Last week, I posted the first part of my Top Films of 2012 (read it here). In the spirit of brevity, I'll skip any long introduction and simply say: here's the rest!
(21) Directed by Phil Lord & Chris Miller, Written by Michael Bacall from a story by Michael Bacall & Jonah Hill
(Flight) Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Written by John Gatins
"F*ck you, Science!"
"No one could have landed that plane like I did."
Yep. I'm cheating. Already.
21 Jump Street was quite the surprise. Who, in all honesty, thought this had any chance of being decent? A remake of a cheesy 1980s TV show, revamped as an action-comedy starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. On paper, it seemed sure to bomb. But something incredible happened. It wasn't just decent, it was great, one of the best comedies of the year. Channing Tatum turned out to be hilarious, the script was awesome, and every decision made creatively worked, and the final result was awesome. Can't say much more other than the fact that it was funny as hell.
On the other hand, it's surprising how much "Flight" has been forgotten in Oscar-bait season, given that it has one of the best performances of the year: Denzel Washington as alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker. While the rest of the movie had a tendency to be melodramatic and unsubtle (specifically, the music choices were a bit… over the top), "Flight" earns its place on this list for the first half hour alone. The entire crash sequence was one of the most intense, suspenseful, and effective sections of the movie this entire year. The rest of the movie has some great moments too, including the best jump scare of the whole year, simply involving Denzel Washington and a vodka bottle.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof
"Sometimes to create, one must first destroy."
I've always felt like internet movie culture is a bit strange -- more populist movie fans battling against the so-called "film snobs". I feel like "Prometheus" ended up being squarely in-between, and thus didn't really satisfy anyone fully. It had big ambitions and ideas, wrapped in, filled with, and deep-fried in ambiguity. At the same time, though, it had the kind of horror-action set pieces we'd expect from a movie in the Alien franchise. Those who came for the action were put off by the opaque storyline, and those who came for the sci-fi were put off by the occasional lapses into action movie logic (the geologist with the mapping technology gets lost. Right) Despite all its problems, though, I really liked Prometheus. This may seem blasphemous, but I think it is a better movie than "Alien" or "Aliens". Its characters are more interesting (especially David) and it kept me thinking after watching it far more than the original 1978 film did. It was well directed, and written well enough to support the visuals (speaking of the writing, after watching the behind-the-scenes featurettes, it does seem like Jon Spaihts did 90% of it, and Damon Lindelof only came on as a last-minute script doctor to keep the studio happy by having a "name writer". Lindelof's become too easy a whipping boy for this movie, especially when most of the ideas seem to have come from Ridley Scott, not from either of the two writers. But that's a discussion for another time.)
8. Indie Game: The Movie
"I desperately want to communicate with people, but I don't want the messy interaction of having to make friends and talk to people, because I probably don't like them."
I saw this movie on a whim, it was recommended to me by my interactive media (aka game design) friends, and I heard from others that it was actually a really well-done movie. And it is. The best thing I could say it that it made me, for the first time, consider games as much an artistic medium for personal expression as movies are for the first time, and it made me download Steam. It's an incredibly well-produced and affecting documentary (though I'll admit, the constant dolly shots began to grate on me on second viewing) about people taking incredible risks -- working for years alone for no money, hoping that it will eventually be successful -- and eventually find success (mostly). If you're even vaguely interested in video gaming, or making lots of money, check out this documentary.
7. Seven Psychopaths / Zero Dark Thirty
(Seven Psychopaths) Written & Directed by Martin McDonagh
(Zero Dark Thirty) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Written by Mark Boal
"That's when we got the idea. Going around the country killing people who go around the country killing people."
Yep, cheating again. Hey, it was a good year.
It's Martin McDonagh's version of "Adaptation.", essentially, and it's great. "In Bruges" is one of my top five films of all time, and so I went into this movie with sky-high expectations, and thus came away a little bit disappointed, but it's still a great movie -- funny, well written and acted. I did feel like it lacked the emotional core, somewhat, of "In Bruges", but it mostly made up for it in pure wit and cleverness. Martin McDonagh has been described as, essentially, having taken over the role of European Tarantino from Guy Ritchie, but I think that's a big marginalizing of McDonagh. Sure, they share some DNA -- violence and humor -- but McDonagh's films both have had a stronger bite to them: like if you just changed them slightly, they could be a rather bleak character drama (In Bruges even more so) instead of a sporadically wacky comedy. That's how you can have a scene in which a man hallucinates seeing his recently-murdered wife and begins doubting his belief in the afterlife -- and have it play for laughs.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is an incredibly well-made movie, if not an incredibly affecting one. Despite how much I tend to disagree with those who complain that movies like "The Social Network" or "Inception" are too "cold" or lack emotion, there is something to be said for making sure that movies have something to keep the audience emotionally invested. Whereas those two 2010 movies at least had character arcs that were sympathetic and tried to draw out the audience's emotions, "Zero Dark Thirty" is completely uninterested in that. It is, as some have put it, an aggressively distant movie, relying on the audience to bring a lot of their own feelings -- about 9/11, about Osama Bin Laden -- to it. Like "The Hurt Locker", the movie as a whole is less than the sum of its parts (though this movie has a story, with "The Hurt Locker desperately lacked), but the parts are incredible. Bigelow, if she wanted to, could solely rely on her ability to create suspense and make a good movie ("The Hurt Locker"). She aims for something a little more meaningful with "Zero Dark Thirty", showing the affect the pursuit has had on its main character, Maya (Jessica Chastain, in a very good, restrained performance). It's very similar to David Fincher's Zodiac, but allows itself even less attachment to its main character than Fincher's film did. It never feels as if you're supposed to relate with Maya, or place yourself in her shoes -- instead, you're supposed to pity or be impressed by her as she continues to slog through the years of searching. This keeps the movie from feeling satisfying in the way it feels like it should, but still, the craftsmanship behind the movie is truly excellent.
6. Django Unchained
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
"You had my curiosity... But now you have my attention."
My opinion on Tarantino movies, I've discovered, are a little unpopular. I didn't like "Pulp Fiction" all that much, and my favorite is "Reservoir Dogs", followed by "Inglorious Basterds". With that caveat, I really liked "Django Unchained" -- it fits comfortably behind "Inglorious Basterds" as my third favorite Tarantino flick. As to be expected, the dialogue is great and funny (When it wants to be) and the structure unexpected and inventive. Leonardo DiCaprio steals the show, as was to be expected, as the villainous francophile Calvin Candie, though it is Christoph Waltz's King Schultz that carries the movie -- the eponymous Django doesn't fully become the protagonist until the final act. It's Tarantino's most straightforward film since maybe "Kill Bill", and as a result it feels a little less like Tarantino's having fun, and more like, for the first time, he's pushing a point -- slavery was bad. Maybe a simplistic point, but really emphasized: "Django" might be, ironically, the most disturbing movies about slavery that's been made, because of the way Tarantino gets away with the extreme, horrifyingly brutal violence. The major positive is that this gives the film some depth that you wouldn't really expect, and makes the film much more emotionally engaging than, say, "Kill Bill". The negative side of this is that the film can feel tonally inconsistent, shifting from serious, violent slavery parable to borderline action-slapstic western, but the end result is still entertaining as hell.
Directed by Sam Mendes, Written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade & John Logan
"Though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are... One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
"Skyfall" is the Bond film that we were promised when "Casino Royale" came out. Although I don't hate "Quantum of Solace", as many seem wont to do nowadays (it's decent), "Skyfall" was feels closer to the true sequel to "Casino Royale". It's serious, and takes its characters seriously, treating them not as archetypes but as actual people (even the sometimes-cartoonish villain has glimpses of a sympathetic, human side) and the story follows suit. Paradoxically, despite the fact that it re-introduces more classical Bond elements (Q, the super villain hideout, etc) it's probably the least-Bondian movie so far, breaking the Bond movie structure and delivering a movie that, at times, has more in common with Straw Dogs than Goldfinger (or Home Alone, if one was so inclined). Daniel Craig continues to be one of the best (in my opinion, the best) Bond in terms of being an actual character and not a cartoon, but, ironically, he's not the true star -- the center of the movie is Judi Dench as M, finally fleshed out as more than just a twice-a-movie exposition machine. Sam Mendes proves himself adept at action, though the set pieces are often second fiddle to conversations. There's been some push for Javier Bardem to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor, or Judi Dench as Best Supporting Actress, and that shows just how much "Skyfall" delivered on "Casino Royale"'s promise to be a more serious, character-based franchise. Though I still prefer the 2006 reboot, the argument that "Skyfall" is the best Bond movie of all time has merit.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Written by Tony Kushner
"The greatest measure of the 19th century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America."
We all know what we expected from Steven Spielberg's long-gestating biopic of the 16th U.S. President: an overly-sentimental, saccharine Spielbergian drama -- essentially, a biographical version of "War Horse". Instead, by focusing solely on the last few months of Lincoln's life and the legislative jujitsu required to pass the 13th amendment, the film is kind of a legal thriller with heavy dashes of comedy. The Spielberg touches of sentimentality are there, of course, but they're more subdued than you'd expect. It's focus is on the quiet moments, its memorable shots being Lincoln standing alone in his office silently, instead of, say, heroic close-ups with John Williams music sweeping epically in the background. The movie benefits greatly from a sharp script from playwright Tony Kushner, which breathes life into every character and makes no scene feel pointless -- even ones that seem to stop the movie's momentum just to let Abraham Lincoln indulge us in a story. As the Oscars approach, it seems more and more likely that Lincoln may just slip in to the frontrunner status of Best Picture, given the controversy of "Zero Dark Thirty" and how polarizing such films as "The Master" and "Les Miserables" turned out to be -- and I'd be perfectly happy with that.
Written and Directed by Rian Johnson
"This time travel crap, just fries your brain like a egg.."
"Looper" is a hard movie to categorize. In a way, it is most comparable to movies from the eighties and nineties, like "The Terminator" or "Back to the Future", which used big, genre ideas to tell much smaller, human stories. It's an action movie… kinda (or at least, that's what the trailers tried to sell it as), its a character drama, and its also a complex time travel story. The amazing thing about this is how much it all works. The writing and direction -- from Rian Johnson, the writer/director behind "Brick" and "The Brothers Bloom" -- is clever and stylish, never bogging itself down in time travel minutiae and rather letting the characters drive the story instead of some artificial plot device (the best thing Johnson did in making the story work is having no character really understand time travel, not even the people using it, thereby avoiding some awkward second-act exposition) The acting is great, too -- Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance is especially impressive for being both a good impression of Bruce Willis, and a well-crafted character in his own right. Bruce Willis looks the most interested he has in years (this coming from someone who liked "Live Free or Die Hard"), Emily Blunt does well with a relatively small part, and it features one of the best performances by a kid I've ever seen.
2. The Dark Knight Rises
Directed by Christopher Nolan, Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, from a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer
It's probably fair to say that "The Dark Knight Rises" was the most polarizing movie of the year, splitting the fan base of movies and superheroes right down the middle (or so it seemed). Coming off of such a masterpiece of the genre as 2008's "The Dark Knight", disappointment from many quarters was to be expected -- almost no piece of entertainment that's been anticipated and hyped to oblivion can satisfy everyone, from long-awaited sequels to endings of TV shows. "The Dark Knight Rises" had, looking back, an unfair amount of expectation on its shoulders -- anything less than one of the greatest films of all time would have been considered a disappointment. And that's exactly what we got: not one of the greatest films of all time, and not as good as "The Dark Knight" -- but still, in my opinion , one of the best of the year. I admit, it has flaws, the biggest being the pacing, which is laborious in the first forty-fives minutes or so. However, the last hour-and-a-half was engrossing, thrilling, and powerful; it transformed itself from the crime drama of The Dark Knight into a sprawling epic. I love the concept of the localized post-apocalypse in Gotham. The best parts of the movie are the ones that explore Gotham under siege, such as the epic battle sequence in the finale that tops the climax of "The Avengers" with sheer spectacle. There are legitimate complaints that "The Dark Knight Rises", ostensibly a Batman movie, lacks Batman, and even diminishes his legacy by establishing that Bruce Wayne was only Batman for a year before retiring in the events before TDKR; I didn't have a problem with this, because it always felt like the series, staring with Batman Begins (which, like TDKR, didn't have Batman appear until 45 minutes in), was focused on Bruce Wayne, whose journey included dressing up like a bat and fighting crime.
1. The Cabin in the Woods
Directed by Drew Godard, Written by Drew Godard & Joss Whedon
"I just think it would've been cooler with a merman."
This movie snuck up on everyone. Or me, at the very least. Not only had it been delayed since 2009, but it had a generic title, trailer, and plot; basically, it looked like every crappy horror movie ever made this side of "The Evil Dead". But that was the idea. In the minds of Drew Godard (in his directorial debut) and Joss Whedon (who made some other film this year… I forget the name), that generic horror movie set up was twisted into a funny, intense, and biting critique of the horror movie genre as a whole. Though the teen characters (including a pre-famous Chris Hemsworth) are funny and likable enough to make the more generic slasher scenes good, the true stars of the show are the cynical, sarcastic engineers below the eponymous Cabin, played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, who punctuate everything that goes on up above with hilarity. Before I saw it, I was told not to expect twists, but instead "escalation". Boy, was that ever true -- you may think the movie ends about three times, but instead it just keeps going, further and further and crazier and crazier until it literally can't continue. I don't want to give anything more away about this fantastic movie, so I'll just say this: see it for yourself.
Well, that's it! Feel free to let me know how wrong I am in the comments below.