It’s list time! 2012 marked my second full year serving as Spinning Platters’ movie editor, and I once again had the kinda-privilege of seeing nearly every theatrical release. But I have to say, and maybe it’s just because I’m already jaded and embittered after only two years of full-fledged film criticism: I was rather disappointed by the 2012 crop. Last year I had a bitch of a time narrowing my favorites down to just ten, while this year I had to talk myself into believing a few of them were even worthy of top-ten canonization. And unlike 2011, this year left me without a clear favorite. I still use a ranked list below, but my top four are fairly interchangeable. Still, some things have remained the same: as with last year, there is at least one optimistic critical favorite I’ve aligned myself squarely against (last year it was The Artist, this year it’s Silver Linings Playbook), as well as one blockbuster comedy that somehow made it into my top five. So without any further ado, let’s dive into my begrudging top ten, some honorable mentions, my bitchiest moments of the year, and the movie I’m most embarrassed about praising.
10. The Cabin in the Woods
Say what you will about 2012 (I’m addressing myself), but at least it was the year Joss Whedon finally broke his box office curse. After toiling away for two decades on critically beloved but woefully commercially unsuccessful ventures, he at last struck gold in a big way. And while it’s The Avengers that will put future generations of Whedons through college for centuries to come, it was The Cabin in the Woods that truly became a word-of-mouth sensation. Appropriately for Whedon, it initially had the DNA of a failure: filmed way back in May 2009, it was repeatedly shelved over the ensuing years and seemed destined for oblivion. But when it premiered at SXSW in March, the Internet burned itself down with buzz that Scream finally had a brilliant horror-comedy heir apparent. Co-written with and directed by Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods set a thrilling, deeply satisfying new standard for referential genre cleverness.
Not since Clint Eastwood has an actor of limited range made such a shut-your-mouth transformation into one of America’s finest directors. After the harrowing Gone Baby Gone and the powerhouse The Town, Ben Affleck is officially three-for-three with Argo, his most masterfully crafted film yet. A madly entertaining and pulse-pounding drama, Argo expertly combines knowing Hollywood satire with an almost too-good-to-be-true history lesson on the value of international cooperation and nonviolent conflict resolution. My only beef with Argo is that, while it’s an outrageously good movie-movie, it lacks substance or subtext; Affleck’s portrait of the ingenious rescue of a group of escaped Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis is all on the surface, with a text card tacked on at the end to tell you in so many words the point of the story. Still, few major films combined spectacle and intelligence with more excitement this year than Argo.
Spielberg seems to get it wrong more often than not these days, but when he gets it right, the result is powerful enough to make even War Horse seem worth it. Such is the case with Lincoln, in which he shares equal credit with his genius screenwriter Tony Kushner and his transcendant leading man, Daniel Day-Lewis, giving the uncanniest and most inspired historical performance of this or perhaps any year. Unapologetically intelligent and demanding of strict attention to its period-appropriate dialogue (there was once a time when people spoke in complete sentences!), Lincoln‘s release could not have been more perfectly timed than the week of Obama’s reelection. It would be higher on this list if not for two things: (1) Spielberg’s stubborn insistence on giving us not one but two sappy estranged father-son story lines, and (2) his botching of the finale, which should have ended with Lincoln exchanging pregnant glances with his servant before heading out to the theater on that fateful night (or at least shown us Sally Field going apeshit when he was shot, a crime of scenery-chewing neglect I cannot easily forgive).
7. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Even at their best, most narrative films just provide us with rehashed and slightly refocused variations on stories we already know. This makes the euphoric sensation of seeing something genuinely new and different that much more invaluable. Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance prizewinner Beasts of the Southern Wild gave us that kind of experience, and it was challenging, rewarding, and exhilarating. A mythical and cataclysmic folk tale set among the inhabitants of an “uncivilized” community on a swampy bayou island off the coast of Louisiana, Beasts introduced us to an unstoppable pint-sized heroine for the ages in Hushpuppy (young phenom Quvenzhané Wallis), a resilient little girl with the power to save the world from an apocalypse all in her determined eyes and clenched hands.
My full review of Amour will post this Friday, January 11, when it opens in San Francisco. Don’t make me try finding words for it yet.
5. Safety Not Guaranteed
For this blurb I’ll defer to Spinning Platters managing editor Dakin Hardwick, who selected Safety Not Guaranteed as his pick for the best film of 2012:
One afternoon, I had three hours to kill between appointments. It wasn’t enough time to go home, and too much time to stay put. I found a multiplex movie theater, and there was one film showing at the right time. I looked at the poster and recognized Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation, and I decided that she’s likeable enough that the film wouldn’t be too painful. Instead, I enjoyed one of the most beautiful films that I have ever seen! It’s the tale of a newspaper intern, played by Plaza, who is tasked with investigating a classified ad where a man (Mark Duplass) is asking for help building a time machine. That may sound like the makings of either a mediocre science fiction film, or possibly a terrible comedy. This film is not a comedy, and at its core, barely a science fiction film. Instead, it’s a moving drama with some of the deepest and darkest characters in modern cinema. This movie is an emotional roller coaster, and it might actually restore your faith in humanity.
4. 21 Jump Street
Yeah, that’s right: I think 21 Jump Street was one of the five best films of the year. Better than Lincoln? Better than Lincoln. I knew my initial outpouring of enthusiasm could have been a reaction to the massively pleasant surprise I felt while watching it, since I’m pretty sure we were all expecting it to be a turkey. But I’ve watched it a dozen times since, more than any other film this year, and I’ve neither (A) stopped laughing, nor (B) found anything wrong with it. It is a perfectly executed comedy, invigorating such exhausted tropes as buddy cops and undercover high school investigations with enough propulsive comic energy to power a jet. While featuring excellently funny performances from Jonah Hill, Ice Cube, Dave Franco, Brie Larson, and Rob Riggle (not to mention the cameo of the year), 21 Jump Street is perhaps most notable as the film that finally made it okay to enjoy the breezy charms of 2012 Man of the Year Channing Tatum (words I certainly never thought I’d be typing last year at this time).
3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
I have to confess that I’m a bit biased on this one. When I first sat down to watch it, I hadn’t read the book and had no idea I was about to WATCH MY LIFE UNFOLD BEFORE MY EYES. You see, The Perks of Being a Wallflower takes place (and was filmed) just a few miles down Route 19 from my hometown in southwestern PA, around the same time I was growing up there (vaguely late-80s/early-90s judging by the film), and concerning matters near and dear to my own specific teen experience (being gay in that time and place, sitting with your friends at Kings after football games, shopping for rare/obscure music at Ides, the empowering rush of driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel into Pittsburgh for adventures unknown). But if Perks were only relevant to my own experience, the novel (written by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote and directed the film) wouldn’t have become the millennial Catcher in the Rye and the film wouldn’t be so stunningly resonant for audiences far and wide. More than any piece of art since My So-Called Life (which also took place in a Pittsburgh suburb), The Perks of Being a Wallflower gets the eternally formative experience of being a teenager breathtakingly, heartbreakingly right.
2. The Master
A defiantly inscrutable and virtuosically directed examination of the struggle to shape the definition of life in post-war America, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest epic dares its viewers to draw any simple conclusions from its richly subtextual but narratively understated story. This Kubrickian iceberg of a movie is a fascinating illustration of what happens when a visionary director guides three of the year’s finest performances — from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and the fearsomely committed Joaquin Phoenix — all in the service of something abstract. The mystery of The Master only becomes more compelling, and even enraging, the clearer it becomes that Anderson and his cast are all perfectly aligned on what it is. And as the saying goes, it’s for them to know and us to find out.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
Why am I naming Zero Dark Thirty my #1 film of 2012? Is it just because everyone else is doing it? While I don’t claim to be above peer pressure (unless a bunch of you say I should), this is not me yielding to critical mass. ZD30 had already collected the vast majority of the year’s critics prizes by the time it was screened for me, so I was fully prepared to retaliate if it failed to impress me. But what I saw was, upon reflection, the best overall film of the year. What we have here is a quintessential and meticulously crafted American drama brought to you by the remarkable artistic ménage of director Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal, and lead actor Jessica Chastain.
Zero Dark Thirty is the inside story of the long, frustrating, deadly, courageous 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden as told by the intelligence agents tasked with locating him. Our protagonist on this journey is the emotionally elusive Maya (Chastain), about whom we only know what Chastain’s luminously coiled performance tells us; we get precious little in the way of overt character exposition, other than learning that Maya was recruited at a young age by the CIA for the sole purpose of the bin Laden hunt, and that she has spent her entire adult life working on this case. She is obsessive and single-minded without any biographical history to weigh her down; it is as if she was willed into existence as a fully-formed adult female as a result of 9/11, a symbol of the new America that emerged from the ashes of that darkest of days. When we first meet her in 2003 she seems soft and somewhat timid, distraught and intimidated; one begins to fear that Chastain was only cast to provide a physical contrast during the film’s very overhyped “enhanced interrogation” scenes, this stunning flame-haired woman with a porcelain face and watchful green eyes, flinching in the corner while a man is waterboarded.
But as the story progresses, we begin to see that Chastain is actually managing the arc of a remarkable character transformation; she shows rather than tells us about the growth Maya experiences as she continues pursuing her Big Hunch. The turning point comes during an electrifyingly vein-popping showdown with her antagonistic boss (Kyle Chandler), after which Chastain’s very presence shifts palpably from quiet and pensive to defiantly confident and steely. She is truly a great heroine, never once falling into the female agent cliché of using her sexuality as a weapon (or banging any of the terrorists, ahem, Carrie Mathison). And although Maya is ultimately vindicated when her hunch eventually leads to discovering bin Laden’s Pakistan compound, this is not a film about triumph. There is not really a sense of justice having been served; rather, it is about a mission being completed. The actual shooting of bin Laden is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment toward the end of the harrowingly pulse-pounding SEAL Team Six raid, so if you’re looking for a final showdown with a boastful Bond villain, stick with Skyfall. There is an abiding sense of numb emptiness that seeps into the film in its final sequences; after all, the shooting death of a single man as revenge for the death of 3,000 was always going to be anticlimactic.
This would no doubt have been a much less nuanced and sophisticated film without the creative team of Bigelow and Boal at the helm. In her second consecutive masterpiece after the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, it is now wonderfully clear that Bigelow makes action movies for people who hate action movies. She is masterfully controlled and economic in her approach to action sequences; you will never catch her jerking herself off with unnecessary explosions or gratuitously over-choreographed set pieces. This makes her an ideal choice for telling this story, one of the most important stories in our country’s young history, which deserved to be told by an artist of integrity and intelligence rather than a hack who’d go for easy thrills and tidy conclusions. And Boal’s fearlessly journalistic approach to the script has already placed him squarely in the crosshairs of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, so he may have got something a little too right.
And while Zero Dark Thirty refuses to provide audiences with much reassurance or satisfaction once bin Laden has been killed, this does not undermine its standing as a towering monument to the work of intelligence officials. No other film has portrayed the life of the intelligence community more efficiently, patiently and assuredly mapping out the dedication and persistence required to find that proverbial needle in a haystack, regardless of how long it takes. But ultimately, it leaves the audience with the same question clouding Maya’s face and sending tears gliding down her cheeks as she sits alone in the back of an empty military plane: now what?
15 HONORABLE MENTIONS in alphabetical order…
Chronicle / dir: Josh Trank / stars: Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Alex Russell / trailer
The Deep Blue Sea / dir: Terence Davies / stars: Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale / trailer
For a Good Time, Call… / dir: Jamie Travis / stars: Ari Graynor, Lauren Anne Miller, Justin Long / my interview with the cast
Friends with Kids / dir: Jennifer Westfeldt / stars: Westfeldt, Adam Scott, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig / my original review
Hello I Must Be Going / dir: Todd Louiso / stars: Melanie Lynskey, Blythe Danner, Christopher Abbott / trailer
The Imposter / dir: Bart Layton / documentary / trailer
Keep the Lights On / dir: Ira Sachs / stars: Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth / my interview with Sachs and Booth
Looper / dir: Rian Johnson / stars: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt / my interviews with Johnson and Gordon-Levitt
Moonrise Kingdom / dir: Wes Anderson / stars: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis / my original review
Pitch Perfect / dir: Jason Moore / stars: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow / my original review
The Queen of Versailles / dir: Lauren Greenfield / documentary / trailer
Starlet / dir: Sean Baker / stars: Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson / trailer
Take This Waltz / dir: Sarah Polly / stars: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman / trailer
Wreck-It Ralph / dir: Rich Moore / stars: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer / trailer
Your Sister’s Sister / dir: Lynn Shelton / stars: Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt / trailer
Now, since it’s way more fun to read (and write) about bad movies than good ones, let’s revisit MY FIVE BITCHIEST REVIEWS OF THE YEAR!
And finally, I may have overpraised this one.
Prometheus is the first film this summer to approach greatness, and will likely be one of the only films all season to be associated with the word “classic.” – the opening line of my review. If it wasn’t already clear, no one should ever listen to me.