“Argo” – Ben Affleck continues his career resurgence in front of and behind the camera with the year’s best crowd-pleaser. Centering on the true story of how the C.I.A. extracted several Americans from Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis posing as a film crew, “Argo” manages to be an affectionate satire of Hollywood and a slick nail-biter.
“Compliance” – Craig Zobel’s maddening, based-on-a-true-story drama hems closer to the facts than “Argo” or “Zero Dark Thirty.” And what depressing facts they are: a gullible fast food chain staff humiliates and degrades themselves as a prank caller (Pat Healy) instructs them to detain, strip search, and eventually molest a hapless employee (Dreama Walker). Bearing the most culpability is the store’s manager (Ann Dowd), a woman whose incompetence and insecurities facilitate the madness.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” – Jiro Ono makes the best sushi in the world, or so we’re told. His fixation with his food would be called an obsession were it not useful, but because it is, he’s simply passionate. This tastefully subdued documentary provides a fascinating look at a man whose relentless pursuit of perfection has defined his life, and, by proxy, his family’s.
“Skyfall” – Sam Mendes’s film survived its script’s lame attempts to please crowds to become one of the best Bonds yet. Daniel Craig is characteristically captivating as a James Bond on the verge of shattering, while Javier Bardem and Judi Dench provide some of the series’ best supporting work. Roger Deakins’ jaw-dropping cinematography ranks among the year’s finest, with two scenes standing out: a round of close-quarters-combat shot against an LED-lit Shanghai skyline, and an apocalyptic showdown in the Scottish Highlands.
“Zero Dark Thirty” – Kathryn Bigelow’s look at “history’s greatest manhunt” refuses to sensationalize, though it’s debatable whether or not it editorializes. Featuring a compelling, steely-eyed heroine in the form of an adept Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty” takes us through the gathering of intelligence that lead to “UBL”‘s killing, culminating in a surprisingly tense, methodical depiction of the 21st Century’s most famous raid.
The Top 10:
10) “Cloud Atlas” – The siblings Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s epic drama about man’s struggle for freedom was a bust at the box office, and, in many ways, on the screen. But whether it is a failure or success, what a work it is! Adapted from David Mitchell’s novel, the film spans several centuries, with six stories set in different periods unspooling congruently on screen, each spiraling towards conclusions ranging from happy to tragic. Using performers such as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Jim Sturgess in multiple roles across each storyline, the filmmakers sometimes find themselves placing actors into parts that they’re plainly unequipped to handle, while the film’s aggressive philosophizing often hedges closer to New Age gibberish than insight on the human experience. But the filmmakers’ grand aspirations are impressively outside of the Hollywood box (this is one of the most expensive independent films ever), while the six stories are masterfully weaved together, making the narrative wholly coherent and swift, despite the Herculean 171 minute runtime. No other film I saw this year drew me into as many interesting discussions with fellow viewers as this one did.
9) “The Grey” – There’s nary a frame in Joe Carnahan’s previous filmography that suggested he was capable of this. “The Grey” is ostensibly an outdoor adventure, but is, in fact, the year’s best film about acceptance of death. Liam Neeson’s action hero status is ideally used, as he plays a sharpshooter hired by an oil company to kill wolves at an Alaskan drill site. When a flight back to Anchorage falls from the sky in the year’s second most harrowing cinematic plane crash, Neeson takes charge of the survivors, who are beset upon by a large pack of wolves. As Neeson recalls his loved ones and watches his men fall to nature one by one, it becomes clear that death is inevitable and not to be cheated, but that one might find dignity in the struggle against it. That “The Grey” ultimately comes across as inspiring rather than bleak is Carnahan’s great achievement.
8) “Safety Not Guaranteed” – What begins as a bit of superior yet formulaic indie quirk segues into something equal parts, hilarious, mysterious, and heartwarming. Delightful performances from Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass drive this tale about a journalist (Plaza) investigating a bizarre personals ad seeking a companion for a time-travel adventure. The ad’s author turns out to be a slightly deranged, very sympathetic loner (Duplass), with whom the journalist quickly forms a bond. Jake Johnson of “New Girl” fame gives a righteously awesome turn as Plaza’s editor, whose own romantic misadventures underscore the film’s emotional thread about coming to terms with loss and regret.
7) “The Deep Blue Sea” – Terence Davies’ film is an astoundingly moving examination of the divergence between romantic passion and marital duty, between the promise of love and the cold lash of reality. Rachel Weisz gives a heartbreaking performance as Hester, a suicidal woman whose psyche crumbles along with her love affair with an immature R.A.F. pilot (Tom Hiddleston), for whom she left her affluent, dull husband (Simon Russell Beale). Evocative of dramas from an era past (it’s adapted from Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play), “The Deep Blue Sea” demonstrates profound, melancholy wisdom about love as Hester sees her world succumb to harsh truths.
6) “Killing Them Softly” – Andrew Dominik’s screed against crony capitalism is one of the year’s most provocative works. Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances as Jackie Cogan, a pragmatic assassin whose rumination on his business gives the film its thematic framework. When two halfwits (Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) rob a mob-protected card game, it’s certain that blood will be spilled. Cogan must convince his superiors that merely killing the thieves won’t be enough, insisting that they target the game’s hapless proprietor (Ray Liotta). Dominik presents the oppressive world that these criminals inhabit as an unforgiving microcosm of American society, with the various assaults and murders presented in scenes both grotesque and eerily gorgeous. There’s surprising urgency here, as we sense that this is one of the first serious works about America’s decline.
5) “End of Watch” – After a summer short on works worth celebrating, this was the film that caused my co-editor to proclaim that moviegoing was a safe bet again in 2012. David Ayer’s police drama stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as two L.A.P.D. street cops whose adventures are chronicled via found footage. And what adventures they have; patrolling one of the nation’s worst areas, they routinely find themselves involved in the most violent, macabre scenarios Los Angeles has to offer. But unlike most contemporary cinematic cops, these men are capable and honest, so much so that they wind up on a drug cartel’s hitlist. The action scenes are always hair-raising, while the interplay between the leads is so convincing that the conclusion holds potentially crushing emotional consequences.
4) “Savages” – Going into an Oliver Stone film is a bit of a gamble: which Stone are you going to get this time? With “Savages,” Stone’s break from idiotic political fantasies reminds us that he’s a filmmaker capable of channeling his feverish, paranoid energies into deliriously thrilling entertainment. Here, Stone tells the story of a small part of America’s drug war that boils down to four personalities: two expert marijuana farmers (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch), their shared girlfriend (Blake Lively), and a vicious drug queenpin (Salma Hayek) looking to absorb the young men’s thriving business. The drama unfolds in a series of kidnappings, lethal assaults, and business dealings. Of course, this all leads to a bloody conclusion, with a twist that viewers are challenged to either love or hate. Count me as feeling the former way.
3) “Flight” – Airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a genius in the cockpit. He’s also an alcoholic, and is thoroughly drunk when his incomparable flying skills save nearly every life onboard a commercial flight after a mechanical error. After the astounding crash sequence, directed by Robert Zemeckis as a living nightmare turned into a partial miracle, we watch as Whitaker seesaws between desperate drunkenness and even more desperate sobriety, the walls closing in as it becomes clear to everyone that his heroism is tainted by inebriation. Washington, perhaps the only actor left in Hollywood whose every performance exudes seemingly effortless gravitas, gives a masterpiece of a turn as a man we can believe is both this capable and this ruined by addiction.
2) “Moonrise Kingdom” – Wes Anderson’s films—even the ones with adult protagonists—are all coming-of-age stories. In this case, the 12-year-old heroes Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) are classic Anderson characters, afflicted with sadness about the prospects of life. Their childish desires mingle with an awareness of life’s aches. The two flee into the wilderness on an island populated by adults who are as despondent about life as they are, including Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and a lonely policeman (Bruce Willis). Anderson’s whimsical sensibilities provide expected moments of offbeat humor and pleasing style, but also scenes of great tenderness and irrepressible joy.
1) “Looper” – Rian Johnson’s time-travel thriller is just as mesmerizing visually as it is thematically, an explosive synthesis of intricate sci-fi storytelling, astounding aesthetic beauty, and provocative philosophizing. This is that rare film in which an ambitious vision is realized with electrifying skill.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a specialized assassin in a dystopic 2044. Joe’s job is to kill mob targets sent back from the future and dispose of the bodies, a job that puts him in grave danger when he fails to kill his future self (Bruce Willis). The two are thus locked into an unusual battle of wits and skill, their common knowledge and divergent objectives leading them both to a mysterious Kansas farm occupied by a fierce single mother (Emily Blunt) and her son (Pierce Gagnon).
In the vein of the best sci-fi films, “Looper” provides numerous exciting, effects-laden set-pieces alongside engaging, layered characters. Joe’s intersection with himself presents the younger man with a warped moral dilemma, one that writer/director Johnson treats with respect and fidelity to his players. Johnson’s ideas converge seamlessly with his action, presenting a climax that’s perhaps the most interesting combination of the cerebral and the visceral I’ve ever seen. Bad films are all similar, but great films are singular. There has never been a film quite like “Looper.”
For an alternate take on the best films of 2012, check out co-editor Danny Baldwin’s Top 10 here.