California Literary Review

Best and Worst Movies of 2012 – The First Half

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July 9th, 2012 at 2:57 pm

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Here we are in July, the halfway point of 2012. As we enter the seventh month, it’s time to take a look back at the movies of the year thus far. To that end, I and Dan Fields will offer our thoughts on the Best 5 and Worst 3 movies that we’ve seen so far this year.

BRETT’S TOP 5:

5. The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard)

The Poster for The Cabin in the Woods

The poster for The Cabin in the Woods

When it came to choose a fifth best movie of the year, I ran through several possibilities and decided to rank The Cabin in the Woods as my number 5. From the brilliant title reveal, The Cabin in the Woods shows appreciation rather than derisiveness towards the genres it lampoons and that goes a long way towards making this a fun time. A particularly funny horror comedy, I expect it to receive a lot of fans when it hits on DVD.

4. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (dir. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim)

YouTube Preview Image

While this year has had several decent comedies, the funniest one I’ve seen is Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, or B$M for short. I don’t know how the movie plays to people who aren’t fans of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, but it is not totally unapproachable for non-viewers. It’s more a movie about the fictional guys (named Tim Heidecker (Tim Heidecker) and Eric Wareheim (Eric Wareheim)) who make the adult swim show than the show itself. So we no longer have Cinco as the uber-corporation, we have Schlang. John C. Reilly isn’t Dr. Steve Brule you dumbo, he’s Taquito.

What puts B$M on the upper tier of movies “based” on a TV show is that it doesn’t tone down what made the series so beloved- including exaggerated sound effects and strange cutaways. The real Heidecker and Wareheim use the extra budget not to expand its audience but to heighten the senselessness, sharpen the edges, and ratchet up the absurdity. It’s a welcome counterpart to the conventional comedy, and it holds up on repeat viewing. More than that, it’s on Netflix Instant. #SHRIM

3. The Avengers (dir. Joss Whedon)

The Poster for The Avengers

Despite a terrible final one sheet, The Avengers assembled

Joss Whedon had a lot to prove with The Avengers, and he made a movie that not only met but exceeded critical and commercial expectations. Movies were rushed into production simply for this film to be made, and Whedon qualified their existence. Despite initial fears that it would just be Iron Man 3, The Avengers was a genuine team effort that turned Loki into the threat he was unable to pull off in Thor and finally nailed The Hulk. Filled it with actually funny humor and decent character moments, The Avengers easily entered the upper tier of comic book and even action movies.

2. Dark Horse (dir. Todd Solondz)

Jordan Gelber as Abe in Dark Horse

Jordan Gelber as Abe in Dark Horse

Like my number one movie of the year, Dark Horse is also about societal outcasts and written/directed by a filmmaker (Todd Solondz) who understands that subject matter better than most other artists. Both films present a raw emotional honesty absent in most films, but unlike Moonrise Kingdom, Horse eliminates the security of hope and kindness. This isn’t a criticism, but actually part of the reason why Horse works so remarkably well.

This take on arrested development is not just the pitch black counterpart to the sweetness of Kingdom, but also the antithesis to the man-child genre that has populated cinemas over the past decade. Starring Jordan Gelber and Selma Blair, Horse is a purposely uncomfortable dark comedy about directionless adults and their subconscious demons. There’s no turn-your-life-around moment, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, there’s no sense that things will or even can get better. Yet with Horse, Todd Solondz shows himself as a master at bringing humanity to the darkness while making us cringe from all-too-real awkwardness.

1. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)

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The trailer for Moonrise Kingdom

Pleasant and enjoyable, Moonrise Kingdom is the best movie of 2012 so far. Wes Anderson’s story of childhood love and companionship between two misunderstood loners against the world is an intricately detailed, well crafted, and very funny film featuring remarkable performances and a complex soul. Set in the 1960s, its newcomer stars Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman take center stage despite an impressive adult cast including Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Bruce Willis. Yet even without the grown-ups being the focus, Anderson still imbues them with a realness, and the scene where Willis as Captain Sharp shares dinner with Gilman’s Sam is a great reminder that he can be a decent actor.

However, Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson movie, and it’s probably closest to Rushmore due to its concentration on young overachievers in love. People who disliked his earlier movies or his penchant for off-realities might not appreciate what he created. But for individuals interested in a charming, bittersweet tale, Moonrise Kingdom is terrific.

Honorable Mentions: The Raid: Redemption, 21 Jump Street, Wanderlust, Bernie, Prometheus (plot/pacing problems aside, it was one of the best IMAX experiences I’ve ever had).

DAN’S TOP 5:

#5- The Pirates! Band Of Misfits (dir. Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt)

Aardman Animation scores big with Gideon Defoe's Pirates

Raise your grog!

Aardman Studios, the British animation titan behind Chicken Run and the Wallace And Gromit series, continues to prove itself a worthy counterpart to the rabidly celebrated Pixar. Aardman’s main edge is that it still works in stop-motion, which takes longer but looks infinitely cooler. Add to this virtue of medium the unstoppable wit and astonishing attention to detail that goes into each Aardman project. These must surely be the most talented living animators in the world. Taking Gideon Defoe’s bizarre book series The Pirates! as source material, Aardman’s newest feature is a triumph of giddy, irreverent comedy.

We follow the adventures of the brash Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and his crew of soft-headed but fiercely loyal buccaneers as they loot the Spanish Main, catapult a young Charles Darwin to fame, battle the hot-tempered Queen Victoria, wreak havoc in the streets of London, and generally strive to win the awe of the pirate community. A host of great British character actors – Martin Freeman, Brian Blessed, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, and more! – brings the wacky world of The Pirates! to life, and the ensuing romp is not to be missed.

#4- The Avengers (dir. Joss Whedon)

Mark Ruffalo dominates the Avengers as The Hulk

Marvel showed up to play.

Simply put, The Avengers is the Marvel superhero movie that we all wished for but were mostly too wary to expect. After scattering the last several years with a mixed bag of origin stories (Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Captain America), Marvel Studios set itself the high-pressure task of bringing the heroes together for a worthy collaboration. They scored all around, staging a full-scale invasion of Earth which superhumans and quasi-humans on the side of good are forced to face united. Thus the Avengers are born.

Joss Whedon’s script and apt direction guide each hero through the uncertainty and tribulation of forming an uneasy alliance, interlaced with stunning action scenes demonstrating their tremendous power, both individually and as a collective force. The banter is sharp, the presentation sleek, and the ultimate triumphs emotionally satisfying. Incidentally, of all the noteworthy performances, a newcomer steals the show. Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Banner (the Hulk) is right up to speed with the others, who have had at least one film each to get comfortable. Though this is probably too much to expect, Marvel would do well to abandon planned sequels for single-hero franchises and focus on more full-blown Avengers movies for a while. The positive response would surely justify the expense.

#3- Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)

Jared Gilman treks through Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom

A meticulous rendering of the peculiar.

It is possible that Moonrise Kingdom has been the ultimate goal of Wes Anderson’s film career so far. Something about its tone and execution, steeped in the familiar style and mannerisms established by Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and so forth, seems like this could be Anderson totally unfiltered. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.

In this film, two lonely, misunderstood pre-teens (Sam and Suzy) run off to the woods together, because they are in love and because being together is the only thing that gives them joy. This throws the small New England community they once called home into total disarray. Enter a stout ensemble of oddball adults (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton) who proceed to run in all manner of circles after the runaways, treading on one another’s toes at every turn. Edward Norton stands out as the befuddled and charmingly overzealous scout master who finds his system of values in chaos following Sam’s desertion (or rather “resignation”) from his troop. Darkly sentimental and consistently funny, this movie may not look like anything new from the Anderson camp, but sports a deceptive and exuberant vitality that is well worth a look.

#2- The Raid: Redemption (dir. Gareth Evans)

The Raid is Indonesia's newest action masterpiece

All other police forces of the world are suddenly boring.

Here come the next chapter in mainstream Asian cinema… hopefully! Korean films have enjoyed a recent international rise, featuring a delightful eccentricity completely distinct from the popular exports of Japan and Hong Kong. Now, Indonesia takes a spin, with stunning results. There are kung fu movies. There are street fighting movies. There are karate movies and boxing movies, and all manner of beat-em-up options to the discriminating action film junkie. The Raid is nothing short of a ballet. It may be a hyperviolent ballet with Kevlar and guns, but I defy anyone to deny the manifest elegance of its choreography.

The target of the eponymous raid is a ramshackle tenement building, converted by a crime boss into a safe house for any criminal wishing to lie low out of reach of the police. The police intend to prove otherwise. An elite squad breaks into the ground floor, with the ultimate aim of eliminating the depraved overlord residing at the top. When their stealthy entry breaks down, everything goes to hell as a swarm of thugs rallies to the defense of their home. The fighting is almost completely non-stop until the end, and faced with grim odds the good guys make very resourceful use of every object on which they can lay hands. Refrigerators included. You must see it to believe it.

There is a decent cop drama going on here as well, filling the narrative cracks with betrayals, hidden agendas, and old scores to settle. The Raid would stand almost as well on spectacle alone, however, and is one of the most satisfying action features to come along in many a year.

#1- The Cabin In The Woods (dir. Drew Goddard)

Anna Hutchison finds a new kind of horror in The Cabin In The Woods

Wolves are the least of your problems.

Those warned off by the popular outcry of “bait and switch” – mostly by horror-hounds simply looking for a new horror flick – should know that despite its cool reception by a lot of people, The Cabin In The Woods is easily the smartest movie of 2012 so far. In fact, for sheer cleverness it outmatches just about anything in recent memory.

A group of uncommonly witty and self-possessed teens depart for a weekend of partying and sex in a remote, spooky lakeside cabin. Simple enough, no? It should be obvious that yet another time-tested slasher scenario is about to begin, which it is. But there is another crucial layer to the story. Parties unknown are overseeing, and in fact prompting, the action of this horror tale from a high-tech facility, and their purpose is far darker than anything the movie you initially thought you were seeing could throw at you.

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have cashed in on their collective cult stardom to turn one of cinema’s most familiar genres inside out in unpredictable ways. To talk at greater length would be to give wonderful surprises away. With such a strong script and grimy visual style, the core narrative starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, and Fran Kranz would be a suitably entertaining if forgettable B-horror experience by itself, but in the context of the fiendish experiment being conducted by cynical working stiffs Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, it becomes an insightful, if rather playful, speculation on the function of nightmares and terror in human history.

Honorable Mentions: Safety Not Guaranteed, Brave, The Five-Year Engagement, Chronicle, The Pact

BRETT’S BOTTOM 3:

3. The Vow (dir. Michael Sucsy)

Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams in The Vow

Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams in The Vow

A good romantic comedy can be terrific, while a bad romantic comedy can be offensively bad. The Vow falls in the latter category, despite okay performances from the leads (Channing Tatum and Rachael McAdams). Based on a true story, The Vow tells the story of a woman who loses the memory of the last few years of her life after a car accident, and the ways her stupid husband tries his best to make her remember that she loved him. Filled with all the annoying clichés and caricatures that makes this genre so reviled, this movie goes out of its way to avoid potentially interesting concepts and stories in an attempt to clearly define villains and heroes and make the audience cry. I also thought it was a missed opportunity making the film about the husband with the memory rather than the wife trying to determine what was real, what was fake, and whom she actually was/is.

If there’s one thing that’s improved since my first viewing of The Vow, it’s my impression of Channing Tatum. In my original review, I called his character of Leo “an affable lunkhead” whose actions “could only work if Leo was a dope.” After watching the surprisingly good 21 Jump Street, I realize that while Tatum might be pigeonholed as the likeable idiot, he manages to fill his idiot characters with a charming humility. And that’s more than you can say for a lot of other actors.

2. The Devil Inside (dir. William Brent Bell)

The poster for The Devil Inside

The poster for The Devil Inside

The Devil Inside is barely a movie, and that isn’t just a knock on the found footage genre. It’s a mess of a film that moves at an excruciatingly sluggish pace (just watch the painfully slow closing credits) until it gets to the potentially interesting segment where the Devil maybe splits between the four main characters. At that point, it just high tails it to the conclusion and an ending that has disappointed even the most forgiving horror fans.

What makes The Devil Inside particularly heinous was that it seemed to want to pretend to be intelligent. It’s possible that the filmmakers thought that moving at a snail-like speed would give legitimacy to their movie. Instead, it possesses an unearned air of earnestness that makes all the ridiculous elements all the sillier (e.g. the scene where they’re attending Exorcism 101). It didn’t help that the majority of the first two acts seemed to come from a “these are the moments we have to hit” mindset. And despite the film’s compulsion to walk us through all the minor bits of exorcism lore, it felt as though its research into the subject didn’t extend past “Catholics = Vatican.”

1. The Raven (dir. James McTeigue)

Poster for The Raven

John Cusack is Edgar Allan Poe is Jean Grey is Dark Phoenix

It seems strange to mark The Raven as the worst movie of 2012, but in hindsight, of all the 2012 movies I’ve seen so far this year, The Raven is the one that failed the most and the hardest. (NOTE: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close counted in 2011.) Movies like That’s My Boy, The Vow, and The Devil Inside all have inherent flaws whether in budget, casting, or genre. That isn’t to say that they can’t rise above the box they start in, but it is difficult to especially fault them for towing the line.

The Raven, however, had a good deal going for it. A talented director (James McTeigue, V for Vendetta). A decent look for the most part (I still think the first death looked overly CGI’ed and horrible). An R rating. A cast featuring people you’ve heard of. And a genre that could produce a decent flick without much effort. Even though the concept (Edgar Allan Poe solves crimes based on his stories!) is ridiculous, it’s not detrimentally so.

But the film falls apart on pretty much every level. Pretending as though it’s telling the untold story of Poe’s mysterious last days was a huge mistake because it only calls to attention all the evidence that must be wiped out, including newspaper articles that were supposedly his best work ever. The super-amazing serial killer who can fool all the cops while constructing lavish schemes is a tired concept, and the film doesn’t put enough suspense or horror in it to make it work. The “oh, it’s that guy who said one line at the beginning of the movie” twist only served to enhance the movie’s sense of laziness. And the skeleton script showed at best a Cliff Notes understanding of Poe and his works.

It might be unfair to call him the movie’s biggest problem, but John Cusack only made the movie worse. It’s hard to think of anyone who could have provided the necessary oomph to the help the lead rise above the horrible script. But since The Raven seemed kind of inspired by the period action concept of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes series, it needed someone with scene-stealing charisma that would force us to overlook its massive flaws. Cusack’s bland performance showed limits to him that I didn’t think he had. Unable to express either the genius or the alcoholic sides of Poe, the 2012 star dragged the already lame proceedings down with him.

Dishonorable Mentions: That’s My Boy, Wrath of the Titans

DAN’S BOTTOM 3:

#3- ATM (dir. David Brooks)

David Brooks's ATM is a travesty of a horror thriller

If you find yourself watching ATM… withdraw.

Three barely compatible co-workers find themselves trapped in a parking lot ATM kiosk one cold winter night. A mysterious madman is trying to get in and kill them. By some unspoken agreement, the trio of would-be victims decides that rushing a single armed man would probably do no good.

This sounds like a promising spoof on dumb horror films. Unfortunately, either the actors are too poor to play parody or the script is meant to be completely serious. The latter explanation seems the more likely one. There is not much else to say about this movie whose plot makes no sense, whose pace is surprisingly dull for a murderous showdown, and whose premise is insufficient to fill a feature-length movie. There is an attempt at a cheaply satisfying twist, which falls well short, and the very end is infuriatingly stupid. Next to this, a reasonably scary and decently paced chiller like Chernobyl Diaries is pure spun gold.

#2- A Little Bit Of Heaven (dir. Nicole Kassell)

Kate Hudson demeans romance and cancer patients in A Little Bit Of Heaven

… means two hours in hell for the rest of us.

Since the runaway success of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous just a little over a decade go, Kate Hudson’s reputation and body of work have been in exponential decline, to the point that her name is synonymous to many people with a chuckle and a pair of rolled eyes. With A Little Bit Of Heaven she may have officially hit the basement floor of that fabled place called Nowhere To Go But Up (perhaps not a bad title for a comeback comedy). Not that Kate Hudson deserves to be picked on any more than the collection of recognizable faces in this cinematic trash pile. Appearances by such notable folks as Gael Garcia Bernal, Kathy Bates, Peter Dinklage, and even Lucy Punch sap the romance right out of the Hollywood acting game, driving home the point that to most performers in most films, it is just another relatively thankless job.

Marley (Hudson) is a carefree young woman who rails against true love and monogamy, even though that’s what she secretly wants. This is not my pig-headed, reductive interpretation of the film’s female protagonist. She admits as much to God (Whoopi Goldberg) while trying to make the best of terminal cancer. Fortunately, her uptight oncologist (Garcia Bernal) is prepared to make room for her in his lonely life. This is supposed to be a comedy, I think. It fails entirely.

#1- A Thousand Words (dir. Brian Robbins)

Eddie Murphy in A Thousand Words

This picture is not even worth a dozen.

Eddie Murphy’s downfall is a matter of record, and A Thousand Words leaves us with no redemption in sight. In this latest outing he must sacrifice his motor mouth – the one asset he arguably retains as a comedian – due to a curse intended to teach him the proper priorities in life. As literary agent Jack McCall, he breezes through his life paying no attention to anything but financial acquisition. Little does he realize that he’s neglecting his wife (Kerry Washington, having nothing to do but stand by and witness this disgraceful movie) and infant son in a shocking parallel of his own abandonment by a wayward father. After running afoul of a potential client, the mystical Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), Jack finds a magical tree sprouting in his own backyard. For every word he speaks, the tree loses a leaf, and it is somehow understood that he and the tree will both die once the leaves are gone. So guess who’s got… oh, say… exactly a thousand words to put his life right? With only Clark Duke in his worst written supporting role EVER as an ally? Hopeless.

Imagine Liar Liar with all the charm sucked mercilessly out of it., and you will have a pretty good idea. After a while the movie abandons all attempts at being funny and burdens itself with dreadful sentimental sap. None of it rings any more true than Kate Hudson’s decline into super-fabulous oblivion. All this film will achieve is boosting purchases of Eddie Murphy’s old Raw videos, in all their filthy splendor, by nostalgic comedy fans desperate to remember why he was so beloved in the first place.

Dishonorable Mentions: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, Gone

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