Sunday, February 24, 2013

An anti-Oscar post: My favourite films of 2012

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I used to see a lot of first-run movies. So many, in fact, that by Oscar night I'd have seen pretty much every nominee. And for whatever reason -- let's call it youthful stupidity -- I cared.

Now? Not so much. Or not at all.

Okay, a tiny bit, because it's hard to love the movies and not care at least a tiny bit about these silly and ridiculous awards, insofar as they matter in terms of public and historical consciousness.

But even then, do they? The Artist won last year. It's not a bad movie, but really? It was nothing then, and remains nothing now, next to the two best (my two favourite) mainstream Hollywood movies of 2011, Hugo and Margin Call. And who really cares about The Artist now? Okay, sure, if Margin Call had won, or even been nominated for Best Picture, that would have given it some instant, and major, mainstream credibility. And I would have liked that. But really, so what?

Once upon a time, the Oscars used to mean something. They used to tell us not so much what was good but what Hollywood thought was good, or what it wanted us to think was good. But that was when the culture -- American culture writ large -- was unified. Now the movie industry, like the arts generally, like everything, is fractured and fragmented. There isn't really even a culture anymore, just innumerable sub-cultures.

And there are so many awards, and there's so much self-congratulatory back-patting in Hollywood. What do the Oscars mean now? It's just an occasion for disgusting, over-the-top celebrity-worship and we're-so-great self-congratulation.

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By the way, I can't stand Anne Hathaway. It's not that she's terribly unlikeable, it's that she represents so much of what's wrong with Hollywood, the ignorant, shameless self-regard and false modesty, the insider-ness that is on display in its grossest form at the Oscars.

Okay, there are many who are worse than here. Maybe it's just that she's so annoying this year with the whole Les Mis spotlight on her. You know she'll win Best Supporting Actress, and you know she'll give a remarkably annoying acceptance speech.

And I hate Les Misérables. I haven't seen the movie, and don't want to, but I've seen it on stage, in New York many years ago. It's awful.

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I just remembered that I actually live-blogged the Oscars last year. What the hell was I thinking? And to get back to my point above, I guess I cared as recently as last year, enough at least to write about it.

What's worse, I got most of my predictions right. I feel so ashamed.

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Anyway, you've heard all this anti-Oscar stuff before. At least, I hope you have. So let me get to the point of this post, which is to highlight what for me where the best films I saw last year:

And I'm not talking about Oscar nominees. I've seen a few of the major ones, including the overrated Beasts of the Southern Wild (not just overrated; actually, I didn't much care for it at all -- I get its indie appeal, but past that it's got underdevelped characters and a silly, pretentious narrative, with the locals stupidly romanticized when they're not being treated like a sociological curiosity) and the quite amusing Moonrise Kingdom (I'm no great Wes Anderson fan, but this one was enjoyable, if overly long and, as usual, way too affected), but not enough of them to be able to judge who should win.

In fact, given that I have young children, the only category where I can speak with any knowledge of this kind is Best Animated Feature Film. I've seen four of them. One of my daughters has seen all five. And while I was happy to see Brave win, even if it's a lesser Pixar effort and too much like a Disney movie, my favourite of the bunch is ParaNorman, which is really wonderful (I didn't know much about it before I saw it at the theater last summer, but it was such a pleasurable experience). And I actually really like the other two I saw as well: Frankenweenie and The Pirates!

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Yes, Anne Hathaway won. So. Freaking. Annoying. So self-absorbed.

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Okay, here are my favourites of 2012, in no particular order:

1) Children of Paradise. Released by Criterion on Blu-ray in September (I'd been waiting for it for years), Marcel Carne's 1945 sprawling romantic epic set in the theatrical underworld of 19th-century Paris is glorious and magnificant and incredible and unabashed filmmaking at its finest, a triumph of the artistic spirit at a time of horror (it was made during the Nazi occupation of France), and itself a celebration of that spirit.

2) The General. I'd seen bits and pieces of Buster Keaton's 1926 silent classic before, but I finally watched the whole thing last year (Kino released it on Blu-ray in 2009). It shouldn't have taken me so long to get to it. It's hilarious, the story of a somewhat hapless train engineer trying to get his engine back from northern spies during the Civil War. I'd say one of the ten best silents I've ever seen (better even than Keaton's Seven Chances, which I love), even if it means rooting, at least

3) People on Sunday. Another silent, this 1930 gem from Weimar Germany, released by Criterion in 2011, blends documentary footage of everyday life in Berlin with the simple story of two young men and two young women who go to a park on a warm, sunny Sunday. What's amazing is that the Nazis took over not long after this look at "normal" life was made. What's also amazing is who was involved with this lovely movie before they left for Hollywood, including Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, and Robert Siodmak.

4) This Happy Breed. In March of last year, Criterion -- yes, I love Criterion -- released a box set of four films written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean. I'd only seen In Which We Serve, the classic movie about Royal Navy sailors at sea and women on the homefront. Brief Encounter is great, too, justifiably famous, and Blithe Spirit is a wonderful divertissement. But it's This Happy Breed, the story of a middle-class London family from 1919 to 1939, that to me is the truly towering achievement here. I'm not sure a better film has ever been made about the English spirit, for better and, subtly, for worse, but socio-politics aside, it's a brilliant household drama about common -- and yet extraordinary -- people.

5) Rashomon. Criterion released this masterpiece from 1950 on Blu-ray back in November. It's... well, do I really need to explain what it is or how good it is? It had been quite a few years since I'd last seen it, and it was better than ever when I saw it again on New Year's Eve. I love Japanese cinema and consider Akira Kurosawa the greatest director in the history of cinema (Seven Samurai is, to me, the greatest film ever made), and Rashomon is the film most responsible for opening up Japanese cinema, and in many ways Japan itself, to the West. And of course, there's this:

Marge: You liked Rashomon. Homer: That's not how I remember it. 

From the Japan episode, "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo." And such a hilarious movie reference. Get it?


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Those would be my Top 5 from last year -- the Top 5 movies I saw in 2012.

Though I would also note that I saw Hugo in 2012 as well, even if it was a 2011 release, and I loved it. So that would be on the list.

And while I'm trying to go back in my mind over what I saw last year, I'd also add The Secret of the Grain, the wonderful and much-celebrated 2007 French-Tunisian film by Abdel Kechiche about life, love, food, and the immigrant experience, set in a small city on the Mediterranean coast. (The family dinner scene early in the movie, the camera moving around the table and picking up so much nuance, is particularly amazing.)

So there you go. It's 11:30. And the Oscars are still going... Actor, Actress, Director, and Picture still to come.

After a slow start (that Shatner thing went way too long), Seth McFarlane's done a decent job as host. But of course he's holding a lot back. Too bad.

But does it matter? And do I care.

Alas, yes. More than I should.

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