Steve Ranks 2012 Movies

The advance word on 2012 was that it looked like it would be a good year for movies. It has been and there are still some promising films coming soon (and a few critical favs I have yet to see). As I consider the quality, especially at the top, I have decided to change how I do my rankings. Rather than try to put all of them in order, I am simply going to break them into categories, ranging from the great films to the weak ones. Within a particular category I will put them in the order that I saw them, from earliest to most recent. I made this decision while pondering the top movies on my list. How do you rank Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Looper, Argo, Lincoln, Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook when they are such different types of movies? I suppose you could argue that it foolish to rank movies at all, yet these films are clearly better than anything else I’ve seen this year, regardless of style of movie. I’m including a category called Greatly Disappointing Ones. These are movies that came with both critical acclaim and my own high expectations, but failed in some significant way. They are not terrible movies, but they should have been much better. So, I’m going to give this type of ranking system a shot. Let me know what you think.



Moonrise Kingdom

Have you ever felt like an outsider, even in your own family? Do you remember what it felt like the first time you fell in love? If so, I highly recommend that you take a trip to Moonrise Kingdom. Writer/director Wes Anderson gives us the gift of a wonderful story in which those two themes are intertwined. My appreciation of Wes Anderson as a director has been growing by leaps and bounds. His work is quite distinctive and quirky (although at times it reminds me of the quirkiness of the Coen brothers). He fills the screen with great detail and he has the ability to present the joys and sorrows of the human condition in revealing ways. I thought this movie was brilliant! I laughed uproariously, sometimes at tiny details that caught my fancy. I wept tears of joy at the grace-filled climax. In addition to Anderson’s strong directing and writing, the entire cast does a fabulous job of bringing his vision to life. This movie is magical! However, I must warn you that this seems to be a love it or hate it kind of movie. Some people don’t like the deadpan delivery of the dialog. I think it actually heightens the sense of truth that is being revealed. Some people are uncomfortable with how the relationship between the kids is presented, with 12 year olds shown in their underwear and awkwardly discovering the physical aspect of romance. I thought this was handled well, especially the reaction to their first kiss. Others are put off by the one scene of violence. I think it highlights the cruelty of the world we live in. I suggest that you give yourself over to the strangeness of the film and you may discover that you also love one of the best movies of the year.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

This is a difficult movie. If you are up to the challenge, you will find a film that gives you much to ponder. It is a brilliant piece of film-making, quite an achievement for first time director Behn Zeitlin. It is worth seeing simply for the remarkable performance by Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy, the six-year-old heroine of the story. However, do not let the fireworks on the poster fool you. This movie is not a simple celebration of life. Yes, the people of “the Bathtub”, a place at the Southern edge of the Louisiana bayou, do celebrate, but their celebration is fueled by alcohol and is as much a denial of the reality of life as it is a celebration of life. The reality for Hushpuppy is that her mother disappeared when she was an infant. She lives in squalor with her father who is mean when he is drunk and he is drunk much of the time. He also has a life-threatening illness. Throw in melting ice caps and a storm that floods the Bathtub and you hardly have the makings of a feel-good movie. Yet, there is something strangely uplifting about Beasts and that something is found in Hushpuppy’s strength and compassion. The major drawback for me was that I was more impressed by the movie than moved by it, but it is well worth seeing nonetheless. (Update: seeing Beasts a second time I was even more impressed and this time deeply moved. I cried more than I did the first time and simply sobbed at the end. I was still appalled by the father, hated him even, but also realized that I need to love him. That’s the tricky kind of love that Jesus talks about isn’t it? At this point, I’m thinking/feeling that this is the best movie of the year.)


Time travel is tricky, but tripping through the twists of Looper is time well spent. Writer/director Rian Johnson is a talent to keep an eye on! The movie is not about time travel. The time travel is there to serve a story and a compelling story it is. At the heart of the story we find an ethical question well worth pondering. The cast is stellar, led by knockout performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis.  There is also a creepy cool performance by Jeff Daniels. Emily Blunt brings a nice blend of vulnerability and strength to her role as Sara, a women dealing with a number of issues (although, her character did occasionally act in ways that were remarkably stupid…one of the few weaknesses in the script). Speaking of issues, can anyone play a tortured soul better than Paul Dano? Unfortunately, he was only actively involved in a few scenes. Do yourself a favor and see Looper. It will be time well spent.


Ben Affleck continues to impress as a director. He also gives a solid acting performance as the exfiltration expert working to get six people who escaped from the American Embassy out of Iran during the hostage crisis. Based on as true story, the movie works well as a reminder of an important part of our history. It also works well as a thriller and it has a lighter side provided by John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Hollywood moviemakers who help with the cover story used to sneak the six out of Iran.


Lincoln was great, a great man, a great leader, a great president, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln does a remarkable job of shining a light on that greatness. Certainly, much credit for the power of this movie goes to Spielberg as director. However, any mention of credit must quickly include Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln. Yes, it is that good, best actor Oscar good. Often Day-Lewis chews up the scenery, but here his performance is all the more masterful in its restraint. His Lincoln is soft-spoken, but you hang on every word. The few scenes where he responds with greater emotion stand out in contrast to the careful, measured responses of Lincoln, but it is that quiet power that makes the performance, and the image of Lincoln that it represents, so impressive. As strong as his performance is, this is not a one-man show. Day-Lewis is joined by a universally strong supporting cast. Sally Field delivers a stellar performance, also worthy of an Oscar nomination. Finally, credit also goes to Tony Kushner for a strong script. Little of the Civil War is shown. This movie focuses on rhetoric, political maneuvering, and personal relationships. It is not a thrilling movie, but it is an intriguing one, with a story that more than justifies its two and a half hour length and that makes Lincoln one of the great movies of the year.

Django Unchained

That’s entertainment! I know it  makes no sense, but I love Tarantino’s movies and this one ranks right up there with the best of them. Yes, they are incredibly violent and filled with “strong” language, but they are also visually splendid and that “strong” language is part of crackling dialog. In the midst of his genre mash-ups, there are always moral questions to ponder. I do not believe that revenge is ever the answer, but his revenge fantasies provide an interesting way to dig into important issues, in this case slavery and racism. There is serious stuff going on here, but it rides in elbow to elbow with some of Tarantino’s most straight-forward comedic material and his usual heavy violence. If that kind of combination makes you uncomfortable, then I’d suggest skipping this movie. It seems to me, though, that life is like that and I enjoy taking the wild ride that Tarantino’s movies provide. Spike Lee complained (without seeing the movie) that Tarantino was being disrespectful to the history of Lee’s people, especially through the frequent use of the N word in the movie. I think he is wrong. Whereas Lincoln tells the story of the end of slavery, Django exposes the horrors of slavery in a way that few movies have. The ongoing “joke” about the n***** on the horse similarly exposes the racism that continues to plague us. Just as the white characters in the movie, along with Samuel L. Jackson’s Uncle Tom, cannot tolerate the sight of Django riding a horse, there are still plenty of white folks who are thrilled to have talented black athletes on their favorite team, but who dread the thought of one “those people” moving into their neighborhood. Go figure! As for the violence, two-thirds of the way through I was thinking that this was one of Taratino’s least violent films, but the final third more than made up for it. Much of the violence was cartoonish, including a Wiley Coyote-esque moment involving Taratino himself. In addition to QT’s Oscar-worthy directing and writing, the movie has fine performances by Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson. All in all, a reminder of why I love QT’s work in particular and, indeed, movies in general.

Silver Linings Playbook

You’d have to be crazy not to love this movie. David O. Russell has written and directed a winner! Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, and Jackie Weaver all nabbed well-deserved Oscar noms for their acting, but it is Lawrence that steals the show. She is phenomenal! I have lots more to say about it in this post:

Holy Motors

The strangest movie I’ve seen all year and also one of the best, although certainly not a movie for everyone. Avoid this movie if you want a straight-forward narrative. Also, avoid it if you don’t like reading subtitles. This one is in French, but it is not heavy on dialogue, so the reading isn’t a great burden. If you do enjoy movies with a unique style and approach, see this. If you like movies that are challenging and thought-provoking, don’t miss this. What is it about? It’s a movie about the movies. No wait, it’s a movie about how the movies reflect life. No, it actually is about life (and death and sex and struggle and the difficulty of relationships and the effect of technology on humanity and…). What happens? A little bit of everything. It follows Mr. Oscar from morning until late night as he travels around Paris in a long, white limo on his way to a number of “appointments.” He is apparently an actor and at each stop he has a different role to play. I won’t tell you what those roles are because part of the fun is the sense of surprise around every corner. You will not guess where this movie is going, but it is a great ride! See it! (It is currently available on Netflix streaming.)


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Ruby Sparks

This is not your typical romantic comedy. In part that is due to the fantasy aspect of its premise: Calvin, a novelist, writes about a girl that he has seen in his dreams and she comes to life. That premise could have been used to create a sweet movie a guy and his dream girl as they face a few minor complications in regard to a fictional character come to life, but things are not that simple here. There are those complications, but the movie focuses on the implications for a relationship when one person tries to control the other. When Calvin rewrites Ruby to be what he desires, things turn ugly. This, too, is a difficult movie to watch, but it has many interesting things to say about relationships, as well as the creative process.

Hope Springs

This is not your typical romantic comedy. For starters, it is about a couple in their sixties. Is romance even possible for a couple of that age after 31 years of marriage? That is the central question of the movie. The movie has the typical laughs of a rom-com, as well as the typical happy ending, but the journey is not quite typical. I found the struggles they face to be more profound and, thus, more painful, than what you see in most rom-coms. Some of these scenes were uncomfortable to watch, but that is why the film places higher in my rankings than a typical rom-com would. I also found it somewhat uncomfortable watching the sex scenes, but they were quite moving in their own way. Meryl Streep is good as the wife (is she ever less than good?), but I didn’t find her performance to be much more than good. Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand, was terrific. His performance made this into a much better movie than it would have been otherwise. As the grouchy husband, he gets most of the funny lines, but the strength of his performance goes well beyond that.

Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths is one strange movie! As I watched the film, I found myself thinking over and over that it just didn’t work. I was certainly enjoying the pieces, but the pieces just didn’t seem to fit together. Then the ending came and the movie made a strange sort of sense. The questions weren’t all answered, but that didn’t seem to matter. There seemed to be something deeper going on here. Clearly, here and in his previous film, In Bruges, Martin McDonagh is striving to make some sense of his upbringing in the faith. Such striving is difficult, but I am glad that McDonagh takes a shot at it. Be forewarned that this movie is ultra-violent, even as it seeks answers to finding peace. The movie is filled with strong performances. I was most impressed by Christopher Walken, but also greatly enjoyed Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Tom Waits.

The Life of Pi

A deeply spiritual film. As the elder Pi prepares to tell his story, he claims that if you believe his story you will believe in God. Unfortunately, I don’t think the movie is strong enough to have that kind of effect. I can’t imagine that this will be the turning point in the faith lives of hundreds of atheists and agnostics. However, for those who already believe, it is an interesting vehicle for pondering our relationship with God, as well as the nature of truth and the power of stories. I put it a notch down from the great film category because the scenes on the lifeboat (which make up the bulk of the movie) become a bit tedious and repetitive, which I suppose would happen if you were stuck out at sea in a lifeboat, but didn’t add to the power of this movie.

Zero Dark Thirty

Given the critical acclaim and the presence of Jessica Chastain (currently one of my favorite actresses), I expected to love this. Although I didn’t find it as disappointing as The Master or Les Mis, I do think it is over-rated. There is no plot, beyond the search for bin Laden, and little character development, despite the search stretching out over a decade. Chastain’s character, Maya, is the key to the movie. Her determination to find bin Laden drives the film. It made sense to tell the story from a point of view and Maya’s p.o.v. was as good a choice as any, but turning her into the super woman without whom bin Laden would never have been found felt forced and artificial. As much as I adore Chastain, that feeling extended to her acting. Although her performance was good overall, there were too many times that her reactions and voice inflections seemed inappropriate to what was happening in the story. This is not the first time that I have felt this way watching a film directed ny Kathryn Bigelow. I had the same problem with The Hurt Locker. The Academy made the right choice in ignoring her for Best Director. Some of the fault lies with Mark Boal, the screenwriter for both films. I thought some of the dialogue here was laughably bad. There has been much discussion about the torture scenes. They were difficult to watch, but I’m inclined to believe that what really happened was probably even worse. I’m not sure about the decision to start with a torture scene. It did put too much emphasis on that aspect of the story. I would have prefered some sense of what brought Maya to her position in the CIA, something that was never clarified in the movie. That being said, I did think that Jason Clarke, as the lead torturer, was one of the strongest characters in the film. Many reviewers remark on the high level of suspense, despite the fact that we know what is going to happen. I did not find this to be true. I found that there was little tension and I think that has to do with the weak character development. This goes for the movie as a whole and for the attack on bin Laden’s compound in particular. I thought that sequence was well-filmed, but I wasn’t on the edge of my seat. (I was also disappointed that Joel Edgerton had such a limited role.) Bottom line: well worth seeing, but not one of the year’s very best.


This is one strange ride! I found the trip across Manhattan to get a haircut with billionaire Eric Packer to be intriguing. This is a disquieting movie, but I found it to be much more effective than The Master, which I found to be overly manipulative. Cronenberg’s direction is spot on and the acting from Robert Pattinson on down is odd, yet captivating. This movie is not for everyone, but I quite enjoyed it. Check out my post for a more detailed explanation of my qualified recommendation.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

In many ways this is a typical coming of age/teen romance movie, so why do I place it in among the Nearly Great movies rather than in the Pretty Darn Good category? Is it really better than that rather impressive list of films? Better? Maybe not. But, I was deeply moved by Perks and isn’t that what it is finally all about? This movie had me tearing up over and over again. I may be 53, but memories of those high school days still linger. Stephen Chbosky has done a marvelous job bringing his novel to life on the screen. His young actors (especially  Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller) serve him well. At times the writing is gorgeous. There are moments when the characters speak in platitudes, but ultimately the wonderful side of the writing wins out. This feels deeper and more daring than most teen movies. A surprising shift near the end threatens to throw the enterprise off its rails, but it is to Chbosky’s credit that he is able to bring the movie to an ending that is hopeful, but not easy, which is fitting for this movie.

The Sessions

A movie about a man in his thirties, nearly totally incapacitated by polio, who has his first sexual experience, now that’s something you don’t see everyday. But, in this case it is something that you should see, unless you are quite squeamish when it comes to sex. There is plenty of sex, but just as Helen Hunt matter-of-factly disrobes in her role as the sex surrogate, so is this movie comfortable with the sex it presents. In a sense the sex is explicit, but it is not used to titillate. It is used to help us understand what this experience meant to Mark O’Brien (the writer/poet the movie is based on, wonderfully played by John Hawkes) and in so doing also help us to ponder what our own sexuality means to us. The movie makes it clear that the quality of the relationship is more important than the sexual act itself. What a novel idea! It laments the fact that our culture convinces too many people that their self worth is directly connected to the quality of their sexual experiences. It wonders if the sexual act itself might not actually be a bit overrated! This movie is not really about sex. It is about self discovery which leads to deeper relationships with others. It is also about faith and wondering where God is in the struggles of life. Hawkes and Hunt deliver fine performances, as does William H. Macy as Mark’s priest. This is in the Nearly Great category because I wasn’t as moved by the characters as I would have liked to have been, but nonetheless it is well worth seeing.

Cloud Atlas

This movie is a mess, but it is a glorious mess. I enjoyed moving back and forth through the centuries with the story and the actors in their multiple roles in the various storylines. Even though the make-up was at times laughably bad, it was fun spotting the actors in their various personas. It boasts quite a cast with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, and many others. The stories run the full gamut of emotions and their interconnections give one plenty to ponder. I’m looking forward to the next effort by the Wachowskis.


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The Hunger Games

I had not read the books before seeing the movie, but I’ve read them all now and I can’t wait to see the rest of the movies in the series! I was a bit concerned about the subject matter, children killing each other, but I thought it was handled well and that the story does provide some interesting social commentary. I didn’t like the usage of the shaky-cam early in the film, but beyond that I found the movie to be stylish and engrossing. I’m a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence and she carried the film, as she had to, in the role of Katniss. The freshness of the story gives it a slight nod over the next couple of movies on my list.

The Avengers

I was surprised (and delighted) by how good this was. I didn’t think they could pull off a coherent story with so many characters, but they did. Each character was given its due, except maybe Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. I liked Captain America much more here than in his own movie. The interplay between him and Ironman worked well. Overall, the cast was solid. Robert Downey Jr. was delightful as always, and, as much as I wanted to see Edward Norton in the role, I thought Mark Ruffalo was quite good as Bruce Banner.


This movie was number 1 on my list of upcoming movies. It didn’t quite live up to expectations, but I still enjoyed it. Ridley Scott has made a great looking film that asks a lot of big questions, but the storytelling could have been stronger. I wasn’t thrilled with Noomi Rapace’s character early in the film, but she grew on me. Michael Fassbender was terrific as the android.

The Dark Knight Rises

A strong conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The realistic feel that Nolan gives to these films sets them apart from other superhero movies. That realistic feel also gives us a dark picture of humanity, but it is not without hope. As Batman struggles with the question of his responsibility to others, it is a question we all need to ask. I found a number of the characters to be intriguing, especially the Catwoman. Anne Hathaway gives a fine performance in that role. The depth and mystery of that character typifies what this movie has to offer.

The Bourne Legacy

I was surprised by how much I liked this. I thought I would really miss Matt Damon, but Jeremy Renner does a fine job. There are some great action scenes, but the pace here is slower than in the other Bourne movies and that works well, making this more of a thriller. The pace gives you time to ponder the movie’s core questions regarding how we make ethical decisions. In addition, Edward Norton is great as always playing a somewhat mysterious character who has a position of great power within the intelligence operations.


One of the best Bond movies ever, but certainly not one of the best movies of the year. It was fun, especially in the way it celebrated Bond’s history while adding new layers to the characters of Bond and M. Those layers were centered on the question of whether it is possible to remain relevant as one gets older. The question is answered in the affirmative for both Bond and M, and thus for the Bond film franchise itself. Pulling off that storyline required strong performances by both Daniel Craig and Judi Dench and they delivered. My initial reaction to Javier Bardem’s turn as the villain was that it was a pale imitation of his classic role as Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, with a bit of Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal Lecter thrown in for good measure. I’ve had to rethink that after reading my son’s review in his school paper. He writes, ” Javier Bardem is a veritable expert at playing the creepy villain, and his turn as Raoul Silva was incredible, featuring depth that showed a tortured soul, not just a mindless psychopath.” I think he may be on to something there. Whatever the case may be, he certainly has another dreadful haircut! I found the personal aspects of the movie to be compelling, but, quite frankly, I was a bit bored by the action sequences. It felt like I had seen it all before and that there wasn’t much at stake. I’m sure I’m one of the few people who rank The Bourne Legacy over Skyfall, but I found Bourne to be a more engaging and better looking film. (Maybe I’m just a sucker for mountains!)

Safety Not Guaranteed

I totally expected to love this. It had received quite favorable reviews. I’m generally drawn to indie films because they give writers and directors the opportunity to take chances, to push the envelope, which can lead to intriguing and challenging films. However, their success depends on them having something unique to say and upon first impression it seemed to me that all this film had to say was, “Look at how indie I am.” Actually, I did really like Audrey Plaza and Mark Duplass, but their performances were not enough to save this one for me the first time through. Jake Johnson’s character felt like someone from a sit-com. Hmm, he’s in New Girl isn’t he? Strangely, his character in New Girl was the only one I could tolerate, but here I found him to be shallow and annoying and that is the impression that the I was left with, so I placed the movie in the Meh category. However, upon seeing it a second time, I have moved it up to Pretty Darn Good status. I found the Plaza and Duplass characters to be even more endearing and the movie as a whole worked for me in a way it hadn’t upon first viewing.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

A delightful movie featuring a marvelous cast of old pros, including Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith. It was also good to see Dav Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) again. His character has a line that sums up the hopeful spirit of the movie: “Everything will be all right in the end… if it’s not all right then it’s not yet the end.”

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Almost. I almost put The Hobbit in the Nearly Great Ones category. Almost, but no. It just doesn’t belong there. It was fairly entertaining. None of it was terrible. A few scenes were great, but too few. The highlight was certainly Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum and the famous riddle game. Andy Serkis was again marvelous as Gollum. Martin Freeman was fabulous as Bilbo, but, despite the movies nearly 3 hour length, he wasn’t really given enough scenes in which to shine. Also, despite the length, it was hard to get much of feel for more than a few of the dwarves, although I especially liked James Nesbitt as Bofur. The dwarfs as a whole were a strange lot. Some of them were wide caricatures of Gimli from Lord of the Rings, others, such as Thorin, seemed like short, but quite normal, humans, while others were somewhere in between.  It was also interesting that Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Saruman (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) all appeared to be clearly younger than they were in the Ring trilogy. I know this story is set 60 years before the trilogy, but 60 years is really next to nothing for wizards and elves, isn’t it? Some of the sets and scenery were spectacular, but most of it felt like things we have seen before, although the abode of the goblins did stand out. It definitely felt that Peter Jackson was crafting this with a younger audience in mind. The orcs and goblins weren’t quite as nasty looking. There was violence (of course there was), including a number of decapitation, but all without a drop of blood in evidence. (Do orcs bleed?) The humor was aimed at a younger audience (including plenty of troll booger humor) and was really quite lame. Yet, despite it’s faults, I enjoyed it and thankfully it didn’t feel like a three-hour movie. I thought it actually moved along fairly well, and it did bring a few tears to my eyes towards the end, so maybe they will be able to build on that in the next two installments.


On one level, this is a crime thriller and, as such, it is a good movie. But, there is another layer to what is going on here that raises it to a higher level. That layer is a critique of the corrupting power of wealth. The movie is anchored by a strong performance by Richard Gere, along with fine support from Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, and Nate Parker. It was good to see Stuart Margolin (The Rockford Files) again and it’s always good to see Tim Roth.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Another simple delight. A love story with an undercurrent of the importance of faith. Ewan McGregor’s character is marvelous! Emily Blunt is quite good, too. Some of the writing is a bit hokey and contrived, but there are great laughs and I shed a number of tears. Well directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Nowhere near as good as his Chocolat, which I dearly love, but still a movie I will want to see again (and again?).


A strangely enthralling film. Essentially, it is the story of Andrew, a high school student who is a loner with a difficult family life. Nothing to set it apart there, however things will soon change in a big way. Even though his life is a mess, Andrew has decided to chronicle it (hence, the title). Most of the movie is told through the viewpoint of his camera, supplemented through other cameras that happen to be around. I’m not fan of “found footage” films, but it did work well here. Quite surprisingly for such a movie, the special effects were awesome. While at a party in the woods, Andrew and two companions find something strange in a cave. It is never clear what it was, but it gives them incredible telekinetic powers. This part of the movie plays out like a superhero origin story as they have fun with their new powers and discover what they are capable of doing, which includes flying (leading to some of the best effects in the movie.) This talent that they share also draws them together, giving Andrew a taste of friendship that he seems to have missed out on for most of his life. Things do not stay light and happy for long, though. As their powers become stronger, they realize that they cannot keep them hidden forever and must decide how they will use them, for good or for ill. One of the boys suggests that they need some rules, but Andrew balks at this, insisting that personal freedom is more important. There are many ethical issues to ponder here, including freedom versus responsibility. How would you act if you were given unbridled power? How would you treat your enemies? Jesus said to love them. Would you?

Magic Mike

Despite an urge to see this due to good reviews, especially regarding Matthew McConaughey, I avoided it for quite a while. I mean, a movie about male strippers? Starring Channing Tatum? Oh, please! However, when Netflix offered me a free month of DVDs, I stuck it in the queue just in case I changed my mind. Although it was a few notches from the top of the queue, as luck would have it, Netflix sent it and I’m glad that they did. Magic Mike is pretty darn good. In the sure (and mature) hands of director Steven Soderbergh this is anything but the simple sex romp it would have been if done by the likes of Apatow/Rogen. Sure, the dancing is sexually suggestive (very suggestive), but the men never fully disrobe. Overall, the dancing is fun to watch. Supposedly the movie is loosely based on Tatum’s experience as a stripper and he shows here that he definitely has the moves. On stage, he is Magic Mike. His acting while off the stage won’t win any awards, but it was strong enough and may win him a few more leading roles. As advertised, McConaughey was delighfully impressive as the owner of the strip club. I also quite liked Cody Horn as Mike’s love interest. They meet when Mike takes her 19 year old brother under his wing and becomes his mentor at the club. The dancing provides the flash and the story provides just enough substance. It gives us the opportunity to ponder how to deal with success and the dangers of walking on the wild side.

Sound of My Voice

Keep your eye on Brit Marling. In the past couple of years she has co-written and starred in two intriguing movies, Another Earth and Sound of My Voice. She fills both of those roles again with The East, scheduled for release in May 2013. Both of those earlier films have twists at the end that make you rethink all that you have seen, but they do not rely solely on those endings for their strength. They tell interesting stories with a strong focus on the emotions of the characters. In Sound of My Voice Marling plays Maggie, the mysterious leader of a cult. A young couple decides to infiltrate the group to make a documentary on Maggie and the power that cult leaders have on their followers. When they hear the claim that Maggie is a visitor from the future, they know it has to be a hoax, but they are drawn in by Maggie’s charismatic power nonetheless. Marling gives a brilliant performance, presenting Maggie as fragile, yet alarmingly persuasive.

Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor (of How I Met Your Mother fame) goes one better than Marling, handling writing, acting and directing duties for Liberal Arts and the earlier happythankyoumoreplease. Both are movies about the tricky business of relationships and finding one’s place in life. Both are well worth seeing. In Liberal Arts, Radnor plays a 30-something college admissions director who returns to his alma mater and falls for a college sophomore, played by Elizabeth Olsen. He struggles with their age difference, even as he feels drawn to her. Radnor has a gift for writing about the messiness of life, resisting the temptation to tidy up everything. Radnor and Olsen deliver fine performances, as does the supporting cast, including Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, and even Zac Efron in a decidedly strange role.

The Impossible

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to experience a tsunami? If so, see this movie. The tsunami scenes are incredible, although maybe no more so than the ones Clint Eastwood gave us in Hereafter. However, if you get queasy watching the agony of human suffering, you may want to skip this. After a short setup and the tsunami itself, the bulk of the film follows the family (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as the parents of three young boys) as they struggle to survive in the aftermath of the disaster. Watts has the worst of it, suffering a nasty leg injury (beware you queasy folks) that eventually threatens her life as medical care is delayed. She was nominated for best actress, but it seems to me that this is one of those cases where an actor is applauded for what their character is forced to go through, rather than for the acting itself. Her performance was fine, but I didn’t think it was award-worthy. McGregor’s work is as strong as hers, but his character doesn’t physically suffer as much. His portrayal of the emotional suffering of a husband/father searching for his wife/sons is quite good. His determination not to give up the search reminded me of the parable of the lost sheep. This is the kind of movie that should have had me shedding copious tears, but I shed not a drop. The movie excelled at showing the disaster and suffering, but failed on the personal level. Part of the problem was that the family was not well defined before the tsunami. The writer said this was on purpose. They wanted the family to represent all families so they avoided too many specifics. Watching the movie I cared about the family in the sense that I don’t want any family to suffer such things, but I didn’t care deeply about the family because they were ciphers. As much as I felt I experienced the tsunami, I felt distanced from their pain. This, no tears. The other problem was that much of the story seemed hokey. I found myself thinking, even if this is exactly how this happened, it still seems written for the movie. I’m not giving too much away by saying the family gets back together at the end, but how it happened seemed so contrived. Again, no tears, and what could have been a nearly great movie turned out to be only pretty good.

Killing Them Softly


Killer Joe



A Late Quartet

This was one of the saddest movie viewing experiences that I have ever had. The deep sadness was not the result of the movie itself, although it is certainly a less than cheery film, but rather due to the fact that I watched it on the day that Philip Seymour Hoffman died. PSH is one of my all-time favorite actors. He brought such a depth of soul to every part that he played. His characters were often broken in some way, but always oh so real. Watching him share his tremendous talent again here in what will now be, unfortunately, one of his final performances was painful. Interestingly, in A Late Quartet he plays a man who is struggling with his position as second violinist in the quartet. Although he is able to describe the importance of the second violin, which adds depth and color to the composition being played and provides an important connection between the first violin and the viola and cello, he feels that he has the talent to play the lead at least occasionally. PSH did occasionally play the lead role during his career, but more often he was the second violin. He was the definitive character actor who made every movie he appeared in better than it would have been without him. This movie is worth seeing simply because it gives us yet another of his fine performances. It is also fun to see Christopher Walken in what is for him a fairly subdued role as the quartet’s cellist who is suffering from the onset of Parkinson’s disease. The movie is a bit melodramatic at times, but gives us a glimpse inside a classical quartet and at the fragile nature of life. Hoffman’s death has reminded us of just how fragile life can be.


les mismaster

Les Miserables

Quite simply, this is not a great movie. There will be fans of the musical who will like it, even love it, despite itself. Some will say that it is a great movie, but they will be wrong. The singing is fine, even Russell Crowe’s “singing” doesn’t ruin the movie. The acting is as good as it can be, but it is limited in impact by the style of the movie. The blame for this mess lands squarely with its director, Tom Hooper. Hooper did not deserve the Oscar he won for directing The King’s Speech, and his limitations as a director are even more clearly on display here. The biggest fault is his insistence on using close-ups on the singers for solo after solo. This was simply boring and a disservice to the musical. The action scenes were chaotic. “Master of the House,” one of my favorite songs in the stage version of the musical, was creepy here and even includes Santa having sex (yuck!). Overall, the movie was dark and claustrophobic. The audience applauded at the end. I joined in the applause. I’m not sure what they were clapping for, but I was applauding the fact that it was over! There have been a number of long movies this year, but none of them have felt over-long to me, until this one. I felt like I was suffering through 19 years of punishment for stealing a loaf of bread. An interesting observation: I think this is the first movie where I cried watching the previews but shed not a drop during the movie itself, not even during “I Dreamed a Dream.” By the way, Anne Hathaway is fine, but it will be a pity if she wins best supporting actress for this. She simply doesn’t do enough here to deserve it. I actually think that her performance in Dark Knight Rises is more deserving of recognition.

The Master

I’m a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. Magnolia is one of my all-time favorite movies, but this one didn’t work for me. Presenting interesting characters is a good starting point for a movie. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) were somewhat interesting, but that’s not enough. I also need characters that I care about and that didn’t happen here. I don’t have to like the characters. I didn’t like the main characters in PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but I cared about what happened to them. The style of The Master prevented me from caring. I don’t want or need a movie that spells everything out for me, but I found things to be too muddled here. At one point Dodd’s son says that Dodd is making it all up as he goes along. It felt like that was the case with Anderson and this film. By and large, the critics loved it. The Academy ignored it for Best Picture and Best Director. In this case, I agree with the Academy. The Academy did recognize Phoenix, Hoffman, and Amy Adams for their acting. Those nominations are deserved, I suppose (even though Phoenix’s mumbling was quite annoying). Most of the talk has been about the two guys, but I think if any of them deserves to win, it is Adams. She gave the part of Peggy Dodd a bit more depth than her male counterparts. As much as I disliked Les Mis, this is the biggest disappointment of the year because my hopes for it were so high.


seekingflightrustsugar mansafe housefive-yearblue jazzwreck21 jumprobot frank


This is a dark, existential drama with some wonderfully dark and absurd humor thrown into the mix, along with a bit of sex and violence. It is by the director of Dogtooth. His movies are not for the faint of heart, but they are fascinating in their own strange ways. I included this in my 2011 rankings because it was released in Greece last year, but Metacritic includes it in their 2012 list, so I will, too.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

This is a strange, mostly endearing film by the Duplass brothers, who also wrote/directed the strange, endearing Cyrus. Jason Segal certainly can play a lovable lug. I’m still not sure how I feel about Ed Helms. This movie goes in surprising directions, which is always fun. It also strives to present a message of hope, which I appreciate.

The Cabin in the Woods

Is this an homage to horror movies or a send-up of horror movie conventions and clichés? Actually, it’s a bit of both and that’s what makes it a whole lot of fun to watch. That Joss Whedon is a clever boy, indeed. All you possible nightmares are here: zombies, giant bats, killer clowns, evil unicorns. What? Evil unicorns? Yep, it’s that kind of movie, with some social commentary included for good measure. You even get pre-Captain America Chris Hemsworth.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The Odd Life of Timothy Green isn’t all that odd, despite the fact that Timothy is a child who comes out of hole in the garden and has leaves growing on his shins. A little more oddness might have made it a better movie, but despite its flaws, it is a mostly charming movie. It is also a movie that had me shedding a fair share of tears (which was clearly the intent). I enjoyed a number of the performances, especially Joel Edgerton as the father and Dianne Wiest and M. Emmet Walsh in smaller roles. Some of the characters were clichéd, but there were enough surprising twists in the story to make it well worth seeing.


I wanted to love this because the screenplay was written by Nick Cave whose musical career includes a number of songs with fabulous lyrics. I must admit, though, that the writing here was hit or miss. There were a few terrific scenes, but much of the screenplay was mundane. Although it was based on the true story of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers, it didn’t come off as feeling particularly real. I especially had trouble buying into Shia LeBeouf as a Depression-era bootlegger. Although his performance was actually better than I expected, it felt too much like he was acting rather than embodying the part. Tom Hardy’s character didn’t feel all that real, either, but in his case it was because he was supposed to be larger than life. I’m not sure he achieved that, but I did get quite a kick out of the way he grunted his way through the movie. A central theme of the movie was whether one should believe in and try to live up to one’s own legend. In that sense, there seemed to be the desire to make the film feel legendary. It did not achieve that lofty goal, but I enjoyed it none the less.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Here is yet another atypical romantic comedy. Actually, IMDb doesn’t list it as a comedy at all, labeling it as drama, romance, and sci-fi. Does the fact that the plot involves an asteroid is on a collision course for earth qualify the movie as sci-fi? As far as that goes, I think it is more comedy than sci-fi, but romantic drama maybe does cover it better. Whatever the case, it is an odd film. I wasn’t knocked out by it, but I found it interesting enough. It was darker than expected, due to some people’s reactions to the impending end of the world (including a couple of suicides, one somewhat gruesome, along with some other violence), but the main focus of the story is the development of the relationship between Dodge (Steve Carell), whose wife abandons him when she hears the news about the asteroid, and Penny (Keira Knightly). Yes, he is too old for her and for much of the movie it is hard to say that there is much chemistry between them, but what does age matter when the world is about to end? The ending seemed a bit forced and yet somehow fulfilling at the same time. Both Carell and Knightly do good work here, although this isn’t nearly as strong as Carell’s Crazy Stupid Love from last year (if you haven’t seen it, do so!) or even Dan in Real Life, but it is still worth a look.


The crash landing sequence is amazing to watch. (I’ll certainly be thinking about it the next time I fly!) Unfortunately, apart from Denzel Washington’s Oscar nominated acting as pilot Whip Whitaker, it is by far the best thing about this film. Too much of the rest of the movie stretches credibility very thin. A pilot friend told me that the inverted flying simply would never happen. It’s still exciting to watch, though. Be that as it may, Denzel’s drunk and coke-addled pilot flying the plane is hard to buy. Director Robert Zemeckis doesn’t seem to trust his audience, so he lays everything on extra thick to make sure we get the point. For instance, one of the very first shots in the movie is of a woman’s breast. Before long she is strolling across the motel room stark naked. Why? So that we can understand that Whip is leading a decadent life. Unfortunately, other than the clear rift between Whip and his ex-wife and son, we never get a clear sense of how he arrived at this place. Although I found the scene where Whip must decide whether he will take responsibility for his life and actions to be quite powerful, in the end this is a fairly typical (and ultimately preachy) recovery story. Washington’s acting, as always, is praiseworthy. It’s too bad the rest of the movie didn’t match the quality that he brought to it.

Rust and Bone

A gritty drama about the struggle for relationship. It has been labeled as a romance, but that gives the wrong impression. This is a difficult film with characters that are hard to care about, flawed as they are. This is especially true of the male lead played by Matthias Schoenaerts. He is self-centered and treats his young son in an appalling way. He shows some care for Stephanie (Marion Cotillard in a strong performance) after she experiences a tragic accident as a killer whale trainer. This is an interesting character study, but too much struggle with too little redemption to highly recommend it.

Searching for Sugar Man

Safe House

The Five-Year Engagement

Blue Like Jazz

A conservative, evangelical Southern Baptist kid from Texas goes to ultra-liberal Reed College in Portland and searches for himself and God. Too many of the characters were stereotypes, but nonetheless this was fairly entertaining. It is worth viewing as it tries to make sense of a younger generation’s attempt to make sense of religion in a time when religion as it has been practiced doesn’t always make a lot of sense.

Wreck-It Ralph

21 Jump Street

Robot and Frank



The Amazing Spider-man

I found this to be quite entertaining and I loved Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spidey, but this still felt like a reboot that wasn’t needed. I also thought the movie’s impact was weakened by a number of glaring inconsistencies.


I am surprised by how many reviews rave about Jack Black’s performance, saying that he shows dimensions here that we have never seen from him before. Really? I felt like I had seen it all before. Yes, Black can have a tendency to overact and his work here is much more subtle, but I thought it was too subtle. I felt the film as a whole was missing a necessary spark. I thought that casting actual townsfolk to play themselves in the interview sequences worked well, but ultimately they had little to say, which pretty much sums up how I felt about the movie.

The Paperboy

I took a chance on this because Roger Ebert (among others) wrote that while it is trash, it is great trash, and also because Nicole Kidman received a couple of award nominations for her trashy role in it. I’ll certainly agree that The Paperboy is trash, but I’m not sure that it is all that great. It is entertaining in a twisted sort of way. The performances are over the top, that includes Kidman, as well as Matthew McConaughey and John Cusack as you have never seen him before (a creepy, sex-obsessed possible killer from the swamp.) It seems that Zac Efron is here simply to walk around in his underpants whenever possible.


Kinda cute. Kinda clever. Kinda boring. It looks great, but even animated movies need characters with some depth that we can relate to. Not much is happening here. The original live version from years ago is much shorter, but stronger.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits


prem rush

Dark Shadows

Watching the TV show was a childhood ritual and I enjoyed this Burton/Depp movie version of the story, despite the goofy ending. The trailer had me concerned that the movie would be filled with lame ’70s jokes, but I thought they handled that setting for the story fairly well. It is far from being one of Burton/Depp’s finest achievements, but I thought it was fun.

Total Recall

The trailer promised action that would look good on the big screen. The movie did deliver that, but none of the action sequences brought anything particularly new to the table. Essentially, I saw this for one reason: Colin Farrell. He did what he could with the limited material.

Premium Rush

I’m a big fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but this movie simply doesn’t work very well. For starters, JGL’s acting seems off, with inappropriate reactions to events throughout the movie. Michael Shannon, who has done some impressive acting elsewhere, is over the top as the bad cop. The story is implausible and clearly designed to pull at our heart strings. It didn’t work for me. The bikes racing through the streets of New York was exciting at first, but became boring as the movie dragged on. Not a completely terrible movie, but the weakest that I have watched all year.

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