Top 10 of 2012 – Ed’s Picks

3. End of Watch

This was the most criminally under-appreciated movie of the year. Just describing the story doesn’t do it justice, either. If you break it down, it can be described as two dedicated cops cracking down on a gang working in their beat and getting targeted by a Mexican drug cartel. Yawn. Sounds like a million bad ’70s cop movies. But End of Watch was anything but standard. This movie really makes you empathize with the deadly job average police officers do every day. A simple call about a domestic disturbance is fraught with danger. Pulling over an average motorist on the street could go horribly wrong at a moment’s notice. It takes a lot of dedication for these officers to do what they do. In fictional film, we rarely get to see fully realized, flawed, somewhat decent people trying to do a good job. These guys aren’t heroes, but they aren’t villains, either. Jake Gyllenhal and Michael Peña as the partners in this self-filmed pseudo-documentary are fantastic. This will probably get neglected during awards season, but End of Watch deserves attention.

2. Django Unchained

This would be my other pick for most entertaining movie of the year. Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to all things Spaghetti Western is horrifying, funny, and exciting. How Quentin is still able to keep churning out quality work like this is amazing. Some might accuse this of just being a rehash of Inglourious Basterds, but as a Western. It’s got the same over-the-bloody-top action, the same wish fulfillment of the oppressed minority taking up violent revenge, the same purposeful historical inaccuracy. My reaction would be: so what? His last movie was terrific, and this one is, too. I’m so glad that Tarantino has introduced Christoph Waltz to America. He really is a major acting talent. Jamie Foxx has never been more watchable in a role. And that scene where Leonardo DiCaprio is lecturing at dinner about phrenology is electric with menace and impending doom.

There are nods to tons of Westerns, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Leone movies, Peckinpah films, and even a cameo from the original Django himself. This movie does have the most profuse use of the n-word in recent memory. But Tarantino seems to be making a point in peppering it throughout the film. The two main characters spend a lot of time “undercover” to sneak into situations, and they have to let a lot of horrible things go without reacting, whether it be watching a slave get torn to pieces by dogs or allowing someone to get whipped. In the same way, we the audience are sneaking into a world from which we feel pretty far removed, the deep South of 150 years ago. So even though every character uses the n-word more than there are swear words in the movie (meaning it’s used A LOT), we go from being shocked at first hearing it to eventually accepting it as part of their speech. It’s a loaded word, but its use here feels pointed. It feels horrible yet accurate. The fact that Django Unchained can both shock and entertain makes it something special.

1. Lincoln

A more accurate title might have been “13th Amendment: The Movie.” Spielberg did something really significant with this film by focusing on a very specific part of Abraham Lincoln’s life. He showed a great example of how politics are important. The screenplay, adapted by Tony Kushner from the book by Doris Kearnes Goodwin, is terrific. Surprisingly, this is probably Spielberg’s most talkative film. We often get a picture of Lincoln as a kind of saint. We get legends about his upbringing, his erudite debating skills, his guiding the country through its bloodiest war, and all of the intrigue surrounding his assassination. So instead of giving us yet another sweeping biopic that turns possibly our most important president into a boring oil painting, he shows us the backroom deals and real-life compromises he needed to engage in to get slavery abolished.

We often hear in current times that politics have never been more divisive. This film is a great example of how that simply is not true. Ending slavery had vitriolic support and opposition in Congress. Open name-calling abounded. And in the case of timing this legislation, Lincoln had to balance ending human atrocity (go see Django Unchained if you want to see what needed to be stopped) with ending a war that was costing lives daily. It can be argued that no issue was more important in our history than ending slavery. It definitely goes down as among the most shameful acts we’ve ever institutionalized. Watching Daniel Day-Lewis (who, incidentally, should be given the Oscar before the ink on the Academy ballots is even dry) disappear into the role as a man struggling with these very concepts is amazing to witness. There are certain fictional versions of historical figures that get stuck in our collective consciousness and end up forever being intertwined with the real-life figure. Ben Kingsley as Ghandi, Tom Hulce as Amadeus, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence, Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, Patty Duke as Helen Keller: these are all real historical figures who were so indelibly imprinted by actors who played them in film that sometimes they will get stamped in our memories forever. I believe Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln could join those ranks of informing our impressions of the person themselves.

And then there’s another list of also-rans that could easily make it onto my list any other day of the week: The Master, Prometheus (those are probably tied for 11th place), Comicon Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, Frankenweenie, Cloud Atlas, The Dark Knight Rises, Ted (probably the biggest belly laughs of the year), Celeste and Jesse Forever, Sleepwalk With Me, The Secret World of Arriety, Smashed, Les Miserables, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

And I’ll finish with some special film moments from the year: The Woman in Black, which was good but could be renamed “Ghost Who Jumps Out of a Dark Corner and Screams Over and Over”; Sam Jones’s awesomeness in Ted; Tommy Lee Jones’s crustiness in Lincoln; James Spader’s belly in Lincoln; Javier Bardem hitting on Daniel Craig in Skyfall; Mike Birbiglia’s simple and poignant conclusion about relationships in Sleepwalk With Me; “Arise Colossus” in Frankenweenie, the hell of a year Anne Hathaway had in Dark Knight Rises (yum) and Les Miserables (sniff); the non-hyperbolic drama of Smashed (and kudos to a funnily awkward Nick Offerman); Rashida Jones in Celeste and Jesse Forever; Don Johnson in Django Unchained; and the awesome duo of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins in The Cabin in the Woods.

See ya in 2013!

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I'm a family man who got his Drama degree back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and now works at a desk. I love movies of all kinds, and I am still working my way through the list of 1001 movies you must see before you die.

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