The New Year’s already underway as I write this, which means it’s time to start looking ahead to awards season and the new movie class of 2013. But first, a look back at my favorite films of the past 366 days of cinema.
Wild Cards (potentially list-worthy movies unseen by moi in 2012): End of Watch, Holy Motors, Not Fade Away, Room 237, Savages, Seven Psychopaths Wreck-It Ralph, Zero Dark Thirty.
And now, for the best of what I did see…
1. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
While scanning the finalists for this list, nothing seemed like an obvious lock for the #1 spot…until I realized I’d forgotten Beasts of the Southern Wild, at which point the answer was clear. Because, though some of the films below are excellent representatives of their genres and others showcase established directors doing that voodoo they do so well, Benh Zeitlin’s feature debut about Louisiana bayou life on the edge of apocalypse brought a “what the hell is this?” charge of discovery and excitement that truly sets it apart. Mesmerizing production design, a great soundtrack and vivid performances (anchored by Quvenzhané Wallis as the riveting six-year-old protagonist, Hushpuppy) all make strong impressions, but the film’s secret weapon is the way it submerges us in the magic realist perspective of a child trying to make sense of the dangerous world around her.
2. SUN DON’T SHINE
Raw, elemental noir on a budget, I haven’t stopped thinking about Amy Seimetz’s directorial debut since I saw it at the 2012 South-By-Southwest Film Festival. Not a moment is wasted in this tense, stripped-down take on the road trip sub-genre, and the less you know going in the better. Viewers are simply dropped into the middle of the action and forced to figure out the nature of the relationship between the male and female central characters. But sex is very much a part of the equation, and Kate Lyn-Sheil’s smoldering, viscerally unhinged performance as Crystal makes it clear why Kentucky Audley’s Leo becomes so helplessly snared in her dangerous web…or is she trapped in his?
Ben Affleck is no slouch as a screen presence, but as a director he’s batting a thousand (or at least a solid .300) with three action dramas for grown-ups that are completely entertaining from beginning to end. And though I enjoyed Gone Baby Gone and The Town a bit more (owing perhaps to my native Beantown bias), Argo was easily my favorite mainstream film of 2012: a great escape espionage thriller, a timely history lesson and a tribute to the bravery of foreign service workers (with the ‘70s film industry thrown in for comic relief).
4. DJANGO UNCHAINED
Like his list-mate Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino is one of those directors who inhabits every inch of every frame of his films, from the rhythms of the soundtrack and dialogue to the witty details of set design, costumes and casting (literally, in this case, thanks to a mercifully brief auteurial cameo with a great punchline of an ending). That makes his films tough sledding for those who can’t stand the man or his relentless grindhouse obsessions — but the rest of us know we can (almost) always depend on QT for a full course meal of protracted suspense, operatic violence and verbal fireworks in service of reliably audacious pop filmmaking. Django Unchained delivers all that and more while gleefully tap-dancing through the controversial minefield of American race relations, and there’s hardly a dull moment in its entire 165 minutes.
5. KILLING THEM SOFTLY
“America’s not a country. It’s a business.” So says mob enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) – and while the cynical world view and seedy underworld depicted in this adaptation of a crime novel by George V. Higgins may seem like familiar genre turf, director Andrew Dominik combines old school lowlife grit with painterly compositions for a uniquely beautiful depiction of humanity’s ugliest impulses.
6. MOONRISE KINGDOM
If Dominik’s film is an Edward Hopper exhibit come to life, then Wes Anderson’s wistful ode to solitude and connection is a beloved pop-up storybook packed with witty, meticulously detailed imagery all suitable for framing. The quietly desperate misfits of Moonrise Kingdom’s existential summer camp world know life can be grim and unforgiving, but a true companion (and a working compass) might just get them through the storm.
7. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
And on that note: “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Damn straight, Catwoman…and that foreboding sense of pipers being paid and bills coming due gave the final (and, in my opinion, best) chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy enough real world thematic heft to compensate for some of the sillier, sloppier bits.
8. ONE NIGHT STAND
There are movies you recommend to everyone and movies you know may not be everyone’s cup of tea; I’m guessing One Night Stand (which screened at the 2012 Independent Film Festival of Boston) probably falls in the latter category. But for artsy types in general and theater geeks in particular, this documentary about actors, writers, composers and lyricists given 24 hours to whip up and perform a night of mini-musicals as part of a Broadway performance event is a pure hit of pleasure and a celebration of the joyful, terrifying creative process in all its chaotic glory.
9. THE RAID: REDEMPTION
Sometimes a cinematic action sequence is so ridiculously violent and exhilarating you can only laugh in stunned disbelief. Now imagine that sequence lasting for roughly 101 ass-kicking minutes and you’ve got The Raid: Redemption, an Indonesian martial arts film about an elite police unit infiltrating a slum inhabited by a lethal crime lord (and seemingly the entire criminal population of Jakarta). The fight choreography by Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian recalls the kinetic momentum of John Woo’s Hard Boiled and does for the fighting style of pencak silat what Casino Royale did for parkor.
As always, the tenth spot is the toughest, and I very nearly gave it to Lincoln just for the master class performances of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and a formidable menagerie of all-star supporting players. And yet, despite a slew of great moments, Spielberg’s biopic can’t entirely escape its own history pageant heft (or its director’s weakness for twinkly bombast). On the other hand, Bernie — a much less important biopic about far less important events — is likewise powered by a deep bench supporting cast and two outstanding central performances: Shirley MacLaine as the meanest lady in Texas and Jack Black, channeling all his manic energy into a fully realized portrayal of a good man pushed to his limits. But Richard Linklater’s docudrama mainly earns the #10 spot because the whole of the film works just as well as the individual pieces in this sad, charming depiction of a very specific time and place and a tricky question of morality that sticks with you long after the lights come up.
Honorable Mention: The Woman In Black, Wanderlust, The Cabin in the Woods, Safety Not Guaranteed, Paul Williams Still Alive, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, Shut Up And Play The Hits, Kid-Thing, America’s Parking Lot, American Reunion, Two Days In New York, The Five-Year Engagement, Prometheus, Your Sister’s Sister, The Queen of Versailles, The Bourne Supremacy, The Master, Looper, Frankenweenie, Lincoln
Memorable Moments/Performances of 2012: The last half hour of Cabin in the Woods, the first half of Prometheus (and that whole auto-surgery scene…damn), the final moments of Safety Not Guaranteed, LCD Soundsystem’s mind-blowing cover of “Jump Into The Fire” in Shut Up And Play The Hits, Sydney Aguirre’s haunted performance as the kid and the chicken hypnotizing scene in Kid-Thing, the gang all finally shield-to-shoulder and ready to kick ass on the streets of New York in The Avengers, Joaquin and Philip and the blue, blue ocean in The Master, the creepy kid and the body parts falling off that poor dude in Looper, “Argo fuck yourself,” the upside-down plane in Flight, the theme to Skyfall, James Spader’s “Well, I’ll be fucked” and Abe finally losing his shit with Mary in Lincoln, Helen Mirren’s red swimsuit in Hitchcock, the Klan scene and every second of Samuel Jackson’s performance in Django Unchained…
Better Than I Was Expecting: THE HUNGER GAMES
Okay…I kinda get what all the fuss was about now (and I’m sure I would’ve liked it even more as a teenager).
Most Disappointing: DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
I was let down by Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, easily the weakest film of his directorial canon — yet it’s basically just one glitch in a prolific, successful career. But for Whit Stillman’s first movie in 14 years to be a dull, undercooked shadow of his witty, WASP-y prime (i.e., the influential “comedies of manners” Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco) was the biggest bummer of my cinematic year.
Worst Movie I Saw (Until I Walked Out): NATURE CALLS
A few years back, Patton Oswalt joked that he threw the script of Alvin and the Chipmunks “across the room in disgust” after reading it. If only he’d had the same reaction to this shrill, painfully unfunny tale of a schlubby Scoutmaster battling his alpha male brother (Johnny Knoxville) for the respect of a troop of obnoxiously precocious pre-teens. Nothing in writer/director Todd Rohal’s movie bears the slightest relation to actual human behavior, which might be okay if Nature Calls was a hilarious three-minute gag-fest on Adult Swim instead of a hackneyed, headache-inducing “indie” full of people shrieking at each other. Personally, I’d rather watch a bunch of singing rodents.
Worst Movie I Couldn’t Walk Out On: DARK SHADOWS
When an in-flight movie’s so boring and half-assed it makes your trip feel longer, you wonder why any studio would give it a green light in the first place. But when you discover Warner Bros. spent $150 million dollars on such soulless drek, it just makes you wanna strap on Bane’s big metal face mask and declare war on Hollywood.