Top 10 Best of 2012

10. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The grandest and most invigorating blockbuster of the year and a spectacular visual experience unlike any I've ever experienced. Sure, Peter Jackson's first chapter in a narratively unnecessary trilogy based on Tolkien's pint-sized novel is stretched out due to the last minute (well, not quite, but close) decision to take the completed footage and make three movies instead of the proposed two, but there's an energy at work here that I found intoxicating. Jackson is so alive when working in the hills of Middle Earth and his decision to shoot his return to the beloved fantasy world in a doubled frame rate makes An Unexpected Journey feel like both a welcome revisiting and a whole new experience. The high frame rate allows for strangely smooth movement by eliminating the motion blur that is a staple of the standard 24fps, but with that smoothness comes a clarity of picture that is absolutely stunning. When Weta's CGI creations show up in dazzling action sequences, the integration of digital effects and live-action footage is, well, perfect. In terms of blockbuster innovation, I can't ask for much more than that.

 

9. Take This Waltz

Canadian treasure Sarah Polley directs her sophomore feature with an offbeat playfulness that suddenly gives way to a longing ache that is felt right down to the movie's bones. Michelle Williams is heartbreaking as a woman who finds in her handsome neighbour the devastating opportunity to identify the problems in her marriage. Her lovable husband, played with gentle casualness by Seth Rogen, is a great guy, but Williams' Margot can't shake herself out of her doldrums. A love triangle of sorts forms, but Take This Waltz isn't so much about an affair as it is about a relationship falling apart. Polley and Williams work in tandem to craft a challenging, complicated portrait of a woman at a crossroads. Margot's path is never abundantly clear and her decisions never come easy or without consequences. And yet Polley isn't interested in moralizing. She just wants to get at the heart of loneliness and the challenges of making a marriage work through thick and thin. Every note rings true, every moment is soaked in authenticity. The conflict isn't simplified by turning any of the characters into easy villains and so Margot's decisions are entirely her own, never dictated by a convenient plot twist. These complexities strengthen the movie's dramatic core and paint a powerful picture. Having long since proven herself as a brilliant actress, Polley is starting to look like a brilliant director, too.

 

 

8. ParaNorman

This stop-motion treat is a monstrous delight, a kids movie with a touching message of tolerance and a love of ghosts and ghouls to go along with it. Smartly executed from the opening scene, this is the tale of Norman, a social outcast whose burden is that he can see dead people. It may sound like a familiar predicament, but instead of playing this for scares, directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell use Norman's special ability to comment on the plight of the outsider and the dangers of forcing children into that role. Fresh and funny, ParaNorman deftly pulls us into the protagonist's world right from the start, so we're always on his side, always able to see what he sees. It's a fantastic bit of perspective positioning that becomes additionally important as the plot progresses and the juicy conflict comes into focus. Exquisite animation lends the movie a memorable look and a delicious colour palette. As a lifelong monster fan, I adore when passionate attempts are made to share such love with the next generation of children. ParaNorman is a sweet, wonderful introduction to horror tropes and imagery for kids and a sensational celebration of the genre for us seasoned monster lovers.

 

7. Rust and Bone

This rough and tough look at two people hardened by their circumstances who come together in hopes of helping each other is a genuinely moving love story that takes a decidedly different path by letting the characters steer the narrative. Director Jacques Audiard gives the troubled characters enough space so they can move and interact in ways that don't feel staged or obvious. Matthais Schoenaert and Marion Cotillard both turn in powerhouse performances, he as a penniless scavenger forced to be a dad to his estranged young son and she as a whale trainer who suffers a tragic accident on the job. He's broken on the inside, she on the outside. This combination of metaphor and reality becomes the thematic focus of the picture. Two damaged characters who complement each other in their brokenness, but still struggle to put the pieces together. Schoenaert and Cotillard bring so much emotional baggage to their roles that the challenges their characters face both separately and as a couple feel nuanced and complex. There's no easy way out here for either of them, but a glimmer of hope tells us their brokenness can be fixed.

 

6. Silver Linings Playbook

The romantic comedy formula is so familiar by now that it almost automatically suggests a predictable beat-by-beat slog through stale territory. But amazingly, almost shockingly, along comes David O. Russell who makes one of the best romantic comedies I've seen in ages by... adhering closely to formula? It's a conventional move by a director who usually enters the comedy genre from at least a slightly off-kilter angle, but it's a move that Russell appears to understand intimately. He uses his eclectic cast to great effect and sends sparks soaring when he pairs Bradley Cooper with Jennifer Lawrence. The two prove to have buzzing chemistry and they forge such a fun and engaging connection that watching them go through the expected ups and downs of the romantic comedy formula ends up a rather refreshing and moving experience. Russell gets into a groove so early on and never lets up. He's practically flaunting the formula by the end, but it all works in the movie's favour. By taking something so seemingly stale and giving it new life with great casting and a precise juggling of dramatic and comedic elements, Russell has made a wonderful movie and rescued a whole genre in the process.

 

5. Tabu

One of the more uniquely structured movies I saw all year, Miguel Gomes's icily detached, then sensually connected drama takes us from an apartment complex in modern-day Lisbon to the foothills of a fictional mountain in colonial Africa. Cut into two parts that are vastly different in tone and subject matter, Tabu is a sumptuous pairing of stories that mark two major points on a lengthy timeline. Beginning in the present and then eventually dipping back into the past ties the two tales together in a rich manner, using the first part to give the second a life's worth of meaning. Of course, Gomes shrouds the first half in mystery and then further obfuscates the second half by muting the dialogue and handing voice-over duties to a character we've only just met, so the mystery always remains in some capacity. It all adds up to a deeply romantic, poetically poignant picture about identity and love and the moments that shape us across the divide of time.

 

4. The Cabin in the Woods

Quality horror/comedy hybrids are already tough to come by, but not even the few fine examples of successful genre combos can quite compare to Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's massively imaginative subversion of fright flick rules. Finding hilarity in every corner of the narrative, Whedon and Goddard chew up every cliché they can get their teeth on and then spit each one out with gory gusto. They tackle each of the horror archetypes with extreme originality and take their commentary to a level so unique and exciting that it feels like we're entering entirely new territory. That's quite the feat for a movie all about redefining and recalibrating clichés. An epic monster mash and endless payoffs make this trip to the Cabin almost overwhelmingly complete. The concept is fully explored and everyone involved is entirely committed. There's mad genius at work here, turning the horror genre inside out and exposing its guts without sacrificing its heart.

 

3. Lincoln

The subject matter seems to suggest potential for one of Spielberg's most bombastic movies yet, but this bold biopic is actually the most restrained work of the filmmaker's storied career. Working with an astonishing screenplay penned by Tony Kushner, Spielberg resists employing sweeping camera work and other such cinematic flourishes in favour of a stripped down approach that puts us at ground level with the 16th President as he attempts to get the 13th Amendment that will abolish slavery pushed through the House of Representatives. Despite all of the possibilities afforded by a Lincoln biopic, Spielberg and Kushner have decided to focus on just a few months in the man's life, during which he spent much of his time conversing with his cabinet and sharing humorous little anecdotes to ease the tension. The Civil War rages on, but Spielberg largely leaves it unseen, instead opting for an intimate examination of the legislative process. In terms of the titular President, this is all about de-mythologizing and revealing the man behind the beard and the stovepipe hat. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a grand performance that's as magnetic as it is creased and worn. He fills every inch of Honest Abe and adjusts his commanding presence so that he emanates a soothing warmth. Spielberg's work here is among his most mature, intelligent, and impressive. He expertly identifies the intimacy of Kushner's script and then translates it into a cinematic language that speaks volumes.

 

2. Beyond the Black Rainbow

Surreal sci-fi cinema powered by indelible imagery is pretty much one of my favourite things ever, so this little Canadian indie about a creepy scientist monitoring an imprisoned girl in an 80s research facility is practically tailor made for me. Panos Cosmatos, son of the late George Cosmatos, who was famous for directing well-known action fare like Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone, makes his directorial debut with this fascinating picture that feels far removed from his father's accessible Hollywood work. How this is a first feature is completely beyond me, though. There is an imagination and execution of visual expression here that is so overwhelmingly beautiful in its design that it boggles my mind to even think for a moment that this is a first-time director at work. The visual vocabulary is so rich and complex and each scene brings with it such superbly striking compilations of lighting and design that I can only praise this new Cosmatos filmmaker with the utmost passion and sincerity. This is a new sci-fi classic for me and as I write this, I feel like it's about as tied for the top spot on this list as it can be. That it is edged even ever so slightly by my top pick is a testament to that movie's quality and not at all a knock on this masterpiece. If Panos Cosmatos continues to make movies or if this is all we ever get, I will forever adore what he has added to the invaluable conversation of surreal sci-fi cinema.

 

1. Holy Motors

As wonderfully inventive and playful a love letter to cinema that I've ever seen. Leos Carax has gathered inspiration from multiple genres to create this one-of-a-kind wonder about a chameleonic man whose job is to hold appointments that require him to don disguises and act out scenes that stem from cinematic experience. The man, played by Denis Lavant, showcasing a kind of range that is ridiculously vast, travels around by limo and then takes part in something as absurd as a scene involving a creepy trouble-making goblin creature that nabs Eva Mendes from her photo shoot and later something as seemingly clichéd as the dying man in bed with a loved one in mourning by his side. The explanation for these movie-related appointments is never particularly clear, but it doesn't need to be. We're inside a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of cinema, the tone and genre always a temporary stop soon to be updated. And yet Carax and Lavant never use this constant shifting to skimp on the characterization, instead hurling themselves into every single new territory with complete commitment. Emotions are generated within all of these time frames, so that the scenes and tributes to genres and specific types of moments aren't just references, but full-fledged vignettes that comment on the power of laughter and tears at the movies. In the midst of it all is Lavant, a lithe, wiry guy whose performances cover so much ground that it feels like one of the most ambitious onscreen appearances I've ever witnessed. Cinema never felt more open and alive in 2012 than when watching Carax and Lavant make their mesmerizing magic.