By: Daniel Reynolds
I haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty yet. All told, this is the great tragedy of my life in 2012. As of this writing it hasn’t been released in Canada (and apparently won’t get release here until mid-January). This fact looms over my look back at film in 2012. Hell, even the trailers for that film loom over my very being. Some movies just get you jazzed, or is that just me?
Let’s say you do get jazzed like me, then the general feeling out there is that 2012 was a great year for film. This is definitely true. I saw about 40 or so movies in the theatre and it still feels like I missed some things (Sorry, David. And Joe. And William. And… well, you get the idea). The thinking goes that 2012 showed a huge uptick in film quality over 2011, which I suppose is true (because, The Artist? Come on), though I really, really liked my top three from last year (Drive, Beginners and Shame, if you were curious).
Since I’ve already read too many “Film in 2012 was Great!” columns, it forces me into a bit of a corner. I mean, I still want my chance to talk about my favourite films of the year in a fresh and fun way, and reflect on the good quality movies we, as discerning moviegoers, got to enjoy. But then I admit all of this is probably a roundabout (200+ word way) for me to say that I’ve had some trouble coming up with a definitive Top 10 list of favourite 2012 films. I’ve had the same Word document open for two weeks now, showing an abyss of titles that are, as promised, staring just as hard back into me. But then, there’s the rub: with so many good films, how do we decide what is important? or favourite? or best? Sure, I haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty, but, ah, still such quality; maybe abyss was too strong a word.
OK, OK, now we’re nearing 300 words and I need to make up my mind. So here it goes, starting with number ten (actually, eleven. It’s my list and I’ll do what I want). My unscientific, arbitrary list of the films that clung to my head and heart the most this past year:
10) The Master / Killing Them Softly – I had to include both, I swear. The Master was the film I looked forward to the most this year and while it did not get my heart racing as There Will be Blood did, P.T. Anderson’s document of a bizarre relationship between cult leader and follower (played perfectly by Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman), swimming in the seas of post-war America is as challenging as it is mesmerizing. Similarly, Killing Them Softly also tells a story of life in modern America, one shaped by hard codes of conduct that when broken must be fixed. While the former features men seeking an identity, the latter is imminently certain of who its characters (including the lean, cool Brad Pitt) are and what must happen to them.
9) Moonrise Kingdom – Mustering all of the forces of his dry wit and detailed set design, Wes Anderson continues his streak of grown-up films detailing childhood innocence. Like the brewing storm the film continuously portends, Moonrise Kingdom’s tale of overwhelming (yet always drying detached) young love is filled with a achingly touching details (about small things like, you know, aging, love, death, etc.) that merge together and, as is becoming Anderson’s signature, eventually sneak up and overwhelm you. That his universe has now expanded to include Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel just adds to the delight.
8) Magic Mike – Look, I could talk about Channing Tatum’s one man goofy charisma show, or McConaughey’s awesome performance as the slippery king of a strip club empire, or the keen eye of Steven Soderbergh and the cinematography that captures beauty in parking lots and go-kart tracks, (or the ongoing presence of Kevin Nash) but you get the idea. Magic Mike, like the best of films (and like its star!), has a keen sense of what it is and is not, it understands its strengths but then, shrugs its shoulders, shimmies away, and seeks to transcend them anyway.
7) Django Unchained – On one level, Tarantino’s films work as viciously good bits of entertainment; and Django Unchained is definitely no different. The film, concerning the quest for vengeance of the titular freed slave, slides into that unconsciously satisfying sweet spot that few directors achieve, and fewer still could sustain with QT’s signature combination of the cinematically old and the shockingly new. This film has Don Johnson as a smug Colonel Sanders type, Jonah Hill as a goofy proto-klansman, a German bounty hunter supplied by Cristoph Waltz (who was clearly born to be in Tarantino’s films), an over-the-top Leo DiCaprio, a subdued, coolly heroic Jamie Foxx, and more blood than literally every western movie pre-Peckinpah. But then there is that other level, the one that stares right into the heart of darkness of America, the immense evil of slavery, and the complexly wrought roles, represented brilliantly here by Samuel L. Jackson, that were formed over the centuries.
6) Argo – A real, slickly made Hollywood film about the making of a fake, slickly made Hollywood film. Did you get all that? I hope so because, hey, bonus, Argo also doubles as an intense political thriller caper film involving the clever escape of some would-be American hostages smuggled out of Iran during the hostage crisis. With many films this year suffering from cases of bloat to varying degrees (Django at 166 minutes, fine. The Hobbit at 170, was that necessary?), it was refreshing to see an energetic movie like Argo, one that propels its story with effective (re: very effective) white-knuckled suspense, leavens it with some cute characters and humour and then mostly gets out of the way (though Affleck the director should still have a talk with Affleck the actor).
5) Middle of Nowhere – Maybe it was the early hour (I saw this film during TIFF on an early Saturday morning), or the radiance of star Emayatzy Corinealdi, but I fell for Middle of Nowhere hard. This under seen film concerns the story of Ruby, a young woman whose bright future is thrown into heartrending doubt as she consoles her recently jailed husband at the outset of the film. From there, director Ava DuVernay, winds a pitch perfect drama involving the conflicts between mothers and daughters, the tragedy of a life deferred, and the hope, however random or impossible, that a person can find their way. There are scenes in this film, all with Corinealdi’s Ruby, that I can still recall clearly: her standing alone at the desert bus stop, a confrontation with her mother at the kitchen table, a walk with a possible new romance. It’s the kind of film where, after it ends, you hope that somewhere, right now, Ruby is doing alright.
4) Looper – In 2012, as has been said again and again and again, it is hard to be creative, original and inventive in film. For every bold, writ large, movie like Inception, there are a dozen remakes, reboots, and sequels (not that there is anything wrong with that. See #3). Despite the odds, Rian Johnson has now reached a new apex of big picture originality with Looper, his ingenious ode to sci-fi (time traveling Bruce Willis!), noir (evil gangster Jeff Daniels!), and straight-up cowboy showdowns (Emily Blunt and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s last stand at the farm house!). Perhaps it is just plain refreshing to jump into a movie that establishes its rules clearly, trusts its audience enough to grasp its premise, and then churns expectations just enough to instill new excitement. As far as I’m concerned, Johnson is now three for three and I can’t wait to see what he devises next.
3) The Dark Knight Rises – Batman Begins was my favourite movie of 2005. The Dark Knight was my favourite movie of 2008. It would have been disingenuous of me to not include the Dark Knight Rises somewhere on this list. If not for a few troublesome plot bits (did Batman have to be so mopey? why exactly did they have to detonate that bomb at the last possible second?), it would probably be my #1. No other movie this year had so many moving parts coming together to maintain such a sustained climax of action and character payoff while incorporating everything I love about Nolan’s Batman franchise run. A fitting send-off for a series of movies that will be tough to top.
2) Silver Linings Playbook – There was a time when I probably would have outwardly rolled my eyes at the idea of Silver Linings Playbook. Man with mental illness meets suffering woman, romance ensues, wounds healed. It reads like any number of bad romance plots in all forms of media. But then David O. Russell tackles it like a charging defensive lineman, injecting it with wonderfully sly cultural details (Philly life, football obsession, ballroom dancing), true-to-life family dysfunction (featuring great work at last from De Niro) and anchored by two clear-eyed performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. This film could have gone wrong a million different ways, the fact that it succeeds, on its own slightly deranged and bizarre merits, is quite an accomplishment.
1) Goon – I wrote down all the movies I saw. And then I started thinking about the movies that affected me the most. Then I started thinking about the movies that I would want to watch again. Then I made a list. And it just kept coming back to Goon. I couldn’t help it. There were a slew of movies that were, technically speaking, more artistically filmed, and perhaps more creatively realized. But then, none of them had as great a character as Doug “The Thug” Glatt; or Ross “The Boss” Rhea for that matter, or Eva, or even Xavier LaFlamme. Yes, my favourite film of the year was directed by the guy who made Fubar, written, with much crassness, by Jay Baruchel (who couldn’t resist writing in a character for himself), and starred Seann William Scott (a.k.a forever Stifler). It was not the most pretty movie of 2012, but it completely obliterated the standard tropes it was based in, had heart for days, and contained the most rousing conclusion I’ve seen this year. Cheers to Goon, and cheers to 2012.