Here we have the remainder- that is, top half- of my list of top films for the year. Again, a note on the numbering system- the films are numbered in tiers, a la Sight & Sound, which is why the first two films are both #1. Bottom half of the list is here.
1. Django Unchained (Tarantino)
A freed slave (Jamie Foxx) and his German bounty hunter friend (Christoph Waltz) attempt to free the former's wife (Kerry Washington). Trailer.
"Death Proof has to be the worst film I make," Tarantino told the Hollywood Reporter in 2012. He was discussing the importance of maintaining a high bar of quality through the totality of one's oeuvre. At the end of Inglorious Basterds, one character says to another, "you know, I think this just might be my masterpiece." I'm convinced that's Tarantino speaking directly to us in the darkened theatre. Upon seeing that film, many found it hard to disagree.
Django is better.
The traditional line of thinking is that QT's best work is 1994's Pulp Fiction, a film we all know is great. Let us not confuse the influential with the masterful, however. And let us also not diminish the value of directorial craft and subsume it to our respect for content.
Far too many film critics arrive at film with a background not in filmmaking, and certainly not in directing, but in journalism or English. They are schooled in literature and theatre, and sometimes music; but they know precious little of cinematography, film editing, and direction- that is, the elements that actually make cinema a unique art form. How many reviews do you come across that discuss these aspects in terms beyond superlatives?
I don't mean to harp on so many otherwise brilliant pieces of film journalism, but merely to point out a void where a corrective is needed.
With respect to Tarantino, what can't be denied is that his direction has grown considerably with the newer films. Yes, Pulp was an undinable masterpiece of writing and structure. Yes, Jackie Brown is perhaps his most mature and considered work. But those were not visual feasts, featuring rather a competent but straighfoward visual sense.
Tarantino's films weren't visual feasts until he started working with Robert Richardson, the ace cinematographer who works regularly with Scorsese, and was Oliver Stone's go-to guy during the great Stone period. Richardson is most easily recognized by his proclivity for very hot top-down lighting and highly fluid camerawork. And this change, for Tarantino, wasn't just an upgrade in the quality a cinematographer of Robertson's stature could provide while being limited by a visually unimaginative director;* remember, it's the director, not the cinematographer, who determines the shots.
No, from 2003 onward Tarantino's work has been noticeably more refined in terms of visual craft. There are the complex tracking shots (the overhead shot following Uma Thurman walking through the halls to the bathroom in Kill Bill 1); the more clear designation of purpose to each shot and cut; his willingness to let a shot run on; a more refined compositional sense; and the beautiful range of colors and color tones; those rich blacks filling out the corners of the frame, or the gradation of subtle color shift on an actor's cheek. This is a director who knows he's shooting on film, and wants to make the most of it.
There's also been a maturation in content. People speak often of the violence in his films, but we can forget that though his characters may behave amorally, they all exist in highly ethical universes. The stance of each film falls unequivocally on one side of the moral argument. For example, in Pulp we have three story strands- Travolta trying not to commit adultery with Uma Thurman; Bruce Willis deciding to save Ving Rhames' dignity when he doesn't have to; and Sam Jackson renouncing his violent lifestyle, to "walk the earth like Caine in Kung Fu," as it were. You also have Thurman lying on the bathroom floor at the end of Kill Bill 2, saying, "thank you," repeatedly. Who is she thanking? What's going through her head? "I believe in God, but I won't tell you how," Tarantino once said.
In Basterds and Django, we still have a sense of the simplicity in clearly defined moral assignations to characters- but, those lines are more blurry now then they were before. The German soldier who's batted to death by Eli Roth in Basterds is depicted in a way that fits every definition of heroism. The man pulling the wagon in Django, described as a "bad man-" is shot in cold blood, yes, but in front of his young son. The moral delineation is not so easy anymore- or, if it even ever was, it's certainly less so now. We might think the revenge fantasy at the end of Basterds is juvenile, until we realize that we are being implicated as well- we, the audience, parallel the Third Reich audience in our reactions to the film rather uncomfortably.
Django furthers all of this. The 165-minute behemoth (his longest film yet) is the unique, delectable cocktail of verbose, writerly sensibilities that explode with the tension and violence we've all come to anticipate from the guy. In particular, he's gotten better than ever with these last two films at creating very, very long dialogue scenes that pull a situation taught as a wire before letting it all snap. I'm also compelled to make a note of how entertaining the film is. Aside from being quite funny in parts, the psychological shifts and growths that take place within the protagonist's heads are fascinating and enjoyable to work out. There is also a Wolfe-ian preoccupation with hierarchy and social structure that's never surfaced in a Tarantino film before, and lends credence to the depiction of the world of the Antebellum south. Great.
What elevates the film above his previous work?
Hou Hsiao-Hsien once said some truths are more clearly relayed through a fictional platform. Django is more than an exercise in writing and technique. In Basterds as well, but dramatically moreso here, one can sense a passion bubbling underneath the surface, as in: the author of this work cares about what he's telling us. He's got something to say. The visceral reality of slavery is communicated so potently here, albeit- and perhaps thanks to- the hyper-fantastic environment it's presented in.
Tarantino recently told Charlie Rose of the "arms-length distance" one feels when watching well-meaning films that attempt to tackle slavery realistically; here, he amply gets around that via a sensibility concerned more with emotional reality than physical. Everyone understands that slavery is horrific from an academic standpoint; this film pierces that complacency, using sympathetic characters and Conrad-ian descents to hells that were once quite commonplace, reminding us of the horrors of a chapter this country has never been able to move on from.
I also want to point out that Django strays from Tarantino's tried-and-true method of relying on revenge, that most tiresome of tropes, as his principal story motor; the revenge element is resolved early in the first 20 minutes! The remainder of the film is motivated by a need to reunite love.
*For an example of this, refer to Emmanuel Lubeszki's work on Martin Brest's Meet Joe Black. Actually, don't. The sight of Lubeszki- who shot Malick's last three films and Children of Men- being dog-collared into mediocrity by Bret's woeful shot choices- is just too painful.
1. Amour (Haneke)
Two retired music teachers (Jean-Louis Trintignant & Emmanuelle Riva) in their eighties find their bonds of love severely tested. Trailer.
We tend to conflate what we consider a "realistic" portrayal of love with a depiction of love that is problematic, flawed, damaged, or otherwise unhappy. Most films with a hopeful message of love do not in fact spend much time exploring a couple who've been together for years, but instead conclude with a union of love as it is beginning.
Perhaps this is because long-lasting, building love is so hard to find, in both life and film. I have a fondness for meaningful films about couples that've been together for ages; such pictures are harder to find than you might think. Too many films are about the beginnings of relationships, and not enough explore what happens down the road; and hardly any concern themselves exclusively with the closing moments of a union, long-lasting or otherwise.
Amour is such a film. I hesitate to describe much of what takes place in it, other than to say that it's as engrossing, sobering, and affecting a film as you're likely to come across. Trintignant's character, the husband, discovers that his wife has an ailment, and most of the film explores their attempts to cope. These characters are written beautifully, in that their asides and gestures reveal how long and well they know each other. The details reveal multitudes.
There is a loving combination of respect and weariness they each harbor for the other that is utterly plausible. They are not so perfect that we can't take the movie seriously; but nor is the marriage a pessimistic firmament of hatred. This isn't a Bergman movie. They work at being even-tempered, and strong feelings are revealed through silences or quiet tones of voice. The film gives space and time to the slower rhythms of their aging life, letting us be there for the sleepness nights or the drawn-out process of once simple things. Trintignant lying awake at night, unable to sleep. Riva figuring out how to read a book with one hand.
We find ourselves utterly engaged, noting every subtlety, as that's often all Haneke gives us to go off of. Achingly beautiful natural light wafts through the rooms, courtesy of cinematographer Darius Khondji, lending that particular awareness of time that only such light can bring.
Shockingly for those familiar with the director, Mr. Haneke's film is a kind one, with a view of humanity that is essentially warm. This, coming from the director of Das weiße Band, Cache, and The Piano Teacher is a complete surprise. It recasts all his previous films in a new light. He still retains his cold, unemotional approach to things, letting actions and events speak for themselves. There are no juicy Oscar-clip bawling scenes, no music, no statements told in overt terms- and yet, the ending packs an unexpected punch to the gut. It is largely this distance that elevates the value of the film as a realistic and meaningful piece.
I have trouble recommending the film highly enough. It may not sound that interesting, but it is. The dilemmas are relatable and relevant to us all, and to turn away from them is to ignore a part of life we get closer to with each passing day.
2. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow)
Ten years in the life of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative searching for Osama bin Laden. Trailer.
What is there to say about this picture that hasn't already been proclaimed, loudly, by its supporters and detractors alike? The controversy surrounding the content is an implicit admission on the part of everyone- especially the naysayers- that ZDT is a film of accomplished, undeniable artistic competence. Shoddy films don't elicit such divided reactions.
I'll leave the ongoing discussion of torture to others, except to note what should be obvious: depiction of an act does not equal endorsement of an act. If a film adheres to reality without offering opinion, the only implicit advocacy taking place is manufactured by the viewer, as he might interpret the events in life. If a film deviates from reality to strengthen a cause-and-effect relationship, only then can it become a propaganda piece.
I argue such a claim cannot be leveled at Bigelow's film, which is resolutely ambivalent on the methods used in the early days of the bin Laden hunt. Some characters imply that they advocate torture; others do the opposite, and one explicitly states its ineffectiveness. There is no eureka moment where abuse leads directly to a capture. If anything, what's implicit is that the gradual shift in information acquisition methods over the 10-year period the film covers- a transition from torture to on-the-ground recon and sleuthing- resulted in more useful information.
In fact, the film is ambivalent about everything it portrays, almost to the point of frustration- it's even ambivalence carries through even to the murder of Mr. bin Laden himself. No jingoistic patriotism here. The murkiness of the moral quandaries proposed in the film are endless, as they are in the dark corners of the real-life realm it portrays.
What is celebrated is the dedication of the people involved. The film stands apart in that it's a portrait of people at their jobs. This is a film that lives in the day-to-day grind of boardroom meetings, arguments in hallways, and long hours in front of computers and prisoners. Like Fincher's Zodiac, we get a sense of the arduous, debilitating tedium of detective work- a nice corrective to the gift-wrapped hour-long shows we're accustomed to. There are no domestic moments, affairs, or heart-to-hearts; these people are focused. What we have is a dense, detail-oriented exploration of professionalism in an environment where it seems doomed to collapse.
That this exploration of people at work is applied on such a significant scale, involving so much time and so many characters, is exciting; but it's the fact that the center of it all revolves around a quiet, determined woman that makes the film unlike others. A film covering a decade of one woman's struggles at work- that's the element that makes this special. We've seen detective-oriented spy films before. We're familiar with the resolution of this narrative; but the journey, the faces, the approach- these are all new.
As has been mentioned elsewhere, there are some interesting self-reflexive layers at work here in this decidedly non-postmodern piece. It's a celebration of professionalism and craftwork on more than one level. In a way, Chastain's exemplary embodiment of these attributes is remarkably analogous to Bigelow's direction of the picture. It's a women's film, in a quietly celebratory and non-exclusivist way. Both are females succeeding in their respective male-dominated realms by sheer virtue of skill and determination. Maya accomplishes this by defining herself through her work, at the expense of any sort of personal life.
As well, Bigelow's workmanlike direction, what with its eschewing of music or overtly gorgeous shots, underlines the commitment of both herself as a content-based storyteller and the general no-nonsense attitude of Chastain's character. They both care about results. Bigelow's compositions and color tones are muted but effective, and carry their own stark beauty; images are perfectly exposed even in low-light environments, with an overall focus on natural light. The emphasis is realism.
Thankfully, minimal attempt is made to explain jargon or oversimplify the complexity of events; we feel less the effect of a narrative being imposed on reality than the reverse. We're confronted with an avalanche of small, short scenes spread across years. The effect is a kaleidoscopic embodiment of life over a long period of time. Bigelow's intimate rendering of a vast amount of material is impressive, as is her resolute refusal to provide commentary on what we're seeing. That the film ends with an unanswered question, not a statement of success, is appropriate.
In like fashion to Bigelow's directorial approach, Chastain remains opaque; she has a thick guard up, and hides her innermost feelings from most everyone, including the audience. Our interest is heightened as a result. There aren't that many films about introverts. We gaze at her, all the more curious, attempting to decode the secrets behind that enigmatic face. This is one for the ages. It's a notch below my top two here only because of how unpleasant some of the early scenes are.
2. The Master (P.T. Anderson)
A drifter and former WWII vet (Joaquin Phoenix) is intrigued by the ideas and charisma of a self-proclaimed teacher and creator (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a budding cult. Trailer.
It occurred to me while watching a 65mm print of The Master that this must be what it felt like to watch the great works of Stanley Kubrick or Orson Welles when their films were first in release. To be confronted with a challenging, difficult, cerebral, beautiful, and technically proficient piece of art- and to know with confidence that this film would remain in the cinematic conversation for some decades to come. You feel like you're here, at the start of something.
To start off with, The Master looks absolutely amazing. Shot on 65mm, the film boasts an absolutely astounding clarity. As we know, film, especially medium and large-format film, boasts a dramatically, quantifably superior color range and resolution than digital cameras. Watching The Master on 65 doesn't just blow the look of most digital movies out of the water, as most shot-on-film movies do; it obliterates the experience even of watching most 35mm film movies!
You are in essence looking at a medium-format image (about 50 million pixels for you digi-folks) projected onto a wall the size of a house. You can see every skin pore on Joaquin Phoenix's cheek in ways you never thought you could (or maybe never wanted to). What surprised me about this was how the image remained filmlike without having any grain; I imagine this stems from the vastly higher count of colors film has over digital.*
In any event, having such analog technology harnessed by Mr. Anderson is quite a treat. More than mere gearhead fascination, the visuals arrest in their beauty and also in their transformation of a small-scale story into something that feels cosmically vast, and- dare I say the overused word- epic.
The effect is appropriate; the film's obsession with the inward, its exploration of what lies beneath the opaque, unpiercable shells of the two protagonists- the soul is an immense and mysterious thing, and the aesthetic here makes that notion tangible. Aided by the resolution of 65, Anderson and his cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (chosen for his skill with large-format; this is PTA's first outing without Robert Elswit) photograph people's faces as if they're gigantic landscapes.
Anderson's tendency to foreground the camera as a means of communicating information to the audience is on full display here; with his last two films this approach has become a little less manic, with a focus on long takes, elegant compositions, and subtle shifts within the frame.** Here there is a newfound focus on narrow depth of field, especially in close-ups. Note the shot of Phoenix being interviewed by the military psychologist, whereupon the plane of focus is so narrow that his ear is already a blur.
As for the actual content of the film- The Master is a tough sit. It resists letting us into the character's heads; we watch their actions from the outside and ponder their meaning. It's a different type of viewing experience, less emotional than intellectual, a la Kubrick or Fincher. It requires a bit more work on the part of the viewer, and, interestingly, although the literal action of any given scene is easy to decipher, the motivations and ramifications are not.
The mentor-protege relationship is explored in all its ambiguity here; there comes a point toward the end where Hoffman, the mentor, realizes that he doesn't exist as a leader without a "number one fan," who he's about to lose; the landscape of his face is touching as this loss registers amongst the forest of his self-confident braggadocio. It's also curious to try to trace the exact moment and trajectory of how Phoenix becomes disillusioned. As is often in life, there is no single decisve moment- or is there?
I will say my second viewing of the film was more satisfying than the first, and that the ending is a sobering one, with a conceptual thrust that I find uplifting (I read it as: "that's about what he got out of it."). I'm not sure how the piece would play in anything other than the highest resolution possible- if a 65mm screening comes your way, seek it out. Hopefully the Blu-Ray will function as an adequate stopgap.
*For a balanced exploration of this conversation- I hesitate to call it a debate, as the two formats have so little to do with each other they can hardly stand to be usefully compared- read here. There is also the wikipedia article that explains some basic terms and misconceptions here.
**Read film scholar David Bordwell's breakdown of one shot in There Will Be Blood, whereupon he explores how PTA directs the viewer's eye, here. Read here to see graphics of an experiment that tracked where viewer's eyes looked at a given time within said shot, with further analysis.
3. Anna Karenina (Wright)
An adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (with Keira Knightley). Trailer.
Why am I the only person who saw Anna Karenina- and, the only person who liked it? This film is a masterpiece. When Joe Wright said he could tell Tolstoy's 800-page novel in two hours, few believed him. When he made a last-minute decision to film the entire Tom Stoppard screenplay on a stage without altering any lines, people didn't know what to think. What's the result?
Perhaps the reason for the middling response lies in the film simply being too creative. Our Town this is not- Joe Wright swoops his camera in and out of the action with Richardsonian eye-popping dexterity, interpreting each scene in a new and unexpected ways. We never have an idea of how the next scene will be interpreted; the stage is opulent and busy, and some scenes maximize the theatricality, incorporating choreography or the architecture of the rafters; others make poetic use of things like snow to underline emotional truths.
In the ballroom scene where Anna first meets Vronsky, supporting characters freeze and fade into darkness as the two dance, literalizing the narrow focus each has for the other. It's an orgy of boundless creativity, and the decision to shoot on a stage invigorates the whole process, while also being thematically appropriate- far from theatricalizing Tolstoy's realist novel, the stage functions as an actualization of the hermetic nature of Russian aristocracy. Only Levin and Kitty have the ability to break out of this, which they do in both figurative and literal terms.
Incredibly, Wright and Stoppard retain all major story strands of the novel, somehow managing to relay the meat of it all in two hours without things feeling artificially condensed or rushed. I'm not sure how that happened. Seams McGarvey's camera and lighting are achingly beautiful- necessary to maintain our visual interest, given the confines of the theatre. This is perhaps the most beautifully shot film of the year, with rich orange and yellow hues permeating the lavishly decorated rooms; or consider the cold natural light in one of the closing scenes, where the walls are blue and the characters dressed in white. Simply looking at the film is a feast.
There is a tremendous amount of attention paid to all aspects- hair and costumes being noticeably luxurious, but also the grounded realities of the characters' journeys. Karenin, as played by Jude Law, is interpreted slightly differently here than in the novel in a way that is interesting. Levin's spiritual awakening at the conclusion of the book is retained here, functioning as the end note of optimism for both book and film (and helping fuel the ongoing question: why did Tolstoy title the book Anna Karenina?).
A heady celebration of creativity and humanity, and a pure, exhilarating joy to watch. I hope it's demise at the box office doesn't affect Wright's future film prospects; certainly there are one or two literary adaptations tat won't be happening because of how this turned out financially. I hope the film finds a life on DVD.
3. Argo (Affleck)
CIA operatives embark on a ridiculous, but true, plan to extract diplomat hostages from revolutionary Iran in 1980. Trailer.
Ben Affleck was, for a time, the butt of many a joke. We knew he was talented from the beginning, for co-writing Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting; he was a reasonable actor, certainly not a great one, in films like the underrated Changing Lanes. But it wasn't until after the Pearl-Harbor-Gigli-J-Lo period had died down that things began to shift.
It began with the best actor award at Venice for HollywoodLand. Then there was Gone Baby Gone, which surprised many with the realization that Mr. Affleck was probably a much better writer and director than actor. Gone proved his writerly capabilities, while The Town solidified Affleck's command of the camera; but it's Argo that's the first real masterpiece from the guy. Somehow, we all forgot that Ben Affleck has a degree in Middle Eastern Affairs from Vermont. He puts it to full use here.
Most actor-turned-directors make a particular kind of film: the performances will be excellent, the content interesting, and the aesthetics middling at best. Think of Tom McCarthy, Sydney Pollack, Ron Howard, Rob Reiner, Kevin Costner, Warren Beatty- even Redford and Clint Eastwood. Of course there are counterexamples (Chaplin, Welles or newer folk like Sofia, Gibson or Clooney) who spend a lot of time on visuals, but many of these guys understand cinema best as a storytelling medium derived from theatre. In my view, that's a reductive approach to film. If you're shooting a film, there ought to be a reason for doing so that justifies not simply telling the same narrative as a play.
The camera is a means not just for recording performance, as many of these guys seem to think, but for imposing meaning on the content. Composition, camera angles, movement- these are powerful tools that mean something. The counterexamples I mention take that to heart and create films with impacts on the viewer that could not easily be reproduced in plays.
Affleck is such a director. Argo is a directed movie. The camera and editing propel the ideas forward, give life to the inner states of the characters, and focus on details in a tactile way that only film can achieve. His command over the medium is not merely competent, but noticeable.
The man's practically showing off- albeit in the service of the narrative- when he kinetically cuts together conversations of different people in different places at the beginning of the film as the details of the crisis come out. The rhythms of physical movement of the actors and the camera during that sequence verge on the balletic, and the editing is economic to near-breaking point- there isn't a second of dead air through the whole film.
The film also underplays a lot of moments, to its benefit, helping to ground it. Note the moment Affleck's character rides past the Azadi Tower in a taxi. He looks away from us to take in the monument for a moment. It's a fleeting moment, but it tells us a number of things- one, this scene really is taking place in Tehran, not on a set in Fontana; also, it reveals that there's a human interest side to Affleck's character, who, were he not on this mission, might want to spend more time here if he could. He's curious. Character revealed through action, not backstory- it forces us to keep up.
An absolute triumph of craft, with a brilliant script and perfect balance of humor and tension. About the most you could possibly hope to expect from a studio picture. Back in 2003, it was discussed by some in the community that the time for large-budget serious dramas had come to an end; as the specialty divisions (Warner Independent, PictureHouse, etc) closed in the late 2000s, people said that the time for mid-level dramas was over too. With Argo at $117 million, and Pi, Lincoln, and Django, all crossing 100, and with Silver Linings and Zero both at a surprising $70 million and growing, this is no longer so. Quite a shift from when Hurt Locker topped out at $17m in 2009. This is easily the most entertaining film of the year.
That's the end of the first half of my list. I'm compelled to repeat that the order here is tenuous at best. As I write this, I'm tempted to place Anna Karenina at the top, move Argo up, bump Django down a spot.... I notice now that the films at the top of the list are the ones I've seen most recently. Hopefully that's not the only reason they're way up there. Suffice it to say that I feel this a list of 13 excellent films, each with undeniable qualities.
Oddly, The I most recommend are not the top of the list, but Amour, Anna K, and Argo. Please don't ask me what my single favorite film of the year is. I'm liable to spontaneously combust!