My Top Ten Movies for 2012–Reviewed, Not Necessarily New

Happy New Year–the Year of the Snake in 2013!  Most of all, I want to again thank all of you for your responses and comments, and for continuing to read my blog!

With 2012 coming to an end, I wanted to take a look back at the movie reviews I wrote this year.  When I counted the reviews I have written this year (=21), I wanted to see what would be my top ten favorites.  It wasn’t easy, especially for independent films.

This list is not ranked –only my top ten for 2012, grouped by genre.

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1) A Separation  (March 23 review)– An Iranian “Rashomon”, this cinematic masterpiece offers a rare view of ordinary Iranians–both affluent and struggling. Minor misunderstandings morph into a slow-motion nightmare that threatens to destroy everything and everyone in its path.

2) Jiro Dreams of Sushi  (April 29 review)– This documentary is much more than a movie about the perfect slab of sushi.  “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi” is a hauntingly elegant meditation on work, obsession, family, and the art of perfection, chronicling Jiro’s life as both an unparalleled success in the culinary world, and a loving yet complicated father.

3) Memory of a Killer (June 18 review)– With a fresh take on the revenge drama, this nail-biter transforms the hired assassin into a kind of moral hero: an aging killer with a conscience.   With an electrifying visual, almost palpable energy, “Memory of a Killer” is a highly original, disturbing and unforgettable thriller.

4) Scottsboro (July 10 review)– The history and analysis of this case deserves to be in every history book of 20th Century US civics. The landmark trial magnified rampant racism, denial of due process, and the continued North-South animosity that existed almost 70 years after the Civil War had ended.

5) Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (September 2 review)– The home-video footage of the explosive black waves surging towards the coastline of Sendai will render you speechless.  The scale and imagery are overwhelming. This superb film reveals healing wounds and healing people, even in times of disaster.

6) Between the Folds  (August 6 review)– The intersections between origami, mathematics, and science are manifested in a magical sleight-of-hand. I promise you–if you see “Between the Folds”, you will never look at origami, the same way ever again!

7) The Garden (December 3 review)– Juggling politics, race and religion as well as the rights of property ownership in a free-market society,  “The Garden” is an investigation into a complicated case of backroom dealings, racial tensions and the question of just who represents a community.

COMEDIES

8) Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  (June 30 review)– This charming movie, while a paean to the aging baby boomers who are cinephiles,  is also   a shout-out to chasing your dreams, regardless of age.  The hopeful message: it’s never too late to make things happen.

BIG STUDIO MOVIES:

Political and Sociological

9)  Iron Lady (January 12 review)– Meryl Streep’s award-winning performance is achingly honest in its interpretation of  Margaret Thatcher’s powerful intellect, motivations, even perhaps her unconscious.

10) Arbitrage (September 29 review) In this film we witness unrelenting evil and an underlying fear of capture, committed in the pursuit of money and glory.  No one is spared.  This is a morality tale–a tale of hell in a financial guise. Richard Gere gives a virtuoso performance as a man who has lost his way on Wall Street.

Honorable Mention in Action: 

11) Safe House  (February 21 review) Though this is first and foremost a guy’s action-packed blockbuster, there is something for the rest of us. What do people sacrifice in service to the government that others don’t know about and don’t care to know anything about?  Denzel Washington superbly plays the anti-hero in “Safe House” and retains his integrity!

 

“Babymoons and Doulas, Push Presents and Placenta Pills”–A New Riff on the Cycle of Life

 

We baby boomers may not know all the latest ways to celebrate one of the most miraculous stages of the cycle of life–the birth of a baby. Over the course of the past year, I have enjoyed learning about the 21st century style of celebration of birth.  Babymoons, doulas, push presents and placenta pills are now part of my vocabulary.

Take the term “babymoon”.  At first I thought maybe this referred to the new moon, a baby’s bottom, or a children’s book, like “Goodnight Moon”.  Wrong.  A babymoon is like a honeymoon, a vacation taken by the expecting couple to enjoy one last trip without a newborn baby–a romantic odyssey.  Baby paraphernalia, crying, sleeplessness, and all that good stuff is set aside for future vacations.

Next, is the “doula”: women who provide emotional support and advice especially during the first pregnancy, to encourage and guide through the often-frightening process of pregnancy, labor, delivery and postpartum recovery. Doulas recognize that pregnancy is not solely a biological stage on the cycle of life, but an intensely emotional free-falling dive if not gently steered and supported. While I have known of the medical professional,–the midwife who can assist with labor and delivery– the doula reassures young pregnant women who have many pressures on them both at work and at home.

Baby showers need no explanation.  But the term “push present” (aka “push gift” or “baby bauble”) was new for me. The push present is a birth token from the new father, perhaps reminding him that labor pains are no picnic and he better remember that.  As recognition of the young mother’s journey into motherhood, the push present symbolizes perhaps the most dramatic change in an adult’s life… for both parents.

Perhaps the most familiar but also the most surprising of all the new wonders of celebrating a baby’s arrival is placenta pills or “placenta encapsulation“, the trend of drying the placenta and then having it ground into a powder and packaged into capsules.  These placenta pills are thought to improve postpartum recovery, relieve anxiety and depression, provide nutrition, and even assist in breastfeeding.  But, you need a cooler or the hospital won’t give you the material to take to the doula or another pill packager.  (There are many advertised online in San Francisco).

These are wonderful new and old ways reintroduced into the celebration of life! I learned about the creative alchemy used to reaffirm the accomplishment of childbirth, but the miracle of birth remains the same.  While each generation reinterprets how they want to bring a child into the world, the emerging baby is still the most exciting part of the experience.

“Garrow’s Law”–The Gallows of a Hanging Court

I recently discovered a lesser known BBC series, Garrow’s Law (2009-2012), and highly recommend this superb British period drama based upon the life of 18th-century lawyer William Garrow. As the  barrister who demanded that the accused was  “innocent until proven guilty,” Garrow became the Perry Mason for the poor and unjustly accused.

But the extraordinary story of William Garrow might never have been dramatized had it not been for the online publication of the Old Bailey Proceedings (1674-1913) in 2008. (The Old Bailey is a reference to the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales). The historical legal cases are spellbinding.  From rape and burglary to murder, high treason and corruption, each episode begins with the accused being unable to afford defense counsel and not expecting justice.  Garrow and his mentor John Southouse work to uncover the truth, through rigorous cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, paving the way for habeas corpus and the modern legal system.

Thief-takers,  heinous opportunists  who were a byproduct of  the “kangaroo courts” of Garrow’s day, were private individuals much like bounty hunters, who paid others to steal and then either extorted money from the thief or brought him to the court to receive a fee for every guilty verdict.  Thief-takers play a key role in many of the court cases argued in front of a minefield of corrupt judges, witnesses, and jurors.

A major subplot running through the series concerns Garrow’s relationship with Lady Sarah Hill, an aristocratic figure with an interest in justice and the law. Lady Sarah’s husband is Sir Arthur Hill, an important politician and member of the government whose values diverge dramatically from Lady Sarah’s. 

The superb cast members (Andrew Buchan as William Garrow, Alun Armstrong as Southouse, Lyndsey Marshal as Lady Sarah, and Rupert Graves as Sir Arthur Hill) are all familiar to us from many BBC productions.  This series belongs among the very best that television has to offer! Garrow’s Law will satisfy a craving for stories both intimate and political. What makes the series particularly compelling is that each defendant seems doomed almost certainly to either execution or to a very long prison sentence. How Garrow overcomes what seems like insurmountable odds has us cheering passionately for justice for the accused. This BBC series should attract those interested in a delectable treat:  justice for those least likely to receive it.

 

The Garden–Harvest of Justice?

A 2009 Academy Award nominee for best documentary, “The Garden” is a powerful cinematic essay focusing in on the political and social battle over the largest community garden in the U.S, a vibrant 14 acre garden, in South Central Los Angeles. The origin of the 14 acres came from a defunct plan to build a municipal incinerator.  The city of Los Angeles seized by eminent domain a 14-acre site occupied by warehouses in South Central LA in 1986. The purchase price was $5 million.   From the ashes of the 1992 Rodney King riots, arose a lush garden of vegetables, blossoming trees, and fruit orchards offered by the local government as a therapeutic means of healing the wounds from the destruction to their blighted neighborhood.  Growing their own food, The Garden created community, an oasis in the midst of grim impoverished circumstances. The gardeners who cultivated little plots of land were mostly Mexican-Americans; some were African-Americans. All of them depended on the produce they grew for their food and as a source of additional income. The garden, above all, became a symbol of hope, their garden of Eden.

But then nothing involving the government is ever that simple. Seventeen years later, the incinerator was never built so the city sold the land back to the original owner. The price was about the same as in 1986. The deal was kept secret – until eviction notices went out in late 2003 to the 347 families who had been using the land for almost two decades. Why was the land sold to a wealthy developer for millions less than fair-market value? Why was the transaction done in a closed-door session of the LA City Council? Why has it never been made public?

In 2004, the gardeners received a notice to vacate, and The Garden captures the resulting two-year court battle and the impending threat of bulldozers ready to plow and level twenty-foot trees to rubble.  The Garden follows the plight of the farmers, from the tilled soil to the polished marble of City Hall.  Their plight became a celebrated cause–with Darryl Hanna, Danny Glover, Joan Baez, Martin Sheen, other celebrities, and the Annenberg Foundation supporting them.

Juggling politics, race and religion (opposing the gardeners are an African-American activist and a Jewish developer), as well as the rights of property ownership in a free-market society,  “The Garden” raises as many questions as it presents possible solutions.   When it comes to fighting city hall, nothing is ever simple.  “The Garden” is  an investigation into a complicated case of backroom dealings, racial tensions and the question of just who represents a community.