Now that the Oscars have come and gone I guess I have to get off my butt and write something about 2012 in review. There’s a few I haven’t seen that have been delaying a year in review piece, not to mention my general inertia. 2012 was a good year for movies. We had smart blockbusters, moving and intelligent dramas and creative genre flicks. It was not, disappointingly, a banner year for animation. Pixar’s Brave, despite its Oscar, was good not great; Wreck-It-Ralph was middling if above-average; the year’s stop-motion offerings never sold me on investing the time to watch them (we can’t all be Coraline, I guess). There are lot I would still really like to see, including the early-year Studio Ghibli offering from Disney The Secret World of Arrietty. If you’ve any desire to watch that, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Seven Psychopaths or something that I overlooked, call me up and let’s get together.
Here are my top 10:
10) The Cabin in the Woods
If you’d like to see a Joss Whedon movie from the past year which holds up under multiple viewings and whose last act is not its weakest half hour, The Cabin in the Woods is your bloody alternative to The Avengers. Written by Whedon and directed by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield), Cabin is a riotous deconstruction of the horror genre with loads (buckets?) of third act payoffs.
9) Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings somehow manages to feel sharp and loose at the same time. As evidenced by the all around nominations for its leads (Jennifer Lawrence, Jacki Weaver, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro), the story is lit up by vivid characters with believable personalities that aren’t romanticized. Director David O’Russell cooked up a spicy jumble with their various talents, but the different roles don’t quite coalesce into a cohesive dramatic texture. DeNiro is Acting and Cooper is Acting but often next to each other rather than in conversation. Still, the film is an interesting personal story involving mental illness, family and healing. Even if it doesn’t quite have the subtle charms of great drama, it’s involving nonetheless.
Compared with its predecessor on this list, Flight is the better film about mental illness. It gets a lot about addiction right, even if Denzel’s DWI pilot skills strain credulity. His raw magnetism helps the film focus around the character and draw us into the question of what will become of his self-destructive behavior.
7) Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson’s latest changes gears by focusing his childish aesthetic on actual children rather than childish adults and/or adults with troubled childhoods. In a sense, the central question of the film is whether these kids will be allowed to thrive or whether they’ll one day wear that thousand yard stare Bill Murray always affects with such comic detachment. Its delightfully rewatchable, even if at times it feels like Anderson’s silliest effort.
6) Django Unchained
Tarantino’s second revenge-themed historical fiction isn’t as narratively tight or philosophically intriguing as its predecessor Inglourious Basterds, but its hard to begrudge a film that wants to put slaveholders under the knife. Django may be the bloodiest, wildest and most uncomfortable of Tarantino’s myriad works. That said, the tone befits the subject material. There is no reverent historical detachment here: just queasy, loquacious cruelty.
5) Premium Rush
Too few films have the single-mindedness of David Koepp’s Premium Rush, a film so committed to its namesake that it reminds you of how threadbare elements can be masterfully spun into tension and thrills. The bicycle chase premise sounds lame but the movie makes a breathless, nail-biting go of it. What would seem to be the throwaway picture in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s stellar year is actually the stand out winner.
4) Indie Game: The Movie
Perhaps less deserving than all the acclaimed documentaries I didn’t see this year, Indie Game does for game developers what Exit Through the Gift Shop did for street art: reveal a little known and understood subculture as a lively home for the artistic soul. The film focuses on three very small development teams and illustrates how they put their hearts and bank accounts on the line in the process of trying to bring their games to market. If Roger Ebert still cares about whether video games can be art or not, Indie Game: The Movie should settle the question for him.
3) Les Miserables
My friends (i.e. my readers) may be surprised to hear that Les Mis is one of the most critically contentious films of the year, seemingly drawing the intense ire of some voices due a perceived threat to what counts as “good art” in the film world. I have to say, there are a lot of creative choices in this film that don’t really work. But, like other adaptations of the same, Les Mis works nearly in spite of itself. It helps that the source material is so strong, the musical so well-written and deeply moving. But understand, those aren’t strengths of the movie–the critical question is how well this particular adaptation handles the various parts. But I’m willing to engage with it as a surface experience in toto, and in that regard it was one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.
2) Zero Dark Thirty
Otherwise known as the best Law & Order episode ever made, the ever-sharp Kathryn Bigelow has given us the War on Terror as the ultimate police procedural underscored by the heartfelt cost of human lives weighed against the ethical cost of “enhanced interrogation”. The film’s torture scenes read nothing like the grisly fare one might be expected to see at the movies, yet they’re deeply unsettling for their closeness to home and reflection of reality. Zero Dark Thirty sidesteps questions of rah-rah jingoism by recasting patriotism as hearts panged with the loss of innocents and faced with the dehumanized treatment of POWs. The film is tense, single-minded, emotionally arresting and by all accounts a masterwork of filmmaking.
Finally, though Lincoln doesn’t have the austerely taut perfection of Zero Dark Thirty, I’m giving it extra points for moving dramatic sweep. Spielberg frames Daniel Day-Lewis’s superb turn as the sixteenth president with the political process of the constitutional amendment to end slavery, sublimely underscoring the connection between the personal and the political. Like Les Mis, Lincoln celebrates the Christian-liberal virtues of human dignity and equality–it just makes a seriously fewer number of mistakes in being a movie that does that and is so much stronger for it.
While I am sure I am eventually going to get to the smaller films I didn’t see this year, I have to say this was a great year for studio movies. Even the year’s biggest film, The Avengers, had the wit and verve of Joss Whedon animating it. I am disappointed that the year’s animation offerings weren’t stronger, but what is most clearly an artist’s medium will surely yield great works again in the future. It would be great for there to be a 2D animation renaissance driven by a Miyazaki-like auteur, though it’s safe to assume the CGI films will continue to dominate the market.
I am happy that the some of the strongest films on offer this year were full of hope. I still love No Country for Old Men, but I think our culture doesn’t need any help in being amoral and nihilistic. Les Miserables has proven the deep and broad appeal of fundamental Christian proclamations, probably showing the church part of the direction it should take in order to intuitively appeal to our culture. Lincoln has this moral urgency as well; even its twisted counterpart Django Unchained has its own morality, however bloodthirsty. And Zero Dark Thirty stands at their intersection, squeamishly juxtaposing heartfelt humanism–and its enduring symbol, the immutable value of a single life–and bloodthirsty revenge.