1. Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” is magical. A film about coming-of-age and the symphony of family, “Moonrise Kingdom” layers in winning performances and the textures of survival and scouting in ways that are both endearing and nostalgic. Two young people fall in love and decide to run off into the wilderness together. Both are pursued by their respect families. Edward Norton is a delight as the Scoutmaster of a group of young boys with an affinity for violence and injuries, Jason Schwartzman steals scenes as an older Scout lampooning the institution of marriage as well as being the guy at the trading post that can get you anything, and the lead couple is charming with innocence mixed with sadness. Wes Anderson has made a film that builds upon his previous work, and this film is about the families that we build around us, with various instruments playing in concert with each other. The best movies transport and haunt us. “Moonrise Kingdom” does both.
2. “Silver Linings Playbook” is David O. Russell’s triumphant reimagining of Matthew Quick’s novel about Pat (Bradley Cooper, astonishing), a troubled young man, who searches for a way to redeem himself. Pat runs around his neighborhood in a garbage bag, furiously trying to change himself and reconcile with his wife. But the brilliance of the film is that Pat’s journey is mirrored by his obstinate father (Robert DeNiro, wonderful) as well as the volcanic Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, fantastic). I found the final dance sequence uniting with the parlay of the Eagles-Cowboys game to be one of the most dazzling and fun moments of the year. And, Russell always has interesting things to say about community, family, and makes even his smallest characters interesting and real. For example, Chris Tucker nearly steals the film despite only five minutes of screen time. Russell is comfortable examining our national obsessions with costumes, pageantry, and sports within the context of a suburban Philadephia family. And, it's got crabby snacks and home-mades!
3. “Skyfall” delivers a serious and modern James Bond film with texture, and as a fan of the novels and films, I was satisfied. "Skyfall" is not just about quips and gadgets; it is about getting old, dying, and grief, all set against some of the most spectacular visuals ever show in this series. From the opening chase through Istanbul to the fight in an illuminated Shanghai office building, Roger Deakins does amazing work to articulate Sam Mendes’s vision. Mendes shows Bond as the wounded, doubting warrior, the man no longer able to fully take on the tasks in front of him, and the injection of real-life terror into the plot is welcome. And I found the final half hour at “Skyfall,” the ancestral home of Bond to be one of my favorite Bond sequences ever with the helicopter arrival, the fires burning over the heath, the crumbling church, characters clutching weapons and stumbling to their destinations. Javier Bardem may never touch a computer as blond cyber-villain Silva, but he breathes new life into the villain role. And, the changing of the guard in this film is handled well, with Q, M, and Moneypenny all receiving their due. A wonderful film, and a fantastic Bond film.
4. “Argo” is Ben Affleck’s valentine to Hollywood and their pivotal role in the rescue of U.S. Embassy workers in Tehran in the late seventies. And, it is also a valentine to the intelligence community and the smart people in Washington who figure out how to save lives in unconventional ways. It is about storytelling and the power of movie-making. What Affleck does so well here is ratchet up the tension in both D.C. and Iran as both communities try to figure out how to get six hidden workers out of the country. Unabashedly entertaining, Affleck secures memorable performances from Alan Arkin and John Goodman as Hollywood veterans, eager to help out in the rescue mission; they get all the best lines. There is commentary on the nature of deception, as press conferences are cross cut with table readings of the fantastic "Argo" script. Some have taken "Argo" to task for historical inaccuracies or Affleck's penchant to ramp up the tension in nearly ridiculous ways towards the end. I found it to be completely engaging and well-crafted and tense, and I fully expect it to win Best Picture tonight, though I think Affleck’s performance is a bit of a misfire or maybe just a murk.
5. "Zero Dark Thirty" is Kathryn Bigelow's exploration of our national obsession with revenge as she chronicles the exhaustive hunt for Osama bin-Laden. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is relentless and sifts through oceans of data, video files, and photographs, searching for the connection that leads to the courier that leads to the compound in Pakistan. Bigelow crafts the world of the analysts as one requiring immense sacrifice and risk, and though little is known of Maya, the final shot suggests quite a bit. The raid on the compound is understandably the film's centerpiece where Maya's will is executed by Chris Pratt and other Navy SEALs. It is gripping cinema and powerful. Where do we go from
here, both Maya and Bigelow ask. There are no easy answers.
6. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is an audacious film that wrestles with climate change, the role of government, the disintegration of hope, as well as the post-Katrina reality of Southern Louisiana as strained through the poetics of a Terence Malick-like vision. The performances by Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry as daughter and father are raw and affecting, and the film is always surprising and original. It is about myth-making, and Wallis shows the resilience of a young hero uncertain of any other way to live. I am not sure that I fully understood this fable strained through a child’s coming-of-age story, but I also know that this film is the work of master filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, a story that challenges our notions of family and community. As Hushpuppy's father screams, "Beast it!"
7. “Django Unchained” showcases Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic dazzle and daring. He elicits sublime performances from Leonardo DiCaprio (never better) and Samuel L. Jackson, as well as writing magnificent scenes for Christoph Waltz and Don Johnson. Tarantino deconstructs (and destroys) “Birth of a Nation,” as well as spins the idea of the western in new directions. Yet, for all of his fabulist tendencies, Tarantino sharply crafts a script about a freed slave turned bounty hunter that shows audiences what slavery was like, the business of slavery, the commerce of slavery, the visuals of a fully-functional plantation, the psychology of slavery in its effect on both whites and blacks. Yes, the music is incredible, with everything from John Legend to Rick Ross as well as a daring mash-up of James Brown and Tupac set to a shoot-out scene in Candy-Land. I feel that the film weakens in its final third, but I am struck by the layering of Django’s development from slave to hero, how he talks his way into freedom in the last third of the film and leaves the gate open for other slaves to escape as well. Tarantino’s film is also the funniest of the year and at times, the hardest to watch.
8. “Lincoln” is an easy film to overlook since I saw it five months ago, but Tony Kushner’s screenplay wedded to Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting as the president mark a high-water mark for cinema. Steven Spielberg reigns in his tendencies, making a film remarkable in its focus and its restraint. In a way, Spielberg has made a film decidedly relevant to our political times by showing how deals are struck, alliances made, lies told. Tommy Lee Jones is the fire of the film as Thaddeus Stevens, and a high-caliber supporting cast bolsters a fantastic lead performance. Day-Lewis shows us Lincoln as a folksy speechmaker, a loving father, an unhappy husband, a physically weary leader, a thinker, a man aware of the legacy he leaves. To think, Daniel Day-Lewis has played Hawkeye, John Proctor, Bill The Butcher, Daniel Plainview, and now, Abraham Lincoln. Is there a better representation of the complexity of America in one actor’s resume?
9. “Safety Not Guaranteed” takes the premise of a want-ad in a Seattle magazine and elevates it into a beautiful, painful study in human connection. Kenneth is searching for someone to go back in time with him, and this is not a joke, and the person must bring his/her own weapons. Mark DuPlass is Kenneth, a strange, slightly dangerous man working on time travel in secret, and Aubrey Plaza plays the dour intern drawn to his energy. This film has a weird energy and sense of humor, and its ending is strangely powerful. I loved it.
10. (TIE) “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is director Stephen Chbosky’s winning adaptation of his own novel, and his care for the material and the performances shines through. In its depiction of 1991 Pittsburgh-area teens at the brink of starting and ending high school, Chbosky offers the rare treat of viewing high school seriously and thoughtfully. Graduation looms, relationships teeter, drugs and alcohol confuse, and emotions are difficult to navigate. Emma Watson and Ezra Miller are wonderful. Chbosky has crafted a film of grace and emotion, one that I hope finally finds its audience.
10. (TIE) “The Grey” promised the image of Jedi Liam Neeson, bloody and with stubble, breaking mini-bottles of booze left over from a horrific Alaskan airplane crash and strapping them to his bruised knuckes to form a makeshift weapon to face a pack of violent wolves in hand-to-hand combat. Liam Neeson has had a career trajectory similar to Daniel Day-Lewis, playing icons like Michael Collins, Oskar Schindler, Ra’s Al Guhl. Here, Neeson plays a man facing death in the starkest terms as a small, miserable band of survivors struggles to survive. For its quiet moments, its horror, its existential dilemma of wandering through a wolf pack’s territory, “The Grey” was the most surprising film of the year. I hope that it finds an audience because when Neeson straps the broken glass to his knuckles in the film’s penultimate image, there might not be a more affecting moment in cinema this year!
Honorable Mention: Here are films 11-20 which are worth your time as well and affected me quite deeply this year, though unable to make the Top Ten: Jeff, Who Lives at Home; The Master; The Hunger Games; The Impossible; Seven Psychopaths; Les Miserables; 21 Jump Street; Premium Rush; Kiler Joe; Prometheus.
The Most Disappointing Films of The Year:
"The Dictator" with Sacha Baron Cohen was unfunny. I laughed less than five times. And I loved "Borat." A disaster with unlimited potential, Cohen does not seem to be trying here.
"We Bought a Zoo" is not Cameron Crowe trying to make a children's film and failing. It is just a film that works on no level. It isn't funny, warm, emotional, or genuine. I was surprised at its awfulness especially because he has made emotional films in the past.
"This is 40" is Judd Apatow's tone-deaf story of a couple in financial crisis who cannot communicate or decide to cancel the caterers (!) for a 40th birthday party. It does not work and shows evidence of Apatow just letting the camera run and his actors improvise to terrible results. This film is the Judd Apatow of the unfunny "Funny People," not "The 40-Year Old Virgin."
"Friends With Kids" is just really indulgent and strange. It assembled a very exciting cast and then used them in the worst possible ways. Jennifer Westfeldt has drained her own film of any power, and a film with Jon Hamm and Adam Scott used so poorly has to be considered extremely disappointing.
"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" with Keira Knightley and Steve Carell is frustrating because of its intriguing concept and its poor execution. The film has tonal shifts and does not seem to know what it wants to be. In a world where we can watch "The Walking Dead" on AMC or read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," I do not think there is a reason to watch this film.