The Movies I Liked This Year, Part 1

3 Jan

Yes, I know. It’s been a long time. I don’t really have an excuse, but one of my New Years resolutions is to blog again and it’s January 3rd, so here I am.

Over the past five years or so I have slowly but surely drifted from film to television. I moved to Los Angeles to become a TV writer and I watch way more TV (and play way more videogames) than I see movies. But recently I’ve tried to watch more movies (another one of my resolutions) and 2012 actually gave us a smattering of pretty cool films, as opposed to 2011′s disappointing offerings (seriously, a silent film won the Best Picture Oscar). As always, I didn’t see most of the movies that were released. I’m poor and I like to spend my money on other things. But from what few films I did see, I’ve managed to compile this list:

1. Zero Dark Thirty

I just saw this over the holiday break with my dad. This was the movie I was most excited to see all year, though the very Call of Duty-esque trailer and the literal videogame tie-in with the subpar first person shooter Medal of Honor: Warfighter made me wary. WHERE DID YOU LAST SEE BIN LADEN???!!! But when the film got stellar reviews I had an inkling I would love it and I was not disappointed.

Maybe it’s because I was in New York on September 11th or maybe it’s because I play so many military-themed shooter games, but for whatever reason I love this kind of shit. I love spies, I love military stuff, I love Middle-Eastern conflict and movies based on real life. I like the docu-drama style and I like movies such as United 93, Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and the documentary Restrepo. So Zero Dark Thirty was right up my alley, but I don’t think any movie has ever nailed this subgenre so impeccably.

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal make the right move in not taking a political stance. There is no critique or satire; the film just tells it how it is. This worked for United 93, but here it works even better. As such however, the film lacks much deeper meaning, excluding the final shot which is open to interpretation. Jessica Chastain is great and the filmmakers don’t attempt to make her character likable or heroic. In fact, she’s down right ruthless- at one point she tells one of the members of Seal Team Six that she would prefer dropping a missile on Bin Laden’s compound rather than risk their lives, even though she knows the manse is swarming with children.

The film maintains tension for nearly three hours and the final thirty minute raid sequence is undoubtedly one of the greatest action sequences in cinematic history. It’s a testament to Bigelow’s skill that the scene can be so engaging and thrilling when everyone in the theater knows the outcome. Bin Laden’s actual demise is handled tastefully and made me question my humanity a little, the same way the news of the raid did in 2011. Am I a monster to feel this catharsis when another human being dies? I’m not sure, but I can say that the film’s ending left me swirling with emotion, which is more than can be said for a lot of 2012 films (*cough* *cough* Django Unchained *cough* *cough*).

2. Dredd

Nobody saw this movie. No, seriously. Nobody saw it. It lost millions of dollars. And it’s depressing as fuck because this was one of the best movies of the year. I traveled twenty miles in October to catch this movie at the last remaining theater in Los Angeles that was showing it. And I did not regret it.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Dredd? As in Judge Dredd? As in that terrible 90s movie with Sylvester Stallone? Well, yes it’s the same source material and the same character, but this time Joseph Dredd has been given justice (pun). Not only is this hands down the best action film of the year, it actually has a lot of rich subtext and presents the viewer with a lot of complex questions regarding fascism, government, justice, crime and poverty. It doesn’t wear its ideas on its sleeve, but they’re there and they give an otherwise straightforward movie a little extra meat.

It’s also super, super violent. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with so much face and head trauma crammed into two hours. If this doesn’t get nominated for a special effects Oscar, I’ll be pissed. Mega City One (Johannesburg, South Africa) looks great and the thousand frames per second phantom camera slow-mo stuff is mind blowing. Generally I’m not a big fan of slow motion, particularly when it’s done in that awful, pornographic, Zach Snyder speed ramp way, but here I couldn’t get enough of it. The sequences don’t take you out of the story because there’s a logical explanation for their existence. The film centers on a drug called slo-mo that makes users experience time at a much slower rate, so anytime a character ingests the drug the film transitions to this very trippy, sparkly slow motion with ambient, ethereal music. This allows for some very dichotomous scenes where people’s cheeks are blown open at a thousand frames a second, creating a bizarre blend of gore and beauty.

The film also had the best 3D of the year, but unfortunately most people will never experience it now that Lionsgate has sent the film to die a second time with a January home video release. If you like ultra violent action films that have a little more to them than say, The Expendables, then I implore you to rent or pick up Dredd. The film also features one of the best one liners ever: “yeah.” Kudos to star Karl Urban for being such a badass actor that he was cool with Dredd never taking his helmet off.

3. The Grey

I imagine you’re having the same reaction to Dredd’s placement at the number two spot. The Grey?. As in the Liam Neeson movie with the wolves? Are you kidding me?

As is the case with almost all independently financed films distributed by major studios, the marketing team had no idea how to sell this movie. So they decided to try and profit from Neeson’s success with movies like Taken. They pitched it to the American public as a dumb survivalist action movie where Neeson punches wolves in the face with makeshift glass knuckles. This image couldn’t be further from what the movie actually is.

The Grey is really a character piece, and a very cerebral one at that. Lots of poetic voiceovers and a good number of flashbacks delve into Neeson’s character and why he would choose such a dangerous and isolated line of work. Obviously the story still centers on a group of oil drillers trying to survive the Alaskan wilderness while being pursued by a pack of wolves, but it isn’t really an action film and doesn’t even really feature the same kind of wolf horror as the movie Frozen. Still, it is a very tense thriller but more emotional and less contrived than most survivalist films (I’ve seen a lot of them). As the survivors succumb to the wild Neeson’s desperation becomes more and more palpable and I was reminded of just what a fantastic actor he can be when given the right role.

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Tomorrow I’ll post the second half of this list- I didn’t hit a Top 10, just six movies that interested me.

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