by Steve Habrat
I’ll be honest with you, folks, this was a difficult list to do this year. There were a ton of really great movies released in 2012. While I haven’t even come close to seeing every film released, I did try to catch all the biggest movies that made their way to the local theater. I was hoping to have this list up last week but I have fallen behind due to coming down with the a nasty case of stomach flu. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the finest films of 2012, some honorable mentions, and the five biggest stinkers I sat through. Oh, and number 10 is a tie. Please don’t hurt me.
This might be cheating but I’m sort of lumping these two together. Usually, Pixar’s animated offerings are snagging a spot on my top 10 but for the second year in a row, Pixar failed to live up to the quality of their previous films (Up, Toy Story 3, Wall-E). Plus, maybe I’m a sucker for macabre stop motion animation. After two massive duds (Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows), Tim Burton finally returns to form with the black and white Frankenweenie, a touching story about a boy and his undead pooch. Maybe you have to be an animal lover and have a soft spot for the Universal Monsters, but I have a feeling that this film will gain a following in the years to come (hopefully by more than just the Hot Topic crowd). Then we have ParaNorman, the hilarious and relentlessly clever zombie romp from Laika about a misfit named Norman who can talk to the dead. It is really hard for me to pick one film over the other but if I honestly had to, I think I’d go with Burton’s big-hearted and downright adorable creature feature. I know what it is like to loose a pet that you love very much and Frankenweenie really nails that feeling. Don’t get me wrong though; both are extremely sweet movies that are infinitely better than Adam Sandler’s obnoxious Hotel Transylvania.
9.) Killing Them Softly
Some dismissed Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly as too heavy handed and about as subtle as a sledge hammer to the teeth. Who cares?! Killing Them Softly is a chilling, apocalyptic, atmospheric, and darkly hilarious gangster film that sends the viewer away more than a little freaked out. Using the 2008 presidential election and the recession as the backdrop, Dominik’s film contains little to no hope and is a grim reminder that in America, we are all on our own. No politician is coming to save us and put us back on our feet. Featuring a powerhouse performance from Brad Pitt (No Oscar love?!) and some truly disturbing sequences (Ray Liotta receives a shockingly brutal beating in a rainstorm and Pitt blows a gangster away as Ketty Lester’s haunting ‘Love Letters’ echoes on the soundtrack), Killing Them Softly is a black-as-night gangster thriller that will stick with you for the rest of your life. I think John over at The Droid You’re Looking For can back me up with this one making the list.
8.) Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson’s whimsical tale about young love in the last days of summer is his quirkiest and most heartwarming film yet. It is the type of film you would want to watch on a warm summer evening with someone you love. Credit should go to the two irresistible leads, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, the runaway tykes who have more of a grasp on true love than the warring, irresponsible adults who look after them. While Moonrise Kingdom belongs to the kids, the adults certainly do their best to match them. Bruce Willis is outstanding as a heartbroken cop hot on the trail of the runaways while Bill Murray and Frances McDormand steal every scene they are in as dysfunctional parents. And we can’t forget Edward Norton’s bumbling Scout Master Ward, who gets the film’s best line (Jiminy crickets, he flew the coop!). Brimming with innocence and adventure, Moonrise Kingdom may just be Anderson’s masterpiece.
7.) Beasts of Southern Wild
Talk about a film that could move mountains! Benh Zeitlin’s radiant fable about six-year-old Hushpuppy and her life in the Louisiana bayou called “the Bathtub” possess a grimy beauty that took the cinema world by storm earlier this year at Sundance. It went on to be the little film that could over the summer. While I was worried that Beasts of Southern Wild would become a victim of its own hype, the emotional beating the film dishes out and the stark reality of the environment left this viewer staggered. It also didn’t hurt that it contains a jaw dropping performance from the pint-sized Quvenzhané Wallis as the curious little Hushpuppy. You’ll beam as the film focuses on the complex relationship between Huspuppy and her unpredictable father, Wink, who is battling a mysterious illness, and admire the resilience of the individuals who call “the Bathtub” home. Optimistic and brave even in the face of devastation, loss, and heartbreak; Beasts of Southern Wild is a film that overflows with hope and courage. Seek this one out immediately.
6.) Silver Linings Playbook
Let’s be honest for a moment, the romantic comedy has seen better days. Most of the romantic comedies that come out of Hollywood today seem sugarcoated and downright clichéd. Well along comes David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, a gritty, hilarious, and touching story about love lost and love found. Credit should go to Russell, who presents serious character meltdowns with a stinging sense of humor, inviting us to laugh at the extreme ways love makes us behave. The film also owes a lot to the performances from Jennifer Lawrence, Jacki Weaver, Robert DeNiro, Chris Tucker, and Bradley Cooper, an actor that I am usually not a big fan of. Bravo Silver Linings Playbook for making me a fan, at least until the next Hangover movie comes out. In addition to being a sweet love story, the film is also a delicately handled family drama that reminds us that no matter how tough life gets, we can get through it with a little help from our loved ones, even if they sometimes seem crazier than we do.
For the few people out there who still argue that Steven Spielberg is a big budget action hack, I point you towards Lincoln, one of the finest and most accomplished films of Mr. Spielberg’s career. A warts-and-all look at the final months of the 16th president’s life and his push to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, Lincoln is an unflinchingly rich glimpse inside the world of politics that demands to be seen twice. Meanwhile, Daniel Day Lewis slips into the role of Abraham Lincoln and then completely disappears into his skin like you wouldn’t believe. It is the performance of the year that all but guarantees him the Best Actor Oscar. At over two hours, Spielberg consistently refuses to adhere to the normal biopic rules and smartly ignores Lincoln’s early years. Instead, he simply paints a portrait of a man with a heavy heart and in the process he managed to humanize a larger-than-life hero.
4.) Zero Dark Thirty
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s controversial look at the hunt for Osama bin Laden has been skewered by both political parties, one side claiming that it glorifies torture and the other screaming that it glorifies the Obama administration. How about you all shut up and take Bigelow’s film for what it is— a (mostly) honest if a bit fabricated-for-the-sake-of-story thriller that is essential viewing for all Americans. Zero Dark Thirty ultimately belongs Jessica Chastain’s tough-as-nails Maya, who oversees this seemingly never-ending firestorm with white-hot confidence. You’ll marvel at her no-nonsense approach to eliminating her target, the self-assured woman in a room full of skittish males who him and haw over how to attack our enemy. And I can’t forget the brilliant, white-knuckle final sequence, when the SEALs finally close in on that now famous compound in grainy night vision. While not nearly as tense as the almost flawless The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is a brooding morality tale that is left on the table for debate.
3.) The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s final installment in his Batman trilogy is just as epic as he promised and just about as bleak as comic book movies come. While I’m sure this is a controversial choice to have in my top 10 of the year, I argue that Nolan once again expertly uses Gotham City to mirror our troubled times. There are hints of the Occupy Wall Street movement here and explorations of the War on Terror there, but it is the sheer scope of the film that truly holds us. Many say it takes a back seat to 2008’s game changer The Dark Knight but I have to go with this snarling beast over the other. It isn’t without flaws and Nolan is juggling a lot of ideas here, but The Dark Knight Rises reminds us that summer blockbusters do not have to simply be candy colored fluff. It demands that the comic book movie genre be taken seriously as high art and it plays by its own rules. This is a fitting and towering climax for one of the best trilogies of recent memory.
After delivering two impressive Boston set thrillers (Gone Baby Gone and The Town), Ben Affleck goes global with Argo, which deals with the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. Argo finds Affleck smoothly navigating through astonishing but true events while measuring out a pinch of nostalgia for film buffs everywhere (I loved the retro Warner Bros. logo at the beginning). Perfectly paced, funny and light when it needs to be, and nerve racking where it really counts, Argo is a film that is the true definition of a crowd pleaser. When you aren’t hanging on how well made the film is, be sure to take in the wonderful performances from Alan Arkin as a cranky movie producer, John Goodman as the wisecracking Hollywood makeup artist, and Affleck himself as CIA specialist Tony Mendez. It may all be a bit predictable but you just can’t turn away from this liberally charged plea for peaceful approaches to violent conflicts. A must see of the highest order.
1.) Django Unchained
Dare I say that Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s best film yet? Even better than Pulp Fiction? You better believe it is. Alive and gushing with the love of cinema and exploitation flicks of the 70s and 80s, Django Unchained is the most entertaining and satisfying movie of 2012. While many have complained over the unflinching use of the N-word and accused Tarantino of using slavery simply for escapist entertainment, I argue that he certainly doesn’t sugarcoat this dark chapter in American history (what we see here is pretty horrific if you ask me). At nearly three hours, this blaxploitation/spaghetti western epic is constantly witty, charismatic, and downright refreshing. It is bursting with some of the best performances of the year (Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson are all top notch) and it gets better every time you see it (I’m currently at two times and debating a third trip to the theater to see it). Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that Django Unchained is Tarantino’s ultimate masterpiece, a blood-drenched valentine to the cinema of yesterday. I’m not kidding when I say that Tarantino had me smiling from beginning to end.
The Avengers is an earth-shaking superhero mash-up that beams with jingoism.
Les Misérables is a bloated but soaring musical with knockout performances from Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman.
Skyfall is one of the most exciting and playful Bond films yet.
Looper is a refreshingly original science fiction drama.
Lawless is a chilly look at Prohibition.
The Cabin in the Woods gives the horror genre the jolt it has been searching for.
21 Jump Street is a raunchy and downright hilarious action comedy.
5.) Silent House
Marketed as being one single shot and presented in real time, this cheeseball horror flick about a girl trapped in a house with what may or may not be a supernatural killer suffers from poor acting and a completely preposterous climax.
4.) Rock of Ages
This bland musical set to rocking 80s tunes is all glammed up with nowhere to go. Not even a superb Tom Cruise could wake the party up.
3.) Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
The abrasive follow up to the god-awful Ghost Rider finally gives the fans what they want and shows them what it looks like when the demonic hero urinates.
2.) That’s My Boy
Adam Sandler goes R-rated and manages to produce one of the most offensive and unfunny films you will ever see. Keep away from it at all costs.
1.) Total Recall
The remake no one was begging for, this poor excuse for a science fiction thriller is like watching someone else play the dumbest video game ever created. I may never forgive you for this, Colin Farrell. Not even the three-breasted alien prostitute could make it interesting.
by Steve Habrat
You know a film means business when an innocent little girl is brutally gunned down while trying to get an ice cream cone in the film’s opening moments. Hell, if a little girl can get killed that early on, then that means anyone can get bumped off next! Welcome to the world of 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, the second feature length film from John “Halloween” Carpenter. Regarded as the film that launched Carpenter’s career and viewed by many critics as one of the best exploitation films of the 1970s, Assault on Precinct 13 is one mean, unflinching picture of violence that would have been right at home in a dingy theater on 42nd Street. Partly inspired by the Howard Hawks 1959 western Rio Bravo and George Romero’s 1968 debut Night of the Living Dead, Assault of Precinct 13 is perhaps one of the most unusual crime thrillers you are ever likely to see. A complete product of its time, Assault on Precinct 13 is an appropriately gritty and bleak vision of urban decay that the police are virtually powerless to contain. The film also appears to be extremely aware of how lucrative the horror film was during the 1970s, as Assault on Precinct 13 is infested with surprisingly thrills, chills, and gore that is a little too unsettling.
Assault on Precinct 13 begins with a handful of members of the ‘Street Thunder’ gang getting ambushed and gunned down by several LAPD officers. The next morning, a group of gang warlords all swear a blood oath of revenge against the police of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, newly promoted CHP officer Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Played by Austin Stoker) is assigned to take command of the old isolated Anderson precinct building, which is closing its doors for good in the morning. Later that evening, a prison bus that is carrying three dangerous inmates stops by after one prisoner becomes ill on their trip to Death Row. It turns out that the bus is transporting the well-known convicted murderer Napoleon Wilson (Played by Darwin Joston), who is extremely dangerous and unpredictable. As the night goes on, a terrified citizen comes bursting into the station mumbling about the death of his daughter. Bishop discovers that several heavily armed gang members have followed the man to the station. These gang members open fire on the station with powerful silenced automatic weapons, killing many of the people inside the station. Unable to get help due to the disconnected phones, Bishop is forced to join forces with Wilson, secretary Leigh (Played by Laurie Zimmer), and another prisoner named Wells (Played by Tony Burton) until help arrives to contain the relentless waves of gang attacks.
Assault on Precinct 13 longs to be a western and it doesn’t make any attempts to conceal that fact. The film pairs an outlaw and a lawman together, forcing them to set aside their differences to make one more heroic last stand. The film is basically Rio Bravo given an urban facelift and loaded with a hell of a lot more gore (and less Dean Martin). Yet Carpenter isn’t content with just producing a modern day western. He borrows aspects from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and molds the film into a hair-raising siege film where countless silent antagonists try to force their way into the station to brutally murder the terrified individuals inside. Even Carpenter’s protagonist, the African American Bishop, is eerily similar to the gently reassuring Ben from Night of the Living Dead. The film has been called one of the ultimate exploitation films from the 1970s, one that is absolutely unforgiving and extreme. A little girl is horrifically gunned down after being in the wrong place and the wrong time. Several police officers meet a messy end, seemingly powerless to stop this senseless onslaught. There are very few rays of hope in this unpredictable beast, especially as the small group’s numbers rapidly dwindle at the hands of the cold, emotionless killers.
The real shock of Assault on Precinct 13 is how natural the acting is, free flowing as Carpenter’s camera follows the actors along. Stoker is the star of the show here, playing the unassuming good guy who just wants everyone to make it out alive even as he is sometimes powerless to make sure this happens. What is also surprising about his character is how quickly he trusts Wilson, which adds to his appeal. Wilson, on the other hand, seems grossly misunderstood and you get the sneaking suspicion that he isn’t as viscous as he has been made out. Even still, in the scenes that he gunning down countless charging gang members, he wears a beaming grin on his face as bodies go tumbling through the air. Yet for all the joy he seems to find it taking lives, he never once seems threatening to the innocent people around him. Burton’s Wells is a guy who has had a long, hard life that was riddled with bad luck that doesn’t appear to be changing. Zimmer’s Leigh is one tough chick whose skills with a gun would make One-Eye from Thriller-A Cruel Picture smile. There is also a faint spark of attraction between her and Wilson, which, much like the events around them, is hopeless to pursue.
Assault on Precinct 13 does hit a few bumps in the dialogue department but everything else is so good that you will be willing to overlook them. Much like some of Carpenter’s best work, Assault on Precinct 13 is such a great film because it is heavy on atmosphere, especially the beady-eyed capriciousness that one cannot easily shake. It also allows us to get to know our characters, especially the ones we immediately presume to be bad which gives the film a bit of depth that is highly unusual for an exploitation film. Most characters in these films aren’t given much personality, making us indifferent when they ultimately bite the dust. Ultimately, Assault on Precinct 13 ranks up there as one of Carpenter’s finest and most satisfying films in his body of work. This is an explosive, tense, grainy, and very mean urban thriller that is all the better because it lacks escapist polish. This is one that exploitation fans will want to revisit again and again.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II could very well be one of the greatest sequels ever made. I hesitate to say the greatest because I still favor the 1972 original slightly more than I do the 1974 follow up. Yet Coppola doesn’t just make a sequel for the sake of making one and getting another paycheck. The Godfather Part II has purpose and it actually enriches the story that was told in the first film. By giving us more of the characters that we only briefly saw in The Godfather and whipping up an absorbing back-story for Vito Corleone, The Godfather Part II actually ends up being more epic in the way it dances from Corleone, Sicily to Lake Tahoe, Nevada all the way to Havana, Cuba. The Godfather Part II turns out to be much darker and moodier than the 1972 original, all the characters barely visible in all the shadows cast in this sordid world of crime. The film also continues to explore loyalty to family and the ugly side of the American Dream, cutting much deeper than they did the first time and turning The Godfather Part II into a sullen tragedy that would have wrapped thing up perfectly.
The Godfather Part II balances two storylines this time around and piles on even more characters that we are supposed to follow. The first storyline is the background of Vito Corleone (Played by Robert DeNiro), how he made it from Sicily to New York and his rise to power in the criminal underworld. The second plotline follows Michael Corleone (Played by Al Pacino), who has fully embraced his role as the uncompromising head of the family business. Michael is looking to move into the gambling industry and has started negotiating business deals with Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Played by Lee Strasberg). After two hit men try to assassinate Michael in his Lake Tahoe compound, Michael begins to suspect that there is a mole hiding within the family and he is determined to seek him out. Michael leaves his compound and leaves consigliere Tom Hagen (Played by Robert Duvall) to watch over his wife Kay (Played by Diane Keaton) and his two children. Michael then begins his business with Roth even though he is met with protests from Frankie Pentangeli (Played by Michael V. Gazzo), who took over the Corleone family territory in New York after comporegime Peter Clemenza’s death. As the business becomes more and more dangerous, Michael finds that his wife and children are slipping away from him and his family is falling apart.
The Godfather Part II digs deeper into the idea of prosperity and everything that comes along with the American Dream. Coppola and returning screenwriter Mario Puzo suggest that corruption and deceit are everywhere, making the viewer question if there is any honesty in America itself. A side character, Senator Pat Geary (Played by G.D. Spradlin), speaks of his dislike for the Corleone family right to Michael’s face at his son’s First Communion, which takes place near the beginning of the film. He attempts to stand up to Michael but later finds himself bullied into cooperation with the Corleone’s. Coppolla and Puzo portrayed Michael as the most honest member of the Corleone family in the original film but here, Michael has become even more monstrous than we could have ever imagined. His father’s office was shady and ominous, but there were still hints of warmth within it. Michael’s is even darker and downright intimidating, Michael himself barely visible as he sits in an arm chair and listens to his sister Connie (Played by Talia Shire) beg for more money. All the good that Michael possessed has crawled away. We also see Vito embrace a life of crime, fleeing from Sicily to escape the clutches of a ruthless gangster only to find himself back in it in America. At first, Vito starts out trying to make an honest living but that quickly evaporates when he is suddenly thrust into the criminal underworld. He doesn’t put up much of a fight to not get sucked all the way in.
The Godfather Part II does leave the viewer in a crumpled heap by the end of its three-hour plus runtime. The film is a tragedy, a family falling apart from lies, secrets, and neglect. Kay announces that she plans to leave Michael, who slumps in armchairs and stares into space. We question if Michael really even feels anything for Kay or if he only keeps her around to provide him with heirs for the family business. Michael also begins to see his older brother Fredo turn on him, bitter that he has been passed over in the family business and waved off as a fool. The Godfather Part II maintains its tragedy through the tainting of Vito and Michael, both who had promising futures but chose to throw it all away. Further tragic is the way that Michael alienates his family members, intimidating them and pushing them around. He’s a far throw from the soft-spoken war hero that we saw at the beginning of The Godfather.
Both Coppola and Puzo water their characters and then watch them grow in The Godfather Part II. Michael is fully engulfed by the demons he so desperately wanted to bottle up, transforming into a vile piece of humanity every time he walks into frame. While this is Pacino’s show, DeNiro gives a discreetly powerful performance as the young Vito Corleone. What I absolutely love about DeNiro’s performance is that he becomes almost transparent when he studies the ways of the criminals around him. We can see him absorb the knowledge on how to manipulate and con his way to the top. I found it incredible the way that DeNiro allowed us to see the wheels turning. Strap yourself in because Vito has explosive violent rages, ones that come when you least expect them to. I also enjoyed John Cazale as Michael’s older brother Fredo, a hotshot wannabe who puts his foot in his mouth and who is unable to stand up for himself. Fredo is a pathetic soul who has a heart of gold underneath the flashy suits. Diane Keaton is also given more room here to prove herself as Kay. When her rage and disgust with Michael pours out and she reveals a secret that she has kept from Michael, you will simultaneously feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach and have goosebumps.
The Godfather Part II does run a bit long and the amount of ground that is covered is almost exhausting. The understandable absence of Marlon Brando is what knocks The Godfather Part II down just a peg for me. I still find the film absolutely flawless, from the technical aspects all the way down to the background performers, but I just miss his character so much. DeNiro does pad the blow of his absence and he gives one of the finest performances of his career. I do favor this installment’s darker tone over the originals and the original is a pretty gloomy film to begin with. Given the length, Coppola does divvy up the action expertly and never allows the film sag, making the film incredibly consistent. Much like The Godfather, The Godfather Part II is an undisputed classic in the cinema realm, earning just as much respect as the original, if not more. Many consider this to be even better than the original and I can understand why, with the plot thickening and its emotionally draining climax. Heavier than the original, with intensity and pessimism to spare, The Godfather Part II is a spectacular follow up, a true testament to epic filmmaking and storytelling.
The Godfather Part II is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.