That it was an uneven year at the movies — Prometheus, why must you disappoint us so? — does not mean it was without its definite bright spots. To that end, and in continuing The Atlantic Wire's Year in Review, we've chosen our ten favorite films of 2012. And a few that were not so much.
Yes, it shocked us, too: In a summer of better-than-average superhero fare, the comic-book movie we were dreading the most wound up becoming, well, the real hero. A scant few years since Sam Raimi hung up the Spidey suit, (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb came along and snugly fit it on Andrew Garfield, sending Peter Parker back to high school, introducing him to his original pre-Mary Jane love Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and squaring him off against a mad, gene-mutating scientist. We've seen many versions of this origin story before, but Webb managed to infuse it with new and vibrant life. With the perfectly cast Garfield and Stone, who positively radiate with romantic chemistry, the story rises to dizzier and dizzier heights, while remarkably never losing its grounding as a tale about real people. While Joss Whedon's Avengers was certainly a raucous, kitchen-sink blast, and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises had all its effectively moody boom and portent, Webb's film was the only one that truly felt like the scrappy comic books where all this noise began. Who knows if the crew can keep it up in the 2014 sequel, but for deftly and humanely reinventing a story we'd just seen (in droves, no less), The Amazing Spider-Man deserves some serious recognition.
The most brutal and terrifying movie of the year didn't come in the form of some starlet wriggling around a murderer's house. No, it was two elderly people in a well appointed Paris apartment, one wasting away following a stroke, the other helplessly watching as his lifetime companion disappears. Michael Haneke's thoroughly shattering domestic drama (quite literally, we almost never leave the apartment) is called Amour not because it is full of the gauzy, swooning sentiment of love, but because it is about the difficulties and indignities, the everyday sacrifices and mistakes, of a truly lasting, devoted bond. Our guides through this spare but visually arresting look at the end of life are the veteran French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, and they give themselves wholly to the task. It's become a cliché to call an acting performance brave, but both of these actors, especially Riva as the one in physical free-fall, are more fierce and nobly committed in their 80s than any actor half a century their junior even tried to be this year. Though Haneke has, as Michael Haneke does, made an excruciatingly frank and hard-to-watch film, he's also made a film of towering care and compassion. In depicting the flickering-out of the twilight years without an ounce of pandering, he gives his characters the dignity they so ferociously fight to protect in the film. Amour is a painful experience for the duration, but, in the end, it proves soul-shakingly cathartic.
What a joy it's been to watch Ben Affleck, once the party prince half of the lovable Boston duo of Ben & Matt, as he's matured into a very serious (but not too serious!) filmmaker these past few years. And Argo, a swift, sleek retelling of a stranger-than-fiction rescue mission during the Iran hostage crisis, marked yet another big corner turned. Affleck knows just when to give a scene that extra shot of Hollywood boost and when to pull back, letting the story's innate suspense and moody geopolitical foreboding fill the space on their own. As sharp and dexterous as any "mainstream" film this year, Affleck has made one of those "they don't make movies like that anymore" movies — a mid-budget studio picture that's as smart as it is flat-out entertaining. Boasting a uniformly fine cast and credible, lived-in period details, Argo proved Affleck a director who both executives and substance-starved moviegoers can cheer for. Pretty impressive a mere nine years after Gigli.
In his feature film debut, director Benh Zeitlin creates a magical other-Earth from the mud and brown water of the Louisiana coast and takes us on a sensory exploration of nothing less than the nature of existence — and the existence of nature. Using a cast of non-professional actors — chiefly Quvenzhané Wallis as young spirit-being Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as her stern, near-mystic father — Zeitlin gives us a flood narrative that is full of rumble and redemption. Early on in the film a great storm swallows the isolated community the locals call The Bathtub, but we then watch as these brave but never saintly folks find life anew, pulling it right out of the water. With loud dashes of magical realism and a swooning score, Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like the birth of a new American myth, as if part of a story cycle whipped up into existence by these climate-changed times. It's also the thrilling debut of a staggeringly talented new filmmaker, one whose obvious care for his subjects and themes will hopefully guide him now that he's a big, famous art-house hero.
Though the word “meta” often conjures up irksome, irony-steeped blog posts, or episodes of Community that are particularly pleased with themselves, Drew Goddard’s sprightly deconstruction/reconstruction of the horror movie offered the most delightful kind of self-commentary. To explain anything about this long-delayed film (it was shot in 2009) would be to spoil it, but know that it is seat-jumpingly scary when it needs to be, funny and spastic in that great Joss Whedon-y way (Goddard and Whedon co-wrote the script), and so wildly inventive with form and concept that it's essentially a genre unto itself. To be sure, The Cabin in the Woods isn't high art, but it remains, all these months later, one of our most giddy and eye-popping experiences at the movies this year. There can't be a sequel for reasons that will be made obvious once you see it, but boy do we hope we get more horror-comedy-whatever like this in the future.
In David France's stunning, galvanizing documentary about the beginnings of ACT UP and the AIDS awareness movement, we are given the marvelous gift of a mind-boggling wealth of archival footage from the 1980s and early 1990s. France lets these brash, mostly New York revolutionaries speak for themselves, and so through their voices and with their eyes we watch ACT UP and TAG rally together to fight for recognition of the disease ravaging their communities and, most crucially, pushing for available drug treatments for those already infected, who were dropping dead in numbers that seemed apocalyptic. As its urgent title may suggest, How to Survive a Plague is not a study of humble do-gooders, quietly and beatifically going about their toil. These are people, some still with us, many gone, who put the "loud" in "out, loud, and proud." Drawing from the well of Stonewall, they forced AIDS recognition from their government and, in a broader sense, helped build a powerful political voice for a social caste that had been without for too long. Watching this unfold — their successes and setbacks — is nothing short of thrilling. It's despairing, too, to know that so many in those crowded rooms were lost when they could have been saved. France has made a fine cultural document here, one with resonance far beyond the gay community.
Yes, OK, when held under close scrutiny the time travel logic and physics in Rian Johnson's bracing, beautifully realized sci-fi thriller/drama don't quite hold water, but you know what? When there's this much style and surprising substance, we're willing to overlook those bobbles. Johnson's first real big budget gives him the opportunity to create a bottomed-out near-feature, enriching his bleak Midwestern landscape with exact, telling details that offer a grim, but not apocalyptic, vision of where America might be headed. As a slowly-breaking-down hitman who wipes out gangsters sent back from the future, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives another intelligent, deeply felt performance (even more impressive when you consider the unfortunate makeup under which he has to act), and he's joined by a sterling supporting cast, including Bruce Willis (who plays the older version of the same character), Emily Blunt, a scary Jeff Daniels, and the beguiling Noah Segen. That Johnson's film is a wonder to behold — blunt, crunching violence giving way to beautiful vistas — is no shock, but that he gives his film a poignancy and a sweetness is an unexpected but welcome dimension. Again, not exactly everything in Looper quite adds up, but the film more than makes up for that by being the most inventive and heart-grabbing thrill of the year.
At first glance, writer/director Wes Anderson’s first live-action film since 2007's The Darjeeling Limited is a slight tale, one about a boy and a girl and the brief adventure they have on a little New England island. But whispering beneath the surface is a considerably deeper pool of introspection. With Moonrise Kingdom Anderson has made a loving tribute to the messy details of childhood — and to both the grandeur and tedium of coming-of-age — while also exploring a particularly adult kind of emotional displacement. That he set his story on this rocky, melancholy island — which is brilliantly, meticulously realized down to every invented book cover — was of course no accident: his New Penzance is an ideal place to explore themes of loneliness, both the beauty and pain of it, the kind of cozy ache that, in some ways, New England creates best. Full of homey, idiosyncratic performances — a particular standout being Bruce Willis, playing the unlikely hero of the film — and led by two deadpan kids who manage to never annoy, Moonrise Kingdom is the most oddly tailored, and yet resonantly successful, family film of the year.
Lynn Shelton's wry, observant, poignant little film briefly flitted through theaters in loud, crowded June and was quickly gone. And yet it's been impossible to shake, for being so sharp and truthful and evenhanded about the way people can be. In the film, Mark Duplass (toning down his The League-style smarm) is a lost soul grieving for his brother who goes to sort things out at the family lake house of two sisters, played by Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt. Through one key misunderstanding, the three end up at the house together, talking and sharing and feeling and all that perhaps hoary indie stuff. But in Shelton's hands, these three fine actors, the irresistible DeWitt and Blunt especially, create something wholly effortless and organic. Their talk is funny and pointed and wistful in the way lots of bleary, wine-heavy conversations are for real-life people who've tipped over the 30-year mark. The plot involves something of a love triangle, but really we are here to simply listen to these people ramble on; they're so good at it that you leave the film wanting to be their friend, wanting to talk to your friends, and, most of all, wanting to see more movies in this low-to-the-ground, naturalistic vein. Some may call it an evolution of Mumblecore, but to me it's a renewal of the promise made by the independent film movement over twenty years ago. Smart and small, Your Sister's Sister managed to speak a lot louder than many much bigger movies this year.
Kathryn Bigelow's big, long, thorough detailing of the hunt for Osama bin Laden works beautifully on two levels. As a shadowy geopolitical procedural it satisfies our craving for deft investigation, exotic locales, and backroom strategizing. It's also utterly engaging as a somber meditation on the efficacy and meaning of all this cloak-and-dagger (too often dagger) business, done in the face of a vast and sometimes only loosely connected web of people the United States has declared enemies. Never morally indicating or urging us toward a specific position, Bigelow and the writer Mark Boal give Zero Dark Thirty the feel of a particularly sexy and exciting Frontline, while also fulfilling our need for entertainment, without doing too much sensationalizing. Watching them walk that line is the movie's chief pleasure, aided as they are by a strong cast, including Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, and Kyle Chandler. (Only the lead, Jessica Chastain, doesn't quite connect with her role; but she's still undeniably interesting to watch.) We may never know exactly how accurate Zero Dark Thirty is, but because it eschews editorializing in favor of up-close soberness, its status as "just a movie" is more easily overlooked. Something akin to this happened, and this is what it may have looked like, and we the audience are, blessedly, trusted to be smart enough to interpret it all ourselves. That's a bit of respect rarely paid by political films, and it's more than appreciated.
And the worst...
There were many awful or at least forgettable films this year. Rock of Ages lurched awkwardly around in ugly fashion, never quite sure whether it should try to be cool or silly. Mirror Mirror created a fairy tale that would bore kids and gross out adults. (Thank god no one saw it.) Wrath of the Titans made no earthly, or heavenly, sense, wasting and perhaps embarrassing a cast of excellent actors. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp continued on their quest to butcher the classics with Dark Shadows, a screamingly unfunny movie that played like a bad amateur comedy sketch. But truly no film irked or put us off more this year than Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, an utterly tone-deaf and tiresomely pretentious little turd that said nothing relevant about anything, past or present, while offering perhaps the year's most stunningly unappealing performance in Greta Gerwig's pinched coed miss manners. A film as pointless at it was tedious, Damels in Distress felt like an act of aggression.