You know what? Screw Ben Affleck for being an incredibly handsome guy, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, a successful actor and—as it turns out—a damn fine director. If Gone Baby Gone and The Town didn’t clinch it for you, this impossibly tense based-on-a-true story thriller is sure to seal the deal: The boy can direct. This dramatization of a mad, 1980 attempt to extract Iranian hostages by plotting a fake movie shoot is perfectly balanced—weighing self-deprecating Hollywood humor against nail-biting, spy saga thrills. To reiterate: Up yours, Ben Affleck. We love you.
This shaggy, rough-around-the-edges sci-fi folk tale feels less like your typical no-budget, Sundance-approved indie and more like some amazing artisanal creation dug up at the local grower’s market. First-time filmmaker Behn Zeitlin joined forced with first-time actor / underaged miracle Quvenzhané Wallis to create the muddy, earthy, loamy, entirely humectant story of a singular 6-year-old struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic Louisiana bayou. Shot on low-tech 16mm film stock, Zeitlin’s idiosyncratic drama evokes the dirty-kneed innocence of Tom Sawyer, the unsupervised authenticity of Kids and the sylvan mysticality of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is as close to outsider art as film gets.
Of course this blood-soaked B-movie mashup is a provocative work of art. It’s supposed to be. No one was more pleased than Quentin Tarantino when conservatives like Matt Drudge and Andrew Breitbart went off their rocker, claiming Django would spark race riots across America. Q.T.’s pitch-perfect mixture of Italian-style Spaghetti Western and American-made blaxploitation isn’t intended for politicians or pundits. It’s custom-built for obsessive movie geeks who get the “joke.” With Tarantino, it’s all about the references. As expected, there are dozens in Django Unchained: Sergio Corbucci’s Django, Russ Meyer’s Black Snake, appearances by Luke Duke and Sonny Crockett. It’s all in good fun, though, as these obscure shout-outs are bandied about by actors (Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson) happy to be goofing around in a self-referential, movie-soaked sandbox.
In 2012, animator Don Hertzfeldt finally got around to finishing his “Bill Trilogy,” a series of short, experimental films about a terminally ill man slowly losing his mind. On the surface, “Everything Will Be OK” (2006), “I Am So Proud of You” (2008) and “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” (2012) combine to form a bleakly funny, uproariously rude look at Bill, a Charlie Brown-sized loser who can’t seem to catch a break in life. Underneath that, it’s a melancholic examination of the snippets of sight and sound known as memories that make up our fractured lives. And at the very end, there’s a completely haunting coda conflating mortality and an artist’s unwillingness to give up on his own creation (particularly one he’s spent six years tinkering with).
Yann Martel’s “unfilmable” novel got the dazzling, Pixar-for-adults treatment courtesy of Academy Award winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). All the technical razzle-dazzle (and there was a boatload) wouldn’t have amounted to a hill of beans if Lee hadn’t delivered on Martel’s grand metaphorical premise. He did, with a perfectly timed finale that gave the film’s “spiritual” message crushing philosophical weight. Even an inveterate agnostic like myself knows that—given the choice between two stories—you choose the one with the tiger.
To be perfectly honest with you, I’ll probably never watch Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln again. It’s more like a long-winded history lecture than a movie. But I can’t deny the skill that went into it. It’s a damn good effort, and well worth the price of admission just to watch Daniel-Day Lewis do his thing. If he wins an Academy Award, no one will be the least bit surprised. But what struck me most about the film—an earnest and rather exacting depiction of the legislative fight to pass the 13th Amendment—is the idea that politics have always involved contention, animosity, backstabbing, deception and bribery. But when those passions are employed in service of a truly great cause, there’s something rather exhilarating about the whole process.
Wes Anderson (Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Rushmore) does it again with this enchanting dollhouse of a movie. The gentle tale of two besotted 12-year-olds who run away from home in order to live an idealized romantic life on a tiny New England island is pure, summer-tinted nostalgia. From its exquisitely constructed sets to its wondrously evocative props, this highly stylized comedy sends viewers on a memory trip to far more innocent days. What lifts the film over the top, however, is the subtle implication that the film’s seemingly levelheaded adults (Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton) are the ones in the wrong. Maybe some impossible romance, a bit of adventure and touch of rebellion is what we all need in life.
A good deal of bravery went into making this intimate (true) story of a quadriplegic, middle-aged man who decides to shed his virginity with the help of a sex surrogate. Writer Mark O’Brien is brave for telling his hilarious, awkward, touching story in the first place. Actor John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) is brave for committing to such a physically challenging role. And actress Helen Hunt, missing from the movie scene for several years, is amazingly brave for throwing caution to the wind and taking on a role that requires this much physical and emotional exposure.
Easily the most blissful film of 2012, this documentary gave real-life hope to those with Harry Potter-sized dreams. What if you weren’t the failure you thought you were? What if—while you lived your ordinary, boring life—somewhere in the world people were worshipping you as a superhero, a genius, a wizard? What if somebody told you about it, then whisked you off to this magical land? That’s the basic premise behind the mega-inspirational story of Detroit folk-rocker Rodriguez, who recorded a couple of failed albums in the late ’60s and was never heard from again—at least until a few years ago when rabid fans in South Africa hunted him down.
This 23rd official James Bond film, released just in time for the series’ 50th anniversary, is pure fan service. Those who grew up on blockbuster spy sagas got more than their money’s worth. First-time Bond director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) delivered glossy, sexy, propulsive, grown-up fun. Writers Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (Casino Royale) and John Logan (Gladiator) offered up a script that gave shout-outs to five decades’ worth of movie history. Throw in a memorable villain (Javier Bardem) and a perfect theme song (from Adele) and you’ve got the biggest Bond of them all.