'Oz the Great and Powerful'
Another Year, Another Damn List
'Tis the season to make year-end lists and, while I have my faves, I think it might be a tad more interesting to explore some of the year's cinematic trends and thematic triumphs. Near-misses, almost-rans and abject failures are often more worthy of comment than the inevitable shuffle of consensus picks
The Three Best Movies You Should Have Seen But, Noooo, You Had To Waste 10 Bucks On Oz The Great and Powerful
Looking over the big boy reviewers and their top 10 lists, the majority of this year's celebrated directors—the Coens, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, Alfonso Cuarón—are baby boomer white males. So too are most film critics. Steve McQueen and Spike Jonze represent for GenX. But it's the Millennials that deserve the attention—at awards banquets and at the box office.
Both in their 30s, Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Take This Waltz) and Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) have quickly established themselves as filmmakers with immense vision, craft and creativity. Nichol's tragically under-the-radar Mud is a lyrical slice of modern Americana that plays like a cross between a chase thriller and Huckleberry Finn. Matthew McConaughey rules in an award-worthy supporting role but it's the kids’ performances that'll blow you away. Meanwhile, Polley's Stories We Tell is a masterfully intimate documentary that forces you to reevaluate what you've seen while you're watching it. It's a brainy and heartfelt examination of just how unreliable the truth can be.
New on the scene is writer-director Destin Cretton, whose barely seen Short Term 12 was an unsentimental yet profoundly compassionate indie drama about the emotionally damaged staff and kids at a foster care facility. While the entire cast is terrific, Brie Larson delivers this year's best female performance. My fellow members at the Detroit Film Critics Society agreed, awarding Larson top honors for her devastatingly authentic work.
We're All Gonna Die! And It Might Be Kinda Funny
This year continued a three-year trend where Hollywood invested big bucks into imagining humanity's apocalyptic end. But whereas previous years' world catastrophes were all somber and serious, only World War Z seemed to embrace the nihilism of our collective demise. Instead, Guillermo Del Toro gave us kick-ass giant robots to stave off the apocalypse in Pacific Rim while comedies like Edgar Wright's The World's End and Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's This Is The End saw the end of days as an opportunity for big laughs. Who knew mass death could be so funny?
Dude, Why Not Just Retire?
Is there a less interesting, more jaded actor working today than Bruce Willis? Look, I get it Bruce, action movies like A Good Day To Die Hard, Red 2 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation suck hard. But there's this amazing word in the dictionary. Maybe you've heard of it? It's spelled N-O. Unless alimony payments to Demi are seriously kicking your ass, I can't imagine that you need the money that much. But if you just can't help yourself, don't take it out on some poor fanboy movie blogger—he didn't make you sign the damn contract.
From Hell's Heart I Sat At Thee, J.J. Abrams
Spock yells “KHAAAN!?” Seriously? That was your big new idea? Let me explain something: One of the virtues of Star Trek has been its ability to straddled the line between thoughtful science fiction and pulpy space opera. Gene Roddenberry and the Trek creators that followed carefully fashioned a rich and somewhat believable universe that treated its fan-base with respect. Star Trek Into Darkness pretty much threw that sentiment into a transporter and beamed it onto the planet Ah, Who Gives A Shit? Yeah, the effects were cool and we get that you have a hard-on for lens flares, but this sloppily plotted sequel to your otherwise respectable reboot was as internally illogical as it was bereft of original ideas. Flipping Spock's and Kirk's roles in a Wrath Of Khan retread isn't imaginative—it's stupid and lazy.
Really, Really Good But Not That Good
David O. Russell riffs on Martin Scorsese while Martin Scorsese riffs on himself. The Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour, balls-to-the-wall indictment of American greed that will invoke memories of GoodFellas and then some. In tackling the true-life tale of a drug-addled, immoral penny-stock megalomaniac (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the 71-year-old Scorsese seems determined to prove that he can out-Scorsese all the Scorsese imitators that have followed in his footsteps. As a result the movie is fitfully brilliant but far too long. American Hustle, on the other hand, knows not to wear out its welcome and sports the best ensemble in the worst of hairdos. A ’70s era con movie set during Abscam, Russell's comedic drama fizzes with brash energy and nutty performances but has a mess of a plot that botches its central conceit: the cons are neither convincing nor all that clever. Still, it's to Russell's considerable credit that you probably won't notice.
Best Cinematic Acid Trip
You're either all-in, or you're way out. It's hard to imagine anyone taking the middle road on Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, a movie that seems like David Lynch and Terrence Malick collaborated to remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Puzzling but not meant to be a puzzle, this micro-budget mindfuck is the cinema of experience rather than a dramatic story to follow. Though its outlandish conceits may seem surreal, it actually adheres to its own internal logic while demanding that you arrive at your own meaning. I loved it, but your mileage may vary.
Second Verse Not As Good As The First
Remakes are de rigueur in Hollywood today so I guess we should be grateful that this year saw only half a dozen hit the silver screen. Most were financially and creatively D.O.A. Oldboy, Carrie and Parker all paled in comparison to the originals and were fittingly ignored at the box office. Evil Dead earned more than a few fans for its decision to up the brutality factor while trying to emulate the scares of the original. We Are What We Are remade a Mexican cannibal horror few heard of and even less saw. Its slow burn and understated approach improved on the original's gritty low budget feel, but attracted minuscule audiences. Which leaves for last The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller's Christmas day blockbuster. Highly watchable but hardly better than the 1947 Danny Kaye film and unworthy of comparisons to Thurber's original short story, it remains to be seen whether it'll be a hit. I suspect it will.