It feels odd to be in the position of having defend Pixar, a company who, for most of their existence, couldn't move for rave reviews and awards. But they're generally deemed to be going through a creative rough patch, with last year's "Cars 2" being followed by this summer's tepidly-received Scottish fairy tale "Brave." The film wasn't savaged like its predecessor, but most found it a middling-to-mediocre entry for the company, another sign that the honeymoon was over. But, while it might fall short of the transcendence of "The Incredibles" or "Up," it's a lovely, beautifully crafted film that seems to have been underestimated by many. Billed as the first film from Pixar to feature a female lead (as well the first from a female director, until Brenda Chapman was controversially replaced midway through production), "Brave" was dismissed by many as just another Disney princess movie, but part of the film's brilliance is the way it subverts it so completely. It really is a women's film in the best possible sense, focusing not on romance, or even adventure, but the difficult, complex relationship between a daughter (Kelly MacDonald), and a mother (Emma Thompson). And what was the last film you saw that took that narrative route at all, let alone in such a nuanced and moving way? The give and take between Merida and Queen, the way that they talk but don't listen, the way they gradually come to see each other's point of view, is worthy of a tiny indie rather than a huge Disney tentpole (thanks in no small point to vocal turns from MacDonald and Thompson, as well as a scene-stealing Billy Connolly, that number among the best in any Pixar film). It's a consistently surprising and unexpected film (indeed, we suspect the way it buried the lead in the marketing is one of the reasons it got such a hostile reception), with many, many pleasures, from the Miyazaki influence to the wonderful character design. It might feel quite modest in scale and scope compared to some animated films, but over time, I think it'll age much better than most.
At the risk of being fired by my editors, who both count "Rust And Bone" among their favorites of the year, I never quite connected with Jacques Audiard's latest. My anticipation levels are perhaps in part to blame; Audiard's "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" is one of my favorite films of the '00s, and I adore his "A Prophet" too, albeit with a few more reservations. And don't get me wrong, it's not that I hate "Rust And Bone" -- the leads, especially Matthias Schoenaerts, are terrific, Audiard shoots the hell out of it, has a great use of music, and a handful of truly memorable scenes. But despite all of that, I was disappointed. Given that his strengths have so far laid in depicting bruised masculinity (see previous leads Romain Duris and Tahar Rahim), it's no surprise that Schoenaerts is the stand-out, with Cotillard's Stephanie feeling underwritten, the character never really developed beyond "she lost her legs." Like "Silver Linings Playbook" (which I came close to picking for this slot), it's a familiar story given surface off-beat trappings that hint at something more interesting, but which ultimately give way to the more conventional backbone again (it's essentially the "fuckbuddies fall in love" tale we've seen more than a few times on screen of late). Here, it's more egregious, because Audiard and Thomas Bidegain's writing feels that much more contrived. The director's humanism is still intact for the most part, but the plotting -- the split between Ali and Stephanie, Ali's side gig installing security cameras getting his sister fired, and the near death of his son in the ice -- feels inorganic and, in the latter case, even somewhat callous (I'm always wary of a film that starts going to the lazy nerve point of putting a child in danger in order to show how much its characters have learned ). Ultimately, I walked away feeling manipulated and cheated. Perhaps I wouldn't have minded so much if so much of the rest of the film was so good, but as it stands, it feels like a minor misfire from one of my favorite working directors.
Every year, there’s a film like “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Audiences (and critics, with a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) were happy to give it a pass, because it’s “cute” or “quirky” or other such bullshit. But it's story and characters come off like like the lifeless creation of some Sundance Lab robot, strong evidence that too many American indies have become as factory-produced as big budget blockbusters. And that ending, oh boy, where to begin? How about, what the hell was that? Director Colin Trevorrow really goes for it in the climax, but damn if it doesn’t undermine the few strengths in the film. I thought I was watching a movie about a young woman (played by Aubrey Plaza, in danger of becoming a one trick pony) falling for a guy (Mark Duplass, admittedly solid) despite his being a little crazy. Everything seems to be going that way, until that god damn ending destroys what had been built up. Beyond the just plain stupid finale, there’s cliches around every corner of the script, and sub plots that come out of nowhere and never feel earned. I love a good low budget attempt at genre, but ‘Safety’ is a ruse through and through, showing how difficult it is to pull off.
If you trust The Playlist at all for off-the-radar film recommendations, then just stop here and go watch this gem. Avoid any information about it if possible. Throughout this slow burn relationship study, about a couple (wonderfully brought to life by Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) on a trip in the Georgian mountains, there’s an undeniable sense of tension. Something bad is going to happen. And when the moment comes, it’s unexpected, hilarious and changes everything. Director Julia Loktev gets the most out of the stunning landscapes and intimate character details, so when things go awry, the punch to the gut hurts, and lingers far after the credits roll. She takes her time, letting the film breathe. The moment I speak of is nothing more than 5 seconds of screen time, but it adds many layers to the film while also never falling into melodrama. It’s a simple film on the surface, but dig deeper and there’s a wealth of fascinating insights to chew on, most deliciously the roles of men and women in these modern times. Have things really changed all that much?
Overrated - “The Raid: Redemption”
After playing SXSW, Toronto and a number of other festivals to critical rapture, Gareth Evans’ “The Raid: Redemption” landed with far less power than one of its epic punches when it came to my quiet post-release viewing. Though its masterfully choreographed fight scenes had the fanboys pumping their fists, the rest of the film–which admittedly isn’t much of its running time–had me shrugging my shoulders. My jaw dropped at the numerous fights as a small SWAT team takes on a high rise full of criminals, but I didn’t ultimately care. Seeing our hero Rama (Iko Uwais) kiss his pregnant wife goodbye just wasn’t enough emotional ammunition to keep me invested in what could have been the best fight scenes from YouTube edited together into one movie. Apparently, this Indonesian action film is meant to be seen in an excited, deliriously sleep-deprived crowd at midnight, which is fine, but that doesn’t take away its needs to survive on its own merits. A comedy seen in a packed house can be buoyed by the laughs of the audience, and horror films do best when seen in a silent, darkened theater occasionally peppered by shrieks and gasps, but the theatrical experience should merely heighten a film, not justify its existence.
What’s that sound you hear? Julie Delpy’s real-life father delightfully keying a car on the streets of New York? Her sister Rose (co-writer Alexia Landeau) likening the name of Chris Rock’s Mingus to a sex act? The buzz of an electronic toothbrush being rendered forever unusable? No, that sound is me literally shrieking with laughter at Delpy’s sequel to her own “2 Days in Paris.” As a Francophile living in the Big Apple, perhaps I’m predetermined to like “2 Days in New York,” but it wasn’t the culture clash between the visiting French family of Delpy’s Marion with her adopted city and live-in boyfriend Mingus that had me nearly gasping throughout the film. Instead, it was the authentic chaos of a family visit and the interactions between Marion and Mingus that range from sexy to antagonistic, but always remain entirely natural. Delpy’s style as a writer and director follows Woody Allen’s at his lightest, and “2 Days in New York” is wispy as a feather. However, there’s a frenetic energy here that echoes the craziness of a family visit, and it doesn’t remain low-key like so many of its indie comedy brethren are content to do. This isn’t a groundbreaking or perfect film, and it’s unlikely to please Nora Ephron devotees with an entirely happy ending, but it’s an enjoyable diversion that will make you feel that much better–or that much worse, depending–about your familial relationships.
Underrated: "Sleepwalk With Me"
The undervalued films in 2012 list is long and includes Ry Russo Young’s “Nobody Walks,” “Ruby Sparks” (see above), “2 Days In New York" (also see above) and a lot of documentaries that people didn’t see. Regardless, I’m going to pitch my tent for Mike Birbiglia’s awesomely funny, sharp and well-observed relationship comedy “Sleepwalk With Me.” Thoughtful, hilarious and also low-key and melancholy, the stunted growth and rite of passage from adultlescene to actual adulthood is quickly becoming its own subgenre, but Birbiglia’s wry and self-deprecating semi-autobiographical tale of his commitment-phobic lost years is just so damn appealing, heartbreaking and also laugh-out loud funny with all its spectacular moments of failure. Yes, “Sleepwalk With Me” fared pretty well with critics, but damn, was it generally overlooked by moviegoers. Brilliantly mixing the comedian's REM Sleep Behavior Disorder anxieties with his sinking relationship and his ailing career, Birbiglia may be the next Louis CK in the way that he leverages the painful truth to be painfully funny.
I’ll say this. I sort of hate the term “overrated,” but whatever, let’s get on with it. With only a 55% RT score (whatever that means), one could argue loathsome girls-gone-wild comedy, “Bachelorette” was neither poorly or amazingly received in 2012. But a lot of noise came from the picture. It leapt onto the iTunes movie chart upon its release in September and broke some kind of indie record by racking up digital sales of $5.5 million. Clearly audiences were flocking to this movie at home to see what what the fuss is about. The fuss is that it’s abysmal, ugly and forgets that “raunchy” humor is also supposed to be entertaining, engaging and come with a least a modicum of a pleasing nature to work (see every popular and worthwhile raunchy comedy to date). But the unpleasant and nasty “Bachelorette” is bitter and acidic way that has zero substantive bite other than showing audiences that females too can be emptyheaded shitheads without much of a conscience. It's girls behaving badly and that’s it. PR for the film at Sundance insisted that calling it “The Hangover” of female comedies was doing it a huge disservice when in actuality, any comparisons to even the mediocre “The Hangover Part II” would be generous. How do you make the usually likable Lizzy Caplan, Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher seem like miserable/horrible people that you want to run screaming from? Put them in “Bachelorette.” 2012 in general was pretty dismal for the rom-com, especially those masquerading with a faux poignancy to them -- “Friends With Kids” and “Save The Date” were all almost equally shallow. But truthfully “Bachelorette” would be on my worst list if it weren’t for that fact that I haven’t really seen so many of the truly presumably piss-poor films of the year (the “Paranormal Activity” films, etc.)