Time-travel, philosophy, social outcasts, sexual awakening, and fighting against oppression were the key themes taken away from 2012's best cinema: a varied, rich smorgasbord of topics to explore and relish across several variations of the medium. It's been a particularly strong year for storytelling; original scripts have taken familiar ideas and given them a captivating new presence, while adaptations of books, plays, and historical events showcase labored-over details and satisfying focus on familiar entities. Below are my picks for the ten most prominent films -- and a particular video game -- that I'll be taking away from the year, which I've arranged in alphabetical order since I'm not very keen on arbitrary numerical ranking.
Although, the one at the top of the list does fit there quite nicely.
If you would've told me several years ago that Ben Affleck would evolve into a hot-topic director, whose films would become appointment-worthy at release, I probably would've questioned your sanity. Then, Gone Baby Gone happened, working its intense magic through a captivating adaptation of Dennis Lehane's child-kidnapping novel, and The Town's exhilarating emulation of Heat filtered through Chuck Hogan's crime story squeaked it into the spotlight for awards. Argo, Affleck's depiction of the "Canadian Caper" in which six American diplomats were evacuated during the '79 Iran hostage crisis, furthers that perception through his most polished and intense film to-date. Gritty '70s visual aesthetics follow Tony Mendez as he creates a fake science-fiction film production as their cover, and the tension it generates -- both for the audience watching and about the situation during the time-period, while creatively adhering to the real-life events -- is a blinding accomplishment.
Quentin Tarantino pulled something off with his slavery-revenge western that should've been expected, I suppose, but it's still surprising. Equally over-the-top and bracingly violent as it is shrewdly crafted and flawless in tempo, it's a mythical depiction of a "freed" slave (Jamie Foxx) and his liberating bounty-hunter "owner", Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), as they journey across the American landscape to satisfy contracts and unshackle Django's wife from the clutches of a lavish plantation runner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Tarantino's script, blending odes to classic westerns with his signature dialogue and razor-sharp humor, shows incredible awareness of the line separating what's acceptable and offensive for a fantastical folk tale like this. Coupled with a perfectly-timed performance from Christoph Waltz as the hilarious, morally-gray bounty hunter and captivatingly shot by Robert Richardson to create a painterly-yet-granular mosaic of images, and you've got the consistent components of a great Tarantino film in distinctive, daring context.
I dreamed a dream that Tom Hooper's adaptation of the popular Broadway musical, about love and torment amid revolution-driven France in the 1800s, would be reverent and robustly performed while making enough unique decisions -- both visually and dramatically -- to pave way for its own distinctiveness. He didn't disappoint: the key feature, the live-recorded vocals, nudge its presence as close to a hybrid of stage and film as possible; the textured, complex production design evokes a strewn emotional mosaic across the alleys, apartments, and other cluttered corners of France, heightened by close-ups that underscore the scenes' intimacy; and the embodiment of the characters, barring a few questionable casting choices (no, not Russell Crowe's underappreciated earthiness as Javert), harness the essence of the musical with entrancing, lavish melodrama. The show-stealer here, however, is Anne Hathaway, whose rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" shouldn't be viewed without a tissue handy.
I have just one issue with Ang Lee's adaptation of the wonderful book by Yann Martel. The source material's themes, in my experience, revolve around general faith in things that cannot be directly seen or proven, while the film concentrates a bit more on how that pertains to belief in higher beings and religion. Those who haven't read the book might not comprehend the significance of what that implies: this is an improbable story about a teenage boy who spends a very, very long time stranded on a small boat, and an adjacent makeshift raft, with a live and hungry tiger attempting to claim its territory. The intimate relationship Pi develops with his ferocious passenger, Richard Parker, should've be unable to be captured on film; however, not only do the visual effects in the film make it happen, but the intuitive performance from Suraj Sharma convinces on more than a few levels. The visual artistry is brilliant, the themes elegantly realized, and the respect paid to Martel's intentions for this journey are spot-on.
This isn't what I envisioned of a time-travel movie from the director of Brick and The Brothers Bloom, and obviously that's meant in a good way. Rian Johnson's brain-child, about hitmen who kill wrongdoers from the future by way of time-travel devices that shoot them to the past, is a violent, gritty, artistically alluring slice of science-fiction that doesn't shy away from either moral complexity or flickers of philosophical contemplation about the nature of choice. The director's brand of humor is restrained, but present; the dialogue stylized, but organic; the tone bleak, but not nihilistic. And the notion of one of these loopers -- played exquisitely by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as he purposefully channels a young Bruce Willis -- must eventually kill his future self in order to "close the loop" sounds like a hokey idea, but Johnson's steady-handed direction authenticates the idea within the grimy, desperate framework of the future he's crafted.
Tracking the internal development of outsiders through high-school has been a focus in cinema for quite some time, but it's not something easily undertaken when trying to both speak to a generation and sustain a timeless presence. Writer/director Stephen Chbosky accomplishes this rather well by adapting his own book to film, and his passion for the material is apparent every step of the way. He understands the mental fabric of a brilliant teenage writer (Logan Lerman) who, while coping with the suicide of his best friend, clumsily integrates into high-school's newness, where his stiff, quiet personality only meshes with those who don't misinterpret him. Enter the elder wallflowers, and where emotional rawness becomes the film's cornerstone; Charlie acclimates to infatuation, disappointment, and things that cannot be controlled, bolstered by exceptionally-rendered quasi-pariahs -- notably a complex, typecast-bucking turn from Emma Watson as Sam -- whom guide and truly embrace Charlie as he comes of age in his adamant mental environment.
Time-travel movies almost always find a spot in contemporary cinema. However, they've recently seen a real surge in popularity, and they aren't purely using time-travel as some perfunctory plot device. Instead, they're exploring the evolving mental state of the believers, as well as the cynics who don't buy into the fantastical ideas of time-travel being capable. One of the best as of late is Safety Not Guaranteed, an indie comedy-drama about a group of Seattle reporters -- actually, a reporter and his two interns -- who answer an ad someone placed in the newspaper for a partner to travel back in time. One of the interns, played by up-and-comer Aubrey Plaza, builds a kinship with the guy preparing for his time-travel voyage, creating this involving relationship between melancholy souls who really do want to go back on a mission to make things better. Cleverly written and organically funny, and not without a few tried-and-true surprises, it's an affective, idiosyncratic, and exceptionally put-together gem.
In May of 1990, Mark O'Brien, a polio survivor and poet mostly paralyzed from the neck down, published an article entitled "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate", chronicling his experience with a specific kind of sexual therapist as a way of experiencing the act before he dies. For me, the only way for a movie about this to actually work -- outside of a documentary, such as "Breathing Lessons" -- is with an assertive current of humor and extra helpings of heart, which Ben Lewin understood while directing The Sessions. John Hawkes brings O'Brien to life as a witty, charming guy with a conflicted but optimistic viewpoint of the world, allowing his thin frame and transformed demeanor to authentically present his sexual curiosity. The real surprise here, however, is Helen Hunt, who embraces the role of Cheryl, the sex surrogate, with emotion honesty filtered through a conflicted demeanor and tweaked accent. The synergy between their performances creates a breathtaking, deeply-felt expression of forcing yourself to break through boundaries, and, of course, of the bonds that form when they're least expected.
Don't trust the advertisements for David O. Russell's latest film, adapted from Matthew Quick's heartening chronicle of depression and dysfunctional families. It projects the attitude of a daft, by-the-numbers rom-com, the story of a guy who, following a stint in a mental institution after beating his wife's extramarital lover nearly to death, rediscovers his self-worth through a quirky girl and a dance competition. One might be surprised to discover exactly how incisive, raw, and blisteringly affective it can be, where Russell gets his hands dirty with two damaged and confused individuals in the process of confronting their illnesses. Bradley Cooper is excellent as the delusional guy who can't let go of his wife, sure; however, it's Jennifer Lawrence's deep-cutting, uncompromising, sexually-charged presence as Tiffany that'll blindside those watching. Occasionally effective humor about football's lunacy and physical hostility are welcome reliefs, but the honesty about depression and the lingering enrichment growing around those two psyches are what defy misconceptions.
Quantum of Solace was an ... unusual entry in the new James Bond franchise, essentially sending the storied spy careening through overly-frantic action scenes as a revenge-seeking, emotionally-bruised brawler. What the series needed was a return to form, both to Casino Royale and to the classic panache of the character himself, as well as steady composition and an eye for style. Sam Mendes, whose direction here isn't unlike that of the intensity of Road to Perdition and the firm, intimidating drama of Revolutionary Road, proves to be the idea director to get Bond back on the tracks. Following a spellbinding introduction that makes Skyfall's fierce presence known right off the bat, the story weaves through Bond's internal pathos as an aging agent as he tracks a high-profile computer anarchist (a great role for Javier Bardem) who's threatening to expose the morally-gray innards of MI6 for the world to see. Matched with Roger Deakins' brilliant photographic eye as he navigates both industrial and rustic landscapes, Mendes' direction transforms this Bond into a perfectly-paced, topical, and completely enthralling installment.
Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed Ridley Scott's return to his beloved universe. I really did. He's a remarkable visual storyteller, evidenced all the way to his premiere feature film, The Duellists, while the screenplay he's navigating is an ambitious one that explores the origin of humanity in a lavish, stark science-fiction setting. Toss-backs to classics of the genre are scattered throughout, the cinematography and production design captivate in their intricacy, and the questions Scott poses to his audience involve some outside-the-box interpretation and concept-chewing while wrapping their minds around Michael Fassbender's tremendous performance as David. But for every intriguing question it asks, it either neglects to answer another or, even worse, expresses moments of immersion-breaking idiocy. As a result, Prometheus ends up being an aesthetically spellbinding exercise of wobbly B-movie sci-fi, but the man who concocted Alien and Blade Runner is capable of something far, far more coherent and convincing with a film exploring the nature of existence. Of course, in the past he wasn't operating with a script (re)written by LOST's Damon Lindelof, either.
The knee-jerk reaction to Telltale's recent tie-in game likely isn't very favorable: at a point when we're experiencing an overabundance of zombie stories, this game might appear to be an undead killing spree engineered to mindlessly capitalize on the success of AMC's popular television show. Instead, what the writers have done here not only stands toe-to-toe with the series' emotional impact, they exceed it. Taking place in Robert Kirkman's post-epidemic universe but involving (almost) none of the same characters, The Walking Dead tracks the activities of Lee Everett, a convicted killer whose trip to prison was interrupted by the undead, and the protective bond he builds with Clementine, a young girl whose family has been lost in the chaos. Trading egregious head-shots and grotesqueries for morally-gray dialogue and tough choices, shaping our perspective and the characters' temperament in ways more like a fusion of point-and-click Sierra adventures, Heavy Rain, and a BioWare game, it becomes a heartrending and brutal exercise in preserving the humanity of those traveling through south Georgia's zombie-infested wasteland. And with a conclusion that made me weep like a baby, I suggest those who argue that video-games cannot be art to experience this.
I doubt humanity will ever get so technologically and medically refined where mothers won't be at least moderately fearful of pregnancy's involvedness, but even if that day comes, Rosemary's Baby will still induce shivers and squirms. The story's ominous atmosphere preys on fear driven by inexperience and a desperate willingness to trust, where a young pregnant housewife follows the counsel of doctors and friends alike who might not have her best interests at heart. With a backdrop of witchcraft and demon-worship, Roman Polanski's adaptation of Ira Levin's popular novel allows the tension to steadily bubble like a brew in a cauldron, driven by Rosemary's burgeoning, frenetic suspicion and the visual horror present in her gaunt physical appearance. Couple that with story's overarching evaluation of who to trust with concerns about one's physical condition, namely the development of a new life, and it's no wonder why The Criterion Collection brought this unsettling, masterful piece of work to Blu-ray.
Looking forward to seeing you in 2013, dear readers. Last year was tough, filled with mourning over the passing of loved ones and some of my own personal (but not that serious) health issues, but here's hoping for a better year with just as many excellent films to digest and scribble about. Revel in being alive, folks: eat, drink, be merry, and embrace the world of film in a way you haven't before -- however that may be.