The Top Films of 2012 (Take 3)

The Night of the Living Oscars is almost upon us, which means it’s time for film buffs everywhere to make lists and make desperate attempts to compare apples to oranges in order to decide which one goes where. My attempts are as follows:

The Top 10 Films of 2012:

10. The Raid: Redemption
This is the Tony Jaa film with no Tony Jaa, and I wish that Ong Bak 2 & 3 had been anywhere near as good as The Raid. With a similar setup to Dredd, involving a multi-storied building on lockdown while hordes of tenants fight our protagonists, The Raid has excellent fight choreography that is creative, rapid-paced, and as is essential for a martial-arts action film, in plentiful supply. The Raid doesn’t bog itself down trying to make the story any more than it needs to be; it doesn’t feel tacked on but it doesn’t overburden the rest of the film and take away from the action either. A solid piece of adrenaline-laced action filmmaking.

9. The Grey
A sobering story about a man who has nothing to live for fighting to survive in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, The Grey isn’t just a film about the struggle against the natural world, but a personal look at a man’s conviction in the face of death, despite the pain and sadness in his past. Liam Neeson shows some real acting chops here, and seems to really delve into the role instead of going through the motions. What could have been a by-the-numbers survival story digs a little deeper and the result is powerful.

8. God Bless America
Perhaps it’s the cynical asshole in me, but throughout almost all of God Bless America I had a smile plastered across my face. With his death looming over his day-to-day suffering, Frank (Joel Murray) decides to cleanse the world of modern society’s shortcomings. Watching Joel Murray do what we have thought about once or twice in our darker moments is almost cathartic, and the entire film has a biting wit to go with the carnage that it portrays. Dark comedies, such as the work of Todd Solondz, never seem to get much exposure; perhaps because they sometimes strike a little too close to home. God Bless America fits the genre perfectly by making you want to laugh and despair at the same time.

7. Cloud Atlas
The Wachowski’s & Tom Tykwer’s brazenly ambitious Cloud Atlas is a film I kept thinking about for days. At first it was almost difficult to keep up with the many stories running concurrently, but the film quickly settles into a rhythm, and it’s an impressive sight to behold. Each arc goes through the build up and climax of their story simultaneously, with actors playing multiple characters at different points in time, all the while different key elements of one story will have an effect on another that takes place later in time. Some elements aren’t even central to the plot, but when you notice that the buttons stolen by one character are now a necklace worn by his descendant in the far-flung future, it’s a nice touch. Cloud Atlas is a multilayered epic that deserves multiple viewings.

6. Prometheus
As a long-time fan of the Alien franchise, this was easily my most-anticipated film of 2012. The original director my personal favorite, Alien (1979), returning to create a prequel that delves into the origins of the Xenomorphs? Yes, please and thank you. Prometheus, however, is quite the tease. While we get fantastic special effects, some great sci-fi storytelling and a healthy dose of horror and action, we also get plenty of questions that don’t get answered. While some may feel this detracts from the film, with a Prometheus 2 allegedly in the works, those questions may yet be resolved, and really, Prometheus stands just fine without having everything explained. Didn’t the original Alien? With that in mind, there’s plenty to love here, and Fassbender’s excellent performance as David deserves a little more attention. For Wes’s review of Prometheus, go here.

5. Frankenweenie
Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s love letter to the films of his youth, proves that Burton still has that charm that makes his older films so enthralling. It’s a shame that this and ParaNorman did somewhat poorly at the box-office, especially since stop-motion is one of my favorite methods of filmmaking; we may be seeing some of the last big-budget stop-motion films for quite some time. For a more in-depth look at Frankenweenie, check out my original review here.

4. Life of Pi
Not having read the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. From the trailers I had no doubt the film would be a visual feast (and it is), but all the visuals in the world mean nothing if there isn’t a solid core story. Fortunately, Life of Pi is a colorful and vibrant story about a young man who survives a shipwreck told in flashback, and somewhat like 2003’s Big Fish shows that the perception of a story may in fact be more honest than the basic truth. Simply put, Life of Pi is a fantastical tale that blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

3. Cabin in the Woods
As much as I love horror films, I’ll be the first to admit that the bulk of the genre is plagued by almost anything that can be bad in a film. Perhaps one of the worst is the overuse of clichéd plots that we’ve all seen a billion times over. And surprisingly, that is what makes Cabin in the Woods such a stellar film. I had expected a decent movie, I wasn’t expecting a film that poked fun at tired horror conventions while using them to construct an enthralling look at the horror movie itself. Even those who aren’t horror fans should give Cabin in the Woods a look, if only to see the jaw-dropping turns the story takes. For David’s review of Cabin in the Woods, go here.

2. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson continually impresses with his work, Moonrise Kingdom is likely one of his best efforts. Between the amazing cast all turning in excellent performances, the camerawork so good each shot could be a piece of art, and a compelling story that captures youthful love and rebellion, it’s hard to find anything that hasn’t been carefully tuned to perfection by Mr. Anderson. This editor hopes that we can look forward to more of the same. For David’s review of Moonrise Kingdom, go here.

1. Django Unchained
While Quentin Tarantino had used elements of the Western genre in nearly every one of his films, he’d never simply made a Western. Django Unchained is that Western, and it succeeds admirably. A revenge/rescue story set in the pre-Civil War south, the oftentimes cartoonishly violent and racially charged plot sees Django (Jamie Foxx) becoming a bounty hunter as he attempts to rescue his wife. Where Tarantino’s films really shine is with character performances, enhanced with great dialogue for those performances, and Django Unchained does so through superb performances by the always-impressive Christoph Waltz and a knockout performance by DiCaprio as the villainous Calvin Candy. With yet another of Tarantino’s carefully picked soundtracks backing it, Django Unchained is a fine addition to the director’s lexicon.

Honorable Mentions:
Stuff that didn’t make the cut, but is still worth talking about.

7 Psychopaths – Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) was easily one of my favorite films of that year, and his latest offering is nothing to sneeze at either. With some excellent performances (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Tom Waits are all great) and repeated “I didn’t expect that at all” moments, 7 Psycopaths was just shy of making the list.

Argo – Ben Affleck’s film about the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis is a competent film, and while I’m not sure that I’m as impressed as some are by it, there’s certainly nothing overtly wrong with it, and it’s a solid, engaging piece of work.

The Avengers – I doubt there’s anyone who hasn’t seen this film, but I’m including it here simply because when it was being made I thought that I was going to hate it. There was no way that anyone could make a superhero league film that wasn’t all over the place. But Joss Whedon managed to make a decent film that, though not flawless by any means, surprised me. Kudos to you, Mr. Whedon. Wes’s review can be found here.

The Dark Knight Rises – After The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises had some big shoes to fill. Too big, perhaps. While I still maintain that it is a good film, I can’t get past some of the suspension of disbelief that is required. It’s a shame that it doesn’t live up to its predecessor, but there’s still plenty of cinematography, great acting, an impressive score and intense action sequences that make it better than just average.

Dredd – Though Stallone’s Judge Dredd (1995) does the comic book character no justice, 2012’s take on the character was much more in-line with the tone of the comics. A gritty, brutal action movie that was a pleasant surprise, especially given that didn’t expect anything from it.

Looper – While Looper might have some major plot holes, the film is done with such style and conviction that they can be set aside. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a notable performance as a young Bruce Willis, and the subtle make-up only enhances the effect. The psychic-powerhouse bit is cool too. Wes’s review can be found here.

ParaNormanParaNorman is a stop-motion film about a boy who can see the dead and must save his town from a witch’s curse. Like the aforementioned Frankenweenie, ParaNorman is visually impressive, and though the story drags sometimes, it’s worth noting for the amount of craft the Laika team put into it.

The Pirates!: Band of Misfits  – Yet another stop-motion film worth mentioning, from the amazing team at Aardman (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run). It gets a bit too juvenile for my tastes at times, but the entire film is a visual treat, and genuinely funny at times.

Sinister – Though there are issues with Sinister, it still is one of the better horror films to come out in 2012. There are moments that are truly creepy, and moments that are truly disturbing. Something about the home camera aspect makes the entire movie have an unsettling vibe, the atmosphere (aided by some great use of the band Boards of Canada) will stick with you, and that alone makes this film worth mentioning.

Skyfall – A noticeable improvement over Quantum of Solace (2008), the newest Bond film serves up some great sequences and top-notch cinematography, and one of the better Bond songs. Craig continues to impress as a no-nonsense take on the 007 character, and more of these to come is good news.

Wreck-It RalphWreck-It Ralph was a strong contender for my Top 10, but Sarah Silverman’s character too often tread into annoying instead of charming. That aside, it’s a great movie that is considerably improved by the plethora of videogame character cameos. If you consider yourself an avid gamer (not you, CoD players), you’ll get a kick out of simply spotting all the references.

Worst 10 Movies of 2012
Though I wish I had descriptions for each of these films, I’m finding it hard to muster up the desire to expend any more time on them than I already have. They already stole several hours of my life, so this simple list will hopefully represent the last of such theft.

10. Step Up Revolution
9. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
8. The Cold Light of Day
7. Resident Evil: Retribution
6. Mirror Mirror
5. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
4. The Devil Inside
3. That’s My Boy
2. One for the Money
1. 3 Stooges

Disappointments:
The stuff that should have been great, but wasn’t. YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE!

The Man with the Iron Fists
Despite David’s review, I still had this one on my watchlist because the trailer had looked promising. While The Man with the Iron Fists does many things well, such as the multitude of eccentric characters, it just isn’t quite what it could (and should) be. The camerawork leaves something to be desired, the CG blood / special effects look terrible and take you right out of the film, and the ending could have really used some extended fight scenes. Hopefully RZA can fix these kind of grievances and give us the 70’s kung-fu film that will do the genre justice.

Iron Sky
Unlike Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Iron Sky seemed to have tongue planted firmly in cheek from the outset. Nazis on the dark side of the moon is a delightfully ridiculous premise, and the trailer had me excited for something that played up the cheese while being thoroughly creative with that license. While Iron Sky attempts to reach this goal, it bogs itself down by going in the completely wrong direction, and while there are laughs to be had here and there, too much of what we get consists of a boring subplot and wasted potential.

Brave
Now, let’s be clear that I don’t consider Brave a bad film by any means. It’s a visually impressive movie that doesn’t have any major flaws. But Pixar has a fairly impressive track record (barring the Cars films, in this editor’s opinion), so I had very lofty expectations after seeing the first trailers. Brave’s story, however, is simply lacking that special touch that would make it stand with the other Pixar greats. In other words, Brave is a good, not great film. And that is disappointing.

Missed:
Films that weren’t seen in time to make (or not make) this list.

Amour
The Imposter
Lincoln
The Master
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Robot & Frank
The Secret World of Arrietty
Silver Linings Playbook
Shame

-Adam

Looper (2012)

I’ve been a fan of Rian Johnson’s work since I first was blown away by his slick, modern day high school film noir, Brick. Johnson reunites with his star from Brick, and Hollywood’s It-guy for the moment, Joseph Gordon-Levitt with his new film Looper. With the critical success of Brick and some memorable guest directing spots on Breaking Bad (the best show on TV, FYI), Looper has catapulted him into the appeal of the masses, and rightfully so. It’s being billed in ads as an action movie, but do not go into this expecting Expendables 2 style “blast the ever-loving shit out of anything that moves” action. Looper is a very intelligent film dealing with complex concepts. It’s not all about blowing shit up, though that does happen a lot.

I could spend a really long time discussing the time travel aspect of the story, but I would be doing two things if I went into insane detail. First, I’d ruin a great deal of the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Second, I would talk myself into circles. This is the kind of film you have to treat like a wave. Instead of fighting the current trying to get to the top of it, just relax and let it wash over you. You’ll absorb more of it’s impact and more than likely that you’ll get the ride you’re looking for. There is a phenomenon that seems to happen almost every time a time travel film is released. People spend a lot of time picking through movies like this with a fine-tooth comb trying to find a mistake or plot hole. Because obviously the details and ramifications of time travel are perfectly clear to all film critics (professional or amateur) and IMDB trolls, yet elude the smartest scientists on the planet. But fear not, faithful reader or random guy in Hoboken who clicked on this link by accident! I shall not ruin this great film for you by pecking it to death, but here’s a taste of the plot for convention’s sake:

The attention to detail regarding the effects of characters jumping back in time is staggering. In other time travel films, the ability to travel into the past or future is usually a secret known only to the character(s) involved in the act. In Looper, both present AND future versions of the same character are aware of time travel in addition to nearly every other character in the film. This exponentially multiplies the difficulty in crafting a story as tight as this. For example, the scene in the trailer above where Gordon-Levitt and Willis are in the diner. Levitt uses the fact that any change in mindset or physical act by him changes Willis’ existence instantly, including his scars, memories, motivation and judgment. Johnson’s script challenges the audience, constantly asking us to rethink what we just saw, are watching presently, and what we think is about to happen in the film. When a movie engages me on this level, even if the payoff isn’t what I thought it would be or wanted to happen, it’s still going to end up a good film in my book.

Joseph Gordon Levitt dons some fairly subtle make-up that gives him the appearance of a young Bruce Willis. More impressive than this is Gordon-Levitt’s mimicking of Willis’ mannerisms and speech. While it was probably easier to do this with your source being on set with you, it’s incredible what Gordon-Levitt achieved. He nailed Willis’ accent as well as the odd sideways smirk that you see from Bruce does naturally. No doubt they had a lot of fun with this during filming. While the special effects are not jaw dropping, the look of Johnson’s future is realistic and a bit humorous. Kinda funny to see someone driving a rusted out Prius. The supporting cast is equally impressive featuring Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Emily Blunt, Piper Perabo & the surprisingly versatile Garret Dillahunt.

I’ll touch briefly on the use of telekinesis in the film (which 10% of all people have in the future, can’t wait). You can see snippits of it on the trailer and I’m sorry, but this shit is fucking cool. I mean, if I could float a coin three inches above my palm I’d do it all the time. Every time it popped up in the plot, it reminded me more and more of the epic anime film, Akira. That’s a huge stretch for a connection, I know, but that’s what went through my head as events unfolded.

If you are a fan of Rian Johnson, Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, all of the above, or just science fiction in general, then there is absolutely no way you can miss Looper.

-Wes Kelly

The Expendables 2 (2012)

As an action movie connoisseur, I was undeniably pumped when it was announced that Stallone had used his reacquired clout (due to the surprising success of Rocky Balboa and Rambo) to bring together a rather large chunk of the actors that made the ’80s such a memorably testosterone-fueled decade for his next directorial opus, 2010’s The Expendables. I was there front and center on opening night, ready to be blown away by the overwhelming amount of machismo that would certainly be on display; firepower that would no doubt leave my head spinning, my ears ringing, and the 12-year-old version of me* wanting to run out of the theater making machine gun noises at the top of my lungs, shooting at an enemy that only I could see and only I could conquer.

This didn’t happen. At least, it didn’t happen to the extent that I had hoped and dreamed it would. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do like The Expendables, but even I recognize that taking the pro-stance on this particular action-fest isn’t the easiest of tasks, even in the film buff world. The movie itself was teeming with issues: muddy cinematography, tight camerawork in hand-to-hand combat sequences that made it nigh impossible for the viewer to gain any sense of action geography, sometimes making it hard for the audience to keep up with who in the hell was fighting and also limiting the effectiveness of the performances, CGI blood (I regret to report they are still present in the sequel. Why the traditonal, time-honored use of squibs and blood packs were retired by most, I’ll never understand), and most important of all, a story that featured an uninteresting bad guy, one of the cardinal sins of a film in this genre. These issues become even more glaring upon repeat viewings, the seams begin to show more wear and tear, making it harder for the fabric of the film to hold up. Stallone has never been a great director or writer; when he tried to juggle a plethora of script and character ideas—not to mention the rewrites that goes along with that particular puzzle—in addition to trying to shoehorn in numerous geriatric, Regan-era action stars as their schedules will allow, well, it’s a minor miracle that the whole thing didn’t entirely collapse on itself.

Now its time for Stallone and company to unleash round 2 on the world, and this time he hands over the directing reigns to Simon West (Con Air, The Mechanic), opting instead to only star and co-write the script with Richard Wenk (16 Blocks). The end result is a piece of action cinema that carries with it a better understanding of how to build excitement, to generate those OOOOOs and AHHHHs from the audience that the first film—for the most part—lacked. For example, take the frantic, overwhelmingly violent opening action sequence, one that gives our heroes a worthy introduction to their legend, as they all ride in on a convoy of intimidating battle vehicles decked out in combat gear that would, first, make any enemy’s heart stop just due to unquantifiable admiration, and then run cold due to the precision in which they begin to off their compatriots. I’m not sure how long this battle sequence lasted—my guess is 15 minutes—but it was one of the most well-rounded action set-pieces I’ve seen in an American film in some time. It not only manages to highlight most of the skills each Expendable brings to the table but also features helicopter explosions, driving, shooting, hand-to-hand combat, frying pan to head combat, sniper fire that leads to decapitations, a healthy dose of frantic bipedalism, zip-lining, airboats, jet skis, planes, and a body count that I gave up trying to keep tabs on within the first 5 seconds. In case you didn’t infer this from the last sentence, let me clarify things for you:

IT. IS. FUCKING. KILLER.

The main storyline kicks in right after the audience has time to catch its breath; it involves a McGuffin** that Barney Ross (Stallone) and his team are forced into tracking down by the seemingly nefarious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis, in an expanded role). Not only that, but they are forced to bring along one of Church’s own agents, Maggie (Nan Yu), to ensure they don’t screw things up. The mission seems easy enough (don’t they all?) but shortly after acquiring what they traveled halfway around the world for, Jean-Claude Van Damme shows up as Jean Vilian, stealing not only the McGuffin but the movie as well with a hilariously self-aware performance. Before he flies off, he decides to off one of Barney’s team, finally forcing them to live up to the namesake of their squad. The members that remain above ground swear revenge and commence tracking down Vilian posthaste, which leads to another epic brawl, culminating in a Stallone versus Van Damme showdown that lives up to the billing. That’s it. That’s the entire plot.

Since the story is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent, let’s end this review with a pros and cons rundown:

Pros:

  1. The action sets in this go round are vastly improved over what audiences were treated to in the first installment. That aforementioned issue about action geography is for the most part eliminated, although West still uses too much shaky cam and a few too many tight shots during fisticuffs for my liking. Still, it’s a major step up.
  2. The chemistry between Stallone and Jason Statham is a treat to watch; they foster an easy bromantic sensibility that provides the film with its backbone and nearly all of its heart. It’s so good, in fact, that the series could easily coast on it provided the scripts are as streamlined and simplistic as this one.
  3. Dolph Lundgren continues to craft Gunnar Jensen into a memorable character, despite having little screen time. Stallone has given him a unique opportunity, one that Dolph hasn’t been afforded all that often over his career, the ability to play an actual character. Interestingly enough, he plays the only Expendable whose back story has been flushed out, not wholly functioning on one distinct characteristic. What’s even more interesting is that Stallone and Wenk have worked in the character’s educational background, identically to the actor’s own in chemical engineering (more on this and on Dolph in an upcoming Profiles in Badassery entry). Lundgren easily gives the most entertaining performance in the movie, taking a deranged, socially inept genius who is always rejected by women and turning him into an action movie hero for the ages.
  4. Jean-Claude Van Damme continues a late career resurgence with a menacing, humorous performance in what amounts to very little screen time. His role as Jean Vilian serves as the highlight of the film, providing the movie with a much needed weirdness and proving that passing up on the first installment of the series to make a superior DTV effort (Universal Solider: Regeneration) was a good judgment call. Anyone who has seen JCVD knows the karate legend has action chops, and his work here reinforces that notion.

Cons:

  1. Replacing the scenerity, heart on its sleave tone of the original is a jokey, self-referential vibe that is overdone and becomes hard to take. At points, the humor is shockingly bad, encroaching on Epic Movie levels, where the “joke” is just a reference to another movie that came out several years or decades ago. This wink-wink, nudge-nudge style of self-awareness that lets the audience know that the actors and filmmaking crew is in on the joke is awful and at times threatens to derail the film entirely and seems condescending to lovers of the genre. True fans know that absurdity is not a crime in films like these, and it always works better when not announced right before hand. Watch Commando again if you don’t believe me.
  2. Chuck Norris shows up for around 5 minutes—which is entirely too long in my opinion. I’ve never been a fan of the bearded one; he was always much too stiff and lacked any type of personality for me to remain invested in his celluloid misadventures—Code of Honor, Silent Rage, and Lone Wolf McQuade not withstanding. Chuck got a ton of mileage out of his fight with Bruce Lee in The Way of the Dragon—and I will give credit where credit is due—he held his own before Bruce’s blistering speed and stunning narcissism led to victory, but that was 40 years ago. It’s hard to hide 72 years of age in an action movie, and even though he’s game, he doesn’t pull it off. And why in God’s name does the theme from The Good, the Bad & the Ugly play every time his character shows up? That’s not doing him any favors, reminding me of a hall of fame badass like Clint.
  3. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Trench has an expanded role as well, even though referring to what he does here as a “role” is far too kind. Cipher would be more accurate, although I’m not quite sure we have a word in the English language that would best describe what he is called on to do here. His performance exists entirely in the “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” universe that I mentioned above, and it hurt the very fabric of my being. In fact, a majority of what he says makes no sense whatsoever when taken in context with the action unfolding on the screen, and it gets so bad that it threatens to stop the film cold on every occasion he opens his mouth. That being said, I look forward to The Last Stand and still believe that “The Austrian Oak” has something to contribute to the genre I hold so dear. Unfortunately for us, this performance isn’t it.
  4. What is the point of casting Scott Adkins and then botching the dude’s fight with Statham? He’s the one unquantifiable element in the film for most audiences, so why not blow their doors off by allowing him to demonstrate why it was decided to cast him in the first place? Some quick research shows that their fight was shot in one day and without rehearsal time. It shows. Its not as good as it needs to be, shot too dark and too close, minimizing the impact of the vicious kicks he can seemingly dole out at the drop of a hat. At least he has a bit of character to play with and has a killer death (see what I did there?), even if it is cribbed from another classic film.

All in all, The Expendables 2 is a sizeable step in the right direction and an enjoyable night out for any action movie buff. The follow-up effort seems more streamlined, and while it’s not a particularly smart film, it delivers on the promise of action cinema that is built around aging stars coming together to relive their glory years. While it’s not the best action flick of the year—that designation would belong to The Raid—its got some balls on it, and maybe if they had added a bit of subtext, where the action is allowed to serve both theme and character, it would have reached the level of greatness that it undoubtedly wished to achieve.

-David

*Those who know me well also know that this version still comes out a fair amount. Maybe too much, one could argue. But I just think they’re jealous.

** A plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so desirable.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

So Moonrise Kingdom finally decided to show up in Raleigh this weekend past. After a decade spent living in the mountains of Western North Carolina, I’ve become used to platform releases over the years; after all, a majority of the films that interest me are rolled out this way to build up word of mouth and generate buzz for awards season. But this wait was ridiculous! Do you hear me American Empirical Pictures?! RIDICULOUS! Wes Anderson’s latest opened up on May 27 on 4 screens, which is not an unusual way of handling things—those bastards in New York and Los Angeles always get first crack at films like this. The weeks preceding its initial release is where it got stupid, going from 4 screens to 16, to 96, to 178, and finally, to 395 screens this weekend when it showed up in most major markets in North Cackalack, and most important, Ruff’ Raleigh, home of Petey Pablo. What kind of world do we live in where a major music star like Petey is denied the right to view the latest effort from one of the strongest and fiercely individualistic auteurs working in the business today? For shame, Scott Rudin Productions. For shame *shakes head*. I had hoped to have this review up closer to the Wes Anderson week we had to celebrate Moonrise Kingdom’s release, but sometimes we don’t get what we want—much like the Christmas when I asked for Tommy Lasorda Baseball for the Sega Genesis but got Hardball instead.

But now the wait is over and I’m pleased to report that it was well worth the time I spent shaking my fists at the sky, cursing my current geographical location. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson once again creates a world that is unmistakably his, a film that any cineaste could identify as his by merely viewing one scene, in or out of context with the rest of the picture. This, of course, could be a good thing or make you not want to waste your time at all, depending on where your opinions on the director fall. If you find his output to be too precious or calculated, a hypercontrolled, diorama-like universe that is constantly threatening to collapse under the weight of ideals and aesthetics that have come to define him, you will hate this picture. If you love his elegant tracking shots, intricate production design, symmetrical compositions, and the way his films labor in his own, extremely personal space, you could have a new favorite film from the auteur, as Moonrise Kingdom not only embraces all of these characteristics but also ratchets them up to a level that blows past his prior, most meticulous creations, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Royal Tenenbaums.

Anderson’s latest is also his first period piece, even though his prior efforts have always carried with them an obsession with the sounds and look of decades past. The setting is the land of New Penzance, a fictional island off the coast of New England in the year of 1965. Through the use of a narrator (Bob Balaban) the audience is given a tour of this imaginary location, finding out that in 3 days’ time a rather large storm will pass, wrecking the coast and, in general, causing a mess of epic proportions. It is during this time that Sam (Jared Gilman), a disliked Khaki Scout spending his summer at Camp Ivanhoe, and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a young girl who is depressed and isolated from her schoolmates and family, run away together, using provisions and knowledge that Sam has appropriated from his troop, led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, in a most earnest, hilarious performance). The young lovers met at a church pageant a year prior, Sam dressed to the nines in his scout uniform, Suzy costumed as a raven, locking eyes in the girl’s dressing room, their souls managing to make a deep connection before Sam is forced out, it being improper of him to hang out in the girl’s changing room. The two become pen-pals, overcoming the long distance between the two while Sam is back in his foster home before returning to camp the following summer. It is during this time they decide to run off together, causing panic in the adults charged with their safety. Suzy’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), both lawyers by trade and long fallen out of love with one another, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), a cop who is dedicated to his profession but in over his head nonetheless, possibly due to the fact that his affair with Suzy’s mom has entered its autumn stage, and the aforementioned Scout Master Ward lead the charge, but none are truly up to the task. With the storm fast approaching, this unusual quartet must find a way to locate the missing duo before the island battens its hatches in preparation for inclement weather of epic proportions.

The two young leads tear into their debut roles, both giving performances that are wonderfully gratifying in a noncloying fashion that typically dogs performances of this nature. As I was sitting in the darkened movie theater, it became impossible to not see Suzy and Sam as younger versions of Margo Tenenbaum and Max Fisher. He the overachieving outcast, at least when it comes to extracurricular activities that scouting provides him; she well set in her melancholy ways, even seen as an outcast from her own family (spurned on by the theft of his record player, her younger brother points out that she is a traitor to her family).  In my favorite segment of the film, the duo share secrets, frolic and dance in the sand, and share their first kiss, bringing to the screen one of the more honest portraits of summertime romance and first loves in recent memory all the while sporting a grace that is typically reserved for the understated classics of European cinema. The big name actors melt into their roles, each of which seems perfectly tailored to not only play to their strengths but to play off their previous roles and, by extension, their personas as well. Willis and Norton haven’t been this good in years, and in particular, it’s good to see Willis burrow into a role that brings out the best in him as it seems easy for an audience to forget how great he can be when given the chance to shine. At first glance, Murray seems to only be playing a variation of the depressed midlifer roles that have become a specialty of his—at least when paired with Anderson-penned characters—but, in his performance here, I believe he pushes the boundaries of those prior roles, enthusiastically mining a darker, more desperate mental space that fundamentally acts as a summation of his best roles in this particular period of the actor’s career.

Technically speaking, every set-up in Moonrise Kingdom is brilliant. Robert D. Yeoman’s camerawork is elegant and graceful, with his equipment placed just so in every scene, the actors positioned in front of it in an exact way, maximizing impact of every frame and the well-timed sight gags that pepper the film’s runtime. Props and sets are meticulously designed to fit seamlessly into Anderson’s storybook world, operating with a logic and reality bent to conform to his endlessly brilliant imagination. The covers and titles of the children’s books that Suzy holds so dear serve as standouts, recalling the artwork of the Newberry Award winners of my youth. The lessons and techniques the director absorbed during the time he time he spent in the universe of stop animation shines through in his follow-up effort, so much so that several scenes feel like they could have been cut from the runtime of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, making this fan hope that the director will revisit that medium of expression sooner rather than later.

All of these qualities help to make Moonrise Kingdom an unforgettable experience, a film that captures—with a stunning accuracy that few films prior have been able to deliver—that thrilling flush of a first love (or crush if you’re a cynic) while still remembering the agony that accompanied pre-teen solitude. The feeling that you have no place in the world to call your own, and that no one—even (or especially) your family—will ever understand you. And then for some out there in the world, the film is astute enough to note, this is a feeling that will never go away.

-David