Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler
Criticwire Grade: B+
2012's winner of The "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" Award for the Most Potentially Traumatic Kids Film. Some of that has to do with the film's nominal subject -- a zombie invasion of a suburban town -- but more of it has to do with the film's powerful messages about the dangers of bullying, scapegoating, and mob mentality. "ParaNorman" was beautifully animated by the stop-motion artists of Laika Studio, and shamefully ignored by the public, a sin that will hopefully be rectified with time; as "ParaNorman" proves, mistakes rarely stay buried forever.
In a year of movies with great opening scenes, including "Flight," "Holy Motors," "Skyfall," and more, "Oslo, August 31st" may have had the very best. Recovering drug addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) awakens in a hotel room with a woman. He silently gathers his things and walks to a nearby forest, where he finds a lake, fills his pockets with rocks, and walks into the water, ready to kill himself. Agonizing seconds tick by as Joachim's Trier's camera passively observes the surface of the lake, and a faint trickle of air bubbles. Finally, Anders swims back to the surface, gasping for air. But if he's cast off the literal weight that was weighing him down, he's still burdened by metaphorical baggage. He heads into Oslo for a job interview and the chance at a fresh start, but as he bumps into old acquaintances and makes a few new ones, he keeps returning to the thought that pushed him into that lake: What if it's too late to fix things?
The title of "The Sopranos" creator David Chase's directorial debut already feels like a cruel joke -- in its second week of limited release, "Not Fade Away" ranked 17th in per-screen average, earning just over $54,000 at the box office ("Zero Dark Thirty," by way of comparison, earned more from just one of its five screens, than "Not Fade Away" did on all of its nineteen). With time most certainly not on its side, obscurity seems a sad, foregone conclusion at this point; an ironic end for a movie about a talented band that struggles for years to secure a big break that never comes. Something tells me, though, that"Sopranos" fans will eventually find this deeply personal and superbly told film, and revel in Chase's storytelling chops, his pitch perfect ear for dialogue, and his ingenious use of popular music to evoke time and place. Dead-end New Jersey ennui hasn't looked this good since, well, "The Sopranos."
12. Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Directed by the Duplass Brothers
Criticwire Grade: B+
“Everyone and everything is interconnected in this universe. Stay pure of heart and you will see the signs. Follow the signs, and you will uncover your destiny.” -- Jeff. Inspiring words, even if they come from a pothead (Jason Segel) who lives in his mother's basement and who can barely scrape himself off his couch and away from his bong to fulfill her one birthday wish: to go buy some wood glue in order to fix a broken kitchen cabinet. Jeff's odyssey to the store will lead him along an unexpectedly enlightening journey; following his personal credo (cribbed, obviously while high, from M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs") he discovers that everything really is connected: the wood glue, the name "Kevin," Jeff's brother Pat (Ed Helms) and his troubled marriage to Linda (Judy Greer), and the brothers' still-festering grief over their father's death. They all add up to the best and most mature film to date from Mark and Jay Duplass.
A bitterly divisive and toweringly ambitious movie: six stories set in six time periods, but just one cast, with actors taking on multiple roles in multiple races and genders. The Wachowskis and Tykwer sometimes wear their themes a little too heavily on their sleeves, and the stunt casting probably works about as often (Halle Berry playing a white woman in 1936 Scotland) as it doesn't (Tom Hanks as a Cockney gangster in 2012 London). Still, even with the filmmakers' blunt handiwork, I found this movie compulsively watchable and surprisingly inspiring. Here is an challenging, uncommercial three hour treatise on why it's important to make challenging, uncommercial art; to speak when others want to silence you. That the characters occasionally talk in new age slogans is irrelevant -- what's important in the Wachowskis and Tykwer's view is the bravery of the act of speaking, not the words themselves.