“Django Unchained”: Quentin Tarantino’s latest follows a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and the German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) who enlists him to identify the men who branded him and his wife (Kerry Washington) after they ran away from their old plantation. Being a Tarantino film, “Django” will surely rank among the best films of the year, its placement on the top ten determined by how good “Zero Dark Thirty” is. Few directors have the kind of filmography that assures automatic top ten status but Tarantino does. With his eight films, Tarantino has redefined American genre cinema, revived the careers of several great actors while directing others to their greatest performances, and made one of the best films in the American canon before turning 40.
Tarantino is unique among the modern cinematic masters in that he doesn’t have an interest in creating a wide, diverse filmography so much as concentrated, iconic one. As a consequence, there is no “Alien 3” or “Erin Brockovich” in his CV. He’s never made a budget busting personal project that failed and forced him to make an inventive but inessential star vehicle or lesser franchise entry. For twenty years he’s followed his muse and made films that, for good or ill, have been entirely in his idiom. With his energetic and bold style he has shaped popular culture to his interests. Movies about wisecracking jewel thieves and philosophical hitmen starring obscure character actors and washed up ‘70s teen idols shouldn’t be genre defining hits but they were solely on the strength of how stunning his films are.
Even the worst Tarantino film has more sheer entertainment value than any other film released in the same period. The incredibly stylized violence. The impeccably music cues. The wonderful sprawling conversations and mesmerizing soliloquies. His films can be watched again and again, with each review garnering new information, new subtleties in performance and new contexts to view the action. While Tarantino trucks in genre material, his films are always carefully crouched in layers of meaning and nuance that vastly outstrip whatever cynical Oscar bait that’s trucked out every awards season.
Film for film, Tarantino stands as American greatest living writer/director, with only Paul Thomas Anderson as his competition. There are filmmakers who have reached higher and achieved more but none in this century. Flashes of brilliance from the old masters (“Minority Report”, “Hugo”, “The Tree of Life”, and “Femme Fatale”), incredible efforts from talented newcomers (“Brick”, “Donnie Darko”, and “Primer”) and excellent work for his peers (“The Good German”, “The Social Network” and “Black Swan”) have given the writer/director a run for his money but as we saw in “Inglourious Basterds”, Tarantino’s stands alone and whether “Django” is his best film or even the best film of this year, its sure to be a fantastic, complex film that will be admired and unpacked for years to come. Also starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Don Johnson, and Walton Goggins.
Fun fact: “Django” is the first Tarantino’s film not to be edited Sally Menke, who died in 2010.
“Les Misérables”: Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the acclaimed musical based on Victor Hugo’s landmark 19th novel. While there have been many big screen adaptations of musical, most recently a 1998 adaptation starring Liam Neeson, Hooper seeks to distinguish his version by eschewing the standard musical technique of creating a cast recording and filming the performers lip syncing to the pre-recordings and has chosen instead to record his actors singing on set and adding orchestral accompaniment in post-production. That’s a novel approach to the material and the genre but I have wonder if Hooper is throwing away the baby with the bathwater by sacrificing precision and beauty for spontaneity and grit. This experimental paradigm may earn Hooper a stack of awards that will dwarf those won for his work on “The King’s Speech” but he also might have made an ambitious mess to rival “Nine.” Regardless, if Anne Hathaway nails “I Dreamed a Dream”, she’ll get an Oscar. Also starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Amanda Seyfried.
Fun fact: The film is the highest opening day gross for a musical film.
“Parental Guidance”: In this season’s less essential film, Billy Crystal stars as a grandparent who is tasked with the weekend care of his three grandchildren. The situation leads to what, judging by the films trailer, could generously be called comedic situations focusing on the age gap between family members. There was a time when Billy Crystal made funny, effecting comedies that are as fresh and hilarious now as they were the year they were made but that time has passed and now Crystal is halfheartedly attempting to get some of that “Meet the Parents” money with his first on-screen role in ten years. Wither Mitch Robbins. Also starring Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, and Tom Everett Scott.
Fun fact: The film has a confidence inspiring 17% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at email@example.com