Aaaaand we’re back! To those of you who have been feverishly refreshing this blog and waiting with bated breath for an update over the past eight months... um, sorry about that. I have no excuses beyond a terrible case of burn-out that was eventually overtaken by sheer laziness. Which is unfortunate, because while 2012 may have been a bit of a mixed bag in life, it was an absolutely tremendous year for movies -- one of the best in recent memory -- and it would have been nice to have written about some of them (in more than 140 characters, at least). I went to the movies 175 times, which is a new personal record by far. At times it felt like we were blessed with a new classic -- or at least, something really fun, deep, epic and/or thought-provoking -- every week. In fact, there was so much quality that it caused me physical pain to have to narrow things down to a mere Top 10. But that’s the way the game is played, and since we’re still here to play it (lousy lying Mayans!), here is what I have deemed to be the best of the bunch....
10. COMPLIANCE -- There were a number of worthy titles vying for this spot, but in the end, I went for the one that managed to embed itself into the deepest recesses of my mind, slowly gnawing and festering and generally making me squirm with revulsion every time it crept back into my waking thoughts. Based on a true story, it’s about a prank call that starts off weird and proceeds to lead us through a downward spiral of depravity, exploring the nature of authority, obedience and the innate desire to protect one's own ass. It is highly unsettling and downright infuriating, in the sense that it makes you want to stand up and scream some sense into the characters as they make one mind-bogglingly bad decision after another. Yet somehow its twistedness overrides any potential ridiculousness. COMPLIANCE is a smart, taut, superbly-acted (kudos to Golden Globe nominee Ann Dowd, not to mention fearless work from cutie Dreama Walker) and highly effective form of psychological torture form that I will not soon forget.
9. RUBY SPARKS -- Every year, I am on the lookout for the next great bittersweet romance, following in the footsteps of such films as ONCE, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER and BLUE VALENTINE. This year, I think I found it with this gem that offers a mix of joy, melancholy and heart while taking the very concept of the "romantic comedy" (particularly the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" ideal) and turning it on its ear. Paul Dano is Calvin, a writer who scored a hit as a youth but is now struggling to rediscover his voice. In a moment of inspiration, he begins to write about Ruby, a dream girl/muse of his own creation -- and much to his surprise, one day, she appears in the flesh (in the form of my newest crush, Zoe Kazan), an apparent manifestation of his words. Calvin can now control everything from her actions to her backstory, raising titillating possibilities. However, as a living being, Ruby has her own thoughts & desires, too, which do not always mesh with Calvin’s, thus raising the dilemma: Does he continue to tweak Ruby to suite his needs or risk losing her to the world? Written by Kazan and directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE), this is a cautionary tale about identity and self-respect -- but even more than that, it's a fairy tale about two of life's most powerful pieces of magic: Love and the written word.
8. THE MASTER -- Paul Thomas Anderson's last two movies finished as my #1 picks of 2002 and 2007, respectively, so to say that his latest was one of my most anticipated releases of 2012 would be an understatement. Now, while THE MASTER may not quite match the towering masterpiece that is THERE WILL BE BLOOD, it is nevertheless a work of art in its own right -- part character study, part fever dream. Joaquin Phoenix gives a visceral performance as Freddie Quell, a troubled drifter in unsettled aftermath of WWII who falls under the spell of charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, perfect as usual) and their interactions are nothing short of mesmerizing. Similarities to the origins of Scientology are striking but sort of beside the point; the movie is really about the power play between the two men. On one hand, Dodd is in control of Quell -- but then again, what is a leader without his flock? It’s fascinating, thought-provoking stuff -- expertly-crafted, gorgeously-filmed (especially in 70mm) and further proof that P.T. Anderson exists & works on another level of filmmaking. At this point, the man has become a genre unto himself.
7. HOLY MOTORS -- Nothing I write here can fully prepare you for this film from French maestro Leos Carax, as it really defies description -- it is a truly bizarre, mind-bending, often joyous, unsettling and memorable movie-watching experience. On the surface, it’s about a man named Oscar (Denis Lavant) who goes off in a limousine, dons different costumes and carries out a series of seemingly random and bizarre scenes & scenarios all over Paris. First he’s a sex-simulating motion-capture artist. Then he’s a mutant sewer creature. He leads a rousing musical jaunt through the streets. He gets into a knife fight. He dies. He loves. He lives with monkeys. But what does it all mean?? Interpretations are legion, and it’s the kind of movie that may require many viewings to fully absorb and deconstruct -- but I think it’s a commentary on the purported death of cinema, particularly as it relates to the war of old vs. new technology (think film projection vs. digital, etc.). Carax proposes that cinema, as an art form, is still very much alive -- a point with which I very much agree -- and after the experience that is HOLY MOTORS, is impossible to deny. In a perfect world, Denis Lavant would earn Oscar nominations for each of his incredible performances, all of which are so different and equally brilliant. Open your mind and see this film as soon as possible.
6. THE AVENGERS -- Back in 2008, when IRON MAN asserted itself as one of the all-time great comic book films, we knew it was only the beginning of what would eventually become a multi-film superhero team-up of epic proportions. But I don’t think anybody could have imagined that it would turn out quite this awesome. Thanks to the magic touch of Joss Whedon, THE AVENGERS is a soaring, bright, bold, snappy, funny, uproarious, exhilarating and ass-kicking romp through the Marvel universe, and a testament to what can happen when a “Big Idea” is given proper time, care and resources. All the characters we’ve come to know and love are handled perfectly and are given their time in the spotlight. (Hell, it took three tries but -- with all due respect to Ang Lee -- they finally nailed the Incredible Hulk and especially Bruce Banner; there’s a special kind of thrill in the scenes where Mark Ruffalo’s Banner and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark play off each other.) It even makes the lesser Marvel films (hi, THOR) better and more interesting. Plus, I’m not gonna lie: I’ve always preferred my superhero movies to be more fun and comic booky than dark and gritty -- and THE AVENGERS is probably the most fun I had at the movies last year. Cannot wait for to see what happens in Phase 2 -- and this success with Marvel also gives me great hope regarding Disney’s latest acquisition, a certain little indie house called Lucasfilm.
5. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS -- Joss Whedon is back again, co-writing (along with director Drew Goddard) the horror movie to end all horror movies -- or at least it should have been -- or at the very least, it wipes the slate clean, similar to the way SCREAM did in the ‘90s but on a whole other level of madness. Look at a plot synopsis and you might write it off as another stupid generic horror flick -- but this is more than just a scary movie (though it is that, and a damn good one). It’s even more than a wink-wink at typical horror tropes and conventions. It’s a veritable deconstruction of the genre and a commentary on why the hell we watch these movies in the first place. There may even be something in there about the very meaning of existence. And it’s hilarious. And it’s smart and effective. And the last half hour is unquestionably the most jaw-dropping, bat-shit crazy sequence in horror movie history. I know I’m being overly mysterious and hyperbolic, but dammit, I don’t want to spoil the experience. Though I am happy to report that even after you know what happens, it’s still tremendous -- and as such, I anticipate many repeat viewings in which I will revel in its sheer, unbridled awesomeness.
4. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER -- I was not familiar with Stephen Chbosky’s book when I saw this movie, but it sounded like it would be right up my alley, being a former high school dork (and wallflower of sorts), myself, and who had a close-knit group of fellow dorks. PERKS deals with some deep issues, including mental illness, homophobia and death, but also taps into the every day minutia that makes high school such a tumultuous period of life -- and does so in such a warm, realistic, personal & nostalgia-inducing way that anyone who ever endured those trials and tribulations and remembers those close friendships will find something to cling to. Chbosky deserves kudos for both his fantastic script and nuanced direction. And then there’s the cast: Logan Lerman is outstanding as introverted & troubled Charlie, while Ezra Miller continues his recent run of excellence as the flamboyant Patrick, and I defy any warm-blooded heterosexual male to not fall even more in love with Emma Watson after her luminous performance as Sam. Plus it’s a damn good ‘90s period piece and has a great soundtrack. While it may fly under the Oscar radar, I believe it will eventually be regarded as one of the great films of its kind, alongside the best of such luminaries as John Hughes and Cameron Crowe.
3. MOONRISE KINGDOM -- When Wes Anderson is off his game, as he had been for his last couple of live action films (I liked but didn’t love THE LIFE AQUATIC and have little use for THE DARJEELING LIMITED), his signature stylistic choices, attention to mise-en-scène, etc., can come off as pretentious and tiresome. But when he really nails it and fuses his visual talent with a perfect story and creates a rich cinematic universe, as he does here, it is a joy to behold. MOONRISE KINGDOM is an aesthetic treasure trove, bursting with color and warmth and whimsy, and a transcendent ode to the wonders of young love -- the story of two smitten twelve-year-olds who run away together, only to be pursued by a madcap collection of family and authority figures. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are amazing & believable as the young lovers who may be wise beyond their years but are still a couple of awkward kids. The supporting cast is loaded with talent: Bruce Willis (arguably his performance in what was an excellent year for him) and Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand and, of course, Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. This is Wes Anderson his absolute best (in fact, I’d call it his his best since THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS), loaded with the kind of humor and poignancy and melancholy and oddness that only he can provide.
2. LES MISERABLES -- In every art form, there is one thing I love that towers above the rest. When it comes to movies, it’s STAR WARS. Music: the Beatles. Books: Stephen King’s DARK TOWER series. And on Broadway, it’s LES MIS. I saw the musical four times between 1994 and 1999, have listened to the soundtrack countless times and have been dreaming of a big screen version for years. I saw it on Christmas Night at the Ziegfeld in NYC... and from the moment that powerful overture kicks in, all the way to the tear-jerking finale... goddamn, it is a triumph. Tom Hooper’s bold direction (actors singing live on set! extreme close-ups!), some remarkable performances (Hugh Jackman! Anne Hathaway! Eddie Redmayne!) and the fearlessness of the production make LES MIS the most soaring, emotionally-charged cinematic experience of the year. Hooper does a tremendous job of capturing both the scope and intimacy of the story, and somehow, even the film’s imperfections (crazy Dutch angles! Russell Crowe’s singing voice!) seem to work in context. But there are also moments of pure transcendence, such as Anne Hathaway’s soul-crushing rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which is one of the best individual scenes in any movie this year. LES MIS is the kind of hugely ambitious, bombastic film that people will either love or hate -- but I, for one, am very glad to finally live in a world in which it exists.
1. LINCOLN -- After all these years, despite the fact that he has given us some of the greatest movies of all time, it’s easy to take Steven Spielberg for granted, and perhaps assume that his best days are behind him. But then he comes out with something like this... something so expertly-crafted and perfect that it not only meets the high standards that we have set for him, but blows them out of the water, and we remember, “Oh yeah, Steven Spielberg is still STEVEN FUCKING SPIELBERG.” With this film, he has crafted a political procedural about the passing of the 13th Amendment that is both sprawling in scope and an extremely intimate portrait of Lincoln, the man, featuring a brilliant, multi-faceted script by Tony Kushner, a lovely, understated score by John Williams, and one of the all-time great lead performances by Daniel Day-Lewis. I mean, we knew that DDL was going to be amazing in this role, especially after the first photos surfaced. But he really transcends greatness and BECOMES the 16th President, turning Honest Abe into a sort of political action hero who uses words instead of weapons, while still maintaining his humanity -- an unprecedented third Best Actor Oscar is most definitely in sight. The film is bolstered by a brilliant supporting cast, especially scene-stealing Tommy Lee Jones as outspoken abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. But it’s Spielberg’s deft direction (particularly the way he often knows when to step back and let the script and the actors do all the work) that makes LINCOLN utterly enthralling, fascinating, noble, epic, immersive, funny, educational, exultant -- and in my opinion, the very best movie of 2012.
Other Noteworthy Titles (in alphabetical order):
Amour. Arbitrage. Argo. Beasts of the Southern Wild. Bernie. Brave. The Central Park Five. Chronicle. Cloud Atlas. Damsels in Distress. End of Watch. For a Good Time, Call.... Frankenweenie. Goodbye, First Love. The Grey. Headhunters. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The Intouchables. Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Jiro Dreams of Sushi. John Carter. The Kid With a Bike. Killer Joe. Life of Pi. Looper. Oslo: August 31st. ParaNorman. The Pirates! Band of Misfits. The Queen of Versailles. The Raid: Redemption. Safety Not Guaranteed. The Secret World of Arrietty. The Sessions. Seven Psychopaths. Silver Linings Playbook. Skyfall. Sleepwalk With Me. Smashed. Sound of My Voice. Take This Waltz. That’s My Boy. Turn Me On, Dammit! Wanderlust. West of Memphis. Wreck-It Ralph. Your Sister’s Sister. Zero Dark Thirty.
And now... Ben’s Top 10 WORST Films of 2012:
10. ROCK OF AGES -- I’ve heard that the Broadway show is really fun, but after sitting through this embarrassingly wretched adaptation, I have zero desire to find out if that’s true. Tom Cruise’s over-the-top performance provides the only sliver of entertainment value.
9. TOTAL RECALL -- It’s not that this remake is completely awful -- it has its moments, mostly involving Kate Beckinsale -- but compared to the original, it’s so bland and drab and unnecessary that I’m including it here out of spite. STOP THE MADNESS.
8. RED DAWN -- An even more worthless, arguably more unnecessary ‘80s remake that gets negative bonus points for featuring perhaps the single worst performance of the year: This guy Josh Peck is GOD. AWFUL.
7. TAKEN 2 -- Liam Neeson kicking ass usually provides a particular set of thrills (see what I did there?), but this is as bad & needless a sequel as we've seen in a while. Also features some of the worst villains in the history of villainy.
6. SEEKING JUSTICE -- Saw this title on my list and honestly had to look it up to remember what the fuck it was about. Now I remember: It’s a way-too-clunky mystery/thriller that maybe could have been redeemed if only it had a larger dose of Nic Cage in crazy mode.
5. SILENT HOUSE -- Despite some nifty, gimmicky camerawork, this is hackneyed horror at its absolute worst. Not ashamed to admit that Elizabeth Olsen in a busty white tank top saves it from being ranked even lower.
4. DARK SHADOWS -- Personally, I would've preferred an epic debacle like ALICE IN WONDERLAND to this lazy mess. Tim Burton may have redeemed himself on the animation side, but when it comes to live action, he is still very much in the dog house.
3. MAN ON A LEDGE -- If Samuel L. Jackson had suddenly appeared and yelled, “I have had it with this motherfucking man on this motherfucking ledge!” then this movie might have been cool. But that did not happen... so it’s just dopey, useless schlock.
2. GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE -- In this day and age of great comic book films, there’s no excuse for such awful dreck as this. Once again, we needed more Crazy Nic Cage. Or at least one Violante Placido topless scene.
1. BATTLESHIP -- From the moment this movie was announced, we all knew it was going to suck. But incredibly, it is a trainwreck beyond even our wildest imaginations. Stunningly, unrelentingly stupid in every possible way. Ridiculous characters and situations. Terrible acting and dialogue. If the filmmakers had only embraced the innate campiness of the idea, rather than playing it mostly straight... who knows, maybe it could have actually been kind of fun... as it stands, may God have mercy on the souls of everyone involved. Please let the “board game movie” trend end here!
And now... Some Semi-Stream-of-Consciousness Movie Thoughts!
Twelve Titles That Just Missed the Top 10: As I mentioned, there were a number of films that caused me physical pain to leave out of the Top 10. First an foremost is LOOPER, one of the best pure sci-fi films in recent memory. Everything works, from the story to the dystopia to the “science” -- Philip K. Dick would be proud. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is a miracle of a film, featuring one of the year’s best performances (Quvenzhané Wallis!) not to mention the year’s best score. Michael Haneke gets sentimental but no less clinical in AMOUR, a heartbreaking portrait of old age and unconditional love. THE GREY infuses a dose of existentialism to the the “Bad-ass Liam Neeson action flick” with great results. SOUND OF MY VOICE is mesmerizing and surprising -- sign me up for the cult of Brit Marling any day. Ben Affleck takes his filmmaking prowess to the next level with ARGO, a film that answers the question, “What do you get when you cross OCEAN’S 11 with MUNICH?” Michelle Williams is exceptional (as always) and Seth Rogen shows surprising depth in Sarah Polley’s examination of a relationship gone awry, TAKE THIS WALTZ (a film that held greater resonance for me as the year wore on). Mark Duplass is great and Rosemarie DeWitt out-cutes Emily Blunt in the funny & sincere YOUR SISTER'S SISTER. They said CLOUD ATLAS was unfilmable but the Wachowskis proved them wrong with a big, multi-layered and resoundingly successful three-hour epic about time & space & life & love (and perhaps the biggest Oscar no-brainer of the year... for Best Makeup). Kathryn Bigelow reasserts herself as the master of the military procedural with the intense, controversial ZERO DARK THIRTY. And then there’s THE HOBBIT and SKYFALL... neither of which were serious Top 10 contenders... but I loved them just the same!
Biggest Guilty Pleasure: It’s funny, I’ve thought long and hard about this and I don’t think I had ANY guilty pleasures last year. There were no TRANSFORMERS-esque bad movies that I loved in spite of themselves. I feel absolutely no guilt about anything! That’s yet another sign of an outstanding movie year. That being said, I DID see TITANIC 3D not once, not twice, but three times. Maybe I feel a little guilty about that, if for no other reason than that it’s a 15-year-old movie that took up another 9+ hours of my life. But you know what? I love TITANIC, unequivocally and unapologetically... so no regrets!
Most Pleasant Surprise: We pretty much knew that SKYFALL would be cool, but who could’ve guessed that it would be arguably the best Bond movie ever -- a perfect mix of old & new? Steven Soderbergh’s touch helped make MAGIC MIKE more legitimately entertaining than it had any business being. MEN IN BLACK III made up for the dismal previous film by recapturing the fun of the original (thanks in no small part of Josh Brolin’s incredible Tommy Lee Jones impression). CHRONICLE proved to be a highly entertaining, fresh spin on both the overdone “found footage” and “superhero origin story” genres. Didn’t know what to expect from END OF WATCH but it turned out to be a gripping buddy cop action procedural featuring tremendous camaraderie between Jake Gyllenhaal & Oscar-worthy Michael Peña. But I think I might go with FRANKENWEENIE here -- it may not be quite on par with Tim Burton’s old-school best, but it’s a definite return to form and evidence that maybe it’s not time to put him out to pasture just yet. (Of course, now he has to do it again!)
Biggest Disappointment: Unfortunately, the clear choice here is PROMETHEUS, which was cool at times but mostly muddled and messy and did not come close to the expectations that come from a new movie set in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN universe. (That said, I still own the Blu-Ray -- see, this was such a great movie year that even the disappointments are worth another watch.) I was also a little let down by THE DARK KNIGHT RISES -- it wasn’t bad, exactly, and I enjoyed it in the moment, but it was so bloated, it felt like Nolan had just grown bored with the trilogy and decided to throw in everything including the kitchen sink (plus, although the “plot hole” meme got a little overdone, let’s face it, there ARE some that are tough to overlook). THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is another one that I enjoyed in the moment, but in retrospect, I’d rather watch the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire version any day. I was also sorry to see a couple of potentially fun gimmicky films drop the ball badly: ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER took itself way too seriously, and RISE OF THE GUARDIANS was just uninspired and dull. Too bad.
Most Underrated: You know what? I’m gonna go with JOHN CARTER here. Yes, Disney botched the marketing of the film horribly -- how can you not tout the fact that the story was the inspiration for 100 years’ worth of sci-fi / fantasy classics, including STAR WARS and AVATAR?? That alone would’ve sold $100 million worth of tickets. That said, the movie is still fun and ambitious and not nearly as bad as it’s been made out to be. I still have faith in Andrew Stanton’s genius. Meanwhile, THE HOBBIT may be one of the most misunderstood movies of the year, based on some reviews I’ve seen, but personally, I loved it and will continue to follow Jackson & Co. there and back again with pleasure. And then there’s CLOUD ATLAS, which has inexplicably been placed on several high-profile “Bottom 10” lists. Those people are out of their goddamn minds!
Most Overrated: Based on all the adulation and award consideration it’s been getting, FLIGHT may turn out to be the most overrated movie of the century. Come on, people... aside from opening airplane crash sequence (which is legitimately harrowing), it is a bunch of preachy, melodramatic nonsense and Denzel is more of a caricature of himself than ever. It will be a damn shame if he takes an Oscar nomination away from a far more deserving candidate. I’m also sorry to say that I do not get the love for 21 JUMP STREET -- I found it to be generally unfunny and way too infatuated with its own faux-cleverness (and Channing Tatum still sucks). Not really a huge fan of the bloated, self-indulgent cacophony that is DJANGO UNCHAINED, either. It has its moments, but best Tarantino film ever? Watch INGLORIOUS BASTERDS again -- it’s not even close.
Concerning Hobbits: Actually, hell, let’s talk about how much I love THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY for a little bit. I love that it is such an unabashed, sprawling, Tolkien love-fest, delving into the LOTR appendices and other works to flesh out the rather bare-bones kiddie novel. I love how Jackson picked out little insignificant details, like the Stone-Giants, and turned them into awesome set pieces. I love the lighter tone with the underlying threat of darkness that we know (and Gandalf fears) is coming. Of course, I love Gollum and “Riddles in the Dark.” I love the LOTR references and connections, even though some of them seemed to be shoe-horned in (like the White Council and essentially the entire Frodo/Blibo prologue). There may be a bit too much video game-esque CGI (compared to the practical effects in the LOTR trilogy), but fortunately, the effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen, especially in HFR / 48fps. That newfangled technology is jarring and unnatural at first, but once your eyes adjust (which took about an hour for me), it’s pretty nifty. All in all, THE HOBBIT is a welcome return to Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth, a place I am always happy to visit for a few (or many, many) hours!
Bye-bye, Twilight: Like it or not, the TWILIGHT saga is a thing that happened and it set all kinds of ridiculous box office records and lessened everyone's faith in humanity. Mercifully, it is now over... but I have to admit that it went out with a bang. THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN, PART 2 definitely still sucked, and Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are still the worst ever, but it was by far the best of the series, featuring a final act battle that was sort of jaw-dropping and, apparently, a big departure from the book. If only they'd done that that all along! Now let us never speak of this again.
Animation is Good: We were treated to some very solid animated fare last year, starting, of course, with Pixar and Disney. Don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that BRAVE is not worth your time; it may not be WALL-E or TOY STORY-good, but it’s a damn fine film. But for the first time in a while, Walt Disney Animation did Pixar one better: WRECK-IT RALPH is a super-nostalgic ode to classic video games and an absolute blast (though I actually enjoyed the preceding short film, PAPERMAN, even more!). Meanwhile, Tim Burton may have returned to form with FRANKENWEENIE, but PARANORMAN was even better, with its with its macabre visuals and humor and heart, not to mention the best anti-bullying / “it gets better” message of the year. (Sadly, I did not see HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA to complete the “animated kiddie horror” trilogy.) Studio Ghibli provided another slice of dreamy brilliance with THE SECRET WORLD OF ARREITTY, while Aardman proved that pirates are still pretty cool with the hilarious THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS. Really, the only big animated misfire was RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, which, as mentioned earlier, had great potential but just fell flat. Of course, in the end, the Academy will likely scrounge up some crazy foreign animation that will throw everyone for a loop, like they did last year with CHICO & RITA and A CAT IN PARIS -- which, incidentally, I also saw and were both great!
Foreign Cinema: Amongst all the Hollywood blockbusters and indie gems, I managed to squeeze in some culture, too. The best foreign film of the year -- and one of the most visceral & heart-wrenching movie-watching experiences -- is Michael Haneke’s AMOUR. Marion Cotillard plays a woman with no legs (i.e., a guaranteed Oscar nod) in the well-acted, occasionally shocking, but flawed RUST AND BONE. Gareth Evans’ action spectacle, THE RAID: REDEMPTION features non-stop mayhem, ultraviolence and some of the craziest fight choreography ever -- it was wildly entertaining and lived up to the geek hype. THE INTOUCHABLES was a phenomenon in France and is quite enjoyable -- plus it won me an iPad via a Twitter contest, so maybe I’m biased. Diane Kruger makes a great Marie Antoinette in the lush French period piece, FAREWELL, MY QUEEN. And another from France: GOODBYE, FIRST LOVE, a touching exploration of young passion, bittersweet longing, unrealistic expectation & harsh reality. THE KID WITH A BIKE is a beautifully-crafted fairy tale that (finally) introduced me to the great Dardenne bros. And speaking of Belgian filmmakers, THE FAIRY is some fun slapstick that briefly turned me on to the films of Abel, Gordon & Romy. Elsewhere in Europe, Norway offered a trifecta of greatness with HEADHUNTERS and OSLO, AUGUST 31st (neither of which I saw in theatres but fortunately discovered on Netflix) and my personal favorite, the girl-power teen sex comedy TURN ME ON, DAMMIT! Lastly, much to my delight, Audrey Tautou was back in DELICACY -- not her best film, but she remains the cutest of the cute.
What's up, Docs: I saw a handful of documentaries, too, my sentimental favorite of which was the delectable JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI, which seriously made me consider jumping on the next flight to Tokyo (or rather, going to Tokyo two years from now, which is probably the earliest I could get a reservation to Jiro's restaurant if I’m lucky). THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES was an appalling and morbidly funny portrait of the 1% that managed to elicit conflicting feelings of compassion & schadenfreude. BULLY certainly meant well but amounted to little more than an anti-bullying fluff piece. I saw KNUCKLEBALL! at the IFC Center shortly after watching R.A. Dickey win his 20th game at Citi Field, which was a pretty cool day. For those who were enthralled by the PARADISE LOST trilogy and just can't get enough of the West Memphis Three, there's WEST OF MEMPHIS (produced by Peter Jackson) which delves even deeper into certain aspects of the case and offers a fresh perspective and some eye-opening insight. Meanwhile, for another example of the justice system gone awry (and a vivid snapshot of grimy, pre-Giuliani NYC), THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE is equally essential viewing.
Comedies, or Lack Thereof: If there was one sub-genre that was severely lacking in 2012, it was the high-profile, straight-up, broad comedy. Films like THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT and THIS IS 40 were mostly unremarkable, while PARENTAL GUIDANCE was downright dreadful. AMERICAN REUNION had the nostalgia factor going for it (not to mention Ali Cobrin’s breasts) but was ultimately unmemorable. Lots of people loved 21 JUMP STREET, for reasons I do not understand. THE WATCH had a fine cast and some decent laughs but, again, quickly forgettable. THE DICTATOR suggests that Sacha Baron Cohen’s schtick may have grown cold (though he redeemed himself in LES MIS). Even Woody Allen misfired a bit with his latest European postcard, TO ROME WITH LOVE (though, mediocre Allen is still better than no Allen at all, so let’s appreciate it while we can). In retrospect, my favorite broad comedies were Adam Sandler’s THAT’S MY BOY, which was legitimately funny and a vast improvement over his recent dreck -- followed by Kevin James’ HERE COMES THE BOOM, which had kind of a HAPPY GILMORE meets WARRIOR vibe that I enjoyed. Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are!
Under-the-Radar Comedies: Fortunately, there were laughs to be had if you knew where to look. Jack Black deserves an Oscar nod for his incredible, out-of-nowhere performance in Richard Linklater’s BERNIE. SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS was bat-shit crazy, bloody and hilarious. FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL... is a female buddy comedy in the style of a romantic comedy disguised as a raunchy chick comedy, and it works. GOD BLESS AMERICA is uneven but funny social satire (though it also features a movie theatre shooting massacre, which may be why it has been shunted aside). WANDERLUST was not quite as outrageous as WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, but still, the members of The State (plus Paul Rudd) need to make more movies. Whit Stillman created a wacky world in DAMSELS IN DISTRESS and Greta Gerwig is its queen. You could also probably count SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK in this category, though it has since moved to the forefront thanks to some serious Oscar buzz (and Jennifer Lawrence’s awesomeness) -- either way, it’s good!
Horror Madness: We’ve already talked about how CABIN IN THE WOODS should have been the horror film to end all horror films... but others were released in 2012, anyway, and some of them were okay. I really enjoyed SINISTER, which was a little hokey but does actually provides some legitimate scares. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 was easily the worst of the series so far -- I still enjoy the concept and the universe, but they might want to start thinking about wrapping things up. I saw a pretty bad but grisly piece of torture porn called THE COLLECTION, which I later learned was a sequel to a movie I’d never seen (don’t think I missed much). Post-Potter Daniel Radcliffe is solid but THE WOMAN IN BLACK has a muddled story, weak scares and a groaner ending. Jennifer Lawrence and Elizabeth Olsen both wear white tank tops in THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET and SILENT HOUSE, respectively; neither are any good, but still... Jennifer Lawrence and Elizabeth Olsen in white tank tops!
Sore Butts Across America: One thing's for sure, we definitely got our money's worth, time-wise, at the cinema in 2012. Seriously, take a look at some of these run times: LINCOLN (2:29). ZERO DARK THIRTY (2:37). LES MIS (2:38). DJANGO UNCHAINED (2:45). THE HOBBIT (2:49). CLOUD ATLAS (2:52). Not to mention the 4+ hours I spent watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, 10+ hours for the INDIANA JONES quadrilogy and 13+ hours for THE LORD OF THE RINGS Extended Edition trilogy. Yowza!
The Year of Mark Duplass: I've been a Duplass fan for a while, dating back to his mumblecore roots, and it's been cool to see him gradually make his way to the mainstream as both an actor and director -- a process that began in 2011 with CYRUS and really took off this past year. As an actor, Duplass was great in the heartfelt YOUR SISTER’S SISTER, and even better alongside Aubrey Plaza in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, one of the better, understated sci-fi romances in recent memory. As a director, he gave us JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME, a loveable cheeseball of a film starring Jason Segel, as well as THE DO-DECA PENTATHALON (co-directed by his brother Jay), a funny/sad story of sibling rivalry gone too far. Plus he had a small role in ZERO DARK THIRTY as well as two other movies I didn’t see. The dude was this year’s Jessica Chastain! Only, y’know, not as pretty.
...or is it the Year of Matthew McConaughey: Don’t call it a comeback, McConaughey’s been here for years... but he’s never had a year like this, with FOUR tremendous performances under his belt. There’s the twisted titular bounty hunter in KILLER JOE, a film that will forever change the way you look at fried chicken. He’s fantastic as Jack Black’s foil in the aforementioned BERNIE. He steals the show in MAGIC MIKE, much to the ladies’ delight, I’m sure. And THE PAPERBOY is a filthy, greasy piece of trash in which McConaughey shines. He might actually have the edge over Duplass because he has actually gotten some award recognition for his work. No arguments here.
...or is it the Year of Chris Hemsworth (THE AVENGERS, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, RED DAWN), Joseph-Gordon Levitt (THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, LOOPER, PREMIUM RUSH, LINCOLN), Bryan Cranston (ARGO, ROCK OF AGES, TOTAL RECALL, JOHN CARTER), Bruce Willis (LOOPER, MOONRISE KINGDOM, THE EXPENDABLES 2), Jennifer Lawrence (THE HUNGER GAMES, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET), or Kevin Nash (MAGIC MIKE, ROCK OF AGES): You decide!
Scores and More Scores: My favorite score of the year, which I have listened to many times (in fact, I’ve been listening to it while writing this very blog post) is BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, a hummable, fantastical, plucky ode to the south that feels at once intimate and sweeping. John Williams is back in top form with some very subdued but effective work in LINCOLN -- would have no problem with him snagging his sixth Oscar (and first in nearly 20 years). Howard Shore invokes his classic LORD OF THE RINGS themes throughout THE HOBBIT, but there are some new gems in there, too -- the man just plain knows how to represent Middle-earth through music. Like the movie itself, the CLOUD ATLAS score is epic & all over the place (in a good way). And like THE MASTER, Johnny Greenwood’s score is full of weird dissonance (also in a good way). Nick Urata manages to capture the magic & whimsy of RUBY SPARKS -- plus it’s catchy. And say what you want about the film, but Michael Giacchino’s JOHN CARTER score has a damn good, old-fashioned adventure feel that I very much enjoyed (even more so while listening to it while reading the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel on the subway!).
Revivals, Re-Releases & Classics: It’s always fun to see older movies on the big screen, and I saw more of them in 2012 than ever before. First and foremost was a magnificent 4K restoration of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA -- holy crap. An astonishing presentation, an astonishing film and an astonishing movie-watching experience. I also saw screenings of CASABLANCA (which got many classic quotes stuck in my head) and CHARIOTS OF FIRE (which got a certain classic score stuck in my head). E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL made me cry, as it has done every time I’ve watched it over the past 30 years. I spent 13+ hours watching the complete LORD OF THE RINGS extended edition trilogy and another 10+ hours reliving the complete INDIANA JONES quadrilogy. Pixar decided to re-release a bunch of its classics for a weekend in May and I saw a sweet double-feature of WALL-E and TOY STORY 3. On July 7th, I kicked off my birthday celebration with a screening of A BOY NAMED CHARLIE BROWN at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and then capped the night with a midnight screening of THE ROOM at the Sunshine (best birthday ever). And then, of course, there were the 3D re-releases. As I mentioned earlier, I saw TITANIC three times (bringing my overall total since 1997 to eight). I am on record as a fan of STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE and had fun revisiting it again on the big screen (at the Ziegfeld, no less). Somehow I missed FINDING NEMO, but I did see BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and MONSTERS INC. and enjoyed them very much.
And there you have it, folks. Thoughts? Questions? Criticisms? Death threats? What are YOUR picks for the best and worst movies of 2012? Let’s talk, why not!