Tuesday, January 22, 2013

LeapBackBlog 2012 Film Awards – Part 5: Films

Film in 2012 may not have been quite as strong overall as 2011, but right at the top there were a lot of good and very entertaining films. 2012 also featured many wonderful performances, particularly among men (many great performances that would have made my lists in past years were sadly left off). The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.

So many of us fans of Joss Whedon, who have known he was a great writer and filmmaker for years, were vindicated in 2012 with (both The Cabin in the Woods and) The Avengers. Whedon’s film that wraps up phase one of Marvel Studio’s adventures is probably the most entertaining cinematic experience of the year. It sees Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow all team together to save Earth from an alien invasion that Loki has brought on. Whedon brings a wonderful combination of humor, drama, and character to the film – it is exciting, action packed, hilarious, and full of great character moments. It is the epitome of fun blockbuster filmmaking (and what we Whedon fans completely expected it to be).

Leave it to the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer to make the most insanely ambitious film of the year with Cloud Atlas. It features six stories across the history of man. Each story deals with human relationships and traits – love, friendship, freedom, and bravery – and each is connected in some way. The epic scale and scope of the film is staggering, and it is amazing that it even came off at all, let alone as brilliantly as it did. The troupe of actors are all asked to play multiple characters, many of which are against type (and even race and gender). What is the most impressive about the film is how well it is woven together, as it never drags or feels like it is not building towards something. In today’s cinema landscape in which blockbusters are seemingly solely remakes, rehashings, and sequels (which are mostly broad, boring generic films), Cloud Atlas is an essential epic, as it dares to be original, challenging, and adventurous.

The Dark Knight Rises was the film I was most looking forward to seeing in 2012, and it did not disappoint as it is my favorite film of the year. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy ends with grand conclusion. Taking place eight years after The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne must return as Batman to face is most physically daunting foe in Bane, who is looking to complete Ra’s al Ghul’s work and destroy Gotham City. Nolan’s narrative features the great action set pieces and genre staples to go with his deft directing to make it a superb adventure film, and satisfying finale, but it is the rich characters (and brilliant performances led by Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, and Anne Hathaway) and emotional moments that make it something more, something special. Nolan’s trilogy is the benchmark that all comic-book films will be measured against (and it is a very high bar).

Wildly violent, almost to a cartoonish level of excess, and sharply written, Django Unchained is a highly entertaining western/revenge drama. Like all Quentin Tarantino films, it is full of B-movie references, artistic filmmaking, great performances (from Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Leonardo DiCaprio), and spirited dialog. Django is a slave who is freed by a German bounty hunter (Dr. King Schultz) who needs his help tracking down his latest bounty. They become friends, and Schultz wants to help Django rescue his wife from a plantation in Mississippi owned by the brutal and dastardly Calvin Candie – a suicide mission. Tarantino uses his narrative to portray the South in a very unflattering manner, directly challenging the myth purported by films like Gone with the Wind – and to this endeavor, the film is quite striking and effective (without losing an ounce of entertainment).

Much like last year’s Drive, Killing Them Softly is a different take on the crime drama genre. On its surface, the narrative is that of a typical crime drama (and works on that level too) – some low level thugs knock-off a protected game, so the mob sends in a professional to kill them and retrieve the money – but Andrew Dominik uses the format for so much more. The film plays as a comment on the financial crisis that America faced in 2008 and the need of a bailout to seeming save the country from disaster. From the constant stream of financial and political news talking-heads in the background to the filming location being the dilapidated post-Katrina New Orleans and the characters being veiled stand-ins for those involved in bringing the financial markets down, Killing Them Softly seems to be a fairly exacting shot at capitalism – one that also has stunning aesthetics and brilliant performances (particularly from Brad Pitt) at is core.

As someone that generally thinks 3D is a waste of everyone’s money because it mostly just detracts from the cinema experience, Life of Pi and its use of 3D blew me away. Ang Lee uses the format not to exploit (less than knowledgeable) filmgoers for their money, but rather to heighten the beauty and the grand experience of the film’s journey. I forgot I was even watching a 3D film – that is how well it is integrated. It is a wondrous experience. The story tells the adventure of Pi, a young man who travels from India to Canada with his family along with their zoo animals, only to be the sole human survivor of a horrific storm that takes the ship. Pi finds himself adrift in a life boat with only a zebra, hyena, and Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Life of Pi is the kind of filmmaking that all epics should strive to be – it is maybe the most beautiful and fulfilling cinematic experience of the year.

The Master seems to perfectly capture the mood of the time it takes place in – the sense of loss, isolation, and disconnection of those returning from WWII mixed with the façade of force-fed family values by government and advertising (that would shape America in the early 1950s). Freddie Quell (wonderfully played by Joaquin Phoenix) is lost in society returning from the war, but he finds a place with the eccentric Lancaster Dodd (played by the equally great Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic cult leader. Quell is drawn by the intrigue and grand con of Dodd and his Cause and Dodd seems to be fascinated in the wildness of Quell. Paul Thomas Anderson’s narrative is not so much a streamline story, but an experimental emotional study of Quell and his internal struggle. Anderson uses all his filmmaking tools to make the film a visceral experience, and one that is utterly compelling and fantastic (my personal love of grand genre films aside – aka my love of The Dark Knight Rises – The Master is probably the best film of 2012).

Quirky, charming, genuine, and a complete joy to watch – Moonrise Kingdom is auteur Wes Anderson’s seventh feature film. It follows two kids Suzy and Sam who run away together to camp out and explore their budding romance. Anderson’s narrative (as his films often do) feels like it takes place in an alternate reality, in which kids are full of budding potential and adults are somewhat melancholia at having never reached theirs. Aesthetically, it feels and looks just like one familiar with Anderson’s work would expect, as Anderson has a flair for aficionado directorial moments (long takes, lots of camera moves, and stylistic blocking – basically every element of every frame is specifically designed to look the way it does down to the smallest detail by Anderson). What is different, however, about Moonrise Kingdom as opposed to Anderson’s last few features is that it wins over its audience in total by the end, even those not enamored with Anderson’s unique style with its warmth and likable characters.

James Bond is a character all filmgoers know and most love. With Skyfall, director Sam Mendes welcomes the nostalgia and classic franchise elements that make James Bond great while also bringing a more modern take to the series (keeping with the trend of the Daniel Craig films). In his latest adventure, Bond finds himself facing off against maybe his most equally matched villain (well, since GoldenEye) – another MI6 agent formally shepherded by M named Silva (who is fantastically played by Javier Bardem). He knows just where to strike to hurt M and cripple MI6. Bond must takes refuge in his past to protect M. This is one of Bond’s more personal films, which benefits it greatly as the character work is strong. Mendes also does a wonderful job of making a Bond film that feels fresh, but completely embraces and brings back many of the elements of classic Bond films (it is the best of the Craig era so far).

Zero Dark Thirty is Kathryn Bigelow’s Heart of Darkness (so to speak). The film details a CIA agent’s (Maya, played by Jessica Chastain) journey into the darkness to find and ultimately kill Osama bin Laden. It is an emotionally arduous yet rewarding experience as Bigelow expertly uses suspense and tension to pull the audience in with intense moments – and it is an interesting story. As a character drama, it works very well – Chastain is brilliant as Maya, a woman who has given everything of herself to finding bin Laden. Bigelow tells the story without a political slant, rather it is more about the sacrifices that men and women have made to try and keep America safe (or simply to do their jobs and what they think is right).

Honorable Mentions (11-25):

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