It's been a pretty good year so far at the movies. Yes, disappointments have littered cineplexes, but dig a little deeper, and the first two-thirds of 2012 have brought us some real gems. It always seems more appropriate for an August mid-year check-in, rather than a June one, because films are starting to hit DVD shelves and the upcoming shift from big, fat blockbusters to smaller-scale dramas is pretty stark.
Anyway, here's my list. Enjoy!
10.) We Have a Pope — Director/co-writer Nanni Moretti disappointed a lot of people at Cannes 2011 with this light-hearted drama about a newly elected pope who runs away from the Vatican after realizing he isn't ready for the pressure that comes with the job. Michel Piccoli gives a terrific, very quiet performance in this role, but the highlight is a hilarious volleyball tournament the befuddled cardinals partake in while they wait for their new leader to return. Immensely enjoyable.
9.) Prometheus — Yes, Ridley Scott's Alien prequel suffered from a disjointed and overly ambitious screenplay, but as a bit of summer spectacle, this one wasn't matched in 2012.
8.) The Hunger Games — The first film in the beloved tween series floored me. The way the novel is adapted works for both fans and non-fans alike, and the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss was a stroke of genius. She's sensational.
7.) 21 Jump Street — So funny. So fucking funny! I groaned along with the rest of the world when I first heard this movie was happening, but Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill totally won me over.
6.) The Grey — Joe Carnahan's best film to date is more than just the "Liam Neeson punches wolves" movie you might have been expecting. (Damn marketing!) It's both a man vs. wild story and a meditation on life and what it means to be alive—like Hemingway meets Bergman but with Neeson at his most badass.
5.) Safety Not Guaranteed — Aspiring film writers ought to study Derek Connolly's exceptional screenplay if they want to know how to get viewers to connect equally and totally to a film's characters and story. Director Colin Trevorrow's film is as unpredictable as anything this year—not an easy thing for what's essentially a romantic comedy.
4.) Moonrise Kingdom — Wes Anderson's latest is both his most accessible and his most "Anderson-ian." What the general public (and a few fervent Anderson haters I know) seems to be enjoying is a film this ardent Anderson supporter ate up with a spoon. Plenty of directorial flare, terrific ensemble acting (especially by youngsters Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward.)
3.) Take This Waltz — Infidelity is actually treated like an adult matter (something far too uncommon in Hollywood) in director Sarah Polley's excellent sophomore feature. And Michelle Williams gives what is (and what's almost certain to be come December) the year's best performance as an insecure thirty-something struggling mightily with an irrepressible urge to cheat on her adoring husband with her hunky neighbor.
2.) The Dark Knight Rises — This choice wasn't easy. I was as won over by The Dark Knight Rises' scope and grand sense of finality as I was my #1 film's intensity, but the flaws of the former outweigh those of the latter, and the memories of the latter linger stronger and longer than those of the former.
Sufficiently confused yet? Basically, I adore this film (haters be damned), just not as much as...
1.) Sleepless Night — With pacing, spacing, editing, and choreography this good, you don't really need a great story or moving performances, but Sleepless Night has these attributes in spades, as well. I caught up with this at Tribeca and though it's available on VOD, it still seems to be searching for an audience. I implore you to check it out. It's attempting something familiar, but it executes it to perfection.