Summer 2013 … Shall We Begin?

The Great Gatsby (Warner Bros.)     ½

Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Written by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan

And people complain about Michael Bay.  I instead blame Baz Luhrmann as Hollywood’s primary sucker of souls, grasping any material with the slightest bit of feeling or intellect and injecting his poisonous brand of superficiality.  He reduces all performances, including that of the normally brilliant DiCaprio, into just another element in his cartoonish backdrop of New York in the Roaring Twenties, forgoing any attempt at drama by structuring The Great Gatsby as a series of montage-style, visually incoherent sequences that are edited together like rap videos (how fitting to have a Jay-Z soundtrack then) and strung together only by Maguire basically reading the novel.

It is a painfully literal adaptation, incorporating contemporary elements and eye-popping visuals that are desperate to please, depriving the source material of all poetry, and poorly executing all of the elements it could have easily utilized in its favor.  Instead, for all it vomits onto the screen, Gatsby resembles little more than a wooden board; you feel nothing the entire time, and end up rather bored, yourself.  In the end, one learns not the folly of living in the past and holding false value in things that shine.  All you’ll want to do is put this film far behind you, and wonder how they thought something this shiny could possibly ring true.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 1.5/5

Iron Man 3 [3D] (Disney)     ★★★½   

Directed by Shane Black

Written by Drew Pearce & Shane Black

Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kinglsey

After a fairly entertaining, but equally lackluster sequel, Iron Man soars back with this follow-up to both the first two movies and Marvel’s Avengers outing.  Excellent as usual, Downey leads the familiar cast through the occasionally choppy waters of plot incoherence (the Christmastime setting also raises some eyebrows), but arguably, this is one of the wittiest, most action-driven pieces of entertainment Marvel has ever released.  It’s edgy, visually spectacular, and thanks to Black’s direction and co-writing, a dark action-adventure with successfully comic, even satiric elements.

I will say, however, that the problem of Mickey Rourke being under-utilized as a compelling villain in Iron Man 2 is not successfully remedied with Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, even with the placement of Guy Pearce’s character in the script.  Like many elements in Iron Man 3, the execution feels just a bit weird.  It seems determined to jump from one key moment to the next, the plot and editing sometimes feeling disoriented.  Yet the film still seems more acceptable than its predecessor, which basically lay dead in the water.  And for all it’s worth, the hyperactive package ends up being extraordinarily entertaining.

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I do wish there could have been a bit more drama and feeling packed into the romance in peril that should’ve been closer to the movie’s core strength, but hey, it ends up being emotionally satisfying, and for all the explosions and ass-kicking (sometimes without Downey even in the suit) the series hasn’t lost its humanity or affinity for character.  Robert Downey, Jr. became Tony Stark after likely the most turbulent period he will ever face in his life, and his attachment to that persona, like this movie, is still an infectious joy.  For a fresh beginning to the comic-book studio’s next line of cash-grabbers, it starts things off marvelously.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 3.5/5

Star Trek Into Darkness [IMAX] (Paramount)     ★★★★

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof

Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch

To be frank, I rank J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek as one of the greatest blockbusters of the past few decades.  Anyway you cut it, for Trekkers or first-timers, it really has the goods.  So one could say that my expectations were quite high for this sequel.  At least it’s a relief for Into Darkness to recognize the primary flaw behind its design – the Star Trek franchise is about exploration, discovery, adventure, and benefits/dangers to civilization that come from it, not simply action sequences that happen to be located in outer space.  The film never stoops that low, but it occasionally teeters close to the line.  Yet this Trek excuses itself through pure relevance in its place within the new series, by using such a structure to develop necessary character arcs.  It shows that sometimes danger finds us at our most morally vulnerable, often in the form of individuals who serve ethically indefensible purposes.

And while the decision to once again focus the primary antagonist as a single man may be questionable, Benedict Cumberbatch does an exceptional job.  Fans may be split on whether or not they appreciate the writers toying with popular plot elements of the franchise, but frankly, the execution is so well-done that Star Trek Into Darkness is nothing less than an exceedingly thrilling, engaging, funny, and yes, dark follow-up to what I consider to be somewhat of a contemporary classic.  I still love the cast beyond word, and the crew of the Enterprise, giving ever-terrific performances, surely earns our emotional investment more than ever before. 

While the visuals may be terrific, those helming the Abrams franchise have continued to indicate that this is a character-driven series, and their developments are what make it work, and what immerse us even farther beyond the wonderful excitement that everything else in the film offers.  While the plotting may be somewhat, umm … ‘illogical,’ audiences are likely to be pleased with how several layers are gradually unveiled, revealing the movie to be a tale of highly difficult decision-making in morally ambiguous times of distress, and how this effects the genuine relationships between humans (and half-humans).  It may not be Trek’s original mission, but this a series being shown to the generation of a different world, and for what it offers, Into Darkness makes you hungry for more, and instills promise that the series will continue to explore beyond the reaches of its proven intelligence, spectacle, and heart.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4/5

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Quick Takes – Early 2013

New releases that I’ve caught in theaters from January through April, concluding with my favorite film of the year thus far.

 

January

Texas Chainsaw [3D]   ★ 1/2

Hilariously perpetuating all the stereotypes of terrible horror film remakes/reboots (from shortening the title to pitifully attempting to make the villain sympathetic), this shabby effort to revamp the series is awfully two-dimensional.  The only good part about it is glimpses from the original in the opening segment.

Mama   ★★

This Guillermo del Toro-produced horror flick is decently well-acted (hey there, Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain) and bathed in an excellent sensibility for neo-gothic tone and atmosphere.  Unfortunately, the terribly constructed, credibility-lacking script tends to jut audiences out of the story with several giggles to spare; which is a real bummer, considering the scares often consist of little more than ‘gotcha’ moments.

February

Side Effects  ★★★★

A wonderfully interesting thriller, marred only by one too many false endings and some irksome performances, directed by Steven Soderbergh and with a screenplay from his Contagion collaborator, Scott Z. Burns.  The crafty script accompanies the now-perfected digital aesthetic from the prior, also including a contemporary Hitchcock vibe that introduces greater suspense, thematic intrigue, and genuine fun.

March

Oz the Great and Powerful [3D]   ★★ 1/2

One cannot help but marvel at the virtual (and as a much-needed relief, occasionally practical) environments of this return to Oz, but we are also welcomed to the land of terrible casting, obnoxious characters, and people/actions that just don’t gel within a beyond trippy, 3D landscape that steals the show.  It is spontaneously fun, but there’s no heart, mind, or courage here.  The whole thing feels just a bit illogical, and entirely uncomfortable.

Spring Breakers   ★★★★ 1/2

Harmony Korine grabs mainstream Hollywood by the balls with his dark, scathing satire on our fascination with party culture and our subconscious encouragement to corrupt the angelic, youthful figures (the Disney crowd, y’all) we hold on a higher pedestal.  Featuring James Franco in his most hilariously unhinged performance, Korine sends a generation of young adult viewers straight to the hell it romanticizes.

April

Evil Dead   ★★★ 1/2

Although it turns down the wit and vamps up the harshness of Sam Raimi’s horror saga, this quirky gorefest is still extraordinarily fun, despite the fact that it really presents nothing new.  Good thing the raw terror, extreme violence, eccentric cinematography, and hilarious absurdity of it all is still just as effective.  Hopefully, it lives to serve both fans and those who have never heard the name Bruce Campbell ever mentioned in non-ironic regard.

To the Wonder   ★★★★ 1/2          Terrence Malick has never come so close to visualizing a love poem of his own hand, held together by strained faith like cinematic glue.  The end result has a singular beauty.

The Place Beyond the Pines   ★★★★

Precisely what modern filmmaking needs.  Derek Cianfrance has proved himself as an extraordinarily capable storyteller, weaving through a three-act tale of fathers and their sons with tremendous performances from the lead players.  Some may argue that the material is stretched too thin, yet it has the poetic soul of a Greek tragedy, construction reminiscent of great literature, and a dreamlike tone that meshes with deliberately straightforward dialogue, allowing the audience to hinge on climactic, yet inevitable moments, both those of searingly fast motorcycles and hidden whispers of conscience.  This is an epic film with a remarkably independent aesthetic, and as just consequence, the emotional thrill ride it provides is a satisfying, unpredictable experience.

Rhyme, Rhythm, and the Love in Between

To the Wonder (2013)     ★★★★ 1/2

Written & Directed by Terrence Malick (Magnolia Pictures)

It is an unfair assumption to read Robert Frost and expect Herman Melville. And as we come to define great poetry as a subdivision of literature, why do we not do the same for cinema? Sure, we can classify material as arthouse, experimental, or avant-garde, but the word “poetic” tends to personify a particular feeling aroused from specific styles of filmmaking, rather than coming to define that style itself. I say this because it has become quite clear that Terrence Malick is one of cinema’s only remaining poets. Using the example of Frost, which may cause those to cringe who are more familiar with his work than myself, we may come to expect character and storytelling within certain instances. But these elements are conveyed only through poetic conventions, rather than the dramatic ones we can expect from a great novelist such as Melville. Therefore, it becomes quite absurd that those familiar with Malick’s work, beginning with Badlands in 1973 and leaving off with The Tree of Life in 2011, walk into an art piece such as To the Wonder and expect a novel, rather than a poem.

Criticize Malick’s film all you want for a lack of character and storytelling development, but only do so if it fails to achieve these aspects through the poetic structure it ambitiously tackles. There are no dinosaurs here, but in a way, Terry has never been more abstract. Sure, The Tree of Life showed us the creation of the universe, but this was rooted in an experimental narrative that could be thematically understood to a somewhat large degree. To the Wonder possibly covers the least thematic ground of any Malick film, yet the approach taken has never been so gracefully unrestrained, so beautifully capable of visualizing emotion and spirit, so brutally truthful and longingly hopeful.

Ben Affleck, in a performance that redefines subtle, is simply a masculine presence; this is a character, yes, but more of a person than anything else. His little dialogue contributes to his dance within the beautiful landscape of life itself, darting in and out of love, hiding emotions and unexpectedly unleashing them. His place within the film is one that not many could play, yet this is not because of his conventional acting abilities. When the camera starts rolling in a Malick film, chances are, lines are not being read off a script before the lens; when ‘action’ is called, ‘acting’ is not an option – those in front of the camera simply have to be what the film requires of them. Olga Kurylenko plays the woman he falls in love with in Paris, while Rachel McAdams takes on the role of his childhood sweetheart. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem encapsulates the faith-worn priest who mirrors their struggles.

This all takes place within the gorgeously shot locations of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also worked with Malick on The Tree of Life and The New World. Visual effects aside, the imagery is nearly as astonishing as the prior. Using almost entirely natural light, the equally natural world is displayed with remarkable beauty, nature clashing with the infallible shadows of our characters. Much of the film takes place in a secluded area of Oklahoma, an area seemingly open to the fields surrounding it, yet constricted by the emotional and spiritual conflicts between the characters. It almost feels as though Malick drops the characters within this miniature ecosystem and simply observes as human nature takes hold (an idea I also derived from Malick’s Days of Heaven). Yet their actions are not spelled out through transition scenes and elaborate motivations; they are instead conveyed through the rhythm of the editing, the actors’ body language, voiceover (cryptic in some instances, quite blunt in others), Hanan Townshend’s lovely score, and an incredible sense of visual juxtaposition.

Much of To the Wonder is told through French narration, and it is no surprise that the film feels more European than American in its construction, even more so than Malick’s other films (influence from Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour immediately comes to mind).  The film uses this to its advantage as it explores how some lands seem unavoidably foreign to those who have not been raised within them, much as some audience members will not be accustomed to Malick’s kaleidoscopic method of filmmaking.  It also shows how those who share native lands may inevitably form a bond that cannot be easily severed, but also how this could provide false seductions equal to the allure of something foreign and different.  This is captured through the beauty that Malick and Lubezki present on both continents, yet the otherworldly in each is shown with equal measure.

And thus, this is Malick’s greatest talent – enunicating the spirituality present within everyday occurrence, the divine nature in simply living one’s life.  The story here is all of our stories rolled into one.  Why then, does it feel like nothing we’ve ever seen, even if we are accustomed to Malick’s visual fetishes?  Somehow, at least to me, it feels fresh every time.  Possibly because we are new people every time we sit down in the theater; life does not play before our eyes as it once did.

The waning faith of Bardem’s priest signifies a marriage based less on love than the hope for love; the failure of our highest hopes due to factors that lie outside of the feelings we hold most dear.  These feelings come not from ourselves, but from a greater power.  Our decisions lie in how to act upon them.  Our faith and love, whether in God or another person, can present the opportunity for one’s own vision of salvation.

To the Wonder was the last film that Roger Ebert reviewed, and it would be sinful if I did not admit here that he has inspired the way I write about cinema more than any other human being.  His final paragraph reads, “There will be many who find [the movie] elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”

So I suppose you can buy the whole “Malick is a poet thing,” or you don’t have to.  Your choice.  It is also your decision whether to like or dislike his films, be completely off-put by them or find them absolutely soul-enriching.  But after reading that final review, the romantic in me can’t help but think of Ebert as a “soul in need.”  Yet considering all I’ve read by the film critic about his peaceful views regarding death, that is probably untrue.  And maybe some of us will never have such a feeling until we approach death ourselves, or maybe a fraction of people feel it all the time.  All I know for sure is that Terrence Malick, never more self-assured with his process than in To the Wonder, gives us things that we sometimes don’t consciously understand we need. It couldn’t be more clear that some may not need what he supplies, but I feel as though I do, and as a viewer, that is enough.

Maybe more would embrace the content if they were able to become comfortable with the presentation.  But that gentle, yet visceral “jolt” is part of the experience; it’s an immersive, sensory experience with sustenance for the heart and mind.  It may not be what most viewers are looking for, but one never doubts that it is precisely what Terrence Malick wanted to share, despite how many hours of footage were shot.  The feelings are there in the final cut, and they follow you outside of the darkness.

Consider this bit of voiceover from Bardem – “You shall love whether you like it or not. Emotions, they come and go like clouds. Love is not only a feeling; you shall love. To love is to run the risk of failure, the risk of betrayal. You fear your love has died; perhaps it is waiting to be transformed into something higher. Awaken the divine presence which sleeps in each man, each woman. Know each other in that love that never changes.”

Prose or poetry?  Combined with imagery and music, it becomes cinema, or rather, Terry’s vision of it.  And if there is a single compliment that one cannot avoid giving him, it is that he has stayed true to it, and will likely never break until his body becomes free of the soul in need.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4.5/5

To Live and Die on Spring Break

Spring Breakers (2013)     ★★★★ 1/2

Written & Directed by Harmony Korine (A24)

If you were to have told me that the most compelling film of early 2013 would star Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, I would’ve asked you to stop trolling. But that, to use an overused internet term, is an accurate description of what indie filmmaker Harmony Korine has accomplished with his first “mainstream” movie, being marketed to the same audience that craves a romanticism of teenage debauchery in the blindingly stupid genre of Project X and 21 and Over, when in fact, it is an extremely dark satire of an equally tiresome pop culture, one that praises the primitive extremes we dream of throughout young adulthood. Many will be baffled, while Korine, meanwhile, cashes a substantial check for his film made with a mere $5 million.

What Spring Breakers essentially does is take the party-centric insanity viewers come to expect, turn it up to unprecedented extremes, and place it within a decisively artful piece of exploitation cinema. This is accomplished through snatching the young actresses that the filmmakers have devilishly stolen from Disney fare, manipulating them for an exploration of the overused “good girls gone bad” mantra, and instead of including them in a setting of the lighthearted escapism associated with such films, dropping them in a cinematic hell; a candy-colored funhouse of drugs, sex, alcohol, and soon enough, bullets that tear flesh and spill blood. The tone often feels reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which is in part due to the unsettling, electronica score by Cliff Martinez, while as obligation, Skrillex and Britney Spears also make key contributions.

This music carries us through the shockingly hedonistic “spring break” of four college girls, who rob a diner in order to obtain enough cash for the greatest week of their lives. They are shallow and trashy, with the slight exception of Gomez as a churchgoing babe named Faith (you may now begin to see how this film gets its kicks). In fact, they seem so desensitized to party culture that the violent, way illegal “next step” seems like no big deal; knocking off a restaurant comes naturally, almost as if they have become so accustomed to the viewing of such material as Project X that it has now taken form in their own lives. They almost seem to recognize they are in a movie, and strut their “nothing is off limits” mentality for our own sick amusement.

And then James Franco, as a rapper/drug dealer/general gangsta named Alien who enters the scene, he takes this thing to a whole ‘nother level. Franco, disappearing behind dreadlocks and quite a few tats, is hysterical in one of the most transformative performances of his career. Even as the film descends from dark comedy into unremitted action-horror, the twisted humor provided by his character rings true throughout. Shot by Benoit Debie of Irreversible and Enter the Void, Korine’s film is quite the trip; a colorful, quick-cut, sometimes handheld, noisy, slomo-driven drug that never lets you come down. That said, much of the story is told through editing, montage-style sequences driving the narrative from place to place, rather than relying on traditional story elements, dialogue, and transition scenes. The girls’ meandering dialogue is often overlaid on top of the startling imagery, lines often repeated several times, bludgeoning into our heads the repetitive nature of a cultural rut our American youth has been subjected to – a spring break that we have yet to escape. The experimental nature of the film will no doubt confuse mainstream audiences, but as crazy as it may seem, that effect on several moviegoers is necessary in order for Korine’s project to work and have long-standing impact.

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Spring Breakers is a film that finds ugliness in beautiful things, and beauty in things that are ugly; horror in comedy, and comedy in horror. By taking Barbie dolls and turning them into gun-toting minions of Satan, Harmony Korine has found a platform that is undeniable simple, yet is extraordinarily thought-provoking and fun. It’s an uncomfortable experience, but also rewarding for those willing to look past the surface of teasing hotties. It’s also damn cool. One would think that if these girls actually stopped to look around a bit more often, maybe they would find something about the world that they have been seeking in their never-ending quest for thrills; maybe, in effect, they could actually find something meaningful in themselves. Instead, Korine straps their ignorance into a roller coaster of the superficial, leaving audiences to wonder, and hopefully fear – has our culture actually gone this far?

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4.5/5

A MUCH delayed review of Andres Muschietti’s ‘Mama’

http://the-artifice.com/mama-review/

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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.

“We do not run The Artifice, you do.”

Hey guys, you should probably check out The Artifice … and not just because I’m writing for it now. This writer-maintained site, launched on November 7th, covers a wide variety of art and entertainment, which should only become more expansive as it reaches the next phase (The Artifice is in its beta stage right now, meaning some features will soon work with greater efficiency, while seemingly empty sections will eventually become overflowing auras of content). Enjoy some of the great articles already online, with links to two of mine posted below!

P.S. – Although all articles written for The Artifice must be original, don’t expect this blog to be any more neglected than it already has. Although I think I’ve sufficiently discussed both Lincoln and Flight in the second article above, the season will bring forth its tradition of bountiful, cinematic delights, enough to fill both The Artifice and my personal blog with necessary coverage.

 

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