BEST OF 2012: WILLIAM D. LEE SELECTS HIS FAVORITES

William Lee selects his picks for best films and releases of 2012.

William D. Lee's picture
William
Lee

Catching up on movies during awards season is a daunting, but rewarding experience. While I've seen some incredible films, there are still a bunch of titles I've yet to see such as "This Is Not a Film," "Tabu," and "5 Broken Cameras." Other releases that have been burning up critics' lists this year like "The Kid with a Bike," "The Turin Horse," and "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" made it to my list of Best Films of 2011.

Top 10 Films of 2012

1. Django Unchained (Tarantino)
Westerns have been a frequent inspiration on Tarantino, especially in his last two pictures, "Kill Bill" and "Inglourious Basterds." Film geeks anxiously awaited his first stab at the genre and Tarantino doesn't disappoint. Blending blaxploitation with the bleak Westerns of Sergio Corbucci, "Django Unchained" is a stylized and brutal portrayal of pre-Civil War America. Christoph Waltz is charming as hell as the German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz and owns the screen for every second he's there. It's all energized by an eclectic soundtrack that includes stand-bys like Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov alongside new hip-hop tracks by Rick Ross and John E. Legend.

2. The Avengers (Whedon)
Avengers assemble. Marvel Studios attempted the unprecedented by creating a shared cinematic universe. The foundation was solid following the phenomenal success of "Iron Man." However, their next few movies didn't come close to those numbers or garner the same critical acclaim. "Iron Man 2" suffered from Marvel's preoccupation with building to "The Avengers" rather than telling a solid self-contained story. Needless to say, any worries about Marvel pulling together those disparate elements together were dashed thanks to Joss Whedon. The creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" brought his flair for offbeat humor with strong storytelling for the most epic superhero film ever made.

3. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow)
Controversy circled around "Zero Dark Thirty" even before its release. Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to "The Hurt Locker" is neither a condemnation of the war on terror or a jingoistic advocate for torture. This is an apolitical and unflinching dramatization of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. The final 30 minutes of the film focuses solely on the siege of bin Laden's compound and stands as an incredibly tense and well-staged action sequence.

4. The Master (P.T. Anderson)
The opening of "The Master" features Joaquin Phoenix's troubled Freddie Quell on a beach with his fellow sailors who have constructed a woman out of wet sand. Quell proceeds to furiously dry hump the sculpture to their amusement only for laughter to turn into hushed horror. That sort of sums up P.T. Anderson's latest production, an enigmatic character study loosely based on the formation of Scientology. "The Master" is gorgeously crafted with bravura performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams as the woman behind the power.

5. Looper (Johnson)
Time travel is a tricky concept to play with, but Rian Johnson's "Looper" brings something fresh to the table by melding science fiction with noir-ish tropes and a touch of anime influence. "Looper" is set in a future where time travel is illegal and used only by criminal organizations seeking to get rid of their targets.

6. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
"Moonrise Kingdom" is a tender and humorous story of young love from the idiosyncratic Wes Anderson. Each frame of the movie is a radiant tableau painstakingly crafted and built around two marvelous performances from its young leads, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. Their romance is imbued with a sweet-natured innocence that is accentuated by Anderson's deadpan humor and supported by a marvelous cast that includes Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, and Ed Norton.

7. Amour (Haneke)
The films of Michael Haneke are known to be bleak. "Amour" isn't so different, but it is one of his most accessible productions with an ending that is more bittersweet than outright depressing. Any way you look at it, "Amour" is a tough picture to digest, a raw and intimate look at the perils of growing old. Not even legends of European cinema, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who is the oldest thespian nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards. Riva suffers a stroke leaving the right side of her body paralyzed. Her dutiful husband watches over her and quietly witnesses the love of his life waste away.

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin)
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is an impressive debut for neophyte filmmaker Ben Zeitlin, who also co-wrote the screenplay (based on the play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar) as well as composed the amazing score with Dan Romer. "Beasts" is a modern fairy tale of magical realism set in a post-Katrina bayou with echoes of "Where the Wild Things Are." Zeitlin employs nonprofessional actors, including 5-year old Quvenzhané Wallis in the lead as a girl named Hushpuppy attempting to survive in an area called the Bathtub with her father Wink.

9. Holy Motors (Carax)
You can always count on the French for a confounding cinematic experience that defies any succinct plot summary. Denis Lavant becomes a modern day Lon Cheney as he dons a variety of disguises and costumes while tooling around Paris in a white stretch limo. Lavant acts out a series of scenarios from an elderly woman begging for change to a melodramatic death bed confession. The centerpiece of "Holy Motors" belongs to a melancholy musical sequence with Kylie Minogue strolling through an abandoned department store strewn with mannequin parts. "Holy Motors" is both a lyrical tribute and a forlorn requiem for film in its purest form.

10. Argo (Affleck)
Argo fuck yourself. "Argo" is proof that truth is stranger than fiction. It’s a throwback to the political thrillers of the 70's with a grainy look and old school direction by Ben Affleck. "Argo" recounts the joint operation by the CIA and movie producers to rescue a group of Americans who escaped the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran. History has told us that they eventually made it out by posing as a Canadian film crew, yet the tense story constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat. "Argo" is an ode to the power of Hollywood and an acknowledgement of quiet, unsung heroism.

Close But No Cigar: The Cabin in the Woods (Goddard)
Joss Whedon strikes again. Whedon serves as co-writer and producer with director Drew Goddard, a former writer on "Buffy" and "Lost" for an absolutely insane meta-textual thrill ride that acts as a final exclamation point on the horror genre. "The Cabin in the Woods" collects all the clichéd tropes and twists them in utterly unexpected ways that are simultaneously frightening and darkly comical. "Cabin" crescendos into a bloody and balls-out insane conclusion.

Honorable Mentions: Damsels in Distress, The Dark Knight Rises, Lincoln, The Raid: Redemption, Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall

Best Animated Film: Wreck-It Ralph (Moore)
It's ironic that Pixar's newest film, "Brave," was its most Disney-esque with a period setting and a princess as protagonist while Disney's latest effort felt Pixar in spirit. "Wreck-It Ralph" is "Toy Story" for video games featuring cameos from icons such as Pac-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Q*Bert. But, "Wreck-It Ralph" doesn't simply rest on nostalgia and easy pop culture references, there's genuine heart underneath the luscious animation.

Honorable Mentions: Brave, ParaNorman

Best Documentary: How to Survive a Plague (France)
"How to Survive a Plague" uses a wealth of archival footage to drop its audience into the early days of AIDS activism. An ominous counter appears in the corner as thousands upon thousands of AIDS-related deaths mount. The Reagan administration remains silent to the pleas of help from millions of American citizens. Hospitals turn away the sick while others spew hate-filled rhetoric towards the homosexual community. A courageous few sought to shine a light on these dark times through protests on the government, church, and FDA. Their voices were loud, strong and could not be ignored.

Honorable Mentions: The Imposter, Searching for Sugar Man

Best DVD and Blu-ray Releases of 2012
1. Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures (Paramount)
2. The Avengers (Paramount, Disney)
3. Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection (Universal)
4. Battle Royale: The Complete Collection (Anchor Bay)
5. Prometheus: 4-Disc Collector's Edition (Fox)
6. Jaws (Universal)
7. The Hunger Games: 3-Disc Deluxe Edition - Target Exclusive (Lionsgate)
8. The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros)
9. Finding Nemo (Disney)
10. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Paramount)

Paramount finally brings the classic Indiana Jones movies to Blu-ray with spectacular transfers, despite the fact that "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" still stands as nothing more than an expensive coaster. "The Avengers" was one of the best films of 2012 and its release on Blu-ray features great extras and a superb picture quality. Universal celebrated its 100th anniversary with a slew of catalog releases with the cream of the crop being "Jaws" and "E.T." Their biggest and best release is the "Universal Classic Monsters" boxset, which pulls together fully restored versions of iconic pictures such as "Dracula," "Frankenstein," and "The Wolf Man."

Honorable Mentions: Cinderella: Diamond Edition, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Walking Dead: Season 2, Watchmen: Collector's Edition