They're called "moving pictures" for a reason. Moving pictures are the ones that endure, that stick in our memories after the credits fade. "State of the art" changes, visceral "popcorn" entertainments entertain — until they're over. But a movie that touches, that's one worthy of being called one of the best pictures of the year.
This year had advances in technology and technical exercises that advanced the art form. Genre films improved on their genres, popcorn pictures sold a lot of popcorn.
Movies that transcended digital IMAX 3D 48 frames-per-second image reproduction? Rare.
Here are my picks for the best films of 2012.
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The Impossible: Naomi Watts — as a perhaps mortally injured mom, hanging on to protect and teach one or two more life lessons to her son in the chaotic days after the horrific 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — gives the year's most touching performance in a film that re-creates that disaster and how one vacationing family, and poor local people who have lost everything, survive. It restores your faith in humanity, but if you're too cool for tears, go play a video game. The Impossible is in limited release and has yet to open in Lexington.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home: Funny, dark, and wise, here's a film about a slacker (Jason Segel) who finds meaning and purpose to his yearslong obsession with M. Night Shyamalan's Signs over the course of one fateful, hilarious day. Ed Helms is the brother who no longer lives at home, Susan Sarandon is the mom realizing what a disappointment both her maladjusted sons are. Segel, if this is your future, run run run from How I Met Your Mother.
Zero Dark Thirty: Riveting and painful to watch at times, controversial in its treatment of torture, this film is heroic in its celebration of the dogged intelligence work that brought justice down on Osama bin Laden. There are touching moments, mostly in a montage of 9/11 phone messages in the opening credits. Performances are secondary in this, another painstakingly detailed military movie from the Hurt Locker team of Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow. A movie you want to or need to see twice? No.
Zero Dark Thirty is in limited release but expected nationwide on Jan. 11.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: A minor miracle, here's the best argument for "regional" filmmaking ever: a vivid, post-Hurricane Katrina bayou setting where unforgettable, impoverished characters battle the rising tide of climate change and history. Benh Zeitlin's film is a great new Southern Gothic novella, magical realism made for the screen and starring a pint-size force of nature, Quvenzhane Wallis.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Not high school as it really was, but high school as it should have been. Sympathetic friends, including a wonderful Emma Watson, help a morose freshman cope with a new school and the dark secret in his past by talking about the dark secrets in their pasts. Do kids still dress up and go see Rocky Horror? Maybe not, but they should.
Les Misérables: You can know the book and know the play and still be surprised and moved by this epic tale of misery, poverty, unjust justice, compassion and redemption. Anne Hathaway, as the tragic prostitute Fantine, has been moving us to tears for a year, thanks to the trailers. In the film, she will all over again, as will Samantha Barks, Hugh Jackman and little Daniel Huddlestone. A lovely film that will have you whispering thanks that they didn't screw it up.
The Dark Knight Rises: The Avengers was more fun, but The Dark Knight Rises has gravitas, weight, timely themes and genuine lump-in-your-throat moments. The darkness is what the fanboys insist on, the hope comes courtesy of Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine, who give heart and political relevance to a franchise taking its final bow.
Smashed: It doesn't reinvent the alcoholism drama, it just gives it youth and heartbreak. Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives the performance of her career as a young teacher who struggles to grow up, get sober and start over. Standing in her way? Her adoring husband (Aaron Paul), the love of her life, but her co-dependent enabler. This is what the downward spiral is like, and this is how rough recovery can be.
Smashed, in limited release, has yet to open in Lexington.
Skyfall: Yes, it was fun, thrilling and entertaining, but so was Argo. Yes, it's a throwback, a worthy entry in the series that stands with the best James Bond films. But you can count on one finger the preceding Bond movies that gave us a hint of pathos (On Her Majesty's Secret Service). This one had high stakes, loss and consequences.
Lincoln: I still don't think this is one of Steven Spielberg's very best. But the tone he set here sticks with you. It's an elegy, a funeral poem of images, of a kind man coping with the darkest hours in the nation's history with humor, forgiveness, and steely resolve.