The Best American Films of 2012 (So Far)

120405 mov damselsex crop rectangle3 large The Best American Films of 2012 (So Far)

Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress”

The Return of the American Comedy

As the big studios continued to churn out increasingly obnoxious and puerile products in the comedy genre, the independent film scene scored with the return to filmmaking of one comic auteur and the return to form of several others. In the latter category, there was Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, one of the summer’s biggest hits with audiences and critics alike. While I was disappointed by the unevenness of its third act and the equal time Anderson devoted to his less interesting adult characters, the film is quite possibly his best since Rushmore (1998). Below are the three American comedies, which I enjoyed the most, so far this year.

Bernie, directed by Richard Linklater

Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, a gay mortician (or “funeral director,” as he prefers to be called) and pillar of his East Texas community, who becomes the only friend of Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the wealthiest and most rotten widow in town. Bernie eventually finds himself on trial for her murder. Based on true events, which took place in the small town of Carthage, Texas, in 1996, Linklater’s film is equal parts regional comedy and unusual character study, with mockumentary-style interviews with the people who knew and still love the real Bernie Tiede, interspersed throughout. Black’s Bernie is first and foremost a compulsive people-pleaser, but the actor also keeps the viewer guessing as to the character’s real motive. Not only is this his best work since Linklater’s School of Rock (2003), it’s perhaps the best performance of Black’s career. His rendition of Meredith Willson’s “76 Trombones” is a particularly hilarious highlight. Besides Black, the film’s other chief virtue is director Linklater’s refreshing lack of condescension toward or disdain for Middle American small town life.

Damsels in Distress, directed by Whit Stillman

Stillman wrote and directed Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998), three of the very best comedies of the 1990s. His latest film, his first in 13 years, is not only a welcome return, it’s the finest American comedy of the year. Greta Gerwig stars as Violet Wister, the leader of a small group of preppie girls at an East Coast liberal arts college. She is sensitive to foul odors, dedicated to preventing suicides on campus, and obsessed with one day starting her very own dance craze, like “The Twist.” Violet is also a massive obsessive compulsive disorder, prone to sudden episodes of depression, dating back to her childhood, when her name was formerly “Emily Tweeter.” With her many layers of neuroses and self-delusion, this is an almost impossible comic heroine to pull off, but Gerwig nails it every step of the way, infusing the role with her abundant charm and even a dose of mystery. She also excels at delivering Stillman’s characteristically brilliant and stylized dialogue — “Oh, a golden oldie!,” Violet exclaims and then begins to dance, when “Another Night” by Real McCoy comes on at a frat party. On the surface, this all might seem frivolous, but thanks to Stillman’s multidimensional language and the committed performances, the result is an enlightening and sophisticated comedy of depression — not simply in its emphasis on the heroine’s mental crisis, but because it dares to ask, whether making people laugh or entertaining them at all, is, in the end, a worthwhile endeavor.

To Rome with Love, directed by Woody Allen

As readers of this column might recall, I was not a fan of Allen’s previous film, the Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris. His latest, however, happens to be his best and most appealing, since Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Yes, this comedy has its flaws (Greta Gerwig is wasted in a thankless role, while Ellen Page is miscast as the latest addition to Allen’s growing list of flighty, promiscuous “actress” characters), but they’re easily forgiven, because Allen’s scenario never takes itself too seriously. Gone is the time travel conceit that required further development. Gone are the awful fake Hemingway monologues. Cinematographer Darius Khondji captures the orange glow of the Eternal City, while executing what could be the very first combination 360-degree pan and POV shot in Allen’s entire filmography. Allen himself also deserves credit for conjuring up two of his most inspired comic gags in recent years — an Italian opera singer, who can only sing in the shower, AND an Italian Everyman played by Roberto Benigni, who wakes up to discover that he is a celebrity for doing absolutely nothing special. Both bits could easily have come from vintage era Woody Allen. Light and breezy, this is perfect entertainment for a hot summer night.

Two Summer Tentpoles

The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan

“I side with the police,” said Italian master filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, in response to the May ’68 Paris riots. While this might not be the first quote that springs to mind, in relation to a Batman movie, it becomes eerily applicable, when the Dark Knight himself leads the climactic charge of Gotham City’s newly-resurrected police force, against arch villain Bane (Tom Hardy) and his force of terrorists, freed criminals, and entitled rioters. Not only do Nolan and his co-writers confront such looming and palpable fears and contemporary social realities, as terrorism, financial collapse, entitlement and radical political movements, and the threat of increased government control over daily life, but they also intelligently contextualize them within a highly-evolved comic book mythology. The result is possibly the best and most persuasive expression yet of Bruce Wayne/Batman, as the ultimate fantasy of the noble American aristocrat, who saves the day. The conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy might not have the galvanizing force of Heath Ledger’s “Joker” at its dramatic center, but it offers further evidence that Christian Bale is the perfect onscreen incarnation of the superhero. Best sequence: Bale undertakes a mythic climb from the bowels of a secret Middle Eastern prison, accompanied by a rousing Hans Zimmer choral chant.

Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott

The most controversial pick on my list, if only because of the significant gap in quality between the film’s directorial and screenwriting contributions. Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s screenplay contains a laundry list of dramatic and structural problems –character motivation is murky or suddenly dropped in multiple instances throughout the film, a major character (Charlize Theron) is entirely superfluous to the storyline, and a gruesome scene of self-surgery and abortion comes far too soon, when it should instead, be part of the main climax, etc. However, despite these obvious weaknesses, Prometheus, on a shot to shot level, is Scott’s best directed film in years and further proof that the latest 3D technology can be a disciplining (and reinvigorating) tool for filmmakers, who, over the years, have developed a number of lazy stylistic habits. This is one spectacle that is both visually and aurally dazzling and best appreciated in IMAX-3D. A hybrid of story elements and visual motifs from the Alien series with something more ambitious in scope, Scott’s sci-fi epic is built around three basic principles: self-sacrifice is the key to the creation and continuation of life in the universe; man’s hubris, in searching for his/her origins, will inevitably lead to new forms of evil; in a universe, where both gods and men can be broken and destroyed, their artificial creations might become the only true immortals. In other words, along with The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus is the rare big Hollywood release, these days, which not only has compelling ideas, but any ideas at all.

Most Overlooked 

The Grey, directed by Joe Carnahan

When I saw The Grey back in January, like many other viewers, I was disappointed (and a little annoyed) by the film’s abrupt ending. Yet, this survivalist action adventure’s intensely physical lead performance by Liam Neeson, visceral imagery, and brutal fatalism, have all stuck with me. Although there have been a number of fine examples in the past (from William Wellman’s Island in the Sky (1953) to Lee Tamahori’s The Edge (1997), Hollywood rarely tackles this particular genre anymore. That’s rather unfortunate, because what could be more cinematic than an adventure set amidst a rugged, unforgiving natural landscape? Carnahan (Narc) and his cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Vincent Gallo’s still unreleased Promises Written in Water) do a great job of capturing the bleakness of the snow-covered Alaskan wilderness, and the plane crash, shot almost entirely from Neeson’s limited point of view, is quite terrifying. In a sense, Carnahan’s film is about the dismantling of the heroic masculine myth, but it’s ultimately a reminder that some men (and actors) are just mythically masculine. Come awards time, Neeson’s towering performance is one that should not be forgotten.

Franklin P. Laviola is a filmmaker and freelance writer, based in the New York area. He wrote and directed the award-winning short film “Happy Face,” which has screened at over twenty film festivals. He recently reviewed Moonrise Kingdom and interviewed actress Alice Barnole.

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