The year in film: 2012’s best, worst and biggest surprises

Jan. 01, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

In a cinemascape increasingly populated by 3D/IMAX/fX phantasmagoria, the scarcest qualities are the most basic: purpose, earnestness and genuine emotion. Virtually all the films in my top 10 of 2012 share one or more of these attributes. But above the worthy — coming-of-age dramedies, an epic biopic, thought-provoking science fiction and lessons about the high cost of terrorism — stands a little-seen film from director Craig Zobel that won’t dissipate from my consciousness even days after absorbing it. The fact that it’s drawn from a tragically true story is essential to its power as a graphic illustration of both the psychology of victimhood and the Milgram-tested capacity of humans to commit horrible acts in obedience to even perceived authority. Dig deeper, and you’ll also find a deconstruction of femininity and a searing critique of isolation in our fast-food culture. Evocative of the gritty best of Roman Polanski and Michael Haneke, the best film of 2012 is “Compliance” (dir. Craig Zobel).

2. “Silver Linings Playbook” (dir. David O. Russell): A delightful, virtuoso marriage of humor, poignancy, fluid camerawork, lighting and music, this eclectic stew navigates its darker and lighter moments with equal aplomb. It also features some of the best ensemble acting of the year, headlined by award-worthy lead performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

3. “Lincoln” (dir. Steven Spielberg): Both a biopic and a revealing insight into the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, including the horse-trading and skullduggery that’s always been grist for the political mill. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is monumental, wholly capturing both Lincoln’s grandeur and frailties. Day-Lewis lifts Lincoln off Mount Rushmore and makes him mortal, forging an emotional connection with the audience and compensating for Spielberg’s ever-hovering penchant for schmaltzy grandeur.

4. “Looper” (dir. Rian Johnson): Science-fiction with a brain and subtle helping of social and cinematic commentary. It’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt are outstanding, and if it wasn’t for “Moonrise Kingdom,” it’d be Bruce Willis’s best work this year.

5. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (dir. Stephen Chbosky): While I normally recoil from coming-of-age dramedies, this whip-smart screenplay doesn’t overplay its sass or sentimentality. Logan Lerman continues to build a sturdy resume in the lead role, and Emma Watson and Ezra Miller are pitch-perfect as best pals and high school misfits.

6. “Zero Dark Thirty” (dir. Kathryn Bigelow): The backlash against this account of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden misses the subtle power of Mark Boal’s screenplay, which educates through exposure rather than didactic explication. There should have been a wee more character development, particularly Jessica Chastain’s dogged lead searcher, but the final 45 minutes are the most taut and gripping you’ll experience in a theater all year.

7. “Argo” (dir. Ben Affleck): Efficient, funny, entertaining and, yes, captivating. For his third directorial effort, Ben Affleck (who also stars) graduates from well-crafted genre pictures (“The Town,” “Gone Baby Gone”) to more formidable filmmaking, chronicling the CIA posing as movie producers in order to enter Iran and rescue a group of Americans from the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The film isn’t just an ode to American heroism; it’s a salute to its most durable, exportable commodity: movies.

8. “Moonrise Kingdom” (dir. Wes Anderson): Although Wes Anderson’s films are an acquired taste, this quirky romantic comedy-drama (yep, all that) is a funhouse reflection of Rockwellian America. There’s a scoutmaster (Ed Norton), child runaways, island police (Bruce Willis), an uptight lawyer couple (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and a Nor’easter bearing down on a 1960s New England island. Trust me — it all works.

9. “The Master” (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson): Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s central focus isn’t the nature of personality cults, as viewed by the relationship between returning WWII sailor Joaquin Phoenix and a spiritual leader partly inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Instead, Anderson returns to familiar themes found throughout his short but resplendent filmography: the search for a father figure or lost son, dysfunctional family relationships and flawed men fated to self-destruction.

10. “The Raid: Redemption” (dir. Gareth Evans): If there was ever a Dogme-style revolution in action filmmaking, it could start with this unadulterated adrenaline rush. This Indonesian import from Welsh-born director Gareth Evans is raw and frenzied, heavy on blood, ballistics and all-out martial arts. The action starts flying at the audience mere minutes in and doesn’t let up until the final credits. Moreover, the fight scenes are as exquisite as ballet in their choreography, and the action is visceral sans an over-reliance on digital effects

Worst Film of 2012 — “That’s My Boy”: I wanted to pick some film, any film, other than Adam Sandler’s annual dreck submission. But last year’s worst, “Jack & Jill,” is “Citizen Kane” compared to this blight on cinema. It opens by glorifying pedophilia for guffaws and ends by doing the same with incest. But, chronicling the film’s many sins — and flat-lined follies— would require an R-rated review. Suffice it to say it levies a taxing onslaught of racist, sexist and scatological bile, and you know a script has problems when Vanilla Ice has the funniest lines.

Rest of the Worst: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “Alex Cross,” “Battleship,” “The Dictator,” “Men in Black III,” “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” “Red Dawn,” “Rock of Ages,” “The Words”

Pleasant Surprises: “21 Jump Street,” “Cloud Atlas,” “Haywire,” “Hope Springs,” “Life of Pi,” “Marvel’s The Avengers,” “The Raid: Redemption,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Sinister,” “Skyfall”

Biggest Disappointments: “The Dictator,” “Flight,” “Hyde Park on Hudson,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Les Misérables,” “Promised Land,” “This is 40”