As a film critic whose reviews run on more than 200 radio stations throughout the US, it’s my job to see hundreds of films each year: the Good (‘Les Miserables’) the Bad (‘Alex Cross’), the Ugly (‘Zero Dark Thirty’) and the Subline (‘Life of Pi’). I have to say that from a film perspective, this is the best year of the century. I had a hard time narrowing down my Top Ten list, whereas some years I have tough time filling it. It will be interesting to see if my colleagues agree with me as we vote for the Critics Choice Awards, which I’ll be attending and will air live on the CW Thursday, January 10. In the meantime, if you’re headed to the Cineplex this holiday season, you can’t go wrong with any of these fantastic films.
1. Life of Pi: This is one of those rare instances when the movie is even better than the book. Director Ang Lee has taken the bestselling story of a boy stranded in a lifeboat with a tiger and made it into an elegant cinematic masterpiece that will, as the main character says, “Make you believe in God.” Everything about this film, from the script to the score to the cinematography to the CGI effects, is wondrous and magical. The only movie you’ve ever seen before that is even remotely like it is Tom Hanks’ ‘Castaway,’ but Pi’s Tiger, Richard Parker, is infinitely more absorbing than Wilson the volleyball. See it in 3D if at all possible, because this is why the technology was invented. Upon leaving the theater, you’ll feel inspired, edified and privileged to have seen such a remarkable film.
2. Les Miserables: Even those who are not fans of musicals will be blown away by Tom Hooper’s big screen adaptation of one of the most successful stage productions of all time. Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” was able to evoke a standing ovation from a very jaded film critic crowd at the screening I attended. The fact that all the singing was recorded live on stage, without a note of lip synching, is truly amazing. Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean is at his best and Oscar worthy, Eddie Redmayne is fresh and moving as Marius, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are great fun as the Master and Mistress of the House, and Amanda Seyfried is appropriately sweet as Cosette. This is THE Christmas film to see during your break this year, and one you’ll watch over and over again when it comes out on DVD.
3. Argo: Ben Affleck stars in and directs the story of an amazing rescue operation that involved US embassy workers posing as a Canadian crew making a faux film called ‘Argo,’ in order to escape Iran during the hostage crisis. Alan Arkin and John Goodman gleefully play the filmmakers in Hollywood who give credibility to the story, and both Arkin and Affleck are enjoying well deserved awards attention. Even though you know how it ends, the suspense will keep you on the edge of your seat right to the finish. If you’re only going to see one film this year about US intrigue and espionage in the Middle East, (and who wants to see more?) THIS is the best bet for your time and money. The grim ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ although other critics seem to love it, does not have half the entertainment value.
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Kudos to Peter Jackson for once again taking us back to Middle Earth, and bringing new charm and wit to the first installment of the J.R.R. Tolkein classic. Aficionados feared that dividing the children’s book into thirds and making each film well over two hours long was a little ambitious, but Jackson has accomplished cinematic miracles, partially with the use of 48 FPS, which has to be seen to be believed. It enhances the story of Bilbo Baggins, played adroitly by Martin Freeman, (who you most recently saw as Dr. John Watson on BBC America’s ‘Sherlock’ and before that in ‘The Office’) teaming up with Gandolph (Ian McKellan) and a rowdy band of Dwarves to reclaim their stolen mountain. Yes, Andy Serkis is back as Gollum, and as “precious” as ever. It’s fun and intriguing for all ages.
5. Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson, one of my favorite quirky directors, has given us a sweet coming of age tale about boy scouts and the adults who love them. Or is it about an orphan who sets out alone to find himself? Perhaps about young love? Whatever takeaway you choose, you can’t help but be amused by the strange meandering of the a boy on an East Coast island, and adults attempting to bring him to safety. You’ll love Bruce Willis as a hapless sheriff, the polar opposite of his action hero roles. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand are dry yet transcendent as the parents of the girl who joins in on the adventure. And for once, Edward Norton isn’t playing the edgiest guy in the room. Listen for a lovely score in this many-layered “children’s” film in the same vein as Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
6. Django Unchained: Hang on to your hats, the latest from Quentin Tarantino, who writes his own cinematic rules, is some kind of strange, but oh-so-much fun and entertaining. A comedy about slavery? Well, sort of, if you don’t mind the graphic, comic book violence previously seen in ‘Kill Bill’. Look for great performances from Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz. Perhaps best described as ‘Inglorious Basterds’ with spurs, it’s a revenge fantasy that’s a tad long and didactic, as Tarantino is prone (two hours and 45 minutes), but definitely worth the watch. You’ll want to leave the kids at home for this one — or send them over to see ‘The Hobbit’ again while you indulge in a little Tarantino type titillation.
7. Skyfall: I never have been fond of Daniel Craig as James Bond, although I love the 007 franchise. Craig has been dark and violent in the last two films, more like Jason Bourne than the sleek and savvy Bond we’ve come to know and love. But now, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the franchise, filmmakers have chosen to soften his edges and give him the wisecracking dialogue that makes the Bond films so much fun while buildings are exploding and bad guys are offed. Javiar Bardem is the consummate Bond villain — one of the best ever, and a true contender for a supporting role Oscar. We also get to see more of Judy Dench as M, since the film pretty much revolves around her being threatened. In a nice nod to the next generation of Bond fans, the new Q is a hipster tech nerd. No martini is left unshaken.
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild: You’ve never seen a film like this before, and viewers are advised to just sit back and let its gritty magic take you away. Using a cast of non-professional, rookie actors, young director/producer/songwriter Benh Zeitlin made this folklore fable of the modern south for a pittance of what most movies cost, and his creativity and resourcefulness are on brilliant display. Six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis who carries the film on her slender shoulders, is brilliant as Hushpuppy, a small girl exploring life in devastating poverty in a bayou community threatened by a hurricane. Her ailing father is played by local Lousiana baker Dwight Henry. Actors and filmmakers show fierce spirit in this alternate reality film that will stay with you for days.
9. The Sessions: How can a film about surrogate sex therapy be life affirming and enlightening you ask? Talented writer/director Ben Lewin, a polio survivor himself, has the answer. He adapted this true story about Mark O’Brien who lived most of his life in an iron lung. When we first meet this remarkable man, he has managed to get a degree from Berkley and develop a thriving writing career. He lives on his own, and now finds himself wanting to experience one of life’s most momentous pleasures: sex. But he requires the aid of someone adept at overcoming unique circumstances in order to fulfill his wish. Helen Hunt is magnificent as his sexual Svengali, and John Hawkes (‘Winter’s Bone,’ ‘Lincoln’) deserves an Oscar for his portrayal of the indefatigable protagonist.
10. Lincoln: How can I leave Steven Spielberg’s Civil War Epic off my top ten list, even though, I confess, I found the dialogue a bit overblown? This film, destined to be shown in every US history class throughout all time, explains the strategic passage of the 13th Amendment in great detail–never have back room politics seemed so gritty or hard-fought, never has a US president seemed so subtly brilliant. I felt Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal was a bit lumbering and the script cumbersome, but game actors like Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon Levitt, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook and Tim Blake Nelson maneuver around the pitfalls to form one of the greatest ensemble casts in modern film.