IAR's Top Ten Films of 2012
Director Sacha Gervasi’s (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) biopic about legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho could have easily turned out as awful as HBO’s recent biopic about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of The Birds, entitled The Girl. However, instead Gervasi has made a vibrant, brilliant, and entertaining film that focuses more on the relationship between the director and his wife/longtime collaborator than it does on the minutia of making Psycho. Fear not film fanatics, the movie definitely covers the making of the horror classic but it is the back and forth between Hitch and Alma (brilliantly played by Oscar-winners Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, respectively) that makes the film work. Hopkins and Mirren both give award-worthy performances, as does Scarlett Johansson in a supporting role as Janet Leigh. But what is most impressive about Sir Anthony’s performance is that while he is obviously playing Hitchcock, he doesn’t get lost in trying to “do” Hitchcock. In fact, in some of Hopkins’ more emotional scenes, elements of the director’s famous voice and appearance disappear altogether allowing the actor’s real emotions to come through the character. Also enjoyable in the film, is Gervasi’s choice to bookend the movie with the character of Alfred Hitchcock speaking directly to the camera, much like the actual director did on his iconic television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
9) End of Watch
Unfortunately, End of Watch might suffer from the casualty of opening an award-worthy movie in September. That being said, End of Watch is by far the best police drama of the year, and is probably going to be all but forgotten come Oscar time. Director David Ayer, who has made a career of writing and/or directing gritty police movies like Training Day and Street Kings, has made his best film yet with an honest and truthful portrayal of the LAPD. While the “found footage” technique has been overused in the horror genre, it found perfect placement in this police drama and allowed the action, suspense, and humor to unfold in a natural way. Actors Jake Gyllenhaal, and Michael Pena both give their best performances to date and both deserve award season consideration. In fact, their buddy-cop duo may be the best I’ve seen on-screen since Riggs and Murtaugh (Mel Gibson and Danny Glover) first roamed the streets in Lethal Weapon.
8) Life of Pi
I’m not a huge fan of 3D. I can usually take it or leave it (unless it is shown in an abdominal 48fps like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which I think if catches on, could mean the death of cinema as we know it). That being said, I LOVED Life of Pi and think it is the best use of 3D in a movie since Avatar. Not being familiar with the book it is adapted from, I’d have a hard time comparing the two, but director Ang Lee does a miraculous job of filling an entire movie with the simple story of a boy trapped in a boat with a tiger. Bookended with an adult version of the boy (played by Irrfan Khan in a Best Supporting Actor-worthy performance) telling his story to the would-be author of the novel, the film’s narrative draws you into the story. But it is Lee’s massive scope of storytelling, his brilliant yet specific use of 3D, and actor Suraj Sharma’s performance as young Pi, that make this film an absolute standout this year.
7) The Avengers
The Avengers may seem like a strange pick for top ten films of the year but please allow me to make my case. First, whether you liked the film or not, you have to be impressed with what Marvel Studios pulled off. They took the gamble of green-lighting solo movies based on four (at the time) slightly obscure comic book characters (Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) that would eventually lead into one huge team-up film. Not to mention, dropping hints and cameos along the way of other eventual Avengers characters like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), which began all the way back with the first Iron Man film. Granted, some of the solo character’s movies weren’t as successful as others, but just imagine if any one of those films had really bombed, there would have been NO Avengers. That is a huge gamble for any studio to take on! Besides the impressiveness of the project to begin with, you also have to consider the fact that writer/director Joss Whedon was able to juggle characters and story-arcs from four different film franchises into one coherent movie, and made it satisfying for comic book and non-comic book fans alike. All the characters get respectable screen time, including Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), however it is the secondary characters from the other franchises that really get a chance to shine in this film. Nick Fury and Hawkeye have much more to do in this movie, and Black Widow really gets a chance to show why she belongs fighting side by side with her male counterparts. But it’s the third big screen incarnation of The Hulk that may have finally gotten the big green guy right. Using elements of the classic Bill Bixby TV series, Mark Ruffalo’s interpretation of Bruce Banner as a man on the run who has secretly mastered controlling his angry alter ego, was more than refreshing, it was a genuine breakthrough.
6) Django Unchained
I LOVE Quentin Tarantino movies (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown), but I still had some issues with Django Unchained. Not enough, obviously, to not include it on this list, but still a few things that I must take issue with. The film is nearly three hours in length and even for a Tarantino movie, felt a little too long. Also, tonally, the movie was kind of all over the place, again, even for a Quentin Tarantino film. The movie starts out like a classic Spaghetti Western blending comedic, and Tarantino-esque elements with the genre. However, in one scene in particular (that features comedian and recent Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill) the movie seems to be channeling directly from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and it just seems off. Perhaps the film’s tone issue has to do with the fact that Tarantino’s longtime editor, the great Sally Menke passed away in 2010 and this is the first time in his career the director has made a film without her. One has to wonder if her contributions to Tarantino’s films may have also included reining the director in when needed. Finally, my only other complaint involved the excessive use of a horrible word that begins with letter “N.” Now this may be a byproduct of the time period the film is set in (a pre-Civil War South), as well as Tarantino’s documented history of using the word in his films, but for me, I was just uncomfortable hearing that word used as much as it was. But maybe that was the point, which brings me to what I liked about Django Unchained. Quentin pulls no punches! That terrible word was probably used as much as it was to make the audience feel as uncomfortable as they should when they hear that word. Also, it was incredibly uncomfortable to see actors like Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx and actress Kerry Washington being brutally whipped, but it does remind us that this did once happen in our country, and relatively speaking, it wasn’t that long ago. Tarantino brilliantly mixes social and political commentary with a rambunctious Western that is as entertaining as it is thought provoking. Foxx and Washington both give strong performances, however it is the supporting players, Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio, who really steal the film. DiCaprio, who will most likely be rewarded with a Best Supporting Oscar-nomination this year, plays against type, both in a supporting role and as villainous slave owner Calvin Candle. Waltz, who for me really is the heart of the film, gives a brilliant and also award-worthy performance as bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, the man responsible for freeing Django (Foxx) from slavery. Also, keep an eye out for Samuel L. Jackson, who gives a very surprising performance as Stephen, Candle’s head slave. Had the movie possessed a few less of my criticisms, perhaps it would be higher on my list, but I have a feeling that after a few more viewings, my love for Tarantino’s work will overcome the movie’s shortcomings and make it a standout in the director’s catalog of films.
By far, Skyfall is the best Bond movie of my generation, and perhaps the best film of the series since Sean Connery hung up his famous tux and martini glass. Daniel Craig is at his best as 007 in Skyfall and exudes integrity, intelligence, action, and sex appeal, all in one performance. But what Skyfall probably does best is explore the relationship between Bond and his ultimate Bond Girl … M. Oscar-winner Judi Dench is finally let out from behind her desk to really get involved in the plot and in doing so shows the audience what M really means to Bond. The film also finally embraces some of the classic elements of the series that had yet to be explored in the previous Daniel Craig films, such as Q (wonderfully played by Ben Whishaw), the classic Aston Martin (armed with secret weapons), and a certain female Bond companion that is finally reintroduced to the franchise. But no Bond movie would be complete without an over-the-top evil villain hell-bent on world domination. Enter Oscar-winner Javier Bardem who fills the bill perfectly with a fierce and fun performance.
4) Moonrise Kingdom
Excluding Fantastic Mr. Fox, in my opinion, pound for pound Moonrise Kingdom is the best live-action film director Wes Anderson has made since The Royal Tenenbaums. Blending elements of both films (as well as Rushmore), Moonrise Kingdom showcases what Anderson does best, which is tell stylized stories about eccentric families. Anderson has a knack for casting and directing young unknown actors (like Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore) and does it again here obtaining brilliantly precious performances from Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman. Anderson is known for using the same actors in multiple films and over the years has created a “Wes Anderson troupe of actors” that includes Luke and Owen Wilson (Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums), Anjelica Houston (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited), Willem Dafoe (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox), Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox) and Bill Murray (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). With the exception of Murray and Schwartzman (who are both great as always in their roles), Anderson chose to use a predominantly new cast of actors for Moonrise Kingdom including Oscar-winners Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton, as well as Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, and Bob Balaban as the film’s narrator. Norton, and especially Willis are both fantastic in the film playing against type. I think that Willis in particular deserves Best Supporting Oscar consideration, and in fact, was recently nominated for a Spirit Award for his performance. Moonrise Kingdom is funny, touching, odd, and sweet … just like all good Wes Anderson movies are.
Remember when it was a big joke that Ben Affleck won an Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting? Well, that joke really isn’t funny anymore. If Gone Baby Gone and The Town proved to the world that Affleck is more than just a punch line to comedian Robert Wuhl’s bad joke, then Argo cemented the fact that he is actually one of the best filmmakers of his generation. Based on an incredible true story, Argo is fast-paced, exciting, funny, and entertaining all at the same time. The cast, led by a strong performance by Affleck himself, features Oscar level supporting work by Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin (who is probably currently the front-runner for that award). As well as excellent performances from a who’s who of great character actors such as Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, and Titus Welliver. Argo is an astonishing progression in the evolution of Ben Affleck’s career as a filmmaker and leaves me excited to see what movie he makes next.
2) A Late Quartet
In my mind this is the best film of the year that practically nobody is talking about. Perhaps it is another causality of releasing too early in the award season, as the film debuted in early November. However, it posses all the elements that Academy voters look for: a heavy character drama, an acclaimed cast of actors including Oscar-winners Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken, as well as Oscar-nominee Catherine Keener, and one of the characters dealing with a terrible illness, in this case Parkinson’s disease. In fact, I strongly think Christopher Walken deserves at least an Oscar-nomination for Best Supporting Actor (if not the award itself) for his brilliant portrayal of a world-renowned concert cellist discovering he has Parkinson’s. The film hits particularly close to home for me as my beloved father is currently living with the horrible disease. I saw so much of his struggle beautifully captured in Walken’s tender and dignified performance. First time feature filmmaker Yaron Zilberman (Watermarks) wonderfully orchestrates the drama and the music, while little known actor Mark Ivanir completely holds his own against the film’s more famous performers. Hoffman and Keener are brilliant together (as always) playing the quartet’s married couple, but it is Walken’s breathtaking performance that reminds us he is not just the guy on SNL who wants “more cowbell,” but he is also one of the greatest actors of all time!
1) Zero Dark Thirty
In my mind, Zero Dark Thirty is the best film of the year for one simple reason: I knew the ending yet I still couldn’t guess what would happen next. The last film that I can remember that was able to pull that off on this level was James Cameron’s Titanic. To sit through an almost three hour movie, where you know how it ends, yet you are never bored or even interested in looking at what time it is on your watch, that is quite an accomplishment and all the credit goes to director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal. Bigelow’s direction is pitch perfect and she breathtakingly captures all the suspense and drama needed for a film like this to work. Undoubtedly, she will be nominated for best director this year and I really hope that the fact that she won just a few years ago for a similar film (The Hurt Locker) does not take away from her chances of winning for Zero Dark Thirty, as they are two completely different films and her work here is definitely deserving of the award. Boal penned a smart, intriguing, entertaining, and satisfying script that delivers on all levels. The characters are real, strong yet vulnerable, funny yet serious, and ring true in every way. The amazing ensemble of actors assembled for the film really fill out there roles and make us care about their characters and the consequences of their actions. Jessica Chastain, who is all but assured of an Oscar-nomination for Best Actress this year, gives her best performance to date as Maya, the driven young CIA agent that is obsessed with bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice. It is her unwavering determination and willingness to persevere that makes her so endearing to the audience, and makes her ultimate goal possible to achieve. Also fantastic in the movie is Jason Clarke, who deserves to be a big star and hopefully will have that opportunity thanks to this film. Clarke plays CIA operative Dan, and has to administrate much of the film’s realistic torture scenes, which he does with an eerie sense of realism. The film also boasts an incredible cast of supporting actors that includes Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Scott Adkins, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, John Barrowman, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Frank Grillo, Mark Valley and James Gandolfini. The outstanding cast (especially Chastain and Clarke), terrific script, and visionary direction by Katherine Bigelow is what made Zero Dark Thirty my favorite film of 2012!
From everyone at IAR … have a safe and happy New Year!