Thursday, February 7, 2013

Top Ten Films of 2012

Last year was certainly a strong one for movies. We were given quite a few great films, and at least two modern day classics in the making by my book (and one a hair away from being such). From a young boy trapped in the middle of the ocean with a tiger, to a manic depressive in Philadelphia just trying to put his life back together, we were treated to so many compelling characters to connect with and worlds to explore. So without further adieu, let us countdown the definitive list of the top 10 best films of the year. 

10. The Raid

The Raid is the best martial arts films in at least a decade, and one of the best action films of the past several years as well. The film tells the story of a SWAT team (or whatever they're called in Indonesia) that raids an apartment complex ruled by a ruthless mobster and drug lord. But when the mission goes horribly awry, soon the SWAT members find themselves hunted by the vicious tenants of the complex. Featuring the Indonesian martial art known as Pencak Silat, The Raid is just flat out brutal from start to finish. Star in the making Iko Uwais (whom director Gareth Evans discovered when Uwais was but a mere truck driver for a living) and fight choreographer Yayan Ruhian (who also plays one of the film's main villains) display and choreograph some of the most jaw dropping fight scenes I have ever seen. The film feels almost like a twisted ballet.

The most amazing aspect of this film, though, is its nonstop sense of tension and dread. From start to finish, Evans will have you on the edge of your seat, whether it be with another epic piece of choreography or with merely a slow, hold-your-breath shot of gunmen in the darkness overlooking our heroes, ready to pounce. And what about the pulse pounding score by Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda? Following in the footsteps of Daft Punk and Nine Inch Nails, Shinoda delivers a soundtrack here that perfectly captures the atmosphere every step of the way.

It's almost hard to imagine that this film was actually more or less a means to an end for writer/director Gareth Evans, who originally wanted to make a much larger and more ambitious film titled Berandal. When he couldn't secure the financing, he came up with a bold idea. Write a simpler, bare bones prequel, that takes place all in one location, and use it to show what he can do. Now, Berandal/The Raid 2 is finally set to begin filming this year. Personally, I can't wait to see what Evans, Uwais, and Ruhian pull off next.

9. Argo

Ben Affleck may not be the greatest of actors, but he sure is on his way to becoming one hell of a director. Argo has already landed him the Golden Globe for best picture and director, the PGA, DGA, and SAG awards, and likely will soon win the Oscar for best picture (despite Affleck oddly not getting nominated for director). It is certainly one of those stories that caters to the tastes of the Hollywood elite. CIA operative Tony Mendez must pretend to be location scouting for an epic science fiction film in order to rescue six Americans from Iran who escaped the hostage crisis and are trapped at the Canadian embassy. It's quite the uplifting story, but, unlike a certain other film this year about an important classified CIA mission that has been accused of such, this film actually contains  quite a bit of American jingoism. 

But hey, that's ok, because the film is seriously well made and compelling from start to finish. The opening scenes that mix documentary and new recreated footage of the beginnings of the Iranian hostage crisis are absolutely chilling. The fake location scout will have you on the edge of your seat. The film also features a number of great supporting performances, from Bryan Cranston back at CIA headquarters, to all six of the Americans stuck in the embassy. We really get insight into these people and the swirl of emotions they are suffering through. By the end, you feel like you have lived through the whole ordeal right along side them. The photographs and voice over during the end credits seal the deal, and might just grab a tear or two from you.

I only wish the film didn't go into such cliche action movie territory during its climax. Do we really need a shot of police cars chasing after a plane? 

8. Life of Pi

Life of Pi, more than any other movie on this list, seriously caught me off guard. I had absolutely no interest in seeing this film. Afterwards, I was shaken. Never did I think I would see a film that so thoroughly and compellingly conveyed my feelings about the various aspects of faith and religion. In the film, Pi must struggle to survive after he finds himself stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a Bengal Tiger as his only companion. The film is deeply emotional; you truly feel the complex relationship between the boy and this Tiger, and how they both struggle and grow through the ordeal. It also features some of the most beautiful digital effects I have ever seen, from the gorgeous neon imagery to the expressions and actions of Richard Parker the Tiger. Plus, it displays the greatest use of 3D imagery to date (with Hugo and Coraline close behind, and Avatar in a distant fourth). In many ways, the story echoes that of the Book of Job, but it goes so much deeper philosophically in displaying what spirituality and faith are actually all about.

There's really only one problem with the film, and that is the explanatory exchanges that for some reason the screenwriter felt the need to interject. The dialogue in this film is just way too on the nose. One conversation early in the film will have you shrugging a bit as it feels a little forced. That's ok though. But the one conversation later in the film that feels the need to break down and bluntly explain the entire metaphor of  the film, nearly ruins the entire movie. Personally, I choose to ignore that bit. Hopefully you will too, because the rest of the piece is truly breathtaking.

7. Beasts of the Southern Wild

While I was thoroughly entertained by Beasts of the Southern Wild, and that alone warrants its spot at #6 on the list, this is perhaps a film that you actually appreciate even more than you enjoy it. Beasts is the story of young Hushpuppy and her daddy, Wink, who is sick and possibly dying. They live in the "Bathtub", a run down ghetto on a small island just off the coast of New Orleans. When a brutal storm hits, they must struggle to survive in the flooded region, and must deal with the government trying to evacuate them from their homes. This is the first feature from Benh Zeitlin, who is a member of Court 13, a collection of young film makers and artists. He is from New Orleans, and wanted to make a film that reflected the spirit of the region. You truly feel the sense of community with this film. This is a piece more about the flavor of the people and of the place than it is simply about just the plot. Pretty much everyone on screen is a non actor. Dwight Henry, who played Wink, owns and runs a bakery right across the street from the production office Court 13 was operating out of and had never acted before. Quvenzhane Wallis was just five years old during filming, and gives a performance you would never think possible from someone her age. All of the town was built on location to be fully explored and functional. They even built for real a boat out of the back of a pickup truck. The truck was actually the director's sister's old truck that literally exploded one day in their yard. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous handheld Super16mm with minimal artificial lighting, though it is a bit overly shaky (the director actually says this is because the DP was constantly being attacked by bugs and the director was having to slap them away repeatedly during most of their shots). The effects are mind blowing and never once feel artificial.

But most importantly, it all comes together and you truly feel the emotion between this young girl and her father. Some moments, such as when Hushpuppy and Wink scream "Who the man?" "I'm the man!" at each other slam you back in your seat and feel incredibly real. The more fantastical elements of the narrative that make this a grey area between fairy tale and reality actually aid the emotional core of the film, rather than distracting from it. Beasts is such a fresh piece of filmmaking that feels like nothing I've ever really seen before. If this film is any indication, then Mr. Zeitlin and the rest of Court 13 certainly have a bright future ahead of them.

6. The Grey

The Grey is one of those films that received quite a bit of attention early in the year, and then quietly faded out of memory as the summer movie season came and went. At first glance and from trailers, you might think it's just another B movie action story trying to capitalize on Liam Neeson's Taken success. When their plane crashes in the middle of the arctic, a sharpshooter must attempt to lead a group of survivors to safety as they are hunted by a vicious pack of wolves. Wow, badass Neeson fights some wolves? Seriously? But no, the film is oh so much more than that. The reality is a piece that is less an action story, and more a contemplative, metaphorical tale about the acceptance of death. The result feels eerily similar to the greatest of John Carpenter's works. This is certainly a step up from director Joe Carnahan's last couple films (the wretched A Team and Smokin' Aces) and is a welcome return to form, more in the vein of his quite compelling feature from 2002, Narc, that launched him onto the scene

Liam's near nomination worthy performance perfectly portrays the man who yesterday was on the verge of suicide, but now finds himself in a position where he must attempt to lead these men to survival. Every supporting character, especially Diaz, played by Frank Grillo, feels fully real and fleshed out. Along with the great genre writing, the chilling cinematography Masonobu Takayanagi and melancholic score by Marc Streitenfeld (the best of the year and of his career) perfectly help sell the desperation of the situation faced by these men. A lot has been said about how this film depicts the wolves as vicious, near demon like creatures who will stop at nothing to hunt these men down. I think what the detractors fail to realize are that the wolves are not meant to be 100% realistic depictions, but are rather meant to be metaphors for the death facing these men and for the harsh environment at large. I hope The Grey finds a cult following in the years to come. It certainly deserves it.

5. Silver Linings Playbook

Of all the main characters in films this past year, I probably had the hardest time identifying with this one. I mean here is a man suffering from deep depression and massive anger issues, whose life falls apart after his now ex cheated on him and left him. Now several months later, he finds himself moving back in with his parents, one of which is an avid sports fan. He begins a friendship with another manic depressive young woman with awkward social skills, who tangentally knows his ex, and has a reputation for being a bit of a slut. Soon this relationship is the key to our protagonist putting his life back together and moving on from his ex, and perhaps it will grow into something more. And his name is Patrick...hrmmm...wait a minute...FUCK YOU DAVID O RUSSEL! YOU STOLE MY LIFE! I WANT MY MONEY!

Ahem...where was I? Silver Linings Playbook is the best romantic comedy since Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Bradley Cooper gives the best performance of his career, and Jennifer Lawrence, though I took a bit of a cheap shot at her in my last blog post, continues to prove why she is one of the best young actresses in the biz. As Patrick's superstitious sports fanatic father, Bobby D gives his best performance in years. There are two standout aspects that make this film so compelling. First is its ability to truly make us care for and empathize with such strange and "screwed up" main characters. And second is its constant use of genre cliches and how it elevates them to a new level. This isn't a film that tries to rewrite the rules. Instead, it knowingly plays into the cliches and has fun with them, and somehow makes these moments feel real and organic to our characters and to this world. I've never seen anything quite like those moments. David O'Russel, first with The Fighter and now this, is truly on a hot streak and is proving himself to be one of the best modern auteurs in the industry today. If there is any justice, he'll be taking home Oscar gold for his efforts come February 24th.

4. Skyfall

When Daniel Craig first portrayed Bond back in 2006's Casino Royale, it was one of the finest Bond films ever made. Unfortunately, the writer's strike lead to a massive disappointment with the follow up, Quantum of Solace. But when oscar winner Sam Mendes of American Beauty and Road to Perdition fame was announced as the next director in the franchise, we knew we were in for something special. Due to the various issues surrounding the MGM bankruptcy, it may have taken a while for the film to arrive, but the result was certainly worth the wait. It's also quite possibly better than Royale. Skyfall is one hell of a classy Bond film that somehow simultaneously pays tribute to the most classic aspects of the franchise whilst also updating the story and atmosphere to a post 9/11, modern world. How it manages to juggle these various elements is certainly a site to behold. One moment we're being treated to the classic Bond theme whilst James and M cruise around in the vintage Aston Martin from Goldfinger, and the next we've entered a quiet and dusty country home that is the setting for a stripped down standoff where Bond has nothing more than a shotgun and a few shells of ammunition with which to fend off his foes. 

One of the strongest aspects of the film is its ability to constantly shift its mode of storytelling. First it's more a classic Bond film, then it's more a domestic terrorism show, then it's a western. It always feels fresh and never forced. Now in his third outing as the MI6 agent, Craig delivers his best portrayal of him to date, and solidifies his position as the second best Bond of all time. But the greatest element of this film is certainly its cinematography. Roger Deakins delivers some of the greatest digital photography ever captured. In his best moments here, such as the scenes in Shanghai, or on the casino floor, or during the deadly night chase through the fields at the end of the film, Deakins isn't just trying to merely emulate the look of film. Instead, he is playing to digital's strengths, delivering a picture that only digital cameras could capture and produce. The result is something that you've never seen before, because it was impossible to capture before. Skyfall is the perfect follow up to Casino Royale (it's best to pretend Quantum never existed) and the ending will have the little kid in every true Bond fan jumping for joy. 

3. Django Unchained

Django Unchained is a thoroughly entertaining spaghetti western, and a borderline modern day classic. It's also remarkably linear and well structured for a Quentin Tarantino film, but that only frees Quentin up to more easily explore these characters and this world within the genre he has chosen. Django, a former slave turned bounty hunter, and Dr. Shultz, the bounty hunter who freed him, must find Django's wife and attempt to free her from her existence as a slave to a despicable plantation owner, Calvin Candy. It's a simple, straightforward plot, but filled with such great flourishes of style. Somehow, with a nearly three hour runtime, you never once feel the length. This is the quickest moving film of this length that I have ever seen. Quentin's direction is pitch perfect. His dialogue is as sharp as ever, and features some of the funniest exchanges of his career. And his characters continue to leap off the screen. Christoph Waltz is just as electrifying as he was in his Oscar winning performance in Tarantino's last film, Inglourious Basterds. Jamie Foxx is the perfect badass of very few words. Leo DiCaprio camps it up gloriously as Calvin Candy, which is exactly what the role needs and deserves. And Samuel L Jackson delivers the best performance of his career since his turn as Jules in Pulp Fiction. Steven is such a deeply layered character who will stick with you for quite some time.

One of the crowning achievements of this film is its depiction of violence and of the slave world. While the shootouts and explosions that Django engages in are absolutely glorified, the slave world violence is horrific and realistic. Even as we are enjoying the action adventure and comedy, we also feel the brutal real world that these men and women were forced to endure. It is to Tarantino's credit that he was able to explore such a place and dark chapter in our history through this entertaining genre. People like Spike Lee seriously need to pull their heads out of their asses, because this is an important and fun movie that needs to be seen by everyone.

2. The Master

How The Master has not received more critical acclaim and recognition is beyond me. This is surely a film that is destined to be viewed as a classic and a masterpiece in years to come. I should note here that putting this at number two on my list was wholly arbitrary, as I feel my number one and number two picks are virtually tied. 

The Master was shot in gorgeous 70mm, and that is the format the film was meant to be viewed in. It's definitely the most stunning cinematography of the year. It also features the best leading performance of the year and the best supporting actor performance (which I detailed in my last blog post). Despite how the academy and guilds will and have voted, I'm confident history will be on my side in making that statement. Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerizing as Freddie, a deeply disturbed young man who finds himself the object of a strange master/obedient subject relationship when he joins a newly forming cult that mirrors Scientology. The bond gives his life structure. It also gives Lancaster Dodd, the cult leader, the ultimate companion given his personality and nature. Too many people went into this film expecting a hit piece on Scientology and on the nature of cult. That is not this film, though there are plenty of aspects within it that explore why people follow and why people lead such institutions. And perhaps that false expectation is partially to blame for the film's lack of critical success. Instead, the film is mainly a character study of these two individuals, specifically Freddie, and of their bond. I could write an epic essay breaking down this film, its character arcs, its beats, its metaphors and the meanings behind them, but I think it's more important to absorb this story for yourself. I encourage everyone who did not appreciate this film on first viewing to give it another viewing, and another, and another. This is a piece that deserves to be meditated on and given time. For me though, on first viewing, I was thoroughly entranced by it from start to finish. P.T. Anderson has once again proven why he is the greatest director working today.

1. Zero Dark Thirty 

Zero Dark Thirty is the kind of movie I go to the theater hoping to see. The neutrality and almost Brechtian distance with which this film studies its controversial and sometimes brutal subject matter and its main character had me absolutely entralled the whole way through Maya's final moments on screen, as she sheds a few tears in the wake of her mission being complete. In case you weren't aware, Zero Dark Thirty details the CIA manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, and its narrative centers on "Maya" (her real name remains classified), the CIA agent most responsible for following the lead that finally led us to him. Such subject matter, especially with it being so fresh, was bound to be controversial. And sure enough, there seem to be scores of people calling the film "Jingoistic", "Right-Wing Propaganda", "Pro Torture" and the like. There was even a semi-campaign to try and deter Oscar voters from casting their ballots for it. 

Of course, the film is none of these things, and luckily the overwhelming majority of professional critics were clear headed enough to see that. Too often, people resort to "manufactured outrage", or feel the need to interject their own politics into something even if that film is only tangentially related. Also, far too often, more radically liberal people tend to lash out at a film if it isn't propaganda in their favor. It's the worst kind of hypocrisy.

But Zero Dark Thirty isn't about the war on terror at large. It is specifically about the hunt for Bin Laden. The first third of it does touch heavily on torture used during the Bush administration, and part of what makes this film a masterpiece is that it does not take a stance or shove a viewpoint down our throat. It would be all too easy to push a theme out of "Did we go too far? Did we lose our souls and become as bad as the terrorists while in the hunt for them?  How far is too far?" but the result would feel massively manipulative and false. If you want to explore messages like that, I'd point you to Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" or especially Ron Moore's "Battlestar Galactica". Those pieces were able to explore such messages more bluntly and were able to moralize partially because they were one step removed and were of a fantastical nature. But when you're dealing with the subject head on, it requires a light touch, a distance, a more journalistic approach that allows the audience to reflect on what we did. And in the end, even if torture did lead to that one piece of evidence that was a clue (that was then followed up on with actual detective work) does that excuse what we did to those people? After watching this film, my answer is a clear NO.

But this film is more than just a study of torture. It is also a great procedural, laying out in incredible detail the process that led us to Bin Laden and hoping you are smart enough to keep up and follow along. Some details, such as the bribing of an official with a Ferrari in order to obtain a phone number, are so bizarre that you feel they must be true. The ending is expert level filmmaking, depicting the raid on Bin Laden's compound nearly exactly how it went down, and in near real time.
Every single performance on screen here is pitch perfect. Mark Strong and James Gandolfini are at the top of their game. Kyle Chandler gives the best performance of his career. 

But what makes this film work and holds it together is Maya, and Jessica Chastain's award worthy performance as her. Even through all of the procedural beats and plot heavy elements, we never lose our connection with Maya. When the film begins, she is a bit of a cipher. As it progresses, though, we learn more and more about her, and connect with her deeper and deeper. We feel her determination and focus. We struggle with her as she tries to prove herself to her male superiors who won't listen, sometimes displaying a bit too much arrogance and bravado in the process. If Zero Dark Thirty is about anything first and foremost, it is about our need for closure and release. We feel the struggle Maya goes through as she desperately seeks closure to 9/11 and all the horrific Al Qaeda attacks that she sees (and we saw) on TV thereafter. When her friend dies in one of those attacks, we feel her desperation even more. The opening of the Zero Dark Thirty smartly is not of manipulative images of 9/11 or recreations of the events. Instead it is a black screen, with 911 calls from the day playing for all us to hear once more. As we listen, we place ourselves there on that day and remember back to what we saw and felt. When Maya sits alone on that aircraft at the end of the film, reflecting back on all she's done, good and bad, to finally catch this man, and she sheds her tears of release, we're once again sitting there right beside her.

Honorable Mentions:  11. Indie Game: The Movie  12. Compliance  13. Chronicle  14. Arbitrage  
15. Searching for Sugarman

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Best Performances of 2012

I may be a bit late to the "best of film" season, but with the Oscars still a few weeks away, I think maybe I'm still ok.

There were many great performances this year. We had Daniel Day Lewis portraying one of the greatest presidents in American history, Quvenzhane Wallis giving one of the best young child performances in history, and Eddie Redmayne in a criminally unrecognized outing as Marius in Les Miserable. But there can be only one Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Supporting Actor. The Academy will make their choices in the coming weeks, but these were the ones that stood out the most in my personal universe, the only universe that matters.

Best Supporting Actor - Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master

It's not easy to embody a character whose natural state within the film is to be wildly theatrical and over the top. In The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman does it with ease. You never question that Hoffman fully is Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic and eccentric cult leader, and not simply Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor, showing off for the audience. Lancaster Dodd is such a complex character, so full of energy for the crowd, so caught up in his own hype machine, and yet deep down so insecure and fragile. Hoffman does an excellent job at displaying the subtle nuances of this person, fully developing the public persona while also giving us glimpses here and there to the man underneath. Most importantly though, Hoffman fully conveys this man's complex connection to and attachment with his prize subject, his pet of sorts, Freddie Quell. It is that relationship on which the entire film hinges. Only a great actor could pin down the master/follower, dominator/dominated relationship of this film without either missing the emotional connection with the audience, or twisting the relationship into something it isn't. Hoffman hits it out of the park.

Best Supporting Actress - Ann Dowd in Compliance

No actress so embodied her character, so completely disappeared into her role this year as Ann Dowd, who played the naive Fast Food Manager duped by a prank caller impersonating a police officer in Compliance. Her performance is so complex, so nuanced, that we're honestly not sure what to make of her character. Should we be empathizing with her? Shunning her? Hating her? Mocking her? Learning from her? Many of her seemingly irrational or "moronic" decisions will make you cringe, but Ann plays each one of these moments with 100% earnestness. She is not judging her character. Every gut wrenching beat on screen is filled with such subtle touches of real, genuine, conflicted emotion that flesh out this person into one of the most complex characters of the entire year. It's a damn shame this film, and especially this performance, were never backed by their distributor enough to get more mainstream recognition and awards traction. Compliance is certainly a hard one to watch, but being hard to watch does not mean it and the actress are not deserving of recognition. Simply put, no woman gave a more daring performance this year.

Best Actress - Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

In Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain does an extraordinary job at playing reserved, cold emotion. Unfortunately, doing so may keep her from grabbing Oscar gold, as the academy is more prone to award theatrical, big, obvious performances that draw attention to the star playing them (I'm looking at you, Jennifer Lawrence). Zero Dark Thirty is perhaps a much more plot driven and procedural film than the other big awards contenders, but that doesn't stop Chastain from making Maya a fully three dimensional character. From start to finish, you completely feel Maya's struggle and determination, her push against her superiors, her headstrong and arrogant attitude, her loneliness and isolation, even if the colder style of the film keeps you slightly at distance from her. And though there are many plot points, Bigelow is also careful to sprinkle little quiet bits of character driven beats throughout the narrative, all of which Chastain knocks out of the park. It's honestly hard to talk about this performance, because, unlike some others on this list, there's absolutely nothing "show-off-y" about it. This is a classic case of "do nothing" acting. Just be in the scene and do nothing. Simple looks and glances. Simply being present in every scene. Simply being natural. It's a talent that regularly gets overlooked. Its so much easier to notice an Al Pacino screaming "Whoo Ah!" and mugging to the camera (don't get me wrong, I love me some classic Pacino scenery chewing). Too often we forget that some of the best acting is also some of the most minimalistic.

Best Actor - Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

What can I say? In The Master, Joaquin Phoenix gives undoubtedly the best male performance of the year. In fact, he gives the flat out best performance of the last few years, and what will surely be the best of his career. While I certainly have to give props to another great Master of acting, Daniel Day Lewis, for his fine work in Lincoln (for which he surely will win the Oscar), there really is no comparison between what he did in that film (a great, albeit quite theatrical, outing) and what Joaquin accomplishes here. Mr. Phoenix completely gives himself over to this role, achieving such moments of utter raw emotion that rarely are captured on screen. He lets loose and disappears into the insane world of Freddie Quell. No scene this year even comes close to capturing the emotional power of Freddie's outburst when he is a photographer, or when he engages in the "no blinking" exercise with Lancaster Dodd, or when (in what I can only imagine was an improvised and unscripted moment) Freddie completely loses all control in a prison cell, slams his head repeatedly against the bunk repeatedly and then smashes a toilet into oblivion.

Joaquin even completely transforms his physical appearance with superficial facial ticks and twitches. In another actor's hands, these could be rather shallow transformations, but he seamlessly and naturally works them into the complex tapestry of this character. He displays such a range of emotions, from the most quiet and reflective to the most outlandish and destructive. His performance is not simply "weird" or "Joaquin being his crazy self." It is as deeply layered as the film in which it resides, a film which hopefully will grow to be appreciated with time. Personally, I have no doubt that history will be on The Master's side, and that this will be the performance that is by far the most remembered and studied in the years to come.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Worst Films of 2012

As we've now passed the end of 2012 (which thankfully did not involve any giant CGI earthquakes, floods, arcs, or John Cusacks) it's just about that time of the year when we count down and nominate the year's brightest and best. I myself will be counting down the top cinematographers, performances, scores/soundtracks, and films for the year. But before one can truly appreciate greatness, they must first experience the awful.

Now, people measure "awful" in many different ways, and perhaps I have a different barometer than most. Awful does not mean laughably bad. Awful is not mere incompetence or ignorance of the medium. Awful means painful. It means wretched. It means that I was physically hurt by the experience. You see, any jackass on youtube with a video camera can make a "bad" film. He can possess worse craft or less knowledge of screenwriting technique than any hack in Hollywood. But it takes true talent to achieve "Awful", to hit that sweet spot of the uncanny, into which you the viewer earlier could not comprehend a film venturing. It's a new level of terrible that no Joe Shmo can ever hope to achieve. You see, it takes a truly talented cast and crew, a real budget, and a real kernel of a good idea, terribly executed, to derail a project into the realm of "Awful."

And thus, let us count down the Most Awful Films of 2012.


Now here's a film that will surely make the top 10 lists of many a pretentious art student or mediocre film critic. Holy Motors seemed from the trailers like it could be a great piece of surrealistic film art, and no doubt many viewers have convinced themselves that it was. But weird for the sake of weird is not art; it's incomprehensible nonsense. In order for metaphor in film to work, it needs to be cohesive. That's rule number one of abstract filmmaking: cohesion and comprehensibility. If you need an essay to decode any meaning whatsoever from your film, then your work is meaningless. And thus, Holy Motors feels like your run of the mill, meaningless film school nonsense that you see in every classroom, only with a budget, truly great cinematography, and a great duo of actors in the leads. But all that talent can't save a half baked film.

Certain sequences on their own begin to compel you, especially those darker and more dramatic moments like the scenes within the limousine. But then another vignette will arrive that in no way thematically links in with what came before, and it will completely thrust you out of the film and aggravate the viewer to no end. By the time we get to the absurd, in your face ending where the main character walks into a house of chimps, which is about as half baked a metaphor as you can get, you'll be wanting to throw something at the screen.

The worst moments of the film though are when a single vignette begins extremely promising, but then by the end completely derails. The first of these moments occurs when our lead character must perform a twisted version of a motion capture shoot. It feels oddly science fiction, and bizarrely dreamlike. And while at first his solo shoot has an engrossing atmosphere, by the end it derails into one of the most disturbing sex scenes I have ever witnessed; it tells us nothing about our main character or the world, and feels more pornographic, and more about the director's S&M sexual fetishes, than anything else.

The second, even more disturbing vignette, starts out quite hilariously as our lead dresses up as a homeless real life leprechaun of sorts, then terrorizes a cemetary whilst eating flowers and scaring away everyday citizens. Then the joke wears thin almost immediately, but continues endlessly. And then everything goes off a cliff as our protagonist kidnaps Eva Mendes (on a location photoshoot), takes her to the sewers, and strips down naked in front of her. All the while, Eva's job is to stand there like a statue and not react. Yet it's quite clear the actress is thinking the entire time "Umm, what did I sign up for?" We stay here for at least 15 minutes of wretched exploitation.

Near the middle of this vignette, Eve Mendes's photographer turns his attention to our lead character and begins snapping photos at frantic speed. The only words he can muster, as he is completely in love with the image before him, are "Weird. So, weird..." I can only imagine that this was the only thought going through the director's head during this production, and that's the problem. He has a great sense of performance, of pacing, of cinematography and sound. His craft is undeniable. But if you care about more meaning in your art than "Weird, so weird" you will see this film for what it really is: beautifully dressed, meaningless trash.

5.) THE HOBBIT (in 24fps)

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is an undeniable work of cinematic art. It's an epic, well told story (especially in the original theatrical cuts, which are the actual director's cuts of the film). Jackson's need to go over the top, to play everything huge and melodramatic, to linger on big dramatic set pieces, they all work so well to draw you into that narrative and sell it cinematically.

But those same tactics used in the Hobbit only serve to completely destroy this story. Part of what made Lord of the Rings work so well (and makes any and every movie work so well) was that we cared about the characters deeply. We had Frodo and Sam's struggle at the heart of the movie, their strained friendship, and their suffering through the burden of the One Ring. In the B story we had Aaragorn's struggle to be a King and a leader, to become the man he was born to be, and no longer a wandering, depressed loner. And we had a C story of Merry and Pippen, and their struggle to rise up and be more than they were. Through all the films, we had these character's journeys, and we never lost sight of them.

But The Hobbit has no characters we care about, because Peter Jackson has so bloated the script with fan service to the previous films and inserted appendices material, that he has completely lost sight of Bilbo Baggins' journey. And thus, if you haven't read the book, you have no idea who this guy is or why you should give a shit about him. He almost seems like a background character here, just along for the ride. Meanwhile, Jackson has placed all emphasis on Thorin's journey, which is just a watered down version of Aaragorn's, as he tries to regain his home. Thorin has become the main character. Except...Thorin goes through ZERO emotional growth or struggle whatsoever. He knows who he is, and he is a one dimensional "bad ass" leader. Aaragorn was constantly struggling with his destiny, and had a clear character arc and internal conflict. Thorin has neither, and thus is BORING.

The original The Hobbit was about Bilbo Baggins' growth and struggle as he goes on his first adventure outside the hobbit hole and out into a much larger world. It was a simple tale about a guy who always dreamed of something more than his isolated existence, but never knew how to be more, until one day he is dragged on a great quest. And through that quest, he becomes something different than he was. All focus should be on him, his journey. Not on Thorin slaughtering orcs, not on Gandalf saving the day seven times in a row, not on endless CGI battles, not on portending doom out in Mirkwood (which again feels like watered down LOTR, and extraneous nonsense), but on the main protagonist's journey. That is screenwriting 101, and Peter Jackson just got a big fat F.


Up until just a few years ago, Pixar was the flat out best studio in the industry. They were creating the best movies with the best stories, year after year after year. Numerous filmmakers in both animation and live action pointed to their films and said "That is how you do it. That is a model to learn from." With their last three great films, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, Pixar had set a bar that nobody else could hope to match.

And then came Cars 2, and we were all afraid that maybe Pixar was selling out. Maybe it was ending. Maybe Toy Story 3 had just been a fluke. Monster's Inc 2 was on the horizon; oh no. It's over.

But wait! There's hope! Brave, a new original tale, that isn't a sequel, is due this summer! This will be great! This will be awesome!

Except it wasn't. Instead, Brave was far and away Pixar's worst film to date. On first viewing, I walked out before the third act was over. Only once before have I ever walked out on a movie. But I couldn't finish this one.

Brave has no story or character to speak of whatsoever. It has no specifics. It features a generic princess generically not wanting to be a princess, but instead to be free (see Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Mulan, etc). What does she want to be? They never say. We see her riding through the forest, shooting her bow and arrow. Does she want to be an archer? A warrior in an ongoing war? They never say. What are her dreams and aspirations? They never say.

We see her argue with her mother about tradition and how she shouldn't have to be in an arranged marriage. And then she runs away, and meets a witch. The witch claims she can solve our hero's problems by casting a spell. The spell isn't what it seems, and our hero's mother is turned into a bear.

And that's it. That's the whole movie. The mother is a bear. And they need to make her not a bear. I guess this is meant to then comment on how the mother and daughter need to learn to communicate with each other,  and we get some of that as they struggle to communicate in English vs Bear-speak. But that's not enough alone to drive even a 90min film. There are no stakes here. We don't have any compelling internal or external conflicts. We don't really have any new lessons or themes that haven't been dealt with in many other, more specific, more compelling movies with better drawn characters. Also of note is that everyone speaks in a Scottish accent. This would be quite nice and interesting if the accent weren't simply used as a substitute for basic character development.

This is yet another film that simply fails at basic storytelling. It fails at being a movie. Character development, clear internal and external conflict, story beats that progress the conflicts and the character development, and enough beats to fill a 90min narrative; the story lacks ALL of these basic elements. If not for the budget, this feels like a student's first attempt at a feature, as they needlessly pad out a 20min short far past its welcome.


After penning two of the worst film experiences I have ever sat through, in a row no less, Damon Lindeloff needs to be banned from ever writing anything ever again. He is the worst hack working in Hollywood today, and yet somehow he's getting scifi gig after gig after gig.

This wasn't that hard to pull off. Do an Alien prequel that explores the "Space Jockey" civilization. It doesn't have to tie directly into the Alien franchise plotwise. But it should have nods, it should feature the Aliens in some way, and it should be the same genre of film. Most of all, it should contain great characters and storytelling, like the first two films in the saga that we all know and love.

But the characters are wildly inconsistent, constantly doing things only to service the plot and seem creepy or weird at the time (Lindeloff's trademark!). David, the Android, acts crazy for no reason. Charlize Theron is a mustache twirling villain for no reason. Two scientists who have a map of the ship they are exploring somehow then get lost in the ship. Those same two scientists act too afraid to enter a scary room, leading them to run off and get lost in the first place. Two minutes later, they come back to the same room, don't act scared at all, and start trying to pet the monsters within it. These awful inconsistencies and holes show up in scene after scene after scene.

The story is an absolute mess and has no clear structure whatsoever. Nor is it clear what tone the film is aiming for. One second there's bright colorful music playing as our characters meditate on the creation of humanity, and the next there's some silly zombie attacking people for no reason other than "Oh wait, we need conflict, right!?" The film doesn't know if it's a prequel or not, as it goes out of its way to not tie into the other films with some elements (the eggs are changed to canisters, the planet is different for no reason, and the face hugger is now a space vagina), but then features half assed nods in other ways (the ship, the company, the sort of kind of but not really xenamorph at the end). The dialogue is downright dreadful and by far the worst of the entire year. The pseudoscience and message of the film are laughable conspiracy theorist nonsense.

Basically, none of the storytelling works. It would take pages to list everything wrong here. And it's a shame, because Michael Fassbender gives an amazing performance with absolutely nothing to work with. Noomi Rapace shows great promise as a lead. Charlize Theron is compelling as always, even in a terribly written role. The music (half of it, at least) is ominous. The cinematography instills dread. But there are no characters or story here. Instead, this feels like horrible fan fiction written over a weekend.


Fanboys are still trying to convince themselves that this was a good film. Even some film critics are trying to do the same. After all, Christopher Nolan is the savior of blockbuster filmmaking. He shoots on film. He champions 70mm. He uses special effects the way they were meant to be used. He cares about characters and drama in mainstream action filmmaking. His "The Dark Knight" was one of the best films of the last decade.

But this film is dreadful. It completely betrays the characters and story of not just the comics, but more importantly, of the first two films in this franchise that Nolan directed. And it simply does not work as storytelling.

The initial conceit of the film that Bruce Wayne quit being Batman immediately after "The Dark Knight" was a major misstep from the getgo.  The point of that ending was the EXACT OPPOSITE: that Bruce Wayne was going to continue being Batman no matter what. And even though he may have to do questionable things, go to dark places, even if he was hated, he would do whatever it took to protect Gotham. He was a Dark Knight, not a hero. And so he would be that watchful protector and guardian of the city, even if the cops hunted him down for being a vigilante, even if people hated him for it.

Moreover, Alfred was ALWAYS A SUPPORTER of Batman. He helped build the suit. He helped build the cave. He helped catch the Joker. He knew that being Batman gave Bruce purpose and drove him. It was twisted, but this was how Bruce could be more than a moping loser who hides from the world in his mansion. But in this film, Alfred cries (to manipulate the audience) about how Bruce can't be Batman. Alfred needs to protect Bruce and get him to live his life again (even though he's let him mope and do nothing for 8 years). And don't even get me started on Gordon...

So right off the bat (hah, get it? Bat), you've betrayed your main protagonists. You can do a time jump to a new dark setting and still have your main characters progress naturally. Battlestar Galactica did it wonderfully. But this film fails at its basic premise, and it has so many more problems as well...

The structure is all over the place. The dialogue is terrible. Characters act completely at the behest of the script, and often their interactions make no sense (Bruce and Catwoman are all over the place). Other characters have no development whatsoever. The pacing is terrible. So many plot points don't hold water whatsoever (from Batman even having a Batcave and having previous injuries which he never got in the previous films, to Alfred somehow knowing enough about the secrets of the League of Shadows to deliver flat exposition to the audience, to batman entering the city when there was no way in, to millions more). So much time is wasted on side characters who are dreadfully dull and offer nothing of substance, and no interesting conflicts (I'm looking at you, Robin). The twist ending completely sucks the life out of the villain and ruins what little character he had. The nuclear bomb plot is so cliche and tedious. The editing is so bad it makes the film feel like a 3hr trailer for a longer, more boring, 20hr film.

It's just a real mess of a film from start to finish. It feels like Nolan only cared about one thing: Messing around with IMAX. Because the IMAX shots truly are breathtaking. And the score is great, even though it never stops and thus contributes to the awful pacing. Or maybe Nolan's gone the way of Lucas, and no longer thinks he needs to work and rework and rework a screenplay before it's ready to shoot. He just thinks anything he comes up with out of his ass is golden.

How do you fix the film? It would require a square one rewrite, starting with the premise.

Make it BATMAN who saved the city from crime, not the Harvey Dent act, but Batman never got credit, and is still hunted by the police. Bruce has a beat up body as a result of his 8 years of fighting crime. Bruce has now lost his purpose since he is beating up lowly thugs instead of higher crime bosses and villains (because all the big guns have been caught. Victory has defeated him), and thus he is sinking into depression and despair. Now he is becoming a recluse, not because his girlfriend died 8 years prior, but because he lacks purpose, and his escape of "Batman" no longer is fulfilling.

Bain, the villain, has nothing to do with the League of Shadows. Get rid of all mentions of them. Get rid of Talia. The strength of "The Dark Knight" was that it continued our character's journey, but it in no way referenced the plot of the previous film. It was its own entity. And this film should have been its own entity, rather than relying on nostalgia and trying to retroactively link the films.
Bain doesn't want to blow up the city. He wants to be its "Salvation." He is an extremist revolutionary. Take the "Tale of Two Cities" idea and run with it full throttle. Bain thinks that by leading an uprising in Gotham, that he can save it. He cares about the lowly and poor because he himself was an outcast in that pit prison, and experienced true despair. He sees the class divide in Gotham as a worldwide symbol of what he himself experienced. And he can be its leader. But much like Robespierre, all goes to hell. He is seen as Gotham's new "White Knight", and some poor souls believe in him and fight for him, until it all goes wrong. Bain takes over and rules Gotham, while Batman is imprisoned in a cell. But the true hero of the people is Batman in the end.

Get rid of Miranda altogether. Get rid of Robin. Build up Gordon's role and don't stick him in a Hospital. Instead of feeling guilt over Harvey Dent, he feels guilt over chasing Batman all these years and never giving him the credit he deserves for saving the city.

NOW you can insert action beats into that opening 40min of dreadful, tedious, depressing boredom, beats of Batman fighting petty crime.
NOW you can even put in an opening montage of sorts if you wanted to, to insert action, but also winks to other super villains in the comics, and show Batman's career.
NOW you have a reason for Alfred to worry about Bruce, and to wish that maybe now he can move on with his life, and get over his parents' and Rachel's deaths.
NOW you can also have action beats, and suspense, setting up Bain's building up of his revolution.
NOW you have a far more compelling villain, with a much more compelling and twisted plot, that is much more three dimensional.
NOW you have a main theme tying your villain and hero together. And now when Batman saves the day in the end, and dies doing it, he can be seen as the hero Gotham always had and deserved. And HE was the savior of the city all along.
NOW you can build up Gordon's role. And you can build up Catwoman's role as well.

Now you can have zero plot holes. You can fix the pacing issues. You can tighten up the film. Rewrite the dialogue. Everything would flow naturally out of fixing that basic first act problem of the premise. There's such a nugget of a great film in here, but it's so horribly executed, with every single scene falling flat, that the result is nothing short of painful. Either Nolan was rushed into production and thought because he's a genius he could pull it off anyway, or he simply did not care.

From a storytelling perspective, this was the worst film of all this year. But...

1.) THE HOBBIT in "HFR 3D"

No film experience was as dreadful as The Hobbit in 48fps. And that's what it is: 48 frames per second. Not "HFR", the half-assed attempt at branding the frame rate as the "new", "cool", "next big thing."

48fps makes it impossible to enjoy this already awful film on any level whatsoever. It's literally unwatchable. You can no longer immerse yourself into the film, because 48fps completely shatters all suspension of disbelief. The framerate looks entirely "real", so much so that you become that much more aware of the artifice of everything else, from the makeup, to the sets, to ESPECIALLY the lighting. Nearly everyone I know who has seen it in 48p said the lighting looked flat and cheap, yet it's the EXACT SAME lighting as in 24p. This is the uncanny valley effect to the extreme.

You see, movies aren't meant to look real. Our conventions with lighting, sets, depth of field, etc look nothing like real life. So to try and make a movie look "more real" completely misses the point. Film is meant to look like a piece of art. And art doesn't look like "real life." That's the point. You are creating something unreal.

The point of a film is to draw you into another space, a dreamlike space, where you give yourself over to the film experience and become completely unaware that you are watching something. You are in the film world, with the characters, experiencing the story with them, through them. This is why character development, and believable characters, compelling story arcs, are the basics of filmmaking. But also, 24fps helps you to enter that world. 24p helps put you into a dreamlike state. It looks more like dreams do, and thus it aids in your zoning out, in giving yourself up to the world of the film. 48fps proponents say that 24p only came about because it was the slowest framerate you could go while still maintaining persistence of motion, and technology at the time back in the past didn't allow for faster framerates. But it's precisely because it is the lowest speed that it has survived this long. That aesthetic puts your mind into a psychological state that makes movie storytelling possible.

And these people seem to forget history. 24p is not a thing of the past. Back when the digital revolution began, the FIRST STEP taken by digital cameras to replicate film, the FIRST step, not the last, was to go from 60i framerate down to 24p. Before HD, before higher stop range, and before RAW, there was 24p, because it was seen as the MOST IMPORTANT element of the film aesthetic.

And when every channel went HD, when everyone could have shot in higher interlaced framerates of 60i, did they? No. They shot 24p even still, and did 3:2 pulldown.

Shooting the Hobbit in 48fps was a colossal misstep, which has put off everyone who is honest with themselves. And I hope to God that this is the last we hear about how this is the supposed future of filmmaking. Because if 48p becomes the next gimmick to try and keep the multiplex alive, I may just stop watching anything new altogether.