27 December 2012

The Best of 2012

The 10 best movies I saw in 2012:

 Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, is shown in a scene from "Lincoln."
1. "Lincoln"

Steven Spielberg directing a film about our 16th president, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role—sounds like a slam dunk, right? Well, yes, it is, but expecting it to be great doesn't diminish its tremendous achievement.

Instead of being a biopic spanning decades, the movie is set primarily in January 1865, when Lincoln pulled out every political trick he could find to secure passage of the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery).

Day-Lewis fully inhabits Abraham Lincoln, bringing him to life in a way we've never seen before, whether he's delivering a passionate speech or telling one of his folksy stories. It's a performance of extraordinary power in a career filled with towering achievements. The supporting cast, including Tommy Lee Jones as the abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, is filled with many of today's best character actors.

This is the work of a restrained Spielberg, who allows the extraordinary performances to carry the film.

21 December 2012

Jack Reacher

Tom Cruise is shown in a scene from "Jack Reacher."

"You think I'm a hero? I'm not a hero. I'm a drifter with nothing to lose."

He's Jack Reacher, protagonist of the film of the same name, a former military police officer who now wanders the United States, regularly collecting his pension but leaving no other trace—no family, no home, no car, no driver's license, no clothes other than what he's wearing.

He's the star of a series of mystery novels by Lee Child (now at 17 and counting); "Jack Reacher" is based on the ninth, "One Shot," published in 2005. In the books, he's an intimidating physical presence—6 feet 5 inches tall, 250 pounds—not exactly what comes to mind when you think of Tom Cruise.

19 December 2012

Les Misérables

Hugh Jackman holds Isabelle Allen in a scene from "Les Misérables."

Let me put this out there right at the start: I don't "get" musicals.

Maybe I'm being shortsighted, but they just don't make much sense to me. I know the genre is no more artificial than any other, yet I can't help wondering how all the characters knows all the words, melodies and dance steps. (Maybe these are the original flash mobs, and the filmmakers left out the scenes of them planning their little get-togethers.) And I simply don't care for the music of most musicals, which probably is my biggest problem.

However, I can sit back and admire parts of "Les Misérables" without becoming remotely engaged in the material.

This is 40

Paul Rudd, left, and Leslie Mann are shown in a scene from "This is 40."

Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the married couple we met five years ago in "Knocked Up," aren't always 100 percent honest with each other. They aren't guilty of lying as much as they are of omitting—Pete eats an extra cupcake, Debbie enjoys an occasional cigarette, Pete misses a mortgage payment due to his floundering record company. Not all omissions are created equal.

But their love runs deep, feels real, and even as they endlessly bicker and see their very different interests pulling them apart, it feels as though that bond, a connection that is not rational or explainable, will see them through it—not in a way that is trite or predictable, but in a manner that says these people are right for each other, and smart and mature enough to figure out how to make it work.

"This is 40," from writer-director Judd Apatow, deals head-on with the issues of the transition from young adulthood to middle age, of marriage, of being a parent, of coming to the realization that responsibility is not something that will go away. And it does so in a way that is often hilarious and always honest.

18 December 2012

Life of Pi

Suraj Sharma is shown in a scene from "Life of Pi."

Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" has grand ambitions. It aims to be an epic tale of survival and wonder, filled with exquisite special effects. It mostly succeeds but falls short in one crucial area.

This is the story of an Indian boy named Piscine Patel, after a swimming pool in France. He adopts the moniker "Pi" after schoolmates notice the similarity between his name and a term for a particular bodily function.

Raised at a zoo and as a Hindu, Pi spends much of his childhood exploring Christianity and Islam in an effort to love and understand God.

15 December 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Jennifer Lawrence, left, and Bradley Cooper are shown in a scene from "Silver Linings Playbook."

Pat Solatano's (Bradley Cooper) life appears to be in shambles. After eight months in a Baltimore mental hospital, where he's been diagnosed as bipolar, he's lost both his job and his house. He lost his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), earlier—finding her in the shower with another man triggered the breakdown that sent him away. She now has a restraining order against him.

He comes home to Philadelphia to stay with his parents: caring, supportive Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), who is obsessive-compulsive, highly superstitious and a voracious gambler—a potentially nightmarish combination when he's watching his beloved Philadelphia Eagles on TV (he's been banned from the stadium for fighting).

Yet Pat is upbeat and optimistic. "Excelsior!" is his motto. He knows he can win Nikki back by bettering himself, which he sets out to do through a combination of physical fitness and reading the books on the syllabus of her high school English class.

13 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Martin Freeman is shown in a scene from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

There's no other way to say it: Peter Jackson has done it again.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is an absolute triumph, possessing all the magic, adventure and excitement of his landmark "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

With the "Rings" movies, Jackson crafted one of the great epics in the history of cinema. Large-scale filmmaking with unprecedented visual effects combined with a moving, intimate, human story of friendship, love, cooperation, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles and how even the people who seem the most insignificant of all have the power to change the world—all in a fantastical land that still feels like a place we might be able to visit.

With the three "Rings" films raking in billions of dollars worldwide and bringing home a host of awards (including an 11-for-11 Oscar sweep for the final installment, "The Return of the King"), all that's unexpected about "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is that it took nine years to find its way to the big screen and that it is the first in a trilogy based on that one book by J.R.R. Tolkien, published about a decade and a half before "The Lord of the Rings," that introduced the world of Middle-earth and the race of the diminutive, comfort-loving hobbits.

07 December 2012


From left, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren are shown in a scene from "Hitchcock."

Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps the most well known filmmaker of all time. Anyone into movies is in some way familiar with the Master of Suspense. Even someone who somehow has not seen one of his many classics probably recognizes his famous profile in silhouette or his slow, ominous, British-accented manner of speaking or maybe the theme music of his TV show, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

But for all his fame, we know little about the man himself. "Hitchcock," from director Sacha Gervasi ("Anvil: The Story of Anvil," 2008) tries to rectify that, giving us a peak into the relationship between Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), in 1959 during the making of "Psycho."

Coming off of "North by Northwest," the pinnacle and most extravagant of his "man on the run" movies, Hitch longs for a return to his filmmaking roots, when he wasn't weighed down by big budgets and bigger stars. He fixates on "Psycho," a novel inspired by real-life killer Ed Gein. Paramount Pictures executives are less then enthused about producing a picture of murder (including the death of the supposed heroine after only 30 minutes), matricide and crossdressing.