My favorite movies of 2012.
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the most engaging movies I’ve seen in a while. Almost effortlessly, the memorable screenplay from Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin builds a world unto itself. The insular community that provides the film’s setting is somewhat reminiscent of the atmospheric Winter’s Bone, except instead of creepy backwoods rednecks, it’s an impoverished but vibrant and proud tribe deep in the Louisiana bayou. There is so much heart in every character, in every scene.
At the center of the story is six-year-old Hushpuppy. Quvenzhané Wallis is a revelation; the performance is perfect. Her relationship with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) provides the movie’s backbone, but it is neither easy nor straightforward. Their interactions contain more meaning as a result; scenes in the third act are heartbreaking precisely because of the complexity of what has come prior. There’s an ease with which the script handles all of this, to its immense credit.
The movie is visually stunning, and there are a multitude of astonishing shots. The performances are natural, captivating; scenes brim with emotion, with life. The music conveys a sense of wonder and joy. It’s a modern day fairy tale, but it never feels detached from reality. In fact, the community’s sporadic confrontations with the ‘real world’ reinforce the defiant traits that characterize the Bathtub. Beasts of the Southern Wild is stunningly original. It’s my favorite movie of 2012.
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Most movies about high school angst annoy me, even especially the ones from John Hughes. They make high school out to be the most important thing in the world. Portrayals of cliques and stereotypes are amplified beyond any semblance of reality, all without a trace of irony (with few exceptions). The Perks of Being a Wallflower manages the complete opposite. High school is the setting, but the problems have weight, and the angst is justified. The movie is incredibly affective as a result. It feels uniquely genuine.
Wallflower easily could have been melodramatic, given some of the extreme revelations through the course of the movie. But it remains grounded – thanks largely to the performances of the leads (Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller), as well as an impressively balanced and nuanced script. It doesn’t lean on those big events for shock value, rather exploring their aftermath: the depression and confusion and isolation and everything else. Somehow, the movie feels universal. It doesn’t strike a false note.
I’ve written plenty about Skyfall. I could spend time nitpicking the movie. Silva’s (Javier Bardem) plan makes no real sense. Neither does Bond’s (Daniel Craig), for that matter. Silva’s all too eager to blindly chase down Bond and M, throwing all caution to the wind. Meanwhile, Bond and two senior citizens, including some completely random guy, are able to destroy a team of mercenaries. Plus, there’s the whole thing about the island. But I’ve seen Skyfall twice, and it was as enthralling the second time around.
I love how bold the script is from start to finish, putting Bond in harm’s way, destroying MI-6 headquarters, and ultimately, killing M. I love Bardem in his role, from his initial encounter with Bond to the scene when he reveals what the cyanide did to him. I love how grounded the movie manages to seem despite being a Bond movie. And while I liked Craig’s previous efforts, Skyfall doesn’t feel as stretched out as Casino Royale, nor as disposable as Quantum of Solace. It’s one of the most fun experiences I had in a theater all year.
4. I Wish
From director and writer Hirokazu Koreeda, I Wish tells the story of two young brothers separated following their parents’ divorce. Koichi and Ryunosuke live a couple hundred miles apart, though they stay in touch via sporadic phone calls. They come to believe that the family can be reunited only via a miracle – one that will happen, picking up from folklore, when two trains cross at full speed. And thus, the two put together a plan to be there the very moment a couple of bullet trains on a new route pass for the first time.
At its core, I Wish is a small movie: about the innocence and wonderment of childhood, about the travails of life and circumstance. The brothers learn to adjust to life with their respective parents. They struggle to maintain their relationship, all the while building new friendships (we get glimpses into their friends’ home lives as well). There are some heartbreaking scenes, there are some wonderfully hopeful ones – but I Wish doesn’t lapse into extremes. The movie is beautifully effective at conveying the stages of life.
5. Sleepwalk with Me
For a non-documentary, Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me provides one of the most authentic renderings of standup comedy I’ve seen on the big screen. The semi-autobiographical story focuses on the process: the refinement of material, the thankless gigs, the extended road trips. It captures the nuances of the lifestyle, as well as the types of personalities drawn to that lifestyle. In portraying the difficult beginnings and myriad roadblocks to the comedian’s career, it serves as a complementary piece of sorts to the fantastic first half of Funny People.
The sincerity with which the movie tackles the craft is fantastic, but it ultimately works because of its lead. Birbiglia – as director, writer, and star – is perfectly enmeshed with his material (his life story, after all); and the result is a comfort and ease that makes Sleepwalk with Me brilliantly funny, brutally honest, and surprisingly affective (comparable to Adam Carolla’s The Hammer). I own Birbiglia’s CDs, listen to his contributions on NPR, and read his book… but the material never feels tired here. Everything about the movie works.
6. Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas is a movie that begs rewatching. Its substantive themes may not be remarkable – everything is connected, love conquers all, freedom comes from within, and so forth. Its depictions of morality are similarly unsophisticated – good is good and evil is evil, with very little gray area and less introspection. But its scope is unparalleled, with six stories across disparate settings over the course of several millennia. The movie is a technical marvel, and one that demonstrates the limitless imagination of filmmaking.
It is a testament to the script and editing work that the movie remains not just coherent, but interesting across its various stories. Whereas other intertwined movies like Crash, Babel, and Magnolia invariably have their weak link, Cloud Atlas is even across its components; the fact that the stories are uniquely connected in terms of souls and instigating events and such furthers their impact. I do wish that the movie had been more ambitious philosophically, and not just technically. But it remains arguably the most cinematic movie I’ve seen this year.
7. Searching for Sugar Man
The thought occurred to me while watching Searching for Sugar Man that this was a story that would be impossible to replicate in the modern era. The whereabouts of any musician could easily be obtained with a simple internet search; any urban legend regarding an on-stage suicide quickly dispelled. But that’s what makes the real-life story of Rodriguez so charming: a 1970s cult hero in one part of the world – with historical significance, no less – yet utterly unremarkable, and completely unknown in his. Lost for years, decades even.
The set-up (and actual ‘search’) is intriguing, but it is the second half of the documentary that really makes it. We are introduced to Rodriguez, who appears to be the most unassuming, sweetest man. The fact that he’s not hung up over the what-ifs in life only adds to his charm. And when he finally does return to South Africa to perform, it makes for a storybook ending. That’s the whole of Searching for Sugar Man, really. It’s a heartwarming tale, a surreal one; and a fantastically entertaining doc.
8. Zero Dark Thirty
Argo’s an entertaining movie. It’s a great story. But Ben Affleck doesn’t really elevate the material. The movie proceeds in a workmanlike manner: everything’s executed well, but matter-of-factly. Ultimately, it’s a diversion, albeit an enjoyable one. Zero Dark Thirty, in contrast, is compelling. The opening scene – audio from emergency calls on September 11th – is haunting, and as memorable as anything I’ve seen all year. The last 30 minutes, meanwhile, rivals Black Hawk Down in its riveting depiction of modern warfare. The movie sparks.
The looming presence of the final mission in fact mitigates the problems in the movie. It’s a tad episodic at times, and character development is generally absent: the same issues I had with The Hurt Locker, actually. Here however, Kathryn Bigelow has an endgame. She has a conduit in Maya (Jessica Chastain), driven start to finish with a singular purpose. As a result, the script never meanders too far. It moves with purpose, flows. Smartly utilizing several post-9/11 terrorist attacks as markers, Zero Dark Thirty retains a sense of urgency and intensity.
9. Ballplayer: Pelotero
A surprisingly unflinching look at the baseball academies in the Dominican Republic, Ballplayer: Pelotero is a fascinating documentary that follows two prospects chasing their dreams of Major League Baseball glory. We see the tremendous odds that the two – Miguel Angel and Jean Carlos, both 16 years old – beat to get even to that point, and the spectrum of voices – from family to agents and managers and scouts – that have become ingrained in their daily lives. The kids carry the weight of the world, playing a game that seems anything but.
There’s an analogy drawn early on between baseball’s ‘farm systems’ and actual farms, and it becomes more apt over the course of the movie. The kids are resources – plentiful in nature – and individuals connected with MLB appear all too willing to take advantage of them. There is corruption and collusion aplenty. Seeing the intimate tales of these two remind you of the thousands out there, trying to improve their circumstance. It’s tragic; Ballplayer: Pelotero is compelling in a way that even the best fictional movies can only strive to be.
10. First Position
First Position is centered on a prestigious ballet competition in the United States. It traces six competitors – of varying ages, all adorable – as they train for that single moment. It’s a pretty simple movie, really, lacking the controversy and twists and turns of the previous entry on my list. Instead, the documentary fills you in on the kids’ backstories, provides glimpses into family life, and demonstrates via practices and performances both their dedication to their craft and their remarkable skills. In the process, it creates memorable protagonists.
The matter-of-fact style of director Bess Kargman serves the movie well. The competitions provide the natural source of tension; while there are very real struggles, there is no artificial conflict. One unenthusiastic dancer (a younger sibling of another subject) offers moments of levity. There are also small moments that are heartwarming, from a friendship forged among two young dancers, to a teen’s rare visit home to his family in Colombia. First Position draws you into the world of ballet. And it’s captivating.
*Apologies to Wreck-It Ralph, The Queen of Versailles, and Pitch Perfect, the next in line. I should note that I haven’t gotten around to Django Unchained, Amour, and several other would-be contenders yet. Overall, I have seen about 90 movies this year: the worst include the two Snow White updates (Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman).