Captain Canada's Movie Rodeo: "The Movies That Won Stuff This Year" Edition

Image copyright Warner Brothers Pictures

Image copyright Warner Brothers Pictures

Either this is just a very slow period for movies I really want to see, or my depression is such that there isn’t a whole lot in the world that’s going to cheer me up to begin with.

Don’t get me wrong. There are movies coming out on DVD that I’d like to see, movies I’m perfectly willing to waste my money on that exist on my Amazon.com wish list, and even a few movies coming to theaters over the next month or so that I’d up for going to see (enough to pay ten or more bucks for it? That’s another matter), but my overall enthusiasm for movies right now is experiencing a rather severe ebb right now. My mood lately has been that movies are just a great way to pass the time.

I hate that. It’s annoying when one of the more consistent passions in my life reminds me that it’s susceptible to the same drop in importance as anything else might be. I’m lucky that it doesn’t happen very often with film, but it does happen. All I can do is keep watching what comes my way, keep reacting to stories (Fuck you, James Cameron—you’re not tricking me into seeing an Avatarmovie ever again), and keep doing things that force me to think about the parts of my life that I claim are of great significance to me (this column is a good example of that).

I don’t know where I’m going for with all this. I just think it’s funny that as I get older, I find myself having to reevaluate my interests more often than I ever thought I’d have to when I first discovered them.

Reevaluating is good though. Doing that with film gives me a chance to think about why I love the whole thing in the first place, the movies that established and have been building on those initial sparks ever since, and what I want to keep getting out of watching movies, writing about movies, and remembering that I’d still like to do something with my own scripts someday (and maybe act in a few more movies—that would be pretty neat, too). I think that’s healthy, and I’d recommend it to anybody who appreciates a certain art form.

It’s possible then to get something out of the kind of depression that makes everything in your life seem like a colossal waste of time. You don’t have to just ride out the feeling. You can actually use it to take stock of the things, however minor or substantial they might be, that drive your creativity, and give you all kinds of reasons to continue believing the world is not completely devoid of things that are worth caring about.

Movies have been one of those things in my life for years. Being depressed might cause some ebb in my enthusiasm, but it doesn’t make that enthusiasm completely disappear. And I’m always up for the opportunity to learn something new about my passions and motivations to get out of bed every morning.

Depressed or not, I still haven’t a single fuck to give about another Avatar movie.

I’m sure Mr. Cameron is deeply wounded by my refusal to participate in his ludicrously expensive brand of bullshit.

Right?

Argo (2012): B+

You can explain the various historical inaccuracies in the film to your heart’s content. All I really care about is whether or not Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio (who scored a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for this) adapted a worthwhile film version of Tony Mendez’s book and Joshuah Bearman 2007 Wired article. If you want to pick at historical precision, you’ll find a good bit to complain about. If you want to take on Argo in terms of whether or not it delivers solid action and tension, a compelling story, and believable, strong performances, then you’ll probably have a better time. This is only the third film Affleck has directed so far, and it’s easily his most ambitious to date. I can’t imagine a whole lot of people ten years ago would have believed him capable of delivering such a capable film account of the Canadian and American governments (led by Mendez, who is played with impressive restraint by Affleck) collaborating on a resolution to the rescue of 6 U.S. diplomats during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. But after delivering two very solid, very exciting, very well-made films (The Town, and Gone, Baby, Gone), the idea that Affleck could helm an exhilarating, dramatized account of this event seemed at least plausible when the first trailers appeared online and in theaters. It would nonetheless still be an uphill battle for even the best directors, and Affleck impressively avoids virtually all of the temptations that could have made Argo a bland political drama, an unremarkable action-thriller, or an overflowing, unbearable combination of both. He lets an exemplary cast (including Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Clea Duvall, and several others in one of the best-cast movies I’ve seen in ages) and crew (particularly with John Toll’s flawless, down-to-earth cinematography, and the editing skills of William Goldenberg) create a movie that isn’t a masterpiece, but was at the very least deserving of its Best Picture Oscar nomination (we’re not going to debate whether nor the movie deserved to win—the Oscars are over, and it’s time to move on with our lives). Argo at the minimum deserves a place as one of the best movies of 2012. And I’m more interested than ever in what Affleck might want to do next as a director. Argo’s not what I would call a masterpiece, but it’s awfully good. I’d go so far as to say that it’s only a matter of time before Ben Affleck makes a movie that I will have to call a masterpiece. I’m not saying that bothers me. I’m just saying that like a lot of people, I wouldn’t have hedged my bets on saying or writing that with a straight face ten years ago.

Life of Pi (2012): C-

Life of Pi is very, very beautiful. I’m not denying that. I’m also pleased that director Ang Lee (who enjoyed both a Best Director Oscar and some In-N-Out Burger on Oscar night) and screenwriter David Magee didn’t really change a whole lot from Yann Martel’s novel. What’s a shame is that the end result of the film version of Life of Pi just isn’t as cinematic as I thought it would be. Those visual effects (provided by the enormously talented, bankrupt and cruelly ignored Rhythm and Hues FX studio) are extraordinary. They are ample evidence of a movie that can have some semblance of a soul and brain-liquefying imagery and sound. Suraj Sharma, who plays protagonist Pi for most of the film, gives an incredible, believable first-time performance. There isn’t really anything wrong with this as an adaptation. What causes Life of Pi to miss the greatness mark by a considerable margin is the unfortunate realization I had that this just wasn’t a book that translated to film as well as I thought it would. Enduring Pi’s trials of being lost at sea with a tiger is much easier to do in the gentle pace of the novel. The film tries to recreate that pace and energy so faithfully that ultimately there’s a large chunk of the movie that doesn’t do anything that’s particularly interesting. And because a movie can only go so far in recreating the pace and energy of a book, something about Life of Pi ultimately left me feeling a little empty. I guess I shouldn’t have read the novel. I’m not sure that’s what makes the movie a little disappointing, but it probably didn’t help. Life of Pi is good, but I’m still a little surprised that it’s only just that.

Django Unchained (2012): A+

Django Unchained One of the great pleasures I get from Quentin Tarantino’s films is the way the story is sometimes just an excuse for the cast to play characters they are almost certainly not going to play anywhere else. That’s something about Tarantino’s talent as a writer (and I was quite fine with his Best Original Screenplay win at the Oscars) that has made every single one of his film projects worth getting excited about. I’m not the right person to go into whether or not slavery in America is suitable material for a slick, violent (even for a Tarantino movie) tribute to spaghetti westerns. What I can tell you is that in terms of its humor, performances, style, energy, action and pacing, Django Unchained is the best Quentin Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction. Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx making for one of the best pairs in recent movie history is just the main lifeline of a film that has so many things to enjoy about it (you can get something out of the gunfights or from performances by Kerry Washington or Samuel L. Jackson). And I wouldn’t call myself a Leonard DiCaprio fan, but he makes for one of the most intriguing, brutal villains Tarantino has ever created, and there was more than enough surprise in what DiCaprio did with a fairly straightforward character to warrant an Oscar nomination. It’s not a big deal though. People who have issues with the violence, the social and racial aspects, or with Tarantino himself will find a lot in Django Unchained to dissect and bitterly denounce. Fans of Quentin Tarantino will almost certainly enjoy one of his most ferocious, unapologetic (or egotistical) films to date. Love him or otherwise, if he really does retire from filmmaking in the near future, the world of cinema is going to be a considerably different place without him. No matter what, I can pretty safely say Django Unchained will get some kind of reaction out of you. And the importance of filmmakers who can do that to so many people should never be forgotten.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012): B+

Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t have anything particularly new to say about mental illness (although it nicely avoids glamorizing it for the most part) or family. What it does have is David O. Russell directing and writing (from the Matthew Quick novel) an incredibly enjoyable, character-driven look at a man (Bradley Cooper) trying to find out if his series of intensely deep-rooted delusions about his life will be so much of a handicap that he can’t put his life back together. Oscar loves that kind of thing. They also love actresses (in this case it’s Jennifer Lawrence) playing characters that can move effortlessly between funny, wild, and deeply wounded by life. I roll my eyes at the Academy voters being into this kind of thing as much as anyone, but Russell still manages to create something that’s impossible to remain contemptuous about from beginning to end. I did roll my eyes at a few of the more obvious moments of pandering for awards. I also found myself completely pulled in by the performances of people like Lawrence, Cooper, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, and even Chris Tucker (I never thought I’d realize that I missed seeing the guy around) far more frequently than I found myself rolling my eyes. You might have issues with the story and style of Silver Linings Playbook, but I don’t think you’ll find a lot to complain about with the acting. In the case of Silver Linings Playbook, it makes the difference between a really good film, and something that isn’t even worth considering.

Lincoln (2012): C- 

The Daniel Day-Lewis of Abraham Lincoln is a very tired man. I don’t know nearly enough about this era of American history to tell you how accurate Spielberg’s epic biopic really is. I’m pretty sure though that no matter how much this movie gets right when compared to history, the one thing I can’t imagine anyone debating is how much Lincoln’s presidency did to ultimately destroy him. The Lincoln Daniel Day-Lewis plays with extraordinary reserve, marking yet another flawless performance in a career full of them, is a Lincoln who is dead long before he ever goes to the theater. That much I can’t imagine is exaggerated by the film. And it’s Lewis’s performance, and Spielberg’s brilliance at showing us Lincoln’s persistence to keep going in the face of mounting, crippling weariness, that holds this movie together. I don’t know how much I would have enjoyed Lincoln. Had it not been for these things, or for performances by people like Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field (who I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of, but even I liked her work this time around), I’m not sure what I would have thought of Lincoln. I’m not sure I would have been able to stay awake for such a dry, overwhelmingly pretentious account of the final days of Lincoln’s life, presidency, and of the Civil War itself. As an overall film experience, Spielberg and Lincoln play it safe, and play it obvious every single step of the way. A few critical things make it possible to put up with this. None more so than Daniel Day-Lewis. This is a man who long ago put himself in the hall of actors who could read the ingredients on a Tums bottle, and remain captivating. Lincoln proves that.