By Ari Dassa
Ari Dassa is an independent filmmaker who has written and directed short films and a documentary and was the founder of a film review website called ‘The Aspect Ratio‘, active between 2006 – 2011.
In the first of a series of posts, the contributors of PassMeThePopcorn.com share some of their Top Entertainment Picks of 2012. Today, we present Ari Dassa’s list of the Top Ten Films of 2012.
10. “THE MASTER”
(directed by PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON)
Paul Thomas Anderson is arguably the most talented filmmaker in the world today, and his latest film, “The Master” is his most perplexing offering. Shot in stunning 70mm, this post-war drama about a man (Joaqin Phoenix in a career-defining performance) searching for answers to calm his alcoholic, erratic, violent behavior and the man who promises answers, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a cult movement with similar concepts to Scientology. The film isn’t an expose of Scientology though, it’s about this conflicting relationship between a man who needs healing and a man who wants to heal, but doesn’t truly know how to. Some of the film is brilliant and moving, while a lot of the second half meanders and becomes tediously repetitive. Still, the repetition is representative of what occurs with Dodd’s methods. It’s not my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film, but perhaps future viewings will reveal something deeper.
(directed by STEVEN SODERBERGH)
There was a time when action movies were lean and suspenseful and showcased real stuntwork and visceral combat without CGI trickery and heroes in costumes. “Haywire” is a tribute to those days in the ‘70s to the ‘90s when action movies had more immediacy, more impact, and more smarts. Soderbergh directs this film with such skill for those crowd-pleasing action beats, and by casting MMA champion Gina Carano, the fighting looks a lot better than it would by casting a less fitting actor. Carano is strong and sexy and impossible to keep your eyes off. Michael Fassbender shows up in a small role and makes a most memorable exit.
8. “ZERO DARK THIRTY”
(directed by KATHRYN BIGELOW)
A detailed procedural about the hunt for Bin Laden is compelling and tense, even if it doesn’t amount to much more than a reminder that we got him. Jessica Chastain is excellent as the woman obsessed with cracking this case and finding the leads which bring Navy Seal Team 6 to the compound in Abbottabad. The lack of a piercing commentary about the events which unfold keep this from being in the top 3 for me, as I prefer movies such as this to be more political and make stronger statements. Still, “Zero Dark Thirty” is an extremely well-made thriller about the decade long hunt for Bin Laden.
(directed by STEVEN SPIELBERG)
A talky Spielberg film is just as engrossing as an action/blockbuster Spielberg film when it’s written by Tony Kushner. It also helps when you have Daniel Day-Lewis playing the title role. His performance as Lincoln is something miraculous. Spielberg devotes the entire runtime of the narrative to the passing of the 13th Amendment, and the typically sentimental and old-fashioned director uses restraint (for him) in order to fully capture the tensions behind the scenes during this momentous chapter in American history. It’s one of Spielberg’s best films in the last 10 years.
6. “RED HOOK SUMMER”
(directed by SPIKE LEE)
Spike Lee returns to independent filmmaking with this self-financed Brooklyn drama about a young boy from Atlanta who spends the summer with his Preacher grandfather living in Red Hook. This film has that personal, raw nature that brings to mind early Spike Lee movies such as “She’s Gotta Have It” or “Do The Right Thing” (he even cameos as Mookie). The first half of the film plays like a familiar ode to Brooklyn as young Flik tries to settle in with his religious grandfather, and then there’s a fairly shocking twist that changes everything about the story and makes you contemplate things which were previously shown and said. Themes of guilt and forgiveness are explored as a community deals with this surprising development (the scene itself starts to unfold with Spike Lee’s trademark dolly shot). This is the type of vital, honest filmmaking that makes Spike Lee such an important voice in cinema today, not to mention one of New York’s most inspiring figures.
(directed by RON FRICKE)
Images speak volumes in Ron Fricke’s long awaited follow-up to “Baraka”. A meditation on the nature of mankind told using trance-like editing and wondrous 70mm cinematography, “Samsara” finds beauty and sadness from cultures around the globe, while not-so-subtly commenting on things we’ve done to fuck up our good planet. It also shows the beauty of nature, the practices of foreign cultures and how life is still out of balance, as it was in Godfrey Reggio’s seminal “Koyaanisqatsi” (shot by Fricke). This film features a performance-art piece at the midway point which is one of the most unnerving and strange sequences put on film in quite some time.
4. “THE TURIN HORSE”
(directed by BELA TARR)
It’s tough to describe what Hungarian director Bela Tarr does as a filmmaker, and it’s even tougher to gauge whether or not I should recommend his work to people because it’s easy to imagine viewers getting bored or losing patience with his style. For what it’s worth, I couldn’t get into “Werckmiester Harmonies” and found “The Man From London” to be technically impressive, but also rather distancing and slow. His new film, “The Turin Horse”, is a similarly vague and deliberately paced effort, but this time I found myself transfixed and caught under the movie’s spell. Structured in a series of long, uncut, masterful steady-cam shots and tracking shots, “The Turin Horse” follows the repetitive daily activities of a father and daughter who live in an isolated house in a stormy open land where a sense of despair and darkness seems to be creeping around every corner. They own a horse possibly connected to an event told in narration in which Friedrich Nietzsche threw himself on the animal’s neck in tears after witnessing the owner beating it. The story of the horse owner and his daughter is meant to inspire some philosophical debate about what’s happening as this sense of darkness spreads over the few days we spend with them. There are 30 shots in the entire 2 hour and 30 minute film, and while I’m not sure if anything I’ve just described makes any sense, “The Turin Horse” is one of the most mesmerizing and confounding films of 2012.
3. “CLOUD ATLAS”
(directed by LANA & ANDY WACHOWSKI, TOM TYKWER)
An ambitious genre-hopping showcase for how to construct cinematic storytelling with no restrictions. The Wachowskis and Tykwer cast actors in multiple roles in six stories spanning over different centuries, and the brisk editing keeps every moment captivating as action, suspense, sci-fi, drama and comedy are intercut for nearly 3 hours. The film is moving and thrilling despite some odd make-up flubs (Keith David as a Korean!) and some incomprehensible dialogue in one story. A bold, adventurous film.
2. “KILLING THEM SOFTLY”
(directed by ANDREW DOMINIK)
Andrew Dominik’s hard-eged crime pic poses an aggressive commentary about an economic recession impacting every institution in America down to the seediest criminals. Set around the election of 2008, Brad Pitt plays the cynical Jackie Cogan, sent to New Orleans to fix up a messy situation with a couple petty crooks who knock off a mafia card game. This is a film about gangsters, but it’s more focused on words than violence, though the film is plenty brutal. An impressionistic sound mix and a dreary, dark visual aesthetic create a stylized, surreal landscape of decay and desperation. This is an uncompromising work, angry and potent.
1. “DJANGO UNCHAINED”
(directed by QUENTIN TARANTINO)
Quentin Tarantino likes to push buttons and provoke people, and nothing he’s done is as conflicting of an experience as “Django Unchained”, another mash-up of genre exploitation and historical revisionism following “Inglourious Basterds”. “Django” is as explosive as it is disturbing, never shying away from the brutality and horror of slavery, but also using it as a device to structure a heroic, crowd-pleasing tale of retribution. It is uneven and often jarring to watch the story unfold in this fashion. One moment it’s funny, another it’s terrifying, and Tarantino repeats this formula for the entire film. It can be appalling or riveting depending on how you view it. It’s fascinating to see Tarantino use his genre influences and stylistic flourishes while also adding real emotional weight and moral consequence to his violence now. He’s bringing another layer to his work, and it’s one that makes the experience far more challenging and thought-provoking when you leave the theater.