Sunday, January 13, 2013

Best Movies of 2012

As I watched the Golden Globes this year, I realize how much I disagree with the choices of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but their agenda is to award people they know and like, while mine is to list movies that in some way entertained me this year.  At this point, I have seen most of the Oscar contenders, and there were a few that I intentionally left off this list (including "Amour," "Django Unchained," and "Life of Pi").  Also, I also don’t include documentaries, because comparing them to scripted and acted films is like the proverbial “apples to oranges.”  
Maybe it’s because I’m a guy, or maybe it’s because there were so few good dramas this year, but a number of films on my list were action-oriented, or at least contained action scenes.  So, here it is—my list of the Best Movies of 2012, in inverse order.
21.    Prometheus
This was Ridley Scott’s prequel to “Alien,” and while it at times lacks energy and/or strains disbelief (hey, it is at the bottom of the list), it is nevertheless entertaining.  Also, the story is constructed in a way that explains many of the plot concepts of the “Alien” movies, and it features good performances by Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, and Charlize Theron.
20.    Battleship
This is a movie I was surprised to like—I rented it thinking it was a stupid action film based on an old board game.  Fortunately, I was wrong; it is much better than that, in part because of Peter Berg’s deft direction and decent acting by Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgård, and Taylor Kitsch.  Granted, it’s not the best alien invasion movie ever made, but it is definitely an entertaining 2+ hours.
19.    The Hunger Games
Just because something is popular with teenage girls doesn’t mean it’s not good…OK, well most of the time it means that (the “Twilight” series), but this time, there is enough real story and talent involved that the movie is actually worth watching.  That talent includes director/co-writer Gary Ross and a cast including Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Woody Harrelson, and of course Jennifer Lawrence, who seems to shine in every role she accepts.
18.    Magic Mike
This is actually the second of two, very good movies that Steven Soderbergh released in 2012, and it tells the sometimes shady story of a male stripper, played by Channing Tatum in a somewhat autobiographical role, who is performing in an act run by a character played by Matthew McConaughey.  Unlike other movies about similar themes, the various characters in this film are multi-dimensional, rather than just being blatantly sleazy, and the lead character shows significant growth from the beginning until the film’s ending.
17.    Men in Black 3
If you enjoyed the previous “Men in Black” movies, you’ll really like this one, if for no other reason than the fun of seeing (and hearing) Josh Brolin as a young version of the Tommy Lee Jones character.  Of course, Jones himself is also in the movie, as are Will Smith, Emma Thompson, and a variety of entertaining, computer-generated aliens.  Barry Sonnenfeld seems to have as much fun making these movies as I do watching them.
16.    The Avengers
I grew up reading the Avengers comic books and reveling in the adventures of Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, and the other characters who comprised the Avengers.  So when I heard that Joss Whedon would direct the film, I was very excited.  And while the results were somewhat mixed, I still totally enjoyed watching my childhood superheroes come to life.  This is a good action movie with enough human interaction to make it very watchable.
15.    Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Yeah, it sounds stupid, which is what makes this film so appealing, not to mention terrific acting by Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, and Kristin Scott Thomas.  But it’s the thoughtful and honestly heartfelt direction of Lasse Hallström, who seems to bring a high level of quality to every film he directs, that makes this film special.
14.    Haywire
This Steven Soderbergh film was officially released in 2011, but did not appear in theaters until late January of 2012.  It stars Gina Carano and Ewan McGregor, with supporting roles by Michael Douglas and Channing Tatum, and it is a taut, well-acted spy-action movie that keeps you interested and involved from start to finish.
13.    The Dark Knight Rises
While this is the weakest movie of the new Batman series, it is still very good.  Christopher Nolan’s direction is sharp and insightful, and the addition of characters played by Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Matthew Modine to a cast that already included Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine makes this film a must-see.
12.    Skyfall
I’m not a huge James Bond fan, considering most of the movies to be action fluff.  But this one has a major difference from the others in that it’s directed by Sam Mendes, whose films are rarely vapid or light.  The other difference is Daniel Craig, who has brought a new depth to the Bond franchise.  And despite Javier Bardem’s hammy overacting, the supporting cast that includes Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes is very strong.  This Bond is worth seeing.
11.    Zero Dark Thirty
I was somewhat disappointed by this film, which was all plot and very little character development, but director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal told a very interesting and at times riveting tale.  Jessica Chastain did a good job as the woman behind the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, but most of the other characters were seriously underdeveloped.  Despite those shortcomings, the movie is worth seeing for the way it builds as you watch the clues unfold and the plans being developed and carried out.
10.    The Sessions
Starting with a great script by director Ben Lewin based on the writings of Mark O'Brien (the actual person about whom the movie is based), this is a wonderfully touching film about a 38-year-old polio victim, who can only control the movements of his head and who is mostly confined to an iron lung, and his efforts to lose his virginity and find requited love.  John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are outstanding in the lead roles, as are the supporting performances by William H. Macy and Moon Bloodgood.  This could have been depressing, but instead was remarkably humorous and uplifting.

9.      Argo
Ben Affleck directs and stars in this film about a CIA operative who hatches an inventive scheme to rescue a group of Americans from revolutionary Iran.  The story is interestingly told, and my favorite aspect involves the characters played by Alan Arkin and John Goodman as the “producers” of the phony movie that forms the basis of the rescue plans.  With this film, Affleck has established himself as an A-list director, and although the ending is a bit Hollywood-ized, it is still very involving.
8.      Beasts of the Southern Wild
Wow, where did this come from?  It was actually the product of two Wesleyan graduates—producer Michael Gottwald (whom I actually saw perform in a play with Alex) and director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin.  This was a fascinating movie about a group of characters barely surviving in “the Bathtub”—a southern Delta community at the edge of the world.  But the revelation is the performance of 6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, who stars as the film’s central character, known as Hushpuppy.  This is an outstanding and beautiful film that demonstrates the triumph of the spirit over seemingly invincible odds.
7.      Looper
This was a very intelligent film about a futuristic society where when the mob wants someone killed, they send that person 30 years into the past where someone else is waiting to gun them down…that way, there is no body to dispose of.  The plot turns when the person being sent back is an older version of the person expected to kill him. Director/writer Rian Johnson was the mastermind behind this very complex movie, which features Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and an outstanding performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Some people may be turned off by the violence, but it is central to the plot (unlike “Django Unchained”), and this film’s ending is haunting and thought-provoking.
6.      Cabin in the Woods
This may be the smartest horror film I’ve ever seen.  Director Drew Goddard shares writing credits with Joss Whedon for a script full of dark humor an unforeseen plot twists.  I can’t say any more without giving away those twists.  All I will say is that what you’re seeing may not actually be what is occurring.  If you like horror films, you should definitely see this one.
5.      Moonrise Kingdom
I’ve never been a fan of Wes Anderson’s movies, usually considering them to be smarmy and unlikeable, but this one is completely different.  It’s a delightful fable about young love and the adults who are preventing it, and it’s told in a quirky style that made me smile throughout.  It also features actors including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, and Tilda Swinton.  But the real stars are the brave children, played by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, as well as the peculiar script by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola.
4.      Cloud Atlas
If nothing else, this is the year’s most ambitious film, spanning centuries, and placing several actors in multiple roles in varying time periods, only to eventually tie together their stories.  I totally enjoyed most of those stories, while understanding that some segments worked better than others.  Based on the novel by David Mitchell and co-directed by Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski (the Wachowskis also directed “The Matrix” trilogy), this movie’s cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Xun Zhou, and Jim Sturgess.  Overall, it worked far more often than it stumbled.
3.      Les Miserables
As with most movies, it all begins with the source material—in this case, the spectacular musical version of Victor Hugo’s most famous novel.  I’ve read several movie reviewers who clearly don’t like the musical itself…so they naturally dislike the movie of it.  Personally, I’ve seen the musical performed on stage four times, and I enjoyed each production…so here’s my review of the movie version.  (1) I loved the idea of singing it live while filming it, unlike most movie musicals which record the score separately in a studio.  Given that the entire musical is sung (they spoke a few lines in the movie), it would have been silly to re-record the entire soundtrack.  (2) I liked a lot of director Tom Hooper’s close-ups…I just think he used them a little too much.  (3) The cast was generally very good, with Hugh Jackman starting slow but  improving as the film went along, and Anne Hathaway, Samantha Barks, Eddie Redmayne, and Aaron Tveit submitting the best performances.  (4) The casting of Russell Crowe as Javert was a disaster, and having him sing “Stars,” which is among the best songs ever written for the stage, is equivalent to casting Roseanne Barr to play Grizabella (who sings “Memory”) in “Cats.”  Crowe’s voice has no quality or nuance, and his acting wasn’t much better.  I still enjoyed the movie, but it should have been the year’s best film, and in a stronger year, it might not have even made my top five.
2.      Silver Linings Playbook
A dramedy about mental illness should not be this enjoyable, but in the hands of a director as talented as David O. Russell, it is.  Jennifer Lawrence submits an Oscar-worthy performance as the female lead, playing opposite Bradley Cooper, who showed more talent in this movie than in all of his previous roles combined.  Set in Philadelphia, the movie explores the relationship between the two leads, who have each been ostracized by friends and family due to their bouts with different mental issues.  Add in excellent supporting roles by Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro, whose character’s own mental issues are displayed with increasing frequency, and you have a movie that is alternatively difficult and enjoyable.  Although the plot becomes slightly predictable, the strength of the characters carries this movie and makes it one of the year’s very best films.
1.      Lincoln
If you’re expecting a major biopic about the life and times of Abraham Lincoln, you will be disappointed.  This is not a big movie.  Rather, the outstanding script by Tony Kushner, based in part on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, tells the story of a short period at the beginning of Lincoln’s second term when he does everything in his power to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery.  This is a beautiful and elegant film, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day Lewis, and featuring supporting performances by Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and a wealth of other excellent actors.  It presents a picture of a president who is tortured by his own personal situation and seemingly aware that he is running out of time to accomplish the crowning glory of his legacy.  It also shows Lincoln to be the conniving politician that he was, who used homespun humor and stories to disarm his adversaries while promoting a humanist agenda that was far ahead of its time.  Unlike other Spielberg movies, the beauty of this film lies in its small and personal nature, in a world where great strides can be accomplished with a handshake, a promise, or in some cases, a deceit.  It is a complex story of a complex man, told eloquently and succinctly, and it is the year’s best film.

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