Mon 24 Dec 2012
The Best Films of the Year:
— Probably my favorite movie of the year, and certainly the one I’ve re-watched the most to this point, Stephen Chbosky did a remarkable job of adapting his own novel for the big screen and making his feature film directorial debut. The performances are good from top to bottom and the movie captures high school life in the early 90s with an authenticity and sincerity that will likely make this an iconic film of the genre, with less saccharine than the works of John Hughes but an equal amount of heart.
— Writer/director Sarah Polley has already shown she’s more than just a good actress with her role behind the camera on 2007’s “Away From Her.” With “Take This Waltz”, she’s still focused on the personal turmoil and temptations present in married life but trades in the nursing home set for young hipsters. Michelle Williams gives a tremendous performance as a woman looking for the passion that’s faded in her own marriage. And just when I though the movie had taken a sharply wrong turn, Polley and editor Christopher Donaldson deliver a montage about the trajectory of intimate relationships that’s one of the best sequences of the year.
— A super-small indie that got a very limited release, “Starlet” earns its unrated/defacto NC-17 status with one very explicit sex scene. While I could debate the necessity of being that graphic, the scene itself is necessary to the main character (played brilliantly by Dree Hemingway). First-time actor Besedka Johnson (discovered at a YMCA) plays excellently off of Hemingway and they present an odd, almost “Harold & Maude” relationship with a poignant twist at the end that deepens their connection in such a wonderful way.
— Quentin Tarantino continues his efforts to subject his brand of filmmaking on different genres and this time has chosen the Western. All of the necessary beats are there, and he even brings in Ennio Morricone to write a song for the film. Jamie Foxx gives a good performance as the title character but it’s Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson who benefit once again from Tarantino’s whip-smart dialogue. They steal the show and while there are some pacing problems and an issue with how long the final resolution takes to happen, this may be the funniest Tarantino movie, all while retaining the violence and grittiness fans of his enjoy.
— The latest from filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, this took home Best Foreign Language Film from the San Diego Film Critics Society and with good reason. The story of an abandoned boy left to an orphanage who’s fostered on the weekend by a hairdresser, the performances are superb and genuine. Like in their other films, the Dardennes’ have a way of presenting fiction as life and it elevates their excellent script and direction that extra notch. Every character is three-dimensional and as motivations are unveiled and realizations made, the journey only becomes that much more engaging.
— What sets this movie apart from the cinematic world this year is a remarkably documentary-like feel mixed in with an almost magical realism sensibility, as audiences are presented with a six-year old’s point of view. She lives in a rundown section of Louisiana on the wrong side of the levees and a big storm is coming. The allusion to Katrina is evident and drives home the emotional connection. If it weren’t for the preachiness about global warming, this might have ended up much higher on the list, especially considering the unique perspective on offer.
— Perhaps the front-runner for Oscar this February (and winner of the San Diego Film Critics Society awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing), Ben Affleck’s third turn in the director’s chair further establishes his talent behind the camera. While he may have been better served letting someone else take the lead role (though this could have been a financing issue), what he and the rest of his team deliver is a thoroughly entertaining and thrilling depiction of a daring mission to rescue Americans hiding out in Iran after the fall of the U.S. Embassy in 1979. It also shows that Affleck can indeed handle material not set in his native Boston area.
— With this project, screenwriter/director Andrew Dominik further elevates his credibility with critics. While his efforts have yet to translate to widespread notoriety, cinemaphiles know the quality of his work; first with 2000’s “Chopper”, then “2007’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”, and now this. Brad Pitt leads the best ensemble of 2012 and the performances work along with an amazing script, smart direction, fantastic editing and wonderful cinematography. It’s a dark tale but exhibits film craftsmanship at its finest.
— As I am writing up these blurbs, the big buzz around director Kathryn Bigelow’s film is a parade of politicians, the CIA, and military officials decrying the insinuation that U.S. sponsored/performed torture of detainees led to the credible intelligence that found and (spoiler alert) killed Osama bin Laden. I’d put more weight behind their arguments if this were a documentary but it is not, and Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have recently had to defend their position (thewrap.com); though in the spirit of presenting both sides, you should also read filmmaker Alex Gibney’s take on this (huffingtonpost.com). Gibney’s argument is completely justified and I agree that there is a flaw in how “Zero Dark Thirty” suggests that torture led to usable information, given what we’ve been told up until now. But I point back to the fact that this is not a documentary and people taking it as such only proves how good of a job Bigelow did in presenting her dramatized version of events that the world already knows about. And like with any other movie and especially in real life, one should take the information you’re given and run it through a filter; you shouldn’t compile a knowledge base because someone told you something, you should take what they tell you and draw your own conclusions … sobering or otherwise.
— I’ll admit to quite a bit of hemming and hawing about placing Rian Johnson’s “Looper” atop the 2012 list but in the end, it just felt right. Part of that comes from being the only film I’ve given a 5 out of 5 rating to since 2010. Johnson so expertly crafted a time travel movie, full of action and intelligence, all while presenting it in an almost linear fashion. He even manages to make what should be a complete deal breaker of a story’s evolution work in such a fluid and convincing manner (the abilities of the young boy that Joseph Gordon-Levitt protects). Really, the bottom line to the placement of this movie in my esteem comes down to not having one thing I’d change about it. Usually a film needs to be tightened in some segment due to pacing issues, or there’s a bit of casting to work out, maybe the director needs to learn how to use more than a fish-eye lens (I’m looking at you “Les Misérables”). But here, Johnson simply understands how to translate his vision to screen and he will continue to have my full attention moving forward in a career that saw a small hiccup in his sophomore effort, “The Brothers Bloom”, but between this and his feature debut, “Brick”, his abilities as a filmmaker now have me convinced.
The Worst Films of the Year:
— The odd thing about “John Carter” (*cough* of Mars) is that it’s the basis for so much of the classic science fiction that has fascinated the world many times over. Part of its downfall is being last to the party in terms of worldwide cinematic exposure. In 2012, you can’t come out with a movie that resembles a Star Wars Prequel and not expect to get hammered. And while it’s better than the Prequels George Lucas inflicted upon the populace, the pacing issues alone are enough to keep me from ever telling someone “Hey, you know what, you should see that John Carter movie.”
— I doubt the inclusion of a Twilight movie on this list is much of a surprise. The franchise proved that you don’t need to write good scripts, have good direction, or exhibit good acting to make tons and tons of cash. This last installment follows in the footsteps of its forebearers and aside from the Twihards sucked in by the angst and glitter, those who find enjoyment in bad filmmaking are about the only others who could handle all this suckitude.
— Stop me when you’ve heard this before: It’s a movie directed by Tim Burton (stop) starring Johnny Depp (stop) that features Helena Bonham Carter (stop) and is scored by Danny Elfman (Oh God, STOP). This time around, the Goths are poorly adapting the “Dark Shadows” TV soap that began in the 1960s. Burton’s vision is a complete and utter mess, unsuccessfully trying to marry comedy, drama and horror. The end result would probably make Barnabas Collins spin in his coffin.
— Do I really need to justify this pick? The first one shouldn’t have seen the light of day and the second follows suit. It’s fun whenever Nic Cage goes completely bonkers and plays things way over the top; unfortunately that only happens a few times and we’re otherwise forced to sit through one of the worst comic book adaptations so far (though another was worse this year as you’ll see later on the list).
— This was the year of American Presidents on film. FDR had a pair (“FDR: American Badass” and “Hyde Park on Hudson”) and Abraham Lincoln got two of his own, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and this tale, which slightly alters the stories I learned in high school history. Throwing out the terrible technical elements, the biggest problem is taking itself way too seriously and not understanding that the only possibly way the project would have worked would be to embrace the camp rather than try to make it seem slick. It’s anything but.
— Translating Jack Kerouac’s hallowed novel to screen is hard enough. Doing so with Kristen Stewart doesn’t help, if nothing else because of the baggage she carries. I applaud her for trying different roles (“Welcome to the Rileys”, “The Runaways”), and she is different here than in the Twilight movies. Still, this movie drones on and on and on and on and on and on … aimlessly … without purpose … without direction … sort of like this sentence. It’s partly a function of the book but just because someone writes a book doesn’t mean you have to make a movie out of it. The end result here is a multi-million dollar attempt to cure insomnia.
— Let’s just put one Hollywood notion to rest: Marky Mark should not be the smartest guy in the room. He’s great at playing characters with sincerity and there is a likability to him that explains his success. However, in any heist movie (this or “The Italian Job (2003)”) he should be the muscle and not the brains; and he’s probably an intelligent guy in real life, but it doesn’t translate to the screen. Aside from that, the film is a muddled and lackluster bore with the word ‘stupid’ subliminally written into most sentences of the script. So there’s that too.
— Here we go, bring on the hate. Some people might have liked this, and there are Spidey fanboys who foam at the mouth over anything involving a skinny kid running around in red and blue tights. That’s your deal. I see problems in nearly every aspect of the movie (and a lie in the title), because even though Andrew Garfield is a better Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire (delivering the wise cracks far more effectively), he’s the worst Peter Parker I’ve seen whether it’s via film, TV, comic books, or Halloween costume. Add to that a stupendously stupid adaptation of the source material, which completely misses the mark of the Lizard’s duality, and all you’re left with is a lot of CGI web-slinging and the start of a new era for the superhero that I can’t wait to be scrapped (with another reboot probably following shortly thereafter since studios can’t leave well enough alone).
— Make no mistake, this is my most hated movie of 2012. It simply doesn’t fall completely to the bottom of the list because at its core, this is basically a terrible made-for-TV movie and while some elements are mediocre, others are frustratingly awful, and the only right thing that the studio could do is burn the film and give anyone who made the poor decision to see this in theaters a full refund.
— Oh boy. Where, oh where, to begin? While the easy jokes involve Madea shooting people with guns, it’s not really Tyler Perry’s fault. This wouldn’t have worked if you combined Denzel Washington, Idris Elba, Morgan Freeman, Wesley Snipes, Michael Jai White, Ving Rhames, Fred Williamson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sidney Poitier, Terry Crews, Isaiah Mustafa, Jim Brown, James Earl Jones, Levar Burton, and Will Smith. This is a horrifically abysmal script coupled with a complete lack of direction. The only way to enjoy this movie is to sleep through it and dream of another movie.
The Most Underrated/Overlooked
Films of the Year:
— There was a very high profile Hollywood movie about addiction this year called “Flight” starring Denzel Washington. While I could provide examples about its ridiculous approach to tackling a serious subject I can sum up my thoughts on the film in two words: It sucked. “Smashed”, on the other hand, doesn’t attempt to glamorize the addiction of its main character, an elementary school teacher caught in the throes of alcoholism (played masterfully by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who’s being criminally underappreciated as it’s the best performance, male or female, of 2012). The manner in which the movie fast forwards to provide a more textbook ‘beginning/middle/end’ is the biggest reason this doesn’t end up on the Top Ten list but if you’re a fan of independent film and intimate portrayals of people trying to pick up the pieces of their broken life, this is the film of the year for you.
— There were two movies that made me cry this year: “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and this. I understand where the emotion comes with “Perks”; as it’s ability to be so accurate in the portray of 90s high school life brought me back to those emotional touchstones. This, however, completely sucker punched me with its sugary sweetness and characters I couldn’t help wanting to cheer for. Much of that is due to the excellent cast of Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt. While the script itself didn’t win me over, their portrayals of the characters and the chemistry they exuded elevated the film and drew me in. This is usually the kind of gooey nonsense I put on blast and I’d like to blame my teary episode on a full moon or some witch’s curse – but I can’t so there you go.
— Although “Pitch Perfect” may be the most entertaining movie of 2012, that gained widespread appeal and I doubt it needs any help in getting the word out about it. The same cannot be said of “Sleepwalk with Me”, the dramatized version of co-writer/co-director/star Mike Birbiglia’s own life as a stand-up comedian. In the film, as in real life, he suffers from a sleep disorder that causes him to act out his dreams; i.e., if’s he running from a predatory animal, he’s physically running down the hall. The movie follows the fictionalized version of him as he begins his stand-up career and his life is further and further impacted by his sleepwalking. As a comedian, and in a film full of comedians, the serious and dramatic elements of the story are counterbalanced by comedy and it all makes for a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
— While the underlying plot and story structure don’t do anything new, the true story of Mark O’Brien is a remarkable one. This is made more effective by John Hawkes’ excellent performance; delivering the full range of emotions despite being constrained solely to movement above the neck. It’s less showy than Daniel Day-Lewis’ superb performance in “My Left Foot” but Hawkes delivers on the vibrancy, yearning, compassion, humor, and desperation of the character. It’s one of the most well-rounded male performances 2012 had to offer.
— The story of an art thief who works as a corporate recruiter, this may have been my favorite foreign film of the year. Aksel Hennie delivers a multi-faceted performance as the bravado and slick aura he exudes is stripped away into a frantic instinct to survive once he becomes the target of an ex-military commando with a grudge (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The twists and turns are great fun, as is the almost farcical nature of Hennie’s scrambling to stay ahead of Coster-Waldau. If it weren’t for getting a bit too clever in the end, this would have cracked the year’s Top Ten; though as it is, this just barely missed the list.