CKep’s Top Films of 2012

‘Nuff said! So let’s get into it…

 

1. The Master

Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (TWC)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

One the year’s most challenging releases, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a more than worthy follow-up to 2007’s There Will Be Blood, which among The Social Network and The Tree of Life, may be the greatest American film of the new century. Here, PTA channels Joaquin Phoenix into an enthralling cataclysm of character, a breathtaking, instantly iconic performance as a World War II vet who supplements his addictions to sex and toxic mix drinks with a new master – a charismatic philosopher played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has been developing a religious cult somewhat representing the origins of Scientology.

The film, captured through astonishing cinematography by Mihai Malăimare, Jr., becomes a widely scoped piece of art that examines human allegiance, however bizarre or commonplace it may be in execution, whether through memory, thought, spirit, physicality, or interaction with our fellow man. It’s terrifying and hilarious (Jonny Greenwood’s score is a haunting tone-setter), in addition to being multilayered and ambiguous, but never strays from the film that Anderson clearly wanted to make. This is his domain, one in which mindful allegiance by audience members isn’t enough. Plenty of filmmakers have ambition, but this, ladies and gents, is of a different sort. The Master asks for more than it gives, prompting certain audiences to float out to sea. Let this one wash over you. Give in, but then discover on your own terms. You will be rewarded with the best film of 2012.

On DVD/Blu-ray February 26.

 

2. Zero Dark Thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Columbia)

Written by Mark Boal

Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton

You can’t make everyone happy with a movie like this. Our government will always deny that credible information was received through torture, as is used here as a key plot device. Citizens will question our government for the amount of information received to craft such an elaborate piece of filmmaking, as well as complain that it is an indorsement of the Obama administration. These opinions remain somewhat irrelevant. Kathryn Bigelow, after becoming the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar with The Hurt Locker, has taken whatever information was received, and simply made an incredible film, as entertaining as it is powerful. I’ll never know how true Zero Dark Thirty was to the actual manhunt for Osama bin Laden, but I believe I am correctly assuming that this is more or less what went down (that said, this is no documentary).

The film does not portray the methods utilized for such an endeavor in a flattering light, nor does it denounce them. It instead presents the brutality of research and investigation under the worst circumstances, in pursuit of a seemingly unattainable goal; not only the decisions required of human beings, but the feelings that come from having to make them, especially when countless lives hang in the balance (on both sides of the equation). The film is paced impeccably well throughout its steady length, consistently dramatic until it concludes with a climax of staggering suspense.

Arguably, Zero Dark Thirty is an American landmark, showing not only how these continuously turbulent years have affected our nation, but individual people, as well. Jessica Chastain plays “the girl” who made it possible, and her dedication, in addition to the emotional, mental, and physical toll it takes, is played with an extraordinary sensibility. The film’s impact comes shining through this character, and to supplement her abilities, the performance by Jason Clarke as her co-worker is also fantastic. What Bigelow has brought to the table is a masterful piece of craftsmanship, in both substance and style. In a way, the making of Zero Dark Thirty has mirrored the daunting task that these characters are presented with. Mission accomplished. But in light of a future that will always be uncertain, to what extent do the ends justify the means?

Now in theaters.

 

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Written (with Lucy Alibar) and Directed by Benh Zeitlin (Fox Searchlight)

Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry

I’m still amazed that this is Benh Zeitlin’s first feature-length film. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, he directs young Quvenzhané Wallis with the confidence of a maestro who has been settled within his respective art form for who knows how long. Displaying the universe through the eyes, ears, and thoughts of a young child in a post-Katrina bayou, Hushpuppy (Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) navigate through the harsh realities presented by their only home, supplemented by the surreal fantasies of a girl coming to grips with self-sufficiency.

The imagery is extraordinary in its ability to be both naturalistic and enchanting, backed by a heart-wrenching score by Zeitlin and composer Dan Romer. Drenched in alcohol, littered with mythical creatures, and certainly featuring the most real performances you will see this year, Beasts is an emotional hurricane that deserves the attention of your heart, soul, and mind; cinematic poetry with a rare sense of wonder.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

 

4. Les Misérables

Directed by Tom Hooper (Universal)

Written by William Nicholson, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh

Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried

In a time when musicals are cut like rap videos, Tom Hooper’s rendition of Les Misérables looks like a masterpiece in comparison. The film is paced like a grand piece of music by its own definition, jumping from shot to shot as complement to the score’s dynamic transitions. A traditional narrative is substituted for a triumphant fusion of sight and sound,  allowing us to interpret onscreen events like a visual symphony. Featuring superb production design, costuming, and makeup effects, the film is an epic, beautifully rendered depiction of tragic mistreatment, defeated by an uncrushable human spirit, that which fails to diminish even after death. Heartbreaking and vigorously entertaining, this isn’t an easy one to forget.

In tradition of Les Misérables‘s musical structure, most dialogue is sung, much like the classic French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This style suits an artistically sound, visually splendorous story of love and rebellion, featuring remarkable performances by nearly the entire cast (Oscar nominees Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway are really given a chance to strut their stuff). Hooper recorded live audio for the musical performances, made even more impressive by the unbroken shots and close-ups in which he often uses to display them. At last, a musical that actually lingers on the performers long enough for us to be amazed by their talents. It isn’t easy for such an atypical film to exude power of this magnitude, but somehow, it works.

Now in theaters.

 

5. Silver Linings Playbook

Written and Directed by David O. Russell (TWC)

Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver

It takes a movie like Silver Linings Playbook to save modern romantic comedies from genre mediocrity, which is typically filled with mundane crap and indie flicks pretending to replicate how people actually behave. What distinguishes Silver Linings as one of the year’s best films rests in a screenplay (based on the novel by Matthew Quick) that simply does everything right, while still retaining unpredictability. David O. Russell’s movie stars a terrific, bipolar Bradley Cooper as Pat, a man attempting to reconnect with his wife, who has filed a restraining order after he viciously attacked her not-so-secret lover. The key lies in Jennifer Lawrence’s character, an impulsive woman with issues of her own. Meanwhile, Pat has taken house with his Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and mother, played by Jacki Weaver. The whole lot is nominated for Oscars, and boy, do they deserve it.

While handling weighty, dramatic themes, the film is also delightfully comic, supplemented by the fact that there rarely appears a character we don’t like (the chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is also extraordinary, as it should be). So offbeat, yet so completely human in its approach, the narrative soon strands the characters’ fates together in a film of unapologetic positivity. Silver Linings therefore transcends the feel-good film. By the time the credits roll, it has actually restored your faith in people.

Now in theaters.

 

6. Lincoln

Directed by Steven Spielberg (Touchstone)

Written by Tony Kushner

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

There is a time and place that calls for extraordinary leadership, a moment to be captured by one who is willing to make it his own. Spielberg captures such a moment with Lincoln, attempting to craft an immersive character study within a slim period of time – amongst the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and the end of the Civil War. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of the year as bearded Abe, escaping the perils of caricature through his projections of a man’s thought, personality, and aptitude, rather than supposed quirks and mannerisms. He commands the action onscreen, weaving through a terrific supporting cast, much as his political ingenuity weaves through unprecedented boundaries to draw a torn nation back together.

As if the screenplay weren’t unconventional enough for a biopic, Lincoln is a technical milestone. The production design and cinematography is somehow both lush and unflattering, and the representation of the time period so unwilling to weigh itself down in iconicity, that you can’t help but be sucked into Spielberg’s journey into American history. The dialogue consists mostly of political conversation, but is made riveting through directorial expertise. This film plants you directly into that moment, and by doing so, forces you to consider similar moments that our country will always face.

Now in theaters.

 

7. Django Unchained

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino (TWC)

Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio

It has been noted that Django Unchained is the first of Tarantino’s films to be set in an era prior to cinema’s origins. Let it also be noted that this does nothing to prevent every capable reference to his genre and exploitation inspirations, this spaghetti western/blaxploitation hybrid utilizing such material for the purposes of harnessing his own ultraviolent, often hilarious look at one of American society’s most inhuman periods. And with such character!

Django (Jamie Foxx) plays a slave fatefully freed by a German bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz, who is quite opposed to such a lurid concept as slavery, and guides Django toward the fate of rescuing his wife (Kerry Washington) from an insanely charming, yet decidedly villainous plantation owner, Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio (who arguably gives the best performance in the film). Nearly as fantastic is Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s former house slave, whose relationship with Django signifies a battle against all types of racism and dehumanization, even those purported by men who aren’t white, and have simply slipped into corruption along with the rest of society.

Robert Richardson’s cinematography utilizes aspects of budget-limited camerawork (quick zooms, overexposure, etc.) that go beyond stylistic flourishes; they enhance Tarantino’s film by visualizing a period in which things were as ugly in reality as such style often depicts its fictional, pulpy subject matter to be. That said, the landscape shots and interior sequences, minus any visual eccentricities, are impressively displayed, as well. Backed by a signature QT soundtrack that lives and breathes this film’s heat, Tarantino eventually leads us into a spectacularly action-filled climax, drenched in copious amounts of blood, and featuring some extended screams of pain. It is through these brutally violent, exaggerated elements of satire that we begin to recognize the scale of atrocity that slavery once brought upon our country, laced with racial epithets that we now sprinkle around just for the hell of it. And at the end of the day, it still manages to be fun. What an accomplishment.

Now in theaters.

 

8. Moonrise Kingdom

Written (with Roman Coppola) and Directed by Wes Anderson (Focus)

Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray

Along with Tarantino, Wes Anderson is a filmmaker whose style is so singular that it often presents worries of redundancy. Yet along with Django, this is a movie that leaps over stylistic expectations. Moonrise Kingdom is a delightful story of young love, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward sharing the screen with one of the year’s best ensemble casts, filled with Anderson favorites. Shot on Super 16, the film is a colorful, nostalgic representation of inter-generational relationships, innocence, and empathy. Always hilarious and quite touching, Anderson reaches to audiences who grew up in any period of cinematic history.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

9. Looper

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson (FilmDistrict)

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt

Snubbed for Best Original Screenplay, Rian Johnson’s Looper is one groovy story, shaking its head at the mistakes society repeatedly makes, and presenting an allegorical basis for how crime syndicates of the future get away with murder. This is modern science-fiction at its finest; Johnson’s depiction of a unique universe, visualized through elaborately stylish set design and cinematography. The narrative structure of the film is fascinating, driven by the premise of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character finding it necessary to kill his older self, played by Bruce Willis. The action, romance, and dark sense of humor blend with a love of the genre and a continuous sense of excitement, ultimately contorting the concept of time travel into a bit more than risky business.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

10. Skyfall

Directed by Sam Mendes (Columbia)

Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan

Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes

Let’s get real for a second – I f**king love James Bond. That said, Bond 23, after enjoying the prior 22 several times over, is less of a film and more of a gift. While retaining the archetypal structure that was severely missing in Quantum of Solace (yet necessarily absent in Casino Royale), Daniel Craig portrays 007 as more of a human being than we have ever seen in the franchise. While this may be a scary thought for a character who is, from a certain standpoint, less of a man and more of an icon, it works because this is the moment that the Bond reboots, beginning with Casino Royale, have been awaiting – the chance for Craig’s character to fall to rock bottom amidst the tribulations of a very real, contemporary world, and resurrect himself; become an iconic addition to what is one of the greatest film series in the world, and in doing so, revitalize the franchise with a distinctly modern, yet familiar structure.

For all intensive purposes, it achieves this through an exploration of Bond’s past, and a representation of Judi Dench’s M as the only “Bond girl” this flick needs. From a technical standpoint, Sam Mendes’ direction is sleek and assured, and the cinematography by Roger Deakins an enticing, suave manipulation of light, shadow, and color (earning him a well-deserved Oscar nomination). From one set piece to the next, Skyfall is extraordinarily well-paced, advanced through novel action sequences, and features yet another dastardly performance by Javier Bardem. I agree with Adele – “LET THE SKYFALLL!” Because it is only when our British folk hero falls and recovers, that after 50 years, we may truly be rest-assured in his immortality.

Now in theaters.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Because ten will never be enough.

 

21 Jump Street

Directed by Phil Lord, Chris Miller (Columbia)

Written by Michael Bacall

Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum

One of the best mainstream comedies in years. Self-reflexive, hilarious, and surprisingly knowledgable about the subject matter it makes fun of (mainly current high school culture), Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum invite you to like them even more than you previously did.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Argo

Directed by Ben Affleck (Warner Bros.)

Written by Chris Terrio

Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman

Argo f**k yourself. Is there really more to be said?

On DVD/Blu-ray February 19.

Bernie

Written (with Skip Hollandsworth) and Directed by Richard Linklater (Millennium)

Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey

Remember Jack Black? After seeing Bernie, Richard Linklater’s fun, eerily moving docudrama of moral investigation, you’ll wonder why he doesn’t get more roles this fabulous.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Cosmopolis

Written and Directed by David Cronenberg (eOne)

Starring Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti

Twilight fans, stay away. Econ and Philosophy students, take a hard look.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

The Dark Knight Rises [IMAX]

Written (with Jonathon Nolan) and Directed by Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros.)

Starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

A ravishing conclusion to a one-of-a-kind trilogy.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Flight

Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Paramount)

Written by John Gatins

Starring Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman

An addiction drama that continues to prove Robert Zemeckis’ flair for staging airplane crashes, while presenting Denzel Washington, in one of his best performances, as the alcoholic pilot. Along with Argo, it’s also a staple film in the resurrection of John Goodman. To any who deny his brilliance, “you’re out of your element.”

On DVD/Blu-ray February 5.

Killer Joe

Directed by William Friedkin (LD)

Written by Tracy Letts

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church

Hilariously twisted, this is a theatrical slice of near-brilliance. Plus, I’ve been waiting my entire life for the appropriate usage of Clarence Carter’s “Strokin” in a movie. It only comes down to your definition of “appropriate.”

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Life of Pi [3D]

Directed by Ang Lee (20th Century Fox)

Written by David Magee

Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan

Will Ang Lee’s latest make you believe in God? It sure will make you believe in something. Enraptured in gorgeous, three-dimensional landscapes, the title character’s cross-sea journey with a Bengal tiger is a spiritual experience, clothed in visual wonder, and representative of storytelling’s role in defining our humanity. You’ll certainly take an extra glance at the animals in your own life. And if the film affects you deeply enough, you’ll maybe even take a look at yourself.

Now in theaters.

The rest of the bunch…

The Amazing Spider-Man [3/5], Arbitrage [4/5], The Avengers [4/5], Battleship [2/5]*, The Bourne Legacy [3/5]*, The Cabin in the Woods [3.5/5], Chronicle [4/5], End of Watch [3.5/5], The Expendables 2 [2.5/5], The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [HFR 3D; 4/5], The Hunger Games [3.5/5], Iron Sky [3.5/5], Killing Them Softly [3.5/5], Lawless [3.5/5], Magic Mike [4/5], Men in Black 3 [3/5]*, Paranormal Activity 4 [2/5], Piranha 3DD [2/5], Prometheus [3D; 4/5], The Raid: Redemption [3.5/5], Safety Not Guaranteed [3.5/5], Silent House [2.5/5]*, Ted [4/5]*, V/H/S [3.5/5]

*A rating that has changed after my initial review, either after a second viewing or reevaluation.

 

What has sadly remained unseen…

Amour, Anna Karenina, Berberian Sound Studio, Brave, The Campaign, Cloud Atlas, Coriolanus, The Deep Blue Sea, Detropia, Dredd [3D], Easy Money, Frankenweenie [3D], Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance [3D], The Grey, Haywire, Hitchcock, Holy Motors, Hyde Park on Hudson, The Impossible, The Imposter, The Intouchables, Jack Reacher, Katy Perry: Part of Me [3D], The Man with the Iron Fists, Not Fade Away, The Paperboy, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Rampart, Room 237, A Royal Affair, Rust and Bone, Samsara, Searching for Sugar Man, The Sessions, Seven Psychopaths, This is Not a Film, To Rome with Love

Thanks for reading! Hopefully you’ll agree that 2013 certainly has A LOT to live up to.

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About Last Night…

“The Dictator” spilled ashes on Ryan, Angelina showed us ‘alotta leg, Esperanza sang a moving tribute, and Cirque du Soleil did their swinging thing. Yes, this year’s Oscar ceremony, produced by Brian Grazer, seemed quite staged and a little scarce on laughs, but it was often an evening of touching nostalgia for the movies – supported by a traditional hosting job by Billy Crystal, a superbly old-fashioned set, clips of celebrities expressing their mad movie love, and five awards apiece for two films that purely represented that love, The Artist and Hugo.

So yes, Best Picture went predictably to the silent French film, which happened to be the first winner shot entirely in Los Angeles. The Artist, while not likely the best film of the year, was certainly deserving of the award, preserving memory of a great era and the relevance it has to even the current film industry. Meanwhile, Jean Dujardin justly became the first Frenchman to win Best Actor, jumping to stage with glee and announcing “I love your country!” The night was filled with such smile-inducing moments, including Octavia Spencer‘s tearful acceptance of her Best Supporting Actress statuette for the The Help.

Although Viola Davis did not win Best Actress, which would have made the pair the first two African-American women to be awarded in the same year, Meryl Streep did obtain her third Oscar for The Iron Lady, giving a quite elegant speech, beat only by Christopher Plummer in his Supporting Actor win for Beginners. The 82-year-old is now the oldest winner in Oscar history, staring down at his first award exclaiming – “where have you been all my life?” Of course, Artist director Michel Hazanavicius was also victorious, screenplay awards given to Alexander Payne and company for The Descendants, and Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris, his most commercially successful film. As in most cases, Woody failed to show, as did Tree of Life auteur Terrence Malick. Cinematography was about all the most enthralling arthouse film of the year had going for it, but of course, it went to the winner of most of the evening’s technical awards, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

In addition to its superb camerawork, Hugo, the most visually impressive film in quite a while, was also honored in Art Direction, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects. On that auditory note, Ludovic Bource’s score for The Artist was awarded, Flight of the Conchords’ Brett McKenzie also taking home a statuette for Best Song, ‘Man or Muppet’ from The Muppets. Predictably so, Rango also won Best Animated Feature, and in the Foreign Language category, A Separation, which was considered by many critics to be the best film of the year, taking home an Oscar for its home country of Iran. Undefeated, a moving high school football doc, also took home the award for Documentary Feature, somehow standing out amongst a year of fabulous non-fiction films.

One of the biggest surprises of the night was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo winning Best Editing, not only because the cutting style of David Fincher’s film was relatively uninteresting and all too reminiscent of The Social Network, but also because it ran against The Artist, whose characteristic silent editing style would seem hard for the Academy to ignore. The film did win Best Costume Design, however, The Iron Lady also being awarded for Best Makeup, due to its quite prolific transformation of Meryl Streep into Margaret Thatcher.

Overall, it was quite an old-fashioned night, something we’re not quite used to seeing when the Academy shoots for younger demographics. There were surprises, gossip, and plenty of predictably historic wins. As always, Billy was enjoyable, and when quite a few happy Frenchman stormed the stage (and one very excited Jack Russell Terrier), I believe many of us were left fairly satisfied. The Oscars only come once a year. But great films constantly surround us, even if they are over 80 years in the making.

Best actor winner Jean Dujardin of France carries Uggie the dog after ''The Artist'' won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, February 26, 2012.  REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

Last-Minute Oscar Predictions

The 84th Academy Awards will be held tonight at 7pm!!! Not that I care … ya know, ’cause I’m gonna be cool and hate on the Oscars. Well, not really. We all know the awards have their issues, but along with a vast majority of movie lovers, I have always enjoyed the ceremony, year after year. And with Billy Crystal taking the reigns once again, it should be quite the show.

* I skipped the Best Animated Feature, Documentary Feature, and Short categories, considering I haven’t seen a single film in any. Plus, this post is already quite late. You know how it is.

Best Picture

What Will Win – The Artist

  • It’s been over 80 years since the first silent, Best Picture winner – Wings. It is inevitable for everything old to become new again, so expect this fact of life to be exemplified by The Artist, a shoe-in for the film industry’s most coveted statuette, and a loving tribute to the era that started it all.

What Should Win – The Tree of Life

  • Terrence Malick’s crowning achievement is pure experience, an emotional, visually astonishing evocation of humanity, the universe, and cinematic art. So naturally, it doesn’t have a chance.

Best Director

Will – Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

  • The French director’s crafty replication of an outdated art form provides him a surefire win. Malick won’t show up anyway.

Should – Martin Scorsese, Hugo

  • If it wasn’t for his “honorary” win for The Departed, Scorsese would have a running shot. He should, considering the great American director has iterated his love for film in Hugo like never before.

Best Actor

Will & Should – Jean Dujardin, The Artist

  • Silent acting is a completely different form of performance, and Dujardin, who embodies the style with utter charm and expression, will surely win the Academy’s heart, becoming the first Frenchman to win Best Actor. However, the race is very tight with George Clooney’s flawless, heart-wrenching performance in The Descendants, which I almost want to root for. Who ever thought he would be the underdog.

Best Actress

Will – Viola Davis, The Help

  • After her supporting win for Doubt, Davis has the best shot for her confident, emotional performance in The Help, a tear-jerking film of tolerance and empathy. Streep has a chance, but the Academy may now understand that she doesn’t have to win everything.

Should – Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

  • Mara was the best thing about David Fincher’s atmospheric, surprisingly lifeless adaptation/remake, making a well-known character her own and providing intrigue where the film provided none. Plus, she looks great with nip piercings.

Best Supporting Actor

Will & Should – Christopher Plummer, Beginners

  • Although I have yet to see Beginners, I find the concept of Plummer as a 75-year-old gay man who finally comes out to likely be the performance of his career. The Academy will no doubt agree, granting Plummer his first Oscar in a category that often honors lifetime achievement.

Best Supporting Actress

Will & Should – Octavia Spencer, The Help

  • Spencer’s witty, moving performance nearly stole the film from Davis! The Academy will likely try to make history, awarding two African-American women in the same year.

Best Original Screenplay

Will & Should – Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

  • Although Woody rarely attends the Oscars, it would be wise of him to show up this time. His witty, romantic, and thought-provoking script turned into one of his greatest and most successful films, and will surely be given its due.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will & Should – Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, Nat Faxon, The Descendants

  • Some hate the narration, or the emotional disconnect that may or may not occur in some scenes, but it all comes to back to a screenplay that is undeniably humane, unique, and beautifully written. Plus, it will make the voters feel better about not giving Clooney the top acting prize.

Editing

Will & Should – The Artist

  • The superimpositions, titlecards, and transitions are straight out of 1927. Perfectly executed nostalgia that won’t go unnoticed.

Cinematography

Will & Should – The Tree of Life

  • Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera takes a God-like presence in a film that portrays both the creation of the universe and a striking memory of family life with equal profundity. Not giving The Tree of Life Best Picture is predictable. Not awarding the most sensational camerawork in years would be a sin.

Costume Design

Will – The Artist

  • Hollywood loves to give itself a pat on the back. Remember when they wore that? Consider your tux golden.

Should – Hugo

  • As creative as clothing can come, Hugo‘s costuming actually makes you think about how the film’s visual components work together, producing visual poetry beyond anything in recent memory.

Art Direction

Will & Should – Hugo

  • The Paris train station is not only a societal microcosm, but along with the film’s other sets, a triumph of production design that may be one of the best in cinematic history.

Makeup

Will – The Iron Lady

  • If Streep doesn’t win Best Actress, the stuff they used to make her look like Margaret Thatcher certainly will.

Should – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

  • Makes them look past puberty! Oh wait…

Original Score

Will & Should – The Artist

  • Ludovic Bource’s score lends emotion-provoking sound to a beautiful silence. Whether the scene requires peppy fun or utter turmoil, the compositions are pitch-perfect.

Original Song

Will & Should – ‘Man or Muppet’ from The Muppets

  • Against a song from an animated bird flick, Flight of Conchords‘ Brett McKenzie should take the cake here, even though there were better songs not even nominated, including others from The Muppets. Now if only they would let the furry critters perform live.

Sound Editing

Will – Hugo

  • Whether above a bustling train station or cast within the enveloping chords of a silent movie theater, Hugo creates an immersive world not only through visual design, but also sounds that makes us look around to see where they come from.

Should – Drive

  • If you bastards are gonna nominate the year’s best action-arthouse film for nothing other than f***ing sound editing, it at least feels good to know you “understand” how incredible the audio actually is.

Sound Mixing

Will & Should – Hugo

  • If my history is correct, no film has won Sound Editing and lost Mixing. Do the voters even know the difference? Insert troll face here.

Visual Effects

Will – Rise of the Planet of the Apes

  • One word – Caesar!

Should – Hugo

  • Scorsese undoubtably proves that once in a blue moon, 3D doesn’t have to suck. But James Cameron already got that credit for Avatar, so I wouldn’t bet on a win here, even though Scorsese arguably uses the effect in an even grander way, enhancing a film about more than … well, 3D.

 

See you on the red carpet!

CKep’s Top Films of 2011

Before I reveal the picks for what I believe to be the finest films of the year, I find it appropriate to mention a few I simply missed. I particularly regret not catching Take Shelter in theaters, or not taking the trouble to hop over to a Redbox and pick up Beginners. I’ve also not had a chance to revisit my childhood with The Muppets, or been lucky enough to be located near a theater where A Seperation is playing, which has been considered by many critics to be the best film of the year. Oh well, I’ll see them all eventually. But a new year has begun, and I must therefore shift my focus to the latest arrivals. Maybe I will continue to post reviews of films from 2011, especially those released on video. After all, I’ll be back at Virginia Tech, so it will be far easier to catch films I’ve missed than to drag myself out to the theater. And if properly indicated by the movies I have chosen to be on this list, it was a fairly exceptional year that does indeed deserve a closer look.

 I hope you agree with many of my selections, and if you don’t, that’s fine too. But please comment and tell me why your opinions differed, and if you find something that intrigues you, don’t be afraid to seek it out! With each film I have indicated where it is/will become available. At the bottom of the list, I have also given a few more examples of films I have yet to see.  Contrary to the belief of several reviewers, I truly enjoyed this year at the movies, and will be quite intrigued to see which of 2011’s wonders are rewarded within the next few months. There’s a lot of good stuff out there, but hopefully this will help narrow it down.

It has only been four months since I started this blog, and I would only be so lucky for the following list to paint a picture of the great viewing experiences I have had throughout the entire year. If this is your first time checking out my film criticism, feel free to browse through the 40 or so reviews I have posted, which account for all the current releases I have seen in 2011. If you’re up for it, also take a look at my two examples of film analysis, my “about” page, and the “favorite films” list I vow to complete in 2012! I have had a great time blogging over the past several months, and hopefully, the following year will provide a list just as rich and diverse as this one.


1. The Tree of Life

People who criticize filmmaker Terrence Malick often complain that his abstract style takes precedent over story and character, two elements that many consider the visual medium’s most essential. These are not the folks who should be watching Malick films. In The Tree of Life, every shot tells a story. And through these stories, we are not only able to contemplate the lives of an entire ensemble of characters, but also apply their methods of living to understand our own place in the universe. In the midst of it all, we have an astonishing “creation” sequence reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a touching story of a 1950s Texas family, a powerhouse performance by Brad Pitt, and explorations of memory, regret, loss, forgiveness, and love.

One can’t deny the themes and structure of each Malick film are remarkably similar, but when exploring a topic as ambitious as the meaning of life, one film may never be enough. But The Tree of Life makes a convincing case that it can, arguably what Malick has been working toward in his near 40 years as a director. It is not only the film of the year, but a shining example of why films must exist.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD (Rental & Blu-ray Combo Only), Download

2. Hugo

Sure, 3D can be drag.  A majority of the time, this revitalization of the 50s “gimmick” drains picture quality and often provides no supplemental entertainment, especially when applied in post-production.  But wow, does Martin Scorsese shut up the haters with Hugo.  The great American director visually cues our eyes to every minute detail, enveloping us in the majestic locale of 1930s Paris.  He also takes us on a ride through a playground of a train station, domineered by a lonely, parentless boy whose love of fixing things leads him to find a place in the world.  And how does it happen?  Through the movies, of course.

Featuring Ben Kingsley in a performance as influential silent-film director, Georges Melies, Scorsese takes a children’s novel by Brian Selznick and not only crafts it into a perfect family film, but also an elaborate plea for the importance of film preservation. As young Hugo, played by Asa Butterfield, discovers what dreams are truly made of, it is hard not to imagine Scorsese as that child.  It is equally easy to think of ourselves, and the films we first fell in love with.  But Hugo can draw tears from a non-movie lover just as well, and for that, it remains a tribute to the impact storytelling can have on us all.

Now in theaters.

3. Bellflower

This is creativity in the truest form possible.  That is, complete lack of restraint from everything that destroys great films these days – studio intervention, lack of passion, and an incessant drive to appeal to certain audiences.  Using a homemade camera and several other self-created gadgets, debut filmmaker Evan Glodell wrote, directed, and starred in a film made by a broke team of misfits who wanted nothing more than to create movies for a living.  Thanks to the miracle of Sundance, they now have that opportunity, and as evidenced by Bellflower, a film that even Glodell self-labels as “weird-ass,” movies that are personal to their makers are far from extinct.

 

Glodell, in a fictionalized version of himself, plays Woodrow, a young man lazing it up in California with his best friend Adrien (Jessie Wiseman). Inspired by Mad Max, the two spend their time building flamethrowers and a fire-spewing muscle car named Medusa, so that when the apocalypse comes, they will assure themselves as the dudes in charge. Little does Woodrow know that the metaphoric apocalypse will soon arrive, as he quickly falls in love and is hammered with the destruction of that same relationship.

Bellflower is a film with a singular look and feel, so pulsating with life that it often resembles a living organism (albeit one on lots of drugs). It works because Glodell knows that for some poor guy out there, the world is ending right this instant. The fact that he could so accurately transport that feeling into cinema is surely the year’s greatest success story. His film, meanwhile, is one of the most wholly original in quite some time.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

4. Drive

I’ve always wanted to call a film “bloody fantastic,” and with Drive, I think I’ve found the appropriate title to fit that pun.  Maybe because the phrase buys so perfectly into the persona of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest picture, which is unconventional enough to warrant crappy film criticism as sarcasm.

What could’ve been made as an average, action blockbuster is instead channeled into an enthralling character study, helmed by a chill-as-ice Ryan Gosling.  It plays like an L.A. version of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, as the stunt driver turned vigilante takes down the scum with which he has been accidentally intertwined, the head bad guy played by none other than funnyman Albert Brooks.

There is nothing too complex about the plot of Drive, but the mood and tension Refn creates is so unexpectedly captivating, and the violence it turns into breathtakingly artful.  But style is equaled with substance, as Drive also explores themes of loneliness, humanity, commitment, and purpose. Did I mention Refn’s film also features one of the year’s most intriguing love stories? Just tack on that hip, electronic score, and you’ve got yourself a masterpiece.

January 31 – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

5. The Artist

Nothing quite evokes simple, human emotion than silent cinema, especially when it has been out of practice for nearly 80 years.  Leave it to a crafty group of French filmmakers to remind us by making one, and in doing so, present us with a film that seems startlingly new.

The Artist tracks the fall of fictional, silent-era film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), as his love interest, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), gains fame within the era of “talkies.”  Director Michel Hazanavicius so perfectly replicates the distinct style and techniques of silent cinema, as well as manipulates them for thematic effect.  The result reflects the universality that film has always had.  You will laugh, cry, and maybe even learn something.

The film belongs to its two leads, whose performances reflect not only the different methods of acting that are required between cinematic mediums, but also the importance of change in both movies and life.  Who knows what’s next for the film industry?  It’s anyone’s guess.  But The Artist is titled so for a reason.  Technology rules the movie business, and despite the amount of CGI-heavy crap that’s constantly thrown at us, somehow, the artistry within cinema will always survive.  Take Hugo, for example.  But The Artist doesn’t use 3D to prove its ideas (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Instead, it uses the past to show us that hope is not lost for the future.

Now in theaters.

 

6. The Descendants

Alexander Payne is a true maestro of “real” comedy. His films apply laughter in the most hopeless of situations, arousing emotion like only “real” life can. It then comes as no surprise that in The Descendants, he conducts what may be one of George Clooney’s greatest performances.

Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer with a disloyal wife in a coma, two daughters in his lap, and acre-upon-acre of fresh, tropical land that his native family may finally have to sell.  It is a sad movie that never overwhelms with emotion, instead sprinkled with humor in the unlikeliest of places.

The Descendants also conveys the necessity of reflection and forgiveness, doing so by displaying a man who must face life when presented with the epitome of human devastation.  This may be paradise, but as King assures us, the people who live there are just like you and me.  And at times, life calls for us to bring out the best in ourselves.  In the case of Clooney, it has also brought out the best performance of the year.

Now in theaters.

7. War Horse

Leave it to Steven Spielberg, arguably the most well-known filmmaker in America, to adapt a play that thrived upon the magic of puppeteering and insert his own brand of magic, the kind with which he has blessed the industry for over 35 years.  In doing so, he crafts an epic yarn with a horse as a metaphor for hope, in addition to the humanity that exists across all borders.

There is something in War Horse for every audience, and the emotion it arouses couldn’t be more genuine.  Only in John Ford has a sunset looked quite like this.  Whether young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is riding his noble creature through the English countryside, or attempting to simply stay alive as he climbs out of the home trench, the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski provides some of the year’s most astonishing imagery.

This is old-fashioned cinema in its purest form, continuing to prove that great filmmaking is always more necessary than original storytelling.  War Horse is one we have all heard before, but if I were still a child, it would be one I’d want to hear every evening before bedtime.  Spielberg can truly make anything new, and by doing so, he never ceases to guide home the human spirit.

Now in theaters.

 

8. Moneyball

Moneyball, the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, would seem like the least likely material to inspire a crowd-pleasing sports flick.  Thus said, Bennett Miller’s film is far more than your run-of-the-mill Cinderella story.  In a book filled with statistics and a singular appeal to baseball fans, an ingenious screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin has transformed a hybrid of sports and business jargon into a film about weighing one’s values in every game we play, including the big dance – life itself.

Brad Pitt gives another superb performance as Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics manager who with the inspiration of a young, Yale economics graduate, Peter Brand (played spectacularly by Jonah Hill), changes baseball forever as he selects players almost exclusively for their on-base percentage, allowing a broke franchise to pioneer a winning team.  This may be the story of that 2002 season, but it is more accurate to describe it as a testament to one man’s faith and intuition, in addition to the decisions he must make to find happiness and redemption.  Punch that into a calculator.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

9. Midnight in Paris

It’s no secret that New York is the official kingdom of Woody Allen, so a love-letter to Paris by the quirky 76-year-old couldn’t be more of a pleasant surprise, especially when the hilariously neurotic director writes and directs nearly one film per year.  Allen came up with the title Midnight in Paris before he even knew what the film would be about, and the passion he injected into those three words is apparent in every beautiful, warm-colored frame of his best movie in years.  It is also the most commercially successful he has ever had.

Owen Wilson is perfect as Gil, a screenwriter working on his first novel, who soon finds himself face-to-face with caricatures of his favorite literary and artistic idols of the 1920s, including Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein.  His misunderstanding fiancée, played by Rachael McAdams, has no clue that throughout their stay in Paris, Gil is making a magical time jump each night.  But she also does not understand the love her partner has for this city, and how magical things can happen for anyone who dispels the fear and illusion that cloud each of our lives.

Gil may find true romance in the past, but ultimately, the best time is always the present.  Woody Allen is sure living in the now, and he channels Owen Wilson for a role that requires not just an actor, but a real person, too.  Midnight in Paris is pure hilarity, but not without the grace and wisdom of a true American auteur.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD,  Download

 

10. Melancholia

With the creation of the world filling in my number one spot (if that is what we actually witness), it is only fitting that my top ten conclude with the end (which is definitely what happens).  The second Danish director with a film on this list, Lars von Trier, utilizes many influences in his beautiful symphony of destruction, including opera and German romanticism.  But the biggest influence of all is von Trier’s own bizarre sensibility.

Kirsten Dunst gives a terrific, psychologically dense performance as Justine, a woman who gets married upon the eve of the world’s anhillation.  Melancholia first arouses interest as we wonder what the characters may or may not know about the rogue planet that will soon crash into Earth, and becomes even more captivating as the bride’s depression allows her to partially infiltrate the fathom of our universe.  Meanwhile, her sister, Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), obtains the initial anxiety that Justine had upon her wedding day, and the trading of feelings between the two women becomes a story of its own.

There are many images in Melancholia that are hard to shake.  But von Trier’s biggest success lies in the fact that he can make a film about the human psyche that is so devoid of hope, yet seduces you with a sensory and emotional experience that is both completely unique, as well as immensely satisfying.   The apocalypse has been rendered onscreen several times before, but rarely can we feel it in our very soul.

Now Available – Amazon Instant

March 13 – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

11. Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olson, sibling of Mary-Kate and Ashley, gives a quite hypnotic, debut performance as a young woman who becomes partitioned from reality, escaping a cult only to find herself unable to adjust to normal society.  Her identity dissociated between two lives, and being unable to communally accept either, she begins to suffer from intense fear that the cult is following her, haunted by the image of their leader, played chillingly by John Hawkes.

The first film by writer and director Sean Durkin is a perfect example of a thriller that prefers silence over action in order to draw the necessary suspense.  In essence, this is a simple story, but the cinematic technique (especially the editing by Zachary Stewart-Pontier) is as intelligent as it comes.  Martha Marcy May Marlene successfully weaves between past, present, and hallucination with seamless execution, not only firmly planting us inside the mind of its protagonist, but also forcing us to walk away with paranoia equal to her own.

February 21 – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

12. The Trip

What could be funnier than dueling Michael Caine impersonations?  Probably a lot of things, but throughout the entire duration of The Trip, it is hard to remember the last time laughter was so effortlessly drawn.  British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves in this film version of the BBC miniseries, as the two tour fancy restaurants in northern England for an article Coogan has been hired to write for The Observer.  The friends/rivals try to one-up each other constantly, in nothing other than an attempt to avoid all the problems typical of adulthood (and semi-celebrity).

The Trip is a film about how much acting means to those who are blessed with such talent, as well as the hold it has over what one wants out of this mysterious life.  Funny and sad in equal measure, this is a comedy that truly captures the pain behind what it takes to make people laugh.

Now Available – DVD, Netflix Instant

 

13. 13 Assassins

Needless to say, number thirteen was a quite obvious choice.  Cult director Takashi Miike takes story elements from one of the classic films of Japanese cinema, Seven Samurai, in addition to the 1963 film of the same title, and formulates his own bloody epic.  But of course, this culminates in one of the most spectacularly staged battle sequences in years, topping out at nearly 45 minutes.

With cinematography by Nobuyasa Kita, and a sensational performance by Koji Yakusho, 13 Assassins is as emotionally involving as it is a completely immersive thrill ride.  But before the film descends into limb-slicing nirvana, we become introduced to an entire palette of characters, in addition to a gradual immersion in the themes that battle will accentuate.  Yet at the heart of this grandiose action film lies a beautiful story about the horrors of war.  What makes 13 Assassins great is that amidst the elaborate destruction, it provides the hope that this society may soon move beyond it.

Now Available – Blu-ray, DVD, Download, Netflix Instant

Here we are, almost at the bottom.  For the two remaining entries, I have actually discussed a duo of films for each, all being movies I gave a 4/5 rating in my initial reviews (those above consist of every film I have given a 4.5 or 5).  I thought this would be a nifty way to conclude the list, rather than typing up a slew of honorable mentions.  I like most of the films I trouble to see, so naturally, I don’t want my end of the year list to include almost every flick I’ve reviewed in 2011.  Nonetheless, I thought the following four deserved recognition.

 

14. A Dangerous Method & 50/50*

The formation of psychoanalysis is a fascinating topic, and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, starring Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, is a terrifically acted, strangely distant story about the emergence of modern thought.  Keira Knightley, in an over-the-top, yet unfairly criticized performance, plays the woman who affects them both, spawning a series of events that causes each man to view these new theories of the mind in quite different ways.  It is a very poetic film, never playing to any emotional expectation, but instead, asking for psychoanalytical interpretations of its own.

50/50, meanwhile, is also about the relationship between two men, but in a quite different fashion.  Screenwriter Will Reiser, who scribes a comedic drama of his own life-changing experience, was diagnosed with cancer in his late 20s.  But luckily, he had a pal to help him through. Who? Foul-mouthed actor Seth Rogan, of course.  So naturally, Rogan portrays the best friend of a protagonist played with convincing sweetness by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who upon learning that he has developed a rare form of cancer with a 50/50 rate of fatality, must weigh his fears and desires against what he has yet to experience in life.  Also featuring great performances by Bryce Dallas Howard as Levitt’s indecisive girlfriend and Anna Kendrick as a lovely, young therapist, 50/50 mixes uproarious laughs with the inevitable sadness of mortality.

* I never formally reviewed 50/50, but considering I wanted to post this list in a timely manner, I did not find that to be a bother.  After all, I didn’t see the film in theaters (I caught it online a few days ago) and would have likely written a short capsule review at this late stage in the year.

A Dangerous Method – Now in theaters.

50/50 – January 21 – Blu-ray, DVD, Download

 

15. Bridesmaids & The Help

2011 was lucky enough to feature two superb, female-driven ensemble films.  The first, Bridesmaids, proved the gleefully raunchy humor that mass-produces so many awful male comedies is appealing to most young adults with the ability to laugh, regardless of gender.  In addition, we are given a compelling story with intelligence, wit, and a genuine understanding for why people think, feel, and behave the way they do.  Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote, gives a star-making performance as a single woman who tries to understand her feelings about the soon-approaching wedding of her best friend, played by Maya Rudolph.  Stealing every scene, however, is the hilarious Melissa McCarthy, solidifying Bridesmaids as the year’s funniest mainstream comedy.

The Help, a moving drama based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, is adapted with necessary humor and gentleness by writer/director Tate Taylor.  Emma Stone, gorgeous as ever, is turning into quite the actress, and as the writer who touches upon Civil Rights in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, she gives a shining performance.  And as two African-American servants who have raised the children of rich whites, only for them to become clones of their parents, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer do nothing short of inspire.  One of the year’s most uplifting, this is a fine film to end the list of a great year at the movies.  Let’s hope 2012 has more to offer than doomsday prophecy.

 

CKep still needs to see…

The Adventures of Tintin, Another Earth, Attack the Block, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Guard, The Ides of March, J. Edgar, Life in a Day, Meek’s Cutoff, Margin Call, My Week with Marilyn, Rango, Shame, The Skin I Live In, Submarine, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Young Adult … and several others!

 

Thanks for reading! Keep in touch this year … and as always, happy viewing!

Corey Koepper (CKep)