Monday, January 21, 2013

Favorite Films of 2012

It has been a great year for movies, maybe the best since I started doing these lists for the year 2005. Not only was there a solid crop of Oscar fodder at the end, but throughout the year there were consistently entertaining, well-made mainstream films in a variety of genres. From comedies like Pitch Perfect, 21 Jump Street, This is 40 and Ted to genre films like The Grey, End of Watch and Looper to dramas like Flight and Arbitrage, I was really satisfied with this year’s crop. Here are my ten favorites. The only film that I think might end up on the list that I haven’t seen yet is Zero Dark Thirty.

10) Bernie

Jack Black and Will Ferrell have both kind of settled into their own comedic comfort zones, repeating similar mannerisms and jokes. They both departed from those comfort zones this year. Ferrell’s deadpan telenovela Casa de Mi Padre didn’t work. Black’s dark comedy Bernie most certainly did. Based on a strange true story, the movie is told through Shirley MacLaine and Black, who play a difficult but rich elderly lady and a likeable younger man with questionable motives. The characters and story are intriguing and it’s very funny to boot.

9) Argo

Ben Affleck has rightfully received a lot of credit for his directorial work over the past few years, with Argo receiving even more acclaim than Gone Baby Gone and The Town. I’m not sure it’s a better movie than those two, but it is more Oscar friendly. You’ll like it better the less you know about the real story, as the dramatic climax of the film is entirely made up and predictable as a result. But the movie is very well acted and it’s a great story.

8) Life of Pi

I haven’t read the novel, but I’d heard that Life of Pi was considered unfilmable. After watching the movie, it seems perfectly suited for the screen. The visuals are gorgeous and the ending is touching and thought provoking. It’s Ang Lee’s best movie since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

7) Ruby Sparks

Despite coming from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, this didn’t get a lot of credit or recognition. That’s a shame, because it works really well. The premise, of a writer who brings a character to real life, seems gimmicky. But it has surprising depth and one of the best conclusions of any movie this year. I can’t wait for more from writer Zoe Kazan.

6) Lincoln

Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and written by Tony Kushner, it was hard to tell what sort of movie this would end up being. Would it be an acting showcase? Would it be a sweeping historical biopic? To me, Kushner wins out in defining Lincoln. This movie more than anything else is about dialogue. The snappy discussion about principles and strategy in the context of the passage of the 13th Amendment drives the film forward. By design, it’s not an epic. It’s just a very well-constructed slice of a time and place.

5) The Avengers

A movie about a bunch of superheroes uniting is a risky play. With superhero movies in general, less is almost always more. The more characters are introduced, the more convoluted the plot and less intriguing the individuals. But The Avengers didn’t fall victim to that trap at all. Each of the characters with the possible exception of Hawkeye is well defined. The interplay between Tony Stark and the others works particularly well and the Incredible Hulk works better in cameo form than carrying an entire movie. The whole thing is great summer fun.

4) Skyfall

Daniel Craig’s Bond started with such promise in Casino Royale, making Quantum of Solace all the more disappointing. That put a lot of pressure on Skyfall to deliver, and it did not disappoint. Javier Bardem made a memorable villain and M was given more depth than probably at any other point in the series. The big action set pieces are spectacular without going too far into the realm of disbelief.

3) Dark Knight Rises

On the one hand, it’s understandable that Dark Knight Rises didn’t get more critical acclaim. Dark Knight and Inception, Christopher Nolan’s last two movies, were masterpieces and Dark Knight Rises isn’t quite as that level. If Inception couldn’t win Best Picture over the vastly inferior King’s Speech and Dark Knight couldn’t get a Best Picture nomination at all, one wouldn’t expect Dark Knight Rises to do all that well. But it’s still a shame, as Dark Knight Rises is easily one of the best films of the year. Bane makes a tremendous villain, Anne Hathaway shines brightly and the poignant ending wraps up the trilogy perfectly.

2) Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook pulls off a tricky feat. It starts off by giving you a very negative impression of the two romantic leads. It then spends the next two hours getting you to care about them and their relationship deeply without in any way running from their human flaws. It’s just a really nice character study with some of the best storytelling of the year. It’s no wonder that it got such buzz and recognition despite seeming on the surface such a stereotypical rom-com.

1) Django Unchained

If everything about Hollywood were the same except that Quentin Tarantino had never released his first seven films, Django Unchained would have been one of the most controversial movies ever. It speaks to what a distinct voice Tarantino has had thus far that an ultraviolent slavery Spaghetti western as ballsy as Django seemed more familiar than unfamiliar. It has Tarantino’s trademark style, language and ambition. Jamie Foxx and Christopher Waltz make a great pair of protagonists. Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio are memorable villains. It has fun with its characters without trivializing slavery. It’s just a terrific movie.