My Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012

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by Matt Singer
December 27, 2012 10:02 AM
9 Comments
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"Wake in Fright."

When 2012 is all said and done, I'll have seen something like 350 films in the last twelve months. Most of those are new movies, a few are rewatched favorites; the rest are older titles I saw for the first time this year. I was invited by Brian Saur of the fine film blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks to pick my favorites of those 2012 film discoveries. Here's what I submitted, from least to most favorite.

5. The Paper (1994)
Directed by Ron Howard
Listen to My Review on Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit
Watch the Film on Netflix

The world of newspapers has completely changed since Michael Keaton played harried tabloid editor Henry Hackett in 1994's "The Paper." Still, something about the way Henry struggles to balance his job at the paper and his life with his pregnant wife (Marisa Tomei) really struck a chord with me (he wrote on the day after Christmas while his wife spent her vacation time doing stuff without him). Keaton is great (see below), tucked into an incredible ensemble that also includes Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, and Randy Quaid (also see below). Though it eventually succumbs to some overly theatrical plot twists, "The Paper"'s micro-detailed examination of the day-to-day life of journalists and their subjects makes it feel more like an independent film than something produced by mainstream Hollywood. In 2012, it looks like a perfect time capsule of the last great newspaper age (and, in some ways, a foreboding premonition of the dark times ahead).

4. Wake in Fright (1971)
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Watch the Film on Blu-ray

This gritty psychological thriller about a man's descent into madness in the Australian outback was considered lost for decades, and only recently rediscovered and restored. It's a major find. En route to a Christmas holiday in Sydney, school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) gambles away his life savings at a little outback outpost named Bundanyabba. With no money and no place to go, he's forced to depend on the kindness of the locals -- who are more than happy to share their disturbingly ample supply of beer and to take him along on their kangaroo hunts. "Wake in Fright" is an unusual horror film, where the real monster is the supposedly "civilized" man amidst the boozy, unrefined natives. Canadian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff ("First Blood") shares his protagonist's outsider perspective on the curious world of "The Yabba," making him the perfect choice to capture its unique atmosphere of homoerotic machismo and near-terminal hospitality.

3. For All Mankind (1989)
Directed by Al Reinert
Listen to My Review on Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit
Watch the Film on Hulu Plus

In a year when the Discovery and Endeavour space shuttles were decommissioned and retired, and the Mars Curiosity rover briefly captured the nation's imagination, "For All Mankind" was the ideal film to remind Americans just what we've lost with a dismantled space program -- and what we could still gain by restoring it to its former glory. It's sort of an unofficial visual record of NASA's journeys to our closest celestial neighbor. Footage from various Apollo missions were edited together, along with astronauts' narration, to create a single, seamless narrative of a trip to the Moon and back: liftoff, orbit, lunar landing, buggy joyrides, splash down back on earth. The footage is nothing short of spectacular (and looks surprisingly impressive on The Criterion Collection's HD streaming print on Hulu Plus), and the thoughtful commentary from Michael Collins, Jim Lovell, and more gives viewers a unique perspective about our humble place in the universe. If this film was all the Apollo program ever bought us, it was worth the price one hundred times over.

2. Miami Connection (1987)
Directed by Richard Park
Read My Review at ScreenCrush
Watch the Film on Amazon Instant Video

A towering achievement in the field of batshit crazy moviemaking. A rock band named Dragon Sound that only plays songs about ninjas are targeted for assassination by -- who else?? -- ninjas. And not just any ninjas: motorcycle-riding, cocaine-dealing ninjas. Made with maximum sincerity and minimum technical skill by tae kwon do grandmaster Y.K. Kim and the students of his martial arts academy, "Miami Connection" is filled with poor acting, strange dialogue and hilarious continuity gaffes ("ORLANDO" reads a title card in front of a shot of the Coral Gables skyline). But just as Dragon Sound triumphs over their black-clad enemies, Kim and director Richard Park triumph over their lack of filmmaking talent with pure, unbridled enthusiasm and weirdly catchy pop tunes.

1. Ran (1985)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Listen to My Review on Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit
Watch the Film on Netflix

You don't need me to tell you this film is a masterpiece -- I might be the last cinephile on earth to get around to watching this Akira Kurosawa stunner based on Shakespeare's "King Lear." It follows the rapid disintegration of a great Japanese warrior family felled by jealousy, greed, and one vindictive woman (Lady Kaeda, played, in an astonishingly ferocious performance, by Mieko Harada). "Ran" is epic Kurosawa: massive battle scenes with perfect clarity; frames boldly splashed with color provided by characters' vibrant costumes (and their equally vibrant blood); a large cast and their endless double crosses and treacheries. It's the work of a director at the absolute height of his powers, but close enough to the end of his career to relate to the story of an aging feudal lord who worries about what he will pass on to future generations. As legacies go, this one's not too shabby.

What was the best older movie you saw for the first time in 2012? Tell us in the comments section below.

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9 Comments

  • Pete | December 27, 2012 5:25 PMReply

    "Hugo" was a delight, a better ode to silent film than "The Artist" was. But for pure joy of cinema, best film I've seen for the first time this year was "Tintin." Very few films I've watched four or more times, and much fewer I've seen four or more times in the last month.

  • polfilmblog | December 27, 2012 4:02 PMReply

    I remember The Paper in the theater. It was ruined by an intrusive microphone boom that kept appearing at the top of the screen. Such a boneheaded error. Another good film A Midnight Clear suffered the same embarrassing problem. The modern age at least lets you erase that crap. ...And they could have simply zoomed in and cropped the image if they cared about the integrity of the image.

  • Matt | December 28, 2012 10:33 AM

    You can thank poor projection for those boom mic errors, not the filmmakers. The theater did not properly mask the print and exposed a part of the film you were never intended to see.

  • John | December 27, 2012 12:46 PMReply

    I really loved the Korean film "War of Arrows," which I saw on Netflix. It's not that different than most historical martial arts films, but the protagonist's focus on the bow made it more exciting than the usual sword & fist combat that generally accompanies this plot.

  • Scott Mendelson | December 27, 2012 11:21 AMReply

    It's a telling thing how many purely mainstream meat-and-potatoes genre films like The Paper now come off 15-20 years later feeling like glorified art films. In terms of what the major studios release regularly (although it's gotten better post-2010), The Paper would probably be an Oscar contender if it came out in the last few years.

  • Arch | December 27, 2012 11:15 AMReply

    I hope you also watched "A.K.", the movie the late Chris Marker shot during the filming of Ran... in France it's available in DVD on Ran's collector edition.

  • Arch | December 27, 2012 11:20 AM

    Well that comment came out kinda douchey.

  • CODYMAC | December 27, 2012 10:45 AMReply

    Watched The Dekalog for the first time this year. Really blew me away!

  • MrTenno | December 27, 2012 10:28 AMReply

    Awesome idea! Indeed Kurosawa is the best. When I didn't know much about movies, a friend sugested that I should start with Rashomon. He's the reason I fell inlove with movies when I was 20.

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