My favorite movies of 2012.

No introductions. No pretense. These are, very simply, the films of last year that connected with me the most.

#10: Joe Carnahan’s THE GREY

Arriving at the tail-end of January, a month well-known for creative bankruptcy at the cinema, Joe Carnahan’s The Grey remains one of the boldest achievements of 2012 by a long shot. Don’t let the studio’s reductive choice to market this as a simple “Men Punch Wolves” thriller fool you. Using the famously masculine, authoritative image of lead actor Liam Neeson not to affirm action-movie tropes, but rather, to subvert them, this contained character-piece focuses on the efforts of a small handful of plane-crash survivors to make it out of the Alaskan wilds before they fall prey to any number of dangers: the freezing cold, the crafty packs of wolves that seem to close in on them from all corners, and the growing vitriol between themselves. The Grey uses these well-executed, if familiar concepts to make a bold statement on the helplessness of man, both to exterior dangers and to their own existential crises.

#9: Will Lovelace & Dylan Southern’s SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS

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When the final title-card of this film rolled up, it was perhaps the only time in 2012, movie-theater or no, where I felt like I’d lost everything. Full disclosure: Shut Up and Play the Hits appeals to me on a very personal note, as it chronicles the final days of James Murphy’s electro-dance-pop-punk-rock-joy band, LCD Soundsystem, an outfit whose music has proven a bittersweet soundtrack to a lot of my adolescence. Lots of Shut Up is simply footage of their famous farewell concert at Madison Square Garden in February 2011, and had this been as far as the film went, I’d still have been an immensely satisfied viewer. But in meditating on what exactly compelled Murphy to dissolve his (very successful) unit and watching his decision’s impact on those around him, it forced me to reflect on the value of artistic integrity and simply knowing when to walk away. For a long time, I’ve said to others that it’s an immense comfort, knowing in a few decades I’ll be able to pull an LCD Soundsystem record off my shelf and experience the same buzz of my youth. Shut Up and Play the Hits will be sitting right next to those records.

#8: Steven Soderbergh’s MAGIC MIKE

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Say some shit. Go ahead. Sure, Magic Mike may be one of the most homoerotic pieces of American filmmaking since the volleyball scenes of Top Gun, and sure, if you’d asked a few years ago, I’d have labelled lead stars Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey as overrated pretty boys. But guess what?! Magic Mike is a firm product of now, tapping into the cultural zeitgeist with both uncanny perception and a fairly large dose of cynicism. When caught between the lenses of soon-to-be-retired cinematic miracle-maker Steven Soderbergh, Channing Tatum’s exploits as a male stripper serve as both indicators of the twisted sexual dynamics of pop culture and the sort of financial desperation that the film’s surprisingly dark final act observes fully. Thus, as a viewer, we can have our cake and eat it too: noting subtly the distorted paths Magic Mike‘s hot young characters take, while appreciating the sort of gung-ho, all-out sleaziness that they exude.

#7: Steve McQueen’s SHAME

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With the placement of this film, I am both cheating and have been cheated. See, as at this time last year, Steve McQueen’s unflinching study of sexual addiction was swallowing whole just about every other conversation in the film world: both for the extremely graphic nudity allotted by its NC-17 rating, and for the tremendous performances of lead actors Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. But as an Ann Arbor native, I was not allotted the opportunity to see the 2011-released film until it rolled around to theaters in mid-March. This said, the utter artistic bravery of Shame has stuck with me all year long, as has the memory of walking out of that State Theater screening and literally gasping for air, after 101 minutes of pummeling misery. I’m not sure I’ll ever watch Shame again, but I’ll remember the restrained technical mastery, precise aesthetics, and unbearably sad face of Michael Fassbender as long as I live.

#6: Gareth Evans’ THE RAID: REDEMPTION and Sam Mendes’ SKYFALL

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Yeah, I’m cheating with two films in one spot. My house, my rules. In a particularly weak year for action cinema, these two monoliths stood head-and-shoulders above the competition despite their remarkably different origins — one is a $1.1 million Indonesian import, and the other is the 23rd entry into a world-famous franchise with the rumored price tag of $200 million. Chronicling a couple of noble cops’ attempt to fight their way to the top floor of a compound stacked with drug-pushing martial arts experts, The Raid is a bare-knuckle, utterly savage adrenaline rush of a movie. It doesn’t have the best fight scene of the year — it IS the best fight scene of the year. So spare is its direction, so singular is its focus. Skyfall, comparatively, achieves near-identical nirvana as entertainment, but by very different means. Lead actor Daniel Craig, who by now has surely entered most serious conversations about the best James Bond portrayal of all time, guides Skyfall as it both reflects on its franchise’s past identities while pushing it ever-further into more brutal, bold territory. American Beauty director Sam Mendes proved an inspired choice to direct this thing, as his combat sequences are superb. The way that cinematography Roger Deakins frames the final 30 minutes as a sort of burned-out, dim nightmare sends chills up my spine. The film also has, bar none, the best villain in Bond history in Javier Bardem’s effeminate Silva.

#5: David O. Russell’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

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As a romantic comedy focused on two emotionally and psychologically imbalanced individuals, Silver Linings Playbook always feels on the edge of disaster, as if the whole film will just collapse in on itself. Yet it never does. Writer-director David O. Russell has proven himself to be one of cinema’s most delicate, acute observers of family dynamics, and much of Silver Linings Playbook focuses on strife between the four lead actors, who it’s worth noting are the first quartet in 31 years to all be nominated for all four different acting Oscars. But by the end, the film reaches an unspeakably emotional catharsis that overwhelms the senses and warms the heart. In detecting the fatal flaw of most romantic comedies — the two leads being separated by arbitrary misunderstandings — and altering the strife into being motivated by a place of actual human imbalance, Silver Linings Playbook outdoes every movie in its genre for as long as I can remember. A triumph.

#4: Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED

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#3: Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski’s CLOUD ATLAS

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Cloud Atlas tried bigger, bolder, awesomer things than any other American film this year. But I’m not one to simply commend effort, but rather, product. And Cloud Atlas genuinely works. Consider the miracle of balancing six narratives with the same actors over thousands of years, in cutting between them fluidly, in ensuring they avoid monotony, in giving them a common thematic thrust, and in simply making them good. And while the conversation over its effectiveness has been wildly entertaining (Time Magazine declared it the worst film of 2012), I’m an unabashed adorer of all that this film did: reach for insanely melodramatic, often loony heights, while affirming a message about the basic decency of the human spirit.

#2: Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER

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It’s fairly difficult for me to write, let alone speak, about Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master without quickly devolving into fervent hysterics and wild hyperbole. I’ll spare them. But the wild ambition and pure artistry on display with PTA’s sixth film is a sight to behold, as is the way in which he uses the massive scale of 70mm film to reveal the distorted souls of two men — one a drunken wanderer, one the leader of a cult-like spiritual movement. The off-beat rhythms of The Master may be mistaken for attempts at pretentious opaqueness, while ironically they serve perhaps the most basic function of all — worm itself fully into the clouded mind of Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell.

#1: Rian Johnson’s LOOPER

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Perhaps the first thing that struck me about Rian Johnson’s Looper was how it was fully, for lack of a better word, formed. This is a film without a wasted frame or superfluous line, an unnecessary gunshot or an out-of-place pause. The premise starts knotty — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s futuristic mobster assassinates targets sent from the past, and one day sees an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) between his gun’s sights — and it only gets funkier and bloodier from there. But what sets this apart from both its science-fiction contemporaries as well as every other film of its year: it was the moment where our next great director, after flirting with excellent in past work, fully arrived. Rian Johnson with Looper has declared himself as one of the most original, talented writer-directors on the planet, a man capable of marrying shameless escapist thrills with thoughtful, somber meditations on the consequences of violence and of our actions, past and present. He’s made a classic of his genre and of his art form.

[It’s worth noting that the year of 2012 at large didn’t do much for this writer, who admittedly didn’t connect with many widely-respected films that others seemed to. Had this writer been able to expand the mathematical limits of 10, he’d probably have found room for William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, David Koepp’s Premium Rush, and perhaps most especially Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. This writer should also like to note Leos Carax’s Holy Motors as the film with the most intriguing ideas and concept of 2012, that may well stick with him longer than any other on this list, despite overall mixed feelings about the presentation of said ideas.]

“Gangster Squad” a disturbing vindication of gun culture and Hollywood mediocrity

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In light of James Holmes walking into a Colorado movie theater on July 20, 2012, murdering 12 people, injuring 58 others, and shattering perhaps all pre-conceptions of cinema as an institution of strict escapism, some changes had to be made. Naturally.

The Aurora incident this past summer stands as a deeply complex intersection of many societal ills: loose gun legislation (good thing that hasn’t popped up since!), how exactly to address million our citizens battling mental health issues and the nominal percentage of these who act out violently, and perhaps the role that movie violence plays in our lives. Prior to this, I’d been fairly unwavering in my assumptions that pop culture and violent incidents were standalone entities. But when a man walks into a theater screening a deeply pessimistic, near-militant blockbuster (“The Dark Knight Rises”), with his physical appearance specifically modeled after famous cinematic psychopath The Joker, it’s not terribly difficult to discern the roots of the problem. And here comes “Gangster Squad”.

Originally pencilled in for a September 2012 release, “Gangster Squad” was constructed with the sort of pedigree most films dream of. Consider the speed with which Warner Bros. rushed first-time writer Will Beall’s script into production: assigning young “Zombieland” auteur Ruben Fleischer to the material, and signing a cast consisting of Oscar winners, magazine-covering stars and off-beat character actors. By most accounts, it was set to smash the fall box office, hopefully imprinting popular culture with some interesting material in the process. But in the crazed aftermath of Mr. Holmes’s final visit to Century 16 Theaters, a prominent movie trailer for “Gangster Squad” was now considered to be in fairly horrid taste, specifically a shot in which villains open fire on a Los Angeles movie theater.

Warner Bros., the mother studio of both “Dark Knight” & “Squad”, took immediate action — postponing the film’s release by five months and rounding up the cast to reshoot the entire sequence in question. What they fail to realize is that, regardless of where the offending sequence takes place, be it inside the walls of a cinema or in the sprawl of its Chinatown replacement, “Gangster Squad” remains an unbelievably animalistic piece of filmmaking. The film depicts a problem, in one violent gangster’s grasp on post-WWII Los Angeles, and then offers a solution that’s every ounce as savage and fetishistic — a small police squad being given free reign to murder, sneak around, and generally play cowboy in their efforts to bring down Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen.

Taking a glimpse at the non-Penn cast members prancing around these sets — Josh Brolin, Nick Nolte, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick, and a little-known, young duo by the names of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — one gets giddy at the possibilities of chemistry and interactions between them. Few are fulfilled. Chalk it up to Will Beall’s script, which diminishes even the most intriguing possibilities (Brolin’s absolute kick-ass cop, Gosling’s slightly effeminate brute) into two-note cliches. Even Stone, one of the most promising, successful actresses working today, is little more than a pair of long legs and ruby-colored lips with the dialogue she’s given. Mind you, these people give effective interpretations of their material — it’s just that their material is garbage. Michael Pena’s one-note part feels particularly underwhelming in the wake of his soulful, tragic work as an officer of the law in last year’s “End of Watch”.

As well, Sean Penn, an artist whose work I admire both in front of and behind the camera, delivers what may be his first actively bad performance in a 30-year career. Hilariously incorporating many unnecessary tics into his performance — a goofy prosthetic nose, hyper-exaggerated East-coast gangsta accent, a recurring tendency to set annoying employees on fire — Penn’s work is a terse summation of what exactly can happen when Method-acting goes very, very wrong.

Setting aside the various moral dilemmas posed by “Gangster Squad”, when one looks at it as a pure piece of pulp entertainment, the thing doesn’t even hold up. Director Ruben Fleischer, who demonstrated a keen eye for flashy kinetics in 2009’s “Zombieland” and an above-average understanding of character dynamics in 2011’s below-average “30 Minutes or Less”, appeared a promising choice to helm this action-oriented period drama. This said, assuming one can ignore the context in which they’re presented, the action in this thing remains totally devoid of excitement. Fleischer displays none of his twisted creativity from earlier work in staging set-pieces, resorting to a three-move playbook: car chase, shootout, chase on foot. He executes these actions like an over-eager eight-year old randomly mashing buttons on a video-game controller, with little care being taken to whether the moves are effective, well-sequenced, or well, even cool. They aren’t. His over-lit, ultra-processed, slo-mo friendly visual palette resembles Zack Snyder-lite (not a favorable comparison), and randomized attempts at distinctive camera-moves (a tracking shot following Gosling’s character into a nightclub feels expected and obvious).

Whether or not one has their thinking-cap on while watching “Gangster Squad”, the results are deeply disappointing either way. Intellectually, it’s the sort of glorified “violence solves everything” manifesto that annoying watch-dog groups capitalize on when criticizing Hollywood. Viscerally, it’s bland, obvious, and oh-so-self-serious. Less capable films, uglier films, and more offensive films will no doubt emerge in 2013 than “Gangster Squad”. But, given the blunt-nosed, unapologetic mediocrity on display here, I doubt I’ll carry as strong a grudge against them. D- (I opted not to give it an F, in light of the generous opportunity to stare at Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone for two hours.)

“Zero Dark Thirty” an admirably constructed procedural on bin Laden’s murder

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It’s been said that films are the sum of both their own parts and the discussion that those parts provoke. “Zero Dark Thirty” provides a stark counterexample to this concept, as its release has been swallowed near-whole by idiotic, pedantic discussion on torture, its implications, and the implications of the way it’s shown in the film. (See! It’s even leaked to the first paragraph of my review!) My statement on the topic is brief and simple: when making a film about the efforts to find Osama bin Laden, seeing as the real-world efforts included “enhanced interrogation techniques”, to ignore these interactions and the impact that they made on this manhunt would be ludicrous and irresponsible. This is, of course, to say nothing of the fact that the film’s overall thesis is that the efforts to find one man may have not have been the sacrifices and inhumanity displayed along the path. Simply put: this movie shows torture. But to depict an activity is not to endorse it, and  if the thematic bent of the film is any indication, flattery is far from what Kathryn Bigelow aimed to show to these techniques.

Phew.

Yeah, “Zero Dark Thirty” is about finding that one guy. How’d you guess? Continuing the cineplex’s recent trend of lengthy opuses, it’s near three hours, and admittedly betrays its length a bit more readily than others, although in showing the weariness and repetitiveness of the mission at hand, perhaps such was the point. It’s every ounce as visceral and up-close as director Kathryn Bigelow’s last collaboration with writer Mark Boal, 2009’s explosive Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker”, yet expands its scope from a handful of bombs to a handful of the most dangerous men in the world. Bigelow’s rough, naturalistic aesthetics prove to be a good match for the material once again, showing yet another left-turn for a director whose career began with shlocky vampire films and Keanu Reeves surfer pictures. (No hate though, “Point Break” fans. I am one of your ranks. I’m simply highlighting the massive, well, break from the front of her career to what we see now.)

We witness this protracted search through the eyes of young CIA operative Maya. The year is 2003 and she’s been sent abroad for her tough-nosed reputation. The film follows her for the following eight years, as she faces dead-end after dead-end, sees her friends murdered, sees her superiors pass up clues. It spoils nothing, however, to state that things “turn around” for our protagonist — anyone within range of a phone, laptop, or piece of paper in the last two years knows damn well that Maya succeeds. Yet, all the same, her path to get there remains gripping and assured, culminating in the 35-minute raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound that’s an utter marvel of filmmaking. It hits, all too well, the sweet spot of crisp cuts, clear geography, and propulsive purpose indicative of true, great action filmmaking.

Bigelow has assembled a superb supporting cast. Jason Clarke’s torture specialist provides a gravelly dramatic grounding in the film’s opening moments, Mark Strong and James Gandolfini are solid as Maya’s CIA superiors, wonderful filmmaker Mark Duplass stretches his strengths to acting, and Jennifer Ehle is perhaps the closest thing to a touching, tragic figure in the film — that is, besides Maya herself. Played by Jessica Chastain, a woman whose last two years have produced an astounding run of performances, Maya is a woman of intense privacy and guardedness, whose emotional depths we only fully recognize in the film’s haunting final shot. It doesn’t make for an accessible character, but it surely produces a memorable one.

Thus far, I’ve described “Zero Dark Thirty” as a great procedural. It is. It is deeply satisfying in paying off pleasures we expect, in fulfilling conventions that we already have a feel for. But it is a film built on a fundamentally distant concept — not only focusing on efforts to kill a man, but on the dehumanizing, grating effects it has on the soul. In essence: “Zero Dark Thirty” is a creation for me to admire, not adore. Because these qualities are by design, however, it is of no fault to the filmmakers — rather, to my ability to be moved by something so clinical. Perhaps this makes “Zero Dark Thirty” the most evocative piece of war-on-terror filmmaking yet — simply put, it replicates the mechanism and madness of the last decade better than any other. B+

“Django Unchained” an impassioned, masterful romp

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“Django Unchained”, guided by the voice of filmmaking virtuoso Quentin Tarantino, is utterly incendiary filmmaking: holding a mirror up to the abhorrent sins of our country, while serving as ever-satisfying, ridiculously bloody genre fare. Tarantino pulled off this trick fairly recently — twice in fact, with 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds” targeting both Nazi sympathies and the uber-macho Allied culture that took it down, and 2007’s “Death Proof” subtly inverting the tropes of horror filmmaking to, ultimately, empower women.

What’s “Django”‘s target? Well, slavery — and not the sort of whitewashed, filtered depiction of it that you’d see in, say, a “Gone With The Wind”. This is brutal, bloody, and profane as hell, and while some parties may choose to view this as exploitative (Hey there Spike Lee! How ya doin’, pal?), it simply serves to elevate the villainy Tarantino’s characters must overcome. Speaking of which…

The film opens in 1858, as a group of slaves walk shackled across the country. Here we meet Jamie Foxx’s Django, who in a burst of unexpected gunfire, is freed from capacity by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. Django and Schultz come to an agreement: if Django works with Schultz, killing wanted convicts all through the winter, then Schultz will assist Django in freeing his long-lost wife from a notorious slave plantation, crudely dubbed “Candie-Land” for the surname of its charismatic young owner, Calvin Candie.

I’ve recently developed a theory that I’ve only begun to test, yet it’s this: a truly great film can be played with either no audio or no video, and remain just as riveting. With regards to “Django”, it goes without saying that the soundtrack to this would be a wonderful listen. Tarantino’s dialogue is the same sort of profane poetry that moviegoers have been eating up for 20 years. Yet his recent work has forced me to realize what a developed, mature stylist he’s become, and “Django” is yet another visual triumph for the man. He meets a perfect intersection of paying tribute to his pulpy influences (the ’60’s work of spaghetti-western directors Leone & Corbucci serves as a spiritual predecessor here), yet all the while, composes utterly gorgeous, standalone cinematography. His frequent collaborator, Robert Richardson, just fresh off his Cinematography Oscar for last year’s “Hugo”, turns in work here whose strength cannot be overstated.

Recently rocked with the death of long-time editor Sally Menke, Tarantino’s turned to the talents of Fred Raskin to slice up his work here. The shocking thing? At 2 hours 45 minutes, the film still flies by. This film is in firm command of the audience’s emotions and attention, and so it never feels like it’s asking too much to devote, say, an hour to setting up Django & King’s friendship; nor is it awkward when the film’s second act slows down squarely, taking place only on one fateful night at “Candie-Land”.

This surely stems from the masterful writing and craft on display in the film, but also, there’s far more primal, base reasons: the action here, man. Tarantino knows how to wow with his staging and sequencing, and towards the climax of the film, there is one particular shoot-out which I now firmly believe to be one of the most inventive and satisfying in all of cinema. “Django”, naturally, has come under criticism for the savagery its characters endure. Yet, as always, Tarantino refrains from simplistic exploitation, knowing when to use violence as a tool to either satisfy the audience or deeply, deeply shock it. And believe me, shock “Django” does.

Perhaps its biggest jar comes on a cultural level, not a visceral one: seeing America’s golden-boy-movie-star Leonardo DiCaprio in a vile role of villainy and depravity. His character, the aforementioned Calvin Candie, is a hot-tempered, narcissist brat whose soul has surely eroded alongside his teeth. He’s also one of the juiciest, most verbose roles in the film, with impassioned speeches on “Negroes’ skulls” and subtly incestuous undertones shocking us at every turn. Second in command to DiCaprio is Samuel L. Jackson, who may well walk away with the damn movie as Stephen, Candie’s lead house-slave. To spoil the motives and mechanisms of Stephen is to spoil a great deal (and great joy) of “Django”.

Littered in various roles across the film — Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Robert Carradine, even Jonah Hill in a hysterical cameo as a bumbling Ku Klux Klan member. Kerry Washington’s supporting role as Django’s wife is deeply human if fairly limited, and Django himself — Jamie Foxx — pulls off a mixture of stoic confidence and seething anger that much mirrors the film itself, giving us a movie hero for the ages. Finally, Christoph Waltz slaughters his role as Dr. King, offering the same hyper-articulate shtick from his Nazi commandant in “Inglourious Basterds”, with one major difference — this time, he plays a deeply lovable man, albeit also a mass-murderer, in his own way.

At the tail-end of 2012, a movie-going year littered with disappointments for this reviewer, it was the highest of joys to receive literally everything I’ve been missing, with “Django Unchained”. This is a film where meticulous craft meets impassioned social commentary, creating a work that, while outrageously violent, remains deeply humanistic in its values. Does it say anything new about slavery, race relations, and the role of the black man, whether in antebellum South or contemporary society? In short: no. But one glimpse at the last month’s news headlines assures me that it’s inspiring these sorts of conversations in a way that no work of art seems to have done in years. Certainly no work of Hollywood, and certainly no work of Spike Lee. “Django Unchained” is, very simply, the kind of film that makes me overjoyed to be alive. A