Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Dir. Tommy Wirkola

2 out of 5

Jeremy Renner’s recent blitzkrieg through some of Hollywood’s biggest action franchises from Mission Impossible to The Avengers to The Bourne Legacy may have raised his Q rating but hasn't, shall we say, engaged the actor’s complete range.  So it’s legitimately exciting when he’s finally given the chance to loosen things up in the action-comedy Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters as the grown-up avatar of the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel who, along with his sister Gretel (Gemma Arterton), wanders a quasi-medieval countryside as a supernatural bounty hunter.  But for a premise that offers up plenty of juicy opportunities to subvert fairy-tale and fantasy tropes (especially with the leeway provided by its R rating) Hansel & Gretel doesn’t distinguish itself beyond the same predictable story twists and repetitive action beats of most high concept blockbusters.  Norweigan writer-director Tommy Wirkola tries to introduce a few clever wrinkles to his English language debut, but in the end he and Renner share the same predicament: whatever interesting nuances they bring to the table can't disguise the thoroughly humdrum movie surrounding them.

After a brief prologue that dutifully re-establishes the known facts (woods, candy house, witch trapped in oven), Hansel & Gretel transitions into the “story after the story,” with an impressive animated sequence that details the siblings' exploits as news articles from various Gothic broadsides.  It sets a faintly comic tone that’s kept afloat mostly by a sarcastic Renner and the impressionable fanboy Ben (Thomas Mann), a teenager living in a town plagued by witches who are kidnapping children in preparation for a dark ritual.  Hansel and Gretel are hired by the mayor to investigate the crimes, much to the chagrin of the town’s cruel sheriff (Peter Stormare, in a disappointingly limited role).  But he’s never taken seriously as a threat, especially not when the grand witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) shows up with her powerful coven, blasting holes in the terrified humans' thatched storybook roofs.  The casting of the beautiful Janssen is a bit of a puzzle considering that she rarely appears out of her ugly-witch makeup; her character serves mainly to pop up and menace the heroes in measured intervals, not unlike a villain in a theme park ride.

Wirkola, who first attracted attention with the Nazi zombie romp Dead Snow, at least attempts to shake up the film’s somnambulant been-there, done-that vibe with that old attention-grabbing standby: gratuitous violence.  This is a movie that doesn’t skimp on the gore, lending it a bloody patina that’s closer to the macabre spirit of the original Grimm Brothers stories.  Indeed, the makeup, stunts, and anachronistic weapons of Hansel & Gretel are a fine showcase for Paramount's trade departments.  But tradecraft alone can't redeem the film’s narrative oversights.  Wirkola scatters goofy subplots like breadcrumbs (the best being Hansel’s struggle with diabetes after his excessive childhood sugar intake), but they exist more for convenience than for color.  Failing any interesting details, the story is a string of revelations - about the witches’ evil plan, about Hansel and Gretel’s parentage, about Hansel’s obligatory love interest (Pihla Viitala) - that hurriedly accumulate in one big pile of fantasy clichés.  The entire production just feels rushed - the film lasts barely 80 minutes - and lacks the kind of breathing room that would clarify just how seriously it takes itself and make it a funny movie, rather than a merely silly one.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Movie 43

Movie 43 (2013)
Dir. Peter Farrelly

0.5 out of 5

Movie 43 is nothing less than an affable desecration of the entire legacy of sketch comedy - from SNL to Kentucky Fried Movie to Monty Python to your Saturday afternoon improv class - and a grand act of self-sabotage from a tasteless titan of ‘90s gross-out comedy.  Peter Farrelly (reminding us that the salad days of There’s Something About Mary were a long, long time ago) assembles a star-studded cast in a series of vignettes loosely joined by a frame story of a desperate screenwriter (Dennis Quaid) pitching his ludicrous ideas to a studio exec (Greg Kinnear).  This is where things already start to go wrong, as it disingenuously suggests that the content of Movie 43 is simply in the imagination of a fictionalized Hollywood hack.  However, these are indeed the ideas of actual Hollywood hacks who somehow convinced big-name actors to sacrifice themselves at the altar of grade-school level poop jokes.  The layers of badness here are more than a bit Kafkaesque. 

Reviewing a film like Movie 43 presents a unique challenge: how do you describe scenes that no one in their right mind would find appealing?  Should I talk about the large pair of testicles dangling from Hugh Jackman’s neck that his date, Kate Winslet, cannot get him to acknowledge?  Perhaps you’d like to know about Chris Pratt’s thoughtful consumption of cheap burritos and strong laxatives in preparation for a tryst with his coprophiliac fiancé (Anna Faris)?  It’s a fool’s errand, mostly because determining which of the sketches is the worst is like arguing about which Pope was the most Catholic.  Still, my dishonorable mention goes to the story of a teenage girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) whose first period causes hysterical panic in a room full of men, a scenario that oddly ends up affirming the misogynistic viewpoint it attempts to skewer.  The fact that the segment was directed by a woman - Elizabeth Banks, who also appears in a D.O.A. story about an evil animated cat - makes it even more mind-boggling.

In fact, the entire movie displays an off-putting nastiness wherever women are concerned - they are shat on, beaten up, and objectified as nude, life-size MP3 players (don’t ask).  It makes a skit about a blind date that devolves into a ruthless game of truth or dare seem progressive; at least each of its participants, Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant, are equally humiliated.  Farrelly and his cronies can’t help but apply some polish to their collective turd whenever they move away from straight-up scatological humor, such as a sketch where two parents (Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts) explain that giving their home-schooled son an “authentic high school experience” includes subjecting him to bullying and awkward romantic encounters.  But it’s all too little, too late.  It’s telling that Movie 43 literally gives up right before its final segment, an act of audience-insulting defiance that would double as an admission of guilt for wasting the efforts of hundreds of industry professionals, had the film possessed even the tiniest shred of shame.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Tabu (2013)
Dir. Miguel Gomes

3.5 out of 5

Tabu, a black-and-white mood piece from Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes, is really a tale of two films.  The first is the journalistic chronicle of Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a middle-aged spinster living in a Lisbon apartment complex next to Aurora (Laura Soveral), an elderly woman whose growing dementia takes a toll on her neighbor and her long-suffering Cape Verdean housekeeper, Santa (Isabel Munoz Cardoso).  Aurora's mental deterioration eventually lands her in the hospital, and a lyrical flashback to a young Aurora (Ana Moreira) living in one of Portugal’s African colonies in the 1960s begins after the woman's delirious ramblings lead her caretakers to Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo), her old acquaintance.  His narration forms the backbone of the second film, a dialogue-free reconstruction of the affair between the engaged Aurora and his dashing younger self (Carloto Cotta) in the foothills of the fictional Mount Tabu.

The movie's sharp narrative turn would be out of place if Gomes didn't do such a good job building worlds where happiness seems just out of reach, no matter the setting.  Pilar's stark, lonely existence - she's jilted by the exchange student she is supposed to host and her only suitor is a mediocre painter who makes embarrassing professions of his love - creeps along until Gomes abruptly shifts into the lush exoticism of the film's African half.  However, Gomes tends to over-think the aesthetic possibilities, attempting to weave some of the documentary realism of the Lisbon story into a dreamy fable of forbidden romance.  The bits of mannered whimsy Gomes ostensibly uses to characterize the lovers also reveal more about his own nostalgic biases - she's a legendary big game hunter clad in pith helmet and khakis, he's a guitar player in a British Invasion-style quartet.  Though neither of these details add much to the main thrust of the story, they do help create the intoxicating sense of mystery that keeps Tabu more intriguing than frustrating.  It's monotonous, but it’s poetically monotonous.

Given that most viewers will be surprised to learn that Portugal clung to its overseas colonies until the last quarter of the 20th century, it's disappointing to see such an intriguing historical setting act as little more than a backdrop to a florid melodrama.  (I like to imagine that the movie's uniformly stone-faced Africans are performing a kind of judgment on this fanciful dalliance.)  Still, Gomes finds plenty of ways to signal a looming sense of doom outside of the geopolitical context.  He's especially obsessed with the many crocodiles that wander onto the estate of Aurora's fiancé, a wealthy but bland industrialist.  Though Gomes may get his visual and narrative wires crossed several times, it's hard to ignore the sparks created by his conflation of decadent bourgeois bedroom politics and the strict natural laws of the primordial jungle.  It's an approach that creates a special atmosphere - equal parts languid and tense - so effective that it occasionally turns idleness into something gripping and vital.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad (2013)
Dir. Ruben Fleischer

1.5 out of 5

Los Angeles, 1949:  beneath the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, a seething underbelly bubbles to the surface thanks to the ambitions of Mickey Cohen, a Chicago gangland transplant with a stranglehold on the city’s vice rackets.  To combat this crime wave, the LAPD establishes the “Gangster Squad,” an off-the-books unit led by the righteous Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin).  O’Mara’s handpicked – and thoughtfully diverse – detectives are informally joined by Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a maverick and womanizer with a soft spot for Cohen’s moll, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).  Together they dispense beatings and bullets by the truckload, if only to keep up with the brazen Cohen’s own bid to turn the city’s streets into Swiss cheese.   

Gangster Squad was infamously delayed from its original 2012 release date in the wake of last summer’s cinema shooting in Aurora, Colorado.  It is easy to see why.  The film’s violence could easily be considered excessive even if it hadn’t accidentally stumbled into the renewed national debate on gun control.  That’s presumably why director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) takes great pains to establish his heroes as beer-and-BBQ-hangin’ bros.  But the film clearly sends the message that the only “real” cops are thes guns-blazing cowboy types – one of them, the sharpshooting elder statesman Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), actually is a cowboy.  Meanwhile, the rank-and-file is so inept (or corrupt) that there’s nothing to stop a mobster from turning a swanky hotel into an urban fortress bristling with machine guns.  Lost within all the clamor and faux-noir posturing are intriguing performances by Gosling, whose chemistry with Stone is wasted in a handful of go-nowhere scenes, and Sean Penn, who plays Cohen as a scenery-chewing gargoyle with a face contorted in a permanent mask of contempt.

The preposterous lack of distinction between LA’s teeming underworld and its innocent public spaces is just one of many ways in which the film doesn’t seem completely thought through.  For a movie that glorifies law enforcement, Gangster Squad is pretty insulting to the day-to-day competency of the Los Angeles Police Department.  However, it’s arguably more insulting to its audience, positing a vision of late-1940s Los Angeles as a glittery deathtrap where a night on the town so often ends in a deadly firefight or a massive explosion.  Based on the real story of a covert police unit designed to run Eastern mobsters out of LA, there’s plenty of potential in the concept of a post-war metropolis recalibrating its moral compass during a time of economic and social upheaval.  But Gangster Squad is far too simplistic to carry any real impact, with any nuanced ideas ingloriously belched out of this muddle of a movie, hard and fast, like the contents of a tommy gun. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

4.5 out of 5

Back in 2009, Kathryn Bigelow's critically-acclaimed wartime character study The Hurt Locker was held up as part of a belated cultural response to America's recent military excursions in the Middle East.  Even though it won Oscars for best picture, director, and screenplay, its lukewarm commercial reception pointed to a greater sense of detachment from ongoing overseas conflict - a shame, since it’s a deceptively simple and bracing film about the burdens of responsibility that was more or less perceived as well-timed, conscientious reportage.  For her follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow lunges for the jugular and ratchets up the ambition - and the excitement - with a docudrama about the ten-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden.  The result is her magnum opus, a nail-biting thrill ride firmly ensconced in the "go big or go home" school of filmmaking, a movie that's just too large and too imposing to ignore.

Bigelow re-teams with Hurt Locker scribe Mark Boal for a story about the men and women who doggedly pursued the al-Qaeda leader for the better part of a decade, based on first-person accounts of military and intellgence personnel.  The film zeroes in on Maya (Jessica Chastain), a determined CIA analyst who follows a daisy chain of evidence to uncover the identity of bin Laden's bagman.  It's tempting to say that Chastain's quietly ferocious performance gives Zero Dark Thirty its moral center, but the film is not a referendum on the political and military strategies used to pursue the War on Terror.  Her confidence is righteous and her justifications tacitly accepted; her efforts are not so much a barometer for the war's “success" as they are a series of signposts for the years of red herrings and tragic setbacks that defined the mission.

Much like its protagonist, Zero Dark Thirty is a cold, clinical, relentless piece of work.  It's also a particularly high-strung film that periodically feels the need to acknowledge its own self-importance.  Redundancies pad its first half as Boal feels the need to name-check every major terrorist attack since 9/11, foreign or domestic.  But the film's minor pacing flaws are more than redeemed by its tense standalone sequences that utilize the strengths of its talented ensemble cast, from the alternately genial and intimidating demeanor of Jason Clarke (Lawless) in its controversial interrogation scenes to the mordant humor of Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton as Navy SEALs participating in the grand finale - a daring midnight raid of bin Laden's secret compound.

By taking care to establish the testosterone-laden nature of Maya's workplace - Mark Strong even drops by to deliver a volcanic monologue reminiscent of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross - Bigelow adds to the monumental pressure on her heroine.  To watch her do her job is to experience all the stress and tedium that entails (even when we know how the story ends) until it is finally released in an overwhelming rush of achievement.  Exactly what that achievement is - and whether it's unequivocally good, bad, or incomplete - is smartly left for the viewer to decide.  Zero Dark Thirty is already an achievement in and of itself, as disturbing, thought-provoking, and entertaining as a matter-of-fact presentation can possibly be.

"Zero Dark Thirty" opened 12/19 in limited release and opens everywhere this Friday.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher (2012)
Dir. Christopher McQuarrie

2.5 out of 5

Written and directed by frequent Bryan Singer collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, Jack Reacher begins with a chilling sniper attack on innocent pedestrians in downtown Pittsburgh, then spends the rest of its two hours trying to justify the gravity of its opening scene as a undistinguished, somewhat shabby excuse for a mystery-thriller.  Tom Cruise plays the titular role, a former military policeman whose distaste for the rat race of civilian life has pushed him off the grid.  He suddenly appears when the loner ex-vet accused of gunning down five people - a perp that Reacher busted in Iraq but was let go due to extenuating circumstances - requests him by name.  The suspect impolitely falls into a coma before Reacher can arrive, however, meaning he must convince a skeptical defense attorney (a bland Rosamund Pike) that the man has been framed while dodging her overbearing district attorney father (Richard Jenkins) and the cop heading the state investigation (David Oyelowo).

Based on the Lee Child novel One Shot, McQuarrie's script spares no superlative about its hero's genius-level deductive powers, his extraordinary fighting skills, and his penchant for extralegal means of administering justice (but only to those, as the movie and its advertising make clear, who "deserve it").  Cruise plays the role with a hyper-professional relish, rampaging through the film like a robotic Boy Scout on the fritz as he busts up meth dealers and the hired goons of a shadowy building concern.  Though it's tempting to label Jack Reacher - with its disenchanted, technically homeless veteran who's been programmed too well for duties outside the boundaries of normal day-to-day living - the First Blood of the War on Terror, the film is unfortunately more of a mechanistic genre exercise than a nuanced character study.  It hardly even bothers to give its half-developed characters coherent motivations as it chugs along from point A to point B - the plight of a random damsel in distress somehow gets Reacher more pissed off than, you know, a conspiracy to commit mass murder and terrorize dozens of innocent people.

Despite its pretense of serious, Fincher-esque crime drama, Jack Reacher is just bursting with unrealized camp potential.  McQuarrie builds a straightforward thriller plot while constantly teasing the audience with tantalizingly baroque flourishes, like casting celebrated German auteur Werner Herzog as a one-eyed criminal mastermind.  Octogenarian screen legend Robert Duvall gets roped into this circus as well, playing a key role in a climactic firefight so preposterous, it wouldn't feel out of place in the third act of Battleship.  Mostly, however, the movie revels in clueless denial of its inherent ridiculousness.  It's lost on the filmmakers when Pike punctures Reacher's legalistic pomposity like a balloon as she excitedly describes the nefarious ends of their unseen corporate adversary as "Bridges nobody needs, highways nobody uses!"  Without even remotely interesting stakes, the narrative clumsily falls back on clichéd women-in-peril scenarios to generate cheap drama while inexplicably padding its third act with Second Amendment talking points (again, this is a movie that begins with a gunman firing indiscriminately at a crowd of morning commuters).  Squandering an intriguing premise - not to mention gads of unintentional comedy - with a pedestrian style and hammy performances, it's more akin to an episode of a television procedural than a franchise vehicle for one of the world's biggest movie stars.  To borrow its own turn of phrase, Jack Reacher is the type of movie nobody remembers.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Catch-Up: Fall(ish) 2012

I try to review as many movies as I can within their window of release, either in press screenings or by plunking down my cash at the multiplex. But some films inevitably slip through the cracks. Here a few that I've caught up with recently...

Dir. Simon West

2.5 out of 5

The Dirty Dozen is often mentioned as a reference point for Sylvester Stallone's late-in-life franchise about about a team of muscular mercenaries, but The A-Team might be a better comparison.  While The Expendables 2 does return an impressive collection of high-wattage stars – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, and Jet Li, to name a few – its approach is more reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon than a gritty provocation of Hollywood ultra-violence.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the film exceeds its predecessor when it indulges its cornier tendencies and better resembles a spectacular playdate for aging hyper-masculine film icons instead of a joyless, muddy slog through a third world shooting gallery.  

The man replacing Stallone in director’s chair, veteran action helmer Simon West (Con Air), could have something to do with the sequel’s newfound savoir-faire.  Adding Jean-Claude Van Damme to the mix as a sadistic rival mercenary definitely does.  Playing a villain named "Jean Vilain," he exudes oddball charisma while delivering ridiculous lines such as “Without respect we’re just people – common, shitty people” with a hammy flourish.  Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is rarely as colorful as Van Damme's performance.  The generic plot concerning a cache of stolen plutonium is a flimsy pretense to all the fighting, and a high percentage of its one-liners are surprisingly clunky for a film that’s supposed to be a throwback to the pithy, larger-than-life 80s action aesthetic.  The Expendables 2 clearly has its beefy heart in the right place, but it’s still a repetitive buffet of destruction that could have used less meat and more cheese.

Ruby Sparks (2012)
Dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

4 out of 5

The precious-sounding premise for Ruby Sparks - struggling novelist Calvin (Paul Dano) manifests his ideal woman, Ruby (Zoe Kazan), simply by writing about her - belies its true nature as a thoughtful romantic comedy that rebels against its advertising as a standard indie quirkfest.  Its iconoclasm begins with the titular sprite played by Kazan, who wrote the script as a vehicle for herself and real-life partner Dano.  No mere vanity project, Ruby Sparks is both a critique of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl formula and a cautionary tale about the difference between idealized infatuation and unconditional love.  The result is a cross between Stranger Than Fiction and Weird Science that's buoyed by strong performances from Dano, Kazan, and Chris Messina as Calvin’s supportive older brother, Harry.  Though sometimes too overt and preachy, the movie still makes an incisive point about male fantasies of “quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing."  And despite an ending that compromises Ruby's central argument, Kazan, a first-time screenwriter, displays remarkable poise and a gift for brevity.  An intelligent, unassuming gem of a film, Ruby Sparks exceeds expectations as a modern-day fable that’s appropriately down-to-earth and bittersweet.

Dir. Paolo Sorrentino

2.5 out of 5

"You're not depressed; you're just bored," says the longtime spouse (Frances McDormand) of aging goth rocker Cheyenne (Sean Penn), who lives a sheltered life in his European mansion when he suddenly decides to track down the former Nazi concentration camp guard who once humiliated his father.  But honestly, how can she tell?  The squeaky-voiced protagonist of This Must Be the Place has a way of making his serious thoughts sound like rhetorical Zen koans ("Why is Lady Gaga?") that trail off without any attempt at transition.  Paolo Sorrentino's film follows suit, morphing from a deadpan comedy to a hybrid road/vengeance movie that asks the audience to tolerate its continuing non-sequitur weirdness.  It's an often frustrating approach that pads the movie with inexplicable scenes that bear no relation to what precedes or follows them, such a brief sequence that finds Cheyenne schooling two college kids at ping-pong.  Penn's nuanced, nonjudgmental performance carries a disjointed effort that's constantly demanding attention that it doesn't always deserve.  He deserves a lot of credit for managing to modulate Cheyenne's emotions despite being asked to deliver almost every line in a plaintive sigh.  The lack of thoughtful editing in This Must Be the Place makes it easy to empathize with the hero's weariness, but Penn's commitment at least makes Sorrentino's digressions bearable.

Anna Karenina (2012)
Dir. Joe Wright

3 out of 5

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy's wide-angle tale of love, sin, and hypocrisy among the social elite of tsarist Russia, receives all the benefits of the deluxe Joe Wright literary adaptation package: bright and sumptuous visuals, long tracking shots, and Keira Knightley as a period costume fashion plate.  Knightley plays the titular socialite and loving mother; married to a stern bureaucrat (Jude Law), she enters an affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) at the risk of damaging her family's reputation.  A sweet parallel subplot examines the humble country aristocrat Konstantin (Domhnall Gleeson) and his determined courtship of Kitty (Alicia Vikander), Anna's radiant sister-in-law.  Working with award-winning playwright Tom Stoppard as his screenwriter, Wright deepens his commitment to the conspicuous theatricality glimpsed in his previous adaptations of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement.  He presents the movie as a stage production, with moving pieces of scenery serving as visual transitions and characters wandering into the audience and backstage areas.  

However, the vast scope of Tolstoy's novel - jumping from city to city and touching on the cultural upheaval in Russia during its 19th-century mad dash towards modernity - forces Wright to abandon this show-offy conceit early and often.  The film also has pacing issues, drawing out Vronsky's seduction without examining what makes him so irresistible   He's young and handsome, but is also a known playboy, and it is left to the audience to imagine why Anna would risk her life of privilege to play cougar.  The film at least captures the unjust double standard applied to the affair's participants, with Vronsky getting off scot-free while Anna suffers in social isolation.  ("I'd call on her if she broke the law," says a catty Moscow socialite, "but she broke the rules.")  Pretty but lacking in depth, Wright's attempt to enliven a classic piece of literature becomes too distracted by its own visual panache to pay enough attention to its heroine's conflicted emotions.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Wide Angle: 2012 in Review

Last winter a friend and I went to the local multiplex to catch the superhero found-footage movie Chronicle.  In the middle of its explosive climax, a fellow theatergoer leaned over to us across the empty seat buffer and gave us this cheerful analysis of the film:

“Somethin’ different!”

From unsolicited opinion to rallying cry, those two words are appropriate approbation for my movie year 2012.  This being the year that I finally caved in to Twitter (and because I should have launched the #somethingdifferent movement much earlier), I thought it would be fitting to come up with hashtags for the trending topics of the year....    

You just can’t argue with People magazine

Matthew McConaughey gets the last laugh

Effeminate Southern civic boosters are the toughest guys in Bernie and The Campaign

A banner year for Messrs. Heidecker and Wareheim along with Girls star Alex Karpovsky's Red Flag

Another stellar year for unsung non-fiction: The ImposterJiro Dreams of SushiWest of Memphis + more...

Paternal issues loom large in Men in Black IIIThe Master, and Lincoln (aka ‘America’s Dad’)

Macabre animated family films abound with ParaNormanFrankenweenie, and Hotel Transylvania

Anna Karenina and Wuthering Heights shatter conventions for adapting classic literature

With @ScreenInvasion connections, I attend an alphabet soup of festivals and interview actual film professionals

One note about this post: my picks for 2012’s best films are arranged chronologically by release because I don’t really like the construct of a ranked list, mostly because I hate making difficult decisions.  Lovers of concrete truths can see my personal rankings for Screen Invasion’s year-end list.  I also mention some other stuff, including the year’s worst films, biggest disappointments, most pleasant surprises, and humans who were the best at playing pretend.

Top Whatever

In Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim successfully ported their often-alienating brand of comedy from TV to the big screen and created a masterpiece of absurdist satire, provided you were on its bizarre wavelength.  Pound for pound, however, the quotable hockey comedy Goon is the funniest movie of the year.  Featuring a lovable Seann William Scott as an on-ice pugilist with a heart of gold, it's a perfectly-pitched underdog tale that’s also an unexpected meditation on the role of violence in modern society.

I've already seen The Cabin in the Woods three times, a testament to its impeccable script and pacing, hands down the most purely entertaining film of 2012.  From the head to the heart, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a feast for the senses, a marvel of old-fashioned visual storytelling anchored by a kindergartner with a poise and charisma well beyond her years.

An enthralling pair of documentaries arrived in the summer: one a lighthearted portrait of wealth that morphs into a quintessentially American story of massive hubris (The Queen of Versailles), the other a searing investigation of rampant sexual abuse in the U.S. military (The Invisible War).  Both coincidentally feature female protagonists - Jackie Siegel and Kori Cioca - whose steely resolve refuses to let them be underestimated or ignored.

The Master is a film you handle at your own risk, an antagonistic, multi-layered character study from Paul Thomas Anderson.  Its story of the relationship between a cult leader and an impressionable drifter isn't nearly as important as the raw, naked emotions it evokes in its look at the dark heart of the American Dream.  Looper was nearly as ambivalent about the future as The Master was about the past, at least for its first two-thirds, before a resolution for its workaday hitman that feels wholly appropriate and earned.  Rian Johnson's impressive time-travel film is by far the sharpest popcorn movie of the year.

I will always be jealous of anyone watching Disney's Wreck-It Ralph for the first time, if only because I wish this animated gem could cast its spell on me all over again.  In a year when Pixar's best effort left something to be desired, Ralph delivered a classic story of self-acceptance applicable to all ages, cleverly transmitted via the milieu of video gaming's past and present.  Holy Motors was equally magical but in a different way - Denis Levant's shape-shifting performance drives Leos Carax's brilliant, bizarre opus about the alchemy of cinema.

The mold-breaking romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook declared war on the genre by positing its main couple's quirks as the byproducts of mental illness; even as it softens into something more familiar and comforting, it never betrays the dysfunction that makes it so refreshing.  And 2012 ended with the year's best Christmas present - a new film from Quentin Tarantino.  His raucous revival of the spaghetti western, Django Unchained, is an expertly-crafted joyride that showcases a master storyteller at the top of his game.

Other Good Stuff

More films worthy of acclaim include the gripping Zero Dark Thirty, the lovely Moonrise Kingdom, the dazzling Life of Pi, and the puzzling (in a good way) Sound of My Voice.  The Prohibition-era thriller Lawless was one of the most artful "summer movies" in years, while The Perks of Being a Wallflower lent an emotional honesty to its teen melodrama.  

And two very different spy flicks enjoyed a well-deserved popularity at the box office: the exhilarating James Bond adventure Skyfall, which created a seismic rift in the series' fanbase by inviting viewers to have serious discussions about what was once merely a bankable cartoon character; and Argo, Ben Affleck's rewind of the Iran hostage crisis and the Era of Malaise that was a textbook example of old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking at its finest.

Just the Worst

It’s not surprising when unwanted sequels turn out to be lazy cash-ins with very few redeeming qualities.  But even the cast of American Reunion looks unhappy to be stuck in a movie with a staggering lack of creativity, simply rehashing all the jokes that seemed hopelessly sophomoric over a decade ago.  Its ennui is rivaled only by Wrath of the Titanswhich at least piggybacks on a more recent mediocrity, in terms of bland, nap-inducing predictability.

However, neither film can match the standard set by Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which elevates audience condescension to an art form.  The painfully twee story of a hapless stoner man-child wandering out into the big, scary world on an errand for his mother, Jeff somehow manages to hit every cliché of both Hollywood and indie filmmaking.  The Duplass brothers’ film is also the year’s biggest poison pill.  It was advertised as a quirky comedy even though it's actually a preposterous “everything is connected” smug-fest, as if the Duplasses were trying see how many plot contrivances they could cram into one movie.  If we are to believe in the everything-happens-for-a-reason message of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, then we must have done something terribly wrong to deserve this film.

Flawed But Fascinating

Cloud Atlas is an obvious choice here, though enough has been said about its strange brew of the ambitious and the awkward.  A couple of much less expensive films cornered the market on unrealized raw potential: Kill List, Ben Wheatley’s supremely angry hitman movie with horror elements that ends just as it seems to be gaining steam, and Beyond the Black Rainbow, a tantalizingly weird piece of sci-fi psychedelia that rewards viewers who can stand its pretentiousness and its excruciatingly slow pace.  

And let’s add Casa de mi Padre, an uneven Spanish-language prank from comedy A-listers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay that’s admirable for being so aggressively uncommercial and for inspiring giggle fits with its intentionally cheap production values.  (The underwhelming box office performance of Padre and the equally watchable The Campaign is presumably why Ferrell is punishing us with Anchorman 2 in 2013.)

Biggest Disappointments

I’d never call them ‘bad’ films, but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Brave didn’t quite meet the lofty expectations promised by a return to the gorgeous vistas of Middle-Earth and a parent-child bonding tale from Pixar, respectively.  And I wasn’t that moved by the charms of Safety Not Guaranteed, an OK indie dramedy with a career-best performance from Mark Duplass; for all its critical hosannas, I was hoping for something deeper than a modestly entertaining lark with a tacked-on “rowdy guy tries to help nerd lose his virginity” subplot.

Finally, not necessarily disappointing - but definitely baffling - is the love for The Grey, another entry in Liam Neeson’s late career “renaissance” of phoned-in action star turns.  Several months after its release, I saw a bicycle parked outside of a Ralph’s supermarket whose tire was inscribed with the entire “live and die on this day” poem that Neeson recites in the film - enough to make me remember the movie’s misplaced affection for a regressive Victorian-era masculinity and start shaking my damn head.

Most Pleasant Surprises

Every year there’s a summer blockbuster that defies low expectations or awful-looking trailers or the presence of Will Smith and turns out to be pretty entertaining.  This year that movie was Men in Black III.  2012 was also a good year for nifty B-movies, most notably Ti West’s legitimately terrifying send-up of ghost hunting in The Innkeepers and the RZA’s kung-fu homage The Man With the Iron Fists.  But holy hell did I have a blast watching Premium Rush, a script that David Koepp probably shoved into a drawer sometime in the ‘90s, then exhumed when rude, radical antiheroes doing sweet BMX tricks and taking on Chinese gangs and corrupt cops became commercially viable again.

And one final curveball: for all of his real-life image problems, Shia LeBeouf has always been a competent, natural actor.  Watching him in Lawless - where LeBeouf is perfectly cast as a wannabe player who fails miserably before learning the requisite skills and tact - was a pleasant reminder of his still-limitless potential, and I foolishly predict that he’s going to be nominated for an Oscar someday.

Best Performances

Best All-Around

’Twas the year of Matthew McConaughey, who escaped from formulaic rom-com hell and reminded us what a brilliant actor he could be by, well, acting.  He was dynamite in no less than four movies this year, nailing his roles as a grandstanding district attorney in Bernie and a predatory lawman in the delightfully nasty Killer Joe, and he even brought a sense of pathos to the overheated mess that was The Paperboy (which desperately needed someone who could act like an adult) But the crown jewel was his much-celebrated turn as a sleazy strip club owner/exotic dancer in Magic Mike, a performance so deeply committed and flat-out perfect that it shatters the boundaries of self-parody.  Not bad for someone who was once struggling to fight the perception that his zonked portrayal of Dazed and Confused’s laid-back burnout Wooderson wasn’t an act.

The Fellas

Jack Black's performance in Bernie as a beloved mortician who murdered the wicked witch of a small Texas community is award-worthy, but faces an uphill battle because of the actor's prior reputation for nonstop mugging in lowbrow comedies.  In Bernie, however, Black subdues his trademark manic tics and outbursts just enough to suggest that they're the coping mechanisms of an extremely repressed and stressed-out individual.

The comedian Tim Heidecker has an even smaller chance of awards recognition, given that his star-making turn comes in the acerbic character study The Comedy.  As a vile hipster layabout who revels in making other people uncomfortable, he gives a fiercely unglamorous performance that invites hatred and pity and, against all odds, a touch of sympathy.  The discovery of Heidecker's acting chops here is nothing short of stunning.

The Ladies  

The musical Les Misérables hits plenty of emotional highs in its two and a half hours, but it's Anne Hathaway who steals the show early on with her heartbreaking rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream."  It's far and away the most successful product of the film's ambitious plan to have its cast belt out their tunes live on set, meaning that Hathaway is simultaneously killing the vocals and the acting.

Jessica Chastain carries the sprawling Zero Dark Thirty through a decade of clandestine meetings, gut feelings, and the ever-present threat of terrorist attack.  Representing everything that made it possible for the American intelligence community and its allies to locate and kill Osama Bin Laden - determination, willpower, confidence - without turning into a jingoistic stereotype, she epitomizes what it means to bend but never break.

Rashida Jones' maturity and poise has been typecast as "seriousness" in both film and television for years, acting as the calming and slightly frowny presence in a sea of wackiness.  But she finally gets the meaty role she deserves in the break-up comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever.  Of course, she had to write the part herself, but it's far from a vanity project as she proves that "grown-up" and "funny" aren't mutually exclusive characteristics.

Best Screen Couples

Much of the success of Silver Linings Playbook starts with the chemistry of its leads, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, who convincingly play two people all too familiar with losing control, and the way that complicates the equally uncontrollable process of falling in love.  Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman have their own issues in The Master, two men slipping away from the mainstream who need each other to give some sense of where their lives are going.  Lastly, Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave perfectly capture the heightened emotions of young love as the doomed couple in Wuthering Heights, laying the foundation for generations of retribution and reconciliation.

Lions in Winter

Good roles for older actors can be hard to come by, so it's all the more pleasing to see Judi Dench redefining the role of "Bond Girl" in Skyfall and Frank Langella as a retired cat burglar losing his memory but not his sly instincts and distaste for authority in Robot and Frank.  But it doesn't get any better than Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens dispensing mellifluous insults to his congressional colleagues in Lincoln, a performance that's secretly better than Method poster boy Daniel Day-Lewis'.

The Golden Ham

To all those who still don't consider Michael Shannon a national treasure, let his performance as the impeccably-named Detective Bobby Monday in Premium Rush remove all doubt.  Known mostly for his ability to project a preternatural self-control, Shannon's silly turn as a hapless, sniveling corrupt cop with an explosive temper and a serious gambling problem is like watching the dentist's kid finally get a few minutes alone in the candy store.  The most impressive part?  Even when he's delivering lines with a quasi-Bugs Bunny accent, Shannon is still creepy menace personified.