I Am DB

February 19, 2013

The Year in Movies: 2012

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 2:10 pm
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I’ve always responded to movies on an emotional level as opposed to an intellectual one. That’s one of the reasons I was never interested in being a critic and writing movie reviews. (That, and I don’t want to waste my time watching stuff I know is going to be bad and that I have no interest in.) Though I wish it were otherwise, I’m not much of a critical thinker, and rarely do I have a lot of analysis to offer about the movies I see. My reactions, even the most positive ones, tend to be on a gut level, and I’m usually not great at articulating why I respond to this movie or that. So the obsessive fan in me always approaches this annual post with mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m compelled to say something about the movies I enjoyed most during the year. On the other hand, I hate actually writing about them, and I’m almost never happy with what I have to say….which is a really convincing argument for you to go ahead and read it.

Anyway…my usual approach is to single out and rank the few movies that rose to best of the best for me, and then list my remaining favorites alphabetically, even if some really rank higher than others. This isn’t a top ten list, but rather a rundown of the movies – however many –  that left the biggest impression on me…with the full disclosure that over time, others that aren’t included here may grow on me to the point that I’ll regret leaving them off. C’est la vie…

1.
LINCOLN

There are countless stories to be told about the life of our 16th President, and a movie titled Lincoln might suggest it will try to tell a lot of them. Instead, director Steven Spielberg and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Tony Kushner hone in on one: the effort to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery. That decision to focus on a crucial and dramatic moment in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency – it was a month-long period, roughly, just before his second inauguration – allows for a focused, compelling story that still offers a fascinating insight into a legendary but mysterious figure in our country’s lore. The subject matter, while certainly interesting and dramatic, is not inherently exciting fodder for a movie, yet the result is completely riveting. Credit goes to Kushner’s phenomenal, language-rich script adapted from a small section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s nonfiction tome Team of Rivals, and to the ever astonishing Daniel Day-Lewis.

As soon as it was announced that Day-Lewis would be playing this part, I knew we were in store for something special, and the actor does not disappoint. His Lincoln is every bit the immersive, hypnotic portrayal you would expect, as he presents the many complicated facets of a man leading the nation in the most troubling of times. We expect Lincoln to come across as intelligent, powerful and guided by an admirable moral compass. But the film also gives us a man who is warm, witty, sly, compassionate and haunted, and Day-Lewis embodies every nuance with such command, honesty and integrity that it seems like what we see on-screen isn’t a performance, but a resurrection. I could happily have continued watching him play the part long beyond the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour running time. And yet as much as Day-Lewis is key to the movie’s success, he is also absent during the lengthy scenes in which the amendment is debated in the House of Representatives. These sequences are as electrifying as any others in the movie, offering up great performances from Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie as the two most vocal opponents to the Amendment, and Tommy Lee Jones as its staunchest supporter. Jones, Pace and McRobbie are just a few among the deep reserve of talented character actors contributing to the movie’s success. Sally Field, David Strathairn, James Spader, Michael Stuhlbarg, Gloria Reuben, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley…the list goes on, and they all deserve credit for their contributions, no matter the size of their part.

Kushner’s script may be as near a work of art as a screenplay can get. The time period calls for a formality of language, but Kushner makes the dialogue crackle and sing. It’s a joy to listen to these great actors speak such exceptional dialogue. There’s a scene in which Lincoln’s Cabinet discusses whether or not the amendment is necessary given the existence of the Emancipation Proclamation, and finally the president weighs in on why that order may or may not be legal, and why it is unsustainable as a solution to slavery. It’s easy to imagine the scene playing like a talking head moment in a documentary. But Kushner’s dialogue is so eloquent, and Day-Lewis so charming and incandescent, that we’re held spellbound, hanging on every word, oblivious to eating our vegetables because they’ve been so carefully crafted to taste like cake.

The movie’s flaws are few. The first scene (well, the second actually, in which Lincoln talks to some Union soldiers in the field), could have been omitted, as it indulges Spielberg’s tendency for over-earnestness. The movie also should have ended a few minutes earlier than it did (there’s a blatantly obvious moment at which to fade out), rather than including a coda that feels tacked on and out-of-place with the rest of the story. But everything in between works wonderfully, and Spielberg seems to be holding back and allowing the script and the actors to do their work. In collaboration with Kushner, Day-Lewis, and countless others in front of and behind the camera, he has brought an essential chapter of American history to vivid life.


2.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
David O. Russell has directed six movies, and there isn’t a weak one among them. His latest is stylistically similar to his previous, 2010’s outstanding The Fighter, in the way he brings the audience into such close proximity to the characters that all artifice seems to melt away and we’re left with something raw and real. The achievement is especially impressive here because the story has more than a few indie-cute trappings. The movie begins with Bradley Cooper’s Pat Solitano Jr. leaving a mental hospital after an eight month stay prompted by a violent reaction to discovering his wife’s infidelity. He moves in with his concerned parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro), determined to get his mind healthy and win back his now estranged wife. Those efforts are complicated when he meets his friend’s recently widowed sister-in-law Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has issues of her own. Oh, and in case you can’t tell from that brief synopsis, it’s a comedy.

A less talented filmmaker would not have been able to get past the more constructed elements of the plot; things that might have come off as overly quirky. But Russell has a way of teasing out the naturalism, allowing the film to transcend what could have been gimmicky. It starts with guiding his entire cast to sensational performances. The manic energy and brilliant timing and delivery brought by Bradley Cooper appear so effortless that it might be easy to overlook how great he is. This is his best performance to date. Jennifer Lawrence matches him move for move, locating the softness and vulnerability lurking just below Tiffany’s hard, no-bullshit exterior. Jacki Weaver’s loving mother trying to bring peace to the household is a great counterpoint to the equally loving but cunning matriarch that earned her an Oscar nomination in 2010 for Animal Kingdom. And De Niro…where has this guy been? His rich performance as Pat Sr. is a welcome reminder of what one of our greatest actors is capable of when he has material worth investing in. It’s an overdue return to form that allows him to play the kind of comedy, drama and at times even scariness that recalls glory day performances in films like Midnight Run, GoodFellas and Stanley & Iris. Just as essential to the mix are John Ortiz as Pat’s put-upon neighborhood friend Ronnie, Julia Stiles as Tiffany’s sister/Ronnie’s materialistic, controlling wife, Chris Tucker as Pat’s buddy from the mental hospital and Anupam Kher as his therapist.

Russell also deftly employs cinematography and editing to bring us up close and personal into Pat’s physical and mental space, creating an immediacy that infuses the entire movie. That stroke of inspiration by Russell, along with the performances he coaxes from his cast, make Silver Linings Playbook a comedy with a rare, exhilarating intensity.


The Rest:

ARBITRAGE
Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki pulls off a surprising trick in his crafty dramatic thriller: he gets the audience to root for, and at moments even empathize with, a crooked billionaire who represents the 1% that most of us have vilified in these troubled economic times. Jarecki’s equal partner in this feat is the perfectly cast Richard Gere, whose smooth performance as hedge fund manager Robert Miller is among his best ever. Miller’s charmed life faces a rapid unraveling when he falls under police suspicion for walking away from a fatal car accident, just as the impending sale of his company hits a roadblock, threatening to expose the fraudulent adjustments he’s made to its finances to cover a failed investment. What Jarecki and Gere capture so well is the bubble of wealth and privilege in which people like Miller are so deeply ensconced. He’s obviously extremely intelligent, but at the same time utterly clueless about the realities of life that average people face day to day…a fact that comes out in honest and sometimes amusing ways, particularly in his dealings with Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), a young man from Harlem who becomes unwittingly involved in Miller’s troubles. The strengths of Jarecki’s script lie in believable details of Miller’s privileged world, in the contrast between that world and the one Jimmy occupies, and in making the viewer resent Miller for his greed and lies even as we understand that cooking the company’s books and trying to elude prison are as much acts of protection toward those who have given him their trust as they are acts of selfishness to save his own neck. Susan Sarandon is terrific as Miller’s wife, who knows more than she initially lets on, and Brit Marling is also superbly cast as Miller’s daughter who helps run his company.


ARGO

Ben Affleck’s third film as a director is his most ambitiously scaled to date. Working from a strong script by Chris Terrio, Affleck demonstrates absolute command with this thrilling, inspired-by-real-events story. He stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who specializes in getting Americans out of tricky foreign entanglements. His most challenging mission comes up during the hostage crisis that begins when Iranians take over their country’s U.S. embassy out of anger over the Americans providing asylum to a toppled, now-ill and aging Shah. Six embassy employees manage to escape the building as it’s overrun, and they find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, hiding in his house for over two months before Mendez arrives with a plan to get them out. That plan involves posing as a Canadian film crew who are in country to scout locations for a science fiction film. In order to sell the lie, Mendez enlists movie makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a movie that must appear to be real but will never be made.

Similar to Apollo 13, in which Ron Howard managed to put us on the edge of our seats for a story whose outcome we already knew, so do Argo and Affleck put us through the ringer and make us forget what we know of the hostage crisis results. The movie is a briskly paced grabber from its opening sequence with the embassy takeover, yet it also manages to take a seamless detour into comedy as it depicts the Hollywood side of the operation, with fun performances by Goodman and Arkin. Never do the laughs seem ill-fitting or clumsily juxtaposed against the intensity of the situation, and the result is a movie that has broad commercial appeal by making audiences easily shift between laughter and anxiety.


THE AVENGERS

It worked. All that clever and strategic groundwork that Marvel Studios laid out beginning with the 2008 release of Iron Man paid off, as The Avengers brought together an eclectic crew of heroes and marvelously (no pun intended) succeeded in making a gigantic action movie that cares as much about its characters as its special effects. The big question I had going in, as I’m sure many others did too, was whether or not the movie could serve multiple protagonists, furthering their own storylines while also depicting the drama inherent in their coming together, allotting enough time to them in what needed to be an action-packed spectacle. The answer, courtesy of writer/director/geek God Joss Whedon, was a resounding yes.

That’s because the pleasure of The Avengers isn’t the spectacle, but the people in the midst of it: Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Chris Evans’ Captain Steve Rogers, Mark Ruffalo’s Dr. Bruce Banner (and of course, their alter egos), Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Scarlett Johannson’s Natasha Romanoff and Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton (aka Black Widow and Hawkeye, respectively). Each character has been introduced in a previous Marvel film (with Ruffalo replacing Edward Norton), so The Avengers is partially a sequel. To its great credit, the movie advances each figure’s personal arc, so when we return to their own individual adventures, they’ll have arrived somewhere beyond where they were at the end of those movies and the beginning of this one. It’s impressive that with so many characters to serve, each one gets their due. Not only do they enjoy standout moments of action, but they also get chances to shine in quieter moments throughout the film. The climactic sequence, a massive battle against an invading alien force in the streets and skies of Manhattan, is big and packed with CGI…but because we’re so invested in these characters and the way they play off each other, the action and visual effects are not merely an end unto themselves. Storywise, the climax actually bears a strong similarity to the finale of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. But whereas that movie fails to impress beyond the quality of the effects and the orchestration of the action, The Avengers works because there are characters we care about, and watching them work together is a blast. These are all charismatic actors, and their interaction is what powers the movie.


THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

I’m generally not a fan of horror movies, and most of the ones I do like – classics like The Exorcist and The Shining – aren’t about a bunch of horny teenagers who run afoul of a blade-wielding boogeyman. So if taken on its surface, The Cabin in the Woods would not appear to be my cup of tea. But it turns out that what’s below the surface matters much more in this joyously clever twist on the formula. In fact, The Cabin in the Woods doesn’t really have a lot of typical scares. It’s more comedy than horror movie. At least, I found myself laughing often, more than I found myself jumping or squirming. Not much can be said without spoiling the fun, but in a nutshell, five college students take a weekend trip to a remote lakeside cabin, and, well…shit happens. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford factor in as a pair of corporate drones, but that’s all I’ll say. Initially, most of the violence is handled off-screen or in relative darkness, so those of us with weak stomachs for the usual Saw/Hostel-like horror gore have little to worry about. By the time blood starts coming by the bucketload, things have become so giddily crazy and excessive that the violence is more comical than disturbing. I don’t know how it will play at home, on TV with just a few people in the room, but on the big screen with a packed crowd, this was definitely among the most fun theater-going experiences I had all year.


CLOUD ATLAS
Having avoided trailers in the hopes of being surprised, and having never read the novel by David Mitchell which was said to be unfilmable, I arrived at Cloud Atlas uncertain of what to expect. I exited enthralled, frustrated and eager to see it again, even with its nearly three-hour running time. The movie tells six separate but thematically connected stories spanning about 500 years, with the earliest set in 1849 and the latest in 2321. That set-up was the jumping off point for what became an uncommon exercise in commercial moviemaking: Run Lola Run helmer Tom Tykwer collaborated with the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, creators of The Matrix, adapting Mitchell’s novel together and then working with two independent crews to shoot the movie before coming back together to edit it into a cohesive whole. The Wachowski’s filmed the sequences set in 1849, 2144 and 2321, while Tykwer shot the 1936, 1973 and 2012 stories. To highlight the interconnectedness, the filmmakers enlisted the principal cast members – including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent (terrific), Doona Bae, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving and Ben Whishaw – to fill roles in multiple storylines, playing central figures in some and supporting roles in others, while perhaps appearing only briefly in yet another.

If the movie isn’t entirely successful, it is nevertheless admirably ambitious and immensely watchable. It never quite hooked me emotionally, at least not to the extent that I felt it could have. And despite the cross-cutting between storylines, it didn’t achieve the kind of gut-level propulsion that Christopher Nolan created in The Dark Knight and Inception, an effect which should have been inherent in this storytelling approach. Yet the film is still skillfully edited and paced, moving smoothly and strategically between stories, and each individual tale is highly engaging as they run a gamut of genres, styles and eras. Cloud Atlas is love story, sci-fi action film, period drama, screwball comedy and mystery. It’s also a gorgeously mounted production, with superb set and costume design, cinematography, visual effects, makeup (a few distracting transformations notwithstanding) and one of the best music scores of the year. (Seriously, it was robbed of an Oscar nomination for its score, and for several of those other disciplines as well.) And on top of all that, there’s a sense of fun to the whole thing as we look to see which actors will pop up where, how they’ll look, and what meaning or connection there is – if any – to their roles across stories. Cloud Atlas makes me wish that more mainstream filmmakers would take more chances with unconventional material.


DJANGO UNCHAINED

Akin to his previous film Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy boasting the director’s trademarks of tasty dialogue (the best of it going to Basterd‘s Oscar winner Christoph Waltz), colorful characters, excessive violence and inspired music selections. Jamie Foxx has fun in the title role, but it’s Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio who stand out. Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter who acquires the slave Django and offers him freedom in exchange for his help tracking down an elusive quarry. When he learns of Django’s intention to locate his still-enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, reunited with Foxx eight years after Ray), Schultz offers his help. The search leads to Broomhilda’s owner, the brash, vile Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) who presides over an infamous Mississippi plantation dubbed CandieLand. It’s great to see DiCaprio work as a member of an ensemble rather than the head of it, and to see him play more of a character actor’s role than he usually takes on.

On the whole, I can’t say this is Tarantino at his absolute best. I never felt the kind of tension in my stomach that I got from certain parts of Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown or Basterds, and there were definitely scenes that should have had that quality. There was also a missed opportunity with Samuel L. Jackson’s character of Candie’s head house slave Stephen, whose sinister and despicable qualities are too often undermined in favor of playing up the humor of his being a foul-mouthed sycophant. Tarantino could have gone further and darker with Stephen, and it would have been great to see Jackson given the opportunity to go there. Still, the movie is a blast, even without shying away from the brutalities of slavery. There’s nothing glib about the savage treatment we see inflicted on the slaves, and the harsher the slavers are, the more satisfying it is to see Django dish out their comeuppance.


THE GREY

Director Joe Carnahan made an impressive mark in 2002 with the Jason Patric-Ray Liotta cop drama Narc, but his next two films – Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team – went big, loud and dumb. So the restraint he shows with The Grey is impressive and unexpected. Those two adjectives describe the whole movie, in fact: impressive and unexpected. Universal Pictures marketed the film as Liam Neeson vs. a bunch of wolves, but in truth what we get is more interesting than that. Neeson plays a hunter employed at an oil rig in Alaska to keep predatory wolves at bay. A company flight back to Anchorage crashes, leaving only a handful of survivors. They make their way across the harsh wilderness in hopes of survival, but must stave off the extreme cold, high altitude and yes, territorial wolves. But the drama is less focused on creating suspense around who will survive and who won’t than it is in putting us alongside these men who know that, in reality, they’re all likely to die. The ensemble and the narrative are tight, with the movie feeling much brisker than its two-hour running time. Directed by Carnahan in a way that feels more indie than Hollywood, this is a powerful drama of man vs. nature that was probably dismissed by a lot of people due to misleading marketing. It’s much better than you expected it to be.


THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

If not quite as strong as the three films comprising the peerless Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first installment of The Hobbit series is still a wondrous and welcome return to Middle Earth as interpreted by Peter Jackson. Inheriting the role of a younger Bilbo Baggins from Ian Holm (who, with Elijah Wood as Frodo, appears at the beginning of the tale), Martin Freeman brings charm to spare, but also keeps Bilbo’s naiveté, fear and uncertainty in sight. Ian McKellan slips easily back into the grey cloak and unkempt beard of Gandalf, and we are treated to return appearances by Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee in a sequence that helps draw out the connections between this story and events of The Lord of the Rings. If the full ensemble of actors playing the dwarves don’t all make the impression that the members of the Fellowship did, I’ll chalk it up to the fact that there are 13 of them, with many similar sounding names, and the story – so far, at least – can’t serve them all equally. But those who get a bit of time in the spotlight all registered impressively, with Ken Stott’s elder Balin, James Nesbitt’s cheerful Bofur, Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner’s young whippersnappers Fili and Kili, and Richard Armitage’s stoic leader Thorin all standing out.

At nearly three hours, the movie does feel a bit long, though without knowing where the next two films will go as they draw not just from The Hobbit itself but from J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast background material, I’m happy enough revisiting Middle Earth to refrain from saying what should have been cut. The dwarves’ encounter with a trio of hungry trolls feels extraneous, but is one of the book’s signature scenes and is an early indicator for the dwarves of Bilbo’s cleverness. Scenes focusing on wizard Radagast the Brown also seem less than essential, yet they set up important things to come. The dwarves’ capture by the Goblin King, along with their escape, drags on a bit and feels overly busy, yet their detainment is necessary for Bilbo to lose his way and come upon Gollum, an encounter which unsurprisingly makes for one of the movie’s highlights. (Andy Serkis is again fantastic as the slinking, sneaky, pitiable creature.) So if I had some issues here and there, none were enough to make me weary of the movie or less excited for the next film. Jackson and his crew, many of them back from The Lord of the Rings, have no trouble readjusting to Tolkien’s rich world and making a film that fits snugly with those predecessors. It might not have drawn me in on quite the same emotional level or sent as many shivers along my spine, but I was still more than satisfied.


LES MISÉRABLES

I read Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables in high school, but this long-time-coming film was my first exposure to the beloved musical take on the story. It tells of former convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who breaks his parole and assumes a new identity on his quest to become a better man, but is unable to escape the dogged pursuit of police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). My first surprise was that this was a true musical. With the exception of only a handful of lines, everything is sung. My second surprise was how relentlessly stirring the music and story are, as Tom Hooper’s direction brings out the epic and the intimate in Hugo’s intricate narrative set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Much has been made of the decision to have the actors all sing live during each take, rather than lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks (though contrary to what some of the publicity would have you believe, this is not the first time it’s been done). Given that the movie is entirely told through music, the decision no doubt lends to the power of the performances. There is a raw, deeply felt quality to the singing, especially from Jackman, Anne Hathaway and newcomer Samantha Barks (reprising her role from a 2010 stage production in London), the latter two conveying utter heartache in their respective performances of the musical’s best-known songs, “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own.” Even Crowe, who cuts a formidable Javert, impresses as a singer after a slightly rocky start. He seems to be straining a bit to hit the notes in his first two numbers, but the remaining songs fit comfortably in his range, and though he’s not the strongest singer of the bunch, he certainly holds his own. Meanwhile, key roles in the story are also filled out by lesser known actors and new discoveries, notably Aaron Tveit as revolutionary leader Enjoras, and child actors Daniel Huttlestone as the precocious street kid Gavroche and Isabelle Allen as the young Cosette, who is taken in by Jean Valjean after her mother’s death.

The production is handsome and appropriately grand for the scale of the story, but it’s the music and the performances that pack the punch, combining a variety of vocal styles into a dazzling aural tapestry, from solitary tunes (like Eddie Redmayne’s trembling “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”) to duets (Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried as the grown Cosette singing, “A Heart Full of Love”) to a rousing number like “One Day More” that cross-cuts between nearly all the characters on the eve of the climactic showdown in the streets of Paris.

I know the movie has become a love-it-or-hate-it sensation, and I know many people have taken issue with Hooper’s directing style; I’ve taken issue with it myself in regards to his past work. But this time, I wasn’t even aware of his normally aggravating visual choices, so caught up was I in the story and the music. Or maybe I just don’t agree that he made such choices this time around. All I know is that the movie flew by for me, and I loved it from beginning to end.


THE MASTER

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most original voices in American film today, and each picture he makes is more unusual and puzzling than the last. They are always fascinating, however, and The Master is no exception. It’s a dense and demanding movie that can not be easily digested after only one viewing, if at all. I haven’t had the chance to revisit it yet, and so I remain uncertain of what to make of it. I don’t know what opinions I’ll come to after delving back in, but I can’t wait to see it again. And even if Anderson’s point continues to elude me, I’m okay with that. I’ve spoken before of directors like David Lynch and Terrence Malick taking me on journeys that I can’t always interpret, but which never fail to captivate.

That captivation begins with the amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a troubled WWII veteran who returns home but can’t readjust or find his place. His wanderings eventually bring him into contact with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an author, doctor and founder of a religious movement that has attracted dedicated followers and wary skeptics. Dodd takes a liking to Freddie and welcomes him into an inner circle that includes his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), his son, his daughter and her fiancée. Freddie initially devotes himself to Dodd and his movement, but finds it just as difficult to settle in there as he does everywhere else.

Phoenix throws himself into the part with such ferocious abandon that it’s almost scary at times. Totally unpredictable, he seems to blur the line between where the actor ends and the character begins. At the same time that Freddie is an angry, adrift man, he’s a wounded, frightened child seeking love and acceptance. Dodd recognizes these struggling factions within Freddie, and plays on both of them, perhaps more to his own ends than to Freddie’s. Where Freddie is all raging and impulse, Dodd is calm and control (or so he tries to be). As such, Hoffman’s performance is appropriately reigned in and tight, but he’s just as effective as Phoenix and no less committed. Amy Adams impressively completes the triangle, depicting Peggy’s public loyalty to her husband, while making her, in private, a steely presence who is perhaps pulling more of the strings than we realize. Whether The Master ultimately has something profound to say (or succeeds in saying it), the story and characters it provides for this trio of actors, and especially the no-holds-barred performance given by Phoenix, are enough to make it an unforgettable piece of work.


MOONRISE KINGDOM

Another writer/director named Anderson, and another of American film’s most original voices, Wes Anderson’s latest triumph is also the year’s best love story. On the New England island of New Penzance, in the summer of 1965, Eagle scout Sam Shakusky and local girl Suzy Bishop run off together, mobilizing a motley crew to find them before a hurricane hits the island. In what may be Anderson’s most winsome movie to date, newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward give charming, intimate performances as the sweet, lonely kids who fall in love and simply want to be together. The supporting characters have unfulfilled desires of their own, which are brought to the surface as they get involved in Sam and Suzy’s drama. Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton make welcome additions to the Anderson stable, while the director’s go-to guys Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are great in small roles. But this movie belongs to Gilman and Hayward, terrific finds who are up to the task of handling Anderson’s unique humor and style. As always, the director meticulously arranges and choreographs every frame, marrying art direction, costume design, cinematography and editing in ways that illuminate the narrative rather than distracting from it.


THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER

In a way, this would make a nice companion piece to Moonrise Kingdom, as another perceptive story of troubled teens and their complicated lives. There have been so many movies that attempt to capture the feelings of being young. It’s almost a genre unto itself, and within that genre, “young” can span a range of ages such that movies as varied as My Girl and The Graduate both fit the mold. The high school movie is its own sub-genre, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which has been favorably compared to the movies of John Hughes, earns a prominent position in that grouping. Logan Lerman gives a beautiful performance as Charlie, a quiet, thoughtful kid entering high school after some personal difficulties, mostly trying to walk the halls unnoticed. He takes a chance in approaching a senior named Patrick (the dynamite Ezra Miller), in whom he sees a potential friend. Meeting Patrick leads to meeting Sam (Emma Watson), Patrick’s step-sister, and soon Charlie is drawn into their circle of friends and finds himself slowly emerging from his shell, while continuing to deal with his demons and learning that his new friends are contending with struggles of their own.

The movie sometimes presents the characters’ youthful joy and abandon as if it’s the first movie to ever suggest that youth begets feelings of joy and abandon, or that these are the first teenagers to ever experience those feelings. But that can’t take away from the emotional honesty the film achieves as we learn more about the characters, what they’ve been through and what they’re going through. The movie is written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his own acclaimed novel, and like John Hughes, Chbosky displays a keen insight into the secret life of the sensitive teenager. He has also cast the movie magnificently. Lerman is wonderful, never overplaying Charlie’s emotional baggage, always honest and at times heartbreaking. (There’s a moment when he’s at a party, high for the first time, and makes a startling revelation to Sam so casually that it took my breath away; it’s one of the best delivered lines in any movie all year.) Watson, in her first major role outside of the Harry Potter franchise, easily sheds Hermione, adopting an American accent and more importantly, making believable Sam’s vulnerabilities and past problems. As Patrick, Ezra Miller pops off the screen, just as he did in 2011’s little-seen indies We Need to Talk About Kevin and Another Happy Day, though here he gets to give a more joyful performance than the darker work he did in those films…not that he doesn’t get to play it serious as Patrick too. Perks comes with some of the trappings of the high school genre, but it taps into some authentic, universal truths that ultimately make it a great addition to the pantheon. If you ever went to a school dance and spent most of the night off to the side, or attended a party and sat quietly rather than mingling, or watched someone you were crushing on get together with the wrong person, or if you can simply recall what it was like to be young and hanging out with your friends on a Saturday night, you’ll connect with The Perks of Being a Wallflower.


THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY

Another winner from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, this animated delight is based on the classic children’s story The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. Arietty belongs to a race of tiny people called Borrowers. She lives with her parents beneath a house in the country, and by night her father sneaks in to take the things their family needs – a cube of sugar, a tissue…little things that won’t be missed. The Borrowers are not supposed to be seen, but Arietty is spotted in the garden by a sickly boy named Sho, who has come to his aunt’s house to rest prior to having heart surgery. The Borrowers fear humans, but Sho attempts to befriend Arietty and alleviate her worries, with mixed results. The screenplay was co-written by Hayao Miyazaki, the Ghibli founder and Oscar-winning director of the exquisite Spirited Away. Like that film, my affection for Arietty has a lot to do with its depiction of a world hidden within or near to our own, and how its characters interact with the outside. Mysterious, touching and bittersweet, The Secret World of Arietty is a great addition to Studio Ghibli’s legacy of lovely, traditionally animated films. The U.S. dubbed version features voice work by Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, but I recommend the subtitled version in its original Japanese language.


SKYFALL

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Academy Award winning director Sam Mendes would deliver what is, by all accounts, one of the best installments of the 50 year-old James Bond franchise. Skyfall honors the Bond tradition while also carving its own unique place within the canon by daring to lift the veil on the world’s most famous spy. I don’t think anybody wants to put Bond on the psychiatrist’s couch to discover every event in his childhood that made him the resourceful and frosty spy he is today, so screenwriters John Logan, Neil Purvis and Robert Wade deserve credit for exploring Bond’s background without demystifying him. In fact, he might even be a little more enigmatic than ever by the end.

Javier Bardem’s vengeful, teasing Silva will surely take his place high on the list of Bond villains. He enters the movie late, but it’s a fantastic entrance all around, from the way Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins present it to the quiet humor with which Bardem plays it. In addition, the movie does right by its heavy focus on Judi Dench’s M. Her relationship with Bond continues to walk a tightrope as their professional obligations can’t mask their mutual affection – a line which Dench and Daniel Craig continue to play beautifully. After two films that stripped away the gimmicky side of the Bond franchise, Mendes and the screenwriters reintroduce some of those classic and playful elements while still maintaining the grittier tone that was ushered in when Craig assumed the mantle in Casino Royale. By the time Skyfall ends, it has ingeniously come around to a sense of the familiar and positioned the franchise to move forward in a way that honors its past while looking to the future.


SOUND OF MY VOICE

From the moment it begins, this gripping indie film thrusts us into a state of uncertainty and never lets up. Each time we think we’re coming to the end of the rabbit hole, it takes another turn. All I’ll reveal about the premise is that Los Angeles couple Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham – also featured in Argo – and Nicole Vicius) attempt to infiltrate a cult in order to expose its leader, a young woman named Maggie (Brit Marling). Maggie claims to be…well, I won’t tell you….but she claims something that seems quite impossible, and Peter and Lorna are out to learn the truth. Quiet, disturbing, and full of surprises, watching the movie is as much a step into the unknown for the audience as investigating Maggie is for Peter and Lorna. And just as they are confounded by what they discover, so are you likely to be.  Admittedly, I found the movie somewhat bewildering in the end, due to a conclusion that is at once satisfyingly unexpected but frustratingly unresolved. Yet despite being unclear about what happens, I couldn’t shake the simplicity and quietly unnerving story. The movie runs a short 90 minutes, which means you won’t be sucking up too much time when it ends and you’re compelled to re-watch it in the hopes of figuring out what the hell just happened.

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And there it is. As always, there are many other movies I really enjoyed this year, even if they didn’t quite earn a place on the list. Part of me wants to mention a few of them, but I know that would quickly turn into a list of 30 more movies, all with an effort at commentary. I gotta let it go. So last order of business: it’s always fun to think about some categories that don’t exist at the Oscars but would be kinda cool. For my own amusement, here are a few of them, with what I might have nominated.

BEST POSTER

(Larger Versions: The Cabin in the Woods; Don’t Go in the Woods; Life of Pi; The Master; Moonrise Kingdom)

BEST CASTING
Les Misérables; Moonrise Kingdom; The Paperboy; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Skyfall

BEST ENSEMBLE
Argo; The Avengers; Lincoln; Silver Linings Playbook; Zero Dark Thirty

BEST BODY OF WORK
Mark Duplass (People Like Us; Safety Not Guaranteed; Your Sister’s Sister; Zero Dark Thirty)
James Gandolfini (Killing Them Softly; Not Fade Away; Zero Dark Thirty)
John Goodman (Argo; Flight; ParaNorman; Trouble with the Curve)
Matthew McConaughey (Bernie; Killer Joe; Magic Mike; The Paperboy)
Scoot McNairy (Argo; Killing Them Softly; Promised Land)

BEST TRAILER
Cloud Atlas (Extended); Django Unchained; Frankenweenie (“Homage”); The Master (Teaser #1); Zero Dark Thirty

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Okay, I’ve had my say. To wrap it up, here’s a look back at the year in film that was.

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8 Comments »

  1. You perfectlly capture my thoughts about Cloud Atlas, thanks for that 🙂 Still can’t believe no nomination for makeup (I’ve seen all the other candidates and I’m even more convinced of that feeling than ever). Nice write up. You gonna tweet your thoughts during the ceremony?

    Comment by maestro122 — February 19, 2013 @ 4:33 pm | Reply

    • Thanks Maestro. No, I won’t be tweeting during the show. Partly because I’m still in the dark ages without a smart phone, so I’d have to have my laptop next to me the whole time. Plus I’d rather just sit and enjoy the ceremony as it unfolds. I’ll do a post-show write-up at some point in the days after to run through all my thoughts.

      I’m guessing the reason that Makeup artists didn’t nominate Cloud Atlas is that from their point of view, their work should be seamless, and not distracting. Entertainment Weekly has been doing this series called “Behind the Ballot” where they gather a few people from various disciplines to ask what they look for when judging other examples of their craft. Here’s a link to the Hair & Makeup video: http://oscar.go.com/video/PL55248979/_m_VD55268854

      Obviously, when you watch Cloud Atlas, you’re totally aware of the makeup transforming the actors into different races, different genders, etc. To me, that’s part of the fun of the movie, but I can see other practitioners of the craft feeling that the work shouldn’t call attention to itself in that way. Not that I agree with them; I think the nomination should celebrate the achievement itself. If the movie features impressive makeup, then it should be considered. Plus, in the case of Cloud Atlas, it was deliberate on the part of the filmmakers to have the actors noticeably play multiple roles. Still, based on what we hear in that video, I’ll bet that’s why the movie missed the nomination; the Makeup was too obvious.

      Comment by DB — February 19, 2013 @ 11:34 pm | Reply

  2. Great write-up, DB. You and I watch movies in a very similar way, so it’s always good to read thoughts as to what you found enjoyable. (Not everyone can be a fancy-pants Film Fop like Frants.)

    Comment by Kevin Deiboldt (@Kluv32) — February 20, 2013 @ 6:48 am | Reply

    • Glad you enjoyed, Kluv. I have to admit…I wish I had the analytical acumen of our fancy-pants Film Fop friend. It’s kind of funny actually, if you compare the writing on his blog to mine…it takes me twice as much text to say things half as interesting. Damn you, Frants!

      Comment by DB — February 20, 2013 @ 1:09 pm | Reply

  3. Nicely wroted up DB. I still need to see Cloud Atlas. Oh and the only two times I almost walked out of a movie theater were during CLIFFHANGER and LES MISERABLES.

    Comment by Jim Milton — February 20, 2013 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

    • Thanks. Yeah, I recall the recent email thread where you were all trashing Les Mis. I’m clearly in the minority amongst our circle when it comes to that movie.

      Comment by DB — February 20, 2013 @ 5:32 pm | Reply

  4. As you know I didn’t get to see a lot of movies this year with the little one, so I have many gaps (biggest being the Master). ZDT and Silver Linings stand out first, mostly because they are recent and in the Oscar race. Others that I liked a lot; Safety Not Guaranteed, Cabin in the Woods, Dark Knight, Lincoln, Expendables (god bless the return of hard R action), Jeff who lives at home, Damsels in distress, Avengers, and Looper.

    Comment by ggears — February 23, 2013 @ 7:30 pm | Reply

    • Yeah, a few of those were definitely in contention for my list, but for reasons in my gut that I can’t really explain, I left them off…and I feel guilty about it.

      Comment by DB — February 23, 2013 @ 10:00 pm | Reply


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