Film Feature: The 10 Best Films of 2012

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CHICAGO – It’s that weird time of year where movie fans around the world try to capture different projects from different parts of the world with entirely different motives and compare them as if they were the same. What does a sci-fi instant classic like “Looper” have in common with a personal piece like “Beasts of the Southern Wild”? How can we compare something as epic as “Lincoln” with something as intimate as “The Deep Blue Sea”? How does the escapism of “Skyfall” match up with the personal expression of “Moonrise Kingdom”? As much as we love reading top ten lists, the fact is that they’re pretty silly at their core. And it’s important to note that these were my favorite films of 2012 as of today. Next month, something in the runner-ups might hit me a different way and move up the list or something in my top ten may not hold up on repeat viewing. Anyone who tells you their list is etched in stone is lying.

Was 2012 a “good year”? It wasn’t for a very long time. I didn’t give my highest rating to any non-documentary film until September. But then the year exploded in quality and it continues to do so — a few of my favorite films of the year are not even in theaters yet. What attracted me most this year were the filmmakers that went for something that would have terrified most other people. Making a movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden included dozens of potential melodramatic pitfalls. The saga of how long it took a film about Abraham Lincoln to get to the big screen only makes how remarkable the final product ended up that much more notable. Films like “Looper,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” and “The Cabin in the Woods” that defied genre expectations were wonderful surprises that definitely will stand the test of time.

The top films for me displayed an understanding of the craft of filmmaking that is too rare in cinema these days. The way Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck compressed complex stories of Middle Eastern conflict into daring thrillers. The personal expression of films made by Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, and Stephen Chbosky. The visual storytelling of Robert Zemeckis, J.A. Bayona, and Sam Mendes. The decisions made by Tom Hooper, Quentin Tarantino, Joss Whedon, and Terence Davies that defy genre rules.

The films I chose for my top ten were more mainstream than most years as I think I longed for Hollywood to find its spectacle again — to give viewers larger than life stories that resonated beyond the multiplex. Cinema can capture events like the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, a deadly tsunami, a plane crash, and a spy who just won’t die in ways that no other art form can, and I valued that this year more than most. And, to be fair, I loved several of the films just outside my top ten, especially the personal visions of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (#11), “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (#12), “Holy Motors” (#13), and “The Deep Blue Sea” (#14). There were many good-to-great films in 2012. These are just my 20 favorite.

Note: As I have done in some years past, I cheated a bit this year and separated documentary films to another list, which will run next week. The year was so strong for docs that I want to give them their own space. I also just can’t wrap my brain around comparing something like “The Invisible War” to something like “Skyfall,” given their completely different cinematic goals.

Runner-Ups (in alphabetical order): “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Cabin in the Woods,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “Django Unchained,” “Holy Motors,” “Marvel’s The Avengers,” “Monsieur Lazhar,” “Paranorman,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and “Safety Not Guaranteed”.

10. “Moonrise Kingdom”

Moonrise Kingdom
Moonrise Kingdom
Photo credit: Focus

Wes is finally back. After spending a bit too much time in his own quirky world with misses like “The Life Aquatic” and “The Darjeeling Limited,” Wes Anderson returned to the peak of his abilities, displayed in beloved films like “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” with this lovely tale of young love and the adults impacted by it. Anderson has a singular gift in his ability to channel whimsy through the eyes of children older than their physical age and adults who never grew up. The innocence of his best work returns in the form of Sam Shakusky, a kid willing to do anything for the girl who catches his eye. The biggest surprise of “Moonrise Kingdom” is that it’s Anderson’s least cynical and affected film to date. He made a kid’s movie (“The Fantastic Mr. Fox”) and then found his inner child again.

9. “Looper”

Photo credit: Summit

Just as Wes Anderson was allowed to bring the full creativity of his vision to “Moonrise Kingdom” so was “Looper” made great by the freedom Rian Johnson was given to craft an incredibly daring sci-fi masterpiece without compromise. “Looper” is personal, dark, daring, weird, and refreshingly unique. Like “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix,” films to which it deserves comparison, it is a more than a genre film — it is the vision of a remarkably talented filmmaker. I love the way Johnson stays just ahead of the viewer in terms of storytelling. He gives you just enough road map to stay on the trail, but he’s leading the way the entire time and you don’t know for sure what’s around the next bend. “Looper” is a delight not just in its glorious sense of plotting but also in its character and style.

8. “Flight”

Photo credit: Paramount

What if a man could crash a plane and still not hit the rock bottom of his addiction? Pilot Whip Whitaker has never thought about the innocent lives he puts at risk every time he gets high and drunk and enters the cockpit, and the fact that he saved dozen of lives in that state just makes him that much more assured that he can manage his addictions. Robert Zemeckis and writer Josh Gatins craft that all-too-rare adult original drama in the riveting “Flight,” a complex character study that weaves personal responsibility, the role of religion in crisis, and addiction into a story that plays like a thriller. And Zemeckis’ eye for visual storytelling has been fortified by his time making motion-capture films, finding ways to tell this story that allow for personal interpretation while also appealing to a mass audience. I have some issues with the final minutes of “Flight,” but what comes before is such assured, confident filmmaking on every level that I think history will regard it as one of the most underrated films of 2012.

7. “The Impossible”

The Impossible
The Impossible
Photo credit: Summit

Cinema has long played an important role in transporting viewers into situations that they would never otherwise appreciate and can barely emotionally comprehend. The tsunami that plays the central role in J.A. Bayona’s devastating film about the 2004 disaster is a true cinematic accomplishment, plunging viewers into a life or death situation through the emotional commitment of Bayona’s talented actors — particularly the great Naomi Watts and one of the best young performances in years from Tom Holland — and a technical skill that makes the unimaginable feel real. Some of “The Impossible” plays out as a bit routine in terms of this kind of storytelling, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the heartstring-pulling didn’t work on me. I found the truth of Watts, Holland, and Ewan McGregor and their quest to be reunited more powerful than any sociopolitical debate other critics have wanted to have about telling a Thai story versus a white one. It’s important that we don’t overly intellectualize one of the purest purposes of film — to move us. And, without a doubt, Bayona’s film moved me.

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