It was the year of the superhero movie (again), and “Marvel’s The Avengers,” “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Dark Knight Rises” were all good. It was also the year of the Cranston Casting Act of 2012, making it a federal crime to make a movie without the star of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” who was featured in no fewer than a half a dozen 2012 releases. 2012 was a remarkably mixed bag for movies, both in terms of quality and subject matter. Selecting the ten best was harder than expected, and of course, if I can find one person who agrees with me on all ten I’ll be flaggergasted.
The list is in reverse order, saving my pick for best film of 2012 for last. Before getting to that, a few honorable mentions are in order.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a sprawling yet elegant epic, and one of the most stunning visual accomplishments of the year. Andy Serkis, the voice and motion capture model for Gollum remains fascinatingly repellant yet sympathetic.
Jacob Wysocki, star of the all too little seen “Fat Kid Rules the World,” gave a superb performance in actor Matthew Lillard’s impressive directorial debut. Based on the novel by Rhinebeck, New York native K.L. Going, “Fat Kid Rules the World” is the gritty yet sensitive story of a lonely, overweight high school student who begins to come into his own when he forms an unlikely friendship with a ne’er do well dropout and drug addict.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead gave an Oscar-worthy performance as an alcoholic teacher in “Smashed,” one of the best movies about recovery from addiction ever made. Her portrayal of Kate, an alcoholic married to a man who’s mainly a drinking buddy (Aaron Paul), is perceptive, credible, and at times shattering.
Bradley Cooper is amassing acclaim for his performance in “Silver Linings Playbook,” but don’t miss him opposite Jeremy Irons and Zoe Saldana in “The Words,” a smart and unusual movie about an aspiring writer who makes a bad ethical decision. The movie is a story within a story (and maybe within a story), and is thoroughly engrossing.
“Cloud Atlas” is actually on a number of ten worst lists this year. It shouldn’t be. The ambitious, ambiguous, sprawling sort-of science fiction epic may not be an entire success, but it’s still a fascinating, provocative piece of work.
Tom Cruise turned in a remarkable performance in “Rock of Ages” as Stacee Jaxx, a burned-out rock star who turns out to be a little more than meets the eye.
As to the top ten, they are, in ascending order:
10. Quentin Tarantino is certainly our most exuberant current auteur, and certainly no other director takes such extravagant delight in the least respectable subgenres of exploitation films. His latest feature, “Django Unchained,” an over-the-top celebration of both the spaghetti western and the Blaxploitation flick, is a very R-rated epic peppered with equal parts brutal violence and raucous, adolescent humor. This is a wildly entertaining, high velocity theme park ride of a movie, which doesn’t stop to trouble itself over minor matters of taste or decorum. Whether you see this an epic quest story or a riot-inciting slavery revenge fantasy (I think it’s both), Tarantino is not trying to create an authentic historical document. Nonetheless, he does not try to in any way sugarcoat, excuse or sanitize the institution of slavery, which is depicted as an atrocious practice, represented by whips, dogs and branding irons. Christoph Waltz is one of the modern screen’s most hypnotic actors, and after a brief succession of disappointments following his explosive American debut in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” he’s back in full force. On the side of the angels this time, Waltz’s Schultz is both funny and dangerous—a more benign take on Hans Landa. Foxx turns in a disciplined and risky performance. Django may seem like a nonentity initially, but as the character finds himself, onscreen alchemy occurs. He starts acting like a movie hero and Foxx’s screen presence expands like it’s suddenly taken steroids.
9. Smart and sweet aren’t adjectives that are often used to describe the same film, but both apply to “Salmon Fishing the Yemen,” which is not a fishing documentary, but an offbeat romantic comedy. Ewen McGregor actually gets to use his own accent for once, playing an unsatisfactorily married government fishing expert who falls for the financial advisor (Emily Blunt) to a Yemeni sheikh who wants to introduce salmon fishing to his home country. Director Lasse Hallström and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours”) do an astonishingly agile job of negotiating a minefield of potential clichés that endanger “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” from beginning to end. Kristin Scott Thomas is hysterical and unexpected as the Prime Minister’s public relations maven who is actually responsible for the whole salmon fishing in the Yemen project becoming a government priority. But even the photography is atypical. Most movies with desert scenes tend to go for the slightly overexposed, sunbaked look, which cinematographer Terry Stacey (“50/50”) wisely eschews.
8. Actually a 2011 release in other parts of the country, “Footnote” only played in the Capital District in 2012. This Israeli comedy is about a father/son rivalry between two professional academics, but could occur in virtually any context. The father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba), a scholar who has worked for most of his career with little recognition, other than a mention in a footnote of a book by a more noted scholar. When the son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) receives a prestigious award, Eliezer’s resentments bubble to the surface. Both characters are by turn sympathetic and grating, decent and petty. Both men face ethical dilemmas during the course of the story, and both, well-schooled in the Talmud, nonetheless seem to have little basis for dealing with them. Writer/director Joseph Cedar’s script is perceptive, witty and acerbic. His direction is smooth and assured, sensitive but unsparing. “Footnote” has long-finished its theatrical run, but should be sought out on Red Box, on demand, cable, whatever. It’s out there, and deserves to be seen. It is in Hebrew with English subtitles.
7. Half a dozen superheroes in one movie ought to be the stuff of Saturday morning TV, and not necessarily good Saturday morning TV. Hate to tell ya, naysayers (and there have been some), “Marvel’s The Avengers” is a high concept, high octane thrill ride that starts out with a bang and doesn’t let up until the final fadeout. Marvel Studios and director Joss Whedon have made a nearly perfect summer entertainment. Marvel’s The Avengers” is actually a seventies-style disaster movie, most of which had ensemble casts. And a surprising number of them made that work. That’s exactly what’s going on here and it does work. We shift from hero to hero seamlessly, with apparent effortlessness. “Marvel’s The Avengers” is actually a seventies-style disaster movie, most of which had ensemble casts. And a surprising number of them made that work. That’s exactly what’s going on here and it does work. We shift from hero to hero seamlessly, and with apparent effortlessness. Surprisingly, given the proven success that Robert Downey, Jr. has already has Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Chris Evans as Captain America, it’s The Incredible Hulk, previously a box office underperformer, who steals the show and emerges as an audience favorite. Who would have thought The Hulk would be an underdog? You smash, dude.
6. “Skyfall” is the darkest entry in the longest-running movie series of all time, and without question one of the best. The James Bond series has always been somewhat chameleon-like, with the tone and tenor shifting to accommodate the gifts and weaknesses of the current leading man. “Skyfall” has more in common with a John LeCarré novel than a Roger Moore Bond movie. More so than any previous James Bond movie, this remarkably cynical story is about betrayal and the cost to one’s own of psyche of being expendable. It was M (again played by the redoubtable Judi Dench) who orders rookie field agent Naomie Harris to “take the bloody shot,” knowing full well Bond, of whom she is supposedly fond, is in the line of fire. There are a number of major plot twists with implications for future installments, and despite all temptation to the contrary there will be no spoilers here. In any event, it’s a pleasure to report that Bond is back and he’s seldom been better than this.
5. Equal parts “The Sixth Sense” and “Hocus Pocus,” “ParaNorman” is a superbly crafted animated horror comedy that suffers from perhaps just a little bit of an identity crisis. Better when it’s trying to be funny than when it’s trying to be scary, the end result is a little messy but gets the job done nonetheless. Kodi Smit-McPhee, a child actor who already has substantial cred after starring in the underrated vampire remake “Let Me In,” provides the voice performance for Norman, who can see dead people. And he sees them everywhere in his hometown of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts. Norman has made the mistake of telling people about his gift, so of course he’s regarded as a freak, bullied by his schoolmates largely shunned by living adults. He gets along fine with ghosts, and watches zombie movies with his dead grandmother (voice performance by Elaine Stritch), much to the chagrin of his uncomprehending father (voice performance by Jeff Garlin). The stop motion animation makes for a refreshing change amidst the recent glut of CG animation, and looks great in 3D. “ParaNorman” is gorgeous to look at and the anti-bullying theme is timely.
4. Benh Zeitlin’s independent movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a heady mix of fantasy overlaid onto a gritty glimpse of the lives of desperately impoverished people living in a bayou community cut off from the rest of the world by a sprawling levee. The movie’s tiny heroine, Hushpuppy, is played by nine year old Quvenzhané Wallis, who most assuredly does not come from the same factory as most Hollywood mass production child stars. Reality pours out of this little girl in torrents, much like the raging flood waters that steer the Odyssey-like plot. The nearly agonizing sincerity of her performance guarantees that this often surreal film remains somehow believable even at its trippiest. The photography is gorgeous, while eschewing a travelogue look, and accentuates the movie's otherworldly feel. The only real special effects involve the “Aurochs,” as they’re referred to in the credits, huge, primordial wild boars with tusks, whose existence is never explained. They’re seen by more than one character and therefore probably real in the context of the story, and not a hallucination. But Hushpuppy’s journey, there and back again, is as much an epic as Tolkien or Gilgamesh. It’s not a story about a little girl’s journey, but an epic journey seen through a little girl’s eyes, and therefore why shouldn’t magic be real?
3. “Moonrise Kingdom” is another charmer from one of the quirkiest of modern directors, Wes Anderson. As is typical with Anderson, this movie too has a distinct storybook feel. Two twelve year olds (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) run away to a remote inlet on an island. Both young protagonists would qualify as troubled children, but given the adults they’re surrounded with, this move may seem entirely rational. We largely see the world through their eyes and therefore it’s appropriate that Anderson’s approach to their early adolescence romance isn’t ironic: she packs her suitcase with books while he brings her flowers and camping gear. The movie’s visual compositions are meticulously framed to a fault and nostalgically photographed. This is by far one of the handsomest looking productions of the year. Big names line up to be cast in Anderson’s movies. The adult cast here includes Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban and Jason Schwartzman, all of whom play lunatics, and none of whom seem to know it.
2. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” virtually oozes taste and good intentions. In fact, almost everything about this movie, from its impeccable casting, meticulous production design and even its carefully timed November release date screams Oscar. Here’s the thing: it works. Go out for a long one, Steven. They may be throwing a few awards at you. The deceptively quiet, almost leisurely paced “Lincoln” is an engrossing drama and a stunning achievement.
1. “Argo” is the best movie of the year. Ben Affleck is very quickly emerging as one of Hollywood’s top directors. “Argo,” is about as good as suspense thrillers get, and this one is particularly remarkable in that the audience should be expected to know how it ends before they enter the theater. Affleck directs “Argo” with self-assurance and whipcord tautness. Like “The Town,” this is a superbly lean and economically told story. Affleck utilizes kinetic cinematography and rapid-fire editing pacing completely un-self-consciously. There’s a strong hand directing this movie, but without the “Look ma, I’m directing” touches that often mar the work of less filmmakers early in their careers (and some veteran ones too, for that matter). The movie’s combination of both blown-up 16 millimeter and 35 millimeter film stock gives the movie both a seventies vibe and a news film verisimilitude, rather than coming off as gimmicky, which it easily could have in lesser hands. An absolutely riveting thriller from beginning to end, “Argo” is an absolute must-see.