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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, December 22, 2012

 
Saturday Night at the Movies

Just in case we’re all still here: Top 10 films of 2012 

 By Dennis Hartley












‘Tis the season to offer up my picks for the best films that opened in 2012. I should qualify that. These are my picks for the “top ten” movies out of the 50+ first run features I was able to cover here at Hullabaloo since January. Since I am (literally) a “weekend movie critic”, I don’t have the time to screen every new release (it’s that pesky 9-5 gig that keeps getting in the way). So here you go…alphabetically, not in order of preference:


Applause- I think I have a new favorite actress. Her name is Paprika Steen, and she delivers a searing performance in this Danish import, directed by Martin Zandvliet. Technically, Steen is giving two searing performances in this film…as an embittered, middle-aged alcoholic stage actress who somehow manages to sober up just enough to deliver acclaimed nightly performances as the embittered, middle-aged alcoholic Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (which itself doubles as a Greek Chorus for her concurrent offstage travails). Steen is a force of nature; a sheer joy to watch. Full review

Dark Horse- Refreshingly, Todd Solondz does not induce the usual amount of seat squirming in his latest film. Not that it lacks the (very) dark comedic flourishes that have become the writer-director’s stock in trade, but he actually toys with sweetness and light. Sort of a twisty, postmodern art house re-imagining of Marty, the story centers on a portly thirty-something nudnik (Jordan Gelber) who falls head over heels for a clinically depressed woman (deadpan Selma Blair, slyly pinpointing that sweet spot between funny and sad). Solondz has fashioned something akin to a modern Jewish morality tale, in the tradition of Jules Feiffer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler. Full review

Killer Joe-A blackly funny and deliriously nasty piece of work from veteran director William Friedkin. Jim Thompson meets Sam Shepherd (with a whiff of Tennessee Williams) in this dysfunctional trailer trash-strewn tale of avarice, perversion and murder-for-hire, adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts from his own play. While the noir tropes in the narrative holds few surprises, the squeamish are forewarned that the 76 year-old Friedkin still has a formidable ability to startle unsuspecting viewers; proving you’re never too old to earn an NC-17 rating. How startling? The real litmus test occurs during the film’s climactic scene, which is so Grand Guignol that (depending on your sense of humor) you’ll either cringe and cover your eyes…or laugh yourself sick. Full review

The Master- As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers). It’s also a story about a complex surrogate father-son relationship (a recurring theme in the director’s oeuvre). And yes, there are some who feel the film is a thinly disguised takedown of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. I found it to be a thought-provoking and startlingly original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes; a film that begs repeated viewings. One thing’s for sure-Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix give two of this year’s most fearless performances. Like all of Anderson’s films, it’s audacious, sometimes baffling, but never dull. Full review

Paul Williams: Still Alive- This 2012 SIFF entry is an update on the oddball singer-songwriter-actor with the pageboy haircut who penned a slew of 70s hits (“We’ve Only Just Begun”, “Rainy Days and Mondays”, “An Old-Fashioned Love Song”), appeared in a number of cult movies (The Loved One, Phantom of the Paradise), became a fixture on the TV game show/talk show circuit, then disappeared. A wary Williams initially vacillates on whether he wants to be the subject of a “fly on the wall” study, but filmmaker (and professed super fan) Steven Kessler ingratiates himself after the men bond over a mutual love of squid (don’t ask). What results is an alternately hilarious and sobering look at the ups and downs of this crazy business we call “show”. Full review

Rampart- In a published interview, hard-boiled scribe James Ellroy once said of his (typical) protagonists “…I want to see these bad, bad, bad, bad men come to grips with their humanity.”  Later in the interview, Ellroy confided that he “…would like to provide ambiguous responses in my readers.” If those were his primary intentions in the screenplay that drives Oren Moverman’s gripping and unsettling film (co-written with the director), I would say that he has succeeded mightily on both counts. If you’re seeking car chases, shootouts and a neatly wrapped ending tied with a bow-look elsewhere. Not unlike one of those classic 1970s character studies, this film just sort of…starts, shit happens, and then it sort of…stops. But don’t let that put you off-it’s what’s inside this sandwich that matters, namely the fearless and outstanding performance from a gaunt and haunted Woody Harrelson, so good here as a bad, bad, bad, bad L.A. cop. Full review

Samsara- Whether you see Ron Fricke’s film as a deep treatise on the cyclic nature of the Omniverse, or merely as an assemblage of pretty pictures, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. The man who gave us the similar cinematic tone poems Chronos and Baraka drops a clue early on in his latest film, as we observe a group of Buddhist monks painstakingly creating a sand mandala (it must take days). At the very end of the film, we revisit the artists, who now sit in silent contemplation of their lovely creation. This (literal) Moment of Zen turns out to be the preface to the monks’ next project-the ritualistic de-construction of the painting (which I assume must take an equal amount of time). Yes, it is a very simple metaphor for the transitory nature of beauty, life, the universe and everything. But, as they say, there’s beauty in simplicity. Full review

Skyfall- I’m sure you’ve heard the old chestnut about cockroaches and Cher surviving the Apocalypse? As the James Bond movie franchise celebrates its 50th year with the release of Skyfall (one of the best in the series) you might as well add “007” to that list of indestructible life forms. Helmed with intelligence and verve by American Beauty director Sam Mendes, this tough, spare and relatively gadget-free Bond caper harkens back to the gritty, straightforward approach of From Russia with Love. In his third outing, Daniel Craig has settled comfortably into the character, and I was glad to see one element return to 007’s personality: a mordant sense of humor. Bond geeks will be pleased; and anyone up for pure popcorn escapism will not be disappointed. Full review

The Story of Film: an Odyssey- This 2012 SIFF selection is one long-ass film (15 hours). It literally is the story of film, from the 1890s through last Tuesday. This idiosyncratic opus (now on DVD) is nearly as epic an undertaking for the viewer as it surely was for director-writer-narrator Mark Cousins. While the usual suspects are well-represented, his choices for in-depth analysis are atypical. Of course, he “left out” many directors and films I would have included. Nits aside, this is a labor of love by someone passionate about the medium, and if you claim to be, you have an obligation to see it. Full review

Your Sister’s Sister- This latest offering from Humpday writer-director Lynn Shelton was the opening night selection for this year’s Seattle International Film Festival; and what a fine choice it was (not always a given, as I have learned from experience). Shelton’s romantic “love triangle” dramedy (reminiscent of Chasing Amy) is a talky but thoroughly engaging look at the complexities of modern relationships, centering on a slacker man-child (Mark Duplass) his deceased brother’s girlfriend (Emily Blunt) and her sister (Rosemarie Dewitt), who all bumble into a sort of unplanned “encounter weekend” together at a remote family cabin. A funny, insightful and well-directed film. Full review




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