10) The Paperboy
Lee Daniels’ pulpy The Paperboy practically has sweat dripping off the screen. Like a late-career Tennessee Williams play gone astray, or perhaps a 60s noir in the vein of In The Heat of the Night, the film is campy, over-the-top, and at times deliciously silly. Much of the fun stems from how game Nicole Kidman is for the ride, camp of this sort only works with a full commitment of the performer, and oh boy does she commit as an Everglades trailer park vixen with a fried peroxide blonde do. It’s may technically be a supporting role, but she runs the show aided by solid work from Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Macy Gray and David Oyelowo.
9) Queen of Versailles and Central Park Five
The most accomplished documentaries I saw this year don’t have much in common to lump them together (besides the fact that I couldn’t choose just one). Queen of Versailles, the story of David and Jackie Siegel–1%’ers with gaudy taste and more money than they knew what to do with. The documentary crew joins them as they seek to build the largest house in America, a larger-than-life replica of Versailles in central Florida. And then the bottom of the economy drops out, and the subprime mortgages their time share empire was built on leaves them ill equipped to pay for their lavish lifestyle. The doc is too smart to stoop to pure schadenfreude, instead it uses this laughable excess to shed a light on the economy and the American family in 2012–it’s just all a matter of scale. Central Park Five is a gripping piece of film journalism that never results to hysteria to explain how five clearly innocent teenagers could be locked in jail, their lives turned upside down, in order to appease a mob mentality in racially tense early 90s New York. It would be easy to derail this film into a paranoid rant, but instead uses razor-sharp focus to illuminate how it happened and why it shouldn’t have. I’ve probably never seen a more important film about our criminal justice system.
8) Holy Motors
The trippy French film Holy Motors leaves you a bit baffled, but it thoroughly entertains and dazzles with brilliant imagery including accomplished make-up, costumes, and art direction. It’s a ride through Paris that you won’t easily forget, and months later I’m already itching to see it again. Added to its favor, there is a delightful musical interlude from Kylie Minogue.
7) Rust and Bone
The other French film on my list Rust and Bone shares none of the surrealist whimsy of Holy Motors, but rather is a brutally grounded portrait of loss, and how it can mature, embitter, and transform us. Marion Cotillard gives my favorite performance of the year, her emotional journey is heartbreaking and beautifully crafted. That performance alone would be enough reason to love it, but the cinematography, score, and pacing make it one of the years most accomplished films.
6) Seven Psychopaths
The funniest movie of the year is the shoot ’em comedy Seven Psychopaths, both a celebration of the genre, and a satire on the preeminence of violence in American culture. Irish playwright and director Martin McDonagh has achieved what I believe Quentin Tarantino thinks he’s been doing for the last 20 years. And he does so to much funnier results. The fantastic ensemble includes A-game performances from Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Tom Waits, though Sam Rockwell runs the board with his explosively hilarious performance.
5) The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Not since The Breakfast Club has a film captured the angst, heartache, and manic emotional rollercoasters of high school so perfectly. Freaks and Geeks came close on the small screen, and Superbad and Mean Girls milked these years for some great comedy–but The Perks of Being a Wallflower is so heartfelt and so specific to the challenges of young people struggling with anxiety and depression that even I got a little choked up. Like the aforementioned titles, this will be added to the canon of teen classics–perfect Sunday afternoon viewing for 14 year olds and 40 year olds alike.
4) Moonrise Kingdom
I have a mixed track record on Wes Anderson films. I adore The Royal Tenenbaums, yet I found The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic long and tedious, and Fantastic Mr. Fox charming but soulless. His best work yet is Moonrise Kingdom, where Anderson’s trademark visual aesthetics sync perfectly with the story he is telling. It’s not only a visual feast, music from Benjamin Britten, Hank Williams, and Alexander Desplat provide the perfect soundtrack. The whimsical tale of childhood love is the most purely delightful film I’ve seen in quite a while. Also notable is Tilda Swinton’s blue smock–alone worth the price of admission.
I would not have expected a director whose recent work includes War Horse, Indiana Jones 4, and The Terminal to deliver one of the finest films on American history and political theory I’ve ever seen. Sure, I love Jurassic Park and E.T. as much as the next guy, but you wonder if decades of being one of the richest men in Hollywood makes you a bit disconnected, his last decade of work certainly suggests his best films are behind him. Then along comes Lincoln. The screenplay by Tony Kushner is one of his tightest in form, yet in typical Kushner style provides far more questions than answers using the history (adapted from the nonfiction Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin) to launch into great national themes–service, sacrifice and the costs of progress. It’s the perfect complement to an election year where we have heard so much about our divided nation, proving that it is now what it ever was–a fiercely fought battle between progress and status quo. Daniel Day-Lewis is expectedly excellent, bringing one of the few deitized figures of American history into scale. Yet this has the feel of an ensemble work and features strong performances from esteemed character actors Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Lee Pace, and Stephen Spinella. Sally Field probably could have taken it down a notch or two, but it’s not distracting enough to hurt the film. There’s just something about this movie that made me think, “somebody I’ll sit my kids down and we’ll watch this together”. I can think of very few others that merit that distinction.
2) Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece of filmmaking, the first of the post-9/11 era to tackle, ya know, what’s been going on in the world for the last 10 years. I’ve been thinking in the time between seeing it and writing that this is what The Deer Hunter must have felt like in 1978. It works on two levels, first as a nail-biting thriller–the greatest manhunt in history, and it certainly lives up to that tagline. It’s amazing how expertly Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal pull off an edge-of-your-seat ride that’s based on known history–and they do it so much more adeptly than Ben Affleck’s Argo. In fact the movie is so quick and so exciting, that it wasn’t until the last moments of the film–then the subway ride home–then the next day, and the next–that I began to understand what I just saw. In fact, I hesitate to say anymore as I’m assuming most of my friends reading this won’t yet have seen this film given its late release. So, go see it, wait a day, and then let’s talk.
1) The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) unveiled his third masterpiece, The Master, this year, an even more impressive feat considering it’s only his sixth film. The film features an unnerving performance from Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a sociopathic drifter who finds his way onto the boat of a small religious cult sailing from San Francisco to New York. One of our finest living film actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has been on autopilot playing the same sad-sack, professorial characters since Capote is electric as Lancaster Dodd, the sect’s leader (modeled on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard). Easily my favorite Hoffman turn, it is a masterfully layered performance. While he should take the Best Actor trophy at the Oscars, the Weinstein Co. will slot him in Supporting Actor category to increase the nomination chances for both him and Phoenix. I can see how The Master was a hard sell, even for arthouse audiences, as it is one of the more opaque and challenging mainstream films to come along in a few years (perhaps since Anderson’s There Will Be Blood). However, if you invest your energy into it (I had to see the film twice) it rewards. It’s a movie to feel and experience, and provides insights into our relationships to power, authority, and faith. Can we ever truly belong to something larger than ourselves–or are we simply always acquiescing to one master or another? That’s one question. The film will provide 100 more.
Just Missed The List…
My Favorite Blockbusters: The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall
My Favorite Low-Brow Comedies: The Dictator and For A Good Time, Call…
And The Big Disappointments…
Life of Pi–Pretentious I can handle, but long and boring too…
Silver Linings Playbook–I’m not sure why this has any sort of awards buzz, it’s just painfully mediocre with stock characters, a contrived plot, and a lack of understanding of mental illness.
The Campaign–I love Will Ferrell and Zach Galifanakis but this really just went nowhere.
To Rome with Love–When Woody is good, he’s great. When he’s not, well…
Amour–Haneke’s theatre of misery continues with this one. It’s painful to watch, which I can handle. But Amour is just misery for misery’s sake, disguised as high art. No thanks.
Les Miserables— With the incredible score of this musical which I dearly love, it is either shocking or inevitable that this disappointed so much. The performances are a mixed grab-bag of style and ability from the outstanding (Redmayne, Hathaway) to the solidly respectable (Jackman, Barks) to the misguided (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter straight out of the Tim Burton remake of Les Mis) to the miscast (Seyfried, an alto) to the embarrassing (Russell Crowe). The performances don’t gel together, but are all rather standalone efforts that never form a cohesive ensemble. Director Tom Hooper has shot the most epic musical of all time almost entirely in close-up and even those close-ups are frenetic and insecure, never trusting that material alone would make the film engaging. We never see the scope of the French revolution, the grandeur of Paris, or the fact that the actors are even standing in the same room. Also, a note to Hugh Jackman, you have a decent voice–you don’t have to Rex Harrison it for half the film. Les Mis the musical is a grand, operatic adventure. Les Mis the movie is never grand, rarely operatic, and probably the biggest missed opportunity of the year.