Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show

2012: The Year in Review


1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

2. The Master (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)

3. Holy Motors (directed by Leos Carax)

4. Samsara (directed by Ron Fricke)

t5. ParaNorman (directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell)

t5. Moonrise Kingdom (directed by Wes Anderson)

6. Beasts of the Southern Wild (directed by Benh Zeitlin)

7. Zero Dark Thirty (directed by Kathryn Bigelow)

8. Anna Karenina (directed by Joe Wright)

9. Django Unchained (directed by Quentin Tarantino)

10. Footnote (directed by Joseph Cedar)


Rust and Bone (directed by Jacques Audiard)

The Cabin in the Woods (directed by Drew Goddard)

21 Jump Street (directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Looper (directed by Rian Johnson)

The Kid with a Bike (directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

Barbara (directed by Christian Petzold)

Oslo, August 31st (directed by Joachim Trier)

Womb (directed by Benedek Fliegauf)

Sound of Noise (directed by Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson)

The Hunter (directed by Daniel Nettheim)

Attenberg (directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari)

Tabu (directed by Miguel Gomes)

The Dark Knight Rises (directed by Christopher Nolan)

Dark Horse (directed by Todd Solondz)

Skyfall (directed by Sam Mendes)

The Snowtown Murders (directed by Justin Kurzel)

Haywire (directed by Steven Soderbergh)

Last Ride (directed by Glendyn Ivin)

Take This Waltz
Robot & Frank
I Wish
Norwegian Wood
Damsels in Distress
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Girl Walk // All Day
Sleepless Night
The Central Park Five
The Grey
Seven Psychopaths
The Avengers
How to Survive a Plague
The Comedy
The Loneliest Planet
This Must Be the Place
The Gatekeepers
Middle of Nowhere
The Deep Blue Sea
The Forgiveness of Blood
Miss Bala
Searching for Sugar Man
The Imposter
The Turin Horse
Magic Mike
Cloud Atlas
Killing Them Softly
Perfect Sense
[REC] 3: Genesis
The Secret World of Arrietty
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Sleep Tight
Men in Black III
Sound of My Voice
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Silver Linings Playbook
2 Days in New York
Premium Rush
Room 237
The Awakening
Farewell, My Queen
A Late Quartet
West of Memphis
Red Hook Summer
The Thieves
Nobody Else but You
Ruby Sparks
Safety Not Guaranteed

Surveying the year in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and all the spaces in between - and highlighting the very best

It says something about the current state of movie culture that, in a year featuring the second-biggest movie of all-time and the conclusion of the greatest superhero saga of all-time, the biggest headline had to do with a film that won't see the light of day until at least 2015.

That was the announcement that Disney had agreed to pay $4 billion to purchase LucasFilm from its architect, George Lucas, while in the same breath announcing Star Wars Episodes VII, VIII and IX. (The company has since announced additional spinoff and standalone features within the same universe.) I suppose it's only fitting that the man who practically invented modern movie franchising be the one to fully propel it into a new era.

In recent years Disney has made no secret of its new business model, which is focused entirely around branding. That's what its purchases of LucasFilm and Marvel Entertainment were all about. The perpetuation of those existing franchises. The ability of the studio (and Disney is far from alone) to repackage, reboot, remake, recycle and reuse the same products.

I bring this up because that M.O. has such a profound impact on what kinds of movies get made at all, from tentpoles on down. I look at 2012 cinema - a year, like every other recent year, driven by the brand-name mentality - and still find myself highlighting the diversity of different types of fantasy and science fiction (relatively speaking, anyway), despite the pure volume of franchises on display. And I wonder if even this will soon seem downright quaint. A few years from now, there will be a dozen or two entries in the Marvel Universe, a dozen or two more in the Star Wars universe, and who knows, maybe a dozen more in the D.C. universe. (How about a Beasts of the Southern Wildiverse? A Holy Motorverse? A Cloud Atlaverse?) (On second thought, strike that last one. Cloud Atlas WAS a Cloud Atlaverse.)

It's not just volume but speed as well, with studios barreling forward from one entry of a series to the next. Now when a franchise ends, the very next step is to restart it. Apparently the much more patient - and wildly successful - Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams models haven't altered anyone's thinking. (It was only a few months ago that so many of us were underwhelmed by The Amazing Spider-Man, and now the sequel is just 15 months away.)

You can look at the 2013 studio slate and nothing will surprise you. Five more superheroes. Five more supernatural teen romances. Five more ends of the world. And a few old fairy tales thrown in for good measure. 2014 is shaping up the same way.

But enough looking ahead. Back to 2012, a year in sci-fi/fantasy defined by superheroes and heroines, small-scale fantasies and conceptual/philosophical epics.

After last year's crowded crop of underwhelming comic-book adaptations (the enjoyable but problematic Captain America easily surpassing the dull X-Men: First Class, the unimaginative Thor and the bizarrely awful Green Lantern), many lamented the oversaturation of big-screen superheroes and began to question their long-term viability. But although that cynicism was probably healthy, and in the correct frame of mind, everyone conveniently forgot all those doubts once Joss Whedon's The Avengers came around and started breaking records. And it was certainly a refreshing boost to the genre, even if it was only half a gloriously Whedonish comedic fantasy, and half a middling action movie.

(Interestingly, The Avengers wasn't even the best movie he was involved with in 2012 - that would be The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon and director Drew Goddard's brilliantly playful deconstruction of horror-movie templates - and a movie that openly defies the franchise model.)

The other big ticket comic-book items (and the other half of an inexplicable fan-base rivalry between the two projects) was Nolan's finale to his epic trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, an uneven, unwieldy, but brilliantly crafted conclusion to his take on the Batman mythology.

The two "dueling" films - whose approaches to their material couldn't be more different - had an interesting effect on me. While watching The Avengers, I stayed on a pretty even keel, enjoying almost every minute, loving bits and pieces, never finding much of anything that either gnawed at me or blew me away. For TDKR it was the opposite, as I found myself intermittently frustrated by the stop-and-go first hour and unsure about how it was pulling off its lofty ambitions - but I was ultimately drawn in by the sheer grandeur of Nolan's filmmaking, which in the final hour is rather astonishing. Upon second viewing, it became clear that not only was Rises a better film - it was a significantly better film.

But at least, whatever side we stand on, we can agree both films were better than that pointless Spider-Man reboot, right? Good. (More on that later.)

As has been increasingly the case the last few years, superheroes were found elsewhere beyond the blockbuster world, this time in the form of teen superhero (and supervillain) origin story Chronicle, which survived its found-footage conceit and created a clever, interesting and even painful illustration of youthful exuberance and indestructibility.

That was just one of many other smaller-scale films that took on comedic or farcical fantasy concepts. We also got satirical literary farce (Ruby Sparks), crime caper (Robot & Frank, Safety Not Guaranteed) and even modern (also: terrible) fairy tale (The Odd Life of Timothy Green).

Classical fairy tales, on the other hand, have become a big-budget staple in recent years, and 2012 featured two wildly different interpretations of the same character, Snow White. Both Tarsem's Mirror Mirror and Rupert Sanders' Snow White and the Huntsman boasted strong production design, but neither had much else going for it.

Of course, Kristen Stewart had plenty more on her plate at the box office, as 2012 marked the completion of her duties as the Twilight series' martyr indentured servant leading lady with the release of the final installment, Breaking Dawn Part 2. I stopped reviewing those movies after the staggeringly awful New Moon in 2009, but I can't imagine them getting much better (or, for that matter, worse), simply because they had no motivation to do so, economic or otherwise.

As for Stewart, hopefully from now on she'll graduate into better movies and be able to show what a talented actress she really is. If pleasuring two guys at once in On the Road after five years of tormenting two guys at once in the Twilight series isn't symbolic of her official ascension into grown-up roles, I don't know what is.

But as one starlet's career-defining role came to an end, another's began as Jennifer Lawrence became a household name as the heroine of Gary Ross' adaptation of The Hunger Games. And while it's several cuts above the sparkly-vampires-and-shirtless-werewolves series, the two franchises have something distinctly in common. While the Twilight films were terrified of sexuality*, The Hunger Games was terrified of its own concept, offering nothing more than a toothless and empty exercise in phony dystopia. It took a disturbing premise and proceeded to wipe it squeaky clean, rejecting virtually all of the implications of the premise and reducing it instead to a banal story of good vs. cartoonishly evil, all while trying to force a romantic angle that didn't even come close to working. (And if Josh Hutcherson's Peeta Melark isn't the least interesting major character in all of 2012, then I don't know who else it could be.)

*In fairness, I heard the sex scene in one of the later Twilight installments was a doozy (a PG-13 doozy, mind you, but still), but I remain skeptical. I'd like to say, "I'll believe it when I see it," but let's face it - I'm never going to see it.

A far more interesting heroine was an animated one, the Kelly Macdonald-voiced Merida from Pixar's Brave. While the film certainly didn't live up to the animation empire's high standards - particularly falling short in the central relationship between Merida and her mother, which was all too easily (and shallowly) resolved - it remains a remarkable visual achievement at the very least.

Brave was one entry in what turned out to be a pretty solid year for animation, along with other solid films like Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, Peter Ramsey's Rise of the Guardians and, even better, Aardman Studios' The Pirates! Band of Misfits (directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt), which exemplified Aardman filmmakers' trademark sense of irony and visual absurdity.

But easily the best of all the year's animated films was Chris Butler and Sam Fell's ParaNorman, which was not only a wonderful combination of parody, John Carpenter-esque horror and coming-of-age story, but also offered a penetrating glimpse into human nature uncommon for any type of movie, animated or otherwise. From the simple and beautiful way its opening segments establish feelings of sadness and alienation to its emotionally daring and visually spectacular (and The Fountain-inspired) climax, ParaNorman is in a rare class of animated artistry.

It's funny how two of the year's best films spoke so wisely and perceptively through children - the other being Benh Zeitlin's richly detailed and poetic Beasts of the Southern Wild, a great accomplishment of grass-roots filmmaking that establishes Zeitlin is a great young filmmaker, and star Quvenzhane Wallis as an absolute force of nature. Beasts is intrinsically about storytelling and mythmaking, and as we journey along with it, it feels like we're experiencing a new mythology being created before our eyes.

Storytelling was also front and center in two of the year's boldest and most ambitious films, Cloud Atlas from the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, and Life of Pi from Ang Lee. The former was a captivating mess that drew on narrative forms - myths and legends and art and religion and history - to create something of a circular, ongoing saga of love, freedom, salvation and eternal recurrence. Pi, meanwhile, was a spectacularly staged adventure tale hindered by a cringe-inducing, simplistic screenplay that turned a would-be epic into a trite religious fable.

No less ambitious (and probably no more successful) was Ridley Scott's hotly anticipated return to science-fiction, Prometheus, a fascinating attempt to explore the philosophical underpinnings of creation, but one which completely collapses once it becomes clear that Scott and screenwriter Damon Lindelof are simply throwing around big ideas without any clue what to do with them. The things they choose to explain make no sense and the things they choose not to explain are mostly - by the end, at least - a jumbled mess. But it's a hell of a gorgeous film to look at, and Michael Fassbender's performance is a stunner.

The antidote to Prometheus' dumb attempt to be smart was Rian Johnson's smart attempt to be smart, the twisted sci-fi noir Looper, a film that shows once again not only what a master craftsman Johnson is, but how deeply he understands the genres he attempts. Better yet, rather than shying away from the complications and paradoxes of his time-travel premise, he embraces them, adding to the level of intrigue, confusion, horror and excitement.

While Looper was the seemingly rare original studio action flick, there were plenty of remakes and reboots to go around. And, this year at least, most of them were unsuccessful. The Bourne Legacy skimmed some interesting ideas in a half-baked narrative that takes two-plus hours to get essentially nowhere. Total Recall and Dredd were two more utterly humorless, colorless, drab attempts at the single-minded action movie. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey unfortunately introduced us all to 48fps while taking three hours of our time almost entirely to set up two future movies. And then there was The Amazing Spider-Man, the movie with the "untold story" that didn't actually make it into the final cut - leaving the film instead a cobbled-together mess of dangling narratives and dead ends.

On the other hand, two famous (or now-infamous) attempts to create new franchises fell on their face, the fascinating but cold and stretched-thin John Carter and the agonizingly unimaginative piece of Michael Bay mimicry Battleship.

While at least one of those may have been a predictable dud, what I didn't expect was to enjoy a pair of third franchise entries as much as I did - the surprisingly clever Men in Black III and the surprisingly different [REC] 3: Genesis, which reinvented the whole series.

As far as surprises go, I don't imagine anyone expected one of the most bankable directors in Hollywood would be Seth MacFarlane, but after his Ted proved to be a smash hit, it seems that may be the case. Nevermind my own reservations of the film, which seem to be the same reservations I have about MacFarlane in general - extremely funny in fits and starts, but also lazy and undisciplined. A talented humorist with an extremely low batting average.

There were a few under-the-radar gems I liked quite a bit - chief among them Joe Carnahan's unusually philosophical and mournful The Grey. And we got a few more strong horror options as well in the form of Scott Derrickson's Sinister, Jaume Balagueró's Sleep Tight and Ciarán Foy's bleak, claustrophobic Citadel.

Two more caught my eye initially only because of their female star, The Magnificent Eva Green. The talented French actress got a nice villainous showcase in Tim Burton's otherwise lifeless Dark Shadows, but Green had other opportunities to shine in Benedek Fliegauf's criminally underrated (and misunderstood) Womb, as well as David Mackenzie's lush, existential romance, Perfect Sense.

Finally, as we move into new eras in cinema - technologically and otherwise - we come to David Cronenberg's uneven but fascinating (and morbidly funny) Cosmopolis, which explicitly examines the increasing abstractness of ideas and realities, financial, political and otherwise - an approach that Victor Ginzburg took on even more directly in his equally intriguing but haphazard Generation P.

Surpassing both of those - and almost every other movie from 2012 - was Leos Carax' Holy Motors, which gently touched on the digital revolution and the state of cinema altogether, while also serving as a hilarious, surreal, joyous, bizarre and all-in-all stunning piece of cinematic ecstasy. For movie lovers, it doesn't get much better than that.

And now, without further ado, the year's best films in science fiction, fantasy and horror . . .



Directed by Leos Carax

"The beauty of Holy Motors is in the reverence with which it views movies and moviemaking, and the irrepressible humor and playfulness with which Carax celebrates it. In various moments, he seems to be suggesting that the magic of cinema is fading - or at least transforming into something else. Whether that's true or not, his movie proves there's still a little magic left. Holy Motors reminds movies how to dream."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell

"ParaNorman is a great movie about lost, misunderstood children facing crises, both physical and emotional, that their years have not fully prepared them for. In this case, filmmakers Chris Butler and Sam Fell navigate unexpectedly prickly moral territory, imbuing a superficially simple dramatic equation with nuanced reasoning and astounding empathy. This is a John Carpenter film by way of John Hughes and Stephen King, at once fulfilling and subverting coming-of-age tales and revenge fantasies alike."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Benh Zeitlin

"Throughout the film we get the sense we're witnessing a piece of classic mythology unfold before our eyes. It feels like discovery, and it leads to a magnificent finale that strikes a gently powerful note of courage and human fortitude (in a moment of pseudo-surrealism) before concluding on a devastating (yet uplifting) emotional chord. Beasts of the Southern Wild is both a sincere ode to the spirit of New Orleans and the southern Delta, and a startlingly unique piece of magic realism. There is uncommon poetry here - and a sense of ecstatic joy that's infectious."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Drew Goddard

"The resulting film is so effective, it renders this particular template all but moot from here on out. I never need to see another movie about horny coeds getting terrorized at a cabin in the woods, because The Cabin in the Woods is all that really needs to be said on the matter. It's been taken as far as it could go."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Rian Johnson

"What a joy it is to see someone of Johnson's talents take on that challenge. And like any good filmmaker, he rises to it. Instead of avoiding the issue, he toys with causation and the laws of physics, using those paradoxes to his advantage. The resulting film is intelligent and beguiling precisely because Johnson knows how to play with the possibilities inherent to time travel as a storytelling device."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Benedek Fliegauf

"Fliegauf presents this all with chilly precision, composing overcast, sparsely populated shots and taking his time with each one. He separates us so completely from the world that made cloning possible that at a certain point Womb seems to exist outside the bounds of time altogether - and for all intents and purposes, outside the bounds of reality."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Christopher Nolan

"With this trilogy, Nolan was able to create one self-contained and rather spectacular narrative, while making three distinctive films. The first was a journey of self-discovery wrapped in a neo-noir; the second was an epic crime drama examining the relationship between good and evil; the final chapter is a bleak pre-apocalyptic, pseudo-political thriller - the most ambitious and most flawed of the three - that brings everything to a head. The Dark Knight Rises has its share of problems, but Nolan knows exactly where he wants to go with this saga, and in his last hurrah he finds a thoughtful and often thrilling way to get there."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Peter Lord

"On their own, those various comedic setups are pretty inspired already, but the real magic is in the way the filmmakers bring everything off, allowing the comedic threads to build upon and complicate one another. It's a good comedy that can continually raise the stakes and increase the narrative chaos, but ultimately bring it all home. In that way, Aardman rarely, if ever, disappoints."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Jake Schreier

"Robot & Frank is modest in its ambitions but almost impeccable in its execution. It isn't overly concerned with dystopia; instead it uses its mild futurism as a way to examine memory, not only individually but on a societal level as well - the links that bind us to our history; the history we forget; the gulf between one generation and the next. And the next."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Joe Carnahan

"The Grey has a marvelous sense of place that allows Carnahan to capture the desolation of it, creating an atmosphere of maddening nothingness where the hope of living until morning is the only solace. Shot on location in British Columbia, the film feels cold; it doesn't seem like anyone's faking it. That kind of credibility does wonders for this type of movie."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Joss Whedon

"The Avengers is a success primarily because Whedon understands - intimately - the traditions in which the film exists. From a comic-book perspective, from a superhero movie perspective, and from a sci-fi perspective. He understands the tone you have to strike when dealing with aliens from distant worlds diabolically plotting against Earth. He understands that the idea of people dressed up in costumes fighting each other is inherently silly. He understands the expectations of the genre(s), and knows exactly how to manage those expectations. He gets it. What he gives us may be just what we expect, but for once, at least, it knows exactly why it is what it is."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by David Cronenberg

"Cosmopolis is a film consumed by the fleshy, the carnal and the anatomical, but only as something of a death rattle - a cathartic final release (or series of releases). There is a desperate preoccupation with the senses - with any tangible physical sensation - as a sort of defiant response to the pending demise of physical reality. It is obsessed with the sound of body parts, the smell of sex, the shape of organs, the visceral thrill of violence. Its world is in a state of metamorphosis, from the physical to the theoretical, from a place of concrete things to a mass abstraction of ideas. The corporeal fascination feels like the rational (yet futile) response to the takeover of data and the death of the reel real."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

"In a way, the film plays like a testament to itself and the impossibility of its own ambitions. Its core concern is nothing less than the totality of storytelling as a transformative piece of the human experience - its history, its future, and further than that, the very idea of it, and the fundamental role it plays in our lives."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by David Mackenzie

"Perfect Sense is, for all its flaws, a fascinating attempt at plumbing mankind's cultural psyche in the face of an incomprehensible calamity. Mackenzie paints the screen with a cool naturalism that nicely enhances the sense of calm matter-of-factness that sets in after each stage of the event. But he also breaks that calm with occasional pops of bright color that lend the film a hopeful - even joyous - tone."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Paco Plaza

"Call it good timing, but [REC] 3: Genesis came around at the right moment and hit the spot. I'd endured genre picture after genre picture that took itself too seriously, mistaking somberness for gravitas. I needed a movie that actually remembered how to have fun with genre."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Jaume Balagueró

"Sleep Tight is a deliciously effective little thriller precisely because it taps into unknown fears. There's a banality to the evil at the center of the film that is so strangely plausible - if, naturally, unlikely - that most of us could never anticipate it. Which makes it all the more unsettling."

Click here for my full review.


Directed by Lorene Scafaria

"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is one of the latest to give the apocalypse a shot, and Scafaria's approach is to use the apocalyptic opportunity first for dark comedy, then for romance. It is a forceful, sincere and funny look at a civilization casually accepting its own terrible fate, offering more character depth than you might expect from such an absurd premise, and more levity than you might expect from an end-of-days scenario."

Click here for my full review.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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