By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 12, 2012 at 4:13PM
In a year full of big-name superheroes, the best film to take on the trope may have been "Chronicle," which had no brand names, a budget that would have struggled to cover craft services on "The Avengers," but was smarter and more original about what it would be like to be a kid with superpowers than almost any other movie in the genre to date. By using the found-footage format, director Josh Trank gave a new spin to scenes that are rote in other movies, like in one of the film's highlights, when the central trio (Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan and Alex Russell) learn that their powers have grown to the extent where they can now fly. After watching their first tentative, gleeful steps off the ground, Trank smartly cuts to the trio way up in the clouds, where they're doing what high-school kids probably would do if they had superpowers; dicking around with a football and paying no mind to the possibility that they might be on a flightpath. Which indeed they are, a jumbo jet tearing out of the clouds and knocking most of the party out, leaving DeHaan's Andrew to save his friends. It's both fun and thrilling, and with that camcorder conceit, it doesn't just make you believe a man can fly, it makes you believe you can fly.
Perfectly obnoxious in its approach and downright understandable in an audience's potential disgust of it, director Alex Ross Perry's "The Color Wheel" also garners a post-viewing leap in estimation due to its sickly appropriate climax. The road trip taken from Pennsylvania to Boston by narcissistic siblings Colin and J.R. (played by Perry and co-writer Carlen Altman) bristles with claustrophobic dysfunction, as both continually shirk any life ambitions to engage instead in bouts of bickering, miscalculated "humor," and petty insults directed at anyone crossing their paths. Towards the end of their journey to try and salvage J.R.'s remnants of a failed relationship, the two siblings, grown exhausted and ragged after a anticlimactic lovers' confrontation and embarrassing party fight, lie together on a couch, and thus begins a nearly ten minute unbroken shot as J.R. quietly begins to insult Colin's future. However, her feelings and desires in life slowly peek around the sarcasm she's permanently adopted, and since the viewer has witnessed over the film's previous 70 minutes the duo's rare comfort only with one another, a gradual realization as their faces inch closer proves a new context created, the viewer's expectations jarred, and some days later, a lasting appreciation for Perry's unpleasantly singular work.
The trust fund aging hipsters in "The Comedy," especially the picture's lead Tim Heidecker, are so inured to comfort and numbed by lack of responsibility that they have become indifferent, reckless and cruel hyper assholes. Such is the genius of this provocative examination of the white male at his worst. Hilarious and disturbing, the deeply desensitised fucktards of “The Comedy” are essentially the lost generation -- desperately in search of something that makes them feel alive. Hell, the picture could even be seen as a generational cry for help. And so the gang of restless, indolent slobs look for kicks wherever they can to simply survive. Their stupid-funny/frustrating arrogance marks the entire picture, but it we had to pick one scene to represent the tone of the film, it might just just be the hip-hop taxi scenes where these jackasses, perturbed with their cab driver for a lack of music in his car, start to rap about the fact that this ethnic man is not going to get a tip. Deeply infantile, intensely stupid, offensive and just plain wrong, it’s also kind of fucking hilarious as their joke just takes on a life of its own, completely apart from the driver, just to stave off everyday boredom. And it’s this kind of ugly challenge throughout that makes the picture pretty brilliant.
Of all the relationships Bruce Wayne has had throughout Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, none have been as important as that with Alfred, his most important father figure. As the man who raised him, and promised his parents to look out for the young man for the rest of his life, Alfred has grappled with Bruce’s desire to save Gotham even as it so very often comes at the risk of his own life. And in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Alfred reaches the limit of what he can stand by and watch Bruce do. With his body battered, spirit waning and public image still tarnished, Bruce is very much on the path of martyrdom early in the movie (and seemingly pretty much suicidal), something the world-wise Alfred recognizes all too well, and he will have no part of it. When he announces to Bruce that he can no longer in good conscience be with him -- and reveals at the same time the contents of Rachel’s letter from “The Dark Knight” as a last resort to get Master Wayne to move on from his plans to return as Batman -- it’s a crushing scene. Alfred fears hurting Bruce even more than he has already suffered, but he’s even more scared of what the end result will be when he returns to the streets of Gotham. His teary resignation might be the most emotional scene of the entire series to date, breaking apart the one constant in Bruce’s life that seemed unshakeable. Bruce Wayne has always been a loner -- a man on the outside -- but without Alfred, he faces Gotham one last time utterly alone, without his most trusted friend and ally. It's disappointing that Michael Caine isn't in the film more, but his absence truly hammers home what Bruce is up against.
Our recent reviews of “Django Unchained” don’t really reach much of a consensus, but where almost every writer agrees is that ‘Django’ is a big mess. That aside, it can be fun and much of that comes through the actors chewing through their lines. The one who does so with furious relish is Leonardo DiCaprio as the racist and malicious plantation owner Calvin Candie. A sickening figure, Candie is charming, courteous and superficially seems to have some compassion for his slaves, but the reality is he regards them lower than dirt and feeds them to dogs at a moment's notice. His frightening brutality just simmers underneath the veneer of his Southern gentleman facade and that spills over in a scene just before Candie unveils that he’s discovered Django and Dr. Schultz’s plan to rescue a slave (Django’s wife) from his plantation. So, before Calvin reveals his hand, he goes into a long diatribe about the negro skull and how certain parts of the back of the skull demonstrate how the negro is inherently submissive by nature compared to the white man. He demonstrates his point by pulling out a skull from a special box and explaining that it belonged to the slave who cared for him, his father and his father's father. He savagely saws into the skull, working his fury and hatred into every motion, ripping a piece of skull from the back to make his point. DiCaprio practically chokes on the lines, spitting them out while seething and staring at Django before exploding with rage and threatening to open the skull of his bride to see what’s inside. DiCaprio is a tornado in "Django Unchained," a force to be reckoned with, and as uneven as the film can be, we hope the actor drops the moody hero archetype for a while and takes some longer dips in the antagonist swimming hole for a while.
We can’t sing the praises of Russian master filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s third feature enough. It’s easily one of the best films of the year, and too few have experienced its many treasures. This moment, near the end, comes seemingly out of nowhere. We’ve mostly been tracking the titular lead character throughout the film, and at this point she’s done a very bad, irreconcilable thing to ensure that her grandson gets the money needed to get into college and avoid being forced into military service. As she has several times in the film already, Elena travels to her son’s broken down apartment building far outside of the upper class city apartment she shares with her partner. But as the good news is about to be delivered, we stray away from our protagonist turned antagonist and track the grandson in one beautiful very long, unbroken take as he joins up with some buddies, crosses the street and they pick a fight with another group of young ruffians. The brawl is brutal, visceral and because of the continuous take, feels like we’re watching this for real. DP Mikhail Krichman composes the shot beautifully, framing the young men in the foreground of the ominous nuclear power reactors in the distance, using gorgeous natural light right around magic hour. Touches like this are seeded throughout the film, and they strike the perfect balance of subtle social commentary with doom-and-gloom operatics (the omnipresent crow that follows Elena is another nice touch). Yes, the film is called "Elena," but Zvyagintsev never forgets the other characters. He weaves a stunning tapestry, giving small but vital moments to the other players. For this is a film about family, and the next generation may be more doomed than their forebears. (Watch this film, and the director’s first film, “The Return,” on Netflix Watch Instant. You will be glad you did)
Navigating her new quiet community with a concealed, impenetrable constitution, Francine (Melissa Leo) finds little to connect with during her post-lockup existence aside from the loving warmth offered by the nonjudgemental animal kingdom. But what starts as a kernel of tenderness as she adopts unwanted pets unfortunately only strengthens her aloof nature in regards to humanity, and her house swelling with animals (creatures she feeds by pouring random food onto the ground for all to have at) doesn't do her presence any favors. Still, filmmaking duo Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky never look down on her, even portraying her acquaintances as sometimes directionless and hollow in their existence (in one scene, Francine's friend walks into a house where a group of shirtless men are practicing the choking game for no particular reason). So where else can this lone, isolated figure turn to but the unconditional love of animals? This consideration leads Leo's character to volunteer at a vet, with the directors taking a documentary approach and offering a startling realism to these silent creatures getting operated on and, in some cases, being put to sleep. It's an unflinching, candid look at the fragility of life, and watching Francine console each animal during their sessions is damn near heartbreaking. The compassion she reveals in this environment (in addition to the directors' no nonsense approach) will leave any animal lover sobbing.
In October, Burton gave us "Frankenweenie," a feature-length stop motion monster movie based on a live-action short he had made at Disney while he was still toiling away in the studio's animation department, and it turned out to be the director's best film in years and years. While "Frankenweenie" is deeply sweet and in many ways one of Burton's most personal films to date, when it really soars is during the final act. Up until this point the movie had been centered around young Victor (Charlie Tahan), who uses his science know-how to resurrect his beloved dog Sparky. But as the movie builds towards its climax, several of his schoolmates hijack this technology to electrify their own pets, resulting in a sea of rampaging monsters – among them some "Gremlins"-like sea monkeys, a werewolf-y rat, and a giant turtle reminiscent of Godzilla (or, more accurately, Gamera). It culminates in Burton's most delightfully deranged third-act since "Beetlejuice," with these monsters taking over a county fair. It's genuinely funny and genuinely scary, beautifully photographed in black-and-white (and 3D), for maximum, gooey efficiency made all the more impressive because it's in a movie for kids.