Update: And another I missed on the first sweep: David Strathairn gamely rallies the paratroopers in the atmospheric trailer for Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla reboot, also with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe. I prefer the leaked one with the Oppenheimer voiceover (“I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds,” bringing the thunder lizard back to its Hiroshima roots), but I can see how that might’ve been too edgy for a summer blockbuster.
Update 2: Tom Cruise cosplays Starcraft, and gets some mechanized infantry pro-tips from Emily Blunt, in the first trailer for Doug Liman’s The Edge of Tomorrow, a badly-named adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill. Eh, maybe.
Update 3: Matthew McConaughey and Christopher Nolan celebrate the dream of flight in a brief and relatively vague teaser for Interstellar, also with Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, John Lithgow, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, and David Oyelowo. As it says, one year from now.
Update 4: Speaking of gamely rallying folks, Gary Oldman tries to get San Francisco’s few remaining humans to chin up against those damn dirty apes in the first teaser for Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, also with Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Judy Greer, and, of course, Andy Serkis. The first one was surprisingly ok, and this can’t be worse than Oldman’s last dystopian epic, The Book of Eli, so I’ll likely matinee it.
Update 5: A few more come down the pike for the holiday film season: First up, computer genius Johnny Depp goes the way of the The Lawnmower Man in this short teaser for Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, also with Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Clifton Collins Jr., and Cole Hauser. The Matrix-style binary is a bit of a cliché at this point, but Pfister has done memorable work as Nolan’s cinematographer, so I’m optimistic.
And, following up on the first trailer of a few months ago, Wes Anderson introduces us to the cast of characters of The Grand Budapest Hotel, among them Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Almaric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saiorse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, and Tony Revolori.
Whatever its other faults, 2012 was actually a pretty solid year at the cineplex. In terms of great movies, the crop wasn’t as rich as, say, 1999. (To name just a few from that year: Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Matrix, Three Kings, The Iron Giant, Election) But, in general terms, I thought most of the movies that came out this past year avoided obvious pitfalls and delivered at or better than the level they promised.
For example, almost all of the year’s superhero movies were surprisingly good — no real Green Lantern-y whiffs this year. Most of 2012′s unnecessary sequels and even-more-unnecessary remakes — MIB III and Amazing Spiderman, say — turned out better than expected. Horror moved out of the serial killer/torture pr0n ghetto in both conventional (The Women in Black) and unconventional (Cabin in the Woods) ways. Lowbrow, could-be-terrible comedies like 21 Jump Street and Ted actually had some solid laughs to them. And even the intentional B-movies — like Dredd, Lockout, or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — all had their moments, even if I can’t recommend some of those in their entirety.
In any case, now that the last few 2012 films have hit DC theaters, and my dissertoral defense obligations are now behind me, it’s at last time for the usual end-of-year list ’round here. Since I didn’t do any individual reviews this past year — I still haven’t decided if those will return for 2013 — I’ve upped the 2012 list to 25 movies, and, at the end, added a few thoughts on some of the others that crossed my field of vision over the past twelve months. Without further ado…
1. The Dark Knight Rises: “Theatricality and deception, powerful agents for the uninitiated. But we are initiated, aren’t we, Bruce?” I know Christopher Nolan’s TDKR wasn’t as well-received in many circles as The Dark Knight, and for understandable reasons — the Joker will always be Bat’s #1 nemesis. Still, I loved this closing chapter of Nolan’s trilogy — its audacious scope, its Occupy Gotham meets the French Revolution ambience, its tight connections back to Batman Begins, its menacing yet loopy villain, its repudiation of the ends-justify-the-means arguments of TDK. (So much for the contention in that earlier film that “sometimes the truth isn’t good enough…Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” That dubious line of thinking backfires for Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Wayne, and everyone else who partook of it in the last film.)
I don’t know how The Dark Knight Rises plays to the uninitiated, since, like most fans, I went in presuming that (a) Bane would break the Bat and (b) Talia al Ghul was involved in some capacity. And admittedly there are some problems here, as in all of Nolan’s Batman movies. As soon as Alfred starts going on about French cafes in the first reel, it’s pretty clear where the film will end up eventually. (And that closing doesn’t make sense anyway, since billionaire Bruce Wayne is likely recognizable all around the world, certain Chinese prisons notwithstanding.) And speaking of prisons, how, exactly, did barefooted Bruce get back from somewhere in the Middle East into a Gotham City on lockdown?
All that being said, there was a lot to like here. I enjoyed the intricate plotting of TDKR, and how some of its central points hearkened back to lessons learned in the previous films. (For example, Bruce’s concern, in light of Joker-style escalation, about the fusion reactor becoming a weapon.) I liked how Anne Hathaway was introduced as a prototypical Anne Hathaway character — the Nervous-Nellie maid — before revealing her decidedly-unHathawayesque Selina Kyle. I was consistently entertained by Tom Hardy’s sing-songy Bane voice, including goofy flourishes like his admiring the pre-game rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. (“He has a beautiful voice!” If only Bane had subsequently gotten a chance to freestyle.) And I thought there were moments of real poetry, such as when, to suggest the passage of time while Bruce’s back healed, a Bane-commandeered Batmobile prototype rolls along a snowy Gotham side street.
One common complaint I heard about TDKR is that it’s a Batman movie without Batman — that the Caped Crusader completely disappears in the second act of the film. I don’t get it, and my theory is people who hold this view have never, personally, been broken. Granted, we all expect that Bruce Wayne will get his back fixed and get back in the game. Still, even if it’s weirdly the most mutually supportive prison on Earth (which makes more sense once you realize Bruce throws down a rope once he got to the top), I like the Lazarus Pit detour, and the ultimate payoff of seeing Bruce/Bats back in action in Act III. Fall down, get back up. Get your back broken, have Tom Conti punch that vertebrae back in. Get the s**t kicked out of you, get rid of that rope and rise.
2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay…small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it’s because I am afraid and he gives me courage.”
I can see why some folks didn’t cotton to TDKR, but I really can’t get my head around all the Haterade that’s surrounded Peter Jackson’s excellent and entertaining first installment of The Hobbit. This was a great movie! And it was easily as faithful to Tolkien’s book in both tone and story as the latter two Rings films. (For people complaining about the inclusions of Radaghast the Brown, Dol Guldur, and the White Council, I submit to you Osgiliath and Far-from-the-Bookamir. Pale Orc, meet Lurtz.)
Particularly bewildering to me is all the whining about 48 FPS. I thought An Unexpected Journey looked amazing. Granted, I spent a childhood watching Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and the like, and so I’m used to suspending my disbelief while watching images that seem video-immediate. But still. All the kvetching about the new standard was, in my opinion, totally over the top. (In terms of snapping my abilty to engage with a universe on screen, I had more issues with the operetta-ness of Les Mis. Er…are they really going to sing every single line of this movie? Russell Crowe too?)
As for all the complaints about the pacing, admittedly this first chapter was languidly told — Three and a half hours and we only got to Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire. But, y’know, I like spending time in Middle Earth — If the dwarves want to sing again, have at it, good fellows. (Just don’t go all operetta on us.) And given that, for example, GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire books are getting ten hour adaptations each, or Treme or Boardwalk Empire are enjoyable 35-hour stories where, often, not much happens plotwise, I had no problem at all with the expanded length — particularly as the additions were straight from Tolkien’s notes and not, say, 40 minutes of dwarf-tossing jokes. Let’s hope that holds through the third film, which is the one I’m really worried about.
In any event, I thought An Unexpected Journey was a great adaptation of the first third of The Hobbit, and that it threaded the needle quite well between feeling like it took place in the same world as the LotR trilogy and bringing a more lighthearted and jovial tone to Middle Earth, in keeping with the children’s book nature of The Hobbit. Bring on the incident with the Dragon.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild: “I hope you die and when you die, I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself!” I tend to consider myself a cynical and curmudgeonly fellow, so I was quite surprised that Beasts of the Southern Wild — a film I expected to find aggravatingly twee — kinda knocked me sideways. I’m not even sure if the movie would hold up to a second viewing — When I reflect on it now, those scenes in Beast that don’t feel like scraps of dream seem like they probably shouldn’t have worked.
But, at least that first time around on the big screen, this fairy tale of a young girl living on the wrong side of the Louisiana levees (a.k.a. “the Bathtub”) had a strange sort of magic to it. I particularly liked the End Times conflation of Katrina and global warming, and vibed with the film completely around the time Hushpuppy feared that the melting ice sheet would inadvertently unleash the four boar-monsters of the apocalypse. Pretty soon, we’ll all live in the Bathtub.
4. The Avengers: “Shakespeare in The Park? Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” In the 2011 list, I voiced my sneaking suspicion at #14 that Joss Whedon’s The Avengers wasn’t going to work. Consider that crow eaten. Even despite a bland opening sequence and a third act alien invasion that felt weightless, this was a surprisingly fun time at the movies, and perhaps the best popcorn film of the summer.
In particular, I liked that this was never a particularly “dark” movie. The Avengers aren’t tortured souls like Batman or even the X-Men, and Whedon, a former X-Men writer, didn’t portray them as such. Instead he was able to capture the voice of each of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes — Cap the boy scout, Thor the thunder god, etc. — throw them in a hovering aircraft carrier together, and let shenanigans and shawarma ensue.
True, Hawkeye in particular got short shrift, Scarlett Johansson was still woefully miscast as the Widow (Olga Kurylenko anyone?), and Cobie Smulders, a.k.a. your Aunt Robin, just isn’t much of a film actress. (Exhibit A: this alternate opening.) Still, I liked the balance Whedon came up with here, where Robert Downey’s Iron Man was given the dramatic arc befitting his star wattage, but Chris Evans’ Captain America still ended up leading the team. And, arguably for the first time on film, Whedon got the Hulk exactly right.
5. Looper: “I’m from The Future. You should go to China.” Speaking of Marvel comics, Looper [moderate spoilers] may just be the best Franklin Richards movie we see in awhile. In any case, I wasn’t much for either Brick or especially The Brothers Bloom, but I thought Rian Johnson’s third film was a smart, well-crafted science fiction story that was very worthwhile.
As in most time travel tales outside of 12 Monkeys, Looper‘s final few scenes don’t make any sense. (Spoiler: JGL’s decision at the end would seemingly have to result in everything Bruce Willis did being rolled back — Thus, none of that carnage at Jeff Daniels’ compound or along the road would ever have happened, and there would be no money lying around, etc. etc.)
But until then, Looper is a satisfying and stylish mishmash of time travel, telekinesis, and the Chandler and Hammett-isms (by way of Miller’s Crossing) that inspired Johnson’s Brick. It also included the creepiest time travel outcome I’ve seen since people were ‘porting into walls in The Philadelphia Experiment. (That would be the grim fate of Paul Dano’s future-self.)
6. Lincoln: “I wish He had chosen an instrument more wieldy than the House of Representatives.” I’ve already noted my problems with the history here: It’s rather ridiculous to argue that the lesson of the Civil War is that compromise is awesome, or that the constitutional amendments that emerged from it are a product of such. Quite the contrary, really. Spielberg and Kushner also vastly overstate the danger that the Thirteenth Amendment would not pass here, and Kushner, given the comments cited in that earlier post, unfortunately doesn’t seem to understand Reconstruction at all.
That being said, Daniel Day-Lewis’s eerie evocation of our sixteenth president is the performance of the year, and I remain impressed that this film, while a touch too Spielberg-y in its opening and closing moments, nonetheless forewent the traditional biopic route and embraced a narrowcast, nineteenth-century CSPAN aesthetic instead.
7. Oslo, August 31st: “Look at my life. I’m 34 years old. I’ve got nothing. I don’t want to start from scratch.” A movie that made it here via Netflix, Oslo, August 31st is a well-observed day in the life of a recovering heroin addict (Anders Danielsen Lie), as he returns to his old haunts and tries to make peace with the shambles he feels he’s made of his existence.
Looking desperately for a way to reconnect to the world at large, or at least to transcend his current despair, Anders has a series of conversations with former friends and enemies, during which he discovers that even those who didn’t miss the train of life going by are, by and large, just going through the motions. Everything here feels uncomfortably true, from Anders’ visit to see a former partner in crime, now a married academic, to his self-defeating job interview, to his plaintive calls to the woman who disappeared, to his falling back into old habits. A quietly devastating film.
8. Moonrise Kingdom: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” True, this Wes Anderson film could not be any more Wes Anderson-y — I’m looking at you, Bob Balaban the omniscient narrator — so if that’s a problem for you, I wouldn’t expect Moonrise to change your opinion of the man’s work.
As with the less-successful Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited, Anderson is ensconced in his usual sandbox. Nonetheless, this story of two tweenagers enjoying a summer love, and the problems this causes for all the conflicted and compromised adults around them, ranks up there with Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums (#46), and The Fantastic Mr. Fox among Anderson’s best. It’s also a beautifully shot film, redolent of the sun-drenched afternoons of years gone by.
9. Cabin in the Woods: “Cleanse them. Cleanse the world of their ignorance and sin. Bathe them in the crimson of – Am I on speakerphone?” When it comes to Joss Whedon, I’m not at all what you’d call a browncoat. I liked Firefly and Serenity alright, but much prefer Farscape when it comes to Blake’s 7 knockoffs, and neither Buffy nor Angel spoke to me like it speaks to many. (The West Wing is another show I never understood all the love for, but I digress.)
At any rate, consider me as surprised as anyone that both of Whedon’s 2012 films ended up in this year’s top ten. Sure, this outside-the-box take on teen slasher tropes is a gimmick movie, and one that’s more wry than it ever is frightening. Still, at least the first time around, what a ride Cabin turned out to be — It’s rare to watch a third act of a film feeling like just about anything could happen. I just wish we’d seen more of “Kevin.” (see pic above)
10. Killing Them Softly: “This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now f**kin’ pay me.” This is another movie that racked up a lot of negativity for some reason, presumably due to it being mis-marketed as an action/gangster film.
Since I knew going in that this was Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to the strange and languid Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I got about what I expected – a dark character piece that almost-but-not-quite-successfully tries to fuse Cogan’s Trade with a commentary on the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and general disillusionment in the Age of Obama. Personally, I liked spending time with these guys — Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn’s twin screw-ups, Richard Jenkins’ officious middleman, Gandolfini’s broken assassin. And, while the political angle didn’t quite gel, I still admired what Dominik tried to do here.
11. Amour: “Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.” Not exactly the best time you’ll have in a theater this year — Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days comes to mind as a similarly unrelenting two hours at the movies. Still, Michael Haneke’s unflinching study of an elderly couple staring dementia and death in the face has a grim power to it, as well as two mesmerizing performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.
I can assure you, I don’t plan to sit through this film again any time soon. Still, Amour puts the lie to so many other depictions of love you see at the movies, and I left E Street afterwards both somewhat shaken by it and thinking it was time to carpe some diem (or as the kids say, YOLO) right now, before it’s too late.
12. The Grey: “Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.” And if old age doesn’t get ya, there’s always wolves, y’know? First, let me be clear: This movie is as wrong about wolves as another film I’ll get to in a bit is wrong about torture. All the Canis lupus stuff in here is abject nonsense.
But, to me, the wolves were really just the dispatching agents in this often-gripping existential drama. The real story of The Grey isn’t about wolves at all. It’s about Liam Neeson and his pack of tough-guy survivors coming to grips not just with their looming mortality, but with the reasons they wanted to live in the first place. In the Alaska wilderness, as in Paris or anywhere else, nobody gets out alive.
13. The Deep Blue Sea: “Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.” Just as past years have seen dueling underwater monster movies (Leviathan/Deepstar Six), asteroid disaster flicks (Armageddon/Deep Impact), and Truman Capote bios (Capote/Infamous) and 2013 will have two separate attacks on 1600 Penn (Olympus Has Fallen/White House Down), 2012 featured three quite good movies about women forsaking their kind, boring husbands for passionate, simpleton lovers, and subsequently running into a social buzzsaw as a result.
All of ‘em made this list, but in the end The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies’ lush evocation of postwar England, garners the top spot among them. Along with memorable turns by Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, occasionally dream-like scenes like Londoners awaiting the Blitz in the subway tunnels or singing along to “You Belong to Me” have stuck in my memory this year.
14. Argo: “Brace yourself; it’s like talking to those two old f**ks from The Muppets.” Ben Affleck’s well-made chronicle of a successful CIA operation along the fringes of the Iran hostage crisis often felt like transparent Oscar bait to me. The Hollywood stuff felt it like needed to be more fleshed out and, since the history is well-known, the many attempts to ratchet up the suspense in the third act just didn’t work for me personally. (YMMV.)
Still, I was impressed by how well-balanced Argo came out — From its opening storyboard sequence, the movie doesn’t mince words about our many misadventures in Iran, making what could have been simply a depressing jingoistic exercise into a more thoughtful story of diplomatic blowback. Overall, I prefer Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and The Town — Still, as a director, he’s now 3-for-3.
15. Celeste and Jesse Forever: “You know what your problem is? Contempt before investigation. You think you’re smarter than everybody else.” Full disclosure: Writer-star Rashida Jones was an acquaintance of mine in college, so I went in to Celeste and Jesse hoping more than usual that I would like it. Nonetheless, after a rough 10-15 minutes at the outset, this well-observed and wistful after-the-rom-com, about the break-up of a longtime couple, gradually gets to work on you.
It seemed like bit players like Elijah Wood (as Rashida’s gay boss/BFF) needed more to do, and Chris Messina has played the surprisingly wise frat-bro so many times by now that I can’t really take him seriously anymore. But otherwise, Celeste and Jesse earns it emotional beats and, by the time the final reel rolled, I felt quite invested in it.
16. Cloud Atlas: “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
Here’s yet another 2012 film where it feels like critics just began to pile on mercilessly at a certain point. The Wachowskis and Tom Twyker’s adaptation of David Mitchell’s high-brow sci-fi novel doesn’t quite gel, and some of the plotlines — Ben Whishaw’s amanuensis, Tom Hanks after the Fall — were more interesting than others, most notably Jim Sturgess in the South Pacific and Jim Broadbent’s nursing home jailbreak. (Also, no nice way to put this, but much like Keira Knightley, Halle Berry is an A-list actress who’s never all that good.)
But even if it doesn’t live up to its ambition, Atlas is still an impressive and intellectually (if not emotionally) engaging feat. Granted, it wasn’t subtle about its message, but the degree of difficulty here should count for something. At least Atlas was reaching for something totally new — and every so often, especially during the occasional montage bringing together the six tales, you can catch a glimpse of it.
17. Take This Waltz: “Life has a gap in it… It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it.” The second of this year’s adulterous love triangles — this one set to one of Leonard Cohen’s many classics and The Buggles — Sarah Polley’s follow-up to Away From Her has a low-key, natural, and lived-in feel that’s hard to fake.
True, Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen felt a little too baby-talk-schmoopy in their scenes together, and Luke Kirby’s handsome pedicabbie always just seemed like a self-absorbed creepshow to me. But one of the strengths of this film is how all the characters here seem like three-dimensional human beings, with all the needs, vulnerabilities, and suspect decision-making attending.
18. Rust and Bone: “We’ll continue…but not like animals.” Speaking of follow-ups, Jacques Audiard’s second film after A Prophet felt like the movie the much-hyped Silver Linings Playbook wanted to be. This rough-and-tumble romance between a street fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a damaged whale instructor (Marion Cotillard) after a terrible accident is never as good as A Prophet, and it goes seriously off-the-rails in its third act, around the time Cotillard tattoos her leg-stumps “gauche” and “droit.” But up until then, Rust and Bone manages to sidestep a surprising number of movie-of-the-week pitfalls and keep its gutter-punch rawness intact.
19. Seven Psychopaths: “No, it doesn’t! There’ll be one guy left with one eye. How’s the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left?” I didn’t like In Bruges as much as a lot of people, and occasionally this new film by playwright Martin McDonagh suffers from the same outrageousness-for-its-own-sake. (Case in point: the scene where Woody Harrelson interrogates Gabourey Sidibe.)
Still, I kinda liked how this increasingly loopy and laconic film seemed to realize it would be more fun just to hang around with its gaggle of likable actors (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Colin Ferrell, Tom Waits, Zeljko Ivanek, Harrelson) for awhile and just dropped the plot. I only wish McDonagh had found more to do with Olga Kurylenko and especially Abbie Cornish, who are (literally and figuratively) wasted here.
20. Anna Karenina: “Is this about my wife? My wife is beyond reproach. She is, after all, my wife.” Like Killing Them Softly and Cloud Atlas, Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Anna Karenina is a film I admired for its ambition, even if the conceit — here, that all of the Russian society scenes take place on a nineteenth century stage — doesn’t end up quite working. And even if there’s some of the same unnecessary grandstanding that marred Atonement‘s Dunkirk scene (intricate shots are fun and all, but they should serve the story), this is quite a beautiful picture.
While Keira Knightley unfortunately doesn’t make much of an impression in the title role, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass and Savages just seems out of his element as Vronsky, Jude Law brings pathos to a character that could’ve just seemed like the villain, and there are a number of enjoyable turns in the margins of this story, from Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan) covering the sociopolitical elements of the book to Matthew MacFadyen — who seemingly jumped right into late-Alec Baldwin mode right after his stint as Mr. Darcy in 2005 — as the oafish Oblonsky.
21. Skyfall: “Do you see what comes of all this running around, Mr. Bond? All this jumping and fighting, it’s exhausting!” Speaking of beautiful films, Daniel Craig’s third outing (and Sam Mendes’ first) as 007 doesn’t match the heights of Casino Royale, but it’s looks like the billion dollars it made, and it’s a far sight better than the sophomore misstep of Quantum of Solace. (It also features an instant classic Bond song in Adele’s title track.)
My biggest problem with Skyfall, and it’s a hard one to overlook, is that, in a transparent effort to capture some of that Dark Knight cachet, they effectively turned James Bond into Batman here. So Bond is now a rich orphan who grew up in Scotland’s version of Wayne Manor? Erm, ok. It doesn’t help matters that Javier Bardem’s ridiculous villain — The Joker + gay panic, basically — has exactly the same goofy plan as the Clown Prince of Crime did. (The next Big Bad to get captured on purpose, apparently? Gary Mitchell Garth Khan Gruber.)
But this is a Bond movie, so set your low expectations accordingly. Even if it feels like we’re already approaching Moonraker or Octopussy territory only three movies into the Craig era, this is still among the better outings in this long and storied franchise.
22. Django Unchained: “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.” From the opening moments of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, it’s clear this film is going to be a bit of a mess. (Our title card reads: “1858. Two Years Before the Civil War.” Uh…that’s three years before the war, Quentin.) And, to be honest, I liked this movie better when it was called Inglourious Basterds — Here, we have basically the same experience, with QT once again righting history’s wrongs with a blood-spattered vengeance.
I actually liked that Tarantino decided to put the evils of American slavery front and center in this film, since it’s an ugly underside of our history that, cinematically, has been pretty much buried. (One admirable exception to prove the rule: CSA.) The funniest scene in the movie is probably QT riffing off both Blazing Saddles and Birth of a Nation with his Klansmen complaining about their eyeholes.
Nonetheless, I’m not sure why, given all the very real horrors of slavery QT often draws from, we ended up with the exceedingly fake Mandingo Fighting as a centerpiece of this story, other than it was in some blaxsploitation films QT used to enjoy. With that in mind, and more egregiously, a good hour of this movie makes absolutely no sense: Why wouldn’t Schultz and Django just be like, “I’m a lonely German guy who will pay top-dollar for a slave that speaks German?” (Tarantino tries to address that particular question here. I don’t think it works.)
Still, however sloppy and self-indulgent, Django was a decently enjoyable movie for most of its run. It would be nice, tho’, to see Tarantino take a stab at another Jackie Brown-style project at some point. As it is, it feels like he’s continuing to disappear up his own ass.
23. Holy Motors: “Weird! Weird! Weird!” I’m usually not one to end a movie once I’ve started it, but I turned off David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, via OnDemand, well before the end. (I hear Paul Giamatti shows up at some point.) Far more entertaining — and much, much stranger — was Leo Carax’s bizarro stab at the wandering limousine genre this year.
As with Django, it seemed like there was a lot of name-dropping and inside baseball, of the cinema history variety, going on in Holy Motors, which is behavior I find irritating a lot of the time. But I found Denis Lavant’s mad misadventures here compulsively watchable, even if we passed basic coherence two or three lefts ago.
24. The Woman in Black: “I believe even the most rational of minds can play tricks in the dark.” This wasn’t a Cabin in the Woods-style reinvention of horror tropes by any means. That being said, I quite enjoyed this played-straight Hammer films throwback, with Daniel Radcliffe unwisely investigating ghostly happenings at a mansion along the moors.
Rather than relying solely on blood, guts, and jump cuts, The Woman In Black resurrects classic cinema techniques and all the old standbys of this particular genre — rocking chairs, Victorian dolls, creepy children and whatnot — to put the audience ill at ease for ninety minutes. In sum, a slight but effective scare machine.
25. Dredd: “In case you have forgotten, this block operates under the same rules as the rest of the city. Ma-Ma is not the law… I am the law.” As with every year, a lot of films could have gone in this final spot on the list — Bernie, Life of Pi, Savages, Marley, ParaNorman. But I’m giving it to Pete Travis and Alex Garland’s Dredd, because it’s a good example of what went right at the movies in 2012.
There are better movies than Dredd this and every year, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better Dredd movie. Travis and Garland took what was distinctive about this character – give or take his Watchmen-like satire of American superheroes — and transported an issue of the comic to the screen, no more, no less. Extra points for a likable cast (Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Lena Headey) and for Karl Urban — unlike Stallone back in the day — never taking off the helmet.
Prometheus: Pretty much everything that needs to be said about the dumb-as-dirt disaster this turned out to be has been encapsulated by the Red Letter Media guys. Whhhhyyyyyy? Why does a movie with such a terrible script ever get greenlit? Why does Damon Lindelof, after putting out an idiotic film like this, continue to get work in Hollywood?
It’s sad, since even notwithstanding the greatness of Alien and Aliens (and I’d submit that Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection are more admirable failures than this film), there are elements of a much better movie here — most notably Michael Fassbender’s T.E. Lawrence-loving android and the sheer look of the picture. Otherwise, however, this was just a terrible, nonsensical movie, and I ended up just feeling embarrassed for Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, and everyone else involved. For shame.
Silver Linings Playbook: I like David O’Russell. I like Jennifer Lawrence. I have no issues with Bradley Cooper. But, Lordy, I hated this film, and I just can’t figure out where all the hype is coming from. Granted, SLP falls into a very specific genre of movie I despise, whereby some severely damaged dude is suddenly saved from loneliness, madness, and/or general despair by a perfectly unique and perfect girl for him. (See also: Sideways, Punch-Drunk-Love, and all the other many iterations of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.) Honestly, all of you who keep making this same movie, go see Amour or something.
But even notwithstanding that sort of ubiquitous rom-comminess, SLP just seemed really by-the-numbers to me. The only variation on the same-old stale tale, as far as I could tell, is that this time there’s a really important game AND a really important dance competition at the end. And while Jacki Weaver does some memorable things as Bradley Cooper’s long-suffering mom, I didn’t take DeNiro seriously here at all. Just a bad movie.
Zero Dark Thirty: As it happened, I kinda hated Zero Dark Thirty too, but at least here I get where the positive reaction is coming from. To be honest, I expected going in that I’d leave ZD30 conflicted — that it would be a good movie undone by its egregious lies about torture. As it turned out, this is not even a good movie — it’s strongest pleasure consists of watching quality character actors — Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane – in brief turns as suits. (Tom Donilon is English?)
For one, ZD30 is far too blatant in its CIA embeddedness. Every CIA character here is a well-meaning tortured soul, heavy-hearted with the burden of saving the world. There’s no mention of, say, Tora Bora. The CIA’s egregious, world-historical fuck-ups, like arguing there were WMD in Iraq, are brought up only in passing. The agency’s outright crimes, like, say, waterboarding a guy 180 times to obtain a false positive, aren’t even mentioned. Watching Type-A go-getter Jessica Chastain and her ponytail flounce around for America for two and a half hours, you’d have no idea that her real-life counterpart and her ilk have been found guilty of, among other things, torturing and sodomizing an innocent man.
Admittedly, it could be because this pro-torture distortion of the history put me in an increasingly foul mood. Still, even as a movie Zero Dark Thirty has serious problems. As one of Chastain’s co-workers, poor Jennifer Ehle has to offer up some of the most ridiculous telegraphs of her impending death since Lt. Deadduck in Hot Shots. And I found the last forty minutes or so of the film, which depicts the actual raid on bin Laden’s compound in excruciating detail, to be a total snooze.
We know what’s going to happen here. And since we’re already in Fantasyland as far as the efficacy of torture goes, why not add sharks or tigers or man-eating bears to this war pr0n raid on OBL’s Afghan fortress? Or how about a badass female #2 (Maggie Q? Olga Kurylenko?) to fight Chastain, martial-arts style, over a deep chasm or conveyor belt or something? Might as well, since we’re already far afield from anything approaching the Real World. In sum, this film is sheer propaganda, and ham-handed agitprop at that.
The Master: Going into this film, I was rooting for Paul Thomas Anderson to build on the promise of the first hour of There Will Be Blood. Unfortunately, The Master is a pretentious bore, and not nearly as deep as it thinks it is. Get past all the Kubrickian grand-standing — Kubrick has clearly replaced Scorsese and Altman as PTA’s object of homage these days — and Anderson has made another variation of the same movie he’s always made, from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia to TWBB: People create fake families for themselves, look for validation in those families, and are ultimately let down by those families. It wasn’t a very interesting point three movies ago.
Poor Joaquin Phoenix sweats Method blood to give his character some resonance, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams have their (brief) moments of note — To his credit, PTA always does seem generous with his actors. But none of them can do anything with what they’ve been given. The Master, unfortunately, is yet another solid case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
MOST UNFAIRLY MALIGNED:
John Carter: Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit could go here, as could Cloud Atlas. But, in the end, it seems like no movie got a tougher racket this year than Andrew Stanton’s estimable adaptation of John Carter. True, I watched this on Netflix rather than in the theater, which tends to be a more forgiving experience. But still, this film was a well-made, decently intelligent, and reasonably faithful and engaging adaptation of its source.
It wasn’t my favorite movie of the year or anything — it wasn’t even in my top 25, as we just saw — but it was totally fine for what it was. I have no clue why everyone pounced on this movie like they did. But, as with all the detest in some circles for An Unexpected Journey, it speaks poorly of what the Internet has done to movies in some ways. There’s a rush-to-judgment and piling-on effect that, at least in this case, wasn’t merited at all.
Coriolanus: Not sure if this would have broken the 2011 list last year or not. Still, Ralph Fiennes’ bloody cover-version of a relatively unknown Shakespearean history, modernized by way of CNN and Afghanistan, has a lot to recommend for it. Along with Fiennes himself, Coriolanus features fine performances from James Nesbitt, Jessica Chastain, Gerard Butler and especially Vanessa Redgrave (as the general’s scheming mother) and Brian Cox (as the most hail-fellow-well-met of Senators). Definitely worth a Netflix.
Margaret: Whether you want to call it a holdover from 2011 (when it came out) or from the 2005 list (when it was filmed), Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is also worth catching up with sometime. Here, Anna Paquin — better than I’ve ever seen her — is a self-absorbed NYC teenager forced to come to terms with the ramifications of a terrible bus accident she helped to precipitate. Along for the three-hour ride through this distinctively New York tale are Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, J. Smith-Cameron, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, Olivia Thirlby, Kieran Culkin, and Rosemarie DeWitt. (FWIW, the provenance of the film’s name is also the best tell for what it’s ultimately about.) Well worth seeing.
Worth Netflixing: 21 Jump Street, Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, The Amazing Spiderman, Bernie, The Bourne Legacy, Detachment, Haywire, The Hunger Games, The Life of Pi, Les Miserables, Magic Mike, Marley, Men in Black III, ParaNorman, The Raid: Redemption, Savages, The Sessions, Snabba Cash, Ted, To Rome With Love
Don’t Bother: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Casa de mi Padre, Chronicle, Compliance, Cosmopolis, Dark Shadows, Flight, The Hunter, Hyde Park on Hudson, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Killer Joe, Lawless, The Loneliest Planet, Lockout, Rampart, Red Hook Summer, Safe House,Snow White and the Huntsman, Total Recall
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln; Liam Neeson, The Grey; Dennis Lavant, Holy Motors; Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo, August 31st; Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour
Best Actress: Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea; Emmanuelle Riva, Amour; Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone; Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Best Supporting Actor: Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas; Ben Mendelsohn, Killing Them Softly; Jude Law, Anna Karenina; Clarke Peters, Red Hook Summer
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables; Samantha Barks, Les Miserables; Frances McDormand, Moonrise Kingdom
Unseen: 2 Days in New York, Act of Valor, Alex Cross, American Reunion, Arbitrage, Battleship, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Brave, Butter, The Campaign, The Cold Light of Day, Contraband, Deadfall, The Devil Inside, The Dictator, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, End of Watch, The Five Year Engagement, For a Good Time Call…, Friends with Kids, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Guilt Trip, Hitchcock, Hope Springs, How to Survive a Plague, The Impossible, The Intouchables, Jack Reacher, Joyful Noise, Not Fade Away, One for the Money, Man on a Ledge, The Man With the Iron Fists, Mirror Mirror, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, On the Road, Parental Guidance, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Pirates: Band of Misfits, Premium Rush, Project X, The Raven, Red Dawn, Red Tails, Robot and Frank, Rock of Ages, Safe, Safety Not Guaranteed, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Secret World of Arietty, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Step Up: Revolution, Taken 2, This is 40, The Three Stooges, Tim & Eric Billion Dollar Movie, This Means War, Trouble With The Curve, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II, The Watch, W/E, The Words, Wrath of the Titans
2013: 2 Guns, 42, 47 Ronin, 300: Rise of an Empire, About Time, After Earth, All is Lost, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, As I Lay Dying, August: Osage County, Before Midnight, Better Living Through Chemistry, The Black Marks, The Bling Ring, Broken City, Bullet to the Head, The Butler, Byzantium, Captain Phillips, Carrie, Chavez, Closed Circuit, Closer to the Moon, The Colony, The Company You Keep, The Congress, The Counselor, The Dallas Buyers Club, Dead Man Down, Devil’s Knot, Diana, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His & Hers, Dom Hemingway, Don Jon’s Addiction, The Double, Elysium, Ender’s Game, The Europa Report, Evil Dead, Fading Gigolo, Fast Six, Filth, Foxcatcher, The Frozen Ground, Gambit, Gangster Squad, Girl Most Likely, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, Gods Behaving Badly, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Grandmaster, Grand Piano, Gravity, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby, The Hangover Part III, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Heat, Her, Homefront, Horns, How I Live Now, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Hummingbird, I, Frankenstein, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Inside Llewellyn Davis, Iron Man 3, Jack the Giant Slayer, Jack Ryan, Kick-Ass 2, The Last Stand, The Lone Ranger, Lovelace, Mama, Man of Steel, Monster’s University, Monuments Men, Movie 43, Oblivion, Oldboy, Olympus Has Fallen, Only God Forgives, Oz the Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim, Pain and Gain, Parker, The Place Beyond the Pines, Red 2, Riddick, R.I.P.D., Side Effects, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Stoker, This is the End, Thor: The Dark World, The Tomb, To the Wonder, Trance, Twelve Years a Slave, Upstream Color, Warm Bodies, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Wolverine, The World’s End, World War Z, and
You have nice manners for a thief and a liar…
The New Yorker delves into the Wachowskis’ adaptation of Cloud Atlas, soon to be at a theater near you with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, David Gyasi, and Ben Whishaw. (The extended trailer is above.) “‘The problem with market-driven art-making is that movies are green-lit based on past movies,’ Lana told me. ‘So, as nature abhors a vacuum, the system abhors originality. Originality cannot be economically modelled.’ The template for ‘The Matrix,’ the Wachowskis recalled, had been ‘Johnny Mnemonic,’ a 1995 Keanu Reeves flop.“
The brothers Wachowski return to the fold with a bizarre new trailer for their live-action Speed Racer, starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, John Goodman, and Susan Sarandon. Ouch, my brain hurts…Not sure I see myself sitting through two hours of this one, even with the Wachowski imprimatur.
Um, ok. The Brothers Wachowski sign on to make Speed Racer, a highly unnecessary reimagining of the old Saturday morning cartoon. So if Chim Chim ends up being an androgynous leather-clad existentialist kung-fu master, you’ll know why.
“People should not be ‘fraid of cookie. Cookies should be ‘fraid of people.” Guy Fawkes, meet Crazy Harry. By way of my sister, experience Jim Henson’s uncompromising vision of the future, C for Cookie.
“Nothing better illustrates the simplism of V for Vendetta, or better highlights the unflattering contrast with Brazil, than V’s motto: ‘There are no coincidences.’ The comic beauty of Brazil’s portrait of totalitarianism is that everything rests on random coincidence, which nudges the bureaucracy into its own blind and murderous momentum: A dead fly falls into a computer printer and — voila — poor law-abiding Buttle is mistaken for dangerous subversive Tuttle.” Slate‘s Matt Feeney compares Brazil and V for Vendetta.
Verily, my view on V for Vendetta vacillates. Even with visage veiled, the venerable Hugo Weaving’s voice brings vim and verve to the verbose, volatile, and vindictive vigiliante. Natalie Portman is vivacious enough as V’s volunteer, and varied English veterans (Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt) bring valuable versimilitude to V’s environs. But, various vignettes notwithstanding, this vaunted venture is less vibrant and versatile than I’d hoped. V is too virtuous, and the villains — from a venal vicar to a vainglorious video host — too vile. Vendetta is a viable version of Alan Moore’s violent vision, I suppose, but a vulgarized one.
If you thought the last paragraph was clunky, be prepared for more of the same in V. Vendetta is an enjoyable night at the movies, and definitely an above-average, smarter-than-usual actioner. And Weaving is amazingly dynamic behind the static mask — It’s hard to think of anyone else who could’ve pulled this off quite as well. But, like the last two Matrix films, V‘s bravura moments — the escape from the BBC, V’s talk with the botanist (Sinead Cusack), the domino scene — are too often interspersed with leaden, expository-heavy scenes where the pacing of the film just goes slack. Particularly egregious in this regard is our Batman-ish introduction to V very early in the film, where even Weaving’s mellifluous phrasing can’t salvage a similarly V-intensive monologue. (Frankly, the whole scene needed a rewrite.) The film does eventually recover from this Act I stumble, but it takes awhile.
And the larger problem with V for Vendetta is that, for all its pretense of moral complexity, it stacks the ethical deck in favor of our terrorist-protagonist. It’s been awhile since I’ve read the graphic novel, but I remember V coming across as a much more unlikable character. He’s a monster created by monstrous circumstances, and as much a symptom as the cure of his society’s larger sickness. But here, V is too (anti-)heroic and charismatic, even given the second act twist, and the government too Orwellian and depraved by far. Who wouldn’t sympathize with rising up against this Taliban-meets-the-Tories outfit? As such, the subtler elements of Moore’s moral economy have been flattened out, and all the choices have been made for us. But perhaps it’s a problem of medium — what worked well on the page comes across as overkill on the big screen. (Exhibit A: Big Brother John Hurt…I liked him better as Winston Smith.)
All in all, I’d say V for Vendetta is much better comic adaptation than LXG or, say, Fantastic Four, and on par with the other Vertigo films, From Hell and Constantine. But it’s not a slam-dunk: Vendetta‘s heart is in the right place, but, sadly, something doesn’t quite translate.
“V for Vendetta may be–why hedge? is–the most subversive cinematic deed of the Bush-Blair era, a dagger poised in midair. Unlike the other movies dubbed ‘controversial’ (Fahrenheit 9-11, The Passion, Munich, Syriana), it doesn’t play to a particular constituency or polarized culture bloc, it’s working on a deeper, Edgar Allan Poe-ish witch’s brew substrata of pop myth.” Vanity Fair‘s James Wolcott seems to really like V for Vendetta. (Via Blivet.)
The new trailer for V for Vendetta is now online. This premiered at BNAT 7 last week and got universally great reviews from the AICN fanboys, most of whom know their Moore…but, frankly, I’m not really feeling the “Matrix with knives” angle of this trailer, and John Hurt seems like he’s overdoing it.
Remember, remember, the…17th of March? Guy Fawkes teams up with St. Patrick this year as the ad blitz begins for the rescheduled V for Vendetta. Here’s one of four new teaser posters, with the rest to be released sometime today. Update: The others are here, here and here.
“Remember, remember, the 5th of November…” The Comic-Con trailer for V for Vendetta is now online, starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving (formerly James Purefoy), Stephen Rea, and John Hurt. Look like it’s Winston’s turn as Big Brother.
As creator Alan Moore removes his name from the forthcoming V for Vendetta film, word leaks back that the Wachowskis’ shooting script substitutes Moore’s characters for Matrix 2/3-style ponderousness. Hmm. Well, perhaps they’ll tighten it up on set (and at least there’s still the possibility of Watchmen, if Paramount will get their act together.)
A thespian-terrorist connection? The upcoming film version of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta receives an infusion of grade-A British talent, including Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Pigott-Smith, and Sinead Cusack. (They join James Purefoy, Natalie Portman, and Stephen Rea.)
In the fanboy casting department, Kate Bosworth is set to play Lois Lane in Bryan Singer’s forthcoming Superman, while Natalie Portman purportedly joins V for Vendetta. Bosworth doesn’t scream Lois to me, but she’s talented (and, obviously a looker) and I’m sure she’ll do well. As for V, I could see it going either way at this point, although I do like the teaser poster (at right). Update: Regarding Superman, it’s official: Spacey is Lex.
Digital Bits releases the details of a new Matrix trilogy box set. As y’all might remember, I was cautiously positive about Reloaded and really down on Revolutions, but this box set sounds like hella fun. “There will be two audio commentaries for each film – one from philosophers Ken Wilber and Cornel West (who analyze the meanings behind the films), and one from three professional critics who hated all three films (no names given). According to Andy Wachowski, ‘It’s the best idea we’ve ever had. It’s hilarious. They just sit there and rip the s**t out of us for six hours.’”
Well, it’s that time of year again, New Year’s Eve. So, without further ado…
2. Lost in Translation. It was fun for a while, there was no way of knowing. Like a dream in the night, who can say where we’re going? I still think Sofia Coppola cut a little close to the bone here in terms of autobiography, particularly given her recent split with Spike Jonze. Still, I find this tale of chance encounters and foreign vistas has a strange kind of magic to it, and it has stayed with me longer than any other film this year. Bill Murray comes into full bloom in a part he’s been circling around his entire career, and while I suspect he’ll get some stiff competition from the Mystic River boys come award-time, I’d say he deserves the Oscar for this one. Lost in Translation has its problems, sure, but at it’s best it’s haunting, ethereal, and touching like no other film in 2003.
3. Intolerable Cruelty. I expect I’ll be in the minority on this pick – This more-mainstream-than-usual Coen joint only got above-average reviews, and hardly anyone I’ve spoken to enjoyed it as much as I did. Still, I thought Intolerable Cruelty was a pop delight, 99.44% pure Coen confection. George Clooney is used to much better effect here than in O Brother (gotta love the teeth thing), and everyone else seems to be having enormous amounts of fun along the way. Light and breezy, yeah, but I thought it was that rare breed of romantic comedy that actually manages to be both romantic and hilarious. In the post-Tolkien era, it’s good to know we can always rely on the Coens for consistently excellent work, and I for one am greatly looking forward to The Ladykillers.
(3. The Pianist.) A 2002 film that I caught in March of this year, The Pianist is a harrowing and unique survivor’s tale that’s hard to watch and harder to forget (and I can’t have been the only person who thought post-spider-hole Saddam bore a passing resemblance to Brody’s third-act Szpilman.) Speaking of which, I said in my original review of Adrien Brody that “I can’t see the Academy rewarding this kind of understatement over a scenery-chewing performance like that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.” Glad to see I was wrong.
4. Mystic River.: The waters of the Charles are disturbed, something is rotten in the outskirts of Boston, and it’s safe to say the Fates are wicked pissed. Much like In the Bedroom in 2001 (and Clint Eastwood’s own earlier Unforgiven), Mystic River is inhabited and propelled by a spirit of lumbering, impending, inexorable doom…what Legolas might call a “sleepless malice.” It is that existential malice, rooted so strongly in local color, that gives this River its considerable power. And unlike Cold Mountain, where stars stick out here and there with showy turns, the ensemble cast of Mystic River never overwhelm the strong sense of place at the heart of the film — indeed, they sustain it with consistently excellent and nuanced performances. Big ups for all involved, and particularly Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden.
5. X2: X-Men United. Laugh if you want, but I can’t think of any other movie where I had more fun this year. Arguably the most successful comic film since Superman 2, X2 improved over its rather staid predecessor in every way you can imagine. From Nightcrawler in the White House to the assault on the mansion to Magneto’s escape to Ian McKellen and Brian Cox chewing the scenery in inimitable fashion, X2 was ripe with moments that seemed plucked directly out of the comics, if not straight out of the fanboy id. To me, my X-Men.
6. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. It’s a long title, it’s a long movie. But a good kinda long…in fact, as I said in my initial review, it seemed to move to the langorous rhythms of a long sea voyage, one that I may not take again for awhile, but one that I still thoroughly enjoyed. And I’ll say this for Russell Crowe…somewhere along the way in each of his films, I tend to forget that he’s Russell Crowe. His Capt. Jack Aubrey was no exception.
7. The Matrix Reloaded. If we can, let’s try to forget the resounding thud on which the Matrix trilogy ended. For a time there, five short months, the fanboy nation was abuzz in trying to figure out exactly where the Wachowskis were going after the second chapter. Previous Matrices, previous Ones? How was Neo manipulating the real world? What was Smith up to? It all seems kinda pedestrian now, of course, but at the time Reloaded was a sequel that outdid its predecessor in pizazz while building on the questions that animated the first film. I won’t defend the first forty-five minutes or the ridiculous rave scene. But, right about the time Hugo Weaving showed up to do what he does best, Revolutions found a new gear that it maintained right up until the arc-twisting Architect monologues at the end. And, as far as action sequences go, it’s hard to beat the visceral thrill of the 14-minute highway chase.
(7. The 25th Hour.) Another 2002 hold-over, and the best film yet made about the aftermath of 9/11, (which only seems natural, given that it’s by one of New York’s finest directors.) Haunted by might-have-beens, what-ifs, and what-nows, The 25th Hour feels real and immediate in its attempt to grapple with both 9/11 and the slamming cage in Monty Brogan’s future. Only once, with the Fight Club-like fracas in the park, does the film flounder. Otherwise, it’s a thought-provoking meditation throughout.
8. The Last Samurai: Breathtaking New Zealand landscapes, furious suicide cavalry charges, rustic untainted pre-modern villages…no, it’s not Return of the King, just the warm-up. [And, as I said earlier, I prefer my anti-modern nostalgia hobbit-like (peaceful, environmental, epicurean) rather than samurai-ish (martial, virtuous, stoic)] While I think Cold Mountain got the Civil War right, I ultimately found this film to be the more engaging historical epic of December 2003. So take that, Miramax.
9. Finding Nemo. Oh, my…I almost forgot about Nemo. (Just like Dory sometimes.) Pixar’s films have been so consistently good that there’s a danger of taking them for granted. They hit another one out of the park in this tale under the sea. As with the Toy Stories and Monster’s Inc. before it, just an all-around solid kid’s movie filled to the brim with eye-popping wonders.
10. Dirty Pretty Things. Although it becomes more conventional as it goes along, DPT starts very well, features a star-making turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and manages to include a Audrey Tautou performance that isn’t fingernails-on-the-blackboard bothersome. As with Hugh Grant in About a Boy last year, that deserves plaudits if nothing else.
11. L’Auberge Espagnole. Hmm…two Tautous in a row….perhaps I should stop playa-hatin’. At any rate, while Lost in Translation trafficked in existential detachment, L’Auberge Espagnole showed the fun Scarlett Johannson could’ve been having, if she’d just lighten up and get out of the hotel once in awhile. This paean to the pan-Continental culture of the EU captured the excitement and possibilities of youth in a way that was both sexier and funnier than any of the teen shock-schlock emanating from our own side of the pond. Road Trippers, take a gander.
12. The Quiet American. A bit by-the-numbers, perhaps, but Phillip Noyce’s take on Graham Greene’s novel was blessed with timeliness and two great performances by Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, both of whom expertly exemplified their homelands’ diplomatic tendencies without becoming overly tendentious. I’m not sure if giving away the end before the credits was the right way to go, but otherwise the film rarely falters.
13. The Fog of War. From Alden Pyle to one of his real-life counterparts, Robert McNamara, who now only remains quiet when questioned about his own culpability over Vietnam. Despite this central failing, a spry McNamara succeeds in penetrating the fog of time to examine how he himself became lost in the maze-like logic of war. If you can withstand the frequent Phillip Glass-scored barrages, it’s worth a see.
14. Pirates of the Caribbean. My initial upbeat opinion on this one has faded somewhat over the autumn and winter months. Still, at the time PotC was a surprisingly good summer popcorn flick, and rollicking fun for about two of of its two and a half hours. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush were great fun, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom make for great eye candy, and Sam Lowry was in it. I’m just going to assume it was much, much better than The Haunted Mansion.
15. The Station Agent. Ok, it’s got Sunday afternoon bored in front of the IFC Channel written all over it. And not much happens for the last forty minutes or so. Still, The Station Agent proves that if you write a few interesting, well-rounded, complicated characters and throw them in a situation together, the story almost writes itself.
16. American Splendor. The first of a couple of movies that I seemed to like less than most people. Sure, I thought Splendor was well-done, but it never really grabbed me, and I’d be more impressed by its breaking-the-fourth-wall daring if it hadn’t already been done twenty-five years ago in Annie Hall. (Similarly, I thought this kooky underground comic world was captured better in Crumb.)
17. Spellbound. Could you use it in a sentence? Again, people seemed to love this flick, and I was definitely entertained by it. But, when you get right down to it, what we have here is kids spelling for two hours…I couldn’t imagine ever sitting through this one again. And, as I said in my original post, I thought Spellbound was more manipulative than it lets on. Less kids and more complexity would’ve made the film more satisfying. S-A-T-I…
18. Cold Mountain. I’ve already written about this one at length today, so I’ll just refer you to the review. To sum up, occasionally beautiful but curiously uninvolving and way too top-heavy with star power distractions.
19. 28 Days Later. Great first third, ok second third, lousy finish. The film was much more interesting before our team makes it to Christopher Eccleston’s countryside version of Apocalypse Now. And I can’t stand horror movies where the protagonists make idiot decisions, like driving into tunnels for no reason or taking downers when surrounded by flesh-eating, spastic zombies. But the cast — particularly Brendan Gleeson — do yeoman’s work, and the opening moments in an empty London are legitimately creepy.
20. T3: Rise of the Machines. Before he was the Governator, he was the T-1000 one (last?) time. Let’s face it, this movie is mainly here by virtue of not being bad. I mean, c’mon, it was better than you thought, right? Well, me too. Claire Danes was insufferable, but Nick Stahl and Kristanna Loken give it the ole college try, and the story takes a few jags that weren’t immediately apparent. Bully to Jonathan Mostow for not running James Cameron’s franchise into the ground.
As Yet Unseen: 21 Grams, Bad Santa, The Cooler, House of Sand and Fog, In America, Love, Actually, Something’s Gotta Give.
Best Actor: Bill Murray, Lost in Translation. Sean Penn, Mystic River. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things. Michael Caine, The Quiet American.
Best Actress: Scarlett Johannson, Lost in Translation (who’s sort of here by default…I expect competition from Diane “Something’s Gotta Give” Keaton, Samantha “In America” Morton, Jennifer “House of Sand and Fog” Connolly, and Naomi “21 Grams” Watts.)
Best Supporting Actor: Tim Robbins, Mystic River, Sean Astin, Return of the King, Billy Boyd, Return of the King, Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai.
Best Supporting Actress: Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain, Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River, Patricia Clarkson, The Station Agent.
Like most of the fanboy world, I checked out Revolutions on Wednesday and, well, I guess Andrew O’Hehir of Salon might’ve said it best: It “isn’t a terrible movie, but it is a tremendous disappointment.” (Many people I’ve spoken to think that even this proclamation is being charitable.) As y’all may or may not remember, I actually liked The Matrix: Reloaded, and forgave it many of its considerable faults (the interminable first forty minutes in Zion, for example), because I assumed that much of the drier, talkier scenes were necessary for setting the stage for the final installment. And I thought that the Architect scene that closed Reloaded also opened many intriguing doors that promised future mind-bending plot twists in Revolutions.
But, sadly, Revolutions capitalizes on barely any of this promise. Instead the Wachowski, um, siblings give us a closing chapter that is almost breathtaking in its inanity. For one, much of the time spent in Reloaded making the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), Persephone (Monica Bellucci), and for that matter, the phase-shifting albino twins (“We are getting very aggravated”) decently compelling adversaries seems to have been completely wasted. None of Merv’s existential menace or Persephone’s prophetic allure comes to anything here — instead, they’re used as throwaway devices to set up an exchange in a goofy S&M joint which I suppose is meant to approximate Hell but comes off more like the Prague nightclub in Blade 2. As with the characters, so with the plot twists — Virtually every one of the intriguing questions dropped at the end of Reloaded (multiple Matrices, Neo’s real world powers) are either completely left by the wayside or just accepted by the story — Neo has powers in the Real World now because he does. Hmm, that’s not that interesting. It eventually seems that the only point of the film’s first half-hour (aside from the introduction of karmic programs, which I’ll get to later) is to rectify the Neo-in-a-coma cliffhanger of Reloaded, a cliffhanger that ends up having little or nothing to do with the trilogy’s main arc.
Speaking of the main arc, I’d think even the most rabid Matrix fanatics out there have to admit that almost all of the fanfic endings to Revolutions turned out to be more intriguing and well-thought-out than the real thing. Now I don’t have a problem with the peace treaty aspect of the conclusion – after watching the Animatrix prequels, that seemed almost inevitable. But, as J. Hoberman noted in a mixed-positive review, what we end up with here is one-part Christ allegory (perhaps Mel Gibson should’ve taken the role), one-part Return of the King, with Neo and Trinity rushing to Mordor before the White City falls. There are no interesting permutations to this formula along the way, no Matrix-like plot twist to take the film up a notch — instead Revolutions just grinds along inexorably to its rote conclusion. It would’ve been well nigh impossible for the Wachowskis to match the shock of Neo’s pod awakening in the first Matrix, but I think they could’ve approximated something along the lines of the Architect scene if they’d just tried a little harder.
Moreover, Revolutions as written fails to engage us in the characters we’ve been following along the way. One of the main three is reduced to little more than a Nien Nunb impression, while another dies (slowly) in what amounts basically to a Keymaker-like chauffeuring mission. Instead, we spend most of the movie watching the exploits of a Zion filled with uninvolving stock character tropes — the can-do kid, the grizzled sergeant, the take-no-guff officer, the scrappy girlfriend — take your pick. Frankly, the Wachowskis should be ashamed at the depths of cliche wallowed in here, in both the dialogue and the characters. Just grisly stuff.
So why, after all these issues, am I still giving Reloaded a 2-star (6/10) review? Well, for one, I guess I am a sucker for big sci-fi spectacle, and the Zion invasion sequence does undoubtedly make for some compelling eye candy. It’d have been nice if the machines had relied on a variety of military mechs rather than just the ubiquitous Squiddies, but they are kinda creepy, and I did like the moment when they pour out of the dock breach like the blooming of a poisonous rose. And then there’s Agent Smith, who as per usual steals scenes every time he opens his mouth — His scene with the Oracle may be the high point of the film. Hugo Weaving (and Ian Bliss’s wicked Weaving impression) deserve high marks for bringing the type of grade-b, meglomaniacal fun to the table that this ponderous film so often needs (More Joe Pantoliano would’ve benefited both sequels too, I should think.) Alas, the rain battle between Smith and Neo at the end of the film also feels like a bust. It’s never as engaging as their fracas at the end of the first Matrix, and it definitely could have benefited from more Superman stylings (punching through buildings, swinging streetlamps like baseball bats, etc.)
But I’m trying to accentuate the positive here. I did enjoy the Philosophy 102 lectures, even if they also seem inserted in as usual. To add to the existential and behaviorist disquisitions of Reloaded, we now have an emotive program discoursing on karma (also one of the better moments of the film) and Smith making a case for nihilism. You could read Neo’s final fate as representing the necessity of all philosophies to grapple with the inevitability of death, although it seems more pertinent to explain it as simple messiah martyrdom, given all the throwing around of words like “faith” and “belief” through the film. (The kid’s “I believe in Neo!”, for example…ugh.) Actually, trying to interpret the ending of the film brings me to my biggest problem with Revolutions: the movie turned out to be so pedestrian in its execution that it almost undercuts the intellectual legitimacy of the earlier films.
Put another way, while I think David Denby should be taken to task for the ridiculous snobbishness exposed in his Revolutions review (Denby writes that it is “far too late to bemoan the obvious truth that…college-educated gents, and millions of others like them, will spend many hours debating the apocalypse as revealed by the Brothers Wachowski but would die before reading a single story by Chekhov or Cheever dealing with the sensual and spiritual quandaries of ordinary people“), the film does suggest that much of the philosophical ruminations on the meaning of the Matrix trilogy may have been misplaced when the writer-directors are so glib and ham-handed as to finish it off with a mighty dollop of Christ-figure bathos, a sunset, and a little girl.
In sum, while the intriguing but flawed Reloaded suggested that the Wachowskis were going to swing for the fences in the final installment, ultimately it seemed that — action spectacle aside — they were content to settle for a bunt. Boo hiss.
The Matrix publicity folks release the Revolutions posters. Very nice, although the goofy tagline – “Everything that has a beginning has an end” – smacks of the quasi-deep philosophizing that almost derailed the last film.
and She knows how to use them. The hour is finally at hand…Tomorrow the RotK trailer appears in front of Secondhand Lions (online Monday), and here’s what we’ll see. (Some screencaps here.) Update: Snippets of footage here, including an ethereal and jaw-dropping look at Minas Morgul. Come, Master, come to Smeagol… Update 2: The Wachowskis get in the game with the full Matrix: Revolutions trailer…A sci-fi sorbet before the fanboy main course. Update 3: A bootleg version of the trailer is now available, and it should hold ya until Monday.
Another new Matrix: Revolutions ad makes it online, with two more to follow tomorrow. What with the ponderous epic music and all, it takes itself way too seriously as usual…but there is some new and intriguing footage in here. Update: The other two spots are now online, and be warned – they’re starting to get spoilerific.
The teaser poster for Kill Bill (pt. I) makes it online. More appealing than the first trailer, at any rate. Also, in movie news, the trailer for Matrix: Revolutions is now available in Quicktime. I haven’t seen it yet, but word is it’s similar to the footage from Enter the Matrix.
By way of Quiddity again, a screenshot comparison of Dark City and The Matrix. I thought the former was overrated and the latter was vastly more enjoyable, but when you put ‘em side by side like this…
Still no word on when the trailer arrives (I had assumed New Line would’ve used it to prop up Dumb and Dumberer‘s opening weekend, and the next high-profile studio project isn’t until Freddy Vs. Jason on August 15), but some minor RotK news has leaked out recently involving Agent Smith at the Pelennor Fields. Very minor spoilers for non-trilogy readers. Update: Speaking of agents, Dark Horizons is reporting that the Wachowskis will write a V for Vendetta screenplay. Interesting…although I think I’d rather see their King Conan project with John Milius go through first.
Just in case Keanu was getting too much fanboy goodwill in the wake of Reloaded, Neo talks John Constantine. And since I’m getting 100 hits a day from people searching for “Matrix: Reloaded spoilers” (I presume Tank isn’t one of them), here’s a transcript of the Architect scene at the end of the film.
So after two viewings of The Matrix: Reloaded, I have to say I liked it quite a bit better than some of the early negativity had suggested (although I’m glad I lowered my expectations.) [BIG SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.] To be sure, the first forty minutes of the film, including everything that takes place in Zion, is almost unwatchable. We’re talking Attack of the Clones bad. What with the ponderous soap opera interludes (especially the Jada Pinkett Smith love triangle, the fresh-faced kid recruit, and Link’s worried homefront wife…please), the big, goofy Bacardi Silver commercial (“Your night just got a lot more interesting”), and the mere sight of Councillor Anthony “Straight to Video” Zerbe strolling around in Federation hand-me-downs (why didn’t they just let Cornel West handle that part?), I could understand why Joey Pants (Cypher) decided to pull a Benedict Arnold in the first film. If I had a choice (which, given half of the lecturing in this film, is an open question, I guess) between wearing my sunglasses at night and styling in the Matrix or being forced to join the Matthew McConaughey memorial drum circle every Friday evening at Zion central, I might just cut a deal with the Man too.
But, right about the time Neo gets a call from the Oracle and reenters the Matrix in Chinatown (right under the hard-to-miss Heineken sign), the film finally starts to find its rhythm. Sure, there’s still a lot of overwrought “check out the big brains on us” grandstanding by the Wachowskis [we get philosophy lessons along the way from both a sleazy French existentialist (the Merovingian) and a perfectionist Freud-like (God)father figure (the Architect)], but if you don’t like a little pop psychology with your kick-ass kung-fu, then why exactly are you in line to see a sequel to The Matrix? Alas, Neo and Trinity still don’t really work as an onscreen couple, but most of the action setpieces are breathtaking (particularly the highway chase and truck fight…in the midst of all the new characters showing up, it’s nice to see the Agents still getting their due.) And as expected, Hugo Weaving is just wicked good fun as Agents Smith…they steal every scene they’re in. Finally, though it took me a second viewing to catch everything that was going on, the final meeting with the Architect made for a nice end-of-film twist that’s more inventive than where I’d originally feared they were going with the storyline (i.e., the “real world” is also part of the Matrix, just like every Freddy Krueger/David Lynch movie you’ve ever seen.) So, despite the egregious first act, I have to say I came out of Reloaded with a smile on my face, and am looking forward to seeing what November’s Revolutions has to offer, starting with this special trailer from the Enter the Matrix game. Hopefully, the third film will see a lot less of As the Zion Turns and a little more of the lovely Monica Bellucci….Silly Neo, don’t you know an upgrade when you see one?