I thought about seeing Flight while it was in theaters, but ended up passing. Sure, the ads looked interesting enough, but director Robert Zemeckis' decade-long detour into motion-capture animation (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol) had really cooled me to his work. Pair that with the exhaustion caused by seeing Denzel Washington recycle the same performance for years, and I decided it was missable... and I was dead wrong. Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot who guides an ill-fated plane to relative safety, becoming something of a celebrity in the process, only to have this new-found exposure unearth a few sordid details.
Zemeckis' direction hasn't been this sharp since at least the early 90's, juggling the movie's many plots and agendas, lording over the many stellar production elements in place. He's also the coach of a knock-out cast, a smattering of familiar faces delivering strong work in support of Washington's towering turn. His performance isn't a revelation, exactly; the book is already written on Denzel, and taking a radical career turn seems out of the question by now. Flight just knows how to use him properly, John Gatins' expansive, detailed script calling for just the type of swagger and thinly-veiled demons that Washington's made a living on. Whitaker is on the more unhinged side of his spectrum, a sympathetic mess with enough smarts and savvy to gain your support in one scene, and enough troublesome habits to have you rooting against him the next. This is a Hollywood treatment of a subject that rarely receives such gloss, a large-scale, slickly operated character study of a man in crisis, with enough talent behind the camera and in front of it to bring the thing home.
The Sessions is impossibly sweet, a beautiful little jewel of a movie about life's joys and hardships, and you'll probably get a little uneasy the instant I tell you the premise. Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) is a writer who spends most of his time in an iron lung, having been paralyzed by polio as a boy. After receiving an eye-opening writing assignment, O'Brien decides, at the ripe-old age of 38, that he's ready to lose his virginity. After consulting a particularly buddy-buddy catholic priest (William H. Macy), the scribe contacts Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate tasked with guiding Mark through his initial encounters, and the two set to deflowering... yeah, told you.
How can a movie like this be so sugar-sweet without ever proving awkward, cloying, or cowardly? Writer/director Ben Lewin never pushes his agenda too hard, allowing the events to play out in honest, emotionally (and often physically) naked fashion. He refuses to shy away from the deed itself, and in doing so re-envsions America's normative cinematic take on sex, praising its beauty, connections and empowerments. John Hawkes is dazzling in the leading role, never once requiring easy sympathy to earn the audience's love, accomplishing that goal with his sharp wit and abundant appreciation for the world around him. The scenes he shares with Hunt behind closed doors might prove explicit by nearly every measure of the word, but they retain a certain warm-hearted innocence, O'Brien stepping through doors he'd long believed permanently locked, his considerable charm frequently swallowed up in uncontrollable nervousness. A rosy peak into a unique moment in the life of a unique man, The Sessions is a film attuned to the whispered wonderments of the world around us, a breezy, endearing treasure with as heart a big as they come.
The first time I saw a trailer for The Grey, I literally laughed out loud. It wasn't particularly corny or goofy or anything like that, but hadn't we seen Liam Neeson star in this type of thing enough times already? All violent, self-serious, and released almost exclusively in the months of January and February? When I found out that Joe Carnahan, that wunderkind of stylistic bombast and macho, 'look at me!' directorial choices (Narc, The A-Team), was sitting in the driver's seat, I cashed out completely. Who could have foreseen what the two actually cooked up? Neeson plays Ottway, a recluse living up in Alaska and filling an interesting niche in the oil workers' community, crest-fallen for reasons that remain vague and mysterious. He boards a flight to the states with his many gruff co-workers, but when the bird falls from the sky and strands the remaining survivors in the snowy tundra, Ottway must employ all of his considerable survival skills to save the remaining souls.
Those looking for constant rippling action and testosterone-fueled triumphalism won't find it here; The Grey is steeped in a deep sense of melancholy, Ottway's wounded voiceover immediately establishing the grim, reverent tone with which we proceed. Carnahan, whom I'd long since given up on, works miracles behind the screen, the chill of that icy wind nagging at your core, the scenes of danger both visceral and terrifying. But what most separates this heavenly odd-ball from the rest of its simple-minded, early-year cousins are the philosophical musings that rumble just below the surface, subtly tackling tricky notions like fear, regret, goodness, and mortality. The Grey is many things, a pulse-pounding action thriller when it wants to be, a moral rumination when it doesn't, a stupendously, unnervingly crafted work in just about every sense, and the single biggest surprise of 2012.
The Dark Knight Rises
Poor The Dark Knight Rises, forever to be unfavorably compared to a duo of more successful films. The first, of course, is The Dark Knight, a modern classic upon arrival, worshipped by fanboys and critics alike, featuring the single greatest performance ever applied to a comic book movie in the form of Heath Ledger's Joker. Then there's The Avengers, that, 'other,' most anticipated superhero movie of all-time, which out-grossed Batman's climactic outing by nearly 200 million dollars, and seems to have emerged as 2012's fan-favorite. Throw in the tragic events that took place on its opening night, and you've got a movie whose primary detractors and failings don't even appear on screen.
What does, however, is an enormous epic that manages to tie up just about everything we'd come to know and love about director Christopher Nolan's Bruce Wayne saga. In a movie season that stresses hugeness and that indefinable, 'wow,' factor, Rises was the only true showman, that opening aerial take-over positively laying waste to every other 2012 set-piece in sight. In addition to the jaw-dropping scale of the thing, the caped crusader pic also unspools its plot with an intricacy and complexity that no other big budget offerings dared, keeping about 20 plates spinning at once, the film's lengthy runtime justified by incident and intrigue. Sure, The Dark Knight Rises can't quite sit at the table with The Dark Knight, but do we really have to compare the two? Nolan's closing number is just so astoundingly orchestrated, stocked with classy craft, and daring a summertime audience to actually use their brains to keep up. The finest example to blockbuster enormity that we saw last year twice-over; no one does, 'big,' quite like Nolan.
For over two decades now, Tim Burton has had one of the most distinctive voices in American cinema, for better or worse. Each film he makes is drenched in that very same, 'goofy goth,' aesthetic, regardless of subject, a tendency that's earned the filmmaker both fans and detractors aplenty. Frankenweenie is no different, a stop-motion, black-and-white, 3-D homage to the monster flicks of early cinema that plays fast and loose with some of horror's most iconic imagery. At the center of it all is Victor (Charlie Tahan), a brilliant young outcast who, following the tragic death of his loyal dog Spike, brings the pooch back to life in perfect mad-scientist fashion, stirring up a ruckus in the process.
Frankenweenie is a charmer through-and-through, a revisionist history for anyone who's ever loved and lost at a too-young age. The black-and-white cinematography is positively sumptuous, each thoughtfully designed character lent texture and detail by the frame's hazy glow, Danny Elfman concocting one of the least ornate, most lovely and emotive scores of his career. There's even a neat little message tucked in there about the wonders of science, and the tragic aversion and fear with which many simpletons observe its miracles. Like Hugo last year, Frankenweenie is a sort of fantasy autobiography by its creator, the most passionate and plugged-in that we've seen Burton in years, his signature style a pure product of the story at hand, rather than the other way around. It's a small little number, over-archingly sweet with pockets of spookiness, a touchingly macabre tribute to anyone who's ever loved a pet.
2012's two greatest love stories couldn't be more different if they tried, and god bless them for that. Silver Linings Playbook observes the pangs of new love with madcap energy, and feel-good Hollywood rhetoric. Amour, the first foreign-language film nominated for Best Picture since 1997's Life is Beautiful, contains no such mania, documenting the final days of an elderly couple, all cooped up in their Parisian apartment. One could probably send you tap-dancing out of the theater, the other requiring a stiff drink upon conclusion. One moves in a methodical, decidedly European pace, while the other employs zippy rom-com antics, and zany side characters. After all this time, I still can't decide which take I like better, so give me both.
Writer/director Michael Haneke (Cache, The White Ribbon) has always had a clinical way about him, seeming to put on his gloves and reach for his instruments before each new film. Amour is no different, but while his other movies' eerie tones represented constant dread and the threat of sudden violence, his latest uses this worldview on an unnervingly honest portrait of life and love's final days. Aging screen vets Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are stunning in the film, their subtle interactions carrying years of weight and secrets and understandings. Despite its fly-on-the-wall leanings, Amour also has a near-psychedelic bend to it, steeped in dream sequences and symbolism that may prove impossible to truly crack, hovering over the film like an ominous raincloud. Like an Ingmar Bergman movie dropped in from a different age, Hanake's latest is a hushed meditation on how we spend our lives, and how we end them. It's about as tough a watch as they come, but its rewards are many.
Silver Linings Playbook, on the other hand, requires no such nerve to watch, splattering warm-hearted hilarity and affection across every spare inch of the screen. Bradley Cooper reinvents his career as Pat Solatano, a man recently released from a mental care facility harboring an unrelenting ambition to rekindle his lost marriage, an agenda that takes a sudden turn when Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a sultry and saucy recent widow, enters the frame. SLP is a throwback to the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s, a genre that shouldn't still work but does on every level, a loving mash-up that would make Ernst Lubitsch proud. David O. Russell, that chief orchestrator of loopy social interactions and perfectly drawn characters, works wonders with the cast, each member in perfect position to deliver knock-out performances. The first romantic comedy worth caring about in years, Silver Linings Playbook is a flick that believes in happy endings without ever getting too blunt about it, an energized romp that proves the perfect antithesis of Amour's doomed march. You gotta love 'em both.
Django Unchained honestly kind of ruined movies for me for a second. The unmitigated highlight of my Christmas 2012, I walked out of the theater with a smile so wide it almost broke my face, mulling over its many highlights for days afterwards, wishing more movies could muster its guts, sass, and electricity. Jamie Foxx stars as the titular Django, a slave in the pre-civil war south who is freed by an eccentric German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Though Schultz's initial interest in Django is business-like in nature, the two develop a chemistry and rapport, finally setting off on an epic quest to free Django's wife from deliciously evil plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Quentin Tarantino's latest unfolds over a lengthy 165 minutes, and while perhaps not all of it is exactly necessary, the movie is such an ecstatic entertainment, I never wanted it to end. A resplendent cinematic buffet, Django has just about everything going for it; towering performances, stupefyingly wonderful dialogue, and superb visuals and production design. Many have taken issue with using a tragedy like slavery as a backdrop for such an overtly fun genre film, Tarantino juxtaposing the horrors of human captivity against laugh-out-loud witticisms and gory shoot-outs. While I certainly see their point, I offer this rebuttal in the form of a question; is a movie like Lincoln, which treats slavery with somber reverence, but chooses to omit any actual scenes of human suffering in favor of a keeping things neat and clean, really more ethically sound? A button-pusher, a pot-boiler, a buddy flick, a throw-back western: Django Unchained is just about every movie there is, funneled into one glorious celluloid feast, each scene making you hungrier still for the next, a goal to which every movie should ascribe. Tarantino strikes again.
Given the innumerable ways in which Zero Dark Thirty could have failed, the final product is something of a miracle. Released a mere year-and-a-half after the death of Osama bin Laden, the film might have turned into a time-relevent cash-grab, or harbored a bombastic political agenda. Perhaps even worse, it could have gone down like medicine, relaying the struggle in documentary fashion, forgetting to operate on cinematic terms. But ZDT carefully avoids these many traps, a dense, morally-ambiguous chronicle of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, held together by Jessica Chastain's subtle performance as a quietly fierce woman with a razor-sharp agenda.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, both Oscar winners for their last team-up, The Hurt Locker, accomplish something here that is, to my mind, worlds more impressive. Where THL favored visceral action and nerve-fraying suspense to a more elaborate plot, Thirty condenses a decade of CIA inter-workings and American anxiety into an impossibly rich (if exhausting) 157-minute viewing experience. Besides the intense, immersive story being told, the film is stocked from top to bottom with exemplary craft, intimately shot, torridly scored, and immaculately edited. A mystery as interested in process, frustration, and set-backs as it is in the mission's ultimate execution, ZDT even manages to recapture Locker's pulse-pounding adrenaline in the 25 minute masterpiece that is the climactic raid sequence. I honestly think that Zero Dark Thirty will be looked back on as a classic some day, the most intricate, important piece of movie-making 2012 had to offer.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Movie magic is a hard thing to define in writing or speech; most of the time, you just have to experience it for yourself. Playing out like a live-action Miyazaki film, Beasts of the Southern Wild follows the joys and struggles of a little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) who live in a fictitious, isolated Bayou community known simply as, 'The Bathtub.' The life they lead is both joyous and celebratory, though a myriad of hardships, be they meteorological, medical, or magical realist, lurk just below the surface, the various threats transforming little Hushpuppy into a pint-sized warrior right before our very eyes.
Wallis is positively astounding in the lead role, all of six years old when the movie was filmed, conveying senses of wisdom and emotional understanding that belie her age. Henry is her equal, their connection thorny, complicated, and filled at its core with astounding, magnanimous love. First-time director Benh Zeitlin amazes from the word, 'go,' coaxing brilliant work out of non-actors, co-writing the gorgeous script, and even helping out on the year's most beautiful score twice over. The film visits some harsh territory to reach its final destination, earning each and every single emotion, deeply inspiring in a way that countless movies attempt to replicate, but so few succeed. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a dazzling, beguiling tribute to that unruly thing we call existence, and if your eyes can stay dry through the final 15 minutes, I'm honestly not sure we can be friends. Prepare to be moved.
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