2012 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

2012 wasn’t exactly an unforgettable year at the movies – I know that, you know that – but it can hardly be described as a disappointment, because while there weren’t many films that will be remembered 20 years from now, there was still plenty of quality to be found if you looked hard enough. As is usually the case with these year-end features, my Top 10 deviates a little from the typical crop of movies that you’d expect to find on most critics’ lists (some that I didn’t love as much as others, and some that I never had the chance to see), but it’s nothing that will surprise anyone who’s read my past work.

Best Movies of 2012

1. “THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER

It’s not every day that the author of a critically acclaimed novel gets the chance to adapt their book for the big screen, let alone direct it, but after watching Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing a better job. After all, Chbosky knows the material inside and out, and it definitely shows in this modest but heartwarming tale about finding your place in the world. It’s your typical coming-of-age story, but one that’s handled with a certain level of maturity rarely found in high school films, and though the comparisons to “The Breakfast Club” may not be completely warranted, it’s one of the few movies about high school that actually gets it right. Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller all deliver excellent performances in their respective roles (especially Miller as the openly gay senior that takes Lerman’s freshman under his wing), and Chbosky’s deft script earns every emotional moment. It’s just a shame that “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” will probably get lost in the shuffle come awards time, because it has everything you could possibly want in a film.

2. “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Leave it to David O. Russell to create a romantic comedy as quirky, dark, funny and surprisingly touching as “Silver Linings Playbook,” because the movie is almost as crazy as its two leads. One minute a fiercely honest character study about a man coping with bipolar disorder, and the next minute a charming rom-com revolving around an amateur dancing competition, the film performs such an amazing tightrope act that it’s really to Russell’s credit that it doesn’t come crashing down like a house of cards. Of course, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable if it weren’t for the risks that it takes thematically, but none of that would matter without its outstanding cast. Bradley Cooper finally gets the chance to show what he’s fully capable of in the best role of his career, and Robert De Niro has some great moments as Cooper’s superstitious father, but it’s Jennifer Lawrence (already so good at such a young age) who steals the show with a phenomenal performance that all but guarantees she’ll win the Oscar for Best Actress.

3. “ARGO

Ben Affleck may have proved that he was more than just a one-hit wonder with “The Town,” but for his next project, the Boston-born multihyphenate moved away from the comforts of his hometown to a much larger stage, delivering arguably his best film in the process. A politically charged thriller that felt eerily timely in the wake of the U.S. embassy attacks in Libya, “Argo” is unique in that it also juggles a lighter Hollywood insider subplot in addition to its main story. By all accounts, it shouldn’t work, but Affleck makes the blending of the contrasting tones appear almost effortless. The comedy provided by Alan Arkin’s veteran producer and John Goodman’s makeup artist never undercuts the seriousness of the action in Tehran, and yet the strategically placed laughs help break up the tension that mounts over the course of the film. It’s been a while since a movie literally had me on the edge of my seat, but “Argo” is extremely taut and suspenseful, topped off by a fantastic nail-biter ending and one of the year’s best ensembles. The fact that it’s also based on a true story is simply the icing on the cake.

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Blu Tuesday: Supersized Holiday Edition

With the holidays just around the corner, many studios are making one final push to earn your Christmas dollars with the release of several new Blu-rays over the course of the next four days. Though I’m not really sure what the strategy is behind releasing some titles today and others on the 21st (especially since most people have already finished a lot of their holiday shopping), there are so many great movies to choose from that I’ve decided to expand this week’s column into a special supersized edition.

“Sleepwalk with Me”

Most stand-up comics probably only dream about being involved in a movie as funny and refreshingly honest as Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me,” let alone one that marks their directorial debut. Based on his one-man show of the same name (which was in turn inspired by actual events from his life), the film is a witty human comedy about the fear of commitment and finding one’s place in the world, and it’s hands-down one of my favorite movies of the year. Much like Birbiglia’s stand-up in the film, the story is entertaining because it’s so incredibly personal (something that’s missing from most Hollywood productions), and he makes it even more so by narrating the movie via segments where he speaks directly to the audience a la Ferris Bueller. “Sleepwalk with Me” actually fared pretty well in theaters during its platform release this past fall, but if you didn’t get a chance to catch it then, be sure to add it to your must-see list for the new year, because the film is so good that if you weren’t a fan of Birbiglia beforehand, you almost certainly will be afterwards.

Blu-ray Highlight: There are some good extras on the disc, but the audio commentary with star/co-writer/co-director Mike Birbiglia and producer/co-writer Ira Glass is the best of the bunch, with the duo discussing the making of the movie in detail, including some behind-the-scenes anecdotes and things they learned on set as first-time filmmakers.

“Killer Joe”

William Friedkin hasn’t made a great film in a very long time, and while “Killer Joe” doesn’t exactly remedy that, it’s the best movie that he’s made in a while. Adapted by Tracy Letts from his stage play of the same name, the self-described “totally twisted, deep-fried, Texas redneck trailer park murder story” is one of the most intense and polarizing moviegoing experiences in recent memory. Although the strange series of events that transpire during the course of the movie has already divided audiences (particularly a tension-packed final act that gets pretty weird and perverse), it’s as oddly fascinating to watch unravel as it is repulsive. Every single performance is great – from Gina Gerson’s devious stepmom, to Emile Hirsch’s pathetic bottom-feeder, to Thomas Hayden Church’s clueless father, to Juno Temple’s trailer park princess – but it’s star Matthew McConaughey who truly commands the screen with his best role in ages. It’s about time the actor finally showed off his full potential, and this white trash “Blood Simple” does that and more.

Blu-ray Highlight: The making-of featurette “Southern Fried Hospitality: From Stage to Screen” is definitely worth checking out for the interviews with the various cast and crew, but it’s director William Friedkin’s audio commentary that is the real highlight. Friedkin is one of those filmmakers that’s just a lot of fun to listen to speak, and his commentary track for “Killer Joe” is an excellent discussion about making the movie and, in talking about the infamous NC-17 rating, the politics of the business as well.

“Pitch Perfect”

It was only inevitable that “Pitch Perfect” would draw some comparisons to “Glee,” but while the show’s success certainly helped pave the way for making organized singing groups cool again, that would be like comparing Adele to Katy Perry. The film actually feels more like the a cappella cousin of the “Step Up” movies, and although that may not inspire a whole lot of confidence, it’s a really charming comedy filled with great performances (both acting and musical) that’s only slightly hindered by its conventional formula. In fact, one of movie’s biggest draws is the musical performances, and while there’s no denying that they’re fun to watch, “Pitch Perfect” would be just as shallow as the “Step Up” series without such a great cast, including the always reliable Anna Kendrick and Australian up-and-comer Rebel Wilson in a breakout role. Written by Kay Cannon, whose experience as a writer for “30 Rock” tells you all you need to know about the movie’s offbeat sense of humor, “Pitch Perfect” is the kind of film that many people would normally overlook based on its premise, but that would be a mistake.

Blu-ray Highlight: Though Universal hasn’t exactly skimped on bonus material – which includes a pair of audio commentaries, alternate takes and deleted scenes – there’s nothing here that really stands out. At least there’s always the movie to watch again.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to August

August has never been the most exciting part of the summer movie season, but the studios have treated it like a warm-down of sorts in recent years, taking the opportunity to discard their misfit films with seemingly no interest in how they perform. That may change this year, however, as there are a number of high-profile movies (including several targeted at action fans) that could end up doing some pretty big business. In fact, with the somewhat disappointing summer that we’ve had so far, it’s not entirely unreasonable to suggest that August might end up being the highlight of the season.

“TOTAL RECALL”

Who: Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston and Bill Nighy
What: Factory worker Douglas Quaid begins to suspect that he’s a spy after visiting Rekall, a company that provides its clients with implanted fake memories.
When: August 3rd
Why: While not exactly a remake in the conventional sense, director Len Wiseman’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” has nonetheless caused diehard fans of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 original to scream blasphemy. But just like that movie was forced to get creative and expand upon Dick’s story, so too has Wiseman’s version, seemingly sticking closer to its source material by keeping the action on Earth. Colin Farrell is definitely an inspired choice to play Quaid (and just like Adrian Brody in “Predators,” it should help to limit the comparisons to Arnold Schwarzenegger), while Bryan Cranston is on such a hot streak right now that it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Cohaagen. Whether Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale or the special effects provide the film’s best eye candy, however, is still up for debate.

“CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER”

Who: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts and Ari Graynor
What: A divorcing couple tries to maintain their friendship while pursuing other people.
When: August 3rd
Why: In addition to being a smart piece of counterprogramming to “Total Recall,” the indie dramedy has been riding a wave of strong buzz since its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, where most critics praised the excellent chemistry between its two stars. Though I’m not entirely sold on the idea of Andy Samberg as a romantic lead (or a serious actor, for that matter), I’ll see just about anything that Rashida Jones does these days, especially if it leads to more high-profile roles for the “Parks and Rec” actress. Jones also co-wrote the screenplay, which boasts an interesting premise that practically guarantees it won’t be anything like the typical Hollywood rom-com, with a more dramatic streak reminiscent of movies like “Annie Hall” and “(500) Days of Summer.” And if it’s even half as good as those films, we’re in for a pleasant surprise.

“HOPE SPRINGS”

Who: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell and Jean Smart
What: After 30 years of marriage, a middle-aged couple attends an intense, week-long counseling session to work on their relationship.
When: August 8th
Why: There are usually a few movies every summer targeted explicitly towards adult audiences, and more often than not, one of them stars Meryl Streep. That’s the case once again with this geriatric twist on the traditional rom-com, which reunites Streep with her “The Devil Wears Prada” director David Frankel. Unfortunately, “Hope Springs” doesn’t look nearly as good, instead hewing closer to the vibe of “It’s Complicated,” at least where Streep’s overly giggly character is concerned. The actress appears to be trying too hard to get a laugh, while Steve Carell doesn’t seem to have that much to do. The wild card is Tommy Lee Jones, who isn’t the first person you’d think of for this kind of role, but that’s exactly why it’s such a brilliant piece of casting. And if the three actors work as well together as you’d expect, “Hope Springs” might not be that bad after all.

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2012 SXSW Film Festival Recap

If you’ve never been down to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest (whether it’s for the music and film festivals or the interactive conference), it’s something that you need to experience at least once, because the city exudes a vibrant and welcoming energy that makes it very hard not to have a good time. This year marked my third consecutive trip to the SXSW film festival, and though my virgin voyage was a bit of a baptism by fire, I was practically oozing the confidence of a grizzled veteran this time around. I knew exactly what to pack, how to plan and what to expect when I got there.

At least, that’s what I thought, but Mother Nature has a funny way of messing up your plans. From airline-wide delays that had me sprinting across Dallas-Fort Worth airport to catch connecting flights, to the miserable weather that I was greeted with when I arrived, it wasn’t exactly the greatest start to my trip. Apart from the almost non-stop rainstorms that put a damper on the opening weekend festivities, the only thing that could have made it any worse was if the movies I had chosen to see weren’t very good. And sure as the rain continued to fall (from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon, with hardly a break in between), there were more duds than normal at this year’s event.

It’s not that I expected to love every movie that I saw at the festival (you’d have better luck winning the lottery), but some of them – including star-studded comedies like “Nature Calls,” “Frankie Goes Boom” and “Small Apartments” – were so terrible that even a direct-to-DVD release would be more than they deserve. “Nature Calls,” in particular, is so egregious that I almost left before the first act was even over, and I’ve never walked out of a movie in my life.

Fortunately, I was able to catch a number of really good films as well. In addition to the long-delayed horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods” and director William Friedkin’s controversial crime thriller “Killer Joe,” there were three movies that I enjoyed so much that they’ll likely end up on my Top 10 list by year’s end. Below are highlights from my reviews of those films:

1. “Sleepwalk with Me”

Most stand-up comics probably only dream about making a movie as funny and honest as Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me,” let alone one that marks their directorial debut. Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s films in a lot of ways… if you weren’t a fan of Birbiglia beforehand, you will be afterwards.

2. “Safety Not Guaranteed”

A character-driven dramedy with equal parts humor and heart, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a beautiful film about the human spirit that is impossible to ignore. [It’s] original, humorous, heartfelt and, perhaps most importantly, filled with immense hope.

3. “The Raid: Redemption”

“The Raid” is an unrelenting, action-packed can of whoop-ass that delivers one of the most crowd-pleasing moviegoing experiences of the past decade. This is about as close to non-stop, wall-to-wall action that I’ve ever seen… including what is easily some of the best close-quarters combat ever committed to film.

The week got better as the weather improved, and although I didn’t carve out nearly as much free time to explore the city as I had originally planned, I did happen to stumble upon a cool sports park operated by Nike in support of their new FuelBand, a USB fitness bracelet that tracks your activity throughout the day. Taking up nearly an entire block, the park featured a basketball court, a miniature skate park, and a turf soccer field that allowed me to blow off a little steam in between screenings. I even spoke with one of Nike’s on-hand representatives about the new FuelBand, and was so impressed by the short demonstration that I contacted the company about getting one of the in-demand devices to review for Bullz-Eye.

It was nice to get out and kick the soccer ball around for a while, but it was one of just many small thrills during my trip. I also had the pleasures of meeting director Bobcat Goldthwait (who was at the festival with his new film “God Bless America”) during a random encounter at local hangout The Highball; I had the chance to interview Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon and Jamie Chung, among others; and I enjoyed the many delicacies that Austin has to offer, including personal favorites like Freebirds (think Chipotle but better), sandwich chain Schlotzsky’s, and of course, the delicious $5 milkshakes at the Alamo Drafthouse. My trip may have had some hiccups along the way, but as has always been the case with SXSW, the one-two punch of some great movies and that inescapable Austin charm made it yet another festival to remember.

  

SXSW Film Fest 2012: Day Five

This is my third year down in Austin for the South by Southwest film festival, and I think that I’ve finally figured out the science to covering the event all on my lonesome. Instead of past years, where I’ve done a mix of both full-length and shorter movie reviews, this time around, I’m going to be doing daily blogs with even shorter, capsule-style reviews of the films that I saw the previous day. I’m hoping this will make me more productive than usual, but as my schedule is constantly in flux, please bear with me. And if you can’t wait for my daily posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonZingale for more.

“Casa de mi Padre”

Will Ferrell’s Spanish-language comedy “Casa de mi Padre” is exactly what you’d expect from the “Saturday Night Live” alum; although it’s good for a few laughs, the one-joke concept results in more misses than hits. Ferrell plays Armando Alvarez, the eldest son of a Mexican rancher in danger of losing his land. When Armando’s brother Raul (Diego Luna) returns home with his new fiancée (Genesis Rodriguez) pledging to save the ranch, he inadvertently thrusts the family into a war with a local drug lord (Gael Garcia Bernal). Essentially a telenovela done in the style of a grindhouse film, “Casa de mi Padre” is amusing at times, but it never amounts to more than a few chuckles. This is one very odd movie – even more than the typical Will Ferrell comedy – complete with musical numbers (“You No Se” is not only funny, but catchy as well), painted set backgrounds and talking animal puppets. Ferrell handles the challenge of acting entirely in Spanish remarkably well, but it’s a gimmick that loses its charm pretty fast. Fans of the actor will enjoy his latest in a series of bizarre career moves, but for everyone else, the film’s quirkiness only goes so far.

“Sleepwalk with Me”

Most stand-up comics probably only dream about making a movie as funny and honest as Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me,” let alone one that marks their directorial debut. Based on his one-man show (which was in turn inspired by actual events from his life), Birbiglia stars as a fictional version of himself, an aspiring comedian who hasn’t had a whole lot of luck in life apart from his amazing girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). When their eight-year relationship hits a standstill after Mike expresses his objection to marriage, he hits the road to improve his act, all the while growing farther apart from Abby and dealing with a dangerous sleep behavior disorder. Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s films in a lot of ways, “Sleepwalk with Me” is a witty and consistently funny human comedy about the fear of commitment. Much like his character’s stand-up in the film, the story is entertaining because it’s so personal, and he makes it even more so by narrating the movie with brief snippets of POV segments littered throughout. It’ll be interesting to see how the general public receives “Sleepwalk with Me” when it’s finally released in theaters, because the movie is so good that if you weren’t a fan of Mike Birbiglia beforehand, you will be afterwards.

“Intruders”

There wasn’t a lot of horror on tap at SXSW this year, which is probably why Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s “Intruders” feels like such a big letdown. More than anything else, it’s just not very scary, with Clive Owen starring as the father of a young girl who believes she’s being stalked by a faceless bogeyman named Hollowface. Though he writes it off as a nightmare at first, he soon becomes a believer after witnessing the menacing figure try to abduct his daughter. Meanwhile, in Spain, a young boy is having the same terrifying visions, prompting his mother to seek help from the local priest. While the first act does a pretty good job of setting up the two stories and building tension, however, it never really goes anywhere. Instead, the audience is forced to sit through a number of supposedly frightening situations without so much as a scare, and it quickly becomes repetitive to the point that you lose interest. But where “Intruders” really drops the ball is in the final ten minutes, dragged down by a flimsy twist ending that is not only predictable, but requires Fresanadillo’s to cheat a little to get there. I admire the attempt at creating something original, but when a horror film can’t even play by the rules, there’s no point in watching.

  

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