The Legend of Tarzan

TarzanDirector: David Yates

Screenwriters: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Margot Robbie

Ahhhh AhAhAhAhAhAh Ahhhhhhhh! Tarzan is swinging back into theaters for like the 60th time in the last 100 years.  In the scheme of things with James Bond and superheroes, that’s not such a frequent appearance! Still, the problem with most Tarzan appearances is that they are all basically a retelling of Edgar Rice Burrough’s first Tarzan novel:  Parents are marooned, child is orphaned, child is raised by gorillas, scientist discovers Tarzan, Tarzan rescues scientist’s daughter, and they fall in love. So is David Yates’s new film, The Legend of Tarzan a “different story?” The answer is yes…and no.

In this film, we are introduced to an already grown Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård). Home in England during the mid 19th century, famous world-round, and married to his love, Jane (Margot Robbie).  Tarzan (AKA John Clayton) has adjusted to life as an heir to his parents’ fortune and lives a most civilized existence, far removed from the one he knew in the jungle. When he is summoned by the Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) to sit in on a matter regarding King Leopold’s hold of a mining encampment in the African Congo, Tarzan is encouraged to use his celebrity and act as an ambassador. The Prime Minister’s hopes are that by traveling to the site, Clayton’s  presence will calm some rumors circling around Leopold’s interests and practices in the Congo.  American Historian George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) volunteers to accompany Clayton and Jane, but his true intention is to investigate his theory that indigenous Africans are being used as slaves to mine the Congo.  When that theory pans out, Williams easily persuades Clayton to join him in exposing Leopold’s private slave state, but they are thwarted by Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a Belgian soldier sent by King Leopold to act as administrator of one of the major stations in the Congo.  Rom is devious and maniacal, and when he captures Jane, Tarzan will stop at nothing to get her back and bring Rom down.

So like I said, is this film’s narrative a different story than we’re used to? Yes, we are not dragged through a 60-minute plotline about a boy growing up as an ape man.  But no, we are not treading much new ground as Tarzan still spends most of the movie trying to rescue Jane. Fortunately, director David Yates tips the scales in favor of freshness as the story unfolds.  The filmmaking is vibrant, alive, and exciting. Yates takes that smooth, “Peter Jacksony” style he honed with his four Harry Potter films and transfers it beautifully to The Legend of Tarzan.  The visuals are sweeping and the film benefits tremendously from Yates’s touch.

The actors are equally enjoyable. Margot Robbie gives Jane real dimension; she even has a line where she mocks even the idea of being a “damsel in distress.” Skarsgård does well as the stoic Tarzan.  He looks the part and shows that he may be able to carry a big-budget action film.  However, as is the case in many films, the supporting cast is where Legend of Tarzan shines.  Waltz and Jackson are together again for the first time since Django Unchained.  This time, however, the roles are reversed and Waltz is the unabashed, racist tyrant, while Jackson gets to play the charismatic hero!  Mostly though, Jackson steals the show, and if you’re looking for that one extra reason to persuade you go see this film, Jackson firing off countless rounds from a machine gun turret is that reason.

The Legend of Tarzan is fun, summer blockbuster fare, and it’s better than the average film in that category. It clips along at a nice pace, and it doesn’t pander or feel false or ironic.  If you’re looking for something to see this summer that is (mostly) not animated, The Legend of Tarzan is a worthy option. B

The Legend of Tarzan is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes.

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The Wolf of Wall Street

ImageIn 1986, a young People’s Critic was playing with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, reading Spiderman comics, and watching Knight Rider; meanwhile The Wolf of Wall Street suggests that there was an entirely different story of the 1980s to tell.  Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio collaborate for the fifth time and the result is their most polarizing effort by far, but also DiCaprio’s greatest performance of his career.

Last year at this exact time, I made quite a bit of noise about Leonardo DiCaprio’s sneaky but brilliant performance as Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  This year, I will make even more noise about his turn as Wall Street stockbroker, Jordan Belfort.  The film depicts the rise and inevitable fall of Belfort after he gets a taste of what the high life is like and never stops wanting more.

That “taste” comes in the form of an early scene in the film.  In it, Belfort the naïve intern meets the senior partner of his firm (Matthew McConaughey) for lunch.  Here Belfort is seemingly learning the ropes from a guy who’s been around for a while, but on second look Belfort is actually staring his future self right in the face.  McConaughey fiercely and skillfully poisons and corrupts Belfort but leaves him dazzled and impressed.  He sells Belfort just like another client, setting the wheels in motion for the “wolf” to rear its head.  When his brokerage closes after Black Monday in 1987, Belfort recruits a band of like-minded sleezeballs and opens his own brokerage firm called Stratton-Oakmont.  With consciences checked at the door and a script of Belfort’s own design, Stratton Oakmont prays on the rich and the poor, selling worthless “penny stocks” and reaping commissions hand over fist.  Belfort’s partner in crime, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), represents the “Greed is good” adage from Wall Street to precision.  Together the two cut a swath through the financial market and find themselves absurdly wealthy and yet impossibly insatiable. Balfort symbolically leaves stability behind when he leaves his  kind and caring wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti) for sexpot, Naomi (Margot Robbie).

While clearly a Scorsese film, the director’s presence from a technical standpoint is rather restrained.  He fills the frame with decadence, debauchery, and dishonesty, but never has he relied on his actors to make a film work as much as he does here.  Fortunately, they are up to the task, but this circumstance is why The Wolf of Wall Street is not the classic Scorsese film that it could have been.  Nonetheless, like all other Scorsese films, the plot is nothing but a mode at which to create a commentary on a deeper subtext.  Belfort’s story is used as a way for the filmmaker to tell a story about intoxication, greed, and the destruction of the American fabric.  He does all of this with a playful tone however, which is what gives the film such energy!  The irreverence of this film is impossible to capture into words and that’s exactly what Scorsese intended.  With a running time of three hours, it is clear that Scorsese did not want to shy away from the bacchanalian excess that plays such a large part in the film.  At the risk of hitting the audience over the head with this fact, the drug of choice for most characters is the “lude” (short for Quaalude), which tenaciously reflects the conduct of everyone in this film.  In one scene, high on ludes, DiCaprio has lost all sense of mobility and yet must crawl, writhe, and tumble his way to his Ferrari in the hopes to then drive home and stop Donnie from revealing money laundering evidence into a tapped phone.  This scene is one of only a few characteristically Scorsese scenes, and for DiCaprio it is particularly impressive.  Never has DiCaprio been more physical, comedic, energetic, and kinetically charged than he is in this film.  Jay Gatsby would literally implode after one second in Jordan Belfort’s shoes.

In a montage towards the end set to the Lemonheads cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” the line “Every way you look at it, you lose,” critically suggests that the intoxication of the previous 150 minutes is beginning to ware off.  We have a moment to finally catch our breaths after the yachts, the mansions, the sex, the money, and the helicopters are all out of sight and we are amazed at what we’ve witnessed.  
After an Academy member premier of the film, a screenwriter very publically shouted, “Shame on you!” at the legendary director.  Accordingly, I witnessed several people walk out of the screening that I was in. Certainly, the world DiCaprio and Scorsese explore this time around is fearlessly audacious.  Nonetheless, the film is based on Belfort’s own memoir, and the screenplay is co-written by the man who wrote and produced The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, Terence Winter.  Those shows and this film all have the united goal of exploring morally bankrupt people who fill that void with the greatest drug of all, money.  Our society is badly hooked on this drug and as good as we are at hiding the evidence of what greed has done to us, stories like The Wolf of Wall Street serve as reminders, reminders that make some filmgoers uncomfortable.  Still, as much of a fan as I am of this film, I submit that The Wolf of Wall Street is Goodfellas-Lite: Henry Hill enters stock market.  I think a 5 and ½ hour American nightmare double feature is in my future!  A-

The Wolf of Wall Street is rated R and has a running time of 3 hours.  Look out for many recognizable faces in supporting roles including the real life Jordan Belfort.  This film is packed to the brim – there is so much to discuss and mention, but this review is long enough! 
Also, prepare yourself for that ‘ludes’ Ferrari scene, it’s phenomenal! 

The Lone Ranger

ImageIn this cinematic summer for baby boomers, two classic childhood heroes have been reborn on the big screen.  Both Superman and The Lone Ranger were developed into radio shows and comic books in the 1930s, and they would then go on to have their heydays in the 1940s and 1950s with popular TV shows.  It appears popular culture’s climate is having a nostalgic moment as origin stories of beloved heroes of the past are being introduced to a new generation of viewers, and so far so good.

For The Lone Ranger, director Gore Verbinski teams up with Johnny Depp for the fifth time after three Pirates films and 2011’s Rango.  It was the surprising success of the latter film that perhaps explains the evolution of their latest project.  The days of major box office success for the Western genre have all but ridden off into the sunset.  However, Rango, an animated film starring Johnny Depp as a pet chameleon who ends up in a lawless, desert outpost, legitimized that the genre may be on a resurgence and that kids may be a prime audience.  When included with 2010’s True Grit and 2012’s Django Unchained, three of the top four grossing westerns of all time were released between 2010 and 2012 demonstrating a rebirth of interest in the genre for both adults and kids for the first time in over 20 years.  Thus, Disney’s The Lone Ranger represents an inevitable attempt to get those two audiences together.  But is the film good enough to do it?

All in all, yes it is.  The Lone Ranger follows an ex-Texas ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer), and his Indian friend, Tonto (Johnny Depp), as they try to exact justice in the American Old West.  The film begins in 1933, and is told in flashback to a young boy by an elderly Tonto, an odd choice of narrative structure.  We learn that Reid is the older brother to legendary lawman Dan Reid.  Dan’s pistol packing ways sharply contrast with John’s educated, John Locke inspired attitude towards law, justice, and government.  When Dan invites John to come along on a manhunt for escaped convict Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), an ambush leaves John clinging to life and crushing his perspective of what he thought would be a more civilized West.  John’s savior comes in the form of Tanto who saves his life and joins him on a renewed quest for justice.

The story has all of the makings of a classic western adventure, but it does hit a few snags.  Hammer and Depp are excellent and their exchanges are fun and entertaining.  Initially, it feels an odd choice casting Depp in the role of Reid’s Indian companion, and given his introduction as an elderly Tonto, I was quite skeptical.  However, Depp’s charm comes through, and he treats the role with respect and charisma.  Verbinski knows his way around an action scene and some of the railroad stuff is exciting and well-produced.  The first half of The Lone Ranger develops the origin of the character and plays out as a well-crafted western.  Filmed on location in the picturesque and renowned Monument Valley, Arizona, the film looks and feels authentic.  Additionally, the climax is a tremendously entertaining sequence that will have crowds smiling and cheering.  However, the film does makes two nearly unforgivable mistakes that do negatively affect the film’s overall reception.  First, Verbinki, known for the more-is-better approach, stretches the story out for an unnecessary two and a half hours bringing the plot to ludicrous scenarios like Mexican stand-offs and ridiculous ways to aim guns at people but never pull a trigger.  This type of film does not have the substance to withstand this type of running time, and while the film clearly nods to classic westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West, it is hardly complex enough to demand this type of attention.  Second, like Man of Steel, a franchise is clearly in the works here and much of the greatness that is The Lone Ranger is overtly left for future installments.  For most of the film, the “mysterious masked man” is nothing but a bumbling buffoon cutting his teeth in silly situations.  The confident seeker of justice and serial adventurer is yet to come.  Nonetheless, the climax is a welcomed payoff that almost erases the bad taste left by these errors, and the score and taglines are used sparingly and effectively.  Fans of the original should be pleased and new fans will be made, kemosabeB-

The Lone Ranger is rated PG-13 and as mentioned above has a running time of 2 hours and 29 minutes!  A decent supporting cast includes Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson, and Barry Pepper.  After the initial credits start an extended scene closes them, but this scene is more symbolic than enduring and does not culminate into anything major.

Oscar Predictions: Part 4 – The Big Ones

OscarsOscar Predictions: Part4 – The Big Ones

The final installment of The People’s Critic’s Oscar prediction series lists my picks for the six major film awards: Directing, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Actor, Actress, and Picture.  These are the categories decided by the largest blocks of voters and, thus reveal the academy’s consensus feelings on the great films of the year.  Readers are invited to continue to weigh in with their own opinions by submitting to the public polls following each category’s predictions.

Best Director:

Nominated directors are Michael Haneke for Amour, Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, and David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.

The Best Director Oscar is basically the Cinematography Oscar crown jewel.  The director oversees every chosen element on set to ensure his/her vision is secure and successful.  In the Classic Hollywood Cinema days, this award was a bit easier to come by as directors like William Wyler, John Ford, and Frank Capra were nominated often and won more than any other directors in history.  Over the years, the award has become much more aloof; very few directors earn more than one Best Directing Oscar.  The award is closely associated with the Best Picture winner as well, however these awards are becoming more independent of one another now that the Best Picture field of nominees has been increased to up to ten films.  This year will be an upset year no matter which way it goes.  Not since the 1930s has it been more likely that the Best Picture will go to a film who’s director was not nominated.  Additionally, it is quite likely that the Best Director will go to a film that does not win Best Picture.  Therefore, it is critical to look at each of the nominated films for director’s merit alone. Haneke and Zeitlin turned out two emotionally charged human dramas that are deserving of immense appreciation.  In terms of directing, Zeitlin is the better choice between the two, but these small films rarely make a dent in the voting pool.  Spielberg does not deserve to be nominated for this award this year.  Russell has once again made a great film that would have won last year, but he will find himself beaten this year.  The award is between Russell and Lee.  The Peoples Critic Selection: Ang Lee for Life of Pi


Best Supporting Actor:

Nominees are Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln, Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained, Robert DeNiro for Silver Linings Playbook, Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master, and Alan Arkin for Argo.

Best Supporting Actress:

Nominees are Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables, Helen Hunt for The Sessions, Sally Field for Lincoln, Amy Adams for The Master, and Jackie Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook.

Acting categories need the least amount of explanation.  The supporting role awards are traditionally a bit more exciting.  These Oscars have gone to some surprising upsets over the years and is more likely to go to an edgier or younger performer than the awards for Best Actor/Actress.  On the men’s side, this year’s field has two performances that are practically lead roles (Waltz and Hoffman), and this will most likely work in one of their favors.  On the ladies’ side, there is a clear winner, so I’ll simply explain why she wins.  Much has been made of the fact that Anne Hathaway is only in Les Misérables for a short period of time.  However, this award has gone to many recipients whose screen-time is limited.  The Oscar for Supporting Role is designed to recognize superior support, regardless of screen time.  What Anne Hathaway does with her segment of an otherwise dull film is give a Hugh Jackman quality performance and then leave you wanting more.  What worked for her will unfortunately not work for Jackman since his Best Actor field also has a clear winner who accomplishes a similar feat in that category.  The People’s Critic Selection for Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz for Django UnchainedThe People’s Critic Selection for Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables.  

 

Best Actor:

Nominees are Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables, Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook, Joaquin Phoenix for The Master, and Denzel Washington for Flight.

Best Actress

Nominees are Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook, Emmanuelle Riva for Amour, Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, Naomi Watts for The Impossible, and Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Hugh Jackman picked the wrong year to turn out his best performance of his career.  What he does as Jean Val Jean in Les Misérables is raw and spectacular.  However, it will be the one-two punch of excellent writing by Kushner and flawless delivery by Day-Lewis that will allow him to make history as the first to win three Best Actor Academy Awards.  Meanwhile, the Best Actress category has already made history by nominating both the youngest and oldest nominees ever considered for the Best Actress Oscar with Riva and Wallis.  Unlike the men’s race, no clear winner exists here.  Riva has enjoyed a surge as of late given her heart wrenching performance in Amour along with the fact that Oscar night just happens to be her 86th birthday.  However, it seems that the “girl on fire” this year will come away with her first trophy, solidifying what will likely be a long and dynamic career.   The People’s Critic Selection for Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln.  The People’s Critic Selection for Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. 


 Best Picture:

Nominated Films are Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.

Nine films were deemed worthy of Best Picture honors this year.  The jury is still out on this callback to the olden days where ten (even twelve!) films could be nominated for this award.  In 2009, the Academy expanded the limit of nominees from five to ten, but finding that there are not always ten worth-while nominees, the rule currently allows the list to vary between five and ten nominees.  This year’s collection of nominees would all have beaten last year’s winner, The Artist substantiating what an excellent year at the movies 2012 was.  As stated earlier, this award is often tied closely together with the winner for Best Director; however, no year in recent history has provided a lower likelihood of this happening than this year.  Therefore, how does one judge a film on its merits alone without necessarily taking the director’s choices into strong consideration?  How much does one weigh the writing, the cinematography, the set design, the acting, etc.?  These are tough questions.  One major element is to examine the editing.  Best Picture is more about conveying a message, entertainment, structure, and overall effect than anything else.  Editing (along with direction) is the key to all of those characteristics that make a movie great.  Therefore, if direction becomes a lowered value in the equation for determining greatness, the vacuum will be filled with editing.  The result is an upset that has only happened three times in history and not at all since 1989 – a Best Picture winner where the director was not even nominated.  The People’s Critic Selection: Argo

Oscar Predictions: Part 3 – Cinematographer? Damn Near Killed Her!

Oscar Predictions: Part 3 – Cinematographer?  Damn Near Killed Her!

Week three of The People’s Critic’s Oscar predictions begins the major film awards.  This week’s predictions will be for six very different categories: Documentary Feature, Animated Film, Foreign Language Film, Original Screenplay, Adapted Screenplay, and everybody’s favorite – Cinematography.  Readers are invited to continue to weigh in with their own opinions by submitting to the public polls following each category’s predictions.

13.  Best Documentary Feature:

Nominated films are 5 Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, and Searching for Sugar Man

Generally, the winning documentary has more than spunk and spirit.  Many documentaries are made yearly since they are easy to produce and cheap to make.  The key is content, pacing, accuracy, and perspective.  The swift and breezy Searching for Sugar Man was an early favorite.  However, it will most likely collapse under the weight of provocative films like the charged up history of the AIDS crisis, How to Survive a Plague or the bleak and honest The Gatekeepers, which shines never before seen light on the historic conflicts in Israel.  A dark horse candidate for Oscar is the creepy exposé The Invisible War about rape in the US military.    The Peoples Critic Selection: How to Survive a Plague

14.  Best Animated Feature Film:

Nominated Films are Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Wreck-It Ralph

If you’ve read The People’s Critic’s review on Brave, you may find this pick hypocritical.  First given in 2001, Best Animated Feature Film is the newest of all 24 categories in the modern Academy Awards.  During these eleven years, a Pixar Studio film has won this Oscar six times.  In fact, the studio has only lost once when one if its films was nominated (2006’s Cars lost out to Happy Feet)Cars is probably a better film than Brave, however much was made of Brave’s decision to finally feature a female lead and a more feminine story focus, something Cars obviously did not have going for it.  Therefore, while the nostalgic, personal, and enjoyable horror throwback Frankenweenie has the win in my heart, it won’t have the win in the votes. The People’s Critic Selection: Brave

15.  Best Foreign Language Film:

Nominated films are Amour (Austria), Kon-Tiki (Norway), No (Chile), A Royal Affair (Denmark), War Witch (Canada)

What, Norway, Chile, Denmark, and Canada?  You want to win?  Well you will lose to one of the biggest conundrums of the nomination process – those pesky well-made foreign films that worm their way into the Best Picture category.  This has only happened eight times, and only one has ever lost this category, go figure.  The People’s Critic Selection: Amour


16.  Best Original Screenplay:

Nominated films are Amour Written by Michael Haneke, Django Unchained Written by Quentin Tarantino. Flight Written by John Gatins, Moonrise Kingdom Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola, and Zero Dark Thirty Written by Mark Boal

As a writer (or to put it more modestly, one who appreciates writing), the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay has a special significance.  Four of the five films nominated here are actually mentioned on The People’s Critic’s List of the Top Ten Films of 2012 (although one is listed for adverse reasons).  Nonetheless, the number one choice on that list earns its place because of its writing.  Quentin Tarantino is an auteur like none before him and Django Unchained will be recognized for its reverent and consummate writing.  The People’s Critic Selection: Django Unchained


17.  Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominated films are Argo Screenplay by Chris Terrio, Beasts of the Southern Wild Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin, Life of Pi Screenplay by David Magee, Lincoln Screenplay by Tony Kushner, and Silver Linings Playbook Screenplay by David O. Russell

This is the award that combats the old adage, “the book was way better than the movie.”  Generally, these films are the rare few who challenge and overcome that too often reality.  A screenplay of note is certainly Kushner’s Lincoln.  Spielberg deserves far less credit than Kushner does for why this film is deserving of its accolades.  Often Shakespearean at times, the screenplay is adapted in such a way that the film is elevated to what earned it 12 nominations.  Kushner’s only real competition here is David O. Russell.  Silver Linings Playbook is enjoying a tremendous spike in momentum heading into Oscar weekend.  With it being the first film in 31 years to be nominated in all four acting categories, Russell’s screenplay cannot be ignored as unrelated to that achievement.  My gut tells me that just might be the tipping point.  The People’s Critic’s Selection: Silver Linings Playbook


18.   Best Cinematography:

Nominated Films are Anna Karenina, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lincoln, and Skyfall

If you’ve ever wanted to be scorned or looked at in utter disgust, then comment on the cinematography of a film in front of a group of people.  Eyebrows will raise, hair will stand on end, under-the-breath comments will abound. It’s the fastest way to claim your role as a “know-it-all,” and yet, it is so worth it.  Cinematographers are the directors of photography who oversee decisions on camera and lighting concerns.  To excel at this requires the talent of an artist and the technical knowledge of a director.  This year’s group makes for a tough category.  Deakins’s latest film, Skyfall marks his 10th nomination without a win.  This should certainly be a consideration in choosing a winner since repetitive nominations in this category are not easy to get, but well earned when they happen.  Tarantino’s go-to guy, Robert Richardson is nominated again, but he did win last year for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  However, resident know-it-all The People’s Critic is going to go in a different direction.  Ang Lee has the perspective to make great films, but the pure visual delight and majesty that was achieved by Life of Pi is equally a result of Claudio Miranda’s cinematography.  The People’s Critic Selection: Life of Pi


The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Films of the Year

Top Ten2012 has been a juggernaut of a year for the cinema. With a record-breaking box office year thanks to big blockbusters like The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Breaking Dawn Part 2, and The Hunger Games, ticket sales have been the highest they’ve ever been. However, the quality of films released this calendar year has been excellent, rivaling 2007, my favorite release year in recent memory with There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men. While Oscar nominations will be announced this Thursday, January 10th, a more important announcement is being made right now. Without further ado, I present The People’s Critic’s Top 10 films of 2012.

10. Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson presents one of the year’s most original films with his coming of age pageant of a film, Moonrise Kingdom. Chocked full of Anderson’s trademark set designs, deadpan dialogue, and Norman Rockwell-on-acid plot, Moonrise is a nearly perfect cinematic experience. Edward Norton’s portrayal of Scoutmaster Ward is hands-down the best part of this movie, but the film is enjoyable from start to finish and welcomes multiple viewings.

9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyWhile it lacks the epic quality and complex narrative of The Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a beautiful and energetic film. The groundwork is truly set for an excellent companion trilogy that is fun, technically impressive, and brilliantly respectful to fans and film lovers.

8. The ImpossibleThe Impossible is the true story of a family’s disastrous experience during the Thailand tsunami disaster of 2004. Ewen McGregor and Naiomi Watts are the key reasons for this film making the top ten. There are a couple of scenes in this movie where the audience is forced to experience the emotions attached to the most unforeseen natural disaster one can imagine, and it is absolutely raw, heartbreaking, and powerful. Rarely does a film manage to showcase such relatable energy.

7. Flight Like number 8, Flight is also a ‘disaster’ movie, but a very different type of ‘disaster’ movie. It is an excellent narrative that explores the dangers of addiction in an impressively unique way. This is a strong film that expertly demonstrates the talent of its cast and its director, Robert Zemeckis.

6. The Dark Knight RisesThe Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to one of the strongest trilogies in cinema history. I think, taken as a whole, what director, Christopher Nolan can be most proud of is that he has captured the attention of a massive audience and taught them that escapist entertainment can be thoughtful and precise. This is miles beyond what any other so-called “comic book” movie has achieved or has even been capable of so far, and thus it deserves special accolades.

5. Lincoln Lincoln offers plenty for history buffs to sink their teeth into, and yet the story is accessible to all audiences. Director, Steven Spielberg takes some narrative chances to use unknown history to make well-known history compelling and interesting, especially in the film’s final act. Writer, Tony Kushner deserves special attention for some brilliant writing while Daniel Day-Lewis turns out the performance to beat. This is Spielberg’s finest effort in some time.

4. Argo Argo was the first great movie of the fall season and delivered as both a historical snapshot and an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Ben Affleck certainly has solidified his reputation as a director. Regardless of predictability, Argo is a deeply involving film, and it is a perfect team effort. At its heart, there is a tremendously powerful and amazing story told in an uncomplicated way, which is just what every good movie needs at its core.

3. Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell’s movies are traditionally about passion, and none have better successfully illustrated that theme than Silver Linings Playbook. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper play Pat and Tiffany, two people full of passion who have lost their way. Both turn out Oscar worthy performances, and it should not surprise anyone if they both win. Furthermore, Russell’s screenplay is excellent as he also manages to give Robert DeNiro something he’s finally worthy of acting in.

2. Life of Pi Life of Pi is a low-key masterpiece. It sneaks up on you and while not complicated, welcomes multiple viewings. Ang Lee presents a very enjoyable and thought-provoking version of Martel’s widely admired source material. It was said that Life of Pi was one of those unfilmable stories- that it can exist in the mind of the reader and nowhere else. Lee has proven those skeptics incorrect. Furthermore, no film, including Avatar, has achieved this level of visual grandeur with 3D technology. Lee’s careful precision as a director, takes full advantage of every opportunity to amaze the audience with wonder.

1. Django Unchained Django Unchained is the year’s best film as well as a front-runner for one of Quentin Tarantino’s best films. The cast is impeccable, the script is original, and the style is enjoyable. Few films ever combine such intriguing dialogue with such ambitious storytelling, and the film deserves sincere consideration from the academy in all major categories. It is a difficult film to watch at times, but not a scene is wasted or unnecessary.

Honorable Mentions (and an angry side-note) – Films deserving honorable mentions are Looper, To Rome with Love, Friends With Kids, The Avengers, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Wreck It Ralph. Also, this was a year that saw a Christopher Walken trifecta as the distinctive and unparalleled actor appeared in three films this year: Seven Psychopaths, A Late Quartet, and Stand Up Guys.

On an ANGRY side-note – Year after year, films vying to qualify for Oscar eligibility will open their films in the minimal markets (LA and New York) and then choose some obsequious and noncompetitive weekend in January to open wide to audiences. This year the film most guilty of this is the controversially acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty (An additional film guilty to a lesser degree would be The Sessions with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt). The buzz is that Zero Dark Thirty will be the one to beat, but major film critics and academy members are the only ones who will have seen it before the nominations are revealed later this week. Films should have to be widely released in the year that they wish to be nominated. Audiences should have access to all academy qualified films and an opportunity to share their points of view before the “so-called” powers that be cast their votes. The films listed above all played fair and deserve to be seen and commended. Shame on you Zero Dark Thirty, shame on you!

Django Unchained

ImageQuentin Tarantino has said publicly that he wants to retire after his tenth film. He is looking to leave behind a strong filmography that shows no weakness or slump at the end. His eighth entry (counting the Kill Bill volumes separately) into this abstract Decalogue is Django Unchained, and it may be his greatest achievement since Pulp Fiction.

Django Unchained is the finest American slavery period bounty hunter Western ever made, but clearly that doesn’t mean much. As preposterous as that description is, that’s what is so great about a Tarantino film; he digs deep into a traditional genre and develops it into something distinctive. The same can be said about his Holocaust revisionist historical war film, Inglorious Basterds. The title character, Django (Jamie Foxx), is a slave with a horrific past who through a chain of auspicious events becomes partnered with a slavery opposed ex-dentist and current bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). This partnership is sealed with an agreement that Schultz will help Django find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from an infamous Southern plantation.

Django Unchained is void of any superfluous substance. From the opening scene of dialogue where Django and Schultz are introduced all the way to the final “showdown,” Django Unchained has momentum and remains in stride. Tarantino should win his second Original Screenplay Oscar since no other film that can be nominated for this category combines such compelling dialogue with such a spirited and ambitions story. The film unfolds in a series of distinct acts. Furthermore, Tarantino takes his flair for the irregular timeline to a more subtle place by interjecting small contextual flashbacks at key points to reveal critical or entertaining pieces of background that enhance an approaching scene. You may never look at the Ku Klux Klan, or Don Johnson for that matter, the same way again.

The cast is impeccable and is sprinkled with familiar faces beyond the leads, but the leads are all excellent. Christoph Waltz gives Tarantino another Oscar worthy performance as the film’s moral compass, Dr. Schultz. Schultz’s character also works to deepen and broaden Foxx’s turn as Django. Django has a goal, but lacks direction and Schultz literally provides that for him, which gives Foxx some real dimension and power. However, the film’s crown jewel is found in the film’s closing acts when Leonardo DiCaprio appears as Calvin Candie, owner of the massive and legendary plantation known as Candyland. DiCaprio’s performance is a sneaky one, and while initially campy, it becomes very real all too quickly. His character shows a severe authenticity as a symbol for the evils of supposed “gentlemen” during a deeply deranged time in American history. As fun as Django Unchained is to watch, it is still a Quentin Tarantino movie, which implies vulgarity and violence. It delivers on both of those qualities to excess, which is a good thing in this case. As part of the Western genre, a lot of justice is sought out against a lot of bad people, and a six-shooter is basically the only tool. The balance between good acting, strong writing, unpredictable circumstances, and sudden bursts of violence creates a suspenseful tone that could not otherwise be achieved. Django Unchained is a front-runner for one of the year’s best films as well as a front-runner for one of Tarantino’s best films. If this is any indication of what the nearly 50-year-old director has left in him, it is hard to imagine him walking away after stepping behind a camera only two more times. A