The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Making a Ten Best list is harder than it sounds. Most years, there are more than ten great films worthy of being celebrated. I often find myself having internal debates about which movies absolutely must be on the list and which can potentially be left out. Even with this process, I generally end up wanting to include more than ten. The key, it turns out, is to find a “theme” for the list – something that helps differentiate one excellent movie from the next, equally excellent one.

For my 2012 list, I had to do just this. I noticed that my five favorites of the year all had something in common: they were all extraordinarily ambitious, both in storytelling style and in subject matter. It was clear that I needed to take my cue from them and pick the five other movies that most embraced this same spirit of cinematic risk-taking. This was good news for some movies, bad news for others. For example, I loved Lincoln, but it's nonetheless a very conventional movie. Since the decision was made to slightly favor stuff that was more groundbreaking or adventurous, I opted to give a slot to my #10 choice instead. That may be controversial among some readers, but I stand by it. Besides, while I take making this list very seriously, you should not take the rankings too seriously at all. Is there really a big difference between, say, my #3 movie and my #2 movie? The answer is no.

One more note before we get started. The highly-anticipated Zero Dark Thirty had not opened in my market as of publication time, and Sony Pictures made no effort to screen it for me in advance. Therefore, I was unable to consider it for this list. I will review the film when it opens nationally in early January.

Here, now, are my picks for the Ten Best Films of 2012:

10. The Cabin in the Woods - The most original and inventive horror movie I've seen in over a decade. What starts off masquerading as a typical dumb-kids-getting-killed-at-a-remote-cabin story gradually reveals itself to be a whip-smart deconstruction of the entire horror genre, as well as the iconic elements that constitute it. The final twenty minutes, in particular, are a horror buff's delight. Bad horror movies end up on my Ten Worst list almost every year. It's nice to see one that deserves a spot on the “good” list.

9. The Sessions - There is a lot of sex in movies, but few movies are actually about sex in any sort of mature or thoughtful way. This true story of a man in an iron lung (John Hawkes) who hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) deals honestly with sexuality. Hawkes is amazing, using only his face and his voice to create a character who desperately longs to feel connection, to feel normal. The film itself, meanwhile, is funny and emotional, showing how the character works to experience something he previously thought would be permanently off limits to him. A beautiful story, well told.

8. Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson's sweetly kooky ode to young love centers around two tweens who run off into the wilderness together, much to the consternation of the adults in their lives. Expertly balancing broad comedy and surreal quirk while still maintaining an emotional center, the film repeatedly catches you off guard. Initially very funny, it slowly reveals hidden layers that prove to be unexpectedly touching. Anderson is a unique filmmaker, and Moonrise Kingdom may well be his best work to date.

7. The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Simply put, the finest, most authentic movie about being a teenager since Say Anything... in 1989. Logan Lerman stars as a shy teen who is taken under the wing of a popular female senior (Emma Watson) and her flamboyant step-brother (Ezra Miller). Although it's about adolescents and will be enjoyed by that demographic, the movie works even better for adults, who will remember moments from their own high school years. Stephen Chbosky, adapting his own novel, has crafted a story that incorporates mental health issues, bullying, sexuality, and [spoiler] without ever sinking to the level of After School Special. It's been far too long since we've seen a portrait of adolescence this insightful.

6. The Impossible - Based on the true story of a family that survived the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, J.A. Bayona's film is nothing short of devastating. The 10-minute tsunami scene is gut-wrenchingly realistic, giving you an idea of what it must have been like to go through such a horrific ordeal. But beyond that, The Impossible illuminates how critical hope is in seemingly hopeless situations. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are deeply affecting as the parents, who refuse to give up hope that their family can be reunited. While this family was lucky, many others who went through the tsunami were not; the film recognizes the scope of the tragedy while still celebrating a miracle that took place within it.

5. Life of Pi - I've been an Ang Lee fan for years, and he outdid himself with his adaptation of the best-selling novel. Using 3D as effectively as anyone (including James Cameron), Lee delivered a parable about faith that was as exciting as it was contemplative. The story of a young Indian teen trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger contained some of the most magical sequences of any picture this year, each one more incredible than the one before it. Some movies entertain you, others leave you enthralled. This one, for me, did both.

4. Cloud Atlas - Here is as bold, visionary, and challenging a piece of cinema as you will ever see. Is it perfect? No, but its flaws are part of what I love about it. Co-directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer dared to shoot for the moon. Spanning six different time periods and featuring the same actors playing multiple roles (often in makeup), Cloud Atlas explores how human nature doesn't change, even if everything else about society does. It contains romance, action, science-fiction, comedy, drama, and more. Sadly, the film never found much of an audience. Hopefully, its post-theatrical life will change that. This is the kind of movie you become obsessed with.

3. Argo - Ben Affleck has had one of the most fascinating career reinventions in the history of show business. Gone Baby Gone and The Town proved that he had directorial talent, but Argo puts him in the top ranks of filmmakers. Taut, tense, and with just the right amount of humor to lighten things, his take on a real-life rescue mission during the Iranian hostage crisis was riveting from first frame to last. Sure, some events were heightened to be more exciting, but so what? This movie delivers the goods in every way.

2. Django Unchained - By now, we expect greatness from Quentin Tarantino. As far as I'm concerned, he's never failed to deliver it, at least as far as his features go. (That short film from Four Rooms is another story.) With Django, he makes a nearly three-hour Western centered around slavery. Tough material, to be sure. While the trademark crackling dialogue and cinematic references are there, Tarantino adds something new: a visible conscience. The picture burns with his outrage over the atrocities committed during this shameful period in American history. For this reason, Django is not only typically electrifying, but also unexpectedly meaningful.

And my choice for the Best Film of 2012 is:

The Master
1. The Master - Paul Thomas Anderson, like Tarantino, is a filmmaker who routinely displays genius. In what may be his masterwork, he takes on the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a deeply troubled, alcoholic veteran with anger management issues and some bizarre sexual proclivities. Freddie falls under the spell of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the founder of a strange cult known as “The Cause.” Freddie thinks Dodd can help him, only to learn the old adage that you can only serve one master. Whereas most movies are paced in a very linear way, Anderson intentionally leaves out some of the connective tissue in this story. At times, the plot jumps from one thing to the next, creating a bit of mystery about what happened in between. The effect is that the film has a hypnotic, almost dreamlike quality. The Master oozes atmosphere, plunging you deep into this cult full of people doing bizarre things with complete conviction. I loved the psychology of it all, the way Anderson – assisted by Phoenix in a career-best performance – shows how this damaged character learns to accept and deal with his own disturbed nature. In a year that gave us many ambitious, gutsy, unique pictures, none exemplified these qualities more than The Master. I can't wait to see it again.

There you have it - my picks for the year's best. For those interested, the runners-up to this list included Lincoln, ParaNorman, Wreck-It Ralph, The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables, and Looper. They're great films too, and you should make certain you see them, in addition to the ten listed above. Their lack of inclusion on the formal list is in no way a diminishment of their quality. Bottom line: 2012 was a great year for cinema. Here's hoping 2013 is just as rich.

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