Thursday, February 21, 2013

Best of 2012: Part 2 - The Top Ten


A special forces team enters a crumbling tenement building in hopes to find and capture the drug lord that lives on the top floor. But the bad guys get the jump on them, lock down the building and alert dozens upon dozens of thugs and foot soldiers to their presence. Now the mission changes. Get out and stay alive. THE RAID is one of the best action movies of the last decade and gives France a run for it’s francs by raising the bar on stunts and choreography to more than just your average parkour monkey shines. It kind of takes a cue from the heyday of 80’s/90’s action and super charges it. The everyman vs. the evil army turns into the Supermen vs. the super evil army. It’s like watching gods clash with gods without having to hear Avatar guy’s terrible accent.


Tim Burton has been on the outs with fans for a while. After a few personal failures he kind of hid behind the sure thing. Doing adaptations that seemed too obvious to add his unique aesthetic to. But when ALICE IN WONDERLAND became a bigger hit than anyone involved was expecting, Disney offered him the chance to do whatever he wanted. His choice was the first surprise. He wanted to remake the live action short that not only got him his first jobs in Hollywood, but in an ironic twist, got him fired from Disney. But this time, make it feature length, in stop motion and in black and white. Trusting the man that made a billion dollars with funny hats and rubber Crispin Glover, they left him alone. This must have invigorated his creativity because FRANKENWEENIE is the best film he’s made since BIG FISH. The lead is a misunderstood boy living in a cheery suburb. His macabre fascinations earn him odd looks from neighborhood busybodies, much like Burton’s real childhood. When his beloved pet Sparky unexpectedly dies, he uses the power of alchemy and b-movie horror to bring him back to life. But this power gets put into the wrong hands and gets unleashed in the dark and creepy manifestations that Burton does best. As a guy who is generally not into animals, it always surprises me when I end up majorly falling for the relationship between an owner and his pet. I grew up with dogs and very few movies actually put forth the effort to portray an animal’s genuine personality. Instead favored approach is having them drive cars, wear sunglasses and high five the nearest kid when a robber slides into a carefully stacked display of pickle jars. Here, you end up caring for Sparky as if he were real. This should have opened the door for massive merchandising potential. But alas, the black & white stop motion movie could not drum up the interest that jabberwockying Johnny Depp does. It’s a shame because Burton does receive a lot of criticisms for his later movies, and this is such a welcome return to form. I hope on video, it finds its audience. Because it definitely has one. More super points for the awesome Karen O soundtrack jam, “Strange Love”.


During one of the many interviews that were conducted with the subject of documentary, star sushi chef Jiro, reveals that he regularly dreams he’s making sushi. He’s in his twilight years and he’s been devoting his entire life into perfecting this dish, that even when his body is at rest, his brain is still working. Jiro’s sushi stand is one of the most sought after eateries in all of Japan. It is small and modest, with a waiting list of about six months and a price tag equivalent to about 380 American dollars. For that you sit down, and experience the food that is chosen for you in the order that he wants you to eat it in. We get to see one such group that is lucky enough to eat food that has received the highest accolades and made by what many consider to be the best sushi chef in the world. Mid-way through the meal, when Jiro feels comfortable enough to converse with his patrons, he reveals that he’s cut his sushi in different sizes in proportion with each person, so they could all finish at the course at the same time. He also watches them and when he sees someone eat with their left hand, the placement on the plate changes accordingly. When that scene happens in the movie, my eyes just started to water. I’m not even sure why, but I was so profoundly moved by the man’s devotion not only to the food, but to how it is experienced. Right down to the individual. It’s a transcendence that a chef could never possibly hope to achieve, but there he is. Making sure what comes off of his board perfectly makes its way into your mouth by means that most people might not even bother to think of. Finding perfection is hard, but finding inspiration as it turns out, is really easy.

7. THIS IS 40

I think a lot about the bias I have when making up these lists. After all, any sort of ranking is nothing more than subjective. I have an incredible bias when it comes to the work of Judd Apatow and friends, as the quality of work that comes from them and the methods they use work best for me. The funniest comedy with emotional moments that resonate to what I feel is a universal appeal. THIS IS 40 follows the continuing adventures of Deb & Pete, supporting characters from KNOCKED UP and how they are coping with getting older, growing kids, sense of purpose and faults with each other. The family dynamic is one of the easiest ways to connect with a broad audience. Everyone has family and none of them are perfect. The comedy comes from honest situations and pop culture references that will delight the heart of even the most exhausted of Paul Rudd audience. It’s been criticized for being too mean or too yelly or being one long argument that never ends. But when I watch it I get a sense of comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my familial relationships. Rudd, Mann and both li’l Apatows hit it out of the park. He may be nepotistic, but he goes with what works.


Consciously or subconsciously, I’ve come to realize that my favorite genre of movies is the comic book superhero adventure. This sucks for me because, admittedly, 90% of all these movies are terrible. But it’s the shining examples of greatness that come around every once in a blue moon that make it the sweetest plumb. Marvel Studios went on the daunting task of taking the its characters that studios had been unable to develop, and develop them on their own in live action feature films, with the intention of throwing them all together in one giant team up movie under the banner ‘THE AVENGERS: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES’. Even though it sounds easy and even though they made it look easy, this is a near impossible task. And it had its share of speed bumps in the journey to our theater screens. The biggest being that Edward Norton is not there alongside Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. But the big cuddly blanket and hot mug of cocoa that Marvel gave us, as if to say “Everything is going to be alright”, came in the form of Joss Whedon. Once he was in I knew not only was this going to be a giant hit, but it was also going to be good. Whedon understood that despite all the power and gifts that these characters possessed, it was only interesting if they had to battle something that their powers couldn’t take of. And Whedon faced similar hurdles. He had to wrangle many characters, with many arcs and storylines and different tones and styles along with the egos of all the actors playing them (RDJ walked in and told Whedon that the movie should begin, revolve, and end with him. Try telling Marvel’s super star ‘no’ on that one). He had to do it in a timeframe and a budget and all under massive expectations with just the experience of television and one film under his belt. In a more logical world, the results of his efforts should be rewarded with at the very least, a best directing Oscar nomination. Not only is it a spectacular visual spectacle to behold, but it has fantastic performances, one of which had to be translated through a special effect and despite being the character with the least popular theatrical presence, came away stealing the movie as it’s most dramatic and it’s most fun element. He even assembled Soundgarden again, for godsake. To put it simply, THE AVENGERS is chips on chips. It’s everything we ever wanted to see done in a way that doesn’t treat us like morons. It takes material previously classified as ridiculous and unfilmable and instead of trying to stuff it a paticular box, it writes it’s own code. Even at the end, it hints that the next enemy will come from the stars, alluding to the vast reaches of the Marvel universe that you never thought you wanted to see. Warner Brothers and DC got a big fat honking gauntlet thrown onto their lap, and hopefully a little distinguished competition will keep us entertained for the coming years.


This is the only “Oscar” movie on my list. Only a few times over the past few years, 2010 in particular, the Academy and I’s views have been roughly similar. Although, now I think that ironically, the only reason Quentin’s movies get nominated anymore is also the reason the Oscars have sucked shit for the past 15 years. Harvey Weinstein and his stranglehold on the voters. But let’s not focus on him or pushing a movie that was at first intriguing and then disappointingly cliché, and not even the best movie of the year to end in a dance competition. Let’s focus on Quentin Tarantino’s vision of the old west as seen from the south. In the 90’s, when up and coming indie filmmakers were being shepherded into the mainstream, the prospects of what they can achieve in the future was the most exciting aspect of these new rock gods.  We loved the crime thrillers that Quentin was making and would dream of what a Tarantino Kung Fu movie would be like. Or a Tarantino WWII movie. Or even a Tarantino western. Amongst the less incendiary criticism for this movie, was that he was just retreading territory from his last few movies. Probably because they consider these genre pictures just above novelty. True, these kinds of B-movie matinee grind house films were the movies that Quentin grew up on but they are also the movies that taught him character and storytelling. And through the pain, sorrow, heartbreak and ultimate redemption that can be found on the path to revenge, the man obtained the building blocks in which he brings us these masterful stories filled with fantastic performances and emotional musical interludes. Everything in DJANGO UNCHAINED was supremely crafted over a lifetime of loving film and was executed amazingly, notably by Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio. I make it a habit to read a Quentin Tarantino screenplay as soon as they leak, as it turns out reading and seeing the movie can be two different experiences. Omitted in the film, is the introduction of Dicaprio’s character, Calvin Candie. I was originally disappointed that it wasn’t there as it went a long way in showing you just how darkly intense and foreboding the character was but for whatever reason, they chose to leave it out. But they did write a whole other ending to the dinner scene that while different, highlighted every part of why I loved the character so much. I naively proclaimed to no one in particular that whoever played this role would be a shoe in for an Oscar, and while his name circled the airstrip, it never came in for a landing. Not only is this so high on my list just for sheer competence in movie making, but for having my favorite performance of the year.


There are two things that Wes Anderson excels at that keep me a die hard fan. His take on the family dynamic and his honest yet poignant nostalgia for childhood. In this movie, two young kids who have been, in one way or another, abandoned by their families find in each other their wounded little souls. And for the first time experience what it’s like when another person understands what you’re going through. Wes Anderson’s version of childhood can be embarrassingly accurate. The yearning to appear older and more experienced than you are is usually played for laughs but sometimes it can be bittersweet.  Everything is more intensified when you’re older. Instead of silently seething at hated coworkers, in childhood it seems like your enemies actively sought to cause you harm and destroy you. Your passions are your entire life. Your feelings always seemed to be dismissed because, after all, you’re just a kid and you don’t have real feelings yet. This all plays out by two gifted young actors of which Anderson always seems to find to fit his cinematic voice. If you watch other children characters from his movies, they all seem to come from the same crop of kids and always seem to perfectly belt out his dialogue. Like they’re all really his muppets and operated by him. Anderson has had problems in the past with letting the big style and set pieces of his imagination run away with the movie, but it strikes a good balance here. I think he would make a pretty bomb ass stop motion Peanuts movie. Anderson’s got the Peanuts voice in him. Listen, dummy. If you complain about every Debra Messing/Sarah Jessica Parker/Kathrine Heigl/Kate Hudson romantic comedy piece of garbage, but still have a heart and soul that needs nurturing than this hits some genuine beats while staying pretty original. No dead eyed, coked out, magazine whoring shill in this one to gum up the works. 


Richard Linklater is a mystery to me. He’s one of those directors that can walk on both worlds. Indies. Studio pictures. He’s had hits on either side. Multiple genres attempted. Sequels? Remakes? He’s literally done it all. Sometimes his choices are baffling. At first glance, this movie doesn’t look like much. Even if I told you the plot, which sounds like I’m spoiling it, it’s not a movie that doesn’t lend itself to explanation. You just have to see it yourself. And try as I might to sway anyone’s interest in seeing this movie or that movie, you pledge your allegiance to one Tyler Perry movie and people will never listen to you again. This movie was based on a true story and could very well be one of Aesop’s fables if he still did that kind of thing. Jack Black plays Bernie, a small town man, beloved by his community, who’s regular proclivity to being a kind and giving person is slowly sucked into the vortex of a bitter woman who uses her profound wealth to shield herself away from the world. He trades his companionship for lavish gift and exotic vacations. But she does not warm up and her venomous personality begins to poison ol’ Bernie until he finally snaps and murders her. This isn’t what the movie is about. When the town finds out, and Bernie stands trial, they only see the loving man that Bernie is and always was. And remember her for being a fucking nasty old coot. A situation they could understand and sympathize with more, there could not be. And thus, a world where moral ambiguity grows to fever pitch levels in this bizarre Coen brothers esque sort of town peppered with real live citizens of the real live town giving commentary as if this were a documentary. The line between reality and fiction also blur. Sure this all makes for rich dark comedy, but this really happened. Are you getting sucked into the proceedings or is this how you’d really feel if you were a person in this town? In any other hands, this would be a prime candidate for your run of the mill 4pm TNT Sunday movie, but Linklater and Black put a way more interesting and original spin on it that you’re just gonna have to jump into to fully realize.


Speaking of originality. Whoa. What a golden age of movies we have where this movie can not only exist but be as good as it is. Check your fan fiction negative nelly bullshit at the door. Just because this isn’t the Rockstar energy drink induced all night Street Fighter vs. Pac Man fist fight fantasy that you’ve been furiously and angrily masturbating to in a room full of posters of female wrestlers…doesn’t mean you can’t accidentally fall for a charming little tale of identity and friendship. In fact, the novelty of having real video game characters all live in the same world and interacting with each other was not over done and presents itself just enough before it starts getting boring. There’s even a lot of bonus and better-done candy references in the Sugar Rush video game world where a lot of the action takes place. The story involves two obsolete video game sidekicks who are out to prove, mainly to themselves that they have some worth by winning the in game awards that their machines provide but have been deprived of for so long by being kept on the sidelines. It’s funny how most people describe movies in order to get others to see it. You can talk about all the recognizable characters you’ll see, and all the funny jokes and gags that happen in world that’s a giant video game. But nobody says “The character dynamics were really well thought out” or “They all had great chemistry” or “The Production Designer was perfectly cast as a gumdrop”. Yet these are the things that I want to shout from the heavens. The thing is, with me, you don’t have to have a big song and dance to get me in the theater. The way I operate, I’ll see most anything that doesn’t appear particularly offensive. But it really is so refreshing to have these high concept ideas be handled with care and actually have all the well-greased cogs and sprockets working together in harmony. There’s a moment at the end between the two main characters that brought tears to my eyes, and it wasn’t because Donkey Kong and M. Bison could finally high five. It’s because of what two fictional characters meant to each other, cg or live action or go motion. And what a miracle that is when THAT is possible.


Have you ever seen a movie that completely rendered a genre obsolete? You walked out of the movie, dusted off your hands and went “Well, they’ve done it. Nothing more to see here”. That’s what THE CABIN IN THE WOODS has done for horror. They made the ultimate horror movie that makes you feel like your imagination is a dumb idiot that doesn’t work hard enough. That’s what Whedon does best. He presents these things to you that are so fulfilling and so obvious but you never in a million years would have had the mind balls to think of. A bunch of teenagers set off in a van for a lonely old cabin in the woods, prepared to drink and have sex and whatever else you can do in a cabin. But some sort of secret organization is engineering the events that unfold, turning it into your average slasher fest. Things don’t go exactly as planned and horror as we know it turns on it’s ear. Saying anything more will spoil the tricks and treats of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. How much better of a recommendation can the best movie of 2012 be? It’s itself! There were points where I thought “It would be cool if…” and then something 11 times better happened. Even if you’re not a fan of horror, I can’t imagine you how you won’t be entertained by this. Joss Whedon not only mastered one, but two genres of movies this year. He should be in charge of Hollywood from now on. I hope with his newfound success, that Marvel will eventually let him loose long enough to take on other things. Watching his movies give me a brief glimpse of what it would be like to be a creative genius. If made in 1991, this would be a shoe in for an MTV Movie Award, but even THOSE are corrupt now. Good thing you all have me.

- D