Tuesday, January 01, 2013

FILM: Best Films of 2012

These films are notable for finding a fresh angle to their genre or improving it tremendously:

Best Adaptation: Anna Karenina
If you would've told me last year that I would one day watch the adaptation of an insanely long Russian epic novel, I would've laughed in your face. And if you told me I would like it, I would've wondered if you were off your meds. Look, I know Keira Knightley's talented. I've never seen Pride & Prejudice (her version anyway) or Atonement, but I know a band of tiny violins follows her everywhere she goes. The problem is: Intense, dramatic love stories aren't my thing. I didn't even like Titanic. (Seriously, that bitch could've moved over.) So once I discovered Anna Karenina is 129 minutes long, I accepted the fact that I might fall asleep ten minutes in. I wore a comfy pillow-like sweater and everything. But then something magical happened: The characters danced across the screen. Yes, they danced. They did not walk from one end of the room to the other. They swayed melodically and glided across the floor. And once a scene was over, furniture was rearranged before your eyes, the camera pulled out, curtains were drawn, and at times an empty theater was shown. It was as if the play had come to life, as if the characters had spilled off the page—and the stage. It was truly mesmerizing. I almost forgot I was watching a tragic love story.

Best Animated Movie: Wreck-It Ralph
I'm a grown-up. I'm not very mature in many ways, but when it comes to movies and TV, I really find it difficult to pay attention to animation. It's a little too make believe for me. But every now and then I'm surprised by an enjoyable animated film. It's been a while though (since 2004's The Incredibles and 2010's How to Train Your Dragon), so I've been wary to see any as of late. This film, however, promised something awesome to the child within me: video game nostalgia. I did not play many video games when I was a kid. For some reason, in our house, you could watch 12 straight hours of television, but video games rotted your brain. In spite of that though, I got to enjoy the wonders of Tetris, Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and GoldenEye 007 at my cousin's house. So when I heard that there was going to be an animated film where video game characters got to game-jump, I nearly regressed 15 years. That's epic. That's every kid's dream. Can you imagine how awesome it would be to have Sonic's speed in Halo? Or Scorpion's tentacle-spear thingy in Resident Evil? Honestly, we all just wish the video game execs would get over themselves and let us mix as many characters and game worlds as we want. There's no reason 007 shouldn't meet Lara Croft, and Yoshi couldn't go chill with the Pokemon creatures. The ultimate execution of the film's concept wasn't filled with too many familiar faces, but there were enough to give you a sense of what that world would be like. Plus, it had a female protagonist that wasn't a princess for once, well I mean, not for the whole film, and it showed pity for the villain, which is a growing trend in animated films (Megamind and Despicable Me). It was surprisingly original, which is a rare attribute these days.

Best Anti-Hero Movie: Django Unchained
Disclaimer: I'm black. Half-black. So I may show some bias in this review. Half-bias. The one thing you can never deny about Quentin Tarantino, besides his affinity for feet, blood, and blaxploitation, is that he knows how to create unforgettable characters, changing how you look at a well-known actor forever. He did it in 2009 with Inglourious Basterds for Brad Pitt, and in 2003 with Kill Bill for Uma Thurman. This time, he did it for both Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio, turning a comedic actor and R&B artist into a bad mama jamama, and a heartthrob and model magnet into a sadistic scourge of the South. Both play their roles so well you almost forget who you're watching. Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson are equally as entertaining, playing uncommonly publicized historical personas: a friendly German and a black slave-owner sympathizer. Many have questioned how authentic the historical facts are in the film, whether Tarantino should be allowed to glorify anti-white animosity, and, you know, whether it's ok that he wrote the N-word as many times as his characters said it. But I think you naysayers are missing the point. This isn't a story about ending slavery or admonishing an oppressive race. It's a love story. A German love story. Let no man, white or black, stand between Django and his girl, Broomhilda. I dare say, that's romantic.

Best Autobiography: Hitchcock
Even though Anthony Hopkins was a little heavy-handed with his impersonation, this film really did capture the essence of the zany and morbidly obsessive Alfred Hitchock. It not only gives you a behind-the-scenes look at how the auteur created Psycho and the obstacles he had to overcome in order to get it greenlit and into the theaters, but it also gives you a snapshot of his psyche. This was a man who didn't just bring prose to life but was enveloped by it. It seeped into his everyday life and possessed him. I'm not saying he was a murderer with mommy issues, but he became so attuned to his lead character's insecurities and desires that it's as if for the span of the film's incarnation and dissemination, they were with him at all times. It was interesting to see that illustrated, his imagination bleeding into his life. It was haunting.

Best Buddy Cop Movie: End of Watch
I realize this film does not actually follow the buddy cop formula. It isn't exactly filled with laughs and explosions and hot girls, a la Bad Boys or 21 Jump Street. But it does explain the bond between two gun-toting dudes and shows the lengths they'll go to for one another. What most viewers signed up for when they realized they were going to see a David Ayer film was something as gritty and bloody as Training Day and Street Kings. And they got that. There was plenty of gore—for me anyway—and a lot of gunplay. But what was rather unexpected was how much you bonded with these men and how much the heartbreaking ending would resonate with you. I am truly grateful that Ayer ended on a flashback happy-note, even though it's possible the studio made him do that, because it was a pretty devastating and horrifying ending for a civilian to watch. There are a paranoid few who believe that most army and police-related films are government propaganda that convinces civilians to sign up. I can assure you, no one will end this film thinking it's all fun and games. In fact, you  might skip the news for a while.

Best Docu-Bio: Sleepwalk With Me
The concept of sleepwalking is really interesting—the idea of still functioning when you're unconscious. Most of us have never experienced it. Most of us don't even know people who have. But it's a well-known health issue that's often written off as a quirky thing that the body does. Comedian Mike Birbiglia, the co-writer, co-director, and star of this film, makes it clear, however, that it's no quirk. Any therapist or doctor can tell you that sleepwalking, and even basic dreaming, is a symptom of our subconscious trying to tell us what we either refuse to admit or can't understand. Birbiglia makes it the core of his film as it's become the core of his life. In this documentary slash biography, the comedian comes to terms with the underlying reasons for his sleepwalking, as well as the unnerving fact that it's incurable. We all have our own ways of working out our issues and until he finds one that involves being conscious, he'll continue to rely on his vivid and active dreams to help him cope with everything from his unstable career to his overbearing father to his issues with commitment. I especially liked the way Birbiglia chose to shoot the film, mixing a steady balance of seamless flashbacks and expositions, where he talks directly to the camera. Also, despite the heavy topic, there is still plenty of comedy. It's broken up by Seinfeld/Louie-type stand-up scenes, where he shows how he gradually got better at reeling the crowd in. Comedians are notorious for making light of serious issues, burying the pain, as the sad clowns of our society. But behind the behind the best punchlines is truth. And that's what up-and-coming comedians can learn from this film: There's nothing funnier than reality.

Best Family Film: People Like Us
When I first heard the premise, I thought it would be a little too incestuous to not be weirded out by. A very very very handsome gentleman, the dreamy Chris Pine, starts interacting a little too much with a cute bartender, the sassy Elizabeth Banks, because he discovered mere days before that she was in fact his illegitimate sister, and that his flaky father left her thousands of dollars. She thinks, naturally, being a hot single mom, that he's flirting with her, even though he repeatedly swears he's not and that he's just being an awesome, friendly dude. This entire notion is clanking around the back of your mind as you watch his desperate attempts to bond with her and his nephew. Every now and then you are distracted by memories of their dad, by the way they grieve for him, and by the spunky kid who's like a mini-version of both of them, and you forget that it's about to get super awkward. But by the end, you happily glaze over that gag-worthy scene where she romantically considers her half-brother, because the bigger secret that their father kept is so sweetly heartwarming that you almost forget how annoying your siblings are. Almost. I mean, let's be serious.

Best Music-Driven Plot: Pitch Perfect
There were many facets to this film that set it apart from its predecessors. For one thing, the lead characters didn't have your run-of-the-mill aspirations—popstar or backup dancer. Anna Kendrick's character wanted to be a music producer and Skylar Astin (yeah, that's his name) wanted to score movies. Then there was the fact that while this was technically the movie version of "Glee," and "Glee" has kind of run the entire trend of a capella into the ground with their poorly written melodrama, the remixes were download-worthy. Like so good you wish the film ended with a scan tag so you could immediately download the album with your smart phone. (Get with it Hollywood.) And, last but not least, there was the dialogue and subsequent comedy. Not only was Kendrick's character smart and sarcastic, but Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids) and Adam DeVine ("Workaholics") made Glee's weekly attempt at comedy look like open mic night at the Laugh Factory. Thank you for restoring we music-lovers' faith in musical comedies.

Best Political Film: Lincoln
While most critics and viewers left this film gushing about yet another transformative Daniel Day-Lewis performance, which at this point is like being shocked to hear Lindsay Lohan got arrested, I was actually impressed with how well the film explained how a bill is passed. No, not the boring logistics of how many layers of government it needs to go through, but the behind-the-scenes deals, promises, and negotiations. Given that the current president of the United States, Barack Obama, struggled to get Congress to agree on anything, including health care reform, in his last term, and is struggling to get them to agree on a fiscal cliff resolution and gun restrictions in this term, it was interesting to see just how he would have to get it done. Politics doesn't seem to be controlled by laws, but favors. And politicians, well a majority of them anyway, seem less interested in fighting for the rights of the people who elected them, and more interested in advancing their own careers and immortalizing themselves in history. I wasn't concerned with this being a true depiction of the 16th president of the United States or in whether Day-Lewis truly looked like Honest Abe (he disturbingly did!), but whether or not it was boring. And truthfully, all those clandestine meetings and underhanded acts made those 150 minutes breeze right by. 

Best Resurrection: The Dark Knight Rises
No offense Jesus, but when Batman stages a comeback, he goes H.A.M. Pardon my slang. Everybody knew—even non-comic-book-loving film lovers—that The Dark Knight would be a very hard act to follow. Even if Heath Ledger, the unforgettable Joker, hadn't died, we'd all still be expecting something pretty epic. It's the final installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. There was a lot of pressure. But I think, considering the final installments of other trilogies, like Spider-Man and Transformers, it was pretty awesome. Nolan fictionalized our current financial and political climate, creating a time capsule for this generation. He acknowledged the rising rebellion of the middle class vs. the rich. He gave a voice to protesters, and fairly made them both the heroes and the villains. And, most importantly, he gave his Batman a proper burial with the optimistic message that this world doesn't need a hero or a martyr. What it needs is for the people to know that they can be their own heroes, that they must fight if they want to take their city (or their nation) back. If you disregard the muzzled bad guy and the long-winded scenes to take that into consideration, you might be able to see just how fitting an end it really was.

Best Romance: The Five-Year Engagement
Full disclosure: I love Emily Blunt and she can do no wrong. Actually, scratch that. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was mind-numbing. But when Mrs. Krasinski knocks it out of the park, she really aims for the fences. I don't know why I started making baseball references. Anyway, the point is I'm glad that my girl crush on her persuaded me to watch this romantic comedy, because it's definitely the best love story I've seen this year. And I'll be honest, I'm growing increasingly alarmed by how well Jason Segel writes a love story. I mean, you'd think women, especially the wave of female writers currently pitching tents in Hollywood, would be better at it. Or at the very least that a dude who thought full-frontal nudity in his first writing effort was a grand idea wouldn't know jack shit about making an audience of women simultaneously awwww. But he does. Not only does he tackle a few of the major issues that most couples go through, like figuring out how to combine your lives and compromising without self-sacrificing too much, but he ended with what is potentially the most original wedding scene ever written. So awesome, that for a hot minute every girl in that audience wanted to Pinterest the hell out of it.

Best Sci-fi Drama: Chronicle
When a film contains three teenage boys as the main characters, immature hijinks, lewd commentary, and nudity are expected. (See Superbad and Project X for proof that I'm not just hating on the opposite sex.) Gravitas is rarely, if ever, included. Yet this film manages to put that heavy element right alongside the light and airy ones. By all accounts the three characters at the forefront of this unorthodox coming of age story are your average teenage boys. They goof around, prank each other, talk about girls, get drunk, and do drugs. But once they are exposed to what appears to be an alien life force, and they develop telekinetic ability that allows them to move large objects and fly, the film transforms from comedy to super-powered sci-fi—the indulgent kind that involves wish-fulfillment instead of heroism. And once one of those characters, the depressed son of a sick woman and an abusive man, finally feels in control of something in his life, the film mutates from super-powered sci-fi to drama. It becomes an allegory for the troubled youths who unexpectedly turn on their classmates, who create chaos in suburbia, and turn a town upside down. It dissects the minds of these disturbed adolescents, sheds a light on their triggers, and brings them down to Earth. But what's most impressive is how it's done. The film is shot as though it's entirely videotaped by one of the teenagers, as if it's found footage, a documentary about their evolution, hence the name Chronicle. Jumpy and off-kilter shots have mostly been associated with the Horror genre, but a recent trend has proven that this shooting method is quite effective in almost any genre (including crime drama, End of Watch, and comedy, Project X), as long as the scenes are cut properly and there's logical continuity justifying the camera being on in every scenario. Given the success of this film, you can expect a lot more copycats in the future.

Best Suspense Thriller: Argo
I wouldn't say that I've been reluctant to give Ben Affleck his props, but it took three films for me to finally give him a round of applause. It was actually The Town that convinced me to watch Gone Baby Gone, and to mark Argo on my calendar. The concept of rescuing six Americans from a revolutionary Iran was very current in this war-plagued era. And when I first heard it was based on a true story told in a 2007 Wired article, I was intrigued. But the trailer kind of stalled my excitement. Based in the 80s with a slew of character actors that are little-known by name, it wasn't as alluring as say the star-studded Zero Dark Thirty. But after seeing both films, I can attest to the fact that Argo is the better bet. Affleck has a knack for suspense. Sure, it's a true story and the story has been told, and you can literally read the ending online, but that doesn't dilute the constant fear that these six civilians are going to be unjustly strung up by a mob of armed radicals. You are transported to the 80s, to Iran, to the hole they hide in, and you are waiting to breathe that first sigh of relief right along with them.

Best Villain Origin Story: Looper
This sci-fi action thriller wasn't just about time travel, life-altering moral choices, or harsh Darwinist realities. It's a member of a rare sub-genre known as the villain's origin story. Bruce Willis’s character goes back in time to kill a super-powered terrorist known as The Rainmaker before he can grow up to telekinetically kill thousands of people. *SPOILER* We're shown two possible outcomes to the final showdown, and therefore witness the turning point for this unstoppable force of evil. The main characters are not heroes, just lesser evils, and it's up to one or both of them to have faith that saving this villain would one day turn him into a hero. I've come to appreciate villain origin stories more than the superhero ones, because it's easy to understand why someone would want to save the world, but it seems to baffle every one of us when someone tries to destroy it.

*You will never know how hard I tried to watch every movie of 2012. Alas, I missed a double-digit amount. But if in the next few weeks I should happen to vastly enjoy yet another 2012 film, I'll be sure to add it to this list.

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