As a proud voting member of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences since 1984, I prefer to use the word “favorite” rather than “best”.
We can’t go into the Louvre and point out the “best” painting, can we? Was Cezanne a “better” painter than Van Gogh? Was Mozart the “best” composer ever? More so than Beethoven or others? Really? By what objective criteria can we make those judgments?
In that same vein, I am not capable of saying that any one film or performance is the “best”. I can only say what I personally enjoyed and/or admired the most. As a result, I know that some of the films on my list will not be nominated for Oscars and others that are not on the list most assuredly will be.
These films then are, quite simply, the ones that I personally preferred in 2012.
What are yours?
1. Silver Linings Playbook is about two people who have both been so traumatized by tragic events in their lives that they almost didn’t survive, both emotionally and physically. Somehow, this wondrous film takes that premise and turns it into a romantic, hilariously funny, totally original, and deeply affecting tour-de-force for all concerned. Bradley Cooper deserves an Academy Award nomination and Jennifer Lawrence proves her star turns in Winter’s Bone and Hunger Games were just the beginning of a brilliant career. Writer/director David O. Russell has made a new American classic film that celebrates courage, love, and our own vulnerability and potential as human beings. As the title suggests, the most daunting challenges can indeed evolve into magical opportunities. Playbook was my favorite film of 2012.
2. Hope Springs is a soulfully written, acted, and directed film about people over 40 (uh, 50, well, really 60) that illuminates issues that married people in long-term relationships often face. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play a Nebraska couple who have been married for 31 years and have fallen into a routine in which all intimacy, physical and emotional, has been long since lost. Hope Springs is often so raw that you actually feel like you are experiencing the emotions of a real-life couple as they bare their souls. Steve Carell is so likable and compassionate as a marriage therapist that he could probably set up a real counseling practice in which he would flourish, Ms. Streep is her incomparable, brilliant-beyond-words self and Mr. Jones gives one of my favorite portrayals in any film this year.
3. Argo is based on the true story of an American CIA agent who rescued 6 Americans who fled their embassy in Tehran as it was being occupied by Iranian militants in 1979. As their compatriots were being held hostage, the Americans hid in the Canadian embassy until, disguised as a film crew, they escaped the country. Ben Affleck stars in and directs such an intense and gripping film that I found myself on the edge of my seat even though I knew that the Americans had indeed successfully escaped. In addition to being a first-rate thriller, the film also illuminates the little-known bogus Hollywood film that was set up as a cover story for the Americans. Mr. Affleck is wonderful and Alan Arkin gives one of the most hilarious portrayals of a film producer that I have ever seen.
4. Daniel Day Lewis’ tour-de-force portrayal of Abraham Lincoln cannot just be called an epic performance. Quite simply, I felt that I was truly seeing Mr. Lincoln himself. Human, loving, caring, passionate, visionary, humorous, haunted, and courageous, Mr. Lewis’ Lincoln takes its place with Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in The Godfather , James Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life as one of my favorite performances in the history of film. Brilliantly written (Tony Kushner) and directed (Steven Spielberg), Lincoln reminds us what a formative, wrenching, confrontational, tragic, and triumphant experience The American Civil War was. A film I deeply admired (rather than “loved”), Lincoln is one of the greatest history lessons ever put in dramatic form on screen and should be seen every year in every American History classroom in America.
5. Hitchcock is an engrossing experience for anyone who loves Old Hollywood and misses the wonderful storytelling and acting of that era. As Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Hopkins paints a fascinating portrait of a brilliant filmmaker at both the height of his confidence and also the depth of his self-doubt. Mr. Hopkins is also hilarious! In addition, the true life saga behind the making of Hitchcock’s classic Psycho is an amazing story. For instance, even with all his successes, Mr. Hitchcock had to literally mortgage his own house so he could finance Psycho when no one else would. Watching Mr. Hopkins and Helen Mirren (brilliant as Mr. Hitchcock’s wife and collaborator Alma) in this film together is a joy similar to seeing Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones together in Hope Springs: sheer screen heaven.
6. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a delightful, poignant, funny, brilliantly written, directed, and acted film that has much to say about life, love, aging, and wisdom. Marigold (which boasts a literal who’s-who cast of esteemed English stars such as Dame Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson) takes place in India at a dilapidated old hotel to which several “mature” adults have come for various reasons ranging from trying to save a marriage to retirement. Along with Hope Springs, A Late Quartet, and Hitchcock, Marigold gives us another reason to celebrate brilliant actors, all of whom are over fifty, sixty, and even seventy. Youth may or may not be “wasted on the young” but acting talent obviously knows no age limit at all!
7. The Impossible. What an exquisite title for an almost unbearably intense but ultimately triumphant film about the power of love. Based on a true story, the movie takes place in Thailand during and after the devastating 2004 tsunami that wreaked so much destruction there. Naomi Watts (who is utterly brilliant in her role) and Ewan McGregor play the parents of three boys all of whom are swept up in (the understatement of the year) and then separated by the tsunami. (Spoiler alert: they all do survive and eventually reunite. Like Argo, the film is harrowing enough even when you know that.) The tsunami scenes themselves are breathtaking (literally) and director J.A. Bayona does a bravura job of storytelling in a film that is, at its core, an improbably uplifting adventure in and about the infinite, transcendent power of love which can and indeed often does conquer the impossible.
8. Flight. A passenger jet completely malfunctions, causing it to plunge uncontrollably towards the ground. Somehow, the pilot (Denzel Washington in a career performance) regains control by actually inverting the plane until he can guide it in for a miraculous, powerless crash landing. 6 people are killed but the other 96 survive. When the FAA later puts 10 pilots in a simulator, the plane crashes each time, killing all aboard. One problem: the “hero” pilot turns out to have been legally drunk and high on cocaine. Deep moral questions and ambiguities abound in Flight, making it one of the most fascinating adult films of the year. Mr. Washington’s portrayal of a man in denial of his addictions will almost certainly resonate with anyone who has either been in his situation or known someone who is or was. Director Robert Zemeckis has now directed the two most terrifying plane crashes (Cast Away and Flight) I have ever seen on film. As my wife said to me when we first saw the trailer for the film, don’t wait for this one to show up as an in-flight movie. Never going to happen!
9. Not to be confused with the similarly-titled Quartet, A Late Quartet is a moving, poignant portrait of a brilliant musician (Christopher Walken in a one of the most tenderly nuanced performances of his career) who, due to illness and age, realizes he can no longer play his beloved cello at a professional level. His decision to retire causes complete chaos in the string quartet which he has led for decades. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir are also terrific as the other musicians in the quartet, all of whose lives are upended by the spectre of fitting someone new into what is already a deeply emotional, conflicted, competitive mix. This is an engrossing film about aging, music, and the complex personal relationships of artists who are dedicated to their craft.
10. The Words. Every year, some wonderful films are completely overlooked and, unfortunately, disappear. Sometimes, they get a new life on DVD and cable. Sometimes not. I hope that The Words, which was released last September, finds the audience it so richly deserves. A frustrated, unpublished author puts his name on an old manuscript that he finds, gets it published, and sees it become an international best seller. Somehow, the author rationalizes his act of plagiarism…until the real author confronts him one day in a park. The Words is both a fascinating morality tale and also a penetrating look at our modern celebrity culture and the lengths to which some people go to become “famous.” Jeremy Irons gives an Academy Award caliber supporting performance as the original author and Bradley Cooper is terrific as the “plagiarist”. The Words is an ingenious, engrossing movie.
Honorable Mention (Listed alphabetically): The Hobbit, Hunger Games, Moonrise Kingdom, Ruby Sparks, Safety Not Guaranteed, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Skyfall, Stand-Up Guys.
What were your favorite films of 2012?
Coming soon: Foreign films and documentaries.
(Stephen Simon co-founded The Spiritual Cinema Circle. He also produced such films as Somewhere in Time , What Dreams May Come and All The Right Moves, produced and directed Conversations with God, and is the author of both The Force is With You and Bringing Back The Old Hollywood. Twitter: @Old_Hollywood.)