I didn’t go often to the cinema in 2012, but I did manage to see quite a few films at home. I’ve divided the films below into those which were new — either in theater or on DVD — in 2012, and those which were older but which I saw for the first time this year.
I have said before that I am a film-going dullard, with little innate feel for the medium and a poor acquaintance with its history. This year I made a concerted effort to overcome some of this ignorance by watching a number of “classics”. I saw films by great directors like Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game), Orsen Welles (The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil), Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story), Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), and even Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown). I watched classic film noir (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep), classic western (The Searchers), classic romance (Roman Holiday), classic musical (Singin’ in the Rain), and classic horror (The Uninvited, The Innocents, The Haunting). I watched adaptations of Shakespeare spanning nearly 80 years of cinema, from the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream up through Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard III to Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 Coriolanus. I staged for myself a Woody Allen mini-festival, watching in sequence a sampling of his more highly-regarded films (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Match Point, and Midnight in Paris). I saw quirky little films by auteurs (Brian Linklater’s Bernie and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress) and massive blockbusters by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) and whoever-the-perpetrator-was (The Avengers).
Sad to say, my affinity for films with broadly classic status continued to have low valence. With a few exceptions, noted below, the famous pictures in the list above mostly failed to resonate strongly with me. Naturally I am willing to accept that this is due to my own insensibility. (Although I will say that how anyone could think The Searchers one of the greatest films is beyond my powers of imagination to grasp.)
Unquestionably my favourite film of the year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I saw again on DVD. Since this was also my favourite film of 2011, I will not belabour the point, but simply direct interested readers to last year’s list. Next to that magnificent achievement (the film, not my list) the films I am about to discuss appear wan and pale. But if one can forget about Malick for a while, colour begins to seep back into them and they can be enjoyed on their own terms.
To the business at hand!
Midnight in Paris
(Woody Allen, 2011)
I did not have any clear idea of what to expect from Woody Allen’s film about Paris in the 1920s. I knew that it starred Owen Wilson in a lead role, which would normally have led me to give it a wide berth, but the reviews were strong and the film sounded appealing. I had seen only one other of Allen’s films prior to this one — it was Annie Hall — and that many years ago, so even my sense of what a Woody Allen picture is like was hazy. In some sense, that may have been an advantage, for I now see that Midnight in Paris is a fairly atypical Allen film, and in a good way.
It is atypical in that it is genuinely light-hearted, and willing to risk a sense of nostalgic wonder without letting Allen’s besetting vice — hair-trigger self-consciousness — get in the way. It is true that the film eventually comes around to seeing itself as a kind of psychoanalytic-therapy-by-fantasy, but even this is done in such a winsome manner — thanks, in so small degree, to a surprisingly endearing performance by Wilson — that it does not spoil the fun.
The basic premise of the story is that Wilson, a struggling writer on a visit to Paris with his fiancée and her family, is magically transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, a time and place that he has always considered “golden”, and where he meets many of his cultural idols, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. (The Wikipedia page gives a nice run-down of the famous real-life figures who are portrayed on screen. I had hoped for a glimpse of Stravinsky, but I was disappointed. Probably they were unable to find anyone ugly enough to play him convincingly.) He is so enraptured by this experience that he is tempted to remain in the past, but reflection on this temptation leads to his learning a Very Valuable Lesson.
I suppose one could see the film as a kind of progressive’s catechism about the evils of “living in the past”, but it did not play that way to me. The nostalgia, ostensibly denounced in the end, was too sincerely conveyed to be entirely effaced, and even the denunciation was handled with a winking ineptitude that softened the blow. I came away from the film with a spring in my step.
(Jeff Nichols, 2011)
This is a quiet and spare little film that plays like a realistic domestic drama but turns out to be a fable, or something. The story charts the struggles of a young family in rural America as their husband/father descends slowly into madness, prey to delusions and paranoia and troubled by ominous dreams. It is played unsensationally, and is all the more frightening for it. How would you manage if the one you loved began making poor judgements that gradually imperiled the family’s livelihood and safety? At what point would you realize that something was seriously wrong? How would you broach the subject with him or her? How would this behaviour, and these fears, affect relationships within the family? These questions are all raised by the script, and made compelling by superb performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. The third main presence in the film, uncredited, is the sky above the family farm. The film’s range is admittedly limited, more or less striking a sustained note of brooding tension, but it is remarkably effective given its slim means. See it with friends and family and you will be arguing about the film’s ending until well into the night.
The official trailer for the film gives too much away, so here is another, made by a YouTuber named Peter Gergis:
(Billy Wilder, 1944)
After many more or less failed attempts to learn to appreciate older films (“older” here meaning, say, more than fifty years old), I decided this year to try a different tack: genre films. I hoped that the familiar conventional elements of such films might pave the way for me to some extent. I believe this strategy has worked; at least, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.
Double Indemnity is considered a classic example of film noir, and with good reason. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, the screenplay was co-written by Billy Wilder and none other than Raymond Chandler. The dialogue is as hard-bitten as one could hope for, and the cinematography, rendered (obviously) in atmospheric black and white, is a perfect match for the story.
It is a crime drama, but the drama derives not from suspense as to who committed the crime — we are told this in the opening scene — nor even as to how the crime was carried out — though it is true that much of the plot is involved with unfolding the (rather implausible) details. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the film for his “Great Movies” series, in the end the film’s fascination turns on the character and motives of the two central figures (played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck). What do they see in one another? Are they in love, or is one using the other? Why is each willing to trust the other? (Does each trust the other?) What do they really want? And are we, as the audience, expected to sympathize with them, or is the film a dark comedy in which we watch, with a certain satisfaction, as the foolish pave their own path to destruction? You tell me.
This was not the only Billy Wilder film I watched this year. The Marilyn Monroe comedy Some Like it Hot has a strong reputation, but I much preferred Double Indemnity.
(William Wyler, 1953)
What a wonderful surprise! Here we have a charming romance with a winsome lead couple (in Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck), a spectacular backdrop (Rome, of course, and gloriously so), an intriguing premise, and a bittersweet finish that wrings the heart. Hepburn plays a modern-day princess who, fed up with endless days of official protocols and rigorous scheduling, escapes from her handlers to enjoy an incognito day of adventure in Rome. It is impossible to imagine a modern film observing the decorum and achieving the dignity of this romantic fantasy. The film floats on an air of sweet fun, pointing up at every turn the blessings of the simple life, and it avoids a conventional “Hollywood ending” in favour of a tough-minded, but very right, example of love and sacrifice. Hepburn is marvellous; I hadn’t seen her on screen before, but I am now compiling a list of her other films for future viewing. Would I have liked Roman Holiday as much if it had been filmed in another city? I don’t have to answer that.
(Jack Clayton, 1961)
It was Martin Scorcese’s praise of this film that attracted me. I have no liking for graphic horror, but this promised to be a quiet, oblique affair with an undercurrent of supernatural tension. The story is about two children who return home from boarding school to take up their studies under a new governess on a large, remote English estate. The children are strange, eerie, and the governess is slowly drawn into a frightening mystery. The film is unusually unsettling, not for anything explicit, for for subtle touches that accumulate. The young girl, in particular, made my hair stand on end: something about her eyes and her voice. To be honest, I had reached a point in the film where, too frightened to continue, I was going to turn it off, when one of the characters spoke a name that I recognized: “Peter Quint”. Relief washed over me: I realized I was watching an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Fortified with new courage — not because James’ story is not scary, but because I knew I was on terrain I had trodden before without lasting damage — I was able to see it through. It’s a good film, with an uncanny atmosphere, recommended to those with a taste for such things.
(Woody Allen, 2005)
One doesn’t expect a thriller from Woody Allen, and this film, about which I knew nothing prior to watching apart from the general acclaim it had garnered, took me by surprise. It is about a middle-class tennis instructor in London who, by a series of fortunate events, marries into a wealthy family. He then commits an act that imperils both his marriage and his new social status, and to protect himself he goes on to commit even worse acts, desperately trying to keep the consequences at bay. The general set-up is similar in many respects to Allen’s earlier Crimes and Misdemeanors (which I watched later), but in my opinion Match Point is much the better of the two.
I admire the film’s ability to make gripping drama out of very ordinary materials. Early in the film four characters meet together for coffee, a meeting such as might happen thousands of times on any given day in a large city. Yet it is from the dynamics of those relationships, and nothing more, that the whole drama of the story unfolds. I also admire the film’s portrayal of the snowball effect of decisions and actions; one evil act contains within it the seed of all that follows, and the effort to cut off that growth only makes things worse and worse. Finally, the plotting of Match Point is superb: the structure, with all of its considerable intricacies and cunning diversions, fits together like clockwork. Allen deserved his Academy Award nomination for the screenplay.
Many commentators on the film have remarked on its cynical ending, and, it is true, one could read it as deeply pessimistic. It is probably intended to be read that way. Nonetheless I think it leaves enough unspoken to permit a more ambiguous interpretation. It is the sort of film for which one’s final interpretation rests to a great extent on how one interprets a facial expression in the closing frames. Quite apart from anything else, I cannot help but admire the craftsmanship of any film that can bring things to such a fine point.
Other films I enjoyed, but not so much as to write about them here:
- Recent: Argo (2012), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Damsels in Distress (2011), Drive (2011), Moneyball (2011), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
- Older: The Way (2010), Ponyo (2008), The Ninth Day (2004), The Thin Red Line (1998), Annie Hall (1977), The Song of Bernadette (1943)
Finally, I’d like to say a few words about two excellent music-related “movies” that I saw this year.
Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes records live performances of two of Stravinsky’s early ballets, The Firebird, which premiered in 1910, and The Rite of Spring, from 1913. In this modern production from the St. Petersburg Mariisnky Theatre, they have tried to reproduce the choreography and costumes of the famous original productions in Paris. Now, I am not one to sit contentedly through a ballet, but I found these productions fascinating from start to finish. The Firebird, Stravinsky’s first major commission, comes across as a startlingly beautiful work; it is far easier to appreciate the music’s frequent changes in texture and tempi when one sees the accompanying dances, which (and I can hardly believe I am saying this) are really splendid. The Rite of Spring is another beast altogether. One of the surprising things Richard Taruskin said in his discussion of this piece and its famous premiere in the Oxford History of Western Music is that the riot which accompanied the first performance may well have been in response to the choreography rather than (as is usually supposed) the music. Seeing this performance convinced me that he may well be right: the dancing is crude, formless, chaotic, replacing elegance for violence at every opportunity. It is easy to see why lovers of ballet, which until then had been a genre nearly entirely insulated from the incursions of modernism, would have taken offense. I won’t say that I liked it, but it was very interesting to see, and if you love Stravinsky I would say this is probably essential viewing.
Second is The Other Side of the Mirror, which documents Bob Dylan’s famous Newport Folk Festival concerts in 1963, 1964, and 1965. The footage is offered largely without commentary, so this is simply an opportunity to hear and see Dylan during what was perhaps the most artistically fertile period of his life. It is frankly astounding to consider how much he changed in those few years, morphing from the earnest strummer of folk tunes in 1963 to the enigmatic bard of 1965. We also see more of the infamous 1965 electric set than was shown in Scorcese’s No Direction Home (if memory serves). Warmly recommended to those who love Bob Dylan.
Anything I missed? As always, comments are welcome.