Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Best Films of 2012

More than ever in my life, my movie ticket stubs tell my story. My experience as a human being is so deeply tied to my trips to the cinema that I’m able to relive the joy, pain, melancholy, heartbreak and richness of a life-changing semester simply by flipping through my stack of ticket stubs. Some of the films on this list are here because they affected me deeply; others are heightened by their association with a particular state of mind or feeling that came over me while watching them, or perhaps even those who were with me or weren’t with me for a particular film. There is no such thing as an objective movie-going experience – your inner pain, sorrow and love are reflected back when you go to the movies. Sometimes it’s the person sitting next to you. Sometimes it’s the fact that you’re alone, and the cinema is able to wash over you, like a dream. Like life, the cinema is something you experience alone, in your head, and whether you share the space with a packed audience or an empty house, it’s a personal journey that comes as close as anything else I’ve experienced to illuminating who we are.

Sometimes, it's impossible to explain an experience to someone else without associating it with the movie involved. I will always remember Cloud Atlas a certain way because of how I saw it, and that film will never mean the same thing to me. Nor will The Sessions ever mean as much to me as it did in that particular moment after it ended. As Martin Scorsese would say, "Movies are the memories of our lifetime." And so I excitedly present the best movies I saw this year, with films starring many of my favorite actors - Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta and Daniel Day-Lewis - all making the list.

It's worth noting that this was an extraordinary year for American film, and the ranking seems almost arbitrary among the top four films. This year, Joaquin Phoenix, Daniel Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington gave three of the best screen performances I've ever seen, and picking just one of them for Best Actor is almost impossible. I also fully intend to write another post on the rest of the year's best films, because there were many - Not Fade AwayThe Dark Knight Rises, Argo, The Sessions, Looper, Take This WaltzThis Must Be The Place, End of Watch, Arbitrage, Magic Mike, Holy Motors, The Perks of Being A Wallflower and Savages, just to name a few - that I had to leave off this list.

1. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell) 

If there’s a film with a particular aesthetic this year that really strikes me as what I’d like to achieve with my work, it’s David O. Russell's wonderful Silver Linings Playbook. It has the raw, energetic vitality and subjectivity of a Scorsese picture, and yet the camerawork isn’t nearly as stylized and polished. It’s all handheld and ideal for capturing the brilliant comic and dramatic timing of the actors. Russell is the rare filmmaker who lets an ensemble shine to its fullest while also making bold and powerful directorial choices with camera. It’s unlikely that a film like Silver Linings Playbook will win many awards for its cinematography – this is not a sweeping epic, but an intimate film – but it absolutely should be considered. There's an uneasiness to the camerawork in the film, as if at any moment Russell is going to push in quickly and Pat (Bradley Cooper) is really going to lose it. O. Russell makes brilliant walking movies – in both Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter (2010), we’re introduced to a neighborhood and community by following a walking or jogging character joyously tumble through the neighborhood. His talent for assembling a furiously engaging soundtrack matches Scorsese’s gift for music, too. He’s all rock-and-roll. With Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, Russell has skyrocketed to one of my favorite American directors.

And although it’s a moving and believable romance, the film itself isn’t afraid to get dark and explore the potential violence inherit in mental illness. I’ve rarely cared more deeply about a set of characters – even minor supporting ones, such as the characters played by Chris Tucker and John Ortiz – than I do in this picture. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence give two of the finest performances of the year.

What can I say about Robert De Niro in this picture? His work here is so moving and powerful. After being virtually ignored for impeccable performances in recent years (Everybody’s Fine, Stone, Being Flynn, The Good Shepherd), it looks like De Niro will receive his first Academy Award nomination in twenty-one years. He deserves to win for this performance – not because he wasn’t even nominated for The King of Comedy (1983), Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), Once Upon A Time in America (1984), Casino (1995), Heat (1995), Wag the Dog (1997), The Untouchables (1987), A Bronx Tale (1993) and countless other classics, although they most certainly owe him – but because he gives the best supporting turn of the year.

2.  The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) 

After three viewings of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, it’s still difficult to really express how I feel about this melancholic love story. I can say with great certainty that it's the finest film Anderson has made yet, and that's saying something, as his There Will Be Blood (2007) and Magnolia (1999) are two of my favorite films of all time.

In the opening of the film, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) leaves to be a seaman in World War II. His sweetheart, Doris, writes to him, but he never writes back. At war, he is restless and at odds with the other men in his company. His behavior is perverse and immature. But beneath his embarrassing sexual behavior is a kind of restless longing for love and understanding. After he returns from the war, he’s aimless – he hops from job to job, drinking booze wherever he can find it. When he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a new religious movement called the Cause, Freddie finds direction and purpose. Even if he doesn’t always buy the theories of the Cause, Freddie finds a kind of father figure in Lancaster.

Where is Freddie’s father? Freddie tells a stranger early on in the film that he reminds him of his father (a stranger who later dies from Freddie's strong booze), and Freddie later reveals that his father died from alcoholism. His relationship with Lancaster develops into something resembling a kind of father-son bond. It’s fascinating to look back at Freddie’s aggression toward a man he is photographing in the department store early in the film, who strangely resembles Lancaster – does this man remind him of his father?

Anderson’s films, as many have noted, almost always concern father-son relationships. In my Advanced Production class, we noted the similarities between the first processing scene on the boat in The Master (one of the most electrifying and best-acted scenes in recent cinema) and the interview scene in Magnolia between Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) and the reporter barraging him with questions.

In my opinion, the finest section of The Master begins with Lancaster sitting alone in a darkened room, looking out on his unsuspecting followers. He looks deeply conflicted, enshrouded in darkness (looking uncannily like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane), and although we don’t ever come to know Lancaster’s specific doubts about what he’s preaching, this scene establishes that doubts, or some form of uncertainty, exist. After following Lancaster out toward his eager audience, we watch Freddie in the crowd, as he listens to Lancaster speak. Something feels false to Freddie. We don’t know exactly what it is that strikes him this way, but that’s not important. Confused, Freddie does his established walking exercise, when he comes across a publisher (Kevin J. O’Connor) from New York. The publisher asks Freddie what he thinks of Lancaster’s latest book. Freddie, conflicted, asks the publisher what he thinks. When Freddie hears his worst fears confirmed by the publisher - that the book is hogwash - he lashes out at him, except it’s different from the first time Freddie went nuts on someone who dared dissent against the Master. This time, Freddie escorts the publisher outside, beats him, and then sinks on a nearby bench, his head in his hands. It’s here that Freddie understands he isn’t the only one who thinks the Cause is completely false – and yet, as always, Freddie so desperately needs something in which to believe. In the next scene, he takes off on the motorcycle, leaving Dodd and the Cause.

Seeing The Master for a second or third time allows for a deeper understanding of Amy Adams’ character – I gathered that she is almost more deeply committed to the Cause than her husband. “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world," Lancaster says to Freddie near the end of the film. Is he talking about his wife? 

By the time Freddie arrives at Doris’ house near the end of the film and speaks to her mother, we’re looking at a different person. Freddie has matured. What’s astonishing about The Master is that it doesn’t discredit the positive effects the Cause has on Freddie. Through his commitment to Lancaster and his cause, Freddie arguably come to terms emotionally with many of his demons, and resists many of his primal urges when he could not before.
I reject the notion that the film is too distant – I found it more emotionally moving than There Will Be Blood. The film is almost entirely subtextual, and in its own strange way, it is an emotionally cathartic film. At the end of the film, Freddie is still the same lost boy, albeit matured and looking for something deeper. That something deeper, though, isn’t the Cause. The last shot of the film encapsulates Freddie’s eternal struggle – everything he reaches for dissolves into sand. He strives for acceptance in a group and he longs for love, but by the end, the only woman beside him is that imaginary sand goddess, who crumbles into sand just like everything else.

3. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) 

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is the most fun I’ve had at the cinema in some time. The picture borrows elements from many of the great revisionist westerns, including Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) and unfolds into a gloriously violent and exhilarating western that is every bit as masterful as Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).

But as outrageously funny and gleefully entertaining as Django Unchained is, Tarantino isn’t afraid to graphically depict the horrors of slavery. The violence in the film is absolutely necessary – first, to brutally capture the way slaves were treated (in a way that few films have ever attempted), and secondly, to allow Django to paint the walls red with retribution. If you were among those who clapped during the last thirty minutes of Inglourious Basterds, you’ll have no shortage of smiles during this film.

There’s not really a need to explain why Django Unchained works so well. I love this movie for the same reasons I love Pulp Fiction (1994) and every other Tarantino film. His writing is impeccable. Every performance is brilliant – from Jamie Foxx’s quiet and understated work as Django to Samuel L. Jackson’s hilariously un-hip servant Stephen. Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz will likely both be nominated for Academy Awards, because, well, it’s just about impossible to pick a favorite between their outstanding supporting turns. DiCaprio, the best actor of his generation, continually gives unbelievably complex performances (J. Edgar, Shutter Island, Inception, Revolutionary Road, The Departed) that the Academy chooses to ignore, and so I can only hope that they not only nominate him this year, but give him the Oscar.  

4. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)

To say that I’ve been looking forward to Lincoln for many years would be a massive understatement. This is the film I was hoping Steven Spielberg would make right after his masterful Munich (2005), and now, seven years later, Spielberg has given us one of the richest and most extraordinary films of his career. Lincoln is a portrait of President Abraham Lincoln in the months leading up to the end of the Civil War, with emphasis placed on the congressional fight to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (who has written the most complex, dense and thoughtful script of this year) are careful to examine the moral grey areas in Lincoln’s decision-making, and the film’s presentation of the democratic process is fittingly chaotic.

The central performance by Day-Lewis as Lincoln is impeccable. Where Lincoln excels better than any Spielberg film, however, is in the supporting ensemble – every new scene comes alive with rich characterizations by many of the finest working character actors. Acting nominations are in order for David Strathairn, as Secretary of State William Seward; Sally Field, as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln; James Spader, as political lobbyist W.N. Bilbo; and especially Tommy Lee Jones, who, as radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, gives a thunderous performance that is both endlessly quotable and quietly moving. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a gentle and articulate man not without his own doubts and uncertainties. This is a beautifully understated performance that will likely earn Day-Lewis his third Oscar.

Lincoln belongs in the same tier as Schindler's List, Minority Report, Jaws and Munich as a genuine Spielberg masterpiece.

5. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

The obsessive hunt to capture Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty calls to mind another masterpiece, David Fincher's Zodiac (2007). Both movies are procedurals in which the hunt consumes the life of the protagonist, and in Zero Dark Thirty, we have one of the best characters of the year with Maya (Jessica Chastain). Like Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, the characterization in this picture is subtle, and the film's political stance is largely objective (which seems to enrage just about everyone). And even though this manhunt has a more satisfying historical conclusion than the one in Zodiac, this isn't a triumphant movie. What's left of Maya by the end of the film? Zero Dark Thirty is a powerful and complex portrait of our country. Anyone claiming that this film endorses torture is an idiot, and the only thing anyone is accomplishing by accusing this film of such things is begging Hollywood to only make movies without any acknowledgment of moral ambiguity. Zero Dark Thirty is the kind of film we need. 

6. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom – the director’s first film since the should-have-been-Oscar-winning animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) – was the movie event of the summer. This is a poignant and hilarious picture; it’s hard to imagine someone not responding to this material. On a personal level, I haven’t been so deeply affected by one of Anderson’s films since The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), one of the last films I saw with my father before he passed away.

In a New England community in the 1960s, twelve year-old outcasts Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) run away from home together, convinced beyond any doubt that they are in love (once on the adventure, they are aided by Sam’s considerable skills as a Khaki Scout). Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are among the adults and parents leading a search-and-rescue mission to find Sam and Suzy. Willis and Norton, in particular, do some of their best work in years.

In this film, Anderson beautifully expresses both the joy and melancholy of first love. Even though Moonrise Kingdom does end on a positive note, there’s still a hint of a dissatisfied adulthood waiting for our protagonists by the end of their adventure. Whether Suzy and Sam end up together in the long run is irrelevant – their love will never feel as real and as powerful as it does in their memory. Their utopian ‘moonrise kingdom’ is something the adults have long since abandoned, and soon enough, it will exist only in Suzy and Sam’s memories.

7. Flight (Robert Zemeckis) 

If there’s another film on this list besides Silver Linings Playbook that’s representative of the sort of film I’d like to make, it is Robert Zemeckis' Flight, a powerful portrait of alcohol addiction. The film opens with an exhilarating plane crash sequence, and then unfolds into a moving character study of a man who cannot stop lying to himself. This is one of the most mature and understanding films about addiction that I’ve ever seen, and the fact that such a tortured and morally complex character is the center of a big Hollywood film is astounding. There are an endless number of things I love about this film, including its association of certain pop songs with a particular state-of-mind (for instance, Feelin’ Alright by Joe Cocker indicates a cocaine high).

There are so many powerful moments in this film. Consider the scene when Whip is dragged to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and is forced to suffer through testimony from recovered alcoholics who have found a kind of peace about which Whip can only dream. Or the subtle moment as his doomed flight takes off, as Whip throttles his plane forward, humming Feelin’ Alright, staring ahead into the stormy abyss. Whip navigating his upside-down plane is as powerful a visual metaphor as you can find in a film this year. Flight is also the story of multiple addicts and survivors. Kelly Reilly’s performance as Whip’s new girlfriend, recovering heroin addict Nicole, is very effective.

8. Life of Pi (Ang Lee)

Ang Lee's Life of Pi is an overwhelmingly moving adaptation of Yann Martel's great book, which tells the inspiring and allegorical story of a young boy stranded by himself on a lifeboat with a large tiger in the middle of the ocean. What's extraordinary in this film is how cinematic the entire experience is, without losing nearly anything from the novel. The use of 3D in this film is every bit as outstanding as in Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and I can't think of another recent film so deserving of an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. You couldn't have asked for a more brilliant director for this material than Lee, the visionary filmmaker behind films as diverse as Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Ice Storm (1997), Sense and Sensibility (1995) and the underrated Hulk (2003). 

9. Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)

Les Miserables holds a very special place in my heart – I know most of the lyrics by memory, and in high school my friend Austin Kingsbery and I advanced to Nationals with Confrontation (he played Javert and I was Valjean). Yes, I’ve longed to see this musical on film (even though I’ve always secretly harbored the desire to direct an adaptation myself, in my imaginary future as a film director). With its emphasis on performance over musical prettiness, Tom Hooper’s film version represents a bold new approach to shooting a musical, and I think it pays off beautifully. I’ve never felt so intimately and emotionally affected by the characters in a musical, and in an age where many movies seem consumed by self-referential irony, I appreciate Hooper’s unwillingness to inject even a hint of irony into the film. This is a tragic opera, and it is the Les Miserables adaptation that the fans of the musical deserve.

Hugh Jackman, as Valjean, and Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, are every bit as outstanding as you've heard, but let's not count out Russell Crowe, who brings a grave understanding to Javert that's unique and worth applauding. I've seen the musical many times, but I've never seen it like this – so intimate and so unapologetically emotional. Although I’ll never quite get over the fact that Hooper won the Best Director Oscar for The King’s Speech over David Fincher for The Social Network, I have to hand it to Hooper here – he has made a wonderful movie.

10. Bernie (Richard Linklater) 

Bernie stands alongside Before Sunset and Dazed and Confused as one of Austinite Richard Linklater’s finest films. In this endlessly funny and sometimes achingly sad true story of small-town murder, actual locals from Carthage, Texas recount the tale of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a beloved small-town mortician on trial for murdering a disliked elderly woman (Shirley MacLaine).

East Texas is an area that hasn't received much cinematic attention (and an area that I hold close to my heart, having spent quite a bit of my childhood in Hallsville and Longview, where my father grew up), and it comes to vivid life as a loving and warped environment in Linklater’s film. I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Linklater after a screening of the film in New York City, and he remains the quintessential Texas filmmaker. Bernie, which also features career-best performances from Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey (who also excelled this year in Magic Mike and Killer Joe) is a testament to Linklater’s enduring genius.

Best Picture

Winner: Silver Linings Playbook

Runners-Up: The Master, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Zero Dark ThirtyMoonrise Kingdom

Best Director

Winner: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Runners-Up: Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master; Steven Spielberg, Lincoln; Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained; Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty; Ang Lee, Life of Pi; Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom

Best Actor

Winner: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

Runners-Up: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln; Denzel Washington, Flight; Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook; Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables; Sean Penn, This Must Be The Place; Robert De Niro, Being Flynn; Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained; John Hawkes, The Sessions; Jack Black, Bernie; Richard Gere, Arbitrage

Best Actress

Winner: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Runners-Up: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty; Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz; Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone; Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea; Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

Runners-Up: Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained; Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master; Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln; Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained; Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike, Bernie and Killer Joe; Bruce Willis, Moonrise Kingdom and Looper; Benicio Del Toro, Savages; Russell Crowe, Les Miserables; David Strathairn, Lincoln; Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Sally Field, Lincoln

Runners-Up: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables and The Dark Knight Rises; Amy Adams, The Master; Helen Hunt, The Sessions; Kelly Reilly, Flight; Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook; Emily Blunt, Looper; Samantha Barks, Les Miserables; Kerry Washington, Django Unchained

Best Original Screenplay

Winner: Django Unchained

Runners-Up: Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, Flight, Zero Dark ThirtyLooper

Best Adapted Screenplay

Winner: Lincoln

Runners-Up: Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi, Argo

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