Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Top Ten of 2012

The constant fixation has completed, for the time being.  Here are my picks for the ten best motion pictures of 2012:

Martin McDonagh's razor sharp gangster absurdest comedy brings out the very best in the famed playwright-- rapid fire dialogue, acute characterizations and a mocking self absorption all funneled into a witty and acidic crime-laced world filled with that kind of violent brio that would make a young Quentin Tarantino proud to steal from for ages.  A tongue in check meta Adaptation. crossed with Pulp Fiction, McDonagh's buildhas s nicely from his first feature, 2008's In Bruges, telling the story of a struggling Los Angeles screenwriter (Colin Farrell) who becomes engaged in crooked folk and the most oddball assortment of characters in any feature from 2012 after the misbegotten theft of an idiosyncratic gangster's beloved Shih Tzu.  What could have easily been thrown away as a creative writing assignment is the virtue and the strange zesty soulfulness of the cast.  Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, and Christopher Walken, all at their most unhinged, make Seven Psychopaths a joyful generous comedy of manners, each divisive and succinct, playing off one another, unpredictably and impenetrably, creating a delightfully warped dadaism to McDonagh's self aware violent hymn.

The arc of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's cinematic career is one of the most savory in recent memory.  Brash and electric when first thrust upon the scene as one of America's most exciting to watch, first he seemed to be mirroring Robert Altman's approach with the grand ensemble films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia.  A shift seemed to occur after his last film, There Will Be Blood, and most certainly in his polarizing, galvanic, unsettling and gargantuan staging of The Master.  At first roused upon as that movie that speaks (or mocks, or what have you) the early formation of the Church of Scientology.  Anderson's ambition, as with There Will Be Blood, was far greater than a reductive tagline or concept.  Instead, The Master, speaks of a culture, a lost America in search of salvation, or a cause, or something tangible.  The filmmaker has never quite been so reserved before, nor as chillingly oblique, but even while the film may keep itself forever at a heady distance from its audience, there's a wonderment and poetry to be utterly savored.  As teacher and student, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix bring out the very best in each other, and as the film charts their relationship-- the film changes, morphs and alternates between a grand performance achievement, something akin to the likes of what it may have felt like to witness Marlon Brando for the first time-- and a deeper and chillier mediation of life and religion.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Marc Boal are back for more fun in the Middle East, following their Oscar-winning small wonder that could in 2009's The Hurt Locker, and return with a loftier bit of war of terror business in their staging of the capture and execution of Osama bin Laden, again exacting a thrillingly sharp view of the danger seekers who put their lives at sake for the safety of others.  Sprawling, nervy and ambitious, Zero Dark Thirty is a chillingly masterful stroke of journalism with a savvy and sharply adept (non) character study of Maya, a top level CIA agent who holds a huge part in the eventual outcome.  Playing with a tough-minded grace by Jessica Chastain, she maintains the thorny disparate narratives, in and out players, and the dead-end clues with pluck and intelligence.  And while the masterful execution of Zero Dark Thirty is immense and wonderfully wrought, the tenacity and stoicism of Maya bring the film an emotional rawness and tenderness, far more interesting than the films alleged views on torture or the debatable liberties taken with may have actually occurred.

There may have been little to look forward to on the onset to this animated feature about an alienated video game villain who wants to be a hero, but the joyous and inventive Wreck-It-Ralph, perhaps by playing to ones lesser-than expectations, is one of the most generously playful and moving films I saw in a movie theater in all of 2012.  Witty, surprising and magnificently executed, simultaneously playing on the feverish novelty and nostalgia of arcade games, while creating something thrillingly alive at the same time.  Even with the patented be-true-to-oneself message that tries to ever cloy at it's sides, director Rich Moore, his animators, and ideally cast vocal stars gently subvert any triteness with warped bits of silliness, an inspired, carefully layered screenplay that splices video game arcania with even niftier displays of the heart, and jubilant, free-associative meditation of redemption.  A video game villain in a group therapy session filled with villains of yore exclaiming the virtues of being bad may be most favorite scene of any feature this past year.

Rian Johnson's ultra slick science fiction odyssey was the niftiest bit of slight of hand in 2012-- an ambitious and unassuming morality play that uses the sometimes stale device of time travel in a marvelously wrought and inventive way.  Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis are both wonderful, playing younger and older Joe, a once steely reserved professional whose life was changed by a particularly defining incident that ties the marvelously contrasted whole together.  Filled with endless creativity, imagination and style, Johnson-- the man behind the indie genre busters Brick and The Brothers Bloom-- rises to graces (hopefully the grandest) of heftier Hollywood properties with a deft eye for scope, graceful notes for storytelling, and an incisive voice and bridges all those qualities into the most unique and original genre film of last year.

The surprising things about Steven Spielberg's epic biography feature of our 16th president is that firstly, it's not really a biography feature.  Missing is a great man treatise of the episodic passages of Abraham Lincoln's life.  Instead we focus on one chapter-- his journey to get the 13th Amendment passed, and thus ending slavery.  The second surprising part is how, and I mean this as a wondrous compliment, unlike a Spielberg film his Lincoln really is.  Scripted, poetically and bountifully by Tony Kushner, Lincoln is a stirring, wonderfully entertaining master play of politics, with a sprawling ensemble that points to the most decidedly performance driven feature of all of Spielberg's career, as well as his most visually subdued-- brilliant but held back, letting the actors and their words capture the show.  In that regard, the film still needed its Lincoln, and Daniel Day-Lewis, capturing the idea of this man in enough inventive little details to ruminate on for a lifetime, is jaw-dropping astounding as master and commander.  What springs is an uncommonly good film that while tackling one of the single most important moments in our nations history, captures the idea, the mythology and the politics all shrouded around a grander notion of Abraham Lincoln.  For whatever reason-- perhaps goading from Kushner, or Day-Lewis, or thoughts of his own legacy, Spielberg made the more surprising and the better film.

Director Tim Burton, whose warpy imagination has for too long now been branded by an industry that has little interest nor canny sensibility to do with it, did something quietly amazing in 2012.  Adapting his own live action short film, the same one that cost him his early gig at Disney, into a stop motion animated feature.  No matter that it tanked at the box office, this sweetly demented riff on monster movies and the lure of mans best friend was what Burton needed to do-- either as atonement for his recent output or creative recharging-- and what his long suffering fans hoped for year now.  Shot in gorgeous black and white, and made with the mystifying visual sense and style that made Burton such an electric artist to begin with, Frankenweenie was one of the most hopeful and buoyant cinematic experiences in all of 2012-- a religious experience for film nerds who came of age in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Benh Zeitlin's astoundingly original and mythic tale of the denizens of "The Bathtub" and the intrepid young warrior named Hushpuppy engulf the cinematic imagination that delightful and intangible way of reminding the power and artfulness in which movie are capable of-- to absorb and the thrill the senses at the excitement of seeing something for the very first time.  Even the most jaded aficionados must have recoiled with that sense at some point during Beasts of the Southern Wild, which at its simplest details a lifestyle on the fringes-- in this case off the levees of Louisiana, left with nothing to do but surrender in the awe and scope of this grandly, yet scrappy tale of survival and mysticism.  Young Quvenzhane Wallis may have just been six when she made this film, but her charisma, drive and determination nets a performance that transcends mere accolades, and like the film, strikes the heart, just as the film creates an ever optimistic hopefulness for American independent filmmaking.

Do you hear the people sing?  Well yes, and their singing live in Tom Hooper's moving and sincere epic telling of the beyond popular musical, itself derived from the immortal work by Victor Hugo. The endless gripping and drubbing of the film has done nothing to alter my take, my love and lust for this delectable movie musical.  Unapologetically wearing its heart on its sleeve and made with a go-for-broke brio that singes right into the immortal cinematic soul, Hooper's Les Miserables is firstly a grand performance piece with star Hugh Jackman baring all as the graceful lead of Jean Valjean, a fugitive imprisoned who seeks a redemptive life and Anne Hathaway's searingly emotional Fantine, a true miserables, glides in with a heavenly voice and immortalizes a classic song that long ago had faded into novelty.  What's most astonishing about Les Miserables, and may be a clue as to what get people all worked up at it, is the way Hooper and his team boldly go for the gut, making a riveting, thought long ago defunct emotional epic.  Les Miserables on a technical standpoint, or on a mere bits and pieces dissection may be the one film on this list that I have the most issues with, but I stand that in all strives in making the film more interesting and magical.

A perfect melding of material with its artist.  Wes Anderson, eternally besieged as the precocious maker of the  preciously gilded and inventively art-directed.  The rules of the game continue with Moonrise Kingdom, but the surprise and the delight of his best feature film since 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums, is that there's an enchanting and lovingly melancholic undertone.  A tale of young, adolescent love and quirky at-odds grown-up in a vacuum of 1960s nostalgia, Moonrise Kingdom is engrossing and witty, but with the surprising tugs of something more, something deeper and ultimately something far more personal that Anderson has ever shared with us on screen before.  What's left and what's taken away is the best movie of 2012.

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