#11: The Five-Year Engagement
Directed by Nicholas Stoller, written by Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel
Per usual, I’m cheating a bit with my Top 10 and placing a film in the #11 slot that simply begged to be included. What started as a simple numbering error in 2009 has become a means for me to include a film that spoke to me personally in a significant way – to split hairs between the films that are somehow, empirically “the best” (a dubious distinction) vs. simply being the ones I enjoyed or identified with the most. While this is certainly one of the more well-made romantic comedies I’ve seen (almost reaching the level of Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel‘s previous collaboration, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), the film also benefited from perfect timing. As it happens, I saw it two weeks prior to my wedding, when both my future-wife and I were taking a well-deserved night off from wedding planning (and incidentally, each other’s company). Planning a wedding is a stressful affair, and as happy as you end up on the day, at a certain point you just need to take a break from it all.
And it was on this level that The Five-Year-Engagement spoke to me directly. The film sits firmly in the camp that while everyone probably has someone who can be called the love of their life, it is supremely naive to assume that the person will be 100% perfect for you. Or even close to it. What happens between Segel and Emily Blunt is solid chemistry and believable romance. But it’s not a fairy tale, even if it gets a bit silly in its pursuit of a fairytale ending. Their relationship feels incredibly true-to-life, bumps and all. While Forgetting was primarily about the allure of moving on after a bad relationship, Five-Year is about finding happiness with the closest thing to your soul mate that you can manage. As perspectives on love go, this could come off as incredibly cynical. But Segel manages to bring the same staggering amount of heart and earnestness that he’s done over and over again in his acting roles. Actor and film alike both wear their heart on their sleeve, and the result is both endearing and hilarious.
#10: The Raid: Redemption
Written and directed by Gareth Evans
Congratulations, Gareth Evans, you may have ruined me for other action films. I’m not going to summarize the plot here. See the poster above for an adequate summary. In fact, the plot bears a staggering – and apparently coincidental – similarity to this year’s Dredd, and story is hardly the film’s biggest selling point anyway. This film contains the most intense, balls-to-the-wall martial arts action I have ever seen in a theater. It is immaculately shot, intensely paced, and doesn’t lose steam for an instant.
Directed by Richard Linklater, screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on the article by Skip Hollandsworth
Jack Black gives a bravura comedic performance as mortician’s assistant Bernie Tiede, in this true-life tale of an incident in a small-town in Texas. Because it is based on a true story, Bernie makes the bold choice to reveal very early on in the film that something dire, if not lethal, has happened to both Bernie and wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), using its most persistently hilarious storytelling device: on-camera interviews with the “townspeople”, who constantly refer to the two of them in the past tense. The film sits somewhere between The Office and Best in Show with its sense of realism. This is not the first time I’ve seen this method, but in a straight-laced drama like Frost/Nixon, the technique was a complete distraction, whereas in a dark comedy and portrait of small-town life like Bernie, it actually works rather well. The film abandons its pseudo-documentary format whenever the storytelling requires it, and yet the constant cross-cutting to supposedly real-life townspeople reveals the extent to which they are all involved in each other’s personal business. They gossip constantly about community, church, sex, money, and every combination thereof, and the resulting town feels very lived-in. When the crime finally happens, the townspeople are aghast. Bernie brilliantly portrays the cognitive dissonance that occurs when someone you like has done a bad, bad thing to someone you don’t like. The relationship between Bernie and Marjorie is wonderfully complex and twisted, and what ends up happening between them mingles somewhere between family drama, legal thriller, and hilarious dark comedy.
As of this writing, Bernie is available on Netflix streaming. Check it out today!
#8: The Cabin in the Woods
Directed by Drew Goddard, written by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon
The Cabin in the Woods might well have succeeded as a straight-laced horror film, if only because it features an ensemble of intelligent, likable, and persistently sympathetic characters (played by age-appropriate actors), which already puts it about ten steps ahead of your average backwoods slaughterfest. But Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard take it a step further, placing the entire film into an elaborate Skinner Box whose carefully controlled circumstances manage to elevate the stakes beyond the mere survival of this merry band. On the off-chance you don’t yet know the central premise of this film, I won’t spoil it for you here, but suffice to say, all is not what it seems, and the film’s puppetstrings are pulled brilliantly by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. This film exists in a wonderfully dark-comic grey zone, simultaneously reveling in the slaughter that it perpetrates while slowing down just enough to call the audience out for liking it quite so much. This is a film for horror fans who don’t mind seeing the worst parts of their beloved genre dragged to the surface for ritual slaughter. The horror standard has been driven inexorably upward by this film, and while there was at least one other solid contender this year, it has yet to be unseated.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Politics! That’s what this film delivers, and that should tell you in a word whether you’ll enjoy it or not. There is a scene in this film in which the indispensable Daniel Day-Lewis sits in a chair as President Abraham Lincoln and explains, in detail, exactly what a legal, political, and constitutional clusterbomb the Emancipation Proclamation really was. Freeing all the slaves in the rebelling Confederate states by executive order was an unprecedented act in muddy legal waters, and it is precisely these waters that the film wades into as it explores the backdoor dealings behind the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. The specter of the amendment’s passage, the end of the Civil War, and Lincoln’s imminent assassination hang over the film at all times, and it is to the film’s storytelling credit that it manages to present these three events as the high-stakes historical standoff that they really were. Despite the audience knowing full-well how the political fight will be resolved, it’s clear at all times that any of these three events has the potential to derail the others. In Spielberg and Kushner’s vision of history, it could only have happened precisely the way that it did, because anything less would have been disastrous for the nation.
To serve this predestined vision of history, the film lionizes Lincoln to an almost absurd degree, and the illustrious executive is constantly interrupting scenes with quaint little anecdotes about his lawyering past that bear some oblique relevance to the present conflict. He is essentially a Christ figure, always ready with a parable or pearl of wisdom to sate the hungry masses – and ready to be sacrificed for the sins of his beloved Union. I’m at a loss to explain why this works so well. It should have been incredibly heavy-handed, but Day-Lewis’ magnificent performance keeps it grounded in the historical circumstances at all times. Lincoln was neither a flawless politician nor a flawless man, and Lincoln never tries to convince us otherwise. The film is also bolstered by a magnificent ensemble cast. I could end this description by naming at least a dozen outstanding supporting players, but I’ll just mention the strongest here: Tommy Lee Jones gives his finest performance in years as the staunch and ailing abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Rian Johnson’s Looper sets up a complex (and paradoxical) time travel story in which older and younger versions of the same character (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) are out to kill each other. Well, kinda. It’s wonderfully elaborate, and it makes just enough sense to comprise the most polished entry in this genre since the Terminator franchise. It also features a brilliantly transformative performance from Gordon-Levitt, who takes his impression of Willis to a staggering degree of authenticity.
From my review:
The film sets up a clever time travel mechanic wherein Future Joe – whose mere presence is altering his own timeline – doesn’t know the outcome of every situation involving his younger self, but he does remember it once it happens. It’s an action-oriented version of Marty McFly fading away from a photograph, and the film explains it with just the right amount of technobabble and disturbing imagery, punctuated by Willis telling his younger self (and perhaps the logic centers of the audience’s brains) to kindly shut the fuck up and stop wasting time slogging through the murky waters of time travel.
This bit of hand waving makes for an extremely haunting and effective ending, as we’re left to consider the full and lasting impact of Future Joe’s presence in this timeline. Looper dares to present us with high personal stakes for both versions of its protagonist, set them in opposition to each other, then force us to consider whether the future of this despicable person should be saved.
#5: Moonrise Kingdom
Directed by Wes Anderson, screenplay by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
From my review:
Moonrise Kingdom is a triumphant return to form for Wes Anderson (along with co-writer Roman Coppola), meticulously crafting a rich and memorable world in the fictitious island of New Penzance off the Atlantic Coast. The film takes a bit of time to find its footing, owing to the bizarrely precocious dialogue of its young, first-time leads. But as their chaste and cordial romp gets into full swing, the two actors somehow find an accord. These kids are determined to skip ahead to grownup life, bidding farewell to their erstwhile families and making a life for themselves in the wilderness. They are the embodiment of “us against the world”, even if their oppressive world is like something from the mind of Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling.
This film is a sweet and nostalgic chronicle of the wondrous worlds that we create in childhood, and even manages to delve into the dire consequences of growing up, without ever losing a bit of its charm.
#4: Seven Psychopaths
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh
I could summarize the plot here, as I often do, but here’s what you need to know. This is the film in which Martin McDonagh thoroughly beat Quentin Tarantino at his own game this year. Seven Psychopaths is pure, bloody-minded, un-PC, hilarious filmmaking, and manages to deconstruct and reflect upon the genre much better than a vapid bloodbath like Django Unchained could manage.
From my review:
Seven Psychopaths seizes on the fundamental truth of storytelling that no idea is completely original. You may think it came from a serendipitous muse that squirted it into your brain from the collective unconscious, but we are the inexorable products of our surroundings, our culture, and most importantly, our stories. Stories we’ve been told, stories we’ve forgotten, and stories we’ve subsequently retold and passed off as our own work. This is a bloody-minded Adaptation. Hugo without the whimsy. It is sickeningly self-aware, and could have felt like a lesser parody of either of those films if not for such a perfect ensemble cast.
#3: Life of Pi
Directed by Ang Lee, screenplay by David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel
Pi Patel (played for most of the film by Suraj Sharma) is a fascinating character, but even more fascinating is how much time the film spends setting up his backstory. The first 20 minutes of Life of Pi are as much of a visual feast as the rest of the film, and yet they feature little more than a series of extended dialogue scenes as we get to know Pi and his family, and more importantly, his various thoughts on religion. Pi dabbles in a variety of faiths, and this character setup pays off marvelously when the film abruptly becomes a one-man show after the first act. Once Pi is stranded on a raft in the South Pacific with a Bengal tiger (I relish the absurdity of those words!), Life of Pi becomes a taut survival thriller, but remains a fascinating character piece. Whether emoting opposite a CGI tiger or trying to defeat the elements and survive, Sharma – who has no prior credits on IMDb – is equal to the task, demonstrating the proficiency of a much more experienced actor (specifically, Tom Hanks in Cast Away). The film tackles a variety of themes with impressive clarity, and unlike my #1 film below, Life of Pi‘s treatment of religion is essential to its appeal. While I tend to think that the film’s liberal, inclusivist take on religion is unlikely to win many converts, it still makes Pi a fascinating and sympathetic character. At times, he seems naive – likely to be disappointed by the imperfect world in which he lives. And yet, by the film’s end, the grownup Pi (played brilliantly by Irrfan Khan) seems far more savvy and wise than the average religious dilettante. The effectiveness of the film’s ending lies in its ability to be interpreted in a variety of ways, with each viewer’s individual experiences and beliefs informing their perception of it. And theists and atheists alike will certainly have a take on one of the film’s most absurdly poignant questions: Can a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker possibly be your friend?
Beyond the absurdity of the film’s premise lies an earnestness and zeal that is so often lacking in the cynical cinematic world we live in these days. Life of Pi is excited to explore the world it inhabits, and every visual detail (including some of the best 3D that I’ve seen since Avatar) bears this out.
Listen to me and Daniel discuss this film on the podcast:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #29 – “Life of Pi” (dir. Ang Lee)
#2: The Imposter
Directed by Bart Layton
I don’t dare reveal too much about The Imposter. But you will not find a more shadowy or charismatic figure this year than Frédéric Bourdin, con-artist extraordinaire, whose machinations comprise the bulk of this documentary. The film cross-cuts between interviews and impeccable reenactments (similarly to Man on Wire), and leaves you constantly wondering what’s going to happen next – or indeed, how we’re even seeing these interviews. What really happened with Bourdin and this small-town Texas family? All I can offer you is my absolute certainty that you will find it much more engaging if you don’t know the full facts in advance. Don’t Google this one. Don’t let anyone jokingly spoil it for you. Like Catfish, you’re better off seeing this magnificent documentary before its subject ends up on CNN.
Listen to me and Daniel discuss this film on the podcast:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #22 – “Safety Not Guaranteed” (dir. Colin Trevorrow), “The Imposter” (dir. Bart Layton) (SIFF)
#1: Cloud Atlas
Written for the screen and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski, based on the novel by David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas has been the subject of much contention (even on our very own podcast), but dammit if any other film stuck with me as thoroughly as this one did. I saw it twice back in October, and haven’t stopped thinking of it or intermittently listening to Tom Tykwer‘s magnificent score since. You can listen to our podcast for detail on just how thoroughly this film resonated with me, but the gist is this: you don’t need to buy into the film’s relatively simple religious or metaphysical message in order to appreciate the intensely interconnected narrative that is at work here. Basically, you can take the religious aspects or leave them. The most poignant and effective connections between these characters are narrative and thematic above all else. These six parallel storylines are woven precisely in an epic that spans multiple centuries. This film’s ambition is surely to be admired, but only because it delivers so thoroughly on its promise. It’s a tour de force of editing, with editor Alexander Berner brilliantly cross-cutting and completing shots even with hundreds of years and completely different visual styles separating them. A character might begin to turn in one time period, and another character (perhaps – but not always – the same actor) will complete that turn without interruption. An escape sequence in the 22nd Century darts back and forth with a slave leaping through a ship’s sails in the 19th, and at all times, the same level of intensity is maintained, whether it is high or low from moment to moment. By the end, none of the characters (except perhaps that of Tom Hanks in the 1970s) feels shortchanged in the least. In an achievement rarely matched in parallel storytelling, every last character in the film’s sprawling and incestuous cast list is given adequate screentime to establish an emotional connection with the audience.
Even the film’s most batty choices, such as the devilish (and apparently disembodied) Hugo Weaving in the distant future only serve to amp up the stakes. The film even goes so far as to craft a language – a tricky “future-speak” that has enough respect for its audience to force them to pay close attention – even in the very first shot of the film, featuring a grizzled future-Hanks that probably made some viewers wonder if their theater’s sound system was malfunctioning.
And yes, most of the race and age makeup in this film is intolerably bad. But still I marvel that such an elaborate and visually magnificent film managed to emerge from outside of the studio system. This is by far the biggest indie film I’ve ever seen. Despite a few missteps, which I counted as minimal compared to its triumphs, I spent the entire film rapt with attention, respected as an audience member, and exhilarated by the outcome. Whether you’re looking for romance, adventure, sci-fi action, or a thoughtful message, this cinematic feast has something to offer you. While I will readily admit that Cloud Atlas is not for everyone, I look forward to defending this masterpiece for years to come.
Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film on the podcast:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #27 – “Cloud Atlas” (dir. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer)
- Argo (directed by Ben Affleck, screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on an article by Joshuah Bearman)
- Compliance (written and directed by Craig Zobel)
- Silver Linings Playbook (written for the screen and directed by David O. Russell, novel by Matthew Quick)
- Killer Joe (directed by William Friedkin, screenplay by Tracy Letts based on his play)
- Les Misérables (directed by Tom Hooper, screenplay/book/lyrics/novel by a lot of people)
- Sound of My Voice (directed by Zal Batmanglij, written by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling)
- The Avengers (written for the screen and directed by Joss Whedon, story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, comic book and characters by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Joe Simon)
- Fat Kid Rules the World (directed by Matthew Lillard, screenplay by Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman, based on the novel by K.L. Going)
- Beasts of the Southern Wild (directed by Benh Zeitlin, screenplay by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, based on a play by Lucy Alibar)
- Promised Land (directed by Gus Van Sant, screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, story by Dave Eggers)