Thursday, August 8, 2013

2012 Movie Reviews: Top 10

I kept thinking that this year would slow down.  That I'd have a chance to do a much more in-depth review for each of my favorite films from 2012, but 2013 has had some tricks up its sleeves and I've barely had time to cook meals much less write anything valuable.  But this post has continued circling around the back of my brain, unable and unwilling to be swept under any corner of either of my brain's hemisphere's, so forgive the brevity, but I just need to get this written, and out there.  Feel free to agree or disagree, because, by now, if you care about movies, you've probably seen all of these...twice.

10. I've already gone well beyond my mark of hopefully having my Top 10 listed day-by-day in the 10 days leading up to Oscar, but if there's one thing I know it's that I am the laziest writer ever when there's no deadline.  So now that the Oscars have already aired (as of this past Sunday) the pressure is off.  First up in my Top 10 of '12, the only animated movie this year to make the cut, Wreck-It Ralph.

While there were several worthy animated movies released this year, Wreck-It Ralph was the biggest surprise, and it was that surprise factor that pushed it over the top for me.  Despite the fact that I found  Pixar's release this year, Brave, better than most critics would have anyone believe, there was a noticeable change in tone versus other Pixar films.  Wreck-It Ralph, technically a Disney release, felt much more in the vain of the classic Pixar film, a winning combination of pop culture savvy, innocence, optimism and fun.  It's a classic underdog tale with a video game spin.

Posing the question, what would happen if video game characters lived just as real of an existence as the rest of us working-class drones, Wreck-It Ralph is the story of the eponymous character, the unwilling villain of a simplistic arcade game called "Fix-It Felix".  Every day Ralph (the inimitable John C. Reilly) shows up to work and knocks down the building that Felix (voiced by the sweetly Southern immortal Jack McBrayer) gets to rebuild.  Every day Felix becomes a hero, and every night Ralph sleeps on a pile of discarded bricks.  After too many years, and one too many parties he's never been invited to, Ralph has had enough.  He hops a train (a brilliant use of all those tangled wires connecting the consoles to the wall) out of his game, hops a train into another one and thus begins Ralph's quest to become a true hero.

Ralph's odyssey leads him to a game called Sugar Rush, where he meets the outcast Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman, this time with JUST the right amount of annoyance).  Vanellope is the consummate underdog in the world of Sugar Rush, banned from competing in the racing game, but like Ralph, determined to prove she's more than just the role she's been given.  If you know animated movies, you might guess where this is going.  Despite their best efforts to avoid each other, eventually Ralph and Vanellope team up to help each other in what turns out to be a sweet (literally) thoughtful, well-written buddy comedy.  As is the hallmark of great animated films, it works on both the adult and children's level, though I'll admit, the adults benefit more from the writing here than the kids do.  Filled with vintage video game references and tongue-in-cheek dialogue, the writing evokes all of the best things about childhood, while providing the kids with enough visual stimuli to almost induce it's very own sugar high.  The design and color palette of Sugar Rush is especially beautiful, a world of creamy pastels and hints of neon and Lisa-Frank style costumes.  Yeah, I kind of wanted to live there.

Overall, I would say that if you missed this the first time around in theaters, your chance to pick it up as a rent, a borrow or a buy, is right around the corner (March 5th) and that's an opportunity that should be taken advantage of.  It's an easy, fun ride that puts a brand new spin on the former glories of the arcade.  If you've ever felt sympathy for Bowser (not the Sha-Na-Na guy...although you might feel sympathy for him too) or wondered just what is it like in those Villains Anonymous meetings, this film is your chance for vindication.

It also didn't hurt that the absolutely, wonderfully stylish Paperman aired as the short right before this feature.  Check it out below, I dare you not to feel like the world is a little better place after your viewing.

Overall: 4 stars

9. Let's set the record straight immediately, shall we?  Answer the following two questions:  Do you like musicals?  and Did you like any incarnation of the staged musical of Les Miserables that you've seen, whether it be on stage, on PBS or at a dinner theater?  Because the answer to whether or not you'll like the movie is entirely based on the answer(s) you gave to that previous exercise.  The truth is, Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, is an absolutely faithful adaptation of the musical, and anyone who tells you any different was under hallucinogens of some sort when they viewed it.
Les Miserables the musical, as it was staged in 1985, is an over-the-top affair.  It's melodramatic, filled with indulgent costumes, rousingly emotionally manipulative songs, and a stage stuffed to the brim with  barricades and a spinning section so that, when the ragged masses are marching during "One Day More"you really feel like you're there, in the French Revolution.  That's what this musical is.  It's an over-the-top 80s musical and the reason it has so many fans is because, in those days, it was unique.  It was massive.  It was the Jurassic Park of the stage, meaning that Cameron Mackintosh & co spared no expense. That is the feeling that is immediately captured by Tom Hooper in his film adaptation.
The camera swoops in over a what appears to be a giant battleship, being pulled into harbor by giant ropes manned by an impressive amount of ragged prisoners, and the beginning lines echo out.  "Look down, look down" and you know what, in that moment I said to myself "You've got me Tom Hooper".   The scale is everything it needs to be, which, in a word is "excessive".
The most important aspect of any musical is its cast, and here, the cast, by and large, shines.  Everyone knew Hugh Jackman would be perfect (mainly because people just genuinely like Hugh Jackman and he can do no wrong) and after that initial trailer, people were excited to see a positively downtrodden Anne Hathaway's turn as Fantine, but to me, the real surprise was Eddie Redmayne as the lovestruck Revolutionary student, Marius and Samantha Barker (already a stage veteran of the London production) as Eponine.  While some of the biggest complaints have come from the "Russell Crowe has a crap voice" camp, a camp which, might I say is filled with mostly unimaginative people, I'm sure, it's not nearly as bad as everyone is making it out to be.  It's not a Broadway voice, and the intonations are more rock and pop than operatic, but as Javert, he's convincing, which is all he needed to be.  In fact, I really loved the beautiful moment they gave him as he stands over the smallest victim of the barricade melee and lays a medal on his chest.
The standout songs of the stage musical are still the standout scenes here.  In another brilliant move of casting Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are the unkempt scalawag owners of a questionable boarding house, Mr & Mrs Thernardier.  In "Master of the House", a scene that I'm still not quite entirely sure WASN'T directed by Tim Burton, they revel in their lack of morals and the cinematography follows right along, going grittier and grimier with a disturbingly visceral feel.  "I Dreamed a Dream" is Hathaway's shining moment and what won her the Oscar.  Yes, you win the Oscar when you shave your head (for real) onscreen crying about how your life just didn't turn out the way you expected.  The only song I truly found out of place was the newly added "Suddenly".  It isn't nearly as rousing as any of the others, nor as memorable, and does feel a bit shoe-horned in.
As I said before, the cinematography is gorgeous, the costumes and production design are truly awe-inspiring and, for any person who considers themselves even the smallest fan of the musical, it should, at the very least, be satisfying.
I'm putting it at #9 on my list this year, A) Because I'm a huge fan of musicals B) it was everything I needed it to be and C) it will have a very high re-watch value for me.  As soon as I get my grubby little hands on the blu-ray that is. Or maybe I can just get Gavroche to pilfer one for me.

Overall: 4 stars

8. Silver Linings Playbook- I'll readily admit that up until now, my favorite work of David O. Russell's could be found on Youtube during the epic shouting match between him and Lily Tomlin.  I mean it's the stuff of legend.  As a director, I don't get a very distinct feel from his films.  They're all well done, with great casts, but his brand of success is slightly confusing to me.  All throughout the press tour for Silver Linings Playbook, he made a point of saying that this was a personal project, and to a point, I did feel much more connected to this material than anything he had previously released.  At the same time, I liked Silver Linings Playbook, and it will have a high re-watch value for me, because it reminds me of another one of my favorite movies, Dirty Dancing, I know, how cliche for a girl born in the 80s, right?  Again, forgive me for sounding shallow, but I initially thought Silver Linings Playbook wouldn't have much awards appeal because the outline for it is basically the same as any romantic comedy.  I mean, if we're being perfectly frank, it's Dirty Dancing with prescriptions.  What does make it a standout is the cast and the performances of the leads, Bradley Cooper and the aforementioned Jennifer Lawrence.  These are flashy lead roles with lots of screaming, angsty, emotional scenes, and you do end up really invested in the story.  I'm happy that it got the buzz that it did, but I'm still a little baffled by its unquestionable dominance during awards season.  Maybe people were just ready for something that wasn't as heavy as most of the fare available between November and January.

Overall: 4 stars


7. Looper - Ever since his first major blip on the celluloid radar, the haunting noir Brick, Rian Johnson made a name for himself as a unique voice behind the camera.  While he doesn't ALWAYS direct material that he's written (he's directed several episodes of the addictive drama, Breaking Bad), when he does, the result is always something that feels like it SHOULD be seen, mostly because the originality is exciting.  Looper didn't disappoint.  Set in a future where time travel is, although not available to the rabble that is the public, available to those with the power to control it, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (he's so hot right now) stars as Joe, one of the titular professionals.  Loopers are people who get paid to go back in time and kill anyone who has become, well, issues that need to be handled in the future.  When these professionals have been as useful as they can be, they must "close the loop".  Essentially, their future self is sent back to them for killing.  When it's time for Joe to close his loop, his future self (Bruce Willis) makes a run for it, setting off a chain reaction of events that will affect both the present and the future.  A movie that jumps across timelines is always tricky, but I think here, Johnson has a pretty great grasp on it, mostly because, once the chase begins, time travel is no longer an issue.  It's simply a mystery that must be unraveled, almost entirely taking place in a Kansas farm house.  I'm a sucker for a mystery, and although you can probably guess at the ending slightly before the reveal, the ride is a fun one, filled with great performances from everyone, including a Emily Blunt, in a quiet storm of a role, and the young Pierce Gagnon as Cid, in the least child-like child's role in a while.  While I liked the script more for Brick, I think the production value on Looper points towards a writer/director whose evolution will continue to excite.

Overall: 4 stars

6.In any other year, The Impossible is one of those movies that would have been a shoe-in for more nominations and a definite possibility for a Best Picture winner.  The problem is that 2012 wasn't simply any year.  As it is, this movie, based on one family's real-life experience of the devastating 2004 Tsunami, is a powerful character study that deserved more attention than it received.
Directed by Juan Antonia Bayona (The Orphanage), The Impossible stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as the parents of three children, set to spend their Christmas holiday in Thailand. The first twenty minutes is a trip to the heart of paradise, filling the screen with lush greens, beautiful skies, and blue waters. Then, as in real life, in a life changing moment, the tsunami hits in a dizzying wave of chaos.  The filming of the impact scene is especially impressive, not to mention heart wrenching, as the family is separated.  Miraculously, Maria (Watts) and one of her sons, Lucas (newcomer Tom Holland) manage to stay together, while Henry (McGregor) is with the other two boys, Thomas and Simon (Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast).
Maria, who is critically injured (this reveal was one of the few, truly shocking scenes in movies last year, for me) is entirely reliant on Lucas, but at the same time, is determined to help as many people as she comes across.  Much of the weight (literally) of their scenes together is thrown on the young shoulders of Lucas, and Tom Holland is a revelation in the role, and should have been recognized as such.  He's a child who begins the film desperately wanting to be an adult, who all too soon, realizes that responsibility, not age, is the determining factor of being a "grown up".
Meanwhile, Henry, is tasked with wrangling both of his younger children, as well as locating his wife and missing child.  It is a thankless job, and in the hands of a lesser actor, it could be the forgotten role.  Maria's injury gives Watts a role with more flash, though I believe her Oscar nomination is more than earned here.  McGregor has to be the emotional ballast, and every single time he's on screen he brings a truth to the situation that makes it impossible to look away.
Their journey through the aftermath of the tsunami's devastation, as well as through the human condition in tragedy, is beautifully honest, spanning the emotional spectrum from despair to joy.  The emotional balance, which manages to be the suspense in this movie, is constantly on the edge of a knife; it's a tightrope act that is deftly maneuvered by all of the actors.  I know the saying is that you never work with animal or children, but here, all of the child actors are wonderful.  The beauty of The Impossible is that somehow Bayona was able to take an extremely emotional situation, and make a movie about it that doesn't feel melodramatic or overwrought, it just feels true.  The production design, which is stunning, is for a movie that is a sweeping epic of human struggle, but the movie as a whole, feels so intimate that you can't help but be entirely invested in this one family's story.  It's an emotional investment that's worth making.  It also makes me wonder, what the heck will Ewan McGregor have to do to get an Oscar nomination?

Overall: 4.5 out of 5

5. Skyfall- Oh Sam Mendes, if you ever want to direct the story of my life, you have my full permission to do so.  Seeing as Mr. Mendes could probably direct a Bob's Discount Furniture ad and make it your favorite commercial of the year, it's not really a surprise that for this silver anniversary outing, Mendes managed to make a movie that was equal parts "Bond" and "film".  While I'm sure there were some hardcore fans that were disappointed there weren't more one-line zingers and frivolous romping between the sheets, the tone of Mendes directing seems to match the slightly more serious Craig to a tee.  I say slightly more serious because by the time I got to Moonraker with Roger Moore, I was howling with laughter.  Here there's no Jaws (acknowledged by all to be the first to wear a grill) there's only beautiful cinematography, action sequences that make grown stuntmen cry and enough back story to have us all coming back for another 50 years of Bond.  The cast is perfect, a feat that I most attribute to the casting of Ben Whishaw as "Q".  I mean, sure Dame Judy is wonderful, but let's face it, there's no match in my mind for lustrous locks and a man in a cardigan.  Javier Bardem's Silva (not...Gold'finger') is indeed a nod to the franchises memorable villains and will most certainly go down as a standout.  This is one that I can/have/will watch over and over.

Overall: 4.5 stars

4. The Dark Knight Rises- I'll state this ahead of time.  I have this thing for the last in a trilogy.  It's ALMOST always my favorite (the lone exception being the Back to the Future trio, of which the 2nd is my favorite, and yes, before you ask, it's because of the hover board and the Nikes, ok.  I'm shallow, so sue me).  I don't know a single person who actually SAW The Dark Knight and didn't like it, so we all knew Nolan would have his hands full crafting an adequate follow-up to a franchise whose quality has helped it surpass its comic origins.  I would argue that he accomplished this.  The Dark Knight is my favorite of the trilogy, mostly because I just like to start arguments.  But seriously, it had everything I wanted.  I wanted the final wrap-up, I wanted some romance, I wanted Joseph Gordon-Levitt to be Robin. Ok, so he wasn't Robin in the Chris O'Donnell sidekick style, but his name turned out to be Robin, and that last shot of him in the Bat-cave felt like a personal victory.  The whole thing just worked for me.  I know there are people who love to complain about Tom Hardy's Bane voice or Christian Bale's Bat voice or who just love to complain in general, but trust me, the fact that Nolan was able to make Anne Hathaway likable for ME, proves that I will most likely follow Mr. Nolan down any rabbit hole he directs; although, I reserve the right to rescind that statement should he quit film and start directing The Wiggles or any other creepy children's show (all of which are equally terrifying).

Overall: 5 stars 

3. Zero Dark Thirty- I still don't understand Kathryn Bigelow's exclusion from the Best Director Race.  Maybe it was because she had pulled such a major upset with 2008's The Hurt Locker that people felt she didn't NEED another nomination so soon.  Perhaps it was because of the fog of scandal looming over this project once senators started throwing around the word "torture" trying to make people forget that we're the country of Guantanamo Bay, but somewhere along the lines, the buzz on this movie went from "Must See" to "it's Ok at best", in a manner that is inexplicable to me.  As a film, I found that it had an incredibly important thing in common with my number one pick for 2012, and that was this: it took a story that you KNEW the ending to, and it held you for 2 hours, telling it to you like it was all brand new.  That ability to build suspense, to shock, to affect, makes this one of my great movies of last year.  Jessica Chastain is a powerhouse in a role that I'm sure most women in Hollywood would have gladly maimed someone for.  In a time when the roles of females in Hollywood are being increasingly scrutinized, it's interesting to me that Chastain's performance was overlooked by the Academy in favor of Jennifer Lawrence's more traditional rom-com role. I say this not to take away from Ms. Lawrence, who seems, in fact, awesome, and is awards-worthy in her role, but just as a means to draw a comparison between the roles that Hollywood SAYS it believes women should have and roles it REWARDS women for taking.  I'm getting off track.  Long story short, Zero Dark Thirty is a much better movie than the reception it eventually got, and it deserves to be seen.

Overall: 5 stars 

2. The Avengers- Oh Joss Whedon! The man whose vision gave me and thousands, if not millions, of other girls a kick-ass role model in Buffy Summers and won our allegiance for life, proved once again, that he's just awesome.  Yes, as a fan, I will simply follow him and his Scooby gang of actors to any project he chooses, but I'll admit, The Avengers just seemed so...well...huge.  I was worried, a bit, but not much.  And it turns out, the movie was huge.  It was gigantic and awesome in the best way possible, mostly because of the delicate balance that Whedon found of keeping the production values themselves (the set, the costumes, the CGI) as big as possible, but keeping at the movie's core, the emotions, desires, and banter of the small circle of lead characters.  There are scenes that feel appropriately magnificent (when the Helicarrier rises out of the water and disappears for the first time) and scenes that are just for the characters, filled with small moments of revelation.  Add to that mix the perfect amount of sarcastic humor and earnest love of all things good and pure and it's a potent combination of wondertastic.  The only thing I could have wished for is more of Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who, lets face it, makes being a villain look really, really British-y good.

Overall: 5 stars

1. Argo- every year when I see my favorite movie, I'm sitting in the theater and I just KNOW.  Last year, with Argo, in the moment where Ben Affleck (who by the way, let's just admit is looking more attractive with age and stubble) calls his boss, played by Brian Cranston and says "someone's responsible, I'm bringing them through", I knew.  The production design on this film alone was awards-worthy.  Swathed in late 70s/early 80s yellow, fluorescent lighting tone, the kind of color where you can almost smell the cigarette smoke coming off of the screen, everything from the costuming to the haircuts was spot on.  I loved the end credit sequence where you could see the painstaking attention to detail that went in to making the film.  It's a true ensemble piece, with everyone pulling their weight, although the brunt of the work does fall on Affleck's shoulders.  However, there to lend some assistance are John Goodman as veteran makeup effects man John Chambers and Alan Arkin, who continues to prove that he's really great at playing Alan Arkin.  These two guys get the best lines in the movie, hands down, and I think we can all agree that if they were to go on a Vaudevillian comedy tour, we'd all go see it.  I was also really pleased to see Affleck team up with his Dazed and Confused co-star Rory Cochrane for a bit, even if there was no Aerosmith or Frat bats involved.  Affleck continues to prove that, even if you didn't care for Reindeer Games, he knows movies and he knows how to make great ones.  The airport escape scene is probably one of the most thoughtfully staged, intricately suspenseful scenes put on the screen last year.  Again, he's taken a story that everyone (or at least everyone who read the WIRED article it was based on) knows the ending to, but manages to weave in enough story and character development to make it feel new and worth the emotional investment.

Overall: 5 stars

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