A searing Serbian teen drama from writer/director Maja Milos that plays heavily on the lurid and graphic, the film is never less than brutally honest in its depiction of its lost and callow young protagonists, never more so than with Jasna (Isidora Simijonovic), a beautiful, utterly lost young woman finding solutions to her angst in the worst of ways. The film, which played in this year’s Toronto festival, would almost certainly have to be heavily re-cut in order to play in the U.S. — though a helpful disclaimer at the end of the credits flatly states all the graphic bits were filmed with of-age stand-ins — but a great deal of the film’s power lies in its unflinchingly explicit gaze.
Much cyberink has been utilized in describing Ben Affleck’s tension-infused thriller, more or less recounting a true story in the annals of the CIA about a daring hostage rescue, but the bottom line is it’s one of the more fun rides of the year. In a peculiarly meta way, it’s sort of fitting that a Hollywood flick about a fake Hollywood crew coming into hostile Iran in order to rescue a group of trapped Americans was, itself, goosed into becoming even more suspenseful and dramatic than the real-life situation. Don’t take it as gospel, but have a great time anyway. (Full review here.)
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Predictably, this indie-darling from Benh Zeitlin (read our interview with him) got hit with a significant web backlash eventually, but the film’s diminutive protagonist, six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a fierce, imaginative child who has to fight for her and her father’s survival on a remote Louisiana coast island during Katrina, is one of the more indelible cinematic characters of the year. Shot beautifully by DP Ben Richardson, Zeitlin’s film finds a great deal of physical beauty in an otherwise hostile natural world. Full review here.)
7. Moonrise Kingdom
Fine, Wes Anderson movies tend to have their own, very specific, artistic aesthetic. You know who else has a really specific and identifiable aesthetic? Picasso. Monét. Bergman. Mozart. Just about every brilliant artist in human history, in other words. I’m not trying to place slight and skinny Wes in their direct company, but I do think the public outcry against Anderson for making movies according to his vision is reductive and silly. Case in point, this brilliant, funny and oddly compelling film about young romance blooming on a small island off the New England coast and the terrified adults who try to mitigate it, is never anything less than completely charming. Full review here.)
6. Killing Them Softly
Andrew Dominik’s long-awaited next feature (after 2007’s brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) met an untimely demise at the box office, but that’s mostly because it was marketed as some kind of simplistic revenge beat-down with Brad Pitt as a kickass hitman. Instead, Dominik’s film (based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins) is a crazy-quilt invective of corporate politics infiltrating even the most basic wiseguy operations such as looting and retribution. As a bonus, James Gandolfini brings his heavy mouth-breathing expertise back to the screen as an over-the-hill hitman who has more interest in booze and whores than getting a job done. The film is tightly acerbic and visually stunning. Mark my words: Years from now, it will get its proper due as people will catch on to its saucy satire. Full review here.)
Forgive me for bringing several large dumptrucks full of doubt to this film, but in my imagination, the combination of one of our more iconic and revered presidents cut short in his time and one of our most iconic and syrupy directors was very likely to lead into something unwatchable (the worst elements of Amistad and the dreadful coda of Saving Private Ryan blended together into an undrinkable mess), but to my shock and awe, the film was anything but obvious and blaring. With a brilliant script from Tony Kushner and an absolute barn-burner of a performance by Daniel Day Lewis (amongst others), Spielberg’s film fairly crackles with intellectual drollery and political fury. Eschewing the obvious career plot points (the assassination isn’t even shown on screen), the film instead focuses very deeply on Lincoln’s most dramatic and controversial victory, the passing of the 13th Amendment. One of the very few moments in my lifetime where I felt like openly cheering for a Republican.
(Full review here.)
Michael Haneke is known for his chilling portraits of inhumanity, but this film — written we are to understand as a loving ode to his own aging parents — is anything but heartless. Two absolutely captivating performances by the elderly leads (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) propel the simple but compelling story about a doting husband forced to take care of his ailing wife, but what’s truly remarkable about the film is the way in which Haneke is able to instill his own, uncompromising aesthetic into the fabric of this sad love story. He doesn’t dumb down his material: The characters aren’t facile or crudely drawn; they exhibit all the contradiction and irascibility of fully-realized adults.
3. Beyond the Hills
Cristian Mungiu is a brilliant Serbian writer/director with a burgeoning reputation as an auteur of the highest order. His follow-up to the dazzling 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is another friendship drama between two young women. Two old friends from a Serbian orphanage have gone in totally different directions: Beautiful, careful Alina (Cristina Flutur) has joined a convent far away from the rest of civilization; and brassy, overwhelming Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) comes to visit her in order to whisk her away (and back into her arms). Mungiu has developed a style that rewards the patient, attentive viewer, constantly cramming his frame with important details set off deep in the background of his scenes. His talent for exposing his characters’ inner feelings despite their determined efforts to stow them away, and his delicate touch with the nuances of human communication are as impressive as his gorgeous compositions.
An Israeli film whose wit, subtlety and persuasive captivation are done absolutely no favors with some simplistic plot summary (a father-son academic rivalry heats up when the underappreciated father thinks he’s finally received his long-suffering academic due by winning a prestigious award, that, in actuality, was meant to go to his grand-standing son). Despite what could have been dry-as-stale-saltines material becomes, in the hands of writer/director Joseph Cedar, an enthralling meditation on familial relationships, the nature of jealousy, academic skullduggery and Middle-Eastern politics. Shlomo Bar-Aba, who portrays the patriarch, an egocentric and wounded man whose career has never amounted to his aspirations, should be given full Oscar consideration, as should Cedar.
(Full review here.)
1. The Master
A jazzy scramble of a picture, filled with potent scenes, utterly convincing performances and deft directorial flourishes, Paul Thomas Anderson has cemented his pole position amongst other American directors with this thespian tour-de-force about a hugely damaged alcoholic named Freddie Quell (memorably inhabited by a totally immersed Joaquin Phoenix) in post WWII America who becomes entwined with a powerful, quasi-religious orator (Philip Seymour Hoffman), just beginning to build his flock. Impeccably rendered and outrageously beautiful, Anderson’s film is more austere story-wise than even his previous film There Will Be Blood, but it’s no less powerful. Phoenix and Hoffman’s performances — along with Amy Adams, playing Hoffman’s wife — are absolutely the best of the year.
(Full review here.)
Other Worthy Mentions: A Royal Affair, Zero Dark Thirty, Compliance, Room 237, The Queen of Versailles, Searching for Sugar Man, The Kid With a Bike, Arbitrage, The Innkeepers, Damsels in Distress, The Central Park Five, The Raid: Redemption
The Bottom Five Films of 2012
Look, I know this isn’t meant to be particularly well-made, or even coherent, but this lazy-ass action flick — a sci-fi affair about a rogue government agent (Guy Pierce) being forced to save the president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) from a space-station prison uprising — from James Mather and Stephen St. Leger (and exec producer Luc Besson) utterly dispenses with what makes action flicks even remotely enjoyable. I suppose the point is just to have as much bang-bang and insouciance as possible in its 95-minute runtime, but the cynicism of the filmmakers — action fans don’t care about anything other than blood, babes and boom-boom– is pretty insufferable. It’s just stupid enough to think it’s a lot of fun, when in actuality it’s a screaming bore.
(Full review here.)
4. Total Recall
Let’s just cut to the chase: A bland, nonsensical mess of a remake that offers exactly none of the dopey, campy fun of the original, Len Wiseman’s CGI-choked action flick goes through the motions of a sci-fi action thriller, but seems largely disinterested in its own conveyance. This is a film that, on top of everything else, asks us to believe that 50-something corrupt career politician (played by Bryan Cranston) can physically take on a young, trained government super-spy (Colin Farrell), and have it be something of a stand-off. And that’s probably not even in the top-ten of most ludicrous howlers in this picture.
(Full review here.)
3. The Words
A wretched film that purports to be about the love and magic of the written word but itself seems inspired from literary canon culled out of cribbed Cliff’s Notes of inferior Hemingway novels. The whole misbegotten enterprise — which ultimately is a fictional film about a fiction writer who writes a fictional novel in which a fiction writer steals the novel of a much older writer and purports it to be his own — is far more of a headache than is warranted. I actually felt sorry for Bradley Cooper here, an intelligent, thoughtful actor who is desperately trying to cash in on his Hangover fame to make far more interesting and challenging material. He either needs a new agent or should thoroughly read through the scripts he’s being sent with a more watchful eye.
(Full review here.)
I’m going to take a deep breath and try to not go on another rampaging rant here, but Ridley Scott’s would-be prequel to his absolute masterpiece Alien, is almost everything the original is not. It’s dull, shrill and incoherent, and also fails the most basic moron test — if any of the principle characters acted in any way other than complete dipshits, there would be virtually no film to speak of. I know I get particularly incensed about this being that Alien is my single favorite movie of all time, but I wish with all my heart Scott hadn’t gone back and tried to spoil all the most terrifying things of the original by giving us this ludicrous backstory. In my mind, at least, I will regulate this turgid mess right along with the execrable Alien vs. Predator franchise.
(Full review here.)
1. The Impossible
Here’s all you need to know about this tone-deaf mess based on “actual events” surrounding the terrible Indonesian tsunami of 2004. At the very end of the film, which follows the plight of one rich, white family as they lose each other to the flood waters and desperately try to reconnect, the family gets air lifted to the safety of fully functional hospital after wading through a killing field of scattered bodies and hopeless suffering, on a plane with plenty of empty seats. (Full review here.)
Other Dishonorable Entries: Silent House, The Raven, Dark Shadows, Red Dawn
Inexplicably Overrated: Silver Linings Playbook, The Dark Knight Rises (tie)
Biggest Welcome Surprise: Lincoln, Spring Breakers (tie)
Most Bitter Disappointment: The Place Beyond the Pines
Film That Critics Got Wrong: Prometheus, Flight (tie)
Film I Totally Whiffed On: The Deep Blue Sea, The Bourne Legacy (tie)
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and here. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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