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Best of 2012

Oscar Snubs 2013

There is always such a feeling of inevitability by the time the Oscar nominations roll around. Even moved back to early January, it arrives after weeks of Top Ten lists, an unending array of critics awards, and predictions from every pundit with a blog. At least they beat the Golden Globe Awards this year, but the final tally is still measured against the consensus.

This year, no surprise, belongs to “Lincoln,” which entered the nominations as the film to beat and emerged with 12 nominations and an almost sure lock on Best Actor. The Best Picture category swelled to nine nominees, spreading the recognition around muscular studio pictures, big Hollywood Entertainments, and demanding independents. “Amour” emerged as the foreign upstart and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” the American indie that could. The front-runners and underdogs stake their positions and the critical kibitzing begins.

That’s not to say there were no surprises. Who foresaw five nominations for Michael Hanake’s harrowing “Amour,” or eleven for the survival drama by way of a storybook tale “Life of Pi” (albeit mostly for technical categories)? “Les Misérables” took eight nominations yet was ignored in directing and writing categories, which doesn’t bode well for Oscar night. “Silver Linings Playbook” scored better than expected and “Zero Dark Thirty” underperformed. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a game of numbers, it’s about the movies and performers and artists. The numbers just help take the temperature of the race.

Why do we care? Because politics and oddsmaking aside, the Oscars still matter to us, both as a star-studded spectacle and a sign of industry appreciation. A nomination is indeed an honor (certainly more of an honor than the Golden Globes) and a snub is still something to get worked up over. So here is our annual scorecard on Oscar’s slights and oversights: they shoulda been a contender.

Picture

The new shapeshifting incarnation of this category can shrink to five nominees or sprawl to ten films, depending on the Academy’s complicated formula. This year it’s a substantial nine nominees, including the inevitable but undeserving “Les Misérables,” and yet it left out Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” a film celebrated on best lists across the country (it was the fourth-ranked film on the MSN poll). The story of puppy love and adolescent runaways in a summer wonderland is Anderson’s most mature film to date and the most authentically benevolent and affectionate piece of filmmaking to come out of the American cinema in ages. I guess that kind of mix of storybook playfulness and unabashed sincerity isn’t considered serious enough, but I’ll take it over the often condescending clichés of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

The raw dysfunction of “The Master” may have been too uncomfortable for Academy voters but I appreciate its uncompromising intensity. There were cheerleaders rooting for “The Dark Knight Rises” to legitimize the comic book movie and “Skyfall” to honor Bond, but they’ll have to settle for their blockbuster box office.

Continue reading at MSN Movies

Moments Out of Time 2012

Images, lines, gestures, moods from the year’s films

• Asleep in a balcony seat at the top of some golden-age movie palace, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is brought a telephone: The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd) is calling from England….

• In Lincoln, the magnetic clasp of hands at the moment Stanton (Bruce McGill) and Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) finally receive news about a crucial battle…

• Fireflies: the compound at Abbottabad aswarm with night-vision dots, Zero Dark Thirty

• Gothic night woods, the rattle of wagon wheels on rough ground, the contrapuntal swinging of a lantern and a giant tooth: enter Dr. King Schulz (Christoph Waltz), Django Unchained

Skyfall: 007 (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench) at the threshold of 39 Steps country…

• On the beach in Moonrise Kingdom: Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) tentatively boogie to Françoise Hardy’s “Le Temps de l’Amour”…

Moonrise Kingdom

• “Girl from the North Country” playing as Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) sit cross-legged on the floor, beginning a life-saving dance—Silver Linings Playbook

• “I would like to be cohesive” … Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), Beasts of the Southern Wild

• Moon and Cate Blanchett sharing a frame, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

• Cat sitting atop abandoned iron lung in a dark room, The Sessions

• Coffin with memory drawer optional, Bernie

• In the sepia palette of memory, the soft, volcanic flare when (Rachel Weisz) lights, draws on a cigarette, one measure of appetite and passion in The Deep Blue Sea

Easy Money: JW (Joel Kinnaman) stares at the back of a golden girl’s neck, turned on by the erotics of privilege….

• Young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave), pressed against Cathy’s (Shannon Beer) back as they ride on the moor, breathes in her hair while his hand grazes the horse’s flank — Wuthering Heights….

• Orgiastic swell of sacred harp hymn as Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) kneels and washes Jack Bondurant’s (Shia LaBoeuf) filthy feet, in Lawless

• Deep in a Paris sewer, a perverse pietà: Beauty (Eva Mendes) and the Beast (Denis Lavant), Holy Motors

• Pietà in Robot & Frank: Frank (Frank Langella) cradling his “son,” after erasing Robot’s harddrive…

• Freddie Quell, surreally tiny, sharing a bench with his hometown sweetheart, just one of his larger-than-life Mothers in The Master

• “Name me.” Olivia Wilde to Charlie Hunnam, Deadfall

Anna Karenina: The crackling sound of Anna’s (Keira Knightley) agitated paper fan, like the wings of a moth beating against light, as she watches her lover ride in a horserace…

Hope Springs: Kay (Meryl Streep): “I’m not comfortable with oral sex.” Dr. Feld (Steve Carrel): “Giving or receiving?” Kay: “What?”…

Django Unchained: blood spattering snow-white cotton bolls…

Looper Senior (Bruce Willis) face to face with Looper Junior (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) over breakfast in a heartland diner…

• Late-night diner schmooze between two battered hockey “enforcers,” one rising (Seann William Scott), one in decline (Liev Schreiber)—Goon

Amour: a slap that, in small, shatters civilization…

• Shadows of passing soldiers flickering over the faces of Lincoln and Grant (Jared Harris) as they keep each other company on a roadside porch, post–Civil War carnage—Lincoln

• Tarantino’s uncanny instinct for setup and suspension: in Django Unchained, the hilltop vantage on a man plowing a field, as two men (Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx) argue the merits of his extermination…

• Surveyed from a distance, on high, the track that connects Prometheus and the alien ship takes on a strange immanence: an umbilical link between “gods” and men….

• Barely glimpsed in Life of Pi: the shape of the eat-and-be-eaten island softens into the form of dreaming Vishnu….

Tabu: In silent black-and-white, Portuguese colonials do the twist on a lawn in the middle of darkest Africa….

• Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) coping with horse dander, The Hobbit

The Intouchables: Driss’s (Omar Sy) amoral delight when his paralyzed employer (François Cluzet) doesn’t react to the hot coffee Driss has just poured over his leg…

• Debbie (Leslie Mann) touching Desi’s (Megan Fox) breasts in This Is 40: “They’re like memory mattresses—Tempur-Pedic!”…

• In Argo, the always Moment-ous Philip Baker Hall: “The United States Government has just sanctioned your science fiction movie.”…

• Michaels Stuhlbarg and Pitt: who better to initiate us, however unexpectedly, into the madcap zone of Seven Psychopaths?…

• Kneeling aurochs, paying homage to Hushpuppy—Beasts of the Southern Wild

• Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) summoning her orca, the great black perfect circle of its head, front on, materializing out of the blue of a screen-filling tank—Rust and Bone

• In Luck, a man falling in love: Chester Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), seated outside his ailing horse’s stall in the night, registers a noble head swinging toward him….

• A gigantic jellyfish swimming in a night-blue sky, backdrop for silhouettes practicing lethal martial arts—Skyfall

• The erotic squeak of rubber against rubber as two figures in scarlet motion-capture suits mimic sex, replicated by writhing alien avatars on the screen behind them—Holy Motors

• “One of your vertebrae is protruding—it must be put back.” The awful craaackk! that follows marks an end to the orgy of breakage in The Dark Knight Rises

Bernie: Preparing to address the jury, pompous DA Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) carefully wipes his mouth with his tie….

Magic Mike: Leather-vested cowboy Dallas’s (Matthew McConaughey) deliciously dirty drawl as he explains the rules to the ladies packing his strip club: “The laaaaw says you can’t touch….”

• Mr. Tarantino blows up real good, Django Unchained

• Crate delivery at 4 a.m., Boardwalk Empire

• Flaying a man down to the soul—Carrie (Claire Danes) breaking Brody (Damian Lewis) in Homeland

Silver Linings Playbook: Just finished reading A Farewell to Arms, Pat wakes his father (Robert De Niro) to register a protest—”She dies, Dad!”…

• Aro’s (Michael Sheen) maniacal shriek of laughter at the sight of Renesmee—most welcome blasphemy in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

3,2,1 … Frankie Go Boom: the once and future Mr. Big (Chris Noth), naked except for a leopard thong, pounding away on his treadmill…

Sons of Anarchy: On his knees, howling, at the edge of a pit, Tig (Kim Coates) watches his daughter burn alive….

• A twinkling yacht gliding under the Golden Gate Bridge at dusk: The Master‘s West Coast version of Gatsby’s green light…

The Paperboy: in the bayou at night, the eye of a gator glowing like a lantern…

• Three sick souls (Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, James Badge Dale) sharing a smoke and some straight talk in a hospital stairwell, Flight

Prom­etheus: Über-android David (Michael Fassbender) gravely combing his hair to look like Peter O’Toole’s do in Lawrence of Arabia

• The costumes that fail: KKK bagheads in Django Unchained (it’s the eyeholes that’s the problem)…

The Sessions: Father Brendan (William H. Macy), decked out in bandana and red-white-and-blue running gear, toting six-pack, arrives at the home of his paralyzed parishioner (John Hawkes)….

• Moral nicety in Deadfall: When a killer (Eric Bana) sneers, “Who are you, my mother?” Sissy Spacek ripostes, “Somebody’s mother.”…

• “Look upon your work, Mother”: in Skyfall, Silva (Javier Bardem) removing the scaffolding of his ruined face for M’s edification…

• The Home we must care for … Promised Land pauses to enjoy the pastoral magic of farm pond and hills as night comes on in Western Pennsylvania….

• Depending on your POV in The Deep Blue Sea: “This is a tragedy” … “Sad perhaps, but hardly Sophocles.”…

• “That’s it for me.” In The Grey, camera moves slowly in on Diaz (Frank Grillo), propped against a log, surveying magnificent forest, mountains, and what might be the big two-hearted river….

• “A lady from days gone by and a sad and melancholic crocodile,” keeping ghostly company in a moonlit jungle, Tabu

• Odalisque with kitten: Eve (Kara Hayward) in her Moonrise Kingdom

• Tiffany’s (Jennifer Lawrence) one-word eloquence in Silver Linings Playbook: that “Hey!” grenade each time she ambushes Pat (Bradley Cooper), and her flat, deal-closed “OK” after his passionate declaration of love…

• “Argo fuck yourself!” John Goodman, Alan Arkin, and Ben Affleck sharing a toast…

• Freddie Quell’s gaunted, crucified face as he listens to Lancaster Dodd crooning “Slow Boat to China,” in The Master

• Introductory CU of dead-eyed Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a perfectly malevolent black snake—Django Unchained

• In This Is 40, Albert Brooks explaining, “You can’t use up a Jew card—it goes forever!”…

• “Make her fun! I want a fun queen!” Christian, King of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), demands of his personal physician and fellow-rake (Mads Mikkelsen) in A Royal Affair….

• Auntie Phyllis and Frankie—Ron Perlman and Charlie Hunnam—dreamily slow-dancing … so wrong, and yet so right: 3,2,1 … Frankie Go Boom

The Hobbit: Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) dialogue with their eyes….

ParaNorman‘s ringtone: the iconic theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween

• While Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) hides from her demons under a pool table, the past starts to replay as a little girl’s legs suddenly dangle from table’s edge—Silent House

The Grey: A little girl’s long hair sweeps over a dying man’s face in benediction….

End of Watch: Every sweet, raunchy conversation—the jazzy riffs of friendship—between cop brothers-in-arms (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) as they cruise the mean streets of South Central…

• In Premium Rush, Michael Shannon as psycho cop Bobby Monday, nailing the kind of genial, even reasonable dementia that shrinks the world into his personal playpen; possibly American kin to Hans Landa…

• The prolonged demolishing of a man in a bathtub, The Snowtown Murders

Magic Mike: Stripper Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), bent over a sewing machine, mending his jockstrap…

• The future Robin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) ducking a swarm of bats just before the end of The Dark Knight Rises

• Any one of Tommy Lee Jones’ many eloquent double-takes on the therapy couch, in Hope Springs

• Bedtime reading in Lincoln: the 13th Amendment…

The Hobbit: the fingers of a statue flexing…

• Say goodbye to Miss Lara, Django Unchained

Killing Them Softly: Cogan (Brad Pitt) watching Mickey (James Gandolfini) drink a beer…

• Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), blood-smeared and naked except for the belt wrapped tight around his neck, lurching dreamily down a hotel hallway—Boardwalk Empire

• Last man standing in The Grey, Liam Neeson shoves his great Celtic mug up into a dead-white sky and thunders at God: “Show me something real!”…

• Maya (Jessica Chastain) alone in the back of a vast transport plane, Zero Dark Thirty: where to now?…

 

Parallax View’s Best of 2012

Welcome 2013 with one last look back at the best releases of 2011, as seen by the contributors to Parallax View and a few notable Seattle-based film critics.

Sean Axmaker

1. Holy Motors
2. Zero Dark Thirty
3. Moonrise Kingdom
4. Margaret (2011 in NY and LA, didn’t screen elsewhere until 2012)
5. Cosmopolis
6. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
7. The Master
8. The Turin Horse
9. Tabu
10. This is Not a Film

Ten more: Amour, Barbara, Deep Blue Sea, Django Unchained, Hyde Park on Hudson, I Wish, The Kid With a Bike, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Magic Mike

My greatest cinematic events of 2012
Hands down the cinematic experience of 2012 for me was the American premier of the complete restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) with live accompaniment by Oakland East Bay Symphony conducted by Carl Davis. The density of Gance’s ideas, the frisson of his images and experiments in cinematic expression, and the complicated perspectives on the legacy of Napoleon have a weight that is undeniable. And watching the full 5 ½ Napoleon with a live orchestra in a magnificent theater elevates the film to a cinematic experience without parallel, and that experience electrifies the storytelling and imagery.

Local (Seattle) Event: Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy, one-night-only at Grand Illusion. It was a perfect marriage of film and venue: the tiny, independent house with a storied history and an audience of regulars, and a scrappy compilation movie with some surreal moments and a climax that manages to bring over dozen films into the same narrative universe, if only for this moment. And hey, don’t crowd me, man.

Other published Top Ten Lists: MSN, Village Voice, Fandor

Best of Home Video lists: Top Ten Disc Debuts, Top Five Blu-rays, Top Five TV on Disc Releases, Top Five MOD Releases and Notable Achievements for 2012

Sheila Benson

(as published in Village Voice)

1. Rust and Bone
2. Amour
3. Argo
4. Lincoln
5. Holy Motors
6. The Master
7. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
8. Life of Pi
9. Quartet

David Coursen

(the first nine in alphabetical order, the last as the film of the—um—year)
Holy Motors, Hugo, Lincoln, Margaret, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Rust and Bone, Silver Linings Playbook, Tabu, Take this Waltz, and La Rabbia: the Rage of Pasolini (“a film released, in what must have been an infinitely less compelling form, in 1963, but listed this year by the National Gallery of Art as a “Washington Premiere” in a form so imbued with greatness it triggered a private pre-New Years Pasolini epiphany”).

Jim Emerson

(as published in Village Voice)

1. Holy Motors
2. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
3. The Deep Blue Sea
4. Lincoln
5. Amour
6. Tabu
7. Moonrise Kingdom
8. The Turin Horse
9. This is Not a Film
10. The Master

John Hartl

Technically, Kenneth Lonergan’s remarkable Margaret may not have qualified as a 2012 film (a few people saw it in 2011), but the years he spent in the editing room paid off in this story of a high-strung teenager (Anna Paquin) who causes a horrendous traffic accident. The writer-director’s unique focus on responsibility–and its limits–led to the creation of the year’s most haunting and original film. Almost equally affecting were Michael Haneke’s wrenching account of an older couple facing the end of their relationship, Amour, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, about an American personality cult spinning out of control. Among the most playful new movies: Wes Anderson’s tale of romantic runaways, Moonrise Kingdom, and Richard Linklater’s stranger-than-fiction Jack Black vehicle, Bernie. The latter, like Ben Affleck’s self-assured Argo, Steven Spielberg’s painstaking Lincoln, and Kathryn Bigelow’s vigorous Zero Dark Thirty, is based on fact. Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games took a popular young-adult book and made something majestic of it. Northwest filmmaker Jon Garcia’s The Falls, a perfectly cast love story about 20-year-old Mormon missionaries, was the best of several strong gay films.

A second 10: Rust and Bone, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, Keep the Lights On, Barbara, A Royal Affair, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, Queen of Versailles, Any Day Now.

Robert Horton

(as published at Everett Herald)

1. Margaret
2. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
3. Silver Linings Playbook
4. This Is Not a Film
5. Lincoln
6. The Turin Horse
7. The Master
8. Bernie
9. Searching for Sugar Man
10. To Rome With Love

For the second 10: The Secret World of Arietty, Wreck-It Ralph, The Deep Blue Sea, Cosmopolis, Django Unchained, Holy Motors, Elena, Moonrise Kingdom, The Dark Knight Rises, The Grey.

Richard T. Jameson

1. Zero Dark Thirty
2. Lincoln
3. Django Unchained
4. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
5. The Turin Horse
6. Silver Linings Playbook
7. Moonrise Kingdom
8. Cosmopolis
9. The Deep Blue Sea
10. The Sessions

Mooned by the misbegotten: Les Misérables, Rock of Ages

Other published lists: MSN

Jay Kuehner

(as published on Fandor)

1. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel)
2. Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
3. Neighbouring Sounds/O som ao redor (Kleber Mendonça Filho)
4. In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo)
5. Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers)
6. small roads (James Benning)
7. Viola (Matias Piniero)
8. O Gebo e a Sombra/Gebo and the Shadow (Manoel de Oliveira)
9. Vers Madrid/The Burning Bright (Sylvain George)
10. Arraianos (Eloy Enciso)

Moira Macdonald

(as published in The Seattle Times)

Anna Karenina
Argo
The Avengers
The Deep Blue Sea
Flight
I Wish
Lincoln
Margaret
Pina
Ruby Sparks

Ten more terrific movies, any of which might have slipped into my first ten on a different day: A Cat in Paris, Bernie, Liberal Arts, The Master, Middle of Nowhere, Moonrise Kingdom, A Royal Affair, The Sessions, The Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall, Smashed. OK, that’s 11. So be it.

Best 2012 movies that haven’t opened in Seattle yet (but I’ve seen them): Amour, Zero Dark Thirty

Kathleen Murphy

(as published at MSN Movies)

1. Zero Dark Thirty
2. Lincoln
3. The Master
4. Amour
5. Holy Motors
6. Django Unchained
7. Moonrise Kingdom
8. Silver Linings Playbook
9. The Deep Blue Sea
10. Cosmopolis

Bruce Reid

1. The Turin Horse
2. The Kid with a Bike
3. Moonrise Kingdom
4. Cosmopolis
5. The Master
6. Holy Motors
7. This Is Not a Film
8. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
9. Not Fade Away
10. The Loneliest Planet

Andrew Wright

1. Django Unchained
2. Holy Motors
3. Elena
4. Looper
5. Margaret
6. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
7. Argo
8. The Master
9. The Grey
10. Skyfall

Lists of lists:
MSN Movies (lists at end of gallery)
Village Voice (poll and lists)
Indiewire’s Criticwire
Movie City News
Fandor
Time Out London
Keyframe Daily Lists and Award 2012 Index

Polls (no individual lists)
Film Comment
Indiewire Poll
Sight and Sound

Other lists
2012 additions to the National Film Registry
Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s Ten Best Films of … 1922
New York Times Year in Culture

See the 2012 Seattle Film Critics Wrap at the Frye, with Robert Horton hosting Kathleen Murphy and Jim Emerson, after the jump below.

Keep Reading

Videodrone’s best of 2012 MOD and special home video mentions

The last of the lists, with the best debuts from the manufacture-on-demand mode and a few assorted special prizes for stand-out achievements and dubious honors.

Manufacture-on-Demand

1. “Red Dust” (Warner Archive), the 1932 jungle melodrama starring Clark Gable as a rubber plantation foreman in East Asia and Jean Harlow as the street smart showgirl who lands upriver in his primitive plantation manor, is as sexy, frank, and grown-up as pre-code cinema gets. The star power made this a classic of late-night TV and early VHS release, but the lack of high-quality archival elements made it MIA when other star-powered Hollywood classics rolled out on DVD. Disc release was delayed until a satisfactory master could be created, and this is far more than satisfactory. It looks great and marks one of the biggest releases of the format. (Full review here)

2. “Three Strangers” (Warner Archive), “Nobody Lives Forever” (Warner Archive), and “The Conspirators” (Warner Archive), three of the four features that elevated Jean Negulesco from studio contract man cranking out theatrical shorts to A-list Warner director, are the first films from the Warner Archive to carry the brand “Film Noir.” “The Conspirators” (1944) is basically a “Casablanca” knock-off in Portugal, a standard studio thriller pulled off with style, but the other two are superb: “Three Strangers” (1946) a shadowy film of fate and greed and obsession from a John Huston screenplay and “Nobody Lives Forever” (1946) a street-smart film noir of con men and double crosses with John Garfield in the lead. (Full review here)

3. “Crime Does Not Pay” (Warner Archive) – The MGM series numbered 50 dramatic short films between from 1935 to 1947, all running about 20 minutes, most serving as a training ground for up and coming directors (including Jacques Tourneur, Joseph Losey, and future Oscar winner Fred Zinneman). They’re a mix of procedural, with detectives doing proto-CSI work to solve the crimes, and morality tale with terrible ends for the criminals, and they are all collected in this six-disc set, most of them is better shape than I expected for such a forgotten series. (Full review here)

4. “Safe in Hell” (Warner Archive), a kind of B-movie riff on “Sadie Thompson” directed by William Wellman, and its star Dorothy Mackaill are two of most exciting discoveries I made this year, thanks to the creative curatory drive of Warner Archive. In fact, you could toss in any number of thirties films, from audacious pre-code dramas to rapid fire comedies, that made their home video debut this years thanks to Warner Archive, from “The Last Flight” (1931) and “Thirteen Women” (1932) to the eight films on “Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 4” and “Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 5.” (Full review here)

5. “Having a Wild Weekend” (Warner Archive), the Dave Clark Five’s answer to “A Hard Day’s Night,” has a title that suggests the knock-about fun and goofy banter of The Beatles on film, but it’s more like a mop top exploitation version of the social drama cinema that was all the rage in the mid-sixties. Playwright Peter Nichols brings an edge of social satire and a shadow of existential emptiness to the runaway road movie story and John Boorman (making his feature debut) adds a kind of mod realism to the romp. In fact, leading man Dave Clark is the film’s only real weakness. (Full review here)

Continue reading at Videodrone

Videodrone’s best of 2012: TV on disc

Continuing our tribute to the best of 2012, here are my picks for the top TV releases on disc.

1. “Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season” (HBO) – Pay cable is always looking for the next buzz show, a series that gets people talking, watching and subscribing. “Game of Thrones,” the epic fantasy set in a medieval world of warring kingdoms, cutthroat royal families, barbarians, dragons, and some undefined evil kept at bay (at least up until now) behind a massive wall taller than a skyscraper, is such a show. This complex, intelligent, and visually impressive production is the most lavish fantasy epic TV has ever seen. This could be a fanciful take on Europe of the Dark Ages but for the echoes of supernatural forces massing outside of the borders. The casting is superb, the production looks amazing, like a medieval epic shrouded in the shadow of a winter storm, and the writing is intelligent and always surprising. Like so many HBO shows, it takes its time unfolding its story and doesn’t follow the expectations of TV storytelling (major characters are constantly sacrificed to the ruthlessness of the story), but it casts its spell from the opening scenes.

The disc release is as lavish as you could hope, with solid commentary tracks and plenty of interesting featurettes and interviews, and the Blu-ray includes an interactive “In-Episode Guide” viewing mode and the superb “Anatomy of an Episode” mode that offers the sixth episode with a fully integrated audio-video commentary track with video interviews, storyboards, and other picture-in-picture supplements. (Full review here)

2. “Homeland: The Complete First Season” (Fox) is the first Showtime original series to take on HBO in the realm in which the latter dominates: dense, challenging, intelligent drama. This show, adapted from an Israeli TV series called “Prisoners of War” about contemporary POWs struggling to find their place when they return home, was developed for American audiences by its Israeli creator Gideon Raff with Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon of “24” and cast with two superb actors in the lead: Claire Danes as a CIA analyst who has trouble working well with others and Damian Lewis as an American Marine back home after eight years of captivity under Al-Qaeda and may be a sleeper agent. This incarnation is wrapped tightly in the war on terror and the American intelligence culture, but behind the realpolitik thriller is also the story of war and captivity takes its toll on the folks on the front lines. The actions and decisions of its characters puts issues of patriotism, faith, and responsibility to family into focus in ways we don’t often see. The first season earned six Emmy awards. (Full review here)

3. “Mildred Pierce” (HBO) is less a remake than a new run at adapting the James M. Cain novel. Previously made into a Hollywood classic (which earned Joan Crawford her only Oscar), it’s been transformed into a five-hour mini-series by Todd Haynes, who casts Kate Winslet in the title role as the mother blindly devoted to her sneering, status-conscious daughter. There’s none of the murder mystery plot that Hollywood added to the depression-era melodrama. This is a character study in maternal sacrifice, a skewed success story rooted in guilt and damaged self-esteem and powered by willful blindness of her daughter Veda’s (Evan Rachel Wood) evolution and her own compromises. The mini-series form has largely migrated from the networks to cable, and HBO is the perfect place for such an adult production. Superb. (Full review here)

Continue reading on Videodrone

Videodrone’s best of 2012 on Blu-ray

While you can find many of the best Blu-ray releases in my countdown of the Top Ten disc releases of 2012, this is a list of the top Blu-ray debuts of films previously available on DVD only, upgraded with new transfers and digital masters.

1. “Lawrence of Arabia: Fiftieth Anniversary” (Sony) presents the long-awaited Blu-ray debut of one of the most beloved film classics and most intelligent cinema epics. This exhaustive 4k digital restoration of David Lean’s masterpiece builds on the 1989 version with newly-available digital tools to repair previously irreparable footage and pull out a clarity beyond what was not possible before. Which is just what Sony was awaiting before releasing one of the most beloved film classics and most intelligent cinema epics to Blu-ray.

How does this look? To quote T.E. Lawrence: “It’s clean.” Yes, and it’s clear and sharp and strong, as beautiful a Blu-ray as you’ve seen. The original camera negative was scanned at 8k, creating an enormous digital snapshot of every frame of film to work from, and then the finished production was “down-rezzed” to 4k for digital projection and digital mastering on Blu-ray. It’s packed with supplements, including the never-before-release?d extended version of the “Balcony Scene” with Peter O’Toole and Jack Hawkins, a sequence that Lean was unable to put back into his reconstruction due to missing elements. The producers of the disc have not inserted it into the film — for better or worse, the version presented here is the one that Lean signed off on in 1989 — but this sequence is legendary among “Lawrence” fans and editor Anne V. Coates puts it in context in a video introduction. Finally seeing it is a true pleasure. (Full review here)

2. “Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection” (Universal) presents the long-awaited Blu-ray debuts of the most famous Universal monster movies from the thirties through the fifties: “Dracula” (1931) with Bela Lugosi, “Frankenstein” (1931), “The Mummy” (1932), and “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) with Boris Karloff, “The Invisible Man” (1933) with Claude Rains, and “The Wolf Man” (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr., plus the Technicolor “Phantom of the Opera” (1943) with Claude Rains and “Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954) from the fifties era of Universal monster movies, a ninth feature — the 1931 Spanish language “Dracula” — and the 3D version of “Creature” (requires a full HD 3D TV, compatible 3D glasses, and a Blu-ray 3D player). It presents magnificent new HD masters of each film, all with a significant leap in detail, sharpness, and contrast from the previous (superb) DVD editions. The earlier films are the most impressive, given their age and the results on screen. Great care was lavished in the sets, lighting, and make-up of these films and these editions preserve the depth and detail and texture of this era’s studio filmmaking. I love the richness of black and white on a well-mastered Blu-ray and these are superb. Universal does this one up right, complete with a treasure trove of documentaries, commentary tracks, and more. (Full review here)

3. “Jaws” (Universal), Steven Spielberg’s meticulously-directed, tension-filled, career-redefining thrill machine, has been pegged as the original modern summer blockbuster. And while that is true, this pop-culture masterpiece is more than simply a well-tooled thriller. Spielberg brings a sense of community, family, and humanity to the supermarket thriller from Peter Benchley, a book more designed than written. This is an elemental monster movie as well-tooled thriller invading the comfort zone of the suburban summer vacation. The restoration and digital transfer are top notch and the Blu-ray debut features the legendary, years-in-the-making documentary “The Shark is Still Working: The Impact and Legacy of Jaws” along with the previously available supplements. (Full review here)

4. “Casablanca” (Warner) is a beauty of a special edition. For the 70th Anniversary, Warner has remastered the film in a 4K scan (theatrical big screen quality) for a three-disc deluxe Blu-ray+DVD Combo edition with two new documentaries plus all the supplements of the previous special editions (and there have been many). The transfer is an improvement over the 2008 Blu-ray release, with greater clarity and detail and a sensitivity to the original black and white film that preserves the texture of the original without drawing attention to the grain. (Full review here)

5. “Bond 50” (Fox) – The best-selling Blu-ray box set of 2012 presents five decades, six James Bonds, and 22 films in this deluxe box set: the complete official James Bond series to date, from “Dr. No” (1962) to “Quantum of Solace” (2009), including the Blu-ray debuts of nine classic Bond films and over 120 hours of bonus features! (This does not include the non-series “Never Say Never Again” or the 1967 Bond spoof “Casino Royale.”) It’s also the most efficient and logical packaging of the films to date. Though I do with the case include at least the film credits and the supplements on each disc. (Full review here)

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Videodrone’s Best of 2012 on Home Video: The Top Ten Disc Debuts

For a dying medium, the disc market continues to release a robust slate of superb DVDs and Blu-rays, classic and contemporary both.

Here is my annual round-up of the Best of 2012, a small compendium of lists: for disc debuts, Blu-ray releases, TV on disc and manufacture on demand. There is a lot of good stuff out there. Here’s my perfectly subjective picks for the great stuff, with points for heroic efforts and creative archival additions.

Disc Debuts

1. “Lonesome” (Criterion), completed just as sound technology came to the movies, is one of the last great silent films. Or should I say, mostly silent. Finished just as “The Jazz Singer” kicked off the rush to talkies, it was revised just before release with the addition of three sound dialogue sequences. While these soundie sequences tend to stick out, being static and somewhat awkward, they are brief and a little endearing, a unique gimmick in the midst of a turbulent changeover. “Lonesome” is much more than a gimmick, however. It’s a gem of an intimate romance right out of the late-silent film culture of “Sunrise,” “The Crowd,” “People on Sunday” and others. Directed by Hungarian émigré Paul Fejos, it is delicate and sweet, playful and creative, and cinematically inventive without showboating.

If you’ve never heard of Paul Fejos, that’s likely because his films simply haven’t been available in any form in the home video era. Which makes Criterion’s release not just a debut but a rescue. In addition to a beautifully mastered edition of “Lonesome” from the restored duplicate negative, the set presents two bonus Fejos classics from the same era: his 1927 “The Last Performance” with Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin (with a new score by Donald Sosin) and a reconstructed sound version of Fejos’ 1929 musical “Broadway,” for which Fejos had a massive camera crane built. That’s in addition to archival interviews and other superb supplements. This is 2012’s true gift of cinema, presented on Blu-ray and DVD by Criterion. (Full review here)

2. “Wings” (Paramount) – Clara Bow took top billing in the 1927 film that won the very first Academy Award for Best Picture, but the real star of this World War I drama is the amazing aerial spectacle: the dogfights in the sky over the battlefields. Paramount’s restoration of the film (for the studio’s 100th anniversary) is more lavish and extensive than I have ever seen for a silent film, a sharp, shimmering digital master of a landmark done out of respect for film history more than any hope of profit. Damaged sequences were repaired or replaced and missing shots and scenes restored from prints culled from archives around the world, and then repaired and corrected with months of digital restoration, and set of a new recording of the original score with sound effects created the old fashioned way by Oscar-winner Ben Burtt. It’s the kind of thing studios routinely do for commercial classics like “Casablanca” or “The Wizard of Oz,” but rarely for something like this. Blu-ray and DVD. (Full review here)

3. “World on a Wire” (Criterion), made by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1973 for German television, was for years one of the only films by the director that simply didn’t get screened or made available on home video. We just assumed that it was a lesser production, as suggested by the little attention it received in English language studies of Fassbinder. We assumed wrong. The first film to explore virtual reality, with no special effects to speak of mind you (you might say that Fassbinder suggests his levels of reality and identity with mirrors), it creates a near future out of modern architecture (some of it still under construction), gangster-movie fashions, futuristic bric-a-brac, and more glass and mirrors than a carnival funhouse, giving it the visual density of Fassbinder’s theatrical films. And even at 3 ½ hours, this film races with action, ideas, and a paranoid anxiety that nothing is as it seems. Blu-ray and DVD. (Full review here)

4. “Margaret” (Fox), the much delayed and debated second feature from director / screenwriter / playwright Kenneth Lonergan, was shot in 2005. After six years of legal wrangles and creative fights, a 150-minute cut was released in a few cities in 2011, and then it practically disappeared. Even after a brief return in 2012, most people didn’t have a chance to see the film until its home video release. A powerful, provocative, ambitious drama set in the shadow of September 11, 2001, it’s a marvelously messy film about the messiness of emotions and people and relationships. An even messier version can be found in the “Extended Cut,” the version that Lonergan originally fought to get released and is available as a bonus DVD on the Blu-ray release of the 150-minute theatrical cut. (Full review here)

5. “David Lean Directs Noël Coward” (Criterion) features beautifully mastered editions of the first four features directed by David Lean — “In Which We Serve” (1942), “This Happy Breed” (1944), “Blithe Spirit” (1945), and “Brief Encounter” (1945) — all of them made in partnership with author/producer Noël Coward. Officially, David Lean is second-billed to Coward in the director credit for “In Which We Serve” and takes solo credit for the subsequent films, but is clearly the man behind the camera in all of them. Lean is clearly a talent to be reckoned with from the first film, but seeing him develop over the four films, find his strengths, and then produce his first genuine masterpiece (“Brief Encounter”) is quite an experience. Blu-ray and DVD. (Full review here)

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