The Films of 2012: In conclusion

It was, all told, a disappointing year for movies: several of the films I had most looked forward to seeing (Cosmopolis, Holy Motors) left me unimpressed, and one that I had been hotly anticipating—Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, originally slated for a fall release—ended up getting pushed to 2013.  Even many of the better films I saw this year felt like let-downs; I stand firm that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is an accomplished, thought-provoking, hugely entertaining movie, but I still can’t help feeling that he failed to really knock it out of the park.  Upon reflection, I really only saw two films this year that I found deeply satisfying.  The Master (pictured above) continues to obsess, confound, and hypnotize me some five months after I first screened it theatrically; its images are still rattling around maniacally in my head. (The experience of seeing this film projected in beautiful 65mm—at a moment when theaters across the country are undergoing conversion to digital projection—was extraordinarily powerful.)  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s rendition of “Slow Boat to China” was one of only two moments at the movies this year that left me physically trembling, the other being Emmanuelle Riva’s excruciating death scene in Amour, a film worthy of instant canonization within the European art film tradition to which it pays homage.  Compared to these two masterworks, everything else just seemed inconsequential.  Nevertheless, here are the ten best films I saw this year, with links to full reviews of each:


The Films of 2012: Tabu

Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes’s curious and beguiling Tabu is a film in two hour-long parts.  Part One, titled “Paradise Lost,” is set in a decidedly unglamorous modern-day Lisbon, where middle-aged Pilar (Teresa Madruga) appears to go through the motions of political activism without displaying any real investment in it.  She’s more concerned with the well-being of her elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), who has lately grown paranoid and delusional.  Shortly before passing away, Aurora produces a man’s name—“Ventura.”  The old man turns out to be Aurora’s former lover, and in Part Two, titled “Paradise,” he recounts the story of their love affair, carried out in colonial Africa circa 1960.


Memories of "Alice, Sweet Alice"

I mentioned in my introductory post to this series that I grew up on a steady diet of horror movies, many of which I saw after cable television came to our small town in upstate New York around 1990.  Each week when the TV guide arrived in the Saturday newspaper I would read through it, making a note of any movie categorized as “Horror.”  They were mostly low-budget films from the 1970s and early ’80s, many of them of poor quality, but I devoured them indiscriminately, especially in October when the cable channels ran them in the weeks leading up to Halloween, and on idle afternoons during summer vacation. 


Modernizing the vampire

“I just went off on this trip about…if a vampire existed today, he’d really have a hard time.  He’d probably be working the street, you know, doing something to get by.  He’d need a new ID every twenty years—and shit like that.”  That’s George A. Romero, quoted in J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, explaining the inspiration for Martin (filmed 1976, released 1978), his character study of an 84-year-old vampire living (so to speak) in the body of a gangly teenage boy.  As Romero’s comments make clear, the film is an attempt to ground the vampire myth in a late-twentieth-century realist mode.  Martin doesn’t live in a Gothic castle or lurk in graveyards: he stays with relatives in a run-down house in an economically depressed Pennsylvania suburb, and his thirst for blood requires that he employ a meticulous professionalism when procuring his victims.  And, like Romero himself, Martin has little patience for well-worn vampire clichés.  (Romero’s low-budget, independently produced horror films were instrumental in liberating the genre from the creaky Gothic conventions of classical Hollywood.)


Epistemology and the horror film

One of the clues in Night of the Demon's supernatural detective story.

Above: an image from Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), one of the most highly-regarded of horror films, and one of the most snooze-worthy.  Tourneur was adept at building atmosphere into his films, and Night of the Demon does have a few chilling moments.  But it’s talky and stiff, and its plot owes more to detective fiction than the horror genre: although it hinges on the sinister doings of an effete devil worshiper, it follows the conventions of a standard mystery and, as such, is driven by a narrative logic grounded in epistemological certainty.  Its supposedly “open” ending, in which the rationalist convictions of its detective-scientist hero (an utterly boring Dana Andrews) are supposedly shaken, registers as little more than a gimmick: this is a horror film that affirms rationality even as it claims to argue against it.  Its rationalism is built into its very aesthetic, with its familiar scenes of conversations in drawing rooms and offices in which people say things like “But you must believe me!”  I’m still convinced that the classical Hollywood style, with its rigidly conventional editing patterns and narrative structures, was not set up to accommodate the horror genre, which requires a certain decadent lushness.  The genre really could not come into its own until the transformation of classical filmmaking by the art film movements of the 1960s; as I noted in earlier posts, the best horror films made before 1960, like Freaks, Vampyr, and The Fall of the House of Usher, were anomalies, and many of them came out of the avant-garde tradition.

I proceeded to check out Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (dir. Jaromil Jeres), an absolute mind-fuck of a Czech horror film from 1970 that proved a welcome antidote to Night of the Demon’s conservatism.  (Watching these two films back to back is to see just how radically filmmaking changed during the 1960s.)  In Valerie, we see the horror genre freed from the straight-jacket of classicism, allowed to roam through a kind of dream-world.  The film doesn’t even bother with a straight-forward plot; instead, it throws vampirism, eroticism, and magic together into a beautiful and eerie mélange.  Like Epstein’s UsherThe Company of Wolves, The Innocents, and the underseen Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, to take only four examples, Valerie could be classified as “lyrical horror.”  But my point is that most really great horror films are lyrical insofar as they plunge us into sensuous, unnatural atmospheres, lulling us into states of terror and pleasure.  The best horror films remain fundamentally illogical, or operate according to a dream logic.  They’re felt rather than thought about, which is why Valerie is such a completely absorbing and chilling film in spite of its failing to make any kind of real “sense.”  In its final sequence, as monstrous wraiths beckon to us (and Valerie) in a sun-dappled forest, it feels like we’re trapped within the most delicious nightmare, and we don’t want to wake up.     

"Lyrical horror": glimpses of vampires in the woods in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.