This has been a very satisfying year at the movies. It has been a few years since I had this many good experiences at the theater. From the high octane action movies to the subtle, nuanced dramas to the irreverent comedies I could have made the case for at least 10 movies to be included in my Top 3 but alas, movies like The Dark Knight Rises, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, The Hobbit, Skyfall, Argo, Brave and 21 Jump Street all fell just short. Again, my criterion for the Top 3 movies of the year is boiled down to one thing: what were the three films I ENJOYED the most this year. It should be noted that I tend to give extra credit to movies that reward you for the effort it takes to go and see them in the theater so a few of the more quiet and intimate films that were made this year get shut out because I think there is no perceptible loss if you wait to see them at home on DVD or Blu Ray. Here are my favorites from 2012.
Movies I Liked
Les Miserables – As an unabashed supporter of musical theatre, I was thrilled when it was announced that they were doing a full musical adaptation of Les Miserables for the big screen. As casting announcements started to come out, I was even more excited at the prospect of this film. The execution of this movie however, exceeded my wildest expectations. Oscar winning director Tom Hooper made a brave choice to have all of the actors sing live to camera, and it was that choice that allowed this movie to be truly great. When seeing musical theatre live it is the raw, emotional nature of the performances that makes it a great experience. Les Miserables is a story that is all about the emotional rises and falls of the characters and I wasn’t sure if that could be captured on screen with actors lip-synching pre-recorded tracks that had been polished to perfection months earlier. With Hooper challenging his actors to sing live, the immediacy of the performances push through the screen and hit the audience with full force. The anguish in Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is gripping and paints a full portrait of this woman’s collapse into despair. The pleading quaver in Hugh Jackman’s voice as he beseeches God to protect Marius before battle is haunting but laced with a desperate hope. Eddie Redmayne’s “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is a vulnerable and shattering song of sorrow for the death of his friends and guilt that he wasn’t among them when they fell. Among the more famous members of this cast there were two standouts that aren’t as well known and deserve recognition. Aaron Tveit as Enjolras and Samantha Barks as Eponine were tremendous with both their acting and singing and I can only hope I see more from each of them sooner rather than later. Les Miserables is a movie that took risks in both casting and production, and while it is not without flaws, I feel that it is those flaws that show this film’s brilliance in stark relief.
Wreck-It Ralph – This review only needs to be one sentence long: Wreck-It Ralph is absolutely delightful. Even though it is probably unnecessary, I will explain why. When animation is done well, it has no limits to how effective a story-telling medium it can be. To explore something like video games there needs to be an attention to detail and the imagination to create large interactive worlds that suits animation perfectly. The story centers around a video game villain, Wreck-It Ralph who realizes how lonely it is being the bad guy, so he sets out on a quest to win the love of the people in his game by becoming a hero. Ralph moves through several games and time after time I was impressed by the width and breadth of each game he goes into. Each setting is truly distinct and yet familiar to anyone who has grown up playing video games, like I have. The humor is fresh and original, particularly the scene with the Bad Guys Anonymous support group. What I thought helped Wreck-It Ralph rise above a number of other animated movies from this year was twofold. First, this was an exceptional cast of voice talent. In their desire to draw an audience, a lot of times the studios who develop animated movies rush to cast big-name stars in the lead roles. Just because someone is an established star doesn’t mean that they have the type of vocal range and versatility that allows them to bring to life a two dimensional drawing and give it personality. John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman and Jane Lynch were all pitch perfect in their roles. The voices were suited to each character so completely that you almost felt like they were created from the beginning with these actors in mind. I want to single out Sarah Silverman, who I thought was the best thing in Wreck-It Ralph. I am usually lukewarm on Sarah, but I can’t imagine this movie existing without her as Vanellope. Secondly, there was a great lesson about self-acceptance that was delivered without being heavy handed or overtly preachy. With this movie being primarily aimed at kids, it is never too soon to tell them that it is ok for them to be who they are no matter how flawed they think they are. Wreck-It Ralph is just great entertainment.
The Avengers – A lot of people are going to disagree with me on this one. I am perfectly fine with that. For all intents and purposes, The Avengers should have been a creative disaster. Pulling together six different Heroes (four of whom had carried an entire movie on their own) and creating a cohesive storyline that featured each of them enough to justify their presence, while also getting a strong performance from the villain should have proven to be too much for Joss Whedon. It wasn’t. Whedon was the ideal choice to helm a project like this because, like Sam Raimi before him with the Spider-man movies, he has a true passion for the subject matter. The Avengershad great balance between how well it was written and how well it was shot. For a movie that topped 2 hours and 20 minutes, it managed to advance the story at a consistent pace, which kept it from dragging and the writers hit a number of homeruns with well-placed laughs. The humor was one of the things that, to me, set The Avengers apart from a movie like The Dark Knight Rises. It allowed you to catch your breath in between the big action sequences without becoming slightly maudlin. Finally, The Avengers managed to do something that most people thought was impossible, it made the Hulk likeable. There had already been two attempts to turn the Hulk into a franchise and neither one was successful, so people were skeptical that this third try would be any better. The addition of Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner had a rumpled and wary charm to it, and showed that the man is more than just the monster. Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark had his customary sharp-tongued swagger; the underrated Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth did a lot of heavy lifting in the battle scenes and Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson provided a little bit of emotional subtext to a story that tended toward the superficial. The Avengers was truly a collaborative success. If any of the many major moving parts hadn’t fit, it would have collapsed like a house of cards. Instead, it worked so well that it guarantees that all of these characters will be around for another go in one form or another and that is just fine by me.
Movie I Didn’t Like
Rock of Ages – I went to see this movie ready to really enjoy myself just like I had when I saw Rock of Ages on Broadway a few years ago. From stage to screen, this movie lost all of its shameless, rollicking joy. I like the music that fuels this show and I like the wild abandon with which the audience is encouraged to join in. None of that existed on screen during this movie. Rock of Ages managed to round up a stellar cast and how those actors managed to give those performances, I will never know. Tom Cruise was the only person who was able to fully lose himself in his role, while everyone else seemed to hope that their funny wigs or acid washed jeans would get the laughs for them. The singing was fine but like a lot of things in Rock of Ages it seemed a little too stiff and measured for a story that is about the power and thrill of Rock and Roll. If you missed it in the theater, feel free to miss it on DVD too.
You Didn’t See This (But You Should Have)
Chronicle – I wasn’t going to see Chronicle until I read a short article about it in Entertainment Weekly that sparked my interest. I am so glad I did. This movie gave me a new director and 3 new actors whose careers I will be following closely from now on. Chronicle is about an unlikely trio who form a bond when at a high school party they find a mysterious object that gives them superpowers. As they develop their new abilities and become aware of all of the possibilities that exist for them, they develop a friendship that is cemented by the fact that they share something that no one else can understand. Chronicle uses the increasingly common “found footage” format to tell this story, and while I haven’t liked this plot device in the past, director Josh Trank makes it a very effective way to engage the audience. The middle third of this movie is where it becomes something special. When the movie starts we are introduced to Andrew, his cousin Matt and Matt’s friend Steve. Matt and Steve are both athletic, popular Alphas at their high school, while Andrew is the awkward loner who is always filming everything with his video camera. At home we see Andrew getting constantly bullied by his alcoholic father as he watches his mother succumb to a terminal illness. His escape is his newly burgeoning friendship with Matt and Steve as they develop their new abilities and test their limits. Cole DeHaan plays Andrew and does an amazing job of showing how seductive strength can be to someone who has only ever known weakness. Andrew becomes increasingly more volatile and dangerous as his self-control wanes. Alex Russell as Matt and Michael B. Jordan as Steve try to use their friendship with Andrew to help him keep his balance but realize he is slipping away from them, taken over by his darker urges. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but what Josh Trank does with a limited budget is inspiring and should be a lesson to other directors that bigger isn’t always better. The three leads in Chronicle bear watching, because I am certain we will hear a lot more from them. See this movie!