2012 will, I think, go down as a year of mostly enjoyable movies. Not a lot of greatness to be found, but not much junk, either, at least judging by the list I generated.
I saw sixty-one new films this year, and I noticed that most of the films that didn’t number among my favorites tended to be minor disappointments rather than outright failures. “Prometheus” is a good example of this. Ridley Scott’s epic sci-fi horror film wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped. Is it his fault or mine that I had hoped it would be the greatest science fiction film of the decade?
By the same token, there were a few that exceeded my expectations, though not by a lot. “Ghost Rider 2” was silly fun, and “Safe House,” with Denzel Washington, was better than its by-the-numbers psychological thriller trailer.
On the whole, it was a good year in film. Sadly though, there is one film that just didn’t generate the attention I think we all wanted it to. “Big Miracle,” which by all rights would have kept its original title, the silly-sounding yet unique “Everybody Loves Whales,” is now officially considered a flop. My one big shot at stardom, as “Tired-looking Cameraman in the back,” shot down by a fickle movie-going public who decided that Drew Barrymore diving with animatronic whales wasn’t something they just had to see. Blast!
Here, though, are a list, in no particular order, of movies they did need to see — followed by a few that no one needed to see.
Ben Affleck’s tension-filled tale of one of the most bizarre episodes in CIA history is brilliant. That the agency was able to fool the notoriously humorless Iranian government by pretending to shoot a science fiction film in the desert, all the while smuggling out American diplomats, in the middle of a hair-trigger hostage situation is mind-blowing, and this film brings it all to life with razor sharp timing and excellent performances. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but it is 100 percent entertaining.
This epic adventure from Marvel Studios and director Joss Whedon was only one of several big-budget comic book movies to grace the screens this year, but despite the difficulty involved with carrying six lead characters, it left them all in the dust. “The Avengers” was pure, non-stop fun. And lo and behold, Whedon managed to actually throw some real character development in there, too. Every year some new comic book film will grab the title of “Greatest Comic Book Film Ever Made!” but until this year, we hadn’t seen a real attempt at greatness. This film sets the new bar pretty high.
"Life of Pi"
Ang Lee’s adaptation of the meditative novel by Yann Martel was a long shot, to say the least. How do you sustain the audience for two-plus hours when most of the story takes place on a small lifeboat peopled only by a young boy and tiger? Stunning visuals, beautiful performances, and a commitment to the deep spirituality found in the text seem to have done the trick. “Pi” is a lovely movie, though deeply sad at points, and has what I consider the best computer animation I’ve ever seen in the creation of the tiger.
Man, is this a good movie. I was a little afraid because big-budget bio-pics about sainted figures can tend to get a little tedious, but I should have trusted Steven Spielberg. Not only is Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance transcendent, but Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner managed to create one of the most emotional, gripping, and often downright funny films I’ve seen in a long time. There are those out there who will avoid this movie because they think it’ll be a lot of work, but take it from a guy who just sat through this three-hour telling of the creation of the 13th Amendment for the second time — it’s worth the hype.
Compared to the previous heavy-hitters, “Bernie” feels pretty small. The tragic tale of an affable small-town funeral director and the woman he befriends and eventually murders is sweet, funny, and full of heart. It also features the best performance by Jack Black to date.
"The Hunger Games"
“The Hunger Games” is certainly not an award-worthy picture, but as a piece of entertainment and adaptation of a difficult book, it hits all the right notes. Jennifer Lawrence establishes herself as a bonafide star and director Gary Marshall manages to maintain a delicate balance of horror and thrill with ever falling prey to exploitation in this dystopian tale of kids murdering kids.
"Rock of Ages"
I would be willing to bet that a Google-search of movie top-ten lists would yield exactly zero mentions of “Rock of Ages,” but I don’t care. I thoroughly enjoyed this ridiculous, over-the-top, and addictively entertaining ode to the glory of seventies and eighties hair bands. Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and especially Tom Cruise are all hilarious and perfectly cast. Forget “Les Mis,” if you want a fun sing-along, go see “Rock of Ages.”
Wes Anderson returns with his signature brand of whimsy, regret, hazy melancholy, and off-beat humor in this tale of a young scout who is determined to trade in his dismal existence for a life of adventure, all with the love of his life at his side. Taking place in 1950’s New England, the movie features great performances across the board from as varied a cast as Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, and Francis McDormand, but the real stars are Jared Gilman and Kara Howard as the star-crossed lovers.
You can tell my kids are getting old enough to go to the movies with me more often. Fifteen percent of the movies I saw this year were animated and, surprisingly, only one of those was less that stellar. It feels like children’s entertainment is getting better, although maybe it’s only because I’m on the lookout for it now. Everyone of the following is worthy of recommendation: “Brave,” “Finding Nemo 3D,” “Madagascar 3,” “Monsters Inc. 3D,” “ParaNorman,” “The Lorax,” “The Pirates: Band of Misfits,” and “Wreck-It Ralph.” Of these, “ParaNorman” is the most unique, but also the most adult. We kept the kids home for that one.
Crazy Science Fiction
While big budget fare like “Prometheus” and “Battleship” kind of hit the wall, lower budget, quirky sci-fi films really found a market. Time travel was a favorite theme in the creepy and mesmerizing “Sound of My Voice,” which resembles nothing so much as an extended “Twilight Zone” episode, and the action-packed “Looper,” with Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Found footage and the superhero film came crashing together with great results in the way-more-entertaining-than-it-should-be “Chronicle,” and horror films got sent up with a bang in the brilliant and bizarre “Cabin in the Woods.” All are great, but “Cabin” and “Looper” are not for the squeamish.
"2016: Obama's America"
I’ll have to admit, my review for this movie got me in a little bit of hot water with some of my more conservative readers, but I can’t help it if it’s just a bad movie. Fronting the crazy premise that Barack Obama is some kind of a secret evil Communist mastermind with plans to, among other things, destroy America and set up an Fascist Islamic Empire in the Middle East, director Dinesh D’Souza makes some of the oddest directorial choices I’ve ever seen in a documentary, at several points filming himself phoning in interviews. Elaborate graphics, quirky camera tricks, and smug expressions can’t disguise the fact, however, that D’Souza has no evidence of any kind. Bizarre.
Poor Taylor Kitsch. He was just getting started and, with the one-two punch of the underrated “John Carter” and “Battleship,” he might be headed back to network TV sooner than he thought. “Battleship” in particular, was an unfortunate choice. The alien invasion movie suffers from poor dialogue, a numbingly repetitive plot, subpar acting, and a pointed lack of the line, “You Sunk My Battleship!”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is another star on the rise, but due to his involvement in three other high-profile movies this season (Lincoln, Looper, The Dark Knight Rises), the actor probably won’t be hurt by this obnoxious and idiotic bike messenger thriller. Terrible acting, terrible dialogue, and a ridiculously convoluted plot vault this into the category of “Laughably Bad.”
"Ice Age: Continental Drift"
Speaking of obnoxious, “Ice Age 4” was the one animated movie I saw this year that reminded me that not all kid’s programming is quality. Dumb jokes, a ridiculous premise, and the high-pitched cacophony that results from Denis Leary, Ray Romano, and John Leguizamo all trying to whine at the same time permeate this movie. You know it’s bad when you find yourself hoping for the Continental Drift to create a tsunami big enough to wash them all away, ending their misery and ours.
“Taken 2” is one of the laziest movies I saw all year. So lazy that no one even seemed to care that the title sounds like an unfinished phrase: Taken to... what? Taken to a third movie, unfortunately. Audiences came out to see Liam Neeson once again whip up on some poor Eurotrash slavers, though this bunch is barely enough to make our hero break a sweat. The whole thing takes place over the course of an afternoon, allowing Neeson to put down dozens of bad guys in-between breakfast and a trip to the mall. Director Olivier Megaton should have been named Mega-cut as he switches camera angles every few seconds. There are more cuts in this 90-minute movie than in Spielberg’s entire body of work.
"American Pie Reunion"
You know the phrase, “you can’t go home, again?” The producers of this latest entry in the “American Pie” oeuvre should have listened. Instead, they’ve offered up this pathetic, listless coda to what was a surprisingly resilient series. These movies were never going to be considered great works of comedy, but at least they were mildly amusing. “Reunion” slaps us in the face with its cast’s lack of talent, making me wonder how these people have remained employed for the last fifteen years. Oh, they’ve been making “American Pie” movies. That’s right. This was probably the worst movie of the year, and it’s a splash of cold water to remind us that we, as Americans, have created an entire movie genre out of a dumb joke about a kid having sex with a pie.
“Yo, check it out: you got this bad-ass ex-smuggler, right? Like Han Solo, right? ‘Cept he’s played by Marky Mark and instead of the Millennium Falcon, like 90 percent of the movie will take place on a slow-moving container barge. It’ll be sick, yo!” I can only imagine the pitch meeting that went on to get a studio to sign on to this plodding, pointless action flick. Of the entire cast, only Giovanni Ribisi seems to even be trying, but when placed in context to the rest of this drab production he’s like the one guy screaming in a room full of mumblers.
"Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part 2"
This was the most gleefully terrible movie I saw all year. Bella, Jake, and Edward take the whole series out with a bang as their half-vamp, half-human child sends the whole monster community into a tizzy. After three previous films of dour moping and pouty longing, they finally turned up the volume and gave us what we wanted, a good-old-fashioned vampire/werewolf brawl. It is hilarious! Despite this movie’s placement on the “Worst” list, this was one of the most enjoyable outings we had all year.
"The Dark Knight Rises"
What a let-down. Though technically not one of the worst films of the year, “The Dark Knight Rises” was certainly the biggest disappointment. We were all expecting a home-run follow-up to one of the most ambitious super-hero films of all time, but Christopher Nolan decided to bunt instead. No one was going to match the genius of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but as a villain, Bane is almost laughable with his dumb-looking mask and odd, Sean-Connery-through-a-snorkle voice. The plot is full of holes big enough to drive the bat-mobile through, and of the distinguished cast, only Anne Hathaway manages to distinguishes herself. Speaking of ...
As my wife and I left the theater, we looked at each other in disbelief. “Maybe it’s us,” she said. “Maybe we’re crazy.” Maybe she’s right, because I can’t figure out why it is that everybody else seems to love this gargantuan, ponderous melodrama. People around us were weeping and I was banging my head on the seat in front of me. It’s not that it’s opera. I can handle that. It’s that the songs are almost all boring soliloquies delivered in extreme close-up. Director Tom Hooper, who did a great job with “The King’s Speech,” goes avant garde, framing most of the shots so that you can almost see the singer’s tonsils. That is when you can see their faces at all. Half of Hugh Jackman’s lines are delivered with his head fully off the screen. The much vaunted choice to record the singing live works occasionally, but more often only magnifies an actor’s deficiencies, as in the case of poor Russell Crowe, who looks great in the part of driven Inspector Javert, until he opens his mouth. Anne Hathaway’s heartbreaking rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” is perfect, but as she’s only in the film for about ten minutes, and gone so very early in the production, her performance only underscores the hours and hours you have left to go.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.