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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Kyle's Top 10 films of 2012

2012 marked a great year for cinema, likely the best we've seen since 2007. This supposition is definitely reflected in the Academy Awards Best Picture lineup, which for the first time in years, its truly anyone's guess which film will take home the big prize. This past year was also an incredibly back-loaded one, as the majority of the year's major Oscar contenders weren't released widely until the Oct-Dec timeframe, while this is often the case ever year, the sheer amount of quality that arrived in the fall and early winter was almost overwhelming. Luckily, some of the better films from the earlier part of the year stood out well enough to still make my final cut despite the year-end backlog.

Firstly a few Honorable Mentions, that while enjoyable, just barely missed my list.

Cloud Atlas
Reincarnation, cloning, the apocalypse, and Jim Broadbent. The Wachowski's and Tom Tywker's Cloud Atlas was a film I enjoyed so much I saw it twice, once for the the overwhelming spectacle of it all, and a second viewing to catch every connection I missed the first time. The film, while unfortunately flawed in segments, is still a work of passion for filmmakers' who so desired to see the film on screen that they went into personal debt to make it so. At the very worst, the film could be considered a ambitious failure by some, but frankly I'm not among them. Even if I were, I still would take a film that tries and stumbles over something that plays it safe. It's a film that I hope one day finds its audience, it's the definition of a cult movie.

In my eyes, Rian Johnson finally fulfilled some of the promise that's been anticipated of him with Looper. The sci-fi time travel epic was one of the more exciting films I saw this year with a great premise, and two very solid performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. The point where we see Young Joe's evolution into Older Joe is possibly one of the most exhilarating sequences I saw on screen all year. I'm a sucker for good time-travel stories, and Johnson pretty much nails it, though I still have misgivings about the Rainmaker concept. It's unpredictable narrative made it a delight in the early part of 2012.

10. The Dark Knight Rises
2008's The Dark Knight was my number one film of that year, it was Batman by way of Heat, and leagues beyond Christopher's Nolan work in Batman Begins. The Dark Knight Rises in its own turn echoes more into Fritz Lang territory, particularly Metropolis, with its scenes of social unrest and the usage of chaos via almost Che Guevarra like methods. Tom Hardy's Bane is hands down my favorite villain of the year, with his hulking presence and sing-song voice. The cast throughout is solid, and the film is suitably epic given the nature of its escalating narrative. I'm not sure we've seen this kind of scope in a movie in years. The ending is equally ambiguous, satisfying, and leaves you wanting more. Interstellar can't come soon enough.

9. Life of Pi
Ang Lee's beautiful fable is probably the first movie since Avatar where I thought 3D was an essential part of the viewing experience. It's also luckily the best film to use the format to date. Lee's masterful tale of Piscene and his journey with Bengal Tiger Richard Parker is an incredible story of survival, with a wonderful lead performance, and some of the most beautiful rendered CGI I've ever seen. Richard Parker literally comes to life without ever having to say a word. Life of Pi was a tremendous bounce-back for Lee after the disastrous Taking Woodstock, and returns him to the upper echelon of Hollywood filmmakers where he belongs.

8. Skyfall
So a funny thing happened, most Bond films are terrible...Skyfall was actually good...not just good, but great, not just great but possibly the Best Bond film ever made. If nothing else, Skyfall is certainly the classiest entry in a franchise that has had a few highpoints in the early going and some significant lows. Sam Mendes, making a bit of a comeback himself after Away We Go, and Roger Deakins lens some of the most gorgeous shots I've ever seen in a big budget actioner. The Shanghai scene itself should earn Deakins his much deserved and long overdue Academy Award, along with the beautiful sequence in the Scottish Moors. Bond is finally respectable cinema, I hope the old boy can maintain the pace and do it all over again soon. At the very least, I hope this is the future look of action films.

7. Argo
Until the last few months, and a rewatch or two later, Argo was my number 1 film of the year. Things have obviously changed a good deal, but Argo is still a very strong film. It carries a sense of older style entertainment, where deeper meanings are sort of tossed out the window and Ben Affleck is just shooting, above all else, to entertain. Argo is intentionally modeled after 1970's thrillers and that particular choice oddly gives it a breath of fresh air in the somewhat grimmer field that was this year's prestige pictures. Even though I knew how the film would conclude, I was still on the edge of my seat as the entire affair is wrought with tension. Ben Affleck has made his finest film yet.

6. Beasts of the Southern Wild
At its heart, Benh Zeitlin's debut centers on the relationship between daughters and their irresponsible fathers, but beyond that it creates an amazing tapestry surrounding it that it almost forms a sort of new southern gothic mythology. The world created by Zeitlin feels so fantasy-like, that it's hard to believe that its based on an actual place where people try to live each and every day scrapping by. Every shot is compelling, and the performances by Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry, two acting novices, are some of the best of the year. By its conclusion, as Hushpuppy's journey comes to its conclusion, I was certainly moved by this towering debut from one of the most exciting young filmmakers to come onto the scene in years.

5. Lincoln
Steven Spielberg, Abraham Lincoln, and Daniel Day-Lewis; it seems like a can't miss proposition right? I hope you took the safe bet, because not only is Day-Lewis utterly towering as the 16th President, but Spielberg is in something approaching top form here. In the choice to only focus on a small aspect of Lincoln's life, one month to be exact, we're given the opportunity to learn more about the subject matter and his political inner workings without the burden of decades of history. Lincoln is also very unusual, in that its slow and very talky. It has an odd stillness that we're not used to in our biopics, almost as if it were made for stage. This aspect gives it a verbal flourish that will give it staying power in classrooms for years to come.

4. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino's take on the western, or a "southern" as he calls it, is his latest entry in the revenge genre that he has made his bread and butter over the past ten years. What's surprising is that throughout the bloodshed that is rampant in Django Unchained, there are a few moments of tenderness in the tale of Django trying to be reunited with his wife Broomhilda, almost giving the film a romantic quality. In places, it's unlike anything Tarantino has done before, though there's plenty here for the Tarantino die-hards to chew on. A terrific co-lead performance by Christoph Waltz and perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio's best supporting turn yet give the picture some real bite as well! This was some of the most fun I had at the cinema this year, and it was a great way to close out 2012.

3. The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson spent the early part of his career creating homages to other directors be it Scorsese (Boogie Nights) or Altman (Magnolia), with The Master, it joins his previous masterpiece There Will Be Blood as what one could either argue is pseudo-Kubrickian or a style all his own. The Master is a puzzle box and not a film that everyone will enjoy, much less be able to agree upon its meanings. I was left a little cold at first, but its allure continued to pull me and the more I ruminated on the film, the more I appreciated what Anderson was doing here. Perhaps what I gravitated to most was the electrical chemistry between Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, who may have given the strongest male performance of the entire year. The transformation of Phoenix was something to behold, as his Freddie Quell is almost sub-human, and Hoffman's co-lead portrayal of the Hubbard-like Lancaster Dodd is a fascinating creation in of itself. We may find that one day The Master will be considered the greatest of PTA's works, only time will tell.

2. Amour
When I saw Michael Haneke's latest, I referred to it as the most haunting and horrifying film I'd seen all year, I continue to stand by that opinion. This French film is not one that alot of people have been given the chance to see, given its very slow release strategy, but it deserves eyes. This rumination on mortality and the "till death do we part" area of marriage does not make it an easy watch, but its stillness and the very matter of fact way in which it is shot and performed make it enthralling, if very emotional viewing. Both Emmanuelle Riva and Jean Louis-Trintignant give some of those most startling performances of the year, particularly the former who I hope will come away with the Best Actress prize at this year's Academy Awards. Amour doesn't attempt to wring tears out of its audience, they come naturally, and by the end I was certainly on the verge of them.

1. Zero Dark Thirty
A modern day Melville tale, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is a character study in single-minded obsession. Said obsession is of course the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and Bigelow's work here is nothing short of masterful. Taking place over the course of ten years, from 9/11 until his eventual killing, we follow the efforts of the CIA specialist who plays the Captain Ahab of the story. Zero Dark Thirty, while being respectful of the efforts of those accomplishing this monumental task, is never chest-thumping and certainly highlights the horrors of war-time operations, as seen in the Seal Team Six raid that closes out the proceedings. At over 2.5 hours, I never felt a moment of its running time as nary a minute is wasted. Jessica Chastain is stunning in a beautifully subtle lead performance, and she's supported ably by an effective if never flashy ensemble cast. Zero Dark Thirty is the finest film of 2012 and deserves every bit of recognition it gets, its quite an achievement. 

Best Director - Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Runner-up - Ang Lee, Life of Pi

Best Actor - Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Runner-up - Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Best Actress - Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
Runner-up - Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

Best Supporting Actor - Leonard DiCaprio - Django Unchained
Runner-up - Tom Hardy - The Dark Knight Rises

Best Supporting Actress - Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
Runner-up - Incredibly weak category this year, we'll just say Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle and call it a day.

Best Cinematography - Roger Deakins - Skyfall
Runner-up - Claudio Miranda - Life of Pi

Best Score - Hans Zimmer - The Dark Knight Rises
Runner-up - Johnny Greenwood - The Master
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