It Was a Very Good Year

Looking back on 2012’s films, it’s hard not to feel good. Attendance picked up again after slumping in 2011. Hollywood produced franchise films that not only made money, but were actually high quality, such as Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, Men in Black 3, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Smaller mid-majors and indie studios also had their share of successes. Beasts of the Southern Wild won big at Sundance and then became an arthouse hit. Five auteurs that came of age in the 90s -- Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell and Richard Linklater all unveiled excellent films last year.

Yes, problems still persist in the film world. Studios often shy away from mid-level budget movies unless there are deep-pocketed producers involved. It’s still difficult for many independent filmmakers to get their films made, distributed and seen. Ticket prices continue to rise. Even so, I can’t help feeling optimistic, and not just because the Twilight series finally ended. The caliber of 2012’s offerings is evident in my Honorable Mention list:

Brooklyn Castle
The Dark Knight Rises
Django Unchained
End of Watch
Hello, I Must be Going
The Impostor
Nobody Else But You
The Raid: Redemption
The Sessions
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

That leaves my top ten, a diverse group for sure. They all share indelible characters (some new and some renewed), strange journeys, and a commitment to intelligent storytelling that comes through in every frame (Yes, I know some movies don’t even have frames anymore, but you get the idea):

10. Flight (dir. Robert Zemeckis) – Zemeckis won an Academy Award for directing Forrest Gump, and also helmed classics such as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Cast Away. Flight is Zemeckis’s first live-action film (after a series of motion capture animation movies) since 2000, and he has not lost his touch. The film begins with a harrowing plane crash sequence, but it becomes clear that this is merely a prologue to the main story. Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an ace airline pilot who is also a “functional alcoholic.” I say “functional” because Whitaker can expertly shepherd a plane while on enough booze to make most people pass out. Of course he doesn’t grasp the toll of his drinking on every other aspect of his life. The story, beautifully written by John Gatins, plays off the irony that Whitaker’s greatest triumph is what makes his life unravel. Washington shows his trademark intensity, but plays down the charm, as he explores Whitaker’s inner turmoil. His work is a performance within a performance, as Whitaker tries to convince everyone, including himself, that he’s OK. It’s a testament to the skills of Zemeckis, Gatins and Washington, that a simple decision of whether or not to have a drink becomes as gripping as the plane crash. Let’s hope it’s not another twelve years before Zemeckis’s next live action effort.

9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (dir. Stephen Chbosky) – We all know the typical high school film, filled with people way too pretty and too old to be high school students. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming of age story that feels authentic, like it’s set in an actual high school. Chbosky, who adapted his own novel for the screen, displays a touch for how disconnected a high school outsider can be. But he also captures the thrill of finally connecting, especially with other outsiders. Logan Lerman is both earnest and understated as Charlie, our hero, while Ezra Miller steals scenes as Charlie’s friend Patrick, who’s dealing with issues of his own. Emma Watson leaves Hermione Granger behind once and for all. She shines as Patrick’s half-sister and Charlie’s crush. Chbosky wisely takes his time telling the story, paying much attention to how Charlie and his friends bond and change. I would have enjoyed high school much more if it were like this.

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin) – Every so often a film seems to come out of nowhere and grab people’s attention. Not only did Beasts have no stars, it had no one I had even heard of. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but so had many other films that did not have much staying power. This was different. Beasts resonated with audiences, and was held over for weeks at arthouse theaters. It’s easy to see why. Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar create a modern-day fairy tale, though it’s a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. The film’s depiction of a Bayou area after several Katrina like storms is not polemical or mournful but instead almost mystical. Much of that is because we see this world through Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl living with her good-hearted but ornery father (Dwight Henry). The film celebrates Hushpuppy’s love for her father and their whole community of displaced people. Wallis imbues Hushpuppy with an uncommon spirit, wise beyond her years but still full of a child’s wonder. Ben Richardson’s cinematography illuminates both the danger and enchantment of Hushpuppy’s journey. With the film’s recent Oscar nominations, Fox Searchlight decided to rerelease Beasts of the Southern Wild. Anyone who missed it the first time should take advantage of this second chance.

7. Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendes) – James Bond fans had reason to worry after the franchise’s 22nd film, Quantum of Solace. The series had gone too far in the direction of the Jason Bourne films, both in the gloomy outlook and the frenetic style. Skyfall reminded audiences of what made Bond great in the first place. It keeps Daniel Craig’s harder, grittier Bond while bringing back many of the staples that fans loved. The story does take some chances by delving into Bond’s backstory and having him do much of his work defending the homeland in the UK. Mendes makes these choices pay off, while still finding the sense of fun that eluded the earlier Craig Bond films. Best of all, Mendes delivers crisp, exciting action sequences where you can actually follow what’s going on. Craig has truly made Bond his own and feels completely at ease. Skyfall also boasts perhaps the finest supporting cast ever for a Bond film, with newcomers Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris and Albert Finney delivering strong turns along with series stalwart Judi Dench. Skyfall is a franchise’s 50th anniversary gift to its fans -- both a terrific film and a confidence that James Bond enters his second 50 years on very solid ground.

6. Headhunters (dir. Morten Tyldum) – This Norwegian thriller evokes some of the Coen brothers crime films (such as Blood Simple and Fargo). Headhunters takes great delight in placing its protagonist in greater and greater peril as he loses control. Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a successful corporate headhunter but not successful enough to support his lavish lifestyle. So he supplements his income by stealing art. Brown interviews a CEO prospect who happened to own a prized painting, a tempting target. From there matters rapidly descend out of hand, much to Brown’s fear and the audience’s enjoyment. The story takes many unexpected turns that I will not divulge here. Let’s just say that Tyldum keeps his foot on the pedal, constantly pushing the danger nipping at Brown’s heels and seeing just how far the man will have to go to survive. Hennie deftly portrays Brown’s confidence giving way to terror and desperation. Rumors abound of an American remake, but please don’t wait for that. Discover the real thing on DVD.

5. Searching for Sugar Man (dir. Malik Bendjelloul) – “Truth is stranger than fiction” has become such a cliché, but it still applies in some cases. Sixto Rodriguez, a folk-rock singer, makes a couple of records in the early 70s and plays some small clubs. His records don’t sell, and Rodriguez gives up music as a career. Without his knowledge some bootleg tapes of his end up in South Africa, where they become favorites among liberal Afrikaners. Decades later, some South African fans try to find out if Rodriguez is still alive. Bendjelloul’s documentary explores how art can spread, grow, and evolve beyond what even its creator may have dreamed. The film makes effective use of Rodriguez’s songs, making you get a glimpse as to why they affected people so much. The final scenes are as heartwarming as you’ll see in any fictional film. I don’t want to spoil them, but let’s just say they prove that there can be second acts in American lives.

4. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson) – Howard Hawks, one of classic Hollywood’s legendary directors, when asked what filmmakers he enjoyed, said, “I liked almost anybody that made you realize who in the devil was making the picture.” By that standard, Hawks would have really liked Wes Anderson. Moonrise Kingdom features all of Anderson’s trademarks: perfectly centered symmetrical shots (every frame could be a still photo), meticulous detail even in the smallest items, eclectic music, Bill Murray, and characters with difficult family relationships. Anderson excels at creating worlds for his stories that are just one slight step beyond reality. Here it’s a fictional New England island circa 1965, complete with its own backstory. In that island, two pre-teens run away together setting off an escalating series of events. Once again, Anderson assembles an amazing cast, with Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman joining Murray. But the real standouts are Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as the kids that drive the story. They are able to combine childhood innocence with the world weariness that defines many of Anderson’s best characters. Moonrise Kingdom is funny, charming, whimsical, and touching. I don’t know if I’d want to live in a Wes Anderson world but I definitely want to visit often.

3. Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg) – I know Lincoln succeeded because a friend of mine, who has read everything ever written about Lincoln, was vehemently opposed to Steven Spielberg even making this film. My friend later admitted that the film got it right. Spielberg, working off a brilliant script by Tony Kushner, manages to humanize Abraham Lincoln without diminishing his greatness. Kushner wisely focused on a small period of Lincoln’s life, a few months in 1865 as the Civil War was winding down. By not having to cram in the bulk of Lincoln’s career, the script gives a better sense of who Lincoln was in day-to-day life. Lincoln tries desperately to persuade, cajole and coerce the House of Representatives into passing a Constitutional amendment banning slavery. Through this quest, the film illustrates not only Lincoln’s vision and determination, which most of us know, but also the man’s humor, shrewdness and political mastery. Many have written about Daniel Day-Lewis’s skill and commitment in embodying Lincoln. Here I have nothing to add except that Day-Lewis deserves all of the plaudits. Sally Field as Mrs. Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones, as an abolitionist Congressman, stand out among an impressive supporting cast. All of the Oscar nominations are nice, but the film’s lasting achievement is that my friend may give Spielberg a break next time.

2. Argo (dir. Ben Affleck) – Argo has something for everyone. It’s a spy movie blended with a 70s style political thriller with some Hollywood satire thrown in. After Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck now proves he can deliver with a film set outside Boston. In fact it’s the film’s strong sense of place whether it is D.C., L.A., or Iran, that makes it so credible. Affleck also stars as a Tony Mendez, a CIA operative staging a fake movie as a cover to get six U.S. embassy staffers out of 1980 Iran. Alan Arkin steals every scene he’s in as a cynical producer working with Mendez. Chris Terrio’s script expertly shows how so many parts all had to work for the CIA’s plan to succeed. Affleck, towards the end of the movie, slowly and steadily builds the suspense, so that the audience is hooked despite knowing how the story ends. With just three films Affleck completes his transition from middling actor to extraordinary director.

1. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson) – Film critic Bill Henry observed that he’s seen a run of intelligent, inventive sci-fi films lately, including The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code. I thoroughly enjoyed those two films, but Looper tops them. Writer-director Johnson presents an intricate, innovative, coherent take on time travel unlike anything presented on film before. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a hitman assigned to kill victims sent back in time from a criminal underworld 30 years later. Life looks good for him until the next victim sent back is himself 30 years older (Bruce Willis). Gordon-Levitt nails Willis’s inflections and mannerisms. That, and some virtuoso prosthetic work, make seamless the two versions of the same character. Looper evokes elements of Greek tragedy, in that actions taken to avoid an awful fate can be what bring that fate about in the first place. As with some of the best sci-fi, the film asks intriguing questions. With the benefit of experience, what would you say to your younger self? If you could kill a small child who you knew would do horrible things one day, but at that moment was innocent, would you? Should you? Johnson asks those questions while never losing sight of the narrative. He brings all the threads together in a simple, yet creative and ultimately satisfying, ending. Looper can get inside your head, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Adam Spector
February 1, 2013

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