Google+ Followers

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My Top 10 (And 1 Worst) Films of 2012

           This was an interesting and strange year in cinema.  Going into 2012, the movies I was looking forward to the most were Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.  And while all three were quite good, and I really liked each one, I didn’t LOVE them as much as I thought I would (and only 1 made this list).  Meanwhile, many of the films that ended up being among my absolute favorites of the year (Cabin in the Woods, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Moonrise Kingdom, to name a few) were not even blips on my radar screen until after they came out in theaters. 

            Yes, it was certainly an interesting and often surprising year, but honestly, I think that it made it all the better.  Fortunately, I had a lot of opportunities to hit the theaters, so I was able to see a lot more movies than I normally do.  Now, having FINALLY seen the last of the major Oscar contenders, I can release my official Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2012 list.  Enjoy! 

First, the 1 “worst” movie I saw in theaters this year (for the record, Silver Linings Playbook ended up a VERY close second to this)-

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)

            I will say this- seeing The Hunger Games got me interested enough to sit down and read the entire series, which I ended up really liking.  So for that, I give the film credit.  Aside from the world being passively interesting, however, there are very few complements I can give this one.  Jennifer Lawrence is a good actress, but nearly everyone else was either poorly cast or given confusing direction, and the only performance that ever really grabbed me was President Snow, who is in the film for all of 10 minutes, if that.  Add to lackluster acting surprisingly cheap special effects (they knew this film would be a hit, so why make it on such a tight budget?) and some of the worst shaky-cam I’ve ever seen, and the result is a pretty underwhelming experience.  Certainly not a bad film, by any means, just….meh. 

Now, on to the good stuff- my 10 favorite movies of 2012. 

10.  The Secret World of Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi)

            Based on “The Borrowers,” Arrietty is a much smaller fan than Studio Ghibli fans are probably used to, but the quality of their animation has rarely been better.  Brilliantly contrasting the minuteness of the Borrower’s lives with the relative “vastness” of our “normal” world, Arrietty managed to make even the most ordinary of daily items seem immense and awe-inspiring, while telling a quiet but moving story of friendship and love.  On top of the well-done story and characters, the film also featured a beautifully sad soundtrack by French harpist Cecile Corbel, offering an interesting change from the usual Joe Hisaishi fare.  Given the growing absence of hand-drawn animation on the American film scene, I was all too happy to see this one hit general theaters. 

9.  The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

            In my opinion, The Master featured one of the most rock-solid casts of the year (and may I remind you, said year included Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, and Moonrise Kingdom).   Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams all managed to create personas that defy simple explanation- no motives, rational, or beliefs are easy to describe or discover in this movie.  What’s it all mean?  I saw the movie nearly 5 months ago and I’m still not 100% certain.  If you prefer simple stories with simple explanations, this is not the film for you. 

8.  ParaNorman (Sam Fell and Chris Butler)

            Saying that the Zombie-craze of recent years has overstayed its welcome is like saying Fox News needs to glance in a mirror every so often.  And yet, ParaNorman found ways to use its share of zombie conventions and yet put so many twists on them that, by the end, it barely feels like a zombie film.  Although it’s consistently dark and creepy, containing plenty of subtle (yet surprisingly brutal) riffs on small-town American life, ParaNorman never fails to have fun with itself and with its fairly well-balanced cast of characters.  Definitely the best animated film of the year (yes, better than Wreck-It-Ralph). 

7.  Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)

            It really is encouraging to see something great come out of a team of newcomers, and virtually the entire production team and cast of Beasts were just that.  Beasts is wrapped up so entirely in its own strange, unique world that you could make a decent argument for the film belonging to the realm of fantasy.  It’s sort of based on Hurricane Katrina, but not entirely.  There is a quiet commentary on the destruction of global warming, but only indirectly.  And although the people, both black and white, living together in this tiny community live in incredible poverty, by the end you can’t but wonder who the truly poor are; them, or us? 

6.  Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)

            Alright Tarantino, I admit it- Pulp Fiction was no fluke.  Like Pulp Fiction, Django was not only an absolute blast to watch, it also had a lot of smart commentary beneath the blood-and-profanity-soaked outer shell.  I think my favorite part of the film is still Don Johnson’s reaction to when his slave girl (in response to being told to treat Django like a free man) says, “You mean treat him like a white man?”  I went on already in my review of this film about the abundance of subtle and not-so-subtle commentary on slavery and revenge fantasies, so I won’t go on again here.  Suffice it to say that this was easily one of the most fun times I had in theaters this year. 

5.  Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

            The first of what will probably be many films about the death of Bin Laden, and I honestly don’t think another one will ever top out this one in terms of its sheer neutrality.  The film never tries to present the intelligence operatives at the center of its story as ideal American patriots, or even as traditional spy heroes, ala James Bond.  Instead, they are just regular people doing a job.  Whether or not they do a good job, whether or not their tactics, methods, and attitudes are laudable or to be condemned, whether or not it was even worth 10 years of effort just to kill one man- like with The Master, that’s up to you to decide.  Regardless of your beliefs about the War on Terror, if you were in any way affected by 9/11, this is a must-see. 

4.  Cabin In The Woods (Drew Goddard)

            Cabin In The Woods is that rare film that rises above simple genre classification.  While ostensibly just a sprawling parody/deconstruction of the horror film genre, the jabs in Cabin at stereotypes, clich├ęs, storytelling formula, and our general cultural need for “familiarity” quickly become ideas you could apply not just to filmmaking and movies as a whole, but to literally any form of artistic medium, be it literary, auditory, visual, etc.  On top of that, like Django, the film is an absolute blast from start to finish, never letting up on its own sheer insanity, and never apologizing for it.  God bless this movie. 

3.  Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)

            Featuring another of the most impressive cast lists of the year, Moonrise also delivered what I found to be one of the most interesting and heart-warming on-screen romances of the year, in the form of two socially awkward pre-teens.  Determined that the only way they can be together is to run off, their adorably planned flight forces the adults on the island to confront the conflicts between their children, as well as those between themselves.  Despite Wes Anderson’s well-earned reputation for films stuffed with light, fluffy whimsy, there’s some pretty profound emotional depth in this film. 

2.  Cloud Atlas  (The Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer)

      I really wish I could put this next to Lincoln and declare my #1 for 2012 a tie.  But that would be cheating (technically), so consider this to be a VERY close second.  I still think Cloud Atlas it the most ambitious film of the year, no matter how schmaltzy it is at times.  Balancing 6 different storylines is a feat a lot of films try to accomplish, and few succeed in doing, and Cloud Atlas pull it off brilliantly.  This is the kind of film I dream of making someday.  For the sake of the poor souls reading this who have not yet seen this gem, I will keep the gushing to a minimum, and simply refer you to my earlier review.  As for the Academy- they didn’t nominate it, and that’s their loss. 

1.  Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)

            Perhaps it’s because I grew up 10 minutes away from the Kennesaw Mountain battlefield in Georgia, but I am a sucker for anything Civil War related, be it fiction, non-fiction, or otherwise.  Daniel Day-Lewis was spot-on as Lincoln, bringing out his intellect and innate political brilliance while also reminding viewers that, privately, Lincoln was often a very troubled and depressed man, having to fight his own personal demons (and those of this wife as well) while also having to lead an entire country through the worst crisis of its history.  I think Lincoln is one of the best films of Steven Spielberg’s already legendary career.  Here’s hoping it wins big at the Oscars this Sunday.  It is my pick for Best Film of 2012. 

-Judge Richard 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (2012): Written by Mark Boal, directed by Kathryn Bigelow.  Starring:  Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Captain Jack Harkness.  No, I am not kidding.  Rated R for: Strong violence, disturbing images, including torture, and language.  Running Time: 157 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            I don’t suppose there’s much use in putting a spoiler alert in a review of a film about Bin Laden.  We know how this story ends (and more or less how it begins).  9/11, Tora Bora, Black Sites, Abbottabad- these are words everyone not in stasis for the past 10 years have heard.  There are few things that stir passions (on both sides of the political spectrum) than mention of the War on Terror, CIA black sites, or the Bush detention program (i.e. the torture policy).  A lot of what people think about Zero Dark Thirty, as a result, will depend to no small extent on what each viewer thinks about the actual events, policies, and figures being dramatized. 

            At the center of the film is Maya (Jessica Chastain), representing the female CIA agent (actual identity still unknown) who we now know was the driving force behind the search for Bin Laden himself in the years leading up to his death.  Full of a Captain Ahab-esque obsession with finding the mastermind of Al Qaeda, most of the first two hours of the film are devoted to Maya’s nearly decade-long search for leads on Bin Laden’s whereabouts.  Through years of painstaking efforts- interrogating (and sometimes torturing or abusing) detainees, tracing and locating phone calls, cross-checking terrorist leaders’ “war names” with their actual names, and sometimes just making leaps of intuition- Maya sifts through the mound of false, outdated, or misleading intel before eventually finding the actual needle in the haystack; the identity of Bin Laden’s top courier, whom her people are then able to track to the fateful compound in Abbottabad.  This long and painstakingly detailed journey is punctuated with depictions of several actual Al-Qaeda attacks in the years after 9/11, reminding the viewer every so often of the very real consequences of failure in Maya’s line of work. 

            Maya is hardly a likeable character, by any stretch of the imagination.  Her reasons for continuing to pursue Bin Laden even though he himself is no longer an immediate threat are compelling (and most people who see the film will probably agree with her arguments), but she has no friends, no social life, and (apparently) no close family.  When dealing with those who disagree with or oppose her she’s downright aggressive, and even around people who like or support her she’s abrasive and distant.  Not that she’s without reason to be- despite the growing strength of her evidence about Bin Laden, she has to practically bully her way through layers of thick bureaucratic tape to get anything done about it.  Her passion, her energy, her fierce intelligence, and her will to succeed do bear fruit, after 10 long, painful years.  But although the extent of her success is enormous, she still seems a rather sad, tragic figure through it all- she finally corners her Moby Dick, but when the raid is over, what is she ultimately left with? 

            And the answer to that, along with what one should think about everything else in the film, is left entirely in the viewer’s hands.  If there’s one thing about Zero Dark Thirty that impressed me the most, it’s the movie’s near-total lack of commentary on its own subject matter.  Maya and the other operatives and agents working in bases around the world are not self-righteous super-patriots.  They are just people doing their jobs, using whatever tools (torture and otherwise) that are made available to them.  A few American flags are hanging here and there, but no one decks themselves out in red, white, and blue.  Not once does a single character opine on the morality of war or torture.  There are a few scattered comments about needing to “protect the homeland,” but they’re delivered in a tone of voice less “We are the defenders of Liberty, Freedom, and Democracy!!!” and more “The boss wants the donuts ready and in the display by 6.  Get on it.” 

Scenes of terrorist attacks (as well as the final raid on Bin Laden’s compound) are shot with an almost total absence of music- no weeping violins are to be heard during the recordings of 9/11 or the London bombings, and Bin Laden’s death is not followed by blaring trumpets.  The Special Ops team celebrates and congratulates each other upon returning to base, but it’s probably something they would do after any mission, regardless of the target. 

            This straightforward, business-like atmosphere of the film also applies to the torture scenes in the beginning, which have been the source of much controversy of the not-so-delicious variety.  The primary accusations against the film since its release have been twofold- one, that the film promotes torture as an effective anti-terrorism policy, and two, that torture was crucial to tracking down Bin Laden (something the CIA has gone to GREAT lengths to claim was not the case).  Honestly, anyone still pushing either of these arguments has probably not seen the film.  No, no one ever explicitly says, “You know, that torture program we had was kind of a bad idea,” but that’s because it doesn’t need to.  The opening scenes of torture do not bring Maya and her partners any new information.  They only get what they want AFTER they stop torturing their prisoner and feed him a decent meal.  Yes, you do have to apply your critical thinking skills, but when you do, the idea that this sequence is somehow subtly promoting torture falls apart rather quickly. 

Zero Dark Thirty is one of the best films of 2012, and easily one of the most important in a year full of important films.  It is not a loud film of triumph, or chest-thumping patriotism.  It’s somber and serious; it’s editing and direction downplayed and quiet.  As the Ops team heads over the Afghan-Pakistani border for the final raid, there’s a shot of their choppers against the mountains of tribal Pakistan.  Flying through huge crevasses in the earth, the top-of-the-line helicopters, carrying several dozen of the best soldiers in the world and millions upon millions of dollars’ worth of hardware, look like nothing more than tiny insects next to the mountains.  What is the shot supposed to signify?  Should it signify anything?  Maybe, maybe not.  I guess that’s up to us. 

-Judge Richard 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Review: Amour

Amour (2012): Written and directed by Michael Haneke.  Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva.  Rated PG-13 for: language, brief nudity, some adult content.   Running Time: 127 minutes

Review: 3/4 Stars

            Amour is the most basic, bare-bones movie I’ve seen from 2012.  As nearly all of you have probably garnered from the fair bit of attention it’s gotten (in addition to Best Foreign Language Film, it’s received Oscar nominations for Director, Screenplay, Actress, and Best Film, an unusual honor for a foreign film), Amour revolves entirely around an elderly couple, Anne and Georges, and their struggles when the wife begins an accelerated decline into physical (and possibly mental) impotence. 

And that really is the entire film- how the two, both individually and as a couple, are forced to confront the inevitability of old age and death.  There are a handful of other characters, some with names, some without, but their sporadic appearances are meant merely to reiterate the wife’s rapid decline and to remind the husband what his limited options in handling her situation are.  Aside from the very beginning, the movie is set exclusively in their small, simple Parisian apartment, so the set and locations are minimal.  Many scenes consist of one long, unbroken take, by a single camera sitting in a single corner of the room, so as far as cinematography and visuals go, Amour is as simple as it gets.  Aside from a few scenes where someone plays a piano, there is no music. 

This stark simplicity, which sometimes strengthens the film (and sometimes weakens it), makes Amour hard to review, because there simply isn’t that much there to talk about.  Both Trintignant and Riva are excellent as the husband and wife (and I’m honestly curious as to why Riva got an Oscar nod and Trintignant didn’t), and the film’s depiction of immediate and unavoidable decline and death is very affecting, but beyond that, there’s not much I can say about it.  Whether or not this films reaches you will hinge largely on your own personal experience or concerns or even fears about death. 

What I appreciated most about Amour was how readily it embraces aspects of relationships and marriage that most movies would shy away from or avoid.  The title is French for “love,” but what sort of love, and which actions on the part of the husband are meant to show his love, are up to individual interpretation.  This is no Hollywood romance, that’s for sure.  Trying to take care of someone who can no longer take care of themselves is hard, and often frustrating, and Tintignant shows this.  He is clearly devoted to his wife, and prefers having her home to going against her wishes and putting her in a 24-hour care center, which would be much easier for him personally.  He is patient and gentle with her, but sometimes, as with anyone, his patience runs out.  Sometimes he gets angry with her, and even hits her at one point when she refuses to eat.  He clearly loves her, but he’s also human.  Riva is just as effective in capturing the frustration, pain and humiliation many people feel when they are fully aware of their physical decline, and can only watch as they get worse day by day.  And it’s those day-to-day realities of their relationship, the joys and the hardships both, that ultimately make the film work. 

On the other hand, this is also where the simplicity of the film hurts it (in my opinion).  Their relationship (which, again, is the entirety of the film), is engaging, realistic, and affecting, but we never really know that much about them as people.  We know they love classical piano, that the wife once played herself, and also taught a young man who is now a famous pianist.  The husband likes to tell stories of his life every so often.  They have a daughter living in London.  Aside from that, we never learn anything substantial about their lives.  What were their hopes, what are their regrets?  How did they first meet?  Was there ever any conflict or trial of some sort that tested them as a couple?  We don’t know.  So instead of seeing the death of Anne, mother and inspirational music teacher, we simply see a death of a person, which carries less of an emotional punch. 

Of course, that may just be me.  This film has affected a lot of people who’ve seen it, and not without good reason.  Whether or not you like its minimalist style or its unflinching look at the inevitability of death, it’ll leave you thinking.  Amour is already a lock for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, and I wouldn’t rule out it taking either Best Actress or Original Screenplay (although I’d personally rather see those awards go to Zero Dark Thirty).  You don’t need to rush to see it in theaters though.  It’s a small quiet film, best seen in a small quiet setting, so it actually may be a better idea to wait for it to be released on DVD> 

-Judge Richard