The Movies of 2012

If you’re like most people, when you hear the media buzzing about the “best of 2012” movies towards the end of the year, chances are you haven’t seen a lot of them.  Maybe there’s a few you’ve never even heard of.  I have two kids and a modest travel budget, so I don’t often go to film festivals like Sundance, Cannes, or Toronto.  And that’s where a lot of the movies on the critics’ top ten lists were screened.

2012 was a year of major blockbusters; much-anticipated continuations of a saga, from Twilight to the Alien and Batman franchises.  It was a year for stunning debuts, disappointing megaflops, surprise hits, and computer animated adventures.  And it was a year full of festival favorites, comedies, and innovative independents.

I’ve broken things up into five categories.  Among these seventeen noteworthy films, you may find the independent gems you missed, features which got the most creative with the least money, and the highest grossing films of the year.

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The Little Guys Are Giving The Big Guys A Run For Their Digital Money

The line is blurring between independent films and bigger fare.  The technology is available for austere films to create some special effects and deal with the subject matter of time travel or monsters in a way that rivals the big studio juggernauts.

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-At a paltry $1.8 million, Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of a six year-old girl called Hushpuppy who encounters magical creatures.  These “aurochs” have manifested due to global warming – particularly the flooding of Hushpuppy’s board-and-batten bayou town, thanks to melting polar ice caps.  The filmmakers employed a method of special effects some call “going analog,” meaning due to budget constraints they had to forego digital effects for more traditional make-up and puppetry.  Effects director Ray Tintori looked at the practical methods from the 1940s to the 1980s to see what could be done.  The results had fans of the film declaring that the effects in Beasts were better than anything made by a computer.  With that endorsement and a riveting story featuring a bright young star, Beasts soared from squalor to heavenly praise – it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

-While 30 mil is nothing to sneeze at, it’s still relatively modest compared to other sci-fi films that star either Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception – $160mil) or Bruce Willis (The Fifth Element – $90mil in 1997) and yet totally delivers the goods.  Looper dares to plumb the depths of mind-bending time travel, deftly negotiating the sticky paradoxes and parallel realities that arise with the subject, all while keeping in the budget.

Chronicle uses $12 million to portray three teenage boys who come across a mysterious, buried artifact which bestows them with great powers.  Part of the cunning of this film is that it uses the “found footage” genre style of often shaky, amateur camerawork to enhance its effects (or sometimes hide their shortcomings.)  Taken one frame at a time, a few seconds of a blurry, handheld shot is far cheaper to build an effect within than, say, a steady, close-up shot of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies, which costs megabucks.

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We Didn’t Blow Up After All

After a rash of disaster and end of the world films over the past decade (some of which dealt directly with 2012 as the apocalypse) we seemed to decide this year to lighten up, laugh at ourselves a little bit, and indulge in romantic notions.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a road movie that puts a self-aware spin on the “asteroid-headed-for-earth” genre.  Steve Carell and Kiera Knightley star in the drama/romance/sci-fi film that situates them on an Earth which has three weeks left before celestial disaster.  Abandoned by his wife when news of Armageddon hits, Carell responds to a love letter from a former high school sweetheart and hits the road, hoping to spend his last days happy, but unable to predict how his neighbor (Knightley) will turn his plans upside down.

Silver Linings Playbook showcases three talents at the top of their game – director David O’Russell and actors Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Bradley Cooper (Limitless).  Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a former teacher who has moved back in with his parents after doing a stint in a mental health institution.  Jennifer Lawrence is Tiffany, the girl he meets who has problems of her own.  The film, though, seemed to have no problems at all, and took home the People’s Choice at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

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-Another film which deals with time travel in an economical and creative manner, Safety Not Guaranteed stars Mark Duplass.  Duplass, who currently lives in Vermont, often directs films with his brother, Jay.  In Safety, Duplass takes a turn as an actor, playing a character who believes his vintage Datsun 280Z is actually a time machine.  The film is based on a real-life classified ad placed in a magazine; the person who placed the ad was looking for someone to travel back in time with.

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If It Goes Boom, The Box Office Explodes/ aka A Superhero World

$623 million is more than the GDP of some small countries, but when you put megawatt stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson into a film about a group of superheroes saving the planet in a time when super hero movies have never done better, you can understand the response.  The Avengers was the top-grossing film of 2012, both domestically and worldwide.  (The global gross is a whopping $1.5 billion.)  Plus, there are the half a dozen films which were somewhat planned to and somewhat accidentally prequel the movie, fueling the anticipation for the culmination.  Like a lot of pics in 2012, the genius is in how The Avengers doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet remains vigilantly dedicated to satisfying the fans.

Batman wasn’t far behind the pace; The Dark Knight Rises grossed nearly $450 million eight years after the preceding The Dark Knight swept audiences into the dark cowl of the lone hero’s cloak.  In the third of the Christopher Nolan written and directed trilogy, the gritty, psychologically-burdened Batman takes on Bane, a sociopath bent on turning the city of Gotham into total anarchy.  The Dark Knight Rises, then, did indeed take itself seriously, but this didn’t seem to hurt the audience response.

The Hunger Games, ringing the till at $408 million is one of those zeitgeist films that had the thrall of a black hole.  Author Suzanne Collins struck gold with a trilogy of books about a future world where children are pitted against one another in a life or death struggle for survival.  The event is an appeasement to the powers of the day, and the “games” are broadcast live to the world for mass entertainment.  It doesn’t matter that stories-turned-movies like The Running Man or foreign films like the Battle Royale series have nearly identical subject matter which predate Collins’ books and the subsequent films.  In fact, it probably only helped her success.

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The Films We Didn’t Get To See At Film Festivals Because We Live In The Real World

The Sessions was called The Surrogate when it appeared at Sundance early this year.  Starring John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) and Helen Hunt (Twister), the film takes us on the incredible and intimate journey of a 36 year-old poet and journalist in an iron lung.  He decides he wants to lose his virginity and hires a sex “surrogate” to seal the deal.  What results is a relationship which brings far more than carnal maturation, but the evolution of the poet’s manhood itself.   The Sessions won the Audience Award at Sundance.

Seven Psychopaths boasts an all-star cast and a trope like we’ve come to expect from Los Angeles, a city famous for its ouroboros’ tendency to devour itself.  In Psychopaths, a struggling screenwriter gets mixed up in an L.A. crime syndicate when a gangster’s dog is kidnapped by the writer’s friends.  But the hackneyed plot and Snatch-like ensemble storytelling wasn’t what captured the Midnight Madness Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.  With razor-sharp writing, loaded with laughs and imbued with an awareness that avoids being cloyingly self-conscious, Seven Psychopaths succeeds because, simply, it’s good material.

Taking the Palme D’Or at Cannes is not easy.  This year in May, Michael Haneke was able to achieve the prestigious honor with his film AmourAmour brings us into the world of Georges and Anne, who are both in their eighties.  They are a pair of cultivated, retired music teachers whose daughter lives abroad.  One day, so the story goes, something happens to Anne, which severely tests the bonds of her and Georges’ relationship.  Born in Munich, Michael Haneke has written 25 films and directed 24.  Each film is like fine art.  Time of the Wolf, from 2003, is a must-see.

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Honorable Mention: The Impossible was premiered at TIFF as a special presentation and received a standing ovation.  It was later released in Spain to its first audiences.  The film stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as a married couple searching for their children in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami which wrought unprecedented devastation to Thailand in 2004.  In a world with a 48 hour news cycle, even the big disasters tend to shrink in our rear view mirrors.  Films like The Impossible – beautifully crafted and acted, help us to remember our humanity.

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Everyone’s Got One

In the end, movies are defined by their audience.  It’s no surprise that the top-grossing films of 2012 and the top user-ratings on the Internet Movie Database are nearly the same.  But what about other voices?  Rottentomatoes.com is a website renowned for being an alternative resource for encountering films outside the mainstream.  Tomatoes lists This Is Not a Film, How to Survive a Plague, and The Invisible War as its top-three rated, all documentaries.

And then, of course, there is my humble opinion.  I wanted to get to see Lincoln, but, like I said, having two young kids makes getting to the movies sometimes not so easy.  I did, however, manage to sneak away under cover of night and see these:

Prometheus had already drawn mixed reviews, but I sat down with an open mind.  Dyed-in-the-wool fans of the Alien movie legacy had voiced disgruntlement that the film departed from the proper lore, and critics in general decried numerous plot holes.  It didn’t matter.  Prometheus was a dark and memorable journey, immersing my mind in the elements of great sci-fi.

-When I saw Argo, I couldn’t help but think how Ben Affleck spent ten years in the hot seat as America’s favorite celebrity to hate.  His meteoric rise to fame made him an easy target.  When the actor reemerged as a feature director, Gone Baby Gone handled controversial subject matter both judiciously and unsparingly, and The Town was a straight heist film with a flawless approach.  Argo presented the challenge of telling a story based on real life – one in which most people already know the ending.  Yet the film delivered taut suspense and once again showed off Affleck’s chops.  Argo recounts the tale of a group of diplomatic personnel escaping revolutionary Iraq in the 1970s.  In its own way, the story is also self-referential, or “meta,” like a lot of these 2012 films; the cover for the fleeing fugitives is that they are part of a movie crew.

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-Finally, My better half dragged me out to see Life of Pi on a rare date night.  Like a typical oaf, my mind wandered as the story set itself up, introduced the likeable main character, and hinted at a love interest.  As things unfolded, however, my attention grew until I completely gave over.  The only movie I’ve watched in 3D this year, I wonder what the Ang Lee film would have felt like without the extra effect.  But without a doubt, I was captivated by this fantastic story about a boy who, adrift at sea, has a Bengal tiger for a companion.

Perhaps we can all relate.

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My absolute favorite for 2012?  Joe Carnahan’s testosterone-charged The Grey.  The film, starring Liam Neeson, is often listed as a 2011 film, but it was actually released January 27th of 2012.  Which is cool, because nothing else topped it all year.  And no, it’s not because it’s “testosterone-charged” that I love it.  That was just something I thought, for a moment, was smart to say.  The Grey succeeds precisely because of how packed with emotion it is.  When Liam Neeson is in the plane just after it, you know (okay if you haven’t seen the film by now, I’m sorry but I’m gonna spoil it) after it crashed, and he’s taking that wounded passenger through dying; I mean, really guiding him home – that did it.  I knew right there that this was the movie.  The Grey cuts to the bone and gets to the heart of everything – nature, what it is to be a man, what it is to lead, what it is to love, to lose, to die, and to fight.  Nuff said.

Liam Neeson in The Grey

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rise of the planet of the apes

The next day, still all I can see are the monkey’s green eyes.

“He’s an ape, not a monkey,” one of the lab scientists reminds Jacobs, the ruthlessly pragmatic CEO of GEN-SYS.

Right.  Apes.  As in Planet of the Apes.  As in “the rise of.”  How it all began.

It got me thinking about the lore.  About how if this movie hadn’t been a part of a larger context, what would it have been?  Likely a horror flick – you’ve seen them.  Psycho monkeys are administered some form of drug.  They’re infected with rage, some sort of neurotoxicity; they bash everything in sight with their arms flailing like meaty windsocks.  They bare their fangs.  In another movie, in different hands, this story would likely fail.  You wouldn’t care about the savage monkeys – they’d be the bad guy.  You wouldn’t care about the hapless scientists either – likely they’d be meddling with “powers they can’t comprehend” because, in a cookie-cutter movie, that’s what numbskull scientists do.  But not here.  Here you are transfixed – that ape’s eyes, Caesar’s eyes, they’re able to convey more depth and emotion than his human counterparts.

James Franco turns in just the right performance as Dr. Will Rodman.  It seems the actor and director were able to grasp that Franco is not the lead in the film, and even managed to dial down some of that star magnitude.  In his plain suits and white lab coat, Franco’s eyes are almost dull compared the Caesar the ape’s.  He is a bit hapless, yes, but he has to be.  Rodman is the scientist who tips over the jar and spills the plot into motion.  And he perpetuates this motion by a series of bad choices.  First is his overconfidence in the gene therapy drug ALZ-112, then his decision to illegally experiment on his father with it.  And for a brilliant scientist, he seems somewhat dim-witted when it comes to common sense – the fact that Caesar is going to grow up, to hit puberty, to need to flex his ape muscles, these things have to be pointed out to him by Caroline Aranha (played by Frieda Pinto, who is, through no fault of her own, often distracting with her attractiveness).  But Franco, aside from neurochemistry, is not supposed to be all that bright.  It’s not even his story anyway – it’s Caesar’s.  And that’s what the filmmakers have grasped, and that’s why it works.

The script, from Pierre Boulle, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver meticulously constructs  the world surrounding Caesar the way a screen story should.  There are set-ups and pay-offs galore, but none so glaring that they roll any eyes.  The craft at work is subtle – in one scene, Caesar uses the elm trees above a suburban street to move himself along, and in a later scene when those leaves start to rain to the ground, we know it’s because Caesar’s primate army is now marching.  In another, Caesar sees a dog on a leash and makes the connection to his own leash.  Later, when Franco returns to the animal-jail to retrieve him, Caesar looks at the leash Franco holds and turns away.

Finally, yes, the CGI is stunning.  The days when the seeds of computer animation first moaned in the ground to this full maturation of the technical art has been an undulating journey with highs and lows.  Here, though, those who’s purview it is to create an entire character and group of characters using the effects are at the top of their game.  It isn’t dinosaurs slicked with rain, head transplantation, or body dysmorphia, it’s a bare-bones group of simians, meant to look and act like the real deal – only smarter.

Without good story-telling, though, the best CGI is a padded bra at best.  Here, when an imprisoned and suffering Caesar signs through the cages with a captive orangutan, is the transcendent moment which endorses the rest of the film.  We are watching a story unfold about prisoners, about underdogs, about an uprising.  Maybe that’s because the director, Rupert Wyatt, both penned and helmed the critically acclaimed 2008 film The Escapist, about, you guessed it, a prison break.  In any case, we feel for Caesar – each of his emotions are expertly conveyed in his sculptured expressions: the down-turned mouth, the half-lidded eyes, the strength of his gaze.  Andy Serkis, who provided the motion capture for Golem in Lord of the Rings, brings Caesar’s gestures and body language to life.

Pervading all of this is a story very aware of itself, written by a trio of intelligent writers, and realized under Wyatt’s confident direction.  Devoid of gimmicks or even the slightest bit of hamminess, we are delivered a straight story, with only judicious use of the iconography we want from a legendary tale.  It’s all just enough to create an epic – or, to lend to an epic already standing, and to do it justice.

 

Viewed at The Palace Theatre in Lake Placid, Adirondacks, New York.

captain america – a film review and treatise on the fall of the superhero

The comic book movies are having a hard time these days, and understandably so – their audience is growing older.

While next generations are carefully considered by the producers and marketers of the recent glut of comic book movies, it is still the age group which grew up with those books that composes the largest slice of the pie, according to demographic studies.  This is interesting, since the chief ticket buyer of the age groups is the 16-24 year-old male.  The kind of moviegoer that grew up with Captain America, though, is older – he’s in his thirties.

How can I say this when Captain America first came out in 1941?  It wasn’t until the 1960s when the character was brought back into the main stream by Stan Lee in an issue of The Avengers.  And while the Captain’s history in comic books is labyrinthine, it is arguably the 1980s when the character became modernized (with issues of homophobia and methamphetamines introduced, and the villain “Red Skull” fleshed out) and during this time that the series gained the followers which are most targeted by the film version.

If you were to draw a graph depicting the releases of superhero comic book movies, you’d see a density in the late 90s and early 00s.  Starting with Superman: The Movie  in 1978, there’s really nothing for a while, save for the sequels.  The late 80s and early 90s saw a small rash of superhero movie flops – premature pics like The Fantastic Four and even Captain America himself which never made it to theaters or even video.  A couple squeezed through, like Dick Tracy and The Punisher (with Dolph Lundgren), which fared poorly.  It was still a niche genre struggling to find its way.  When Tim Burton began the Batman films in 1989, the realm of superhero movies began is arc.  As technology reached the demands of the superhero story (and expectation of the audience), Spider-man, The Incredible Hulk (in multiple incarnations), X-Men, and others emerged victorious, and a new, re-imagined Batman came again, spawning the gritty realism that seems to serve the genre the best (Nolan’s The Dark Knight has had one of the best opening box office weekend of any of the superhero films, as did Ironman, creating what I consider the apex, or culmination year – 2008).

It’s no accident that the success of the genre is concentrated in the early 00s, and that we’re beginning the descent down the other side. Ironman 2 was a throwaway, the “Greens” (Lantern and Hornet) both fell by the way side, and we’re actually seeing previews now, for, yes, another Spiderman franchise already.  These films have lacked the insight and compelling narrative to keep thinking audiences connected to them.  It’s as if, rather than being realized by film artists who bring something special to the table, the projects are now being churned out by a machine.  Captain America feels like it was directed by a robot programmed by a studio rather than an artist with a unique vision.

This is what happens.  There’s a law in the universe, called entropy, which states that all things tend towards sameness and disorder.  What begins with life – the organization of concepts, the uniqueness of character – tends to devolve towards homogenization.  No where else can we experience this phenomenon more acutely than in the American movie business.

During the “rise” of the superhero comic book movie, its principal target audience was in the prime demographic.  Born in the 70s, during the Silver Age of comic books, potential viewers were now in the 16-24 age range during the late 90s and early 00s.  By 2011, though, they have grown out of the range – and some of the suspension of disbelief that comes with youth has been molted.  In order to keep that prime group interested, films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man can succeed, with excellent storytelling, plenty of grit and accessibility to characters which, despite their obvious eccentricities, are more plausible.  Tossing to that group a character from the World War II era who fights against a one-note villain wielding weapons of the gods just isn’t the same.

But none of this really has to do with why Captain America fails as a film.  Why a film works or doesn’t work has nothing to do with the audience it attracts or doesn’t attract.  Attendance, translatable to dollars and cents, may be the mark of success for the Trades and the studio execs who read them, but from a filmmaking and storytelling point of view, it means nothing.  A film works because it touches a nerve, captivates the mind, presents relatable characters, and because it does that intangible something that good films do – each one does it differently, but the feeling produced is the same, the sort of drug that keeps discerning audiences coming back for more: it transports.

To be truly transportive, a film doesn’t need to be high-minded or clever for cleverness sake.  Alternatively, it shouldn’t be dumbed-down out of fear for alienating any potential audience.  Neither too specific nor too diluted, the transportive film expertly balances between smarts and thrills.  It begins without hackneyed flashbacks and unfurls its length without long bits of obvious exposition (monologs revealing key information about so-and-so or such-and-such).  At its core, as in, to examine the engine that powers it, a film is nothing more than an entertaining delivery of information.  Where the poor film fails is that the information gloms together into obvious bits of telling, only to advance the viewer along to the next gooey bit of action and thrill.  The better film succeeds by crafting a story that feels truthful by masking the fact that it is not.

Film producers have tried all sorts of ways to get around this hump.  The most obvious is the “true story” phenomenon which emerged in the 80s.  A film doesn’t even have to be “based” on a true story these days, it can simply be “inspired by” a true story (which means that someone thought about something that happened and then made a movie).  This is basically an ill-concealed attempt to goad the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and make the filmmaker’s goal easier, which is to be transportive.  Obviously, superhero comic book movies can’t tag their film upfront with the “true story” ruse.  Their work is cut out for them to make something for an aging audience transportive.  As we continue to shift towards a younger audience, and studios give up on those firm fans who grew up with the characters, the trend will continue towards hedging, machine-made films.  Entropy will reign.  Captain America, with its forgettable dialog, blah blah blah special effects and antiquated context is the perfect example of the end of an era, and the beginning of a new – the age when comic book movies are often about as exciting as the latest formula-based romantic comedy.

References:

http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/973034/5_worst_superhero_movies.html?cat=40

http://www.immagic.com/eLibrary/ARCHIVES/GENERAL/MPAA_US/M080415M.pdf

http://www.anomalousmaterial.com/movies/2010/03/mpaa-statistics-who-goes-to-the-movies/

http://www.thatmoviesucked.com/2010/07/the-evolution-of-the-superhero-movie/