Thursday, January 31, 2013

Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2013

It's taken me much longer than I had hoped to wrap up the year 2012 (and to blog on a more regular basis than I have been), but we're finally coming to the end - by getting to the beginning. There are plenty of exciting films to look forward to in 2013, from expected blockbusters to the return of a number of auteurs. However, these are the ten films that I'm personally looking forward to the most. And, as always, I'd love to hear what you're looking forward to as well.

*All release dates are tentative as of January 31, 2013*

10. Oldboy (dir. Spike Lee)

I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't the biggest fan of Park Chan-wook's 2003 thriller of the same name (shame on me, Internet, I know). Even so, when it was announced that an American remake was being made, I had serious doubts about it. Josh Brolin takes over the lead as a man who has five days to figure out why he was imprisoned for 15 years; Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, and Lance Reddick co-star. What's helped this film make it onto the list - the reason I'm most excited about it - is that Spike Lee is sitting in the director's chair. The last time Lee made a movie this ostensibly commercial was 2006's Inside Man, which was a thrilling jolt of a caper. It's true that Lee hasn't had the best track record in terms of quality, but his films are always interesting to watch and when he's on his game, he's one of the best American directors working today. It'll be interesting to see what he does with this material. (10/11)

9. The Wolverine (dir. James Mangold)

So X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a bust. Things are looking much better for it's sequel, though, starting with the fact that the story is lifted from one of the comic's most famous arcs. Logan (Hugh Jackman) travels to Japan to train with a samurai, only to, of course, encounter trouble. Originally, the film was supposed to be directed by Darren Aronofsky, who dropped out in order to work on Noah instead. However, Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) is an excellent choice, and should provide the film with some interesting visuals. Still, the most exciting - and, conversely, troubling - aspect is how the film handle's Chris Claremont's and Frank Miller's infamous story. If it pulls it off, The Wolverine should be able to join the ranks of the best superhero films. (7/26)

8. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)

It's easy to get spoiled on the Coen Brothers - generally, they work in spells, releasing a new film every year until they go on a multi-year hiatus. 2010's slightly-underwhelming True Grit was their last film; the last time they took a three-year break, they came back with 2007's No Country for Old Men. This film, supposedly in the works for years, is set in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, with Oscar Isaac playing the title role of a folk singer pursuing his dream and meeting the usual misfortunes that Coen Brothers characters face. The first trailer suggests this one is in the mode of Barton Fink and A Serious Man, two of the Coens' most underrated films. And there's the promise of Carey Mulligan in spite mode, John Goodman as a shady record producer, and Justin Timberlake as a session musician. Hopefully this will be the film that makes Isaac a true star. (TBA)

7. Twelve Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

In my mind, McQueen is batting two-for-two, with Hunger and Shame being terrific films with unique sensibilities. For his third film, he tells the story of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who becomes enslaved in the Antebellum South. Django Unchained 2 this certainly won't be, likely avoiding the exploitation of Tarantino's film in favor of a more emotionally-harrowing treatment of the material. The cast is ridiculously awesome: aside from the incredible Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, and McQueen muse Michael Fassbender all have roles. Given McQueen's background as an artist, this is sure to be visually stunning as well. (TBA)

6. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence)

Last year, I considered putting The Hunger Games on my most-anticipated list, but ultimately decided my unfamiliarity with the source material and general blasé attitude toward "next Harry Potter/Twilight" films was greater than my intrigue from Jennifer Lawrence being cast as Katniss and Gary Ross as director. The film ended up at #7 on my year-end top 10. I'm approaching this sequel with some caution - from what I understand, it involves an all-star edition of the titular competition and social unrest (I still refuse to read the source material). However, if it avoids the general trappings of sequels, it could be great. Director Francis Lawrence has made a number of interesting (and diverse) films - including Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" video - that bode well for the film. (11/22)

5. Star Trek: Into Darkness (dir. J.J. Abrams)

It's been four years since Abrams successfully revived the Star Trek franchise on the big screen by hitting the reset button. Supposedly, the delay has been the result of "waiting for the right story," which, in typical Abrams fashion, is still tightly under-wraps. The main cast is returning, with the addition of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain, rumored to be Khan (I hope not). History tells us that consecutive Star Trek movies never match in terms of quality, and Abrams is very busy these days balancing Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, television series, and now Star Wars (unnecessary). The pressure's on this one; hopefully it lives up to the hype. (5/17)

4. Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

The last time director Refn teamed with Ryan Gosling, we got Drive, my favorite film of 2011. This time, Kristen Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansrimgarn join the cast, and we can expect more too-cool-for-Hollywood aesthetics from Refn and company. Not much else is known about the film right now, but if the above doesn't get you excited, here's IMDb's plot summary: "a Bangkok police lieutenant and a gangster settle their differences in a Thai-boxing match." That line alone would have me in line on opening day. (TBA)

3. Elysium (dir. Neill Blomkamp)

In 2009, Blomkamp - with an assist from producer Peter Jackson - gave us District 9, a socially-conscious instant sci-fi classic. He's finally returning with another slice of social commentary and science fiction, this time telling the story of a future where the rich live in comfort in a space station while the rest of us fight for scraps on the remains of a ravaged Earth. Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and District 9 star Sharlto Copley make up the main cast. Considering how truly amazing his previous film was, Blomkamp's facing a tough task with this one, but if he nails it, we'll have another classic on our hands. (8/9)

2. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

Somehow, it's been seven (SEVEN!) years since Cuaron made the brilliant dystopian drama Children of Men, his last film. This one was originally scheduled for last year, but was delayed for additional postproduction work. Gravity has no shortage of ambition: the tale of an astronaut (Sandra Bullock) trying to get back to Earth after an accident, the majority of the film - shot in 3D by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki - features Bullock alone, with a few sequences involving George Clooney as well. In the past, I've been outspoken about Bullock and her unwarranted Oscar win for The Blind Side, but she is talented, and this could very well be the film that silences the naysayers. There's no doubt in my mind that this one will be divisive - it's riding too much hype to not be - but whether it succeeds or fails, it's guaranteed that there's nothing else out there like it. (10/4)

1. The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann)

Originally scheduled for late 2012, the oft-filmed novel returns to the big screen - now in 3D! I know, it sounds like an awful idea, but bear with me: Leonardo DiCaprio is Jay Gatsby. Carey Mulligan is Daisy Buchanan. Tobey Maguire is Nick Carraway. And judging by the trailer's decision to soundtrack Prohibition-era New York with Jay-Z and Jack White covering U2, it seems that Luhrmann is working in his idiosyncratic Moulin Rouge! mode, rather than Australia. The images look indelible. If anyone can be counted on to breathe new life into F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, it's the guy who gave us Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman singing Bowie and Whitney atop an elephant in 1890s Paris. (5/10)

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Entertainment Junkie's Top 10 Films of 2012

It's been a long time coming, but I'm hoping to finally wrap up all of the year-end festivities this week. Last week I published the 2012 Jarmos, and later this week we'll look ahead to the coming year with my ten most anticipated films of 2013. But for now, here's my personal top ten list for the year 2012. This year, Oscar and I agreed much more on which films were best than last year (but I like to think last year was just a down year for me in regards to Oscar), but there's also a few blockbusters and highly-enjoyable films included here as well. Feel free to debate the selections.


10. Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott)

There were a number of people who were disappointed in Prometheus, whether it was it's Clarke-esque rumination on the origins of life in the universe that yielded no answers or the brief glimpse into the mythology of Alien (which Scott directed in 1979). By all measures, it was not an easy film to grasp. Was it an Alien prequel? A movie simply set in the same universe? But let's set that aside for now and enjoy the fact that a studio would not only greenlight such a perplexing film, but also position it as a summer blockbuster on the faith that audiences would give it a chance. The result is a film that's big on ideas and bleakly beautiful (or maybe beautifully bleak?). As the crew of Prometheus - lead by Noomi Rapace's wide-eyed scientist - descends upon a distant world, they seek the beginning of life. The movie doesn't completely deliver, but Michael Fassbender's performance as the ship's android, David, and a standout sequence involving a surgical machine provide plenty of reason to check it out.

9. Argo (dir. Ben Affleck)

Ben Affleck's career shift to directing has rewarded him greatly: with each film, he's only getting better. Argo brought him out of his native Boston and dropped him into the true story of how a CIA agent (Affleck) - with the help of the Canadian embassy and a Hollywood producer (played deliciously by Alan Arkin) - smuggled a group of Americans out of Tehran in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis. Affleck shows his strengths at crafting taut thrillers, bringing genuine tension to the situation as the chaos builds around the hostages as they pose as a film crew (a scene in a Tehran market is particularly harrowing). It was the year's second-best historical thriller, and the film that's cemented Affleck's reputation as a director.

8. Flight (dir. Robert Zemeckis)

Flight pulls of a neat little trick: it begins with a terrifying plane crash sequence, then switches to a mature drama about pilot Whip Whitaker's (Denzel Washington, in his best performance since Malcolm X) struggle to sober up and take responsibility for his life. The film is a welcome return to live-action filmmaking for Zemeckis, who seemed intent on wandering the Uncanny Valley for the rest of his career before signing on to this film. But apart from John Gatins' excellent script and terrific performances from John Goodman as Whip's dealer and Kelly Reilly as the recovering addict trying to save Whip (as well as the aforementioned crash sequence), this is the Denzel show, and he gives the film a tremendous weight in his abrasively honest performance. He's a man lost in the wilderness of his own creation, and as he discovers, it's a place that's hard to come back from.

7. The Hunger Games (dir. Gary Ross)

I never read Suzanne Collin's successful young-adult novels, in which a futuristic society is divided into twelve districts, and children are selected from each district every year to fight for the right to go home alive. It's a harrowing premise (though not unlike that of Battle Royale), to be sure, but the film became an enormous sensation, one of the year's biggest movies. After seeing the film, I'm not so sure I want to read the novels, as I don't want the experience to be tainted. As a film, the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss - all steely nerve and killer instinct - is it's biggest strength, but the rest of the cast is excellent as well, and Ross' direction gives the film a Malick-does-the-apocalypse vibe. Watching Katniss choose to do her best to survive - and help others survive - rather than kill was a refreshing spin on this sort of tale. It was a thrilling ride; we'll see how director Francis Lawrence handles the sequel, Catching Fire, later this year.

6. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Surely no one goes into a P.T. Anderson film expecting something straightforward and easy-to-digest, but no one was prepared for how dense The Master would be. As alcoholic WWII veteran Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) falls under the spell of hypnotic multi-hypenate Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his legion of cult-like followers, the film becomes more and more difficult to parse. However, repeat viewings yield a film that will only get better with age, and a plethora of gorgeous images to accompany the film's complex dissection of faith in America. All of this anchored by another masterful performance by Phoenix, who's innate sense of danger and spontaneity lends his performance an extra edge. This is a film that cinephiles and scholars will be discussing for years to come.

5. Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)

Everyone knew this would be Oscar bait: Daniel Day-Lewis plays the 16th president, Sally Field appears as Mary Todd, Tommy Lee Jones plays crusty and stubbornly abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, and Steven Spielberg directs from a script by playwright Tony Kushner. What no one could have guessed would that this would be Spielberg's best film in over a decade, an unexpectedly tense political thriller centered on the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, which permanently abolished slavery in the United States. The film presents Lincoln as a complicated man, a shrewd strategist who's willing to do whatever it takes to bring the nation back together, regardless of legality. Day-Lewis gives the performance of the year in the role, giving equal weight to Lincoln's folksy storyteller and political gamesman. This is how all biopics should be: focusing on a pivotal moment in the subject's life, and exploring the complexity that made it happen.

4. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)

One of the interesting things that's often ignored in Anderson's films is that they're often painfully melancholic, despite their picture-book, moving-diorama visual aesthetic. Moonrise Kingdom finds young Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) running away on a New England island in the 1960s, intent on starting their lives together as they explore first love. However, from the very beginning, the romance is tainted by the creeping realities of their situation: the adults trying to rescue them, the powerful storm wrecking havoc, the fact that being in love is never easy. The film is, above all, a delightfully brilliant and beautiful coming-of-age tale, with every frame serving as an indelible picture and every actor giving it their all. It's hands-down Anderson's best film since The Royal Tenanbaums, and maybe even better.

3. Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

I've been debating the placement of Tarantino's latest on this list. The film is hugely problematic, though at least it has America discussing race and slavery. It's perhaps half-an-hour too long, somewhat unfocused, and oddly airless in some places (I strongly believe that the absence of editor Sally Menke - who passed away in 2010 - is partly to blame here). And, bizarrely for a Tarantino film, Kerry Washington is wasted as Django's still-enslaved wife (Tarantino's films almost always have terrific roles for actresses). In the ranks of Tarantino's filmography, it's my second-least-favorite film. Yet Tarantino's worst films are often better than many filmmakers' best, and Django Unchained is an exciting twist on spaghetti westerns and continues Tarantino's march through history with revisionist zeal. Jamie Foxx does his best Man-with-No-Name as the title character, a reticent badass out to rescue his wife Broomhilda, and Christoph Waltz's chatty bounty hunter is clearly a more-enlightened distant cousin of Inglourious Basterds' Colonel Hans Landa. Then there's the supporting cast, including Samuel L. Jackson giving his best performance in years. I'll probably debate this placement for a while, but for now, it deserves this spot.

2. Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin)

No film was more surprising or more creative than this magnificent gem, which follows a young girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, in a stunning performance) who lives with her father (Dwight Henry, who was a local baker before being cast) in the Bathtub, a flooded bayou shantytown not unlike post-Katrina Louisiana. Zeitlin's film is incredible in its confidence as a slice of magical-realist allegory, a tale of growing up in a world that's unforgiving. That the cast is populated with non-professionals and first-time actors (particularly Wallis and Henry) makes it all the more amazing. There is absolutely nothing else like it in cinema, making this a wondrous one-of-a-kind experience. It's a film that must be seen in order to be fully understood. And it's only Zeitlin's first film; it's a hell of an act to follow-up.

1. Les Miserables (dir. Tom Hooper)

When critics review films, we like to think of ourselves as capable of viewing film differently from the average audience member. We break films down in terms of their individual components, debate the thematic material the filmmaker is creating a discourse of, and imagine ourselves tastemakers, the bourgeoise of cinematic audiences. But films are not meant to be viewed in a vacuum of objectivity; ultimately, a critic's dissection of a film is still rooted somewhat in opinion, and our emotional reaction to a film always colors our evaluation of it (as well it should). All of this is to say: yes, Tom Hooper's direction is at times questionable, especially in not opening up some musical sequences to wider shots. Yes, Russell Crowe's saddled with the worst character from the musical as the obsessively-driven Inspector Javert. Yes, it's a tad hokey, with its theme of love being the ultimate revolution. But Les Miserables earns the number-spot because no other film provoked such an incredible emotional response in me. Epinone (the radiant Samantha Barks, who is hopefully getting her pick of roles now) belting her romantic torment in the rain in "On My Own" stirred my heart. Former prisoner Jean Valjean (a career-best Hugh Jackman) expressing his admiration of Marius (Eddie Redmayne, hopefully a star now) in "Bring Him Home" was astonishing and beautiful. And of course, Fantine's (Anne Hathaway, who has never been better) gut-wrenching "I Dreamed a Dream" - the most perfect scene of this, or maybe any, year - left me devastated. Maybe it wasn't the most technically impressive film, or a feat of auteurist achievement. But no other film reminded me of why I fell in love with cinema in the first place: to laugh, to cry, to feel, to love, to live.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The 3rd Annual Jarmo Awards

I must apologize for my sporadic posting as of late. I missed the entire back half of 2012 thanks to school and a struggle with depression, both of which made it very difficult for me to post on a regular basis. However, I am doing better now, and I've started a new job - hooray money! - and I'm going to try to get back to regular posting here at The Entertainment Junkie. So thank you for your patience, and I promise I'll have the blog back in running order now.

And what better way to really jump back into the swing of things than with the Jarmo Awards? For the uninitiated, the Jarmo Awards are TEJ's year-end honors, named after an incident in which my name was AutoCorrected in a friend's phone as "Jarmo" (it's also the name of a city in ancient Iraq, which, as a history major, I find cool but totally irrelevant to this blog). This year's Jarmos are a little more Oscar-friendly than previous years, but this year, in my opinion, wasn't as rich as last year. Now, these only cover the films I personally saw this year, so unfortunately, there's no Zero Dark Thirty or Amour (or whatever other "but what about ______?!?!" you come up with) in this set. There's also no Best Picture; I'll post my Top 10 list later this week, with the number-one film being my "Best Picture."


Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
(runner-up: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master)

This one was a tough choice, as there were three men who turned in performances that were nothing short of masterful. Hugh Jackman was terrific as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and Joaquin Phoenix imbued his Freddy Quell with his trademark sense of danger and vulnerability in The Master. However, in the end, it's hard to ignore Day-Lewis' incredible portrayal of our 16th president. This is a performance that went far beyond mimicry (though Day-Lewis is a dead ringer): he makes Lincoln a friendly and charming storyteller to those who meet him, but behind closed doors a cunning and fearless strategist who's willing to make tough choices regardless of their legality. In Day-Lewis's hands, Lincoln's not a caricature; he's a thrillingly complex human being. Simply put, no one was better.


Kara Hayward, Moonrise Kingdom
(runner-up: Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild)

At the center of Moonrise Kingdom is the story of two kids who find themselves in love with one another and choose to run away together. For the story to work, director Wes Anderson needed strong young actors to play Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy. For the latter, he could not have made a better choice than Hayward. Armed with her books, her French records, a kitten, and her love for Sam, Suzy is fiercely independent, and Hayward plays her with confidence and grace well beyond her years. She's nothing short of captivating, especially in the scenes she shares with Gilman; even in the scenes she shares with Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, and Bill Murray, you can't take your eyes off of her. With a performance this good, this young, I can't wait to see what she does next.


Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained
(runner-up: Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike)

Django Unchained is a terrific - but hugely problematic - film, and like all Tarantino films, you never know who in the often-incredible cast is going to be best-in-show until you actually see the film. Awards groups have gone for Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio, but have strangely ignored the incredible work that Jackson does. As house slave Stephen, Jackson turns in what is easily his best performance in years, playing the role of villain with such zest that he seems reinvigorated as an actor (especially after seeing him sleepwalk through paycheck roles for so long). What's more, Jackson plays him as a man with power that may not only be nominal: DiCaprio's Calvin Candie may own the plantation, but it's made clear that it's Stephen who's pulling the strings. That he does so without ever being brazen about it only makes Jackson's performance that much more impressive. If anyone from Django deserved awards attention, it's him.


Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
(runner-up: Samantha Barks, Les Miserables)

Hathaway's only in Les Miserables for about 20 minutes of it's nearly three-hour running time, but the impression she makes is unbelievable. As Fantine, a young woman forced into prostitution in order to provide for her daughter - and whom Hugh Jackman's Jean Valjean takes pity on - she gives her heart and soul to the role, making you feel the lifetime of pain she's endured in only a few scenes. But one of those scenes is the showstopper "I Dreamed a Dream," which is perhaps as close to a perfect moment of cinema we'll ever receive. It's gutsy and gut-wrenching, beautiful and heartbreakingly vulnerable. It was a role of a lifetime for Hathaway, and she was nothing short of phenomenal in it. When she wins the Oscar in February, it will be whole-heartedly deserved.


(tie) Bradley Whitford & Richard Jenkins, Cabin in the Woods
(runner-up: Lee Pace, Lincoln)

Whitford and Jenkins are in a good portion of Cabin in the Woods, so it may be unfair to call these "cameo appearances" (not to mention there's another terrific, spoilery cameo near the end of the film). But the two of them - playing techs for a secret company that makes horror happen - are so delightful, I can't help but reward them here. From Jenkins' obscene reaction to a group of Japanese schoolchildren defeating a malevolent spirit to Whitford's one wish being (ironically) granted, they were a key part of what made this ridiculously inventive film so much fun.


Moonrise Kingdom
(runner-up: Lincoln)

You can always count on Wes Anderson to assemble an impressive cast for his films, and Moonrise Kingdom was no exception. In addition to Anderson repertory players Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Bob Balaban, the cast includes Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, and Tilda Swinton, as well as child actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward (both newcomers). That everyone turned in terrific performances only sweetens the deal.


(tie) Quvenzhane Wallis & Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild
(runner-up: Dane DeHaan, Chronicle)

For Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin made the risky move of casting non-professional actors, including for the lead roles of Hushpuppy and her father, Wink. Zeitlin clearly saw magic in Wallis (Hushpuppy was originally written as a boy, but changed after Wallis' casting) and Henry, who worked as a baker before the film. The result was two of the most realistic and impressive performances of the year, and helped ground the film to reality amidst the more fantastical elements. Both Wallis and Henry have been cast in Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave, due later this year. Hopefully, this is only the beginning of their careers, and we'll be treated to more brilliant performances from them for years to come.


Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom
(runner-up: Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild)

No one compresses more information into a single frame than Anderson, whose films are often strangely criticized for being so well-composed. There is a certain living-diorama feel to Anderson's films, but when he's at his best, he makes the worlds of his films seem like the way our world should aesthetically be, yet the sadness and despair still seeps in. Moonrise Kingdom is easily Anderson's best film since The Royal Tenenbaums, and he treats this coming-of-age tale with the respect it deserves, while also bringing out some of the best performances he's ever gotten. And, of course, every frame is an impeccable image.


Beasts of the Southern Wild; screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
(runner-up: Lincoln; screenplay by Tony Kushner)

My first instinct was to give this one to Kushner, for making a thrilling film out of a talky debate over a constitutional amendment (not exactly the stuff thrillers are made of). But I just can't ignore how brilliantly inventive Beasts of the Southern Wild is. Adapted from a one-act play entitled "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar, the screenplay is a terrific work of magical realism, complete with mighty mythical beasts and a setting - the Bathtub - that's not unlike Louisiana immediately after Katrina. That it is, at it's core, a coming-of-age tale about a young girl named Hushpuppy, and you've got a recipe for a film that's unlike anything else. And it all started with Alibar & Zeitlin's magnificent screenplay.


Moonrise Kingdom; written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
(runner-up: Cabin in the Woods; written by Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard)

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, this is another coming-of-age tale, only through Wes Anderson's eyes (with the help of Roman Coppola). It's a tale of first love, but unfortunately for protagonists Sam and Suzy, not even the excitement and comfort of love can protect you from the harsh melancholy of reality. It could have been a cute diversion, but Anderson's films never stoop to that level. This was a gorgeously written film, all summed up in a single sentence: "I love you, but you don't know what you're talking about." Ultimately, it seems, none of us ever do.


Magic Mike
(runner-up: Chronicle)

It was advertised as "the male stripper movie," a chance for (mostly female) audiences to ogle half-naked men for two hours the way so many other movies filled their time with half-naked women for men to gawk at. But then again, I shouldn't have been surprised it would be so much more: this is Steven Soderbergh, after all. What it ended up being was a timely parable of our economic times, as Mike (Channing Tatum) strips at night to supplement his day job in construction and dream of becoming an entrepreneur. It also featured career-best performances from Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, who oozes charm as a drawling stripper Svengali. It could have just been all sex. Instead, it had a heart and brain too.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
(runner-up: The Dark Knight Rises)

At the beginning of the year, I included The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on my list of my ten most anticipated films of 2012. I was cautiously optimistic at the time; sure, Peter Jackson was back in the director's chair, but it had been nine long years since our last trip to Middle Earth, and lightning doesn't always strike twice. Lo and behold, it didn't. Journey never felt like more than an opportunity to mint more Middle Earth money, and with a running time of just a little under three hours, a lot of things happened, but none of them felt like it mattered. There was a sense of the series just marking time, exacerbated by the announcement that the planned two films were now to be a trilogy. This is to say nothing of the distracting silliness, stunningly ugly visual effects, and inconsequential subplots that made up most of the film. The sad truth is, we didn't need to go back to Middle Earth. Not when this is the final result.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Ruby Sparks (2012)

They're called manic pixie dream girls. The term itself comes from Nathan Rabin's article on Elizabethtown, as he described Kirsten Dunst's role in Cameron Crowe's flop as the following:
"The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family. As for me, well, let's just say I'm not going to propose to Dunst's psychotically chipper waitress in the sky any time soon."
Now, the manic pixie dream girl is nothing new in cinema. They've existed, in one form or the other, since Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp was causing chaos to the amusement of moviegoers. But it wasn't until the past decade that the trope has come under fire, especially given high-profile examples such as Natalie Portman in Garden State and Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer.

In the words of Harry (Chris Messina) in Ruby Sparks, "quirky, messy women who's problems only make them more endearing are not real." This is practically the film's thesis statement. Calvin (Paul Dano) is a "genius" novelist who's been suffering from writer's block in his attempts to follow-up his enormous previous success. At the behest of his therapist, he begins writing about his "dream" girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the script), who then magically comes to life. Calvin discovers that as he writes her, she becomes whatever he writes. But as their relationship grows, she becomes more complicated, leading Calvin to make some tough decisions about what he really wants.

The interesting thing about the film is that, like (500) Days of Summer, the lead character  is really a self-absorbed jerk. Calvin is presented as a man who became a literary phenomenon at an early age, and never was able to relate to anyone other than himself. Dano's terrific in the role, but Calvin's not a character that's easy to like. Kazan's script seems to be making a point of this: the manic pixie dream girl is a fantasy for men who can't see anyone beyond themselves as full, complex human beings. Ruby, throughout the film, develops beyond the trope, becoming more of a human being and less of an idealized version of a woman. There's a brilliant feminist critique of the manic pixie dream girl trope here, and the film presents the much-needed criticism in a highly entertaining way.

Kazan delivers the film's best performance, imbuing Ruby with real soul and overcoming the quirks that Calvin writes for her. Messina, as Calvin's brother, gets some of the best lines of the film, and Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas pop up for an amusing segment as Calvin's mother and stepfather, respectively. Directors Valarie Faris and Jonathan Dayton - the team behind Little Miss Sunshine - bring a grounded approach to the film, never presenting it as whimsical or fantastic. The film takes a dark turn in it's third act, giving it more weight without sacrificing its overall tone.

Ruby Sparks is a stealthy comedy, sneaking in a critique of the manic pixie dream girl into a film that would appear, on the surface, to be no different from most films of that ilk. It's a smart, well-made film that entertains as it enlightens. B+

Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 Oscar Nominations

The nominees are in, and with them come a number of surprises. Once again, I've been showed up in Best Picture, as nine films received a nomination for the second year in a row (I had only predicted seven, but my numbers eight and nine did go on to receive nominations, so go me?). Lincoln leads the pack with 12 nominations, and the Academy apparently really, really loved Life of Pi, bestowing 11 nominations upon it. Presumed frontrunner Zero Dark Thirty only mustered up five nominations, and director Kathryn Bigelow was completely left out of the Best Director lineup. In non-BPs, Skyfall leads with five nominations, the most ever for a Bond film; in fact, Skyfall is the first Bond film since 1981's For Your Eyes Only to score any sort of Oscar nomination.

So what does all this mean? The races for Best Picture and Best Director just took a strange turn; perhaps we've overestimated how much the Academy likes Zero Dark Thirty and Argo? Is Lincoln the new frontrunner? Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi got major boosts, so are they now the dark horses? We'll see how it all shakes out over the coming weeks.

Below is a full list of nominees, with commentary.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

As I stated above, nine nominees is more than I would have guessed (I expected more vote-splitting among the smaller films). Even though I really liked Django Unchained (though I found it very problematic and uneven; more on that later), I'm surprised this wasn't too controversial or too "genre" for the Academy. Yes, Tarantino's last film, Inglourious Basterds, was a big hit with Oscar, but it was a truly interesting film and concerned a subject right in Oscar's wheelhouse (World War II). On another note, Amour is the first non-English-language Best Picture nominee since Letters from Iwo Jima in 2006 (and the first to be in both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film since 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Here's the fun part: what film finished in 10th place, just missing a nomination? Last year, the most obvious choice was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; this year, honestly, it could be anything. My guess is either Moonrise Kingdom or The Master, but it could very easily be Flight or even Skyfall.

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

The consensus was that there were six men fighting for these five spots, and the Academy went with Phoenix over The Sessions' John Hawkes (who, despite my bullish insistence, never really was all that safe for a nomination, despite the hooky disability angle). Phoenix wholly deserves this nomination, though; he's nothing short of mesmerizing in Paul Thomas Anderson's enigmatic film. Bradley Cooper is the recipient of this year's Jonah Hill Memorial "Wait, He's an Oscar Nominee?" Award.

Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

As announcers Seth MacFarlane and Emma Stone noted, each of these men is a previous winner, with a combined total of six trophies between them. With a win, De Niro would join the exclusive club of three-time acting winners (joining Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Walter Brennan, Jack Nicholson, and Meryl Streep). And even though it feels like Hoffman is nominated every year, this is actually his first since 2008.

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

This year we have both the oldest and youngest nominees in this category ever: Emmanuelle Riva (85) and Quvenzhane Wallis (9), respectively. This is still the Jessica vs. Jennifer race, but it is a surprising more diverse set of nominees than what was expected. The most notable snubs here are Marion Cotillard (Rust & Bone), who would've given the category it's first multiple non-English performances since 1976 (Amour and Rust & Bone are in French), Helen Mirren (Hitchcock), who, honestly, could have played Alfred Hitchcock's put-upon wife in her sleep, and Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea), who had a growing passionate fanbase and likely would have been nominated if the announcement had been two weeks later.

Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

So it didn't turn out to include Dame Maggie Smith (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which was completely ignored) or Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy), but who would have thought it would be Weaver? There's not much to her role in Silver Linings Playbook, and it's hardly her best work, so my guess is that the film's coattails were long enough for her to squeeze in. But she's now a two-time Oscar nominee: how delightful is that?

The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph

Unlike last year, when a handful of foreign curiosities managed to squeeze in (including the wonderful Chico & Rita), this year's set is mostly major-studio fare from Academy favorites, with Disney being the big winner with three films nominated here.

Seamus McGarvey, Anna Karenina
Robert Richardson, Django Unchained
Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi
Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln
Roger Deakins, Skyfall

This is certainly an interesting collection of films, especially Deakins' inclusion for Skyfall. Richardson was last year's winner in this category for Hugo.

Jaqueline Durran, Anna Karenina
Paco Delgado, Les Miserables
Joanna Johnston, Lincoln
Eiko Ishioka, Mirror Mirror
Colleen Atwood, Snow White and the Huntsman

It's a battle of the Snow Whites as the undisputed champ in this category in recent years (Atwood; three wins and seven nominations in the last decade) faces off with the late Ishioka, who passed away last January (she had previously won for Bram Stoker's Dracula). This is a very rich category this year, with first nominations for Delgado and Johnston.

Michael Haneke, Amour
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

This is the category that is the most surprising to me. Gone are presumed locks Ben Affleck (Argo) and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), in are Zeitlin - a first-time director - and Russell, who has been mostly ignored on the campaign trail this year. I correctly guessed that Haneke would have a strong enough reputation to earn the Academy's attention, especially since Amour is (slightly) more in their wheelhouse than his other films have been. I'm willing he's most likely to pull an upset here come Oscar night.

5 Broken Cameras
The Gatekeepers
How to Survive a Plague
The Invisible War
Searching for Sugar Man

The most surprising snubs here are Mea Maxima Culpa, Alex Gibney's film about child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, The Queen of Versailles, a portrait of the 1% at the economic collapse, and West of Memphis, a Peter Jackson-produced doc about the West Memphis Three (the subject of last year's nominee Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory). However, that opened the door for the fascinating music doc Searching for Sugar Man. The Invisible War and How to Survive a Plague are phenomenal and very important films: if you haven't seen those, check them out ASAP.

Kings Point
Mondays in Racine
Open Heart

With the exception of Open Heart (about Rwandan kids seeking heart surgery in Sudan), all of these are about some facet of "the American dream" and American society, with New York City being the hotspot locale.

William Goldenberg, Argo
Tim Squyres, Life of Pi
Michael Kahn, Lincoln
Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, Silver Linings Playbook
Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg, Zero Dark Thirty

Goldenberg is a double nominee this year, so congratulations to him. It's interesting that Les Miserables didn't score a nod here, but the Oscars have always been weird about musicals: they direct and edit themselves, apparently. This category has long been a big indicator for how Best Picture will go (BP winners are usually nominees here), so it will be interesting to see who comes out on top here.

Amour (Austria)
Kon-Tiki (Norway)
No (Chile)
A Royal Affair (Denmark)
War Witch (Canada)

The biggest snubs here are France's global smash The Intouchables (which seemed like a sure thing to be nominated and a spoiler to win) and Romania's Beyond the Hills, which did well at Cannes this year (there's no telling what it will take for Romania to ever be nominated at this point). Chile is nominated for the first time ever this year. Interestingly enough, Canada has been on a role lately; this is their fifth nomination in the past decade (only Germany has matched that total) and third in a row. This is also Amour's best shot at a win.

Howard Berger, Peter Montagna and Martin Samuel, Hitchcock
Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell, Les Miserables

The makeup category has always been one of the most puzzling ones, but this year fits the standard bill: prosthetics, fantasy elements, and plenty of the impoverished. All three of these are very showy makeup jobs; interesting that this is the only place Hitchcock shows up this year.

Dario Marianelli, Anna Karenina
Alexandre Desplat, Argo
Mychael Danna, Life of Pi
John Williams, Lincoln
Thomas Newman, Skyfall

This is legendary composer John Williams' 46th career nomination, and he's likely to win his first trophy since 1993. Newman's inclusion is surprising, since Skyfall wasn't listed as a major contender in this category. It would have been very interesting to see Beasts of the Southern Wild land one here, though many had predicted Cloud Atlas would get a nod here (Cloud Atlas ended up with no nominations).

"Before My Time," music and lyric by J. Ralph; Chasing Ice
"Everybody Needs a Best Friend," music by Walter Murphy, lyric by Seth MacFarlane; Ted
"Pi's Lullaby," music by Mychael Danna, lyric by Bombay Jayashri; Life of Pi
"Skyfall," music and lyric by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth; Skyfall
"Suddenly," music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyric by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil; Les Miserables

This is another category that is hard to predict or make sense of (and that I have argued in the past should be done away with), but sure things "Suddenly" and "Skyfall" making the cut is no surprise. More interesting is what else did: a number from Ted, a song from a documentary ("Before My Time"), and a gorgeous number from Life of Pi. At least a five-wide field is better than last year's paltry two nominees.

Anna Karenina; production design by Sarah Greenwood, set decoration by Katie Spencer
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; production design by Dan Hennah, set decoration by Ra Vincent and Simon Bright
Les Miserables; production design by Eve Stewart, set decoration by Anna Lynch-Robinson
Life of Pi; production design by David Gropman, set decoration by Anna Pinnock
Lincoln; production design by Rick Carter, set decoration by Jim Erickson

The category formerly known as Best Art Direction isn't all that surprising this year. There's the return to everyone's favorite hobbit-holes, a few opulent period pieces, and a visually inventive drama in Life of Pi. It is a bit surprising to not see Django Unchained nominated here, given the Western town Tarantino had built from scratch, nor was Prometheus recognized for it's impressive sets. Most surprising is the snub of Moonrise Kingdom: how no Wes Anderson film has ever scored in this category is mind-boggling to me.

Adam and Dog
Fresh Guacamole
Head Over Heels
Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare"

And with that, The Simpsons are finally Oscar-nominated. Disney's Paperman is truly magnificent.

Buzkashi Boys
Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw)

I don't know much about this category, so I'll abstain from commenting on it.

Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn, Argo
Wylie Stateman, Django Unchained
Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton, Life of Pi
Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers, Skyfall
Paul N.J. Ottosson, Zero Dark Thirty

For the most part, the sound categories are where summer blockbusters have a best shot at a nomination. But with the exception of Skyfall, both are almost all Best Picture nominees. It'll be interesting to see who comes out on top here.

John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Jose Antonio Garcia, Argo
Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes, Les Miserables
Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill and Drew Kunin, Life of Pi
Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Ronald Judkins, Lincoln
Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell and Stuart Wilson, Skyfall

Musical? Check. Action films? Check. Prestigious period piece? Check. There's nothing too surprising here either.

Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott, Life of Pi
Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams and Dan Sudick, Marvel's The Avengers
Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley and Martin Hill, Prometheus
Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson, Snow White and the Huntsman

Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy didn't go out with the bang many expected (but how could you follow up The Dark Knight with complete success?), but Oscar-wise it ends with a whimper: zero nominations for The Dark Knight Rises. The year's highest-grossing film, The Avengers, gets it's only nod here. What's most surprising is that The Impossible was not nominated, despite many arguing that the tsunami sequence is far superior to that of 2010 nominee Hereafter.

Argo; screenplay by Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild; screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
Life of Pi; screenplay by David Magee
Lincoln; screenplay by Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook; screenplay by David O. Russell

I'm surprised to see Life of Pi nominated here, given the clunky framing device Magee employs; the Academy's love for the film seems to have spread all around. Stephen Chbosky's screenplay for The Perks of Being a Wallflower - adapted from his own novel - is a critical favorite, but it just didn't hit the Academy's sweet spot.

Amour; written by Michael Haneke
Django Unchained; written by Quentin Tarantino
Flight; written by John Gatins
Moonrise Kingdom; written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty; written by Mark Boal

There were a number of terrific screenplays eligible for this category this year, so it's not surprising that there are a few major snubs. Foremost among them is Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master; there's no doubt that the film will become a film-class standard years from now, but at the moment it's dense and divisive. This is a category that often gives films that don't stand a chance anywhere else a nod, so I'm a little surprised Looper didn't get recognized here. This is the first time Tarantino has been recognized for writing only. For the second year in a row, one of the nominees is in a language other than English (Asghar Farhadi's screenplay for A Separation last year was in Farsi, Amour is French). Mark Boal has only written two screenplays so far, and they've both been nominated for Original Screenplay; not a bad start to a career.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Final Oscar Nomination Predictions 2012

It's the day before Oscar nominations announced! Nomination morning is always my Christmas Eve (with Oscar Day being Christmas, of course).

Hugh Jackman has a good reason to be excited: he's likely to receive his first (well-deserved) career nomination tomorrow for his work as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. It's amazing that it took Hollywood this long to recognize his musical talent - put him in more musicals, ASAP! (On a related note, make more musicals!)

It's been many months since I've last posted here - an entire fall has disappeared without me writing anything. I will soon explain what has been happening, as well as presenting my 2012 top 10 list and the recipients of the third annual Jarmo Awards. But until then, here's my final predictions for Oscar nominations.

BEST PICTURE (I'm predicting seven nominees this year)

Les Miserables


Zero Dark Thirty


Silver Linings Playbook

Life of Pi


(if more than seven, in order of likelihood of nomination)

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Django Unchained

Moonrise Kingdom


Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty

Ben Affleck, Argo

Tom Hooper, Les Miserables

Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

Michael Haneke, Amour


Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

Marion Cotillard, Rust & Bone

Naomi Watts, The Impossible


Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables

Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

John Hawkes, The Sessions

Denzel Washington, Flight

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook


Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

Sally Field, Lincoln

Helen Hunt, The Sessions

Amy Adams, The Master

Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master

Alan Arkin, Argo

Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained


Argo; screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on the article "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran" by Joshuah Bearman

Silver Linings Playbook; screenplay by David O. Russell, based on the novel "The Silver Linings Playbook" by Matthew Quick

The Sessions; screenplay by Ben Lewin, based on the article "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" by Mark O'Brien

Lincoln; screenplay by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Beasts of the Southern Wild; screenplay by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, based on the play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar


Zero Dark Thirty; written by Mark Boal

The Master; written by Paul Thomas Anderson

Moonrise Kingdom; written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

Amour; screenplay by Michael Haneke

Looper; written by Rian Johnson