By Steven Rea,
The Philadelphia Inquirer
"When you hear the sound of thunder,
“Don’t you get too scared.
“Just grab your thunder buddy
And say these magic words ...”
Of course, I can’t write those magic words in this newspaper. But if you saw Seth (future Oscar host) MacFarlane’s brilliantly funny, filthy “Ted,” you probably remember how the rest goes.
I wrestled long and hard with whether to put the Mark Wahlberg-and-his-cussin’-plush-toy comedy on my Top 10 list. In the end, even with fond memories of Mila Kunis’ straight-faced aplomb, Norah Jones’ inspired cameo, and the hooker-poop scene, the hard-R romp didn’t make the cut.
It was that good a year.
It was a year in which we saw dueling presidents (Honest Abe, Abe the vampire hunter, FDR), dueling Snow Whites (“Mirror Mirror,” “Snow White and the Huntsman” — with a third, the gorgeous black-and-white silent “Blancanieves,” coming in early 2013), and dueling Matthew McConaugheys in three crazy endeavors (“Magic Mike” “Killer Joe” and “The Paperboy”).
Joaquin Phoenix presented a “Master: class in being a Method hambone. James Bond endorsed human intervention over drones, seated alongside the young upstart Q, while contemplating a metaphor-rich Turner seascape in Sam Mendes’ classy “Skyfall.” And Bond, or, more accurately, Bond-portrayer Daniel Craig, lives in the real world with Rachel Weisz, who gave one of the most beautifully sad and wrenching performances of the year in the misty and miserable “The Deep Blue Sea.”
Movies seemed to get longer. Some of them felt like it, too (“Django Unchained,” “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “Cloud Atlas”). But a few of the nearly three-hour epics held our interest and then some, notably “Lincoln,” “Les Misérables” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
It was a strong year for nonfiction films. To wit, “Bully,” “The Queen of Versailles,” “The Gatekeepers,” “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” “How to Survive a Plague,” “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and “Searching for Sugar Man” — which may be the title that bumped “Ted” off my Top 10 list.
There were very good little indies (“Ruby Sparks,” “Your Sister’s Sister”) and very bad big Hollywood jobs (“Men in Black III,” “John Carter,” anything with Nicolas Cage).
And there was a spate of smart, compelling, comic, tragic, suspenseful, silly, based-on-true-stories and totally-made-up movies. Here’s a quick run of some, followed by my Top 10, in alphabetical order. If I had to put one at the top, well ... no, not going to try that. (But Wes Anderson is God.)
“2 Days in New York,” “Argo,” “Bernie,” “Casa de mi Padre,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “End of Watch,” “Footnote,” “Hitchcock” (go Anthony Hopkins!), “Hyde Park on Hudson” (go Bill Murray!), “The Impossible,” “The Kid with a Bike,” “Life of Pi,” “Looper,” “Sister,” “Sleepwalk with Me,” “Smashed” (the other self-destructive-alcoholic movie), “Sound of My Voice,” “Starlet.”
And the great:
“Amour”: Austria’s Michael Haneke typically displays a surgical calm that borders on cold-bloodedness — witness “The White Ribbon,” “Caché,” “The Piano Teacher,” the home-invasion nightmare “Funny Games.” But in this heartbreaking portrait of a Parisian couple (the awesome Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), Haneke reflects on what it means to grow old, and die, with a careful, compassionate eye.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild”: Benh Zeitlin’s hallucinogenic Cajun tale — a post-Katrina, hipster “Where the Wild Things Are” — pulls you in with its music, its surreal watery scapes, but most of all with child star Quvenzhané Wallis’ startlingly committed performance, which doesn’t feel like a performance at all. Bold, imaginative, magical.
“Flight”: My colleague Karen Heller calls Robert Zemeckis’ return to live action (after a decade of doodling with performance-capture fantasies) the feel-bad movie of the year. Denzel Washington, as an airline pilot who pulls off a miracle landing, saving most of his passengers from certain death, is haunting. His Whip Whitaker is a drunk in denial, forced to confront his demons in the crash’s aftermath. Kelly Reilly, as the junkie he meets in the hospital, is his grievous angel.
“Lincoln”: Skulking through the cold, candle-flickered corridors of the White House, the 16th president tries to bring the War Between the States to an end, and tries to get legislation for the constitutional amendment to end slavery through a lame-duck (and simply lame) House of Representatives. And still, there’s time to tell rambling stories to anyone he can corner. Even John Williams’ sappy score can’t dispel the stunning illusion that Daniel Day-Lewis is Abraham Lincoln.
“Moonrise Kingdom”: “We’re in love. We just want to be together. What’s wrong with that?” Fair question, but the whole island of New Penzance seems to be against the idea, and so tweenagers Suzi (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) go on the lam — and wistful, wonderful comedy ensues. Welcome to Wes Anderson’s 1960s dream world of Khaki Scouts, lefty scissors and beach-twisting to Françoise Hardy pop.
“Rust and Bone”: A gritty melodrama masterpiece, with Marion Cotillard as an orca whale trainer who meets a cruel and catastrophic fate, and who meets another wounded soul, a drifter with serious boxing skills, played by Matthias Schoenaerts. From Jacques Audiard, the uncompromising director of “A Prophet.”
“Searching for Sugar Man”: In a stellar year for documentaries, Malik Bendjelloul’s masterfully constructed chronicle of the early ‘70s singer/ songwriter Rodriguez and his incredible tale of unimagined fame on the other side of the world, stands out. More than a fascinating music doc, this portrait of a wise and gentle soul who returns to his demolition job in Detroit after his music career fails to take off is a remarkable account of rediscovery and redemption. And it could only have happened in the days before the World Wide Web.
“The Sessions”: Based on the life, and writings, of the poet and polio sufferer Mark O’Brien, who at age 38 sought out a sex surrogate so he could lose his virginity, Ben Lewin’s film is a celebration of human compassion and connections — physical and otherwise. John Hawkes’ performance breaks your heart, in the best ways possible.
“Silver Linings Playbook”: A screwball romance for the SSRI generation, and maybe the greatest Philly movie ever made. David O. Russell’s nimble adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel is a bipolar rush of joy, dread, romance, dancing fools, and football. Bradley Cooper nails an impossibly tricky role, Jennifer Lawrence shows that “Winter’s Bone” was no fluke, and the supporting cast — Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles — is a dream. Excelsior!
“Zero Dark Thirty”: Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning team behind “The Hurt Locker,” offer a tensile-strength fictionalized account of the decadelong hunt for Osama bin Laden, ending with the Navy SEALs’ raid on the al-Qaida leader’s Pakistan compound. Jessica Chastain is the CIA agent whose singular obsession drives the quest for leads, for connections, leaving her with nothing else in her life. A deep, dark, disturbing — and thrilling — film.