THE FEDREV 100: A Progressive Exploration of Film (41-50)

“The FedRev 100” is a personal top 100 films list from a progressive perspective, and articles will be published revealing 10 films from the list at a time. Once all 100 titles have been revealed, the entire “FedRev 100″ will be published in list form with links back to the write-up articles so readers will be able to scan the overall list, and then click on individual titles to read up on why each was selected. An in-depth explanation of the list’s criteria will be given when the entire list is revealed, but to briefly explain, the list is comprised of great films that uphold a progressive view of the world. The list is a blend of personal favorites with celebrated classics, as well as a few obscure gems that deserve greater exposure. Here is the The FedRev 100: films 41 to 50.

6bad5ce346834e99886c7723ea5d39b8

41. Cidade de Deus [City of God] (2002, F. Meirelles) 

Director Fernando Meirelles burst onto the scene with City of God, a true tour de force of film making. The film is propelled by a furious energy as it tells the history of gang violence in the poverty stricken slums of Rio de Janeiro from the point of view of the youth growing up under severe economic oppression. The story is a memoir, told chronologically though flashback, and it employs a host of techniques that in the wrong hands often come off as cheesy, such as freeze-frames, spinning cameras, and the names of characters popping up on screen as they’re introduced. Under Meirelles’ guidance these techniques are elevated to the divine, woven into the fabric of a masterfully crafted film. City of God is the story of one kid growing up, but through that lens we are exposed to a world of segregated poverty, hidden beyond the sight of the tourist resorts and upper class neighborhoods. Revealed here is the struggle of the poor and oppressed in the underbelly of capitalist society.

Godzilla-1954

42. Gojira [Godzilla] (1954, I. Honda) 

Made less than a decade after the end of World War II, with nuclear annihilation still fresh in the Japanese consciousness after the U.S. dropped two atom bombs on the already defeated nation, Godzilla brought to life a horrific monster as a metaphor for nuclear destruction. The film was inspired by a real-life “accident” in which a Japanese fishing boat was irradiated by American nuclear testing in the Pacific, and the resulting film was pointedly anti-American and a powerful condemnation of nuclear weapons. Over the years, nearly 30 Japanese Godzilla sequels have been produced, as well as 2 Hollywood remakes, making the franchise one of the most enduring and prolific in film history. While many of the sequels don’t take themselves very seriously, there can be no denying the impact the original film has had on society. It is a terrifying and highly entertaining film whose politics are integral to the plot, and its anti-nuclear stance resonated with millions of people around the world, making Godzilla one of the most beloved characters in cinema.

vlcsnap-2010-09-14-13h04m24s59

43. Cradle Will Rock (1999, T. Robbins) 

Written and directed by Tim Robbins, Cradle Will Rock is a love letter to the theater and the role of art in society as a tool for resisting oppression. Set during the 1930s in New York City, the film centers around the production of the musical “The Cradle Will Rock,” directed by Orson Welles and written by Marc Blitzstein, through the Federal Theater Project. Robbins’ film is an ensemble which weaves together many characters and issues of the time, including the saga of John Rockefeller hiring Diego Rivera to paint a mural for him, only to have it destroyed because of its leftist themes. Cradle Will Rock also addresses the rise of fascism in Europe and the growing anti-communist climate in America, depicting the House Committee on Un-American Activities as unjustly persecuting artists. Cradle Will Rock is filled with fantastic performances from many recognizable stars in small parts, and was clearly a labor of love for all involved, resulting in a film that joyously celebrates art while mourning the death of the Federal Theater Project and condemning the oppression of the poor by the ruling class.

hero_EB20051215REVIEWS51019006AR

44. Brokeback Mountain (2005, A. Lee) 

Brokeback Mountain beat the odds to become a worldwide hit, and then became one of the most honored and acclaimed films of all time, cementing its legacy as one of the most powerful and important success stories in film history. It’s the story of two men, played brilliantly by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, who take summer jobs herding sheep in the mountains of Wyoming, where they fall in love. Living in a deeply homophobic society, they are forced to lock away their feelings and live closeted lives, each marrying a woman and having children. As the years pass they rekindle their love on occasional fishing trips, but are prevented from sharing their lives together as both of their marriages deteriorate. Brokeback Mountain is a heartbreaking love story that punches you in the gut, and it’s masterfully crafted by Ang Lee, who never rushes a single moment. Lee’s film faced a gauntlet of bigotry and conservative criticism in a risk adverse industry, and yet, because of the quality of the film making and the universally human appeal of the narrative, Brokeback Mountain was accepted by the mainstream the world over.

do-the-right-thing1

45. Do the Right Thing (1989, S. Lee) 

Set on an extremely hot day in Brooklyn, Do the Right Thing is a powerful exploration of race relations in America. The film, which feels a lot like a stage play, introduces a large cast of characters who inhabit the neighborhood. Mookie, played by Spike Lee himself, plays a delivery man for an Italian-American owned pizza shop, which has a “wall of fame” of famous Italian celebrities, but no black people, despite being located in a predominantly black neighborhood. This angers Mookie’s friend, who demands that Sal, the shop’s owner, include black people on the wall. Symbolized by the rising temperature of the summer day, racial tension which had been bubbling just under the surface begins to boil over, resulting in a fight involving much of the neighborhood’s residents and the police, who murder one of the black protesters with a choke-hold. Do the Right Thing is a fantastic piece of political art that forces the audience to think about where they stand on the issue of race by raising the question of nonviolence versus violent self-defense in the face of oppression.

Tim Robbins And Morgan Freeman In 'The Shawshank Redemption'

46. The Shawshank Redemption (1994, F. Daramont) 

A prime example of a film that forged a reputation as a classic on home video, The Shawshank Redemption, adapted from a Stephen King novella, is a powerful film about a banker wrongfully convicted of killing his wife. Andy Dufresne is sent to Shawshank prison where he struggles to adapt to the harsh conditions. While incarcerated he is befriended by Red, the inmate who “knows how to get things.” What follows is a fantastic story of friendship, survival, and yes, redemption in the face of a cruel prison industrial complex. The inmates are portrayed as human beings trapped in a brutal, cruel circumstance, while the judicial system, warden, and guards, the official establishment of law and order, is the villain. The Shawshank Redemption is a film that takes us to the depths of despair while exposing the corruption of the powerful, but it’s punctuated by so many poignant moments. Ultimately the film is a masterpiece that puts forward one of the most hopeful and emotionally satisfying endings ever.

cloud-atlas-doona-bae-jim-sturgess

47. Cloud Atlas (2012, T. Tykwer / L. Wachowski / A. Wachowski) 

One of the most ambitious mainstream films in recent years, Cloud Atlas is a genre-bending epic complete with incredible special effects and a star-studded cast of actors who all play multiple characters, but what really makes it noteworthy is its unflinching revolutionary stance. The narrative weaves together several stories which take place over hundreds of years, and the theme of directly resisting injustice is carried like a baton through each vignette, openly embracing revolution as the solution to human exploitation and oppression across the ages. It’s a film about how human beings are inextricably linked, how our actions and choices ripple through time and impact others beyond ourselves, and the need to collectively find the strength to resist injustice and break free of all forms of slavery. Cloud Atlas is a film that puts forward the idea that things do not have to be as they are, that we can birth a better future for everyone by taking the necessary steps today, and this anti-establishment message is executed with the highest regard for artistic quality, including brilliant cinematography and acting, as well as a remarkable musical score.

lgqxwillaQe0a0J67brbZ7nWEtf

48. The Constant Gardener (2005, F. Meirelles) 

Fernando Meirelles followed up his universally acclaimed masterpiece City of God with The Constant Gardener. While a more traditionally structured film than its predecessor, and one that is more measured and somber than a brutal force of nature, it’s no less beautiful, poignant, and powerful. It’s the story of a British diplomat who at great personal risk takes up his wife’s activism after she is murdered in retaliation for trying to expose corruption and murder within the pharmaceutical industry. The film is a powerful indictment of Big Pharma’s exploitation of the third world, as well as the way capitalist-imperialist governments actually work in conjunction with private industry to aid and cover up these crimes. Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz give fantastic, nuanced performances, and the film takes us on a journey of intrigue and mystery through several countries. The Constant Gardener is a film that affirms the human dignity of the oppressed in the third world, while telling a powerful story of self-sacrifice in the service of a greater good.

url

49. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, A. Dominick) 

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is about Jesse James, the legendary outlaw, and Robert Ford, a young man who idolizes the criminal and his exploits. Ford wants desperately to impress James, to show his abilities as a sidekick despite a lack of criminal experience. Ford’s older brother has been involved in the James gang, but despite the family connection, Robert’s knowledge of Jesse is based mostly on tall tales and comic book stories. James has become a legend in his own time, and the film is a slow burning meditation on the nature of celebrity in America. Ford worships the idea of James, the mass produced pop-culture reflection of the criminal, but learns the real man is disappointing. He’s a lonely, paranoid murderer; a shell of a human being, hollowed out by his own fame, and after realizing this Ford recruits his brother to help him collect the reward money being offered for James, dead or alive. The film is beautiful to take in, shot by the master cinematographer Roger Deakins, and those images are accompanied by a haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Jesse James is a masterpiece that explores the dark side of fame in modern society.

photo-les-moissons-du-ciel-days-of-heaven-1978-6

50. Days of Heaven (1978, T. Malick) 

Often listed among the most beautiful films ever made, Days of Heaven is the genius Terrence Malick’s second feature. It’s the story of Bill, who after killing his boss at a factory in Chicago flees to northern Texas with his girlfriend Abby and younger sister Linda, where they all sign on as seasonal workers at a rich man’s farm. The Farmer is a young man with a terminal illness, and Bill and Abby pretend to be siblings, hatching a plan to have Abby seduce and marry the farmer so they can inherit his fortune when he dies. A love triangle develops, and of course things don’t go according to plan. Set in the sparse landscape of the Texas Panhandle, the film explores the nature of love and jealousy, as well as the desperation of the poor. The tragic ending is an outcome of the values promoted in capitalist society, which condition people to see each other as property, exploiting each other as a means to attain wealth. Days of Heaven is told primarily from the perspective of Linda, who narrates the film in signature Malick style, and Ennio Morricone’s Academy Award nominated score helps the lay the emotional foundation for the narrative. Unfortunately, after directing this masterpiece Malick didn’t make another film for 20 years.

- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 51-60)
- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 61-70)
- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 71-80)
- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 81-90)
- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 91-100)

James Franco’s As I Lay Dying: Produced and Abandoned?

by Miller Francis

I’m not Pauline Kael, and James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is not Bonnie and Clyde. But after reading countless smug naysayer reviews, or at best “damn with faint praise” critiques, I knew how Kael must have felt upon seeing the initial attacks on what is now universally upheld as a major work of film art. Especially on the web, As I Lay Dying was nitpicked to death by critics with the most narrow perspectives imaginable, dismissed as a “vanity project,” “college dissertation” or “Cliff notes” production. Franco, not surprisingly, was slammed for being out of his depth, apparently deserving of special contempt because of his celebrity status. What probably rubs these small-minded arbiters of taste the wrong way is more likely Franco’s stubborn insistence that he has the right to act, direct, write and produce whatever he wants, critics be damned.

as-i-lay-dying-poster-610x904I would have followed Kael’s lead and set out to write the definitive defense and affirmation of As I Lay Dying, had that feat not already been accomplished by Joseph Entin in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Entin even sheds light on the largely unnoticed political dimensions of Faulkner’s novel, and how Franco draws on its strong resonance for our own times. And while Time, Newsweek and The New York Times threw their weight behind the first clueless put-downs of Arthur Penn’s masterwork, a few major critics actually did show appreciation for Franco’s adaptation (see A.O. Scott’s thoughtful piece.)

Then comes the coup de grace: The distributor Millennium Films announced its decision to skip theaters altogether and release As I Lay Dying on iTunes, VOD/iVOD and DVD. Why? Because Franco’s adaptation “is very much in the same vein as the original work,” and might prove a “difficult sell to a general audience rather than the art house crowd.” Let’s get this straight: Some of the same forces who helped bring the film to life then choose to restrict its chances to find an audience. What gives? They knew the original source when they agreed to back the film. So why is the completed work’s fidelity to the novel an insurmountable marketing problem? What were they expecting? A comedy romp? A Yoknapatawpha musical?

Over two decades ago, during the VHS era, Michael Scragow pulled together reviews from several New York film critics for a book project he called Produced and Abandoned. His focus was on a wide variety of films that had been released into theaters, but had somehow been “abandoned by the studios and the mass audience.” It’s interesting to scan the list of films championed in that book, many of which have since gathered tremendous followings. In our DVD/blu-ray era, some have gone on to be considered film classics, with impressive Criterion special editions.

I’ve been reading that book lately and find it illuminating. Today, things are in many ways so much worse. It’s true that small, independent films, or those from other countries, and even big budget, highly complex films like Cloud Atlas, can fail or be only moderately successful in theaters–by today’s weekend blockbuster-or-oblivion standards–and still manage to create a buzz on the internet and find an audience through TV showings, DVD and blu-ray releases. Some have poor domestic box office but find more appreciative audiences in theaters overseas. But what does it say about the state of the industry when As I Lay Dying, one of the best films of 2013–Michael Polish’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur is another–never got a fighting chance in theaters? There is, still, in this country, a (relatively) small movie-going audience that seeks out the new, the original, the odd, unusual or even strange, the provocative, controversial and experimental films that get lost in the tsunami of sci-fi blockbusters and sequels (a few of which, of course, are admittedly good or even great films in their own right).

So what is it about Franco’s As I Lay Dying that possibly contributed to the decision by Millennium to cancel its run in theaters?

First, there is the setting and characters–depression-era poor whites in Mississippi. Not exactly hip subject matter. These characters are just not cool, as far as current day filmgoers are concerned, at least not the highly sought after big bucks demographic. But the real elephant in the room is Franco’s decision to employ film techniques we don’t see very often in modern films: the split-screen and monologues. I would argue that these aesthetic decisions were brilliant choices, and obviously drove both how the film was shot and subsequently “built.” In Merve Enre’s illuminating interview with Franco and co-screenwriter Matt Rager, the director explained: “The thing about the split screen is it makes everything strange. It captures the layers that are in the book. If Faulkner wrote this book as a straight narrative without any of his modernist techniques, we wouldn’t still be reading it today. The story is simple. We needed to make the film as strange and as complex as the book, while still considering the expectations of the film medium as opposed to the book form. We didn’t want to lose our audience, but if we didn’t capture something of the style of the book then we wouldn’t have been adapting Faulkner.”

As-I-Lay-Dying.jpg

As for the device of letting characters speak directly to the camera, “In the book the interior monologues are so dense and complex; they use diction that these characters wouldn’t realistically use. It’s as if Faulkner is speaking for these characters. He is giving voice to their deep feelings, to their souls. So, we wanted to capture some of that language, but we couldn’t just do it with normal voice-over; we needed to make it strange. There is something very intimate about the interior monologues, so I thought talking directly to the camera would give a sense of this intimacy.”

Does use of the split-screen in As I Lay Dying ask more from an audience than conventionally shot and edited films? Yes it does. The first 15 minutes or so can be frustrating, even difficult. But if you persevere, your vision gets re-trained to receive the story from the fractured perspectives of the people who inhabit Yoknapatawpha County. Midway you’re coasting along, and by the end of the film, you may not even notice the split-screen technique at all, leading some to say that Franco dispenses with it half-way through (not true). If the use of split-screen makes audiences work a little harder, so what? It was clearly not an arbitrary choice by the filmmakers to indulge some deep desire to alienate the viewer.

Produced and Abandoned contains a section entitled “Page to Screen” devoted to the particular art of adaptation. And by the standards set by these critics, any serious consideration of As I Lay Dying would have to conclude that it is a major success, a significant work of film art, and in fact, now part of the small but significant pantheon of brilliant films made from literary works such as John Huston’s adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. “In movies like these,” Scragow writes, “adaptation is more than an act of simple transference from one medium to another. It’s an act of emphatic creativity.”

In Franco’s defense of another of this year’s successful adaptations, The Great Gatsby, Franco wrote: “Luhrmann’s film is his reading and adaptation of a text—his critique, if you will. . . When adapting Gatsby to the big screen, the main questions Baz Luhrmann faced were: ‘What will work?’ and, like Romeo + Juliet before, ‘How do I make this older material live in a new medium for a modern audience?’ And somehow Luhrmann managed to be loyal to both the original text and to his contemporary audience.”

I have no doubt that Franco’s As I Lay Dying will become mandatory viewing for students studying Faulkner’s novel. Nothing wrong with that. That the film exists in DVD form (no blu-ray except from Germany) and can be downloaded or streamed from various sources means audiences do have access. One can only hope that a Region 1 blu-ray appears in the future, and that it contains some of the footage shot but not used in the final version.

asilaydying-04

Any serious filmgoer who misses out on this extraordinary film experience will miss one of the best films of the year, and one of the best adaptations ever. I don’t know if As I Lay Dying‘s distribution qualifies it for the Academy Awards, but there’s no justice in the film world if Tim Blake Nelson, to name only one, is not up for an acting Oscar. Christina Voros’ mostly hand-held cinematography is breathtaking throughout, and Tim O’Keefe’s highly original soundtrack accomplishes yet another translation, from words and film to music and sound.

On a personal note, my own truth-in-advertising, I have been a Faulkner nut since my teenage years. My very idiosyncratic standard for the success or failure of Franco’s adaptation was how well he depicted the barn-burning speech of 5-year-old Vardaman, what I call “the not-abouts.” Franco nailed it.

How amazing, and unexpected: a filmmaker who loves literature, and adapts the written word to film for fun. In 2013, that’s something we should treasure. “There are about five million books I want to adapt,” Franco declares. “There is nothing I enjoy more than this: adapting books I love into films and collaborating with the people I love. It’s the absolute best job in the world.”

My hopes are high for Franco’s film interpretation of The Sound and the Fury.

Miller Francis can be reached via e-mail: millerfrancis44@gmail.com

The Amazing Vanishing Act of Cloud Atlas

What happened to Cloud Atlas? My favorite film of 2012 has totally vanished from the face of the Earth. It was made by the highly successful, mainstream Wachowski siblings and their collaborator Tom Tykwer, who has also had mainstream success. It featured some of the biggest names in Hollywood (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant), as well as a huge, well-known supporting cast. It was so grand in scope and spectacle, so bold and daring, so unique, and so expertly executed that it was bound to leave audiences awed and inspired. As I sat dumbfounded in my seat after seeing it, I fully anticipated that it would pile up accolades through awards season and cement its status as a classic.

Enter crickets chirping. None of that happened. No accolades, no awards, and very few Top 10 lists. It didn’t even get any nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards, which is amazing considering it was one of the most ambitious independently funded films of all-time. It was even branded the worst film of the year by Time Magazine, and its DVD/Blu-ray release has been delayed not once, but twice.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but it seems like something fishy is going on here. I know I couldn’t have been the only person to be totally blown away by Cloud Atlas, so why is it being neglected, ignored, and buried by the industry?

To go back to beginning, it was incredibly difficult to get the film made in the first place, and the project likely would have been abandoned if it weren’t for Tom Hanks’ enthusiasm for the project and his determination to make sure it was completed as written. Which leads me to what I assume is the real issue here. The subject matter.

Yes, Cloud Atlas is a sweeping, genre-bending epic with big name actors and incredible special effects, but it’s also highly political. And not just political, it’s revolutionary. The narrative weaves together several stories that take place over several hundred years, but the theme of openly resisting injustice and authoritarian power is carried throughout. It’s proudly anti-establishment and openly embraces resistance and revolution as the solutions to human exploitation and oppression across the ages. While right on the money politically, that’s not a line the major studios are too keen to finance, promote, and distribute.

And even though the film has one of the best trailers I’ve ever seen, an incredible 6-minute composition in its own right, the film wasn’t marketed on television very well. The TV spots focused on action scenes, flashed generic critical praise on the screen like, “A remarkable movie experience,” and left out all the political content that would actually make people want to see the movie. Cloud Atlas is an intricate, philosophical, politically timely film, but it was promoted as a run of the mill thrill ride of the week. And, not surprisingly, its low box office numbers reflect that generic style of marketing. When you’ve got a film like Cloud Atlas in your hands, a film that has something important to say about the human experience, you’ve got to sell it based on what it actually is and hope it connects with the intended audience. You don’t advertise it as a roller-coaster ride… unless of course you’re afraid of the message and hope to limit the audience to people who just want to see things blow up on screen.

And once the film was considered a “flop” it became poison to awards nominating organizations. And thus, the best film of the year was buried. Its dvd/blu-ray release date originally set for January, was pushed back to March, and eventually delayed until May 14.

There are those who will argue that Cloud Atlas has been forgotten and buried by the industry just because it didn’t perform well, and perhaps others will say it’s just not a very good film. Those people are entitled to that opinion, but in my mind it seems clear that the reason the industry mishandled this project from the beginning, from the difficulty in acquiring funding, to the poor marketing, the lack of critical acclaim, the way it was conspicuously ignored by all the major award shows, and the twice delaying of its home video release… was a chain reaction caused by the desire to suppress the film’s progressive, anti-establishment, revolutionary political content.

It’s a film about how human beings are connected to each other, and the way we treat each other matters. It’s about finding the strength to resist evil, even if it seems like that evil is permanent and the entire universe is against you. It’s a film that desperately needs to be seen right now. We need some revolutionary hope. We need to learn that things don’t always have to be the way they are, and that if enough people get together and decide to do the right thing we can truly change this world for the better. The fact that Cloud Atlas, a film that champions this anti-establishment position and embraces a spirit of human interdependence and revolution, has been shoved in the corner, mocked, and left to be forgotten is practically criminal, especially while so many negative, politically harmful films are upheld critically and widely promoted.

My TOP 10 (+10) FILMS of 2012

2012 was an extremely good year for film, especially mainstream film, which is an improvement I’ve been dreaming of for quite a while. Though 2012 yielded only a small handful of absolute masterpieces, the sheer number of extremely high quality films this year blew me away. So, in recognition of this, I’m trying something new with my annual Top 10 list… I’m including 10 extra films that I feel would be criminal not to mention. This was a year where I felt there were 20 films that would ordinarily be Top 10 material, and I figure if the Academy can change the number of films it nominates from year to year, why can’t I? I’ve ranked the official Top 10 like I always do, and beneath I’ve also listed 10 others in alphabetical order that I highly recommend. So, without further ado, take a look at the list, and please give me your feedback. I want to hear your opinions, thoughts, comments, and gripes!

 

1. Cloud Atlas

A sprawling, visionary, nearly flawless epic, Cloud Atlas, though totally overlooked by all the major award shows (possibly for political reasons), was my clear-cut choice for Film of the Year. This film was so ambitious in scope that it required three directors working as a team to shoot it (Andy and Lana Wachowski along with Tom Tykwer). It takes place over several hundred years and is about human decisions rippling through time, ultimately resulting in a revolution aimed at ending class oppression. Several actors play multiples roles and the film utilizes reincarnation as a symbolic device to advance the complex narrative, based on the novel by David Mitchell. It’s a nearly unclassifiable film as it incorporates elements of drama, comedy, action, sci-fi, and mystery, all combining to create an incredible epic about the human struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed, the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, the master and slave, and the revolutionary spirit it takes for to overcome injustice. Perhaps the only flaw the film has is the casting of Tom Hanks, who is the only actor in the film unable to seamlessly disappear into his various roles. On the other hand, Hanks’ involvement was a major factor in getting the film made in the first place, so it all comes out in the wash because the most important thing is that people seek out this film and become exposed to what it has to say about human life.

 

2. The Master

The Master, indeed. Paul Thomas Anderson has once again proven that he deserves to be named among the very best directors working today. In his latest masterpiece, Anderson tells the story of a troubled war veteran who returns home directionless and prone to violent outbursts. Joaquin Phoenix turns in the best acting performance of the year, fully immersing himself into the lead role and exuding a palpable sense of danger, like he could snap at any moment. He drifts aimlessly, often getting himself into trouble, until he crosses paths with a charismatic cult leader who takes him under his wing and teaches him The Cause, a fictional version of Scientology. Ultimately, it’s a film about human behavior and relationships. Phoenix’s Freddie Quill is broken, violent, frightening, socially awkward, and obsessed with sex, even though he might be a virgin (the film is vague on this point), and the audience experiences his attempt to become a less volatile person. It’s impossible for me to fully explore the depths and implications of the interpersonal relationships explored in the film in this short space, but it has a lot to say about friendship, love, jealousy, and the human need for personal connection, both physical and emotional.

 

3. Django Unchained

I didn’t think it was possible, but Quentin Tarantino has finally made a film exactly like I’ve always wanted him to make, reaching the height of his potential in the process. Here he’s managed to set aside those “Tarantinoesque” gimmicks he’s always relied so heavily on, and made a mature, intelligent film about a serious subject. Yet, amazingly, Django Unchained is undeniably recognizable as a Tarantino film, incorporating all his best talents as a film maker while discarding everything that normally make his films impossible to take seriously. Slavery is as serious a subject as can be explored, and Tarantino, as only he can, has crafted a film that exposes the brutal horror of slavery, while simultaneously providing a cathartic antidote to the institution. In reality, reconstruction was never fully completed after the Civil War, but Tarantino shows us what should have been done: the righteous obliteration of the culture that sustained slavery. The only thing that could have improved this film is an expanded role for Kerry Washington.

 

4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The tagline for Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation was “Everyone wants to be found,” and it could have just as well been applied here. Perks is a coming-of-age film, following the path of an outcast high school freshman who is, to his surprise, accepted into a social circle of upperclassmen. Though slightly temporally ambiguous, it perfectly captures a certain era somewhere between the mid-’80s and mid-’90s when making a mix-tape (on an actual cassette) could perfectly represent how you felt about someone. It has an excellent script that deals with many heavy issues that kids sometimes unfortunately have to face on the path to adulthood, and it paints a portrait of friends as an alternative extended family that can be more important than actual family. To me anyway, the film is about how a group of friends who are truly committed to each other as human beings can literally save your life. There’s strength in unity, and in a beautiful way Perks provides an example of how the practice of acceptance and togetherness can be used as weapons to collectively survive in this society. Oh, and it’s got a great soundtrack, too.

 

5. Beasts of the Southern Wild

The big story here is the arrival of the child actress Quvenzhane Wallis who was only 6 years old during production. And what a force of nature she is! I can’t think of any child actor since Shirley Temple who has completely carried a film at such a young age. Beasts is the story of a small, poor commune of sorts cut off from the rest of the world on the other side of a levee, and that’s the way they want it. The film opens with a holiday celebration and we discover a world of people better connected with the Earth and with each other. When a major flood comes, they survive together, but when Hushpuppy’s (Wallis) father becomes ill she has to grow up and learn to fend for herself. What’s great about this film is that it shows that children are people, too, and they can often understand and do much more than they are given credit for. The film also creates a stark contrast between our “civilized” way of life, and the lifestyle of the people of the “Bathtub.” Though the people of the Bathtub are poor and their society dirty, it’s also authentic and bound by a spirit of community. Beasts shows us what’s really important and how to really celebrate life, as it rejects almost everything that we take for granted.

6. Looper

One of the freshest and most innovative sci-fi films in recent memory, Looper is a rare gem. Sci-fi has always been a genre that can hold a mirror up to society, and Looper is no exception. Set in the not too distant future where time-travel has been discovered and is used illegally by the mob to dispose of its enemies cleanly, “Loopers” are specialized assassins who wait for their targets to be sent from the future to be executed on sight. While some elements of the way time-travel is explained in the film are slightly problematic, to dwell on that is to miss the larger point on the film. In the end, it’s about being willing to sacrifice your own future to make the world a better place overall, and that’s a lesson we need to hear loud and clear right now.

 

7. A Royal Affair

When British princess Caroline is sent to Denmark to marry King Christian VII, she had no idea what she was getting into. Christian suffered from a mental illness which wasn’t understood at the time, and which allowed his actions to be manipulated by those around him, some of whom had good intentions, and others sought only greater power and influence. It also made marriage extremely difficult. Johan Struensee was a physician hired to assist the king, and eventually he and Caroline begin an affair. As a student of the Enlightenment Struensee was able to gain the king’s trust and steer him into making many progressive reforms that benefited the people of Denmark. The film itself is beautifully shot and acted extremely well, and it highlights the struggle for progressive reform against a wealthy ruling class, and also illuminates constructive methods to deal with metal illness.

 

8. Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths is a wild, brilliantly written film, and is a great example of a film about its own creative process, similar in form to Adaptation. For a film about murderous psychopaths, it’s surprisingly complex and nuanced, and centers around a man struggling to write a screenplay about psychopaths simply because he finds the subject interesting, even though he’s repulsed by violence. Not knowing where to take the narrative of his script, the film itself delves into the creative process, and the lines between reality and fiction begin to blur as the story is pieced together. The film represents a subversion of the action/thriller genre, and provides an insightful commentary on the prevalence of violence in American culture.

 

9. Killing Them Softly

Andrew Dominick has created the perfect political allegory for today. Set during election season in ’08 when the financial crisis was in full swing, Killing Them Softly is a microcosm, centered around the economy of a local mob. After a mob run poker game is held up resulting in a “recession” in which the “confidence” of the mob is shaken, a “stimulus” of sorts is needed to return life to “normal.” A hit-man is dispatched to track down and murder those responsible for the theft, allowing the mob to begin sponsoring card games again. The story unfolds against the backdrop of inner-city poverty and the decay of America from within, and speeches from president Bush and candidate Obama are injected into the narrative to hammer home the metaphor. The film is very simple and direct, but extremely bold in its direct association between capitalism and murder.

 

10. Being Flynn

An excellent film about writing and writers, Being Flynn is a story about a father who thinks he’s a great writer, but isn’t, and his son, who actually is very talented but doesn’t allow anyone to read his work because of a tragedy in his past. Robert De Niro turns in an excellent late-career performance as the elder Flynn, and Paul Dano turns in another quality performance as the younger. The film exposes the severe class divisions in America, as De Niro’s character slips through the cracks into homelessness and ends up seeking refuge in the shelter where his son works. The film has many authentic scenes of how homeless shelters operate and the conditions the homeless live in on the streets. All the original music for the film was composed by Badly Drawn Boy which helps to establish the melancholy atmosphere in which the narrative operates. Overall, it’s an excellent film that very few people saw, unfortunately, and I strongly encourage people to seek it out.

- DeadfallA stylistic crime thriller that could easily be considered a Western if it weren’t set against a backdrop of snow in Michigan. Great film about family dynamics.

- The Deep Blue SeaA very deliberate, minimalist film set in London following WW2 about a woman who leaves her husband for another man, but ends up finding herself in the process. It’s an empowering and moving film, driven by the amazing performance of Rachel Weisz.

- FlightA surprisingly good film about an alcoholic pilot who successfully lands a damaged passenger plane and is dubbed a hero by the media, and his attempt to cover up the fact that he was drunk during the flight. A powerful film about addiction that very easily could have been named among my top 10.

- The GreyAfter surviving a plane crash a group of men attempt to survive another danger, a pack of wolves who consider them invaders in their territory. It’s a bleak tale of man against the elements, but with surprising depth and complexity.

- The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyThe first part in Peter Jackson’s second adventure into Middle Earth, The Hobbit is a worthy companion to The Lord of the Rings series. Though the jury is still out on the use of 48fps, the film itself was very well paced and provides valuable back-story to the Middle Earth saga.

- Holy MotorsPerhaps the most bizarre film I saw this year, Holy Motors is the story of a sort of freelance actor who travels from job to job by limo and changes into character on the ride. When he emerges, he fully embodies his role, and we experience one full day of his work.

- The Hunger GamesOne of the most politically important films of the year, along with Cloud Atlas, Django Unchained, and A Royal Affair. Set in a dystopian North America after a fascist takeover, children are forced to fight to the death in a tournament designed to intimidate and pacify the masses, but our hero Katniss attempts to resist.

- LawlessThree brothers in the moonshine business during prohibition are forced to fight both corrupt police and a powerful organized crime syndicate after refusing to pay a bribe. A great film about the hypocrisy of the law and law enforcement.

- Life of Pi - A stunningly beautiful film that makes excellent use of 3D technology and takes us on a journey of survival after a shipwreck leaves a teenager stranded on a lifeboat alone with a tiger. A great story that examines the importance of storytelling and art as an indispensable aspect of life.

- Silver Linings PlaybookAnother film that examines mental health, it’s the story of a man with bi-polar disorder moving back in with his parents in an attempt to put his life back together. He wants to reconcile with his wife, but he meets another girl and they decide to enter a dancing competition.

Worst Film of the Year (out of the 42 I’ve seen) - 21 Jump Street