Amour – 7.7

An unflinching look at old age in almost documentary mode. The performances are impeccable, and I was even more impressed by Jean-Louis Trintignant than the Oscar-nominated Emmanuele Riva. With scarcely a plot, this is more a portrait, sad or heartwarming depending on your viewpoint. For those of us with aging parents, it is certainly as touching as it is troubling. (Although I awarded this a top spot, in futuro, on my 2012 list, it turned out to be not one of my favorite ten moments at the movies for the year – a reflection on its subject and narrow scope, not quality.)

The Impossible – 8

I was expecting a mawkish story of a family reuniting after being tossed asunder by the 2005 Asian tsunami, but I got so much more. Yes, the “Bennett” family story was there, but it shared the screen with a more macro vision, of the loss and human tragedy suffered by thousands of others. In a courageous bit of storytelling, even as the Bennetts were whisked away to a happy ending on a private jet, we were visually reminded of all the others who didn’t find their families and didn’t have such a lavish insurance policy, who were left in makeshift shelters and overcrowded relief centers. These others, too, were all just regular people, believable tourists, and it was hard not to think, that could have been me, and what would I have done? Like most movies ”based on a true story,” many of the plot twists were scarcely credible, which the movie’s title seemed to acknowledge; but because the larger picture seemed more important and rang so true, it almost didn’t matter.  All the acting was good, and Naomi Watts should get a red badge for going onscreen so battered and bleeding, but the memory that sticks with me is the sound and motion of the characters underwater, being tossed like rag dolls, by the tsunami.

Top Ten 2012

1. A Separation and Amour. Every year, it seems, there is a critical favorite that avoids the smaller cities until the deadline for my list has passed. Last year it was A Separation, which opened in 2011 but was far and away the best film I saw in 2012. This year it is Amour, which topped numerous lists but which I have yet to see. I am, nevertheless, getting it out of the way so it won’t be out of place on next year’s Top Ten. As for the Iranian film, it had acting so good you didn’t think it was acting and posed moral dilemmas that echoed and echo still. There are no bad people in the story, but almost all do bad things, chiefly lying for what seem to be good reasons. How would each of us respond if put in their situations? I don’t know, but I see examples in the news literally every day.

2. Django Unchained. The year’s most enjoyable film, it captured the aura of an old-time Western, was simultaneously funny and violent as only a Tarantino work can be, yet presented the serious subtext of slavery’s evil inescapably and unrelentingly. The performances of Christoph Waltz and Samuel Jackson were supporting-Oscar-worthy, and it is only my antipathy toward the miscast Leonardo DiCaprio that tempers my praise.

3. Argo. A rare mainstream movie that hit on all cylinders. It was fair, I thought, to the Iranians without lessening our fear for the hostages. It balanced the humor and absurdity of Hollywood with the grime and terror of Tehran. Ben Affleck led the ensemble cast without needing to raise himself above it. The airport chase at the end cost the movie credibility points and was unnecessary; the historical postscript was heartwarming enough.

4. Well-Digger’s Daughter. Were we back in the ‘60s or the ‘40s for this sweet, innocent adaptation of a Marcel Pagnol story? Daniel Auteuil is the father (and movie director) who struggles to reconcile his love for his wonderful but knocked-up daughter with the need to protect the honor of his family. Scenes of the French countryside and a simpler time left all irony behind and let us know a happy ending would come along.

5. Ted. At the spectrum’s other end we find this gagfest starring an animated bear that has more personality, and better lines, than any of the live humans around him. I laughed till I cried, then I cried some more at the heartwarming story. In any anthology of Boston movies, this will have to be included.

6. Queen of Versailles. A documentarian’s dream: to have a story you’re already filming become bigger, more interesting and, ultimately, more important, as it reflects America’s financial meltdown. Another plus is a lead character who is easy on the eyes, remarkably open and equally worthy of sympathy and scorn.

7. Farewell, My Queen. A highly original costume drama, behind the scenes at Versailles as the Bastille falls, made us feel “you are there.” By telling the tale through the eyes of Marie Antoinette’s personal reader, we saw the court as a collection of people, not historical figures, although the quotient of pulchritude and fashion remained high.

8. Where Do We Go Now? This hit my sweet spot from Peace Corps days: a true-to-life but very comic depiction of village life in the Arab world. The movie smartly looks at eternal, universal themes like man v. woman, love v. hate, life v. death and offers an optimistic ending that is refreshing, if not so realistic.

9. Last Ride. A doomed father running from the law raising his son with tough love to prepare him for the world was the entire story in this projectile of a film. Hugo Weaving was the father and the Australian outback was the co-star.

10. Coriolanus. This was an eloquent answer to my general scorn for updated Shakespeare. Ralph Fiennes seamlessly mixed modern with historical to make the point that the play’s plot is timeless: the politics of Rome resemble nothing so much as the politics of Washington or Athens or Jerusalem.

Honorable Mention: Silver Linings Playbook, 7 Psychopaths, Five-Year Engagement, Bullhead, Rust and Bone, Dark Knight Rises, Elena, Skyfall, Darling Companion, Pelotero.

Biggest Disappointments: Intouchables, Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, Cabin in the Woods, Moonrise Kingdom.

Oscar Choices (from official nominees):

Best Picture: Django Unchained

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence

Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz

Supporting Actress: Amy Adams

That said, I won’t be upset if awards go, instead, to Argo, Joaquin Phoenix, Tommy Lee Jones or Anne Hathaway

The Invisible War – 7

I can’t say I rate this highly as a film – there was way too much of one woman’s story, for instance, and too much of that was a side issue – but the overall thrust was compelling, so much so that it has already brought change and will, one hopes, bring more. The regularity of sexual assault on women in the armed forces is staggering, but not totally surprising. What is more gravely shocking is the abuse these women receive from the armed forces when they seek help or justice. Sexual predation is always with us, but the need to accept it need not be.

Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation – 6.5

Perfectly pleasant if forgettable scrapbook of memories from the ’60s: Peter, Paul & Mary, Phil Ochs, Buffy Ste-Marie, Judy Collins, Don McLean, John Sebastian and many more. If you hadn’t been there, however, I’m not sure what, if anything, the movie would have meant to you. Plus, it featured annoying cartoon flashes between scenes and introducing the players, wholly at odds with the seriousness of the times.

A Royal Affair – 7.5

The title and the opening scene give away all suspense, so what we are left with is a Danish Lincoln, which undoubtedly means more to the Danes than us Yanks. The costumes are nice, but can’t compare to recent dramas from the French court. It’s fun to meet actors we’ve never seen, although Queen Caroline could’ve been prettier or more interesting for my taste. According to Wikipedia, this is a quite accurate recounting of a pivot in Denmark’s history, which is probably all I will take from the experience.

One Mile Above – 2

There is not a single scene in this film from Taiwan that is either original or credible. The acting is amateurish and the story has the sophistication of a yak. One complaint of many: time after time our hero is thrown into a treacherous situation – wild dogs attacking, crashing off a hillside, wrecking his bike – and not once are we shown how he escapes. Or what he eats. Or why he doesn’t freeze. Or, really, why he has taken on this absurd challenge in the first place.

Boucherie Halal – 7

There is a story, but mainly this is a feature-length indictment of Muslim culture and, indirectly, the peril of non-assimilation, in this case into Canadian society. Wives are abused, treated as chattel, and sons are in thrall to hard-line parents. The “spiritual leader” ruins everyone around him and is finally arrested, symbolically, for sending money to the Taliban. I wonder if director Babek Aliassar is complaining, or warning fellow Muslims. In either case, the message seems clear.

Shyamal Uncle Turns Off the Lights – 7

A small-scale Indian Ikiru, in which a dotty old man brushes his teeth, gets his flip-flops mended and dogs the local bureaucracy until he gets the streetlights near his house turned off when the sun comes up. It is what is known in painting as a genre scene. I can’t imagine what an Indian would think of this portrayal of his country: it looks so backward and dirty and inefficient to us, but maybe that’s the point. One quickly falls into the rhythm, and we enjoy our time with Shyamal babu.

Sex After Kids – 6.5

The movie’s title and opening suggest a one-joke plot, but it turns out that the film is not really about sex, or kids, but about intimate relationships and the difficulty thereof. Conspicuously covering the waterfront, we are given a straight couple, a gay couple, an interracial couple, an older couple, a single mom, a single dad, a hooker-mom and siblings. The sex is largely played for cheap laughs and there is nothing profound, but writer-director Jeremy LaLonde does a nice, low-budget job of tying the stories together and wrapping things up in a satisfying way that lets you leave the theater in a cheerful mood, if none the wiser.