2012 in Review: The Best Films of the Year

I said it before and I’ll say it again: 2012 was a great year for movies. Not only were the films consistently above average, but major studios and independent producers alike upped their game and brought high quality cinema to the theatre week after week. Perhaps the forced rise in digital, 3D, and over-enhanced multiplex experiences (IMAX and such) implored filmmakers to be creative and make films that could get people excited about enjoying film as art, rather than as a product to be consumed. I don’t think the inordinate rise in quality this year is at all unrelated to the tidal wave of uninspired sequels, prequels, threequels, remakes, reboots, and rehashes that flooded the theatres every week. Filmmakers and studios alike made films that could sustain themselves on positive buzz, strong word of mouth, and even repeat viewings. The success of films like Skyfall, Lincoln, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Argo are good examples of this. There was always something good to see at the movies regardless of what day one happened to go.

In spite of this menu of prime cuts, though, I found myself drawn back to a few movies or recommending the same handful of films above others. It was still quite difficult to whittle a Top Ten list out of the number of strong films I saw this year. At one point, I tried splitting the lists into fiction films and documentaries, but that didn’t feel right to me since three of my favourite films of the year are docs. Some of them also tread the line between truth and fiction, so I felt that I was doing them a disservice by taking them away from the head table. Likewise, I debated including festival films from this year that did not yet make it to a theatre near you, but I decided to push them back – both to free up some spots and to keep them in the conversation when moviegoers outside of Toronto could see them. On that note, shout oust go to Frances Ha, Twice Born, Something in the Air, Great Expectations, Imogene, and What Maisie Knew. They will set the bar for 2013. Before we get to 2013, however, let us celebrate the year that is ending.

The Best Films of 2012:

(UK, Dir. Joe Wright)
This year had a heavy slate of strong page-to-screen efforts, but director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard rewrote the book on adaptation with their ingenious take on Tolstoy’s classic novel. Joe Wright deserves especially strong recognition for his innovative decision to shoot Anna Karenina in a dusty old theatre when budgetary restrictions prevented him from filming in the conventional scope one would expect for such a sweeping epic. Wright makes astute use of the setting and incorporates the theatricality into the dramatic energy of Anna Karenina, which in turn stresses the themes of Tolstoy’s novel. It’s a stunningly realized feat that accentuates Stoppard’s economical adaptation. Not a page feels lost. Adding to the inspired artistry of Anna Karenina is Keira Knightley’s fearless showstopper of a performance as Tolstoy’s heroine. Equally good are the supporting performances by Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Olivia Williams, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Kelly Macdonald, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, et al. and sumptuous arts and crafts work by costumer Jacqueline Durran, composer Dario Marianelli, production designer Sarah Greenwood, and DP Seamus McGarvey, who captures the film in exquisite theatrical lighting and offers another noteworthy long take. Anna Karenina, with all its breathtaking boldness and ingenuity, stands tallest in year of strong contenders. If all the world’s a stage in Anna Karenina, then the cast and crew should take a well-deserved bow.


The Film Musical Finds Its Voice

Les Misérables
(UK, 157 min.)
Dir. Tom Hooper, Writ. William Nicholson, Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbet Kretzmer.
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen.
“When film first learned to speak, it sang instead,” wrote Rick Altman in The American Film Musical, an excellent book that chronicles the rise in musicals during the advent of sound in film history. Musicals ushered in the first true golden age of cinema, with couples like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing up a storm with their funky tap shoes or with entertainers such as Maurice Chevalier getting the audience in tune with his saucy French accent. Throughout the history of the film, however, the musical has consistently faced one roadblock to equal that of the talkie: live sound (i.e.: dialogue captured with the emotional authenticity of live recording). Pioneer filmmakers tried the technique and largely dispensed with, since it creates an inert moviegoing experience for viewers. (See: Al Jolson hamming it up on the piano.) There is the awe effect of “Look, Ma! They’re singing!” but the wow factor comes to a grinding halt in old movies in which a musical number consists of one man singing under a microphone. 


2012 in Review: The Best Performances of the Year

From old pros to christened newbies, 2012 saw an impressive range in great performances. If 2012 had some of the best films to hit theatres in some time, this year had twice the number of award worthy actors. I recall having a discussion during TIFF regarding what my imaginary Best Actress ballot would be if I cast it that day. I think I listed roughly eight names that were worthy… and that was only covering performances I saw during the festival. Luckily, though, some of those stars had their films pushed back to 2013, so expect some of their names to come back into the discussion next year. (Cough, cough, Greta Gerwig.) Even though a few names were bumped back, there still isn’t room to give a shout out to everyone who deserves one. After much rearranging and revision, plus changing things again, I came up with a satisfactory list of the ten best lead performances and the ten best supporting performances. There was only one name that was never shuffled around the list, and that name that stayed atop the roster of outstanding lead performances.

The Best Lead Performances of 2012:

1. Christopher Plummer in Barrymore
“There’s a moment that comes once in a lifetime when all the stars seem to gather together and become one,” says Christopher Plummer in his performance as John Barrymore. That moment happens for the great actor in the filmed presentation of his turn as the iconic actor. Plummer literally pulls all the stars together in his wide-ranging interpretation, as he performs everything from Shakespeare to vaudeville and from theatre to film. Barrymore is essential viewing for anyone who wishes to study the minute details that tailor a performance for the cinema. In Barrymore, Plummer deftly transitions between theatricality and intimacy by accentuating his performance with small, subtle details that are discernible through only the acute eye of the camera. Barrymore might be the best performance of Plummer’s career and it leaves little doubt that he is the best actor ever to emerge from this nation.


A Quentin Tarantino Christmas

Django Unchained
(USA, 165 min.)
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson.
Nothing says “Happy Holidays” quite like a night of blood-splattered violence. Django Unchained, the new film by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds), is a fun escape from all the happy elves and candy canes of the holiday season. Django might be Tarantino’s most ultra-violent film yet, but it’s his most festive one, too, as it paints the town red with the blood of racist white folks in a bloody rampage of revenge and retribution.


Win tickets to see 'Promised Land' in Ottawa!

Happy holidays everyone! As a special gift from our friends at Alliance Films, we are giving away tickets to the Ottawa sneak peek of Promised Land, starring Matt Damon. Promised Land is the new contemporary drama directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk). Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, an ace corporate salesman who is sent along with his partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), to close a key rural town in his company’s expansion plans. With the town having been hit hard by the economic decline of recent years, the two outsiders see the local citizens as likely to accept their company’s offer, for drilling rights to their properties, as much-needed relief. What seems like an easy job for the duo becomes complicated by the objection of a respected schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) with support from a grassroots campaign led by another man (John Krasinski), as well as the interest of a local woman (Rosemarie DeWitt). Promised Land explores America at the crossroads where big business and the strength of small-town community converge.


The Hobbit: An Unnecessary Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
(USA/New Zealand, 169 min.)
Dir. Peter Jackson
Writ. Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro.
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving, and Cate Blanchett.
What is worse: 48 frames per second or literal fidelity? Neither one is desirable, yet Peter Jackson serves up a double-edged conundrum in his disappointing return to Middle Earth, The Hobbit. Jackson must have spent the past few years washing his hair in New Zealand, since his direction is essentially that which is offered by a bottle of shampoo: Rinse and repeat. Aside from the laborious lathering, Jackson offers two notable changes in his realization of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world: 3D special effect captured with an ultra-high frame rate and a script that follows Tolkien’s book down to the letter. Both additions are to the film’s detriment. The Hobbit ultimately betrays the first Lord of the Rings trilogy because it privileges the source text over the magic of cinema.


2012 in Review: The Best in Canadian Film

Go Canada! 2012 was a great year for movies and Canada’s output was no exception. I think I saw more homegrown films in one year than ever before. Part of the growth should be attributed to alternative outlets of distribution (digital downloads and such), co-production, and the strength of our festivals. Additionally, the effort by First Weekend Clubs and other committed parties have helped fill the seats, with films like Goon and Monsieur Lazhar showing that Canadian films can indeed perform at the box office. I think that much of the success must also be credited to the innovation of our filmmakers. Canucks have outdone themselves this year with new ideas and creative approaches to film form.

Local talent has become increasingly noteworthy in the Ottawa area, with the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the Ottawa International Film Festival both expanding and attracting more filmmakers and audiences. Likewise, 2012 saw a good rise in production with strong local films like Undercurrent and The Maiden Danced to Death ranking as some of the year’s notable Canuck films, among others. Ottawa also enjoyed starring in House at the End of the Street, which best showcased the benefits of shooting in the National Capital Region with economical use of locations and with good post-production work by local talents.

2012 was a great year for Canadian films, but a few titles stood out above the rest. Without further ado, here are my picks for the top ten Canadian films of 2012:

(Dir. Sarah Polley)
By far the best Canadian film this year, Stories We Tell ranks among the greatest Canadian films in recent memory. Sarah Polley outdoes her fresh and frankly personal take on the messiness of love by turning the camera back on her own life and using her knack for storytelling to spill a captivating yarn about her own family. It’s an excellent experiment in home movies thanks to Polley’s innovative approach to documentary form. She takes snippets of her own life, and those of her family members, and intuitively weaves pieces of history in a riveting and deeply moving story. Polley’s previous films, Away From Her and Take This Waltz, have been notable examples for the case to go local in Canadian cinema, but Stories We Tell shows that the reach of a film is infinite when it speaks from the heart and when it uses the medium to touch the heart of every viewer.


Oscar Predictions: Round 5 - The Circus

Like the socialites in Anna Karenina, we watch the great ones fall.
Here we are stepping into the second ring of the award season circus. It’s strange to observe the early prizes when your favourite contenders are not in the running. (Two of my top three films aren’t even eligible, as noted by the Academy’s list of films up for 2012’s awards.) It baffles me that few intelligent critics/moviegoers recognize the innovation of Anna Karenina, but in a year as strong as 2012 one can only take note of the prizewinners with a sense of acceptance and a hint of disappointment. On the other hand, some prize-givers can bring a worthy contender back to life, much as they did for Nicole Kidman’s gutsy turn in The Paperboy, which was unfairly trounced by many critics. Kidman’s nominations show that award season doesn’t have to be the place where brave original work comes to die.


Bring Kleenex.

The Impossible
(Spain, 114 min.)
Dir. J.A. Bayona, Writ. Sergio G. Sánchez, story: Maria Belon
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, and Geraldine Chaplin.
On December 26th, 2004, a colossal tsunami ripped through the Indian Ocean and devastated South East Asia. Over 300 000 people died, thousands more were declared missing, and an innumerable amount of people were affected by this natural disaster. The Impossible is the true story of one family that happened to be vacationing in Thailand for Christmas 2004. Their life-changing journey is a moving tale of hope, courage, and survival. We already know the outcome of their narrative before the film even begins, yet The Impossible is a gripping, suspenseful, and ultimately uplifting experience.


2012 in Review: The Worst Films of the Year

Another year is ending. It came up fast, for it feels like only a few days ago that I was flipping the bird to The Art of Getting By for being the foul stain on 2011. I ended the ‘Year in Review’ series last year with the worst films of 2011, since I don’t especially like being mean to movies, nor do I really see enough bad movies to make this a fair fight. However, when I did the list by popular demand, it scored twice the readership of my list of the best films of 2011. I am therefore glad to pander. 2012 was an especially good year for movies, though, so I think I managed to avoid most of the duds since there was often something good to see at the theatre. There were, however, more ‘disappointments’ than bad movies, but I don’t think it’s fair to chalk up one of the disappointments among the worst of the year simply because it failed to deliver upon my expectations. (Or do you disagree?) Nevertheless, there are a few films that are especially worthy of the hall of shame. I present my list of 2012’s worst to you in hopes that you’ll share my pain.

The Worst Films of 2012:

Never in my life as a moviegoer have I seen so many walkouts. Babeldom, with its animated bosom twirling and phony-intellectual jbber-jabber, marks the only time I ever asked a moviegoing companion if we wanted to join the people making a run for the exits. Politeness caused us to stay, but we learned our lesson. I would watch From Justin to Kelly every day for the rest of my life before subjecting myself to Babeldom again.


Win Tickets to see 'Django Unchained' in Ottawa!

The nominations for the Golden Globe Awards were announced today and it was a good morning for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which scored five nominations including Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director. Set in the South two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained stars Academy Award®-winner Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Academy Award®-winner Christoph Waltz). Schultz is on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers, and only Django can lead him to his bounty. The unorthodox Schultz acquires Django with a promise to free him upon the capture of the Brittles – dead or alive. Success leads Schultz to free Django, though the two men choose not to go their separate ways. Instead, Schultz seeks out the South’s most wanted criminals with Django by his side. Honing vital hunting skills, Django remains focused on one goal: finding and rescuing Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife he lost to the slave trade long ago. 

Golden Globe Nominations

Meryl Streep earns her 27th Golden Globe nom for Hope Springs

The Oscar race is heating up! Things are getting very exciting, and every bit as frustrating. The Golden Globes announced their nominees this morning and started things with a big tease by acknowledging Dario Marianelli’s excellent score for Anna Karenina. “Huzzah!” I thought, “Keira Knightley made it in.” Then the nominations got to the major categories and Knightley was snubbed for… Helen Mirren. #Yawn. There were some pleasant surprises, though, like nominations Richard Gere in Arbitrage and for Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy, which redeems the SAG and should silence the naysayers. It’s a great performance and Kidman should win when the trophies are handed out. (But I’ll be every bit as happy if the prize goes to Helen Hunt.) Other goodies are a 27th nomination for the great Meryl Streep in Hope Springs. Hope Springs was surprisingly snubbed for lesser fluff like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Also showing up was SAG nominee Marion Cotillard, who I guess is now my Best Actress hopeful now that Knightley’s great work is going unrewarded. Lincoln leads the nominations with 7, for Picture, director, actor, supporting actor, supporting actress, screenplay and score. Following Lincoln are Argo and Django Unchained with five, and Silver Linings Playbook and Les Mis tied in the Comedy/Musical category with four apiece.

The nominees:

Best Picture – Drama
Django Unchained
Zero Dark Thirty


SAG Nominations

Kidman in Paperboy: I can't wait to see which clip they choose.
The actors have spoken! I'm disappointed that my leading lady Keira Knightley didn't land a nomination, but the Screen Actors Guild outweighed any mistakes with their ballsy Best Supporting Actress nomination for Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy. It's well deserved. Kidman took a huge risk that few actors would be brave enough (or talented enough) to tackle.

Other notable pleasantries are a Best Actress hat tip for Marion Cotillard in Rust & Bone, Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master Javier Bardem in Skyfall, and Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook. Cooper is a mild surprise, as Joaquin Phoenix didn't make the cut for his highly touted work in The Master, but I think Cooper is completely worthy.

The nominees for Best Ensemble Cast are:
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Les Miserables
Silver Linings Playbook

Full list of nominations


Melting the Myth

Chasing Ice
(USA, 74 min.)
Dir. Jeff Orlowski, Writ. Matt Monroe
Feat. James Balog, Adam LeWinter, Svavatar Jόnatansson, Jeff Orlowski, Lou Psihoyos.
Convincing people of the reality of global warming is not a science. It’s an art. Chasing Ice makes the case for climate change in visually stunning layman’s terms through brilliant use of time-lapse photography to provide visual proof that the earth’s climate is rapidly changing. I would hate to be the politician who said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”


Disappointment Hits a New Note

Sigur Rós: The Valtari Experiment
(Various, 120 min[ish])
Dir. Nick Abrahams; Arni & Kinski; Ramin Bahrani; Melika Bass; Inga Birgisdóttir; Ruslan Fedotow; Björn Flóki; Alma Har'el; Ragnar Kjartansson; Clare Langan; Christian Larson; Henry Jun Wah Lee; Anafelle Liu, Dio Lau and Ken Ngan; Dash Shaw, Floria Sigismondi.
I’m beginning to think that the anthology film, particularly the music anthology film, is a cinematic novelty that should soon die. Collections of various shorts can unite filmmakers from across the globe in an artistic exercise in the shared cinematic language, but they can deter audiences who spot art when it’s made for its own sake. Sigur Rós’s Valtari Experiment, dripping in pretension and wanting for inspiration, commits the latter offense. This musical misfire could be the proverbial nail in the coffin for Vimeo playlists masquerading as a cinematic experience.


Rust & Bone: 'Firework'

I kid you not, this is my very favourite film scene of 2012:

Golden Globe Predictions and Oscar Update


It’s time to take a trip to a new round of Oscar predictions via a layover with the Golden Globes. The most important least-important award show out there, the Globes matter because, as many smart Oscar pundits have noted, they’re face time on network TV during the heat of award season. They’re also something to put in ads and help box office clout, which doesn’t hurt when movie theatres are as crowded with contenders as they are this year. (On an interesting related note, The Race makes a good point at The Hollywood Reporter that the Academy could curb the annual end-of-the-year chaos by having two voting periods—one in the summer and one at the end of December—and studios would therefore be more likely to spread their strong films across the year.)


Final Score: 3 Goats to 1

(Canada, 82 min.)
Written and directed by Najeeb Mirza
Featuring: Azam Kholov, Khurshed Mashrabov, Askar-ali Dustiev.
Tossing around the ole pigskin is a traditional pastime for American men. On the other side of the globe, however, where traditions have a bit more longevity, tossing around the ole dead goat provides a rousing sport for the males of Central Asia. Buzkashi is a rough sport, reserved only for the most fearless of players. It’s a bit like polo, except that the aim of the game is to nab the carcass of a goat, manoeuvre through a field of two-hundred-odd players, and drop said goat past the goal line. Buzkashi might sound like the weirdest sport this side of golf, but it evolved out of a process of herding goats away from deadly wolves. The goats and the wolf have since traded places, with the goat tossed around by a pack of men competing to stand out in a skirmish of strength and bravery.


TIFF Names Canada's Top Ten for 2012!

Sarah Gadon stars in Cosmopolis.
Courtesy of eOne Films
The Toronto International Film Festival revealed its annual lists for “Canada’s Top Ten” and I must say that the picks demonstrate what a strong year it was for Canadian cinema. The list was presented by Sarah Gadon and Don McKellar last night at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. I am very happy that some of the films that put Canada on the map in 2012 received recognition, as did some hidden gems from the festival circuit that will surely expand Canadians’ interest for their national cinema. I was somewhat decent with my predictions for the Top Ten features, with six out of ten of my guesses making the cut (Stories We Tell, Laurence Anyways, Midnight’s Children, Rebelle, Cosmopolis, and Still), along with some pleasant surprises including a film I was rooting for (The World Before Her) and some that I’m excited to see. Canada's Top Ten also includes three documentaries (The World Before Her, Stories We Tell and The End of Time), which marks a good improvement after last year's score of zero. Finally, in true Canadian fashion, there's a good ol' sex comedy on the list: The legacy of Porky's lives on in My Awkward Sexual Adventure, which I missed at TIFF (although my brother caught it and quite enjoyed). There's weird sex and snowshoes galore on Canada's Top Ten.

More Award Wins for the NFB!

Bear 71. Photo from the production, courtesy of the NFB.
Congratulations go out to the National Film Board of Canada for having another banner day in awards season. Two NFB projects, Bear 71 and Burquette, were honoured at the 2012 Digi Awards, winning Best Web Series: Non-fiction and the Best in Canadian Culture award, respectively. The NFB recently saw four of its films named on TIFF’s ‘Canada’s Top Ten’ lists, with The End of Time and Stories We Tell making the list of the best Canadian features, and Kaspar and Bydlo making the list of the best Canadian shorts. Byldo was also one of two NFB films nominated for Best Animated Short at the annual Annie awards, along with the WSFF winner Edmond was a Donkey.

Congrats again to the NFB for proving itself one of Canada’s most valuable cultural institutions!

Press release after the cut, as are links to test out these award-winning digis.


Silent but Deadly

Killing Them Softly
(USA, 97 min.)
Written and directed by Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Vincent Curatola, Ray Liotta.
Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan in Killing Them Softly. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon

[To the tune of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly”]

Numbing my brain with his slowness
Draining my life with his words
Killing them softly with his film
Killing them softly, with his film
Taking my whole life, with his words
Killing them softly… with his film. [do do do doooo]


Oscar Reveals Shortlist for Best Documentary Feature

The Imposter
The race is heating up! The New York Film Critics gave out the first awards of the season, with Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty winning Best Film and Best Director. (Full list here.) While the NY critics might foretell the Oscar for Best Picture, their choice for Best Documentary will not influence the race. Central Park Five was largely considered the frontrunner in that category, and seemed on its way when it nabbed the prize from the NYFCC, but it failed to make the shortlist of docs moving forward in the Oscar race. With 126 films to compete against in a strong year for documentaries, Central Park Five made room for some other strong contenders. I'm especially glad that The Imposter made the list, along with a few other of my favourite docs this year! (Note: Stories We Tell  is eligible next year.) Congrats also go out to Detropia's Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who made both documentary shortlists this year, with The Education of Mohammad Hussein appearing on the previously announced list for Best Documentary Short. The full list, via Indiewire, reads: 

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Never Sorry LLC
Bully, The Bully Project LLC
Chasing Ice, Exposure
Detropia, Loki Films
Ethel, Moxie Firecracker Films
5 Broken Cameras, Guy DVD Films
The Gatekeepers, Les Films du Poisson, Dror Moreh Productions, Cinephil
The House I Live In, Charlotte Street Films, LLC
How to Survive a Plague, How to Survive a Plague LLC
The Imposter, Imposter Pictures Ltd.
The Invisible War, Chain Camera Pictures
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Jigsaw Productions in association with
       Wider Film Projects and Below the Radar Films
Searching for Sugar Man, Red Box Films 
This Is Not a Film, Wide Management 
The Waiting Room, Open’hood, Inc.


Tangible Canadianness: Previewing Canada's Top Ten

Deepa Mehta on the set of Midnight's Children

What constitutes a Canadian film? I ask this question because the elusive nature of Canadian film production was raised by Maclean’s editor Brian D. Johnson in his recent review of director Deepa Mehta’s film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children. Johnson’s review erupted a flurry of debate on Twitter (the thread begins here) with author Salman Rushdie weighing in, as did actors Zaib Shaikh and Anita Majumdar who thanked the critic for inadvertently praising them on stepping out of their Canadian skin. (The controversy was also incensed by Liam Lacey’s review in The Globe and Mail, which suggested that white guys Michel Gondry and Terry Gilliam would have been better suited to direct.) All the responses provoke a necessary question: how do we define a Canadian film in the year 2012?