The last month of the year is an odd one for cinephiles – most of it is spent hearing different critics and critics’ groups dole out notices for their favorite films of the year, oftentimes films that you haven’t even seen yet. Such is the case this past year, which saw a great deal of discussion about three films – “Django Unchained,” “Les Misérables” and “Zero Dark Thirty” – before the general public could lay eyes on them.
Such discussion can be exhausting, which is why I personally don’t like to rank until the ball has dropped in Times Square and we’re firmly moved on. However, having finally caught “Zero Dark Thirty,” I am fully caught up on my moviegoing and can throw my two cents into the ring. Here are #10-6 of my top ten films of the year.
One note before the list: “Silver Linings Playbook” doesn’t make my top ten despite my genuinely liking the movie. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are both quite good in it – when Lawrence wins the Oscar next month, it will be hard to quibble with what is clearly a movie star turn, and I’m thrilled Cooper was nominated for what is easily his best work.
That said, I’m puzzled as to why the Academy clearly loves it so much. I think it deserved nominations for Picture, Actor, Actress and Screenplay, and that’s it. The Director, Editing, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress nominations baffle me. I’m seriously concerned it’s going to win Best Picture this year, which is a shame, because there was so much more worthy work, much of which did make my list.
10. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
Why is it so hard for Hollywood to understand high school? This delight of a film nails it better than any I’ve ever seen: a time of anxiety, discovery and pain. This film has so much going for it: one of the smartest scripts of the year, a truly heartfelt performance from Logan Lerman as the titular wallflower, stellar supporting performances from Emma Watson and Ezra Miller and just the right balance of innocence and the adult themes every high school student aspires to incorporate into their lives. If it didn’t have an awkward ending that leaves a somewhat bad taste (at least for me), I think this would be getting a lot more press this year. As it stands, I think it’s a gem that will live on as a word-of-mouth favorite for years and years to come.
9. “21 Jump Street”
A comedy remake of a dramatic ’80s cop show starring Hollywood joke Channing Tatum and hit-or-miss Jonah Hill? Such a recipe for disaster that could only result in one of the funniest movies to come out of the studio machine in two decades. Perhaps what makes “21 Jump Street” stand out is how clearly it should not have worked, yet flourishes with flying colors. It was the first major step in what turned out to be the Year of Tatum (technically “The Vow” was first, but that was just a commercial success, not a critical one). It was funny, fresh, interesting and a truly of-the-moment film, which is exceedingly rare (almost unheard of). An action-comedy is hardly my genre of choice, yet it works so effectively. That’s what makes it a treasure.
I’ll confess to being less in love with “Argo” than the rest of the world, though I do think it’s very good. In fact, if the film had hedged a little closer to a more accurate picture of events, it would probably fall into the top four or five of this list. But whereas another film has become a lightning rod for complaints about legitimacy (you can read my blatant hypocrisy about historical accuracy in the Part Two post of this list when I praise “Zero Dark Thirty”), the issues in “Argo” are far more frustrating. Much of the problem lies in Affleck’s choice to show how similar all the actors looked to their real-life counterparts in the epilogue of the film. (He highlights all characters, of course, besides the Hispanic Tony Mendez, played by white as Wonder Bread director Ben Affleck. But I digress.) The film so obviously invites comparison to real-world events through this sequence, so its flagrant exaggeration of details is all the more distracting.
All that aside, “Argo” is still easily the most thrilling drama this year. It’s a major evolution for Affleck as a director, whose films have previously suffered from iffy dialogue (“Gone Baby Gone”), plot that strains credulity (“The Town”) and an obsession with Boston (all of the above). Wildly entertaining and full of great ensemble work, “Argo” deserves its praise and more.
7. “Magic Mike”
Calling “Magic Mike” nothing more than empty calories is a dismissal of what was one of the most fascinating looks at a foreign culture of the year. There are plenty of fascinating angles to view this film through – my favorite being the idea that no matter how beautiful Mike is, he’s so trapped in a world he doesn’t enjoy, when we live in a world that values beauty above all else (and our movies usually reflect that as gospel). Add in a stellar ensemble with every member of the cast serving the unique tone so successfully, two killer star turns (from both Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, the latter of whom was so robbed of a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars) and some killer dance sequences and you get a really special film. It’s so good that it even overcomes the abysmal acting of female lead Cody Horn! “Magic Mike” is a bold, interesting film, one that you can’t imagine being made even five years ago. That alone earns it a spot on this list.
6. “Pitch Perfect”
I can’t remember a film I’ve had more fun watching than “Pitch Perfect.” Everything about it is enjoyable, from the music (those mashups!) to the stars (Anna Kendrick, please do every musical) to the über-quotable dialogue (“That song’s my jam. My lady jam.”). The film is paced really well, never dragging or moving too quickly, and almost every scene (that awful fight scene with the washed-up acapella group proving the gross exception) is valuable and interesting. I’ve heard plenty of criticisms about “Pitch Perfect,” including that it’s derivative of better films (“Bring It On” being the prime example) or that it isn’t as funny or witty as it thinks it is. I think that the criticisms are overthinking it – “Pitch Perfect” isn’t trying to be a classic. It’s just having a hell of a lot of fun being what it is.
Read the rest of this list tomorrow, including mentions for movies as small as a quirky independent film about young love and as big as a musical spectacle about the French revolution.