27 December 2012

The Best of 2012

The 10 best movies I saw in 2012:

 Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, is shown in a scene from "Lincoln."
1. "Lincoln"

Steven Spielberg directing a film about our 16th president, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role—sounds like a slam dunk, right? Well, yes, it is, but expecting it to be great doesn't diminish its tremendous achievement.

Instead of being a biopic spanning decades, the movie is set primarily in January 1865, when Lincoln pulled out every political trick he could find to secure passage of the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery).

Day-Lewis fully inhabits Abraham Lincoln, bringing him to life in a way we've never seen before, whether he's delivering a passionate speech or telling one of his folksy stories. It's a performance of extraordinary power in a career filled with towering achievements. The supporting cast, including Tommy Lee Jones as the abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, is filled with many of today's best character actors.

This is the work of a restrained Spielberg, who allows the extraordinary performances to carry the film.

Martin Freeman is shown in a scene from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
2. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

The first film in a trilogy that will serve as a prequel to "The Lord of the Rings" is a triumphant return to Middle-earth. Lighter in tone than the "Rings" movies (but nearly as long), "The Hobbit" follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he joins a band of dwarves—and the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen)—on a quest to reclaim their homeland from the dragon who drove them out years ago.

Beefing up the back story of the would-be dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), director Peter Jackson supplies an epic scope somewhat lacking in J.R.R. Tolkien's book and adds material to set up stronger links to events of "The Lord of the Rings." It all comes together smoothly, especially in the thrilling second half, during which Bilbo finds the One Ring and engages the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) in a game of riddles—the scene of the year.

Ben Affleck is shown in a scene from "Argo."
3. "Argo"

Based on the real-life rescue of six American diplomats from the home of the Canadian ambassador during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Ben Affleck's "Argo" is a meticulously crafted, intelligent picture that seamlessly blends elements of the thriller, political drama, heist movie and comedy.

Expertly paced and edited, it is one of the most gripping thrillers in years, accomplishing that feat without the benefit of action set pieces or flashy computer effects. It's a love letter to the movies, their power and appeal, while also poking fun at the Hollywood culture that produces them.

Raising the stakes and widening his scope, this is Affleck's most ambitious effort as a director and his biggest success. He also headlines a cast that features fine supporting work by Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin.

 Fran Kranz is shown in a scene from "The Cabin in the Woods."
4. "The Cabin in the Woods"

From the minds of writer-producer Joss Whedon and writer-director Drew Goddard, "The Cabin in the Woods" manages to comment on the nature of horror movies, the making of them and why they have endured throughout the history of cinema—all while being an effective horror movie in its own right and a whole lot of fun.

You think the movie is one thing. Then it becomes something else. And then it becomes even more in its fevered final act. This is genre filmmaking at its very best.

Paul Rudd, left, and Leslie Mann are shown in a scene from "This is 40."
 5. "This is 40"

What's this? A mature Judd Apatow?

"This is 40" follows married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) a few years after "Knocked Up," and deals—in a very funny and very real way—with issues of entering middle age, marriage and parenting. They bicker, they pull away from each other, but a deep love that goes beyond words holds them together.

Without a strong narrative backbone, the film simply exists with its characters and the wonderful actors who bring them to life, including Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi, Jason Segel, Chris O'Dowd and Lena Dunham. It might not be Apatow's funniest movie, but its heart and honesty make it his best.

 Mike Birbiglia is shown in a scene from "Sleepwalk With Me."
 6. "Sleepwalk with Me"

In this only slightly fictionalized story from comedian Mike Birbiglia, the combined stress from his struggles to make it on the standup comedy circuit, his long-term relationship with his girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) and pressure from his family lead to often-dangerous nighttime activities for Matt Pandamiglia (Birbiglia).

Breaking the fourth wall, telling the story directly to the camera, Birbiglia's easygoing nature shines through, making Matt relatable if not always likable. His casual tone carries forth throughout the movie, welcoming the arrival of a unique new voice.

Jennifer Lawrence, left, and Bradley Cooper are shown in a scene from "Silver Linings Playbook."
7. "Silver Linings Playbook"

David O. Russell's offbeat romantic comedy features Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro as three of the year's most memorable characters: a man fresh out of a mental hospital determined to win back his wife, a young widow who draws his attention and his obsessive-compulsive father.

Funny without being glib, dark and serious without taking itself too seriously, this is a movie that, until its fairly standard conclusion, refuses to adhere to the well-worn traditions of its genre.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left, and Bruce Willis are shown in a scene from "Looper."
 8. "Looper

In the year's best science fiction movie, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis play different versions of the same man, the elder sent back in time to be executed by the younger.

Writer-director Rian Johnson uses this setup to dig deep into the character and tell a story that exists in the gray areas of morality. Young Joe (Gordon-Levitt) wants to kill his older self and collect the hefty payout that comes with it; Future Joe (Willis) wants to kill a child who will grow up to become a ruthless mob boss. There are no easy answers when it comes to the question of who is right and who is wrong.

Denzel Washington is shown in a scene from “Flight.”

 9. "Flight"

Denzel Washington takes on his most challenging role in years as alcoholic airline pilot Whip Whitaker, who miraculously crash-lands his plane, saving the lives of almost everyone on board—while drunk. Instead of being the story of a man wrongfully accused, which is as it appeared in promotional materials, it is a dark, harrowing tale of addiction. A welcome return for Robert Zemeckis, directing his first live-action feature since 2000.

Jack Black is shown in a scene from “Bernie.”
10. "Bernie"

In Richard Linklater's fact-based film, Jack Black gives a nicely understated performance as Bernie Tiede, a kindly mortician so popular in little Carthage, Texas, that the district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) has to request a change of venue to get a fair trial after Bernie shoots his wealthy, elderly companion (Shirley MacLaine) four times in the back.

Incorporating interviews with real Carthage residents, "Bernie" is a darkly comic take on the quirks and simplicities of small-town living.


BEST DIRECTOR: Ben Affleck, "Argo"
BEST ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"
BEST ACTRESS: Helen Mirren, "Hitchcock"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Robert De Niro, "Silver Linings Playbook"

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