Friday, February 22, 2013

Deakins Gets Shafted: 2013 Oscar Predictions II

Now for the technical, the foreign, and the shorts:

Life of Pi - Claudio Miranda
Deakins gets shafted -- again. The Shanghai sequence alone is Oscar-worthy. That said, Miranda is a fine choice -- Pi is gorgeous (albeit CGI enhanced).

Argo - William Goldenberg
I can't see the Academy going against the ACE award winner (although they did last year...). My choice would be Zero Dark Thirty, co-edited by... Goldenberg. Good year for that guy.

Anna Karenina - Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer
I haven't seen it (one of the few I missed), but consensus seems to be that the fourth time's the charm for Greenwood and Spencer. Joe Wright's films always have a unique look.

Mirror, Mirror - Eiko Ishioka
Vote against Colleen Atwood at your own peril, but I think I can make an exception for what would, sadly, be a posthumous Oscar, even if the movie was probably shit (hey, The Wolfman has an Oscar).

Les Misérables - Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell
I'll be rooting for The Hobbit, so I can't lose either way. But Les Miz has more nominations and the sheer number of closeups means more, er, face time for the makeup.

Life of Pi - Mychael Danna
It seems like this category has been really easy to call the last few years. This was also a weak year for scores -- none of the nominees were particularly memorable (haven't seen/heard Karenina).

Skyfall - "Skyfall" - Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
A damn fine Bond theme after a pretty long string of misfires (Madonna? Chris Cornell?).

Les Misérables - Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, and Simon Hayes
Live singing, yadda yadda yadda. I'd vote for Skyfall.

Life of Pi - Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton
There's usually a "When in doubt, pick X" movie in the technical categories. This year, it's Life of Pi.

Life of Pi - ill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer, and Donald R. Elliott
This time I'm not in doubt -- this is a lock. As impressive as anything this side of Avatar. Prometheus deserves a mention here as well.

Wreck-It-Ralph - Rich Moore
Down year for Pixar, plus it cleaned up at the Annies. More importantly, I saw it -- and loved it.

Amour - Michael Haneke
Lock. It. In. Just like Jean-Louis Trintignant tried to do with that fucking pigeon.

Searching for Sugar Man - Malik Bendjelloul and Simon Chinn
Because it's the only documentary most people heard about this year. I think this category is more open than most think though -- notoriously hard to predict. Watch for Plague and Gatekeepers.

Open Heart - Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern
Because the internets told me so. (I never see -- or want to see -- these things).

Paperman - John Kahrs
A so-so slate this year -- not true standout as in years past. But Disney's Paperman is the most accomplished, and should win. Anyone with a spare two minutes should check out Fresh Guacamole. 

Curfew Shawn Christiansen
I've seen all of these and Death of a Shadow is by far the best. Curfew is trite, to be sure, but also enjoyable and, important for voting purposes, American.

Whofleck's Redemption?: 2013 Oscar Predictions

The last few weeks of Oscar season (for me, anyway) are usually fraught with trips to the art film theater, furious Nexflix DVD mailing, and maybe even (gasp) downloading that obscure movie that somehow landed a nomination, and constant scouring of awards blogs. With the exception of that last one, I largely avoided having to play catch up this year. When this year's nominees were announced, I think there were only two movies I had yet to see -- Amour (which had yet to be released in AZ) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (which had yet to arrive from Netflix). Needless to say, those two gaps were quickly filled, making it my second year in a row having seen all the major category nominees (Picture, Director, both Screenplay, and all Acting awards). Now, as is tradition, it is time to weigh in on what actually might be an even more idiosyncratic awards show than the Golden Globes. Oh, Oscar, how I love/loathe thee. That said, it's shaping up to be a much more interesting ceremony than last year, and certainly more memorable. I'll go ahead and say it: With the exception of Les Misérables, every Best Picture nominee is superior to last year's winner, The Artist (and many are equal to or better than The King's Speech, the winner from two years ago). I'll get to that race in due time, though. Let's dive in to some of the lesser categories to start.

Predicted winner in bold

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams - The Master
Sally Field - Lincoln
Anne Hathaway - Les Misérables
Helen Hunt - The Sessions
Jacki Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook

We'll start with a category that is most likely a lock. Hathaway has won just about everything up until now, and there's no reason to think her streak will stop Sunday night. Hers was a very good performance in a highly flawed movie, and has all the requisite features of a trophy winner: singing (live!), de-glamming, showstopping scene, um, dying. I wish I liked the movie more, but I suppose it deserves to win something -- plus, Hathaway (in Rachel Getting Married) probably had a better performance than Winslet back in 2009, so you can think of this as a make-good win. I also just can't get excited about any of the other nominees -- Hunt (my favorite) was actually a lead, Adams didn't do much for me in a movie I really liked (obligatory handjob reference), and I honestly don't know what Jacki Weaver is doing here. Maybe making food (which was seemingly all she did in Silver Linings) backstage? Which leaves us with Field, the erstwhile challenger for Hathaway. I wouldn't be *shocked* if she won -- which could also signify a big night for Lincoln. But... I really hated her performance. She was just a shrill, melodramatic shrew, and I kept waiting for her to complain about having "the vapors" and ask for a hot toddy. Weakest part of the movie for me. So yeah. Moving on.

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin - Argo
Robert De Niro - Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained

I'll be honest -- I don't know what to do about this clusterfuck. I haven't even bolded my pick as I write this. To start, you can safely knock two names out of contention - Hoffman and Arkin. Hoffman (excellent, as usual) is another lead slumming in this category, and the fact that the P.T. Anderson didn't get a nom for writing or directing tells you everything you need to know about his chances here. The consensus for Arkin seems to be "good, not great" and is the required fifth nominee (for the record, I loved him in the movie -- "Argo fuck yourself!"). Between the remaining three, it's anyone's statue for the taking. Each has their pros and cons. Jones is the nominal frontrunner and delivered a performance that stood out even next to Daniel Day-Lewis's, but... did you see the Golden Globes? Dude gave McKayla Maroney a run for her money. Voters will remember that. Waltz was great and absolutely crushes Tarantino dialogue like no one this side of Sam Jackson (whose spot he probably took here), but he just won three years ago. Last, there's De Niro, finally back in the Oscar limelight after a 20-year nomination and 30-year win cold streak. None of the three winning would surprise me, but I have a feeling it's between Jones and De Niro. I'm going with... I guess De Niro. For now. I don't think his performance is Oscar-worthy (definitely my least favorite of the bunch), but the movie has a lot of support, and the feeling could be that he's "due" for another statue, not to mention that Lincoln has lost a lot of momentum lately. I might change my mind before the ceremony though -- I'm really not confident about this pick.

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Naomi Watts - The Impossible

This one is probably only between two names, which are probably not the two names you're thinking, and also it's probably just going to be Lawrence. Probably. A lot of these races that seemed like locks weeks or even days ago are suddenly not. As far as who it won't be, count out Wallis (too young, novelty nomination) and Watts (great, but disappears in the second half of the film). Chastain -- my favorite of the bunch, and a surefire future winner in this category -- has been reduced to a (very) long shot at this point. Something about torture, blah, blah, blah. That leaves Riva -- the late hour dark horse -- and Lawrence -- who has been splitting the precursors with Chastain -- as your last ladies standing. Riva has a lot going for her: a mesmerizing performance, closer to the average Academy voter's age, not making an ass out of herself on SNL, and the ceremony is on her freaking birthday (not to mention the fact that it might be her last one). But... it's still probably gonna be Lawrence, who managed to imbue humanity and poignancy into the clichéd crazy/hot chick role. Not exactly a stunning achievement, but people seem to like it (and she is very good).

Best Actor
Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
Denzel Washington - Flight

This is not one of those locks that has suddenly seemed less than certain. This statue is D-Day's and most likely has been since before Lincoln even wrapped filming. Cooper and Jackman are just happy to be here as first time nominees, classic leading man-types making a foray into prestige picture territory. Denzel is the very much deserving veteran making a rare reappearance (nowadays, at least) after not playing a cop or an agent with a youthful protégé or whatever. You've gotta feel bad for Joaquin Phoenix though -- he makes his long-awaited return to acting, delivers an absolute knockout performance... only to run into Daniel Day-Lewis, only the greatest living actor, playing Abraham freaking Lincoln. And while I actually think Phoenix's performance is the superior one, it was inevitable that Day-Lewis was winning this award. Sorry, Joaquin. Any other year...

Best Adapted Screenplay
Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin - Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Tony Kushner - Lincoln
David Magee - Life Of Pi
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
Chris Terrio - Argo

While Kushner has seemingly had this locked since the nominees were announced, Terrio -- fresh off a semi-surprising Writer's Guild win -- is breathing down his neck. Which would be creepy if it were literal instead of figurative. Anyway, it's between the two of them, with Russell's screwball-comedy-but-with-crazy-people script as the possible spoiler. The film, somehow, managed nominations in every single major category, which means it has a lot of support and, therefore, a chance to surprise come Sunday night (and another reason I went with De Niro above). Not here though. Ditto the scripts for Beasts and Pi -- the former should be content with the nomination, and the latter shouldn't even have been nominated (that frame, ugh). So, while Terrio deserves props for his finely-tuned, suspenseful work, ultimately there was a lot of dramatic license taken, and he pretty clearly skirted around politics, something which Kushner, decidedly, did not do in Lincoln. In my mind, he deserves second billing after Day-Lewis for his balance of contemplation and bombast, his deft handling of sensitive issues, and the seamless way he weaved together many a plot thread. Easily the best of the bunch. Were Terrio to win, consider it an apology to Ben Affleck.

Best Original Screenplay
Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola - Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal - Zero Dark Thirty
John Gatins - Flight
Michael Haneke - Amour
Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained

Along with Supporting Actor, this is one of two categories I can't figure out for the life of me. Both of these categories will go a long way toward determining the overall narrative of this year's Oscars. Will the Academy want to find a way to award Zero Dark Thirty in a major category in spite of the controversy? How much cachet does Quentin Tarantino really have with the Academy? (aka will the Weinsteins be able to affect this race?) Can Amour win an award outside of the Foreign Film category? For that reason, you can safely assume that Moonrise Kingdom (better luck next time, Wes Anderson) and Flight (out of its depth) will not win here. Which leaves us with another three-headed fustercluck of Boal, Haneke, and Tarantino. Boal would seem to be the odd one out given the Academy's more-or-less snubbing his film -- but he did win the Writer's Guild award (and it's the best script of any nominated in either category, in my opinion). Between Tarantino and Haneke -- whose scripts are about as different as two scripts can be -- I give the edge to Haneke. Why? Well, both films were also directed by their writers, and it was Haneke, and not Tarantino, who received the Director nom, which tells me there is more support for Amour than Django (not exactly surprising). So for now it seems that I'm calling for Django to go home statue-less after picking up two Golden Globes -- again, not surprising. This is another pick I'm in no way confident about -- Boal and Tarantino are definite contenders.

Best Director
Michael Haneke - Amour
Ang Lee - Life Of Pi
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin - Beasts Of The Southern Wild

First things first: No one not named Kathryn Bigelow or, unbelievable as it may be, Ben Affleck has any business winning this award. Bigelow's film displayed by far the most technical prowess of any film last year, and Affleck, in addition to showing a high degree of competency, has a career arc that has exactly the kind of narrative that the Academy usually loves (unless your name is Mickey Rourke). THAT SAID, back to the directors who were actually nominated...

There is a definite theme to the final days of the award season -- what once seemed so certain now is anything but. On nomination morning, this statue was Spielberg's. No doubt about it. Now? I have doubts about it. And those doubts are because of Ang Lee. For one, his film should absolutely CLEAN UP -- and deservedly so -- in the technical categories. Two, and most importantly, none of these guys (great job, Academy) have won anything resembling a major precursor, meaning there's really no indication of which way the Academy could be leaning. The one clue would usually be overall nominations, but it's close to even: 12 for Lincoln, 11 for Life of Pi. So it really comes down to two things: brand recognition and possible branch support. Lee, esteemed as he is, is no Spielberg, and, while Pi should have more support in the (smaller) technical branches, Lincoln received three nominations from the largest branch, the actors. In what is basically a coin flip at this point, I think Spielberg takes it in a very close race. As for the others, Russell hangs around as an interesting possible spoiler, Haneke's nomination is a long-deserved feather in his cap, and Zeitlin gets to enjoy this year's Precious Memorial Nomination.

Best Picture
Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life Of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

The Best Picture category is the culmination of that theme I mentioned above. Again, on nomination morning, Lincoln was your Best Picture winner. But... then Argo started winning major awards. Like, all of them. Were it to lose the Best Picture race at this point it would fly in the face of decades of precedent. Of course, even if it were to win it would fly in the face of a major, major precedent -- you can't win Best Picture if your director wasn't nominated (insert obligatory Driving Miss Daisy reference here). So what's an Academy to do? Go with the crowd-pleasing entertainment de résistance, or the also crowd-pleasing biopic opus? They can't really go wrong either way -- both are well made, have wide appeal, and have that certain Hollywood sheen. Both will probably also stand up fairly well years down the line (better than the last two Best Picture winners, I dare say). What I think decides it though is that Argo is the best film Ben Affleck is likely to make, while Lincoln isn't even Spielberg's 10th-best film.* (Look it up.) So call Sunday night Whofleck's Redemption -- from Hollywood purgatory, from J-Lo accessory, from Academy snubbery. Honestly, who'd have thought he'd nab a second Oscar before Matt Damon (he produced Argo, along with -- wait for it -- George Clooney and Grant Heslov)? Hell, the way his career trajectory looks right now, he might win a third before the "talented" one of the Boston duo even has a second. And you know what? I'm okay with that... as long as it's not for acting.

So that was a bit longer than I was intending -- hope you were able to get through it. Next up, the remaining categories in quick-hit style. Or, as I like to call it, How to Win an Oscar Pool.**

* Ten Spielberg films that are better than Lincoln (in chronological order):
Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, Munich.

** I have not won an Oscar pool in some years. I think. I'm usually fairly drunk by the time the whole thing is over.

Monday, February 4, 2013

From Amour to Zero: My Favorite 2012 Films

As far as movies go, 2012 was an improvement on 2011 in just about every way. I much preferred 2012's crop of adaptations, sequels, and three-quels to 2011's lackluster box office toppers (although the continuing popularity of Twilight is still somewhat disconcerting). As far as the Best Picture nominees, it's not even a contest -- 2012's group easily outclasses 2011's (although the presumed frontrunner is still fairly "meh"). About the only thing 2011 has on 2012 is at the very top -- I didn't see a movie as absolutely fucking perfect as Drive in 2012, although a couple came close. But, like I said, 2012 was a stronger year overall, and I think my list reflects that -- a mix of flawed blockbusters, underseen genre entries, works by both modern masters as well as up-and-comers, a whopping three French language films, and enough Channing Tatum to impregnate a nunnery. Enjoy, and don't hesitate to let me know what your favorites were and/or what you think I'm dead wrong about. Let's start with the honorable mentions.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
Amour, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Holy Motors, Killing Them Softly, The Master, Prometheus, Savages, Seven Psychopaths

10) The Year of Channing Tatum
Movies: Haywire, 21 Jump Street, Magic Mike
Starring: Channing Tatum
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh, Phil Lord/Chris Miller, Soderbergh

If anyone owned 2012, it was Channing Tatum (and his Tatums). In fact, I think he's solely responsible for preventing the Mayan Apocalypse. They probably tried to cut his heart out and their knives broke on his pecs. Wait, the heart thing was the Aztecs, wasn't it? Oh well. Either way, C-Tates broke out in a big way in 2012 and I was as surprised as anyone. First came his more-than-competent turn in Haywire, a movie whose abundance of style made up for its lack of substance. Where his obvious good looks and chiseled physique would have been enough, he nevertheless brought a sense of vulnerability to his role as a bruiser. Next came 21 Jump Street, hands down the funniest comedy of the year, where the many riffs on his "jock"-like image paid great dividends and which showed he doesn't take himself too seriously. Finally came Magic Mike, without a doubt the most misrepresented movie of the year. Billed as little more than eye candy for the cougar set, Magic Mike nevertheless oozed with pathos, dripped nuanced performances, and was a cinematographer's wet dream to boot (word choice very intentional). Of course, the movie faltered a bit the few times that Tatum was required to carry a cathartic scene, but you can't have everything. That said, I'm already looking forward to his next collaboration with Soderbergh, Side Effects. For their next project, may I suggest an erotic thriller (minus the thriller) with former Soderbergh muse Sasha Grey?

9) Moonrise Kingdom
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Heyward, Bruce Willis, various Wes Anderson regulars

If Wes Anderson is a one-trick pony (and he most certainly is), then Moonrise Kingdom is his Secretariat. This would make Rushmore his Seabiscuit, I guess. Or maybe it's the other way around. Also, horses have stupid names. I will now abandon this metaphor. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that Moonrise Kingdom is a very good movie. It has the usual Wes Anderson accoutrements -- staid camerawork, eccentric wardrobe, throwback soundtrack, and more whimsey than... something with a lot of whimsey... like a horse named Whimsey. But it also has more heart that your typical Wes Anderson film, which typically feature emotionally stunted characters engaging in random acts of quirk-ery. While the adults in Moonrise largely fit that description, the two young leads (Gilman and Hetward) imbue the film with some actual human emotion. Anyone who doesn't walk away from this with warm fuzzies (and not just because Anderson uncomfortably sexualizes a 12-year-old girl -- thanks for making me feel like a pervert!) probably... well, they probably prefer Paul Thomas Anderson movies (nothing warm and fuzzy about those). And while I did quite like The Master (some of the finest acting of the year), I preferred Moonrise precisely for its charms (although maybe it could have been improved with a handjob scene... maybe).

8) Rust and Bone
Directed by: Jacques Audiard
Written by: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Mathias Schoenaerts

I saw Rust and Bone at the very beginning of 2013, right before the Golden Globes (and figuring it'd be nominated for an Oscar -- wrong, although it should've been). I wasn't expecting much, just trying to round out my awards season list, and I'd figured I'd already seen everything with a chance to crack my top 10. Two hours later, I was very happily proven wrong by my favorite of the three excellent French language films that are on this list. Amour is masterful filmmaking on just about every level, but its merciless unsentimentality makes it difficult to enjoy -- it's one of those "I'm never watching THAT again" films. As a collection of scenes, Holy Motors is right up there with anything released this last year, but it falls a bit short as a cohesive whole (everything after the -- amazing -- accordion scene falls short of what came before, and it really loses me in the last five minutes). Rust and Bone combines a bit of both -- this is by no means an easy, breezy film, similar to Amour, and, like Holy Motors, it combines disparate parts to great effect. But in this case, the bouts of unsentimentality are belied by what eventually turns into a touchingly-rendered love story, and the disparate parts (underground fighting rings, illegal surveillance, orca-induced trauma) eventually coalesce. If there was one movie I was disappointed to see shut out by Oscar in an otherwise solid year (Director category aside), this is it.

7) Looper
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willy*, Emily Blunt

In the best diner tête-à-tête since Heat, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Young Joe) faces off with Bruce Willy (Old Joe) over steak and eggs. After they finish their meal, they get to the meat of the scene: the nitty gritty of time travel. Willy futzes around with drinking straw diagrams, then drops the quote that makes the movie work: "This is a precise description of a fuzzy mechanism. Time travel fucks everything, my brain and body try to catch up. It’s messy. That’s why it’s dangerous." Rather than forcing his characters to conform to a strict set of rules about time travel (which is, by the way, a thing that is not real, and therefore has no actual rules), Johnson instead lets the rules remain vague, and puts the onus of the movie squarely on the characters. It's a bold move, and surely one that pissed a lot of sci-fi fanboys off, but the movie is better off for it, as the characters (and actors) are strong. Levitt, Willy, and Blunt (as well as the child actor who plays her son) all make the viewer care about their fate, which makes the ending resonate that much more, time travel rules be damned. Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) has always had a knack for blending character and concept, and if I were a time traveler, I'd be sure to jump forward to the release date of his next film. Looper is his best work yet, and signals what could be the beginning of a Christopher Nolan-like ascension -- and he's already got the requisite Oscar snub!

*If you're wondering why I keep referring to Bruce Willis as Bruce Willy, wait for #2 below.

6) Argo
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston

The career of Ben Affleck can be divided into three distinct phases: Pre-Goodwill Hunting (youthful supporting actor), Worst Human Being on the Planet (just check out his 2000-2005 stretch -- and that list doesn't even include a regrettable cameo in the "Jenny from the Block" video), and Acclaimed Director. But it is important to recognize that Ben Affleck, actor, has changed very little during this time: the Ben Affleck of Chasing Amy is the Ben Affleck of Daredevil is the Ben Affleck of, yes, Argo. Sure, the facial hair may have changed here and there, but the innocuous charm and affable woodenness are always there (he's basically Bradley Cooper before Bradley Cooper was Bradley Cooper). He's not a bad actor, no, but he's not a particularly good one either -- although, like Cooper, he has some talent for comedic roles. But aside from the excellent Arkin/Goodman duo (a major highlight), Argo is not a funny movie. In fact, Affleck (a lowlight) is in full on morose mother fucker mode in this, like someone shit in his breakfast cereal, and is majorly outclassed by his talented supporting cast (Arkin, Goodman, Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, et al.). That said, questionable self-casting aside, this is Ben Affleck, Acclaimed Director's crowning achievement thus far -- a slick, hyper-competent, Entertaining with a capital "E" political thriller that has become (again) a major awards contender/winner. I'd even go so far as to say that Argo would get a Best Picture vote if I had one to give (even though I slightly enjoyed my #5 more, and my #1 doesn't have a realistic chance). Not bad for "Benny from the Block."

5) Django Unchained
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson

This is a movie that bounced all around the top of my list -- it probably occupied one top-five spot or another in a number of different iterations. Eventually, it settled in at #5, *just* in front of Argo and slightly behind a very strong top-four. That placement qualifies as somewhat of a disappointment from an unapologetic Quentin Tarantino apologist such as myself, but so be it. Django has a lot going for it -- excellent performances (Waltz and, especially, Jackson are standouts), a killer soundtrack/score, some really great, ahem, dark humor, and, this being Tarantino, riotous amounts of stylized violence. All of which is right in my wheelhouse. But, after thinking on it for a bit, I decided the film was missing a couple things. One is the (almost clichéd at this point) narrative flourishes to go along with the prominent stylistic ones. This is pretty much just a straight-shot of a story -- no Pulp Fiction structural chaos, no Inglourious Basterds chapter titles, only a few flashbacks here and there. Not that every Tarantino movie needs to follow the same formula, but I found myself missing... something all the same. The other is the lack of a real signature scene -- "House of Blue Leaves" and "Operation Keno" come to mind. Nothing of its ilk to be found here -- although the KKK hood scene is about as funny as anything Q has ever written. Combine that with the 2-3 false endings and another bout of questionable self-casting (that accent, good god), and the result is a somewhat minor Tarantino film -- although it's still better than most anything released last year.

4) The Cabin in the Woods
Directed by: Drew Goddard
Written by: Drew Goddard and Joss Wheedon
Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz, Danny Tripp, Richard Jenkins

The Cabin in the Woods bucks two Hollywood trends: nothing good is released in the first part of the year, and movies that sit on the shelf for a couple years always suck. Usually these things go hand in hand -- delayed movies often get dumped at the beginning of the year. But, just like my #2 movie, Cabin took on challengers as the year went on and remained firmly in the top-five, and somehow managed to not only not suck, but be freaking awesome despite being delayed for 2+ years. This is a movie that was in the conversation for the top spot, and definitely would have received a few #1 votes if this were an AP-type top-25 poll, a la college basketball. What makes Cabin such a great film -- and why it's so shocking that it was on a shelf for so long -- is that it's such an original vision. It takes everything you know about horror movies -- all the tropes, all the clichés, all the plot points -- and simultaneously exposes and reinvigorates them. Cabin is a film that works on multiple levels -- meta, ironic, visceral -- but, most importantly, is *almost* as fine a piece of entertainment as anything released in 2012 (and leave it to Joss Whedon to one-up himself). From Whitford and Jenkins' interplay and Kranz's stoned musings to the expert tension and absolute shitshow of the last 25 minutes, The Cabin in the Woods is a genre masterpiece.

3) The Avengers
Directed by: Joss Wheedon
Written by: Joss Wheedon
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Liam Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson

True story: The Avengers came out on Cinco de Mayo weekend. Needless to say, my first viewing of the Marvel blockbuster was, shall we say, margarita-enhanced. While I actually made it through the movie without falling asleep and/or peeing every five minutes (unlike my moviegoing companions), my basic impression of the movie was little more than "Me likey the explosions" and deriding Hawkeye by sarcastically yelling "I'm really good at arrows!" at the screen. It's a good thing that I watched it again though, because there's definitely more to it than ubiquitous explosions (my opinion on Hawkeye, however, is largely unchanged). I'd go so far as to say that The Avengers is a perfect blockbuster -- a perfect balance of good (enough) story, whizbang special effects, quality cast, and expert pacing. It has none of the wooden performances and leaden dialogue of most Michael Bay films (Bay is still my boy though -- don't think I won't be first in line for Pain & Gain), none of the worst Lucas/Spielberg-style pandering, and avoids the temptation to make everything "dark and gritty" a la Chris Nolan. Crafting blockbusters is tricky work, and relatively few filmmakers seem capable of pulling it off this well. (J.J. Abrams is another -- I'm all in on Star Trek Into Darkness and cautiously optimistic about the new Star Wars.) And they say TV directors are hacks (I'm sure someone has said this, anyway).

2) The Grey
Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Written by: Joe Carnahan, Ian MacKenzie Jeffers
Starring: Liam Neesons, Frank Grillo, Dylan McDermott, Joe Anderson

I'll start with a Dan Dierdorf-esque caveat: I'm still not entirely certain this isn't my #1. This was one of the first 2012 films I saw that year, and I walked out of it super impressed. Stunned, even, if only for the fact that the director of Smokin' Aces (enjoyable in its own way) was capable of something approaching... profound. Yes, the movie ostensibly about Liam Neesons punching wolves in the face (SPOILER: You don't actually see him punch a wolf in the face) is actually a contemplative, existentialist elegy. I know, I was as shocked as you are. I went in expecting a fun but forgettable thriller (like the previous year's Unknown, or even last year's Taken 2), but instead I got pure fucking poetry, both cinematic and lyrical. The opening plane crash scene is as good -- or better -- than the more-hyped one in Flight, and the subsequent scene where Neesons tells a man he's going to die is as fine of acting as anything last year. And then there's the actual poem:

Once more into the fray...
Into the last good fight I'll ever know.
Live and die on this day...
Live and die on this day...

It pops up a few times in the film as a sort of refrain (and it even manages to sneak its way onto the poster, as seen above), and by the time Neesons recites it the last time (while preparing for the unseen wolf melee), you realize that the movie was never really about wolves, but about men, and fights more figurative than literal. This is the kind of movie that reminds you what Neesons is capable of as an actor, and that he's got a statue with his name on it waiting for him if he ever decides to stop trying to be an action hero (although I'll keep enjoying his efforts on that front).

1) Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong

If I had actually made this list before the end of 2012, The Grey would have been in the #1 spot. As it is, I had to wait until the calendar flipped to see a number of "prestige" movies that didn't come out in AZ until the beginning of the year. Things will (probably) be much more timely if I ever move to NY or LA. While some of those films didn't come close to cracking the list (Les Miséra-blah being one), a few (Amour, Rust and Bone) did just that. Zero Dark Thirty did more than crack the list -- it dang near broke the thing. ZDT is easily one of the most riveting films in recent memory, and an improvement on the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker in almost every way -- performances, writing, direction, you name it. The ensemble cast -- led by Oscar-hopeful Chastain -- is top-notch (with Clarke being an especial standout); even minor roles are filled by accomplished character actors (Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, etc. etc.). Boal's screenplay is a masterclass in wringing the tension out of what is basically a really complex procedural (another great example is James Vanderbilt's Zodiac script), and Bigelow knows when to slam on the brakes and when to hit the gas better than just about anyone else. Her background in action films really shows here, but it's her work on the quieter scenes that really stands out, including the Chastain Oscar-reel in the final moments of the film. I'll save my Oscar-snub rant for another occasion, but suffice it to say this is the most technically proficient film since The Social Network, so it's only fitting that it will suffer the same fate come Oscar night. (Wow, I actually managed to get through the entire write-up without mentioning torture!)

BONUS LIST - BOTTOM FIVE FILMS OF 2012 (listed from bad to worst*)
5) Dark Shadows (clever Tim Burton self-parody, or unintentional Tim Burton self-parody?)
4) The Hunger Games (Battle Royale for tweens, now with super-sized plotholes)
3) Man on a Ledge (is Sam Worthington now a poor man's Channing Tatum?)
2) Total Recall (totally unnecessary, entirely monotonous)
1) Lockout (aka SPACE PRISON -- ludicrous, yet still entertaining)

*To be fair, I don't go out of my way to see movies I think I'll hate, and I didn't hate any of these. They were just the five I liked the least out of the 60 or so 2012 movies I saw.

Like I said, 2012 was a strong year for movies. If there are any that you think should be on here, go ahead and let me know! I'll be back in a couple weeks with my Oscar predictions. Until then, thanks for reading.