Script Doctor Eric’s Great Movie Challenge

19Feb13

I’m participating in Script Doctor Eric’s “Great Movie Challenge,” in which readers list and rank the 2012-released movies they saw for a chance to win fabulous prizes.

Turns out I saw a bunch of movies, thanks to a few helpful babysitters and Netflix streaming (and, I suppose, by poor box office resulting in a quicker turnaround into home viewing capabilities).

I’ve submitted my list, but I have a few other thoughts to share in this, a list with more words.

Most Enjoyed:

1.) Moonrise Kingdom: My favorite movie of the year. A clinic on writing a character at the peak of his or her powers from the first line and then exploring. I said a little more on it here.

2.) Lockout: So much fun. The winner of the “most delightful surprise” award as well as the “movie I most pushed on people” award. No pretension, no fat, just a fun action movie. I’m considering checking out more of the Luc Besson collection, though I don’t want to fool myself; the premise of “saving the president’s daughter from a space prison in which an insurrection has just taken place” will be hard to beat. And to “Lockout’s” credit, the script does so much of the heavy lifting. It’s kind of fantastic as a sample of running with a premise.

3.) Bernie: Interesting characters and relationships go all the way; even though his first appearance took me out of the movie, Matthew McConaughey turned in a great performance.

4.) Argo: I didn’t realize how much more I valued this movie until comparing it with others like it. Exciting. Since the Academy Award nominations have been released, the line on “Argo” is that Ben Affleck was “robbed” of a Best Director nomination. I disagree. Even though I value the movie higher than any other nominated film (and I expect it to win), I don’t think there was some sort of “Anti-Affleck” conspiracy at work. I think it’s a victim of a few things: 1.) good direction often means nobody can notice you directing at all, and I think Affleck did just that, too well to get anybody to notice; 2.) the script is really good and – as with “Lockout” – does a lot of the heavy lifting; 3.) I imagine Affleck is in good “snubbed director” company along with Tarantino, Bigleow and a few others. In fact, “Argo’s” subject matter is so generally similar with “Zero Dark Thirty’s” (i.e. Americans must infiltrate a dangerous Middle-Eastern territory to complete a difficult mission) that the two may have cancelled each other out. More on this when we get to “Lincoln,” whose Best Director nomination makes more sense.

5.) Life of Pi: There are some stiff sections with the Adult Pi and his writer friend, but they might only feel stiff when compared to the lyrical gorgeousness of the rest of the movie.

6.) 21 Jump Street: Covered before. And winner of the award for “Shouldn’t Have Been This Good.” Helped by a lot of positive choices (such as making them friends instead of rivals).

7.) The Pirates! Band of Misfits: Delightful, and Henry’s second in-theater movie experience.

8.) Django Unchained: Covered before. Too long, too much, and a lesser Tarantino, but as I thought more about it, that still means it’s one of the most memorable movie experiences of the year. Can Skyfall say that? No, it cannot.

9.) Haywire: The power of effective casting in carnet. Soderberg has been experimenting with this verite style for a few movies now (going all the way back to “Ocean’s 11” even). This was just plain good.

10.) Celeste & Jessie Forever: Another “just plain good.” Realistic funny people, an interesting, but not impossible situation. Who knew? And it confirmed my new favorite character: Drunk Rashida Jones (see also “Parks and Rec” for further fun examples).

11.) Lincoln: Should get knocks for being such a talky political chamber movie, but Spielberg can make anything seem cinematic, even if it’s not. And THAT’s how you get a Best Directing nomination. “Argo’s” subject and script seem to be inheirently dramatic, so the amount of work a director needs to put in seems to be less challenging (even if, in reality, it’s actually MORE challenging). But to make something like “Lincoln” feel cinematic when it’s really just other people doing stuff and talking shows off Spielberg’s directing skills. In lesser hands, it would have been a nap. On the other hand, it’s still not even in my top 10 because with all of those heavy hitters, the expectations for a 600-foot homerun are there. It’s probably unfair to expect a “Raiders”-type synergy of greatness from one of these super-team movies, but there it is.

12.) Silver Linings Playbook: Charming. My only gripe is the pre-finale scene where the Hollywood Plot shows up as though Donald Kaufman wrote it. But other than that, I enjoyed it very much.

13.) Beasts of the Southern Wild: Also charming and contains one of the most striking poetic images I saw: Hush Puppy’s imagined polar ice cap collapse.

14.) Queen of Versallies: good documentary about hubris, making the largest house in the country when they cannot REALLY afford it.

15.) The Dark Knight Returns Pt1: I’ve covered this before. I missed the narration, but it was suitably gritty; special points for the voice acting, finding new takes on old material.

16.) Hope Springs: Not the coolest or wackiest movie in the world, but there’s something sort of nice about watching two A-List pros (Jones and Streep) doing what they do best.

17.) Perks of Being a Wallflower: lots of clichés, but sincere clichés, so it worked.

Flawed Goodness:

18.) Zero Dark Thirty: – Maybe hampered by history, but this felt less like a story and more like a string of events. A string of talky events that kept going for 2.5 hours. I don’t know how much the movie benefited from starting where they did, including the events they did, or anything. It just felt like a bunch of stuff that happened.

19.) The Dark Knight Rises – I’ve covered this a lot as well, but my new frustrating discoveries include 1.) There were no characters, just talking means-to-an-end. If you think about it, the original inception for Bane in the comic books was the same way, and this movie followed suit. That’s why character motivations feel so strange – they’re just there to move the story to the end; and that leads me to 2.) I think I hate the whole Nolan-Batman series because of this movie. Or at the very least, it’s illustrated best what has annoyed me for three movies. I’d still watch “The Dark Knight” because it is the most stand-alone and has the added benefit of never ending, really. It just keeps heightening and heightening. But in the light of “Rises,” and with the knowledge that this is a trilogy – a singular story – the structure starts to feel less inspired and more like the “Star Wars” prequels. Yeah, I went THERE.

20.) The Avengers – I’ve also covered this one. Lots of clever dialog, but also TOO MUCH of clever dialog. It seemed like superpowered characters broke down walls to have conversations.

21.) Skyfall – Blowing the cover for British Secret Agents would be a huge deal in the real world, but it seems like small potatoes for the James Bond world.

22.) Dead Season – a small horror movie a friend of mine starred in. Hampered by a low budget, but effective enough.

23.) The Hunger Games – I suppose this is the most exciting story about a girl taking a nap in a tree ever filmed, but that’s about all that makes it memorable.

24.) Friends With Kids – One that didn’t make Eric’s list, but watched nonetheless. There’s something there, but it’s awfully contrived. As a non-miserable (I hope) parent of a toddler, I’m a little offended at this movie’s portrayal of all new parents as eternally miserable. Also, weird ending in more ways than one.

25.) Les Miserables – In a year of fan service, this was one of the guiltiest culprits. “Surprises” that don’t feel like surprises end up leaving me cold (I’m now going to “spoil” the movie, even though there isn’t anything to really spoil: the moment I’m thinking of the most is end, when Collette and her husband learn that Jan Valjean saved him from the revolution-gone-bad. This should be a major moment, but it’s not – for me, anyway – because I didn’t know Collette didn’t know this. Why wouldn’t Valjean tell them? According to my wife, it’s because he ran into Javert that night so he expected to get found out; and Valjean “is so noble” that he wouldn’t take credit for that). Whatever the case, I think it’s sloppy storytelling and clumsy filmmaking to “reveal” to a character something that we, the audience, already knew and didn’t know it wasn’t well known to everyone else. At the instant Collette is learning this information, we are learning that Collette DIDN’T know. And WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE? There may be a line early on where she doesn’t think Valjean is that great a guy, and this “revelation” (to use the term loosely) turns her around on him… but I always got the feeling Collette at least loved Valjean very much, so what’s at stake. Scout learning that Atticus is awesome, this is not.

Just Not Good:

26.) Promised Land – Another late addition, and I could have ignored it. It’s got some story conventions better suited for comedy, and a few bits that are kind of so well written that they’re bad.

27.) Trouble with the Curve – Just a mess. Sloppy, hacky, confusing.

28.) Casa de Mi Padre –In the absence of movies inspired directly from SNL characters, they made this, which should have been a 5-minute sketch. I couldn’t make it all the way through.

29.) Snow White and the Huntsman – Had a fighting chance, but they blew it; didn’t even have the sense to use the tools they set-up in the movie (ie Snow White can talk to and control nature) to help them defeat evil.

30.) Prometheus – Another one I’ve covered before. Needless complications and pontifications about the meaning of life. And robots. And useless twists. And weird CGI. And lacking logic.

The Worst:

31.) The Bourne Legacy – When Ernest Hemmingway said, “Do not mistake motion for action,” I’m sure he had this kind of thing in mind. It’s running and jumping and killing for… what? And if I never see another movie where government officials concentrate and yell in a room full of monitors, it’ll be too soon.

Ones I Haven’t Seen, But Would Like To:

The Master, The Amazing Spider-Man, Men In Black 3 (time travel!!!), Flight, Amour, Brave, Wreck-It Ralph, Hitchcock (even though I kind of think it’ll be terrible),

Ones I’m Actively Ignoring:

The Hobbit (I’ve had the opportunity to see it twice for free, and I’ve passed both times),

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