2012 you were very kind to me. I got to do more of what I love–saw over a hundred movies this year, many of them entertaining. Sure, the superhero franchises weren’t as terrific as their predecessors and 2012 had its share of lightweights; and I had to sit through another “Twilight” movie. But on the plus side there were a lot of overly creative, character-driven titles (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “Looper” and “Prometheus,” to name a few, didn’t make my Top 10 but were enjoyable), several A-list directors doing some of their best work (Tarantino, Spielberg, Mendes) and a few breathtaking actor performances and above all. Here’s a recap of the year’s best films; and then let’s get on with 2013: I’m starved for a movie.
10. “The Grey”- If you take a bunch of guys and strand them out in the wilderness, you’ll find a compelling array of philosophical and religious beliefs, feelings, and discussions about mortality, apparently. Sure there are wolves hunting the plane crash survivors and director Joe Carnahan does a fine job of turning that into several thrilling moments but when Liam Neeson recites the poem (“Into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day”) for the last time, you just know that this movie was so much more than just an actioner about fighting wolves.
9. “The Master”- Sure it was messy and the pre-release buzz that this movie was going to be some indictment of scientology messed it up further (I’m sure a second viewing would help clear it up but I’ve yet to do that) but overall I enjoyed the character study narrative of two men grappling with their beliefs. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a towering performance as Lancaster Dodd, a man grounded in his convictions and prone to fury when those convictions are put under any scrutiny and Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerizingly good as the damaged PTSD soldier Freddie Quell. The cinematography is excellent. This isn’t Paul Thomas Anderson’s best work but it works better than most people gave it credit for.
8. “Ted”- The talking teddy bear movie that I’m not even going to bother defending by calling it a guilty pleasure. Seth MacFarlane can, at times, produce a belly-laugh that’s so clever and offensive at the same time and “Ted” basically was many of those moments strung together. Mark Wahlberg gives a notable performance, acting opposite a computer-generated avatar, but this is MacFarlane’s show and I think it’s a very strong indication that he’s going to be one hell of a comedy filmmaker.
7. “Skyfall”- It was the best James Bond in quite some time, hands down. Daniel Craig is one of the most bad-ass Bonds ever and Javier Bardem proves again that no one could play a dead-eyed villain quite like him. The movie looks great and the action sequences are as inventive as they are skillfully put together.
6. “Zero Dark Thirty”- It sets out to inspire questions and questions are pretty much the main thing you get out of it. Did we use torture? Was this really all the work of one woman? Are we better off now? Kathryn Bigelow’s film is driven more by plot than by characters but it’s a strong plot, clearly well-researched and told realistically while shrugging off any glamorizing or hero-making ambitions. The last third of the film, where the Pakistani fortress is debated over and then raided, makes for gripping moviemaking.
5. “Central Park 5”- Ken Burn’s documentary about five black teenagers whose lives were altered when they were charged with a rape they never committed is fascinating. Burns captures the racial unrest of New York in eighties remarkably well, slowly revealing the cracks in the criminal justice system with an almost academic rigor.
4. “The Hobbit”- Critics weren’t satisfied with this trip back to Middle Earth and I’m still wondering what they were looking for. For such an “Unexpected Journey,” it was exactly what I was hoping for from Peter Jackson. The characters make for a fun bunch with Martin Freeman (“The Office”), Richard Armitage, and Ian McKellen leading the way with savy performances. A special mention must be made of Andy Serkis, he who deserved an Oscar for “Planet of the Apes” last year; I can’t imagine he’ll go much longer without a statuette. The battles, CGI effects, and set design all give “The Hobbit” a sense of grandeur and don’t give up on 48 frames per second just yet. Does it have some problems? Sure. Does it kill the movie? Absolutely not.
3. “Bernie”- It stands to reason that we’re all tested by at least one person at a point in our lives and the first half of Richard Linklater’s film tells that story oh-so-well. “Bernie” is based on a true story. It happened in Carthage, Texas where possibly one of the world’s sweetest men tried to befriend one of the world’s most insufferable old women. It’s not giving too much away to say that this relationship did not end well but “Bernie” isn’t about the crime so much as how we perceive good and bad. Linklater’s film is thought-provoking, funny, engaging, and even tragic, and interspersing commentary from real-life residents of the town proves to be a great move as well. And Jack Black is at his best here. Funny and heart-breaking, Black portrays a personality who could have been played as a caricature and turns him into a palpable, genuine individual.
2. “Django Unchained”- This is Tarantino in his revenge-thriller mode but while it’s not really new territory for the director, I’ll be damned if I wasn’t riveted and waiting for justice to be handed out. Tarantino has fashioned something that’s part satire and part ugly journey through the heart of slavery. This is a bloody, violent film but it’s also so well written the characters and exchanges between characters being just as great as the action sequences. It’s no surprise that we get five compelling performances here from Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and I thought Samuel L. Jackson’s work here was masterfully detestable in every way.
1. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”- I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that reveals its passion for a place better than Benh Zeitlin’s film centered on the bathtub, that place on the other side of the water line in the Bayou. This was a glorious little film that centered on the celebration, spirit, and pride of a community, the resiliency of people, and the coming-of-age of a young girl who will soon face the world on her own. Newcomer filmmaker Benh Zeitlin does a phenomenal job of telling this story in the most moving and natural way possible and the best thing he does is cast an incredible six-year old (not an actress but a resident of this community herself as many of the other actors here are) named Quvenzhane Wallis. If Jennifer Lawrence or Jessica Chastain win awards this year, they should come with an asterix saying that Wallis was disqualified because of a technicality and the fact that she wasn’t as big a star. This little kid was a force to be reckoned with, giving one of the most fierce, intense, and powerful performances I can remember seeing anyone give. This was a movie that was as rare as it was wonderful.