Although I already tried to identify the year’s “trend” in movies, I didn’t do a Top 10 list, and obviously no summation of the year is complete without a Top 10 list. Normally, I don’t do such a list for movies, because I rarely see more than 10 films in a given year. In 2012, though, for a variety of reasons—like embracing Josh’s philosophy—I saw more movies than in any other year of my life, so I finally feel qualified to make a list.*
*Of course, I didn’t see EVERY movie this year. So to clarify whether any given film missed the Top 10 because of quality or omission, here is the full list of movies I saw this year:
24) The Amazing Spider-Man
23) The Campaign
22) Zero Dark Thirty
20) The Five-Year Engagement
19) Jeff, Who Lives At Home
18) The Dark Knight Rises
17) The Perks of Being a Wallflower
16) Sleepwalk With Me
15) Safety Not Guaranteed
13) 21 Jump Street
And now, the Top 10*:
*I only realized after compiling the list that, of these ten films, eight are written or co-written by the director. Funny how that works out…
10) This Is 40
It’s possible that, in a few years, the criticisms of this film’s main characters as immature and spoiled will seem more accurate to me, but for now Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann seem appropriately rudderless as adults. For Rudd, this is not surprising—he has been playing some version of a charming jerk for years now—but it is nice to see Mann turn in a more complete performance that makes you think of her as something other than just Judd Apatow’s wife. For Apatow, this movie succeeds where Funny People failed, both in straddling the line between comedy and drama, and examining how people react to mortality.
9) The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is the most interesting failure of the year. Like so many of Anderson’s films, The Master builds these fascinating characters and intricately layered scenes, but fails to really construct a story around them. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix both turn in excellent performances as Lancaster Dodd and his protégé Freddie Quell—I never wanted the scenes between the two of them to end. But as for the film’s focus on Dodd’s religion (which was definitely NOT Scientology), or religion in general, or postwar life in America, the narrative never really comes together. Still, the film’s ambition and its stellar performances make it compelling nonetheless.
8) Les Misérables
I have a soft spot for Les Misérables, having seen the musical on Broadway when I was very young, so I could appreciate the “event” of seeing the show brought to screen. Of course, the film has some glaring holes, most notably Russell Crowe’s voice, but also some serious problems with Tom Hooper’s direction (seriously, man, chill out with the close-ups). In spite of all this, the movie boasts show-stopping performances from Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman and some beautiful imagery capturing some of the scope that gets lost on stage.
Jack Black plays Raskolnikov in a small Texas town. Though Richard Linklater’s film isn’t really an exploration of Russian nihilism, it loosely follows the plot of Dostoevsky’s great novel, and in doing so it touches on some of the same messages about virtue, greed, selfishness, law, forgiveness, and Christianity. By presenting the story largely through interviews with the townspeople where the real event actually occurred (some of whom are played by actors, some speaking for themselves), Linklater also turns in a fascinating look at small communities in America and the groupthink that arises there.
As a big fan of Rian Johnson’s first film, Brick (as well as the episodes of Breaking Bad he’s directed), I was eager to see if his new film had an interesting take on two dangerous Hollywood clichés: time-travel and “special” children. Johnson addressed the first by not addressing it. As Bruce Willis’ Joe says, “I don’t want to talk about time-travel, because if we start talking about then we’re going to be here all day making diagrams with straws.” Rather than spend the whole movie investigating the metaphysical implications of time-travel, the characters simply accept the uncertainty around it. This works for the film because Johnson’s characters are more interesting when they’re operating in the dark, and it allows the movie to be about more than just gimmickry. Similarly, the gimmick of the uniquely endowed child works because of how Emily Blunt plays his mother, Sara. By making that story more about Sara’s devotion to her son as the boy’s “abilities,” Johnson makes a sci-fi trope human again.
5) Moonrise Kingdom
One could argue that all of Wes Anderson’s movies have been about childhood, so it’s kind of surprising that Moonrise Kingdom is his first to be about children. The story of two twelve-year-olds who run away together, Moonrise Kingdom contrasts images of innocence (idyllic beaches, kids dancing, impromptu weddings) with images of innocence lost (violent storms, ears being pierced, adultery, abandoned children). The movie includes Anderson’s unique visual style and his absurd humor, while also maintaining a perspective on maturity and happiness. It’s an incredibly sweet and pleasant movie without a false note.
4) Silver Linings Playbook
No cast is as impressive overall as that of Silver Linings Playbook. Robert De Niro was better than he’s been in years (“Better than the Meet the Parents trilogy?!” Yes, even better than that), and Chris Tucker and Jacki Weaver turned in great supporting roles. But it’s really Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence who carry the movie. Just summarizing the plot to someone, the movie sounds like a slightly-less-generic-than-usual romantic comedy, but in David O. Russell’s hands it becomes a touchingly human story (Russell did something similar with The Fighter, turning an underdog sports movie into a family drama). The scenes between Cooper and Lawrence have more energy than any other romantic pairing (unless you want to count the aforementioned Hoffman/Phoenix duo).
3) Django Unchained
Just like in his last film, Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino uses the historical setting of Django Unchained to provide a preset moral framework for a revenge narrative. Instead of “Nazis v. Jews” as bad guys and good guys of the film, it’s “Slave Masters v. Slaves.” It remains just as obvious which side we’re supposed to root for. But whereas the former film used the historical tropes to contrast different reasons and methods of revenge, Django Unchained is all about one man- Jamie Foxx’s title character. At times this holds the film back—other characters, like Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda and even Christoph Waltz’s King Schultz, suffer for it—but in Django Tarantino has created one of his most memorable heroes, complete with his most epic climax.
2) The Central Park Five
On Sunday I called The Central Park Five “a movie about interrogation,” but that’s only one part of what it’s actually about. The documentary, a collaboration between Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon, is an illuminating portrait of the criminal justice system, the history of race in America, the media and mob mentality, and the complicated dynamics of urban politics. Impressively, it manages to be all these while never losing sight of the specific story it’s telling or the personalities it affected. The five men who were sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit come off as complete, real people, instead of just token symbols of racial injustice.
I already wrote about my admiration for this movie (twice), but it’s not just on a thematic or intellectual level that this movie succeeds. No film I saw this year hit me as viscerally as Compliance did—it stays with you after you leave the theatre, both because of how raw it is and because of the questions it leaves you with. There have been cries that it’s exploitive, but these are really a testament to how successful the movie is. It is supposed to make you uncomfortable and you are supposed to feel complicit. A movie that is so emotionally impacting while also addressing an issue of social importance is a rare accomplishment.