20. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)I love the old screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s – and David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is as close as today’s films will ever get to those classics. The film stars Bradley Cooper – finally doing something with his talent – as a man just released from a mental hospital hell-bent on getting his wife back – although everyone else knows his wife doesn’t want him. As he struggles to fit in with his family, especially trying to reconnect with his father (a great Robert DeNiro) who has issues of his own, he meets Jennifer Lawrence, another mental health survivor, and the two connect. The film’s third act is pretty much standard issue romantic comedy stuff – the ending is never in doubt – but Russell’s whip smart screenplay, solid direction and the brilliant performances by the whole cast – especially Lawrence – makes this movie feel fresh and new. I don’t much like most romantic comedies, but I loved this one.
19. Flight (Robert Zemeckis)Many people have viewed Robert Zemeckis’ Flight as little more than the Denzel Washington show. While it is true that Washington is brilliant in the movie – truly, this ranks alongside Malcolm X and Training Day as one of his very best performances – the film is actually much better, much deeper than that. I’ve had my problems with Zemeckis’ work over the years, but this story of an alcoholic pilot, who gets himself into trouble doing something drunk that most other pilots couldn’t do sober – is a fascinating character study of a man who wants to admit he has a problem and get better – but only on his own terms. Zemeckis is in his top form behind the camera (okay, so some of his music choices a little heavy handed), and Flight belongs on that short list of truly unique looks at the lives of alcoholics.
18. Kill List (Ben Wheatley)Ben Wheatley’s Kill List came and went quietly in the first few months of the year, and never really left much of an impact in the movie world – unless, of course, you’re one of the lucky few who actually watched it. Because then, Kill List is impossible to forget. This is a film that starts out almost as a British kitchen sink drama, morphs itself once into a low key action movie about assassins, and then morphs itself yet again into a horror movie – the type of horror movie that only the British seem to make. The thing is though, that in all three segments of Kill List, the violence in the film is palpable, but very different – with the actions in the first act reverberating throughout the rest of the movie. The film was a critical hit when it was released in its native England last year, yet for some reason wasn’t really talked about very much upon its release in North America. No matter – Kill List is a cult film just waiting for its cult to find it.
17. The Grey (Joe Carnahan)Joe Carnahan has made a career doing action movies about masculine men doing masculine things – films like Narc, Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team. With The Grey, he has made easily his best film to date – because it is deeper than those other films. It stars Liam Neeson as a man who may well want to die, but when the plane he is on crashes in the arctic, and leaves only a handful of survivors, he is determined to do everything possible to live – even fight off the pack of wolves that pursue them. The film takes Caranhan out of the sub-Tarantino knock-off mode most of his career has been so far, and moves him into John Boorman territory – man against nature in a fight to the death. The film is intense all the way through, and expertly crafted. But this is more than just a mere action film – something much deeper than that, right up to its wonderful, ambiguous ending (apparently, I missed something in the end credits, because I had to pee). Carnahan wasn’t a director I was much of a fan of before he made The Grey – but he’s certainly someone I’ll watch out for now.
16. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)I don’t blame people who didn’t like David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis – it is a film that deliberately places distance between itself and the audience. The dialogue, most of it lifted directly by Don DeDillo’s novel, is dense and unnatural – and yet in the movie it works tremendously well, because Cronenberg gets the entire cast to buy into the strange premise of the movie – and they all find the proper rhythm to the story. Robert Pattinson is better than he has ever been before (admittedly, not saying much) as a young Master of Universe on Wall Street, who rides around Manhattan in his stretch limo during the course of the day and will knowingly lose all of his money. People hop in and out of his car, and they have dense, disturbing conversations – and the whole world seems to be going to hell outside his window, but he doesn’t notice or care. DeDillo’s novel, written at the height of Wall Street’s power in the early 2000s, was ahead of its time, but Cronenberg’s film comes at just the right moment. I know many hated Cosmopolis, but I really don’t care. While this remained more an intellectual exercise than most of Cronenberg’s film, it is still a great one – and one of the more quietly provocative films of the year.
15. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)Beasts of the Southern Wild is a movie that takes place in the mind of a child. To her, the life she lives on an island off the coast of New Orleans, with her crazed father, and the other strange inhabitants seems completely normal. Doesn’t everyone live like this? When a Hurricane (Katrina?) hits, the whole place is flooded, and they take to the “streets” in their makeshift boats made of cars and anything else they can find. This is an odd, one of a kind film by newcomer Benh Zeitlin. I was reminded of the work of Terrence Malick – with the poetic voiceovers, long, languid shots and beautiful scenery, but that’s only a part of this movie. Few movies get – or remember – what is like to be a child. How the world the adults in lives inhabit seem strange and foreign – you’re always somewhat confused by what is going on – and at the same time you crave stability – a place to call home. Beasts of the Southern Wild remembers that, and places the viewer in that strange headspace. It is the most audacious debut film of the year.
14. Killer Joe (William Friedkin)Six years ago director William Friedkin teamed up with playwright Tracy Letts to bring the later’s play Bug to the big screen – and the result was Friedkin’s best film in decades. The two reunite on Killer Joe – and have made an even better film. Killer Joe is probably the vilest movie of 2012 – it is a movie about the stupidest family imaginable, who get in over their heads when they hire a hit man to kill the never seen matriarch of their clan. Matthew McConaghey delivers a truly great, frightening performance as the title character – the hit man – who normally requires a down payment for his services, but will make an exception this time if the family gives them their slow teenage daughter (Juno Temple) as a “retainer”. The rest of the cast is filled out by Thomas Haden Church, the dumbest of the dumb, Emile Hirsch, the “mastermind” and Gina Gershon, who undoubtedly gives one of the bravest performances you will see this year. So why, you may be asking, if all the characters are dumb, and the film is vile and cruel, do I think Killer Joe is one of the year’s best? It’s all in how the story is told. Letts is a great playwright (his August Osage County won him a Pulitzer – and will hopefully not be screwed up in its screen adaptation next year), his dialogue has a rhythm all its own and the entire cast gets it. And then there’s Friedkin, who dives headlong into the muck, just like he did on Bug, and made the film you would expect a hungry, young filmmaker to make – not a filmmaker who is 77 years old. Killer Joe is disgusting – and unforgettable.
13. Bernie (Richard Linklater)Richard Linklater’s Bernie is one of a growing number of films that crosses the boundary between documentary and fiction film. Many of the supporting players in this strange tale of greed and murder are playing themselves – and Linklater interviews them as if it were a documentary. The majority of the movie though has Jack Black, in a brilliant performance, as Bernie – who shows up in a small Texas town to be an assistant undertaker, and immediately has the whole town in love with him – especially the old widows. One of these widows, played by Shirley Maclaine as a bitch from hell, has him under her thumb, essentially running his life – although she also provides him with the money to live the type of life he wants to live. And then one day, no one sees the widow anymore – and don’t much care either. They hate her, and love Bernie. But something is bound to give. In yet another of his great performances of the year, Matthew McConaghey does a great job as the small town prosecutor, who knows precisely how to play a jury. Linklater is an underrated filmmaker, always doing interesting work. And Bernie is one of his films to date.
12. Cloud Atlas (Andy & Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer)There was probably no more ambitious film this year than the Wachowskis teaming up with Tom Tykwer to adapt David Mitchell’s epic, six part novel thought by most to be unfilmable into a coherent movie. Rather than tell one story at a time, like Mitchells novel, they decided to mix them all up – which is even trickier – as they try to put similar scenes in each story next to each other. The use of actors to play multiple roles was a stroke of genius, and gives the movie a through line that makes it all easier to follow. The fact that these stories, that take place years apart but all touch on the same themes, works together as brilliantly as it does is a testament not only to the directing and the screenwriting, but the editing, which is surely the most complex job of the year. Does it all come together in a meaningful way? That’s for you to decide. For me, I’m just in awe that they attempted it at all. Out of all the films on this list, this is the one that I know will be more highly thought of a few years from now than it was this years (the critics who mocked the film were idiots).
11. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)As an individual film, The Dark Knight Rises is the weakest of the three Nolan Batman films (which is why it was barely beat out by my number 10), but as a wrap up of the series as a whole, The Dark Knight Rises is brilliant. What Nolan has done in this film is bring Bruce Wayne/Batman’s journey full circle, from Batman Begins when he is driven to do what he must, to end here when he can finally leave it behind. He also introduced a great villain in Bane (a role that Tom Hardy owns), and made him far more realistic than I thought that character ever could be – as he perfectly fits into this series. And created the most sympathetic Catwoman ever (aided by Anne Hathaway’s great performance). You can complain that the film is slightly bloated if you want to, but Nolan needed the time and space he uses in this film in order to bring his magnificent superhero trilogy to a close. Superhero films will never be the same now that Nolan is done with them.