The year 2012 was much like many others in recent memory on the United States film scene. The summer was dominated by superhero extravaganzas. (The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises were the year’s two top-grossing movies.) Independent films became even harder to find in movie theaters as most distributers decided to forgo the standard release paradigm and opted to make these small films available via pay-per-view. The majority of the year’s best offerings were saved for release during the last six weeks. Yep, business as usual….
History will look back at 2012 as the year that American cinemas were forced to convert to digital projection, a strategy that will save Hollywood studios millions upon millions of dollars annually. Declaring that come 2013 no more movies would be released on celluloid, this delivery system was foisted upon exhibitors, forcing them to adapt or die. Of course, the studios helped the big theater chains, offering financing plans to help in the purchase of the new projectors, each costing in the neighborhood of $80,000. Pity the independent theaters and drive-ins that were offered no such safety net. As a result, the country will be littered with small, vacant movie houses, casualties of the latest money grab by the conglomerates that own the studios. Make no mistake; the business of Hollywood has always been business.
As far as the quality of films released in the United States this year, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find a movie that has something genuine to say. While it’s nothing new to say that spectacle is more prevalent at the multiplex than honesty, the trend is that fewer and fewer films are being released to theaters and, as a result, so much of what is available varies little in terms of quality because so much of the studio product is made with a “play-it-safe” mentality. So, if there is a recurring element in the films I’ve chosen for this list, it’s that they all achieve some measure of sincerity in the way they tell their stories and in the themes they convey. Whether it be an example of how the democratic ideal of government should be conducted (or how corrupt it’s become), a reminder of what true friendship is or a personal declaration of independence, the films on this list were all able to convey their message with a sense of genuine honesty that has, regrettably, become one of the most daring things that can be done in commercial filmmaking today.
The top 10
1. Silver Linings Playbook – Director David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel is a roller coaster ride of emotions. It deals with two fragile human beings – Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper), who’s recovering from a mental breakdown, and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a 24-year-old woman who’s trying to cope with the sudden death of her husband – and their mutual road to recovery. Not only must they contend with reentering traditional society, but also they must come to terms with the fact that others now see them as damaged and unstable. Cooper and Lawrence fiercely attack their roles, pulling no punches in displaying Pat and Tiffany’s foibles. What makes the film unique is that the brand of redemption it offers up doesn’t come easy for its characters, but as something that must be worked for. As a consequence, they cherish it all the more. Funny, poignant and ultimately life-affirming, this was the most satisfying film of the year, in terms of the way it achieved all it set out to do. (This movie will open in the area on Jan. 11.)
2. Lincoln – Ambitious in scope but intimate in its examination of the democratic process and the men behind it during our country’s most vital hour, Steven Spielberg’s look at the final four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life is gripping and entertaining, driven by Tony Kurshner’s dialogue-heavy screenplay and Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in the title role. The film looks at the backroom dealings that are part and parcel of the political process, but it is the sense of righteousness and determination which drives Lincoln that makes the film sing. The example on display here needs to be seen by all in whom we put our trust. The sort of pragmatism and common sense Lincoln exemplifies here has become far too rare. This film couldn’t be more timely in presenting an ideal that needs to be emulated now more than ever.
3. The Campaign – Yes, I thought this was the funniest movie of the year, which is really saying something, what with 21 Jump Street and Ted in the running as well. But what will make it resonate is its unvarnished look at how big business calls the shots in our legislatures, that corruption is as commonplace as a deadlocked congressional subcommittee and that the electorate is nothing but a bunch of lemmings who’ll respond to any sound bite they’re fed. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis throw themselves into their roles as buffoonish congressional candidates, but it’s the sharp indictment of our current state of political affairs that makes this one memorable.
4. The Grey – Joe Carnahan’s bleak tale of survival revolves around a dozen men who, having weathered a horrific plane crash, must contend with the harsh elements of the Alaskan wilderness as well as a vicious pack of wolves if they’re to save themselves. Liam Neeson anchors this film as a man who, having lost the will to live, musters the courage to face the most dire circumstances in the face of total alienation and despair. At times harrowing, this existential exercise powerfully reminds us that life and death must be faced in the same way – with courage and no regret.
5. End of Watch – Cop movies are a dime a dozen but this feature from writer/director David Ayer sets out not only to show the dangers of working the streets of Los Angeles but also to capture the sort of fierce bond that’s forged between partners on the beat. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are the duo in question and the chemistry they generate is unique and powerful. There wasn’t a better team on screen this year in terms of being present with one another and creating honest moments and emotions. You got the sense that, whether laughing, crying or dodging bullets, these two men love one another and would make the ultimate sacrifice for the other without hesitation. We too come to empathize with, like and admire these two men, who risk their lives daily in a violent but necessary job, making for a powerful movie experience.
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Teen angst has rarely been captured as accurately or poignantly than it was here in Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own novel. The focal point is Charlie (Logan Lerman), a freshman who’s grappling with how he’ll fit in at high school after suffering a mental break following a personal tragedy. Stepsiblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Samantha (Emma Watson) take him under their collective wing and teach him that, while life is uncertain, the heartbreaks it deals you only serve to help you endure. We’ve been down this road before, but Chbosky handles these issues with tact and wisely grounds the film with quiet sincerity rather than overplaying big moments and laying on the saccharine, making for an unexpectedly moving and poignant movie.
7. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World – It’s an unwritten rule that a year is not allowed to go by without the appearance of a film that deals with the end of the world. This entry doesn’t focus on missions to save it, but rather on two lonely people who each set out to address some unfinished business as the clock towards Armageddon ticks down. Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley are perfect as the two mismatched travelers, but it’s writer/director Lorene Scafaria who guides them with a deft touch. She reminds us that grand plans often result in disappointment, but small, selfless gestures are the ones that offer true salvation. A quietly moving film infused with dark humor that will resonate with you long after you see it.
8. Flight – Add this to the short list of films (The Lost Weekend, Days of Wine and Roses, Leaving Las Vegas) that takes an unflinching look at addiction and its consequences. Denzel Washington gives the most courageous performance of the year as a pilot who’s touted as a hero after setting down a disabled aircraft, only to have his alcohol and drug dependency become known after the ensuing investigation. Director Robert Zemeckis delivers a taut film, but it’s Washington who digs deep, giving us a portrait of a drowning man incapable of saving himself. Though this is a tragic tale, writer John Gatins provides us with a bit of redemption that doesn’t feel forced or false.
9. Bernie – Director Richard Linklater effectively reminds us that truth is stranger than fiction with this account of a mild-mannered mortician who inexplicably kills an elderly widow he’s involved with. In the title role, Jack Black is a revelation as he creates a fully rounded, complex character, at once charming and helpful, but at other times deceitful and self-serving. Linklater adds a layer of validity to the film by including citizens from the town of Carthage, Texas, where the story took place. Inventive, funny and thought-provoking, the movie may have you questioning the validity of the law and the true meaning of justice.
10. The Imposter – This chilling documentary looks at the dark side of human behavior from different perspectives. A Texas family is devastated when their 13-year-old son goes missing. Three years later, he is reported found in Europe and then transported to the States, where the family accepts him, despite the fact that there’s no possible way this could be their relative. Questions of identity, denial and murder all rear their ugly heads as an investigation is launched to get to the bottom of this case, which takes more than a few unexpected turns. Intriguing and unforgettable, this documentary plays out like a compelling mystery that winds up raising as many questions as it answers.
The next 10…
Judd Apatow’s hilarious, spot-on examination of modern marriage in This is 40. Ben Affleck’s tense examination of an improbable rescue mission in 1980’s Iran in Argo. Wes Anderson’s sweet love story, Moonlight Kingdom. Ang Lee’s visually stunning and spiritual Life of Pi. Tom Hopper’s epic adaptation of Les Miserables. Rian Johnson’s mind-bending time travel tale Looper. Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy The Dark Knight Rises. The James Bond reboot Skyfall. Marvel’s superhero mash-up The Avengers. David Frankel’s daring look at sex in the senior years, Hope Springs.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.