In 1988’s Bull Durham, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) famously said that “fastballs are boring, and besides that, they’re fascist.” Well, that’s how I feel about Top Ten Movies of 2012 lists.
It is that time of year in when critics of every stripe release their own personal Best Of lists. Not me. It is presumptive to think that any one critic could create a definitive list of the best movies of the year – but that’s what the title suggests. The only thing these lists are good for is stimulating debate, but what do those debates ultimately produce? There is simply no way to objectively compare films, since watching a movie is an inherently subjective experience.
To rectify this situation, I have created a list of the movies I loved and hated this year in comparison and contrast with other critics. (Yes, fantasy football enthusiasts, I borrowed this idea from Matthew Berry).
Please keep in mind that the movies I “loved” are not necessarily my favorite movies of the year. They are just those that I liked more than most of the other critics. Same with the “hate” movies – not my least favorites but ones I felt were overvalued. With that business out of the way, please enjoy the Reel Change 2012 Love/Hate list.
A Late Quartet
I am shocked that this quiet but resonant chamber drama has thus far receive no awards love, particularly since it features two Oscar-winning actors. Christopher Walken (who previously won for The Deer Hunter) plays Peter, cellist in a celebrated string quartet. Having played with each other for a quarter century, the group is thrown into disarray when Peter discovers he has Parkinson’s and announces his impending retirement. Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the group’s second violin, are superb, but the film’s biggest achievment is that it dramatizes the artistic process. It successfully demonstrates how each character’s personality is intertwined with their role in the quartet’s musical dynamic.
Will Ferrell’s movies are not made for critics, so it is no surprise that his latest, a political comedy co-starring oddball Zach Galifianakis as an ill-prepared political candidate, was met with mixed reviews. Even if they did not care for Ferrell’s usual antics, it is hard not to be impressed with this so-called silly film’s successful diagnosis of our democracy’s problems. Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow play a pair of wealthy industrialists who create and own political candidates. In this campaign, they back both sides, so they – and not the American people – will profit no matter who wins.
Critics found the adaptation of David Mitchell’s “unfilmable” novel mostly unwatchable, but I was floored by its dreamily woven fabric of six individual stories that spanned centuries. The film’s philosophy was too often stated instead of dramatized, but the purity of its vision was admirable and overwhelming. Plus, it gets degree-of-difficulty points for taking on such challenging source material and winning.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film was initially met with great praise, but the seeds for its recent under-representation in the annual critics’ awards were planted early. Even in the positive reviews, you could detect a lack of comprehension as to what The Master was actually about, although it was clear that many critics admired the performances. I felt as if I understood The Master’s subject from its opening shot of the wake of a battleship; it is a film that examines how the post-war era impacted our cultural values. Anderson plays with ideas of family, conformity, and certitude in the post-war era and allows viewers to draw connections to our own time.
Won’t Back Down
This education drama starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis was roundly panned by most critics before they even saw it. Word on the street was that Won’t Back Down vilified teachers’ unions and that the film was more of a “school choice” propaganda film than the inspirational drama it claimed to be. I found it to be a bit of both. The first half is a successful issue-based drama, and it gives voice to both sides of the issue. For a film aiming to inspire individuals to take control of the issues that affect their lives, it does the job. Sadly, it ultimately conforms to commercial convention, pitting the “school choice” proponents against the teachers’ unions, and displaying the kind of divisive rhetoric that has surrounded this issue for too long.
Critics have rightfully praised Denzel Washington’s performance (although I would still not put it in the same discussion as Training Day or Malcom X), but they also have held up Flight as a shining example of the kind of adult drama that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. Maybe they only saw the first twenty minutes because Flight got worse as it went along, spiraling into a message-driven after-school special about alcoholism. The early crash sequence is good stuff, but that scene alone certainly didn’t justify a trip to the theater.
The Five-Year Engagement
Jason Segel was terrific in this year’s Jeff Who Lives at Home, but he was oddly misused in this sour comedy from director Nicholas Stoller. The premise – a happy couple gets engaged then learns to hate each other – is the stuff of dark comedy, but the script did not go deep enough into the pain to earn its laugh. Segel’s inherent earnestness only made me sad, and the painfully unfunny sequence with the dead deer is symptomatic of the film’s problems.
There was a time when I appreciated Wes Anderson’s quirks, particularly with the relative realism of Rushmore, but as his films have traveled deeper into fantasy, I have been unable to connect. His latest, the precious Moonrise Kingdom, has been universally praised – there is even talk of an Best Picture nod – but I could find nothing real in this doll house of a movie. It’s pretty to look at, but the characters are just cardboard cut-outs.
Truthfully, I like Looper the more I think about it. But it had one serious problem I could not overlook: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s choice to rely on make-up instead of characterization in playing a young Bruce Willis. JGL is a fine actor, capable of creating a believable character on his own, and the make-up was thoroughly distracting. Given an audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief, the filmmakers should have skipped the fancy make-up job and just let the actor do his work. It seriously detracted from what was an otherwise thought-provoking and largely entertaining film.
Silver Linings Playbook
As of this writing, Silver Linings Playbook has received a 95% rating from critics on RottenTomatoes.com. It has won several critics’ awards and is a lock for a Best Picture nomination at next year’s Oscars. It didn’t work for me at all. David O. Russell’s script, which will also surely be nominated, used mental illness as a shortcut for character development. What do we know of these characters except their mental state? Bradley Cooper did well playing the manic side of his character, but I didn’t believe his shades of gray. Had the movie resolved itself with anything other than a emotionally manipulative dance competition, I could have lived with it. As it stands, I’ll be hoping it gets shut out on Oscar night.
I must admit that my hatred of Silver Linings Playbook probably has something to do with how much praise other critics have heaped upon it. My expectations were significantly raised for this film, and so my disappointment was magnified. Ultimately, this is the purpose of the Reel Change 2012 Love/Hate list. For those of you who have not seen these films, it will re-adjust your expectations and hopefully allow you to react openly and honestly. For those of you who have, it will surely spark an argument or two.
You’re welcome, I guess.