With Oscar nominations just days away, I must admit this is a weird year for me. First, I feel somewhat less engaged than normal. The earlier nominations (they are announced two weeks earlier than they used to be) mean that I’ve seen fewer of the contenders. Perhaps I’m paying a bit less attention. Maybe I haven’t found anything to champion. But this year it’s not for a lack of good movies but because many of the ones I liked are getting plenty of awards chatter.

But surely there will be a few things that would excite me on Thursday morning.

oblivion

1) Let Oblivion get nominated for something. In particular I have M83’s fantastic score in mind. The film’s end credit song, naturally called “Oblivion,” is eligible in the Best Original Song category and would be a good choice in a year of lackluster choices. A nod in the Visual Effects category would be well-deserved too. In other words, I’m hoping for an Original Score nod but would take the others as consolation prizes.

isaac llewyn davis2) I’m worried Inside Llewyn Davis is turning out to be the contender that will be just on the outside. If anything is going to get edged out in some big categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay), this seems to be the one. It’s not a movie I immediately loved, but it’s sticking to my bones and that’s usually a sign of a film that I grow to love. I hope Oscar Isaac sneaks into the Best Actor lineup.

louis dreyfus gandolfini enough said3) Some love for Enough Said would be wonderful. I was the Golden Grouch detractor on Nicole Holofcener’s last film, Please Give, but I was totally on board with this one. James Gandolfini has received due praise (though I can’t help but think his death is playing a role in that) but Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a revelation. It seems extremely doubtful that she’ll claim a nod but she’s at the top of my list so far. A Gandolfini Supporting Actor nomination or one for Holofcener’s Original Screenplay would be excellent.

gatsby lana4) I don’t think it’ll have much trouble getting them, but some craft nominations for The Great Gatsby would be nice to see. Production Design would be at the top of my list. Meanwhile, the film contributes my favorite of the Best Song contenders, Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful,” which has the added benefit of having a killer placement in the film. “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” from – gasp! – Fergie would also be a decent choice.

 

 

broken circle breakdown5) It’s not exactly a fair wish as I haven’t seen the other films on the shortlist, but I’m hoping for a Best Foreign Language nomination for The Broken Circle Breakdown. It doesn’t always work, but the parts that do pack some of the most powerful punches in 2013 cinema.

So that’s my list. In two weeks when I’ve finally caught up with the likes of Fruitvale Station, Wolf of Wall Street, Her, and Nebraska I’ll probably have a lot more to add. I’ll look back at this prior version of myself who contentedly set his hopes low and pity him once I know better. But for now I’m an easy man to please.

And now, part two of Ian and Jared’s fantasy Sundance draft.  If you missed it, check out part one for scoring and the first four picks.

With the fifth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

Low Down

Jared: Director Jeff Preiss is a cinematographer and experimental filmmaker, and this film is about a jazz pianist and his daughter, so I’m taking the movie under the principle that anything unappealing to me is probably a good bet for awards love. Preiss has been knocking around for awhile to some acclaim, and this is his first crossover to anything that could be considered mainstreamish. What mostly drew me to the film were the lead actors: Elle Fanning and John Hawkes. I’m not saying we are high on Fanning, but I thought Elle Fanning deserved an Oscar nomination for Super 8, and Ian is the one who likes her more. She’s a fantastic actress who already has British Independent and Satellite nominations on her resume. John Hawkes has an Oscar nomination, of course, and is just generally awesome. He also shares an Sundance Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting. The rest of the cast includes Peter Dinklage, Glenn Close, Taryn Manning, Lena Headey, and Flea, with Anthony Kiedis listed as a produce. Which is fascinating, if nothing else.

Ian: Just to be clear, Internet weirdos, we think Elle Fanning is a terrific actress, nothing more. But yes, she was the best thing in the charming Super 8, and her performance in Somewhere was approaching transcendent. And I don’t need to sell anyone reading this on John Hawkes, or the rest of the cast. My hesitation is that it may seem a little slight and unfinished even for a Sundance movie, but that’s a mild reservation. If it’s good, I think it would perform well, and I’ll probably be strongly into seeing it. I’d have taken it next.

With the sixth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Dear White People

Ian: Instead, I took a movie that’s probably going to end up less on the lyrical side. Dear White People seems like enough of a polemic that I suspect I’m giving up shots at the Grand Jury and Audience awards, since satire may be a genre even less favored than horror. I do think this movie is very likely to land Justin Simien something, however, since he seems like a smart, already recognized writer who, let’s face it, knows how to market himself well. I’m not saying that to be dismissive, or to say that the film is unlikely to stand on its own, but I think having a nose for p.r. and recognition is a skill (as the Weinsteins prove every award season). Aiming for a writer’s/director’s award here, and hopefully, a smart and subversive movie.

Jared: I strongly considered this one. Look, in order to be an ace awards pundit, you have to throw political correctness out the window. It seems safe to argue that the type of people going to an indieish awards festival in Utah created by Robert Redford will fall over themselves to applaud an intellectual look at race in the country. The only question, really, is how subversive, how funny, how frank the film is. One gets the feeling Sundance folk would like to tsk-tsk others for their racism, it is unclear what the awards impact would be if the film asks viewers to think more critically about themselves.

With the seventh pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Whiplash

Ian: This one is kind of a mirror image of Hellion, as a young man is brutally shaped by a parental figure in a feature film that was expanded from a short previously recognized at Sundance. The difference here is pedigree. Start with the cast, and Miles Teller in particular. I said this last year with The Spectacular Now, but Miles Teller is definitely one On The Verge, and he and Shailene Woodley took home a special jury award for his efforts in that film (aside: well-deserved, in my opinion). Now, he’s back in the competition as an intense student, being mentored by the always reliable J.K. Simmons. Add in that the film has already won a Jury Award as a short, and then Director Damien Chazelle got the feature-length script on the Black List, and this one has a lot of promise. Just as with J.J. Abrams and Infinitely Polar Bear, the presence of big macher Jason Reitman on the producer list also helps tip the scales. Starting to think I may have underrated it, if anything.

Jared: Hm. Yeah, this one may have fallen. Can’t think of many negatives here. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has a screenplay credit on The Last Exorcism Part II, which isn’t the most encouraging thing in the world, I suppose. And he wrote the upcoming Grand Piano, a thriller starring Elijah Wood as a concert pianist who John Cusack (presumably) threatens to kill if he plays a wrong note during a recital. But yeah, the film seems a good bet to bring home something.

With the eighth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

God’s Pocket

Jared: As a huge fan of the TV show Ed, I’m tickled pink to see John Slattery directing a Sundance film. Even though Dennis Martino was obviously a bastard and totally wrong for Carol Vesey and maybe I digress. Slattery is best known, of course, for his role on Mad Men and has directed five episodes of the series, to some acclaim. This film marks his feature film debut as director. The cast is jaw-droppingly good: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eddie Marsan, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, and Christina Hendricks, it isn’t unreasonable to hope for a nod for one of them. The film is based on a novel by Peter Dexter, on whose novel The Paperboy was based, and who has screenwriting credits for Mulholland Falls, Michael, and an Emmy nomination for Paris Trout. So that’s a mixed bag. But the Sundance description includes “authentic”, which is always a good sign, plus it specifically mentions the cinematography, so it could be in the running for a point there.

Ian: It’s hard for me to get a read on God’s Pocket. On the one hand, this is bigger than the type of movie usually in the Sundance competition. This is probably the best prestige cast we’ve seen in our storied history of fantasy Sundance drafting. And yes, Lance Acord, the cinematographer, generally works in movies that premiere at Sundance, and not films in competition. On the other hand, how much of this acclaim is a favor to the well-liked John Slattery? This isn’t said to be dismissive at all, he may well be a great screenwriter, and he’s taken on some visually inventive episodes of Mad Men (Signal 30 in particular is likely an underrated episode in the Mad canon). We (well, I) just don’t know yet, and the film description sounds a little on the pedestrian side to be in the Jury Prize running. It’s probably a pick that’s going to score, and maybe one that has broad audience appeal and familiar characters, so I endorse it here.

Coming up next, part three of our draft.

As you no doubt remember, Ian and I drafted the movies in the U.S. Dramatic Competition from last year’s Sundance festival.  Hopefully you forgot that Ian wiped the floor with me.  As you might have guessed, we’re bringing the draft back again this year.

But first, I’m excited to announce that Adam and I will be attending this  year’s Sundance festival.  No clue whether we’ll actually be able to see any in competition films, but I’ll be sure to report back.

We are using the same scoring system as last year:

Grand Jury Prize: 3 points
Audience Award: 2 points
Special Jury Prizes: 2 points each
US Directing Award: 1 point
Screenwriting Award: 1 point
Cinematography Award: 1 point
Alfred P. Sloan Award: Tiebreak

And the draft will snake, like all drafts should.  I get first pick this year since I got trounced last year.  For summaries of all films, check out the official Sundance page.  Here’s part one of four of our draft.

With the first pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

Fishing Without Nets

Jared:  I’m not sure what a clear #1 pick would be in a fantasy Sundance league, but I didn’t see one this year.  The overly simplified summary of this film you’ll probably see floating around is that it is Captain Phillips from the perspective of the pirates.  And I’m banking on this film getting a boost by riding the coattails of the likely Oscar nominee, which at this point in the Oscar race seems to have a healthy base of support.  The film is writer/director Cutter Hodierne’s first feature effort (which isn’t necessarily a point against him; the last two Grand Jury prizes were won by first-time filmmakers: Ryan Coogler for Fruitvale Station and Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild), but he’s directed a documentary of U2, and this film is actually based on a short of the same name, which won a Jury prize at the 2012 Sundance festival.  The film apparently used nonactors, so it is unlikely to compete for acting prizes, but I think the apparent combination of action and moral dilemmas, plus the aforementioned pedigree gives the film a good chance to click.

Ian:  In our long and storied history of the Fantasy Sundance League, there’s never been a year with as little stratification as this one. I also see fewer “locks” than last year, and the bigger name directors were of the mumblecore “it’s an honor to be nominated” variety. This one was a little down my list, if only because Captain Phillips may have sucked up some of the air in the piracy genre. Oh, and also because the movie has been gestating for so long that Somali piracy has been eradicated in the meantime. The fact that this movie was already honored is a point in its favor, but I thought there were better choices on the board with similar Sundance pedigrees.

With the second pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Hellion

Ian: This film was also selected to premiere at Sundance as a short film. While it didn’t win any prizes then (and may not have been in competition), I like its odds better now. If I had to explain why in two words, they would read, “Aaron Paul.” Paul has been in indies before, of course, but this is going to be the first movie he takes onto the festival circuit after the triumphant end of Breaking Bad. And if we’re talking about a “commanding performance” from him, I think this is one that juries or audiences have been well primed to honor. The subject matter also seems harrowing, and frankly more interesting than most of the other movies in competition. I’m looking for a combination of quality and timing to lead to some of the big awards.

Jared: I strongly considered this one for my first overall pick.  Recent Sundance winners such as Winter’s Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild, suggest a certain proclivity for rewarding films set in the U.S. in between the two coasts.  Kat Candler seems a prime candidate to break out, and having Jeff Nichols as an executive producer is surely a good sign.  Aaron Paul is obviously hot off a slew of Breaking Bad recognition.  He’s yet to garner any awards recognition for film roles, for whatever that is worth.  I’m usually wary of adolescent-led films, but on the flip side, if Josh Wiggins impresses, he could be rewarded.

With the third pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Cold in July

Ian:  Last year, a brilliant and unconventional director of genre film got its start in competition at Sundance. And while Upstream Color wasn’t a big winner there, it was a successful launch, and one that would probably receive greater awards from the same jury if they revoted today. It’s not a perfect analogue, but Jim Mickle strikes me as this year’s answer to Shane Carruth: a director with more experience and acclaim than the rest of the field who is working in a genre that usually doesn’t rack up awards. The difference to me is that Mickle seems to have come up within the system to a greater degree, which means that Michael C. Hall is attached to the project, along with Sam Shepard and Don Johnson (!). I’m hoping that this movie is inventive enough that the panel feels they have to award it with something, or that it’s populist enough that an audience goes wild.

Jared:  Personally, I had this one a little lower.  Phrases from the official Sundance summary of the film include: “pulpy, southern-fried mystery”, “older breed of action film”, “gore-soaked”, and “Don Johnson”.  Which means I’m super excited for the movie.  But also gives me some pause in terms of how broad an appeal the film will have.  Mickle’s last film, We Are What We Are, scored a 5.7 on imdb, and a 69 on metacritic, (though, to be fair, it garnered an 87% on Rotten Tomatotes).  Michael C. Hall is another actor who has received much love on TV, but yet to break through in a film, and I suppose one has to wonder if the universally-hated Dexter final season will have any impact.

With the fourth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

Infinitely Polar Bear

Jared:  It just sounds like a Sundance movie, doesn’t it?  Mark Ruffalo’s career has been absolutely fascinating: he’s an indie darling turned Oscar nominee with crossover appeal thanks to somehow becoming Hulk in The Avengers.  And let’s not forget the three Teen Choice nominations way back in 2004.  He got some Sundance love a few years ago for directing Sympathy for Delicious.  So he always strikes me as a viable contender.  A viable concern is the film being too funny for the major awards (and don’t get me started on that), given that writer/director Maya Forbes has screenwriting credits on The Larry Sanders Show, The Rocker, and Monsters vs. Aliens.  But descriptors such as “bittersweet” and “transcendent” provide some hope, and the concept of the trials and tribulations of a father struggling to raise his two daughters seems prime Sundance material.  That J.J. Abrams is a producer suggests the film might have some mass appeal.

Ian:  I had Infinitely Polar Bear, and then erased it before sending it to you. I certainly agree that the Ruff is awards bait, the premise seems like Sundance madlibs, and the J.J. Abrams imprimatur seems like this could be on the fast track. I just struggled to get past Maya Forbes’ resume on this one. Larry Sanders is probably the show most directly responsible for the current state of comedy in movies, but it seems like ever since then, she’s been doing some work for hire. I understand The Rocker has its charms, and I won’t dismiss any of those movies out of hand, but it’s not a resume that screams “Sundance favorite,” which makes me think that there’s a chance the movie could be slight. Also, not for nothing, but that’s a horrible film title.

I don’t want to bury the lede, so let me get this out of the way: All Is Lost is a terrible movie.

Each year as I do this awards thing, there are movies I can’t stand that are nearly universally loved by critics (All Is Lost is 87 on metacritic and 94% on Rotten Tomatoes as I write this) and which also receive awards love (All Is Lost was nominated for Best Feature at the Spirit Awards).  Obviously I’m right and everyone else is wrong, but as I browsed through some positive reviews of the film, I think I’m beginning to better understand why.

All Is Lost is an incredibly simple tale.  Robert Redford struggles to survive as the small boat he is manning in the ocean becomes increasingly unusable and he is forced to the life raft.  That’s pretty much it.  There’s virtually no dialogue or subplots.  Simply Redford trying to stay alive as his situation gets progressively worse. Praise for the movie seems to mainly focus around two ideas.  First, Redford’s performance in this one man show.  To me, the love here is a function of Redford essentially being the sole actor in the movie and surprise that even at his relatively advanced age, Redford still has it.  Redford is a terrific actor (bold statement, I know), but I don’t think this performance is among his best. He’s incredibly restrained for almost the entire movie, reduced to futzing around with equipment or his vessel.  I’m not suggesting that a great performance has to have a ton of emoting, or that Redford doesn’t still have an engaging presence.  I just think we should adjust the degree of difficulty multiplier appropriately.

The other reason people generally like this movie (again paraphrasing from a collection of reviews) is its illustration of man’s drive to survive.  Some critics find not knowing whether Redford will survive the ordeal to be quite gripping.  Often some larger meaning of humanity’s struggle in general is placed on the character here.  To summarize, my argument is that the main reason critics appear to like the movie is the depiction of  a man desperately trying to stay alive.

This justification makes me unreasonably angry. Because you know what else is a story of a man desperately trying to stay alive?  Pretty much every slasher movie ever made, the majority of horror movies and about half of action movies.  Sure, this is obviously a much sparser, stripped-down take.  But I fail to see how a lack of plot or dialogue or virtually anything else interesting would work in this movie’s favor.

Multiple reviewers praise the action of the film (for example, A.O. Scott writes the film is: “an action movie in the most profound and exalted sense of the term”).  These critics are, for lack of a better word, lying.  Or, at least, completely unable to appreciate action films.  Because this one nearly put me to sleep multiple times and the few action sequences were totally uninspired.  And not that I care, but if you want to go there, this movie featured as many plot holes and implausibilities as the average action film derided for such.

I like it when people like movies.  But I get very frustrated when it feels like someone likes a movie not for the movie itself, but for what they project onto the movie.  And, you know, I get it, we can argue intent all day long, but I’d have to agree that writer/director J.C. Chandor was more likely to be making a statement on man and survival than whatever straight-to-DVD teen slasher movie you’d throw at me.  But, for me, that’s not the point.  This film is about a guy doing whatever he can to stay alive.  The teen slasher movie is about a guy or a guy or a group of people doing whatever they can to stay alive.  The latter may be more hokey, feature poorer acting, and have worse special effects, sure.  But if you are saying you like All Is Lost for the narrative, I don’t think it is reasonable to not like the teen slasher movie.

Obviously I’m being a little facetious here.  All Is Lost‘s deliberate, measured pace allows much more space for in-movie reflection on the human spirit, where a slasher film is an engrossing escape for the duration of the movie (at least, if it is good).  But I maintain it is a little unreasonable to spend time after the former thinking about the depiction without doing the same for the latter.  And regardless, if you are going to like this movie because it gets you thinking about humanity, aren’t you better off saving the twelve bucks and two hours of your life you’d spend watching the film and think about the will to survive on your own time?

I’m going to compare 12 Years a Slave to another Oscar movie, but I don’t want you to read too much into it.  I’m making the comparison for a specific reason and I’m the first to say the similarities are limited.  But for me, the disagreements I’m having with people who really liked the film feel very reminiscent of the conversations I had about Crash.  Now, don’t get me wrong, Crash has many many more faults than 12 Years a Slave.  But Crash became a prestige movie due to its “exploration” of racism (along with the highly-regarded ensemble cast, etc.).  The film offered a brutal lack of subtlety as it hammered home again and again the oh so controversial point that racism is bad.  12 Years a Slave isn’t anywhere near as silly, of course.  The film, however, similarly hangs its hat on a single, extremely safe point: slavery is unimaginably awful.

Director Steve McQueen has a knack for eliciting a raw, sparse, visceral feeling.  Where Crash was overly slick, 12 Years a Slave feels more honest.  Which is a designation I hate to use.  But one I think is appropriate here, as McQueen never seems to use the camera for hyperbole or exaggeration.  The events of Solomon Northrup’s enslavement are terrifying, and McQueen adroitly realizes his job is to cleanly show them.  I think McQueen’s recognition for the film is well-deserved, and I wouldn’t argue against any nominations or awards he might receive.

I’m going to rag on screenwriter John Ridley for a little bit.  But before doing so, I want to make sure to note that he wrote a couple episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, so no matter what, John Ridley is kinda awesome.  The reason that Crash came to mind is that, for me, this movie does a good job reminding us that slavery was a horror and that being falsely enslaved is somehow even worse.  Those notions alone, however, do not a compelling movie make.  To Ridley’s credit, I should point out, that where Crash made me want to bang my head against a wall every minutes or so, the dialogue here is much cleaner and the story a million times less infuriating.

The main character, Solomon Northrup is oddly bland.  Chiwetel Ejiofor does a fine job with him, but the character isn’t particularly interesting.  The supporting characters along the way are instead considerably more memorable.  And largely one-note, to be honest, though having actors like Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Brad Pitt goes a long way toward making them compelling.

I can maybe see an artistic argument for not counting off the twelve years, perhaps to show how the years ran together for Northrup or they felt like an eternity, or whatever.  But, to me, Northrup’s time in slavery didn’t seem anywhere close to a dozen years, instead feeling more along the lines of three or four.  Which, to me, suggests a weakness in the script’s ability to portray Northrup’s ordeal. And to me, that’s the problem.  The script is content with saying, “boy, slavery sure sucked, huh?”  And as it turns out, that’s enough to move some people.  I was stuck on the relatively flat story.  I wasn’t drawn in by the plot and did not feel particularly engaged with the characters.  I think I would have had the same emotional response if someone spent two or three minutes giving me a middle school version of why slavery was bad.

The emotional power of the topic of slavery is a double-edged sword.  It immediately elicits an extremely strong response, and allows the creation of heroes and villains needing no special backstory.  That emotion, however, can overwhelm the story, as it does here.  I suppose if the goal of the film was to show how brutal the institution of slavery was, then sure, well done.  But, to me, that’s insufficient.  Illustrating slavery may be a noble goal, but the movie needs to tell a coherent, interesting story in the process, and it doesn’t.

Time for my annual post where I predict the Spirit Awards nominees.  Be sure to look for the annual follow up post by John where he makes fun of my predictions.  The important thing to keep in mind is that there’s no point in trying to make these predictions.  There’s no way to be entirely certain which movies are even eligible to be nominated.  And though the Spirit Awards have been trending a little toward Oscar-type movies and big stars, they always seem to fit in at least a few films and performances seemingly from out of nowhere.  At any rate, here’s what I got.  The actual nominees will be announced Tuesday morning by Paula Patton and Octavia Spencer.

Best Picture

12 Years a Slave
August: Osage County
Enough Said
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska

Best Lead Female

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Robin Weigert, Concussion

Best Lead Male

Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All is Lost

Best Supporting Female

Margo Martindale, August: Osgage County
Lupita N’Yongo, 12 Years a Slave
Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station
Something crazy
Something crazy

Best Supporting Male

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Something crazy
Something crazy

Best Director

Coen Bros, Inside Llewyn Davis
Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Jeff Nichols, Mud
Alexander Payne, Nebraska

Best First Feature

Afternoon Delight, Jill Soloway
Blue Caprice, Alexander Moors
Concussion, Stacie Passon
Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler
In a World…, Lake Bell

So this place is dead, huh? I’d say it’s because we aren’t seeing any movies, but that’s no guarantee we’d actually write about them. Also, we’re not seeing any movies.

Jared

1. Gravity
2. In a World…
3. Fast & Furious 6
4. The World’s End
5. Star Trek Into Darkness

Adam

1. Star Trek Into Darkness
2. Fast & Furious 6
3. Gravity
4. Pacific Rim
5. Despicable Me 2

John

1. The Attack
2. Gravity
3. The Place Beyond the Pines
4. Drinking Buddies
5. Captain Phillips

Brian

1. 12 Years a Slave
2. One Direction: This is Us
3. Temptation: Confessions of Marriage Counselor
4. Jewtopia
5. The Canyons

I’m counting down all the movies released in 2012.  The ones I’ve seen, at any rate.  In what is unquestionably a timely manner.  Hey, I finished before the end of 2013.  That’s a moral victory, right?

10.  Pitch Perfect

pitch perfect

So, full disclosure, I was three or four beers in when I saw this movie with at least one fellow Grouch in a spur of the moment decision.  The plot services the movie fine, though it isn’t a particular highlight and, for example, the subplot of Anna Kendrick and Skylar Astin’s romance is undercooked.  But holy cow is this movie funny.  The casting is spot on, leading to the breakouts of Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, but Anna Camp and Brittany Snow are solid in support, plus who doesn’t love Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins on commentary?  I was a little skeptical the world needed another a cappella thing about people trying to make regionals, but much credit to screenwriter Kay Cannon.  The film spawned multiple hit soundtracks and a hit single for Anna Kendrick, because of course.

9.  Lockout

lockout

The film was written and directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, but it has co-writer and producer Luc Besson’s fingerprints all over it.  Latter-day Besson movies are extremely consistent: a tough, funny leading man, a clear and economical story, action movie one-liners, a few interesting twists, and a happy ending filled with explosives.  This one is no different.  Guy Pearce is a good match for Besson, I think, and Maggie Grace has clearly shown her chops.  The only thing I’ll say about Besson is that he seemed to be successfully hitting a lot of doubles and triples lately, I wouldn’t mind him aiming for another homer.

8.  The Raid: Redemption

The-Raid-poster

The movie that made me like RoboCop less and lose Adam’s respect forever.  Though I also saw this one in theaters with him and I’m pretty sure he liked it a bunch as well.  The story structure of having all the action take place in one building and having our hero have to essentially clear floors is very compelling for a martial arts movie.  The action is confined in the sense the fighting is limited to rooms or hallways, which is a refreshing change of pace, but there are plenty of floors, so there’s lots of different action.  Writer/director Gareth Evans does a great job illustrating the fighting, I think, and allowing just enough of a story to seep through.  There was one kill, where Iko Uwais jumped backwards and impaled a guy on a doorframe that was just spectacular.

7.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The-Perks-of-Being-a-Wallflower-poster

I had very high expectations for this one going in, to the point where it probably disappointed a little not to fall in my top five.  Which isn’t fair, I know.  And for the first, I don’t know, two-thirds of the film, I couldn’t figure out what people were talking about.  But the last third of the film was absolutely killer.  Ezra Miller is the bold highlight of a strong cast.  It is shameful the highest-profile awards and nominations he pulled down were Chlotrudis, MTV Movie, and Teen Choice (looking squarely at you, Independent Spirits).  Emma Watson was also quite good, adding surprising depth to a character that didn’t have to be so nuanced.  That said, if you’ll excuse a brief foray into objectification, Emma Watson in the Rocky Horror getup as part of the live cast during a screening fulfilled fantasies I didn’t realize I had.  Anyway, there’s a lot to like from Stephen Chbosky’s effort here, it gets surprisingly dark and poignant and touching.  Here’s hoping his next go-round doesn’t take quite so long to get there.

6.  Zero Dark Thirty

zero_dark_thirty_ver2

Talked about this movie a bunch in the Oscar posts, obviously.  A very good film and if you wanted to argue it should have won the big one, I wouldn’t put up a fight.  The last chunk of the movie, the raid, was absolutely riveting, with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal putting on a masterclass in dramatic tension.  The middle part was maybe slightly uneven, a minor quibble that makes the movie very good instead of great.  Also, needed more Kyle Chandler and Chris Pratt.

5.  Flight

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I was pretty thrilled screenwriter John Gatins received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.  And not just because he also co-wrote Summer Catch (with Kevin Falls!) and wrote Hard Ball.  This film was taut throughout and a fantastic character study.  And of course, much credit to director Robert Zemeckis, especially for the crash scene, and Denzel Washington, who was awesome.  But it is easy to forget that the crash scene was written and Washington’s drunk hero originates from the dialogue and scenes in the script.

4.  Argo

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Wait, does this mean I agree with the Academy?  Madness!  How this movie managed to win the top prize is a well-covered topic.  And you know, I’ll grant the movie isn’t necessarily particularly ambitious or trendsetting, which I imagine is a factor for some when deciding on Oscar.  But Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio did a fantastic job crafting a movie that’s incredibly tense throughout.  They expertly wove in comic relief as a valve to temper the pressure of the tension, which led to some of the funniest moments on screen this year.  The cast was tremendous, but the name actors in nearly every role was maybe a bit off-putting.  And again, needed more Kyle Chandler.  And pretty much everyone else.

3.  Wanderlust

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I realize I’m alone here, but that’s fine, I’ll enjoy my wildly underrated Wain/Marino joints as long as they keep pumping them out.  Saw this one in theaters and felt like I was doubled over with laughter for most of the time.  The writing was hilarious, of course, but David Wain has a way of building fantastic casts comprised of a great combination of regulars (Ken Marino, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux), really funny people (Key and Peele, Kathryn Hahn), and high profile newcomers (Jennifer Aniston, Alan Alda) who all blend together to make me laugh a lot.

2.  21 Jump Street

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Saw this one in theaters and can’t remember ever laughing more.  At first glance, this movie sounds like a terrible idea, right?  A remake of a TV show people vaguely remembered, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, written by a guy with a credit on Project X, directed by the guys whose only prior big screen credit was an animated film?  But then, you realize that should read “Oscar-nominated Jonah Hill” and that Channing Tatum is crazy talented and that Michael Bacall also co-wrote the excellent Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, and that Phil Lord and Chris Miller directed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which was an adaptation way better than it needed to be.  At any rate, this film was fantastic, with a stellar supporting cast that runs so deep, a relatively clever story, and a deep understanding of the genre.

1.  The Dark Knight Rises

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Yup.  And I’m one of the few people who like this movie more than the last one.  Let’s go through why.  I personally find the philosophical musings of the Nolans’s to be a superficial distraction in their films.  It felt like they got away from the pseudo-intellectual diversions, at least a little.  I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the Bechdel test or complaints about poorly-written women/minority/etc. characters.  I’m sympathetic to the cause, but I think it misses the point a little, to me the characters should be written in service of the story, and yes that often means women should be able to talk to each other about things other than boys.  But not always.  In any case, the women in the first two Batman films were badly-written and generally annoying.  The women in this one were almost decently-written and vaguely interesting, which was a significant step up.  The cast was probably the best of the trilogy, I mean, it is insane that along with all the regulars, this one added Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Matthew Modine, and Juno Temple.  Finally, and maybe most importantly, the fight scenes in the film were darn near a revelation.  The action was so visceral, nearly primal in nature.  They were simply fantastic, and made the film the best of the year.

Half the Grouches don’t watch movies any more. On the other hand, I was shocked to discover the movie I was going to put at #2 came out last November so what do I know.

John

1. The Attack
2. The Place Beyond the Pines
3. Drinking Buddies
4. The Great Gatsby
5. Rush

Jared

1. In a World…
2. Fast & Furious 6
3. The World’s End
4. Star Trek Into Darkness
5. This Is the End

I’m counting down all the movies released in 2012.  The ones I’ve seen, at any rate.  In what is unquestionably a timely manner.

20.  The Avengers

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Maybe you’ve heard of this movie?  I think I’m a little lower on it than most people, but I clearly still enjoyed it.  The reason the film isn’t higher, for me, is because the action felt a little generic.  Joss Whedon is so strong writing and directing heroic characters, but the fights themselves would be the one area in which I think he could stand some improvement.  He lucked out a little in that most of the main characters already had origin stories, but I think Iron Man is the only other Marvel movie that belongs in the same conversation.

19.  Django Unchained

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Wrote about this one plenty in my Oscar roundups.  At the risk of repeating myself, I think Tarantino needs someone to reel him in.  Tarantino is a brilliant filmmaker with so many clever ideas.  But I think at some point he starts harming the quality of his films by trying to cram everything in.  That said, there’s obviously a ton to love about this movie.  Few people have mastered the interplay of action, drama, and comedy the way Tarantino has.  The Klan bit was one of the funniest scenes in movies this year, just as the climactic shootout one of the best with gunplay.  Tarantino always rounds up stellar casts, and this was no exception.

18.  Skyfall

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As a really huge Bond fan, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for me to rate this film in the same manner as everything else on this list.  Because I have very specific expectations from a Bond movie.  I’ll save you the rant, but I haven’t agreed with the direction the franchise has taken since Daniel Craig took over.  I respect that they’ve been adding highly-regarded writers and directors, but they are screenwriters I largely dislike and directors I’m not sure I love.  Mostly, while I’m completely on board with rebooting Bond after Die Another Day, it seemed that the producers had trouble committing finding a new direction for Bond.  The Craig movies have felt to me like attempts to emulate the success of a franchise like Bourne, where I’m of the opinion Bond should be the trendsetter in spy action films.  At any rate, my brother was kind enough to accompany me to a midnight showing way out at Udvar-Hazy.  I was super excited after the opening sequence, which was almost exactly what I was looking for.  And then I was disappointed by almost everything else.  Except for a couple of points near the end, which set up the series to a point where I hoped it would be at the beginning of Casino Royale.  Also in the film’s favor: it got the franchise into the Academy’s good graces, for the first time in pretty much ever.

17.  The First Time 

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I realize I’m alone on this one, and I’m OK with that.  I also realize this is going to sound crazy, because the films really are nothing alike, but for me, much the praise directed toward Amour should have gone toward this one.  This movie was sweetly romantic and funny, a coming of age story about love in high school.  Very roughly in the framework of a romantic comedy, it is less screwball and more dramedy.  Awkward and goofy, sly and poignant, the film is squarely in the sweet spot of my cinematic taste.  Leads Britt Roberton and Dylan O’Brien were quite solid, but I wanted to give shoutouts to pairing Christine Taylor and Joshua Malina as a married couple, and appearances by Tinker from FNL, and Molly Quinn from Castle.  Here’s hoping writer/director Jon Kasdan has more like this up his sleeve.

16.  Cousinhood

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Saw this at Filmfest DC with John, and I’ll direct you to his recap of the film, since it is pretty spot on.  It is a funny and touching story of some bros going back home to reconnect with their past and figure out who they are now.  Like John says, the film isn’t perfect, and with some polish could have been something special.  But the movie is still definitely worth a watch.

15.  The Expendables 2

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This movie is exactly what you think it will be.

14.  The Intouchables

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This movie made a crazy amount of money in Europe.  Here in the U.S. it did OK, suffering from a terrible title and perhaps a weak advertising strategy.  The film is amount a paralyzed millionaire and his aide who grew up on the streets.  The formula is time-tested: it is a feel-good movie about a mismatched pair with wildly different backgrounds.  The movie isn’t particularly deep, which isn’t necessarily a problem or anything.   Omar Sy is a fun actor, he’s got roles in some high-profile English-language films over the next few years, here’s hoping those work out.

13.  Lincoln

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Already talked plenty about this one.  So I’ll recommend everyone read Team of Rivalson which the film was ostensibly based.  For me, though, the fascinating part of the book was how Lincoln corralled a cabinet full of people who didn’t like him and used them to great success.  Not a knock on the film, which already had too many characters, but there’s a lot more to the story.

12.  End of Watch

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Despite some good reviews, I was a little skeptical of this one, probably owing to my (likely misguided) distrust of shaky cam.  And because how many cop TV shows and movies does the world really need?  One more, apparently, because this film was pretty fantastic.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are so great together, they have an easy chemistry as partners that really makes the film sing.  The movie needs more Anna Kendrick because, as a general rule, every movie needs more Anna Kendrick, but I dare anyone to not fall in love with her after her singalong with Gyllenhaal to Cam’ron’s “Hey Ma”.  The film, impressively, manages to be funny and sad, made me want to spend more time with the characters, established a pretty clear world, and has a continuing subplot.

11.  Ted

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Sure, story has never been Seth MacFarlane’s particular forte, which is why the film falls just shy of my top 10.  But a never-ending barrage of jokes is Seth MacFarlane’s particular forte, and this film was one of the funniest of the year.  I was cracking up in the theater starting from Patrick Stewart’s narration at the beginning (“…there’s nothing more powerful than a young boy’s wish.  Except an Apache helicopter.”) and virtually throughout the rest of the ridiculous film.  Mark Wahlberg is sneakily game to act against a teddy bear and (an admittedly underutilized) Mila Kunis.

May 2017
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