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The Year in Movies

Overlooked Movies of the Year

In defense of the occasionally — OK, pretty frequently — indefensible

Price Check

Parker Posey has a bank vault of linguistic skills, but one supersedes all others: Her ability to scream the words “Jesus Christ.” There’s never been anyone better at saying those particular words with so much exasperation and so little regard for the recipient of her vitriol (Bob Knight is second, but he’s a distant second). If someone made a movie in which Parker Posey just walked around New York screaming “Jesus Christ” into the faces of random character actors, it would be the funniest film of the past 10 years. In Price Check, she screams “Jesus Christ” only twice, which merely makes it the funniest film of 2012.

Price Check is about an uninteresting man (Eric Mabius) who shows up at work and discovers that his new boss (Posey) is highly motivated, goal-oriented, and pathologically insane. She has no sense of social boundaries and sexualizes non-sexual situations; she’s tyrannical, emotionally unreasonable, professionally unstoppable, and keenly self-aware of how her personality destabilizes everyone around her. It’s an amazing performance that feels much more plausible than it should, solely thanks to the immersion of the person performing it. A lot of the dialogue in Price Check is reminiscent of Margin Call — characters argue about arcane, hyper-dense details within the insular sphere of supermarket salesmanship, so it’s sometimes impossible to understand exactly what they’re debating. But this is part of the point: What’s fascinating about modern business is not what people talk about, but how they go about talking. You don’t need to understand the specific meaning to grasp the absurdity of the context. You also don’t need to know why Posey is screaming “Jesus Christ” to understand how that screaming makes her a genius. All you have to do is sit there and listen.
— Chuck Klosterman

Dredd


It was a Friday-afternoon goof. It was a seemingly low-risk/low-reward ticket purchase: At worst, it would be two wasted, headache-inducing hours of bullets threatening to shatter the lenses of a pair of uncomfortable 3-D glasses; at best, there would be no headache and I’d see some shit blown up in mildly entertaining fashion. But Dredd, against all odds, was probably my most enjoyable moviegoing experience of the year, one of those borderline magical cinematic conversions where you enter the theater an ambivalent observer and leave it a crazy-eyed disciple, wanting nothing more than to spread the gospel, ring the bell outside the big-box store, drive around in the PT Cruiser with the shrink-wrapped image of Karl Urban’s clenched jaw. If you were unlucky enough to ask me “Seen anything good lately?” from late September on, you heard about it in the same exhausting breath as The Master.

But what is Dredd? It’s possible — no, likely — you missed it, that you weren’t even aware of its existence, that you wrote it off because of the vague memory of a scowling Sylvester Stallone in a nice helmet. If you’re a fan of the source material, you don’t need me to explain it to you. But for everyone else: It’s about future cops (who serve as in-the-field judges, juries, and executioners) who get trapped in a dystopian housing project controlled by a gang slinging the designer drug “Slo-Mo,” and must shoot their way out with the world’s coolest guns. An inhaler-delivered hit of Slo-Mo turns everything into a swirling, crackhead-bullet-time fantasia, where armor-piercing ammo shreds flesh and bodies plummet from ledges with impossible grace. (They splatter with slightly less-impossible, but still pretty breathtaking, grace.) Shit blows up in wildly entertaining fashion.

This is a fun movie, is what I’m getting at. You should see it. Be forewarned: This is one of the very, very few theatrical releases that earned its third dimension, so some of the magic may get lost in translation on its way to your home TV, unless you live in one of those Jetsons living rooms with a non-migraine-inducing 3-D screen. But I’d be willing to bet that even when flattened out by your Blu-ray player, the bullet-riddled bodies plummeting through the time-deadening haze of Slo-Mo are still going to splatter with well-above-average grace.
— Mark Lisanti


The Campaign



When I was an angry young man, I used to brood over angry-young-man-type subjects such as “Why is so much mediocre art popular?” At 19, I was intensely bothered by strangers watching sitcoms I found unfunny and movies I believed were not artistically valid. But I no longer worry about this. In fact, I am now part of the problem. This year, I became a father. And, yes, it’s changed my life and made me a better person and I’m pretty sure I’m less selfish and more forgiving now. But it’s also made me see the appeal of “good because it’s there” entertainment. Sometimes your son won’t go to sleep. He may cry. He may take your brain and wring it out like a car-wash sponge. When this happens, you just want to end the day with something watchable — not something shitty, not something great, something watchable. Watchable is a smooth Sunday drive in your dead grandparents’ Buick. It is the artistic equivalent of a quick and efficient drive-through transaction at McDonald’s. Watchable is even-keeled.

The little-loved Will Ferrell–Zach Galifianakis political comedy The Campaign is the most memorable “good because it’s there” entertainment experience I had this year, in that it was comfortably and reliably unmemorable. I rented it, I recognized the well-worn shtick that Ferrell and Galifianakis had employed better elsewhere (but still solidly enough here), and I appreciated that there was nothing worth loving or hating too much. It killed the hell out of my time. I went in feeling stressed out and glazed over, and 85 minutes later I felt relaxed and glazed over. You simply can’t ask for more from undemanding art.
— Steven Hyden

Bachelorette


There is so much to love about Bachelorette, writer/director Leslye Headland’s wedding comedy. It’s a tart mimosa rimmed with arsenic sugar, a group of old friends dissecting their shared history while spracked to the ceiling on a mission from hell. Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, and Lizzy Caplan give career-high performances (in every sense of the term) as an uptight blonde, slutty redhead, and neurotic brunette, respectively. Superficially it resembles The Hangover, but Bachelorette‘s true spiritual sisters are Mean Girls and Heathers. Bridesmaids proved that female ensemble comedies could be profitable without sanding off the edges, and Bachelorette goes even harder into the heart of girly darkness. It’s endlessly watchable, the sort of movie that should play midnight screenings at colleges and run on HBO year-round. Bachelorette hit no. 1 on iTunes VOD, a testament to positive online word of mouth and the generally unsatisfied hunger to see talented women being funny in movies together. And one hilariously novel gross-out gag.
— Molly Lambert

The Bourne Legacy



Two paths diverged in Hollywood: prequel and sequel. Tony Gilroy chose something different: a parallel. He set out to reboot the Bourne franchise he was partly responsible for creating (or at least popularizing). He wound up rebooting Frankenstein. And as these things usually go, the doctor is more interesting than the monster.

Say hi to the bad guy …

Ah, but Edward Norton’s Eric Byer is not simply a villain. Like he says in the beginning of the film, after the enormity of the Jason Bourne scandal begins to infect related black-ops projects, Byer is just trying to find out how much he has to cut to save the patient. A master operator, this fixer, tied to a shadowy government agency (the National Research Assay Group), doesn’t do his work in an operating room or in the field. He’s in the shadows, the margins. Back-alley meetings with agents who are emotionally and physically dependent on him, in diners with joint chiefs whom he tells only what they need to know, in windowless rooms overseeing drone strikes to clean up the messes of others. The Bourne films have traditionally been about spies who are trying to come in from the cold. To that end, The Bourne Legacy is a fine addition to the franchise. But in terms of showing us how these agents became the way they are, and who made them that way, the fourth film is in a class by itself.
— Chris Ryan

Prometheus


What a strange lifespan this squid baby has had. Barring Bane breaking Bruce Wayne’s back, it was probably the single most anticipated movie of 2012: Ridley Scott returning to the franchise that gave his career the might of a stomach-bursting alien; a steely cast led by an eerily composed, skyhookin’ Michael Fassbender; a BRRONNGGG-laden trailer that had the hairs on top of the hairs on our neck standing at attention. (“WE WERE SO WRONG!”) We were so excited at Grantland that we commissioned two obsessives to write 10,000 words about the franchise.

Then the movie was released. And it made no sense. Or if it did to a select few, it wasn’t in the way the rest of us wanted.

I have no interest in parsing the philosophical underpinning of this movie. There are some ideas in play, of course, but they are so sloppily gathered, and the plot of the film is so goofily rigged, that it amounts to hot breath in a cold car. My advice, instead, is to buy a 140-inch television, purchase the Blu-ray of this movie, turn up the volume, grab a sodium-attack-sized bag of Rold Gold Honey Wheat Braided Twists Pretzels, and drink in the grandeur. Because Scott, after years spent filming Russell Crowe frolicking through vineyards, still knows how to deliver heart-clutching tension and eye-strafing beauty. Spaceships slicing through cloud masses. Hologram homicide. Life-scanning techno-balls of red light coursing through damp tunnels. A decapitated alien skull combusting under pressure. A self-Cesarean that will haunt your night terrors for weeks. You rarely see things this big, this strange, this stomach-turning in movies today. Prometheus is finally about one thing: squirming viscera, the creepy things that crawl on you and worm their way inside your system. If you can forget the theoretical, the movie will do the same.
— Sean Fennessey

Wanderlust


Paul Rudd is always appreciated. Jennifer Aniston is always underrated. Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston together are comic magnificence as a couple who decide to dabble ineptly in rural communal living when the bum economy knocks them out of their shoebox of an NYC apartment (“It’s a micro-loft,” the realtor explains). Highlights: Rudd’s beyond-brilliant outtake improv in a mirror; Linda Lavin and Alan Alda more than holding their own within the Childrens Hospital–meets–Party Down vibe created by David Wain and Ken Marino; and an extremely funny, unexpectedly vicious parody of what it’s like to take a meeting at HBO. Oh, and every moment Rudd and Aniston spend together. This is also 40.
— Mark Harris


Moonrise Kingdom


It’s become commonplace to say that Wes Anderson’s movies aren’t really products of the twee, sweatbanded hipster irony with which they share their set design. And it’s true, up to a point. Anderson’s characters’ longing for the lost original innocence of 1960s children’s books is a different thing from the basically vengeful immersion in nostalgia-kitsch that characterizes hipsterdom. But Anderson’s films are still essentially ironic, and before Moonrise Kingdom it would have been hard to argue that their irony wasn’t their strength: plunging grown-up depression, incest, and suicide, Belafonte-like, into a world cribbed from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’s mixed-up files created a sort of failed emotional tesseract, innocence proving even more painfully impossible to recapture when you were surrounded by its tennis rackets and pup tents and steamer trunks. Kids in midcentury kids’ novels were always trying to escape their own milieus — why else was Harriet spying? — but after Max Fischer, and with the partial exception of the spy-novel-obsessed Royal Tenenbaum, Anderson’s characters mostly wanted to crawl back inside theirs. And they couldn’t, even though they were already there.

(This is why I hated Fantastic Mr. Fox, by the way — because it turned that adult-feelings/children’s-wallpaper divide into a vehicle for a much cruder irony, using its little cartoon animals as mouthpieces for jokes about credit scores and the boss coming home for dinner. Admittedly, I was the only person on earth who felt this way.)

What Moonrise Kingdom did that made me question my whole previous impression of Anderson was to suddenly turn the game straight. It gave a couple of kids a suitcase full of children’s novels, then sent them on an escape quest to find something like grown-up happiness. It had subplot-level irony, but the main story, while still looking like a Wes Anderson movie, was startlingly simple and beautiful. All the characteristic baubles of WASP ur-memory — the compasses and Scout badges and record machines and pop-guns — were there, but instead of realism-buttresses gone mad, they felt like conspirators in a low-grade surrealism that wasn’t quite like anything in any earlier Anderson movie. They felt like props from a dream. People mostly saw this movie and said nice things about it and forgot it, but I thought it opened a pretty exciting way forward for Anderson. Call it an irony of reconciliation: He finally achieved oneness with his vision of late mid-century America by showing two characters trying to get away.
— Brian Phillips

Bernie



Bernie got great reviews, but it grossed less than $10 million, maybe because deeply sympathetic murderers are a tough sell. It’s the kind of movie that benefits from low expectations going in: meandering, character-driven, and featuring lots of interviews with Southern people parked on stoops, speaking v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and like they’re languishing in humidity. Jack Black is pretty super, but it’s Harmonic Convergence fan Shirley MacLaine’s frostiness and protracted lunch-chewing as Marge Nugent that I found so fascinating. It comes in a few beats below ha-ha funny — more of a silent giggler — but it’s one of those textured, pretty movies that makes you want to clean your house and eat toasted carbohydrates afterward.
— Tess Lynch

Safe House



Wherein 115 minutes elapse not in the service of “plot” — ex-CIA operative, double-crossing double-crossers, lionhearted rookie, USB drive, etc., etc. — or heretofore unplundered-by-Hollywood locations (Cape Town, mostly) or twisty action scenes set to “No Church in the Wild” (every trailer should be recut to “No Church in the Wild”), but because it takes 110 minutes for the eternally bewildered Ryan Reynolds to realize he’d rather be Denzel Washington, even if Denzel Washington has been trying to kill him the entire time. Sort of like Training Day with vuvuzelas. I think they were supposed to be portraying characters in a fictional universe, but I’d prefer to think of Safe House as a meta-commentary on what it’s like to actually be Ryan Reynolds starring in a movie alongside Denzel Washington. In one corner: as deferentially Canadian an action hero as we’ll ever see. In the other, Denzel at 70 percent Denzelness, more than enough to carry the latest installment of this circa-2000s Denzel sub-genre featuring Denzel co-starring with (and feasting on) an earnest, young, B plus–level white guy, usually by retaining his wisecracky chill during an apocalypse. We all end up in his thrall, not because he is persuasive or likable or tries hard, but because he makes everyone else on-screen seem like they’re actually acting.
— Hua Hsu

Pitch Perfect



I hoped to love Pitch Perfect from the first time I saw the trailer. There were so many things to get excited about: cheesy singing, Brittany Snow as a redhead, that guy from Workaholics, “No Diggity,” the name “Fat Amy,” the hope that perhaps Season 3 of Glee had not irreparably damaged the musical comedy. It’s been 12 years since Bring It On introduced Toros into our atmosphere, and there hasn’t been a teen comedy with the same wide appeal since. Was this going to revive the genre?

Then the movie delivered on nearly all of these notes. Sure, it was clearly overedited to eliminate a love-triangle story line, the college radio plot seemed outdated, and, yes, there was too much vomit. But Rebel Wilson nailed all of her punchlines, the music is worth a second listen on the streaming service of your choice, and Brittany Snow is even prettier and more charming than I remembered. (Why isn’t her career better? She should have gone ginger much sooner.) It’s hard to imagine that anyone who saw this movie didn’t bop along in her seat when goth DJ Anna Kendrick belted out “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” simultaneously winning over The Guy and winning the competition for her team. Pitch Perfect comes very close to achieving the smart and unironic mirth that has allowed Bring It On to endure. Even an unabashed supporter like me won’t put the two on the same level, but Pitch Perfect is just fun. What’s so wrong about that?
— Juliet Litman

Men in Black 3



If the cinema gods hadn’t blessed me with a random lazy Saturday afternoon and a 3-year-old who takes unfathomably long naps, I would have never had the gumption to hit “play” on Men in Black 3. But (and I’m honestly still surprised, and a little embarrassed to say this) it was good! The film contained an actual plot. It wasn’t too diluted with gratuitous action set pieces. And it, shockingly, uses the tricky narrative device of time travel effectively.

Of course, there’s no MIB without the agents, and the 10 years between films clearly had no effect on the chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones (whose role is really just an overstuffed cameo). But the winner of this film is Josh Brolin. His Jones impression was so spot-on, my wife turned to me and asked, “Are they doing that Benjamin Button thing on the guy playing K, or is that a different actor?” Like Smith and Jones, he too looked genuinely excited to be in the film, and his enthusiasm elevates the enjoyment level of every scene he’s in. This film is literally everything MIB II should have been but wasn’t.
— Dan Silver

Premium Rush


As someone who’s been hit by cars while biking on three different occasions and hospitalized twice as a result, I knew that Premium Rush came with a giant Trigger Alert sticker on it. (I stopped biking a couple years ago, mostly because I decided I wanted to not die in my 20s.) But I also knew that a chase-oriented bike messenger B action movie — The Fixied and the Furious! — was too good a premise for me to pass up. Fortunately, I saw Premium Rush on a 112-degree day in Los Angeles, physically driven from my apartment into the multiplex and probably dealing with enough low-level heatstroke to prevent any latent PTSD from rearing its head. Sometimes a movie just comes to you at exactly the right time.

Premium Rush taps into all the split-second real-life-video-game feelings that anyone who’s familiar with urban bicycling will recognize, heightens it for the screen in all the right places — the multiple-outcome sequences, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Wilee reaches a crossroads and time freezes as he imagines the various maneuvers he can make (and the oftentimes cartoonishly violent outcomes) are especially great — and tones down the more viscerally unpleasant aspects, keeping it safely in popcorn territory. (To my relief, there’s only one sequence that plays on my personal worst fear, getting doored.) It’s rare and fun to see a certain “alt” lifestyle filtered so unpreciously through a mainstream Hollywood lens, like a less self-aware Scott Pilgrim, complete with a Sleigh Bells cameo juuust embarrassing enough to be endearing.
— Emily Yoshida


John Carter


It’s easy to pinpoint when John Carter stopped being a goofy, overly dense, hammily acted, shakily directed, but really-no-worse-than-any-other-summer-movie movie and became the worst thing in the history of American cinema. On February 16, a report appeared on Nikki Finke’s Deadline. Finke said John Carter was tracking “shockingly soft” and had “very little wannasee.” Translated from Martian, this meant that based on ads and crumbs doled out in trailers, no one — that is, speaking hypothetically — cared much about John Carter. Especially “women of all ages,” a rival executive helpfully told Finke. The battle for Mars was lost.

Let’s be clear about something. We aren’t seeing movies in the age of Intolerance or Cleopatra or even Heaven’s Gate. We aren’t actually shocked that John Carter cost $275 million to make. (Five years ago, the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie cost $300 million.) Rather, we pretend to be shocked. Whether we’ve been numbed by the superhero/sequel thing, whether being wised-up was more fun in this instance than being wide-eyed and innocent (to be reversed for The Hobbit, when innocence will rule the day) — I dunno. But it’s not fair to the movie people who labored over the thing.

How was John Carter? I’m not in the Harry Knowles “I LOVE JOHN CARTER!” camp. But I thought it was OK. Director Andrew Stanton made one fatal mistake. Perhaps because of the fidelity that’s afforded to various source texts these days, Stanton was far too reverent to a world created by Edgar Rice Burroughs during the Taft administration. ERB had some great ideas: The first, ecstatic moment when Carter wishes himself to Mars, when he finds himself “drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space.” The moment Carter discovers, on Mars, that he can jump like Mike Powell.

But the density of Martian races and creatures — the Green Martians and Red Martians and Tars Tarkas and Kantos Kan … it was a little much. (I say this as a Star Wars guy who knows some of the backstory of 4-LOM.) Moreover, John Carter had a second problem: We’ve seen the real Mars. We saw it again in August, thanks to the Curiosity rover. It’s tough even for high-level CGI to compete with that. Stanton was better off conjuring up something new, like the trash Earth in WALL-E.

When we go to the multiplex these days, we go with an Internet opinion leader on each shoulder. There is Knowles and there is Finke. One wants us to think like a fan; one like an insurance claims adjustor. One transforms us into a 13-year-old; the other puts us in our late 50s with a raging ulcer. Ideally, there’s an ideological middle ground. But in this case, the latter voice won. When John Carter opened on March 9, it took in $8 million less than The Lorax.
— Bryan Curtis

The Five-Year Engagement



If I had a dollar for every time Jason Segel name-checked Annie Hall when hyping The Five-Year Engagement, I’d have roughly the number of dollars it cost me to get The Firm album at the Borders at The Atrium Mall in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1997. I’m not saying the trumpeting of Five-Year as The Long Prophesied Return Of The One True Rom-Com is what doomed it at the box office — it’s not like the masses would have rushed the gates even if he’d delivered exactly what he’d promised. I’m saying maybe even Segel didn’t realize how strange, how discomfiting of a movie he’d made. Because couched in the usual primary color palette and solid-zinger-every-45-seconds template of the Apatow machine is some weird stuff.

There are little things here and there — at one point Rhys Ifans spouts caveman philosophy while crushing a parkour routine, and that was somehow not a thing I had a problem with — but the centerpiece is Segel’s gradual, embittered downward spiral. While his psych grad student fiancée flourishes in Ann Arbor, he stews about leaving his chef job back in San Francisco and slowly goes forest-man crazy: crossbows, muttonchops, venison, mead, and dead eyes. Later, in one inspired sequence, Segel stomps out of a soul-crushingly depressing wedding reception and into a failed artisanal-mustard-fueled bout of infidelity, and into the snow, pantsless, and then into the hospital, where they chop off his frostbitten toe. I mean, the darkest Annie Hall got was a not-all-that-unpleasant breakup.

“I just know that when people fight in real life, they fight really awkwardly,” Segel

No, I won’t make the case that this movie deserves to be held in high esteem, but the brave plot and risks taken in the fourth Step Up movie should not have gone so uncelebrated this year.

When one walks into a new Step Up movie, one expects a lot of dancing, some romance, and a dramatic scene at the end probably involving a torrential downpour. Not the case with Step Up Revolution (which was originally titled Step Up 4: Miami Heat). Well, kind of, actually, but it also got so “real” in this one. Like, when I say “real,” know that I mean “really real.”

THIS FILM IS ABOUT PROTEST DANCING.

I know you didn’t know that because I know you didn’t see it because you’re rude, but let me tell you that the moment this movie took a turn for civil rights and/or gentrification dancing, I knew I was in the presence of a classic protest-art-dance/wrong-side-of-the-tracks dramedy.

Can’t wait for Step Up 5: Freedom of A$$EMBLY.
— Rembert Browne

Filed Under: Movies, Prometheus, Rush

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