I wrote this two weeks ago, but I still have issues with timely editing and posting. Grovelly apologies, etc etc…
This year did not quite match last year’s silent era lovefest. However, many of 2012’s big releases touch on the past, either in subject matter or style. Compiling my best-of list from the past year I was pleased to find musicals, melodramas and lashings of animation. Not all of these are relevant to retronauts and film archivists, but I’ve highlighted a few that play on nostalgia (and I haven’t even seen Side by Side yet).
(To clarify, I use Oscar season as my cut-off point, not the calendar year.)
Ellie’s Top 15
15. The Master
14. Beasts of the Southern Wild
13. Les Miserables
12. Moonrise Kingdom
11. Magic Mike
9. Rust and Bone
8. Pitch Perfect
7. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
6. Song for Sugar Man
5. Wreck It Ralph
3. Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!
1. Holy Motors
By rights this should be much further up the list. A period piece shot (and in some places screened) in 70mm, it was right up my street. Moreover, the design and the scope of the film is astounding, and I spent much of the time stunned in reverie. The sequence where Joaquin Phoenix takes studio portraits in a department store before beating a patron is superbly well-executed, and his clients look like 1940s portraits come to life. So why only number 15? Unfortunately, I am a lone dissenter in that I found Phoenix’s histrionics to be unconvincing and lacking in real depth and nuance. This year’s films have been full of broken men grappling with their sanity (Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Les Miserables, er, Wreck It Ralph…) and Phoenix’s performance not only distanced me from the film, it also reminded me of Dan the creepy neighbour from BBC3’s Him and Her.
Not so much retro in execution but certainly twee in flavour, Moonrise Kingdom has proven to be a favourite amongst Wes Anderson fans. I can usually take or leave the Anderson canon (though I adored Fantastic Mr Fox), but there was definitely something real, something moving in the artifice of Moonrise Kingdom. Perhaps it was the Benjamin Britten soundtrack, the gorgeous colour palette, the typography nerdery surrounding it. Or perhaps the cast – in particular the kids and Ed Norton’s harassed scout leader – gave just the right amount of character and restraint to prompt a smile. Also, the disaffected kids at camp shtick reminded me of The Addams Family Values – which is a good thing.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Despite being an adaptation of the 1930s children’s classic, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit appears to have been conceived with an eye toward the future. Much has been said about the 48 fps format, and I don’t particularly care to rehash it all here. But, for a time the entire film community was talking format and technology in a way that only happens once in a blue moon. I loved the fact that usually format-neutral critics were actually beginning to question what made a film realistic, and what they really wanted from cinema anyway. I for one enjoyed this particular instance of high frame rate – the mixture of the televisual aesthetic, whimsy and fantasy produced a tale that is at once epic and comforting, like the BBC Sunday teatime dramas of my childhood (the presence of Ian Holm further cemented this feeling). Also, it made the 3d brighter and somewhat more tolerable. I do, however, remain sceptical with regards to high frame rates generally.
Wreck It Ralph
I am not a gamer, but even I could see that Wreck It Ralph’s eponymous hero is a version of Donkey Kong, the figure who started out as the bad guy and made it to first-player of his own beloved franchise, and Fix It Felix is Ralph’s Mario (complete with overalls and angular jumping poses). The sheer amount of thought and love that went into Wreck It Ralph is palpable. I can’t understand why film critics seem so concerned with whether an animation matches up to Pixar’s best (which, by the way, Wreck It Ralph does, and surpasses Pixar’s most recent offering, Brave). Wreck It Ralph is an adorable film that manages to fit in just the right amount of knowing nods to those of us who remember epic Street Fighter 2 battles on Gamesmaster without disrupting the story for younger viewers. It is also an artistic marvel, deftly shifting between pixels and 8-bits and three-dimensional CGI. It was a perfect composite of retro source material, modern artistry and timeless storytelling. That it’s not even my favourite animated film of the year (hurrah for Aardman) speaks volumes about the possibilities of cinema’s most dynamic medium.
Coming in just under the wire is No, the U-matic masterpiece. Normally, I hate videotape because videotape sucks. It sucks for convenience, it sucks for quality, and it sucks for preservation, but I’ll forgive it just this once. Much has been said about the verisimilitude that this format provides, but I’d go one further and say that so often historical pieces (even those that recall recent history) can feel just so alien when seen in current formats. Argo, for example, was full of fantastic design but just looked sort of synthetic (and that’s not just the polyester). In placing a person as recognisable as Gael Garcia Bernal in the physical format of the period, we as viewers start to associate ourselves with that period in time, and it no longer feels so distant. Also, it makes good, extended use of a genuine watershed moment in television, which is surely going to endear it to most broadcast historians and archivists.
On a final note, the cinema I saw No in either does not have masking to accommodate academy ratio, or they chose not to use it. Either way, that is a sad state of affairs.