I don’t pay to see a lot of “bad” movies.
That means that out of an average year, if Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds isn’t already on my radar, I’m probably not coughing up seven bucks to see it.
Because I’m not a “critic” — yeah, in multiple senses of the word — a Top X List doesn’t really feel fair, especially since the worst film I actually paid to see this year was probably Snow White and the Huntsman.
What I can do is weigh my own expectations against the finished product. What was a surprise in 2012? What was a total letdown?
So yes, embedded somewhere in this post are “best of” and “worst of” lists. As a disclaimer, there are some blind spots in my list. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t come ’round these here parts for another week, and Holy Motors screened in the city of Madison exactly once from what I can surmise. I haven’t seen Lay Mizzzzz or Anna Karenina or Michael Haneke’s Amour. And I’ll save you Whedonites some time: there is no Cabin in the Woods on this list. *drops mic*
— A Few Notes —
1. It doesn’t take some idiot with WordPress to point out the obvious: superhero movies still pwn the shit out of Hollywood. Joss Whedon’s snappy action extravaganza The Avengers was the domestic B.O. king this year, taking in over $623 million. More to the point, all three major comic book releases this summer easily broke the top box office charts (#2 The Dark Knight Rises: $448 million; #6 The Amazing Spider-man: $262 million). Back in the spring, film sites ripped (now former) Walt Disney Studios President Rich Ross for poorly marketing the financially disappointing John Carter. In my opinion? Andrew Stanton shoulda just thrown a cape on him. BILLIONS O’ DOLLARS.
2. The internet has changed film journalism (arguably for the worse) and induced round-the-clock rumor-mongering and list making. Where ten years ago, a top story might be the critical disappointment over The Phantom Menace, now it’s “Ten Potential Directors We’d Like to See Direct Episode VII.” The internet hasn’t just expanded platforms for the critics, though; it’s also unleashed the wrath of the fanboy. First with The Dark Knight Rises and more recently with early criticism against the first Hobbit, rabid fans likely foaming at the mouth have taken to sites like Rotten Tomatoes and lashed out at negative reviews. Expect this to continue if not increase altogether. And then prepare for the worst.
3. Even with Monsters University on next year’s slate, look for continued challenges to the iron-fisted reign of Herr Pixar on the peaceful peasant lands of children’s animation. While Brave still pleased most critics and took a decent chunk at the box office, it’s a stretch to compare it to the likes of other recent successes like Wall-E, Up, or Toy Story 3. Dreamworks and Disney released Rise of the Guardians and the excellent Wreck-It Ralph respectively, and while I wasn’t hot on it, Focus Features and Laika (of Coraline fame) garnered plenty of buzz with ParaNorman.
4. For film scores, Hans Zimmer and Adele are obvious winners. The latter came out with one of the best Bond themes, and while most 007 songs suffer from being pop cultural artifacts of their respective time, Adele’s more timeless old school qualities have me thinking “Skyfall” will go down as more Shirley Bassey and less Madonna. Zimmer’s Dark Knight Rises score also felt like an appropriate conclusion to Nolan’s story. Bane and Catwoman both got some pretty unique themes, but Zimmer also brought back ideas he and his former collaborator first introduced way back in Batman Begins. While Rises’ score clearly suffered from the absence of Howard’s gentler moments, Zimmer’s knack for epic bombast in tracks like “Rise” and “Imagine the Fire” is unparalleled. Or to put it another way: BWOOOOOOOM.
5. On the flip side, Howard Shore let me down. In his original Lord of the Rings scores, he’d developed such an iconic and varied musical language for Tolkien’s mythology. Thus far, his work on The Hobbit has been a bummer. Shore adds variations of themes we all know and love, but there’s very little creative expansion, and it frankly comes off as tired and lazy. The “Hobbit theme,” while clearly riffing on that of the Fellowship’s, is undeniably catchy in its many forms and remains a standout. If only the rest of the score didn’t bank on its predecessor as a crutch — or cause head-scratching comparisons to be made. What does a goblin chase in the Misty Mountains have to do with the Bridge of Kazad-dum? They both have… stairs? Yeah, I don’t know either.
6. What about formats? Will 2013 see even more overpriced tickets for 3D conversions? Or will Apple realize the ultimate in consumer home theater systems so we never have to leave our padded apartments ever again? One thing’s for sure: IMAX is coming back. HARD. Star Trek Into Darkness, Oz: The Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim, Ender’s Game, and Iron Man 3 are just a handful of releases next year slated to go big. Is it another easy way to make more money? Sure. But studios may also be finally catching on to the fact that a lot of people couldn’t give two shits about patchy 3D conversion. And hey, maybe we’ll end up getting a Will Ferrell buddy comedy in IMAX. America could really use one of those.
— Biggest Letdowns —
3. The Dark Knight Rises
Seriously? You? What’s next, asshole? Mexican food had an “underwhelming” third quarter?
First of all, unless the secret brain-washing ingredients Taco Bell throws in its Grade F meat start convincing America it’s the best thing ever, Mexican food will always be great.
And I did like this Batman movie. How couldn’t I? Hathaway kicked ass. Tom Hardy’s Bane was this bizarre, lucha libre Darth Vader. It gave us “Light it up” and “What a lovely, lovely voice.” It gave us a BANE SOUNDBOARD. And that ending with Joseph Robin-Levitt was about as perfect of a conclusion to the series as anything I could’ve masturbated to.
Rises has a metric ton of cool ideas: Bane’s mask is a literal inversion of Batman’s; not to mention he actually breaks the Bat; a huge battle in the streets of Gotham; a plot about some nuclear reactor that actually felt like a comic book movie telling a “comic book” story; Talia and Ra’s al Ghul have the exact same deaths. The Nolans even reverse the standard hero-villain relationship. This time, the bad guys are the idealists with a sweeping plan to change the world, and the hero is just one pissed off dude, hellbent on getting his revenge. It’s slight and a little genius.
But even after five months of thinking and two separate screenings — one in glorious IMAX, no less — I can’t help but shake this feeling of letdown. This was probably inevitable. As fun as it is to cover our mouths and purr “Do you feel in chaaaahhge?” Bane is no Joker. And if you had to narrow down a single element to The Dark Knight’s success, it would probably be Heath Ledger, for better or worse. Not to mention that any way you slice it, Rises’ script has a lot of problems. There’s weird pacing and a strangely elastic sense of time, and Christopher Nolan’s glib handling of specifics felt almost abbreviated this time around.
Still, this marks my fourth paragraph on a film that I’m calling a “letdown.” Not too shabby, eh? Plus, I already know I’ll be buying any future releases of a Dark Knight Rises Twelve-Disc Triple Awesome Collector’s Deluxe with Bacon Edition, whenever that comes out on Blu-Ray.
Maybe it was the cram-packed movie theater on a Saturday afternoon that did me in. Maybe the white-haired crankiness that comes with a weekend matinee rubbed off on me too much. But the headaches are a’comin just thinking about Lincoln’s wordy pompousness.
Daniel Day-Lewis is the mad notes. For TEH ALWAYS. If Tom Cruise is Hollywood’s best actor at showing you how hard he works, DDL works just as hard and then does something more substantial than Jack Reacher with that same “I’m totally sleeping in an abandoned jail” level of dedication. Thank Christ Liam Neeson’s resurrection probably kept him off this project. Had he stayed on as planned, one of Lincoln’s few strengths would’ve been lost to another boring, deep-voiced one-note interpretation of an already mythologized President.
And speaking of mythologizing, what exactly are Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner trying for here? The writing in Lincoln often feels like it’s fighting to up the impact of the President’s life. No, no I want to begin with a couple of black Union soldiers reciting lines back to Abe from the Gettysburg Address. And make that shit verbatim, dammit.
Granted, Kushner limited to white back-patting in adapting Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, but this sobering perspective on exactly how sweeping change is made in this country was a little too sobering, and too anesthetic. Lincoln is overblown, flowery and self-indulgent in the worst ways, from that absurd Gettysburg recitation to an unnecessary stretching of the President’s assassination. Spielberg shows the bullying, the bribery, the paper-pushing behind the Fourteenth Amendment, and then squats all over the collective effort with a saccharine eulogy. Lincoln wants to have its moldy, bearded seed cake and eat it, too. With all due respect, Mr. President, fat chance.
1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
If you listen closely while watching Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film (of three!), in the background you can hear Warner Bros. execs setting aflame their wads of $20 bills, which they presumably use to light larger wads of $100 bills which they then use to light the finest cigars in all the Southfarthing.
Skeptical as I am with this trilogy biznass, I can imagine where each film would begin and end. An Unexpected Journey wrapped up the goblins and the bits with Gollum; The Desolation of Smaug will look to showcase the Desolation of Smaug; and There and Back Again has gotta have the Battle of the Five Armies somewhere in it. The problem with this plan is that you can already see the seams from the cutting and re-arranging of Tolkien’s context. Never mind that An Unexpected Journey seems convinced a story about dragon’s gold is just as epic as the end of Middle-earth. Even with the extra tidbits from Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and the dearly departed Guillermo del Toro, the story feels run down, like butter scraped over too much bread.
Where was the fun from Tolkien’s children’s story? Where was the whimsy? An Unexpected Journey’s moments of “adventure” only occur when characters literally say the word aloud. Maybe I’m just too naive. From a fiscal standpoint, why wouldn’t studios stretch this out to three movies? Or five? Hell, let’s make it an even thirteen. One for each dwarf.
— Biggest Surprises —
5. The Grey
One of the problems with year end lists, beyond the arbitrary ranking of subjective opinions, is that certain “kinds” of films get left in the cold. Films where Liam Neeson fights off a pack of CGI wolves get ignored alongside the films where Liam Neeson blathers on about a CGI kraken. (Kraken! Kraken! Kraken!) Frankly, that’s not very fair to Joe Carnahan.
Disguising itself as Taken It 2 Tha Wolves, The Grey is smart and stripped-down with an actual head on its shoulders. Neeson plays an Alaskan oil worker whose sole job is to protect his drilling team from getting torn apart by wild wolves. When the team’s plane crashes in the middle of fucking nowhere, The Grey gets cold and callous real fast.
While it’s easy to point out the stock character tropes at play — Neeson’s the badass, Dermot Mulroney’s the coward, Frank Grillo’s the hothead — each man feels fleshed out. That goes double for Neeson, who’s embellished with a two-pronged biography that’s as tragic as it is poetic. Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day…
Carnahan is better known for his showier fare in Smokin Aces or The A-Team, but his co-writing credit with Ian MacKenzie Jeffers shows he’s fully capable of crafting a smart, even moving action film that defies conventions and expectations.
4. Seven Psychopaths
Martin McDonagh’s first film In Bruges was a darkly comic look at the lives (and inevitable downfalls) of career hitmen. In Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh returns to that same interest, with an even wilder bent and a more raucous sense of humor. From his days as a playwright, McDonagh has had an undeniable knack for witty dialogue, whether it’s the snappy back-and-forth between Colin Farrell’s screenwriter and Sam Rockwell’s serial dognapper or a smart-assed sitdown with Woody Harrelson’s unhinged gangster and Christopher Walken, latter who’s rarely been better.
Taking meta-textual cues from the likes of Pulp Fiction and Charlie Kaufman’s headscratchers, Seven Psychopaths is a bloody dissection of not just the gangster film but our broader interests in pop culture and how violence plays into those obsessions.
And to alter a famous bit of graffiti, if I may:
CLAPTON ROCKWELL IS GOD
3. Cloud Atlas
Okay, here’s the thing. I totally get the hate for Cloud Atlas. There’s a good chance its idealistic musings on love and human connections and their broader effects through time are too “hippie bullshit” for some. That’s completely fair.
But I couldn’t help admire a film that has this big of a heart and so brazenly wears it on its sleeve. To steal from myself:
The more important, less infuriating question is ‘Why does Cloud Atlas work?’ The short answer is the editing, or more appropriately, the acid-laced, crotch-flaming juggling act Tykwer and the Wachowskis pull off. It’s not always perfect; you can definitely see some of the seams out of the gate, and Cloud Atlas’ first opening minutes take some getting used to. You wanted to learn more about our intrepid homosexual composer? Sorry, bru but you’ll have to wait until space Halle Berry helps Tom Hanks kill nuclear fallout savages first! That sounds exaggerated, but it can be very close to the truth. Thankfully, this is seven total minutes out of a nearly three hour movie, and the deftness of knowing which plot threads to turn to (and when to do so) is a real testament to the filmmaker trio. To put this into context: buy six 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles, dump ‘em together and then show me the best parts of each completed picture all within a single finished product. Or you know, just kill yourself now.
Yes, a great deal of Cloud Atlas’ makeup looked really fucking terrible. But from the infinite cross-cutting over numerous stories to co-director Tom Tykwer’s collaborative composition with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, this is a group effort that’s as moving as it is impressive. Cloud Atlas is the trippiest, craziest class presentation you’ve ever had to sit through in college. A+ for effort
2. Django Unchained
Truth be told, Django wasn’t even on my radar until the flipping opening credits started up. That’s how little I was excited for Tarantino’s latest. And truthfully, I’m curious what didn’t make me so curious, because oh what a movie this is.
There’s been a lot of love for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom this year, and for good reason. While I’d argue Anderson’s never really moved past his obsessions with dysfunctional communities and the mechanics of the nuclear family, Moonrise Kingdom’s focus on an innocent love story between two young adults feels more appropriate for its director’s spritely palette and awkward conversations — at least more than anything he’s done since The Royal Tenenbaums. Django Unchained, with its endless references and vintage aesthetic, is perfectly tailored right down to Tarantino’s story.
Remember that scene in Reservoir Dogs where Tim Roth has to recite a fake drug story to convince the other chaps he’s legit? From his early career on, Tarantino’s been fascinated by the “hows” and “whys” of films within other films, and that moment in Reservoir Dogs is a superb look at the actor’s role. Well Django is all about theatricality and performing for an audience, too. It’s also a deft commentary on the slippery ethical slope of American business. And it of course functions as a slick, modern take on the blaxploitation revenge picture. Any way you slice it, it’s damn cool, baby.
1. Kill List
Before you angrily type comments of “refund!” and “hack!” below, I would hope the quality of this writing has reminded you all that this site has no paywall. So I owe you all nothing. NOTHING! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA
Kill List was by far 2012’s biggest surprise. Sure, The Master and Compliance were tighter, better made films, and there’s a strong chance you don’t even know what the fuck I’m talking about. But if you had to ask what film has stayed in my mind more than any other I saw this year? Kill List wins out. And frankly it’s not even close.
Director Ben Wheatley plays with horror, suspense, and crime in ways I have never seen before, and arguably with a more severe genre-bending penchant than Drew Goddard’s excellent Cabin in the Woods. Suspense turns to dread with impeccable sound mixing. Unflinching depictions of violence submerge you in the inner suffocation of Neil Maskell’s soldier-turned-hitman — a hammer to the head in Kill List doesn’t cut away like another film might. Forget those contrived pull quotes calling this a “gut punch” or a “white-knuckle thrill ride.” Kill List will destroy your soul, slowly and subtly, until it finally tips its hand. By then it’s far too late.
Of course now that I’ve talked it up this much, it can only really be a letdown right? Now I just look like an asshole. I guess even as the years change, some things still stay the same. See you in 2013.