Top 10 of 2012: The Films That Stuck
Who's saying what
It was a tough year for moviegoers.
So many of the films we expected (or at least hoped) would be brilliant turned out to be duds (Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man) and so many of the rest were, to borrow from Randy Jackson, as I do and will continue to do until the end of time, just aight dawg (Brave, The Avengers, many other films that have drifted into the mists of my memory); it was a big year for "three-and-a-half star" films.
In many ways it was a year of extremes: a cluster of excellent films, then a whole lot of dead air, then a bunch of average ones at the other side of the divide. The good ones were so good they only served to further illustrate the mediocrity of the rest of the pack.
With that in mind, here are the ten films that have stuck with me throughout the year.
Oh, and if you're wondering why Zero Dark Thirty, Les Mis, Django Unchained and/or other presumed "bests" are unrepresented here, it's because Hollywood - it turns out - hates film critics and doesn't seem to like inviting you to preview screenings if you're not A. O. Scott. In other words, I haven't seen them. Yet.
1. Magic Mike
No, it's not because of all the naked manflesh. Steven Soderbergh wove his usual grimness through this curiously 'old Hollywood' tale of a plucky wannabe (Alex Pettyfer) and the old-hand dreamer who mentors him (Channing Tatum, who co-wrote the film based on aspects of his own work as a stripper in Florida). Both Pettyfer and Tatum were wonderful, and Matthew McConaughey gave his best performance since Contact as the alarmingly jacked emcee, Dallas. As The New York Times' Manohla Dargis put it, "Magic Mike is very much about the beauty of bodies in motion and the deep cinematic joys of watching good-looking people perform extraordinary physical feats" - and when those physical feats include Channing Tatum dancing alone to Pony, what more do you want in a film? If you answered "a compelling narrative, genuinely touching romance, and an anti-capitalist bent", then congratulations, you just saw Magic Mike.
2. Silver Linings Playbook
In any other hands, its "turns out everybody's crazy lol" message could have come off dreadfully, but David O Russel gave Silver Linings Playbook the year's most exhilaratingly sustained level of almost-hysteria. Bradley Cooper finally got that great role that has been just eluding him for so long, Jennifer Lawrence cemented her position as one of the finest young actresses out there, and the supporting cast - especially Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver as Cooper's strained parents, and Anupam Kher as his jovial therapist - were all wonderful. "Movies about mental illness" (a tag which does the film's richness a grave injustice) are rarely this life-affirming.
Rian Johnson's sci-fi thriller, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt in increasingly less disconcerting Baby Bruce Willis makeup, and Bruce Willis, as the young and old versions of the same hired gun, brought a freshness and excitement to the genre that has been lacking for some time. Watching Looper, even if aspects of its narrative turned out not to be as revolutionary as they may have initially seemed, you felt you were watching a strong new sci-fi voice take flight.
Ben Affleck's stylish thriller was a throwback to the glory days of political espionage flicks, and it even had the vintage Warner Bros. titles to show for it. Should he have played as fast and loose with aspects of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis in order to buoy the tension (car chases that didn't happen, for example)? Probably not, but then in the end, his "based on true events" caper film was, like the fictional sci-fi movie at the heart of the rescue, a "conflagration", and a terrific one at that.
5. Ruby Sparks
Written by its star, Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks - though you'd never know from the dunderheads on Tumblr who simply watched the trailer and decried the film as "the worst ever" - deftly dismantled the "manic pixie dream girl" trope by taking things back to the tale of Pygmalion, as a writer (Paul Dano) manifests and then controls the woman he is writing about (Kazan) to increasingly sinister effect. Ruby had some of the year's best supporting performances, particularly from Elliot Gould as Calvin's psychoanalyst, and Antonio Banderas as his cheerful, furniture-designing stepfather.
Seeing Marley in a cinema full of the whorls of smoke of a medicinal variety certainly isn't the reason I rate it highly (though it probably didn't hurt its chances, either). Kevin MacDonald's exhaustive yet entertaining documentary was crammed full of enough revelations about the reggae legend that it even contained surprises for viewers who considered themselves paid-up Marley fanatics (present company included). And, of course, the music was fantastic.
7. Wreck-It Ralph
Though nominally a kids' film, Wreck-It Ralph was undoubtedly a nostagiafest for a viewer of a certain vintage. What Toy Story was, presumably, to the baby boomers and early Gen X-ers who took their kids along, so Ralph was for those of us who grew up with a videogame console in the living room. Visually imaginative (and, magically, able to make Skrillex exciting), hilarious and touching in equal measure, Wreck-It Ralph filled the void that Brave's underwhelming qualities left empty, proving that Disney has the chops to compete with, and even beat, its stablemates at Pixar.
If there was a film this year that managed to cram more sensational character actors into its innards, I'd like to see it. Lincoln - featuring the Spielberg dream team firing on all cylinders - was a fine movie, simultaneously old fashioned in its narrative yet bracingly modern in its approach to the Thirteenth Amendment's passing: it was, essentially, a courtroom procedural. Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as the doomed President was best summed up by Joe Morgenstern: "gorgeous"; far from the lofty depictions of Lincoln that we're used to, his Abe was a gentle man, prone to long-winded anecdotes but "clothed in immense power" when necessary.
9. Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
Writer Lorene Scafaria's directorial debut was, like Ruby Sparks, dismissed off-hand by many as more MPDG mongering. They couldn't have been more wrong: her sensitive, occasionally very funny (in particular a dinner party where a married couple bring heroin instead of a plate, and grown men force children to drink spirits) but more often downbeat film was, in a way, a slightly more optimistic companion piece to Melancholia, with about the same amount of in-film suicides. It also squeezed the most sob-power out of The Walker Brothers' The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore since Anthony Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply.
10. Sound Of My Voice
Zal Batmanglij's mysterious indie, co-written with its breakout star Brit Marling, might not have been the year's most satisfying or complete narrative, but it sure was compelling. Starring Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius as documentary filmmakers who infiltrate a Los Angeles cult, only to question their initial cynicism, its ambiguous ending irritated some, but its sustained mood and the incandescent Marling meant it stayed with me long after any grizzles about its denouement had dissipated.
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Honorable mentions: The Dark Knight Rises, Snow White & The Huntsman, The Cabin In The Woods, John Carter (yes, really), Take This Waltz.