Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012: The Top (and Bottom) 19 Movies

By my count, I saw 19 new movies this year which had theatrical openings. Note that I didn't say I saw 19 movies in the theater: I caught three of these at home. But I saw one movie three times, so it all balances out. As usual, I'm not counting older movies or anything that went direct-to-DVD.

What follows is a list from least favorite to most favorite. Note that's not the same thing as best to worst: that's a can of worms I'm not opening. A few of these are movies I never reviewed, but those are in the minority.

It probably goes without saying, but there are quite a few movies I should see but haven't gotten around to. I've heard fantastic things about Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lincoln, Wreck-It Ralph, Moonrise Kingdom, Cloud Atlas, and others, but I just haven't had the time yet.

Without further ado, let's begin:

19. Snow White and the Huntsmen
Dark Knight Rises pissed me off more, but this was by far the most boring experience I had in a theater. I'd been looking forward to this, too: I thought the trailers looked amazing. Unfortunately, they showcased every decent second in the film: the rest was bland and pointless.

18. The Dark Knight Rises
I considered putting this in last place, but that would have been disingenuous. The truth is, aspects of this movie were pretty cool. Okay, Catwoman was cool, and the rest kind of sucked. I appreciate that many people disagree, but... look. I've read a lot of Batman comics. I've seen a hell of a lot of animated series and direct to DVD movies. And, in my opinion - and I'm not alone here, by the way - the character is capable of much, much more. This felt like a Batman movie for people who don't really like Batman as a concept, who are satisfied with dismissing Bruce Wayne as a crazy rich guy who dresses like a bat. It's a movie that ultimately mocks the concept it's based on rather than taking it seriously. At least the Adam West series was upfront about it.

17. Prometheus
I know people who think this should be dead last, but I liked it better than Dark Knight Rises and certainly more than Snow White. It was a bad movie with good scenes. It's the kind of movie that kept oscillating between intriguing me and boring me. It really wasn't until the last act that I was certain I was watching something pointless. Numbers 18 and 19 never had me fooled.

16. Underworld: Awakening
I caught this on Amazon Instant Video a while ago. Hell, I'd forgotten it came out in theaters this year, but apparently it did. It wasn't awful, but it certainly wasn't remotely good. It's schlocky pulp, but that's all we have any right to expect from this ridiculous franchise.

15. Rise of the Guardians
There's a long story here. If you want to know said story, click that link. The short version is that I've got some very strong feelings about some of these characters, and I didn't think this movie did them justice. However, there was a good 'Jack Frost' story embedded in this thing, along with some solid visuals. It's kind of a mixed bag. That's not enough to make it a good movie, but it's sufficient to keep this from appearing any sooner.

14. Casa de Mi Padre
On some level, this is sort of the Will Ferrell equivalent of an art house flick. Ultimately, it was more a joke than an actual movie. And, yes, if you've seen the trailer, you already "get it." And, sure - technically - they could have just made the trailer without actually making the full movie. But the reason the joke is funny is that they made it anyway. I don't think this one's for everyone, but I had fun watching it.

13. The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Pirates was a solid little flick. It felt small, easygoing. Almost quaint. I never really got into it, but I don't think I was supposed to. If you missed this one in the theaters, it's a good film to check out on video. Actually, I think it'll play better on video, where there aren't so many expectations.

12. Looper
A lot of people love this movie; I just liked it. I had an enjoyable time in the theater. The telekinetic sequences were cool (and unexpected), and the movie was well put together. But... it just seemed so generic. Yeah, things like this don't get made; live-action, big-budget movies that mix several SF concepts in a single piece. Sure, we get telekinesis. We get time travel. But the two together in a single movie? But, despite that, none of it really clicked together. Nothing added up to more than the individual pieces. The time-travel conceits were poorly thought out. The telekinesis was ultimately just a mcguffin. And underneath the makeup, the premise was just Terminator meets 12 Monkeys. The fact it got made was impressive, but the movie itself... was just kind of good. With a little more work, I'm convinced it could have been as great as everyone seems to think it was.

11. The Hunger Games
I like this movie, but I like it's success more. It was the year's first real home run, and it challenged a lot of old (and stupid) assumptions about movies. For example, that action flicks can't star a female lead unless she's there for sex appeal. Or that people won't flock to the theaters until May. It also cleaned up some of the book's issues with the setting. That said, there were questionable choices and sequences that just didn't translate. It didn't have the budget it wanted, and it wasn't one of the year's best movies. But it was definitely solid.

10. ParaNorman
Not enough people went to see ParaNorman. It's a cool little movie with a great opening, a disappointing second act, and a phenomenal showdown. It's uneven, but definitely worth watching.

9. Skyfall
I had a hell of a time deciding where this belongs. My initial reaction was extremely positive and for good reason: this movie pulls off something fantastic. But I held off reviewing it for a reason: absolutely everything I liked - nay, loved - about the movie is a spoiler. That said, enough time has passed. So, if you missed Skyfall, you might want to skip to the next movie on the list. Alright. As a story, Skyfall kind of fails. Miserably. The villain's generic, the plot's incoherent, and characters make idiotic choices at every turn. But none of that really matters, because this wasn't a story so much as a retrospective. It puts Bond back together, effectively rebuilding MI-6 into a near-perfect facsimile of the organization as it appeared at the beginning of Dr. No. Yes, that means 'M' dies and gets replaced by a man, but the actor is shockingly convincing as the character who appeared fifty years earlier. Likewise, Moneypenny (complete with a new origin) is amazingly similar. They cast a 'Q' who was reminiscent of Major Boothroyd before he was recast for From Russia With Love. Even Craig's bond evolved into one shockingly similar to Connery's as the movie went on. I really enjoyed watching that transformation play out; so much so that, had I assembled this list right after leaving the theater, it would have held the #3 spot. But as time passes, the missteps bug me more and more. The plot holes, the bad decisions, and a fairly disturbing seduction sequence that felt extremely out of character and a little misogynistic have become harder and harder to overlook. Ultimately, it's a movie I enjoyed, but I don't think it's holding up in the long term.

8. Chronicle
I missed this in the theater, and I'm actually glad I did. I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it there, but it felt like one of those movies that plays better on a small screen. I didn't get around to reviewing this, because there didn't seem much point: the critics got this one right. It was a great little film, driven by fantastic writing and some great performances. The format - found footage - did feel out of place, but it kept the budget manageable and was incorporated as well as could be expected. I highly recommend you check this one out if you haven't already. It's pretty cool.

7. John Carter
If they'd replaced Kitsch with someone who belonged in the title role, this would probably have made #3. As it is, I still really liked this movie. Dafoe really knocked it out of the park as Tars Tarkas, as did the army of computer nerds who brought him (and the other denizens of the red planet) to life. It was pulp at its purest if not quite its best. Here's hoping this builds a fan base on DVD.

6. The Cabin in the Woods
This is a complex little picture: essentially a dark science fiction comedy about horror movies. Critics loved it; audiences - particularly horror fans - did not. I enjoyed it quite a bit, which is why it's as high on this list as it is. I think if the last scene had been more memorable, it would be a few spots higher.

5. The Amazing Spider-Man
I keep going back on forth on this and #4. In the end, I asked myself which movie I'm more interested in re-watching, and I honestly think that's Brave. This version of Spider-Man was boosted by the shocking revelation that it was, in fact, a good movie. The idea they were retelling the origin story was a major strike against the movie, but they did a fantastic job rebuilding Peter Parker from scratch. This is a new Peter, too, completely different from Raimi's or any version I've seen in the comics. Normally, I prefer these things to stick with the source material, but the director clearly knew what he was doing. This isn't the Peter I know, but I was really fascinated by his story. As for Spider-Man... not so much. The superheroics were disappointing. The fights with the Lizard weren't bad, but I expect better.

4. Brave
Brave was one of 2012's under-appreciated movies: sadly, there were quite a few this year. But the critical dismissal of this was as baffling as it was unfair. Brave was a really good movie. Its world was beautifully rendered, its characters were fun, and its themes complex (don't dare dismiss this as a simplistic story about fate: this movie's about the maternal instinct and female empowerment). Granted, it's not the movie most of us wanted. It's a comedy, not an action-adventure. But it's a really good comedy.

3. Men in Black III
I realize I'm in the minority here, but I really, really liked this movie. I suspect the producers are kicking themselves for not releasing this in the spring instead of summer. It couldn't compete with The Avengers, and as a result was largely ignored. But it was pure sci-fi. The old fashioned aliens were a lot of fun, and the time-travel was executed far better than in Looper. This also carried some real heart and whimsy. Between Griffin and the movie's resolution, this resonated a lot better than I'd expected it to. It provided a great standalone story, while adding depth to the entire series.

2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
This was a great movie and an even better adaptation. It was a hell of a lot of fun, and I thought the characters were fantastically realized. The movie was funny, touching, and exciting. Sure, it was only the first third of the story, but that just means there's a lot more left to experience.

1. The Avengers
I'd hoped Joss Whedon would make this work, but I really had no idea if he'd pull it off. He's created some fantastic television in the past, but his one attempt at doing a motion picture was a little disappointing. In addition, his track record hasn't been spotless as of late (looking at you, Dollhouse). I went into this hoping for the best and got something better. Avengers was game-changing: it threw out decades of conventional wisdom on how superhero movies had to be made, opting instead to fully embrace the genre. It toned nothing down: this was comic-book mayhem on the big screen. This was a Hulk I'd never dreamed we'd see in live-action. This was Black Widow and Hawkeye at a level where they could stand beside a storm god without seeming irrelevant. In short, this was the superhero movie that showed the world why we love superheroes. And damn if it didn't work: this thing set almost every record there is. Even better, it's expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe and even convinced Warner Bros. to move ahead with Justice League. The old rules are gone: this has raised the bar. Oh, and it was also the most fun I've had at the movies in years.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

An Open Letter to Peter Jackson

Dear Peter Jackson,

How are you? I hope you and Fran are doing well, and that you're planning on doing something fun for the holidays. So then. I've got something I need to get off of my chest.

Where to begin? First of all, I'm a big fan. Love the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I even like King Kong, though I do think it would have benefited from a little editing. When I heard there was a Hobbit movie in production a few years ago, I was extremely excited. When I heard that Guillermo del Toro was dropping out and you were taking over... honestly, I was a little worried.

Sure, The Lord of the Rings films are some of my all-time favorites. And, sure, I love your work. But, the thing is, I've seen this before: a big genre director decides they know how to call the shots. Suddenly, they're their own producer, and no one's nixing their bad ideas.

The truth is, I got a little worried. Sure, I was still excited to be returning to Middle Earth, but deep down, I was concerned. Jump ahead to a week or two ago when the early reviews started to appear. While the Lord of the Rings had glowing reviews, these were far more mixed. Sure, it's still on the "Fresh" side of things over on Rotten Tomatoes, but it's close: 66% Fresh, as of this moment.

That was when I got really worried. I started to think that maybe you'd gotten full of yourself, that you'd lost perspective. I started to think you'd gone the way of Lucas, Cameron, Raimi, and others.

Well, I just saw The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey, and I think you know where this is going.

Mr. Jackson, I am so, so sorry I doubted you: that movie was fucking awesome.

Where to start? How about the opening 45 minutes that critics are whining about. As a lifelong Tolkien fan and geek, every second was an absolute joy. After a fantastic nod to your first trilogy, you transitioned right into The Hobbit. And that sequence was a pitch-perfect adaptation of the book, at least to my memory. My favorite part of the movie, in fact. The singing, the jokes, and the fun of the book were all there.

As the movie progressed, you walked a tightrope between Tolkien's book and your other trilogy, and you did so masterfully. Navigating the tonal differences must have been frightening, but I thought you pretty much nailed it. Can I find moments to nitpick? Sure. But nothing all that major.

I hesitate to judge the critics too harshly yet. You see, I sidestepped the largest issue: the 48 fps, which just about everyone despised. I saw this in 2D on a "normal" screen, so it's certainly possible my enjoyment was tied to that choice.

I'll know better after I see The Hobbit in a different format. Even if everyone's right about it detracting from the film, I'll always have the option of shutting my eyes and enjoying the music.

Oh, one more thing. The movie felt a little short to me. Can't wait for the extended cut.

Erin Snyder