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And now, at long last, the actual best films of 2012: Part One.
What should have been the biggest films of the 2012/ 2013 awards season.
The year 2012 was an interesting--albeit ultimately unsatisfying--year for movies. That is to say that, while there were many excellent films, there were very few instant classics. The best of the best were good solid films that are likely to get lost in the flow of time. Certainly this was a weak year when compared to 2008 (The Dark Knight and WALL-E), 2007 (Juno and No Country for Old Men), or 2000 (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the best film of all, O Brother, Where Art Thou?); in recent memory, this year falls closer to 2005, in which Match Point--a solid but unspectacular 9--was the minor leader of a crowded field of solid but unspectacular films. That said, I did still greatly enjoy a fair number of this year's offerings. This was also a year in which a couple of interesting things happened. First, while I agreed with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on certain categories of Oscar nominations, I found them WAAAAY off base on a couple categories. Second, this is the first year in which I maintained an Oscar list for every putative nominee that I saw during the course of the year, a practice which I intend to continue. This helped clarify which films really did deserve to be sweeping the awards season, and which more deserving films had simply been lost in the shuffle. And so, naturally I am now eager to share my thoughts on which films were deservedly honored, and which ones were snubbed.
Before I fully launch into my picks for the best films of the year, I would like to make a few notes and disclaimers. First, I still have not seen four of the Oscar-nominated feature films (No, Kon-Tiki, Chasing Ice and The Gatekeepers), nor have I seen any of the nominees for Live-Action Short or Documentary Short. Also, my personal list of must-watch films has not yet been fully completed; From up on Poppy Hill, Hyde Park on Hudson, The Mystical Laws, Rise of the Guardians, Men in Black III, Rust and Bone, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Trouble with the Curve, Cloud Atlas, Deep Blue Sea, Quartet, Bernie, This Is 40, After Lucia, Middle of Nowhere, The Intouchables, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and Bully were all films that, for one reason or another, had made my top 40 list of films to see, and I continue to feel that some of these films could make an impact on my overall best-of list. Also, I would make a couple of quick notes regarding changes and allowances made from--as I understand them--official Oscar rules. One: as near as I can determine, The Secret World of Arietty and Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos were not submitted for Oscar consideration, even though they made their appropriate theatrical runs to qualify within the allotted time. Two: though I THINK I have figured out how short films are submitted and qualified, the information regarding individual films is often sketchy at best; I have included a number of short films that I saw at official film festival screenings within the appropriate time frame, some of which I have confirmed as likely being Oscar-eligible, but some of which likely were not. Three: I have included films that, for whatever reason, were excluded from one or more categories in which they seemingly should have been eligible for consideration; in the music categories there were a particularly large number of films that got partially or fully shut out for what seems to be no good reason. There may have been a couple other allowances as well, but generally I have tried to follow Academy rules for setting my own nominations. At any rate, and without further adieu, here it is, my personal list for what should have scored the Oscar nominations in 2013.
The Short Films:
As noted above, it is very hard for the average moviegoer, or even the hardcore movie geek, to truly know which short films are eligible for consideration in a given year. Does Pixar's lovely La Luna miss the cut on account of at least one festival showing back in 2011? Does the deeply moving Latzuf count, even though it has been around for a couple of years? Do shorts like Strive or Divine Sparks count if their only festival appearances were at really little, under-the-radar festivals? I probably could find more definitive listings of what did make the Oscar shortlists if I REALLY wanted to, but frankly the dearth of accessibility to both these shorts and information on them for the average moviegoer tends to give me a feeling akin to pulling teeth every year when I make my best-of lists. Of course, having actually seen several shorts in theaters this year created a singular situation in which I can actually say I have decent lists for at least the Live-Action and Animated categories. So, completely ignoring actual eligibility rules, my picks for Live-Action Short were as follows: Ghost of Old Highways, Latzuf, Based on a True Story, How (Not) to Become a Vampire and School Day's Shoot. The first was a cool, quirky, head-scratcher that--as far as I can tell--should have qualified for Oscar, and was a big winner at The Mix International Film Festival in Richmond. The second was a touching, deeply upsetting heavy drama from Israel. The third and fourth selections were interesting as well, with the latter being most humorous, and the final film was a decent Japanese short that wasn't really Oscar-worthy but essentially serves as filler for my list. As for the Animated Short category, my list would be: Paperman, La Luna, Head over Heels, Live Outside the Box and So You Want to Be a Pirate! Paperman and La Luna were both awesome shorts that opened for some of the better films of the year (Wreck-It Ralph and Brave). Head over Heels was incredibly creative and rather moving, and Live Outside the Box was delightful and creative yet a bit sad. The final one may or may not have been a theatrical release, but I BELIEVE it played officially in at least the UK. Finally, I have to admit that the Documentary Short category would be very weak this year if my nominations were accepted--it wouldn't even have five nominees, and only one would be even close to the level of most of the previously named shorts--Carbon for Water. Divine Sparks would also be--arguably--worthy of its nod, but Street Dreams would be a stretch, and One Piece would be more likely to qualify for a Golden Raspberry award. Anyway, as I said before I'm amazed I even saw THAT many shorts this year, and I would venture to say that this is a fine list.
I have long maintained that the Academy REALLY needs to fix its manner of honoring music in film. Most notably, I have long trumpeted a category for Best Music, Soundtrack Compilation. In short, the Academy's rules are generally so STRINGENT regarding the originality of music in film, particularly regarding Original Score, that only a small fraction of films in a given year are eligible to be honored for their music. However, there are many films that have illustrated why this approach is total crap. To put it bluntly, the use of music in film is an often EXTREMELY important factor in the success or failure of a film. Would O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Pulp Fiction or Almost Famous be even half as awesome without their use of music? Hell no! Yet, barring a couple of tracks by the fictional band Stillwater in Famous, none of these films had a ghost of a chance at being honored by the Academy for their music. Why would the Academy ignore this element of filmmaking? This year, a few films that could have greatly benefited from this category were Moonrise Kingdom, The Hunger Games, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Silver Linings Playbook and Searching for Sugar Man. Again, part of the reason I push for this category is the excessively restrictive (and yet seemingly flaky) nature of the current categories. Alexandre Desplat's gorgeous, whimsical score for Moonrise Kingdom? Deemed ineligible for Best Original Score. Why? Search me--I am utterly baffled. All the more so since Thomas Newman's admittedly great but BY NO MEANS ORIGINAL score for Skyfall actually secured a nomination. In the Original Song category, Taylor Swift's beautiful, lilting ballad "Safe & Sound" from The Hunger Games and AKB48's infectious J-pop theme "Sugar Rush" from Wreck-It Ralph were not even on the shortlist, due no doubt to the requirement that songs in this category play no later than one minute into the end credits, or during the film itself (never mind that "Sugar Rush" actually WAS briefly sampled within the film itself). And yet... Am I wrong, or did "Pi's Lullaby"--the lovely OSCAR-NOMINATED song from Life of Pi, break this rule? I think it did, yes I do. To add insult to injury, the Academy and its pundits have complained for years that the Original Song category seems to have lost its very purpose of existence, since movies nowadays simply don't provide the iconic music of years past. To this I say, Bull! The Academy simply ignores commercial success in movie music. Though I have not yet seen Act of Valor, I am quite familiar with Keith Urban's excellent song "For You," an original composition for the film that has been a big radio hit this past year. The biggest head-scratcher this year comes courtesy Chris Cornell and the boys of Soundgarden; their first original song in YEARS, the fun and anthemic "Live to Rise" from the Oscar-SNUBBED film The Avengers, was NOT EVEN IN CONTENTION for Original Song. That's right, "Live to Rise" wasn't even deemed eligible for Original Song, even though Cornell has spoken in interviews about composing the song FOR THE FILM. And the Academy thinks there are no songs out there anymore that are both commercial successes and original works of art that help elevate the movies they're in? Anyway, I will make one other observation before listing my nominees--Studio Ghibli REALLY dropped the ball when it submitted From up on Poppy Hill for Oscar consideration, and COMPLETELY IGNORED The Secret World of Arietty, and nowhere is this oversight more egregious than in the music categories. French harpist Cecile Corbel managed the singular task of securing a gig writing music and songs for a Ghibli film despite the fact that they essentially have an in-house composer (Joe Hiraishi); she sent them a sample of her music and got her dream gig--what artist wouldn't envy such a success story? And her work IS FREAKIN' AWESOME! Whatever issues one may have with Arietty (the film is too short, and feels slight as a result), it has ONE OF THE BEST ORIGINAL SCORES IN MOVIE HISTORY! The gorgeous "Arietty's Song" and "The Neglected Garden" are among the GREATEST SONGS IN MOVIE HISTORY! Admittedly, I've not found proof that the latter song is original to the film, but neither have I found proof to the contrary; even so, the former song and the score should have been Oscar-nominated, and the score SHOULD HAVE WON! Too bad Ghibli dropped the ball. Anyway, enough bellyaching. Given the exceptions against Academy rules listed above, the following songs are my picks for Original Song for 2012: "Arietty's Song" from The Secret World of Arietty, "Safe & Sound" from The Hunger Games, the haunting "Song of the Lonely Mountain" from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, "Live to Rise" from The Avengers and the lovely Julie Fowlis number "Touch the Sky" from Brave. As for Best Original Score, the top 5 are as follows: Cecile Corbel for The Secret World of Arietty, Alexandre Desplat for Moonrise Kingdom, Patrick Doyle's Celtic-infused score for Brave, Dario Marianelli's lighthearted and fun score for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and Desplat's score that no doubt stole much of the thunder from Kingdom, Argo. Honestly, though, this top 5 was hard to call, as both Mychael Danna's score for Life of Pi and Marianelli's score for Anna Karenina were definite possibilities. In all honesty, however, this was Corbel's year in my opinion, and she was GYPPED by Studio Ghibli's decision not to submit Arietty.
Hmmm... It seems that this article will end up being decidedly longer than planned. To allow my readers who have made to this far to rest their eyes, maybe walk around for a bit, I will hold the rest of my comments for a later article, hopefully to be published later in the week. As always, I do hope your curiosity has been piqued as to the films discussed herein, and that you have enjoyed your reading.