10 Best Films of 2012

It’s getting to be that time of year again, the time when awards season is drawing to a close and a man’s top ten list becomes less and less interesting. It should go without saying that any Top 10 list is inherently incomplete. There are such a great number of films released in any given year, it’s impossible to see all of them – or even all of the very good ones, for that matter, because often you just don’t know in advance which ones you are liable to consider very good. There are titles I can think of at this moment which I might hold in high regard once I get the opportunity to view them. Amour just came to theaters in Des Moines, for instance, and the documentary The Imposter will be on Netflix in just a few more days. Nevertheless, I feel relatively confident in my selections for this year and even if they aren’t all my favorites by the time I see more that 2012 had to offer, they are all extraordinary films still. Glasgow to the Movies may have been silent much of the back half of this past year, and sadly that trend is going to continue, but I came back to do you this one solid: I’m here to stop you from wasting your time on lesser movies.

Enough jibber-jabber. These are the movies from 2012 that you should be watching right now…

#10 – The Queen of Versailles

In the short review of The Queen of Versailles that I posted on the GTTM Facebook fan page, I compared the film to the work of Steve James (Hoop Dreams). James has an amazing talent for wringing the drama out of the everyday lives of his subjects to the point that their stories seem almost scripted for how perfectly they play out. A lot of that is simply an intense dedication – James spends years with his subjects, searching for the right elements. Similarly, Lauren Greenfield spent what seems like two lifetimes with David Siegel and his wife Jacqueline. The story began as a picture of an outrageously wealthy family prepared to construct the largest single-family home in the United States. But through a combination of poor financial management and nationwide economic collapse, the Siegels’ dreams come crashing down. While they retain their lavish lifestyle despite this newfound hardship, it’s a muted version – one that keeps them housed in a mansion, yet forces them to cut back on frivolous thinks like maids. The stress of their slightly less comfortable environ combines with the unblinking eye of the camera to throw the cracks in the family’s happy facade into stark relief. Yes, the film is occasionally funny (as when Jacqueline is shocked to find that her Hertz rental car doesn’t come equipped with a driver), sometimes sad, and always sure to leave a viewer with his or her jaw dropped in amazement. Greenfield’s choice to surreptitiously interview the Siegels’ housekeepers, many of whom have families they haven’t seen in years, adds even greater dimensions to an already twisted tale by reminding the viewer just how great the chasm between the lives of the Siegels and the lives of those around them truly is. All in all, it makes for a film you just can’t look away from.

#9 – Cloud Atlas

Alright, let’s face it, Cloud Atlas is something of a mess. But it’s such a beautiful, singular mess that it’s hard not to feel some measure of affection and respect for it even if you don’t quite connect with the thing. But don’t get the wrong impression: Cloud Atlas is by no means a bad movie. Spanning many centuries, the story tells of the inter-connectedness of the universe by casting its stars (including Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, and Halle Berry, just to name a few) in multiple, diverse roles. Hanks alone morphs from a grimy “doctor” seeking treasure on a ship in the 18th century, to a Cold War era scientist, and then to a jungle-dwelling member of a primitive clan coming in contact with a seemingly alien race. The film’s scope is audacious, and that alone makes it some kind of wonder in the same way that a miss like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is. Which is to say: it’s clearly a labor of love, and it’s unlike anything else you’re likely to see in the multiplex in this or any other year. Movie loves owe it to themselves to support the kind of filmmakers who are willing to swing big on the off-chance that it will result in a grand slam. The minds behind Cloud Atlas include Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowskis (Speed Racer), filmmakers whose previous work has been dazzlingly bold. This movie is equally bold. It races from genre to genre, fragmenting its many plots and letting them play off of one another. The themes may feel alternately clouded or empty, yes, but the fun is in the form. Cloud Atlas is certainly breath-taking. That’s something to admire in and of itself.

#8 – Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

I already know what you’re thinking, but hear me out on this one. I’ll concede that part of my positive feelings for this sequel to 2007’s abysmal Ghost Rider come from the fact that I am a fan of the star Nicolas Cage. But check it out, I just called this film’s predecessor “abysmal” – I’m not blind. What makes Spirit of Vengeance one of the best movies of the year is the fact that it is the rare example of the sequel that outshines the movie that came before. Where the earlier movie treated its supernatural character as some sort of hero meant for worship, here the Rider is treated appropriately: as a monster. The Ghost Rider isn’t something that can be controlled – it will attack anybody with the slightest hint of immorality in their bones, meaning that even the “good” guys are in danger when the creature takes control. Yes, the Ghost Rider is scary. Further, where the 2007 film made Cage’s Johnny Blaze into a silly stunt rider, here he has all the brooding intensity and bat-shit craziness that makes the best Cage roles (I don’t know why Cage rolls around on the ground of a cave screaming “Merry Christmas, you assholes!” and I don’t want to know – just let me enjoy this). Plus, the movie introduces a new weapon in the Rider’s arsenal: the power to transform any vehicle into a flaming monstrosity. This opens up the door for an incredible sequence involving some heavy machinery, and it’s all shot with an expert eye for kinetic action scenes thanks to the hyperactive stylings of directors Neveldine and Taylor (Crank), back on their A-game after the failure of Gamer. So maybe Spirit of Vengeance isn’t as heavy and “important” as other titles on this list. What it is is a thrilling actioner that totally overshadows its predecessor. It really packs a punch.

#7 – Zero Dark Thirty

I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t blown away by director Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 hit The Hurt Locker, a film which I wrote provided “little of real worth”. While her follow-up may as well be an unofficial sequel, I found it a lot weightier than its predecessor and not only because it recounts the capture of America’s greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden. In fact, as the elite group of soldiers grow ever closer to their target, it’s easy to forget that we already know how the effort will ultimately play out. Compare this against another big name from 2012, Lincoln, which has the specter of the 16th President’s assassination looming large over the entire proceeding. With Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter, Tree of Life) as its lead, providing a typically strong performance as a woman bucking the system to put her entire weight into this manhunt, the film moves fast even in office-bound conversations about public policy. And much like The Hurt Locker, there’s a constant sense of tension borne out of the inherent danger of a war-zone. Even when there seems to a tenuous peace between American and Afghani forces, there’s always an unrest bubbling just under the surface that could lead to an all-out firefight before the scene is over. Again, this is comparable to one of ZD30’s contemporaries – Ben Affleck’s Argo – but where that film rode is tension to ridiculous extremes, here it’s played with a sense of decorum. It may not be an accurate portrayal of the capture of bin Laden, understandably dramatized for the screen, but as a movie about an epic manhunt that spans many years and multiple countries, it’s a thriller that easily maintains an edge throughout.

#6 – Friends With Kids

Until probably the last two months of 2012, I was convinced that I was going to name Friends With Kids the top film of the year. Surprisingly overlooked in its theatrical run, it’s a movie over-flowing with stars – including Kristin Wiig (Bridesmaids), Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”, Bridesmaids), Megan Fox (Transformers), and Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation”). I think a lot of people might have been scared away by the fact that, in some ways, the movie follows the beats of a typical romantic comedy except with the twist that main characters Jason and Julie have a child first, then fall in love later. But what makes the film such a treat isn’t the star-power or its sometimes very funny dialogue. What makes it so amazing is that this movie, unlike many of its kind, treats its characters with a humanity. It’s in small moments (as it often is), but those small moments speak volumes. Take, for instance, an early scene where the three couples meet up for dinner. Newly-formed couple Ben and Missy are constantly touching each other, kissing to celebrate happy news their friends impart. It’s not the focus of the scene at all, but instead a little touch that imitates how people really act. Or take the long-married Alex and Leslie, whose bickering over household chores seems rough to outsiders yet so casual to the couple that they continue trying to entertain their house-guests while yelling across the room at one another. And yes, I’ll admit it, the blossoming romance between Jason and Julie grabs the viewer by the heartstrings, too, because it does the right thing: building the relationship slowly, showing the man and woman to be friends who genuinely enjoy the company of one another rather than taking the lesser route of suggesting they’re merely fated to be together. So Friends With Kids is the rare light-hearted romantic comedy which really seems to understand how human beings actually act, and that makes it something kind of awesome.

#5 – Moonrise Kingdom

Director Wes Anderson has gotten to the point, seven films into his directorial career, that his stylistic tics have become expected. You can bet on a slow-motion scene set to some classic folk-rock score and yellow title letters showing up just as sure as you can be certain the sun will rise in the morning. And yet somehow he still managed to make something special out of it with Moonrise Kingdom, which tells a relatively small story about two children who meet cute, fall in puppy love, and trek out to a deserted cove to live together. That’s really about it, or at least that’s all it needs to win over the viewer. It’s a movie that treats the love that these two children feel with a respectfulness. Yes, they’re young and impetuous and don’t really know enough about “the real world” to really understand the way that they feel, but for these two, at this time, in this place, everything feels right. Anderson captures that feeling spectacularly, and on top of this he stages each shot exquisitely, so that the frame is both sparse and yet immensely expressive at the exact same time. I don’t know if he’ll be able to maintain this delicate balance again, but I really think this film and The Fantastic Mr. Fox have served Anderson’s style well – blending a child-like sense of wonder in the color palette of the production design and an adult ennui in the matter-of-fact, sometimes profound way that the characters speak to one another. It feels natural and real and inviting, and I think the “goofiness” of the cartoonish scenarios in the two films perhaps plays toward Anderson’s strengths where a more serious “adult” film might feel constrained by the style (I have never returned to The Darjeeling Limited, for example). As I wrote in my review for this film, after seeing it twice in the theater: “[W]atching it makes me happy.” That’s a good feeling; this is a very good film.

#4 – The Loneliest Planet

I have no doubt that The Loneliest Planet will be extremely divisive for any future viewers, especially those who hear the word “slow” as a death sentence. This is a slow movie, absolutely – but that’s not the same as saying that nothing happens. Something happens. It would be wrong to say more than that, but the movie gets an incredible amount of mileage out of the unspoken communication between its three primary characters. Unspoken through their silence as they interact with one another, unspoken through the words they don’t say when they do talk, unspoken in their unconscious biases or cultural understanding of one another. This emphasis throughout the film on non-verbal communication (or alternately, lack of communication entirely) becomes uncomfortable as the film progresses… and I mean that as a compliment. Because we don’t get to hear the characters discuss their feelings or make revealing comments or yell at each other, we as viewers are forced to feel out the tone of the scene from our own perspective, to stew in the implications of events without any guide (it’s ironic that the movie concerns a couple on a guided tour through the Caucasus Mountains in the country of Georgia, yet the audience is left unguided through the maze of emotions the characters keep bottled up inside). And at the same time, this is how the characters themselves are left: unguided through the emotional valleys they’re traipsing through, uncertain whether they’ve fallen off a metaphorical ravine already. If you’re able to get past the “slow” aspect of it and it manages to get a hold on you, The Loneliest Planet can be a stunning and powerful film.

#3 – Flight

I’m a little surprised that Flight, director Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action film in more than a decade, is not being talked up this awards season than it is. Following a harrowing crash landing which is handled with a greater sense of realism than ads for the film would have you believe, the film follows airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) as he struggles to control his addiction to alcohol and drugs so that he can face a hearing on the crash sober. Washington gives an amazing performance here, with the addiction handled – for the most part – gracefully and humanely. Whip’s determination is tested repeatedly, and he finds himself returning to the bottle almost unconsciously. But the movie doesn’t handle this in a sappy way, and when Whip finds himself befriending a fellow addict any thoughts you might have about the movie resigning itself to the trope of two “wrongs” making it right are way off base. It’s just not that simple. Zemeckis’ choices in filming add subtly to the tone of the film, as when a gathering church congregation is briefly visible during the eponymous flight, or when the camera pans out when Whip is drinking at home to reveal just how deeply his addiction has taken him. But it’s worth repeating that everything is anchored by Washington’s stellar performance: the best kind, the kind where the actor avoids playing it broad and screaming or crying for the camera to really “show” emotion, instead allowing a furrowed brow or a hard stare into space tell the story. That’s appropriate here, especially, because the conflict here isn’t man vs. man or man vs. world… it’s man vs. himself. That the conflict is kept largely internal, even as it infringes on the lives of others, seems like a perfect choice. Sometimes the movie goes into more garish scenes (watch out any time John Goodman shows up), but mostly it maintains a smart sense of what is really at stake here. Not Whip’s career, but his sanity.

#2 – Life of Pi

When I left the theater following a viewing of Life of Pi, I had no strong feelings about it one way or the other. In the days afterward, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and seeking out different interpretations of what the film was truly “about”. The fact that the movie got me so engaged afterward, thinking about the philosophical aspects of its story and what different events may have represented, made it into one of my favorites of the year. Even were it not for how readily it sparked thoughts about its characters’ primal nature in my mind, there’s a lot to love about Life of Pi for how gorgeous it is. There is no film from 2012 which can match the mind-blowing imagery here. And I’m not just talking about a hallucinatory sequence of kaleidoscopic design midway through the film, or the by now well-known image of a luminescent whale splashing down next to our protagonist’s life boat after he gets lost at sea. In fact, one of my absolute favorite moments in the film comes early on while an adult Pi tells the tale of how he got his name. The camera is placed inside of a swimming pool, the water pristine and clear, with characters from within Pi’s story floating by, seemingly suspended in mid-air. It’s a beautiful, visually inventive moment – and par for the course for what is to come. The event which leaves Pi stranded with only a man-eating tiger for company, by the way, is equal to or greater than the event in Flight for emotional impact and stunning horror. And then the movie somehow manages to make a boy and a tiger, drifting aimlessly through the ocean, into a consistently engaging and thrilling experience. I could go on to talk about the stark realism of the mostly CGI tiger, the expert use of the 3-D technology, the careful way the relationship between Pi and the tiger evolves. Instead, let me say only this: Life of Pi is a sumptuous and captivating; it is an amazing example of the power of cinema.

#1 – 56 Up

Speaking of “the power of cinema”, there is no greater evidence of the magic of the movies than the Up series. While 56 Up wasn’t technically released state-side until the beginning of 2013, it played in its home country in May 2012, so I think I’m justified in calling it a 2012 release. I can’t talk about this series enough. Director Paul Almond began interviewing several British children from different social strata in 1964 when they were seven years old, asking questions designed to elicit controversial or thoughtful responses. Every seven years since then, the crew has come back (now headed by Michael Apted instead of Almond) to meet with the group again to see how their lives have changed. You’d think that there would be little to say now that the group is 56 years old! And yet this entry feels like the best of the series yet, putting its subjects in new configurations and providing insight into their feelings about life, death, their involvement in the series, the economy – no subject is taboo. Some feel that Apted goes easy on the participants, and to some extent that may be true, but he flat-out tells one that he seems like a racist, and he brings another to tears by forcing him to confront his own and his parents’ mortalities. Yet through 56 Up there’s a definite sense apparent that Apted is fond of each of the participants, even the ones who hold some antipathy toward the series, and that fondness shines through to make this entry one of the most engaging, funny, moving, and thoughtful of the entire group of films. I hope that the series doesn’t end, but if 56 Up wound up being the final entry in the Up series, it would seem appropriate. This feels like a fitting finale, and that feeling of conclusiveness makes for an extremely rewarding experience for anybody who has been following these children as they’ve aged. I could watch this movie again and again. I know I will.

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