Jan 172013
  January 17, 2013

2012 was an excellent year for fantasy, science fiction, and horror films…at the top…but it didn’t have a lot of depth. I’ll ignore mediocrity for now and focus on the winners.

#5 Upside Down

I’m starting with a cheat. I can’t say that Upside Down is the 5th best genre film of the year, even if I can type it. But nothing in the bundle of gore-feasts, animated horror comedies, and action dramedies that could take its place stand out. They just aren’t special. Upside Down may not truly be better than all the second tier offerings, but it is spectacular.

It creates a universe new to film, where two worlds hang within spitting distance of each other, and both have the strange property that their gravity only effects objects from that world. People from “up top” are upside down to those “down below,” which leads to some fascinating office furniture layouts. Of course this isn’t science fiction (the science doesn’t hold up, nor is it meant to), but a romantic fairytale set in an incredible dystopia. OK, the story wobbles around, the narration should have been cut, and the romance is not believable (though Kirsten Dunst is charming enough that I wanted it to be believable), but the world(s) is so brilliantly conceived and breath-takingly realized that the rest can be forgiven. If it was slated to win the Oscar for Art Direction and been nominated for cinematography, I’d have let it be, but as it won’t be getting the honors it deserves, it will have to settle for my #5.

#4 The Man With the Iron Fists

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino solidified the Nouveau Grindhouse movement with Kill Bill, From Dusk Till Dawn, Machete, and of course Grindhouse, a group of playful, self-aware films that honor the ’70s “grindhouse” and drive-in era.  The Man With the Iron Fists is the newest entry in the movement and the best not made by Rodriguez or Tarantino (though Tarantino does have a finger in as “presenter”). If you long for old school Hong Kong chopsocky, but with the addition of greater racial diversity and Hollywood A-listers, your dreams have come true. Rapper RZA takes the director’s chair, as well as the role of the titular character, giving the feature a 2012 vibe, with a nod and a wink. Hands get lopped off, bodies get ground up, blood sprays across rooms, and it is all good fun. Russell Crowe hasn’t displayed this much life in years, and Lucy Liu shines with all the strength and  mesmerizing beauty that she lacks in her weekly TV show.

I would have found the movie more rewarding with a change in who won (it was a given that the bad guys would lose, but that doesn’t mean all the good guys win), but it does nicely as is.

#3 Prometheus

Call it a flawed jem. Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction is the most beautiful film of the year, and the most confounding. It gives us the year’s best character (the android David), the coolest spaceship, the greatest mysteries, the tensest moment, and the only self applied human/squid abortion. The last might not be a plus for everyone, but it was for me.

A semi-prequel to the highly influential Alien, Prometheus often is overly familiar, and then it leaps into no man’s land. It answers far fewer questions than it asks and can be a frustrating ride for anyone not wanting to put in an hour after viewing figuring out what it all meant. But if you love to swim in seas of symbolism, Prometheus is your ocean.

I wrote an article on the character issues in the film (Geek-Out: Let’s Save Prometheus). Since, a sequel is planned, there is still a chance that Scott will deal with those issues, in which case I’ll raise Prometheus to #2.

#2 The Cabin in the Woods

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard manage to close out the horror genre in grand style. Really. It’s all done. There is nowhere to go after The Cabin in the Woods. Pack it up because any fright fests are just going to look silly now. I’ve tried it, following it with Sinister and The Apparition and I was left giggling. OK, there might be another explanation for that…

Going meta on the meta films, the pair turned all previous horror films into weak prequels to this final installment, and along the way managed to make hundreds of terrible monster movies watchable as they now make sense. This is a real horror film, not a parody, with all the scares and two times the gore that anyone could ask for. But it is also jammed with humor. If you haven’t watched a few hundred horror movies, you’ll laugh at the clever dialog and twisted characters. If you have, you’ll bathe in the in-jokes and homages. This is smart horror, and that is a very rare beast. Sure, it killed the genre, but what a way to go.

Whedon would have had a good year if all he’d done was write and produce The Cabin in the Woods, but he had another project:

#1 The Avengers

I can’t recall having a better time at the movies. The Avengers is perfectly crafted entertainment and perhaps the most satisfying picture of the decade. Filled with charismatic actors playing appealing characters in a big colorful action-fueled epic, it has invoked cheers at every screening I’ve attended.

Marvel bet big, and won. Four stand-alone superhero films, and one sequel all acting as prequels to this massive mash up; it could have gone wrong in so many ways. How many multi-character superhero films have toppled over the cliff?  Somehow they’d pulled off those prequels, but they weren’t over-stuffed with gadgets, plot threads, and stars. Enter Writer/director Joss Whedon, master of the ensemble. Every character has a moment, none dominate, and all feel necessary. It is the ultimate feat of juggling. And character is the key. The action scenes in The Avengers are as good as any in 2012, but they aren’t the draw. It is the dialog. The joy comes from listening to Tony Stark banter with Bruce Banner. Captain America trade jabs with Thor. Nick Fury speechifying (look it up) to everyone. If they happen to be blowing things up at the same time, all the better. No film in 2012, of any kind, had better dialog, and with those spoken words, The Avengers earns its #1 spot.

Jan 142013
  January 14, 2013

Overrated does not mean bad. That’s obvious, but I feel I need to point that out to save myself from hate-filled emails. None of these would five would fit on my worst of 2012 list. There are things so much worse. These films are watchable, but have garnered far more praise than they deserve.

#5 Ted

The story of a man-child, his nearly perfect hot girlfriend, and his crude living teddy bear supplies a reasonable number of laughs, and shines when compared to most of 2012’s lame crop of comedies. However, when it popped up on multiple critics’ top ten lists, the world went out of whack. Seth MacFarlane, the mind and voice behind TV’s Family Guy, brings his edgy, twisted, animated-comedy sensibilities to the big screen, and nothing more. Actually he brings a little less as Ted is about the level of his lesser, but still funny American Dad. Here was a chance for him to go wild, and he didn’t. Half the episodes in any season of Family Guy are smarter, more transgressive, and just funnier, and they play four or five times a night on cable. Ted is fine viewing, but nothing special.

#4 The Dark Knight Rises

This tale of revenge and regeneration is the most interesting of Nolan’s trilogy, and one of the most interesting films of the year, but interesting does not mean good. On the plus side, the many (many, many) political references could keep you in water cooler conversations for months. Add in some middling action and a sexy Cat Woman and we’ve get a moderately entertaining superhero movie.
On the minus side, like Nolan’s previous entries, it wears its self-importance like a badge of honor. But The Dark Knight Rises brings along a new set of flaws that ripped me out of the film: so many flaws in so many different areas. There are flaws in medicine (broken backs heal with rope and pulleys), psychology (depressed shut-in becomes extroverted again when a girl pops in), time & space (travel to and from distant deserts is timeless), senses (no secret identity is safe from orphan-eyes), action (an army of police run down a long street toward an army of henchmen and no one uses a hand gun), banking (the Fed would never just let the stock trading go through), criminology (the inmates of hell hole prisons are the nicest people), police practices (every policeman in Gotham goes under the city), verisimilitude (the cinematography paints a realistic world, but in-flight CIA plane gobbling is not realistic), pacing (let’s see some trucks drive around…again), mystery (did anyone not know the “secret” villain?), climax (truck crash; I’ll say no more), and many more. If you can suspend your disbelief for The Dark Knight Rises‘s overlong running time then you have superhuman gating abilities.

#3 Holy Motors

Mainstream critics love to praise a foreign-language film they don’t understand and no one understands Holy Motors. The real fun is not watching the movie, but reading reviews where the author tries so very hard to say something sensible, and fails. “It’s about voyeurism” they cry, and no doubt they are correct, but what about voyeurism they cannot say. “It implies that life is a show,” and again they are right, though Shakespeare said a great deal more in a single line.
The story follows a man who travels around town in a limo, going from “appointment” to “appointment” where each appointment consists of him transforming himself into a different person and living for a time as that person. This is interesting for a time and occasionally comical, though I found myself laughing at it more often than with it. By the halfway point, the routine had gotten old and I was left feeling that any theme could have been presented in a short film. By the time the chimps show up… Well, maybe this would be a great film if you were really high.

#2 Beasts of the Southern Wild

Critics affection for obtuse foreign fare is nothing next to their love of little indie fantasy films where all of the fantastic elements can be written off as a dream. It saves them from admitting to liking fantastic fiction while allowing them to give a nod to the genre. Toss in a condescending look at the impoverished and a spunky child and it is orgasm time.
The child here is indeed spunky, and good enough that her Academy Award nom is not an embarrassment. The directing and story do not stand up so well as it is a surprisingly ugly film that meanders here and there. Hey, it’s about a young girl’s bravery and world view during tough times, so why bother with a plot? (Yes, you should be able to answer that question.) Giant boars do pop up from time to time, ushered in by a storm that is half Katrina, half the apocalypse, and all metaphor. It is an hour and a half of boredom and pretension, wrapped with an uncomfortable poverty porn bow. The child deserved better.

#1 Looper

Beware science fiction films labelled as smart, as they rarely are, and never have anything else to offer. Looper is this year’s go to film for critics who don’t read. The basic story is incredibly straightforward. Two gunmen must face each other, with one trying to protect a child so that the kid won’t grow up with a bad childhood the way he had. The “complexity” comes from one gunman being the future version of the other who’s traveled back in time. Of course this brings up the grandfather paradox, which was old for any reader of SF by 1930. So how does this smart 2012 movie deal with this problem, a problem that is extremely important to the structure of the film, and to the characters’ choices? It doesn’t. Instead Bruce Willis’s old gunman says he’s not going to explain any of that time travel shit, and that’s it. After that, the film does whatever it wants and ignores rules. That can be OK in an action flick, but most of the action here involves looking at farm fields. If you like your sci-fii to be adventure low but farm house high, you are in luck. Looper is slow, unengaging, and as dumb as one of the posts that farmhouse no doubt uses.