Tag Archives: Joss Whedon

The Best Movies of 2012

Now that the Oscars have come and gone I guess I have to get off my butt and write something about 2012 in review. There’s a few I haven’t seen that have been delaying a year in review piece, not to mention my general inertia. 2012 was a good year for movies. We had smart blockbusters, moving and intelligent dramas and creative genre flicks. It was not, disappointingly, a banner year for animation. Pixar’s Brave, despite its Oscar, was good not great; Wreck-It-Ralph was middling if above-average; the year’s stop-motion offerings never sold me on investing the time to watch them (we can’t all be Coraline, I guess). There are lot I would still really like to see, including the early-year Studio Ghibli offering from Disney The Secret World of Arrietty. If you’ve any desire to watch that, ArgoBeasts of the Southern WildSeven Psychopaths or something that I overlooked, call me up and let’s get together.

Here are my top 10:

10) The Cabin in the Woods

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If you’d like to see a Joss Whedon movie from the past year which holds up under multiple viewings and whose last act is not its weakest half hour, The Cabin in the Woods is your bloody alternative to The Avengers. Written by Whedon and directed by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield), Cabin is a riotous deconstruction of the horror genre with loads (buckets?) of third act payoffs.

9) Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings somehow manages to feel sharp and loose at the same time. As evidenced by the all around nominations for its leads (Jennifer Lawrence, Jacki Weaver, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro), the story is lit up by vivid characters with believable personalities that aren’t romanticized. Director David O’Russell cooked up a spicy jumble with their various talents, but the different roles don’t quite coalesce into a cohesive dramatic texture. DeNiro is Acting and Cooper is Acting but often next to each other rather than in conversation. Still, the film is an interesting personal story involving mental illness, family and healing. Even if it doesn’t quite have the subtle charms of great drama, it’s involving nonetheless.

8) Flight

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Compared with its predecessor on this list, Flight is the better film about mental illness. It gets a lot about addiction right, even if Denzel’s DWI pilot skills strain credulity. His raw magnetism helps the film focus around the character and draw us into the question of what will become of his self-destructive behavior.

7) Moonrise Kingdom

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Wes Anderson’s latest changes gears by focusing his childish aesthetic on actual children rather than childish adults and/or adults with troubled childhoods. In a sense, the central question of the film is whether these kids will be allowed to thrive or whether they’ll one day wear that thousand yard stare Bill Murray always affects with such comic detachment. Its delightfully rewatchable, even if at times it feels like Anderson’s silliest effort.

6) Django Unchained

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Tarantino’s second revenge-themed historical fiction isn’t as narratively tight or philosophically intriguing as its predecessor Inglourious Basterds, but its hard to begrudge a film that wants to put slaveholders under the knife. Django may be the bloodiest, wildest and most uncomfortable of Tarantino’s myriad works. That said, the tone befits the subject material. There is no reverent historical detachment here: just queasy, loquacious cruelty.

5) Premium Rush

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Too few films have the single-mindedness of David Koepp’s Premium Rush, a film so committed to its namesake that it reminds you of how threadbare elements can be masterfully spun into tension and thrills. The bicycle chase premise sounds lame but the movie makes a breathless, nail-biting go of it. What would seem to be the throwaway picture in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s stellar year is actually the stand out winner.

4) Indie Game: The Movie

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Perhaps less deserving than all the acclaimed documentaries I didn’t see this year, Indie Game does for game developers what Exit Through the Gift Shop did for street art: reveal a little known and understood subculture as a lively home for the artistic soul. The film focuses on three very small development teams and illustrates how they put their hearts and bank accounts on the line in the process of trying to bring their games to market. If Roger Ebert still cares about whether video games can be art or not, Indie Game: The Movie should settle the question for him.

3) Les Miserables

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My friends (i.e. my readers) may be surprised to hear that Les Mis is one of the most critically contentious films of the year, seemingly drawing the intense ire of some voices due a perceived threat to what counts as “good art” in the film world. I have to say, there are a lot of creative choices in this film that don’t really work. But, like other adaptations of the same, Les Mis works nearly in spite of itself. It helps that the source material is so strong, the musical so well-written and deeply moving. But understand, those aren’t strengths of the movie–the critical question is how well this particular adaptation handles the various parts. But I’m willing to engage with it as a surface experience in toto, and in that regard it was one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.

2) Zero Dark Thirty

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Otherwise known as the best Law & Order episode ever made, the ever-sharp Kathryn Bigelow has given us the War on Terror as the ultimate police procedural underscored by the heartfelt cost of human lives weighed against the ethical cost of “enhanced interrogation”. The film’s torture scenes read nothing like the grisly fare one might be expected to see at the movies, yet they’re deeply unsettling for their closeness to home and reflection of reality. Zero Dark Thirty sidesteps questions of rah-rah jingoism by recasting patriotism as hearts panged with the loss of innocents and faced with the dehumanized treatment of POWs. The film is tense, single-minded, emotionally arresting and by all accounts a masterwork of filmmaking.

1) Lincoln

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Finally, though Lincoln doesn’t have the austerely taut perfection of Zero Dark Thirty, I’m giving it extra points for moving dramatic sweep. Spielberg frames Daniel Day-Lewis’s superb turn as the sixteenth president with the political process of the constitutional amendment to end slavery, sublimely underscoring the connection between the personal and the political. Like Les MisLincoln celebrates the Christian-liberal virtues of human dignity and equality–it just makes a seriously fewer number of mistakes in being a movie that does that and is so much stronger for it.

While I am sure I am eventually going to get to the smaller films I didn’t see this year, I have to say this was a great year for studio movies. Even the year’s biggest film, The Avengers, had the wit and verve of Joss Whedon animating it. I am disappointed that the year’s animation offerings weren’t stronger, but what is most clearly an artist’s medium will surely yield great works again in the future. It would be great for there to be a 2D animation renaissance driven by a Miyazaki-like auteur, though it’s safe to assume the CGI films will continue to dominate the market.

I am happy that the some of the strongest films on offer this year were full of hope. I still love No Country for Old Men, but I think our culture doesn’t need any help in being amoral and nihilistic. Les Miserables has proven the deep and broad appeal of fundamental Christian proclamations, probably showing the church part of the direction it should take in order to intuitively appeal to our culture. Lincoln has this moral urgency as well; even its twisted counterpart Django Unchained has its own morality, however bloodthirsty. And Zero Dark Thirty stands at their intersection, squeamishly juxtaposing heartfelt humanism–and its enduring symbol, the immutable value of a single life–and bloodthirsty revenge.

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Alien Resurrection (***, 1997)

Brad Dourif is one creepy mofo.

I watched you. While you were sleeping.

I’ve decided this movie gets a bad rap. It is by no means a great film, but its reputation suffers since it has the legacy of its predecessors (forgetting for a moment Alien3) to live up to. Taken by itself, however, Alien Resurrection is a rollicking and goofy sci-fi flick with hints of screenwriter Joss Whedon’s eventual excellence.

After having fought the shark-like brutes on an interstellar cargo ship, a terraforming colony and a prison planet, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) must again tussle with the titular aliens on a military science vessel seeking to weaponize the xenomorphs. Having tossed herself and an alien in a pit of molten lead at the end of the previous film, Ripley finds herself alive and well after a two-hundred year hiatus via a cloning process which has mixed her DNA with an alien’s. She’s stronger, faster and has corrosive blood. Win.

It knows why the caged bird sings.

What the film sets up is an opportunity for a ragtag space freighter crew to team up with mutant Ripley in yet another gruesome survival match versus the skeletal demons with whip tails and eggplant heads. Special guest stars include Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Winona Ryder and Brad Dourif (LOTR: The Two Towers, the Chucky movies). People are of course killed off in various ways and it wouldn’t be a Whedon production if some arrogant authority figures (here the military and their scientist cronies) didn’t get their comeuppance. The cinematography is often blackish and muddy, but the production design and creature effects gel nicely. It doesn’t have the snap, crackle and pop of a great genre film, but I wouldn’t call it boring. There’s enough carnage to keep things interesting.

Its better predecessors were great accomplishments, A+ films in their respective genres and exemplary icons of movie-making. Resurrection, however, is a B movie through and through–but it gets an A for effort.

 
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The Avengers (*** 1/2)

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“Absolutely not.” ~ Joss Whedon, in response to the question, “Is there a God?”

In the late nineties, Warner Bros. began airing episodes of Batman and Superman cartoons together as part of a single show entitled The New Batman/Superman Adventures.  I loved Batman, and had been reared on the gently gothic / art deco animated series which surfaced in the wake of the Tim Burton films. He was rich, but he was human–the stories had a toll, a drama that proceeded from a recognizably human world that didn’t have to get too crazy in order to endanger Bruce Wayne’s life.  Superman, however, was a different story.  I quickly grew tired of the ridiculous and outlandish contrivances the show came up with in order to give Superman something to do.  Something interesting to test his limits, to make him sweat.  Cause seriously, besides Kryptonite, what does Superman sweat over–Mr. Mxyzptlk?

This highlights the fundamental challenge of an Avengers movie:  now that you’ve put all these supermen in a flying aircraft carrier together, how do you make them sweat?  Fortunately, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers answers that challenge with ridiculous and outlandish contrivances that nonetheless give weight and urgency to this bloated pop art mosaic.

The main villain here is Loki, who is apparently (along with his adopted brother Thor) from a world of alien superbeings who served as the inspiration for Norse mythology.  He combines his herculean powers with that of a mercenary off-world army in order to put the screws to planet Earth.  You know, just because.  Actually, Loki’s motivations are spelled out early via typical Whedonesque villainy:  people cannot rule themselves, so he will rule them instead.  Its the antithesis of the self-actualized existential agent, an archetype often lionized by Whedon in Firefly and Buffy.

The other main challenge of such a film (which has been talked about by some as THE challenge of the film), is how do you have six main characters in your action movie and not have it turn out to be an incoherent mess?  This is where the writer/director’s talents as a character writer come in, which mostly involve a knack for identifying the essence of a character and letting the dialogue come from putting her in a room with other people.  The Avengers is nothing but rooms with other people, so character-driven dialogue comes bursting through the seams, often with multiple characters playing off each other while the looming greater conflict continues to pull the their threads together.  What’s impressive is the multiple character arcs coexisting and having their own climaxes and resolutions.  It’s especially interesting to watch the self-involved Stark play off the self-negating Steve Rogers (Captain America).  I liked that Iron Man gets his own grenade to throw himself on for the sake of others.

The Avengers is a great film, if far from a perfect one.  For all its thrilling fireworks, it lacks a distinguishable visual style.  Also, some of the fisticuffs and other close combat situations suffer from the shaky-cam freneticism which is supposed to pass for exciting action these days.  But these are nitpicks given that the film delivers on its fundamental promise of superbeings beating the crap out of each other.  And boy-oh-boy does Mr. Whedon like to smash these guys together.  He sets up and executes brilliant conflicts recalling those old crossover comic book covers:  Thor vs. Hulk!  Captain America vs. Loki!  Iron Man vs. Everyone! He’s clearly had fun tossing around and pulling the strings of his flesh-and-blood action figure set, and he invites us all in to play.  Joss Whedon has once-for-all demonstrated that in his hands–and in those of the paying customer–even the gods are just rag dolls to be tossed around for fun.

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The Cabin in the Woods (*** 1/2)

Wait–what?

A blonde, a redhead, a stoner, a jock and a nerd drive an RV to an aged and rustic cabin in the woods.  In order to find it they have to stop for directions at a decrepit country gas station where a sleazy bumpkin gives them directions–and a warning.  Upon their arrival, the cabin just seems like an out of the way place to party, but soon dark happenings make it clear they will have to fight for their lives.

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because Joss Whedon and Drew Stoddard’s The Cabin in the Woods self-consciously mimics (and contorts, cross-pollinates and combusts) established horror tropes such that the film is more so about a genre exercise than sexed-up coeds getting axed in the wilderness.  As the kids say these days, “It’s so meta.”  Fortunately, like Scream before it, its narrative glibness mostly works and to thrilling effect.  And while it doesn’t have the crowd-pleasing, chummy goofiness of Edgar Wright’s hits (Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead), anyone ready for grisly scares and unexpected plot turns will have a blast.

Even those who haven’t seen the twist-suggesting trailer will know from the opening scene that this movie isn’t just about a cabin in the woods.  Two white-suited technicians (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins!) chat up mundane domestic issues while riding a golf cart through an unspecified facility, occasionally dropping hints that they will be involved in shaping the fates of the primary cast.  The way the title reveal is coupled with this scene is one of the film’s best laugh-out-loud moments, a description which sounds like but certainly isn’t intended to be condemnation by faint praise.

We’re then summarily introduced to our chopping-block collegiates as they prepare for their weekend getaway.  Thor’s Chris Hemsworth is the jock and ringleader, Whedon-veteran Fran Kranz (Topher from Dollhouse) his snarky pothead foil with a ridiculous and creative bong and Anna Hutchinson as Hemsworth’s horny fake-blonde girlfriend.  The other leads are Kristen Connolly, whom the film casually and quickly sexualizes, in the ingenue survivalist role and Jesse Williams as the hunky “nerd” the other couple attempts to set her up with.  The first half of the film entails their getting to the cabin and the gruesome details of what happens there, intercut with more and more information about the people pulling the strings.

And then… well, if you feel underserved by the first half of the movie, just wait for the third act.  Imagine Whedon’s multi-monster hellmouth scenario from Buffy as an explosive pandora’s box of table-turning, stakes-raising chaos condensed into a literal hell of a finale.  The payoffs are wild, bloody and exciting, even as the film continues to reveal the layers of danger at hand.  If certain sections of the film’s beginning feel perfunctory in their genre-mimicry, nothing does about the way things end.  Horror aficionados will be thrilled, if not truly horrified, as will anyone ready and willing to stomach this bloody-slick, extra-clever cut of entertainment.

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