Monday, January 14, 2013

Cap'n Howdy Presents: The 14 Best Films I saw in 2012 (Part Two)

 I believe when we left off, the Cap'n was lamenting that of the first seven "Best Of 2012" movies that I only had existing reviews for two of them (The Avengers and Cosmopolis) whereas the second half of the list includes only one movie I haven't already reviewed. How silly of me not to, you know, split up the writing duties between the two pieces, but as it turns out I have plenty to add about the films that made this list.

 If the theme of Part One was "surprises" - and, looking back it it, it clearly was movies I didn't expect to be blown away by - Part Two is comprised of films that I had a strong inclination I would enjoy, but that surpassed even that. It's also become clear that more than a few of these films are ones that people I know (and whose opinions I often respect) REALLY hate. One in particular looks to be a repeat of one of my top picks from last year, and we'll address that accordingly. To save some time, I'm going to let the links to the original reviews do most of the heavy lifting this time and focus my energy on additional reflections now that I've had some time to digest these films and to study reactions from around cinephilia.

 The difficult bit is figuring out where to start, so maybe I should get the most controversial choice out of the way first:

 Looper - To be honest with you, I was expecting The Master or Cosmopolis to be the movie I had the most disagreements about this year. Even Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained seem to have a healthy debate surrounding them, but I'm continually surprised by the immediate and negative reaction I get for suggesting Looper was one of my favorite movies of 2012. It's akin to my inclusion of Drive in last year's list, when I discovered that many good friends really and truly hate that film, often for the very reasons I enjoyed it.

 I get the impression that people don't like Looper because the time travel logic is nonsensical, or that the resolution of the story leaves audiences feeling like they wasted their time, or that (in the words of an acquaintance of mine) the film felt like someone was shooting "a first draft."

 Needless to say, I don't agree, but this is a much more hotly contested movie than I had any idea after seeing it. Whether you left the film feeling ripped off or wanting to see it again immediately, I guess it's better to feel strongly about it than to feel nothing, but for my money Looper was worth revisiting. I think that Rian Johnson sets up a world with its own rules about time travel, sticks to them and tinkers with themes set up in the film in clever ways. He also leaves a few elements ambiguous (I find it amusing that in his downloadable commentary, Johnson is fascinated by the "Kid Blue is Abe" theory but doesn't say one way or the other). I've given Prometheus grief for intentional ambiguity, but since Looper is a self-contained story that is pretty clearly about closing Joe's "loop," the story elements not specifically addressed don't fall under the "kick the can down the road" sequel-izing that Prometheus and Tron Legacy are guilty of.

 You'll notice that in my original review I posited a theory that can't possibly be right. One commenter suggested another theory, so I checked to see if that held any water.

This is the comment:

 I saw this posted on another blog about Looper and watched the movie again and realized yup this person has got it right: ( I was a bit uncomfortable with the thought of Joe sleeping with his mother but turns out he didn't at all)

"I'm going to throw everyone for a "loop" no pun intended. If anyone paid attention, Young Joe slept with a hooker whom had a daughter named: SARAH. "Sarah" was the girl looking after Cid. Considering the hooker knew what Young Joe did, and that Old Joe went after the hookers daughter(Note long hair of the kid the hooker carrys to the room, it's blonde.) as one of the three targets this leads you to one conclusion. The hookers daughter is the Sarah watching the young Rainmaker. She herself looped back to change him from a young age, remember Cid stated that, "Sarah's a liar, she's not my mother. My mother was killed." and Sarah stated she was trying to raise him properly. Boom, now you know how Sarah know's what Looper's are.

I caught it the first round. If I hadn't heard the hooker state her daughter's name was Sarah, I would of never of caught it." 

 Unfortunately, none of this is true. I literally just finished watching every scene that Piper Perabo's Susie is in the film, and she never once says her daughter's name. The child is also not blonde, but brunette (which helps the argument because Emily Blunt / Sarah's hair has brown roots). Rian Johnson is actually pretty tricky in avoiding Susie's daughter's name, even in the deleted scenes, but when you look at the age matches Old Joe finds, two of them are visible:

 The cagey bit is leaving the bottom one off (and the edit happens right before the bottom picture gets close), but since Cid is one of the possible choices and the other possibility was the boy that Old Joe kills, I think we're meant to believe that Megan Richardson is Susie's daughter (even though the address doesn't match). So that doesn't help my theory or the reposted comment theory, but I guess if you hate Looper for "not making any sense," then this is only going to bolster your case.

 Fair enough. I'm not going to try to argue with you about whether every plot point makes perfect sense or not, or in failing to do so that it means the film is terrible (and I've heard that a lot). I still think that Johnson sets up the universe well, raises the stakes in a compelling way, and tells an interesting story that leaves you asking questions. Are the answers to those questions in Looper? Well, I've seen it several times now, with and without the commentary/ies, and I find there's something new to discover every successive time. For me, that's successful, but I get that for others, the film collapses under its own logic. We'll have to agree to disagree on this one.

 Moonrise Kindgom - While I will continue to debate with myself what my favorite Wes Anderson film is, I'm settling down comfortably with saying that Moonrise Kingdom is his best made so far. For a film that's set in the period that Anderson fetishizes unabashedly in all of his other movie (the mid-1960s), Moonrise Kingdom manages not do feel bogged down by its period trappings. I don't mean to diminish Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic, et al, but Moonrise Kingdom's cast of characters feels less like a motley collection of "let's see what these types would be like together" and more like an ensemble that fit together in the story. In particular, I like the way the adults are continually flummoxed about how they're supposed to handle Sam and Suzy's determination to stay together, in particular Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). I don't think I mentioned it in the old review, but the scenes with them talking to Sam's foster parents and Social Services (Tilda Swinton) over the phone made me laugh as hard as anything in the film.

 Argo - Ben Affleck made a Zero Dark Thirty that doesn't seem to bother the people bothered by Zero Dark Thirty. Does that make sense? I don't wish to diminish his truly engrossing, exceedingly well made retelling of a declassified true story by implying that because it doesn't address torture that the film is somehow "less than" another movie that retells something more recent. Not at all. Argo is Ben Affleck firing on all cylinders, and while I enjoyed Gone Baby Gone and really enjoyed The Town, that didn't prepare me for how accomplished his third directorial feature is.

 The parallels to Zero Dark Thirty are inevitable - both deal with CIA Operatives who, in real life, tenaciously pursued their goal and succeeded when nobody believed they could. One was made with the cooperation of the individuals involved and the other wasn't (if you don't already know which is which, go check - you might be surprised). Both manage to keep the audience engaged in the narrative, to give them a laugh or two, but to then turn that switch and be genuinely suspenseful even when we know what happened. Zero Dark Thirty is harder to watch, but don't take that to mean I'm suggesting that Argo's palatability (probably not an actual word) means it should regarded with kid gloves. I've seen it twice, and it holds up both times. Hopefully we can get over this "Ben Affleck who stars in crappy movies" stigma and begin to enjoy his second life as a director of high quality films. We know what he can do, and I look forward to seeing him top himself after setting the bar this high.

  The Master - If Cosmopolis is a hard movie to like, then The Master is its mercurial cousin. Paul Thomas Anderson continues to push his films further away from the concept of conventional narrative and towards specific types of character studies, of dichotomies. Since Punch-Drunk Love, he's edged away from the "three act" structure of conventional cinema and instead hones in on two specific archetypes, pits them against each other, and plays out the result in front of us. The films don't so much end as they drift off, and even more so than There Will Be Blood, The Master is less about the lives of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as it is the specific intersection of their paths for a period of time lasting no longer than two or three years. We learn as much about Freddie as we're ever going to before he meets Lancaster, and what little we know about "the Master" comes from the way that other people react to him.

 I can understand the frustration from audiences (and working at a theatre where The Master was playing, I saw it first hand), but I don't believe the point of the film was to tell a story about these two men - any more than the film is a meditation or expose on Scientology - so much as it was to throw the embodiments of two essentially divergent philosophies together and allow them to coexist for as long as humanly possible. Or perhaps you'd like to think of The Master as the Id and the Ego clashing, as the Super Ego strains to separate them, all the while acknowledging a futility in fighting their codependent addiction. In the end, they both get what they want, and unlike most Hollywood films that turns out not to be each other. Eventually I hope to be able to talk to more people who have seen The Master, as so far it's been a limited sample size.

 Skyfall - It took MGM going bankrupt to settle the Daniel Craig as James Bond run of 007 films. Like another movie on this list, the down time helped, rather than hindered, the end result, because for all of the promise of Casino Royale and all that Quantum of Solace failed to build on, Skyfall at last figured out how to bring Bond full circle. Yes, it borrows a bit liberally from The Dark Knight in its villain's story structure (I'm sorry, but it's hard to watch the interrogation scene and not see Javier Bardem giving his best take on the Joker), but where it stumbles in some places it excels in others. Yes, Silva sometimes resembles a certain Clown Prince of Crime in his philosophy and execution, but his reasoning for it is more sound in the Bond universe, and his maternal fixation to M (Judi Dench) elevates some of the "copycat" mechanics of the plot.

 But besides all of that, Skyfall is a cracking good James Bond film that feels like it's a James Bond film. Gone are many of the Bourne-inspired aspects of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, and in its place are clear action sequences, clever quips, and nods to the earliest of 007 films that serve a purpose beyond just referencing the series. Skyfall ends in a comfortable nook that should have James Bond fans very excited for what's to come, because it's the promise of what we've been looking forward to married to the series that brought us here in the first place. The revelation of who a certain character is caught me completely off-guard because of how well Sam Mendes, John Logan, Robert Wade and Neal Purvis built their arc (I'm being cagey just in case you haven't seen it and want to) in the story. Needless to say that we end Skyfall in a very familiar location with a fitfully intriguing dynamic moving forward.

 It's fair to mention that there isn't a "Bond Girl" in Skyfall, not in the conventional sense or really in any way that you'd define the character type. There are characters that would seem to fit into those roles, but without spoiling too much, neither of them actually where you think they'll be. Instead, Skyfall focuses more on Bond's relationship with M, with Silva's relationship to M, and briefly where Bond himself came from (all the while debunking the long-standing theory that "James Bond" is a code name assigned to 007 agents). On the other hand, I can't gripe too much with a movie that brings back Q and the Ashton Martin and has refreshingly clever things to do with both of them.

  Django Unchained - I don't know that I have a lot more to add to my review of Django Unchained. It is, bar none, the most fun I've had watching a Quentin Tarantino film, and that includes the giddy experience of watching Pulp Fiction when I was far too young and that first audience reaction to Kill Bill Part One. It still makes me chuckle that Tarantino brazenly gets away with using a Jim Croce song and it's totally appropriate for the montage he includes it in. That, even more than the Rick Ross or the James Brown / Tupac Shakur mashup, made me laugh out loud in the theatre. If you want to read something silly, Google Armond White's critique of Tarantino (and more specifically, of Samuel L. Jackson), "Still Not a Brother." It's hilarious in the way that almost everything Armond White writes is, and if you haven't heard of the intentionally contrarian reviewer before, it's as good a place as any to learn what he's all about.

  The Cabin in the Woods - I was watching Serenity the other night, and when I finished it made sense to watch some of the extras again. In particular, I wanted to watch them for the conception of Joss Whedon in 2005, when he was still mostly known as the guy who made Buffy and Angel and Firefly. He had a small legion of devoted fans (of which the Cap'n counts himself, to a degree) that helped turn the cancelled Firefly into Serenity, which didn't set the world on fire (at first, anyway - today it has a solid fan base I run across frequently). Whedon made Dr. Horrible and Dollhouse, and then 2012 happened.

 Now he's the proven box-office commodity / smash hit director slash writer of The Avengers, a movie that really shouldn't have worked and even then shouldn't have worked as well as it does. The world is his oyster, but it's funny to think that because MGM went bankrupt, the Whedon-scripted / Drew Goddard-directed meta-horror film The Cabin in the Woods went from coming out to relative anonymity in 2009 (when it was made) to being a preamble of sorts to the blockbuster to come. And honestly, if I really had to choose between the two, I'd give the edge to The Cabin in the Woods.

 I've mentioned it before, and because horror films are something of a specialty for the Cap'n, I come back to it a lot, but The Cabin in the Woods doesn't necessarily deconstruct or redefine horror films in the way that I think some people believe it does. That fact, counter-intuitively perhaps, actually helps the film more than it hurts it. Scream was a deconstruction of slasher films while also being a slasher film. The Cabin in the Woods slaps the structure of "Scooby Doo" on top of the concept of horror archetypes - trust me, you'll have a hard time finding a horror film that corresponds closely to the "rules" of Cabin, especially The Evil Dead - and then uses that pretext to explore what audiences expect in scary movies.

  The Cabin in the Woods is clever as a meta text not because of how it deconstructs the genre, but in exploring why the genre persists when people firmly believe that it's the bottom of the barrel in "entertainment." Whedon and Goddard throw in a few specific references (a Pinhead stand-in complete with puzzle box) but by and large focus on the broader purpose of horror, and of audiences who don't get what they want. Look at it this way, complaining about the way the movie ends is really making their point.

  Had The Cabin in the Woods been released in 2009 or 2010, I'm not sure how people would have responded to it. That was still in the height or remakes and Saw-mania, and I think that unlike some movies that sit on a shelf for a few years, Cabin benefited from being able to wait until a lull in horror trends. The impact was that much stronger last April, because not knowing what I was in for made all the difference that first time.

 And yes, to be fair, it was following Lockout, the worst movie I saw in 2012, but I've seen The Cabin in the Woods three times since that fateful weekend, and I tell you with confidence that it still delivers the goods and rewards multiple viewings. So, sorry Avengers, but in the battle of Whedon projects, you come in second this year... 

 * I'll include the link down here, although I generally disagree with everything in this review and don't necessarily see the connections he tries to make with other films listed.

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