A bunch of blockbusters here, and even a couple of the smaller films still had wide releases. Probably It’s a Disaster is the only unknown. Coincidentally, it’s the only film of these six I wouldn’t recommend. Sure, I’m a bit down on Gatsby and Moonrise, but they’re not bad. Well, Gatsby is kinda bad. Yeah, nevermind. I wouldn’t recommend that POS, either. Spoilers exist, so beware.
Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2012): I don’t come all over the place when a new Tarantino film is released, mostly because as much as I enjoy his deftness at executing scenes of seat-gripping tension, I’m not as down with the extreme bouts of violence—which is personal taste. Django suffers only from having a false ending—the first big shootout in which Schultz and Candie are killed could and should have been the film’s apex, but instead we have a strange interlude wherein Tarantino himself shows up as some bumpkin whom Django (Jamie Foxx) outwits, only to return to Candieland to reclaim his wife and finish off the leftovers. I don’t think this launched any sort of real discussion about slavery, nor is it the first major motion picture about it. But who gives a shit? A slick spaghetti western whose brutality is relentless, an all-star cast playing off each other in pitch perfect fashion, and an impeccable balance between comedy, drama, and action, Django is another entry in Tarantino’s already-powerful catalog.
The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 2013): I didn’t see this voluntarily, and my expectations couldn’t have been lower; Luhrmaan directed what is probably my least-favorite (and what I would honestly consider one of the worst) film ever made, the insufferable Moulin Rouge. And there are myriad flaws in this B-flick: Jay-Z’s hip-hop soundtrack in the Jazz Age, the not-so-subtle placements of the green light and watching eyes of optometrist T.J. Eckleburg, the added frame of Nick Carraway’s descent into madness, and the casting of Tobey Maguire. Despite these, the film is surprisingly watchable, more or less faithful to the novel, and visually gripping if somewhat overblown. DiCaprio is a good fit for Gatsby, an aloof and enigmatic shadow yet charismatic and alluring. Dumb, but probably the best adaptation of Fitzgerald’s classic, which isn’t saying much.
Hitchcock (dir. Sacha Gervasi, 2012): Anthony Hopkins is hands-down brilliant in his portrayal of the Master of Suspense as he struggles to create one of his masterpieces (Psycho) and deal with his failing marriage. Most engaging is the film’s ability to sway your sympathy—should you root for the drink-addled Hitch? his possibly cheating yet underappreciated wife, Alma (Helen Mirren)? his seemingly ungrateful actress, Vera Miles (Jessica Biel)? or his new actress, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson)? And while all these dramas converge beautifully, we get the extra layer of Hitch’s sanity coming under question as he has progressively worse hallucinations featuring Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the man whom his film is based on. At turns dramatic, wonderfully comedic, and unsettling in only the way Hitchcock could do it, this tribute to his career and personality is a great film. That is, of course, if you don’t mind wild departures from reality—I don’t, because it’s a fucking movie. A near-perfectly executed movie to boot.
It’s a Disaster (dir. Todd Berger, 2012): I watched this dark comedy because it co-starred David Cross and because the story sounded interesting, but I was amazed at just how unfunny it was. The situation is dire—dirty bombs have been detonated in major cities across America, one only twelve miles from the residence in which the film takes place—and the characters—married couples who meet annually and whose time together is fraught with tension—are largely unlikeable. Given their personal and practical situations, the players act pretty much as expected, and while comedy is often funny because it’s true, there isn’t a whole lot laughable about kinda shitty people meeting a pretty shitty end. Mild and tamed to an interminable degree, It’s a Disaster lives up to its namesake.
Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson, 2012): Anderson’s fondness for symmetry and complementary colors is one thing—that’s aesthetics, and like anyone else I like films to look nice. But that symmetry intensifies certain uncomfortable undertones, namely his bizarre nostalgia for pre-racial, patriarchal societies. Really, how many black guys can you count in his films? How about a minority that wasn’t in a position of servitude? Make of that what you will. What’s hard to deny is that Anderson often features charismatic leaders controlling a horde of hapless minions willing to follow his every order—Max in Rushmore, Zissou in Life Aquatic—and the alienation of those who don’t belong to some hierarchy—Margot and Eli in Royal Tenenbaums. In this feature, it’s Edward Norton who’s the authority figure in proto-military getup, going on a wild goose chase after young Sam Shakusky escapes the scout camp to be with his love, Suzy—and consequently are isolate because of their unwillingness to submit. As the film progresses and we get closer to the heart of the Boy Scout high command, we see an increasingly rigid structure reminiscent of militaristic, totalitarian regimes. Anderson subverts these visuals with the quaint story of two love-struck pre-pubescents fleeing, and the warm-hearted nature of Moonrise Kingdom—like all Anderson films—saves it from being too calculated despite his overwhelming control. Let me be clear that I’m not calling Anderson or his art fascist—he’s clearly not, not even close—but there are subliminal fascistic tendencies in his films, ones that celebrate the absurd in unsettling ways. I enjoy Anderson well enough—and I thought his newest flick, which actually features fascism, was fantastic—but this may be my least favorite of his films that I’ve seen, maybe because of the story, maybe because both Willis and Norton (especially Norton) refuse to actually act. And yet I didn’t dislike it. Go figure.
Source Code (dir. Duncan Jones, 2011): From the director of Moon, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Colter Stevens, a US Army pilot seemingly selected for a top-secret, special program in which he can re-live the last eight minutes of a specific individual aboard a train set to explode. It is with repeated efforts within these eight minutes that Stevens must solve the mystery before an even bigger dirty bomb goes off in Chicago. Sounds like a bit of high-concept sci-fi, eh? No way they can pull it off without humongous gaps in logic, right? Impossible to squeeze in an interesting human drama, no? Thing is, Duncan Jones can, and does. While time travel and alternative timelines necessarily have flaws, none are so glaring so as to ruin the movie (something the thrilling Inception almost had), and Gyllenhaal—whose career I feared for once he disappeared after Donnie Darko—is perfect as the paranoid captain, dealing with several crises at once. Vera Farmiga is also brilliant despite 99% of her appearance being on a monitor. A wonderful, wacky sci-fi action/thriller, and a second great effort by the British director.