Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: The Year in Documentaries

Documentary lovers were treated to a feast of superior films this year. All of the following titles are well worth seeking out (and would make great gifts for the documentary lover in your life).

First, my honorable mentions:

which captured the real-time, moment-to-moment uncertainty and tension of the Chinese artist, an outspoken critic of his government and a man with a voracious appetite for life;

which (to my great surprise) made MMA exciting by showing, through several articulate practitioners, the intensity and devotion it requires at the highest level, and the regretful scars it leaves on those passed by; 

the thrilling and touching story of the Lithuanian men’s basketball team at the Barcelona Summer Olympics, playing for their country in a way the rest of the world could not have understood;

a staggering Korean love story between Cho Young-Chan, a deaf-blind skyscraper of a man, and his wife Soon-Ho, a tiny little thing with a heart full of love who looks at Young-Chan and sees only accomplishment and possibility; and

the heartbreaking, hopeful and humorous stories of four exceptional young women, each born in China and adopted by an American family, who share with us their wise-beyond-their-years insights into culture and identity, abandonment and belonging.

Also worthy of note were three of last year’s Oscar nominees for documentary feature, which first screened in Los Angeles during 2012: 

about the effects – on their bodies, their relationships, their finances – of those who serve our country in the Middle East and return home worse for wear; 

the capstone of the momentum-building “Paradise Lost” series of documentaries on the West Memphis Three; and 

the stand-up-and-cheer ode to Bill Courtney, a North Memphis business owner turned high school football coach who loves coaching his inner-city boys more than life itself. It had an audience full of jaded Westsiders living and dying with every play of a Tennessee high school football season.

Now, my top ten documentaries of 2012 (in alphabetical order):

the uplifting, inspiring and completely winning story of the (mostly white) teachers and (mostly black) kids of the chess team at I.S. 318, a national junior-high chess juggernaut and a wonderful place where nobody cares about the color of your skin, only the quality of your moves; 

 the raucously funny biography of the larger-than-life D.V., a true innovator in fashion and culture and a degenerate storyteller who, when finally asked by her son whether a particular anecdote from his childhood was fact or fiction, instantly replied, “Faction”;

 the draining but ultimately triumphant tale of the early-years heroes of the war on AIDS, a film that makes your blood boil in one scene and leaves a lump in your throat in the next;

which shed much-needed light on the horrific epidemic of sexual abuse of women in the U.S. military, and has the power to effect real change; 

featuring then-President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed, a man with a Mandela-esque political biography, whose country faces literal submersion as the Indian Ocean rises, and who shows us how politics as President of the Maldives is done, from attention-grabbing P.R. stunts to behind-closed-doors machinations (armed with only the power of persuasion) at the Association of Small Island States and later the milestone U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen;

which offered not only mouthwatering food porn but a compelling and relatable story of what it means for two different sons of a Michelin-starred Tokyo sushi master to follow (or not follow) in their father’s footsteps;

a marvelous introduction to the power and possibility of performance art through a grueling season-long MOMA installation by perhaps its best-known modern practitioner; 

an enraging yet highly informative documentary showing in awful, social-scientific detail how it can be that an innocent man confesses to a heinous crime; 

about the lost folk rocker Rodriguez, which perhaps more than any other film this year brimmed with the thrill of discovery, a story that takes you completely by surprise, and then takes you completely by surprise a second time; and

the best of several movies this year on the subject (to a greater or lesser extent) of house arrest. “Unraveled” spends the last few months with disgraced former attorney Marc Dreier before his sentencing on financial fraud charges, and shows us a trapped rat of a man whose world has caved in on him. It’s an unforgettable portrait of the heavy weight of time and of harrowing, unthinkable conversations about what will fill the remainder of Dreier’s days and nights.

Finally, the worst documentary of the year, a tie between the water doc “Last Call at the Oasis” and the Doomsday doc “Surviving Progress,” two egregious and incoherent examples of dime-store eschatology proving yet again that documentary filmmaking involves more than simply picking a topic.

Below, my star ratings for the 44 documentaries I saw in Los Angeles theaters in 2012:

Total: 121 stars

Average: 2.75 stars

Promised Land

"Promised Land" - not to be confused with the 1988 Jason Gedrick-Tracy Pollan film of the same name - stars Matt Damon as Steve Butler, a glib, highly successful salesman with the sinister-sounding Global Cross Power corporation, whose job entails spending a few days and nights in each of a series of blurred-together rural towns, buttering up the locals and getting them to enter land leases that allow Global to extract natural gas - via fracking - from underneath their ranches and farms. We meet Steve as he pulls into a small burg in Pennsylvania with his sometime partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand). She complains that the town, just a couple hours outside Pittsburgh, looks like Kentucky. "You get two hours outside any city and it looks like Kentucky," Iowa-born Steve replies.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Les Misérables

I hate “Les Miz” so much it takes all my objectivity to concede that “The King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper has adapted it about as well as humanly possible. And to me it’s still a flatulent, hideously overwrought low-art spectacle, a sketch of a story populated by line drawings of characters.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Parental Guidance

It's sad to see an actress as gifted as Marisa Tomei slumming it in the thankless, paycheck-cashing part of Billy Crystal's resentful daughter Alice, who goes to extremes to raise her children antithetically to his old-school ways, in the crassly manipulative would-be family holiday comedy "Parental Guidance." Crystal plays Artie Decker, who as the movie opens loses his decades-long job as announcer for the minor-league Fresno Grizzlies baseball team. Bette Midler plays his wife, Diane, who stays in shape by taking pole-dancing lessons. They're the "other grandparents," called in reluctantly by Tomei and hubby Tom Everett Scott when his prototype design for a computerized house is nominated for a consumer products award.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

West of Memphis

Sometimes you've just got to be first.

The West Memphis Three documentary "West of Memphis" might make a decent introduction to the case for someone who knows nothing about it, but for those of us who've seen the three excellent "Paradise Lost" documentaries, the effect is a bit like reading last year's newspaper. Director Amy Berg pads her film to an overindulgent 150 minutes with not particularly enlightening interviews with celebrities who joined the fight for the boys' freedom, including Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, and Henry Rollins. Despite her insider access to Damien Echols and his wife Lorri, among others, her film needs tightening up and a stronger sense of differentiation - what matters and what doesn't among the myriad pieces of evidence she rehashes.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Django Unchained

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to show Steven Spielberg how it’s done. How could the lumbering “Lincoln” look anything but sad, staid and stale beside the thrillingly fresh and hilariously funny “Django Unchained,” a sprawling slavery saga and a joyous jolt from the moribund complacency of pictures like “Lincoln” that all but choke on their own piety. The contrast is nothing short of embarrassing.

Monday, December 24, 2012


I hope "Barbara" won't get lost in the holiday shuffle. "Yella" director Christian Petzold's quiet, astutely observed drama, set in the Stasi-controlled East Germany of 1980, is one of the season's best gifts for moviegoers. As the film begins, Berlin-educated Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) arrives at her new post, a hospital in the provinces, where she's been reassigned after serving a prison term for having applied for an exit visa. Barbara is as collegial as she has to be, not a bit more. The presiding physician, Andre (appealing Ronald Zehrfeld) takes a liking to her and attempts to engage her professionally and loosen her guard - but she knows he's been groomed by Jörg, the Stasi agent (Mark Waschke) assigned to watch her.

Jack Reacher

It’s often better not to have read the book. That way, you don’t know, for example, that Tom Cruise looks nothing like the hero of Lee Child’s series, and it’s possible to think Cruise’s sleek, jet-black masculinity and reluctant heroism bring interest to a cryptic part defined more by who he isn’t than who he is. “The Usual Suspects” screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie takes the director’s chair for only the second time, and delivers a crisp, enjoyable crime thriller – albeit one that’s mostly solved by the halfway point. He’s assembled a great supporting cast, including Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog as the chief baddie, Robert Duvall (who’s having a blast and brings needed wit and levity to the second hour), and the winsome Rosamund Pike, the best thing about last year’s insufferable “Barney’s Version.” I’d love to see more big parts for Pike, but I wish her defense attorney here, Helen Rodin, were a worthier counterpart to Reacher (that is to say, smarter). Mostly, he has to drag her along from clue to clue, and it’s not a great sign that we’re often two steps ahead of her.

This is 40

There are enough big laughs in “This is 40” that Judd Apatow could have had another “Bridesmaids” on his hands if he’d mustered the self-control to trim the fat – the trite family drama we’ve seen a million times before that detracts from the insightful, sometimes hilarious situational comedy involving parenting and the vicissitudes of marriage. Adorable Paul Rudd plays Pete, a struggling indie record-label owner, and Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann his wife Debbie, not doing any better with her small clothing boutique. They’re perfectly good company, but you wonder what more gifted comedians could do with these parts. As it is, the money woes aren’t treated seriously enough to do anything but bring down the proceedings. And yet, every so often, Albert Brooks or Melissa McCarthy comes onto the scene, and you simply sit up in your seat and watch genius at work.

On the Road

The two best things about Walter Salles’ “On The Road” are Garrett Hedlund’s portrayal of the life-eating, pansexual Dean Moriarty, the dominant character of Jack Kerouac’s novel (Sam Riley’s Sal Paradise is truly just along for the ride), and of course Kerouac’s invigorating words themselves: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like Roman candles across the night.” There’s always something beautiful and bittersweet about the effects of the passage of time on the relationships between young men (the women – Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams – are purely secondary), and by the end this itinerant picture packs a surprising wallop – surprising because, along the way, watching other people eat life does become a bit boring.

The Impossible

Just capsule reviews this final week of 2012 as I plow through all of the year-end offerings. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star in the Thailand tsunami saga “The Impossible,” the true story of a happily married couple and their three young sons, separated and (to various extents) badly hurt in the tsunami, who managed to survive and (more miraculously) find each other again. Director J.A. Bayona stages the tsunami differently from Clint Eastwood’s in “Hereafter” but equally devastatingly – less supernatural, bloodier and more visceral. There are also some deeply moving scenes involving the oldest son’s efforts to help other children find their parents among the nameless faces occupying countless hospital beds. The movie’s sentimentality and thundering score wear thin by the end, but it’s worth seeing.

Not Fade Away

Lest you think I've become Santa Claus with some of these star ratings, along comes "The Sopranos" creator David Chase with a truly generic, totally uninvolving remembrance of growing up during the 60s and playing drums in a rock-and-roll band. We've seen every scene countless times - the family dinner-table fights over Vietnam, the band's breakups and petty jealousies - and heard every song. "Not Fade Away" not only fades away; it never sets in.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Guilt Trip

Treatments don't come much more reducible than the Barbra Streisand-Seth Rogen cross-country road trip comedy "The Guilt Trip," which bears all the indicators of a sure Razzie nominee. And, at times, it does play out like an overlong SNL sketch, with Babs' pumped-up kitsch and ultra-Jewishness and Rogen's overdone squirming embarrassment.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty

Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow returns to the military arena with the hard-charging, globetrotting Osama Bin Laden manhunt "Zero Dark Thirty," which, if it were a figure skater, would get full marks for technical proficiency and more moderate scores for artistic expression. The film is a considerable achievement, but next time out I'll be looking for more heart and soul from this talented director.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Powerful, at times wrenching as it plays out, Michael Haneke's Palme D'Or-winning "Amour," about the ravages of partial paralysis and stroke-induced cognitive degeneration on an elderly woman and the husband she's spent her life with, lacks lasting resonance when you realize how little you know about them as people after spending more than two hours with them.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Any Day Now

The schmaltzy, sudsy Alan Cumming vanity project "Any Day Now" has, to borrow a line from "The Golden Girls," more bad singing, bad dancing, and bad acting than a Suzanne Somers special. Cumming stars as Rudy Donatello, a drag queen in late-'70s West Hollywood who makes a beeline for Paul, a cute closet case (Garret Dillahunt) who musters the courage to walk into his bar one night. Paul's a recently divorced trial attorney with the D.A.'s office who finds the feisty and loquacious Rudy more appealing than you and I might.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Girl

Writer-director David Riker made my 1998 top-ten list with his debut film, the lush black-and-white neorealist “La Ciudad,” four interwoven stories of Latin immigrants on the outskirts of New York City. It’s taken fourteen years for him to direct another film, and unfortunately “The Girl” isn’t worth the wait. It stars Abbie Cornish of “Bright Star” as Ashley, a poor single mother in southernmost Texas who’s lost her son to Child Protective Services and is trying her best to maintain the indicia they want to see: steady employment (a McJob at a big-box store), a residence with an address (a trailer park). Her truck-driving father (Will Patton) pops by unexpectedly, flush with cash and off to Mexico for a lost weekend – why doesn’t she come with? Ashley reluctantly does so, realizing only after they reenter the U.S. that the cargo Dad’s hauling back is actually Mexicans in need of work, each of whom has paid $500 to be smuggled in. The thought occurs to Ashley that some easy money might do her a world of good, which leads to an impetuous decision that will forever entangle her life with that of a young girl whose mother dies trying to cross.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Stand Up Guys

Having flamed out as the world’s unlikeliest leading man after the “Short Circuit” series, Fisher Stevens scoots over to the director’s chair for the far worse “Stand Up Guys,” 95 minutes of dead air that’s as torturous to sit through as the cast list (Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin) would lead you to surmise. The three play ex-hitmen who used to work for a capo named Claphands. His only son was killed by friendly fire in a bungled hit, and Pacino – who never ratted out the others – took the fall and just got sprung from prison after 28 years. Problem is, Claphands has ordered Walken to off Pacino on his first day of freedom – that’s the movie’s idea of deep meaning – so the reluctant Walken and the grandstanding Pacino spend one long last day together, revisiting their ex-madam’s daughter (Lucy Punch), who’s still in her family business, stealing clothes and prescription meds, and stopping at one particular diner about four times.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lay the Favorite

Complete the following sentences with the correct form of "lie" or "lay." (Answers below.)

1.) The maid has _____ the duvet over the bed each morning for the past six years.

2.) Among them, the three hens _____ all of the eggs consumed on the farm.

3.) The couch potato _____ on the divan all afternoon watching football games.

4.) The curio has _____ on the étagѐre since Theresa brought it back from Bangalore.

5.) The vacationers had no more important plan for the morning than to _____ their blanket on the sand and _____ on it for hours.

Monday, December 10, 2012

California Solo, Quartet

California Solo

The one-man show "California Solo" stars Robert Carlyle as Lachlan MacAldonich, the guitar player in a fictional mid-'90s British grunge band called The Cranks whose debut album achieved critical acclaim before the lead singer, Lachlan's brother, died high on drugs in a Hollywood Hills car crash. These days, Lachlan works on an organic produce farm, drinks himself into oblivion most nights, and on weekends hawks his wares rather annoyingly at SoCal farmers' markets. When a DUI charge and a long-forgotten marijuana possession rap trigger INS removal proceedings, Lachlan has to find someone (a frequent customer who seems to prefer him to her boyfriend? the ex-wife or now-teenage daughter he hasn't seen in years?) for whom his deportation would pose an "extreme hardship." Slow, trite, and predictable, "California Solo" covers familiar ground uninterestingly - and Carlyle's hopeless as a vocalist.

Hyde Park on Hudson, Rust and Bone

Hyde Park on Huudson
Rust and Bone

There's almost no substance at all to the weightless and pointless "Hyde Park on Hudson," about King George and Queen Elizabeth's war support-seeking visit to the New York home of a philandering FDR (Bill Murray) and an Eleanor (Olivia Williams) who lived separately from him but not apart. Through an accident of history, the story is told by a distant cousin of FDR's (Laura Linney) who became one of his conquests, driving with him out to a lavender-flowered field and giving him a hand job (from somewhere I heard the voice of Bea Arthur: "I swear I thought I was setting the parking brake"). Murray manages to contain himself enough to have a couple warm-fuzzy chats with George (Samuel West), but Linney's Daisy Suckley is such a nothing character (with no evidence of any thoughts or ideas in her head), and Linney herself such a standoffish actress, the entire weekend takes place at a remove, never developing any comedy-of-manners momentum or historical gravitas.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Central Park Five, Killing Them Softly

The Central Park Five
Killing Them Softly

Ken Burns co-directed the documentary "The Central Park Five" with his daughter, Sarah, who had clerked at a law firm representing the five black boys wrongly convicted in 1989 of the rape and attempted murder of the Central Park Jogger, Trisha Mieli. Burns interviews the five men (four via video, one only on
audiotape), now free and in their late thirties, and their candor and strength of character are the film's greatest assets. Its weaknesses are overlength married with a lack of detail and specificity (it doesn't seem to understand exactly who was doing what where in the park that night any better than the trial jurors). What could have been a study in poor procedure à la Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line" remains vague and blurry. And the issues raised by the boys' confessions under duress were examined more rigorously and powerfully by a documentary from earlier this year entitled "Scenes of a Crime."