With a few new movies still to see, here is my list of the ten best films, with a brief reference to why they struck me as to be included in my compilation of the best in this past year.
For me the best movie, although not the most perfect, is Lincoln. Any Spielberg project has its strengths and weaknesses, but this dramatic exploration of the political process around the passage of the 13th amendment (the end of slavery, legislatively) is really important to digest in these (and those) dark Washington days, in both its scope and detail because of Tony Kushner’s script based on Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Daniel Day Lewis gives a great, powerful and sometimes funny performance as Abraham Lincoln.
Leave it to the Weinstein brothers to identify an exhilarating French movie (the best foreign film for me) called The Intouchables (no, that’s not a typo, although my spell check thinks so!): a story from real life about a rich, profoundly disabled Parisian man and his expressive-imaginative con-man African helper. Likewise, the BBC version of Coriolanus (notably with Ralph Fiennes, also the film’s director) sketches in and details timeless political conflict and tragedy from the pen of William Shakespeare.
Yaron Zilberman details too, in The Late Quartet, but here it is in the presentation of a Beethoven Quartet (131) by a suddenly dysfunctional string quartet preparing for a concert in Manhattan. Christopher Walken and Katherine Keener are given the rare chance to seriously perform, but it is Phillip Seymour Hoffman who steals the show with an impassioned, rational performance (in contradistinction to the pretension of the loosely written The Master).
Understating is the name of the game for Ben Affleck in favor of “story” in his suspenseful Argo, about a rescue in Iran of American hostages in the era of the Carter presidency. Alan Arkin and John Goodman joyously overplay Hollywood, while the film details the Middle Eastern fervor and furor, but what really sets Argo apart is the intelligence of the characters, and the non-violence of its ending, albeit in crescendo.
Moonrise Kingdom is a gentle satire by Wes Anderson, who makes a habit of this type of wise comedy, about contrary American childhoods in our over-organized and adolescent eager society. And Silver Lining Playbook, while more classically romantic, mines the same over-developed and organized lode (except here it is in the context of mental health conformity in the tough underclass of South Philadelphia – shades of Rocky). What stands out in Silver Linings is a winning, creative, and attractive, even bravura performance by Jennifer Lawrence, which is the best female acting in 2012 for me.
The men who make up the rebels of the intellectual class take over the movie version of Les Miserables in its second half, which was fortunate because the story shown almost always in tight, hand-held close-up, was on its way to becoming annoyingly cloying. Victor Hugo is rescued, as is French morality, by those rebels. The undertaking of transferring a show opera to film is vindicated, in a musical movie that is drawing huge audiences and gives us hope that more musicals will be undertaken by movie producers.
Lastly, although perhaps it is not strictly kosher, are two movies from 2011, which were not shown here until 2012: From Israel a movie, Footnote, about contemporary father and son, Talmudic scholars who vie for the same prize (a surprisingly critical movie about Israel); and a brilliant Polish movie, In Darkness, about Jews who live underground in the sewers (a reminder of Victor Hugo), under Warsaw in the Nazi era. Neither films’ artistry and creativity, nor the eras’ which spawned them, will be easily forgotten.
Jon Plaut, a resident of Summit, writes film and theater reviews for area publications, and teaches at Rutgers University.