The Top Films of 2012 (Take 2)

Here after the beginning of a new year it’s customary to take a look back at the year that was. Since this is a site about everything film, I suppose it would be fitting to have a retrospect regarding the best movies I saw as opposed to a ranking of all the different brands of peanut butter I ate in 2012 (youtube video forthcoming). Since I ceased working in a theater, my viewing of new movies has decreased as the price of admission has gone from free to wtf. Therefore if you see a shocking omission from my list, then I probably just haven’t seen it yet or perhaps you just rank The Oogieloves a bit too highly. I know that everyone has been waiting for my Best of 1901 list (Edison dominates), but until I finish that, here is my Top 10 (or so) of 2012.

Honorable Mention:

The Raid:Redemption – A film nearly identical to Dredd in plot structure. Nearly all of it follows law enforcement trapped in a single high-rise building run by a druglord, only here we are in the present. High on action, low on plot, The Raid is for the adrenaline challenged. The action sequences and martial arts in this film will make your head spin. I haven’t been this impressed with an action film out of southeast Asia since Tony Jaa’s Tom Yum Goong. A tough cut from my Top 10, but I felt the need to mention it, it’s just that good.

10 – PARANORMAN

Paranorman is easily my choice for best animated film of 2012. This supernatural family film created by Laika, the same film studio that brought us the amazing film Coraline, makes the undead accessible in a fun way to the youngest audience possible. Perhaps just me being a dad seeing my daughter enjoy this film so much landed this on my list, or perhaps its the fact that I enjoyed it just as much as she did. Paranorman has a fantastic collection of voice talent relaying a fun, witty script. A story that pleases both kids and adults usually falls into Pixar’s bag of tricks, but they aren’t the only magicians on the stage.

9 – EXPENDABLES 2

A lot of people laughed at Stallone when he was talking about resurrecting his action movie career while he was pushing 60 by continuing the action movie franchises that made him a household name. After solid Rocky Balboa and Rambo sequels those people weren’t laughing anymore. Stallone proved that for the most part today’s younger action stars are pussified. The old, aging action stars now rule the box office (currently Bruce Willis now reigns with his newest Die Hard installment). Having a who’s who cast of legendary action stars in one film is an easy win. In Expendables 2, Stallone actually improves on the first movie by expanding the roles of Willis and Schwarzenegger (a major gripe from fans in the first movie) and getting an infinitely better villain in Jean-Claude Van Damme. Expendables 2 has a great combination of balls-out action, one-liners and laugh out loud moments. Easily one of the best action movies of the summer.

8 – LOOPER

Continuing with my old man action star theme is Bruce Willis and Joseph-Gordon Levitt starring in Rian Johnson’s sci-fi film, Looper. The film takes a new look at time travel with its real-time consequences. Gone are the days of Marty McFly slowly disappearing as his parents don’t hook up. If a character is injured in the past the scar instantly appears on their future counterpart. Looper’s innovation to time travel logic doesn’t end there. The future counterpart also has immediate memory of the injury. No time travel movie will ever be perfectly plausible or satisfy every physics nerd on the planet, so I give credit to Johnson for coming up with a new twist. For more on Looper check out my review here.

7 – MOONRISE KINGDOM

Wes Anderson has done it again. The man makes the most consistently entertaining films of any filmmaker working today. Anderson has the directing talent and writing ability to attract A-list actors into his quirky dramedies. Moonrise Kingdom is no exception, drawing Bruce Willis and Edward Norton (in a delightfully square performance) in the fold. Even more crucial to this coming-of-age film are the performances of the two young leads, Jared Gilman & Kara Hayward, both of whom are first time actors. It is almost unfathomable to think of these two young stars holding their own with legends like Bill Murray, but they steal the show. If you’re a fan of Anderson’s work, chances are you’ve already seen this. If not, then its time to hit your nearest Redbox.

6 – PROMETHEUS

This was the film I could not wait to see in 2012. Fanboys can cream all over The Avengers all they want, for my money I’ll take Ridley Scott returning to the genre he re-invented over 30 years ago. The Alien universe had been in a relative slump having to most recently duke it out with the Predators franchise. The visual design and attention to detail in Prometheus is remarkable. Prometheus being most likely the first part of an origin story for the xenomorph species, left viewers scratching their heads with more questions than answers. If nothing else Prometheus sparked more debate than any other summer blockbuster in recent memory. To be honest, this film would probably not have made my list if not for re-watching it on blu-ray. I was drawn in all over again. With rumors of linking this series with Blade Runner, it seems that the buzz from Sir Ridley’s work has only begun. More thoughts on Prometheus can be found in my review.

5 – CLOUD ATLAS

Regardless of what they call themselves, the Wachowski Brothers or Wachowski Starship, since The Matrix trilogy ended I was beginning to wonder if they would ever resurface. I just pretend that Speed Racer didn’t happen. Cloud Atlas is as ambitious a project as any in film history with an intertwining plot spanning thousands of years. A feat that was first attempted in 1916 by pioneering filmmaker D.W. Griffith with his epic film Intolerance, and more recently and successfully by Darren Aronofsky with his masterpiece, The Fountain. Cruelly, Cloud Atlas continues the trend of these epic stories falling flat in theaters. With a reported budget of 100 million funded almost entirely by private parties, Cloud Atlas has no chance of making a profit. But this film was an experience, and I am very glad I saw it on the big screen. In my opinion, The Wachowskis come as close as anyone has to achieving a dream-like logic akin to David Lynch while still holding loosely to a three act structure. A film that attempts to portray something bigger than it’s human creators and succeeds deserves recognition. The fact that this film was nearly unrecognized by most major award committees for its score and make-up effects is a travesty.

4 – LIFE OF PI

Life Of Pi was considered to be unfilmable due to the main character’s (Pi) close interaction with a Bengal Tiger (Richard Parker) on a small life boat. The magic of visual effects has the ability to make the impossible possible. Special effects are getting so good I couldn’t even tell the real tiger from the CG one most of the time. The movie is not all about special effects, though there is no shortage in an nail biting shipwreck sequence. Life Of Pi is about storytelling at is core and how each person interprets a story changes its meaning. Even though we are told a story from another person’s point of view, we still project ourselves into it. It is this self projection that determines if we believe the tale or dismiss it as fantasy. This film glides over the line between fantasy and reality better than any I’ve ever seen. Ang Lee deftly handles the complex story, showing us just enough to make our own decisions. I see another Oscar for directing in Lee’s future.

3 – DJANGO UNCHAINED

Well what can I say, 2012 is the year of directors. Tarantino finally gets around to a genre I’m sure he’s been wanting to get to for a long time, the western. His not so subtle stylistic nods to the genre are apparent in nearly all of his films. Westerns are few and far between in theaters nowadays, but if they are all of this quality then I can handle only getting one a year. Tarantino brings his undeniable cinematic style and tweaked humor to a revenge story centered on a bounty hunter (Christophe Waltz) and a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) that he acquires in order to collect a sizable reward. Easily the best onscreen duo for Tarantino since Vincent & Jules. Leonardo DiCaprio steals every scene he’s in as a Calvin Candie, a flamboyant, southern gentleman who happens to own a plantation and Django’s wife (Kerry Washington). Oh, and Sam Jackson is a funny motherfucker. Tarantino throws a lot of racism onscreen, which judging by the media’s reaction to his “overuse” of the N-word they apparently forgot that this film was set around the Civil War-era. Still more outrage over slave “action figures” for the film. Lighten up, people. It’s a movie, and a damn good one at that.

2 – CABIN IN THE WOODS

And the Oscar for Best Bong Prop in a movie goes to…..Cabin In The Woods!! I watch more horror films than anything else it seems. So if one has climbed this far above all the others it’s something special. Cabin In The Woods is unlike every other horror film that’s being churned out into theaters. Cabin takes every cliché in the big book of horror movies and wraps it up into a smirking film that’s smarter than I ever expected. The “horror film” part of CITW with teenagers on a vacation in an isolated cabin essentially takes place in a bubble, while the “corporate” section of the film takes place in an office building of sorts. Mission control, as it were, attempts to contain the action of the horror film. Unfortunately for everyone at mission control, and unbeknownst to them, they are still in the horror movie we, the audience, are watching. It’s only a matter of time before the death and mayhem reaches everyone in the film. CITW doesn’t hold back on any level and is easily the most fun I had watching a movie last year.

1 – THE GREY

Liam Neeson gives the best performance of his career in The Grey. The range of emotion shown throughout the course of this movie by Neeson is astounding. Whoever decided to dump this movie in January is a moron. Sure it’s weather appropriate but that’s about it. Poor marketing and advertising left this buried under the 2011’s Oscar nominated films. The Grey is an emotionally exhausting film. It actually took a toll on me watching it. It is one of the most incredibly tense films I’ve seen in recent memory. Director Joe Carnahan puts the audience in the snow covered boots of seven survivors of a plane crash in Alaska. A harrowing ordeal in itself, but they are being stalked by a pack of wolves who begin picking them off one by one. One of the great things about The Grey is its portrayal of fear. There are many scenes where the men have campfire going and the wolves begin surround them. The wolves stay at the edge of the darkness with only their eyes being visible, still wary of man despite being the hunter. The men stay by the light of the fire, never daring to venture out to fight an unseen danger. The barrier of darkness between the two packs is fear, and it works both ways. The one who survives is the one who conquers the fear that surrounds them. The Grey was an unforgettable film for me. I am a fan of Carnahan’s work but I think the emotion that Liam Neeson brought to this film put it far beyond my expectations and the result is a film about survival unlike any other.

-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.