Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages. Here are the finest films I witnessed in 2012. As some may be aware, I was forced to take about a 6-8 week sabbatical from film reviewing and writing this year, and I rallied in December to catch up on everything I possibly could. While I will reference some of the films I missed in a moment, I watched 179 films in 2012 and 29 titles scored a rating of ★★★★, while 11 films achieved “Yes You Should!!!” distinction, scoring my highest ratings of ★★★★1/2 and ★★★★★. I do not take my ratings lightly, and no critic who chooses to rate films ever should. Of those 11 films who received the highest ratings at Should I See It this year, three of those films received all 5 of my stars. In hindsight, this was a very strong year for movies. Also it will become quite evident I found 2012 to be an exemplary year in documentary filmmaking, with four documentaries landing in that upper tier.
One of the things I love about this line of work is getting to discuss movies with friends, family, and fellow reviewers and writers. I view these conversations as perks and/or privileges and hope that when I present my thoughts on a given film, or a list such as this one, it is viewed simply as one person’s opinion. As I have said before, I am infinitely more fascinated in what other people like, tolerate, and dislike at the movies. There are films on this list that people will have not seen, will have loved, and then be just as upset that their favorite is not listed here. When I watch a film, I begin with an open slate – I try and avoid trailers as much as I can, skim press notes only when I have to, and try and experience a film as cold as possible. I believe that every film has the potential to be good and in that darkened theater, right before the movie begins, in that ever so brief silence…anything is possible.
One caveat here: In watching 179 films this year, some films simply did not get seen by this set of eyes. For purposes of this list, I did not see Rust And Bone, Promised Land, This Is 40, Jack Reacher, The Impossible, some contenders of the Independent Spirit Awards, and box office hits Act Of Valor, Underworld Awakening, Total Recall, and Paranormal Activity 4. These films all received wide release or awards consideration and except for The Impossible, all have opened in the Seattle area. So, I may have watched three films with Tyler Perry this year, but alas, I couldn’t get to these by year’s end. Judge me as you see fit.
Here now, with one Honorable Mention, are my Top 10 Films of the Year.
Directed by: Bart Layton
A documentary which takes the rulebook, rips it up and tosses its empty contents right back at the viewer, Bart Layton’s The Imposter is as chilling and unsettling as it is completely unbelievable. In 1994, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed 13-year old Texas teenager named Nicholas Barclay vanishes without a trace. Authorities are contacted, searches are conducted, but little to no evidence exists which can help the search for the lost child gain any traction. Hope is lost, the family struggling to get through each day. Nearly three years later, the unthinkable occurs. Nicholas…has been found.
Located in a payphone booth in Spain, all investigations and inquiries with the found teenager lead the authorities to believe that against all odds, Nicholas Barclay is alive and well. Arrangements are made for his return home and the family gather at the airport and ready their homes for his return. Taller than they remember and clad with a strange accent, brown eyes and dark hair, Nicholas is different. He also likes to wear hoodies, rarely talks, and keeps to himself. The title itself a spoiler, I can reveal that this child is not in fact Nicholas, but who he is, how he succeeds in convincing the Barclay family, that despite all appearances and behaviors, he truly is their missing son, simply must be seen to be believed.
Since nearly all of the events surrounding this incredible story were never documented, Layton recreates many of the events surrounding Nicholas’ “return” and the actors blend perfectly into the story, rendering every scene riveting, nerve-wracking, and completely incomprehensible. The Imposter is a film I had the privilege of watching at home and I immediately hit repeat on the screener and watched it again, even more shocked and confused the second time around. I want to tell you more, but doing so would completely ruin the experience of meeting this Imposter for yourself. Much like the Barclay family’s hypnotic acceptance that an unrecognizable stranger was their Nicholas, the imposter at the heart of Bart Layton’s stunning debut, plays with your heart and mind in much the same way.
I am not sure I have ever seen a film quite like this.
THE TOP 10 FILMS OF 2012
Directed by: Michael Haneke
We are introduced to Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), two retired music teachers, living a quiet and peaceful life, aging gracefully and together in their 80s. For the challenging and sometimes confrontational Michael Haneke, Amour feels quite different as the sweet-natured, loving couple share in the thrills of seeing a former student’s concert and then waking up the next morning to begin their morning breakfast routine.
Quickly however, we see signs that life is starting to unravel. Upon their return home from the concert, they notice their front door has been scratched and gouged, likely from a burglar. In bed, Anne is wide awake, sitting straight up in bed, her behavior clearly out of the norm. And then at that breakfast table, Anne falls silent and catatonic. Georges, at first, thinks this is a joke, but this type of ruse is not at all in Anne’s character. He tries to break through but Anne stares straight ahead.
Amour is a searing and devastating film, but equally a probing and invasive one. Michael Haneke’s screenplay is incredible in the way in which the events unfold before us and the minimalist, largely one set staging makes the film deeply personal and intimate. Having lost an elderly parent myself in 2012, elements of Amour hit me very close to home, with Anne’s health declining steadily in an irreversible way and Georges’ flickering glimmer of hope becoming only more dim. Amour, built around two storied international actors who are largely unknown to North American audiences, also carries a documentary-type of a feel which compounds the emotional impact. Devoid of any musical score, stripped of vanity, and incorporating only natural sound, Amour is as real and organic a production as you will ever see.
Amour will draw audiences, not only because of the awards the film has won prior to its stateside release, but also because it is receiving Academy Award attention outside of a likely nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Amour is not for everyone and I found the film a difficult and at times distressing experience. Some will recoil in a knee-jerk reaction to the moments Amour places in front of its viewers, but few can truly deny the power this small and poignant film brings with it. I will never forget it, I will always find it difficult to defend, but without any hesitation I can easily proclaim Amour is one of the best films of the year.
#9: Searching For Sugar Man
Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul
A documentary which works as a comedy, a mystery, a road-trip adventure, a human interest drama, a musical, and a satisfying tale of redemption and fame, Searching For Sugar Man is undeniably one of the most endearing and galvanizing films of the year. Centered around the failed music career of early-1970s singer/songwriter Rodriguez, Searching For Sugar Man tells a remarkable story, which initially presents as a sad tale of a man, with important things to say about the plight of the poor, whose poetic folk music was melodic, timely, catchy, and completely ignored. After a couple of critically acclaimed albums were released, Rodriguez vanished into the ether, never to be heard from again. From the few who were aware of Rodriguez, urban legends swirled around tragic suicide stories, including one legendary tale of the singer becoming so depressed at the failure of his music career that he publicly set himself on fire during a concert.
For the first-half of the film, director Malik Bendjelloul introduces us to Stephen and Craig, two men from Cape Town, South Africa who not only share with us their love of Rodriguez’s music, but reveal that Rodriguez is anything but an unknown in their country. In fact, Rodriguez is a staple of South African radio and his 1970 debut album “Cold Fact” became a massive hit in the country in the 1970s, spawning several hit singles and sales which made Rodriguez…yes, Rodriguez…more popular in South Africa than The Beatles. And bigger than Elvis.
So whatever became of him? Did he commit suicide? If he was still alive, why had he never toured the country, made any appearances or given any interviews? What happened to the enigmatic dark-haired, sunglasses wearing mystery man who provided the soundtrack to the lives of a generation of South Africans? The answers to those questions are only half of the Sugar Man story and Bendjelloul’s film takes an amazing turn midway through that takes the film from a compelling and curious investigation to something magical, memorable, and quite beautiful. Few films can grip you like this one can and those wonderful tears of joy I was wiping away formed directly in my heart.
#8: The Dark Knight Rises
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Completing his Batman trilogy in extraordinary fashion, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises concludes what is, without question, one of the finest trilogies ever created. Nolan pulls off a near impossible feat, one he created for himself of course, by providing an emotionally satisfying and triumphant finale; essentially raising the bar extremely high for all other superhero stories and reinventions going forward. Fans of Nolan’s films will be again amazed at his incredible skillset as a filmmaker and storyteller, while those who have embraced this particular Batman relaunch, from 2005’s Batman Begins to 2008’s The Dark Knight, will fall back in their chairs, spent and smiling, relieved that this Dark Knight does indeed rise and deliver.
Through each and every project, Christopher Nolan’s vision, scope, and limitless imagination makes each task he sets out to accomplish all the more daunting and impressive. Many of those waiting for Rises have been counting down the days since the credits starting rolling at the end of The Dark Knight and that pressure on Nolan had to have felt insurmountable at times. And yet, Nolan is unrelenting. Mixing aggressiveness with confidence, risk with bravery, Nolan adds more layers to his Batman mythology, before a stunning final act leaves you breathless. For those who have complained that Christopher Nolan cannot close out his films and/or screenplays, those critical voices best be silent for awhile. The Dark Knight Rises is, in many ways, an unforgettable experience.
The key performances all are terrific with Christian Bale excellent in portraying a meekly unaware former celebrity, depressed and resigned to being alone in his mansion forever. Morgan Freeman lightens the mood appropriately in his interactions with Bale, as his Lucius Fox is still hard at work, creating and overseeing some of the most unbelievable gadgets and weapons one could ever imagine. Marion Cotillard is engaging in her beauty and magnetic connection to Wayne, while Anne Hathaway’s playful and quite impressive turn as Selina Kyle reminds us that not only does she possess exceptional comedic timing and sensibilities, but she can seemingly tackle any role or project and find success.
Elsewhere there is strong and solid work again from Gary Oldman as the embattled Commissioner, while Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, and Tom Hardy stand out particularly strong. Michael Caine brings a sincere and tangible level of emotion to the film, with one heartbreaking scene in particular a standout. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is clearly ready to be a leading man and his work here initially feels tacked on and burdensome…until he is allowed to tell his story.
It is too simplistic to say that I cannot wait for Christopher Nolan’s next film. But I will say that I felt a surprising sadness driving home from the theater, realizing that this beautifully bittersweet finale made me care more about a billionaire who dons a Batsuit, then most films make me care about characters who are supposed to be like you and me. The Dark Knight Rises is everything promised and more and easily one of my favorite films of 2012..
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Opening in 2044 Kansas, we meet Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a Looper who is biding his time, with a powerful assault rifle known as a Blunderbuss cocked and at the ready, standing in front of a meticulously laid out plastic sheet. As he waits, he checks his pocketwatch. Then suddenly, a hooded person materializes on the plastic on the absolute second the Looper is told he will appear. One immediate killshot later, Joe turns his victim over, collects his payment in silver bars, and disposes of the body down an incinerator. All in a days work for a Looper like Joe.
Loopers are former criminals, whose executions are intertwined with a problem some 30 years in the future; namely, time travel. By 2074, time travel has been invented, realized, misused, and outlawed. The use of it however has been co-opted by criminals and mob bosses, who contract with the Loopers in 2044 to execute those they want dead and gone. The life of a Looper is a good one for awhile; expensive sports cars are common and those silver bars can add up to a fairly substantial amount of wealth and prosperity. One inevitable exists in a Looper’s line of work however. The day you effectively “close the loop.”
While many may be expecting that Looper is already fairly bleak and grim based on its premise, Johnson goes dark and violent, not worrying how his film will be perceived. Although the films are wildly different in subject matter and tone, I was reminded at times of Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive, in how unrepentant both films are in telling the story they want to tell in the manner in which they choose to do it. When Bruce Willis is forced to make a horrible decision to stay alive, we expect one result and get something we could never fathom. Johnson smartly does not try to make one Joe better than the other, or have them wear white and black to define one as good or the other as evil.
Shot for a relatively low $30 million budget, Rian Johnson’s third film (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) has big and bold visions which have undoubtedly been scaled back considerably. There are a few elements of life in 2044 which differentiate things from how we live in 2012, but largely the world is the same – except for the unyielding crime and time travel possibilities. Perhaps Looper suffers somewhat from not being able to flesh out those larger and grander concepts it plays around with, only to then step back and double down on its characters.
In final form, the narratives in play here are riveting, and Looper is confrontational, challenging, and addicting. I cannot wait to see it again and in acknowledging the film is dark, even ominous in certain key moments, I have not been this impressed from top to bottom, start-to-finish, in a long, long time. Looper is a must see.
#6: How To Survive A Plague
Directed by: David France
Arriving in a flood in the late 1970s and early 1980s, waves of gay men in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City began exhibiting skin lesions and Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a rare cancer common with folks of Mediterranean descent. Efforts to treat the symptoms and sudden onset health issues common with those who had fallen ill, simply failed in every instance. A sudden and concussive death rate escalated amongst homosexual men and doctors had no idea what was happening.
Dubbed “gay cancer”, homosexuals and gay communities began hearing that a rapidly climbing number of people in the gay community were becoming infected and dying off. Worse yet, the conditions the men suffered from only accelerated along other life-threatening illnesses including pneumonia. An epidemic was in full swing.
Then it got worse. Discovering that the infection was passed through blood, doctors identified that unprotected anal sex among gay men was the contributing factor. Then, IV drug users began to contract the disease. A select number of blood transfusion patients became ill. Heterosexual and bisexual women also fell sick and children became diagnosed. A pandemic was upon us. Since the disease was still largely viewed as emanating from a gay lifestyle, most in a position of action were slow to react or simply inert in setting aside discriminatory biases and trying to stop the increasing numbers of those dying from a new Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
How To Survive A Plague documents this in heartwrenching fashion and puts a spotlight on the efforts of activist organization ACT-UP, who formed in 1987 to raise awareness after millions of people had succumbed to the disease. As the organization moved forward, they seemingly documented everything and director David France unearthed more than 700 hours of footage, comprised of strategy meetings and peaceful and more aggressive protests. He also dug deeper, acquiring home video footage of some of the ACT-UP foot soldiers who bravely fought hard, but ultimately succumbed to the disease.
Inspiring, tragic, and ultimately a bittersweet and unshakable film, How To Survive A Plague simply moves you in a way few films truly can. How To Survive A Plague runs the risk of becoming a a film that will likely be pigeonholed as something only for the LGBT community, but the film retains a voice and a proclamation that should be heard by everyone. The pandemic is still among us. Lives are still being lost. And be it not for the brave men and women who fought tirelessly to bring AIDS and HIV awareness to the public eye through essentially any means necessary, the number of those no longer with us would be even more incomprehensible. Truly an exceptional film, worthy of awards consideration at the end of the year, I cannot recommend How To Survive A Plague enough.
#5: Moonrise Kingdom
Directed by: Wes Anderson
There are countless joys in Wes Anderson’s quirky and sentimental romantic comedy Moonrise Kingdom. From the opening moments, when Benjamin Britten’s composition The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra sets the perfect tone for introducing us to all of the film’s players, we understand that Wes Anderson’s film is going to take us to a completely different place and time. We soon are privy to an elvish narrator (Balaban) who pops in and out, resetting our understanding of time and place, and then we experience the joy of finding two terrific and natural talented young actors (Gilman and Hayward), ably keeping pace with the rhythm and cadence a Wes Anderson film requires. As the film adds in one element after another, the charm of Moonrise Kingdom is unavoidable.
Not only has Anderson and writing partner Roman Coppola concocted an engaging and heartwarming love story between two troubled 12-year old kids who, after meeting at a camp, plot an elaborate scheme to run away with each another one year later, Anderson has tapped into that whirlwind and stolen heart excitement of a first love. Filling out his ensemble with a well-intentioned but overzealous Scout Master (Norton) who cannot fathom the idea that a boy would ever consider quitting scouting, two dysfunctional parents whose failure to communicate has long and far-reaching effects on their daughter (Murray, McDormand), a dedicated Social Services worker (Swinton), and a lonely, lost police captain (Willis), Wes Anderson offers wonderful symbolic slices of 1965 life, in an idyllic picturesque landscape, where unspoken tensions are simmering to a boil as a historic hurricane threatens to impact the island.
Where in the past Wes Anderson’s films have not always been everyone’s cup of tea, Moonrise Kingdom is as sweet and tender as anything he has ever created. Coming in at an efficient and syncopated 94 minutes, Anderson gets his high profile cast to take chances in new and unique ways, all playing with varying levels of tangible vulnerability. Bruce Willis has the best of intentions, but struggles to allow himself to let his guard down and connect. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand have a stunning failure to communicate with their children or each other, and Edward Norton clings to his scouting life because he is so paranoid of failure. Each actor runs the Wes Anderson dash and are still able to build their characters efficiently, allowing us to understand and recognize just who these people are, why they are in the situations they are in, and what limitations they possess in changing their lives for the better.
And again, Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman steer the ship, their young love reminding us of that first real crush we all had, their awkwardness both innocent and wise beyond their years, and serving as the eye of a metaphorical hurricane which enlightens the characters and the audience into a new state of being.
#4: The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Directing his own book adaptation, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is an extraordinary film which beats all odds and formulaic trappings to stand as one of the finest films of 2012. A beautiful, bittersweet, and unforgettable coming-of-age story which finds three incredible young actors embodying some of the most unforgettable characters – teenaged or otherwise – in recent memory, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower ushers us under the tent populated with wrongly-branded misfits and left-behinds finding kinship and love in the day-to-day machinations of a high school life.
Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller continue to build impressive resumes and Steven Chbosky debuts with the finest directorial debut of the year. Chbosky could not have cast his film any better and likewise could not have adapted his own novel any smarter or wiser. Our introduction to the film comes with meeting Logan Lerman’s Charlie, and quickly he becomes a kid we all want to get to know and hang out with. Befriended by Watson’s Sam and her step-brother Patrick (Miller), Charlie is welcomed into a group of friends Sam dubs “The Island of Misfit Toys”, but they are truly you and me and our best friends from high school. Unexpected connections are revealed, the freshman Charlie forming an unbreakable bond with Sam and Patrick, both seniors on the eve of their high school graduation. Over the course of one school year, we learn and experience every rise and fall these characters experience, wiping tears, sharing laughs, and catching our breath every step of the way.
Recently, a friend of mine messaged me and told me how stunned he was at the emotional impact found in Perks and how he was “slayed” by the power the film had upon him. I may not be able to pinpoint where the film got its hooks in me but once it did, I did not want to be anywhere else. I love these people (calling them characters seems so…off…in this case) and my heart breaks for their pain and illuminates with their successes. Whether it is a college acceptance letter forcing one character to break into tears of relief and panicked realization, the impossible-to-know secrets that those we love suppress and struggle with every single day, the liberating freedom of air rushing past us, mixtapes saying everything that our words cannot, or cumbersome honesty spilling out from our lips, few films have ever brought back the final years of teenage life as honestly and vividly as this. I will say it again. I love these characters. I love this film. And no matter what happens with these triad of insanely talented actors, the Perks I received from this film are that these incarnations of Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, and a reinvented Emma Watson will always have my heart.
#3: The Invisible War
Directed by: Kirby Dick
Sometimes you can no longer be silent. Sometimes the voiceless need a voice. Sometimes the horrors of real life must be exposed, brought into the light, and revealed in all their ugliness. The Invisible War is a sickening, gut-wrenching film which is as absolutely important and necessary as any documentary of the last several years. Famed director Kirby Dick unearths hundreds of real stories of sexual assault and abuse in our military and as deplorable as these stories are, the lasting effects of the abuse are shockingly only part of these victims’ stories.
The numbers are as alarming as they are unfathomable. In 2011, more than 22,000 soldiers were sexually assaulted with 20% of all active-duty female soldiers victimized. Female soldiers aged 18 to 21 accounted for more than half of those assaults and a study commissioned in 2009 determined that 20,000 men had also been assaulted at some point during their military service. Screening veterans beyond the current military ranks only escalates the figures and in 2010, only 244 perpetrators ever saw any form of a conviction. The Invisible War shares the stories of those who have suffered horribly from one of the worst cover-ups in United States military history and every moment of this film breathes heartbreak, empathy, and searing anger and despair.
Soldier after soldier comes forward and we see them as mothers, wives, daughters, and husbands and see the debilitating anguish and pain the abuse has had on their lives. One father told his daughter that military life was the safest and most rewarding job a person could ever ask for. His daughter’s first sexual encounter was a military rape. Another woman was raped by her Coast Guard supervisor and while an investigation was taking place, he was promoted to an exclusive rank and moved to a new location, rendering the case closed. Watching an aloof government fail to recognize, address, or care about these victims, seeing the disgusting bureaucracy which seems to work almost in concert with the military’s cover-up of these atrocities, makes Kirby Dick’s film vital and demanding change.
Change has occurred…slowly. After the film revealed shocking details of the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal and additional high profile stories of abhorrent and illicit happenings at military gatherings, President Obama’s Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta agreed to screen the film. His response was swift and an immediate change was implemented for those who suffer sexual assault in the military. Panetta removed the requirement that victims must speak to their commanding officers and senior officers were placed in charge of handling such situations. Applauding the move, Kirby Dick and others featured in the film were correct in stating that this was merely a first step.
It is hard to recommend a film like The Invisible War to people who ask if I have seen any good movies lately. The Invisible War is a difficult watch, have tissues and a stress reliever nearby, but Kirby Dick’s masterpiece is galvanizing, its defiance and whistleblowing voice screaming as loud and as guttural as possible.
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Undeniably one of 2012′s finest movies, Argo is beautifully orchestrated theater, a masterpiece of high tension and suspense, centered around the retelling of a historical event so impressively staged, that you are convinced to doubt what you know to be true, only to then have that faith in the story rewarded in a most riveting manner.
Argo details the incredible true story of how the C.I.A. came up with a plan in 1979 to shoot a fake science-fiction film in Iran, while orchestrating a dangerous and risky freeing of six diplomats sheltered in the Canadian Ambassador’s home. All of this transpiring during the height of the Iranian Revolution when Islamic militants held 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for a gut-wrenching 79 days.
A good friend and fellow critic pointed out in a recent conversation that had Ben Affleck made Argo prior to his other two films, the film would have likely been a bit tedious, overlong, and perhaps lack proper focus. Her observation is astute because while I am a big fan of Affleck’s earlier films, they do have a softness and rambling scope. None of those complaints can be placed upon Argo, Affleck’s film tight, efficient, and urgent.
Shifting tone and intensities throughout the film, we see the strategy sessions in government headquarters, the unnerving day-to-day moments in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence, the hostages held day-to-day in the Embassy. Affleck ratchets up the tension scene by scene, building to a breathtaking final 40-45 minutes where the plan’s execution grows more and more tenuous the further along it goes.
Where do I stop? Argo is better than anticipated, signaling a permanent placemarker for Ben Affleck as one of today’s most gifted and studious filmmakers. One of the most powerful moments in Argo comes with that immediate realization, when the credits roll, that you have just seen something unforgettable. Funny but never overbearing, intense but always believable, complex and thorough but never heavy-handed or blustering with political agendas, Argo decisively succeeds. Remember this come Oscar time because Argo is, without question, one of the best films you will see in 2012.
#1: Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Zero Dark Thirty is an incredible experience, serving as a second entry in director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s documenting of the American war machine in a post-9/11 world. Topping their 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker did not seem possible, but the Bigelow/Boal pairing have netted another classic, a divisive and controversial expose recounting, in amazing detail, the United States government’s efforts in capturing and killing Osama Bin Laden. While debates over the film’s depiction of torture has become an unfortunate adornment on a largely apolitical film, Zero Dark Thirty is as gritty, unflinching, and as unapologetic a political thriller as you have ever seen.
Featuring a powerful and career-defining performance by Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty vessels its decade-long manhunt through the perspective of Chastain’s Maya, initially overwhelmed, queasy and unsteady as an assistant of sorts to CIA interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke). Immediately we are privy to the horrors of war-time interrogation techniques, as a detainee is forced to endure countless different sessions, all in escalating intensity, until eventually the prisoner offers up the information Dan is charged with obtaining. The decision to toss us directly into this world is jarring and disorienting, and we are immediately as rattled as Maya is in trying to understand the lexicon of the world we are a part of.
Sequenced almost in different acts, Zero Dark Thirty also becomes a dynamic procedural-style tale once Dan departs for a job in Washington and Maya becomes the figurehead leader of the manhunt. Faced with a gender-driven workplace, Maya is consistently finding her successes supplanted or co-opted by her senior officials and those with leverage and power over the operations. Undeterred, Maya continues her work, succeeding for years in fits and starts, becoming increasingly more defiant and necessarily vocal. Bigelow, drawing not so subtle parallels between Maya’s gains and strides and eventual validation as a woman working and conquering in a mostly male environment, binds these different elements together with razor-sharp precision. And Mark Boal’s screenplay is ratcheted down tight, locking us into situations which are unnerving, edgy and uncomfortable.
Just when you think the film is going to devolve into an office-based dialogue-dense boardroom thriller, we are reminded that we are operating within a timeline defined by terror – the 2005 London subway bombing, the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing, the 2009 attack which claimed the lives of nine Americans – seven of them C.I.A. Fear populates scene after scene and each time Maya and her team are exposed to or experience these tragic episodes firsthand, their dedication and steadfast resolve in continuing on is remarkable.
With actionable intelligence, Maya is able to pinpoint Bin Laden on the now legendary Abbottabad compound in Pakistan and Zero Dark Thirty masterfully dissolves the suspense from the investigation itself into the actual raid, easily one of the most astonishing sequences I have ever experienced in a movie theater. No one could breathe at my screening in these moments. Fellow writers and reviewers were sitting still and unable to move, struck by tension and anxiety so thick that we all sat in silent contemplation for a few minutes once the film concluded.
When I saw Zero Dark Thirty a few weeks back, I proclaimed that it was the best film I had seen since Bigelow and Boal’s last collaboration The Hurt Locker. I still tightly hold on to that conviction. The film’s stance on torture, the access the Obama Administration provided the filmmakers, and the rhetoric which seems to be used to dismiss or downplay the film is sadly accelerating and more than any other film from 2012, Zero Dark Thirty will be nit-picked, analyzed, debunked, and fact-checked ad nauseum. Undoubtedly a film I will revisit time and time again, I have seldom been so affected as I was with the experience I had in watching Zero Dark Thirty. Oscars are irrelevant when talking about a film this accomplished and this powerful because Zero Dark Thirty rests with me as a modern day masterpiece.
29 ADDITIONAL FILMS YOU CANNOT MISS FROM 2012:
- The Avengers
- Brooklyn Castle
- The Cabin In The Woods
- A Cat In Paris (2011 Oscar nominee for Animated Feature, released in 2012, ★★★★)
- Chasing Ice
- Declaration Of War
- Django Unchained
- End Of Watch
- First Position (Documentary; teens competing for prestigious ballet company, ★★★★)
- Head Games
- Holy Motors (Surreal drama featuring Denis Lavant portraying 11 different characters, ★★★★)
- The Hunger Games
- Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (Delightful doc about 86-year old sushi chef, Jiro Ono, ★★★★)
- Life Of Pi
- The Master
- Monsieur Lazhar
- Oslo, August 31
- Rise Of The Guardians / Rise Of The Guardians 5-star Youth Review!
- The Secret World Of Arrietty (Studio Ghibli adaptation of “The Borrowers”, ★★★★)
- The Sessions (True story of polio-afflicted man hiring a sex surrogate, ★★★★)
- Silver Linings Playbook (Romantic dramedy featuring two Great Performances, ★★★★)
- West Of Memphis (Definitive doc concluding the West Memphis Three saga, ★★★★)
- Wreck-It Ralph
2012 ADDITIONAL LISTS: