On with the show.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
A beloved spy fiction classic gets the screen treatment it deserves. Filmed in grimy Cold War colors by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (who made Let The Right One In, one of my favorite vampire films), the heavy atmosphere of secrecy and betrayal in the 70s is practically tangible. Gary Oldman gives one of his best performances as George Smiley, the British spy for MI6, out of retirement to find a suspected Soviet mole buried deep in the intelligence service. I read the novel as a teen, then re-read it a few years ago, and appreciated it even more. The author, John LeCarre, is not just my favorite espionage author, but one of my favorite writers, period. The film brings the book admirably to life, not only matching what was in my mind's eye, but enhancing it. I only wish there were more espionage films this good. Most people think a spy's life is as explosive and sexy as Bond's, or at least as tense and electric as Bourne's. LeCarre actually served, and he includes the reality that it's often slow and tedious work, punctuated only occasionally by the rare success.
George Clooney stars in an Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) film about a Hawaiian man who suffers the loss of his wife in a boating accident. He finds out she was cheating on him, and so begins his journey to reconcile her indiscretion with his own shortcomings and the effect on their family. Clooney conveys the sense of a man overwhelmed by events amid the shimmering green paradise of the Hawaiian islands. Shailene Woodley also impresses as his older teen daughter. Even when the weather's perfect most of the time, life can get very difficult. The harsh tone of the family's emotional suffering is the well-played counterpoint to the gorgeous cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, who's worked with Payne before.
It's Steven Soderbergh's spy thriller, starring Gina Carano, previously known as a successful MMA fighter well-versed in the Muay Thai style. Though not a trained actress, I thought she acquitted herself well, and the fight sequences hum with palpable danger. Her character works for a non-political entity, taking “dirty” jobs that the powers-that-be would rather keep in the shadows. She's double-crossed on one job, and seeks to find who did it and why. Soderbergh's films are never quite what you expect from Hollywood, which is mostly a good thing, though Carano has trouble showing her vulnerability at times. Despite this, I enjoyed the twists and turns of her personal mission to find her betrayer.
The Raid: Redemption
An Indonesian action film directed by a Westerner? That's what we have in this entry, about a SWAT team invading an apartment building occupied by a drug lord. Soon they're trapped on the seventh floor, and the recriminations for their fate begin to fly. The film features many action set-pieces involving armed and unarmed combat. The risk here is the feeling that you're watching choreography rather than actual fight scenes, and I did experience that on occasion with this movie. Overall though, the action is intense and gritty. There's a high body count by the end, and we learn that sometimes you can't trust the good guys either. One of the best action films of the year on a comparatively tiny budget.
The Three Stooges
The Farrelly Brothers' attempt to recapture the magic of the original comedy team from the 30s and 40s . This includes Curly, the brother of Moe who died in 1952 but had stopped appearing in their short films several years earlier. The gags are decent, and the actors chosen to portray the trio do an admirable job, though I still would've preferred to see Sean Penn as Larry, who was rumored to be under consideration for the part in early production. Still, the overall effect of the film was to make me want to see the original shorts. I've always been a fan of them, and the comedy was so rudimentarily physical and shocking that they are still popular today. It's worth checking out if you're a fan, and it serves as a fittingly well-made tribute to their art, for which they all paid a high price, especially Curly, who spent his final years in hospitals and sanitariums, suffering a rapid mental and physical decline.
I'd always wanted to see my name up in lights! This was my chance, although I wished they'd used the book title from which the movie is based (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn). Paul Dano plays the eponymous author, who endures a troubled upbringing with his mother, and a father who is never really a presence in his young life, but constantly refers to himself as a great writer, despite never being published. When Nick grows up, he works in a homeless shelter and meets his dad there. Nick struggles with his own addictions and mental demons as he tries to help his father through itinerant homelessness and mental illness, and pursue his own dream of being a poet. Dano gives a raw performance and DeNiro continues his late-career practice of taking roles one wouldn't expect him to take. He does a reliably decent job in this film, though it doesn't quite match up to his best work.
Joss Whedon's long-anticipated blockbuster of the Marvel superteam. Their single character films have all led to this one, where they join together to fight a threat to Earth, in this case Thor's evil brother Loki. I sat in fanboy amazement as I witnessed a slice of pop culture made successful by my generation (comic books) take over the cineplex and go on to become the third highest-grossing film of all time, behind only Avatar and Titanic. The movie earned every dollar with its outsized action sequences. Every character trope was present, from the way Thor swings his hammer in fast circles prior to throwing it, to the Hulk's fantastically giant single leaps. I'm hoping the sequel will somehow include my favorite Avengers character, the Vision, an android with unbelievable powers. I could geek out all over again.
Snow White and The Huntsman
An edgier retelling of the Snow White fairy tale with Kristen Stewart as a kick-ass Snow White and Chris Hemsworth (Thor and The Avengers) as the huntsman. The impressive effects are wasted on an insipid script, and Kristen Stewart spends most of her time not saying much and acting even less. The dwarves are kept in as comedy relief, some of it unintentional. I was bored about 10 minutes into this lark and consider it an achievement that I even finished watching it. Your life will not be noticeably less fulfilling if you decide to give it a pass.
A customarily eccentric, gentle tale from Wes Anderson, who is known for eccentric, not so much for gentle. It's set in 1965 on a fictional island off the coast of New England. There's a scout troop on the island and a hurricane is coming. Sam, played by Jared Gilman, has decided to run away from the troop. There is a frenzied search for him as he hooks up with a girl he often writes, the daughter of parents played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. It's fun seeing actors like Bruce Willis and Edward Norton step into Anderson's world. The setting and the time period reminded me somewhat of my own childhood, even though I don't think it was meant to be entirely accurate. It was a pleasant diversion. You won't, however, find a deep dive into anything emotionally resonant.
Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise to direct a prequel, involving the stunning shot of the engineer in the first film. I always considered that shot one of the many highlights of the movie that began it all, and looked forward to its origin being explored, by the original director no less. Unfortunately, the story turns out to be a pedestrian space fantasy exercise, ultimately bleeding the image of any mystique it once had for me. Sure, the visuals are top-notch, but the engineer turns out to be just another very human-like victim of the aliens, despite having the appearance of being on a constant diet of steroids. I still plan to watch Alien again to cleanse my memory banks of this travesty. I saw this in 3D Imax, the effect of which made me nauseous through much of the movie...although the execution could've been responsible as well.
The Amazing Spider-Man
Speaking of cinematic palate cleansing...finally, someone comes along and fixes those awful Sam Raimi Spider-Man creations. Sorry, too campy for me. Director Marc Webb returns to the basics, and reboots my favorite superhero in a fashion more befitting a self-effacing wall-crawler. The villain featured is The Lizard, and James Garfield nails it as Peter Parker. Those wacky biological web-spinners are ditched in favor of Peter's mechanical ones, straight out of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics. The film was brought down a half-notch by having to sit through the origin story once again, but once that bill is paid, the action soars through the Manhattan skyline. I left the theater smiling, satisfied that they'd finally gotten Spidey right.
The first Oliver Stone film I've seen since...U Turn? Really? Yeah, it's been a long time. This film is somewhat similar to that last one I'd seen though. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Taylor Kitsch star as a couple of drug dealing buddies who run afoul of a powerful Mexican cartel. They share a girlfriend, played by Blake Lively, who's kidnapped by the cartel to buy their cooperation. It's a tense, dark story, and it verges on parody at times. In the end though, Stone's dayglo Socal thriller never stops the twists from coming, and brings home the goods.
The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan's last film in his very successful Batman trilogy. This one has Tom Hardy as Bane, a chemically enhanced bruiser who breaks Batman's back and puts him out of commission while he pursues his plan to destroy Gotham. Not as good as the second film with Heath Ledger's brilliant turn as the Joker, this one nevertheless closed out the run in typical Nolan style. The real stars of this movie and the series as a whole were the vehicles and the gadgets. In each film, Nolan had a way of orchestrating Batman's entrance in a uniquely subtle fashion, as if it were almost an afterthought. Each action sequence built its momentum slowly, and the best were those featuring chases using the bat-vehicles. The fluidity and inventiveness were marvels to behold, even if I did have trouble understanding Bane sometimes. Now that Christian Bale is done, who will be next to wear the cowl?
Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to There Will Be Blood, another favorite of mine, this film pitched forward in history a bit to post-war America. Joaquin Phoenix plays a veteran, just home from the Pacific and literally drifting from one bad situation to another. He meets Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic man who writes philosophical treatises on his own system of faith, and holds court at gatherings of his movement's members around the country. Local boy-made-good Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dodd and delivers his typical splendid job. I didn't find it as satisfying as There Will Be Blood, but the performances were top-notch, and the cinematography was stunning. There's one scene featuring Hoffman and Amy Adams, who plays his wife, that, to me, was laugh out loud funny. It might've seemed incongruous in the midst of a heavy drama, but in the context of the world built here, it made sense. In those years after World War II, the party was just getting started.
Can Ben Affleck direct as well? Yes, he can. The true story of the escape from Iran in 1980 of six Americans, managing to avoid capture through the good will of the Canadian embassy. Affleck plays a CIA agent who hatches a plan to fly in with a fake Hollywood sci-fi production, heavily reminiscent of Star Wars. There are many close calls, and the tension through most of the film is thick. The nail-biting escape is embellished—apparently their exit was actually much quieter than depicted—but the claustrophobic sense of being with this small group of people in a vast sea of hate was palpable.
Another year, another film from Spielberg, who's cranking out movies now like he's on the clock. This time it's the story of our 16th president and how he pushed through passage of the 13th Amendment, effectively making his Emancipation Proclamation the law of the land. Daniel Day-Lewis has the honor of the title role, and once again owns it. The script was penned by playwright Tony Kushner, and there are many scenes of men in a room, talking. The hail of words got a little impenetrable about a half hour in, but then the momentum begins to build up to the fateful vote in Congress. As you might expect, the staging is impeccable, and the camera work by Janusz Kaminski, a frequent collaborator for the director, paints a burnished, authentic canvas. For me, probably Spielberg's best film since Munich.
Easily my favorite film of the year. John Hawkes (from 2010's Winter's Bone) plays a quadriplegic writer who wants to finally lose his virginity. After some halting attempts in the real world, he decides to hire a sex surrogate, a professional (no, not that kind) that helps people resolve sexual issues in their lives. As we see Mark O'Brien and the surrogate (Helen Hunt) play out each session, the two form a bond, and O'Brien fulfills his goal. The first-person narration is spare and beautifully written, interspersed with the main character's poems. It's a movie that tries to remind us, though few of us will probably ever seriously think about it, that we take so much in our lives for granted. Simple things, like being able to walk, or somehow managing to find the love of your life, even if it's just for a short time. It's a crime this didn't get seen more. Hopefully, people will seek it out on video.
Denzel Washington as a pilot who flies his plane under the influence, yet still manages a miraculous landing after a mechanical failure. A rare adult film for Robert Zemeckis, who's spent the last decade or so making awful animated films about Beowulf and the holidays. He mostly succeeds here. There's the requisite romance with a woman he meets in the hospital, but after the accident his life becomes a media circus and it continues its slow unraveling. I was glad I didn't have to fly after seeing this movie. The crash sequence is unnerving and harrowing, showing people tossed around like rag dolls as the plane careens through the air. In the end, there's redemption, but the price paid is steep indeed.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Plans were for Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth) to direct this Tolkien tale, but he dropped out after delays. So Peter Jackson once again takes the reins, first announcing two movies, now three, even though this story is far shorter than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first installment returns us to Hobbiton, where Bilbo Baggins finds himself wanted for a mission by Gandalf. Jackson filmed this at 48 frames per second, twice the normal rate. I'm not sure if I saw this version, but it did have an extremely polished feel to it, almost as if it were entirely animation. I wasn't sure at first if I even wanted to see the next two movies, but by this one's end, I decided I would. Though certainly not a horrible movie, I found my interest mainly stemming from having read the book, and what I could pick out from that now rather dim memory. I'm hoping the next two in the series are better, and there's no sag in the middle, like the Rings trilogy had.
Silver Linings Playbook
Probably the best date movie of the year. An intelligently written and funny romance with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Cooper suffers a mental setback due to his wife's infidelity, and Lawrence is a widow. They both somehow find each other and begin to hit it off, the pretext being a dance competition which she convinces him to train with her for. Never mind that anyone who looks like these two would be in such dire straits, or be single in the first place. But it's Hollywood. Suspension of disbelief is a must. The movie has charm to spare, and it won me over handily. I laughed many times, I didn't cry, and the ending slightly thawed my cold, cynical heart.
On the other hand, it was hard not to cry at this one. The true story of one family in Thailand as the 2004 tsunami hit the coast on the day after Christmas. A shaky plane ride in pushes portents at us as the day draws near. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play the parents of a family with three boys, having their tropical holiday washed away in mere seconds. The tsunami scene is terrifying as we see people and their possessions batted around like toys in the killer wave. Initially we follow the mother and the older son as they take shelter in a tall tree, in case more waves come. We're not sure if the rest of the family is alive or not. There's no Michael Bay theatrics here. This is a story of real people and how fragile we all are in the face of nature's fury. Make no mistake...the planet is still in charge. And she could shrug us off if she felt enough of an itch. Heart-wrenching performances amid the chaos made this a much more visceral experience than I was expecting. Incidentally, the real family was from Spain, but the leads are probably the most Anglo-Saxon people on film. Not sure why they went there, but the filmmakers were Spanish, at least.
And that was 2012 at the movies for me. Again, the gems were out there if one looked hard enough. I hope your choices were just as satisfying. I'm looking forward to another year before illegal downloading starts to do to movies what it did to music. Let's hope that's a more distant time than it seems.