosyncratic comedy is so light and inconsequential, it seems in danger of floating away. It’s anchored by the unstoppable Greta Gerwig, who delivers Stillman’s playfully stilted language as if it were her mother tongue. Gerwig plays the optimistic leader of a busybody college clique committed to ending campus suicide by inventing a dance craze. (Yes, that’s really the plot.) Meanwhile, Stillman’s WASPy conservatism is expressed through a disdain for anal sex and a odd obsession with good hygiene. Damsels is old-fashioned in another way– it’s a refreshing throwback to screwball comedies that passes the Bechdel Test and acts as an antidote to the Mean Girls of modern movies.

7) For Ellen

So Yong Kim’s third feature is a throwback of another sort– to the downbeat character studies of 70s American cinema. Paul Dano plays a deadbeat dad with delusions of rock and roll stardom. Dano’s performance is so good, and so lived-in, we nearly forget that we’ve seen this story many times before. Kim’s naturalistic approach captures at least one indelible scene in which a lonely Dano drunkenly sings along to Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night.” That this moment is funny, sad and rendered without any trace of irony is a small miracle in 2012.

8) Bestiaire

Denis Côté’s experimental documentary is an intimate, wordless examination of animals in captivity. Using static compositions and uncanny sound design, he draws us in to the confined spaces where the animals are kept during winter at a zoo in Quebec. We look at the animals. And sometimes they seem to be looking back. We don’t learn much about the functioning of the zoo, except to sense its ritualized cruelty. Instead, we’re forced to abandon the anthropomorphic fantasies we came with and confront how little we know about the inner lives of animals.

9) Silver Linings Playbook

Yeah, so shoot me. I knew it had Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as cutesy mentally ill people. I knew it was a romantic comedy. I knew it hinged on shamelessly manipulative plot devices. But none of that prepared me for actually loving this misbegotten thing. David O. Russell proves that he can still pull off an ensemble comedy (see also Flirting With Disaster) with a feel for the the messiness of life, and he gets the best performance in years out of Robert DeNiro. What are the odds?

10) Cabin In the Woods

Joss Whedon’s tribute/deconstruction of American horror movies plays like Holy Motors for the Fangoria crowd. Whedon takes on the tired tropes of slasher cinema and reinvigorates them with a goofy narrative device that I won’t spoil here. Sure, by the end it’s just a bunch of fan service with famous monsters popping out of every elevator shaft. But I am a fan. And I enjoyed the service.

Eleven more:

Compliance- This is the Milgram Experiment applied to the world of fast food wage slavery. Like Zero Dark Thirty, it’s a true story. Unlike ZDT, it lays bare how power systematically justifies cruelty.

Central Park Five
- A reminder that America (and the NYPD in particular) are racist as hell.

The Avengers- Joss Whedon understands that comic book movies shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. The Pentagon disagreed.

The Kid With a Bike- The Dardenne Brothers are cinema’s most dedicated humanists. And they will make you care about this wayward orphan dammit. I cared.

Looper- For a better time travel movie, watch Men in Black 3 (seriously.) But for a scarily plausible near future, see Looper. Now if Rian Johnson could just write women characters…

Magic Mike- Steven Soderbergh continues his fascination with bland muses. In this case, the muse is Channing Tatum’s abs. But Wooderson still steals the show.

Bernie- Small town anthropology wrapped around a winningly weird Jack Black performance.

Barbara- The Cold War sure was chilly.

Starlet- That rare film about female friendship, which also explores the delicate bonds we forge to build surrogate families. More in my AFI capsule.

Beyond the Black Rainbow- This is what Kraftwerk’s music looks like. Logan’s Run for goths.

The Ballad of Genesis & Lady Jaye- The year’s most beautiful love story. And it’s shot with a Bolex(!)

Honorable mention: The Paperboy

Lee Daniels may be cinema’s master troll, but he did provide 2012 with its single most satisfying image: Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron. Run, don’t walk, to your local Redbox.


The Reviews Are In!

January 12, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t judge the actions of the CIA and the Navy Seals. Instead, it lets the audience decide for itself. Many have decided that they hate Muslims and are happy to watch them die. Here are just a few responses I found on Twitter.






Women’s Empowerment

Zero Dark Thirty is The Feel Good
Feel Bad Movie of the Year

January 11, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty’s critics are wrong. The movie doesn’t glorify torture. It justifies it. The film takes pains to show that there is no glory. The torture scenes are grueling and unpleasant. Make no mistake, torture works. But, like everything else in the story, it’s presented as grimly necessary. The upshot is “it’s a dirty job, but someone had to do it.”

The film gives us tortured Muslim bodies and, finally, Osama’s corpse. But in doing so, it also tortures us. Masochistic liberal guilt serves an ideological function. We must suffer to be reminded that we’re Good Liberals. Zero Dark Thirty is the feel good feel bad movie of the year. This explains why some of the movie’s biggest fans seem so conflicted. David Edelstein calls the film “borderline fascistic” before declaring it a “masterpiece.”

Zero Dark Thirty begins with actual anguished emergency calls placed on 9/11 and ends with its heroine , not celebrating, but alone shedding tears on the tarmac. No low angle shots of the hero. No triumphant score. This is today’s po-faced propaganda. Ambient music. Ambiguous tears. Conflicted heroes.

Its storytelling is minimal, almost affectless, as if the script were transcribed from a top secret Wikipedia page. Documentary footage is woven seamlessly into the mix. In its bones, it’s an action movie. But all of the fun has been drained out. It is dark, punishing and grim. In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty strikes the precise posture of ambivalence necessary in the Obama era. We must have a veneer of moral seriousness. We must have flawed heroes. We can celebrate this patriotic murder, but in a dignified, nuanced way.

The viewer must feel complicit, but not too complicit. The final murderous raid on bin Laden’s compound is seen partially through the green tinted POV of the Seals’ night vision goggles. The shots are held long enough for us to be reminded of their similarity to “first person shooter” video games, but not too long for us to draw any unpleasant comparisons to the films’ Medal of Honor marketing tie-ins. Many critics have defended Zero Dark Thirty’s apparent moral ambiguity by seizing on this complicity. Maya, they claim, is our surrogate and through her, we are implicated in the crimes of the national security state.

This may be true, but it distracts us from a more important fact. We are already complicit.

The crimes depicted in Zero Dark Thirty actually happened. They were done in our name. The victims have been denied justice. Some of them died. Their stories can’t be told in a courtroom. The people who planned and defended these crimes have been rewarded with jobs in academia and in the Obama administration. The CIA destroyed the videotapes documenting these crimes and then conspired with the makers of Zero Dark Thirty to restage them in a more flattering context.

The true complicity in Zero Dark Thirty is not between Maya and the viewer but between the filmmakers and the CIA. Screenwriter Mark Boal recently compared his situation to CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou. But Kiriakou is going to prison, while Boal is going to the Oscars. If the atrocities depicted in the film are based in fact, then Boal and Bigelow may have learned privileged information about crimes against humanity. Information that has been denied to journalists, to the public, and apparently even to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Information that could help torture victims and their families pursue the justice that has been consistently denied to them by President Obama.

The characters of Maya and Dan are based on real CIA agents. They are not flawed heroes. They are war criminals. Neither Maya, nor her likely real life counterpart are feminist role models. This is not simply, as Boal claims, the story of “a Western liberated woman who brought down Al Qaeda.” It is also the story of a torture regime that operated with impunity. The film acts as that regime’s liberal apologia, laundering crimes of systematic torture and sexual humiliation in what amounts to cynical “feministpinkwashing. Maya and Dan’s real-life counterparts belong in a courtroom, not as heroes on a movie screen.

Boal and Bigelow also make themselves complicit in their press appearances for the film, by carefully avoiding the word “torture” in favor of the euphemism “enhanced interrogation.” This equivocation may be the most telling aspect about Zero Dark Thirty. Boal and Bigelow are content to rub our noses in the sadism of the CIA’s torture program– to make us squirm as Maya does, when she first sees a man chained by his wrists and stripped naked. But when it comes to naming the images they show us, they default to the sterile language of the technocrat.

It is true that the focus on torture distracts us from equally important issues. The raid on bin Laden’s compound was itself illegal, a fact that no one seems keen to revisit. Despite early White House claims, the raid was also a kill mission, with no effort made to capture bin Laden. This paved the way for Obama’s increasing use of extrajudicial assassination, a tactic that should be at least as troubling as the now defunct torture program. The film also confirms that the mission’s code name for bin Laden was Geronimo, underscoring the racist, colonialist nature of the War on Terror.

While the film operates in a notably dour register, muting the traditional patriotic cues, its marketing is far less nuanced. Zero Dark Thirty is being advertised as nothing less than the story of “the greatest manhunt in history.” The movie’s Twitter feed is particularly jingoistic, often pairing tributes to real life military figures with images from the film.

It’s almost as if they want you to confuse the movie with real life.


Further reading:

There have been many articles written on the film, and there are still more to come as it opens nationwide today (also the 11th anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay prison.) Here are a few that I think are essential reading on the topic.

Glenn Greenwald has done a thorough job of compiling the quotes of people who believe the film promotes the efficacy of torture. Peter Maas wrote about Zero Dark Thirty as an example of “government embedded filmmaking.” Jane Mayer dissected the film’s depiction of torture. Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney’s piece looked at the film’s style and substance.

The debate about Zero Dark Thirty has been characterized as a fight between pundits and film critics, or as Scott Tobias said between “the political class” and “aesthetes.” I think the true divide is the same one we’ve seen ever since Obama took office– between leftists and liberals. If you’re looking for formal analysis, I highly recommend the reviews by film critics Richard Brody and Jeff Reichert. I don’t know how either critic identifies on the political spectrum, but their essays illuminate the relationship between the film’s troubling ideology and its aesthetics.



“A Civilized Lunch”

January 10, 2013

You might have heard that there’s a debate about whether Zero Dark Thirty presents torture as a crucial tool in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Within the first 20 minutes of the film, we see a detainee named Ammar subjected to brutal torture (or as the CIA & the filmmakers have called it “enhanced interrogation”), including being chained to the ceiling by his wrists, waterboarded, sexually humiliated and confined in a small box. During these scenes, Ammar doesn’t break and doesn’t give up any useful intelligence.

What happens next is the subject of some debate. Ammar is hauled out of his cell and given a meal by his torturers. While he eats hummus, they try a rapport-based interrogation. It is during this scene that Ammar divulges the name of the Al Qaeda courier, which will eventually lead our heroes to bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty’s many defenders have cited this scene as proof that the film doesn’t promote torture. Mark Boal, the film’s screenwriter calls the scene “a civilized lunch.” Michael Moore takes this claim a step further, asserting that the “lunch” scene takes place after torture has been abandoned by the CIA. His tweet implies that they simply bring the prisoner lunch and he cheerfully offers up the information.

Moore and Boal are both conveniently eliding the most important moment in the scene. Ammar only gives up the name after an interrogator threatens to “hang (him) back up to the ceiling,” thereby subjecting him to further torture.

Watch the brief clip above to decide for yourself. Is this a civilized lunch?