Sunday, February 17, 2013

Best Films of 2012

This year was a difficult one for me to review.  I do not know if it is because no one film just totally wowed me above all else and became one of my all time favorites, or its the fact that there were actually a lot of high level films this year.  Coming up with the "best" seems rather difficult.  I not only think I will look back on this list next year and go "wow I was WAY off!"  I think I will probably look on this list tomorrow and think the same thing.

But hey why not, here is my take on the (15) best films (of the ones I saw) of 2012


15.  "Looper"

Time travel done in a way you have not quite see it before.  While parts of the film are utterly implausible, the filmmakers chose to do their best in addressing the normal time travel problems.


14. "This Must Be The Place"

Imagine Robert Smith of The Cure just lived in Ireland with his loyal wife and never made music anymore.  Now imagine he still looked like Robert Smith of The Cure every moment.  Going to the grocery store, diner, playing ping pong.

"This Must Be The Place" is far from a perfect film.  But it is original and Penn's performance makes it a film worth seeing.  It is a tricky thing to pull off as well as he does.  What could have been a tragedy of annoying caricature, turns out to be a truly touching and affecting performance.  One of Penn's best moments.     


13.  "Argo"

Now let me start with this.  "Argo" is a strong film.  Ben Affleck's career is definitely headed back in the right direction since he focused on directing.  The film has a very strong opening, pretty solid ending and ok middle.  It deserves a level of praise.  Having said that, I remember walking out thinking, "that's it?"  I try not to go into a film with high expectations, but this film has seemed to get such universal acclaim, I was pretty sure it would be great.  But for me, it cant quite get itself above "very good."  No shame in that at all, but I just don't understand all the critical love.

I think part of the problem is in who Affleck's character is working on saving.  Six Americans who escaped the embassy in Iran when it was overrun.  They end up hiding out in a rather posh home of the Canadian Ambassador in Iran.  We see scenes of how bad the Americans who did not escape the embassy in time, have it.  A lot worse than those who did.  This is not to say they did not deserve to get out of the country.  People were quite intent on hurting them, if they figured out where they were.  But Affleck never makes us love these people, and thus care much about them.  He seemed to believe the mere fact they were Americans in trouble would be enough.  It goes a long way.  But it is not enough.  Especially when mostly the impression of the 6 are of ungrateful, even spoiled people.

My other complaint might be in Affleck casting himself in the lead.  Affleck is fine in the role.  I am not here to complain about his acting skills.  How bad he has sometimes been has been more in miscasting than anything.  But he also is well...not exactly Gary Oldman.  Or Hugh Jackman or Daniel Day Lewis or Denzel Washington.  Seems like a story like this would have attracted just about any leading man.  And having someone more resemble the actual Tony Mendez, a half Mexican who seems a few pounds overweight from pictures at the time, as well as shorter and less Hollywood CIA looking; might have helped the film achieve something higher.

"Argo" is a solid film and a nice step up for Affleck.  But it is too soon to hail him king just yet.

12.   "Flight"

The opening sequence of "Flight" is pretty awesome film making.  The crash sequence is the most realistic feeling, intense, plane crash scene I have seen since "Cast Away."  Which happens to be the last live action film, before this one, by Robert Zemeckis.

"Flight" is similar in many ways to "Cast Away" actually.  Denzel Washington gives a predictably great performance.  As does just about everyone in the film.  The most interesting maybe being Kelly Reilly.  Unfortunately the 3rd act, while parts of it are great (grabbing a bottle of liquor is rarely so well filmed) becomes just a bit too much of a public service announcement.  And who figured when you get in a jam, the best solution is:  snort cocaine? 

11.      "The Beasts of The Southern Wild"

This is one of those films I can't decide about.  Did I enjoy it?  Yes.  Hey its  #11 on my list for crying out loud!

The story is interesting if not a bit manipulative.  The director probably would have put onions in the air vents if he thought it would help the audience cry.  And he succeeds. 

But the reason I was touched as much as anything in the story, was the performances he gets out of the two leads.  6 year old Quvenzhan√© Wallis as Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as her father.  Neither had ever acted before. 

A sign of a good director is the performances they get out of their actors.  So on that note, this is a very well directed film.  While every scene might not work, it is still touching and often original.  More often than it is not.


10.   "Django Unchained"

Leave it to Tarantino.  There is no film I saw this year that has more brilliant moments in it than "Django Unchained."  But I have yet to decide if the whole equals the sum of its parts.  It is the most difficult film to sit through QT has ever made.  And he made "Reservoir Dogs." 

Much has been made of the over 100 times we hear the "N-word."  I do not find this to be a fair criticism of QT, as its fairly easy to assume this is realistic.  But realistic does not make it easier to sit through.  Neither does the violence.  Usually the violence QT shows is for comedic effect or for people who had it coming.  There are 2 scenes in particular in "Django" that this is not the case.  But this also shows the horrors of slavery as well as helps flip a switch in one character, from which he can not return.

Whether it is directing, casting, his dialogue or all three; Tarantino has only ever gotten a weak acting performance out of Tarantino.  Dicaprio has never been better.  Waltz, who won an Oscar for his last Tarantino film, gets another nomination here, and he deserves it.  And the most brave performance is by Samuel L. Jackson.  I imagine many people would have turned down this role.  The Oscars would not have dared given his role a nomination with a ten foot pole.  In a way, he is the most despicable villain of all.  But Jackson, a former Black Panther, knew it was a role worth taking.  It is a brave choice and a brave choice for Tarantino to write in the first place.  This is tricky material, easily open to criticism by the likes of the racist Spike Lee.

But its not just a slave kicking racist ass that is empowering.  Tarantino uses his humor to specifically attack the KKK by way of almost a Looney Tunes sketch.  It is extremely funny, while also about as big a middle finger to the Klan I have seen.


As much as I think of parts of "Django" in such high regard, it does not feel completely finished.  Maybe this is because it is the first film QT has made without editor Sally Menke (she died shortly before filming).  QT would often talk of them as a team.  As in stating the opening scene of  "Inglorious Basterds" is the best thing we have ever done."  QT is a rather brilliant director.  But he needs to find another brilliant editor.


9.  "The Impossible"

Don't watch the trailer!  If you have seen the trailer for this film, you have pretty much seen the film.  But no, the film is still worth watching, even if you know all that will happen.  Naomi Watts is great and gets deserved praise for the role.  All the children are equally good as well.  But it is actually Ewan McGregor who is the best thing about the film.  He pulls off one of the most effective phone calls I have ever seen.

It's a simple story.  But a true one and a touching and sad one.  Nice almost subtle touches by the director elevate it above what it would have been.

8.  "Silver Linings Playbook"

One of the most fun and entertaining films of the year.  It doesn't hurt the performances are so good.  Who knew Bradley Cooper had these acting chops?  Jennifer Lawrence has shown skills before and is the perfect bi-polar foil to Cooper.  We knew Robert Deniro could act, but he hasn't reminded us of that fact very much in the last 20 years.

Fun, layered.  All date films should be this well done.



7.  "Life of Pi"

See it with a few friends.  A story well told, that gets you talking afterwards.

6.  "Moonrise Kingdom"



5.  "Amour"

The scariest film of all.  Because people age.  These things happen.  They might happen to us.  Not something you want to think much about usually, when watching a movie. 

Entertaining?  Depends how you look at it.  Great performances?  Check.  Great directing choices?  Absolutely.  A piece of art?  That's fair.  A fun time to be had by all?  Well...no.

Which raises an interesting, great art versus entertainment question.  Usually great art to me is entertainment.  And something as wanting to merely entertain, as a Bond film, can achieve something that feels akin to art if done well enough. 

Which leads to...

4. "Skyfall"

Ok.  Maybe it's not art.  But this is the Bond film I have always been waiting for.  You can still have Bond get out of an impossible situation and immediately fix his cuffs. But this is not campy Bond.  This is exciting and semi believable (as much as Bond could ever be).  Judi Dench as M, has practically as much screen time as Daniel Craig.  It is her and Bond's relationship that elevates the film.  And Javier Bardem is one of the best Bond villains ever.  Easily the best since the days of Connery.  Sam Mendes might have made the (overrated) Oscar winning, "American Beauty."  But this is his best film.

Oh and Adele's song is the best Bond theme since "Live and Let Die."  Can that girl do any wrong right now?


3.  "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower"

See my post below.  This is the best kind of high school teen angst film.  Having read the book after, it was interesting to see how the director (who is also the author and script writer) made changes here and there.  I think the changes were good choices.  I liked the film much more than the book.


2.  "Zero Dark Thirty"

It is quite an achievement when you end a film with a sequence which everyone knows how it will end; and yet it is still edge of your seat gripping entertainment.  The end sequence takes 18 minutes, just the same length of time the raid actually lasted.  It follows just as it happened, as best as we know.  Jessica Chastain's constant strong resilience make the very last shot all the more effective. 

As good as "Argo" is, this is the far superior CIA/Terrorists related film.  The people who give out awards right now are letting personal feelings  get in the way, and it's a shame.  This is a balanced film.  I have a hard time believing all the detractors against it showing '"torture" have seen the film.

1.  "Les Miserables"

Go ahead, scoff!   A musical?!  A few years ago, Hollywood was so wanting to give out awards to any musical, it gave the pretty bad "Chicago" a ton of awards, including the Best Picture Oscar.  Now I feel like they are doing a 180.  Not recognizing enough what an achievement this film is. 

Would this be #1 on my list if I had ever seen the musical before?  I don't know.  I would sometimes say "Oh, this song is from this?"  Is every singing performance the best vocals ever?  Probably not. 

Could Rex Harrison ever sing? 

But they have to be among the best acted.  Jackson is great.  Hathaway will probably win the Oscar and I would be more than fine with that.  Just great performance after great performance.  It might lag a bit here and there.  But never for too long.  People might have to fall in love a bit too quickly even by film standards.  It might be indeed far from perfect.  But this is a film meant to be enjoyed with an audience. 

While I am fine seeing almost any film in an otherwise empty theater, "Les Miserables" was a kind of communal enjoyment.  To be touched by a scene and hear a woman say "wow" a few rows over. 

Is it manipulative?  Absolutely.  So is "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and so is "Lincoln." 

In most films, that manipulation bothers me.  In this one, I just enjoyed the ride.

I left a few films in 2012 with that feeling that my feet were just an inch or so off the ground.

This was one of them.

  


Biggest Disappointments

The easy worst films that I saw would be "Wanderlust" and "This Means War."  But I didn't have much high expectations for those either.  I at least went in expecting more of the following:


"The Master"

"The Master" is not the worst film of the year.  But it is the most disappointing.  The acting is all solid and I would even be fine with someone winning an acting Oscar.  There are also moments of greatness.  The scene where Hoffman goes through his auditing process with Phoenix is one of the best scenes of any film all year.  If only the rest of the film could have been near that high level.

As it is, it is a whole bunch of fury, signifying very little.  Critics who love it say what it is about is irrelevant (cuz they don't know either).  And I agree.  A film is not about what it is about but how it is about it.  But how "The Master" is about itself, is a rather nonsensical mess with no true narrative.  And at the end of the day, you still need a narrative.  As big a deal as Paul Thomas Anderson has become as a filmmaker, this script was rejected and reworked for years.  They should have given it a few more years to get it right.

"Hitchcock"

Not a bad film.  But when you have Anthony Hopkins playing Alfred Hitchcock, you want a great one.  And its far from it.


"This is 40"

Judd Apatow.  I just realized,  I guess I just am not much of a fan of yours.  I joked to friends it should have been called "This is 40 Minutes Too Long."  There are some good performances, notably by Albert Brooks, John Lithgow and Jason Segal.  But these are not the lead characters.  And no Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are not bad in the lead roles, they are just kind of dull.  The script meanders and really never goes anywhere.  I saw 2 clips in the trailer that I thought were funny.  Neither made it into the finished film.  Apatow had wayyy to much footage.  Could have been a great 30 minute short film.  As it was, I was just waiting for it to end.  It never seemed like it would.  Not what you want for 9 dollar ticket plus price of popcorn.


"Lincoln"

I can forgive historical inaccuracies if they have a purpose.  It is, after all, a movie.

I am fairly certain people in Revolution Era France did not sing every conversation.

But sometimes a director is a little too obvious in making his point.  Subtlety has no always been Spielberg's strong suit.  Basking Lincoln in light where he looks like an angel, from the first scene we see the president, is one example.  Easily forgivable if he didn't keep going back to it. 

The black soldier drowning a confederate soldier in the opening scene is not subtle.  I fully get that black soldiers fought in the war.  That in "Lincoln," the black soldiers appear to make up 80% of the Union Army, seems a bit much.  That it is a bunch of black Union soldiers greeting the Southern Representatives looking to negotiate peace, seems like it would have to be true to be in the film, it is so unbelievable.  Turns out it didn't happen.  Which shows the points Spielberg did not trust his audience to get on their own. 

Daniel Day Lewis is unsurprisingly very good in the lead role.  I am not sure anyone could have done better.  Most all of the performances are strong.  But the film these fine actors are in, is not worthy of them.  And it is mostly Spielberg's fault. 

The script is far from perfect.  But I think it is the ridiculous first moment we see President Lincoln that bothered me the most.  Critic's who complain for the over the top nature of "Les Miserables," should not get allowed to ignore the ridiculousness of this moment. 

As much as the story is oversimplified:  Lincoln and his supporters non-racist.  The South and everyone who doesn't support Lincoln; racist.  This was a mistake in the filmmakers thinking this would make the film simpler to digest. 

In reality, Lincoln was a man that while he might have felt slavery was wrong; there is strong evidence to suggest (his own words) he also felt black people were inferior.  This dichotomy would have made for a much more interesting main character; albeit one that maybe would not have been bathed in light on the few occasions the cinematographer gives us any at all.

At one point Lincoln tells his black servant, "I don't know your people."  It is the most honest and one of the best written moments in the film.  But it is not enough.  Instead we get a Gandhi like man; when the reality of the man and what he accomplished in becoming this saint like figure, would have been a far more interesting, as well as honest depiction. 

By ignoring such honesty's, Spielberg becomes guilty of the worst movie sin of all.  The film is often just boring.   

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