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Wie's Top 10 Movies of 2013Friends and peers have already heard my fairly disappointed reaction to the year in cinema.  However, that is not to say that there were a lack of fantastic movies.  Instead, these top films did a fantastic job in remolding classic tropes while also bringing to light social and cultural issues that have plagued society in the past and to this very day (and possible even to the future).  Here are my favorite ten films of 2013:

Captain_phillips_movie_110. Captain Phillips
There was a tough fight between ‘Nebraska’ and ‘Captain Phillips’, but in the end, I believe ‘Captain Phillips’ resonated more as an overall film, even if ‘Nebraska’ has the bigger character pull.  ‘Phillips’ may lack much in biting commentary and social relevance in comparison to many of the other films on this list, but Director Greengrass showcases a biopic that is tense, tangible and frank as it tries to understand both the Somali and US positions.  Not relying on CG gimmicks or unnecessary subplots, the film tangles the viewer up in a stand-off between a Somali pirate and a captain just trying to do his job with fantastic performances from Hanks and newcomer Abdi.

movies-the-hunger-games-catching-fire-caesar-katniss-tribute-interview9. The Hunger Games Catching Fire
My two favorite blockbusters of the year were ‘Pacific Rim’ and ‘Catching Fire.’ This entry of the ‘Hunger Games’ saga takes the list because it does a terrific job in not only adapting it’s source material but creating an engaging and thoughtful world that touches upon relevant social issues.  In addition, it takes the foundations and most of the problems from it’s predecessor and successfully elevates itself above most of them.  Centered with a stalwart Lawrence and a good supporting cast, ‘Catching Fire’ is what modern book-to-film adaptations should strive for (compared to the weaker ‘Ender’s Game’ launch that came out just weeks before).

gravity-28. Gravity
Cuaron is one of my favorite personal directors of this generation, and it is a pleasure to see him return to the screen after a five-year hiatus with this beauty.  ‘Gravity’ is one of the best technological feats of the year and a terrific thriller.  It’s still astounding that much of this film is CG and is one of the best representations of space in cinema along with the terrific cinematography and sound design.  It’s a shame that the acting and narrative thread did not fare as well as the pacing and audio/visual experience, but ‘Gravity’ is a stellar example of a movie to see in theaters (and in 3D) to fully understand Cuaron’s vision.

01-inside-llewyn-davis7. Inside Llewyn Davis
In a year of great films based on actual figures, the biggest surprise is that ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a fictional tale at it’s core.  Why?  Because the Coen Brothers masterfully grounds the film with beautiful folk songs and characters that really embody the post-World War II era.  The film is quite the downer and feels like it meanders too much, but Isaac’s performance is full of heart while the film’s subject matter is oddly refreshing in showcasing the tough life behind most creatives.  It may not be the Coen Brothers’ best work outright, but it is still an engaging film all-around.

20131220171809wolf_36. The Wolf of Wall Street
Loud, obnoxious and hilarious – ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is a strange Scorsese/DiCaprio beast.  On the one hand, the film is messy and excessive like it’s titular character.  On the other hand, the characters are colorful and fascinating, while the tone is ridiculous and devastating.  In the end, it’s tough to say if the film completely succeeds in making much commentary about the US financial institution or in taking a stand on Belfort’s actions, but the ride it takes is hysterical and disgusting to think that it actually happened and will elicit fascinating conversations about it’s subject matter – a purpose that most likely is what Scorsese aimed for.

Dallas Buyers Club SCap 0025. Dallas Buyer’s Club
Like many of the films on this list, ‘Dallas Buyer’s Club’ manages to both emotionally charge and humorously look at serious issues, which in this case delves into both the HIV/AIDs epidemic and one man’s fight for a cure.  Here is a solid biopic that effectively tells its transformative tale with the right pacing and delivery with just a few squeaky wheels here and there that needed fine-tuning.  ‘Dallas Buyer’s Club’ is also a terrific centerpiece for McConaughey – an actor, who in 2013, has truly shown a wide amount of dexterity in his acting capabilities with ‘Dallas Buyer’s’ probably being his most intense physically and emotionally role along with Leto’s amazing supporting performance.

American-Hustle_612x3804. American Hustle
Which film had the best ensemble acting piece of the year? It unsurprisingly had to have come from David O Russell, who continues his rampage in creating brilliant character films.  ‘American Hustle’ is perhaps one of his more complicated story pieces and although the plot still has a few issues (especially in it’s ho-hum ending), the characters and dialogue are thick with wit and nuance.  These hustling personas are probably even better thanks to the awesome cast including Bale, Lawrence and Cooper being the standouts.  ‘Hustle’ is an awesome period piece and one of the most entertaining films of the year.

her3. Her
Although the premise of a human falling for a robotic being may have been done before, few films have tried to fully embrace a love story without an epic backdrop or complicated exposition.  Even though the mileage of the premise dependent on one’s serious engagement with the material, ‘Her’ brings forth one of the best romantic stories of the year, and the visual and audio experiences are also some of the most beautiful of the year.  Put all of this together with it’s close-to-home themes of our infatuation with our devices and the end product comes out to a futuristic story that may not be far off.

fruitvale station.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-large2. Fruitvale Station
Here is one of the simplest films on my list yet is also the clearest in vision and gravitas.   ‘Fruitvale Station’ compels you into it’s one-day narrative of the tragic story of a young man, who is trying to turn his life around and is in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Anchored by a powerhouse performance from Michael B. Jordan, this film makes you try and understand all of it’s main characters and their motivations before unloading the final few devastating blows.  Through it’s successes as a film, ‘Fruitvale Station’ stands as a stark reminder to the problems of excessive force and racism in the modern day.

12_years_a_slave_featured1-618x4001. 12 Years a Slave
It’s fascinating to see these top two films complement each other in an odd way – ‘Fruitvale’ showcases the problems of present-day racism while ’12 Years a Slave’ highlights many past grievances – a perhaps sobering reminder of problems that still exist after all these years.  ’12 Years’ is a brutal and candid movie that may feel a bit long but to the film’s thematic value rather than to it’s detriment.  McQueen truly showcases one of the hardest hitting movies regarding slavery – giving insight into the stories of free men turned into slaves. Add onto this some startling performances from Chitwal and a host of supporting actors like Fassbender to elevate the film as one of the year’s most memorable if not most emotional.

And so the Wie muses…

Honorable Mentions: Nebraska, Much Ado About Nothing, Blue Jasmine, The Croods, Pacific Rim

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Those that have talked to me about this past summer of movies can easily retell you – I was extremely disappointed.  Whether it was a gluttony of bad scripts or a lousy sequel, there were simply too many depressing moments.  Hollywood is blaming the gluttony of blockbusters amongst the shrinking audience or the increasing competition of other media – both of which are true, but in my opinion – very few of the films this summer resonated or were well made overall, thus creating bad word of mouth and a general lack of disinterest.  I don’t believe this will be my last summer film recap forever as summers likes 2012 showed that the medium can still be both profitable and high in quality, but I sure hope Hollywood studios understand the reasoning behind the faulty exterior.  

The films below are a grab-bag of both my good/bad opinions of this past film summer season (especially since I fell behind reviewing) and of course, I haven’t watched all the films of the summer so do keep that in mind.  Check them out:

Favorite Blockbuster/Guilty Pleasure: Pacific Rim 2013-movie-preview-pacific-rim
Dumb but fun – Del Toro’s Pacific Rim encapsulates the exact opposite of what I find so lacking in the Transformers series from Bay.  Del Toro pays respect to his inspirations while knowing to never be overly serious with his crazy subject matter.  Although the film could have taken a few more steps to be a truly great films for the ages (whether it was some really awkwardly acted scenes or some lackluster sub plots), the film threw some great surprises and understood the nature of pacing and showmanship.  Pacific Rim was the most fun I had this summer and even though it may have been oddly marketed in the US or perhaps overly geeky – it still makes for a really great ride that deserves to be seen on the big screen.  

Runner-Up: This is the End
Not a big fan of the ending and almost goes into the territory of being too in-jokey but hey, This is the End was probably the funniest movie of the summer with some surprisingly candid, funny laughs and great cameos.  

Overall Favorite Film: Fruitvale Station fruitvale-station-main
Although it was overly simplistic and lacked a bigger picture perspective, Fruitvale Station is one of the most touching and well-acted films of the summer and perhaps the year thus far.  Although the whole cast deserves much credit for brining both candidness and gravitas to this up-and-down story, Michael B. Jordan deserves the best nod here as a young man who is quick on his feet and seemingly bright with a shady, conflicted past that continues to haunt him.  It’s a film about family; a film about racial profiling; and perhaps most importantly, a film about the gravity choices, however big or small.  A terrific film all-around.  

Runner-Up: Blue Jasmine
Blue Jasmine lacks the charm and love of the film’s location, San Francisco, as other Allen films and starts out so depressing and never really gets any brighter.  Still, Blancett’s acting is absolutely terrific and the script helps dive the characters into a myriad of mistakes, lies and misery – Allen is as insightful as ever.  

Matt Damon (left) and Sharlto Copley in Columbia Pictures' ELYSIUM.Most Disappointing Summer Movie: Elysium
With so many sequels and remakes this summer, it was surprising to see that an original film from one of my past favorite film’s directors, District 9’s Blomkamp,  earn the distinction of being my most disappointing summer movie.  Although Elysium is beautiful in it’s vision and gives off an initially fascinating world, the film devolves into poor writing and strange plot points.  What we are ultimately left with is a rote, mindless action film added with one-note characters, unnecessary repetitive scenes and one of the weakest endings this summer – a mighty shame given the fascinating backdrop Blomkamp and team created.  

Runner-Up: Man of Steel
Love-it-or-hate-it, unfortunately, Snyder’s Superman interpretation falls for me as a ‘hate it’.  A number of aspects push the film down from it’s schizophrenic story to poor plot beats that end up with characters that I never emphasized much with.  Add on top of all this a second half that has grand action scenes without much care for the surroundings and a lack of emotional pull equates to one of the most disappointing superhero films of the summer.     

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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.

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[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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Films can elicit different emotions for various purposes whether it is a dooming bell to a happy farce.  It’s job isn’t just to entertain but to make sure the audience understands the purpose it’s trying to reach and it’s eventual conclusion.  At times, films can be frustrating affairs as the audience tries to peel back it’s layers and grasp what the director was trying to say only to be succumbed back to square one.  This eternal struggle forces an audience member to either give up in frustration or continue the epic back-and-forth mind game of understanding.  And so comes this review of The Master, a film by the always fascinating Paul Anderson and explores cults and it’s followers in detail.  The eventual end product is that same struggle of understanding where the pieces fall in place and why but for better (or for worse), it will take a bit more than a single viewing to fully ascertain all the detail.  In the end, however, the film’s overly long and pretentious methodology fights with some brilliant acting roles and beautiful aesthetic qualities that oddly end up as a fairly good view of the oddities of cults in itself.

The Master follows Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran of World War II who suffers from PTSD.  After his return from the war, his troubles continue to haunt him as he deals with alcoholism and fits of extreme anger.  He tries to acclimate to society in different occupations and roles but continues to find trouble until he hides in a boat and meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man who created a fervent following based on his own book.  Soon, Freddie meets the family including Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), and the small growth of the cult versus society and has to battle his own demons along the way.

The Master is at it’s best when it lets it’s actors flow in a scene with strong cinematography, score and lighting all helping to set the tone.  The acting ensemble here collectively are a phenomenal group.  The supporting cast has some great moments, especially an underutilized but controlling role from Adams in one of her darker roles.  The way she controls and sits in the back of her husband is always intense to see and fascinatingly strange.  On the other hand are the two leads, Hoffman and Phoenix who bring such intensity and ferocity to their characters in similar yet so different ways.  Hoffman commands a well-spoken man that has both severe anger issues and jovial outbursts as the cult leader while Phoenix acts like a trickster, brashly moving onto his next move yet so intrigued by Hoffman’s character.  Watch the scenes that simply include the two of them in one room (there’s many opportunities for this) and see them both explore and stay fascinated with one another in an interesting game of cat-and-mouse.  Supporting these actors is gorgeous cinematography that loves to pull back in rapid cuts and let the landscape and the character(s) be seen in relation to one another.  Additionally, the lighting has such a 1950s’ quality to it that perfectly sets the tone along with a musical score that parallels it’s characters well, especially Freddie’s broken clarinet theme.

However, the film will deeply divide many on whether or not it’s narrative does much with the characters and strange plot devices that it languishes in.  Anderson sets up the stage between the meeting of an outsider, Freddie, and the cult that Lancaster holds together.  However, the film does not deviate much from this interaction and creates a bit of a repetitive tempo that revolves around this circle in which Freddie despairs, finds solace and then rediscovers the despair and breaks.  This pattern may happen at different intensity levels and moments in the history of the cult but the beats all seem to remain the same, even puzzlingly near the end with few answers and a breadth of questions.  Personally, although the problem was apparent, the themes did seem to resonate in why such a pattern was occurring in terms of who was the master of the other and in control along with the personalities and inner demons that seem to be commonplace among the cultists and Freddie.  Still, there is no denying that Anderson has little care to explain the purpose or reasoning behind the character motivations which could have created a possibly clearer picture of the situation or that the better narrative, in terms of Lancaster’s cult, is given less time to grow than the strange tale of Freddie.  This film is set up more as a symbolic and abstract piece that has fascinating pieces with a narrative that doesn’t always connect.

The Master is a film that completely knows its purpose, even at the expense of it’s narrative, but still ends with a fine acting ensemble and cinematic piece.  There is no denying that the film is bound to infuriate and confuse much of it’s viewing audience with the overly long narrative and plot cycle that rotates in circles more than pushes forward.  However, for audiences that can understand it’s purpose and look past such strange plot devices, there is much to be found from some brilliant performances from Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams along with a great musical composition, beautiful cinematography and a fascinating sense of cults.  Although it may be illegible at times, The Master is a fascinating film that challenges it’s audience to come to terms with it’s character, just as much as they try to become masters of one another.  

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated: R
Running Time: 137 Minutes

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

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There is no exact rule for what a film can and cannot do (granted, if we dig deeper, there are intrinsic elements that people do expect but for the sake of the review, I wanted to focus on this general aesthetic).  Instead, it has a sense of purpose in what it wants to try and accomplish.  One of the most important elements I believe a film has to prove before the film ends.  However, even after trying to generally prove it’s central purpose, the said film needs to make the purpose worthy of discussion and prove that it brings a unique insight into the table, especially one that challenges the audience with a powerful question.  So comes Compliance, a film based on true events, that falls very much into the center of this category.  It asks and presents a large moral dilemma, but unfortunately falters when trying to give meaning and purpose behind it all.

Compliance follows Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of a fast food restaurant who gets a call from a police officer one day that one of her employees, named Becky (Drema Walker), had been caught stealing from another person and needs to be detained until police could arrive.  Sandra detains Becky into the back and thus begins a long ordeal between the police officer, Sandra, Becky and a host of other people connected to the incident in the film including the person on the other line, Officer Daniels (Pat Healy).

Compliance’s strong suit is in the good aesthetic value of the fairly simple story.  Very little of the plot happens outside of the fast food restaurant and the interior is not exactly filled with interesting set pieces.  The problem that creeps up is simply all the attention of the film being put onto other elements of the film other than the scenery and a close inspection of context and narrative.  At least on a purely aesthetic level, the film is fine.  The colors are muted and dark to reflect the tone of the film while the actual actors seem to fit their roles in terms of appearance.  Compliance also sets up interesting ideas and themes with it.  The narrative explores obedience and power in different facets whether it is over a faceless medium or a manager and her employee.  It also asks about what common sense would be and the levels of relationships that affect the final outcome.  The fact that it is based on a true story definitely adds a bit more at stake to what may seem like an outlandish premise.

The problems, however, creep up in terms of how much one buys the premise and the lack of little else other than the conflict.  Although the film opens up in gigantic letters that it is based on a true story, the film does little to provide the audience with much context and conflict.  Instead, it gives out little morsels of character exposition and is too set on telling the plot straight than trying to imagine and think about more of the relationships of these characters inside and outside the fast food restaurant.  Personally, the lack of this context was a strong factor in feeling that the film did not do enough to explain itself and ended up more ridiculous than shocking.  Showing the audience the perpetrator as well felt as more of a scare tactic than much usage of trying to explain his motivations.  Under the film’s current guidance, hiding the perpetrator under a veil would have serviced the story much better.  Yet the presentation style and the film order felt so by the books that it did not do the end product enough justice.  Such a laid back approach felt to skew the film with more questions than answers – questions that the film could have either filled with it’s own assumptions or at least give scenes of provocative thought to.  The best scene in the film perhaps is in it’s final scene between the manager and another character, discussing the events that had transpired – a scene that had some weight in terms of character development and thoughtful questions on it’s subject matter.

Compliance is a tough pill to swallow, not exactly because of it’s subject matter but the decisions made in it’s presentation and characterization.  The central tale of Compliance is told fairly clearly with little room for the imagination and in that sense, makes for an interesting character study and moral issue of obedience to authority and personal sensibility.  However, personally, the film’s stand as an omnipotent passerby feels inadequate for the subject matter, only subtly hinting at why characters may have acted in a certain way.  This slight glance at the characters’ back story only fuels more of a desire to see how characters acted in different situations compared to the moral challenge presented in the film and to present more characterization that seemed lacking.  The end result is a fairly sad ordeal into those that abuse power and those that don’t do more to recognize such abuse but failing to put much substance behind the spectacle.   

Director: Craig Zobel
Rated: R
Running Time: Approx. 90 Mins.

The Wie muses: ** ½ out of *****

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