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Safety Not Guaranteed
Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni
Safety Not Guaranteed
A fictionalized story born from a real classified ad, Safety Not Guaranteed had every reason not to work. Besides its abnormal origin, it also had a first-time feature director and writer as well as two leads that, while unquestionably talented in their established fields, had never done anything requiring this kind of delicate balance between comedy and drama. To say there was a thin line between success and failure would be an understatement, but everyone involved in this powerful indie walked the right side of the rope all the way to its inventively beautiful finale. Safety Not Guaranteed is the perfect blend of fantasy and reality. Don’t worry. You’ll make it through just fine. Ben Travers
Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
If audacity alone were a gauge for a film’s lasting aesthetic power, this would be Citizen Kane (or as of 2012, Vertigo). Indeed, the tricky triumvirate of Lana and Andy Wachowski (or Matrix fame) and Tom Tykwer (of Run, Lola Run) have delivered an unquestionable work of art, a true revision of what films can be and what filmmaking can create. Using their multicultural cast in equally obtuse manners (men play women, white play Asian, etc.) they present a parable about identity, about how life through the ages is interconnected and intertwined. Call it fate. Call it destiny. Call it insane cinematic overreaching, but no other film in 2012 went to the lengths this one did, and we couldn’t be happier. Bill Gibron
Rust and Bone
Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Corinne Masiero
Rust and Bone
Marion Cotillard might seem the one to watch in Jacques Audiard’s melodrama, Rust and Bone. She is the movie star, after all, playing a character who suffers a shocking injury and an emotionally convoluted road to recovery. But as her cohort in pain, Matthias Schoenaerts makes the deeper impression. Together, they create a deeply etched study in punishments and limits, in what the body and the soul can endure.
Both these damaged spirits spend the rest of the film trying and failing to latch onto some kind of forward momentum. Their pairing seems less an occasion for healing than masking pain. Stephanie, her eyes hollowed from lack of sleep and too much medication, looks dead to the world, while Ali is so mired in his roundelay of dead-end jobs, violently carnal one-night stands, and an ill-advised stint as bare-knuckle fighter that he’s barely aware of how fast he’s also spiraling toward oblivion. Chris Barsanti
Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale
In a battle of film directors, to pit Joe Carnahan against Ang Lee doesn’t seem like a fair fight. Since gaining notice with the solid Narc a decade ago, Carnahan’s career has stalled with visually kinetic but narratively hollow films like Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team. Lee, on the other hand, has enjoyed critical adoration and been showered with directing awards from AMPAS and the DGA, among others. For their efforts in films released in 2012, we could compare the two men for tackling similar subject matter.
Carnahan’s The Grey and Lee’s Life of Pi are both survival pictures, stories of man versus animal, and cinematic inquiries into God’s will in life-or-death circumstances. Quite unexpectedly, Carnahan emerges with the better film. As a 3D oceanic spectacle, Life of Pi sets a new standard for computer generated imagery and visual effects. Yet The Grey, comparatively colorless and often dark or snow-blind, creates a more lasting impression by refusing to dilute the existential and philosophical questions at the heart of its physical endurance tests. Mis-marketed as another Liam Neeson action hero vehicle in the recent tradition of Taken and Unknown, The Grey is more like Gus van Sant’s Gerry on ice.
Lost and abandoned in the Alaskan wilderness, wolf killer Ottway (Neeson) and his fellow oilmen survive a plane crash but face many perils in their attempt to stay alive. The Grey is revealed to be not so much a film about how to hold onto life, but about how to come to terms with death. So yes, we stay entertained as Ottway fights wolves and as Pi fights a tiger, but The Grey’s ideas about loss, faith and God’s intervention are much more profound and likely to generate meaningful discussion than Pi’s audience friendly religious pluralism. Thomas Britt
Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald
Adaptations are such a dicey prospect nowadays, because there is a transparency to the film industry like never before. People know the difference between great art made in tribute to great art and a pure cash grab. Anna Karenina finds a new way to frame the classic Tolstoy novel, using a theater setting, but refuses to get in its way by “modern-ing” it up.
Aided by solid performances from Keira Knightley (the queen of period pieces) and Jude Law, Anna Karenina looks flashy and bold, but remains extremely traditional. It’s a high-wire act that very few could pull off, but director Joe Wright hits the right notes almost the entire way through. While it’s a tad infuriating to see an epic like Anna Karenina forced into one film while The Hobbit lasts a mighty three, Wright and co. handle the material with aplomb and produce something that looks polished and accomplished, and professionally puts to the screen some of the greatest words ever written. Steve Lepore
Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
It’s no mean feat to successfully adapt Victor Hugo’s epic novel to a beloved Broadway musical, let alone transpose said musical to the big screen without disintigrating into a stinking pile of Roquefort cheese. Director Tom Hooper successfully captures the angst of France’s revolutionary era and the alternating pain and hope of the nation’s destitute his version of Les Miserables. Perhaps the most intriguing facet of Hooper’s production is that his actors sing on-camera, forgoing the sweetening of a sound booth and allowing the full range of emotion to spill out onto the screen along with the lyrics. Both Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman exemplify Hooper’s vision with gut-wrenching performances as impoverished single mother Fantine and reformed convict-turned-mayor Jean Valjean, respectively. Lana Cooper
Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels
At the core of every sci-fi film is that nexus that asks “what if?” However, the delineation between a great sci-fi film and something as awful as In Time is the expansion of the story and affected characters surrounding the scientific possibility. Looper is probably the best science fiction film to come out in recent history that escalates a fairly typical notion of time travel into a mind-bending ride that doesn’t rely too heavily on action-movie effects—preferring instead to focus on the ramifications of life choices, regret, responsibility and sacrifice and how these themes are interconnected amongst its central three characters (two of which are the same person). It isn’t as overblown as Inception, nor is it as oversimplified as Total Recall. Looper never loses itself in its plot devices, but never forgets it’s a science fiction film. Enio Chiola