The Top Five for 2012
The Cabin in the Woods
*The Cabin in the Woods*
I'm starting to think that the best way to make an original movie is to take a number of stale old ideas and combine them in an original way. *The Cabin in the Woods* takes the moldiest ingredients of horror movies of the last forty years (and before, probably) and mixes them together with such panache and verve. It’s not a satire, it’s not a parody, it’s not a pastiche - - it’s a love letter. It’s thrilling.
It was made by Joss Whedon, who created *Buffy the Vampire Slayer*, one of the greatest TV shows ever, so even though it's not based on a TV show, it comes from a television sensibility. Often when a movie is made from a TV source (*Borat*, nearly any of the SNL-derived movies), the criticism is that it fails because they're trying to take an eight-minute sketch and pad it out into a ninety-minute movie. *The Cabin in the Woods* goes the opposite route - - if feels like it takes a whole SEASON of a TV series and compresses it into ninety minutes.
One other thought I had: you know how I love Michael Haneke, the Austrian writer and director who made *Funny Games*, *Caché*, *The White Ribbon*, and other masterpieces of sadism (also on this year’s Top Five, *Amour*). The thing he does that's so unsettling and effective is he structures the movie in a way that makes you, as an audience member, feel responsible for the sadism and ashamed for watching it, being entertained by it. There was a moment in *The Cabin in the Woods* that performed that very complicated function in the most intense way. Two moments!
Such a charming, funny, touching, odd little movie, written and directed by Richard Linklater (who brought us previous Top Fives *Tape* and *Before Sunset*). It’s the true story of an East Texas funeral director who befriends the richest, crankiest woman in town and I won’t tell you anything else, but let’s just say their relationship goes off in an unexpected direction. The most satisfying parts of the movie are the interviews with townspeople, played by Bernie’s actual friends - - they are hilarious and/or sweet. Shirley Maclaine is of course wonderful as the crank, and Jack Black gives a lovely nuanced performance as Bernie. It’s his best performance since *The School of Rock*, another Linklater movie.
Ben Affleck is such a savvy director! This movie is so well-crafted, Affleck really knows what he’s doing. He draws you in, gets you interested, and then delivers the entrée. I’m already excited for his next movie. My friend Lyn (with one N) says that Affleck should be prevented from acting with any director but himself - - I think that might be overstating it a bit. I’d be happy to serve on an advisory board, with Lyn. We can choose the best projects for him. For a fee.
Michael Haneke is the most sadistic director around (with Lars von Trier as runner-up), so of course I’d be all hopped up to see his new movie. It’s the story of a married couple in their 80s - - the wife gets very ill and the husband takes care of her. This movie made me squirm, like all his movies do, but not because of any violence - - it was because it felt intrusive, I felt like what I was watching onscreen was too intimate, too real. It was profoundly unsettling. The couple is played by Jean Louis Tritignant and Emanuelle Riva, both major French movie stars of the 60s and beyond. They both put in stunning performances, especially Tritignant. I read in the NY Times that he said early in his career that “the best actors in the world are those who feel the most and show the least.” He achieves that in his performance, and so does Haneke in his screenplay and his use of the camera.
You know that any new Tarantino movie has to be on my Top Five! It’s interesting how his career has developed - - his films have been getting less cocky and more confident. Isn’t that nice? The pacing in this movie was maybe a little sluggish, a little indulgent, but then that gives the carnage more impact. The movie-going experience was a real treat: Richard and I were at his brother’s for Christmas and it was my idea for all of us to see it on the day it opened. So Richard, Robert (his brother), and Robert’s three kids (Aileen 18, Mark 16, and Harrison 13) went to see it on Christmas morning. It’s a holiday classic! Unfortunately Michelle (Robert’s wife) had to work that day, or she would have been there, too. We all loved it. What an incredible performance by Jamie Foxx, the best performance of his career and maybe the best performance in a movie this year - - noble, strong, sexy, tender, and FIERCE. Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson are of course amazing. And Leonardo di Caprio really delivers, he is smarmy as hell. This is his first full-on villain, unless you count J. Edgar Hoover (and that movie was so namby pamby, he was certainly not a villain).
Honorable Mention: Skyfall
The best Bond movie of the Craig. Craig has the whole package for Bond: he’s sexy, he’s got a great body, he’s rough and tumble, and he has the thing that Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton lacked utterly, and Pierce Brosnan had a bit, and Connery had in bushel baskets - - he gives the impression that he’s having a good time. That makes such a big difference. And Javier Bardem - - is it possible he’s the best Bond villain ever? Maybe he could be tied with Donald Pleasance as Blofeld in *You Only Live Twice* (the model for Dr. Evil in *Austin Powers*). Fabulous entrance by Bardem, and a nice homoerotic tease in that first scene. This is what made the biggest difference: they had a world-class director, Sam Mendes. There was talk years ago that Quentin Tarantino was considered to direct a Bond movie. How great would that be. Just as good - - how about Kathryn Bigelow?
Before I move on, I feel I should say something about a couple of the most critically lauded movies of the year. *Zero Dark Thirty* got off to a rocky start for me. I couldn’t quite follow what was going on - - I didn’t quite understand why she thought that one guy would lead her to Osama bin Laden, and the whole start of the movie seemed to be based on my understanding of that. It took me a while to get drawn in, for that reason. It was a very good movie, but it didn’t quite deliver for me.
*Lincoln* is another story. Gorgeous to look at, wonderful performances by everyone in it, but so damn BORING. I know plenty of people who love it, and I sort of understand what they see in it. I know Richard loved it because he’s a history buff, and he thought they perfectly put across the dinginess of that time. But I felt like screenwriter Tony Kushner took a story bursting with drama and drained all the blood out of it.
Best Cameo, Female
A major actress in a small role at the end of *The Cabin in the Woods*. Her voice appeared about midway through the movie, and I turned to my friend Susie and said, “That’s ____ _____!” Sure enough, she appeared at the end of the movie. Killer cameo, fab casting.
Best Cameo, Male
A handful of guys have cameos in *Django Unchained*: Bruce Dern, Top Wopat, Don Johnson, and Dennis Christopher (I completely forgot about him). Also Russ Tamblyn, but I don’t know who he played - - his character is listed in the credits as “Son of a Gunfighter”. That’s helpful. But I’m not giving the award to any of them. I’m giving it to Jim Freakin’ Croce! Tarantino put “I got a name” on the soundtrack in one montage and it was the biggest grin in a movie loaded with grins.
Remembrance of Movies Past
*Titanic*. I saw this movie four times on the big screen when it was first out, in 1997. I was crazy for it, I loved it. I knew that the script was clunky and the characters were caricatures, but what was right about the movie was so satisfying, I was able to overlook its shortcomings. It still has the same strengths and weaknesses as it did in 1997, but the addition of 3D makes the whole thing look cheesy. There are a couple shots that start at the front of the ship and move back, showing the whole ship, with the little tiny people moving around, and the animation is so primitive, it looks like *Muppet Babies*. And the biggest eyeroll is in the scene where Rose and Jack have their first kiss. Remember? He’s at the prow of the ship, and she walks up behind him, they talk, and he tells her to stand on the railing, close her eyes, and she feels like she’s flying. Anyway, there’s a brief shot of her from his perspective, and the background is so hilariously fake, it’s like a scene shot on a cruise ship on *The Bold and the Beautiful*.
Movie That Needs To Be Made
*The Makropoulos Case* is an opera by Leoš Janáček, based on a play by Karel Čapek. It takes place in the twenties, it’s about an opera diva who appears to be in her fifties but is actually over 300 years old - - she was given a youth elixir when she was a teenager, and has started to age and is looking for the formula so she can have a second dose. I’ve seen it twice, both times with powerhouse divas of a certain age - - in Chicago with Catherine Malfitano and at the Met this spring with Karita Mattila. The diva has be grand and glamorous, yet weary. This would be a dazzling role, in a non-opera version, for Catherine Deneuve.
*Untitled* - - my first untitled film on this list, ever! It’s listed on imdb as *Untitled Christian Carmago Project*, and since it’s in post-production, they should come up with a dang title. It’s a contemporary retelling of Chekhov’s *The Seagull*, with Allison Janney, Katie Holmes, William Hurt, Jean Reno, Cherry Jones, and Mark “Boil on My Broadway Behind” Rylance.
*Janis* - - the biopic about Janis Joplin that’s been in development hell for well over ten years. It was going to be with Melissa Etheridge, then Renee Zellweger (huh?), then Amy Adams (huh x 2?). Now it’s listed as being in “pre-production”, which seems more promising than “announced” (aka “development hell”). And the new star is the brilliant Nina Arianda. Richard and I saw her in the play *Venus in Fur*, which won her the Tony. She is a blazing talent.
*Fellini Black and White* - - another Nina Arianda movie, she’s playing Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina. Also with William H. Macy, Terrence Howard, my old boyfriend Peter Dinklage, and Brasilian actor Wagner Moura as Fellini.
*The Bling Ring* - - the new Sofia Coppola, starring Emma Watson and Kirsten Dunst. It’s about a group of teenagers who track celebrities on the internet and rob their homes when they’re out of town.
*I’m So Excited* - - the new Almodóvar, with Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Cecilia Roth. A light comedy set on a plane, from the moment it breaks down to the moment it makes an emergency landing. Sounds like a laff riot.
*Carrie* - - a new version, with Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her mother, directed by Kimberly Pierce (*Boys Don’t Cry*). Might be good, but do we really need a new version? The de Palma is so brilliant.
*The Wolf of Wall Street* - - directed by Martin Scorcese, with Leonardo di Caprio (Marty can’t make a movie without Leo), Johah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Jean “The Artist” Dujardin, and would you believe Christine Ebersole?
*Lovelace* - - biopic of Linda Lovelace, with Amanda Seyfried as Lovelace, and a starry supporting cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Chris Noth, Hank Azaria, Wes Bentley, Eric Roberts, Chloë Sevigny, Bobby Canavale. And James Franco as Hugh Hefner! But what happened to Sarah Jessica Parker as Gloria Steinem? Remember when she replaced Demi Moore when Demi was (ahem) hospitalized? Now neither one of them is listed in the cast list, and no one else as Gloria. Did Gloria end up on the cutting room floor?
*The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby* - - this movie is split in two parts, *His* and *Hers*. I have no idea what it’s about, but I’m eager to see if the title character keeps her face in a jar by the door. Incredible cast: Jessica Chastain as Ms. Rigby, James McEvoy, Ciarán Hinds, William Hurt, Viola Davis, Isabelle Huppert, and the great Nina Arianda.
Follow-up to previous Eagerly Anticipated
*Dark Shadows* - - it was cute. Not as good as it could have been, but good clean family fun. Has Tim Burton officially lost his edge?
*The Moth Diaries* - - boarding school girl suspects the girl across the hall is a vampire, that old story. I was eager to see this movie since I first read about it online over a year ago, since it’s the new feature by Mary Harron, who’s in my Top Four - - she, Sofia Coppola, Pedro Almodóvar, and Quentin Tarantino are my four favorite contemporary directors. I’ll always see their new movie in the theater and until now they’ve always seemed like a shoe-in for my Top Five. Mary Harron’s previous movies are *I Shot Andy Warhol*, *American Psycho* (Top Five 2000), and *The Notorious Bettie Page* (Top Five 2006). *The Moth Diaries* didn’t deliver. It had a mouth-agape gorgeous opening sequence, a luna moth coming out of the cocoon, and a few ravishing moments later on, but the rest of the movie was just meh. It had a strong performance by Lily Cole as the vampire, but the biggest thing it had going for it was its brevity: it was 84 minutes long.
Most Deserving of a Comeback
Tom Hulce. A one-note wonder? Or something more?
Viva La Diva
Charlize Theron in *Snow White and the Huntsman*. She strikes the perfect balance between high camp and true feeling. You understand why the stepmother is such a monster, but you also rejoice in her utter badness! And she gave the impression of having a good time, which is always a joy.
*The Master*. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who I love (*Boogie Nights*, *Magnolia*, *There Will Be Blood*), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams. Hoffman was spectacular, so powerful and understated. This is a major step forward for Adams - - there is nothing cute about her in this movie, she’s chilly and intense. Phoenix was a big disappointment. His performance is impressive, but it only happens on the surface. He confuses intensity with feeling, and twitching and sneering with characterization. The movie, on the whole, was captivating, but not satisfying. It was experimental, but not in a way that worked. It didn’t quite know what it was doing.
*Les Miserables*. Miserable is the word! Oh how I hated this movie, it was so overblown and self-important. I turned to Richard near the end and said, “Do I need to kill myself to make this movie stop?” I wonder if it would have been better with less singing - - stand-alone songs with dialogue in between. People went on and on about how bad Russell Crowe’s singing is, but I wasn’t bothered by him. I accepted his limitations and was drawn into his performance. Hugh Jackman is another story - - he’s a real singer, and his singing drove me up the hat rack. Very nasal, labored, and stagy. Anne Hathaway alone comes out unscathed: she makes something powerful and sincere out of “I dreamed a dream”. Of course she has an unfair advantage because she only has ten minutes onscreen.
An Apology to James Cameron
I was exaggerating. *Titanic* doesn’t really look like *Muppet Babies*.
*The Queen of Versailles*. A documentary about a timeshares tycoon and his wife and their seven kids, building the largest house in America - - 85,000 square feet. All is going well and then 2008 hits and the economy goes into the toilet, with disastrous circumstances for them. Amazing movie, very thought-provoking and disturbing. Why is it in this category, you ask? My boss saw it before I did, and she said, “It’s a documentary, but it really should be classified as a horror movie.”
Another curve ball - - *American Horror Story*. It might seem unethical for me to put a TV show on this list, but I was inspired by one of the New York Times movie critics, who put HBO’s *Angels in America* on his Top Ten movies of 2003 list, saying he didn’t care if it was on TV, it was one of the best movies of the year. *American Horror Story* doesn’t behave like other TV shows, because each season is conceived as a self-contained story (the story of season one has no relation to the story of season two). Every episode of season one had something intense and surprising happen, it was a thrill ride. I’d never seen a TV show like that, it was like the writers had left nothing behind, they had nothing to wait for, they held back nothing. Season two just ended, and though it’s not as brilliant as season one, how can you not love a TV show that features a lunatic asylum, a nun possessed by Satan, a Nazi war criminal, a cannibalistic serial murderer, and Ian McShane in a Santa suit? And best of all, Jessica Lange in a turquoise chiffon mini singing “The Name Game”! Can you say “Emmy”? It goes like this: Emmy Emmy bo-bemmy, banana fana fo-femmy, fee fie mo-memmy - - Emmy!
How Could I Have Missed It?
*I Am Love*. How cool is it that my Mom told me about this quirky Italian movie? It stars the divine Tilda Swinton (who can do no wrong), playing a Russian trophy wife/mother in a prominent Milan family. It’s gorgeous to look at, it packs a big emotional punch, and Swinton is amazing. Stunning cinematography, beautiful use of music by John Adams, a sumptuous and emotional movie. Thanks, Mom!
Break-Out Performance, Female
Olivia Williams in *Hyde Park on Hudson* and *Anna Karenina*. She’s had small parts in lots of notable movies: *The Sixth Sense*, *An Education* - - I really noticed her in *The Ghost Writer*, she blew me away in that. She played Eleanor Roosevelt in *Hyde Park on Hudson* and Vronsky’s mother in *Anna Karenina*. She’s a strong, bold presence in both movies. It feels like she’s throwing down the gauntlet to Hollywood, saying, “Hello! I have a deep and distinctive talent! Give me a leading role, ya bastards!”
Break-Out Performance, Male
Samuel West in *Hyde Park on Hudson*. He was lovely as Leonard Bast in *Howard’s End* and very good in *Carrington* - - then I felt like I didn’t see him in anything else. I was happy to see he was playing King George VI (aka Bertie) in *Hyde Park on Hudson*, and he did a wonderful job. I hope it leads to more work for him. And I know Richard is tired of hearing me say this, but he should come to New York in a play!
When I created this category a few years ago, I thought it would go to a movie whose opening or closing credits were gorgeous or creative or something special. There was nothing to fit that bill this year, so I’m giving it to *Amour*. White writing on a black field, no music. Those credits leap to the front of my mind because they were such a perfectly composed, sedate set-up for the movie in general, and for the startling opening image in particular.
Top Five Greatest Musical Numbers
“Over the rainbow” in *The Wizard of Oz*
“Think pink” in *Funny Face*
“Wig in a box” in *Hedwig and the Angry Inch*
“Triplets” in *The Band Wagon*
“The man that got away” in *A Star is Born*
New Category: Drek
At first I thought this category might have too much in common with the Nice Try category. The difference is slight, but substantial: Nice Try is for a movie with grand ambitions that doesn’t quite deliver - - Drek might have grand ambitions and it delivers a pile of garbage. Nice Try is a glorious mess - - Drek is just a mess. Both are unfortunate (if I’m seeing a movie, there has to be some expectation of talent and quality), but a Nice Try might require a second viewing (like the first honoree, *The Black Dahlia*, which was even more fascinating and flawed the second time around). Drek is a movie that sends a shiver of revulsion through the innards, no repeat viewing there.
Drek: *Anna Karenina*. Richard said, as we left the movie, “For six and a half years now, I’ve heard you say about a movie or a play ‘The performances were all good, but the whole thing really wasn’t very good.’ That’s never made sense to me, until now.” And Bingo was his name-oh. This could be the textbook example of that phenomenon: everyone gives a good performance, and I think Tom Stoppard could be congratulated for his screenplay - - clearly it’s the director who’s to blame. The word that came to mind throughout was “misguided”. Joe Wright heaped a pile of twee cleverness on top of everything. His central idea was to place the action on a stage, so you often see people wandering around backstage when they should be wandering around their own darn houses. The effect was of the movie pushing you away rather than drawing you in. It was worse than bad, it was annoying.