21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2012). This adaptation of the ludicrous nineteen-eighties television series about cops undercover in high school (one of the first hits for the Fox network) was met with surprising appreciation by the critical community when it was released last spring. I can certainly understand why its metafictional comedy may have been a welcome surprise, but it’s still more ragged and predictable than it is shrewd and effective. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have nice interplay as the requisite mismatched cops working together, and there’s something refreshing about the inversion of stereotypes, with the nerdier of the pair becoming popular and the hunk struggling to find a comfortable social space. Still, it’s haphazardly hammered together with only the slightest discernment between the gags that works and those that get by on nothing but noisiness.
Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965). This loopy masterpiece of the French New Wave is a perfect example of Jean-Luc Godard’s capability to simultaneously master the mechanics of filmmaking and satirically shred all of its storied conventions. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a man who springs himself from his unhappy life to go on the lam with an ex-girlfriend, playing by Anna Karina, absolutely resplendent with an almost shocking beauty. Godard swirls the film with approaches that are deviously deconstructionist and borderline genius, such as a dinner party lit with primary hues where all the attendees speak in nothing but advertising slogans. It’s a somewhat standard fugitive romance, enlivened by the sort of unpredictability that only an inspired madman like Godard can conjure up.
Wise Blood (John Huston, 1979). John Huston sure directed some oddball stuff in the nineteen-seventies, so maybe it’s only fitting that he capped off the decade with this twisted, slightly skeevy adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel. The film stars Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes, a veteran who returns to his southern hometown after serving in World War II. He has various travails, which come to a head when he revolts against the huckster religious elements he sees around him by preaching from street corners representing the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. Given the subject matter, the satire in unavoidably scathing and the film’s sensibility is remarkably dark, but Huston’s directing is shockingly, atypically distracted. The film came out about a year after he was diagnosed with emphysema, so it’s certainly understandably if he were a little preoccupied. Even so, the clumsiness of the construction eventually overcomes the boldness of the material.
Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012). Thirteen years after his last full-length feature, 1999’s Pola X, director Leos Carax uncorks a true tour de force, a lunatic nighttime ride through city streets with a character dubbed Mr. Oscar, played by Denis Lavant, adopting multiple guises to act out different scenarios, sometimes comedic, sometimes melodramatic, sometimes delightfully inscrutable. Carax has noted that some of the odd little stories were culled from abandoned projects, and the film’s episodic structure naturally makes some portions better than others, but the discrepancy is mild and not especially damaging. Overall, the experience is raucously entertaining, and no matter how wild it gets, Carax can always find a way to sprinkle in another wholly unexpected and audacious moment, right up to the fearlessly goofy closing shot. Besides the high points are purely ecstatic, none better than Lavant blazing away on an accordion at the head of a ragtag marching band.
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2012). Rachel Weisz surprised many by sneaking her way into the Oscar race with her deeply, tightly controlled performance in Terence Davies’s adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play. As a woman in nineteen-fifties England helplessly embroiled in a passionate, doomed-from-the start affair with a World War II veteran, played by Tom Hiddleston, she is indeed quite good. The film around her, however, is a sluggish bore. Davies is a highly respected filmmaker, but I’ve never managed to warm to any of his films, almost entirely because they seem to be entirely devoid of warmth, or even the slightest pulse of life. That’s definitely the case here, as the veneer of refined storytelling snuffs out any sense of energy, which would seem to be an important component to a tale of addictive, illicit lust and love.