Another year over, another best of list finally complete. I always paint myself into a corner with these lists. The 'Notable Films' guide takes up all my spare time for much of December and all of January, and being based in Australia means that many 'end of year' films in the United States don't open here until well into late February. So, I have to find a balance between going later, allowing me to see what I need to catch up on, or going earlier which increases the relevance of the list at the expense of missing some key films.
With a 'Best Films' lists there is also always the debate over whether it is a true 'Best Films' list, or more accurately a 'Favorite Films' list. As I've discussed before, I judge films on both their filmmaking quality and engagement level. Filmmaking quality is the level of cinematic skill and craftsmanship on display, and is more objective in nature. Engagement level is an entirely subjective element, and is all about how emotionally involved and/or intellectually engrossed one is in the story playing out.
I tend to employ a mix of the two approaches in straight up reviewing, but when it comes to lists my personal taste takes precedence. Everyone will no doubt have issues with the ordering, I myself often find it changing slightly from day-to-day. Yet overall there's forty-five films - twenty-five numbered and twenty on the 'other recommendations' list - and honestly pretty much all of them are films I would suggest checking out if you haven't already.
There's a couple of key art house films I didn't get the chance to see that I would have liked to. These include: "Barbara," "Chasing Ice," "The Deep Blue Sea," "Farewell My Queen," "The Forgiveness of Blood," "Goodbye First Love," "The Hunt," "Keep the Lights On," "Kon-Tiki," "The Loneliest Planet," "Lore," "Middle of Nowhere," "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia," "On the Road," "The Queen of Versailles," "A Royal Affair" and "Tabu."
1. Zero Dark Thirty
Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow takes a big step up from the promising, yet problematic "The Hurt Locker" with this deftly compelling contemporary thriller. Blending a pseudo-documentary approach with a spy movie and a character study, there is a surprising amount of verisimilitude on offer from this striking fusion of documented fact with logical embellishment. Yet, for all its ambition, it is the film's evenhanded approach and tight focus on character that make it engaging.
Like David Fincher's "Zodiac," the film is as much about the flawed humans hunting their subject as it is about the hunt itself. Superbly played by Jessica Chastain, details of her Maya character remain a mystery even as her obsessive motivation and single-minded stubbornness prove traits that we can understand and sympathise with. The likes of Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle and especially Jason Clarke lend excellent support throughout.
Bigelow's focus on Maya means she keeps out of the politics where possible, opting more for the immediate views from the vantage point of those on the ground 'as it happened'. There is an admirable strive for objectivity on offer, and a lack of militarism and patriotism, which is refreshing in a major American film on such a subject.
If there is a problem with the film, it is in the early stages. The last act is an incredible piece of filmmaking and the single best extended action set piece of the year. The middle act is like one of the best episodes of "Homeland" ever produced. The first act, however, deals with a necessary albeit needlessly long torture sequence. Some judicious trimming in these scenes are the only possible improvements that could be made to an otherwise flawless film, and this year's single best piece of filmmaking.
There are some striking similarities between "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty". Both are Middle East-set thrillers that blend fact and fiction, both mark career best work from directors who already had remarkable resumes, and both are amongst the best films of the year. They have distinctly different approaches to their material though, and where 'Zero' is an objective and deadly serious docu-drama meets character study, "Argo" is a whip smart and often witty crowd-pleasing espionage thriller.
Chris Terrio's screenplay wears its cinematic conventions on its sleeve, taking a tense real-life situation and throwing in some creative adjustment to ratchet up the suspense levels. You can forgive the embellishments though, after all the whole central conceit of the film is about using Hollywood magic to distract and obscure truth for a larger purpose. This could have been quite grim and dry material, yet the film effortlessly glides between deadly serious drama, gripping suspense thrills, and lighthearted fun.
Full props have to go to Ben Affleck. After two strong directing efforts, "Argo" pushes him into another league with a much larger and more ambitious scale. The characters are fairly straightforward, but the direction is executed with guile and flair. Meticulous attention to detail is offered in the recreation of the period, the locations, and even the filmmaking style of the time which allows for archival news footage to be seamlessly blended into the action.
Pacing throughout is speedy, the laughs are well-timed and with just the right amount of cynicism, and the supporting cast is filled to the brim with great character actors delivering sterling work. If there's a minor niggle it might be Affleck's character who remains something of an enigma - though that seems by design. "Argo" is the kind of film that shows you can have a smart adult thriller that can also appeal to a wide audience, and it is the year's most entertaining film.
The best Bond films usually find a perfect balance between a gritty, grounded, bleak spy thriller, and the hyper-real, big spectacle, fun first approach. "Casino Royale" was a welcome injection of serious reality into the series after a couple of overly silly entries. "Skyfall" represents the other side of that equation, reincorporating and updating the Bond signature attributes and sense of fun after the odious "Quantum of Solace" turned the character into a poor man's Rambo.
What makes "Skyfall" work though is that it gets so much more than just the tone right. The story is character-driven and often surprising, the pace is speedy but never out of control, the humor is well-timed and playful, the action is driven by the plot rather than the other way around, the visuals are absolutely stunning and handsomely framed, the score is both gorgeously retro and inventively new, the sets are incredible and practical, the editing is smart and controlled, the direction is tight and efficient, and the performances are excellent across the board.
All this comes at the cost of set pieces as the opening is the only true out-and-out big scale action sequence. Like Nolan's Batman films, the villain here has been planning an elaborate scheme that relies on far too many conveniences and coincidences. Some characters also make the occasional random stupid decision for narrative convenience. The final section of the film is also in need of a little tightening.
Even so, the film is so slickly made, smart, inventive and charming that its few quibbles are easy to ignore. Akin to the denser and more drama-driven Bond entries like "From Russia with Love" and "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," "Skyfall" demonstrates one can still keep the grounded reality of the modern era, but also embrace everything that makes Bond who he is rather than run away from it. I have no doubt that this will be the film of 2012 I will re-watch the most.
4. Django Unchained
I'm the first to admit, I'm not a Tarantino devotee. Yet, for all my various issues with his works, I enjoy much of his oeuvre and even downright love two or three. "Django Unchained" belongs in that latter group, marking his most complete and consistent film in some time as each of his post-"Jackie Brown" films have drastically varied in quality due to their segmented nature. The rinse-and-repeat near anthology-style formula of a cleverly written dialogue scene building up to a burst of sudden graphic violence was becoming overly familiar and decidedly uneven.
While 'Django' has its own segmented aspects, they feel better integrated into the whole. Tarantino both lovingly pays homage to and sends up Westerns, while incorporating blaxploitation elements to lend bite and edge to this often stolid genre. It explores slavery in the Old South in a way studio films wouldn't dare tackle so head on, even if it does occasionally overindulge. There's even an upbeat ending to the whole affair that feels earned.
Poor Kerry Washington has little to do, but a scenery chewing Leonardo DiCaprio and a resolute Jamie Foxx deliver fine work as the hero and villain respectively. Really though, it's Christoph Waltz's bounty hunter Dr. Schultz and Samuel L. Jackson as Uncle Tom-esque Candie estate butler Stephen who are the standouts with the best lines and most interesting characterisations. That's not to put anyone down, the entire cast is excellent across the board.
'Django' also boasts some of the best comedic moments in any film this year, and this is despite the often dark subject matter. Tarantino pulls back on the monologues this time out, but he unfortunately inserts himself into a tiny role which acquires an atrocious Australian accent. Clocking in at nearly three hours, it runs a bit long - especially in its final half hour which could use a little trimming, but otherwise it's a near perfect work and my second favorite of his behind only "Pulp Fiction".
5. Holy Motors
Utterly bonkers. There is no more apt a description for Leos Carax's beguilingly surreal and trippy odyssey. Denis Lavant effortlessly slips in and out of up to a dozen different guises in this story of the mysterious Monsieur Oscar who engages in a variety of often bizarre and unexplained 'assignments' for purposes that are never made quite clear.
This is a movie driven by emotion, style and a love for the movie art form itself. Those looking for answers, or even a semblance of logic, will not find it here as 'Motors' lives very much by its own rules. Carax knows the enjoyment of mystery isn't as much in finding the solution and is it is exploring the questions. At various turns, just when you think you have an understanding of what is going on, Carax will throw you for a loop. Ultimately there is no real solution.
Each sequence is distinct and memorable such as the motion capture video game sex scene, the flower-eating and model kidnapping Monsieur Merde, the soulful romantic ballad sung by Kylie Minogue's character, and the accordion-fuelled interval. Even some of the more sedate and seemingly ordinary tasks ring with a sincere and tender emotion. However, like an anthology film, some of these 'assignments' resonate better than others.
Production values are superb, and the film looks stunning at every turn. Darkly comic, decidedly deranged, and endlessly inventive, 'Motors' is alive with a vitality and imagination that is so scarce these days. Unlike other pretentious auteurs, Carax has no qualms about poking fun at himself and his subject matter which gives the film a refreshing approachability. You can try to make sense of this movie, but that would defeat the entire purpose. Sit back and enjoy the wild ride.
6. The Master
Remarkable, perplexing and wondrously cinematic, Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" didn't turn out to be so much a skewering of Scientology as it is a rich character study of the power one man can hold over another. Of all of last year's films, "The Master" is one I find amongst the hardest to shake off, and not just because of Anderson's obviously skilled artistry or the stunning performances from its two leads.
Like many of Anderson's previous films, the plot is ultimately inconsequential (and barely existent). In spite of this, the film is exquisitely crafted on every level - expertly recreating post-World War II America with stunning production values, filmed on gorgeous 70mm celluloid, crisply edited and accompanied by an unnervingly off-kilter score. For a film that many will find frustratingly obtuse, it is incredibly exacting in all its little details.
The fact that narratively it ultimately doesn't seem to add up to much isn't in its favor, nor is the way the drama peters out in the last half-hour after soaring to often demented highs. Yet, when it sizzles it is electric - Joaquin Phoenix delivering his most committed performance to date, inhabiting an unbalanced character so completely you never once question it. Hoffman is on more familiar terrain in his considerate and articulate portrayal of this self-improvement guru, brilliantly conveying the charisma and persuasiveness that comes with all such con men who truly believe their own bullshit.
It's a film of dynamic sequences, intense and revelatory conversations, strange moments, and a fascinating examination of the doomed interpersonal relationship that emerges between these two very different characters that ultimately need the other in their life. Weird? Absolutely. Confounding? Certainly. Fascinating? Definitely.
After the promising "Brick" and the frustrating "The Brothers Bloom," filmmaker Rian Johnson steps up to a whole new level with this aggressively inventive and ambitious time-travel thriller. It's a lean film, darkly twisted in ways that feel fresh and make full use of its premise. Blending pure science fiction with noir and 1970s style violent action, Johnson's screenplay is a whip smart affair that avoids formula where possible.
No script dealing with numerous causality twists is absolutely watertight, but Johnson deserves full credit for seemingly holding things together while still taking bold chances. One such chance includes shifting practically all the action of the second half from a carefully setup near future dystopia, to a ramshackle farm in the middle of a field.
The casting is excellent from even the small roles like Jeff Daniels and Piper Perabo, to great lead turns by Emily Blunt and Bruce Willis. Willis actually seems to relish getting meatier dramatic material to work with here. However, the film belongs to Joseph Gordon-Levitt who delivers impressive commitment and range, even under a ton of fairly thick make-up to closer resemble Willis.
The film sets up its time travel rules fairly clearly, deftly avoiding cheating them for narrative convenience, or getting bogged down in the technobabble. The story setup is compelling, the filmmaking assured, and the world in which this story unfolds feels credible - advanced enough to be convincing, but not so much as to be unfamiliar. Even the central reversal of the film, and its surprising resolution, feel just right. Chuck in a welcome dash of well-timed dark comedy, and you have a remarkably tight and well-constructed effort. The year's best science fiction head scratcher.
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
A thoroughly pleasant surprise, 'Perks' tackles familiar territory - the coming-of-age in high school genre - with such warmth, humor and intelligence that it all feels both lovingly nostalgic and delightfully fresh. There's a real energy on display here, an honest and insightful examination of teen outsiders that's missing from so many films of this ilk. It is also nice to see teenagers played as they are, not by late 20-something actors speaking in dialogue and with neuroses more suited to 30-something professionals.
Author Stephen Chbosky felt that no one could do justice to the film adaptation of his coming-of-age novel, so he penned and directed it himself. That he delivers a faithful translation isn't the surprise, the fact that he does it with such confident and sometimes deft filmmaking skill is the real shock. For a debut film, this is astonishingly good work that strikes with a strong emotional resonance, especially for anyone who went through school in the late 1980s and 1990s.
A little gushy at times, the film takes a dark turn in the final act with a subplot that takes things maybe a step too far in trying to give a reasoning, beyond regular shyness, for the lead character's awkwardness. The film hints at it throughout, and it is certainly a credible storyline to pursue and one that is handled with appropriate sensitivity. However, it doesn't feel as well-integrated into the rest of the narrative as something this important should be.
Beyond that awkwardness (and it is only minor), I can't really fault this film. The trio of main actors are utterly perfect, Watson and Miller delivering welcome work in roles so different from their previous turns, while Lerman utterly blew me away in a role that is by far his best work. The soundtrack is excellent, the tone is warm without ever getting overly sentimental, the characters are all distinct and rarely fall into stereotype. It is a modern classic of this sub-genre, and one with immense replay value.
9. The Grey
Every now and then a star who has become known for generic action movies will choose something different. A film that, from the outside, could be mistaken for one of the fast paced and empty works they seem to regularly churn out. In actuality, a bit of bait-and-switch is at play and the final result is actually something more dramatic, ambitious, and interesting. We saw it happen for Jason Statham with 2008's underrated "The Bank Job," now it has happened for Liam Neeson with "The Grey.
In fact, Neeson's work is an even more extreme departure. Billed as "'Taken' with Wolves," Joe Carnahan's film proved to be something else entirely: an unrelentingly bleak survival drama portraying nature as it often is - cold, savage and outright cruel in its own arbitrary way. The filmmaking, like the story is stripped-down and primal. Here we have a small focus movie against a stunning Alaskan wilderness backdrop that is astonishingly proficient on a technical level, and surprisingly earnest and contemplative on a thematic one.
Masculinity is something always treated at a fairly teenage level in movies, probably because so many men are still boys at heart. Tenderness, sentimentality, self-doubt, even a healthy amount of fear are portrayed as weaknesses when they are often signs of experience, strength and wisdom. "The Grey" brilliantly puts a group of grown macho men, with all the blustering bravado and blind stupidity that comes with them, and proceeds to tear that false sense of security off their bones in ragged bloody chunks.
The wolf behaviour and CG-enhanced look borders on the monstrous, which is not credible in a real world sense. It's a problem with all films of this type which treat uncharacteristic animal behaviour as gospel. Yet, the film isn't so much about the threat as it is the threatened. "The Grey" showcases how real strength, bravery, dignity and even nobility can be found in someone quietly coming to accept the inevitable.
10. Silver Linings Playbook
While I really enjoyed "Three Kings," I didn't like David O. Russell's follow-ups "I Heart Huckabees" and "The Fighter" anywhere near as much. So, it came as a surprise when I finally got around to seeing the much-touted "Silver Linings Playbook," a film that actually lives up to the hype. For its first two acts, 'Playbook' delivers and honest-to-god fresh take on a genre that has long fallen into cliche - the romantic comedy.
It falls back on convention as it dances its way to the finale, but that transition is handled smoothly that you don't mind knowing where it is all going to end up. Both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence inhabit not only strongly developed and delightfully quirky characters, the pair share an excellent on-screen chemistry that shines brightly. Even Robert De Niro, who has long been stuck in paycheck supporting roles, seems to relish getting the chance to do something respectable again.
The fact that both characters have mental problems could have been a recipe for disaster, but the film treats this element with the right amount of respect and even whimsy. It all feels grounded and believable, the character tics aren't done to excess or used as a springboard for puerile jokes. Even the supposedly sane characters come with their own distinct and familiar quirks.
The humor has definite bite, but what's so great is how real this all feels. The often unbelievable quasi-fantasy elements of rom-coms isn't here. Instead, you get two brutally honest and slightly screwed up characters who come together in a way that feels natural and unforced. From the fight at the football game scene onwards it does tread a familiar path, but this is one film that feels like it truly earns its romance. A film for those who like their love stories with a welcome dose of both the real and the (credibly) ridiculous.
11. Marvel's The Avengers
Marvel's long-awaited "The Avengers" really is greater than the sum of its parts - a rollicking sci-fi adventure epic with plenty of character, humor and heart that delivers on practically every front. Much of the credit must go to writer/director Joss Whedon whose signature is all over this work. His deft skill at balancing large character ensembles, emotionally resonant themes, gripping end of the world scenarios and plenty of self-deprecating character-based humour is brought to full bore here.
Not only does Whedon have an innate understanding of both this material and its audience, but even by his standards there's an unexpected amount of fearlessness on display - he takes chances with gags and character beats here even some master filmmakers wouldn't dare, and most of them pay off handsomely. The film also marks his arrival as a tentpole director, showcasing a remarkably refined sense of scale, pacing and visuals.
The cast is strong, Mark Ruffalo in particular is the real gem who gives Bruce Banner/Hulk much more of a distinct personality than we've seen before. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Tom Hiddleston's Loki also deliver real stand out work. On the flip side, Captain America remains frustratingly bland and one-note with Chris Evans trying his best to do what he can with the character. The S.H.I.E.L.D. characters are also indistinct and unremarkable aside from Clark Gregg's adorably geeky Agent Coulson, while Jeremy Renner is given very short shrift.
There's a few nitpicks such as a dull opening set piece, a few sketchy plot elements, and the fairly indistinct Chitauri villains. Tonally and story-wise it remains in step with the other Marvel movies, and never forgets that it is a big, brassy crowd-pleasing blockbuster. The result is it fully embraces its pulpy source material, dramatic when necessary and laid back where possible. It is not a particularly deep experience, even if it is often deeply satisfying and pure, unadulterated fun.
12. The Dark Knight Rises
The most ambitious and seemingly consistent of Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy ultimately proves its least engaging. What started with a grounded, but still comic-inspired origin tale; and continued with a masterfully brazen and tight crime saga; ends with an operatic and intriguing societal revolution epic. While debates will rage over the issues that plague this convoluted final chapter, there's no question that it is a fascinating work that will take multiple viewings to fully reflect its scope and grandeur.
From the ticking clock countdown to the opening aerial stunt, Nolan's fetish for the James Bond film franchise is more visible than ever here in his style and sensibility. His skill at filming action hasn't always been his great strength, yet with 'Rises' he is able to bring a clearness to the various bursts of adrenaline which results in some strong highlights. There's even moments of playfulness and comic relief, though the pervasive tonal seriousness and meticulous attention to detail tends to suck the energy out of the attempted spontaneity.
Full kudos must go to both Christian Bale and Michael Caine for their work. They both remain the committed and steadfast center of this series and sell it. Their relationship also gives this otherwise quite cold film its few real signs of humanity. Anne Hathaway is also a standout thanks to the decision to play Catwoman as a multi-layered opportunistic vixen who dances around the periphery. On the flip side Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman feel shortchanged this time out, while both Marion Cotillard and a very committed Tom Hardy are in parts that feel frustratingly underdeveloped.
Tech credits from Wally Pfister's cinematography to Hans Zimmer's excellent score are, as usual, amongst the best of the year in the industry. Pacing is strong, but at 164 minutes the film feels in need of a trim. There's a few too many red herrings, unnecessary plot points, and side characters that take necessary development time away from key players. As the trilogy has progressed, the filmmaking has improved, but it has come at the cost of approachability and humanity. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and gives each chapter a distinct flavour. It doesn't always succeed, but Nolan gives us a masterfully constructed and fitting conclusion. Having only seen it once so far, I suspect it might rise in my estimation upon further viewings in the same way a few of Nolan's other films have.
After building his career out on the fringes, filmmaker David Cronenberg has been going more mainstream in recent years. While "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises" brilliantly balanced his genre proclivities with more accessible storytelling, 2011's "A Dangerous Method" drifted a bit too far towards the conventional - resulting in perhaps his least distinctive work to date. "Cosmopolis" is a step back in the right direction, re-embracing the wonderfully weird and enjoyably surreal.
An often amusing deconstruction of the more ridiculous aspects of unbridled capitalism, Cronenberg seems a perfect fit to adapt novelist Don DeLillo's wild narrative and incisive yet stilted dialogue. The film lacks the book's slickness and energy, or any real sense of belonging to reality. Instead, the filmmaker has opted for a highly stylised dark fable, a wickedly absurdist spin on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". In this version though, the boat is a roomy limo in New York.
Robert Pattinson acquits himself fine in the lead role, the detached awkwardness that has been an issue in some of his other performances is quite suitable for the character here. The rest of the cast around him shine including Paul Giamatti as about the only real human character amongst this cast, Samantha Morton as Pattison's all-seeing advisor, Emily Hampshire as an erotically excitable financial chief, and Sarah Gadon as Pattinson's ice queen of a wife.
There is no question that this a cold, and rather stagey film. That distancing affect will alienate those looking for something more alive and aggressive with its subversiveness. Cronenberg's adaptation is a precise work though, one that demands you adjust to its tone and style rather than the other way around. If you are onboard with its approach, "Cosmopolis" proves a fascinating and often deliciously perverse road trip.
It is a relief to see that the Tim Burton of old is still alive. After a string of duds, culminating in the offensively bad yet highly profitable "Alice in Wonderland," Burton eschews commercial sensibility for a far more personal story. A stop-motion animated feature remake of his own 1984 live-action short, this has Burton's trademark stylistic signature all over it. It also has more heart and passion on display than we've seen from him in some time.
While there's the standard "Frankenstein" elements combined with a touching relationship between a boy and his pooch, there is also macabre humor that more closely resembles late 80s/early 90s Burton efforts like "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands". One great move was to set the action in a world of weirdos, so our hero Victor doesn't employ the overly familiar ostracised outsider angle. Each of the kid characters has a distinct look and personality, most notably the weird girl and her pet cat Mr. Whiskers.
Along with the excellent black-and-white visuals, and a lot of Burton's earlier collaborators providing the voice work, the film is packed with references to classic monsters movies. Even some you wouldn't expect, such as "Godzilla," come into play in delightfully weird ways. There's a real energy and sincerity to all this, which helps overcome the feeling of familiarity on display.
The calls of this being a 'Burton's best hits compilation' are a bit harsh, but not unfair. It is an earnest film and one that, even though it does deal with the death and re-animation of a dog, doesn't get as overly manipulative or sentimental on an emotional level to the extent that certain CG animation studios like to exploit.
15. The Sessions
A film about sex and the disabled sounds like the kind of movie that would either be produced as tear-jerker awards bait with long monologues about overcoming adversity, or a deeply insulting and vulgar comedy trying to reach the lowest common denominator. Australian filmmaker Ben Lewin avoids either of those two traps to deliver this short, smart and often wryly amusing adult film that is surprisingly modest and emotionally touching for a movie all about sex.
The cast is excellent across the board, from strong supporting turns by Moon Bloodgood and William H. Macy, to the stunning work of both John C. Hawkes and Helen Hunt. A skeletal thin Hawkes completely disappears into the role of Mark O'Brien, not just making the disability convincing, but imbuing him with such a life force you have to be inspired by such a character. Hunt, who spends much of the film naked, is wonderfully relaxed and handles the more emotional later scenes with great skill.
Sex on screen is portrayed with such vanilla leanings these days, even on the supposedly adventurous American indie film scene. Most of it is decidedly bland porn designed not to upset the often squeamish and least imaginative heterosexual boys and men of the audience out there. If it is not being used to titillate them, it is used as the pun of a joke - mostly targeted at those whose taste or circumstance strays outside that very narrow viewpoint.
How refreshing then it is to see a film that handles the subject with such a healthy attitude and maturity - the sex here is adventurous, fun, intimate, and ultimately life-affirming. More importantly it fully develops its characters, especially the two at its heart, as proper adults with all their emotional complexity. It's a humanist film with a real wide appeal, and one of the year's most endearingly honest efforts.
16. Life of Pi
Visually astonishing, Ang Lee's digital dreamscapes bring author Yann Martel's best-selling book to life in a colorful and dazzling pro-spirituality movie that can be embraced by all. With all the masterful visual effects trickery and impressive use of 3D on display, the film proves surprisingly restrained in other departments such as the editing, music and tone. Despite what you may think, it is ultimately a small film with much of the narrative being a two-hander.
The twist here is that the second person in that equation is a tiger named Richard Parker. The tiger remains a dangerous predator throughout and doesn't change his nature, while the creation itself is an astonishing and utterly convincing digital effect with a more believable personality than the arguably overly anthropomorphized Caesar from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes". Most of the film's heavy lifting goes on the shoulders of young actor Suraj Sharma who does excellent work as the younger Pi.
Much like "The Grey," this understands that nature can be cruel in its indifference. Unlike that film however, it also believes in the beauty and wonder inherent in this complex and often astounding system. Even the more impressionistic elements have a foundation in nature - from carnivorous plants to a playful whale swimming about in fields of bio-luminescent jellyfish. It's a life-affirming movie on the whole, and if there is a complaint to be had, it is with the overly long middle section in which it might spend a little too long dwelling on Pi's difficult situation.
Many have debated the ending (spoilers ahead), in my opinion it is one of the highlights. Its alternate interpretation isn't an invalidating twist, rather it is a validating metaphor for the nature of faith. In many ways there is a distinct parallel to the ending of "Atonement" - why some will voluntarily choose to live with a more fantastical and hopeful interpretation over the logical but brutal truth, even if they are fully aware it is ultimately a coping mechanism.
17. The Imposter
While it adopts the talking heads approach of many documentaries, Bart Layton's outstanding work is equally a thriller so wild that it could only be a true story. The subject in question is Frédéric Bourdin, a young and dark-skinned French Algerian who, in the late 1990s, posed as a blond & blue-eyed teenage Texan boy named Nicholas Barclay who had been missing for three years.
Bourdin spun the tale of being kidnapped by human traffickers, and the family took in this deceiver even though he had distinctly different features to that of their lost son. The film then explores the question we would all ask - who in the world would be suckered in by such a conman? Layton and company carefully break down how grief, emotion, desire and belief can often override common sense, logic and nagging doubt.
The film also explores this man's disturbing, yet obviously effective gift for both deceit and adaptation. After all, Bourdin fooled not just Barclay's family, but friends, the media and law enforcement agencies as well. The line between who are the real subjects and who are actors involved in recreations here is a bit iffy and obviously manipulative. The overall film, however, is commendable in the way it paints its villain as an arrogant and manipulative sociopath, someone who is credibly amoral rather than cartoonishly evil.
It is a solid enough work on its own merits, but it is the finale that makes it one of the best films of the year. Most documentaries peter out after the first hour, and there's a bit of a lull at that point in the action here. The filmmakers then employ a brilliant third act reversal that completely changes your perspective on everything that has come before. While you are still reeling from its impact, it abruptly ends on a chillingly ambiguous note. Riveting stuff.
The antithesis of the average Hollywood thriller, Andrei Zvyagintsev's "Elena" boasts no set pieces, no twists, little to no plotting, and a glacial pacing. Even so, it is a gripping character study in its own right. Very Russian in its approach, this often beautiful, contemplative noir finds virtue in its gloomy acceptance of self-centric human behavior.
That's what makes it so fascinating. There is no moral lesson, no sense of inevitable justice, no clearly defined good or bad people, and emotion rarely comes into play. Everyone treads on morally questionable grounds, even Elena herself, which makes them all understandable if unsympathetic and unlikable. The drawn-out and sedate look at routine in the first half allows us to understand these characters before the film changes gears into an examination of conscience, entitlement and quiet desperation.
Boasting a deceptively simple script by Oleg Negin, impeccably shot by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, and featuring a striking score by Philip Glass, the film's technical merits on their own are impressive. It is Nadezhda Markina's understated performance, however, that is this film in a nutshell. Remarkably natural and controlled, it is my single favorite female lead performance this year, and works precisely because there are no big showcase moments - it is tangible, and always feels unquestionably honest.
It is certainly not a film for everyone - taking 106 minutes to tell a story that can be summarised in about 30 seconds. There are no emotional payoffs or grandiose themes, and quite a few will complain of it being needlessly ponderous and self-indulgent. Yet, it is a haunting and carefully observed work that still has me thinking about it months later. Quite remarkable and strangely satisfying.
19. The Impossible
Some have scoffed about this film's focus on a family of well-off Caucasian tourists surviving the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. I had reservations after trailers for the film heavily played up the sentimentality of the story to almost histrionic levels. I need not have worried though, as "The Impossible" delivers both an intelligent and respectful treatment of this story of a family torn apart amidst one of the most devastating natural disasters of all time.
Sentimentality does creep into bits of the second half, and a finale set around a hospital rather blatantly invents some coincidental near misses to add suspense. Otherwise, filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona delivers a grounded, straightforward and often harrowing take on the fear, isolation and despair that comes with surviving such a terrifying ordeal. He doesn't shy away from the darker aspects either, Naomi Watts is on the receiving end of some disturbing and visceral moments of body horror because the injuries are both grotesque and believable.
After the jaw-dropping tsunami sequences (a combination of practical tank work and visual effects), the film focuses on Watts and the eldest son Lucas with much of the action seen from his perspective. Watts delivers sterling work, but the real find is young actor Tom Holland. Making his feature debut, Holland outshines everyone else with a remarkably astute and emotionally real performance. Forget Quvenzhané Wallis, Holland is the real new talent find of 2012.
The second half cuts to Ewan McGregor and the other two kids for a twenty minute segment in which the Scot delivers in a more outwardly emotional role. The true story element adds a weight to the proceedings, which is only enhanced by the naturalistic performances and the astute and tasteful direction. It is not a happy tale, but it is ultimately an inspiring one of survival against the odds.
20. End of Watch
I'm not a fan of the 'shaky cam' technique seen in so many found footage films, but if there is a subject matter where such a technique is justified, it is the day-to-day life of the beat cop. Call it the influence of shows like Fox's long-running "Cops," we're so accustomed to seeing officers at work through vehicle and handheld cams that David Ayer's extensive use of it here adds authenticity to an already excellent police drama.
Ayer drops the Hollywood formula and tired revenge plotting of his last directorial outing "Street Kings" in favor of a more personal and ultimately emotional story of duty and friendship. As it is Ayer, the writer of "Training Day," the film carefully avoids falling into any kind of sappy or sentimental moments - these two friends bond in the way men in their position would bond.
Michael Pena and a shaved Jake Gyllenhaal share a very relaxed and easy chemistry, the film taking time to develop the partnership's credibility and each character's own separate identity. Supporting characters, including wives and fellow cops, flutter in and out without breaking the focus on the pair. Both are given just the right amount of narcissism and confidence to make them brash, but it rarely slips too far over into arrogance which means they are still likeable.
When the plot has to raise its head is when the film stumbles. The authenticity it has worked so hard to build up trips over its feet in the final act. As the threat of a Mexican drug cartel comes into play, violent shoot outs more befitting conventional movies pop up. While the ending is skilfully executed, and an amusing coda is an excellent way to cap it off, you wish that Ayer had shown as much restraint and care with his antagonists as he did with his main leads.
21. Kill List
The full horror within British filmmaker Ben Wheatley's "Kill List" isn't revealed until its bat shit insane final act, culminating in the film's divisive ending which I admit I'm not entirely onboard with. That doesn't mean I don't adore this piece of work, one of the most remarkable genre efforts of recent years. It feels alive and fresh in way missing from its often stilted and formula-driven kin.
The reason Wheatley can get away with such a wild ending is because he carefully takes his time setting things up. Starting out as a grounded family melodrama, the film carefully transitions into a gritty crime tale of two hit men carrying out assignments. Time is carefully taken to flesh out the key characters, the mundane motions of every day domesticity, and a credible past history between the two men.
Carefully seeded bits of back story and foreshadowing, combined with a tension building score, add an increasing sense of anxiety about the direction we're headed. The performances are key to selling it, with Neil Maskell and MyAnna Buring delivering excellent work as husband-and-wife. It is Michael Smiley though, in a remarkable turn as the more roguish and resigned of the two killers, who really sells it.
Both are ably helped by Wheatley's naturalistic dialogue and admirable sense of restraint which makes the brief, yet carefully arranged moments of grim violence all that more shocking. Wheatley never lets the gore take over, focusing instead on suspense and atmosphere which leads to the deeply chilling last half hour. You can't help get a nagging feel that the film doesn't quite fully come together and over reaches in its final moments. However, the lead-up is so carefully, skilfully and audaciously executed that you don't feel the least bit cheated.
22. Anna Karenina
Adapted so many times to film before, and often with the same stately and needlessly dour approach that filmmakers slap Russian epics with, full praise must be given to Joe Wright for taking a refreshingly bold chance with the material. From a tone which dances between light comedy and heavy melodrama, to some truly unique staging, Wright brings a welcome energy and freshness to this most familiar of stories.
On a stylistic level, the film makes the choice of setting the scenes of stiflingly insular Russian high society as if they are elements within a theatrical stage production. The stage, backstage, the boxes, the rafters, the stalls, the mezzanines, even the roof are all used to this effect with scenery being manually shifted around to represent different settings. It requires a certain amount of faith on the part of the viewer, but if you go with it you will see an approach that is wonderfully cinematic and often sumptuous.
Wright also shakes things up on a narrative level. He and scribe Tom Stoppard give a more than cursory treatment to the Levin and Kitty subplot, which makes for an enjoyable optimistic counterpart to all the gloom of the main love triangle. At the same time, Anna's husband Alexei is turned into a more sympathetic and good natured character, while Anna and Vronsky come off as somewhat more self-absorbed and ultimately self-sabotaging.
Like all 'Anna' adaptations, this one overstays its welcome as the character's tragic descent into madness drags out for too long. Also, Aaron Taylor-Johnson seems oddly miscast as Vronsky, which snuffs out the spark of chemistry that's required in any adaptation of one of the great romantic tragedies. The rest of the cast, however, is spot on with Knightley delivering her finest work in a long time. The likes of Law, Matthew Macfadyen and Ruth Wilson lend solid support. Production departments deliver stunning work across the board. It's not a film for everyone, but it will find a passionate following.
23. Wreck-It Ralph
One of the big surprises this year over at Disney was that its own animation studio managed to out-Pixar Pixar this year. While "Brave" was a flawed adventure and one of the company's least interesting works, this late year entry from Disney Animation itself proved to be the year's best computer-animated feature. A loving tribute to video games, the film works because it's more than just a nostalgic trip down 8-bit lane - there's also a solid character drama that boasts a real emotional payoff.
The game worlds displayed take their cues from "Donkey Kong," "Mario Kart" and various modern sci-fi FPS games like "Halo," but are original enough in appearance that it doesn't require any real knowledge of classic gaming to enjoy. That said, gamers will get a kick out of seeing characters like Q-Bert, Dr. Robotnik, General Bison, and so forth in cameos. The animators do a stunning job rendering these quite differentiated worlds, and selling the cute idea of what arcade characters get up to after hours.
It's the actors behind the characters though that play this just right. John C. Reilly is perfectly cast as the gruff yet good-hearted Ralph who develops a fascinating relationship with the aggressively energetic Vanellope (a role pulled off with gusto by Sarah Silverman). Supporting parts are equally good, with Jane Lynch in particular as a female drill sergeant offering plenty of witty laughs. The flashback to her wedding day is utterly inspired, as is the romance that develops with the good-mannered Fix-It Felix Jr.
The film has some pacing issues, mostly in the middle where the Disney animated film habit of wallowing too much in sentiment comes to the fore. Yet it manages to pull itself together for a rousing and quite emotional final half hour. It may cover familiar terrain (it is "Toy Story" for arcade games really), but it does so with more sophistication and imagination than you'd expect. It is also beautifully mad at times.
A solid adaptation of Jo Nesbo's international bestseller, this often unpredictable caper movie is best described as modern Hitchcock with a savagely dark wit. It works because it is so consistently good - the pacing is excellent, there are only five main characters with each being fully realised, and there's an intelligent plot that frequently takes genuinely surprising left turns.
Askel Hennie does an impressively twitchy job as Roger Brown, a corporate headhunter and part-time art thief with an inferiority complex regarding his relationship with his statuesque and adoring wife. His two professions come together when he meets Clas Greve, a former commando and CEO played by "Game of Thrones" regular Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Clas has inherited a priceless Rubens which Roger intends to steal. Things go to hell in a hand basket from there as the film swerves between bloody borderline farce and tense suspense thriller.
The tone changes on a dime, but filmmaker Morten Tyldum does it so smoothly it is never a problem. Much of the narrative is essentially a chase film between two distinct characters - a cool, collected and relentless villain, and an initially creepy and seemingly meek hero who ultimately proves resourceful, dogged and sympathetic. Action is determined by the plot, with refreshingly practical set pieces that are often imaginatively grotesque (such as the outhouse and car crash sequences).
The same praise goes to the various deceptions and double crosses which are well-integrated into the story. Mostly the joy here is seeing a smart, adult thriller executed with skill. It hooks you in with a good story and distinct characterisation, while the clever setups and tightly executed action allows it to get away with some truly wild stuff.
25. The Intouchables
The term 'bromantic comedy' sounds like a bad cliche, the kind of sub-genre that has been spoiled by the ridiculous antics of the self-centered man-childs that are served up as the unlikely heroes of Judd Apatow movies. "The Intouchables" brings it back to a level of respectability with this story of the friendship that develops between two men who couldn't be more different.
Though a French language movie, there is a definite Hollywood influence on offer which gives it a wide crowd-pleasing flavour that translates well across many cultures. From the various little moments that will make you smile, to the eventual 'fight and reconciliation', the film develops this mutually enriching relationship along familiar lines that wouldn't be out of place in a romantic comedy.
The difference is the relationship here is strictly platonic, and it develops at a natural and believable speed. You can understand what each person gets out of this friendship, while at the same time the characters have their own distinct personalities. Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy fully inhabit their roles, and there is a genuine enthusiastic chemistry and rapport between them which makes the film endearing and amusing.
If there is an issue with "The Intouchables," it is that it doesn't set the bar very high. This has been designed and executed purely as a crowd-pleaser, there is nothing in particular about this story that is either unfamiliar or daring. Yet, the film's wild popularity all over the world shows that it doesn't always matter. It's a familiar story told well, cast with leads that share good chemistry, and delivered with an optimistic and human tone. One of the most effortlessly likeable movies of the year.
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS (#26-35):
26: Michael Haneke's trademark hands-off approach robs "Amour" of the story's full potential impact. However, the lack of manipulative melodrama does render this a confronting work which will hit home to many due to its meticulous realism. Superbly acted by both its leads, it's a sparse film and you know exactly what direction it is headed in. As someone who lost two grandmothers from dementia over the years, and a grandfather from old age just the other week, "Amour" was hardly a pleasant experience even if it was a familiar one.
27: More a straight up filmed version of a lavish stage production than an actual movie adaptation, your reaction to Tom Hopper's "Les Miserables" is all about your emotional attachment to the source material. Boasting three stellar performances (Jackman, Hathaway, Redmayne) and a couple of truly great numbers, Hopper also makes some choices that don't quite click so well from the relentless close-ups to a lack of culling of some of the less necessary songs. A grand and mostly successful adaptation, but I can think of a half dozen other film musicals over the past decade I warm to far more.
28: One of the single hardest films on this list to rank, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's wildly ambitious sci-fi saga "Cloud Atlas" is astonishing and frustrating in equal measure. Though more elaborately integrated than most, it is essentially an anthology film and so some of the separate storylines are decidedly more effective than others (1936, 2012 & the Hawaiian far future subplots were my favourites). Despite some questionable directorial choices and a whisy-washy central message, it is never dull and boasts some occasionally terrific filmmaking.
29: Though "Dredd" was shot before and released after the very similar "The Raid," I saw it first and it is more up my alley with its hallucinogenic drug and violence-infused visuals. There's also actual character work, a fun villain, an interesting building of tension as the ammo begins to run dry, an enjoyable dark humor, and legitimate use of slow-motion which renders various scenes beautifully artistic. One of my favorite guilty pleasures of the year.
30: LAIKA's delightfully mature "ParaNorman" fuses some quite adult themes and references into a family friendly adventure with imaginative genre leanings. The stop-motion visuals are astonishing, the character-driven script is often laugh out loud funny and smartly constructed, and the horror elements are inventive. There's an admirable central message, hammered home with one of the year's best throwaway revelations, and some excellent voice work to go along with the often trippy weirdness of the film.
31: After annoying me for so many years, my opinion of Jack Black was completely turned around once again by his teaming with Richard Linklater. "Bernie" is a deliciously quirky fact-based black comedy with rich characters and some surprising twists. Black fully inhabits his unique character, so much so even the supporting characters pale in comparison. The true story aspect makes it all the more compelling, especially in the second half, but it could have used a bit more trimming.
32: A smart micro-budget sci-fi thriller done without any visual effects, "Sound of My Voice" is all about suggestion and tension. It keeps its answers ambiguous, and raises some provocative questions. Mostly though it is a stunning performance piece about two students trying to expose a cult led by a mysterious woman (an often utterly riveting Brit Marling) who claims to be from the future. Christopher Denham also delivers a strong turn, and there's one particular scene between him and Marling that is one of my favorites of the year.
33: "The Raid" is utterly relentless action both helped and hindered by a single sentence concept instead of a plot for its first hour. The physicality of the complicated martial arts is stunning, the camera work is often inventive and the pace is relentless. However, it is not until the final act that actual character development seems to raise its head so it is hard to get emotionally invested, while the fights do drag on far too long. For those into streamlined martial arts films, this is pretty much perfect.
34: After one of the strongest first acts of any film this year, "Flight" settles down into a more familiar addiction drama which marks the welcome return of Robert Zemeckis to live-action. Zemeckis' trademark skill at filmmaking has lost none of its edge, garnering stellar performances from Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly and John Goodman. This darker subject matter of alcoholism doesn't make for the most pleasant viewing, even if it will be familiar to almost everyone.
35: Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" sports some of the year's finest filmmaking in any genre. The technical level of this production is astonishing, but Anderson's approach is so attuned to his particular tangent that those outside his already devoted fan base will potentially struggle with its lack of accessibility. Nevertheless there's a real sweetness to the uncynical relationship at the core of the movie, something which should be thoroughly applauded.
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS (#36-45):
36: One of most inventive genre efforts in a long time, the Joss Whedon-scripted "The Cabin in the Woods" is a clever and often amusing deconstruction of the horror movie formula. While the 'underground' scenes and the last act are glorious fun, the film is slightly hampered by the tedious slasher film it has to live out over the first hour to make its point. It is something of a one trick pony, but that first ride is such a thrill.
37: Studio Ghibli's "The Secret World of Arrietty" is a sweet, enchanting little animated film whose deceptively thin tale surrounds a gentle heart and intimate focus. There's a remarkable reserve on offer, one that finds beauty in a friendship between a sick boy and a young girl from a family of tiny people. It is a more sedate, romantic and measured effort than their recent output - but every bit as well-crafted.
38: A respectable museum documentary disguised as a major feature, "Lincoln" boasts an excellent performance by Daniel Day-Lewis and a commendable commitment to historical accuracy. Yet it feels very much like a film version of a play, a movie oddly lacking in both cinematic feel and emotional engagement. It picks up considerably in its third act, and boasts Spielberg's usual craftsmanship, but it is ultimately a somewhat stolid curiosity.
39: Despite its grittier trappings, Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone" is pure melodrama that would be ridiculous if it weren't for the skilled filmmaking on offer. From the committed performances by Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts, to several emotional moments which are handled with just the right amount of tact, it is one of the year's most compelling adult dramas. Sadly, it just isn't the modern masterpiece his 2009 effort "A Prophet" was.
40: Reinventing the superhero movie with a found footage technique, Josh Trank's "Chronicle" is an excellent and often inventive take on the material. Boasting career launching performances from the highly promising Dane DeHaan and the impressive Alex Russell, it's a low-budget affair that looks like it was done for considerably more than what it cost. Top quality work from all involved.
41: Much of the issues people will have with "Jack Reacher" is the baggage they bring with them. An efficient mesh of a 1990s John Grisham-esque thriller procedural with flashes of a 1970s vigilante movie, Chris McQuarrie's adaptation of Lee Child's "One Shot" proves a surprise. The film is a moody pulp thriller - often exciting even if far-fetched, it's a fun ride with a real economical sensibility.
42: Relentlessly funny, even if overly long, Seth MacFarlane makes a strong directorial debut with "Ted". The comic fantasy blends very adult humour and 1980s references galore to often hilarious comic effect. Not all the brazen jokes land, but it pushes forward with a fearless attitude, which means it works more often than not. Admittedly it struggles with story elements to fill out its feature-length runtime, but even its weakest sections contain suitably demented moments such as Giovanni Ribisi's Tiffany dance and Patrick Stewart's monologues.
43: Violent pulp with art house trappings, John Hillcoat's Prohibition-era tale "Lawless" is a commendable gangster movie that is being overlooked by many because it didn't live up to ridiculously high expectations. While it lack focus with some of its subplots, it boasts commendable performances from Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan, and delightfully slippery Guy Pearce. Highly watchable and thrillingly tense at points, it's a serious work worthy of more consideration.
44: I'm a sucker for Victorian Gothic horror, so I thoroughly enjoyed James Watkins' effectively creepy and old school take on the classic play "The Woman in Black". It does go off the rails a bit towards the end, and the CG is occasionally overused, but for the most part this is a grand spook story with a post-Potter Daniel Radcliffe impressing as the sole man on screen for much of the runtime.
45: Nicholas Jarecki delivers a confident and polished writing/directing debut with the GFC-themed low-key suspense drama "Arbitrage". An excellent performance by Richard Gere as a believably slimy hedge-fund CEO, an able supporting cast including Brit Marling as his daughter, and a commendably intimate and smart focus delivers a layered character drama with some mild thriller overtones.
JUST MISSED OUT:
21 Jump Street, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sapphires, John Carter, Side by Side, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Prometheus, Compliance, Killer Joe, The Invisible War, Monsieur Lazhar, Safety Not Guaranteed, Seven Psychopaths