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!

 

“Scottsboro”–The Inexcusable

“Scottsboro: An American Tragedy”  is a 2001 PBS documentary in the American Experience series about the notorious trials of  nine black teenage boys accused of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. The landmark trial magnified rampant racism, denial of a fair trial, and the continued North-South animosity that existed almost 70 years after the Civil War had ended.  The miscarriage of justice on the part of several judges, jurors, and witnesses belies the assumption that justice will prevail in the face of truth and obviously false testimony, including the recanting by one of the victims to all charges. No crime in American history– let alone a crime that never occurred– produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, appeals to the Supreme Court, and  retrials as did the “Scottsboro Boys” case of  March 25, 1931. The series of trials included two separate appeals to the US Supreme Court resulting in two landmark decisions over a fifteen-year period. The first ruling was that adequate legal representation applies to all citizens.  The second ruling declared a constitutional right to a trial by one’s peers, in this case, mandating that the jury include blacks. Spanning the Depression, the Scopes Trial, and the end of World War II, the trial of the Scottsboro Boys foreshadowed the rise of the civil rights movement that would reach a feverish pitch three decades later.

On March 25, 1931, nine black teenage boys, ranging in age from thirteen to nineteen, hopped off a freight train traveling between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee to be accused by two young white women (Victoria Price and Ruby Bates) of rape. Arrested in the small town of Scottsboro, found guilty in a rapid set of kangaroo trials, eight of the nine defendants were sent to be executed by electric chair on July 9, less than three months after the trial ended.  (The thirteen-year-old defendant was considered too young for execution.)

Many Northerners, particularly in Harlem and in the Communist Party, organized street demonstrations supporting the Scottsboro Boys.  The American Communist Party decided to get involved in the battle for equal representation under the Constitution enlisting the renowned lawyer, Sam Leibowitz.  Second only to Clarence Darrow (who was willing to take on the case for the NAACP), Leibowitz was known for his brilliance as an attorney.  But his overreaching self-confidence would be his downfall, failing to anticipate the “Mason Dixon” animosity by the South, and their hatred of Jews and Northerners, as much as their racism towards blacks.  Nonetheless, Sam Leibowitz is a profile in courage.

In October 1932 the US Supreme Court ruled that the Scottsboro trial denied due process to the nine young defendants, who encountered a mob atmosphere and endured poor legal representation.  After a second trial yielded the same verdicts, Leibowitz again appealed, in 1935, arguing that the systematic exclusion of African Americans from jury duty was contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. The US Supreme Court ruled, in an unprecedented decision, that African Americans are entitled to have a jury with black jurors in order to guarantee a trial by one’s peers. Ruby Bates (who had run off to New York City) recanted her testimony, admitting that Victoria Price had bullied her into fabricating rape charges. The jury, however, found all nine defendants guilty as charged, discounting Ruby Bates’ testimony as tainted by her “Northernization”.  Judge James Horton, who had political aspirations to be governor, set aside the verdict and granted a new trial, despite death threats and the annihilation of any political future.  With attorney Sam Leibowitz now relegated to an assistant counsel’s role, a jury—now with one black member—returned a guilty verdict.

Alabama abandoned its legal fight after the second Supreme Court decision, realizing that the cost to the state’s budget and reputation was too high.  Charges were finally dropped for four of the nine defendants. Sentences for the remaining five ranged from 75 years to death. All but two served prison sentences. One was shot in the head by a prison guard, suffering irrevocable brain damage. Two escaped, were charged with crimes, and sent back to prison. Clarence Norris, the oldest defendant and the only one sentenced to death, escaped parole and went into hiding in 1946. He was pardoned by Governor George Wallace thirty years later and wrote a book about his experiences. The last surviving defendant, he died in 1989.

The Scottsboro Boys led to the end of all-white juries in the South and served as a core inspiration for the civil rights movement. The case also has been retold in the award winning “Scottsboro Boys: The Musical” on Broadway and is currently at the ACT in San Francisco.  The history and analysis of this case deserves to be in every history book of 20th Century US civics.