Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, center, in "Argo," a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.
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It was a strange year for movies, full of surprises, drama, and a rather big twist ending (as in, who would have thought Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey would have disappointed?).
Here are my top films of 2012, listed alphabetically, and a separate list of other releases this year I also enjoyed but that didn’t quite crack the top 10. Worth noting is that at deadline I hadn’t seen the French-language film Amour, which is receiving raves, including Best Picture selection from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards.
Argo: Ben Affleck directs and stars in this riveting and mostly true account of the daring rescue of six Americans in hiding at the home of the Canadian Embassy ambassador in Iran during the hostage crisis in Tehran. The secret operation involves the Americans posing as part of a Canadian film crew, with Affleck playing the CIA operative who came up with the plan and is attempting to lead them out of the country disguised as a film producer. The gripping tension is broken by wickedly comic turns by Alan Arkin and John Goodman as Hollywood big shots, but Affleck’s work behind the camera shines with his most accomplished and impressive directorial effort.
The Avengers: Writer-director Joss Whedon’s summer blockbuster reinvented the comic-book genre yet again. The Avengers pulled away from Christopher Nolan’s serious reflections on masked avengers and our decaying society, and proudly asserted that superhero films could be welcome diversions from messy reality. The Avengers assembles the necessary wit, action, and big-screen bravado to carry a film this massive, as six superheroes unite and battle an evil god, an alien army, and each other. With Robert Downey, Jr.’s, sardonic Iron Man back on screen, who would have thought the Incredible Hulk would steal the film?
The House I Live In: In 2005’s acclaimed documentary Why We Fight, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki explored the ulterior motives behind the U.S. war machine. The House I Live In, Jarecki’s latest critique of America at war — on drugs — offers stunning facts about this never-ending crusade. For example, blacks account for 13 percent of the population and are also about 13 percent of crack cocaine users in this country, yet they make up 90 percent of the crack defendants in the federal prison system. The filmmaker and his articulate and persuasive group of journalists, crusaders, law enforcement officials, and victims, as well as the creator of The Wire David Simon and a Lincoln historian, make a sobering case that this war’s biggest casualty are young, impoverished black men.
The Imposter: In 1997, Nicholas Barclay, a Texas teenager missing for three years, suddenly and mysteriously appeared in Spain. His story of being kidnapped and held as a sex slave for years by a mysterious group that included members of the U.S. military was stunning. And none of it was true. That’s just the beginning of The Imposter, the fascinating account of a young French con man named Frédéric Bourdin who only vaguely resembled Barclay, spoke English with a French accent, and still fooled the missing teen’s family for three years. Or did he? Director Bart Layton’s gripping documentary is full of surprises, and just as many questions.
Life of Pi: Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel is much more than the family film its trailers suggest. There are serious subtexts involving questions of God, faith, and humanity in this fantastic Noah’s Ark story of a boy stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger. Lee straddles the worlds of indie drama and big-budget eye candy with aplomb, and produces a gorgeous spectacle that entrances and amazes at almost every turn. Life of Pi also packs a powerful twist that demands a thoughtful reconsideration of everything we’ve learned in the film, and self-exploration of what that message means to us.
Lincoln: Steven Spielberg delivers his most mature work as a director with a sweeping, stirring epic of behind-the-scenes politics in the waning days of the Civil War, as Lincoln marshals support for an anti-slavery amendment among a bitterly divided congress. Tony Kushner’s screenplay is poetry — every line carries weight and meaning — and the film provides a superb ensemble to pull it off, led by Daniel Day-Lewis as a president driven by conscience, not public opinion. More than a fascinating historical account of the political impasse nearly 150 years ago, Lincoln resonates loudly with a message for the current turbulence in Washington.
Ruby Sparks: Zoe Kazan, the granddaughter of famed filmmaker Elia Kazan, is the breakout star in this edgy romantic comedy for her funny-turned-heartbreaking performance as the title character and for her wonderfully fresh script. The film also stars Kazan’s real-life boyfriend Paul Dano as a celebrated literary genius struggling with his next book who wishes Ruby Sparks into existence through his typewriter. He discovers that whatever he types about her in his story comes true as well. Real-life couple Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directed his comedy-drama that explores the many phases of relationships in a novel way, and the consequences that come with the ability to change someone.
Searching for Sugar Man: Director Malik Bendjelloul’s fascinating documentary is the story of Detroit folk singer Rodriguez, considered Motown’s answer to Bob Dylan in the early 1970s, who bombed in America and quickly disappeared. Through the viral power of bootlegged tapes, Rodriguez became a musical phenomenon bigger than Elvis in South Africa. Yet in these pre-Internet days information about the singer was scarce; urban legends suggesting he committed suicide on stage only added to the mystery. A pair of Rodriguez fans in South Africa wanted answers. Searching for Sugar Man is their dogged quest to discover the truth about an enigmatic musician they know only by a single name.
Silver Linings Playbook: Writer-director David O. Russell’s brilliant comedy-drama of two emotionally crippled people who find love and coping mechanisms in a Philadelphia suburb is my film of the year. The film, based on Matthew Quick’s novel, stars Bradley Cooper as a husband shattered by his wife’s affair, and his attempt to pick up the pieces and restore his life and marriage. Jennifer Lawrence plays a neighborhood woman with relationship issues of her own who offers to help him contact his estranged wife. The film also features terrific supporting turns by Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker. A comedy about the healing power of love and an obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles, Silver Linings Playbook occasionally turns serious with thoughtful and insightful commentary on how mental health is often linked to the state of our relationships. Tethered to such extremes, Russell’s film is touching and disturbing, funny and sad, and rarely obvious.
Zero Dark Thirty: Nearly four years after their tense, psychological war drama The Hurt Locker won Best Picture, the Oscar-winning team of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal deliver an engrossing account of the U.S. government’s hunt to locate and kill Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain stars as CIA operative Maya, who sacrifices her personal life, breaks government rules, and violates her code of ethics in her decade-long obsession to find the terrorist leader. Boal’s Maya is clearly us, and her response to a soldier asking her what she will do next when bin Laden is no longer a threat is telling: She doesn’t know.
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.