It’s not unreasonable to be at a loss for words sometimes. What can you say when confronted with six minutes of world-class stuntwork that looks frighteningly real? Rama (one of breakthrough performance highlights, Iko Uwais) frees his brother Andi (Donny Alamsyah) from Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), a psychotic and extremely skilled fighter who likens firearms to takeout and relishes hand to hand combat. What follows is nearly six minutes of choreographed blows that look like the trio should have been six feet under after taking the first dozen knees to the chest. It’s punishing combat that delivers and then goes on and on, topping itself until a hair-raising finish. Take a moment to appreciate the precision editing as well, this is one for the ages.
As a whole, “Ruby Sparks” plays with this notion of control, of giving yourself over to someone or writing yourself in their image, or wanting to someone to just do what you ask. It resonates so well because anyone who’s lost control or identity in a relationship knows how frustrating and scary it can be. Zoe Kazan wrote perhaps the most terrifying illustration of this concept into her script, and then performed it to the highest level of emotional terror and total destruction. As Calvin (Paul Dano) sits at his typewriter, his words commanding Ruby’s actions and her degradation, he finally gets what he wants: total control, but it’s an ugly mess that neither one of them would want. Matthew Libatique’s low practical lighting and subtle handheld camera gives an air of horror to the scene, as it only deserves. Kazan’s uncontrolled tearful flailing is offset by Paul Dano’s still calculation, each strike like a blow, tears eventually streaming down his face as the tension builds to a fever pitch of emotional and physical violence. It’s a two-hander performance at a virtuosic level for these young actors, a real life couple. We’ll be seeing much more of them. And careful boyfriends, this is what happens when dreamgirls break down.
Would-be writer Martin (Colin Farrell) is a pacifist who is nonetheless compelled to write about the eponymous amount of killers, while best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) would rather see a full-blown display of carnage, which he proceeds to pitch with expected elation to both Martin and mutual acquaintance Hans (Christopher Walken). Writer/director Martin McDonagh allows Rockwell’s brilliantly spazzy delivery to dictate what’s actually going on during this graveyard shootout, cramming in countless action-hero cliches, addressing the matter of admittedly underwritten female characters, doling out no small amount of bloodshed, working in a subtle nod to Mickey Rourke bailing on the project, and delivering the glorious sight of Walken rising from the grave a la Dracula, a pistol in each hand. In a film that could otherwise be understandably dismissed as an “Adaptation” retread, this sequence is unrelenting gonzo bliss of the highest order.
Much like “The Fighter” David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” is loose and limber with a playful and naturalistic sense of comedy and drama that just pops with an intoxicating and winsome energy. And there’s a lot of great sequences in this genuinely crowd-pleasing (but not ingratiating) picture about family (the scene where Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper get into fisticuffs and wake up the neighborhood for one, or the coffee diner non-date), but if we have to pick one, why not the climax, the final dance sequence that caps things off? In the picture, the mentally unsettled Cooper’s trying to win his ex-wife back, and his equally damaged friend played by Jennifer Lawrence will assist him in his goal if he enters a dance contest with her. Somehow, their performance is roped into a potentially financially ruinous bet made by Cooper’s compulsive gambling father (De Niro), and so everything is riding on the dance scene. Using music by Dean Martin and The White Stripes (a hilarious jarring transition if there ever was one), the dance sequence is decent, then awkward and kind of terrible, but it’s also hilarious and celebratory. Russell’s camera dances along with this odd pair and their strange dance which is funny on its own. But perhaps the real magic of the scene is the reaction shots of their friends and especially Robert De Niro whose ever-worsening reactions to their inelegant and unorthodox dance is just pricelessly funny.
As has been discussed by many, the genius stroke that Sam Mendes made in making "Skyfall" was hiring his "Jarhead" and "Revolutionary Road" DoP Roger Deakins to shoot the film, resulting in probably the best-looking film of the year, and certainly the most beautiful Bond movie ever. The whole film is full of visual joys, from the greyish London landscape to the fiery skies of Scotland, but best of all is the way Deakins shoots 007's excursion to Shanghai. China's most advanced city has appeared in blockbusters before, but never like this; it's a sort of "Blade Runner"-ish near future neon dream, something that Michael Mann would screencap, print off and put on his wall. And things reach a climax in the astonishing pop-art brawl between Daniel Craig's Bond and Ola Rapace's silent assassin, played out in silhouette against LCD screens. Mendes seems to be influenced more by "Scott Pilgrim" than by "From Russia With Love" here, and it's a thrilling new take on the fight sequence for the franchise. Plus, the aftermath allows Berenice Marlohe's Severine to make one of the more memorable Bond girl entrances, he dress blowing in the wind across a skyscraper chasm.
Zal Batmanglij's strange, beguiling, breakthrough film, a low-budget sci-fi (or is it?) oddity about a pair of documentary makers trying to infiltrate what seems to be a cult run by a seemingly dying woman who claims to be from the future (Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script), has a number of memorable moments, but there's one at the mid-point that certainly numbers among the best written, best performed scenes of the year. In an attempt to get past the highly secretive protection around Maggie, Peter (Christopher Denham), who with his girlfirend Lorna (Nicole Vicius) is undercover as a new recruit to the group, has swallowed a tracking device to enable him to work out when they're being taken. But once they get there, they're asked to take part in a cleansing ritual, where they forcibly make themselves throw up -- something that would expose the bug he's just forced down his gullet. So he challenges her, only for her to expertly strip down his defenses and reveal a history of childhood abuse. The "Uncle Johnny touched me" backstory is woefully overused in cinema to lend meaning to things, but it's sensitively and surprisingly handled here, giving a powerful peak to a sequence that's tense, charged and beautifully performed by all concerned.
Love is complicated, messy, ugly, beautiful and more often than not, indescribable,and Sarah Polley captured it with raw perfection, in her underrated “Take This Waltz.” In tracking the dissolving relationship between Margot and Lou, played by Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen, Polley takes a simple running gag that becomes more devastating with each appearance through the movie. Perhaps borrowed from “Punch Drunk Love,” but landing with far more emotional weight here, Margot and Lou proclaim their love to each other by describing the horrific ways they would express it to each other (“I love you so much, I’m going to mash your head in with a potato masher.”) But by the close of the film, when Margot is as confused as ever, possibly even more lost and slightly more damaged than before, she seeks solace from her ex Lou. He too is still smarting and in pain from losing Margot, but when he declares, “I love you so much I want to scoop out your eyes with a melon baller” it communicates both the deep well of feeling he still has for her, and the impossibility that things can ever be the same again. When Margot cries, so do we, and no other film this year so accurately captured the emotional landscape of two people who are so perfectly unsuited for each other.
"Don't you think she's a little young?" Jason Clarke asks his superior Kyle Chandler in Kathryn Bigelow's dense hunt-down-Osama Bin Laden procedural, “Zero Dark Thirty.” "Washington says she's a killer,” he responds. It’s one of the key lines in the picture and sets up Jessica Chastain’s Maya character as a relentless and unwaveringly committed investigator in the search for the world’s most-sought-after terrorist. Without spoiling too much -- you do already know how this story ends, but read on at your own risk -- when the mission is done, the Team 6 Navy Seals return the body to base and then immediately get to work on filling away all the intel they’ve also seized from the Osama compound. While Chastain slowly and warily approaching the body is moving, it’s her reaction later on as she boards a plane home that’s more telling. The character begins to weep. But the disturbing element is that it’s not out of joy, but rather a recognition that after spending 10 years doggedly chasing the same subject, she now no longer has a direction in life.
-- Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Oliver Lyttelton, Christopher Bell, Drew Taylor, William Goss, Katie Walsh, Mark Zhuravsky, Charlie Schmidlin, Erik McClanahan