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Arts & Entertainment - January 4, 2013

The best and worst films of 2012

In their annual "best" and "worst" lists, Weekly film critics honor the heroes and roast the turkeys

From a pint-sized girl surviving storms on the wrong side of the levee to a CIA agent planning to rescue a band of hostages, the stories that played out on the silver screen in 2012 were full of heroes small and large. In choosing their top films of the year, Weekly critics Peter Canavese, Tyler Hanley and Susan Tavernetti singled out avengers and activists, superheroes and everymen.

Highest honors went to a shipwrecked teenager navigating the Pacific and the waters of life with a Bengal tiger. Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" was the sole movie to score a place on all three top-ten lists.

Other high-ranking films were: the sharp political thriller "Argo," the heavy-on-the-symbolism indie "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and the poignant dramedy "Silver Linings Playbook." Each made it onto two out of three lists.

For every hero, there's a mess of guys who trip over their own feet. In their annual "worst five" lists, Canavese and Hanley contribute such underwhelming titles as "Rock of Ages," "That's My Boy" and an ill-advised update of "The Three Stooges."

Peter Canavese's top films

10. The Queen of Versailles More wildly, trashily entertaining than any reality TV show, Lauren Greenfield's film somehow winds up being the Citizen Kane of documentaries: a horrifying look into America's blood-in-the-gears capitalist engine and Walmart soul. The nouveau-riche Siegels have, to paraphrase the Bard, bought a mansion but not yet possessed it, their empty Xanadu a symbol of credit-culture consumerism biting the hand that fed it.

9. The Master Slippery but legitimately haunting, Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" is a true motion picture: a painting to step back from and ponder, portraiture that achieves an imitation of life. The power dynamic between two quintessentially American men — one an unstoppable force, the other an immovable object — plays out as a struggle for masculine supremacy, defined by power and control, or perhaps as a sublimated erotic dance. Either way, we get a master class in acting: Joaquin Phoenix sublimely spontaneous as a damaged veteran, Philip Seymour Hoffman thundering as a spiritual flim-flam man.

8. The Deep Blue Sea Terence Davies does Terence Rattigan in this elegant, lushly emotional psychodrama, brilliantly performed by the triangle of Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale. Torrid and beautiful, "The Deep Blue Sea" locates a wellspring of hope under layers of pain.

7. Ruby Sparks The comedy of the year was also a lovely calling card for screenwriter-star Zoe Kazan. Nimbly directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, "Ruby Sparks" cuts right to the heart of a near-universal ailment of the human condition, romantic fantasy, with a clever allegorical conceit that plays like vintage Woody Allen.

6. The Kid With a Bike An aching story of childhood need, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's latest breathes as steadily as life itself. With his directors, Thomas Doret forges a vision in red as 11-year-old Cyril, a reckless, heart-on-his-sleeve little man — shoved too soon into his coming of age — who chases a deadbeat dad and a desired makeshift mom.

5. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia With poker-faced good humor and measured melancholy, Nuri Bilge Ceylan resuscitates the police procedural as provincial slice-of-life. Law & Order meets Samuel Beckett, with a dash of Armando Iannucci. Violence lingers, humanity yearns — the flower that could in hardscrabble terrain.

4. Life of Pi Like IMAX, 3D has the studios reliving '50s efforts to get us away from our TVs, and few filmmakers have better employed it than does master craftsman Ang Lee in "Life of Pi." This clever adaptation of Yann Martel's bestseller — double-framed by pointed storytelling and spiritual reflection — ticks away a postmodern Robinson Crusoe-style adventure. It then detonates a mind-blower about perception in the face of trauma, nature and existence (if indeed there's any difference amongst the three). The tiger doesn't look back. Is Ang Lee getting away with this? Yes he is, at your local multiplex, in splashy, colorful 3D.

3. The Dark Knight Rises Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy, like Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" triple play, ambitiously lifted genre filmmaking to an epic plane. Like its two predecessors, "The Dark Knight Rises" gives us what we hope for in popular cinema: It's big, bold, savvy and thrilling, with an astonishingly accomplished acting ensemble etching memorable characters (especially, here, Tom Hardy's hulking villain Bane) and Wally Pfister's IMAX photography reminding us why we go to a movie theater. And in spite of a real-life madman's attempt to hijack the film, its hero — himself a survivor of gun violence — insists, "No guns."

2. The Turin Horse Art isn't always easy to take, and Bela Tarr's valedictory film is downright devastating: a long, hard look into the void. And yet the 146-minute picture — a plain-unspoken account of the apocalypse unfolding in and around a remote rural farmhouse — is enlivened by Tarr's thoughtful construction, minimalist takes and breathtaking black-and-white cinematography. This uncompromisingly bleak appraisal of man's inhumanity to everything and sad/fierce endurance to the bitter end is not for Friday-night viewing (perhaps Sunday morning?).

1. This Is Not a Film This is the rare film that is more: a rebellious yawp over the rooftops of the world, a vital social document, a moral but illegal political statement. World-class filmmaker Jafar Panahi ("Crimson Gold") has frequently tangled with the Iranian government, which sentenced him in 2010 to a six-year jail term and a 20-year ban on making films. And so, under house arrest and pursuing an appeal, Panahi called over friend and filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, whose camcorder captures a self-reflective Panahi heroically straining against his bonds to achieve that most noble of artistic goals: speaking truth to power.

Peter Canavese's pans

General Education This lame-brain teen comedy achieves the opposite of its title, instead serving as an insult to anything with human DNA.

Parental Guidance The Motion Picture Association of America rates this last-gasp for Billy Crystal and Bette Midler "PG" for "Pretty Ghastly."

The Lucky One Love means never having to say or do anything that makes any sense in this latest loser adapted from the "work" of Nicholas Sparks.

Playing For Keeps This romantic comedy with soccer moms had one apparent GOOOOOAAAAAAALLL: to suck.

That's My Boy Worst-list perennial Adam Sandler crowns his presumptive successor Andy Samberg in this witless father-son comedy.

Tyler Hanley's top films

10. Pitch Perfect This upbeat crowd-pleaser was one of the year's feel-good surprises thanks to its strong script and catchy soundtrack. The modern music woven throughout (such as David Guetta's "Titanium") infuses the film with a vibrant, contagious energy. Big props to director Jason Moore (a 2004 Tony Award nominee for the Broadway musical "Avenue Q") for maintaining a playful atmosphere and getting the most from his charming cast.

9. Bernie Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused," "Waking Life") is a gifted filmmaker, if not a particularly prolific one. In this compelling dark comedy, Linklater reunites with his "School of Rock" star Jack Black, creating a fascinating character study that benefits from the director's mockumentary approach. The three leads — Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey — all deliver terrific performances, and the screenplay is crisp and clever.

8. Django Unchained Sharp dialogue and dynamic characters drive Quentin Tarantino's riotous and uber-violent revenge flick. "Django" comes across as the film Tarantino was always destined to make, with his well-documented appreciation for blaxploitation and spaghetti westerns ("Django" essentially combines the genres). Christoph Waltz is excellent as bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz while Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington also impress.

7. Lincoln Daniel Day-Lewis shines with a towering performance as Abraham Lincoln, while Tommy Lee Jones nearly steals the show as anti-slavery Republican Thaddeus Stevens. Steven Spielberg directs with a meticulous, deft touch, and the exquisite production values (especially costuming and set design) establish the time period beautifully. And while "Lincoln" plays a bit like a $50 million history lesson, four score and seven years from now it may well be considered the most accurate and authentic film ever made about the 16th president.

6. The Avengers Adjectives used in some of Marvel Comics' iconic titles from the early 1960s through today — amazing, fantastic, incredible — also describe director Joss Whedon's superhero epic. Whedon ("Serenity") helms with a master craftsman's focus and a devoted fan's enthusiasm in adapting the popular Marvel series that made its print debut in 1963. The screenplay is witty and rife with whip-smart dialogue; visual effects and costume design are exceptional; character dynamics are deeply developed; and the ambitious action scenes are astonishing.

5. Life of Pi The most visually stunning film since James Cameron's "Avatar" is also a spiritually insightful powerhouse. The filmmaking team of director Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain") and screenwriter David Magee ("Finding Neverland") inspire with this vibrant adaptation of Yann Martel's award-winning novel. Phenomenal 3D effects (was it raining in the theater?) highlight the breathtaking action sequences while the story poses interesting questions about faith, inner strength and survival.

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild There is an organic, elemental undertone to rookie director Benh Zeitlin's Louisiana-based drama. "Beasts" is as harrowing as it is heart-wrenching. Youngster Quvenzhane Wallis captivates in a demanding role while the rest of the unrecognizable cast rallies around her. Symbolism flows throughout, and the musical score by Zeitlin and Dan Romer strikes an emotional chord. In a year flooded with star-driven, big-budget blockbusters, "Beasts" is the little indie that could.

3. Moonrise Kingdom The films of writer/director Wes Anderson ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "Fantastic Mr. Fox") are something of an acquired taste, and this sweet romantic comedy is a treat. "Moonrise" is akin to a cinematic dollhouse: a movie unusual in tone but universal in context. Many of us can relate to the thrill of independence and young love, which Anderson and his adolescent leads Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward capture wonderfully. Honest, understated performances from an A-list cast that includes Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton and Edward Norton further accent the storybook atmosphere.

2. Argo Ben Affleck's sophomore directorial effort is a nail-biter from beginning to end. Affleck and his crew do a phenomenal job capturing the time period and casting actors who both resemble their real-life counterparts and have the thespian chops to hit all the right emotional notes. One of the film's many strengths is its ability to draw in the audience — we often feel we are there with these people throughout the ordeal, for better or worse. A goofy sci-fi film dubbed "Argo" never got made in 1980. Fortunately for moviegoers, a brilliant, Oscar-worthy drama/thriller of the same name did get made in 2012.

1. Silver Linings Playbook This poignant dramedy from director David O. Russell ("The Fighter") has nothing to do with science, but the chemistry is palpable. Sparks fly between leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, and both serve up career-best performances. Russell's adaptation of the Matthew Quick novel brims with raw energy and rich dialogue. An intimate candor permeates the picture as real-world issues (commitment, family dynamics, mental health, resilience) are addressed with sincerity and a sparkle of humor.

Tyler Hanley's pans

Dark Shadows The typically reliable tandem of director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp disappoints with this underwhelming comedy/horror hybrid. In trying to walk the tightrope between two genres, "Shadows" tumbles somewhere into the murky middle, where ho-hum movies go to die.

The Raven The convergence of two personal favorites — writer Edgar Allan Poe and actor John Cusack — piqued my interest. But "The Raven" proved to be never more than a hackneyed thriller with uneven performances and a lousy climax.

Rock of Ages Musicals are something of an acquired taste, and "Rock of Ages" is more cheeseburger than lobster bisque. A soap opera-esque love story and stagy undertones lend a certain silliness to the whole affair despite Tom Cruise's electric turn as rocker Stacee Jaxx.

The Three Stooges Ninety-two minutes of slapstick and sound effects coupled with a numbskull plot that prominently features the cast of MTV's "Jersey Shore." Ouch.

The Watch Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, we hope, will appear in good movies again someday after a string of forgettable flops. Case in point: director Akiva Schaffer's comedy/sci-fi hodgepodge with its wealth of awkward scenarios and dearth of humor.

Susan Tavernetti's top films

10. Life of Pi Ang Lee transformed Yann Martel's "unfilmable" 2001 bestseller into a fantasy filled with magical moments and visual wonder. A middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounts his parable of survival and spirituality: Shipwrecked as a 16-year-old (Suraj Sharma), he drifts across the Pacific in a lifeboat, accompanied by a snarling Bengal tiger. The adventure film is as much about the tales we tell ourselves to stay afloat as about navigating the waters of life. Along the journey, 3-D artistry grows up too.

9. The Flat

The spellbinding documentary about family secrets and deep denial starts with filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger cleaning out the Tel Aviv flat of his deceased grandmother. He discovers a newspaper article and photos documenting the friendship of his Jewish grandparents with a high-ranking Nazi before and after World War Two. How could that be? Doggedly pursuing leads, Goldfinger diplomatically tiptoes around sensitive topics with Edda Milz von Mildenstein, the daughter of the German official who worked with Goebbels, before confronting her with pit-bull tenacity. Provocative issues abound, including the question of whether looking back is more important than looking ahead.

8. Silver Linings Playbook

Director David O. Russell seems to be flirting with disaster once again in this offbeat indie characterized by wild mood swings. Wonderfully eccentric, the romantic comedy focuses on a pair of misfits, a former teacher with bipolar disorder (Bradley Cooper) and a bruised young widow (Jennifer Lawrence) with a penchant for ballroom dancing. Robert De Niro flexes his comic muscles as a caring father obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles, blurring the line between the crazy and the sane, which is exactly the point. A feel-good film about second chances is worth betting on.

7. How to Survive a Plague

On the documentary shortlist for the 2013 Oscars, David France's searing look at the AIDS epidemic showcases the ACT UP activists whose agenda was to arouse, anger and take action against the deadly disease. A testament to steely determination, the film seamlessly stitches together archival footage and interviews that chart the challenges against the NIH and FDA, drug companies, health professionals and politicians. Both history lesson and passionate call to arms, the documentary gives a human face to the statistics and reminds us that hope and more research go hand in hand.

6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Sex, drugs and rock n' roll? No, wrong decade. Stephen Chbosky adapts and directs his 1999 coming-of-age novel about teen growing pains — and sex, drugs and mixtapes of The Smiths. Shy and psychologically fragile, Charlie (Logan Lerman) just wants to survive the 1,095 days of freshman year. Enter a pair of half-sibling seniors (Emma Watson and Ezra Miller) who bring fun, spontaneity and friendship to the drab halls of high school. Although more sanitized than the book, the movie sensitively deals with adolescent angst and relationships in pre-Internet America.

5. Beasts of the Southern Wild

A debut feature of such original voice and vision is a rare beast indeed. Writer-director Benh Zeitlin's dreamlike fable of a subculture living on the wrong side of a southern Louisiana levee — as conjured by 6-year-old Hushpuppy — offers an imaginative post-Katrina take on preserving a people and their culture. Newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis delivers a fierce performance as the feisty little girl who swims against the tide of storms large and small, stubbornly surviving in the face of Mother Nature and Uncle Sam.

4. A Separation

The Iranian cinema seldom depicts middle-class families and dramas rooted in their social reality. This couple (Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi) has a predicament: She wants to leave the country so their 11-year-old daughter doesn't grow up "in these circumstances," and he is unwilling to leave his father suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Just when you assume writer-director Asghar Farhadi's story will grapple with scenes from a marriage, the narrative surprisingly shifts into a legal drama teeming with emotional and moral complexity. All sides deserve empathy in this 2012 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.

3. Argo Sharply observed humor about the movie business cuts through the tension of director-star Ben Affleck's white-knuckle political thriller. Based on the true events of CIA agent Tony Mendez's rescue of six American embassy workers trapped in Tehran, the drama uses gritty newsreel footage to plunge us into the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. A last-ditch plan requires the hunted diplomats to pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake science fiction movie titled "Argo," while a well-known film producer (Alan Arkin) and a make-up artist (John Goodman) hilariously keep up pretenses in Hollywood. Fact may be stranger than fiction, but the two are perfectly integrated in Affleck's top-notch production.

2. Amour

Michael Haneke makes films that no one really wants to see. The subject of an elderly Parisian couple (French treasures Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) in declining health leads to heartbreaking drama. But this is a love story. Although hard to watch, with the camera lingering over details of daily caretaking like a vulture waiting for death, the film becomes a profound meditation about living. Challenging but cool-toned in typical Haneke style, the Palme d'Or winner of this year's Cannes Film Festival encourages contemplation about aging and the act of watching cinema.

1. Zero Dark Thirty

In the assured hands of director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal, the manhunt for the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks becomes an ambitious, complex and rewarding cinematic achievement. Never a boring procedural, the needle-in-a-haystack search for Osama bin Laden takes the workaday lives of agents — sometimes dull, sometimes dangerous — and shapes the sprawling narrative into a nail-biter. Displaying an incredible range of emotion, Jessica Chastain plays the CIA analyst who breaks the case. She can appear shaken and vulnerable during "enhanced" interrogation scenes of detained Al Qaeda suspects, and then exhibit reinforced-steel-and-concrete resolve as she relentlessly continues her investigative work. Despite knowing the outcome of the Navy SEALs' dark-hour raid of the Pakistan hideout that harbored bin Laden, I found the climax unbearably tense. Reteaming after taking home Oscars for "The Hurt Locker," Bigelow and Boal foster reflection about America's role in the war on terror — and most likely consideration for a Best Picture nod.

Note: Susan Tavernetti chose not to write a pans list this year, as her assignment list didn't include enough films sufficiently bad to qualify, she said.