Pop Culture at its Best

Mike’s Top Feature Films of 2012

Since I started writing for Sound on Sight during Fantasia 2011, 2012 was my first full year of writing for the site. I started the year by joining Josh on the Mousterpiece Cinema Podcast. During the year I attended Fantasia for the 15th time in 16 festivals and I attended RIDM (Québec’s only Documentary Film Festival) for the first time.

The following is an expanded version of my Sound on Sight ballot for the best feature films of 2012. I should probably explain that I see fewer feature films every year than say Ricky or Josh. On the other side of that, as the Festival Director of the YoungCuts Film Festival, I watch more short films than most (over 1,000 short films per year). It is entirely possible that I didn’t see your favourite feature film this year. On the other hand, I also probably watch some feature films that you never saw. On the gripping hand, I could quite easily be an idiot.

*****

Honourable Mentions:

Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Bourne Legacy, The Avengers, Argo, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, ParaNorman, Poongsan, Night of Nightmares, Despite the Gods

#15 (tie) Brave (Did not place in the Sound on Sight Staff Poll)

Pixar’s version of a Disney Princess film took the path less travelled, for the first time gave us a princess with living parents and focused the film on the relationship between Mother and Daughter. Most Disney Princesses have to deal with an absent (usually dead) Mother. Merida has to deal with a Mother who is curiously both present and absent, but unlike the other Disney Princesses, she has an opportunity to resolve her issues with her mother.

The movie is not about the three suitors for Merida’s hand, so we have to be content with tiny glimpses into their character. (The film is almost exclusively Merida’s story. We learn very little about the suitors because Merida has no interest in them – in itself an illuminating insight into Merida’s character.) In their archery attempts, we see that Young MacGuffin is almost pathetically happy to hit the target while missing the rings, perhaps because he is such a terrible archer that he is happy to get that close, perhaps because he has no more interest in being forced into a marriage than Merida herself; Young Macintosh hits the ring but misses the bulls-eye and throws a fit, perhaps because he is so vain that he demands perfection from himself, perhaps because he is the one suitor who is excited by the idea of marrying Merida; Wee Dingwall hits the bulls-eye seemingly by accident, indicating that his gawky insanity is either a very clever I, Claudius front or that he is supernaturally lucky.

While they are shooting, Merida is busy cruelly heckling their attempts with her father, disappearing as soon as Wee Dingwall hits the target. When she appears with her clan’s standard it is a profoundly artificial moment – the kind that can only be constructed by a sulking teenager with a sense of the dramatic. Merida has put on a hood, just so that she can dramatically pull it off, a moment that could only happen/work in an animated film and even then getting Merida’s hair right was a massive challenge.

As Merida stalks down the row of targets, firing as she goes – to the increasing frustration of her mother – who recognizes what a diplomatic disaster humiliating the three suitors will be, Merida reveals herself to be perhaps the most complex of all Disney Princesses: proud, but cruel; beautiful, while literally unable to be confined within her Mother’s standards of beauty; an unruly child, but a disciplined, focused archer; and yes, Brave, while also secretly terrified of her future and the loss of her freedom.

#15 (tie) Dragon (Did not place in the Sound on Sight Staff Poll)

wu-xia-movie

A film about about the never-ending cycle of violence and revenge, the corruption of Imperial China, and the strange effectiveness of martial arts acupuncture.

Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) is a humble papermaker who blunders into the path of two robbers and accidentally kills them. Or suggests master detective and acupuncturist Lu Baiju (Takeshi Kaneshiro) Liu is really a master martial artist playing the buffoon. But why would a tiger pretend to be a house cat?

Lu is using acupuncture to turn himself into the Wu Xia version of Judge Dredd while Liu is trying to use the bucolic rhythms of his quiet village to reinvent himself as husband and father rather than the Tartar serial killing machine that he was.

One of the strengths of the film is that both men are right and both men are wrong. Lu’s vision of the law stripped of compassion is a law that is also vulnerable to corruption as judges use the letter of the law to line their pockets rather than represent justice. Liu’s belief that he can literally remake himself as a better man ignores the addictive nature of violence. (When Liu begins to fight the robbers, he can’t stop himself from killing them – instead of subduing them – any more than a drunk can have one shot from a bottle and stop there.)

Dragon is the rare martial arts film that understands not just the conflicted rhythms of combat, but the conflicted rhythms of the human heart.

#14 Sushi Girl (Did not place in the Sound on Sight Staff Poll)

In plot structure, it is almost exactly the same as Reservoir Dogs only with the violence amped to 11. This is very deliberate and smart, any stylish crime thriller will invariably be compared to Quentin Tarantino, so why not own the comparison and use it for your own purposes? (In any case, Reservoir Dogs was inspired by Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, which was in turn inspired by John Boorman’s Point Blank, an adaptation of Richard Stark’s first Parker novel The Hunter.)

A few things propel the film from being a simple derivative Tarntino pastiche: an amazing cast, a script that gives each of the hoods trapped together a meaningful role filled with great moments – Tony Todd compared his big monologue to the late Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle”. The films also understands that the comparison will be made and uses it for its own purpose – in a sense it skins Reservoir Dogs and wears it like a cinematic mask.

The biggest difference between Reservoir Dogs and Sushi Girl is the centerpiece for Fish’s “celebration” meal, the eponymous naked girl (Cortney Palm) being used to present the sushi. The Sushi Girl’s presence adds a voyeuristic frisson to the proceedings. She is both the voyeur and the object being watched. The part required Cortney Palm being naked on set for two and a half weeks. Sushi Girl was not the kind of film (or part) that could afford a body double and she seems to be in virtually every shot, reacting to everything going around her by NOT reacting to everything going on around her.

For all the violence and casual, omnipresent nudity, it is the emotionally violent moments that truly resonate like Fish calling home after being released only to have his child not recognize his voice and his (ex?) wife hang up on him. Or Francis in the abandoned restaurant’s washroom girding himself to do the right thing, by doing the worst thing possible: sniffing cocaine off the washroom counter, using a rolled up photo of his son as a tube – a photo that has been pre-folded, meaning that it has been used for that purpose before.

In a sense, Sushi Girl is an emotional zombie film. Everyone in the abandoned restaurant is still moving and breathing even though their souls died years before.

#13 Django Unchained (Placed 8th in the Sound on Sight staff poll)

Django-Unchained-Tarantino

Not surprisingly, Django Unchained features fantastic dialogue and like Tarantino’s previous (and better) film Inglorious Basterds it ferociously criticizes history by giving us a fantasy where those oppressed by historical cruelty get their revenge. Also unsurprisingly, without his long-time editor, the late Sally Menke – who had cut every single one of Tarnantino’s films, Django Unchained feels slightly bloated. There aren’t too many scenes, but every scene seems a little bit long.

What has surprised me about the criticism of this film are the critics (like my Huffington Post doppelgänger Mike Ryan) who called King Schultz and Django’s plan to free Broomhilda “harebrained“. This hilariously led to Quentin Tarantino insisting on being interviewed by (the other) Mike Ryan so that he could specifically address whether the plan was in fact harebrained, pointing out that all of King Schulz’s plans were a bit convoluted. He also pointed out what I understood from watching the film, that the plan was for King Schultz and Django to offer to buy Eskimo Joe for $12, 000.00, the sale to be concluded by the two sides lawyers a week later. Once that was agreed to, they would purchase Broomhilda for $300.00, ride away with her and never come back with the money for Eskimo Joe.

I cherish this film because no one else would dare to brave the Politically Correct Police and take us into so unapologetically into the Heart of Darkness. One of the best pieces of advice that I have ever heard about writing or filmmaking was actually given by Terry Funk to Mick Foley (aka Cactus Jack) about wrestling, “Cactus Jack, Norman tried to be an angel out there, but you wouldn’t let him, because you were not the devil. People can talk about your bumps all they want, but until you learn to be the devil in the ring, you will never be fully all that you can.” Too many films, too many filmmakers are too scared to be devils and as a result will never be fully all that they can be. Fortunately, that will never be Tarantino’s problem.

#12 Haywire (Placed 33rd in the Sound on Sight staff poll)

On the surface, Haywire has a complicated noir plot, the sort of story like Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep which once prompted the author, when quizzed about a specific plot point, to confess, “They sent me a wire … asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either.” But, below the dangerous obstacle course that Mallory is forced to run, lies a simpler parable about how difficult it is to find a great female action hero.

Beyond the baroque obfuscations of Haywire‘s plot lies one simplifier: the U.S. Government official Coblenz (Michael Douglas). Coblenz as a character is doing what Soderbergh is doing as a director: setting up a maze of human obstacles for Mallory to plough through. Why would Coblenz do this? He tells Mallory when she meets him to trade for Kenneth’s location: he wants her to come back to work for the government and earn a government wage, rather than billing the government as a freelancer.

Coblenz wants Mallory for the same reason that Soderbergh wants Carano: a great female action hero spy is hard to find. In other words, the text of this film is also its subtext and that’s brilliant.

#11 Wreck-It Ralph (Placed 25th in the Sound on Sight staff poll)

Bad-Anon Meeting

At the heart of Wreck-It Ralph is a Taoist parable about the usefulness of uselessness that adds unexpected depth to what at first blush could appear to be a simple, funny animated film trading on nostalgia for old video games.

On a deeper level, Wreck-It Ralph is an environmental story. The opening screens to the “Fix-It Felix Jr.” game reveal that Ralph originally lived in a forest inside a hollowed-out tree stump, until Ralph’s forest was bulldozed and his stump uprooted to make way for the apartment building that Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) repairs. Seen in this light, Ralph is not so much a destructive bad guy as an elemental force of nature reacting to the opposing force of civilization, the green root that bursts through the asphalt that “paved over paradise“. The Cy-Bugs from “Hero’s Duty” are the dark mirror of Ralph’s nature, unrestrained destruction that burst up from underneath, consuming everything in their path.

#10 The Raid: Redemption (Placed 39th in the Sound on Sight staff poll)

In its structure, The Raid: Redemption is very similar to Aliens. A group of soldiers assemble for a mission. They joke about the odds stacked against them, confident that their professionalism will overcome all the obstacles in their way. Only when they encounter the enemy do they realize how much danger they are in. And from that point on, they quickly find themselves the hunted rather the hunters. There is even a harrowing sequence when the hero Rama finds himself trapped between the walls of the building, literally a drop of blood away from discovery and death.

The Raid: Redemption‘s tenement is an aquarium filled with piranhas, driven mad by water polluted with bloody corruption. Those who hate this movie (and there are many) are appalled by the two teams of piranha ripping the flesh from each other’s bones for our amusement. Good. They should be appalled. But the film’s story is not just the human piranha and their bloody fight. It is the story of the corrupted water that surrounds them and fills them and drives them mad.

#9 The Human Race (Did not place in the Sound on Sight Staff Poll)

The Human Race is a grindhouse drive-in classic that happens to have been made years after the drive-in heyday; at least it follows the maxim of legendary drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs, “the first rule of great drive-in movie-making: Anyone can die at any moment.

The set-up of The Human Race is that everyone on one city block, 80 souls in total, are snatched from their lives by a white light, dropped into a strange obstacle course and told, “The school, the house and the prison are safe. Follow the arrows or you will die. Stay on the path or you will die. If you are lapped twice, you will die. Do not touch the grass or you will die. Race or die.

This sets up a bleak story of survival horror, with a unique set of characters that you usually don’t see in this sort of picture including a homeless woman, two deaf best friends, a WWII marine in a walker, a woman who is eight months pregnant, two Korean kids (brother and older sister) and a one-legged Iraq veteran, played by Eddie McGee with charisma, acting skill, action-hero chops and the silky grace of a metal spider.

The presence of so many characters demonstrating their ability to overcome their disadvantages is simultaneously inspirational and wickedly cruel. The film exists at the intersection of cruelty, inspiration, low budget grindhouse need, exploitative cynicism, a talented cast and a brilliant script.

#8 The Cabin in the Woods (Placed 10th in the Sound on Sight staff poll)

(L-R) Stud, Nerd, Slut, Fool, Virgin

Like Scream, The Cabin in the Woods is a self-aware slasher film, but where Scream was happy simply to turn the genre’s bloody glove inside out and examine the stitching, The Cabin in the Woods has more complicated ambitions. If Scream is a bloody glove turned inside out, then The Cabin in the Woods is a Russian nesting doll described by H. P. Lovecraft and carved by M. C. Escher.

Like Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping TomThe Cabin of the Woods isn’t just about killing, it is about watching (and filming) killing. Our sympathies are torn between the victims being watched and the watchers, including an action sequence modelled loosely on the Psycho car burial. What is perhaps most horrifying is that the watchers are almost bored, like a tired teen yawning while slipping the last film from a horror marathon into the VHS deck.

#7 Looper (Placed 6th in the Sound on Sight staff poll)

Looper

The standard knock on Rian Johnson’s films is that they are cold and mechanical, clockwork plots manipulating clockwork men. There is no denying that what makes BrickThe Brothers Bloom and Looper dramas in the Greek sense is that their protagonists are trapped in a Kobayashi Maru scenario, their only possibility of escape a sacrifice: of love, of loved ones, of oneself.

But the key to Rian Johnson’s Clockwork Men is the image of Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times: trapped in the gears with a wrench in each hand, cheerfully building his own prison. Brendan, Bloom and Joe are like the proverbial monkey with its hand trapped in the jar, imprisoned in Johnson’s clockwork machinery because they refuse to let go of their wrench. Rian Johnson’s protagonists are men of flesh and blood; his clockwork worlds are greased with that blood… and their blood is hot.

#6 The King of Pigs (Did not place in the Sound on Sight Staff Poll)

King of Pigs

This South Korean film won the Satoshi Kon Award for Achievement in Animation at the 2012 Fantasia Film Festival.

I should say that I did not love or like The King of Pigs, but it burrowed under my skin and bothered me unlike any of the animated films that I saw this year. I have an odd almost eidetic memory for films. Bad films I forget quickly. Good films I remember with fondness. Great films refuse to let me forget them. Like its spectral cat, The King of Pigs refused to leave me alone, haunting me months after I saw it and continues to haunt me to this day.

It is a ferocious and unforgiving examination of the culture of bullying. Like Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, it is a film that could work as a live-action film, but by making it an animated film, it oddly becomes even more intensely real. Required viewing by fans of animation.

#5 5 Broken Cameras (Did not place in the Sound on Sight Staff Poll)

5 Broken Cameras

5 Broken Cameras is a point of view documentary based on footage shot by Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat over a six year period beginning in 2005, documenting his life in the village of Bil’in and the village’s non-violent protest over a “separation barrier” installed by the Israeli Army – designed to keep the village and a new Israeli settlement apart. Part of what insulates the film from political chauvinism is that much of it is the point of view of Emad’s fourth son Gibreel. And from that perspective, the film is a nightmarish horror of a childhood stolen.

If there is hope in 5 Broken Cameras, it comes from the fact that Emad Burnat owes his life to Israeli doctors (and the success of his film to his Israeli co-director.) If there is despair in 5 Broken Cameras, it comes from the saddest image from the film: the burning olive trees set on fire by Israeli settlers.

How morally bankrupt do you have to be to kill a beautiful tree for no better reason than it will hurt someone you hate to see that tree dead or dying?

The great strength of 5 Broken Cameras is making me care enough to ask that question. The great sadness at the heart of the film is that I do not see a way to answer that question in a way that gives Gibreel the opportunities for the secure and peaceful childhood that all children deserve.

#4 Chained (Did not place in the Sound on Sight Staff Poll)

Young Rabbit with Scrapbook

I shall call you… Rabbit,” is the most chilling line of any film this year. Spoken slowly but deliberately with a slight lisp and a faint Germanic accent by Vincent D’Onofrio, the voice alone places Bob somewhere between Hans Beckert and Jeffrey Dahlmer. D’Onofrio’s performance as Bob is a virtuoso effort by one of our great (albeit under-utilized) actors, delicately inhabiting a brute, like a ballerina trapped in a gorilla’s body.

Bob is a taxi driver whose specially modified cab makes it easier for him to kidnap women, drive them back to his isolated rural home, rape them and kill them. One day, he picks up Sarah Fittler (Julia Ormond) and her ten year old son Tim (Evan Bird) at the movies where they have just seen a horror film. After killing Sarah, Bob changes Tim’s name to Rabbit, telling him, “I didn’t choose you, but I will make the most of it.

Rabbit becomes Bob’s servant, “You will have one job. You do what I say. You clean up my house,” which begins with cleaning up the remains of his mother. In time, teenage Rabbit (Eamon Farren) becomes Bob’s reluctant student and it becomes clear that Bob intends for Rabbit to become his son and heir.

Part of the genius of Chained is the way that Jennifer Lynch uses the rhythms of a home and a life and a father-son relationship to lull us into a form of Stockholm Syndrome along with Rabbit, only to twist the knife and remind us that Bob is a monster. This also allows her to give D’Onofrio screen time to truly develop Bob, to give him depth and dimension. The problem inherent in most serial killer literature, whether on the page or on the screen, is that we tend to make our monsters into heroes, which is why Hannibal Lecter is getting his own TV series instead of Clarice Starling or Will Graham.

With Chained, Jennifer Lynch and Vincent D’Onofrio dive deep into the abuse that creates monstrosities and emerge with the portrait of a complicated human monster, who is not once allowed to be the hero.

#3 Skyfall (Placed 5th in the Sound on Sight staff poll)

Skyfall

Skyfall is in a very sneaky way a film about origins. As the film goes on, it plunges further and further into the past, but rather than being an exercise in nostalgia, this becomes a narrative engine as the film takes you further into James Bond’s past than any Bond film has ever dared to go, breaking through the nostalgic past to carry us into the future. The end result is the most vulnerable James Bond we have ever seen, both physically and emotionally, but by making Bond more vulnerable, Sam Mendes gave us the bravest, finest Bond we have ever had.

#2 Resolution (Did not place in the Sound on Sight Staff Poll)

It would be easy to compare Resolution to The Cabin in the Woods, both films tackle the horror tropes surrounding the titular isolated cabin in the woods, digging into the meta-narrative that informs the trope, but they come at the text from completely opposite directions. The comparison that felt more apt to me, while I was watching one of the best films at Fantasia this year, is linking Resolution to the H. P. Lovecraft film adaptation The Whisperer in Darkness. Lovingly recreated by fans,The Whisperer in Darkness tries to faithfully adapt Lovecraft’s work by using the media, tropes, and especially film style, that dominated when Lovercraft penned the original short story. In the case of Resolution, Benson and Moorhead tell a Lovecraftian tale, but instead of focusing on one media and style, they use any and all media at their disposal from YouTube to cave paintings and everything in between.

But Resolution is not a Lovecraft tale… except that it could be… only it isn’t.

Confused? I am not certain that seeing the film would make it any clearer. Benson and Moorhead are like movie theatre ninjas, sneaking behind your row, unscrewing the bolts that lock down your skull, flipping your lid and injecting 10 CCs of pure cinematic mind-fuck directly into your cerebral cortex.

Where Cabin in the Woods deliberately uses the stereotypes of the genre and then uses those stereotypes to better explain the tropes of the genre, Resolution discards the stereotypes to build two fascinating and real characters… whose interaction better explains the tropes of the genre.

#1 Lincoln (Placed 11th in the Sound on Sight staff poll)

Lincoln

Thank God for Lincoln. If it wasn’t for Steven Spielberg’s masterful collaboration with Tony Kushner, Daniel Day-Lewis, Janusz Kaminski, John Williams et al, 2012 would have been a terrible year for bio-pics. Daniel Day Lewis’ spooky incarnation of Abraham Lincoln is the kind of pantheon performance that actors will be measured against for decades, like Brando in On the Waterfrontor DeNiro in Raging Bull.

The genius of Lincoln begins with its script, constructed like a series of ellipses. The film starts with the Gettysburg Address and finishes with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address; begins in war and ends in peace; opens with a sleepy Tad Lincoln clutching his father and closes with a grieving Tad clamped to a theatre railing. This mirrored pairing continues through the film: the white and black gloves; the telegraph used to report the results of war and the results of the vote; the male Congressman who opposes the amendment because his brother died during the war, and the black female servant who supports the amendment because her son died during the war; the complaints that Lincoln needs to do more to promote black men to officers in the army and the complaints that Lincoln needs to do more to promote black men to be able to vote.

The biggest mirror is that between Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens. Both committed to ending slavery, both masters of language and of legislature, of politics and public speaking, but where Lincoln is cautious, Stevens is reckless; where Lincoln cultivates allies, Stevens creates enemies; and where Lincoln’s marriage is public and unhappy, Stevens’ marriage is secret but content.

The central moment of the film comes when Stevens (in order to guarantee passage of the 13th Amendment) publicly renounces his previously stated belief in the equality of races, “I do not believe in equality in all things, only in equality before the law.” In so doing, Stevens not only sublimates his own beliefs to achieve the greater goal, he also becomes a more perfect mirror of Lincoln’s beliefs – that equality before the law is the only true equality, the one true right from which all other rights spring.

*****

That’s what I saw and liked last year. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know the many and varied mistakes that I made in constructing this list!

3 Comments
  1. cortney says

    Thanks for the Sushi Girl shout out.. and for the rest of the films on your list including 5 Broken Cameras, I would not have heard of it otherwise and I think it needs to be seen :)

    PEACE

  2. Michael Ryan says

    Thanks Less Lee Moore.

    I should say that CHAINED is not universally beloved here on Sound On Sight, but I was very impressed. I have a copy of SURVEILLANCE at home that I really need to get around to watching…

  3. Less Lee Moore says

    Thank you for including CHAINED on this list. I’m glad to see it getting such high praise! And RESOLUTION, too. Your description of it is spot on.

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