The 10 Best and Five Worst Films of the First Half of 2012
10. Goon -- Goon, written by Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg and directed by Michael Dowse, is the unholy bastard child of Rocky and Slap Shot, with the dynamite mechanics of Major League thrown in for good measure. It's not so much a movie about hockey as about my favorite part of hockey, the enforcer. It's hilarious and violent, a sweet love story punched in the face with a knuckle dragging sports blowout, with profanity fountaining out like a shook-up soda can. From the opening shots of blood splattering ice as a tooth slowly tumbles to the rink, asskicking abounds, and from opening buzzer to final bloody dukeout, Goon pummels you with gleeful abandon and you're left dazed and smiling. Albeit short a few choppers.
9. Jeff Who Lives at Home -- Low-key and sweet, there's a quiet poignancy to Jeff, Who Lives at Home that takes an extra beat to flower, but at a short 83-minutes, the film manages to be modest and emotionally satisfying, if not somewhat meandering. The meandering, however, almost seems by design, as though to illustrate the random, illogical and seemingly insignificant nature of the very twists and turns that lead to the climactic events in our lives. The movie doesn't exactly beat you over the head with substance, but the simple theme resounds.
8. Safety Not Guaranteed -- Safety Not Guaranteed isn't what you'd expect it to be. It's a bittersweet comedy that flirts with time travel, but it's not straight science-fiction or rom-com. It resolutely refuses to tie up a couple of its plot lines, yet the story is still satisfying and full. Most rewardingly, it's a dramatic comedy built on relationships that feel earned, nuanced, occasionally uncomfortable, and completely relatable. Director Colin Trevorrow, in his first feature, mines a series of relationships for small-scale humor and poignancy, and the script from Derek Connolly (also his first feature) has some wonderful moments that reflect the awkwardness of young adulthood and the way we all eventually have to reckon with the choices that we make. The film is light and often breezy, but it's anything but insubstantial.
7. Magic Mike -- Soderbergh hits just the right mix of light and dark here, letting the club scene inhabitants glam it up while also showing just how empty or horrible some of them turn out to be. The setting helps him get away with it. Women tend to visit strip clubs or revues like these as larks, looking for sexual entertainment with high levels of performance and a sense of self-awareness of what they're doing. Men, on the other hand, tend to patronize strip clubs for slightly darker sexual reasons, looking to inhabit a fantasy instead of experiencing it. (There's a reason that Chippendale's is a punch line while strip clubs for men are regularly busted for prostitution.) Yet in focusing on the goofiness of the male-revue world, Soderbergh finds its inherent, beautiful tragedy: Mike is a pitiable man, but no one thinks to pity him. He's a smart man, but no one wants to listen. He's a small timer who thinks he's got it made, and there's a fantastic journey to be had in watching him learn the truth and decide what to do with it.
6. Moonrise Kingdom -- More than anything, Moonrise Kingdom finds Wes Anderson returning to the conflict that must haunt his soul: the battle between the fantasy we wish we lived in and the reality we can't escape. The characters in the film are caught between these worlds with no clear way to reconcile them, though that doesn't mean they don't try. In a lot of ways, they succeed, too. Anderson's always liked these little moments of reconciliation and humility, but they feel here sweeter than usual, more enjoyed once earned. When Sam and Suzy cling to each other, or when Walt and his wife (Frances McDormand) mourn the self-inflicted wounds of a rocky marriage, or when a beleaguered Captain Sharp extends a hand of friendship to an insecure boy: these are real moments, and they sting with beauty. Moonrise Kingdom calls out to a place we've all been but have mostly forgotten -- that storm-wracked land between childhood and adult life -- and finds Anderson working through familiar problems as only he can. It feels like so much else he's made because everything he's made has been wholly his, and we're lucky enough to be invited on the journey.
5. The Hunger Games -- It's rare that a director can successfully adapt a novel -- especially one with as big a following as The Hunger Games -- in a way that both thrills new audiences and satisfies the textual purists. Gary Ross, however, knocks it out of the outdoor arena, extracting brilliant performances from his cast, perfectly rendering the words from the page into images on the screen, and capturing the exact tone of the book: Somewhere between sickly grim and supremely entertaining. The Hunger Games does more than live up to the hype; it makes the hype an afterthought.
4. The Raid: Redemption -- Every genre of movies has a pantheon. The films that define, redefine, reinvigorate and blow the roof off. In the realm of action flicks, we're talking about movies like Die Hard, The Matrix, The Killer, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Aliens. You've read our breakdown of the best action films of all time, right? (No? Shame on you!) Well whenever it is that we decide to revisit and update that list, I have no doubt that The Raid will show up very high. The Raid is simply a stunning action film. While there are character beats and a story that offers some twists and turns that are generally obvious well before they hit, it is first and foremost an action film. The action is the star and the action offers a breakout performance.
3. The Avengers -- The Avengers is fun. It's genuinely enjoyable, engaging and frequently wickedly funny. Whedon's stamp is all over it -- sarcasm reigns, giggle-worthy peanut gallery commentary, and a couple of scenes which bordered on outright hysterical (featuring, surprisingly, the Hulk, who seems the least funny character) are spread generously throughout, to lighten up the gloom and doom of this pending apocalyptic invasion. It's got all the highs (and lows) of a Whedon project, but feels tighter and more focused, even in the wake of its inherent absurdity, than many of his previous endeavors. It's helped by the fact that each actor nails their roles, coming together to create a real sense of camaraderie. Even Johansson succeeds in showing more than pursed lips and cleavage, and gets her equal share of quips. More importantly, Whedon has clearly grown since his "Buffy" days, something we learned with "Firefly" and Serenity, but something that's on full display here. The humor is mature, fitting with the complexity of the interwoven characters, and one-liners are few, but when they're spoken, they don't feel artificial.
2. The Cabin in the Woods -- Cabin in the Woods is a movie that you don't want to know much about, and I don't want to tell you much about it. Before the screening, co-writer/producer Joss Whedon told the crowd, "Enjoy it and then keep it to yourself." The first part was easy, because this is a fun movie, probably the most fun I've had in the theater since Drag Me to Hell. The second part, that's much trickier, because I have to tell you something more than "you'll dig it, trust me." But you will dig it. Trust me.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild -- The film plays out in a style that draws on southern gothic, fairytale, and social realism, peopling its world with great faces and great piles of beautiful old crap littering shots that's art-directed to perfection. The film moves along at a breathtaking pace, with breath-taking action scenes (for instance when Hushpuppy dynamites a dam with sticks of explosive taped to a dead crocodile) alternating with quieter, well-painted scenes of family and community life. The father-daughter relationship is unorthodox but rings true throughout, as the daughter constantly has to second-guess her fickle father and his rough ways, and endeavours to earn his respect by showing strength and resolve at all times. In the main role, Quvenzhané Wallis gives a completely wondrous performance, and is filmed adoringly in rough, grainy shots and luminous close-ups.
There is so much more to say about the film -- what a perfectly realised, wonderfully imagined entity it is, how it feels fresh and exciting in every shot, how its plot and its metaphorical, allusive style of storytelling are perfectly matched. But I think I'll stop gushing and end with a plea for everyone who loves films to go and see this delightful, vibrant movie.
The Five Worst
5. The Raven -- Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, feeling melancholy and leery as I trashed this quite bleary mashup of the works of Poe (in theory) and 19th century folderol that hath been done much better before. I wish I spent the night napping, seeking the filmmakers and violently slapping, instead of viewing this crapping, crapping on an author that I adore. But now I'm pissed for evermore.
4. This Means War -- Oh, Hollywood, you scamp. If this is what you thought we wanted for Valentine's Day, you were so wrong. You were Forgetful Husband With Gas Station Chocolates wrong. You were *sshole Boyfriend With Heart-Emblazoned Condoms And No Lube wrong. You f*cked up. You're sleeping on the couch. Because in trying to be everything to everyone, the terrible mess that is This Means War is neither action-y enough for the bros, romantic enough for the ladies or funny enough for anyone with two brain cells to rub together. If the movie itself and the slick, bombastic ad campaign surrounding it looks familiar to you, that's because the screenwriter, Simon Kinberg, also penned that movie where Angie met Brad. But Mr. and Mrs. Smith (a not great but completely fun movie) benefited not only from the real life sizzle and pop of its leads, but also the nuanced direction from Doug Liman, who is a master at blending emotional subtext with action. This Means War, on the other hand, was directed by McG who has, throughout his short and completely unvaried career, shown a penchant for guns, half naked chicks and plot holes you could drive a flaming semi through.
3. Piranha 3DD -- Piranha 3DD is awful, soulless and sleazy. It fishes with dynamite. Sure, you'll catch some fish, but they're all ripped apart and everything stinks like smoke and blood and dead flat fish. None of the charm remains from the first film. It's the difference between ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue and "Girls Gone Wild." For most people, both things are just "WOOO! BOOOBIES!" and that'll be enough. But for people who have all their chromosomes, it's the difference between artistry and pulling off their tops.
2. That's My Boy -- The moral we learn at the end of this fucking felch of a fable is that the best of all possible worlds is quitting your responsibilities, giving everyone the finger, and hanging around a sketchy strip club with has-beens. But to get there, we have to roll around in grandma fucking, sticky tissues, and hitting people over the head with bottles. It doesn't even have the courtesy to be fresh dogshit, it's freezer-burned and then reheated dogshit from all their other terrible comedies. How bad is That's My Boy?. Rob Schneider isn't even in it.
1. Battleship -- Hasbro has bro formula down fucking pat, and these films are as shoddily assembled as the crappy plastic toys they hock. Big metal aliens in big metal ships attack one of the American Armed Forces, and it's up to a general force of one extremely hot chick, an ethnic, and a clean-cut all-American to save the world. People almost say fuck, things explode, and America wins. So out plops Battleship. If you loved Transformers, congratulations, you'll probably fucking enjoy this too, because it's basically Bathtub Transformers. Only it's seventeen hours long and takes too fucking long between giant explosions. Director Peter Berg doesn't overcomplicate things so much as use too many words to just say BOOM. You don't have to say you want "two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun." Just say Big Mac. We understand.