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Nick’s 25 Best, 5 Worst and More of 2012

by on December 30, 2012
 

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When a 10-best list isn’t enough and a 25-best list might not completely suffice, that’s a good problem for a film critic to have. Such was the uncommonly strong cinematic year of 2012.

Here are my picks for 2012’s five greatest documentaries, five worst movies (from which I saw blessedly few to choose) and, finally, the 25 best. All lists are in reverse order.

2012’S TOP FIVE DOCUMENTARIES

 

5. “The Invisible War”

Kirby Dick’s documentary about rape run rampant in America’s military is regrettably filled with soul-sapping recollections of rock-bottom moments. In 2012’s most infuriating documentary, the thousand-yard stares of these women and men have thousand-yard stares show they’ll never spiritually, emotionally or mentally discharge from their service. Available on DVD and VOD services.

4. “Room 237”

Rodney Ascher’s archival documentary initially appears to be merely a daisy chain of disembodied voices espousing demented, disparate theories about subtext in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” But slowly, the movie embeds itself like a sliver in the subconscious — trapping viewers at a disconcerting intersection of art and obsession. Scheduled for theatrical release / VOD in 2013.

3. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”

A bracing chronicle of an imperfect artist in a nation where the permanent specter of oppressive violence looms over his brief, guerrilla commentary. The film bravely confronts the challenge of art as transparent activism where none is tolerated. “If they want to get me, they will. There’s nothing I can do about that,” Ai Weiwei rationalized. “Maybe being powerful means to be … fragile.” Available on DVD and VOD services.

2. “Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet”

“Searching for Sugar Man” got all the 2012 attention as the story of an underground rocker getting his due. But it never traced the creative impulse of its subject as this documentary does. To reveal what happens to guitarist Jason Becker would dilute the film’s power and pacing. Rest assured, it powerfully portrays artistic endurance as a potent motivation to live. Available on DVD.

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1. “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

The seemingly simple tale of the world’s greatest sushi chef becomes a pensive parable about all that is gained, and lost, in the passionate pursuit of occupational perfection. Told with crisp visual acuity, its story makes magnificent metaphorical use of mirrors and reflective surfaces — a reminder of where its subjects are now and where they’ve come from. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

2012’S FIVE WORST FILMS

 

5. “Hyde Park on Hudson”

A woeful biopic made for the seemingly miniscule audience who wanted “The King’s Speech” to have more handjobs, hot dogs and Harlequin romance narration like “If ever I were to miss him, there was a place I could come to be alone … and miss him.” In limited theatrical release.

4. “Red Tails”

Heart is all that’s in the right place in this George Lucas production. From a steroidal color palette to a constant strafe of clichés, it demonstrates less the power a veteran’s valor than the peril that has come from never telling Lucas “no.” Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

3. “Man on a Ledge”

Certainly, more occurs in this movie than a mulleted Sam Worthington muffing an American accent before jumping from the titular ledge. But there are times when it’s good to not take notes during a movie. No record of the brain cells sacrificed to make it all the way through. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

2. “The Devil Inside”

An admirably R-rated reversal of the passel of puny PG-13 possession films, but balls only got it so far. Its aggressive idiocy, relentlessly gabby grab at religious relevance, fatal self-seriousness and openly contemptuous conclusion make a strong argument for euthanizing found-footage horror altogether. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

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1. “This Means War”

In this Slap Chop-edited hog slop, most things people enjoy about movies — humor, chemistry, coherence, Reese Witherspoon — die a slow death. Guns fire. Drones explode. Cars careen. Darts hit necks. Paintballs strike crotches. Witherspoon bugs her eyes. Repeat. Vomit. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

THE 25 BEST FILMS OF 2012

 

25. “Sound of Noise”

This imported novelty boasts a giddily inspired premise — artistic terrorists using percussion to wreak sonic mayhem in Sweden. Moviegoers are hard-pressed to see, or hear, impish ingenuity like this anywhere else. Available on DVD and VOD services.

24. “The Bay”

For mutated crustaceans, our tongues are appetizers to our organ smorgasbord. Barry Levinson’s DIY-digital diary is his best in 25 years — plumbing modern fears of bureaucratic austerity with ick that sticks. Available on VOD services; coming to DVD March 5, 2013.

23. “Flight”

Robert Zemeckis returns to live-action filmmaking with an emotionally harrowing portrait of addiction, conscience and guilt, fueled by Denzel Washington’s best work since 2001. Only an overlong denouement drags it down. Now in theaters.

22. “ParaNorman”

Although not as supernaturally beguiling as its predecessor, “Coraline,” this 1980s fantasy-adventure homage earns bona fides by arriving at a place of poignancy — the power of friendship to move past pain. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

21. “Argo”

Ben Affleck’s best film as a director remains the one in which he wasn’t also the lead. Still, he confidently blends politics, suspense and satire with clever Hollywood jabs and legitimate tension. Coming to Blu-ray and DVD Feb. 19, 2013.

20. “Looper”

A refreshingly R-rated time-travel rumble with all the ruminations on fate and destiny but no rehashed paradox mumbo-jumbo. Plus, a future where a Mazda Miata is a collector’s car? Uniquely bleak. On Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services Monday (Dec. 31, 2012).

19. “Chronicle”

A compelling, thoughtful and uncommonly poignant film couched in comic-book wit, color and momentum and a story about uncertain teens, not unstoppable superheroes. Josh Trank and Max Landis are truly exciting talents. On Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

18. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Quvenzhane Wallis’s fearless, force-of-nature performance is the yin to Dwight Henry’s unexpectedly complex paternal yang. Their journey flirts with visually abstract impenetrability, but its dangers, thrills and hopes sneak up on, and stick with, you. On Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

17. “Cloud Atlas”

Peril awaited filmmakers deigning to adapt this novel whole cloth. Avoiding the mire of its minutia, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer distinctively tap its marrow for a sprawling, messy, audacious, openhearted, beautiful movie. Coming soon to Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

16. “The Raid: Redemption”

You come away convinced every stuntman suffered permanently debilitating injuries. Topping itself in bone-crunching bombast every 10 minutes, this import is a relentless, fist-pumping triumph of pure, unadulterated hand-to-hand combat. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

15. “Life of Pi”

It doesn’t make you believe in God as the prologue insists. But it makes you consider, thoughtfully and harrowingly, why many choose to. It’s about faith, not religion, and decisions, not dogma. Plus, as masterfully molded and sculpted by Ang Lee — who toys with the screen’s limitations for a tale about boundless imagination — 3D does seem like the medium’s future after all. Now in theaters.

14. “Lincoln”

Leave it to Daniel Day-Lewis to find the man inside the mythology to deliver a forceful performance of introspective doubt, not blusterous certainty. Plus, every debate and filibuster in Tony Kushner’s fastidious script crackles in the hands of the biggest supporting-actor murderers’ row Steven Spielberg has ever assembled. Too bad Spielberg can’t avoid an unnecessarily exploitative exclamation-point treatment of Lincoln’s death. Now in theaters.

13. “Take This Waltz”

Is intimacy but an illusion for those who crave a constancy of new ideas? Sarah Polley’s stunning sophomore effort is an anti-romantic tale of incremental infidelity with full-flung turns from Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen. A played-out Buggles song finds new life and septuagenarian nudity succeeds as both sight gag and symbolism. It’s the movie Judd Apatow wishes he could make today. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

12. “Marvel’s The Avengers”

Marvel’s might for meticulous world-building. Four years of patient planning. Joss Whedon’s passion for the purity of comic-book culture. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo playing characters with identifiable burdens, pathos and conflict. A full hour of rousing action. The unfettered joy of watching Hulk smash in his best appearance yet. Now, that’s the pinnacle of pop spectacle. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

11. “Skyfall”

Without compromising action or scope, Sam Mendes brings introspection and intimacy to James Bond’s world. One hopes, though, that the new 007’s gauntlet of emotional tests is over — his next mission defined less by those he’s lost. By “Skyfall’s” jazzy, assured end, Bond’s leash is off. Perhaps next time, this dog can enjoy the thrilling chase that he can give. Now in theaters.

10. “Moonrise Kingdom”

With wit and wisdom, Wes Anderson understands the parameters of a pubescent childhood summer — that the madly elated rush of cramming “forever” into a finite time can, and must, end in some form of disappointment. His dioramic approach, more observational than aesthetic, asserts that adolescence is just the beginning of life’s many opportunity costs. And his sneakily bittersweet ending feels less about finding first love than finding family. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

9. “The Dark Knight Rises”

How to top “The Dark Knight”? That question matters little to Christopher Nolan, and not because he’s necessarily unsuccessful. Nolan’s M.O. all along is an action trilogy to dance along distinct lines of heroism and leadership between Bat and Man. Impressively bombastic, thunderous and exciting, yes, but also a beautifully beaten, character-driven retreat that understands why we invested in the most relatable Bruce Wayne yet. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

8. “The Master”

For all this enigmatic drama’s widescreen majesty, its greatest visuals are its leads’ faces. It’s ultimately a two-hander about a parasitic (unrequitedly romantic?) bond between a brute and a scholar (Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both brilliant). Its exact thesis on post-WWII America feels perhaps purposefully opaque after just one viewing. But indelible images and performances make this a malaise worth revisiting. Coming to Blu-ray and DVD Feb. 26, 2013.

7. “Django Unchained”

This emancipation exclamation starts as “Blazing Saddles” with a body count and blood squibs seemingly detonated with C4. But as in “Inglourious Basterds” — and with a far trickier topic of slavery — Quentin Tarantino eventually repurposes historical blight into pulp fiction to diminish its power if only for 165 minutes. Moreover, it conveys Tarantino’s sincere fondness for the old-fashioned, operatic power of good vanquishing evil. Now in theaters.

6. “Holy Motors”

Ascribing traditional narrative questions to French filmmaker Leos Carax’s mad-hatter mélange in which Denis Lavant plays 11 characters and tones shift tectonically every 10 minutes? That way, madness lies. Hold your breath, jump down the rabbit hole and marvel at Carax’s meditations — on acting, on film, on the creative struggle and, at the center of the story’s beating heart, on the consequences of roles we choose in life. Coming to Blu-ray and DVD Feb. 26, 2013.

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5. “The Grey”

Although marketed as Liam Neeson in “Wolf Puncher,” Joe Carnahan’s best film to date shares a kindred spirit with the mounting existential dread and deliverance of man in the elements a la Jack London. Neeson has rarely looked more hawkish and predatory but shrewdly matches an anguished soul to mammoth strength. In some moments, he stares down nature and God, telling them both to step. But “The Grey” doesn’t set out to assert machismo. It ruminates on our mourning process and the value of dying among that which calms us, even if that’s a reclamation of rage to go down swinging. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

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4. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

Fourteen is a bitch — bringing bulletproof emotional euphoria at night and humbling reminders of high school’s pecking order the next morning. Adapting his own novel with the sophistication of a seasoned filmmaker, first-timer Stephen Chbosky captures underclassman aches, anxieties and exhilarations with unassailable authenticity and effortless circle-of-friends chemistry between Logan Lerman (in an attention-grabbing turn), Emma Watson and Ezra Miller (as charming here as he was malevolent in last year’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin”). However, this isn’t simply one of 2012’s most unexpected, lapel-grabbing surprises. It is, quite simply, one of the best films ever made about the high school experience. Now in theaters; coming to Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services Feb. 12, 2013.

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3. “Silver Linings Playbook”

In “The Fighter,” David O. Russell proved himself a master of the sharp-tongued cadence of familial cacophony. But such spats are just one nuance of his latest clever, edgy and unruly response to genre trappings. Have you ever felt afraid of a romantic-comedy protagonist? Such misgivings about Pat, a bipolar man given revelatory depth and dimension by Bradley Cooper, require great patience. But it pays off in this unforgettable, infectiously optimistic film. Robert De Niro delivers his greatest performance in a decade. Jennifer Lawrence cements herself as a true star. And Russell deftly avoids an insulting, facile love-trumps-meds conclusion. Now in theaters.

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2. “Zero Dark Thirty”

Defining actionable intelligence is a slippery slope. For what is “actionable intelligence” if not the viewpoint of the most persuasive person in the room? And even then, more questions. How does one evaluate the risk of inaction? How does one discern the lead they want to be true from what they know to be true? And where might that lead take you — nowhere, into a trap or, as we find at the exhaustive end of Kathryn Bigelow’s meticulously engrossing thriller, to an emptiness that follows the capture of your quarry. From its introduction — which chillingly contextualizes 9/11 into the day’s police-scanner and cell-phone chatter — to its conclusive, nerve-jangling raid in Abottabad, Pakistan, this procedural depicts the weight and burden of our nation’s decade-long journey into a heart of darkness. As for its oft-debated stance on torture, the movie neither condones nor condemns and allows us to make our own judgments — less for its efficacy in eliciting information about bin Laden than whether it was worth our moral quagmire. And thanks to Jessica Chastain’s magnetic lead performance, “Zero Dark Thirty” is not dry, dispassionate journalism. It’s a revealing portrait of her, and by extension America’s, white-whale obsession. In wide theatrical release Jan. 11, 2013.

Safety Not Guaranteed - inside

 

1. “Safety Not Guaranteed”

“Have you ever stared fear and danger in the eye and said, ‘Yes’?” Within the context of recruiting possible time-travel partners, it’s the question to which Kenneth (Mark Duplass) must hear what he perceives to be the right answer. But what is that if not the question we all consider when we fall in love, take a risk that pays off or make choices all but certain to end in pain and regret? To that end, Colin Trevorrow’s film tries to persuade us less of Kenneth’s time-travel abilities than the possibility, potential and riches that can await when we’re brave enough to take a leap. What matters more than living for the now? Many time-travel films have played off nostalgia and reminiscence, but few with such existential truth, and Derek Connolly’s clever, sincere script diverges from convention at every turn like a tangential timeline on Doc Brown’s chalkboard. Even amid lo-fi thriller elements, Connolly resists every temptation to go for action, cynicism and cheapness. Instead, its center is the romance between Kenneth and Darius (Aubrey Plaza) — a courtship of mutual inspiration. Not only do you feel the millisecond when they fall in love, but you spot the moment that Plaza — who lives every week like it’s snark week on “Parks & Recreation” — matures as an actress. Equally shrewd is Jake Johnson as a seeming lothario journalist who pushes down a painful, primal scream of rage under his partying pretext. In “Big Machine” — the best original film song of 2012 — Kenneth ponders: “Maybe I’m wrong and all that you get is what you see / Maybe I’m right and there’s something out there to believe.” The greatest film of 2012 truly made you believe in the beauty, and danger, of love, trust, friendship and chance. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD services.

OTHER FILM YAP BEST-OF-2012 LISTS

Christopher Lloyd

Sam Watermeier

Evan Dossey

Caine Gardner

 

 

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