I’m not going to lie to you. I didn’t see everything this year. I didn’t even come close. In fact, I saw more things that were made in years before this year than in this current one. I went to the Film Noir Festival and the TCM Film Festival (which you can read all about here and here). I did the Reel Grit Six Shooter up at AFI, various stuff at the Cinefamily and a grip of stuff at the New Beverly, not to mention the Egyptian.
IT’S BEEN A GREAT YEAR FOR CINEMA. Just not necessarily new stuff.
However, since I stayed up WAY TOO LATE last night to be utterly disappointed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and their idiotic and exasperatingly schizophrenic choices of what are apparently the “best films made in 2012” and their acting milieu, I think I need to post my list too.
My friend Ricky says that his choices are always right and the best. My friend Ricky is an egotist.
I will only go so far as to say that these are the films, actors and theatrical engineers that I enjoyed full-throttle. The individuals that gave me ear-gasms, eye-gasms and brain-gasms. ME, not anyone else. While I would argue vehemently for the inherent quality of any (and indeed all of these films) I believe quite deeply that everyone is entitled to have a differing opinion when it comes to the cinema. If we did not, damn, life would be boring. While I heavily believe that the Academy made gigantic errors in their picks this year for “bests,” I am always more than happy to have healthy debates and discussions on any films as long as they stay respectful of other people’s opinions.
It may seem hypocritical for me to state that I think that the Academy is just flat-out WRONG in one sentence and then happily move forward to chat about being able to agree to disagree on filmic opinion in another, but I believe them to be different arenas. Being that I am in training to become a film archivist, the Academy bears a certain responsibility and it has dropped the ball in the last few years…big time. While we sit here, fully aware of the changes taking place in our cinematic landscape (35mm to digital, 3D and VFX technologies, etc) there is a large responsibility to history that the Academy bears and I don’t think that they know quite how to handle it at this juncture in time.
See, this historic responsibility is bisected, with one arm towards the Industry Professionals and the other towards the outside public. What I see here and now is an inability to balance the two, and it’s difficult for them and for us. It is difficult for them because the Business is their “meat and potatoes” but the PUBLIC is their “bread and butter.” So how do we set this table properly? Everyone needs to stay pleased, everyone needs their money. So how do we maintain a decent set of nominations? It’s not like there weren’t good movies this year. Lord knows, there were great ones. But I really feel like a good chunk of the things that were stuck up on the screen for the year were there to pacify people, to make people happy, and not for representative means.
The Academy Awards are actually important. No one seems to think so. They laugh them off, get screeners, free films, whatever. Sure. At least they do around here. I know how that is. I live in Hollywood. For heaven’s sake, I spent an entire summer archiving all the screener VHS tapes we had gotten from the Academy as a “summer project.” My mom needed to give me something to do. I ended up watching Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) that way. I might’ve been a bit too young to watch it at that point, but y’know…
In any case, I think it’s odd that people don’t think voting on cultural history is important. Yes, Virginia, that Footloose LP that I got as a kid from the Academy IS cultural history, dammit. So what do we have this year? We have some good stuff and some not so good stuff. Some things that people like and some stuff that I think people think they should like. Some things that I find remarkably offensive and in poor taste and some things that are probably pretty decent but speak to how starved most people are for the kinds of films that used to fulfill people’s entertainment “hole” on a regular basis and make them happy in an unspeakably pure and lovely way.
The Academy was created to house things as the best films of the year. The ultimate examples of filmmaking. Even the nominations should be that way. And these nominations are not that. It is disappointing to say the least. I like my moving image history satisfying. So, on that note, I’m going to give you my favorite films and performances of the year.
Here they are:
OK, so on this one, I totally agree with the Academy’s nomination and I hope this baby wins. I don’t think I could’ve enjoyed this more if I’d tried. Unless I’d gone to see it…5 or 6 more times. I wish I had. I really really loved this movie and I really really want to own it. If you love Sergio Leone and you have even a smidgen of a sense of humor, I believe you will love this. If not, you might have no soul. I would check.
Favorite Supporting Male Performances:
Patton Oswalt in YOUNG ADULT. While the film had a few problems, I liked it over-all, and HIS performance put me over the moon. It's not just because I like him either. He's a DAMN fine actor and this is the BEST he has EVER EVER been and I simply adored BIG FAN (2009)
Since I saw the announcements this morning, a record has been on repeat in my head: ALBERTBROOKSWASROBBED.ALBERTBROOKSWASROBBED. *This* snub makes me more unhappy than any of the others. His performance here created the term "Oscar-worthy."
"Nick Nolte. Warrior. Um, I love this film to bits If you wanna know how I really feel, check out the piece I wrote all about it, which was right before this. I REALLY loved this film. Even more than that, Nolte's performance was the best he has given in years. Multi-faceted and just gutting, it was an amazing feat of acting. I bawled and would do so again.
Favorite Lead Male Performances:
John Boyega, ATTACK THE BLOCK
Tom Hardy, WARRIOR
Gary Oldman, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Favorite Female Performances: It’s been a rough year for the ladies. All the female performances I liked were…second fiddle and not there for very long. Not that this is a new trend (it’s not) but where are the juicy roles for women? I know there were films out there that people argued were very good for women, but those same films, while they were “good for women” also set them back quite a bit. My mom said that Meryl Streep was good in The Iron Lady. I didn’t see it. At this point, I’m going to give my favorite performances to one film I have seen (and adored), one film I haven’t seen but love the actress and trust other people’s judgement, and one that I am seeing next week and will probably absolutely LOVE TO BITS. I wouldn’t usually think it was ethical to pre-favorite a film performance, but with the paucity of chunky, decent female performances this year, I’m going to do it anyway.
I loved this film and I loved Ellen Page in it. SUPER was an uncomfortable and realistic film with gritty, gutsy goodness that I just ate up hungrily. She gave a fantastic show and I REALLY loved her.
I love Tilda. I need Tilda. My life would not be the SAME without Tilda. I have not seen this film but somehow I KNOW she was exquisite. I have neverevernever seen her do wrong. I believe in her. We Need to Talk About Kevin is is a film I desperately Need To See.
I finally get to see MARGARET this upcoming weekend. I bite my thumb at the powers that be who refused to let this film be released and sat on it for so long. It totlally looks like my kind of film. And Anna Paquin looks like she gives a hellova performance. If she doesn't, well, I'm wrong. But I've seen the trailer, chatted with people about it, and I know my taste. I think her placement here will be justified.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy— Alberto Iglesias
Attack The Block–Basement Jaxx
I saw this 5 times theatrically and then more times than I can count via a screener. I also spend most of my time listening to the soundtrack obsessively. This film has most assuredly taken over a good chunk of my existence, as most Winding-Refn films do. No shocker there!
Saw this in the theater 4 times, I think. Would love to have seen it 4 more times. More movies like ATTACK THE BLOCK, I say!
I love you Takashi Miike. This movie blew my brain so far outta my head I had to pick the bits of my skull off of the wall of the theater. I simply love this movie more than words can describe. It is intellectual, visceral, VISUAL. So great! What a cinematic triumph. MORE!!
It seems like I'm really obsessed with this film, but I actually just really liked it. It is one of the better films, but I'm not as obsessed with it as I am, say, with DRIVE or ATTACK THE BLOCK. However, it fascinates me as it delves into intellectual areas that I *am* obsessed with AND it's an incredibly well-shot and well-acted film.
The minute I read the book, I loved it. The instant I heard it was being turned into a film by Scorsese, I went insane because I knew it was going to be FABULOUS and it was. Simply FABULOUS. I cried the ENTIRE way through it because I loved it so very very much and it was such a gift to my eyes
Saw this twice. First time in ages a film has made me excited to read the book it came from because the story was *that* great and I knew that the book would contain just as much depth! Saw it twice in the theater, thought it would lose something the second time but I was desperately mistaken. The sign of a great film is that it retains its greatness as well as gaining more with each separate viewing. This has those qualities.
Within the last few years, we have had a preponderance of sports-related dramas released. Notably, many of these films have centered not on football or baseball but on more violent sports, such as boxing or wrestling, and they seemed to serve the dual purpose of revealing certain truths about the sport and about those who engage in it.
But sports films (even violent sports films) are nothing new. Even the revelatory “insignia” of most of these films which seems to be the troubled or remarkably dysfunctional family situation was present back in the days of Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947)
John Garfield in Body and Soul
with John Garfield’s boxer Charley Davis, whose parental situation is compromised or Champion (Mark Robson, 1949), with Kirk Douglas’ Midge Kelly, a boxer with a crippled brother and a unique ability to step on whomever he needs to.
These days, to use this insignia as ample explanation for characters’ motivations towards sports engagement is dreadful oversimplification. Realistically, if anyone were to argue it for the older set of films, I would say that not only were they rejecting the dynamics of genre conventions that these films employ (noir, melodrama) but they are also highly representative of social conditions. These films, whether they are The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008), The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) or Requiem for a Heavyweight (Ralph Nelson, 1962) are based on more than individual protagonists’ surrounding environments. While not discounting those elements, the characters these movies focus on participate in sports such as this for a multitude of reasons, and the larger “picture” of the picture should not be shrugged off. It’s far too important.
The filmic texts of sports films become even more multi-layered as the years go on, underscoring not only individual reasoning and impetus but a variety of other sociological factors that come together to provide much richer pieces. Even a film as seemingly innocuous or “cheesy” as Over the Top (Menahem Golan, 1987) counts in that it adds an extra patch to this “quilt” in the way that it handles issues of social upheaval within the family unit as well as masculinity (even if arm-wrestling isn’t widely considered a national past-time).
In the world of Over the Top, arm-wrestling can be as professional a sport as wrestling or boxing, and being so…it is accompanied with the same issues: damaged family, economic problems, and many larger over-arching things like, well, concepts of the masculine. Aside from the Kenny Loggins power ballad.
It has come to my attention that the simple “he came from the wrong side of the track/bad family life” summation is trite and kindergarten analysis for the depth of these examples of cinema. There are much more fascinating treasures within these films to be unearthed, and it is our job as viewers to look a little deeper. These films work on contradiction and criticism: their narratives pivot upon the carnivalesque celebration of primal, base acts. If we take these simply at face value, then we are doing something wrong.
This year’s example of what I am speaking of is a film directed by Gavin O’ Connor called Warrior. Although at first glance, the film may seem to play off the same tired clichés of alcoholism, bad family life, economic tension and the “east coast,” Warrior is a multidimensional film that methodically examines the themes of conflict and technology all underneath the waving banners of family and sports. O’Connor manages to communicate his story within terms of familial struggle as well as within terms of media complicity. In doing so, Warrior becomes a tale that makes the audience at once aware that they, themselves, are complicated figures in the schema of the film as they are at once made active participants and passive empaths, no matter what age they might be. O’Connor’s multigenerational technological “mash-up” creates a space in which any viewer can find an avenue through which to join the narrative. It is all intentional.
Reality v. Fiction
Posters for the released film, when put together, were intended to create the one face
This lay-out of the film poster exemplifies the way in which the film was intended to run: a match-up game that didn’t quite match-up. Instead, it was more of a mash-up game. From a distance, one might mistake the two posters as one singular image, one person. Up close, there was no question that it was the actors playing the two different roles, Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy. This visual division of the one “pseudo-image” into two, is the reiteration of the narrative split of the characters. However, this is the first example of how conceptions of reality and fiction are played upon from the very beginning. Had you chanced upon the two posters previous to seeing the film, you might have mistaken them for one whole person (together), or, seeing them separately, each poster might’ve appeared to be half of the same person (unless you were quite familiar with the actors in the film). Either way, the message behind the poster was the enmeshing of the two different beings into one; incongruous realities coming together, not fitting, creating a fiction, a trick for the eye.
The next time this reality/fiction mash-up plays itself out is within the actual film itself. Like other recent films, Warrior placed actual sports figures into the quilted layout of its story. Darren Aronofsky’s may have hired real-live wrestler Nekro-Butcher and assorted other wrestling announcers to give The Wrestler that true-to-life flavor, but O’Connor hired the flavor, turned up the heat, and added one more element: he mixed it up.
Kurt Angle as the MMA badass from Russia, Koba
Kurt Angle was the pride and joy of the WWE for many years. He was the one person that they could say had gotten a “real Olympic gold medal” and they played that for all that it was worth. Angle, in playing the character of Russian-MMA champion Koba, also played that part for all that it was worth. It is true that Kurt’s career has included a modicum of MMA bouts in the last few years, but his primary celebrity has always been within the world of televised wrestling. It’s what he is known for. Additionally, it is important to note that Mixed Martial Arts, as we know it, would not be what it is without the showmanship and the carnival-like atmosphere that Vince McMahon brought to the extreme sports-world. Kurt Angle’s appearance within the MMA spectrum is both shocking and also a historical “post-it-note” to the past, reminding those “in the know” where MMA came from.
While there are a variety of announcers and other real-life MMA-figures in the film, it is Kurt Angle’s appearance within the Warrior text that is one of the bigger reality/fiction matches. Like any non-fictional performer put in a fictional storyline, it hinges upon the audience’s familiarity with the real-life extreme sports world. In wrestling terminology, can O’Connor truly “put him over” as a MMA-champion and not the all-American wrestling hero that he’s been known as for years?
The use of non-fiction characters, whether they are big champs like Angle or just well-known announcers, represent the attempt to invite audience members into the front row; make them feel like they are part of the V.I.P section. Realistically, in a certain sense, they are. It’s like knowing a secret or being part of a tribe; you’re the one who gets those jokes, you get those “in” moments, you are the film’s reality. This makes a huge difference on how familiar you are with Kurt Angle. If you are familiar with who Kurt Angle is, his placement in the film relays a sense of history and gives the MMA-world a context to exist in. For people who are aware of Kurt Angle, he is history. Seeing as the Mixed Martial Art world is still a relatively new sport, and Angle himself has been wrestling with the WWE and then TNA for an inordinate amount of time (ok, maybe not Ric Flair amount, but a goodly bit of time!), recognizing him as a major wrestler and not a MMA fighter is pretty much a no-brainer in this arena, literally. The other bit of traction here is that, aside from the history, as a walking part of fan culture who has just been sewn into the filmic text, you are also well aware that everything is a little upside down, a little bit in conflict. The reality is in the fiction, the old history (wrestling) is at odds with the new (MMA), and there is nothing you can do about it but be fully aware. Because you know what only other fans know.
But I’m not an extreme sports fan, you say. I don’t know who any of those big muscle-y guys are! That makes no difference to me. It’s simply a film. I can watch it without being troubled by outside issues. Koba/Angle doesn’t matter to me! Well, my dear friend, you may be right. Unfortunately, there is the distinct possibility that you are not. If you have borne witness to film and pop culture in the ’80’s, you (very likely) have access to Koba in a different manner. If you cannot engage in the fan’s position of Angle-intimacy, you can also access him through the cinematic analogy. Within the narrative he is being used as The Russian aka the Ultimate baddie, the “anti-American” antagonist. Hrmm. Sound familiar? Well, Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985) fans, it really should. Kurt Angle had a predecessor: Dolph Lundgren, the most Soviet Swede (if ever there was one) played the incredibly intimidating Ivan Drago, threatening America and Rocky Balboa, should he not beat him in that boxing match!
Rocky (USA) vs. Drago (USSR)…politics, sports or hair?
So even if you are unaware of Koba from his reality as Kurt Angle, there is bound to be the analogy between fictions, causing a similar rift between sports types as that which came up within the Angle-intimate situation. Boxing, like wrestling, played its own part in the creation of the sport of MMA, thus helping to give it a certain groundwork. Here once again we are shown another example of the clash between that which came before (boxing/Rocky IV) and that which is here now (Mixed Martial Arts/Warrior), a battle between kinds of histories and physical techniques, or, one could almost say, technologies.
Mixed Martial Arts itself is a mash-up. As has been shown through the discussions of the influencing filmic and non-fiction works, it is not a pure discipline. The very name of it states that it is Mixed Martial Arts. Warrior uses this sport as its playground for precisely this reason. Instead of using a stripped down, unadulterated athletic field through which to conduct a narrative, as David O. Russell did with boxing in The Fighter (2010), Warrior is playing in an arena that is so jam-packed with elements that it’s ready to explode. The sport is a combination of various different combat sports, all of which are brutal in and of themselves. MMA takes boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, muay-thai, kickboxing, karate and other martial arts and lumps them all together into one vicious mass. That blend is indicative of the film itself, as it seeks to reflect its characters and their own issues with personal history, familial structuring and emotional maturity. The quickness and complexity of the various styles of martial arts play against the very basic nature of the more simple (but no less valid) boxing or wrestling. MMA as a battlefield for the inner fights of these men only underscore how much more complicated any singular fight can be, let alone the variety that are going on within the narrative of the actual film.
Instruments of Terror v. Instruments of Truth
Warrior confronts many different things, but none so interesting as the idea of technology. History is a major theme within the film and technology helps to highlight that in a variety of different ways.
One of the first technological introductions comes in the form of Paddy Conlon, the father character, played by Nick Nolte. When we first meet him, he is leaving a church and upon getting into his old, out-of-date car, he flips on a cassette tape recording of Moby Dick being read aloud. The idea that this man is still attached to various old kinds of machinery is a clear cut sign that he has been stunted on his path somehow. Throughout the film we find this to be the case. His relationship to his tape player (which includes a walkman) and book-on-tape signify his character more succinctly than almost anyone else in the film.
Paddy Conlon meets up with his past in its current state: his youngest son, Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy)
Paddy is an alcoholic, and he spent the majority of his life letting down his family. His wife and children left him due to his patterns of drinking and violence but that didn’t stop him from repeating them. His behavior in respect to technological instruments in the film reflect his personal history which means he will continue to do the same things over and over again. He broke himself of his pattern of drinking through AA, but he is so stuck on the great machinations of the past that he continues to use out-of-date technology to tell him the same fictional story over and over again about a man whose pride was too great and the endless pursuit of what he believed was right cost him everything he had. In a sense, Paddy is punishing himself daily for the loss of his family by showering himself in ancient history. While there are flickers of change that we see occur due to other characters appearances and catalyzing factors, they do not last for very long, and when they are there, they cause such pain and conflict that Paddy is forced out of the present-day-era. In Paddy Conlon, what we see is a broken ghost of a man who lives in the past; the ever-present cassette-player, the semi-old-fashioned clothing and the tired and resigned countenance all part and parcel of his daily equipment.
Sometimes the pain of the clash of then and now coming together can be too much, as Paddy finds out when he attempts to update himself to the “now”
Digital technology plays a large part in this film as well. If it wasn’t for the digital technologies that are shown within the narrative of Warrior, Tommy wouldn’t have much of a story, which says quite a bit about Tommy. When we first see Tommy, he has come to meet up with Paddy, his dad, and he confronts him about a variety of issues and tries to get him to drink with him. Paddy declines, but Tommy continues to drink. As the film moves forward, it turns out that Tommy wants to be back in touch with his dad, but only to get Paddy to help him train for a big MMA match, to which the elder man happily agrees, thinking that it will be a way to “update” his history; move him out of his “dark ages” and help him bond with his son. But Tommy will have none of that. He is as cold as steel and as non-emotive as a piece of computer equipment. Even when his father reaches out to him with old “training items,” Tommy shuts him down quickly.
While at the gym one day, Tommy volunteers himself to fight one of the main fighters.
What he doesn’t know is that it’s being recorded on a cellphone. Shortly after the match, it makes its way from cellphone to YouTube, and goes viral. Due to this, Tommy gets recognized from another incredibly significant chapter in his life. The audience watches the lightning-fast progression as yet more digital machinery is utilized (a handheld HDcam) to show footage of Tommy from somewhere deep in his past. The face from the HDcam tape is compared to the one on the YouTube clip. Clearly, it’s the same guy. Tommy’s relationship to the digital world is a fascinating one. While his entire personal story within the film would have been skeletal without the meat put on it by the above incidents, technology is where he maintains a certain level of similarity with his father. Tommy would rather reject modern media than revel in it. While his reasoning is different from his father’s, it is still a maintained relationship with technology that is strongly significant within the view of being a major participant in a large sporting event. To not only decline but rebuff media and the technological bathing that comes with huge sporting events could be likened to listening to a cassette-player in the age of the iPod. It just doesn’t make sense to the majority of the world- why on earth would you want to do such a thing?
When Tommy gets accepted and goes to Sparta (the huge MMA event he has been training for) he refuses all the standard “bells and whistles” that come with being a main competitor. When all the rest of the MMA fighters have theme songs, Tommy had nothing. Where all the rest of the MMA fighters had outfits shellacked with sponsorships and loud colors, Tommy walked out onto the floor in a simple hooded sweatshirt. Even his style was “unsexy”- one hit, and the competition was out like a light. Was Tommy doing this in order to try to garner less attention (in which case he failed, as the choices he made only made the spotlight on him grow) or did he do this as part of a self-destructive plan, meaning he had more in common with his father than he thought? By negating his history, stubbornly denying the past and not participating in standard athlete’s ritual and behavior, his past caught up with his present much in the same way that Paddy’s did, and the conflict became unbearable.
Technology was the catalyst of Tommy’s evolution in the film and, more importantly, the technology associated with his character’s storyline was totally out of his hands. As a young man who had always felt like his life was beyond his control, it seems only fitting that we watch as he works out his raging pain and anguish against the technological forces and historical situations that ripped apart his plans and ruined his life in a physical manner. In a sense, the grande finale of the film has echoes of Ahab/Tommy battling the white whale/his past, only this time, he finds a way to achieve success without ultimate destruction.
A variety of other technologies are littered throughout the film, adding strength to ideas of history and the connective presence that machinations have between our past and our future. The high school kids that Paddy’s other son Brendan teaches organize a Pay-Per-View event at the local drive-in so they could watch their teacher “large and in-charge” at Sparta, Brendan’s wife refuses to turn the television on or deal with her cellphone until she finds out he’s succeeded in his first match and then she’s “in.” In a picture that is highly corporeally-bound, there sure is a lot of reference matter to old and new machinery. Perhaps what Warrior tells us then, finally, is that by shutting away our histories, our emotional responses, our familial ties, we become fragmented. We may, like the poster, look whole from far away, but we are not. We are divided and will remain so until we can physically beat ourselves into some kind of submission and finally connect to what is really good for us.