Yesterday, I looked back at individual achievements for the year, highlighting the best performances and creative successes out of the myriad releases I consumed as well as those I didn’t think lived up to expectations. Today, I’m going to be looking at the year’s best films, honorable mentions and movies that were far better than I had expected.
We’ll start out with the films that surprised me, follow that up with a handful of films that need to be watched even if they didn’t make my top ten and finish it out with the best of the year.
Better Than Expected
I frequently dread films that have too much hype going in or are part of a genre that has a questionable history. These are films that I didn’t expect to like very much, but ended up easily surpassing my expectations.
The Deep Blue Sea has the double disclaimer of being both a period drama and an adaptation of a celebrated play. Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz do a fantastic job converting the story into a compelling bit of cinema.
The Amazing Spider-Man was an ill-conceived idea from the beginning. The original trilogy was a huge success and just concluded recently. They rebooted it anyway and managed to surpass the original including the casting of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone who easily outclass Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.
The Avengers built up so much excitement with its unique roll-out that expectations were almost impossibly high. Yet, thanks to Joss Whedon’s exciting direction, the film easily succeeded in building on the foundation the prior film’s laid without feeling like we’d already been there before.
Haywire marked another entry in the ever-expanding Steven Soderbergh canon and it looked like a film that could easily have flopped, largely because of the casting choices of inexperienced wrestler-turned-actress Gina Carano and the frequently wooden Channing Tatum. Yet, Soderbergh weaved his magic and the film ended up being one of the most surprisingly enjoyable films of the year.
There are many films this year that I enjoyed, but weren’t able to crack my top ten. Here is a brief look at some of the best of the also-rans.
Anna Karenina is a uniquely ambitious film from Joe Wrigt, combining the lushness of a costume drama with the theatricality of the source material. His decision to film it as he did is controversial, but it works.
Flight showcased Denzel Washington in a career-defining performance as a selfish alcoholic spinning out of control following a fatal plane crash that he alone could have and did save. It looks at how our heroes can be deeply flawed and Washington nails it.
Life of Pi was a surprisingly uplifting film for the director of some of the last decades most devastating pictures. Ang Lee has always been a fascinating director and this film with its intriguing twist is one of his best directorial efforts to date even if the film suffers from its source’s flaws.
ParaNorman has the visual style of Coraline, but is far more youthfully entertaining. The movie plays like a standard children’s saga with a kind heart and a creative exuberance.
Rise of the Guardians was one of a handful of animated endeavors that was better than others gave it credit for. The story is creative, visually stunning and deeply humanistic.
Safety Not Guaranteed could have easily succumbed to its gimmick and become one of those self-serving indie films that exist simply to be avant-garde. The film succeeds without feeling too heavy-handed.
Wreck-It Ralph is the year’s second-best animated feature, doing for video games what Toy Story did for the toy chest. The story may have been more adult-oriented than is typical for Disney’s animation studio, but it works very well.
The bottom three films of my list are probably the most maligned of my selections, doing surprisingly (to me) poorly with most other critics. The lowest of these was Pixar’s Brave, a film which built on the longstanding Disney princess tropes and crafted an engaging, humorous, beautiful and entertaining story about a headstrong daughter and the kingdom she thrusts into danger through her refusal to see another viewpoint. The film rightly focuses on the familial tete-a-tete that exists between parents and children. Both sides speak without thinking and listen only when it’s too late. It’s an admirable lesson in a story told well with fewer cheesy distractions than some of the more questionable Disney classics.
Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech is for me one of the least deserving Best Picture winners in the last decade. A capable, amusing film with strong performances, it lacks the undeniable quality I would assign to a film hoping to carry that title. With Les Misérables, I was confronted with a director I was unimpressed with and a story I had become decreasingly familiar with over time. I love the ’80’s stage musical style but had been disappointed by recent attempts to do Andrew Lloyd Webber justice. I watched the film on screener long before the critical mass weighed in and I thought it was genuine, moving and one of the best adaptations in the genre’s history. I declared it a classic in the same vein as The Sound of Music or West Side Story. I was surprised to see so many belittle the film and criticize it for its frequent use of tight close-ups. I watched the film again a few weeks later and could understand some of the concern. It was still a touching film, but the constant close-ups were sometimes more distracting than effective. Still, it remains one of my favorite films of the year featuring memorable tunes and exceptional performances.
I was destined to love The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Peter Jackson’s first three films set in Middle Earth were the finest examples of genre exhibition ever filmed. While The Hobbit pales in comparison to that, it is still a capable, energetic work from a filmmaker who adores the setting in which it is placed. Solid performances cap a gorgeous return to Middle-Earth, yet it’s the film’s attempt to set up the remaining two films in the new trilogy that give audiences the most trouble. Trying to expand to three films may have been a poor choice, but bringing the film in under 2 hours and keeping the narrative in place (as well as the three-film setup) wouldn’t have been difficult. Regardless, what passes is a genuine piece of adventure entertainment that is all the more compelling for what it prommises in the near future.
Moonrise Kingdom was one of several films releasing from major, acclaimed independent directors this year. Wes Anderson is frequently cited as one of the most distinct voices working in film today, but I have been so infrequently impressed with his work that I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing this. With a dearth of screeners at the time, I popped the film in and discovered the best Anderson film I’ve seen. It was richly colored, deeply affecting and featured some strong central juvenile performances that make the much heralded Quvenzhané Wallis look like amateur hour. The story is a bit oblique at times and where it’s going is difficult to say when you’re just starting out. It’s a gently amusing, clever embodiment of the 1950’s pastiche aesthetic and I enjoyed every minute of it.
The book on which it was based was so successful and so emotionally satisfying that the film version of The Hunger Games had the biggest potential of failure in any recent filmic adaptation. Yet, thanks to the competent input of writer Susanne Collins and the experienced helming of Gary Ross, Hunger Games kept the urgency and quality of the book without sacrificing itself to the dumbed-down hysteria of the Twilight franchise. One of the major reasons the film is so successfully rendered is a humanistic performance by Jennifer Lawrence. Her ability to create a relatable presence bolstered the film’s more chaotic elements and even with the story being as involving as it is, Lawrence’s talent brings us in more deeply.
Some have called The Perks of Being a Wallflower a John Hughes homage that lacks original style and emotion. Not once while watching the film did the Pretty in Pink helmer enter my mind and thinking back on it now, I still cannot understand why that connection is made. Not every film set presumably during the 1980’s and featuring social outcasts has to be compared to Hughes’ work. Logan Lerman anchors a brilliatn cast of youngers displaying the difficulties of friendship and success in the high school environment. While watching the film, my own high school experiences flooded my memory and I quickly realized just how much of the film’s social dynamic somewhat matched mine. While none of my friends were as attractive as these kids, the friendliness and relatability they convey was spot-on. Feeling such a strong connection to a film will always temper your opinion, but that’s true of any film that has something to say about social imperatives.
Juan Antonio Bayona’s smashing debut The Orphanage wasn’t in my mind when I sat down to The Impossible. The two films share almost no similarities, stylistically or thematically. Each stands firmly on its own, which made this story about a family who survives the deadly Indian Ocean Tsunami all the more difficult to take. The film opens with a gut-wrenching action sequence of confusion, pain and destruction that separates a single family who attempt to reunite or survive for the rest of the picture. Bayona’s talent is obvious and with two magnificent pictures under his belt, I cannot wait to see what he does next.
Even at his most cloying, Steven Spielberg is a world class filmmaker. With Lincoln, he demonstrates his very best qualities, creating dramatic tension from a story that seems rather straight forward and boring. Exploring a single part of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Lincoln has created a film that’s relevant in today’s hyper-partisan political system as well as cemented in the historical record an almost academic narrative. Helped by the exhaustively researched screenplay by Tony Kushner, Spielberg’s film is engaging, informative and supremely satisfying. So much could have been done with the Civil War itself, but Spielberg restrains himself to the struggles of the Great Emancipator and his attempts to cement in the U.S. Constitution an idea that all men really were created equal even if the color of their skin was not the same. And because of that restraint, Spielberg redeems the years of excess and manipulation he has provided since his Oscar win for Schindler’s List nearly twenty years ago.
The disturbing realism of Compliance is what moves the film from a curious docudrama into the realm of frightening cautionary tale. A young fast food worker is sequestered, strip searched and worse simply because the manager receives a call from someone claiming to be a police officer. The film asks tough questions about how far we are willing to go in order to placate authority figures and demands that we remain vigilant in our attempts to protect one another’s privacy. No film could have better expressed the fears and concerns of a growing number of American citizens over the encroaching nature of authority. Can any law designed to protect others be rationally enforced if it denies rights to a single citizen? Do we not have an obligation to question orders before we invade another person’s civil liberties? The conundrums suggested by a film like Compliance aren’t explicitly detailed in the film, but the common sense discussions that can follow a viewing of the film make it the kind of movie that has to be seen.
Once could have been a fluke. Twice could have been luck. Three times? That’s talent. Ben Affleck was the directing talent none of us saw coming. After years of questionable performances in action films and romantic comedies, Affleck put himself behind the camera. It was a decision that proved to be the best he ever made. While Hollywoodland gave us hope that he could still achieve greatness as an actor, his legacy may be behind the camera instead of in front of it. Argo is the kind of journeyman filmmaking that we celebrate each year because it’s reliably excellent. The film is a calm, tightly-paced drama that pulls in the audience without insulting their intelligence. Affleck created a film that moves along slowly, but is so superbly edited that, the tension is palpable. It’s an exciting film from one of the finest directors working today and is easily the year’s best.
Although my Year in Reviews feature is now complete, I am working on a recap of the year’s best and worst movie posters and trailers. I don’t have an ETA, but it will be soon.