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

Frankenweenie (2012)

I’ll admit than when I saw the trailer for Frankenweenie, I was cautiously enthusiastic. When it comes to upcoming films (and videogames… any media, I guess) I try not to get too hyped about them, because that makes the bitter sting of disappointment that much greater when things don’t pan out. In this editor’s opinion, Tim Burton hasn’t made a great film since Big Fish (2003). Now, put down the pitchforks, I said great, several are still good films, just not great. Perhaps coming from another director my expectations wouldn’t be as high, but I’ve always been a fan of Burton, especially his earlier works, such as Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and though he didn’t direct it, the very much Burton film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). His newer offerings, such as Alice in Wonderland (2010), Corpse Bride (2005), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) have all had amazing visual style, but are simply lacking enough of the typical Burton charm to elevate them from being decent films to being amazing. Corpse Bride was especially disappointing to me in this regard, because I’m such a fan of stop-motion, and Corpse Bride looked amazing, but the story / writing was simply lacking any memorable impact.

But enough about disappointments, Frankenweenie is a return to form for Tim Burton. From the opening shots of a suburban sprawl (heavily echoing that of Edward Scissorhands) to the character designs that immediately bring to mind his other stop-motion works, this is a film that feels like something the director would have made at the early stages of his career. Perhaps that’s because it is, in a way, because it’s based on a live-action short Burton did in 1984 by the same name (a short that was supposed to be released alongside the Pinocchio (1940) re-release, but was pulled by Disney because it disturbed children at test screenings).

The plot is fairly straightforward; Victor (Charlie Tahan) is an introverted boy who likes to make movies, his only real friend is his dog, Sparky. Victor’s suburban town of New Holland is populated by a suitably bizarre cast of characters, from a girl whose cat (named Mr. Whiskers) apparently leaves prophecies in the litter box, to the new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau). Unfortunately for Victor, Sparky is hit by a car, and Victor’s solution to his grief is to bring him back in tried-and-true Frankenstein (1931) fashion. He is, of course, successful, but must hide his resurrected friend from his friends and parents (voiced by Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short). This all goes awry when his secret is discovered by his classmate, Edgar ‘E’ Gore (Atticus Shaffer), who demands to know how he’s managed to cheat death, and Victor concedes, with the stipulation that no one can know. Naturally, with the big science fair around the corner, Edgar can’t resist telling other students, which leads to a chaotic, horror-film-inspired third act.

This might be the best part of the film, which has nods to Gamera (1994) and Gremlins (1984) amongst others. In fact, the entire film is chock full of horror references; the storyline itself loosely follows that of Frankenstein, the parents are watching a Dracula film (voiced by Christopher Lee) in one scene, the poodle next door ends up looking like the Monster’s Bride from Bride of Frankenstein (1931), a model in one of Victor’s films looks almost exactly like Rodan from the 1956 film of the same name… I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s clear that Frankenweenie is Tim Burton’s homage to the films that inspired him in his youth, and perhaps Frankenweenie is his pseudo-biography in stop-motion form.

Frankenweenie’s only major flaw is perhaps its pacing, the time period between Sparky’s resurrection and the action-packed third act feels too slow for the events that precede and follow it, despite the fact that it contains more or less vital plot points. Despite this, the film is still a very enjoyable watch, and has plenty of humor to go along with its somewhat dark subject matter. As a matter of fact, I could easily see very young children being scared of this film, and it’s almost surprising that they got away with a PG rating, though in comparison to many films from the 80’s and 90’s a PG rating isn’t that far out of the question, political correctness be damned.

In summation, Frankenweenie does have problems here and there, but all the different parts are stitched together in such a way as to make the first Tim Burton film in a long time that really feels like it belongs to the director, as opposed to something that seems like he was talked into at a studio board meeting. If you long for Burton’s glory days, Frankenweenie just might fit the bill.

-Adam

Batman & Robin (1997)

The moment has finally arrived. This weekend saw the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s final installment to his epic, game-changing Batman franchise and with it a chaotic few days of good news and bad. The good news is that (in this viewer’s eyes) the final film fully delivers and more on what has become one of the greatest film trilogies in cinematic history. The film debuted with 249 million dollars worldwide and counting, making it the 3rd highest debut for an opening weekend and the highest for a non-3D movie (suck it post-converted Avengers!).

The weekend unfortunately has also brought with it tragedy in the form of a mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. The act is equally unspeakable and devastating. The theater to many is like a temple, a place for people to come together and share in amusement. The fact that someone would destroy the sanctity of that amusement with such a heinous display of selfishness, immorality and pure unjustifiable evil is unbearable.

I was hoping to have finished off the Batman posts last week as a lead in to the opening day’s premiere. However between a much needed beach vacation, the post-vacation scramble to catch up, and the business of working at a theater for a movie like The Dark Knight Rises time is not something I’ve had in bucket fulls. Throughout the week I’ll be posting the last of the Batman run including a full (and very spoiler-filled I’m sure) review on The Dark Knight Rises and featuring a new Batman header by our own Adam Baldwin.

When we last left the franchise Batman had defeated the likes of The Joker and Catwoman but couldn’t defeat his greatest nemesis yet: Joel Schumacher. The studio had scrapped Tim Burton’s Gothic, Frank Miller-esque version for a more family friendly, “campy” model. As I stated in the Forever post the film has a lot of opportunities for a more serious tone and disappointingly chooses to neglect them. The 1997 follow-up on the other hand is a total disaster: both production wise and box office wise. It can also be an extremely guilty pleasure.

Immediately following Batman Forever‘s heavy box-office debut in 1995, Warner Bros quickly commissioned a sequel with director Schumacher and writer Akiva Goldsman. Val Kilmer was ditched for rising ER star George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell reprises his role as Robin. The rest of the casting went bigger. The top billed Arnold Schwarzenegger sinks his teeth and proceeds to chew (or perhaps mangle) the scenery as Mr. Freeze, Pulp Fiction‘s Mia Wallace herself, Uma Thurman, hams it up as the venomous vixen Poison Ivy and Clueless superstar Alicia Silverstone squeezes into the suit of Batgirl.

The entire production was a tangled mess. O’Donnell claims to have never met Schwarzenegger until the opening night premiere of the film. Despite having numerous scenes together all of Schwarzenegger’s dialogue and action was shot separately from the other actors and Clooney and O’Donnell actually spend the majority of their time chasing the stunt double for Mr. Freeze. The script essentially became a 2 hour toy commercial. One evening Schumacher was presented with a series of new toy designs for snowbound Bat-vehicles known as the Bat Blade and the Bat Sled. Schumacher said “These vehicles aren’t in this movie” to which the merchandisers replied “They are now”.

The set was a total free-for-all. Clooney and O’Donnell compared it to being in a circus. Supposedly every actor and actress in Hollywood was bringing their young kids to the set to watch the filming and therefore the sets and locations were constantly overloaded with people. Could you imagine attempting to pull off the cheesiest of one-liners in a unbearably hot and suffocating costume all the while seeing Tom Hanks and his kids standing by and taking pictures? John Glover, who plays a diabolical scientist responsible for Poison Ivy’s transition, said Schumacher would scream before each take “Remember people, this is a cartoon”. This pretty much gives you an idea of what direction this film was consciously heading.

The plot is pretty much non existent. Mr. Freeze wants to cover everything in ice, Poison Ivy wants to cover everything in plants and somehow they feel their plan will work even better when merged together. Ivy has a brute of a sidekick, Bane, who tromps around like a brain-dead gorilla. Quite a step down from the near genius, South American mercenary we’ve come to know from the comics and Nolan would deliver in Rises. Ivy also has a love potion #9 that sends Batman and Robin head over heels for her and constantly at each other’s throats. And Wayne Manor’s resident butler Alfred Pennyworth (the late, great Michael Gough) is dying of a disease known as McGregor syndrome just as his long lost niece Barbara arrives. In no time at all Barbara discovers the Batcave and is clad in her own voluptuous Batsuit.

As notorious as this movie is for temporarily killing the Batman franchise and sitting in the middle of Jingle All The Way and End of Days as that triple threat that killed Schwarzenegger’s career, I actually find this movie much easier on the eyes than Forever. It is by no means “good” but it borders on “so bad that its good”. The abundance of ice and cold related references “Your not sending me to da coola” “Freeze in hell, Batman!” “The Iceman Cometh” are the best fodder for a drinking game. You would be hammered within 30 minutes. Uma Thurman is incredibly hot in her Poison Ivy gear and reason enough for anyone to watch it once. Clooney, god love him, makes the best out of catastrophe. His delivery of lines like “She’s trying to kill you…Dick!” is so tongue-in-cheek that you know deep inside he’s laughing along with you. And a small handful of action scenes actually sort of hold up, in particular the opening sequence in which Batman and Robin “air surf” away from an exploding rocket ship.

The film failed critically and in a summer full of blockbusters was overshadowed by the success of movies like The Lost World, Men in Black and Face/Off. We were thankfully spared the third follow-up Batman Triumphant which would have had Clooney or Kurt Russell as Batman, O’Donnell and Silverstone again as Robin and Batgirl, and the trio would have taken on The Scarecrow (John Travolta, Kevin Spacey, Viggo Mortensen, Nicolas Cage and Marilyn Manson were all in contention) and Harley Quinn (Madonna, Sandra Bullock and Selma Blair were considered). It would be 8 years before the Caped Crusader would soar again.

-John