Sunday, January 6, 2013

My Top Films of 2012

The following films are what I consider the best released this past year. They are in alphabetical order.

Ben Affleck has just been getting better and better in his career as a director. This is probably my favorite movie of the year. Affleck has improved as an actor as well, but his directing is what really defines him! I consider this to be his "(Steven) Spielberg film" -- it's got all the feel of a film by Spielberg but with Affleck's own personal touch.  For those who don't know about the film's premise, Argo is the fictional film that the CIA used as a cover to send in CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) to rescue the six escaped U.S. embassy workers from Tehran, Iran. The look of the film sticks close to real-life images from when the story takes place in November 1979. Affleck has a good eye for detail (stick around for the credits to compare the film's scenes with actual photographs from the real incident), getting great performances from all of his actors and keeping a strong, solid pace for the story. The plot sounds ridiculous (and the screenplay is certainly not afraid to go there with the insults), but the story keeps pulling the viewer in a serious situation with ease. In the tradition of films like Munich, Argo takes good acting, writing and directing and displays them all for the audience. 

(Marvel's) The Avengers
Director Joss Whedon (TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly) can pretty much do no wrong in my eyes, so I wasn't worried about this film when I heard he was directing and helping to write the screenplay. Plus, Paramount's and Marvel Films' execution of placing Avengers references and characters/actors in most of the other Marvel Universe films (i.e., Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Incredible Hulk) is a great feat that deserves recognition in that it's never been done on such a broad scale before. I'm still a much bigger fan of DC Comics and the Justice League of America, but I'll still admit that this is the best Marvel film out there ... hands down. For plenty of action and good acting and writing, look no further than The Avengers!

A lot of critics and audiences were not as wowed or impressed with Pixar's Brave than its predecessors -- Toy Story 3, Up, Wall-E, etc. And I have to say that I felt the same when I first viewed the movie. However, then something happened. A couple of days later, my oldest daughter wanted to learn archery. Being an archer myself, I was happy to oblige in her curiosity and interest in learning a new skill and sport. So we went out to the store and bought a little $5 bow and arrow (with suction cups on the ends) set, and she quickly picked it up. I realized that this movie is what got her interested in the first place. And if she could pick up an interest in archery from watching Brave, what else could she have possibly picked up? Then I thought of the great messages beset within this movie -- wanting to make your own way in life, independence, bravery, trust, compassion, respect and love for your parents, humility, learning the consequences of greed, and realizing when you've made a mistake and making amends for it. Then, I watched the film again on DVD. And, compared to all of the other dumb TV show and movie plots out nowadays, this film is much better with a good, solid story and fun entertainment. Maybe Brave isn't as bad as I first thought.

As far as documentaries go, this is probably one of the most important contemporary ones out there -- especially if you're a parent or soon-to-be parent. Most would say that bullying (whether being bullied or being the bully) when you're a kid is "just a part of growing up" or that "it builds character." I find that those who say that were either never bullied growing up or they were the bully. And so does director Lee Hirsch, who was bullied as a kid. Someone once said, "The side that bullies soon forgets, but the side which is bullied will never forget." And truer words have never been spoken. Especially in a scene where boy #1 (who was just bullied by boy #2) is pulled over by an assistant principal and she forces boy #1 and boy #2 to shake hands, thinking that will absolve the physical altercation that had just occurred; when boy #1 (who is fed up) won't "sincerely" shake the hand of the boy who was just pounding on him, the principal scolds the bullied boy #1! Frustrating and angering. Fortunately, this film did accomplish what it set out to do: zero-tolerance policies toward bullying have been taken by most of America's schools and there is more understanding and empathy toward a child when he/she says they are being bullied. The segments in this film are powerful and some of the blind-eye action that is going on within school administration, stating that "everything is fine" when video proof shows otherwise, is appalling. A powerful, effective film! 

The Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire SlayerAngelFireflyDollhouse) is a true master of his craft. And even though I knew Drew Goddard had prior writing experience with TV greats (and some of my favorites such as BuffyAngelAlias, and Lost), I still was not sure what to think of him as a director and co-writer of a major film (even though he wrote the impressive Cloverfield). After viewing this masterpiece, I can say he does extremely well! This film's release had been delayed a bit (originally set for Feb. 2010, then Jan. 2011), but it was very much worth the wait! I can truly say that The Cabin in the Woods is a fresh, innovative, fun, scary take on the horror film. It was also nice -- almost comforting, like a warm blanket -- to see former Whedonverse actors like Amy Acker (AngelDollhouse), Fran Kranz (Dollhouse), and Tom Lenk (Buffy) in the fold. Nobody can mix action, horror, suspense, and humor like Whedon, and this film proves it. All of the actors performances are spot-on and even though their characters are all stereotypical cliches, that ultimately serves the film's plot for reasons I cannot say without spoiling anything. My favorite moment in the film is near the end -- again, I don't want to say too much -- and it is every horror movie fan's DREAM. But, more on that later. There are many aspects to Whedon and Goddard’s Cabin than most would think. The best thing about this movie is that in a genre (horror) that is second to predictability (following romantic comedies), The Cabin in the Woods delivers a fresh approach to horror; and the result is one fun, impressive movie that you want to see again and again. This is definitely the best horror film I've seen in a LONG time! The film makes fun of the horror genre while also delivering to the audience what they so love about horror films. In the school of horror/slasher/zombie/suspense/headgame/conspiracy films, and the fans/students who so adore them, The Cabin in the Woods is a mandatory course!

Cloud Atlas
Some loved this movie and some downright hated it. Personally, I thought -- in terms of story -- Cloud Atlas (based on the David Mitchell novel) was a masterpiece! A true cinematic work of art! From the brothers behind The Matrix trilogy and the director of Run Lola Run, comes this movie anthology where all of the stories -- taking place at different times (1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and 2321) -- are interconnected somehow (hence the tagline "Everything is connected"). Each story somehow affects the next chronological story's character(s), and the order in which the stories are shown correlates with its neighboring story. Confused? Lost? Well, if you don't seriously pay attention, you will be. The overall message is that our lives somehow can affect others' lives in ways we did not think possible; this is best summed up by troubled composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) when he narrates, "My life extends far beyond the limitations of me." Another message is that we should not be afraid to stand up for what is truly right ... even if you feel outnumbered (this especially comes to mind since for the past 13 years questioning government, politicians or big business/money has been -- to put it lightly -- frowned upon); this is best summed up when Hugo Weaving's Haskell Moore tells his son-in-law, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), who has decided to take his wife to work for the abolitionist movement, "There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. This movement will never survive. If you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. At best, you will exist a pariah to be spat at and beaten, at worse to be lynched or crucified. And for what? For what? No matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean," to which Ewing replies, "What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?" It's all about perspective. Would you rather be someone who thinks a drop in the ocean is meaningless ... or would you rather be someone who, no matter how small, has the satisfaction of knowing you contributed? The cast all do spectacular jobs and it is a nice little kick to see them all taking on such a number of eclectic characters. The movie is a little lengthy at just under 3 hours, but the time goes by fast as the stories all pull you in to their respective worlds and keep you on the edge of your seat. I could write a lot more about this film ... but not without giving away too much plot, so I'll simply say the themes in this film are powerful and resonate long after the movie ends. 


The Dark Knight Rises
"Epic" is the word to best describe Christopher Nolan's latest -- and last -- Batman installment. Here, there are two films in one, and Nolan and his brother Jonathan (who was inspired by Charles DickensA Tale of Two Cities as an underlying plot device; it is even quoted by Commissioner Gordon at the end of the film) tie together all the storylines introduced in the first film. And nearly every major character from the trilogy makes an appearance -- whether via flashback or simple photograph; all that is but Heath Ledger's Joker, who was sorely missed and would have perfectly fit into the chaotic storyline of the second half of the film. However, it is understandable; NO ONE could do what Ledger did with that role so leaving him out completely was probably the best move. I did like the little surprise of Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and his role in the anarchy introduced to Gotham. Nonetheless, the new characters of this story make mighty impressions and do not disappoint! I admit that I did not like Anne Hathaway's casting as Catwoman/Selina Kyle when I first heard about it; I'm not a big fan of hers at all. But she did pull off the role and I especially liked her introduction in the film -- it was a true homage to the chemistry that she and Batman have in the comics. Some critics are saying that she wasn't used enough in the film but I beg to differ. Most times, when Kyle/Catwoman appears in the Batman comics, she pops up here and there. What is important is that the film perfectly captures Kyle's warring internal conflict of being good or evil; she often wants to do the right thing but her bitterness and anger keeps her in looking out for herself. I did like that the film threw fans a little Easter egg by including the character of Holly  Robinson (Juno Temple), Kyle's friend and "sidekick." 

Tom Hardy's Bane was the first iteration of a character that was merely created for physically imposing purposes -- plainly said, to "break the bat." My only criticism of the film version is that, opposed to what filmmakers say -- he was difficult to understand half the time. And when he did talk with his devil-may-care, proper British accent, I could not help but think, "They've turned him into a Bond villain!" Don't get me wrong, though, he is a formidable foe and proper villain for the likes of this film. Continuing on the theme of the Nolans throwing in little nods to the fans, it was also cool that he was in the League of Shadows, which is in the comic. Now onto Joseph Gordon-Levitt's John Blake character. I've been a big fan of Gordon-Levitt's for a long time now and he continues not to disappoint as the devoted, honest cop. I knew where the Nolans were going with his character but it -- like the perfect ending -- was a welcomed predictability. Marion Cotillard's Miranda Tate is a pivotal character to the plot, and while I was not surprised with her big reveal, it was a welcome one. Cotillard, like with all of her performances, dazzles to the point that you can't take your eyes off her; it's not just her beauty but she has a certain charisma that is subtle and unspoken and it demands your attention. Gary Oldman (as Commissioner Gordon), Gordon-Levitt, and Michael Caine (as Alfred) all gave amazing performances and helped make this movie the powerhouse that it is!

As I said, the ending was a bit predictable but in a good way. I did have one slight problem with the conclusion, but cannot mention it without writing any spoilers. There was a very short lull in the film which took place for me. Even though it was crucial to the plot, the part where Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce Wayne and Miranda Tate are talking about the clean energy project designed to harness fusion power; a bit slow, but like I said, crucial. When the action really takes off in the second half of the film (movie #2), the story slightly follows the same storyline of the Batman comics' "No Man's Land," except instead of an earthquake, it's Bane's sinister army that cripples Gotham. Batman and his stories have never necessarily been all about the wam-bam action -- for that, go see The Avengers (which I also really enjoyed but in a different way); there is not only good suspenseful action but also a good story with heavy philosophical meaning. The underlying themes here are powerful and deep stuff -- rising above physical restraints can be likened to looking beyond our earthly forms and learning not to be afraid of the unknown, of death. Also, what is the true nature of a hero? Is he or she someone who always wins, always rides off into the sunset, is always honest? What does it mean to leave a legacy to simply be a better human being? The fact that such moral questions and philosophical ideas are in a Batman story will be no surprise to the avid Batman comic reader, but to filmgoers who have had to survive Joel Schumacher's horrible two films (1995's Batman Forever and 1997's Batman & Robin), it's an amazing feat that should not go unnoticed nor unrewarded.

Django Unchained
Man! Director Quentin Tarantino just keeps getting better and better with every film he makes! With Tarantino, the viewer knows he or she is going into a movie with lots of violence, blood, cussing and excellent story, performances and music. And there's plenty in abundance here! Tarantino makes his violence almost cartoon-like, with big splatters and eruptions of blood when someone gets shot. Unlike most films, though, the violence here is completely toward bad, despicable characters. For anyone who knows about this film, the story centers on a freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who is hired by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to hunt down three criminal brothers. Along the way, a friendship is made and Schultz promises to help Django rescue and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from a spoiled, vicious plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Of course, this is a tale about vengeance and slavery in the Deep South two years prior to the Civil War, so there is plenty usage of the "N" word. This has troubled some critics and even comedian Katt Williams (who has a problem with Tarantino's heavy use of the N-word because he's white) -- this coming from a guy who's known as a pimp and was just arrested for "endangering his four children" -- and director Spike Lee, who never saw the film but said it was "disrespectful of my ancestors (when asked why he thought this, Lee tweeted, "American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. It was a holocaust. My ancestors are slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honor them.") Of course, slavery is a major issue in this film, but it is not an issue treated in any joking matter. It treats the subject matter no different than The Boss (originally called Boss N*****, written by African-American AFL player and actor Fred Williamson with the N-word in the title!), Posse (directed by the great Mario Van Peebles -- also an African-American), or The Legend of N***** Charley. And I won't even fully delve into the urban blaxploitation films that perpetuated the stereotype of African-Americans as pimps and criminals (The Mack, Super Fly, Dolemite, etc.). At least in this film, the black protagonist, Django, is a well-rounded character who is serious about his freedom, being taken seriously and rescuing his wife. But hey, we can't all be a respectable guy like this caricature character. I think said critics are just a a little sour they didn't think up the idea and release it themselves. Whatever anyone says, I say this film is well-written and full of great energy onscreen (something that's been sorely lacking from a Spike Lee film since 2002) -- especially when Foxx, Waltz and DiCaprio first share the screen together and for the rest of the film! Tarantino's cinematography and scope of his writing has grown in more ways than I thought possible for a filmmaker. As always, he's a fan of films and his movies reflect that, borrowing from the older movies he loves, utilizing more seasoned character actors and employing techniques that his favorite filmmakers have used in so many different genres. Behind Argo, Django is one of the best of the year!

The Five-Year Engagement
The latest film from the Judd Apatow-produced camp is this romantic comedy gem starring Jason Segel (who also co-wrote the film) and Emily Blunt. Taking into account that Segel also wrote the hit Forgetting Sarah Marshall, one can say that he has a talent for writing romantic comedies for guys. Segel perfectly captures a man's perspective in a relationship nowadays, but also writes his female characters as well-rounded and honest, without any misogynistic overtones. Also, he can write very honest, and often dark aspects to a relationship while still making the story funny. An interesting factoid to this film is that the skeevy man who is a threat to Tom (Segel) and Violet's (Blunt) relationship is a British college professor and if you listen to Segel's commentary for Sarah Marshall, he says that originally Sarah's new boyfriend was not a rock star (Brand), but a British college professor. It wasn't until Russell Brand came in to audition that Segel decided to rewrite the part for Brand. In this film the professor is portrayed by the wonderful Rhys Ifans (who is Welsh in real life). All of the characters in this film are well-written, well-played -- especially by Chris Pratt (NBC's Parks and Recreation) and Alison Brie (NBC's Community & AMC's Mad Men) -- and I especially liked how the story went into a dark place, with the two characters actually separating. I think this was a very well-done comedy that both women and men would enjoy. Segel has proved once again that he has a talent not only for being funny but also for writing.

When I first saw the trailer for this film, I thought it would be about how quickly the media and public can turn on a real-life hero, as well as the fickleness of our society. However, that's not what Flight is truly about. Not to undermine its wonderful story but it is a simple one. Denzel Washington portrays airline pilot Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic and drug user, who saves many lives aboard his flight when a technical mishap occurs. He's hailed a hero, but it comes up that there was alcohol in his blood after the crash. Now, Whip is trying his best to avoid jail time when an investigation into the crash is conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Along the way, he meets various characters who are there to "wake him up" to his addiction, but it is up to him to come to the realization. Washington shines as the troubled protagonist (in fact, you might say he's a mirror image to Tom Hanks' Chuck Noland from Cast Away). As I said, the film is somewhat simplistic but the performances and direction are amazing -- particularly Washington who simply is Whip, as if he were a real-life person.

Les Miserables
A lot of diehard fans of the original Broadway musical were awfully skeptical about the actors' singing and cinematic interpretations of a musical they have loved and adored for years. And I was one of those same fans. However, let me put this to rest right now. The film version is just as good as the Broadway musical. There are pros and cons to the cinematic version. One pro is also a con in that the singers can really emote better with their voices and faces, making the film seem more real; however, their voices sometimes go a bit too soft -- although it is a very minor occurrence. Another con is Russell Crowe's singing voice as Inspector Javert. Now, I know his songs are extremely difficult to sing, and Crowe does have a singing background, but his voice just didn't "wow" me like the others did. Still, he did OK. Samantha Barks as Eponine (one of my favorite characters) was fantastic and really honed the character she'd been playing since 2010 at Westminster's Queen's Theatre. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the villainous Thenardiers did OK, but they just couldn't hold a candle to Alun Armstrong and Jenny Galloway's performances. Hugh Jackman retains his theatrical chops as Jean Valjean and has the power to both sing and heavily emote, making you believe he is the tortured, reformed man of God; also, I loved that director Tom Hooper cast the original (to me) Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, as the Bishop. But the heavy hitter here -- the Academy Award-winning performance -- is that of Anne Hathaway. If you've ever read my blog or heard me talk of her, you know I'm not the biggest fan of hers. Then, The Dark Knight Rises came out and I had to admit she did pretty well. Now, with that plus this performance, I'm eating crow. She was spectacular. Her performance while singing "I Dreamed a Dream" was the best acting -- and, at the same time, singing -- I've seen in a very long time. There's a moment in the song where she's about to hit a high note and you see her convulsing, almost hyperventilating, and think she won't hit that note. But she does. And the fact that all of the actors sang live on set lets you know that she's got talent. If she doesn't get some kind of major award for this role, then awards will be useless. A great musical and a great movie; director Tom Hooper has a great eye for cinematography and some of the most simple shots in the film come in at the right time and are magnificant to look at. The musical is all here (in the film) in its entirety -- singing and all! (Slight note: the only lines cut in the film is at the beginning of "Beggars at the Feast"; I guess the filmmakers wanted to be more politically correct, so they cut out the verse that contains: "Here comes a prince/There goes a Jew/This one's a queer/But what can you do?") Overall, this is one of the best films of the year as well as one of the best movie musicals ever. Even better, fans, it's all in here -- all of the music and sing-talking, as well as the underlying message of how our actions can touch and affect others -- "to love another person is to see the face of God" and "even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise." Just make sure you use the restroom before going into the movie ... since it clocks in at just a shade under three hours.

The great thing about Lincoln is not so much that Steven Spielberg directed it (which he did a great job) or that Daniel Day-Lewis starred in it (he did a phenomenal job!), but that the writing (by Tony-winner Tony Kushner) is so spot on when it comes to the details. Sure, it's got all of the political mumbo-jumbo, but I loved that it also showed the very complex portrait of Lincoln, the man. From his troubled relationship to his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) to his jokes with which nobody seemed to get because of it's dark and thinking humor. It might help the viewer to know going into this movie that the story here centers around Lincoln's struggle to get the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed (which would outlaw slavery), and is not a full biography picture (bio-pic). Tommy Lee Jones shines and marvels as Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens! The best thing about Spielberg's films is the humanity that shines through -- not just from the actors but also in the way he blocks and shoots scenes (i.e., there's a scene in Catch Me If You Can when Leonardo DiCaprio hugs his father, Christopher Walken, and there's a simple shot of Walken's hand on the back of DiCaprio -- it's a simple shot that conveys so much emotion about fathers and sons without any words being said). This alone is why Spielberg seems born to do what he's doing. This was not my favorite of the year, but it was definitely one of the top films!

 I've been a big fan of writer/director Rian Johnson since his 2005 debut hit Brick (do yourself a favor and rent it NOW). I even loved his underappreciated sophomore release, 2009's The Brothers Bloom. So I was more than excited when I saw he was departing from his usual con-men and brooding characters and delving into the sci-fi realm, full of hitmen, telekinesis, and time travel. Johnson did not disappoint! This ties Argo for my favorite film of the year! Every actor -- and their performance -- is top-notch, but what takes precedence here (as it always should) is the story. Johnson writes and directs a story that is not just entertaining but full of meaning and moral quandaries. This film takes the theoretical question of "If you traveled back in time to when Adolf Hitler was a little boy, and knowing what he would later do, would you kill him?" Only, in this film, there's more sci-fi and twists that make the question not so black-and-white. One of the best sci-fi films I've seen in a LONG time ... with plenty of action, cool special effects, good writing, good acting and a great message. But don't think you know how the entire movie will be just by watching the movie trailer. There's more to this film than you could think!

Man on a Ledge
A revenge pic also disguised as a heist flick? Count me in! For a movie with a ho-hum title, the story certainly delivers. There are plenty of famous actors and the plot is always one step ahead -- as most heist pics need to be. Newcomer screenwriter Pablo Fenjves (who supposedly ghostwrote O.J. Simpson's If I Did It) wows for a first-time screenwriter, and first-time director Asger Leth keeps the action and suspense tight. Looking for a nice, new original heist pic that's also a psychological thriller that's more than meets the eye? Look no further!

This one definitely surprised me! In a year that was completely anti-bullying, one of the most prominent stories to feature this storyline was ParaNorman (from the makers of Coraline), which is about a little boy who can see ghosts -- ghosts that look the same way as how/when they died. He doesn't mind being different and seeing the dead who visit him, but it's the living that he has a hard time dealing with. His most commonly used phrase is: "I just want to be alone." However, when he is handed the task of preventing an infamous witch's curse on his town, he learns that having friends has its advantages. And when he confronts the witch at the climax of the film, no better dialogue has ever been written in regards to bullying and passing on hatred as your legacy. A fun film that's just as much of a life lesson for adults as it is for kids!

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Adults may find this movie as some pretentious teen/kid movie. And if you think that, then I feel sorry for you; if young adult/teen movies were this great, I'd be respecting the genre a lot more.  Writer/director Stephen Chbosky's coming-of-age film (based on his young adult novel) perfectly captures the teen angst and solitude that comes with being a teenage introvert; it should be noted that while there is angst, awkwardness and solitude in this film, there is also laughs, heart and, most of all, hope. Although romantic love does have its prominent place in this film, it is a universal love that exudes from the story. And do not let that deter you from this wonderful film! I have to admit that seeing protagonist Charlie's (Logan Lerman) beginning moments of the film, I couldn't help but think, "I WAS that kid!" (thankfully, though, I did not have his issue, which is a major plot point) -- the awkwardness, the quiet, the not-fitting-in, no friends, and the importance, passion and art of making mixed tapes! Fortunately, like Charlie, I found a great group of friends in my latter years of high school (and just like Charlie & his friends, we too were big Rocky Horror Picture Show fans)! The performances are stunning by the entire talented cast; Emma Watson has especially proved her mettle here, and Ezra Miller has amazing screen presence! This was one of my absolute favorites of the year! I can't say enough about this film other than watch it!

For those of you wondering ... yes, this is a prequel to the 1979 sci-fi hit Alien. However, it is notsomuch the origin of the Alien (even though that is included), but it is more of the origin story of the Weyland Corporation (from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation of the original Alien movie franchise) and his true obsessive reasoning for space exploration. The overall story structure of the film follows closely to the original Alien in regard to the fact that it starts out slow and appearing as some mere space exploration film, but then all hell breaks loose! Not much happens in the exact story, but the overall legend that this story adds to the Alien universe is essential! Plus, Prometheus has a scene involving a high-tech operation table where my jaw literally dropped; I couldn't believe that writers Damon Lindelof (of TV's Lost) and Jon Spaihts went there! And just when you think, "What's gonna happen now?", the film answers your question but with one minor caveat (the ending is still somewhat open), and ultimately ends on a great note that will give film geeks that orgasmic feeling. Performances are wonderful, effects are even better and the alien design is exquisite! Kudos, Mr. Ridley Scott! Kudos.

Ruby Sparks
A really refreshing, original story from writer/co-star Zoe Kazan (who is the granddaughter of famous director Elia Kazan) and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) about a young one-hit-wonder novelist, Calvin (the always-great Paul Dano), who has come into a bit of writer's block. Then, upon his therapist's request, he simply starts writing about whatever he likes and soon starts writing of the woman of his literal dreams. And, one day, she's alive ... in his house ... in his life. Calvin soon discovers that his new girlfriend, Ruby (Kazan), can and will do anything he writes of her to do. What starts off as somewhat of a romantic comedy-type of film soon turns into a serious study about the horrors that can become of having control over someone you truly love ... and of how free will is a beautiful thing. Dano and Kazan have great chemistry together -- maybe that's because they are a couple in real life! And the writing is what impressed me the most! Kazan has proven that she is truly one of the greatest writing talents of today's Hollywood screenwriters; I can't wait to see her next film! For those who are fans of (500) Days of Summer and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you'll enjoy this one!

Safety Not Guaranteed
I watched this film on the suggestion of a friend, and I'm really happy I did! I have to say that I was a bit wary of Aubrey Plaza's presence; she seems a bit too stuck up and hipster for me 'cause she plays that same character in every TV show/movie she's in. And if you feel the same, don't let that keep you from watching this great film. The story here is great but the true star who truly brings the story to life is Mark Duplass (FX's The League), who is a true great, new talent (also see Your Sister's Sister)! Another highlight is the song written for and performed in the film, entitled "Big Machine" (written by Guster lead singer Ryan Miller). This quirky film works as a metaphor for living life and taking that leap of faith into the unknown. 

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
With the Mayan prediction that the world would end on December 21, 2012, some filmmakers jumped on the bandwagon to make the "end of the world" as a plot point. Most were horrible films, but this little film really affected me. I was a little shaken by the end of the film, but the more I thought about it and realized that this film did make an impression on me, the more I realized that this is a good, solid film. Just because movies don't go in a direction you would expect or want or like, doesn't mean their bad movies. I thought this film did a wonderful job at mixing the dark comedy with the true drama of an upsetting situation; plus, the soundtrack is awesome! Steve Carell has good chemistry with Keira Knightley (an actress with whom I don't usually like) and I was surprised at all of the actors who appeared in this. A heavy film but worth the viewing!

Silver Linings Playbook
I don't usually put films on my "best of" lists because other critics would. And I felt that way about this film when I saw Jennifer Lawrence receive the nominations -- and wins -- for Golden Globe and Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Actress. However, I watched this film by hit-or-miss director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter) and was very impressed! The film delves heavily into bipolar disorder, having "issues," dancing contests, family, literature, running/jogging, and Philadelphia Eagles football. It's a film that both men and women will find enjoyable. And it is all masterfully tied together by screenwriter Russell (based on the novel by Matthew Quick). This is probably one of Bradley Cooper's most emotional films he's done ... ever! And Robert De Niro proves why -- despite his same method of acting -- he's considered one of the greatest actors of our time. Austrailian actress Jacki Weaver subtly shines as Cooper's mother who you fully believe is at her wits end. And Lawrence does really well ... although I don't think she should have beaten out Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone (proof that these award academies don't always get it right). The best line of the film is when Lawrence confronts Cooper about judging her, and she yells, "At least I like everything about myself ... even the flaws! Can you say the same about yourself!?" Playbook is a wonderful film that is a perfect balance of drama, romance and comedy.

For those who did not know that the Daniel Craig James Bond films have been prequels to the Bond movies we all know and love, this movie will definitely prove that point! Of course, it stands that the entire trilogy (of the new installments) has been a reboot, but by the end of this film, we're placed in the spot that all of us Bond fans know of our favorite spy; although, an interesting fact is that Judi Dench first appeared as M in 1995's GoldenEye, making the story come full-circle and yet almost contradicting the fact that this new series is a prequel. I was worried about director Sam Mendes directing this film as he hasn't done any serious action-packed films. Fortunately, my fears were put to rest. This film has got all the action, a wonderful Bond song (provided by Adele), and a really good story that introduces the important Bond characters of the mythology. However, there is one small caveat here. Sometimes it is not good to be a cinephile and someone who's seen A LOT of movies. Because then, you can't help but notice storylines that get recycled. Case in point: this film. Don't get me wrong, the story is good, the dialogue great, the acting superb. BUT ... the overall plot is something we've seen before in the James Bond saga. Anyone recall that film I mentioned earlier, GoldenEye, which starred Pierce Brosnan as Bond? Remember the villain Alec Trevelyan (played by a pre-Lord of the Rings Sean Bean)? Well, Trevelyan is a fellow 00 agent who fakes his death and spends the film exacting revenge on MI6 for their involvement in his parents' death. Sounds vaguely familiar with this film's antagonist, Raoul Silva, his real name -- according to M -- is Tiago Rodriguez (Javier Bardem), who exacts revenge on MI6 for "betraying" him. I had the same slight problem with Prometheus; a great film but the story is the same overall story structure as the original Alien. Nevertheless, this is the best Bond film yet! 

I have to admit that I'm not a big football fan. In fact, the attraction to being a fan of professional football eludes and mystifies me. However, I love a good football film. Any Given Sunday, The Blind Side, Friday Night Lights, We Are Marshall, Remember the Titans, Brian's Song, Varsity Blues. Take your pick. I've watched and enjoyed them all. Also, as much as I'm not a big fan of pro football, I strongly believe in the importance of high school football. Again, I'm not a fan of the sport nor did I play it. However, I believe it teaches important aspects regarding character, time management, sacrifice and teamwork. And that's why I love this film. Never has there been a better real-life (non-fictional) film that showcases all of these aspects. Imagine taking The Blind Side and mixing it with the TV show Friday Night Lights (which is one of my favorite shows of ALL TIME!), then making it non-fictional, and you would have this documentary! The coach Bill Courtney says at the beginning of the film that football does not build character but reveals it. I don't know if I agreed with this statement a 100% or not. But after thinking about it, I realized that he was right. There can be a teammate who doesn't care about anyone but himself, but football itself will not make him a better person or more selfish one. Football will, however, make him reveal his true self -- a self that has already been implanted within him from early on whether he knew it or not. This is best shown in this film when teammate Chavis Daniels (who is difficult and angry through most of the season) steps up to recognize another teammate Montrail "Money" Brown (who he doesn't get along with), who is having a difficult time. It is a philosophical question to pose on whether Chavis would have had the empathy to stand up for Brown or not if he was not on the football team. However, the question is almost an answer to itself in that Chavis could have always been empathetic but it took football (and/or the coach) to bring it out of him. This is a GREAT film that I cannot recommend enough! It should be watched by anyone who loves football or even those who also don't care much about the sport. Simply a wonderful documentary!

Wreck-It Ralph
Being raised in the age of Atari, Pac-Man and (classic) Nintendo, I was even more excited than my kids to see this film. The only drawback I saw when I first viewed the trailer was that Sarah Silverman was cast at what seemed like an extremely annoying character, which did not surprise me since I am not that fond of her comedy. Nevertheless, I jumped at the chance when my kids said they wanted to see this! The first thing I marveled at was the short cartoon that preceded the film, Paperman -- a simple story about a man who struggles to find a woman with whom he met early in his work day. This short (which you can watch in its entirety here) is a wonderful testament to the yearning of breaking out of life's monotony and searching for something better. And that is a perfect warm-up for Ralph, a film itself that centers around this theme. Oh, and I WANT composer Christophe Beck's musical score for Paperman (it's one of the best I've heard in years; including in feature films!)

Ralph (John C. Reilly) is a villain who yearns to break out of his "bad guy persona" and become a hero by winning a medal. The only problem is that, in his game, the medal ALWAYS goes to its protagonist Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer). So, despite great dangers of permanently erasing (dying) in another game, Ralph ventures to other game worlds so that he may win his medal. Along the way, of course, he meets various characters, including Jane Lynch's Sergeant Calhoun and Alan Tudyk's King Candy. I could tell that by watching the trailer. What I didn't know was that this film would be such an ensemble piece, there would be an evil conspiracy subplot, and that I would come to LOVE Silverman's character, Vanellope von Schweetz, a character who is a wonderful role model for my girls and other little girls in a world where racing and "boys stuff" is still considered for boys. The role that Ralph takes on during the film is surrogate father or big brother to Vanellope, and I have to admit that at the very end of the movie, Ralph makes a move in which any father can relate and tears started to well in my eyes! This film has got wonderful performances, wonderful writing and classic video game characters (Q*Bert, Root Beer Tapper, Zangief) as well as voice cameos from well-known actors (Mindy Kaling, Ed O'Neill, Dennis Haysbert, Edie McClurg, Adam Carolla, and Horatio Sanz)! This movie also has plenty of heart! It falls in with Up and Toy Story 3 as my favorite animated movies EVER!

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