Thursday, January 3, 2013

Wide Angle: 2012 in Review

Last winter a friend and I went to the local multiplex to catch the superhero found-footage movie Chronicle.  In the middle of its explosive climax, a fellow theatergoer leaned over to us across the empty seat buffer and gave us this cheerful analysis of the film:

“Somethin’ different!”

From unsolicited opinion to rallying cry, those two words are appropriate approbation for my movie year 2012.  This being the year that I finally caved in to Twitter (and because I should have launched the #somethingdifferent movement much earlier), I thought it would be fitting to come up with hashtags for the trending topics of the year....    

You just can’t argue with People magazine

Matthew McConaughey gets the last laugh

Effeminate Southern civic boosters are the toughest guys in Bernie and The Campaign

A banner year for Messrs. Heidecker and Wareheim along with Girls star Alex Karpovsky's Red Flag

Another stellar year for unsung non-fiction: The ImposterJiro Dreams of SushiWest of Memphis + more...

Paternal issues loom large in Men in Black IIIThe Master, and Lincoln (aka ‘America’s Dad’)

Macabre animated family films abound with ParaNormanFrankenweenie, and Hotel Transylvania

Anna Karenina and Wuthering Heights shatter conventions for adapting classic literature

With @ScreenInvasion connections, I attend an alphabet soup of festivals and interview actual film professionals

One note about this post: my picks for 2012’s best films are arranged chronologically by release because I don’t really like the construct of a ranked list, mostly because I hate making difficult decisions.  Lovers of concrete truths can see my personal rankings for Screen Invasion’s year-end list.  I also mention some other stuff, including the year’s worst films, biggest disappointments, most pleasant surprises, and humans who were the best at playing pretend.

Top Whatever

In Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim successfully ported their often-alienating brand of comedy from TV to the big screen and created a masterpiece of absurdist satire, provided you were on its bizarre wavelength.  Pound for pound, however, the quotable hockey comedy Goon is the funniest movie of the year.  Featuring a lovable Seann William Scott as an on-ice pugilist with a heart of gold, it's a perfectly-pitched underdog tale that’s also an unexpected meditation on the role of violence in modern society.

I've already seen The Cabin in the Woods three times, a testament to its impeccable script and pacing, hands down the most purely entertaining film of 2012.  From the head to the heart, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a feast for the senses, a marvel of old-fashioned visual storytelling anchored by a kindergartner with a poise and charisma well beyond her years.

An enthralling pair of documentaries arrived in the summer: one a lighthearted portrait of wealth that morphs into a quintessentially American story of massive hubris (The Queen of Versailles), the other a searing investigation of rampant sexual abuse in the U.S. military (The Invisible War).  Both coincidentally feature female protagonists - Jackie Siegel and Kori Cioca - whose steely resolve refuses to let them be underestimated or ignored.

The Master is a film you handle at your own risk, an antagonistic, multi-layered character study from Paul Thomas Anderson.  Its story of the relationship between a cult leader and an impressionable drifter isn't nearly as important as the raw, naked emotions it evokes in its look at the dark heart of the American Dream.  Looper was nearly as ambivalent about the future as The Master was about the past, at least for its first two-thirds, before a resolution for its workaday hitman that feels wholly appropriate and earned.  Rian Johnson's impressive time-travel film is by far the sharpest popcorn movie of the year.

I will always be jealous of anyone watching Disney's Wreck-It Ralph for the first time, if only because I wish this animated gem could cast its spell on me all over again.  In a year when Pixar's best effort left something to be desired, Ralph delivered a classic story of self-acceptance applicable to all ages, cleverly transmitted via the milieu of video gaming's past and present.  Holy Motors was equally magical but in a different way - Denis Levant's shape-shifting performance drives Leos Carax's brilliant, bizarre opus about the alchemy of cinema.

The mold-breaking romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook declared war on the genre by positing its main couple's quirks as the byproducts of mental illness; even as it softens into something more familiar and comforting, it never betrays the dysfunction that makes it so refreshing.  And 2012 ended with the year's best Christmas present - a new film from Quentin Tarantino.  His raucous revival of the spaghetti western, Django Unchained, is an expertly-crafted joyride that showcases a master storyteller at the top of his game.

Other Good Stuff

More films worthy of acclaim include the gripping Zero Dark Thirty, the lovely Moonrise Kingdom, the dazzling Life of Pi, and the puzzling (in a good way) Sound of My Voice.  The Prohibition-era thriller Lawless was one of the most artful "summer movies" in years, while The Perks of Being a Wallflower lent an emotional honesty to its teen melodrama.  

And two very different spy flicks enjoyed a well-deserved popularity at the box office: the exhilarating James Bond adventure Skyfall, which created a seismic rift in the series' fanbase by inviting viewers to have serious discussions about what was once merely a bankable cartoon character; and Argo, Ben Affleck's rewind of the Iran hostage crisis and the Era of Malaise that was a textbook example of old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking at its finest.

Just the Worst

It’s not surprising when unwanted sequels turn out to be lazy cash-ins with very few redeeming qualities.  But even the cast of American Reunion looks unhappy to be stuck in a movie with a staggering lack of creativity, simply rehashing all the jokes that seemed hopelessly sophomoric over a decade ago.  Its ennui is rivaled only by Wrath of the Titanswhich at least piggybacks on a more recent mediocrity, in terms of bland, nap-inducing predictability.

However, neither film can match the standard set by Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which elevates audience condescension to an art form.  The painfully twee story of a hapless stoner man-child wandering out into the big, scary world on an errand for his mother, Jeff somehow manages to hit every cliché of both Hollywood and indie filmmaking.  The Duplass brothers’ film is also the year’s biggest poison pill.  It was advertised as a quirky comedy even though it's actually a preposterous “everything is connected” smug-fest, as if the Duplasses were trying see how many plot contrivances they could cram into one movie.  If we are to believe in the everything-happens-for-a-reason message of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, then we must have done something terribly wrong to deserve this film.

Flawed But Fascinating

Cloud Atlas is an obvious choice here, though enough has been said about its strange brew of the ambitious and the awkward.  A couple of much less expensive films cornered the market on unrealized raw potential: Kill List, Ben Wheatley’s supremely angry hitman movie with horror elements that ends just as it seems to be gaining steam, and Beyond the Black Rainbow, a tantalizingly weird piece of sci-fi psychedelia that rewards viewers who can stand its pretentiousness and its excruciatingly slow pace.  

And let’s add Casa de mi Padre, an uneven Spanish-language prank from comedy A-listers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay that’s admirable for being so aggressively uncommercial and for inspiring giggle fits with its intentionally cheap production values.  (The underwhelming box office performance of Padre and the equally watchable The Campaign is presumably why Ferrell is punishing us with Anchorman 2 in 2013.)

Biggest Disappointments

I’d never call them ‘bad’ films, but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Brave didn’t quite meet the lofty expectations promised by a return to the gorgeous vistas of Middle-Earth and a parent-child bonding tale from Pixar, respectively.  And I wasn’t that moved by the charms of Safety Not Guaranteed, an OK indie dramedy with a career-best performance from Mark Duplass; for all its critical hosannas, I was hoping for something deeper than a modestly entertaining lark with a tacked-on “rowdy guy tries to help nerd lose his virginity” subplot.

Finally, not necessarily disappointing - but definitely baffling - is the love for The Grey, another entry in Liam Neeson’s late career “renaissance” of phoned-in action star turns.  Several months after its release, I saw a bicycle parked outside of a Ralph’s supermarket whose tire was inscribed with the entire “live and die on this day” poem that Neeson recites in the film - enough to make me remember the movie’s misplaced affection for a regressive Victorian-era masculinity and start shaking my damn head.

Most Pleasant Surprises

Every year there’s a summer blockbuster that defies low expectations or awful-looking trailers or the presence of Will Smith and turns out to be pretty entertaining.  This year that movie was Men in Black III.  2012 was also a good year for nifty B-movies, most notably Ti West’s legitimately terrifying send-up of ghost hunting in The Innkeepers and the RZA’s kung-fu homage The Man With the Iron Fists.  But holy hell did I have a blast watching Premium Rush, a script that David Koepp probably shoved into a drawer sometime in the ‘90s, then exhumed when rude, radical antiheroes doing sweet BMX tricks and taking on Chinese gangs and corrupt cops became commercially viable again.

And one final curveball: for all of his real-life image problems, Shia LeBeouf has always been a competent, natural actor.  Watching him in Lawless - where LeBeouf is perfectly cast as a wannabe player who fails miserably before learning the requisite skills and tact - was a pleasant reminder of his still-limitless potential, and I foolishly predict that he’s going to be nominated for an Oscar someday.

Best Performances

Best All-Around

’Twas the year of Matthew McConaughey, who escaped from formulaic rom-com hell and reminded us what a brilliant actor he could be by, well, acting.  He was dynamite in no less than four movies this year, nailing his roles as a grandstanding district attorney in Bernie and a predatory lawman in the delightfully nasty Killer Joe, and he even brought a sense of pathos to the overheated mess that was The Paperboy (which desperately needed someone who could act like an adult) But the crown jewel was his much-celebrated turn as a sleazy strip club owner/exotic dancer in Magic Mike, a performance so deeply committed and flat-out perfect that it shatters the boundaries of self-parody.  Not bad for someone who was once struggling to fight the perception that his zonked portrayal of Dazed and Confused’s laid-back burnout Wooderson wasn’t an act.

The Fellas

Jack Black's performance in Bernie as a beloved mortician who murdered the wicked witch of a small Texas community is award-worthy, but faces an uphill battle because of the actor's prior reputation for nonstop mugging in lowbrow comedies.  In Bernie, however, Black subdues his trademark manic tics and outbursts just enough to suggest that they're the coping mechanisms of an extremely repressed and stressed-out individual.

The comedian Tim Heidecker has an even smaller chance of awards recognition, given that his star-making turn comes in the acerbic character study The Comedy.  As a vile hipster layabout who revels in making other people uncomfortable, he gives a fiercely unglamorous performance that invites hatred and pity and, against all odds, a touch of sympathy.  The discovery of Heidecker's acting chops here is nothing short of stunning.

The Ladies  

The musical Les Misérables hits plenty of emotional highs in its two and a half hours, but it's Anne Hathaway who steals the show early on with her heartbreaking rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream."  It's far and away the most successful product of the film's ambitious plan to have its cast belt out their tunes live on set, meaning that Hathaway is simultaneously killing the vocals and the acting.

Jessica Chastain carries the sprawling Zero Dark Thirty through a decade of clandestine meetings, gut feelings, and the ever-present threat of terrorist attack.  Representing everything that made it possible for the American intelligence community and its allies to locate and kill Osama Bin Laden - determination, willpower, confidence - without turning into a jingoistic stereotype, she epitomizes what it means to bend but never break.

Rashida Jones' maturity and poise has been typecast as "seriousness" in both film and television for years, acting as the calming and slightly frowny presence in a sea of wackiness.  But she finally gets the meaty role she deserves in the break-up comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever.  Of course, she had to write the part herself, but it's far from a vanity project as she proves that "grown-up" and "funny" aren't mutually exclusive characteristics.

Best Screen Couples

Much of the success of Silver Linings Playbook starts with the chemistry of its leads, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, who convincingly play two people all too familiar with losing control, and the way that complicates the equally uncontrollable process of falling in love.  Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman have their own issues in The Master, two men slipping away from the mainstream who need each other to give some sense of where their lives are going.  Lastly, Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave perfectly capture the heightened emotions of young love as the doomed couple in Wuthering Heights, laying the foundation for generations of retribution and reconciliation.

Lions in Winter

Good roles for older actors can be hard to come by, so it's all the more pleasing to see Judi Dench redefining the role of "Bond Girl" in Skyfall and Frank Langella as a retired cat burglar losing his memory but not his sly instincts and distaste for authority in Robot and Frank.  But it doesn't get any better than Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens dispensing mellifluous insults to his congressional colleagues in Lincoln, a performance that's secretly better than Method poster boy Daniel Day-Lewis'.

The Golden Ham

To all those who still don't consider Michael Shannon a national treasure, let his performance as the impeccably-named Detective Bobby Monday in Premium Rush remove all doubt.  Known mostly for his ability to project a preternatural self-control, Shannon's silly turn as a hapless, sniveling corrupt cop with an explosive temper and a serious gambling problem is like watching the dentist's kid finally get a few minutes alone in the candy store.  The most impressive part?  Even when he's delivering lines with a quasi-Bugs Bunny accent, Shannon is still creepy menace personified.


  1. Agreed about THE GREY. Was very surprised to see it pop up in quite a few Best of 2012 lists.

  2. aw, i liked WRATH OF THE TITANS. more than CLASH, actually.

    1. What can I say? I dozed for about 20 minutes in the middle and didn't miss a beat. Plus the whole thing had a very naked SPACEBALLS 2: THE SEARCH FOR MORE MONEY vibe about it.