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Archive for January, 2013

[Note: If you want to skip ahead and just see the list without the explanations, they’re on the bottom.]

There were two major themes apparent to me in the 2012 film library.  One was obviously the resurgence of the auteur as many old (and new) branded directors were able to show off their works all at once this year, resulting in quite a strong line-up throughout the year and one of the best years for film releases in a while.  The other theme was a bit less apparent but an intriguing one – the notion of the unlikely protagonist and his or her representation within a community.  Whether it was President Lincoln as the unlikely catalyst in pushing forth the 13th Amendment or M’s surprise turnaround as the quintessential Bond Girl, the year made for some terrific and memorable characters that any writer and director would love to have.  And so, without further ado, here is my Top 10 (and a few others):

(What did I Miss This Year: Unfortunately, I missed a majority of animated films and as always, I had trouble watching a majority of foreign films as well. I will note any changes in future blog posts if there are any when I do catch these other films.)

10. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Levo_League_Beasts_Southern_WildBeasts of the Southern Wild is a film that really explored the notion of community and diaspora in fascinating ways, right in the center of the United States but in an unlikely setting of the New Orleans bayou.  The film definitely has it’s abstract moments that may confuse more than enlighten but really, it’s the central relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink and the outstanding performance of young newcomer, Wallis, that anchors the film. Oddly enough, Beasts probably ends up being the most reflective film of 2012 that showcases the trials and tribulations of the community in the U.S., much like many cities were facing themselves through financial hardships and the forces of nature.

9. Django Unchained
django-unchained-christoph-and-jamie-waltz-foxx

Quentin Tarantino is, no doubt, very proud of his work in Django Unchained, which has led to the majority of my complaints lodged against the film.  Nevertheless, the film is a fantastic romp through Tarantino’s twisted homage of the Western and his continued love for the exploitation genre.  Helped by a fantastic cast and two strong performances from Di Caprio’s crazed villain and Waltz’s whimsical German cowboy, Django ends up not only being an entertaining ride but also one that smartly twists and turns Western tropes and stereotypes into fascinating commentary and ideas that feel fresh and inspired.

8. The Cabin in the Woods
Cabin2The Cabin in the Woods is a strange Top 10 entry on a superficial level – the film lacks any major big acting force (save for one fun cameo) and the film’s budget works against the big aspirations that potentially the film could have reached.  Moreso, the film requires a viewer to ‘get’ the jokes and the gimmicks behind it before fully understanding it’s purpose.  Luckily, I feel that I got what Whedon and Goddard were going for and was pleasantly surprised by the results of this deconstruction of the modern horror film.  Witty, self-aware and compelling, The Cabin in the Woods is a terrific example of how smart script writing and careful balance can create quite a memorable experience amongst any genre.

7. Bernie
120427_MOV_bernieJackBlack.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeBernie was one of my biggest and most welcome surprises of the year as one of the best biopics of the year, not a small feat given it’s competition.  School of Rock director Linklater and Jack Black team up once again for this more subdued but fascinating look at a murder case involving a possibly gay mortician and his older mistress in a small Texan town.  It’s a bizarre, real-life story only made stranger thanks to it’s strange cast of characters and the fact that the town loves the main character.  Propped by the mockumentary style and a controlled yet eccentric performance as Bernie from Black, the film is seemingly unbelievable for some of it’s ridiculousness yet believable because of the presentation and performances.  Bernie is interesting to see how the story run it’s course and even more intriguing in looking at the polarizing forces of the justice system and town politics.

6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
628x471I still have not read the book of The Perks of Being a Wallflower but many that have are happy to report that the movie sticks pretty faithfully to it’s source material.  I preface with this statement since some may wonder if this placement is simply due to the faithfulness of book’s author and movie’s director, Chbosky’s, adaptation.  Sure, it would have been part of my list of pros, but the movie proudly stands on it’s own as an emotional and well-produced look into a freshman’s life at high school.  Although Perks still includes familiar stereotypes of freshman troubles, the way they are approached not only feel fresh but authentic thanks to the careful dialogue beats that try to convey the many confused emotions of a growing teenager and the complicated lives they lead amongst others that are having the same troubles.  Although most of the young cast gives off solid performances, it really is Ezra Miller that shines the brightest here as an openly gay senior and the difficulties he has to face.  All-in-all, Perks feels grounded in it’s perception of teenage life and presents students not as tropes but as actual emotional beings.

5. Samsara
samsara1I love Koyaanisqatsi, one of the first films I’ve watched that really embodies the dialogue-free movie that tries to tell it’s narrative through the natural sights and sounds of the world.  Then it shouldn’t come as too much surprise that I also fell in love with Samsara, which definitely has many interesting similarities to Koyannisqatsi.  Mostly dialogue-free and making most of it’s scenery shots, Samsara makes interesting commentary on a number of themes ranging from materialism to the cycle of life.  Although, at times, the film falls too much on direct messaging of it’s commentary and feels heavy-handed, the majority of Samsara’s messaging feels fascinating and insightful alongside some beautiful cinematography and locations.  In an age in which special effects continue to improve, it’s a testament to state that Samsara showcases how beautiful the world can naturally be while still including interesting thematic value to it all.

4. Cloud Atlas
CloudAtlas1Cloud Atlas is this year’s quintessential love-it-or-hate-it movie and for good reason.  The very ambitious film tries to adapt a post-modern novel that flashes back-and-forth between six different time periods and also are connected.  There are definite missteps within the film adaptation such as bad prosthetic makeup and a heavy-handed script that tries to make the themes too apparent.  However, if one can get past such misgivings, there is a lot to take in with Cloud Atlas both as an adaptation and as a film.  The Wachowski siblings and Tykwer create a fascinating universe to play around with with an almost theater-like approach with the same actors reprising multiple roles and a multitude of genres.  The end result is a fascinating homage to media as a medium while still holding true to the themes of the book of destiny and connection.  Again, the film is far from perfect and will definitely not please everyone, but Cloud Atlas is one of the most ambitious ones of the year with an earnest heart and six different tales worth listening to.

3. Silver Linings Playbook
"Silver Linings Playbook"Silver Linings Playbook is the most audience-friendly movie on this list I believe.  I say that because it’s general narrative structure and plot points are typical of any romantic comedy and on their own, are unsurprising and fairly blase.  However, as Director Russell has shown time and time again, his directorial expertise comes within his rich characters and energy behind them.  Silver Linings Playbook contains some of my favorite characters of the year and what I believe are some of the strongest performances all-around.  The main two protagonists, Pat and Tiffany, are individuals with heavy problems both in their life and their minds, setting up not only their characters’ journeys but the film’s frenetic style.  Silver Linings is fierce in really perpetuating the speed and back-and-forth actions of Pat’s bipolar disorder and although at times, it seems like you’re having to catch up, the energy and frenzy create a unique experience that bends the typical narrative structure.  Alongside the camera and pacing are Lawrence and Cooper.  Both put in such unique interpretations and feed off of each other that they create not only an undeniable chemistry but deep characters that audience members feel like they want to get to know better and connect with.  The end product is possibly the strongest emotional film of the year that sticks too close to it’s guns narratively but is so enchanting and enlightening in terms of it’s characters.

2. Moonrise Kingdom
movie_-_Moonrise-KingdomIn between my third and first choice is what I believe to be the most well-realized vision of the year with a balance of great characters and terrific story.  On one level, Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s fascinating homage to both television in the mid-20th century and children’s novels with it’s whimsical narration, stylized narrative sequences and colorful atmosphere.  Anderson holds true to his vision and creates a fascinating world with lively characters that are both mesmerizing and consistent, helped much by his colorful cast of both veterans and newcomers from Murray to Hayward.  Furthermore, the film goes one step further and utilizes it’s unique style to propel an engaging plot about childhood stereotypes and the pains of growing up, all with their unique Anderson quirks.  It isn’t necessarily complex at first glance and Anderson has been keen to these types of films throughout his career, yet Moonrise Kingdom accomplishes a terrific feat as a whole – a unique vision that is skillfully insightful and colorfully entertaining.

1. Zero Dark Thirty
SUB-24ZERO-articleLargeOn the other side of the spectrum of my top three is my pick for the most technical and well-executed film of the year – Zero Dark Thirty.  I do believe the film lacks the character and intimate pull that Moonrise and Silver Linings pull together.  However, for what the film foregoes in it’s characterizations, it makes up for in sheer narrative bravado and intricacy in this sprawling dramatic thriller in the search for Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks.  Director Bigelow and her team create a massive, complicated timeline and then presents it in such an engaging yet consumable manner that, although oversimplifies certain narrative elements, leads audiences through the dangers of intelligence gathering and it’s political webs.  It lets the audience decide as to what is morally right and wrong while continuing to utilize it’s main character, Maya, as the sole connection back to the audience of any possible empathy.  The film ends up being one of my favorites of the year because of Bigelow’s successes in capturing the audience’s’ attention nearly every moment of it’s running time and constantly raising interesting questions of the successes and casualties on the war on terror.

Honorable Mentions:
-The Master
-Lincoln
-Argo
-Celeste and Jesse Forever
-Seven Psychopaths

Top 10 Movies:
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild
9. Django Unchained
8. The Cabin in the Woods
7. Bernie
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
5. Samsara
4. Cloud Atlas
3. Silver Linings Playbook
2. Moonrise Kingdom
1. Zero Dark Thirty

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11167541_detThis year has culminated in a series of fascinating historical and political dramas that shows the different sides of war and intelligence.  Each has brought a different facet, style and tone to each of their proceedings and interestingly, we end with the most modern historical tale of all – the hunt for Osama Bin Laden with Zero Dark Thirty.  The question becomes where this film will stand amongst the heavy proceedings of all the others.  The answer, luckily, is that Zero Dark Thirty is a meticulous and well-thought out film that is not only a great historical mystery thriller but thoughtful in it’s themes of the costs of modern warfare and solitary confinement, even with some emotional holes.

Zero Dark Thirty follows the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. What ensues is a decade long search with the film mainly focusing on one task group based in Pakistan.  Several members of this group are introduced including Dan (Jason Clarke) and Joseph (Kyle Chandler) who are capturing suspected members and using various psychological and torture tactics to try and get more information before more attacks happen.  Soon, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is added to the team, for her extensive knowledge and relentless attitude.  The chase will take Maya and the rest of the team around the Middle East until the final debate on Bin Laden’s final location.

The weakest sections of Zero Dark Thirty deal with character complexity and emotional depth along with some glossed over narrative elements.  The film is definitely heavy with lots of names, locations and proceedings.  However, because of the depth of the narrative, the characters are mostly not given much room to grow for the most part and are fairly simplistic.  Unfortunately, some of these simpler characterizations also lead to moments within the story that feel not genuine or emotionally weaker.  Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is one good example of this problem and her character arc.  This situation bleeds a bit into some of the lack of depth in terms of the logic of how these situations proceed.  Because of the high nature importance of the mission, seeing how these politics go through sometimes seem a bit too amplified to be logical such as an argument with Maya versus her superiors.  Again, much of this seems due to the amount of plot material the film has to get through but are still apparent points to make.  Some of the music as well seems inconsistent – although some of the more Middle Eastern soundtracks are intriguing to see, when it changes to a more Western, traditional orchestra, the transition seems a bit too jarring and out-of-place.

However, these problems definitely do not outweigh the terrific pace and thoughtfulness put into creating a complex but comprehensible and exciting narrative arc.  The film is definitely very dense, as previously mentioned, with lots of names and movement, yet it is presented in a fashion in which audience members will remember and understand each step of the proceeding without feeling bored or overwhelmed. It’s a well-paced script that feeds information out without dumbing down the proceedings too much.  This narrative is also given some depth as well in terms of presenting a fairly unfiltered view of interrogation techniques and intelligence gathering methods and letting the audience make the ultimate judgement on what is morally right and not.  This thinking is extended onto Maya’s character who benefits the most from the script (at the expense of other characters) who is actually given some interesting characterizations both as a parallel to audience reaction and her own persona growth thanks both again to the script and Chastain herself.  All of this is wrapped in a weighty atmosphere that always feels on the cusp of another explosion or suicide bomber and does not shy away from darker moments from both the opposition and the US forces. It becomes a fascinating look at the pros and cons of the intelligence process and more or less, just a great piece of storytelling.

Zero Dark Thirty is an intense dramatic thriller that may be short on emotional depth but intricate and engaging in the rest of it’s package.  Yes, there are some simple characterizations that seemingly ‘dumb down’ some of the plot proceedings and little complexity in terms of the sides that people stand on.  However, this lack of complexity and depth luckily does not apply to the core plot and narrative movement as Bigelow and her team weave an intricate narrative of mysteries, red herrings and politics mixed in the search for Osama Bin Laden.  People may rightly question how many of the details are accurate and what ultimately yielded the final results.  However, as a film, Zero Dark Thirty is not only well-told and well-executed but also a thoughtful piece on the war against terror and the heavy toll it brings.  

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rated: R
Running Time: 157 Minutes

The Wie muses: **** out of *****

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