2012 has been quite the year in film. For one, some of the year’s most financially successful films were actually pretty good films in their own right, a rare feat to say the least. While many of them delivered, some fell just short and left a bitter, unwelcoming taste in my mouth. That being said however, 2012 has been host to a few neat surprises; films where those high expectations were originally substituted with great levels of skepticism. While a more formal top 10 is coming, I wanted to highlight some of the year’s biggest surprises as well as some of its most bitter disappointments. None of these choices are in any particular order. I also apologize in advance for the lack of any Tatum; I’m afraid I missed out on all the fun this year (see Chris’ list for Tatum-satisfaction).
End of Watch
Remember 2001’s Training Day? A film essentially built around a central, over the top performance by none other than bonafide badass Denzel Washington? Remember how everything around that performance was merely serviceable and sort of forgettable? Training Day served as little more than an excuse for Washington to live out his inner monster and become the black Scarface of everyone’s desires. Since then, screenwriter David Ayer’s career has remained thematically consistent, with every film centering on the LAPD in one way or another, essentially creating another monster with 2005’s Harsh Times and visiting the dumbed-down, Hollywood side of the coin with 2008’s Street Kings. It’s surprising then that End of Watch, his latest project focusing on two LAPD officers, is a resounding success on nearly all fronts. The film’s central performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are so convincing and believable that the film’s found footage approach and aesthetics successfully mask this conventional and ultimately predictable descent into L.A.’s seedy underworld. The result is a film that’s both gorgeously held together by a mix of stylistic approaches and dramatically poignant thanks to its great use of bromance. I can’t say I expected anything THIS good from David Ayer but color me impressed.
Oh, The Avengers, how easily you could have failed. Following 5 films worth of preamble, the stage was set for a battle of epic proportions involving most of Marvel’s most iconic super heroes. Expectations were beyond high as this was to be the redefintion of comic book films. The risk factor surpassed it however; here was a 220 million dollar titan of a production meant to capitalize on the previous outings, while also serving as a segway into the next generation of Marvel installments. On another level, this was also a big, expensive picture starring a (mostly) AAA cast of egos and their ever-growing celebrity status. The fact that comic book writer and cult phenomenon Joss Whedon was chosen to direct this juggernaut of a thrill ride was quite possibly the smartest decision made by a major studio all year. In accepting, Whedon made no compromises, ultimately bringing out the egos in each respective character and allowing them to banter in a suitably ridiculous and refreshing way. The Avengers is the very defition of a comic book film, right down to the explosive, action-packed finale; it never for a second forgets what it is, instead embracing the ridiculous nature of its content wholeheartedly and in turn delivering a gloriously entertaining adrenaline jolt bound to satisfy just about any geek at heart. Hell, it already has. Thank you, Joss.
Following 1995’s dismal (or dreadful *badum tish*) film adaptation, Judge Dredd as a character was essentially locked up for good without chance for a sequel. About as engaging as a rock to the face and equally as fun, the Stallone-driven vehicle was doomed from the start, employing the “comic talents” of none other than Rob Schneider as the Judge’s sidekick. The inclusion of flat and typical Hollywood humor also didn’t do the film any favors. Fast forward 17 years to the arrival of Dredd (or Dredd 3D), a new stab at an old beloved hero that absolutely gets it right. Karl Urban apes Stallone’s generic turn and personifies Dredd as a ruthless, cold and precise one-man wrecking machine; the helmet NEVER comes off and Urban, through very little emoting or expression, delivers a performance that perfectly captures the spirit of its character. Playing out as a futuristic version of The Raid: Redemption, the film is also gorgeously shot, creating a vivid, violent world reminiscent of Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles if it were inhabited by the sick psychos of Paul Verhoeven’s mind. Sequences revolving around the effects of Slo-Mo, the drug which runs rampant in Dredd‘s dystopian Mega-City One, are particularly impressive, utilising high saturation and articulate slow-motion effects to create a sense of euphoria like no other. Dredd knows just what it is and not only accepts it; it owns its status as a dumb, fun, highly-stylized excursion into a violence-filled future.
With it’s intricately layered source material and seemingly gimmicky utilization of a fixed amount of actors, Cloud Atlas had all the signs of a pretentiously overdone blockbuster failure. Due to its independent nature however, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer were granted a much more sizable grasp on the project, being in control of every step down to the very last. For every misstep they made, the trio nonetheless astounded with a puzzle of a narrative that flows surprisingly well, resulting in one of 2012’s most surprising turnarounds. Sure, the makeup never REALLY works, the performances are hit and miss and the dramatic impact of certain revelations feels muted in contrast to others but Cloud Atlas nonetheless enthralls on its ambitions alone; no other film in recent memory has tackled on something so densely plotted while also coming out on top, imperfections aside. At 172 minutes in length, Cloud Atlas feels too short. I would’ve gladly followed these lives for an other hour, and that’s saying something. While it’s bound to polarize (it already has), Cloud Atlas is a trip well worth taking.
Marketed as little more than Liam Neeson taking on a pack of rabid wolves, I initially had no intention in seeing Joe Carnahan’s The Grey. Let’s face it, Carnahan’s glory days were well behind him and this merely seemed like a blatant cash-grab using Neeson’s new found status as an action star. On the contrary, this Neeson picture was simply a victim of its poor advertisement, instead focusing on its theme of death in a much bleaker, ultimately realistic manner. The wolves serving as little more than an allegory for death itself, The Grey is a powerful, often heart wrenching descent into one group’s race for survival when faced with insurmountable odds and obstacles. To say it feels good to see Liam Neeson in something other than a dumb, purely visceral action film is a severe understatement; this is one of his greatest performances in years, displaying a man at his ends with absolutely nothing left to lose. The Grey is a harrowing journey that you won’t soon forget. Just don’t go in expecting a furry bloodbath.
A “sorta prequel but not really related” film set in the same universe as Alien starring a star-studded cast, a huge budget, cryptic advertising, directed by none other than Ridley Scott AND graced with a slimy R rating? Let’s face it, Prometheus had a lot going for it. It had just about every science-fiction fan lining up and throwing their money at Scott’s shoes and, really, it’s easy to see why. What isn’t so clear however is just how Prometheus turned out to be such an underwhelming dud; a film with a golden premise, reduced to a confusing, self-obsessed, overtly existentialist exercise in tedium and a home to a host of moon-sized plotholes. Yes, I can excuse a few illogical ends in a science-fiction film as they’re generally always there. When characters are constantly betraying logic and their own characterizations in the most awe-inspiring of ways in order to move from one set-piece to another, completely blindsiding anything they should have learnt from their actions and begging to be off’d, you’ve got a problem. Shot in 3D, Prometheus is the prettiest mess I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching unfold in theaters. It makes it that much more disappointing to see Scott and Lindelof resort to so many bogus clichés and brainless techno-babble in order to clarify things.
Inglourious Basterds felt like Tarantino’s best and boldest work since the iconic Pulp Fiction, combining pitch black comedy, a bevy of glorious performances and enough dramatic heft to make us care for its various key players. It’s all the more disappointing then that its spiritual successor, Django Unchained, feels so limp and careless in comparison. Once again calling upon Christoph Waltz to lend the film a charismatic, smooth-talking presence, this time in the form of a bounty hunter, many of Basterds‘s beats feel repeated with varying degrees of success and involvement. Django is arguably Quentin Tarantino’s most conventional, comedic and commercial film to date, even calling upon big names such as Rick Ross and John Legend to contribute to the film’s soundtrack, a first for him. While emotions run deep and tensions do build, Django Unchained is ultimately missing a true sense of urgency, falling prey to its mediocre editing and comparatively unpolished and overlong last act. Fred Raskin does his best to replace the late Sally Menke but the truth of the matter is Django simply feels rushed in time for awards season. A 2013 release would’ve allowed QT and Raskin time to tighten the film and its musical cues (which, for the most part, feel lackluster) and ultimately deliver a more memorable picture. As it stands, Django Unchained is still a wildly entertaining and fun ride through history, if little else.
From its initial brief but poignant unveiling, Pixar’s Brave had all the makings of a quality animated fantasy by the famous studio. Coming off of their biggest misfire yet (2011’s lambasted Cars 2, a sequel arguably no one wanted), this looked to be their redemptive coup that would restore their integrity and hopefully present a darker, more mature side. Unfortunately, Brave turned out to be little more than a Disney film promoting a new Scottish princess to be added to the already robust pantheon of Disney damsels. While nowhere near as awful as Cars 2 and generally quite enjoyable as a whole, Brave nonetheless underwhelms by refusing to open up to its world, relying on a handful of generic, unimaginative locales and never feeling as grand as it strides to be. The fact that it’s also an overly simple morality tale lacking in Pixar’s usually bite and character depth only makes it feel that much less important. Here’s hoping Pixar’s slippery slope ends with this year’s promising Monsters University.
The Man With the Iron Fists
Not content with simply being one of hip-hop’s most important and well-respected pioneers, The RZA has long hinted at jumping the gun and exploring the world of film. A self-professed kung fu fanatic, his ideas began swimming around the web, with new casting rumors materializing every year; this would be his ultimate passion project, a tribute to his deepest influences. Despite a hilariously assembled cast, which includes Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu and Pam Grier in a brief cameo, The Man with the Iron Fists feels like too little too late. For starters, it’s a stylistic mess that’s simply too far-reaching for its own good, essentially losing its identity in the process; much of the film feels as if it was worked on separately by about 10 people. As expected, The RZA fumbles as a director but is essentially useless as an actor, failing to captivate or entertain on his own until the very last act. That being said, The Man with the Iron Fists isn’t a complete misfire as it contains just enough to entertain. Russell Crowe’s slimy and overweight Jack Knife steals the show , with the rest of the cast seemingly having a blast working on the film. Given its lengthy production period, it’s just a shame it’s not much funner to watch.
Josh Trank’s Chronicle has such a cool and ingenious concept that its descent into power-tripping angst and Akira-wannabe chaos makes it that much more painful to watch. Here’s a found footage film that follows a socially reclusive kid named Andrew who essentially puts up a wall between himself and the world surrounding him by placing a camera and filming everything he sees. One night, he, along with his cousin Matt and popular kid Steve, discover a foreign object deep underground and wake up with new telekinetic powers. Things start off quite promisingly, demonstrating a fairly grounded and realistic version of what is essentially the birth of a gang of superheroes; we’re treated with footage of the trio simply goofing around and pranking everyone in town as they start to get a handle on their abilities. Once Andrew begins embracing his darker side however, the film not only gets way out of hand but also, in a similar fashion to Prometheus, throws his characterization out the window and replaces it with a shambling imitation of Akira‘s Tetsuo, right down to the constant screaming. What follows is a technically sound but utterly uninvolving and disappointing finale that begs the question; why back out?
Men in Black III
The first Men in Black film brings back some of my fondest childhood memories as an up and coming film addict; the perfect pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as Agents J and K, the madness exhibited by a rancid-looking Vincent D’Onofrio and the always hilarious use of the Noisy Cricket (the miniature pistol that sends its shooter flying), it had just about everything a child could need, dinosaurs aside. By the time MIB II came around, I was yearning to see what Agents J and K were up to all this time. Needless to say, I was gutted. Not only was MIB II a lazy retread of its far superior predecessor, but it also had a disappointing cast of villains in the form of Lara Flynn Boyle and her ever-extending tentacles, and Johnny Knoxville with his miniature Johnny Knoxville. That’s two too many!
Enter Men in Black III, a sequel that, for the most part, gets it. Is its existence ever REALLY justified? Nope. Men In Black III is the definition of an unnecessary sequel; that being said, it’s one of the funnest and most enjoyable popcorn flicks I’ve seen all year, capturing the very essence of what made the original film such a blast; its always-present humor and its impressive new tricks. Its villain, Boris the Animal (played by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords), is a joy to behold thanks to some excellent practical work from the always impressive Rick Baker and an uproarious performance that comes close to matching D’Onofrio’s own disguised cockroach. Its time traveling plot line even leads to a host of humorous cameos, as well as a spot-on Tommy Lee Jones impersonation by Josh Brolin, creating a comparatively pitch-perfect level of chemistry with Smith. Above all, Men in Black III feels like an apology to all the upset fans for its failed predecessor, closing things off with a genuinely touching and brief moment of character development that, while nowhere near as moving as, say, Toy Story 3‘s farewell closing bow, still manages to make you reflect on the years since the first MIB. It’s by no means a particularly memorable experience, but Men in Black III is a great way to satisfy a craving. Who knew?