Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Best Films of 2012, Part I

Yay! It's Oscar season again! AREN'T YOU EXCITED? Well, probably not -- most people enjoy lambasting our OBSESSION WITH CELEBRITIES, so honest interest in the Academy Awards is often seen as antediluvian these days. That's all right. There are certainly more important things, but then, I enjoy celebrating art, and the awards are an opportunity for me (and many others) to see films that we otherwise might not check out ... films not about robots or superhumans punching each other.

With that out of the way, let's start with the rundown of my favorite movies of the year. In no particular order!

1 - Cloud Atlas

All right, so I lied. There's a partial order, here. Cloud Atlas is my favorite movie of the year, for multiple reasons. It was the most entertaining film. It was the film that most made me think, and it was the film that most made me excited for its home video release. 

Of course, Cloud Atlas was not nominated for Best Film. It was not nominated for much of anything, actually. And I understand why. The meaning and overarching themes of the disparate stories were a bit muddy (I would claim subtle, but others might say muddy, and that's fair). Some of the actors (coughtomhankscough) hammed-it-up in some of the comedic moments. And that makeup -- that godawful makeup that bordered on yellowface, really hampered any hope of garnering multiple Oscar nods.

But Cloud Atlas, for me, was the most affecting movie of the year. It's given me a lot to think about for my own writing, and my own views on life as well. The book underlines a lot of that (and it's fantastic -- if I don't get around to a full review, I highly recommend it), but I think the movie does a good enough job of highlighting the themes: oppression, enslavement, and the soul/reincarnation as a metaphor for inspiration. 

I also think some of the actors have been unfairly maligned, as they're all pretty brilliant in different ways. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry were especially fantastic in the Sloosha's Crossing (far far future) storyline. They handled the strange pidgin dialect with a natural understanding that could have easily come off as far too silly to take seriously.

I can't wait to watch this one again, multiple times, devour all the commentary and sausage making. And I can't say that about all too many films this year.

2 - Les Misérables

Well, I'm lying again. I can certainly say I'll rewatch Les Miserables. I'm a massive sucker for musicals, which is why I own and enjoy Mamma Mia!, despite it being a pretty objectively poor movie. So I likely would have enjoyed Les Mis even if Tom Hooper hadn't done such a good job of it. Thankfully, he did!

His best choice, of course, was hiring Anne Hathaway. She got some shit early on about being too young for the role, and when the trailer was released, for being too 'teary' while singing (because surely one should be more upbeat and operatic when singing about the complete dissolution of ones life). Well, those early critics should be eating a nice meal of either hat or crow, as Anne Hathaway's performance was the single-most gut-wrenching, soul-devouring few minutes of cinema this year. She knocked it out of the park, no questions, and that alone would have been enough for an Oscar-worthy film.

The rest of the movie, however, is more than solid. Hugh Jackman was fantastic as Jean Valjean. Tom Hooper's unconventional shot layout worked to give the movie a sense of uniqueness. And Russell Crowe ... well, I need to see it again to decide how I feel about him. I didn't love him (his singing was far too flat, though I believe that was a conscious choice), but I didn't hate him either. That aside (and aside from the weak "bonus song" musical films always have to add to get the Original Song nomination), Les Mis was nearly a perfect musical film.

3 - Argo

I called Ben Affleck's The Town one of my favorite movies of 2010, and got some snide comments because of it. Really? Ben Affleck? REALLY? Well, if his Oscar for screenwriting (yeah, everyone always forgets that, huh?) wasn't enough, his role in directing and starring in this fantastic (and Golden Globe winning) film should put Gigli out of everyone's head. 

Historical films always have the thread the needle, balancing veracity with entertainment value. Stick to close to truth, and you end up with a movie with absolutely no tension (Zero Dark Thirty had a little bit of this; the Bin Laden raid scene, while still entertaining, was not all that thrilling, because we knew exactly what was going to happen). Go the other way, and you open yourself up to a lot of criticism. 

Argo solves this problem by focusing on the characters -- character emotions and conflict (something I thought ZDT could have used more of). That's not to say that there's no dramatization. Argo has been criticized for minimizing the roles of several Commonwealth countries in helping the CIA's operation. But it gets it right where it counts.

Of course, as great as the tension is (especially in the final scene -- WOW!) some of the best parts of the movie are the humorous ones. Alan Arkin surely deserves his Supporting Actor nomination, though it's sort of surprising that John Goodman didn't garner one as well.

4 - Django Unchained

I love Quentin Tarantino. There, I said it. There's sort of a nouveaux-hipster mentality among some film fans and critics that Tarantino's films are overrated, silly, overly violent or just plain bad. I've heard it said that he's been unable to match the brilliance of Pulp Fiction, and is now just sort of flailing around, splattering blood everywhere.

Which is pretty much crap, in my opinion. While I can understand the divisiveness of Kill Bill (I love it, but it's a very stylized movie created as an ode to a relatively obscure genre), his next film, Inglorious Basterds, is a straightforward tale (other than the alternate history) and has the honor of being one of my favorite movies ever (as well as my favorite Tarantino flick).

While Django didn't quite knock Basterds out of the top spot, it still blew me away. As I said on Facebook some time ago, the movie automatically gets points for being one of the few movies about slavery that isn't about either a) the quiet bravery that rests in the soul every black slave, or b) how awesome a certain group of white people were for ending it.

No, Django is about a freed slave's vengeance, pure and simple. While it's a bit more personal in scope, the issue of slavery plays a massive role, and any movie that can address old ideas in a new matter is worthwhile. Thankfully, Django is also brilliant. Jaime Foxx reminds us that, yes, he can act pretty damn well, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a wonderfully sadistic villain, and Christoph Waltz is astounding in his role as the somewhat-more-educated Yankee bounty hunter. To be sure, this movie's views of slavery and race relations are not, shall-we-say, layered. There's no, "well, slavery was a complex issue, the south wasn't racist, per se..." Nope. The South's a pretty ass-backwards place, and Southern slaveowners are straight up pieces of shit. I liked it. Some might not.

Oh, and there's Kanye on the soundtrack. So there's that.

5 - Cabin in the Woods

Every year, I like to include a dark horse of sorts. A film that was never expected to get nominated for much of anything, nor was it ever seriously in contention, but one I still think represents a filmmaking or storytelling achievement.

This year, that film is Cabin in the Woods. It's hard to say too much about it without spoiling it -- and if you haven't seen it, you absolutely should. I promise you it's not a run-of-the-mill slasher film. At all. In fact, the movie is all about critiquing your run-of-the-mill slasher films. It's one of the most pointed criticisms of that genre I think I've seen, and the film is able to make those judgments while still providing an absurdly entertaining story that takes place, more or less, within the horror genre itself. And even further than simply criticizing the people who make the horror films, it's criticizing the people who watch the films -- which include a fair portion of Cabin's audience, as well as its filmmakers. Brilliant.

Oh, and there's REO Speedwagon on the soundtrack. So there's that.

Honorable Mentions

Brave

Speaking of movies with rarely-addressed issues, we've got Brave, a movie whose entire plot revolves around a mother-daughter relationship. In my review of Tangled, I noted how the conflict centered on a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. The conflict here is similar, but the difference is that Merida and her mother have a significantly more loving relationship, and the conflict is about them figuring that out. 

Brave wasn't quite as good as Tangled for me (part of that might be that it's not a musical ;-) but it's still fantastic. And the animation is gorgeous. Pixar continuously outdoes itself, and continuously outshines everyone else in the industry. Even Wreck-It Ralph, also created by Disney (but not Pixar), comes nowhere close. While Ralph was great, it's still not quite as mature or emotional as Pixar's entry this year, and I'm hopeful that Brave will take home the statue for Best Animated Feature, at the very least.

The Master

The artiest film on this list, The Master is not quite what I expected going in. I'd been hoping for a takedown of Scientology and its benefactor, L. Ron Hubbard. I was actually worried when I'd heard they'd changed the title character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman into a pastiche who was only inspired by Hubbard.

The Master is not about Scientology, and while there are criticisms, they aren't as important to the film as I'd hoped. And yet, the film is still powerful. Like Django, it takes a broad issue and makes it extremely personal. Joaquin Phoenix portrays a broken man whose unidentified illness makes him somewhat immune to Hoffman's brand of 'healing,' but whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, the film leaves as an open question. Amy Adams is similarly fantastic, and were it not for Anne Hathway, I'd say she was the favorite for Best Supporting Actress.

I will also say that the lack of nomination for Best Cinematography is absolutely the biggest snub on this year's list -- especially given the fact that it was beaten by Anna Karenina and Skyfall.

The Sessions

A sweet little film about a disabled man and a sex therapist. There's not really much more to say about it than that. The films progresses exactly as you'd expect, and other than a wholly unecessary epilogue, there aren't really any twists and turns.

The film's success rests squarely on the shoulders of its two lead actors -- John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. The fact that Hawkes failed to get a nomination, but Bradley Freaking Cooper in the dreadful Silver Linings Playbook was picked, is the second biggest snub of the night.

And the rest

You'll notice some pretty big holes here -- no Life of Pi, no Lincoln, no Silver Linings Playbook. And that's intentional. I saw more Oscar nominees this year than any other, and it seems like I enjoyed  I'll discuss some of those in the second part of this post, but just in general, I'll say that I thought most of the Oscar nominated films this year were fairly mediocre. There are some years where I like nearly all of the five or ten nominees for Best Picture. This year is not one of them.

What do you think?

Any glaring omissions? Any unbelievable inclusions? Let me know! Post a comment, or hit me up on Twitter @MatthewBorgard. In the second part, I'll tell you who I think should win, who I think is going to win, and give you some brief thoughts on the nominees that I didn't address here.

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