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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.

#70.  A Royal Affair

I actually read The Royal Physician’s Visit (the book on which this film is based) a few years ago, so when this movie started generating buzz on its way to an Oscar nomination for Foreign Film, it took me a little to realize why it sounded so familiar.  It is a pretty good book, and I think the adaptation is faithful.  I think the story deceptively works better as a book than a film, though.  Because while a doctor coming to court and essentially seizing power and romancing the queen may sound cinematic, they are small moments amid the meat of the story, which is palace intrigue and less exciting on screen.  The role is absolutely perfect for Mads Mikkelsen, and Alicia Vikander seems on her way to a bright career.

#69.  Safe House

This was the first 2012 movie I saw, I believe.  Watched it in theaters with Adam about a year and a half ago.  So I’m not exactly prepared to give it the most trenchant analysis.  Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson were underused, which is a shame.  My biggest problem with the film, I think, is that they didn’t really nail down the relationship between the two leads.  Which would have been the key to success in this relatively generic-feeling film.

#68.  Celeste and Jesse Forever

I expected this one to be a little funnier and not quite so moody, I think.  Rashida Jones and Will McCormack’s take on a romantic comedy did feel relatively fresh, but also a little undercooked.  In particular, I have in mind the relationship with Emma Roberts’s character, which seemed like it had potential, but was instead used more as a prop.  But the relationship between Celeste and Jesse was definitely worth exploring.

#67.  God Bless America

Was actually just talking about this one with my brother.  In his words, the opening was one of those scenes where you can’t think they’ll actually go there, but then they do.  The premise of the movie: a normalish guy snaps a little and starts killing douchebags is one that seems like it would resonate with Adam.  I have to give credit to writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait, though.  This film easily could have been preachy, bogged down in its message.  Or it could have devolved into a cheap Tarantino ripoff.  But it stays true to its voice.  I’m just not certain if that voice had a point.  And if it did, what the point was, exactly.

#66.  This Means War

One of the most disappointing movies of the year.  The casting was perfect.  Chris Pine is a classic male lead, handsome, dreamy-eyed, capable of being a cocky action star with a quick quip.  And those of us who’ve seen Bottle Shock and Blind Dating know he can do romantic comedy.  Tom Hardy might be the most visceral actor working today.  More than just a big lug, in movies like Warrior and Bronson, he shows how he can expressively use his brawn in mesmerizingly impactful performances.  And although Reese Witherspoon has found herself in a series of bad movies since, geez, Walk the Line, there are few actresses who can carry a comedy the way she can.  Toss in a charming premise of Pine and Hardy being best friends, CIA spies, and fighting over Witherspoon without her knowing?  Should have been gold.  Somewhere along the way, the film lost its sense of fun.  And the decision to tack on a serious subplot with a bad guy seems like a poor choice, feeling shoehorned in and a poor attempt at, I dunno, 80s screwball?

#65.  A Girl Walks Into A Bar

So long as Sebatian Gutierrez keeps putting together these great ensembles, I’m going to keep watching.  Although I think he’s maybe fallen a little too much in love with the disparate stories and should consider either tightening up, or going to Showtime with a pitch for a TV show.  I will say, though, that the naked ping pong club was a thing of sheer brilliance.  One of the best reveals of the year.

#64.  Robot & Frank

It’d be a spoiler if anyone saw the movie, but Lovely, Still did this better.  Of course, this one has a robot and catburglary, so the movie does have a few points in its favor.  The robot was done very well, I thought.  It was a neat take on the concept of a helper robot in the near future.  Frank Langella’s performance was strong, and Susan Sarandon seemed to be having some fun.  The film, like others before it, does have some valid points to make about the elderly, but the plot is ultimately too lightweight to make a major impact.

#63.  The Five-Year Engagement

Was also recently talking about this one with my brothers.  We disagreed on its merits.  I thought the film started off strong, but then petered out.  Seemed to lose focus as it went on, as the beginning was funny, but then things went long and sprawling.  The film did have a mature, serious point, I suppose.  And the cast, which included Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Alison Brie, Chris Pratt, Jacki Weaver, and Dakota Johnson, was pretty fun.

#62.  Red Dawn

The original is, of course, an American treasure.  Which I’ve seen many, many times.  I wasn’t immediately opposed to the remake, though, because I think the story is even more resonant today.  The thought of an foreign nation parachuting into the country and knocking out all electronics is a frightening thought.  So I was disappointed to see this version emulate so much of the original.  I didn’t really see the point.  Especially with this cast, I mean, Chris Hemsworth can clearly carry a movie heavy on action, and Adrianne Palicki is also wonderful at the more physical roles.

#61. Superclasico

Saw this one at DC Filmfest with John.  It has some funny moments.  And there’s a good story in there not too far below the surface.  But the movie could stand some tightening up, it gets a little lost among the myriad subplots.  The one about wine, for example, doesn’t really go anywhere and chews up a significant chunk of time.

It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices.  Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions.  And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least.  But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees.  So, we watched all the nominees.  Quixotic?  Maybe.  Fun?  Almost always.  Here’s what we thought of the Best Actor category:

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Frost/Nixon works on several levels. It’s an underdog story where the scrappy reporters try to take down a president. It’s a caper film as the heroes investigate and put the pieces together in order to pull the rug out from under Nixon. It’s a showbiz tale where the gang tries to put on the big show. It does not work, however, as something larger, an allegory for modern times or a blistering critique of a corrupt system.

It has a light, breezy style that makes it go down easily and that helps make for a pleasant experience taking it at face value. It’s a pretty neat story. British talk show host David Frost makes a play to boost his career by landing an interview with Richard Nixon. It’s 1977, three years after Nixon’s resignation and pardon, and a big interview covering Watergate topics could potentially be a huge success. Frost has to court Nixon and sell the interviewers to the networks. Meanwhile a crack staff of investigators combs over the records of the Nixon administration, looking for things to nail him on. Finally there’s the high-stakes confrontation. Nixon wants to repair his image while Frost needs some big revelations to sell the program and not lose his own shirt in the process.

This all works quite well, in a rather conventional way. Frost has to improve his light interview style to get anything good out of Nixon. Selling the interviews proves hard. Nixon prepares for the interviews to throw Frost off his game and dominate him. Frost’s researchers are a funny diversion with quick wits and a desperate desire to nail Nixon.

The problem is that in the whole scheme of things, I just didn’t really care. Maybe it’s a generational thing where merely seeing Nixon apologize on camera fails to pull at something deep inside me. I didn’t live in that tumultuous time. But even knowing what I know of that time period, probably more than most of my generation, I still felt lost in its history. It needed a lot more historical context to make me care as much as the film wanted, more than Nixon filling a garden variety movie villain role where you want him to fall simply because he’s the villain. And maybe that makes sense, because from what I piece together the interviews weren’t the success the film portrays but more akin to an opening of Al Capone’s vault of its time. In actuality it really wasn’t important.

Frost/Nixon garnered a variety of Oscar nominations, most of them undeserved. The film does have some great acting. Frank Langella plays Nixon and grabbed a Best Actor nomination and that is the one that I’m fine with. He gives a good portrayal that doesn’t stray into caricature. I also enjoyed Michael Sheen as Frost, though he never really found a spot in the awards show orbit, neither in Lead or Supporting. Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfayden, and Oliver Platt as Frost’s team are also thoroughly enjoyable. On the acting side, I wasn’t fond of Rebecca Hall as Frost’s girlfriend and I kind of hated Kevin Bacon, playing an adviser to Nixon.

On the other hand, it’s simply not Best Picture material. There were many films that were better than Frost‘s successes and without its failures that also made me care. The lack of historical context can be traced directly to Oscar-nominated director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan. The tone is too light for a film with high ambitions. Plus the technique of the characters speaking to the camera as if they were getting interviewed for a documentary doesn’t work and feels gimmicky. It also got an editing nomination, which I don’t have much to say about except that it didn’t help any of the problems I had with the film.

It feels like Oceans Eleven with a purpose – a purpose that fails. Without the self-provided weight it works to entertain simply on the back of its interesting characters and mostly intriguing plot. Good things, no doubt, but nothing more special than a pretty well-spun yarn.

Going into this year’s Oscar season, if I had to pick one contender I least wanted to see, I’d imagine it would have been Frost/Nixon in a runaway.  Because going into the movie, I’d probably have called screenwriter Peter Morgan a hack.  I felt like I’d given the man a fair deal, having seen The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and The Other Boleyn Girl (Morgan co-wrote the first and has sole credit on the latter two).  The Last King of Scotland was a somewhat tolerable movie.  I know some people liked or even loved The Queen, but they happen to be exceedingly wrong.  And as I may have mentioned before, I think Morgan must possess some sort of unholy power if he can turn a movie starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson into a clunker of a snoozefest.

With that on the table, I found I actually kinda sorta liked Frost/Nixon.  Not in the top of the charts sense, more in that it is probably in the top quarter or so of movies I’ve watched this year.  Maybe it was because Morgan first wrote it as a play, but I think what worked was the dynamic between interviewer Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon (Frank Langella).  Everything else, perhaps, falls fairly flat, so it is fortunate the movie spends a good chunk of time (though not nearly enough) on the battle between the two men.

Nixon certainly views it as a competition.  He looks forward to engaging Frost in a duel of wits.  And as the interview progresses, he gloats over how he is ahead on points.  Indeed, it may have been Brian who called it one of the best sports movies of the year.  And it certainly has most of the trappings of a sports movie.  Scrappy underdog with his small band of supporters who no one believes in up against an overconfident, yet intelligent foe with a sniveling henchman  in a title bout that looks all but lost until the very end.  Sure, the hero gets the hot chick a little early and we may have been lacking a montage, but otherwise we are pretty much there.

To Morgan’s credit, he clearly tries to add texture and depth to characters and situations, where subtlety is not necessarily a desired trait in a sports flick.  Nixon, for example, is not the typical villain.  I’d argue he’s portrayed in a rather sympathetic light.  Sure, he may get a little cocky at times, and he makes the inevitable fatal slip-up, but as a sharp-witted old man, he never comes across as malicious.  The only two characters to actively loathe him are awed when they meet the former President in person.  But again, most interesting is how Frost views him.  For most of the movie, Frost doesn’t view Nixon as an antagonist, really.  Frost seems to think Nixon is a curosity, but he’s only ever gets even slightly intimidated by Nixon on the eve of their final interview.

Frost is the weaker of the two main characters.  I think it is because for the first chunk of the movie Nixon isn’t his opponent.  Instead, he’s fighting the more vague battle to first get the interview, and then get financing and a network to air the show.  Which isn’t terribly interesting, because it isn’t detailed very well and we aren’t given very much of a chance to see its impact on Frost.  It is only when he finally turns to focus on Nixon that the potential of the movie starts to shine through.

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