At the end of last year, most critics elected to post their incomplete “Best of” lists for the sake of timeliness, promising to update them once they watch the rest of the year’s films. Luckily (or unluckily, as you, dear reader, might see it), I’m not burdened by deadlines. Thus, I present to you, three months in the making, my final, complete, uncompromised, and unquestionably late Best of 2012 list.
10. 21 Jump Street
I was hesitant to take a chance on Jump Street after watching its trailer way back at the beginning of last year, but a friend coaxed me into seeing it opening weekend. I’m glad I did – I haven’t laughed this hard at a an actual comedy movie in years. I’d point primarily to the film’s smart script, packed with guffaw-inducing send-ups of the genre, several winks at the audience, and clever nods at the growing generation gap between High Schoolers and those a mere five years removed. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are perfectly cast as contrasting undercover cops, one a former high school bully, the other his former victim. When the two go undercover to try to stop a drug ring from distributing a new type of hallucinogen that may cause death in its users, hijinks ensue. The self-awareness is in full force when these obviously well-over-20 characters act as high school students, swapping their former bully-bullied roles in the process. Now tell me again how this didn’t end up being the movie on everyone’s lips?
9. The Avengers
I covered pretty much everything I had to say about Marvel’s insane box-office success story in my original review, but it’s worth bringing up a final time just to restate how satisfying the effort really was. Marvel’s ambitious four-year plan to join together several of their iconic heroes came together better than anyone might’ve expected, thanks to writer/director Joss Whedon. He isn’t the most auteur-ish of Marvel’s work-for-hire, and indeed Avengers isn’t any kind of ultimate statement on the subgenre. Still, Whedon did manage to deliver one of the most fun, well-made blockbusters of the year. Here’s hoping he’ll do even better shepherding the next wave of Marvel films.
8. Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty is not a film about politics. It is a film that perhaps better captures the feeling of a nation gripped with fear over the past ten years than any other film of its time. Detailing the hunt for Bin Laden, perhaps the modern-day Hitler, Zero Dark Thirty portrays a government scrambling for leads, tripping over itself, and generally not living up to its “intelligence” namesake. Director/writer duo Katheryn Bigalow and Mark Boal employ many of the techniques they used in 2009’s superior, yet equally nuanced Hurt Locker to great effect. Though not quite successful in doing so, Zero Dark Thirty evokes feelings of All the President’s Men or Lawrence of Arabia, sweeping, comprehensive films about epic struggles and internal affairs investigations that encompass their subject matter in full.
As for the controversy, is our government seriously claiming torture wasn’t employed during the Bush presidency? I suppose the denial makes sense, seeing as how many of the people involved in that administration likely still hold office. Still, even in a political sense, the film’s portrayal of torture feels entirely unbiased, commenting on neither the effectiveness nor the unjustness of the government’s methods. In the end, Bigalow and Boal make these scenes feel disturbingly real, to the point where I’ve even glimpsed articles questioning if the torture in the film was actually real. In my mind, it takes a truly effective, if not altogether perfect film to inspire that kind of discussion in the first place.
7. Django Unchained
What I’ll remember most about Django Unchained is Tarantino’s surprisingly beautiful natural setting, specifially when Christoph Waltz’ Shultz and Jamie Foxx’s Django ride across a snowy mountain range to the tune of Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name.” That kind of memorable imagery is rare in the Tarantino we’ve seen of late, especially after the disappointingly dull, indulgent Inglourious Basterds. For Django, Tarantino plays with his distinct style in new ways – for a scene when Django and Shultz casually walk into a bar, the camera quickly zooms on the bartender, who exclaims that Shultz, “can’t let that n*gger in here!” It’s a funny, modern way of framing racism as strange from the get-go, illustrating just how backwards that time was regarding African-Americans. And while uptight critics may harumph at Tarantino’s casual attitude towards violence, fans understand that Django isn’t any kind of morality play. It’s just Tarantino being Tarantino. Good for him.
The time is 1959. Coming off the heels of his latest success North by Northwest, director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is aching for something different, something original, some new way of making movies. Studio execs at Paramount aren’t as receptive, so Hitch decides to fund his next movie, based on the Ed Gein murders and the novel ‘Psycho,’ all on his own. Here is a man who, despite everything he’s accomplished, faces a wide range of opposition from critics, producers, audiences, and especially the censorship board, in trying to bring this lurid, gruesome, seemingly B-movie material to life. And there’s his wife Alma (Helen Mirren), defending him to the end.
Hitch begins to struggle, immersing himself in the dark world of serial killers, their voyeuristic tendencies mirroring his own. He begins seeing visions of Ed Gein, giving him visual inspiration for the film, yet taking a huge toll on his mind and his health. And yet there’s Alma, who, even in the midst of being accused by her husband of having an affair with writing partner Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), still shows up to the set and takes control of the production when Hitch falls ill; under-credited, under-recognized, and underappreciated. This is a film as much about Alma’s toils as it is Hitch’s.
Presented as a loving tribute to the Master of Suspense and his better half, Hitchcock is a great actors’ film, boasting some excellent performances and crafting a fitting atmosphere for the subject matter; and not to mention, feeling far closer to reality than last October’s The Girl.
Stay tuned for Part II!