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Five films from 2012 you won’t see winning awards this time of year but that you owe it to yourself to see.

Differently, Molussia employs rough 16mm footage and extensive narration to paint the history of a fake fascist East European nation, detailing primarily the subtle, very human causes of social and political evil. Shot in 9 pieces and projected in random order at each of its theatrical showings, Molussia suspends narrative in a way even most non-linear films don’t offer, even more powerfully exposing the psychological, emotional and philosophical realities contained in its pseudo-history by removing them from conventions of dramatic plotting.

The Comedy is a darkly funny and disturbing indictment of the ironic life, for all intents and purposes the life of the modern nihilist. This is explored through the lens of Brooklyn hipsterdom, with Tim Heidecker (most famously of Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) giving a deeply affecting and malevolent performance as an anti-everyman trust fund baby obsessed with humiliating everyday people for a laugh. A sequence of everyday hipster amusement over the sounds of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loop says it all: with the death of intimate, earnest human communication comes a new life devoid of passion, empathy and spirituality.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day finishes off Don Hertzfeldt’s razor sharp and surreal “Bill” trilogy, short animated films using stick figure characters combined with trick photography to tell the story of mental illness, death, and pessimism. Hilarious non sequitors and gorgeous psychedelic breakdowns bring rapturous life to the otherwise simple doodling, and despite Bill’s small 2D design Hertzfeldt brings incredible heart and soul to the character, making the pain of his experience all the more palpable.

Girl Walk // All Day is a feature length music video for Girl Talk’s latest mash-up release All Day. It’s pretty straightforward; three characters (The Girl, The Creep, The Gentleman) dance across New York City to Girl Talk’s outrageous and often gorgeous musical amalgamations and in doing so express the vigor that freedom and music brings to everyday life.

Haywire, probably the most instantly accessible in this list, is basically the forgotten Steven Soderbergh of this year; it was quickly overshadowed by his Magic Mike (which I haven’t seen) and the wealth of blockbuster action films released throughout the summer. But Haywire is the real triumph of 2012 action cinema; removing all the bombast and superficiality, Soderbergh films his mano-a-mano style fight scenes here with astounding clarity and brutality, very much making Haywire something of a kindred spirit with this year’s other much-lauded arthouse actioner The Raid (which I also haven’t seen). This is the direction action should be going—pure brute force, the kind of meticulous staging and intense bone-crunching viscera that makes a fight sequence as much a well-choreographed dance as a work of violence.

Differently, Molussia. A Film by Nicolas Rey. One of the best films of 2012.

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Piracy, The Studio System and YOU

This dopey gal has the funny idea that movie piracy is what makes movies so bad.

Haha, yeah…no.

This is the kind of insipid, status quo-perpetuating nonsense that allows things like the current privacy-violating legislation in Washington and heinous money-grubbing hacks in Hollywood and elsewhere to thrive.

After discussing a meme-inspired convention/conference thing where the merit of memes as intellectual property is apparently discussed with complete seriousness, Katie Notopolous says,

I worked at major movie studios for years, and I know exactly the consequences of movie piracy. I was around for several rounds of massive layoffs at studios where thousands of jobs were eliminated. There is a direct and real effect on a large American industry. While Tom Cruise or the president of the studio doesn’t see a dent in his paycheck, you might see the entire accounting department outsourcedto trim overhead.

What Miss Notopolous is forgetting is that the sensibilities with which modern movie-making is done has existed since its inception; make movies cheaply, focusing budget on spectacle and marketing instead of substance, and then watch the dough roll in. It’s not new that Hollywood produces bad movies. Regardless of the effect piracy has had on employment of the “little guys” in LA or NYC, the root of the problem is the very idea of profit over substance. And this seems to be the case in any way you can look at it.

Hollywood produces a film for y dollars. Typically a film is considered to have been a feasible investment if it makes back 1.5y, in other words the studio’s initial investment plus half that. This is a worst case scenario, mind you. They desire much more—as much as possible, obviously.

A project’s potential to meet these standards is the only criteria that is taken into account when a project is developed in the current studio system. Characteristics like plot, character, setting, theme, craft, the talent involved (director, screenwriter, performers, etc.), are taken into consideration only in respect to their ability to be sold. No matter what producers, execs, etc. say about the magic of the movies at their self-congratulatory award shows or benefits or whatever, they will not make a movie if it will not make them money.

Certain standards that have proved to be economically viable are the quickest to be picked up for production—obviously, a sure thing is more likely to be made than something more risky or different. And in most cases, risky or different projects that do get picked up belong to individuals who have already made studios a lot of money.* So genre movies, movies that will star major actors, movies with plots that are not too difficult to follow, movies that will win awards at the aforementioned political back-patting award shows (really, really long commercials, basically), movies based on already-existing material that will sell to built-in audiences and that have books/TV shows/other movies/etc. to act as extreme hype-building, free advertising, etc. get picked up more often than original ideas. That last one—the one about previously existing materials—is where we get the rampant remake/reboot/sequel/prequel/adaptation problem. Not piracy, as Notopolous hilariously suggests.

Once a movie meets these (read: weak) standards (which producers are perfectly willing to alter to their sporadic specifications if need be in the midst of a complicated production process which they otherwise have no part in) the actual talents involved are given millions of dollars with which they can make the schlockiest product possible so long as they do it on or under budget, on time and then subsequently sell that movie as obnoxiously as possible.

This brings me to the most troubling fact in the article in question. In the midst of all the defense of the little guys in the studio system and appeals to handing our money away to these trashy movies studios produce, Notopolous points out this little gem:

Inception had a $100M marketing budget

I shudder at this fact. Alright, obviously this isn’t anything new or really surprising. Most major Hollywood releases have crazy marketing budgets. But in the same article that we are being asked to be empathetic and honest and give these people our hard-earned money, we’re told that a film that already had a $160M production budget had a marketing budget that consisted of another $100M? How are we supposed to view Hollywood and its scumbag executives as anything more than just that, utter scumbags, with knowledge like this? And hey, I like Inception. I like it a lot. I think, despite Christopher Nolan being something of a slimy, Hollywood-spokesman kind of character (in my humble opinion), that he’s made some really great films and I greatly look forward to his next Batman movie. Like, greatly. Like, nerdgasm times a million greatly. But that so much money goes toward something as despicable as marketing** kills me, it soundly eliminates any potential sympathy there could have possibly been in my mind for Hollywood and its Randian cretins.

So an idea is picked up for its salability, marketed with attention toward that salability, distributed on a mass scale so as to pull as much cash from as many audiences as possible (and allegedly even the $9-13 we have to spend on tickets isn’t enough for them most of the time), audiences see it, much money is made…but not enough. Even though most of these major releases—the ones that cost the most money to make—make money (break even and then some), they are not making enough money. Piracy is keeping money from them that they need so desperately that they lay off poor accountants and whoever else, because not enough people wanted to spend money on their excellent movies? On what planet does such an argument make sense?

These movies appeal literally to the lowest-common-denominator, they have little to no substance, and even when they do, it’s a rare sight. That they are lower-than-crap productions is not the fault of piracy—audience members who go to movies for entertainment (and possibly even for substance!) see crap and become demoralized with the fact that for decades they’ve been spending enough money on a cheap dinner for the family on excessively-priced movie tickets for the worst kind of movies. Notopolous provides this gem:

First, several studios shuttered their arthouse imprints like Picturehouse and Warner Independent in the past few years. So no more “good” movies that don’t make huge profits.

Implying it is the responsibility of the independent filmmaker to produce movies of value. That, if studios choose not to distribute independently produced content, good movies are not released. What is this nonsense? Why should it be up to independent filmmakers to produce quality? And let’s be honest. The “independent” fare that Hollywood tends to pick up is still picked up based on its ability to be easily marketed. It has that “indie feel!” It has that popular actor going slightly out of his comfort zone! It’s controversial and people will pay to be able to talk about it! It’s never a question of substance—in the studio system, monetary potential precedes substance always.

Piracy is a result of people sick of repetition and studios constantly taking advantage of a perceived stupidity in the masses. Perhaps the masses when, I dunno, massed, can be stupid. Transformers always sells. But studios appeal to aspects of humanity that can be easily manipulated into blind consumption and empty acceptance of low quality. People who are starting to realize that and who have the ability are now refusing to spend their hard-earned money on garbage. And personally, even if it’s not garbage, if I know my money is going to go to the perpetuation of this system, this means of production, I can’t help but feel guilty for supporting it. But I do. Tomorrow I’ll finally be seeing The Avengers, because I love comic books, I love Joss Whedon, I love the cast and characters. But I hate the empty ideology and overt twisted attitude that surely went into much of its conception, production and distribution. And that’s something you and I are giving our money to every time we pay for a movie ticket.

*For example, king of the ass-kissers Chris Nolan making a pair of extremely successful Batman movies and then getting the opportunity to make odd, cerebral movies in between successive Batman movies, one of which (Inception, which Notopolous discusses in her article) was made on a budget nearly on par with the budget of his second Batman movie, which seems like a triumph for creative filmmaking when in fact it’s just a result of a Batman movie (a franchise with the benefit of both built-in, decades-old marketing and the employment of two of the franchise’s most popular villains, one of which played by a beloved actor who died far too young just before the film’s release) making back a little over five times its original budget and therefore giving Nolan himself a little leaway in terms of creative control. That the “one for them, one for me” aspect of Hollywood filmmaking is thought of as some sort of fair trade or righteous artistic endeavor by the majority of people, including film fans, is insane to me. That a talented mind (and the extremely talented crew that he or she works with) spends millions of dollars on a gamble so that he may or may not get to make the kinds of movies he wants to make is extraordinarily sad to me. Another example of a filmmaker who got to make what he wanted is James Cameron, a self-made millionaire with enough money from his franchises to be able to make whatever movies he wants (and tellingly enough even he chooses to play it safe and make the movies that’ll multiply his excessive riches).

**That’s for another day. Don’t get me started on marketing.

The Novelty of 3D; brief thoughts on film gimmickry

For a brief period of time, sound was a gimmick. It would appear briefly in event movies—maybe one line of dialogue would have sound, enough to get the audience gasping and cheering and paying boatloads to see otherwise thoughtless and empty movies. Color was similar; looking at movie posters from the 30s and 40s you see “IN TECHNICOLOR” as large as the movie titles, much in the same way you see the phrase “IN IMAX 3D” on movie posters now.

I am not a fan of 3D. I think it’s definitely fair to dismiss it as it currently used in cinema as a gimmick and as a way to inflate ticket prices and fill the pockets of producers and studio execs.

Am I the same as a bored audience member in the 20s who may have felt irritated and disenchanted with the sound trend? Maybe. But I don’t think audience members were any more in the wrong then in their distaste for novelty as I am now. Sound was a gimmick, no less than 3D is right now. It was not until filmmakers saw its potential as a storytelling device and fully embraced it that people saw it for the meaningful technical achievement that it really was.

In the past few years, there have been perhaps three or four movies to employ 3D for reasons other than sheer novelty; Avatar, Hugo, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams come to mind, and there are probably a couple others I’m forgetting or that I’m just unaware of. James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, and Werner Herzog, the first the strongest advocate for the technology out there and the latter two as far from industry conformists as you can get in modern mainstream cinema, clearly saw some sort of potential in 3D, or they wouldn’t have dedicated time and money to employ the technology in their films. Cameron especially had a lot of time and money at stake, not to mention pages and pages of arrogant self-promotion to be held responsible for, if Avatar hadn’t been the massive commercial and critical success it turned out to be.

I’d say calling 3D a gimmick in this filmmaking and film business climate is accurate and warranted; to call it unwanted not as much, as the consistent ticket sales, slumping though they may be, have clearly implied. But I can’t say it has personally been a selling point for me since Avatar, and that was the one and only time.

Sound, color, animation, computer enhancement and digital effects, and expanded aspect ratios all had a chance to prove themselves before they lost the stigma attached to them when first employed. But until they did finally prove themselves—as all certainly have—they underwent years of criticism and dismissal, all of which was probably warranted, and all of which was likely crucial in innovating the techniques, in changing them from gimmicks to meaningful modes of storytelling. 3D not only deserves criticism, it requires it. Criticism is its test; should it improve and prove itself as powerful a means of film storytelling as its predecessors, it will be because of commentary on its employment that led it there. If it crashes and burns, if in a decade James Cameron sulks in obscurity and instead the art form has been revolutionized by digital cinematography, increased frame rates (as Peter Jackson is attempting to do with The Hobbit) or remains much the same as it is now—as powerful as ever, with or without dimensional effects—so too will it be because of commentary.

The Tree of Life

Brother. Mother. It was they who led me to your door.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life may very well be the best film of 2011. I don’t want to say with any kind of certainty at the moment—December and January are the months to catch up on the arthouse fare that doesn’t come my way for the majority of the year, and just glancing through Slant’s top 25 films of the year (of which Malick’s is an entry) I was stricken by just how many great films I’m possibly missing out on.

Still, after having seen it twice now, both times thankfully in theaters, I feel like I have a hold on it.

A gentleman discussing the film in the lobby after my second viewing called it something of a visual poem. That kind of label seems to reek of pretentiousness but I think overall it’s an apt description; abandoning traditional narrative Malick’s images and events work together moment by moment to evoke varying moods and emotions. It’s almost as if the images pop into the frame as images and memories form in ones brain as you read lines of a poem or hear lyrics of a song.

Malick often employs a combination of realistic and dreamlike imagery

Malick had his start in ontology, perhaps straying into filmmaking as a desperate means to verbalize his conflicts with existence, and his focus on human existence reaches its pinnacle with The Tree of Life. Working as a philosopher might, Malick (via a generally unwelcome frame story* starring Sean Penn) begins a process of deconstruction, starting at the very beginning with the Big Bang and the formation of the Earth all the way to the birth of humanity and finally to the end of time.

The central character, if there could be one in this kind of movie, is Jack, portrayed as an adult as noted above by Sean Penn and as a child by Hunter McCracken. Adult Jack is lost. Dead-eyed and bored, he is consumed by towers of glass all around him. We’re not sure why he’s so despondent quite yet, but we’re led to believe early on that it may be a result of an internal struggle between the natural and the spiritual.

The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

This dichotomy is the thesis posited by the whispery narration** of Jack’s mother early in the film, and Malick spends the next 2+ hours examining it, along with a wide array of other topics, including human struggles with meaning and mortality, family dynamics, morality, the relationship between Man and the divine, etc.

The film has a wild, frenetic editing style, images strewn together like the memories each scene attempts to recreate. These images, shot with astounding beauty and sophistication by DP Emmanuel Lubezki (certainly his best work of this kind—Children of Men and Y tu mama tambien are of equal accomplishment, just in a very different way) are thrilling and moving, and Lubezki moves with great ease from static and claustrophobic to playful and hypnotic. The film moves rapidly between these moods and tones, each contrast working off the other with startling effect. It’s at once welcoming and overwhelming. The visuals suck you in and throw you about like sporadic movements in a dream.

The Big Bang

The Big Bang

Arguably the crowning achievement of the film (at the very least the segment that will probably make or break the film for each audience member) is the central segment in which Malick depicts the creation of the universe and the Earth. Filmed almost entirely with practical effects*** (if I recall correctly [and employing the expertise of the visual effects maestro behind the effects of Kubrick’s 2001]), this extended sequence acts as a singular confrontation of the film’s dualistic opening hypothesis. As the natural world forms from the ether, we see that it is at once natural and beautiful—eruptions of color and matter fill the screen and come together, gradually forming the universe, its celestial bodies, and finally our own planet; Malick follows this progression up with an equally beautiful development of microscopic single-celled organisms, which are framed specifically to parallel the preceding formation of the universe. Malick follows with the development of early aquatic life, land animals, humanity, &c

This sequence, leading up to the main narrative with a young Jack, his domineering father, and his quiet and graceful mother, effectively annihilates this idea that nature and spirit must be separate, conflicting entities. Instead Malick seeks to show that they complement each other, with beauty existing in even the simplest of natural processes. The main narrative follows up on this treatment of beauty and nature with a self-contained exploration of familial dynamics, wherein Jack’s parents first act as respective stand-ins for this dualism. Of course, as the film rolls along Malick transforms these simplistic representations into more complex figures, noting again that the universe, even in purely human terms, cannot be laid out to two basic paths. Malick also uses this section to effectively portray the wonder of childhood, along with its simple pleasures (from pretty shadowplay on the walls to horsing around with your brothers) and simple horrors (the constant need to placate the stern father’s ego, the pressure childhood friends put on you to suspend your parents’ ethics).

With this and the following image, we see the parallel between the macroscopic and microscopic. What forms on a large scale is mirrored on a small scale.

The astronomical and the cellular are almost interchangeable.

(above: for Malick, the astronomical [top image] and cellular [bottom image] are one)

A lot of people discussing the film upon its first widespread release spoke of fellow theater patrons angrily rising out of their seats and storming out of the theaters because they were getting pretentious arthouse fare instead of the standard familial drama starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn (that, to be fair, the advertising promised). This led into accusations of anti-intellectualism and stupidity upon said patrons, but I think the belief that those who dislike the film are immediately dimwitted or simple-minded is extremely misguided. I don’t think this is a film made for any specific intellectual capacity. It has a strong universalism in its style and its subject matter. It is, of course, not a standard familial drama, but it’s also not much of a dense, multi-layered thinker. Its ideas are strong and clear; its narrative is reduced to its simplest parts, conveying a progression of events and moods of extreme humanity and relatability.

I think this universalism is an important part of what makes The Tree of Life one of the best films made in recent years. Whereas typical arthouse fare challenges viewers via a lack of traditional stylistic and narrative devices and generally more challenging thematic material, Malick has made a film that is not only simple to watch (it can be viewed just as easily passively as it can be engaged in; there is little an attentive film scholar will gather that will be lost to the casual viewer) but that has such broad subject matter and such universal themes that it can be approached from almost any viewer. And it has an earnestness and optimism in its presentation that is rare in a lot of modern arthouse fare.

Following the film’s release it appears as if Malick is becoming almost prolific (at least by his standards [The Tree of Life is just his fifth film in a career spanning over 40 years]), already in the process of shooting his seventh film. This drastic leap in productivity may be a result of his creating a film that in many ways is the culmination of his life’s work; autobiographical, philosophical, and visually arresting, The Tree of Life appears to be the essential work by a true master of the cinematic form, a film thoroughly confident and assured. To say it’s a film about everything would be excessive, but it’s a film about everything Malick has attempted to discuss throughout his career, and it’s by far the most all-encompassing and successful in handling his most crucial ideas.

There is legitimacy in a lot of the criticism the film has received; it’s easy to understand someone not liking it. It is purposeful and unrelenting, and often far from interested in pleasing anyone but perhaps just Malick himself, but it cannot be denied that it is a singular work of astounding technical proficiency and emotion. Watching it you get the sense that it is an immense, final sigh of relief from a filmmaker who has finally, after almost five decades, resolved a crisis of utmost spiritual and existential weight.

Nature vs. Grace

*here I mean that, while these Sean Penn sequences are clearly thematically and narratively relevant and ultimately completely necessary in order for Malick to effectively portray his idea of humanity’s fall and ultimate transcendence, they are tonally awkward, unpleasant, and disruptive. Penn had similarly feelings, so much so that he questioned whether he should’ve been present in the film at all.

**the poetic, whispery narration is one of the areas where the film has received the most criticism. Admittedly, it does seem to grate on you every once in a while, especially when during the Big Bang sequence the narration cuts into the music, forcing itself in as opposed to occurring at more appropriate moments in other parts of the film (Malick wisely leaves the narration out for most of the sequence, including the birth of humanity segment that ends it and leads into the main narrative). Overall, though, the narration (itself a quiet and contemplative discourse with what the film’s characters believe is an absent God) is highly evocative and effective, with lines like the one blockquoted above and the film’s opening lines: “Mother. Brother. It was they who led me to your door.” serving as powerful instances of raw emotion and intimacy. It’s as if we are watching the film’s events play out alongside the divine being, Jack’s story (his angst, his struggles, and ultimately his spiritual triumphs) just one of the countless playing out on our physical plane.

***kind of a quick, interesting thought I just had thinking about this sequence: Malick and his crew filmed a lot of this and the following microscopic sequence by shooting various combinations of liquids in water. Watching it you can get the sense of liquidity in the gentle, flowing movements of his subjects. The use of water as a sort of infinite blackness here is very reminiscent of the watery chaos from which many myths (Christian and Jewish included) claim the universe was formed, with these images creating a sort of relationship between the biblical and the natural.