e’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the number of major studio releases from the Big 6 (Disney, Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., Sony, Universal) dipped again this past year — which, in theory, would mean more screens for smaller films, right? Now the bad news. You probably didn’t see them. Like in 95 percent of them. You know, the ones that didn’t deluge the market on 2,000-plus screens, and weren’t accompanied by a marketing campaign as subtle as a tsunami. And unless you live in one of the top ten markets, one of the true Herculean feats in film-going remains trying to catch that heralded gem whose commercial appeal usually rests firmly in diametric opposition to its quality.
That’s where we come in. As purveyors of fine film, we feel it’s our duty to shine a light on those offerings that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks of public awareness. And to paraphrase Honest Abe (after all, it is his year, what with hunting vampires, passing the 13th amendment and such), that as long as there are vital services such as Netflix and Redbox, of the people, by the people and for the people, these films shall not perish from the earth.
Not to be confused with the Dustin Hoffman-directed Quartet, about aging opera singers, this drama about the lives and loves of a famed chamber string quartet may be low-key in execution, but it’s strictly highbrow in its subject matter and approach. With so many films dwelling on the baser side of society, it’s refreshing to view a story about gifted and erudite individuals striving for success. Naturally, it barely made a blip during its modest six-week run. Philip Seymour Hoffman shines as the group’s second violinist, who is suffering a faltering marriage to fellow violinist Catherine Keener. At this point in his career, Hoffman may be America’s best character actor. Christopher Walken (not a bad character actor himself) plays nicely against type as the group’s cellist, fighting against the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Some of the sexual entanglements may seem awkward, and it could have used a tad more fortissimo, but writer-director Yaron Zilberman’s deft handling of camaraderie and conflict in the world of high culture carries the day. Not to mention the wonderful orchestration of Beethoven’s Opus 131, as performed by the Brentano String Quartet.
Martin Scorsese has Robert De Niro. Tim Burton has Johnny Depp. And now Joe Wright has Keira Knightley. It’s that kismet connection where director and star always seem to bring out the best in each other. For their third teaming (after Pride and Prejudice and Atonement), the British twosome took on the venerable Tolstoy classic and the results were breathtaking. Due to budget constraints, Wright shot much of the film on a stage in a theater, an approach that injected the material with a fresh vital take, and Knightley was exemplary as the doomed aristocrat. Yes, the story has been told four times onscreen now, but such a ravishing re-imagining deserved a much better fate than the 400 or so theaters it was screened. After watching this, you won’t be surprised when Wright wins a directing Oscar within the next ten years.
And speaking of re-teaming, Jack Black and writer-director Richard Linklater joined forces nearly a decade after School of Rock for this bizarre dark comedy, based on a true story, about a minister (Black) who winds up befriending, but ultimately killing, the crabby old rich woman (Shirley MacLaine) of a small Texas town. Black, in his choicest role yet, finally plays a fleshed-out character instead of yet another variation of himself, while MacLaine is appropriately irksome. Linklater successfully returns to the Texas roots he first drew upon over twenty years ago with Slacker and Dazed and Confused, and although he relies a little too heavily on the testimony of real people who knew the source material, the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction paradox is captivating. The droll approach probably accounted for the film’s middling business, but it’s a welcome return to form for both director and star.
A jaw-dropping story of workplace efficiency carried to the extreme, this low-budget indie was the most memorable horror film of the year. Except it wasn’t a horror film. It was based on an actual event that happened in Kentucky, where a fast food manager was called by a police officer who told her an employee had been accused of stealing from a customer, and needed to be questioned in back of the restaurant. Then things get worse. Way worse. The film almost unfolds like a documentary, and you may find yourself in total disbelief as it goes on, but just watch the original 20/20 segment for verification. Truly unsettling, it’s no wonder this never found an audience, perhaps hitting too raw a nerve. But Ann Dowd’s performance as the feckless manager, and the disturbing questions the movie raises about behavioral patterns and submission, are vital. A truly staggering monument to human stupidity, and that’s meant as high praise.
David Cronenberg remains one’s of film’s most idiosyncratic voices, so it’s only logical that his adaptation of Don DeLillo’s existential novel became a natural pairing. The story follows the cross-town odyssey of a Manhattan billionaire (Robert Pattinson) traveling in his limo in search of a haircut, but turns out to be more of a journey of self-destruction. Given the downbeat subject matter, the film didn’t even make a million dollars stateside, despite the presence of Pattinson, who gets kudos for trying to bust out of his Twilight coffin. This is a film of ideas, philosophies and despair, which doesn’t exactly ring the “must see” bell for the average filmgoer, but for those willing to travel down the darker streets of the Big Apple, it proves an intellectual reward.
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Fourteen years is a long time to be gone from filmmaking, but in Hollywood terms it’s an epoch to rival the span of the Ice Age. That makes Whit Stillman sort of the Terrence Malick of cultured comedies. In his first film since helping making Kate Beckinsale a known commodity with The Last Days of Disco, back in 1998, Stillman shows he hasn’t missed a beat with this eccentric and endearing tale of a trio of college girls. Headed by the effusive Greta Gerwig, they try and improve the campus lives of those they think are most in need, ending with a large musical dance number. (How the Sambola never caught on is one of God’s great mysteries.) Think of this as a highbrow reversal of Mean Girls, if it were written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Pure joy.
For nearly a decade, Adrien Brody has made one wonder if maybe there wasn’t something to the Oscar Curse after all. Luckily, Detachment puts that notion to rest, finally giving the actor a chance to work with provocatively strong material. Here he plays Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher trying to make a connection with his class during his brief stay. Also complicating his life is a dying father, and a teen prostitute he takes under his wing. Director Tony Kaye’s first feature since American History X is not exactly subtle in trying to get across his message about the failure of the education system, among many other things, but Brody’s performance keeps things anchored. Special kudos go to Sami Gayle, who is heartbreaking as the teen hooker. This is definitely not Dead Poets Society — or even Dangerous Minds — which might scare off some viewers, but the film carries an important message for these turbulent times.
2012 was the year Matthew McConaughey resurrected his career. It’s no wonder he turns up on a quarter of this list. With roles in Bernie, Magic Mike, The Paperboy and this outrageous black comedy, he resurrected himself from the scrapheap of bad rom-coms. That being said, those who adored him as a golden-haired boy-toy didn’t come within a country mile of this nasty bit of fun, which probably accounts for it only reaching seventy-five theaters during its run. McConaughey shines in the title role of a cop who moonlights as a hitman, and gets hired for a family murder plot that goes south real fast. Based on a Tracy Letts play, and energetically directed by the legendary William Friedkin, this is a mordant, in-your-face assault that outrageously challenges the notion of family values, and in the process manages to turn a chicken wing into a phallic symbol. Yes, it’s that kind of film. Not for Republicans or the easily offended, Killer Joe proudly earned its NC-17 rating, with cult status sure to follow.
Judd Apatow’s short-lived TV show Freaks and Geeks has turned out to be a breeding ground for a current crop of talent that includes Jason Segel, James Franco and Seth Rogen. Nearly forgotten among the group, however, is Linda Cardellini, who deserves to be on the same playing field with those names, but sadly isn’t. But this intimate character study of a female soldier returning from the Middle East should serve as a clarion call for the actress. The story of a soldier’s inability to integrate back into a normal life has been done before, but hardly ever from a female’s point of view. Director-writer Liza Johnson’s take is unsparing and honest, but it’s Cardellini’s unsentimental, multi-layered performance that galvanizes it. Tragically released in only three theaters way back in February this demands attention, and special thanks go to the Independent Spirit Awards for remembering Cardellini’s brave work.
Sometimes Sundance buzz can be just that — an irritating whir generated by over-eager publicists to cover for sub-par projects. Thankfully, this micro-budgeted comedy earned its plaudit there, winning the Waldo Salt screenwriting award. Why it failed to find a larger audience remains dumbfounding. The clever plot has three journalists heading out to follow a story about a man who has placed an ad seeking a companion for time travel. Eschewing the broad machinations a studio version of this setup would entail, and skirting the quaint quirk that bogs down so many indies, the film soars on touching surprises, as well as the beguiling presence of Aubrey Plaza, of TV’s Parks and Recreation, as one of the journalists, in a breakout role. She’s better than a hundred Kate Hudsons, Katherine Heigls and Jennifer Anistons put together, who would’ve sunk a charming enterprise like this.
There is no plot, there is no dialogue and there are no actors. No, it’s not the latest Adam Sandler vehicle, it’s filmmaker Ron Fricke’s visual extravaganza of fascinating real-life imagery, set to the haunting music of Lisa Gerrard, among others. Some people may find themes in the non-stop procession of architecture, man and ceremony —to name just a few featured elements, but it’s best just to let it wash over you rather than think too much. It manages to combine the amazing (monks creating a piece of art from millions of grains of colored sand) with the downright freakish (French performance artist Olivier de Sagazan transforming his head over and over with clay) and even the uniquely inspired (hundreds of prison inmates performing a precision dance drill). The camerawork alternates between time-lapse photography and languid floating, creating a dreamlike state — every shot could be a painting. Each viewer will have a favorite shot or sequence, although it’s hard to top the de Sagazan bit or the funeral where a man is buried in a coffin in the shape of a giant gun. Beautiful and downright lyrical, this is massive, montage moviemaking that is totally transfixing. A one-of-a-kind experience, and then some.
There isn’t a director alive who does English post-World War II repression better than Terence Davies. Returning to the same fertile ground he mined in The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives, this was Davies’ first feature in eleven years and represents a perfect companion piece to those two masterpieces. Criminally under-seen, it was only saved from oblivion by critics who recognized the extraordinary work of Rachel Weisz, who plays the unhappy wife of a judge involved in an ill-advised affair. Almost a kissing cousin of Anna Karenina, the film re-establishes the artistry of Davies, who does more with silence and stares than most directors can do with pages of dialogue. This lovely, muted work graced only sixty-one theaters during its run, but it’s worth tracking down for a perfect intro to one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. And no, there’s no Samuel L. Jackson or sharks in it!
Just as cable TV has usurped much of mainstream moviemaking in terms of quality, the same can be said year in and year out for a great many of the documentaries that are produced. The problem is, outside of L.A. or New York, audiences don’t get much of a chance to see them. Seek this one out, no matter where you are. Hands down the year’s best mystery was this thoroughly engrossing investigation into the disappearance of a 13-year-old Texas boy who mysteriously reappears in Spain three years later. It addresses the human condition, and the longing for acceptance, more effectively than anything Hollywood produced in 2012, and in the process made Frédéric Bourdin into the year’s most intriguing character, fictional or otherwise — a man who is alternately mind-blowing, sad and altogether defiant.
American audiences who got a chance to see this inspirational French import, now know what the rest of the world does about this cultural phenomenon. Inspired by a true story, the film details the relationship between a rich paralyzed Parisian (François Cluzet) who hires a Senegalese ex-con (Omar Sy) to be his aide. Naturally, the two men uplift each other’s lives. Definitely not for cynics, who might dismiss this as Pushing Miss Daisy, it has plenty of grit, and even takes some chances by mining humor from disability. It’s also warm and engaging, and Omar Sy’s charismatic, César-winning performance is the engine that propels the film forward. It’s definitely familiar territory, but when done as expertly as this, it fits as well as a comfortable pair of old chaussures.
On paper, this might have looked like a sure thing, what with stars like Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron and John Cusack on board. But director Lee Daniels is a risk-taker who shuns sure things, and while this lurid, Southern-fried tale of sex, crime and punishment might have alienated some audiences with its over-the-top tawdriness, that’s also what made it well worth seeking out for those willing to take the ride. Alas, it was abandoned by an uncaring distributor after it failed to garner big numbers in limited release — the scene of Kidman’s unique treatment of a jellyfish sting turned out to be the main talking point. That bit of hype aside, it’s her fearless performance and the sheer notoriety of the whole enterprise that should ensure a strong afterlife on DVD.
The glib summation of this film could be stated as follows: guy living in an iron lung wants to get laid. And while the premise is surely what kept many people from seeking out this wonderful character study, it would have been to one’s great detriment to miss something this beautiful, human and true. It tells the fact-based story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a quadriplegic poet and journalist who, while mainly confined to the iron lung, yearns for human contact in the hours he can live outside it. He winds up hiring a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help. Let's hope the well-deserved Oscar nomination for Hunt, and Hawkes amazing performance, will prompt people to seek this out. Sex and afflictions have always been challenging subjects, but The Sessions combines the two with such grace and humor, all reluctance will vanish.
With David Lynch pretty much vanished from the feature film scene, anyone looking for a replacement might want to start with Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino. His offbeat road movie is certainly full of Lynchian touches (a white buffalo, a silent Indian hitchhiker), but at the same time crafts an odd, yet truly engrossing, story about Cheyenne, a retired rock star (Sean Penn, channeling Robert Smith) seeking, of all things, a Nazi officer who humiliated his father at Auschwitz. But that’s really sort of the MacGuffin, because it winds up being an odyssey of self-discovery and repairing relationships. The deliberate pace takes some getting used to, but once in sync with its rhythm, you will be entranced. Penn barely speaks above a low monotone for most of the film (except for a bizarre freakout at David Byrne), but it works with the character’s ennui. Sadly, this was released to only fifteen theaters, and earned less than $150,000, but it’s one of the more original films of 2012, with indelible imagery and a distinctive directorial voice.