A Year In Review: Best Films of 2012

Miguel Penabella | 24 February 2013


This is a list written in 2013 ranking my top films of 2012 featuring a number of titles from 2011. Looking back at last year’s multitude of releases, I’ve found all my cinematic memories in a haze of opacity. Only impressions of that fever dream of a year remain, from the exceptional oddities of the independent crowd to the unconscious-probing auteurs of arthouse. I remember fragments of brilliance, tiny glimmers of memory occasionally arising to waking thought in retrospective appreciation. This peculiar feeling – those fleeting moments of filmic surreality suddenly clashing with the mundane realities of life – has reappeared outside the movie theater as the film world reflects on a year of greats. I no longer see the quandaries and anxieties of normal waking life apart from the moving pictures. Instead, I see the bizarre delirium of Giorgos Lanthimos’s dancers of death. I see Matthew McConaughey stalking like the Grim Reaper in funereal black. I see two lovers entwined, passing from one space to the next. I see a hushpuppy who lived in a bathtub. I see a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you and me. I see the death of cinema and rebirth.

2012 was a peculiar year for film, and I’m pleased to present this list containing twenty of my favorite films and five extra honorable mentions below.


(left to right, starting from top)

01. Holy Motors | Leos Carax

02. The Master | Paul Thomas Anderson

03. Beyond the Hills | Cristian Mungiu

04. Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow

05. Amour | Michael Haneke

06. Moonrise Kingdom | Wes Anderson

07. The Turin Horse | Béla Tarr*

08. Beasts of the Southern Wild | Benh Zeitlin

09. Django Unchained | Quentin Tarantino

10. Tabu | Miguel Gomes

11. Skyfall | Sam Mendes

12. Cosmopolis | David Cronenberg

13. Wuthering Heights | Andrea Arnold*

14. The Deep Blue Sea | Terence Davies*

15. Farewell, My Queen | Benoît Jacquot

16. Oslo, August 31st | Joachim Trier*

17. Alps | Giorgos Lanthimos*

18. Sightseers | Ben Wheatley

19. Chronicle | Josh Trank

20. Killer Joe | William Friedkin

Honorable Mentions

21. The Raid: Redemption | Gareth Evans

22. Lawless | John Hillcoat

23. Fill the Void | Rama Burshtein

24. The Avengers | Joss Whedon

25. The Loneliest Planet | Julia Loktev*


*Although these titles have been canonized in IMDb as 2011 films, I’ve included these in the Best of 2012 category based on the non-festival U.S. release date.

**Previously posted on The Art of Movie Stills

Notes 7

A Year In Review: 2012 In Pictures

Miguel Penabella | 19 January 2013


Behind the scenes stills and festival photography define the cinematic landscape apart from the movies that are at the heart of it all. 2012 was a year of interesting moments in film history, and the collection of pixels here ought to refresh your mind on this year’s sweeping cinematic journey.

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Notes 4

Tags #movies   #movie   #film   #photography   #photos   #2012   #a year in review   

The Column – The Free Tea Guide to Hurricane Sandy

Miguel Penabella | 30 October 2012

The Column is a Free Tea segment that serves as a forum with which to discuss random topics on cinema and topics outside of it in a pseudo-opinionated manner, much like your weekend newspaper column. A little more informal and more concise than your regular Free Tea feature, these pieces are meant to both inform and express personal thoughts on various issues.

“It was a rainy night. It was the myth of a rainy night.”

- Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Rain is a powerful image. The look of gathering storm clouds, torrential downpour, and the brief shock of lightning make for momentous cinema, building mood and obscuring depth of field under layers of meteorological turmoil. Oftentimes, rain and storms reflect an inner conflict within a character, projecting this inner chaos onto nature itself as it wreaks havoc and destruction without discrimination. Storms can carry a redemptive quality as well, with rain signifying the cyclical nature of rebirth with the coming spring, or even with characters finding a strange solace amidst the fury of nature. The image of rain can also be tied to the discovery of truth (see: the eye of the hurricane/tornado), but also Biblical wrath and devastation. And then there’s the image that accompanies a great storm, of people taking shelter with the companionship of others, even strangers, as everyone somehow becomes equalized amidst the mighty power of a tempest. With Hurricane Sandy bombarding the East Coast right now (see above picture, curiously not from a Roland Emmerich movie but from the actual hurricane), people have found themselves not unlike various characters from cinematic history braving a passing storm: each and together sharing a moment of wordless humanity.

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Notes 1

20 Essential TIFF Films

Miguel Penabella | 9 August 2012

With the Cannes Film Festival already come and gone, the film world now turns its eyes elsewhere: Venice and Toronto. The former venue boasts some prominent titles in competition, namely Paul Thomas Anderson’s hotly anticipated The Master, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, and so on. The news coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), however, demands even greater excitement for the sheer number of films to be screened. Running from September 6-16, the festival has already nabbed hundreds of movies, looking to overshadow Sundance and even Cannes as this year’s most prestigious celebration of the cinema. There are returning festival films from Cannes/Sundance including Reality, The Hunt, The We and the I, Sightseers, etc., but the sheer number of announced works to be screened is truly staggering. I’ve included some films whose releases double dip with other festivals, such as To the Wonder (again, also screening in Venice) and Gangs of Wasseypur (premiered in Cannes), but these following twenty films are only a slight taste of the hundreds of independent and international films, documentaries, shorts, and blockbusters that call Toronto their home and the place for cinema.

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Notes 16

A Year In Review: Best of 2011

Miguel Penabella | 3 July 2012


2012 is already halfway over, and many film criticism websites have already turned to retrospectives on the first half of the year with list-making aplenty. However, we here at Free Tea are legendarily slow at catching up on the big titles that win over critics and audiences every year, especially considering that some of the most noteworthy films of the festival circuit are only now getting home releases. I’ve finally caught up on everything I’ve been meaning to watch last year, and have even reviewed some of the films that have landed on this definitive gallery comprising the best of what 2011 had to offer in the cinema.

(left to right, starting from top)

01. The Tree of Life | Terrence Malick

02. Drive | Nicolas Winding Refn

03. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives | Apichatpong Weerasethakul*

04. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo | David Fincher

05. Take Shelter | Jeff Nichols

06. Certified Copy | Abbas Kiarostami*

07. Melancholia | Lars von Trier

08. Weekend | Andrew Haigh

09. A Separation | Asghar Farhadi

10. 50/50 | Jonathan Levine

11. The Artist | Michel Hazanavicius

12. Martha Marcy May Marlene | Sean Durkin

13. I Saw the Devil | Kim Ji-woon

14. Beginners | Mike Mills*

15. Meek’s Cutoff | Kelly Reichardt

16. Kill List | Ben Wheatley

17. The Descendants | Alexander Payne

18. We Need to Talk About Kevin | Lynne Ramsay

19. The Skin I Live In | Pedro Almodóvar

20. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 | David Yates

Honorable Mentions (not pictured)

21. Midnight In Paris | Woody Allen

22. Hanna | Joe Wright

23. Attack the Block | Joe Cornish

24. Hugo | Martin Scorsese

25. X-Men: First Class | Matthew Vaughn


*Although these titles have been canonized in IMDb as 2010 films, I’ve included these in the Best of 2011 category based on the non-festival U.S. release date.

Notes 4

20 Essential Cannes Films

Miguel Penabella | 30 May 2012

With Michael Haneke taking home the prize of the coveted Palme d’Or for Amour – his second win since 2009’s The White Ribbon – the 2012 Cannes Film Festival has finally come to a close. Elsewhere, Matte Garrone’s Reality took home the Grand Prix and Michel Franco was awarded the prize of Un Certain Regard for Después de Lucía. Ken Loach took home the Jury Prize for The Angels’ Share while Best Director went to Carlos Reygadas for Post Tenebras Lux and Best Screenplay to Cristian Mungiu for Beyond the Hills. Of course, many of the Cannes highlights will not be available for theater screenings in the United States, even with American directors Wes Anderson and David Cronenberg making appearances, primarily because of the cutthroat summer blockbuster season currently running its course. However, when these renowned international titles hit the home market in a few months’ time, how do you choose the ones worth watching? And if by a stroke of pure luck one of the Cannes films should play at your local cinema – arthouse or multiplex – what exactly will you be going into? While I’ve not had the fortune to attend this year’s proceedings, I’ve assembled a list of 20 Essential Cannes Films nonetheless, based on critical/audience reaction and their general interest to one curious and intrigued film critic.

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Notes 4

Werckmeister Harmonies

Miguel Penabella | 21 February 2012

Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister harmóniák)

Dir. Béla Tarr, 2000

“You are the sun. The sun doesn’t move, this is what it does. You are the Earth. The Earth is here for a start, and then the Earth moves around the sun. And now, we’ll have an explanation that simple folks like us can also understand, about immortality. All I ask is that you step with me into the boundlessness, where constancy, quietude and peace, infinite emptiness reign. And just imagine, in this infinite sonorous silence, everywhere is an impenetrable darkness. Here, we only experience general motion, and at first, we don’t notice the events that we are witnessing. The brilliant light of the sun always sheds its heat and light on that side of the Earth which is just then turned towards it. And we stand here in its brilliance. 

This is the moon. The moon revolves around the Earth. What is happening? We suddenly see that the disc of the moon, the disc of the moon, on the Sun’s flaming sphere, makes an indentation, and this indentation, the dark shadow, grows bigger… and bigger. And as it covers more and more, slowly only a narrow crescent of the sun remains, a dazzling crescent. And at the next moment, the next moment – say that it’s around one in the afternoon – a most dramatic turn of events occurs. At that moment the air suddenly turns cold. Can you feel it? The sky darkens, then goes all dark. The dogs howl, rabbits hunch down, the deer run in panic, run, stampede in fright. And in this awful, incomprehensible dusk, even the birds… the birds too are confused and go to roost. And then… Complete silence. Everything that lives is still. Are the hills going to march off? Will heaven fall upon us? Will the Earth open under us? We don’t know. We don’t know, for a total eclipse has come upon us… 

But… but no need to fear. It’s not over. For across the sun’s glowing sphere, slowly, the Moon swims away. And the sun once again bursts forth, and to the Earth slowly there comes again light, and warmth again floods the Earth. Deep emotion pierces everyone. They have escaped the weight of darkness.” 

This monologue is how Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr decides to open Werckmeister Harmonies, establishing his signature single long-take narrative style that both elongates time to excruciating lengths and announces the brilliantly grand vision inherent within his body of work. It’s an intimate, quiet ceremony that reveres the infinitudes of life while also foreshadowing a greater darkness to come, and Tarr’s gorgeous extended single take consumes minutes and minutes of film without even losing a single second of visual fluidity. Centering on Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies tackles philosophy and politics during the continued fallout from the Cold War on Eastern Bloc European countries. Nevertheless, Béla Tarr’s depressive, delicately allegorical film never reveals its political and spiritual preoccupations so clearly, instead choosing to layer its critiques of post-communist society under a waking nightmare of public turmoil, mundane shots of everyday life, mystical imagery, vaguely cosmic philosophical ponderings, and the excruciatingly protracted sense of time that runs throughout the film.

Tarr continues his trend of ethereally black-and-white filmmaking that has become so emblematic of his career (Sátántangó, The Man from London, The Turin Horse), a style augmented by the expert cinematography of Patrick de Ranter and his editor/wife Ágnes Hranitzky. However, Werckmeister Harmonies retains Tarr’s complete mastery over image, exhibiting his auteurist cosmic vision mixed with a poetic approach to storytelling that casts shades of Andrei Tarkovsky (The Sacrifice), Vittorio De Sica (Umberto D.), and Michelangelo Frammartino (Le Quattro Volte). By foregrounding the passing of time rather than resorting to elliptical storytelling, Tarr harnesses the power of the uncut shot to display an unpolluted, full-length cinematic reality. Nevertheless, some viewers have charged the director’s proclivity for agonizingly slow single-takes as a detracting flaw that intentionally makes his films more “difficult.” These are vague, questionable charges that reflect modern Hollywood’s reliance on short attention span-cutting for the impatient, and Tarr readily admonishes these narrative trends in favor of his gently advancing camera documenting all the seemingly superfluous actions his characters partake in. The effect, then, gives viewers a chance to contemplate each and every image as his scenes continue on for long stretches of time, increasing the dramatic impact and instilling within his film a universal sense of vastness. 

Werckmeister Harmonies contains exactly thirty-nine shots, and each individual moment carries a dreamlike, often celestial quality. It’s no surprise then that Béla Tarr opens his film with his drunken dance of the cosmos, an initially bizarre setup that proves itself to become shatteringly beautiful as János Valuska’s (Lars Rudolph) philosophical narration deepens and composer Mihály Vig’s emotionally moving piano/violin theme emerges forth. Indeed, the film often portrays multitudes of mundane shots including lengthy stretches of repetitious walking, work, and cleaning, though Tarr’s uninterrupted camera infuses each shot with a metaphysical aura of the sublime. The movie also has its straightforward instances of the fantastic, specifically the concluding shots witnessing György Eszter (Peter Fitz) approaching a giant dead whale in the fog-shrouded town square. Each of the thirty-nine shots resonates and bursts forth with an otherworldly solitude virtually unmatched by any other technically capable contemporary director today.

All the locales are uniformly gloomy and drab, but the endless camera shots capture Tarr’s mise-en-scène with an illusory touch that transforms a seemingly straightforward story into something transcendent. Portraying a pitiable town visited by a travelling vaudevillian circus led by a shadowy, sinister figure named “The Prince,” Werckmeister Harmonies unfolds in another dimension entirely apart from time and space. The actual time period remains ambiguous until a random encounter with a helicopter towards the latter half of the film, yet even this instance feels unreal and haphazard given the context of the preceding moments of the film. Overall, the picture carries a brooding, enigmatic atmosphere so characteristic of Tarr’s body of work, transmitting the gritty, existential social realities of his townsfolk’s dismal livelihoods. Of course, this downbeat tone carries on throughout the film until the visually arresting centerpiece of it all, an artistically staged hospital riot that emerges from a combination of the uncertain economic times, the extreme cold, and the presence of strange, potentially dangerous outsiders.

Tarr tracks his angry mob from the streets as the faceless masses pour into the drab interiors of the crumbling post-Communist structure, noting the mayhem with an impassive eye. The camera advances forward slowly, occasionally panning side to side to document individual mayhem with a peculiar stillness about the scene. No one screams in pain or wrath; there are no barking orders, pleas to stop, or any words at all. The sequence assumes a melancholic tone as the tracking shot films the destruction of a handful of men, a shot as distressing as the out-of-body sequence in Taxi Driver surveying the damage done. As Tarr’s camera continues its journey, it rests on two men paralyzed in one spot. When the shot eventually lands on the object that has moved these rioters to stop, the film unveils the most halting image of its entire duration, an elderly man standing naked in the midst of the chaos. Existing under an angelic light, the man resigns to his fate and the camera freezes on that single image of humanity’s fragility while Mihály Vig’s “Old” arises from the silence. It’s a singular instance of beauty amidst the disarray, completely halting the action and ultimately compelling the masses of shame-filled protestors out. In a single sequence, Tarr changes men into ghosts, portraying such emotionless violence before wordlessly contemplating the fallibility of decent men to pointless destruction.

The film contains subtle visual cues that point towards political implications for this upheaval, the clearest of which stems from post-Communism qualms that remain in Hungary. Tarr documents the distressing economic woes of his townsfolk, and the shadowy Prince casts undertones of a crooked ideologue. These elements all represent the director’s decision to enter into a cinematic discourse on underground foreign cinema’s current preoccupation with documenting realism to its extremes while also tackling contemporary social and political issues. Much like the Filipino auteur Lav Diaz [Death in the Land of Encantos, Evolution of a Filipino Family, Melancholia (not to be confused with Lars von Trier’s 2011 movie of the same name)], Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (with the politically charged This Is Not a Film), Alexander Sokurov (with Russian Ark’s single 96-minute take), and so on, Tarr exhibits the existing sociopolitical state of his country emerging from the 20th century with bleak outlooks.

Ultimately, Werckmeister Harmonies exists as an abstracted, highly meditative film that pushes realism to newer, remote areas of cinema never fully explored before. Béla Tarr’s rejection of special effects and jumpy editing leaves his film raw and human, harkening back to early cinema’s inclination for total black and white simplicity. It’s a mystical film in which each and every shot is stunningly compelling, treading on the grounds of poetry conveyed through film. To think, the very cinematic devices that Tarr employs here – the single take, black and white shots, etc. – are the very same things that the Lumière brothers have perfected back in the late 1800s. All that Tarr adds here is a dolly to his camera and the knowledge of a century of film, and the result is nothing short of modern masterpiece.

Notes 6

A Year In Review: Random Film Musings of 2011

Miguel Penabella | 14 February 2012

On Writing That Tree of Life Review

I remember listening to snippets of Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack during the writing process to stimulate my mind, perhaps with the effect of channeling the deeper philosophies of Terrence Malick’s film through its elegant score. The audio inspiration certainly helped, but with over 4000 words for the review, I found that I had listened to the entire soundtrack without even finishing the write-up. Naturally, I turned to the only other artists who could possibly serve as a proxy to the orchestral brilliance of The Tree of Life soundtrack: Kanye West and Jay-Z. So when I was writing that bit on Nietzsche and the existential void and its relation to Malick’s film, all I could hear running through my mind was the eternal, god-like Kanye enquiring, “That shit cray, ain’t it Jay?” There’s philosophy there as well.

The “‘Why Didn’t I Review This?’ Award,” or: “Too Lazy to Write-Up Something About This Film So Here’s a Paragraph Award” or: “Woody Allen Made a Film and All He Got Was This Stupid Paragraph”

Woody Allen begins Midnight In Paris with an exquisitely executed montage of shots lovingly poring over the city of lights, giving us the usual glimpses of the Eifel Tower, Champs-Élysées, etc. As day quickly passes to night, Allen brings us away from the tourist traps of Paris and towards the overlooked aspects of his city – cobblestoned alleyways, inviting boutiques and cafés, side streets and picturesque riverfront views. Of course, these shots only express the deep admiration Woody Allen has for the city, an admiration not unlike his awe for New York City in 1979’s Manhattan. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a starry-eyed romanticist looking to temporarily escape the detached pragmatism of his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) in the streets of Paris. While wandering at night, he finds himself slowly coming across an entirely different scene: Paris of the 1920s, playful anachronisms and all. Thus, Allen delivers a captivating lucid dream witnessing Gil idly conversing with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston), swapping stories with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and even hanging out with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). And as Gil nostalgically walks through Parisian streets, flappers and Lost Generation writers in tow, numerous other cultural figures make their charming appearances: T.S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, Josephine Baker, Djuna Barnes. But it’s Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí that really drives these wistful performances home, a perfect cast for the surrealist painter. Then there’s Marion Cotillard as forgotten muse Adriana, offering another unforgettable performance with parallels between her and the great French actress Anna Karina more apparent than ever before (looks, personality, charm). Ultimately, Midnight In Paris is Woody Allen’s enchanting wish fulfillment of living out of time, though the director’s own insightful commentary on the nature of nostalgia and the realities of life make this one of the director’s best works to date.

Best Opening

Melancholia. Elaborately detailed slo-mo shots resembling still life, direct thematic references to Pieter Bruegel artwork, gorgeous cinematography, clever manipulation of spatial depth, Shakespearian allusions, shots of planetary collision, an overture of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde Prelude”… The opening montage of shots deposits us at the end of the world, with Lars von Trier serving as maestro conducting what appears to be absolute artistic beauty.

Two words: orgasmic catharsis.

2011’s Acting Performance Worth Noting, But Probably Won’t Even Be Acknowledged By Any Award Shows

In Kevin Smith’s Red State, actor Michael Parks as the deranged Pastor Abin Cooper sells his role so well that he robs the entire film from true greatness. For a film that aims to criticize both corrupted religious fanaticism and inept bureaucratic administrations, Smith fails because Parks simply overshadows the weak story with pure charm and whimsical charisma. His commanding sermon to a brainwashed audience conveys his villainy perfectly. Parks’s natural Southern drawl is at once powerful and slightly foreboding of an inner immorality, but also enticing with its down-home familiarity and easygoingness. Watching the aged actor dance about, sing to children, and put on a smile amidst the hellish sadism going on throughout the film ultimately feels more inviting, more alluring than Smith’s pseudo-intellectual commentary. Thus, we’re left with a paradox. Red State is so bad because Michael Parks is so good. 

Films Too Self-Absorbed For Their Own Good

Director Roland Emmerich, known primarily for his bloated “disaster flick” blockbusters 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, and so on, traverses entirely different ground with his 2011 effort Anonymous. Dressing itself up as a period political thriller striving to reveal William Shakespeare as a fraud, the film sinks to unsubstantiated pseudo-historical ramblings and commercialized melodrama tailor-made for consumption by the gullible. Honestly, a tiny part of me perished while watching the film to the point where I simply could not continue. The sheer conviction Emmerich has in conveying such unsubstantiated claims makes Anonymous so much more unconvincing and conspiracy mongering rather than the attention-grabbing thriller it’s made out to be. Of course, Emmerich’s not the only one to blame for this obvious blemish, as John Orloff’s screenwriting pushes so desperately for audience understanding and, worst of all, to force us to become convinced of its pseudo-historical explanations. And even if Anonymous was supposed to be a tribute to the literary genius of “Shakespeare’s” works, then thanks Emmerich. But no thanks.

Cinema Confessional, #1

The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) found myself thinking very awkward questions, specifically “Would I want to be in the front, middle, or back?” I’m still trying to purge these images from my mind.

Best Movie Poster

As an honorable mention, the poster for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives remains an unparalleled work of art readymade for any film devotee’s wall. Nevertheless, the most significant movie poster I’ve seen this year goes to The Ides of March, a simple concept featuring top bill actors Ryan Gosling partially covering his face with a magazine with George Clooney’s slightly off-putting politician mug shot. The film poster speaks multitudes, relaying the duplicity and political double-dealing at work with presidential campaigning. It’s a menacing concept, reminding audiences that politicians are merely public finger-puppets working hand-in-hand with unseen political strategists/managers/advisors (Gosling). Aside from the actual thematic points in the film, the poster also calls attention to Ryan Gosling’s rapidly growing prestige in Hollywood. The fact that he can stand side by side in the billing with a veteran actor as Clooney speaks to Gosling’s future potential for a long, celebrated acting career.

Worst Movie Poster

On the other hand, the worst movie posters this year sink to new lows. Minus the original teaser poster (with the “X” emblem), the entire collection of promotional posters for Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is an atrocious, gawky eyesore. From the oddly tinted “Before he was…” character one-sheets to the poorly photoshopped, simplistic group shot poster, these examples don’t even relay the worst the film has to offer. Taking the throne are the one-sheets for Magneto and Charles Xavier, two horrendously photoshopped pieces that look like poorly handled fan-made posters that actually turn out to be official promotional work. To begin, there’s the Magneto poster in which a vague silhouette of the character contains a cringeworthy inclusion of Michael Fassbender’s shadowy face on the silhouette’s stomach/cape area. The concept itself is straightforward, aiming to show the divide between the iconic figure and his origins à la that iconic Star Wars: Episode I teaser poster (with the shadow of Darth Vader). But this one looks terrible and so poorly executed that it could be a fan made image completed in five minutes using Microsoft Paint. Worse still is the one-sheet for Charles Xavier, containing the same terrible qualities of the previous poster but somehow managing to sink even lower. The eyesores are hard to miss: James McAvoy’s face is partially cut off and it’s awkwardly located on the silhouette’s crotch area. Don’t expect any of these posters to hang up in a bedroom any time soon. 

Runner up: The poster for J. Edgar, in which Leo’s out-of-context close-up shouts at you (now in plain AND patriotic versions!)

If I Were a Mad Scientist…

…I would clone Guillermo del Toro multiple times so he can work on the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, his follow-up to Hellboy II: The Golden Army, his announced Frankenstein film, and to finish his Pacific Rim monster epic. I would also use my mad scientist powers to brainwash studio executives to give del Toro all the money he needs for the likely colossal budgets all these films require, but I know that the money will be put to good use given the context of Pan’s Labyrinth’s gorgeously macabre costumes, set design, and practical effects that aren’t merely eye candy (ahem, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) but are actually employed to enhance the mood and give the films a unique quality to them. While this proposal seems ambitious but conceivably impossible, I’m absolutely certain that the scientists mad enough to work on this project will be motivated by just a glimmer of a chance for a decent big screen adaptation of some good ol’ H.P. Lovecraft.

Real-life Film Couple of the Year

When both Mike Mills and Miranda July release films in the same year, expect weird and unusual, yet quirky and likable movies. The married couple both have sophomoric titles at SXSW this year, Mills’ Beginners and July’s The Future. In Beginners, Ewan McGregor plays a hopeless romantic trying to rekindle one last attempt at love alongside the perpetually delightful Mélanie Laurent, all while his father (played by Christopher Plummer) steps out of the closet. Interconnected flashbacks and philosophical musings ensue, all of which features the second cutest dog this year played by Cosmo, who has his own Wikipedia page. Miranda July’s The Future concerns equally enthusing material, concerning a couple handling the existential anxieties of aging, identity crisis, etc., all of which emerges after adopting a cat (which also narrates the film, in true Miranda July eccentricity). Naturally, laws of space and time go wonky as the emotional anxieties of The Future’s characters shift out of control beyond easy repair.

The fact that both Mike Mills and Miranda July maintain such an harmonious balance between their personal relationship and a passionate career in art affixes the two with this “Random Film Musing” award. Artistic partnerships like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo or John Lennon and Yoko Ono seem like bygone precursors to the directing couple; in this case, they’re the King and Queen of indie cinema. Indeed, the couple met at the indie film capital of the world, the Sundance Film Festival back in 2005, when Mills premiered Thumbsucker and July unveiled Me and You and Everyone We Know. Nowadays, the couple continues to produce artistic indie titles that are all around good movies. As Mike Mills says on living and working with Miranda July: “We try really hard to keep our work lives out of our home, and I love having my best friend and pal, the most interesting person in the world, be Miranda.” There’s hope for celebrity relationships yet.

The Michael Bay Action Sequence of the Year Award


Enter filmmakers STEVEN SPIELBERG and J.J. ABRAMS. Both wear thick, black-framed glasses. On their faces, it looks geeky, not fashionable. Both giggle excitedly, with Spielberg occasionally doing filmmaking stuff, Abrams completely out of it. They sit in stereotypical directors’ chairs and chat.

SS: Alright, J.J., this is a summer blockbuster, so the people are gonna be expecting a big-budget action set piece. What are we going to do?

JJ: Lens flare!

SS: That’s right, J.J., we’re going to choreograph an immense train crash sequence that’s going to kick the living hell out of any masturbatory metallic-crunching, robotic anarchy sequence from Michael Bay!

JJ: Shakycam!

SS: That’s right, J.J., it’s going to be filmed with an eye for realism… that means in-the-moment chaos every which way and that, and we’ll have the kids right smack in the middle of it all.

JJ: Cloverfield!

SS: No, J.J., we can’t have the monster unveiled just yet. Instead, we’ll satiate audiences with the colossal train wreck, cranking up the volume to the max to elevate those explosions, those twisting metal, those screams to its very extreme.

JJ: Spock?

SS: It’s actually pronounced Elle Fanning. Yes, we’ll have her and all the other kids running through this mayhem, escaping flaming debris like a game of dodgeball. I can’t think of anything more exciting this year…

JJ: Lens…

SS: No.

JJ: [quietly] …flare?

They gaze into each other eyes. The theme song for Indiana Jones plays in the background. Nothing makes much sense. Both nod their heads in contemplation, stare into space appreciatively. For whatever reasons, none will ever know.



The Black Swan After Effect

Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis are definitely involved in some kind of clandestine conspiracy to undermine Hollywood corporatism. By appearing in practically the same film in the same year, No Stings Attached and Friends with Benefits, as a follow-up to their Academy-lauded Black Swan (which they both starred in) last year, they must be making some kind of disdainful statement on the shallow nature of the modern filmmaking business! Genius! Subversive! The combined global box office totals reach nearly $300 million, obviously pointing to Portman/Kunis’s original sociological commentary on the sad state of modern filmgoing audiences. Brilliant! Groundbreaking! To make money on formulaic, hackneyed, out-of-date humor (Look, an iReference! Flash mobs? Still relevant!!!)… that’s not a cheap stab at relevance, that’s cutting edge! Of course it is, because Academy Award winner for Best Actress Natalie Portman and the similarly acclaimed Mila Kunis star in either one!

Oh, how the mighty have fallen (At least Thor was good; Mila, I’m not so sure about your future career). 

Cinema Confessional, #2

I thought the little penguin rapping to LL Cool J in Happy Feet Two was cute.

The Oscar Isaac Award for Underappreciated Acting Performances by Oscar Isaac

That’s right, Oscar Isaac has to award himself for his great acting this year because no else seems to have even cared. Granted, his roles in Sucker Punch and Drive are no awards show highlights, but the majority of the film community has overlooked his psychologically dark and unrepentantly moody performances in either film. For starters, his villainy in Sucker Punch stands as one of the bleakest in 2011, conveying the sleazy misogyny and megalomaniacal machismo as Blue. As Standard (yet another cool one-word name for Isaac) in Drive, he embodies the sole emotional nakedness that the existential void of the eponymous Driver lacks. Freshly released from a long prison sentence, he immediately tackles the guilt of being an absent father, the threat of gangsters out to take his life, and the burgeoning intimacy between the Driver and his wife Irene. Isaac plays out his emotional turbulence with grace however, depicting a genuinely upright husband and father simply struggling to make sense out of a violent world out to harm his family. Nearly every scene he’s in radiates with a touch of humanity and complicated individuality: a scene in which he hesitantly comes to grips with the reality of the moment, disclosing his perilous circumstances with the Driver. And then there’s the film’s most touching scene, recalling how he and Irene fell in love with such wistful, humorous, and profoundly saddened eyes aged by the harsh world that surrounds all.

Unnecessary Sequels

To quote directly from Wikipedia, “The year 2011 was notable for containing the release of the most film sequels in a single year, at 28 sequels.” But how to separate the good from the bad? Sure, 2011 featured a number of glorious titles from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (the eighth installment) to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (number four), but many still relied on former glories in a weak attempt to rekindle past success. Scream 4 fizzled; Paranormal Activity 3 lacked teeth; The Hangover: Part II was derivative; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides seemed lacking; Cars 2 was simply wrong. Sigh. At least Transformers: Dark of the Moon maintained such excellent action pieces and at least Pirates 4 still contained Johnny Depp’s eternal charisma. Regardless, these singular positive traits cannot save dying franchises, a lesson that other on-the-fence between admirable and rotten franchises such as Sherlock Holmes and The Fast and the Furious need to take into mind. 

Still, I hear that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (which I missed) is a decent sequel, saved primarily because of a jaw-dropping slow-motion action piece. I may end up enjoying that one yet…

Seemingly Unnecessary Sequels That Turned Out Quite Good

Tips of the trade for filming a good sequel:

1) “Forget realism: reject conventional rules of physics for adrenaline-pumping stunts!” says Fast Five from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

2) “Mix-it-up in terms of storytelling. Top of the line CGI just doesn’t cut it anymore for animation… work with Chinese shadow puppetry, watercolors, 2D, and so on for full artistic impact! Still, stereoscopic 3D CGI still looks amazing for all your fast-paced kung fu action needs,” says Kung Fu Panda 2 from Gongmen City, China.

3) “Abandon all continuity with previous titles in the series, or at least… almost all. A well-executed cameo appearance could spread approving smiles all around,” says X-Men: First Class from Westchester County, New York.

4) “Andy Serkis,” says Rise of the Planet of the Apes from San Francisco, California.

5) “Consistently be a good series. Only release a new film in the space of four years (minimum). Have an excellent cast. Have distinct directorial styles for each title. Always be exciting to watch. I shouldn’t even be on this list… because I’m not a ‘seemingly unnecessary sequel’; people will always look forward to a new me,” says Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The Han and Chewbacca Bromance of the Year Award

Cinema-going audiences have been swooning over the golden trio of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint) for a decade, but these child actors-turned-iconic celebrities are now transitioning into careers elsewhere. What won me over this year were the young talents from Super 8, a bunch of Goonies-esque kids who can endear their roles to audiences with their suburban earnestness and mischievous escapades. And while Elle Fanning exhibits the best acting capabilities of all, the frontrunners for bromance of the year go to Riley Griffiths as Charles Kaznyk and Ryan Lee as Cary, an odd pairing whose effortless likability and playful bickering constitute the best 2011 has to offer. Charles’s sincere interest in George A. Romero zombie B-movies and Cary’s obsession with pyrotechnics ground these characters in a childlike nostalgia that we can’t help but relate to. Never settling for cheap stabs at quirky cuteness or unsubstantiated attempts at pathos, the two remain completely open books that the audience can both connect with and share laughs (their constant sibling-like squabbling in the background are always good-humored). Griffiths and Lee’s spirited acting abilities contribute to the appealing quality of their characters, selling their parts well while also remaining totally down-to-earth and honest. And in Super 8, director J.J. Abrams gives us a scene for the ages: crowding in a diner booth, the kids squabble over fast food on topics ranging from the terrific train crash to the movies itself, rewarding us with their clear-eyed curiosity and goofy grins that mirror our own preoccupations with childhood fascinations.

The Film So Baffling, It’s Left Me With a Permanent Look of Confusion On My Face Medallion

Your Highness. No explanation possible.

Runner up: 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy. No explanation necessary.

The ‘M. Night Shamalayan’ Underachievement in Filmmaking Award

Attn: Darren Aronofsky

RE: Harvard Film Studies Dept., Final Project

Film Studies 101.

Final Project, due Friday.

Extension request must be accompanied with 13 Broadcast Film Critics Association nominations.

Guidelines: This is a simple project meant to follow-up on your massive enterprise from last year, the Oscar-worthy psychological thriller underclassmen project. For this assignment, you must begin by announcing a self-aware arthouse film dealing with largely eschewed subject matters including Biblical stories or revisionist blockbuster superhero origin stories. Unless you’re Terrence Malick or Jim Jarmusch (which I doubt), this final dissertation may be beyond your capabilities as a self-indulgent, often pretentious filmmaker. I notice your 2006 assignment The Fountain tackled Biblical topics to laughable arthouse conceits in a desperate attempt to conceal its scrambled narrative and shoddy assemblage of themes. Please, be sure to consider your notes on The Tree of Life if you must proceed with another project tackling religious themes from an experimental approach. I also noticed that you dropped your early plans to draft that revisionist blockbuster superhero origin story. Too bad, because if you had gone the same route in crafting a lonely, existentially-bound tragic hero as in your 2008 assignment The Wrestler, your grades could surely improve. While nothing says respectable like a setup as this, please make sure to avoid oversimplifying and restating the obvious themes like you did in last year’s project. These faults just barely cost you top marks.

The second half of your project deals with crafting some kind of audiovisual work just to leave your mark on the year so as not to lose directorial relevance amidst a year of Fincher, McQueen Malick, Refn, and von Trier. A smaller work such as a short film or a… music video would seem appropriate. Be sure to create something clever, eye-catching, and artistic, and consider the music video/short film alumni from the 90’s including Spike Jonze, Michael Gondry, and Mark Romanek for a solid starting point. Also, keep in mind that out-of-focus close-ups, grainy black and white imagery, and deep shadows are NOT edgy and “pushing the boundaries” of the medium. Don’t you remember your seminar with Harmony Korine and Béla Tarr? Also, choosing blatantly gawky subject matter such as, say, beat poetry/heavy metal collaborations (especially lazily executed ones) does NOT constitute as tastefully ironic.

Remember, this is for your career!

The Proper Way to Use 3-D

Amidst all the big-budget 3-D blockbusters (Transformers: Dark of the Moon), IMAX-ready goliaths (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), and exploitative shock value flicks (Final Destination 5), only one film manages to utilize 3-D right. Unexpectedly, this 3-D laden movie is none other than Werner Herzog’s documentary about prehistoric cave paintings, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog delves deep into the remote recesses of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in France with modern 3-D equipment, delivering a completely once-in-a-lifetime glimpse at the prehistoric art gallery. But Herzog envisions more than a simple collection of scattershot renderings of animals, instead imagining the cave paintings as a “proto-cinema,” tracking the walls with his camera to give the illusion of motion. Each and every exhaustively detailed shot leaves Herzog himself remaining in awe of the images before him, remarking with his German-accented English, “It is as though the modern human soul had awakened here.” And if Cave of Forgotten Dreams can make us gape wide-eyed in awe at a collection of widely disregarded horse paintings with more weight than any overblown battle sequence this year, then the 3-D here remains the most magical of all.

The Proper Way to Use Slo-Mo

Set to an exotic-sounding, crooning piece of music and zooming in on a dapper-looking Ryan Gosling munching a pizza, this hilariously overly-exquisite use of slow motion beats out Tarsem Singh’s slo-mo action sequences in Immortals or Nicolas Winding Refn’s bloody hotel kill in Drive. So unexpected of a shot, Crazy, Stupid, Love draws us even closer to Ryan Gosling’s character Jacob Palmer, and the film’s festishization of the actor produces a mélange of hilarity and style. In fact, by pointing out attention to the cult of personality that is Ryan Gosling, the movie highlights the real surprise at its core – the hilarity and likable charisma of the actor. Perpetually having a blast during the entire film, his amusement is infectious alongside his great chemistry with Steve Carell. As for the actual slow motion shot, there’s nothing much to say other than the fact that it exists as a piece of aesthetic guilty pleasure, but then again, when has slow-motion not been a source of that?

Worst Use of a Mustache

Clive Owen in Killer Elite. Come on now.

Oh Right, So Marvel Comics Is Cooler Than Ever Apparently

In a year where adaptations of DC comic characters has all but bombed critically and commercially, with only the limp Green Lantern title representing all DC has to offer, Marvel has responded with strength both in sheer numbers and quality. Boasting blockbuster titles Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and X-Men: First Class, Marvel Studios has crafted the summer blockbuster events of the year. What truly makes these titles true winners, however, rests in the individual polish and excellence each film boasts rather than feeling like simple moneymaking, time-draining filler material for the imminent Avengers communal superheroics monstrosity looming over the horizon. Indeed, each film makes its mark on the typically homogeneous summer blockbuster spectacle season, featuring captivating revisionist histories, strong leading performances, and moments of genuine humor, rush, pathos, nostalgia, intrigue.

X-Men: First Class easily surpasses the other two titles, with the subversion of the characteristically Manichean moral absolutes of popcorn flicks through the artfully rendered Magneto by Michael Fassbender blurring lines between hero and villain. Thor contains such unexpected dichotomies as charm and combat, Shakespearian tragedy and spectacle, sci-fi and fantasy that director Kenneth Branagh seems to be delivering the extremes of a complete theatrical summer experience. And Captain America: The First Avenger surprisingly delivers a nostalgic, adventurous ride despite its overblown premise and aesthetics, even managing to convey a level of drama and narrative underneath its setup. Ultimately, these three movies are mere warm-ups for 2012’s The Avengers, but also stepping-stones for other secondary Marvel films like The Amazing Spider-Man and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (both of which have great potential). As for DC, the only title for 2012 remains Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, singlehandedly fighting off swarms of Marvel fanboys for summer audience attention.

Frustrating Movie of the Year Award

Punjabi filmmaker Tarsem Singh released his labor of love The Fall back in 2006, a personal artistic expression of visionary forte and stunning global cinematography. Featuring one of the most jaw-dropping opening credits sequences ever filmed, The Fall goes on to present an affecting narrative concerning two lost souls swapping stories in order to discover a shared consolation. In 2011, Singh released the not-so spectacular Immortals, a super stylish Greek mythology tale overburdened by a boring script, odd pacing, and popcorn theatrics that relegate his gorgeous visuals to nothing more than excessive flourishes in the grander context of the narrative. Almost all the pieces are played right, from the unforgettable visuals to the stylishly choreographed final action sequences. Indeed, Immortals radiates a unique visual flair, with its earthy tones of black and amber coalescing with a photographic palette that aims to capture Renaissance paintings unto the big screen. As for the actual story of Immortals, that’s where the film gets less interesting. Featuring a lackluster script from the Parlapanides brothers, the film drags on without a trace of excitement, energy, or even concern with the events transpiring before us. It’s only the final twenty minutes of the movie that gears begin to change and action sequences reach spectacular levels, from the time-warping gods vs. titans fight to the tightly packed hallway battle. The actors themselves are all competent enough, with relative newcomer Henry Cavill making his mark before his grandiose role as the titular Man of Steel in 2013, and a bizarrely cast Mickey Rourke surprisingly selling his villainy well as the barbaric King Hyperion. However, the true surprise here goes to Luke Evans as Zeus, an imposing figure whose lines come with fire and brimstone. Nevertheless, the oppressive pacing and the tiresome story simply overshadows all the positive aspects of this film, but at least Tarsem Singh has the charity to offer us one of the most epic closing shots of the year, a skyward shot of mythological figures in all-out war reminiscent of Kanye West’s “Power” video – glorious, grandiose, godly.

Best Trailers

While David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo provided ultra-stylish, sleek trailers building up to its release, these pieces of promotional work only draw attention based on the sheer allure of the film’s images and score. Therefore, the year’s best collection of trailers goes to Steve McQueen’s Shame, a series of videos that sells very ugly subject material with an elegant, almost poetic touch. The first trailer immediately delves deep into the soul-churning depths of its subject matter – sexual addiction – providing a montage of sleek, sexually charged images that could resemble a modern reshooting of American Psycho. The graceful music combined with the frantic breathing (from Fassbender’s jogging or from sex?) pairs with intercut selections from critical reviews, offering apt descriptions such as “bold,” “daring,” “mesmerizing,” and “courageous.” From the trailer, the only two words that can fittingly describe the imagery presented is simple: raw and powerful. The “New York, New York” trailer (I believe it’s the second one) features Carey Mulligan covering the aforementioned song, and the outcome is fiercely shattering stuff. The trailer itself begins by teasing us, showing images that could come out of a typical romance film, but the drooping piano and the isolated shots of Michael Fassbender towards the latter half of the clip suggest darker, internal, and tragic implications. Setting up the character as profoundly psychologically afflicted (the only words he speaks are the whispered, “slowly”), this Shame trailer (which I consider my personal favorite) points towards very weighty material. One particular bit where the character’s reflection is distorted on a wall presents a wounded, lost individual, and the final shot of Fassbender averting his eyes contains such wordless emotional impact that it all but feels revelatory. Finally, one last promotional piece features a scene in which Fassbender eyes a girl on a subway, the effect of which is pure sexual tension. All the elements – the anticipatory clock noise ticking away, the start/stop of the subway train, Fassbender’s fixed gaze, and the final shots – serve to contribute in producing a cryptic, yet hypnotic series of shots for a trailer. Such ugly subject matter has never been marketed better.

Best Soundtrack

The Chemical Brothers – Hanna

Alexandre Desplat, et. al – The Tree of Life

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Cliff Martinez, et. al – Drive

I may have to rework this category from “Best Soundtrack” to “Notable Soundtracks” next time around, because 2011 has generated an unprecedented four-way tie simply because the music in each of these films works so effectively when paired with the visuals onscreen. The Chemical Brothers’ fast-paced electronic pulses weld nicely to the music video mind-bending, equally fast-paced aesthetics of Hanna, intensifying scenes with ruthless paranoia and a bludgeon of beats. The orchestral movements of Alexandre Desplat and the collection of composers assembled coincides with The Tree of Life’s own narrative structure of movements, providing some emotionally shattering moments of audiovisual pairings (see: the creation of the universe set to Preisner’s “Life: Lacrimosa - Day of Tears”). Following the Academy Award-winning score of 2010’s The Social Network, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross return to work with director David Fincher for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, assembling pieces of atmospheric iciness conveying the same hopeless cold on the screen. Finally, Cliff Martinez continues his reverberating electronic work in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (with similar outcomes to his other notable 2011 work in the Contagion soundtrack), though the assortment of 1980s synth pop-inspired tracks by Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx, The Chromatics, Desire, and College are the standouts here. Oozing that nighttime 80’s vibe fitting nicely into Drive’s retro pastiche, these tracks purr out distinctly feminine delineations (specifically College’s “A Real Hero,” the film’s de facto theme) damn near perfect for listening to while double-clutching it down the hills of Mulholland Drive. 

On TGWTDT Score: Track 2, Disc 1

The name of the track is “She Reminds Me of You,” a piece that I think is the most haunting out of all thirty-nine musical arrangements spread out over three discs. Perfectly suited to director David Fincher’s work, the track sounds ominous, mysterious, and marked with an intrinsic darkness. Naturally, I had “She Reminds Me of You” playing on loop for hours while studying for my first semester finals, providing wordless noise as I ruminated over weeks’ worth of notes and other academic material. So when night silently drifted by and I found myself isolated in a corner of the study room, I had completely immersed myself in the music so much so that the spare, decaying chimes of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross felt embedded within my head – I had forgotten that I had music playing in the first place. Consequently, the late night scene recalled images from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, that of a slowly degenerating figure who feels that the entire world is slowly closing in, a feeling intensified by those unforgivingly bleak chimes that seemed to be emanating from oblivion. The effect then, is perfection. The most emotionally and mentally arresting moments of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack materialize out of layers of damaged, indecipherable sounds when given the right context – the inaccessibility of space and time itself, the very same elements that comprise David Fincher’s evocative adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel.

Cinema Confessional, #3

I tried not to touch my face while watching Contagion after that one scene (you know which).

Man of the Year

Okay, so Michael Fassbender may have the BEST overall acting run for 2011, boasting such grandiose titles as Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, and Shame, but the “Man of the Year” title simply has to go to Ryan Gosling for his ubiquitous presence this year as a celebrity. From Drive to The Ides of March to Crazy, Stupid, Love, Gosling has appeared in a diverse selection of films only to substantiate his role as a promising, reputable actor capable of helming anything from arthouse to blockbuster. Consequently, a number of notable filmmakers have voiced their interest in the young star for future work, including Nicolas Winding Refn (Only God Forgives, Logan’s Run), Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines), Ruben Fleischer (The Gangster Squad), and the oh-so prestigious Terrence Malick (Lawless, a film starring our Woman of the Year alongside Gosling). But first, to address the films of 2011. Drive witnesses Ryan Gosling finally exhibiting a rawer, more violent side under Refn’s meticulous direction, and also the popularization of the now iconic scorpion jacket. The Ides of March features one of the wittiest back-and-forth flirting games of 2011, envisioning Evan Rachel Wood and the actor sharing their fair share of sly, rapid-fire exchanges. And finally, Gosling’s run in Crazy, Stupid, Love shows off a funnier side of the actor, from the crazed shopping spree movie montage (tastefully done, i.e. not Sex and the City 2) to the goofy banter with co-star Steve Carell. Besides shooting critically acclaimed films, Gosling is also known to break up fights in New York City, become a famous Internet meme, serve as a spokesperson for feminism, display his affection for Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn at the Cannes Film Festival, and embody the general existentialist protagonist as exemplified in Drive. Jean-Paul Sartre put it best. “If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”

Woman of the Year

Like the “Man of the Year” title, I’ll begin with the honorable mentions for this category. First off, I can’t stress enough the acting brilliance of Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, authentically conveying the trauma and paranoia of a character plagued by an belligerent son through sheer body language and a striking command of the screen. Furthermore, actress Jessica Chastain remains unparalleled in terms of the sheer number of new, quality films released this year from an acting career established only in 2008. Honestly, Chastain had top billing in about every third film released in 2011 (The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Debt, The Help, Texas Killing Fields, and so on). Nevertheless, it’s Rooney Mara who takes the shining title for “Woman of the Year,” boasting such a weighty role in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that her performance feels like total role commitment. Indeed, her sudden transformation from the charming Erica Albright of The Social Network to the gritty, standoffish hacker punk Lisbeth Salander (featuring Mohawk, tattoos, piercings, bleached eyebrows, and all) reveals the sheer breath of her undertaking to even appear in the film. And when she does have her glorious screen time, Mara portrays Salander brilliantly, completely selling the character as her own apart from Noomi Rapace’s rendition back in 2009. The Salander she envisions is deathly frail and vulnerable, but also brutal, captivating, and hypnotic, ready to exercise sudden tonal shifts at the drop of a hat (or after the actions of a random thief at a subway station). Thus, during the events of the nearly three-hour sprawl of film, one can’t help but notice the inevitable. Rooney Mara drives forward in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, moving closer and closer to revenge, but also an even greater redemption.

Facepalm of the Year

The Iron Lady, The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, New Year’s Eve, and The Adjustment Bureau share collective groans all around, but the true facepalm belongs to Jack and Jill. To be honest, I avoided the film like a plague due to the multitudes of critics slicing it to mincemeat with their reproachful reviews and the abysmally low Rotten Tomatoes score of 4% (I’ll watch a poorly rated film… I’m all for B-movies, looking forward to that Ghost Rider sequel and Wrath of the Titans more than most, but that score is doomed). Even so, there’s always that horrible poster as an assessment of quality.

Best Ending

No contest, the best ending of 2011 occurs in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, both affirming how damaged and hurt the character Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is and elevating the preceding two hours in a poignant emotional dénouement. Unlike Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 adaptation, Fincher concerns his ending with the pain and frailty of Salander rather than how “badass” she is – which is to say, she finally moves past the superficiality and actually defines a character that sticks in the back of one’s mind well past the credits roll. It’s a hollow sadness that the film evaporates with, but also the captivation and depth of actress Rooney Mara, the broken psyche of a character, and pangs of collective sympathy.

Two words: emotional catharsis.

12 For 2012: Most Looked-Forward To Films

1. The Place Beyond the Pines, dir. Derek Cianfrance

2. Only God Forgives, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

3. Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott

4. Moonrise Kingdom, dir. Wes Anderson

5. Cosmopolis, dir. David Cronenberg

6. The Avengers, dir. Joss Whedon

7. Looper, dir. Rian Johnson

8. Django Unchained, dir. Quentin Tarantino

9. Cogan’s Trade, dir. Andrew Dominik

10. Skyfall, dir. Sam Mendes

11. Night Moves, dir. Kelly Reichardt

12. The Dark Knight Rises, dir. Christopher Nolan

The Most Important Film of the Year

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

- Albert Camus 

In a year where censorship and government suppression of media became the norm for current events, one brave filmmaker released the single most important film this year despite the censorious powers that be. On December 2010, the Iranian government sentenced director Jafar Panahi to six years of prison, a restriction on travel, and a twenty-year filmmaking ban for “acting out” against the Islamic Republic. This threatening action that has led to Panahi’s suppression was merely his throwing of support for the street protests following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election back in 2009, yet the Iranian director still continues his career of defiance amidst government contempt. Filming his snidely titled This Is Not a Film while under house arrest and the filmmaking ban, Panahi has created an importance piece of art that doubles as an act of the political amid the year’s Middle Eastern unrest (see: Arab Spring).

Internationally, issues regarding the suppression of media have become more apparent than ever. In China, artists/directors Ai Weiwei, Jia Zhangke, and Zhang Yimou have all publicly voiced their concerns about the Communist Party’s continued clampdown of the arts, with State-owned censor boards cracking down on everything from violence to time travel. Even recent developments close to home reflect the changing sociopolitical landscape, with scares from ACTA and the now defunct SOPA and PIPA forcing people to find new freedom in sharing digital media. And while the provisions laid out in ACTA are not directly related to artistic censorship, the now burgeoning international underground cinema culture has a level of relevance in completely bypassing these copyright laws, potentially hinting at the future direction of this art. Cheaper cameras, extremely low-budget HD films, Vimeo-uploaded material, independent production, taboo subject matter – these are all elements that point towards the rapidly expanding foreign underground, a tiny corner of cinema untouched by government censorship or suppressive copyright law.

In This Is Not a Film, Panahi documents his daily life under house arrest, waiting to hear development of his appeal. Co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb films part of the documentary in a secretive guerilla style on an iPhone, further demonstrating the rebellious nature of the project. This politically defiant nature of the project has an even more extraordinary story in terms of its screening. To premiere the film at the Cannes Film Festival, Panahi smuggled out the digital files out of Iran inside a cake (oh, Marie Antoinette). In Europe, the director’s work is highly acclaimed, from his 1995 debut The White Balloon (winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes) to his Golden Lion-winning The Circle at Venice back in 2000. While Jafar Panahi could not appear at Cannes this year, his support by the film community remained larger than ever, with figures including Francis Ford Coppola, the Coen Brothers, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, etc. signing a petition for his release. The obstinate Islamic Republic of Iran will likely ignore these requests, but the very existence of This Is Not a Film constitutes a dangerous, but vital act of political and cinematic rebellion.

The message: Don’t fuck with us.

So, What’s With All Those Post-Credits Sequences?


Notes 0

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Miguel Penabella | 4 January 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Dir. David Fincher, 2011

Not long into David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the introverted, often belligerent hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) prepares a meal of Ramen noodles and Coca-Cola under the director’s investigative eye. Later into the film, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) pores over a cluttered desk of notes, photographs, and journals with the same meticulous observation from Fincher’s camera that slowly documents every single step of a sequence to obsessive detail. Much of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo plays out with such zealous appreciation for the tiniest of particulars, possessing an expansive running time of 160 minutes full of minute, seemingly irrelevant details despite writer Steve Zaillian’s streamlining of its source material, the late Stieg Larsson’s massive 2005 novel. From Zaillian’s script, Fincher translates drama into sequential data, striving to answer the film’s premise of a serial killer mystery in terms of how and in what way rather than the stereotypical why. Like his 2007 wonder Zodiac, Fincher takes precedence over the investigative process rather than the motives and solution, hypnotically luring audiences in with his wintry atmospherics and measured, careful direction.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Fincher’s labor of love following his masterwork in 2010’s acclaimed The Social Network, so it’s not surprising that this movie picks up on very similar themes right where the last left off. Fincher continues the 2010 movie’s interpersonal, rapid-fire dialogue and acknowledgment of the digital age’s omnipresent takeover, even connecting Salander to The Social Network’s own apathetic hacker punk Mark Zuckerberg in terms of characterization (cold and aloof) and visual cues (close-ups of fingers typing away). Yet The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also channels Se7en’s religion-impelled violence and the enraptured, methodical whodunit setup of Zodiac, complete with a crawling pace and characters just as fixated in seeking answers as Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith. And contrary to the masses of popular belief on the blogosphere and beyond, Fincher’s movie isn’t a remake of the 2009 Swedish film but an adaptation of Larsson’s novel, completely avoiding any similarity with Arden Oplev’s inferior work. Instead, he corrects it, commendably placing the importance of characters over the largely nominal serial killer plot, and readily combatting those vague complaints of the film as “American-ized,” Fincher’s skilled handling of the source material leaves barely a trace of cheap Hollywood theatrics. Instead, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a tightly disciplined film made by adults for adults, whose aesthetic and storytelling rigor resides less in its source material than in the delicate channeling of all the forces involved under the hands of a sophisticated contemporary director.

As in Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac, the aesthetic and thematic consistencies give no doubt as to who’s in control here. David Fincher presents his usual investment in stories tinged with sadism, murder, and sexualized violence, depicting human cruelty and butchery with little heed into the impulses and motivations behind these simply because Fincher acknowledges that the present circumstances are more convoluted than the banal horrors that prompt it. Stieg Larsson’s novels, though attention-grabbing distractions upon first read, are nonetheless pulpy trade paperbacks when critically dissected. The sincerity and passion behind the so-called Millennium (named after the fictional magazine firm the ties the books together) trilogy’s story is apparent because of the motivations behind it. The first novel, originally titled Men Who Hate Women, calls attention to Sweden’s disquieting history of sexual abuse and domestic violence, a particularly personal story to Larsson after having helplessly witnessing a gang rape as a teenager. Furthermore, the book also addresses issues with faulty investigative journalism and Sweden’s extreme right-wing government, two factors that directly tie in to Larsson’s hiding over his risky investigative reporting. Despite these motivations, the actual story remains hackneyed bestseller material, featuring Nazis, religious fanaticism, sex, and whodunit contrivances without a whole lot of depth. Even pretensions to feminism in the Millennium series through the lead character Lisbeth Salander’s actions remains faulty, as women are ultimately relegated as mesmeric ciphers to be investigated from a singularly male point of view, i.e. Larsson.

David Fincher and Steve Zaillian avoid the hindrances that tarnish both Larsson’s original novel and Oplev’s Swedish film through the sheer quantity of details present throughout the film, committing its plot on the actual investigative process rather than a cheap, cathartic solution. In this snowy, moody vision of Sweden, aging industrial tycoon Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires the recently censured journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) to solve a forty-year-old mystery concerning the disappearance of his niece Harriet Vanger. Convinced that a close relative murdered Harriet because of an annual presentation of flowers by mail on his birthday (a heartless throwback to Harriet’s own birthday tradition), Blomkvist sets off on the case. Vanger’s promise of compensation of damning intelligence on the corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström, the man whom Blomkvist lost all credibility to after losing a libel case, ultimately drives the downtrodden journalist. Meanwhile, independent researcher and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Mara) receives a new legal guardian after her previous one suffered a disastrous stroke in the form of the burly Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), a manipulative figure who violently takes advantage of Salander’s physical frailty.

After Salander eventually takes her brutal revenge on her rapist guardian however, she is employed by Blomkvist (whose background check was done by her) as a researcher, and together they slowly pick apart at the cryptic puzzle laid out before them. All in all, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo essentially becomes the pristine example of Fincher at his most familiar. The blizzards of Hedestad, Sweden, and the moody color palette reflect the filmmaker’s own depiction of coldblooded characters existing in the snowy locale, and Jeff Cronenweth’s crystalline cinematography with the RED digital camera gives the picture an atmospheric, somber quality. When Blomkvist initially steps out of the train for the first time unto the wintry Hedestad, it’s as if he steps unto a whole other planet of icy, desolate landscapes where everything is obscured by snow. Most directors lack Fincher’s unrivaled mastery at enhancing mood through lighting and color tone, but the director’s dichotomy between freezing, lifeless exteriors and the warm, golden interiors augmented with base lighting setups add visual substance and texture to the picture. The sleek, minimalist Swedish architecture further adds a level of emptiness when paired with the frigid cold outside, especially when populated with the dispassionate Vanger family whose innate treachery Blomkvist slowly unravels.

Everyone speaks in accented English with occasional bouts of Swedish thrown in for good measure, as well as newspaper clippings and advertisements completely in the foreign language. But despite the remote locale, David Fincher grounds The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in familiar territory, employing his usual short-term quick cuts and long-term protracted pacing to keep the 160-minute film drawn out, but constantly moving and never tedious. Even the golden-tinged aesthetic returns from The Social Network, here used as demarcations of flashbacks bathed in Fincher’s heavenly buttery light. In terms of overall visual style, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo drifts towards Zodiac’s obsessive eye for detail than The Social Network’s moody lighting, with Fincher passionately logging every tiny action in the film to break down each and every scene and deconstruct each character. Take, for example, the aforementioned scene recording Salander preparing a bowl of Ramen noodles. In the hands of most filmmakers, the scene would probably serve as a mere stylistic quirk with little penetration into the character, but time and time again, Fincher meticulously logs the minutest aspects: a McDonald’s happy meal here, a vending machine stint there, a cup of coffee and pack of cigarettes here, and yet another close-up of incidental objects once again. Fincher’s choice of framing small objects is absolutely fascinating; with his use of static shots, creeping dollies, and quick cuts, he allows meticulous detail to be mesmerizing rather than monotonously unremarkable.

Ultimately, these sequences of characters going through each and every step in a process mirrors the movie’s own exploration into investigative study and painstaking crime-solving. From the sprawling epilogue in which Salander undergoes one final heist singlehandedly to the thorough process of piecing together all the family members in Hedestad, Fincher details everything as he does in Zodiac, shifting to his obsession for a narrative that loses its objective—cathartic resolution as expected from Larsson’s novel—and the hunt itself becoming the end result. Fincher’s distinctive style further reveals itself through the opening title sequence of the film, a pulsating mass of black tar set to Trent Reznor and Karen O’s cover of “Immigrant Song,” that molds into barely perceptible shapes like a James Bond intro from hell: writhing bodies, fists, wasps (a tattoo of Salander’s), blooming flowers, intertwining computer cables, shattering faces. The sequence not only recalls the playfully dark titles of Se7en and Fight Club (the former set to music from Reznor’s band Nine Inch Nails), but also provides a glimpse at Salander’s own subconscious (the presence of fire here plays a key role in, you guessed it, The Girl Who Played with Fire) and hints at thematic elements of the film. If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about anything, these fragmentary images shown in the first few minutes of the film offer visual cues on the potential for technological advance to ruin us all. Computer cables ensnare bodies like snakes, suggesting not only the all-pervasiveness of technology in the digital age but also how these tools will eventually lead to violence and destruction later on in the film. Fincher connects his images with his characters and plot, revealing Salander’s tattoos coming to life and the image of a fist shattering a woman’s face like a vase, linking the image to the misogynistic violence of Bjurman and others.

The connections The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo makes during the opening titles between sexualized violence and its characters arrive later on in the film after the lengthy introduction of Mikael Blomkvist and Millennium magazine. Fincher focuses on Blomkvist fixatedly, documenting his smoking habits, wanderings, purchases, and romantic life with co-worker Erika Berger (Robin Wright) to thoroughly unpack his character inside out. Daniel Craig returns to form after the James Bond hiatus and his unfortunate stints in this year’s Dream House and Cowboys and Aliens, maintaining a veneer of cool levelheadedness and rationality that reminds audiences how Craig can effortlessly exude his natural swagger, a factor that undeniably points to the reasoning behind his role as the titular James Bond. Fincher also makes the shrewd change from the Swedish film and novel in downplaying Blomkvist’s hyperactive sex life with multiple female characters throughout the story, instead grounding him as a composed, disciplined character rather than allowing Craig to don his usual Bond pretense. Nevertheless, it isn’t until the stories of Blomkvist and Salander converge that a level of chemistry actually emerges from the numerous characters in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a narrative aspect that also occurs in Larsson’s own original novel.

When Lisbeth Salander is first introduced, actress Rooney Mara radiates the same calculated, cynical reprimands of her Social Network co-star Jesse Eisenberg, apathetically distancing herself from others while simultaneously demonstrating her own command of the screen. Unlike the slightly muscular frame of Noomi Rapace from the Swedish series, Mara more closely resembles the physically frail description from the novel (“She had simply been born thin, with slender bones that made her look girlish and fine-limbed with small hands, narrow wrists, and childlike breasts. She was twenty-four, but she sometimes looked fourteen.” Larsson, 41). Rapace had a more apparent ability to fight back, but Mara’s more noticeable weakness here emphasizes her vulnerability and loneliness despite her ability to occasionally exhibit profound independence and willpower as a troubled human being. Fincher’s decision to cast her as the cipher Lisbeth Salander isn’t surprising because of Rooney Mara’s acting achievement in The Social Network despite being limited largely to that opening five-minute prologue. As Salander, she delivers total role commitment, selling her character’s paradoxical defenselessness and uncontrollable rage with equal measures of bravado. She often averts her eyes in conversation with insecurity or impatience, but during times of duress, Mara’s eyes blaze with monstrous intensity like another creature entirely.

Lisbeth Salander’s “Fuck you, you fucking fuck” t-shirt (an indispensible piece of cinematic apparel like the Driver’s scorpion jacket) promptly signals that Fincher does not tone down her character one bit, instead opting for full characterization as a withdrawn, often belligerent, always unknowable leading figure. Like Zuckerberg, Lisbeth is highly intellectual (having photographic memory and computer expertise), but she never has a solid grasp on personal relations (the film hints at the possibility of Asperger’s syndrome), instead choosing to hack into others’ personal lives as a means of understanding over easy communication. She simplifies all those around her, though she herself could never be abridged so straightforwardly. A lot of her backstory remains undisclosed and cryptic, often insinuated in the briefest of moments (a distant recollection of Salander killing her father, for example, is nonchalantly whispered to Blomkvist towards the end of the film), nicely setting the stage for the following sequels that ultimately flesh out these details. Nevertheless, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does illustrate present-day horrors haunting Salander, namely the briefly aforementioned dealings with her rapist guardian which provide the film’s most unsettling moment.

Much of Fincher’s credibility in translating Larsson’s source material rests on the delicate portrayal of the anal rape scene, a segment of the 2009 Swedish movie that was ominously graphic to begin with. In Fincher’s adaptation, his depiction includes those tiny details so characteristic of the rest of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that the scene isn’t more graphic as it is more disturbing. The camera’s attention to the cold light fixtures and intense close-ups of struggling facial expressions have an increased emotional impact when paired with the filmmaker’s amplification of key sounds – the slow exhalation in sadistic pleasure, the muffled shrieks of fear, the thrashing limbs. The power of the scene attests to Fincher’s controlled discipline in filmmaking, giving us a steady, unflinching camera voyeuristically observing the nauseating events like French filmmaker Gaspar Noé’s equally grueling rape scene in Irréversible. Fincher strips down all unnecessary background, only providing what needs to be seen for full emotional impact. Thus, the natural reaction can only be that of repulsion and an eventual lust for vengeance, similar to Oplev’s work in his 2009 film. Then Fincher gives a vital corrective to the Swedish film/book, punishing our voyeuristic impulse as film audiences for being so manipulated to its sexualized violence. He gives the same rock-steady camera when Salander returns for revenge, leering over every detail as she harrowingly exacts payback through violent anal penetration of Bjurman with some incidental phallic object and an amateur, bloody tattooing of “I AM A RAPIST PIG” on his torso. While the initial rape scene is appalling beyond words, Fincher presents her counter-violence with an emotionlessness that robs her vengeance of its rationality. In the theater, I recall hearing some approving “hmms” during the first few seconds of reprisal, but then a stunned silence when she continues unrelentingly, showing how violence isn’t something to celebrate regardless of context.

It should be made clear, however, that David Fincher distances his characterization of Lisbeth Salander from Larsson’s questionable female empowerment setup (as explained beforehand in this review), deciding his own brand of female authority for the character coinciding with Rooney Mara’s exceptional performance. This auteurial control begins with the highly divisive movie poster depicting Daniel Craig wrapping his arm around a naked Rooney Mara, a promotional piece that has been accused of sexualizing the character on loosely misogynistic grounds. This is an unconvincing view given contextualization with the film’s actual portrayal of the character – Craig isn’t protecting Mara; he’s holding her back and hiding behind her. Fincher reverses the traditional male gaze of feminist philosophy by having Mara not merely look at a viewer but actively stare through the screen and into audience consciousness. Furthermore, claims that Rooney Mara’s frequent nudity sexualizes her character are sexist assumptions that equate a topless woman with an exploited sex object. In contrast, it’s Salander who is always in control, always the sexual initiator in all of her encounters rather than the book’s problematic wish-fulfillment portrayal of Salander and Blomkvist’s romantic relationship. Here, Mara plays Salander’s attraction to Blomkvist with aggression and dominance, an affirmation of control to overshadow her impulsive, deeply psychological feelings that warrant further critical scrutiny.

To those unappeasable critics and fans of the series who claim that Rooney Mara isn’t “assertive” or “badass” enough, David Fincher presents a more admirable characterization of the hacker apart from the commercialized, simplified view of feminist “badassery” like Oplev and Larsson’s handling of the character. Instead, Fincher and Mara present a more believable characterization of a rape victim, portraying an inner stoicism and disciplined control that reflects a withdrawn, interior power. Furthermore, a more sexualized Lisbeth Salander often seen nude actively opposes the arrogant desexualization of female rape victims in both society and cinema. By allowing Salander to fulfill herself sexually after the distressing event on her own terms, Fincher elaborates the character in showing her current emotional and psychological state rather than merely relegating her as an archetypical rape victim bound to inertness. Thus, her relationship with Blomkvist can thrive into true chemistry and mutual dependency. One talked about moment in Fincher’s film in which Salander asks permission from Blomkvist to hunt a man down highlights their reciprocal relationship that they’re in this together, further increasing the emotional impact of the outstanding half hour dénouement of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The concluding action of the film uncovers a greater development of Lisbeth Salander’s internal hurt with the preceding two hours showing the character defensively hiding and restraining these vulnerable feelings (though not enough to clue us in on her innate fragility and emotional deprivation). Nevertheless, Fincher and Mara refuse to deny her vulnerability any longer once the film moves past its window-dressing pulpy mystery plot, with Salander even declaring that “you and Harriet fucking Vanger have kept me pretty busy,” almost implying the sudden character development to come. With the ending that won’t be explicitly spoiled here, Mara convinces audiences of a character deeper beneath the seemingly unfriendly façade, and her reaching out for affection and hollow feeling of sadness afterward remains the single most memorable aspect of the film, a scene that still runs through my mind today. The Swedish version rushes through the ending, but here, Mara’s performance injects more emotional depth to the character than ever before.

There’s a depth to Fincher’s thematic elements not found in either Oplev or Larsson’s material, namely in his depiction of technological pervasiveness throughout The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The director has always been interested in the influence of technology on daily life, with his digitally tinged narrative of The Social Network and turn of the millennium Fight Club attesting to his investment in the topic. Here, technology is all encompassing. Characters are defined by their fluidity in computer expertise, with the graceful Salander hacking away at impenetrable encryptions while Blomkvist bumbles about just to maximize a window. Fincher also reminds audience about the ubiquity of technology when Blomkvist first steps unto the frozen landscape of Hedestad, seen spending a long stretch of time aimlessly searching for cellphone reception. Indeed, cellphones serve as vital tools in the film as evidenced in one scene where characters unconsciously reach for their phones when one rings, as if grabbing a gun in self-defense. Communication plays a key role in the film, especially considering its lack thereof during inopportune moments for the various characters. The gap between the technologically driven Salander and the old ways of Blomkvist and Vanger further exposes greater rifts in the digital divide. Blomkvist initially reprimands Salander’s illicit computer hacking as a testament to the degradation of journalistic integrity, but Fincher portrays the character ultimately ceding to her methods not to tie up loose plot points but to make a statement. After forty years of ineffective investigative work, perhaps the only successful way to solve the Vanger case is to yield authority to Salander and what she represents: the latest digital way, like Zuckerberg of the Social Network’s own self-important, though ultimately truthful recognition of changing times. 

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score touched on these themes of omnipresent digitalization in The Social Network, evident through the pulsating, electronic synths and beats that compliment the film’s visualization of computer wizardry. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the pair return to work with David Fincher, providing a few tracks with their usual synth pulses but focusing more on lengthy, chiming atmospherics that work well with the chilling visuals Fincher portrays. With a total runtime nearly three hours long, the score exceeds the actual film, containing icy, somber sounds and deep piano notes that speak to the lifelessness displayed before us, completely immersing audiences with sounds that replicate cold heartbeats or the biting winter wind. And while drawn-out, ambient noise sprinkled with bits of haunting piano comprise the bulk of the score, Reznor and Ross also provide hard-hitting rumbles and aggressive percussion work that harken back to Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth and Ghosts I-IV. Nevertheless, it’s the cold atmospheric work that the score keeps returning to, connecting picture with sound as characters operate on the screen.

The minimalist, always stylish mise-en-scène Fincher delivers throughout the film is just as sleek and polished as director Christopher Nolan’s (and frequent collaborator Wally Pfister) thanks to the work of the film’s own cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. Architecture and set design seeps of contemporary cleanness, but unlike Nolan, Fincher chips away at this elegant beauty (à la Fight Club), showing the grimy underbelly that accompanies scenes of polished exquisiteness. When the protagonists do eventually come across the killer’s hideaway, the tiniest of details speak to Fincher’s strict attention to design as a means of building mood: power tools on a wall, tiny cages stowed away, and other minute details work their way into audience imagination to fill in the gruesome particulars. Fincher even deconstructs the “heavenly” superficiality of the golden luminosity of his flashback scenes, depicting hellish actions of rape, cruelty, and past crimes under his warm, impassive lighting. Ultimately, the seemingly pristine set design and cinematography so masterfully executed by David Fincher throughout his filmography carries an ominously expressionless tone, conveying all the vile immoralities done behind closed doors. 

David Fincher’s take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a dark picture (figuratively and literally), building a distinctly menacing, atmospheric mood throughout its sprawling runtime that no other contemporary director has the capacity to duplicate. Fincher conveys true commitment to his craft with meticulous detail work, resulting in every piece of the picture falling into place flawlessly, whether the sequence consists of an elaborate heist (as in the last half hour) or a simple action of Blomkvist ordering a coffee. Of course, the director’s own obsessions project themselves unto his characters, whose unending drive in the investigative process fragments the self (as in Zodiac or Se7en) amidst the frozen landscape that envelops them. The solution to Harriet Vanger’s disappearance is never particularly overpowering given the surreal and far more interesting process of solving it. Fincher’s foregrounding of his characters over Larsson’s plot remains the saving grace inherent at the film’s core, thus allowing its profound dénouement to ring with pangs of sadness and sympathy for such a cipher of a character, Rooney Mara’s rendition of Lisbeth Salander.

Notes 14

Free Tea Podcast #1 - Summertime, Lu-Uh-Loving

The very first Free Tea podcast! Enjoy our dulcet tones as we discuss upcoming summer films and videogames featuring special guest Will Sharpe!

[Edit: Matthew Vaughn did not direct Domino, he directed Layer Cake.]

Click here to listen directly on soundcloud.

Notes 0

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