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Friday, December 28, 2012

Niles' Ark: The Best Films of 2012 (Small Lifeboat Version)

Another New Year’s, another “Best Of” list. And the buffet of 2012′s selections was not Old Country stuff, but a marvelous and maddening assortment where there’s simply too much rich and succulent entrees and appetizers to fit into a single meal. A Top 10 list is inadequate, but a Top 15, 20, or 25 pesters me the same because those lower-ranked pictures would do just as well at the top.

I’m not rejecting the notions of David Denby or David Thomson, that the movies don’t really have a future. Denby might have a point about the evaporation of the mature mainstream Hollywood drama, and you can observe the dwindling of “middle class” releases, as things are either huge blockbusters or small-scale indies that can barely scratch by a $5 million gross (if a fraction of that). I wonder if the fine Richard Gere thriller Arbitrage, for example, would have been more widely exhibited 10 or 15 years ago, or if Rian Johnson’s sometimes spectacular and always inventive sci-fi opus Looper would have at least cracked that zone of $80 million, as it deserves ($70-100 million has become an odd No Man’s Land). But to give an indication of how fine a year it was, I would spend a lot of time, words, and thought examining – and defending – films like Silver Linings Playbook, The Dark Knight Rises, Steven Soderbergh’s Occupy-Era double feature of Haywire and Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Killing Them Softly, The Grey, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, and Django Unchained, and these would all fail to crack my top 10. Damn, I even wrote a column investigating the subtext in Argo, and I don’t think that would even make my top 30 (Roger Ebert and Ben Affleck’s inevitable Oscar be damned). I could cheat (having two films count as one, for instance listing Dark Knight with Cosmopolis, as two differently scaled films that both thematically deal with a technological acceleration scrambling clarity in an uneven economy), but I won’t.

Read the full column here at L'ETOILE MAGAZINE

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Monster of God: Life of Pi

Life’s a bitch, and then you die. Or rather, sometimes life’s getting stuck on a small lifeboat with a man-eating tiger in the middle of the goddamned Pacific, starving and feeling utterly alone, and then you live, though you might as well be dead given all you’ve endured. “And so it is with God,” says Pi Patel (played by Irrfan Khan as the adult narrator, and Suraj Sharma as a young man), chief character of the modern fairy tale Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel and directed by the versatile Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride With the Devil, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, Lust Caution, Taking Woodstock). And so it is with this film, which we’re told, early on, will make us believe in God. We’re told this, and because the film doesn’t live up such a lofty goal, we may forget that the narrator doesn’t promise such consolation. I think that’s the point here, and there’s a chilly ambivalence beneath the blanket of warmth with which Lee has decorated things, from the friendly storybook credit sequence of animals peaceably existing in a zoo, to the family smiles that wrap things up. This CGI-laden 3-D spectacle is a little deceiving with its children’s story book cover, and I think it’s really an effective meditation on loneliness and despair, and the stories we tell ourselves to cope, like a benevolent guide engineering and overseeing the Universe. Whether it’s God, an animal, or your own sense of permanence, it’s drawn up from the same binary code of our imagination. Does Richard Parker, the tiger with a human’s name (through a clerical error), have a “soul”? Or is that what we project onto him? Are we watching Life of Pi from a basic Western view of binaries (God/no God) instead of the Eastern one that gave birth to Pi, a Hindu culture of millions and millions of gods?  I’m not sure if belief or non-belief is the central issue of this beautiful and horrifying moving tapestry.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Customer is Wrong: Killing Them Softly

If you’ve logged on this week, you may have heard that Brad Pitt’s Killing Them Softly is a huge blunder, roundly rejected by audiences both in terms of box office profits and word-of-mouth. It’s not enough that the compact, dark gangster slow-burn recession story, with Pitt as a hit man cleaning up after an inside job, only made $7 million. But Cinemascore, the official audience grading sheet, gave it an “F” grade. Not a “C” or a “D.” An “F.” Failure. They hated it. The people have spoken.
But I think Pitt and filmmaker Andrew Dominik, along with distributor The Weinstein Company, should take that F and hold it high, proudly. As the box office is already evenly divided between the teens for Breaking Dawn, the smart action of Skyfall, refined craft and sophistication of Lincoln, and the feel-good romance in Silver Linings Playbook, it’s not surprising that Killing Them Softly shouldn’t make a dent. The previous collaboration between Pitt and Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was also plagued by bad buzz and, despite some good reviews, couldn’t catch fire. For me, that Western was one of 2007′s great American films along with No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Dominik made an achingly melancholic epic of identities fractured by myths and performative expectations. Heavily inspired by Terrence Malick (before The Tree of Life‘s divisiveness made Malick a hot topic again), Jesse James was probably too good to succeed in the mainstream, but too big for the art-houses. Killing Them Softly has the same fate.