At the beginning of 2012, I made a list of what I thought would be the best movies of the year. (My formula for success: equal parts good character development and explosions.) Now that the year is over, as is my custom, here is my analysis of how those predictions went:
1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 65%). This was my most anticipated movie of the year, and it doesn't disappoint. There seem to be some reviewers who expected it to be the same tone as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but longtime readers know that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit almost twenty years before its sequel, and that it was of a much different style. The Hobbit was written a single book instead of a trilogy (although the movies have been stretched out into a trilogy by supplementing them with other materials), and it is much more narrow in focus. rather than being an epic tale with the fate of the entire world hanging in the balance, The Hobbit is really the story of one individual, Bilbo Baggins, and the adventure he finds himself on. Furthermore, parts of it are much more lighthearted than anything in The Lord of the Rings. Yes, there are hints of the epic struggle to come, especially in some of the new background material that was added to stretch the story into a trilogy, but there is a different feel to the film. It also takes a while to get started, with much of the first hour taking place in Bilbo's home, rather than on the journey itself. To a less patient audience, one that needs immediate adrenaline gratification, it may be annoying, but to me, this is delightful - it is a storytelling treat, one of my favorite books come to life. Indeed, it was a delight just to be back in Middle Earth again, something I thought would never happen after the first trilogy wrapped. If it wasn't quite as good as the first Lord of the Rings movie, it wasn't far behind, and it set up the rest of the series nicely. I saw it with my brother-in-law on opening weekend and I want to see it again in the worst way. In fact, it's the only 2012 movie other than The Avengers that I would say is worth seeing multiple times in the theater.
2. The Avengers
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 92%). Absolutely awesome - best movie of the year! I rarely see movies more than once in the theater, but this one I saw four times. And I wish I would have seen it more: it's still good on the small screen, but having watched it twice now at home I miss the audience reaction to certain scenes! Was it perfect? No, far from it. But it was entertaining through and through. Joss Whedon's dialogue was crisp, painted with broad enough strokes to keep the audience engaged and understanding what was going on in a very complex storyline, yet pointed enough to add hints of real character and motivation. If you had seen the other Marvel movies, it added something, but you didn't have to have seen them. If you had read Marvel comics for 20 years, it added even more, but you didn't have to have done that either. And Whedon's brilliance was that he made it work on all those levels without alienating any of them. A case in point to how brilliant I thought the whole thing was: one of my favorite subtle things in the movie was one scene in which Captain America is helping Iron Man out with a repair on the Hellicarrier. Whedon absolutely nails the character's personality as established in his first solo movie, expands on it and strengthens it. Whedon wisely has Cap without his trademark shield in this scene, and it allows us to focus on Cap being Cap. Among other things, he fearlessly leaps from platform to platform 10,000 feet above the ground, grabs a machine gun from the enemy and returns fires like the soldier he is, and even without his shield charges head first into enemy fire without a second thought to pull the lever to save Iron Man. And the entire movie is filled with multidimensional details like that: stuff that works as pure action and as character development, and usually as humor and plot development as well. Are we all on the Whedon bandwagon yet? Good!
3. The Dark Knight Rises
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 87%). I'll just say it: this film wasn't as good as I thought it would be. I didn't expect it to be as good as The Dark Knight, but I did expect it to be as good as Batman Begins, and it just wasn't. It was the weakest of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. I know it's being talked about as an Oscar contender and all that, but let's face it, that's all Hollywood politics. The simple fact is that Nolan had the chance to make a better film, and he botched it with plot holes and missed opportunities. You'll notice, though, that I still have this listed as "FULL OF WIN." And it is. As frustrated as I am by some elements of the film, others are just hands-down incredible. Bane is a terrifying villain in the scenes where he is used well, the cinematography is probably Nolan's best to date on a Batman film, and many of the performances are dazzling, including Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle ("Catwoman"). Taken as a whole, the trilogy is a rousing success, but this is definitely the Return of the Jedi of the franchise. A cool ending, but you can't but feel like there were a few too many conveniently placed Ewoks along the way.
Result: MIDDLING (Tomatometer 73%). This was pretty high on my list, and right after I saw it I was determined to give it an "EPIC FAIL" because the plot was such a muddled mess. But you know, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see it again. And when I saw it on sale for $9, I asked my family to get it for me for Christmas. So yes, I now own a movie that i once swore was awful. What is wrong with me?! Well, what is wrong with this film? It is very slow paced, for one thing. And it makes no sense. It sets up one hundred plot points and pays off exactly zero. And all of the characters do the exact opposite of what you would think a sane character would do in the same situation. And the robot can't seem to do simple computation. I mean, some of these errors had to be put in on purpose right? It's crazy. And the more I thought about it, though, the more I started to dig just how crazy it all was, this movie that made absolutely no sense. Also, it is incredibly beautiful: the cinematography and special effects are amazing, even if the pace is languid and the story is like a dozen bad sci-fi scripts got shuffled. Finally, there are major hints that it is a prequel to the first Alien film, but there are actually inconsistencies with that film, so that's still more crazy unanswered questions. I absolutely can't recommend this train wreck. But I absolutely can't look away either.
5. John Carter
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 51%). This is a great movie that had a horrible marketing campaign. it is as simple as that. Yes, maybe the director could have tightened things up a bit, cut some of scenes that were there just to set up a sequel and reduced the running time slightly, but that's just nitpicking. This was a great film, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1917 classic A Princess of Mars. If you didn't place that name, Burroughs was the creator of Tarzan, and his science fiction series about Mars was nearly as popular at the time and has influenced everything from Buck Rogers to Star Wars to Avatar. Why none of that was mentioned in the marketing is beyond me. It also baffles me that the marketing never mentioned that director Andrew Stanton was responsible for two mega-blockbusters: Finding Nemo in 2003 and WALL-E in 2008. Instead, the film was given a very non-descriptive title (who is John Carter?) and commercials that didn't really show what the film was about either. It's no wonder no one went to see it, and that those who did were confused about what they were seeing. Don't believe the (lack of hype). This is a charming movie. It's a period piece, retaining the original novel's 19th century setting and steampunk charm, and there is a lot of drama as well as action. You have to pay attention and let the story develop, but this movie pays off: an entire new world springs to life, and it is both magical and very organic, very believable. It is a shame a sequel may never get made, because this is a world I would very much like to visit again. (The perfect title for this film, by the way, would have been John Carter and the Princess of Mars. I mean, seriously, how hard is it for Disney to think of using the word "princess" in the title of a movie based on a book with "princess" in the title? Anyway, then they could have used John Carter and... for all of the remaining films in the series.)
6. The Amazing Spider-Man
Result: MIDDLING (Tomatometer 73%). As far as superheroes go, Spider-Man has always been close to my heart. I was disappointed with the Tobey Maguire version, and really wanted to like this movie more than the last ones. And there were a lot of things that I did like better. Andrew Garfield, for one, was a much better lead. They made Peter Parker a teenager, and a go-getter genius, and gave him a sense of humor, all of which were great. They started with his real first love, Gwen Stacy, instead of Mary Jane Watson, and they appropriately cast the delightful Emma Stone in the role. (Kirsten Dunst was horribly cast for Mary Jane.) I feel like if they would have started with this cast to begin with, they would have made the first Spider-Man movie as the best superhero movie of all time ever. Instead, though, they were in the awkward position of having to tell the origin story again in short order, and so they played around with it, and it cost them. Many parts of the story felt stale or hackneyed or just plain wrong most of the time. And the main villain, the Lizard, was kind of a letdown. So overall I don't think this movie holds up. It's OK, but hard to justify on its own merits. I do really like Garfield and I have hopes that now that they are through with the origin story, they'll be able to tell a dynamite second act in the sequel. But mostly I wish that Sony would have just called it quits and let the rights to Spider-Man go back to Marvel Studios so that we could have gotten him in The Avengers. [UPDATE: I bought this cheap on DVD and it went down very smooth on a second viewing. Garfield and Stone were dynamite. I'm really looking forward to the sequel.]
7. Men in Black III
Result: EPIC FAIL (Tomatometer 70%). OK, so the word on the street is that this one "wasn't as bad as Men in Black II." I'm sorry, but that doesn't inspire me with confidence. I haven't seen it, but from the people that I trust, my sense is that there are a couple of worthwhile scenes, a really good performance from Josh Brolin, and some fantastic retro alien costumes. I'll eventually see it for that stuff and maybe I'll even raise it to "MIDDLING" when I do, but somehow I feel that Will Smith exists only to torment me now. [UPDATE: I take it all back, Will! I take it all back! Yes, MiB3 wasn't as good as the first one, or as good as Looper, but it was still a good movie. It far exceeded my low expectations - enough so that I am actually willing to eat crow and move it all the way back to "WIN."] What should have been on my list: Looper (Tomatometer 94%). Now this is the time travel movie that should have been on my radar all along! I really didn't have a clue what this was about when i went to see it, except that it had time travel in it. Surprisingly, I found that it was more of a gangster movie than a science fiction one, and it asked some tough questions about morality that really lingered with me. I liked it.
8. The Bourne Legacy
Result: EPIC FAIL (Tomatometer 56%). The most concise review I read about this was that it spent too much time trying to link itself to the past movies in the franchise with Matt Damon and not enough trying to establish itself as a new franchise, with a new lead actor. What should have been on my list: The Hunger Games (Tomatometer 90%). I thought this was going to be another Twilight type movie for tween girls, then a friend of mine saw it and said it was actually good and I followed his advice and saw it, and I'm glad I did. It does probably skew a bit toward the younger crowd, but only because the protagonist is younger. And it's a brilliantly told story; at the end of the day, that wins me over.
9. G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Result: INCOMPLETE (Tomatometer M.I.A.). Wow, the studio had a release date set for this movie and dropped a bunch of dough advertising it and then suddenly pulled it and decided to delay it until 2013, ostensibly so they could post-convert it to 3D, but rumor has it they were doing extensive re-editing. I've seen a few new commercials recently, but they have been decidedly mixed. I'm going to call this one "EPIC FAIL" right now and leave it off my 2013 list. [UPDATE: They finally released it in 2013 and I was wrong: it was great; it should have stayed on my list!] What should have been on my list: The Expendables 2 (Tomatometer 66%). After a dismal first outing, the "Action Stars of the '80s" reunion movie tour tweaked the formula, brought in Jean-Claude Van Damme as the main bad guy, and hit the sequel out of the park. Who would have thunk?
Result: FULL OF WIN (Tomatometer 92%). I loved Daniel Craig's first outing as James Bond, Casino Royale, but his second one was awful. (Even the name was boring: Quantum of Solace.) So when he guaranteed the third one would return to form, I was ever-skeptical but hopeful. It did. The funny thing about Skyfall is that it is both a modernization of 007 and a return to his roots. It drops numerous references to Bond's past, especially to the Sean Connery glory years. And yet it updates the mythology, turning Bond into an almost Batman-like character in a way. In fact, in many ways Skyfall feels like Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy condensed into one movie and played in reverse: James Bond Rises / James Bond vs. the Joker / James Bond Begins. (After you've seen the movie and look back at the narrative structure, that will make sense.) In any case, while it is a little long, it's a great film. There are great performances all around, but special mention must go to Judi Dench as M.
11. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
Result: EPIC FAIL (Tomatometer 17%). I've said it before, but I'll say it again: how do you take a character that cool and blow it? Oh, right, hire Nicolas Cage to play him. What should have been on my list: Chronicle (Tomatometer 85%). This "found-footage" superhero film was surprisingly good. The found-footage format itself is past its fresh date, I think, but director Josh Trank used it well to tell the story of three Seattle high school kids who inadvertently gain superpowers and then deal with the aftermath. It was thought-provoking and explored consequences that you don't normally hear about in superhero films. Executives at FOX were so impressed, they hired Trank to helm the big-budget remake of The Fantastic Four, due out in 2015.
12. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Result: EPIC FAIL (Tomatometer 35%). What can I say - it was a long shot. What should have been on my list: The Cabin in the Woods (Tomatometer 92%). This was a great, twisted take on horror films. It was a blood bath, but not scary in the traditional way - instead, it was a really clever concept that turns the whole idea of the horror movie upside down. I recommend it if you like horror films, but only if you're not afraid of leaving horror behind when those mind-blowing twists come.
Bonus Wins: There are a few splody movies that I haven't yet seen that I'm going to go ahead and put in the "FULL OF WIN" column anyway. First is Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (Tomatometer 89%). From everything I've heard, it captures that trademark Tarantino blend of stimulating dialogue, mind-melting twists and shocking violence. If you like Tarantino, you should like this one. Also, Dredd (Tomatometer 77%) starring Karl Urban was all but ignored in the theaters, but actually got great reviews. It's a futuristic dystopian cop movie based on an obscure comic book. (If you remember the awful Sylvester Stallone version from 1995, don't worry - this is nothing like it.) Finally, Argo (Tomatometer 96%), directed by Ben Afleck, is supposed to be quite a thriller and is getting a lot of Oscar buzz. (If it lives up to the hype, this may finally let me forgive him for Daredevil.)
So there you have it: five winners, four losers, two in-between and one that never saw the light of day. Batting average: 55%.
Which just goes to show you never can tell what's going to be good until you actually see it. Still, that won't stop me from speculating about the movies of 2013 in my next post...