CKep’s Top Films of 2012

‘Nuff said! So let’s get into it…

 

1. The Master

Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (TWC)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

One the year’s most challenging releases, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a more than worthy follow-up to 2007’s There Will Be Blood, which among The Social Network and The Tree of Life, may be the greatest American film of the new century. Here, PTA channels Joaquin Phoenix into an enthralling cataclysm of character, a breathtaking, instantly iconic performance as a World War II vet who supplements his addictions to sex and toxic mix drinks with a new master – a charismatic philosopher played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has been developing a religious cult somewhat representing the origins of Scientology.

The film, captured through astonishing cinematography by Mihai Malăimare, Jr., becomes a widely scoped piece of art that examines human allegiance, however bizarre or commonplace it may be in execution, whether through memory, thought, spirit, physicality, or interaction with our fellow man. It’s terrifying and hilarious (Jonny Greenwood’s score is a haunting tone-setter), in addition to being multilayered and ambiguous, but never strays from the film that Anderson clearly wanted to make. This is his domain, one in which mindful allegiance by audience members isn’t enough. Plenty of filmmakers have ambition, but this, ladies and gents, is of a different sort. The Master asks for more than it gives, prompting certain audiences to float out to sea. Let this one wash over you. Give in, but then discover on your own terms. You will be rewarded with the best film of 2012.

On DVD/Blu-ray February 26.

 

2. Zero Dark Thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Columbia)

Written by Mark Boal

Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton

You can’t make everyone happy with a movie like this. Our government will always deny that credible information was received through torture, as is used here as a key plot device. Citizens will question our government for the amount of information received to craft such an elaborate piece of filmmaking, as well as complain that it is an indorsement of the Obama administration. These opinions remain somewhat irrelevant. Kathryn Bigelow, after becoming the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar with The Hurt Locker, has taken whatever information was received, and simply made an incredible film, as entertaining as it is powerful. I’ll never know how true Zero Dark Thirty was to the actual manhunt for Osama bin Laden, but I believe I am correctly assuming that this is more or less what went down (that said, this is no documentary).

The film does not portray the methods utilized for such an endeavor in a flattering light, nor does it denounce them. It instead presents the brutality of research and investigation under the worst circumstances, in pursuit of a seemingly unattainable goal; not only the decisions required of human beings, but the feelings that come from having to make them, especially when countless lives hang in the balance (on both sides of the equation). The film is paced impeccably well throughout its steady length, consistently dramatic until it concludes with a climax of staggering suspense.

Arguably, Zero Dark Thirty is an American landmark, showing not only how these continuously turbulent years have affected our nation, but individual people, as well. Jessica Chastain plays “the girl” who made it possible, and her dedication, in addition to the emotional, mental, and physical toll it takes, is played with an extraordinary sensibility. The film’s impact comes shining through this character, and to supplement her abilities, the performance by Jason Clarke as her co-worker is also fantastic. What Bigelow has brought to the table is a masterful piece of craftsmanship, in both substance and style. In a way, the making of Zero Dark Thirty has mirrored the daunting task that these characters are presented with. Mission accomplished. But in light of a future that will always be uncertain, to what extent do the ends justify the means?

Now in theaters.

 

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Written (with Lucy Alibar) and Directed by Benh Zeitlin (Fox Searchlight)

Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry

I’m still amazed that this is Benh Zeitlin’s first feature-length film. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, he directs young Quvenzhané Wallis with the confidence of a maestro who has been settled within his respective art form for who knows how long. Displaying the universe through the eyes, ears, and thoughts of a young child in a post-Katrina bayou, Hushpuppy (Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) navigate through the harsh realities presented by their only home, supplemented by the surreal fantasies of a girl coming to grips with self-sufficiency.

The imagery is extraordinary in its ability to be both naturalistic and enchanting, backed by a heart-wrenching score by Zeitlin and composer Dan Romer. Drenched in alcohol, littered with mythical creatures, and certainly featuring the most real performances you will see this year, Beasts is an emotional hurricane that deserves the attention of your heart, soul, and mind; cinematic poetry with a rare sense of wonder.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

 

4. Les Misérables

Directed by Tom Hooper (Universal)

Written by William Nicholson, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh

Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried

In a time when musicals are cut like rap videos, Tom Hooper’s rendition of Les Misérables looks like a masterpiece in comparison. The film is paced like a grand piece of music by its own definition, jumping from shot to shot as complement to the score’s dynamic transitions. A traditional narrative is substituted for a triumphant fusion of sight and sound,  allowing us to interpret onscreen events like a visual symphony. Featuring superb production design, costuming, and makeup effects, the film is an epic, beautifully rendered depiction of tragic mistreatment, defeated by an uncrushable human spirit, that which fails to diminish even after death. Heartbreaking and vigorously entertaining, this isn’t an easy one to forget.

In tradition of Les Misérables‘s musical structure, most dialogue is sung, much like the classic French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This style suits an artistically sound, visually splendorous story of love and rebellion, featuring remarkable performances by nearly the entire cast (Oscar nominees Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway are really given a chance to strut their stuff). Hooper recorded live audio for the musical performances, made even more impressive by the unbroken shots and close-ups in which he often uses to display them. At last, a musical that actually lingers on the performers long enough for us to be amazed by their talents. It isn’t easy for such an atypical film to exude power of this magnitude, but somehow, it works.

Now in theaters.

 

5. Silver Linings Playbook

Written and Directed by David O. Russell (TWC)

Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver

It takes a movie like Silver Linings Playbook to save modern romantic comedies from genre mediocrity, which is typically filled with mundane crap and indie flicks pretending to replicate how people actually behave. What distinguishes Silver Linings as one of the year’s best films rests in a screenplay (based on the novel by Matthew Quick) that simply does everything right, while still retaining unpredictability. David O. Russell’s movie stars a terrific, bipolar Bradley Cooper as Pat, a man attempting to reconnect with his wife, who has filed a restraining order after he viciously attacked her not-so-secret lover. The key lies in Jennifer Lawrence’s character, an impulsive woman with issues of her own. Meanwhile, Pat has taken house with his Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and mother, played by Jacki Weaver. The whole lot is nominated for Oscars, and boy, do they deserve it.

While handling weighty, dramatic themes, the film is also delightfully comic, supplemented by the fact that there rarely appears a character we don’t like (the chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is also extraordinary, as it should be). So offbeat, yet so completely human in its approach, the narrative soon strands the characters’ fates together in a film of unapologetic positivity. Silver Linings therefore transcends the feel-good film. By the time the credits roll, it has actually restored your faith in people.

Now in theaters.

 

6. Lincoln

Directed by Steven Spielberg (Touchstone)

Written by Tony Kushner

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

There is a time and place that calls for extraordinary leadership, a moment to be captured by one who is willing to make it his own. Spielberg captures such a moment with Lincoln, attempting to craft an immersive character study within a slim period of time – amongst the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and the end of the Civil War. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of the year as bearded Abe, escaping the perils of caricature through his projections of a man’s thought, personality, and aptitude, rather than supposed quirks and mannerisms. He commands the action onscreen, weaving through a terrific supporting cast, much as his political ingenuity weaves through unprecedented boundaries to draw a torn nation back together.

As if the screenplay weren’t unconventional enough for a biopic, Lincoln is a technical milestone. The production design and cinematography is somehow both lush and unflattering, and the representation of the time period so unwilling to weigh itself down in iconicity, that you can’t help but be sucked into Spielberg’s journey into American history. The dialogue consists mostly of political conversation, but is made riveting through directorial expertise. This film plants you directly into that moment, and by doing so, forces you to consider similar moments that our country will always face.

Now in theaters.

 

7. Django Unchained

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino (TWC)

Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio

It has been noted that Django Unchained is the first of Tarantino’s films to be set in an era prior to cinema’s origins. Let it also be noted that this does nothing to prevent every capable reference to his genre and exploitation inspirations, this spaghetti western/blaxploitation hybrid utilizing such material for the purposes of harnessing his own ultraviolent, often hilarious look at one of American society’s most inhuman periods. And with such character!

Django (Jamie Foxx) plays a slave fatefully freed by a German bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz, who is quite opposed to such a lurid concept as slavery, and guides Django toward the fate of rescuing his wife (Kerry Washington) from an insanely charming, yet decidedly villainous plantation owner, Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio (who arguably gives the best performance in the film). Nearly as fantastic is Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s former house slave, whose relationship with Django signifies a battle against all types of racism and dehumanization, even those purported by men who aren’t white, and have simply slipped into corruption along with the rest of society.

Robert Richardson’s cinematography utilizes aspects of budget-limited camerawork (quick zooms, overexposure, etc.) that go beyond stylistic flourishes; they enhance Tarantino’s film by visualizing a period in which things were as ugly in reality as such style often depicts its fictional, pulpy subject matter to be. That said, the landscape shots and interior sequences, minus any visual eccentricities, are impressively displayed, as well. Backed by a signature QT soundtrack that lives and breathes this film’s heat, Tarantino eventually leads us into a spectacularly action-filled climax, drenched in copious amounts of blood, and featuring some extended screams of pain. It is through these brutally violent, exaggerated elements of satire that we begin to recognize the scale of atrocity that slavery once brought upon our country, laced with racial epithets that we now sprinkle around just for the hell of it. And at the end of the day, it still manages to be fun. What an accomplishment.

Now in theaters.

 

8. Moonrise Kingdom

Written (with Roman Coppola) and Directed by Wes Anderson (Focus)

Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray

Along with Tarantino, Wes Anderson is a filmmaker whose style is so singular that it often presents worries of redundancy. Yet along with Django, this is a movie that leaps over stylistic expectations. Moonrise Kingdom is a delightful story of young love, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward sharing the screen with one of the year’s best ensemble casts, filled with Anderson favorites. Shot on Super 16, the film is a colorful, nostalgic representation of inter-generational relationships, innocence, and empathy. Always hilarious and quite touching, Anderson reaches to audiences who grew up in any period of cinematic history.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

9. Looper

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson (FilmDistrict)

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt

Snubbed for Best Original Screenplay, Rian Johnson’s Looper is one groovy story, shaking its head at the mistakes society repeatedly makes, and presenting an allegorical basis for how crime syndicates of the future get away with murder. This is modern science-fiction at its finest; Johnson’s depiction of a unique universe, visualized through elaborately stylish set design and cinematography. The narrative structure of the film is fascinating, driven by the premise of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character finding it necessary to kill his older self, played by Bruce Willis. The action, romance, and dark sense of humor blend with a love of the genre and a continuous sense of excitement, ultimately contorting the concept of time travel into a bit more than risky business.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

10. Skyfall

Directed by Sam Mendes (Columbia)

Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan

Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes

Let’s get real for a second – I f**king love James Bond. That said, Bond 23, after enjoying the prior 22 several times over, is less of a film and more of a gift. While retaining the archetypal structure that was severely missing in Quantum of Solace (yet necessarily absent in Casino Royale), Daniel Craig portrays 007 as more of a human being than we have ever seen in the franchise. While this may be a scary thought for a character who is, from a certain standpoint, less of a man and more of an icon, it works because this is the moment that the Bond reboots, beginning with Casino Royale, have been awaiting – the chance for Craig’s character to fall to rock bottom amidst the tribulations of a very real, contemporary world, and resurrect himself; become an iconic addition to what is one of the greatest film series in the world, and in doing so, revitalize the franchise with a distinctly modern, yet familiar structure.

For all intensive purposes, it achieves this through an exploration of Bond’s past, and a representation of Judi Dench’s M as the only “Bond girl” this flick needs. From a technical standpoint, Sam Mendes’ direction is sleek and assured, and the cinematography by Roger Deakins an enticing, suave manipulation of light, shadow, and color (earning him a well-deserved Oscar nomination). From one set piece to the next, Skyfall is extraordinarily well-paced, advanced through novel action sequences, and features yet another dastardly performance by Javier Bardem. I agree with Adele – “LET THE SKYFALLL!” Because it is only when our British folk hero falls and recovers, that after 50 years, we may truly be rest-assured in his immortality.

Now in theaters.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Because ten will never be enough.

 

21 Jump Street

Directed by Phil Lord, Chris Miller (Columbia)

Written by Michael Bacall

Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum

One of the best mainstream comedies in years. Self-reflexive, hilarious, and surprisingly knowledgable about the subject matter it makes fun of (mainly current high school culture), Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum invite you to like them even more than you previously did.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Argo

Directed by Ben Affleck (Warner Bros.)

Written by Chris Terrio

Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman

Argo f**k yourself. Is there really more to be said?

On DVD/Blu-ray February 19.

Bernie

Written (with Skip Hollandsworth) and Directed by Richard Linklater (Millennium)

Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey

Remember Jack Black? After seeing Bernie, Richard Linklater’s fun, eerily moving docudrama of moral investigation, you’ll wonder why he doesn’t get more roles this fabulous.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Cosmopolis

Written and Directed by David Cronenberg (eOne)

Starring Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti

Twilight fans, stay away. Econ and Philosophy students, take a hard look.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

The Dark Knight Rises [IMAX]

Written (with Jonathon Nolan) and Directed by Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros.)

Starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

A ravishing conclusion to a one-of-a-kind trilogy.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Flight

Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Paramount)

Written by John Gatins

Starring Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman

An addiction drama that continues to prove Robert Zemeckis’ flair for staging airplane crashes, while presenting Denzel Washington, in one of his best performances, as the alcoholic pilot. Along with Argo, it’s also a staple film in the resurrection of John Goodman. To any who deny his brilliance, “you’re out of your element.”

On DVD/Blu-ray February 5.

Killer Joe

Directed by William Friedkin (LD)

Written by Tracy Letts

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church

Hilariously twisted, this is a theatrical slice of near-brilliance. Plus, I’ve been waiting my entire life for the appropriate usage of Clarence Carter’s “Strokin” in a movie. It only comes down to your definition of “appropriate.”

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Life of Pi [3D]

Directed by Ang Lee (20th Century Fox)

Written by David Magee

Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan

Will Ang Lee’s latest make you believe in God? It sure will make you believe in something. Enraptured in gorgeous, three-dimensional landscapes, the title character’s cross-sea journey with a Bengal tiger is a spiritual experience, clothed in visual wonder, and representative of storytelling’s role in defining our humanity. You’ll certainly take an extra glance at the animals in your own life. And if the film affects you deeply enough, you’ll maybe even take a look at yourself.

Now in theaters.

The rest of the bunch…

The Amazing Spider-Man [3/5], Arbitrage [4/5], The Avengers [4/5], Battleship [2/5]*, The Bourne Legacy [3/5]*, The Cabin in the Woods [3.5/5], Chronicle [4/5], End of Watch [3.5/5], The Expendables 2 [2.5/5], The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [HFR 3D; 4/5], The Hunger Games [3.5/5], Iron Sky [3.5/5], Killing Them Softly [3.5/5], Lawless [3.5/5], Magic Mike [4/5], Men in Black 3 [3/5]*, Paranormal Activity 4 [2/5], Piranha 3DD [2/5], Prometheus [3D; 4/5], The Raid: Redemption [3.5/5], Safety Not Guaranteed [3.5/5], Silent House [2.5/5]*, Ted [4/5]*, V/H/S [3.5/5]

*A rating that has changed after my initial review, either after a second viewing or reevaluation.

 

What has sadly remained unseen…

Amour, Anna Karenina, Berberian Sound Studio, Brave, The Campaign, Cloud Atlas, Coriolanus, The Deep Blue Sea, Detropia, Dredd [3D], Easy Money, Frankenweenie [3D], Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance [3D], The Grey, Haywire, Hitchcock, Holy Motors, Hyde Park on Hudson, The Impossible, The Imposter, The Intouchables, Jack Reacher, Katy Perry: Part of Me [3D], The Man with the Iron Fists, Not Fade Away, The Paperboy, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Rampart, Room 237, A Royal Affair, Rust and Bone, Samsara, Searching for Sugar Man, The Sessions, Seven Psychopaths, This is Not a Film, To Rome with Love

Thanks for reading! Hopefully you’ll agree that 2013 certainly has A LOT to live up to.

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