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4:12 pm
Mon December 31, 2012

Bob Mondello's Best Movies Of 2012

Originally published on Wed February 20, 2013 12:41 pm

A lot of movie box-office records fell in 2012. The comic-book blockbuster The Avengers had the biggest opening weekend in Hollywood history. Skyfall will be the first James Bond film to top $1 billion worldwide. And the box-office year as a whole is easily the movie industry's biggest ever. But what about quality? Perhaps surprisingly, the news is good there, too.

Hollywood is often accused of serving up simple-minded pleasures — either explosions or uplift, frequently both — but a lot of this year's best films were nuanced and complex, and for once, their nuanced complexity was exactly what made them popular. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, for instance, is no wide-eyed presidential snow job, but a tale of political intrigue where the great good of eradicating slavery requires great compromise on lesser evils. The film has other virtues — terrific performances, gorgeous cinematography — but what's captivating audiences is that it's not the dipped-in-amber civics lesson they expected.

That's also true of the war-on-terrorism chronicle Zero Dark Thirty, a gritty look at the hunt for Osama bin Laden that raises all sorts of moral and ethical questions, and is about as far from a rah-rah, get-the-bad-guy flick as director Kathryn Bigelow could make it.

That's a good thing, because Ben Affleck made a rah-rah, get-away-from-the-bad-guys flick that would be pretty hard to top: the rousing thriller Argo, about how the CIA got six Americans out of Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis by pretending to make a movie.

That's a trio of fact-based stories. Beasts of the Southern Wild, in contrast, is a fable that blends real-world tempests and mythical creatures in telling the tale of a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy who lives in a bayou community, hit by a hurricane. Filled with danger, but also warmth, Hushpuppy's world is at once real and magical — as is the movie.

The next three of the year's most compelling pictures hail from overseas. France gives us Michael Haneke's devastating masterwork Amour, about an elderly married couple, played by the great French stars Jean Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who find themselves facing the end of life. It's not a pretty end to a love that's lasted decades, but they find joy while they can in things like a brand new motorized wheelchair.

Another French picture, Rust and Bone, is about a love just beginning — between a fighter and a woman who suffers a life-altering accident — one that required some of the year's most arresting special effects.

2012's most compelling documentary, meanwhile, hails from Israel: The Gatekeepers, in which six former heads of Israel's internal security service, Shin Bet, talk about everything from targeted assassinations to being hung out to dry by the politicians who gave them their marching orders. Augmented by news footage, the film offers an alternately fascinating and deeply upsetting perspective on conflict in the Middle East.

Also eye-opening is a far lighter documentary about a 1970s folk singer from Detroit who gave up music after cutting an album that got no traction in the U.S. Unbeknownst to him, it sold like hot cakes in South Africa, where all his fans thought he'd died, until someone went Searching for Sugar Man.

That's eight of my top 10. The last two are by directors named Anderson. Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson's whimsical look at a small New England community's reaction when a 12-year-old orphan who excels at scouting runs off camping with a girlfriend.

That contrasts with the high seriousness Paul Thomas Anderson brings to his midcentury epic, The Master, about a movement called The Cause, its charismatic leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and an alcoholic acolyte (Joaquin Phoenix). The film is as intense psychologically as it is ravishing visually.

OK, that's a Top 10, so theoretically, we're done, but the number 10 feels especially arbitrary in a terrific year like this one, so let's keep going. Commercial filmmakers came up with some seriously cool fantasies this year, including two co-starring Joseph Gordon Levitt — the time-travel thrill ride Looper, in which Gordon-Levitt is an assassin who must kill his future self (played by Bruce Willis), and the final episode in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, in which he's intent on saving children and orphans.

That's a theme that has a particular resonance as 2012 draws to a close, and that was also present in two foreign films earlier in the year — Monsieur Lazhar, about a sensitive substitute teacher from the Middle East, who helps traumatized students deal with their former teacher's suicide at a Canadian primary school; and the Dardenne brothers' The Kid With a Bike, about an abandoned Belgian child and the woman who tames his violent impulses.

Impulse control also figures in two compelling love stories: Keep the Lights On, Ira Sachs' film a clef about a gay love affair undone by drug use; and Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell's far happier tale about two damaged, bipolar souls who are heavily medicated.

Another romance steeped in jazz was the year's loveliest animated film — Chico and Rita, a conventionally drawn, unconventionally adult tale of Cuban musicians who come to the U.S. in the 1940s and '50s. And Tim Burton's black and white, stop-motion spoof Frankenweenie was also pretty splendid — the story of a boy who reanimates his dog, Sparky, after an auto accident.

That title's obviously a riff on Frankenstein, which is not the only classic novel to triumph in an unorthodox reworking this year. Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was vividly reimagined as if taking place literally in a theater, with spoiled Russian aristocrats walking from interiors that are clearly stage sets into the wings, where snow is falling and the real world beckons.

And just as Anna's leapt from page to stage, leaping from the stage to the screen is the musical of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, with the actors singing on-camera, which proves effective enough that you wonder why they don't do it all the time. Les Miz is not for all tastes, perhaps, but it's catnip for a theater nut like me.

That's a second 10, and if pressed, I could probably even come up with a third. It's been that kind of year: rewarding enough to send film lovers into cineplexes in 2013 feeling downright optimistic.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. It's been a great year for movie box offices with many records toppled. The comic book blockbuster "The Avengers" had the biggest opening weekend in Hollywood history. "Skyfall" became the first James Bond film to earn more than a billion dollars in ticket sales worldwide. In fact, box office sales overall this year easily the movie industry's biggest ever. But what about quality? Bob Mondello says the news there is good, too.

His top 10 list positively runneth over.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Hollywood is often accused of serving up simple-minded pleasures, either explosions or uplift, frequently both, but a lot of this year's best films were nuanced and complex. And for once, their nuanced complexity was exactly what made them popular. Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," for instance...

(SOUNDBITE FROM "LINCOLN")

DANIEL DAY LEWIS: (As Abraham Lincoln) I admire your zeal, Mr. Stevens, and I have tried to profit from the example of it.

MONDELLO: No wide-eyed presidential snow job, "Lincoln" is a tale of political intrigue where the great good of eradicating slavery requires great compromise on lesser evils.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "LINCOLN")

TOMMY LEE JONES: (As Thaddeus Stevens) As we insist in curing approval by dispensing patronage to otherwise undeserving Democrats...

LEWIS: (As Abraham Lincoln) I can't ensure a single damn thing if you scare the whole House silly with talk of land appropriations and revolutionary tribunals...

MONDELLO: Spielberg's "Lincoln" has other virtues, terrific performances, gorgeous cinematography, but what's captivating audiences is that it's not the dipped-in-amber civics lesson they expected. That's also true of the war-on-terrorism chronicle "Zero Dark Thirty."

(SOUNDBITE OF "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: I don't care about bin Laden. I care about the next attack. You're going to start working on the American al-Qaida cells, protect the homeland.

JESSICA CHASTAIN: (As Maya) Bin Laden is the one who keeps telling them to attack the homeland.

MONDELLO: "Zero Dark Thirty" is about as far from a rah-rah, get-the-bad-guy flick as director Kathryn Bigelow could make it. Which is a good thing, because Ben Affleck made a rah-rah, get-away-from-the-bad-guys flick that would be pretty hard to top, the rousing thriller "Argo" about how the CIA got six Americans out of Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis by pretending to make a movie.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "ARGO")

ALAN ARKIN: You got six people hiding out in a town of, what, 4 million people, all of whom chant Death To America all the livelong day. You want to set up a movie in a week. You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everybody lies for a living. Then you're going to sneak 007 over here into a country that wants CIA blood on their breakfast cereal and you're gonna walk the Brady Bunch out of the most watched city in the world.

BEN AFFLECK: That's about 100 militia at the airport, sir.

ARKIN: We did suicide missions in the army that had better odds than this.

MONDELLO: That's a trio of fact-based stories. Next, a fable blending real-world tempests and mythical creatures. "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" tells the tale of a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy living in a bayou community that's hit by a hurricane.

(SOUNDBITE OF "BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: (Unintelligible)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible)

MONDELLO: Hushpuppy's world is at once real and magical and so is "Beasts Of The Southern Wild." That's four of the year's 10 most interesting pictures. The next three hail from overseas, from France in the case of Michael Haneke's devastating masterwork "Amour," about an elderly married couple who find themselves facing the end of life and not a pretty end, though they can still find joy for a while in things like a brand new motorized wheelchair.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "AMOUR")

MONDELLO: "Amour" is about a love that's lasted decades. Another French picture, "Rust and Bone," is about a love just beginning between a fighter and a woman who suffers a life-altering accident, one that required some of the year's most arresting special effects. 2012's most compelling documentary, meanwhile, hails from Israel: "The Gatekeepers," in which six former heads of that country's internal security service talk about everything from targeted assassinations to being hung out to dry by the politicians who gave them their marching orders.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "THE GATEKEEPERS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 5: (Speaking foreign language)

MONDELLO: "Gatekeepers" offers an intimate and ultimately fascinating and deeply upsetting perspective on conflict in the Middle East. Also eye-opening is the far lighter documentary, "Searching For Sugar Man," about an American folk singer named Rodriguez. He never got much traction in this county, but he became a superstar in a place you might not expect.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN")

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) and you think I'm curious.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 6: The album was exceptionally popular. To many of us South Africans, he was the soundtrack to our lives.

MONDELLO: The thing is, Rodriguez never knew he'd become a hit in South Africa and his fans there all thought he was dead until someone went searching for Sugar Man. That's eight of my top 10. The last two are by directors named Anderson. "Moonrise Kingdom" is Wes Anderson's whimsical look at a 12-year-old who excels at scouting and the girl he runs off camping with.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "MOONRISE KINGDOM")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 2: (Unintelligible) head down.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 3: That's a good idea. Might also help if you didn't wear a fur hat.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 2: Yeah, true.

MONDELLO: Wes Anderson's whimsy contrasts with the high seriousness that Paul Thomas Anderson brings to his mid-century epic, "The Master," about a movement called The Cause and its charismatic leader...

(SOUNDBITE FROM "THE MASTER")

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Lancaster Dodd) Even the smartest of our current scientists can be fooled.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Freddie Quell) Good science, by definition, allows for more than one opinion.

HOFFMAN: (As Lancaster Dodd) Which is why our gathering of data is so far reaching.

PHOENIX: (As Freddie Quell) Otherwise we merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult, is it not?

MONDELLO: "The Master" is both intense psychologically and ravishing visually. OK, theoretically, we're done, but the number 10 feels especially arbitrary in a terrific year like this one and I still have some time left, so let's keep going. Commercial filmmakers came up with some seriously cool fantasies this year, including two co-starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, the time-travel thrill ride, "Looper" in which Gordon-Levitt is an assassin who must kill his future self, played by Bruce Willis...

(SOUNDBITE FROM "LOOPER")

JOSEPH GORDON LEVITT: (As Joe) I can't let you walk away from this diner alive. This is my life now. I end it (unintelligible).

MONDELLO: And the final episode in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, "The Dark Knight Rises."

(SOUNDBITE FROM "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES")

CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Batman) Protects you from the blast. We're going to be all right. Double time, go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 6: It's an atom bomb.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 7: (Unintelligible) right now, just let them die without hope.

MONDELLO: He's protecting school kids in that scene, as were characters in two especially resonate foreign films, "Monsieur Lazhar" about how a sensitive substitute teacher deals with traumatized students at a Canadian primary school and "The Kid With A Bike," about an abandoned Belgian child and the woman who tames his violent impulses.

Impulse control also figures in two compelling love stories, "Keep The Lights On," about a gay love affair undone by drug use; and "Silver Linings Playbook," a happier tale about two damaged but upbeat souls who are heavily medicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 8: You ever take Klonipin?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Klonipin? Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 8: Right. What day is it?

MONDELLO: Another romance steeped in jazz was the year's loveliest animated film, "Chico And Rita," a conventionally drawn, unconventionally adult tale of Cuban musicians. And Tim Burton's stop-motion "Frankenweenie" was also pretty splendid, the story of a boy who reanimates his dog after an accident.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "FRANKENWEENIE")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 4: No.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 5: No, what?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 4: Your dog is alive.

MONDELLO: That's obviously a riff on "Frankenstein," which is not the only classic novel to triumph in an unorthodox reworking this year. Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" got vividly reimagined as if it were taking place literally on a stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF "ANNA KARENINA")

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Anna Karenina) I'm not used to being spoken to like that by a man I met once at a railway station.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 9: I daresay that I want to dance with you and I'm getting out of this operetta and going home.

MONDELLO: And just as Anna's leapt from page to stage, leaping from the stage to the screen is Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" - not for all tastes, perhaps, but catnip for a theater nut like me. And that, if I'm not mistaken, is a second 10. If pressed, I could probably even come up with a third. It's been that kind of year, rewarding enough to send film lovers into cineplexes in 2013 feeling downright optimistic.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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