Friday, September 7, 2012

2012 Halfway Mark: Best Films

I often hear the complaint that few good films get released in the first half of the year, and that studios deliberately withhold the better movies until Oscar season later in the year. But I have always found that be an over-generalization. There’s always fine films released earlier in the year, many that eventually get awards consideration. Below are five movies from January – June 2012 that were at the top of the class for me.  

1. Prometheus
This is a film with ambition to burn. There’s more wonder and imagination in the first ten pre-credits minutes of this film than most entire movies. Yes, the film bites off more than it can chew, daring to ask some big questions (nothing less than where, as humans, did we come from?) even when it fails to answer some of them convincingly. I say, better to be messy and probing than to be obvious and rote. If there is justice in the world, Michael Fassbender, and perhaps even Charlize Theron will get some awards season recognition for their work here. Offering some of the best examples in film of masterly pacing, particularly in a must-discussed scene of gestational termination that is the stuff of nightmares, this is a magnificent, visionary, flawed, and visually grand film.

2. Your Sister's Sister
I want to hug this film until it suffocates, I like it so much. It builds a loose story around three characters - a man, his friend, and her sister - and then lets the marvelous actors who play them run with it. And Emily Blunt, Rosemary DeWitt and Mark Duplass are note-perfect here, never an abstraction but also never less than fully dimensional, playing contradictory, flawed, and deeply human individuals. This is also the rare film that gets sibling relationships perfectly. You love your siblings, respect and admire them. But with the possible exception of your parents, you also have the longest history with them compared to anyone else on the planet, and hence they can also affect you the most, get you where it hurts the most. I want to grab strangers on the street and beg them to go see this film. 

3. The Grey
On the surface this is a survivalist film, of a group of men stranded in the arctic cold after their plane crash-lands into a wilderness populated by predatory wolves. To make it through, they need to learn not only to combat their lethal surroundings but also each other’s behaviors so they can work together. We have seen this man versus nature story before, but what elevates this film is how it finds the means to fold in some remarkably effective philosophical musings. Are we destined to simply play out a fate written for us, or can we willfully change the future? Lost without any chance of external help and suddenly on the food chain of larger beasts, some men find the fight for survival futile, comical even and others are willing to fight to the last breath. Best of all, the movie finds in its last act, something approximating grace, a poetry of despair. Not bad for what might seem like a standard-issue Liam Neeson action movie.

4. Jeff Who Lives At Home
This movie is a quiet valentine to those who stand and wait.  The film begins with Jeff as a character that is aimless, unemployed, and adrift and spends the rest of its time in finding a bit of the heroic in him. Jeff as played by Jason Segal is neither pitiable nor transparently noble. He is just a schleppy guy who has an absolute belief in certain karmic patterns within the universe. This sort of material can fall flat a hundred ways. But the movie holds together remarkably well, in spite of an deus ex machina twist toward the end. The film has the good sense to recruit Susan Sarandon as Jeff’s mother, who demonstrates, in a sub-plot that would have defeated a lesser actor, why she’s one of cinema’s greats. Nothing about this film should have worked, but it all marvelously does.

5. Friends With Kids
There’s a scene in Friends With Kids where Jon Hamm, seated at a dinner table with a group of longtime pals, and having had a little too much to drink, says the one thing that a person should never say to a best friend. And it stings like a slap in the face.  The film has many such recognizably real observations. Many wrote this movie off as a chick flick with slightly upgraded wit, but I found it to be uncommonly perceptive in relaying the tensions that are always lurking in the underbelly of even the most tightly knit group of friends. When writing about the startlingly good turn from Michelle Moynahan in the film Trucker, Roger Ebert mentioned that there are likely so many great actors who go unnoticed in movies because filmmakers never give them a chance to reveal their deep talents. Well, Jennifer Westfeldt, the director, writer, and star of Friends With Kids, deserves credit for selflessly trusting Adam Scott to demonstrate that he has the chops to shoulder a complicated lead role.

Others movies from the first half of 2012 deserving worthy mention: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Bully, Crazy Stupid Love, The Five Year Engagement, and Salmon Fishing In The Yemen. 

In the next post I will be discussing movies I am most looking forward to during the rest of 2012. 

No comments:

Post a Comment