THE TOP 5 MOVIES OF 2012…SO FAR

2012 has been an interesting year at your local theater. We’ve had our share of big budget, target audience pictures, some pointless and some amazing sequels, some highly anticipated films, and some smaller surprises. We’ve also seen several trends that mercilessly continue – a bombardment of raunchy comedies and the typical assortment of sub-par romantic comedies. I could point several other negatives about the 2012 movie year but this is all about the positive.

It’s July which marks the half-way point of the movie year. So in place of the normal “Phenomenal 5”, I’m going to look at my top 5 movies of 2012 so far. Mid-year lists do carry with them a disclaimer. Things can change throughout the movie year and when my year-end top 10 list is done, all of these could be in still here or left out. Second viewings always help in determining my overall feelings about a film and I’m really anxious to see some of these again. But, all have made an impression on me thus far so they have earned their spot on the list. With that, here we go….

#5 – “HAYWIRE”

I was stunned¬†that I liked an action thriller starring a mixed martial arts fighter. But such was the case with “Haywire” and it’s largely due to the fantastic Steven Soderbergh. His direction, editing, and cinematography gives the film a slick stylish look which perfectly matches the unorthodox¬†action movie vibe.¬†Also surprising is the movie’s star, Gina Carano, who¬†works in large part to her tremendous¬†physical ability but also due to the measured way she is used. And how can I not mention the fantastic supporting cast featuring Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Ewen McGregor, Michael Douglas, and an even decent performance from Channing Tatum. “Haywire” went largely unnoticed by audiences but it’s a movie that I had a blast with.

#4 – “THE KID WITH THE BIKE”

From the Belgian filmmaking duo¬†the Dardenne¬†brothers, “The Kid with the Bike” is a foreign picture that debuted overseas in¬†2011 but made its¬†US opening earlier this year. It’s an emotional drama that completely grabs you from its opening¬†moments. The Dardenne’s¬†use a visual style that pulls you into the story and that also¬†engages the audience¬†with the characters on pretty personal levels. Young Thomas Doret’s performance is quite good but it’s Cecile de France that really blew me away. Her character’s¬†acts of grace combined with the personal void in her own life is a key component to what makes the movie work so well. It’s a great little movie with a punch and it’s one more people need to see.

#3 – “PROMETHEUS

Many have voiced their¬†problems with Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated return to the science fiction genre. And while I don’t deny the second half of the film isn’t as polished as the first and there are a few storytelling issues, I really responded to the film. The visual presentation is astounding and Scott’s mix of top-notch CGI and elaborate set¬† pieces make the futuristic world believable. For my money Scott asks enough questions to challenge the audience and his intentional ambiguity, a turn-off for some, worked for me. The cast is strong particularly Michael Fassbender who is already on my short list for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. I’m a huge Ridley Scott fan and “Prometheus” does nothing to change that. It may not have met everyone’s expectations but it certainly met mine (and they were high).

#2 – “CORIOLANUS

Coriolanus” is a movie that could also be considered a 2011 film but it made its limited premiere¬†here earlier this year and I loved it. The film marks Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut and he really shines. He takes the Shakespeare story and¬†throws it into a more modern setting while¬†keeping the original language intact. It’s tricky material and the movie nails it.¬†Fiennes¬†also stars in the film and his towering performance is mesmerizing¬†from his first appearance on-screen¬†until the last scene. “Coriolanus” also features a fantastic supporting cast including Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, and Brian Cox. The movie’s choice of language can be a bit jarring at first but it quickly becomes perfect for what the movie is shooting for. Fiennes’ first shot at directing is incredibly good and his performance reminds us that he’s one of the better actors in the business.

#1 – “THE AVENGERS

Speaking of high expectations. In what may be one of the most ambitious projects in movie history, Marvel Studios not only succeeded¬†in bringing their superhero team together on the big screen, they gave us an incredibly funny and action-packed movie that took the movie world by storm. What’s great is that “The Avengers” is actually a genuinely good movie. It’s not all explosions and spandex. One of the reason it works so well is because of Joss Whedon’s¬†script. His familiarity with the characters and the injection of just the right amount of humor makes everything gel nicely. Whedon¬†also had the challenge¬†of taking the previous movies that have led up to “The Avengers” and giving them all a harmony. Mission accomplished. The cast, led by Robert Downey, Jr., is simply wonderful and Whedon (who also directed the film) uses them perfectly. “The Avengers” is a blast and Marvel Studios¬†accomplished their goal.¬†I think the over $1 billion box office proves that.

So what did I miss. There are a few other movies that were right there but just fell short of my Top 5. What are your top 5 movies of the year so far?

5 PHENOMENAL ACTRESSES TO WATCH OUT FOR

Movies have always been blessed with an assortment of wonderful actresses and it’s no different now. Amazing acting talents are springing up and making¬†names for themselves. I thought it would be fun to consider 5 Phenomenal actresses that you should keep your eye on. These ladies aren’t exactly “seasoned” in the traditional sense but they have enough on their resume to prove that they are remarkable performers. Now I didn’t want this to be an up-and-coming list. Instead I’m wanting to give props to five ladies who I think have huge careers ahead of them. Now as always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 actresses to watch out for are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – MIA WASIKOWSKA

At only 22 years of age, Mia Wasikowska¬†has already tackled a variety of great roles. She’s shared the screen with big names such as Johnny Depp, Michael Fassbender, Glenn Close, and Daniel Craig and she’s more than held her own. She’s made some great film choices and the future looks promising. She’s already lined up to be in “Lawless”,¬†a film where she will¬†co-star with big names such as Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy,¬†and Guy Pearce. ¬†Wasikowska is never overpowered by the material and her ability to handle challenging roles at such a young age is very impressive. Expect to see a lot from this phenomenal young talent.

#4 – EMILY BLUNT

Emily Blunt as an example of a very talented actress who is still looking for that one big role. She starred in several films that I’ve enjoyed and several that I haven’t but yet she’s always delivered a strong and steady performance.¬†She’s clearly comfortable¬†with comedy or drama and her assortment of films show that to be true. She was in several smaller but entertaining films before really drawing attention for her work in “Young Victoria”. From there she has starred in everything from family films, quirky British comedies, sci-fi thrillers, and romantic comedies. Through them all she has shown an amazing range and an ability to handle any material she has given. She’s a magnetic actress who will be around for a long time.

#3 РSAOIRSE RONAN

An even younger but equally talented actress is Saoirse Ronan. At 18 years of age she has steered clear of some of the movie traps that many young performers fall into. She first gained major attention for her wonderful work in “Atonement”, a performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination at the age of 13. She was also very good in¬†Peter Jackson’s¬†“The Lovely Bones”, a film that doesn’t hold up well despite her¬†fantastic performance. I was really impressed¬†with her¬†work in “The Way Back”, a very underappreciated film. And in 2011 she showed what kind of range she has by playing a trained assassin in “Hanna”. Ronan has a wonderful screen presence and has grown with each performance. She’s certainly one to watch.

#2- JENNIFER LAWRENCE

While her resume may not be as plump as the other actresses on this list, Jennifer Lawrence has blown me away by her work so far. Lawrence has never been to acting school or taken an acting class yet she has what seems to be a natural ability. It was her starring¬†role in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone” that immediately caught the attention of the movie world. She gives a tough and gritty performance that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. It was a performance that still amazes me today. She had a great role in “The Beaver” and she was also very good in “X-Men: First Class”. Most recently she’s¬†been seen starring in a little movie you may have heard of, “The Hunger Games”. The movie has catapulted her into the more mainstream spotlight. And while the film isn’t perfect, there’s no denying that Lawrence is brilliant in the lead role. She has several projects in the works and, of course, more Hunger Games sequels. Expect to¬†hear Jennifer Lawrence’s name for a while.

#1 РJESSICA CHASTAIN

2011 can officially be called a break-out year for Jessica Chastain. After a small career in television, Chastain made her feature film debut in 2008. But it was last year that she truly made her mark on the film industry with some amazing work. She was really good in “The Help” and received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance. But that wasn’t even her best work of the year. She was mesmerizing in Terrence Malick’s¬†“The Tree of Life”. She was even better alongside Michael Shannon in the underappreciated film “Take Shelter” and it’s there¬†that she gives what I felt was the best supporting work of the year. She was also fantastic with Ralph Fiennes in “Coriolanus” and this year she will be in the above mentioned “Lawless”. Chastain has a grounded and almost natural grace about her and it translates so well on screen. With all of the attention she’s getting for her recent work, you can count on good director’s wanting to work with her even more.

And there they are. Do you agree or disagree with my list? Do you know of someone I missed? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

“CORIOLANUS” – 4 1/2 STARS

The wonderful actor Ralph Fiennes¬†makes his directorial debut with “Coriolanus”, a modern-day¬†version of¬†Shakespeare’s 400 year old¬† play. It’s such an interesting and faithful take on the Shakespeare tragedy. While the film takes place in an entirely different time period than the one¬†the play¬†was written in, it’s still a wonderful examination of war and politics as well as an enthralling look at a truly¬†mesmerizing character. It’s an incredibly¬†unique¬†movie¬†and a challenging undertaking by Fiennes especially since he not only directed the picture but also starred in it.

Fiennes¬†plays Caius Martius, an accomplished Roman general who finds himself at odds with the people of Rome after¬†overseeing the government’s effort to hoard¬†up all of the grain during a food shortage. Martius¬†has no love for the people. He finds them contemptible¬† and he doesn’t trust them nor does he respect them. After Martius¬†squelches¬†a riot led by an anti-government¬†protest group, two politicians Sicinius¬†(James Nesbitt) and Brutus¬†(Paul Jesson) seize¬†the opportunity to gather support from the people by speaking out against him. It’s here that Fiennes¬†the director gives us our first look at the political maneuvering and manipulation that plays such a big part of the story.

But after¬†Rome’s bitter enemy the Volscians¬†begin moving closer to the city, Martius¬†and the army head out to meet them. The Volscians¬†are led by Tullus¬†Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Aufidius and Martius¬†have met in battle several times and have developed a deep-rooted hatred for each other. The two bring their armies and engage in a bloody urban gun battle that results in the Volscians¬†falling back. Martius¬†is welcomed back to Rome as a wounded war hero. He’s awarded the name Coriolanus in honor of his service and is encouraged to run for Consul by his mother Volumnia¬†(Vanessa Redgrave) and¬†Menenius¬†(Brian Cox), a Roman Senator sympathetic to Coriolanus and his family. But in the midst of his popularity, his pride and stubbornness combined with the ambitions of the self-seeking politicians put him at odds once more with the people of Rome. This time Sicinius and Brutus get what they want and Coriolanus is banished from Rome. Burning with anger and blood-thirsty for vengeance, Coriolanus forms the most unlikely of alliances to pay Rome back for what they’ve done to him.

Fiennes delivers a bold and vigorous performance. He shapes and develops Coriolanus through every scene and we quickly understand that he’s a very complex individual. He’s hampered by his unbriddled arrogance and refusal to compromise the smallest thing that he feels may question his authenticity.¬†He’s¬†also a soldier who loves Rome and a man who loves his family. But even when in the comfort of those people and things he loves, he finds it hard to function as he should. Fiennes perfectly sells all of this to us and I was completely enthralled in the character.

Fiennes is also helped by a phenomenal supporting cast. Gerard Butler gets back on track after a few subpar performances in some really subpar movies. Here he’s really good and¬†I was immedietaly reminded¬†that he can be a solid actor. Vanessa Redgrave was simply fabulous as Coriolanus’ mother. She shares several brilliant scenes with Fiennes that you just can’t take your eyes off of. I also loved Jessica Chastain who gives another understated and measured performance as Coriolanus’ wife. I couldn’t help but find similarities between this and her role in “Take Shelter”¬†even though¬†they are two very different films. Even Brian Cox, an actor that I haven’t always appreciated, is really good here.

One of the first things that you’ll notice when watching “Coriolanus” is that it uses the classic Shakespeare lines and language. At first I wasn’t 100% sure if I liked it or not. It was a little jarring at first seeing it used in such a modern setting. But before long I was perfectly sold on it and I was amazed at how fluid and seamless Fiennes made it feel. Now I admit, there were a few moments where I simply didn’t follow what was being said and a few that just didn’t fit with the current day setting. But these moments were rare and overall it was pretty remarkable what the movie was able to accomplish.

I also have to mention that “Coriolanus” is a really good looking picture. Fiennes doesn’t try to do too much with the camera but he clearly has a good eye for framing shots. The film also has a unique look to it and a¬†lot of that has to do with the decision to shoot in Serbia. The locations have a gloomy almost war-torn look to them and not I’m not just talking about the action sequences. Speaking of that, the movie¬†does feature¬†some pretty gritty action that are made even more believable in large part due to the setting that resembles¬†what Serbia may have been like just a few years earlier. Fiennes doesn’t exclude the blood but he doesn’t load these scenes down with them either. Instead he focuses on Coriolanus and his combat intensity as he leads his men through the streets. It works really well. He also tells a lot of the story through some clever usage of the Roman media, particularly a news channel called Fidelis TV. There’s some interesting commentary on the power and influence of the media and we see it through a host of really effective news clips and talk shows.

I was excited about “Coriolanus” but I was caught a little off guard. The Shakespearian dialogue took some adjusting to at first but as I mentioned, soon I was completely wrapped up in it.¬†This was¬†an extremely ambitious project for Ralph Fiennes especially for his first attempt at directing. But this is an impressive and auspicious debut from this¬†already seasoned actor. On that note, his performance is simply fantastic and he¬†brilliantly portrays¬†one of the most intriguing characters I’ve seen on screen¬†in a while. But he’s not alone. The film is also helped by a tremendous supporting cast. I really enjoyed “Coriolanus”. It’s not just a unique and¬†daring movie. It’s also one of the best movies of the year so far.