In Part One of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012, I listed numbers 15 through 11, and in Part Two I listed numbers 10 through 6. Let’s bring it home with the final installment of my Best Movies of 2012 list!
5. Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino’s fierce, fiery, take-no-prisoners assault on the institution of slavery in America is at once a very serious attempt to look this great evil of American history straight in the eye, while also being a phenomenally entertaining, funny, exciting, action-packed and blood-soaked Spaghetti Western adventure. That Mr. Tarantino’s film succeeds so wildly on both counts is a testament to his enormous skills as a filmmaker. Django Unchained is unquestionably the product of Mr. Tarantino’s wonderfully distinct cinematic vision. The film is filled with astoundingly beautiful dialogue, incredible tension, various (very funny) anachronistic touches, spectacular (and very bloody) action, and a glorious musical score — all of which are Mr. Tarantino’s specialties. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are both absolute perfection as the twin anchors of the film, totally commanding in their roles, with each creating iconic, memorable cinematic characters. Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson are both equally spectacular as the film’s abhorrent villains. Django Unchained feels transgressive, it feels dangerous. It is without question fiercely alive and engaging from the very first frame to the very last, and I found it to be one of the most fun, visceral, intense experiences I had in a movie theatre this year. (Click here for my original review.)
4. Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have together created an astonishing cinematic document that powerfully brings to life not only the complex, often seemingly hopeless decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, but also the vast human cost (on all sides) of that pursuit. For almost three full hours, I sat riveted by the drama on-screen as CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), assigned to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan, worked — together with other operatives, interrogators, and analysts — for year after long year, trying to piece together a chain of evidence that would lead U.S. forces to discover the hiding place of Osama bin Laden. This film revels in the details, in the minutia of Maya’s world, without dumbing anything down or over-explaining anything to audiences. This is a film that assumes a lot of its audience: that we are decently well-versed in the historical background, and that we are capable of paying close attention to the film as it unfolds. Jessica Chastain does magnificent, star-making work as the driven but haunted Maya. The action sequences are phenomenal, particularly the climactic assault on bin Landen’s compound in … [continued]
Watching Django Unchained, the new film from writer/director Quentin Tarantino, I kept thinking to myself that I can only imagine this must have been what watching Blazing Saddles was like, back in 1974 when it was originally released. Both films deal with slavery and America’s ugly racial history head-on, but filtered through an unexpected genre. In Mel Brooks’ case, the story was told via a raunchy comedy. In Quentin Tarantino’s film, the story is told via an exploitation action/adventure. Using their unique prisms, both films tackle the issue of slavery, and all of the horrendous dehumanization that entailed, far more directly than any straight “dramatic” film I can think of.
Mr. Tarantino has raised some eyebrows recently by claiming that he feels his film is more authentic even than the seminal TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. I don’t want to wade into that drama at this time, but I bring up Mr. Tarantino’s comments in order to illustrate what seems clear to me was the film’s goal: to use the visual language and style of the spaghetti western to make a powerful statement about America’s original sin.
In this, I would argue that Mr. Tarantino succeeded dramatically. The genius of Django Unchained is that it is on the one hand a potent statement about race relations (both in America’s past and today) and about slavery, while on the other hand being a fantastically fun, entertaining revenge flick/cowboy movie. This is a fiendishly difficult tone to strike, but Mr. Tarantino makes it looks easy.
There are some jarring transitions. I found the scene of “mandingo fighting” (that comes soon after we meet Calvin Candie) to be extremely difficult to watch, and it took me a while to shake that and allow myself to get back into the fun. But it seems to me that this is by design. Mr. Tarantino wants us to have a good time watching his film, but he also doesn’t want to take the easy way out in his depiction of slavery. He wants to make us look right at these terrible crimes that man committed unto his fellow man.
But make no mistake, Django Unchained is a phenomenally entertaining time at the movies. Mr. Tarantino’s two primary skills are on constant display as the film progresses. One: the beauty of his dialogue, and his ability to wring enormous tension out of mere conversation. There are some extremely memorable monologues and exchanges in Django that rank with the very best of Mr. Tarantino’s work. Two: his fearless use of extraordinary violence, and his ability to turn that gruesome violence into a sort of poetry. A lot of blood is spilled over the long run-time of … [continued]
Earlier this week I wrote about Tony Scott’s 1993 film True Romance. The second part of my little personal Tony Scott in memoriam double-feature was his 1995 film, Crimson Tide. I saw Crimson Tide back in theaters when it was originally released, but I haven never re-watched it since. I remember being really excited to see it, but I also remember that I was a bit disappointed by the finished film. It just wasn’t nearly as good as The Hunt for Red October, a submarine film that I adored, and to which I was constantly comparing Crimson Tide in my mind while watching the film. I’ve never seen Crimson Tide since then, but I know a lot of people who love the film, so I’ve been meaning to re-watch it for quite some time.
The film is better than I remembered it being, but I definitely agree with high school me in thinking that, when compared to the masterful Hunt for Red October, it doesn’t compare favorably. There’s something a little too simplistic about Crimson Tide, a little too action-movie silly as opposed to truly dramatic. The film isn’t a check-your-brain-at-the-door piece of Hollywood stupidity, but there are definitely some choices (in the pacing, in the editing, in the music) that indicate that the film wants more to be an exciting action-adventure than a realistic drama. Now, that’s not necessarily bad — I LOVE a great action adventure! But that also puts a ceiling on the film’s potential right from the get-go.
The heart of the film is in the conflict between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington. Both men are terrifically cast, and the whole film rests on the idea of these two powerhouses colliding with one another in the middle of a potentially world-ending nuclear showdown scenario. Mr. Hackman plays Captain Ramsey, commander of the U.S. nuclear sub the U.S.S. Alabama (and was it Mr. Scott or Quentin Tarantino, who performed an uncredited re-write on the film’s script, who chose the name Alabama, which was also so memorably the name of Patricia Arquette’s character in True Romance?). Captain Ramsey is an experienced veteran of naval combat, experienced in the ways of war, and conditioned with a fairly simplistic soldier’s mentality of following his orders without question. Denzel Washington plays the Alabama’s newly-assigned X.O., Lt. Commander Hunter. Hunter is an intelligent and well-regarded officer, but he’s never been in combat and his analytical approach puts him into immediate conflict with Captain Ramsey. Things come to a head when the Alabama receives orders to launch a nuclear first-strike on Russian rebels, but then receives another message that is cut off when the sub comes into conflict with a … [continued]
The recent passing of Tony Scott prompted me to pick up two films, both directed by Mr. Scott, that had been sitting for quite a whole on my “to-watch” shelf: True Romance and Crimson Tide. I hadn’t seen True Romance since college, and Crimson Tide since it was originally released back when I was in high school, and I’d long been thinking about re-watching both of them. As my own personal little memorial to Mr. Scott, I sat down for a fun double-feature last week.
I can’t decide if True Romance’s title is meant to be ironic or genuine. It’s a jump ball to me. But the story works either way you look at it. The movie is a fairy tale, albeit a blood-soaked, crazy, fever-dream of a fairy tale. It’s totally implausible from the very beginning to the very end, but it’s so endearingly insistent in maintaining a tone of over-the-top madness that it’s hard not to get swept away by the story. It helps that the two leads, Christian Slater as Clarence and Patricia Arquette as Alabama, are so likable. You can’t help but root for this crazy couple to survive all the drug-dealers and double-crosses to find themselves a happy ending. Watching this film, I can understand why Christian Slater was once a big star. He’s electric in the role, manic and dangerous but with a hundred-watt smile and such a huge amount of cheerful affability that he’s incredibly lovable, even when the movie dares you to turn your back on him. (We’re not too far into the film before he decides to hunt down and kill a dangerous pimp, spurred on to do so by a vision of Elvis. You read that right.) And I’ve never enjoyed Patricia Arquette quite as much as I do in this film. Yes, she’s written as a comic book nerd’s idea of a perfect woman (sexy and tough and into kung fu triple features), so that of course makes her hard to resist, but she brings so much life to the role. She’s street-wise but also innocent, naive without being a dim bulb. Her chemistry with Mr. Slater is magnetic.
True Romance was written by Quentin Tarantino (it was released the year after his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs), and the film is dripping with Mr. Tarantino’s particular wit and influences. Like most of Mr. Tarantino’s work, the film is intense and very violent, but also incredibly funny and filled with characters discussing their love of film and music and other geeky things. Clarence and Alabama meet in the middle of a Sonny Chiba triple feature, what more do I need to tell you? It’s interesting to see Mr. Tarantino’s … [continued]
5. Batman: Under the Red Hood — Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series knocked me for a loop when I first saw it back in the ’90s, and I’ve been a huge fan of his many DC Universe animated projects in the years since. The recent series of animated DVDs that he’s been masterminding have been a bit hit-or-miss, but this film (adapting a storyline from the Batman comics written by Judd Winick) is really tremendous. The story has a GREAT hook: Batman’s life is uprooted when he discovers that the new crime-lord in Gotham City just might be his former partner, Robin. What unfolds is a surprisingly dark, surprisingly violent tale. Whenever Mr. Timm returns to Batman, I’m a happy camper, but this grim little film really grabbed me. I think it’s a particularly great depiction of the Dark Knight Detective. A superlative voice cast (including Bruce Greenwood, Neal Patrick Harris, Jensen Ackles, Jason Isaacs, and Futurama’s John Di Maggio) is just the icing on the cake. (Click here for my original review.)
4. Family Guy: It’s a Trap! – The folks at Family Guy conclude their trilogy of extended episodes parodying the three original Star Wars films with this warped version of Return of the Jedi. The animation is absolutely gorgeous (it’s shocking that I would write that about an episode of Family Guy, but believe me, it’s true. These artists have painstakingly recreated shot after shot from Return of the Jedi. Their version of the Battle for the Second Death Star is astounding). The jokes are very funny. (I was particularly taken with their depiction of the speeder-bike chase sequence, but on tricycles.) It’s Family Guy Star Wars. What more could I ask for? (Click here for my original review.)
3. Grindhouse (Blu-Ray) – I was very afraid that this would never see the light of day, but at last one can now own the original theatrical version of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double-feature, complete with all of the fake trailers. I love the extended versions of the two films that were released on DVD a few years back, but I’ve been aching to be able to experience what I saw (and so loved) in theatres back in 2007. Ignore the nay-sayers — this film is genius, and it is phenomenally entertaining viewing. It’s not for everyone (there’s a lot of sex and violence), but damn do I think it’s a lot of fun.
2. Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure (Blu-Ray) – Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite films. I didn’t … [continued]
5. Inglourious Basterds — Quentin Tarantino demonstrates, once again, that no one can wring more nail-biting tension out of simple conversation than he can. What I thought would be a simple men-on-a-mission story wound up being a much more complex, intriguing tale. Filled with astounding, unforgettable performances (Brad Pitt as the tough-talking Aldo Raine, Melanie Laurent as the fiercely intelligent Shosanna Dreyfus, and of course Christopher Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, one of the most unforgettable film villains of the past decade) and some great Tarantino touches (yep, that is a Samuel L. Jackson voice-over at one point), the film is ridiculously compelling. And that ending. Ho boy. Read my full review here.
4. District 9 — With a budget reportedly in the ballpark of 30 million dollars (which, if my information is correct, is about a third of what was spent on the Alec Baldwin/Meryl Streep comedy It’s Complicated), first-time director Neill Blomkamp fashioned one of the most gripping sci-fi tales I have ever seen. The film is set in Johannesburg, almost thirty years after an enormous alien spacecraft appeared over the city. The aliens, nicknamed “prawns,” have been settled in slum-like conditions in a refugee camp called District 9. When the corporation MNU bows to public pressure to remove the aliens from the vicinity of Johannesburg, the hapless Wikus Van De Merwe (who participates in the forced evictions) finds his life turned upside-down. As a sci-fi fan I am always looking for smart, original new works of sci-fi, and this film has both qualities in spades. With jaw-dropping special effects (I am amazed at how well the alien “prawns” are brought to life), a career making performance by Sharlto Copley (who plays Wikus), some terrific action, and edge-of-your seat intensity from start to finish, District 9 is a magnificent and haunting creation. Read my full review here.
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox — A deliriously fantastic combination of Roald Dahl’s story (about a family of foxes menaced by three vicious farmers) and director Wes Anderson’s unique sensibilities, Fantastic Mr. Fox feels to me like the film Mr. Anderson has always wanted to make. He has filled the movie with his specific style — detail-filled sets and precise, stage-like staging — and the foxes are a classic addition to Mr. Anderson’s repertoire of wonderfully idiosyncratic, somewhat disfunctional families. The script is complex and sophisticated (with characters who all possess strengths as well as character flaws, and no easy answers to their dilemmas in sight), and the voice-actors (including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, … [continued]
I still remember the first time I saw Pulp Fiction. I didn’t know anything about this guy Quentin Tarantino, and I hadn’t yet seen Reservoir Dogs. But in reading about the film in advance of its release, it looked like it had a pretty spectacular cast, and I thought the trailers looked pretty cool. So, when the film came out in theatres, I corralled a bunch of my high school buddies to go see the flick with me. Boy, were we totally unprepared for what we were about to experience in that darkened theatre in Milford, CT! We pretty much had our brains blown right out of our heads. When the film was over, none of us could really speak — or even move! My friends and I just sat silently through all of the credits, slowly absorbing everything that we had just seen. What a movie! Walking out of that theatre it was pretty much assured that, from then on, I’d buy a ticket to any movie that Quentin Tarantino ever directed.
And, well, I have, and he hasn’t let me down since. Jackie Brown, Kill Bill (volumes I and II) and Death Proof (Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse — and please lord, can we someday get the complete theatrical version of Grindhouse released on DVD???) all proved to be relentlessly entertaining. What has really impressed me, though, is that while all retain the distinct signature of Tarantino’s style of movie-making, those four films are all quite different from one another in terms of content and tone. I am happy to report that I can say exactly the same of Mr. Tarantino’s latest work, Inglourious Basterds.
This is a spectacular film, one of my very favorites of this mediocre summer of movies. (My other favorite would be Pixar’s Up — see my review here — and two more different movies I could scarcely imagine!)
As with most of Tarantino’s movies, Inglourious Basterds kicks off with a powerhouse of a first scene. In Nazi-occupied France, dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet, looking quite a lot like Gerard Butler in 300) is paid a visit by “the Jew Hunter,” S.S. officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who is seeking to determine if Monsieur LaPadite or any of the other local farmers are hiding a family of Jews who have disappeared. Tarantino is a genius at being able to craft exquisite tension from scenes of simple conversation, and this opening sequence is a master class in this skill (rivaling, in my mind, the deservedly famous “say what again!” interrogation scene from Pulp Fiction).
By the end of this prologue, only young Shosanna (and why her name is spelled that way, … [continued]
Welcome back to Motion Pictures! We’ve got lots of great stuff coming your way in the next few weeks (including my LENGTHY dissertation on Inglourious Basterds, coming on Wednesday). For now, let’s see what sorts of fun stuff has hit the web recently:
James Cameron has finally made another movie! And after almost two years of teases, we have at last been graced with a trailer — check it out here. I don’t hate Titanic — not at all. I happen to think, though, that it’s one of Cameron’s weaker movies — because I absolutely adore the two Terminator Films, Aliens, The Abyss, and True Lies. Those five films are all pretty much masterpieces, in my book, so I have been bummed that Mr. Cameron has gone a decade without making a new film. But that drought is finally at an end! Let’s hope Avatar is good…
Some other interesting trailers have hit recently: Here’s a glimpse at the long-delayed The Wolfman. It’s got a great cast (Benicio del Toro, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, and Emily Blunt) but the year-long delay and lots of rumors of problems with the film have me skeptical.
Then there’s the latest Michael Moore joint, Capitalism: A Love Story. Check out the trailer here. That should be interesting…
Earlier this month, when I was looking for an image of the crows from Dumbo for my Transformers cartoon making fun of the ridiculously infantile (not to mention offensive!) Skids and Mudflap, I came across this fascinating list of the Nine Most Racist Disney Characters.
In a recent interview with Europe’s Sky TV channel, Quentin Tarantino listed his twenty favorite movies of the past twenty years. It’s a pretty bizarre list, hence Chud‘s article titled Is Quentin Tarantino Totally Fucking With Us? (Unlike the author of that piece, I for one was THRILLED to see Unbreakable on that list!!)
Finally, take a gander at this:
Been there, man. TOTALLY been there. I can’t wait for this! Might have to bite the bullet and sign up for HBO for a few months so I can see the much-heralded Seinfeld reunion…… [continued]
Haven’t done one of these in a while…
Here’s some of the fun stuff floating around the interwebs these days:
The Simpsons has moved to HD! This has apparently necessitated a change in the show’s iconic opening credits sequence, which has remained constant for 19 years. (Can you believe it’s been that long??) Fear not, fans, the new credits sequence is quite spectacular. It follows the general pattern of the old opening, bringing us through Springfield — from Bart writing on the blackboard to Homer working in the plant to Lisa in band class to Marge shopping with Maggie, etc etc. But there are a LOT of great new gags, and new appearances by many of the popular characters who weren’t around when the show originally launched (Groundskeeper Willie, Otto, Ralph Wiggum, Pattie & Selma, Sideshow Bob, Apu and his Octuplets, and many more). And the new animation is terrific. If you missed yesterday’s episode, check out the new opening by clicking here. Note that the couch gag is, of course, just this week’s version — that ending joke will continue to change every week. By the way, after watching this clip, do you find yourself missing Bleeding Gums Murphy? (He’s one of the characters Bart used to skateboard past, who has now been removed.) Don’t worry, he’s still there! Check out the pictures on the wall behind the kids in Lisa’s band class…
Just like the year when there were two asteroid-hitting-the-earth movies (Deep Impact and Armageddon) or the year when there were two volcano movies (Dante’s Peak and Volcano), this year there are two Mall Cop flicks coming out. Perhaps you, like me, chose to pass on Paul Blart: Mall Cop, starring Kevin James. But you might still be interested in Seth Rogen’s much, much darker take on the idea. Click here to see a trailer for Observe and Report.
Speaking of trailers, Quentin Tarantino’s let’s-go-kill-some-Nazis flick Inglourious Basterds (yes, that is how the title is spelled) has a teaser trailer that was just released. Click here to check it out.
Is Joaquin Phoenix melting down before our eyes, or is this all some kind of hoax for the documentary that Casey Affleck is apparently filming about Phoenix’s attempt at a rap career? I have no idea, but click here to watch his truly bizarre appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, and judge for yourself.
If you’re a Watchmen fan who is chomping at the bit for the movie to be released (Match 6th is coming!!), then you definitely need to click here to watch the teaser for the Tales of the Black Freighter direct-to-DVD release.
Finally, I … [continued]