As 2012 comes to a close, it's time to look back at some of the best movies of the year. Your humble scribe is a great fan of films, but this list does not aspire to declaring the “best” films of the year. This is simply a list of the movies I enjoyed most this past year. In no particular order:
Prometheus: When I first heard that Ridley Scott was revisiting the Alien storyline, I was very excited. Along with Michael Mann, Scott is one of the most mesmerizing directors working today, with such great films as Alien and Bladerunner establishing his Sci-Fi credentials solidly. Then I heard that LOST producer/writer Damon Lindelhof was assisting with the script and I got even more excited.
Not all movies need the 3D IMAX treatment, but Prometheus benefited from both. Visually stunning, Ripley created a foreign planet that was not as jaw dropping as James Cameron's Avatar, but still wondrous. The crew of the ship was led by Noomi Rapace, who was supported by Charlize Theron and Idris Elba with Michael Fassbender turning in a terrific performance as the obligatory android who might or might not be on the same side as the crew.
Thankfully, the movie only required a little story set up before getting us to the planet of the “engineers” who left messages on Earth leading the team to seek out the creators of life on Earth. Once on the planet, it's only a matter of time before things go very wrong and crewmembers start dropping like flies, some more grisly than others. There is a little humor, but mostly it's an action packed suspenseful movie that doesn't disappoint Alien fans without strictly being a prequel.
The Dark Knight Rises: Most moviegoers aren't as big fans of Batman movies as this reviewer is. I grew up on the Batman TV series with Adam West donning the cape and cowl of the Dark Knight. The Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher movies were fine, but Chris Nolan finally got it right with Batman Begins, and followed that with The Dark Knight, with its spellbinding turn by Heath Ledger as The Joker.
The story of The Dark Knight Rises is dark indeed, taking place ten years after the previous story. Batman has been in seclusion and retirement. The evil and deadly Bane runs riot on Gotham City, fulfilling the plan of Ra's al Ghul to take Gotham down and let it crash and burn. Christian Bale comes out of retirement, partly out of curiosity about The Catwoman(Anne Hathaway) and partly to save his town.
With great supporting actors like Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Gary Oldman, Nolan launches quickly into some eye popping action scenes, one of which blows apart Gotham City from the streets to the bridges and even taking out a football stadium during a game. Nolan opted not to film in 3D or IMAX but that doesn't detract from the excitement of the film. If you missed it in the theaters, it's just been released on DVD.
Lincoln: Not everyone is a fan of historical movies, but when Steven Spielberg is in the director's chair, people take notice. While last year's Spielberg film, War Horse, was a bit of a disappointment, Lincoln succeeds on many levels, with an Oscar worthy performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. Lincoln's life was so filled with drama, that it could easily have been done as an HBO series similar to that channel's John Adams. But Spielberg and award winning scriptwriter Tony Kushner decided to focus narrowly on his final months in office and the battle to pass the 13th amendment that freed slaves throughout the nation.
Much like the infighting that erupted when the colonies first proposed independence from England in 1776, Lincoln's delicate and torturous negotiating to gain enough votes to guarantee freedom (but not voting rights) for slaves makes for a great historical movie.
Tommy Lee Jones is especially interesting asRepublican Thaddeus Stevens; a passionate abolitionist who worried that Lincoln might make peace with the Confederacy without pushing for passage of the amendment. The movie is a terrific historical document, and will certainly be enjoyed by film buffs in general and history lovers in particular for years to come.
The Avengers: Having grown up as a comic book lover, your faithful reviewer was tremendously excited at the long awaited Avengers movie. As a child, The Avengers was the only comic I had a subscription to. My brother George got MAD magazine, so I got to pick a comic and I went with the one with the most superheroes.
Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a sometime comic book writer, was given the assignment from Marvel Pictures of directing their biggest movie of the year. In fact, he turned in perhaps the best movie that Marvel has ever produced. Part of the trouble with superhero movies like Green Lantern or Fantastic Four lies with the perceived obligation to tell the origin story that lets the audience learn how each hero got their powers, or came to be a superhero. That usually takes up half of the movie and bores comic book fans already familiar with the back-story.
Avengers had the advantage of having several other Marvel hit movies that laid all of the groundwork in films like Iron Man 1 and 2, Thor, The Hulk, and Captain America. With all that in place, Whedon got to go straight to the action. And what a great action film he delivered!
Whedon also wrote the screenplay and there are some light touches and moments of humor that make Avengers fun for the whole family, with spectacular special effects that perfectly suit the story. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark as Iron Man tends to get the most attention, since he plays the part so well. But Samuel Jackson also shines as Nick Fury and the other actors are all excellent in their depictions of Thor, Captain America, The Black Widow, The Hulk and Hawkeye.
Every great superhero movie needs a great antagonist, and Tom Hiddleston is wonderful as Loki, a villain you love to hate. Whedon has already agreed to write and direct another Avengers movie, and with more films about Captain America, Iron Man and Thor in production, it's a great time to be a superhero fan boy (or girl).
Skyfall: Moviegoers who enjoys the James Bond franchise have their favorite Bond. Most admire the tougher, less comical Bond portrayed by Sean Connery. Some go for Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton or Pierce Brosnan. Some even like George Lazenby's Bond from On Her Majesty's Secret Service. But I am a flat out fan of the latest Bond actor, Daniel Craig. Although the previous Bond film, Quantum of Solace, didn't match the depth and action of Casino Royale, Craig returned with a vengeance in Skyfall, directed by acclaimed film director Sam Mendes (American Beauty).
The Hobbit: Didn't get enough Tolkein with The Lord of the Rings trilogy's dozen hours or so of fantasy adventure? Well, you're in luck, because Oscar winning director Peter Jackson has returned to the franchise to give us his version of The Hobbit, the prequel book to the much loved series. It's fair to say that if you weren't a fan of the trilogy, this probably isn't the movie for you. But for the die-hard fans, it is nectar from the Gods.
Martin Freeman (BBC's The Office and PBS's Sherlock) playshobbit Bilbo Baggins, a somewhat clumsy, hapless and unenthusiastic follower of wizard Gandalf (played once again by the great Sir Ian McKellan) who pulls together a group of warriors to accompany him on a grand adventure. And grand and glorious it is, visually speaking. As with the Ring trilogy, Jackson and his special effects team delivers astounding visuals that propel the film through its three-hour running time. And fan favorite Andy Serkis returns as Gollum, Bilbo Baggin's nemesis who loses his ring ("My Precious") to the hobbit.
Filmed in Jackson's native New Zealand, this first part of The Hobbit trilogy of films (parts two and three coming next Christmas and the following summer) mixes thrilling battle scenes with gorgeous sweeping visuals that transport viewers to a magical and fantastic realm.
Moonrise Kingdom: This was the unexpected gem of the year. Wes Anderson is a director known for his quirky ensemble dry wit comedies, having delivered such fan favorites as Boogie Nights, Magnolia and The Royal Tenenbaums. This time out he produced a surprisingly touching and romantic Romeo and Juliet story set in the early 1960's as an errant Boy Scout runs away from camp to meet up with his true love - a bored and restless teen girl who is just as eager to run away as he is.
Moonrise Kingdom's script gives moments of humor, but also heart filled romantic scenes as the star-crossed lovers try to make their escape from dull and loveless lives. Jared Gilman is the scout on a mission and Kara Hayward plays his ladylove.
A delightful piece of nostalgia (remember portable record players with batteries?) the movie features Anderson regular Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as the girl's parents, Bruce Willis as a police officer on the New England island, and Edward Norton plays the scout master who somewhat ineptly tries to track down his runaway charge. This is the film that touched my heart more than any other this year.
The Hunger Games: While this reviewer has not read the best-selling novels in The Hunger Games series, they were recommended to me so I took a chance on the film. What I was expecting was a hunting version of the Twilight series, geared largely to tween and teen and older females. What I discovered was a surprisingly likeable satire of reality television with elements drawn from the famous Shirley Jackson 1948 short story The Lottery.
The much-anticipated Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic dystopian science fiction story, and while it's not everyone's favorite genre, it is a favorite of mine and the visual look of the film and the actors (especially Woody Harrelson, an evil Donald Sutherland and the ever charming Stanley Tucci) played the film straight with few moments of humor.
The world created by the filmmakers is one of great beauty and glamour and poses a stark contrast to the deadly game being played out as representatives from twelve rebel districts hunt each other in a contest with only one winner from the 24 young people selected by lottery. A cruel game in a cruel world. I was surprised at how caught in the action I became, and how moved I was by the story of a reluctant warrior girl struggling to survive without losing her humanity. The Hunger Games is a touching tale that will be enjoyed by many.
Synedoche, New York is a bonus addition to my list, since it is not from this past year, but I just got around to screening it recently. It was written, produced and directed by screenwriting legend Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and was released to little acclaim in 2008. Kaufman is a skilled scriptwriter, but this was the first film he directed and not every great writer is a great director.
The film, starring the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a staggering work of genius that broke my heart several times the first time I watched it. It is not the feel good movie of the year, but the story of a theater director who is deserted by his wife, who flees to Europe with their young daughter - and it shook me the way few films have.
It is a tale of life, the universe and everything, much like the magnum opus theater piece he keeps working on through his life. It offers many questions, but the viewer must supply the answers. Much like an Ingmar Bergman film, it stays in your mind and will not let you go after viewing. It rewards second and third screenings - so detailed is his vision. My favorite movie of the past ten years by far.