Film: Old Dogs, New Tricks: Best of 2012

Lawrence Kasdan

March 6, Loews Miami Beach. The man sure knows how to captivate an audience. My two press colleagues and I are sitting across from Lawrence Kasdan. Sci-fi geeks will recognize him as the co-screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (aka Star Wars: Episodes V & VI). Movie buffs will fondly recall his eclectic directorial efforts: Body Heat, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, Grand Canyon.

Kasdan, a Miami native, and his wife Meg came to South Florida for the local premiere of Darling Companion, the filmmaker’s first feature in nine years. At this particular moment, the topic is perception. “For all I know, you’re looking at me and you have a completely different picture of what I think you’re seeing,” Kasdan indicates to his rapt audience of three in the hotel room Sony Pictures Classics has reserved for media interviews. I look to Kasdan’s left and there’s Meg, the film’s co-screenwriter, giving me a knowing look. Almost involuntarily I wink and return her smile.

I couldn’t possibly let either of them know what I actually thought of Darling Companion, which starts out as the whimsical story of a dog rescued from a snow-covered freeway overpass by Diane Keaton and the beak-nosed career girl from Mad Men…and then morphs into a toothless domestic dramedy about Keaton’s dysfunctional marriage to her husband, a workaholic spine surgeon played by Kasdan regular Kevin Kline. The movie reduces the rescued pooch – yes, Keaton names him Freeway – to a plot device; his disappearance triggers an assessment of these aging yuppies’ marital woes. Kasdan might perceive it as a viable comeback vehicle, whereas I, on the other hand, might perceive it as insufferable middlebrow fluff.

Still, it’s fun to see Kline settling into the oft-played role of Kasdan’s onscreen surrogate, and even better to hear the actor talk about it in person. Standing to the right of his director, the 65-year-old Oscar winner, who’s in better shape than most men half his age, proceeds to charm our socks off, at one point going so far as to recite Shakespeare. I knew I had something special in my brand-new tape recorder…which wound up capturing about 20 seconds of our 20-minute rendezvous. (D’oh!)

Come to think of it, this mini-roundtable interview smack dab in the middle of the 2012 Miami International Film Festival is curiously emblematic of the movie year about to come to a fairly unceremonious close: ephemeral moments of amusement in search of cohesion. A pleasant atmosphere that doesn’t quite conceal an underwhelming lack of resonance.

The past twelve months might have had their share of notable cinematic achievements, but take away an oversaturated year-end glut of awards hopefuls, and what lingers in the mind most pressingly are the disappointments, which, during the course of a deplorable summer for the studios, unspooled to this reviewer’s increasing dismay, one after another, with alarming regularity. Sure, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises were superhero movies worth championing, but what about the rest of the tentpole titles? Dark Shadows gave way to The Dictator. Prometheus gave way to Rock of Ages. And the folks at Pixar continued their losing streak with their schizoid Scottish fable Brave, their lackluster bid to get into the Disney Princesses racket.

Which is why I can’t thank the cinema gods enough for the mainstreaming of documentaries. It was a stellar year for nonfiction storytelling. Searching for Sugar Man, a portrait of obscure Detroit-based folk singer Rodriguez, may have fizzled at the box office, but word of mouth and a 60 Minutes profile have turned this labor of love into an awards-season behemoth. The Queen of Versailles, a riches-to-rags chronicle of how Central Florida real estate mogul David Siegel and his spunky, big-bosomed wife Jackie lost their fortune, began as a real-life variation on a Christopher Guest mockumentary, but in a skillfully executed tonal shift, gradually changed gears to become a sobering riches-to-rags portrait.

Let’s hear it for Miami’s arthouse circuit, which gave most of the movies on the following Top Ten list the TLC they needed. If you detect a glaring absence of commercial titles, don’t blame me. This year Hollywood went to the dogs. Some indies played dead as well. Isn’t that right, Mr. Kasdan?

10. The Turin Horse: The old man and his daughter live in a remote cabin way out in the country. For dinner the daughter serves her father one boiled potato. He mashes it, then eats it with glum determination. They worry about their aging horse, who refuses to eat and whose health continues to deteriorate. Night falls, and they prepare for bed. Hungarian director Béla Tarr repeats this existential scenario with somber relentlessness – and often from different angles – but the effect on me was hypnotic rather than narcotic. Tarr claims this elegiac 19th Century tale, shot in gorgeous 35mm black and white film, is his swan song, which is truly something to mourn. He and I have only just become acquainted.

9. Pitch Perfect: The year’s out-of-left-field surprise answers this burning question: Is it possible to make an engaging movie out of a cappella competitions? I walked into this sassy college comedy expecting a subpar Bring It On knockoff and was astonished at the sparkling, whip-smart underdog musical I got instead. A reliable source points out it doesn’t get the details of a cappella singing right, but such nit-picking overlooks the movie’s many virtues. The film’s central quartet of Anna Kendrick, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow and breakout Aussie comedian Rebel Wilson make beautiful music together, but the real star here is TV and stage director Jason Moore (Avenue Q), who scores big in his impressive feature debut.

8. The Deep Blue Sea: All hail British auteur Terence Davies. He makes the kind of melodrama that makes you want to slash your wrists, and then keeps you coming back for more. No, his source material this time around is not the shark movie where Samuel L. Jackson becomes the predators’ dinner. Rather, it’s Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play, which throws together a suicidal housewife, her mama’s boy of a husband, and the volatile, emotionally unavailable Royal Air Force pilot with whom she becomes obsessed. Rachel Weisz, Simon Russell Beale and Tom Hiddleston, respectively, play their roles to perfection, diving headfirst into Davies’ signature blend of raw despair and lush visuals. The results are sublime, as much a commentary on post-World War II Britain as it is a timeless romance with more than a passing nod to David Lean’s Brief Encounter. Even though she’s only in a handful of scenes, veteran actress Barbara Jefford threatens to walk away with the film as Weisz’s feisty mother-in-law.

7. Jiro Dreams of Sushi: In the mood for some beautifully photographed Japanese food porn? This tightly constructed documentary goes above and beyond the call of duty in that regard, but it offers you something even more laudable: a clear-eyed portrait of devotion to a lifelong vocation. It’s quite evident that 85-year old sushi master Jiro Ono is the best at what he does, something his two sons, who have followed in his footsteps, strive to achieve. Director David Gelb doesn’t waste a single frame to tell the tale of a brilliant culinary career. His movie goes down like finely cut tuna sashimi.

6. Footnote: This year, the Foreign Language Oscar went, quite deservedly, to the Iranian domestic drama A Separation. Do you want to know a little secret? I liked this prickly Israeli film even more. Dueling father-and-son Talmudic scholars Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) and Uriel (Walk on Water‘s Lior Ashkenazi) resent each other with a passion, and their complicated, deliciously dysfunctional relationship gives writer-director Joseph Cedar plenty of emotional ammo that yields virtuosic sequences like the one where a cramped office becomes a pressure cooker for the teachers meeting there. There’s nary a pat resolution in sight, only exquisite, brilliantly written bitterness.

5. Lincoln: RR: “Uncle Steven?” SS: “Yes, Rubén?” RR: “Tell me a story.” SS: “Okay. How about some American history?” RR: “But I want to hear about the aliens.” SS: “You’ll like this story. It’s about how Abraham Lincoln outlawed slavery by passing the Thirteenth Amendment.” RR: “Boring!” SS: “It was told to me by none other than Tony Kushner.” RR: “Hmmm. I liked Angels in America. I don’t know. You got a little carried away in Amistad. Remember ‘GIVE US FREE’?” SS: “I promise I’ll tone it down. In fact, I’m keeping my flourishes to a minimum. You’ll forget I’m even there.” RR: “Okay, okay, you got me. Just promise me one thing.” SS: “I’m all ears.” RR: “If you ever make a movie out of this, make sure to cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt, even in a minor role.” SS: “This is going to be a hell of a cast.” (He made one hell of a movie, too.)

4. In the Family: He gets out of his truck and knocks on his in-laws’ door. Time to get his six-year-old son home where he belongs, away from the wary relatives of the boy’s biological father. The town is Martin, Tennessee, and the pickup owner who’s about to get stark raving mad is Joey (Patrick Wang), a Chinese American contractor who had been raising Chip (Sebastian Brodziak) with Cody (Trevor St. John). Handsome, kind Cody, who surprised himself by falling in love with Joey after his wife passed away. But Cody’s dead and gone, and now his sister intends to swoop in and claim Chip as her “legal responsibility”? No way! But she’s not answering the door, is she? Wang’s leisurely paced debut is a riveting custody-battle drama which he wrote and directed in addition to headlining. It boldly charts the path for acceptance in the heartland. It points the way forward by engaging in contemplative, seventies-influenced filmmaking that occasionally recalls John Cassavettes in its naturalism, but more often than not simply heralds the arrival of a major talent.

3. The Invisible War: In a year filled with outstanding documentaries, none cut deeper than this shattering look at the women (and men) who were victims of sexual assault while serving in the military, often at the hands of colleagues they knew well. Director Kirby Dick (This Film Is Not Yet Rated) takes us inside their homes, where they deal with rape’s physical and emotional fallout, and into the halls of Congress, where they tirelessly continue to raise awareness, one harrowing anecdote at a time. Dick tempers his outrage with a methodical, but still jaw-dropping description of the byzantine litigation process Uncle Sam has in place for the accused. This film is essential viewing.

2. Zero Dark Thirty: I will be reviewing Kathryn Bigelow’s phenomenal hunt-for-bin-Laden thriller next week, but suffice it to say that this is not the simplistic, torture-yields-real-results button-pusher its detractors would have you believe. It strips down loaded subject matter down to its bare essentials as it follows driven CIA operative (a superb Jessica Chastain), as she endures frustrating dead ends, life-threatening attacks and bureaucratic red tape in order to nab the alleged architect of 9/11. The Point Break director finds in her Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal the ideal collaborator. Next to this exhaustively researched film, the black-and-white depiction of U.S.-Middle East relations in Ben Affleck’s taut but widely overpraised Argo plays like Romper Room.

1. Margaret (the Extended Cut): The longer version of Kenneth Lonergan’s sensational character study is only available as a DVD supplement for people who purchase a Blu-ray copy. It must have felt like the ultimate insult for a filmmaker who essentially put his life on hold in the years following the movie’s 2005 shoot. The widely documented legal nightmare Lonergan endured during the film’s grueling post-production process can either be seen as a cautionary tale, or it could be regarded as the ultimate example of following your vision, no matter the cost. The story of an intelligent and inquisitive New York City high schooler (Anna Paquin) who witnesses – and actually helped cause – a deadly bus accident, jumps off the screen with novelistic detail, and in its 186-minute edit, actually feels shorter than the two-and-a-half-hour theatrical cut that was released in some US cities in 2011. Fox Searchlight opted against releasing the film in South Florida, which is why we have the Miami Beach Cinematheque’s Dana Keith to thank for the Extended Cut’s nearly sold-out run this past summer. My advice if you’re unable to find Margaret in its uncut form: see it anyway. This is a great American movie.

Here are the next ten titles in alphabetical order, a fine assortment of runners-up: The Dark Knight Rises, Keep the Lights On, Life of Pi, The Master, Miss Bala, Moonrise Kingdom, Only the Young, Oslo, August 31st, The Queen of Versailles and Tomboy. (Feed that rental queue.)

I’d like to offer my sincere apologies to director Ira Sachs, whose affecting gay romance Keep the Lights On would have been #11. I would also like to call out Robert Rosenberg at the Coral Gables Art Cinema for showing a digitally restored version of Marcel Carné‘s seminal 1945 epic Children of Paradise, which belongs on any movie lover’s must-see list.

Thanks, as always, to you, dear reader, for continuing to check in with me even when the cinematic outlook is dire. Here’s hoping for a brighter 2013 that will find Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe returning to their day jobs as non-singing actors. Happy New Year, everyone!

About Ruben Rosario

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