The Best Films of 2012

From popcorn perfection to animation experimentation, foreign finesse and good old Hollywood hokum, 2012 delivered the shiny cinematic goods and then some. Here are our choices for the titles that took on the challenge, and won.

 

Film: The Amazing Spider-man

Director: Marc Webb

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Sally Field, Martin Sheen, Denis Leary, Irrfan Khan, Chris Zylka

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The Amazing Spider-man

Imagine a superhero movie where the action histrionics or comic code tropes weren’t the main focus. Instead, this new version of Peter Parker is a boy with a mysterious past, a geek speak present, and a wholly unknown future. Then add a terrific love story with a balanced female companion, a memorable (and melancholy) villain, and a lot of interpersonal panache. In fact, (500) Days of Summer‘s Marc Webb clearly wanted to pull the genre out of its standard storytelling stereotypes. He fashioned a fascinating character study into which all of Spidey’s splash could rest in — quite comfortably, it turns out. Bill Gibron

 

Film: Ted

Director: Seth MacFarlane

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi

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Ted

At its core, Ted is a story of love and friendship, the fantastical tale of a young boy who wishes his teddy bear would come to life – and does, resulting in a 25-year friendship. The concept could easily spiral into the typical, saccharine-saturated pablum churned out by Hollywood schlockmeisters. However, when delivered by Seth MacFarlane, it feels real. MacFarlanedemonstrates a knack for coaxing believable performances from his actors,as well as an ear for slice-of-life dialogue peppered with bawdy humor and genuine sentiment. While the film’s concept could easily see all characters – human or stuffed/CG – transmuting into one-dimensional tropes, Ted’s script and solid acting from Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis ensure real, warm and fuzzy feelings by the end of the film – with a side of glorious raunch. Lana Cooper

 

Film: The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland

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The Hunger Games

The film version of the first act of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy offers a Coles’ Notes of Orwell, Huxley, and Wells filtered through the inflated sense of self-righteous injustice that animates all teenaged rebellion. The vivid agrarian deprivation of District 12 and conspicuous consumption of the Capitol are rendered with directness and humour (the latter thanks largely to a delightful Stanley Tucci). Jennifer Lawrence gives her Katniss Evereen a compelling combination of suppleness and steel, and director Gary Ross’ camera-shaking cinema-verité style bears fruit and builds realistic tension as the titular Games begin and the blood begins to flow. The Hunger Games is a professionally-crafted and sometimes even transcendent youth-oriented blockbuster that depicts and seeks to resist capitalist hegemony, and that deserves our appreciation. Ross Langager

 

Film: Marvel’s The Avengers

Director: Joss Whedon

Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson

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Marvel’s The Avengers

Everything about The Avengers, and, of course, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, was a colossal gamble, so to see it pay off in such a rewarding manner made Joss Whedon’s gleeful ensemble film an even greater achievement. Not only did fans and critics willingly accept such diverse characters with such disparate backgrounds co-existing, they embraced it. And they were right to: Whedon’s long experience with handling ensemble casts, character development, story, dialogue and, of course, action, made him the perfect man for the job to assemble earth’s mightiest heroes. A perfect synthesis of film and comics, brought together by a man who cut his teeth on television? More gambles like this, please. Kevin Brettauer

 

Film: Seven Psychopaths

Director: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Woody Harrelson, Zeljko Ivanek, Abbie Cornish, Gabourey Sibide, Long Nguyen, Harry Dean Stanton, Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kevin Corrigan, Olga Kurylenko

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Seven Psychopaths

The title of Seven Psychopaths tells you everything you need to know about the movie. Irish playwright/screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh takes a good many steps back from the existential and moral dread of his excellent 2008 debut In Bruges and enters into the world of metafilm, where everything is as playful as it is blood-soaked. For both McDonagh and his fictional counterpart Marty (Colin Farrell), the act of writing is to embrace the psychopaths both in them and around them. Whether it’s a Quaker with a haunted past (Christopher Walken, in a understated and powerful performance) or a dog thief-cum-serial killer (Sam Rockwell, perfectly channeling McDonagh’s id), Seven Psychopaths demonstrates that many different crazy people in a person’s life can be extensions of that very person’s life. Simply put, we all burden others with our psychopathy, and they in kind return the favor. To write is to enter the world of the insane, and few films have captured that fact as hilariously as Seven Psychopaths has. McDonagh is only on his second film, but if his pen is as loaded as the weapons of his characters, his status as a classic Irish playwright will undoubtedly carry over to his career in cinema. Brice Ezell

 

Film: ParaNorman

Director: Sam Fell, Chris Butler

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, John Goodman

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ParaNorman

In a big year for animation that saw the release of no fewer than three Halloween-appropriate cartoons, one of the medium’s very best in any genre was Laika’s ParaNorman, a funny, spooky, and heartfelt stop-motion picture with handmade craft visible in every frame. Filmmakers Chris Butler and Sam Fell expertly evoke an atmosphere equal parts New England and eighties Spielberg, and their designs mixed with the vocal performances of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, and Casey Affleck, among others, create more believable young characters than found in many live action child performers. Jesse Hassenger

 

Film: The Dark Knight Rises

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Matthew Modine

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The Dark Knight Rises

There’s only so much that can be done with Batman that doesn’t inevitably dip into the terrain of hokey. Batman Begins was probably the least Batman movie ever, and The Dark Knight benefitted from having the most memorable and disturbing Batman villain. Unfortunately, once you use up the Bat’s origin story and create the seminal Batman film featuring the best villain ever put to paper, there’s very little that can be done with the story before it starts getting ridiculous — just look at the Schumacher atrocities. What Christopher Nolan, et al. managed to do with the final chapter of his Batman trilogy was nothing short of a miracle. He kept the loom and grit of the previous film in check, while staying true to the Batman story. The visceral action sequences and oppressive theme latent throughout The Dark Knight Rises helps solidify this trilogy of a seemingly silly character (he dresses up as a bat to fight crime, for christ’s sake) as one of the most intricate and involved character studies of our time. Complemented by some fantastic performances by Bale, Cottilard, Hardy, and a surprisingly convincing standout performance by Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises is a wonderful conclusion to one of the best superhero trilogies… ever! Enio Chiola

28 -22

Film: West of Memphis

Director: Amy Berg

Cast: Damien Wayne Echols, Lorri Davis, John Mark Byers, Pam Hobbs, Henry Rollins, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley

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Display Width: 200West of Memphis

“It’s more of my life than I would like it to be,” admits John Fogleman, former Crittenden County deputy prosecuting attorney, “because frankly, I’d like to not have those three eight-year-old boys’ pictures in my mind.” The pictures he means are grisly, three eight-year-old boys left naked, tied up, and dead near a creek in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. Almost before the brutal loss of Stevie Edward Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore could sink in for the small rural community, police quickly named three suspects, teenagers Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin; prosecutors went on to argue the murders were part of a Satanic ritual.

The case basics are introduced in Amy Berg’s West of Memphis, which focuses more of its energy and time on the legal wrangling that followed, much of it chronicled previously and at length by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy. The new documentary focuses more specifically on the work of a legal team starting in 2007, to free the West Memphis Three (in this it includes credited footage from Berlinger and Sinofsky’s films), as well as the diligent efforts by Echols’ wife Lorri Davis, who provides the film with an effective emotional center. Cynthia Fuchs

 

Film: The Raid: Redemption

Director: Gareth Evans

Cast: Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Donny Alamsyah ,Yayan Ruhian, Pierre Gruno, Tegar Setrya, Ray Sahetapy

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The Raid: Redemption

For as much as the phrase “nonstop action” gets thrown around, The Raid: Redemption is one of the few movies that may just achieve the literal definition of that term. The plot and characters are tissue-thin: a drug kingpin is holed up inside a fortress-like Jakarta highrise, and a SWAT team must battle their way up to reach him, floor by grueling floor. It’s all just the setup for a relentless 100-minute buffet of flying fists, feet, and blades that’s almost too frantic to be believed, showcasing the indigenous Indonesian martial art pencak silat. Gareth Evans’ direction is the perfect antidote to the quick-cutting, zoomed-in slurry that bloats most Hollywood action sequences. Instead, Evans films much of the ridiculously-brutal action in long, wide takes, making sure that every last elbow-to-the-face is in frame. Simply put, this instant classic is one of the best action movies of this or any other year. Pat Kewley

 

Film: The Sessions

Director: Ben Lewin

Cast: Helen Hunt, John Hawkes, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin

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The Sessions

The life story of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien has already won one Academy Award, in 1997, for Jessica Yu’s Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. That short documentary introduced audiences to a remarkable individual whose worldview was shaped by a life mostly confined to an iron lung. Perhaps the biggest lesson of O’Brien’s life was how he chose to not view his life as confined. Saying “everybody becomes disabled unless they die first,” O’Brien didn’t let the effects of post-polio syndrome interrupt his desire to live fully, and he created public awareness around the desire of disabled individuals to be active participants in their communities.

Ben Lewin’s The Sessions brings O’Brien’s story to the screen in a feature length adaptation of O’Brien’s essay called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” The main plot of The Sessions does concern O’Brien’s decision (at age 38) to hire a surrogate in order to have a first sexual experience. But Lewin uses that scenario to explore nearly all of the issues raised in Breathing Lessons, including O’Brien’s sense of humor, his Catholic faith, and his yearning for companionship. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt give career-best performances as O’Brien and surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene, and the tremendous supporting cast includes William H. Macy (as Father Brendan), Moon Bloodgood, and Adam Arkin.

Beyond the performances, the most outstanding aspect of The Sessions is its thoughtful treatment of sex and intimacy. O’Brien’s meetings with Father Brendan and his “sessions” with Cheryl powerfully depict the both the spiritual and physical dimensions of sex. The tone of the film is surprisingly light, but its insightfulness about the effects of physical intimacy stands in bold contrast to the “no-strings attached” depictions that permeate most Hollywood films. Thomas Britt

 

Film: Hitchcock

Director: Sacha Gervasi

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D’Arcy, Michael Wincott, Kurtwood Smith, Richard Portnow

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Hitchcock

Hitchock is an Anglophile’s and a cinephile’s wet dream, bringing together two of the UK’s finest actors to portray two of cinema’s most intriguing, if not important figures. A concentrated character study, the film captures a snapshot of director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife/behind-the-scenes collaborator, Alma Reville, during the period of time when Hitchcock was filming Psycho. Helen Mirren plays the long-suffering, whip-smartReville to Anthony Hopkins’ demanding, obsessive genius Hitchcock. Both Hopkins and Mirren morph into their characters – equally convincing and compelling as they deftly flit between dark corners of the psyche, sublime cynicism, and wry comedy. Hitchcockoffers a “rear window” to one year in the couple’s decades-long partnership, lending insight into the couple’s slightly dysfunctional relationship, as well as what made each half of the duo tick. Lana Cooper

 

Film: Chronicle

Director: Josh Trank

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw

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Chronicle

Far from the adolescent power fantasy it could have been if not in the hands of Max Landis and Josh Trank, Chronicle is a deeply personal real-world take on Stan Lee’s axiom of “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” with a little dash of the old “nature versus nurture” chestnut thrown in for good measure. The characters, clearly existing in a post-9/11 world, never cease to feel real, and their predicaments, even when complicated with superhuman abilities, are always relatable. In a year where bullying and teenage social cliques hit the newsmedia hard, Chronicle could very easily become a social document of the same importance as The Laramie Project or Stand By Me, and it deserves that status. Kevin Brettauer

 

Film: Wreck-It Ralph

Director: Rich Moore

Cast: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk

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Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph came tailor-made to appeal to a certain demographic. Namely, 20- and 30-somethings that grew up playing video games. Oh yeah, and if they wanted to bring their kids along to see the movie, that was okay, too. To say it came loaded with a heavy burden of expectations from that demographic is an understatement. But director Rich Moore, with a background in high quality tv animation, met and went beyond those expectations.

The movie’s animation is spectacular, with three distinct, detailed looks for the three main game environments, and the character designs are equally superb. The voice work is also excellent, with John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, and especially Sarah Silverman delivering nuanced, enthusiastic performances. Not to mention the film’s unsung hero, Alan Tudyk, who plays the sneaky King Candy with a slightly crazed Charles Nelson Reilly impersonation. What really makes Wreck-It Ralph so successful, though, is its storytelling chops. No plot detail is wasted, and bits that seem like throwaway gags early on return later as essential to the story. It’s this smart writing that makes the movie such a satisfying experience. Chris Conaton

 

Film: The Cabin in the Woods

Director: Drew Goddard

Cast: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Brian White, Amy Acker, Tim De Zarn, Tom Lenk

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The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods sat on the shelf for three years due to MGM’s bankruptcy problems, but when it was finally released, it turned out to be worth the wait. After nearly a decade of working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, it was pretty obvious that writer/producer Joss Whedon had no interest in doing a traditional horror movie. Along with co-writer and first-time director Drew Goddard, the partners came up with a film that lovingly embraced the horror genre while simultaneously satirizing it. They even managed to symbolically indict and deify the horror-watching audience in the process. That may make it sound like Cabin in the Woods is too full of itself to be fun, but the opposite is true.

Goddard, Whedon, and their cast are clearly having a blast, and their joy leaps off the screen, even as terrible things are happening to the characters. From the opening scene of middle-aged office workers (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) discussing their weekends, it’s clear that something odd is going on with this movie. But then the young college kids show up to take the requisite weekend jaunt to a remote cabin, and we’re back on familiar ground. A huge part of the fun of Cabin in the Woods is watching how these two disparate sets of characters intersect, and figuring out exactly why. Eventually, of course, it all goes horribly awry, in a crazy, over the top third act that pays off absolutely every plotline and gag set up throughout the movie. Whedon had a hell of a 2012, but Cabin in the Woods may be his purest triumph. This movie is Whedon and Goddard unfiltered, doing whatever they felt like without any sort of studio mandate and succeeding with everything they tried. Chris Conaton

21 – 15

Film: Safety Not Guaranteed

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni

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Display Width: 200Safety Not Guaranteed

A fictionalized story born from a real classified ad, Safety Not Guaranteed had every reason not to work. Besides its abnormal origin, it also had a first-time feature director and writer as well as two leads that, while unquestionably talented in their established fields, had never done anything requiring this kind of delicate balance between comedy and drama. To say there was a thin line between success and failure would be an understatement, but everyone involved in this powerful indie walked the right side of the rope all the way to its inventively beautiful finale. Safety Not Guaranteed is the perfect blend of fantasy and reality. Don’t worry. You’ll make it through just fine. Ben Travers

 

Film: Cloud Atlas

Director: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant

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Cloud Atlas

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. Bill Gibron

 

Film: Rust and Bone

Director: Jacques Audiard

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Corinne Masiero

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Rust and Bone

Marion Cotillard might seem the one to watch in Jacques Audiard’s melodrama, Rust and Bone. She is the movie star, after all, playing a character who suffers a shocking injury and an emotionally convoluted road to recovery. But as her cohort in pain, Matthias Schoenaerts makes the deeper impression. Together, they create a deeply etched study in punishments and limits, in what the body and the soul can endure.

Both these damaged spirits spend the rest of the film trying and failing to latch onto some kind of forward momentum. Their pairing seems less an occasion for healing than masking pain. Stephanie, her eyes hollowed from lack of sleep and too much medication, looks dead to the world, while Ali is so mired in his roundelay of dead-end jobs, violently carnal one-night stands, and an ill-advised stint as bare-knuckle fighter that he’s barely aware of how fast he’s also spiraling toward oblivion. Chris Barsanti

 

Film: The Grey

Director: Joe Carnahan

Cast: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale

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The Grey

In a battle of film directors, to pit Joe Carnahan against Ang Lee doesn’t seem like a fair fight. Since gaining notice with the solid Narc a decade ago, Carnahan’s career has stalled with visually kinetic but narratively hollow films like Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team. Lee, on the other hand, has enjoyed critical adoration and been showered with directing awards from AMPAS and the DGA, among others. For their efforts in films released in 2012, we could compare the two men for tackling similar subject matter.

Carnahan’s The Grey and Lee’s Life of Pi are both survival pictures, stories of man versus animal, and cinematic inquiries into God’s will in life-or-death circumstances. Quite unexpectedly, Carnahan emerges with the better film. As a 3D oceanic spectacle, Life of Pi sets a new standard for computer generated imagery and visual effects. Yet The Grey, comparatively colorless and often dark or snow-blind, creates a more lasting impression by refusing to dilute the existential and philosophical questions at the heart of its physical endurance tests. Mis-marketed as another Liam Neeson action hero vehicle in the recent tradition of Taken and Unknown, The Grey is more like Gus van Sant’s Gerry on ice.

Lost and abandoned in the Alaskan wilderness, wolf killer Ottway (Neeson) and his fellow oilmen survive a plane crash but face many perils in their attempt to stay alive. The Grey is revealed to be not so much a film about how to hold onto life, but about how to come to terms with death. So yes, we stay entertained as Ottway fights wolves and as Pi fights a tiger, but The Grey’s ideas about loss, faith and God’s intervention are much more profound and likely to generate meaningful discussion than Pi’s audience friendly religious pluralism. Thomas Britt

 

Film: Anna Karenina

Director: Joe Wright

Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald

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Anna Karenina

Adaptations are such a dicey prospect nowadays, because there is a transparency to the film industry like never before. People know the difference between great art made in tribute to great art and a pure cash grab. Anna Karenina finds a new way to frame the classic Tolstoy novel, using a theater setting, but refuses to get in its way by “modern-ing” it up.

Aided by solid performances from Keira Knightley (the queen of period pieces) and Jude Law, Anna Karenina looks flashy and bold, but remains extremely traditional. It’s a high-wire act that very few could pull off, but director Joe Wright hits the right notes almost the entire way through. While it’s a tad infuriating to see an epic like Anna Karenina forced into one film while The Hobbit lasts a mighty three, Wright and co. handle the material with aplomb and produce something that looks polished and accomplished, and professionally puts to the screen some of the greatest words ever written. Steve Lepore

 

Film: Les Miserables

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

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Les Miserables

It’s no mean feat to successfully adapt Victor Hugo’s epic novel to a beloved Broadway musical, let alone transpose said musical to the big screen without disintigrating into a stinking pile of Roquefort cheese. Director Tom Hooper successfully captures the angst of France’s revolutionary era and the alternating pain and hope of the nation’s destitute his version of Les Miserables. Perhaps the most intriguing facet of Hooper’s production is that his actors sing on-camera, forgoing the sweetening of a sound booth and allowing the full range of emotion to spill out onto the screen along with the lyrics. Both Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman exemplify Hooper’s vision with gut-wrenching performances as impoverished single mother Fantine and reformed convict-turned-mayor Jean Valjean, respectively. Lana Cooper

 

Film: Looper

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels

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Looper

At the core of every sci-fi film is that nexus that asks “what if?” However, the delineation between a great sci-fi film and something as awful as In Time is the expansion of the story and affected characters surrounding the scientific possibility. Looper is probably the best science fiction film to come out in recent history that escalates a fairly typical notion of time travel into a mind-bending ride that doesn’t rely too heavily on action-movie effects — preferring instead to focus on the ramifications of life choices, regret, responsibility and sacrifice and how these themes are interconnected amongst its central three characters (two of which are the same person). It isn’t as overblown as Inception, nor is it as oversimplified as Total Recall. Looper never loses itself in its plot devices, but never forgets it’s a science fiction film. Enio Chiola

14 – 8

Film: Take This Waltz

Director: Sarah Polley

Cast: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman

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Display Width: 200Take This Waltz

Early in Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, before the divorce papers have been served, the husband sums up what he and his wife have together: “Security, order, contentment, loyalty,” he says. “We’re indecently fortunate.” One could say the same of the young married couple in Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley’s second turn at writing and directing a feature film. Lou (Seth Rogan) and Margot (Michelle Williams) have all those things — plus a mutual enjoyment of gross-out games and childish roughhousing.

Of course, such “indecently fortunate” relationships are bound to change. Like 2007’s Away from Her, Polley’s quietly stunning directorial debut, her new film examines the end of a marriage. But Polley isn’t interested in bitter ends. Her couples don’t bicker or scream. Rather, both films focus on how a person mourns the loss of the relationship. Her touch is lighter in Waltz, but she asks some of the same questions: How does someone begin to shift for herself again? And what does one partner owe the other? Alyssa Pelish

 

Film: Argo

Director: Ben Affleck

Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Tate Donovan

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Argo

In the middle of the Iran hostage crisis, CIA officer Tony Mendez managed to exfiltrate six American diplomats from Tehran by posing as a sci-fi film crew scouting fantastical middle-eastern film locations. The question isn’t why Ben Affleck has now decided to make this into a big-budget caper film, but rather why it took Hollywood so long. A taut, racing thriller with a riveting screenplay by Chris Terrio, Argo shrugs off historical precision in favor of tense narrative flow and suspense, building masterfully to its inevitable getaway conclusion. Of particular interest are supporting roles by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, playing the Canadian Caper’s unseen collaborators in the corridors of 1970s Hollywood. Zach Schonfeld

 

Film: Life of Pi

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Gerard Depardieu, Rafe Spall

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Life of Pi

Ang Lee continues to demonstrate the ability to impeccably adapt his technical and artistic skill-set to practically any material with Life of Pi, an exquisitely rendered adaptation of the best-selling novel about an Indian teen stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The Hong-Kong-cum-Hollywood auteur’s film, strong enough in its establishing section, takes on a transcendent bravado once the lifeboat is in the open Pacific and the anxious coexistence between Pi (Suraj Sharma) and the whimsically-named big cat Richard Parker ramps up into full, glorious gear. At its best, Life of Pi is pure, experiential, transportational cinema, and the sheer, overwhelming beauty consistently unleashed by Lee cannot be easily shaken. Ross Langager

 

Film: Skyfall

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Daniel Craig, Dame Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe

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Skyfall

The question of open and closed systems has become increasingly pertinent in our modern world. In espionage, the question is rather difficult to frame, as aqueous institutions like M16, which are based on moving in and out of particular power structures, face an inherent problem in trying to preserve the integrity of their organization. This problem is the very crux of Skyfall, a much-needed return to form after the middling Quantum of Solace. For the first time in a great while, the Bond series takes to the reality of politics on the work of secret agents; the world of Skyfall is one where M16’s bold espionage tactics are now under scrutiny by the English government, which proves to be a difficult reality to face for M (Judi Dench, stone-faced but powerfully compelling) and for her pet secret agent, James Bond (Daniel Craig). Plus, the agency’s discontents are not merely the ones at home; some, including a former agent-turned-cyberterrorist (a chilling Javier Bardem) are evidence to M16’s global harms. Featuring ravishingly beautiful cinemaphotography by the great Roger Deakins and stellar direction by Sam Mendes, Skyfall is exactly what the Bond franchise needs to be ushered into the future. Brice Ezell

 

Film: Django Unchained

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Leonardo Dicaprio, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Dennis Christopher

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Django Unchained

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. Bill Gibron

 

Film: The Master

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Madisen Beaty

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The Master

One of the best scenes in any 2012 film occurs near the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a PTSD-stricken veteran who’s been revived and then damaged further by charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is sitting by himself in a movie theater. An usher brings him a phone. He takes the call and hears his master’s voice, calling him across the ocean. In the original screenplay, the scene went on to include Quell’s falling from a balcony and waking up in a hospital before tracking down Dodd. But in the finished film, the dream-call suffices. Quell is off to England, seduced once more by Dodd’s promised revelation.

It’s the most important scene in a film full of patience-testing exercises. To watch The Master is to experience the push and pull of indoctrination. Anderson has never before been so focused on a single dramatic dynamic within a film, here at the expense of conventional act structure and character development. After they meet, every scene is concerned with Dodd’s seduction of Quell and their growing codependency. From the eyes-wide-open “auditing” scenes that begin their relationship to Hoffman’s spellbinding serenade at their final meeting, the film invites the audience to witness an intensely personal (and certainly damned) bond between two disturbed individuals.

The cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr., music by Jonny Greenwood, and excellent acting by all involved contribute to a film that respects its audience too much to romanticize a collision course. Framed by sailor Quell clutching sand on the beach, The Master does arrive at a fundamental truth: all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Thomas Britt

 

Film: Holy Motors

Director: Leos Carax

Cast: Denis Lavant,Édith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Élise L’Homeau

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Holy Motors

Holy Motors, the surreal fifth feature from arthouse provocateur Leos Carax, operates on a number of levels, not the least of which is as a pure showcase for its magnificent French leading man Denis Lavant. His chameleonic role as a sort of futuristic actor or performance artist sees him embody nearly a dozen different characters in the space of one hectic night, sometimes even multiple ones within the same scene. In what is apparently a typical workday, Lavant disappears behind self-applied prosthetics to become everything from a crippled babushka to a lithe motion-capture artist to some kind of troll-like subterranean sex-goblin. The reasons behind these surreal performances for unseen audiences are never fully explained in the film, only tantalizingly hinted at, but their effect is to create an entrancing cinematic fugue, a deliriously dreamlike tribute to the wonder and power of films and filmmaking. Pat Kewley

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Film: This is Not a Film

Director: Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi

Cast: Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

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“The prison is certain they’re not going to acquit you.” The news isn’t good for Jafar Panahi. As his lawyer Farideh Gheyrat tells him over the phone, the appeal they’ve filed with a court in Tehran is a long shot. “The rulings aren’t legal rulings at all,” she continues. “That’s why our legal arguments were not heard. I should say this plain and simple, that the rulings are 100% political and not legal at all.” After they hang up, Panahi remains seated at the dining room table for a moment, and looks directly into the camera, not exactly smiling. “I think I should remove this cast,” he says, “and throw it away.”

Here and elsewhere in This is Not a Film — shot over four days last year, smuggled out of Tehran in a cake — Panahi reminds you of the films he’s made before, like The Mirror (1997), in which the little girl who is playing a little girl looks into the camera and says she wants to remove the cast her character wears, get off the bus where they’re filming, and go home. “I’m not acting anymore,” she screams, when Panahi tries to soothe her from off-screen. Both The Mirror and This is Not a Film include this moment, as well as what follows, namely, a young Panahi and his crew adjusting their camera to keep up with the girl, Mina Mohammad Khani, as she steps onto the sidewalk.

This scene in This is Not a Film makes clear the pain of being locked up, enduring the state’s brutal lunacy. At the same time, the movie also wades into another vast moral and philosophical mess, asking how any film might reveal a true experience, or how this one, nominally a documentary, might show a self that is, in any way, him. This is the question that This is Not a Film can’t fully answer, but goes on to ask and re-ask in a number of ways. Cynthia Fuchs

 

Film: The Silver Linings Playbook

Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Chris Tucker, Jacki Weaver

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The Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell cannot be praised enough. Just two years after knocking us out with The Fighter, the infamously feisty director returns with another dysfunctional family dramedy worthy of comparison to its powerhouse predecessor. Bradley Cooper proves he’s more than just a pretty face with a subtly multifarious turn as Pat, an undiagnosed bipolar just out of the loony bin. His gambling-addicted father (a rejuvenated Robert De Niro) tries to help, but it’s not until the equally troubled Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, destined for Oscar) comes along that things really start rolling. Russell’s now-trademark tracking camera — sneaking up behind his subjects like a documentarian with impeccable timing — grips the audience from take no. 1 through the rousing finale. No one should have trouble finding the silver lining here. Ben Travers

 

Film: Amour

Director: Michael Haneke

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert

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Amour Michael Haneke’s clinical approach to filmmaking has made him one of the most divisive auteurs of all time. While some people are put off by his formalistic precision, others are enthralled by the way in which he’s approached the terrors of daily living in a way that hadn’t been done since the glory days of Hitchcock. In Amour he seems to have achieved a delicate balance by creating a touching portrait of old age without letting go of his brutal manipulation techniques. Anchored by the powerful performances of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant as a married couple trying to cope with life after a tragedy, the film makes us look at death straight in the eye, leaving us scarred, moved and filled with even more questions about what happens when we approach our end. The beauty of it all is that it’s also strangely comforting because it reminds us that eventually we are all connected and no matter where we came from or who we are, we’re all traveling together towards the same destination. Jose Solis

 

Film: Lincoln

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader

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Lincoln

In tackling one of the United States’ most iconic figures, a man who looms largest in American history, Steven Spielberg’s success is in matching Abraham Lincoln’s grandiosity with his film’s smallness. Instead of an all-encompassing biopic, Spielberg chose to focus on the final months of Lincoln’s life and his most important political success: the passage of the 13th amendment. And, while there is certainly much political theater surrounding the amendment, with flamboyant characters on both sides of the debate, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner choose to keep the showiest scenes away from the president. He has a couple of emphatic, passionate monologues, but mostly you get a sense of the man through the tiniest moments: a rambling story, a bawdy joke, a wordless and restless afternoon pacing the White House with his son while Congress debates, a sullen glance. As the 16th president, Daniel Day-Lewis is in full control of this remarkable restraint — though he’s buoyed by a supporting cast rising to meet his greatness. Like the characters in the film, with Lincoln you get the sense that everyone is striving to quietly accomplish their most important work. Marisa LaScala

 

Film: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Director: Benh Zeitlin

Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Gina Montana, Lowell Landes

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

“Someone at some point told me, ‘If you’re gonna make movies, don’t shoot on the water, don’t shoot with children, and don’t shoot with animals,’” director Benh Zeitlin recalls of his college days at Wesleyan. “And our movie is really about children and animals on boats.” That about sums up the wild-eyed creativity and imaginative unruliness with which Beasts of the Southern Wild — and Zeitlin’s Court 13 film collective — tackles filmmaking. Lodged between a flooded New Orleans bayou and a hazily apocalyptic hurricane fantasyland — and filmed on location with a budget of only $1.8 million — Beasts values untrained locals over professionals, DIY authenticity over money, animals over CGR, and rambling Southern-tinged fantasy over reality. It’s nothing if not bold, but its hidden weapon is Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy), a rugged heroine survivalist so compelling, Zeitlin modified the script to accommodate the six-year-old actress. Zach Schonfeld

 

Film: Moonrise Kingdom

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward

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Moonrise Kingdom

Watching Moonrise Kingdom is probably what it would be like to go to a theme park and put down money for Wes Anderson: The Ride. It’s, in essence, everything that people either love or hate about the director to the nth degree, but if you love what he does, this is Anderson’s finest hour.

Going back to thematic wells that have served him best in the past, Kingdom tells the story of Sam and Suzy, a pair of star-crossed pre-teens who flee their respective cocoons — Suzy’s broken home with parents Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, Sam’s deadly serious Khaki Scouts, led in a riotous performance by Edward Norton — to start their lives together. What ensues is part-chase movie, part-disaster film, part-comedy that all seems to both play inside the typical world of Anderson’s films while stretching them into new stylistic territory.

The children (led by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) offer charm, but it’s the sadness and heartbreak for the adult cast of Moonrise Kingdom that makes it Anderson’s best since The Royal Tenenbaums. Bruce Willis walks away with the film (and on to a comeback year overall) as a lovelorn police captain who offers Sam seemingly temporary shelter. He’s the grounding heart and soul of a movie that wears both gleefully on its sleeve. Steve Lepore

 

Film: Zero Dark Thirty

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler

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Zero Dark Thirty

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. Bill Gibron

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