Click here to read part one of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012, in which I listed numbers 15-11. Now, onward!
10. Looper – In this smart, original sci-fi flick written and directed by Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe. Joe is a Looper, someone paid to kill guys the mob from thirty-years in the future send back in time to get whacked, long before the law might be looking for their bodies or any evidence of the crime. One day, the guy sent back in time for Joe to kill turns out to be Joe himself, now played by Bruce Willis. Old Joe gets away from Young Joe, and things spiral out of control from there. Bruce Willis hasn’t been this much fun to watch in an action movie in years, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is terrific as well. I loved watching these two play off of one another. Emily Blunt (making her second appearance on my Best of 2012 list, as she also starred in The Five-Year Engagement) and Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels are all fun in supporting roles. This is a twisty sci-fi tale that is mind-bending without ever losing sight of the character drama at the heart of the story. (Click here for my original review.)
9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Though not the masterpiece that the three original Lord of the Rings films were, this first of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is still a ferociously entertaining fantasy adventure. At nearly three hours in length, this film is stuffed to the gills with extraordinary sights and thrills, with characters and with circumstance. Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo Baggins (inheriting the role from Ian Holm who played Bilbo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and who actually reprises his role as “Old Bilbo” in one of this film’s many prologues), a great every-man anchor to the story. He’s great, and I also loved seeing lots more of Ian McKellan, who reprises his role as Gandalf and is magnificent as ever as the gruff, temperamental wizard. The film is filled with many great new characters (all of the Dwarves) as well as the welcome return of many familiar faces from the original trilogy (Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman, and of course Andy Serkis as Gollum). The “riddles in the dark” scene with Gollum alone makes this film worth seeing, but there are so many other wonderful moments, from the long opening scene in Bag End with all of the dwarves (highlighted by Richard Armitage as Thorin and the other Dwarves singing the somber “Misty Mountains” … [continued]
I know some people who don’t care for the peculiar stylization of Wes Anderson’s films, but I am an enormous fan of his work, and the arrival of a new Wes Anderson film is always a cause for excitement for me. I particularly adored Mr. Anderson’s most recent film, Fantastic Mr. Fox (click here for my review). I loved it almost as much as The Royal Tenenbaums, which still stands as my favorite Wes Anderson film, though Fantastic Mr. Fox is very, very close. I was a little worried that, coming off of that great film, Moonrise Kingdom might be something of a let-down (in the way that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was somewhat disappointing to me after Tenenbaums, though I have subsequently come to really enjoy that film). But such was not at all the case. Moonrise Kingdom is magnificent.
The film tells the tender story of the young love that blooms between two twelve-year-olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), who decide to run away from their respective homes together. Sam is an orphan, who doesn’t seem to be loved by his new foster parents and who is ostracized in the Khaki Scout troop in which he finds himself a member. Suzy’s parents are still alive, but distant from her, wrapped up in their own failing marriage. Susy’s discovery that the mother is having an affair proves difficult for the young girl to make peace with. So Sam and Suzy make plans to set off on an adventure together.
The two kids are both fantastic. There are times when the performances of the young actors might feel a little stilted, but the two kids are both so genuine and honest that it’s hard to complain. Sam and Suzy are very different from one another, but the connection that forms between them is a magical one, and young Mr. Gilman and Ms. Hayward bring their childhood romance to beautiful, heart-rending life. The film wouldn’t work if these two weren’t believable, and let me say that the film works very well indeed.
The adults in their lives are just as wonderfully fascinating, if not more so! Bruce Willis has been stuck in “Bruce Willis” mode for a while now, so I was shocked by how great he is as the sad, lonely police captain on the small New England island on which the story is set. It’s a very tender, restrained performance, and it’s absolutely wonderful in every respect. Equally great is Edward Norton as the earnest leader of Sam’s Khaki Scout troop. Scout Master Ward is an adult, but he’s another great child-at-heart Wes Anderson creation, more at home in his life as a … [continued]
Although I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson, somehow I had only seen Rushmore – the film that broke him through to a larger audience — one single time. I saw it on VHS back in 1999 or 2000. I didn’t know a thing about Wes Anderson at the time, I just knew it was a Bill Murray comedy that had been well-reviewed when it came out. But since my idea of a great Bill Murray comedy was something like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day, I was totally unprepared for Rushmore. I didn’t like it at all.
Thinking back on it, I think the problem was that I was expecting a totally different kind of movie. I didn’t know quite what to make of Mr. Anderson’s little film. It was a much more somber, sad film than anything I would readily describe as a “comedy.” I do remember laughing at a few points — particularly the mid-movie montage in which Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman’s characters try to destroy one another — but those moments were few and far between. It also probably didn’t help that I was watching the movie on a tiny little TV screen, late at night when I was exhausted.
For years now I’ve been thinking that I really should go back and revisit Rushmore. It’s GOT to be a better film than I remember it being, I thought! After watching Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, last year (click here for my review), I was all set to re-watch Rushmore. But somehow, months passed, and I never got to it.
But last month, finally, I did!
As I expected, I thought much, much more highly of Rushmore this time. I still think that The Royal Tenenbaums is far and away Wes Anderson’s greatest film (though The Fantastic Mr Fox certainly would give it a run for its money — click here for my review of that film), but I quite enjoyed Rushmore, and I can see why it was such a critical darling upon its release in 1998.
Jason Schwartzman turns in a star-making performance as the Max Fischer — an overachiever who has founded countless school clubs and written and directed a series incredibly elaborate plays but who, nevertheless, is in danger of flunking out of Rushmore Academy. Max strikes up a friendship with Herman Blume (Bill Murray) a rich local businessman who finds that he likes the eccentric Max far more than his own “popular” sons. The two men are both lost and lonely, and they’re able to find deep common ground between them, despite their age difference. That is, until they both fall in … [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]
Having watched Fantastic Mr. Fox, the phenomenal new stop-motion animated film from director Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited), I am almost forced to reconsider all of his previous (also wonderful) films.
Mr. Anderson’s work has always been characterized by an extraordinarily stylized look to his sets and staging. (The Royal Tenenbaums, my favorite of Mr. Anderson’s films, must be considered a triumph of art direction amongst its many other great qualities.) Now it seems to me that Mr. Anderson has always been approaching his movies as if they were animated films: pouring never-ending attention into the creation of the artificial worlds that his characters inhabit. (In animation, this is of course necessary: there are no “standing sets” to use – everything must be designed from the ground up.)
Or maybe I should put it this way: in stop-motion animation, Mr. Anderson has found a perfect stylistic vehicle for his particular idiosyncratic method of storytelling.
Adapted from a book by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox focuses on a family of foxes who enter into an escalating feud with three cruel farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. What is remarkable is that this animated fox family is just as fully-realized as any of the clans seen in Mr. Anderson’s previous films. Each character is filled with flaws and with strengths. Each feels, well, human! George Clooney voices the title character, Mr. Fox, who is inventive and fearless… but also dangerously reckless and oblivious to the walls he is inadvertently building up between him and his son. Jason Schwartzman plays his son, Ash, a teenaged (in fox-years) boy who idolizes his father but, sensing that he is not going to get the approval he seeks, has withdrawn into teenaged “this is all stupid” rebellion (that includes the wearing of bizarre outfits). Meryl Streep is the patient mother of the brood who deeply loves her husband yet must admit, in a powerful moment late in the film, that she never should have married him.
Does this sound like your every-day animated film so far?
It’s just amazing, really, how Mr. Anderson (working with co-writer Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed the magnificent film The Squid and the Whale) has shaped Roald Dahl’s tale into a film whose character drama fits perfectly in with the rest of Anderson’s filmography. But he has done so without losing the charm and heart of Mr. Dahl’s original tale – particularly when it comes to bringing to life the increasingly escalating lunacy (and violence) of Mr. Fox’s back-and-forth feud with the farmers.
I haven’t even mentioned the enormous ensemble that surrounds … [continued]
I walked into Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums totally unprepared for the idiosyncratic work of genius I was about to see. I had seen Rushmore on video a year or so earlier, but I’d gone in expecting a goofy Bill Murray comedy and so didn’t quite know what to make of the film I actually saw. While Rushmore had gotten a lot of acclaim upon its release, the film didn’t exactly blow my skirt up (to borrow one of my favorite lines from True Lies). But I’ll watch Gene Hackman in almost anything, and the rest of the ensemble cast of Tenenbaums looked intriguing, so I decided to check out the film when it came out in theatres. I was absolutely blown away by what I saw: the film was emotional and very, very funny, but even more than that, every frame seemed to be absolutely unique, unlike any other film I’d ever seen before. This was the work of an accomplished, singular filmmaker.
The Royal Tenenbaums remains my favorite film by Wes Anderson, but I’ve also quite enjoyed The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (a much-underrated film that I have really grown to like upon repeat viewings) and The Darjeeling Limited. Despite my appreciation of those films, though, I had never sought out Mr. Anderson’s first film: Bottle Rocket. There’s no particular reason for that — I wasn’t avoiding seeing it — it’s just a film that I never got around to watching. But when the Criterion Collection (always known for their high-quality presentations of notable films) released Bottle Rocket on DVD last spring, I knew I had to take the plunge.
Bottle Rocket focuses primarily on the friendship between three young men: Anthony (Luke Wilson), Dignan (Owen Wilson), and Bob (Robert Musgrave). The three guys — Dignan in particular — harbor aspirations of becoming master criminals. When we meet them at the start of the film, though, they’re pretty hapless.
Bottle Rocket isn’t strong on plot, exactly. That’s not to say that nothing happens in the film — quite a lot happens, actually. But there isn’t really a strong dramatic through-line to the events — the movie feels more like a series of vignettes. That hurts the pacing of the film somewhat, but adds to the naturalism of the story. These three friends aren’t typical movie-heroes caught up in BIG DRAMATIC events. They’re just sort-of hapless schmoes trying their best to figure out their own lives and find their way in the world. And therein lies the movie’s charm.
The two Wilson brothers and Robert Musgrave all turn in strong performances — especially Owen Wilson, whose character of Dignan is a truly unique creation. … [continued]