Saturday, January 19, 2013

Zach's Top Ten Films of 2012

I disagree with Todd about 2012.  I think it was the best year in movies since (at least) 2009.  In fact, I can prove this: That year, Inglorious Basterds ranked 5 on my year-end list.  This year, Django Unchained did not even make my top ten list.  And yet, I would consider Django a slightly better film between the two (solid Tarantino, not amazing, but still undeniably entertaining).  It is also the first year in my life where, if given choice between going to a theater and staying at home watching a movie, I would stay at home.  Theater audiences are talking and texting at seeming record-highs.  And it’s not a “generational” thing, as the talking heads love to claim – it’s more often than not 40-50 year olds who can’t shut up.  One of these days, I’ll grow up and tell them what I think . . . or maybe I’ll just trust the opposite of my instinct. OK, I’ll stop being grumpy now.

Films seen: 53
Thumbs up percentage: 56.66%
Best Actor: Jack Black, Bernie
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Pena, End of Watch
Best Supporting Actress: Cecile de France, The Kid With a Bike
Underrated Films: Prometheus, The Dictator
Overrated Films: Silver Linings Playbook, The Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers
If I was an Oscar voter: Zero Dark Thirty, Michael Haneke (I haven’t seen Amour but it would be cool if he won), Daniel Day-Lewis, Jessica Chastain, Tommy Lee Jones, Helen Hunt. I think the Oscar nominations this year absolutely suck.
Worst Films of 2012: I’ll write this in an article about this later this week.  They deserve to be criticized at length.
Honorable Mention: Django Unchained, The Grey, A Late Quartet, Lincoln, Magic Mike

10. Compliance (Craig Zobel) Let me explain this pick.  First of all, I would not recommend you see this movie.  It is absolutely unbearable to watch.  Like Funny Games, it is not so much a movie or conventional story, but an experiment in illustrating human depravity manifested in its must vulgar forms.  The story (based on real-life events) takes place at a McDonalds restaurant, where a prank caller posing as a police detective orders one of the young female employees to strip, while various men are escorted in to “watch over” her.  It is neither entertaining nor sensational nor even particularly insightful.  It simply portrays the events as they surely must have happened, and it is horrifying.  It is like the 15-minute rape sequence in Irreversible stretched out to 85 minutes.  Some objected to the film’s sympathy for its characters’ unbelievably stupid actions, but the film effectively makes audiences question how blind compliance leads to unforgivable consequences.  The jury may be out on whether this is a “good” film or not, but few films have ever gotten deeper under my skin. 

9. Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki) When this film came out in September, most of the publicity it received was a result of its simultaneous DVD-theater-on demand release (“day-and-date” release).  But refreshingly, it actually turned out to be an outstanding film, starring Richard Gere (in maybe his best performance ever) as a hedge fund magnate who is caught in two serious, coinciding crises: The buyout of his firm, which has been guilty of accounting fraud for years, and the death of his mistress, for which he is squarely responsible.  The ways in which he is able to constantly get himself out of the walls caving in around him is amazing, and really makes you wonder whether the movie is just showing the powerful connections of Wall Street elite or, in a strange morbid way, romanticizing the craftiness of corrupt officials like Bernie Madoff (which Gere’s character appears at least partially inspired by).  Like last year’s brilliant Margin Call, this is a film rich with details about not just the downfall of Wall Street after the 2008 meltdown, but about the people most responsible (and subsequently affected) by the crash.  This is made all the more impressive by the fact that is the first feature screenplay and film by the 33-year-old director.

8. Looper (Rian Johnson)  Think Minority Report-meets-The Terminator with a little bit of Inception on the side.  It’s not just that the story is ingenious, involving elements of time-travel, black market crime syndicates, and vigilante terrorism, but that the particular dramatic situations cannot possibly be described without an intricate knowledge of the sophisticated world the movie creates.  The screenplay is ingenious in its construction of this dystopian future, but also its creation of interesting characters and wonderfully unique encounters (such as when Joseph Gordon-Levitt converses with Bruce Willis, the future version of himself, over a cup of coffee).  Where it lacks Minority Report’s jaw-dropping visual palette, it makes up for in a surprising degree of intimacy, particularly with the characters of Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt, who are left with the unenviable task of (yes, just go with me here) deciding how the fate of the world will be impacted through their actions.  And believe it or not, there is not a second of it which is corny.

7. End of Watch (David Ayer)  Technically it is a buddy cop film, but honestly, it is much deeper than that.  Not unlike The Hurt Locker, Ayer’s film explores the undercurrents of men who seek out dangerous situations for a living.  They do it not necessarily because they feel a larger duty to improve the world, but also because they are addicted to the thrill of it.  To them, there is no other worthwhile existence.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena play the two LAPD cops at the center of the story, who monitor the streets of South Central Los Angeles. The film charts roughly a year in their lives, as they go through various marriages and childbirths in the midst of ongoing drug busts and homicide investigations.  The film is exciting, funny, cynical, tense, and most of all, real.  These feel like extremely real people, which is the result of a unique handheld visual aesthetic, career-best performances by Gyllenhaal and Pena, and a story which at first seems familiar, but delves into quite unexpected terrain at times. 

6. The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield)  Let me describe this film for you (and hopefully you’re looking at the picture I’ve provided).  This is a documentary about Jaqueline “Jackie” Siegel, a bleached-blonde former model with an impressive boob job.  She is married to David Siegel, 30 years her senior and head of the world’s most profitable time-share corporation.  They are billionaires.  When the film opens in 2008, they are in the process of constructing the world’s most expensive private home (which they dub “Versailles,” pronouncing the “s”).  The first half-hour feels like a Real Wives-esque exploration into the absurd lives of the rich and famous.  But as this film goes along, it turns into something very different: a portrait of aristocratic people struggling to retain not only their economic status, but their dignity.  It does a tremendous job of showing (but not convincing) audiences why anyone ever voted for Mitt Romney.  And maybe the most amazing thing about it is that, in a strange way, the Siegels come off as . . . kind of likable.  Particularly Jackie, who is less bubbly and vapid as she is insightful, candid, and self-deprecating.  And I hate rich people.  I watched this film curious and bored late on a Saturday night.  I have been thinking about it ever since.

5. Bernie (Richard Linklater)  There was no funnier movie in 2012 than Bernie, and there was no performance as dynamic, hilarious, and surprisingly deep as Jack Black.  He plays an East Texas assistant funeral home director who befriends an elderly widow who everyone in town hates.  From there, the story turns into a dark comedy of manners by way of Texas stereotypes (always good fodder for Christopher Guest-inspired mockumentaries like this one).  This is the first collaboration of Black and Richard Linklater since their wonderful School of Rock in 2003, and like that film, Bernie features great music, hilarious one-liners, and a story which at first sounds contrived, but when put in the right hands, is completely unique and fascinating.  Also – the scene introducing the juror members in San Augustine may be the funniest scene I’ve ever seen in a movie.  I’m not being hyperbolic.  When I saw it, I went into compulsive, uncontrollable laugher and missed the next five minutes of the film attempting to be polite to the rest of the audience by controlling myself (unsuccessfully).

4. Argo (Ben Affleck)  Affleck’s three prior features (Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, and The Town) showed competency, even while lacking in sophisticated narrative structures, but Argo is clearly the finest film he’s ever been a part of behind the camera.  The story is compelling because it is constantly shifting between three interesting components: The plight of the hostages in hiding at the Canadian diplomat’s house, the escalating security crisis at the CIA, and the cynical lives of B-list film executives.  Appropriately, the film is full of heart-pulsing action and suspense, tense drama, and biting satire.  Can you think of a more unexpected hybrid of genres?  Not to mention, this film is all based on true declassified events.  There is not a single uninteresting moment in this film as the story is shown with great economy, rising tension, and many surprises.  This is one of many major Hollywood features in the last decade to deal with major crises in the Arab world, but this may be the only one that does it in such a riveting and flat-out entertaining manner.

3. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)  The Dardenne Brothers have never made a bad film (except maybe Lorna’s Silence, which was only OK) and The Kid With a Bike is one of their very best.  The story is, not surprisingly, simple: A 12-year-old boy (with, yes, a bike) is abandoned by his insolvent father, put in an orphanage, and befriended by kindly hairdresser who eventually becomes his guardian of sorts.  He then is tempted into criminal action in spite of his better instincts.  If this sounds like the plot of Oliver Twist, you’re not too far off, since the story also deals with issues of peer pressure, alienation and abandonment, and class divisions.  This is one of those wonderful movies, like last year’s A Separation, which shows straightforward, easily-understood events, but characters whose thoughts and actions are fascinating to read into.  Why does the boy resort to the actions he does?  Why is the woman so deeply drawn to him?  What will happen to these people?  In a lesser film, these might be flaws; in a great film like this, they are blissfully unresolved circumstances left to ponder by engrossed audiences.

2. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) Let’s tackle the controversy head on.  First, Republicans have vilified this film because it shows how torture tactics were used to gain intelligence from suspected terrorists (which they say had little direct impact on the Seal Team Six raid), while hunches such as the one Maya has in this film were routinely scoffed at by CIA bureaucracy.  Meanwhile, liberals claim that the film shows how the Obama administration’s anti-torture policies were met with resistance by anti-terrorism units.  Roger Ebert attacked the film (unfairly) as jargon-ridden poor storytelling, while the Academy distanced itself from controversy by not nominating it in several obvious categories (Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Sound).  All of this is inexplicable.  First of all, the torture scenes are shown as part of the larger reality of interrogation processes that existed in detention camps in the years following 9/11; as Bigelow herself recently told the Los Angeles Times, no one can deny that waterboarding was common, if not routine.  To exclude portraying it would be irresponsible and would make Bin Laden’s capture oversimplistic.  The Obama administration is tacitly criticized in the film, but by its characters, not its filmmakers, and the intent is to open up a wider discourse about how we treat suspected terrorists and what appropriate methods of gathering intelligence should be.  Not only is this masterful cinema, but like all great movies, it begs a meaningful dialogue afterwards.  I don’t know if this is a better or worse movie than The Hurt Locker, but for what it’s worth, Bigelow and Boal are the best filmmaking team working today.

1. The Hunger Games (Gary Ross) Like two years ago when I walked into a theater showing the bastardized American remake of Let the Right One In, I never in a million years would have guessed this movie would top my list of the year’s best films, let alone be mentioned on the list (except maybe a spot on the year’s worst films list).  But the truth is, from its opening moments and through its entire running length, The Hunger Games was the year’s most entertaining, unpredictable, and captivating motion picture.  It was the only 2012 film that, while watching it in a darkened, packed movie theater, made me completely forget about the real world around me.  Forget the fact, for a moment, that the film was based on a popular teen book series; this was a film that had a surprising amount of depth in its treatment of media, culture, and socio-economic divisions.  In an election year where the Right vilified “47 percent” of listless Americans (read: anyone not male, white, affluent, or straight), The Hunger Games’ portrayal of the lower districts’ triumph over the aristocratic elite was uplifting, powerful, and surprisingly relevant in today’s society.   Yes, Elizabeth Banks and Wes Bentley looked ridiculous, but if you can get past that, the story is quite deep.  But the film also worked as terrific entertainment, with Jennifer Lawrence giving the best “girl kicking ass” performance this side of Beatrix Kiddo.  Looking back at the last few years, the films which tend to be number one on my list share one trait: They take themselves seriously.  The Hunger Games could have been a kitschy, over-the-top action satire for teens, but Gary Ross and screenwriter Billy Ray knew this story was more than that, and they made a movie adaptation of the book far better than it deserved to be. 

Thoughts? Disagreements? As long as its not spoilers about Catching Fire, feel free to post below!


  1. In case you're interested... I asked Samantha to write her top ten list and this is what she came up with. Don't judge her otherwise excellent taste by the men she marries.

    1. "A Late Quartet"
    2. "End of Watch"
    3. "The Hunger Games"
    4. "Zero Dark Thirty"
    5. "Argo"
    6. "The Vow"
    7. "Looper"
    8. "Lincoln"
    9. "Django Unchained"
    10. "Lincoln"

  2. A few points...

    1. "Compliance" is nowhere bear as harrowing as you make it out to be. The reason it is difficult to watch is simply because it isn't very good.
    2. "Arbitrage" was solid, but don't compare it to "Margin Call".
    3. Ben Affleck didn't direct "Hollywoodland".
    4. Gyllenhaal's best performance was either in "Jarhead" or "Brothers".
    5. Good to know you didn't give up on the Dardenne brothers after "Lorna", which I still thought was terrific, by the way.
    6. I can't even think of "Hunger Games" without thinking about "Battle Royale" and how it was not only first to have that idea, but it was more provocative, thought-provoking, better acted, and more memorable.

    Overall, good list but I think I prefer Samantha's because her's has "Django" and her worst movie ("The Vow") is nowhere near as bad as "Compliance".

  3. Thanks for the point about Affleck. I need a fact-checker.
    I agree that "Hunger Games" shares more than just a passing resemblance to "Battle Royale," but why should that negatively impact what an exciting movie it was? Tarantino's films are almost entirely constructed out of other films. Alas, this is a fundamental disagreement that we will always have (along with films like "Compliance" and "Funny Games")...

    I like Samantha's list too. "A Late Quartet" just missed my top ten, but we both really enjoyed it. One reason we both loved "End of Watch" was that it was basically set in the neighborhood where she grew up lol.

  4. Nice list. I really want to watch the hunger games because of it's great effects and music. Thank you for sharing. I hope you can post more like this.

    Producer Chris Young