Thursday, January 3, 2013

That's A Wrap: The Best Everything In Movies From 2012 (With a 2011 Make-Up!)

For all intensive purposes, 2012 was a pretty great year for movies. There always seemed to be quality product in the theaters no matter what time of year, and even the worst movie I saw this year (The Expendables 2 by far) was enough dumb fun to make it seem like it wasn't a total waste of a movie ticket. I even enjoyed the few franchise box office candy that I just so happened to see as well. Like last year, though, 2012 lacked that one great movie. It wasn't like there was a No Country For Old Men or a Hurt Locker roaming around to soak up the instant classic mojo, but it did have consistent awesomeness. Because I'm lacking a de facto, front-running "best movie of the year", I will comprise my 10 Best List into alphabetized tiers. After all, it's almost unfair to compare the few films I've spent brooding over for months (The Master, Ruby Sparks) with the ones I was rushed to cram in during the holiday season (Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty). So, here are the 10 Best Movies in 2012... in three sections:

The definitive best. All could probably be considered for the #1 spot depending on my mood.


Beautifully told, stupendously acted and so overwhelmingly heartbreaking, Michael Haneke's Amour is a story about facing mortality. Through the harrowing tale of Georges and Anne (an incredible, Oscar-deserving Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), Haneke navigates the evolution of there decades-long marriage after a stroke slowly and surely begins to strip Anne of her health and later, of her most basic physical and cognitive functions. Being a director so obsessed with manipulating and affecting the viewer's experience, this may be the very first movie by Michael Haneke that I've actually enjoyed, and I must say that when he works for me, he really works. This film is stark in its portrayal, unflinching in the details, yet still manages a warmth because the love these two people have for each other. This isn't a love story, per se, but a story about the strength and power of true love.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

"Once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in The Bathtub", so says the infectiously watchable main character - Hushpuppy (an otherworldy performance from the six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis) - at the beginning and the end of the year's most wonderful spectacle. When you watch this movie for the first time, it's hard to tell where it takes place, what takes place in reality and what's in the imagination of a five-year-old girl. But you never feel off-balance, the basic plot holding strong: Hushpuppy and her abrasive but loving father Wink (Dwight Henry) fight to survive a hurricane in their impoverished neighborhood. But even after the storm, they must still fight to keep their scavenger society alive. A film about facing fears - whether it be the loss of your father or the emergence of pre-historic beasts - and the importance of heritage and society, Beasts of the Southern Wild holds two very different but very effective performances from Wallis and Henry that make this unlike any movie that I've ever seen.

The Master

I struggled with The Master about as much as any Paul Thomas Anderson fanboy could have upon its initial release. It was just so odd, led by a manic performance from Joaquin Phoenix that was Day-Lewis-like in its obsessiveness and unnerving in its unpredictability. Its plot circles itself, uninterested in any genuine three-act structure, preferring instead the stream-of-consciousness aligned with the demented mind of Phoenix's character. Phoenix plays Freddie, a damaged, occasionally dangerous war veteran that is lured into an orthodox, possibly morally corrupt spiritual following led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) in the 1950's. Through the barrels of themes that P.T. Anderson heaves at us (shell-shocked vets, mental illness, Scientology), The Master stays consistent with its interest in the relationship between Lancaster and Freddie that I was completely transfixed. Add to that, brilliance from Anderson and his first collaboration with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., and what is probably career-best work from Hoffman and Phoenix, The Master is a brilliant, if not troublesome, film.

The phenomenal movie experiences. Never really considered for THE best, but never doubted for a Ten Best slot.


Part Hollywood farce, part 1970's political thriller, Ben Affleck's third film is by far his best. The film's plot, at one point gimmicky and at other points tight and tense, focuses on the CIA plan with Canada to save six Americans trapped in a very hostile Iran during the famed Hostage Crisis of 1980. When expert CIA operative, Tony Mendez (Affleck) combines with two Hollywood honchos (Alan Arkin, John Goodman), they create a fake movie titled "Argo", with which Tony then travels to Iran as the film's producer, extracting the hostages by having them pose as the "film's" Canadian crew. It seems insane except that it's a true story. Affleck navigates a tremendous ensemble cast (which also includes great work from Scoot McNairy, Bryan Cranston and Victor Garber) and instills the story with sweltering suspense that gets so high in the film's third act that its almost suffocating. Argo is very much a Hollywood product, with obvious heros and villains, and a not-so-subtle nod to cinematic history, but it represents the very best that Hollywood has to offer.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Popular books becoming movies is nothing new. Authors of popular books writing and directing their own adaptations to great success very much is. Stephen Chbosky wrote the 1999 novel that became a sweeping cult classic, and when word came out that he would be writing and directing the film adaptation over ten years later there was trepidation (not helped by a trailer that screamed "MTV original movie"). But Perks navigates the life of high school insecurity better than any movie not directed by John Hughes, while still staying true to the source material's more serious themes. The three leads, including Logan Lerman as the wallflower Charlie, Emma Watson as the beautiful but rebellious Sam, and Ezra Miller as the flaming but insecure Patrick, show off a great variety of emotions as each tell three very different stories of growing up. Much like the book, this film does a great job of showcasing the highs and lows of grade school and the teenage miopia of social standing, all while showcasing what is probably the greatest freshman year of high school ever.

Ruby Sparks

A film about writing? Perhaps. Ruby Sparks is a lot more slippery than that. Written by Zoe Kazan, who also plays the title character, Sparks tells the story of a novelist, Calvin (Paul Dano), struggling with too much success too soon, now ten years removed from his initial accomplishment. Deprived of any meaningful relationship outside of his hedonistic brother (a fantastic Chris Messina), Calvin begins writing about a girl named Ruby Sparks just so he can spend time with her. But when that girl (Kazan) magically shows up in his kitchen calling herself his girlfriend, things get strange. Ruby Sparks turns a few times from what we expect, but Kazan's script is never really truly about one thing. There is the egomania of the creator, there is the inherent misogyny that goes into the writing of most screenplays, and then there is the painful process of writing itself. Ruby Sparks glides through these multiple themes brilliantly and with plenty of humor, leaving a magically embracing film that is unlike any other.

Silver Linings Playbook

Feel-good, almost to an unfair, obscene level, Silver Linings Playbook is very much the Juno of 2012. It's screenplay takes the easy way out of most difficult situations, its characters are overwhelmingly affected and cute, and the director's camera calls more attention to itself more than it ever should in a film like this. Yet, I loved every second of it. Charting the often troubling subject matter of mental illness, David O. Russell's latest movie has the audacity (how dare they!?) to be a comedy, evolving quickly into a screwball romance between two unstable but lovable individuals (two career-best performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) as circumstances force them together. Interlocking several other themes that also deal with friendship, family and sports fandom, Silver Linings defies most film purists and has already survived a particularly harsh backlash (again, like Juno) to arise as an astonishing achievement. And of course, having Robert DeNiro's best performance in decades (as Cooper's sweet but temperamental father) doesn't hurt either.

The fantastic non-masterpieces that were just that much better to nudge out the other beloved non-masterpieces and round out the ten.

Django Unchained

Part revenge fantasy, part love story, part spaghetti western homage, Quentin Tarantino's latest film shows how a man can go from debilitated imprisoned slave to bounty hunter hero, with a little help from a German man and a horse. Following freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) as he joins a German dentist (Christoph Waltz) in the bounty hunting business, Django tells the story of their ultimate plan: rescuing Django's beloved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the plantation she's currently enslaved. But the plantation is owned by a ruthless man (a devilish Leonardo DiCaprio) and run by a particularly hateful house negro (Samuel L. Jackson) that create a great challenge. More angry than Inglourious Basterds and more sentimental than Pulp Fiction, Django is both unlike any movie Tarantino's ever made and EXACTLY like every movie Tarantino's ever made. There are still copious amounts of gruesome violence and there is still the snappy, intoxicating dialogue, but the sincerity here marks a bit of a departure. Perhaps this is the first time QT has made a movie about something he actually cares about other than movies.

Holy Motors

The most bizarre spectacle I saw in 2012, Holy Motors has a bit of it all: violence, sex, laughs, chimpanzees, talking limousines and even a musical interlude involving a half dozen accordions. Holy Motors defies most explanations, but is still one of the most fascinating movies I got to see this year. It deals with Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he spends his days occupying various lives in and around Paris, France. Directed by Leos Carax, the images we're presented are extreme, sometimes they're funny and other times they can be tragic, but as Oscar navigates these lives one thing you can never call them is predictable. Holy Motors is in many ways part cinematic satire, part cynical society display, but I don't believe Carax was as interested in interpreting that as he was presenting us with so many contrasting images. How else do you explain the appearances of beauties Eva Mendes and Kylie Monogue in the same movie with a dirty homeless man's erect penis? Equal parts enthralling and grotesque, Holy Motors is a total enigma, but an entertaining one at that. Plus, best movie name of 2012, hands down.

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty is not much focused on plot and structures a narrative around the character of Maya (Jessica Chastain) seemingly out of obligation. Instead, it focuses on the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden in a very sterile, straightforward way that it only makes sense that the film's screenwriter - Oscar winning Mark Boal - used to be a journalist. But its scenes are tense with the anxiety of the post 9/11 obsession with eradicating Al Queda. Kathryn Bigelow, fully shifted from schlock action director to Oscar winning filmmaker, directs with shaky handheld shots and shadowy lighting which doesn't do the actors any favors, but gives the movie an eerie off-balance feeling that fits the tone perfectly (special shoutout to cinematographer Greig Fraser for brilliance in making lighting look simple). Bigelow's sharp instincts combined with a dedicated ensemble performance, led by Chastain, make Zero Dark Thirty a slick action thriller about one of the most important (and disturbingly celebrated) assassinations in American history.

Tied for eleventh place...

Skyfall, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises proved that you can make franchise action films that aren't totally devoid of substance and have fascinating characters; Moonrise Kingdom was a welcome hit for Wes Anderson and a terrific film about trying to grow up when all the adults around you are children; Wreck-It-Ralph was a delightful children's films with several entertaining references and great voice performances; Life of Pi was a great use of 3-D filmmaking and another great movie in the increasingly eclectic career of Ang Lee; Celeste and Jesse Forever contained a performance from Rashida Jones that was so good that it buoys a film that may not be the best directed or written, but still manages to stay stuck in my head months after viewing it; Steven Spielberg's much-anticipated Lincoln probably met most's expectations and has a slew of wonderful performances led, of course, by the seemingly immortal Daniel Day-Lewis.

Check in later this week to see superlative categories (Best Director, Best Actor, etc.). And, finally, to make up for last year where I skipped all of this fun, here's my top 10 list from 2011:

1. Shame
2. Beginners
3. Drive
4. The Descendents
5. Young Adult
6. Take Shelter
7. The Artist
8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
9. Bridesmaids
10. The Help

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