Top 10 films that made us think in 2012

Friday January 4, 2013

Someday, "Lincoln" and "Django Unchained" will make a good double-feature on slavery, with "Lincoln" taking the high-brow approach to its end and "Django Unchained" rubbing audiences’ faces in its brutality. It’s the only time Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino would ever be on the same bill.

"Moonrise Kingdom" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" could make up a twin bill about coming of age in major storms. The "Cabin in the Woods"/"The Hunger Games" double feature would center around media manipulation of the most cynical and conniving.

Anyway, those are six of the top 10 films of 2012 on at least one movie buff’s list. There were no great movies in 2012, but great movies are a rarity. There were good movies though, and at their best they made audiences think and stuck in viewers’ heads and hearts long after the theater lights went back up.

Digital projection is now the norm in movie theaters, and in 2012 it came to Images in Williamstown, thanks to a $16,000 grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and money from Williams College and private donors. The digital image offered is crisper and cleaner, though a little chilly compared to film, but the era of spools 35 millimeter film is over and the change at the Williamstown institution had to come. Next October, the Williamstown Film Festival, another North County film institution, will go digital with Images for its 15th season.

The Berkshire International Film Festival had another successful spring offering in Great Barrington, and expanded its offerings in Pittsfield. Along with the Triplex, BIFF continues to be a strong community presence. The same is true of the Beacon in Pittsfield, and combined with the Little Cinema at the Berkshire Museum, which offers independent and foreign films mixed in with classics, Pittsfield audiences receive much the same selection of films as are available at the Triplex.

Several commercials, documentaries and short films were made in the Berkshires in 2012, according to the Berkshire Film and Media Commission’s end of the year newsletter, which also cited Sandbox F/X in Pittsfield and Synthespian Studios in Williamstown for their special effects work on the blockbuster film "Ra One" made in India.

The film industry is historically less affected by economic slumps than many others, and the BFMC in 2012 worked with MCLA in North Adams to create college courses on film and media, and teamed with the Berkshire Compact and Berkshire United Way to introduce local middle school students to filmmaking as a possible career path.

A few December releases are yet to make their way to the Berkshires, so a couple of films on this list may fall off it to the honorable mention category when all is said and done, but here are 10 movies to see.

10 Best

1. "Argo"

Director Ben Affleck takes the unlikely true story of the rescue of U.S. embassy officials in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis by passing them off as a Canadian film crew and crafts a terrific thriller grounded in international politics. For comic relief, Affleck nimbly ties in a sly, inside Hollywood satire, fleshing out a film with nary a wasted scene.

2. "Django Unchained"

Not close to being Quentin Tarantino’s best work, but this spaghetti Western centered around the Civil War slave trade offers plenty of the director’s trademark black comic mayhem and then assaults audiences with brutally poignant scenes that provide a graphic sense of what slavery must have been like.

3. "Life of Pi"

The most stunning 3D movie since "Hugo" a year ago, the haunting power of Ang Lee’s film based on a popular book lies in the way it contrasts beautiful story-telling and awful truth and asks viewers which is preferable. Computer-animated Bengal tiger Richard Parker should get a supporting actor nomination.

4. "The Dark Knight Rises"

It’s not the masterpiece that was its predecessor of 2008, but Christopher Nolan wraps up his Batman trilogy with another film linked to contemporary angst, from Wall Street thievery to the anger of an abused populace unable to pin down and confront the source of its anger.

5. "Lincoln"

Daniel Day-Lewis’ uncanny performance brings Honest Abe to life as a pragmatic idealist and deeply conflicted husband and father. Writer Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg recreate Civil War-era politics in such depth, with all of its hope and cynicism, that it cannot help but resonate today.

6. "Moonrise Kingdom"

Director Wes Anderson’s fussy, mannered style has sapped the life from a couple of his films, but here he returns to "Royal Tenenbaums" form with a winning tale of two romantic kids who jolt the jaded adults around them back to life.

7. "Cabin in the Woods"

This gory, hilarious film works as a satire of slasher flicks in which horny teens get their due, but what makes it a true original and likely cult classic is the conceit that the bloodshed is manipulated from a TV control room for the benefit of -- who or what and why?

8. "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Here’s another original, a drama of life in dirt-poor Louisiana post-Katrina with elements of a fable and musings about an ecological apocalypse. At its core is a tiny girl called Hushpuppy played with uncanny grace and gravitas by first-time actor Quvenzhane Wallis.

9. "Arbitrage"

Richard Gere is utterly convincing as a deceitful hedge fund manager whose personal and professional life come tumbling down around him. As timely as the headlines, the movie deserved more acclaim and a larger audience than it received.

10. "The Hunger Games"

The movie is weighed down by its drippy romantic triangle, but for young people unfamiliar with how totalitarian states are able to mask their villainy through slogans, media manipulation and pacification of the masses, this film provides an important education. Jennifer Lawrence continues to do extraordinary work.

Five Disappointments

1. "Prometheus"

Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated "prequel" to "Alien" is a gorgeous, incoherent mess. Two viewings don’t help.

2. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

The decision to turn the book into a film trilogy by padding it with Tolkien footnotes and leftovers seemed like a bad idea.

It was, and there are now two more to go.

3. "The Master"

Excellent work from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman but Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious character study framed around pseudo-scientific cultism is less than the sum of its parts.

4. "Hope Springs"

Any movie with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones must do well by them, but this maudlin comedic drama is an embarrassment.

5. "The Three Stooges"

Disappointing in the sense that it was made. The originals are available on DVD. Accept no substitutes.


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