Note: I have yet to see Zero Dark Thirty and Amour, both of which could’ve shown up on the top 20 list. I apologize in advance for the possible exclusions, but take that into consideration when I post those reviews in the coming weeks.
Most end-of-year lists include ten films. I like that idea, the way it limits our scope and emphasizes the films we truly loved over the year’s span. But last year I did twenty, and this year I saw even more movies, so I figured I’d stick with twenty. After all, I believe these films deserve arguably more attention than they have received, and ten would just be too few. So, without further adieu, here is part one of the twenty best films of 2012, according to yours truly:
Arbitrage is the year’s most effective character study, in that it provides us with a mostly deplorable man who respects his family, but loves his work. Richard Gere gives what might be his best performance as a financial tycoon who makes some big mistakes, both personally and monetarily, that result in his world tumbling down. This film doesn’t relent on its main character, providing supporting roles that discover the monstrosities this man has brought forth in his life. Susan Sarandon and Brit Marling are both terrific in their minor roles, and the movie ends on the exact note we would expect. But that doesn’t make it any less thrilling or gripping, or Gere’s performance any more viscerally stunning.
Looper proves that high-concept sci-fi dramas can actually work on so many levels: conceptually, visually, but above all emotionally. This one has Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a looper, a man who “closes the loops” of future criminals that are sent back in time to be killed. When he interacts with his future self, played by Bruce Willis, both of their worlds are challenged by their views on life. The movie doesn’t relent, thanks to Johnson’s brilliant direction and script (both amongst the finest this year), and the performances here all-around are remarkable. But so is that ending, for it demonstrates that science-fiction can be at once both out-of-this-world and thrilling, and turn into an emotionally quiet and powerful drama.
Prometheus is the most divisive film of the year, a movie many heralded as a sci-fi masterpiece while others claimed it was ambitious but faulty at best. I’m one of the few that embraces many of the movie’s faults as lofty bits of ambition, and I see so many great ideas within this massive, sprawling film. Michael Fassbender gives one of the year’s best supporting performances in a movie that acts as both a prequel, and possible reboot, to the Alien franchise. The film’s gritty, dark, and pervasive, often creating the same sense of claustrophobia that struck our cores with the 1979 film. But what remains unique here is the constant build, to something of a discovery, and that ending floored me. Like I said, this is a film many will dismiss and say was a disappointment. I found it wondrous.
Robert Zemeckis has a return to form that goes down as one of his best films, a character study that is so properly confined and rigid in its storytelling. Flight tells the tale of an alcoholic pilot who ends up saving a plane from crashing after it loses control; he ends up saving all but five lives, although his drug addiction and substance abuse comes into question when they begin to realize that he was under the influence. What works so well here is Washington, who owns this film so much. He makes so many of these leaps work, and this film could’ve been about his descent and conviction; it still involves those elements, but above all understands that characters face the consequences of their actions, and better themselves in the process. It’s a terrific film.
Skyfall may be one of the best James Bond films ever, and no matter how many people say that, it doesn’t make it any less true. This is a character study, a spectacular action film, but above all an ode to old-fashioned storytelling and simple badassery. Bond has always been suave, sophisticated, and able to kick ass with the snap of his fingers, but here he’s struggling, aging, facing the loss of loves that have come over the years. Craig is terrific in the lead, establishing himself as the rather perfect casting choice, and Dench commands the supporting role as M. But Javier Bardem is the highlight, a true joy to watch as a supervillain that fits the perfect traits that pass as believably insane. This is a great film, a great spy film, and one of my favorite action films in a long while.
16. Jeff, Who Lives at Home
In a world of pessimism, some of which I reflect upon in reviews, Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a happy, enlightening film about a pair of dysfunctional brothers that goes against every standard we see in films. The Duplass brothers are two of the most surprising filmmakers out there today, making comedy-dramas that, above all, reaffirm our love of life and what it means to exist in this ever-changing world. Segel and Helms are both quite good, but Sarandon is the standout in the supporting role as their mother. She goes on a spiritual journey of her own, maybe getting more development than the two leads. This is a film I laughed at quite a bit, one I enjoyed more than most comedies this year, and left me with a smile for many hours after. Films should be able to do that.
17. Oslo, August 31st
While the previous choice was a joyous film, Oslo, August 31st is one of the most harrowing, profoundly depressing releases I’ve ever come across. It’s also a remarkably effective character study, one of a man who has struggled with addiction, re-enters the world in hopes of starting anew, and falls back into the old spells he was enchanted by. This is a ravaged, saddened man; he has lost his love, lost most of his friends, and finds his solace in both alcohol and hard drugs: cocaine and, tragically, heroin. I mention that primarily because it doesn’t act as a spoiler. This film’s closing scene is the most quietly captured one all year; the film’s last sound, and his, is a sigh. It’s a difficult watch, but a bold, brilliant piece of filmmaking.
18. Promised Land
Social commentary films are some of the most difficult to make, but Promised Land is effective, focused filmmaking, with Gus Van Sant providing one of his strongest, most trimmed-down efforts behind the screen. Here, Matt Damon plays a man who helps mine natural gas and makes people millionaires. It’s a simple process, one that acts like a sales pitch, but he is challenged by the small town he’s approaching. They say it kills crops, and a man played by John Krasinski comes into town to prove that point. This will be a politicized film; it shouldn’t be. It has a simple message, of a man standing up for his profound beliefs, and Damon proves that wonderfully. It plays like a newer, more stripped Frank Capra film, and with that it excels.
19. Ruby Sparks
Ruby Sparks is much like its titular character: it’s fun, energetic, but above all creative. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan compliment one another terrifically here, with him playing a writer who decides to create a figment of his imagination, and she comes to life in Kazan’s form. She also wrote the film, and she understands the dynamics of a romantic comedy and makes them innately fun. She sees the paths that are traditionally taken, occasionally explores them, yet also gives us an intimate character study of a lonely man who wants to find that one true love. He thinks he finds it in a fictional character; a commentary on writer’s block, an affection for our own creations, and many other things, the film is rather genius. It understands its boundaries, sometimes stretching believability, but it’s an endearing, bold film.
20. Searching for Sugarman
Here’s the best documentary of the year, coming in the most unexpected form. To divulge Searching for Sugarman’s plot is to discuss important plot details in a mystery novel, in that this is a movie best left unexplored before seeing. To put it simply, this is about a musician who navigated the music path in Chicago only to find success in a very surprising place. Rodriguez is a fascinating musician, one who made enlightening music that I can’t believe no one truly discovered before. This is what a documentary should be: it’s bold, it’s mysterious, it’s fascinating, but above all it feels like it needed to be made. This is a movie people should see, one that will hopefully brighten people’s days and remind us of the power of music. I loved this film.