As we continue recapping the movies that arguably defined 2012, we move on to what I like to call 'The Runner-Ups'. These films are all very good if not great. Either they didn't quite make my 'favorite of the year' list or they aren't the kind of thing that belongs on a traditional best-of-year list (you'll see which ones I'm referring to below). Anyway, consider this a 'great films that aren't among the very best but I darn-well wanted to highlight them' list. As always, the films below are in alphabetical order. Without further ado...
In a year where old-school big-studio genre films for adults solidified their comeback, this Ben Affleck political period piece is the defining example of everything going right. It cost just $45 million, so it didn't need to be a massive hit to make a profit, but a massive hit it was. With around $105 million at the domestic till so far, it's among the year's top Oscar contenders, and I still have an inkling that Ben Affleck is going to walk away with the Best Director statue this year (the somewhat false 'comeback kid' narrative is too good to resist). Argo, concerning a true story of the CIA's attempts to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran during the embassy hostage crisis of 1979, is a pretty terrific film through-and-through. The only reason it doesn't rank higher is that it's really not about anything other than itself. It's a caper film, a procedural, but with no attempts at any additional relevancy. That's not a bad thing per-se, but it arguably prevents the film from being anything other than a terrific piece of old-school moviemaking. That's not exactly an insult, as it's still a top-notch piece of meat-and-potatoes entertainment.
Michael Haneke's newest is an emotionally draining look at the slow, sad death-by-aging of one previously energetic and active woman (Emmanuelle Riva), as well as the trials of her husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he becomes a full-time caregiver in order to keep her out of a nursing home. The film is basically what it is, unflinching, somber, yet occasionally funny and always honest and true. Whether or not this reads like your cup of tea, I cannot say. And I'd be lying if I told you I was looking forward to ever watching it again. But it is among the year's best films, doing what it sets out to do with unmitigated success.
2012 is the year where found-footage became more than just a form of low-budget horror and became an all-around tool for filmmakers in all genres. Max Landis and Josh Trank used the found-footage format to create a stunningly powerful and often striking superhero/sci-fi fable. Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan make up a trio of completely fleshed-out and sympathetic teenagers who stumble upon a meteorite that gives them super powers. The film goes in some rather dark and disturbing directions, becoming less of a superhero fable and more of a classic alienated youth tragedy. What's most impressive is how director Josh Trank use the 'found footage' format to make the cliches of the genre, the discovery of powers, the experimentation, the first flight, and the eventual super-powered smack downs all feel refreshingly intimate. Chronicle presents a classic story but makes it feel like we're seeing this stuff for the very first time.
Consider this the Cedar Rapids of 2012. For much of the year, this film counted as among the year's best films, but the steady flow of terrific films eventually pushed it down to this list. That's no slight against Tony Kaye's surreal, intense, and sadly authentic look at the public school system. Adrian Brody leads an all-star cast as a man who finds himself in a position to 'save' the people in his life, never mind how unwilling or unable he is to succeed in this noble goal. The film ticks off cliches about the current public education system (unfunded mandates, burned out teachers, hostile or apathetic parents, etc.), while in turn asking us why such things are no longer considered shocking. The film doesn't end on a high note, and there are one too many subplots, but the overall effect is powerful and draining. Come what may, in a time when even seemingly progressively-minded films about public education (Waiting For Superman, Won't Back Down, etc.) are secret charter school propaganda which treats unions as the enemies, Detachment doesn't turn teachers into the enemy, but rather the victims of a seemingly failing public education system.
Terence Davies's engaging melodrama is highlighted by a powerhouse performance from Rachel Weisz. This was one of the first great films of 2012, so I'm heartened to see that Weisz hasn't been forgotten in the year-end awards blitz. This is a thoughtful examination/deconstruction of that old cliche of romantic drama, that of the young woman who sacrifices emotional and financial comfort for reckless passion in the form of Tom Hiddleston. Out-and-out romantic dramas are pretty rare outside of the Nicholas Sparks sub-genre, but this is an awfully good one that deserves not to be forgotten as the year's worthwhile films are tallied up.
One of two great HBO films, Game Change is another terrific Jay Roach-helmed HOBO political drama following Recount. This time the spotlight is one the 2008 John McCain presidential campaign, specifically the final months when Sarah Palin was selected as his vice presidential candidate. The film tells much of what anyone who followed the news already knows, but it tells its story with a potent empathy that doesn't refrain from judgment. Julianne Moore gives us a three-dimensional Sarah Palin, someone who was tossed in the deep end without anyone realizing that she couldn't swim. Yet while the film puts us in the shoes of John McCain (Ed Harris) and his upper-level staff (personified by Woody Harrelson and Sarah Paulson), it also doesn't let them off the hook for putting politics over country by putting a clearly unqualified person a heartbeat away from the presidency. But thanks to strong performances and razor-sharp writing, this is just a great political drama regardless of one's political stripe.
Another fantastic HBO film, this one being an abashedly old-school sweeping epic the likes of which we don't see all that much of anymore. Philip Kaufman helms this decades-spanning adventure film, detailing the tumultuous love affair between Ernest Hemingway (a terrific Clive Owen) and Martha Gellhorn (an equally good Nicole Kidman). With a billion strong character turns (Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, David Strathairn, etc.) and a genuine sense of the times, both socially and politically, this terrific big-screen epic (which of course was shown on television screens) is the closest thing to Warren Beatty's Reds that we've seen since... well, Warren Beatty's Reds.
It is fantastic that, forty years down the line, Steven Spielberg is still making films as good and as relevant to the national discourse as Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers an 'Acting with a Capitol A' performance and is relentlessly entertaining in another chameleon-esque turn. The film is a a wonderful hybrid, blending sentimental optimism about the real good that government that accomplish with a eyes-wide-open look at the sheer trickery and bribery that often must take place to accomplish great social change. The film doesn't turn Lincoln into a saint, not shying away from his extra-legal executive orders or his discomfort with the idea of freed slaves becoming full-fledged citizens. Screenwriter Tony Kushner delivers a witty and literate screenplay while Spielberg once again proves that he's still among the greats of his profession. It only falters with needless material concerning Lincoln's family and one ending too many. But overall, Lincoln works both as an educational tool (it will be shown in schools for decades) and unabashed and intelligent entertainment.
Paul Thomas Anderson's would-be Scientology picture is actually something far more intimate and pinpoint. The picture keeps its audience at an arms-lengths while obfuscating any clear-cut moral or message until nearly its very last scene. This 70mm epic tells a surprisingly small story, that of a wealthy would-be cult leader (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and a mentally unstable veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) who is taken under his wing. The film is cryptic and sometimes frustrating, but it is one of the great originals of the year, a thoughtful examination of how all people crave some kind of leadership and/or authority to answer their questions. With some of the year's great performances and one of the most gorgeous-looking movies of the year, this is the kind of film we all say we want.
This Is Forty:
It's about 15-20 minutes too long (mostly the material involving Mann's store, which doesn't figure into the main conflicts and wastes a game Megan Fox), but this is an unabashedly raw and thoughtful look at the challenges of maintaining a family while constantly dealing with well, family. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are superb while Albert Brooks and John Lithgow are pretty great too in supporting roles. Leslie Mann deserved a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Knocked Up back in 2007 and now she darn-well deserves a Best Actress Oscar nomination for expanding and deepening that same character. Neither struggling husband nor struggling wife are let off the hook, and Judd Apatow cleverly contrasts their marital difficulties with the sibling conflicts of their two daughters. Married couples will see themselves in both flattering and unflattering lights throughout, even as the picture makes a point to tell a specific story about this family's specific relationships. Refreshingly, Apatow doesn't end with a magical solution to Rudd and Mann's specific problems. This is a big, messy romantic comedy about the very real mess that is family life and all of its complications.
And that's it for the would-be runner-ups. Next up, it's the 'worst' films of 2012, however subjective that might be.