Last year’s picks were mostly surprises by relative newcomers. 2012 was a year where established storytellers showed there was a reason they were established.
10. The Invisible War
“In 1991, in Congressional testimony, it was estimated that 200,000 women had been sexually assaulted so far in the U.S. military.”
Probably one of the hardest films to watch of this or any other year, The Invisble War chornicles the historically high incidence of rape in the military and, perhaps as evil, the systematic persecution and denial of care for the victims. Director Kirby Dick (the highly recommended This Film Is Not Yet Rated) very simply, very bluntly tells the stories of these women (and men) who have insult added to assault after volunteering to serve their country. He exposes an infrastructure built to encourage and protect sexual predators, and points to some possible paths forward. Required viewing.
9. The Avengers
“Yeah, takes us a while to get any traction, I’ll give you that one. But let’s do a head count here: your brother the demi-god; a super soldier, a living legend who kind of lives up to the legend; a man with breath-taking anger management issues; a couple of master assassins, and YOU, big fella, you’ve managed to piss off every single one of them.”
It’s easy to forget just how ambitious this partiuclar superhero film is. The culmination of a project that encompasses four (arguably five) lead-up films and manages to balance the needs of a studio, a comic book empire, a voracious fandom, oh, and little things like plot and character, all while serving as proof of concept that medium of film can serve as a platform for establishing an entire narrative universe. And none of it feels as cumbersome as all those requirements suggest. Quite the opposite. It’s a fun, breezy exercise in classic set-up and payoff, that doesn’t skimp on all the fanboy fights (Hulk vs. Thor, Iron Man vs. Thor, Captain America vs. Thor…okay, a lot of people fight Thor) you’ve always wanted to see. It is, in essence, the platonic superhero movie. And validation for all the Joss Whedon fans who always knew he could do something big, but never expected him to make the third highest grossing film of all time.
“Do you see what comes of all this running around, Mr. Bond? All this jumping and fighting, it’s exhausting!”
After Quantum of Solace, it seemed even Craig’s bond would fall into a cycle of good-but-not-great entries, but Skyfall proves that Casino Royale doesn’t have to be a once in a generation phenomenon. Director Sam Mendes, who already proved a deftness in genre with Road to Perdition, shows he’s no slouch when it comes to action, adding a gothic, almost superhero-esque Sturm und Drang (right down to a climax in a church) to the proceedings; basically beating Dark Knight Rises at its own game. Javier Bardem is predictably magnificent as the villain out to avenge himself while proving how wrong our hero’s entire worldview is (funny how that’s becoming a trope) but he’s supported by a stellar cast, a tight script, and a strong sense of story that manages to balance the things that make a Bond film a Bond film while putting all of those things in a modern context that’s integral to the story. And Roger Deakins’ cinematography doesn’t exactly suck.
“I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.”
After watching Brick, any science fiction fan has to hope that writer/director Rian Johnson has at least a passing interest in the genre, because how great would it be to combine that storytelling talent with some mind-bending concepts. Good news. He’s totally into it. At least for this rousing, dark, unforgettalbe parable about what it might be like to meet your future self. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who had an amazing year) does his best Bruce Willis and Bruce Willis does his best, well, Bruce Willis while Johnson weaves his tale with tension, integrity, and exposition that never really feels like exposition. It also includes one of the most disturbing uses of time travel ever.
6. Moonrise Kingdom
“I can’t argue against anything you’re saying. But then again, I don’t have to, ’cause you’re 12 years old. Look, let’s face it, you’re probably a much more intelligent person than I am. In fact, I guarantee it. But even smart kids stick they’re finger in electrical sockets sometimes. It takes time to figure things out. It’s been proven by history. All mankind makes mistakes. It’s our job to try to protect you from making the dangerous ones, if we can.”
Another tried and true writer/director shows that he still has some tricks up his sleeve. This time its Wes Anderson, doing his best live action work since The Royal Tenenbaums in this small yet universal fairy tale about a boy and a girl out of synch with the rest of their community who try to build a world with each other in classic Anderson precocious child fashion. One sign that Anderson is growing as a director, he sets this tale in a very specific past, so he can’t rely on things like anachronistic music to add a cue of fantasy to his surroundings. Here, he has to make those things endemic to the setting and let the characters and the (superb) production design and cinematography do a lot of that heavy lifting. He’s in top form as a screenwriter (with Roman Coppola) here as well. In fact, the film includes what may be my favorite line of dialogue in a Wes Anderson film. It’s spoilery to say so, so I’ll white it out here (you’ll have to scroll over the space between the spoiler alerts to read it).
Sam: Those sons of bitches, they got him right through the neck.
Suzy: Was he a good dog?
Sam: Who’s to say? But he didn’t deserve to die.
I know, right?
“You’re going to tell one of your stories! I can’t stand to hear another one of your stories!”
This year, Steven Spielberg showed he wasn’t out of the game, in spite of the deservedly meh response to War Horse and The Adventures of Tin Tin. The smart move here was to cast impeccably (Daniely Day Lewis is Lincoln, more on what that actually means in a minute) and let screenwriter Tony Kushner be Tony Kushner. Don’t let the sweeping trailer fool you. This is basically a kick-ass episode of The West Wing: Civil War Unit. Aside from a sweeping camera move or two, Spielberg really just lets the actors read the amazing, amazing words. Part of the reason this works is because Lincoln himself is a storytellter. His super-power (or so the film would have you believe) was to talk people into doing things by telling them stories (to the point where one character actually leaves the room to avoid that eventuality). Which brings us back to Lewis’ performance. What makes Lewis’ performance work is that he’s not trying to evoke the 16th POTUS. Yes he’s hewing to certain historical accuracies like the high pitch of Lincoln’s voice, but for the most part he’s trying to find a guy who has a particular set of troubles and a particular set of strengths and the fact that he’s Abraham Fucking Lincoln is kind of an afterthought. You get the sense as you watch that you’re getting to know an individual, not The President. And that makes you care more about the stakes. You already know (spoiler alert) that he’s going to end slavery. So what more is there to care about? What the stakes are to him. Also, if you ever find yourself stuck back in time and the only way to get back is to find someone vaguely sketchy, just look for the guy who looks like James Spader. Seriously, it’s like who else was gonna play the lobbyist?
4. Django Unchained
“Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”
Tarantino is still, well, Tarantino. And while there’s much to say (although not in the way you might think) about the fact that this is a movie in the context of slavery (but not really about slavery) the key here is that Tarantino knows how to tell a genre tale in a unique way and that’s why we go see (or avoid) his movies. This film is no different and includes, perhaps, his best use of Sam Jackson to date. You can read my full review, but the reason there’s so little to say here is that Tarantino does what he does so well, that even when he’s doing a textbook version of himself, it’s enough to rate a movie this high on the list.
3. Zero Dark Thirty
“Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb. But people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb. So they’re using you guys as canaries. And, in theory, if bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser. But bin Laden is there. And you’re going to kill him for me.”
Imagine The French Connection, or perhaps All the President’s Men, where the target of the investigation is the most wanted man in American history. That’s Zero Dark Thirty. Not a rah-rah, gangbusters, let’s go get ‘im romp. Instead a painstakingly methodical and often distrubing look at just how hard, disorganized, and frustrating it is to look for someone who doesn’t want to be found and has vast resources to make sure that doesn’t happen, even with all the modern technology at our disposal. And the obsession (a Kathryn Bigelow trope) required to do that sort of work. Jessica Chastain is flawless as the agent who basically gives up her life to do this job, which puts her in a very precarious position when it’s finished. Alyssa Rosenberg performs an engrossing deconstruction of what that obsession says about us as Americans and what we were willing to give up after 9/11 and how lost we can feel without that as a motivator even ten years out. Zero Dark Thirty is, in that sense, the film of the decade.
Bigelow also makes some extremely intelligent decisions, not the least of which is how we spend the opening few minutes of the film. She manages to present us with the stakes in a way that we should be desensitized to by now, but she puts us right back in it (rather crucially, given where she takes us in the very next scene). There are also some wonderfully unexpected cameos—Mark Duplass and John Barrowman among them—that somehow enhance rather than disract from the proceedings.
“If I’m going to make a fake movie; it’s going to be a fake hit.”
In a year where several great films (Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty) hinge on events where we all know the outcome, perhaps none does a better job of making you forget that fact than Argo, proof that Ben Affleck kicks ass at more than just crime dramas set in Boston (in spite of this hilarious Onion article). There is no doubt in my mind that Affleck is one of the most talented storytellers out there (and he would have crushed Star Wars) and he has here, perhaps, his most ambitious, compelling, and best cast stories to date. And rather than trying to soften the absurdity of the premise (CIA operative creates a fake movie as a ruse to get a bunch of Americans out of Iran), he leans into it, making this one of funniest thrillers of all time. Most of that comes from indelible performances by Alan Arkin and John Goodman as the Hollywood operatives of the plot. But don’t let that fool you. When shit gets real in this movie, it gets fucking real and you’re ready to wet your pants. Espcially in the opening moments where we see the initial embassy storming that leads to the crisis. We see Affleck capture the sense of impending chaos in a way few directors really know how. Enhancing all of this is an almost fanatical dedication to period. Even the soundtrack. When a Van Halen song comes on in the middle of the film, it doesn’t come blasting through the theater’s high end speakers in a Dolby surround sound kind of way; it sounds like it would coming out of 1980 analog speakers with lots of tinny goodness.
1. The Cabin in the Woods
“We are not who we are.”
This is the movie that I’ll annoy you about. In fact, I’ll be most vocal on the subject. Have you seen it yet? When are you going to see it? Why are you not seeing it right now? But it’s because I had such a positive, mind-blowing, satisfying experience watching it (both times and then again during the directors commentary) and I can’t talk to you about it until you’ve seen it because it’s so damn spoilery.
For now, let’s just say it is one of the most successful reframings of a genre I have ever seen. Not just conceptually, but on a storytelling and character basis. In fact, it is integral to both the story and the character that the genre be reframed as it is, and that is part of why it’s successful. It’s not just look at me and look how clever this premise is. It’s look at this story, look at these characters, and in doing so you’ll see how fucking clever this all is. It’s all of a piece. Even the costume design (and don’t click on that link until you’ve seen the movie) is employed to that end.
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard work off a script they concoted in, like, a weekend or some shit—as a screenwriter I kind of hate them right now. For Whedon’s part this makes 2012 a year in contrasts. There’s the perfect satisfaction of genre that is The Avengers. High cost and high grossing. Then there is the perfect subversion of genre that is The Cabin in the Woods. Low cost and low grossing. And yet Whedonesque themes pervade both.
Honorable mentions, in no particular order:
21 Jump Street
The Raid: Redemption
Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Safety Not Guaranteed
The Queen of Versailles
Side by Side