Friday, February 01, 2013

Movie trends and actors that stood out in 2012

It was a strong year for movies in 2012, with the caliber of Hollywood's output a bit higher than usual. Instead of doing a traditional best-of list, I want to explore the trends and actors that were most prevalent in 2012.

Actors who were everywhere (in a good way)

Last year was a breakout year for two actors: Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Both actors were well established before 2012, but with four diverse films each, they raised their statures in big ways.

Tatum, who up to this point was largely dismissed as a pretty, but stiff actor, showed unexpected growth. Although I didn't see "The Vow" and "Magic Mike," he revealed surprising grace notes in the indie action flick "Haywire." It was "21 Jump Street" that seemingly came out of nowhere. This comic spin on the 1980s cop drama gave Tatum a chance to show off an unforeseen flair for comedy. It was the most relaxed he's appeared on film and could point to a new direction for his career.

Gordon-Levitt, a former child actor, spent a decade honing his skills in dark, indie dramas like "Brick" and "The Lookout." "(500) Days of Summer" brought him back into the mainstream in 2009. In 2012 he appeared in small, but crucial roles in two of the best films of the year, "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Lincoln," and starred in "Looper," a mind-bending slice of science-fiction, and "Premium Rush," a chase film featuring bike messengers in New York City." "Looper", one of the more ambitious films of 2012, is an intelligent, dark and challenging time travel film that offered Gordon-Levitt an excellent showcase. "Premium Rush" is not nearly as ambitious, but it is an example of pure suspenseful action fun.

Superhero movies

For the last decade or so there has been a flood of new superhero films each summer and 2012 was no exception with three top notch examples of the genre.

"The Amazing Spider-Man" sent the lucrative "Spider-Man" franchise back to square one with a new cast (Andrew Garfield as the new Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Emma Stone as Peter's love interest, Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Peter's surrogate parents and Rhys Ifans as the villain), and director (Mark Webb). What seemed like nothing more than a shameless cash grab actually turned out to be a film written, performed and crafted with care. More films, amazingly enough, are welcomed.

"The Avengers" brought together an all-star list of superheroes including Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the culmination of a series of films that kicked off with 2008's "Iron Man." Writer/director Joss Whedon pulled off the tricky feat of juggling all these characters and giving everyone their due. Whedon's script was genuinely witty and character driven rather than action driven. Tom Hiddleston is also terrific fun as the villain Loki.

Writer/director Christopher Nolan's completed his Batman trilogy with "The Dark Knight Rises." Nolan's Batman films have taken a different approach than most superhero films by taking a relatively real world approach to the material. The tone is brooding and intense on an epic, nearly operatic scale. "Dark Knight Rises" is a deeply satisfying conclusion that is both emotionally resonate and truly thrilling. Kudos also to Anne Hathaway for reinventing Catwoman in a fun and dynamic way.

Films starring children that didn't pander

I have been complaining for years that recent movies starring kids are too condescending to their young audiences, but 2012 had a surprising amount of films centered around children that dealt in real emotions.

Writer/director Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" offered an awkward and sweet exploration of young love. Full of Anderson's signature dry, quirky humor, the film also was tender and honest. Anderson got performances from his young leads (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) that felt completely unforced.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a rare film that shows the world from a child's perspective and manages to captures a youthful sense of wonder and awe. Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis received an Oscar-nomination for her natural performance as Hushpuppy, a girl living a ramshackle life with her father in the "wet side" of a levee in an unspecified part of the Southern delta.

“The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” a fantasy film about a couple who magically grow a perfect son in their backyard, is blessed by another genuine child performance. Young CJ Adams gives a performance that isn’t cloying, overly cute or precious and the film around him, despite the premise, never becomes sappy.

Genre bending

The year also had its share of films that refused to play by the rules. Whedon's "Avengers" made big money, but he also wrote and produced the smaller "Cabin in the Woods," a subversive take on the horror genre. In the vein of the "Scream" series, "Cabin" twists genre conventions to wring out big laughs building to a conclusion that is audaciously over-the-top.

Martin McDonagh's "Seven Psychopaths" features gangsters, hit men, a struggling screenwriter and dognappers weaved together into a film that is equal parts gruesome, wacky, philosophical and macabre. It is a compellingly strange film marked by fine performances from such wonderfully idiosyncratic actors as Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell and Sam Rockwell.

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino takes on the Western genre as only he can in "Django Unchained." Similarly to his "Inglourious Basterds," "Django" is a revenge fantasy set in the pre-Civil War South with a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) getting bloody retribution. It is often a difficult film to watch featuring language and visuals that can be hard to stomach, but Tarantino presents it all with his trademark panache. His ear for clever dialogue remains as true as ever and Christoph Waltz (who was so good in "Inglourious Basterds") remains an ideal vessel for its delivery.

Surprisingly enjoyable sequels and prequels

"The Bourne Legacy," a sequel without the titular main character, shouldn't have worked at all and yet, writer/director Tony Gilroy found a way to center a film around a new character (played by Jeremy Renner) that still felt a part of the world established in the previous three films. "Bourne Legacy" runs congruent with the actions of "Bourne Ultimatum," the third film in the series, making it less a sequel or prequel and more a parallel-quel. Renner's strong central performances and the presentation of some compelling ideas keep the film engaging.

After the flat "Men in Black 2," "Men in Black 3" was the last film I'd expect to turn out as good as it did. Coming 15 years after the first film, "Men in Black 3" injected new energy into the series by sending Will Smith's alien-busting Agent J back in time to partner with a younger version of his partner Agent K (Josh Brolin doing hilarious and spot-on impression of Tommy Lee Jones). The film also has a twist toward the end that adds surprising poignancy to the whole series.

"Prometheus," Ridley Scott's prequel to his own "Alien," was visually one of the most compelling films of 2012. It had a more cerebral tone than "Alien" and asked more questions than it provided answers, but it features a stellar performance by Michael Fassbender as an overly curious android. It also includes a scene that nearly matches the gruesome "chest-bursting" scene from "Alien," you know if you're into that sort of thing.

On a more modest scale of entertainment, "Journey 2: Mysterious Island" is by no means a great film, but works as goofy, lighthearted entertainment. Plus where else do you get to see Dwayne Johnson sing "What a Wonderful World" while strumming a ukulele. Sometimes you've got to just enjoy the simple pleasures in life.

Click here for more thoughts on the films of 2012

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