Favorite films of 2012


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The year started well at the cinema, slowed down, then gained locomotive-like momentum.

Although many big-city reviewers have included Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained on their Top 10 lists, those promising pictures hadn’t reached the Central Coast as of press deadline. While I enjoyed the intelligent Argo, it simply wasn’t among my recent favorites; same goes for The Amazing Spider-Man, despite its entertaining web master, and the unnerving Chernobyl Diaries. One critic’s highest recommendations of the last dozen months:


Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s creative spin on a boy-meets-girl tale transcends the genre, buoyed by indelible set pieces, a cracker-jack script and a priceless ensemble cast equaling that of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray set up camp, literally, around 1960s New England and make it their own. An altogether weird but brilliant mosaic that earns its place among the director’s other gems, The Darjeeling Limited and Rushmore.


Lawless

Traveling a different path than his tedious if compelling The Road, director John Hillcoat enters the bootlegging Depression era of backwoods Virginia. He turns it boldly and smartly on its volatile head – bolstered by sizzling byplay and performers as rock-solid as they are engaging: Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain and Guy Pearce do the heavy lifting, while Shia LeBeouf’s finest role yet leavens the load. But two marginal players prove memorable: wily veteran Gary Oldman and – as the towering drunkard brother – Jason Clarke, who blends in so convincingly, you’d never guess he’s Australian.


Skyfall

Arguably the best chapter of the Bond series to date, this epic 007 adventure is brought to life splendidly by a refined cast of comrades: Daniel Craig, whose agent refuses to die; irreplaceable Judi Dench (reprising her role as M); uber-cool Ralph Fiennes; and Javier Bardem as the gaudy rogue. Whether overseeing the escapes in Turkey, England or Macau, Sam Mendes orchestrates this world with glorious precision and savvy; the climax in frigid Scotland is one for the ages.


The Grey

Forget its fleeting trailer, which came across as just another hackneyed and predictable mess of bloody action. Director Joe Carnahan keeps this man vs. beast masterpiece alive and kicking in the wilderness, with a huge assist from a rugged but heartbroken Liam Neeson. What could’ve been merely a forgettable “popcorn” flick turns into something deeper and richer – boasting fleshed-out participants – and authentic dialogue rife with chilling moments.


Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The year’s foremost buried treasure breezed through theaters last spring; here’s hoping it isn’t cruelly dismissed by Academy Award voters. Its cumbersome name notwithstanding, this lovely postcard from India – involving a group of British retirees settling into the titular inn – overcomes sappy and contrived bits with authority. You won’t regret checking into this journey, one carried along by majestic camerawork and imagery, and a classy troupe of professionals (including never-better Tom Wilkinson), each of whom deserves a Golden Globe or Oscar.


Lincoln

Steven Spielberg returns to form with a history lesson of our 16th president; it dodges stuffiness, despite the constant discourse among politicians and townspeople. Daniel Day-Lewis, certain to be nominated for Best Actor again, seizes the day without pretension or smugness. And he’s dutifully supported by the likes of Sally Field, James Spader and a script that rarely takes itself too seriously.


Killing Them Softly

Although its ominous title doesn’t bode well for holiday cheer, this unapologetic and masterfully made crime drama isn’t another late-night, buddy-cop throwaway. Brad Pitt plays it James Dean-cool as the chief hitman and James Gandolfini looks all too real as a misogynist boozing it up, while Ray Liotta pays the price for hosting too many poker games. Yet it’s the overall essence – at once ferocious and peaceful – that proves altogether beguiling.


To Rome with Love

Woody Allen’s annual offering isn’t a masterpiece and falls slightly short of last year’s Midnight in Paris. Nevertheless, this valentine to Italy – on the heels of his ventures around England, Spain and France – radiates with earnest wit and warmth. It’s also inspired (featuring an opera singer performing in the shower) and richly varnished, thanks to the filmmaker’s calling cards of toe-tapping tunes and classic cinematography.


Killer Joe

This seedy slice of gritty Americana in small-town Texas isn’t anybody’s idea of a pleasant experience. But the tale of a young man plotting to have his mother killed gets spiced-up, thanks to Matthew McConaughey’s wicked law enforcer and a daring Juno Temple as the sister caught in the middle.


The Master

In general, it’s hard to approve of egomaniacal Paul Thomas Anderson’s endless, exaggerated meditations (Magnolia is one of the most overrated dramas in recent memory). But here he has achieved a monumental, disturbing piece of work with genius performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, as a cult leader and troubled war veteran, respectively. editingman@gmail.com

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