YEAR IN REVIEW: The Top Ten Films of 2012

While I planned to eschew the formal introduction, I must point out that I can’t remember the last time my Top 10 list was this eclectic.  Thanks to the flurry of solid films that were released at the tail-end of the year, I will admit that a ton of good stuff got left out.

But I’m proud of the list and hope that it at least instigates some chatter among you movie lovers.  I hereby present my Top Ten (actually Eleven – I cheated again) Films of 2012 – in ascending order.  I will also mention that a certain actor hailing from Austin, TX had a truly relevant year and managed to get three of his films make my list…

10.  MOONRISE KINGDOM (dir. Wes Anderson) – To many people, Wes Anderson got his mojo back with Moonrise Kingdom, his whimsical depiction of puppy love as only he could tell it. Featuring a wonderfully idiosyncratic cast of adult actors – Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand – the film really belongs to its two younger stars, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, who set the plot, as well as their future film careers, in motion.  Anderson’s filmmaking style serves him well here and the very fact that he was able to maintain the trio of Willis, Norton, and Murray in one film and live to tell the tale makes him a future candidate for sainthood.

9. MAGIC MIKE (dir. Steven Soderbergh) – Yes, I know this is the male stripper movie that came out over the summer.  But the brilliance of Magic Mike – and, in turn, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh – is the nice sleight of hand it plays with the audience.  I will even go a few steps further and state on record that Magic Mike may be more relevant to men than women – half-naked dudes notwithstanding.  Loosely based on star Channing Tatum’s experiences as a male dancer before hitting it big in Hollywood, the film nicely depicts male camaraderie as well as the never ending pursuit of entrepreneurship in trying times through a nice balance of humor and pathos.  Tatum is quite good in the titular role, a noble dancer with dreams of opening his own furniture business and who takes a young kid with potential, played by Alex Pettyfer (Beastly, In Time), under his wing only to gain life lessons in the interim.  Matthew McConaughey is superb as Dallas, the flamboyant owner of the club that employs both, leading a solid supporting cast that includes Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, and (especially) Cody Horn, as the good girl Mike falls for.  If you’re still on the fence, don’t judge this book by its cover and dig right in.

8. THE IMPOSSIBLE (dir. Juan Antonio Bayona) – Based on the incredible true story of a family’s survival during the horrific 2004 tsunami that hit Thailand and left over 5,000 dead, The Impossible bests any disaster film that has come out in recent memory not because it really happened but because the intimate angle demands that the audience put themselves in the shoes of the protagonists.  Filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) has crafted an unforgettable moviegoing experience, helped greatly by the flawless acting by Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and, in a star-making turn, Tom Holland (playing the oldest of their three boys).

7. LOOPER (dir. Rian Johnson) – I always knew that filmmaker Rian Johnson, whose previous features include Brick and The Brothers Bloom, was on the verge of greatness and with Looper, he was able to finally fulfill that promise.  Taking the oft-used time travel plot point, Johnson has crafted a rather provocative thriller which has Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Joe,  a futuristic hit man – the “looper” of the title – working for the mob who’s forced to face reality when they send his older self (Bruce Willis) back in time for him to kill (hence “closing the loop”).  When older Joe escapes, younger Joe follows in hot pursuit and ends up getting caught up in more than he’d ever bargained for.  Time travel is always a tricky subject matter to delve into, but Johnson manages to gloss over what gaping plot holes it always brings into play by delivering a brainy, fast-moving thriller that feels fresh and is helped by strong dual lead performances by both Gordon-Levitt and Willis and nice turns from Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and a rather surprising Jeff Daniels, in a rare and effective villainous turn.

6. KILLER JOE (dir. William Friedkin) – William Friedkin of The French Connection and The Exorcist fame delivered his best movie since 1986’s To Live and Die in L.A. (yes, that was 26 years ago and no it’s not a typo) with Killer Joe, a mean, nasty, and darkly funny neo-noir that begs to be compared to some of the early work by the Coen brothers (Blood Simple immediately comes to mind).  Based on the play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the script), Matthew McConaughey plays the title character, a Texas police officer who moonlights as a hitman and gets dragged into a mess of a job when he is hired to bump off the matriarch of a trailer trash family in order for them to collect some insurance money to pay off some debt.  Giving away more plot details would only spoil the fun – if you have the stomach for it, for this movie is definitely not for everyone.  McConaughey takes a risk and steps outside his comfort zone, delivering a performance unlike anything he’s ever done, while Thomas Haden Church, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, and Gina Gershon are all superb as the members of the unfortunate family who get caught in Joe’s crosshairs.  Bonus points for the best use of Clarence Carter’s cult song Strokin’ – ever.

5. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (dir. Christopher Nolan)/SKYFALL (dir. Sam Mendes) – The two best big-budget tentpole movies of the year, bar none (my apologies to The Avengers) – and I couldn’t bring myself to pull a Sophie’s Choice so they’re both on my list.  Minor flaws aside, The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s third and final entry in his revisionist Batman saga, and Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, the third Bond film to feature Daniel Craig as agent 007, are immaculate examples of well-crafted entertainments that simulate all the senses and linger long after the lights have come back on in the movie theater.  With TDKR, Nolan, despite the unfortunate real-life tragedy that befell it upon its release, was able to finish off his trilogy on a high note usually unimaginable in past series.  Mendes, in turn, created a Bond film – timed for its 50th anniversary – that propelled the character towards a new future while also honoring its creator, Ian Fleming, and all that had come before.  Both are examples of pure craftsmanship and storytelling at its absolute best.

4. BERNIE (dir. Richard Linklater) – Joining the ranks of classic, darkly comic true crime tales like The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom and Fargo is Richard Linklater’s grossly underappreciated Bernie.  Featuring an unforgettable turn by Linklater’s School of Rock collaborator Jack Black as the title character, Bernie tells the tale of the beloved Carthage, Texas funeral director who went on trial for killing Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the town’s rich widow.  The twist here is that Bernie, who had been involved in a seemingly platonic relationship with Marjorie, ended up storing her body in a freezer and continuing as if she were still alive – and when the townsfolk found out the truth, their support for the murder suspect did not dwindle.  Matthew McConnaughey (that’s number three, folks) plays the laconic DA who had the thankless task of prosecuting Bernie for premeditated murder.  Linklater brilliantly takes a quasi-documentary approach here – mixing real-life locals with actors in interview segments – that perfectly captures the chaos that ensued in this small town.  Black has never been better and in a lesser year would have been a lock for a Best Actor Oscar.  Look for McConnaughey’s real-life mom, Kay, as one of the townspeople interviewed.

3. ARGO (dir. Ben Affleck) – On his ever-evolving quest to refurbish his image, Ben Affleck can finally claim unequivocal success with Argo, his excellent docudrama chronicling the post-revolution Iran hostage crisis during in 1979.  Working from a superb script by Chris Terrio, Affleck, with his third feature in the director’s chair following Gone Baby Gone and The Town, beautifully balances the dramatic with the humorous, effortlessly weaving the stranger-than-fiction angle that Hollywood itself took part in to get the hostages home safely.  From the opening that eerily recreates the protest in front of the American Embassy in Iran that triggered the events that followed to giving each and every speaking part equal importance, with a cast that includes Affleck as CIA operative Tony Mendez, who spearheads the mission, as well as Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Chris Messina, Victor Garber, and Scoot McNairy, to name just a few, Argo is an exemplary piece of filmmaking that solidifies Affleck as a true directing voice.

2. LINCOLN (dir. Steven Spielberg) – Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln brilliantly and effectively makes history come alive, allowing the audience to experience these events as if they were happening right in front of your eyes.  Anchored by an Oscar-worthy, iconic tour-de-force performance by Daniel Day Lewis as Honest Abe and a fluid, beautifully written script by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), Lincoln reenacts the struggle to pass the 13th amendment that would abolish slavery.  Spielberg directs with an almost subliminal hand, allowing the words and the actors speaking them to do the majority of the legwork.  Aside from Day-Lewis, what’s so amazing is just how many familiar faces – ranging from big names such as Tommy Lee Jones as cranky abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln to character actors such as Lee Pace (TV’s Pushing Daisies), David Constable (TV’s Breaking Bad), Bruce McGill (TV’s Rizzoli and Isles), and Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children), among a slew of others – absolutely disappear in their roles.  I suspect Lincoln to be the type of film that will be appreciated more as time goes by – but I refuse to wait.  This is a great, great motion picture and deserves to be called one of the very best of 2012.

1. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (dir. David O. Russell) – If Frank Capra and Lars von Trier teamed up for a movie, it would look something like David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook – and if you’re surprised that this is what constitutes as the very best of 2012, trust me, so am I.  But no other film boosted me up more and left me walking out of the theater with a goofy grin on my face than this one.  It’s a romantic comedy, yes, but unlike any I have seen recently – this one deals with such heady subjects as mental health, gambling addiction, and, my favorite, sports fanaticism.   Bradley Cooper finally propels himself to serious leading man status (it took me a lot to type that out) in the role of Pat, a former teacher who had a mental breakdown when he caught his wife cheating on him.  Recently released from an institute, he moves back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) and tries to get his life back together (which includes his desire to reconnect with his wife) – easier said than done when he meets equally troubled Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence).  Lawrence is an absolute force of nature here, giving Tiffany the perfect mix of inner turmoil and fragility with a dollop of heart and soul, managing to hold her own among a slew of heavy-hitters.  This movie is an absolute joy through-and-through – the kind that you think you’ve seen before but still manages to surprise at every turn.

Shantipedia © 2013

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