2013 January 02 • Wednesday
Here are the Movies of the Year 2012, in a list that is shorter than usual. I didn't watch as many movies this year and failed to write notes about many of them soon after I saw them. I would have liked Haywire (2011) and The Wonderful Country (1959), for example, to be on this list, but by the time I sat down to write about them I'd forgotten whatever it was I wanted to say, other than that they're really good.
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010): Tucker and Dale are a couple of overall-clad good ol' boys looking forward to a relaxing stay at their "vacation home", a dilapidated shack in the Appalachian mountains which used to be home to a serial killer. On the way they run into a group of preppy college kids who assess Tucker and Dale as creepy hillbilly psychos. Tucker and Dale are rough around the edges but actually really nice, gentle guys. It's their bad luck—well, everyone's bad luck—that things keep going awry with chainsaws and ditch-digging and such and Tucker and Dale keep ending up in situations that, innocent as they are, look really bad for them. And these college kids just keep meeting violent deaths around our two heroes, making things look much, much worse. I laughed out loud several times during this unpretentious and gory escapade. It's that rare comedy of errors where everything could be cleared up by an explanation and the part where the characters explain what's going on isn't tediously forestalled over and over again but actually happens exactly when it should but makes no difference. As far as slasher movie tributes and parodies go, I liked this better than Cabin in the Woods (2011).
Kill List (2011): Disturbing and brutally violent occult thriller about two mercenaries who accept a contract to kill three people. One of them is unstable and unhappy about the job, as he's still recovering from a horribly botched operation in Kiev, but feels compelled to take it for the sake of his wife and child. As the two partners work their way down the list, they're shaken by the targets' apparent pleasure in being killed. The reluctant killer finds himself to be an important figure to his victims for some reason and becomes more violent and unhinged. The whole thing turns out to be part of the machinations of a death- and violence-obsessed cult and the movie a worthy follow-up to paranoid occult classics like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973). It's filmed in a loose, almost neo-realist style and appears to have benefitted from improvisation by the talented cast. It also has an excellent score which supplies a lot of the dread and creepiness. Absolutely not recommended for those with a low tolerance for on-screen violence and dark and disturbing material.
Yorokobi mo kanashimi mo ikutoshitsuki (Times of Joy and Sorrow, 1957): There isn't much of a plot to this movie and the story is not especially complex. It's about thirty years in the life of a married couple who work as lighthouse keepers. The story begins in the early 1930s and ends in the mid-1950s. Their work requires them to move around to different lighthouses and they're stationed all over Japan, sometimes in very remote and rugged places. The movie chronicles their struggles and celebrations as they raise children, survive the war and the deprivation that followed and live to see their daughter leave Japan with her new husband, in a beautifully restrained yet extremely touching final scene. It's sort of like a combination of Ozu, Hollywood Golden Age drama and what mid-century romance comics made for adults might have been like. The color photography is stunning and Hideko Takamine is brilliant as always.
Les liens du sang (Rivals, 2008): This was an absorbing mixture of crime drama and family drama, with echoes of Jean-Pierre Melville's classic gangster dramas. (The ending in particular reminded me of Le Cercle Rouge.) François and Gabriel are brothers. François, the younger one, is the good kid who has become a cop, while Gabriel is the prodigal, a career criminal who has just been released from jail. The rest of the family, a father and sister, indulge the older sibling, who is clearly the father's favorite child. Gabriel is a hero in his own milieu as well and, to make things worse, actually modest, protesting when his friends regale people with Gabriel stories. François isn't enjoying this, as you can imagine. Despite being a hard-working police officer with numerous accomplishments, his association with Gabriel makes him suspect to his colleagues and superiors. What's compelling about the story is that the brothers love each other but can't help but come into conflict every time they meet. Gabriel really tries to go straight but is first foiled by corrupt bureaucrats and then put under pressure to come up with support payments for his ex-wife and children. After he establishes a lucrative prostitution racket, a professional conflict with his younger brother seems inevitable. Meanwhile François is heading for his own trouble, having fallen in love and started a relationship with the wife of a violent criminal. Excellent acting and story and an impressive recreation of 1970s France.
Kyuketsu dokuro sen (a.k.a. The Living Skeleton or Ship of the Vampire Skeletons, 1968): There's no shortage of Japanese vengeful spirit movies, but they're rarely as strange and dreamlike as this one. Filmed in beautiful black-and-white widescreen and with excellent music that exploits electric guitar and tape delay, this is a twisted fairy tale of twin sisters, stolen gold, underwater skeletons, dissolving acid, sex, ghosts and a massacre. Saeko's twin sister went with her doctor husband on a honeymoon that involved, for unexplained reasons, a trip on a freighter carrying a fortune in gold. The ship is hijacked and everybody on board slaughtered. Years later Saeko is living with a Catholic priest who has taken her in. She doesn't know what happened to her sister but feels that her sister must still be alive. Out scuba diving with her boyfriend one day Saeko comes across a bunch of skeletons. Then she sees a haunted freighter, goes on board, sees her sister and faints. Then the men who killed everybody and stole the gold start to be murdered by either Saeko or the ghost of Saeko’s sister. But what of the ringleader, the sinister man with the hideously burned face? Where is he? You'll find out!
No Time To Be Young (1957): Buddy, Bob and Stu are three friends, about twenty years old, who are all having a sort of crisis. Stu and his girlfriend Tina have secretly gotten married and Tina doesn't think that her strict father will have a problem with it since Stu is going to be a rich and famous writer. Hasn't a big publishing company already accepted his first, brilliant novel? When he gets that big advance from them, they can tell her parents. The problem there is that Stu lied to Tina: nobody wants to publish his novel and he's broke with no prospects. Bob is working hard at the supermarket and saving his money but he's obsessed with a woman who works at the local greasy spoon. She goes out with him but with other guys, too, older men experienced in things other than making displays of stacked tin cans. Buddy, played by a pre-U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughan, is the most restless and the one in the most trouble. He's been kicked out of school and, as a result, drafted into the army. His father left the family a long time ago and Buddy has a complicated relationship with his mother, which partly explains why he's intimate with one of his college professors, a woman old enough to be his mother. Buddy figures out that what he and his friends need to do is buy a boat and take off, head for South America and just ride the waves. But they'll need money for that, a lot of it. So Buddy has another idea, and it involves a gun. No Time To Be Young is sort of like what might happen if Roger Corman and Douglas Sirk collaborated on a juvenile delinquent movie that was based on a fatalistic romance comic.
Quartier lointain (2010): This is an intelligent and understated movie, an adaptation of a Japanese comic book about a man named Thomas, a middle-aged husband and father who finds himself unexpectedly back in his fifteen-year-old body, reliving his childhood with all of his future, adult memories and knowledge. The story is similar to Back to the Future (1985) or He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father (1993), but the tone and action of Quartier Lontain are entirely different. Thomas has returned to his family just before a tragic event that destroyed his mother and haunted him ever since: the desertion of the family by Thomas’s father, who went out to buy bread one evening and never came back. This time around, Thomas is determined to stop his father from running away. His chances seem good. Giving adolescence a second try he ends up going out with a girl he had, the first time around, worshipped from afar and never been brave enough even to speak to. But it’s complicated being an adult in a child’s body. When she kisses him, Thomas draws away and protests that she’s only fifteen. "So are you," she replies. But that's only half true. And Thomas is of course still married with children. Sort of. His children haven’t been born yet and when he calls his future wife on the phone she has no idea who he is. These threads and others are explored quietly and sensitively, building up to a satisfying yet ambiguous conclusion.
Mientras duermes (Sleep Tight, 2011): It doesn’t seem like many horror movies go really deeply into true horror. So-called “torture porn” films have explored pain, gore and sadism but don’t offer much more than shock value, a currency that is quickly depreciated as jaded viewers require more and more of it to pay attention. Sleep Tight is a truly horrific study in sadism with almost no blood shed at all; yet its terror and evil are likely to leave you unsettled for days—and worried that there really might be monsters under your bed. César is the concierge of an apartment building. He has his duties to perform but he has a more urgent calling, to keep everybody in his life unhappy. Since he controls the environment in which these people live, having access to their homes and their mail, being able to spread lies and rumor, this is remarkably easy. He has everybody, even his own mother, in a state of fear, anxiety or depression—everybody except for Clara. Nothing he does seems to dim her light, not infesting her apartment with thousands of roaches overnight, not infecting her make-up with dangerous chemicals that do horrible things to her complexion, nothing. Clara is a real problem. What will César do? Not only is this a real horror movie, and a mostly psychological horror movie, it’s also a story of a clash between good and evil, presented as a twisted urban fairy tale. It’s definitely not for the easily freaked out.
They Came To Rob Las Vegas (1968): Gary Lockwood stars in this excellent crime drama about an armored car heist in the Nevada desert. It also turns out to be a story of revenge and changing times. It begins with a middle-aged gangster getting out of jail and finding 1968 America to be a bizarrely changed place. He wants to pull off a job but Lockwood won’t go in with him, protesting that security measures have intensified as much as music, fashion and dancing have changed. This guy goes ahead with the job regardless, with spectacularly bad results. Lockwood is then compelled to do the job himself, for reasons which become clear only at the end of the movie. Great flick with terrific location photography, a solid script, excellent performances and a cool score. Lee J. Cobb, as the boss of the armored car company, is excellent as always.
The Big Caper (1957): This heist drama is based on a book by Lionel White, who is probably best known for The Killing, the novel that was adapted for the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name. The Big Caper is a story of a bank job, but it turns on one of my favorite plot developments, the transformation of character by environment. In order to pull off the heist, two of the criminals move into the bank’ sleepy suburban town and establish a cover identity as two regular citizens. They buy a local business, act like they’re happily married, talk about their plans to raise a family there and become friends with the locals. After a few months of this, though, they kind of like the way they’re living and don’t want to trade it for the big score. And when the rogues' gallery of their violent, perverse and drunk confederates show up, they’re appalled to be in the company they used to keep. James Gregory is especially good as the evil boss.
Tenisu no ojisama (The Prince of Tennis, 2006): It’s been a hit manga, anime, radio show and even a series of stage musicals, so it’s no surprise that it's a live-action film also. It’s basically a kung fu film with tennis as the martial art. The hero is a tennis prodigy whose father is a legend of the tennis court. The boy struggles to live up to his father’s reputation and, as part of his school team, joins an elimination tournament to see which team will go to the Nationals. Fancy special effects bring the crazy tennis skills to life as drop shots don’t bounce but instead roll backwards, balls magically switch directions and one really scary opponent summons a solar eclipse and a rain storm! I watched it with a friend of mine who is a serious tennis player and he was impressed that the actors all had good form on the court, were apparently holding the racket and swinging it right. They did their homework, then, unlike, my friend tells me, the actors who played tennis in Woody Allen's Match Point.
Cape Spin (2012): My friend John co-directed this great documentary about the battle over Cape Wind, a proposed wind farm off the shores of Cape Cod. Some people want the green energy, others say it’s an eyesore that could be easily relocated and won’t even benefit the community. The point of the movie, as the title suggests, is to show how complicated these differences can become when the stakes are high. I came out of the movie thinking that the “third way” proposed by the filmmakers, a decentralized approach to alternative energy in which municipalities, private individuals and private institutions get their own personal wind turbines and solar panels. Those who have done it, either democratically within their community or on private property, have been producing more energy than they use. The centralized approach is handy for putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of developers (who in turn will no doubt use some of that cash to thank the politicians who facilitated their project) and is likely to empower the few, not the many. But, you ask, who can afford the "third way"? Cape Cod can, apparently. The battle over Cape Wind isn’t over but by the end of the decade or so covered by the movie, the pro-Cape Wind and anti-Cape Wind people had spent a combined $70 million on getting their message out.
Che sau (Motorway, 2012): The basics are pretty familiar: the hot-headed rookie cop and the seasoned veteran who just wants to make it to retirement. But Hong Kong filmmakers have always been good at stripping a story down to its essentials and the essentials of Motorway are driving scenes, lots of them, elegantly photographed and crisply edited. A crime gang needs to get a crook out of prison for a jewel heist and brings a notorious wheelman out of retirement to do the job. This guy tunes up his old car and then executes a dazzlingly competent escape. He promises that in his car, you will be safe. The older cop, played by Anthony Wong, was neary killed trying to out-drive this guy years ago, and when he's forced to confront him again it feels almost like a scene from Jaws. Perhaps inspired by the success of Drive, this movie combines the fatalism of French crime movies with the stylish but brisk and no-nonsense approach to action sequences that put Hong Kong crime movies on the map.
The Flying Scot (1957): The first twelve minutes have no dialogue at all. We watch as three men and a woman execute the daring robbery of a huge amount of cash from a moving train. Everything is timed to perfection and goes off without a hitch. This turns out not to be really happening, though. It’s the visualization of the plan, being explained by one member of the gang to the others. His audience is skeptical but he insists that there’s practically no risk at all. In heist movies, I love it when a plan comes apart. When the crooks get on the real train, filled with real people in all their infuriating, unpredictable humanity, nothing at all goes the way it's supposed to. Ralph Smart, creator of Danger Man, co-wrote the story of this efficient and enjoyable crime drama. It shares with Danger Man a light touch, a brisk pace and an understated sense of irony.
The Steel Trap (1952): Joseph Cotten is an assistant manager at a bank, having worked himself up from assistant teller, the position at which he started eleven years ago. He muses that in another eleven years he might make it to vice president. He’s happily married and has a wonderful young daughter and a nice house in the suburbs. Every morning he leaves home at the same time to catch the same train to go to his same job. But one morning he thinks about how he could walk out of the bank with a million dollars in cash and flee to Brazil, which has no extradition treaty with the United States. And he can’t stop thinking about it. The heist is on. As in the movie Quick Change, (inspired by The Steel Trap?) the robbery is the easy part and the getaway a real problem. In The Steel Trap the obstacles are the usual travel problems: paperwork, officials, errors mechanical and human, bad weather, worse luck. Once Cotten crosses the line into crime, his character is constantly tense and on edge, and the film had the same effect on me. The unrelenting stress and the use of voice-over makes The Steel Trap very much like an episode of the radio program Inner Sanctum or, to a lesser degree, Suspense. (It would be very easy to adapt this for Inner Sanctum.) The movie is a visual treat, though, crisply photographed by the great Ernest Laszlo and making extensive use of locations. If you want to know what Los Angeles and New Orleans looked like in 1952, or a typical luncheonette or office, check out this gripping drama. Robert Aldrich is credited as a production supervisor, so perhaps he deserves some of the credit for this film, which was written and directed by Andrew L. Stone.
Il Divo (2008) Actor Toni Servillo and writer/director Paolo Sorrentino have collaborated before, on at least one other movie, The Consequences of Love, which I admired a great deal. (It was one of the Movies of the Year 2008.) It didn’t prepare me for the intensity and beauty of their work together on Il Divo, a drama and character study of the famous—many would say infamous—Italian politician Giulio Andreotti. I don’t know much about politics in general or Andreotti in particular, but I imagine him as equal parts Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton and Frankenstein’s monster. (I asked some Italian friends about him and while they appeared to have no sympathy with his politics or actions they couldn’t help but admire the skill and talent he displays in the political arena.) Il Divo is a gorgeous and challenging movie, am operatic work of art that just barely manages to be simultaneously entertaining and almost blindingly powerful. Servillo’s self-effacing performance is quietly daring and verges on a kind of masochism. The acting and cinematography are both exhilarating in their different ways, introverted and extroverted. The writing left me dizzy, grasping at ineffectual analogies such as a hybrid of GoodFellas, The Godfather, Primary Colors, Yes Minister and John Haskell's I Am Not Jackson Pollock. This is one those rare movies that I wanted to watch again right away, to search for additional clues and revelations.
Apan (The Ape, 2009) In the first scene of this intense and harrowing Swedish movie, the main character, Krister, wakes up on a bathroom floor covered in blood. He washes himself, changes his clothes and rushes to his job as a driving instructor. It seems he would like this to be an ordinary day, despite whatever it is that has happened. But that's not possible. In the middle of his first driving lesson he freaks out on his student and gets out of the car, leaving her to fend for herself. From there he goes to a Home Depot-type store to buy some electric saws and heavy-duty plastic bags—not a good sign. Then it's off to the tennis club where the audience will receive almost all the information divulged about Krister's motives for, um, whatever he's done. This movie works by granting information bit by bit, and the pace at which it reveals the layers of the story is deliberate and restrained. I didn't know a single thing about it before watching it—I received the DVD as a gift from a Swedish friend—and that's definitely the way to go with this kind of thing. I won't ruin it for any potential viewers by saying too much about it. It does have one scene in it that was, for me, one of the most emotionally devastating scenes of any movie I've ever watched. It's the kind of thing that will hit viewers with children the hardest. Apan is disturbing, nightmarish and a true horror movie, not a fun horror movie. It recalls Breathless in how it makes a virtue of the necessity of a low budget. And the actor Olle Sarri, who is in almost every shot of the film, delivers a breathtaking performance that seems perfectly real, understated without ever being "acting".