It’s been one heck of a good year for movies. From mainstream blockbusters to low-budget indies, there was a little bit for everyone in 2012. Even with a less than stellar summer season, I would argue that this been the strongest film year since 2007. When I sat down to write my end of the year list, I kept scratching out certain entries and starting over, because there were so many films that I wanted to mention. Even with the list you’re about to go through, I’m already questioning whether I should do it again just one more time. That’s the silliness of making these things in the first place. There were so many good movies this year that attempting to rank them one over the other is an exercise in absurdity. But that’s the kind of absurdity we movie fans love to put ourselves through.
A few notes before we get to the list. Unfortunately, I have not been able to see every release, mostly because they have yet to play here in Seattle. As of this writing, I have yet to watch Michael Haneke’s Amour. Also missing is Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which has been winning tons of praise and even gaining some controversy as well. I look forward to seeing both of them and tracking how they mix things up as the award season continues to build. Despite not seeing either, there were still nearly three dozen films that deserve being talked about, and even if they didn’t make it on the main list, I’ve saved room for them as Honorable Mentions. I guess I could have done a Top 25 or Top 35, but let’s just keep it at an even ten to save my sanity.
Alright, enough chatter. Let’s get down to it:
Derek Connolly (writer) and Colin Trevorrow (director) did something unique with this low-budget story involving time travel. What they did was completely ignore the paradoxes of the topic and focus on how it brings two separate people together. Aubrey Plaza stars as Darius, a magazine intern following a newspaper ad asking for any volunteers interested in taking a trip back in time. The ad was written by Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a lonely grocery store clerk who believes he has successfully created a time machine. What starts out as a superfluous lead turns into something more, as Darius and Kenneth grow closer the more they learn about one another. Add to that good supporting work by Jake Johnson and Karan Soni, and we have a surprisingly funny, sweet, and heartfelt film deserving of more attention.
We’ve seen this kind of documentary before, where innocent people are wrongly punished for crimes they did not commit. But what makes this such a harrowing work are the levels of racism, media exposure, and mob hysteria that all played key roles. The filmmakers (Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon) paint the story simplistically—from the words of the supposed criminals themselves. Through their testimony, we see how none of them ever stood a chance against a system that claimed them guilty before they had an opportunity to defend themselves. As a result, these kids lost their childhoods and their trust in the American judicial system. I became emotionally upset while watching The Central Park Five, seeing how blatant racism and prejudice stood under the spotlight of a national media frenzy. What makes it even worse is this type of wrongdoing is still alive and well in today’s society.
With Argo, Ben Affleck continues his climb up the ranks as a solid director. He has made his best work so far, with the amazing true story of a daring rescue mission of six American diplomats out of a hostile 1980s Iran. Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, an exfiltration expert ordered to lead the mission. His plan: to pose as a Canadian film production scouting a shoot in Iran, and to smuggle the Americans out, pretending to be members of the crew. This seemingly cockamamie scheme leads him first to Hollywood, where he establishes a trust with film producers (Alan Arkin and John Goodman), and then finally alone to Iran, where he must navigate dangerous waters and convince the diplomats to believe in him. From the documentary-like opening where the American embassy is overrun, to the tension-filled climax as they all try to evade rebel capture, Affleck ratchets the suspense to a fever pitch. This is now the third successful project in row for him, and each time he has developed his craftsmanship noticeably. If this is any indication, Affleck has a bright career ahead as a filmmaker.
7: The Grey
Advertisements would have us believe that Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is an action-centered story. But it is something much different—more somber, deeper, much more introspective than just a man fighting wolves. Liam Neeson gives one of the best performances of his career as John Ottway, a huntsman hired to protect a team of Alaskan oil workers. When their plane crashes deep in the snow-filled terrain, Ottway and the other survivors must work together if they are to live through their ordeal. The beauty here is seeing Ottway develop from a man who has lost all sense of hope to a person who desperately tries to cling to any trace of it. Sadly, Neeson’s performance may have been fueled by the tragedy of his real life, and as we hear his voiceover crack and bend under immense heartache, we wonder how much of that is actual “acting.” Some have mistakenly criticized the film’s open-ended finale, but I found it appropriate. It’s not about whether Ottway lives or dies, but that he actually cares to do something about it that matters.