Films of 2012: The Best So Far

Here are we at the midpoint of 2012. How have the movies been? Pretty good, I think, although the output of studio films has not been particularly strong so far this year. (Although I’ll admit that The Avengers has probably caught on more than any other film released at this point.) 2012 has been a great year for the indies, though, with plenty of strong films that debuted last year on the festival circuit expanding their audience in theatrical/home release. The year has been especially kind to documentary filmmakers, for many quality docs have made an impact. Perhaps this sense is simply a product of being able to see more films at Hot Docs this year; regardless, there were enough documentaries fighting for spots on my list that I considered giving them their own one. I opted not to, though, since a separate list might seem to diminish their status to the other films, and this didn’t seem fair since my two favourite films so far this year – We Are Wisconsin and The Imposter – are both documentaries. Instead, I offer a list of the fifteen best films so far this year, rather than separate lists of say, ten and five.

 I’ve also included lists of the best performances so far this year, so please look out for those films, too, whilst perusing your local show times. It was no difficult task for me to name the top performer so far this year: Christopher Plummer’s performance in Barrymore is simply in a league of its own. The top spot for the best supporting performance so far is a tight race between Paul Giamatti's deranged recluse in Cosmopolis, Charlotte Sullivan’s fiery turn as the moll of Edwin Boyd and Maggie Smith’s fun work in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Without further ado, here are my picks for the films so far this year in alphabetical order:
(Titles link to full review where available.)

(John Madden, UK)
Plenty of travel movies take viewers on a journey of self-discovery, but none has done so as well as the troupe of geriatrics headlined by the reliable Judi Dench has. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel succeeds above others because it immerses viewers in character rather than a postcard-perfect sense of place.

(David Cronenberg, Canada/France)
I haven’t seen so much flack for a positive review since Moneyball. Alas, though, Cosmopolis is a perfect conversation piece. It gets people talking in classic Cronenberg style, with all sorts of big ideas and trippy visual colliding with an excess of Hollywood stars and an assault of Canadian content. And it all takes place in a city called New York that looks exactly like Toronto. Classic Cronenberg, indeed!

(Whit Stilman, USA)
Yes, Whit Stilman is back and as good as ever. Greta Gerwig leads a quartet of deadpan damsels that sends up all sorts of silly social mores in polite banter, fake accents, and well-placed affirmatives. The film even has a dance sequence, if it was already quirky enough. (Eight steps can save your life!) Does this calls for a vodka tonic? Yes.

(Nathan Morlando, Canada)
A star is born with Scott Speedman’s strong turn as Edwin Boyd, the title character in this electrifying landmark in Canadian genre films. With crackerjack supporting players like Charlotte Sullivan, Kevin Durand, Kelly Reilly, and Brian Cox, not to mention a playlist by The Black Keys, Edwin Boyd offers a big score for audiences. There are few gangster films within the snow-covered canon of Canadian cinema, but Edwin Boyd makes it look as if the Canucks have been making them for years.

(Jennifer Westfeldt, USA)
I just fell in love with this movie from the opening scene. I do not attempt to hide my thoughts about public baby decorum, but this comedy by Jennifer Westfeldt really tackles the pros and cons of parenthood. Best about Friends with Kids, I think, is the film’s ability to wrestle with the question of whether the nuclear family remains the hallmark of success circa 2012. Is a happy, productive, meaningful life with friends enough, or does one need more?

(Gary Ross, USA)
While Friends with Kids probes the nature of baby making, The Hunger Games is a must for anyone who falls within the “con” argument for children. A strong Jennifer Lawrence leads a troupe of kids who go at it Battle Royale style in this impressive and surprising dystopian drama. Having read the novel by Suzanne Collins after seeing the film, I must applaud Mr. Ross’s The Hunger Games as a superior adaptation of a fun and thrilling novel. I will happily eat crow for presuming this film to be “the new Twilight”.

(Bart Layton, UK)
This film is an absolute masterpiece. It’s a tale too unbelievable to be real: if The Imposter was not a documentary, I’d be rolling my eyes and dismissing the story as too farfetched. That’s what makes the film so fascinating, though. As the imposter gleefully explains his story and delineates the overwhelming hurdles of rationality, common sense, and probability that he overcame to accomplish his masterful act of deception, the film generates all sorts of deeper queries and conspiracy theories. Flawlessly edited and executed, The Imposter is a genuine feat of storytelling.

(Kirby Dick, USA)
Of all the films I saw at Hot Docs this year, I think The Invisible War to be the strongest contender for a shot at Best Documentary at the Oscars this year. It’s a provocative, devastating case about sexual abuse in the military as told in the voices of victims who ask for the crimes to stop. The film has already enacted change from the American government, so any awards are essentially ticks on a tally sheet for the compelling film.

(Corey Lee, Canada)
Another Hot Docs find, Legend of a Warrior is a surprising and compelling human drama. It’s the story of a son (Corey Lee) who wants to reconnect with his estranged father, Frank. Lee decides to relearn kung fu through his father’s teachings, and the sport offers a convenient way for Corey to rekindle the bond. It’s really the revelation that the film brings out in Frank’s character, though, that grants Legend of a Warrior its deep catharsis. The drama resonates far beyond the story of the father and the son, and it extends to reparation for the new generations of family to come from this kung fu master.

(Kevin Macdonald, UK/USA)
Marley is a sprawling, staggering epic. It pulls off the rare trick of doing justice to a man and his music within the confines of one feature-length film. As a viewer with only minimal knowledge of Bob Marley prior to seeing the film, I found Marley to offer an exhaustive range of context, information, anecdotes, and opinions. Add to the list an impressive range of concert footage, photographs, and archival material, and Kevin Macdonald’s Marley is surely the definitive portrait of Marley and his life’s work.

(Wes Anderson, USA)
Moonrise Kingdom ensures that Wes Anderson will forever be included in the upper tier of auteur filmmaking. Moonrise is arguably his best film to date; his idiosyncratic/quirky/offbeat style finds its best narrative match in this story of young lovers on the lam. Anderson’s aesthetic is perhaps the best realization of child’s play that the cinema has seen in quite some time. Moonrise Kingdom has a unique friskiness in its nostalgic look at pre-adolescent love circa 1965. It takes viewers back to a more innocent time and lets them be kids all over again.

Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding
(Bruce Beresford, USA)
I honestly don’t understand why this isn’t a bigger hit. Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding was, for me, the most pleasant surprise at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The crowd seemed to love it, as good-hearted laughter rippled throughout the Visa Screening Room until ecstatic applause marked the end of the film. P,L,M is simply a good-hearted comedy. It’s seems like a film that the whole family could enjoy on a hot summer’s day, but it doesn’t pander, either. P,L,M also has the secret ingredient for a big hit, which is the triumphant return of Jane Fonda as, Grace, the hilarious hippy mother of Catherine Keener’s uptight New Yorker, Diane. Fonda’s turn as Grace offers the perfect fusion of star persona and performance. Both the film and Fonda deserves more consideration.

Take This Waltz
(Sarah Polley, Canada)
Take This Waltz is another of my TIFF holdovers. I named it one of my Top Ten Canadian Films of 2011, but then I goofed and realized that I really should consider it a 2012 film due to the date of its release. I think that Sarah Polley can double dip her chip as often as she likes, since Take This Waltz is a beautiful film that has stayed in my heart since last September. After Away from Her, Take This Waltz confirms Sarah Polley as an expert teller of stories of the heart. Although Waltz is much different in tone from her debut feature, it is another of her honest, true-to-life explorations of love. What I also love about Polley’s work is how, like David Cronenberg, she is unafraid to let the Canadianness of her film shine. Whether it’s a sound-bite of Neil Young or a forkful of poutine, Polley’s films celebrate the little tokens of Canadiana that are too often masked in hopes of commercial appeal. Take This Waltz embraces the messiness of life and offers a poignant, uniquely Canadian love story.
(Opens in Ottawa at The Bytowne on Friday! I can't wait to see it again.)

(Amie Williams, USA)
Saved the best for last. We Are Wisconsin topped the list of films I saw at Hot Docs this year and I still have to tip my hat to director Amie Williams and her team of collaborators/subjects. Even though the state voted not to recall Scott Walker, I still greatly admire the effort made by the film. There have been a handful of politically charged zeitgeist films during the Bush and Obama eras, but We Are Wisconsin is probably the one American film that really hit home to Canada. Wisconsin captures the wave of backwards conservatism that is spreading across North American, for the threat of Wisconsin reform frequently pops up in talks surrounding Ontario politics. Films like We Are Wisconsin, then, give me hope that there are still lots of intelligent, progressively minded people within our land. The film does not pose a loss in terms of its objective, for it remains an impassioned snapshot of dedicated citizens fighting for necessary change. We Are Wisconsin is a film that needs to be seen by anyone who cares about the future.

The Best Lead Performances of 2012
1. Christopher Plummer, Barrymore

Jane Fonda, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding
Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games
Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis
Noomi Rapace, Prometheus
Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
Jennifer Westfeldt, Friends with Kids
Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz
Michelle Yeoh, The Lady

The Best Supporting Performances:
1. Paul Giamatti, Cosmopolis 

Tom Cruise, Rock of Ages
Michael Fassbender, Prometheus
Samantha Morton, Cosmopolis
Charlotte Sullivan, Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster

There we have it! I hope that the rest of 2012 brings good things, but I'll remind you that these films won't be forgotten. Last year, for example, Midnight in Paris was my #1 film at this point and it held the top spot all year long. It should be noted, though, that I haven't seen some of the year's most beloved films such as Les intouchables, Bully (hopefully I'll see that when it plays at The Mayfair next week), Lola Versus, Brave, and a few others.

What are your favourites so far this year?