The 8 Ball 01.29.13: The Top 8 Films of 2012
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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Last week, we began out look at the best sixteen films of 2012 with the first eight, which included the likes of The Hobbit and The Dark Knight Rises. Now it is time to look at the best of the best, the few that will stand as the greatest of 2012 for various reasons. Not much else to say, so let’s get to it!
Caveat: The only real caveat for this list is that there were a scant few movies that I did not have the opportunity to see that could have made this list such as The Master, The Impossible and The Sessions, as well as some documentaries (Bully, Searching for Sugar Man) and some foreign films (The Intouchables, Holy Motors). I am fairly confident otherwise that I saw most of the films which had a good shot of making this list.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
The Raid: Redemption
Safety Not Guaranteed
16: Moonrise Kingdom
13: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
12: Wreck-It Ralph
11: The Dark Knight Rises
10: Silver Linings Playbook
9: Seven Psychopaths
Ben Affleck has been perhaps the best surprise among filmmakers over the last several years. Affleck has had an undeserved reputation for being a poor actor for years, mostly due to poor film choices like Reindeer Games and Gigli, and largely because of that few people believed that he had the potential to be a great director. He has spent the last five years proving us wrong, whether in front of the camera (The Company Men, State of Play), being the camera (Gone Baby Gone) or both (The Town). For his third directorial effort, Affleck tackles the true story of the “Canadian Caper,” in which CIA agent Tony Mendez helped facilitate the rescue of six U.S. diplomats stuck in Iran during the infamous hostage crisis. The result was Affleck’s finest directorial work to date, a movie that (deservedly) is defying a lack of critical Oscar nominations to become the Little Engine that Could during the 2013 awards season. Affleck and production designer Sharon Seymour’s attention to the visual detail of the era is akin to Spielberg’s in Lincoln; it is very easy for a film set in the 1970s to feel like a parody of the real 1970s but Affleck and his crew do their utmost to make it look real.
There are criticisms that the film takes too much dramatic license in making the CIA and Hollywood the heroes of the situation while marginalizing the Canadian government and Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor; I can sympathize with the criticism to some small degree, but the fact of the matter is that this is, like all fact-based movies, a dramatization of real events and not a documentary. While it stays true to the spirit of what happened, it is focused on being a narrative film first as it should be. Affleck’s cast is phenomenal; John Goodman and Alan Arkin provide a lot of great humor but also some gravitas as the Hollywood talent who provide the CIA with their cover, while Bryan Cranston makes up for what was largely a iffy 2012 filmography (Red Tails, Madagascar 3, Total Recall, John Carter) with a great performance as CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell. Affleck himself does a great job in the lead role, and behind the camera wrings a lot of tension from the situation via a confidence that gets more and more assured with each passing film. It’s a fantastic thriller that strikes an exceptional tonal balance between wit and drama; don’t be surprised if it’s the big winner on Oscar night.
Time travel films are a tricky sort of beast to pull off correctly; any filmmaker who wants to tackle a story with an element of crossing through the time-space continuum has several hurdles to make it through in order to succeed on a creative level. First, they must either tackle or bypass the always-tricky issue of paradox and what happens if you make changes in the past which would affect the present. Second, they must make the concept and method of time travel one that the audience can buy into and believe. Third, they must firmly establish multiple settings of time and location and make them all feel authentic. Finally, they must do all of this without dragging down the film and sucking all the heart and entertainment out of the story. It is a Herculean task that many filmmakers have tried and only a relative few have succeeded in doing.
One of the names we can add to that short list is Rian Johnson. Johnson has been in the “promising talent” category of Hollywood filmmakers for nearly a decade now, ever since he broke into the mainstream with 2005’s smart and stylish crime drama Brick. Seven years later, he reunited with that film’s star Joseph Gordon-Levitt for Looper, an even smarter and more stylish sci-fi thriller. Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are both fantastic at playing two versions of the same man: Joe, a hitman for the Mafia who kills people sent back through time so that there is no body in the present. Johnson’s script pits future Joe against present Joe, as the younger is assigned to kill the older, leaving them at odds over not only that problem but also that of a woman (Emily Blunt) and her son. Blunt gives a fine performance that is more down-to-earth than we’ve seen from her in the past, matching up well with her co-stars while Johnson’s script has earned every nomination it has received with some smart innovations and unexpected twists. The action and effects are handled very well without being overbearing on the story; this is the kind of film that invites a lot of post-film thought and debate in a positive manner. Johnson continues to make headway into becoming a big name among filmmakers and this is one that ranks high among sci-fi and time travel films, and should do so for years to come.
Cloud Atlas was the biggest pleasant surprise of the year for me. Not having read the well-received novel by David Mitchell, I had no knowledge of what to expect and no attachment to it as a fan; in addition, my faith in the Lana and Andy Wachowski has been on a downward turn for the last ten years with the failures of Matrix Revolutions and Speed Racer. While the trailers were fascinating, the film’s polarizing reactions among critics and indifference from audiences didn’t help matters much. Thus, when I was treated to one of the most ambitious and intriguing films in quite a while I was largely blown away. The Wachowskis co-wrote and co-directed this film with Tom Twyker, whose work I have appreciated since I first saw Run Lola Run. The trio does an admirable job adapting what is by all accounts a formidable book to boil down, artfully connecting six wildly different stories in tone and setting that are all connected by enjoining plot narratives and themes. The story–too expansive to summarize here–revolves around themes of reincarnation, morality, truth and freedom. These are all quite lofty themes and the film could easily cross into arrogant proselytizing; instead, the script lays off for the most part with the exception of some appropriate dramatic moments.
More intriguing than the script is the direction; Twyker and the Wachowskis do a fantastic job of firmly establishing each setting within its own distinct visual flair and every detail is intricately put into place with enough attention to have easily served as the setting to its own full film. It is a beautiful film to behold as well, with John Toll using his considerable cinematography skills to great effect. The performances from the likes of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, James D’Arcy and Hugh Grant are varied and yet across the board excellent. Some may consider the idea of casting these actors in the roles of different races and even genders to be stunt casting, but instead the actors take the opportunity to stretch outside of comfort zones and the result is almost always spectacular. Few people would ever think to place Grant in the role of a savage, face-painted leader of tribalistic cannibals but damn if he doesn’t pull it off well. Few films dare to be this ambitious; even fewer avoid collapsing under the weight of that ambition. Cloud Atlas not only succeeds on that front, it prospers.
The James Bond films have been going for so long now that each successive entry finds itself being challenged against the weight of what’s come before. Even with the new lease on life that Daniel Craig and the 2006 reboot have provided, it is increasingly difficult to compare the films against their twenty-plus predecessors and try to figure out where it ranks in Bond history. That makes it even more impressive that few people have difficulty naming Skyfall one of the best Bond films of all time. After Quantum of Solace took a bit of bruising (fairly or not) from critics and fans, MGM and EON decided to place the reins of the franchise within the hands of perhaps the highest-profile director to date in Sam Mendes.
The script from Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan delves into what has been considered taboo territory for some in Bond’s back story, but more importantly it focuses on the long-evolving dynamic between Bond and Judi Dench’s M. Dench has been one of the staples of the franchise through good times and rough alike; in Skyfall she gets her chance to put M in the spotlight and carries through with the grace and dramatic skill that we’ve come to expect from her. Craig gives his best performance yet as 007; Bond is physically and emotionally broken in this film and Craig portrays that with both skill and subtlety, while Javier Bardem sews up one of the few problems with the rebooted continuity by providing its first iconic villain. Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw are all fine in their roles as well. Mendes, who has an Academy Award on his mantle for American Beauty, has always an exceptionally talented director but he can now add blockbuster status among his list of accolades; he handles the high stakes of the film well and proves himself a very capable action director also. He eschews the irritating quick-cut editing that is a staple of Hollywood action these days and pulls back to let the excitement explode off the screen. At the same time, he doesn’t let the fact that this is essentially an action flick take away from the emotional core of the film and those moments are given their proper weight. Skyfall takes a lot of narrative risks for a Bond film and they all pay off exceptionally well, resulting in one of the best pure action films of the year and one of the best Bond films yet.
There comes a point when you kind of run out of good things to say about a film because you’ve spent so long praising it. There are two films that have been like that for me; one of them is Cabin in the Woods. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s horror film had a long and involved struggle to get to theaters, with the film first being delayed in order to investigate the possibility of a 3D post-conversion process (which was eventually and wisely abandoned) and then being put on the shelf due to MGM going through bankruptcy issues. In the end, it was probably better for the film that it was delayed because in the meantime Chris Hemsworth became a god of thunder and the film’s release just a month before The Avengers meant it got some press due to that film’s star and filmmaker connection to this one.
No matter which way you slice it though, this is quite possibly the most clever and inventive deconstruction of horror that we’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Whedon and Goddard have long said that they are fans of old-school horror and much less so of the modern torture porn-themed variety; that is a theme that resonates strongly throughout this film, which subverts almost every horror trope you’ve ever seen–particularly in the subgenre from which the movie derives its name–and does so not just intelligently and with good humor; the performances of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are particularly instrumental to bringing the comedy, not to mention Tom Lenk as Ronald the intern. It’s as much a horror film as a comedy and there are some good, nasty scares to be had too. There are some clever and pointed pokes at the horror genre, but they are done in good fun and the film never feels like it’s being insulting, even to those styles of films that it disagrees with. The performances are solid across the board and the references to other film franchises are great. This is the kind of film that could have so easily gone wrong; this one not only stays on the right path, it succeeds in doing so with flying colors.
The Avengers was the film that, when discussed within the same breath as The Dark Knight Rises, divided fanboys like few others before it had been released. No other set of competing movies has ever given this level of division among comic book fans that I can remember. This was a war of fairly epic proportions, and that war predictably rages on after the fact. Some will be incensed by the idea that this film scores so highly on my list, calling it “dumbed down” or “fun but not great” (and those will likely be the more positive responses from that faction). Obviously, I didn’t take much issue with The Dark Knight Rises, which ranked at #11 on my list; it was a great film of a very different variety. However, for enjoyment factor I personally preferred The Avengers. I’ve long been a fanboy of both the Avengers and Joss Whedon and so it goes without saying that this was a movie that I was unreasonably hyped for…but also somewhat concerned over. This was the film that would justify the rabid fandom that we Browncoats and Buffyians long professed Whedon of being worthy of…or make us look like the deluded, blind fanatics that some said we were. It was also a risk for Marvel, who put themselves in the position of potentially having to defend why they built up so much to a film that might not have been able to live up to expectations.
Thankfully, Whedon more than delivered on what Marvel and Whedonites were hoping for, taking a Herculean task of balancing multiple characters with their own storylines into one cohesive story and running with it. The film gives us the best depiction of the Hulk in feature film history thanks to a smart characterization and a great performance by Mark Ruffalo, while the balance between the superhuman Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, Cap, Hulk) and the more mundanely-powered ones (Hawkeye, Black Widow) was done with a skill that made it look deceptively easy. The dynamic between the cast worked in every possible sense, allowing everyone to play off each other in a way that is incredibly fun to watch while Loki and his Chitauri army worked perfectly as villains. This is, to my mind, the perfect comic book movie (as opposed to comic book “film”), and that’s all that needs to be said about it. There isn’t a single moment I didn’t enjoy the hell out of; between this and Nolan, 2012 raised the bar quite high indeed for future comic book adaptations.
Love him or hate him, you cannot deny that Quentin Tarantino has been one of the most influential directors on film in the past twenty years. The man behind Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs, the Kill Bill films and so on has put his encyclopedic knowledge to good use and has made some of the most talked-about films in the respective years they have been released, and some of them for years after. His last film, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, was one of my favorite films of that year and it is probably not that surprising, considering their similarities that Django Unchained similarly lands near the top of 2012’s list. Tarantino tackles some of the same themes in Django that he did in Basterds, such as revenge, liberty and morality. However, this time around he sets the action with perhaps the only thing more incendiary than the Holocaust: slavery. Tarantino’s script about a freed slave and a progressive bounty hunter who team up against a sadistic plantation owner in order to get back the former slave’s wife is predictably filled with controversial elements, but those who look under the controversy will find something much deeper than might be expected. Tarantino is, above all things, very savvy when it comes to not just film conventions, but film criticism. He puts Django within the same setting and covering the same themes as films like Roots, Amistad, Lincoln and others, knowing that we will inevitably compare them. We look at those more serious films about slavery, which often celebrate men who fought for peace and rationality in a period of violence and oppression. Then we look at Django which presents, obviously, an alternative viewpoint. Tarantino isn’t suggesting we go the way of violence here; in fact, in his blood-soaked epics the cost of vengeance is often high. This is how Django is presented and viewed in this light, it’s far more than just an N-word filled popcorn flick.
Of course, there is Tarantino’s love of spaghetti westerns and 70’s revenge films too, and there is a visceral enjoyment there. Cinephiles love Tarantino because he reminds them of the kinds of films they love. All the hallmarks of a Tarantino epic are here; the over-the-top violence, the snappy dialogue, the sudden bursts of humor and the combination of tones into a cohesive blend. Meanwhile, the cast is uniformly superb; Foxx delivers his best performance to date, Waltz equals his work in Basterds and DiCaprio has a lot of room to stretch his villainous side as Calvin Candie. Samuel L. Jackson is perhaps better than he’s ever been as the house slave Stephen. It’s a strange, fascinating mix and it all blends together into what is perhaps my favorite Tarantino film to date.
Some of the best films of all time have tackled controversial subject matter head on, but many, many more films that have courted incendiary topics have found themselves in cinematic history’s trash heap. Simply tackling heated subject matter is not enough; in order to turn such a topic into something that will stand the test of time, you have to deal with it using a careful hand and treat the topic with respect. The reason that so many controversial films fail, ultimately, is that few have treated their topics in the way that Zero Dark Thirty did. Kathryn Bigelow’s film depicting the hunt for Osama bin Ladin takes a hard look at the divisive topic of the military applications of torture, causing many to accuse it of improperly giving the practice credit and attempting to elevate it into something that is necessary, if distasteful. With all due respect to those people, I think that this is a rather simplistic way of looking at how Bigelow, working from a heavily-researched script by Mark Boal, approaches the topic. There have been gallons of ink, both physical and digital, spilled in interpreting the potential implications presented by this film and that’s a topic for another time at best; to put it simply, I view the fact that the torture reveals no solid leads–in fact, it is notably when Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent (based on an unnamed, real-life operative) uses more traditional spycraft and interrogation means that she gets a lead–as somewhat more of an anti-torture than pro-torture stance.
Either way, the point is that things are more complicated than just supporting or condemning the practice, and ultimately that isn’t the point of the film anyway. Chastain is fast becoming one the to-go actresses in Hollywood; in eleven roles over the last two years, she has earned a serious measure of award nominations in seven of them, winning far more than she loses. With Maya she gives her best performance to date as a first-dedicated, then obsessive woman on the hunt for the most wanted man in the world. The various supporting cast members are all strong but it is Chastain’s film and she carries it with ease. Boal’s script is executed with a master’s touch by Bigelow; she manages tension exceptionally well and turns would could have been at worse a high-stakes military version of a Law & Order episode into a thought-provoking, emotionally wringing thriller that succeeds in almost every front. People will be talking about Zero Dark Thirty for a long time to come and the fact that it doesn’t provide any neat and clear answers is both important and a credit. Films like this don’t tell us what to think; they force us to think for ourselves, and this does so brilliantly.
Note: Now that I am caught up to current, I have gone back to watch the episodes that have become available in the US since I started watching and thus were previously unavailable to me (thus why I have episodes remaining despite being caught up).
Current Series/Season: Season Nine (1971)
Episodes Watched: 593
Last Serial Completed: Day of the Daleks – The Doctor and Jo are sent by UNIT to investigate reports of a ghost appearance in a house where a critical peace conference is being held that could prevent world war. Before long they are plunged ahead 200 years into a future where the Daleks reign supreme over Earth, with a small human resistance with a way to jump back to the past their (and mankind’s) only hope for aid.
Surviving Episodes Remaining: 36
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.