The Avengers (review/spoiler review):
Unlike a number of blockbusters that I've discussed elsewhere, this one actually got better with repeat viewings. I nitpicked the first time around, found problems here and there during my initial viewing, but still found it to be a relative triumph of blockbuster film-making. But upon additional viewings, I began to appreciate the coup that Whedon and company pulled off even more. The minor problems (a clunky first scene, issues with how a major second act plot twist is handled, the lack of a specific lead character, the lack of a definitive climax) began to fade away into the sheer joy that is The Avengers. The film is well-acted across the board, including a superb starring turn by Mark Ruffalo who makes Bruce Banner into the most interesting character in the group. The plotting is relatively basic, but the picture is crackling with wonderful dialogue throughout. The action sequences steadily improve as the film goes on, and the entire escapade has a casual hugeness ("Oh, we've got a giant invisible flying aircraft carrier? Why not?") that reminded me of Richard Donner's Superman film (moments that would have been the main event for other blockbusters came off as blink-and-you-miss 'em action beats here). The character arcs worked better the second time around, the musical score clicked into place, the second-act plot turn worked in the context of the film as opposed to operating as part of a long-running franchise, and a major character's selfless decision felt right. The sheer excitement of seeing all of these already established heroes (established both in the comics and the prior films) doing battle side-by-side on a truly epic superhero showdown is only topped by how good it all is. Whether or not it is a great film will no doubt be endlessly debated, but it is surely a great movie, one that I look forward to watching over and over again over the years.
Barry Levinson roared back to artistic relevance, crafting what is the scariest film of 2012. Using the found footage format, Levinson crafts a terrifyingly plausible tale of an entire town swept up in a ecological plague. The film is genuinely bone-chilling, slowly building the tension and slowly unveiling the sheer level of catastrophe until we merely find ourselves asking just how possible it is that something like "this" could actually happen? Levinson hasn't made a film this good since Wag the Dog back in 1997 and this is probably the scariest American theatrical horror film (if only a token theatrical/VOD release) since The Mist in 2007. This is a horror film that does the found footage format proud, not only framing a gruesome horror tale in a painfully mundane fashion but actually making the unthinkable seem sadly plausible.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (review):
One of the most visually arresting and intoxicating films in recent memory, this luscious tone poem from Benh Zeitlin deposits us in a part of America that most would like to pretend doesn't exist, with levels of stunning poverty that makes a Charles Dickens hero seem positively wealthy. I'll let others debate the metaphorical meanings or the film's complicated politics, but the picture works as a devastatingly powerful Campellian journey of a single young girl (Quvenzhane Wallis, who damn-well better get an Oscar nomination) as she attempts to navigate family peril and outside forces of nature. Taken at face value, it is a painful and sad film that nonetheless finds a splinter of hope in the waters. It is above all a modern day fable for adults set in modern day America. While it uses the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina and surely has something to say about that, it is above-all a singular story about a single young girl and the journey she takes. As such, it is an unmitigated triumph.
I'm not going to debate whether this is Wes Anderson's best film or merely his best film since The Royal Tenenbaums, but I will say that the often aloof auteur finds a vein of unabashed sweetness and innocence in this 1960s-set tale of New England Americana. Technically concerning two young teenagers who fall in love and run away together, the picture is an empathetic portrait of both the young lovers and those who attempt to track them down. The film strikes a chord through Bruce Willis' powerful and low-key turn, as a lonely man who is shocked at the very idea that a child might go without love or affection. Without playing the 'in the good old days...' card, Anderson's film reminds us that broken families should not be something to accept without comment, and that the children caught in the middle are always deserving of empathy and a token amount of understanding. The film is a funny and charming story of several lonely people and two eloping children who bring them together and/or tear them further apart.
This is easily the best animated film of the year. While it would be easy to concentrate on the film's obvious affection for horror film tropes, it is actually something trickier and more meaningful. It is a meditation on fear itself, specifically mass fear and how it can lead seemingly good people to commit unspeakable evil. The film's first act centers on young Norman, a child cursed by the ability to see and communicate with dead people, and the picture never shies away from the emotional sorrow that such a 'gift' would bring. As the film's plot kicks into gear, it switches gears on us, presenting a story which is sadly timely, about how intolerance and mass pandemonium can be more dangerous than any supernatural creature. The picture doesn't shy away from the horror of its story, nor does it pull punches in terms of raising a finger at those in the audience who would irrationally fear those whose only crime is being different.
Robot and Frank:
Frank Langella gives one of the best performances in his long career as a former cat burglar suffering from dementia. After his grown children give him a 'robot butler' as a way to keep him out of a nursing home, Frank soon realizes that he can use this new companion as a sidekick for a new series of heists. But the film is more than just a clever caper, it's also a mournful and thoughtful meditation on the nature of memory itself, and whether or not the inevitable memory loss that so many elderly people face (or will face in the coming decades) renders their experiences null-and-void. Does the inability to remember the events of your life cheapen or lessen those experiences? Director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford craft one of the happiest surprises of the year, a true art-house gem that lifts the spirits while refusing to shy away from its somber undertones.
Seven Psychopaths (review):
This offbeat crime dramedy features one of Christopher Walken's very best performances, so it's got that going for it. Martin McDonagh's violent would-be epic concerns an author (Colin Farrell) and the several very real psychopaths he encounters while attempting to write a stereotypical crime picture. But the film is more than just a riff on Tarantino rip-offs, but rather a full-blown deconstruction into why we give extra prestige to films that wallow in bloodshed and/or idealize the cinematic exploits of genuinely horrible people. While the film (mostly through Sam Rockwell's theatrical nutcase) comments on over-the-top violence and how we take our cues for what violence feels like from the movies, it roots this meta journey in a realistic world, one where bullets hurt, people die slowly and innocent bystanders are mourned when they cross paths with evil. Christopher Walken's should-be-Oscar-nominated turn is a perfect mix of his patented shtick and a genuine performance, showing a former 'psychopath' who realized the error of his eye-for-an-eye behavior and can now only feel regret as he looks upon his wasted life and the younger gents doomed to follow his dark path. This film is a true thing of beauty, a genuine work of art that fires on all cylinders.
Between this and Away From Her, Sarah Polley is one more great movie away from being my new favorite director. This wonderful and insightful examination of a young woman (Michelle Williams) who allows herself to stray from a seemingly happy marriage doesn't demand sympathy for its heroine even while it accumulates plenty of empathy and nuanced understanding. Williams is terrific, as required by law at this point, and Sarah Silverman delivers a potent supporting turn as a recovering alcoholic who knows from where she speaks. But credit must once again go to Seth Rogen, as Williams' husband. Just how many 'surprisingly good' performances is Seth Rogen going to give (Observe and Report, 50/50, etc.) before we finally admit that Seth Rogen is a very very good actor?
I stopped watching Family Guy years ago, but this raunchy and brilliant comedy has seriously made me reconsider that choice. Seth MacFarlane's feature debut is far more than just an R-rated shock comedy about a profane teddy bear. It uses the comic brilliance of Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis to craft a pinpoint examination of not just the arrested development of the modern American male, but to explicitly examine how said men use the entertainments of their childhood as a crutch. Not only is the film constantly laugh-out-loud funny and relatively empathetic toward most of its characters, but it sticks an accusatory finger straight at the film's, and Family Guy's core demographic, asking why they put so much obsessive, nostalgic stock into the media they consumed while growing up. It can also be read as an accusatory rant against an entertainment complex that sees fit to constantly recycle the heroes of yesteryear for today's children, in turn denying them their own generational heroes to worship. But no matter what levels you choose to find, Ted is the funniest film of the year and one of the best American comedies of the last ten years.
Zero Dark Thirty (review):
No, it doesn't endorse torture. No it doesn't claim that information gleaned by torture was essential in catching Osama Bin Laden. What it does do is refuse to treat its audience like children, refusing to hold our hands and explain in condescending detail exactly what is on its mind. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's epic examination into the decade-long manhunt for the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is in itself a trip into the heart of darkness that is the "War on Terror". Jessica Chastain delivers one of the best performances of the year, even as the film does her few favors by denying her big speeches or emotional exposition that would otherwise make up an awards clip reel. At heart, this is a film like many of Bigelow's films, an examination of how false macho bravado teaches us that righteous violence is automatically justified by the initial violent action and that retribution washes away the stain of the original bloodshed. Life doesn't have a happy ending because we got the bad guy in the end, and the bad guys bleed just as slowly and cry just as loudly as the good guys. Sometimes, the ends do not justify the means. To paraphrase another Bigelow protagonist, the ride is already over once innocent people have been killed. By showcasing both the draining personal toll of those in pursuit (again, note how primary torturer Jason Clarke is rattled to the core by the work he does in secret) and the sheer brutality of the final vengeance (there is nothing cathartic or empowering about the final raid), Zero Dark Thirty dares to ask at what cost should we expend our blood and treasure in the pursuit of righteous retribution.
And now, my absolute favorite film of 2012. It was an easy pick, and a predictable one for those following along...
The Cabin in the Woods (review):
Writer/director Drew Goddard and writer Joss Whedon basically killed the horror film this year. Well, not all horror films, but those 'people go to a secluded location and get bumped off one-by-one' films? Yeah, sorry Prometheus, those kind are officially toast. But more than just a hilarious deconstruction of the horror film as a genre, the film asks both what kind of person enjoys overtly violent films and, more interestingly, what kind of person do you have to be to write such things. It's both an angry attack against the toothless and generic modern-day theatrical horror movie scene (remakes, reboots, knock-offs, ahoy!) while pointing the blame squarely at those who would flock to Prom Night 2008 while ignoring more original genre entries. It's also, in its third act (which I won't reveal), a glorious affirmation that cinema can and should reach for the stars and dare to pay off on the promised wonder. It condemns and ennobles the horror genre, if not popular cinema itself, without contradicting itself in the least. It is a gloriously imaginative genre entry that shows how good even the generic stuff can be with strong writing and engaging characters (Kristen Connelly, also in The Bay, is quite good as is a 'we shot this in 2009' Chris Hemsworth). The film has a second major plot line (revealed in the very first scene, but no need to discuss it here), which involves joyfully clever work from Bradley Whitford, Amy Acker, and Richard Jenkins, which in turn confronts our innate (?) habit of cheering on the fictional slaughter of fictional characters without an ounce of empathy. There is layer-upon-layer to dissect in Cabin in the Woods. But even if you don't want to go deeper or look closer, you'll still find the cleverest, most ambitious, most imaginative, and most excitingly *alive* movie of 2012.
That's it for another pretty terrific year at the movies. As always, share your thoughts below. What were your favorites or what of the above do you think shouldn't have made the cut. Sound off accordingly and thanks for another year of putting up with my long-winded diatribes!