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11172244_detGoing into ‘Pacific Rim’ was a bit worrisome.  On the one hand, you have a talented filmmaker, Del Toro, taking on a passion project, especially an original IP in a summer locked with remakes and sequels.  On the other hand, however, is the discontent many had with the marketing leading up to it – ‘too nerdy’ for some while the designs seemed ‘childish’ to others.  It’s safe to say, however, that ‘Pacific Rim’ is a fairly crowd-pleasing affair.  Although it has a lot of oddities about it all-around, ‘Pacific Rim’ is a very fun action homage to the mech/monsters of Japan.

‘Pacific Rim’ follows Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), a pilot of a massive human-like weapon called Jaegers, created to battle against strange beasts called Kaijus that started rising from the sea.  However, through a series of events, Raleigh has been displaced for years before being asked to return once again to defend humanity against the monsters from his former commander, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba).  With the help of Stacker’s assistant, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) and the team at the base, they need to prepare for the worst attacks to come.

The film is at it’s best when it balances the right amount of emotion and action without losing control of the choreography on screen.  Although the film is heavy in special effects, much like the best action movies, Del Toro is able to put a good motive and context behind the giants fighting on screen.  The two standout performances come from Hunnam and Elba who both give their roles a good amount of flavor and color along with a special shout-out to Ron Perlman who acts as a fascinating black market dealer named Hannibal and doesn’t get enough screen time.  Hunnam especially gets the best treatment with a terrific introductory sequence that not only helps set-up his motivation moving forward but some great chemistry with his brother character, Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff).  Fascinating characters help create an interesting pallet of individuals that may not always work, keeps the world blooming with interest.

Not to say that the effects are not up to snuff – the towering mech Jaegers have a great sense of weight and although the film limits the amount of Jaegers you get to see on screen, they all have interesting differentiations that surprise at the end of the film.  In addition to these great-looking mechs are two other key factors: cinematography and choreography.  There are some beautiful moments that never feel overly stylish but helps to really showcase the scope of the film such as a majestic moment in a snowy plane that juxtaposes two small humans next to a giant falling mech.  Choreography also helps to keep the action from being too messy and a headache to watch.  Del Toro and his team understand the beats and rhythms of good action films – letting the action relent when necessary before then creating a crescendo into a huge action moment.  Even better, there are surprises that keep on coming and add to some awe-inspiring action moments.  One final great positive note needs to come from Del Toro’s care of his inspiration.  From the usage (and explanation) of the terminology including kaiju and the themes/motifs that are either briefly touched on or repeatedly harkened back to, the film feels like it has a great solid foundation that keeps the film intact.

Perhaps the greatest knocks against the film are the weaknesses in some of the characterizations portrayed and the plot/script progression.  There are several cringe-worthy moments that feel somewhat like small homages to the film’s inspirations yet in execution, feels more out-of-place and unhelpful to the overall ‘big picture’.  One of these moments involve the romantic angle played between (spoilers, but really…you can see it a mile away) Raleigh and Mako.  Not only do they lack chemistry in conversation but their romantic build-up feels forced and rehearsed.  The film felt like it would have lent better to a mentor-mentee angle or a much more fleshed chapter structure that built up the back-story of these two lovebirds.  Instead, the romantic subplot will get laughs but for all the wrong reasons compared to the sense of attachment and gravitas that the film gets between Raleigh and his brother in the introduction sequence of the film.  This sense of awkward feelings comes up several times in the film’s script along with a lot of convoluted backstory that feels rushed and better told in another film or medium and disappointingly, it never lends the film to really be explored on a more psychological or going beyond just a fun, homage film.

‘Pacific Rim’ is a great example of how to create a fun, compelling action movie, even amongst a lot of dumb sections.  There is a lot that seems to go wrong with ‘Pacific Rim’ whether it’s an less than stellar romantic subplot or some terribly corny melodramatic moments.  However, Del Toro and his crew really excel with the rest of the film from a great sense of pacing and choreography to compelling visuals and wonderful sound design.  Best of all, ‘Pacific Rim’ has heart and cares about it’s characters and inspirations which it wears proudly throughout.  Again, ‘Pacific Rim’ has some definitive flaws yet pulls through with a solid foundation.  A great definition of what a summer blockbuster should be.  

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

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

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the-oscars-and-social-media-by-the-numbers-630dfbfb1c2012 was a terrific year for film.  Of course, the general box office might not think so and many fans of specific movies might be unhappy with the Oscar picks as they are nearly every year – but really, believe me when I state that this year’s Oscar candidates really reflects the high caliber of film that hasn’t been seen for a few years if not more.  Because of this, a lot of categories are interestingly going up in the air in terms of who has the better expectation in terms of winning.  We’ll find out tomorrow the results.  Here are my predictions for 2013: [And a good quick note, like every year, I miss a few categories simply because I lack the expertise in the specific category or I haven’t been able to watch most of the films in that category, such as Best Animated.] 

Original Screenplay:
Amour
Django Unchained
Flight
Moonrise Kingdom
Zero Dark Thirty

du-ac-000125_lg_620x350Most Likely to Win: Django Unchained
Django Unchained has been riding a huge tidal wave of success starting from it’s Golden Globe win to the BAFTA. The WGA was it’s only major loss (since it wasn’t nominated) and so going into the big Oscar week, it seems that many in the film community would like to honor Tarantino’s latest with a few awards, especially in two of it’s strongest areas starting with it’s witty and fascinating screenplay.  The only other two that could usurp it could be Zero Dark Thirty or Amour – one for it’s win at the WGA and the other because of rising emotional momentum.

Wie’s Choice: Moonrise Kingdom
It’s an utter shame that this category is the only nomination for Moonrise Kingdom which is hindered by both it’s summer release and quirky output. It also most likely has little chance of winning, but in my mind, Wes Anderson’s screenplay actually has a lot in common with the most likely winner, Django.  Both harken back to a specific nostalgic genre and play with those aesthetics to create it’s world and emotions.  However, I do feel that Moonrise is the more genuine out of the two and takes more risks that payoff in building it’s child-to-adulthood storybook plot, written with as much intelligence and fun as any other contender this year.

Adapted Screenplay:
Argo
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Silver Linings Playbook

argoMost Likely to Win: Argo
Much like the majority of this predictions list, Argo has the biggest momentum moving into the Oscar night.  The film really capitalized on it’s early Oscar buzz more than any other film and with both wide exposure and a film that doesn’t do too much to offend and enough to excite – it looks like the clear frontrunner to beat.  Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook seem to be the next films that could have a chance, the latter with a BAFTA win.

Wie’s Choice: Silver Linings Playbook
However, personally, the best screenplay goes to Silver Linings Playbook with Lincoln close behind.  Silver Linings lives and dies by it’s writing and character interplay – an element that is clearly a big help thanks to the well-written screenplay that could have left the fairly typical under trappings into mediocrity.  With such a huge element of success and love put into it’s screenplay, there’s no denying that Silver Linings Playbook is one of the most heartfelt screenplays on the list.

Visual Effects:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Marvel’s The Avengers
Prometheus
Snow White and the Huntsman

121121_MOV_LifeofPi.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeMost Likely to Win: Life of Pi
Life of Pi seems to be the clear frontrunner here, winning the most awards and most critical praise.  Sure there are some spectacular visual set pieces and some clear work done with the effects.  It most likely is the tiger, however, that really distinguishes the work above it’s competition – a feat that is all the more impressive when most audience members cannot distinguish between the real and the fake.

Wie’s Choice: Prometheus
However, admittedly, one of my most disappointing films of the year was still quite a pretty choice indeed.  Prometheus was both artistically beautiful and visually strong with consistently large and gorgeous set pieces and constant effects that never seemed to run out of steam.  The film itself may be quite weaker in comparison but the work done on the effects here should be recognized as some of the industry’s best of the previous year.

Music – Original Score:
Anna Karenina
Argo
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Skyfall

argo1Most Likely to Win: Argo
Music has been a bit all over the place this awards season with various winners from Skyfall’s BAFTA win to Life of Pi’s win at the Golden Globes.  Call it strange but I believe because of Argo’s lack of nominations or surefire wins in most other categories I believe the Academy will award Argo and it’s fairly interesting score a prize here.

Wie’s Choice: Life of Pi
However, I do believe Life of Pi, although the dominant winner in my eyes, is one of the more unique soundtracks of the year.  Both Eastern and mystical in it’s musical trappings, in a film where the players do not change as much on screen, an important component became the musical backdrop to truly push the film along with it’s beautiful visuals – something that the soundtrack has done.

Film Editing:
Argo
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

121011_MOV_Argo.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeMost Likely to Win: Argo
The editing category here has gone to quite a few different movies this season.  However, much like the reasoning with the Music Score, I believe the Academy will go similarly here with editing and award it to Argo, both creating consistency with it’s eventual lead-up to bigger awards and because it does have some momentum in terms of other wins as well.  Zero Dark Thirty and Life of Pi are the most likely other choices.

Wie’s Choice: Silver Linings Playbook
My choice falls alongside an interesting choice – Silver Linings Playbook.  I believe the film was at it’s strongest with it’s pacing and frenetic energy helped by a tremendous job in the editing room.  The film was quick and all over the place yet still had a foundation and weight that kept it all level – something that the editing here really succeeded at I believe more than the other film contenders.  However, Silver Linings doesn’t look to be the top choice here in the final night.

Cinematography:
Anna Karenina
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Skyfall

life-of-pi02Most Likely to Win: Life of Pi
Life of Pi is the clear frontrunner with both the critical acclaim and the awards lead thus far – a not too surprising choice given some of the beautiful camera moments that really push the wow factor of the film’s big set pieces.  With little to slow it down other than a surprise upset from Skyfall or Anna Karenina, two of the artier cinematography films nominated, Life of Pi has little to lose here.

Wie’s Choice: Skyfall
However, I was more impressed with the beauty and grandeur of Skyfall.  Although it lacks some of the more abstract moments of Life of Pi, this latest Bond flick encompasses some beautiful camera decisions that result in one of the best looking Bond films yet that really take advantages of the locales Bond visits.  From a beautiful pan out fight to the death under the ice to a Shanghai fight against the neon lights, Skyfall is my pick amongst these candidates for Best Cinematography.

Actress in a Supporting Role:
Amy Adams (The Master)
Sally Field (Lincoln)
Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables)
Helen Hunt (The Sessions)
Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook)

1500_les_miserables_anne_hathawayMost Likely to Win: Anne Hathaway
Anne Hathaway is the easiest acting role nomination to pick because she has swept every single category she has been in.  From the Golden Globes to the SAGs, there hasn’t been a major award that Hathaway hasn’t won.  Hunt’s role is probably too miniscule in comparison to Hathaway along with Weaver.  Adams had a terrific performance that played against her usual roles but still was not as dominating and Field, although an Oscars favorite, may have tried to dominate in Lincoln but still clearly overshadowed by her bigger-than-life Day-Lewis/Lincoln husband.

Wie’s Choice: Anne Hathaway
But that being said, Hathaway really dominates in her role all-around, as short of a period as she is in the movie for.  With ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ as her big solo moment and the story of Fantine making up the big transition to the halfway point in the movie, Hathaway’s role was really either a take-it-or-leave-it moment and Hathaway did the role justice.  It helped that Director Hooper chose to really be intimate during the songs and hone in on the characters, giving them a musical-like moment to be judged and reviewed.

Actor in a Supporting Role:
Alan Arkin (Argo)
Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)
Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)
Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)

christoph-waltz-django-unchained-1Most Likely to Win: Christoph Waltz
Here’s a category that initially seemed like an easier category to predict but has gotten a bit unsteady throughout the weeks.  Waltz was the frontrunner at first with a win at the Globes and another at the BAFTA.  However, Jones and Hoffman have also each received an award for their equally powerful performance in their movies and some pundits believe that De Niro and Arkin are both deserving of an award as well.  However, Waltz seems like the most likely winner amongst the group simply due to the stats.  We’ll see.
Wie’s Choice: Christoph Waltz
This category is also filled with heavy hitters in nearly every spot.  Jones and Hoffman are very much deserving of the award – the former for his earnest candor that really focused on working his acting chops and the latter really being a bombastic middleman that kept the Master together.  However, it really is Waltz that stole the Django show with a performance that shone as witty and dramatic.  How does a German cowboy work in an exploitation Western?  Simply watch Waltz work his magic.

Actress in a Leading Role:
Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)
Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)
Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Naomi Watts (The Impossible)

amour-riva_2448292bMost Likely to Win: Emmanuelle Riva
What was once a clear-shot win for Lawrence has started swaying in the other direction for Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva since her win at the BAFTA’s.  Pundits are predicting that the stars are aligning correctly for the actress along with appealing to the majority of the Academy’s older voters.  Furthermore, it’s her 86th birthday during the Oscar’s – a great birthday present and story that the Oscar’s would seemingly love (and her role in Amour itself is critically acclaimed and a nomination well-deserved).

Wie’s Choice: Jennifer Lawrence
As much as I cherish and respect Riva’s role though, my favorite performance of the year is still Lawrence.  Silver Linings Playbook is heavily reliant on it’s actors to convey the quick-paced, nearly-schizophrenic plot and Lawrence has been the biggest force to lead the charge in the film.  Continuing to diversify her roles and showcase, her role here is one that is very stalwart yet emotionally frail – confident yet filled with holes.  Her chemistry on screen and her ups and downs throughout the film was a thrill to watch and my pick for the Best Actress of 2012.

Actor in a Leading Role:
Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)
Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables)
Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)
Denzel Washington (Flight)

daniel-day-lewis-lincoln4Most Likely to Win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Here is probably the easiest category to choose of the night unless there’s some sort of hard upset that – Mr. Day-Lewis has been picking up pretty much every major award up to the Oscar’s with little momentum shifting away from him.  Hugh Jackman is probably the only one with a bit of hype on his side with his Golden Globe win but little else in their other confrontations.

Wie’s Choice: Daniel Day-Lewis
The choice though is fairly sound, even amongst such heavy competition.  Day-Lewis truly embodies Lincoln both as a fantastic storyteller and a strong but flawed leader.  Spielberg’s style throughout the film leaned heavily on Day-Lewis as well for nearly the entire film with quiet moments telling an intimate story to an emotional fight with his wife that again, Day-Lewis perfectly balanced.

Directing:
Michael Haneke (Amour)
Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Ang Lee (Life of Pi)
Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)
David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)

2088_life-of-pi-ang-lee-640Most Likely to Win: Ang Lee
Here comes the strangest award of the night as three heavy-weight directors that were nominated in Best Picture are not here including heavy favorite Argo.  So what in the world happens then?  Pundits seem all over the place here with the fight being a three-way match between Spielberg, whose film is leading in terms of nominations, Russell, who has swept the nominations for the acting categories, and Lee who has been a late favorite among many.  Without any clear award indicator from before other than the critical rumblings, I would have to agree with Lee in this case – a film that truly blossomed into a fascinating contender later in the game.

Wie’s Choice: David O. Russell
Again, however, the nominated directors here showcases the strength of this past year’s films.  Nearly all of them deserve some kind of recognition but my personal favorites come down between Haneke and Russell, the latter of which I will tip my hat to.  As I’ve described previously in other choices, Silver Linings Playbook was an achievement thanks to many moving cogs – a film that could have easily slipped into a typical rom-com and held together to become something much more significant thanks to Russell and his great work in building his characters – an achievement that out of this list I believe he accomplished best.

Best Picture:
Amour
Argo
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Misérables
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Argo-1Most Likely To Win: Argo
And so comes the big last award of the night, which will most likely go to Argo.  How come?  The momentum behind this film is huge since it’s release.  It has been a Hollywood darling, winning nearly every major award since the awards season started and really scratching the backs of making Hollywood feel like it’s a hero.  Additionally, with no nomination for Best Director oddly, that should solidify it’s Best Picture win all the more unless a crazy upset happens from Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty, Silver Linings Playbook, or Lincoln.

Wie’s Choice: Zero Dark Thirty
It really was a great year for film as this list encompasses, with nearly every film on here really deserving it’s spot.  However, my favorite of the year is Zero Dark Thirty – what I thought to be a much more focused and emotionally nuanced political/historical thriller than Argo.  As I described in my favorite films of 2012 post, Zero Dark Thirty pushes a fascinating and grueling tale about the capture of Osama Bin Laden from the perspective of a lone wolf agent.  Unafraid to explore touchy subject matter such as torture and intelligence, Zero Dark Thirty is a great film all-around and my choice for my personal Best Picture Oscar.

[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

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 *****

11166394_detThe historical drama is definitely not an uncommon sight, especially given some rich and great movies surrounding some of these spectacular true events.  One of the interesting debates that come with a movie format though is how to approach the historical figure.  Will the director/writer/crew take on the entire lifespan or a good chunk of timeline or narrow down to a few events?  Lincoln takes on the issue by going the latter route, focusing squarely on the last few months of Lincoln’s presidency.  The decision turns out to be for (mostly) the best as Spielberg and his fairly strong team of actors and crew members really churn out a very historically vivid picture that focuses much on the politics of the situation although the film suffers from the slow pace that emotionally isn’t always consistent.

Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has just been re-elected and he has made a choice to try and pass the the constitutional amendment to ban slavery before the Civil War is over, since the Southern States would never accept such a key component of their original plan of secession.  However, the key people in his life are having doubts such as his wife, Mary (Sally Field), Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) and his son, Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt).  Also not helping matters is a fired up opposition both in the South and the House and even in his own party such as with one of the leaders of the Radical Republicans, Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and his own cabinet.  Lincoln has to make several crucial decisions before time is too late.

Lincoln’s best strengths come forward within it’s acting troupe and the atmosphere and approach to the subject matter.  As stated previously, Spielberg’s choice of narrowing down the film’s focus to Lincoln’s last few months proves to be to the benefit of the plot.  The plot really can focus on Lincoln’s character and poignant character interactions within this smaller time frame while still elaborating on other important life points in passing conversation.  The film is at it’s best when it allows Lincoln to simply speak to his intended listener and juxtapose the situation with another emotionally charged scene of a different nature.  From a personal storytelling session to his cabinet to a fiery argument with his wife, the film really feels like a play in it’s presentation because of how focused on conversation and expressions the film looks towards.  Additionally, the beautiful lighting and the great look of the set pieces and costumes help sell the setting and place.  Lincoln playing with his younger son with the light shining from the morning light is simply gorgeous and does not feel overly forced.  Finally, there is, of course, the actors themselves.  There are some terrific performances here that are so important because of the focus on the dialogue and emotional output.  The best two come out to be Day-Lewis and surprisingly, Jones.  Jones is a surprise because his character at first appears to be fairly meek and nominal for Jones’ types of characters.  However, it grows to not only be somewhat sarcastic and strong but flawed and moving.  His monologues on the House floor are a highlight.  Day-Lewis, of course, is the star of the show and really embodies Lincoln as not only the president but also as a well-liked but political strategist that plays with his power.  He brings a moral question into his actions and shows the struggles he faces on all sides.  It’s a fascinating performance that is striking and memorable in not only the look and mannerisms but the range of emotions that evokes a much more complicated president that many may be surprised to see.

That is not to say, unfortunately, that the film is not without it’s flaws from it’s pacing to it’s trappings.  Sure, the film is two hours and thirty minutes long.  However, many films are of comparable lengths and do not suffer from the pacing problems found here.  Although ‘Lincoln’ really focuses on these few months of Lincoln’s life, there are scenes that feel both unnecessary or simply too dragged out.  For instance, many scenes with Robert and the President feel strangely out of place as emotionally, Robert’s place feels unnatural and unnecessary for much of the film’s themes and purposes.  Another part that makes the film feel strange is it’s strange emotional changes such as in it’s use of comedy.  Several comedic characters are played to make the scenes regarding lobbying the Democrats more lax and change up the emotional draw of the film.  Unfortunately, these scenes jar heavily with the heavier emotional scenes and it’s heavy usage by the climax feels very unrealistic with the film’s goals.  Other elements as well do not help the film such as, surprisingly, the usually strong Williams’ soundtrack which lacks a memorable melody or strong overtones.

Lincoln is filled to the brim with powerhouse performances and a very focused theme, diluted somewhat by it’s overly methodical pacing and overly lingering plot.  Yes, the film’s pacing is definitely not impeccable as it really slowly scans over the intricacies of Lincoln’s plot in this two month window and some of the side stories feel unnecessary or over-glamorized.  That being said however, there has been lots of care taken with the film’s quality with a beautiful look and an appropriate Spielberg touch to the proceedings that make the film’s time period and actions work to the film’s benefit – all of this bolstered by a very strong actors, especially from Jones and Day-Lewis who both are given ample time to give rousing and well-rounded performances.  More or less, although Lincoln doesn’t perfectly give audiences all of the trials and tribulations of Lincoln’s presidency, the film is a well thought-out piece on the struggle of presidential power and political choice in even the darkest of times.  

Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 150 Minutes

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

Dramatic comedies have an interesting fine line to follow – make too much light of a situation and the film could fall apart into nothing but inane laughter.  On the other side, a dramatic comedy with little to no laughs brings forth a problem of a subject matter that takes itself too seriously.  The balance is key to creating a well-rounded plot that can be well-appreciated.  Silver Linings Playbook, for the most part, takes that balance well into heart although perhaps sticking too closely to the tried-and-true plot beats.  Nevertheless, the film is so slick in it’s packaging from it’s pacing to it’s characters and it’s messaging that the Silver Linings Playbook ends up as a serious contender for your attention.

Silver Linings Playbook follows Pat (Bradley Cooper), a bipolar young man who has been sent to a mental institution due to an incident with his wife.  After serving his time, he is taken home by his mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), to his football-loving father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro).  However, Pat still is troubled at times and it is only until he meets his friend’s wife’s sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who is also going through her own set of problems, that he finds some solace to help his recovery process.

The weakest parts of the film are that in terms of the film’s structure and general character arcs; there is little that stands out.  The film is very conventional in how it approaches the general plot with few legitimate surprises that come out from just the story.  Although, as explained later, the characters really move the film into more interesting territories, little can be attributed to the directions taken with the story which feel like a very typical romantic comedy.  Much like Russell’s previous film, The Fighter, which was really constrained by it’s very typical underdog fighter plot route, Silver Linings Playbook feels similarly constrained by it’s fairly typical growth arcs that doesn’t pull many punches, even to the end.  Also not helping are the plot devices that appear and although the film does not purport to make them revelatory, the fact that these various ‘devices’ are fairly obvious and unsurprising do not help to make these moments any less protruding.

However, many of these plot problems are much more negligible compared to the success of it’s characters and aesthetic look into mental illnesses and their recovery.  One of the most fascinating sections is the acting and characters.  There are simply some fantastic performances here that are engrossing and full of life from both the obvious set of actors and some surprising turns as well.  Lawrence continues to amaze audiences with another fascinating turn as Tiffany, playing an individual who is depressed and awkward yet full of pizazz and sporadic energy.  Complementing her is an equally fairly bombastic yet emotionally distraught performance from Cooper who gives a very surprising performance as the mentally disturbed Pat.  Together, Pat and Tiffany become absolutely fascinating to watch interact on screen as their two tough personalities collide and complement each other in both energetic and quieter scenes.  Although a bit much at times due to how sporadic these outbursts and energetic squabbles can be, it feels very appropriate given the subject matter and how these individuals’ minds are working on overdrive at nearly all times.  Complementing their performances are some good supporting roles such as De Niro and most of the other cast.  Just as well, the energy from the cinematography and editing define this very crazed state of being as well.  There are lots of cuts throughout the film and scenes fly by quite quickly.  As Pat descends into a state of frenzy, the film equally spirals into a controlled state of unrest with the camera falling all around and the cuts becoming all the faster.  Again, it becomes quite taxing at times to watch simply because so much information is being conveyed, but the way it works itself into the themes and emotions within a scene makes it all the more spellbinding to watch.

Silver Linings Playbook is a film that doesn’t innovate exactly in terms of it’s fairly typical narrative beats but is a delight of a film in nearly every other respect.  True, there is nothing particularly spectacular about some of the film’s obvious plot devices and the nominal and unsurprising plot arch.  However, simply focusing on these points does the overall film discredit as there is a bountiful amount of great praise that can be seen in this film from the spectacular acting showcases of much of it’s cast (especially Cooper, Lawrence and De Niro) to the more than appropriate frenetic pacing and editing to the amount of time it spends on it’s characters and relationships.  Silver Linings is a fairly steady look into mental illnesses that still carries a light heart on it’s sleeve without sacrificing it’s integrity.  It’s a joy of a film to watch that satisfies as both a crowd pleaser and a serious repertoire.  

Director: David O. Russell
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Rated: R

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

Existential films always have a fine line to balance in their pursuit to find the reason for human purpose.  The beautiful aspect about this ‘genre’ of films is that they can fall under any really as they weave and explore different aspects of the human life to find meaning and reason.  Few, however, touch the complexity found in Cloud Atlas, a very daring adaptation of an equally daring fictional book.  Although it’s own ambitions is simply really too enormous to fit into one film unto itself, there is no denying that there is an absolutely fascinating pull to what Cloud Atlas has to say as a containment for film and a fascinating expose of the human life and beyond.

Cloud Atlas follows six storylines among a continuum of time starting from the late 1800s to the far-flung, unknown future.  The stories range from a lawyer who is sick at sea and must deal with a stowaway; a conniving musician who is inspired to finish a grand music piece under the guidance of a great composer; a mystery thriller in which a reporter is trying to uncover the importance of a power plant; an elderly man who must try to figure out a way to repay his debts; a future with a replicant who has a personality; and a far-flung future in which man has returned to the wilderness.  The main actors, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, and Donna Bae, play a variety of roles throughout these storylines.

Cloud Atlas both struggles and thrives on it’s ambitious concept with many of it’s detractors also being it’s core strengths.  This statement seems unfair for any film since it doesn’t offer a definite critique, but because of the nature of Cloud Atlas, there is no simple way to approach a straightforward analysis and review.  For instance, the film’s choice to use it’s main cast of actors (and some side characters as well) in nearly all of the storylines is daring although not always effective.  Some of the character changes are quite dramatic and effective, creating for some fairly fascinating moments of disbelief in an impressive usage of makeup and acting prowess.  Unfortunately, some of these changes are not as effective as certain storylines take place in specific parts of the world which even some of the best makeup cannot change (the future storyline with Somni is most affected). The acting also gets put on full blast because of this decision and once again, the mileage varies.  For the most part, the acting troupe works fairly hard to make their characters work and feel fairly distinguished with special mentions going out to Tom Hanks, in one of his most challenging series of roles, and Ben Whishaw, who delivers some of the film’s most interesting moments. All-in-all, in my opinion, the thematic implications of utilizing this mechanic is understandable and gives the film more weight – playing on the core of the film’s concepts about destiny and karma that could resonate in any person regardless of race, gender, sexuality or more.

Speaking of these themes, Cloud Atlas also will be heavily looked at because of it’s deliberate focus on these existential and philosophical musings and it’s structure.  Unlike the book it’s based off of, the film adaptation feels free to really play with the editing heavily.  This means that the plot really frees itself to go back and forth from storylines with what seems like at first, reckless abandon.  However, the trio of directors try to utilize the film medium to really make comparisons in the storylines much more apparent as well as try to convey the themes a bit more openly.  Timelines are transitioned into one another at times and direct comparisons are made on a frequent basis.  The end result is intriguing to watch unfold although will most likely baffle most audiences.  Much of this is due to how well the stories are explained and fleshed out.  Some of the stories on their own do not seem to hold as much weight or just don’t play out as interesting whether it’s due to the lack of changes or changes made from the original novel or where it is placed on the narrative thread.  Some may also be bothered by the frequent monologues that really try to reiterate the themes as much as possible.  What I believe most people will agree on is that the idea itself is unique to see play out – six stories that have their own unique genres and (mostly) set of characters that are linked more by abstract ideas and concepts, and the mileage on which it is effective may vary on how much an audience member may understand what transpired on film and once again, pays close attention to the thematic qualities of intertwining fates.

The film’s aesthetics, for the most part, are something that is a bit easier to approve of.  The music, in my opinion, is one of the strongest parts of the film.  It gracefully transitions from scene to scene, really embodying each of the six separate storylines with it’s own strong melody while still being able to connect the entire film as well.  The camera work, for the most part, is also a delight to watch with some great action and dramatic set pieces set up to again, repeat that theme of similar historical beats and interconnecting lives.  It’s a beautiful marriage of careful planning and kinetic force.  Finally, the special effects work in itself is not exactly groundbreaking but the overall production still feels polished with little to really nitpick on and conveying the stories’ time periods well.

Cloud Atlas is nothing short of astonishing in many ways.  True, it’s filled with many imperfections, weighed down both by it’s ambition and attempts to wade through the twisted tangled plot threads with too much of a overly preachy thematic set.  However, although many will be bogged down and turned off by these inconsistencies (and it’s long running time), the final product is an absolutely fascinating piece of cinema.  Full of symbolism, meaty themes, rapid tonal shifts and some of the strangest performances and make-up work in any film thus far this year, the film bombards the viewer with it’s fairly kind adaptation of the equally complicated (if not more so) book it’s based off of.  It doesn’t always work or resonate, but there is no denying in my mind that Cloud Atlas stands as a unique piece of art and an existential piece on our lives and trying to comprehend death, love and connections throughout space and time.  I’m glad a film like Cloud Atlas exists to continue to explore the nature of film in absolutely bizarre and engrossing ways.  

Director: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Running Time: 172 Minutes
Rated: R

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