I've got my cinephile hat back on these days, so I appreciated how good a year 2012 was for movies. Ahead of this weekend's Oscars, I've seen 7 of the 9 Best Picture nominees, which is certainly the first time I've reached a ratio like that since they blew up the field three years ago. Living in the United States helps too. We'll do this as a countdown. There are spoilers.
Honorable Mention: I enjoyed myself at Les Miserables. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter arrived just in time to keep the movie from sinking under the weight of its melodic tragedies. But my uneducated take (on a film adaptation of a musical I hadn't seen based on a book I haven't read) boiled down to a good film adaptation of a mediocre musical based on a good book. Sacha's The Dictator was disappointing, although it had one of the best trailers of the year. Bill Murray made a good, amusing Franklin Roosevelt in Hyde Park On Hudson, Olivia Williams as Eleanor was even better, but the movie was a bit lightweight. I watch a ton of foreign films at home but I'm mostly catching up on 2011 (great films like In Darkness, Bullhead, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, A Separation, and The Turin Horse). Still I managed to see two of the national Foreign Language Film submissions, Germany's Barbara and Greece's aptly titled Unfair World. Both are worth seeing but didn't quite make my top 12.
12. The Master. I had looked forward to Paul Thomas Anderson's latest as with few films (I've been a big fan since Magnolia), and I was ready for it not to be an expose of Scientology but a more complex piece about a man coming home from World War II. And I really enjoyed the film for the most part. Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance was the best I've seen from him. But I found Joaquin Phoenix's character hard to relate to, and the ending didn't do it for me.
11. Beasts of the Southern Wild. A cute, creative film, with a great performance from a young child actress. Don't have too much more to say.
10. Skyfall. There have been great and terrible Bond movies since GoldenEye introduced the series to me. This one wasn't the reinvention of Casino Royale, but it was very solid. In fact, I thought it might be a great conclusion to the series after 50 years. Don't think that's going to happen though.
9. Silver Linings Playbook. I tend to enjoy David O. Russell's films (see Flirting with Disaster if you haven't!). It's pretty bizarre that this is the first movie in decades to receive acting nominations in all four categories. But it's an original and memorable romantic comedy that will probably be thought of more highly if it doesn't win too many awards. Can't begrudge Jennifer Lawrence anything though.
8. Anna Karenina. I saw this adaptation because I felt like seeing a movie one day and had already seen most of the ones I'd meant to see. Then the Russophile within me stirred and I decided to check it out. I was surprised how great it was. The director's highly stylized adaptation turns a very long Tolstoy novel into something more like a Shakespeare play (of which there are many stylized adaptation, I took a whole course on them at Bowdoin). The acting is good, but this is Joe Wright's triumph. Sadly mostly shut out in the awards.
7. The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan made a stunning follow-up to the superhero movie about terrorism which won Heath Ledger his posthumous Oscar. But because of what happened in Aurora, it won't ever be just another movie.
6. Django Unchained. I wasn't sure about seeing this, but I'm a Tarantino fan, and when I did, I quite liked it. Can't wait for the third installment of his counterfactual revengers' trilogy.
5. Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis makes America's most beloved leader come to life as a flesh and blood, conflicted, funny, complex man. He absolutely deserves an Oscar for the performance. The movie is quite good too. But it's a bit Spielberg-by-numbers.
4. Argo. I may have enjoyed Argo more than any other movie I saw in theaters, it's a credible Best Picture of the year. The true story is fantastic. I hoped Ben Affleck would win Best Director for summoning the atmosphere of revolutionary Tehran and the 70s. But I rank a few other ahead of it. Honestly, I saw Argo too long ago to make these judgments solidly, and it's now the heavy favorite for Best Picture, and I have trouble rooting for favorites. But the ending escape is a little too adjusted in a contrived manner, with the storyboards showing the power of movies (Hollywood loves nothing more) to get the escaping diplomats onto the plane just in time. Dramatic license allowed, but still.
3. Moonrise Kingdom. The movie most robbed by the Academy might be Wes Anderson's best yet. Troubled children run away on the coast of Maine in a storm. "What kind of bird are you?" Excellent supporting work by Edward Norton and others. I might have cast my ballot for this for Best Picture. If it was nominated. And if I had a ballot.
2. Rust and Bone. You didn't think the list would finish without a foreign language film, did you? I knew Matthias Schoenaerts from the excellent Belgian crime drama Bullhead, Marion Cotillard from small roles in several films, had heard good things about director Jacques Audiard, but it was the intense drama involving an orca that pulled me into theater for this one (I love orca drama... the 1977 film Orca, the thinking man's Jaws with Richard Harris as a guilt-ridden accidental whale-killer, Charlotte Rampling as a sexy scientist, and Will Sampson, the Indian from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next... Neko Case's "People Got A Lotta Nerve,"... no, not Free Willy). It did not disappoint. A very emotionally and physically raw romance and social realist film. Cotillard deserves Best Actress, except she already one. They do a great job vanishing her legs, completely believable.
1. Zero Dark Thirty. The early favorite, but attacked by politicians in the press before it was released. Zero Dark Thirty's problems come from it being too potentially important a film. Osama bin Laden was snuffed only 20 months before the film hit theaters. Most of the facts are classified. The debate about whether the United States' use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" aided in the gathering of actionable intelligence that helped get bin Laden is not settled. A movie could not settle that debate. But it bothers me that in all this debate there is a conflation between whether torture is acceptable and whether torture works. Of course it will work sometimes, just as it will also give dangerously misleading information sometimes. The liberal position, which I support, is that torture is unacceptable, regardless of whether or not it ever works. The only character in the film that seriously questions torture is presidential candidate Barack Obama on a television. Zero Dark Thirty is far from a perfect film and this is one of its problems. The film leaves too much important material out for us to be comfortable. That is because Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal focus tightly on one character, the based-on-a-real-person CIA agent Maya, and her experience spending years hunting for bin Laden, doing nothing else, seeing men tortured at her command, seeing her friends killed, being shot at, and eventually triumphing. The film is uncomfortable, as it should be. It may not be as true as one would want, but how could it in 2012 with the information available? Based on reportage, the filmmakers told one story. It's not a satisfying story, it might be deeply unsettling, but the story of America's response to 9/11 and prosecution of the war on terror is indeed unsatisfying and deeply unsettling. Even if this movie is dangerous, there's enough truth in it for me to award it Best Picture. Movies shouldn't just entertain us, they should make us think. Hard. That said, I haven't fully made up my mind about the movie. Many take-downs have been published by people wiser than me, Steve Coll's is definitely worth a read. George Washington University also has a treasure trove of raw material relating to the hunt for bin Laden and the film. If I actually got to vote for the Oscars, I would read up a little more and watch the movie again before making my decision.