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.

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