Best Of 2012: Movies

Argo

The alarm clock of MAGNET’s veteran movie scribe Jud Cost started ringing just in time to roust him out of the sack to scribble some notes about what he thinks were the seven best movies of 2012. Since he changed his mind about the batting order every time he eyeballed the list, he decided to leave it in alphabetical order, but he insists he’d be perfectly happy if any one of these won a Best Picture Oscar.

Argo
It’s 1980, the last year of the Jimmy Carter administration, and Iran is angrily demanding their deposed leader, the Shah, be returned from asylum in the U.S. A preposterous, on-location science-fiction movie project called Argo, dreamt-up by CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), could be the only way to smuggle six Americans, posing as Canadians, out of Iran before they can be publicly executed. The fake movie (subtitled “Argo fuck yourself,” by faux-producer Alan Arkin) has been labeled “the best bad idea we have” by one of the intelligence agency’s big wheels. Argo, the real movie here, derives much of its power from the nicely understated acting job by Affleck, who also directs. His desperate plan gets Mendez, a specialist in delicate extractions, into Iran after a mob has overrun the American Embassy. Its staff has shredded most of the sensitive material, but the Iranian regime is using children to re-assemble paper strips of photos of the embassy’s occupants, including the six temporarily housed in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. The harrowing trip of Mendez and his terrified charges traveling in a van, dead-slow through the streets of Tehran, surrounded by a bloodthirsty horde looking for Americans, is enough to push you from the edge of your seat onto the floor. One thing to bear in mind if you’re ever posing as a Canadian to escape execution, don’t forget Mendez’s warning: “Natives don’t pronounce the second ‘t’ in Toronto.”

Django Unchained
At last, here’s the other side of the coin for another one of the major combatants in World War II. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds deliciously re-imagined the deadly fate of Adolf Hitler’s master race of the Third Reich. And now it’s America’s turn to take it on the chin, come-uppance for adapting so readily to turning thousands of captive Africans into plantation slaves. This is Tarantino driving a buckboard full of dynamite up the magnolia-lined driveway of Scarlett O’Hara’s beloved home of Tara and reducing the place and all its romantic “fiddle-de-de” to match-sticks. When Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz in a glorious beard) comes upon a party of chained slaves in the wilderness, his purpose is two-fold. One of these unfortunates named Django (Jamie Foxx), he’s heard, can identify two people Schultz is looking for, the Brittle brothers. Django resignedly raises his chained hand. Yes, he knows the Brittles. Whereupon Schultz dispatches the two slave-driving Speck brothers to their heavenly maker for trafficking in human misery. Despite the large molar hanging from his coach, Schultz can make lots more money as a bounty hunter than he can as an itinerant dentist. He takes Django with him, unchained, and when the former slave offers to shoot the Brittle brothers, Schultz makes him a full partner. Next on their itinerary is a new suit of clothes for Django and a visit to a notorious plantation called Candieland to see if they can free Django’s wife.

Jeff Who Lives At Home
The Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, are closing in on territory previously inhabited by the Coen brothers. Jeff Who Lives At Home does wonders with everyday elements. Jeff (Jason Segel) is living in his mom’s basement in Baton Rouge, La. He gets up with nothing much to do but smoke pot and contemplate signs he’s been receiving lately. Then he sees the note from his mom. She wants him to take the bus to a Home Depot and buy a new louver for the kitchen door. He should be able to handle this OK. He’s 30 years old. The phone rings, and it’s someone asking for Kevin. Jeff gets on the bus and sees a black kid wearing a basketball shirt with “Kevin” on the back. Later, he bumps into his older brother, Pat, still wearing the red vest from his job at a paint store. They don’t get along. Pat (Ed Helms) thinks Jeff is a lazy stoner. Then they see Pat’s wife Linda with some other guy, going into a restaurant. Pat freaks out. He and Linda haven’t been getting along. He forces Jeff to go into the diner, get the seat next to them, listen to their conversation, and then report back to him. Linda and the guy drive to an apartment, presumably his. The brothers discuss every possible strategy before finally deciding to storm the place like the SWAT team. It’s the first thing they’ve done together in years.

Lincoln
Everything they’ve written about Daniel Day-Lewis’ breathtaking portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is true. It’s like watching a $5 bill come to life. The surprising twist here is Lewis’ well-researched use of a high-pitched Midwestern squawk as the speaking voice of our 16th president, the man employing every political trick in the book here to get Congress to pass the 13th amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery. It’s a far cry from DDL’s frosted blond coif and Doc Martens as Johnny, an ex-punk, helping to turn a dilapidated London laundromat into a work of art with the help of his Pakistani boyfriend in 1985’s My Beautiful Laundrette. But, even then, you could see Lewis’ angular facial bone structure crying out one day for a scruffy beard, a black frock coat and a stovepipe hat. Lincoln opens with someone speaking with two black Union soldiers after a particularly bloody Civil War battle. Each of the infantrymen quotes large sections from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, verbatim. The camera pulls back just enough to reveal it’s Lincoln, himself, speaking to his troops, something he did frequently. Director Steven Spielberg keeps the story focused on the last few months of Lincoln’s life, as the bloodiest American war yet is grinding on toward Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, is remarkable as the person who helped turn a gawky, unknown lawyer from Illinois into one of America’s most beloved political figures.

Safety Not Guaranteed
When nobody at the morning roundtable can come up with any story ideas for a hip Seattle magazine, a jaded veteran named Jeff suggests following-up a tantalizing local personal ad he’s recently come across: “WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” He chooses two interns, Darius (the wonderfully deadpan Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni), to accompany him to the Washington countryside (and do most of the legwork). When Jeff’s confrontation with Kenneth spooks the would-be time-traveler into running away, Darius tries the more subtle approach. Once Kenneth (Mark Duplass of the Duplass brothers directorial team) is convinced of her sincerity, he decides she is the lucky one to accompany him to who knows where. It turns out that Jeff’s real reason for traveling to the outback was to look up an old girlfriend to see if he can reignite that certain spark. At first skeptical, Darius has increasingly become convinced that Kenneth might really have something here. He’s broken into plenty of scientific labs to steal high-tech hardware. Maybe he might have the know-how to build a time machine. When she comes across a pair of government operatives tailing Kenneth, she is convinced: She might be taking a more exciting summer vacation than she ever imagined.

Silver Linings Playbook
Back in the day when they called the illness “manic-depressive disease” instead of “bipolar disorder,” you knew exactly what you were getting: a little crazy behavior followed by a bummer. Just about everybody in the cast of Silver Linings Playbook is touched with bipolar disorder, although only Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) are diagnosed with it. As seen here, however, the emphasis seems to be on the manic side—a roomful of people all watching a Philadelphia Eagles game on TV and talking at once. Pat has just been rescued from a mental hospital by his mom, and he’s hoping to get back together with his wife, Nikki, who has a restraining order posted against him. His Dad (Robert DeNiro), has just lost his job and is running a one-man betting shop in hopes of opening a small restaurant with his winnings. And then, Tiffany comes into Pat’s life, a recent widow who has compensated for her bereavement by sleeping with no fewer than 11 people in her office, two of them women. A diehard Eagles fan, dad has lost his shirt on the Giants game but plans to recoup by betting twice as much on the upcoming Cowboys tilt. What could possibly go wrong? Pat’s therapist, Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher), could probably explain it, but he’s just been assaulted by racist Eagles fans outside the Dallas game—with Pat coming to his rescue, thus violating the terms of his release from the hospital.

Zero Dark Thirty
According to director Kathryn Bigelow, her movie’s confusing title is a military handle meaning “the darkest part of the night.” And her hypnotically fascinating account of the 10 years it took to track down and kill Osama Bin Laden unfolds at such a dizzying pace it may throw you to the ground with the spitfire force of a wild bronco in a rodeo. Like Maya (Jessica Chastain), the woman responsible for finding the man behind the 911 attack on New York, you’ll just have to dust yourself off and stay with it. You will be rewarded by a picture even more addictively brilliant than her Oscar-winning 2010 movie The Hurt Locker. Allowing for the occasional compression of time and characters necessary here, Bigelow insists her film is historically accurate. And the whiney politicians who believe the “waterboarding” torture scenes by U.S. agents are “historically inaccurate” should continue their search for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Bigelow pulls out all the stops once the Navy Seal team, decked out in spooky night-vision apparatus, boards the two helicopters to complete the termination of “UBL” at his home in Pakistan. Mission accomplished, the Secretary of Defense thanks all concerned, including “the girl” who did the legwork. Maya pipes up from the back of the room: “Yes sir, I’m the motherfucker who found him!” No cigar-chomping jarhead ducking flak in a jungle foxhole could have put it any better.

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