Todd Picks His Favorites From North America And Around The Globe, Five He Hated, And Talent To Watch
A few notes on process before getting into the meat of things.
First, this is a completely arbitrary process on many, many levels. It's based on what I actually saw, for one thing, and there are always some major titles on that list. In 2012, for example, I simply never got around to seeing The Master, Holy Motors or Zero Dark Thirty to name three pictures that seem to be showing up on many lists elsewhere. There are only so many hours in the day and I stopped worrying about being comprehensive years ago.
Second, I don't really care to hit a particular number when drafting these lists. Could I have pushed my Top North American films to an even ten if I'd wanted to? Sure, I could have. But while Django Unchained would have probably been number nine if I had, I just didn't like it enough to include it on a Best Of list that had my name on it. So I stopped at eight.
Third, criteria. I've seen a number of lists already this year where critics have admittedly omitted films they liked better than the films on their list - in one case, the critic left off the film he said was his absolute favorite of the year, period - because they didn't feel the film was 'important' enough. This, to me, is foolish in the extreme. I believe in judging a film based on whether it meets the goals it sets for itself, not on some set of 'importance' criteria. Rewatchability is also a key factor. If a film sets out to tackle 'important' issues then, sure, judge its quality on how well it does that. But if a film sets out to be an action packed ride, or a laugh riot, or whatever else, then judge it on those grounds. Whichever film meets its own goals the best is the best film.
And, finally, I've got this broken down into multiple categories. There are the best domestic - which, for me, means North American - films. The best imports. Five I pretty much hated. And then a whopping selection of eight up and coming directors I believe you should watch in coming years. That's a lot more than I usually pick for that category but, hey, it was a good year on that front. All categories are sorted alphabetically because the order I would put these in tends to change based on my mood in any particular day.
Simply enough, my favorites from within North America.
Joss Whedon gets his chance to step into the spotlight and, no, he does not disappoint. The Avengers is exactly what The Avengers should be: Grand scale entertainment that neatly balances multi stranded, nicely nuanced character work and big ass explosions. You think it's easy to give this many characters their moment in the sun while keeping the larger overall story moving? You think it's easy to do this sort of large scale action while maintaining an emotional connection to the characters? Peter Jackson and The Hobbit prove that you're wrong on both of those counts, but where Jackson fails, Whedon succeeds.
The Canadian moc-doc thriller became a surprise buzz title at Fantastic Fest, drawing almost universally glowing critical response and audience buzz thanks to the simple fact that it's very, very smart and tense as all hell. Writer-director Christopher MacBride manages the very difficult task of subverting the major weaknesses of the found-footage subgenre and turning them into positives and having watched this one five or six times on the big screen at this point I still walk away rattled and hugely impressed by the level of craft behind it. Look for a public release in 2013.
Here's the thing with Canuck director Michael Dowse. When he's on top of his game - as he was a couple years back with cult hit FUBAR 2 - he is one of the absolutely best in the world at balancing the basest comedy with remarkable heart and a sincere love for humanity. And he is very, very much on top of his game with Goon. Very, very funny it stands both as a parody and very sincere tribute to Canadian hockey culture - everybody in Canada knows people who are EXACTLY like this - and then, inexplicably, also throws in not one but TWO sincere and affecting character studies with Seann William Scott and Liev Schreiber both turning in performances well above what you would expect.
Were this list ordered by ranking rather than alphabetical order then Rian Johnson's Looper would be resting comfortably in the number one spot with only Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers mounting a serious threat. It's smart without losing sight of its humanity, entertaining without talking down to its audience. Great performances from top to bottom, a script that never falls in love with its own cleverness, and technical bravado combine for something that may very well stand up to be a minor classic of the genre. Check back with me on that in a couple years and we'll see how it's aging then.
Ah, Wes Anderson. The Royal Tennenbaums made me cry. I have no problems admitting that. But then The Life Aquatic kind of crawled into its own ass and did so so thoroughly that I lost interest so thoroughly in Anderson's work that I gave the next two films a miss entirely. It wasn't until Moonrise that I gave him another chance and I'm glad I did. Yes, it's incredibly twee but it also comes off as heartfelt and sincere and the performances are deadpan hilarious.
Yes, The Muppets. If ever there were an example of a film that knew what it needed to be and then became exactly that, The Muppets is it. Respectful of the past in all the right ways while also embracing the future the way it needs to, this is playful, clever, entertaining stuff. Jason Segel deserves enormous credit for both his script and his performance here, both of which are enormous factors in making these beloved characters relevant again after literally decades of impossibly shabby treatment.
This. Movie. Is. Insane. James Franco delivers a career defining performance as a white trash rapper / drug dealer while a bevy of former Disney girls get raunchy. There's so much more to it than that but that'll get you through the door, at least. Though Spring Breakers is totally going to make its money on home video it is truly a big screen, big sound experience so seek it out that way whenever they finally announce a theatrical release.
You think it's easy being funny? Because it's not, not at all, and yet comedy gets no respect whatsoever. Ted deserves some respect. While I've never been a particular Seth MacFarlane fan - Family Guy has some very high points but the rest of his stuff is quite blah, in my opinion - Ted is not only funny but clever and heartfelt well beyond what any movie about a talking teddy bear has any right to be. This should have been a one not gag stretched out far beyond what it could bear. That's what, I think, all of MacFarlane's detractors and doubters were expecting of it and why he had to go outside the regular studio system to finance it. But it's not. There are layers to the characters and far more going on than what you'd expect. And, also, it's really, really funny.
(Guilty Pleasure: Lockout)
There is so much wrong with Lockout that I cannot possibly include it on my year end list and yet, god damn, Guy Pearce. Pearce is ridiculously, wildly fun in this movie. It's one of the goofiest performances of the year, by far one of the silliest of Pearce's career, and it's pretty amazing to behold. Joseph Gilgun aint bad, either. It's worth a rental for those two guys alone.
Favorites from the rest of the world.
Not that such examples are particularly necessary these days but if you ever wanted a clear demonstration of the difference between typical Hollywood and European arthouse filmmaking you just need to look at Tobias Lindholm's A Hijacking. The story of a cargo vessel hijacked by Somalian pirates, the core story would certainly be treated as a high energy action film in Hollywood - and I know several Hollywood producers were looking at this specifically to see whether it could provide the basis for exactly that sort of remake - but Lindholm goes an entirely different direction, so much so that the actual hijacking occurs off screen. No, this is not an action film but a character study of the principal players run through the pressure cooker of this situation. It's played entirely realistically and it's simply very, very good.
It seems a lifetime ago that we first saw this but, no. Mads Brugger's gonzo doc The Ambassador made its first appearance on these shores at Sundance 2012 and it easily places as one of the most unique and compelling documentary experiences of the year. A sort of lunatic experiment in which Brugger sets out to determine whether he can successfully purchase diplomatic credentials to central Africa and smuggle out blood diamonds - and, yes, he does - this is a world away from your typical talking head doc and all the more vital for it. Brugger's methods may just get him killed one day and that's not hyperbole in the slightest.
More comedy from Ricardo Darin, please, because as much as I love the Argentinian star in thrillers and darker material he's absolutely astounding in Sebastián Borensztein's Chinese Takeaway. Borensztein takes a basic odd couple scenario - a solitary, moderately OCD hardware shop owner (Darin) takes in a stranded Chinese immigrant searching for his uncle - and turns it into something magnificent. Funny, heartfelt, fabulously well written and performed this one gets the balance between popular appeal and challenging depth absolutely right.
Remember when I said up above that there are a few films every year that I'm surprised to see turn up on my year end list? Oystein Karlsen's Fuck Up is one of those. But having seen the dark crime comedy a handful of times now, both on video and the big screen, I am increasingly convinced that it is pretty damn close to being a perfect film. Or, at least, being perfectly what it sets out to be. Fans of the Coen Brothers will definitely find a lot to love in the pitch black drug comedy but Karlsen has his own thing entirely going on. The script is far, far smarter than you may assume at first glance, the characters richer and far more nuanced, and the performances bang on. Plus it's very, very funny and manages the difficult task of allowing its lead to be both a phenomenal asshole and yet sympathetic and lovable simultaneously.
Having done journeyman work on a handful of Russian titles content to mostly muck about with standard action film tropes in entirely standard ways, director Oleg Pogodin branches out and does something different with Home, and the result is something head and shoulders above anything even hinted at in his previous filmography. The family reunion from hell - multiple generations packed into the family home far off in the remote steppes for grandpa's birthday - gets extra hellish when it turns out the eldest son is a gangster whose rivals have followed him here to eliminate him. It's almost certainly not what you're thinking from that description, Pogodin clearly feeling no pressure to turn in anything even remotely resembling a conventional action film, but it is a continually engrossing and fascinating piece of work.
Key Of Life
Japanese effort Key Of Life and its creator - writer-director Uchida Kenji - stands as a prime example of the sort of film that virtually never finds distribution outside of Japan but very definitely should. Not 'cult' or 'extreme' enough for the underground set and far too populist to pitch as arthouse, Key Of Life lands in a distribution nether region that - other than rare companies like Third Window in the UK - it appears that nobody, anywhere has any interest in servicing. And that's a crying shame because this crime comedy is as goofy as it is heartfelt, as tragic as it is hilarious. Anchored by an absolutely stellar trio of lead performances this is clever, continually surprising stuff.
Plain and simple, this is Kim Ki-duk at his uncomfortable, confrontational best. Kim has spent his career on the poles in more ways than one, his creative output alternating between raw anger and the urge towards peace and contemplation with little to no intersection between those competing impulses until now. But Pieta is both, often in ways that are challenging and certainly in ways that are frequently very, very uncomfortable. And I am increasingly comfortable saying that it is the finest film of his career.
Another low key surprise on the list, Max Porcelijn's Plan C may not bowl you over with flash but its loaded to the gills with smart writing - the script won the Dutch equivalent of the Oscars - rich characters and impeccable craft. Another title that will appeal to the Coen fans among you this one - like Fuck Up - is another dark crime comedy with a deeply flawed lead character who, despite his abundant and unvarnished issues, you can't help but want to see succeed.
Hell, yes, Ben Wheatley. Thanks to Wheatley's ridiculous working pace - he's already in post on another title with multiple others already in active development to shoot in 2013 - this is another that feels like it must have been out in 2011 or even earlier, but no. It's a 2012 title - and one still due to release on this side of the ocean - and one of the most gleefully misanthropic comedies you are ever likely to see. The premise is simple - just two very odd people on a road trip across England - but the execution absolutely bang on. Three pictures into what should be a long and varied career and Wheatley has already established himself as one of the most unique and consistently engaging screen talents in the world.
Never seen a Lithuanian film? Neither had I before Kristina Buozyte's arthouse scifi Vanishing Waves but if she's any indicator of the level of talent rising in the Baltic region then you can be sure people will be paying much closer attention to that part of the world in coming years. Is Tarkovsky a lazy comparison? Maybe so, but I think Solaris is also a pretty damn apt one. A heady treatment of identity, human nature and eroticism all wrapped up in a gorgeously presented package.
The Wolf Children Ame And Yuki
Right. There's really no room for debate any more. Hosoda Mamoru is the greatest living animator in the world right now. Miyazaki or Takahata may very well take the title back with their new films in 2013 but right now it's Hosoda. His third picture is a gorgeously tragic and morally complex coming of age tale, one in which the journey is as much the parent's as it is the child's and - true to real life - there is no one path to follow. It'll have a special resonance for parents, no doubt, but this is simply a magnificent piece of work that should have something to say to everyone, no matter what their stage in life. Apologies to Fantastic Fest audiences who didn't get to see it because I made a tactical gamble that didn't pay off.
Five I Dislike Rather A Lot
Worst films? Not necessarily, though with one exception they all made me ANGRY and I certainly wouldn't recommend that anyone drop down money to see 'em.
All That Matters Is Past
Pick a wanky, self indulgent, arthouse cliché. Any one you like. Sarah Johnsen's All That Matters Is Past has it. Probably several times. This is a film that so very badly wants people to take it seriously as ART that the desperation practically drips off the screen. Which wouldn't have bothered me so much except that Johnsen's Kissed By Winter is really damn good and it's frustrating beyond words to see her waste her talent this way.
Yes, The Bay has its defenders. Even amongst our writing staff here there are those who quite like it. We've run a very positive review of the film, even, but I personally can't stand it. Unlike The Conspiracy - which pushes the form into interesting territory - The Bay director Barry Levinson - who really should know better - is content to rehash everything you've ever seen before, do it worse, and present it through the mouth of one of the more irritating film narrators of recent years who seems unable to stop herself from describing everything you're seeing on screen in great detail despite the fact that we're all expected to sit there and look at it anyway. Yes, I know already. I can see it. Shut up.
Seldom has a script so stupid been parlayed into a film so proudly sold as being smart. Except it isn't. It's still stupid. Yes, the visuals of Prometheus are very much up to Ridley Scott's typical standards but if you pay even the slightest bit of attention to the most rudimentary plot elements and character behavior then things start to fall apart quickly. And god forbid if you expect more of a film that purports to "Ask The Big Questions" then having characters proudly stand and say "I'm going to ask the big questions!" without ever actually asking them, never mind answering a damn thing. You could tell a better, more compelling story with smoke signals.
After two hugely successful installments of the [REC] franchise jointly directed by Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero, the producers had what is quite simply a fantastic idea for parts three and four. They'd break the duo up. Having established in part two that the mythology of this world is far deeper and more complex than your typical zombie fare, one director (Plaza) was to go back and tell the origin story with [REC]3: Genesis. The other (Balaguero) would see things through to their bloody final conclusion with [REC]4: Apocalypse. The problem is Plaza didn't seem to get the memo on what he was meant to be doing. Either that or he chose to ignore it. And so what he actually delivered was not the promised origin story at all but merely some other tale involving some other people at roughly the same time that did nothing at all to advance the larger issues so deftly introduced in the previous installment. Worse, Plaza also lifted every single one of his major gore set pieces from other, much better films. Worse still, he also tried to make it a comedy, jettisoning any attempt at scaring the audience in favor of cracking bad jokes that simple are not funny. I dislike this film so much that after sitting through it I turned to the friend seated next to me and opined that it would have been a franchise killer if not for the fact that part four was already greenlit and moving forward simultaneously.
Let me as clear about this as humanly possible. Joe Chien's Zombie 108 is a bad movie. I mean, it's a baaaaaaaaaaad movie. That said, when I caught a market screening of this film in Hong Kong with the erstwhile James Marsh at my side neither of us could tear our eyes from the screen and neither of us even remotely considered leaving. This film is bad in a way that's magnetic, Chien having been blessed (cursed?) with the ability to not only make bad decisions at every possible turn but to make the worst decisions humanly possible. I'm glad I saw it, frankly, but I wouldn't be if I'd had to pay for a ticket.
New Talent To Watch
Several years back I made the decision to include not just films in my year end list but also the brightest up and coming talent - international directors just a film or two into their careers who had made an impression and who I believed we could count on for good things in the future. In most years I've kept it to a selection of three. But this year has been a freakishly good one for new talent and so I find myself at a whopping eight and unwilling to cut it down any farther. Is it a coincidence that each of these eight writes as well as directs? I don't think so.
Lithuania's Kristina Buozyte caused quite a stir with Vanishing Waves, her second feature film - she's also taken part in an anthology project - showing poise, confidence and clarity of vision shocking for someone still relatively new to the field. With any luck she will prove to be a trail blazer, opening a path for other talents in the Baltics.
Swedish director Patrik Eklund picked up an Oscar nomination for his short film Instead Of Abracadabra back in 2010 and his shorts have been favorites around Twitch for years now but it took until 2012 for him to make his first feature, Flicker. And, yes, we like it just as much. Eklund has a rare gift for gently absurd, character driven comedy that should fuel top notch work for years to come.
A television veteran, Norway's Karlsen made the leap to the big screen with his debut feature, Fuck Up, in 2012. A bit of action, a bit of comedy, a bit of crime ... Karlsen proved himself to be one of those with the unusual ability to cycle through genres, styles and tones with dizzying speed while keeping everything feeling natural and organic.
With The Conspiracy, writer-director Chris MacBride turned in a remarkable debut film, one that showcased a remarkably intelligent craftsman willing and able to mess with the forms and conventions of his chosen medium. And as much as I love The Conspiracy, having had the chance to get to know MacBride a bit over the past year and read some of his works in progress I feel very confident in saying he's only begun to scratch the surface.
Here's a high compliment for an up and coming genre talent out of Japan. When writing the program notes for Ohata Hajime's Henge at Fantastic Fest I compared him to young versions of Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Tsukamoto Shinya. I meant it, too.
The first of two Dutch talents on the list, Max Porcelijn picked up a pair of Dutch Academy Awards for his debut feature Plan C. Which would be remarkable no matter what but is made even moreso by the fact that the film is a sly, Coen-esque dark crime comedy rather than the sort of kitchen sink arthouse drama that the Dutch industry normally prefers.
Danger 5 director Dario Russo is a madman. A glorious, completely insane madman who may not have made a feature film just yet but packed more joyful cinematic excess into his debut television series than most directors can cook up over a lifetime. Pure raw talent, here.
For his debut feature Dutch director Arne Toonen turned in a family comedy about a fat kid in a town of thin people. For his second, he made Guy Ritchie style crime caper Black Out. Guess which we like better? And guess which one has already gotten Toonen noticed by the major agencies, who are pitching him major Hollywood gigs? Toonen's work in slick and stylish in a way that feels absolutely effortless but is actually anything but.
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