It wasn’t my best year for film viewing. Where 2011 saw me watch somewhere near 110 films, I’m embarrassed to even count my paltry little number. Weeks, even months went by in 2012 where because of the cruel infringement of life, I was unable to watch a single movie in the Temple of Cinema. Thus, and I will freely admit it, my selections are culled from a pretty standard selection. And even as, of late, I’ve rallied against the generic selection of films that seem to populate every list this year, my list is very much the same (perhaps even more lacking). For those who might lash out as films like Lincoln and Holy Motors aren’t present here, it’s because December was a blur of 9-to-5 work, a blur that eliminated any chance of me seeing most the Oscar bait that populates the end of the year.
That said, I saw some good flicks this year and I thought you might want to know about ‘em.
10. Argo (d. Ben Affleck)
Possibly the most hyped film of the award season contenders, and shockingly, well worth it. Ben Affleck has now made three good-to-great films in a row and Argo is the crown jewel of a career revamped. Historical drama with it’s tendency towards hyperbole and over-indulgent bloat, can be tough boat to sail. Affleck takes the story of six soon-to-be-hostages in late 1970s Iran and the bizarre Hollywood solution to getting them out and turns it into a lean, mean, and at times hilarious bit of film making. You’ve heard this before, but there is something magical about a film that manages to tell a story with a well known ending, and still dredge a hefty amount of tension out of it.
9. Skyfall (d. Sam Mendes)
I am not a huge James Bond fan. Every few years I’ll assert that I’m going to watch all of them in order, but usually sometime after Dr. No, I get bored and move on. Bond fan or not, I’ve seen almost every modern day Bond (starting with Pierce the Fierce and Goldeneye) and it’s been a weighty slog. Though the first two films of the Daniel Craig era revitalized the cinematically inert franchise, the Bond films still seemed to lack direction. Sam Mendes has, with the flair of a great director, solved that. Skyfall introduces a modern London and paints Bond as an old school spy operating in a new school world. Craig’s punch-happy Bond is pitted against Silva, a former MI6 agent who’s realized that terrorism in the digital world isn’t just blowing things up. With Craig continuing to assert himself as the best Bond of all time, and Javier Bardem’s Silva clearly taking the prize for best Bond villain ever, and Mendes inserting the first signs of subtext into a 50 year old series, the film transcends its predecessors. It isn’t a perfect film and I think Mendes fails to stick the landing, but he manages to the right the course of the ship, somehow making the franchise feel fresh, while bringing it back to basics.
8. Seven Psychopaths (d. Martin McDonagh)
It wouldn’t be a “Best Of” list without the inclusion of one of the McDonagh brothers. Though Seven Psychopaths doesn’t scale the heights of In Bruges or The Guard, it is a clever, clever film that plays the notion of filmmaking and metatextual screenwriting in a subtle, subversive, brilliant way. Colin Farrell had a rough year and if I was feeling negative Total Recall would certainly end up on a Worst Of 2012 list, but here, under the direction of Martin McDonagh he shines as a screenwriter struggling to hit a deadline. Throw in an ever increasing group of, ahem, psychopaths, and a roadtrip from Hell, all tied together with an incredibly clever concept, and you’ve got another minor masterpiece from Martin McDonagh.
7. Love Free or Die (d. Macky Alston)
Hugging Bishop Gene Robinson after the screening of Love Free or Die at Sundance was one of the great moments of my year. It was my first time at Sundance and my girlfriend, as a birthday surprise, had coerced my parents in to joining as well. The list of films we’d set up for ourselves was diverse and by no means bland and my parents, both in their 60s, were troopers. Minutes before Love Free or Die (the story of the first gay Episcopalian bishop Gene Robinson) my dad mentioned that he was feeling a little burnt out. We sat down for Love Free or Die, and after an hour and forty-five minutes of a film about love and humanity and one man’s quest just to be exactly who he wants to be, all of us were refreshed. This is a film about religion and love and how fucked up the foundational structures of our society are and how one man just wants to tell some people that he loves God (whatever that means). It’s brilliant and heart-warming without tugging the strings in a manipulative way. Hands down the best documentary I saw all year, and it’s a goddamn shame that the film still hasn’t been picked up yet.
6. Cabin In The Woods (d. Drew Goddard)
No film was more fun this year than Cabin In The Woods. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are fine team, and this big meta pancake of a film shone with originality and the kind of world building horror doesn’t offer that much anymore. A bunch of kids go to a, ahem, cabin in the woods and very bad, very generic shit starts to go down. Somewhere else, a bunch of suits press buttons. The collision of these two worlds is amazing. Cabin In The Woods has all the fun of a great Buffy episode – snappy dialogue, cultural references, sharp-as-a-tack humor – but anchored by stars like Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, this is one of the more refreshing bits of horror fare I’ve seen in years. If only we had ten pictures like this a year.
5. The Hobbit (d. Peter Jackson)
I am not a fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yes, I don’t mind Fellowship of the Ring, and there are moments in The Two Towers that work beautifully, but Return of the King is an overlong slog that isn’t just hard to watch but clearly points out the flaws of the preceding films. That said, I walked in to The Hobbit ready for more of the doom-and-gloom self-serious fare that populated the first three films. Thank Martin Freeman for changing all those worries. Where Elijah Wood’s Frodo has one face that he uses to express every sentiment, Freeman’s Bilbo is a fully fleshed out character. This is one of the defining hero quests, and Freeman takes Bilbo from crotchety hermit to sword wielding bad-ass over the course of three hours. Jackson seems to have found the perfect tone for this film – sort of an Indiana Jones with hobbits, dwarves, dragons, and wizards – and after three hours of epic action scenes and the best Gollum-Hobbit match up yet, I was ready to throw this film on the top of the pile. Don’t let the three hour run time and the fact that it’s only the first of a trilogy send you away from this one, it’s a gem, a charming, classically entertaining film in the very best way.
4. Looper (d. Rian Johnson)
In any other year, Looper would have easily jumped to the very top of my list of films. It’s a testament to how good this year was in terms of film, that it sits at number 4. Rian Johnson creates a concept and a world and a new spin on time travel so original and interesting, I literally sat on the edge of my seat for the entire film. If you don’t already know the concept I won’t give it even an ounce of it away, but it’s the type of sci-fi film that when it beautifully trickles to a halt you want to run outside, smoke a cigarette and ask your friends “What just happened?” Months after seeing it, I still find myself searching the internet to find new theories on who is who and what is what in this brilliant bit of filmmaking. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blount (the most underrated of attractive, talented women) and the kid who plays Sol are all fantastic. Johnson’s direction is beautiful, stylistic and perfectly edited with almost no frame gone to waste. This is the type of film that deserves an Oscar nod, but because it features time travel and futuristic cowboys, it never will.
3. Moonrise Kingdom (d. Wes Anderson)
It’s been one of my great angers this year to see the wave of critics say things like “I’d given up on Wes Anderson after The Darjeeling Limited but …” Anderson, in my humble opinion, is a national treasure, a director with a visual style and thematic palate so specific, that the he should wear a robe that reads “Auteur” on the back. Moonrise Kingdom, the story of the search for two runaways on a small island, ratchets up the Anderson style and continues to play with the themes of family and just what that means, but somewhere amongst it all, Anderson tells a very nice story about two kids who fall in love, and how that love helps fix a few things. It is typically beautiful and full of the sort of short, sharp one-liners Anderson is so well known for. And I’ll say this to those who might say, “Just another Wes Anderson film” – you’re fucking right, this is another Wes Anderson film, and you should be happy that we still have a few directors that are following their artistic path instead of just taking bags of money and making whatever film the fucking suits tell them to. In an era of artistic vacuum, it’s nice to know that one director is still doing exactly what he wants.
2. Django Unchained (d. Quentin Tarantino)
I hope Quentin Tarantino is sitting in a leather chair somewhere with a 900 dollar glass of scotch in one hand and his iPhone in the other just laughing at the shitstorm he’s stirred up by making a Western exploitation film about slavery. I’ve gotten bigger arguments about this film with my white, liberal-guilt nursing friends, and because of them I’m ready to give Tarantino a fucking Nobel Peace Prize. Amongst accusations of racism and levity in terms of the subject, Django Unchained stands as one of the most telling films about slavery ever made. And even more so, it’s probably the most entertaining three hours you’ll spend in a theater this year. I balk at the idea that a film about one man’s journey from slave to heroic badass could possibly hint at racism. Oh sure, there’s graphic depictions of what we, as Americans, did during the terrible terrible years of slavery, and Tarantino plays them to appropriately horrible effect. Yes, there is humor in this film, and yes, a lot of people die in graphic explosions of blood, but when the credits roll if you actually think that this film, this big beautiful over-indulgent humdinger of a film is racist or doesn’t appropriately address the subject matter, you’ve missed the point. Go watch This Is 40 and bitch about how big your house is.
1. Zero Dark Thirty (d. Kathryn Bigelow)
In a year of great cinema, no other film knocked me on my ass like Zero Dark Thirty. People expecting a patriotic dirge of flickering flags and terrorist killing, leave yourself at the door. A procedural about the hunt for Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty smartly focuses on the character of Maya (Jessica Chastain finally proving just what everyone has been saying about her) a fresh-out-of-highschool recruit who’s thrust in to the search for the 9/11 ring-leader. It could’ve been such a bigger, more exploitative film, but Bigelow wisely plays it as realistically as possible, focusing on the intelligence search, you might say the intelligence obsession, in finding this man who tore the country apart. At the heart of the film is the sacrifices and dehumanization war forces upon us. Bigelow, so many steps away from Point Break now, paints the world of intelligence in as human a light as she can, each decision shaded with emotion and reason. When the final shot rolls, I’d be heard pressed to think that capable viewers are thinking about how awesome it was that Osama Bin Laden got his, there’s just so much more to this film.