The calendar reads mid-January and I haven’t written a review since my shattering disappointment in Skyfall back in November. I could list a variety of excuses for this but that wouldn’t preclude them from being just that. I will say that, unlike last year, many of the predictable Oscar bait were rather good, though not all of them good enough to supplant the occasional sophomoric comedy or mindless action spectacle. In defense of my tardiness, had I not waited so long, at least three movies would not have made this list, the last of which I only caught up with last night.
This year I was forced to face my curmudgeonliness head-on as at least two films I ranted horribly against turned out to be among the best of the lot, and a new technology that I resisted offered merit I could scarcely have guessed at.
You can also listen to the Rainestorm 2012 Top Ten podcast with my good friend and fellow film enthusiast, Dante Moran:
You can download the audio file here.
So much for prologue. On with the countdown.
10. Rise of the Guardians
This little delight usurped the spot I had reserved for Silver Linings Playbook and deservedly so. Tragically overlooked during the holidays and criminally ignored by the Oscars®, this delightful film traces the character trajectory of Jack Frost as he is enlisted to join popular childhood myths in their defense against the pernicious Pitch Black. It’s a clever premise that manages to stay a step ahead of the audience when most children’s animation is content to give the game away right at the outset. While Pixar somnambulated through their rather inconsequential Brave, Dreamworks was quietly outpacing them. So quietly, in fact, that no one noticed. More’s the pity.
9. The Cabin in the Woods
Another notch in the belt of Hollywood’s current golden boy, Joss Whedon. He and fellow writer Drew Goddard responded to the horror film draught left by cheap spoofs, high-profile remakes, found footage and the unfortunate and aptly-named torture porn with a twist that explodes the horror genre in its entirety. Here we learn not only the origin of literally every horror film and horror story imaginable, but we get to see why they play such a pivotal role in every culture. Written with Whedon’s usual sometime wit and Goddard’s capable directing, The Cabin in the Woods is the anti-horror movie, an antidote to the high ratio of dreck that has sadly thinned the genre’s blood.
8. 21 Jump Street
Though I didn’t see them all, 2012 wasn’t the greatest year for comedies. The mighty Judd Apatow stumbled horribly with his bloated and shambolic This is 40. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, though they gave it their all, couldn’t salvage Hope Springs. “Independent” films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, with titles the length of paragraphs, exemplified the mundanity that defined last year’s humor. 21 Jump Street was a refreshing surprise that demonstrated Channing Tatum could be deliberately funny, and Jonah Hill still had some comedic chops left in him. A self-aware script that turned expectation on its head, charitable cameos, and a quite funny performance by Ice Cube as the exasperated police captain put this over the top as the best comedy of the year. I never thought I would derive such joy from watching the former rapper eat a sandwich.
It’s easy to conclude from cinematographer-cum-director Ron Fricke’s new non-narrative documentary, Samsara, that humanity is a degenerate wretch. The beauty of nature that usually opens his films is inevitably countered by trash-scrounging indigents, gun-wielding militaries, dancing convicts, the sex trade, and the cold, cruel efficiency of automated animal farming. Fricke covers a lot of the same ground as his previous film, Baraka. So much so that this could almost be considered a remake. Some of the shots are identical and one could be forgiven for thinking them recycled. Fricke takes his time to draw the audience in, not revealing his true purpose until well into the proceedings before you realize you’ve been hooked. Where on Baraka he wielded a mallet, here he swings a sledgehammer. The results are nothing short of potent.
6. The Grey
Many viewers were put off, even downright angered, by this film’s abrupt ending. That ending is The Grey‘s greatest strength and to have done it any other way would only have blunted the movie’s impact. Liam Neeson leads a cast that delivers stronger performances than ought be expected by what was marketed as a genre action film. That may have been the film’s undoing. It is a stark and sober study (existential was the word most often associated with it) of a group of men fighting for their lives against not just a savage wolf pack but the ravages of nature itself.
One of two films I swore I wouldn’t wast my time watching and was so glad when I relented. Though Peter Jackson’s latest obsession with Middle-Earth is hampered by his insecure need to wrap it in his previous Lord of the Rings trilogy, by the time he lets go of the immediate past and allows himself to venture forward (or in this case, further back), the film is a joyous romp that highlights even more of New Zealand’s gorgeous landscape. Anchored by a gleeful performance from Martin Freeman as reluctant adventurer Bilbo Baggins, and aided by Richard Armitrage’s strong turn as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, the first part of this journey is a non-stop joyride enhanced by Andy Serkis’s absolutely astonishing return in the role of Gollum.
On a side note, I caught this again in the controversial 48 frames-per-second high frame rate. While it is very off-putting, and one’s awareness of the difference never completely vanishes, the format offers some benefits that are difficult to ignore.
4. The Raid: Redemption
Seasoned and weathered muscle-man Sylvester Stallone may have given the CGI-bloated action genre a much-needed punch in the jaw with The Expendables two years ago, but the agonizing follow-up showed that series is already more obsolete than the aging stars at its center. Enter British filmmaker Gareth Evans, who had to go all the way to Indonesia in order to make the most mind-boggling and exhausting action picture since the original Die Hard. Better watch it with an empty bladder because once the action starts, it doesn’t let up over the movie’s bone-crushing 101 minutes. Much must be said for the cinematography. Though The Raid utilizes an abundance of hand-held, it is used judiciously and never shot so tightly that you lose sight of the action. The inventive photography follows tumbling bodies across tables, through holes in the wall and in the floor and under and through and over every conceivable angle, always anchored to a focal point that forestalls the nausea-inducing convulsions prevalent in most action pictures. Forget Bond, Bourne, and Ethan Hunt. If Gareth Evans is the future of action filmmaking then what a glorious future it is.
What is it with American movie advertising? 2012 famously saw the head-scratching John Carter crushed by its mind-bogglingly inept marketing and cryptic title change. Rise of the Guardians suffered from a lack of presence and an equally perplexing title. In the US, trailers for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln led audiences to believe it was a sappy, sentimental tribute to the end of slavery. Only the international trailer revealed what it really was, a biting political drama that examined the efforts of everyone involved in the passage of perhaps the greatest civil rights legislation in the country’s history. The sharp script by Spielberg’s Munich collaborator Tony Kushner plays like a 19th century version of The West Wing, with back-room political dealings and enough congressional animosity to make today’s bureaucratic bitterness look downright civil by comparison.
2. Django Unchained
It’s no secret that I detest Quentin Tarantino. In an industry rampant with insufferable male egos, his trumps them all, and only because kids with zero appreciation for nuance and an over-appreciation for stylized dialogue fawn all over themselves in proclamation of his genius. The fact is, he hasn’t done a good film since Jackie Brown underperformed, apparently freaked him out, and sent him into a nearly bottomless death spiral with an endless stream of self-indulgent self-adulation, culminating in the abysmal Inglourious Basterds. Imagine my utter amazement at what a tight, mature, and dare I say, restrained film is Django Unchained. The frustrating thing about Tarantino has always been the talent that he consistently hides under an insecure sneer of facetiousness. Perhaps inspired by Basterds‘ warm reception, he finally let himself relax and gave his actors room to breathe rather than handing them blocks of dialogue with which to bludgeon audiences into appreciative submission. The uniquely thoughtful script is full of surprises and pulls the rug out from under the audience in a credible way for a change. If this is the Tarantino of the future, I welcome him.
Many detractors of this film credit it as expertly crafted but lacking in transcendence. In a time when craft is horribly undervalued, the fact that a director can come along and show some expertise is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It’s always tricky to deliver a thriller when the conclusion is foregone. Ben Affleck has bounced back from an acting career that had become a joke and transformed himself into one of today’s finest directors, and Argo is his best film to date. Too often is it forgotten that directing is more than just where to put the camera, although even that seems to be a skill long forgotten today. Of utmost importance is the ability to draw exceptional performances out of the cast, and Affleck manages to do just that. He has a great eye for pacing, as well, and in Argo he also displays a sense of humor that seemed to be missing from his previous films. With an excellent script from Chris Terrio, even the most minor characters reveal unexpected actions and are given their fair due in the film’s coda. This is craftsmanship of the highest order.
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