10 films you should look forward to in 2012.

As I begin prepping all my end-of-2011 stuff, I can’t help but gloss over the release schedule for next year and get really excited. What 2011 has lacked in blockbuster fare 2012 looks to equally match, with some really strong indie fare scattered throughout the year. Without further ado, the 10 movies of next year that are highest on my radar.

10: The Cabin in the Woods (April 13)

“Cabin in the Woods” has faced multiple release-date shifts (it finished filming about three years ago), but the word-of-mouth on this 3D horror project from “Cloverfield” screenwriter Drew Godard has only been ecstatic. I’m going out of my way to avoid all trailers and posters for this flick, as the last 30 minutes of this film are reputed to be on a whole other level of insanity.

9: Lincoln (undecided winter date)

Steven Spielberg’s third film in 12 months, “Lincoln” focuses on the last couple years of the life of our country’s greatest president, enlisting perhaps the only actor massive enough to handle such a role — Daniel Day-Lewis. Based off of Doris Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”, a wonderful historical account gripping enough for ME to get into, expect “Lincoln” to be the talk of the Oscar season next year.

8: Les Miserables (December 7)

Tom Hooper took the Oscar this year for his work on “The King’s Speech”. “Speech” to me was massively overrated, but it was also unmistakably the work of an artist beginning to develop his own voice and passion. His adaptation of the great musical “Les Miserables”, with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman among the leads, is looking very strong.

7: G.I. Joe: Retaliation (June 29)

Don’t ask why this is here. I don’t know myself. The sequel to a 2009 film I cited among the worst of that year, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” looks to retain all the high-octane action of that first entry, but with a sharper sense of direction and goofier sense of fun. Chalk that up to the “Zombieland” writers taking control of the franchise. When a movie trailer has samurai running on a cliff-side with a rope in one hand and a sword in the other, you could say I’m hooked. Plus, Bruce Willis! (!!!!!!!)

6: Skyfall (November 9)

The third go-around with Daniel Craig as James Bond has a lot riding on it. The backing studio’s financial troubles and large-scale disappointment in the last film “Quantum of Solace” mean that Craig and co. really have to step up their game to create something distinctive in the scope of things. But with a cast including superb actors like Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes and a script reportedly equaling 2006’s amazing “Casino Royale”, I’m feeling confident that “Skyfall” will be a Bond to remember.

5. Prometheus (June 8)

Ridley Scott, though his recent output has been mixed, can put together a damn good science-fiction film. “Alien” and “Blade Runner” are among the defining classics of the genre, and “Prometheus” is a thematic and spiritual prequel to the original “Alien”. Set towards the end of the 21st century, it details humanity’s first encounter with those flesh-eating, acid-bleeding little buggers. The creepy, evocative posters suggest the results won’t be pretty, but the talented cast, including Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron, will make the blood-bath one a compassionate one.

4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14)

An immaculate blending of spectacle, faith, character and scope, when all is said and done “Lord of the Rings” is easily one of my favorite films. Much of the original cast, the director Peter Jackson, and the same storytelling magic seems to have been brought to this two-part adaptation of “Rings”‘ prequel, the second part of which drops in 2013. This could be the event of the year.

3. Gravity (November 21)

“Children of Men” auteur Alfonso Cuaron has promised a film unlike anything we’ve ever seen before with “Gravity”. A film reportedly told in only a handful of shots, it’s the story of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney frantically trying to stay alive after their space station explodes. I expect it to take full advantage of its IMAX 3D format, in both technological and storytelling capacities.

2. Django Unchained (December 25)

Let me break this down for you. Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sacha Baron Cohen, RZA, and reportedly even Lady GaGa in a Civil War-era slavery revenge epic from Quentin Tarantino himself. Having read the script myself, I promise you “Django Unchained”, which releases Christmas Day, will probably be better than most presents you’d receive that day.

1. The Dark Knight Rises (July 20)

You know you’re looking forward to a film where watching a trailer you get chills in your spine, tingles in your feet, and a massive freaking grin on your face. “The Dark Knight Rises” looks to conclude Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga in absolutely massive fashion, and considering he’s only been developing as a filmmaker (last year’s “Inception” in particular), this movie is going to rock your world. Now, excuse me while I watch this trailer for the 23rd time.

“Melancholia” wholly satisfying, dream-like

Kirsten Dunst as a bride-to-be whose state of mind is the center of "MELANCHOLIA".

In the eyes of the press, Lars von Trier is a misogynist, Nazi-sympathetic lunatic. In my eyes, he’s one of the most inventive, profoundly moving directors we have today. When premiering his latest film at Cannes, he started a joking tangent of “offensive remarks”. His intent was to screw with the press. In return, the press has screwed him over, to an extent overshadowing the film he was there to promote in the first place. And man, is it a beauty.

The title is “Melancholia”, referring to both the gloomy state of mind of the lead character, Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, and the red planet that is slowly but surely hurtling towards Earth. While everyone else is frantically running about, providing scientific “proof” that the two will not come into contact, Justine serenely sits, waits. Knows.

She’s not incorrect in her assumption either — “Melancholia”s very first scene is the ultra-slow-motion destruction of the Earth, a sequence set to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” prelude that mesmerizes and shocks. von Trier has always had an utter grip on visual style and form, but here he manages to make the very destruction of our world a poem, playing to the senses and the mind.

After this sequence, von Trier rolls it back a few months to Justine’s wedding — here we meet her dysfunctional family. Here we meet her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg in her second von Trier, and first without clitoral mutilation), Claire’s husband, a very convenient astrologist (Kiefer Sutherland, playing well outside his “24” origins), their charming drunkard of a father (John Hurt), and Justine’s slime-ball of a boss. (Stellan Skarsgard, who else?)

Here is a charming little mini-movie in which things fall apart rather quickly. Justine experiences a wave of sudden, paralyzing depression. Watching the looks on her groom-to-be (Alexander Skarsgard of “True Blood”) slowly become less and less hopeful is heartbreaking. Justine’s are even harder to watch. The film here enters a second segment, more centered on Claire’s home-life and her grappling with the forthcoming end of the world.

“Melancholia” is an immensely personal statement for von Trier, whose crippling depression has well-publicized over the years. von Trier here offers a full-fledged exploration of it, both as a force that can destroy and build, immobilize and empower.

All of this is done with an equal emphasis on character and visual. Both are important to the message being conveyed, but von Trier’s true accomplishments lie in his techniques, in his form. In what other film would an Oscar-worthy performance go almost entirely overlooked in my praises? And although Kirsten Dunst may not go home with even the nomination she deserves for her work here, it still marks a wonderful revitalization in talents and form in, ironically, a performance embodying depression.

“Melancholia” is a film both sluggish and brief, natural and fantastical, heartbreaking and magical. Lars von Trier has, through his career, has excelled in finding universal truths through focused portraits. Here, von Trier has expanded his ambitions to the stars, and the result is less a film than it is a dream. The only bad part is waking up. A

David Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” remake technically masterful, emotionally cold

Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, in one of the more suggestive marketing materials for "THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO".

Cold and chilly like its Swedish setting, David Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” opens with an opening-credit sequence for the ages. Figures rise, fall and converge, but covered in tattoo ink and with Karen O’s ambient “Immigrant Song” remake blasting in the background. It promises a wild time to be had — and judging from the marketing materials, you’d think “Dragon Tattoo” would be one of the more subversive studio-backed films in years.

Not the case.

“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a film bearing the David Fincher stamp of technical mastery, with Jeff Cronenweth’s bleak cinematography as excellent as usual, Angus Hall and Kirk Baxter in the cutting room, and the Reznor/Ross duo providing a strong ambient score once again.

Their work is all up to par compared to their work last year — 2010’s best film “The Social Network”, but what makes it so much less effective this time around is the lack of an emotional center. “Dragon Tattoo” is a film whose every frame was clearly labored over and given the utmost of attention, but it came at the expense of a meaningful plot. It’s all a beautifully crafted toy that, when wound up, does almost nothing.

It’s certainly not for lack of effort on the actors’ part. In fact, the principal leads, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, both deliver absolutely superb work here. Craig, who’s been on something of a poor streak lately, gives a performance of both fierce intellect and icy cool. He is Mikael Blomkvist, a magazine publisher whose reporting on a corporate head just cost him his life savings. He is contacted by Henrik Vanger, a wealthy old man whose beloved niece’s disappearance has haunted him for 30 years.

Vanger wants Blomkvist to give all the evidence another look and see if there are any other angles to the story he might have missed. This is where Mara enters the picture, as Lisbeth Salander.

Much has been made of Salander’s character, both on-screen and in the best-selling novels from which the film is based. She’s an oddly pierced, bisexual prodigy whose main talent is kicking ass and hacking computers. Mara is an absolute force to be reckoned with in the role — just the right amounts of sex appeal, dramatic intensity, and hardened exterior. If Mara is on the screen, “Tattoo” approaches the heights it could have hit.

The actual murder mystery aspect of the film does work rather well, it’s just that there’s far too much of the thing. Of “Dragon Tattoo”s 160-minute run-time, at least 100 minutes are devoted to the mystery which, while important, are not the real story of the film. What “Dragon Tattoo” is really about is the odd connection that Blomkvist and Salander develop, and while solidly realized I think the filmmakers mistakenly decided to stave off most of that dynamic for possible sequels (there are after all, two more books in the series to be adapted)

Had screenwriter Steve Zaillian (whose past work includes “Moneyball” and “Schindler’s List”) paid as much attention to character development as procedural detail, it could have been a masterpiece. “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a perfectly solid murder mystery, which i heartbreaking considering it could have been solidly perfect. David Fincher’s obsessive attention to detail, has, for the first time, left his end product feeling a little empty. B-

“The Muppets” blast of old-school joy

The makeshift family -- Mary, Gary, and his muppet brother Walter.

In May 2011, I was strolling down State Street to grab a burrito and noticed something about someone in front of me. The guy, who was in the upper-range of six feet, seemed strikingly familiar. Doing an awkward jog ahead to see what was up, I realized — it was Jason Segel! Known to most as a cast member of “How I Met Your Mother”, he stood out to me particularly because of his full-frontal nudity in the first 2 minutes of the uproarious “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”. Funny thing is, he was a disheveled guy with a dangling cigarette and a sort of ambiguous pout. My request to snap a picture with the guy was met with incoherent grunting, followed with a sigh and a snap.

I say this not to brag about my celebrity-spotting escapades, but to highlight just how good his performance is in “The Muppets”. There is no moment of the film where he doesn’t have a slap-happy presence, where he doesn’t infuse it all with this massive sense of joy and uplift. Contrasting that with the melancholy presence I encountered in May, quite the performance.

“The Muppets” is the best kind of thing — a labor of love, from top to bottom. Written by Segel in reverence to his childhood favorite, the ragtag puppet team that is The Muppets, the whole film serves as a tribute to the Muppets culture, while also serving as a satisfying installment in it.

I cannot say that I am the most well-versed observer of The Muppets’ past work, which only makes me appreciate how well-crafted and stand-alone this thing is. This film makes me feel nostalgia for a past that I never experienced, a yearning for memories I never made.

The plot is short and sweet — Jason Segel as Gary, who is very plainly human, and Walter, who is very plainly Muppet, are brothers. (It’s never explained, and doesn’t need to be) Walter, however, has never felt like he’s fit in — save for when he’d put on recordings of “The Muppet Show” and dream of putting on a show with fellow, ehm, puppets. When he, Gary, and his girlfriend Mary visit Los Angeles to tour the Muppet studio, they find its fallen into desolation and is due to be demolished and drilled for oil unless $10 million can be raised. The three round up the whole gang and decide to throw a musical/telethon to raise the needed money.

Director James Bobin, in his feature-film debut, admittedly took some missteps in the editing room. He makes quite a few little mistakes — awkward cuts, mismatched eye-lines and positions, but nothing to truly sink the film. What nearly does is the second act of the film — Bobin sets up a killer momentum for the film with the first 30 minutes, but has a hard time juggling all the characters and events. From my understanding, there were some fairly extensive re-shoots on the film, which gives it an awkward, almost limping pace. Most of these worries are offset by the killer finale though, in which all the film’s greatest qualities come together.

“The Muppets” is proof that even the simplest story can be elevated to loads of fun, provided that you make the small moments count. And “Muppets” pulls out all the stops — spontaneous, effortlessly catchy musical numbers, rapid-fire cameos from massive celebrities, snappy dialogue, et cetera. The script by Segel and Stoller is good, but the musical numbers, written by “Flight of the Concords” vet Bret McKenzie are excellent. In fact, it’s perhaps the film’s greatest credit — a few choice numbers have been in heavy-rotation on my iPod for weeks now. They’re nostalgiac and old-timey, but also perfectly catchy tunes on their own. The cast, human and puppet, carry them effortlessly.

“The Muppets” taps into an old-school pizzazz – the idea that if you have a smile on your face and don’t treat your audience like idiots, they’ll have a good time. And we sure do. B

I wasn't lying. Look at his face.

“Young Adult” sour in world-view, sharp in wit

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) looks on at her clueless ex-beau, Buddy Slade, in "Young Adult".

Being a high-school student, it’s not uncommon to look around sometimes and contemplate where everyone’s gonna end up in 20 years. Not just geographically speaking, but emotionally as well. Jason Reitman’s new film “Young Adult” stares dead-on into the eyes of former-prom queen, present-author Mavis Gary. Her works are throwaway “young-adult” literature: shallow, self-obsessed tracts about popularity and glamour that funnily enough, perfectly reflect Gary’s self-image. She’s a 2011 woman whose head remains in 1991, still manipulating and twisting people for her own ends just like old times — and a divorced alcoholic.

Her migration from Minneapolis to small-town Mercury, Minnesota is part of a quest to get old high-school-flame Buddy Slade back. The fact that he’s now married, a father, and well, boring, doesn’t halt Gary for a minute, and this self-deluded quest is the basis for the film.

Charlize Theron as Mavis is the front-and-center focus, and Theron does not disappoint. She delivers “Juno” scribe Diablo Cody’s dialogue with an acrid tongue and self-important poise. But the majority of her heavy-work is actually what comes in-between the quips — the dishelved “morning-after” segments that follow her night-time rampages through bars and hearts, the little grimaces and lip-bites that reveal her near-monstrous nature, and the little pauses and sighs that reveal the real pain that beats at her center. Theron is exceptional because she layers the subtle with the theatrical — and unlike many of her peers, she knows when to equip the two. She’s not a character, but a force.

Serving as an unlikely friend to Mavis through her tenure in Mercury is Matt. Matt is an overweight sadsack whose notable high-school accomplishment was when jocks permanently crippled him because of his supposed homosexuality, and he’s longed after Mavis for 20 years. When the two occupy the screen together, “Young Adult” finds its true voice of reason and reality. Patton Oswalt’s take on Matt is a pitch-perfect side-turn, proving his dramatic chops to be as fine-tuned as his hysterical stand-up-comedy. A scene in which the two greet each other free of any clothing is poignant, awkward and heartbreaking all rolled into one.

The real star here is Diablo Cody’s script — not just as an individual work, but as a logical progression in maturity and depth. Cody’s actual dialogue takes upon a more sober, mature matter than her “Juno” and “Jennifer’s Body” scripts, but she retains the tart, sassy attitude and subtext that made those films stand out.

“Young Adult” is a curious affair, a film whose subtle but sharp humor comes from watching a woman humiliate herself and annihilate all relationships in her wake. It’s also a curiosity in Jason Reitman’s filmography — certainly less immediate and striking than his last film “Up in the Air”, and perhaps a minor disappointment given that was one of the great films of the past decade. Both films are about people and the folly of their personal philosophies. “Young Adult” is so damn interesting because Mavis Gary never realizes it. It’s a terrible flaw that makes for a damn good film. B+

Dedicated to Chris Narine.

“Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” sports 2011’s biggest, best action

Jeremy Renner and Tom Cruise, whose star-power looms as high as the featured Burj Dubai in "MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL".

When all is said and done, a good movie year has about a dozen sequences that forever burn themselves into my memory; images that are so striking and so compelling that I carry them with me wherever I go, whatever I do. “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” may have the creme-de-la-creme of 2011 — arguably the world’s greatest movie star climbing the exterior of the world’s tallest building. No stunt doubles, no wires, no worries. It’s the centerpiece of a film whose action is continually one-upping itself — and a masterwork in craftsmanship, imagination, and sheer brio.

Tom Cruise, in his fourth outing as superspy Ethan Hunt, is out to clear his name in a bombing of the Kremlin. To do this, he traverses the world — stopping in Mumbai, Dubai, Moscow and Budapest, frantically trying to clear his name and prevent nuclear annihilation. Kudos to Swedish import Michael Nyquist for his physically able yet quietly menacing turn as the dude attempting to do wrong with his Russian nuclear launch codes.

But more than past installments, “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” is less about Tom Cruise parading about and doing cool stuff; there’s a really strong emphasis on team dynamics here. Joining Cruise’s globe-trotting: Simon Pegg returning as the hilariously geeky analyst, Paula Patton as an agent still hurting from the killing of her boyfriend/co-agent, and Jeremy Renner, playing a mysterious-type with a secret or two. Although my reductive descriptions give them a one-note impression, they are all given a good deal to work with; both in terms of fleshing out intriguing people and absolutely tearing shit up on their escapades.

The fact that the movie frequently approaches cartoonish territory is of no surprise. After all, director Brad Bird is an industry legend for his perfect trio of animated films: “The Iron Giant”, “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille”. In those films, he communicated a perfect balance of humor, warmth, characterization, and invention. But most importantly, he developed an impeccable sense of visual storytelling, fluidly manipulating environments and characters better than most live-action directors. “Ghost Protocol” represents a seamless transition into live-action for Bird, displaying both his technical mastery and absolute joyousness as a filmmaker.

Bird also make the excellent decision to shoot the film’s major set pieces with IMAX cameras. True enough, I drove an hour out to the only 70mm IMAX theater in Michigan that was showing it, and the result was an impossibly massive experience on every level. IMAX cameras pick up every frame with such precision and detail, and the fact that “Ghost Protocol” generally shies away from computer-generated effects only adds to the immersion and, well, realism.

Perhaps American cinematography’s greatest treasure, Robert Elswit, is behind the camerawork in this film. It’s his direct visual signature that contributes to much of “Ghost Protocol”s creativity  and rhythm, forming a congruous duo with Bird’s style. Composer Michael Giacchano’s brassy, bombastic score is a good undercurrent for the proceedings.

The action in this film is too grand and too bold to condense into things so impotent and powerless as sentences. Psh. The thought. To “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”, gravity, physics, logic and reasoning are but child’s play; too meager and too meaningless to be worthy of attention. Be it a marathon sprint in the midst of a sandstorm, a prison outbreak, or 300-foot falls with the only saving mechanism being the seatbelt of a car, it doesn’t matter.  Who needs reality when you’ve got Tom Cruise? A

[Another thing of strong note — if you drive out to Dearborn’s Henry Ford Museum to see this, as I did, you see the first 6 minutes of the forthcoming “Dark Knight Rises”. I consider this THE filmmaking event to miss next year, and this epic opening sequence is well worth the drive….several drives, actually.]

“Carnage” sardonic deconstruction of suburban mannerisms

The four gods of "CARNAGE" meet to discuss the matter of their son's brawl.

To see Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” is to watch a biting deconstruction of societal norms, manners, and fake gestures to others for the purpose of “pleasing” them. I am a high school student, therefore I identify with these themes more than most others. You feel me?

“Carnage” sports four wonderfully talented actors — John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster, & Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet playing respective married couples. The four, cooped up in a Brooklyn apartment, are there to resolve a dispute regarding their young sons, one of which took a weapon to the other’s face. “Carnage”, at a mercifully short yet just right 79-minute length, is simply a chronicle of their initially cordial but progressively aggressive conversation  (+5 consonance points!) — which begins with smiles and drinks yet turns into total insanity.

Although Roman Polanski’s films have been leaning a bit towards the large-scale recently, one only need look at his 1960s’ output to see that this man tells tightly-focused, one-location stories exceptionally well. Be it a yacht in “Knife in the Water” or an apartment in “Repulsion”, he paints his environments dynamically but claustrophobically — never dull, but always on-edge.

And these four actors — what magic they make together. I can’t think of any other people who could out-perform this cast, so distinct are their personalities yet priceless their interactions. It makes my heart warm that Christoph Waltz has still got it, given that his largely uninspired post-“Inglourious Basterds” work. John C. Reilly embodies the lovable-dunce-of-a-father archetype exceptionally well.

The women in this film, however, give “Carnage” its heart, soul and chaos. Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet begin the film on flip-sides of the coin, one much more sympathetic than the other. But as the film progresses, all their little niceties and mannerisms crumble away, revealing what’s really at their soul. It ain’t pretty. “Carnage” isa work razor-sharp in observation and humor, although it’s hard not to wonder if it’s an after-thought for its legendary participants. B+