2012 Best in Cinema: Features

I know you’ve been on the edge of your seat all week in anticipation of today’s big reveal! (Okay, a bit dramatic, I know). Reflections of my movie-filled year concluded today with a well deserved shout-out to my picks for the top 10 feature films of 2012.

Here we go! In alphabetical order:

Amour – A heartbreaking look at how a partnership is tested while struggling with the inevitability that will touch us all, the end of life: how it will happen and when. What struck me most about this portrait of an aging couple is how quiet it is in its approach. We spend most of the film in the same place, over a span of time, simply watching Anne and Georges go about their daily routine, making adjustments as needed and experiencing their frustration and difficulties with them. Instead of doing what most Hollywood driven films would do (i.e. overly dramatic music piercing through every single scene) to bring about emotion, Amour does the opposite. We sit in silence and allow the circumstances and the poignant chemistry of our protagonists penetrate beyond this gimmick. This was such a moving film that sticks with you. As a viewer, it very much made me think about what life might be like with a spouse in my golden years.

Argo – What works so well about Argo is that it plays off a combination of aspects fused together so well it’s gratifying. You have a based on a true story concept, set against a tumultuous political climate, shot with a late 70’s cinematic vibe, a little action, plenty of suspense, married with the comedic twist of John Goodman and Alan Arkin. The highlight of this experience will always be the last 20 minutes, executed so effectively I think my heart stopped and I didn’t take a breath until the end credits. Ben Affleck has come a long way and proved to be a force to be taken seriously.

Celeste & Jesse Forever – This was one of those films that I left the theater with such a high thinking THIS is why I LOVE movies. Celeste and Jesse are the best of friends, but terrible as husband and wife. The story picks up with their struggle at sustaining a friendship while in the midst of a divorce and pursuing other romantic interests. Rashida Jones (Celeste) and Andy Samberg (Jesse) have such a fluid and natural on-screen chemistry between them that drew me in immediately. What I was most enchanted by was not only the precise well-written dialogue; but the indie feel to how this narrative was told through its stunning salute to another main character, the sweeping city of Los Angeles, via its cinematography choices. I experienced almost every major emotion in 90 minutes of being in Celeste and Jesse’s world and I didn’t want to go. I laughed, felt my eyes water, and smiled at the very complicated, yet entertaining and relatable situation. This is also the first film I’d seen in quite some time where the music was used so impeccably it enhanced the overall experience of the film and introduced me to some of my favorite music of the year. If I had to pick my top film of 2012, this would be it (or closely tied with Zero Dark Thirty).

The Hunt – I’m not quite sure if it was the immaculate photography of the small Danish community the plot is set in because it’s so vividly quaint and unlike my personal world, or if it was solely the performance of Mads Mikkelsen that made me instantly cling to this film. In retrospect, it was both. The interaction between the main character within the beautiful  but modest Danish town mirrored each other purely to form such skillfulness in film-making. Lucas (Mikkelsen) is a beloved school teacher who is falsely accused of child molestation and is subsequently ostracized by this peers. One of the finest acting performances of the entire year came from a single shot, that said it all in the expression of his eyes, not a word uttered. I adored this film. I adored its simplicity, its use of the atmosphere around its actors; and while the circumstances of the story are very upsetting, it treated the subject matter so genuinely it scared me as the viewer about the true nature of the human condition when pushed too far.

Lincoln – At the risk of being cliché and selecting an obvious choice (alongside our Academy voting members with 12 current Oscar nominations), I cannot help but give Steven Spielberg his props. My experience with Lincoln was very reminiscent of my appreciation for the sweeping epics of the 60’s (please see my thoughts here). It was in the tiniest of details that kept us steadfast in 1865 America, the depth of a very intricate script, the uncanny and moving performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, the costume design, the art direction, and yes, I was a total sucker for John Williams’ brilliant original score. These components unified together with a very memorable sequence as we watch our 16th President proudly make his way down the long hallway after a hard fought battle was satisfying. This was a film that I went into with a rather nonchalant air, but left completely fulfilled at what had happened on the movie screen.

Middle of Nowhere – Admittedly, I went into the screening of Middle of Nowhere with the resolve that I was going to like it no matter what. Completely inspired by Ava DuVernay’s first feature film I Will Follow in 2011, I knew this was going to be something equally special. My instincts to believe in this film were dead on though I think DuVernay out did herself this time. We follow Ruby, a young medical student, who sacrifices all that she is and wants to be for the sake of supporting her incarcerated husband. We learn that despite her efforts, it’s not enough and her world is turned upside down. We thus begin Ruby’s journey to slowly find her way back to some sense of normalcy, whatever that is. The strength of this film unequivocally comes from the solid force of Emayatzy Corinealdi (Ruby) and her ability to mold into a scene with any of the other actors so naturally. Aesthetically, I was also very absorbed by the purity of the look to this film. Its use of subtle muted lighting brings the narrative to a sacred place enhancing the mood that despite the city setting, you are authentically experiencing Ruby’s middle of nowhere.

Moonrise Kingdom – Eclectic and quirky but in the best way fathomable. The town of New Penzance is on the hunt for 2 missing children that co-conspired to run away from their existing lives together. The power from this film unquestionably comes from 2 big things: excellent casting paralleled with excellent dialogue. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like conceiving and developing this project and not be somewhat worried that it might not quite come together. If you think about it, it seems like such a risky film to make, one that could easily come across so quirky it’s just outright awful. Then again, Wes Anderson, with more experience than I, knew what he was doing. He did a phenomenal job. Moonrise Kingdom was unlike any other adventure in 2012. Add the intelligent production design, unique camera positions and framing used, as well as the fantastical elements that take place in New Penzance and you’ve got yourself one crazy “out there” hit.

Polisse – This was easily one of the most engaging, emotional, and exhausting dramatic films of the year. This French gem takes the viewer on a harsh, complex, gritty and work-obsessed journey into the lives of a group of cops in the Police Department’s Juvenile Protection Unit. What made this piece so powerful, was not only the horrendous stories of endangered children that our main characters came into contact with on a daily basis, but how they interacted among each other and in their personal lives given these difficult circumstances. I was impressed given the amount of storytelling and the number of characters followed at how solid the character development was in this film. The emotional 2 hour roller coaster of Polisse led to one of the most climatic and unforgettable endings to a film that I think I’ve ever seen.

Your Sister’s Sister – A grieving man accepts his dead brother’s ex-girlfriend’s invitation to get away from it all by taking a little break from life with a solo vacation at her family’s picturesque cabin. Unknowingly, the cabin is currently occupied by his dead brother’s ex-girlfriend’s lesbian (or bi-sexual?) sister who is also taking a much-needed mental break from life. They get drunk and…you can fill in the blank here. The following day, the brother’s ex-girlfriend (who also happens to be his best friend) arrives to keep the grieving man company and so begins our complicated love triangle, though it’s not your typical one. Of all the films I saw in 2012, this was the most surprising. Not only because of the rare story line but because of how smart it was with the material. Parts of the film were so organic that it felt like portions were  simply improvised between the three actors, done so fluidly, you felt like you were watching real sisters, best friends, and love interests maneuver this complex narrative. Again, well-written dialogue, spot on casting, and a graceful setting for such ungraceful circumstances culminate into a film that is funny and touching.

Zero Dark Thirty – The most intense on the edge of your seat aggressive experience I had at the theater. A film so flawlessly paced, acted, written, and accomplished, it doesn’t at all feel like a nearly 3 hour film and I could have easily spent another 3 seeing where our heroine was off to next in her obsession for justice. Zero Dark Thirty takes us through the decade long capture and defeat of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain is Maya, a woman on a mission who is not meant to be liked, doesn’t care to be liked, but demands to be taken seriously. (You go girl !) While much controversy surrounds this film in its accuracy and depth of knowledge of the events depicted, at the end of the day you cannot deny that what happened on the screen was anything short of a masterpiece. I was very disappointed by Director Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar snub as this was a better crafted film than the The Hurt Locker. Easily my favorite film of the year (or closely tied with Celeste & Jesse Forever).


With that, my 2012 movie year in review is now behind me. You can read about my takes on the top classic films I spent time with last year as well and the documentary stories that moved me most here and here. Looking over this list I’m proud at how all over the place and diverse it is. As I agonized over this list for the last month before sharing it with you, I’ve come to realize and like how I can appreciate a commercial film as much as an independent film, love a quirky story as much as a political one, or cherish a foreign narrative in the same breathe as a domestic narrative. That’s the beauty of cinema, it’s an art form that has always tried to compete with itself, and like me, who wants to be placed in a box?

I can’t wait to see what 2013 brings to the silver screen.