Not that many of these choices are bad (or even close to it) yet there's lots of opportunities for exciting choices and perhaps just as many chances for disappointment. This year, more than ever, my own picks seem particularly far from the Academy's realm. Which is not to do a disservice to their choices, but to say that this year the typical Oscar fare by-and-large didn't do it for me. On the other hand, a number of under the radar films took me by surprise and found themselves popping up regularly throughout my list.
Coinciding the two is hard yet I have one basic rule: if I'm stuck between a film/performance that I admire on a technical level and one I connect with on a personal one - I'll likely choose the latter. After all, these are my choices, and who knows how long they'll stick. Some decisions were particularly grueling (Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence might be my two favorite actresses to emerge in the last few years, yet I had to choose against both of them here, although they each have taken a win from me before) and others entirely simple (the Supporting Actor category is a wasteland with only one performance I can genuinely say I'm passionate about making it an easy victory).
Each category runs between 5-6 nominees (you can never have too much) and has a bolded winner and italicized runner-up (because why not?). Most of my categories follow Oscar territory until the end where I have fun and throw in my own for good measure. Agree or disagree as you wish. Read along and enjoy!
Updating the blog kind of fizzled out for me over the second half of the year, but I saw no less films than I normally do. Overall, between theaters, DVDs and the persistent glory of Netflix, I saw about 80~ films compared to last year's 90. Hardly a quiet year, but as I compiled this list, there were few films I felt absolutely rushing to write about.
But it wasn't a bad year. And this list, filled with films I nonetheless do feel passionate about, showcases that fact. It actually ended up being semi-difficult to whittle it down to merely ten (with five runners-up because you can never have too many). List making is fun, but ultimately useless, especially looking back. Sometimes it has its purposes - my last two #1's, Drive and Black Swan, still remain films I love - but things sometimes get murkier. Last year, The Artist made my #5, and in the time since I have hardly felt compelled to go back and rewatch it even once. While my Top 5 here seem the most solid and filled with films I feel will only increase in stature with time, that caveat tells you all you need to know. And so, with that, enjoy.
Is "animated children's horror" a film genre yet? If not, we should probably consider it. In the past decade we've seen films such as Coraline, Monster House and as many Tim Burton contributions (Corpse Bride, and later this year, Frankenweenie) that serve up gentle kid's humor amidst the kind of scares that their parents might also find themselves cowering from. This summer comes Paranorman, perhaps one of the best examples yet for the genre, which takes an amalgamation of horror tropes (zombie film, ghost story, throw in some witches) and turns it into effective animated fare that may be too much for younger children, but will entertain the older ones and their parents more than many other family films this summer.
Paranorman comes from the same studio, and some of the same talent, that brought us 2009's Coraline. A stop motion delight in a similar vein, Coraline used its beautiful animation to explore the fantastical heights of its surreal story in a way that could both frighten and appeal to children. If Paranorman doesn't quite reach those same heights, it uses a similar approach to enlighten its material and comes out almost as successful.
Over the last 17 years, the Pixar brand has come to stand for quality. Audiences rely on the studio to turn out extravagantly animated and emotionally satisfying works that have consistently stuck out in a sea of big studio animated fare. Across the theater from Brave, you'll notice another Madgascar film, in a few weeks you will be delivered the inexplicable fourth installment in the Ice Age franchise. These films build their popularity on lame pop culture voice figures and brassy inoffensive animation.
Pixar has managed to keep its pedigree intact even as its last offering, Cars 2, was by and far its most substandard effort. Brave certainly does not flounder its reputation and will likely remain one of the most beautifully animated features you'll see this summer, but most interestingly, Brave does not live up to the narrative standards Pixar has set for itself. For once, you might start to wonder if you missed the Dreamworks logo before the start of the film.
The studio came under fire a couple years back for never having a female protagonist center one of its films. Brave seeks to correct that and then some. Merida, the young Princess of a Scottish kingdom, is a checklist of free-spirited feminine action heroines. Yet she is something kind of miraculous, with her stern attitude and Katniss-like penchant for archery. Merida's scorched red locks, consisting of 3000 individually sketched curls, are worth the price of admission alone.
Every Woody Allen film seems destined to conjure the same question: can he make them like he used to? Some will point to his successes in the last decade (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Match Point among them) to say yes. Others say no; that his films have merely retread on his earlier, better material and that the once inspired filmmaker has simply run out of fresh ideas. Those people are exaggerating, but Allen's latest film, To Rome With Love, won't do anything to disperse that mindset.
To Rome With Love finds the director following up last year's surprise mainstream success, Midnight in Paris, with a dull, uninspired and often tedious mish-mash of similar tales. If Paris captured the aura of its city and the potential fantasy it held, Rome uses the beauty of its setting as a distraction from the stale plots that litter it. It follows an anthology of four (and a half, really) tales of Americans and Italians in the romantic city, dealing with its culture, customs, and romantic entanglements.
But if these are the kinds of tales Allen was inspired to write about the city, he must not have looked hard enough. Each parable is half-baked, under-conceived and often annoying. Many of the tales amount to one single joke stretched out past the point of durability. Allen himself appears in an extended skit in which his daughter Hayley (Alison Pill, with nothing to do) introduces him to her boyfriend's parents. Allen and his wife, the film's MVP Judy Davis, become taken with their daughter's future father-in-law when they discover his beautiful singing voice. Unfortunately, he can only sing in the shower, and that one lame bit of physical humor amounts to the entirety of the plot.
It wouldn't be an awards season without obsessively making my own picks. The Emmy nominations come out this week, and there are a lot of opportunities for them to get things right, but perhaps just as many pitfalls along the way. Shows likely to be honored like The Big Bang Theory and Boardwalk Empire continue to not live up to any such hype for me, and even the likely big winner Modern Family has stopped being one of my favorite comedies. So instead, I offer my own selections, many will show up, but others will likely not. So it goes.
I'm keeping my picks to what was actually submitted to the Emmys and where. I may not agree with who is a lead vs. supporting, or what is a comedy vs. drama, but I'll humor them. That's also why a show like Sherlock is nowhere here when it might have been everywhere because it is technically a miniseries to them. When I looked back over my choices, I noticed that at least half of them are repeats from years before. By no means was this a lackluster TV season, and it was hard to cut some shows out, but for the most part, my favorites in each category continued to deliver, even in the case of my two picks for the best shows on television.
If Prometheus lands one superlative, it'll likely be summer 2012's most divisive release. Rarely has a film been so compelling and occasionally ingenious while simultaneously being complete and utter drivel. Decades after Ridley Scott struck fear into the hearts of viewers with Alien, he's back in a similar vein with the strange hybrid prequel-sequel-standalone that is Prometheus. Whether he's as successful is up for debate.
It's 2089. (Of course it is.) A team of scientists discover an ancient star map recreated in the ruins of several different ancient civilizations. Intrigued, the group convince a wealthy (and soon-to-be deceased) CEO to fund their mission to a foreign planet in hopes of discovering the secrets behind the hidden message they believe they've found. After a two year journey, the team discovers more than they bargained for on the new planet, a land in which plot inconsistencies and nonsensical character decisions flourish among the sand storms.
What they find on the new planet is often horrifying in a way that few science fiction films are willing to go these days. Leave it to Scott, who so memorably took us down this same path back in the day, to capture the dark, slimy atmosphere of this new land, and slowly expose it to the unsuspecting humans in a way that makes the audience's skin crawl. Prometheus flourishes visually; vast landscapes combine with the tight quarters of the ship to create a singularly terrifying vision.
The fairy tale boom of the past few years makes more sense than you might realize. As familiar as these stories are, there is still something thrilling about hearing an old tale turn on its head. And Snow White seems ripe for the picking, so much so that it inspired two films this year alone. Of course, our newfound cinematic cynicism means that the film must be a gloomier affair, but Snow White succeeds on its willingness to stay true to the tale that inspired it even as it descends into overly familiar territory.
The smartest decision the film makes is to assume the audience has heard most of it before. No time is wasted getting into the action, as Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is captured by the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) in the film's opening sequences, and escapes soon after. In another film, this might have been bogged in exposition, but the script here wastes no time in telling you what you've likely already heard at your bedside as a child.
Under the mountains of hype, it's hard to remember that there's a movie behind The Avengers and not just a global marketing event. With guaranteed blockbuster earnings from the moment it was greenlit, it would have been easy for the crew behind the film, led by Joss Whedon, to simply phone it in. With a team this talented, Whedon has avoided that, creating a feature that is as cleverly constructed as it is pure spectacle. But with the expectations as it were, it's hard not to see The Avengers as a slight cut above the rest and not quite the genre redefining piece it might have been.
Jumping off the numerous tentpoles that have populated theaters in the past few years (multiple Hulk films, Iron Man, and last year's one-two punch of mediocrity, Thor and Captain America), there's much ground for the film to cover. But even so, the film's opening acts get bogged down in mountains of exposition, and the pacing for assembling the team gets lost in the anticipation. Yet things kick into gear in the halfway point when our team - the aforementioned joined by the underdeveloped Black Widow and Hawkeye - finally come together aside the bombastic set pieces we've been waiting for.
A jock, a stoner, a "nice guy," a party girl, and a virgin go into the woods to spend a weekend in an empty cabin. As so many other films have proven, it's a recipe for success in the horror world. Director Drew Goddard and writer Joss Whedon, continuing his lucky streak, understand this well. They kid because they love. And Cabin in the Woods finds them at their most sickly sly, working up genre tropes into a frenzy and creating a film that is both tribute and criticism.
Right from the get-go, we understand all is not as it seems in the film's universe. Goddard and Whedon take us deep into the dark woods where, ironically, we feel safe, already expecting what will inevitably follow and settled in for a night of gruesome violence. They deliver on that count, but with Cabin, you get slightly more bang for your buck. Cabin in the Woods knows what it's talking about and has a welcome view on the genre that has not been quite been seen in some time (Scream comparisons abound, although it's far from that level) but it's merely an exercise in theory rather than a game changer.
The best thing about 21 Jump Street is that it understands how silly it all is. The film is only loosely an adaptation of the semi-popular but mostly forgotten 80's series of the same name. Mostly, though, it takes the same basic premise (two adult cops hired to go back to high school in an undercover sting) and turns it into something slightly more appeasing to today's chaos craving young audiences. With leads like Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, the film could easily coast on its pre-established good will, but goes out of its way not to.
There's a strange mean streak that runs through 21 Jump Street. As if the writers don't entirely trust the energy radiating from their two leads to be enough to carry the film on their own. They're wrong - Tatum and Hill have a natural chemistry that carries the typical bromance humor past its tired form. The overblown aggression and forced humor detracts from their natural charisma and would be better suited elsewhere. For what its worth, Tatum finds new ways to play with his persona, while Hill mostly leans on his own, but both come together to form a dynamic pair.
The main character of The Kid with a Bike, Cyril, is a boy entirely at the mercy of his youth. His father, unable to parent him any longer, has abandoned him at foster care. He routinely attempts to escape and seek him out. He is consistently caught, but eventually, his carers must appease him and direct him to the truth about his father. Along the way, he meets Samantha, a local hairdresser who returns him to the bike and the father that he was separated from, and watches over him as he comes to the brutal realization of his father's carelessness.
A simple plot, and one that could easily descend into melodrama, but we're in safe hands. The Dardennes Brothers, a year after the film's positive Cannes reaction, present the film as a touching anecdote about a lost boy and the woman who seems predestined to care for him. It's a bracing tale that's willing to strike heavy notes when it needs to, but throughout its brisk 87 minute running time, The Kid With a Bike never hits its notes too hard, but rather focuses on the supple emotion of its performers and its narrative.
Damsels in Distress has one of the rare titles that lets you instantly understand the mood of the film. It's a quiet, often charming, slyly funny movie, but also one with a bit of pretension and an active mind. The film is uncompromising in its vision, and certainly will wind up irritating many who are hesitant to enter its hazy world, but for those who are, it becomes a surprisingly effective slice of wit from a man eager to please if you're willing.
The film opens immediately with a trio of girls scouting out newcomers at their University to decide which is worthy of their mentoring. They settle on Lily, a quiet-but-assured transfer student, whom the girls immediately welcome into their group of self-proclaimed suicide prevents. The group, who run a center on campus, seek out girls with low self esteem and attempt to immerse them in their pleasant way of life. Until, inevitably, issues between the girls (aided by their distress - the opposite gender) start to make their way into frame.
Immediately thrust into comparisons with the other franchises aimed at young adults that populate theaters, The Hunger Games only follows along with those up to a point. It carries enough action, adventures and requisite romance to qualify, but for what it's worth, it dares to be a bit more visceral and challenging than even, I must say, the Harry Potter films. Where that franchise emphasized the grandiose wonderland of its setting (and the Twilight films hobbled along hiding behind their forced fantasy elements) Hunger Games is something else.
There's so much genuine humanity infused into the scenes of A Separation, it's hard to think you're not watching reality. What a cliche that is, but it certainly rings true of a film that carries so many layers designed to bring you into a word that, for American audiences, will be as foreign as it is enlightening. A Separation is a wonderfully realized and wholly felt work that accomplishes so much by seemingly doing so little that it's almost miraculous.
Do the components of a film ever work in such harmony as well as this? Writer-director Asghar Farhadi has crafted a screenplay with such raw feeling that it seems almost impossible his direction could be as good. But Farhadi's skill is evident in each part of the film, he carefully brings us into the lives of his characters and takes the film from being a mere morality tale to a portrait of human authenticity as effective as anything you'll find in the multiplexes for some time.