Our three critics put a cap on 2012 with their lists of the year's best (and then some):
It was a good year for ensemble casts and mainstream prestige movies — the quality of which should make for an unusually worthy Oscar race. It was a pretty bad year for foreign language selections and/or audacious full-on art films, at least in Memphis, with only one of each cracking my Top 10. My final findings:
1. The Master: The opening 20 minutes, which track Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell from the final days of WWII through an itinerant homecoming until he hops aboard a yacht and into the life of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is the boldest, best filmmaking of the year. After that, this magisterial but ornery would-be Scientology exposé instead digs down into an irresolvable, darkly comic battle between the belief systems we impose and the animal urges that resist them. Or maybe it's just about Phoenix's face.
2. Zero Dark Thirty: As a rule, I've always restricted my lists to movies that played Memphis during the calendar year, but I'm making an exception for Zero Dark Thirty, which will open here on January 11th, which I've been living with for nearly a month, and which is such a movie-of-the-moment that it'll look a little silly on a year-end list next December. I'll have more — much more — to say about Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to The Hurt Locker in a couple of weeks. For now, suffice it to say that this decade-long procedural is gripping and sobering from first pointed moment to last, earns its nearly three-hour running time more than any of the other awards-season behemoths, and, while not undeserving of question, is far more intellectually and emotionally conflicted than many have suggested.
3. A Separation: This Iranian import opened in Memphis in March, right after picking up an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. In this suspenseful, high-stakes domestic drama, director Asghar Farhadi's busy naturalism is so subtly orchestrated the film seems simply to be happening, and a crucial, complex portrait of modern Iran emerges with the illusion of accident.
4. Lincoln: Yeah, it's a Spielberg film. But in an old-fashioned gem with righteous contemporary resonance, other creators vie for authorship: screenwriter Tony Kushner, who honors the best of Lincoln's public speeches and private writings with his eloquent, demanding, deeply satisfying script; star Daniel Day-Lewis, in savant mode, who turns an ace Hall of Presidents caricature into something unexpectedly rich, funny, and human; and casting director Avy Kaufman, who marshaled to the screen a veritable army of standout supporting players.
5. Silver Linings Playbook: A fruitful return to the shaggy, neurotic comedy that launched writer-director David O. Russell's career, Silver Linings Playbook repurposes the spirit of classic-Hollywood screwball for an utterly contemporary paradigm of broken families, name-brand medications, and the National Football League. Robert De Niro gives his most meaningful turn in ages. Jennifer Lawrence graduates into a fully adult star.
6. Bernie: By using a Greek chorus of actual townspeople to spice up this ripped-from-the-headlines, East Texas, small-town crime comedy, director Richard Linklater suggests what a Coen Brothers/Errol Morris mashup might be. Jack Black, in the title role, has never been better. If you can't say the same for Matthew McConaughey (Wooderson — never forget), he still delivers the best of three great 2012 supporting turns (along with Magic Mike and Killer Joe).
7. Keep the Lights On: Ira Sachs' best film is a diaristic account of a troubled, decade-long romance, but it contains as much grace as darkness, and its homemade feel and rich grounding in gay/New York subculture elevates it.
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Author Stephen Chbosky adapts and directs his own novel and taps into truths about certain kinds of teen experience that you almost never see on the screen. One of the very best high school movies.
9. Looper: A time-travel crime thriller that is smart rather than merely clever and takes as its credo, "I don't want to talk about time-travel shit." A provocative, appreciably subtle, and low-tech view of futuristic dystopia. And the best movie-music moment in a year rich with them, when Joseph Gordon-Levitt and gal pal Piper Perabo drop a needle on Richard and Linda Thompson's "I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight."
10. Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson's better-than-expected return to live-action is part Godard, part Peanuts, and all Anderson.
The Asterisk: I admire newcomer Benh Zeitlin's visual and conceptual ambition too much to label his Beasts of the Southern Wild merely "overpraised," though I found its relentless style wearying on a second viewing and its attraction to Southern exoticism questionable on contact.
Second 10: A Dangerous Method, Your Sister's Sister, Argo, Detropia, The Deep Blue Sea, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Compliance, Undefeated, Django Unchained, The Kid With a Bike.
Fest Faves: Open Five 2 and Pilgrim Song.
Best We Missed: Margaret, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Take This Waltz.
Better Than Expected (or Than You Heard): Bachelorette, Damsels in Distress, Frankenweenie, The Grey, Hope Springs, Magic Mike, Men in Black III, Pitch Perfect, The Secret World of Arrietty, Where Do We Go Now?.
Overpraised or Disappointing: The Artist, The Avengers, Brave, The Cabin in the Woods, Cosmopolis, The Five-Year Engagement, Hitchcock, ParaNorman, Prometheus, Searching for Sugar Man.
Duds or Disasters I Failed To Avoid: Cloud Atlas, Dark Shadows, The Dictator, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Iron Lady, John Carter, Rock of Ages, Shame, To Rome With Love.
Performers Better Than Their Films: Amy Adams (Trouble With the Curve), Michael Fassbender (Prometheus), Richard Gere (Arbitrage), Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises and Les Misérables), John Hawks (The Sessions), Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener (A Late Quartet), Brit Marling (The Sound of My Voice), Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe), Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed), Rachel Weisz (The Bourne Legacy).
Ten I Wish I Hadn't Missed: Flight, Footnote, Friends With Kids, Haywire, In Darkness, Lawless, Life of Pi, Pina, Premium Rush, Rampart.
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: The L.A. Confidential of spy films; a labyrinthine period mystery that turns on character interaction as much as plot. Director Tomas Alfredson brings John le Carré's novel to life and populates it with great actors, chief among them Gary Oldman in a career-best performance as George Smiley. All I wish for Christmas is that the band gets back together in the Tinker Tailor sequel The Honourable Schoolboy.
2. Lincoln: A serious film that proves that movies don't have to be stiflingly dry to be intellectually engaging or dumbed-down to be crowd-pleasing. Daniel Day-Lewis dominates and Steven Spielberg handles the dramatic material with a soft touch. Also co-starring some of my favorite character actors from contemporary TV, including Jared Harris (Mad Men), Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire), Walton Goggins (Justified), David Costabile (Breaking Bad), and Adam Driver (Girls).
3. The Dark Knight Rises: Batman Begins is a great Batman movie and The Dark Knight is a great Joker movie; with Christopher Nolan's trilogy-capper The Dark Knight Rises, we finally get a great movie about Bruce Wayne, the most interesting character in the mythos. The film answers the question, Was Wayne doomed when his parents were killed, or can he be redeemed and find life after death? Plus: Anne Hathaway! Thematically dense but topically diffuse — its politics are satisfyingly hard to pin down — The Dark Knight Rises surpasses its predecessors.
4. The Master: In P.T. Anderson's latest masterwork, Joaquin Phoenix gives the best performance since Daniel Day-Lewis in Anderson's previous film, There Will Be Blood. In The Master, L. Ron Hubbard analogue Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-described "hopelessly inquisitive man," finds in Phoenix's Freddie Quell a broken, irresistible presence he wants to save. I suspect The Master was a different film before Anderson edited it to maximize Phoenix's arresting performance. The ending is maddeningly elusive.
5. Undefeated: One of the best movies ever made in Memphis, the Oscar-winning Undefeated is an emotional tour de force. Framed by a season of football at Manassas High, the film explores the lives of inner-city kids struggling to make it in a world that has done them few favors and a coach who tries to inspire them to turn their certain defeats into victories. Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin turn hundreds of hours of film into a document of ordinary lives on the brink.
6. Looper: In September, I subbed for Chris Herrington on The Chris Vernon Show and gave my five favorite time-travel movies. I hadn't yet seen Looper, but if I had, it would've topped the list. In addition to making me swoon with bromance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a mean Bruce Willis. Writer/director Rian Johnson also provides one of the great time-travel critiques in a conversation between young and old versions of the same man.
7. Moonrise Kingdom: The ultimate expression of Wes Anderson's visual aesthetic to date, with a joyous formal precision. At first, a period piece set in the 1960s; at last, it literalizes Anderson's nostalgia/fetishism for childhood paraphernalia.
8. Skyfall: James Bond has rarely been better than in this capstone to what is thus far a Daniel Craig trilogy. Skyfall goes back to Bond's childhood and considers his mortality and, relevantly, his place in 21st-century pop culture. With Javier Bardem as an unforgettable villain and Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins making it all look pretty.
9. Silver Linings Playbook: I'm not normally a fan of Bradley Cooper, but he's wonderful here as an emotionally wounded cuckold fresh out of a mental institution who meets a beguiling woman (played to the hilt by Jennifer Lawrence) who is herself recovering from severe psychic trauma. Silver Linings Playbook is a realistic, engaging romantic comedy that's also about everyday psychological foibles.
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild: Trouble the Water meets George Washington in this remarkable, original indie. Set in an impoverished rural community, Beasts of the Southern Wild is futuristic in that it's post-polar melt, but it also comments on our species' roots. Its characters are purposefully living so far outside of normative society's caretaking as to be prehistoric. But really it's the coming-of-age of a remarkable protagonist named Hushpuppy (an astonishing Quvenzhané Wallis).
Honorable Mention: Django Unchained, Argo, Prometheus, Bernie, Anna Karenina, Life of Pi, Carnage, The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy, The Sessions.
1. Damsels in Distress
2. The Deep Blue Sea
3. The Kid With a Bike
The month of May was not just a great time for barbecue fanatics; it was also the richest movie-going month of the year. Amazingly, the top three films on my list all opened in Memphis between May 4th and May 18th; I loved them then, and seven months and several prestige pictures later, I love them even more now. Taken together, these diverse, idiosyncratic masterworks ended up as an inadvertent tribute to the late film critic Andrew Sarris, who passed away in June. Whit Stillman's verbal effervescence, Terence Davies' pictorial romanticism, and the Dardenne Brothers' spiritual tough-mindedness once again reaffirmed Sarris' claim that "The director ... would not be worth bothering with if he were not capable now and then of a sublimity of expression almost miraculously extracted from his money-oriented environment."
4. Chronicle/Haywire (tie): Chronicle was my favorite superhero movie of the year, an exciting and ultimately tragic account of teenage outsiderdom that's packed with found-footage innovations as impressive as the famous split-screen prom-queen massacre sequence in Brian De Palma's Carrie. And tireless craftsman Steven Soderbergh cranked out his leanest, coolest movie since 1998's Out of Sight. Haywire, a golden-hued, gender-flipped homage to John Boorman's Point Blank, also let Soderbergh celebrate his leading lady, former mixed-martial-arts star Gina Carano, like she was Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.
5. A Dangerous Method/Cosmopolis (tie): Supporting some movies is a lot like gambling — only instead of money, we critics put our reputations and our good taste where our mouths are if we want to get in the game. This year, a lot of critics are letting it ride on Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master: They love its intractability, its strangeness, its stubborn, animal refusal to follow any muse but its own. In the long run, they may be right. Of course, in the long run, we'll all be dead, too. For now, these two films directed by David Cronenberg seem to me like surer bets. Cronenberg's dispassionate interest in the baffling complexities of the human mind are already as queasy and provocative as his earlier meditations on the terrifying fragility of the human body. Plus, to paraphrase Sarris one last time, his movies always follow the same pattern: Each new film is assailed by his detractors as his biggest mess yet, but a year later the same film looks like a modern masterpiece and two years later like the last full-bodied flowering of classicism.
Honorable Mention: Moonrise Kingdom, A Separation, The Five-Year Engagement, Bernie, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Safety Not Guaranteed, all the 3D overhead shots in Life of Pi, and "Amateur Night," the opening segment of the horror anthology V/H/S.
Five That Missed Memphis But Are Worth Seeking out: Coriolanus, Headhunters, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, Holy Motors, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.