Collin’s Best of Film for 2012

BEST ACTOR, FILM

1. Denzel Washington, Flight

Washington owns this film, from start to finish, in what is his greatest career effort to date.  One of the most honest portrayals of an alcoholic in film history that rarely approaches overbearing, Nicolas-Cage-in-Leaving Las Vegas territory.  This isn’t your typical overpowering Washington performance.  It’s considered, careful, punctuated with pauses, uncertainty and terrifying mortality — often the look of a man searching under his mask for that one lie that can keep the plaster intact.

2. John Hawkes, The Sessions

Hawkes is one of the most incredibly underrated actors working today, and was able to deliver one of the year’s most touching performances on his back for the entire run time.  Seriously, Hawkes is either in a stretcher, bed or iron lung for the whole film.  One of the most dynamic, spirited performances in recent memory, Hawkes brings a great deal of life to a character most would assume is incapable of having any.

3. Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained

In a film starring the likes of Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx & Leonardo DiCaprio, Jackson’s take on the Uncle Tom/Ruckus (depending on your century of preference) archetype is mesmerizing.  It’s the rare Jackson performance that almost makes you forget it’s Jackson underneath all that makeup.  Some have described this performance as comic…I don’t really see it that way.  There’s a fierce survivalism in this character, something burning through angry eyes and misguided conviction, that is at once a nod to cinema’s past and all the ethnic stereotypes that came with, and something more calculating, a menace that has every move plotted and dares everyone else to assume immobility.

4. Tom Holland, The Impossible

This really should read “all of the brothers from The Impossible plus Ewan McGregor”.  But Holland was the rock of the group and…Jesus.  I’ve seen some great child performances.  I’ve never seen one where the child better portrayed the fear, bravery, confusion and sense of innocence lost in such tragedy.  Holland’s character’s strength was a tangible thing in this film.  I was blown away.  I know Quvenzhane Wallis will get all the “child actor” props for Beasts of the Southern Wild, but Holland’s performance was infinitely more powerful, in my view.  As with his brothers, played by Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast.  Huge, huge respect for Holland.  That kid has an insanely bright future in film.

5. Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

So many actors play characters with mental illnesses or quirks into Oscar schmaltz territory, but Cooper doesn’t.  It’s an honest portrayal of a flawed character that actively embraces those flaws without spotlighting them for award showcase, like some 90s we’re-all-the-same PDA message.  I loved that.  Cooper sprints from one thought to the next, rarely pausing to breathe, and each manic episode serves to remind that life — and love — is not bounded by the social stigmas of mental/emotional conditions.

6. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

I didn’t like Lincoln.  I’m the guy who likes what masses consider boring character studies, and I still didn’t like Lincoln.  But there’s no disputing the fact that Day-Lewis, as he always does, owned this role.  Day-Lewis exudes a quiet calm, an almost-cocky assurance for a man tasked with guiding a nation through its most difficult hour, and the understatedness of it all — the trailing monologues, the grandfatherly anecdotes — work well to reinforce both the humanity and political strategy (parol room rope-a-dope) of the man.

7. Michael Pena, End of Watch

Probably a “take your pick” scenario between Pena and co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, but there was something refreshingly human about Pena’s Officer Zavala.  He wasn’t just trumpeted as a hero, or action star, or buddy cop counterpart.  He was any guy in a patrol car, which made you care about him more than the dozen other cops who were put in celluloid danger this year.  Also think Pena generally deserves a nod for his brilliant performance variety — this is a guy who has pulled off some of the funniest performances in the past year-and change between HBO’s Eastbound & Down and Jody Hill’s Observe & Report, turning in yet another award-worthy dramatic performance here.

8. Hugo Weaving, Last Ride

More about Last Ride later, but Weaving is brilliant.  It says a lot about how good he was, that I felt conflicted about whether or not to root for a murderer who teaches his son to swim by intentionally drowning him.  This was one hell of a performance that really leaves you feeling conflicted until the final shot.  At once, I wanted the character shot dead, and yet I couldn’t imagine anyone else guiding his son through the Australian outback.

9. Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

De Niro is a real crapshoot these days, but completed a trio of terrific performances in David O. Russell’s latest venture.  I like that we’re never given clear insight into De Niro’s motivation throughout.  It makes his character more interesting, and puts more at stake with his performance.

10. Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchanged

There was a point in the climactic dinner table scene where I actually recoiled in alarm at the sound of DiCaprio’s voice.  He’s a damn good bad guy here, and as with every role, he plays it with almost reckless glee.

HONORABLE MENTION: Mel Gibson, Get the Gringo.

It’s going to take a lot for Gibson to ever be remembered as anything but “anti-Semitic William Wallace”, but this was the first film I’ve seen since his meltdown that really reminded me of how effortlessly bad-ass & likable Gibson can be when he’s not out being a horrible human being.

BEST ACTRESS, FILM

1. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Lawrence plays this character with total abandonment of conventional filter, and it’s an absolute blast to watch.  There’s nothing twee or Juno about Lawrence’s performance: she just is who she is, flawed, and goes with it.  At the same time, she guards herself like an alley cat, and slowly risks her vulnerabilities throughout, continually sharing something intimate and waiting for the claws to retract in the process.  Acting at its finest.

2. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

There weren’t a lot of strong female performances this year, I thought, largely because there weren’t a lot of strong/unique female roles.  Chastain’s was brilliant, though.  A bureaucratic Carrie Matheson, minus the distracting craziness.  Chastain plays a woman obsessed, whose life is devoted to a singular cause, in a timeline where failure is constant to the point of expectation, and no one quite has the endurance to do anything but second-guess themselves out of results.  There’s a certain brilliance to the way Chastain sells her perseverance, and her evolution from a pencil-pusher stunned at the sight of waterboarding to a hardened intelligence officer who essentially tells the CIA director that everyone else in the room can go screw themselves.

3. Naomi Watts, The Impossible

The kids stole the show, but Watts was still incredibly effective in this film.  You really felt her clinging to life, felt every painful step away from the debris.  Amazingly convincing, and touching performance.  Major kudos here.

4. Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed

I wasn’t a huge fan of Safety Not Guaranteed, but I did love Plaza’s performance, if only because it elevates from flat “Plaza humor” (which we’ve come to embrace in NBC’s Parks & Rec) and becomes something approaching Lawrence’s performance: a girl who has been hurt before, who fiercely guards her feelings, but finally finds a guy comfortable enough with his own flaws to allow her to forgive hers.  It’s probably the most I’ve ever seen Plaza put anything on the line emotionally, and it works perfectly in the context of this film, albeit in a very flawed conclusion.

5. Helen Hunt, The Sessions

Every bit as brave and commanding as Hawkes’ performance, Hunt really inhabits a tough role — a sex therapist for a disabled patient — and embodies it with class, dignity and tenderness.  You quickly arrive at the same logic Hawkes’ character does that Hunt’s character is not a prostitute, and begin to see the deeper human connection at stake through the pair’s intimacy.  Hunt really delivers strongly in a role that requires her to be just short of falling in absolute love with Hawkes, but well past financially-obligated.  It’s a tricky balance to strike in order to draw out some of the larger emotional conflicts here, and Hunt strikes it well.

6. Kelly Reilly, Flight

The yin to Washington’s Yang, Reilly gives a strong, confident performance as the one reminder in Washington’s life that there is tangible evidence of control and healing — not just giving oneself up to the drink, or to God.  It may be a bit of a stretch that someone strung out enough to score heroin off a porn director would be able to just quit cold turkey after a brief stint in the hospital, but all the same, her role is necessary to flesh out what I thought was the top male performance on the year, and Reilly absolutely delivers.

BEST FILM

1. Django Unchained

Simply put: the most fun I had watching a movie all year.  Great performances?  Check.  Great writing?  Check.  Carefree violence?  Check.  Quentin Tarantino’s latest was fun, funny, suspenseful, and so thoroughly in control of genre — balancing homage with re-envisioning — I could forgive it for its 20 unnecessary minutes of run time.  A great film is well-constructed, smart and actually fun to watch.  Django scores highly for me.

2. The Impossible

Let’s address the elephant in the room first.  People disliked this film, in the worst circlejerk-y way possible, because the filmmaker made a choice to tell the true story of a Spanish family, and replace them with British actors.  The general offense, some would tell you, is that they basically glossed over the tragedy of the Thai, and put a white family touristing in the maelstrom at the center so we could more relate to the tragedy.  My response to that — so the hell what?  Not only is it a fairly common filmmaking practice to alter characters so that they best resonate with the target audience, but at the end of the day, does it really matter what nationality the characters were?  It’s a film.  My central concern is whether or not I care about these characters.  I cared more about the fates of the characters in this film — more was at stake, I just felt compelled to give a damn — than any other film this year.  I can’t say enough about The Impossible, other than I was emotionally-exhausted by the conclusion.  This is an extremely moving, touching, sad, inspiring film, and you reach a certain point where you’re actually so emotionally-drained, it becomes hard to react anymore even when you know you should.  Best acting performances across the board this year, bar none.  Incredibly well-shot.  As far as insane true story goes, it builds organically, stays true to itself, never feels exploitative.  This is powerful filmmaking.  There isn’t enough applause in the world for it.

3. Silver Linings Playbook

The very end was a bit of a mess, but it almost felt fitting in a film about celebrating the flaws that define us, and accepting that everyone has them.  David O. Russell always gets the most out of his actors, and there was no deviation from that pattern here, as ‘SLP’ was the year’s best-acted film.  What scores extra points, though, is the film’s refusal to go where you think it should or will go.

4. The Sessions

It’s not easy to make a film with a largely-immobile protagonist, and more to the point, it’s not easy to make a film whose central concern is the taken-for-granted intimacy of human sexuality, with characters you really don’t want to see having sex (to put it bluntly).  But in its refusal to make sex a spectacle, something purely visual, the film succeeds in illuminating the importance of physical contact, how our intimate connections with others are defined by touch, smell, and other sensations.  It’s as much a mediation on how to love another human being — the many forms in which we can — as it is a reflection on sexuality itself.  Really felt this film has some beautiful, important messages within.

5. Flight

I’ve covered a lot of my thoughts on this film already, but let me quickly express how amazed I was at the first half hour.  Director Robert Zemeckis filmed the single most heart-pounding, intense scene I have seen since Children of Men in the initial crash landing, and I was more or less won over from that span alone.  Beyond that, though, it’s a smart deconstruction of control.  On the surface, it might appear to be a film about alcoholism, and that’s certainly under the umbrella here, but more to the point, it’s about how we deal with things bigger than us.  Or at least that’s the only way all the religious monologuing made sense to me.

6. Zero Dark Thirty

I find you either love or hate Bigelow/Boal films.  I enjoyed The Hurt Locker because I felt no need to pick apart its technical flaws or military accuracy.  It was what it was: an unflinching war picture largely void of emotion, love stories, twists, etc.  I’ll say many of the same things for ‘ZDT’.  It’s very much an A-to-B journey, and in almost three hours, it makes very few pit stops to offer anything other than the next successive event in a complex race to the finish.  I like how Bigelow’s films leave little room for sentimentality or attachment.  Characters are there one minute, gone the next, and if not always based on military fact, it at least offers a bit of the bleak reality of warfare.

7. Lawless

John Hillcoat can really do no wrong, in my book.  The Proposition is one of my favorite films ever.  The Road was an insanely well-executed adaptation of tough source material.  And even though just about everything I’ve read about Lawless suggests Hillcoat wasn’t happy with the final cut, I still loved it.  Gorgeously-shot, great casting (yes, even with Shia LeBeouf in the lead, it somehow works and don’t ask me how) and absolutely brutal conflict resolution.  This film doesn’t glorify violence so much as it uses it to paint a horror story of gangster violence and backwoods vengeance.  All the little things just add up in this film, and I went in with no expectation that would be the case, given the reviews.

8. End of Watch

The poster child for brutal honesty in filmmaking, nothing will make you pray for LA cops quite like End of Watch.  An unflinching brutality pervades, punctuating organic moments of everyday life brought to life by two terrific central performances.  The ending is a bit much, and some of the Cartel soldiers descended into that obnoxious “guy who plays Latino gangster in everything, even though nobody talks like that” territory, but the film itself was as perfectly-paced a movie as you’ll find, really making you dread what comes next even in the more lighthearted moments.

9. Last Ride

Fact: if you shoot a film in the Australian outback, it will look beautiful.  If you shoot a film anywhere in Australia, it will probably look beautiful.  Found this to be a great character study of father and son, that just made all the smart plot decisions.  It refuse to give us good/evil, it refused to let us determine what was just and what was not, and it refused to paint anyone any shade other than what they were.  Ambiguity doesn’t always work in film — some owe us more resolution than others — but the whole point of this film was to take our minds off rooting interests, and instead focus our attention on the characters themselves, and the nature of blood bonds.

10. The Dark Knight Rises

I’m still waiting for everyone to stop bitching about this film.  Yes, Christopher Nolan went too far by showing us Bruce Wayne in Venice.  Who really cares, though?  This wasn’t Inception.  It was Batman.  And if you’re a real fan of the trilogy, I think it was the best Batman.  Tied together loose ends, resolved the important thematic notes, and had a lot of fun doing it.  Too many people wanted this to be The Dark Knight, and it was always a separate beast entirely, with different aims, ideas and plot/character arcs.  I can’t imagine the trilogy having concluded any differently.

GUILTY PLEASURE, FILM

1. Get the Gringo

I expected nothing but a Netflix movie to get me through a head cold kinda night.  This was probably one of the more awesome movies I’ve seen in the past few years, though.  I mean, it totally tried too hard to be cool, and I think it just lifted half its plot from Max Payne 3, but I didn’t even care.  It was Mel Gibson kicking ass.  For all the wrongs he’s done in recent years, it’s good to know he can still do that.

2. 21 Jump Street

Was there a more unexpectedly funny film this year than 21 Jump Street?  Genius script.  Hilarious performances, with the year’s best cameo.  As much a parody/dissection of remakes as a remake itself, everything about this film worked to perfection, and gave me hope that comedy need not be so formulaic (cough American Pie/Wedding/Reunion/Retirement Community)

3. Dredd

Karl Urban doesn’t take his helmet off for the entire flick.  He’s largely a bulked-out half-man, half-robot who grunts one-word replies and blasts his way through a tenement skyrise.  This film is awesome because it doesn’t aspire to be anything other than what it is, and somehow it just comes off as gritty fun in the process, subverting camp altogether.  I had a lot of fun with this one, and for what should have theoretically been a run-of-the-mill shootout flick, it was beautifully-shot — if a bit over-reliant on slow motion trickery.

4. The Avengers

I hate comic book movies.  I don’t have a good explanation for why I do, but I do.  They all feel the same to me.  Guy gets super-powers, guy must learn how to use super-powers, guy initially kicks ass, villain discovers guy and kicks his ass, final battle is 2/3rds villain winning and then 1/3rd an improbable move that scores the victory for the home team.  And while this struck a lot of those notes I hate, it was also one of the most entertaining films of the year.  I was surprised by how funny it was, actually.  I lost it at a few parts (Hulk slamming Loki), and normally I’m just grimacing too much to even crack a smile during comic book movies.  Lesson learned: if you want to do it right, hire Joss Whedon.

5. V/H/S

I’ll make the concession that some of the segments were flat-out terrible, the ending made no sense, and the film lept around its own logic at a dizzying pace.  But what did work made up some of the best horror concepts I’ve ever seen…particularly the first segment, which I won’t spoil, but will say is one of maybe two or three films to ever make me instinctively try to shield my eyes.  The found footage concept is outplayed, and some segments follow suit, but Christ, the ones that work work insanely well.

MOST DISAPPOINTING, FILM

1. Moonrise Kingdom

If you know me, you know this one resounding fact: I hate Moonrise Kingdom like I have hated few films in history.  I wanted to walk out 20 minutes in.  Regrettably, I did not.  What followed was the worst film I have ever seen, I can almost confidently saw.  Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t a Wes Anderson thing.  Rushmore is one of my favorite films of all-time, and I’m even one of those guys who loved hanging with Steve Zissou.  But this film was nothing more than twee for the sake of twee, with terrible, stilted dialogue, bad child acting, and an admixture of live action and cartoon comedy that really didn’t work, at all.  Everything about this movie screams “HEY GUYS, LOOK, I’M WES ANDERSON, LOOK AT ME BEING WES ANDERSON!” and I hated it for that.

2. Lincoln

I didn’t hate the film, but I was very disappointed.  It was boring.  There’s no way to really sugarcoat it.  I just didn’t care about most of the characters.  I’m the guy who likes boring character studies, and I still found this a chore to get through.

3. The Cabin in the Woods

If this movie was just its last 30 minutes, it would be awesome.  Unfortunately, the first two acts were just awkward and overdone.  The first act is so conscious of trying to avoid tropes, it actually become obnoxious.  The second act is every “teenagers in the woods” movie you have ever seen, which is kind of the point, I understand, but still, annoying to watch as a result.  In the end, most of this film just tried to hard to be different.  The payoff is cool, but ultimately can’t make up for the first two-thirds.

4. Grave Encounters 2

The first Grave Encounters is one of my favorite horror films.  It’s equal parts fun, humorous and scary, and the scary parts — provided you’re watching in the right context, of course — really elicit some “Oh Lord Jesus!”es.  I actually had to take a break from watching the first film in the dark, on my lonesome.  The second film was just laughably bad.  So, so dumb.  It tries to be so meta dude, and then it just results in schlock, and recycled scares.  Boring.

5. Piranha 3DD

One of my favorite theater-going experiences of the past few years?  Piranha.  Probably the most unapologetic film I’ve seen in quite some time.  When a fish spits Jerry O’Connell’s severed penis out at the audience — IN 3D — you know the filmmaker just don’t give a what.  What made the first film fun and unabashedly gonzo, though, was missing from the follow-up, which just seemed like an attempt to cash in on a ill-conceived gore flick.  Pass.

I will follow up with my TV selections in the coming days!

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