In a year when there seemed to be an exceptional number of good movies to choose from whittling this list down to a dozen was no easy challenge. But that’s why I get the big bucks. Here in no particular order are what I consider to be the twelve best movies of 2012. In an upcoming Report I’ll offer what I thought were the twelve best independent films of 2012.
Silver Linings Playbook. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and Pat (Bradley Cooper) are two lonely people coming together even as they are coming apart -- and delivering performances for which Oscars are given. The movie swirls and staggers with people trying to love each other, and not sure how to do it. There’s laugh-out-loud humor -- and understanding, hope and loneliness -- in the chaos. And while the images seem over-laid with a thin curtain of gray sadness, the movie’s message is clear: If we stay positive and do our best, we have a shot at a silver lining.
Skyfall. This is Bond that pays homage to its past and recasts itself for the future. Never have we seen James so haunted and human. Never have we cared so deeply for M. Never has a movie in this series stood so firmly as a thoughtful film. The plot involves a missing hard drive, but this is a movie unafraid to push its plot to the background as it finds something more intriguing along the way. What it finds is the humanity of its characters – in performances that sparkle with authenticity. The movie is a bit long, but overall, it’s a highly entertaining adventure that delivers chills, smiles of recognition, and ultimately, a lump to the throat. This is not just James Bond shaken and stirred for 2012; this is the Bond brand re-invented for the future.
Argo. Ben Affleck knows how to tell a story. In Argo, he takes a pre-9/11 episode that could have been “typical Hollywood” and delivers a film that’s taut, tension-filled, and terrific. The fact that it’s also true and timely are bonuses. In everything from the casting to the cinematography, to his own performance Affleck is confidently in control, directing from a script that maintains a balance between atmosphere and plot, knowing what to keep in and what to leave out. No one here is sure they have anything more than “the best bad idea,” but it provides everything Affleck needs to create a movie that informs, intrigues, infuriates, and leaves its audience fully in awe of what took place.
Looper. As a science fiction thriller, this relies less on fantastic effects and more on smart storytelling. And there’s not an alien in sight. Its ‘rules’ are clear, its characters are consistently motivated, its plot has enough of a human element to keep us empathetically engaged. It’s also a bit too long, and sometimes wanders into loops it never closes. The movie is dark, often violent, but with enough of an “arc” for its main character – and enough originality -- to be entertaining. The premise – that time travel will let professionals not only “take out the future’s garbage” but also change their destiny – is explored intelligently. Its ending is intriguing, engaging, satisfying. And so is the movie.
Ted. How could the story of a grown man with a talking teddy bear be, as they say, so freakin’ funny? There are just so many laugh-out-loud moments. Mark Wahlberg, as John, is a great straight man, but this is Ted’s story and Seth McFarlane, who also wrote the movie, disappears into the role. This is a comedy where the jokes are often fresh and always frequent, where the narration sometimes has a stream-of-consciousness feeling, where there is a touch of heart-tugging emotion, and where it’s difficult for me to think how they could have done more with the story. And there is something – actually, a lot – in here to offend everyone. I love that in a film.
Moonrise Kingdom. I found this movie ‘enchanting’, as if the story is being told with a series of old yellowed postcards. There is a sense of clipped artificiality to the dialog and a feeling of military precision to the action. The characters are all a bit out of sync with reality; the backgrounds look like stylized stage sets. To call the story ‘goofy’ would be a bit of an understatement. What’s fun here is the care that director Wes Anderson seems to take with every line of dialog, every piece of action, every idiosyncrasy of his characters. Anderson has a unique way to tell a story, a way where it’s clear that he’s making this all up and that he is directing everyone with a sense of personal style that is very strange but it’s also very true to the magic of young love.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Screenwriter Lorene Scafaria writes simple magical stories about relationships distilled by the pressures of time. She did it in her script for “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and she does it again here. There have been so many movies about the apocalypse, but none has captured the humanity in the way this one does. This is a movie without special effects, without tricks. It’s a story of two people who spend what time they have together peeling back each other’s layers, finding each other’s ordinary uniqueness. This is a movie that will make you think. And smile. And care. And when its last frames arrive they will just break your heart.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. There is a kindness, a gentleness, a sense of honesty and compassion tucked into this movie. It unfolds quietly, refreshingly, with an easy pace set by a director and a cast old enough to be living a version of the story they tell. John Madden directs with a calm sense of confidence, an ability to mix moving moments with joyful ones. He tells the story of seven British retirees who travel to India to reside in what the promotional literature promises to be a restored and luxurious palace hotel. This is a movie in which nothing feels forced. Primary and secondary characters mix easily; the camera shows us to peacefulness of the countryside and the chaos of the crowded cities. And it all fits together seamlessly, as a background for actors with the experience to make it all look easy and feel always right.
The Avengers. This movie is a whole lot of popcorn-munching summer fun. And it really is a movie for the whole family to enjoy. No one will be embarrassed; everyone will be laughing. Credit Joss Whedon, the writer-director who writes with a sense of humanity, a feeling for how to tell a story, and a real understanding of his characters. He finds ways to combine the youthful and innocent super-patriotism of Captain America, the cool reserve of the Black Widow, the boastful wealthy arrogance of Iron Man and the ‘I’m-angry-all-the-time’ attitude of The Hulk into a well-oiled machine with much more humor than you might expect. This is an E-ticket ride into Summer.
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Back in 1971, in his warm and whimsical and unique-rhyming way, Dr. Seuss wrote an environmental tale for children. He named it for his character, “the Lorax”, who “…spoke for the trees…” More than four decades later, the moral of his story retains its relevance: “You can make a difference in your world. Unless you care, things won’t get better. They really won’t.” This movie translates – and extends -- that lesson thoughtfully, faithfully, and with both the gentle humor and wacky style that Dr. Seuss put in his original story. Structures are architecturally elaborate. Contraptions are imaginatively peculiar. New characters fit in seamlessly. Everything is colored lollipop-bright. But where the book ends with a challenge, the movie offers a hopeful resolution delivered in a wonderfully entertaining way. This is Dr. Seuss done right.
The Grey. Director Joe Carnahan makes movies that are bloody, violent, confident, relentless. “The Grey” is all that, a terrific telling of a brutal story of men struggling for survival in the Alaskan wilderness as the temperatures drop, the winds pound furiously, the wolves’ eyes glow, impatient in the darkness. Carnahan takes us in close, with cinematography that shakes from the cold, with lighting that looks cast only by the fire -- and with the sound turned up to the max as the wolves howl incessantly, waiting for their next meal. This is part survival film, part thriller, part horror movie, with every part so very well done.
Les Miserables. This is epic filmmaking on a human scale. With most lines being sung, it’s daring filmmaking that takes a bit of time to get used to, but the singing holds your attention because the lyrics play a critical role in advancing the plot. As the plot keeps expanding, bringing new characters on stage, and jumping ahead in time, we follow almost a dozen characters – as they make their way alone and together through the years following the French Revolution. The main characters are strong and clearly defined. The actors are uniformly good, but the two amazing performances in this film come from Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks. The director, Tom Hooper (he also directed “The King’s Speech”) knows how to find the heart in history and he does that here in a film that’s clear, entertaining, and powerful.