1. HOLY MOTORS
This year, Leos Carax‘s meta-movie dream, Holy Motors was a film like no other. By using techniques specific to cinema as a commentary on the medium, Carax has us question our reality, the film’s reality and the relationship between the two. To our benefit Holy Motors is never weighed down by its existentialism. Rather, it seems to stick its tongue out at it. Holy Motors is constantly funny, mad and light on its feet. Even when it’s completely insane, it’s straight forward in its direction and always entertaining.
We spend a day following Monsieur Oscar (Denis Levant in the performance of the year) in the back of his white limousine, turned mobile dressing room. We assume he’s an actor as we watch him change into different characters and give various performances through out Paris. He’s escorted by his loyal driver Céline.
But the crux of Holy Motors’ argument is, who is the audience? None is present during these performances. They play out like moments in our everyday lives, some more cinematic than others. Are we the audience? Us, in the theatre watching? (as strongly suggested by the film prologue) But we are given behind the scenes access, the artificiality of Oscar’s performances is revealed to us. Who is this illusion for, then?
Holy Motors also suggests that our everyday lives are performances, and that each other, or even a higher power is our audience. Somewhere outside of our perception sits an audience inside a theatre watching the fantastical melodrama of our lives. Carax suggests all of these answers are correct, and every decision we make depends entirely on who’s watching.
2. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
It couldn’t be simpler or stupider. A bunch of beautiful teens in a cabin being hunted. One by one they will die. But Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods has more going on than a retelling of this tired premise. From the very beginning we are witnessed to a bizarre surveillance crew, run by bitter working stiffs who become connected to the cabin.
But Cabin is more than just an “in joke” that caters to the horror geek crowd, Cabin attempts to destroy its genre, criticize the bad films in it, and argues that its audience deserve better.
Want more? Cabin also serves as a criticism of the human condition. If the cost of keeping humanity running is heaps of innocent dead bodies, what humanity is there to keep?
Even more? Cabin also can be viewed as an existential puzzle. Who are these teenagers in the cabin? Are they real individuals in the reality of the film, or are they knowing archetypes within the universe of the film itself?
As a viewing audience, who are we in relation to the film? Are we the ones they must bust be sacrificed to appease, or are we the giant gods in the middle of the earth?
Why do we criticize the conventions of the horror genre, yet at the same time demand they must be adhered to?
As a giant hand rushes the screen, breaking the fourth wall and destroying all humanity, we become connected with it. We are both the instigators, and the victims.
Miguel Gomes‘ Tabu is always two films in one. It is literally two films, spliced right down the middle. But Tabu is also a movie with two themes, and it succeeds at both of them when its two halves sit in contrast.
Firstly the film is a harsh criticism of Portugal’s colonization of Mozambique and the wealthy privileged whites who exploited it. The second half’s silent-film adventure pretense is constantly ridiculed when contrasted to the day-to-day reality of life for middle aged women in Lisbon. It destroys the Western ideals of the “African Adventure” by framing it as a farce; a Hollywood fantasy that was only enjoyable for the entitled few. The indignities of those who were colonized are all but ignored.
It’s second theme is loneliness, and despite its judgements the film finds sympathy for both of its protagonists, Pilaf and Aurora; connecting them through a solitary moment with The Ronettes’ pop tune: “Be My Baby.”
Tabu is smart. It’s smart enough to accuse and sympathize. It understands the insult that was colonization, and understands to Portuguese who live in the shadow of its memory.
Tabu is revolutionary filmmaking at its best, giving us a vital message in a manner that only cinema can deliver.
4. ZERO DARK THIRTY
Cinema’s Rorschach test of the year, Kathryn Bigelow dares to make America question how it feels about its post 9/11 legacy; dares to ask us what we liked and hated about the good and bad, and eventually gives us a reflection of ourselves that may not be what we expected.
Our reflection is the character of Maya, who’s decade long revenge against Osama bin Laden ends with a vision of a new America overrun in new levels of corruption, inhumanity, sacrifice, heroism and torture…but it ends successfully.
Richard Gere give his greatest performance in Nicholas Jarecki‘s Arbitrage, a commentary on the financial and class structures of our time but disguised as a police procedural.
It suggests that for the wealthy and powerful there can be no chink in the armor; no flaw in their appearance. They must maintain the illusion they are in complete control. It matters not there is a Russian mine full of workers that won’t get their cut, or that a young woman has lost her life. Only honor among the thieving rich, white, men.
In the film’s end he will stand a man who’s lost everything, yet he will stand, praised and lauded, for his accomplishments.
6. ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA
On a night in the Turkish countryside, two killers accompanied by a convoy of policemen, soldiers, prosecutors and doctors will hunt for a buried dead body. Uninterested in the conventions of a police procedural, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is concerned with how this search reflects the conflicts developed from the intellectual capacities if each man.
The hunt reflects deeper and more complicated mysteries within the better educated. Once the body is found a second death takes dominance over the narrative: the story of a woman who knew she would die the day she gave birth, and then did. As Anatolia transforms from the haunting rural hills at night into the sobering banalities of the city at day, the film becomes a thesis about the secrets of the dead and their importance on the living.
7. 21 JUMP STREET
So director’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller decide update another ’80′s TV show for the big screen. Who expect this to be good? 21 Jump Street is great at almost everything. As a bromance that exposes the unprocessed pains of adolescence, it’s got heart. As a police procedural, it’s smart and exciting. As a comedy, it’s gleefully bonkers, knowing when to play it straight and when to let its humour jump off the deep end. It’s completely hilarious and shouldn’t be missed.
8. THE RAID: REDEMPTION
Because it is so fiercely devoted to its genre needs, no action film topped Gareth Evans’ The Raid. Though its plot almost non-existent (however, it does resurface nicely at the film’s end) The Raid is all about the execution of its action. By employing intelligent direction, clever set pieces and precision editing, The Raid’s constant kinetics are never disorienting. Every tool of cinema is used in service of the violence it depicts, and it’s all the better for it.
Many films are about aging and death, but few present it so stark and naked as Michael Haneke does in Amour. Free of irony and melodrama, Amour is the depiction of a lifetime of proud accomplishments in a happy marriage deteriorating. Not because of the physical ailments affecting George’s wife Anne, but rather her decision to resign from her own life as a result of them. Its effect on George devastates him and Haneke draws a stark contrast within this marriage: for as intimate as they are, there are worlds of difference between the dying and the living.
10. DJANGO UNCHAINED
Quentin Tarantino‘s most graphic, troubling and horrifying picture, also is his funniest. In this balance lies the secret as to why his film works so well. There are moments of pure innocence, joy and entertainment in Django Unchained, and it is only within the frame work of a forgotten western from years past that Tarantino can offer his most vicious and deserved criticism of slavery and how it connects to the principles of America. No white Americans are innocent. Tarantino has to go all the way to Germany to find a likable white man. It’s a spit in Hollywood’s eye as well. A send up of the phony Gone With the Wind epics. While past civil war films feel like they were made with the banality of a historical reenactment. Tarantino gives us the blinding rage of the slaves who lived it.
11. MOONRISE KINGDOM
Wes Anderson‘s sweet and innocent adolescent adventure is not afraid to go dark, to be filled with pain and to judge its adults. For as much as this film is about the thrill and heartache of first love, it contrasts youthful optimism with the cynicism, loneliness and failures of the adults that surround them. Moonrise Kingdom is in the kid’s corner, it argues that the idealism of youth must be carried through into adulthood and if you don’t fight for love and life you will only corrupt.
In the small Massachusetts town of Blithe Hollow, an isolated and bullied kid named Norman discovers his abilities to talk to the dead. In Paranorman the team of Sam Fell and Chris Butler take a huge gamble: they attempt to connect the bullying of today (the hot topic of now), with the bullying of the past and further connect them to themes of prejudice, xenophobia and sexism. Even more so, they wish to get kids (and their parents) questioning the idealized legacy of America’s “great” founders they were taught in school. Bonus points: the film features the first openly gay character in a children’s film. Paranorman achieves all of its progressive and subversive goals, but is never bogged down by them. It’s fast, full of action, and always hilarious.
By never blinking in the face of alcoholism, James Ponsoldt‘s Smashed reveals its harsh realities. As the one unique disease that can elicit more disrespect than sympathy from others, is it worth it to even try and fight it at all? Mary Elisabeth Winstead embodies this question and the film succeeds through her incredible performance.
14. THE AVENGERS
Joss Whedon’s The Avengers manages to take the best out of Marvel’s good-but-not-great string of super-heroes and connect them with thrilling set pieces to make the best Marvel film yet. Here the cast becomes a true ensemble, not a bunch of celebrities mugging for the camera. They bond, fight, work together or alone, but everyone here feels like a necessary piece of a very entertaining puzzle. Quite a feat for a film this enormous.
Rian Johnson believes that story telling comes first and he gives us an exciting futuristic adventure that makes you wonder why most big budget sci-fi has to be so dull? He’s not re-inventing the genre here but giving us a great yarn, well told. Its time bending scenarios will make you think, its characters are likable and its performances are great. Looper is a solid time at the movies.