Monday, January 14, 2013

The Best Films of 2012

I write with this with the following caveat: I have yet to see PT Anderson's "The Master" or "Rust and Bone," two films that very well might make it onto this list. Here is the list as it stands without those.

1. "Amour" -- This may be the first time I choose a film that I don't like as the best of the year. This beautifully wrought and acted film is stunning and powerful, but I never want to see it again, nor have I been able to recommend it to anyone. I made the mistake of watching it Christmas morning, and the rest of the day I was in a state of existential angst. I wondered aloud to family members: why do we even bother continuing to live. Michael Haneke is famous for a series of dark, intense pieces that explore the underside of humanity. "Cache," "White Ribbon," and "Funny Game" are stripped of all sentimentality and pose the ease with which humans can fall into violent, aggressive behavior. The films border on the artistic, are always interesting, and never comforting. I believed "Amour" would be different. A movie called Love and focusing on a decades-long married couple in their 80's would just be heartwarming, bittersweet and heart-tugging. And thus how Hollywood has blinded me. If Spielberg had directed this film, "Amour" would have been "The Notebook, Part Deux;" however, Haneke's fascination with our dark side means that this pair of octogenarians will exhibit behaviors that are compelling but uncomfortable. The film unites two icons of post-World War II French cinema, Emmanuelle Riva from "Hiroshima, mon amour" and Jean-Louis Trintignant from "Z." They give career-capping performances that are brilliantly and subtly rendered. I am hoping that Riva can beat Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain for the Oscar. I would tell you to see this movie, but I just can't.

2. "A Separation" -- This film deservedly won last year's Foreign Language Film Oscar. I did not see it until this past March, so it will go on this list. Asghar Farhadi's eloquent tale of a couple seeking to divorce in Tehran captures the vibrant lives of families divided by class and gender. This is not a film about how awful the revolutionary regime is in Iran, nor will it appeal to those self-righteous people who believe that Iran is on the brink of destroying the world. Rather, this film explores how families live amongst the turmoil of a changing society. The brilliance of this work is that Farhadi is able to present four individuals who continuously make bad choices, but the audience never loses sympathy for any of them. There are no good/bad guys: they are four complicated people, and sometimes they screw up. Truly, this is an example of wonderfully structured character-driven drama.

3. "Argo" -- Ben Affleck came on the scene as a talented director with the release of "Gone Baby Gone" in 2007. The film received positive reviews, but had a rather meager box office. He went on to direct the commercially successful "The Town" in 2009, grossing over $90 million, and this year "Argo" became a critics' darling and surprise hit. For a film revolving around the Iran's 1979 Revolution to earn close to $115 million seems rather incredible. Most credit goes to Affleck's directorial eye that keeps the pace of this thriller to the end, even if you know how the story ended. With a final voice-over from Jimmy Carter during the credits, Affleck's liberal bona fides come through as he argues that this was a success of the Carter Administration. It is a story that would be laughable if Le Carre or Greene wrote it, but knowing our CIA, it is fully plausible. The only thing shocking is that the CIA's wild and crazy plans worked out positively for a change.

4. "Lincoln" -- Tony Kushner took four pages from Doris Kearns Goodwin's 750-page tome, "Team of Rival,"(pp.686-690, to be exact) focusing on Lincoln and his cabinet conspiring to get the requisite number of votes in the House to pass the 13th Amendment, and turned it into a two-and-a-half-hour movie. That is par for the course for Kushner, the surprise is that under the sentimental eye of Spielberg, transformational and transcendent performances from Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Gloria Reuben, and some beautiful cinematography this very stagey piece became one of the greatest successes of 2012. Unlike when Meryl did Thatcher, or Langella did Nixon, a viewer is never taken out of the film by thinking, "wow, that is good acting." It is hard to recognize this consummate method actor. As he constantly says, "I do not act, I am." He sure did that again.

5. "Anna Karenina" -- If this had been marketed as Tom Stoppard does Tolstoy, it may have done better than by the advertising campaign that basically read: Keira Knightley does another classic heroine with Joe Wright. In fact, this remarkable re-imagining of Tolstoy's epic love story was one of the most inventive and ingenious ways to stage the piece. Stoppard, in his usual profundity, pointed to the artifice that pins together so much of the realism and naturalism of the nineteenth century. The novel is literally staged with people walking off stage or back into the audience, which makes all those scenes with Anna and Vronsky in the theater, so very powerful and illuminating. And all of the fur trim and hats with veils, too!

6. "Les Miserables" -- Of course, Les Miz makes my list. Unlike the subpar cinematic version of "Phantom," where certain scenes seemed significantly less spectacular on screen than stage (e.g. that awful version of "Masquerade"), Les Miz succeeds as a film because it is just so big. The film's success lies in its ability to go from the grandeur of the barricades scene to the small, intimate moments where Fantine is stripped of all dignity. Having the actors sing live, with piano piped in through an ear piece, allowed them to act with each other, instead of a three-hour lip syncing fest. Even Russell Crowe didn't bother me, and that is saying a lot.

7. "Moonrise Kingdom" -- Some may not enjoy Wes Anderson's rather snarky takes on humanity, but he has one of the most well-defined aesthetics in current popular cinema. His colors are so precise; his camerawork lingers on his actors' faces. One cannot help but to want to frame screen captures from his films. In "Moonrise," a tale of forlorn adolescent love, Anderson combines much of his cynicism with a healthy dose of youthful idealism, the world as seen through two teenaged misfits. They may seem silly but we have all had those impulses and desires. Anderson may be one of the best directors of child actors out there.

8. "Wreck-it Ralph" -- Pixar's "Brave" disappointed this year; it was a rather stodgy retread of Disney's middling "Brother Bear" but set in Scotland, rather than the American West. One exotic people were traded for another. Disney's 'Wreck-it Ralph," however, was surprisingly successful. With a wonderful cast of vocal talent (Sarah Silverman, John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch, and Kenneth from 30 Rock), the story of the characters inside the 8-bit video games of the 80's and 90's came to life. The final scene where Vanellope embraces her glitch is one of the great tear-jerking scenes of the year.

9. "Bernie" -- Richard Linklater's homage to the new genre of mockumentaries is a witty take that somehow combines trenchant wit with a sure eye for cinema verite. With Jack Black as the fey funeral director of a small Texas town who strikes up a rather odd relationship with a widowed millionaire (played by the inimitable Shirley MacLaine, who has made quite a comeback this year), the narrative is interspliced wih interviews with the town's members. The most underrated film of the year.

10. "Django Unchained" -- It is difficult to love a Tarantino, but they are always interesting. His aesthetics of violence and universe where good guys always finish on top after destroying the baddies in the bloodiest fashion available create films that are often disturbing and uncomfortable. His take on slavery as told through the exigencies of spaghetti westerns and blaxplotiation films has proven controversial (especially premiering a week after the school shooting in Connecticut), and it should. His depiction can be rather facile at times, but with some brilliant performances from Christoph Walz, Leo, and Samuel Jackson, in perhaps his best performance ever, the film has become a crucial viewing piece for this holiday season.

11. "The Queen of Versailles" -- What an apropos film for 2012. The documentary follows a couple who have decided to spend their fortune made in timeshares to build the largest residential home in the nation (90,000 sq ft.!). Unfortunately for them, the 2008 meltdown hit them hard and the house was never completed. The documentary becomes a tale of the richest 1% falling on hard times. However, their hard times bear no resemblance to the hard times of countless other Americans. Jackie, the rather clueless matriarch, exposes her unflappable ability to misunderstand her situation repeatedly. In one particularly ghastly scene, she tells her son: "I would tell you what time it is, if I could afford a watch." The son stares at her and says: "You're going to say that while wearing a mink coat?" Modern Family could not have written a better line.

12. "The Sessions" -- This quirky comedy about a man crippled by polio who seeks to unlock his sexual potential succeeds almost entirely due to the superb performance by John Sessions. Sessions, who shined in Winter's Bone, was unfortunately passed over for a Best Actor nomination, which is a shame because his heartfelt, sincere performance was one of the year's best.

Things in films that I liked, even if the films had some issues:

Quvenzhane Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild" -- I found Benh Zeitlin's film rather disjointed and unsure of its tone, but the critics are correct in lauding the six year old who gave a breathtaking performance. She was fierce and proud, even if her circumstances were unimaginably dark and dire.

The visual effects in "Life of Pi" -- The film had some issues: the unnecessary framing device, the utter misuse of the brilliant Irfan Khan, but I have to admit that there was an hour of that film that was one of the most beautiful and visually enthralling things that I have ever seen on screen. So rent the Blu-ray and fast forward an hour and stop before the last thirty minutes, and you will enjoy quite the visual treat.

The plane crash scene in "Flight" -- If you are scared of flying, never (I repeat never) see this movie. Denzel's pilot is an alcoholic and drug addict who on a routine flight to Atlanta watches everything go wrong. The plane at one point is completely upside down, with a poor stewardess being thrown into an overhead bin. It is briefly righted only to crash into a field. The resolution of the film is far too precious, and the storyline of the female heroin addict whom Denzel befriends goes nowhere, but the first 30 minutes are indicative of what Robert Zemeckis can do best: heart-pounding action.

The first half hour of "Silver Linings Playbook" and the last half hour of "Zero Dark Thirty."

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