Monday, January 28, 2013

Top Ten (and then some) of 2012

I am going to give the same warning for this top ten list that I did last year: these are my top ten (and then some) “favorite” films of the year.  I am in position to claim one film is technically “better” than any other film.  Sure, I might be more likely than most to comment on filming techniques, score, acting, etc., but at the end of the day, or year, I still simply pick which movies I enjoyed the most.  Was Anna Karenina more impressive from a filmmaking standpoint than Lincoln?  Yes, absolutely.  But while I enjoyed Anna Karenina, it didn’t contain subject matter that I found particularly interesting nor did it have any performances that match up with Lincoln.  The point is that these top ten lists that flood the internet and magazines around this time of the year are all subjective.  It’s all personal taste.  That said, I have kind of a boring list, as my top three films are on nearly all of the top ten lists.  I’m not one to lie just to be different, though, so I stuck with the ten films I enjoyed the most this year.  I found 2012 to be a great year for movies, which is why I also added a few comments for five more films, and have a lengthy honorable mention list.  So here it is.  Feel free to completely disagree with me.  All I ask is that you keep an open mind, especially about the movies on the list that you haven’t seen.  It’s always okay to hate a movie, but only if you’ve seen it.
Also, I did miss out on a handful of films that some people have been praising, such as Holy Motors, End of Watch, Rust and Bone, Alps, and Compliance.  

1. Lincoln

I honestly did not expect this to end up as my number one film of the year.  I knew Day-Lewis would give a great performance, but I was skeptical of Spielberg.  I was afraid this was going to be a safe, plain patriotic film.  I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I was floored by how effective, and entertaining, the film was.  Many have complained of the film being boring, and I understand that, with all of the politics and long conversations, but I love that stuff.  While some were falling asleep, I was paying close attention.  The entire film works for me.  But it was Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance that sealed the deal for me. 


2. Django Unchained

An extremely close second because of the entertainment value in Quentin Tarantino’s edgy film.  Some are offended by the very premise of the film, but what can I say?  It’s kind of hard to offend me.  I enjoy movies and that is what this is: a very enjoyable movie.


3. Zero Dark Thirty

An important but riveting film.  It’s catching a lot of flak concerning torture and all that, but if you can get past that, this lengthy film expertly recreates the nuts and bolts of the manhunt that brought Osama bin Laden to justice.  More importantly, though, the film leaves the viewer with some questions about the war on terror and how it’s being waged.


4. The Master


Paul Thomas Anderson is a filmmaker I will always find interesting, and that is the basis for this pick.  Some will watch this and absolutely hate it, and I understand that.  It’s a strange film.  I started to doubt my enjoyment of the film weeks after my initial viewing, but watching it again recently, I realized once again that I love this movie.  It’s endlessly fascinating to me.


5. Prometheus


This is one of my controversial picks and the one that will have some people completely dismiss me.  I don’t know why everyone on the internet chose this film to nitpick incessantly.  I suppose it didn’t live up to their expectations, whatever those were.  I enjoyed the film very much, though.  It’s a science-fiction film with a brain.  Yes, with a brain.  Most people criticize the film because of the “stupid” things the characters do, but that says nothing about the themes of the film.  I don’t know, maybe I’m just easily pleased, but I thought director Ridley Scott’s return to sci-fi was entertaining and thought-provoking.  Also, this is a sci-fi film that relied surprisingly heavily on practical effects.  In today’s movie world, that is something that should be appreciated.


6. The Dark Knight Rises


Another film people are now ripping to shreds because of plot holes online.  (Because the first two films of the trilogy were documentaries, right?)  I thought this was a pleasing and fitting conclusion to my favorite superhero series of all time.  I know the battle was between this and The Avengers, but I liked both.  I just enjoyed this one more.  And as with Prometheus, the amount of practical stunt work and visual effects deserves much more credit than it has received thus far.


7. Cloud Atlas


This film could have easily been a complete mess (and some would argue that it is), but somehow the filmmakers took a complex book and compiled an amazing film experience out of it.  It gets bonus points from for the sheer ambition of it, but more than that, the film grabbed me and made me care about what was happening. 


8. Wanderlust


This pick might leave people simply asking, “What is Wanderlust?”  Unfortunately, this hilarious comedy failed to find much success at the box office or on home video.  I think this movie is worthy of cult status and hopefully time will rectify that.  Maybe not, though.  It is a truly absurd film, and is certainly not for everyone.  But in a year filled with great comedies, I found this one to rise above the rest.  It features that rare self-aware comedy that never has to sink to the level of actors winking at the camera.  If you like comedies off the beaten path, check this out.


9. Looper


I’m a sucker for sci-fi and even though the paradoxes of time travel films tend to bother me, this film does it right.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is terrific and his Bruce Willis impression is worth watching alone.  Thankfully, writer-director Rian Johnson makes this stylish, interesting film much more than a lengthy Willis impression.

10. Lawless


This is a film that I feel has been unfairly forgotten by year-end lists and awards.  This story of bootlegging in Virginia is an interesting period piece that features a great cast.  Definitely one of the most crowd-pleasing films on my list (I have yet to talk to someone who did not like it).  I really just think this film needs to find a larger audience because it is a very fun film.
Five close picks
The Cabin in the WoodsAny horror movie fan should check this horror-comedy out.  Don’t expect an actual horror movie, though.
Moonrise KingdomWes Anderson being Wes Anderson.  At this point you either like it or you don’t.
The Avengers A truly entertaining, fun time.  I just like Batman more.
Argo – Terrifically tense film that is getting plenty of love for Affleck’s directing and rightfully so.
SkyfallAn extremely satisfying Bond film that might even please old-school fans…might.
Honorable Mention
Flight, The Grey, 21 Jump Street, Ted, Anna Karenina, Room 237, and Silver Linings Playbook

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Zero Dark Thirty" Is About Much More Than Torture


Zero Dark Thirty - Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal, starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, and Mark Strong - Rated R

The killing of Osama bin Laden, or UBL, as he’s referred to in this film, captivated me much as it captivated most of the western world.  It was one of those strange moments in history when we found ourselves cheerful and exuberant because of a death. Okay, not just “a” death, but “the” death of the world’s most infamous terrorist. After the good feelings subsided, the questions began. How did they find him? Who shot him? Where’s the body? Are their pictures? Those types of questions can hold interesting answers, sure, but there are much more important questions, such as: Does this change anything? Was all the work and money spent really worth it? Had people died in vain during the long search? Zero Dark Thirty, the latest from director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), attempts to answer, and at least asks, most if not all of both types of questions.

Zero Dark Thirty handles the why and the how of the manhunt expertly. We’re given multiple examples of the terrorism that explain the need for UBL’s capture, most notably the sounds of 9/11 played over a black screen. Then we are presented with how information was procured not just for UBL’s capture, but also in the attempt to thwart any terrorism. This, of course, is where the film ventures into controversial territory because torture (depending on your definition of the word) was used in the early years of the war on terror. The debate is whether the film condones torture as an effective means of gaining intelligence. Some are using the film as evidence that, yes, torture brought us the information to get UBL. Is that true? Sort of. Certainly advances are made by the investigators in the film thanks to torture, but in no way is this film some ringing endorsement of the practice. If anything, the film makes it clear that torture messes people up on both sides of the situation. It also shows that information can be gained through nonviolent means, as well. Anyway, this film will only start an argument about torture; it won’t finish it.

Because of the torture elements, Zero Dark Thirty can be a difficult film to watch, but that’s the point. The main character, CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), appears to serve as a representative of the audience when we first see her. She is in the interrogation chamber, and she seems sickened by what she sees. Thankfully, Maya is not simply a personification of how the audience should feel because, once left alone with the detainee, she does not cry or turn into a sympathetic, helpful woman. Instead, she coldly lets the detainee know that they want information, and they are going to get it.
If Zero Dark Thirty is anything more than a procedural about the UBL manhunt, then it is a character portrait of Maya.  Perhaps Maya does not necessarily represent the audience so much as she is the personification of the war on terror.  Are terrible means justified by the ends?  Just how long can people keep fighting this war?  Maya has to go through all of that along with being faced with actual terrorism.  It is because of this focus, and Chastain’s amazing performance, that Zero Dark Thirty becomes much more than a docudrama.  Chastain is equal parts victim and perpetrator.  I don’t mean that legally speaking, but emotionally.  It’s a very hard balance to strike without seeming completely inconsistent, but Chastain is able to convey, believably, a character than can cry one moment and face down her boss or a detainee the next.
The rest of the cast is impressive, as well, if not for performances then for the sheer variety of it.  The standout, aside from Chastain, has to be Jason Clarke, as a slightly eccentric interrogator.  He brings some serious intensity to the role and a surprising amount of much needed comedic relief.  I’m not sure why he’s being left out of the previews so much because he carries a bit of the film’s weight.  The rest of the cast is great, but those two performances really stood out to me.
Watching the previews, one would assume that this film is largely about the raid on UBL’s compound.  This is misleading, just as the focus on Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt in the previews is misleading (they are minor characters in the overall film).  Zero Dark Thirty is a modern spy film in that the majority of it is about the inner politics of the CIA and how information is gathered, lost, painstakingly analyzed, ignored, etc.  It is interesting that James Bond is experiencing a resurgence the same year that this film is released because Maya represents a realistic Bond character in that she is not allowed to do all the things Bond can do even though her ultimate goal is similar to Bond’s in that she wants to stop the bad guy.  There is nothing glamorous about the work Maya does.  To be honest, most of it is boring.  The tediousness of the work explains the lengthy running time of the film (over two and a half hours).  This was not a simple task, and it was also bogged down in politics.  There’s no need to try and spice that up and lie about how things work in the modern spy world.  It may seem strange to praise a film for focusing on tedium, but I feel that it helps the audience identify with Maya’s struggle throughout. 
Perhaps tedious is not the best word because I truly found all of the film to be interesting.  It’s just that at some point, since we all know the ending, you start to think, “Okay, come on, we get it, move on.”  This is what Maya is thinking the entire time, as well, though, which is why it works. 
There are certain spy elements that may seem a bit boring as Maya goes through files and videos, but Zero Dark Thirty also features some extremely skillfully filmed action elements.  Director Kathryn Bigelow (who was inexplicably snubbed by the Academy) has done an amazing job of recreating events and filming them in a clear way that is easy to follow.  And while Zero Dark Thirty may not contain as many insanely tense moments as The Hurt Locker, it still surpasses that film in ambition and technique.  Bigelow is certainly experiencing the apex of her career right now.  Credit is due to screenwriter Mark Boal, too, as he has turned in an exhaustively researched script that never feels fake or too extensive. 
Overall, I am glad I held off from compiling my top ten list until I had seen this film because it will certainly be on it.  Zero Dark Thirty is an immensely effective, entertaining, and thought-provoking film that features a masterful leading performance.  It pretty much does everything that I think a movie should do, and it does it well.  Don’t look to Zero Dark Thirty to form your opinion on torture, look to it for a much larger picture of the war on terror and what it has all been about.  It won’t answer all of the questions for you, necessarily, but it will make you think, and that is much more effective.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Try Not To Be Offended and Just Enjoy "Django Unchained"

Django Unchained - Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Leonardo DiCaprio - Rated R

Quentin Tarantino has become a somewhat controversial figure in cinema. There are the Tarantino devotees, who have been on board since they first saw Reservoir Dogs and enjoy every single thing he does (I can nearly be classified as part of this group). Then there are the people that have been less than impressed with everything he has done since Pulp Fiction. I feel that he has become an internet target in that it’s cool to hate him since so many film nerds love everything he does. To be fair, he set himself up for this as his films have turned into a series of references to other, much more obscure films. What is the difference between copying and paying homage? I believe it comes down to opinion: if you enjoy his films, then Tarantino is paying homage; if you dislike the films, he’s stealing. This has been the issue with Tarantino for some time, but he opened up a new debate with his last film, Inglourious Basterds: is it okay to alter history and find humor within very serious situations? Once again, if you’re with the film, then yes, it’s totally okay. Now with Django Unchained, a cartoonishly violent, surprisingly funny film about slavery, Tarantino asks this question of the audience again, and my answer is an emphatic “yes.”

I love most of Tarantino’s work (Death Proof just didn’t work for me), but I rarely take it seriously. I think the filmmaker sets out to simply entertain people, which means he must do whatever he thinks is best to accomplish that. If that’s constantly using cheesy zooms taken from old kung fu movies, or spraying goofy amounts of blood from bullet wounds, or having the precursor to the Klan have a complaint session about holes in bags, then so be it. If it works, it works. This is why there can be laughter during a movie about slavery. Tarantino isn’t pretending to give a history lesson (this is the guy who decided to kill off Hitler in a movie theater, after all). He is trying to get you to enjoy yourself, and I enjoyed myself immensely throughout Django.

Entertainment as a goal doesn’t excuse a film from controversy, however. Some will be, and are, angry about the film. Complaints range from taking the slavery issue lightly at all to the many uses of the “N-word” throughout the film. I understand how all of this can be offensive, but I suppose I’m not easily offended. But be forewarned: this is certainly not a film for everyone. And even if some of the violence is portrayed as humorous, there are still very gruesome and brutal moments that will sicken people.

If you can get past all of the possibly offensive material, though, you will witness one of the best films of the year. The story of the lengthy film is relatively simple. Bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) frees Django (Jamie Foxx) because he needs his help tracking down some slavers. After they’re done, Schultz agrees to help Django find and rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of the delightfully evil Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his faithful servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

The film ends up being quite lengthy because Tarantino has finally made his spaghetti western, and he couldn’t help but fill it with references. I won’t pretend to share Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge of film, but I did enjoy all of the little touches that I picked up here and there. It just feels good to watch the movie with a crowd and notice Franco Nero (the original Django from the 1966 film) and know that I am one of the only people that caught it.

That’s not to say that references alone make this film enjoyable. It’s loaded with Tarantino weirdness. From the hilarious and at times self-aware dialogue to the fact that Schultz drives around a carriage with a giant tooth on top of it; there is plenty here for the uninitiated viewer. Tarantino has struck a great balance of honest storytelling and his trademark weirdness. I like watching his films because I know that anything might happen, even if the story takes place in a historical setting.

Tarantino doesn’t get too crazy with anachronisms, except perhaps with the music. Modern day music, along with some classic songs, is used throughout the film. It might take some people out of the film, but I found the songs perfectly suitable for each scene. Tarantino seems to always find the ideal music for each of his films.

Django is not simply a stylishly violent film with a good soundtrack, though. Tarantino’s scripts have long been ripe material for actors. Jamie Foxx is great as Django, and his transition from frightened slave to empowered bounty hunter is a realistic one. Unfortunately for him, the supporting roles of the film are much more interesting than the title character. Christoph Waltz is gaining attention yet again for his supporting role (he won an Oscar for Basterds) as Schultz. It’s a fun performance, and he makes every line of dialogue lively. Samuel L. Jackson gives his best performance in years as the absolutely evil slave Stephen. His performance is impressive, and hilarious, because he gets to play up the stereotype of the helpful slave, but also gets to show the true ruthlessness of his character. Then there is Leonardo DiCaprio. There’s something inherently interesting about a character that you’re supposed to hate, and DiCaprio fully embraces that. People were up in arms when he wasn’t nominated for the Academy Award, but it’s a packed category this year. Waltz getting the nomination makes sense, but I’m surprised more people are not singing Jackson’s praises. I felt that his lack of a nomination was a bigger snub than DiCaprio. DiCaprio winning an Oscar is a question of when. Who knows when Jackson will take on another prestige role like this?

Django Unchained is the total package for me. It has great action, fitting music, a historical setting, spaghetti western influences, comedy, Tarantino’s style, and fun performances. Honestly, the only thing keeping this movie from being my favorite of the year is Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln. If not for that great performance, Django Unchained would be the best film of the year, in my opinion. Try not to be offended and enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s latest piece of entertainment.