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Column Fri Jan 04 2013

Best and Worst Films of 2012, Zero Dark Thirty & Sister


Best Films of 2012

I saw 415 new films (including a small number of restored-print screenings) in 2012. So call me crazy, but I actually wait until a given year is completed before I finalize my "Best of..." list. In the final few weeks of every year, I play a little catch up: reviewing films I've already seen to see if they are as good or bad as I remember, as well as view a few smaller works that I may have missed in the shuffle of the previous year. I believe four of the choice in my Top 50 features or Top 20 documentaries made its respective list in this time period.

So why 50? I guess the best answer is, because I said so. When I made my initial list of my favorite films of 2012 (not paying any attention to how many films I selected), I came up with 49 titles; with documentaries, the number was 19. I ranked by groups of films, went back the original list of 415, and found one more in each category to round out both lists. If you think no list should go beyond 20, or even 10, here's what you should do: stop reading at the number you think is self-indulgent on my part.

Here's the other thing I'll ask of you. You certainly don't need my permission to disagree with my choice or order, but rather than simply crank out the usual "this is bullshit" response, be bold and counter with your own list. I eat up these end of year lists with a passion. I think they say more about a critic's tastes, biases, passions, etc. than their lengthy essays and dissertations about individual movies. Hopefully, you won't need to post your own; you'll think mine is perfect and just leave it at that. But if you're pissed that The Dark Knight Rises isn't on my list, put it on one that you slap together.

I've included blurb to go with my top 10 picks (and a full review for my Number 2 choice, since it opens wide this weekend). And please keep in mind that, although I labeled this list "Best of," it represents my favorite films of 2012. Again, tell me yours. Thanks and enjoy (and count the number of films just in my Top 10 that are from writer-directors.)

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
From director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild spins around your brain, challenging you and your beliefs of what living truly is; that may be too much for some, but it's a feeling that should be embraced on a regular basis. When the outside world descends on the bayou land of the Bathtub, the place loses some of its magic, but that's the point. The movie is covertly political, while maintaining its sense of magic and wonder. I think I could watch it a dozen more times, and see it as something different each time. For the record, that happens so rarely that I can't tell you the last time I felt that way about a movie. See this film for the sake and enrichment of your soul.

2. Zero Dark Thirty
Is that latest from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (whose last effort was the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker) 100 percent factually accurate? I don't care. This isn't a documentary. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if Zero Dark Thirty were 100 percent fiction, I'd still think it's one of the most perfectly realized and engaging stories of intelligence gathering and military action I've ever seen.

Is the real-life woman Jessica Chastain's Maya is based on looked down upon by her fellow CIA agents? Again, I don't care. This version of Maya is a tireless, frustrated, bold person who isn't afraid to take credit where credit is due (with her). "I'm the motherfucker who found this place," she tells the director of the CIA (James Gandolfini) when he asks who she is in a meeting. The fact that he doesn't know who she is after the 10 years she put into finding Osama Bin Laden is shameful, but that's her lot in life until Public Enemy Number 1 is caught or killed. Maya is frequently referred to as "the girl" both behind her back and to her face. In many ways, she's a stand-in for Bigelow, who for many years was the lady director who made action films. The Hurt Locker sealed her status as one of the top action directors male or female, but that was a long road to being viewed as a peer. Being looked at as a lesser in your chosen profession until you capture the ultimate prize is something familiar to Bigelow.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with a dark screen featuring audio more horrifying than any of the scenes of torture featured immediately after. We hear the sounds of voice messages left by the soon-to-be-dead in the World Trade Center, a not-so-subtle reminder of what was fueling Maya's determination and rage. Are there scenes of torture in the film? Yes there are, and most of it is right up front. I think the negative reactions and claims that Bigelow is somehow glorifying torture in these scenes are laughable. If anything, her determination not to comment on or judge the use of waterboarding, stress positions, dog collars and other indiginities is what is troubles some people. It would be wrong to say Maya doesn't react to the torture that her mentor, Dan (the fantastic Jason Clarke), is engaging in; she certainly does react, but she also keeps her mouth shut, because to do otherwise would be a sign of weakness. She endures what she is witnessing.

Much of Zero Dark Thirty consists of meticulous investigation, analysis and educated guesswork involving a courier that Maya believes is one of the few people to have direct contact with Bin Laden. It's a fascinating trail of dozens of dots, with almost as many supporting roles, to support each new clue. Faces like Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Édgar Ramírez, Mark Strong and Mark Duplass pop in and out of the story. Boal's screenplay is in no way dumbed down, and any statement of fact that seems obvious is made fun of by someone in the room. "Duh!" One of my favorite characters is the overly enthusiastic Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), whose eagerness to contribute to the hunt has horrific consequences when she defies security protocol to bring in a potential source.

But most of you will probably be most impressed (as was I) with the final 30-40 minutes of Zero Dark Thirty when the Hunt becomes the Raid. No, it is not all shot in night-vision; please stop thinking that it is. But when that Navy SEAL team hits the compound, you kind of forget to breathe. And knowing how this story ends doesn't ruin the thrill at all. The raid is both smooth and messy. You know those explosives used to blow doors off their hinges? Turns out, they don't always blow the doors off. Among the ranks of the team are familiar faces like Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt, who provide us with just the right combination of male chest-thumping and taut professionalism. They are funny and they are efficient. But the moment the mission is effectively done, there's a delayed sense of satisfaction. It's a fantastic moment.

Zero Dark Thirty quickly dispenses with the idea that Bigelow peaked with The Hurt Locker. This is phenomenal storytelling with what is probably the best female performance of 2012. And Chastain accomplishes being a strong female character without picking up a weapon or throwing a single punch. She kicks ass with her brain. We only see her cry once, and it's at a moment in which I think any one of us in her unique set of circumstances would have done the same. This is a film I've seen twice and cannot wait to see again — a truly tremendous movie.

3. Looper
There are times when you watch a film, and you can feel the brain power working in conjunction with the heart and soul of the filmmaker. It's that feeling that washes over you, when the movie is working in every way because its creator cares deeply and has worked over the material so carefully and with such a detailed eye that the film has no choice but to be damn-near perfect. And what happens in writer-director Rian Johnson's Looper is that the performances serve to magnify the finest qualities of the screenplay and sweeping visual style. Johnson has made a modern classic in the science-fiction genre, but he's also made a wonderful work that combines elements of Westerns, family dramas and gangster pictures where some of the bad guys are actually the good guys.

4. Django Unchained
Although you can certainly look at writer-director Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained as an atypical Western, a revenge film or an adventure picture, I saw it as a buddy cop movie and, in fact, the best moments are when Django and Schultz are simply trotting along, learning from each other. The film spends most of its extended running time coiled tight like a blood-thirsty rattlesnake ready to lunge. Sometimes it just makes your heart race a little faster from all of the excitement; other times is strikes you dead on. Either way, this creature is a fucking blast.

5. Argo
The third film from director Ben Affleck might be one of the only examples in 2012 of a perfect movie. The pacing, the writing and the acting of Argo are all absolutely flawless. The way Affleck (working from a screenplay by Chris Terrio) blends both dramatic and comedic tones is like observing a mixologist make the perfect cocktail, and the final product tastes so good and goes down smooth. The story is so ridiculous that had to be based on real events because no screenwriter could have pulled this out of their head. So here is this wonderful movie about how the clandestine services used Hollywood to save American lives during the Iranian hostage crisis. It's fun sometimes to know what we as a nation can accomplish, but Affleck reminds us that it's also fun to know what we get away with.

6. Skyfall
There's a great deal to absorb in Daniel Craig's third outing as Ian Fleming's master MI6 agent James Bond. It's clear that it's important to the actor to give his take on Bond a little emotional and psychological heft without skimping on the death-defying action. As a result, we get more of the Bond backstory than any other film in the past 50 years has given us, plus, it doesn't suck, and it actually adds some much-welcome depth to the icy spy with a license to kill. But even more exciting than seeing where Bond has been is where Skyfall leaves off. By the end of this movie, director Sam Mendes has fully set up the Bond we know and love — he's found his sense of humor, he's loaded with gadgets (courtesy of a new Q), he's playfully inappropriate with the ladies, and he seems to understand his role in Her Majesty's government. I feel more confident than ever that the next Bond chapter will be the most unfiltered fun we've seen yet from Craig. And that's no small task considering how much of a full-tilt blast Skyfall is.

7. The Cabin in the Woods
Writer-director Drew Goddard's (who co-wrote with Joss Whedon) The Cabin in the Woods is a different monster entirely. No, it isn't a game changer that is going to set the horror movie-making community on its head and make it rethink the way it operates from here on out. But the film clearly comes from a place of frustration with, as well as love of, the genre. It lets those who make horror films know that we see into their bag of tricks, their basements filled with artifacts that may trigger any manner of scary creatures, their paint-by-numbers approach to knocking off young victims, their loud music crashes that make us jump at nothing. Some of us will bitch about your lack of creativity; and at least a couple of us will write something that tears your world apart.

8. The Master
I know a lot of people are going to walk out of the latest from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and think that they need to see it one or two more times just to get to the film's deeper meanings and the sources of its underlying tension. If I may be so bold, I don't think that's necessary; I think this may be Anderson's most in-your-face, on-the-surface work, and I don't level that as a criticism. I just sincerely doubt any additional digging is required; the scenes as they play out make the themes clearly and precisely evident. The Master is at its most electric and searing when Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix share the screen. The film is Anderson's most impressionistic work, and by that I mean that there's very little by way of a plot. Considering what a consummate storyteller Anderson is, this may be the most divisive issue with audiences. What he has done instead of telling a traditional narrative is given us a series of sequences, moments and images that, when added up at the end, paint portraits of its two leading men. You might think that's what all movies do, but after you see this one, you'll think again. The Master works at every level — as a simple story of two men of different minds, or as a thesis on faith, love, the mind, religion, time, maybe life itself. The most important thing is that Anderson never forgets to keep us guessing and entertained. If a filmmaker can surprise me as to what will happen next and how I'll feel about it, that's more than half the battle. And it's certainly enough for me to recommend seeing it, at least once.

9. The Avengers
The Avengers isn't just a triumph in the arena of Marvel Comics movies or superhero films; more accurately, this is one of the most entertaining films I've seen at this scale. It succeeds with action, humor, intelligence, a touch of psychological drama and phenomenal special effects. And by embracing the flaws in each of its characters, The Avengers is more than just an impressive movie; it's also an easy film to love. That's doesn't happen nearly enough in films with nine-figure budgets. I was never a die-hard follower of writer-director Joss Whedon, but it never even crossed my mind that he'd get this movie wrong — but I also never would have predicted just how perfectly he pulled this off.

10. The Raid: Redemption
The Raid is a straight shot to the nutsack that hurts so good that the only way to make it feel better is to ask for someone to hit you one more time even harder. And the guy you want to do the cockpunching is one Iko Uwais, the Indonesian actor and fight choreographer destined to become one of the biggest action stars on the planet. And god bless writer-director Gareth Evans for discovering the guy and devising such a fucking relentless movie around him. Consider this review the equivalent of me grabbing you by your shirt collar, shaking the shit out of you, and screaming as my spittle splashes your face to run immediately to see The Raid: Redemption, even if the closest theater is hundreds of miles away. As people who care deeply about great action cinema and innovative filmmaking, you have no choice.

11. Holy Motors
12. Moonrise Kingdom
13. Les Misérables
14. Life of Pi
15. Flight
16. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
17. Lincoln
18. Compliance
19. Cloud Atlas
20. The Secret World of Arrietty

21. The Grey
22. Goon
23. The Deep Blue Sea
24. Magic Mike
25. Killer Joe
26. Silver Linings Playbook
27. The Impossible
28. Amour
29. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
30. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

31. The Hunger Games
32. Safety Not Guaranteed
33. End of Watch
34. 21 Jump Street
35. The Sessions
36. Oslo, August 31
37. Take This Waltz
38. The Loneliest Planet
39. Smashed
40. ParaNorman

41. Dredd 3D
42. Bernie
43. Chronicle
44. Frankenweenie
45. Pitch Perfect
46. Arbitrage
47. Haywire
48. Your Sister's Sister
49. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
50. The Pirates: Band of Misfits

Best Documentaries

I always separate out the documentaries because, to me, they are a different animal. Feature films are judged on acting, writing, directing, special effects, etc. But documentaries come down to a couple of key elements, primarily editing and directing. There are no boring stories, only boring storytellers. And none of these stories is remotely boring. But more than anything, unlike feature films, documentaries can literally change the world and the people in it. As some of my colleagues have pointed out, a handful of these films have deeply changed the lives of the people profiled in them for the better. I've only written a few lines for my top choice, but you should see each and every one of these films to see what ails the world and a few individuals that make a slightly better place.

1. The Invisible War
The statistics alone should be enough to keep any woman considering a career in the military to think about another line of work. The one that was most disturbing that a woman in the U.S. military is more likely to be raped by a male soldier than shot by an enemy combatant. What's perhaps even more shocking is example after example of how these women are treated by investigators and the chain of command after the incident(s) in question. Director Kirby Dick's film is guaranteed to make you angrier than you've ever been in your life, with good reason.

2. The House I Live In
3. The Central Park Five
4. West of Memphis
5. How To Survive a Plague
6. The Impostor
7. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
8. Head Games
9. The Queen of Versailles
10. Searching for Sugar Man

11. The American Scream
12. Beauty Is Embarrassing
13. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
14. Paul Williams Still Alive
15. Chasing Ice
16. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
17. The Other Dream Team
18. Marley
19. Shut Up and Play the Hits
20. Side by Side

Worst Films of 2012

Some critics seem to think that producing a list of the worst films of a given year gives these atrocious works power and exposure they don't deserve. I happen to believe they get the exact amount of exposure they deserve. I consider myself as much a buffer or blockade between a potential viewer and a shitty movie as I am someone who will shout from the rafters about a film I'm passionate about. So if you're in the mood to slowly torture someone into confessing anything, here is a list (in alphabetical order) of the films you might find useful — capped by my absolute most-hated movie of 2012:

Alex Cross; Butter; Chernobyl Diaries; Dark Shadows; Darling Companion; The Devil Inside; Fun Size; Gone; Hotel Transylvania; Ice Age: Continental Drift; A Little Bit of Heaven; Lockout; Madea's Witness Protection; The Magic of Belle Isle; One for the Money; The Oranges; Parental Guidance; Piranha 3DDD; Playing for Keeps; The Possession; Project X; The Raven; Resident Evil: Retribution; This Means War; A Thousand Words; Trouble with the Curve; Tyler Perry's Good Deeds; Underworld: Awakening; The Watch; What to Expect When You're Expecting; Wrath of the Titans


The Odd Life of Timothy Green
If you want to truly screw your kid up about where babies come from, Timothy Green is your movie. And what will pro-lifers (or is it pro-leafers?) think of this movie's theme of life beginning at photosynthesis? And while I'm sure the filmmakers' collective hearts were in the right place while they were making this movie, the final product is about as grotesque and deplorably earnest as spoon-fed compost. Mixed messages aside, this movie fails because it wants us to take it Very Seriously by tugging on our exposed heartstrings (the result of this movie hacking away at our torso) until we succumb to its gentle wailings. Good lord, how I hate this movie and all that it stands for, whatever the hell that might be. This movie will either severely damage your kid's sense of worth or wussify him/her for life.



Still on the short-listed group of nine films vying for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year is the great Swiss production Sister, from director Ursula Meier (Home). The film centers on a 12-year-old boy named Simon (Kacy Mottet Klein) who lurks around an upper-class ski resort in the Swiss Alps with the intent of stealing skis and other accessories (gloves, goggles, helmets, etc.) and selling them to his friends and any other customers to make money to keep him and his older sister (Lea Seydoux, best known for supporting roles in Midnight In Paris, Inglourious Basterds and Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol). The pair live in a run-down apartment in the small town at the base of the mountain where the resort is situated, so it's easy to understand how they might feel looked down upon... literally (rim shot).

The sister's story is a little tougher to pin down. She works cleaning rooms at the resort, but doesn't take part in the stealing (although she certainly enjoys the resulting cash). She has an abusive boyfriend or two, and there are even hints that she might be an occasional prostitute. Simon is incredibly protective and generous with her, even when she takes advantage of his kind heart. Not surprisingly, Simon gets caught by a cook at the resort (Martin Compton from The Damned United and Doomsday), but rather than turn the boy in, the cook joins in and buys some of the better pieces for himself to sell for a tidy profit back home in England.

Sister is a classic story of a boy who never got to experience his youth, and director Meier does a beautiful job making us care about the misfits, whose parents seem strangely absent (we're told they died in a car crash, but that seems like a bullshit story). Some of the most touching moments come when Simon befriends a woman on holiday (Gillian Anderson) with her two kids. As Simon gives her some basic skiing instruction, for a fleeting moment, we see him as a kid for once. Anderson becomes a mother figure for him, if only for a few days, but even then, Simon can't help but betray her confidence.

The tale of Simon and his sister spirals out of control as secrets about their path are revealed and Simon's thieving gets so out of control that he runs the risk of serious trouble. Sister is an intimate, bittersweet little film will make you mourn the loss of youthful innocence and maybe feel better about any type of dysfunction that you might have in your own family. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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Lee / January 9, 2013 11:57 PM

Watching 415 films in one year is very impressive! I didn’t watch nearly as many movies in 2012, but that could be because I didn’t get my Blockbuster @Home through DISH until a few months ago when I started working for DISH. They have over a 100,000 titles available by mail so I know that this year I’ll be able to watch hundreds more than I watched in 2012. I’m looking forward to watching what you think were the best films of 2012!

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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