Wednesday, January 2, 2013


So it was another interesting year in film and I watched quite a few of them.  I’m no harsh judge of movies, I know how hard such a huge collaborative effort must be to pull off, let alone do exceedingly well.  However, when they really go wrong, sometimes you just have to come right out and say it, call them on it and let them know that you know your cash would’ve been better spent elsewhere.

The following ten movies are what I consider the best movies I saw for the first time in 2012.  Nearly all of the movies on this list are theatre-viewed unless I was unable to find it in either of the two mediocre movie houses we have in my hometown.  Otherwise, DVD or streaming were my methods.

In the past I have refrained from including comic book films for consideration for my best of list, but this year I’ve decided to throw that rule out.  I like my comics, I like my comic book movies and be damned Hollywood if you can’t compete with funnybook films!

With that out of the way, here goes...

The very peak of the power of the Marvel Studios pictures is reached with THE AVENGERS.  A fast-paced, action-packed punchy film that features enough rich character moments that it is surprising that the ensemble gets as much scenery to chew as they do.  The movie is better than all the rest of the Marvel films and, possibly, the best superhero film ever made.
And thank the gods that it wasn’t just giant wormy aliens that were the bad guys in this picture... Hiddleston’s Loki comes to Earth like a rock, god with charisma dripping from his eyes and a silver tongue that steals the picture.  And that’s just what villains are supposed to do--make you love to hate them.
The great Marvel villains are the ones who aren’t conflicted about who they are and what their goals are, they know what they want and they go for it.  Gone from this Loki are the internal conflicts of the THOR film, he knows his role and relishes it.  Add to that, the heroes reacting and being played all at once and you’ve got drama and suspense.  Stuff in some of the biggest action sequences put on film and you’ve got the closest thing we have had to a Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic come to life:  A+

Denzel Washington plays an airline pilot so good at his job that he regularly does it stoned.  In fact, being high may be why he was able to calmly find a way to set down his  jet full of people in an empty field, saving the lives of nearly all the passengers, in what would, in any other circumstance, be a fatal crash.  It is a powerful character study of this pilot whose support system fits his character to a “T”.  Off the job, he’s a fall-down drunk who can’t resist the temptation.  The suspense lies in the efforts of those around him to basically cover up the fact that he was flying intoxicated while trying to keep him from getting intoxicated.  That’s where John Goodman comes in--he is Denzel’s walking supplier of pick-me-ups, and put-me-downs and he comes in with an energy that invites everyone in the room to have a toot of coke and some oxy--and he almost convinces the viewer!  Great performances make a fantastic script fly:  A

Though a bit uneven, this tale of coming to terms with our finite existence is probably as compelling as the best of dramas to come out in any year.  Now the people who give out awards won’t see it that way as comedies are somehow rated as gutter material just like comics are here in the states when it comes to art forms.  Steve Carell is tone perfect as he numbly walks through a world that will be ending once a looming asteroid finally makes impact in about a week.  He barely notices when his wife leaves, continues to go to work when most are using their last week to have orgies and get drunk or stoned or both.  So it’s kind of strange when he gets a letter that his neighbor had stolen from his mailbox some time earlier from his high school sweetheart.  And he thinks of going to be with her as the clock to our world ticks down to zero hour.  Not the funniest film of the year,
but the best comedy by far:  A

In the wake of tragedies like the one in Newtown, Connecticut, this film seems to have even more meaning if it’s possible.  Kevin’s mother strives to love her hateful, strange, boy despite the fact that the kid seems to live to torment her.  One nearly begins to see it as a demonic child situation as the boy contiues his progression into his teenage years--let me tell you, Damien ain’t got nothing on this boy--but it never rises to the level of that kind of over-the-top stylization.  It is more a document testifying to this psychopath’s continued escalation and his mother, played brilliantly by Tilda Swinton, coming to terms with the horor that was her son and, eventually, what his final, terrible act was.  A disturbingly excellent film:  A

Like in the movie BUG from a few years back, Michael Shannon stars as a man who seems to be losing his grip on reality.  Only this time, his sense of self-preservation leans toward the sensible instead of the suicidal.  He keeps having these visions, you see, of apocalyptic disasters.  What seem to him clear warnings of imminent danger, seem to everyone else the signs of a disturbed mind.  Jessica Chastain is very strong as his wife, whose tolerance is stretched to the breaking point.  An excellent small budget film worth seeking out:  A-

Deceptively deep and moving.  A movie about life and death and love lost.  But also about that drive that is in all of us beyond all else to keep going, to fight on, to struggle, to live.  Fine work from Liam Neeson.  A movie that does what it does very well and then it does more:  A-

Tarantino’s tribute to the spaghetti Western, this movie is more a buddy picture between Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx.  It’s a marriage of both convenience and general camaraderie between the two bounty hunters--one a former dentist (allegedly) and the other a newly freed slave (freed under certain conditions).  It is also a commentary on the brutality that was slavery.  A funny and bloody ride of vengeance through the South of old:  A- 

Paul Thomas Anderson (like Wes) is one of my favorite modern directors, and hasn’t made a bad movie yet.  They are powerful, sometimes painful, dramatic pieces that are at once uplifting and disturbing and funny.  You will feel something when you watch his films.  Here is a film that seems to bite off a little bit more than it can digest.  It is very good and Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman give some of the best performances of their careers.  Joaquin plays a Navy veteran after the war, a traumatized raw nerve who seems like the an institution might do him well.  He meets the leader of “The Cause”, played flawlessly by Hoffman, and is made a subject to this guru’s philosophy.  Does it work... can the mind overcome the kind of conditioning Phoenix’s character has endured?  Another winner:  A-

(9)  ARGO
This whippersnapper named Affleck may be onto something.  I don’t think this is his best film or even his second best (see GONE, BABY, GONE and THE TOWN), but it is a very compelling dramatization of the effort of the CIA and Canada to extract six Americans from the violent revolution in Iran.  You will note that I mention John Goodman again as he is brilliant as Affleck’s contact in Hollywood.  Alan Arkin is also excellent.  It’s generally a fine film with the highest stakes and genuine suspense (even knowing that they get away in the end!).  Another winner:  A-

(10)  LOOPER
That Gordon-Levitt fellow does it again!  And this time he brings along good old Bruce Willis to play himself but from the future.  Set in a world where some have telekinetic powers, Joe is a Looper, a hired gun who disposes of the mob’s victims from the future.  The catch was that one day they would send your future self back and once you dispose of the body, you get a huge payout and can retire.  They call it “Closing a Loop”.  Once Joe’s older self shows up, however, he is overtaken and looses him.  And so the chase begins and only then do things get really complicated:  A-

Now here’s where I had to draw the line.  The following are all the rest of the years views.  Some came quite close to my Top Ten (see the two directly below) and some were just bad.  And then there were those that just were half-and-half... could’ve been much better with just a touch of this or a sprinkle of that.  It’s hard, sometimes, to tell just what a movie would need to shine.

Who knows, your favorite movie could be down this list a ways wallowing under the weight of a “D” or “F” rating.  Different strokes and all that...

How does one beat the success of the last Batman film, well, you just don’t and you realize that if you’re Christopher Nolan.  And so we kind of get a peek at how Nolan sees the effects of being the Batman in a more real-world situation.  Bruce Wayne has triumphed over the criminal element in Gotham, but his body has taken the toll for that achievement.  The thing is, without crime to fight, Wayne has shriveled up into a recluse, a ghost who lurks in his manor barely seen or heard.  And so Bane shows up to bring back the party.  And Catwoman comes to town to flirt.  And suddenly Master Bruce gets to go outside and play again!  It is a big and epic piece and it is compelling and dramatic and has all the right touches.  Only... Bruce Wayne’s happy ending isn’t in Paris with some caty girl, it’s beating the crap out of a crook in an alley on a frigid night in Gotham City.  Nice film and well made, though:  A-

Going in, one knows that this isn’t your typical slashing campers horror film and they made sure of that with the trailers.  But what’s unexpected was how interesting it was once the true nature of the world these characters live in is revealed.  A little punchy in the script, but otherwise a spiffy plot well directed--a movie that does what it sets out to do:  A-

In which George Clooney must make a huge decision for his extended family while dealing with the messy discovery of his wife’s affair after she is critically injured.  A well-played and understated performance and film that is an interesting watch:  B+

A prequel to the critically acclaimed heist/slasher film MALEVOLENCE (a much better movie than this one), this movie focuses on the development of a little boy abducted by a serial killer being forced to learn and practice the trade of his new mentor as he stalks a troubled young woman who has recently moved in with an aunt and uncle.  Atmospheric and well made, the story just doesn’t have the same weight as the first film featuring the killer, Graham Sutter.  Grade: C

A sequel that surpasses it’s predecessor in visuals--at least I like the look of this ash and charbroiled grittier version of the Spirt of Vengeance--but still has trouble with a compelling story.  Which, come to think of it, seems to be the way I always felt abut the actual comic book series.  Nick Cage does his best to give us enough ham for our ticket price and I always eat it up.  He’s quirky, this flame-headed fella and I almost hope to see another movie somewhere down that dusty, leaf-blown road:  C+

Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd play a couple on their way to move back in with their families after losing out in the big city job market and on the way to what they know will be a miserable existence they decide to experiment with a commune instead.  What follows is fairly funny.  A decent comedy in which Alan Alda has a great little role:  B

Amanda Seyfried stars as a young woman who lives her life in fear and who is mistrusted by her peers.  You see, she claims to have been abducted from her house as a teenager by an infamous killer who has remained unarrested for years.  A well-done suspense/thriller that is better than your average movie of it’s ilk:  B

It wants to be a cross between a party film in the way that SUPERBAD was funny as heck and CLOVERFIELD in the way that it was a documentary.  It doesn’t really work as either.  Party gone wrong:  D

Much maligned by box-office watchers and a hand-full of critics, this retelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ tale of an ordinary Earth-Man brought to Mars who becomes the linchpin of a revolution there is actually quite entertaining.  Limited by a reluctant ad campaign, the film just never pulled in the business I think It will gain via rentals.  Fine swashbuckling action.  Oh and don’t forget Woola!  Nifty work by all involved--though I would’ve cast it a bit differently: B+

Elizabeth Olsen is very good in this well thought-out scary old house picture.  Helping her father and uncle clean out their old Summer home, Sarah finds herself haunted by sounds and visions that are horrifying.  Filmed in almost what appears to be one long take from her perspective, the film evokes a strong feeling of menace and suspense.  To say much more would be to give too much away:  B+

Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen, a teenager who volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a televised death-match in which two teenagers from each of the twelve districts of Panem are chosen.  I assume, in this post-something world, something causes there to be shortages of food and those selected compete to win food rights for their district.  A well-made and well-acted, if hardly believable, scenario:  C+

John Cusack can be so mild-mannered at times that it’s refreshing to see him take to a different kind of character.  His Poe is a bit of a lout, a bit of a lush and trouble all-around.  When the girl he loves is taken by a killer reenacting his own murderous stories, he must detect who the one responsible is in this thriller.  This one almost has the feel of the recent Sherlock Holmes pictures--but with less a sense of humor and action:  B

Two couples meet cordially after their sons have been involved in a fight that left one of them needing a dentist.  As they spend more and more time together, they devolve into more and more child-like personas.  Roman Polanski directed Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly in this equally annoying and entertaining gab-fest.  Polanski attempts Woody Allen?  Perhaps... and not a bad film:  B-

“Hill and Tatum” doesn’t quite have the ring that “Greico and Depp” have, does it?  Another of the revamps of an old television show into something it wasn’t originally intended to be, just like STARSKY & HUTCH.  It works on some strange level as the twists they put on the adult-pretending-they’re-a-teen theme are interesting and unexpected.  Otherwise, pretty typical comedic tropes:  C

It’s not that I thought the film was bad, it’s just that it seems to be one of those movies that hasn’t decided what it wants to be when it grows up.  Tim Burton takes the gothic soap and sends it up to the big screen in what is a semi-comedic/dramatic reimagining.  A fine cast, well cast and, as always seems to be the case with Burton, a visually rich film.  But this one needed a little more time to develop and was a disappointment:  C+

A look at love, sex and how imminent babies change the lives of five interconnected couples.  A fine ensemble of comedic talent can’t save this unfunny comedy from itself.  Not what I had hoped it would be at all:  D-

Who wants to take an “extreme” tour of the abandoned city of Pripyat, home of the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor?  Nobody?  Well that would be a dull movie, wouldn’t it?  So these six tourists agree to go into this place and quickly learn that they are being stalked.  Yep, it’s the Russian version of The Hills Have Eyes!  Meh:  C-

A fairly nice little tale of parapsychology as a group is hired to investigate strange occurrences in... Apartment 143.  A family who has moved into the apartment have been having disturbing experiences there.  But then it is discovered that they had also been having strange things at their old house as well.  Not a bad little horror:  B+

You don’t expect Honest Abe on wires, fighting vampires like a kung fu ballerina.  Not even when he is a vampire hunting while trying to keep the country together.  I had hoped for a more obvious style of fighting from Abe--that of the grappler--a ground and pound kind of guy or at least an old school boxer who, when he swings his mighty axe he does so with intent, not with flair and panache like a baton-twirling majorette.  The acting in this one is fine, the look of the picture is pretty compelling too, it’s just that the action really threw me for a loop--that and the story wasn’t there:  C

First of all, we don’t need the reboot, we don’t need even a slice of his past.  What we need is just a spiffy telling of the Lizard as a baddie and how Peter Parker is struggling with school, girls and Aunt May making the rent.  That’s all we ever need from ol’ Pete--the rest will take care of itself.  That said, I thought this was a pretty nice reboot.  Compelling actors, solid direction and even a bit corny at times.  Looks like Spidey’s in good hands for the foreseeable:  B+

I had hoped that this remake would surpass the original.  It does not. Good enough actors to carry off an improvement, but the script is lacking and so is the direction.  There’s no establishing of the character, but then, when the character is a fiction created to suppress the original personality I suppose it’s not truly necessary. Nonetheless, fail:  F+

Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis are forced into the political arena as opponents in this thrilling political drama about the issues that we all--uh no.  Two goofuses battle over a congressional office in North Carolina at the behest of two billionaire brothers who intend to bring Chinese factory standards to America so that they can save money on shipping their product.  Zach’s Marty Huggins character is their man... a director of the local tourism center.  What follows is funny stuff, if not a great script:  B-

Young Norman regularly talks to his grandmother about life and the world, only nobody else can because she’s passed away.  You see, Norman isn’t normal.  He’s gifted when it comes to the supernatural and that is why he is contacted by Mr. Prenderghast, played superbly by John Goodman I might add, about trying to stop the witch’s curse that will cause the dead to rise.  Neat characters, fine voice acting and a neat stop-motion style make this the animated feature worth watching:  B+

During a college experiment, a process is used to summon a force from the other side and it kind of goes wrong.  It isn’t long before this presence stalks those involved in the experiment.  Better than your average ghostly horror tale, this one really gets to you as “the apparition” is totally alien from any other supernatural horror of late.  It is more a throwback to the strangeness of Lovecraft or even the Anti-Life Equation of Jack Kirby’s Darkseid.  Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the main character happens to be Ashley Greene:  B+

It’s not as deep as THE LOOKOUT or as thought-provoking as BRICK or as heart-wrenching as 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, but it is another fine small feature film starring the  great Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  The best bike messenger in the biz, or so he thinks, Wilee picks up an envelope that attracts the interest of a dirty cop who goes all-out to intercept the delivery.  Said cop is played by the compelling Michael Shannon (also great in TAKE SHELTER) who often lies in the film that he is officer Forrest J. Ackerman (am I the only one disappointed that nobody knew it was a fake name!).  A neat tale of pursuit and pursued with fine action sequences and a worthy script:  B+

I’ve always liked Jeffrey Dean Morgan and here he plays the most sympathetic of all his characters--a man who loves his daughters and takes every opportunity to spoil them during stressful divorce proceedings.  So when his youngest wants an antique box at a yard sale, he gives in and buys it.  Of course he could never guess that a child-eating demon lived inside.  A fairly good tale of demonic possession--and this time, its kosher:  B

Very good talent populates this tale of a mother and daughter who move into a new town and discover that they live beside a house where a young girl murdered her parents and then went missing.  Full of the typical twists and turns you’ll find in a psychological thriller, this one doesn’t quite take off.  An unfortunate waste of Jennifer Lawrence and Elisabeth Shue:  C-

Well it had potential anyway.  Any time I can get vampires, werewolves and Frankenstein Monsters together, I’ll take it.  But it’s not only those guys that show up here, it’s every kind of beastie and monster and creature you can think of and that’s all bonus creepy for me.  But the story doesn’t really win one over and so you’ll find my a vacancy sign over my seat:  C-

True-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (played by Ethan Hawke) moves his family to a small town where the murder of an entire family has taken place in the hopes that he will be able to have the kind of success that he had with his original book.  The problem is, he moved his family in to the very house where the murders took place.  Pretty dumb if you know you’re in a supernatural horror story.  Luckily for us, he doesn’t know it!  So weird stuff happens--his kids can’t sleep, he sees things, he’s warned off by the sheriff and he finds a series of snuff films in the attic.  This all suggests to him that he’s stumbled across the find of a true-crime writer’s wet dream and so he pursues it like a mad dog.  Only he doesn’t realize that something else is coming for him and his family.  A  very compelling and scary one:  B+

Let me first say that I’ve been a big fan of this series of movies from day one--in fact I found that the quality of them has been consistent throughout and that the third one was my favorite of the bunch.  I wish I could say this was the case with this fourth in the series.  It’s not that it is a bad flick, it’s fairly creative and a decent chapter in the story, but it just adds nothing new to what we already know.  An unnecessary chapter that doesn’t really pay off what potential was there:  C-

What happens when a character from a video game has had enough of his role as the villain in an arcade?  If he is Wreck-It Ralph, he tries to change his destiny by going into other games and attempting to play the role of hero.  It’s a risky thing as characters who leave their games can go missing, go insane or cause their own game to be removed from the arcade.  A romp that, itself, aspires to be more than it actually winds up being:  B-

Martha is the name of the young lady who tries to escape a small cult after a long period of isolation from her sister and the rest of the world.  It is disturbing how people are sucked into these groups through such subtle means and yet find themselves paralyzed to take action.  Here, Martha runs home to her estranged sister and tries to reintegrate herself into normal life.  A fine exploration of a character who is damned in both worlds:  B+

Bond is back and in fine form with a really interesting villain played by Javier Bardem who seems to know the MI-6 as well as, or better, than most of the agents they have.  Turns and twists reveal all, but not before leaving a permanent scar on the pysche of the series.  Daniel Craig is great with his physicality, his reserve and black sense of humor.  Keep these 007 pictures coming:  B+

To say that Daniel Day-Lewis gets into a role is an understatement.  The man practically lives as the Title character.  It is his genuine believability that sells the movie, this and the beautiful sets and design of the picture.  And it’s not only Day-Lewis’ Lincoln that carries the pictured.  A meting of he detailed accounts of those involved with abolishing slavery would seem a big enough challenge, but Mr. Spielberg throws in Mary Todd Lincoln and a grown child who wants to go to war and a younger child missing his dead brother.  Beyond Sally Field’s emotional turmoil, none of this really seems played up for dramatic purposes and nor does it seem a by-the-numbers history tale.  It’s historical and dramatic and as good a portrait of this 16th president as we are likely to get... and yet it doesn’t fit in with some of Mr. Spielberg’s best work:  B+

The lesser of Wes Anderson’s films, I think.  It’s a shame for me, because I always look forward to the man’s work.  His combination of quirky characters, quick, straight-shooting dialog and storybook storytelling style always feel like complete works of art, fully defined and whole.  Something feels like it’s missing with this picture.  It’s still a fun little tale, mind you, but not up to Mr. Anderson’s usual stellar work:  B

You have to love a film that has the balls to get about a half hour into it’s tale before the guy on all the movie posters even shows up.  This is the case with Brad Pitt’s latest picture.  It’s a heist flick about these two low-lifes who decide to rob the local mobsters while they’re playing their usual poker game.  Stylish and smart, with catchy dialog, this one manages to breathe new life into the crime drama:  B

When Del Toro was signed up to direct this film, I was kind of excited to see what different kind of vision he would bring to the world that Tolkien had created.  I have always loved the visuals that he brings to any picture he’s made... they’re just that different than everything else.  Unfortunately, we won’t get to see this version of the Unexpected Journey.  What we get is pretty damned acceptable, however!  It’s only the Oscar-winning team that made the LOTR trilogy, that’s all.  It does seem a bit decompressed in the storytelling department, until one goes back and rereads the original story and is reminded of how fast the story moves.  The book flies along at breakneck speed and before you know it you’re well on past where this first movie ends.  And, seeing as how this is merely the first part of a trilogy that tells one tale I’ll allow it some space in my grade for alterations:  B+

Three teenage boys gain superpowers via an object they find in a cave.  The boys are able to move things with their minds.  As they keep using their powers, they become stronger.  And in this way, the power can be abused.  A very strong story and a very familiar one in the sense that it feels like a dark comic book from the post WATCHMEN/DARK KNIGHT era as if it were written by Jim Shooter (think Starbrand or Harbinger) and, of course, there’s some AKIRA in there too.  Good young actors save this from the format, first person camera, which I think limits it (but also allowed it to be made for the money they had, I believe). Worth seeking out:  B+

Looking back at this little picture, perhaps I was asking too much when I went to see it?  Perhaps I wanted all the answers tied up in a bow, all the plot points filled in before the final seconds of the film.  Maybe I wanted too much for that ship sitting on that planet to be the very one that Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo stumble upon?  Or maybe it is the fault of the advertising campaign for making me expect it?  Oh, it is still a very good movie and one I’ll watch again, but I think this is a film that didn’t reach it’s full potential and it’s a shame:  B+

Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedic work usually is a winner with me.  His three well known characters (Borat, Bruno and Ali G) are all well honed and defined characters that are each brilliant in their own way.  But what works in each of those characters is that they are all relatable and flawed (in a good way) and lest we forget simply tools Cohen uses to make commentary on society, fame, art and politics.  This Dictator fellow is not the sympathetic clown and the movie fails because of that:  F

Hammer continues to produce films in the hallowed Hammer Horror manner and this ghostly gothic tale is a very solid addition to those ranks.  A reluctant young lawyer is hired to evaluate an estate and it’s entire contents and so he travels to a remote costal village where he discovers a vengeful ghost terrorizing the town.  Daniel Radcliffe carries the film and does a good job of it, equipping his character with awe and fear of the foreboding circumstances he is faced with:  B-

Paul Rudd, the ever-dependable straight man, returns with Leslie Mann as the character he created for KNOCKED UP another Judd Apatow production.  Rudd is an ex-record exec who has started up his own indie label and is dropping into debt as he and his wife turn 40.  While not “lose control of ones motor-functions” funny, it is a very well written and thoughtful comedy picture with some great work by Rudd, John Lithgow and Albert Brooks:  B+

Paul Dano plays a very introverted and socially inept author (of one very successful book) who can’t seem to get started on his second novel and one day he dreams up this girl.  And before long she literally walks into his life.  Only she’s not a real person, just a figment which he can change at will.  Too much like masturbation, methinks.  A well-acted tale of power and desire that just doesn’t get to where it should go (I recommend STRANGER THAN FICTION for a better film of this nature):  B-

And there you go.  Another year, another giant list of movies and opinions about those movies.

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