Again, if for no other reason than my own amusement, it’s time to produce my Ten Best Movies of the Year list. This year I’m approaching it a little differently. Instead of the ten best films, I’ve decided on the ten that had the biggest impact on me. A good number of them, like Argo, Moonrise Kingdom and Silver Linings Playbook, would have made a best list anyway. But as I look back on the year, there are some films that stick in my head that probably weren’t among the “best “I saw. Yet there they are, stuck in my head. So this year a small, but exceedingly creepy, horror film like Sinister and a 90-minute trip into insanity like Killer Joe make the list. To make room for them, really good films like Lincoln and The Sessions had to go. To fans of those films, I’m sorry. They’re great. By all means, see them if you haven’t already. If it’s any consolation, they’re both on my Close-But-No-Cigar list.
Finally, remember that this list comes from films that I have actually seen. Sounds obvious. But in case you’re wondering why movies like Zero Dark Thirty or Amour aren’t here, it’s because I haven’t seen them yet. No other reason. But I will say they’d have to be pretty great to knock Killer Joe off the list.
On that note, and in no specific order, here we go.
Moonrise Kingdom – I’ll admit it. Any time I walk into a Wes Anderson movie, I’m biased. I already expect it to be great. Great in that, you know, “Wes Anderson” kind of way. A film that is quirky, funny, has a perfect soundtrack and an attention to visual detail and composition unlike any other director’s work out there. There’s usually nothing in a good Wes Anderson film that will remind you in any way of the real world. He creates worlds of his own that are wonderful places to inhabit for a couple of hours. For all of those reasons, and more, Moonrise Kingdom might be my favorite Wes Anderson movie so far. Where else will you find a cast that includes Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Jason Schwarzman, Bob Balaban and Tilda Swinton in roles supporting the two love-struck teenagers at the center of the film? The story is small and sweet, the laughs come at a steady rate, the plot twists are wonderfully absurd and the whole thing looks beautiful from the first shot to the last. Every frame is composed like a painting. Nothing is left to chance, with every detail considered and respected. See it twice. The first time, see it for the story. Then again, just to enjoy all those little visual touches.
Django Unchained – This film is just too much. It’s too long, too violent and too talky. Makes much too much use of the n-word. It has too many scenes that are hard to watch. It plays way too fast and loose with historical accuracy. All of which is why it’s so damn good. Because Quentin Tarantino doesn’t care. Of course he could have cut it to less 2 hours, 45 minutes. Sure, he could have splattered less blood, cut down on some of the dialogue, been more historically accurate and made the whole enterprise just a little more comfortable. But that’s not why we go to his films. He makes the films he wants to make and as an audience, we can judge for ourselves whether or not we like them. I’m going to guess there will be a fair number of people who don’t like Django Unchained, for all the reasons listed above. To them I say, “It’s Quentin Tarantino. Did you not know what you were getting into? Have you not seen Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds? What did you expect?” The crowd I saw it with on Christmas Day knew what to expect, and they loved it. It’s a great glorious mash-up of the Wild West and the Plantation South that goes over the top early and often. And the last thirty minutes are not unlike watching a cartoon (albeit an exceedingly violent one). I mean that as the highest compliment. Jamie Foxx and Samuel Jackson are perfect, one as the hero, the other a villain. And Christoph Walz, who won the Oscar playing Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, may be even better in this one. Tarantino’s movies aren’t for everyone, and he’s fine with that. But if you’re a fan, Django Unchained is essential.
Headhunters – Sometimes I will go an entire year and not see a single scene in a single film that makes me say, “Whoa, I’ve never seen anything like that before.” On the other hand, Headhunters had at least three of them all by itself. Not to give too much away, but if you’ve never seen a guy covered in human excrement being chased by a Norwegian Special Forces agent while driving a farm tractor with a pit bull impaled on the front of it, then you need to see Headhunters. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a Norwegian film from a novel by Jo Nesbo, one of that country’s most popular mystery/suspense authors. It’s about a small, unassuming guy who works as an executive search consultant (hence the film’s title). Because he also has a very beautiful wife who has become accustomed to a very lavish lifestyle, he supplements his income moonlighting as an art thief. Anyway, the movie really gets going when he steals the wrong painting from the wrong guy and everything jumps the rails from there. There’s lots of action, plenty of violence and an incredibly serpentine plot that is all neatly resolved in the end. It’s Scandinavian crime fiction at its best, without being a lame imitation of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s also a lot of fun.
21 Jump Street/Pitch Perfect – These are on the list as one entry, because I came to see both of them in much the same way. Based on the trailers and, admittedly, a certain amount of film snobbishness, I had decided not to see either of them. And not once, but twice, a person who is a bigger film snob than I am said, “Trust me, it’s really funny and surprisingly good. Just see it and tell me I’m wrong.” He wasn’t wrong. In fact, 21 Jump Street and Pitch Perfect were (along with Silver Linings Playbook) my favorite comedies of the year. Much better than anything Will Farrell, Jud Apatow or Adam Sandler threw at me. Of course, 21 Jump Street is the re-make, or “re-imagining” of the 80’s television show that launched a young actor named Johnny Depp. In the 2012 version, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum (who is a very talented comedic actor) are the cops who go undercover into a high school world where the tech geeks are the cool kids and the jocks are the outcasts. It’s smart and funny the whole way through. And though I admit I am somewhat hit and miss with Jonah Hill, he’s excellent in this. Pitch Perfect plays on the natural absurdity within the world of college a cappella singing competitions. Who knew this stuff had gotten so big? Good thing, because it’s naturally hilarious and the perfect vehicle for a really enjoyable ensemble comedy. The a cappella renditions of the songs are strangely infectious as well. And Rebel Wilson is on her way to being a star. I guess the moral of the story is not to judge a film too severely based on trailers or subject matter. I did, and would have missed two really good times if I hadn’t given these movies a chance.
Sinister – Had this been a ten best list, Sinister wouldn’t be on it. It was just a small horror film that came and went quietly in the late summer without a lot of fanfare. I think it did okay at the box office, but it certainly didn’t set the world on fire. But there was something about it (a few things actually) that made it different from standard horror fare and managed to plant the film into my brain for some time. Briefly, it’s about a true crime writer who, hoping to research and write a best-seller, moves his family into the house where a horrific crime took place. An entire family was found hanging dead from a tree in the backyard. All except a little girl, who disappeared and had not been seen since. Granted, a pretty gruesome crime, but pretty standard modern horror movie stuff. Where Sinister became different for me was in the way the crime, and others like it, were portrayed. In exploring the house, the author finds a box containing an old projector and four or five reels of vintage Super 8 film. Of course he watches the films and discovers, as we do, that each reel chronicles the murder of an entire family. We see the hanging. Another group is drowned and a third family is literally lawn mowered to death. I don’t know about you, but for me there is something very creepy about seeing these things in grainy Super 8 home movies. Tends to makes them much more real and less cinematic. Sent a chill up my spine. Anyway, the movie gets more supernatural as we discover the evil spirit behind and the actual perpetrators of the crimes, culminating in one of the darkest, most pessimistic and bleak endings to a film I’ve ever seen. Which, naturally, I loved. I admired Sinister, because it was able to do what every horror film aspires to, but few achieve – it creeped me out. And it wasn’t afraid to end on a decidedly down note. Another positive. If you like horror, seek it out.
The Imposter – This is the only documentary on the list, but it’s a good one. It’s a story that starts out very strangely, and gets weird from there. You spend the first half of the movie following the story of a young boy who vanished without a trace from his home in a small Texas town. Nothing is seen or heard of him for years until he miraculously “reappears” one night, cold and shivering, in a phone booth in Spain. A few problems arise, however. He is now of Algerian descent, his blond hair has turned black and he speaks with a French accent. Of course, he’s the imposter of the film’s title. He admits as much on camera. Still, incredibly, he was able to convince the US State Department and members of the missing kid’s family that he was the missing boy. Much of the film’s first half is spent listening to his explanation of how he did it. It is fascinating and absurd at the same time. A testament to the notion that people can be made to believe anything if they really want to. From there, the second half follows our young Algerian to Texas to “reunite” with his family. That’s when it turns from a documentary about a total deception into a mystery that asks what really happened to the missing kid. The question is never completely answered, but you do leave the film with some strong opinions. In addition to being a riveting story, the film is done is a style I haven’t seen before in documentaries, combining first person interviews and voice-overs from many of the actual people involved with well-shot re-creations of events, sometimes placing the spoken words of the real people into the mouths of the actors portraying them. It sounds odd, but it works incredibly well. The Imposter is one of those documentaries that remind us that real life can be much crazier than the most fanciful fiction.
Safety Not Guaranteed – The film begins with a classified ad. A man in a small town in the Pacific Northwest is advertising for someone to join him in time travel. The ad goes on to state that since his time travel technique is still experimental, their safety is “not guaranteed.” A writer for a current events/pop culture magazine sees the ad and convinces his editor that he and a couple of interns need to get up there immediately to build a story around this loon who is looking for a time traveling companion. And so they do. And that’s about it, really. This is one of those small independent films that doesn’t have the budget for big stars and immense special effects, so it has to entertain you with interesting characters, believable dialogue and an engaging story. Safety Not Guaranteed has them all, as well as Mark Duplass, who plays the time traveler who isn’t nearly as crazy as we expect him to be, and Aubrey Plaza as the intern who develops a relationship with him. It’s funny without trying to be hilarious and thoughtful without trying to be profound. It’s a film that understands its limits and doesn’t try to exceed them. And in doing so, succeeds completely.
Killer Joe – First, a note of warning. Killer Joe is not for everyone. I’m not even sure I would rate it a “good” film, but I’m not going to forget it any time soon either. It is rated NC-17, with good reason. So if you find it and you dive in, only to discover you really don’t like where you’ve wound up, don’t blame me. I warned you. But for those who do possess a taste for the unconventional, Killer Joe provides quite a journey. It’s set deep in the heart of Trailer Park Texas where the rain never stops falling and the average adult IQ seems to hover around 60. Emile Hirsch is a young, inept drug dealer who has somehow lost a stash of drugs and is now being pursued by more dangerous, less inept drug dealers. He needs money fast and so shows up at the trailer where his father, stepmother (Gina Gershon) and younger sister live. Naturally they have no money, but the son and his moronic dad (wonderfully played by Thomas Haden Church) devise a brilliant plan to kill his ex-wife (who is also the boy’s mother), collect her life insurance and thus, solve all their problems. All they need is someone to do it. Enter Killer Joe, played to perfection by Matthew McConaughey. Joe is a detective in the Dallas Police Department who, naturally, moonlights as a hit man. But first there is the matter of Joe’s fee, which of course the two plotters don’t have. After much discussion, Joe agrees to take the kid’s 18-year-old sister as collateral until the insurance money is collected. Yep. Like I said, it’s not a film for everyone. At any rate, it all goes horribly and hilariously wrong from there until the grand finale with all of them together in the father’s trailer. It is then that Gina Gershon performs the scene with Joe and a drumstick of chicken that surely earned the movie its NC-17 rating. It’s twenty minutes of film unlike any I’ve ever seen. Before you reject it as exploitive trash, be aware that Killer Joe is directed by William Friedkin ,of Exorcist fame, and is filled with first-rate actors who are clearly having the time of their lives. Especially McConaughey, who, with his solid performances here and in Bernie and Magic Mike, has had a really strong year. It is a legitimate film… that just doesn’t happen to be for everyone.
Silver Linings Playbook – In real life, people aren’t perfect. In the movies, they are often very close. Not the people in this movie. They are as far from perfect as you and me and all the rest of us who occupy the real world. And Silver Linings Playbook proves that the lives, loves, trials, quirks, ticks and other assorted baggage belonging to a group of less-than-perfect people can make for an enjoyable and funny film. Bradley Cooper is the damaged soul of the movie. He’s a manic-depressive who has been institutionalized after finding his wife and another man in a “delicate” situation and nearly beating the guy to death. But as the film begins, he’s on his meds, doing better and going home to live with his mother and father in Philadelphia. Remember, I said he was doing better. I didn’t say he was cured. The film is primarily his story as he tries as hard as he can, fighting his demons the whole way, to work his way back into a life that is something close to normal. It’s a funny and touching journey, with some really fine performances. Like Robert De Niro, who plays his father – a crazed fan of the Philadelphia Eagles whose obsessive-compulsive, ritualistic behavior in support of the team makes him just slightly less unhinged than his son. Or Jackie Weaver who, as his mom, does her best to keep the men in her life on something approaching an even keel. And of course, there’s Jennifer Lawrence. She is the young widow who has dealt with the death of her husband in some highly inappropriate ways and is also trying to find her way back to a normal life. Her vehicle is a ballroom dance competition, which she convinces Cooper’s character to join her in preparing for and competing in. Her performance is ridiculously good. At the age of 22, she is on the verge of her second Best Actress nomination in three years. The movie is filled with great side characters and some very funny situations. And though the ending is very pat, very sweet and very predictable, it’s okay. Because it’s nice to see something good happen to characters you’ve really come to like and who could really use a good break.
Argo – This is just an exciting, interesting, well-made film. It has plenty of suspense and more than a few laughs. Any film that can combine a view of the ridiculousness of Hollywood with the dead seriousness of extracting Americans from revolutionary Iran is walking a fine line. Argo walks it perfectly. The fact that all of it (well, almost all of it) really happened makes it that much better. For me, the Hollywood stuff was the best part of the film. John Goodman’s character describing, with biting accuracy, the roles of various people involved in a film production was hilarious. His claim that a rhesus monkey could be trained to be a director was an audience favorite. Alan Arkin was perfect as the crusty producer who knows exactly how to navigate all of the Hollywood nonsense and get the ball rolling on an imaginary movie. That was the funny stuff. The serious stuff took place in Iran, and it was good too. Well acted, well paced and even though I knew how it would turn out, pretty suspenseful. The feel was real, and I appreciated that the Iranian guards and revolutionaries were not treated as cartoon bad guys, but as actual people who felt they had a legitimate beef. It made them feel more dangerous. Finally, I know that the final chase through the airport and down the runway in Tehran didn’t really happen. So? This is a movie! It’s supposed to be entertaining. I was on the edge of my seat. Laugh at me if you want. At any rate, Argo had a lot of fun poking fun at Hollywood while at the same time showing us that Hollywood played a part in a pretty heroic achievement. I had fun watching it.
The Close-But-No-Cigar List
I see a lot of movies. And each year there are a lot more than ten that I really like. The following is a list of some of them from 2012.
Lincoln – It’s a good as everyone says. Especially Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones. It’ll probably win the Oscar for Best Film. I’d be fine with that.
The Sessions – It’s a true story. Writer with polio hires a sex surrogate. John Hawkes plays the writer. Even though he’s limited to moving nothing but his eyes, he’s great. Helen Hunt plays the surrogate. Even though she spends about half of her screen time completely naked, she’s great too.
Bernie – Jack Black is funny again! It’s his best performance in years. Also features Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey in full Texas smoothie mode. And the story is true.
Beasts of the Southern Wild - It’s visually stunning and has some great acting from people who had never acted before. Uplifting story too.
We Need to Talk About Kevin – Scary movie about a scary kid, and the mother who tried (and failed) to control him. Consider that this film was released more than a year before the Newtown shootings and feel the hair rise on the back of your neck.
The Cabin in the Woods – You think it’s a typical attractive-but-dumb-teenagers-being-stalked-in- the-woods film, until you realize it isn’t.
Dark Knight Rises – I like “Dark Knight Christopher Nolan” more than “Inception Christopher Nolan.” Looking forward to Joseph Gordon Levitt as Robin.
Skyfall – Any film that features Javier Bardem as a crazy villain with bad hair (warning: gratuitous Anton Chigur reference) is okay by me.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi – Almost made the Top Ten list. Even if you don’t like, don’t eat and don’t care about sushi, this is a fascinating film. It’s as much about obsession and a lifelong dedication to one’s craft as it is about raw tuna.