Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Best Films/Actors of 2012

The Best Films of 2012 (yes, a month later, someone is still doing this list thing).

1. In the Family (Patrick Wang, U.S.)
2. The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, U.S./U.K.)
3. This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran) 
4. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, U.S.)
5. Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, France/Belgium)
6. Amour (Michael Haneke, Austria) 
7. Attenberg (Giorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
8. This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy/France/Ireland)
9. In Another Country (Sang-soo Hong, South Korea)
10. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, U.S.) 


Rachel Weisz 

The films of Terence Davies fondly reconstruct past eras, at a gentle distance. The gender politics of his films are undeniably progressive, in that, like Sirk, they give space for the expression of desires otherwise occluded in the world of the films; yet, in ways that might be troubling for some viewers, they also express a palpable nostalgia for eras during which such expression, particularly for women, was a difficult achievement. So even as Davies clearly finds something about the bygone London of The Deep Blue Sea intolerable, the fact is also that the post-World War II world he envisions for us is every bit as beautifully elegant as the camera pan and tilt that leads us up to Hester's window at the beginning of the film. Shutting the curtains to the outside world, Davies follows her every move: the sleeping pills, the blanket, the suicide note. If Hester is no longer for this world, Davies will savor every moment of gesture prior to her departure.

The Deep Blue Sea is probably best understood not as a love letter to a less enlightened time but rather as a documentation of one woman's complex response to the options available to her during that time. What Davies cherishes is ultimately not a time period but a certain quality of response, the sheer classiness with which Rachel Weisz conveys how Hester works through what she wants in life. Think of her quiet indignation, at an insufferably repressed breakfast table with an insufferably repressive mother-in-law; her aching dissatisfaction with but genuine human love for a perfectly respectable but passionless husband (played admirably by Simon Russell Beale), who cannot possibly understand what Hester might be feeling; her look of sheer, child-like love as she gazes upon a brave war veteran (Tom Hiddleston) whose masculinity is every bit a part of its time and place just as Hester's desire for him is timeless. The best performance I saw last year won't be honored at these noisy award shows, but that is okay: there's something right about an actor in a Davies film flying, relatively speaking, under the radar, waiting for dignified moments to make her character felt.

Jafar Panahi

There is a stunning moment in This is Not a Film. I believe it is a moment every teacher of film acting (either of its realization or its expressive appreciation) should keep in their back pocket. In it, Jafar Panahi, house-bound by the Iranian authorities and legally barred from making another film, stands in front of a large flat screen playing a DVD of his masterpiece Crimson Gold. (He is playing the American DVD of the film, intriguingly: cinema as global boomerang.) After watching a scene from the movie, starring the amateur actor Hossain Emadeddin, he reminds the viewer of This is Not a Film that the details of gesture, expression, vibration, and movement generated by this amateur actor in front of a film camera are not predictable at all, are not mere illustrations of a character already articulated on the screenplay page. In fact, the presence of an amateur actor on location essentially re-writes the contents of the screenplay in front of the camera. "He does the directing on you," Panahi says of Hossain. "How could I explain before making the film, that Hossain should lean against the wall, do the thing that he did with his eyes, and that I had never seen before?" Of course, in telling us this, Panahi - a master reduced to his own role as house-bound amateur - is reminding us of the strange amateurism that cinema generates in all actors: no matter how closely the script is studied, no matter how perfectly the role cast, the camera will capture those fleeting details of human existence that cannot be shaped in advance.

Marion Cotillard

And so we go to Rust and Bone to see Marion Cotillard without legs. That is a strange sentence, for many reasons. It declares that our intentions behind watching Rust and Bone will be quite different than our viewings of other Marion Cotillard films (in which, presumably, the intact quality of all of her appendages was one of the attractions on offer); it reminds us that watching Cotillard here is part of our ongoing discovery of what it means to watch an actor during the transition of cinema in the digital era, for what we see of her here is actually quite different from what actually existed in front of the camera at the time of filming (Cotillard wore green, knee-high socks so that her the lower part of her legs could be digitally removed after the tragic accident suffered by her character in the film); and it reminds us that our intentions in watching this film are perhaps somewhat different than our appreciation of Jacques Audiard's masterful 2009 crime drama A Prophet, which did not feature any international stars of quite the same caliber as Cotillard. However, none of the strangeness of that first sentence, nor the presence of this marvelous leading lady, would be interesting if Audiard wasn't so good at the basic things: fractured family melodrama; the evocative, rhythmic and emotional use of pop music (Lykke Li, Bon Iver); and a compelling narrative that also includes the involving story of a father struggling to come to terms with the fact of his son. But, still, I cannot shake the feeling that Cotillard, with or without legs (and she has them, actually, for the first act of the film), is at the heart of Audiard's efforts, and that this would have been a far worse film without her. It's a great melodramatic bit of acting.

Chris Pratt 

Some viewers will know Chris Pratt as Andy on Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler's great sitcom about small-town government. Andy is possibly the stupidest character in American comedy since the silent era's comedic heavies. But Pratt gives an everyday likability to Andy that is necessary in episodic television. In Zero Dark Thirty, Pratt shows up near the end, playing one of the bros who will execute Bin Laden. Unlike Andy, of course, there is no sign that Pratt's Navy Seal is stupid, in any sense that might be seen to matter to his job. If anything, Kathryn Bigelow admires his tactical skill in the same way Howard Hawks would have in the 1930s. However, he is instantly understandable in a way Jessica Chastain's Maya is not. Maya lives, works, is herself through screens and data; her enemy in Zero Dark Thirty is a figure in a file, a glimpse on a surveillance screen, that drives both her and the relentless work of the film itself. And this work is not to kill Bin Laden, exactly. It is work meant to allow her the chance to first calculate and then turn over a statistical probability to a military equipped with the means to transform her math into an event of flesh and blood. In turn, just as Maya is already something of an abstraction to her male higher-ups, Pratt and his fellow military men are the necessary instrument through which her workplace ambition might be fulfilled. But Pratt, in a shorthand way typical of television, reminds us of the humanity lingering behind all this data. His fleeting presence, anyway, is most welcome at the two-hour mark of this exhausting dirge of a film.

Stanley Cavell once said (of Irene Dunne, in his case) that to follow your favorite actor closely, moment-by-moment, gesture-by-gesture, in a film, is to lose your identity to her. But the pleasures of watching a supporting player like Pratt is that he lets you keep yours. This can sometimes be a relief. Maya is a character you can lose your identity to, sure; but watch her lose hers in the process.