Thursday, January 31, 2013

REVIEW: Warm Bodies

warmbodiesPraise the gods, we are finally living in a post-Twilight society. No disrespect to the teenyboppers (and teenyboppers at heart) who loved the series... but man, those movies were bad. Of course, the downside is that we will now likely be inundated with potential heirs to the throne -- a process which already began with I AM NUMBER FOUR a couple of years ago and looks to continue with the upcoming BEAUTIFUL CREATURES. On the surface, it would be easy to write off WARM BODIES, too, as nothing more than “Twilight with zombies” -- but to do so would be a huge mistake. Indeed, it is about a zombie and a human falling in love. And it does take great, often silly liberties with zombie lore. But it also combines these things with some important qualities that the Twilight saga could never grasp: Humor, intelligence, fun and yes, even heart.

In a familiar post-apocalyptic society, zombies roam free, aimlessly and mindlessly feeding at will. Or perhaps not so mindlessly: Our hero, R (he can't remember his full name), has a running inner monologue, implying that he is aware of what is going on but is powerless to control it. Does he want to kill people and eat their brains? Not really... but such is life (or death). R spends most of his days wandering around an old airport with other zombies, engaging in scintillating conversation (read: senseless grunts) with his best friend, hanging out in his custom lair, contemplating the meaning of it all....

But everything changes one day when R catches a glimpse of Julie and it's love at first sight -- a fairly typical rom-com "thunderbolt" moment -- except for the fact that Julie is human... and the moment occurs during a bloody battle… oh, and R just killed her boyfriend and ate his brains.

WARM BODIESThose minor inconveniences aside, R rescues Julie from the battle and brings her to his lair to keep her safe from other zombies (and even worse, ruthless and cheesily-animated sub-zombie creatures known as "Bonies"). While terrified at first, Julie becomes intrigued by R's kindness, which goes against everything she thinks she knows. R, meanwhile, learns more about Julie's past by eating more of her boyfriend's brains and absorbing his memories (which, in this world, is an ability that zombies have) and slowly but surely rediscovers his own history and humanity. As their unlikely bond becomes stronger, it raises the even less-likely question: Is the power of love strong enough to breathe new life into the undead and save the world?

WarmBodies2Director Jonathan Levine (50/50), who also wrote the brisk screenplay based on Isaac Marion's book, infuses the landscape with plenty of tongue-in-cheek laughs, lots of splatter and even offers some Romero-esque social satire. The savvy viewer may also notice some similarities to a certain Shakespearean couple with the initials R and J -- there's even a balcony scene! -- which adds another cheesy but clever layer. Performances are solid across the board, starting with Nicholas Hoult (perhaps still best known as the kid in ABOUT A BOY), who carries the story well and mixes R’s hunger for human brains with both warmth and angst. As Julie, Teresa Palmer (who was, ironically, in the aforementioned Twilight-wanna-be I AM NUMBER FOUR) is serviceable and WarmBodies1looks good wielding heavy weaponry. Rob Corddry does scene-stealing work as R's best friend -- somewhat reminiscent of his character from HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, but, you know... a zombie. Analeigh Tipton makes a likeable, wacky best friend for Julie, while the great John Malkovich is believable as the leader of the human resistance who will shoot any zombie on sight -- and who also happens to be Julie's father (awkward!).

Zombie movies are almost always fun on some level, and while WARM BODIES is no SHAUN OF THE DEAD, it gives the genre a fun little nudge. I’m sure it will find an audience, but I doubt it will be quite the box office smash that the Twilight saga was -- which is unfortunate, because for a movie about the walking dead, this clever tale of star-cross'd lovers is full of life.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

REVIEW: The Last Stand

thelaststandAs a comeback vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, THE LAST STAND is as forgettable as it is serviceable. In his first starring role since TERMINATOR 3 in 2003, Arnold plays Ray Owens, a former LAPD cop who left the big city to become sheriff of Somerton Junction, a sleepy Arizona border town. But when he receives word that a dangerous drug lord may attempt to pass through his town to try and cross into Mexico, he and his deputies set up their own resistance.

Some wild action sequences keep the first half of the movie interesting -- first the drug lord escapes from the FBI in Las Vegas in grand fashion, then leads them on a merry chase across the desert highway in a souped-up Corvette. Meanwhile, a dopey mystery involving the drug lord’s henchmen secretly building a bridge to Mexico keeps Arnold occupied. But in your head, you know an epic shootout, with Arnold front-and-center, is coming, and that keeps you going. When the bad guys roll into town and the guns start blazing and R-rated blood starts to splatter, things get pretty fun for a little while. On the downside, the full extent of this fun is sabotaged by some truly awful acting and dialogue (not to mention a plot riddled with as many holes as the parked cars that are constantly shot up for no apparent reason). Not that a Schwarzenegger film needs to be par with Shakespeare -- but half of Arnold’s appeal is removed when he doesn't have a single truly quotable line ("I'm the sheriff!" is no "Hasta la vista, baby").

Arnold still has a commanding presence, but unlike, say, PREDATOR, where he was backed up by the awesomeness that is Carl Weathers and Jesse Ventura, he doesn’t get much help here. At this point, I think we can safely put Johnny Knoxville out to pasture -- outside of the Jackass world, he is pretty useless. Luis Guzman provides the real comic relief and arguably the film’s best “epic” moment. Forest Whitaker is bizarrely over-the-top as the worst damn FBI agent in the whole wide world, who, of course, foolishly underestimates Sheriff Owens’ abilities. As the villainous drug lord, Eduardo Noriega is sufficiently sleazy. And while Genesis arnoldRodriguez is kind of hot, after this and last year’s MAN ON A LEDGE, she is quickly asserting herself as one of the more terrible actresses working today.

Schwarzenegger may yet have another great movie in him, but THE LAST STAND is merely a mild diversion that falls far short of greatness. On the other hand, when the drug lord’s aforementioned souped-up Corvette goes head-to-head with Arnold behind the wheel of a stylin' Camaro (the high point being a cat-and-mouse car chase in a cornfield, of all places), it suddenly becomes quite an effective ad for Chevrolet -- so maybe that’s what this was about all along. Well played....

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


mamaIf there's one thing that films made or endorsed by Guillermo del Toro have in common, it's a sense of atmosphere. Whether it's the brilliant PAN'S LABYRINTH or the flawed DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, the man knows how to set an eerie stage. MAMA tells the tale of two little girls who are found living in a cabin in the woods, feral and wild, seemingly left to their own devices for years following a family tragedy. They are taken in by a kindly uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) in an attempt to assimilate them back into society -- but as it turns out, they may not have been alone after all. The girls constantly speak of a mysterious "Mama," who, it seems, is not keen to let them go.

What began as a short, three-minute film by writer/director Andrés Muschietti is stretched to 100 minutes and the excess padding is occasionally felt. But thanks to that del Toro-approved sense of atmosphere, it is a tense, twisty-turny horror/mystery/thriller that cleverly plays with the idea of the mother-daughter bond on several different levels. The two little girls are outstanding and wholly believable (this, of course, is another common del Toro thread). The titular matriarch is perhaps a bit too in-your-face, but visually, she is damn creepy, evoking classic J-horror without feeling like a retread. The film even manages to pack an unexpected emotional punch at times.

chastainBut best of all, this may be the most fun Jessica Chastain has had in her entire career. You might think that such a film would be a step backward for her at this point, but after two years of appearing in countless grave, serious and/or topical films with subjects ranging from racism to terrorism to mental illness to the goddamn meaning of life, she is clearly reveling in the opportunity to play a bad-ass, smart-mouthed, black-haired, tattooed, tank-top-wearing, bass-playing rocker chick in a ghost story. Oh, mama, indeed!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

REVIEW: Christian Marclay’s The Clock

As an art project, Christian Marclay’s THE CLOCK is impressive: Thousands of film clips, spanning the history of cinema, representing each minute of the day, are spliced together to create what is essentially a working, 24-hour cinematic timepiece. On the surface, it’s like the greatest YouTube mash-up video ever constructed. But for those who have even the slightest interest in film, its history, or the simple joy of watching a movie, it can be an absolutely transcendent experience.

18981_10101628570762939_277824370_nGod knows how many movies Marclay and his team scoured over a two-year period before finally unleashing this magnum opus on the world in 2010. The sheer scope of the project is hard to fathom, and I don’t think anyone has yet figured out exactly how many clips appear and what they all are. But what is truly amazing about THE CLOCK is that it actually manages to form an oddly cohesive narrative -- perhaps not always logically, but certainly emotionally. There is, of course, no beginning and no end, but ebbs and flows of dramatic tension result from the nature of humanity and our relationship with the passage of time. Many clips feature mundane activities: Walking, sleeping, reading, talking. But at key times -- usually every quarter hour –- there is a rise in activity because that is, simply, when people typically do things. We don’t make plans for 4:33 p.m.; we make them for 4:30. And then things get really interesting as the top of the hour approaches, often with great rising action and a flurry of images as the big moment strikes.

clock-towerOf course, that is not always the case. In BACK TO THE FUTURE, lightning strikes the clock tower at 10:04 p.m. (this memorable moment is represented spectacularly). Moments like that, which diverge from the usual structure of time, are even more fascinating. But in either case, Marclay brilliantly creates drama, humor, action sequences and general weirdness by using clever editing (both images and sound) to manipulate, tweak and even subvert the humanity-time relationship -- which, in many ways (at least, as far as movies are concerned), has not changed very much over the past century.

It is amazing how well some of Marclay’s edits work on a purely visual or thematic level. Very often, a phone will ring in a clip from one decade, only to be answered by someone in a film decades later... or a door opens in ancient black-and-white and a person emerges in the present day... but it happens at the same moment on the clock! A personal favorite moment occurs at 1:54 a.m.: A couple is having steamy sex, only bigbento cut to James Stewart waking up with a start in REAR WINDOW. Just what WERE you dreaming about, Jimmy?? Another occurs at midnight -- obviously a highly-anticipated moment. It starts with Big Ben being destroyed in a huge explosion (V FOR VENDETTA), goes into a rapid-fire montage of clock faces displaying the midnight hour, and ends with Big Ben suddenly rebuilt (none other than GONE WITH THE WIND, when Rhett Butler comforts Bonnie Blue after a nightmare and the clock is visible in the background). Thus, as the madness of midnight ends, the world begins anew... from a certain point of view.

Since I was there late at night and into the wee hours of the morning, the themes and images that comprised my experience told a late-night story -- which, some might say, is the best time for a story to come together. Lots of couples on dates. Late night encounters, poker games, rendezvous. Lots of sex. Sleeping, of course. Bouts of insomnia (indeed, the movie INSOMNIA makes an appearance very late). Phones constantly waking people up at ungodly hours. Interestingly, there are also some instances where Marclay & Co. apparently couldn’t find a clip to fit the time; these moments are usually represented by random dream sequences -- bizarre, twisted, feverish -- which, in a way, perfectly fits the mood of the late-night crowd.

In truth, THE CLOCK makes one extremely aware of the passage of time while also causing one to lose track of it completely. It’s fun to play “Spot the Clock”: Sometimes it’s in plain sight, sometimes it is well-hidden in the frame, sometimes it is actually the focal point of the shot. But eventually, you might become so enthralled in the “story” that you’ll simply forget to look for the clock altogether. And then suddenly, you’ll remember again, and it’s 10, 15, 20 minutes later. It really is a trip.

Now, I managed to take some notes during my epic, borderline insane 8 1/2 hour overnight viewing. When I entered the exhibit at 9:30 p.m., I was greeted by a shot of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry Callahan talking to the villain Scorpio on the phone. Ten o’clock is marked by an extended execution scene from THE GREEN MILE. MV5BMjgyODgwMzA4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzg2NzE0NA@@._V1._SX640_SY952_The aforementioned BACK TO THE FUTURE moment happens on schedule at 10:04, though to my personal delight, it is immediately preceded by a shot from POLTERGEIST. Sparks fly between Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM at 10:16. ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING drew a nostalgic laugh from the crowd at 10:40 p.m. Eleven o’clock highlights a scene from a film called THE HONEY POT (which, admittedly, I had to look up; to that point, THE CLOCK can also be quite humbling to even the most ardent film buff -- for every clip I recognized, there were countless more that I did not!) in which Rex Harrison handles an hourglass and declares, “There's good time and bad time, you know -- the clocks don't give a damn what time they measure.” My girl Scarlett Johansson makes an appearance in a cab in Tokyo at 11:41, and a minute later, a scene from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET featuring a young Johnny Depp drew the biggest crowd reaction of the night.

afterhoursposterMidnight happens and then things get crazy. At 12:05, in LOVE AND DEATH, Woody Allen is called a great lover, to which he responds, “Well, I practice a lot when I'm alone.” At 12:45, a clip declares, “You can’t beat the clock!” to which I said under my breath, “We’ll see about that!” (Spoiler alert: The clip was right.) One movie I had hoped would be well-represented was Scorsese’s AFTER HOURS, and I was not disappointed -- its first of several appearances comes at 1:40 a.m. The grand staircase of James Cameron’s TITANIC fills with water at 2:15 a.m. (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER is also used several times). Some unusual late-night choices include SAW and not one, not two, but THREE Adam Sandler movies -- perhaps Marclay is a fan? An Emilio Estevez movie (STAKEOUT? ANOTHER STAKEOUT? Something else?) is recalled on three occasions, too. I received a personal jolt of happiness at exactly 4:00 a.m. with two clips from AMELIE. After that, my note-taking ceased because I was starting to fade... and perhaps not coincidentally, this is when the most bizarre dream sequence montages kicked in (I did manage to note one such sequence at 4:50 a.m. with the following: “????”).

6amFinally, at 6:00 a.m., a double-dose of Bill Murray as Dr. Leo Marvin attempts to wake up Bob Wiley and “I Got You Babe” wakes up Phil Connors, who proceeds to smash the alarm clock (a specific moment I’d been striving towards all night). Robin Williams then bellows, “GOOOOOOOD MORNING, VIETNAM!” And as I was putting my jacket on and preparing to leave, I was treated to a scene from a movie that I’d been hoping to see, but was strangely (perhaps purposefully?) absent until this final moment: BEFORE SUNRISE. In the clip, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are sitting at the foot of a beforesunrisestatue following their all-night jaunt through Vienna, and he paraphrases the following poem:

“‘All the clocks in the city began to whirr and chime. Oh, let not time deceive you -- you cannot conquer time. In headaches and in worry, vaguely life leaks away, and time will have its fancy tomorrow or today.’ Something like that....”

For some, the experience of THE CLOCK would continue for God knows how long. For others, it had just begun as they walked into the room at that wonderful moment. For me, after eight and a half hours, I really couldn’t imagine a more perfect ending.

THE CLOCK has been playing at MoMA for the past month, but, unfortunately, ends its run tomorrow (Monday, 1/21) at 5:30 p.m. If you hurry, there’s still time to catch some of it! (Seriously... go right now.) It is one of the most astonishing movie-watching experiences I’ve ever had -- I cannot stop thinking about it and cannot wait to pick up where I left off next time the opportunity presents itself. In the meantime, time marches on....

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

REVIEW: Gangster Squad

There’s probably a good movie buried somewhere in GANGSTER SQUAD, Ruben Fleischer’s crime thriller based on the true story of a group of vigilante cops who are assembled to take down the ruthless leader of a burgeoning west coast syndicate. Set in 1949 Los Angeles, the film features top-notch, stylized production design and a checklist of great actors wielding tommy guns while wearing snazzy suits. Unfortunately, the aesthetic value of the film is constantly undermined by shoddy writing and a maddening contradiction of style and tone.

gangstersquadTo that point, perhaps the best thing to come out of the film is that it makes me want to watch both DICK TRACY and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL again as soon as possible -- because those were clearly the two movies that Fleischer (of ZOMBIELAND fame) and writer Will Beall wanted to make. But, it seems, they couldn’t choose between the two and just decided to mash them together and see what happens. The result is a movie that is occasionally campy, occasionally dramatic, mostly uninspired and never engaging.

To their credit, the cast seems to be having fun. Sean Penn, in particular, relishes in his role as mobster and former boxer Mickey Cohen, grumbling and cursing and punching and literally ripping people in half as he makes his way to the top of the L.A. crime scene. The good guys, led by Josh Brolin and including Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick, spout empty dialogue about waging war in a post-WWII society, but generally speaking, character development is non-existent (though Patrick’s old sharpshooting cowboy is fun, if oddly out of place). The film does take full advantage of its R-rating, with almost constant gunfire, brutal beatings and plenty of blood splatter -- but with so little substance behind it, the violence quickly grows tiresome.

gangstersquad2But perhaps most egregiously, GANGSTER SQUAD wastes its most valuable asset: The smoldering on-screen chemistry between Gosling and Emma Stone. The two of them melted hearts (and celluloid) with their adorable, steamy romance in 2011’s CRAZY STUPID LOVE, and previews implied that they would do it again here. Sadly, their screen time together is limited and spoiled by stilted dialogue; Stone, in particular, looks amazing but is never given a chance to show off her quick wit. That said, under the right circumstances, Gosling + Stone is a pairing that makes me feel kinda funny (like when we used to climb the rope in gym class) -- give these kids a sexy, well-written romantic comedy, stat, and let us sit back and enjoy.

In the end, GANGSTER SQUAD is a forgettable mess and the very definition of a wasted opportunity. Stronger writing and more confident direction could have made this a summer hit -- instead, it’s easy to see why it has been relegated to the early January movie wasteland.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ben's Oscar Picks & Predictions

683196e1c7d1b46cf8b70658bb52f9f1Ahh, my favorite time of year -- Oscar time! This year’s nominations have been revealed and they are an interesting mix of expected titles (LINCOLN, LES MISERABLES, ZERO DARK THIRTY) and surprises (LIFE OF PI, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, AMOUR), with refreshingly few head-scratchers. Granted, 2012 was such a great year for movies that the Academy would have really had to go out of their way to screw things up too badly. It should make for a very interesting and fun evening, come February 24th... but first, let's break down each category and try to make sense of it all. As always, I will include my predictions based on who I WANT to win and who I think WILL win. And the nominees are....


lincolnI will say this: 2012 was probably the first year that justifies the decision to have more than five Best Picture candidates, because there were a LOT of worthy titles... many of which are represented here. I love that LES MIS (my #2) got a slew of nods across the board, and I also loved ARGO and ZERO DARK THIRTY, but I don't think any of them are major contenders. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK has a lot of buzz and momentum and is very lovable indeed. The Academy must've been in a philosophical mood when they honored LIFE OF PI all over the place -- great movie, beautiful visuals. DJANGO is the only nominee that would outright annoy me if it won -- it has its moments but is nothing special. I would have much preferred to see something like MOONRISE KINGDOM in that spot. The big shockers are the indie darling BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD and foreign gem AMOUR -- very awesome to see them here. Can’t imagine AMOUR winning, though BEASTS may have a shot if the Academy goes that route. That leaves my #1 movie of the year, and the leader with 12 overall nominations, LINCOLN, as frontrunner at this moment -- which would be fun, because my #1 movie hasn't won Best Picture since RETURN OF THE KING in 2004. Plus we’re due for Spielberg's everlasting genius to be re-recognized.


Denzel Washington, FLIGHT
Daniel Day-Lewis, LINCOLN
Joaquin Phoenix, THE MASTER

ddl-abeThis category is kind of moot point, because there is no way in heaven, hell and all spaces in between that Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't win his unprecedented third Best Actor Oscar for his work in LINCOLN. The man is a god. But most of the rest of the crop isn't half bad. The exception is Denzel, who essentially played a caricature of himself in FLIGHT; his inclusion here is a joke and an insult to the actors whose places he stole, such as Jack Black (BERNIE) or Ben Affleck (ARGO) or, if the Academy was really daring, Denis Lavant (HOLY MOTORS). But it was nice of them to include the very deserving Joaquin Phoenix, despite his aversion to the whole award show scene. Jackman dominates the soaring LES MIS, and Cooper takes his a game to a new, unexpected level in SILVER LININGS, but again, there's no stopping DDL, the greatest actor of our time.

I’M ROOTING FOR: Daniel Day-Lewis

Emmanuelle Riva, AMOUR
Jessica Chastain, ZERO DARK THIRTY

wallisFirst off, can all nations, religions and creeds please come together to celebrate the awesomeness that is Quvenzhané Wallis’ nomination?? Despite the fact that she was only six years old, she was a tiny powerhouse in BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, carrying the film like a seasoned veteran, and giving a performance that was both memorable and deeply affecting. There has been a stunning backlash against her performance, with some suggesting that she doesn't deserve the nod because she was too young to fully understand what she was doing. Frankly, that is bullshit. A great performance is a great performance, regardless of whether the actor/actress has fully honed his or her craft -- and after all, the award is called, “Best Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role.” All that being said, I don't think she will win (though if she does, I will smile my face off) -- Jessica Chastain was as good as it gets in ZERO DARK THIRTY and I think she has the edge -- but don't count out America's newest sweetheart, Jennifer Lawrence, who is now the youngest-ever two-time nominee. Naomi Watts was great in the otherwise forgettable THE IMPOSSIBLE, so I think she gets overshadowed here. Emanuelle Riva could be the dark horse for AMOUR -- her performance was as heart-wrenching as any in recent memory and it wouldn't surprise me if Oscar gives her a tear-stained trophy, especially if the Chastain & Lawrence cancel each other out. (Also, kudos to the Academy for not automatically nominating Marion Cotillard just because she played a woman with no legs in the otherwise-unmemorable RUST AND BONE.)

WILL PROBABLY WIN: Chastain or Lawrence

Alan Arkin, ARGO
Tommy Lee Jones, LINCOLN
Philip Seymour Hoffman, THE MASTER

tlj-tsVery happy that the Academy decided to honor THE MASTER in the acting categories, if nothing else, because the performances really are tremendous. Hoffman is brilliant as always, and would be an easy winner if not for Tommy Lee Jones, who does his best work in years and even manages to steal some scenes from DDL in LINCOLN. If they had to nominate someone from DJANGO, it should have been Samuel L. Jackson, whose villainous character stole the entire movie (though DiCaprio is always a viable option, too) -- Waltz is great, but his performance isn't too far removed from his work in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. Along the same lines, Alan Arkin has once again been nominated for playing Alan Arkin -- which is hugely entertaining, but not necessarily Oscar-worthy anymore. (Would have really loved to see Matthew McConaughey get a nod here, since he had such a tremendous year with FOUR worthy performances -- KILLER JOE, in particular, but I would have accepted the more crowd-pleasing MAGIC MIKE. And I realize it’s too much to ask to recognize Mark Duplass just yet.) And then there's De Niro with his first nod in a while -- wouldn't be a huge shock if the Academy decided to honor him just because he's De Niro -- but in the end, I think Jones takes it.

I’M ROOTING FOR: Tommy Lee Jones
WILL PROBABLY WIN: Jones (or De Niro)

Sally Field, LINCOLN

fantinePretty sure this category is another no-brainer, because Anne Hathaway's brief appearance in LES MIS has become the stuff of myth & legend -- particularly her soul-crushing rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream," which I believe to be the best individual scene of any movie last year. She captures Fantine’s downward spiral and despair more vividly than any stage version I’ve seen. Although, if LINCOLN is primed for a sweep, Sally Field could sneak in there -- it was a standout performance in a male-heavy film (plus, we really, really like her). I LOVE that Amy Adams got a nod because (a) I'm deeply in love with her, and (b) her work in THE MASTER was very much against type and further evidence of her greatness. Helen Hunt gives a fearless performance in THE SESSIONS, while Jacki Weaver was solid in SILVER LININGS -- though personally I would've liked to see Ann Dowd from COMPLIANCE (my #10 movie of the year and one that will likely gnaw away at my psyche for years to come) snag one of those spots.

I’M ROOTING FOR: Anne Hathaway
WILL PROBABLY WIN: Hathaway (unless LINCOLN sweeps everything)

Michael Haneke, AMOUR
Steven Spielberg, LINCOLN

spielbergSome major shockers here. No Kathryn Bigelow (ZERO DARK THIRTY) or Ben Affleck (ARGO) or Tarantino (DJANGO) or Tom Hooper (LES MIS) -- instead, we get newcomer Benh Zeitlin for his transcendent film of wonder & hope... and Michael Haneke, whose AMOUR is as bleak and devastating as any major Oscar nominee in recent memory. Crazy. But awesome. Meanwhile, I'm not sure anybody could have pulled off LIFE OF PI quite like Ang Lee, so his nomination is well-deserved. Russell could win some crowd-pleaser points. But my guess is that the general bizarreness of this category opens the door for the Bearded One to win his first statue since 1999 -- hail Spielberg!

I’M ROOTING FOR: Spielberg


Moonrise-KingdomSo, so happy that my #3 movie of the year, MOONRISE KINGDOM, got some love here! Such a brilliant script on so many levels and one of Wes Anderson's best ever. I will be rooting for it hard. A little bummed, though, that Rian Johnson’s mind-bending LOOPER and Paul Thomas Anderson’s deep THE MASTER aren’t represented. DJANGO is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent; this is a sympathy nomination at best. FLIGHT, meanwhile, may be the biggest joke of the whole night, even more than Denzel's acting nod -- the film is a preachy, overly melodramatic exercise in pointlessness. ZERO DARK THIRTY is a taut & intense story with nary a wasted moment, but in the end, I think AMOUR's devastating tale of old age & unconditional love will have left enough of a lasting impression (read: scarred everybody for life) that it will win.

I’M ROOTING FOR: Moonrise Kingdom


lincoln2Very, very sad that my #4 movie of the year, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (and author / screenwriter / director Steven Chbosky in particular), didn’t get some much-deserved praise here -- it is a wonderful film and a perfect adaptation. In light of that miscarriage of justice, I'll stick with the LINCOLN sweep. In many ways, Tony Kushner's amazing script is more vital than Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance -- a brilliant, multi-layered political procedural / character portrait. BUT! This could also be the category where the Academy decides to throw ARGO a bone -- and it wouldn't be undeserving, with its OCEAN'S 11-meets-MUNICH snappiness. BEASTS and LIFE OF PI are more a testament to their direction, whereas SILVER LININGS is all about the performances, so I think we can safely count them out.

WILL PROBABLY WIN: Lincoln (or Argo)


Wreck_it_ralph_qbertNot gonna lie... I'm a little disappointed that they didn't scrounge up some random foreign animated fare to mix things up, like they did with THE SECRET OF KELLS in 2011 and CHICO & RITA and THE CAT IN PARIS last year. Fortunately, it was a very strong year for popular animation, so I guess such tactics were unnecessary. I'll be rooting for the ode to old-school video games, WRECK-IT RALPH, out of sheer nostalgia and Disney adoration -- but don't count out Pixar, especially if the Academy keeps an open mind and realizes that BRAVE is way better than the critical consensus. FRANKENWEENIE (also produced by Disney, FYI) was a return to form for Tim Burton, but PARANORMAN was easily the year's best kiddie-horror-cartoon and could eke out a win over the bigger money-makers. Aardman’s THE PIRATES! is hilarious but I doubt it has a chance, unless the two Disney films and the two horror films cancel each other out.

I’M ROOTING FOR: Wreck-It Ralph

AMOUR (Austria)
KON-TIKI (Norway)
NO (Chile)
WAR WITCH (Canada)

amourSigh, I thought I did so well with the foreign films in 2012, but I've only seen one of these. Very surprised that the French phenomenon, THE INTOUCHABLES, isn’t here, not to mention the aforementioned (and overrated) RUST AND BONE. Fortunately, the one I did see is AMOUR, the likely winner -- and it kind of has to be, since it's also nominated for Best Picture. If it lost here, wouldn’t it create a paradox that could tear the very fabric of the time-space continuum and destroy the universe? (Probably.) I will do my damnedest to see the others before the big show (especially KON-TIKI because Norwegian cinema rules; also, damn, I regret not seeing A ROYAL AFFAIR when it was playing at the Paris theatre for like two months), but if any of them pose any threat to AMOUR's emotionally-crippling power, it will be something to see indeed.



skyfallRoger Deakins, the legendary cinematographer who is perhaps best known for his work in the Coen Bros. universe (including FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, A SERIOUS MAN and more), has been nominated for nine previous Oscars and has not yet won. I think it's probably time to change that. He gives SKYFALL a distinct western feel, which, infused with that classic Bond style, helps the film rise to another level. On the snub side, it’s shocking that THE MASTER isn’t here (guessing the Academy didn’t get to see it in glorious 70mm?), and I guess LES MIS’s visual style was too wacky (though it worked for me). Meanwhile, LIFE OF PI perfectly captures the dreamlike visual quality that was in my head as I read the book, while LINCOLN is shot in such a way that it manages to feel both epic and intimate. ANNA KARENINA is pretty to look at, and DJANGO UNCHAINED utilizes many spaghetti western visual tropes and things, but neither are deserving of a win. No, I think the 10th time will be the charm for Mr. Deakins.



lincoln3Historically, this is often the category that determines what will win Best Picture -- though that theory was thrown out the window last year when THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO won despite not even being nominated for the big prize, so who knows what'll happen this year. ZERO DARK THIRTY is the fastest-moving two-and-a-half-hour movie ever thanks to some tight editing, while ARGO is both snappy and intense. LIFE OF PI shifts seamlessly from one dreamlike-sequence to the next and wouldn’t be a bad choice. SILVER LININGS feels too conventional -- but the fact that it’s here at all could be a sign that the Academy is infatuated with its undeniable charm. In the end, I think the old prediction method will work, and LINCOLN wins.



lesmis1Hey, look, they changed the name from "Best Art Direction" for some reason. Go figure. Anyway, this is where I'm going to switch gears and stop rooting for LINCOLN and hope that LES MIS pulls out some aesthetic awards. Say what you want about the singing & bombastic nature of the storytelling, but you can't deny that the recreation of 19th century France is pretty outstanding. ANNA KARENINA is a contender because period pieces always are (and this one has a bit of a visual twist), while LIFE OF PI is a gorgeous-looking film in every way. THE HOBBIT looks great but is way more CGI-heavy than the LOTR trilogy, which probably hurts its chances. Would have been nice to see some recognition for Wes Anderson’s attention to visual detail in MOONRISE KINGDOM, but in the end, LINCOLN probably continues its sweep in these categories, and I cannot argue with that.



lesmis2Oooh, look, we've got ourselves a Snow White vs. Snow White smackdown! MIRROR MIRROR wins that battle in my book (and really, the less said about SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, the better), but neither of them stand a chance here. If ANNA KARENINA is going to win anything, it will be this one, because Keira Knightley always looks so damn good in a corset. But I think I'll be rooting for LES MIS, with its 19th century Parisian griminess -- and expecting LINCOLN, with its many, many top hats and coats, to take home the gold.



hobbitWhen I saw CLOUD ATLAS, I thought it was an absolute lock for a Best Makeup nod, if nothing else -- for God's sake, some of the makeup work was so good that my audience actually applauded when the closing credits revealed which well-known actors played which unrecognizable characters! Too bad. Anthony Hopkins' transformation into HITCHCOCK was better than, say, DiCaprio's J. Edgar Hoover... but still closer to an SNL skit than an Oscar-winner. As much as I love LES MIS, I don't think the makeup work was so amazing -- if anything, they should've made Hugh Jackman look a bit older at the end (though they really did dress down Anne Hathaway, didn’t they?). Which leaves THE HOBBIT: There was some damn good dwarf and hobbit and creature makeup in there amidst the heavy CGI. It could win by default, and that's fine with me.



johnwilliamsReally, really surprised that BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD isn't nominated here, since that amazing score, along with Quvenzhané Wallis' performance, is what drives the film and makes it so memorable. A bunch of my other personal favorites (RUBY SPARKS, CLOUD ATLAS, THE MASTER) were also left out, and I honestly couldn't hum a single note of ANNA KARENINA, LIFE OF PI and SKYFALL (except for the classic Bond theme, of course) if someone put a gun to my head -- which leaves this category wide open for the great John Williams to potentially win his first Oscar since SCHINDLER'S LIST in 1994. That would be amazing! Plus LINCOLN has a damn good, understated, hummable score that represents the film nicely -- the old man's still got it.


"Before My Time," CHASING ICE
"Pi's Lullaby," LIFE OF PI
"Skyfall," SKYFALL
"Everybody Needs A Best Friend," TED

adele_skyfallGoddamn the Academy for making it necessary for me to watch TED, despite my disdain for Seth MacFarlane. (In fact, I watched it yesterday, and while it was not very funny, it WAS an effective ode to the 35-year-old male with arrested development who is also dealing with a breakup after four years... um, not that I know anyone like that.) I'm guessing Adele's SKYFALL theme will win this award, as it is the most well-known (and it’s quite good), especially since the new LES MIS song is not quite up to the quality of the existing material (though I still like it). Don't remember the PI song and haven't seen CHASING ICE (yet).

I’M ROOTING FOR: “Suddenly,” because, y'know, LES MIS


lesmis3As I understand it, sound mixing refers to the way various layers of sound effects, dialogue, etc., of a film are blended together for our auditory pleasure. I think LES MIS is the likely winner because of the difficulty involved with having the actors sing live on set -- which, even if you don't like the film (damn haters), is undeniably an impressive achievement. SKYFALL and ARGO could be contenders because of the many elaborate action sequences and talk-fests, respectively. LINCOLN and LIFE OF PI, who knows. Surprised not to see more big action blockbusters here, like THE AVENGERS or THE DARK KNIGHT RISES -- though the latter was probably hurt because no one could understand what the fuck Bane was saying (and also, it’s not nearly as good as the fanboys would have you believe).



skyfall2Sound editing, meanwhile, is related to sound design, the creation & selection of sound effects, etc. Again, no big blockbusters is surprising -- but again, the sound in both THE AVENGERS and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES were probably more LOUD than impressive, if you think about it. With that in mind, I think SKYFALL wins this one, or maybe LIFE OF PI, or maybe DJANGO steals one. Or ARGO or ZERO DARKY THIRTY. Who the hell knows.

WILL PROBABLY WIN: Take your pick


hobbit2Yay, THE AVENGERS is an Oscar-nominee! I hope they use the clip of Hulk smashing Loki around like a rag doll as the presentation clip. Fuck SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. PROMETHEUS had some good-looking effects but probably not good enough (especially when subconsciously compared to ALIEN). THE HOBBIT actually features some of the best-looking CGI I’ve ever seen -- if any Academy members actually saw it in HFR / 48fps, it could push them over the edge. Otherwise, I think LIFE OF PI, with its dreamy visuals and truly remarkable (dare I say vital?) use of 3-D, will win this one.

I’M ROOTING FOR: The Hobbit (and The Avengers, just because)


invisiblewarAgain, I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't: I saw a bunch of excellent docs in 2012, but only two made the cut here. Come on, no WEST OF MEMPHIS, THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, QUEEN OF VERSAILLES or JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI?! Oh well. THE INVISIBLE WAR, which deals with the epidemic of rape in the military, is one of the most infuriating & upsetting & bleak docs I've ever seen -- absolutely essential viewing. However, HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE (about AIDS activism in the ‘80s), while also difficult & emotional, is a bit more on the hopeful side, which could sway voters. I have not seen the rest, but of course, will do so by any means necessary -- in particular, I hear SUGAR MAN is quite good.

I’M ROOTING FOR: The Invisible War
WILL PROBABLY WIN: How to Survive a Plague

You may notice that I left out the three Short Film categories -- that's because I haven't seen any of them yet, but I fully intend to do so as soon as they open at the IFC Center in a few weeks, and will review them all shortly thereafter... so stay tuned for that.

The most wonderful night of the year, Oscar Night, is Sunday, February 24th, and you can bet that I will be right here with my 8th ANNUAL LIVE MOMENT-BY-MOMENT OSCAR COMMENTARY! Such a great year for movies and such a strong crop of nominees means that I should be a mostly-happy camper throughout the show regardless of who wins... but then again, I DO hate this year's host, Seth MacFarlane, so that could add some vitriol to the proceedings. We shall see! In the meantime, who do YOU want to / think will win Oscar gold? Discuss!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Ben’s 2012 Movies By the Numbers

ticketsOkay, now that we’ve gotten that pesky Top 10 out of the way (by the way, kudos if you actually made it through all 6,700+ words... though if you simply scanned the titles, that’s cool, too!), we can delve into my archives and explore the ins-and-outs of my 2012 movie-going experience. As you may know, I keep detailed records of this stuff, including binders full of ticket stubs, spreadsheets and notes in my daily planner. My dear friend Suzanne calls this the most harmless & endearing form of OCD ever. Who am I to argue?

I went to the movies 175 times in 2012 -- by far a NEW PERSONAL RECORD, beating last year’s total (which was also a record at the time) by twenty. This includes 172 different movies, as I saw THE HOBBIT twice and TITANIC 3D (ahem) three times. This also includes 144 official 2012 releases and 31 movies from past years. Additionally, this marks the 12th consecutive year in which I saw 100+ movies on the big screen -- which I’m not even sure counts as a milestone anymore, so much as a given -- but clearly, my movie-going habits have now gone completely off the deep end. How? Why? Let’s take a look.



January: 9
February: 17
March: 15
April: 12
May: 12
June: 14
July: 12
August: 15
September: 17
October: 14
November: 15
December: 23

490585219I saw my first movie of the year on January 6th (PINA 3D at the IFC Center) and, obviously, steamrolled from there… though believe it or not, I was actually behind 2011’s pace at the end of January. That changed in February, where I saw 17 movies compared to 12 in 2011. How the hell does one see 17 movies -- one of my highest monthly totals ever -- in freakin’ February, generally a slow month?? For me, it had a lot do with my Oscar obsession, as I had to catch up on a bunch of docs, foreign films, animated fare and shorts before the big show. The spring and summer months were all typically relentless and huge -- and I saw my 100th movie of the year (THE BOURNE LEGACY at the Ziegfeld) on August 17th, nearly a month ahead of 2011’s pace.

idolIn September, I went nuts with another 17, thanks to a rash of free screenings and some high quality releases, including two that made my Top 10, THE MASTER and THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, plus one -- LOOPER -- that just missed (it also didn’t hurt that I saw the complete INDIANA JONES quadrilogy on one epic September day). October featured the biggest decline from the previous year (14, compared to 19 in 2011). At the risk of turning this blog into a psychiatrist’s chair, this was because I spent much of that month at home, wallowing in post-breakup self-pity. (Also, Hurricane Sandy shut down the city for a few days, but that had minimal effect.) Fortunately, I soon remembered that I could wallow in self-pity at the movies, too, and came back with a big November. And then in December, I did everything I could to escape the loneliness of the holiday season with an astonishing 23 movies in 31 days -- by far a record for a single month. My yearly record-breaking 156th movie occurred on December 6th (a free screening of HYDE PARK ON HUDSON). Two days later, I watched the complete LORD OF THE RINGS: Extended Edition trilogy in one 13.5-hour sitting, which is noteworthy for its sheer madness (and awesomeness). My annual Christmas Night Movie tradition continued for the umpteenth straight year with LES MISERABLES at the Ziegfeld -- maybe my favorite big-screen experience of the year. And I saw my 175th and final movie of the year (PROMISED LAND) on December 30th. Whew!

Want to read a funny quote from last year’s “by the numbers” post?

Now, never say never, but I’m fairly certain THIS record will not be broken so quickly. For one thing, I will likely make a conscious effort to cut down a bit in 2012. Don’t worry -- I will still see a TON of movies. But the fact is, seeing 155 movies actually got kind of draining towards the end! So my plan this year is to see slightly fewer movies BUT write about them more frequently and promptly (as opposed to the end-of-month recaps I did last year). So it should be a good trade-off. We’ll see if I stick to that!

Clearly, that entire paragraph was rendered moot, as (a) I saw more movies than ever, and (b) I reviewed fewer movies than ever and stopped blogging altogether in April. I’m not going to bother making any such predictions this year. Maybe I’ll see 200 movies in 2013 and write about all of them; maybe I’ll cut down and write nothing. Let’s at least hope for a happy medium!

That said, I hope I can count on you loyal readers to get on my ass if I seem to be getting lazy....



• Full price admissions: 52
• Free advance screenings: 45
• MoviePass: 17
• IFC Center member discount: 18
• Free passes/awards programs/gift cards/etc.: 36
• Discounted marathons: 7

Some very telling statistics here, which answer the age-old question of just how the hell I’m able to see so many movies in New York City, where most regular-price admissions are in the $14 range. As you can see, I only paid full price for 52 movies, which means that nearly 70% of the movies I saw were either free or somehow discounted. That, I think, is pretty impressive. My free advance screenings were down from last year, but it didn’t matter ifcbecause it was more than balanced out by two major factors. First, I was a card-carrying member of the IFC Center, which got me discounted tickets for every movie I saw there (plus occasional freebies, as well as free popcorn and stuff). This was great because (a) it was financially sound, and (b) it spurred me to go to the IFC Center way more often and see more art house fare than I may not have otherwise seen. Win-win!

But without a doubt the biggest and most significant movie-related occurrence of the year was that I was introduced to MoviePass.

I first heard about this service -- wherein you pay a monthly fee and can then see unlimited movies per month, like Netflix for the big screen -- a while ago, but it seemed too good to be true... and in fact, theatre chains rallied against it and it never took off. But then they tweaked their business model: Now, what happens is, you check-in to a theatre on your smartphone, choose your showtime, MoviePass deposits the full admission on your personal MoviePass card that you then use at the box office or kiosk, like a regular credit card. You can do this up to once per day for any regular (non-3D, IMAX, etc.) movie, at any theatre that accepts Discover cards. It is ingenious and has, so far, worked flawlessly for me since I started using it in October. In the billing period from 11/23 to 12/22, I saw 7 movies using the service, which, at $29.99/month, means I only paid $4.29 per movie. That’s just... wow.

If you see as few as three movies per month, MoviePass is worthwhile. But for someone who sees as many movies as I do, this is potentially life-changing stuff. I don’t know how long this company will be able to stay in business, but I to use this little red card to the fullest for as long as I can. And I’d also like to try and drum up as much business for them as possible -- to that point, I actually have a bunch of invites to distribute, so if you’re an avid moviegoer and want to give it a try, drop me a line!



Monday: 10
Tuesday: 25
Wednesday: 27
Thursday: 28
Friday: 50
Saturday: 28
Sunday: 7

Nothing particularly revelatory here. Friday is obviously the biggest movie-going day of the year, though I think this was the first time in recent memory that I saw fewer Friday movies than there are weeks in the year. Monday is low because it’s a big TV day, between HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and GOSSIP GIRL (the latter of which is now, mercifully, over). Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are big days for advance screenings; plus theatres are generally less crowded, which is always a plus in NYC. Surprisingly, I saw twice as many Saturday movies in 2012 as in 2011 -- not really sure why that is, though the aforementioned Indy and LOTR marathons probably didn’t hurt. And Sunday, of course, is a lazy day for Netflix, my own DVD/Blu-Ray library, or whatever.



Loews Lincoln Square: 34
AMC Empire: 34
IFC Center: 23
Regal E-Walk: 18
Loews 34th Street: 11
Landmark Sunshine: 10
Lincoln Plaza: 8
Ziegfeld Theatre: 7
Munroe Film Center: 7
Loews Lincoln Square IMAX: 4
Regal Union Square: 4
Angelika Film Center: 3
Loews New Brunswick (NJ): 2
Paris Theatre: 1
Walter Reade Theatre: 1
Village East: 1
Clearview Chelsea: 1
Kew Gardens: 1
Loews Kips Bay: 1
Loews Village 7: 1
Regal Hadley Center (NJ): 1
Magic Johnson Harlem: 1
United Artists 64th & 2nd: 1

lincolnsquareVery surprised about the dead-heat between Loews Lincoln Square and the AMC Empire. Before running the numbers, I would’ve guessed that I’d seen way more movies at Lincoln Square -- but in retrospect, that may just be because I saw more memorable movies there, including LINCOLN, THE MASTER, THE HOBBIT, ZERO DARK THIRTY, SKYFALL, CLOUD ATLAS, BRAVE and many more (plus I just like the theatre more). The Empire, meanwhile, is a few blocks away from my office, so it’s ideal for those immediately-after-work showtimes (which also explains the high numbers for the E-Walk and 34th Street). Check me out, seeing 23 movies at the IFC Center with my shiny, happy membership card! This is up from only four at that theatre in 2011, so it has been pretty damn significant. I re-upped my membership for 2013, so expect lots more IFC experiences in the coming year.

ziegfeldGlad that I was able to make it to the glorious Ziegfeld seven times, but that should’ve been higher, especially since the Ziegfeld needs our help. Seriously, NYC readers: If you want to see a movie and it’s playing at the Ziegfeld, please go out of your way to see it there! Meanwhile, I only saw 4 movies on the giant, 80’ x 100’ IMAX screen at Lincoln Square, though three of them were huge extravaganzas that I deemed worthy of the $20 admission: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, PROMETHEUS and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (the fourth was a free screening of TO THE ARCTIC 3D... go figure). The Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza were my main art houses for stuff that wasn’t playing at IFC. The Munroe Film Center is awesome, but the Walter Reade Theatre is the true gem of the Film Society of Lincoln Center: A huge auditorium with a classic feel -- I saw HOLY parisMOTORS there and it was very fitting. After somehow not seeing any movies at the lovely Paris Theatre in 2011, I at least got my ass over there once last year, to see THE INTOUCHABLES (P.S., did I mention that I won an iPad because of that movie?). Three movies at the Angelika, a crappy theatre that I don’t mind as much now that I can use MoviePass there! Not-particularly-convenient Village East, Village 7, Kips Bay and UA 64th & 2nd always seem to sneak in there once a year or so apiece. I visited the Magic Johnson theatre on 125th Street for the first time in years (to see WRATH OF THE TITANS) -- it is pretty generic and unimpressive, but I should probably go there more often, since it’s the closest theatre to my apartment in upper Manhattan. I also schlepped all the way to the Kew Gardens Cinema in Queens because I had a free pass to see SOUND OF MY VOICE (another amazing film that just missed my Top 10); it was a very cool little theatre, decorated with old movie posters and art and well worth the trek.



I saw 19 double-features in 2012, which, yes, is a lot (this includes three over the final weekend of the year when I went on a mad movie-watching blitz). I wish I could say that some of the more interesting pairings were done for specific thematic reasons, but for the most part, they were products of sheer showtime convenience. That said, there was one that WAS intentional, which amused me greatly (and it’s not an obvious one, like the double-dip of Pixar) -- can anyone pick it out?

  • WALL-E and TOY STORY 3
  • ON THE ROAD and THIS IS 40

...and the triple-features....


...and the butt-numbing marathons....

  • Oscar-Nominated Documentary, Animated & Live-Action Shorts
  • INDIANA JONES Quadrilogy
  • THE LORD OF THE RINGS: Extended Edition Trilogy

I was fortunate to attend lots of special screenings that included pre- and post-show Q&As with stars, filmmakers, etc. Some noteworthy appearances were James Cameron (TITANIC 3D), Drew Barrymore (BIG MIRACLE; incidentally, she is just as cute in real life as you’d expect), Daniel Radcliffe (THE WOMAN IN BLACK), Karen Allen (INDIANA JONES marathon), Ezra Miller (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN), Mike Birbiglia & Ira Glass (SLEEPWALK WITH ben_jenna_leeME) and Christopher Nolan (special IFC Center screening of his debut film, FOLLOWING, at which he probably incepted the whole crowd with some form of trickery). I also attended a red carpet premiere of DREDD 3D, which was attended by Karl Urban (Eomer!) and Olivia Thirlby. But the coolest of all was when I saw THE GIANT MECHANICAL MAN and got to meet & chat with Pam Beasley herself, Jenna Fischer, and her husband Lee Kirk. Fun!

I was also a veritable social butterfly in 2012, as I went to the movies with 18 different people on various occasions. The most frequent partner, of course, was my now-ex-girlfriend, with whom I saw 15 movies. I was also joined by my friend & neighbor, Jess, for seven movies, which, funnily, were all butt-numbing epics: TITANIC 3D twice, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and the INDIANA JONES quadrilogy. Jess & I were also joined on five occasions by her husband Joe, and once by our friends Katie & Emily. I also saw three movies in NJ with my longtime movie buddy, Jill. Other companions throughout the year were Alyssa and Dara and Samie and Katrina and Isaac and Frank and Justine and Jay and Amy and Michelle and Ryan and Regina -- if any of you fine folks are reading this now, I salute and thank you!

Granted, when you add it all up, I still saw 144 movies all by my lonesome, which, once again, is a new record. But that’s okay -- whether I’m by myself or with friends, whether it’s a huge Hollywood blockbuster or a tiny indie gem or a steaming turd, whether it’s something that makes me laugh, cry, exult or rage, I just flat-out love going to the movies, and I’m excited to begin another year of this madness. As my late grandfather would have said, may the best of 2012 be the worst of 2013 -- if that holds true in the world of cinema, we are in for one hell of year!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Ben’s Top 10 Movies of 2012

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....

Compliance10. 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.

ruby-sparks9. 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.

TheMaster8. 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.

015_hm_jbtt.eps7. 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.

avengers6. 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.

Cabin-in-the-Woods5. 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.

perks4. 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.

moonrise-kingdom3. 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.

lesmis2. 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.

...and finally....

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!

looperTwelve 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 take_this_waltzanswers 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!

titanicBiggest 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 frankenweenieTommy 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!)

prometheusBiggest 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.

john-carterMost 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!

flightMost 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.

The-HobbitConcerning 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!

twilight-breaking-dawn-part-2Bye-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.

wreck-it-ralphAnimation 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!

OPCC_01_AMOUR_8.14_Layout 1Foreign 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.

jiro_dreams_of_sushiWhat'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 Printfine 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!

bernieUnder-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!

sinisterHorror 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!

sisters-sisterThe 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.

killer-joe...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.


beastsScores 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!).

lawrenceofarabiaRevivals, 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!