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Discussing 2012 Movies And His Choices For The Year's Best Films
as well as Garney Johnson's and Jamey Duvall's, originally broadcast January 21, 2013
1) ZERO DARK THIRTY
In another remarkable example of filmmakers bringing history to life in such effective ways, this intensely powerful film by director Kathryn Bigelow was not only a recreation of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden that makes you feel you're watching the actual thing happen (the attention to detail is that good), but is also really the only motion picture that is a microcosm of what has happened to America in the time between 9/11 and that harrowing night when Osama Bin Laden was finally brought to justice. It opens on 9/11, but we never see any images of that horrific day, we are simply surrounded by the sounds, which bring back the haunting memory even more vividly. The film is then an incredibly competent procedural covering the next ten years as the CIA attempted to piece together the puzzle to finding Bin Laden. As it does, it presents the complex issues that have been involved ever since, by showing the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that we employed, but let's call it what it is, torture. The controversy surrounding this film is that the mere depiction of the torture scenes somehow says the filmmakers endorse the idea that torture is what led us to finding Bin Laden. That's as stupid as saying that "Psycho" endorses knives as good killing machines. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are FAR more intelligent than that, and this film is a difficult treatise of truth, simply presenting what happened in the intervening years, and never really saying if torture worked or not. Like America in the post 9/11 world, this film shows how difficult everything became after 9/11, how we changed, and how the war against terrorism threw a whole lot of gray around what is right and wrong to do when trying to track down one of the most notorious terrorists in history. Like the best of motion pictures, it confronts us and challenges us. Jessica Chastain gives the best performance by an actress in 2012 as the CIA analyst whose dogged pursuit of finding Bin Laden ultimately led to the incredibly risky decision to send the SEAL Team into Pakistan, where they conducted the operation that killed Bin Laden. We never really get to know Chastain's character of Maya, who is based on an actual CIA analyst who is actually still working, but that is by design. How can we ever know a CIA analyst's life? And that's a lot of the point ... that someone like Maya gets so consumed with one particular goal, she loses sight of everything else in her life. Have we not seen that before in films and in real life, people who become so obsessed with a singular goal that they can't see anything else?
As I've mentioned before, the Abbottabad raid that concludes the film is some of the most remarkably tense and intensely accurate film sequences I've seen in a long time, and will remain for decades as most likely the definitive dramatization of how Bin Laden was killed. In the film's powerful final moments, when Jessica Chastain's character of Maya finally lays her own eyes on the corpse of Bin Laden and is asked "Where would you like to go?", her final reveal of emotion is not only an intensely personal scene but also represents America as well. What indeed do we do next? It's truly a remarkable achievement whose intensity stays with you long after you've seen it. On a personal level, I saw this film with my 14 year old daughter. While I was concerned about the intensity of the film and some of the violence, I thought the fact that it showed such a strong portrayal of a woman who fights against the odds for what she believes in was an important role model for her. It also gave me a moment that shows just how ridiculous terrorism is ... when she witnessed one of the most horrifying terrorist attacks in the film and asked "well how did he get away to detonate the bomb?" I said "He didn't, he blew himself up to kill all those people." And she said, "What? That doesn't make any sense" Yes, even as adults, it doesn't make much sense either. But to experience this powerful film from a remarkably talented and strong director Kathryn Bigelow, and through Jessica Chastain's incredibly strong portrayal, I felt compelled to write to Jessica on Facebook the following message to thank her for this film:
"Jessica, I just wanted to pass along a message of applause and thanks for your incredibly strong performance in Zero Dark Thirty. I'm the father of an about to be 14 year old girl, and I hesitated about taking her to see the film with its intensity and violence. But she was so wanting to see it, and I felt compelled to write this to thank you for the strong woman you portray on screen. Even though my daughter didn't say so, I believe the impact of that performance will stay with her. To be able to see a strong woman like that who was so dedicated to what she believed was right is such a great role model for young women. In a procedural film filled with so many details of what happened in the years that led to achieving that ultimate goal, you still managed to infuse your character with hints of her humanity throughout, and by the end, when the mission is accomplished and the camera stays on you during that absolutely heartbreaking release of emotion, I was so deeply moved by the portrayal I had just seen. And I believe my daughter was as well. She was able to learn more about the complexity of the world she faces, and I want to thank you and Kathryn Bigelow for bringing that brave portrayal to the screen, and you in particular for giving my daughter an incredibly strong role model to follow ... to be defined by oneself and not the whims of others, to stay strong when others might dismiss you ... in short, to believe in yourself. Congratulations on an incredible contribution not only to the art of film, but also to the visual depiction of one of the most amazing achievements in American history. And between you and me ... I sure hope those Oscar voters realize this too, and you celebrate the pinnacle of achievement you most richly deserve."
FAVORITE MOMENT: The closing scene when Maya is asked where she wants to go and the emotion and uncertainty are unleashed in a single camera shot
One of the most fascinating aspects of motion pictures for me is the ability for us to be brought back to historical events and re-examine them and actually live them. As is most often the case with our humanity, we are capable of achieving remarkable things, but most times it's messy, it takes great pain and compromise. And then what happens is we mythologize what happened, we remember only the good, and before we know it, we've built legends and myths that don't let us in to experience the humanity of what truly happened. And that's what movies can do better than almost any other art form, and in the hands of a capable filmmaker, they can break down those myths and show the stories and the truths we should have been following in the first place. Imagine the daunting task of trying to present a film about our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. Has there been a more mythologized man in American history? I remember the awesomeness of standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and what Steven Spielberg does so brilliantly in this absolute masterpiece is to break down that larger than life mythology and show us the man in all his humanity. There cannot be enough said about Daniel Day-Lewis's remarkable performance as Lincoln. Not only does he look like him, but he truly finds a way in to present the pain and struggle and ultimate triumph for this remarkable man. "Are we fitted into the times we live in?" asks Lincoln in this film. It's an interesting question to ponder ... whether we as humans make the world as it is or if we are placed into the times we are for specific purposes. Spielberg does a remarkable job of making everyone seem so authentic. Just like he did in Schindler's List, I feel like we've truly been transported back in history and are watching it unfold instead of just watching a dramatization. Spielberg made the right choice in tackling the daunting task of making a film about Lincoln by focusing on one major event of his Presidency, the watershed final four months of his life, when he saw the end of the Civil War and his struggle to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed to abolish slavery. By narrowing its focus, it actually allows us to truly experience Lincoln as a man, but even more than that, as film critic A.O. Scott said about this film, it's "one of the finest films ever made about American politics."
Spielberg, propelled by the brilliant words of Tony Kushner's screenplay, makes the American political system of the 1860's remarkably thrilling and vibrant to watch. And they make it real ... it was messy, deals had to be made to secure votes for the amendment's passage, and all of these monologues and discussions about the difficulties of trying to make such a landmark change for this country are absolutely riveting ... I have yet to understand how anybody could call those exchanges boring. By illuminating how difficult and messy it was to pass the amendment, it actually helps us lose the mythology and appreciate that great things can indeed be achieved, and if we just step up and be bold, we can affect great change. It's remarkable to live in times where things are changing for the good, and this places this film squarely in how it feels to be living in the changing times we are currently living in. This film inspires you to want to make a difference, to do something remarkable. And everyone involved in bringing this film to life have truly done something remarkable.
FAVORITE MOMENT: The quiet scene of Lincoln waiting alone in the White House, looking out the windows as he hears the bells when the 13th Amendment passes
3) CLOUD ATLAS
You could tell from the very first trailers that this was going to be an incredibly unique and hugely ambitious movie. And when the film finally arrived, it definitely divided people on whether it achieved those lofty ambitions, but certainly for me, I thought it was one of the year's best films by far. It's more like six movies in one, and spans a canvas of hundreds of years. By utilizing the same actors playing different roles in these different time periods, we're able to experience the huge themes of the movie, that perhaps it takes lifetimes to achieve change, to achieve happiness, to achieve goodness as a human being. In particular, the idea of fighting for change and what's right against the insurmountable odds of oppression is one of the strongest themes in the movie, portrayed with so much passion and backed by the best musical score of the year. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, and particularly Doona Bae in a powerfully strong role somewhere in the far distant future, all are riveting and fascinating to follow through their different characterizations. One of the characters in the film says "I believe there is a another world waiting for us, Sixsmith. A better world. And I'll be waiting for you there." That hope that we'll stop making the same mistakes, that we'll affect change that will make a difference ... these are incredibly lofty and important themes, and the film's three directors present those themes so beautifully with wonderful visual effects, but also through the power of its story. "Our lives are not our own", the idea of interconnectivity with all our fellow human beings. And in my favorite quote from what is such a beautifully written screenplay based on a novel, which comes towards the end of the film, when so much looks hopeless, one of the characters that represents the continual people in society who protect the power on high and the status quo says "There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. This movement will never survive, if you join them you and your entire family will be shunned. At best you will exist at pariah to be spat at and beaten, at worse to be lynched or crucified. And for what, for what, no matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean." It's that character's hope that he will forever make the others despair. And the response is truly brilliant: "What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?" It's been disappointing to see this film go ignored through the awards season, but I have a feeling it will be one of those movies that people will slowly connect to and find great resonance, for what is a single masterpiece of art but a multitude of truths about our human condition?"
FAVORITE MOMENT: The montage of closing scenes that show the various endings of each story leading to the finale
That's right, a James Bond film ranks this high on my list. I'm not ashamed to admit that watching this film was one of the great, great joys of film experiences in 2012. I've been a James Bond fan ever since I was a kid (I mean, what young boy doesn't dream of being James Bond?) I had already loved the new direction that Daniel Craig had taken Bond in "Casino Royale", but had been let down by his follow up, "Quantum of Solace". Thankfully, Sam Mendes came on board to direct, and achieved the remarkable feat of creating something so fresh and different for a James Bond story, while also becoming the first Bond film to ever acknowledge the past and really dig more deeply into the background and psyche of James Bond than any film in the 50 year history of this franchise had ever done. In one of the most gorgeously shot films of the year (by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins), Daniel Craig's third time as Bond is clearly his best, combining the darker and rougher sides of his take on the legendary character, with touches of the fun that have always made the Bond films such great entertainments. The film manages to do so much, from telling a story unlike any other Bond film, setting up a whole new generation of characters and tackling the issues of how James Bond is still relevant in today's society (something people wonder every time a new Bond film comes out), and has one great "wink" after another for true Bond fans to smile over and over. When that classic "Goldfinger" Bond theme fires up when they pull out the old car from that same film, I smiled not only for the recognition of a childhood memory, but also for how intelligent the story is that it's not used as just a gimmick, but a strong part of the story itself. Everyone in the cast is brilliant, from Judi Dench taking center stage more than she ever has, and one of the most memorable Bond villains ever, in Javier Bardem's wonderful performance. And even Adele's terrific title song fits in the grand tradition of classic James Bond movie theme songs, while remaining so modern as well. Yes indeed, the James Bond franchise has found its way to stay relevant and entertaining in every age that a film has been produced in this series, and I only hope they keep this level of quality up. And even if they don't, I'll be thankful for that little gift called "Skyfall".
FAVORITE MOMENT: When James Bond and M pull out the old Goldfinger Aston Martin to escape to the countryside and set up the final act of the film
It's been a remarkable comeback for Ben Affleck over the past few years, and especially to watch him emerge as an incredibly accomplished and gifted film director. With this film, he took on his largest canvas yet, and thrillingly brought to life a true story that had only recently been declassified by the government. For years, we all knew the circumstances around the 1979-1980 American hostage in Iran. The story we didn't know was that 6 Americans escaped from the Embassy before the others were taken hostage, and were taken in by the Canadian ambassador, unsure of how they might ever get out or last there without being detected. It was up to the CIA to try to figure out how to get them out, and Tony Mendez (played by Affleck in the film) came up with an idea to fly in and have them pose as a film crew scouting locations and then all escape together. Affleck is able to skillfully blend the comedy of filmmakers in Hollywood (played in a wonderful duo by Alan Arkin and John Goodman) who go to all the lengths necessary to produce a "fake movie", with the more harrowing dramatic elements. In another filmmaker's hands, that balance could have been very tricky to manage. I think this can also be done because we're a little farther removed from those events. And even on its own, besides bringing us in to a story from history that we didn't previously know about, it's a rousing thriller in the best tradition of that genre.
FAVORITE MOMENT: Cross cutting the table read of the Argo script and the craziness of Hollywood promotion with the tragedy and fright of the hostage crisis going on in Iran
6) DJANGO UNCHAINED
It wouldn't be a film by Quentin Tarantino if it wasn't controversial and generating discussion. And boy, has this movie ever done that. In much the same way that Tarantino blazed through revising World War II history in the superior film "Inglourious Basterds" a few years back, in this film he takes on the issue of slavery in America in the 1850's with his usual bold style and incredibly witty dialogue. Once again, the actors he casts do incredible jobs, bringing to life some instantly iconic characters. Jamie Foxx is the title character of Django, a slave who is freed by a bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz in another absolute delight of a performance. Tarantino employs a brilliant story structure of having Django and Schultz taking on a mission in which Shultz needs Django's help, and then having the two become partners, and ultimately leading them to Django's mission, to free his wife, who has become a slave at the horribly named CandieLand, where Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie ruthlessly maintains a slave plantation. There, we see a whole other angle of slave history in Samuel L. Jackson's incredible performance as Stephen, a slave himself who is even more ruthless at punishing and enslaving others than his boss. From the stylish opening credits sequence until its very end, Tarantino's usual style is on full display, with exaggerated blood violence, the wonderful building of tension, and then of course, powerful revenge sequences set to some incredible music. The film was rushed by Tarantino to get it released by the end of the year, and you do get some of that rushed sense in seeing it, but that shows what an incredible filmmaker Tarantino is, that he can still deliver a spectacular film while rushed. Tarantino has always been a bold filmmaker, not afraid to take chances, a trait definitely to be admired. While the film has drawn a huge amount of criticism for its portrayal of slavery, there's no denying that even through all the style, he's portraying a lot of hard truths as well. Plus I dare you to find a funnier sequence in a 2012 movie than the hilarity of the Ku Klux Klan arguing over not being able to see out of the holes cut for the eyes in their hoods, and arguing whether to attack with or without the hoods.
FAVORITE MOMENT: The hilarious scene where the Ku Klux Klan has a fight amongst each other because they can't see out of the holes in their hoods
It's just a normal day at work. The manager of a fast food restaurant receives a phone call. The voice on the other end says he's a policeman, and instructs the manager that one of her employees has stolen something. He then proceeds to instruct the manager to strip search this young female employee until the authorities arrive or risk trouble. And it doesn't just stop there. The caller keeps escalating what the young girl must be put through, and the situations get more outlandish and more embarrassing. Some audience members seeing this film walked out. Now most times you get people walking out of a movie it's because something highly offends them or they can't understand a movie at all, but have you also noticed that some movies strike such a strong chord of truth that some people just don't want to face it? The film is based on not one but multiple incidents which actually occurred by someone who only needed a phone to put innocent people's lives through hell. It's a film which challenges us, which the best of movies often do. As a viewer, it's so easy for us to say we'd never be so gullible or fall for what happens in this film. But that's easy to say when we're sitting calmly in a movie theater. Studies have shown that when actually in a situation that is highly unusual, people are highly susceptible to what authority figures tell us, even if it's on the phone. Look how many people fall prey to identity thieves and other crimes by people posing as authority figures. Director Craig Zobel does an incredible job of presenting the sad true nature of how some people can take advantage of others, and the actors involved are all incredibly good at bringing this incredibly difficult story to watch to life. Particularly good is Ann Dowd (who should have gotten an Oscar nomination), playing the store manager who has to struggle with her own internal debate whether what she's doing is right or not. Dreama Walker had the challenging job to actually play the woman who has to endure so much humilation, and Pat Healy is eerily creepy playing that voice on the phone line, who can cause such havoc so easily and so sociopathically while he makes a sandwich and goes about regular domestic kinds of things from his affluent dwelling. What's even more chilling and fascinating at the same time, is how Healy's "Officer Daniels" doesn't even seem to get the kind of "enjoyment" you might sense this man would when we only hear him as a voice and wonder why anyone would do this, and we never really get the answer what he possibly enjoys from it other than the penchant for some to only get enjoyment when others are in pain. So whether you hate the film or not, one thing you have to admit is that the film does make you think, it gets us talking about it, and as I've said before, that to me is the hallmark of a very successful film, and it's definitely one of the movies from 2012 I will never forget.
FAVORITE MOMENT: The horror of seeing the "police" caller simply in his home making a sandwich while he causes such destruction just by convincing the restaurant employees that someone committed a crime
8) THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
What director Christopher Nolan achieved with his landmark Dark Knight trilogy is almost beyond compare in cinema. He was able to take one of the most popular comic book superheroes and craft three films that were able to tell a complete story arc that made Batman seem authentic and of our world. Each film in this series was a uniquely different film, and when he made The Dark Knight in 2008, he created an absolute masterpiece which was nearly impossible to ever top. This film which closes out the trilogy is not as great as The Dark Knight, but is still an extremely accomplished film, and is a pure disaster epic in the grand tradition of disaster films. There was no way that any villain could top Heath Ledger's landmark portrayal of the Joker, but Tom Hardy's Bane does manage to do something that no other villain in this Batman series had yet been able to do ... actually be a villain that you believe could actually kill Batman with his bare hands. While it is the next sequel in the series, it actually references "Batman Begins" more. Another major success of this film is that it really focuses on Bruce Wayne, as we really see his struggle, and understand the entire arc of his character that have provided three movies that have had so much to say about the nature of heroism, crime, terrorism, and the gray areas of how crime must be defeated. Nolan continued to make one bold choice after another, and for the first time, managed to make the character of CatWoman something more than just a joke, also due to the incredibly accomplished performance of Anne Hathaway. It's been an absolute privilege to experience this remarkable trilogy, and I doubt we will ever see a comic book adaptation that could ever rival what Nolan achieved.
FAVORITE MOMENT: The ending as Gotham recovers and Christopher Nolan's trilogy reaches an epic conclusion
9) THE TROUBLE WITH THE TRUTH
In my opinion, one of the riskiest of film experiments is to focus an entire film on a group of people or in this case, two people, and consist of just their conversation in one locale. So many things have to be right for that kind of film to succeed ... the actors have to be perfect, the writing has to be sharp, and if you're going to tell a story about a divorced couple talking about what went wrong in their marriage, then you better have two actors with chemistry. John Shea and Lea Thompson absolutely have it in Jim Hemphill's beautiful little independent film. The film starts out when Robert (Shea) finds out that his daughter is engaged. That prompts a return from his ex-wife Emily (Thompson). They meet up at a restaurant to first talk about their daughter's impending marriage, and that unleashes the emotions of their failed marriage, and the film is nothing more than their conversation in the restaurant that ranges from comical to seriously dramatic in a perfect blend of honesty revealed. Both actors are truly wonderful and have SUCH an amazing chemistry, you truly believe these two people are completely connected to one another, in ways that are even stronger than the bonds of marriage or the winds of divorce. And it's fascinating to watch the refreshing feeling two people have when they can actually be totally 100% honest with another person they have known so intimately. And in an age where riveting action seems to only come from mindless robot movies, there is nothing more riveting than watching what two people who are clearly meant for each other are going to do when they also realize that somehow they just can't work right together as a couple. I love the honest complications of love and marriage on display throughout this film. And in a rare genre of conversation type films that include the landmark film "My Dinner with Andre", it stands as a resounding success. John Shea is so magnifying to watch on screen, you get such a great sense of the complexity of this man, and Lea Thompson, still just as beautiful as when so many of us fell in love with her in the 1980's, is remarkably brash and vulnerable as she tries to admit truths to her ex-husband that she has discovered over the years. And I swear ... this placement has nothing to do with the fact that I actually got to meet Lea Thompson in person at 2012's Las Vegas Film Festival. :-)
FAVORITE MOMENT: The painful truth on both their faces as John Shea and Lea Thompson decide what to do towards the end of the film
10) THE MASTER
A little more than half of the films that made my Top Ten for 2012 are movies that have divided people as to whether they loved or hated them. And there's a reason for that ... because they are movies which we actually still think about and talk about after we leave the movie theater. I've always thought great art like movies is wasted if the majority of people walk out of seeing it and hardly ever mention the movie again, as if it was mindless entertainment which didn't reach them or challenge them. I would feel so worthless if an artist if I made movies like that. And in today's Hollywood, those movies are proving harder and harder to come by and for brave filmmakers to make. But thankfully they still exist. And this was definitely one of those movies, just making my top ten at number ten. Paul Thomas Anderson has long been one of those contemporary film directors with a brave and unique voice, and I have loved every single one of his movies and cherish their originality and vitality whenever I encounter them again. Although this film is my least favorite of PTA's films, it is no less accomplished and no less interesting to examine and experience. I think it's actually good to walk out of a movie and not truly know what you just saw, and that's the feeling I had after watching this film. If you pare it down to its narrative, it's essentially the story of a deeply wounded man returning from war (played by Joaquin Phoenix in one of the most unforgettable performances of the year) who just happens upon a boat docked to the shore one night, which leads him right to Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, a spiritual leader who immediately gravitates to Phoenix's uniquely named Freddie Quell. Dodd immediately tries to help Quell with his demons through a number of bizarre and painful exercises, while at the same time fighting to keep his religious group strong amidst the doubts and intrusions of others. There are many things I found so fascinating in this film, but one of its most successful qualities is how it shows the truth that everyone is just as flawed and messed up as anyone else, as Lancaster Dodd is a spiritual leader fighting his own demons. It's remarkable to watch these two men in the oddest of relationships, and a true testament to the power of these two incredible actors. So do I know what The Master is really saying? Not really. Did I see something unlike anything I've ever seen before? Absolutely. Is it one of the best films of the year? Without a doubt. Lancaster Dodd says at one point "If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world." That struggle for meaning, for order, and it still coming up a mess ... a hell of a lot of truth in that, exemplified stunningly (and gorgeously shot) in this film.
FAVORITE MOMENT: The audacity of the scene when Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman reunite in that large room towards the end of the film, and the amazing dialogue between them
And the next ten:
11) THE SESSIONS
For a very long time, I have said that the true nature and difficulties of love have been a very elusive thing for movies to ever really capture. Most present it as silly or cute or tend to leave out a lot of truth. It's never simple to define. But when a rare movie comes along that does manage to show the messiness and complexity of love, that is one to definitely cherish. And this was one of those movies. All the more remarkable that it also happened to be a true story. John Hawkes was criminally snubbed for an Oscar nomination for his thoroughly lived in performance as Mark O'Brien, a man whose disability has confined him to an iron lung, and who now, as an adult, so wants to experience one of the things that is so natural for all human beings ... sex. He consults his priest (William H. Macy) in some very comical scenes and discovers that there's such a thing as a "sex surrogate", someone who will allow him to experience sex without emotional entanglements. Helen Hunt, in an extremely brave performance that requires her to be naked on screen a good amount of the time, is a revelation here, as we see what happens as she tries to keep her emotions in check, while bringing the gift of sexuality to Mark. What the film presents so beautifully is not just an exercise in sex, but more movingly, a study in the nature of love, and how two people ever are able to connect, "truly" connect, to another human being. How love and connection exists on SO many different levels besides physical attraction. It's a shame that this movie has already seemingly dropped off the radars of most audiences, and it's most likely due to the sexual content. And that's a real shame that we can't have honest American made movies about a topic so important as love and sex. For this is a film that is such a celebration of life and the very core of what is most important. A truly beautiful film achievement.
12) BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
How often is it that you can watch a movie and say you were transported to a place and experienced a film unlike any other you had ever experienced before? Doesn't happen that often, does it? But when it does, like it does with this magical surprise, the results are spectacular. In telling this remarkable story of a young girl, uniquely named Hushpuppy, and her father Wink, we get the rare portrait of experiencing a secluded world as seen through the eyes of a child, in this case the watery bogs of bayou country. It's truly remarkable how first time director Benh Zeitlin manages to make us experience a child's view again, where every bad thing seems like the potential apocalypse, and how we learn courage and love as we grow up. In Hushpuppy's case, it's an impending storm, and I love how the community of this insulated world fights to protect their "world", especially when they realize in the aftermath of the storm that "civilization" will try to come in and rescue them. But this is not a film about plot or story, but more experience. Quvenzhané Wallis is such an absolute delight as the young girl, so strong and unique, and I've never quite seen a father-daughter relationship portrayed quite like this one on screen. Dwight Henry is just as incredible playing her father. It's an absolutely lovely affirmation of community and the human spirit, and by the end, you will truly be able to say you saw something you've never quite seen before.
13) THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
"I know these will become old stories someday and our pictures will become old photographs and we’ll all become somebody’s Mom or Dad, but right now, these moments are not stories. This is happening and I’m here." One of my favorite film quotes of the year, which perfectly describes what makes this little movie such an overwhelming delight. It's rare to get movies that take the concerns and lives of teenagers seriously (instead of the usual comedy), but when one does come along, it's usually something pretty special. Stephen Chbosky, adapting his own book and directing this film, presents such a fascinating mix of characters, following the story of Charlie (played brilliantly by Logan Lerman), a new high school freshman who clearly is having troubles fitting in and finds himself being accepted by and bonding with two seniors (also played wonderfully by Ezra Miller and Emma Watson). Like most of the great films about high school, this one manages to find that perfect balance between comedy and drama, and in this one, some very serious drama, as we discover more and more about Charlie and the demons that haunt him. I found so many moments of incredible truth in this film, bringing me back to what high school felt like, particularly in how Charlie is a freshman and how he bonds with seniors. Who doesn't remember the feeling of that first day into high school, a place which would change us all so very much and prepare us for adulthood? There's such great emotion in this film, seeing Charlie's struggles and also how he realizes the connections he's making will soon be severed as Sam and Patrick are both preparing for life beyond high school. That dynamic is one element that makes the film stand above the others, but it's also in the incredible writing, the honest portrayals of both students, parents, and teachers (no one is just an easy caricature), and a great spirit of embracing every single moment, for it doesn't take long before those moments become old photographs and old stories.
14) SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
I've always believed it's a delicate balance to make a film that can be rich both in comedy and drama. Director David O. Russell certainly achieved it with this film, managing to take what might have been a more traditional romantic comedy in lesser hands, ending up creating a remarkably beautiful examination of humanity which surprised me throughout, and delivered some truly remarkable performances as it did (no wonder that the four main actors in this film all received Oscar nominations). For me, Bradley Cooper is the biggest revelation here, as he delivers a wonderfully layered performance as a man whose bi-polar tendencies caused the loss of his wife and put him in an institution. As the film begins, he is getting back out, and so desperately wants to prove to his wife that he has changed and wants to change. It's fascinating to watch his interactions with his father, played wonderfully by Robert De Niro ... it's a rare portrait of the true complexity that exists sometimes between fathers and sons, especially when you see that De Niro's father is not altogether perfect either. Into all of this comes Tiffany (another wonderful performance by Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband had died and who quickly becomes attached to Bradley Cooper's Pat. Their interactions are always fascinating and always seem real. What I loved about this film was its ability to show that nobody is perfect and everyone is flawed ... but yet through some miracle and the damn fine love by others, we find where we're supposed to be ... we find that silver lining.
15) LIFE OF PI
They said the book was unfilmable. And they were probably right ... a book telling a fantastical story about a lone survivor of a ship disaster at sea, left alone on a lifeboat with none other than a tiger, an orangutan, and a zebra (their ship had been transporting animals), doesn't exactly scream "easy to film". But with today's advances in visual effects, and under the skillful direction of Ang Lee, the story comes to life in some of the most beautiful imagery of the year, with one spectacular vision after another. And as the story goes on, and the events become more and more fantastical, you begin to wonder how all of this can be happening. And by the end, when you discover that why, it elevates this film to a much different level. I love how it makes you examine the nature of truth, something that is so precarious as it is, and needed in so many different ways by everyone. And where a lot of film CGI can still come off as too fake to me, I actually found myself believing in the computer generated tiger and actually was moved by Pi's ability to find a connection with this completely computer fabricated creature. It is indeed a beautiful film, and with one of my favorite quotes "I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye."
I admit that I didn't get to see many foreign films this past year, but I doubt any could be more powerful than this deserving Oscar nominee for Best Picture. When most people think of movie love stories, it's often about how two people find each other, the struggle to figure out who's that right one for you. Rarely, we sometimes get movies that examine what happens after they come together, and the struggle to keep real love going, day in and day out. Even rarer still is the honest examination of two people who have lived together so long and have come to know each other so well who now have to face the tragic losses in life and the damning tolls of dementia that can happen. This movie does. Michael Haneke has crafted a deeply unforgettable love story, with so many heartbreaking moments filled with such truth. Emmanuelle Riva is deservedly getting praise and an Oscar nomination for her stunning work, but Jean-Louis Trintignant is just as effective playing the husband who has to watch the woman he's known for so long so slip away from him. Where so many people flock to theaters to see the fake drama of robots fighting each other, I wish so many could realize the real drama that some movies can present to us in such moving and heart wrenching detail. The power of the film is such that I doubt I'll ever watch it again ... but that's not a knock on the film's merits, it's a testament to how real it is. It's a stunning portrait of the frustratingly dual facts of how fragile yet how beautiful life is.
This is a film I hope a lot of people will continue to discover. Richard Gere should have been nominated for Best Actor this year for one of his very best performances, here playing a man who has lied and manipulated everybody in his life, which has led to the "successful" life he now has, but finds it quickly unraveling when he's involved in a car accident with his mistress. Gere has always been so good at playing these kinds of morally compromised characters, and he does so again here, surrounded by a strong cast as well, particularly Susan Sarandon as his wife and Tim Roth as a detective. Director Nicholas Jarecki's film also manages to deliver a powerful story about the corruption of business and the fall that so many experienced. Much like Denzel Washington's pilot in "Flight", Gere's Robert Miller is another man who tries to stay in control of everything and everybody, only to discover what a futile effort it is.
This was an example of a film performance being so strong that it managed to overcome some of the script's weaknesses to become a very moving and powerful film. One of the things that I definitely applaud the script for is how the film manages to begin with one of the most harrowing plane crash sequences ever filmed, and then instead of just becoming a film about the investigation into what happened, it surprisingly narrows its focus to deliver a powerful look at the struggle of alcoholism and how Denzel Washington's pilot struggles through it. Seeing how hard he works to keep the addiction going, how it takes him over and over again, we are challenged as audience members to keep our sympathies with him, especially as things spiral even more deeply out of control. And it's the testament to Washington's incredible talent that we manage to keep that sympathy until finally we recognize just as Whip does that he must finally do the right thing and end the cycle. Another successful element of Robert Zemeckis's film is the story of a woman that Whip meets while in the hospital who is suffering from her own drug addiction, and how they come together and struggle together through mutual addictions (she's played brilliantly by Kelly Reilly). And I will forever remember one of the most powerful moments in the film, the single shot of a small vodka bottle taken from a mini-bar that Washington sits down, attempting to walk away and not drink it. As the camera tightens its focus on the bottle, the scene builds with a tension you might get from a thriller, until his hand quickly swipes it up. As far as movies about addictions go, this one is a pretty solid addition to an important genre of films.
19) HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE
In a great year for documentaries, this one for me towered above the others. Just when I thought we had seen a lot of examinations of the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the struggles that so many had to face during those times, here comes this urgent and powerfully moving documentary, not only showing those struggles with original footage, but also showing the power of the human spirit to come together for that most basic common need: to survive. And in the face of a society that was marginalizing a group of people and casting them aside as a "plague", that struggle for survival became even more difficult.
20) THE IMPOSSIBLE
Talk about a haunting movie that stays with you. In this very moving film based on the true story of one family's incredible story of survival in the midst of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play a vacationing couple there with their three boys. The scenes of the tsunami are remarkably real, so much so that my sister and I found ourselves holding our breath as if we were underwater when we saw it. The scenes are that real. As the family gets split up, leaving Naomi Watts with the older son (played brilliantly by Tom Holland), we follow their more difficult struggle first, and then follow as Ewan McGregor attempts to find everyone to bring them all back together. It's a remarkable story, a deeply emotional film, and definitely a movie to see.
Honorable Mentions: Bully Les Miserables The Hunger Games The Queen of Versailles Prometheus Wreck-It Ralph
Brave The Avengers