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It’s rolling around again; that time of year I’m forced to see Oscar-baity emotional low-blows by myself at the local art theater, weakness tissues in-hand, ready to cry my little heart out as strangers stare in judgment; the time of year that makes cinephiles, fashionistas, and Meryl Streep wet with anticipation. Although the latter has nothing to really look forward to this Oscar season (sorry, Hope Springs, no Academy “due wins” coming your way this year), it’s a joyous time to celebrate nonetheless. With major film festivals winding down (Cannes, Telluride) and a few others yet to come (Toronto), 2012 has thus far spoon-fed us heapings of potential. Already, offerings from Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan and Woody Allen earlier served only to wet our appetites for what the next few auteur-saturated months have in store. We’ll see films from the likes of Haneke, Tarantino, Spielberg (sit down, haters), and Bigelow (I’m still pissed about 2009, though), all before the year’s end. But the real surprises have come in the form of the art film, as beautiful pieces like Damsels in Distress, Magic Mike, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Celeste & Jesse Forever have already made their marks on the hearts of millions.
It’s still too early to pinpoint frontrunners in any major categories and this list will undoubtedly change in a month’s time, but let’s take a look back at what, in my opinion, stands out from the rest of 2012’s early releases.
My Top 10 of 2012 So Far: Part 1 of 2 (#s 10-6)
Close Call: #11 – Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)
To challenge the very notion of what a film “is” or “should be;” that, I believe, is the intent of writer/director Whit Stillman with his latest, “Damsels in Distress.” Stillman exacts his revenge on conditioned filmgoers as a Dada mastermind, using actresses and a self-aware pretentious vocabulary in place of recontexualized urinals and hat racks. We’re plopped smack dab in the center of a prestigious east coast university, following the trials and tribulations of its most elite (at least they think so) group of well-to-do girls, headed by the self-important-but-with-a-tinge-of-pitying-empathy Violet (Greta Gerwig), who takes it upon herself to bestow the gift of social relevancy upon new student Lily (Analeigh Tipton, of “America’s Next Top Model” fame). We see the gaggle of girls interact with other students, flirt with boys, juggle relationships, and ultimately forcibly insert themselves into a young peoples’ generation that’s forgotten the value of pomp and circumstance, although the girls aren’t free from various social trappings themselves. Violet is self-destructive, like June Cleaver and The Joker birthed a baby with a time bomb inside, hoping to correct in college society what she fears about herself. The “plot” doesn’t evolve much beyond that, the film mainly functioning as a showcase for Stillman’s (often ironic) construction of verbal exchanges that function more as exertions of existential musings than actual conversations. The results are often hilarious only because we, as an audience, are fully capable of recognizing the ludicrous outlook of the group, which involves giving away a free box of donuts at a self-help and suicide group meeting; perhaps the other students don’t care, or maybe their blind-eyed aloofness to the hilarity going on around them is what makes Stillman’s mirror to youth so infectiously amusing.
#10 – Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow)
Whether it’s global politics or a simple conversation with your neighbor about how they were able to afford their new car, skepticism runs rampant everywhere you look. “Safety Not Guaranteed,” earlier this year a Sundance hit, forces the audience into a skeptic’s nightmare as we follow pessimist Darius (Aubrey Plaza) as she investigates a local man for a magazine article. This is no ordinary man, mind you; he’s got a reputation as the local whackjob, claiming he can travel back in time. He seeks a partner to do help him, places an ad in a newspaper, and Darius responds. She’s had a rough life of her own, losing her mother at a young age, fumbling internships and asshole bosses, and a stagnant love life; all the trappings our increasingly glum outlook on life as young adults has afforded us. We’re set up for failure, and our attitudes certainly reflect that. However, the big question that looms over the audience’s head (can he really do it?) becomes more satisfying as the film progresses, giving us (and Darius) something to actually look forward to, a blinding light on the other side of the everyday murk and grime. The film successfully builds a sweetly subdued (thanks in part to Plaza’s wonderfully placid demeanor) romantic relationship between the non-believer and the champion. The payoff isn’t quite as satisfying as I would have hoped, ending a bit too abruptly, but the film is charming nonetheless, with characters and relationships standing in for the audience’s growing affections for the alluring fantasy of the impossible.
#9 – To Rome, With Love (Woody Allen)
If it’s a love letter he wants to write, it’s a love letter I will accept. Woody Allen’s latest euro-indulgence comes in the form of the aptly-titled “To Rome, With Love,” a fairly seductive portrait of a city he’s very much in love with, albeit characters that are often forgotten in the wake of his affections. Allen’s one-a-year film philosophy fails more often than not (the success of last year’s “Midnight in Paris” likely won’t be repeated), but there’s always something of value to be gleaned from even the most lukewarm of exercises. Here, we’re given the standard Allen treatment; numerous vignettes unfold, the most satisfying of which involving an aging, pessimistic, neurotic American opera director musing on life and death (and the apprehensions that come with both) amidst his daughter’s budding engagement to an Italian man. Other characters include an average Italian Joe (Roberto Benigni) who wakes up one day only to find that he’s literally become an overnight superstar, and a middle-aged American architect (Alec Baldwin) revisiting his past experiences of love and loss in Rome. The locales are beautifully shot, with Darius Khondji’s gorgeous cinematography lapping up the beauty of Rome more effectively than Allen’s writing captures the spirit of his subjects. It can’t be denied, however, that the earnest intent of Allen’s latest is altogether charming, begging us to indulge in a ninety-minute cinematic vacation with one of the most prolific auteurs in history.
#8 – The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
“The Cabin in the Woods,” simply put, is a film buff’s wet dream. If the words self-reflexivity, the male excessively campy assault on the decades of research by film scholars like Carol Clover and Laura Mulvey, who dissected horror films, in short, as exploitations of the female entity for the sexually insatiable gaze of the male spectator. The film systematically deconstructs all notions even casual moviegoers have regarding the horror genre; if you go to X place, Y monster will kill you. If you fit X personality or racial profile, you’ll die in Y order. “The Cabin in the Woods” functions as a satisfyingly critical (and altogether hilarious) vision of the horror genre, playing on elements we know and expect from horror films but recontextualizing them to mean something much greater about the social, sexual, corporate, and ethical norms that most often find their outlets in a medium that’s meant to be pure entertainment; film.
#7 – Prometheus (Ridley Scott)
This mid-year delight’s greatness comes as no surprise, as anything Ridley Scott touches generally turns to gold (Robin Hood and G.I. Jane, you’re obviously not invited to this party). Prometheus sees the 74-year old mastermind behind Alien and Blade Runner return to his sci-fi roots after a string of lukewarm dramatic releases during the latter half of the 2000s, proving that while his edge as a maestro of “shock” has worn dull, the visionary’s flair for grandiose fantasy has only sharpened with age. The film (is it an Alien prequel or not?) functions as part space-opera thriller, part existential babbler. While the ideas posed by characters in search of the race of superbeings that supposedly created humans stimulate our curiosity and probe the deepest corners of our miniscule human brains, the film finds its footing as it couples such existential ennui with an intense pulse bursting classic sci-fi action. Prometheus’ scope is far too encompassing for one film, so let’s hope the planned sequel(s) allow this would-be series to forge a path of its own amidst the constant onslaught of contemporary space-horror dreck.
#6 – The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)
The line between pop culture trash and legitimate art is growing increasingly thick, what with reality shows, media sensationalizing, and a growing audience’s insatiable desire for subjects that bear only superficial traces of originating from the human race. While “Jersey Shore” and “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” are contributing to the intellect-ocalypse, Suzanne Collins managed to channel inspiration from such programs into a powerful comment on our society’s willingness to abandon our own reality and indulge in a fabricated one, with her “Hunger Games” book series chronicling the fictional nation of Panem as it hosts an annual competition which pits children against each other in a televised fight to the death. The novels are refreshing and cleverly written, with Collins crafting a powerful parable for our times that criticizes at once the rift between bourgeois sense of entitlement and daily lower class struggles, and further the prevalence of “reality”-based media and its damaging consequences for our society. A film based on a written critique of visual arts sounds like a no-brainer; alas, it’s of utmost importance to judge an adaptation and its source material as two separate texts, and thankfully Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games makes a substantial claim as a fantastic film in its own right. As we’ve seen with the Twilight film series, an adaptation can be mere cut-and-paste moving images merely lifted from a young adult novel, but Ross’ film takes full advantage of the cinematic medium to craft an uber-coherent (surprisingly) film that takes inspiration from Collins’ series and rebirths it into something fresh and tangible for the big screen. Lush cinematography, symbolic juxtapositions, and meaty socio-political commentary make The Hunger Games the first film in a (as of this publication) four-part series that was entirely dependent on its freshman release to build credibility as more than just a teeny-bopper distraction.
Part 2 (#s 5-1) coming soon!
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