The best films of 2013

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This was the year for romance. Half of the films that survived into this year’s top 10 hail from the romance genre. The annual crapshoot has spoken.

So this is my second attempt at compiling a list of the 10 best films in a year. This year was far more difficult, possibly due to me haven seen more films within the year. In 2012, I accumulated a top 10 list from 136. This year, I had 180 to choose from. Knowing me, I’ll probably have more than 200 to dig through next year.

But alas, I once again am able to provide the ever so daunting task of singling out the 10 best films of the year, which is far more taxing on my mind than I wish it to be. Every film of this list is about on the same in terms of quality; in the end I had to chose my list based on which films I admired the most.

I’m also changing up the format a little this time around. Because I want to give a shout-out to more great films from the year, I have provided you with the top 20 films of the year, with 11-20 being in alphabetical order instead of ranked from best to worst.

So, here we go. Let the debates begin.

11-20 (In alphabetical order):

12 Years a Slave

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Director Steve McQueen has finally received mainstream attention for his flawless work on 12 Years a Slave, and deservingly so. He has created one of the most brutal and honest slavery films. It’s currently a favorite to win Best Picture on Oscar night, perhaps to make up for Lincoln and Django Unchained not winning last year. A great deal of this film’s success is due to Chiwetel Ejiofor. You know who he is. He’s always been that one guy from that thing, most notably in 2012SaltAmerican GangsterChildren of Men, Inside Man and Four Brothers. This role will forever be his landmark in cinema, as his presence on the screen is nothing short of magnetizing. 

Blancanieves

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2012 was the year that revived the ancient tale of Snow White, with the great Snow White and the Huntsman and the amateur Mirror Mirror. Neither film stands toe-to-toe with Blancanieves, which transforms the classic children’s tale into a silent epic centered around bull-fighting. This is significantly more daring than The Artist, which won Best Picture for 2011. Blancanieves is a full-scale epic that feels like it was found in a time capsule from the 20’s. And for the record, this was the last film to be cut from the final 10, so I guess you can consider this number 11, for whatever that’s worth.

Blue Jasmine

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Woody Allen shows no sign of easing into retirement by challenging us with Blue Jasmine, another one of his personal character studies on the simple quirks of everyday people. Cate Blanchett’s title character is under the main spotlight, who proves right away she is deeply disturbed. Jasmine dresses like a million dollars but has a mind so warped she can’t handle a minimum wage job or casual conversation. Something remarkable has happened in this woman’s past, and we are slowly spoonfed details via flashbacks. We learn that she was once married to rich executive played by Alec Baldwin, who proves untrustworthy in several categories. Jasmine is eventually forced to move in with her working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who is also shown to be married during the flashbacks to a hopeful entrepreneur, played by Andre Dice Clay, of all people. Allen continues to prove that he is one of the elite screenwriters of cinema history by consistently writing about people we can care about, the type of people who are hurt by tragedy and we willingly put our arms around for comfort.

Captain Phillips

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Captains Phillips is a superb, relentless thriller about Somali pirates taking an American cargo ship hostage. It’s all about character here, as most of the film is comprised of a verbal chess match between the title hero (Tom Hanks in another great transforming performance) and the pirate leader, played by Barkhad Abdi in a star making role. In a way I was reminded of another Tom Hanks movie, Apollo 13, where another group of men relied on sound teamwork to overcome daunting odds for survival. Director Paul Greengrass continues to show he can do no wrong after crafting fellow great thrillers in The Bourne Ultimatum and Green Zone. This becomes the second consecutive year that Hanks has been robbed of a sure Oscar nomination after his polarizing work in Cloud Atlas last year. But one thing is certain: he makes acting look so easy.

Dallas Buyers Club

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Tom Hanks may have handed in another solid performance, but the Transformation of the Year awards go to Matthew McConaughey and Lared Leto for their contributions to The Dallas Buyers Club, which tells a true story of Ron Woodroof – a man diagnosed with AIDs in 1985 Dallas. He has the heart and determination of a lion, boldly working around the system to transport medications from around the world and sell them by any means, including smuggling, bribing or loudly disrupting town meetings. It’s essentially a parable to never trusting Big Brother and solely believing in your survival instincts. McConaughey and Leto are the front runners to win their respective acting nominations on Oscar night for assuming their characters so flawlessly.

Disconnect

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Disconnect is a film that offers its own opinions on social networking, questioning just how much it connects or disconnects relationships between people. This is a horror film in the traditional sense that it thrives on the audience’s fears, playing our emotions like a piano, as Hitchcock would say. Disconnect uses the Crash format of telling multiple stories between interconnecting characters. The most memorable is when a couple of teenage boys create a fake Facebook account, masking themselves as an attractive girl, and message their wallflower classmate, Ben (Jonah Bobo). Ben’s the long-haired loner in middle school, his ears often pacified by ear phones and his eyes often fixed downward to avoid human interaction as much as possible. My younger self relates to Ben in so many ways, so maybe my rating is a little biased, but isn’t that the point of films: to find ways to connect with and touch audiences? Disconnect made me so concerned for its characters, I’ve rarely ever felt so connected during a film.

Pacific Rim

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It must be fun to live in Guillermo del Toro’s mind. His ever-expanding imagination is so unlike most other filmmakers, I always look forward to escape into his films, most notably the Hellboy series and Pan’s LabrynthPacific Rim is somewhat of a crossover between Reel Steel and Cloverfield, although very superior to both films. In the near future, Earth becomes infested with giant reptilian monsters called The Kaiju. In response, humans built giant, mechanical fighting robots to defend their last hopes of survival. I know, I know, this plot seems simplistic and something borrowed from the Michael Bay Screenplay Factory, but del Toro does right by putting characters first instead of focusing on stuff being blowed up real good. I was further engrossed by the fun science involved, mostly communicated by Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), which backed up the story and gives the film purpose. The prime special effects and action sequences provide the perfect backdrop to the adventure, and what you’ve got here is a first-rate action thriller that makes Optimus Prime looks like a ukulele pick.

Philomena

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Philomena is one of the funniest, most charming films about a serious subject I’ve seen. Judi Dench is the title character — an shorter woman in her 60’s or 70’s, often blabbering about whatever is on her mind. We learn that she grew up in a Catholic convent in Ireland, and conceived a child who was taken away from her. She tracks down and hires narcissistic journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also wrote the screenplay) to aid her in looking for her long lost boy. What looks like a setup for another odd couple roadtrip picture turns out to be a sweet yet brutally honest portrait of how beliefs have changed in the past 50 years. Dench and Coogan are hilarious together, working off each other’s talents flawlessly, particularly Dench who plays a character who doesn’t realize she’s funny, which is how comedy works. None of the dialogue seems forced, providing one of the most enriching experiences in a theater of the year.

Prisoners

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If Prisoners deserves anything, it’s an award for Best Ensemble. This is a relentlessly daunting thriller that immediately gives off a Hitchcockian aroma of a simple yet horrifying situation. Two families meet for a cozy dinner. A daughter from each family wanders off and don’t return. Hugh Jackman plays one of the fathers and knocks his Oscar nominated performance from Les Miserables out of the theater, portraying a ferocious, clueless man who just wants to know the answers. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the detective assigned to investigate, and hands in a third great performance in a row after Source Code and End of Watch. He embodies a darker version of his character from Zodiac, who also became obsessed with finding the culprit of horrible acts. This will be an entertainment to be remembered and cherished for years to come.

The Wolf of Wall Street

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Martin Scorsese returns to his roots of telling self-destructing tragedies about a once innocent man who eventually becomes corrupt and loses everything, much like his other great films GoodfellasCasino and The Aviator. He uses Leonardo DiCaprio as his centerpiece for the fifth time, and is their best collaboration since The Departed, most of the credit going to DiCaprio’s animated performance. He plays Jordan Belfort, who climbed his way up the Wall Street ladder and founded his own stockbroking company. He rewards his employees with so much drugs and hookers he is like a darker version of Jay Gatsby. Scorsese purposely edits the stoned scenes loosely, brilliantly replicating the world that Belfort believed to be his. I felt Scorsese took less risks on his picture than pasts ones, but that still doesn’t diminish the overall quality.

 

Now I shall list the 10 best pictures of the year, according to me, starting with number 10.

10. Fruitvale Station

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Fruitvale Station is based on the true life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a young father on parole who wakes up one morning and senses something isn’t right. We assume he regrets all of the time he rotted away in prison instead of being there for his wife, daughter and mother. And so he lives this particular day to the best of his abilities, encountering strangers who become friends, enemies and victims of bad decisions, which is how we normally characterize the people we meet. Jordan provides a career-defining role, portraying Grant as a man still struggling to assume his adulthood and the responsibility attached to it. Jordan gives a virtuoso performance as someone who grins like a saint to his friends and transforms into a destructive monsters when he makes enemies. This film is a testament against stereotypes of ghetto residents, telling a heart-breaking story in the most honest way possible.

9. Rush

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What I felt was the most forgotten about great film of the year was Ron Howard’s eye-opening Rush, which recalls the true story of a catastrophic rivalry between Formula 1 racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). These guys don’t mess around. Sports fans often refer to football and hockey as the most dangerous contact sports, but Formula 1 racing is on another level. Those who participated fully understood and accepted that they might die on the track, but they went anyway, because what else would they do? Lauda was obsessive over winning his races, upgrading every gizmo in his car to the best of his abilities, spending too many hours on studying his car and how it drives. Hunt was the pretty boy marquee of the sport, preferring to be a womanizer than focus too much on his gameplan. The film uses Lauda’s fueled hatred toward’s hunt to portray determination so unlike most other films.

8. Before Midnight

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The third and best entry to Richard Linklater’s “Before” series is Before Midnight, revisiting Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) nine years after they reconnected in Paris in Before Sunset, and 18 years after they first naturally crossed paths on the train in Before Sunrise. Each film seemingly raises the stakes for these characters and their relationship, because that’s just how lives go as they age. The first film promised no commitments or consequences, with Jesse and Celine seeming so free and anxious. Now they have twin daughters, and Jesse lives in France with Celine. Before Midnight follows the family’s vacation to Greece, just another day in the lives of two people destined to be interconnected. Linklater utilized more long-shots this time, naturally watching Jesse and Celine talk in the car or while walking in the streets of Greece. It’s special how Hawke and Delpy effortlessly embrace their roles every nine years, like they were always destined to be interconnected themselves. Maybe they were.

7. Frances H

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I like Greta Gerwig. I just plain like her. When it comes to screen presence, boy, she’s just got it. Much like her awkward, eccentric character in Greenberg, Gerwig plays Frances as a bright but unconfident Frances who struggles to survive in the bowels of New York City. She doesn’t really live anywhere or have a prosperous career, but her dreams are as big as her heart. She camps on her friends’ couches and apprentices at a dance studio, praying to eventually catch her big break. Isn’t that what most post-graduate college students are doing these days? Greta Gerwig is one of the funniest new actresses working her way to the top. She isn’t Sarah Silverman raunchy funny, more like Zooey Deschanel only not as blunt funny. The decision to film in black and white is genius, keeping us from being distracted from the noisy, annoying New York City and allowing Gerwig to glow despite the absence of color. Being black  and white will stir people away from this film, which is a crime because the style allows us to see these people at their core. It especially speaks well to people of my generation, who feel lost in an unorganized America, and have to fight to even feel happy on a daily basis. I’m going to remember Frances for a very long time.

6. Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle)

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Coincidentally, I had a foreign film in my number six spot on last year’s list, Amour. That was a story of a long-seasoned love between an old French couple. Blue is the Warmest Color centers around a young French girl who finally discovers and interpret love for the first time. We meet Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) during her high school days, when girls and boys meet separately in groups to giggle and gossip about their crushes and who lost their virginity to who. I never contributed to those discussions in high school, but I know they happened everyday. Adele is asked out by a boy in her class. They date. They have sex, on screen. Adele looks dazed during it, as if something is still missing. Exacrhopoulos’s performance is spot-on throughout this picture, as she finds love in the rebellious woman, Emma (Lea Seydoux), with blue hair, and finally blossoms into the woman she was meant to be. While with the boy, Adele appears emotionless and conflicted. But with Emma, she discovers herself. This is the truest film about homosexuality I’ve ever seen. I don’t doubt gay people strife through similar predicaments every day. Then again, everyone goes through this regardless of sexuality, don’t they?

5. Her

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Her strips away the romance genre and strikes right for eroticism. No, it’s not what you think. There’s no nudity or sex scenes… well, at least not what you or I refer to as sex. Anyway, this is another masterpiece by director Spike Jonze, who challenges cinema more than anyone else in his field with films like Being John Malkovich and AdaptationHer takes place in the not-so-distant future, where the social media crisis seems to have won the war. Everyone can be seen connected to a device through ear plugs, their heads shrugged down towards the ground. Corporate skyscrapers are as high as the clouds and loom in the background for a darkened tone. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix in another virtuoso role) is recently separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). He is Shakespearean with words when typing or talking to his gadgets, but is incapable of personal confrontations. This is no doubt Jonze’s slap to the face of today’s social media, particularly online dating sites. Theodore purchases the latest technology — a computer that establishes a personality based on the personalities of the user — Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. They establish a respectful relationship that eventually evolves into love, and exchange their love through their emotions and voice, as Samantha is only a voice, at least at first. The film eventually ends with one of the most outlandish endings that only Spike Jonze can concoct.

4. The Place Beyond the Pines

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When I wrote my sort-of best film list for The UB Spectrum in December, I tagged The Place Beyond the Pines as the best film of the year. After a little recalculating and watching a handful of films over again, it is currently ranked at number four. I may change my mind again later in life, but this is how I feel at the current moment. This is still a perfect film from open to close, with some of the edgiest acting I’ve ever seen. Ryan Gosling, one of my favorite actors, plays a motorcycle daredevil for a touring carnival troupe. He revisits a fling he met from a previous tour, only to discover for himself that she bore his child. Romina (Eva Mendes) slaves away at her waitress job, and has found a new boyfriend. Luke (Gosling) is obliged to pay his dues and help aid his son — robbing banks, working on cars, whatever. The events that eventually unfold I dare not reveal, only that a dedicated cop played by Bradley Cooper and a teenager played by Dane DeHaan become involved. In its simplest form, The Place Beyond the Pines tell stories of determination and sacrifice about people who want what’s best for their family. But at its core, the film asks its characters the all important moral question, “Well, what should you do now?” The characters’ morals are challenged to their limits. Did these people force themselves into these predicaments? That’s a question that can be asked about people everyday. Most of the time, the answer is yes.

3. Gravity

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Gravity is one of those rare gems that can only be fully experienced when seen in the theater. Like Life of PiAvatar and The Dark KnightGravity feels like a lesser film when off the big screen. Apparently Warner Bros. and Regal Cinemas agree with, since the film is still in theaters after its initial release on October 4. And like the three other films I mentioned, Gravity successfully utilizes 3-D technology to its advantage. If you are so desperate to see a 3-D film that won’t hurt your eyes or look blurry, look no further. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play two survivors stranded in space when their spaceship is shredded by satellite debris in Earth’s orbit. This scene’s elegance can’t properly be described in words, although I will say I was clutching the armrest a a little tighter than normal. Films this exciting are so rare that I cherish them. The last time a thriller gripped me like that was the opening crash scene in last year’s Flight. Bullock provides transforming work here, her best role ever bar none. She plays a woman who has since felt distant from a life of material and physical things since the death of her daughter. She spends nearly 20 hours a day in a darkened, underground lab doing research, drives around to cope with her day, and reruns the routine the next day. She is a woman detached from all emotion, but will soon learn to cherish the life she has. I would just like to take the time to also mention that in my Spectrum article I correctly predicted that director of cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki would earn an Oscar nomination for his work. She should be a shoe-in to win. Director Alfonso Cuaron has probably made the best space thriller since Kubrick’s milestone 2001: A Space Oddesey. 

2. The Spectacular Now

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This film is perfect in the simplest ways. Two seniors in high school meet cute on a lawn one morning. Sutter (Miles Tenner) is a snarky, fun-loving dude from the party scene. Aimee (Shailene Woodley) is a bright, genuine girl who isn’t a loner but is quiet enough not to be noticed by the popular kids. Sutter buds up with her initially for a ride home. They click instantaneously. A ride turns into lunch at school, lunch at school turns into math tutoring, and the rest I’ll leave you to guess. This film retells the stories of so many people, I felt like I was meeting them all at once. Sutter’s dad has been out of the picture of 15 years, and when Sutter and Aimee finally meet and talk to him, it leads to one of the saddest moments I’ve ever seen on film. It’s so clear Sutter and Aimee work well together, but Sutter still has lingering feelings about his last relationship. We’ve all been there. All of my best friends call recall my numerous pathetic attempts to reconnect with my first love. They inevitably reach the sex stage of the relationship, and its as honest as any sex scene you’ll see in a movie. We aren’t focused on tits or asses, or anything in particular. We are instead neutral witnesses to natural young love defining itself. I found myself leaning forward for most of this movie, because of its refreshing atmosphere and the credibility the actors bring to their roles. You can tell this project meant a lot to them. It means a lot to me, too. I was both of these people at one point.

1. American Hustle

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Now this is a movie. Somewhere about halfway into American Hustle I became convinced I was watching the best film of 2013. This will be an American film classic for decades to come. Why? Because it’s just so much damned fun. Director David O. Russell combines his main cast of The Fighter (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) with the main cast of Silver Linings Playbook (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence), and teams them up with Jeremy Renner for one of the best ensembles of the year. Each scene plays off the next in an web of deception between all of the players involved. The opening sequence says it all. Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) struggles to give himself a comb over using glue, setting the tone for the whole film in a minute. These characters con others to survive. Well, what else are they supposed to do? Go to school and start a career? This film is a great character study, like The Place Beyond the Pines, about people driven by desperation that they create themselves. Amy Adams especially shines here, deceiving several people at once. For a while I couldn’t decide if she really was British or was only using that to help Irving. I’ll let you find out for yourself. Cooper hits all the right notes as an FBI agent who diagnoses government corruption like cancer. Lawrence has a high chance to win a second consecutive Oscar, although I don’t think she deserves it as much as last year. Adams has stiff competition against Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, but I’ll be pulling for her in March. According to Christian Bale, many scenes were altered and improvised. He told director David O. Russell, “You realize this is going to change the plot greatly down track.” Russell replies, “Christian, I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.” You have no idea how happy that makes me.

A full analysis of this year’s Oscars

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This year’s list of Academy Award nominations lifted a heavy weight from my heart. Every year, avid moviegoers worldwide are frustrated when mainstream American films are favorites over the marginal independent films. But I sense that the Academy is finally recruiting fresher, younger voters who are determined to reveal the smaller, better films to the world.

But that’s not to say that no films were snubbed this year. The ambitious “Cloud Atlas” remains empty handed, when I believed it was a sure lock for at least the technical categories like visual effects and costume design. The directing trio of Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis had more on their plate than most filmmakers in cinema history, so I’m sure they’re all at a bar somewhere, abusing happy hour together and kicking themselves for not making the list.

Also notable robberies go to “End of Watch” and “Arbitrage,” which seemed to be locks in lead acting and Best Picture. The Academy still somehow refuses Richard Gere, a man who has mastered his craft decades ago, a single nod. His role in “Arbitrage” broke new ground for him; even after nearly 40 years in the business, Gere uncovered a new acting range as a corrupt billionaire. I hope he gets his due someday, but for now he’s probably sucking down a cold one with the directors of “Cloud Atlas.”

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But even though Oscar and I still argue and have our differences, I can sincerely say that the Academy did a great job this year. It would’ve been difficult for the voters to mess up the nominations, because 2012 was a strong year for films. I rarely gave a rating under three stars, and enjoyed going along for the ride.

Spielberg’s masterful “Lincoln” leads the pack with 12 nominations, nearly sweeping the major categories and also finding room in several technical departments. Ang Lee’s beautiful “Life of Pi” is the runner-up with 11 nods, while “Les Miserables” and “Silver Linings Playbook” tie for third with eight each.

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The competition is fierce this year. Any one of these films could take home the big prize, or the others I have yet to mention. This year isn’t like last, when it was evident that the Best Picture award boiled down between “Hugo” and “The Artist.” Although there are slight favorites, the nominations have already included stunning upsets, and that will make the final round of voting that much more intricate.

I’ll go through each of the major categories, give my blessings to the nominees that deserve it and rant on those that don’t. I’ll predict who I think will win each category as accurately as I can, and also reveal who I would vote for if I were in the Academy.

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Best Picture

I’ll start with the big guns. Most of the nominees for Best Picture aren’t a surprise, but two delights are Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which ranked first on my Top 10 this year, and Michael Haneke’s perfect “Amour,” which ranked sixth. “Beasts” is the clear dark horse of the race, but who knows what will happen in the final round of voting.

“Lincoln” is Spielberg’s seventh film to get the nomination, and is one of the higher favorites. Also vastly regarded is Ben Affleck’s earth-shattering “Argo,” which redefined his purpose in cinema. Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is one of the most elegant movies I’ve ever seen, and proved that 3D can actually be utilized to enhance a film’s storytelling rather than be a profiting gimmick. These three films are rumored to be the slightly leading favorites, but all of the speculation in the world doesn’t make it true. 2012 is one of the strongest movie years in recent time, and has created a suspenseful Oscar race.

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Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” has received mixed reviews for its failure to live up to her faultless “The Hurt Locker,” so it may be out of the running. But don’t count the directing heroine out just yet. Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” warranted a debate crisis all over the internet, probably purposely. Although “Django” deserved the nomination and is one of the strongest of the nominees, older Academy voters are likely reluctant to vote for a “racist” movie. I don’t think “Django” or Tarantino himself are racist, but the Academy doesn’t want to be affiliated with hard-fitting content they think will earn disapproval from audiences.

The two nominees I have true issues for are “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Les Miserables,” two very decent movies that might’ve been selected based on reputation and marketing alone. David O. Russell’s “Playbook” has a very intelligent and interesting film in the first two acts, but somehow out of left field, the final act boils down to lazy conventionalism that compares to a fairy tale. The ending was so unprovoked I wanted to leave the theater a bit early, because I questioned the characters’ motives.

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I rated Tom Hooper’s “Les Mes” with three-and-a-half stars on my Facebook page after the screening, only because I was so immersed in the acting and production design. The movie looked great and was carried well by the actors, but the singing portions were lacking inspiration and nuance, save for Anne Hathaway’s groundbreaking “I Dreamed a Dream.” Better films like “Cloud Atlas,” “End of Watch,” “Arbitrage,” “Skyfall” and “The Sessions” are better suited for the award. But, for the most part the Academy done good.

My prediction: “Argo”

My preference: “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

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Best Director

Normally there’s a direct correlation between Best Picture and Best Director – normally the same film wins both. But look elsewhere this year, as surprises Haneke and Zeitlin have “snubbed” slots from high-ranking directors Affleck, Tarantino, Bigelow and Hooper. I wouldn’t be shocked if Haneke or Zeitlin were rewarded for their success, since both of their films successfully made it into the Best Picture category. Zeitlin should get the win for evolving his great idea into a masterpiece so effortlessly, and with only scrapes of money.

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More obvious favorites are Russell, Lee and Spielberg, and I smell the award will go to the latter. Spielberg hasn’t won Best Director since “Saving Private Ryan,” and the Academy knows that. Russell should’ve been replaced by Affleck who stepped far out of his element and reinvented himself in Hollywood.

My prediction: Stephen Spielberg

My preference: Benh Zeitlin

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Best Leading Actress

This is the category that the Academy absolutely got right. The nominees are the five best female performances of the year, give or take a couple of people. Jessica Chastain continues to dominate the medium with her constantly versatile acting. Jennifer Lawrence stole every scene in “Playbook,” giving her best performance since “Winter’s Bone.” Emmanuelle Riva was implausibly convincing as the dying wife in “Amour,” and becomes the eldest Oscar nominee in history at 85. Naomi Watts gives the performance of her career playing a mother whose family is devastated by a tsunami in “The Impossible.”

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And, by God, the fearless Quvenzhane Wallis is now the sole pride of Houma, Louisiana. Not only is she the youngest person to ever be nominated for an Oscar, but she has reset the bar for acting worldwide. Wallis was five years old when she first auditioned for “Beasts,” six when it was filmed, and is now nine. Yet she has the presence of a lion. Wallis unintentionally raised the standards of acting, and would earn my vote if I had one.

My prediction: Emmanuelle Riva

My preference: Quvenzhane Wallis

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Best Leading Actor

This is the sloppiest category, with three actors that snubbed so many deserving candidates. I’m convinced that these men were chosen for reputational reasons. But who am I to judge?

Daniel Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington are the only worthy nominees in this category. Day-Lewis continues to thrive from his natural ability of method acting by perfectly embodying an ideal form of Abe Lincoln. Denzel Washington gets his first nomination since the adored “Training Day” for his violent, raging performance as an alcoholic pilot. Day-Lewis is the clear front runner and will probably win bearing some freak accident.

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The three nominees I’m scratching my head over are Joaquin Phoenix for “The Master,” Hugh Jackman for “Les Mis,” and Bradley Cooper for “Playbook.” To be fair, these three men are all in the upper class of acting from being in better movies. All three were misguided by over-anxious directors who had great ideas but couldn’t flush them out onto the screen. I sense that many voters simply followed the herd and picked what they knew everyone else would vote for.

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If it was up to me, and it isn’t, I would delete Phoenix, Jackman and Cooper and replace them with Michael Pena for “End of Watch,” Suraj Sharman for “Life of Pi,” and Richard Gere for “Arbitrage.” Pena continues to swim under the radar, although if he gets more roles similar to “Watch,” he’ll get a nod soon enough. Sharman mostly gives a one-man-show in “Pi,” similar to Tom Hanks in “Castaway,” which earned him an Oscar nod. However, Sharman faced a tougher task: he remained in a row boat rather than an entire Island, and had to interact with a CGI tiger.

My prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis

My preference: Daniel Day-Lewis

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Best Supporting Actress

This category is a violent struggle between three great performances, with one awkward oddball and one undeserving nominee off to the side. Most of the publicity seems to point to Anne Hathaway for her incredible presence in “Les Mes,” and I accept her nomination. Regardless if she had one of the shortest screentimes, Hathaway stole the film and remains the most memorable character.

But don’t count your rumors just yet. Sally Fields is also highly regarded for blowing up the screen as Mary Todd Lincoln. Fields gave more depth to her role than required and stole literally every scene she took part in. Helen Hunt is also near the top of the mix for her daring performance as a sex therapist in “The Sessions.” It’s one thing to take off your clothes on camera, but Hunt honed such exuberant confidence that we grow to adore her.

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Jackie Weaver turned so many heads for her nomination as the concerned mother in “Silver Linings Playbook,” even mine. Her name never appeared once in the discussions, and her role was minimal compared to the rest of the ensemble. It’s an acceptable decision I guess, but did Weaver really elevate “Playbook” that much? My guess is the Academy didn’t want her to feel left out, since all of her major costars were nominated.

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I can’t fathom why Amy Adams received a nod for “The Master,” a film that reduced her to sitting on a chair and watching the lead roles from afar. Her character had the contribution factor of a ghost, and didn’t have many lines. Adams, one of today’s most angelic actresses, had more presence in “Trouble With the Curve,” where her character showed conflicts of strengths and weaknesses. In my selection, I would replace Adams with either Judi Dench for “Skyfall” or Susan Surandon for “Arbitrage.”

My prediction: Sally Fields

My preference: Helen Hunt

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Best Supporting Actor

All five nominees for Best Supporting Actor are veterans in their field. And all have won at least one Oscar. This leads us to yet another tight race this year.

Alan Arkin is definitely a favorite for his snarky producer in “Argo,” providing most of the comic relief in a mostly daunting film. Robert De Niro was well-received as he stepped in new territory as a retired father with OCD in “Playbook.” Philip Seymour Hoffman, who resides in the same acting rank as Daniel Day-Lewis, played one of the most ambiguous characters in cinema history in “The Master.” Tommy Lee Jones still makes acting look so easy as a multi-faced politician in “Lincoln.”

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And lastly, Christoph Waltz blew the roof in Tarantino’s “Django,” as the assassinating dentist. Similar to the conniving archfiend in “Inglorious Basterds,” Waltz is able to play some of the most complex characters ever created. He is the perfect actor to recite Tarantinian scripture, which flows from his lips with the force of the Nile. Arkin was the leading favorite in October when “Argo” hit theaters, but I feel that the winds have changed course, and Waltz will ultimately murder the competition come ceremony day.

As for snubs, I was certain Dwight Henry was a lock as the violent father in “Beasts,” as I remember much chatter about him during the summer. In fact, I’ve never seen a character like his – a man who lost everything but acts like he owns everything.

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And everyone that I’ve listened to has failed to credit Samuel L. Jackson for his brave undertaking of the head slave in “Django.” Most moviegoers rave that Leonardo DiCaprio was snubbed, and while that may be true, Jackson’s performance was the most difficult in the film. Jackson’s character represents all of the “Uncle Toms” from decades past, and represents a source of indefinable evil that engrosses the screen. For Henry and Jackson, I would trade in De Niro and Hoffman, who I feel were both misused by their directors.

My prediction: Christoph Waltz

My preference: Christoph Waltz

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Best Animated Feature:

Animated films were not last year’s specialty. I mostly failed to see any attempt of an animated classic, and was left with common retreads. “Brave” is Pixar’s worst movie to date, offering boring characters and the most conventional of plots. Although I fear Pixar’s reputation may give “Brave” the edge, and automatically flush the competition.
I didn’t see “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” and still have no desire to. The trailer suggested an overly silly experience that would only be likeable for children five years old and under. This film has the least chance to win, as I still fail to see how it beat “Rise of the Guardians” to the list.

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The most worthy nominees are DreamWorks’ “Wreck-It Ralph,” Tim Burtons beloved “Frankenweenie,” and the stop-motion-capturing “Paranorman.” “Ralph” is the most fun to watch, and I think the best received by audiences. “Frankenweenie serves as Burton’s tribute to his past with Disney, also recognizing many of the infamous horror films from early cinema. “Paranorman” was also a horror parody, and worked as entertainment and a scary film. Hopefully one of these three can debacle “Brave,” but I doubt it.

My prediection: “Brave”

My preference: “Wreck-It Ralph”

Jake’s Bottom 10 Films of 2012

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In contrast to my Top 10 Films of 2012, listed here will be the lowest of the low of last year. In comparison to the Top 10, these films are equivalent to a pile of fly feces. Whoever sat down and decided that these natural disasters needed to be made, I’ll never know. But whoever you are, and you know who you are, your crappy films have caused me more pain than waltzing on hot coal. All of you should start receiving psychiatric evaluation at Shutter Island, and never involve yourself with the public ever again.

Anyways, I reluctantly present the Bottom Films of 2012. Even saying the word “bottom” is a compliment to this garbage. These films aren’t at the bottom of the totem pole. These films don’t exist on the totem pole. These films aren’t underneath the totem pole. These films don’t reside in the same state or providence as the totem pole.
This list is ordered from least to most crappy.

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10. “Underworld: Awakening”
This franchise was never attractive to begin with. I respected the artistry and special effects in the first and third “Underworlds.” Now all we’re left with are sloppy fourths from inept filmmakers attempting to thrive from a well-known title.

I mean, come on, who can sit there and be entertained by this nonsense. This film doesn’t tell a congruent story let alone anything. This film shows us a handful of events, with Selene (Kate Beckinsale) desperately avoiding death and/or capture from humans and/or lycans. If she had any dignity left, Beckinsale would’ve fought to avoid being a hostage of this franchise. But like Milla Jovovich with the “Resident Evils,” which I’ll get to next, Beckinsale will sink with the ship as long as the paycheck is worthwhile.

What irritates me most about “Underworld: Awakening” is its title and runtime. I despise sequel titles that add an obligatory word to the end, like Redemption or Aftermath, in a blind attempt to differentiate between entries. The word “awakening” is so broad and meaningless to the story, further proving the broadness and meaninglessness of this film.

As for the runtime, the filmmakers barely stretched out their material to less than 90 minutes, when the same message could’ve been relayed in a half-hour short on television. There is zero suspense created, no interesting characters or cliffhangers. The audience just brainlessly parks themselves and watch dull images move on the screen.

On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing that this film lasts less than 90 minutes.

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9. Resident Evil: Retribution

This film looks, feels and causes suffering in similar ways to “Underworld: Awakening.” This is just another dim sequel with no artistic intentions or mental expansions. Films like “Resident Evil: Retribution” are made to finance better movies.

Alice (Milla Jovovich) shamelessly returns as the zombie-butt-whopping heroine, running, shooting, kicking, flipping and slicing in 3D slow-motion to satisfy the horny fanboys of the video games from which the franchise is based. It amuses me that this film screened in theaters and grossed more earnings than six of the films on my Top 10, which isn’t a criticism, but a mere observation of today’s audiences.

Something has to be done about this 3D epidemic. Last Thursday, the seventh “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” film released in 3D, earning $21.7 million opening weekend, while Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed “Zero Dark Thirty” profited $417 thousand a weekend prior. Most 3D films look unconvincing, the characters appearing like cardboard cutouts and every shot looks unfocused. 3D is essentially 1D, unless you produce miraculous achievements like “Life of Pi” or “Avatar,” two films that utilize 3D to enhance the storytelling. Trash like “Resident Evil: Retribution” add 3D is post-production for no other reason than emptying your wallet even more. The sooner people figure this out, the sooner we can live at peace.

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8. “Killing Them Softly”

“Killing Them Softly” is a more ambitious film than “Resident Evil: Retribution” and “Underworld: Awakening,” but you know what I say? The bigger they are, the harder they suck.
This film may contain stronger acting and technical effects than the previously mentioned films, but the premise couldn’t be bleaker. The characters are undefined or unnamed, the dialogue is mumbled and uninteresting, and motives are nonexistent and artificial.

Most imperative, there is no main character for us to identify with. Brad Pitt is the top billed actor of course, but so what? I’m convinced that he has less screentime than most of the other actors, and isn’t the most memorable. His Jackie Cogan hitman character is only prominent in the final act, when he finally gets to kill people softly. But we never fully grasp who his employer is, or why he was hired. We’re just supposed to go with the flow, I guess.

The director Andrew Dominik has already established himself with well-received films “Chopper” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” both unseen by me. Here, Dominik attempts to make criticisms towards corporate America and the recession in 2008. But his message is obscure, and seems to belong in a better story. Watching his finished product in post-production, Dominik should’ve studied his film in the audience’s shoes, and question whether his material was sound. I’m still not sure what his argument was, or his point in making this film.

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7. “Red Dawn”

“Red Dawn” has some of the worst choreographed action scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Freshman director Dan Bradley, who has previously served as a film stunt coordinator, doesn’t coordinate any convincing stunts here. He never shows us where his characters are in relation to everything else, losing us in the mix of explosions, automatic weaponry and bloodbaths. He should never, ever, ever direct another film, ever.

I love action movies. I’m normally gun-ho for an extravaganza of preposterous fight scenes, such as “Skyfall,” which earned eighth place on my Top 10. But nothing is fun about “Red Dawn,” which squares off high school graduates against the paramount forces of North Korea.

Uh, huh. Apparently the well-equipped and fully-trained Korean soldiers forgot all of their training before the events of the film, because the adolescents pick them off like pests. The enemy soldiers are mere inconveniencies for the heroes, who mow them down like moving targets. “Red Dawn” is like a video game that you can’t interact with, or experience any joy or enthrallment watching.

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6. “The Devil Inside”

This is just another example that the found-footage formula is reaching beyond its peak, save for the thrilling “Chronicle,” one of the best films of the year. But “Chronicle” portrayed a conflicted youth with a shattered life. We sympathize with him, as his emotions feud with one another and other people. In “The Devil Inside,” we are supposed to sympathize with a possessed mom who slits her arms. Why were these exorcisms filmed? To convenience the plot, that’s why.

Great found-footage films like “Chronicle” and the original “Paranormal Activity” relied on down-to-Earth characters who convinced us to be real people with real issues. We believed those characters, because we know people like them. The characters in “The Devil Inside” are contrived and feeble, with no personalities or emotions to label them as individuals. They are some of the lamest characters I’ve ever witnessed, and I wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with them, much less attending exorcisms and rituals with them.

There isn’t a moment in the film that catapults suspense and fear towards its customers. There is no build up, no development or flow to the story. There’s hardly even a story; it’s more like a row of boring events that were inconveniently recorded. If I were the owner of this footage, I would choose to save space on my hard drive, delete the evidence, and forget about the whole mistake.

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5. “That’s My Boy”

This is the most hateful and agonizing Sandler character to appear on the screen yet; worse than the spluttering idiot in “The Waterboy” or the despicable “Billy Madison.” Sandler’s dialogue in “That’s My Boy” rapes our ears with agonizing pronunciations that sound like and middle-aged, alcoholic version of the “Waterboy” character who worships metal bands like Van Halen and Rush.

Why would anybody think this voice is funny? Why did Sandler find it funny? I can’t imagine this lowlife of a comedy having many bloopers like “Talladega Nights,” a film where nearly every line was hilarious. I have massive doubts any of the cast laughed while trying to recite their lines. They probably wanted to say them as fast as possible to get the Hell out of dodge.

There isn’t a gag that works in “That’s My Boy.” We are instead hostages of witnessing Adam Sandler performing what appears to be a cancelled “Saturday Night Live” skit. And Andy Samberg, who has brought much life to SNL with his Lonely Island band, gives everything he has to save this film from destruction. It didn’t work, but this film was destined for dreadfulness. “That’s My Boy” wouldn’t be funny if it were co-directed by Judd Apatow and Seth Macfarlane. But then again, Apatow directed Sandler to his greatest role in Funny People, so maybe something else is the problem. I blame Happy Madison Productions, a company that furbishes films in tribute to Sandler’s worst films.

Look out behind you! It's a scene from the trailer that's not in the movie!

Look out behind you! It’s a scene from the trailer that’s not in the movie!

4. “Paranormal Activity 4”

Here’s the second, but unfortunately not the last entry of the found-footage genre in my worst films list. Paranormal Activity 4 borrows the terrible idea previously utilized by series like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Saw: one film is just not enough; nor is two; nay, not even three.

This is the fourth film in a long-since drained franchise, that couldn’t be less inspired. Directing duo Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who made the indifferently creepy “Catfish” years ago, offer no insight into their imagination and instead chose to profit from a prominently successful brand name.

In my opinion, the original PA was not only a great film, but one of the most successful horror films in the new millennium. PA2 and PA3 minimally honed their predecessor’s energy, but never matched it. Now in strolls PA4, one of the most dismal experiences I’ve ever had at the theater. After the midnight screening, the whole audience howled in disgust and portrayed grotesque hand gestures towards the screen as the credits rolled. I shared their anger, as I was hostage to a dull enterprise involving characters who couldn’t be less interesting. No dexterity was shown in the filming process; in fact I’m positive that Joost and Schulman lazily left the camera rolling and glued scenes together at random.

Now my thinking, how can the inevitable PA5 travel even further down the sewer pipe and provide even worse trash.

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3. “The Collection”

I can’t wait to locate the blooper reel of “The Collection” one day, and watch the unfortunate performers involved in this project snicker while trying to pronounce some of the cheesiest, fabricated dialogue my ears have ever been stabbed with. Earlier in the year, I was convinced I had seen the worst horror flick of the year in PA4. Then I was bedazzled in the heartless desolation of “The Collection,” a “Saw” wannabe that’s only interested in massacring platoons of characters for entertainment.

“The Collection” is a direct sequel to the 2009 “The Collector,” which was also a bad movie, but still had suspense and originality on its side. Those events remained remotely tangible even for its bloodbath genre, but the sequel doesn’t even try. Here we see knives, axes and other blades materialize out of air and carve the characters like pumpkins. A teenage girl is abducted by the serial killer for no reason, and random cops or detectives or whatever they are also materialize out of nowhere to rescue her. These cops are all borrowed from every volume of movie police stereotyping ever invented, as if we haven’t seen these characters thousands of times before. I hated the characters so much, that I actually wanted them to die so the movie would end sooner.

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2. “Project X”
The midnight release of “Project X” was one of the busiest premieres I’ve ever attended. Squads of adolescents patrolled the theater in search of a seat to watch an even worse example of the found-footage genre than “The Devil Inside” or “Paranormal Activity 4.” My initial review of “Project X” reads, “This is an 80-minute music video described as a movie.” There is no substance whatsoever, no reason anybody would ever film the entirety of this party. No reason to feel entertained or joyful. “Project X” could never work as a movie, regardless of how many edits that were made. There is no reason for this film to exist.

Watching pre-teen girls grind each other during techno dancing isn’t a favorable genre. In fact, I felt disturbed watching these extremely young, half-naked girls grinding against guys and amongst themselves. Most of them appeared to be 16 years old, and stoned beyond recognition. Who could relish such depraved material? How can young audiences be inspired by this?

“Project X” is remote from any form of storytelling experience; it eye-candy for the blind, offering nothing to better our lives. The directors appear to be endorsing getting stoned and setting your house on fire. What a moral lesson to lecture about. Millions upon millions of teenage boys will drool at this film because it offers drunk, hot babes in swimsuits. And teenage girls will be dragged alongside by their boyfriends, and make sure they aren’t drooling too much.

I outright scorned watching this picture, and hated nearly everything it showed, and everyone involved in its production. Post-screening, I pledged that Project X would be nominated as the worst picture of 2012, but somehow, through all the wreckage, I somehow salvaged one film that I hated even more.

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1. “Lay the Favorite”

This movie is a waste of electricity. The words to describe my loathing of this movie haven’t been invented yet. In short, “Lay the Favorite” is one of the most soul-sucking, mind-numbing, painstakingly awful films ever made. I haven’t hated an experience like this since I watched the first “Charlie’s Angels” movie. My hair greyed while being tortured by this repulsive trash. Life is too short and precious to waste it on “Lay the Favorite.”

This film tries to be about sports gambling in Las Vegas, but has no clue what to say about it. Even if the characters know what’s going on, I never did. I was never given a single clue towards anyone’s ambitions, and instead did a character study on how stupid and hateful these people act. I could tell behind Bruce Willis’s smile that he had several words to say to his agent, but Rebecca Hall actually looks like she’s having fun playing her role. Does she not know what fun is? Does she not know what a good script is?

The movie stars a row of gifted performers, so it’s not like nobody knew what they were doing. Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn, Laura Prepon, Joshua Jackson and Frank Grillo are all established actors from better movies. Did it occur to them while reading the script, if there was one, that absolutely none of the gags work in this film? Nothing that happens makes sense or serves any amount of purpose, and the dialogue sounds foreign to this planet. These unfortunate actors probably wiped their tongues with soap after reading their lines, to rid themselves of any evidence that they appeared in this movie.

And, oh lord, the stupidity. The colossal mountain of excruciating stupidity stretches beyond all reason. If I were ever to meet these characters, I would handcuff them to a park bench and resurrect B. F. Skinner to conduct a behavioral study and discover what makes them tick. I kind of wish that the characters in “Lay the Favorite” were the victims in “The Collection,” so justice could be served.

I’m cringing in my seat just thinking about scenes from this movie. I feel as if Lt. Aldo Raine from “Inglorious Basterds” branded me with his Nazi knife, leaving a scar that says, “I saw Lay the Favorite.” Over the years, I will slowly pick off the scabs left by this scar, hopefully to the point where I forget that this film was ever made. I hope Hollywood does the same.

November 2012: A Month in Review

Conveniently listed here are short reviews of films that released last November, including the good, the bad, and the barely watchable. All films will be rated out of four stars as always, so use this guide wisely to decide which movies to visit or avoid at all cost. These 12 films average a rating of exactly three out of four stars, resulting in a favorable month.
This list will be in alphabetical order.

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A Late Quartet
Director: Yaron Zilberman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet – a film inevitably centering around a prestigious string quartet – surprisingly contains very little music apart from the background soundtrack. This time around, the music takes a backseat to the characters and their individualism; this film is an exercise in the elasticity of human emotion and how music disciplines it.

What’s mostly refreshing about Zilberman’s great film is that he wisely skims through the quartet’s back-story, and focuses on the here and now. We’re quickly debriefed about the group’s origin through a DVD documentary that they watch together with nostalgia; Zilberman tells us just enough about their past, without overdoing it, and in a way that doesn’t disrupt the plot from unraveling.

Zilberman picked the perfect cast. He relied on veteran actors in Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, and Katherine Keener, who share screen time with the relatively unknown Mark Ivanir. Ivanir’s character was my personal favorite; he talks with such self-assuredness, studies his surroundings through dogged eyes and speaks in matters of fact.

I’ve intentionally left out a great deal of the plot. Revealing the ripeness of this drama would be like me unraveling a banana and eating it while offering you the peel. I offer you to travel to see this picture with high expectations, and watch the magic happen for yourself.

Man, can these people act.

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Flight
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, Brian Geraghty
Rating: 3.5/4 stars

After one of the most terrifying plane crash scenes in movie history, Flight never takes its foot off the pedal. Denzel Washington, professional as always, somehow delivers yet another flawless performance after an already established career.

He plays Capt. Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot who soaks in alcohol and shoots drugs in between flights. One night, he decides to get stoned before takeoff the following morning. He’s still intoxicated during the takeoff, and in fact finishes three small bottles of vodka beforehand and thoughtlessly tosses them in the waste basket.

The plane sustains too much turbulence and begins plunging to a crash. Whitaker doesn’t miss a beat and coaxes the aircraft to a landing. How he does so I won’t describe, but let’s just say shameful memories of Top Gun come to mind.

One aspect of the crash scene I will highlight however is the masterful control over time and space. Director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away, and Polar Express) and writer Jon Gatins (Coach Carter and Real Steel) show that they’ve done research and present the crash in a way that makes sense. Zemeckis’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Don Burgess, paces through the tragedy enough to map out which character is where, instead of filling it with mindless, loud explosions. The Grey is one of this year’s scariest movies, and somehow this scene triumphs over that entire film.

Test results following the crash prove Whitaker’s intoxication, and it’s up for his defense team – attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) and ex-copilot Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) – to find the loopholes and earn Whitaker’s freedom. Cheadle handles the Lang character with sturdy grit, and shows he’s a guy who can get stuff done. Also on Team Whitaker are local hippie Harling Mays (John Goodman), who serves as an emergency medic at the most crucial of times, and a love interest Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who can relate to Whitaker’s addictive urges.

Washington is notorious as a flawless method actor, and Flight is just another example of that. This is his best performance since American Gangster in 2007, and will most likely earn him his sixth Oscar nomination. Washington somehow takes a generic role of an alcoholic and makes it his own, never relying on overrating like most other actors would. The secret lies in his ferocious eyes, his violent presence and his natural ability to say meaningful dialogue.

If Flight doesn’t make my Top Ten List this year, it’ll certainly come close.

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Life of Pi
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Rafe Spall
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

Speaking of my Top Ten List, I’ll be damned if Life of Pi isn’t on it.

What an experience; what a visual and storytelling breakthrough for director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), who takes Yann Martel’s best-selling novel that seemed impossible to film, honoring and uplifting the original tale. I thought Cloud Atlas was a shoe-in for winning the best visual effect Oscar, but Lee’s film will square off in the ring.

The plot is familiar form the popular novel: a teenage Indian boy, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), is the lone survivor of a sinking ship, and miraculously finds himself in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and an African Bengal tiger who’s facetiously named Richard Parker.

What makes the film work is Sharma’s relentless belief in his misfortunes. Any actor can convince us that he believes something, but Sharma one-ups that and inevitably forces us to believe in him.

The story is treated as a flashback, as Pi’s older self (Irrfan Khan) recollects the events to a journalist (Rafe Spall). But Sharma, as the teenage Pi, narrates his self-discovering journey with self-confidence. He gazes at the intimidating ocean with endless hope, and reveals to Richard Parker his hidden strength, wit and mutual compassion. This is as believable a tiger-human relationship can get.

One last thing to note: aside from the obvious nominations for visual effects, acting and best picture, Life of Pi should definitely earn credit for best cinematography, which further establishes the film’s feeling of isolation. For instance, my favorite shot in the film was a minor one: Pi’s raft rests on the calm, open sea with the night sky reflecting all across. This single shot is astounding, encompassing three levels of depth into one; Lee shows Pi and his boat existing in relation to Earth and Space, instead of just a raft floating adrift. Lee could’ve made a short film with only this masterful shot, and it would’ve had nearly the same effect as the film as a whole.

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Lincoln
Director: Stephen Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Fields, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, James Spader, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

Finally, Spielberg’s personal gem has journeyed its way from Civil War America and onto the silver screen. How remarkable – an already heavily achieved filmmaker providing his audience with one of his greatest achievements.

It comes with the territory that a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood, Gangs of New York) is going to be damn entertaining. Well, fellow moviegoers, set the popcorn aside and watch a true artist narrow his brow and insight your mind on the life of Abraham Lincoln – a man who sacrificed his soul for the nation he loved.

Spielberg’s Lincoln dominantly takes place near the end of the American Civil War; the soldiers involved have grown tired of the bloodshed, and all the wrinkly, white members of Congress constantly bicker about post-war arrangements – most importantly, the possible liberation of colored people.

Lincoln is weary of all of the debate and warfare; he’d rather allow his own death than allow another fellow American fall in demise. And yet, he somehow remains calm while his advisors bark about the foolishness of emancipating the slaves. Lincoln doesn’t disregard the words of those against his policies, but instead remains sitting in a slender hunch, acutely thinking over how to demonstrate the necessity of change to better the nation.

Recognizing the giant slew of characters sometimes creates a challenge while watching the film, but one man who’s unmistakable is Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (an Oscar-worthy performance by the unblemished Tommy Lee Jones). At first, it’s difficult to figure out which side Stevens is on, but quickly you understand that he wishes to help the President for his own secret reasons.

Sally Fields fervently contested for the role of Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln, with Spielberg initially claiming her old age would be an issue. I had no issue with her. In fact, Lincoln may have been less effective without her, because she is able to blurt out all of the thoughts locked in her mind, which is a contrast to the introverted commander in chief.

What’s most astonishing is Spielberg’s ability to tell a Civil War story with hardly any fighting in it. Besides for a gruesome battle in the opening shot, Spielberg relies on the conflict of dialogue rather than weaponry to carry his magnificent film’s weight.
I hate to beat a dead horse, but Lincoln is also one of the year’s best films.

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The Man with the Iron Fists
Director: RZA
Starring: Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Dave Bautista, Jamie Chung, Cung Le, RZA
Rating: 1.5 out of 4 stars

What audience was this film intended for? Based on all of the half-naked Asian women and ruthless kung-fu action, I’d normally suggest adolescent boys and their dads. But The Man with the Iron Fists, the directorial debut of rapper RZA, sometimes plays even dumber than most brainless bloodbaths.

And yet, there’s some notable detail that’s worthy to note. I learn that RZA and co-writer Eli Roth (director of the Hostel series) spent two years developing the screenplay, which RZA first began mentally developing in 2005. Their fatal mistake, however, was knowing their martial arts universe well enough to expect the audience to understand too. RZA and Roth show in their film that they know what’s going on, but nobody else does, including the actors and the characters they portray.

If there is a plot, it’s too inconceivable and preposterous anyway. This is a shame, because I’m normally gung-ho for a preposterous extravaganza of action-packed special effects. But this movie isn’t fun; it runs like one of RZA’s wet dreams that he told his friends about, and they mocked him for it afterwards.

Listing the characters and their part in the story would be mind-numbing and probably take up a full page. To be honest, the story is so forgettable that I had to research it on Wikipedia, probably because the film barely sandwiches plot summary in between countless slideshows of mindless, brutal action. The action scenes actually aren’t filmed too badly; RZA tries his best to distinct each fight as an individual with his/her unique tactics. But he overwhelms us with a tidal wave of characters who we quickly lose track and interest in.

The most complex puzzle about The Man with the Iron Fists is why Russell Crowe signed up for the job. What intrigued him in the screenplay enough to want to play an opium-addicted English gun-slinger hunting martial artists? To me, his character looked like he was in the wrong movie. Or maybe I was just watching the wrong one.

RED DAWN

Red Dawn
Director: Dan Bradley
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Josh Peck, Isabel Lucas, Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki, Connor Cruise, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Rating: 1 out of 4 stars

At least The Man with the Iron Fists had somewhat comprehendible action. Red Dawn doesn’t even get that right. Freshman director Dan Bradley (who has predominantly worked as a film stunt coordinator in the past) does a terrible job choreographing battle scenes, dialogue and everything in between.

I dreaded watching this movie. In fact, I was bored stiff. The action wasn’t preposterously stimulating, the conversations looked forced out of the actors’ mouths, and nobody seemed to be having fun during filming. Bradley and his stars have abolished all of the possible excitement that could’ve been created with special effects and impressive stunt work.

Chris Hemsworth (the title demigod in Thor) leads fellow teenagers in a rebellious standoff against North Koreans invading the United States. Yep. The script chose young teenagers barely out of high school to accurately fire automatic weapons at military trained soldiers; the producers were obviously more interested in absorbing its younger target audience by casting handsome dudes and hot babes instead of fully-matured adults who would realistically stand a chance.

But that’s not necessarily what makes Red Dawn awful. The actors casted aren’t talentless; Hemsworth proved his own in Thor and Cabin in the Woods, Josh Peck usually shows high comic timing and energy, Josh Hutcherson was brilliant in The Kids Are All Right, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is tossed in mix for a random cameo to build older viewership. These actors are talented, but this film proves how a bad film can misuse even the most proficient performer. Look how Tommy Lee Jones dismantled his reputation in Volcano.

The main issue with Red Dawn is that director Bradley never establishes the film space; we can hardly ever tell who is where in relation to everyone else. At one point, one of the group dies, and we never see her corpse – her character is just deleted from existence, with her name briefly mentioned afterwards. The action is shot in a shaky handheld fashion worse than The Blair Witch Project, as Asian bad guys pop up as convenient shooting targets for the protagonists. And in between the mindless action, the characters have debates with stiff mouths and a snarky sneer. And all the while you’re wondering why these teenagers remorse over a couple dead friends and not feel anything after massacring platoons of enemy soldiers.

If you want to see a great action movie, skip this catastrophe and see Skyfall, one of the best Bond movies ever made. Avoid Red Dawn like the plague, because it’ll only create headaches, heartaches and eye-aches.

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Rise of the Guardians
Director: Peter Ramsey
Starring (the voices of): Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fischer, Jude Law, Dakota Goyo
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

When I initially posted my rating of Rise of the Guardians onto my Facebook page, I awarded the film three-and-a-half stars, after experiencing one of the best animated delights of the year. Later that night, I looked back on the film, and for the first time began to question my review. I neglected my original decision, deciding that Rise of the Guardians is a very good movie, but far from a great one.

Why? In reviewing an animated family film, one has to consider how its target audience would react. It’s apparent that kids will love the film, as did I. I had 90 minutes of fun watching a Russian tattooed Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin) and an Australian kung-fu Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) feud against a shape-shifting Boogie Man (Jude Law).

Will parents enjoy the movie? That’s where I halted. I think they will, only because their kids will be occupied for nearly two hours. Adults will certainly appreciate the artistic effort put into the animation, which creates a new world never seen before about a familiar subject. However, they probably won’t appreciate the silliness of the characters as much as younger viewers will. This is a very good and watchable film for all ages, but compared to other high-spirited Dreamworks films such as Shrek and Kung Fu Panda, Guardians is short a few lengths.

Still, this picture is a fine way to spend time at the movies. You can hear the conventional wheels begin to creek from similar generic animated family films, but in a year short of great animation, Rise of the Guardians will suffice.

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The Silver Linings Playbook
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

David O. Russell’s The Silver Linings Playbook was, at one point, the frontrunner to sweep the upcoming Oscar season. It’ll probably still receive the nomination, as well as receive a slew of acting nominations for Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games), Bradley Cooper (The Hangover and Limitless) and Robert De Niro (you know him). I agree with Lawrence, who probably provides this year’s single best performance of any actress. As for the other two, and this film in general, I think the Academy overhyped the film’s potential.

I passionately tried to like this picture so much, and in a sense I do: I love all the actors, and especially David O. Russell, who made a similarly structured family drama The Fighter, one of the best films in 2010. That film also centered on a family conflict, with fearsome quarreling stemming from all angles. The Silver Linings Playbook tried to work as a comedy about a troubling subject, and ultimately fails.

Pat Solatano (Cooper) convinces the courts to release him from a mental institute; he suffers from a bipolar disorder after discovering his wife showering with her lover, who Pat beats nearly to death.

Pat’s not the only Philadelphia native with a mental conflict: his father, Pat Sr. (De Niro), convulses from extreme OCD, and breathlessly adores his hometown Eagles football team. In fact, there’s rarely a moment Senior isn’t jabbering about profiting from gambling on the Eagles. He actually convinces himself, and only himself, that his precious team only wins when his son watches them play. And if they lose, Senior will go on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on about how it’s Pat’s fault for not watching the game. This repetitiveness by De Niro’s character is intentional to show the aftermath of his disease, but eventually grows tiresome to watch and hear.

The film prominently benefits by introducing its best character – Tiffany (Lawrence), who is still recovering from the death of her first husband. She’s young, bright and alluring, and she’s well aware of it. She immediately feasts a gaze at Pat, who remains oblivious of her flirting. Pat is still glued to his past marriage, and hopes he can regain her partnership.

All of this is galvanizing, and sets up well in the film’s first two acts. Then the third and final act opens to a conventional climax that belongs in another movie. Not only is the last third of the runtime unfitting, but insults Russell’s first two engaging parts. I eventually wanted to leave the theater, because I couldn’t stand the back-and-forth screaming between Pat and Pat Sr., then between Pat and Tiffany, then Pat Sr. and Tiffany, and then some more yelling between Pat and his dad and Tiffany simultaneously until the dialogue sounds like a choir of harpies chirping the music of Hell.

The film is far from bad; in a thumbs up or down scenario, my thumb would creak marginally up, while my hand was hanging next to my waist. I encourage everyone to experience The Silver Linings Playbook at least once for the record, and then talk about it a handful of times before forgetting it ever happened.

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Skyfall
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

I watched all 23 previous James Bond films in preparation for Sam Mendes’s Skyfall to familiarize myself with the 007 formula. Going into number 24, I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was just ready to move on to a different genre of film afterwards. I thought I had seen enough British espionage, boisterous chase scenes and evil henchman being gunned down by a classy man smoking a cigarette.

I saw Skyfall twice in theaters. It’s that good. In my initial Facebook review of the film, I claimed, “Skyfall is this year’s The Dark Knight. Sam Mendes has reinvented James Bond the same way Chris Nolan reinvented Batman. I’ll be surprised if Skyfall doesn’t make my Top Ten List this year.”

I stand by that notion. Skyfall (I even love saying its title) is not only an expert illustration of wall-to-wall action, but evolves into a character study of one of the most renowned movie icons of all time. We’ve never received any sort of origin story about Bond involving his childhood or parent in previous installments. This time, we receive excerpts about the agent’s past, adding a new dimension to a half-century-old franchise.

Daniel Craig (Casino Royale and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is probably the best Bond since Sean Connery, who first set the bar in 1962 in Dr. No. In his third entry as the unstoppable hero, Craig has advanced the character and his performance – almost to Oscar caliber. Some of my favorite scenes involved Craig early in the film, while in hiding on an unnamed island resort: Bond sits at a bar near the beach, and stares off-screen with a demeanor of helplessness; He failed his final mission. Everyone left him for dead. He’s out of the job. If he can’t be part of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, then why should he exist at all? Sitting at that bar, Craig embodies a old piece of machinery shut down for repair.

Like Ledger’s Joker enticed the crowd in The Dark Knight, this film has found a great villain in Javier Bardem, who played an even darker role in No Country for Old Men. Action films rely heavily on the greatness of the villain, and Sam Mendes couldn’t have given his fans a better one. Bardem is Raoul Silva: an ex-agent who turned psycho for legitimate reasons. His main target is Bond’s boss, M (Judi Dench), shooting his own henchman if required. His bleach-blonde hair is probably his most threatening attribute, aside from his eyes which always appear ready to feast on his enemies.

Mendes also casted other supporting roles to perfection: Dench returns for the seventh time as M, and deserves Oscar recognition even more than Craig; the weapons manufacturer Q finally returns to the story, this time played by the intriguing Ben Whishaw, who also proved his worth last month in Cloud Atlas; the prestigious Ralph Fiennes (Voldimort from Harry Potter) joins the cast as M’s superior; and Naomi Harris (the sorceress Tia Dalma from Pirates of the Carribean) is simply glamorous as the main love interest.

I have to recognize the captivating cinematography by the veteran Roger Deakins, who should earn his tenth Oscar nomination from behind the camera. Deakins steadies each shot in relation to Bond, and keeps the action heated and compensable. He plays with field of depth show us multiple layers of actions in unison. There’s always something happening in the background, to Deakin’s intention. In the scene where Bond and M stand alone in the isolated arctic, Deakins uses the surrounding mountains to enhance the storytelling and the emotional attachment between employer and guardian.

Casino Royale was a near-perfect Bond film; then Quantum of Solace followed by laying an egg. Now here’s Skyfall, which is not only a great action film but one of the best films of the year.

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Smashed
Director: James Ponsodlt
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Mary Kay Place, Kyle Gallner
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

I could’ve been watching true events unfold. That’s how down-to-Earth Smashed is – a film chronicling the wasteful lives of a married couple consumed by alcoholism. The plot is simplistic – no overdrawn speeches about self-renewal or self-discovery, or anticlimactic car chases. Smashed, a title with more than one meaning, shows the below-average lives of two victims of addiction and urbanism in a truly effecting way.

The couple is Charlie (Aaron Paul, renowned as Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad) and Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the daughter from Live Free or Die Hard). We meet them at the crack of dawn, waking up with a hangover. Kate is a teacher at an elementary school downtown, and we see that she’s pretty good at it and enjoys teaching her pupils.

She precedes class with a sip from her flask, because apparently her hangover isn’t enough. She pukes in class, instinctively blaming a fake pregnancy. She’s a mess, and we learn this within these opening shots.

Kate’s vice principal Dave Davies (Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation) witnessed her flask drinking, and advises her to join him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She reluctantly goes, and here we start to see some of the best acting from Winstead, who overall deserves an Oscar nomination. She knows she’s an alcoholic; she knows that her life suffers from her addiction. She tearfully confesses this to the group in such a straightforward way, that this scene almost becomes Kate’s rebirth.

I won’t tell you how the rest of the film unfolds. I might’ve given you too much already. This is a shorter film, not even hitting the 90 minute mark, probably to its advantage. Smashed tells its tragedy straightforward and realistic all the way through, and only gives us scenes that progress the story.

I was heavily moved by the overall theme of Smashed – the relation between urbanism and city life, and how the partying and clubbing on the downtown strip can harshly impact middle-class life in the city’s outskirts. If that wasn’t director James Ponsoldt’s intention, so be it, maybe I was moved in a deeper way than intended. That makes the film all the better.

I mentioned earlier that Winstead deserved an Oscar nomination for her performance, and I stick to it. She somehow found an original way to portray alcoholism, even different than Denzel Washington’s performance in Flight. Winstead never acts like a damsel in alcoholic distress, but a woman ready to better her life. Whether her husband can change with her is the question.

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The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn: Part 2
Director: Bill Condon
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Ashley Greene, Mackenzie Foy, Nikki Reed, Billy Burke, Dakota Fanning, Michael Sheen
Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

Listen, of course the Twilight series isn’t gonna be my thing. I have too much self-respect for that. What I will admit is that the series isn’t as atrocious as most people suggest. New Moon was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, but aside from that, these films will effectively hit their target audience – pre-teen girls and their moms and grandmas. It’s an innocent Underworld-esque saga about a teenage virgin girl struggling to blossom into womanhood, a theme that will drive most people away but entertain those who read Stephenie Meyer’s best-seller.

The main trio is back for this final installment, which would be Bella Swan (Kristin Stewart, who was brilliant in Snow White and the Huntsman), her century-old vampire husband Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), and the Herculean wolf-teen Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who FINALLY stops goggling over Bella and falls for someone else.

As you might’ve heard from my review of this film from a couple of weeks ago, I hated a certain scene in this film so much, and declared it the single worst scene in cinema history. I still agree with myself, and feel ready to enlighten you on what I mean.

The forces of good and evil naturally meet at the film’s climax for a predictable final battle, and up until this point I was planning on giving BDP2 a favorable review of 3 stars. I had admittedly enjoyed watching most of the film, and found myself lost in involvement with the characters.

The final bloodbath between the Cullens and the Voltari, the vampire supreme council, is somewhat brainless (mentally and physically) but was well-choreographed and made sense. The good guys of course win, and the main antagonist Aro (Michael Sheen, Midnight in Paris and TRON: Legacy) is about to be killed. As he’s consumed or whatever by a wolf, the camera pans out, and we learn that the entire, I say the ENTIRE, battle sequence was a hoax and instead a vision of the future given to Aro from the psychic vampire Alice (Ashley Greene).

Give me a moment to recall my hatred toward this scene that remains bottled inside.

What a cheap, nay, repugnant decision by writer Melissa Rosenberg, who has not only lowered the standards of screenplay writing to underneath the totem pole, but has placed the existence of her final Twilight film into question. Following this terrible ending, what reason should viewers have to see this movie? What kind of characteristic expansion can be created by a false ending that pumps up the tires and then jabs it with a machete?

This solitary scene added nothing to the series, subtracted from the film itself, and thus placed me in ignominy as a moviegoer. After seeing it, I felt disgraced, victimized, stomped on, hollow, worthless and ready to vomit. I hated this scene more than New Moon in its entirety. I hated this scene more than looking at Mitt Romney’s sinister, jackass face. If this scene affected me this deeply – and I’m not a Twilight fan – I can only imagine what it did to Meyer’s loyal followers.
I shall end by quoting the closing paragraph of my original review.

“It seems extreme to blame a film’s failure on a single scene, especially if the rest of it worked. But because of the ending, BDP2 deteriorates into nothing that bloodthirsty Twilight buffs can sink their teeth into. This film will be adored and desired by its fans, but whether it’s the film they deserve remains in question.”

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Wreck-It Ralph
Director: Rich Moore
Starring (the voices of): John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling, Joe Lo Truglio
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

An animated film based on videogames was inevitable. I’m surprised that this concept hasn’t already been developed. Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph fully utilizes the possibilities of a videogame world, and creates a universe complex enough to encourage sequels. And I actually look forward to those sequels.

John C. Reilly (Talladega Nights and Step Brothers) provides the perfect underdog voice of the title character, who was no doubt inspired by Donkey Kong. He’s a videogame villain – a tall man with spiked-up brown hairs, built like a gorilla with huge hands used for, well, wrecking. Ralph becomes depressed about being labeled the bad guy of his game, while the innocent citizen characters treasure the hero, Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock), who is controlled by gamers and fixes Ralph’s undoing.

Determined to prove his good nature, Ralph travels through the arcade wiring to different games, including “Hero’s Duty,” a Halo-esque warfare game involving shooting alien insects, and “Sugar Rush,” a racing game that looks set in the one Wonka room where Augustus falls in the chocolate river.

During his odyssey, Ralph crosses paths with other videogame characters from separate communities, original and old. Icons like Sonic, Pacman and Clyde the ghost, Bowser, Q*bert, Frogger and some Mortal Kombat fighters have cameos. Some new characters are Calhoun (the always spectacular Jane Lynch), a buckled down army Sergeant from “Hero’s Duty” who has more cojones than most of the male characters; King Candy (Alan Tudyk, Steve the Pirate from Dodgeball), the ruling tycoon of the candy world; and, my favorite, Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a zippy child who is given some of the best comedic timing in the film.

Unlike Rise of the Guardians, Wreck-It Ralph is a versatile animated feature that can be watched with high spirits by kids, and admired by their parents. First-time director Rich Moore knows what his audience wants and gives them a little extra. He has essentially created an exciting, complex universe that can be expanded throughout the years. I was a tad disappointed that Ralph didn’t visit more games and locations, but that can wait for the sequel, which I’ve already stated I look forward to.

Avoid This Activity

Look out behind you! It’s a scene from the trailer that’s not in the movie!

There is one incredibly alluring shot in this movie: the colossal image of the Paramount Pictures mountain logo, as a fleet of shooting stars scurries across the night sky to commemorate the company’s 100th anniversary.

Those stars are about as bright as this film gets – both in lighting design, originality and intelligence.

Calling Paranormal Activity 4 terrible is an insult to the eight-letter word; pronouncing its title is abusing the English language. This is an empty shell of a horror film that lacks distinctive characters, a tangible storyline, suspense, effort, artistic vision and aptness of thought.

As the fourth entry of a brutally drained series, PA4 not only beats a dead horse but axes off the head. The original PA was a breakthrough for the horror genre, refurbishing what The Blair Watch Project began a decade prior. Most importantly, the first film was an original concept and therefore frighteningly effective on its audience.

But that train has long since derailed.

Alex (Kathryn Newton, Bad Teacher) is the central victim this time around. Or is Newton herself the victim for signing on to the role? As mandated in the PA series, Alex carries her camcorder everywhere in hopes to capture proof that an entity lives in her house. Because of this, there are many vacant shots with nothing much happening except walking around the house. Half of the runtime could be cropped out and the movie would still have the same result. There are countless scenes that give Alex no reason for using the camcorder, except to convenience the plot.

Ben (Matt Shively, True Jackson, VP) is Alex’s conventional Hollywood boyfriend who resents the possibility of an entity; he would rather persuade Alex to flash him on a Webcam. Obviously he isn’t getting any; just disregard that these two are about 13 years old and watching them flirt is abominating.

And then there are Alex’s parents – who probably go on record as the most useless characters in the history of movies. May the great lords of cinema forgive the performers playing these pitiful parents who argue instead of respond to their daughter, even moments after a chandelier nearly lands on her. An empty sub-plot of the arguing parents adds zero dramatic effect and only prolongs the audience’s suffering.

There are some other characters involved, but why bother continue listing them? Evil henchmen in James Bond movies have made greater impacts in a film than these idiots. PA4 might have even benefited by having one of these henchmen in the lead role; at least the audience could laugh instead of restraining themselves to an emotionless state while watching this garbage.

Hollywood has a bizarre fetish for milking overrun horror franchises – Friday the 13th tacked on 11 sequels, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween each added eight, Saw added six and Alien added four. Paramount is now the proud new owner of a wasteful franchise. But nobody cares, since teenagers will always pay to watch other teenagers become disembodied by natural forces.

Someone needs to step up; someone must lead the charge in safely evacuating theaters of people who pay to see this atrocity. The simple act of paying to see PA4 disgraces the president on the bill.

This movie isn’t near the bottom of the totem pole. This movie isn’t the bottom of the totem pole. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the totem pole. The people involved in making this movie probably don’t know what a totem pole is.

Please don’t see Paranormal Activity 4. Even die-hard fans of the franchise should at least do the honorable thing and illegally download it. Or go see Sinister, which is still playing at Regal and is one of the best horror movies of the year.

Looper Doesn’t Waste Time

Old (Bruce Willis) and Young (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) Joe.

A man in a field determinedly waits for someone, glancing over his pocket watch and then raises a shotgun. A second man emerges, his face masked by a bag and his hands roped together. The first man shoots him.

The notion of time travel has provided some of most complex film plots throughout the years – The Terminator, Back to the Future and Groundhog Day, to name a few. Now there’s Looper, with a premise so inconceivable that director/writer Rian Johnson probably had blazing migraines penning the script.

This film serves as a labyrinthine trail through space and time for its characters and the audience, manifesting its own rules of time travel in comprehensible fashion. Looper doesn’t question the astonishment of time travel but cherishes it.

It’s the near future: Louisiana 2047. The man is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Premium Rush), and he’s a Looper – an assassin sent back in time to kill and dispose of his targets in the past. Joe narrates, in a noir-like tone, the pros and cons of the Looper life, which he mostly embraces. Injecting drugs and buying hookers, Joe solemnly accepts his murderous role in society.

Joe’s last assignment before early retirement arrives – the last person he wanted to eliminate. The older, future Joe appears (Bruce Willis, The Expendables 2), unmasked and boundless. They lock eyes in understanding, but the older Joe rebels and escapes. Younger Joe knows the penalty for losing a target. He reloads his gun and is more determined than ever.

The film diverts onto an unsuspecting path. It digresses into the story of how the older Joe became a target.

But what becomes fascinating is the dual perspective that is created – the audience understands what both men need to do, along with the consequences that follow if they fail. Should these men work together? Should they eliminate one another? Looper underlines these tensions, soaking the audience with suspense.

The director Rian Johnson (The Brothers Bloom) indisputably loves filmmaking. Looper is just another example of this, after his first two films Brick and The Brothers Bloom showed his earnest creativity. Looper is his best film yet because he has finally solidified his characters and doesn’t solely rely on tricks for success.

It must be noted how much Gordon-Levitt resembles a younger Willis in the movie. A viewer will watch the younger Joe and almost believe he’s John McClane in the future. Gordon-Levitt wore a prosthetic nose during shooting and studied Willis’ expressions and mannerisms so well that his performance turns into an embodiment of Willis. Is there any role that Gordon-Levitt can’t handle?

Strong supporting roles are filled by Willis himself, Jeff Daniels (Quad) as head of the Looper organization, Emily Blunt (The Five-Year Engagement) as a steadfast farmer and inevitable love interest for the younger Joe and Paul Dano (Ruby Sparks) as Joe’s co-assassin. All of these actors received adequate direction from Johnson’s script, which propels them to understand their characters and what’s at stake for them.

Looper slightly loses its balance by juggling a telekinesis sub-plot, which never really goes anywhere. But Johnson still manages to drive his story all the way home. He has fun filmmaking, and his films are a testimony to that. Johnson is certainly another recent and exciting independent filmmaker to watch out for who reportedly rejects Hollywood screenplays and instead favors his own. There’s so much to respect him for.

A Must-Watch Crime Film

Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal partner up for End of Watch.

Two cops bound to a life-defining comradeship. These officers bleed blue while shielding and serving the community and each other. They don’t only enforce the law – they coexist with it.

Simply put, End of Watch is the best cop movie of its time, and it’s one of the most original crime dramas ever told. Disguised as an off-the-shelf cop-buddy flick, Watch exotically hatches into a barbaric gangland epic. This film effortlessly projects its audience into the action, serving as nearly true testimony to what the real LAPD officers might actually do on an ordinary workday.

The opening scene says it all. Shot from the perspective of the police car dashboard, the camera pursues a reckless driver. Background dialogue is heard from officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal, Source Code) and his partner officer Mike Zavala (Michael Pena, Tower Heist).

After a galvanizing hunt through Los Angeles slums, the targeted car crashes and the two passengers open fire only to be unloaded on by the cops. This chase is the perfect beginning to the film and automatically sucks the audience into the perspective of the police.

Taylor and Zavala are the notorious hotheaded duo of their precinct. Taylor personally greets the audience on a handheld camera as part of his project for law school. He introduces Zavala and right away the audience comprehends the importance of the officers’ friendship. They often refer to each other simply as partner – not just Taylor or Zavala. They carry casual conversations during patrol about their love lives or lack thereof.

One day, their sergeant (Frank Grillo, Lay the Favorite) appoints them to oversee a new sector of neighborhoods occupied by the Mexican cartel. Taylor is impassioned to make a dent in this syndicate, much to Zavala’s dismay.

They meet the cartel ringleader Big Evil (Maurice Compte, Breaking Bad), who declares war on both of them. Taylor and Zavala ransack house after house in an attempt to discover any evidence to charge Evil and his satanic homeboys. The film manages to do so with as little action as possible and instead relies on old-fashioned suspense to work the audience.

What’s most striking about End of Watch is its relentlessness in simplistic storytelling. It relies on the pure relationship between two dedicated cops who have lives behind the crime scene.

End of Watch has flawless cinematography. Most of the footage is captured through Taylor’s handheld camera, which engages viewers rather than distracts them. The film knows not to restrict itself to pure Blaire Witch mode and uses conventional cameras outside of the handheld.

Third-time director David Ayer (Street Kings) knows this genreall too well. He penned premium police films in Training Day, S.W.A.T. and Dark Blue, while also screenwriting this film. Ayer has been an L.A. native since his teenage years and owns first-hand knowledge of the subject.

Ayer rested most of his film on the natural acting of Gyllenhaal and Pena, who handed in some of their best performances. Their bond is more or less believable, providing extra dimensions that undertone the whole film. The well being of Taylor and Zavala matters to the audience as much as it matters the characters. If something happens to one of them, the audience knows that the other is left in agonizing isolation.

This is as real as a cop thriller gets. There are a handful of scenes that are arguably preposterous but in the end, the audience can successfully suspend any disbelief.