This year in film was full of stories associated with the disenfranchised, the 99 per cent. Whether by the happy accident of studio timing or quick-thinking in the editing room, it was "in" to be "out." That might explain the popularity and proliferation of superhero films this year: Batman, Spider-Man, the Avengers, Dredd, Ghost Rider and even those Men In Black showed up to kick butt. Continuing that theme, Lincoln saved people from slavery, Bond saved us from cyber-terrorism, Ben Affleck saved the hostages and Jenko and Schmidt... did their best. Here’s a sampling of some of the best that 2012 had to offer.
• Beasts of the Southern Wild
On occasion, Beasts of the Southern Wild resembles Mad Max on the bayou. But shockingly, the world inhabited by Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) takes place in our time, on our continent. It’s the story of the motley collection of people living outside of the imposing levees in Louisiana and apart from mainstream society, in an area known as "the bathtub." Young Hushpuppy lives with her father, who disappears for days at a time, leaving her to fend for herself on their ramshackle property. They are tough lessons with a purpose; plus, the next big storm threatens to wipe them all off the map for good. An unforgettable journey.
• Dark Knight Rises
A thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the remarkably well-crafted trilogy, a credit to writer-director Christopher Nolan. It’s dark, alright, with men and women trapped in tunnels and pits as anarchy reigns in Gotham City. The orchestrator of all that chaos is Bane (Tom Hardy), superior in strength and resolve than a broken Batman (Christian Bale). Current, and blending high-calibre effects and high emotion, Dark Knight Rises is pretty perfect. Bale may be hanging up his cape, but take heart DC Comics fans: there’s sequel light at the end of those tunnels.
It’s the prolonged tension and suspense that makes this film so successful. Anyone over a certain age or with access to Wikipedia can tell you how the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis ended, but we’re on the edge of our seats nonetheless. Ben Affleck directs and stars as CIA operative Tony Mendez, tasked with finding a creative way to pluck six U.S. embassy personnel from Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor’s (Victor Garber) residence and shuttle them out of the country undetected. As topical today as it was 30 years ago, the film comes to life with newsreel footage blended with grainy Super 8, great supporting performances and a good deal of thrills along the way.
The time-travel conceit feels fresh and current thanks to writer-director Rian Johnson, whose fantasy about coming face-to-face with a future version of yourself is fraught with all sorts of problems, moral and philosophical. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a "looper" working for a crime syndicate, who disposes of bodies sent to him from the future. But then he is faced with his older self (Bruce Willis), and boy, does Older Joe have some stories to tell. Remarkably clever screenplay, great turns in well-rounded roles by Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels and Paul Dano, not to mention Willis, who with Looper and Moonrise Kingdom, had a banner year.
Just when you thought they couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks, director Sam Mendes’s take on Bond surprised us in time for the 50th anniversary of the franchise. Mendes makes obsolescence the theme of the film, playing with the advancing age of Bond (Daniel Craig), M (Judi Dench) and all those spy gadgets with jokes and jabs aplenty about "the golden age of intrigue." New characters are introduced, a mainstay takes leave, and just the right amount of Bond’s history is explicated for those of us who need to know more about the man holding the signature martini. Remember all that fuss about a blond Bond? Once and for all Craig puts those doubts — along with a Bond girl or two — to bed.
It took years to convince Daniel Day-Lewis to take on the role of President Abraham Lincoln, but now that he has, it seems doubtful that anyone will fill the lean suits so well ever again. Steven Spielberg, working from Doris Kearns goodwin’s 2005 book, and aided by the narrative skills of Pulitzer Prize-winning Tony Kushner, creates a flesh-and-blood portrait of a man determined to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery at any cost. Sure, the 150-minute-long film is "talky," but Day-Lewis is unimpeachable in the role; and Sally Field, as wife Mary Tood, gives her best work in years.
• The Avengers
Sure, an Avengers movie meant dollar signs all around, the pregnant mother of a dozen sequel offspring. But by the hammer of Thor, what a movie! Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johannson, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner starred (as The Hulk, Black Widow, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hawkeye) alongside ringmaster Samuel L. Jackson in this film that boasted superhero faceoffs and dizzying effects, with a big heart and a great sense of humour as bonus. If you don’t know your chitauri, then bone up: "They’ll come back," promises Nick Fury, and you need to be ready.
• Les Miserables
True, Russell Crowe is no Carreras. But we admire the actor’s moxie, surrounded as he is with such talent, all singing without the aid of studio wizardry and auto-tuning. The actors in Tom Hooper’s epic sing "live" as they perform, making Anne Hathaway’s "I Dreamed A Dream" scene a thing of true beauty. Hugh Jackman (as Jean Valjean) belts it out alongside Crowe, Samantha Barks, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter and, yes, even Sacha Baron Cohen. The verbose Victor Hugo would be speechless.
• Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson delivers his first period piece and wrings memorable performances from all players in this endearing, quirky coming-of-age story about two 12-year-old runaways in love (Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward), and the coming-of-age part applies equally to the adults in the film (played by Ed Norton as an insecure Scout Master, Bruce Willis as a lovesick police captain, Tilda Swinton as a child welfare tyrant and Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as bizarro parents). It’s a Technicolor dream, with hues too vivid for real life, even in 1965 in a little New England island called New Penzance. Clever, colourful, comical.
• 21 Jump Street
With apologies to true fans of the late ’80s bubblegum cop show, the film spoof was just too much fun to leave off the list. Showcasing Channing Tatum’s gift for comedy (while Magic Mike showcased some of his other assets) alongside Jonah Hill, the two made the unlikeliest but best buddies of the cinematic year. Two cops who barely pass the police entrance exam get assigned to Jump Street, a high school undercover program. There they get to relive the horrors of high school, only in reverse: Hill plays the popular dude; Tatum plays the brainiac, with hilarious results.