In what has become a tradition of sorts, I’ve once again compiled a list of the best movies I’ve watched this year. Yeah, I know, listing things is kind of pointless and it’s doubtless that there are tons of movies I haven’t yet seen or have completely missed, but of all the stuff I watched, this is what I liked best. Pretty simple criteria. Now, on with the show…
Yes, this is that movie where Liam Neeson punches wolves. Originally, when it hit theaters, I cast it off as Hollywood survival porn—you know, the type of film where some really tough dude somehow escapes certain death through the use of his unparalleled wit, fortitude, and overall gruff manliness. The trailer made it seem like a two hour man vs. the elements romp where Neeson literally punches nature in the face. Fortunately, it wasn’t that—not at all. This is a grim movie, a nihilistic movie—a reflection not on nature’s cruelty, but rather its indifference. Neeson grunts his way through two hours of cold, frost bitten misery as he and a ragtag team of oil miners try to escape the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness. The result is depressing, yes, but also surprisingly philosophical. The film becomes an examination of life and our role in it—a paired down and brutal retelling of that old “tree falling in a forest” adage. If you’re going to die anyway, does it really matter if you put up a fight? I don’t necessarily think that The Grey is a movie I’m eager to revisit anytime soon (as I said, it’s depressing), but it deserves to be absorbed at least once.
Silver Linings Playbook
Director David O. Russell has made a career out of filming severely dysfunctional relationships (his first movie was about incest for crying out loud). Silver Linings Playbook certainly fits into Russell’s oeuvre: unstable bipolar man-boy falls for self-loathing, emotionally damaged dream girl. If that relationship sounds unconventional, the movie works because Russell drops his off-kilter characters into a very traditional romantic comedy formula. The result is a fresh concoction, a unique take on something that is decidedly familiar—like a dollop of wasabi on your mashed potatoes. And, unlike your run of the mill rom-com slop, Playbook has the guts to get uncomfortable, to be a little darker than you might expect while still being light enough to be mainstream. All of this is, of course, fueled by the lead performances. Bradley Cooper is solid, but Jennifer Lawrence is phenomenal (and I swear I’m not just saying that because she spends 90% of the movie wearing skin tight yoga pants). I’m a serious movie reviewer, consarn it! That’s why I’m wearing this beret.
The Dark Knight Rises
Yeah…yeah…I know. It’s filled with plot holes. It’s not as good as the Dark Knight. Bane is hard to understand. Blah. Blah. Blah. I hear your criticisms, I really do. Yet, I can’t help the fact that this just hit all my nerd buttons. Maybe it was the thrill of seeing it in true IMAX, or maybe I’m just an unapologetic Batman fan, but Nolan and crew deserve an amazing amount of credit for simply pulling this movie off amongst insurmountably high fanboy expectations. Beyond looking gorgeous, the film managed to actually create a substantive connective tissue between all the movies in the Dark Knight series, providing both closure while also leaving you wanting more. It’s been said that the Dark Knight Rises is very much the Return of the Jedi of the trilogy, and you know what? I’m perfectly fine with that. For every logical fallacy, for every moment when you could potentially disengage, there’s Nolan standing there to catch you, presenting moments of unparalleled cinematic wizardry, Zimmer score blaring, adrenaline building. And, amidst it all, you lose yourself—you forget all the bad—as you watch the show unfold, big smile on your face.
At first glance, Chronicle seems like a Hollywood producer’s wet dream—“You mean we can make a found footage movie…about superheroes? Genius! Bring me more cocaine and hookers!” But, buzzword pitch aside, the movie actually works. It’s a smart, fresh take on the ole’ superhero origin story trope we’ve seen a gazillion times. And, apart from a few eye-rolling moments, the movie actually justifies its found footage gimmick. It’s a well paced story, starting from a singular lens and slowly escalating into something much more grandiose. Beyond technical construction, however, it’s a movie that paints its teenage leads in an unusually honest light (well, as honest as any PG-13 studio film can be). Our budding super heroes act how 16 year-olds with crazy powers would act, complete with recklessness, stupidity, and ultimately, uncontrollable rage. Thus, the film works on two levels—both as a supremely fun genre flick and a relatable teenage drama. Not bad for a concept that sounds like the byproduct of a movie studio’s Mad Libs script generator.
The crazy thing about Magic Mike is that deep down it’s a movie for dudes. I know that sounds odd considering it’s filled with more half naked men than a Scissor Sisters concert, but strip (pun intended) all that away and you have a film about the lies we tell in order to make ourselves feel better. You see, the titular Magic Mike is a male strippper (a damn good one at that), but he claims to be so much more. He claims that he’s above the rest, that he has the smarts to start his own business, that he is able to transcend his onstage beefcake persona. But, really, can he? And, so, the movie nips at that part of your brain—the one that assures you that you’re only slumming it for little while, that you’re better than those who are slumming it for “real.” In a climatic scene (and probably Channing Tantum’s best single exchange yet as an Actor) Mike fumbles his words, struggling to spit out that he’s more than a money for hire rump shaker. But, as the audience, do we actually believe it? With Magic Mike, director Steven Soderbergh has created an unexpectedly melancholic portrait of the male psyche—an ego faced with an uncompromising truth: how long can you pretend to do something before the act becomes who you are? Additionally, beyond the psychoanalysis, Magic Mike also manages to introduce us to a small, close knit stripper community as fascinating as it is hilarious, complete with kitschy costumes and penis pumps. All the while, Matthew McConaughey gets to play the most McConaughey part ever written. He deserves an Oscar. And, I say that without a hint of sarcasm.
Remember, like, 10 years ago when everybody hated Ben Affleck? There was Daredevil, Gigli, Paycheck, Surviving Christmas…Jesus Christ did he have a bad run. Then, 2007 hit and Mr. Affleck returned to the favorable side of the Hollywood coin with the release of Gone Baby, Gone—this time, however, he was the guy behind the camera. 5 years later and he’s completely emerged from the realm of ridicule, transformed into a critical darling—the new “it” director who is quickly approaching auteur status. Well, Argo seems to cement his seat at the big kid’s table. And, deservedly so—it’s his best film (much better than the overpraised, The Town). Affleck assuredly directs and stars in this taut historical thriller of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which is bolstered by lots of excellent supporting performances and a smart script. Above all, its got wide range appeal—a movie’s movie if you will, able to entertain all four quadrants of the film-going audience without sacrificing intelligence or compromising artistic integrity. That’s an impressive feat. And, while I don’t believe for a second that the real life events were nearly as turid and filled with suspense as Argo’s last nail biting minutes, I’m willing to give Affleck a bit of a cinematic license when it comes to his representation of historical reality. After all, as a good Hollywood producer would say (preferably while chomping down on a comically large cigar), “that’s what the people want!” Indeed, Mr. Affleck. Indeed.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Granted, this film may come off as a little too much of an indie quirk fest for some. It’s based on that popular time travel classifieds ad internet meme and stars hipster goddess Aubrey Plaza. Oh, and did I mention it features mumblecore icon Mark Duplass playing a wounded dove eccentric with a false ear and a penchant for playing obscure musical instruments? Geesh…all it’s missing is a product endorsement from PBR. Seriously, though, once you scrub off the film’s hipster sheen, it’s got real heart. It takes what could have easily been a “lets-make-fun-of-this-weirdo” type of story and flips it on his head, so you actually care about said weirdo. Similarly, Plaza instills her character with enough pathos so that you actually sympathize with her journey as well. The result is a decidedly lo-fi reflection on everyone’s innate to desire to change the past—to go back with 20/20 hindsight and correct the distant mistakes that keep us up at night. By the end, the hipster sensibilities fade and you’re left with a film that wears both its heart and time travel mechanics on its sleeve. Believe me, folks, that’s a very good thing.
Most of you probably haven’t heard of this black and white indie from director Kurt Kuenne. And, that’s a shame, as it’s an engrossing little film, as sweet and intriguing as it is clever. If Kuenne’s name sounds familiar, he’s the guy, among other things, who created what I consider to be one of the best documentaries ever made, Dear Zachary. Shuffle is his narrative feature followup, a film that has a completely different subject matter, but ultimately manages to tug at the same sort of heartstrings. With all his films, Kuenne seems to be channeling the ghost of Frank Capra, telling stories which are undeniably saccharine, yet still have the emotional weight to provide cinematic sustenance. Shuffle is no different. It’s premise alone is enough to warrant a watch—it’s about a man who is living his life out order, one day he’s five, the next 95. However, the film really kicks in when you move past its Twilight Zone-esque plot mechanics, and begin to discover its undeniably romantic and beautiful core. This isn’t a movie for cynics, I will grant you that. But, like the best Capra movies, if your heart and mind are open, you will be rewarded, struggling to hold back tears as you cuddle with a loved one.
Writer/Director Rian Johnson has been an indie darling for quite some time now (seriously if you haven’t seen Brick or the Brother’s Bloom yet, stop what you’re doing now and right that wrong). Looper is his entry into the mainstream—that is, if you consider a mind bending, science fiction action flick about an assassin from the mob who’s forced to murder his future self to be mainstream. Johnson is an “idea” filmmaker, a guy with big bold concepts who wants to make movies that surprise you, challenge you, and ultimately entertain you. But, more to the point, he doesn’t want to do that with faux, artsy-fartsy pandering. He’s an indie filmmaker who has no intention of making “indie” films. And, so, Looper hits, taking an immensely intriguing premise and marrying it with great story beats and even better casting choices. Joseph Gordon Levitt has completely transformed from child actor to Hollywood hunk, proving himself to be one of the most versatile young players currently in the game. And, of course, Bruce Willis—as Levitt’s older self— proves yet again why he is a rightful member of the A list. Yup, Looper is the whole kit and kaboodle—a well written, strongly acted, virtuosically shot science fiction thriller from an unquestionably talented director. See it.
With the Avengers sitting at the top of the list, I realize I’m probably sacrificing some sort of artistic credibility. C’mon! A Superhero blockbuster at the top of a coveted end of the year list? My ascot is unraveling as I type. Yes, I realize that this decision could very easily look like the result of blind fanboy group think. But, really, the Avengers is that good—writer/director/giant foreheaded Joss Whedon pulls off something that should have been impossible. He took four major superhero franchises, jammed them into a single movie, and still managed to tell a tightly plotted, insanely entertaining action film with a compelling story and empathetic characters. It’s funny. It’s thrilling. It appeals to comic book nerds as much as it does mainstream popcorn eaters. The Avengers could have very easily been less than the sum of its parts—something that drowns under its own weighty, overstuffed implications. But, thankfully, when assembled, it’s decidedly more —the rare spectacle that actually delivers on its “bigger is better” boast. There are a few rough edges (the beginning is slow, there’s a bit too much comic book doohickey jargon in there), but ultimately, this is the best blockbuster to hit theaters in years. Not to mention, Whedon even managed to accomplish something that I deemed simply futile: a Stan Lee cameo that isn’t annoying. Bravo, good sir. Best movie of the year.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Life of Pi
The Raid: Redemption
Sleepwalk with Me
Pixar’s worst film. That might seem like slight criticism, as surely even the worst film from the animation team that brought us Toy Story, the Incredibles, and Finding Nemo still must be somewhat okay, right? Wrong. Brave is a boring, mediocre mess—a visually gorgeous, but emotionally unfilling journey through old fashioned fairy tale tropes that feels like it belongs in a straight to DVD Disney bargain bin. I realize that not every movie—even from a group as insanely talented as Pixar—can be a homerun, but Brave isn’t even a single—it’s a stared-at-three-pitches, kick-in-the-dirt strikeout.