5-Argo- I was impressed with Ben Affleck’s first two efforts as director, but I wasn’t blown away. I felt that both features were flawed but showed real potential. After seeing Argo, I can safely say that that potential has been realized. Argo is a thrilling, suspenseful, humorous, detailed look at the story of how six civilians were rescued from Iran during the hostage crisis thanks to some aid from Canada and some unlikely help from Hollywood. The film begins with an excellent and informative prologue for the uninitiated which helps explain what led to the hostage crisis in the first place. From there, the story never misses a beat. We see the situation from the point of view of the people trapped in Iraq, the people trying to get them out in the Canadian and US governments, the people trying to help in Hollywood, and the residents of Iran itself mostly in the form of a maid who works at the Canadian Consulate where the US citizens are hiding out. Almost every character is given a special moment to shine through. For me, in fact, the most moving moment is when the Iranian maid must make the decision about where her loyalties ultimately lie. The Hollywood scenes allow the tension to lift a bit and provide a much appreciated dose of humor to the proceedings. And Affleck is excellent in his role as the man who takes the responsibility to try to rescue these people from their plight. Even the closing credits are worth staying for as they show real life still photos from the hostage crisis which mirrors the images we just saw in the film. A total triumph for everyone involved.
Rotten Tomatoes: 95% (227-11)
4-Prometheus-Right up until the release date, people were left to speculate just how much this film was going to have to do with the Alien universe Ridley Scott created over 30 years ago. Would it be a prequel to that film, or would this be an entirely separate creation? The glorious answer is that it was both. The movie does give the roots and the explanation to the creation of the horrific alien race, but it also breaks new ground and dares to make its theme the search for the origin of mankind’s existence. The superb, daring opening prologue actually shows an alien being mix the ingredients of man together on earth in the past. We then fast-forward to the future where two scientists have made a discovery that they believe will lead them to their creators. To say anymore would ruin the experience, so I’ll just say that there are gory surprises around every turn and giant ideas being juggled around. Visually, the film is stunning in its grandeur which is not surprising considering Scott’s pedigree. More impressive is the dexterity with which he juggles the numerous ideas floating around. It is truly where we feel the presence of a master filmmaker. In a movie filled with standouts, I’ll pick out two. First, the set piece where the female scientist played by Nooni Rapace is forced to perform a gruesome self surgery on herself. Second, the performance of Michael Fassbender as an artificial person might be my favorite of the year. Every second he is on the screen is mesmerizing and disturbing. He is every bit the riddle you would expect a robot of immense intelligence to be and it gives his actions a wonderful unpredictability. Prometheus is so bold that it will be hated by many; sometimes that is the price that must be paid to make a meaningful work of art.
Rotten Tomatoes: 74% (192-69)
3-Life of Pi- For those unfamiliar with the book, Life of Pi is a story about a young boy who survives at sea for a long time on a raft with the company of a zebra, orangutan, hyena, and tiger. If that sounds like an unlikely premise for a movie, it probably explains the long road this book took before it was adapted. Many filmmakers and producers felt that it would simply be impossible to make a coherent film out of such a subject. In the end, they were all proved wrong when just the right man was found to helm the project. Ang Lee has created something extremely special here, a one-of-a-kind experience that has images and scenes that make cinema itself seem brand-new. I’ve seen thousands and thousands of films, but never one that held so many visual surprises as this one. I must also confess as a hater of 3-D that this was the first time I was impressed with the process since seeing Avatar over three years ago. However, the film is so beautiful and the images so striking that I’m sure I will be enchanted by whatever format I view it in the future. The shipwreck is stunning, and there are numerous unforgettable encounters with flying fish, whales, sharks, and especially with that tiger. It seems impossible to believe that the animal was created digitally and isn’t flesh and blood. The story also has a strong spiritual side. In fact, the narrator makes the bold promise that after you hear the tale you will believe in God. Personally, I am a strict secularist and nonbeliever. However, while it didn’t change my beliefs, its beauty and perfection did enhance my faith in the ability of the medium I love above all others to create wonder and magic. That is all I can ask. A perfect, beautiful experience.
Rotten Tomatoes: 88% (140-20)
2-The Dark Knight Rises- It’s got to be a tremendous challenge for a filmmaker to finish off a trilogy, especially coming off the success of a middle chapter which is already pretty much universally acknowledged as the standard for all superhero films. Christopher Nolan provides an epic finale that more than sticks the landing to the entire franchise. It does what most final chapters fail to do. It is not only a great film itself, but it enhances everything that came before it and adds even more resonance to the entire creation. Nothing could top the work Heath Ledger did as the Joker in the second chapter, but the new versions of the Catwoman and Bane could stand up to almost anything else. Anne Hathaway is in top form as the antihero and thief known as Catwoman, while Tom Hardy is terrifying both physically and mentally as Bane. The film is bold in ways other films are afraid to be. For example, most films would have hostile situations that last for a couple of hours to a day. The Dark Knight Rises envisions a scenario where an entire city is held hostage to the whims of a madman for months on end while the one hero who can stop him is trapped helpless and injured in a prison. To pull off a scenario like that is not for the faint of heart. The script gets its influences from all over the map, from Charles Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement. All the characters we have met through the entire trilogy have their ultimate fates wrapped up in deeply satisfying ways. That goes for the lead character himself though I won’t reveal what that fate is out of respect for the few who might’ve missed this stunning work. The bad news that Chris Nolan’s time with Batman is over. The good news is that he is sure to bring us the same mixture of intelligence and wonder on whatever project he commits to next.
Rotten Tomatoes: 87% (254-38)
1-Django Unchained-Just like Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight Rises, Django Unchained highlights another filmmaker who is incredibly daring and at the top of his game. In his last film, Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino had the nerve to take the events of World War II and reinvent them to suit his own universe. Here he takes on the even more controversial subject of slavery and turns it into something that is half spaghetti Western and half something that only Tarantino could have concocted. The plot involves a bounty hunter (Christophe Waltz) who teams up with a slave (Jamie Foxx) who can identify some people the hunter is tracking down. As time goes by, they develop a fellowship of sorts, and Waltz agrees to help Foxx rescue his wife who is in the custody of a brutal slave owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio. This setup results in a series of set pieces that are alternately hilarious, outrageous, violent, and brutal. There is not one time when I could guess where this film was going. Tarantino has always been masterful at plot twists and shocking sudden bursts of violence and he is at the top of his game here. The four central performances are among the best of the year. In addition to the three actors mentioned above, the fourth one-of-a-kind performance belongs to Samuel L Jackson as a house slave who is utterly loyal to his master to the detriment of everyone else. The close to three hour running time of this movie went by in a flash for me and I’m still giddy thinking about it three days later. Should a movie about slavery be entertaining? I think it is a valid question, but I only know that this is the most entertaining film of the year and it manages it without skimping on the horrors of slavery for one moment. Like every other Tarantino film, I will be watching this multiple times for years to come.
Rotten Tomatoes: 89% (126-16)
My final verdict on 2012. A great year in film that delivered the most films I loved since 2007.