These lists can be so different from one another because each of us brings his own baggage, his own past, his own experiences to any given movie--and it makes a difference.
At the same time, you'll notice 3 or 4 titles that are in everyone's top lists and that's easily explained: the great majority of the several hundred films released in the United States each year run the gamut from mediocre to crap. The handful of truly excellent films, therefore, become easy to spot and mandatory to list.
Here are my ten best films of the year. I'm sure there are many with which you may disagree--please feel free to make your case in the comments section below.
0. “The Amazing Spider-Man”
It’s innocent and goofy, and yet it was, for me, the most enjoyable of all the Spidey flicks in the franchise. This Non-Sam Raimy reboot starred Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) as the titular character—more energetic and likeable than Tobey Maguire, and Emma Stone as the love interest, Gwen Stacy.
Maybe it’s because the effects have gotten better since the herky-jerky Spidey of the early 2000’s? That’s part of it. But it’s also because the story of an underdog high-school kid discovering he has the power to kick the bullies’ asses is irresistibly fun and funny. Either way, this film had way more oomph than The Avengers, and it held up well upon a second viewing in theaters.
This low budget Indie reportedly had “walk outs” at every screening throughout its Festival circuit. It seems that viewers, finding it hard to believe that the film was based on actual events, thought it was exploitative and grim. I also witnessed people walking out of the screening I attended. If they’d stayed, they would’ve seen filmmaking at its best—pushing buttons, daring you to go along.
The true story upon which the film was based (though there were dozens of incidents across the country which were nearly identical) stars Ann Dowd as a frumpy fast food restaurant manager. She gets a call from a man indentifying himself as the police. He tells her that one of her employees has been suspected of stealing and that she should hold the teenaged girl in the back room until he arrives. What follows is a series of increasingly suspicious directives that the store manager continues to obey—she’s only following “authority.” How far the situation goes is what makes viewers uncomfortable. But it really happened, and director Craig Zobel has made a jaw-dropping film that makes you squirm because it is so well done.
8. “The Sessions”
And here’s another true story that seems almost unbelievable. The tale of a man who is confined to an iron lung for all but a few hours a day, when he can be rolled around outside on his gurney, ends up being a tender character study. John Hawkes plays poet and writer Mark O’Brien, a thirty-eight year old man who has decided, at long last, to lose his virginity. A devout Catholic, he counsels with his kindly Priest (William H. Macy) about how to go about such a journey in a moral way.
Enter Helen Hunt as a professional sex therapist who agrees to help O’Brien go all the way. When I first saw the trailer, I have to admit that I felt uncomfortable. How good would a movie about a man who can’t sit up and a hired sexual partner be? Well, as it turns out, this story avoids virtually every potential pitfall. The sex scenes which are almost graphic (Hunt is fully nude at least three times, not that one was counting) are choreographed with such delicate detail and good will, that one isn’t uncomfortable. The inevitable mixed emotions that occur between the two are foreseen and yet very moving. This is a bit of a “cry” movie, but the performances of Hawkes and Hunt make the film believable and embraceable.
7. “Django Unchained”
A companion piece to his far superior “Inglorious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino’s profane and hyper-violent Western is almost as fun for viewers who like to see the bad guys get their collective comeuppance. Jewish soldiers kill Hitler in “Basterds” and a former slave gets to go face to face with slave-owning Plantation holders in this one. The brilliant Christophe Waltz plays a verbose and cocksure bounty hunter, Schultz, who enlists the assistance of a slave called Django (Jamie Foxx). The two of them head out on horseback tracking down those who are wanted “Dead Or Alive,” but all of them end up being taken with their boots pointed up. Like “Basterds,” “Django features long set pieces that are heavy on dialogue—they are scenes on slow simmer that stew and stew until, eventually, all hell breaks loose in a torrent of gunfire and a tsunami of blood.
The film gets a little long, and the characters use the “N-word” more often than Scarface uses the “F-word,” but watching the two leads, along side Leonardo DiCaprio as a moustache twisting Plantation owner, is cinema geek heaven. A third act cameo by Tarantino as an Australian is awful, especially as it occurs past the films natural climax, but Q gets to do whatever he wants—and that’s usually good news.
6. Searching For Sugar Man
For years I’ve been saying that documentaries are among the best films of any given year. My favorite in that category for 2012 is “Searching For Sugar Man,” in which some South African fans of an obscure American singer from 1970-ish, go on a quest to find out what happened to the elusive artist who looked like a sure-fire star, but quickly faded from public view. Don’t Google this in advance—it’s much more fun to watch the musical detectives trying to find the whereabouts of their childhood hero.
5. Les Miserables
No, I never saw the stage musical— I still haven’t, and so my viewing of this film was also my first exposure to the story and to most of the songs. In a nut shell, it’s one of those films that you love as it unfolds, but you decide that you probably wouldn’t sit through it again anytime soon. It’s a long sit, but the performances by Hugh Jackman and, briefly, by Anne Hathway, are easily among the best of this year. Jackman plays Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for years for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread. Upon release, he’s hounded by the police chief, Javer (Russell Crowe) even as he goes about living a new life of prosperity. There are B and even C stories here, and many brilliant songs-most notably, “I Dreamed A Dream,” sung with what will be Oscar winning tears and emotion.
The director, Tom Hooper, has been criticized for his many close-up shots of the actors. I say “Bravo” for letting us see each real tear-drop stream down the actors’ faces. Crowe is the only weak spot—his voice is of limited range, but the art direction, costumes and Jackman’s heartbreaking performance place this movie among the year’s best.
4. Life Of Pi
Based on the best-selling novel, this story of a maturing boy who becomes a castaway in the Pacific with only a Bengal tiger for companionship, was thought to be un-filmable. And then came virtuoso director Ang Lee. After a shipwreck that leaves him without his family, a boy floats along in a life raft with a large tiger— and if that sounds boring, just wait until you are enveloped by Lee’s glorious world of fish and ocean and sky and many surprises along the way.
A flashback device used in the storytelling is the only weak link. It seems unnecessary, but at its best, cinema takes you far away from your present time and place—that’s exactly what Life of Pi does, and then it gently sets you back down to earth.
Ben Affleck directs and stars in the true story of Americans who escaped the besieged embassy in Iran in 1980, and were smuggled out of Tehran using the most unlikely ruse one could imagine. Affleck is a CIA agent who poses as a Hollywood filmmaker (ostensibly of Canadian citizenship) who coaches the escapees, who are hiding in the Canadian Embassy, to act like director, producers and location scouts. Real life Hollywood types, played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, help out by being in on the plan—pretending to make a movie.
What’s great is how Affleck is able to create incredible suspense, while telling a story whose outcome is already declassified and well known. It’s not an insult when I say that Affleck uses every trick, every gimmick in the book, to make this an exciting film to watch. People answering phones on the last ring, or just missing being found out, or just barely outrunning the….well, I shouldn’t say too much. But Affleck reinforces the fact that he is a formidable director.
- Moonrise Kingdom and 1.Silver Linings Playbook
I’ve done this before a few times, and I don’t care if it isn’t kosher. In 1997, for instance, I named both “Titanic” and “Good Will Hunting” as my co-favorites of the year. For at least a month, I’ve been trying to decide whether the whimsical “Moonrise Kingdom” would get my top spot, or if it would be the more recently released and very funny “Silver Linings Playbook.” What they have in common is the sense of delight, of literal happiness I felt from having watched them. They also have in common the fact that I paid to see them a second time and had all my convictions affirmed. Another thing I pay very close attention to each year is whether a film is UN-like the dozens or hundreds of others I see over the course of a calendar year.
Wes Anderson is the embodiment of “quirky.” Not everyone gets him, and I understand that. But I love how he invents self-contained universes for his stories. Those eccentric characters and their somewhat surreal locations feel good to me, especially in an innocent story like this one. I laughed and I worried about these young characters who fall in love. I loved the way Edward Norton was completely committed in his portrayal of the Scoutmaster. I love the music. I love the ending.
“Silver Linings Playbook” was directed by David O. Russell—not a guy who’s known for being sentimental. The miracle here is that the movie shows the difficulties of being bi-polar, as is our lead character, played without vanity by Brad Cooper, while also giving us some great comedy scenarios and a deep bench of funny supporting players, including Robert De Niro. Some may argue that Russell went a little soft with his sweet-natured ending, for me it was the perfect ending to a near perfect film.
Note: “Zero Dark Thirty” a film that was awarded Best Picture by the Washington Area Film Critics (of which I am a voting member) , was not eligible for this list, due to a studio enforced embargo on reviewing the movie before its January 11th release in the Washington DC area. I wish I could have told you about the film, but one agrees to the rules when one screens a movie in advance.