Saturday, January 5, 2013

Picking & Keepings

The clock's ticks thicken with the industrial-beats of the consumerism city; its residents are moving louder and angrier with traces of suppressions, and their tracks uneven on the cobblestone pavements as they wander into the abyss of deceits. Here I am stealing time, working on this post on a dusky noon, with my trusty buddy on the side: the warm black-flavoured tea served in an off-whitish porcelain cup, soothing the taste buds. This fundamental post, which somehow composes itself at the beginning of a new year, must be straightforward enough. Details are key, but I must move quickly. This is not a task one should attend to when there are other things on the checklist far more important to be dealt with. So it shall be succinct, and straight; just right and appropriate for the keeps.

2013 whizzes in as 2012 waltzes out the window like some fiery flamenco. I feel nothing. I must be too busy with my personal undertakings (or overtakings) and my online presence can be numerated without any difficulty using only two bare hands. And yet again, that renewed proposition about watching 100 movies per year (since 2009) had to be revisited - it has become strangely demanding on my part, having merely scrapped through last year with sheer determination in the remaining hours. With only 65 movies in the bag, it will not be such an ordeal to sift through the titles and pick the best of the crop. It must be relatively easy. But still, why bother with such trifles?

Cause life's fluctuating movements have hindered me from making any remarks (good or bad) and this has momentarily rendered me aphonic to any memorable events for the past year, except when I talked about movies, or my extended Star Wars collection. There is nothing else more interesting to rant besides my acute problems with the unattainable 'creative' satisfaction, primarily in the field of work. Settling down is another issue that requires logic and sacrifices. So there.

It's cold outside, I sidetracked and froze, not because I was unable to stand the chills, but because of the irrational blocks that are continuously jamming my cerebral cogwheels. I am now mustering just enough strength to vomit out any word-crumbs to cover this column, this task.


Yes, it's a relatively blissful year for movies, and this I say without any pausing parenthesis. There were monumental pieces proving to be as big as the hypes, while there were smaller or independently obscure gems that truly deserve a shout out. Among the ones that stood out almost naturally was the film many theatre fans have been eagerly waiting for; the one that is clearly on the Oscar's front-runner list: Les Misérables. Tom Hooper's take on the best-selling stage musical, which is based on Victor Hugo's 5-parter novel, has garnered all the awards buzz, channeling fore-ordained winners on many fronts since it's first screening in NYC. It was ravishingly unanimous, with many tweeting positively about the sensational production.

Alas, the musical failed to win both The New York Film Critics Circle and The National Board of Review votes, which awarded the two leading awards (Best Film and Director) to Katheryn Bigelow and her military action thriller Zero Dark Thirty. ZDT is a remarkable piece of work overall, littering all the enforced nuances with the recreation of potent intensities through detailed settings and documented facts, but the film hinges itself on repetitive styles which Bigelow had adopted during her previous hit: The Hurt Locker. The content is fearless but it's not exclusively fresh.

Musical adaptations aren't fresh either and there are mixed reviews from those who had the privilege of seeing the movie much earlier than the premiere. When Les Misérables was finally released, the polarity is apparent – some really loathe it, others embrace in its warmth. Majority of the critics criticize Hooper’s choices of directing styles and camera works; die-hard fans of the stage version wish for more unabridged numbers; and some feel that it fell flat due to storylines that seem rushed with uneven edits.

Despite Chicago winning Best Picture a decade ago, musicals have always been the hardest to pull off, and we have seen a handful of filmmakers trying their best to reboot them. Tom Hooper's vision of the well-known recitative emerges as the victor, coming alive with such ardent sforzando that one simply cannot overlook, even when some of his shots wander in certain places and demand concentrated viewings. His interpretation is still a masterpiece in it's own terms - a classic Best Picture material with a spot-on cast, outstanding production designs, detailed art directions, gritty and sweeping cinematography, and it's brilliant game-changing techniques of having actors singing live on set as opposed to the done-to-death lip-synching methods used in every major stage-to-screen works. This method is by no means an easy feat and probably the first film to use this extensively. There are stark differences with the concepts usually employed in a musical adaptation, and Hooper gets it about right by creating an alternate universe with heightened realism, outlining routines that seem to be habitual without the audience feeling 'out-of-grasp' as they watched characters belting it out into songs. A less grittier, traditionally-laid stagings of Les Misérables is still playing on Broadway if this movie doesn't get you, but the new 25th Anniversary production has forego the rotating stage which was revolutionary in its time when I first viewed it 16 years ago. If you much prefer a straitlaced version without all that sing-talk concoction, the 1998 one with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush might be right up your alley.

2012 was also a cash-in year for CG-driven blockbusters, that somehow showed us how far we have come to learn about proper storytelling: that eventually plots must drive the picture, that performance is paramount, that all the glittery effects are propellers for narratives and not solely as an agent of awe. A fine example is Ang Lee's moving image, Life of Pi - whose interpretation of the novel by Yann Martel equates a surreal painting on a 3-dimensional canvas, with philosophical underpinnings layered like a gelatin on a palatable fruitcake. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises and Rian Johnson's Looper also dazzled the eyes - both so tantalizing you almost forget that the characters are living in a fictional world (the latter was a show that I must admittedly reviewed as a tad confusing when seen for the first time, otherwise it's definitely one of the few original screenplays to surface last year).

I shall make no lengthy comments on The Avengers. I took the liberty to see it twice (the other two movies that had repeated viewings were The Dark Knight Rises and Les Misérables), and I summarized it as an entertaining summer flick with all its visual verbosity, decidedly so. It will of course get an Oscar nod in the Sound Department. It’s as loud as it can get. On the other hand, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was disappointing and landed nowhere near my radar. The sum of its visuals outwits the absurdity of the story, which I thought was compelling to begin with but strayed at many intervals thereafter. The story felt alienated (no pun intended) from the magic that the movie wanted to unfold. The scale of the movie outlived its own ambitions.

Peter Jackon’s The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey was good, but this did not register to me as the breathtaking movie it ought to or should be. Seen that, been there, no special tricks out of the hat, no surprises to grab you by the eyes.

I was, however, in awe of Cloud Atlas. The movie depicts six stories interwoven together in a cinematic mosaic, moving from one era to another like a tapestry in an ocean of threads. It is a cipher waiting to be decoded, an enigma wanting to be pried open and analysed. The Wachowskis, collaborating hand in hand with Tom Twyker and 2 DPs, John Toll and Frank Griebe, have cleverly peeled the stories and re-assembled them into one coherent picture. The unique concept in which actors play multiple roles gave the film an added dimension to the tapestry, and each performance is so different from the next, I am often caught by surprise of the many transmutations as we jumped back and forth through the different time zones. The 3 hours invested in a visual discourse fly by fleetly when there were so much going on in a speed of light. The movie requires more than one sitting, and I will watch it again to immerse myself in its grandiosity, absorbing the multiple plotlines and giving my mind some space to extract the vinculum in between the pieces. But like any form of arts, this tightly-knitted film rejects linear structures that our brains are accustomed to. Thus the mind, vast and without pre-disposed analysis, must be ready to interpret beyond the obvious. Such is the monumental piece I was expecting, and conclusively, it is the best film of 2012.

Aside from the serious works, I was able to catch a number of comedies. Those seriously good ones were rare and they came from the auteurs who can direct humours with precise pacing: Woody Allen gave us To Rome With Love (which seems like a self-parody though I found it amusing two-thirds of the time), and Wes Anderson presented Moonrise Kingdom - a delightful thunderstorm. In one of his best movie of late, Anderson collaborated again with Alexandre Desplat for an oddly sweet musical suite based significantly on Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to The Orchestra. That particular variation has a secret place in my heart and still holds fond memories of my teenage years. I remembered one Sunday noon calling Symphony 92.4 FM, and much to my amusement dedicated Britten’s piece to my fellow classmates. I was that crazy, and nobody actually heard the dedication. But I knew back then that I wanted to master the timpani.

Other films that didn’t make it into the top list, but left lasting impressions are: The Grey by Joe Carnahan; The Perks of Being a Wallflower by director/novelist Stephen Chbosky; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by John Madden (showcasing the best British talents in one single movie); Skyfall from Sam Mendes; Safety Not Guaranteed by the first feature-film director Colin Trevorrow; Tales of The Night by Michel Ocelot (undoubtedly THE BEST animation I've seen in years!!!); and Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War. Echoing 2011’s War Horse, I ended the year with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. It contains all the hallmarks of the master, but it was too large a scope for the top list, probably due to the storyline that are, for the most parts, heavily rooted on historical facts. The force to be reckoned is Daniel-Day Lewis, who graced the screen effortlessly. Where actor’s category is concerned, he takes the cake with ease. The other four men that gave exceptional performances are: Denzel Washington in Flight, Denis Lavant in Holy Motors, Hugh Jackman in Les Misérables, and Richard Gere in Arbitrage.

So I’ve wilted the titles to ten, and a definitive ten was all I can gather in a year of remarkable cinematic treats. There was a little gap in the fifth place while I was toying with the list, and it was certainly hard enough to choose between an action and a drama piece, even coming close as putting a documentary or animation in that very mystifying spot. A tough call. Despite the lack in volumes, I have a very decent selection. Here lies my ten in descending order of merit, and just for the record, another ten neatly tucked at the base for Special Mentions:

Producers Guilt Awards nomination (usually a barometer for Oscar’s Best Picture contenders): Argo, Beasts, Django, Les Miz, Pi, Lincoln, Moonrise, Skyfall, Playbook, ZDT. Should win: Argo. Most likely to win: ZDT. Darkhorse: Les Miz.

Footnote: Now is not the time for heartbreaks. I’ll sleep it through, and see if I can make meaning out of everything as soon as the rain stops. Every minute, a thought. Every seconds, seeking.