Sunday, March 24, 2013

Well, the world didn't end...

Every year around Oscar time, I become reflective of the films I’ve seen from the previous year and start finalizing my top ten favorite movies within that timeframe. I don’t know if it’s my exponentially waning interest in the Oscars with every passing year that makes the task more and more difficult, or if the quality of films is gradually declining in general. Probably a little of both. That’s why it’s taken me a month to finally sit down and write this and, even now, it feels like a chore.

Not that this year was devoid of good movies. There were plenty. However, it did seem harder to prioritize them in order of how much I enjoyed them. It seemed like every time I sat down to weigh my opinion of each film, I was forced to rearrange the list almost entirely. It got to the point where I thought I might do this year’s list alphabetically. That seemed like too much of a cop-out, though. So, in being aware that this is not the ten commandments being carved into stone tablets and that I’m merely one out of a million online jackasses spouting off about which movies I liked better than all the others, I said “screw it” and finally settled on an order that I’m happy with. For the moment, anyway. By this time next week, I could have the list completely redone again. It’s certainly true that my previous lists are all in a constant state of flux and often changed significantly after catching up with movies I missed the first time around. So, with that in mind, here are my top ten favorite films from 2012 in the order that makes the most sense to me right now at this very second:

#10: Moonrise Kingdom – Here’s a perfect example of why compiling this year’s top ten list was like pulling teeth. Of the ten listed, I probably saw this one first (earliest in the year, I mean) and, consequently, I remember very little about it except that I really liked it a lot. Seeing it again and reacquainting myself with its magic would probably bump it up further, but given the fact I don’t recall many specifics indicates it didn’t leave that much of a lasting impression. So, my conscience dictates it be relegated to the number ten slot. It just barely edged out Argo, which I had seen more recently, do remember, and did really like, so that should give some perspective on how good Moonrise Kingdom was given that Argo won the Best Picture Oscar. What I remember most about Moonrise Kingdom was its overall impression. It felt like a live-action “Peanuts” comic strip. Very charming and sweet but also rambunctious and kinda dark. I’ve always appreciated Wes Anderson’s work, but, with the possible exception of The Royal Tenenbaums, I think this could be his best film. I’ll hafta see it again, though, to make sure.

#9: Silver Linings Playbook – Romantic comedies are tricky. They have an automatic tendency towards schmaltzy sentiment. In fact, they almost can’t exist without it. Silver Linings Playbook has it in bits and pieces, even ending with the male lead literally running after the female lead once she’s walked out and he realizes he loves her (if you think that’s a spoiler then I’m afraid I’ve spoiled the ending of pretty much every romantic comedy ever made), but the ways it differs from garden-variety romantic comedies outweigh the similarities and thus justifies itself. The lovers in question are flawed to the point of literally being mentally ill which makes their romance more powerful and volatile. It’s brilliant, really, because their instability makes for a suspenseful relationship while at the same time making you root for them more than you would a well-adjusted couple. That’s about as good a complication as any romantic comedy has to offer.

#8: Kon-Tiki – I read this book back when I was in sixth grade and remember very little about it except that it had a lot of sharks. Naturally, that memory was enough for me to want to see the movie many years later. I had also read “Life of Pi” many years ago (not as early as sixth grade, obviously, but probably about a decade ago) and saw that movie as well. While I enjoyed the book for “Life of Pi” more than the book of “Kon-Tiki”, I definitely liked the film version of Kon-Tiki more than the film version of Life of Pi.  Not only did it strike me as a more authentic portrayal of being adrift at sea (due in no small part to being a true story, I’m sure), but I found Kon-Tiki to be much more visually breath-taking. This is largely because the special effects seemed so much more realistic. Watching Life of Pi, I was thinking, “Wow, the CGI for that (insert name of any of the many animals that appear in the film here) looks pretty real.” Watching Kon-Tiki (which, although no tiger, had just about as many sea creatures in it as Life of Pi did), it didn’t even occur to me that they were using CGI, although they must have, right? Even the scene where they pull a great white shark onto the deck must have been a model of some kind, but I’ll be damned if I could tell the difference. That kind of authenticity makes all the difference. Plus, it’s just a great movie.

#7: Brave – I usually try to see PIXAR movies in the theater because they’re always such a feast for the eyes. This one somehow got by me, though, and I saw it on DVD a couple months ago. Maybe I didn’t make it a priority because a lot of critics seemed to say it was a fairly pedestrian and unspectacular PIXAR flick, inferring that they’d reached some kind of plateau and were just kinda going through the motions at this point. At least that was the impression I was getting from the press. I don’t know what they were talking about, though. This film is fantastic and meets all the requirements of the high bar that PIXAR has set for itself: A great story, vivid characters, beautiful imagery, exciting action sequences, intelligent humor, truly touch moments and, most importantly, an uplifting and valuable message. It even had the heroic female lead that audiences specifically asked for. I loved it and was mad at myself for not going out of my way to see it in the theater. I don’t know where the disappointment other movie-goers experienced came from. Maybe I’m just easier to please than most other PIXAR fans, but, if that’s the case, I’m totally okay with it.

#6: Flight – I often roll my eyes whenever somebody (usually Spike Lee) accuses Hollywood of overlooking exceptional work of black people in filmmaking. But, given the track record of Denzel Washington, sometimes I wonder. It’s not that he’s gone unappreciated, but let’s review: Mr. Washington has been nominated for six Academy Awards throughout his acting career and, of those six, he’s won two. Not too shabby, right? However, the roles he won for were Glory, where he played a Civil War slave, and Training Day where he played a corrupt ghetto cop. Those were both great roles that he was amazing in, but I’m reminded of a speech Eddie Murphy’s character gave in Bowfinger: “White boys get all the Oscars. It’s a fact! Did I get a nomination? No, and you know why? ‘Cuz I ain’t played none of them slave roles and get my ass whipped. That’s when you get the nomination. Black dude play a slave role, get his ass whipped, he get a nomination. White boy play an idiot, they get the Oscar. Find me a script as a retarded slave, then I’ll get the Oscar.” That’s all for laughs, of course, but when you look at the roles Denzel Washington has been nominated for and didn’t win, it’s a bit odd. There’s no doubt that Daniel Day-Lewis is a fine actor, clearly one of the best actors alive today, but let’s face it; for the role of Abraham Lincoln, 50% of that performance is putting on the hat and the beard. Watch Denzel Washington as a hopelessly addicted yet somehow functional chronic alcoholic dealing with conflicting emotions of being both a hero and a culprit in the midst of a highly-publicized tragedy and tell me that his wasn’t the best performance of the year.

#5: Django Unchained – This film probably bounced up and down the list more than any other, so I finally settled on putting it right at the halfway point. At times, it feels like the best movie of the year and, in other places, it feels incomplete and slightly awkward. Ultimately, I think the film is either too long or too short. Some characters and scenes seem undeveloped to the point where I think they should have been cut out altogether. But, at the same time, I feel like there’s more there we’re not seeing and the movie would greatly benefit from it. Could this be because it’s Tarantino’s first film made without his usual editor, the late Sally Menke? Tarantino has said that there’s an “Extended Cut” that he may or may not release after the film has completed its international screenings. That’s what I wanna see. After that, I’ll feel better about my final verdict. Either way, though, this is an incredible and impressive flick that further illustrates Quentin Tarantino’s ever-growing talent and even maturity as a writer/director. He just may be too big for the movies and better suited for mini-series. I, for one, am sick of filmmakers being forced to snip their films in order to fit some pre-determined cookie-cutter timeframe. Anybody who’s seen the extended director’s cuts of The Wild Bunch or Das Boot would have to agree with me. The theatrical cuts of both those films are tragically inferior, as is Django Unchained, I suspect. As Roger Ebert says, “No good film is too long and no bad film is short enough.”

#4: Sleepwalk with Me – I’m not sure what to say about this film, honestly. It came to me through word of mouth and I knew very little about it when I finally sat down to watch it. I’m reluctant to say much about it and deprive anyone who hasn’t seen it of the same experience. It has all the traits and ingredients of a semi-autobiographical independent film. You can take that as either a plus or minus. It’s very quirky (some friends of mine thought it was too self-indulgent and, while I can’t argue with them, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing in this case) with lots of dry humor and amusing, albeit highly clichéd, characters. Overall, it’s an interesting look at one man’s search for himself and his passion – which, throughout most of the movie, he’s not even sure exists. That’s a pretty good way too sum it up without revealing too many details. I also thought it was modestly profound (even accidentally, perhaps) and could be very inspiring to the right person. What kind of person I couldn’t say any more than I could effectively describe this movie without telling you the entire story. It’s a “ya had to be there” kinda thing.

#3: Celeste and Jesse Forever – I’ve been waiting for years to see a romantic comedy where the leading characters are broken up and don’t get back together. They came close with (500) Days of Summer, but that film had too many flashbacks of when they were together and in love. This film only glazes over the real relationship via photos shown during the opening credits. When the movie begins, Celeste and Jesse are broken up and the rest of the movie explores what a couple does when they seem to everyone (including each other) to be a perfect match yet still cannot be together. It begins modestly by going for easy laughs and light conflict, but it sneaks up on you with matters that are simmering below the surface of its gregarious façade culminating into a pretty deep and insightful dramedy about the complexity of relationships, whether they be romantic or platonic. There are times where we, the audience, want Celeste and Jesse to get back together and other times when we feel they shouldn’t. Best of all, at the end, when the past has been set and the lessons have been learned, we’re left with a sense of hope rather than happiness. Isn’t that the best life has to offer us most of the time? When romantic comedies (even ones as good as Silver Linings Playbook) tend to finish with either living happily ever after or tragically broken-hearted split-ups, it’s refreshing to see one that’s realistic enough to acknowledge that, in many cases, people usually end up somewhere in between.

#2: Chronicle – Movies wherein people possess superpowers are appealing to us for a variety of reasons, first and foremost because of escapism. We all want to be powerful and we all like to fantasize about what we’d do if we were. Most times these scenarios are manifested in such ways as the wizards of “Harry Potter” or the Jedi of “Star Wars” or the mutants of “X-Men”, but occasionally, somebody’s ambitious enough to take a step back and look at the more human elements of superpowers. This was done with great hypothetical insight in such films as Unbreakable and Hancock, but Chronicle is much more thoughtful and surprisingly haunting than any other rendition I’ve seen. The stroke of brilliance is making the lead characters teenagers. Already brimming with their own social angst and changing bodies, when they stumble upon powers that they learn can be harnessed in a variety of ways, they’re faced with the conundrum of realizing that what they want doesn’t often line up with what is right. With the first-person “found footage” technique employed here, we see the once powerless teenagers using their abilities to go from amusing themselves to playing pranks to self-serving indulgences that escalate into mass destruction. Another significant aspect of using teenagers is that, in that period of experimentation that all adolescents go through, we see first hand how some kids, with even the most seemingly inconsequential behavior, will evolve into conscientious adults while others will inevitably destroy themselves, whether it be through drugs or sex or telekinesis.

#1: The Avengers – As good as Chronicle was, you just can’t beat The Avengers. This was a throwback for me, not just because it contained superheroes I grew up admiring, but because it reminded me of those kinds of movies (prolific in the 80’s) when action/adventure flims were fun and light-hearted and more akin to rollercoaster rides than merely stories. Superhero movies like this are hard to pull off, too. Not only are they as naturally inclined to be campy every bit as much as romantic comedies are inclined to be sappy, ensemble casts like this are often spread too thin and not given enough to do. That’s what killed the X-men series, in my opinion. In The Avengers, everybody’s given their moment to shine. Ask anyone what their favorite part of The Avengers was and you’ll probably get a different answer every time because there’s so much good stuff. If movies are meant to entertain, this has to be the most economical movie in years because there truly is never a dull moment. I enjoyed this movie so much that I didn’t particularly care for The Dark Knight Rises when it came out a month later. “Lighten up, Batman. Otherwise that Justice League movie's gonna be a real downer.”

2013 ought to be an interesting year for me personally. I won a year’s worth of free movies at any Cinetopia location, so I’ll probably see every movie that comes out this year (that I can stand to sit through, that is). So, next year’s list will be nothing if not thorough. Until then: So long, 2012. And thanks for the movies.

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