Every year, we at HEAVEmedia like to look back on what we’ve learned, what we’ve accomplished and marvel like the elderly at the rapid passage of time. Over the next few weeks, our Year’s Over series will bring you our staff’s essential lists of what you should’ve seen, heard, read and done in 2012. Today, Dominick tops off our trilogy of year-end film lists.
(Editor’s addendum to list: Because we’ve not yet been able to breathe the rarefied air of accredited film critics who get advance screenings, this list does not reflect anything released in the Chicago area after the week of December 14. There will be a special edition of our Pod People podcast in early January, in which our film writing trio will make amendments to these lists as needed.)
1) Moonrise Kingdom
My friend and colleague Nico Lang once observed, when talking about Wes Anderson’s last film Fantastic Mr. Fox, that Anderson’s aesthetic is most effective when he’s telling stories about children. Really, he’s been telling stories about children his whole career, whether about actual youth (Rushmore), arrested development (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited) or kids whose bodies negotiate the march of time but keep one foot permanently planted in childhood (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).
With Moonrise Kingdom, for the first time, the layers of age and regret are stripped away, and in a turn both sweet and heartbreaking, Anderson shows us who his archetypal characters were before they grew up, when they were young and recklessly in love and explanations were scarcely required. Reducing a murderer’s row of stellar actors to supporting roles, Anderson lets the perfectly-cast Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, as Sam and Suzy, run away with the film. Sure, they’re awkward and halted and act uncomfortably older than they are, but everyone’s been there, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. And at film’s end, when Sam leaves Suzy’s island cottage, known appropriately enough as Summer’s End, you can’t help but ache for these kids, and pray to God that they won’t grow up to become Wes Anderson characters. Even if you know that they will, because oftentimes that’s the way adulthood works out.
2) The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Like the best work of John Hughes, but assembled with several doses of wrenching nostalgia and brutal reality, The Perks of Being a Wallflower may well be one of the more honest films ever made about middle-class American teenagers. Rooted in Stephen Chobsky’s modern-classic novel, but stripping away some of the preciousness and actually improving on it, Chobsky as director perfectly negotiates the line between Charlie (Logan Lerman, impossibly perfect) as victim of his own mind and as burgeoning heartbreaker, unaware of his newfound ability to hurt other people as much as he’s been. As Charlie negotiates a real teenager’s bar mitvah, of soft drugs and second base and encounters with very real and adult forms of tragedy, the film offers no easy answers for whether Charlie will be okay in the end. Because it can’t.
(Minor addendum: Since I couldn’t fit it in organically, but would be remiss to not mention it, Ezra Miller for Best Supporting Actor, for the love of God. His work as Patrick singlehandedly decimates every terrible queer stereotype that the past decade of teen comedies fostered.)
3) Beasts of the Southern Wild
For all the comparisons Beasts of the Southern Wild drew to the naturalism of Terrence Malick, those feel off-base for a film this emotionally robust and ultimately devastating. Where many filmmakers would’ve made the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, indeed as stunning as everyone has said) about her loss of innocence and childhood in the face of overwhelming adversity, director Benh Zeitlin is sharp enough to keep the story based around precisely that childishness, the sense that even as a big storm comes and her home is torn to shreds, Hushpuppy is both old and young, and approaches the bigger ideas of death and loss with the eye of a girl wise enough to know that there’s more to the world than she can see, and young enough to know that it doesn’t particularly concern her. And when she’s finally held for what she believes to be the second time in her life, and acknowledges that “This is my favorite thing,” your heart rips in half for her. More simply put, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a singular, truly humane work.
4) Killer Joe
Where in the hell did Matthew McConaughey find this performance? In a career-best turn as the sadistic assassin Joe Cooper, he plumbs the depths of his affable star persona to find a lecherous, sinister being, the kind whose dubious moral code keeps him elevated above the sort of person who’d hire him to do what he does best. In this case, it’s a trailer trash family (Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon, all great), who’re so desperate to collect on their estranged matriarch’s life insurance that they offer up the lilting, semi-innocent Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer for Joe’s services. Like a Coen Brothers movie gone Southern-fried and depraved, Killer Joe is among director William Friedkin’s best works. Nihilistic though Joe is, it gets at something disturbingly true about the human heart: It wants what it wants, as they say, and nothing can stop it from getting it.
5) Safety Not Guaranteed
At first glance, Colin Trevorrow’s quirky piece of indie sci-fi might seem like a slight movie, the kind of fun diversion that finds accolades at Sundance and goes on to flounder outside the cloister of a film festival. Don’t write it off so quickly. Safety Not Guaranteed is definitely a movie that sneaks up on you, but if you’re willing to let it in, it’ll linger long after the credits role. When three journalists head to coastal northwestern Washington to investigate a man soliciting partners for a time-travel excursion through the local classified ads, they end up stumbling upon a microcosmal story of summer nostalgia and lives not lived as intended. Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass spark together, and the film as a whole hums with the exhilaration that can only come from a God’s-honest second chance at undoing the mistakes of the past. And that’s no diversion.
6) The Comedy
One of the year’s more debated movies in certain circles, The Comedy deconstructs mumblecore to its very molecules, asks its audience to identify with an awful human being and starts there. The story of a Williamsburg trust-fund hipster in his 30s (Tim Heidecker) who drifts aimlessly through life, fucking around with everybody he meets in an effort to shift his world or somehow be shifted by it, the film is an exercise in total minimalism. As much as it offers reasons to be adored, it offers equal reasons to be despised. It takes some patience, but if you let The Comedy in, it ultimately reveals itself as a terrifying portrait of ironic culture, of what happens when even genuine acts of sincerity are absorbed into one big existential parlor game of disaffected cool. By the end of the film, when a small but jarring incident seems to rouse Heidecker from his stupor at long last, you can’t help but wonder if it’s a moment of effervescent breakthrough, or just another sick joke.
7) Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell has an almost unparalleled ear for the ways families interact with and talk to each other. Sometimes multiple conversations happen simultaneously, and there’s no way you can catch all of it, so you hope you can glean the essential bits. So goes Silver Linings Playbook, a movie that sprawls with its disparate threads to such a point that you wonder how it can come together. It’s a love story, a look at what failure does to the human mind, a weirdly moving portrait of functioning bipolar disorder (due in no small part to Bradley Cooper’s excellent turn), Jennifer Lawrence’s coming-out party as the premier actress of her generation, an examination of insane sports fandom and all-around a movie about desperate people being united by that very desperation. Did I say it’s hard to see how it all comes together? Because it does, in easily the year’s most crowd-pleasing, totally satisfying finale.
8 ) The Grey
Show of hands: Who was ready for The Grey, marketed as Taken but with Liam Neeson punching wolves instead of evil Eastern European men, to turn out as a somber meditation on manhood, mortality and death? The power of Joe Carnahan’s film, easily his best to date, is its refusal to allow even the slightest vestiges of hope to shine through. As the film progresses, and the few survivors of the film’s horrifying opening plane crash begin to dwindle in number, the cold and relentless reality of the Arctic wild emerges. There’s no optimism here, no triumphant last stand or helicopter dramatically swooping in to rescue those who remain. There’s just the raw primacy of life and death, and the feeling when one knows their ticket is about to be punched, and has to stare into the unforgiving eyes of the thing that’s going to do it.
9) The Raid: Redemption
The premise is so simple, it’s barely a step above most traditional beat-‘em-up-style, side-scrolling video games. 30 special forces officers break into an Indonesian tenement building packed to the gills with all manner of criminals in order to extract the boss, who sits on the top floor and monitors his kingdom. Gunplay and jaw-dropping hand-to-hand violence ensue. And yet, what’s most notable about The Raid: Redemption isn’t any of the fisticuffs, though as action filmmaking goes this is incredible stuff. The film moves with a swift, brutal economy, employing only as much plot as it needs to keep the story moving and not an iota more. And for all the fighting, the film never gets dull; each action setpiece has its own distinct flavor, and as a whole they make The Raid one of the best action movies in recent history, without debate.
10) Wreck-It Ralph
Now this is how you make a traditional Disney movie. In the era of Pixar, that phrase has almost become a sort of profanity, a way of quantifying a children’s movie that condescends to its intended audience. And that’s not necessarily okay; though Disney’s in-house output hasn’t been at its best these past 15 years, there’s still the occasional bright spot. The brightest of them is Wreck-It Ralph, ostensibly the story of an 80s arcade game villain (John C. Reilly) whose quest to be recognized for all of his years of dedicated service leads him to a game-jumping adventure through the entire arcade. Really, though, Ralph is an excuse for Disney to dig into its considerable coffers to pony up for enough licensing to take viewers of every age on a ride through the history of popular gaming. There’s something preciously old-school about a film that considers the unplugging of an arcade game to be an apocalyptic scenario, but that’s where Wreck-It Ralph’s heart is at. As the film puts it, Ralph might never be good, but that’s not bad.