Sunday, January 13, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012

      The year of film 2012 was a time of possibility, a time of high expectations and week after week of seminal viewing experiences in the last quarter of the year. I barely had the time to write reviews in November and December, since every week was a new film that needed to be seen to have my comprehensive list be taken seriously at all. The biggest surprises? I never could have guessed that Prometheus wouldn't even crack my top 25 and that Taken 2 would be my least favorite film (more like extended television commercial) of the year (okay, maybe it was This Means War). 

     I saw 64 films released in the year 2012. That doesn't include the ones I've watched twice (or three times). A Top 10 list was a tough one this year, at least for the bottom half. Tough for a reason: I wouldn't quite call Top 10 lists arbitrary--surely they arn't totally random or devoid of any sort of system--but opinions can change on a day to day (or view to view) basis. I've switched out the last film on my list maybe a dozen times, depending on mood, another watch, or a few extra minutes of quiet thoughtfulness about the project.

    For example, on first viewing I found Wes Anderson's film Moonrise Kingdom to be a joyous experience, a film of nostalgia and young love that ranked among his best films. But a re-watch showed that maybe the film was a bit slight, a bit too typical of Anderson's always-there eccentricity. Seven Psychopaths and Killing Them Softly are two films that were tied for a place on my list a couple months ago: their similar dismantling of genre conventions (both in their own way), clever/vulgar scripts, and extreme violence left a lasting impression--just not lasting enough. And who could forget--maybe the most anticipated film of the year for many people--The Dark Knight Rises, the culmination of excitement of Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy. It was a fitting--not incredible--end.

So here we are: ten films that I still think about (especially one of them, since I saw it within one hour of writing this) now that the year has passed. These are films that I would be glad to pop into the Blu-Ray player and watch again at any moment, films that--in this exact second in time--are my favorites of the year 2012.


     You can call it what you want. A history lesson? A predictable story? A plot that would fare better watching at a real theater instead of a movie cinema? Sure, it's all of those things. But it also includes many wonderful aspects: another astonishing performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, a lifelike script written by Tony Kushner, and a film that's packed full with so many fruitful supporting performances that it's ripe to burst, namely Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones in two of the best roles of their careers. Not to mention an entertaining story about political backroom dealings and good direction by Steven Spielberg that mostly avoids his sometimes-eye-rolling sentimentality.

Django Unchained

     One question kept entering my mind while watching Django Unchained, the new spaghetti western slavery epic by Quentin Tarantino: if I had black skin--instead of white--how would I feel about what I was watching on the big screen, essentially a tongue-in-cheek vengeance tale of a black slave getting freed and murdering racists and plantation owners? Probably about the same as I do now: this shit, though never quite reaching the greatness of  most of Tarantino's previous efforts (namely Inglorious Basterds and Pulp Fiction), is typical awesomeness from the director, full of stylistic entertainment, humor, and a bold vision of slavery that hopefully kicks down the door for other worthwhile stories about the horrific subject. 


    Ben Affleck got snubbed for a Best Director nomination at the Oscars this year. I'm not sure why: his steady handle at the controls of Argo is one of the main reasons it makes this list. After Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and now this, it's clear that the (sometimes laughable) actor is much more adept at creating tension behind the camera, though his acting performance in Argo is also something to be praised. Showcasing an intricate sense of place and detail, Argo is Affleck's best film yet, a film that's still suspenseful even though the outcome is well-known. By leaving his comfort zone of stories set in Boston, we leave the comfort zone with him, and the result couldn't have been much better.

The Sessions

     The Sessions is an adult movie about sex that doesn't resort to gross-out gags or one-liner dick jokes. John Hawkes gives one of the best performances of the year (and coincidentally was another Oscar snub) as  Mark, a poet paralyzed from the neck down due to polio. Wanting to lose his virginity and experience the glorious wonder of a woman's vagina, Mark hires Cheryl (Helen Hunt) a sex surrogate who specializes in getting down and dirty with the disabled. It's heartfelt, touching and emotional. 


     Can't say that I am a huge fan of the Bond franchise. Sure, the films are fun--a mild diversion to get you away from your everyday life. But the old ones are a tough sit through, and the Brosnan films are chipper but cheesy. It wasn't until the steely-eyed Daniel Craig took the reigns that Bond became worthwhile for me, with their new-found slickness and dark sensibility. And Skyfall, in all its personal and simple glory, is the best one yet: a Bond movie that feels like it should actually exist on its own right instead of being just a bi-yearly predictable incarnation. And by giving a wink to the past Bond films--instead of giving fully in to their absurdity--Skyfall became a great blend of 21st century Bond fun. 

Zero Dark Thirty

     You can call Zero Dark Thirty, the new film directed by Kathryn Bigelow (creator of the wonderful The Hurt Locker), a meticulous story about the pursuit and killing of Osama Bin Laden. But--ultimately--it's significantly more than that too: it's a story directed by a determined woman (rare in Hollywood these days) about a determined woman. Jessica Chastain portrays Maya, and she gives one of the top two performances of the year. She's a woman who would do anything to find and kill the most well-known terrorist in the world. But the really brilliant thing about Zero Dark Thirty is that it's truly a non-biased view of the investigation leading to his assassination. Draw your own conclusions about how effective torture is: I'll draw the conclusion that Zero Dark Thirty is one of most intense films of the year.

Silver Linings Playbook

     Silver Linings Playbook was a big surprise for me: the trailer for film looked dull and corny. But it was misleading--it's one of those films where the jokes that fall flat in the preview are seamlessly integrated into the actual movie when you watch it all the way through. It's the best romantic comedy of the year, and it's actually an evolution for the genre: instead of stereotypes that revolve around unhappy women and men who need to be broken in like puppies, Silver Linings has real characters that live their lives full of real problems--mental illness, death, and loneliness all play a role. Not to mention it has two of the best performances of the year: Bradley Cooper (never thought I'd see him next to the words "Best Performance") as Pat Jr. and Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany. 

The Grey

     This is one of those choices that many people will think is a little kooky. A movie starring Liam Neeson that's about a group of plane crash survivors fending off a pack of wolves in the snowy wilderness? It was easy to dismiss. But you'd be wrong to give up The Grey, to write it off as another cashed paycheck in the pantheon of Liam Neeson films. It's a survival story with a philosophical edge, a movie about the choices you have to make in the face of death when you realize that God isn't coming to help you. It's an incredibly bleak vision for some: all hope is lost so what's the point of fighting anymore? When one realizes that this life is all there is...plenty. 


     Looper, the best sci-fi film of the year and directed by Rian Johnson, smartly makes a decision early on in its run time: instead of focusing on the intricacies of time travel (which is the biggest plot device of the movie, after all), it throws those discussions to the wayside and lets the cool action and slick direction take the viewer on a fun and violent ride. Featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis playing old and young versions of the same character in a futuristic cat and mouse game, Looper is incredibly solid sci-fi entertainment containing hovercrafts, blasting blunderbusses, telekinetic freaks and an original nature vs. nurture debate. 

The Master

     2012 had quite a large number of films that I was incredibly excited for that didn't at all live up to my expectations: namely, Ridley Scott's sort-of-Alien prequel Prometheus and the overlong The Hobbit. Others came extremely close to meeting them, but not quite: The Dark Knight Rises and Django Unchained were both great, but I thought that either could have been my number one film of the year before I watched them. Considering Paul Thomas Anderson has written and directed two of my favorite films of all time (Magnolia and There Will Be Blood) and two others that I still love (Punch-Drunk Love and Boogie Nights), its safe to say that The Master--a story about an alcoholic veteran who returns home only to get sucked in by a Scientology-esque religious leader--was one of my most anticipated films of the year. And there's one reason why The Master is my number one film of 2012: it met those incredibly high expectations.  Beautifully acted by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman and gorgeously directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master is one of those rare American films for smart adults: a challenging and transfixing story that can leave you meditating on its questions for days on end. 

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