[9 January 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Sometimes, you just gotta hate Hollywood and not for the normal reasons. Sure, the constantly pander to the lowest common denominator while pretending to care about cultural tastes, but when dollars come to donuts, they really only care about cashing in, and most of said scratch is apparently coming from a far less critical international community. Still, every year, like Swiss engineered clockwork, the studios unleash their biggest guns, giving us critics more than a few aesthetic hissy fits. As we complain for 11 long months about the lack of quality in our local cineplex, the last four weeks of the year come along and whisk us away to a world where auteurs make powerful personal statements and the tried and true award season stalwarts wake up and show us their creative best.
So, as we contemplate the now and dread the coming (2013 doesn’t promise much in the way of worth, at least not in the first quarter of the year), we have come up with our Top Ten Films of 2012, the Best and the most memorable. Of course, in any compilation, a few finds are left by the wayside. We loved Lincoln, just not enough to include it here. Same goes for Prometheus and that terrific found footage offering, Chronicle. The Avengers was a sensational entertainment and The Amazing Spider-man proved that a super hero film didn’t always have to be about spectacle and stunts. ParaNorman was one of the year’s pleasant surprises, not matter its stop-motion animation leanings, and Amour, while hitting a bit too close to home for those who’ve dealt with dying parents, was particularly effective. Add in Skyfall,Ted and The Raid: Redemption and the next ten could be just as debatable.
In any case, we send 2012 off into legend with the following, including a crowd pleaser at number ten:
With all the industry buzz surrounding what director David O. Russell is like behind the lens, it’s nice to see him follow-up the frightful good Fighter with this amiable adaptation of Matthew Quick’s popular novel. Bradley Cooper is excellent as a psychiatric patient trying to come to terms with his lost life, while Jennifer Lawrence shines once again as a troubled young widow looking for a link to the world. Together with ace turns by Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver (and an under control Chris Tucker), we get a complicated comedy with just enough heart to keep us happy, and hoping.
This was a surprise. Whenever anything sits on the studio shelf for longer than a fortnight, it usually means trouble. Add in the always tricky genre of horror and even the great Joss Whedon couldn’t guarantee success. Instead, this was an amazing meta joy, a deconstruction of terror tropes honed to a ripping razor’s edge. When the last act arrives with its numerous fright film shoutouts, the entire experience becomes the flippant fanboy masterwork it promised all along. While the ending doesn’t leave much room for a sequel, here’s hoping Whedon and director Drew Goddard visit this Looney Tunes locale again.
In writing, magic realism is easy to achieve. You simply put your fantastical ideas down in carefully constructed prose and wait for the reader’s imagination to do the rest of the fictional heavy lifting. In film, however, the stakes are much, much higher. You have to be able to invest the viewer in the world you are about to manipulate while keeping things grounded enough to avoid losing them. This amazing film is a perfect example of the style. It celebrates an impoverished place with a wonderful wistfulness that belies an even more powerful message. And little Quvenzhané Wallis is a revelation as the lead.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins promised much. Its follow-up, The Dark Knight, delivered on said deal and then some. So this finale to his fascinating superhero trilogy had to be more than merely good. It had to be grand. It had to be epic. It had to be emotional and meaningful and the director met said expectations in spectacular fashion. The scene where Michael Caine cries over the loss of his beloved Bruce Wayne remains one of 2012’s strongest cinematic statements, and the entire project has a political bent that belies a much deeper message about society and communal corruption. While perhaps not as magical as Part 2, this conclusion claims its own place in the pantheon of superhero masterworks.
Paul Thomas Anderson had a lot to answer for when he announced this project. While arguing that it wasn’t wholly based on L. Ron Hubbard and the rise of Scientology, fact checkers and those familiar with the famed cult have concluded that it’s pretty spot on. What’s more intriguing, however, is the byplay between Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s enigmatic leader and Joaquin Phoenix’s pickled/poisoned WWII vet. Initially, their standoffs take on a mere parent/child parameter. But once Amy Adams steps in as the power behind the puffy throne, the film switches to a dissection of manipulation and how it manages to remake and/or destroy someone.
With Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck announced that his turn to working behind the lens was not just some midlife movie crisis joke. His equally effective sophomoric effort, The Town, confirmed his place in the director’s chair. Now, with this look at the daring rescue of six American bureaucrats via a fake film shoot, he takes the late ‘70s Iran hostage crisis and repaints it as part daring CIA rescue, part madcap moviemaking romp. From the pitch perfect period piece details to the amazing performances by everyone in the cast, Affleck creates that true industry rarity—a mainstream movie that works, and works wonderfully.
Kathryn Bigelow earned a mountain of praise for The Hurt Locker, her devastating look at life during Iraq wartime. Transferring her caustic gaze toward the hunt for—and eventually killing of—Osama Bin Laden, the first female filmmaker to ever earn an Oscar has now topped herself. This amazing movie may have its issues with truth and its take on torture (those who believe it supports same are missing some major context here) but with Jessica Chastain standing center as the CIA agent tirelessly pursuing the US’s number one enemy, there is a passion and directness here that was missing from her previous Academy fave.
Quentin Tarantino needs to stop doing this to us. First, he announces his next project. Then he takes years to write and (re)cast it. Then he gives it to a studio that waits until the last week of 2012 to unleash it on the public. Luckily, this combination of pre-Civil War sleaze and Scarface level exploitation splatter is so satisfying, so wholly self-assured, that it ends up being brilliant. From the moment we meet Christoph Waltz’s traveling ‘dentist,’ we know we are in for a long, talky, terrific time—and QT doesn’t fail us. Reference heavy and reverent, it’s another stroke of ex-video store clerk genius.
How to describe this oddball French offering? It appears to revolve around a future world where people hire professional “pretenders” to show up and help them in life, be it with a brutal death or a delightful accordion romp. Our central human chameleon is Denis Lavant, who plays everything from an impatient father to a weirdly disfigured man who lures a supermodel away from a fashion shoot. In between, director Leos Carax seems to be channeling every major film genre ever conceived, with bows to musicals, comedies… even horror. It may be meta as Hell, but it’s also deeply entertaining and quite moving. A real 2012 gem.
If audacity alone were a gauge for a film’s lasting aesthetic power, this would be Citizen Kane (or as of 2012, Vertigo). Indeed, the tricky triumvirate of Lana and Andy Wachowski (or Matrix fame) and Tom Tykwer (of Run, Lola Run) have delivered an unquestionable work of art, a true revision of what films can be and what filmmaking can create. Using their multicultural cast in equally obtuse manners (men play women, white play Asian, etc.) they present a parable about identity, about how life through the ages is interconnected and intertwined. Call it fate. Call it destiny. Call it insane cinematic overreaching, but no other film in 2012 went to the lengths this one did, and we couldn’t be happier.