Update (April 3, 2013): I’ve had a chance to go back and watch many additional films that were formerly on my “must watch” list. I’m so happy to discover some surprisingly good gems which I’ve now added to my Favorites of 2012 list.
I’ve tried to keep a personal list of favorite films every year. Unfortunately, the last three years in Beijing made it difficult to get access to some films (not available on BT, therefore not available in DVD stores). One of the benefits of returning to live in Hong Kong (since August) has been much better access to a greater variety of films. Unfortunately, many of these films get released many months after their initial releases in the States and sometimes (in the case of “Wreck-It Ralph”) even after their release in mainland China.
In any case, here are my Top Ten Films of 2012. Let me know what you agree or don’t agree with.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Film-wise for me, most of 2012’s films were pretty disappointing. There was not a single film that I could wholeheartedly embrace… that is until I saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and fell in-love with magical filmmaking again. I haven’t been as excited about the power of film since the last gem that moved me so much, “Blue Valentine” in 2011. With only a slight nod to traditional narrative filmmaking (kind of a “hero’s journey” tale), but with dreamy visuals and striking natural acting and characters that defy anything that you’ve seen before, it’s the kind of surprise film that only a first-time filmmaker who hasn’t been tied down to big budgets, script notes, and the mundanity of the film factory system can make. I’ve watched it twice on my sofa now, but, even though it’s filmed in 16mm, I’m looking forward to watching it on the big screen when it’s shown here in Hong Kong next month.
The Oscar nomination for 9 year-old actress Quvenzhane Wallis is no gimmick. If anything, she is really rightfully should be nominated for “Best Leading Actress” as the film is told through her viewpoint, she remains on-screen for the entire movie, and she creates of the most unique and memorable characters (along with first-time actor Dwight Henry as her complex, charismatic, tough, but loving father) I’ve seen in a long while.
I was able to catch this documentary weeks after I initially wrote my first version of the list. It’s too bad that documentaries get separated into their own category at the Oscars, because this film easily qualifies for me as one of the best of the year. The film starts with profiling how a talented, but undiscovered musician in the 70s grows to become the sound of a generation of South African freedom-fighting youth. This falls in line with “truth is stranger than fiction” that only a select few documentary films can provide, but besides the fascinating sociological study of apartheid South Africa and a fantastic story arch, the film also is blessed with a truly memorable and compelling documentary subject in the form of the enigmatic singer Rodriguez. Like “Hoop Dreams”, my favorite documentary of all-time, this film brings together important social themes, a compelling main character, and a miracle story that unfolds quite naturally on-screen. I hope everyone has a chance to watch this under-the-radar film.
Spielberg and many of the technical artists behind-the-scenes probably expended a tremendous amount of time making this film historically accurate, but the marvel of this film is the artistic liberties that Daniel Day-Lewis takes to create a unique, fully-realized character from the most analysed historical figure of all-time. Cunning and impatient, but built of a strong moral compass, the character could be extracted from Lincoln and removed from all historical relevancy and still be a marvel to watch on-screen. For this, I think Daniel Day-Lewis is deserving of the Best Actor Oscar for the best acting portrayal on-screen in 2012. Criticism of the film for it’s occasional sentimental chords and the lack of a strong African-American viewpoint are on-track, in my opinion, but Daniel Day-Lewis’ unique portrayal uplifts what would be a less memorable, more mediocre film like “Seabiscuit”.
Unlike many film fans of my generation, I’ve withheld my embrace for Wes Anderson. I’ve enjoyed the style and soundtrack to his films, but I’ve always felt that he lacked full maturity as a filmmaker. It’s felt like to me that he always needed a couple more productions to elevate his story-telling abilities to match his brilliance in production craft.
“Moonrise Kingdom” is the first Wes Anderson film where I feel he has finally reached his full potential as an artist. For me, the story and tempo are as well-honed as the production itself.
This is the first Disney CG-animated film under John Lassiter’s reign where I feel they finally getting close to matching Pixar’s story-telling abilities and the voice-over actors aren’t filled by stunt-casting big-named celebrities at the expense of quality voice-over. There are so many jokes so well-aimed at people of my Atari/Nintendo/Halo generation, that it was a delight for me (but probably not anyone much older than me) to watch.
Although it has a natural appeal to foodies everywhere, this film is much more about the certain professionalism, almost neurotic-level obsession with craft that the subject has with sushi. It’s strength is the slightly tragic undertone that underlies the story: While we marvel at the mastery of detail that Jiro has perfected with sushi, we also sympathize for the lost attention and humanity when it comes to his two sons who, as sushi masters in their own right, have been partial sacrificial lambs to Jiro’s obsession. This is what makes the documentary a fascinating character study rather than just an exploration of food.
I’m not usually a fan of either Richard Gere nor financial thrillers so I put off watching this film until after I had initially assembled my first draft of my Favorites list. However, this swiftly, well-acted film surprised and delighted me with it’s complex and adult-targeted story. Many lauds should go to Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon on their masterful performances.
I loved the first two-thirds of the film and was pretty let down by the remaining third. All of Tarantino’s energy and brilliance are included, but the real standout for me was Christoph Waltz’s performance. I hope he wins Best Supporting Actor at the Oscar’s this year.
It’s thrilling and chock full of small details that a news junkie like me can get pore over. The media coverage has concentrated on “Act I” where scenes of torture will likely have many moviegoers covering their eyes, but “Act II” remains the best part of the film for me. Obama’s declaration to end “enhanced interrogation” and the CIA actors to finally button-down and do more traditional detective work and spycraft to nail down UBL provides the most interesting part of the film.
Denzel Washington is still my favorite working actor, a leading man in the most compelling sense. Neither a character actor working in a single vein nor a master chameleon actor like Gary Oldman, he still puts together a memorable, varied performance with every film.
Another film where the first two-thirds of the story I feel were let down by the cutesy final third. With two interesting performance by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and an outstanding performance by Robert DeNiro (possibly his best in over a decade), the film is ultimate sabotaged in my opinion by an “end-cute”. If a “meet-cute” is an overused romantic comedy convention from films like “While You Were Sleeping”, the “end-cute”, to me, is an equally overused Sundance film convention starting from “Little Miss Sunshine” and continuing through to “Silver Linings Playbook”.
An overlooked film from 2012 because it’s sci-fi high school teenagers, but I felt that it should have been nominated for best original screenplay (although, like “Looper”, plot points and imagery are obviously heavily-lifted from “Akira”). I’m not a fan of Max Landis in interviews, but this doesn’t draw back from the fact that “Chronicle” is a great piece of screenwriting.
Along with “Chronicle”, “Looper” is the true emergence of young new screenwriting talent who are as equally influenced by animé visuals and story telling as they are from American comic books and Twilight Zone episodes. It’s great to see more mid-budget films like these that place an emphasis on ideas and story first rather than explosions and F/X gimmicks. I’m hugely interested in seeing what other stories director Rian Johnson has up his sleeve.
Honorable mentions: Perks of Being a Wallflower, Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers, Life of Pi, ParaNorman, Argo. Unfortunately, none of these films would do better than 7/10 for me … like I said, besides “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, I felt this was a pretty mediocre movie year. Nonetheless, I fully expect that “Argo” will be taking home “Best Picture” at the Oscars this year.
Still Need to Watch:
- End of Watch
- Holy Motors