Thursday, January 17, 2013

MY TOP TEN OF 2012, And the Theme of Moving Forward

Scanning my list of my favorite films of the year, I see an overlying theme of moving forward, closing books on the past rather than looking back into them.  I notice themes of moving on, of breaking free of imprisonment, and of closure.  This theme is prevalent in at least eight of these films, with an outlier and another one with a different outlook on closure and salvation.  Regardless, I find myself more pleased with 2012 than I have been since maybe 2007.  There are some lasting films in here.

10) The Master - Do I feel a certain obligation to put Paul Thomas Anderson's latest on my list?  Perhaps.  But I think the larger reason it at least deserves to be acknowledged here is that is a fascinating, hypnotic movie that I don't quite understand yet.  It is enveloped in a sort of overwhelming opaqueness and mystery that must be looked at further.  What is obvious on the screen, however, are three great performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and an underrated turn from Amy Adams who channels Lady Macbeth with chilling ease here.

9) Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino's Spaghetti Slavery extravaganza has so many brilliant moments and so many stellar performances.  Django Unchained also has a handful of warts unfamiliar to QT's work.  It may be a bit uneven at times, and it may suffer from not enough time in the editing room.  But it seems like this could be a Tarantino film needs to grow and mature before it can be properly placed in his resume.  The job done by Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio - who, once again, is overlooked by the Academy - energize the picture and carry it through its low points.

 8) Cloud Atlas - Easily the most maligned and divisive picture of this year (this side of Ridley Scott's Prometheus), Cloud Atlas seemed to greatly polarize the masses and critics alike.  Some critics sited it as the worst of the year, which is utterly ridiculous.  I understand not liking it, what I don't understand is overlooking a million other films from 2012 staggeringly worse.  Cloud Atlas is beautiful and ambitious, and is some of the best work from Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in a long while.  And we mustn't overlook Jim Broadbent, dominating his multiple roles with energy and wit.  This is one that will take a while to digest as well.

7) The Grey - Remember way back, in January 2012, and the annual dumping ground for studios in Hollywood.  Except for the annual Liam Neeson winter release.  A couple of these Neeson releases (Unknown, Taken 2) went belly up, but The Grey is easily one of Neeson's best performances, right up there with Oskar Schindler.  Joe Carnahan's film is about fighting against the elements, but takes a much bleaker approach to its finale than most of the other pictures here.  Don't focus on CGI here, take a closer look at the relationships and performances, all top notch.

6) Killer Joe - This one is the aforementioned outlier of the bunch if you ask me.  Many of these films have deeper meaning inside their stories.  Not Killer Joe.  This is a piece of fascinating and outrageous pulp fiction with a performance from Matthew McConaughey I wasn't sure he still had hiding in him anymore.  It is like the most beautiful painting you will ever see... of Dogs Playing Poker.  The seediness and the depravity of the characters, from McConaughey on down to Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon - and a brilliant turn from young Juno Temple - inject the insanity with such brilliant humor and life.  Proof that William Friedkin still has his fastball.

5) Flight - If any film on this list succeeds through the power of its leading performance, it would have to be Flight.  Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action film making also revisits the themes in his 2000 film Cast Away.  And both films rely heavily on their leads.  Denzel Washington as the alcoholic, yet heroic, airline pilot is some of Washington's greatest work, most certainly his best in a decade.  Around Washington is the emotion and the depth and, of course, the energy in Zemeckis' direction.  With solid supporting roles from John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, and a wonderful performance by Kelly Reilly, Flight is a film which has grown on me and lingered since I saw it.

4) Skyfall - I wasn't sure about Sam Mendes taking over as the new Bond action director.  Mendes' films are much more dramatic and morose than a Bond flick, and dramatic director Marc Forster was none too successful with Quantum of Solace.  But Mendes showed something I wanted to know in Skyfall; he can direct anything, any time.  Mendes adds maturity and style and, along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, some of the most beautiful scenes in all of Bond lore.  And the third act is a stroke of genius in the picture, stripping away the facade of Bond for a more primeval brawl with Javier Bardem, one of the best of all Bond villains.

3) Life of Pi - Ang Lee has to be one of the more thoughtful and soulful directors working today.  This is the man, who, after all, transformed The Incredible Hulk into a cerebral existentialist narrative.  Life of Pi tackles faith and religion in the core of its story, and more than this it's the way this story is told with such amazing beauty.  It is a gorgeous film, a thrilling visual experience, complete with a cast of engaging characters and some seamless CGI.  Some of the themes may alienate viewers, but I encourage everyone to see for themselves and make their own conclusions.

2) Zero Dark Thirty - Controversy aside, let us look at Zero Dark Thirty for what it is, a procedural military thriller based on truths from the most infamous manhunt in history.  As this and this alone, you would be hard-pressed to find a film comparable in suspense and tension and captivating action.  Comparing this to Kathryn Bigelow's other Oscar heavy hitter, The Hurt Locker, would be a mistake two, like holding The Deer Hunter up against Platoon and comparing them.  Zero Dark Thirty is its own vision with its own brilliant story and a fantastic performance form Jessica Chastain, who will be tough to beat on Oscar night.

1) Silver Linings Playbook - If anyone is to challenge Jessica Chastain for Best Actress, it is here and it is Jennifer Lawrence.  Lawrence plays merely a part of an ensemble cast firing on all cylinders in David O. Russell's domestic dramedy.  Alongside Bradley Cooper and supported by Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver (all who were nominated as well), Silver Linings is an honest film about moving forward, and is painted not with the traditional rom-com brush but with its own, unique brush.  I am holding out hope that Silver Linings Playbook could end up surprising the masses on Oscar night, like certain films tend to do once in a while.