By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
No critic can see everything, but choosing my favorite of the more than 100 movies I reviewed this year was easy. Nothing came close to director/co-writer Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” a charmingly offbeat tale about two young runaways in something like love. The clever story, endearing performances and artfully nostalgic look of this magical film made it Anderson’s best movie to date, which is saying something.
Here is the full list of my 10 favorites of 2012.
1. “Moonrise Kingdom”
Director Wes Anderson (“Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” “Rushmore”), who co-wrote the movie’s 1960s-set screenplay with Roman Coppola, delivers a deadpan comedy with just the right amount of heart. Jared Gilman (as the amusingly self-assured Sam) and Kara Hayward (as the expressionless but devoted Suzy) are 12-year-old outcasts who run away together and create a temporary paradise. The townsfolk pursuing them include Bruce Willis as a sweetly concerned cop, Edward Norton as a slightly skewed scoutmaster, and Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s parents with problems. Add Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman as a hustling cousin, Bob Balaban as an audience-addressing narrator and Tilda Swinton as a by-the-book bureaucrat known only as Social Services, and the result is a quirky, funny and surprisingly touching wonder.
2. “Django Unchained”
Director/writer Quentin Tarantino allegedly cut a half-hour from this outrageously entertaining, cartoonishly violent and very black comedy. Yet even though the running time still tops out at an epic 2 hours 45 minutes, it’s hard not to want even more of this wild, wild western. Christoph Waltz steals the show as a smooth talking German dentist turned bounty hunter who enlists former slave Django (the excellent Jamie Foxx) to help him track a trio of wanted men in the pre-Civil War South. Leonardo DiCaprio is terrifically nasty as a boyish plantation owner, and Samuel L. Jackson is laugh-out-loud hilarious as the ultimate Uncle Tom. Although the movie may set a new record for most uses of the “N” word, it also could be the most anti-racism movie of the century. This completely over the top tale of love, vengeance, redemption and big laughs is an unexpected one of a kind delight.
3. “The Master”
Director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is an artfully disturbing drama about a cult leader and one of his mentally disturbed devotees. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd, whose similarities to Scientology Founder L. Ron Hubbard were the focus of pre-release speculation that turned out to be exaggerated. Dodd is a charlatan so forcefully convincing that he may have fooled even himself into believing his nonsense. Joaquin Phoenix gives the most overwhelmingly impressive acting job of the year as Freddie Quell, an alcoholic vet with anger management issues and a palpable sense of hopeless yearning. “The Master” is plain and simply a masterpiece.
Daniel Craig’s casting as the rebooted James Bond in 2006’s “Casino Royale” reinvigorated the secret agent’s franchise and restored some of the gritty credibility the character had been missing since the Sean Connery days. While Craig’s second 007 outing “Quantum of Solace” suffered from a bad script and worse direction, the producers apparently learned from their mistakes during the four-year hiatus between that misstep and “Skyfall.” Directed by Sam Mendes, the thrillingly back-to-basics “Skyfall” proved to be the best Bond picture ever (yes, ever), giving the sexy super-spy a family history and a certain gravitas that managed to elevate him instead of weighing him down. Javier Bardem triumphs as a deranged and sexually ambiguous baddie, and even Judi Dench’s M gets into the high-firepower action.
5. “The Avengers”
Who says a blockbuster, crowd-pleasing popcorn movie can’t be a great film? Director/writer Joss Whedon made the biggest and best superhero movie ever (yes, once more, ever) with this all-star adventure that brought together four of Marvel’s heaviest hitters. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor meshed into a formidable and sometimes funny team while retaining the arrogance, dignity, tragedy and nobility of each individual character. Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho Nick Fury were supporting-player gold. Unlike the heavy-handed, dull and disappointing “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Avengers” had so much fun with its comic-book concept that it was an uplifting joy.
6. “Damsels in Distress”
At the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum from blockbusters like “Skyfall” and “The Avengers,” director/writer Whit Stillman’s no-budget oddball farce “Damsels in Distress” is a small gem that is droll, deadpan and deliciously dry. Greta Gerwig stars as Violet Wister, a coed at an amusingly square and charmingly bizarre college. Violet’s novel idea for preventing campus suicides involves sending soap that has a “transformative scent” to high-risk education majors. Her roommates include one with a ridiculously phony British accent and another whose lunkhead boyfriend never learned his colors. Coolly absurd and gleefully ironic, “Damsels in Distress” is strange, smart and silly in the best sense of the word.
7. “Not Fade Away”
Director/writer David Chase’s affectionate ode to a fictional 1960s garage band that went nowhere is the first thing the creator of HBO’s “The Sopranos” has done since that landmark series went off the air five years ago. Smaller in scope and with no connection to organized crime, this return to Jersey focuses on a Dylan lookalike named Doug (John Magaro) who gains some much needed self confidence after emerging from behind a drum kit to become his group’s lead singer. Former Tony Soprano James Gandolfini is gruffly endearing as Doug’s generation-gap antagonistic father, and Bella Heathcote shines as Doug’s not quite angelic object of desire Grace. Blessed with a killer classic-rock soundtrack, convincing performances and an ending so unforgettable it’s destined to become iconic, this is the movie Cameron Crowe wishes he could make.
Director Oliver Stone’s high-energy tour-de-force comeback “Savages” was the year’s most satisfying crime caper partly because it didn’t take itself too seriously. With John Travolta as a DEA agent on the take and Salma Hayek as a drug lord tough enough to intimidate mad-dog psycho hired gun Benicio Del Toro, this definitely wasn’t your typical underworld shoot ’em up. Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch play yin/yang pot dealers happily sharing girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively), who is kidnapped and used as a hostile takeover bargaining chip. Adapted from the Don Winslow novel, the movie is both hard-boiled suspenseful and post-modern preposterous, with not one but two great endings.
This grim drama about emotionally shell-shocked substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) and the month he spends at a hopeless high school is stylish, sometimes brutal and emotionally devastating. It’s an unflinching indictment of an education system that doesn’t work, students who won’t learn and parents who don’t care. Saddled with a tragic family history and an Alzheimer’s-stricken grandfather, Henry forms a risky relationship with a teenage hooker named Erica (Sami Gayle). “American History X” director Tony Kaye treats former schoolteacher Carl Lund’s screenplay with a mixture of reverence and moments of very dark humor, but there’s a deeply affecting love story at the heart of the film.
10. “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”
Proving that romantic comedies can be lightweight without feeling insubstantial, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is a refreshingly guilt-free dessert that is the farthest thing from empty junk food. The very British Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, played by the always adorable Emily Blunt, represents the interests of a sheik who wants to be able to fly fish in the Yemen River. Smugly practical UK fisheries expert Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is enlisted to manage what sounds like an impossible engineering folly, and naturally falls in love with highly efficient Harriet. Directed by Lasse Hallström (“Chocolat,” “The Cider House Rules”) from a screenplay by “Slumdog Millionaire” writer Simon Beaufoy (adapting the novel by Paul Torday), this modern-day fairy tale is a pure pleasure.