Well, it’s 2013, our first issue of the new year and what better way to spend it than by looking back.
The Oscar nominations were announced this past Thursday morning and, as you know, this marks the beginning of a very exciting time for me. More often than not the Academy Awards fail to line up with my personal tastes but this year I’m pretty happy about who’s been nominated. There were a few surprising snubs, but that’s true of every year. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself just now and so I’ll save my real Oscar prognosticating for an issue that’s a little closer to the big day. For now I’ll just give you my personal list of favorite movies from 2012.
Before I begin I want to remind you that I’m just some guy. I see A LOT of movies, but only the movies that regular people can see, I don’t have access to press screenings, or advance screenings, or even really to festival screenings (although we did make it to a few films at TIFF this year). I’m not here to tell you what the best movies of the year were (who can say?) I’m just here to tell you which ones were my favorites. Each movie on this list, in one way or another, made a real impression on me. And if you haven’t seen one or two (or all) of them then allow me to recommend them. They are great.
Here are my ten favorite movies from 2012:
Released early in the year, I had heard the buzz about “Chronicle” long before I actually saw it. I’m not sure why I never got around to seeing the film in theaters, I know that I *almost* went and saw it a few times. But the “Found Footage” conceit turned me off from a distance. I didn’t know who any of the actors were, I’d never heard of the filmmakers, and the trailers made it look like those old Playstation commercials. When I finally did watch the movie on Netflix (God bless you, Netflix) I was totally blown away by it. A morality tale that plays like an inverted Superhero origin story, “Chronicle” is a movie about power. It is a film that taps into the modern zeitgeist, the bullied, the outcast and the powerless. The Spider-Man movies keep telling us that “with great power comes great responsibility” and this film explores those themes for real. There were a lot of very big superhero films in 2012 and this was the best of them.
#9: THE MASTER
Paul Thomas Anderson’s long, meandering, imperfect sixth film is not easy to describe or to talk about. The film, like many of the great films this year, was a rorschach. Each of us sitting in our own dark rooms took something different from Anderson’s dark, brooding masterpiece. As usual, the photography was brilliant and mesmerizing. As usual, the performances were incredible, and unselfconscious, and overwhelming. As usual, the writing was musical, challenging, and ambitious. Anderson never ceases to disappoint even when his reach may exceed his grasp. “The Master” is not an easy movie, and it asks a lot of difficult questions of its audience, but in the end it is a journey very worth taking.
#8: THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
This movie was a real surprise. We chose it mostly because we were bored and it was really the only thing playing. I wanted to see what Emma Watson would do with a non-Hermione Granger role, and neither of us was expecting very much. “Perks of Being a Wallflower” ended up being something much, much better. In a sense “Perks” is a film you’ve seen a million times before. It’s about a shy kid coming of age during high school. He has no friends. He has an inspiring English teacher. He falls in love with a beautiful girl he can’t have. He wants to be “a writer” and he even gets a type-writer for Christmas. That’s more than enough cliches to kill a movie, more than enough ammunition to keep my eyes rolling for the full 100 minutes. But “Perks” rises above all of that. At every moment of cheesy high-school cliche “Perks” goes its own way, choosing a fresh approach to every well trod path. This movie is full of charm, tells a great story, and it has a stellar young cast. I’ll admit Watson was still the weak one, with her quavery American accent and her overused eyebrows, but the movie is good enough (and she’s pretty enough) that you’ll forgive her.
#7: ZERO DARK THIRTY
Zero Dark Thirty is not an action film. In fact, what I loved most about the movie was how much of an anti-action film it was. Stripped of its sexy sheen and patriotic glamour, Zero Dark Thirty laid bare the brutal realities of the war on terror and accentuated the hopelessness and aimlessness of America’s desire for vengeance. The audience is brought backstage, into the cloaked and classified world of CIA black sites and the slippery moral slope of Homeland Security. Director Kathryn Bigelow dissects the messiness of counter-terrorism, and the loneliness of any-means-necessary policies. In the end, when the marines finally bring home the most wanted dead body in American history there is a strange sense of emptiness and impotence. When Jessica Chastain (in her Oscar nominated performance) finally sees Bin Laden’s dead body her reaction sums up the film’s best theme: that although you can sometimes have success in revenge you can never really have victory.
#6: SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
In 2010, David O. Russell made a film called “The Fighter” which refreshed the typical Boxing Movie genre with a new vitality; a sense of electric realness that inhabited the whole cast and made the whole thing feel true. Well, O. Russell does the same thing here for the Romantic Comedy genre. Bradley Cooper, usually intolerable, is actually really well cast as Patrick, a husband and former teacher with mental illness struggling to rebuild the life that he destroyed in one gigantic violent outburst. Jennifer Lawrence, who is one of the best and fastest young rising stars in Hollywood, is amazing as always as the equally troubled for different reasons Tiffany, who just might be exactly what Patrick is (not) looking for. A wonderful acting showcase, “Silver Linings Playbook” is the first film in over 30 years to have an actor nominated in each of the four categories at the Academy Awards (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress) and they all deserve it. A Romantic Comedy with a real heart beat as well as some really funny moments (“Woah, slow down raisin bran…”) this movie makes for a great date night.
The best action movie of the year. Smart, cool, scary and mind-bending, Looper is the kind of movie Christopher Nolan used to make. Joseph Gordon Levitt continues his ascent to movie star greatness and Bruce Willis shows us that he’s still got it. Some people condemned the movie for its dramatic cerebral shift at the film’s halfway point, and some criticized the love story element – but I loved it all. The movie is rich with ideas and implications and I loved turning the story over and over in my mind after I had seen it. Rian Johnson is a director that every film fan should keep on their radar as with each film he continues to improve and to amaze. The future of movies is bright.
#4: MOONRISE KINGDOM
Yes, yes, I know. Two Bruce Willis movies in a row. Usually I’m a little bit lukewarm towards Wes Anderson films, they can be a little too quirky for me, a little TOO idiosyncratic. But his last few films have really been growing on me. It probably puts me in the minority among Wes Anderson fans to say that I loved “Life Aquatic” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” but I did. But “Moonrise Kingdom” really rocked me more than any of his previous films had done. At its heart “Moonrise Kingdom” is a really sweet love story and I’m a total sucker for love stories. In this one a weird kid with no family finds love and acceptance (and a father) through his disastrous attempt to run away and be with the girl he loves. The film is full of classic Wes Anderson-isms. It’s beautifully shot, it’s full of quirky dialogue, it features the usual gallery of weird characters and familiar faces (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman) and it has some of the best uses of music of any film this year. Add to that a truly movie-stealing performance from Edward Norton (not to mention the kid actors, who are all amazing) and you have a real gem of a movie. I can’t recommend it enough.
For me, both the emotional core and the driving force of “Lincoln” is the complete transformation of Daniel Day Lewis. In a little over a month Daniel Day Lewis will most likely walk away with his third Academy Award and he deserves it almost more than any other performance I can think of. His every movement, his smallest inflections, his breathing, his sense of humour and the glint in his eyes: all these things were expertly tuned, and masterfully utilized to bring a dead man to life for 130 minutes. All hyperbole aside, Spielberg really has gotten out of his own way and made a beautiful, understated character study of America’s best president. It’s not a perfect movie, and it has its share of sappy moments, but when the movie wins it wins big, and you can expect it to keep winning big in February when Oscar comes calling.
#2: DJANGO UNCHAINED
In my opinion, this is Quentin Tarantino’s best movie since “Pulp Fiction”. It’s brutal, Tarantino turns an unflinching eye on some of the darkest parts of American history. It’s violent, the guns, blood, and gory sound effects all amped up to create a grisly cinematic feast for the senses. It’s funny, the script is humming with Tarantino’s signature dialogue, full of witty exchanges and clever wordplay. It’s also just a really cool movie, capturing your attention from the opening credits and keeping it right through to the end with a clever plot that is all kinds of scary, suspenseful, hilarious and sad. By the end you’re not sure you can take much more, and just at that moment when you’re sure things couldn’t get any crazier, or cooler, or more intense, Quentin gives you TUPAC.
#1: LIFE OF PI
I saw Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” by myself. The theater was mostly empty, and I was shut off from the world with my earphones and my dark 3D glasses. I had not (and still have not) read the book “Life of Pi” and so I was in that amazing position pre-movie of having absolutely no idea what it was about. I thought it was marvelous. I really don’t want to say too much about it, except that it was an amazing experience to watch it. Most of the great movies this year really engaged my brain. I was rocked by “Life of Pi” and I’m still reeling from it. I’m sure it was more than just the movie itself and more an alchemy of circumstance with the film being more like the icing on the cake or the straw that broke the camel’s back. I gave most of the films on this list a second viewing in preparation for this blog, but this one I purposely refused to revisit. In fact, I’m not sure I’ll ever watch it again. Part of me just wants to protect the special relationship I seem to have had with it, another part of me thinks it would be a lot less impressive in 2D on my smallish TV. Whatever the case may be, I found “Life of Pi” to be a thrilling parable and a visual masterpiece of special effects and epic story telling. A simple, humble story about a shipwrecked boy trying to survive at sea and an ambitious visual essay that questions truth, friendship and the existence of God, all rolled up into one glorious movie. My favorite movie of the year.
The Raid: Redemption
*For the record I was pretty disappointed by my two most anticipated movies of the year (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Dark Knight Rises). It’s a real shame they couldn’t be on this list – but in all honesty they weren’t even close.