Assume spoilers for any and all movies included.
Life of Pi
I hesitate to use the term “overrated” here, as this is more an issue of taste rather than objective good-ness or bad-ness. Still, Life of Pi is being lauded for things that I don’t feel it does very well. Ostensibly, Pi is a movie about faith, and the ways we alter our perception of the world to maintain that faith. Or something like that. Frankly, Life of Pi is a bit muddled as to what it’s really about, despite the script’s thick layers of expository dialogue. While plenty of people had no trouble connecting Pi’s journey to their own personal religious quests, I had a helluva time relating to a film that implies lying to ourselves is OK, so long as the moral of the story doesn’t change. The film certainly provokes interesting conversation surrounding the difference between faith and reason, and presents some immaculately conceived visuals alongside a powerful lead performance from Suraj Sharma, but it ultimately feels hollow; more a child’s Sunday school fable than the complex, soul-searching, supernal epic it’s positioned to be.
Quentin Tarantino would probably say that he’s always made genre films, and while much of his career would bear that out, it’s hard not to look at Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction as more substantial. The genre elements are there, sure, but as Tarantino has gotten older, those genre conventions he used to use as seasoning have become the whole meal. Django Unchained is a fun movie, and like Inglourious Basterds it presents a scenario wherein his exaggerated gore can ultimately be cathartic for his audience, but Unchained also brings in more humor than his previous films, and seems to take the violence to an even further extreme, with gallons of corn-syrupy blood gushing out of every last gunshot wound. Where Basterds felt sculpted and (to some degree) refined, Django Unchained is messy and less substantial. What began as Tarantino’s defining characteristic is now threatening to marginalize him as a director, and while Django Unchained is generally a “good” movie, it suggests that the remainder of his career has been more or less charted, with a series of well-made, well-cast, slightly overwritten, exceedingly gory, and not particularly contemplative films popping up every few years. I’ll certainly take it, as Tarantino remains one of the more interesting filmmakers, but it’s hard not to feel as though his peak has come and gone.
Look, I like Ben Affleck, and I think he could turn into a phenomenal director. Argo‘s opening sequence is masterfully executed, and the film’s slow build and punishing climax suggest a thoughtful, deliberate storyteller. Yet when you dig into the film, that’s essentially it. There are interesting character touches here and there, and as an industry guy Affleck nabbed some serious heavies for his cast. The film presents an interesting enough commentary on the two markedly different worlds of Hollywood and the Middle East, and even spends some time exploring the reality of our country’s foreign policy blunders. But in the end, this is a film constructed to manipulate an audience towards fear and anxiety, then guide them to a satisfying resolution. If this were truly such an extraordinary feat, there would be a lot more horror films nominated for Best Picture.
The Runners Up
“The Battle Royale” – The Raid: Redemption
There’s plenty of incredible martial arts action in The Raid, but none of it matches the 6-minute finale, a tour de force battle between brothers Rama & Andi and the indomitable Mad Dog. The fight is both exhaustively choreographed and exhausting to watch…in a really, really good way.
“The Riddle Game” – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
While The Hobbit spends much of its time concerned with the visual journey, its best moment is a dialogue-heavy scene between Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and Andy Serkis’ Gollum, who meet in caves below the city of Goblins. Jackson joyfully re-introduces us to the ghastly Gollum as he fidgets and fusses through a game of riddles with Bilbo, and, along with providing some of the film’s more memorable laughs, offers another glimpse of the masterful Serkis in the role he has perfected.
“Old Joe Meets Young Joe” – Looper
In addition to being a really well-written scene, the meeting in the diner between Young Joe and Old Joe gives Joseph Gordon-Levitt the opportunity to hold his Willis impersonation up to the man himself. In a heated back and forth, Willis and Gordon-Levitt sneer and wrinkle their brows, each actor doing his best version of a “pissed-off Bruce”, and in the process provide the film’s most electrified moment.
“The End” – The Grey
The Grey is the sort of film that builds to its final moment from the very start, assembling layer after layer of emotionally resonant material, all with the intention of making sure you really feel it at the end. Having lost every man he took under his charge, Liam Neeson’s Ottway reaches his breaking point just as he realizes he has stumbled into the wolf den that he’s spent most of the film trying to get away from. Faced with the terrifying Alpha, Ottway resigns himself to a final battle, and as the film blacks out over Neeson’s face, we’re left to contemplate the magnitude of relinquishing oneself to fate.
“The Crash” – Flight
Most of Flight is interminably slow-moving, implying that Zemeckis was too enamored with Denzel’s performance to get in the way of it. The film’s crash sequence is an altogether different story, not just front-loading the film in an unexpected way, but providing a harrowing, authentically spectacular inciting incident that the audience won’t be able to shake.
“The Prologue” – Argo
Affleck had a lot of information to get across with his prologue, and his approach to parsing it is an uptempo, exposition heavy hodgepodge of filmed and stock footage. In combining this footage, he pulls you promptly and utterly into the story, making it impossible not to care about the film’s protagonists. By the time we reach the movie proper, every member of the audience is immersed.
“Dancing on the Beach” – Moonrise Kingdom
Even without any context this would remain a great movie moment, but the build towards it plays a pivotal role. Until this point, Sam and Suzy’s courtship is preoccupied with planning and running and hiding, and only here, in their Moonrise Kingdom, can they truly just be together. Watching the two loners come together in this moment is a joy, and evokes the invincible freedom of preadolescent, parent-less moments.
“Dodd Processes Freddie” – The Master
This one is easy, as it finds two of the best working actors doing what they’re paid big money to do, and doing it flawlessly. A table, a dimly-lit room, and Phoenix and Hoffman staring each other down in the first of many intimate moments. This scene marks the beginning of what will become a prolonged exploration of two men and the space in between, and is perhaps, the clearest glimpse we get of either of them.
“The Attack on New York” – The Avengers
The big question in The Avengers was always how to bring them together. Marvel has created a collection of characters with their own distinctive personalities, and a team has to achieve cohesion before they can fight monsters from space. With the attack on New York in the film’s grand finale, Whedon created a scenario wherein the team was forced together, and each player forced into his or her role. It’s a sensational action climax regardless of the how it guides the story, but the way it plausibly brings the Avengers together as a unit easily makes it one of the year’s most thrilling moments.
“The 5 Score” – Silver Linings Playbook
So much of Silver Linings Playbook culminates in the moment that Pat and Tiffany get a five in the dance competition, sending the family into joyful hysterics. Yet at the same time, it’s not a moment that does anything to suggest that everything will be hunky dory from here on out. Which is sort of what makes the film so brilliant: the notion that, while things have been fixed right now, they won’t be forever, and that’s OK! Sometimes it’s enough for a family to be able to unite and achieve something together, even if tomorrow might present more problems. Sometimes, the knowledge that you’ve done it before is the thing that gets you through having to do it again.
The Runners Up
Following the emotionally-unstable, recovering drug addict Anders over the course of a 24-hour visit to his old stomping grounds, Oslo, August 31st is a story about the power of nostalgia and the fluidity of memory. In his recovery, Anders has learned to express himself with words, and spends much of his time talking in circles with various friends and family from his past. He’s desperate to solve his problems by articulating them the right way with the right person, even as he recognizes the futility in this. He takes in the places that once meant something to him, and the people he once called friends, and all this catching up colludes to throw his gray reality into starker and starker contrast with his incandescent past. He is a character who sees no way out, and the beauty of the film is the way it allows you to share this progression. It’s a powerful experience, and not one for everybody, but sitting through Oslo, August 31st takes you on a journey to the heart of yourself and back, and somehow, leaves you better for it.
Steven Spielberg is so remarkably talented that he’s set his own bar. It’s not as though people don’t respect Lincoln for everything it is and everything it does, but there’s a sort of apathy surrounding the film that reveals how much we’ve come to expect from him. Because—and this is important—Lincoln is an exceptionally well-made film. While it could have easily ended up cloying, Lincoln avoids the dull heavy-handedness found in Spielberg’s War Horse, leaning instead towards something like The West Wing—substantial, policy-driven drama. The immaculate performance from Daniel Day-Lewis is the heart of the film, and Lincoln goes as he goes, but it’s an expert craftsman who knows when to rely so heavily on his strongest tool.
However much you appreciate a movie like The Avengers depends on how much you can allow yourself to enjoy a movie that is simply fun. That’s not to suggest that Joss Whedon’s epic doesn’t do a number of things objectively well, but ultimately, if you truly love The Avengers, then you truly love how much fun there is to be had in it. From the Tony Stark one-liners, to the super powered pissing contests, to the awe-inspiring finale, Avengers was, despite the occasional heavy truth (in particular the Hulk was handled with more nuance than either of the singular films could muster), simply the most joyful experience theaters provided in 2012.
The Grey was marketed all wrong. Trailers implied an action-heavy Taken in the arctic, with killer wolves and little substance. The reality of The Grey is far more complex—a man vs. nature chronicle wherein our heroes face their own mortalities with startling regularity, the result of which is a perpetual staring into the abyss. And not simply for the characters on the screen, but for the viewer as well, as Director Joe Carnahan has constructed a film that insists on empathy from its audience. These men, rugged as they may be, are not trained killers or hard-hearted ex-marines; they are simply the victims of a random chain of events, and in the variety of unique ways that Carnahan has them respond to their situation, it becomes impossible not to take part in their fear.
Everyone appreciates a great love story. Whether our romantic history is built on heart break or soul mates, we yearn to see ourselves reflected in love. In Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson explores the faithful devotion of young love, bringing together two characters whose connection—in addition to feeling fated, as any great romance does—has the power to effect all the lives that surround it. But Moonrise Kingdom isn’t solely about affirming love, as it spends ample time considering love’s hazards. Between the adults’ stumbling romances and the barriers Sam and Suzy must traverse, the film explores many sides of love and intimacy. Like many Anderson films, it is a story that at a glance seems far more modest than it truly is, and one that reveals more of itself with each subsequent viewing.
It will be a shame if Zero Dark Thirty ends up being defined by its controversy, as that is, frankly, a small piece of the much larger picture the film is interested in painting. Torture happened, and may or may not have led to vital information, but this film has far more to say about the concrete and philosophical obstacles inherent to an international man hunt. It has far more to say about the discordant state of our relationship with the Middle East. It has far more to say about its main character, and the exhaustive journey one individual took on the way to securing the world’s most notorious terrorist. Zero Dark Thirty is a film with a lot to say, and in the hands of Kathryn Bigelow and Screenwriter Mark Boal, all these things are said effectively, efficiently, and emphatically.
Silver Linings Playbook is all about relationships. The difficult relationship between a father and son, or the half-dead one between a man and his estranged wife. The relationship between an old married couple, and the things they choose to say and the things they choose to let be. Or a new relationship between two people who can’t imagine being together, until they are. In exploring these relationships, David O. Russell is exploring the fabric of being, because more often than not, we define ourselves by our relationships with others. Yet what makes Silver Linings Playbook truly great is its ability to look deeply at the nature of human connection without ever taking itself too seriously. This is a funny film, and if anything, it’s made funnier by its truisms. In this balance exists something that feels as real as your own life, and that ability to reach deep into the heart of each and every member of his audience is what makes Russell such a special storyteller.
While most movies feel like prose, occasionally a film comes along that, despite having a narrative and an arch and all the tropes of a structured film, feels like poetry. Beasts of the Southern Wild has this atmosphere of poetry, thanks in large part to the point of view of its tiny protagonist. We view the world through the eyes of Hush Puppy, who sees magic and monsters where the rest of us see science and storms. Without this chimeric perspective, we wouldn’t be able to take part in Hush Puppy’s journey from fear to bravery, from feeling small to feeling invincible. And that would be a shame, as traveling with Benh Zeitlin’s beautiful little hero as she comes to understand the world in her own way is a spirit-lifting experience, brimming with gorgeous scenery and catharsis. She’s a cherubic spitfire you desperately want to take care of, yet by the film’s end, you come to understand that Hush Puppy is a stronger, more determined little fighter than you or I could ever be. Seeing her stare down the dread that has followed her throughout the film, and appreciating the significance of this defining moment in her young life, will take your breathe away.
Cloud Atlas is either wildly powerful or frustratingly messy. There’s no in between. Because as a viewer, you can either move past the minor missteps to appreciate the bigger picture, or you can’t, in which case you’ll be left whining about makeup choices. The reality is that the elements that people find so frustrating—the makeup, the oscillating tone, the potential racism of having white people playing Asians, and so on—are infinitely minor compared to the grand themes that Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis are attempting to unlock. Cloud Atlas is a film about the interconnectedness of humanity, about the poetry of existing with the love of others, about the responsibilities we have to one another—is it really worth nitpicking a film with such grand ambitions? Now, obviously these motifs aren’t unlocked for everyone, or alternatively, the trio of directors’ eagerness to convey their themes comes across as suffocating, but for those of us who reached the destination Cloud Atlas set before us, it was arguably the most emotionally-resonant film of the year.
Career-defining performances, an absorbing screenplay, stunning cinematography, immaculately conceived period elements—yet I’ve chosen The Master as my best film of the year because ultimately, it gave me the most to think about. As Paul Thomas Anderson has come into his own as a writer and a director, he’s come to develop an almost inchoate style of storytelling, asking his audience to fill in the gaps that, for him, don’t really matter. There’s a delightful messiness to The Master, as if you’re watching a dream, or the slowed down version of a life passing before someone’s eyes. It’s not for everyone, but neither is Freddie Quell, whose crude humanity makes him nearly impossible to connect with; nor Lancaster Dodd for that matter—a manipulative, spurious charmer, with little regard for anything save his own successes. Yet The Master is a terribly enthralling film, thrillingly imperfect, and fulfilling in spite of (or because of) its eccentricities. It is a film eager to blossom in your mind and reveal more of its nature, and though unlocking it was one of 2012’s grander cinematic challenges, it’s often the most complex riddles that bear the most satisfying solutions.
Alternates: The Cabin in the Woods, Skyfall, Les Miserables, Looper, The Dark Knight Rises, Bernie