I must admit I’m more than a little peeved that Chicago, and other cities, have to continually wait longer for acclaimed films to open. Are all cities other than LA and NY considered the sticks? ZERO DARK THIRTY and AMOUR opened on the coasts weeks ago, but here we sit waiting. I think it’s a huge missed opportunity as we have the Internet here too and can read how well both have done in year-end critics’ lists and awards. So why not open them here early? Beats me. Thus, I must make my list of Top 10 Films for 2012 with an asterisk, having not seen all contenders.
(Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner)
This film surprised me the most of any I saw this year. I was expecting a wonderful performance by the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis (a lock for the Best Actor Oscar) and adroit direction and production values by Steven Spielberg & his crew. What I didn’t expect was for it to be so damn timely and relevant. It is about the passing of the amendment to end slavery, but it is as much about marriage equality, women’s rights, civil rights, taking care of veterans, the poor or any of America’s downtrodden today. In other words, the fight for justice is the same now as it was back in 1865. It's about Lincoln’s pushing a just but controversial measure through Congress by sheer will and a savvy understanding of politics. (President Obama, take note!) This is one of Spielberg’s finest works with a sharp script by Tony Kushner and a cast of superb character actors led by Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones.
(Directed by Tim Burton. Written by John August, Leonard Ripps and Tim Burton)
The second biggest surprise for me in 2012 was this animated kids film. Not only was it appropriately scary and immensely clever, but it moved me to tears too. It also proved to me that Tim Burton could still do genius work. In the past, he's too often lost control of his narrative, focusing on production values over screenplay coherence. But not here. This film never loses sight of its core plot about a boy’s love for his dog. Even as it satirizes society and classic horror movies, this film stays focused, with its heart squarely on its sleeve. Sadly, this brilliant movie for kids of all ages bombed at the box office. But it has a chance at box office redemption through a likely win at the Oscars and of course, a DVD due in the early part of 2013.
LIFE OF PI
(Directed by Ang Lee. Written by David Magee)
Ang Lee is a true artist and every frame of this film is stunningly composed, lit and shot. But it’s not all about pretty pictures despite being the most sumptuous of any 2012 film. It’s a story filled with big ideas about mortality and what it takes to survive. An Indian boy is shipwrecked and finds himself adrift at sea with a few zoo animal rescues, including a savage tiger. How he manages to stay alive is an epic story of endurance, compartmentalization and humanity. I cried at the end of this one too – for the beauty of it, the courage of it, and for a surprise denouement that is as shattering as it is moving. It’s a knockout.
(Written and directed by Ben Lewin)
John Hawkes gives one of the year’s best performances with little more than his face to act with. He plays Mark O’Brien, the real life handicapped writer who was confined to an iron lung. At age 36, he decides he no longer wants to be a virgin, so he hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him. What follows is an incredibly touching portrait of sexuality. Most films with such a subject tend towards either silly romantic fantasy or comedic frivolity, but this one is witty, realistic and utterly mature. And for my money, Helen Hunt gives the female performance of the year. She’s breathtakingly frank in baring her body & soul.
(Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell. Written by Chris Butler)
Two animated movies made my list this year, with WRECK-IT RALPH almost making it too. This horror comedy is a legitimately scary film, made by the same folks who added plenty of the macabre to the masterful CORALINE back in 2009. But it’s also one of the cheekiest comedies of the year as it lampoons not only teenagers, but specifically how they always figure into horror movies. Here, you get the typical hunk, chunk, and fatuous blonde, but they’re given more depth and humanity than any character in those silly FRIDAY THE 13th movies and their ilk. The wise and witty PARANORMAN works as a horror film, a comedy and a moving tale of childhood. That’s a big accomplishment. And it’s why it’s in my top five.
(Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Written by Sergio Sanchez & Maria Belon)
Why isn’t this film figuring more in the awards being handed out this season? I think it’s the most underrated movie of the year. THE IMPOSSIBLE has amazing acting with some of the best work ever done by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. It has a brilliant turn by juvenile actor Tom Holland. And its terrifying tsunami directed by Bayona is the best action sequence this year. Much better than any set piece in either THE AVENGERS or THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. This is a profoundly moving story about courage and family, and should be seen by anyone who has one or who loves movies. (In other words, everyone should go see this arresting marvel of a film.)
(Directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola)
Wes Anderson is one of the most unique filmmakers on the planet, and may be our finest comedy director working today. He not only brings the eccentricities and quirks of young love against the backdrop of summer camp to, dare I say, high camp, but he accentuates every comic beat with hilarious composition and timing that would be the envy of Blake Edwards. I laughed out loud during almost every scene, and that's why I pick it as the year's best comedy.
(Directed by Ben Affleck. Written by Chris Terrio)
People are acting like they’ve just discovered that Ben Affleck is a great director this year with ARGO. Didn’t they see GONE BABY GONE or THE TOWN? He’s been a helluva director for a while now. (He’s also an underrated actor and I still haven’t forgiven the Academy for overlooking him for his deft portrayal of George “Superman” Reeves in HOLLYWOODLAND.) Here he tells the story of how the CIA worked with Canada to get a handful of American diplomats out of Iran during the hostage crisis of 1979. To say it was a taut nail-biter doesn’t even begin to cover it. Affleck wrings every bit of tension out of this story. And like LINCOLN, its timeliness couldn't be more relevant what with all the mess in Benghazi.
RUST AND BONE
(Directed by Jacques Audiard. Written by Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain & Craig Davidson)
If this movie about two damaged people finding friendship was done in America, it would have 100 syrupy strings on the soundtrack and a push for tears every 10 minutes. But this film is French and therefore it’s not nearly as obvious or as heavy-handed. It's something much more considered and even profound. Marion Cotillard plays a trainer of killer whales at an amusement park that loses her legs in a horrible work accident. Matthias Schoenaerts plays a ne’er-do-well who aspires to be a boxer and has the intellectual depth of a wild animal. One is crippled physically, the other emotionally, but they help complete each other. It's the oddest love story this year and a great foreign film.
(Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
Another great film by Paul Thomas Anderson who continues to peer behind the curtain of American values and discover utter fraud. This time he delves into the desperation of a soldier after WWII, coming home and trying to find acceptance. Joaquin Phoenix is a fidgety mess as the Navy man so emotionally damaged and rudderless that he turns to a cult to find some sense of belonging. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the insinuating leader of the cult and watching him twist Phoenix around his finger is riveting. The sailor loses what little of him is left to an utter sham in this searing indictment of masculinity, religion and sexual politics.
Those are my picks for the best of the year...subject to change. What impressed you the most? Tell me your top 10 and let's keep the discussion going.