Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Post-Oscar Thoughts: A Recap of 2013 at the Movies, Part I

Well, another Oscar night has come and gone and one word summed it up: PRE-DICT-AB-LE.

I’m not actually referring to the ceremony, which was far less of a chore to sit through than in many previous years.  Ellen Degeneres’ opening monologue was terrific and hit a high point when she yelled at 84-year-old, June Squibb, a joking implication that the supporting actress nominee for Nebraska couldn’t possibly hear her all the way up on stage.  With a number of excursions into the audience (probably a few too many) and the most celebrity filled "tweet" of all time, the cheerful host kept the mood light throughout, which helped the three-and-a-half-hour show feel reasonably fast-paced.  Other highlights included a particularly touching memorial segment and a 75th anniversary tribute to The Wizard of Oz.  Bill Murray went off script in offering a sincere and unexpected shout-out to his longtime collaborator, Harold Ramis.  Sidney Poitier added gravitas late in the evening when he joined Angelina Jolie to present the Best Director Oscar to Alfonso Cuaron.  And Matthew McConaughey made history by repeatedly thanking himself after winning Best Actor for Dallas Buyers Club.  Seriously, is there any way Saturday Night Live doesn’t get a whole show out of that speech? 

Less successful was the Academy's unmotivated heroes theme, which ultimately served no purpose other than to pad the overall running time.  Does the Oscar telecast really need a theme in the first place?  Among the stars in attendance, Harrison Ford looked consistently irritated, as if he’d lost a bet and attending the ceremony was his punishment.  Happier to be there was Vertigo star Kim Novak, whose incoherent onstage rambling caused by friend to inquire, “Who’s this loon?”  Poor Liza Minnelli fared even worse, receiving ample airtime despite a makeup job that made her look like one of the Orcs in Lord of the Rings.  But John Travolta took the cake, confidently turning Idina Menzel into one of the worst name mispronunciations ever.  It’s all over YouTube in case you missed it. 

Entering Sunday night’s festivities, I hadn’t felt as excited as I typically am for the cinematic Super Bowl, as . . . . . nobody calls it.  The main problem was that after an endless winter of televised award shows, countless top 10 lists, and predictions identifying the likely winners ahead of time, there was no longer any room for surprises.  Anyone who wagered on all the favorites cleaned up on Oscar night, and that’s a problem.  I actually feel like I cost myself a fortune by not watching the ceremony live from Vegas.  By mid-February, it had become painfully clear that the field of nine best picture nominees really only included two legitimate contenders for best picture, Cuaron’s Gravity and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which ended up taking the top prize.  Both films were very good for different reasons and have earned critical praise across the board.  But honestly, neither held a place in my top five for 2013 and as it turned out, the majority of worthwhile best picture nominees went home completely empty-handed on Oscar night. 

Note to the Academy: It’s time to admit that the decision to double the list of potential best picture nominees has been a complete failure.  There’s no evidence linking improved box office grosses to the expansion and since the change in 2009, it’s been remarkably easy to guess, each year, where the line would’ve been drawn had you stuck with the time-honored tradition of selecting only five films.  Although nominating fewer may result in the occasional snub, allowing up to 10 severely cheapens the meaning of even being nominated in the first place.  And you aren’t even using all of the available spots anyway, as for the third year in a row, you’ve awkwardly nominated nine films for best picture.  To paraphrase Austin Powers, “Who nominates nine films, honestly?”

Another area that demands a review is Hollywood’s release calendar.  I don’t remember another winter when so many high profile blockbusters and critical favorites were crammed into the final six weeks of the year.  Do they want paying customers to see these movies?  The Christmas field was especially crowded and left a number of casualties that failed to find an audience.  I am fortunate to live in an area that features several smaller, independent theaters where turnover is considerably slower, but even I have been scrambling to play catch up.  Because of the onslaught, a number of major titles were pushed to the dumping grounds of January and February (The Monuments Men, Labor Day), while others were only released in New York and Los Angeles in late December to qualify for the awards (Her, Lone Survivor).  There was even talking of pushing The Wolf of Wall Street to 2014, which would’ve delayed audiences from experiencing arguably the most excessive movie ever made.  That’s a compliment by the way.

Despite these scheduling concerns, however, box office totals continue to rise, as 2013 saw a record 13 different movies exceed $200 million in North America alone.  It was a big year for animation, with three of the top seven spots reserved for the kid-friendly features Frozen, Despicable Me 2, and Monsters University.  The rest of the top 10 was comprised of sequels, prequels, and reboots (Gravity being the lone exception), and as predicted here last May, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire outlasted Iron Man 3 and won bragging rights as the year’s biggest financial smash.  Unfortunately, the untimely death of revered actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (46), who was set to reprise his role as Plutarch Heavensbee in the final two films in the franchise, leaves a cloud over a production that was nearly finished.  Sadly, his tragic passing will probably add a surge of interest and further boost the overall box office totals of Mockingjay – Part’s 1 & 2.  Amazingly, a similar fate probably awaits Fast & Furious 7, the next installment in the hugely successful action series that made the late, Paul Walker (40), a household name.   

In the end though, 2013 was notable for the sheer volume of top directors at work.  In addition to Cuaron and McQueen, we were privy to new films from Alexander Payne (who has yet to make a bad film), Spike Jonze (ditto), Woody Allen, David O’Russell, Paul Greengrass, Neill Blomkamp, Martin Scorsese, J.C. Chandor, Marc Forster, Steven Soderbergh, Baz Luhrmann, Peter Jackson, Lee Daniels, Guillermo del Toro, and The Coen Brothers.  Although their collective output ranged from great to forgettable, any year with that much talent behind the camera must be taken seriously. 

Overall, I saw about 40 movies in 2013, a number sure to shrink substantially with the arrival of Zach Junior in early April.  Because that total is far lower than that of a full-time critic, it’s perhaps a little silly to single out my top 10, which would represent a quarter of the field.  Instead, I’m going to have some fun and offer award winners in categories you won’t find on the Oscar telecast, before concluding with a personal top five in alphabetical order, along with a single honorable mention.  I truly struggled to select the best film of 2013, a dilemma that generally indicates a very strong year.  However, in this case I didn’t feel passionately enough about any single title to grant it the top spot, finding small flaws even among my favorites.  That said, repeat viewings may very well see one emerge victorious at a later date.

Stayed tuned for Part II, honoring the best (and worst) in cinema from 2013. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Movies from my Youth - Independence Day turns 17

When I was fifteen, I thought Independence Day was the greatest movie ever made. By the most rudimentary definitions, it still is. They could’ve titled it “Pure Teenage Awesomeness” and been no less accurate.  I remember seeing the blockbuster its opening week in a large theater in Portland, Maine during the summer of 1996.  I was blown away by the drama, the scares, the humor, the lofty death toll, and the larger-than-life Oscar-winning special effects. 

The following fall I was visiting New York with my family and wandered into F.A.O. Schwartz.  I recall feeling somewhat out of place amidst all the toys, stuffed animals, and toddlers hopping with glee.  Nearing the end of my rope, I turned a corner and stumbled across an enormous TV showing none other than Independence Day, which had just come out on video cassette.  My excitement peaked as I stood frozen like one of Madame Tussaud’s wax figures, gazing at the screen for the next 20 minutes until my parents found me.  I declared emphatically, “You have to see this movie!”

To be sure ID4, as it widely became known, has everything money can buy:  giant explosions, the destruction of revered landmarks, disgusting aliens, dogs in peril, cheesy speeches, a rousing musical score, and a mammoth cast comprised of every stereotype imaginable.  The original teaser, which featured a shot of the White House getting blown to smithereens, had young audiences drooling with anticipation long before the July 2nd release date.  Credit the executives at 20th Century Fox, who managed to turn the film into THE cinematic event of ’96 a full six months before anyone knew anything about the movie.  Still, the brilliant ad campaign would’ve been irrelevant if the movie didn’t prove entertaining as hell.  
Independence Day takes place over the course of three days, punctuated by bold lettering marked July 2nd, 3rd, & 4th, respectively.  Nobody ever accused director Roland Emmerich of being subtle.  The pauses emerge at roughly 50 minutes intervals, breaking the film into even thirds, which aids the overall structure considerably.  The opening act introduces the dozen or so principals while spaceships cast city-size shadows over several prominent territories around the globe.  Fortunately cable repairman Jeff Goldblum, never nerdier, discovers a hidden signal within our own satellite system, correctly surmising that an ensuing count down will result in a catastrophic attack.  The majority of the cast narrowly escapes on Air Force One just seconds before the devastation that wipes out Washington, New York, and Los Angeles.  
The second act takes to the sky as fighter pilot Will Smith (who surprisingly doesn’t show up until around the 25 minute mark), buddy Harry Connick, Jr., and a host of soon-to-be-dead extras learn that the alien spacecrafts have protective shields rendering them invulnerable.  On the ground stripper Vivica A. Fox meets first lady Mary McDonnell, while president Bill Pullman learns of the mysterious, classified Area 51, managed by loony doctor Brent Spiner, happy as a clam because the invasion has stimulated all the gizmos in his lab.  Once a captured alien teleports their grand plan to Pullman’s brain (stay with me), the largely untested Commander-in-chief gives the order to “nuke the bastards.”
The climax takes shape following the failed counterattack, when a highly suspect explanation involving a computer virus and a coke can disables the enemy shields.  After the president rallies the troops with one of the great monologues in modern cinema, Smith flies he and Goldblum into the lion’s den so the latter can infect the mothership.  In the midst of the wide-scale human retaliation, an unlikely hero emerges in booze-guzzling Randy Quaid, who gets to utter the film’s most famous 8 words:  “In the words of my generation, up YOURS!”  Celebration.  Fireworks.  End Credits.  
Nobody benefitted from the success of ID4 as much as Smith, who became a household name in a third medium following his previous musical efforts and television status as the ‘Prince of Bel-Air.‘  After Men in Black hit one year later, Smith became the biggest movie star on the planet, a title he retained for well over a decade.  He and Goldblum made for an endearing odd couple, as did Smith and Fox, who delivered her share of unintentionally hilarious lines.  After the first lady mistakes her pole dancing for ballet, Fox justifies her career choice by confirming, “My babies’ wharf it.”  She’s also the only Los Angeles resident smart enough to hide her family in a tunnel maintenance closet during the initial attack.  
The rest of the cast connects like “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”  Judd Hirsch plays Goldblum’s testy father who likes to call people “vultures” and gets many of the best lines on their frantic early drive to warn the White House staff.  “Tell me something, you're so smart, how come you spent 8 years at M.I.T to become a cable repairman?  They want HBO, they'll call you.”  Goldblum also has history with ex-wife Margaret Colin, who works under the president.  The three once formed a romantic triangle causing Goldblum to deck Pullman, whose right-hand man is hall of fame “that guy” Robert Loggia.  Pullman and McDonnell represent the movie’s third couple, who we know are deeply in love because she smiles when endearingly calling her husband a “liar.”  Super slimy secretary of defense James Rebhorn is on hand to offer terrible advice (like blowing the mothership out of the sky without regard for human safety) and disagree with every strategic decision the president makes.  He also hides his knowledge of Area 51, which is run by Spiner.  And round and round we go.
There are also several children with speaking parts, three of whom belong to Quaid’s character.  Their terrible acting is redeemed somewhat by the scene in which a scumbag kid propositions his only daughter in a pickup truck with, “This could be your last night on Earth.  You don’t want to die a virgin do you?”  Classy.  A word on Quaid - His paranoid antics throughout Independence Day eerily mirror the actor’s real life outbursts over the past few years.  Was he even acting here?  Did the aliens actually do sexual things to him?  Was he genuinely drunk when he slurred, “They got bigger fish to fry now, believe you me.”  Whatever the motivation, this ranks as his goofiest performance ever, which says something for the man who brought us Cousin Eddie and Ishmael Borg. 

The script for Independence Day, written by Dean Devlin and Emmerich, could charitably be described as juvenile.  Though in reality, few movies over the last 20 years are as quotable.

  • “Everyone in the world’s trying to get out of Washington.  We’re the only schmucks trying to get in.”

  • “Jasmine’s got a thing for dolphins.”

  • “A toast, to the end of the world.”
  • “We don’t even know if it’s capable of flying!”

  • “You’re talking about line of sight.”

  • “Now that’s what I call a close encounter.”

  • “I’m not Jewish.”
        “Nobody’s perfect.”

  • “Why did I just send my mother to Atlanta?”

  • “Cockameme plan.”

  • “This is the vault.  Or as some of us like to call it: The Freak Show.”

  • “Why?”  . . . marching over to the window . . . “THAT’S WHY!”

  • “Checkmate.”

  • “But you are not as charming as you think you are, sir.”
         “Yes, I am.”

  • “And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day when the world declared in one voice, ‘We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!’”

I still know Pullman’s speech more or less by heart and have been known to occasionally blurt it out after polishing off my fourth beer.  ID4 mixes patriotism with unintentional humor to such a degree one can’t help but laugh.  But a memorable script goes beyond dialogue.  It has to fain intelligence, but then show a Labrador Retriever out-jumping a fireball.  It has to take shady science theories seriously, but also make Connick, Jr. fly like an untrained moron who doesn’t know he needs oxygen to maintain consciousness.  It has to suspend a whining Harvey Fierstein in Manhattan gridlock and allow a parade of morons to hold up welcome signs atop L.A. skyscrapers, while managing to kill all of them simultaneously.
Is Independence Day well directed?  That probably depends who you ask.  On the one hand, Emmerich plants two hideous looking bums (one white, one black) with scars in front of the camera in an extended shot for no reason.  On the other hand, he slams a lunatic controlled by an alien tentacle into a glass window out of nowhere, a moment that made entire theaters gasp in unison 17 years ago.  It’s tough to separate nostalgia when assessing entertainment, but sometimes you have to ignore logic and abide by involuntary response.  Do I know that Air Force One can’t possibly be destroyed because it’s carrying 2/3 of the ensemble?  Yes!  Do I care?  Not at all.  

ID4 still sucks me in every time it airs on cable.  The original score still give me goosebumps every time the end credits roll.  I still laugh every time Quaid almost accidentally launches a nuclear missile before taking flight.  And I still feel perplexed every time I see the dad from The Wonder Years show up for his ten seconds of unexplained screen time.

Independence Day has something for everybody, which remains its most refreshing feature.  And if they lure the survivors back for the long- rumored sequel, I’ll probably be first in line.  

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Summer Comes Early for Moviegoers

It only took Marvel's eagerly anticipated Iron Man 3  three days to become the second highest grossing film of 2013, and by the time you read this it will have officially swiped the title from Oz the Great and Powerful.  And so begins another summer movie season, which generally arrives at least six weeks before the calendar claims.  The latest Tony Stark adventure is a strong candidate to top the box office this year, its only true competition arriving next November when The Hunger Games: Catching Fire attacks multiplexes across the country.  Like most summers, 2013 seems destined to be dominated by sequels, with no fewer than 12 slated for release between now and mid-August.  Also fighting for a share of profits will be several high-profile reboots and a large number of unknowns that will need critical backing and timely advertising to break through.  

Iron Man 3 represents a pretty strong start and closes the comic book trilogy with a bang.  There's certainly no thematic need for another chapter in the franchise, and if we see Stark again it should probably be among his Avengers compadres.  Writer/director Shane Black's fingerprints are all over Iron Man 3, from the witty banter to several elaborately staged action sequences, the best of which calls to mind the first two Lethal Weapons (which he wrote).  I also admired his audacity to pull a 180 in a blockbuster of this magnitude.  A major twist in the second half will not please those who treat Iron Man's source material reverentially, but for your average moviegoer, it comes as a welcome surprise.  With the exception of Rebecca Hall who is shamefully underused, Iron Man 3 gives everyone a chance to shine, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pierce, Jon Favreau, and in his best role in years, Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin.  But this is still Robert Downey Jr.'s show and unlike in previous entries, we're given deeper access to Stark's psyche when separated from his famous suit, which is refreshingly often.  Iron Man 3 isn't perfect and has its share of holes, but come Labor Day there's a very good chance that summer's earliest offering will stand out as one of the season's best.  

As for the rest . . . . .


Three of the most critic-proof blockbusters will be released during the last two weeks in May, marking a particularly front loaded summer.  Star Trek into Darkness reunites the cast from the 2009 remake that surpassed commercial expectations and drew superior marks from audiences.  I was never a Star Trek fan until that film, which remains one of more enjoyable hits of recent years, in part due to an extremely well-chosen cast.  J.J. Abrams returns for his final turn behind the camera before taking command of Disney's rebooted Star Wars universe.  The following week Fast & Furious 6 goes head-to-head with The Hangover Part III in a race too close to call.  Expect huge opening weekends and substantial drop offs for both, as younger viewers will drive early receipts.  While the first The Fast and the Furious was a lot of fun, future installments quickly disintegrated into repetitious mediocrity (I didn't see Fast Five), with the number of entries fast approaching Police Academy level.  The Hangover series will close with the third, which is a good decision.  The original was very funny and still plays well four years later, but the sequel was a lazy, unapologetic cash grab that basically offered the exact same film in a new setting.  Part III wisely shifts the Wolfpack back to Vegas, but may need strong word-of-mouth to match the lofty totals of its predecessors.  

The feature with the best chance to challenge Iron Man 3 financially is probably Monsters University, a follow-up to the very well-received Monsters, Inc. (2001).  Billy Crystal and John Goodman will once again lend their vocal talents to bickering leads Mike and Sulley, who will return to theaters on June 21st.  Though unlikely to match the Pixar juggernaut, Epic, Despicable Me 2, and The Smurfs 2 should all do big business with families over the extended school vacation.  Two other familiar faces returning to theaters will be Adam Sandler and Hugh Jackman.  Grown Ups 2 reassembles a parade of comics, most of whom became famous on Saturday Night LiveGrown Ups (2010) was Sandler's second biggest hit ever, so regardless of reviews the sequel should play to a broad audience and have legs.  Meanwhile Jackman turns back to his iconic role in The Wolverine, which shifts the action to modern-day Japan.  Famke Janssen (Jean Grey) is the only mutant from the X-Men universe to make an appearance, making this Jackman's movie from start to finish.  But James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) is an accomplished director and should be able to inject some new life into the character.

Finally, the highly anticipated Man of Steel debuts in mid-June , bringing Superman back after the character's previous outing Superman Returns (2006) disappointed audiences around the globe.  However, newcomer Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen)brings a unique style and reportedly darker approach to the most wholesome of superheroes.  Trailers have been fantastic and the film boasts the summer's most accomplished cast, which includes Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, and Kevin Costner.  Henry Cavill plays the title role.  The geeks will rush out in full force for this one, although reviews will ultimately determine whether Man of Steel is one of several popular films or a smash that marks the start of a huge franchise (shades of Batman Begins).  Time will tell.  


This is a heftier group than you'd usually find, in part because studios are taking chances on a lot of older material and stars.  Exhibit A is After Earth, which would've been the event movie of the summer . . . . . in 2002.  We don't know much, other than Will Smith is headlining the latest effort from M. Night Shyamalan.  The former 'Fresh Prince' tends to open impressively during the summer, but this is anyone's call, considering Shyamalan hasn't made a good film since I was in college.  Another release that seems years past its prime is The Internship, with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson (remember those guys?) as a pair of aging salesmen who must compete with younger, digital-savvy brainiacs at Google.  The premise isn't awful, just tired, and I'm straining to remember the last Vaughn vehicle that was actually funny.  

World War Z unites Brad Pitt with director Marc Forster, who has one of the most eclectic resumes in the business.  But the latest zombie thriller may be too little, too late, as Hollywood has pretty much exhausted the subgenre at this point.  World War Z  seems more ambitious than most, but will need to convince adults that there's substance beneath all the mayhem.  The Heat will attempt to capitalize on Melissa McCarthy's ongoing hot streak, pairing the comic actress with Sandra Bullock in a plot that sounds recycled from every action comedy ever made.  One is an FBI agent, the other a cop, they are polar opposites, and have to become partners.  It looks awful and seems beneath Bullock at this point in her career, but I have a sick feeling The Heat will draw big crowds.   

Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby might be the flashiest film of the summer, but reeks of familiarity and is already annoying me, partially because its release date was pushed back from last winter.  I suspect this one would collapse with almost anyone else, but Leonardo DiCaprio is the main attraction in the title role and has a very reliable track record.  I'm mildly intrigued by This is the End, with several celebrities playing versions of themselves at James Franco's house during the apocalypse.  Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogan wrote the script, which hopefully shares more in common with Superbad than The Watch.  The cast, comprised mostly of Judd Apatow regulars and supporting players on NBC sitcoms, should lure in plenty of moviegoers.  

Pacific Rim sounds completely disposable on paper, with no stars and a plot centered on giant human-piloted robots fighting an alien attack.  However, Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) has a habit of creating immersive, visually arresting worlds that transcend the imagination.  Imagine Transformers with a competent director.  You can flip a coin on this one, as well as for R.I.P.D., in which a recently deceased cop joins a unit of undead police officers to find the man who killed him.  The concept fuses Ghost and Minority Report, tossing in zombie elements for good measure.  With Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, and Kevin Bacon.  Also winning points for originality, Elysium follows one man's mission to bring equality to an overpopulated Earth in the year 2154, when the super wealthy live in a private, man-made space station.  Early buzz is promising for the thriller, which is the second full length feature for writer/director Neill Blomkamp (District 9).  Matt Damon and Jodie Foster star.  

If June's White House Down sounds familiar, it's probably because Olympus has Fallen is still playing in select theaters.  But this encore presentation of a president in peril has a few advantages, namely a much hipper, commercial-friendly cast (Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods), and a director (Roland Emmerich) who's built an entire career of destroying landmarks, including the oval office.  2 Guns was rather unceremoniously dumped into early August, usually an indicator of less faith in a project's potential.  But Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg are two of the most consistent draws in the business.  Their names atop the marquis should guarantee a triple-digit return for what feels like an 90s action flick.  

Three sequels to 2010 releases hope to make their mark in later months.  Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters follows the well-liked, but slightly underperforming original, looking to make a bigger splash with the fantasy crowd.  A more self-referential brand, Red 2 opens in July, also hoping to build on solid, though unspectacular grosses the first time around.  Bruce Willis again leads an ensemble of respected veterans as retired CIA operatives.  Though less successful in theaters than either of the others, Kick-Ass developed a loyal fan base through DVD and online streaming.  The tale of a high school student who decides to become a super-hero earned strong reviews, and for the sequel has added the ever-manic Jim Carrey to the core group.  Kick-Ass 2 opens on August 16th.  

And finally, what summer would be complete without Johnny Depp playing a complete weirdo?  Disney's The Lone Ranger debuts over the lucrative July fourth weekend as a tentpole with serious obstacles.  Though Depp receives top billing, the title character is actually portrayed by Armie Hammer.  The source material may appeal more to fathers who grew up with the 50s television show than their children and grandchildren, who represent the target audience.  Also, at some point the novelty of seeing Depp in face paint making goofy expressions will wear off.  On the flip side, the star's transformation from critical darling to headlining superstar over the last 10 years has proven as surprising as Downey Jr.'s.  Depp anchored Charlie and the Chocolate Factory & Alice in Wonderland, and now reunites with Gore Verbinski, who directed Rango as well as the first three Pirates of the Caribbean adventures.  With a friendly PG-13 rating, The Lone Ranger has the widest box office range of the summer, and could earn anywhere from 75 million to four times that amount.

To be sure, there will be smaller gems sprinkled throughout the season.  Buzz is high for Before Midnight and Fruitvale, while the illusionist caper Now You See Me will attempt to find an audience amid larger releases in late May.  Personally, if I could only see five new films this summer, I'd choose Elysium, Kick-Ass 2, Man of Steel, Monsters University, & Star Trek into Darkness, although it's pretty much a lock that White House Down will be my guilty pleasure for 2013. 

Final Domestic Box Office Predictions for the Top 10 . . . . .

1.) Iron Man 3 - 390 mil.
2.) Monsters University - 325 mil.
3.) Star Trek into Darkness - 270 mil.
4.) Man of Steel - 265 mil.
5.) Despicable Me 2 - 245 mil.
6.) The Lone Ranger - 230 mi.
7.) Fast & Furious 6 - 225 mil.
8.) The Hangover Part III - 210 mil.
9.) The Wolverine - 180 mil.
10.) Grown Ups 2 - 165 mil. 

See you in September.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Jurassic Park - 20 Years Later

 "Hold onto your butts."
- Samuel L. Jackson (pre-Tarantino dialogue)

I can't believe it's been 20 years since Jurassic Park obliterated records in the summer of 1993.  I was 12 at the time and remember being alternately thrilled and terrified by the CGI rendered carnivores Steven Spielberg unleashed on audiences around the globe.  Now it has been reissued in 3D, a post-conversion effort that caused me a severe migraine and forced my hasty departure from the premises after only 30 minutes.  My opinion of the 3D format shrinks every time out, and except for two previous theatrical experiences, I've always preferred movies in boring old 2D.  The picture is brighter and you aren't subjected to those intrusive goggles.  Fortunately, the theater manager took pity on my sensitive noggin, granting me a refund, which I subsequently used to experience the old school treatment just a few days later.  

Note: If I could've chosen only one hit from 1993 to receive the 3D treatment, it would've been Mrs. Doubtfire, if only to see audiences jump when Robin Williams emerges from the fridge covered in frosting and yells, "Too Da Loo!"

You know a movie made its mark when you still remember where you first saw it.  For me that experience occurred in Maine on my extended trip as a Junior at Camp Cedar.  That following February I was on vacation visiting my grandmother in Boca Raton.  My brothers and I used to drive her golf cart around the premises, drawing cockeyed expressions from the over-70 crowd.  There's a very distinct turn in the road at her club, with tall looming trees and nothing but green for a small block.  To this day it forcefully reminds me of Jurassic Park.  When it arrived on video cassette (rectangle DVDs with no menus or options) the next year, one of my best friends practically ran it on a 24 hour loop, or at least every minute he wasn't learning the intricacies of Mario Kart on Super Nintendo.  I'm not sure which of these technological relics dates the era more, but it was a tremendous time to be a kid.     

Though Jurassic Park doesn't hold up quite as well today - the story is paper thin, its reputation diminished somewhat by a pair of terrible sequels - it was nonetheless a milestone in visual effects that signaled a growing fascination with box office reporting.  Three years after its release, Independence Day became the fastest film ever to top $100 million and studios have engaged in an endless battle for opening weekend supremacy ever since.  Only eight films reached unofficial blockbuster status in 1993, or less than a quarter of the 31 releases that qualified in 2012.  Rising ticket prices are a huge contributing factor to today's higher grosses, but when you consider studio impatience, the number of new releases in a given month, and the speed with which movies are yanked out of theaters, it's becoming increasingly difficult to make an impact.   

I'm not sure any director ever had a better year than Spielberg did in '93.  Not only did Jurassic Park become the second highest grossing film ever to that point (behind his own E.T. The Extraterrestrial), but Schindler's List came out six months later and dominated the entire Oscar season.  That he created two successes of that magnitude, so dissimilar from one another, in such a short time, led many to believe Spielberg could do anything.  Many still regard the Holocaust drama as the finest film of the 90s, certainly one of the most important.  Jurassic Park doesn't share that pedigree, but it does offer its own unique treasures.  Wanna see cinema's largest pile of shit? Check.  How about a brachiosaurus that chews like a cow? Check.  Ever wonder what Seinfeld's Newman would look like getting blasted in the eyes by sticky dino-venom?  You've come to the right place.  

Compared with other blockbusters from that era, Jurassic Park certainly isn't as cerebral as Terminator 2, as character-driven as The Fugitive, as tragic as The Lion King, or steeped in irony like Forrest Gump.  But it's significantly bigger and louder, arguably offering more spectacle than the others combined.  On more than one occasion, I found myself reacting to the sounds of the film rather than the visuals.  It was like an exercise in auditory memory (snuck that in to impress the Mrs.), from the booming T-rex roar to John Williams' iconic music featuring two separate, universally recognized themes.  But nothing tops the sound of Dennis Nedry's (Wayne Knight) high-pitched pleasure squeal upon realizing he can discretely transport dinosaur embryos in a bottle of shaving cream.  His early meeting with Dodgson is easily the best non-dinosaur scene in the movie and kind of made me wish they didn't kill off Nedry, although he certainly had it coming.  They couldn't have spun him off as a scheming dinosaur detective on NBC?  I would've bought stock in that series.  

On balance, Jurassic Park remains one of the fastest two hours you can spend in a theater.  Commercials murder the pace when it airs on cable, while the smaller screen diminishes its visceral impact.  The opening hour is actually much better than I remembered, featuring most of the films best lines courtesy of Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in full sarcasm mode.  

- After seeing Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) aggressively dig through a mountain of droppings from a sick triceratops: "You will remember to wash your hands before you eat anything?"  

- Following repeated disappointment over a lack of sights on the tour through the park, he asks a disgruntled John Hammond, "Now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour?"  

The humor mixes nicely with shots of genuine awe, although I wish the script delved deeper into some of the more intriguing ideas only hinted at in the finished product.  The motto "Life finds a way," a key component in explaining Malcolm's Chaos theory, is only discussed superficially.  Lines describing the gender-bending nature of rare West African frogs (crucial in explaining the potential for breeding on the island) and the obstacles in combining the problems of a zoo with those of an amusement park, are largely overlooked.  

The thrilling second half, which kick-starts once Nedry shuts off power in the park, is basically a series of loosely connected attack scenes crossed with occasional character introspection.  Amazingly, we only spend about 20 minutes total with the infamous T-rex and even less time with the velociraptors.  I could've sworn the final hour was nothing but dinosaurs devouring tourists, no doubt a result of the indelible impression these creatures originally made on me.  Somehow there are only five death scenes in the film (four in the park), including the prologue in which a gatekeeper is unceremoniously annihilated.  Even Spielberg isn't above killing off anonymous black characters.  Come to think of it, there's only two black characters in the film and both become dino-dinner.  I heard it took years to sew Jackson's arm back on following his generous sacrifice.  Interestingly, the lone Asian in the film is spared.

Spielberg stages a number of memorable shots in the park, wisely choosing nighttime rain for the initial T-rex attack.  The water ripple in a giant footprint is tremendously effective, since he'd earlier exposed the meaning of that same ripple in a cup of water preceding the first attack.  There's also that scary rearview mirror shot of the monster closing in on a fleeing jeep, which was later ripped off to great comedic effect in Toy Story 2.  However, the scene that frightened me most at a young age featured a pair of raptors stalking Hammond's grandkids in the kitchen(wise move inviting little kids to a dinosaur park test run by the way).  That scene is only about three minutes long, but to a 12-year-old whose heart was about to explode, the intensity seemed to last forever.  I vividly remembered Timmy freezing up against hanging metal spoons terrified to budge, as well as a raptor nearly tearing Lex's leg off when she's dangling like bait minutes later.

Then there's Muldoon (Bob Peck), the British hunter and dark horse MVP candidate of Jurassic Park.  He's the most serious character in the movie, yet he has the calves of a soccer player, pronounces the word "paddock" funny, and looks like he should work at Outback Steakhouse.  He also delivers a superb little grin that speaks volumes once his technologically advanced jeep outruns the mighty T-rex.  Unfortunately, Muldoon is also one of least effective "expert" hunters of all time, his eventual demise caused by failing to recognize that he's the one being hunted by clever velociraptors.  Poor guy.  His last thought must've been, "I'm dumber than a dinosaur." 

But in the end, the true legacy of Jurassic Park may be as an allegory against bad parenting.  I'm speaking of course about the unintentional comedy of Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), who Dr. Sattler inexplicably keeps encouraging to have children.  Let's have a quick rundown of the incomprehensible decisions Grant makes when entrusted with children, from least offensive to arrest worthy . . . . .

- When it's dark in the pouring rain and a power outage has disabled the security fences, Malcolm asks Grant if the kids are ok, to which he casually responds, "What's to be scared about?  It's just a little hiccup in the power."  Never mind the fact that their disabled cars are parked in the T-rex section where a live goat has been left to attract a prehistoric, hungry monster that loves to hunt.  Not only that, the closest adult to Tim and Lex is a wimpy, balding lawyer who decides to sprint for the nearest toilet stall as soon as things get rough.  

- Grant promises the kids to stay up all night in case the T-rex comes back when they're asleep, although the next time we see the three of them he has blatantly passed out.  I get that he's tired, but if there's one thing every adult should know, it's to never break a promise to a child.  Furthermore, for their protection he chooses to doze on a tree ledge tall enough for a 40 foot brachiosaurus to knock them off with its nose if so inclined.  Nice one Doc!

- For someone considered the world's foremost authority on dinosaurs, Grant is kind of a moron.  He has to ask an 11-year-old the name of a pack of dinosaurs sprinting towards them at full force in an open field.  Once the T-rex emerges out of nowhere and rips one of the creatures spleens out, Grant just sits there in a trance behind a log, gazing at the bloodshed.  He also sadistically makes Lex, a pronounced vegetarian, wait and watch the feasting despite her pleas to leave.

- He tortures a fat kid in the films opening 10 minutes, using a velociraptor claw to show him in graphic detail what it would be like to be eaten alive.  He slashes the boy three times, the final one coming slowly across the stomach.  Grant claims the kid should show some respect, but his demented smile says otherwise.  Are we sure Alan Grant isn't certifiably insane?  Inexplicably, none of the other professionals at the dig site call him out for his borderline child abuse.  

- He causes unforgivable psychological damage to Lex by pretending to electrocute himself when nobody's sure if power in the park has been restored.  She screams while Grant holds onto an electrical fence like a lunatic.  This action would undoubtedly earn a custody hearing, if not a short jail sentence for Grant, even had it not come at the end of a day spent running from humongous predators.  Timmy is so amused by the trick, I'm surprised Grant doesn't just pick up Lex and toss her over the fence headfirst for fun.  

Add it all up and I think it's fair to call Dr. Grant one of the worst prospective parents in the history of cinema.  One brief moment with the kids sleeping on Grant's shoulders in the chopper at the end of the film can't undo a smorgasbord of insensitivity, torment, and dozens of irresponsible decisions.  His transformation is hard to swallow, but it's only one of Jurassic Park's numerous question marks.  The most obvious goof involves the mysterious cliff that appears out of nowhere following the T-rex attack.  Grant and Lex escape down a large wall by rope as the jeep is tossed over the ledge, but it clearly couldn't have been there.  Equally strange is Dr. Sattler orgasmically whispering the word "run" after ditching a velociraptor, offering no possibility of Grant hearing her warning.  Of course we must mention the climax, in which the mighty T-rex emerges to save the day.  Shouldn't he have been trapped somewhere in the park once electrical power returned?  Even if I buy his sudden appearance, there's zero chance he'd be able to fit through the main door of the welcome center.  Additionally, I trust someone was notified that a healthy raptor remains locked in the freezer.  Someone will have to return the island eventually to contain the park no?  Imagine that surprise awaiting an unsuspecting mailman.   

Despite all that, Jurassic Park truly is a well-oiled machine.  It's epic, it's very funny (sometimes intentionally), and occasionally awe-inspiring.  A few weeks ago my brother discovered a JP drinking game online entitled "A drinking game 65 million beers in the making."  Not coincidentally this was posted just after the theatrical rerelease date.  Highlights included taking a drink every time Nedry eats something, along with references to outdated technology (CD-ROM!).  When people are inventing new games attributed to 20-year-old movies, that's probably a good indicator that a film has stood the test of time.  

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Very Welcome Return to Oz

 When I was three-years old, my mom showed me The Wizard of Oz for the first time.  Like most young viewers I was mesmerized by the initial color change, enamored with the inimitable soundtrack, enthralled by a parade of truly unique weirdos, and terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West.  Dorothy's classic adventure marked my introduction to motion pictures and remains a triumph of ambition and imagination that I will undoubtedly one day introduce to my own kids.

Naturally when I heard Sam Raimi was filming a prequel in 3-D, I was highly skeptical.  Engaging in prequels or sequels from any source is tricky business, as such decisions are almost always financially motivated.  To be fair, a number of remakes over the past decade improved considerably from their immediate predecessors, including Batman Begins, Casino Royale, The DepartedKing Kong, The Muppets, Ocean's 11, Star Trek.  But when the chosen target is one of the most beloved fictional stories of all time, the pressure escalates.  Audiences don't want their childhood memories tarnished, nor do they need a product that simply regurgitates something they've already seen.  

Much to my surprise, Oz the Great and Powerful eluded both scenarios.  Borrowing charitably from Alice in WonderlandShrek, Avatar, and The Princess Bride among others, Raimi's Oz was a clever, vibrant, often very funny film that should please viewers of all ages.  Judging from opening week box office totals, we can probably expect several follow-ups in the coming years.  Though generally not an advocate of 3-D, its use in Oz was appropriate, doing nothing to diminish the brightness and providing ample opportunities to enhance the visuals.  The iconic twister and viscous flying monkeys in particular, were given a boost in this format.  

Though the film didn't reference Dorothy, Toto, or the Tin Man, and only briefly acknowledged the Scarecrow and Lion, the basic plot was familiar enough.  The opening prologue established Kansas as the latest destination for traveling magician and hustler Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who bears the pseudonym "Oz."  Though primarily concerned with his own bottom line, he feels destined for a life much greater than his own.  After being booed off his stage for refusing to heal a young girl confined to a wheelchair, he is visited by a former flame who intends to marry another man.  But before declaring his true feelings, chaos erupts.  An enraged carnival strongman chases him through the fairgrounds until he escapes in a hot air balloon.  Unfortunately, the balloon flies straight into a tornado, compelling Diggs to shout desperate promises of change should his life be spared from certain death.  We know where he'll end up.  Following his crash in the unfamiliar title land, he reluctantly attempts to fulfill the prophecy of the all powerful Wizard who will destroy the evil Witch and restore order to Oz.  

Originally Robert Downey Jr. was approached for the leading role, an inspired choice who surely would've provided boundless charisma.  When he backed out, producers reportedly contacted Johnny Depp, who passed.  Although he played Harry Osborne in Raimi's Spiderman trilogy, Franco had to fight for the part, which he eventually grew into after a somewhat shaky start.  But despite a game effort, I couldn't help thinking the film might've benefitted from an older, more dynamic performer.  Far more successful were Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz as Glinda & Evanora, two witches with wildly divergent agendas.  Williams was especially convincing, imbuing the sweetness and protective spirit we might expect from a much younger Glinda.  Unfortunately, the third witch Theodora was played by Mila Kunis, who lacked the authority needed to portray the franchise's most prominent villain.  Oddly enough, a role swap with Weisz likely would've solved this problem.  The makeup artists certainly didn't do Kunis any favors by making her look like Jim Carrey's long lost sister from The Mask.  

The logistics involved in recreating Oz must have been challenging given copyright restrictions.  L. Frank Baum's original novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, remains in the public domain.  However, the classic 1939 film directed by Victor Fleming and starring Judy Garland is owned by MGM studios, which handicapped all future interpretations of the story.  This includes character likeness, certain iconic images and colors (like the look of The Emerald City), and of course the music, which explains why the new Oz lacked all those timeless songs we remember.  

But against all odds Raimi and writers Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire overcame these obstacles, delivering a smooth ride that while heavy in nostalgia, also offered genuine surprises.  These included a visit to the Dark Forrest and an extended finale that avoided predictability on numerous occasions.  Initially, The Wizard's plan of attack seemed like a rehash of the ending to The Three Amigos.  Talk about a goofy inspiration.  And yet audiences were fooled, along with the films villains and some of its heroes too.  Among these was veteran Bill Cobbs as Master Tinker, probably the only cast member old enough to have seen the original The Wizard of Oz in theaters.

The other refreshing element to this newest Oz was its unexpected sense of humor.  In fact, this movie contained funnier material than the majority of so-called comedies over the last couple of years.  I especially liked a visual gag involving the introduction of the munchkins.  Another throwaway showed the famous directional arrows in Oz pointing to "Chinatown."  I also very much enjoyed the antics of Finley the Monkey.  As voiced by Zach Braff, Finley was sarcastic to a fault, and took offense to the appropriate assumption that he must love bananas simply because of his species.  This playfulness meshed well with a story containing both cynicism and a lot of heart.  Like the original film, Oz the Great and Powerful smartly connected characters from early scenes in Kansas with traveling companions down the line.  And though the film was decidedly unambiguous in presenting reality as more than a dream, it remained committed to the vision of its director from start to finish.  

In the end, despite a few misgivings, Oz still has a great deal to cherish.   

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Night in San Jose with Harrison Ford

Who needs Los Angeles?  Cinequest, one of the most respected film festivals in the country, is currently taking place only a few miles from my apartment.  Over the course of two weeks, an estimated 95,000 people will flock to a four-block radius in downtown San Jose for an event that offers 188 films (from some 2,000 submissions) representing 44 countries around the globe.  In addition to 80 world & U.S. premieres, the festival will host several big screen classics, workshops, parties, and awards.  One of these is the Maverick Spirit Award, given to those who "stand out from the crowd, daring to create and innovate with a personal yet global vision," a description thought to blend the spirit of world cinema and Silicon Valley.

This year's recipient was Harrison Ford, who drew huge crowds circling city blocks on Sunday night.  Somehow I didn't hear about his upcoming appearance until a few days ago, so about 90 minutes before the event, I drove downtown and purchased "Rush" tickets, meaning I'd only get into the theater if they didn't sell out.  Waiting patiently in the cold, 49 degrees for my confused east coast brethren, I was surrounded by media, festival employees, nuts in costumes, and one truly bizarre man in his fifties who kept raving about Elisha Cuthbert, the sexy blonde from his favorite movie, The Girl Next Door.  Umm . . . awkward!  But an hour outside proved worth the wait.  Once the thousands of previous ticket holders were seated inside, our significantly shorter line got the green light to enter.  

A few minutes after 7 p.m., Ford was introduced to a thunderous ovation worthy of his stature.  Now 70 years old, the action hero possessed a seemingly amused, but respectful perception of how his fans react in his presence.  He has reached an iconic status matched by only a handful of peers like Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and Robert De Niro, to name four.  And yet if you factor popularity abroad into the discussion, as well as films known to the largest number of moviegoers, a case can be made that Ford is in fact the greatest living movie star.  I felt privileged to have seen him just three weeks after attending a night of comedy with 75 year old Bill Cosby.  As one ages, he or she inevitably becomes increasingly aware of mortality and the fact that we get few opportunities to be in the same room with the celebrated figures we admire.  To this day I feel lucky to have seen George Carlin perform before he died.  And although Sunday evening merely consisted of a Q & A on stage, I felt similarly about seeing Ford.  

Over the course of an hour, Ford was asked about his career, work ethic, script choices, and humble beginnings.  Born in Chicago to an Irish Catholic father and Russian Jewish mother, Ford claimed he stumbled into acting by accident.  While attending college, he was looking for an easy way to boost his grades and chose drama without reading the full course description, which dictated his involvement in a play.  Shortly after he took part in a new play that involved an executive for Columbia pictures.  He was soon offered a seven year contract that would pay him $150 a week, but he stubbornly walked after becoming unhappy with small roles in junk films that were often ignored.  A slightly better offer from another studio lasted only 18 months when Ford again got out of his deal and turned to carpentry, from which he could earn a better living.  A few years later he was offered a supporting role in George Lucas' American Graffiti, but he turned down their offer of $485 a week, as he made $16 an hour as a carpenter.  When they found a little more money in the budget Ford said yes, even though he had recently had his first child.

His big break came a few years later when Lucas was auditioning actors for an unheralded science fiction film called Star Wars.  Lucas had told Ford he only wanted new actors in the film, although at the time Richard Dreyfuss was among those auditioning.  As a favor, Ford agreed to read with some 300 people, though after failing to find the right actor for Han Solo, Lucas offered him the now famous role.  When the interviewer mentioned Star Wars, the crowd went bonkers, prompting Ford to ask sarcastically, "You've seen that film?"

Ford spoke about his two collaborations with Peter Weir on Witness, the only time he was nominated for an Oscar, and The Mosquito Coast, which remains one of his favorite roles.  These films provided his first opportunities to tackle more challenging, adult roles.  He also appreciated his good fortune to portray a fascinating character in Regarding Henry, the first produced script from a then unknown J.J. Abrams.   He discussed his approach to screenplays and how he sometimes stops reading if he can't relate to the characters.  According to the actor, you can fix certain things in a script, but not a lack of understanding when it comes to life, humanity, and character.  The script has always been preeminent in his decisions, though he balked at questions asking who have been his favorite costars and directors.  He said everyone brings different approaches to material and he doesn't love anyone more than anybody else, just as he doesn't have a favorite among his five children.

Ford was asked about the responsibilities of bringing famous characters from other mediums to the screen, such as Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive and Jack Ryan in Clear and Present Danger.  He has always responded to sympathetic figures and reported that while filming Patriot Games, he had a major disagreement with Tom Clancy over his choice to portray Ryan as having regret over attacks abroad.  The author saw a harder character, while Ford believed integrity was more important and eventually won out.  International relations proved unexpectedly relevant in his role choices over the years.  He also doesn't respond to revenge films, although he was quick to point out that he doesn't begrudge others for making those types of movies.  This was a significant contributing factor in his turning down the Mel Gibson role in The Patriot.  He also turned down the part of Bob Barnes in Syriana, a role that would earn George Clooney a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Ford didn't appreciate the response to Arabs in the initial script, although this element was toned down in later drafts, which he thought offered a higher level of respect.

He was asked about his tendencies to work with directors more than once, somewhat uncommon for a star of his magnitude.  In addition to Lucas and Weir, he has worked with Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Mike Nichols, Sydney Pollack, & Alan J. Pakula at least twice.  Ford mentioned that he usually enjoyed the repeat collaborations more, having an increased familiarity with those directors the second time.  He was also asked about the challenge of doing stunts as Indiana Jones, which earned another round of applause from the audience.  Ford discussed the process of becoming accustomed to the physicality of the role, which involved running, jumping, falling, punching, taking a punch, and using the famed bullwhip.  He also admitted to knowing virtually nothing about Archaeology, which drew laughs.  He suffered substantial injuries throughout his career, tearing his ACL on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which he later repeated working on The Fugitive.  While making Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, he experienced a back injury that halted production for nearly a month.

Overall Ford was typically dry but a terrific sport, answering a series of questions he's probably been asked hundreds of times over the years.  He loves to work and currently has four projects at various stages of production.  Next up is 42, in which he will play baseball executive Branch Rickey, who helped break baseball's color barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson in 1945.  He discussed the responsibility to tell this story, which represented a crucial moment in American history.  Without Rickey and Robinson, Ford believes the Civil Rights Movement may have progressed much later than it actually did.  Interestingly, the veteran had to fight for the role, as director Brian Helgeland didn't want a star and initially saw Rickey as a character part.  But Ford finally won him over after a meeting where he discussed his approach to this sensitive material.

The interview ended with Ford reflecting graciously about how good life has been.  His success has enabled him to take part in other ventures of interest, such as becoming a pilot and serving on the Board of Directors with Conservation International.  He wishes everyone would do their part in eliminating violence, from bullies in the school yard to war overseas.  He also briefly teased the next Star Wars installment, scheduled to hit theaters in summer, 2015.

Harrison Ford has done amazing things in his film career, so many that there wasn't even time to touch on The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, Working Girl, Air Force One, his many franchise sequels, or the upcoming Ender's Game.  He ended by jokingly telling the audience, "I really don't need any of you."  That's probably true, but whether he wants to admit it or not, moviegoers have always needed him.  And if he suddenly retired tomorrow, his legacy is intact.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Best Movies of 2012, Part II

The Top 10 Films of 2012

10.) Game Change: I'm cheating a little with this selection, an HBO movie never released in theaters, with the hope that more people get a chance to see it.  One of the most intelligent movies of last year, Game Change relived the 2008 presidential campaign, when Arizona senator John McCain chose an unknown governor from Alaska named Sarah Palin as his running mate.  Director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) would not be the obvious choice to handle this material, but working from a terrific script based on the best selling book, he crafted a hugely entertaining movie that seemed to please novices and experts alike.  Unlike many political movies that too often feel like plodding Biography specials, Game Change was refreshingly breezy, cruising on the strength of its perfectly chosen cast.  As Palin, leading lady Julianne Moore gave a superb performance.  Equally convincing were Woody Harrelson as strategist Steve Schmidt and Ed Harris as McCain.  HBO has already optioned the rights to a sequel that will focus on the 2012 election.  Time will tell if it lives up to it's predecessor.   

9.) Zero Dark Thirty: Certainly one of the most intense releases of last year, ZD30 generated controversy over it's graphic depiction of torture, particularly scenes that showed a prisoner getting water-boarded during questioning.  I was not bothered by those scenes, nor did I find them exploitative.  Kathryn Bigelow's film was not a documentary, but rather an original story that focused on the decadelong hunt to find Osama bin Laden.  Those early scenes served to harden Maya (Jessica Chastain), who began the film as an inexperienced agent and eventually emerged as a fierce leader willing to confirm bid Laden's whereabouts with 100% certainty.  Chastain was absolutely terrific in the role, creating one of the year's most compelling characters.  Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler were also strong in key supporting roles.  I got hooked early, though my lack of familiarity with several real life events probably aided my overall experience.  Zero Dark Thirty never felt like a history lesson, a credit to Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal.  Despite running nearly 160 minutes I never once checked my watch, although I do think the climax ran on too long.  Ultimately, the only reason the film doesn't rank higher on my list is that I'm not sure I'd want to see it again.  Some movies are best served by a single viewing and I suspect that's the case here.  

8.) Looper: My initial reaction to 2012's most unexpected thriller led me to consider placing it as high as #3 back in early October.  Since then several newer releases have left indelible impressions, though this one may rise on subsequent viewings.  Director Rian Johnson wrote the year's most intriguing premise and his omission in the Original Screenplay category was arguably the worst snub of 2012.  By the 2070s, time travel will have been invented, but will be illegal.  To get rid of someone, the mob will send their enemies 30 years into the past, where hired guns called "loopers" will take them out immediately.  The majority of the film took place in 2044, where a looper named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) learns that his target is the older version of himself (Bruce Willis).  I won't say more except that I admired Johnson's willingness to pull a 180 around the half way point, as he took the audience in an unpredictable direction and introduced a pair of crucial new characters.  With the exception of Channing Tatum, Gordon-Levitt was the breakout star of 2012, his most impressive work coming here.  In supporting roles, Jeff Daniels and Emily Blunt were fantastic, the latter turning in her best performance to date.  And with three separate titles in my top 20, I'm firmly on board with Willis again after an up and down stretch in his career.  Now cross your fingers that all the critics who've seen A Good Day to Die Hard are liars.  

7.) Silver Linings Playbook: David O.Russell has only directed six feature-length films in two decades and although his track record isn't perfect, he chooses interesting projects across a variety of genres.  Silver Linings Playbook, about a man with bipolar disorder trying to put his life back together, was a personal film that managed a tricky balancing act.  It was a romantic-drama with lots of laughs, despite mental illness affecting the three main characters.  Given the material, the film was less sentimental then it might've been and never felt manipulative.  It was also boosted by one of the year's finest ensembles, led by Bradley Cooper in the strongest performance of his career.  Robert De Niro delivered his best work in over a decade as his father, a rabid Eagles fan suffering from mild OCD and a gambling problem.  Best of all was Jennifer Lawrence, who's quickly becoming the finest young actress of her generation.  Almost through shear force of personality Silver Linings Playbook became her film, and if there's any justice in Hollywood, Lawrence should be taking home her first Oscar this weekend.  

Note: With nominations in every relevant category and Harvey Weinstein pulling the strings, some have already compared a potential Playbook upset over Lincoln to the stupefying 1998 race when the well-received Shakespeare in Love defeated the Spielberg juggernaut Saving Private Ryan.  This is just silly, as the current gap is nowhere near as large this time around.  Silver Linings Playbook was much better than Shakespeare in Love, while Lincoln wasn't even in the same league as Saving Private Ryan.  Let's just move on.

6.) The Avengers: Despite being my favorite movie from the first half of 2012, I had doubts whether the year's biggest smash would even crack the final 10.  After taking it in again on Blu-Ray, it jumped up to number six.  The Avengers offered an adrenaline rush that left audiences drooling for a sequel.  After a somewhat muddled opening 15 minutes, the film picked up steam in a hurry, building to a climactic destruction of the Big Apple that was the most unapologetically entertaining stretch of filmmaking last year.  Because The Avengers offered such a smooth ride, it's easy to miss how well director Joss Whedon handled this material.  The film looked great and the action was clearly mounted, despite engaging in multiple viewpoints at any given moment to accommodate a sizable cast.  The script was much sharper than the norm for a blockbuster of this magnitude, with at least a dozen laugh out loud moments spread nicely amongst our heroes.  My only tiny nitpick has nothing to do with the quality of the film.  Disney still plans to release a number of solo vehicles for these Marvel characters, but after seeing this assemblage, it's doubtful any will fully satisfy viewers' expectations.  It'd be like eating an original Oreo after trying the Double Stuf.  What's the point when you know something better is out there?

5.) Cloud Atlas: The most controversial choice on my list, Cloud Atlas seems destined to divide viewers for years to come.  I rated the latest film from the Wachowskis (The Matrix Trilogy) and Tom Tykwer as high as #2 and as low as #8 before splitting the difference.  I probably won't be sure until I watch it again, but for now I'm content to call Cloud Atlas the most immersive theatrical experience since Avatar.  And yet it was a huge financial disappointment, no doubt a result of its odd structure.  Just a shade under three hours, this ambitious epic intercut six separate stories taking place in vastly different locations over a period of 500 years.  Furthermore, the principal actors appeared in multiple segments as members of various races, ages, and genders.  Only one or two storylines likely could've sustained their own movie, yet each gained substance when connected with the others.  Ultimately Cloud Atlas became some kind of spiritual masterpiece about good and evil, choice and oppression, freedom and captivity, and the impact a single human being can have in the most dire circumstances.  With Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, and a truly frightening Hugh Grant.  

Note: Cloud Atlas should be a front-runner in every technical category, including Best Editing, Cinematography, Makeup, Original Score, and Visual Effects.  It's complete shutout is only the most recent reminder that poor box office plays a far more important role in the nomination process than it should.  

4.) Life of Pi: Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Cloud Atlas, Ang Lee's masterful Life of Pi combined spectacular visuals with similar themes on a more intimate scale.  Based on the 2001 best-selling novel that many considered unfilmable, this story of a teenage boy, a lifeboat, and a Bengal tiger was one of the most life affirming movies I've ever seen.  After an affecting prologue, the bulk of the film took place at sea, showing the title character's fight for survival following a horrible storm that claimed his family on their passage from India to Canada.  In his acting debut, Suraj Sharma was absolutely perfect, conveying hope and fear as our guide on this journey.  Meanwhile, his computer generated traveling companion Richard Parker was probably the best looking animal in movie history.  Admittedly, I wasn't sure I wanted to see Life of Pi at first, but I'm glad I did.  It reinforced the notion that the little things in life are, in reality, the big things.  Of all the major awards, Best Director should be the easiest choice for voters.  I'd pick Lee without hesitation, even though he's a former winner (Brokeback Mountain). Unfortunately, this means I'm supporting one of only two non-Jews in that category.  Apologies to my grandmothers. 

3.) Skyfall: Since I've already reviewed the second best Bond movie of all time (trailing only Goldfinger), we can pretty much skip ahead to the top two.  I'm running out of superlatives anyway and other than chopping ten minutes from the final act, there's nothing I'd change about it.  The direction, writing, pacing, music, and overall excitement level measure favorably against the best modern action films.  Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem all brought their "A" games to Sam Mendes' modern, yet nostalgic contribution to the long-running franchise.  Skyfall was perhaps the most fun I had at the movies in 2012, but it's ceiling fell just short of the two that follow.  

2.) Django Unchained: About an hour into Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, a large Ku Klux Klan group on horseback was preparing to attack their prey from the top of a hill.  But before they could, one Klan member began complaining about the poorly made bag limiting his vision.  Another member became offended, because his wife had spent so much time cutting eye holes in the head covers.  Before you knew it, a running dialogue developed among these faceless criminals that had nothing to do with the story.  This wealth of discovery is what makes Tarantino unique.  Most directors would be content to provide a shot of the hooded mob with torches in hand just before they caused havoc.  Tarantino took a throwaway moment and produced a completely unexpected conflict that became one of 2012's funniest scenes.  That generosity, combined with his unmistakable style, energy, and the year's best soundtrack, made Django his fourth film that I've chosen as one of the two best from its respective year (along with Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, & Inglourious Basterds).  QT's script consistently created tension, while finding clever ways to keep the audience just one step behind his characters, particularly Christoph Waltz's Dr. King Schultz.  Waltz deserves another Supporting Actor trophy, but the film's best shot rests with Tarantino's original screenplay, which kept me on my toes from start to finish.  The action in Django was never one-sided.  Every character reacted to every situation, the best example being the dinner table scene in Candie's (Leonardo DiCaprio) mansion.  The subtle ways in which his servant (Samuel L. Jackson) picked up information was particularly noteworthy.  And then just when I thought the film was over, it extended another 30 minutes, using that time to mythologize Django himself (Jamie Foxx) as a legend of the west.  

I realize I've said almost nothing about the plot, which is intentional.  Tarantino's work is best experienced with as little information as possible.  He only releases a new film every three or four years if we're lucky, so don't take him for granted.  Django Unchained was violent, unpredictable, funny as hell, and would be my choice for the top spot in many years.  But in 2012, QT had to settle for the silver.

1.) Argo: I'm pretty stingy when it comes to awarding perfect scores.  The last time I gave four stars was for David Fincher's The Social Network (2010), and before that I couldn't say.  But on the heels of Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Ben Affleck is now three for three behind the camera.  Argo was his best film to date, a tightly-wound thriller that never took a wrong turn.  Shot deliberately to evoke movie styles from the 1970s, Affleck integrated archival footage into the story of Tony Mendez, a CIA exfiltration specialist who successfully snuck six Americans out of Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis.  The rescue mission depended on the perceived credibility of a fake science-fiction movie that would hopefully provide convincing identities for the hidden Americans, who were hiding in the home of the Canadian ambassador.  That Argo was "based on a true story" worked to it's advantage, as this premise might've been hard to buy otherwise.  The real mission was declassified in 1997, so considering anyone could've researched the details ahead of time, it's amazing how involving the finished product was.  Unavoidable predictability became a minor detail during the closing airport sequence, the most compelling stretch of any 2012 film.  Chris Terrio's script crackled with tension, his dialogue brought to life by an exceptionally well-chosen cast, including Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, & Alan Arkin.  Clocking in at precisely two hours, the pacing never flagged, with Affleck deftly balancing the instability abroad with lighter moments in Los Angeles.  

Regardless of what happens on Oscar night, Argo was unequivocally the best film of 2012.  And if you disagree, well, "Argo **** yourself."