"Quite frankly, I didn't even want to use you guys, with your dip and velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb. But people didn't believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb. So they're using you guys as canaries. And, in theory, if bin Laden isn't there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser. But bin Laden is there. And you're going to kill him for me." — Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty
|Zero Dark Thirty (2012, USA)
I watched the Oscar-winning Argo two nights before watching this. Zero Dark Thirty was snubbed at the Academy Awards, apparently for political reasons. It is IMHO twice the film Argo is, better based in reality and absent even a hint of Hollywood navel-gazing or fluff. I reacted as strongly to the torture scenes as anyone else, but accepted them as a realistic portrayal of what went on in the decade leading up to bin Laden's killing. The drama and tension feels authentic and immediate: you react almost as if you are part of the operation. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time and finished this film almost gasping for air. Zero Dark Thirty is every bit as good, and gritty, as Kathryn Bigelow's previous war movie, The Hurt Locker. It is brilliant. In an honest world it would have been nominated for Best Picture, and it would have blown Argo out of the water. Do see it.
|Argo (2012, USA)
The test of an Oscar-winning film, at least to me, is whether I would watch it again. Once was enough for Argo. I don't understand what it is about this movie that so impressed everyone. Based on everything I've read, much of it is historically inaccurate. The Americans holed up in the Canadian embassy come across as selfish and unsympathetic, and apart from one character, are mere foils to Ben Affleck's character (speaking of Affleck, he needs to work on closing his mouth when he isn't talking). Several potentially interesting parts of the real story were left unexplored, like the allied embassies who turned the six Americans away before the Canadians took them in. I think what hurts Argo is that it's about an event that still shames most Americans right down to their toes, and it does little to make us feel better about what happened in 1979. Frankly, it angered me all over again, and for all the pre-Oscar night buildup, the story of the six who were rescued seems a minor subplot to the story of the fifty-two who weren't.
|Seven Psychopaths (2012, USA)
From the trailers I expected a light, quirky comedy. It was way funnier than that, and far more quirky. It was almost profound, too, in a sort of Pulp Fiction way ... a far deeper movie than I had expected. Warning to the squeamish: the humor and quirkiness is interspersed with graphic splatter and gore, but once you accept the notion that you can make jokes about murderous psychopaths the humor overwhelms the gore. By the end I was laughing out loud. The ensemble of actors is perfect, the LA and southern California desert scenery gorgeous, even the dog is decent. We watched it on St. Patrick’s Day; just before hitting play I posted to Facebook that we were going dine on corned beef and cabbage while watching Seven Psychopaths, joking that it would be a perfect Irish evening. Little did I know Colin Farrell plays an Irish screenwriter in the movie … though I note (my only criticism) that his Irish accent comes and goes.
|Samsara (2011, USA)
A scriptless, non-judgmental documentary composed of moving and near-still scenes of locations and people around the world. Incredibly exotic and colorful, brutally frank and disturbing in places. Samsara gives you the feeling you’re seeing parts of the world, and the strange lives people lead, for the first time ever. For my tastes, the film’s emphasis on eastern mysticism was a bit much, but that's a very minor objection. Samsara is a sensory and sensual feast.
|The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA)
I'm interested in banned books and rented this movie because it's based on a book parents and religious groups have tried to have removed from school libraries and reading lists. I have yet to read the book, but if the movie is faithful to it, I now have an inkling why. The story is the often-told one about teenagers reacting to the high school experience and growing up with the help of friends. The kids in this story have uncomfortable problems related to sexuality and sexual abuse, and that, I'm sure, is what conservative and religious parents object to. But forget them for now. This movie is damned good, and the young actors ... particularly Emma Watson ... are brilliant. My high school days are a distant memory but the movie rings true, and if I was moved (I was) you probably will be too.
|End of Watch (2012, USA)
An outstanding cop film, also a buddy film, told from the point of view of two Los Angeles patrol officers. The drug cartel-related trouble the cops manage to bring down upon themselves at the climax of the film may be exaggerated and unrealistic, but everything leading up to it is so real, so authentic-seeming, that you don't notice: when things turn to shit you totally buy it. I didn't know what to expect with this one ... it certainly had a great cast, but I've been burned by that before ... but damn, it turned out to be a good one, maybe even the best cop film I've seen, and that includes The French Connection.
|Django Unchained (2012, USA)
Django Unchained is pure guilty pleasure. It's about the horrors of slavery in the pre-Civil War USA, a subject that normally would be approached in a somber and respectful way, but not here: it's riotously funny, tongue in cheek, full of action. That's where the guilt comes in: how can anyone enjoy a movie about slavery? But now that I think about it, we all enjoyed The Godfather, right? And it was about crime, which victimizes millions in horrible ways, so maybe it's okay to enjoy Django Unchained. What did bother me, a little bit, was the ease with which Django overcomes his white racist adversaries. True, there were slave rebellions back in the day, but they were quickly put down with great violence ... in other words, there were no Djangos. The violence, particularly the gunshot effects where huge gouts of blood and gore erupt from exit wounds, is over-the-top Tarantino, but if my wife (who usually gets up and leaves the room when the shooting starts) could sit through it, you probably can too ... still, I would not want small children watching it.
|Lincoln (2012, USA)
It's hard to overstate the importance of the story told in Lincoln: not just the story of Lincoln the man but the story of Lincoln's role in the passage of the 13th Amendment. One has to be in awe of the movie for bringing this history, and this great man, to life. I suppose it was impossible to do it without having background characters act as an on-and-off Greek chorus, explaining history to us as we go along (dummies that we are), but those bits felt clunky to me. The period detail fascinates: the fussily rococo furnishings of the White House, the 1860s version of the situation room, the difficulties of travel on muddy Virginia roads, the state of trauma care. It all feels quite authentic. Mostly, though, you come away with an appreciation of Lincoln the man, and to some degree Mary Todd Lincoln. This movie is a great achievement, but one that demands active attention from the audience ... this is not the passive entertainment we're used to, and it might be too demanding for many.
|Life of Pi (2012, USA/Taiwan)
A visually gorgeous movie, nature enhanced to a remarkable degree, and it is only at the end of the movie that you are reminded of reality, as the lush green jungle slowly fades back to its actual, still green but somehow drab and dusty, color. The lifeboat scenes are the most memorable, and I had to keep reminding myself that what we see, a god's eye view of a man and a tiger floating in a boat, is not what the man and the tiger would see ... for them it would be endless heaving stretches of gray sea and sky, a hopeless vista. The spirituality of the novel drives the computer-generated beauty of the movie. If you accept the movie as a pure visual experience, it's grand. If you question the spirituality, it's less so. When I read the book and encountered, at the end, Pi's alternate (true?) description of what happened after the ship sank, and the horrors of what unfolded in the lifeboat, I visualized those scenes. I was disappointed that in the movie, Pi doesn't visualize, but merely talks about it. That was a bit of a letdown, but still, for those who come to the movie without having read the book, it will be a shocker.
Can't Believe I Watched the Whole Thing
|Lawless (2012, USA)
Lawless may well be based on a true story, but the director sets his entire focus on the violent aspects of the tale, lingering pornographically on flying teeth, bullets ripping through bodies, gobbets of flying flesh, blood spatters, crushed larynxes, and slit throats. This is a movie for people looking for excuses to snap and go on shooting rampages. The Bondurant brothers, who were probably fascinating characters in real life, are here drained of irony, color, and humanity. At several points I was ready to hit stop and walk away. I really should have.