Putting together this year's best of 2012 list is akin to the buffet at my favorite barbeque restaurant. There's so many good choices, it's pretty difficult to know what to pick. 2012 was an excellent year in cinema. From Sundance in January to the slew of awards contenders in December, there was a tremendous variety of great films across every genre. Whittling down to the ten best movies was as tough a process as I've ever had writing this article. I chose my top 10 with the ideal of repeated viewing in mind. What films would stand the test of time? What films would I watch a second time if it were 3AM and I came across them on late night TV? Much like the buffet analogy, what would make me fill up my plate again and again. As we review the choices, let's start off with the films that didn't make the cut. The movies that were damned good and worthy, but not something that I could gobble up in repeated viewings and feel as pertinent.
First, the blockbusters, Joss Whedon's Marvel's The Avengers and Christopher Nolan's epic denouement to the Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. The top grossing films of 2012 represent the new normal in comic adaptations. Both films scored high marks across the board with audiences, great scripts, well acted, brilliant direction to give life to our favorite fantasy characters. As a fan boy that loves these types of movies, I keenly look forward to Hollywood continuing its serious approach to the genre.
Next, let's look at the art and independent films that came close. I am not a fan of dramatic musicals, but can appreciate the artistry involved. Tom Hooper's Les Miserables will surely top many critics best of lists. This lush adaptation of the Broadway show has towering performances from Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. Unfortunately, two and a half hours of song and sadness does not really appeal to me personally; but certainly deserves credit for vision and production design. Anne Hathaway gets my nod for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Les Miserables and The Dark Knight Rises. You couldn't ask for more disparate roles from an actress. The same thought process continues with Michael Haneke's Amour, a sad treatise on romance depicting the real happily ever after. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are luminous as an elderly couple coming to the end of their lives together. Amour, the winner of this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes, is an amazing film, but entirely too depressing for me.
Without further ado, here are my choices for the best of 2012:
#1. Zero Dark Thirty
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's riveting account of the CIA manhunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is the best film of 2012. Its focus on the CIA analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who spearheaded the ten year search is a striking odyssey of the defining issues of our time. The aftermath of the attacks on 9/11, the subsequent wars, and the methods used to glean intelligence are potently displayed here. The film's apolitical tone and refusal to comment on the presidential level discourse makes this ground view approach that much more intriguing. It acknowledges the effort and shattering consequences to the individuals that made this impossible mission successful. The national discussion following the release of Zero Dark Thirty is as worthy a conversation ever spawned from a film. Jessica Chastain will win the Best Actress Oscar. Chastain shot out of the gate like a rocket last year and is continuing an epic roll as an actress. She wins my Best Actress two years in a row.
Ian Fleming would be overjoyed to see his beloved secret agent, James Bond, in his fiftieth anniversary at the movies. Skyfall is one of the best films of the year and arguably the finest Bond film ever made. Director Sam Mendes infuses poignancy and an almost poetic integrity to a franchise that desperately needed a creative rebirth. Daniel Craig fulfills his potential as 007 with a nuanced, grizzled machismo. His relationship with M (Judi Dench) and pursuit of the man (Javier Bardem) who would harm her, gives Bond an emotional core unseen after a half century and twenty two previous iterations. Skyfall deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Film.
Writer and Director Ben Affleck continues his streak of excellence with the taut espionage thriller Argo. Based on the true story of the CIA's clandestine operation to rescue six diplomats that escaped the siege of the US embassy in Iran, Argo is an engrossing, edge of your seat experience. Affleck eases the tension with moments of humor and levity that encapsulate his style as a director. Strong ensemble performances from Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston add serious acting muscle. Affleck's keen exposition of the complex issues that started the US and Iranian conflict makes Argo a well rounded commentary on events that still affect relations today.
#4. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is the bucking bronco of the 2012 cinematic rodeo. His insanely violent, profane and lurid slavery western is a wild ride indeed. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson play their best character roles in this savage tale of a slave turned gunfighter; searching for his lost wife in the antebellum south. Tarantino tips his hat to the spaghetti westerns of the sixties and seventies. Django Unchained, beyond the bloodiness, is exceptionally written and shot with the unique style and wit we have come to expect from this fearless filmmaker.
#5. Life of Pi
Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's Life of Pi is the most jaw-dropping film of 2012. Watching Life of Pi is like seeing Avatar for the first time. You wonder, how on earth did they make this film? The sumptuous special effects will suck you into this highly philosophical tale of a teenager (Suraj Sharma); who survives two hundred and twenty seven days, at sea, on a life raft with an oddly named tiger called Richard Parker. Life of Pi stirs the imagination and soul. Ang Lee proves again that he is up to the task of making the most impossible and difficult of stories.
#6. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director Benh Zeitlin has the most auspicious debut of 2012 with Beasts of the Southern Wild. This wondrous, dreamlike tale of a six year old girl named Hush Puppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her irascible father (Dwight Henry) is utterly captivating. Set in the 'bathtub', a poverty stricken bayou subject to dangerous floods, and seen through the eyes of this remarkable child, Beasts of the Southern Wild reflects on life's unavoidable hardships. Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry are raw and touching as a poor family in a very unique situation. Henry, a New Orleans baker that literally walked on and won the role of Wink, is my choice for Best Supporting Actor. His heartbreaking performance shows that greatness can be literally found on your doorstep. Boo to the Screen Actors Guild for preventing his nomination for their awards. I only hope the Academy will see fit to give this man an Oscar nomination for his fine work here.
Hollywood titans Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, and screenwriter Tony Kushner breathe life into Abraham Lincoln with their adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin's, A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The film shows Lincoln as a skilled politician, doting father, and tired husband at a time when the United States was ripped apart by slavery and the Civil War. Lincoln is almost play-like in its revelation of the back door dealings and Congressional bickering that lead to the passage of the thirteenth amendment. Day-Lewis will need to install more shelves for the awards he will win for this amazing performance. He's the best male actor of the modern era, the truest disciple of method acting. He embodies a President that has only lived in text and conjecture. Strong supporting performances from Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens round out an excellent cast. Tony Kushner will win the Adapted Screenplay Oscar and is my choice for best screenplay of 2012.
#8. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson's whimsical style and droll humor are captured charmingly in this period tale of young love. Set in 1965 on the fictional New England island of New Penzance, two twelve year olds, orphan Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), abscond into the wilderness to be together. Followed by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and Suzy's parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), the search reveals the deep secrets and longings of everyone involved. This delightful film resonates with small moments that remind you of innocent times and a less complicated world.
#9. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Documentary filmmaker David Gelb's profile of legendary sushi chef Jiro Ono is a must see. The eighty five year old Jiro has been making sushi for seventy years at his ridiculously small, ten seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway. Jiro is widely regarded as the world's greatest sushi chef. He is the only sushi chef to ever win the prized three star Michelin rating, the most coveted restaurant award. Abandoned as a child, Jiro's work ethic, dedication, and philosophy concerning his craft is admirable in a modern world ruled by instant gratification. The film also profiles Jiro's two sons and the myriad of people in reverence of his mastery. I absolutely loved the interview with Jiro's aged and decrepit fish monger, who has been waiting to retire for years, but refuses to quit until Jiro does. He finds it unfathomable to let down the man he considers to be the greatest. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a small, quiet film about devotion, love, and reaching the pinnacle of a life's work.
#10. The Hunger Games
Jennifer Lawrence cements her stardom as Katniss Everdeen in Gary Ross' adaptation of Suzanne Collins prize winning novel. Set in the dystopian future America of Panem, plebian teenagers are forced to fight to the death as tribute to the patrician citizens of the Capital. The year's first blockbuster is a searing, 1984-esque story of class warfare and oppression. The film takes an unflinching approach to the games, poverty, and the ludicrously lavish lifestyles of the rich. It shows a world that we could be dangerously veering toward in a time of such wealth inequality.
The Worst Film of 2012: Red Dawn
Calling Red Dawn the worst film of 2012 is like picking the fat kid with the limp in dodge ball. It's almost too easy a target to hit. Red Dawn is the tale of northwestern teenagers that form a militia - The Wolverines - to fight back against a North Korean invasion of America. This heinously bad remake of the 1984 Patrick Swayze film is about as puzzling as it gets in Hollywood. Filled with the newest batch of rising young stars (Chris Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Josh Peck) , Red Dawn was shelved after its completion in 2010 when MGM went bankrupt. During that time, the filmmakers decided to change the Asian baddies from China to North Korea. This rework is painfully obvious in the disjointed editing and silly montages. What strikes me as comical, considering how vastly profitable the Chinese film distribution market can be, is the foolish, politically naive decision to make the Chinese the villains in the first place. I almost laughed myself into hysteria watching this film. One word, one syllable to describe Red Dawn...yikes!
- Best Director - Ben Affleck, Argo
Best Actor - Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Best Actress - Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Best Supporting Actor - Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Best Screenplay - Tony Kushner, Lincoln
Best Cinematography - Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi
Best Editing - Stuart Baird, Skyfall
Best Score - Hans Zimmer, The Dark Knight Rises
Best Soundtrack - Mary Ramos, Django Unchained
Best FX - Life of Pi
Best Documentary - Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Best Animated Film - ParaNorman