Film Threat’s Top Movies of 2012 List

Each of Film Threat’s writers made their own picks for their favorite movies of 2012. Here is my list:

I had a hard time getting to the movies this year. I feel like I saw more bad films than good, though that is probably par for the course. There are several films that might have made the list, only I haven’t seen them. Among them are Moonrise Kingdom, Argo, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, This Is 40, and Seven Psychopaths. Of the films I did manage to catch, these are the ones I liked best:

1. The Cabin in the Woods
Number one with a “hacked off and ett” zombie arm. It’s not often that such a perfect send-up of a genre also serves as a masterful example of that genre.

2. I’m Now – The Story of Mudhoney
If you aren’t a Mudhoney fan when you start watching, you certainly will be by the closing credits. The band has a lot to be bitter about. But they aren’t bitter. In fact, they couldn’t be more gracious. These are guys who love to play music and consistently found a way to keep doing it. Ryan Short and Adam Pease have made an explosive piece of art, fueled by the raw power of Mudhoney’s music that delivers sweet comeuppance to all the folks who did the band wrong over the years.
3. Take This Waltz
Sarah Polley is a brilliantly nuanced filmmaker, mastering the art of “show, don’t tell”. She has the directorial eye of a painter, letting each shot speak volumes about her characters. Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen play no small part in weaving such a complex and morally ambiguous story about the beginning and end of love.
4. Safety Not Guaranteed
This adorable sci-fi offering to the Mumblecore genre re-defines time travel and showcases the dramatic chops of Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and Mark Duplass (every Mumblecore movie) whilst preserving their comedic charms. It’s rare that a film about time travel will be so enchanting that you don’t even begin to analyze the time-space continuity until long after it’s over.
5. Lincoln
Daniel Day Lewis plays the shit out of one of the most important U.S. presidents in the history of U.S. Presidents. Emanca-motherfucking-pator of the slaves.
6. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie
It’s not for everyone. In fact, it’s not for most everyone. But if you’re a fan of Tim Heidecker & Eric Wareheim’s surrealistic shock humor, you’ll probably laugh a lot while watching this film.
7. Grassroots
It’s amusing that one of the greatest political films I’ve ever seen is about something as seemingly insignificant as the 2001 Seattle City Council race. Stephen Gyllenhaal’s clever script is about more than just local government. In a presidential election year, it was inspiring to watch the “mostly true” dramatization of an unemployed alt weekly journalist who decides to take local politics into his own hands despite tremendous odds and a pessimistic political climate. Between “Grassroots” and “Lincoln”, I’m just swelling with democratic pride this year.
8. Looper
Another time travel goodie starring a digitally de-handsomed Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing a young Bruce Willis who is hired to kill his future self. Even though they eventually do get into it, writer/director Rian Johnson gets major points for making Bruce Willis utter the line, “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws”.
9. Old Goats
A well-told micro-budget story of a group of old men who are having trouble getting into the swing of retired life. It serves as a good reminder that even though it’s not over till it’s over, it’s never too early to start mulling over what you want to have done with your life.
10. Phantom of the Paradise
It’s probably not fair to include a film that came out in 1974 when there were other great films that came out in 2012. But it’s because of a mediocre 2012 film that I discovered this old gem, which immediately shot straight to my top 20 films of all time. “Paul Williams, Still Alive” profiles the titular prolific genius songwriter responsible for the songs of “Phantom” as well as a significant amount of musical masterpieces, including “The Rainbow Connection” and “Rainy Days and Mondays”. Williams also played a lead part in this stylized horror re-telling of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Nicolas Cage cites it as the film that made him want to be an actor. 30 seconds into the opening credits, you understand why that is. Brian de Palma was never as irreverent and groundbreaking and Paul Williams was instrumental in that mindblowing result.

Honorable Mentions:

The Comedy
There are very few people I would actually recommend this film too, but it gave me plenty to mull over and Tim Heidecker gives a beautifully understated dramatic performance about a trust fund asshole who is trying to deal with his father’s impending death.

Killer Joe
Juno Temple may be British, but I still consider her an American national treasure. I’ve never seen her do anything less than nail every single role. Here, she plays an underestimated trailer-dwelling teenage girl.

Liberal Arts
Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) wrote, directed and stars in this excellent film, which could be considered a companion piece to “Old Goats.” Turns out there are a lot of parallels between the crises of 30-somethings and 60-somethings. Furthermore, Elizabeth Olson somehow manages to play a manic pixie dream girl without being annoying about it.

Wonder Women! The Untold History of American Superheroines
Great documentary about the woeful lack of female superheroes in popular media and the impact that has female genre fans.

Read the other lists at Film Threat.

Film Threat Review: Promised Land

2012
Rated R
110 minutes

**

Remember back in the late nineteen hundred and nineties when two handsome boys from Bahston arrived on the scene and wowed everyone with an original screenplay about a socially challenged blue-collar genius also from Bahston? And then afterward, everyone debated which of the two handsome Bahstonites was the most talented? And remember how, for a long time, all signs pointed to it being the blond one?

These days, I’m starting to believe we had it all wrong. Ben Affleck is still not a great actor, but somewhere along the way he became a good one. He also became a great writer and director, while Matt Damon plateaued. Now it seems that Damon is on a gently sloping downward trajectory; first with the treacle-laden “We Bought a Zoo” and now the face-slap of a morality tale that is “Promised Land.”

Now before you go accusing me of having no heart, I should tell you that I love both Matt Damon (usually) and the environment. Furthermore, I hate greedy capitalist behemoths that want to exploit simple farm folk and rape the land (grrrr). But that doesn’t mean I have to like a mediocre film about a greedy capitalist behemoth that wants to exploit simple farm folk and rape the land. “Promised Land” is an insulting delivery system for what would otherwise be a very valuable social message about the dying American Heartland.

The credits read like fantasy indie film draft picks: Directed by Gus Van Sant. Screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski based on a story by Dave Eggers. Starring Damon, Krasinski and Frances McDormand with Rosemarie Dewitt thrown in just cuz a man can’t have true redemption unless a beautiful woman decides to love him. Damon plays career spin-doctor Steve Butler, a salesman for Global Crosspower Solutions (a name as ominous as it is vague). Global (Mr. Crosspower Solutions was its father’s name) seeks to buy drilling rights for America’s farmland in order to access the lucrative natural gas that lies beneath. Steve would be (and is) the first to tell you that he’s not a bad guy. He’s just a simple farm boy himself, hailing from a small Iowa town financially ruined after their primary industry (a Caterpillar plant) went under. He wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to any other small towns. He wants so badly to help, that he’s willing to sink to incredible depths of self-delusion in order to justify his job (emphasis on the word “incredible”). For a slick corporate shill, he’s more a rube than the local yokels he’s trying to swindle.

And that’s the point. In case you missed it (which you couldn’t possibly), Steve has been buying his own bullshit for too long. So much so that he completely crumbles whenever anyone challenges him. The writers borrow liberally from the plot of “Doc Hollywood” to deliver their messages about the dangers of corporate greed in general and fracking in particular. They assert that these are gray area issues, whilst drenching everything in black and white.

Presumably, Steve has brought his show to small towns all across the country. Yet somehow, the town of McKinley, PA is the first one to give him any trouble. His method of looking and talking like one of them is normally foolproof. But once a grizzled old science teacher (Hal Holbrook) calls him out on the dangers of fracking, Steve, along with his cynical partner, Sue (McDormand) must embark on a door-to-door campaign to win the town’s people back before the issue is put to a vote. An environmental activist named Dustin (Krasinski) poses additional challenges as he both literally and figuratively cock blocks Steve’s efforts.

It’s not all bad news. A talented cast acts its way around the ham-handed script. Krasinski is so believable in his role that it’s tempting to shout, “No! I don’t have a minute for the environment” at him whenever he’s on screen. McDormand uses her extremely expressive face to add complexity to her hard-nosed business lady character. Sadly, Rosemary Dewitt couldn’t save her character from Blandville, as she didn’t have much to work with. As a sweet schoolteacher named Alice, her character is perfectly content playing a pawn in the pissing contest between Steve and Dustin. One gets the distinct impression that Alice really doesn’t care with whom she ends up and she never seems to have much of an opinion about anything.

Damon saves most of the meat for his own character. He’s not too shabby playing a man who resists having his bubble burst even as the pin is puncturing the surface. That’s one thing they got right. People don’t usually have life-changing revelations over night. It takes time and lots of people telling you that you’re wrong before you start to believe it. Some will even take their skewed world views to their graves. Of course, we know that won’t happen here.

As a Commie liberal, it pains me to find so much fault with “Promised Land.” Those boys have a lot of good ideas and I know they mean well. Perhaps they’ve seen too many Hollywood Schmaltzfests to understand how to get their point across subtly. Furthermore, they don’t seem to have ever met any actual women because they have no idea how to write them. If you see only one film this year by a handsome actor from Bahston, make it “Argo.”

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

Film Threat Review: LES MISÉRABLES (2012)

2012
PG-13
157 minutes

***

If you aren’t already a fan of the Broadway smash about the misérable population of 19th century France, the film adaptation is not likely to win you over. It’s not bad when judged within the realm of its contemporaries (e.g. anything Andrew Lloyd Weber put his name on). But the story is, as my husband put it, preposterous. There is no way director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) could have fixed it without pissing off devotees. Instead, he produced an extremely reverent version of an often-laughable epic.

Based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, the musical was written in French in 1980 and then adapted by some English guys in 1985. Despite poor critical reception, it became one of the longest running Broadway musicals of all time. The plot of “Les Misérables” is pretty convoluted and will probably sound outrageous to the uninitiated. But here it is in an enormous nutshell:

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a freshly paroled prisoner concluding a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. A particularly unwavering officer, Javert (Russell Crowe), doesn’t believe in rehabilitation and makes re-incarcerating Valjean his life’s mission.

Eight years later, Valjean has broken parole and reinvented himself as the good-hearted Mayor of a small town. He feels responsible for the fate of single mother/forced prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and rescues her daughter, Cosette, from a pair of abusive, flamboyant innkeepers (Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen).

Later still, Valjean and Cosette (now played by the doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried) have settled in Paris, where a group of dreamy, floppy-haired students are planning an uprising against the tyrannical monarchy. One of these students, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), happens to spot Cosette across a crowded, poverty-stricken square, and the two fall madly in love without having spoken a single goddamned word to each other. Regardless of the silly love business, the second half of “Les Misérables” is where everything gets exciting, as the rebels sing politics and plan their attack. Meanwhile, Javert and Valjean play cat and mouse and Cosette’s unsavory former guardians conspicuously attempt to grift everyone within spitting distance.

Hooper made several audacious decisions in an effort to capture the energy of a live performance. Though Hooper’s sets are much more elaborate than a stage production, they still exude theatrical artifice. He also instructed his actors to sing live on set, in lieu of the standard, yet restrictive use of lip-syncing. His most striking choice was to film his soloists in extreme close-up, bringing his audience face-to-face with the actors. They occasionally break the fourth wall, defying not only convention but also those audience members who might have otherwise tuned out. It’s pretty hard to ignore Hugh Jackman when his tractor-beam eyes are pulling you straight into the abyss of his nostrils. Hooper’s methods are sometimes jarring, but because of their surreal nature, they help to sell the singing dialog as well as some of the more absurd plot points.

Hands down, the best part of “Les Misérables” is the singing. Sacre bleu! Here, Hooper went for veracity, having his actors shed real tears, their voices quivering and occasionally even screaming the lyrics. His choice stands in stark contrast against the typical pitch-perfect stage performance. It serves to emotionally elevate songs that might otherwise feel contrived. Anne Hathaway steals the show by a mile with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” (the song that made Susan Boyle a household name). The adorable rebels are also fantastic and clearly know their way around a musical. A theater veteran, Hugh Jackman is competent with his songliloquies, but through no fault of his own, they do go on. And on… And on… Russell Crowe is capable enough, belting out the thoughts of a blindly moral asshole. Compared to the talent of his colleagues, however, he might as well be doing karaoke. Besides, no matter how well he performs in anything, I just hate Russell Crowe’s stupid face. This is an issue all my own.

Hooper gives his singers even more emotional resonance by uglying them up. The down-and-out French population is grotesque to the point of zombification, and the scenery so filthy, you can practically smell it through the celluloid. In extreme close-up, the normally flawless Hathaway is all blemishes and grime. During Valjean’s lean years, Hugh Jackman looks so homeless that you want to put a blanket around his shoulders and give him a mug of hot cocoa. Though they may be little more than Oscar ploys, they work.

The weakest link is Seyfried who didn’t get the memo about Hooper’s aesthetic. It’s not entirely her fault. Grown-up Cosette is bland as can be and nothing more than a pretty little plot device. Bonham-Carter and (as much as it pains me to say it) Baron Cohen also massively taint the scenery. I know this isn’t just me, because when Bonham-Carter first appeared on screen, looking like a (somehow) campier cross between Marla from “Fight Club” and Bellatrix Lestrange, the audience burst into giggles before she even opened her mouth. Baron Cohen goes balls out (not literally, in this case) with the physical comedy, channeling Peter Sellers in “The Pink Panther”. Clearly, these characters are intended for comic relief. But their shtick feels entirely out of place, as if they jammed a number from “Annie” right in the middle of this extremely melodramatic historical opera.

Regardless of its flaws, “Les Misérables” remains entertaining throughout its 157 minute run time. If you don’t usually enjoy musicals, this will be no exception, but devoted fans will surely yum it right up. If you dig musical theater at all, it’s worth a viewing just to see Anne Hathaway pwn what will undoubtedly be an award-winning role. “South Park” fans might also enjoy some of the revolutionary plot, if only to see where Trey Parker got his inspiration for “La Resistance”.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).