Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ten Best Movies of 2012 (That I saw.)

There's no getting around it. 2012 was a fantastic year for movies. There were a few highly anticipated ones that faltered, (I think Prometheus actually gets worse with each subsequent viewing,) but so many of them matched or beat my expectations of them. In fact, there were so many great movies to come out in 2012, that in addition to the usual problem of whittling a list down to the 10 best of the year, I wasn't even able to get around to see many of the films that were generating acclaim. So, when you don't see films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Life of Pi on here, it's because I just haven't been able to get around to them. That being said, I'm not going to call this an absolute list of top ten films of 2012, but rather the top ten films of 2012 that i've seen.

Lets not pretend that all of the best films of a given year have to be Oscar gold. So, kicking off my list are a few films that are fun for the sake of being fun, and are bound to be heavily rewatched in the coming years. That being said, this year produced some pretty dramatic fare as well.

10. Dredd
I kept expecting this film to rally and become a sleeper hit, but I think it was hindered by the fact it was almost exclusively shown in 3D. I had to hunt to find a 2D showing. Dredd proved to be a dark and gritty, sci-fi take on Die Hard, with a bit of The Wire thrown in. It managed to toe the line between over-the-top violence and campy without going over it, and Karl Urban's take on the lead character was definitely a call back to the 70's era of cinematic anti-heroes. It's on DVD now, so no excuse not to catch it now.

9. John Carter
For the life of me, I really can't figure out why critics hated this movie, but without question, Disney botched the marketing on this movie. For one thing, shortening the title from it's original title of John Carter of Mars, left it sounding like just another generic movie title name, like Michael Clayton or Larry Crowne, instead of a classic sci-fi story. The marketing also shied away from pointing out that the source material was the inspiration for many sci-fi classics of today. Not much else to say other than that John Carter manages to take a pulp sci-fi premise, and weave a tale full of fun and adventure that makes you forget we know damn well there aren't any great civilizations on Mars.

8. Marvel's The Avengers
It's weird to think that this movie spawned out of an Easter Egg hidden after the credits of Iron Man, a movie that most people didn't even expect much out of until they saw the first trailer. Well, it turned out that Iron Man was awesome, and the cinematic world is better for the movies that followed in its wake. Avengers was more or less everything fans hoped for. Yeah, there could have been more story or character development, but what we really wanted to see was the Marvel hero's we'd come to love from 4 years worth of movies uniting to fight a common enemy in a slew of epic battles, and in that sense it certainly delivered.

7. Skyfall
I loved Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, but Skyfall seemed to resonate with audiences even more than the other Daniel Craig James Bond movies did. Maybe audiences were more receptive to it, because it didn't have to fight the uphill battle Casino Royale did of proving it wasn't going to be the silly, borderline parody version of Bond last seen in Die Another Day. More likely, it's because Skyfall moved past the mythos-building nature of the other two movies, and instead presented a more established version of Bond. It united the more realistic and gritty feel of Casino Royale with some of the more fun and lighthearted aspects of other classic Bond movies, such as the long awaited return of Q-branch. It also helped that a stellar cast joined this outing, including Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw, and at the helm was director Sam Mendes.

6. The Intouchables
Now here's another movie I expected to become a sleeper hit, but there were so many good art house movies this year, it seems The Intouchables got lost in the shuffle. It's a French film about a wealthy quadriplegic who hires a live in caretaker, a man with no actual caretaking experience who just showed up to the interview to keep his benefit checks coming, but is the only applicant to treat him like an actual person, and not a burden. There's a good mix of comedy and drama throughout the movie, and Fran├žois Cluzet and Omar Sy deliver fantastic performances as the lead characters. It's a beautiful, honest and funny movie about two people working to make each others lives better.

5. Lincoln
The title is somewhat misleading, as this isn't really a biopic about Lincoln as much as it is a story about the passage of the 13th Amendment, the amendment to abolish slavery. When watching this film, you realize how we tend to only remember the Cliff's Notes version of history, and think of the North as being absolutely united against slavery. Spielberg's film shows how in reality, how the abolition of slavery was viewed by many Northerners, not as an absolute necessity, but as a political tactic to potentially bring an end to the American Civil War. While the entire cast of this movie is great, it almost goes without saying that Daniel Day Lewis delivers a phenomenal performance as the President. As usual, he does the two things he does best: make you believe that he is genuinely the character he portrays, and make you forget that you've ever seen him play another character in a different movie.

4. Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas is an ambitious film that took three directors to make, (technically Tom Tykwer working solo, and the Wachowski siblings working as a team,) a slew of big name actors, and last I heard, only earned back a quarter of its $100 million dollar budget. Still, it's an amazing movie, even if not an easily marketed one. I was a bit surprised that it was completely snubbed for Oscar nominations, since "everything is connected" movies tend to be ones the Academy fawns over, even if they're not always very good. (Remember Crash and Babel? Remember the last time you gave a damn about either movie? Me neither.) I suspect many people were confused by the way this film interweaves period pieces with science fiction stories. The film takes many unexpected turns over the course of its nearly 3 hour journey. Admittedly it does get a bit slow at parts, but when it gets going, its absolutely engaging. Cloud Atlas definitely warrants repeat viewing, but like almost any movie with the Wachowskis' names on it, you're missing out if you didn't catch it on the big screen.

3. Argo
Man, when you watch this movie, you really feel bad about that time when nobody took Ben Affleck seriously because he was making action movies and dating Jennifer Lopez. At the same time, it makes you remember that there's a reason this guy got an Oscar 15 years ago. Argo is an intense espionage story that almost literally will have you glued to your seat in its second act. To be fair, Affleck pulls a few cheap shots to build as much suspense as possible until the absolute last minute. On the other hand, with only 2 hours to tell the story, it really does convey how tense a situation it was for the individuals involved, who have to pull off a very improbable escape plan, with no real training on how to get out of that kind of situation. Bonus points to Affleck for giving the film the visual look of something filmed in the 70's.

2. Perks of being a Wallflower
This was a movie I actually went to see based on good word of mouth alone, having not seen anything from the trailer except for a fleeting shot of actress Emma Watson standing on the back of a truck as it drives through a tunnel. I ended up feeling more of a deeper emotional connection to this movie than any other one on this list because it really hit home for me. The story follows a kid named Charlie who starts out high school without any friends, but ends up befriending a group of seniors who take him under their wings. As the title of the film implies, these are not the cool kids, at least not in the typical high school parlance. They are the fringe society of high school, but they're also a group that Charlie fits in perfectly with.

Part of what I loved about this film was how relatable the characters were. I felt like this film captured so much of what high school in the midwest is like, for better or for worse, if you're a kid who isn't exactly in the mainstream. It's about those moments where you discover that good music exists in places other than top 40 stations. It's about unabashedly adopting pretentious behavior and reveling in it. It's about being around people who are really into Rocky Horror. (Hey, I did theatre in high school. Sue me. If they weren't singing Rocky Horror they were singing songs from Rent.) Best of all, they weren't just archetypes of characters. They were fleshed out individuals that felt less like characters in a movie, and more like genuine people that you, as a viewer, were peeking into their lives.

That being said, there's also some very dark moments to the story, as Charlie has some issues with mental illness. Actor Logan Lerman's performance as Charlie is one of the more underrated performances of the year, and I was a bit surprised his name didn't get thrown around for Oscar nominations. However, if there's an underlying point to the film, it's that the worst of high school is something that can be survived, (and the characters do go through some genuinely bad experiences,) and that no matter how far from the mainstream you are as a person, that there are always others like you out there. Quite frankly, without exaggeration, I feel like this film ought to be required viewing for anybody entering high school.

1. Les Miserables
I really went back and forth about whether or not to put Les Miserables at the top of my list, not because I wasn't sure that it was deserving, but because I had trouble deciding between this and the other top three or four films on this list. Perhaps part of what pushed this film to the top was sentimental reasons. I saw the broadway version as a kid, and was blown away. I have been anticipating a film adaptation of the musical for so long that I'm afraid to admit that I brushed off the 1998 non-musical version, starring Liam Neeson, simply because it was only based on the book, and not the musical.

Even for non-sentimental reasons, this film is deserving of the top spot. To start with, there's Tom Hooper's directing. Even though the only other film of his I'd seen was The King's Speech, he has a very distinctive visual style that felt perfect for this film. He staged the performances in such a way that I felt like the plot actually makes more sense in the film than on stage, if only because the way the film showed characters in their most intimate moments helped clarify the film's many character relationships.  The way Hooper had the actors perform their songs may have sparked some controversy. Instead of singing the songs cleanly and loud enough for the back row to hear it, they sang softly, and in many instances stumbled through the songs. It wouldn't work on broadway, but it's perfect for the film as it helps the audience truly get inside the characters heads. When Fantine sings "I Dreamed a Dream," she's not just singing a lovely ballad. She's singing a cry of hopelessness from a woman who found her life ruined in a way she never imagined it could. When Jean Valjean sings "Who am I" it's truly the inner dialogue of a man battling his conscience, deciding between escaping to an easy life or sparing a stranger from his life of hardship.

Speaking of Fantine and Valjean, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman deliver incredible performances in their respective roles. Daniel Day Lewis may have been convincing as Lincoln, but Jackman is absolutely moving as Jean Valjean, a man who selflessly spends his life working to help others, at the expense of his own comfort and happiness. When his story reaches its end, you almost want to petition the Church for his sainthood.

On the other hand, Russel Crowe proved to be extremely disappointing as Valjean's nemesis, Javert. Had this been a non-musical version, I wouldn't have argued that he would have been perfect for the role. His singing voice isn't that bad either. (I use Pierce Brosnan's performance in Mamma Mia! as the ultimate example of good actors singing badly in a musical.) The problem is, it felt as though somebody forgot to mention to Crowe that he was in a musical version of the story. As a result, he seems to play the role as a man who finds himself in a city full of singing, revolutionary Parisians, and is doing his best to play along as if there isn't anything weird about that. Unfortunately, this means that his big solo number, "Javert's Suicide," a big emotional number where realizes how he was hellbent on destroying a virtuous man, is instead a scene where a man recites a broadway showtune while perilously walking along a bridge.*

Still, this is a phenomenal adaptation of a phenomenal stage show. I'm not sure why they waited 30 years to bring it to the big screen, but considering how it turned out, it's a damn good thing they did.

*If you think I'm going to apologize about spoiling plot points from a 30 year old musical, based on a 150 year old book, you've got another thing coming.