To begin, as I do every year, with my standard disclaimer: This may be my list of the Top 10 Movies of 2012 – but it’s not necessarily a rundown of the year’s 10 Best Movies. Because, quite frankly, I haven’t seen every single movie released anywhere in the US during the past 12 months. (For starters, I haven’t yet seen the heavily hyped Zero Dark Thirty, due to its being press screened on two evenings I was indisposed.) But this most certainly is a list of my favorite films to open in U.S. theaters in 2012.
(To be sure, at least one hasn’t yet opened in a Houston theater – but that will change soon.)
These are, of course, purely arbitrary and totally subjective choices. And I’ll freely admit that, a decade or so hence, I might look back on the following lineup and want to make additions or deletions. At this point in time, however, I can honestly state these are the 2012 releases that impressed me most. And best. So there.
Django Unchained. Let the nitpickers carp, let the politically correct cavil. Quentin Tarantino’s splendiferously unhinged mash-up of Spaghetti Western homage, historical revisionism, movie-buff fabulism and neo-Jacobean revenge play is, minute for minute, scene for scene, the year’s most flat-out, over-the-top entertaining movie. And the most audacious one, too.
Argo. Ben Affleck’s sensationally smart and suspenseful fact-based film works brilliantly as both a persuasively detailed, edge-of-your-seat political thriller, and an in-jokey, smart-alecky riff on Hollywood-style dreamweaving. Everyone involved deserves kudos, but Alan Arkin's inspired portrayal of a movie producer who’s savvy about showbiz and geopolitics merits more than a few glittering prizes.
Flight. Every so often, Denzel Washington trudges out to the plate, slams one out of the park, and dutifully trots around the bases, leaving his awestruck fans in the bleachers to murmur to each other: “See. That is how it’s done.” This year, Washington scored in Robert Zemeckis’ matter-of-factly astonishing drama about a self-deluding alcoholic who displays miraculous proficiency while piloting a disabled airliner – only to discover that, no matter how high or far or dazzlingly you may fly, you cannot get away from who and what you are.
Moonrise Kingdom. Another distinctively stylized fable from Wes Anderson, and arguably the Houston-born filmmaker’s most affecting offering to date. At once amusingly droll and achingly sincere, it’s a melancholy comedy of bad manners about two unique adolescents who instinctively accept each other as soul mates, and the obstacles placed in the way of their happily-ever-aftering by the variously unhappy adults in their orbit.
Silver Linings Playbook. Unpredictability always counts for a lot for me, especially when I view a movie that pivots on a question – will two damaged souls gain the strength to mend through the therapeutic properties of love? – I’ve seen answered all too predictably, all too many times before. What I enjoyed most about David O. Russell’s romantic comedy of mounting desperation is that, for lengthy swaths of its running time, I really had no idea what would happen next, or even whether anything that logically could happen would be enough to help the central characters winningly (and fearlessly) played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
Lincoln. Steven Spielberg illuminates history with a sense of urgency and a flair for showmanship in this remarkably compelling period drama. Definitely not your garden-variety biopic, but rather a fascinating account of how a larger-than-life but troubled-by-doubt master politician (a flawless Daniel Day-Lewis) oversaw a campaign of backroom browbeating, tit-for-tat deal-making, and strong-arm power-playing to achieve a greater good. I mean it as high praise indeed to say that, while watching this film, I couldn’t help wondering whether our current POTUS went to similar extremes to pass Obamacare. (And not just because co-star Hal Holbrook looks so much like an aged Ted Kennedy here.)
Paul Williams Still Alive. Director Stephen Kessler and singer-songwriter Paul Williams aren’t always in sync as collaborators in this idiosyncratic documentary about Williams’ unlikely rise, precipitous fall and dogged endurance as a pop-culture celebrity. But their occasionally conflicting intentions only serve to enhance this one-of-a-kind film, which finally gets its H-Town premiere next month at 14 Pews.
The Dark Knight Rises. Throughout most of 2012, it was hard to discuss, let alone fully appreciate, Christopher Nolan’s immensely exciting and emotionally satisfying conclusion to his “Batman Trilogy” without thinking of the unspeakable real-life tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. For better or worse, however, memories fade – even memories of unspeakable tragedies – but movies are forever in the present tense. Time is on Nolan’s side.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll concede that seeing Edward Burns’ ruefully insightful and unpretentiously ingratiating dramedy a second time during the current holiday season – a period when I’ve been reminded again just how spectacularly untidy my own family is – may have made me appreciate it all the more. But so what? As I said, this is a list of the 2012 films that impressed me most.
Bernie. The sort of true-life, only-in-Texas story few scriptwriters would dare invent, recounted with perfectly calibrated measures of sympathy, skepticism and straight-faced absurdism. Director Richard Linklater and co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, working from Hollandsworth’s 1998 Texas Monthly article, provided lead player Jack Black with the role of a lifetime – a sweet-natured small-town mortician who remains beloved by friends and neighbors even after committing homicide – so he played it for all it was worth. And more.
Runners-up: End of Watch, Rust and Bone, Arbitrage, Savages, Magic Mike, Jack Reacher, The Avengers, Killer Joe, Darling Companion and The Sessions.
Honorable Mention: Les Misérables, because Anne Hathaway broke my heart in a zillion pieces; A Late Quartet, arguably the best film to have only a five-day commercial run in Houston during 2012; and The Sapphires, which was showcased at the 2012 Houston Cinema Arts Festival, but won't have a commercial run in H-Town (or, evidently, anywhere else in the U.S.) until 2013.