When 'The Avengers,' Ben Affleck, and 'Damsels' are all runners-up, it's been a good year
So 2012 is over. Done. Gone for good.
All that's left now is to put one final list together, and I love this time of year because it allows us to look back at the whole year and celebrate all the things that made the year special. Often we just look at our top picks, though, and the truth is that there were way more than ten films that made my time in the theater worthwhile. Now that I've published my list of my ten favorite films this year, it's time to dig deeper and look at all the other moments I'll remember when I think back on 2012.
This year, I've done something a little different. First, I'll list my ten runners-up, which I always view as the alternate top ten list. I would have been happy with any or all of these in the top ten, which is why I consider these the runners-up. They were all in play while I was trying to sort out the list. After that, we're going to look at the other films that made this year worthwhile, a much longer list, and point out what made each of them special.
This may take a while, so get comfortable.
11. "The Avengers"
Joy, pure and simple. In an age where even our blockbusters seem to focus on the dark and dour, "The Avengers" was a celebration of the pop iconography of the Marvel universe, a movie where Joss Whedon's strengths finally found their perfect expression. So far, television seemed like his perfect storytelling forum, but the truth is that Joss Whedon is the grown-up version of The Kid Who Is Most Fun To Play Action Figures With, a pop culture Dungeon Master, and Marvel should thank their lucky stars that he was the guy to carry the football across the finish line. As much as I've enjoyed the other movies in the Marvel universe, this is the moment where every character finally came into perfect focus, where the humor was right, where the action was right… and the best part of all? He made it look easy.
Ben Affleck is writing one of the best redemption stories in modern Hollywood, and "Argo" is just the latest chapter. He's demonstrated a sense of taste and restraint in the material he's chosen as a director, and this true-life story of how a handful of Americans were snuck out of Iran at the height of the hostage crisis works as both entertainment and a record of a remarkable moment. A great ensemble cast of familiar (John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston) faces and unfamiliar (Scoot McNairy, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe) faces pays off beautifully. Everyone feels like they are of the period, in the moment, and the tension the film builds, even if you know how things end, is impressive. Affleck is the real deal.
13. "Killing Them Softly"
God bless Brad Pitt for his willingness to support Andrew Dominik even if their first collaboration, the awesome "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford," never set the box-office on fire. I don't even think it's fair to call "Killing Them Softly" a bomb, because The Weinstein Company utterly and completely fumbled the release. I'm still not sure what film they thought they were selling, but this is a dark, ugly portrait of criminal life, stripped of romanticism. It is also a shockingly on-point snapshot of the worst of who we are as Americans right now. Jackie Cogan, Pitt's character, embodies a ruthless, hungry side of our character, and his final dialogue, snarled in response to a glimpse of Obama on television, might be the most breathtaking thing I heard in a theater all year:
"My friend, Thomas Jefferson is an American saint because he wrote the words 'All men are created equal,' words he clearly didn't believe since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He's a rich white snob who's sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So, yeah, he writes some lovely words and aroused the rabble and they went and died for those words while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we're living in a community? Don't make me laugh. I'm living in America, and in America, you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business. Now fuckin' pay me."
I wish I could just shrug that off as cynicism, but it's pretty hard to shake the feeling that we're being manhandled by a mob of lunatics strictly interested in getting paid, and it's going to be one of those movies people rediscover in the future and wonder how it was ignored the first time around. The simple truth is that sometimes, it's too painful to look in the mirror.
14. "Rust and Bone"
I would never accuse "Rust and Bone" of being subtle, but it is a beautiful, brutal look at the ways we are damaged both inside and out. Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Ali, and he is an impressive physical performer, a shaved gorilla with poet's eyes. Marion Cotillard is at her best here as a woman who suffers a terrible physical loss, and the duet between the two of them is electrifying. Jacques Audiard seems less interested in adding up all the threads he introduces and more interested in mood and tiny personal moments. Anyone who can make Katy Perry's "Firework" feel as significant as it does here is a gifted filmmaker, and I look forward to whatever story Audiard chooses to tell, because I love the way he tells them.
15. "The Grey"
Heartbroken and beautiful, "The Grey" could have easily just been an exploitation film about six men who survive a plane crash in Alaska only to find themselves hunted by wolves and unable to find their way to safety. Instead, Joe Carnahan and his exceptional cast, led by Liam Neeson in full brood, turned this into a raw, lovely portrait of what it takes to stay alive in a cold and dangerous world that wants nothing more than to kill you. Using these characters isolated by circumstance, Carnahan slowly but surely kills off each of the archetypes of modern manhood, and the result is a film about what happens when we strip away all of the ideas of what it means to be a man in the year 2012 and are left only with the truth of who we are.