The Best Films of 2012 – My 2013 List of Favorites

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beasts of the southern wild

Enough has already been said about the peculiar (and presumably political) decision on the part of the Academy to leave Katherine Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino and Ben Affleck from the list of nominees for best director, one that seemed even more pronounced when they then included David O. Russell for his overrated work on his undeserving but overly adored, Silver Linings Playbook.  I was told that I had a heart of coal in finding SLP to be pointless and so very predictable, but to me, the only real performance worth recognizing was there was Bradley Cooper.  Jennifer Lawrence was cute and perfectly charming, but the fact that she was nominated (and will almost certainly win) baffles me even more. There’s nothing “wrong” with her performance, it’s just that I do not consider it worthy of recognition for best performance of this or any year.

The Film that SLP ultimately wanted to be, one that is on my top ten for the year (see below) is The Perks of being a Wallflower, and of course it was overlooked entirily by the Academy, I’m guessing due to the misguided trailer that misled theater goers into believing that Perks was a throwaway coming-of-age comedy. That’s unfortunate, because Perks is a delight.

What REALLY pissed me off however was that miserable piece of tripe from Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom.  I appreciate some of Anderson’s early films, but I feel that his best works were at the beginning of his career. Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are both outstanding, but his follow-up to Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was so utterly self-aware and precious, that calling it a disappointment was being kind. Moonrise Kingdom however makes The Life Aquatic seem like one of Anderson’s better films. It is all style with no substance: his films have become carbon copies of each other with no real emotional connectedness; they’re fun to look at, but all consist of the same brand of quirk we see from him again and again.

So with that, my introductory rant over, my personal top ten favorite films of 2012:

Beasts of the Southern Wild

#1 – Beasts of the Southern Wild
I don’t even know where to start with this film. It is unlike anything I have ever seen, and as a result poses the difficult task of trying to describe it. Portrayed throughthe eyes of a six-year old, played magnificently by the first time actress, then six-year old Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild is at once startling, magical and visceral. It follows a little girl, Hushpuppy (Wallis) deep in a bleak and remote portion of Louisiana swampland called “The Bathtub.” Hushpuppy’s father comes in and out of her day-to-day, however even at his most lucid, he is in the throes of mental illness and profound alcoholism. As The Bathtub is about to get hit by a hurricane that we assume to be Katrina, the residents refuse to leave and choose instead to ride out the storm. Hushpuppy is left to her own devices much of the time, but her character is strong, proud and resourceful, and even amidst the chaos of the hurricane, you somehow know that she will manage and endure. Interwoven throughout is the dreamlike fantasy life of Hushpuppy’s imagination. First-time director Benh Zeitlin manages to shift between the stark and primal reality of life in The Bathtub against a tapestry of Jungian dreamlike imagery in such a way that makes the film seem at times as much a poem as a piece of cinematic story-telling. Beasts is  stunning, beautiful andapocalyptic. It’s a bold piece of work.

#2 – Argo
The film that I truly hope will win for best picture this year, not just because Affleck was snubbed as a nominee for best director, but more so because Argo managed the task of telling a complex and layered story with remarkable ease and an exciting narrative. For my money, there is nothing not to like about Argo. It is a political thriller that tells the unlikely and yet true story of the phony shooting of a science fiction film in Iran in the late 70s as a cover for an operation to rescue half a dozen U.S. diplomats. As unlikely as this story sounds, it’s told with a keen matter-of-factness that harkens back to some of the great films of the 1970s. The Oscar-nominated screenplay weaves espionage against the political realities of the time effortlessly, telling a multi-layered story without being condescending to the audience. Argo is both gritty and glossy, and is entertaining as much as it is challenging.  My only real criticism oddly enough is that Affleck’s performance is not up to the quality of the film overall. The film features a strong ensemble cast with Affleck the only one among them who is a flat and stiff from time-to-time.

#3 – Skyfall
Let me start by saying that Daniel Craig is in my mind, the best Bond. Not that I don’t love Connery who was the perfect Bond for the ‘60s, but Craig brings a pathos and vulnerability to the role that we’ve never seen in any of the previous interpretations. Many purist die-hards have suggested that Skyfall (the 23rd film in the franchise) spends too much time as a character study, and not enough time with the glamour, flash, sex and action of the previous films. For me however, this is exactly what makes Skyfall so compelling. We do get all of the key elements we’ve come to expect from a Bond movie, however the generalpace is more drawn out, with the attention more in the direction of a psychological thriller, away from the played-out action thrill-ride that the previous films have invariably relied on over the last 50 years.

Roger Deacons delivered some of the most gorgeous and sweeping shots of any of this year’s films, and as much as I wish Skyfall would win for best cinematography, I doubt that the Academy can see past the legacy of 007 to the sheer beauty of this film.

If I were to level any criticism of Skyfall, it would be that the evil-genius nemesis played by Javier Bardem seems all too much a pat performance from him, kind of a lesser version of the performance he delivered in No Country for Old Men.

#4 – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
One of the most unexpected surprises of the year for me. As mentioned above, this is the film that I felt Silver Linings wanted to be, but wasn’t. Not only should this have been nominated for best picture, but also for best adapted screenplay (the film was based on the best-selling book by the same title also written by the film’s director, Stephen Chbosky).  As easy as it would be to pigeonhole this simply as a cute coming-of-age movie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is indeed so much more: It manages to be sentimental without being smarmy, and touches on the familiar teenage themes of alienation and unrequited love without being cliché. Anchored by remarkable performances from Logan Lerman (3:10 to Yuma and loads of others), Emma Watson (Hermione from the Harry Potter movies) and Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Perks is earnest, touching, incisive and heartfelt. Essential viewing for anybody who doesn’t have a heart of coal.

#5 – George Harrison: Living in the Material World
This was a great year for documentaries. The five that are nominated this year are all solid and worth the nod, however two of my top films of 2012 were in fact documentaries, with neither of them even on the list of nominees.  I have no idea why this film didn’t even show as a blip on the radar, because it’s a spectacular piece of work from Martin Scorsese, but my guess is that it was because the television release of the film on HBO was in 2011, and the DVD was not released until the tail end of 2012. Living in the Material World deserves to be added to the pantheon of must-see music documentaries.  It’s considerably better than Scorsese’s half-baked Rolling Stones documentary, Shine a Light, and I’ll go out on a limb and say that this film is superior to his The Last Waltz from 1978. Living in the Material World is almost four hours in length, and may need to be watched in two sittings, but it’s a passionate, absorbing, and revealing film on the most mysterious of the four Beatles.

#6 – Life of Pi
Without question, one of the most visually stunning films in this year’s horse race, including the coolest CGI tiger cinema has ever seen. Life of Pi from chameleon director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Sense and Sensibility; The Ice Storm) is one of the headier pictures of the year. It is a meditation on whether or not god exists, but is more so an exploration on the concept of god from a spiritual viewpoint. From my perspective, Life is as Pantheistic as any movie I’ve ever seen. The story is told as both a fable and as a personal history, and throughout ponders the idea that all animals have souls, sentience and consciousness.  The exploration then is not so much about god or faith as it is about the spirit and the soul. As the story progresses, it blurs the boundary between the physical and spiritual and is ultimately a reverential celebration of nature. Life of Pi is a sweeping lyrical journey, epic in scale, visually breathtaking, and a film that will set new standards for years to come.

#7 – Zero Dark Thirty
It’s near impossible to not make the comparison with Zero Dark Thirty to The Hurt Locker, as the two seem on the surface like companion films in a series, and while both deal with themes of war, but the two each stand on thrie own merit. ZDT is a steady and tense set of character studies, its story pulling us towards a final outcome that we already know, however that fact that doesn’t make the tension and suspense any less gripping. A fair bit of critisicm has been leveled at Bigelow around her portrayal of torture (water boarding in particular) with many critics saying it was inappropriate to show it so blatantly, others suggesting that her portrayal was an endorsement.  There is nothing vicarious about the portrayal, and if anything, the sheer brutality of the portrayal is a condemnation more than ana celebration. It is also—seemingly—a means to an end.  There is a dispassionate quality to the movie, but considering that the character that Jessica Chastain plays  spent 12 years of her life straight out of high school in the pursuit of Bin Laden, I imagine that the procedural approach to telling the story was the best way to handle the narrative. If anything, Zero Dark Thirty reveals a side to the Bin Laden story that Americans need to see first-hand.

#8 – Django Unchained
Gratuitous violence? Check. Sex appeal? Check. Overwrought and heavy-handed? Check. Lurid and lascivious purely for the sake of entertainment? Hell yes! In other words, everything you love (or hate) about Quentin Tarantino in one of his most memorable films of his celebrated 20 year career. The Django legacy harkens back to 1966 when the first of 30 plus “Django” films was released, this one being one of the earlier films to capitalize on the popularity of the Spaghetti Western genre that was ignited with the “Dollars” trilogy from Sergio Leone beginning in 1964. The original however brought a whole new level of violence for the time, something that Tarantino no doubt was drawn to and looked to resurrect in this, his eighth feature film.  It’s easy to look at the surface and focus solely on the violence or at the fact that it also borrows heavily from the blaxploitation genre (a genre previously visited in his 1997 film, Jackie Brown), however that does not alter the fact that Django Unchained is a great piece of film-making beginning to end. The story is well crafted, and Tarantino gets top performances out of the entire cast. Even if the characters are brash and indulgent, this is what makes Tarantino such a distinctive director: He is irreverent and politically INcorrect, however he is utterly unapologetic about it.

#9 – The Queen of Versailles
Nothing quite so compelling as watching a train wreck in slow-motion, and The Queen of Versailles is a most magnificent and curious example of just that.  Among the rather strong list of documentaries this year, this one should have been on the list of nominees.  The film follows the a former beauty queen Jackie Siegel, the wife of the wife of one of wealthiest men in America, David Siegel (30 years her senior) as the family in the midst of building the largest home in America, a 90,000 square-foot copy of Versailles. Filmed during the nation’s 2008 economic collapse, we watch in dumbfounded fascination as their financial empire is in freefall. In the face of reality, it seems that she is –in spite of her white trash beginnings –unable to let go of the utterly insatiable lifestyle that she’s built for herself. This is a movie about excess, delusion and denial. On the one hand you are baffled by Jackie’s seeming inability to change her habits in the bleak face of imminent financial ruin, and at the other end, however deluded she appears to be, you cannot help but be charmed by her odd sweetness.

#10 – Lincoln
Although Lincoln swept this year in racking up the highest number of nominations, it’s just barely on my top 10. It’s an excellent piece of film craft, and we should expect nothing less from Steven Spielberg. I predict (as does everybody else on the planet) that Daniel Day Lewis will win for best actor, and it’s a deserved win, no doubt. The film can also tout one of the more impressive casts of all the films nominated this year, yet another sweeping score from John Williams, and some impressive albeit uninteresting cinematography. In other words, everything you’ve come to expect from Steven Spielberg. What the film lacks however, is any real dynamic quality. Similar to the dim sepia of the film—a choice I’m guessing that was made with a conscious nod to the early daguerreotype photography of the time—with the exception to the feisty sessions in the house of Congress, the pace of Lincoln seems monochromatic and flat. Combine that with the fact that the movie clocks in at two and a half hours, and you have a prolonged, lackluster film that has all the earmarks of a timeless classic, but sadly only manages to deliver an Oscar-worthy lead performance. It’s lovely to watch, but unfortunately uninspired.

For last year’s picks, check out The Best Films of 2011 – My 2012 List of Favorites

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