Lovelace (Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman, 2013) – Leading off a review with extra-textual information is controversial, I know. Fine. In this case, it explains why this movie stretches so far to avoid surprise. Epstein and Friedman got their starts as documentary filmmakers revealing what life and culture were like from before the sexual revolution through the spread of AIDS. Epstein won an Oscar for “The Times of Harvey Milk,” and had to have noticed when a workmanlike adaptation of that film became an acclaimed biopic. So I can see why “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace’s life appealed to him and Friedman — which other before-their-time 70s icons can be rescued from Wikipedia and turned into top drama fodder?
Alas, the directors have smoothed out the kinks in Lovelace’s story. Played by Amanda Seyfried, the fictional Lovelace (nee Linda Boreman) is doomed to be classic, saucer-eyed naif. We first see her in a bathtub, smoking, sad about something or other, as audiences flock to watch “Deep Throat.” We cut back to 1970, when Lovelace was living in Florida under the roof of prudish parents, played by Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick, who are given almost nothing surprising to do, but excel at looking horrified at smut. A sluttier friend (Juno Temple) encourages Lovelace to go-go-dance with her at a roller rink, where they are spotted by Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), who comes on in the creepiest possible way. After eyeing the girls from across the rink, he offers them weed and immediately tells them “girls like you can make $300, $400 a night dancing in Vegas.” Lovelace falls for this, which we have to attribute to her oppressive home life and the knowledge that she’s only trapped there because she got knocked up and gave the baby away. “I signed circumcision papers,” she says, mournfully.
From here, it progresses like every tale of an innocent girl and a secretly violent father figure/lover. (Sarsgaard, perfectly cast/typecast, is 14 years older than Seyfried; Traynor was 12 years older than Lovelace.) Traynor forces Lovelace to act in a porno, and she gets the part (looking, as a producer says, “like Raggedy Ann with great tits”), because Traynor has home video of her giving an excellent blow job. Off we go to a movie shoot, complete with ridiculous 1970s fashion and the cliched shot of filmmakers gawking at the sort of star-making X-rated action they’ve never seen before. (Think of the scene in “Boogie Nights” where the crew finally sees Dirk Diggler whip out his footlong member.) Off to a world of fame and parties, where Lovelace is even hit on by Hugh Hefner (a piece of stunt casting that makes no sense but I won’t spoil here).
But wait! The film abruptly cuts forward to Lovelace, dowdy and un-rouged, submitting her story of life with Traynor to a polygraph test. This is the filmmakers’ clever move: They go all Rashomon on the story they just told, extending old scenes to reveal just how brutal Traynor was, pimping his wife out to rich businessmen and throwing her against a wall when she makes a joke at his expense at a party. This actually mirrors Lovelace’s own memoirs, which began with some ghostwritten pro-porn books and ended when she wrote a tell-all denounced by some of her old friends.
Parts of this are well done, but they’re duller than Lovelace’s own story. There’s not enough about the supremely weird period of her stardom — it’s limited to one scene in which Traynor’s dictating the “memoir” and explaining to a producer why he’s licensed a Lovelace blow-up doll. But in the film, Lovelace refuses to do any post-”Deep Throat” movies. “My adult film career lasted 17 days,” she says. In reality, it didn’t — she filmed an R-rated sequel to her hit and a mess called “Linda Lovelace for President.” She grew increasingly strung out, then born again, then both born again and strung out. Her second husband, presented here as mute, sane, and supportive, was abusive to her. The makers of “Lovelace” traded this rich, weird, morally murky tale for a simpler one. Too bad.
Byzantium (Neil Jordan, 2013) – One of those art house directors who’s exceptionally good with shlock, Jordan was the guy who molded a schlocky airport novel called “Interview With A Vampire” into a surprisingly strong and memorable horror story. The best part of that movie was Kirsten Dunst as an increasingly malicious creature, angry that she’d become forever young. You can see why Jordan wanted to adapt this story of a mother-daughter vampire family whose centuries-long run of luck seems to run out as they acclimate to life in a dying seaside town.
Vampires are never merely “vampires” anymore — they have to embody metaphors. Here the dominant metaphor is triumph-over-sexism, as the mother, Clara, played by Gemma Atherton, was a prostitute who became a vampire by seducing and betraying some seamen who intended to become immortal. Her life, told in a series of flashbacks (all introduced by turns in the narrative), is sadness all the way through, up to the moment she rescued her daughter Eleanor (Saorsie Ronan) from an orphanage and went on the lam from the chauvinist society of vampires that was never going to accept her.
The secret society comes off as mean and incompetent, as gatherings of men tend to be. “How do you think two women with no formal education have evaded you this long?” hisses Clara, when two of the enforcers finally track her down. The daughter is less concerned with the chase, having known basically no other life, using the centuries to become a good piano player and lovelorn ingenue. Ronan, whose eerie classical beauty keeps landing her in girl-challenged-by-supernatural-angst roles, is good and sad as she falls for a smart boy (Caleb Jones, who played Banshee in the last X-Men movie) who inspires her to spill her secret.
It’s all quite good, with more memorable cinematography than you’d expect out of a $14 million budget. The vampire myth here is vaguely eastern — souls are transformed on an island where rushing waterfalls suddenly turn to blood. Sunlight and mirrors and crosses have no effect on the undead, and instead of fangs, they grow long thumbnails that allows them to puncture necks to siphon the blood out. There’s almost no camp, though — the focus is on the evil done to Clara and Eleanor’s desire to break free without any knowledge of how to make it happen.
After Earth (M. Night Shyamalan, 2013) – I watched this on a flight recently, letting the dread wash over me as I thought “well, shit, I guess it moves me closer to the goal of watching every movie released this year.” I hit “play,” and knew the horrible scale of my error — two hours before the credits revealed that this fecal mound was “based on a story by Will Smith.”
Did the man learn nothing from the burnouts of the 80s comic stars, like Eddie Murphy? Will, goddamn it, if you had an innate talent for story you would be famous for that. You do not. Here, you have belched out the tritest of father-son sci-fi tales, one that takes no advantage of the fact that it is sci-fi, apart from some “broken environment” drama that’s ripped from “The Day After Tomorrow.” From a movie by the “2012″ guy! Come the fuck on!
Anyway: Will Smith plays Cypher Raige (I know, right?), a future warrior from a time (3013 or so?) when humanity is at war with an alien civilization that doesn’t appreciate the fact that these primates left their busted planet to colonize “Nova Prime,” which looks suspiciously like Utah. (Yes, humanity has named the next Earth “New Prime.” Joylessly, too. There’s not even any wit about the parts of civilization that got ported over. What’s the currency? Did they name the oceans after Led Zeppelin members? ) The aliens have deployed “Ursas,” genetically engineered blind monsters, to kill the humans. Because the Ursas are blind (why?), they hunt by smelling fear, and the best soldiers are the ones that purge themselves of fear.
There is, as you’d expect, plenty of fun psuedo-science about how fear works, and a Smith monologue about how “danger is real” but “fear is a choice” because it’s a just reaction to a possible outcome. Smith’s son, Kitai, is played lifelessly by Smith’s actual son, Jaden. The two of them bond by ignoring the fact that an Ursa once killed Kitai’s sister, and going on a training mission that ends with — hell, you guessed it, a crash landing on Earth. “Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans,” says Smith — an odd thing for the air and water of a planet to do, a millennium after the species has departed for Space Utah. But Earth now looks like Costa Rica and is populated by giant albums whom Kitai must fight as he searches for the help beacon that was broken off in the crash.
What follows is incredibly boring, given the set-up. Anyone who’s read a story of survival will know every beat of the story, from the unexpected loss of supplies to the rescue of an animal that WILL LATER RESCUE THE HERO to the hero conquering his fear, as every hero has done in everything. ever written.
Machete Kills (Robert Rodriguez, 2013) – In the beginning was the trailer, a faux advert placed at the start of 2007′s Rodriguez/Tarantino dual-movie splatterfest “Grindhouse.” That underrated epic (bias declaration: the first one I bought when I got a blu-ray) was filled out by five fake trailers, all but one of them by directors who weren’t otherwise involved in the product. Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror,” the 80-minute film that you had paid for, looked less fun than the slapped-together nonsense of “Machete.” “They fucked with the WRONG Mexican” was the most memorable line in three+ hours of screen filth. Wow, you said, if you were one of 500 or so people who paid to see this. That fake movie in which Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin team up to kill evil cops looks like a lot of fun.
And it was! “Machete” (2010) took the basic revenge-thriller elements of the trailer and grafted them onto a wonderfully dumb political allegory about a federale-turned-day-laborer who gets in between an underground alliance of illegals and a corrupt politician. “Machete Kills” leaves out the politics and replaces it with crazy bullshit — Machete (Trejo) is now hired by the president (Charlie Sheen, billed as Carlos Estevez) to track down a terrorist (Damien Bechir, who was nominated for an Oscar after a sensitive portrayal of an illegal immigrant father in Los Angeles) and… bring him back before a missile can be flown into Washington, or something. Double-and-triple crosses follow, culminating with a clash with a hitman who changes identities (Walton Goggins/Cuba Gooding Jr/Lady Gaga) and a cult leader/tech guru (Mel Gibson).
It’s all very stupid, which is fine — the first movie was stupid, too! But satire like this doesn’t mesh with Rodriguez’s style of directing or editing. The best recent piss-take on sleaze cinema was “Black Dynamite,” a film that copied all the flawed editing, ruined takes, bad acting and Latin Mass pacing of the genre. Rodriguez has made a Mexploitation film that paces itself like the latest Jason Statham contract-fulfiller, all CGI blood and predictable explosions. It’s got its moment, but manages to feel both quick and boring — quite a feat.
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013) — Damn, I wanted to love this. Matthew McConaughey, who’s been distractingly good in a series of southern gothic films (“Killer Joe,” “Bernie,” “Mud”), gets the role that’s clearly drawn to give him an Oscar. He plays Ron Woodruff, a straight man with AIDS who became a meds-smuggler and started the eponymous club, who was described as “wiry as octotillo.” McConaughey, who has never been wiry, pulls off the transformation by losing tons of weight, tying pale jeans with a belt that’s down to its last hole, and hanging a porn-star mustache off a skeletal face. It’s impressive, almost as much as Jared Leto in make-up and a series of wigs as McConaughey’s transgender business partner.
The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2013) - Your standard “it was the 60s, and racism was bad” story, with two twists. One: The put-upon black people are aborigines. Two: They’re in a girl group put together hastily to play for American soldiers in Vietnam. Chris O’Dowd plays the band manager with as much effort as he’s been asked for; when we first see him, he is sleeping hungover in a station wagon, and shook awake by the cliched sounds of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man.” The girls are cute and funny, becoming more predictable as the plot rolls on, and listening intently when a black soldier tells them what it’s like fighting for The Man.
The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013) – The director/writer’s follow-up to “Blue Valentine” is a strangely optimistic noir that takes place over 18 years. Ryan Gosling plays a motorcycle stuntman who learns he fathered a son and turns to bank robbery to provide for him. Bradley Cooper plays a young cop who happens to be closest to Gosling when he slips; and he, too, has a young son. Both actors work well within their archetypes (Gosling wordless and sad, Cooper rash but pulling back before it’s too late), and Ray Liota brightens up the melodrama as an adeptly crooked cop, but the plot’s pretty predictable — actually, worse than that, because it ends up with fewer consequences and more obvious emotional resonance than you expected going in.
“The Wolverine” (James Mangold, 2013)
The giant robot was a dead giveaway. The second trailer for this second (and much improved) offshoot of the X-Men franchise ended with a dramatic shot that signaled a reinvention of a modestly popular villain. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) stood ready for battle in a lab of some kind; a gigantic, robotic samurai swung its sword. The passing fan of the X-universe recognized that villain as The Silver Samurai, who (sorry about this, non-nerds) is an illegitimate son of a Yakuza boss, a mutant with the power to create a tachyon field that allows him to swing his sword through almost anything. He was sort of easy to defeat, but interesting because his half-sister, Mariko, was Wolverine’s true love.
He was not a robot.
Lucky for us, sort of, the trailer provided a false lead. In Mangold’s film, based largely on a straightforward Darren Aranovsky treatment of a classic Wolverine story, there are several Silver Samurai. They all belong to a family, Yashida, sprung from the loins of a Nagasaki survivor whom Wolverine saved by covering him with his fast-healing body. When we re-encounter our hero, he’s bumming around the great outdoors, bonding with bears and getting into fights with hunters, interrupted when the man he saved sends an adopted granddaughter-cum-action hero to bring his hero to Japan. (Yes, this is another movie in which basically every Japanese character is an expert martial artist. What did you expect?)
The patriarch, Ichiro, has spent the post-war years amassing a Bezos-ian fortune, and from his high-tech deathbed he assumes that Wolverine is so depressed that he’ll willfully hand over his mutant healing factor in order for a chance to age and die. When Wolverine refuses, he is (major spoiler) implanted with a parasite that suppresses his healing factor, in order to make him easy to subdue, so that Ichiro can execute a master plan of 1) faking his death, 2) leaving his smart but unready granddaughter Mariko in charge of his company, and 3) draining Wolverine’s healing factor anyfuckingway, by sawing off his claws and draining the… mutantness from his bone marrow.
Pretty stupid, right? It’s a shame, because the source material and the first two acts adapted from it are absolutely stellar. Many a Wolverine fan came to the character via an eponymous 1982 miniseries written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller. The cover of the paperback collecting this series portrayed Wolverine going shithouse on a bunch of ninjas. That summed up the plot — in the comics universe, the Yashida clan were Yakuza, and Wolverine killed the patriarch while falling in love with Mariko. Remember the post-credits shot in the horrendous first Wolverine film, where the hero’s pounding shots at a bar in Japan? That was a signal to the fans that the sequel would bring him to the country where he has the best, most character-enhancing adventures. Also, he goes shithouse on ninjas.
The first two acts of this film do borrow that structure, and the parasite macguffin adds plenty of drama — Wolverine is “reduced” to a mere, Vin Diesel-like action hero who can still run after being shot a bunch of times, but tires and needs to be patched up. But who told the producers that a mere series of fight scenes — oh, you know, the kind that make every Bruce Lee movie work so well — wouldn’t have been enough for a tentpole summer movie? The dopey super-science plot isn’t very satisfying, and it plays around, once again, with the basic metaphor of the X-universe.
Look: The mutant gene is supposed to be metaphor for endemic ethnic identify or sexual preference. In the 1960s, it was a metaphor for civil rights; by the 1980s, it became a metaphor for gay rights. There was a period in the 1990s where a sort of mutant AIDS (the Legion virus, created by a supervillain, much like AIDS was created by the CIA and the Bilderberg Group) felled a bunch of innocent heroes. But these fucking movies! In the first X-Men, there’s a machine that “speeds up evolution,” and in the first Wolverine spin-off, there’s a science project adding mutant traits to a human guinea pig. No, no, no — we do not need this. Make mine mutant. Give me allegorical outcasts who go shithouse on ninjas.
“Only God Forgives” (Nicholas Wending Refn, 2013)
Whatever crimes The Wolverine may commit, it is far, far away from being the worst “anglo expat fights his demons in Asia” film of the year. That honor goes to this piece of complete trash, from a director who alternates between brilliant films (Bronson, Drive), and pretentious film lens experiments (Valhalla Rising).
Jesus, where to start? Julian (Ryan Gosling, acting like a dull-eyed parody of himself) owns a boxing gym with his brother Bobby. The gym is actually a cover for a heroin business, though that doesn’t matter to the plot at all. Bobby, a pedophile, beats up a pimp at a high-class bordello, and rapes and murders his underaged daughter. Quite understandably, he’s murdered by a katana-wielding supercop (Vithaya Pansringarm, acting like a parody of Lee Van Cleef). Also understandably, Bobby and Julian’s mother (played by Kristin Scott Thomas, acting like Ellen Barkin as directed by Ed Wood) arrives in Bangkok to kill a bunch of people and avenge Bobby’s death.
What I described sounds vaguely interesting. Trust me — it ain’t. Refn declares war on pacing, plotting, and even timing, setting up shot after shot where his character sit for a few seconds before saying a line. It’s meant to be disorienting, but it comes off as ridiculous, never more so then when Julian finally gets tired of his mother sending failed assassins after the supercop and challenges him to a fight. Here is how that scene goes.
- The supercop and his friends are standing silently.
- Julian leaves the bar they were both at that night.
- One of the cop’s friends, after noticing Julian, asks Julian (after a beat) “Do you know who that is?”
- Julian says nothing as the camera lingers on him.
- Julian walks slowly over to the supercop.
- The supercop silently, slowly turns his head to Julian.
- After a long pause, Julian asks: “Wanna fight?”
The ensuing fight provides a good example of the movie’s zombiefied style.
I wanted to appreciate this; really, I did. I don’t demand or even want a movie to give me characters I can root for. But here, Refn combines dull archetypes and a forgettable plot with striking but unoriginal images. (He’s hardly the first director to realize that red light and shadows give the sense of impending violence.) If you find yourself impressed, go watch Drive again and see how much better this style works when tethered to a point.
This Is the End (Seth Rogen, 2013) – Years ago I was a regular reader of a British movie magazine called Neon. It was okay, and it didn’t last very long, but it had a stellar monthly parody page, one of which “revealed” the first drafts of some scripts before they were doctored. The pre-William Goldman draft of Good Will Hunting, it turned out, was an ego-farce called Ben and Matt Get Laid.
I don’t mention this in order to talk down Seth Rogen’s first feature. It is ropey and self-indulgent, and it is about him and his friends being awesome as the world around them dies. SPOILER: It’s a debut film in which the director, playing himself, goes to heaven.)
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013) – Greenberg, released in 2010, was co-written by Baumbach and his partner Jennifer Jason Leigh. It co-starred a sort of mumblecore discovery, the tall and attractively messy Greta Gerwig. Three years later, Baumbach has released a movie co-written by his partner, Greta Gerwig. I scanned Frances Ha for Baumbach’s next muse, but imagine he’ll be sticking with Gerwig, who after a couple years of “breakout” busts (Arthur, Lola Versus), has crafted a memorable character in Frances, a winsomely aimless New Yorker who bounces between friends’ houses as she avoids the realization that she won’t become a breakout dancer at 27. (It’s nice to see Gerwig playing her own age, more or less, after being shoehorned into the role of a college student in 2012′s disappointing Damsels in Distress.)
Frances has a big personality that never fits into place, leeching off a succession of people with more money — from a publishing job, from parents, from marriage — until she can no longer afford it. Baumbach/Gerwig are wise to make Frances a dancer, because the unsophisticated eye (two of ‘em right here) can’t figure out the difference between brilliant experimental dance and fiddly nonsense.
World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013) – Everything I had to say was said in a podcast with my colleague Dana Stevens. This is smarter than most horror movies, but dumber than most end-of-days flicks and dumber still than Max Brooks’s wonderful, overthought “oral history.” Brad Pitt slumbers through a role that he worked incredibly hard to win for himself; the third act is basically a video game level, and screams “oh shit we ran out of money for reshoots.” As with The Walking Dead, it pleases me as a pop culture artifact that popularizes a thing I like, disappoints me as an actual slice of entertainment.
Sound City (Dave Grohl, 2013) – The first 60 minutes comprise a fun, sloppy documentary about the salad days of an analog recording studio in Los Angeles. Musicians both iconic (Stevie Nicks!) and cultish (that one dude from Fear!) dish about what it was like to lift one’s head from a mound of cocaine and overdub that one guitar solo that made REO Speedwagon really click with the masses. The next 30 minutes, unfortunately, are spent with Grohl and his famous friends after he buys one of the studio’s boards and installs them in his house, and makes a tribute album of really forgettable songs. Eight of these minutes are spent with Paul McCartney, as he “writes” that horrible song that he, Grohl, and Krist Novocelic played at the Hurricane Sandy benefit concert.
Anglo-Saxon (Crossed Swords, 1977)
Castilian (El Cid, 1961)
French (The Three Musketeers, 1973)
Italian (The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965)
Latino (Touch of Evil, 1958)
Mongol (Genghis Khan, 1992)
Sapphardic Jew (The Ten Commandments, 1956; Ben Hur, 1959)
Scandanavian (Peer Gynt, 1941)
SPECIAL CATEGORY: Ape (Planet of the Apes, 2001)
Bull Mastiff (Cats and Dogs, 2002)
Divine Entity (Almost an Angel, 1990)
Oz, The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, 2013)
What have we done to deserve this? Disney, which owns the rights to most popular fairy tales and all of Marvel Comics and Star Wars and probably the Meditations of Confucius, has picked up a nasty habit of turning Victorian-era properties into unwatchable crap. First came “Alice in Wonderland,” which updated the story by making the heroine an adult who’s frustrated with her life and responsibilities at home, and goes on an adventure ending in a CGI-heavy clash between two fantasy armies. Now comes this, which crafts a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” (which had plenty of pre-written sequels ready to go, in book) by… making the hero an adult who’s frustrated with his life and responsibilities at home, and goes on an adventure ending in a CGI-heavy clash between two fantasy armies.
The description is too kind. This is the rare “quest” movie that has no momentum, or even really interesting scenery. After a shot of the strange fauna and flora of Oz, we plunge into a world that looks like the 1939 movie, only shinier. Instead of “Alice”‘s sprightly, perfect queen played by Anne Hathaway, we get a sprightly, perfect good witch played by Michelle Williams — you know, the other actress in “Brokeback Mountain.” (And the white queen, with her unexplained daintiness that she dropped when people looked away, at least had a gimmick.)
James Franco seems bored as Oz, and why wouldn’t he be? The plot consists of him setting up the “The Wizard of Oz” by having a one-night stand with a clingy Mila Kunis, who turns into the Wicked Witch out of horny revenge. And Zach Braff plays a wacky sidekick! I left that part til the end, to spare you.
Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, 2013)
The third collaboration between Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns is surprisingly formulaic. In “The Informant!” they pulled and stretched the cliches of the crime movie to create a black comedy, identifiable as such because they cast comedians in every minor role. “Contagion” was the best disaster film in a decade, a scientifically-accurate-ish portrait of a plague that ISN’T stopped in the nick of time by wise scientists.
“Side Effects” is… basically a “Scooby Doo” episode. Jude Law plays a sleazy-seeming psychiatrist who prescribes an experimental anti-depressant for the sad wife (Rooney Mara) of a disgraced (but still pretty rich) stockbroker (Channing Tatum(. One night, after he tells her he has a bead on a job in Houston, she murders him in what appears to be a trance. SPOILER: Turns out she had started a lesbian affair with her shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones — yes, her and Rooney Mara, and it’s good) and faked the depression and the trance in a complicated scheme. The problem, beyond the throwback misogyny of the plot, is that the unraveling of said scheme makes zero sense. Mara just admits it after Law keeps bugging her and dangling threats over her head. Maybe Mara thinks she’s outsmarted him? But no, there’s no scenario in which she isn’t better off taking her cushy psychiatric hospital sentence and shutting the fuck up.
Mama (Andrés Muschietti, 2013)
A surprisingly Asia-influenced, surprisingly decent ghost story about two cute tykes abandoned by their parents and raised by a jealous, selectively murderous monster. Jessica Chastain slums pretty well as a reluctant adoptive mother (she’s rather be playing in her rock and roll band, as you can tell by the tattoos on her arm) who goes full on Ripley-get-away-from-her-you-bitch as the horror creeps in.
Stoker (Chan-wook Park, 2013)
A twist-free psychological drama about a wealthy family (Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska) adjusting to the death of its patriarch with the help of a long-forgotten uncle (Matthew Goode), who you know is the villain from the minute he walks onscreen. There’s one very good erotic piano-playing scene, and… gosh, that’s about it.
Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, 2013)
A cute, credulity-challenging love story about a zombie who falls in love with a live girl, becomes human, and SPOILER helps bring the rest of zombie-dom back to the land of the living through the power of love. This is the credulity-killer — how, exactly, would these bodies be in shape to re-join humanity after even a day of gas-bloat and rigor mortis?
Oh, damn it, I’m thinking too hard. It’s science fiction, and pretty smart about how it inverts cliches, though there’s no real drama or twists. The filmmakers over-rely on the old “I left this damsel alone for a second — now she’s gone, and in trouble!” trope. Then they over-rely on it some more. But the cast is winsome (Nicholas Hoult has grown up into a fun actor) and the ending is effective pap.
Jack the Giant-Slayer (Bryan Singer, 2013)
Nicholas Hoult is also in this. It’s a better fantasy rethink than “Oz,” but almost anything would be.
It’s a Disaster (Todd Berger, 2013)
You’ll either like this plot description or you’ll run far, far away. So: Four yuppie LA couples, the sort of thirtysomethings you see deciding between mid-priced wines at Whole Foods, meet up for brunch. The meal is destined to be awkward, because the hosts are picking the right moment to announce their impending divorce. Then it gets truly awkward: Terrorists have set up a dirty bomb downtown, and it’s extremely likely that these people who kinda-sorta tolerate each other will all die together, in a few hours.
Trust me, it’s funny. David Cross plays the slightly older, safe-seeming boyfriend on his third date with Julia Stiles, the girl who keeps picking insane beaus. The rest of the cast are mostly comics, though not people who’d leap out at you on a marquee, and they’ve mastered the bitchy, self-obsessed miens of childless upper-middle-class climbers. Only twice do they interact with the world outside the brunch, and both scenes are hilarious — one ends with them effectively murdering two friends for constantly showing up late, even on the day when that habit meant they’d die a slow death in the sun.
Whenever something in America explodes and kills people — which is to say, frequently — a healthy number of my fellow citizens look for the shadow hand of conspiracy. A gunman in a Connecticut elementary school? False flag attack to set the stage for gun bans. Two bombs along the route of the Boston marathon? False flag to turn people into patsies for the security state.
I hope Shane Black was taking the piss out of all that with his screenplay for “Iron Man 3.” The best twist in this ropey, 20-minutes-too-long movie comes at the start of act three, when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) breaks into the compound believed to house the terrorist mastermind known as the Mandarin. For 80 minutes we’ve known the Mandarin as an inscrutable bin Laden manque who hacks into TV networks and issues explanations for his latest attacks on the homeland. Fans of the comics recognize the Mandarin as one of the series’ original villains, going back 49 years. But the lair Stark stumbles into is a TV studio, built around a bed that at the moment contains two strung-out women. “The Mandarin” is a British actor — like Ben Kingsley! — who finishes taking a shit, warns no one to use the bathroom, and immediately reveals everything he knows to Stark in between drug-induced naps. All along, The Mandarin was a phony threat concocted by a government contractor whose master plan is…
… well, that’s where “Iron Man 3″ lost me. Can anyone explain the master plan of Killian Aldrich (Guy Pearce)? He’s developing an unstable superhuman serum (it’s explained much better in Warren Ellis’s comics) called Extremis, and he created the Mandarin to cover up the serum’s occasional explosions by portraying them as terrorist attacks, but once he’s pulled off the ultimate attack (murdering the president) he’ll have a pliable new president and he’ll “own the war on terror.” So he wants to get rich? To sow chaos? I had no goddamn idea. This is why I’d never make it as a supervillain. Once I acquired the capital to build multiple stately homes and a high-tech army, I’d call it a win and retreat to some Carribean island with a reliable rum-making tradition.
“Iron Man 3″ is basically a mess with a very well-acted and funny character study embedded in the middle, like the melody line in a Penderecki suite. Superhero sequels typically fail because no subsequent stories can outdo the wish fulfillment and discovery of the origin stories. But Tony Stark makes his own armor, own powers, and each movie’s loaded with new gadgetry that we see developed in real time, with a clock running down. In “Iron Man 2″ it was the quest for an arclight that wouldn’t slowly poison Stark. In “Iron Man 3″ it’s a slapsticky suit that can find Stark wherever he is, and attach to him, in ways that violate all knowable laws of physics. (How do the pieces fly? How can a simple car battery recharge the suit?)
It’s fun. So is the ample time Stark spends sans armor. “Superhero loses power” is typically the set-up for scenes of said hero being useless — Clark Kent getting his ass kicked in the “Superman II” diner, Peter Parker’s webbing failing to launch. Stark feels sorry for himself for a few minutes, then transforms into McGuyver, building whatever he needs to defeat a series of Extremis junkies. He encounters one of the least annoying kid sidekicks in movie history (largely because he’s totally self-aware that he’s a cliche.) He runs along girders jumping into suits as he needs them. (More physics issues with this, though — how are these suits which could withstand Thor’s hammer easily exploded by a hot-blooded super soldier punching them once?)
Anyway — all of that works, Kingsley is terrific, several bones are thrown our way in the form of actual action scenes for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). There’s a fun ongoing gag about The Iron Patriot, the armor acquired by the government in the last movie, being sent around the globe on pointless searches for terrorists. But the momentum of Stark’s story isn’t matched by a plot that makes sense.
“No” has exactly antithetical problems. Its plot has to make sense, because it happened. In 1988, after 15 years in power, Augusto Pinochet was convinced by an increasingly faithless military junta that he should hold an election. If he won, he would be legitimized as Chile’s president for eight years. If he lost, he’d start the country’s transition back to democracy and step down within a year.
I’d be interested in a movie about Pinochet’s own campaign. We see flashes of it here, in enormous boardrooms where generals beg second-rate consultants to turn Pinochet into a likeable, electable politician. (“Use his eyes,” says one of them. “He has terrific eyes.”) But the movie’s really about René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a youngish consultant with left-wing sympathies whose work on soda ads gets him hired to run the “No” campaign. Bernal plays him as a quiet idealist who refuses to explain himself, or even to get excited at the possibility of overthrowing Pinochet. As the narrative builds, we understand why — he has a young family, and he’s clearly terrified of the consequences if he loses.
A large amount of screen time is handed over to the original ads. They play for camp now, but you can see why they worked like you can see why Barack Obama’s campaigns have worked. “No” chooses a rainbow for its logo, and Saavedra designs ads that sell “happiness.” A colleague wants a campaign theme song. “No,” says Saavedra. “We need a jingle.”
Saavedra’s conflicted calm is something you don’t often see in political movies. Other characters get to explain the gravity of a potential loss or the need to put footage of the Mothers of the Disappeared in the campaign ads. Saavedra stays bland. His girlfriend calls his work “a copy of a copy of a copy,” and he clearly knows that it is, but he cynically expects it to work. The filmmakers don’t pass judgment on this; when the government’s “Si” campaign tries to parody the “No” ads, its strategists also fret that they’re making “una copia de una copia de una copia,” and they fail.
It’s a powerful story. I’m just not sure the writers picked the best avatar with which to tell us.
I saw this technicolor-vomit stunt flick the way it was meant to be seen: Surrounded by haters. My film critic pal Asawin dragged me and my roommate Ben over to a late night screening, at Georgetown’s K Street cinema, which has made the transition from “the theater you need to go to if you’re trying to see something new” to “the theater that flypapers smarmy college students.” We sat in front of Millennials matched up boy-girl-boy-girl, and they were heckling, sotto voce, within the first five minutes.
Again: This did not ruin the cinematic experience. “Spring Breakers” is delightful trash, with bare breasts and simulated sex and sleazy talk in every scene. It opens with a montage set to Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” which I’d known previously as the “SKRREEEEEE-DNH-DNH-DNHHHHHH-DNH-DNH-DNHHHH” song. We hear the whole, unpleasant song, and suffer through young, tanned bodies dancing and drinking in slow motion. Fratty boys hold beercans over their cocks and poor the nectar into the mouths of horny girls. Bikinis are ripped off in slow motion. Girls who’ll grow up to marry real estate developers and lawyers deep-throat rainbow ice cream bars. This was the discriminating viewer’s cue to walk out, but it would be another forty-odd minutes until anyone in our theater did so.
They were reacting to a story both gross and formulaic. Harmony Korine says he’s “throwing a stick of dynamite into the Zeitgeist,” which is one way to say he’s given Selena Gomez eternal indie cred. A cynical cineaste sees that he’s just followed in the tracks of “Deliverance” and “Band of Outsiders,” films in which (respectively) four friends go south to lose themselves in a throwback culture, and fall into a happy romance with violent crime.
Brit, Candy, Cotty, and Faith are students at an anonymous college in Kentucky. The first time we see most of them, they’re writing filthy messages (“I NEED PENIS”) to each other in class. I said “most” because one of the girls — no points guessing which — is a churchy, sullen sort who goes to a hip youth service but seems bored. Brit, Candy, and Cotty realize that their spring break fund is low, so they put on ski masks and knock over the local Chicken Shack. (Almost everyone they rob is black.) Newly enriched, they head down to St. Petersburg on a party bus and get blotto in a series of trash-able motels. One of the parties is broken up by cops, as sometimes happens when glassy-eyed drug dealers are spreading cocaine everywhere, and the girls go to a jail where nobody thinks to replace their bikinis with prison garb or, you know, shirts. Alien (James Franco), a rapper/drug dealer, pays their bail and brings them, willingly, into a few days of gun-toting mayhem.
My friend Tim Brayton basically nails this movie. It’s 90% of a morality play. We in the audience are made to despise the girls. Faith leaves Florida after Alien subjects her to some terrifying flirtation. The other three play with Alien’s guns and obtain costumes that will be copied by thousands of real girls with bad taste — pink baclavas with unicorn patches, black sweatpants with DTF written on the ass. (Google it. DTF, not ass.) We see them ruin a wedding and separate some bros for their teeth, before they massacre a mansion full of drug dealers.
Here’s the rub: Nothing bad happens to them. One girl is shot in the arm after a dealer (played sullenly by Gucci Mane) sprays the group with an Uzi. One shot. That’s it. She weeps and splits. The other girls commit a slow-motion slaughter (to the soundtrack of that Skrillex song, played by an orchestra), and don’t even get grazed by returned fire. They speed off in Gucci’s orange Lamborghini, returning to Kentucky, presumably, on the same road upon which we saw the spring break party bus.
It’s an exploitation movie, but the girls aren’t the exploited party. Korine gives his young wife Rachel a disturbing scene, trapping her in a motel room where pre-obesity frat guys pour liquor everywhere and try to get in her pants. But they fail. “You’re never gonna get this puuuuu-sssssy,” she sings, blacked out and on the floor. And she’s right. The girls are never again in real danger. It’s them, not Alien, who brandish guns as phallic symbols. The people being exploited here are the poor blacks and whites, all cartoon characters portrayed as murderous thugs. The girls are on a lark, and the sex and crime is there to amuse them — amuse us.
Like Tim says, it’s gorgeously shot. Korine’s previous concept film Mr. Lonely was beautiful, too, but it meandered toward a Big Lesson. There’s no lesson here, just John Waters trash. I liked it, but you don’t want to make the same mistakes as me…
No complaints, but I’ve a bit busy with my fun-as-hell Slate work, and haven’t blogged my not-needed-at-all movie thoughts for a while. I have being watching movies, though! My early ranking on the year’s offerings so far:
Mind-destroying Effluvia 68. The Divide – Formless, plotless, ad-libbed horseshit about a group of idiots stuck in a (actually well-stocked) apartment building basement when a nuclear attack destroys New York. The dialogue creaks, and the last serviceable scares come 20-odd minutes in, when what appear to be cybernetic Korean shock troops invade the shelter and commit a bunch of murders. Then it turns into a violent sex fantasy, starring Rosanna Arquette, who deserves better.
67. Dreams From My Real Father – The worst of the two “secret Obama bio” movies this year. That’s something.
66. 4:44: Last Day on Earth – Without doing actual research, I’m going to assume the director got scared by Al Gore’s TED talks and talked some friends into acting out his formless script about two New Yorkers puttering around before the apocalypse. (The apocalypse in question: The ozone layer breaks.) How do you take “Willem Defoe” and “mass extinction event” and make a boring movie? Here’s how.
65. 2016: Obama’s America – The well-shot, commercially successful terminator of Dinesh D’Souza’s reputation. Notable for its role in making 2012 a carbon copy of election 2004, with this choir sermon playing the role originated by “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
64. Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike – Ray Wise plays the president in this middle leg of a trilogy that will be finished whether you like it or not. That was a highlight. There aren’t many other highlights.
Perfectly Mediocre 63. Chernobyl Diaries – A solid B-movie concept works shockingly well for the first 50 minutes. Too-handsome American tourists (one of them played by Jesse McCartney, of all people) sign up on an “extreme” visit to a town evacuated after the 1986 nuclear meltdown. As long as the scares are opaque — darkness, barking dogs, paranoia — it works. Then rubbery-looking “mutants” shamble into the frame and it goes pear-shaped. 62. The Woman in Black – Stylish but totally forgettable. Good for Harry Potter, though, breaking through his typecasting cage! 61. Project X – A hit-miss mish-mash of the “found footage” genre and the “nerdy teens hold crazy party” genre. The nerds in question aren’t particularly funny or interesting. More importantly, a second act gag about a garden gnome full of ecstasy — it’s cracked open and gobbled up by revelers — moves the plot nowhere. The kids on E just seem drunk! 60. Act of Valor – How do you get audiences excited about a cliched war movie with all the exciting twists of a show trial? You cast real-life Navy SEALs, who act about as well as real-life people could be expected to. 60. Red Tails – A disappointing cliche-pile by talented people (Aaron MacGruder, Reginald Hudlin) with a solid idea: Make a black World War II movie that makes audiences fall back in love with the Tuskegee Airmen. 59. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World – A misfire on many levels. Let’s start with the casting: Steve Carrell alongside Keira Knightley. Carrell is 1) a wooden leading man and 2) old enough to be Knightley’s father. Every key romantic moment plays out the same way, with Carrell staring at his co-star in a mixture of blankness and lukewarm affection. But it’s the best lovers-at-the-end-of-the-world movie of the year! That’s something. 58. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance – Despite my ranking, this is pretty passable b-movie stuff with some hilarious Nick Cage dialogue. He absolutely never seems to give a shit about the apocalypse he manages to stave off, by transforming into a god-like hero whom no one can do any damage to. 57. The Watch – A good, old-fashioned, big-stars-bad-script fuck-up. Three famous actors and one cult star (Stiller! Vaughn! Hill! Ayoade!) play suburban losers of various kinds who, eventually, start tracking aliens who are killing stuff all over the place. It devolves into a series of dick jokes, as one would expect. 56. Promised Land – The would-be “China Syndrome” of the anti-fracking movement is one of the least interesting melodramas imaginable, complete with a twist that undermines the premise of the movie. 55. Snow White and the Huntsman – I’m told this was the better of the TWO “Snow White” fable “reimaginings” that cursed multiplexes last year. The special effects that shatter evil knights are fun, but you saw those in the trailer. You didn’t see a bunch of charisma-less ambling around the woods by Bella and Thor. You dodged a bullet. 54. Rock of Ages – Fans of the Los Angeles musical — later adapted for Broadway — swear that this was a hilarious piss-take on the genre. Chris Hardwick, the hyper-energetic ambassador of nerd culture, originated the role of generic rock star Stacee Jaxx, and he met a crazed comic ending involving unsolved crime and asylum in Uruguay. In the film, Stacee Jaxx is played by Tom Cruise, and he finds true love. 53. John Carter – Andrew Staunton’s legendary disaster is the worst kind of debacle: A boring one. As a movie that might come on basic cable at 3 p.m. on a Sunday, it’s tolerable. 52. Cosmopolis – David Cronenberg adapts DeLillo and makes no effort whatsoever to tune up the dialogue for cinema. Robert Pattinson, as the star, is perfectly okay, because he’s meant to come off as a sociopath, but the rest of the cast struggles with dialogue like “The yuan can’t go up, but it just did,” and “I am your director of research. You pay me for insights.” Very nice soundtrack, though, by Howard Shore and Metric. 51. Chronicle – “Akira” for American teens, with the science and big ideas about statism replaced by the deux ex machina of an alien craft that imbues superpowers. 50. Haywire – Stephen Soderbergh directs an action movie like an Altman drama, all static camera placement and a lead (Gina Carano) who can fight but not really act. You’ll see Michael Fassbender get his ass kicked! You’ll see Channing Tatum get his ass kicked! That’s pretty much it. 49. Searching for Sugar Man – The award-bestowing world fell in love with this story of a coulda-been artist who belatedly discovered that he changed hundreds of thousands of South Africans’ lives. I liked it better when it was called “Anvil: The Story of Anvil.” 48. The Campaign – Will Ferrell and Zach Galifiniakis parody politics in the age of Super PACs and it’s maybe 10-12 percent more outre than reality. 47. Prometheus – In all seriousness, the existence of this movie is justified by my friend Julian Sanchez’s 100-megaton demolition of its plotting. Go read that. You’re back? Okay — I didn’t hate it nearly so much, because I’ll forgive a movie plenty if it gives me some good scares and set design. The opening, sweeping shots of primordial Earth are wondrous, and watching the c-section machine induces actual pain.
Flawed but Worthwhile 46. The Do-Deca Pentathalon – It’s funny that Mark Duplass, formerly a shlubby indie comedy director, is now too famous to credibly play his own shlubby characters. He casts two incredibly ordinary-looking actors to play insanely competitive brothers who never finished a 25-event physical competition when they were growing up, and restart the clock over ONE CRAZY WEEKEND. Like the Duplass movie I liked better this year (“Jeff Who Lives at Home”), it sort of ambles into nowhere in the final act. 45. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – The director of “Nightwatch” does his best with a willfully dumb premise. Less action than you’d expect, and more jokes. I was particularly fond of how Stephen Douglas was elevated from Lincoln’s political rival to the guy he stole Mary Todd (who in this telling is played by the gorgeous Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from. 44. Two Days in New York – Julie Delpy does a screwball sequel to her likeable comedy about Paris. The cringe comedy works; the goofy characters grate by the second act. 43. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie – The stars of my favorite sketch show of the decade go the “Run Ronnie Run” route, telling one of those cut-and-paste stories about friendship and greed and loading it up with disturbing cock-piercing, head-exploding, child-thieving jokes. And then there’s “Shrim.” 42. Brave – A lighthearted Grimm-style fable about a rebellious girl who turns her mother into a bear by accident. At least it’s not “Cars 2.” 41. American Reunion – A million times better than it should be, thanks largely to the faded career prospects of the original cast. (Remember the time Jason Biggs was the lead in a Woody Allen movie? Remember the Rollerball remake?) Hijacks are engaged in by 28-year-olds who should know better. 40. The Dictator - Sacha Baron Cohen reimagines “The Great Dictator” as a lowbrow farce about anti-semites and genocide. Has its moments, though a setpiece fight involving a woman who can kill with her breasts is a little bit too much like a Borat re-make.
39. Killer Joe - The writer and director of “Bug” produce another gothic horror with actors doing unusually good work with generic roles — Matthew McConaughay here, as a murderous lawman, and Gina Gershon as a scheming, fratricidal wife.
38. Wanderlust – A surprise flop from David Wain, Paul Rudd, and Jennifer Aniston, who’ve all had hits with material of this general quality. Two likeable yuppies (Rudd and Aniston, obviously) run out of money in Manhattan, flee to live in the suburbs with a vicious, smug relative, and flee that to live on a hippie commune. That’s right — you’ve got your 90s movie problem, your 80s movie problem, and your totally anachronistic 70s movie problem, in one mega-movie! Wain et al still mine repetition and ad libs for the laffs, and it largely works. 37. The Amazing Spider-Man – Andrew Garfield is a terrific Peter Parker, better than Tobey Maguire was. Emma Stone is fun and winsome in ways that Kirsten Dunst never was. But boy howdy, nothing else about this movie improves on the Sam Raimi adaptations. 36. Your Sister’s Sister – Mark Duplass gets over a failed relationship and a family death by falling into a three-way sexual crisis with two sisters. Elevated from the norms of romantic comedy by being extraordinarily strange. 35. The Five Year Engagement – The most depressingly mature non-Apatow film from the Apatow shop — the rare romantic comedy in which everybody’s grandparents die before the wedding. 34. Jeff, Who Lives at Home – Another Duplass film, this time with three moral tales intersecting on one day in a Louisiana suburb. Rae Dawn Chong makes a triumphant return as a flirty lesbian trapped in an office job; Jason Segel plays the sort of thoughtful loser that we assumed his “Freaks and Geeks” character would grow up to be. 33. To Rome with Love – Middling Woody Allen. If you think you’d be amused at a running plot about a man who’s a world-class opera singer, but only in the shower, this is your movie. 32. Damsels in Distress – Whit Stilman’s comeback film, 14 years in the making, and it’s… merely okay, damn it. Stillman insists on filming music and dance sequences without knowing how to direct such things. (The final “Love Train” sequence in his last film worked better than the showstopper here.) Greta Gerwig, lovely as ever, is as ill-suited to WASPy banter as fellow mumblestar Ryan Gosling. 31. The Raid: Redemption – A loving tribute to the misunderstood genre of stupid martial arts films. Cops go to war with gangsters, and there’s something about brothers joining warring sides, but mostly there’s a bunch of acrobatic punch-murder.
Perfectly Good 30. Detropia – From the makers of “Jesus Camp” comes this meandering ruin porn, which founders a little when one subject (a retired auto worker who owns a bar) spends a day bemoaning Chinse innovations at the auto show. Worth watching for the excruciating sequence in which Swedish tourists ask a cafe owner where they can see the most dilapidated ruins. 29. Safety Not Guaranteed – Sci-fi magical realism about a cute girl (Aubrey Plaza) who meets a seemingly crazy person (Mark fucking Duplass again) after seeing his ad for a working time machine. A surprisingly realistic piss-take on the alt weekly industry. 28. Friends With Kids – Jennifer Westfeldt, last seen (with more facial expressions) in “Kissing Jessica Stein,” casts herself as a woman who lets a friend get her pregnant because she doesn’t want to miss out on motherhood. 27. Marley – A standard but necessary bio-doc about a musician who’s only remembered in the most cartoonish terms. It’s one of the happiest little stories imaginable about a man who fathered multiple children out of wedlock and died of cancer after refusing to get a toe amputated. 26. Jiro Dreams of Sushi – I’m nearly alone in my judgment that this was merely good: It’s beautifully shot, with lots of nice Philip Glass songs, and my favorite “twist” in any documentary this year. (We learn that the son of the world-famous chef, the man who no one expects to live up to the old man, was actually the one whose food won the Michelin.) 25. Compliance – You know that moment in the horror movie when the ingenue makes a horrible decision, and you’re both scared for what’s coming and angry that she did it? Get ready to feel that for 85 minutes. Based closely on a true, well-reported story, about a sadistic crank caller who baited the employees of a fast food restaurant into basically stripping and molesting a colleague. 24. The Comedy – Tim Heidecker, revealing surprising dramatic chops, plays an odious rich hipster, bloated and bored, falling ass backwards into other New Yorkers’ lives. Sublime cringe comedy with a rotten core — in a good way! 23. Bernie – Richard Linklater adapts a this-can’t-be-real magazine story about a closeted gay man who charmed his way into the life and will of nasty widow. Shirley MacLaine plays the widow, Jack Black plays the loveable con man, and both are fantastic. 22. Dark Horse – I’ve always liked Todd Solondz. Jesus, I was one of perhaps 12 people who saw Palindromes and liked it. So of course I liked this blacker-than-a-midnight-funeral comedy about an angry loser who seeks love, finds it, and (spoiler) dies pathetically. It’s crammed with smart touches, down to the said loser’s name, Abe (a dignified-sounding name, not a red flag to laugh at the character), and his impotent rage at a Toys R Us manager who won’t refund him for a flawed action figure. And it’s nice to see Selma Blair in a role that plays to her gift — 200-proof mopeyness.
21. The Queen of Versailles
20. God Bless America 19. The Hunger Games – A gorgeous-looking adaptation of a teen novel that starts grim and gets a little cutesy. (The novel and the movie, both.) 18. Sleepwalk With Me – Mike Birbiglia turns his monologues about a troubled relationship and the start of his comedy career into a memorable little movie. Rent it for the Ira Glass fan in your life. 17. Take This Waltz – Sarah Polley, who made a little classic when she adapted a New Yorker story into Away From Her, writes her own beautifully painful story of a happy couple ruined by a mid-twenties emotional crisis. People seem divided on the use of the Leonard Cohen song that titles the movie — it plays as Polley’s camera spins around an apartment where two lovers go through a year of doubt, then excitement, then routine, then boredom. I liked that scene. 16. The Deep Blue Sea – An adaptation of a post-war British play that looks and feels like a lost Powell/Preminger ache-fest. 15. 21 Jump Street – The best iteration of the “hit show from your childhood turned into a farce” genre since The Brady Bunch. Really, The Brady Bunch is better than you remember. Could have done without the detached penis gag. 14. Ruby Sparks – You probably enjoyed Little Miss Sunshine. I thought it was a twee endurance test, all smart-sounding gimmickry (Proust scholarship!) that wasn’t actually smart at all. But this film, by the same directors, was terrific, and about 1/10 as financially successful as LMS, which shows what I know about the movie industry/viewing public. Paul Dano plays a mopey wunderkind novelist who’s 10 years on from his only novel — an instant classic. Taking his therapist’s advice, he overcomes writer’s block by developing the story of a cute girl (Zoe Kazan) who appears in his dreams. He wakes up one day and the girl is calling from downstairs, asking what he wants for breakfast. And this is where the PR failed the film. Trailers made this look like Yet Another Manic Pixie Dream Girl comedy, Elizabethtown mashed up with Stranger Than Fiction. Nope. The script, by Kazan, parodies and punishes that cliche. Ruby eventually figures out that her self-important boyfriend is a bore, and starts to move away from him. He puts another roll of paper in the typewriter and changes her personality. In the film’s climax, Dano settles a fight by typing commands and watching his helpless muse obey them. Bark like a dog. Call him a “genius.” Strip. If these weren’t the actresses directions, it would be horrifying — and it’s pretty horrifying as is, until it’s wrapped up in a satisfying way. Nick Urata’s soundtrack is also a marvel. 13. Skyfall – Everybody’s basically right about the latest Bond film, which eschews the “five minute countdown to save the world!” ending for a drawn-out, bloody tribute to Straw Dogs.
Legitimately Great Movies 12. Pitch Perfect – Perhaps I’m rating it too high, but I thought this was the rare inspirational beat-by-beat comedy that never ever flagged. 11. Silver Linings Playbook – A worthy addition to the “crazy people find each other, and thus find love” genre. Jennifer Lawrence is that rare overhyped starlet I can’t get enough of, partly because she’s a knockout, partly because her PR is so ingenious. (Her first big role was on “The Bill Engvall Show,” and yet because she was in “Winter’s Bone” she gets to be an “indie starlet made good.”) Bradley Cooper is at his best when a role finds some direction for his mania, which was the case in “Limitless” and is doubly true here. It’s a love story that leaves you happy at the outcome, unclear that it can ever last, confident that you didn’t see something phony. 10. The Cabin in the Woods – Joss Whedon and Tim Minear parody every horror movie conceit ever, positing that all of those conceits were invented by a shadow government in order to kill enough wayward teens to satisfy angry Gods. It’s a comedy, everybody! And it has the year’s best unicorn gag, easily. 9. Argo – Have we begun to grapple with the concept of Ben Affleck, Great American Film-Maker? His third movie is almost perfect, from the re-creations of 1980 malaise and pop culture to the hair-whitening moments where American diplomats are about to get found out — again, again, and again. The opening scene, a re-creation of the 1979 Iranian takeover of the American embassy, is genuinely enraging, and the stress level kicks up from there. My only gripe: Affleck casts himself in the lead, and gives the film’s only one-note performance as the agent who, sigh, is kinda depressed but will get everybody out of this, I guess. 8. Zero Dark Thirty – Thrilling historical spy drama that I never want to watch again. 7. The Avengers – Hell, I usually can’t stand the “villain brainwashes heroes into sealing fate” plot, which defines two acts of this thing. And in this movie, the trope works. The best assortment of actors ever thrown into a popcorn movie, funny dialogue, many holy-shit action scenes. 6. Django Unchained – Give Samuel L. Jackson the Oscar. 5. The Dark Knight Rises – Looking back, my one gripe concerns the final battle between the police and the Bane thugs. The police seriously have no better tactical move than “hey let’s run at the guys with guns and overwhelm them after many of us are shot?” That’s it, though. I love the sequel to the Reign of Terror playing out in Gotham. 4. Looper – An out-of-nowhere sci-fi masterpiece by a director/writer who never struck me as a sci-fi brain. 3. Lincoln – Simply one of the best movies ever made about the art of politics. Fine, sure, perhaps there’s one too many bumbling congressmen who are ridiculously easy to convince or buy off. There’s a lot of compelling, accurate history that has been rescued from the appendices of distracted authors. 2. Beasts of the Southern Wild – A gorgeous collection of imagery that we’ve never seen before, filmed (by a first time director!) in a way that makes it alien. A slightly surprising morality play plot, which works because the characters (and actors) are completely unpretentious. 1. Moonrise Kingdom – An odd, smart little boy becomes smitten with an odd, smart little girl. The affection is returned. The two of them carry on a correspondence, then run away together, then get caught, and that’s almost it. But the whole thing is put together with such care and beauty, and the sort of whimsy-with-a-point that Wes Anderson had lost sight of since Rushmore.