By Eric Plaag
As we stand perched just moments from the start of this year’s Oscars broadcast, I’ve finally gotten around — without a minute to spare — to writing up my list of the past year’s best films. Coming up with a list of the ten best 2012 films I’ve seen in the last year is not as difficult as I anticipated. This isn’t because I didn’t see enough films, but rather because the availability of good films was rather skimpy compared to 2011. This may be difficult to see for some viewers, perhaps because many of those films that do rise to the level of inclusion in this list are unusually good, thus creating the impressing that it was a “good movie year.” Looking at the overall slate of what Hollywood and the independent studios churned out this year, I’d argue quite the opposite, actually.
Nevertheless, there is much to praise. What follows, in ascending order, is my list of and brief justification for the ten best 2012 films I saw. Readers will note two significant exclusions from the list: Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables. On a procedural point, both missed the cut because I have not yet seen them. In all honesty, though, I most likely would not have included either in my list. The swirling questions about director Kathryn Bigelow’s choice to portray torture in Zero Dark Thirty as essential to securing the information necessary to locate Osama Bin Laden — in direct contradiction to the facts — is a significant, disqualifying blunder in a film that purports to tell the “true” story of what occurred leading up to his killing. As for Les Miserables, while there are many film musicals that I have enjoyed over the years, I have a deep-seated animus against musicals being weighed in Oscar discussions, let alone being considered the best films of the year, in the same way (and for some related reasons) that other critics and Oscar voters won’t even consider horror films for their coveted accolades. This bias against film musicals may have something to do with Oliver! — one of the worst film musicals ever made, in my opinion — winning Best Picture over a host of far better deserving films. But I digress.
Several other excellent 2012 films (about which I will not say much here) just missed my cut and are definitely worth tracking down if you have not yet seen them. These honorable mentions include Bernie, Prometheus, Bully, Moonrise Kingdom, and Skyfall, which is probably the best James Bond film ever made.
And now…the list:
10. Cabin in the Woods
You have to admire writer/producer Joss Whedon and writer/director Drew Goddard for bringing this bizarre but immensely engaging horror film to the screen. While turning the genre on its head and calling it out for its excesses and omissions, Whedon and Goddard craft a suspenseful, frightening, and ultimately hilarious story that leads its characters and audience into unexpected horrors with aplomb. When five stereotypical teens head to the boonies for a weekend in a creepy cabin, viewers quickly meet the two technicians (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) who are monitoring the teens’ every move and manipulating their contrived environment to ensure that the Ancient Ones get the blood sacrifice they require to keep the world safe. All goes well until the pothead among the teen interlopers (Fran Kranz) turns out to be immune to the safety protocols; once he turns the tables on his captors, all hell breaks loose—literally. Rarely has anyone working in the horror genre so thoroughly understood the rules of their own game, and why the lesser directors who repeatedly broke those rules over the years have watered down the genre to near meaninglessness. Keep an eye out for an unforgettable and deeply satisfying cameo from the ever-elusive Merman.
In light of his impressive but unheralded directorial efforts in Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town, much will be said about the Academy’s Streisand-like omission of Ben Affleck from award consideration for what he pulls off here, in what might be 2012’s most suspenseful film of the year. Following the true story of six Americans who slipped out of their embassy as Iranians stormed it in 1979, then secretly holed up at the Canadian ambassador’s house, Argo makes up for any lack of originality with a fantastically well-paced and fascinating examination of the more pragmatic brand of CIA operations abroad. Affleck’s performance as Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who crafted the cover story for their extraction and carried it out in person, may not be the film’s strong point, and the script from Chris Terrio occasionally resorts to self-indulgent Hollywood nods and winks for its comic relief—a trope increasingly frequent and tiresome in serious films. But what Affleck pulls off from a pacing, editing, and storytelling perspective is nothing short of magnificent. Yes, he was robbed.
8. Safety Not Guaranteed
Director Colin Trevorrow’s quirky film about a heartbroken and confused store clerk (Mark Duplass) who wants to travel back in time (again!) to reverse the devastating mistakes of his past may be the sweetest surprise of 2012. Duplass’s Kenneth Calloway runs an ad in the local rag asking for an assistant to accompany him in his unlikely excursion through time, but he gets a bit more than he bargained for when a cynical magazine writer (Jake Johnson) puts his intern Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) on the case. As the magazine crew works to expose Calloway’s eccentricities, Darius and Calloway train one another for the adventure that lies ahead. Safety Not Guaranteed never teeters on the easy laughs of pratfalls, nor does it grow maudlin as Calloway’s truths are revealed. Instead, we’re reminded that most of the world thought Tesla crazy, too, and that when the forces of evil are closing in, there’s no sense in nonsense, especially when the heat is hot.
7. Silver Linings Playbook
If Cabin in the Woods proved that the horror genre is tired and overwrought, then America’s romantic comedy genre had better take note of the lessons to be learned from this triumphant call to action from writer/director David O. Russell. Just as Pat Solitano, Jr. (Bradley Cooper) wins his freedom from a mental institution, where he was being treated after nearly killing his wife’s lover in a bipolar fit of rage, Pat finds himself rattled by the entrance of Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman wrestling with her own grief over the tragic death of her husband. Together, the two seem certain to prove toxic by magnitudes, as their respective families fear, and Pat’s obsession with winning back his ex only complicates matters. Add a dance competition to the mix, and on paper, this might seem like the pitch for a really bad Lifetime movie. Instead, Russell throws out all of the standard conventions of romantic comedy fare, relying instead on deeply flawed, richly developed characters with a host of insecurities just like the ones the rest of us carry around, and gives them a chance to win at life, even as everything else still seems stacked against them. In Russell’s world—in contrast to everything literature and movies and storytelling have usually lied about for centuries—it’s actually loving someone that wins out, rather than the quest to make someone love us back.
6. We Need to Talk About Kevin
Director Lynne Ramsay’s film (based on Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same name) about the horrors of raising a psychopathic monster from birth and knowing that his murderous rampage will one day come may be the most important but difficult to watch of 2012’s movies. Through a complex narrative that bravely illustrates the tortures of survivor’s guilt—especially when one’s own child is the shooter in a Sandy Hook-like tragedy—We Need to Talk About Kevin follows the desperate attempts at psychological survival pursued by Eva (Tilda Swinton) as she tries to understand how such a thing could happen to her, even though she knew all along that it would one day come. Swinton’s Eva would win no mother-of-the-year awards anyway, but her detached, forgiving husband (John C. Reilly) and her manipulative son (Ezra Miller) were no prizewinners either. As the nation deservedly turns its attention to guns as one of the roots of our evils, We Need to Talk About Kevin should be required viewing for all as a reminder that evil does indeed live and thrive in the world, too often because we find it easier to look the other way and hope for the best.
5. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino has come under a staggering amount of criticism for this spaghetti western treatment of American slavery, in which he re-imagines the origin story of Sergio Corbucci’s Django, one of the 1960s’ most beloved western characters, then portrayed by Franco Nero (who has a cameo here). Where some will say that Tarantino exploits his theme and his characters for sensational effect, the proper rejoinder should be that no film—ever—in the history of American narrative cinema has so effectively and accurately portrayed the various horrors of American slavery and the intricate, complex, and confounding relationships among field slaves, house slaves, poor whites, and slaveowners. Yes, it’s a decidedly visceral experience, and some viewers will leave horrified by a number of difficult and bloody scenes, most notably an unapologetic depiction of a recalcitrant slave being literally torn apart by vicious dogs as dozens look on wordlessly. But American slavery—and the people who stood by and said nothing, as well as those who perpetrated its most extreme horrors—was vicious too. Jamie Foxx’s Django and Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as slaveholder Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) valet Stephen may generate the most buzz, but the real star here is Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, the bounty hunter who buys Django’s freedom, trains him as a bounty hunter, and accords him the respect, loyalty, and humanity that every good man deserves.
4. Life of Pi
Ang Lee’s gorgeous adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel might be accused by some of privileging special effects and 3D technology over story, but make no mistake—this riveting tale of survival at sea is no bloated, waterlogged Castaway. When the Patel family’s move of their zoo from India to Canada results in a catastrophic shipwreck, Pi (Suraj Sharma) barely survives by climbing into a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Needless to say, the party is soon whittled down to Pi and Richard Parker, and the improbable story that follows is a magical realist’s dream. Left open to the end is the question of whether that tale—recited years later for an inquisitive novelist—is true, and the result is a fantastical and existential meditation on the power of storytelling, the individual’s quest for self-knowledge, the search for justice in the face of evil, and the indelible need to find meaning in inexplicable loss. Which explanation one chooses—between the story Pi tells insurance investigators following his rescue and the alternative, less fantastical explanation he offers years later—screams volumes about one’s own sense of humanity. If you don’t flinch at the hollow emptiness in your gut as Richard Parker slinks off into the jungle with casual indifference, then you weren’t paying attention.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Never before has the squalor and hopelessness of life in coastal Louisiana, as well as the fortitude of its people, been so palpable as it is in director Benh Zeitlin’s adaptation of Lucy Alibar’s novel about five-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), her father Wink (Dwight Henry), and their desperate attempts to survive after a devastating storm floods and destroys their home in the Bathtub, a community cut off by levee projects and threatened by government efforts to evacuate the inhabitants. Shot with a keen, unwavering eye for Hushpuppy’s perspective on the world and her heartbreaking search to understand what happened to her long-missing mother, Beasts of the Southern Wild brilliantly captures the confusion and seeming magic of half-forgotten childhood memories, infusing them with an urgency that exceeds that of nearly all of the other films on this list and transforming them into a narrative of survival and self-discovery that should make every viewer think twice about ever complaining about the difficulties of his or her own childhood.
2. Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell’s remarkably complex novel of a sextet of stories spread across several centuries was for many years the poster child for books that could never be made into movies. Somehow, though, directors Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer have assembled a stunningly appropriate cast (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving) to portray the dozens of lives interconnected across many lifetimes, each soul influencing and shaping the destiny of the others. Exploring the evils of colonial and corporate exploitation, sexual repression and oppression, abuse of the environment, neglect of the elderly, and the grudges human beings hold across generations, Cloud Atlas is a masterwork on condensing big themes to big moments. Visually arresting and certainly daring and ambitious, Cloud Atlas passionately captures the unique tone, unforgettable horrors, and subtle humor of Mitchell’s precursor without ever veering into the self-indulgences and bombast that usually afflict such epic attempts at filmmaking. Yes, it’s a film that makes the viewer work pretty hard, just as Mitchell’s novel does, but giving it the attention and patience it deserves pays off in spades.
Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (from Tony Kushner’s screenplay) accomplishes what no other film on America’s most beloved and important President has ever done before. Lost in most popular portrayals of Lincoln are the details of who the man was, how his thought process worked, and what guided him in the countless difficult and unenviable choices he had to make during the nation’s greatest crisis. Here, though, Daniel Day-Lewis’s uncanny portrayal of Lincoln captures all of it—in his demeanor, in his folksy but profound conversations with strangers and friends alike, in his firm commitment to doing right by his people, even if doing right meant ambivalence to the requirements of law and legislative protocols. Focused on the three-month period leading up to passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Lincoln is long on Congressional battles and political complexity, but outstanding performances from Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens ensure that Lincoln never loses its soul to empty theatrics or meaningless speechifying. Lincoln may not be 2012’s sexiest film, but as a whole package, nothing else this past year compares.