Here they are, my absolute favourite films of the year. Read Part I and Part II for the scoop on #6-15.
At the Golden Globes on Sunday there weren’t very many standing ovations. Obviously the Cecil B. DeMill recipient got the traditional stand-and-applaud (this time, Jodie Foster), but other than her I only remember one standing O (though I might have been paying only menial attention- the big awards shows annoy me for reasons I’m about to explain). That was the moment when Ben Affleck won Best Director for Argo. There were lots of reasons why it was an awesome moment. One was that it was the Hollywood icon’s fist trip to the major awards stage since he was 26 years old and won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting. Another reason was how roundabout, unexpected, almost controversial the journey between his Oscar and his Golden Globe was (those tabloid and terrible movie-filled years made Affleck into a bit of a joke). But the biggest reason was how soon it came after the egregious snub of his not being nominated for the Best Director Oscar this year. My personal theory is that no matter how great a director Ben has become, the Academy will always punish him for acting in some embarrassing movies after adding “Oscar Winner” to the front of his screen credit. That’s massively unfair, but that has to be the reason. Argo was not only one of the best films I’ve seen in years, it was so great Because of the direction. The acting was fine, the script was pretty good (if alienating to some of the touchier members of the commonwealth) but the magic lay in directorial concerns like tone and pacing more than anything else. It was one of the best directed films I’ve ever seen. So that leaves only two possible explanations for an Academy snub: pretension or insanity. I’m thinking pretension since the snubbing extends at least back to The Town if not earlier, but with Argo it became simply unacceptable. And the artists in attendance at The Golden Globes seemed to know that (though where they were on the Academy voting needs to be explained- tons of them being members who, apparently, voted for someone else). Ben seemed genuinely shocked that he won and was even more humbly baffled by the film’s very-deserved win for Best Picture (admittedly in the Les Mis-less “drama” field, unlike The Oscars; but it still beat Lincoln, which isn’t nothing!). I don’t actually have much to say about Argo itself here because I’ve already given it the long-and-detailed once over in my review, suffice to say that it was hours after I left the theatre that my heart rate finally returned to normal and Matt Damon had better hope his Promised Land script is damn good because I think Ben Affleck might finally have succeeded in securing his place as the more beloved and respected of the duo.
4. Your Sister’s Sister
I was very late to this party, only seeing this largely improvised three-person waltz of comedic and dramatic tension a few weeks ago on demand. And I was bowled over. Generally I’m a big advocate against the director’s credit “a film by so & so” because it diminishes the role of the screenwriter as creator (when, with few exceptions, they are the driving force behind the storytelling and the person who literally created something where there once was nothing. Yes I realize the irony of writing this one paragraph after Argo). So I probably shouldn’t have liked Lynn Shelton’s film that largely throws writing out the window. But her strange outline-as-script developed characters and relationships so vivid that even though the film isn’t a writerly text it still somehow has the feel of one. If the film had had a different director it wouldn’t have worked as well but the wholly integrated Lynn Shelton-ness of Your Sister’s Sister allowed for a synchronicity between the film’s conception and execution that makes it more of an encompassing experience than an entertaining story (though it is that as well). Not a lot happens in Your Sister’s Sister but it has massive emotional complexity the likes of which I can’t remember seeing on film. I was enthralled by the definition-defying interpersonal dynamics of the characters on screen (and how they’re even less sure of how they’re feeling than we are) and fell madly in love with all three of them- for better or for worse (including Emily Blunt! If you are a regular reader you know how happy this finally makes me). Shelton’s low-key approach to dialogue development and insightful casting decisions makes for scenes that unravel hilariously and heartbreakingly and smartly the way they honestly do between people with close, interesting dynamics like sisters and best friends. It’s just an amazingly moving film in the smallest, purist of ways with some of the most tangible human beings celluloid’s ever housed.
3. Safety Not Guaranteed
I watched Safety Not Guaranteed the same night I took in Your Sister’s Sister, forming a mini Duplass-athon (I even threw in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, though that was less memorable). I’d heard good things about Safety Not Guaranteed but I’ll admit that the reason I finally watched it was about 10% artistic curiosity, 10% Aubrey Plaza, and 80% Jake Johnson. The New Girl star has been outrageously funny all year on my favourite TV comedy so it was inevitable that I would watch this little movie he did on the side. And he’s great in it- funny and sweet in a weird roundabout way, very Jake Johnson-y (Karan Soni also gives a standout supporting turn). But what I fell in love with was Derek Connolly’s beautifully unironic script and, of course, Mark Duplass. If you gave the idea of making a film based around a real-life personal ad searching out a companion for time travel to 10 different screenwriters, 9 of them would likely have made something cynical about a delusional and lonely weirdo designed for the audience to mock or pity. Connolly is the tenth guy, the one who saw that ad and thought “what if?” instead of “yeah right”, and that makes all the difference. By approaching the story through the lens of skeptical reporters investigating the ad and the “crackpot” who would place it, Connolly’s film (and yes this is most definitely Connolly’s film more than director Colin Trevorrow’s) is in some ways a reaction to living in a world where 9 out of 10 filmmakers would have gone straight to mockery or mental illness. Aubrey Plaza is the perfect window into the story as disaffected intern Darius, the contemporary audience inherently trusting her to be a non-believer drenched in hipster sarcasm like her iconic April Ludgate. The battle of the film is this: if you can win Aubrey Plaza to the side of enthusiasm, optimism, and the belief in the impossible, surely you’ll win the audience too. And that’s precisely what Connolly does. He allows Duplass’ Kenneth the honour of not being crazy and he convinces us of such by giving us Darius’ skeptical eyes to look through. Kenneth’s not entirely sound, of course- that would be simplistic- so much of the film’s wonderfulness comes from watching Darius struggle reconciling what she thinks is true, what she thinks is possible, and who she inherently believes Kenneth to be (and all the sweeping romance and nagging fear those things entail). Duplass is nothing short of revelatory as the lonely/brilliant soul looking for someone to change the world with him (in a small way). Between the quirky exuberance and deep-seated heartbreak he shows here and the charm and emotional honesty of Your Sister’s Sister, he is undoubtedly the standout versatile talent of the year. Right alongside Darius, you want nothing more than to trust Duplass’ Kenneth (he’s the weirdest guy alive but he’s somehow intoxicating) but your irony-atuned, self-preservational, possibility-limiting brain has to duke it out with your romantically optimistic but dangerously too-trusting heart to find a space in between where Safety Not Guaranteed can exist. It wasn’t until the final seconds of the film that I knew which would ultimately win out.
2. Celeste & Jesse Forever
I’ve already written extensively about the final two films on my list so I’m going to keep these as short as possible and just let you read my Full Review. What I will say here is that Celeste & Jesse Forever was funny and heartfelt and heartbreaking all at the same time but, more than anything, it was a story I hadn’t seen before, and that never happens (at least not without a crazy device like time travel, fictional girls coming to life, or a declassified CIA operation). I love romantic comedies and the romantic dramedies that have replaced them in recent years (if When Harry Met Sally were made today, it would look a lot more like Celeste & Jesse than anything actually calling itself a “romantic comedy”) but not since When Harry Met Sally has anyone said something particularly new about the limitations of relationships within the context of a well-told romantic comedy/dramedy. What Celeste & Jesse did so beautifully was explore how there are some relationship dynamics that are unsustainable no matter how much we don’t want that to be true. In the same way that When Harry Met Sally posited that men and women can’t be friends, Celeste & Jesse shows us that we can’t be friends with our exes (not only a concept as unexplored as the former was back in 1989, but a truer hypothesis). It’s unfair that Celeste has to choose between giving up her best friend in the world and staying married to a man too unreliable and unmotivated to make a life with, but that’s the way it is and there’s no talking your way out of it (no matter how hard the title characters may try). There are lots of harsh realities in modern relationships (and when I say relationships I mean of all kinds, because Celeste and Jesse are complicated because they’re so much more than their romantic relationship) and the massive loss that comes when you break up with someone you truly love but maybe aren’t in love with anymore makes for a film that pulled my heart out and pounded it into the pavement (but was also funny. Did I mention it’s funny?). Beautifully written by Will McCormack and Rashida Jones (who also delivers a great performance in the lead role), with a supporting cast brilliant enough to include standout turns by Chris Messina, Elijah Wood And Ari Graynor, and starring a knockout leading performance from Andy Samberg that completely redefines the borders of possibility for the ex-SNL goofball, Celeste & Jesse Forever was to me in 2012 what When Harry Met Sally was for the 23 years that came before.
1. Ruby Sparks
My favourite movie in a year full of so many good movies that they could have topped any other year’s list. Perfectly cast, beautifully acted, beautifully shot, brilliantly scored- this film is an all-round gem. Paul Dano is stunning as former wunderkind author Calvin and the film elicits belly laughs, frenzied tears, and a full range of thought-provoking, “I don’t know what to do with myself”, “I never even considered that!” emotion in between. Zoe Kazan’s script is one of the best I’ve ever seen with so much to say that the film stands up to viewing after viewing without losing an inch of its intellect or heart. Again, I’ve already written and written and written some more about this one so I’m not going to repeat everything here. But what I will say is that I thoroughly enjoyed Ruby Sparks on the popcorn level that I want from any form of populist art- I want to be able to laugh out loud and follow the story easily and get caught up in the pretty romance and the witty dialogue- but I could also write papers about Ruby Sparks. Long ones. Many of them. About the subversion of character convention and the representation of genius and the psychological ramifications of romantic power dynamics and imposed societal gender roles and the familial outsider complex and personality projection and the introvert-artistic correlation and how it doesn’t matter at the end how he’s going to introduce this new girl who looks just like Ruby to his family who already met Ruby because that’s not at all the point of the film! Okay, that last one was just me rebelling against the only criticism of this film that’s ever made me question it at all (seriously, how Is he going to introduce new-girl-played-by-Zoe-Kazan to his family who met old-girl-played-by-Zoe-Kazan?) and that’s a pretty small criticism. Ruby Sparks is a crazy smart movie that’s entirely more fun than most things even half as smart. And the fact that such a rebelliously inventive, artistically innovative, honestly grounded and flat-out clever script was written by an actress who not only presents as a real-life pseudo-Manic Pixie Dream Girl but who plays the title deconstruction of said archetype in her own film? It’s just too fantastically subversive for words.
Much Ado About Nothing
One of the best movie-going experiences of my 2012 was part of the Toronto International Film Festival. I never go to TIFF. In fact, I usually avoid downtown altogether while it’s going on. But when I found out that Much Ado was going to be there, I couldn’t help myself. When news of this film’s existence appeared online, all my friends started sending me the link with subject lines that read “wouldn’t it be awesome if this were real?!”. But it is real. And it’s Great. It’s just not in wide release yet, which means it’s not technically a part of 2012, at least not by My Cinema rules. In order to qualify for our annual awards and to make it onto a list like this, the film has to hit wide release (or at least fairly big release) by December 31st. Much Ado is coming out in June 2013, hence its exclusion from those two aforementioned things. But I couldn’t resist including it in some capacity. So, “Honorable Mention”, that great, ambiguous, rule side-stepping term.
This movie was sort of like the Kelly version of what The Avengers must have been like for a true comics geek. The scope of Whedon fandom is far and wide and what makes it stretch so far is the fact that we all love him for different reasons.Yes there’s a general consensus about banter and character arcs, but, beyond that, he’s got horror fans and sci-fi fans, musical fans, superhero fans, dystopia fans, fans who I wouldn’t quite call horror fans but are in it for the hot vampires- and often those groups don’t overlap much outside of the Whedonverse. Me, I’m in it pretty purely for the banter and character arcs (I don’t much care if you’re a vampire, a doll, a supervillain or an antisocial doctor guy, show me courage, loyalty, and growth and you’ve got me) but what really puts Joss Whedon on his pedestal above other creators of considerable talent for me is simply that he himself is so interesting. It’s not actually his work that I hold to a high standard, it’s him. I like that people who’ve worked with him once all clamour to do it again; I like that he’s smart and cool and weird enough to host Shakespeare readings at his house for fun; I like that he picks projects that he thinks will be fun, whether they’re good career choices or not (I mean, a guest arc on Husbands? Okay. A cameo as a bathroom coach in one of BriTANicK’s weirdest videos ever? Sure); and I super love that all those independently minded, smart kid, beloved social nucleus parts of his identity came together in a bizarrely perfect package for Much Ado About Nothing. From the story of the film’s conception and casting to its insightful and fun execution (there’s even original music in the finished product for crying out loud!), Much Ado is the Joss Whedon film that is, to me, the most Joss Whedon-y, even if it doesn’t sport anything that could be called “genre”. The story goes that Joss and his wife Kai were supposed to take a vacation post-Avengers but instead Kai suggested that Joss use his two vacation weeks to finally shoot the modern version of Much Ado About Nothing that he’d had on the backburner for years.He’d already adapted the script and planned to shoot at his own house- and he had two weeks off, after all. Who CAN’T shoot an entire film in two weeks?- so the thing got rolling under complete wraps until after the whole film was in the can and Joss finally let Nathan Fillion back on his twitter account.
To do the film, Whedon assembled a dreamteam of his frequent collaborators and friends. He got star-crossed Angel lovers Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker for his feuding leading roles (Acker being the most famous attendee at Whedon’s famed readings, her off-the-cuff take on Cleopatra having inspired him to kill her character Fred to allow her the more regal challenge of playing the goddess Illyria). He recruited the now casually super famous former Firefly/Dr. Horrible star Nathan Fillion to make a fool of himself as the clownish Dogberry and brought back Buffy’s beloved Andrew (Tom Lenk) to be his sidekick.Giles was busy so he went with Agent Coulson for Leonato then made his most unexpected move by casting Dollhouse brainiac/Cabin in the Woods stoner Fran Kranz in the gushy romantic Romeo-like role of Claudio.And for the brooding bastard Don John, Whedon called up the only person to rival Denisof’s Wesley for my heart- Firefly’s heroic Dr. Simon Tam, saying “I need a sexy villain, what sayest thou?” (that’s a real quote, people. Straight from Sean Maher himself, whom I had the thrilling chance to interview at TIFF).
The film uses Shakespeare’s text and is in black and white but still somehow plays like the liveliest and most accessible romantic comedy this side of Love, Actually. Whedon, being Whedon, doesn’t shy away from the pieces of heartbreak, resentment and mistrust that lie within Shakespeare’s comedy, but that’s just good storytelling. He pulls at the heartstrings of the matter, twists them around until they’re funny again, then hands it all off to Alexis Denisof to make the whole thing positively gregarious with belly laughs. Denisof is a genius with physical comedy, which he pairs with the liveliest banter Shakespeare ever wrote and the heartbreak any Angel fan knows he can play so well, all reflected beautifully off of his greatest screen partner- Amy Acker. When I interviewed the sharp-witted and soft-spoken Acker a few years ago and asked her if there was any actor in the world she could act with again whom would she pick, she didn’t hesitate a second before blurting out “Alexis!”, and she had good reason to. The two are electric together- especially in Shakespeare’s most fun pairing- and they, along with Whedon’s insightful character interpretations, bring out so much in the characters that often gets overlooked.In fact the whole film is full of awesome little details that Whedon’s tweaked for his modern interpretation from the rollicking nature of the party to having a female Conrad (and therefore lots of lascivious villain cavorting!) . He also recruited the great BriTANicK boys for the itty bitty roles of The Watchmen (proving mostly that he has awesome YouTube taste). One of the biggest delights for me was actually Fran Kranz (considering that Denisof, Acker and Maher are all exactly as wonderful as I was expecting). I really like Fran Kranz– he was amazing in Dollhouse and the fantastic lynchpin of Cabin in the Woods– but I Never would have thought he could play a convincing Claudio. That character is all charm, romance, anger, and gullibility, while Kranz made his name on goofy roles heavy on rational thought and insightfulness. But that’s why Joss is just smarter than me, because he can see Romeo in Topher. I did not realize Kranz was dreamy; funny- yes, talented- absolutely, smart- obviously, but dreamy? Apparently YES! Mind Blown. And not only is he more than a little dreamy, he’s so fantastic in the controversial role that he makes Claudio a standout character for the first time possibly ever.
The film is just generally fabulous. I’ll write more when the wide release date gets closer and publish our exclusive with Sean Maher then. But in the meantime, just know this movie is Awesome and it’s out there waiting to get to you soon.