My Top Ten Films of 2012

In a year I’ll probably remember more for its crushing cinematic disappointments (DKR, The Bourne Legacy, Total Recall, Prometheus), there were still enough good films to make picking ten of the best a difficult challenge. Here’s how I narrowed down the field:

1. Looper

One of the best scifi films since Moon and probably one of the best films to play with the time-travel mechanic since 12 Monkeys. What made Looper really great, however, was that it wasn’t defined by either of these things. At its core, it was a human drama concerned with questions about cycles of violence and whether humans act primarily out of selfishness or selflessness. With nods to Witness and The Terminator, Johnson offered an experience that was unpredictable, slick, and deftly thrilling.

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2. Moonrise Kingdom

Whimsical and quirky, Moonrise Kingdom was everything we’ve come to expect from Anderson but done better. A poetic meditation on the value of community, first love, and escapism – sweetly accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s always-fine soundscape.

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3. Skyfall

With gorgeous cinematography and a deliciously grotesque villain, Skyfall properly erased the bitter taste of Forster’s Quantum of Solace. Yep, it had third-act problems, but flaws aside, Sam Mendes successfully modernized the Bond franchise with a minimalist take on the fifty-year-old icon.

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4. Cabin in the Woods

Joss Whedon’s ‘other’ film of the year was actually his better one. Cabin in the Woods was not just a fantastic deconstruction of the horror genre but also a frightening and hilarious thrill ride.

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5. End of Watch

Short on plot and any fidelity to its reality-cam conceit, charismatic turns by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña nonetheless made this a gripping police procedural with a brutal climax.

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6. The Avengers

With the build-up of three (four?) films and the weight of fanboy expectations that might have rivalled those of Dark Knight followers, Whedon had a lot to deliver on. He did exactly that. And more. The film was an immensely satisfying comic-book translation with the right amount of laughs and gasps.

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7. The Raid: Redemption

Easily, the year’s best action vehicle. With a simple premise (arrest and extract a crime lord from a fifteen-story apartment block) and a bare-bones plot, The Raid is a heat-seeking missile of insane choreography and visceral, extravagant stunts.

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8. Safety Not Guaranteed

A funny and sweet comedy about time travel that didn’t overplay its oddball charm. Kept me guessing right to the end.

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9. Prometheus

A film that generated more intelligent discussion than it itself contained, Prometheus was a mess of ideas and plotting. Still, the scale and visual impact were reasons alone to see it.

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10.The Dark Knight Rises

Even though its execution couldn’t match the lofty ambitions, at least it still had Batman doing Batman stuff in it (barely).

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I should say, Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty probably would have made my top ten a tougher challenge, but both films don’t come out till January here in NZ.

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The First Last Great Christmas Movie

If there is one subject or theme that filmmakers repeatedly fumble, it is Christmas. For every good Christmas film there is a Bad Santa, Elf, or The Santa Clause. Yet, for a generation that prefers cynicism over sentimentality and values objects and people only for what they can contribute to pleasure, Christmas will always be misunderstood. The message of contemporary Christmas film, Love Actually, characterizes this predicament tellingly: ‘love actually is all around’, is its catchcry. Love, invisible and irresistible, can take any form. It is has no anchor, no zipcode in moral reality. But if love is everything, then it is nothing. When the objective realm has been supplanted by subjectivity, it is no wonder that moral principles evaporate and the heart of Christmas lost.

Joe Carter, over at First Things, gives a good argument for why Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life rightly upends the moral vision of our time and deserves its place as the best Christmas film. It’s a Wonderful Life is the translation of an older myth into a post-World War 2 world. That original story is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the tale of a miser who is given a shot at redemption. It’s a Wonderful Life features not Scrooge but George Bailey, played by James Stewart, who is contemplating death after a financial crisis and the prospect of impending disgrace. It takes a vision of a world in which he was never born to make him realise that life is indeed worth living and rediscover the spirit of Christmas. Carter, in comparing the work of Frank Capra to Ayn Rand, says:

What makes George Bailey one of the most inspiring, emotionally complex characters in film is that he continually chooses the needs of his family and community over his own self-interested ambitions and desires—and suffers immensely for his efforts.

Although sentimental, Capra’s movie is not a simplistic morality play. In the end, George is saved from ruin but the rest of life remains essentially the same. By December 26 he’ll wake to find that he’s still a frustrated artist scraping out a meager living in a drafty old house in a one-stoplight town. In fact, all that he has gained is recognition of the value of faith, friends, and community and that this is worth more than anything else he might achieve. Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.

This theme makes Wonderful Life one of the most counter-cultural films in the history of cinema. Almost every movie about the individual in society—from Easy Rider to Happy Feet—is based on the premise that self-actualization is the primary purpose of existence. To a society that accepts radical individualism as the norm, a film about the individual subordinating his desires for the good of others sounds anti-American, if not downright communistic. Surely, the only reason the film has become a Christmas classic is because so few people grasp this core message.

You can watch the whole movie online at Google Video.

(Cross-posted at TM)

Joss Whedon Wants to Buy the Terminator Franchise

With the rights to the Terminator franchise going up for auction, Joss Whedon (self-described “Very Important Hollywood Mogul”) has written an open letter to the Terminator owners:

Dear Sirs/Ma’ams,

I am Joss Whedon, the mastermind behind Titan A.E., Parenthood (not the movie) (or the new series) (or the one where ‘hood’ was capitalized ’cause it was a pun), and myriad other legendary tales. I have heard through the ‘grapevine’ that the Terminator franchise is for sale, and I am prepared to make a pre-emptive bid RIGHT NOW to wrap this dealio up. This is not a joke, this is not a scam, this is not available on TV. I will write a check TODAY for $10,000, and viola! Terminator off your hands.

No, you didn’t miscount. That’s four — FOUR! — zeroes after that one. That’s to show you I mean business. And I mean show business. Nikki Finke says the Terminator concept is played. Well, here’s what I have to say to Nikki Finke: you are a fine journalist and please don’t ever notice me. The Terminator story is as formative and important in our culture — and my pretend play — as any I can think of. It’s far from over. And before you Terminator-Owners (I have trouble remembering names) rush to cash that sweet cheque, let me give you a taste of what I could do with that franchise:

1) Terminator… of the Rings! Yeah, what if he time-travelled TOO far… back to when there was dragons and wizards? (I think it was the Dark Ages.) Hasta La Vista, Boramir! Cool, huh? “Now you gonna be Gandalf the Red!” RRRRIP! But then he totally helps, because he’s a cyborg and he doesn’t give a s#&% about the ring — it has no power over him! And he can carry it AND Frodo AND Sam AND f@%& up some orcs while he’s doing it. This stuff just comes to me. I mean it. (I will also offer $10,000 for the Lord of the Rings franchise).

2) More Glau. Hey. There’s a reason they’re called “Summer” movies.

3) Can you say… musical? Well don’t. Even I know that’s an awful idea.

4) Christian Bale’s John Connor will get a throat lozenge. This will also help his Batwork (ten grand for that franchise too, btw.)

5) More porn. John Connor never told Kyle Reese this, but his main objective in going to the past was to get some. What if there’s a lot of future-babies that have to be made? Cue wah-wah pedal guitar — and dollar signs!

6) The movies will stop getting less cool.

Okay. There’s more — this brain don’t quit! (though it has occasionally been fired) — but I think you get my drift. I really believe the Terminator franchise has only begun to plumb the depths of questioning the human condition during awesome stunts, and I’d like to shepherd it through the next phase. The money is there, but more importantly, the heart is there. But more importantly, money. Think about it. End this bloody bidding war before it begins, and put the Terminator in the hands of someone who watched the first one more than any other movie in college, including “Song of Norway” (no current franchise offer).

Sincerely, Joss Whedon.

____

Let’s hope someone is listening. The last film entry was joyless and forgettable, and all the more painful given the real potential of the franchise. Salvation scored only $370 million at the box office, even less than the inconsequential Rise of the Machines ($430 million) and the benchmark Judgment Day ($520 million). Though unlikely to happen, it’s difficult to avoid getting exciting over what someone like Whedon could do with the concept.

First poster revealed for Transformers 2

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Peter Sciretta at Slashfilm has the new dark, angry poster for the upcoming sequel to the Transformers film, Revenge of the Fallen. The second movie in the franchise will again be directed by Michael Bay and retain most of the original cast, spearheaded by Shia LaBeouf.

Revenge of the Fallen

The first film revisited the Bay formula of kinetic action and epic spectacle with adequate success and I am excited about the look of this new one (head to USA Today and the latest issue of Empire Magazine for production shots). His previous films had been on a downward spiral, but Transformers managed to transcend the weakness of the script and the overpopulated cast of stars and characters. LaBeouf’s character brought some emotional connection through the first act and most of the second, but once he was sidelined as all the Transformers came to the fore and godzilla it out, the film relinquished clarity. Noise and spectacle took over and because any identification in the story had also been lost, so did any real engagement with the conflict and action. There is a danger in most sequels to go bigger and draw in more elements (even the Dark Knight – great movie that it was – suffered from excessive subplotting), and I can’t really see Bay avoiding this trap in Fallen. The original film surrendered basic story-telling features to create grand-scale action and explosive visuals (the motto of the Witwicky family of LaBeouf’s character: “No victory without sacrifice”, seems to be the way Bay prefers to direct). Yet it was impossible to deny some visceral thrill in the CGI-driven spectacle. Every time I saw Bumblebee or Prime transform or the numerous robotic battles, I felt like a deer in car lights. And that alone is enough for me to await this with eager anticipation.

I’ll post the hi-res version when it becomes available. The first teaser footage for Revenge of the Fallen is expected to be revealed at the Superbowl.

Updated with the new trailer.

New Photos from the Star Trek Reboot

Paramount Pictures has been disseminating new pics from the new J J Abrams directed Star Trek film. I have to say, I’m digging the new look.

I was particularly intrigued by what Entertainment Weekly quotes Abrams as saying in its feature article about the new film:

“All my smart friends liked Star Trek,” [Abrams] says. ”I preferred a more visceral experience…that grabbed me the way Star Wars did.” That meant a bigger budget and better special effects than any previous Trek film, plus freedom to reinvent the mythos as needed.

With my allegience firmly tied to Lucas’ scifi vision over Rodenberry’s, I can’t let this go: the new director responsible for the rejuvenation of the future of the Trek franchise enjoyed Star Wars more? Hurt, much?

Although the plot details are still skeletal, what we do know is that the film weaves the origins of the crew of the Enterprise, showing how Kirk and Spock came to be friends. Also, that there is an attack on the USS Kelvin by the Romulan villain known as Nero (played by Eric Bana), hunting one of the film’s central characters (see the pics of the damaged Starship). I wonder if this attack my coincide with the rumours that there may be a time travel aspect to the story.

A second full trailer will be attached to the Bond film, Quantum of Solace, which is released on November 14.

Photos courtesy of MTV, UGO, Ain’t it Cool News, Yahoo, SlashFilm, IGN, JoBlo, and TrekMovie.

Second trailer for David Fincher’s Benjamin Button

A second trailer for the enigmatic feature film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, buzzed across the interwebs from Paramount headquarters yesterday. From the mind of David Fincher and based on the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film twists the time traveller genre on its head with a story about a man who ages backward. With a cast that includes Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchette and Tilda Swinton, we journey with the central character from the close of the first world war into the 21st century, as he discovers love and the impermanence of life.

The first trailer was one of the best I’d seen for a long time. Better even, than the film it was attached to, when I first viewed it. With its epic strokes, ethereal sense of wonder, and amazing visual style that has dogtagged Fincher’s previous work in such films as Se7en and Fight Club, Benjamin Button has created enormous interest. (Watch that first trailer on the Apple site here and fall in love with the music from Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals”, if you haven’t already). But rumours about a burgeoning conflict between David Fincher and Paramount over the longer-than three hour length of the film and the general press reaction to the twenty minute screening at the Telluride Film Festival last month diluted that interest somewhat.

This trailer, for me, undoes those misgivings; presenting a beautiful film that has heightened my anticipation. I’ve not enjoyed Fincher’s work uniformly (the luke-warmly received The Game is one of my favourite films but Fight Club was a hollow cinematic experience, if a film I can admire). His last picture seemed to be a turning point – though earning less than the DVD sales of The Fight Club – Zodiac was lovingly devoured by critics. And that greater maturity seems to be spilling out here in Benjamin Button. The soundtrack is composed by the masterfully competent Alexandre Desplate (who, among many other filmscores, was behind The Painted Veil’s music, an imperfect but incredibly memorable soundtrack with it’s rhythmic passages, understated elegance, all funneled around lovely piano pieces). View the trailer in HD on the Apple site.