Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Best Movies of 2012 (Part I)

After the astonishing year at the movies that was 2011, it was perhaps inevitable that 2012 would regress to the mean somewhat. The result is that, whereas last year I felt compelled to extend my annual year-end list to include 25 different films, this year I'm limiting myself to 16. Whether this is because the quality of the cinematic output declined slightly or because the Manifesto has a bizarre preoccupation with perfect squares, it doesn't matter. In the end, 2012 was a year like any other, one that featured plenty of good movies, just as many bad movies, and a handful of spectacular movies. In the Manifesto's eyes, here are the 16 best:

Honorable mention: Cloud Atlas, Compliance, The Flowers of War, Michael, Miss Bala, The Secret World of Arrietty, Sleep Tight, Smashed, Take This Waltz, Your Sister's Sister.

16. Wreck-It Ralph. Animation affords filmmakers the ability to create new worlds, and the vibrant, humming universe of Wreck-It Ralph is thrillingly new. As beloved videogame characters of yesteryear shuffle through "Game Central Station", the movie introduces us to a series of brilliantly realized landscapes – from the nightmarish, apocalyptic "Hero's Duty" to the saccharine, cotton-candy-smelling "Sugar Rush" – each lovingly created in shimmering, tactile detail. The sound design is equally inspired, with distinctive bleeps and beeps accompanying each character's individualized, hopping movements. But Wreck-It Ralph is more than just a visual and auditory wonder – it also features outstanding writing. The dialogue has Pixar-worthy pep, while the seemingly familiar plot of an outcast seeking acceptance houses a number of expertly rationed surprises. "I am bad, and that's good; I will never be good, and that's not bad," John C. Reilly's title character intones nobly as the film approaches its stirring, satisfying conclusion. With its eye-popping color palette and nimble storytelling, Wreck-It Ralph is better than good – it's original and memorable. And that, also, is not bad.

15. Skyfall. James Bond used to be superhuman, a quality that made him a great deal of fun and also somewhat boring. No longer. The specter of death pervades Skyfall, Sam Mendes' exhilarating, haunting film about the personal costs of professional heroism. Straight from the opening scene – in which a fairly ordinary car chase morphs into a fantastically kinetic hand-to-hand combat sequence atop a moving train that concludes with the ominous words, "Agent down" – Mendes swiftly dispenses with the notion that Skyfall will engage in the carefree, frivolous globe-trotting that used to define the franchise. He's more interested in how a lifetime of service to queen and country can batter a man's body and soul, and the result is a stunningly fallible 007, played by Daniel Craig with an invigorating mixture of inveterate lethality and weary vulnerability. He's pitted against one of the scariest Bond baddies ever in Silva, incarnated by Javier Bardem with playful camp but also ghastly menace. Silva's entrance, in which he slithers toward the camera in an unbroken take while relaying a parable about cannibalistic rats, is a breathtaking fusion of sharp screenwriting and visual elegance, and Skyfall, aided by Roger Deakins' exquisite digital photography (most distinctive during a silhouetted fight sequence of flabbergasting beauty), is undoubtedly the best-looking Bond film ever made. For his part, Mendes stages his action scenes with energy but also clarity, articulating his players' movements with precision rather than freneticism. The movie stumbles slightly during its final act, exhibiting a disappointing reliance on detached gunplay that betrays its commitment to sinewy intimacy. That aside, Skyfall stands as a historic achievement, an immaculate, bracing action picture that is unafraid to pause, reflect, and stare death in the face.

14. Anna Karenina. The downfall of most movie adaptations of literary classics is an excess of reverence. Filmmakers, no doubt wary of the scolding they'll receive from high-minded scholars, feel compelled to hew as closely to the text as possible, and the invariable result is a pale imitation of a great work, a mere shadow bereft of its own substance and identity. Thankfully, nothing about Joe Wright's transformation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina feels dusty or secondhand. It is, rather, entirely its own creature, a wholly cinematic document of rushing vitality. Anchored by an achingly vulnerable Keira Knightley as the title heroine, the movie is a stylistic wonderment. Wright enjoys working in a period setting – witness the startling life he breathed into Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice – yet despite the exquisite costumes and lavish turn-of-the-century trappings, this Anna Karenina is modern and new. The level of craftsmanship on display is simply remarkable; characters are suddenly and repeatedly transported across time and space from one stunning set to another, the camera ravenously tracking them with grace and fluidity. (I cannot help but name-check Seamus McGarvey's extraordinary cinematography and Sarah Greenwood's stupendous production design, not to mention Dario Marianelli's spiky, stirring score.) It is a whirling, vivacious circus act of a film, and as master of ceremonies, Wright refuses to be constrained by the enormous greatness of Tolstoy's novel, preferring to manufacture his own, more anarchic brand of greatness. He makes the author's legendary work his own, and, in so doing, pays him homage.

13. The Hunger Games. With its massive teen following and well-groomed young actors, The Hunger Games has been stigmatized by some as an opportunistic cash-grab, a canny but shallow attempt to exploit moviegoers' current appetite for half-baked fantasy lore. (The Twilight franchise is its most obvious and unfortunate comparator, not least because both sagas feature appealing, well-cast women in leading roles.) Yet Gary Ross' assured adaptation of Suzanne Collins' page-turner should by no means be dismissed as playful, sanitized fluff. It is, rather, a sober, serious, and occasionally terrifying tale of dystopian lawlessness and political tyranny. Yes, Jennifer Lawrence is a pretty young thing, and yes, the de-facto love triangle at the movie's periphery feels a bit forced, a grudging concession to commercialism. But there is nothing trivial about the poised, fearful nature of Lawrence's performance, nor is there anything frivolous about the film's plot, in which two dozen youths are forced to transform into would-be gladiators and fight to the death for their rulers' amusement. Ross finds room for black humor, most notably in sly supporting turns from Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson (Wes Bentley is also excellent in a small but crucial part), but The Hunger Games' overall tone is merciless; once the so-called tributes are assembled in the arena and that glowering digital clock ticks down toward zero, the movie's life-and-death stakes take shape with frightening clarity. That sense of ruthlessness is critical to the film's success and also endemic of its world, one in which the combatants may be mere children, but the blood they spill is no less red.

12. Argo. For the second straight year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences bestowed its highest honor on a movie about making movies. And for the second straight year, even though there were superior competitors in the running, it's hard to blame them. As a historical teaching point, Ben Affleck's thriller is dubious, especially given its finale's unfortunate surrender to melodrama. As a piece of cinema, however, Argo is pure pleasure, as well as a poignant ode to the majesty of the movies. The film's first hour is a masterful blend of well-wrought suspense and wry comedy, as Affleck – eagerly utilizing the bevy of preposterously talented character actors at his disposal – relays his stranger-than-fiction story with verve and conviction. And even when Argo's latter passages traffic in well-worn thriller tropes, Affleck maintains a miasma of suspense, and William Goldenberg's clipped, confident editing (for which he received a well-earned Oscar) only heightens the mounting tension. At one point, Affleck cuts back and forth between a Hollywood table-read and a terrorist's demands to the media, and the symmetry between the two is both troubling and also bleakly funny: It's all just performance art, and success is simply a matter of practiced delivery and well-calibrated execution. Argo may not have been the best movie of 2012, but by that reckoning, it's damn near perfect.

11. Headhunters. It seems that dozens of nominal "thrillers" pass through the multiplex each year, but this Norwegian import – a rip-roaring noir replete with chases, double-crosses, hairpin turns, and all manner of dastardly deeds – actually earns the eponym. It opens as an apparent small-scale crime tale, detailing the exploits of a smarmy office executive (an excellent Aksel Hennie) who moonlights as an art thief. Crime movies can be fun, and for a time Headhunters is content to serve as a didactic story of compromised values, exploring how an obsession with privilege can be corruptive and addictive. But then Nikolaj Coster-Waldau shows up to chase the hero (for reasons both rational and irrelevant), and the film shifts into overdrive. Amplifying the smirking menace he brings to Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, Coster-Waldau proves himself a towering adversary, and the pleasure of Headhunters lies in how woefully overmatched its protagonist is in its game of cat-and-mouse. Director Morten Tyldum (currently working on a World War II picture with Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley – look out) piles on the predicaments and mortifications – a wonderfully grotesque scene in an outhouse sets a new standard for hide-and-seek maneuvering – and as Hennie's character scrapes and claws at life, viewers find themselves grasping and gasping right along with him. Just as the title of Headhunters is slyly literal – decapitation is its villain's trade – the movie honors the literal meaning of its genre. It's a thriller that really thrills.

10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Demolishing the unwritten rule that teenagers in movies must behave like caricatures, Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his own novel is a marvel of sensitivity and perception. A coming-of-age story that feels less filmed than wrenched from the memoirs of its hero, it treats its characters as real people, which is to say it shows them as flawed, sometimes ugly creatures. But this willingness to wade into darkness – and in its final act, The Perks of Being a Wallflower grows very dark indeed – is testament to its characters' messy humanity, and to the nobility Chbosky imparts to them. The actors lend the film further gravitas, with Logan Lerman, initially a blank canvas, conveying earnestness on the surface that camouflages the tumult raging beneath, while Ezra Miller (in a sharp reversal from his chilling work in We Need to Talk About Kevin) is all charm, except when he's picking at scabbed wounds. For her part, Emma Watson is equal parts beguiling and heartbreaking, just another fumbling youth who can transform on a whim into the most confidently beautiful girl in the world. That duality is fitting for a movie as complex and challenging as The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It is in many ways a small film, with its textured detail and quiet intimacy, but it is also – in its gratifyingly frank portrayal of teenage life – grandly heroic.

9. Rust and Bone. The redemption tale is fraught with peril, as filmmakers invariably sacrifice emotional honesty in service of phony uplift. Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard's heartfelt, deeply moving love story, isn't above granting audiences a rousing conclusion, but it is also pitiless in probing its characters' weaknesses. The movie's mismatched lovers are fundamentally decent people, but they are at times selfish, neglectful, and even cruel. That may make them sound unsympathetic, and perhaps they would be were they not brought to life with such astonishing vividness and conviction by Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard. The pair's physical disparity is almost amusing – Schoenaerts is a hulking beast of a man (a quality he showcased as a testosterone addict in 2012's Bullhead), with bodybuilder arms and a barrel chest, while Cotillard is a wispy flower with a porcelain face. But actors aren't defined by their attributes, and Audiard's players disappear completely into their respective roles; Schoenaerts' laser temper and sudden bursts of violence mask obvious vulnerability and loneliness, while Cotillard's blazing eyes and decisive gestures convey steely resolve even when she's immobilized. That immobility may be the central plot point of Rust and Bone, but even though the movie is ostensibly focused on physical struggle, that's just one layer of Audiard's story. He's equally interested in how damaged people can nurture each other, locating the light buried within gloom. With Rust and Bone, he examines the significance of the body and emerges with a triumph of the soul.

Check back soon for Part II.

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