The Oscars are upon us once again. Tonight at 8:30 p.m. (ET), Seth MacFarlane will commence the 85th Annual Academy Awards with what will likely be a storm of scatological profanity and expletives just barely suitable for cable TV. One can expect only so much from the voice of Ted. And though that riotously funny box office hit didn’t make the cut for any of the coveted Oscar categories, the nominees are surprisingly strong this year. The Best Picture race is especially impressive. Both an indie film (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and a foreign film (Amour) were nominated, categories typically glossed over by the voting board.
So here are my top films of 2012 in approximate order. At the bottom of the post, I’ve acknowledged a few more movies that were a mere hair’s breadth away from making it onto this list; in a year or two, they might very well replace any one of the five listed below. It just goes to show how capricious movie taste is, and therefore how arbitrary movie lists really are. But they’re fun to make, so here goes:
Note: These are some major films I haven’t seen that might have stood a chance at making this list: The Master, Rust and Bone, Searching for Sugarman, Flight, Wreck it Ralph, and Cloud Atlas.
Ben Affleck’s third and best film is a full-blooded thriller, expertly directed and deftly scripted, and one of the most exciting genre pictures I’ve seen in recent years. It generates spectacular surges of tension by hinging the gravity of the central dilemma on an absurd solution. Six American diplomatic personnel hide out in a Canadian ambassador’s home after the U.S. embassy in revolutionary Iran is stormed by violent protesters. Wanted by the Iranian military, these six have precious little time to be rescued before they are caught. The only solution? Send in a professional extractor to smuggle them out under the guise of a film crew location scouting in Iran.
Though clearly a dramatization, the fact that Argo’s plot is grounded in truth is astounding. There are moments of paralyzing suspense, and others of improbable humor – who knew that history contained such choice ingredients for a blockbuster film? At the same time, the movie’s claim to reality brings immediacy to the events onscreen and compels us to identify with the characters more than we would have otherwise. That real people’s lives depended on so cockamamie an operation is ridiculous and frightening, but such a plan was their only hope. And therefore we watch, spellbound by fear, skepticism, and our penchant for first-rate moviemaking.
4. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino’s crimson mash-up of Western and blaxploitation boldly tears through touchy historical territory by dashing political correctness to pieces, forcing us to face the horror of America’s brutal past whilst entertaining us to the point of indecency. This is vintage Tarantino, finely acted, lavishly written, and savagely violent in a way that near redefines the word.
The movie’s acting and screenplay are up to par with anything Tarantino has pumped out since Pulp Fiction. Extended scenes of dialogue relish in lushly mounted stretches of circumlocution, generating both tension and comedy from a foundation of words. The performances too are among the best of the year. Though Silver Linings Playbook is being touted as having the strongest ensemble cast, Django Unchained boasts a quartet of riveting, shrewdly conceived performances (by Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonard DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson) that stands toe-to-toe with Silver Linings‘, at times blazing past David O’ Russel’s dramedy via the sheer force of the acting.
But it’s the violence, the utter, uncompromising brutality of Tarantino’s Southern slave country, that places us at the dark heart of Django‘s cultural and psychological significance. I recently read an article by filmmaker/blogger Kartina Richardson that convinced me of Django‘s virtuosity. In her piece, Richardson describes how Tarantino orients us in the moment, discarding our attitude of detached lament to make us viscerally feel the sheer atrocity of slavery as close to firsthand as possible. She cites two scenes: a flashback sequence where Broomhilda is being whipped, and the notoriously brutal sequence of mandingo fighting. The deep, nauseating reaction they produce is a testament to the film’s power. The images are excessive, yes. But sometimes, artful distortion is necessary to convey the essence of truth.
Kartina Richardson’s article can be read here: http://www.mirrorfilm.org/2013/02/20/django-unchained/
In the hands of director Sam Mendes, this take on the 007 lore moves our favorite British spy to uncharted realms of the spy genre, infusing a tenor of human fragility into the plotline. For the first time in half a decade, Bond is getting old. His face is grizzled and lined with exhaustion. His movements are less assured, his aim less steady. The surprising mortality of the character lends urgency to the movie’s events and elevates the film to a level of poignancy. Daniel Craig, an aging actor operating within an aging franchise, carries his role with an amalgam of turmoil and collected intensity whilst maintaining the charm that made his character so indelible to begin with.
The genius of Skyfall is that it doesn’t stop at mortality. That the film acknowledges the passage of time, itself a burst of genre novelty, ensures the franchise doesn’t slip into extinction. The main appeal of Bond-23 is the way it balances nostalgic gravitas and ravishing newness, a high-wire act that Mendes pulls off with a flourish and a bang.
For one thing, the spy film has never looked this good. Exploiting the globetrotting tradition of the genre, DP Roger Deakins captures international locales with a rare aesthetic eye; one particular scene within a Shanghai skyscraper is a spellbinding display of light and shadow, a masterpiece of visual poetry. With the movie’s zingy script and powerful cast of peripheral characters trailing closely behind (Javier Bardem and Judi Dench are notable highlights), Skyfall doesn’t just deliver. It revitalizes a cultural icon to his grand, thrilling best.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
Whereas some of Wes Anderson’s previous films feature a storybook motif (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), Moonrise Kingdom actually feels as if it’s taking place within a storybook – the film basks in a discreetly quixotic, vaguely self-important atmosphere that delivers the delightful quirk we’ve come to expect from Anderson, but in a refreshingly new way. The sterling cast features an astonishing collection of talents, but no one actor overtakes another. In addition to the Andersonian regulars, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis both deliver steadfast performances, and Tilda Swinton makes a particularly amusing appearance as Social Security, the person.
The real stars, however, are newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, who play the movie’s runaway lovebirds. Both ease effortlessly into Wes Anderson’s universe, precocious and serious beyond their age. As we follow these two on their romantic escapade and the adults on their quest to find the two children, the story moves from deadpan whimsy to a deeper, darker sadness. In its presentation, Moonrise Kingdom is a certified Wes Anderson picture, but the seamlessness with which the film brings together humor and heart marks the director at the top of his form.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Set in an isolated bayou community off the Louisiana levee, Beasts of the Southern Wild exists on the fringes of a society we recognize, but most of the film seems to occupy a world of its own. The movie’s virtuosity lies in the startling unity of its magical realism. Though its marshy, dilapidated setting is gritty and all-too-real (the film functions on one level as a work of social realism), Beasts of the Southern Wild fashions the culture and character of this “Bathtub” community with a wondrous air of passion and mythos. We feel we are watching not a village of disadvantaged poor but rather a clan of warriors and survivors thriving on the glory of its own existence.
At the center of it all emerges a unique and astounding hero’s journey undertaken through a blend of reality, lore, and a child’s imagination, and enhanced by the film’s sweeping, rhapsodic score. The hero is Hushpuppy, an unusually intrepid little girl in tune with nature’s heartbeat, played astonishingly by newcomer Quvezhané Wallis. At just nine years old (she was even younger during filming), Wallis is able to project both a disarming focus and a heartbreaking strength. And Beasts of the Southern Wild will break your heart. A movie this rare, this tender and this exhilarating can only strike soul-deep.
OTHER NOTEWORTHY FILMS
Oslo, August 31st – The stark, poetic intimacy with which the movie follows a day in the life of a former drug addict is framed fascinatingly against a larger anthology of human stories set within the city of Oslo, Norway. Certain scenes attain the quality of trance without losing the vitality of realism, a pitch-perfect tone that conveys the protagonist’s lonely, drifting state-of-mind. And his tale is just one of many, a private tragedy that blips away in the film’s forlorn but quietly profound conclusion.
Lincoln – Spielberg’s perspective on the 16th President is historical drama at its finest — patient, candid, and unafraid of the dense, dirty details of our past. It’s altogether a boldly unsentimental portrait of slavery and politics. Rather than presenting a slew of customary battle scenes, the movie takes its camera behind-the-scenes to the hornet’s nest political arena of legislative debate, supercharged by Tony Kushner’s sinewy but elegant script. At its center stands a powerful, meticulous performance by Daniel Day-Lewis that channels the integrity of President Lincoln as a man bearing tremendous burdens.
Amour – The movie’s title — simple but complex, humble but ambitious — encapsulates the deep, challenging honesty of Michael Haneke’s portrayal of love and death. Filmed in minimalist strokes, the movie captures the stillness of interior spaces to maximize the desolate reality of an elderly couple’s marriage under trying circumstances. It’s as if we are in the apartment with them, breathing the same stale, aging air. The performances are restrained but heartbreakingly authentic, and even despite the film’s deeply unsettling, morally questionable conclusion, Amour deserves its hefty title for plumbing the vast emotional depths it does.