As I usually point out, movies are my bread-and butter. My love of film is what started me making lists like this. This year's surprise, for me, was that I fell so in love with so many "mainstream" films. I am a fan of blockbuster filmmaking, but I can't remember a year where I had both the top two box office draws in my "Best of" list.
Of course, I also have the biggest box office loser of the year, as well.
A prestige production through-and-through, but one that defied a few expectations by not simply being a biopic, but exploring a very specific period of time near the end of the Civil War. That being Lincoln's political gamesmanship that led to the ratification of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery. The film is more slight than it feels, mainly due to Daniel Day-Lewis' truly astounding performance as Lincoln, and Steven Spielberg's restrained direction. However, one must also point out that Tony Kushner's script is full of wit and insights about the man.
I didn't really think there would ever be a James Bond movie I liked more than Casino Royale, which managed the feat of totally re-inventing the concept of a Bond movie as something a bit more realistic (just a bit), without stumbling. The fact it managed to pull it off (as opposed to the similar designs when Timothy Dalton took the role in the mid-80's), was exciting. Then to turn around, two films later (after a minor mis-step with Quantum of Solace, no less) and create something that not only honored that re-invention, but also re-introduced many of the series traditional tropes, AND felt like a fitting celebration of 50 years of Bond on film...is kind of astonishing.
If this movie doesn't make you love Jack Black, nothing will. It's a small film, anchored by really strong performances by Black, Shirley MacClane and Matthew McConaughey, tells the true story of a murder in a small Texas town. A murder with a suspect so beloved, and a victim so hated, that the trial had to be moved so that the prosecution would get a fair hearing. Director Richard Linklater has crafted a wonderful little film about small-town life, and the colorful characters who live it.
This movie is a miracle. A miracle in that, in so many, many ways, it should be terrible. Yet, Joss Whedon somehow took this mess of back stories and egos, and squeezed a coherent, fun movie out of it. It's almost impossible to even critique the thing. It just grabs you, and shoves you through the adventure. There's no time to stop and think about anything other than how much fun you're having. Which I suppose makes it a quite faithful adaptation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's comics.
A romantic comedy my wife would likely hate. The film is steeped in the brutality of the world of small-time, professional hockey, but also embraces a sweetness and positive energy that was absolutely irresistible. The praise for that, and I'm shocked to say this, falls on the shoulders of Seann William Scott, an actor I have never been able to warm up to. Out of nowhere, however, he gives the performance of his career in this film. Compelling, warm, sweet, brutal, and funny. His Doug Glatt is a character I won't easily forget.
I'll start off by saying...Anybody who put this film on a "worst of" list is an asshole. It's sheep mentality, "it lost so much money, it must suck." It doesn't, at all. The hatred and venom that have been spewed toward this film simply makes me angry. It's a walloping good adventure yarn with winning performances, and, hands down the best "Disney Princess" in years. Yes, it moves quickly. Yes, it's drowning in Edgar Rice Burrough's pulp-ficton tropes and shenanigans, but I hardly found it confusing. Director Andrew Stanton and his screenwriters (notably novelist Michael Chabon) have crafted a love letter to pulp adventure, and it's so worth seeing. One last note; screw you, Disney, for fucking the marketing on this so badly.
The second time I saw this film, I went with CByrd. I cried my way through the final reel, and then we went to the car. Where I proceeded to break down completely, sobbing, for about five minutes. This movie struck me, and my love and connection to the mythic figure of Batman, deeply. The fanboy jerkoff complaints about "Batman wouldn't do that" are irrelevant, THIS Batman, Christopher Nolan's Batman, would. Nolan earned every choice he made here, by connecting them directly to the choices he made in the prior two films. Elevating the entire series to, not only the best Batman films we will likely ever see, but an important meditation on the nature of heroism and sacrifice.
I didn't really know what I was getting into with this film. I suppose that was part of the overall problem, the trailer traded hard on "Liam Neeson punching wolves," when the film is much, much more than that. Some audiences felt betrayed, but I was knocked out by this film. It's a meditation on survival and manhood, and, in my humble opinion, the best film of it's kind since Deliverance. Neeson's Ottway is a man without desire to live, who, though the crucible of this horrifying situation, finds the spirit and will to fight to his dying breath. It's powerful, and anchored by a really outstanding performance by Neeson.
This film made me so happy. I mean, just overjoyed. It's a film that's completely life-affirming and warm-hearted. Sure, it's a little cliche and predictable, but what David O. Russell understands is that, by binding us emotionally to Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), all cliche is forgiven. It helps that the unbalanced emotional states of these two characters make every situation a bit fraught with possible disaster. It's also nice that the stakes are relatively small-scale, remaining within the family. I also almost let out a whoop of joy when the real Robert DeNiro, elder statesman actor, returned from that Fockers hell he'd been in, and stole the show with one line.
Ben Affleck has been on his way to this for a while now. With Gone Baby Gone and The Town he established himself as a thriller director to watch. With Argo, he steps out and becomes one of our preeminent upcoming film artists. The man has a command of pace and tension that is masterful, and with this story of the rescue of Embassy workers trapped in Iran during the Hostage Crisis, he's found the story that really made people sit up and realize how good he is. The film has the sweep and scope of an epic, and the intimate moments that give that epic meaning. There's room for great actors (Alan Arkin, John Goodman) to chew into great roles, and Affleck, himself, to show how compelling a leading man he can be. Hands down, my favorite film of the year.
Biggest Disappointment (Tie):
I don't do "worst" lists, because I refuse to see films that are terrible (Maybe on Netflix after the fact), but I will point out movies that should've been better.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
I wonder if, in years to come, "the prequel curse" will be invoked. In both cases we have revered filmmakers returning to properties they rose to prominence with. Ridley Scott with the Alien universe, and Peter Jackson with Middle Earth. Please bear in mind, neither of these films are unwatchable, and both have things to recommend. The simple truth is that they both don't work all that well, as a whole. Scott's film is hampered by trying to be an Alien prequel, and at the same time not really wanting to be. While Jackson buries the wonderful little tale of Bilbo Baggins under miles and miles of foreshadowing and exposition for films we've already seen. Painful.
Biggest "well, duh" on my list. No matter how one might feel about the film, as a whole, there's absolutely no denying the amazing nature of what Day-Lewis has done...again. I felt like I'd spent two hours with Abraham Lincoln, not an actor playing him. The unerring way in which Day-Lewis seems to be able to embrace and internalize the characters he chooses is nothing but astonishing, and the fact that he's never failed to do so (in my memory) is almost inhuman. I think it's really time to revisit the notion of the "greatest actor of all time." Oliver? Brando? Day-Lewis has reached that level, and, at 55, every role seems miles from any other he has played, and he has yet to show any signs of the sort of laziness or excess the others fell prone to (to a lesser or greater extent).
For such a young actress, I was impressed with how adroitly Jennifer Lawrence navigated the waters of a difficult character. Tiffany is angry and defensive, yet we must also fall in love with her as Pat (Bradley Cooper) does, AND see why Pat's father (DeNiro) grows attached to her, as well. It helps that she's never looked sexier on film, I'll grant. Still, Lawrence handles all of these challenges and creates a singular character that charmed me, while still making clear she doesn't give a crap if you're charmed, or not.
Honestly, just read what I wrote about Argo. Affleck is the real deal, and I cannot wait to see what he does next. Whatever it is, I'll be there opening night.
This is a band that has, for me, gotten stronger and stronger. I was not a huge fan of their self-titled debut, but stuck around because of the talent involved. They finally make an album I liked start-to-finish, and it looks like it may be their last.
A terrific live set from the band fronted by the first couple of the blues, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. This is a brilliant document of a live show I'd wish I'd made the time to check out.
Much like the return of Alice in Chains, I was unprepared for how much I would enjoy Soundgarden's reunion. King Animal sounds effortlessly like a band who broke up because they felt it was the right thing, at that moment, and regrouped for the exact same reason. If more bands returned like this, the world would be better.
Good, old-fashioned rock and roll, with one of my favorite guitarists teamed with one of my favorite vocalists. Nothing revelatory, but tight and well-played. Honestly, in a world full of Glee and One Direction, that's enough for me.
I had really forgotten how much I liked Dwight Yoakam. Like, completely. I'd have missed this record if I hadn't seen it on a year-end best-of list. I am so glad I took the chance, because this is a really fine set of tunes. Yoakam is in fine voice, and the band sounds great. Good stuff. "Waterfalls" just cracks me up.
A prog supergroup, in the grandest sense. The Guitarist and bassist from the Dixie Dregs, the keyboarist from Spock's Beard, and the former drummer from Dream Theatre. I was a little surprised how poppy the ultimate result was, but it was in heavy rotation for me for quite a while. I have no idea if the band is actually continuing past this project, but I'll enjoy what I have.
I'll admit, this one had to grow on me, but when it did...wow. Tracks I wasn't all that fond of because favorites, and the tracks I loved just became more and more powerful to me. A true protest album, full of anger and calls to action. I'm always sort of in awe of Springsteen when he gets riled up, and this is a good example of why. "Swallowed Up (In the Belly of a Whale)" is still pretty awful, however.
Rush gets back in the concept album game, and comes up with their best album in years (not that they've ever put out a bad album, in my opinion). Powerful, tight playing and grand themes with precise lyrics. I cannot love this band more, and, even as "elder statesmen," they are at the top of their form. Still chasing something new years after other "classic" bands have fallen back to the umteenth variation on their biggest hits.
How much do I love this band? A whole freakin' lot. With a new drummer in tow, they've come back to a more "metal" sound (as opposed to the more classic rock of Warp Riders). Yet, as CByrd remarked after we saw them this Fall, so many other bands (including their openers) just try to sound like Metallica, but The Sword sound like themselves. I'm a fan.
I. Can't. Stop. Playing. It. The Golden Gods return and just nail a one-night-only show at the O2 arena in London. Everybody sounds great, with Robert Plant's voice seemingly getting stronger as the night goes on, and Jason Bonham finally truly filling his father's shoes. I'm actually glad they didn't try to continue on, but I'm also glad, even after a five year wait, they let us hear how much they nailed it.
Missed in 2011:
What does that mean? These are albums I discovered in 2012 that would've been on my best of 2012, if they hadn't been released in 2011. Both of these come with my highest recommendations.
Worth it just for "I'd Rather Go Blind," which is about the single best song I've heard all year.
Dug Pinnick (King's X) teams up with Jeff Ahmet (Pearl Jam) for an album that is, in turns, rocking, soulful, and funky.
I'm sorry. I know a ton of people think it's great. I wanted to think it's great. However the combination of David Lee Roth and, as I mentioned above, "songs that sound like re-writes of the hits," just makes it hard for me to get behind. Yes, Ed is playing terrifically, but I just don't feel like the songs are there, and Dave....he's shot, folks. It's not TERRIBLE, but it's also not that great. All that said, "Big River" fuckin' rocks.
Favorite Book Read in 2012:
Edited by Kevin Avery
I ate this book up. The Way Eastwood opens up to Nelson. Nelson's deep understanding of Eastwood's filmography and craft, and the fact that these interviews were conducted during one of Eastwood's most fruitful periods. It's a perfect storm of elements to make a deeply interesting book. I highlighted and took notes on more quotes from this book than any I have ever read. It's a gold mine for Eastwood's philosophy on acting and filmmaking. Terrific.
I have not yet finished Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon.
I am the WORST FAN EVER. I have had this book since it's release date, but I am only now about half way through it. I can offer a litany of excuses, I've been extremely busy with shows, etc, but the fact is, I haven't found the time to finish the damn book.
I certainly love every bit of it that I have read so far. Sorry, Mr. Chabon.
Best Ongoing Series:
If you'd have told me even two years ago that I would solidly view a Marvel book as the best on the market, I'd have told you that you were insane. However, I just can't get over how much fun Mark Waid has brought into my reading with his Daredevil run. Waid and the various artists who come and gone on the book have succeeded in making Matt Murdock vital, fun, and all without "rebooting" their way out of the various "darker and darker" stories that have happened in the last decade, or so. Waid also gets best clifhanger of the year with the sequence of Matt trying to escape Latveria, while all of the senses he relies on (being blind, for those not in the know), are stripped from him. With a final splash of him being dragged back to Castle Doom, completely stripped of all his senses, smiling...believing he had escaped. Awesome moment.
Tony Donley, an artist friend of mine, told me at SDCC this year, "you need to pick up Punk Rock Jesus!" I'm not one to run around picking up new books at Comic-Con, monthlies are just easier to get at home. To my shame, I didn't act on his advice for several months. I spotted the book on the shelf, and, remembering Tony's recommendation, I grabbed all the issues up to that point. Tony, you were so right. Punk Rock Jesus represents the best sort of political/social commentary, in that it's wrapped in a compelling story with characters you can relate to. It's also the kind of story that comics, being a mass media that actually serves a niche market, can tell best. I may be wrong, but Murphy's ideas, incendiary as they are, makes me doubt any major studios have optioned this book. So worth your time.
Best Graphic novel:
Honestly, I can't imagine this category going to anyone else as long as Darwyn Cooke continues to adapt Richard Stark's Parker novels. This is the third hardcover volume, and the quality has not slipped. Cooke's, stylized, retro artwork is perfect for Parker's world, this, combined with Cooke's love of the era, and absolute mastery of the noir form, makes every one of these books an event. I cannot wait for the next one, or, honestly, anything Cooke wants to do.
Mark Waid and Scott Snyder
Comics needs more writers like these men.
Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner
Perennial favorites, I admit, but Mark Bagley and John Romita Jr, my other favorites, have been a little uninspired this year. Very different artists, but they came together for Before Watchmen: Silk Specter, and made it the best book in that line. Cooke, as mentioned above, has a very retro feel, while Conner embraces a anime-influenced style. Both are brilliant.
The Good Idea/Bad Idea Award:
Everybody predicted disaster. It should've been a disaster, but I don't think that people considered the level of talent being thrown at this thing. Now, granted, it's not like it's on the tip of everyone's tongue. I don't think you can call it an unqualified success, but the joys of Minutemen, Silk Specter and The Comedian make me glad that DC at least tried it. Even if stuff that should've worked, Brian Azzarello writing Rorschach, for instance, never quite gelled.
Silk Specter wins best of line, hands down. Cooke and Conner really brought somethign special there, that added to what we'd seen in the original mini-series. Plus, Conner's costume re-design was an absolute winner.
I don't think you can call the project a "hit," but I don't think you can call it an embarrassment, either. We got terrific and terrible books out of it. Alan Moore's gonna be pissed either way, so....