Friday, January 18, 2013

The Best Films of 2012

It was an astonishingly good year in film. While I wasn't fully on board with heavy critical hits like Kathryn Bigelow's searing retelling of the hunt for bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty," or Paul Thomas Anderson's highly-anticipated "The Master," the films still marked directors bringing new visions to their craft. Not to mention Quentin Tarantino who absolutely delivered with his "Django Unchained" which was not only a critical smash but an absolute hit with audiences bringing in his biggest box office numbers as a director.

Peter Jackson also gave us a welcomed (yet not for all) return to Middle-earth and Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis teamed up to bring the legend of Abraham Lincoln to amazing life. David O. Russell easily topped his previous awards-contender "The Fighter" with "Silver Linings Playbook" and gave Robert De Niro's career a kick in the butt. The summer brought us Wes Anderson's best film to date, "Moonrise Kingdom," and beyond that it was a summer alight with bold new talent including Stephen Chbosky's "Perks of Being a Wallflower," Rian Johnson's "Looper" and Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild." And what a year for Bond, eh?

Jennifer Lawrence (Oh, J-Law!) had a huge year with "The Hunger Games," which is the best new franchise of the year, and then later "Silver Linings Playbook" which is propelling her to a Best Actress Oscar win.

And before we get to the main list, here's a few honorable mentions.

The movie you didn't see but should've:

"Bachelorette" is the meaner, darker, more twisted stepsister of "Bridesmaids," very much its own devilishly independent creation from writer/director Leslye Hedlund. The three nasty girls at its center (Isla Fisher, Izzy Caplan, Kirsten Dunst) are not nice to their best friend (Rebel Wilson), pretty much unlikable and yet shocking in their relatability forcing us to hold a mirror up to our own imperfections. And if you squint hard enough, it's even a proudly feminist work spitting in the eyes of archetypal women portrayals.

The biggest disappointment of the year:

Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," the highly anticipated quasi-prequel to "Alien," turned out to be a muddled, convoluted mess with no real scares and empty storytelling. While technically awe-inspiring with stunning performances from Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender, you couldn't help but feel a sinking feeling of missed opportunity. Ambition was too lofty in trying (and failing) to expand his original sci-fi classic into something more grandiose.

10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Highlighted with a standout performance from Ezra Miller opposite an impressive Logan Lerman and Emma Watson in her first American role, this high school coming-of-age film directed by Stephen Chblosky and adapted from his own novel is brimming with passion and intimacy. It's a movie that understands the unique bond of friendship but also addresses the bittersweet truth that feeling like you truly belong is sometimes only fleeting.

9. Argo

Ben Affleck's third directorial feature is easily his best, most riling piece of entertainment, the perfect blend of incredible true story and Hollywood movie magic. It's a high-class popcorn pleaser that celebrates the transcending power of movies and reminds us why we go to the movies. Chris Terro's script creates breathless excitement in a thriller not through perilous car chases but instead through exquisite timing and careful plotting.

8. Looper

From Rian Johnson ("Brick"), this sci-fi mind-bender is a deft blend of Christopher Nolan's "Inception" and Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" marking itself as the new version of "The Matrix" and "Blade Runner" for this generation. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt shine in the lead roles following a script that doesn't use time travel as a gimmick but more so an artful means of storytelling.

7. Flight

In one of the best performances of the year, Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic pilot who lands a malfunctioning flight full of passengers with little casualty. What he faces in the aftermath, however, serves as his wake-up call. A robust supporting cast really makes the film a phenomenal ensemble piece including Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman as Whip's drug guru channeling his inner Big Lebowski and Melissa Leo in a single scene steals the film's climax. Director Robert Zemeckis' first live-action movie in 12 years proves he's still got it.

6. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Benh Zeitlin's directorial debut is a rush of magical realism that takes post-Katrina imagery and crafts a mythic and uncompromising world to get lost in. At its center is Hushpuppy, played by nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis who was only six at the time of filming. She gives a powerhouse performance ranking herself among the heroic female protagonists of the year, like Katniss Everdeen of "The Hunger Games" or Princess Merida of "Brave." This is a small story that also reaches beyond itself, questioning the makings of the universe and what it means to take control of life against the most profound of adversities.

5. Amour

A quietly devastating film that moves at its own pace and commands attention with its two phenomenal actors, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, this marks Michael Haneke's masterpiece with more humanism and profundity than we typically know from him ("Caché," "The White Ribbon"). It's a film about old age and everlasting love that is uncomfortable, unflinching but also crucial viewing. Riva's performance requires a physical deterioration while upholding a full register of emotion, and she stuns with painful beauty. It's the rare film that means something different to each viewer depending on the stage they are in their own life, and within such holds the movie's immense power.

4. Silver Linings Playbook

Even better than David O. Russell's "The Fighter," his oftentimes hilarious comedy centering on the excellent pairing of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence is a surefire crowd-pleaser that brings to life the idiosyncrasies of one dysfunctional family, co-starring Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver. De Niro, especially, looks more engaged than ever offering up his best performance in a long time. The film's lesson is finding your own silver lining in life, but the real silver lining may be this: no matter who you are, everybody's a little bit crazy.

3. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino rewrites history again, and just as he took revenge on the Nazis with his "Inglourious Basterds," this time he's even better and takes on the entire institution of slavery. Nobody delivers Tarantino's dialogue better than Christoph Waltz, so it's a treat to see his role expanded into leading this time around. Jamie Foxx as the accompanying Django also gets his moment for sweet vengeance while Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio play cruel manifests of humanity. Knowing how to savor a scene, the film is long but shouldn't be a minute shorter and escalates to a bloody good showdown reminiscent of "Kill Bill Vol. 1."

2. Life of Pi

Ang Lee's soul-searching odyssey adrift into sea is the best use of 3D in any film since the inception of the technology's use, even superior to "Avatar." The extraordinary story of a boy trapped on a boat with a Bengal tiger (adapted from the novel by Yann Martel) is a rumination on religion and faith but ultimately grows into a poignant film about seeing what life deals out to you and learning that sometimes you have to be ready to let go.

1. Skyfall

The re-invention of James Bond is the very best film of the year. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, there was no better time for Sam Mendes to take the helm of the franchise. Daniel Craig returns in the role as 007 more assured than before -- he's haggard but still handsome and with an added sly sense of humor. Judi Dench as the film's emotional center delivers a wallop while Javier Bardem gives us the best Bond villain yet. The brilliantly choreographed thrill ride with luscious locations and death-defying action sequences is an invigoration of the modern and a commemoration of the past. Adele's theme perfectly accents this 23rd entry in the series which was a smash at the box office and reaped the most Oscar nominations of any Bond yet.

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