Sunday, January 13, 2013

Top 10 (+15) of 2012

It's that time again!

I believe I saw something like 75 films this year - more or less. Here's the list of those I meant to see this year that I did not get to: Farewell My Queen, A Royal Affair, Middle of Nowhere, Samsara, Dredd, Return, Bernie, the Hunter, On the Road, Keep the Lights On, Smashed, End of Watch, Leviathan, Kill List, Hello I Must Be Going, Barbara, Lore, The Master, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Broken, Sister, War Witch, The Imposter, Girl Walk All Day, Searching for Sugar Man, Haywire, Coriolanus, Meanwhile in Mamelodi, Starlet, Faith Love and Whiskey, Arcadia, Tchoupitoulas, Polisse, Vivan las Antipodas, 3 2 1 Frankie Go Boom, Bonsai. Is Kon-Tiki out yet? That too. *Le Sigh* To be an insomniac.

Top 10
1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Yup. I was surprised by how great this turned out to be. High school coming-of-age films can so easily become cliche. But this one rings incredibly true. All the characters are amazingly well drawn and well acted. And more than that, the film evokes the intense emotions, the feelings of possibility and the weight of the world of adolescence. I'm so disappointed that the script and Ezra Miller, in particular, have been so overlooked. The one bright spot is that I'm confident this will be well loved by teens in the years to come.

2. The Cabin in the Woods. As I wrote before, "if you missed it in theaters, you owe it to yourself to check it out on video. Even if you don't like horror films. It isn't as scary as Scream (if it is particularly scary at all). It is, however, very, very clever and amazingly fun. Seriously - SO MUCH FUN. There's a reason it made the CriticWire top 10 for the first half of the year."  You know, I was thinking about how several reviews knocked Cabin for not being "scary" enough. And I think that misses the point. Take Red, White and Blue  - one of my favorite horror films. It is a horror film because it is horrifying; it isn't particularly 'scary'. Nothing jumps out at you and there are no creepy monsters to have nightmares about. It is a film about people - just people - in bad circumstances and the things they do to each other. Which, if you think about it, is what makes the best apocalyptic films. The scariest parts are never the zombies or the vampires, but what humans are capable of doing to each other (think 28 Days Later, Children of Men, Stake Land, The Road, or dystopian works such as V for Vendetta). (In a way, it almost makes them all holocaust stories.) Psychological horror - imaging what kind of evil your neighbor is capable of - is far more effective than a killer ghost jumping out at you. Which brings me back to Cabin. It isn't super scary in terms of running and hiding from monsters, but it is a great horror film in that it forces us to examine why we are drawn to horror films and what we would be willing to do to our fellow humans.

But that is only on reflection. Watching it is just a joy. There is a killer unicorn. It is wonderful.

3. Argo. This was fabulous. I don't think it has a shot, but I think that this is the one that should win best picture. It's more of a thriller than Zero Dark Thirty is and it is more fun than any of the other films that are up.

4. Liberal Arts. My earlier review; "The tagline is about a 30-something falling for a 19-yr-old when he visits his alma mater, but it's actually about a lot more and many of the best parts stem from his interactions with a host of other characters he meets on campus. The film touches on college, life-long learning, literature, relationships, growing up... all-in-all it's just very well written and not what I expected. I really recommend checking it out."

5. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (I saw it in late January last year, so it made some of my year end commentary, but not my top 10.) This film is just staggeringly beautiful. It has some of my favorite cinematography of all time. I love the measured pacing, the way the story builds, the way the characters are drawn through their conversations - all of it.

6. Silver Linings Playbook. This is just fantastic. I am so, so happy that the entire cast is up for acting, because it is well deserved. I'm not a huge Bradley Cooper fan, but I think he gives just a phenomenal performance as a man with bi-polar disorder trying to readjust to life. Robert DeNiro gives his best performance in ages. Jennifer Lawrence is mesmerizing. It is funny and poignant and incredibly well done. 

7. Lincoln. Okay - it's a teensy bit pompous and every single black characters is dignified and stately. But, it is very well written, the acting is mostly very good, it is technically excellent, and it fulfills the wish that our (current) congress would be more like parliament in Australia and the UK. (Seriously, why don't we have fabulous takedowns like this? Or call representatives guttersnipes? I mean, we don't need to go so far as beating people with canes, but...)

8. Zero Dark Thirty. Having only just seen this, I'm still processing it a bit. It isn't the Hurt Locker. There isn't the sustained tension that film had. But Jessica Chastain is wonderful in it (even if she doesn't get scenery to chew the way Claire Danes does.) As are many of the supporting characters (granted, I'm biased towards anything Mark Strong does.)  It actually reminds me a bit of Zodiac, in terms of the long time spent chasing down leads, although the majority of the action in Zodiac takes place in the beginning, and Zero Dark Thirty culminates in the raid on the compound.

9. Looper. I really love Rian Johnson. I think he is such a fabulous director. I love that this film is clever and goes in directions that are impossible to predict. Several of the sequences are so brilliant (Paul Dano's character, Bruce Willis going after Jeff Daniels, the meeting in the diner) that they stay with you long after the film has wrapped. And the fact that the marketing team manged to keep the third act reveal a secret was incredibly impressive. (JJ Abrams should take a hint - that's how you make a movie surprising).

10. Killing them Softly. I... did not expect to like this so much. And it was a massive, massive flop. But I think people were expecting an action film, and instead they got a downbeat, talky, black comedy about capitalism. The acting is fab, the direction is great (especially the robbery), and the script is brilliant. 

And 15 more:

11. Cloud Atlas. I wanted to love this completely, and it's a bit unwieldy and messy to entirely work. But I loved how audacious and daring it was, and certain segments are genius. I think Tom Hanks was - if not miscast - then a little too much in his segments. But I'm really sorry that it didn't do better at the box office. To have an independently made epic like this was really thrilling. I can't wait to see it again and follow some of the threads more closely.

12. Boy. This was really, really cute. A young boy in a remote Maori village dreams about his long absent father. Here go watch the trailer. (And I have no idea why it was only in the US in 2012, when it was at Sundance in 2010).

13. Django Unchained. As many people have pointed out, the first half of the film works better than the second half. I think not having his long time editor was a definite detriment. And given that the film works through a series of villains, I'm sorry that two scenes involving Walton Goggins got cut, as the film doesn't quite build to a climax after Candie is dead. BUT! Even Quentin Tarantino's second best is better than most things out there.

14. Robot & Frank. A very cute film. Frank Langella gives an excellent performance, and the ongoing reactions to the robot by the characters are wonderful. Description; "When an aging and cantankerous cat burglar (played with magnetic gravitas by Frank Langella) receives a helper robot against his wishes, a new chapter in his life begins. This crowd-pleaser is an elegant and heartfelt meditation on the nature of character, memory and trust."
15. Beasts of the Southern Wild. Incredibly unique - this film moves back and forth between magical realism and the gritty reality of Hushpuppy's world. I can't understand those reviewers who say the film glamorizes poverty, because the film is stark in its portrayal of the abject circumstances of those that live in the bathtub. Yes, the film also captures joy and exuberance in a visually stunning way, and that is what sticks with you most after seeing it. It is very original and I'm thrilled it did so well in the oscar noms as it is so unlike any studio films.

16. Pitch Perfect. One of my favorite reviews (from SF Appeal): "From 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon comes this genuinely funny story about a rag-tag group of Acapella ladies with a dream. It's totally formulaic and has almost too much singing even for ME but thanks to some fantastic performances and weirdo humor, it's a must-see for anyone with a songbook and a dream. Or a vagina and a dream. Or a vagina and a songbook."

17. Sound of My Voice. Another clever film with a bit of a sci fi twist. Two people go undercover to infiltrate a cult surrounding a woman who claims to be from the future. Brit Marling is captivating as the woman who claims to be from the future and the co-leads do an excellent job as they are drawn further and further into the group. Great camera work and a taught script that leaves a lot for the audience to fill in round out the film.

18. Seven Psychopaths. I had really hoped for more from this. It isn't quite as well done as In Bruges, although it has its moments. I'm always going to enjoy anything Martin McDonagh does, and the cast assembled here is fantastic. It's a little messy, and parts of the plotting could have been a tiny bit tighter, but it is really, really fun. I'm thrilled that the indies had the good sense to nominate the screenplay and Sam Rockwell as supporting actor.

19. Skyfall. And another film hurt by comparisons to a predecessor (in this case, Casino Royale). However, my family all walked out agreeing that this is by far the most beautiful Bond film there has been (and it turns out to have been shot by Roger Deakins, so of course it was.) I didn't think Javier Bardem was quite compelling enough as the villain (but then I thought he was overrated in No Country for Old Men as well), but I did enjoy Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Whishaw. And while it was great to see Bond not at his best, I do wonder if Daniel Craig is not getting a teensy bit too old for another?

20. Where Do We Go Now. A Lebanese version of the Lysistrata. What I wrote before: "SO GOOD. Fantastic characters, really fun, really human. Also the only film at the [San Francisco Film] fest that made me cry (even when I knew what was going to happen!) The description; "Winner of the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, Nadine Labaki’s humorous and warmhearted follow-up to Caramel tells the story of a group of women in a Lebanese village who resort to extreme measures to keep their Christian and Muslim husbands from engaging in religiously motivated violence.""

21. Wuthering Heights. "Fantastic. I love Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, and she did such a great job here.  She pares down the story to the obsession and bond between Heathcliff and Cathy and films it all in incredible, evocative camera-work. So good. Description; "Adolescent infatuation between star-crossed lovers deepens into wild passion in this cinematic incarnation of Emily Brontë’s classic 19th-century novel. Set against the rainy windswept Yorkshire moors, this adaptation is a haunting and almost tactile depiction of romantic obsession pared down to its most visceral and elemental form.""

22. The Hunger Games. There is a more thorough run-down here. Much like Django, I really enjoyed parts of it, and the experience of watching it was fun. But on reflection, certain parts or elements could have been a bit better. Although that may have come from comparisons to the book.

23. Headhunters. A really fun, slick thriller pitting two men against each other after an art heist. Very entertaining. Description; "An art heist goes terribly wrong in this darkly comic, fast-paced thriller."

24. Moonrise Kingdom. What to say? It's Wes Anderson. The film is meticulous and well crafted and adorable. His films tend to feel a little too slight to me to think of them as great (Royal Tenenbaums aside), but they are always well made and immensely entertaining.

25. Rebellion. Sort of an interesting companion piece to Zero Dark Thirty in examining government response to terrorism and the limits of democracy in service abroad. The French Title is the Order and the Morality, which captures its essence much better. My earlier review: "This was a pretty straightforward procedural, but it covers an uprising in New Caledonia in precise detail. Description; "A French counter-terrorism captain negotiates with his rebel counterpart for a bloodless end to a hostage crisis in this powerful film, based on a 1988 military action in the French Pacific. Actor/director Kassovitz (La Haine) precisely dissects imperial arrogance and political expedience, building to a dramatic conclusion of great force.""

And Breaking Bad (Plenty of film critics included either the season or the episode Dead Freight on their top 10 lists, and with good reason. But I will keep mine to just film (this year) and place this among the honorary mentions.)

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