Topping out 2012: My top 10 in film + theater

Lists time folks, and it’s my turn to throw in my two cents – or ten. Unlike 2011 and 2010, I’ve focused only on films and theater. My favorite read of 2012 is at the post’s end.

Based upon my viewings, it was a decent year in film (critics claimed it was a bountiful year). The theater season was a bit lackluster too. The glimpses of surprise and brilliance usually tipped towards performances encased in ill-conceived, messy or boring scripts.

Bucking the critics favs, I found The Master bursting with great performances, but I came away not knowing what to feel. In Zero Dark Thirty, a procedural driven film – there’s little character development, and with the exception of the last 30 minutes or so, there was little drama.

That said, I’ve found 20 gems that rose above the din, leaving lasting impressions that wowed me, moved me, or made me reconsider my perceptions. Presenting in no particular order, starting with films that I’ve seen this year, though not all films were released this year, and following with the best plays.

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1 :: Moonrise Kingdom > Co-writer/director Wes Anderson continues his offbeat, left-of-center view on the joy and panic of childhood and growing up: A pair of twelve-year-olds fall in love, make a secret pact, and run away together. As they’re hunted down, a violent storm looms, and their insular world is threatened. Enchantingly handled as Anderson’s work becomes more mature and rich. A top-notch cast of pros deftly handle the flawed adults that the children flee.

2 :: The Sessions > John Hawkes delivers a magnificent performance as 38-year-old journalist Mark O’Brien, confined to an iron lung who is determined to lose his virginity. With the help of a priest, a sex surrogate and a caretaker, O’Brien bravely and with humor fulfills a life limited by illness. Lots of heart, rather than sex, and a terrific ensemble of actors give this film life. Hawkes performance, moving only his face, is a extraordinary. He’s my choice for best actor this year.

3 :: Lincoln > Lincoln’s presidency as it focuses on the passage of the 13th Amendment – abolishing slavery. With ending-itis and a few unnecessary scenes, I was completely enveloped in 1865, and in Daniel-Day Lewis’s fully immersive performance. Somehow, he embodied exactly what I thought Lincoln might have been like, sounded like. Kudos to Tony Kushner’s persuasive script, and the excellent supporting cast composed of many NY theater actors.

4 :: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia > In the dead of night, a police commissioner, a prosecutor, a doctor and a murder suspect drive through the steppe. The suspect can’t remember where he buried the body. As night turns to day, details of the murder emerge, while details of the searchers are revealed. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan delivers an existential murder-mystery with an understated script that is one frame after another of stunning landscapes and superb performances. Loved it!

5 :: A Cabin in the Woods > It’s easy to see that Joss Whedon has his mitts in this one. I’m not a fan of the horror genre, but I am a Joss fan. I love this deceivingly shrewd send-up of the genre where the chuckle count equals the gasps. When will those silly, attractive young adults ever learn not to go into the woods for a weekend? It’s sounds cliché, but you’ll be surprised, and terrified, and delighted. The perfect thrill ride for those of us too wussy to watch the really scary stuff.

6 :: Barbara > A powerful, smart, character study set in the Cold War in 1980 about an accomplished doctor from Berlin banished to a small East German province. Because Barbara is under the microscope of the Stasi, paranoia runs deep, and looks and actions speak louder than words. She keeps her distance from her colleagues, one of whom takes a more-than-professional interest in her. Whom does she trust, and how do her choices impact her escape plan? See it, Barbara is terrific.

7 :: Argo > In 1979, six American diplomats escaped the embassy in Iran when it was under siege, but become hostages of a different sort while hiding out in the Canadian Embassy. Based on a true story, director Ben Affleck presents a thrilling, suspenseful, film-within-a-film satire (terrific performances by John Goodman and Alan Arkin) of the hostages escape from Iran. Affleck also stars as CIA operative Tony Mendez who hatches the plan to rescue them. Go Ben.

8 :: Project Nim > How selfish can human beings be? In the case of Nim, a baby chimpanzee taken just days’ old from his mother to be raised as human – super selfish! What these idiotic, dangerous people did to this poor chimp in the name of science was criminal. When Nim behaved as his genes dictated, how offended the humans were that he was unmanageable. A disturbing portrait of arrogance run amok, where glory trumps decency at every turn. Difficult to watch, perhaps more for the human behavior.

9 :: Looper > My favorite young actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, plays an assassin (a looper) who is tasked with killing his future self, played by Bruce WIllis. Within an intricate, dystopian underworld, targets from the present are sent into the past to be killed so the crimes can’t be traced. What begins as an action film, becomes a character-focused morality tale on the life one has led. Visually stunning, Looper is a smart combination of futuristic sci-fi and action.

10 :: Oslo, August 31st > Bleak as a Norwegian winter, but so superbly done. A troubled 34-year-old recovering addict leaves rehab for a job interview only to face his demons again. Coolly observed, but so moving and so devastating. The film breaks your heart many times over and is one of the best films I’ve ever seen dealing with addiction. Joachim Trier is no one-hit wonder.

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1 :: Sorry by Richard Nelson > In the third installment in a planned quartet by Richard Nelson that includes That Hopey Changy Thing and Sweet and Sad, a terrific ensemble of New York stage vets gather again as the four Apple siblings, on the day of the 2012 presidential election. Catch ups and lively political discussions mask the primarily decision: what to do about their declining uncle. Funny, touching, real, and ultimately heartbreaking, it’s the best encounter with the Apple clan yet.

2 :: In Celebration of Harold Pinter > A love letter by the actor Julian Sands to the writer Harold Pinter focuses on the man and his poetry. No drama, no conflict – but blips of biographical information interwoven with poems, along with personal anecdotes paint a portrait of Pinter’s life, and love, Lady Antonia Fraser. Sands’ excellent, subtle performance uses the pauses so critical to Pinter’s work, and finds the lyrical nature of his terse writing – giving insight into working with, and knowing this complicated man.

3 :: My Children! My Africa! by Athol Fugard > This powerful production under Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s smart direction is set in a classroom where an idealistic teacher, Mr M, and a pair of bright students debate. Thami and Isabel are worlds apart by virtue of their skin color. Mr M sees the future of South Africa in Thami. But the risk of opening young minds can be high – and the hope that brings quickly turns to rage. Fugard plants us firmly in 1984’s South Africa, immersing us in a place shattered by apartheid.

4 :: ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford > Red is the only color of this lavish, bloody, gorgeous, Grand Guignol production. The fantastic Cheek By Jowl troupe serves up Ford’s incest and violence in a high-energy, stylized, modern-dress production. Everything old is new again, and this 17th century Jacobean drama not only holds up, it soars, with an excellent cast under Declan Donnellan’s direction complete with a True Blood poster on the back wall.

5 :: Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo > Two friends from grad school choose different paths: one woman is at the top of her career and the other is immersed in motherhood. Twenty years on, when the former visits latter, each is reminded of the road not taken. A smart and well-observed view of feminism through three generations of women. If you’re unfamiliar with Phyllis Schlafly or Betty Friedan, you’ll get a full lesson by night’s end. If that sounds didactic, it’s not. This a very real, very funny piece of work.

6 :: The Caretaker by Harold Pinter > A glorious, humanizing production of Pinter’s first commercially-lauded play about a pair of working-class brothers who allow a homeless man (played to Pinteresque perfection – Jonathan Pryce’s Davies is a grimy study of human frailty) to stay in their decrepit flat. Is it an act of compassion or cruelty? A cycle of shifting loyalties erupts as each side struggles for territory. Nothing is clear-cut, and there are no absolute heroes or villains. It’s a curdled, unsettling mystery. No answers, just more questions.

7 :: One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean > This import from London, an update of the commedia classic Servant of Two Masters, is led by James Corden in a brilliant comedic turn as the servant who must keep his two employers apart. Richard Bean’s hilarious adaptation and ensemble keep you rolling in the aisles as pratfalls, winks, and triple takes get thrown at you in rapid fire fashion. It loses some steam in the second act, but you’re so tired of laughing from the first, it’s a actually a welcome relief.

8 :: The Lady from Dubuque by Edward Albee > Albee goes metaphysical in this ponderous, fascinating piece about death. There’s a party going on, but the hostess is dying. No one speaks of it. Except her. As she grows angrier, she breaks the fourth wall, and we know her true anguish. At evening’s end, two guests arrive whom no one knows. Who are they, and why are they there? Well, let’s just say there’s a lot of post-play discussion. A marvelous ensemble and crisp direction bring new life to this play – once considered lesser Albee.

9 :: The Lyons by Nicky Silver > Linda Lavin’s ferocious performance as the Lyons’ matriarch helps Silver’s material soar. Self-centered and unhappy, Rita Lyons sits at her dying husband’s hospital bed. Even in death, there’s no connection between them, or between their children who gather to say goodbye to him. The dialogue is hilarious, the characters – outrageous. While the second act falls a bit short, the performances are strong as their characters eventually stumble their way into human connections.

10 :: Title and Deed by Will Eno > Big Will Eno fan here. I’m in the minority with this minimalist play. I loved it, there it is. 70 or so minutes of seemingly stream-of-conscious ramblings, performed by the wonderful Irish actor Conor Lovett, in a droll, modulated tone. A traveler from a far off place searches for connection in an unknown country. In his displacement, he explores the transience of life. It’s funny, mesmerizing, heartfelt, and more than a little Beckettian.

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As for books, mostly mediocre reads except for one favorite book: Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History. The true story of a 2003 Belgian heist by a ring of Italian burglars. The crime was perfect, the getaway – not so much. I love a good heist. It was a great read.

Also check out my best discoveries of 2012.

There you have it. I’d love to hear what made your tops in 2012 in entertainment.

6 Responses to “Topping out 2012: My top 10 in film + theater”

  1. lg Says:

    Always enjoy your year-end lists. I agree that 2012 was not a blockbuster year for film; some very good, some good, many mediocre. Some of my favorites seen in 2012 were:
    . Lincoln
    . Coriolanus
    . Monsieur Lazhar
    . The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
    . We Have a Pope
    . Surviving Progress
    . Moonrise Kingdom
    . Beasts of the Southern Wild
    . Ruby Sparks
    . The Imposter
    . Robot & Frank
    . The Sessions
    . The Flat
    . Chasing Ice

  2. Janet Giampietro Says:

    Thanks for the list lg. Monsieur Lazhar, Coriolanus, Ruby Sparks were winners too. My honorable mentions are Take This Waltz,
    Beasts of the Southern Wild and Skyfall. Still to see Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse and Michael Haneke’s Amour.

  3. Rose Says:

    One of the few books worthy of a movie is Life of Pi (3D, of course). Fun, sad, happy, thrilling.

  4. Janet Giampietro Says:

    Thanks Rose, I’ll check it out.

  5. maria-d Says:

    Hi there:

    I like your film choices. Surprised Beasts of the Southern Wild didn’t make your list.

    A fellow film lover.
    md

  6. Janet Giampietro Says:

    Hi Marie-d:

    Thanks for your eagle-eye comment. “Beasts” made my honorable mention list along with Take This Waltz, The Turin Horse, Skyfall, and from last year, Monsieur Lazhar.

    Cheers,
    Janet g

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