Strife, Contention, Debate, and Celluloid: 15 Of The Most Controversial Films of 2012

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2012 marked a banner year for the movies. Box office records were broken, indie films became Hollywood phenomenon and studios like Paramount and Universal marked their 100th anniversaries. Despite these noteworthy achievements, 2012 was also a year when Hollywood was marred by several scandals. From technological advances to film criticism complaints, here are 15 of the most controversy spreading mainstream films of last year.

Django Unchained

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Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was released in December. The western takes place in the world of America’s pre-Civil War slave trade and has courted controversy for its racial depictions and stylized gore. It has been damned by the likes of filmmaker Spike Lee (who accuses it of depicting “A Holocaust” as a “Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western) and commentator Tavis Smiley (who called it a “parody” of slavery). Radio personality Jeff Kuhner has also accused the film of “reverse racism” and “anti-white bigotry.” Meanwhile, critics of the film’s violence have caught the ire of Tarantino himself, who had strong words for both Fresh Air’s Terry Gross and Channel 4's Krishnan Guru-Murthy when questioned about the film inspiring real life violence. These controversies, however, have not stopped the film from earning Golden Globe wins for Best Original Screenplay (Tarantino) and Best Supporting Actor (for Christoph Waltz).

Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty, written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, has emerged as the most politically controversial mainstream film of 2012. The film has been accused of being espousing a pro-torture stance, depicting the agonizing interrogation tool with moral ambiguity. For conservatives, many consider the film pro-Obama administration propaganda. To top it off, both Bigelow and Boal are currently being investigated by a congressional committee to find out whether or not they were given access to confidential CIA information. Most recently, Academy member David Clennon has urged his peers to boycott and not vote for the film because it depicts torturers as “heroes.” Sony president Amy Pascal shot back by saying the film did not take such a stance and was merely being historically accurate.

The Hobbit

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The Hobbit director Peter Jackson has come under fire for shooting his film at 48 fps, a major difference from the typical 24 fps most movies are filmed in. Critics accused the gimmick of lending the film a strange, hi-definition video look, resulting in the majority of The Hobbit's distribution to be converted back into 24 fps. Film critics have also taken to task Jackson’s stretching a proposed two film series into an entire trilogy, decrying that it unnecessarily elongates a short narrative. Finally, the film has had animal cruelty charges leveled against it, allegations that Jackson has vehemently denied. Despite these factors, the film emerged as the fourth highest grosser of the year.

The Avengers

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The Avengers was the summer event movie of 2012, a crowd-pleaser that garnered$1,511,757,910 worldwide. Yet not every critic was ready to grace the film with praise—A.O. Scott accused the film of being weighed down with “bloated cynicism.” This, of course, opened up a cavalcade of criticism toward Scott and the necessity of film criticism in general. Among Scott’s biggest detractors was Avengers star Samuel L. Jackson, who tweeted "#Avengers fans, NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let's help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!" This, in turn, created a swirl of controversy around Jackson and the film. As if to provide a chaser for the clustering mess of scandal, the Marvel movie's marketing campaign was was decried in Japan for sporting an ethnocentric marketing tagline that translated to, “Hey Japan, this is a movie.”

Act of Valor

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On the opposite side of Zero Dark Thirty’s controversy is Act of Valor. The unexpected hit starred a cast comprised mostly of real-life Navy SEALs, with a few exceptions like Roselyn Sanchez (pictured above). Despite sporting an authentic military pedigree, the film’s schmaltzy sentimentalism and simplistic depiction of war were heavily criticized as blatant military propaganda.

Compliance

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To call Compliance the most controversial film to come out of Sundance in 2012 would be a gross understatement. The film, written and directed by Craig Zobel (left), is about a fast-food manager (Ann Dowd, right) who receives a prank phone call by a man who claims to be a police officer. As the narrative progresses, she finds herself and fellow employees conned into participating in the sexual assault and humiliation of a co-worker. The film, which was inspired by an actual incident that happened at a McDonald’s in Kentucky, has been accused of being crass exploitation and has been labeled “torture Adult Videos” by some critics. The Sundance premiere was infamous for spurring several walkouts and, during a later Q&A, shouting and heckling. Nevertheless, the film holds a 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Master

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has recently garnered Oscar nods for Best Supporting Actor (for Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Best Actor (for Jaoquin Phoenix), and Best Actress (for Amy Adams). Despite these accolades, the film has been labeled by the Church of Scientology as being a thinly veiled indictment of their religion and its creator, L. Ron Hubbard. The group allegedly implemented a campaign against the distributing Weinstein Co. which included “strange phone calls” objecting to the film. The opposition was apparently so heated that executive Harvey Weinstein chose to beef up security during the film’s theatrical distribution.

Red Hook Summer

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Red Hook Summer is Spike Lee’s controversial semi-sequel to Do The Right Thing. On the surface it seems like a coming-of-age story about an Atlanta teen who is sent to Brooklyn to live with his preacher grandfather for a summer. Yet the themes and ideas beneath it all have earned Lee some of the most scathing reviews of his career. Critics and detractors are calling it a hazy meditation on spirituality that shoehorns a child molestation twist into the film’s plot, only to crassly ignore it later in the film. This ambiguity toward the film’s pederast central character has led Red Hook Summer to be Lee’s most divisive film in decades.

The Dark Knight Rises

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Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was steeped in controversy almost before it was even released. First, Rush Limbaugh attacked the film for being anti-Mitt Romney propaganda (saying the film posited the villain Bane as a placeholder for Romney and his similarly named company). On the heels of the tragic shooting in Aurora,  the film’s bleak tone and violent content brought into question the franchise’s effect on some viewers. It didn't help matters much that Rotten Tomatoes was forced to suspend comments on the film when negative reviews spurred death threats from anonymous users. Despite these incidents, the film indeed rose and became the second biggest hit of the year (next to The Avengers).

Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Sundance favorite Beasts of the Southern Wild has emerged as an Academy Award underdog, especially for young Best Actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis. Despite an adored reputation, the film has garnered plenty of criticism for its many clichés and questionable values. Some critics have accused Beasts of depicting poverty as nobility. Others have pointed out the film's inability forwardly address it's own post-Katrina setting. Most recently, Beasts has been scandalized by its disqualification from the Screen Actor's Guild awards for not compensating its cast with scale pay. This, many fear, will affect its chances in other award season arenas, including its Oscar chances.

The Watch

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The Watch, a universally maligned Ben Stiller comedy directed by Akiva Schaffer (above), may have been the victim of bad timing. The film was originally titled Neighborhood Watch until the controversy surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death forced the studio to change it. Still, it may not have been enough to separate the alien invasion comedy’s vigilante themes from the tragedy—the resulting film proved to be a major flop.

The Expendables 2

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Before the film was even released, the Bulgarian government ruled that The Expendables 2 had violated its filming licenses in the country. A government investigation found an “excessive” number of dead bats inside Devetashka cave, where a sequence was shot. The location filming apparently took out up to 75% of the bat populous, which included several endangered species. That animal reduction scandal was followed by a lawsuit regarding a more human tragedy. The family of stuntman Kun Liu sued the producers of the film over the wrongful death of Liu, attributing the accident to unsafe working conditions.

Snow White and the Huntsman

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Snow White and the Huntsman was marred by controversy not onscreen, but off—Kristen Stewart’s much publicized affair with film’s director, Rupert Sanders, may have been the biggest tabloid story of the year. Indeed, rumblings followed of Universal shelving a sequel to the hit film based on the bad press the affair garnered the movie. Thankfully for Stewart, the company came forward to announce those rumors were false. Stewart has been tapped to return for a proposed sequel, but many doubt if Sanders will return for the production. Shooting will likely begin this year.

Cloud Atlas

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Aside from the fact it emerged as the most critically maligned, big budget bomb of the year, Cloud Atlas also came under fire for its racial content. After the film was released, an advocacy group known as Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) criticized directors Tom Twyker and Andy and Lana Wachowski for making use of “Yellowface” make-up on the film's non-Asian actors. Regardless of their protest, Cloud Atlas failed at the box office. Most suspect this was due to audience disinterest, rather than racial content.

Bully

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Lee Hirsch (pictured above) and his acclaimed documentary Bully had a major kerfuffle with the MPAA earlier this year. The film, which followed five students who face daily bullying, received an initial R rating from the MPAA based on the explicit language used onscreen. A Change.org petition was formed to change the rating to PG-13. Over 300,000 names signed the petition, which fostered the belief a softer rating would better spread the film's positive message to youths. Meanwhile, The Weinstein Company attempted to usurp the MPAA’s ruling by releasing the film unrated, but that in turn banned it from being picked up by major theater chains. Finally, the studio relented to a censored, PG-13 edit of the film, which would only be picked up by 265 theaters across the nation. Amidst the controversy, the documentary would be well-parodied on an episode of South Park where, when struggling to release his own anti-bullying film, Stan Marsh is faced with the question "If this video needs to be seen by everyone, why don’t you put it on the Internet for free?" The character, much like Lee Hirsch and The Weinstein Company, offered no answer.

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