Best and Worst in Movies and TV in 2012

I know I don’t usually post things about the arts here, but I think it’s time I did.

Best TV Series — Game of Thrones

This was an easy pick.  Although TV’s been getting better and better with its selections of programs and entertainment, both in ambition and the finished product, Game of Thrones was the most ambitious and the best finished product by far. The cast is enormous, the plot is a tumultuous grab bag of awesome, the characters are distinct snowflakes, the action is there, the drama is there; there are awesome good guys to root for, conflicted good guys who make (understandably) bad decisions, power-hungry bad guys that pull empathy out of the viewers and power-hungry bad guys that are easy to hate.  Game of Thrones combines the best in television: roiling, moving plots with roiling, moving characters.  The show changes with its world and its characters.  It’s a beautiful thing.

Breaking Bad deserves some credit here too, but I’ll save that write-up for when they finish next season.

Worst TV Show — NCIS

My mom loves this show and makes me watch it now and again when we spend time together.  I know there are some shows that are just like day jobs for some people, where they go in and film and they give the viewers what they want and everyone goes home happy.  This is the antithesis of TV show making for me.  It’s sloppy and hackneyed.  The characters are husks. One in particular uses pop culture to define himself. This show has always seemed like an excuse to have another procedural on the air and nothing it’s ever done has convinced me otherwise.

Most Surprising TV Show — Justified

I’m a little biased on this one since I had to review it for IGN. HOWEVA. Justified had a really great season. It was a show with a purpose.

Justified’s entire premise is more or less slice of life Kentucky law enforcement and country vs. city living in the south.  While there’s always been something there from the start–something to build on–it wasn’t capitalized great in the first season. By the second season, they created Mags Bennett and Mags was freaking awesome.  Good ol’ country law-breaking, moonshine makin’ Mags.

And then they killed her.

That’d normally be a terrible idea.  A character of Mags’ discretion, build, influence and attitude–and one as superbly acted as this one was (Margo Martindale)–is tough enough to build for any series.  To kill her off would be to kill off interest in the show.

And yet, it was the exact opposite.  While Mags was put to rest, we were introduced to several moving parts–Quarles, a carpet bagger from the north who saw a hole in the power after Mags’ death and wanted to take advantage; Quarles was a deeply fucked up character and his style and panache were just so creepy and off-putting it was hard not to like him for being so weird.  There was also Ellstin Limehouse, played with a sweet southern drawl by Mykelti Williams, and the resurfacing of Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and the rise to power of Wynn Duffy (played by one of my favorite character actors, Jere Burns).

I don’t like to throw around the term “chess game” much when talking TV because most TV writers would be freaking terrible at it if they actually played, but Season 3 was a chess game.  The writers knew where they stood at the end of Season 2 (with a power gap in the seedy underbelly of rural Kentucky and no one capable of filling that hole yet) and knew where they needed to be by the end of Season 3 (a multi-player power structure run by the locals already within the show).  By introducing Quarles, all of the other power players saw the movements and jumped on in.

I’m not doing a great job of describing this.  If you love watching great technical skills in TV writing, watch this show.  If you like character TV, watch this show.  There’s very few reasons to not watch this show now.  My only hope is they keep it up for Season 4, which starts in a week.

Most Disappointing TV Series — Dexter

I haven’t watched Dexter in years–I quit after I think Season 2 or 3–and this season sounded promising. Deb found out. Dexter was in deep shit. The big shit-hit-the-fanning was upon us.

The entire series had to do something about this at some time; it was becoming obvious that having a Serial Killer of the Year and Dexter finding him/her and hunting her down just wasn’t going to sate viewers. Something needed to come to a head.  And so Deb found out about Dexter’s serial killer ways.

Good.

Something needed to get this show out of alternative development hell and make it interesting again.  The only problem was nothing changed.

Things come to a head at the end of the season.  Laguerta finds out about Dexter and is doing a good job of actually prosecuting him.  Dexter’s track-covering is getting sloppy, but he’s still got Laguerta running circles.  Until finally this and that and the other thing and Bob’s your uncle, Dexter has to kill Laguerta.  OK, fine.  He gets her all ready for the killing and Deb finds him and points a gun at him and after some Sophie’s Choice moment, Deb kills Laguerta.

It was maybe the safest possible ending for everyone and probably the most gutless.  Laguerta was expendable.  The only interesting thing for next season is what people think happened to Laguerta, but I’m not interested in it that much to actually watch.

What I would’ve rather seen would’ve been maybe Dexter has to go on the lamb, and following that until his eventual arrest. This is basically what Homeland will start doing next season. Alternatively, having Doakes come back from the dead would’ve been a better possible ending for this season, even if there was no explanation. It would’ve taken some guts to kill Dex there, but that would’ve just thrown the whole show into chaos.

My colleague at IGN, Matt Fowler, has been defending this show for a while and he and I had distinctly opposite reactions.  Literally.  On Twitter, I immediately posted: “Meh.”

His response was “this was excellent.”

I respect Matt and he’s been watching the show a lot longer, so I trust huge Dexter fans loved this as well, but it didn’t bring me back into the fold.

Partial shout out to Homeland, which was set up for failure for Season 2.  There was absolutely no way Carrie and the gang was going to top Season 1 from start to finish, but at least the writers have set themselves up for what looks like a good Season 3.

Best Movie — Silver Linings Playbook

There are few movies this day and age that present a situation–a plot–where the whole world is topsy turvy and yet suck you into that world.  SLP was outstanding from beginning to end, hilarious when it shouldn’t have been, heart-breaking when it should’ve been and overall just a great, uplifting movie.

The basic gist is this: Pat (Bradley Cooper) has bipolar type II. He’s coming back from the mental institution. He meets a girl who has bipolar type II (Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence) and they get each other. While the world around them is kinda nervous to see them and doesn’t understand what they’re going through, they get each other.

The entire story is more or less a Cameron Crowe romantic comedy. Guy is in love with ex-wife. He meets this new girl. New girl hooks him in via a quid-pro-quo. Guy falls in love with new girl despite ex becoming interested again. You get it.

The difference is, SLP understates the love story because the love story isn’t worth much. What’s stated is Pat’s every day battles with being bipolar and the world perceiving him as crazy–same with Tiffany–in a world where he wants to be normal.

And Pat’s world is wonderfully exposed here. Pat goes off his rocker a few times, and it’s not how you’d think. It’s jarringly real. He becomes obsessive; it’s a little frightening to his family and friends, who keep trying to deter him from contacting his ex-wife. He gets oddly aggressive about things that seem inconsequential. But his attitude is positive and because the film is shot as manically as Pat’s behavior, you root for him. You are in his world and you want him to come out in the end.

There’s so much more to talk about this that I can’t even begin to explain. David O. Russell absolutely NAILS what it’s like having someone with bipolar type II in the family and the every day fight against it. He presents it unapologetically. And yet, they live in their own world; a world that other people with bipolar get, but a world you and I don’t really understand. That’s why this movie works so well.

All right, you’ll have to go see it, I can’t explain it better than that right now.

Worst Movie — Battleship

I seldom go see movies I don’t want to see, but this was an exception.

As with any movie, there were some good things in this. Taylor Kitsch was actually pretty funny in it and it would’ve been a lot cooler if this movie didn’t kill his career. Peter Berg, despite being given a shit sandwich, directed it well. Rihanna was not a terrible actress.

However, this was a very clear moneygrab. Everything was off from the start. Battleships aren’t even used in war anymore. Everything in the movie aimed toward this one scene where they tried to shoehorn in the actual game play.  It was sloppy and if it’s sloppy with Peter Berg at the helm, you’ve picked the wrong movie to make into a movie.

The basic premise of this movie was shit from the start and nobody in the middle of the process thought “you know what, maybe we’re stretching too far on this one.”

Most Surprising Movie — Amazing Spider-Man

So you’ve got Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone rehashing a franchise that was done (excellently) by Sam Raimi only a few years ago. Why? Probably because The Avengers need Spider-Man eventually and so just throw it in a pot and see if it boils. If it doesn’t, you have a Spider-Man for the next Avengers movie anyway, so what the hell.

Here’s the odd thing: I would’ve rather seen this Spider-Man series more than Raimi’s.  And I love Raimi and that series.

Amazing Spider-Man did what basically no other Superhero has done in a world of gritty reboots: it developed Parker’s teenage and formative years.

Peter Parker is the perfect superhero to do this to. He’s a sensitive guy, good sense of humor, and had a pretty tough upbringing. His uncle, the closest thing he has to a father figure, is killed.

This seems like a slam dunk to develop and yet no one really has. Because this one did, it made his rise to superherodom more authentic. You feel his pain and his compulsion to make the world right.

Some of Parker’s pain was utterly real. Parker saves the last voicemail he received from Uncle Ben and he listens to it in two important parts in the movie. As someone who’s lost a father figure at a young age, holy shit. I’ve done the exact same thing.

And then we watch Parker evolve into Spider-Man. He’s at first a decent kid. His world is thrown into chaos when his uncle died and he becomes despondent and angry and all the feelings that go into that.

While you feel his pain, you see the rationalizations that eventually turn him into the regular good guy Peter.

For a story about an awkward teenager finding his way through chaos into becoming a man, this was a well-thought out, well-produced, well-directed, well-packaged movie. It was painful, but cathartic. It was fun, and yet meaningful. It was a great story.

Most Disappointing Movie — The Dark Knight Rises

You watched the first two almost definitely, right? Re-watch The Dark Knight. Once you stop watching for Heath Ledger’s performance, there’s a lot of holes in it.

Unfortunately, TDKR doesn’t have Heath Ledger’s performance in it.

Tom Hardy is a fantastic Bane and I’m so very happy that Nolan decided to reintroduce Bane into the movie franchise after the awful Batman and Robin take. Bane is awesome in this one. The opening scene is particularly killer and we see early on why people follow Bane so readily. His eerily calm voice in a chaotic situation is the metaphor needed to project why his followers follow him so ardently.

The biggest problem with TDKR is everything else.

There’s a very clear War on Terrorism parallel here about intelligence and breaking laws to save humanity in the face of terrorists who want nothing but power. Unfortunately, it’s completely dehumanizing and overly simplistic on every level.

There’s even a parallel about using guns as a means of protection. It’s kind of disturbing, especially after the Aurora shooting.

Even discounting the political motivation, the movie lacked coherency. It was all over the place, trying to stuff too much info into too little time. (Strangely, had Nolan ditched the War on Terror strings, I think it would’ve been far more coherent). A single thread about battling Bane, with the RISE scene, and without Joseph Gordon-Levitt would’ve probably been smoother. Alternatively, taking out Catwoman probably would’ve helped too, but Anne Hathaway was great in it and I wouldn’t want to do that to her.

In the end, the whole thing is kind of a mess. This happens sometimes with trilogies where the first two are about the rise to power and fighting the good fight and the third one doesn’t know where to take it from there. Evil will continue to exist after Batman in the Batman universe, so having the trilogy end doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And there’s our conundrum.

OK, that’s this year in review.  Hope you enjoyed it.  Feel free to disagree with me and post what you think was the best/worst/surprising/disappointing.

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