1. Argo (2012)
Written by Chris Terrio | Directed by Ben Affleck
My most anticipated film of 2012 and — for the most part — it didn’t disappoint. The great buzz, the high accolades and bushels of awards are all well-deserved. Argo is an extraordinarily well-made thriller from an actor I’ve always enjoyed watching and a director whose career I’m very excited about. Ben Affleck stars as a CIA agent who formulates a risky, convoluted plan to rescue six American hostages from Iran in the late 70’s. It’s one of Affleck’s best performances and I’m surprised we’re not seeing much acclaim on that front. Of course, he may be a better director than he is an actor, but that shouldn’t take away any appreciation for his sensitive portrayal of a man who puts his life on the line for his country.
There’s a lot to love about Argo. The cast of greats is a major highlight (I’m a sucker for massive ensembles of Hollywood’s best character actors, and Argo features one of the best casts I’ve seen in a long time). Affleck takes this subject very seriously and you get the sense that he and his team did their homework. The details are remarkable and the final credits sequence drives that home when we are shown comparisons of locations and persons and their on-screen counterparts.
If I’m going to nitpick about one thing in Argo, it is Affleck’s decision in the third act to rely on too many “saved at the very last minute!” plot devices in which our heroes escape from certain death by use of miraculous timing on more than one occasion. Argo then started to look more like a slick Hollywood thriller and less like a serious docudrama. It’s not a fatal flaw by any means but it did take me out of the experience for a little bit.
Otherwise, for a well-oiled high quality piece of entertainment, one cannot go wrong with Argo. It’s the kind of film I can recommend to just about everyone I know. A-
2. Killer Joe (2012)
Written by Tracy Letts | Directed by William Friedkin
What a delightfully fucked up movie. Of course, the scene that generates the most dialogue on Killer Joe is its infamous “fried chicken” scene (no spoilers here), but the film is so much more than that. It’s a twisted, intense white trash thriller about murder, insurance money and trying to not get in the way of individuals who have immense power over you. Emile Hirsch is a sad sack who hatches up a brilliant plan to have his mother murdered so that his sister (Juno Temple, a terrific discovery) can claim the insurance money. Thomas Haden Church (in arguably his best performance) is Hirsch’s father and gets reluctantly involved, who then eventually drags his new wife (Gina Gershon, ditto) in on the scheme. They hire a cop who is a killer on the side to do the job. Matthew McConaughey plays Joe, a sleazy, manipulative contract killer who never performs a job he isn’t comfortable doing. He’s careful, he’s methodical, and he has no boundaries. He’s also a guy with urges in which he satisfies with maniacal glee, making for some very uncomfortable (and oddly compelling) viewing.
A few things I adore about this film. First, I love that some of the major characters don’t even speak or show up on-screen at all. The writing is clever and sneaky that way. Second, there’s no limit to the depths of depravity showcased in Killer Joe. It’s not about how far the filmmakers are willing to go, but about how these twisted acts truly define the characters and their motivations. Of course Sharla (Gershon) opens the door naked from the waist down. Of course Joe likes ’em really young. Of course Ansel (Church) has no clue what goes on behind his back (his reaction to some incriminating photographs are priceless). The fried chicken scene is simultaneously incredibly fucked up and yet makes complete sense to the people involved.
Killer Joe features the best career work by almost everyone involved. Director Friedkin has done incredible work in the past, but this is the most assured and loosest effort of his storied career. I’ve already mentioned how I’ve never seen Church or Gershon better than I have seen them here, but McConaughey is the real star of the film. His focused intensity is amazing to watch. I always knew he had the talent to pull off this kind of role, but thought he just never had the right material (or the motivation) to show us. 2012 will be a very difficult year for him to top (he just nailed it in Bernie and Magic Mike, didn’t he?). And Killer Joe — the performances and the film itself — won’t be soon forgotten by me. A
3. Prosecuting Casey Anthony (2013)
Written by Allison Cross | Directed by Peter Werner
What is this? A Lifetime made-for-TV movie about a sensational ripped-from-the-headlines murder case? What the hell is this doing on here?!
Please, allow me to explain. Prosecuting Casey Anthony isn’t the kind (or caliber) of movie I’d normally seek out. In fact, I knew very little about the Casey Anthony case prior to watching this. I don’t typically follow these types of tabloid cases because, well, I just don’t care. What intrigued me about this particular production, however, was three things:
1) Rob Lowe. I’ve always liked this guy and I’m loving his work on Parks and Recreation. Seeing this occasionally serious actor in a comedic role on a very funny show every week makes me respect him as an actor. Lowe is not a movie star, but a TV one. And a very good one. He plays Jeff Ashton, a skilled lawyer who seems to enjoy the spotlight as the guy who tries to put Casey Anthony behind bars.
2) Elizabeth Mitchell. Yes, Mitchell has appeared in a variety of film and TV projects, but she will always, always be Juliet Burke to me. Lost changed my life; it consumed much of my obsessive traits in the last decade and Mitchell played a big part of that. (Her vending machine moment with Josh Holloway in the Lost finale made me cry harder than anything in recent memory). Anyway, she plays Ashton’s partner at his law firm and the two seemed to be an intriguing match.
3) The trade papers were kind to this film. I was expecting harsh reviews, but the word of mouth was positive enough for me to say, “Ok, I’ll give it a shot.”
And I’m glad I did. As expected, Lowe and Mitchell had terrific (and refreshingly platonic) chemistry as a team who were so determined that Anthony was guilty. As a newcomer to the case, I had very little knowledge to what actually happened so I was surprised to learn that no one really knows what the hell happened. Prosecuting Casey Anthony certainly doesn’t provide answers or insight on the case or the people involved, nor does it try to be a groundbreaking display of media journalism. It’s not a movie I will go out of my way to recommend since it doesn’t really offer much in the way of gritty filmmaking, but I can honestly say I was compelled by it and enjoyed the way Lowe and Mitchell played off one another as passionate prosecutors in search for justice. In fact, I’d be thrilled if someone would cast these two gorgeous specimen of the human race (did I just type that out loud?) in a legal drama pilot for next season. B
4. Trouble with the Curve (2012)
Written by Randy Brown | Directed by Robert Lorenz
I had a lot of problems with Trouble with the Curve, the directorial debut of Clint Eastwood’s long-time producer and assistant director, Robert Lorenz. Lazy writing, poorly realized supporting characters and a conveniently tidy finale are some of the major issues I had, but despite all of that, there’s a certain comfort to be had when you are going along for a ride in which you already know the way.
I just really enjoyed the company. Clint Eastwood is still playing the old, cranky guy with health issues, but he wears that role comfortably. It fits him. His daughter is the terrific Amy Adams, a career-driven woman with a deep passion for baseball. She has no time for love, but she makes time for her unstable father and attempts to make things work between them. John Goodman is especially endearing as Eastwood’s longtime friend, Pete. Goodman excels in these kinds of roles (remember him in Always?); he is just a joy to watch. Justin Timberlake also has a few good moments as a former ball player who strikes an emotional chord with Adams’s distant character.
Look, Trouble With the Curve is not a particularly good film (how awful are the “villains” of this movie? All that is missing from Matthew Lillard [as Sanderson] and Joe Massingil [as Bo] are mustache twirlers), and I rolled my eyes when Adams made that last act “discovery,” but dammit, I felt happy for our lead characters when their emotional journey ended on a happy note (not a spoiler — you know it’s coming). There’s something about predictability that is strangely comforting. B-
5. Liberal Arts (2012)
Written and Directed by Josh Radnor
Liberal Arts is a very minor film that thinks it has a lot to say but really doesn’t. For Josh Radnor’s character, it’s about realizing he’s not the man he’d thought he would become. For Elizabeth Olsen, the future is bright and full of promise. For Richard Jenkins, the end is near and there’s no stopping it. These actors are wonderful to watch as they realize that some things are just not always in their control.
Liberal Arts is the second feature from the gifted Radnor. In terms of quality, I’d say it is on par with his debut, happythankyoumoreplease, though that earlier film actually stayed with me longer than it had any right to (it has been over a year since I’ve seen it and some scenes still linger in the mind). Radnor writes well, he has an unobtrusive eye and his presence is welcoming.
Liberal Arts is engaging enough but unfortunately packs very little punch. They talk and talk and talk but sort of move in circles. I do hope Radnor continues to churn out these types of films because, well, I’m a fan. He just needs to build on his craftsmanship. He’s got potential just waiting to be fully realized. C+